Young Gosalyn stood on her tiptoes peering out of the window of the old lighthouse, her gaze wavering between the gray and darkening sky beyond the St. Canard city skyline and the bustling, if not seedy, streets below. It would be a moonless night, and the air hung thick with smog that would occlude most of the stars once night fell. It was a better place than it used to be, but the Negaverse's St. Canard was still no paradise. The Friendly Four had done a lot to improve it in their time since Darkwing Duck had miraculously appeared to help and empower them, but there was only so much that four individuals could do, even if said individuals had super-powers, and even if Lord Negaduck was absent much of the time.
Despite that absence, the wicked crime lord's influence was still everywhere in the city. Negaduck may have felt that Darkwing had ruined "his" Negaverse, but the truth was that Negaduck's power extended far beyond him. Those who were afraid of Negaduck and those who served him still remained loyal to him, either out of fear or just plain avarice. Those with mercurial scruples flourished under Negaduck's reign, and many of the police and politicians still followed his agenda and whims because it lined their pockets and kept them in power. Gosalyn might have been young, but she understood that well enough to know that was how it was, despite her generally upbeat outlook. Gosalyn herself had become a much brighter light, as the guardian who owned her current hideaway sometimes told her with fondness when he spoke to her, now that she no longer endured Negaduck's daily abuse.
It amazed the Friendly Four how optimistic Gosalyn had remained under Negaduck's ward-ship. While he had never beaten her physically, aside from the occasional backhand or hard slap, his verbal abuse had been poisonous enough that it would have left deep scars on the psyche of an average child. Of course, Gosalyn was far from average. If she had been, Negaduck never would have become her guardian to begin with, although it was her background rather than anything particular about her that had drawn Negaduck's interest. Old man Waddlemeyer, Gosalyn's grandfather, had been a rich old coot that made money hand over fist designing weapons for S.H.U.S.H., the corrupted intelligence agency that quietly took care of inconveniences that the law could not without presenting the wrong image. The Negaverse S.H.U.S.H. was deeply in Negaduck's pocket, and Waddlemeyer had been a trusting fool to consider the malevolent mallard a friend. Since Gosalyn was the sole heir to her grandfather's fortune and legacy, as her parents had died when she was a young hatchling, she had been entrusted to the care of her only living grandparent.
It had not taken Negaduck long to recognize that the girl was key to acquiring the controlling interests in Waddlemeyer's affairs, and he had "befriended" the old man just long enough to gain his trust. Negaduck had even gone so far as to eliminate a rival of his, Taurus Bulba, to secure that friendship. Bulba was an influential rebel that wanted to get his hands on Waddlemeyer's weapons for some, as Negaduck referred to it, "pathetic moral crusade" against what they called the "corruption and misuse of power by S.H.U.S.H.". When Bulba had been brazen enough to try and abduct Gosalyn to protect her from said corruption, Negaduck "saved" her from him. Waddlemeyer had been so grateful to Negaduck that he named him as Gosalyn's guardian should anything happen to him, believing that she would be safe from S.H.U.S.H.'s many enemies that way. Little did he know that he had played right into Negaduck's hands. It was not long before the black-hearted duck saw to it that Waddlemeyer was slipped a fatal dose of drugs that induced a heart attack, and Gosalyn and her interests were turned over to his care until she reached adulthood. Ironically, it had been Waddlemeyer's trusted S.H.U.S.H. doctors that performed his autopsy and discovered that he had been poisoned, but because S.H.U.S.H. felt that Waddlemeyer's designs and secrets were best left in control of Negaduck anyhow, they covered it up and let him assume the role of Gosalyn's guardian without protest.
Negaduck himself had been disgusted by the notion of playing "Daddy" to what he considered a nauseatingly cheerful child, but he figured that given enough time, he could toughen Gosalyn up and harden her edges so that one day she might not be an embarrassment to him. Still, Negaduck could barely stand to be around her most of the time, so he had her put up in a house in a suburban development in a rough neighborhood, supervised by his brawny and not-too-bright, but loyal, sidekick Launchpad. The house's neighbors, the Muddlefoots, had already made a name for themselves as the kind of individuals Negaduck wanted Gosalyn to emulate, and he stopped by the dumpy hovel every so often to make sure that she was being seen to as he expected. Negaduck himself stayed in cushier digs most of the time, or traveled to keep tabs on his crime networks in the Negaverse and in the alternate parallel world where his worst enemy—his loathed double Darkwing Duck—was from.
Darkwing Duck. Gosalyn could not help but smile whenever she thought of the mysterious masked hero from the parallel world. He had been so amazing, and had done so much in the short time she had known him. It was because of him that she no longer lived in a filthy house, one she was forced to keep dirty to please Negaduck, being scolded and belittled day in and day out by Launchpad or Negaduck himself when he felt like showing up. It was because of Darkwing Duck that her best friend, Tank Muddlefoot, no longer had to endure daily cruel taunting and mockery from his parents or his nasty little brother Honker. When Darkwing Duck had come to the Negaverse, he had shielded her and Tank from the viciousness of Negaduck, Launchpad, and Tank's family. Gosalyn still shuddered when she thought about how the Muddlefoots were heartless enough to draw weapons on their own son. It seemed that their greed and lust for Negaduck's favor was more powerful than any love they had for their "disappointment" of an offspring.
The rebels known as The Friendly Four had spirited Gosalyn and Tank away from all of that after Darkwing Duck left the Negaverse, taking Negaduck with him for what they had hoped would be forever. Unfortunately it was not, and even before Negaduck made his return, the Negaverse was still far from a safe place for any of them. The Friendly Four protected Gosalyn and Tank by putting them up in their various hideouts, and despite everything, they managed well enough. Megavolt, Bushroot, Liquidator, and Quackerjack were used to living on the fringe of St. Canard's society as outlaws and enemies of Lord Negaduck, and they had a number of hiding places that were decent, if not unusual, homes compared to the miserable places Gosalyn and Tank had been used to. None of the Friendly Four minded if Gosalyn cleaned or dusted, or wore the pretty clothes she loved so much. None of them screamed at Tank or called him a "pathetic dork" or "lame bookworm" for studying the things that fascinated him about the world. In fact, Megavolt's lighthouse home was bright and warm, with plenty of light illuminating it in a soft glow of varying hues of incandescent and fluorescent. One room, in fact, was always lit up like the pretty multi-colored Christmas trees that Gosalyn had seen in storybooks. Such festive and happy decorations were all but outlawed in St. Canard thanks to Negaduck's grim taste and S.H.U.S.H.'s enforcement of it. Of course, there were those that were defiant, but the smart ones kept it to themselves and were not open about their tastes. Few were brave enough to openly oppose or speak ill of Negaduck or S.H.U.S.H., and those that did were branded "rebels" much like Gosalyn's new guardians had been.
"You should get away from the window, Gosalyn," Tank said quietly, with a note of concern in his voice.
Gosalyn turned toward him with disappointment shining in her green eyes. "I don't think anyone can see me up here… and I like the view. You can't see this much of the city or the bay like this from any of our other hideouts."
"But you never know what kind of sophisticated surveillance equipment informers or S.H.U.S.H. agents might have. Right now no one knows that Megavolt came back to this place. If they saw you…" His voice trailed off meaningfully, and Gosalyn gave a small nod of understanding and stepped back. What he said was true; Negaduck knew that Megavolt had once lived in the lighthouse, but the rat purposefully left the outside of it looking abandoned and run down so that no one would suspect he had returned to it. He had even, with the help of the others, constructed a tunnel that allowed them to enter and exit from the basement and emerge two properties over, in the kind of place no one would poke around much—an old scrap yard run by a friend who sympathized with them. Although true friends seemed far and few between, there were just as many good souls in the Negaverse as there were evil ones in the alternate world Darkwing Duck called home. Their friend in the junkyard, Adustan, was an elder canine in his sixties, the kind of individual that went with the flow and paid lip service to the right people while helping out those he thought were truly in the right, like the Friendly Four, on the sly. He'd had no love for Negaduck or S.H.U.S.H. ever since his son, who had worked for S.H.U.S.H., was killed on duty after being used as what essentially amounted to cannon fodder on one of their covert operations. S.H.U.S.H.'s idea of reparations had been an empty apology and a condescending story of how he had been a hero, but Adustan had seen enough evidence to know the truth, and while he never questioned S.H.U.S.H. outwardly, he also never forgot it.
"I spoke with Adustan a little while ago," Tank continued in a somber tone. "I gave him some of the new electronic locks that I've been tinkering with in Megavolt's workshop. He said they'd be really useful," he said with a small smile before resuming his more serious look. "But he had me keep out of sight, and showed me this." He pulled a folded up paper from his pocket and unfolded it to show it to Gosalyn. It was a photograph of her, looking frightened and scared, with text underneath it that read "Missing! If you have seen this girl, please call this hotline with any information. Lord Negaduck and S.H.U.S.H. will reward generously for information leading to her whereabouts and the arrest of her abductors. Her captors are suspected to be The Friendly Four, and armed and very dangerous. Substantial rewards will be given for the capture of these criminals and their accomplices, dead or alive."
"He said these are all over the city. I'm sure I don't need to tell you how hard this will make everyone look for you."
Gosalyn nodded somberly and sighed. "I wonder if we'll have to move to a different place now."
"It might be prudent," Tank said, also sounding disappointed. "We should definitely let them know when they get back." He glanced at the window, wondering where their four guardians were. They had all departed within an hour of one another earlier in the day, each with a different purpose. Liquidator was scouting for new safe hideouts while Bushroot was obtaining equipment that they needed to augment their powers and help others, such as certain chemicals, seeds, and medical supplies. Megavolt was on a similar mission, only he was gathering mechanical and electrical components that could be used to make the toys and trick weapons Quackerjack designed, as well as other odds and ends that he and the others could utilize. Quackerjack was out and about disguised—not unusual for him, as he loved the chance to dress up and "role play"—in public places keeping an eye out for trouble or others that might be against Negaduck and S.H.U.S.H. and therefore sympathetic to their cause. In the time since Darkwing Duck had visited and galvanized the Friendly Four into a well-oiled machine of a team, they had met a few others, also branded "rebels", who were willing to take a stand and fight Lord Negaduck and his S.H.U.S.H. spies when they could. One such individual was Agent Steelbeak of the Friendly Organization of World Liberation, also known as F.O.W.L., an outlaw "terrorist" group whose true goal was to expose Lord Negaduck and S.H.U.S.H. for what they were and hold them accountable for their crimes against the innocent. The Friendly Four also had the names of a couple of other F.O.W.L. agents that they intended to speak with when the opportunity arose, but more friends were never a bad thing, so they always kept an eye out for those who might turn out to be one.
"I hope it's soon." Gosalyn shivered a little, even though the room was not very cold, and went toward the kitchen while Tank followed behind her. "Maybe I'll make everyone a nice dinner."
"May I recommend your very delicious baked pasta with the three cheese blend? It will perfectly complement what's left of the apple pie you prepared yesterday when we have dessert."
"If there's enough left after the big slice you had for your oh-so-nutritious lunch this afternoon," Gosalyn teased good-naturedly, her curls bouncing as she did so, while Tank gave her a sheepish smile.
"You're a very good cook."
"Thank you." Her green eyes took on a wistful look. "I had to learn to be, because Negaduck got very angry whenever his food wasn't just right. Luckily Launchpad was never so picky."
Tank frowned while Gosalyn pulled the dishes and ingredients out to begin cooking. "That would be one of the few things Launchpad ever did to make things easy on you," he remarked as he passed her a box from the cupboard. "We all appreciate you doing all the things you do, Gosalyn."
Gosalyn smiled modestly as she poured the pasta into the pot. "Oh, I know that. And I like cooking and cleaning and organizing. It's fun." She giggled. "Besides, as great as Megavolt is, he's not very neat. Some of his light bulbs hadn't been dusted in a long time. I hope they were happy when I cleaned them off."
"They were," Megavolt's tired voice sounded from behind them. Gosalyn and Tank both turned around to greet their guardian, but startled looks flashed across both their faces when they got a good look at him. His yellow jumpsuit was charred, and his exposed skin had smudges of soot on it and what looked like superficial burns and bruises. His boots were badly scorched and one of his gloves had a vicious-looking tear down one side that they saw extended up his sleeve when he came closer. There was dried blood crusted around the edges, presumably from the ugly cut beneath it.
"Megavolt!" Gosalyn dropped her spoon in the pot and rushed to his side along with Tank. "Are you all right?"
Tank adjusted his glasses and took a closer look at the cut on Megavolt's arm. "That's a most painful-looking scratch. We need to clean and bandage it before you get an infection. Do you think you might need stitches or medical attention?"
"No!" Megavolt said, emphatically enough that both of the children, especially Gosalyn, flinched. Immediately he amended his tone to one more gentle, feeling a touch of guilt for scaring the kids. Although he cared deeply for them, he felt out of his league in the role of foster parent, as he'd had limited experiences with children before he and Quackerjack, Bushroot, and Liquidator took them in. "What I mean is, I'm fine." Megavolt forced a smile of reassurance. "It's just a scratch. It looks worse than it is."
"It should be cleaned and bandaged regardless," Tank said with a note of assertiveness.
Gosalyn nodded along with Tank and gave Megavolt a hug. "He's right. We don't want you to get sick or hurt." She looked up at him. "What happened?"
"I ran into one of Negaduck's nastier friends who was looking for you," he said before turning toward the hall. "Don't worry about it. I may look terrible, but she got a real charge out of cornering me." He held up his finger, which sparked in tandem with his words. "I'm going to clean up and I'll tell you about it over dinner."
As Megavolt headed into the bathroom, Gosalyn stood there for a moment watching his retreating figure before she resumed her position at the stove. She did not say anything as she began stirring the pasta once more, but Tank did.
"It isn't your fault."
"They were looking for me. He got hurt because of me." The guilt that hung in her words was almost tangible.
Tank put his hand on Gosalyn's arm. "He got hurt because he wanted to help you, so you won't have to go back to living with Negaduck and Launchpad."
"I know." Gosalyn closed her eyes for a moment. "I just wish it didn't have to be that way. I wish he could understand that you're all my friends." She looked over at Tank. "I mean, he has friends. Why can't I?"
"I wouldn't want his friends." Tank shuddered. "Anyone who'd want to be friends with someone like my brother or my mom and dad or Launchpad…"
Gosalyn lowered her voice to a whisper, more out of habit than actual necessity. "Do you think one of them did it?"
Frowning thoughtfully, Tank replied, "Well, he did use a feminine pronoun to refer to his assailant, so the only one of them it could possibly be would be my mother." His frown deepened. "I hope it wasn't, but it'd be foolish to say it's impossible."
Their conversation was interrupted when they heard someone coming up the lighthouse stairs. When they turned around, Gosalyn and Tank saw Bushroot enter with his vine arms loaded down with boxes and bags. "Allow me to assist you," Tank said as he lifted a sizable portion of the plant-duck's burden off of his load.
Bushroot smiled back at Tank. "Thank you. That was getting heavy after all those stairs. I'm used to having oaks do that kind hauling for me."
"Hi, Bushroot!" Gosalyn called over cheerfully from the kitchen. "Wow, what's all that?"
"One of our connections at the hospital got me some extra stuff from the diagnostics lab that'll be very handy for my experiments." A wistful look filled the plant-duck's blue eyes for a moment. "Unfortunately I almost ran into my sister on the way back out into the alley... but she didn't see me." He sighed. "Probably sneaking some pills on her break."
Tank and Gosalyn exchanged looks; both of them knew that Bushroot was the most sensitive of their guardians, and the most prone to dwelling on depressing things, such as his now nonexistent relationship with his family. Typical of those in the Negaverse who wanted an easy lifestyle, the Bushroots were all staunch "law abiding" citizens that did whatever S.H.U.S.H., and hence, Negaduck, demanded. As soon as Bushroot had gone against Negaduck publicly, his parents and his sister had essentially disowned him, not unlike Tank's family had him. "At least Dr. Whisken is willing to help," Gosalyn said in an attempt to lighten the mood.
"Yes," Bushroot said, brightening. "I'll have to thank Quackerjack again for having his friend in F.O.W.L. get us in touch with him. He really did us a big favor."
Overhearing the conversation, Megavolt emerged from the bathroom. "Hey, Bushroot. I don't suppose you happened to get any gauze in that?"
"With all the accidents Quackerjack has making those weapon toys? You bet." Bushroot's bill took on a concerned frown when he noticed Megavolt's arm, now bare with his sleeve rolled up after having cleaned his wound. "What happened?"
Megavolt sighed. "It's a long story. I ran into one of Negaduck's groupies, but I'm all right."
"No you're not!" Quackerjack's voice exclaimed from the stairwell behind them. Both he and Liquidator had reached the top of the stairs and were just in time to catch the tail end of their conversation, and see Megavolt's wound for themselves. Quackerjack threw down the paper he had been holding onto a nearby chair and rushed to Megavolt's side. "You need stitches."
Jerking his arm away, Megavolt protested, "No I don't. Really. It's not even bleeding anymore." He ran his finger over the edge of the cut. "And I'm not going to risk going to an emergency room or clinic where any S.H.U.S.H. peon or spy of Negaduck's could be."
Liquidator glided over to the chair and picked up the paper that Quackerjack had discarded; another "Missing Child" poster like the one Tank had shown Gosalyn earlier. Quackerjack had seen them while he was out in the city as well and had taken one to show the others, and Adustan had just warned Liquidator about the same thing when he had returned to the secret entrance to the lighthouse. "Market research suggests that a low profile is the way to stay in business at the moment," Liquidator said, holding up the flyer. "If Megavolt feels that a trusty home-applied hospital-grade bandage will do the trick, the customer is always right."
Bushroot set the rest of his boxes down and began to go through them until he found what he was looking for. "Here's some of what I got today." He tossed a pack of sterile gauze in their direction.
A natural at catch, Quackerjack caught it. "All right, but let one of us bandage it at least," he said to Megavolt, shaking his head in a way that made the bells on his hat tinkle. "How'd you manage that, anyway?"
"You know how we suspected that Negaduck might be involved with that eccentric Morgana Macawber? Turns out our suspicions were right." Megavolt winced as Quackerjack pulled the gauze taut against the open wound. Despite the ointment on it, it was still raw and sore.
"Morgana Macawber, the witch with a capital B," Liquidator quipped with what was the equivalent of a roll of his fluid eyes. It was the closest he would come to using vulgar language around Gosalyn and Tank. Of the four of them, Liquidator had the most experience with children, being the oldest of the four and once having had a family of his own, in what felt like a lifetime ago to the now mutant outcast water dog. "I had some dealings with her when I was running the water company. We were both members of the city's board of business owners. At one time she was a respectable business woman, but ever since those rumors about her and Negaduck started stirring… well, other rumors about her and her practices started floating around as well."
"I've heard she's a real witch," a disconcerted Bushroot said. "Not just in personality, but actual dark magic."
Megavolt nodded. "Yeah, and it packs a real punch, too. You know how it feels when I shock something?" Since all of them had gotten accidental zaps at one time or another from being around Megavolt, they nodded. "Her magical energy feels a lot like that, only more like it grabs onto you and chokes while it burns. That wasn't the worst, though. She had some spell that brought a mailbox to life, and that's what gave me this cut." Megavolt sighed again. "I forget what she called it now… but it was nasty."
"Well then, we'll have to be one hundred percent more careful about our actions now that we have a confirmed new competitor," said Liquidator.
"And more careful with our backsides," Quackerjack added, giving Megavolt a playful swat on the back of his shoulder once he finished bandaging him. "Dr. Bushroot here isn't an actual medical doctor, you know."
"Not to us, but he is to Al here," Gosalyn said with a gesture to the thriving aloe plant on a nearby end table. With the number of run-ins they had, sometimes their supplies ran low and Bushroot's natural plant-based home remedies were quite handy for such things when they could not just stroll into a pharmacy and buy something without risking being recognized by a S.H.U.S.H. informer or a citizen inclined to earn favor with the agency or Negaduck. Gosalyn broke off one of the thick gel-filled leaves and brought it over to Megavolt, who squeezed dabs of it onto smaller cuts and burns that did not need dressing.
Quackerjack smiled at her. "Thanks. I think now he's about as patched up as he's going to get tonight." He sniffed at the air. "Are you making the Yummy-Ummy Oooey-Gooey Cheesy Creamy Pasta again?"
At that Gosalyn beamed; even small gestures of appreciation were still somewhat of a novelty to her after having lived under Negaduck's "care" for so long. "I sure am!" Her eyes widened as she remembered that she had left it on the still-burning stove. "But I'd better go stir it so it doesn't burn." She scampered back into the kitchen with Tank hot on her heels, who was hoping for the first hot-off-the-stove taste of it when it was done. Once the kids were out of the room, Bushroot and Liquidator joined Megavolt and Quackerjack to discuss what had happened in quieter tones.
"Did she find out anything about us from how far she followed you, or anything else?" Bushroot asked.
"I don't know," Megavolt replied with a concerned look. "I know I didn't say anything, because I wasn't talking to anyone while I was out, really, but I think she'd been tailing me for a while before she showed herself." He reached up and adjusted his helmet with the hand attached to his uninjured arm before continuing. "I did get a parting shot that had enough amps to make her hair really look like the Bride of Frankenquack before I left, though." He paused and then looked at the other three with bright eyes, like he often did when his shaky memory recalled an important detail he had previously forgotten. "Oh! If you ever run into her, take out the bats and spider that follow her around first. She gets some kind of energy from them, like they're an extension of her."
"Witch's familiars," Bushroot said, recalling the term from old horror movies.
Quackerjack, meanwhile, chuckled and held up Mr. Banana brain. "She's too creepy for even the black cats to like, Mike!"
"The only familiarity the Liquidator has with bats and spiders is to wash away the guano and webs to leave your home sparkling clean and pest-free," Liquidator added with a look of distaste.
Quackerjack lowered Mr. Banana Brain and spoke in his normal voice. "Don't witches have powers to spy on people with, like in a crystal ball?"
"I thought that was cheesy fortune tellers on the boardwalk that did that," Megavolt said, wrinkling his nose cynically.
"No, I'm sure I saw a show once where a witch had a crystal ball on a creepy looking stand." Quackerjack paused. "Though she had a blue cat, not a bunch of bats and spiders."
"Let's play it safe and assume she does," interjected Bushroot. "What should we do if that's the case? Do we up and move again, at least until it's safe to come back here?"
The four of them glanced over at the kitchen, where Gosalyn was now carrying the serving bowl to the dinner table that Tank had set for them, with even a small plate in front of the doll-sized high chair that Quackerjack had Mr. Banana Brain sit in so he could dine with them. Someone usually ate his portion too, be it Bushroot's pet fly trap Spike when he was with them, or Tank, or sometimes even Quackerjack himself when Mr. Banana Brain was being "such a picky eater". Spike was not at the lighthouse, however, but guarding Bushroot's greenhouse in his absence, so it remained to be seen whether Tank would sneak bites of food off of Mr. Banana Brain's plate while Quackerjack was not looking—a game that had started and continued over the last few months—or whether poor Mr. Banana Brain would receive a stern admonishment for insulting Gosalyn's cooking skill after all of the trouble she went to preparing it. Only Liquidator, who rarely ate because of his unique physiology, had no plates at his setting. Instead he had a tall glass filled with flavored water.
Megavolt's gaze lingered on the happy scene around the kitchen table, and he tried not to dwell on the disconcerting thought of how easily it could all be shattered. "She was unconscious when I left, and so were her pets. I doubt she'll be able to come after us again tonight, even if she did know where we were… and how could she, if she didn't see what direction I went in when we left?"
"Yeah, witch magic usually needs something of the victim's to focus on. At least that's how all the movies go." Quackerjack looked at Megavolt. "She didn't take anything of yours, did you?"
Frowning as he tried to recall the encounter in detail with his fuzzy memory, Megavolt shook his head after a moment. "No. Not unless you count the chunk of my arm the mailbox had for its last call delivery."
Liquidator snickered. "Affix stamp here. The postal service will not deliver mail without proper postage."
Quackerjack laughed with him. "You're downright morbid sometimes, you know?"
"Hey, how about we stop talking about my severed flesh and get some dinner, huh?" suggested Megavolt.
Bushroot was the first to head over. "Sure. Last one there's a rotten eggplant."
"That sounds disgusting," Quackerjack said, making an exaggerated face.
"Oh, it's not a pretty sight. Trust me."
"What is?" asked a curious Tank as the rest of them, including Gosalyn, took their seats.
Liquidator held up a finger with a wry look on his fluid face. "Never mind. This conversation is one hundred percent inappropriate for the dinner table."
Gosalyn just giggled a little at that while she waited for her turn on the bowl as it was passed around the table. "Yeah, they shouldn't talk about gross stuff while we're eating." She wrinkled her dainty little beak a bit, although her green eyes were still alit with her usual cheer.
"Okay, what do we talk about then?" Quackerjack asked, and then glanced over at Mr. Banana Brain, arching an eyebrow as he did so. "Oh? Well of course we're interested in your two cents."
"Why don't you tell us how your days went, starting with you, Stu?" he had the banana doll reply.
"All right. If you insist." Quackerjack sat straighter in his seat and met the eyes of everyone at the table. Everyone, that was, except Tank, who took the moment of distraction to stealthily scoop a couple of forkfuls of Mr. Banana Brain's dinner onto his own plate, much to the amusement of the others. They kept mum while Tank quickly resumed his normal pose before Quackerjack's gaze shifted his way. "I got the latest buzz from our mole friend that does late night janitorial work in the S.H.U.S.H. building. He didn't have a whole lot new to say, but he did mention that he overheard a couple of bigwigs there complaining about some new high-profile risks in the city. He wasn't able to get names, but apparently one of them is in showbiz and put out some movie with 'vile anti-S.H.U.S.H. propaganda' in it that supposedly had a character that was a spoof of Negaduck who got humiliated and then killed while the oppressed people cheered his death. Really political. I haven't seen it, and our cleaning guy's not the brightest on the ol' Lite Brite panel, but I think we should try to see it for ourselves, both for a laugh and to get the name of this director and his pals."
Bushroot's bill curled into a wistful frown. "One downside of being on the run and watching your back all the time, it's not like you can just go out to a night at the movies, rent one, or even have cable in your name."
Tank leaned forward with a determined look on his face. "I may be able to acquire an electronic file of it on the internet. Although the ethics and legality of obtaining bootlegged movies is dubious, there are many who lack sufficient funds to purchase all of such things that they want and share what they have with fellow fans. With my knowledge of computers I could easily avoid the virus-laden sites and find a way to acquire it anonymously." He paused for a moment, and then added, "I think in this case a minor breach of the law for the greater good is justified."
"I think so too," Bushroot agreed.
Megavolt nodded along. "And since Adustan gave us permission to use his wireless connection, we do have internet. Just make sure you don't give out any information or hit any sites that'll get him in trouble."
"Agreed," said Liquidator. "After all, it takes a significant investment to gain a loyal customer, but only seconds to lose one."
"Don't worry. I'll do everything I can to stay anonymous," assured Tank. "They won't know it's us or him."
Bushroot looked over at Liquidator. "What about you? Did you find anywhere we could relocate to fast if need be?"
"No place with anywhere near the cleanliness and comfort of Megavolt's lovely light house abode. The best prospect is secure and would serve our needs, but we'd have to evict a number of four and six-legged occupants before I'd give it the Liquidator's guarantee of customer satisfaction."
Quackerjack had Mr. Banana Brain chime in, "Better than nothing, though. Right, Joe?" Quackerjack then nodded to his doll, acting as if Mr. Banana Brain had gone silent to listen again, and turned toward Bushroot. "What about you, Bushy?"
"It went okay. I got what I came for and got away without any trouble. The worst part was almost running into my sister at the back of the hospital, but she didn't see me and I didn't stick around to risk it." A silence fell over the table on that gloomy note, which served as a reminder to all of them of the truth that no matter how much better things got day by day, they still had a long way to go before their lives would even be somewhat normal, even if in many ways they were happier than they had been in their previous "normal" lives.
"Hey, don't worry about her," Gosalyn broke in with her sunny voice, cutting through the tense mood for all their sakes as much as Bushroot's. "You've got us."
Bushroot smiled at Gosalyn, once again amazed at how she could remain so full of hope, faith, and optimism in a world like theirs. "I know." He put a leafy hand on her shoulder and gave it a fond squeeze. "And I'm glad. We all are."
Quackerjack nodded enthusiastically. "You bet! Now that I don't have my old toy business anymore, having you kids to give them to and design them with is even more fun."
"Children do make far more animated and honest board members than at least ninety-five percent of the corporate type, wouldn't you agree, Quackerjack?" quipped Liquidator.
"You don't have to tell us twice, Bryce!" Mr. Banana Brain answered for Quackerjack while Tank sneaked two more forkfuls of pasta off of the doll's plate, grinning the whole time.
Gosalyn looked from Quackerjack to Liquidator thoughtfully. "Wow, that's right. You both used to run big companies, didn't you?"
A bittersweet smile formed on Quackerjack's oversized bill as he picked up his fork. "Yup. A long time ago, now." His voice took on an unusually wistful note while flashes of times and faces from the past danced through his mind.
Meanwhile, Liquidator traced his wet finger around the rim of his glass, looking even sadder than the former toy-maker as he thought about the business he had built from nearly nothing to the booming company it was now, and how it was now in the sole control of its board members while he was an outlaw with nothing to do with it any longer. "Feels like a lifetime ago." For Liquidator, it essentially was, since his mutation might as well have been the death of the flesh and blood persona he had lived most of his life as. Liquidator could never go back to Bud Flood's life. There was too much, to pardon the expression, water under the bridge for that.
"Same here, Licky," Megavolt said with a wan smile as he recalled his own past, and those he knew in his youth, the last time he had been anything even close to what was considered normal. "I've been Megavolt since I was… well, not all that much older than Tank. Since high school."
"Wow," Gosalyn said brightly, "that must make you the real expert of heroes with super-powers, then, if you've been one that long!"
Megavolt quirked an eyebrow. "Hey, I'm not that old, you know!"
Chuckling, Bushroot remarked, "At their age, we're all ancient."
"Speak for yourself. Age has nothing to do with maturity," Quackerjack harrumphed.
"You just insulted yourself, you dummy," Megavolt said, and then added in Mr. Banana Brain's direction, "No offense intended."
Everyone else at the table either chortled or grinned. "That round goes to Megavolt, I think," Bushroot said, and gave a sly look to Tank, who nodded in agreement as he scored a third helping off of Mr. Banana Brain's plate.
Gosalyn giggled again while Quackerjack gave them all a melodramatic pout. He shook his empty fork in playful warning and then dove in for a fresh forkful of his pasta, while Gosalyn looked over at Bushroot. "What about you? How long have you been like this?"
The question stirred old memories, ones that Bushroot would have preferred to not dredge up. "A while," he answered. "Longer than Liquidator, but not as long as Quackerjack or especially Megavolt."
"What did you do?" Her curious gaze remained fixed upon his green face.
The immediate answer that came to mind, "You don't really want to know," was not a fit answer to give, so he was glad when Tank interjected a short and simple one instead.
"You used to be a research scientist… a botanist if I am not mistaken." He looked at Bushroot. "Correct?"
Bushroot nodded. "Yes. I have a doctorate in botany and an undergraduate degree in the biological sciences."
"Oh, I know that," said Gosalyn. "I meant that I just wondered how long ago it was and what you did. Your research gave you your powers, right?"
A more somber look filled Bushroot's blue eyes as he found himself thinking about the very things he would just as soon have left forgotten. "Yes. That's right."
"Neat." Gosalyn eyed him with heightened curiosity. "How'd that happen? Were you looking for a way to talk to plants like you do now?"
More memories flashed through Bushroot's mind, and his bill curved downward in a melancholy and rueful expression far more pronounced than Liquidator or Quackerjack's. That was because while they had each also changed to some extent, the water dog in body and the toy-maker in outlook, Bushroot had done both. The mutant plant-duck Reginald Bushroot of the Friendly Four was nothing like the ruthless research duck that Dr. Reginald Bushroot had been. "No," Bushroot said after a long moment of hesitation. He did not like to think about that life anymore, let alone discuss it. "I was researching for the university, for projects in my area of expertise that were the most lucrative."
"You mean made the most money, right?" Gosalyn asked. There was no judgment in her tone; she was just making sure that she understood him correctly. While the Negaverse's Gosalyn was just as intelligent as the other-verse Gosalyn, and far more studious when given material to learn, living with Launchpad and following Negaduck's crazy orders meant that she had made it to school far less often than Darkwing's Gosalyn did, and as a result she did not quite have her vocabulary.
Bushroot nodded back to Gosalyn. "That was very important to them." He lowered his voice, which took on a note of shame as he continued to speak. "And me, back then." He met Gosalyn's eyes. "I wasn't the same kind of duck I am now, green skin, leaves, and roots aside. I—I wasn't very nice, Gosalyn. I was a real," he paused before using an inappropriate word, "a real jerk. I said and did things then that I would never do now… now that I've seen what can happen when you're like that, and how it affects the world around you. Now I know better."
"No, I can't imagine you being mean." Gosalyn smiled at him with more certainty and authority than a sweet nine-year-old girl should have been able to express.
"Well I can," Quackerjack interjected wryly. "Sure, he looks nice, and makes pretty flowers, but watch out if you accidentally catch his compost pile on fire when you race your toy cars down it."
"That's because it doesn't take being a rocket—or plant—scientist to realize that decomposing vegetation generates flammable gases, and that maybe it's not the brightest idea to race models with 'turbo boost flames' on it!"
Quackerjack could not help but giggle at the memory. While he had felt bad about setting his friend's compost on fire, the horrified look of both dumbfounded shock and anger on the plant-duck's face had been unintentionally hilarious to the quirky duck. Fortunately, no major damage had been done, and the blaze had been quickly extinguished before it could spread, but it seemed that Bushroot still held a small grudge over it. "Aw, I said I was sorry! And Licky put it out before anyone was hurt or anything else got wrecked."
"Free fire-fighting services at your beck and call are but one of the many valuable benefits of having the Liquidator on your heroic team!" the water dog chimed in.
"Yeah, I know. I still don't think it's that funny, though." Bushroot frowned, and subtly gestured to a fern in the room to come over and tickle the back of Quackerjack's exposed leg under the table. He did not see it coming, and once it got him, he jumped a mile, making a loud and amusing yelp as he flailed, leaving Bushroot grinning as he watched. "Now that was funny."
"I have to agree," Megavolt snickered, his eyes alit with mirth as he watched Quackerjack attempt to regain his composure.
"Well, aren't you two buttering each others' buns tonight?" Quackerjack huffed back in a playful tone. In retaliation he then lobbed a dinner roll at Megavolt, bouncing it right off of his nose. That sent both Quackerjack and Tank into a fit of laughter, while Gosalyn giggled, Bushroot chuckled, and Liquidator just grinned.
"Now remember, food fights are not a component of your nutritious dinner."
"Especially when Spike's not here to catch everything we drop," Bushroot pointed out with a smirk still on his bill.
"All right," Quackerjack said, conceding a playful defeat. "I'd offer it to Mr. Banana Brain, but… hey!" He glanced at Mr. Banana Brain's plate, which was nearly empty with its contents now in Tank's belly. "You really cleaned your plate tonight. I'm not sure you have room for dessert." He waggled his finger at Mr. Banana Brain, while Gosalyn turned back toward Bushroot.
"I still don't think you could've been that bad. If you were, you'd be like Negaduck and working for him, not against him."
While she smiled at him with the unshakable confidence of youth and innocence, Bushroot felt another pang of shame. He managed to return her smile, however, bolstered by her freely given love and support. He thought that it was a shame that it had taken him as long as it had to realize that such things were what mattered the most in life. "Well, I'm glad it didn't turn out that way, but if things had gone differently… I could well have been."
"Really? It's so hard to imagine. Don't you think so, Tank?"
He nodded along with Gosalyn, not speaking at first because he had just taken a hearty swig of his drink. Once he swallowed, he set his glass down and looked at Bushroot. "It is hard to picture you being anything but as nice as you've been to us. Even when you and the others fought against Negaduck and my family," he frowned as he mentioned them, "none of you have ever been deliberately cruel or hurtful." He scooted his chair a bit closer to the table with a curious look on his young face. "Perhaps you could tell us what it was like for you, and what made you decide to be a hero and join up with the Friendly Four?"
"Yeah! And the rest of you, too," Gosalyn agreed excitedly, looking over at Liquidator, Megavolt, and Quackerjack. "I'd love to hear about how you all became heroes. I don't think you've ever told us all the whole stories."
Quackerjack's eyes lit up with enthusiasm at that idea. "Oooh, fun! It'll be like an extended story hour. How about it, guys? Want to do that while we finish off dinner and before we go to bed?"
"I'd like that," Tank said.
Megavolt gave an agreeable nod. "Sure."
"You have the Liquidator's customer service guarantee for participation," Liquidator said, folding his aquatic hands together as he leaned back in his chair.
Once all the others had voiced their agreement, Bushroot met Gosalyn's eager expression and said with a soft smile, "Okay." A peaceful silence settled over the group for a moment, and Bushroot realized that all eyes were on him. "Oh… you want me to go first, huh?"
"She asked you first," Quackerjack pointed out, leaning onto the table with his elbow and resting the side of his head on his hand so that one of the tails of his jester hat just barely missed landing in his mostly-empty dinner plate.
"It'd only be polite, right?" Megavolt said before taking another bite of his dinner.
"Yes, I suppose so." Bushroot tried to ignore the unpleasant feelings attached to the memories of those dark days surrounding his mutation and the life he had led before it. He hoped that when he was finished telling the tale, Gosalyn and Tank would not think less of him. The other three already knew the worst of it, so he was not too concerned about their criticism or judgment, but the children had already seen plenty of terrible things in their lives and he could not bear to have them look at him as one of the bad seeds rather than a good one. Then again, Bushroot supposed, relationships built on lies and misconceptions were doomed anyhow. He had learned that lesson quite harshly back in those very days that Gosalyn had asked him to talk about. And those who don't learn from their mistakes are doomed to repeat them, right?
"It all started in my old research lab at St. Canard University," Bushroot began, "Lab #356, on a nice spring day. I was working for Dean Tightbill in the university's botanical and food sciences department, researching the metabolic processes of various plant species and how their concepts might be applied to other living systems…"