Legal notes : I do not own the Care Bears or any associated characters.

A few of these characters are by me, such as Checkmate Warren – although the inspiration for him came from Warren Wright of "Absurd Notions" (www.absurdnotions.org/).

This story is a sequel to my previous fanfiction, "New Allies", which is itself a sequel to "Return of the Care Bears".

Just a word of warning: This story is relatively dark, as far as Care Bears stories go.

CONTROL'S PRANK

Part one: A Merry Ominous Christmas.

It was well into December, and in Care-a-Lot, the snow was sparkling with the sunlight. Two Care Bears were having a walk together – one blue, one pink.

"I love this part of winter" exclaimed Cheer. "The snow makes everything look so pretty. We can play in it. And we get to decorate everything for Christmas.

-I hate all the snow" mumbled Grumpy. "I'm freezing, it's hard to walk, and I always get hit by other people's snowballs – even when they're not aiming at me.

-But come to think of it, I also like the spring afterward" reflected Cheer, as if she hadn't even heard Grumpy. "All the plants come alive, with flowers everywhere…

-And allergies. Lots and lots of them.

-And then in summer, it's warm and nice and perfect for playing…

-Too warm. It's always way to hot.

-And in autumn, all the leaves on the trees take wonderful colours, and then nature looks like a beautiful painting…

-And then the leaves and everything die. It's so depressing.

-Well, I guess I just like every season.

-But they all have their downsides.

-Heh. You always find a reason to be grumpy.

-That's because there always is one.

-But there are also reasons to be cheerful! For example, Christmas is just a few days away…

In the Caretakers' HQ in Rainbow City, Warren was reviewing the situation for Alice:

"So far, the care blaster is working perfectly. Paul and I have been working in the lab, and we'll have one for everyone very soon. I've also recalled back all the robotic exo-skeletons now that the Wynand building has been completed…

-Why did you insist on taking them back? They're an amazing technology.

-Yes, but they can be used for violent purposes – I should know. And with technologically-savvy villains like Cold Heart out there, I'd rather have a few trump cards. Those machines will one day be put on the market – but only when it's safe.

CareNet is doing well. Ms Smith turned out to be as able a manager as I believed her to be.

-I've noticed that this group has somewhat different methods than most charities…

-Of course. The idea here isn't just to give to people in need – it's to make them able to get it themselves. We don't send people food – we give them what they need to apply modern farming techniques. We don't give hand-outs to the poor – we help them get a good education. And so on.

-Hue…Tell me, Warren: When you were planning to take over the world…Were you planning to apply the policies of CareNet? Is this some second chance for you to do them?"

Warren grinned. "Perceptive of you. Well, that's part of it – my original plan was to rework every system in the world into something more efficient. I had plans for a planetary transportation grid, for an international crime-watch network, numerous applications for new technology (much of it designed by myself), and much, much more. I intended to finally get this planet working efficiently.

-Bitter?

-A bit. But my plan did have its flaws: It involved taking away people's liberty…And it was much too dependant on my infallibility. And said infallibility was proven wrong when the C-bomb was detonated.

-So…At least you get to do a small part of your plans with CareNet?

-Exactly. But I think what we're doing with the Caretakers will be more important in the long run. At least half the problems in the world would be solved if people were nice to each other.

Moving on: The corporate empire formerly run by Control is now stabilized. The managers of the various branches were panicked at first, but when I asked to meet them, they agreed to the plans I suggested. The various companies are now run independently.

-I was surprised. I knew about your technological and strategic skills, but now we learn you're a talented businessman too?

-Not exactly – it's just that all those people had been depending on Control, and had no idea what to do when he went down. I merely got them to calm down and act on their problem. I didn't want to have a nation-wide economic crisis on our responsibility.

As for Control: So far, it looks like he's finished. I'm virtually sure he can't escape from the special prison Nicholas and I designed for him, his dirty secret is out, his properties have been seized, his own lawyers are bailing out on him, he's going to be judged for offences that include kidnapping the Care Bears family with intent to kill…Even he won't be able to weasel out of that one…"

Just then, Paul walked through the room, singing:

"If you just give a little love

You just might get a little love

If you just give a little hug

A hug might come right back to you…"

"…And so help me, how I envy his problems!" cried out Warren, grimacing and holding his head.

Paul gave him an amused smile: "You really don't like those songs, do you?"

Warren looked up, and said: "Explain this to me: I'm the most bitter, cynical, ill-tempered person I know. So how did I end up working with a bunch of human care bears?"

Alice hesitated a moment, then replied: "Because you recruited and organized us this way?

-YES!" yelled Warren, banging his head on the table.

It was now Alice who sported an amused smile. "You know, for a guy who hates sweetness and cheerfulness, you've sure found yourself a strange line of work…

-So I'm a cynic. Sue me.

-I'm serious. It's common knowledge that you despise cuteness and the mushy "let's-all-get-along" attitude of the whole thing. I think you're more comfortable with the attitude of Professor Cold Heart – no offence.

-None taken. It's perfectly true.

-Then…Why would you of all people do this? The whole Caretakers initiative?

-As much as it makes me squirm, somebody has to do it. With a great mind comes great responsibility. Even if I don't like this "let's-all-get-along" attitude you people share with the Care Bears family, I'm aware that on the long term, it's the best way to make the world a better place. Control was right when he said I wasn't a lovey-dovey do-gooder, but I do feel a certain responsibility to make this world work right. Maybe I'm just a perfectionist.

-I guess it's as good a reason as any…

-Well, that, and I was feeling guilty.

-…Anyway, there's something I wanted to ask you about, as owner of the headquarters.

-Then ask.

-Well, Christmas is just a few days away, and this building is a really big place…I was thinking that we could organize a big Christmas party here, and bring our families along." Alice didn't notice the change of expression on Warren's grimacing face, as she continued: "We'd have the best of all worlds: This place is big enough, so we could party with all our families and friends, and there are many rooms for each family to get together when it wants to. What do you think?

-SURE. NO PROBLEM." said Warren – in a tone that suggested he was restraining himself.

"Uh…" Alice hesitated – when Isaac came in, pulling her outside of the room.

"Um, Alice, I'd like to have a word with you…Concerning Warren.

-What is it?

-Well…Do you remember Warren's story? His falling out with his family?

-You mean, what happened with the Perfect Book and Salvation Town?

-Exactly. I don't think you fully realize how much of an effect the ordeal had on him.

-He was thirteen years old! Is it that serious?

-Alice…He still avoids saying his family name out loud. Haven't you noticed how he winces whenever somebody calls him "Mr Wilson"? Even himself?

-I did…But I wasn't sure why. You mean he's still upset at his family?

-At his family, and everyone else from Salvation Town. I believe he's disavowed them.

-Okay…But why…

-Well, if you remember, the whole problem at the time was that he and everyone else there had a religious difference…

-You mean, they were religious, he was not.

-Exactly. When Warren rejected their beliefs in the Perfect Book…Well, you know the story.

-Fine, but why are you saying this?

-Because I don't think you realize how much Warren dislikes anything even remotely religious as a result. It's not just that he doesn't believe in any of it – he has a personal grudge against all of it.

-But why…Oh. You mean he's upset because we will be having a Christmas party in his building?

-That's it. As a matter of fact, I'm surprised he accepted – he used to get angry more easily.

-Wow. I didn't think that was even possible.

-That's because you didn't see his reaction back in college when that door-to-door preacher came to our dorm. Poor guy. But anyway, what I'm trying to say is – be careful around this issue.

-Then I guess he won't be coming himself to the Christmas party.

-Certainly not. And it would be better if you don't try to change his mind.

-Fine. It's too bad, since I hoped we could introduce everybody to everyone…But I guess ten out of eleven will do.

What about you, Isaac? Will you come?"

Isaac smiled. "I may share Warren's opinions, but not his issues. I'll gladly come.

-Great! What about your family?

-I'll ask my parents. My wife will surely be able to attend."

Alice looked at Isaac in surprise.

"Uh…Am I the only one who didn't know you were married?

-Actually, I've never spoken about it to anyone here. Warren certainly knew, but only because he did a background check on me before recruiting me.

-Okay…Then why didn't you tell anyone?

-There was no need. My marriage doesn't interfere with what I do here, and my wife isn't very sociable, so it never really came out.

-Isaac…Do you at least realize that this weirds me out?

-Of course.

-Of course. So…How is she?

-Extremely rational and level-headed, like me. A fellow left-brainer. We met in a mathematical discussion forum.

-Forum? As in, on the web?

-Correct. That was a few years ago – we first met face-to-face about eight months later.

-Okay…Anything I should know?

-Well, she has a muscular disease, so she can't move her legs, and even moving her arms is difficult for her.

-…

-That's why she relies so much on the Internet for communication. It allows her to find like minds.

-I…I'm so sorry!

-Don't be. She doesn't let it get to her. She's not unhappy or anything – I believe she has the best possible attitude about it. But she thoroughly dislikes being pitied – one more reason she doesn't socialize much, and that I haven't presented her to anybody here yet.

-You know…I'm just realizing how little we know about you…Or Warren…Or even about the rest. I mean, it's been months, and I didn't even know that you were married, or that Warren had those issues!

-We'll have plenty of time to get to know each other better" replied Isaac with a smile.

"It's not looking good, commissioner" admitted the police detective. "That killer has been active for several days, and he's faster than any other lunatic I've ever heard of. Never seen a spree like this. Already more than seventy deaths…Of all ages. Sometimes their death is arranged in some morbid joke. He seems to be going through the city…See, the spree follows an erratic trajectory. Sometimes he kills in the street, sometimes in the homes. Sometimes stabbing wounds, sometimes strangling – but the lab guys say they've never seen anything like it either. We have no clue who he is, or how he does it – only thing we know is that all the victims had an expression of pure terror. If that guy is that scary, I'm not sure I want to know what he really is like.

-Detective, this is the most serious case we've ever had. I intend to do everything that's possible to catch that guy – and I intend for you and everyone else on this case to do the same. The media have already started making noise about it. I suppose the feds are on the case already?

-Yes, but from what I've heard, they're stumped.

-Just great. I hope we arrest this monster before Christmas…"

In another part of the huge city, the killer smiled – a smile that suggested anything but goodwill. It then moved quietly toward a man who just happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time – just like all the others. And like all the other ones that the killer had picked randomly, he would first be startled, then horrified…And then dead.

"Tell me, True Heart…This is supposed to be a season to get together with family and friends. All the family will be here, but what about our new allies? We could invite the Caretakers here. They certainly like Care-a-Lot.

-We've thought about it, Grams. But it turned out that they were already planning a big party of their own, with all their families, so it wouldn't work out this year.

-Oh, well, maybe another time. And, you know, just because everybody else calls me "Grams" it doesn't mean that you can't call me "mom".

-Well…If you'd rather I'd call you that…

-Call me how you want. But I am curious…You've never called me "mom" as far as I can remember. Why is that?

-I'm sorry if I hurt you…It's just that I never got the habit.

-Don't be sorry, I'm not upset…But I know I wasn't always there when you could have used some help. When you and Noble Heart took all those orphans…And when you were running away from Dark Heart…Not to mention when you raised the whole family…I should have been there with you two.

-It wasn't your fault. You couldn't help it. And it was you who found Hugs and Tugs. Besides, you're here now, aren't you? And you've been very helpful since you joined us. Don't worry – during the time you've had, you've been a great mother, and an excellent grandmother.

-And you and Noble Heart have been great parents for a very large family. I've already told you that many times, but it needs to be repeated: I'm very proud of you.

-Thank you. But I wanted to tell you…I've been worried about Grumpy lately.

-Oh. The poor dear never had much luck, did he? Although his pessimism didn't exactly help…

-Yes. But at least before, he had the rest of the family to help him, especially Cheer. But ever since Control meddled, he's been afraid of letting us help him.

-So even now that he's been arrested, Control is still making trouble. Doesn't Grumpy understand that this evil sorcerer only wanted to manipulate him?

-That's the problem. He does understand, but it just doesn't help. He's too afraid of being a burden for us, or of getting us in trouble.

-Oh dear. I guess we'll just have to show him that he's not a burden.

-But how? He's right when he says that he's never as successful as the rest of the family.

-Yes, but we love him, and we love having him around, no matter how grumpy he can be. And if we love being with him…Well, doesn't that alone justify his presence? That's what we need to show him."

"Yeah, the computers are easier to use now" confirmed Alice. "Thanks, Paul.

-Thank Dawn. She helped a lot. She knows how to make things user friendly.

-While you know how to make them work?

-That's the gist of it.

-You know, for a non-profit organization, we sure have lots of technological resources. Not that I'm complaining.

-Warren figured they could be useful. He can afford them, and we can make them – and some of us certainly enjoy it" he smiled.

"I guess the Caretakers' lab is a paradise for a mad scientist like you" joked Alice.

"No, I'm not the mad scientist – that's Warren. He's the one with the incredible ideas. No, scratch that – he's the mad inventor. Isaac's the scientist. I'm the gadgeteer.

-And that makes Dawn…

-The web-designer.

-I see. So, who will you bring to the party?

-My parents will gladly come.

-Great. I just have something to ask Warren…"

Alice nervously walked to Warren's office. Even more nervously, she knocked on the door.

"Come in."

She complied. Warren was working on something on his desktop computer, but quickly looked up at her.

"Yes, Alice?

-Uh, I wanted to ask you…Where will you be on the evening of the 24th?

-You mean, during the Christmas party you'll be holding here, which makes you nervous because you're aware of my intense dislike of it.

-Well, yes.

-Don't worry. I'd rather chew on broken glass than attend, but I don't intend to ruin it for everyone else. I'll be busy and out-of-town.

-Oh…At what?

-I happen to need to go on an information-gathering visit to someone who won't be celebrating either. I hope to obtain valuable data from my discussion with him.

-I see. Look, Warren…I don't want to make you feel like an outcast just to have a party.

-"Just to have a party?" You'll be bringing many friends and families together. And don't worry about making me feel like an outcast. Even if that was how I felt, keep in mind that I've always been more of a loner than most. I wouldn't be miserable just because I was alone, unlike most people. And anyway, I most certainly am not going to feel like an outcast because you're having a party that I chose not to attend. I've spent most of my life as an outcast – you people, together with the Care Bears family, are among the few who treat me as a friend. So don't worry – I'll be fine."

And so, on Christmas eve, the Care Bears and their Cousins were all having their – merry as usual – Christmas party in the Hall of Hearts. Only one was missing.

"Wish, do you know where Good Luck is?" enquired Bright Heart. "I haven't seen him anywhere.

-That's because he's in Paradise Island. He said that since Polite and Perfect could almost never be with us, he wanted to join them for this Christmas.

-Oh. Of course, there's for him the incentive of spending some quality time with Polite. Good for him, I guess."

In another part of the Hall, Cheer was, as usual, trying to, in her own words, "turn Grumpy's frown upside down". While she could find countless reasons to be joyous, it only seemed to improve his mood a little…Certainly not as much as she had hoped. Eventually, they were approached by the three elders of the Kingdom of Caring: True Heart, Noble Heart, and Grams.

"Grumpy…Could we have a little talk with you?

-What did I do now?

-You could use some help.

-Uh…I'll be back in a few minutes" said Cheer Bear, feeling that it would be better to leave them alone for a while.

As his pink friend went away, Grumpy looked hesitantly at the elders: Of all the denizens of the Kingdom of Caring, those three enjoyed a special respect: True Heart was, after all, the adoptive mother of nearly everyone there, and she had taught them half of what they knew about kindness and caring. Noble Heart was the father figure, and had taught them to follow a moral code faithfully. And Grams, even if she was a late-comer compared to the other two, had quickly been accepted as a grandmother – and everybody could see how well she was raising Hugs and Tugs.

But Grumpy…For the last few months, he had been more and more painfully aware of the difference between himself and the rest of the family. Now, each and every member of the family took pride in being special in his or her way…But all of them were always shining with joy, always beacons of happiness for everyone else. But what about him, Grumpy? He almost never was joyous. How could he hope to even approach the others?

Now, the worst part of it wasn't that he wasn't as happy as the rest…He was okay with being grumpy. It wasn't the knowledge that he wouldn't be as great a Care Bear as the rest…He could live with it. True Heart and Noble Heart, among their many other lessons in wisdom, had taught them not to judge their own value in comparison to others.

No, the worst part was that he feared he might hurt his own family – by being a burden at best, and an additional threat in the face of danger at worst. What if, because of one his failures, or his clumsiness, or any other of his flaws, he would allow one of their many enemies to endanger the rest of the family? He feared to even imagine the consequences. And even without the coming-and-going threat of villains, he worried that his grumpiness might become burdensome to everyone else. He had even considered trying to hide it – to pretend being as cheerful as his pink friend. But he couldn't have done that if he had wanted to.

So he had run away. Left a letter telling the rest of the family not to worry, and that he would be fine. But of course, as he should have expected, they didn't leave it at that – they had looked for him, and the Caretakers had helped them find him, and convince him to go back. As soon as he was back, everybody had done their best to make him feel welcome and at home – which he would have felt anyway. He soon realized that running away from them wouldn't solve the problem: They would just get worried sick about him. He was trapped with them – or was it they who were trapped?

"Grumpy? Can you hear us?

-Oh, sorry.

-There's no need for you to be sorry. Which brings us to the problem.

-It's about how I ran away, isn't it?

-Well, there's some of that" admitted Noble Heart. "What really upsets me isn't that you tried to get away from all of us, but that you thought you had a reason to.

-We know you meant well" assured him True Heart, "but that's a big mistake – to think it's better if you leave. You know that Control only said those things because he wanted to hurt the family.

-I know that. But it doesn't mean it isn't true.

-That you're a burden? You're certainly not. Even if you have had more than your share of bad luck, you've helped a lot of people on your caring missions. And you've done well in the protection of Care-a-Lot. Remember the time you briefly became super-Grumpy? You held your own against No Heart all by yourself. But what happened when you became normal again? You still defended your family's home with bravery. As you always did.

Sometimes I think it was a mistake to give you this name. It fit your bad luck and attitude even as a cub, but in retrospect, maybe it cemented you pessimism.

-Dear, I know what you're thinking" said Grams. "It upsets you even more to know how much your family loves you, because you're afraid that we might get hurt because of it. But let me ask you this: Do you enjoy being with us?

-Of course I do!

-And why is that?

-Because…You're all my family. My friends. Because…I love you. All of you.

-Just as we love you."

Grumpy didn't answer. Grams went on:

"We too enjoy being with you. That alone is enough. As for work, for caring missions, and for fighting villains: You just do your best, and that will be enough. You're not a burden – you're a joy."

Grumpy still hesitated. He looked at all three of them, then eventually said, hesitatingly:

"I…I know that in my head…But I'm still not comfortable with it.

-That's fine dear. Just take your time.

-And if you want to talk some more about it, don't hesitate to ask!" added Noble Heart.

"And now, let's enjoy our Christmas party" concluded True Heart.

On Earth, other people were having a party of their own. Of course, with all the people who came, there were many introductions…

"So you're the famous Paul that Alice so often talks about. She said that you were a real techno-whiz.

-Well, I enjoy working on machines. I guess that's the main reason I'm good at it. Of course, being really really smart helps". They chuckled – both Alice's parents and Paul.

"By the way, I have to say – you did a great job raising your daughter.

-Why thank you! But all the credit doesn't go to us – she's just a great kid. And when she had those self-esteem problems, it wasn't us who solved it – it was the Care Bears.

-Yeah, she told me about it – but it's hard to believe she used to have self-esteem problems. I mean, the way she behaves, you'd think – and I mean that in a good way – you'd think she was a princess! Which kinda makes sense, in a warped sort of way…"

At the same time, David was talking with Christy's parents:

"It's been a long time, David! We haven't seen you since you went to college!

-Well, I've been busy – although I guess I should have called…

-It's okay. David, we know you have no relatives – so, we wanted you to know that we at least are proud of you. As much as we're proud of Christy.

-Thank you. It means a lot to me.

-By the way, where's Checkmate Warren? We were hoping to meet him…

-He couldn't be here. He'll be back from his trip tomorrow morning.

-Oh, it's too bad. What's so urgent that he has to work on a Christmas?

-I don't think he celebrates Christmas. Long story. As for what he's doing…All he said was that he wanted to obtain information from someone.

-Well, could you pass him a message from us?

-Sure. What did you want to tell him?

-Just that we never believed it when they all said he created the Caretakers to take over the world. As far as we're concerned, he's made up for his past.

-I'll tell him. I'm sure he'll appreciate – even if you guys had a better reason than most to trust the Caretakers, with Christy and the rest of us being members…

-Thanks. We also wanted to tell you, David…About the rest of what they said back then…We don't care if you have no birth certificate, or if there are some weird things with your records. We've known you since you were just a kid, and we know that you're a good, reliable person.

-Thank you. That really means a lot to me."

Another interesting discussion was held between Alice and Isaac's wife – Jennifer Carson-Knock, who, despite being confined to her motorized wheelchair, seemed rather cheerful – in the same calm, reflexive manner as her husband.

"You know…Until recently, I didn't even know that Isaac was married.

-It doesn't surprise me. Isaac usually avoids presenting me to new people…He knows that I hate that "first-meeting pity" I almost invariably get. I suppose he told you about it.

-Well, yeah. But I wouldn't blame somebody for feeling pity…I mean, no offence, but…Well…Your condition isn't exactly…

-I know very well what you mean. But I've stopped pitying myself a long time ago, and most of those who know me have learned to do the same.

-I guess it's a courageous attitude…

-I was only being logical. It served no purpose for me to feel sorry for myself – the only attitude that made sense was to make the best of what I had. So I did."

About then Isaac joined the conversation:

"I see you're already beyond introductions.

-Kinda" confirmed Alice. "By the way…I understood that you're both mathematicians. Are you working on the same thing?

-Goodness no!" chuckled Jennifer. "Our subjects are completely different. I, for one, work on cryptology.

-Crypto…?

-Cryptology. The science of secret codes. How to break them, and how to make them harder to break. It's a millennia-old subject – Julius Cesar, and the ancient Greeks before him, had developed their own ways of sending messages that could not be understood by the enemy. Throughout the ages and the centuries, secret codes have made and broken empires.

-So…You're working on mathematical secret codes.

-Exactly. I'm one of the few freelancers in this field – most people work for secret agencies or, more recently, for information technology companies. I work alone – although I did publish some of my work. With all the computer piracy nowadays, there's a burgeoning market for cryptology – from both sides.

-I see. And Isaac…What do you work on?

-I'm trying to develop a mathematical theory of ethics.

-Beg your pardon?

-I think the rules of morality, despite their complexity, can be described by a mathematical system. It isn't simple – you know how some situations fall into grey areas. And then there's cultural elements, but if you can make them fit into their own mathematical model, there's a chance it might work.

-Just like Isaac to develop an idea nobody ever explored before" joked Jennifer.

"Okay…"said Alice, "It sounds interesting…How could it be used?

-Used? I think you misunderstand the general principle of science, Alice. Be it mathematics, or physics, or any other branch – it can, and often does have practical applications, but that's not the reason we scientists do it. We do research because we want to know. To understand. The useful applications are just a nice plus – not the purpose. We have inventors for that.

But to answer your question – well, there are some interesting applications. I don't know if it'll ever be used by people to determine right and wrong – that seems a bit far-fetched. But suppose we ever created true AI: We could use my ideas to programs a moral code into it. A more immediate application however is the care blaster.

-You mean…

-Warren admitted to me that it relies on some of the principles I discovered. There's your practical application.

-So…Back when we were fighting the nanomorph…In a certain way, math saved our skins?

-You'd be surprised at how often that happens" answered Jennifer. "Did your History teachers tell you about the Enigma machine?"

In the maximum-security prison, the guards were escorting a chubby, crabby man. As could be seen from his cloths, he was one of the inmates. He didn't seem particularly dangerous – but his expression showed some form of corruption, of malevolence that, in the opinions of the guards, probably explained how he had ended up in such  place.

"Where do you think you're taking me?

-It's Christmas, sour-face.

-So? I don't see a reason to celebrate.

-Yeah, you probably don't have any. But you've got some visit.

-Visit? From whom?

-You'll see."

They eventually reached the visitation room. It was, considering the date, slightly more active than usual – although still relatively calm. It was, after all, a maximum-security prison – the inmates were among the worst and/or most dangerous criminals that existed.

The inmate was sat before his visitor. Whoever he was, Sam didn't recognize him – a man who looked in his early thirties, with glasses, dark hair, who was gazing at him with what struck Sam as scientific curiosity if anything.

-Who are you?

-You don't know, of course. It figures, seeing how long you've been here.

-What, are you some kind of celebrity? I don't have time to waste for you.

-On the contrary, Sour Sam – you have all the time in the world. And as for me being "some kind of celebrity" – I do happen to be well-known, but not for what you suggest. You see, I succeeded where countless others – including yourself – had failed miserably.

-What do you mean?

-I defeated the Care Bears family."

Sour Sam looked at the man in astonishment. Finally, he said: "Who – who are you?

-My name is Checkmate Warren.

-You…You defeated those horrible plushies?

-I did. With great ease, I might add.

-How did you do it?

-With cunning, planning, and gadgets.

-So…They're out of the way now?

-I never said that. You see, I captured them all – but I let them go at the time. For a price.

-What?! You had your chance to destroy them –

-But I didn't have a reason to. Which brings me to the purpose of my visit.

You're one of the many villains who tried to destroy the Care Bears family, Sour Sam. You didn't chase them over a long period of time, like Dark Heart…

-Who?

-You weren't a regular enemy of theirs, like No Heart or Cold Heart…

-Those two! They never succeeded! They just lost and lost and lost!

-As opposed to you, who just tried once, lost, and never tried again.

-I didn't give up! I just tried it differently!

-Oh, I know the story. Since you hadn't managed to get rid of the Care Bears family first, you tried instead to jump directly to the next phase – to mass-distribute the crabbiness agent. So you made a deal with underworld elements, made a short-lived alliance with a drug-dealing network, and then attempted to put the agent in the city's water supply. That was your greatest mistake.

-So the feds caught on. How was I supposed to know?

-That's not what I meant. You see, your big mistake with that second attempt wasn't that you made a deal with the wrong people and got caught – it's that, simply put, your plan wasn't weird enough.

-Beg your pardon?

-Think, Sour Sam. Using that psychotropic chemical in plain water, without the crab pies or anything? Contaminating the town's water supply? That's the kind of crimes that the police and the FBI exist to oppose – the kind of crime they're ready to oppose.

Why do you think the police didn't try to pursue you after your first attack on the Care Bears family? Why do you think they never arrested Professor Cold Heart? Why do you think the Air Force never tried to localize and destroy No Heart's castle? They had the means to do it. They just weren't ready – because you people were 'weird' criminals. Unusual villains. The kind of villains they hadn't been taught how to fight. So they were more than happy to just let it be someone else's problem when the Care Bears took care of you people.

But contaminating the water supply? That was something they could deal with. And they did.

-Okay, brainiac. Is that why you came here? 'Cause if so, I'm wasting my time.

-Actually, I came to ask you a question.

-What question?

-Simple: Why did you do it?

-What do you mean?

-Why were you trying to spread crabbiness? Why did you want to destroy the Care Bears family? What was your motivation to be a villain? I know my reasons. I know some other people's reason. But I'm curious about yours."

Sour Sam hesitated for a moment. Then he looked up to Warren, and said:

"You want to know why I did it? Fine. Here's why: Because I couldn't stand it. I couldn't stand all that stupid cheerfulness. So many people were in a good mood – why, I ask you? Does this world look to you like it's something to be cheerful about? I certainly wasn't cheerful. So why should anyone else be? It wasn't fair, so I was going to change it.

So I invented that Crab Potion-

-You mean, you stumbled on it by chance.

-Whatever. I decided it was time to show them all – if I was crabby, why should I be the only one? So I made those crab pies, and decided to give them on Thanksgiving. Then we'd have seen what they'd all be thankful for! I wanted more than anything else to get the Care Bears – I mean, they were all so ridiculously happy that it was disgusting! So I got them to eat my pies. If it wasn't for that old bear hag, or those stupid cubs, I'd have won!

-You seem to misjudge the difficulty of arch-villainy.

-Then, since it didn't work, I tried to play it big. Since I couldn't destroy the Care Bears first, I'd take care of the population. Maybe you're right, and that was a mistake. But it was my right! It wasn't fair that everyone else was fine, and I wasn't! And as soon as I get out of here, I'll show them all!

-Unlikely. You see, Sour Sam – you're just a minor villain. You're no threat. I only came here to get some insight into the villainous mind – and I got what I wanted. As I said, I know what my motivation was – a misplaced sense of duty, coupled with pride. In Control's case – not that you know who Control is – it was greed and a lust for power. For Dark Heart, it was a warped sense of purpose. For you, it was plain and simple envy: Instead of trying to rise to other people's level, you tried to bring them down to yours. You went after the Care Bears because they were a beacon of what you despised. That's all I needed to know."

It was the morning of the 25th. At the airport, the pilot entered the men's room. There wasn't anybody he could see – which was predictable on this day. Most people were at home with their families. He sighed. He wished he could be with his own, but somebody had to fly the plane. Oh well – he'd take a short vacation next week to spend some quality time with them.

"Hey there, pilot."

Startled, he turned around. What he saw surprised him even more. What was a clown doing here?

"Um, hi…Who are you?

-Me? Oh, I'm just somebody's practical joke…"

The pilot tried to understand – but what he saw next frightened him beyond his worst nightmares. He opened his mouth to scream, but he wasn't left enough time for that.

Part two: The Fall of Care-a-Lot

For most people, that day started off normally. It certainly didn't go on that way very long – but there had been no clues at first.

Warren, promising himself to catch on some sleep during the week-end, entered the Caretakers HQ in Rainbow City. On his way to his office, he encountered Isaac.

"'Morning.

-'Morning, Warren. How did it go?

-Pretty well, I guess. I'm progressing in my studies. How did things go here?

-Without a hitch. Everybody went back home by now, but they all enjoyed themselves.

Paul stayed here for the night, David and the twins have already come. The rest should be here soon.

-Well, gotta go."

For the Care Bears family too, the day had started without any foreshadowing. They had all woken up in the Hall of Hearts, and had begun tidying it up after their party.

For the co-pilot of flight 714, the day had begun with no warning of what was about to happen. Only during the flight did he begin to worry – and even then, still not even remotely as much as he would have, had he suspected what was about to happen. But he did notice that the pilot wasn't doing the best of jobs. As a matter of fact, he was flying the plane like an amateur – the co-pilot could have done better a while before they had allowed him into a real cockpit.

"Hey, you okay?

-Why do you ask?" inquired the pilot with a nasty grin.

"Well…No offence, pal, but you're flying like a turkey. I think you might need to lie down.

-Nonsense. I'm flying well enough for what we need.

-Look, buddy, I can't let you fly if you don't do it flawlessly. The safety of dozens of passengers is at stake!" pleaded the co-pilot, feeling extremely uneasy – partly because he didn't want an authority clash, and partly because the pilot's grin and tone creeped him out. He wondered if he was drunk or something.

"Don't worry – the plane isn't the real threat to the passengers. It's me they should fear!"

The co-pilot lost a couple of seconds trying to process what he had just heard, and then something happened – something that scared him even more than that near-crash from a while back. But unlike the near-crash, this time, he didn't survive.

"Hey, Isaac, did you hear on the radio?" asked Paul. "They think an interstate flight might have been hijacked!

-Hijacked? Is it serious?

-They think it is. The pilot isn't responding, and the plane changed its course – but they can't tell where it's heading. They even said the Air Force just sent a couple of fighters to follow it, in case it tries to crash into a city.

-Hm. We ought to take a look."

In the Pentagon, the general was doing his best not to let the anxiety get in the way of his thinking.

"How long till the fighters reach that plane?

-Still more than twenty minutes, sir. But don't worry – there's no major population centre that this plane could reach in so little time. It doesn't even seem to be headed into one – heck, we're not even sure it's a hijacking!

-If it isn't, then I surely don't know what it is."

"Warren, come quickly!" yelled Paul, as he burst into his boss's office.

"What is it?

-No time to explain, just come!"

Both upset and worried, Checkmate Warren followed the gadgeteer to the server room. There, Isaac was working on one of the big machines – and a map of North America was being displayed on the huge screen.

"In case you haven't heard, flight 714 has deviated from its course, and is not responding" explained Isaac, much calmer than Paul. "We tried to analyse its course, and it looks like it's heading toward the Kingdom of Caring, as you can see on the map."

Warren stood still. Then he leaned closer, looked attentively at all the data displayed…Then he frantically grabbed his cell phone, and dialled a number:

The Hall of Hearts was almost tidy now – only a few minutes, and the mess would be gone. Bright Heart was helping to mop the floor, when his phone ringed. He answered it, wondering who would call him when almost all the family was here, in the hall. Good Luck, perhaps?

"This is Bright Heart. Who-

-This is Warren! Listen, Bright Heart – I don't have time to explain, but get all the family out in the open – get them somewhere it's easy to run. Maybe it's a false alarm, but otherwise, it's a matter of life or death!

-Wha-

-Now!"

While Warren was making emergency calls to the authorities, while Isaac was reorienting some of the 'webcam' star-o-scopes to permit observation of Care-a-Lot, while a couple of army fighter jets desperately tried to bridge the gap between themselves and flight 714 – aboard the aforementioned flight, frightened passengers were hearing a manic, demented voice over the loudspeakers:

"Now, that was fun! If any more of you want to come into the cockpit and rassle, feel welcome – if you don't mind the huge red stains on your cloths! Bwa-hahahahahahahahaha!

Aside from that, we would like to inform you that we will soon hit town. And when I say 'hit', I sure mean 'hit' – that's quite a punch we've got! People, you just don't know your own strength! Or is it my strength? Guess we'll see!"

The Care Bears family was gathered in Care-a-Lot; Bright Heart, after receiving more ample explanations from the Caretakers, had briefed the rest of the family – who still weren't sure if they should be worried or something.

That's when they saw the plane coming. It wasn't a huge plane – definitely not a jumbo. But it was still pretty big for them – and it was clearly moving in their direction. Despite some lack of skill on behalf of the pilot, there was no mistake about it.

The appropriate response soon came: "Take cover!"

On board of the Caretakers' flying car, which was operating on auto-pilot and flying at high-speed, David and Warren were watching Care-a-Lot on the monitor.

They saw it as the aircraft loomed toward its target. They saw it as the inhabitants of both Care-a-Lot and the Forest of Feelings, reunited at the same place at the time, scrambled for their lives. They saw True Heart and Noble Heart pick up the cubs and run with them – they saw everybody run away from the impending disaster.

They saw the plane as it grazed a few buildings, scrapping off their roofs. They saw it collide at full force with the Hall of Hearts. They saw the explosions of fire and bits of building as the Hall was instantly obliterated. They saw what was left of the plane emerge at the other side, and go on, destroying a couple more buildings behind were the Hall had stood an instant before. They saw the fall of Care-a-Lot, as its centre was reduced to rubble.

"No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No" David kept whispering, as if his denials could prevent what had just happened from being real.

Warren retained enough calmness to observe what was left, and call:

"Bright Heart? Is everyone safe?

-I…I'm counting…27, 29…29?! Somebody's mis- no, Good Luck is on Paradise Island. Yes, everybody's fine. But Care-a-Lot…"

Just then, as the dust cleared, and as the Care Bears family regrouped, something in the rubble pile left of the Hall of Hearts suddenly moved. Soon, everybody was looking at it, as something quickly emerged – and appeared as a clown. The clown looked unhurt, even its cloths seemed like he had just bought them and put them on – not as though they had just survived a plane wreck. The clown looked toward the family, then gave a malevolent smile, then erupted in a manic, blood-chilling laughter.

"Oh bolts and gears" said Warren, thinking quickly. He then grabbed the phone, and yelled:

"Listen to me! This clown is a nanomorph! Don't try to fight it – run for your lives! Run to the Rainbow Rescue Beam – no, scratch that, run to the cloud cars! Hurry!"

The Care Bears and Cousins didn't wait for him to say it twice – they turned around and ran away.

The killer clown put his laughter to an end and watched them run. "Oh no you don't. I like my audience captive." With that said, he changed his form. Obviously, his cloths were just another part of the nanomorph – like the rest of him, they 'melted' into his new shape. The transformation was fluid and quick – in less than a second, the humanoid body was replaced with one that looked like big feline, save for the head – that one part still looked like it belonged to a human clown.

The monster leapt, and quickly accelerated to a speed that would have made a cheetah envious. It then made a huge jump – and hit the back of a Care Bear, pinning him on the ground.

It took the rest of a family an instant to register – and soon, the family was facing the (humanoid again) clown, who was holding his captive by the throat.

"Why, isn't it the one they call "Grumpy"? I say we play a game. It's called "gouge your eyes out. Lemme show you." With that said, the clown changed the shape of his free hand: The five fingers instantly melded into a couple of long, thin, pointy, menacing spikes. Then, without a warning, the clown pushed the spikes deep into his own eyes – and pulled them out, apparently unharmed.

"Neat trick, isn't it? But I haven't presented myself to my loving, shrieking public yet. You may call me Bozo, but otherwise, my real name is – THE PRANK!

As you can see, I'm one tough cookie. Or one tough fruitcake. But can you say the same of your blue friend here? Time for an eye-test!

-WAIT!" yelled Noble Heart. "We can talk it out!"

As Noble Heart tried to reason with the enemy, Bright Heart, Tender Heart, and a few others were secretly attempting to come up with a plan. Eventually, Bright Heart suggested a realistic one – and, behind the rest of the family, Secret discreetly sneaked away.

"Talk? I'd rather laugh" replied the Prank. "But sure, speak your piece – an exchange of last jokes is always welcome.

-Who are you? What do you want?

-As I said, I'm the Prank. Now, I realize that my actions might lead you to rush to conclusions and assume I'm clinically insane, but let me assure you – I really am! Long live evil, practical jokes!

What I want? I want to have my fun. And what could possibly be more fun for a wacko like me than making one big joke out of death, despair, and the gratuitous destruction of all that is nice and kind and true? Today, Care-a-Lot – tomorrow, the world!

-You're insane!

-You're catching on! I'm the most insanely evil creature in the world – the incarnation of dementia! You, and those namby-pamby Caretakers, are the first to go on my list. With you pranked to death, nothing will stand in the way of my jokes!

-There must be a way to negotiate! Why would you want to kill any of us? Why follow evil? What's to keep you from joining us?

-Ah, but surely you're joking! Goodness is anathema to me – my way is insanity! Allow me to demonstrate-"

The Prank was interrupted when Grumpy finally acted, and his tummy symbol came to life, sending the stare directly into the Prank's face. For a few seconds, it went on – nobody moved – then, the light cleared out. The Prank, unaffected, was grinning sadistically.

"Is that the worst you can do? You could have hurt me more with puns!"

A noise was suddenly heard. Everyone looked up – it was one of the cloud cars, piloted by Secret. It had circled them, and was flying at top speed toward the Prank. Secret jumped out at the last moment, as the car collided with the clown – who was sent flying some twenty feet away. Secret and Grumpy fell on the cloudy ground, and were quickly joined by the others – while the Prank morphed its arms into huge blades, with which it cut the cloud car into little bits.

The Prank looked toward the family, and flashed his sadistic smile at them – while waving menacingly the blades that now occupied the place of its arms. It began progressing in their direction.

"Care Bears…

-Care Bear Cousins…

-Stare!

-Call!"

The 29 rays of light and caring engulfed the evil being – but the Prank kept progressing, as if against strong winds. Problem was, the combined stares of the family only seemed to slow him down by a little bit.

The Prank, never stopping to grin like a madman, kept progressing – and the gap between him and the family kept getting smaller. With the resolve of despair, the Care Bears and Cousins kept staring – but eventually, their strength ran out.

The Prank feigned disappointment. "What, finished already? I was hoping for a challenge. But it looks like you can do zip, after all. Guess it's SLAUGHTERING TIME!"

The killer was interrupted when, unexpectedly, a stare hit it from behind. It turned – and saw one of the futuristic flying cars of the Caretakers. Out of its window, Checkmate Warren had put his head and his arm, on which the care blaster was mounted.

"Great. I can't neutralise its Zhivago module" cursed Warren. "David, manoeuvre 5."

The Prank was still trying to decide what to do when the car lunged at it. The Care Blaster shot again – but this time, the stare didn't hit the clown. Instead, it took a shape, forming a scoop made of white light. Without any warning, the car swept just a few feet away from the nanomorph, and the scoop removed a tiny bit from the monster.

Warren looked at the sample taken from the nanomorph. To his immense – and unpleasant – surprise, the sample evaporated.

The Prank, having remained at the same spot, took an air of hurt and self-consciousness. "I feel sooo violated!" With that said, it extended one off its arms to the length of 15 feet, and caught a piece of debris from one of the damaged buildings. Its arm then extended to some 30 feet, and began swooping in wide circles, at a fast-increasing speed – until the piece of debris was thrown at a speed that couldn't have been that much below the speed of sound. It hit the flying car, sending it careening through the air.

"Friends of yours, right? Well, the more, the merrier! And the deader.

-We're not scared of you!" yelled Brave Heart in defiance, possibly oblivious to the fact that he was being rather inaccurate.

"Aw, What a brave widdle kitty! Since you're so brave, surely you won't mind this!"

Tender Heart pushed Brave Heart out of the way at the last moment – as the Prank's arm became a huge spike that elongated by several feet, stabbing the empty spot between them where Brave Heart had been a moment before. A second and a half later, the spike coiled like a tentacle, catching Tender Heart by the torso – but something suddenly hit the Prank, sending him flying several feet away. The family looked – the Caretakers' car was flying back toward them, and it now appeared that it had one of Warren's impulse guns mounted on it. A second shot sent the Prank flying again – but this time, in mid-air, its feet elongated like poles and stuck into the ground, making the monster look like a twisted scarecrow.

Unexpectedly, Warren and David jumped out of the car – and it continued, on autopilot, on its course, hitting the Prank and pushing him away. Warren quickly got up, and spoke up:

"Is everybody fine?

-Uh…We think so…

-Then let's run to the cloud cars!" he said as he followed his own advice. "We don't have a second to lose!"

The Caretakers' car was a fine piece of technology. It was made of extremely resistant materials. It was bulletproof. But the Prank tore it to pieces like it was made out of paper before reaching the ground (well, the cloud). It then turned to its targets – but they were already darting away in the cloud cars.

"Oh well. Their hilarious deaths can wait a few days. In the meanwhile, I'm gonna have tons of fun here" said the Prank as it looked at the Rainbow Rescue Beam.

On his cell phone, Warren was doing his best to act quickly.

"Unless it can use any remaining vehicle, or the Rainbow Rescue Beam, it's trapped there – at least for a few minutes, since it would take it time to hit the ground if it jumped. But let's not take risks – evacuate the HQ immediately. Let me tell you where to meet us..."

"Yes, Ms Smith, it's an emergency. Take Dina to some motel or something – a place where you won't be found."

"Yes, general, a nanomorph, like the one Quentin made – only worse. Considering it now has access to the Rainbow Rescue Beam, I suggest extreme caution – for all we know, it might be able to figure out how to make it work, and then it'll be able to go wherever it pleases in a matter of minutes. I'd suggest using those jets of yours to bomb the Beam."

When Warren was done with his communications, David looked at him, and asked:

"How did you know it was a nanomorph?

-What else could have survived that plane crash without a scratch? And come to think of it…This explains the recent "lightspeed" murder spree.

-Why didn't he become immobile when you targeted the Zhivago module?

-It would appear that this is a new, improved version. The previous one's weakness has been removed.

-What about the sample? Can we use it to find a new weakness?

-No. It evaporated. My guess is that the nanomachines are programmed to self-destruct if they're taken as a sample, in order to prevent us finding a weakness like we did with the first nanomorph.

-Okay. Then one more question: Is it just me, or did you program a freaking "ram" mode into our flying car?!

-What part of "I think of everything" didn't you understand?"

The Prank casually extended its foot by some 30 feet to kick a nearby building. The building collapsed under the super-human strength of the kick, more surely than it would have had it been detonated with dynamite. The Prank pressed a few buttons on the Rainbow Rescue Beam – and the machine came to life.

"Now that's more like it! And now, all I need to do is choose a place where to go" said the clown, as it clutched a star-o-scope.

Part three: The Worst of the Lot

"Simple precautionary measure, Mr president" explained the agent of the Secret Service. He and several other agents were watching over the president in a small room – one that had access to all the required communication systems, but whose walls were made of steel. The entire room was both an office and a vault. "With that nanomorph on the loose, it might be wiser for you to stay here, where you're safe. If that thing has pulled a 9/11 on the Care Bears, then I wouldn't be surprised if it attacked public figures. Don't worry – this bunker is protected by several layers of security. It's a bunker within a bunker within a bunker – and so on. To get inside, one needs to go through several thick walls of concrete and steel, as well as dozens of the best agents of the Secret Service. Simply put, this is the most secure place on Earth."

Just then, a loudspeaker in the room came to life:

"Red alert! The Rainbow Rescue Beam has just materialized in front of the bunker! Everybody prepare for a fight!"

The president looked worried, so the agent quickly reassured him: "There's no need to be concerned, Mr president. Nothing can get inside here."

The guard led the Care Bears family and the Caretakers through the prison. It was a peculiar prison – it had been designed to hold only one convict. But a particularly resourceful one…

"Mr Quentin is already receiving a visitor" explained the guard. "One of his assistants from back then. He informs him on the state of the few companies he still owns. Should we tell him to finish it quickly?

-No need," replied Checkmate Warren. "I intend to make it quick myself."

In a couple of minutes, the defenders of caring entered Control's peculiar, techno-magical cell. He was in the middle of a discussion with his assistant – under the watch of several guards, of course. Without his shape-shifting magic, he didn't look like much of a playboy anymore – more like some green-skinned, otherwise average guy.

"Why, if it isn't Checkmate Warren and his flunkies!" exclaimed the former corrupt tycoon.

"When did we become his flunkies?" whispered Brave Heart.

"What brings you to my humble abode?

-A lame practical joke. One that played 9/11 with the Hall of Hearts.

-Oh. And you're here because…?

-Because it was obviously a nanomorph, and you're the only person with the resources to build one. Much of the nanotechnology required has been developed exclusively by your labs, and some of the elements – such as the power source – can so far be supplied only by magic. This evil clown is obviously your creation.

-If I may say…" attempted the assistant…

-Yes, I admit, the Prank was my idea" Control ignored his assistant. "I told you I'd get revenge. The Prank was my back-up plan – I left enough enchanted nanomachines for Cold Heart to make another, improved nanomorph. I made some modifications, instructed Cold Heart to make some of his own – I knew he'd like the idea. End result: You end up with a psychotic machine that can defeat anybody, can get anywhere and is virtually indestructible. The Prank will never stop – it has been programmed to be so insanely evil, it will never take a break from wreaking havoc on all that is good and kind. It will spread chaos, destruction, despair and insanity, and it will think it's hilarious. It will keep playing its deadly pranks as long as there's someone left on whom to play them. It's the perfect agent of dementia. In short, the Prank is the worst thing that could happen."

For a while, nobody said anything – except for the assistant, who was still attempting to explain the situation of Control's remaining assets: "Most of the companies just aren't doing well, and several of them are threatened by bankruptcy…" The Care Bears and cousins, as well as most of the Caretakers, were feeling a chill go up their spines – the description of what Control had unleashed on their world gave them a particularly uneasy feeling. Finally, Paul spoke up:

"Let me get this straight: You created some clownish, crazy monster, and you called it "the Prank"? You're stealing ideas from Batman. This thing is just the Joker with super-powers.

-Actually, it sounds to me like he's stealing ideas from Stephen King" replied Isaac. "If this doesn't sound like IT, nothing does. Besides, evil clowns are a classic of horror stories.

-Bottom line, you're not very creative" Warren told Control.

"Oh, like you are. I mean, how did you call yourselves? Checkmate Warren? Caretakers? Not that creative either, if you'll ask me.

-Sir, I'm just trying to say…" the assistant was still desperately attempting to get his report across.

"Oh please!" replied Checkmate Warren. "I'm a strategist and an inventor. My ability lies in developing the right chain of events required to obtain what I want – not coming up with good names or something!

-Sir, I'm just trying to say – Fourth Wall Studios went down" finished the assistant. Control and the rest still ignored him.

"You know" said Warren – "You did say you'd get your revenge – but I suspect that's not all there is to it.

-You do?" Control gave him a calculating smile.

"Sure. It wouldn't be like you to pull off something like this – and not think of your own self-interest while doing it. With all the murders committed by the Prank being your responsibility, you're risking the capital penalty here – I'm sure you have something else planned. But you didn't program the Prank to bust you out of prison – it could, but if it was programmed to, it would already have. Of course, I can see why you wouldn't want that – that would mean being chased all over the country by the police. And even if the Prank is virtually invulnerable, you are not. So you have a different plan. Let me guess – you're going to say that you know how to stop the Prank.

-Brilliant as always, I see. Yes, I do know how to stop it – the right code-word, and it will cease to exist. But I'm the only one who knows it.

-And of course, you'll only reveal it if the authorities release you, give you millions of dollars in cash, and help you go to some country where money can buy security.

-Of course. And of course, right now you're going to tell me to forget about it. But remember – every minute you spend trying to stop the Prank by yourselves, because you're too arrogant to concede defeat, is a minute during which the Prank might kill any given number of innocents."

Using the Rainbow Rescue Beam, it had taken the Prank only a few minutes to slide from the devastated Care-a-Lot down to the bunker on Earth. It had also been easy to locate the bunker where they kept the president – the star-o-scopes were, if anything, efficient. The equipment of Care-a-Lot had been a key instrument for good during all those years – but now, it was used as an instrument of dementia.

The Prank landed in front of the bunkers. Nearly twenty Secret Service agents were in positions – they all began shooting at once. Dozens of bullets hit the Prank, very few missing – but, depending on how solid the Prank was choosing to be, the bullets either impacted its surface and were flattened without causing any damage, or went through its body as if it was water without causing any harm either. Eventually tiring of this, the Prank suddenly attacked the agents – it didn't move from its place, it just transformed its arms into spikes that it elongated in their directions. Then it would shorten them, and elongate them toward the next agent, and so on. It made short matter of all of them – in just a few seconds.

It then looked at the bunker's wall – heavy, thick concrete and steel. The Prank punched it – and made a gaping hole in the wall, through which it quickly oozed. On the other side, there was another wall – and more agents. They were surprised, but quickly began shooting – and were quickly disposed off. The Prank looked at the next wall, and changed its shape again – now a part of it was shaped like a giant drill. Said drill began revolving at an immense speed, opening a way through the wall. The Prank just oozed through the opening, as easily as if it had been made out of air. It killed the agents on the other side, then pierced a pipe, oozed into it, travelled through it to the next stage of the bunker…

After a few more security levels had been breached, the Prank entered the inner ventilation system, and suddenly burst into the room where the president was being kept. The five agents that guarded the president, despite their immense surprise, immediately drew out their guns – but the Prank transformed its hands into sets of blades, and eliminated the agents in the blink of an eye.

The Prank now faced the president. It had taken the Prank less than a minute to infiltrate the most secure bunker in the world.

Somewhere in the clouds, a military plane was ordered – better late than never – to follow the advice previously given by Checkmate Warren. A couple of missiles flew from the plane, and hit the Rainbow Rescue Beam Generator, cutting off the beam. The explosions also caused some collateral damage – although at this point, there wasn't so much left to destroy…

The president considered the monstrosity before him – and for a while there, regretted having won the elections. He had known at the time that this job involved dealing with some unpleasant figures, but this one was taking the cake.

"Who…Who are you?

-Oh, surely they told you. I am the Prank! I'm the Horsemen of the Apocalypse's comic relief!

-Get away from me, you freak!

-Now, now, this is no way to talk to the clown who can make you literally eat your heart out…"

The Prank's diatribe was interrupted when the heavy steel door flung open, permitting several agents to burst inside. "Freeze!"

In response, the Prank morphed again. The bullets again failed to damage it as it took the shape of a giant four-legged spider – with the clown head at the centre, and four thin, gigantic legs with pointy ends extending from it. The legs soon attacked the agents. The president watched in horror as they were slaughtered.

The Prank, still spider-shaped, looked down and mocked: "Hey, where's the cheering? I thought everybody loved your friendly neighbourhood spider-clown! Mwa-hahahahahahahaha!"

The president darted to the door, but one of the spider-legs, having developed a hand at its end, quickly caught and lifted him. The Prank changed its shape again, and soon formed a huge, room-spanning web in which the president was tangled.

"Let me go! Let me go!

-Only when I want to, fancy-pants! And I'll only want to when it'll be fun! Now, what to do with you…?"

"I can't believe it – Control actually had the nerve to unleash something like the Prank on the world! How can he care so little?

-He doesn't care at all" explained Warren. "The entire planet could be destroyed, and he wouldn't mind any of it – except for how it affected him. And if destroying it served his purpose, he wouldn't hesitate. The question now is – how do we stop the Prank?

-It's part technological, right? Wouldn't an EMP do the trick?" asked Paul.

"Negative. An electromagnetic pulse would destroy most conventional electronic systems, but not those used by nanomachines. They are of a different nature than those used in standard electronics.

-Then what about acid? Wouldn't they damage it?

-Not nearly fast enough. We'd need to keep it bathing in the strongest acid for at least an hour before it was destroyed – and I doubt it would go without a fight.

-Okay…How did they kill the "Liquid Metal" robot in "Terminator 2"? First they immobilized it with liquid nitrogen, then they melted it with molten steel. Extreme temperatures?

-Forget it – Cold Heart and the rest of the crew wouldn't overlook such a cliché. If we use extreme heat, the Zhivago module – or whatever they use – will protect it; if we use extreme cold, the Zhivago module will just go off for a while, and the heat generated by the machinery will be enough to counteract even the absolute zero.

-Do you have any idea how to stop it?

-I'm still thinking! In case you forgot, I don't have a sample to examine, so I don't even know what the design modifications are. How do you expect me to find a weakness in something when I don't even know its details?!

-Okay, so we're basically doomed" conceded Alice. "What do we do? Should we accept Control's demands? Do you think he even has a way of stopping the Prank, or is he just bluffing?

-And would it be that bad to accept his demands?" asked Tender Heart. "I mean, he's right – while we're trying to stop the Prank, it could be killing people!

-We can't accept Control's conditions!" protested Warren. "One can only imagine what he'll do when he has freedom of movement again – who's to say that he won't build an army of nanomorphs somewhere and take over the world? He can't be trusted!"

At that point, the director of the prison (which they had just exited) approached them:

"Ladies and gentlemen, something happened which I believe you should know about…The Prank attacked the bunker where they kept the president. They said on TV that dozens of Secret Service agents had been killed – and the president is about to address the nation.

-Hold it" said Warren. "The Prank attacked the president?

-Yes, it got there with the Rainbow Rescue Beam. They've also said the Beam has now been destroyed by the Air Force.

-That's not the point! Don't you get it? The Prank is a shape-shifter!"

Dozens of reporters were in the same room as the president – who was being himself watched over by a dozen Secret Service agents. The Secret Service was still in shock of its resounding failure at the bunker – of the dozens of agents on the spot, there had been no survivor. It had to be some kind of miracle that the president was still alive – although he still seemed in a shock. He had nevertheless been coherent enough to demand to address the nation, and to order that no-one get close to the bunker. Since no satellite image had shown the Prank coming out, it was assumed that it was still inside. The president hadn't said yet what had happened inside that bunker…

As the president prepared to begin his speech, the agents received certain calls in their headsets. And as the speech began, they quietly opened all the doors in the room – trying not to show how nervous they suddenly were.

"People of this country, and of the rest of the world" the president's voice was less clear than usual – "just half-an-hour ago, my bunker was attacked by a being that calls itself the Prank. The Prank is also responsible for the recent "lightspeed" murder spree, and it has also hijacked flight 714 a few hours ago, and crashed it into Care-a-Lot, the residence of the Care Bears. No passenger has survived – except for the Prank, which is invulnerable.

The Prank possesses an incredible, superhuman strength – enough to break through a bunker. It can easily change its shape. It can go anywhere it pleases. Nothing can stop it. In short, the Prank will destroy you all – you are DOOMED! DOOMED! Mwa-hahahahahahahaha!"

As the president's shape was replaced by that of the clown, the agents of the Secret Service followed the orders from the HQ (which had been warned by the Caretakers minutes ago) and quickly evacuated the reporters. The Prank considered going after them, but instead grew several tentacles in its arms' place, which it then used to grope the cameras that had been left on the spot. In then spoke on live:

"Welcome to your new show – "Nightmare on your street"! I am the Prank, the world's funniest mass-murderer! Don't think I'm funny? Well, I don't care what any of you losers think! I'll go on with the show, as a comic horror! A multiple-year long tour throughout the world – signing the still-warm-corpses of my fans and detractors! Now begins an age of terror, horror, and jokes! Yi-pee!

Wondering what happened to the president? He's still at the bunker. And still alive. Don't think I have pity for him or anything – but hey, he's a public figure. People care about what happens to those. So Killing him too fast would be – unsatisfying. Instead, I just got this souvenir" the Prank dangled a finger in front of the cameras "and from now on, every week, I'll collect another piece, until there's nothing left! How long do you think he can last – a year?

Of course, within a year, you might very well be dead yourself. Or you might not. Time will tell!"

"Terrific" said Warren. "Good thing that the Prank doesn't have the knowledge required to launch nukes. When's that private jet coming?

-Just three more hours" replied Isaac. "It wasn't easy, but they're following your instructions – Good Luck will be here soon. I doubt it'll make a big difference, though…

-No, it won't. But we're going to need every advantage we can get. And since the Prank is currently in the Washington DC area, we have some time to go to our Rainbow City HQ to pick up some equipment. But we're going to have to act fast – every minute that passes carries risks of additional horror stories. They just called from the bunker – the president's still alive, but in a condition…Well, I suppose the Prank thought it was funny…Well, I'll spare you the details. Everybody, come on: We're going to Rainbow City."

On the way to the car, he spoke to David:

"What is it with evil shape-shifters? Dark Heart. No Heart. Control. The Prank. And countless fictional figures. Is there some unwritten rule that if you can morph, you have to be evil?

-Uh…Frankly, I've never noticed the tendency before."

During the trip to the Caretakers HQ, True Heart and Noble Heart had arranged to be in the same cloud car as Grumpy. He looked so gloomy, they were almost afraid to speak with him, fearing what he might say – and what it would tell them of his emotional state. Finally, Noble Heart broke the silence:

"Um, Grumpy – I think we need to have a word."

Grumpy didn't reply.

"About…Well…Everything we've told you still holds.

-You saw what happened there! That – that thing – it was using me to destroy you all, just like Control used me! You could have all run away safely to the cloud cars if it wasn't for me! But because I was there, you had to fight him – Swift Heart had to risk his life ramming into it, and Brave Heart almost got impaled! You were in danger because of me!

-We couldn't have escaped the Prank anyway. Even if it hadn't caught you, it'd have caught someone else.

-That's beside the point" said True Heart. "Grumpy, there are risks in this job, and we're all aware of them. Every time we fight against No Heart or some other villain, we're consciously taking a risk – and you should know that very well, after all the times you've fought them. You've always thought it was worth it – and all of us think the same.

-But that's different! Those are caring missions – we do them for important reasons!

-And isn't being a family an important reason? It just wouldn't be worth it for any of us to leave you – nor would it be good for you. Because we all care for each other."

While Noble Heart and True Heart were helping Grumpy cope with the recent events, Warren was discussing on his phone. "No, general, tanks and planes just won't do – the nanomachines are made of carbo-steel. And even if you actually managed to put a projectile through it, it would only be deformed – and it would regain its shape in an instant. None of your weapons can hurt it, except maybe a hydrogen bomb at close range. And I don't recommend that option – let us handle it. Yes, your help will be appreciated. Yes, you should transport the president to a secret hospital – the Prank will find it eventually, but it will gain time. Although I intend to have the Prank eliminated sooner than that, when we find a way.

Yes, Control did make that proposition. No, general, I don't recommend accepting it any more than you do. We accept, we still lose. Our only hope is to stop the Prank by ourselves, and fast. But Control's hoping that the destruction and horror the Prank will bring upon the population will be enough to make people surrender to his conditions. Another reason for us to act fast."

Back at the Caretakers' HQ, they were joined by Good Luck, still a bit disoriented by all the recent events. Much equipment was gleaned – and many faces were glum. Alice was the first to address that issue:

"Okay, people – I realize this hasn't been our best day, but I don't think we should let it bring us down. Everybody cheer up!

…Come on, what's the matter? Christy? Playful Heart? Cheer?

-I just can't help thinking about what happened" admitted Cheer. "The Hall of Hearts is destroyed…But that's okay, we can rebuild it. But the plane…There were people in it! And others in the bunker! And those in the city before that! Some of those people had family and friends…And those who didn't…It's just…" Cheer was obviously trying not to erupt in tears. To her surprise, Grumpy hugged her. She hugged him back with all her strength, sobbing. Grumpy consoled her: "There, there. You've always been there to cheer me up. Now that you need a hug, I'm not going to let you down."

This little event helped people a bit, but many were still uneasy. Playful Heart spoke next: "I…Usually, when things go badly, I try to lift people's moods with jokes. But somehow…It just doesn't feel right to joke right now, with what happened to all those people.

-Typical reaction" replied Warren, while pouring himself coffee. "During tragic occasions, people who care about those who suffered – or were lost – are normally affected. As a result, people feel like doing anything that's not typical of depression would be equivalent to saying they don't care. They feel like it's showing disrespect.

-How can you be so calm about this?" Wish asked the mastermind. "Everything that's happened – and you're still as level-headed as always.

-That's because none of this is new to me. Horrors such as this are commonplace in the world – they're just less extravagant most of the time. Don't you watch the news? Study History? Catastrophes happen on a regular basis. The horrible is common on Earth – and I've been aware of that for a very long time.

But the wonderful is also common. The very values you've spent your lives promoting – and many others – are just as easy to find as the negative things. Maybe even more so. The purpose of the Caretakers is the same as the mission that was entrusted upon your family – to make sure that the wonderful outweighs the horrible.

Today, you've come much closer to the horrible than anybody would want to. You're not used to it – I mean, let's face it, none of the villains you've faced before was quite as gruesome as the Prank. And because of this, you're in a bit of a shock: You weren't aware of the presence of horror. And nothing had prepared you for anything like this. But you must remember the good things – cling to them."

The members of the Care Bears family looked at Warren, at themselves, at the floor; they were processing what he had just said. Truth is, they did feel somewhat better. But their problems were far from over. And Warren brought the topic back quickly:

"Okay, back to the task at hand: We must stop the Prank, and time is of the essence. We need to find a way to stop it, we need to find where it is, or even better, where it will soon be.

-But you said you didn't know how to stop it, since we didn't have any samples" said Paul. "No disrespect intended, Warren…I know you're smarter than me – the smartest guy around here. But you said it yourself – how can we find a flaw if we can't analyse it?

-The stare did manage to slow it down a bit" noted Bright Heart. "As you have probably noticed, the power of the stare is, in general rule, proportional to the square of the number of people participating. It probably still wouldn't be enough, but…Can't we use the tummy symbol transfer machine to allow all of Rainbow City to use the stare against the Prank?

-We'll keep that as a plan B" replied Warren. "It's too risky – first, the population isn't qualified for handling this sort of menace. As a matter of fact, I'm not sure we are. Second, as you know, the transferred symbols only last for a moment, and we might need more to fend of the Prank – partly because it's so tough, and partly because we don't know when and where it'll strike. Third, that machine is a bit unreliable – I'd hate to cause your tummy symbols to disappear or something. Which means the machine is to be used only as a last resort."

At that point, Noble Heart noticed that Gentle Heart wanted to say something. Knowing his adoptive daughter's shyness, he knew that even if what she had to say was important, she probably wouldn't dare to speak her mind unless asked, considering how quickly the conversation was flowing. He decided to take care of it: "Gentle Heart, do you have something to say?

-Yes…I was thinking…The Prank attacked us for a reason. Wouldn't you Caretakers be, well…Wouldn't it want to attack you next?"

Part four: Cut the Clowning

"As a matter of fact, the most likely answer is yes" replied Warren. "And even if it doesn't know where we are, Rainbow City is a sound target for it. I'd better warn the mayor – but first, we must find a way to take advantage of this situation. We know with near-certainty where the Prank will strike next – so, for a change, we can prepare for its attack. So far, we've always been on the defensive. It might be time to lay a trap.

-Except that we still don't know how to defeat it" noted Grumpy. "How much time do we have anyway?

-Let's see. According to my estimations, and the abilities of the nanotechnology used by control's former labs, I'd estimate that the Prank can bench-press some 50 tons…So, assuming a shape fit for fast movement – no, scratch that, the Prank doesn't want us to know it's coming, so it'll be using a discrete shape. That of a car, most likely. So, assuming an efficient energy usage…Considering the distance from here to Washington…

-Still about three remaining hours, four top" replied Isaac.

"Right. So that's the time we have to find an idea and set a trap. I think I know where we would want to set a trap: The carnival on the city's borders. We'll have the mayor evacuate it, so no civilians will get hurt, and the place will easily attract the Prank's lame sense of humour. But there's still the problem of our lack of data on the modified design…Since it's impossible to collect samples, how can we –"

Warren stopped in mid-speech. Surprised, the rest looked at him in a puzzlement. All of a sudden, Warren slapped his forehead.

"No. It can't be that simple. How could I overlook something so obvious!

-You found something?" enquired Paul, suddenly full of hope.

"Quite. Assuredly you all remember what I keep saying about great strategists.

-That one always knows how to turn the situation to his advantage. Well, I guess I'm just not clever enough to do that with this situation. Tell us what your idea is.

-Well, this will require acting fast to prepare the trap, but it should work…I must contact the mayor and the closest army base at once, to help build everything we'll need. I'll explain after the call."

The small car reached the Rainbow City area. The car was a bit peculiar, but on the road, nobody could examine it closely enough to notice the inconsistencies – like, say, the lack of an engine. Or of a driver. The reason for these peculiarities was that the car actually had quadrillions of engines, distributed throughout its nanomorphic body. And it didn't need a pilot, because it was itself the pilot.

There had been so many occasions to create mayhem on the interstate – so many accidents that could have been caused. But that would have ruined the Prank's cover, and even if the Care Bears and Caretakers were unable to hurt the Prank, it would still be better to have the advantage of surprise in order to catch and kill them. And then, there would be nothing to stand between the Prank and an eternity of evil jokes, and the sweet, delightful horror…Plus, those fools were symbolic of kindness and other positive values – the very things that the Prank enjoyed crushing the most. Their deaths would be…A very satisfying masterpiece. One to be enjoyed slowly…

The Prank's train of thoughts was interrupted as it passed near what looked like an abandoned amusement park. Of course, any park would spark the interest of the Prank – there was a reason it usually chose to appear as a clown, after all. The combination of a symbol for joy and laughter with the Prank's horrific tendencies only made the latter all the more frightening to the 'audience'…It was so amusing…But here, the real reason the Prank noticed the park was the Ferris wheel, on top of which stood a figure – too far away for the Prank to recognize; but it could read the giant sign that had been attached to the Ferris wheel. It said: "Traps served here – the Prank is welcome!"

"I really hope you know what you're doing, Mr Checkmate" said the mayor on the phone. On the other end, he could hear the answer – from the man he had welcomed to the town, despite the opinion of most of the world. Ever since Checkmate Warren had begun to meddle with Rainbow City, it had always meant trouble. First it had been villain.com, the excavation of the carelessness crystal, Professor Cold Heart…Later on, it had been the demonstration of the C-bomb on the city, then the epic battle against the alliance of villains…And of course, no citizien of Rainbow City would ever forget the moment when they had tummy symbols of their own, and had, with the stare, been able to express their caring physically. That day, they had saved the world.

Of course, the complications didn't end there. Checkmate Warren had apparently decided to clean up his act – and almost everybody in Rainbow City believed him. After all, he had risked life and limb in the fight…And he had the recommendations of the Care Bears family. And in Rainbow City, the Care Bears held an immense prestige since saving the city for the first time all those years ago. Now, Checkmate Warren had wanted to establish a human equivalent of the Care Bears family – and, for obvious reasons, he wanted to establish it in Rainbow City. Like the rest of the population, the mayor had been supportive, even when the media had launched a merciless attack against the Caretakers. And eventually, the Caretakers had established their innocence.

But now, this Prank horror was terrorizing the nation, and it looked like the Caretakers' affiliation with Rainbow City might make the town a prime target. For the 100th time, the mayor wondered if he had made the right choice by allowing them to build their HQ in his city…

"I do, Mr mayor. And if my plan fails, then there's no point in evacuating the city, or in telling the people to stay behind locked doors – it wouldn't stop the Prank. So wish us luck.

-That I do. Do not fail us, Checkmate Warren.

-I'll do my best, and that's saying a lot."

The Prank had taken again the shape of a humanoid clown – since the surprise effect had apparently gone bye-bye, there was no point in remaining camouflaged. It had approached the Ferris wheel; it now stood at its bottom. It could now see the huge, amateurish cardboard panel covering a part of it – showing a childish drawing of a giraffe, and on which it was written in multicoloured letters: "The Giraffe Wheel". The figure on top of the wheel, which the Prank now identified as Checkmate Warren, looked down toward the Prank, and yelled:

"Not so clever, are you? Right into my trap. And I have the advantage of high grounds.

-Not anymore, brainiac."

With that said, the Prank's body suddenly elongated, so that its body was now thin like a rope, and its head was at Warren's level.

"So, who's the giraffe now?"

Warren, probably frightened by his imminent death, fell backwards before the Prank had even had the time to get a good look at his face – which it expected to be filled by terror. Suddenly, something moved behind the Prank. The nanomorph turned its head (which was just part of the act, since it had no real eyes – each nanomachine had its own sensors. The Prank didn't need to turn its head to see 'behind' itself) and saw that apparently, the Caretakers had hidden one of their flying cars in the roller-coaster. It now rushed toward the Prank's super-thin body at top speed. The techno-magical monstrosity didn't even have the time to see that it was David and Swift Heart inside the car before the collision.

The Prank's body was among the strongest things in the world – as a matter of fact, the strongest. But right now, because of the 'giraffe' elongation, it was very thin. Besides, the flying cars designed and built by the Caretakers were themselves relatively resistant, and the car was flying fast. On top of that, it had been especially retrofitted with a particularly sharp edge – blade, really – on its front. Long-story-short: The Prank was cut in two, and the car continued on its path, going through the Ferris wheel which came crashing down with the Prank.

The Prank felt no pain whatsoever – it knew how to administer it, but hadn't been designed to experience it. Beside, after all, it was just a 'flesh' wound – the Prank was made out of nanomachines; it would just reattach its lower end, like nothing had happened. If that was their trap, they were in trouble…

As the dust from the destruction of the Ferris wheel settled, the Prank (which now had a relatively amorphous shape, not having decided yet what to chose) finally saw its other half – but, to its immense surprise, the other half was in the process of evaporating! Dumbstruck, the nanomorph watched as what had, moments ago, been a part of it, dissolved into the air. It…It just didn't make any sense! Now, normally, insanity was good as far as the Prank was concerned…But this time, it was a serious inconvenience.

"I knew the situation could be turned to our advantage" said Checkmate Warren's voice. To the Prank's surprise, Warren wasn't lying dead on the ground near the remains of the Ferris wheel – instead, his voice was coming from the house of mirrors. His reflection could be seen at the entrance.

"See, your creators figured that as soon as we got a sample from you, we'd analyse it, and find a weakness. So they made it so that whenever a sample was taken, it would self-destruct. Little did they realize – that safeguard was a flaw itself! As soon as we cut you in two, the half that identified itself as being the smaller one – and thus, the sample – self-destructed. I figured Cold Heart didn't have the imagination and cunning to come up with something like that, and Control didn't have the technical expertise. You are now only half the clown you were – I knew that with your lame sense of humour, you'd fall for that giraffe trap. Checkmate, demented one!

-Veeeeeery clever, Einstein. But I'm still powerful enough to kick you into next year!" with that said, the now-smaller Prank took the shape of a bull – a small one, mind you. It charged toward the house of mirrors, smashing its way through them until it reached – a wide-screen showing Warren?!

The Prank stopped to consider what was happening. On the screen, Warren spoke: "Fool you twice, shame on you. That wasn't me on top of the wheel – just a mannequin dressed in cloths similar to mine, equipped with a receiver and a speaker. A mechanism made it fall when you got too close, so that you wouldn't figure it out too soon. Here, this video-screen allowed me to lure you to this spot – where you make an easy target."

With that said, Warren – as could be seen on the screen – pushed a button on a remote. Immediately, explosive charges were detonated inside the house of mirrors. The Prank was deformed for a moment, but quickly regained its composure and took the shape of a clown (a midget clown). It quickly realised that the purpose of the explosion hadn't been to hurt it – it had been to clear away any obstacle between him and the champions of caring.

"Wakey wakey, Pranky." said Checkmate Warren. He, the rest of the Caretakers, and the Care Bears family had now come out of hiding. The tummy symbols of the Care Bears and Care Bear Cousins were already glowing – and all eleven Caretakers had a Care Blaster on their wrist, each one with a symbol on it that matched their personality.

"Care Bears…

-Care Bear Cousins…

-Caretakers…

-Stare!

-Call!

-Blast!"

41 rays of light hit the Prank at full force. Those who had indulged in a bit of math know that while 29 squared was 841, 41 squared was 1681. A substantial difference – but it still wouldn't have been enough to stop the Prank in normal conditions.

These weren't normal conditions. The Prank had been reduced to half of its size and power. This time, the Prank was learning how it felt to be on the wrong side of the unstoppable force.

It tried to progress – to no avail. It morphed its arms into blades and tried to cut its way through the stare – a foolish tactic that accomplished nothing. It yelled in frustration – before being completely vaporized.

The light cleared. The champions of caring looked in front of them. The Prank was no more.

"I still can't believe this nightmare is over" said Treat Heart. "Are you sure the Prank is…gone?

-Positive. The video camera we had filming the scene confirms it.

-Did we…Did we do the right thing?" asked Loyal Heart.

"Don't worry. The Prank wasn't…Well, how to explain…It had been programmed to be, by its very nature, insane. I'm not sure I can explain this really well, but I don't think something as insanely evil as the Prank would be a matter of moral dilemmas…

-The important thing is" interrupted Bright Heart, "are we sure they won't make another one?

-Most probably not. The creation of the necessary magical nanomachines required both the technological resources of all of Control's laboratories – none of which knew at the time they were working on an engine of destruction – and of Control's world-class magic. Without those, Cold Heart or any other collaborator of Control will be unable to create another nanomorph – at least for a few decades, until nanotechnolgy develops. From that angle, we are safe."

A military officer approached the group. He wasn't really sure how to deal with them – the Caretakers, whom until a few months he had believed to be a dangerous criminal group, and the Care Bears family, who were, if anything, mythical. But he nevertheless addressed the leader:

"So…It's over?

-Yes, officer. The Prank has been destroyed, the threat has been removed. Thank your boys for me for the quick work they did setting up the trap. I'll pay the owners of the carnival for the damage."

As they walked away, Alice approached Warren and asked:

"One more question: "Blast"? I thought we were going for "Caretakers, Stare!"

-Well, I didn't want the Cousins to fell like the odd group…"

When the Care Bears family had first returned to the Kingdom of Caring, they had wanted to cry: Although the Forest of Feelings had remained untouched during the whole episode, Care-a-Lot now laid in ruins. Few buildings had remained undamaged; the Hall of Hearts, the Caring Meter, and the Rainbow Rescue Beam Generator had all been destroyed. But, through hard work, and with the help of the Caretakers and many others, Care-a-Lot had quickly been restored to its former glory and coziness. That alone had lifted the family's mood back up – which was quite welcome, after all that had happened. The rebuilt Hall of Hearts, as well as the help provided by the humans, had helped restore their faith in the world.

Grumpy felt better. Although he still felt that he had been less useful than the rest in defeating the Prank, he was fully aware that he had helped Cheer immensely when she had been on the verge of a breakdown…And that knowledge was all he needed.

The care blasters were fully operational. The Caretakers improved their skills in their use – but, as the fight in the amusement park had shown, they were quick learners.

The world was immensely relieved that the uncanny threat of the Prank was gone. In a short time, the president recovered – still shaken, but whole (the Prank had left his finger at the press conference room. The doctors had successfully reattached it). Soon enough, there began to be some apparently interesting exchanges between him and Checkmate Warren. When asked, Warren told his friends and colleagues that he wanted to have the cooperation of the authorities in defeating some of the villains once and for all…

It was a little over a week after the destruction of the Prank when Warren asked Nicholas to meet him in his office.

"Nicholas, there are a few things that I need to ask you…First, how has it been going with the care blaster?

-Swell! Being able to do the stare – or blast, whatever – is cooler than I can begin to describe. The symbol really does match my personality, and I'm getting better at using it – everything's great!

-Good. How do your magic studies progress?

-Same ol', same ol'. Still learning simple tricks. But for some reason, it always seems to me that No Heart, Control, and the Spirit Book had a power way beyond anything I've wielded in all those years. I have no clue where it comes from.

-Third question: When did you intend to tell me you were working part-time as a volunteer at CareNet's orphanage program?

-Wha…How did you know?

-This is CareNet we're talking about. How on Earth did you expect me not to know?

-Okay…I should have told you. I'm sorry. I was just afraid you wouldn't appreciate…

-Because this takes away time from your work with the Caretakers?

-Um, yeah…

-Don't worry. Far from me to criticize you for partaking in a constructive activity you enjoy. Everybody who works in the Caretakers did a peculiar choice, Nicholas – and I don't have the right to force anybody's decision. That's something I wish I had learned earlier.

One more question: I need your help arranging something for tomorrow evening, with your connections…

-My connections? What do you mean?"

Warren told him.

"You're kidding, right?

-No.

-This is insane! After what just happened…

-That's one more reason. The last thing I need is for them to develop phobias…It's better to confront one's fears.

-Okay, okay. I'll try. By the way…What will happen to Control? He was responsible for this.

-Him, and also Professor Cold Heart to some extent. Frankly, things aren't looking good for him – I suspect that this time, he's really finished. He didn't even retort when I came to his cell to gloat…"

After Nicholas exited the room, Warren opened one of his desk's drawers. Inside was a very old book…A book with a lock. Somewhere else he kept its key…The key to the Spirit Book. Warren looked at the book for a while…But he knew better than to open it. He closed the drawer and locked it.

And so the next evening, Warren invited all the Caretakers, Care Bears and Care Bear Cousins to a "recreational event"…Without telling them what it was. Once there, they had all gasped in shock – then reprimanded him for pulling a trick like that on them. He explained, however, the importance of not letting the horror of the Prank leave them traumatized for life, and that this would be the perfect way to deal with it.

As they all sat on their benches, the ringmaster spoke up:

"Welcome to Fettucini's extraordinary circus! Exclusively tonight, the amazing Fettucini, master of magic, will be joined by an old friend – the young but equally amazing Cherrywood!

But first, the clown act!"

In his special cell sat the world's most famous convict: Control, aka Clifford Quentin, aka…something else.

For decades, Control had slowly built both an image and a power base. But what of it remained now? The only image he know had was that of a green-skinned criminal who was responsible for countless deaths. His empire taken away from him, his backup plan spent, what was to become of he who only a few months earlier had been among the most powerful and influential people on Earth?

Suddenly, Control heard a voice in his head.

"Well, Quenos…Not so arrogant anymore, I see.

-Nollius? Is that you?" thought Control, who knew better than to answer that communication out loud.

"Yes, that's me, you fool! And it looks like you can't get out of there without my help. But before we go into that…Stop calling me Nollius! My name is No Heart now!

-And mine is Control. Let's get to business."

To be Continued…

Additional notes: I would like to thank Jeffrey T. Darlington of GPF (www.gpf-comics.com) and T. Campbell of Fans (www.faans.com), whose works taught me half of what I know about storytelling.

Also, bonus points for anybody who got the "Fourth Wall" joke.

I hope nobody was shocked by this more horror-oriented story. I also hope that the readers are enjoying this series, which is still going to go on for a while…