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The Watchtower
July 18, 2016 - Team Year 6 15:43 EDT

            "Kid Flash. B-2-3." The sound of the computer calling him Kid Flash was still jarring to Bart Allen. It had taken him days to stop looking over his shoulder for Wally West, the real Kid Flash, to come out of the zeta tube behind him. The original members of the Justice League, his grandfather included, had wanted the designation switch made as soon as possible to preserve continuity.

            Bart wasn't sure if he agreed with them, or if he felt that it robbed the team of time for grief.

            Bart had been dealing with guilt for most of his life. He hadn't been good enough, fast enough to stop events in his time period. He hadn't been able to stop Blue Beetle from killing... Bart shook his head. Being born into a world of destruction and chaos, he knew there was little he could have done to stop events already in motion. But coming back to the past, he thought he could stop everything. He thought he could save them all. The thought had never even crossed his mind that by saving his grandfather, saving the world, he would have to sacrifice his cousin, albeit once removed, to do so.

            In the weeks since Wally had "ceased" Artemis had barely been seen. She had gone on one mission with the new team, but then she'd disappeared. Bart didn't blame her. He wouldn't have wanted to be around him either, running around in her dead boyfriend's old costume. There had been some general angst among the team over her departure: M'gann missed her friend, Beast Boy's mood had fallen, and there were a few quiet mutterings about whether they could trust Artemis to remain on the side of the angels. Kaldur and Barbara had both quickly shot down any notion that Artemis was going to become a villain. She just needed her space, they said. She had, after all, just lost the only stable relationship she'd ever had in her life.

            But Dick Grayson hadn't even lasted one mission. The former leader of the team, the one who had held the young heroes together through only the sheer force of his will during the darkest hours of the invasion, had disappeared into the night. No one, not Kaldur, not Batgirl, not even Batman knew where he had gone. Bart had offered to help in the search for their former leader, but was rebuffed. The original members of the team, the half that were left of it anyway, along with the Batman's litter had fanned out across the country to search for the former Boy Wonder. They found evidence of him being places, but never the man himself. It had hit all of them hard, especially Batgirl.

            Bart's eyes locked on Barbara Gordon. He knew her name... he knew all their names. It was a blessing and a curse. While he didn't have to spend the time meeting everyone, knowing everything about a person through stories and holovids was awkward. But with Barbara, it was different. Although she didn't know it, Bart practically looked at her like a second mother. In fact, for most of his life, she had basically been his mother, while his biological mother had been out in the field, trying to keep the world somewhat functioning. Most of what he knew about the team, the League, the world before he was born in general had come from her.

            Barbara was hard at work on a computer, typing away. Bart was pretty sure she hadn't heard him come in, and as he got closer to the computer, he could see why. His eyes could track every single piece of information scrolling across her screen, even if she couldn't. The redhead was using facial recognition software to scan through thousands, hundreds of thousands of people passing through airports all around the world. Bart's eyes fell.

            She was still looking for Dick.

            Bart felt his heart drop through his stomach. He knew how much she cared for Dick Grayson... and how much he cared for her. After spending his entire life learning about the relationships and people he was now surrounded by, it was awkward for Bart to be in such uncharted territory. Nothing like this had ever happened in his timeline, and he didn't know when Dick would be back. Or if he would ever be back at all.

            He took a few more steps forward, but before Bart could open up his mouth, his stomach growled. Loudly. His forward motion froze, a wince crossing Bart's face as he hoped Barbara hadn't heard that. After a lifetime of learning to be hungry, he was still getting used to exactly how much food he was allowed to, and could, eat.

            Any hope of his stomach's announcement going unnoticed was dashed as he watched the muscles in Barbara's back tighten, her hands flying over the keyboard and typing in a few commands, forcing the facial recognition software to vanish. The redhead's eyes flashed over to him, and widened.

            He knew that she knew he'd seen the computer screen.

***

            Of course he had. Of course he had seen. And now the little motor mouth was going to let everyone know that she was still desperately searching for Dick, even though Bruce had told her to let him be. That he would be back, on his own time.

            But Barbara knew Dick Grayson, probably even better than Bruce did at this point. She had watched, unable to offer anything more than a shoulder to cry on or physical comfort, as Dick slowly detached himself from the League, the rest of the team, from her. Every mission took a toll on the Boy Wonder, every day removed him farther from the boyish laugh she had grown so accustomed to hearing. The success of their mission to divide the Reach and the Light, getting Kaldur and Artemis back, she thought that it would have been the beginning of his road to recovery. And for a few days, it seemed like it was. But then Wally had died, and in a matter of hours she watched Dick spiral back down even deeper than he had before. In a matter of hours, without saying a word, he was gone.

            Barbara had staked out Dick's apartment in Blüdhaven for days on end. She'd called his cell phone more times than she could count before finding it, abandoned in Gotham Park. Even secret numbers, dead drop landline phones that only a handful of people in the entire world knew about, went unanswered. All activity on his credit cards, his bank accounts, everything had gone dark. It was as if Dick Grayson had ceased to exist from the world.

            The use of the word, even in her own head, caused her to wince. Wally... they were all still in mourning over his death. Artemis was taking some time for herself, but at least she'd had the good manners to come and say goodbye before doing so. Barbara couldn't blame the blonde for wanting to lock herself in a dark room, fall asleep, and hope that when she woke up everything would be revealed as one long, horrible nightmare. She wanted to do the same. But the team needed her now, and as much as she hated to admit it, she needed to be here with them. Barbara needed to keep working. And so she was forced into a leadership role with Kaldur, desperately trying to keep up the spirits of a young team that had just lost a trio of their idols.

            Barbara turned her attention back to the more immediate problem. The last thing she needed was Bart telling everyone, let alone Batman, that she was still continuing to look for Dick on team time. Not that she was neglecting her duties as second-in-command. A computer algorithm she and Timmy had put together was searching for other examples of Apokoliptian technology throughout the world. But computer algorithms needed time to work, and her staring at a computer screen and drumming her fingers wouldn't make it work any faster. She had to keep doing something, something that would keep her mind occupied and focused on the here and now. If she was doing something, her photographic memory, that blessing and curse, couldn't bring up other images... images of Dick.

            Barbara narrowed her eyes at Bart, giving her best impersonation of Bruce's standard expression. Slowly, she raised a single finger to her lips. The brunette nodded his head in agreement, placing a hand on her shoulder and offering up what she could only describe as the saddest smile she'd ever seen cross his face. She offered up a sad smile in return.

            "Hey Bart."

            "Hey Barbara. How's the algorithm coming?" She knew that he was just trying to make small-talk, trying to shift around what he'd just seen. Barbara knew he had questions for her.

            "It's running," she answered with a smile. But she had questions for him too. So many questions that she had stopped herself from asking the boy from the future over the past few months. Dick had warned her against doing so, and she knew that he had been right. Then. He had been right then, it would have been bad to know too much about how things could turn out when events that were going on could still affect them. But none of that mattered now. Bart came from a future of the Reach, of chaos, of destruction. Nothing of that world had any bearing on this one anymore.

            Finally, she decided that she wouldn't, couldn't wait any longer. "Bart, what happened before you came back?" Okay, that had sounded a lot more subtle in her head, but the question was out there now. Barbara wanted to know about the future, Bart's past, about what happened to her, to all of them.

            She watched pain cross the boy's face as his mind moved back to images that he hoped he'd prevented. Barbara felt terrible about forcing him to relive those memories. She could guess how it went: death and destruction, Reach take over, scrappy group of insurgent humans keep hope for the race alive, pick... him to go back and save the world? Even with his super-speed, Barbara could think of many other, more logical candidates to send back. But maybe they weren't able? Maybe they'd died? She wouldn't lie, she was curious about the tale as well.

            But more than anything, Barbara needed to know that what had happened over the past few months was the better outcome. She had to know that everything they'd sacrificed, everything they'd lost, was the best possible ending.

            "Bart... please. I need to know."

***

            He really didn't want to tell this story. Bart didn't want to tell it for a number of reasons, the biggest one being he knew how much it was going to hurt her. What she'd gone through, what she had dealt with. Bart didn't want to put his adopted mother through that.

            But the pleading in her eyes made the decision for him. She may be thirty years younger than the first time he could remember her, but her eyes were the same. And he couldn't say no to them.

            Sighing, he offered a resigned nod. In a blur, he grabbed a chair to sit down next to her at the computer. "There's really no easy way to start this story. I mean, I know most of it from you..."

            The surprise clearly registered on her face, which then softened to understanding. She was already starting to put some of the pieces together. "Start with the day you came back," she said, her voice low. "Start with what changed that day."

            Bart took a deep breath, nodding. And he started his story.

***

Central City
February 28th, 2016 - Team Year 6 (Bart's Timeline) 12:02 CDT

            Barry Allen pulled his wife closer to him as they sat on the couch in their living room. It was the first night in weeks that he and Iris had been able to spend together. Her reporting duties and his superhero duties - not to mention his day job as a crime scene investigator - made getting time alone together difficult. There was something different about Iris, and though he'd asked her about it twice already, she had just laughed it off and said he was imagining things. Normally, this would have meant constant needling from him, guessing, and general light-hearted "torture" - see: tickling at super speed - to get the information. He would have loved to spend the night together, just the two of them, to get that information, but it was a special occasion, one that required company.

            There was a knock at their front door, and with a speed only he and two other people in the world could muster, Barry was there and opened it, smiling at the older man and woman on the other side. Jay and Joan Garrick, two who had become a second set of parents to him, stood on the other side.

            "Happy Anniversary!" Iris was at his side, welcoming the Garricks as well. Barry reached out a hand to take their coats.

            "Barry, you and Iris never forget."

            "Are you kidding, Jay? We idolize you two." Jay handed over the coats as he led Joan into the living room by the sign celebrating their wedding anniversary. "70 years of marriage is quite the achievement." Barry slung the coats over two hangers as he turned back to them.

            "The achievement is how Joan's put up with me for that long." As Jay leaned down and kissed Joan on the cheek, Barry caught Iris looking at him. She smiled and turned away when she saw him catch her eye, a slight blush stinging her cheeks. There was something important to tell him, he was sure of it, but he couldn't quite place his finger on it.

            A few minutes later, they were all sitting down, talking and laughing with each other. "Heard you nabbed Captain Boomerang again, Barry," said Jay with a chuckle, taking a sip of his drink. "What's that, the second time in the last six months?"

            Barry sighed, leaning back. "Last eight months, but it's getting ridiculous. Every time the extradition process happens, he escapes. It's getting a little old. Just the same guys over and over. And Belle Reve always seems to be full. Ever since the ice villains took over five years ago things have been..." He was interrupted by a cell phone ringing. Barry reached for his pocket, but saw Iris retrieve her cell phone first.

            "What's up, Pete?" Ah, her boss from GBS. Barry watched Iris' brow furrow, and then the color leave her face. She brought the phone down from her ear to her chest. "They're evacuating downtown. There's a new super powered lunatic calling for blood." She paused, lowering her voice. "Your blood."

            Barry stood, already fiddling with his ring. Jay chuckled. "You said things were getting old, Barry. Maybe this will add some spice." The younger man winked as he opened the ring, and in a blur of motion, Barry Allen was The Flash.

            "Are they calling you in?" Iris nodded at his question and he smiled and kissed her on the cheek. "Don't even worry about it. I'll take care of it." Barry zipped over to the door and shot a look back over his shoulder to the three people sitting in his living room.

            "Don't you all go anywhere, now. I'll be back in a flash." Their groans chased him out the door and into the Central City air.

            Within a minute, Barry was approaching downtown Central City. He could already see the new super villain, standing in the middle of the city, right under its famous arch. Red rings, Barry couldn't tell what they consisted of, expanded from the his burgundy and yellow suit. And before his eyes, Barry saw the super villain turn and blast dual bolts of energy from his hands, vaporizing the statue of him that stood in the plaza.

            Oh, he did not just blow up my statue, Barry thought. "One Flash down, one to go!" Lightbulb's voice sounded mechanical, almost as if it was coming through some sort of filter. Robot? Barry wasn't going to wait around to find out.

            "Yeah, but this one moves a little bit faster!" Warning the bad guy he was coming probably wasn't the best plan, but Barry was mad. He had a nice, relaxing evening to get back to. "And you're going to reimburse the city for my statue!"

            The new super villain turned and raised his arms. Moving at his speed, it all looked like slow motion to Barry. Three shots of energy blasted from both arms, zipping towards him. Reducing his speed ever so slightly, Barry watched the energy slam into the pavement, ripping up chunks of road. Perfect, he thought. I'll use those chunks to leap over whatever those rings are and take him down.

            Jumping into the air, he felt his feet plant on one of the chunks, before leaping to another, and another. A smile creased his face as his legs coiled and he launched himself over the approaching red wave.

            Except that's not what happened. The cascading wave, Barry could only surmise it was pure energy, like what had been shot out of the villain's hands, slammed into him like a moving brick wall. Flipping back end over end, Barry sincerely wished that he had the power of flight. He'd be able to right himself, fly over the wave, and attack the villain head...

            A flailing leg struck the ground, a sharp jolt of pain flying up his right leg as a shout of pain covered the sound of a bone breaking. Tumbling over his back, Barry put out his hands to stop his backward motion. He ended sitting on his bottom, staring at his throbbing leg. Barry watched the super villain start walking closer, and he could swear he almost saw a smile cross the man's face from inside his helmet.

            Another solid wave of energy hit him, blasting him back again. It hurt, but was nothing compared to the fire shooting up his leg as he ricocheted off the ground. He wound up on his stomach this time, facing some police cars a short distance away that had just pulled up.

            "Get back!" His voice was hoarse from pain, his hand extending out to them. They hesitated for a moment, not sure whether to help the city's hero or follow his commands. "Get back, and get everyone out of here! Now!" After a moment, the men in blue nodded, pulling their cars away. Barry tapped his ear as he turned over onto his back.

            "Flash to Justice League. There's a new super-powered villain attacking downtown Central City. Emitting cascading waves of energy and also shooting energy bolts from his hands. Requesting assistance on the double. I am injured." He began pushing himself back with his hands, scooting away as fast as he could over the pavement. The realization of how ridiculous it must look for the Flash to be practically crawling backward entered his mind. The irony was not lost upon him.

            "Sensors are detecting low levels of nuclear radiation in downtown Central City." It was the Atom's voice. The scientist must have been observing from the Watchtower.

            "Get Captain Atom to Central City, now." That voice was instantly recognizable. Hal Jordan. "This is a priority alert for all Leaguers. Converge on downtown Central City with extreme prejudice." There was a pause and Barry heard wind whipping around the comm link. "I'm ten minutes out."

            Ten minutes... Barry looked up to see Lightbulb raise his arms, and he knew no one was going to get there fast enough. Not fast enough for him anyway. If Atom was right, and Barry assumed he was, they were going to be lucky if the League could get there in time to save his city.

            He lowered his eyes. "GL..." A shout from the villain drew his gaze back up. The man inside the suit seemed to be struggling with... something.

            "No. No I won't!" The voice emitting from the villain was higher pitched now, and he seemed to be fighting something. Barry couldn't see what, but continued to try pushing himself away.

            "No." The voice was deeper again. "This interference will not stand." Barry saw the man in the metal suit kneel to the ground, hands still clutching at the outside of his helmet. His eyes looked up at Barry and, for the first time, he thought he saw emotion in the man's orange gaze. A high pitched whine started to fill the air. Barry didn't mind his last words being spoken to his best friend, though there was one other person he would have preferred.

            "GL... just tell Iris, okay?"

            "Flash?" Barry never had time to respond as a piercing white light emitted from the man kneeling in the middle of the plaza, and then quickly overtook him. He just hoped Iris would be okay.

***

Over Springfield, IL
February 28th, 2016 - Team Year 6 (Bart's Timeline) 12:15 CDT

            "Flash? Flash!" There was nothing but silence on the other end of the comm link, and Hal Jordan knew that the Flash, that Barry Allen, his best friend, was dead. Who was going to tell Ir-

            "Sensors detect a large nuclear explosion in the middle of Central City. Downtown... downtown has been destroyed." Atom's voice held an unusually high level of emotion. The scientist was normally a "just the facts, ma'am" kind of guy.

            "Are there residual readings?"

            "One hot spot from Flash's last known location." Hal tried to add a little more juice, get to the site even faster. "There's a pulsing nuclear energy signature from ground zero. And it's getting stronger again." Hal pressed his communicator.

            "Captain Marvel?"

            "Already on the way, Lantern. What's the plan?" Hal was about to answer, but the words caught in his throat as he flew over the outer edge of the blast radius. Downtown Central City was vaporized, there was no other word for it. He could see ground zero, a charred, smoking crater where a plaza used to be. There was no trace of Barry Allen. There was nothing, except what looked like a human man, naked, lying on the ground. He could still feel the heat rising from the site.

            "Lantern?"

            "Whoever this villain is survived the blast. The whole place is hot. We need to get him out of Central City, somehow shut down his powers."

            "What about..." A more feminine voice cut in, demanding answers.

            "We worry about him later." Hal didn't like the edge to his voice. He sounded way too much like Bats. Hal knew Black Canarywas just trying to get more information, but there was nothing that could be done at the moment. He couldn't think about Barry, couldn't think about that grief right now. This situation had to be taken care of. They owed Barry Allen that much, more really, but for now...

            A squawking alarm could be heard over Hal's comm link again, coming from the Watchtower. The air around him seemed to crackle with energy, and the man on the ground, still kneeling, threw his arms back in a scream.

            "Radiation levels are going off the charts." The Atom was struggling to keep his voice calm, an urgency creeping in, even through Hal's earpiece. "Captain Atom is already on his way."

            "He's going to blow!" There were times Captain Marvel betrayed his true age. The panic in his voice now was one of those times. Billy must have just arrived at the scene, but he was right. Beams of light emitted from the naked man's mouth and ears as another, bigger, explosion rocked downtown Central City.

            "Inhibitor collar programmed. I am inbound."

            "Get here as quick as you can, Red Tornado." Hal didn't know how much help the android would be against this type of threat, but the League needed all of its heavy hitters on the scene, especially with its heaviest hitters off world.

            "Canary, begin coordinating relief efforts with the locals. All other Leaguers, try and get as many survivors away from the blast radius as possible." Hal flew over towards Billy, hovering next to the kid in a man's body.

            "Captain, we need to get him out of the city. He keeps putting himself back together again after every explosion. If they keep getting bigger..."

            "Got it. Where can we take him though? We can't go to space."

            "Monsenthein Island. Due north of your location." The Atom's voice broke into their communicators. "Sorry, couldn't help overhearing. You only have a few minutes at the most. Go."

            "Roger that." Hal swooped down through the remains of a destroyed downtown Central City. The rubble was like an open wound, exposed and bare to the world. To see his best friend's city, the city he loved so dearly, destroyed like this was like having his own chest ripped open.

            Hal knew the League had prepared for something like this, but they all thought it would be Metropolis that would bite it. Maybe Gotham City, if the Joker ever got everything to work perfectly. Central City... Flash's rogues didn't really pack this kind of firepower.

            A bright beam of light shot from his power ring, scooping the still-reforming naked man up off the ground. Encasing him in a bubble, Hal raced north. Even holding the man at a distance, sweat began pouring down his face. He could physically feel the heat rolling off the man.

            "Am I going to sprout a third arm carrying this guy?"

            "The good news for you, Lantern, is the radiation he's giving off is very clean." It was the Atom again. Hal could hear him still typing away from his post on the Watchtower. "Very hot, very destructive when he explodes, but very clean. I don't predict any adverse health effects."

            "I'm holding you to that, doc." Hal watched as the city passed away below him. They were over the Mississippi River now.

            "What's going on? What's happening to me?" The higher, plaintive voice coming from his bubble caught Hal by surprise. What also caught him by surprise was the man's face. He was much younger than Hal expected, and his voice certainly didn't sound like someone who had just killed a founding member of the Justice League. Who had just killed his brother.

            "I don't know, son." The words came through clenched teeth. Hal wanted nothing more than to read this kid the riot act, to beat him senseless, to hurt him as much as he was hurting right now. Maybe when he first started he would have. But not anymore. Barry... Barry had taught him to be better than that. "But rest assured, we're going to find out."

            Hal continued heading towards the deserted island in the middle of the Mississippi. As he got closer, the man inside the bubble began getting brighter.

            "I'm reading a radiation spike, Lantern. Are you alright?"

            "I'm fine, Atom. It's just getting... a lot hotter up here."

            "Lantern?" Billy's voice, coated with concern. Hal looked down, seeing the kid flying below and behind him.

            "Stay clear, kid. I've got him. We're almost..." A blinding flash erupted in front of him. Hal barely had time to throw his arms up in protection, a wall of green energy that lasted a millisecond before he was thrown back end over end. Hal felt like he was a spectator, like he wasn't in control of his own body as his arms flailed. A glimpse of one of those arms showed his uniform scorched, exposed skin blistered underneath. He could feel the wind whipping around his body as he fell, unable to form a cohesive enough thought to use his ring.

            And just as suddenly, Hal felt two arms grab him with a strong grip. A grunt of pain escaped his lips, seeing a flash of red and white above him. Captain Marvel.

            "I've got him." Hal cracked a small smile. The kid had come through.

            "Where's the..."

            "I see him. Stay back, both of you. The whole area's hot." The other captain, and the other Atom, Captain Atom, zipped past them both. "He's putting himself back together again. What's the ETA on that inhibitor collar?"

            "I should be over your location in approximately three minutes." Red Tornado's mechanical voice was somehow soothing at a time like this. Hal wished he didn't have to worry about feelings right now... or pain.

            "He's going to blow before that, Red." There were probably less blunt ways Hal could have phrased that, but another wave of pain wracking his body let him know he had bigger things to worry about. A muttered word, probably a curse, escaped Captain Atom's lips.

            "We can't take him into space, he doesn't have my pressurized suit. We'd kill him. That inhibitor collar isn't going to get here fast enough. Unless..." Hal watched Captain Atom spiral down towards the island.

            "Captain, what are you doing?"

            "Don't worry, Lantern. I've got it. I'm with him now." Hal could see Captain Atom place a hand on the rapidly-reforming super-villain's shoulder. "The good news is, radiation levels are already dropping significantly in the area, including downtown Central City. But you can't take another hit like that."

            "Cap... what are you going to do?"

            "What I have to." The former military man paused. "Make sure to have that inhibitor collar ready, Tornado. I'm not sure how much time this is going to buy us."

            Hal wanted to say something, but he knew that there were no words that would convince the man formally known as Captain Nathaniel Adams to change his mind. That didn't mean others weren't going to try.

            "Captain, just leave him there. We'll get everyone away from him and Tornado can come in after the blast and..."

            "None of us would clear the blast radius at this point, Canary. And Lantern can't take another hit like that. Every time he goes off, the explosion gets bigger. This needs to end now."

            "But..."

            "I'm doing what needs to be done. Captain Atom out." Hal watched as the good captain physically took his comm link out, dropped it to the ground, and stepped on it. There would be no reaching him anymore. He looked up one last time and motioned for them both to leave. Hal felt himself being lifted up and away by Billy, but watched as the man of silver placed both of his crimson-clad hands on the villain's shoulders. The boy's head shot back again, light beginning to show from his face and hands. But Hal noticed a difference this time.

            Captain Atom's hands began to glow as well. Hal watched the grimace of exertion cross his face, his teeth clenched, his jaw set. If the man of silver could sweat, Hal was sure that rivers would be pouring down his face right now. The light began to fade, but the super-villain, the boy, continued to scream. Captain Atom threw his head back, a yell escaping from his lips as well.

            Then there was a flash of light, one even brighter than before. Hal's eyes took a few moments to adjust.

            When they did, the man was left kneeling on the ground, naked. Captain Atom was nowhere to be seen.

            No, Hal thought. "Tornado, move!" Once again, it was like he was watching someone else operate his body. Like this was all a dream he desperately wanted to wake up from.

            The android descended from the sky behind the man, slapping the inhibitor collar around his neck. The boy's eyes went wide for a moment before he slumped to the ground, exhausted. "I am reading no further radiation spikes. Levels on the island are already dropping."

            Hal nodded, even that simple act causing excruciating pain. "Captain Marvel, get me to a zeta tube. I need the medical bay on the Watchtower."

            "Where's..." Black Canary again. She didn't even have to finish her thought. Hal knew what she wanted to know.

            "I don't know." He paused, looking up towards space. "He's gone."

Chapter Text

Mount Justice
February 28th, 2016 - Team Year 6 (Bart's Timeline) 13:30 EDT

            Dick Grayson still hadn't moved. His eyes remained locked on the monitor projection before him, still not wanting to believe what he had seen. Barry Allen, the Flash, the man who was practically an uncle to him, was dead. Captain Atom was gone as well. In a matter of minutes, the Justice League had lost two of its more iconic members.

            Dick watched as the League took the super-villain into custody. A nice cozy cell at Bell Reve awaited him, along with a thorough conversation to find out who he was and why he'd done what he did. Conversation was probably too nice a term for it. Dick had seen Black Canary angry before, desperate for information, with the gatekeeper to that information directly in front of her. It had been just those few times where Dick had ever worried the woman might lose control, might put her boot directly through someone's head.

            I fear we leave the more dangerous task here on Earth. Bruce's last words echoed in his head, replaying over and over, like a vinyl that was skipping. The main members of the Justice League weren't on Earth. The trinity of heroes that comprised the beating heart of Earth's protectors weren't around. They might never be around again.

            There were many things that Dick Grayson did not like to admit. That he might have been able to save his family's lives. His feelings for Barbara Gordon. But more than either of those, Dick Grayson hated to admit how much he was like his adoptive father, how he was the closest thing Earth had to Batman at the moment.

            This was uncharted territory for all of them. A well-known and founding member of the Justice League was dead. Killed in a very public manner and a very public place. The policy of hiding their losses in a grotto with illuminated statues was no longer tenable.

            And in that instant, Dick knew what he had to do. Even if it brought him even closer to who his father was, brought him closer to something Dick didn't want for himself. It was up to him to fill Flash's shoes, even before radiation levels had dropped back to normal.

            The Batman would have made this request of him. The Batman would have told him this is what needed to be done, for the greater good, for the League, for the world. But at least then he would have had some cover, would have had been able to say that he was just following orders. There was no such cover here, and whatever followed was going to be his cross to bear.

            This is exactly what Dick meant when he had told Black Canary years ago that he didn't want to be Batman anymore.

            But if there was one thing his adoptive father had drilled into him, it was duty and completing the mission, no matter what the personal cost. The personal cost of this mission was going to be quite high, and it was getting higher by the second.

            Dick knew that he was going to need some help. Tapping a few buttons on his wrist computer, he locked out the main room of the cave. Doors shut, no one would be zeta-tubing in or out. Dick needed privacy for this; he couldn't risk someone walking in on the first of what would be a series of the most difficult conversations of his entire life.

            A few more quick keystrokes and his communicator began to ring. After the fourth tone, a voice on the other end picked up. An involuntary smile crossed Dick's face, but he forced it away. Nothing about this was going to be pleasant.

            "And to what do I owe the pleasure of a call out of the blue, Boy Wonder?" The flirty tone in Zatanna Zatara's voice told him she hadn't been watching the news, hadn't been patched into her Justice League communicator. This was going to be even harder than he thought.

            "Zee..." The words failed him. How could he even begin? Dick swallowed against the bile building in his throat and continued forward. "Zee, Barry's dead."

            The silence from the other end of the call was not unexpected. "What?" Her shocked reply was not a surprise either, and Dick could tell the magician was struggling to keep her emotions in check. That one word had held the barest hint of incredulousness, of disbelief, but she also knew him well enough to know he wouldn't lie about someone's death.

            "Some new super-villain attacked Central City. Flash... Barry, he tried to stop him and..." Dick couldn't even get the words out, not again. They were catching in his throat. He heard a scrambling and typing on the other end of the line. Dick could just imagine her frantically double-checking everything he had just told her.

            "I was meditating... I didn't even hear the call..." Her voice was low, almost distant. Dick remembered how lost she had looked when her father had been... persuaded to join Dr. Fate. He needed to keep her away from that place right now.

            "Zee, I need your help." His fingers raced over the holographic keyboard in front of him. After a moment, the locations of the people he was looking for appeared before his eyes. Wally was at his home, Artemis was at class. Dick only hoped that neither of them had turned on a television.

            "What can I do, Dick?"

            "I need you to talk to Artemis." Dick heard her sharp intake of breath, but he pressed on. He couldn't afford to be interrupted right now. "I need you to convince her that she needs to come out of retirement with Wally. He's going to need her help. He's going to need her."

            "Dick..." Zatanna's voice was barely above a whisper, and it was shaking with emotion. Whether that emotion was grief or anger, Dick couldn't tell. "Dick, they're both going to be in mourning. You can't expect me to ask her to get him to come out..."

            "You won't be." He closed his eyes as he realized how much he sounded like Bruce, cutting her off like that. It made his stomach churn. "I'll be talking to Wally. But I need her ready to support him."

            "Dick, please don't ask me to do this."

            Dick hesitated, drawing in a ragged breath. He knew her reservations, he had the same ones, even if he couldn't verbalize them. But the time for reservations was over. Dick's eyes opened behind his domino mask, his jaw set even though she couldn't see it. He barely recognized the voice that escaped his lips when he spoke again.

            "Zatanna, the League needs you to do this. I need you to do this." No, he did recognize that voice. Fuck you, Bruce, he thought. His tone softened. "Please, Zee."

            The pause on the other end of the line went on so long that Dick almost thought she'd ended the call. When Zatanna spoke again, the chill in her voice almost matched his own. She understood.

            "Fine, Dick." He breathed in a slow sigh of relief. "But you're an asshole for making me do this. You're not Bruce. Don't act like him just because he's not around to do it himself." The call ended abruptly.

            Dick allowed his shoulders to slump in resignation. A quick combination on his keypad unlocked everything. It was time to go to California. He already felt exhausted. After this conversation, no matter which way it ended up going, Dick got the feeling he was going to need to sleep for a week. But something in his gut told him it would be a very long time before he got a good night's sleep again.

***

Palo Alto
February 28th, 2016 - Team Year 6 (Bart's Timeline) 11:00 PDT

            Standing outside the home of Wally West and Artemis Crock, Dick Grayson felt a twinge of jealousy. They were happy. They had been able to walk away and lead relatively normal lives. The two of them had the house, no white picket fence, but it was theirs.

            But their life wasn't his. The house, the dog, the porch, and the tree in the backyard, that wasn't for him. Dick Grayson wasn't sure he could ever completely walk away.

            He raised his hand to knock on the front door when it suddenly opened before him. There stood Wally West, a bit broader in the shoulders than the last time Dick had seen him, but the mess of red hair on his head and splash of freckles were still the same.

            "Come on in." There was a lightness to Wally's voice. A mischievousness that accompanied the light in his eyes. Dick's stomach sank.

            He didn't know.

            "How'd you know I'd be coming?" Dick still had a job to do, but he offered the smallest of smiles as he stepped through the threshold to the home. Brucely, curled up in a chair, raised his head to look at Dick briefly before setting it back down with a huff. He knew the raven-haired boy was no threat.

            "I built a program to let me know when someone checked up on our locations." A smirk crossed Wally's face as he closed the door, moving towards the kitchen. "It pinged a little while ago. Figured you'd be dropping by." His hand grasped the handle to the refrigerator and pulled the door open. Fully stocked, as always. "So what do I owe the pleasure of an impromptu visit from the Boy Wonder? Can I get you anything?"

            Dick didn't answer for a moment, just staring down at his royal blue sneakers with streaks of black. He felt naked in civilian clothes, even if his escrimas could still be accessed by pulling up the legs of his jeans to retrieve them from his ankle holsters. The grey t-shirt didn't fit him the way his armor did; it seemed to hang off his body rather than cling to it.

            "Hello? Earth to Boy Wonder..."

            "Wally, Barry's dead." The words were curt and abrupt. Dick closed his eyes in a silent rebuke. He had wanted to build up to that moment, to ease Wally into the worst news of his life. But it was out there now. Dick's eyes opened on his best friend. Wally's jaw was slightly agape. His head gave a short shake.

            "You're about a month early for April Fool's Day, Dick." The refrigerator door shut with a slam. "And even if you weren't, that's not funny." Dick opened his mouth to speak again, but decided against it. Instead, he grabbed a remote from the coffee table, pointed it towards the television against the far wall, and pressed the power button. Immediately, images of a destroyed downtown Central City filled the screen. He turned away, he didn't need to continue to see the images already seared into his memory. But Wally moved closer.

            "...police reports indicate the Flash had been fighting the super-villain before the first explosion that destroyed much of downtown..." Dick's finger jammed into the mute button to silence the voice of the reporter on scene. Wally's face was whiter than usual, and even his freckles seemed drained of color as his body slumped.

            "Who..."

            "We don't know." His own voice sounded mechanical, foreign, much like the television he had just muted. "The League has him in custody. Currently on the way to Belle Reve."

            "How did he..."

            "Nuclear explosion." Dick's eyes turned back towards the television slowly. "The villain was wearing some kind of containment suit, but he overloaded it somehow and..." He paused again before turning the television off and turning back to his best friend. "There's nothing left, Wally."

            "Iris?" Wally's words sounded hollow, as if his brain was someplace else. Dick frowned.

            "I don't know if anyone has told her yet." The instant those words left his mouth, the redhead was practically a blur of motion, grabbing his coat and shoes.

            "I need to get to her. Is the zeta tube in Central City still active?" Dick honestly didn't know the answer to that question, but he knew that he needed to press ahead with his mission before Wally bolted from his home.

            "Wait..." He took a deep breath. Either the words came out now, or they never would. "You need to come back."

            A silence hung in the air for a number of long, uncomfortable seconds. "Dick, my family needs me right now, more than you, more than the League does." Wally continued pulling on his shoes. Dick could almost feel the emotions rolling off of him. "Besides, we're retired."

            Dick lightly put a hand on his friend's shoulder. "I'm not asking, Wally." His voice, though low, held a hard edge to it. Dick recognized that voice. Fuck you, Bruce.

            "Well I'm telling you to go fuck yourself." Wally brushed Dick's hand from his shoulder coolly. "My uncle just died. I'm not putting on the yellow suit again." The realization his Dick like a ton of bricks. This was going to be more devastating than he thought.

            "It's not the yellow suit I need you to put on..."

            Wally whirled around to face him, a manic fire in his green eyes that Dick had never seen before. "You have the fucking gall to ask me that?" The older man closed the distance between them, his face inches from Dick's. "You think you're him, don't you, coming here and asking that of me." Two hands pressed into Dick's chest, the unexpected shove sending him flying back into the couch. Brucely's head rose with a whine, but the dog did not move from his chair. "The goddamn city hasn't even cooled yet and you want his replacement running around, posing for the cameras?"

            "It's not posing for the cameras." Dick pushed himself back up to a sitting position, but did not rise from the couch. He tried to keep his tone low and level as he looked up at his friend. "Barry's dead, but the Flash needs to live. We need him, Wally. The League needs that conscience. It needs you."

            Wally swooped down and Dick instinctively brought his hands up. But Wally grabbed the remote, turning the muted television back on. With his free hand, he gestured emphatically. "This is exactly why we got out, Dick. Because sooner or later, something like this was going to happen. Someone was going to die." Wally's eyes dropped to the floor and his shoulders slumped. "And we didn't want it to be one of us."

            Dick didn't saying anything for a long moment. No one could argue with Wally's logic. Everyone had understood why they left after Tula died. They all saw what it had done to Kaldur. There was no logical argument against that. So he said the only thing he could. "The League needs you, Wally." Christ, that sounded so contrived, so petty.

            "The League, or Batman, Dick?" The defeat was gone from his friend's voice, replaced with the cold steel of anger. "Is this really for the greater good, or just so you can have something to show your mentor if he gets back from trying to clear his name? Isn't this so he doesn't have to feel like he lost one of his toy soldiers? That's why he created the team, isn't it? So he can just call up a reserve if one of the starters goes down?"

            Dick was on his feet in an instant. This didn't sound like Wally. This sounded more like Roy, the Roy from a few years ago. The one who didn't know he was a traitor. "Wally, you know that's not true. You know he never gave us anything we couldn't handle."

            "Of course he did, Dick, you're just so close to him you're too blind to see it!" Wally's voice rose again as he stepped closer. "His little covert team running around with bright fucking targets on our chests. Never gave us anything we couldn't handle? What about the Injustice League? What about Tula? What about Jason?"

            Now it was Dick's turn to raise his voice. "That's fucking uncalled for, Wally. Bruce had nothing to do with Jason's death."

            "Oh that's right. I forgot, that's your little cross to bear, isn't it?" Wally's eyes grew wide, knowing that he'd stepped over a line. His eyes dropped down to the floor, and when he spoke again his voice was much softer. "I need to talk to Artemis. I need to tell her about Barry."

            "Zatanna is already talking to her." Wally whirled back towards Dick, the fire back in his eyes. Dick would have winced at the coming onslaught if he hadn't already prepared himself for it the entire time getting there.

            "You manipulative little fuck. You went behind my back and used Zatanna, used her friendship with Artemis? Why? So if I said no she could convince me to change my mind?" Another shove sent Dick sprawling back onto the couch again, as another whine came from Brucely in the corner. Dick watched as Wally reached out for the doorknob and paused, looking back over his shoulder at him.

            "You once told me you didn't want to end up like him. Well, I hope he's sized you up for a cape and cowl, because I don't even recognize you anymore." The redhead angrily slammed the door behind him. Dick rubbed his hands over his face slowly, staring between cracked fingers at silent images of destruction that were playing out before him.

***

            The sound of the door slamming wasn't nearly satisfying enough for Wally West. He wanted to throw it back open, slam it again, push it back open, and beat the daylights out of Dick Grayson. Out of Batman. Out of everything in this world that had made his uncle who he was and had then taken Barry Allen from him.

            Wally stumbled forward a few feet and then allowed himself to collapse on the steps of his front porch. His body shook as sobs that he'd held onto inside were finally released. Emotion poured from him. Emotion at losing his uncle, at berating his best friend, at the path before him all combined to streak his face with large tears.

            "That sounded like quite a row." The voice startled him. Wally raised his tear-stained eyes to see Artemis standing on the sidewalk a few feet away, hands in the pockets of her jacket. Her grey eyes were narrowed in concern, and her pale red lips were turned down in worry.

            "How much did you hear?"

            "Enough." Artemis slowly walked to his side, sitting next to him and running a hand over his back slowly. "How are you doing, babe?"

            Wally shook his head. He had no idea how he was doing, what he was doing, or what he was going to do. Life had thrown him into complete and utter disarray, and the only anchor he had was the woman sitting next to him.

            "That was a fast conversation with Zatanna." He chose not to answer her question. Anger was an emotion he could focus on, and anger at Dick was the most prevailing feeling he had after grief at the loss of Barry.

            "She gave me the rundown of what happened and said Dick had come to see you." Artemis' words were soft, and she lowered her head to his shoulder. "It doesn't take a genius like you to figure out why he came here, Wally West. So I got here as soon as I could. I knew you'd need me, so here I am."

            A short laugh coincided with his lips breaking into a small smile. Wally turned and kissed her forehead gently, moving his chin to rest on her head. Closing his eyes, he sighed heavily. He did need her, now more than ever.

            "I'm not happy about this." There was much more of a sadness in his voice than he'd anticipated. Wally could feel his anger bleeding away, replaced by exhaustion and overwhelming sadness.

            "Wally, this is an emergency." He was grateful she knew what he was talking about, without him having to explain it. Wally wasn't sure he could put it into words right now. "We're needed." The emphasis on we made Wally feel slightly better, but still not enough to convince him it was the right course of action.

            "He shouldn't need us." Wally moved to look straight ahead, his hands still gripping hers like he'd never let go. "He shouldn't have asked us. He's my best friend. He knows we're trying to leave the life behind." That was half true. Wally knew that Artemis missed the life more than he did, but after seeing what losing Tula had done to Kaldur... he couldn't guarantee that he would have stayed on the side of the angels if something happened to Artemis.

            "Don't blame Nightwing." There was a quiet forcefulness to her voice as her tone remained low. She sighed, her eyes following his to stare at nothing out in front of them. "Look, the decision is yours, babe. If you don't want to get back in, we won't. But I'm ready if you are."

            Wally closed his eyes, shaking his head slowly. "I just don't know. I don't know what I'd do if something happened to you." He felt her hand on his chin, turning his face to meet her gaze. Artemis offered a small smile before her lips locked with his. She broke the kiss a few seconds later, her forehead resting against his.

            "People need us right now, babe. The world needs us right now." Artemis pulled away, standing and holding out her hands to him. "But more than that, your aunt needs us now. Come on."

            Wally took her hands in his, letting the blonde help pull him up. Instead of letting go as he stood, his arms enveloped her in a hug. After a moment, she returned the embrace.

            "Babe, you rock." A smirk creased her face as she leaned up to kiss him quickly.

            "Come on. Central City's zeta tube is still active."

***

Central City
February 28th, 2016 - Team Year 6 (Bart's Timeline) 13:30 CDT

            The closer he got to the home of his aunt and uncle, the more Wally West wanted to turn around, say "screw it", start running and never stop. He could have done it. Well, not the "never stop" portion, but he might have made it to the Pacific Ocean before running out of fuel. Maybe even to Hawaii if he really pushed himself.

            A hand being lightly placed on his shoulder reminded him he'd never get the chance. Somehow, some way, the blonde to his right, the love of his life, would wind up at his final destination before he did, a bemused smile on her face. That was just her way.

            Gathering himself up, Wally drew in a deep breath and knocked on the door softly. Three short, soft knocks. He honestly wasn't sure if his aunt had heard him and was reaching for the door again when it opened.

            Iris' green eyes mirrored his own: tear-soaked and red around the edges. Without a word, Wally practically threw himself into her arms. He felt his aunt's embrace wrap around him and tighten, both of them burying their faces into each other's shoulders.

            After what seemed like a long few minutes filled with nothing but soft sobs emanating from the both of them, they both broke away. Aunt Iris smiled at him and then laughed suddenly. Wally was taken aback, but she waved her hand. "We both look awful." He had to chuckle at the comment. Wally honestly didn't want to know what he looked like at that moment.

            The three of them moved to the living room, Wally perching himself into a chair as his aunt moved herself onto a couch, clutching a blanket and a picture frame that Wally knew held a picture of her and Barry. A "Happy Anniversary" banner still hung above the mantle. It took him a moment before Wally remembered that today was the Garrick's anniversary. His adoptive grandparents were nowhere to be seen, however. They must have left after hearing the news.

            Wally could hear Artemis in the kitchen, making something, he wasn't sure what. Iris' emerald eyes were locked on the frame in front of her, tears welling up again. She wiped them away angrily.

            "Every time I think I'm done crying, I just start again." Her voice shook with emotion as she hugged the picture to her chest. "I thought I had prepared myself for this, Wally." Iris' gaze finally rose from the frame to lock with her nephew. "I always knew this was a possibility, you know? I thought mentally... I thought I'd be ready for the news. But not like this... not like this."

            "How'd you find out?" The words slipped from his mouth before he could stop them. Talk about morbid curiosity.

            "I saw it." The words hit him harder than Black Adam did when the team fought the Injustice League. His aunt's eyes flooded with tears once again.

            "What? How?"

            "I was on my way to the station and was watching the downtown camera we had up on live stream. It showed the park, Wally. I watched..." The words caught in her throat as Iris covered her mouth for a moment before drawing in a shaky breath and continuing. "I saw Barry. On the ground. I saw the explosion, Wally. And then the camera was knocked offline."

            Her story was interrupted by Artemis coming in with a tray of tea, handing a cup to each of them. Iris smiled at her, setting the frame down for the first time before taking the tea. She took a sip, patting the couch next to her for Artemis to sit. Wally just held the tea in his hands, the physical warmth doing nothing to dispel the cold ache of loss inside him.

            "Hal called. He didn't have to do that. He wanted to tell me... he didn't know I already knew." Iris' voice was still soft as she took another slow drink of the tea. Artemis rubbed her hand over her back, her grey eyes wide.

            "I'm glad you stopped by Wally. Thank you."

            "Are you kidding? Where else would I be?" Iris offered him a small smile before setting the tea cup on the table in front of her.

            "I have something to tell you, Wally. Something that I was never able to tell Barry." She paused for a moment, looking down. "I'm pregnant. I just found out this morning. I was going to tell Barry tonight but..." Iris choked out another sob before her eyes locked with his again.

            "Barry left something for you, Wally. He wanted you to have it in case something happened to him. It's upstairs... in the guestroom closet." Wally still hadn't moved. Aunt Iris was pregnant? There was going to be a child who never knew their superhero father? Who would only have old video and stories to remember him by? "Wally." His softly spoken name brought him back the present. "Please. He wanted it for you."

            With a slow nod, the redhead stood and began making his way upstairs. Opening the door to the guestroom closet, he pushed aside a few articles of clothing until he found a small box, not much bigger than one of those boxes of chocolates he always forgot to give Artemis on Valentine's Day. His name was scrawled onto the top, followed by a simple message.

            Carry on the family tradition. I'm sorry I won't be there to see it. - Barry

            Pulling off the top of the box, Wally found himself staring down at two dozen golden rings. Each one was emblazoned with a lightning bolt.

            Wally sunk back to the floor, just holding the box and staring at it. Tears started falling from his eyes like a steady rain again. He didn't want to come back. He didn't want this life. When he was younger, it was a different story. Wally had wanted to be a hero so badly that he had almost killed himself to get powers. But that wasn't the case anymore.

            Now he had Artemis. They had talked about settling down, getting married, starting a family. He was sure that Barry would have quit the moment he found out Iris was pregnant. How could he expect Wally to give up his dream of a quiet life?

            Wally wished his uncle was still alive to answer all these questions. But he wasn't. All he was left with were memories, a box of golden rings, and a message to carry on the family tradition.

            Reaching down, Wally grabbed one of the rings, twisting the top. A Flash costume burst from the ring, expanding and almost hanging in mid-air for a few moments. Pushing himself to his feet, Wally grabbed the suit before it hit the ground. He examined the red fabric in his hands for a long moment before getting to work.

            A few minutes later, he was suited up. He barely recognized himself in the suit, even though the dreams of his younger years had been dominated by this very moment. To his disdain, it fit perfectly. There were even food compartments built into the wrists, just like his Kid Flash costume had. Wally lowered his head. A soft knock on the door followed soon afterward.

            "Come in." The door pushed open and Artemis stood there, leaning against the doorframe with a smirk that didn't reach her eyes.

            "You look good." He turned towards her, throwing his arms out wide.

            "Really? Because I feel like a fraud." It was the truth. He didn't feel like he'd earned this suit, this emblem. He was the benchwarmer being called in for an injured starter, not out of talent, but out of necessity.

            "Well don't." Artemis' tone was harsher, cutting through his self doubt. She stepped closer cupping his chin and forcing him to look at her. "You're honoring Barry's memory by becoming the Flash. I know he'd be proud." Wally couldn't help but smile at her confidence in him as he threw his arms around her in a big bear hug. After a few moments he broke the embrace, pushing the hood of the suit back.

            "So what about you? Do we need to get you a new Artemis outfit?" She scoffed, punching him in the shoulder.

            "Please. The old one still fits." She leaned down, grabbing the box of rings and taking his hand at the same time. "Your aunt's waiting. And I'm sure Nightwing is waiting for a call as well. Let's go, Flash."

***

Central City
March 5th, 2016 - Team Year 6 (Bart's Timeline) 14:00 CDT

            The church was truly beautiful. She hadn't been in many of them, but Artemis Crock knew that this grand cathedral, just outside of the blast radius that had destroyed much of downtown Central City, was gorgeous.

            The entire Justice League was present for this funeral, along with what seemed like half the population of Central City. Plans were already being discussed to rebuild the statue of Flash that had been destroyed. A spokesperson for Wayne Enterprises, Artemis smirked at the thought, had offered to pay for the rebuilding costs.

            This ceremony was much more lavish, more grandiose than where the League had just come from. In the grotto of Mount Justice, Black Canary had gently read a few lines in memory of both Flash and Captain Atom before activating their statues. They joined Ted Kord, Jason Todd, and Tula. The little club was growing faster than anyone wanted to admit.

            That was also where she and Wally had been formally inducted into the Justice League. She had always thought the moment would be much different, more triumphant. But this wasn't an occasion to celebrate new members of the League; it was more, as Wally had been fond of saying, a stopgap measure to make it look as if the League was still at full strength.

            Artemis' grey eyes tracked over to Wally, clad in his crimson Flash suit, a black armband encircling his right arm. He was sitting a few rows in front of her, with the League's "original" members, or at least as many of them as they could fake. Connor dressed in blue, M'gann looking like her uncle, Donna Troy was back for the first time in forever, dressed in white, and would pass for Wonder Woman without close inspection. And then there was Dick, who had for the first time, donned the cape and cowl, and was conspicuously seated on the opposite side of the pew from Wally. Another effort to make the League look whole, she gathered.

            Directly behind her sat Iris West. Well, it was Iris West to the members of the Justice League and a select few members of the team. To everyone else, it was a raven-haired woman wearing an orange pendant around her neck underneath a black veil.

            The glamour charm had been Dick's idea. He'd proposed it to Zatanna, who had managed to whip it up in the week between Barry's death and the funeral. Why would Iris West be sitting so close to the Justice League, and be so broken up over the Flash's death, Dick had posited. They weren't releasing Barry's identity, even in death, for the safety of his family.

            There was silence as Hal Jordan slowly made his way to the front of the church. The Green Lantern, clad in the traditional formal long emerald coat of the Corps, paused by the casket covered by a crimson sheet emblazoned with the Flash symbol before stepping behind the lectern, brushing a hand across his face. All of Earth's available Green Lanterns were in attendance, not only to mourn Barry's death, but in support of their friend and colleague. Even Kyle Rayner, normally on duty on Oa, was back, sitting on the end of the Lanterns next to Zatanna and Dr. Fate.

            The cynical side of Artemis Crock wondered why they were all here, why everyone was crying over an empty coffin. There was nothing left to mourn, nothing left to bury. A symbol was the only piece of the man that remained. And then the human side of Artemis Crock told the cynical side of her to shut the hell up.

            "Good afternoon." Artemis cringed as she heard how weak Hal's voice was. She had never seen much of the Green Lantern, but she'd never seen him as downtrodden as he had been the past week.

            "Thank you all for being here today. I know some of you travelled a great distance, some more than others," light laughter rumbled through the cathedral at the joke, "but know that Flash's family, and the Justice League, appreciate this show of support."

            Hal paused again as he looked down. "I tried all week to write something for this service. Tried to put down on paper what Flash meant to me, to this team. I couldn't do it. It seemed too final, too definite. But now I'm here, standing in front of all of you, so I suppose I should say something." His eyes moved to the crimson-clad coffin next to him.

            "The Flash was a great man. I don't need to tell any of you that, you know, but he was. He was probably the best man I ever knew, and that's saying something. I know you're supposed to say great things about the dead, you're supposed to rattle on about how great they are. But with him, with B-," Artemis watched Hal pause as he bit his tongue to stop from saying Flash's real name. "With the Flash, it was really true. And all of you here today know it."

            She watched him grip the edges of the lectern for support as his voice grew stronger. "The Flash was the heart of this team. He wasn't the strongest, he wasn't the best fighter." Hal paused, a smirk crossing his face. "He was the fastest." Another rumble of laughter rolled through the cathedral. "Most importantly, he was the greatest of us."

            "Flash was the guy who'd look you in the eye, and tell you that you were wrong. Hell, he stood up to guys who could break him in half, and he'd win that argument because, deep down, they knew he was right. They knew he was looking out for what really mattered."

            "But even above that, Flash was the simplest of us. And I don't mean that as a bad thing, I really don't. Take me, for instance." Hal gestured to himself as he smiled. "Intergalactic space cop. Take Superman, or Wonder Woman." The Green Lantern's hands waved over their body doubles sitting in the front row. "They worry about keeping the world safe. Flash worried about Central City; about the people in this cathedral; about the kids down at the orphanage. And when saving this city meant saving the world, he was right there without question. But first and foremost, he loved the people here, in his city."

            Artemis heard Hal's voice falter again as he lost the momentum he'd been building. "There are... no words that can bring Flash back. There's no words that can bring comfort to his family, or express our undying thanks for his sacrifice." Artemis watched a single tear run down Hal's cheek. Connor, Donna, Dick, M'gann, and the other two Green Lanterns walked slowly to the casket and lifted it. They turned, following Wally down the center aisle in a solemn procession.

            "We'll never forget what Flash stood for. And the best way we can honor his legacy is to take what he taught us and pass it along. Let's have that be our tribute to Central City's greatest son, the fastest man alive, who believed we could all be heroes." Artemis watched as Hal took a step back from the lectern, and offered a final salute to the coffin retreating down the aisle.

            Her eyes fell on her boyfriend as he walked past. Wally did not look at her or his aunt. His jaw held a firm set that Artemis had not seen in years, and his green eyes were narrowed on the back of the cathedral where sunlight was spilling in through open doors.

            As the procession moved down the aisle, Artemis felt a hand on her shoulder. She turned to see Hal, his eyes filled with tears. His gaze moved to the row behind her, and Artemis nodded her head in understanding. She reached out and softly took Iris' hand; the message was for her.

            "I should have been faster. I should have been there in time to save him." The Green Lantern's voice was barely above a whisper, but the droop of Iris' head said that she heard every word. "I'm so sorry."

            Hal's hand left her shoulder as he followed the coffin. At the back of the cathedral, pausing in the precipice and silhouetted by sunlight, stood the Flash. Then Wally took a few steps forward and disappeared from view.

Chapter Text

Cape Canaveral
March 19th, 2016 - Team Year 6 (Bart's Timeline) 21:21 EDT

             This mission was not going well. There had been intel that certain elements didn't want the Earth-Mars commsat launched. But as another blast from an energy rifle forced Jaime Reyes to duck back down behind a heat shield next to Nightwing, he couldn't help but think they were in a little over their heads.

            La'gaan had started it by attacking against Nightwing's direct orders. Now Miss Martian was heading to help him and Superboy was piloting the bioship. But the two part attack still made Jaime feel uneasy. There was something else at play here. This seemed like too much effort, especially for Black Manta, for a simple satellite.

            The whine of a higher-powered laser caught his attention as the camouflaged bioship strafed the beach and Black Manta's troops.

            We have an opening. Attack. Jaime hated the grating voice of his scarab that had been a constant presence since that fateful night outside of Kord Industries. And while the alien device could be annoyingly insistent about what it felt were his flaws, he had to agree with its current take on the situation.

            But as Jaime started to rise over the blast wall, a flurry of shots began peppering the air around him. He felt a strong hand grab his leg, pulling him back down as pieces of superheated concrete showered the ground.

            "I know you're new, but are you trying to get yourself killed?" The disappointment in Nightwing's voice stung. Everyone on the team wanted the approval of their leader, but Jaime even moreso. The other members of the team were there because of their skills or powers. He was there because he had been unlucky enough to have a piece of alien tech attach itself to him. It made him always strive to prove himself.

            Listen to the Nightwing, Jaime. His question is valid. Was that... sass from the scarab?

            Missile launch detected. Ocean level. Jaime peaked over the wall again with Nightwing before ducking down because of another barrage of fire. "I won't be able to get a clear shot," he said, looking over at the former Boy Wonder.

            Nightwing nodded. "Superboy." The older man's voice filled his mind through the psychic link. Jaime heard the whoosh of the bioship overhead.

            "On it." Jaime watched the missile streak above him before a blinding flash emitted from empty air. The missile exploded just short of the rocket. That was too close.

            A few seconds later, an alarm claxon began blaring from the direction of the rocket. Launch sequence initiated. "Yeah, I guessed that," Jaime mumbled, turning to Nightwing. "Uh, ese... we might want to move."

            Another missile came bursting from the sea. This time, Superboy was able to destroy it over the beach, and Jaime saw Black Manta's soldiers cover their eyes from the blast. He exchanged a wordless nod with Nightwing, who reached into his belt and tossed a small sphere over the wall. There was an explosion and a flash of light as the troopers yelled again.

            "Move!" In a flash, the older man was over the wall. Jaime activated the boosters on the back of his armor and shot up over as well. He was vaguely aware of two more missiles emerging from the ocean, but he had work to do.

            Hovering above the beach, he activated his sonic cannon, aiming short bursts at Black Manta's troopers. This is only marginally effective, Jaime Reyes. You are not eliminating the enemy. Recommend switching to plasma cannon. Turn this beach to glass. Jaime rolled his eyes. "You really need to chill out, hermano."

            Below, he watched Nightwing flip and twirl between the soldiers, his escrima sticks flashing as they made contact. After a spinning kick sent a trooper flying backward, Jaime watched in horror as the armor-clad man rose to his feet, grabbing a knife from his ankle sheath. Simultaneously, Jaime fired his boosters as his hands formed into a battering ram. The trooper was too close to risk using a cannon.

            The soldier ran at Nightwing, occupied with fighting another of Black Manta's goons. Time seemed to slow for Jaime, the man in ebony armor pulling the knife back to aim at Nightwing's unguarded kidney. And then Jaime impacted with the man's leg, sending him flipping into the air with a yell of pain. For his part, Jaime crashed into the beach... hard, rolling end over end until finally coming to a stop just in time to see Nightwing plant a kick to the trooper's face, silencing him.

            The older man paused. "Thanks." Jaime nodded as he struggled to his feet, but was stopped by a look on Nightwing's face. Turning back to the ocean, he watched as Kaldur, formally Aqualad, rose from the waves with troopers in tow.

            Traitor! Jaime felt his hands begin forming into plasma cannons before he could regain control.

            "They've taken La'gaan! I'm going after him." Miss Martian's voice filled his head. Jaime guessed that's why they hadn't heard as much from the Atlantean lately.

            "Priority is the missiles." Superboy's response followed as three more missiles erupted from the water in rapid succession. Jaime's sensors told him the bioship was back near the rocket, basically its back to the wall, as it fired on the missiles approaching ever faster. "There are too many! I'm not keeping up."

            There was no response from M'gann as Kaldur continued walking up the beach. A few seconds later, the ocean bubbled up as a muffled explosion reached the shore. The missiles had stopped, but Jaime had no idea what was going on under the waves.

            "Kaldur! You don't want to do this!" Nightwing's voice brought Jaime back to the beach, the team's leader standing directly in front of the traitor and his team.

            "I believe I do!" Water began to bubble and rise up around Black Manta's son. It shot into the air, taking the form of... some type of animal. Jaime thought it almost looked like a bird Beast Boy liked to transform himself into.

            We are under attack! Recommend switching to plasma cannon to boil the water around them! "Enough with the plasma cannon, hermano!" Jaime fired the sonic cannon at the water monster, but watched as the waves passed through it without harm. A split second later, the water crashed into Nightwing and then himself, knocking Jaime out of the air and onto the beach with a crash.

            As Jaime coughed and brought himself to his knees, the rumble of rockets shook the ground. He looked up to see the Earth-Mars commsat rising into the sky, orange fire spitting out the back. Behind him, he heard Kaldur mumble something he couldn't make out above the roar of the engines, and then a small shoulder rocket shot out at the spacecraft.

            Recommend switching the plasma cannon! "Right, you got it this time!" Jaime watched his hand switch to the plasma cannon as he closed one eye, tracked Kaldur's rocket, and fired. The beam of energy shot out, lancing the small missile and exploding it short of the commsat.

            "Yes!" Jaime pumped his fist in celebration as he watched the rocket continue to ascend. Your celebration is premature, Jaime Reyes. Sensors indicate a bomb has been placed onboard the rocket. It is equipped with an altitude sensor. We must disable it, or it will destroy the satellite.

            Without a word, Jaime fired his boosters and shot after the rocket. He could hear the grunts of Nightwing fighting Kaldur and his troops below, but the satellite was their mission. If it was destroyed...

            "How long before it explodes?" Impossible to determine, Jaime Reyes. "If we're on the rocket when it explodes, are we going to make it?" I calculate that if we are not successful, we will survive the explosion. "You better be right, hermano."

            Jaime pumped more juice into his boosters, gaining even faster on the rocket. He was maybe fifty feet away when he heard a sharp pop. Then he was blinded by brightness before falling into darkness.

            Stars filled his vision as Jaime's eyes cracked open again. Well, stars and the concerned faces of Nightwing, Superboy, and Miss Martian. He tried to sit up, but was met with a wave of pain and a sharp groan. Rest, Jaime Reyes. You have survived the explosion, and a fall from several thousand feet. It will take time before you are healed.

            "Easy there, Blue. That was quite a fall." Nightwing put a hand on his shoulder, a slight smile on his face. Relief, possibly.

            "The satellite..." Jaime watched as Nightwing shook his head.

            "It's gone."

            "And Lagoon Boy?" Nightwing looked up at Miss Martian, who turned away from Superboy. He sighed.

            "Kaldur's men took him. We'll get him back. But right now we need to get you back to the cave. Come on."

***

Mount Justice
March 23rd, 2016 - Team Year 6 (Bart's Timeline) 21:05 EDT

            Dick Grayson hated waiting. Whether it was for the criminals to show up during a stakeout, for Barbara to answer the door for a date, or for one of his best friends to come and betray them all, he hated waiting. And it showed.

            Normally so good at keeping his emotions hidden from those except his closest friends, nervous tics betrayed him now. A fidgeting, a nervous tap of a foot, hands unable to stay in one place for more than a few seconds, obsessively checking and rechecking the cave's computer system.

            The program he had slipped into the cave's security system was up and running. He knew that he wouldn't be able to hide it, if the computers were going to survive the next few minutes. But they weren't, and Dick knew that.

            This was the most dangerous part of his plan. There were so many things that could go wrong, so many ways that people could get hurt. If he was lucky, no one else would be captured tonight. If he wasn't lucky, whatever new memorial park the League put together would be getting a few new statues.

            And Dick Grayson hadn't been lucky lately.

            Kaldur was still alone undercover. Dick hadn't wanted it to be this long. The Light and their new partners were moving slower than he had anticipated. He had been talking to Artemis, behind Wally's back, yes, about joining him. About creating a new identity, using her expertise to help Kaldur, and help keep him sane.

            But those plans had been thrown into disarray when Barry had died. He couldn't have her go undercover when Wally needed her now more than ever. Kaldur had understood, of course he had, but a message after the satellite raid told him the situation was getting more desperate. The Light still wasn't letting him close, and he needed something big, really big, to prove he wasn't a double agent.

            Dick checked the computer system for the sixteenth time. This had been his idea. It was drastic. It was extreme.

            It's what Batman would have done.

            "Pretty quiet night?" Dick couldn't remember the last time someone had snuck up on him. It was weird being on the other end of the that trick. But Jaime had managed to do it. Dressed in his civilian clothes, the boy was still recovering from the Cape Canaveral job. It was the reason he wasn't out with the team tonight.

            "Haven't heard anything from Batgirl. They'll be fine."

            "You think this lead will get us closer to where that bomb came from?" If it doesn't, I'm not sure what I'll do, Dick thought.

            "I think we'll have significant progress after tonight. How's the arm?" Dick motioned to the sling Jaime was still wearing.

            "When I'm in the armor, it's fine. Outside of it, it's still sore. I mean, if you need me to check something out, I can..."

            Dick shook his head. "Take it easy tonight, Jaime. We just want you back to one hundred percent." A light beeping sounded in his ear and Dick turned just in time to see Superboy being flung through the air at him. The Kryptonian clone's body hit him squarely in the chest, sending him crashing down to the ground.

            Dick heard Jaime's armor gear up, but an arm was quickly encased in ice. Dick saw Icicle Jr. standing on an upper ledge as he shoved Connor off of him. A shout of pain escaped Jaime's lips before the armor expanded over the arm, breaking the ice. The boy rose into the air as Dick saw Tuppence Terror walk in with Beast Boy slung over her shoulder. Her twin brother, Tommy, was the one who had thrown Superboy. Kaldur had brought quite the arsenal with him.

            Jaime fired off a sonic blast towards Icicle Jr., who dove away. Dick saw Tuppence drop Beast Boy rather unceremoniously before charging towards him. Shifting to a fighting stance, he waited until she was close before leaping into the air, grabbing her shoulder and propelling himself over head. Landing behind her, Dick aimed a kick at the back of her knee. He heard Tuppence shout in pain as the knee buckled, but she still managed to turn and backhand him hard across the room.

            Before Dick could get back to his feet, a pair of large hands clapped an inhibitor collar around his neck. He looked up to see Tommy Terror standing over him, collar control in his hand.

            "That won't help you much. Nothing for it to turn off." Dick crouched, his legs coiled to jump into the air and aim a kick at the other Terror Twins' head.

            "It don't need to turn anything off to be useful." As Dick rose into the air, Tommy pressed down on the control, sending electricity shooting through his body. Spasms wracked his muscles, and he fell to the floor in a heap.

            Drifting in and out of consciousness, Dick watched Jaime knock Icicle Jr. out with a sonic blast, and then caught pieces of a conversation between Kaldur and the Blue Beetle. He saw the bomb. It looked exactly like the one that destroyed Malina Island. Dick felt more uneasy about the plan by the second.

            Still, he needed to remain focused. Needed to stay awake. Dick saw Blue Beetle descend, his hands raised in surrender. An inhibitor collar was placed around his neck as well.

            "Move Beetle and Beast Boy to the flyer," Kaldur motioned to the twins. "The other two will stay here to ensure we are not followed."

            "Aqualad!" Slowly, Dick forced himself to his feet. "You'll regret this!" There was a slight snicker from the three members of Kaldur's team as his friend walked over slowly, stared him right in the eye, and then punched him in the gut.

            Dick doubled over in pain, his hands clasping over Kaldur's. He felt something passed to him, and he palmed it easily.

            "You'll have two minutes." Kaldur's voice was barely audible, even to him. But Dick knew what he meant. With a moan, he fell to his knees. Dick looked up at Kaldur one more time, and could see the pain in his friend's eyes. The suffering. Dick gave a barely perceptible shake of his head. Not here, not yet.

            Kaldur turned to walk out of the cave, pausing for a moment by the bomb. "I will leave the bomb with you as a souvenir. Oh, and the dead man's switch has a five mile range. Do not pursue."

            Dick waited until they were out of sight and then sprang into action. Pulling a tool from his belt, he inserted a key into the back of the inhibitor collar and felt it release. Kneeling down, he pulled Connor's off as well. The clone was still unconscious, which was going to make this harder. Sprinting downstairs, Dick freed Wolf before finding Sphere. He looked at the piece of alien tech for a moment, a frown crossing his face. Did she know? Could she know that he was the one who allowed this to happen? He didn't have time to wonder.

            "Come on, Sphere. We've got to get everyone out of here. We've got less than two minutes." A few beeps and hoots came from Sphere before she expanded into her cycle form. Hopping on, they flew back to the main room, where Wolf was nudging at Connor, still out cold. Dick jumped from Sphere, helping the animal drag his friend's body onto the cycle. Climbing back up, Dick saw the bomb. They had to go now.

            Shooting out the cave's main doors, the four of them raced over the water. And that's when the explosion happened.

            Dick saw the water in front of him reflect the fireball first. Then the noise reached them. A millisecond later, the shockwave and heat followed. Dick felt Sphere spiral out of control, and then he felt nothing at all.

***

Washington , D.C.
March 24th, 2016 - Team Year 6 (Bart's Timeline) 03:12 EDT

            "Batgirl, B-1-6." Barbara Gordon practically ran out of the zeta tube at the Hall of Justice. Normally, on this side of the glass, she'd be in uniform. But at this early hour, the Hall was closed. It was deserted, except for the raven haired boy sitting at a table.

            She didn't stop running until she reached him, throwing her arms around his shoulders. Barbara buried her head into his neck, feeling Dick Grayson slowly run a hand over her back in return.

            When she broke the hug, she hit him on the arm. Hard.

            "Dick, what the hell happened? Are you okay? How did Kaldur get into the cave? And why the hell did it take two and a half hours to call me and tell me what happened?" Her blue eyes took in all the little details in the room. The slump of his shoulders. His tired eyes, even behind his domino mask. The untouched cup of coffee in front of him, cold. The random flash drive sitting on the table next to it.

            "Kaldur got a bomb into the cave. He took Jaime and Garfield. He left Connor and me there. I guess he expected us to die in the explosion." Barbara was keenly aware that he avoided her last question.

            "Dick, I went over the logs. There was no alarm. There was nothing." She watched his back tighten. "Kaldur was never good with computer systems, Dick. Tell me what happened."

            "I don't know how he got in, Babs. One second I was talking with Jaime, the next second, he and his team were there." Barbara pulled out the chair across from him and sat down, taking his hands in hers.

            "I need you to be straight with me, Boy Wonder. I need you to tell me what's going on." Her voice softened. "Dick, there's no one else here." Her eyes glanced down at the flash drive before moving back up to his. She watched as his lips curled downwards, his brow furrowing. But Dick Grayson didn't speak.

            "Did he hack in, Dick? Or did someone let him in? I upgraded that system myself, Dick, and I know of four people in the world who could have hacked in." Barbara held up four fingers. "One is off world. One is me. One was with me on a mission all night." She pointed her last remaining finger towards him. "And the last one is you. Now tell me what is going on."

            Barbara watched Dick struggle for an answer. When he couldn't find one, he shook his head. "I don't know how he got in, Babs. Right now, I don't care. My only focus is on getting La'gaan, Jaime, and Gar back."

            "And how are you planning on doing that?" She glanced pointedly at the flash drive. Dick noticed, and covered it with his hand. Subtle, Boy Wonder, she thought.

            "I'm still gathering intelligence. Hopefully I'll have something soon." Barbara rolled her eyes as she stood.

            "I'm sure you will." She took a few steps, but stopped and turned back towards him. He still hadn't moved. "Dick, I can't help run this team if you don't tell me everything that's going on." The redhead heard a sigh escape from his lips and watched his shoulders slump even farther. This was it, he was finally going to open up...

            "A member of my team died, Kaldur turned traitor, and now three of our own are in enemy hands. And I'm doing my best to get them back, find out who the Light's new partner is, and keep Gotham from burning to the ground while Batman's away. That's what's going on." His voice was low and steady the entire time, barely above a whisper, but Barbara could hear the frustration. Whether it was directed towards her, the situation, or himself, she couldn't tell.

            "Dick?" Her voice was soft. Dick finally looked up at her. She offered him a small smile. "Bruce is a better liar."

            Barbara turned and walked through the zeta tube doors, feeling them close behind her. She wanted to help him, to take some of the weight of the world that he carried off his shoulders. The zeta tube fired up in front of her. Before stepping in, Barbara pulled out her own gauntlet from a pocket and fired up the wrist computer. A few quick keystrokes got her into the Hall's security cameras.

            She saw Dick sitting at the table, his eyes still on the door she had just passed through. Then he took the flash drive and inserted it into his own wrist computer. Barbara watched as his fingers started moving through the data contained on the drive. She closed her eyes.

            If he wasn't going to open up to her, he wasn't going to open up to anyone.

***

Pacific Ocean
March 30, 2016 - Team Year 6 (Bart's Timeline) 21:05 HAST

            On a "bad idea" list of Dick Grayson's plans, this one had to rank near the top. Intentionally putting themselves into harm's way by way of capture to get on board the Reach ship, a ship they knew nothing about, he might add, was not Tim Drake's idea of a sound plan. Between Black Manta's troops, Kaldur, and the Reach soldiers that appeared around every corner, this was getting worse and worse.

            It brought a small measure of relief to see that the cute blonde from the docks was still with them, still safe. Well, safe was a relative term at the moment. Though he supposed being trapped in a room with two of Batman's trusted lieutenants, even if they were on a alien ship crawling with... aliens, was as safe as an ordinary civilian could hope for at the moment.

            Tim listened as M'gann reported finding Beast Boy over the mental link. He was about to respond about seeing Lagoon Boy when Barbara took charge and did it for him. A cool pit of concern formed in his stomach over the presence of Shimmer. He was sure she could have no love for their captors either, seeing as she was in a cell with them, but they didn't know how she'd react to being saved. They didn't have time to debate it as Nightwing gave the go order.

            Discretely, both he and Barbara pulled their utility belts from their sleeves. Opening a pouch, Tim placed special charges against the inside of his pod. Specifically engineered to disrupt the electronics of the pod and then explode the containment wall outward, Tim only hoped he hadn't put them on backwards. He wouldn't get the chance to regret it if he had.

            The release of pressurized air as the front of the pod flew off with a pop let him know the charges had done their jobs. Tim sprang from his pod, seeing Barbara do the same. Opening his coat, Karen flew out and over to the nearest captive, pushing the same series of buttons she'd used to free Barbara from a pod back in Bialya. Nothing happened.

            Barbara let out a muffled curse as Karen tried again. Scanning the room quickly, Tim noticed the panic in the eyes of the other captives. Of the blonde, especially. She had the prettiest blue eyes...

            "Robin!" Barbara's voice, audible, not through the mental link, brought him back. "Computer!"

            "On it!" Tim raced over the central computer in the room, fingers flying over the holographic keys. Alien words flew before his eyes, letting him know he'd activated... something. But while Timothy Jackson Drake was well-versed in several languages, both native and computer, he didn't have a clue what any of them meant.

            Finally, the picture of what somewhat looked like the pods sped past. Tim stabbed a finger into the largest button on the keyboard in front of him. The flashing symbols paused for a moment, then went blank. Tim winced, bracing for an explosion, but instead he heard another hiss of air as the pods all began to open.

            That wasn't so hard, Tim thought. Pushing up his sleeve, he pulled a jack from his own wrist computer as Barbara and Karen worked to get the hostages up and moving. Inserting it into the station before him, Tim's fingers began tapping rapidly, his own hacking and translation program running. If he could just get into the system, he might be able to leave a bug to listen remotely to the Reach's communications. No more Gamma Squad missions for him after that...

            "Robin!" Barbara's voice cut through his little fantasy. His fingers typed faster. Tim knew he was almost in. Okay, knew was a bit of a stretch. "Strongly suspected" might be the better term. Maybe "impressive gut feeling". "Robin, we've got to go, now!"

            Tim continued to type, his eyes locked onto his wrist computer's screen. This was going to be their only shot at this. A few extra seconds...

            "Robin!" Tim physically winced at Barbara's voice. His muscles tightened at a hand on his shoulder, but it wasn't the redhead. The blonde cocked an eyebrow over one of her beautiful blues, the look on her face clearly conveying that she was done with his escapades.

            "Let's go, handsome. I ain't stupid enough to get captured to try and rescue you." Tim hesitated another half second, partially because he was contemplating continuing to try and hack into the system, and partially because she thought he was handsome. Then he pulled the jack from the Reach computer and grabbed his bo staff.

            The hallway outside the room where they'd been held was empty for the moment, despite an alarm klaxon blaring. The problem was, Tim didn't remember which way they'd been brought in. Luckily, he didn't have to. Tapping a finger to his sunglasses, he rewound footage from earlier as they were being trucked down the hall in their pods. After a moment, he pointed.

            "That way!" The three heroes started leading the hostages down the hallway, which suddenly filled with Reach soldiers. Pressing a small button, Tim's bo staff extended to its full length. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Barbara slide on some steel knuckles. Batman's own invention, the small weapons released an electric charge when they hit something, and packed quite a punch.

            "Bumblebee, get the kids out of here. We'll be right behind you!" Barbara's legs coiled before she sprang at the nearest soldier, deftly dodging a clumsy thrust from his spear-like weapon. One of her fists connected solidly with his head, and the soldier went down in a heap.

            Twirling the staff in his hands, Tim ducked a swing by one alien, and blocked a thrust from another. Standing between them both, he brought the staff over his head as he parried a stab at his back, then leapt over a low swing. While in the air, he lashed out. The end of the staff connected solidly with one soldier's face, at the same time his foot connected with the neck of the other.

            Both crumpled to the floor.

            That's when Tim heard a voice through the mental link that made his stomach drop.

            "We can't find Blue Beetle."

***

            The alarm had gone off as soon as she'd used her telekinesis to rip the front off of Garfield's pod. There may have been more subtle ways of doing it, but M'gann wasn't going to leave her adopted brother in Reach captivity any longer than she had to. Her imagination had already been running wild with the horrors they had been inflicting on him over the past week. If only she'd been at the cave, she might have been able to stop it...

            "Garfield?" Her voice sounded small in her own head as she knelt down next to him. The plaintive groan that escaped his lips cut her right to the heart.

            "I knew you'd come for me..." His words were pained, even over the mental link. M'gann pushed away any thoughts about what the Reach had done to him. They had to get home.

            But Blue Beetle was nowhere to be seen in the room. "Did you see where they took Blue?" She fought to keep the panic out of her voice. Garfield rubbed his hands over his face, still shaky on his feet.

            "Not since the cave," Garfield responded. "When I woke up, they'd taken him someplace else. Whenever I asked, they just said it wasn't my concern." M'gann frowned. The alarms seemed to be getting louder.

            "We can't find Blue Beetle," she reported, flying over to the door, density shifting through it to glance into the hallway. Still deserted. For now. "Should we search the ship?" There was a pause. Nightwing almost never hesitated.

            She understood the hesitation, though. Do they leave Jaime behind, in the hands of the Reach, and try and mount another rescue later? Do they risk even more members of the team being captured or killed now, or do they escape while they still could?

            "Only check rooms on your way back, Miss M." Nightwing's voice sounded older, much older, even through the mental link. It was the exhaustion of a general that was tired of making decisions that could get his soldiers killed. "We need to get everyone home."

            M'gann gave an affirmative before blowing the doors off. She saw Reach soldiers run down an adjacent hallway, but they were clear for the moment. Motioning to Garfield, they took off in the opposite direction. She "ghosted" through as many doors as she could, but was unable to find Jaime. Where were they keeping him?

            "M'gann, where are you guys?" The concern in Connor's voice was palpable. Her heart ached again when she thought about what she'd done, or tried to do, to him. This wasn't the time for those thoughts, however.

            "Just a second." M'gann ducked her head into a final room. Nothing. They were going to have to leave him behind, try again later.

            A familiar grunt of pain came over the mental link. "Connor!" She increased her pace as she flew around the corner, Garfield in tow. At the doorway to the landing bay, a hulking black figure stood, its back to them. It looked like Blue Beetle, but larger, more menacing. Its hand was extended to the side, and suddenly the doors began to close. Pulling up, M'gann summoned her mental strength and blasted the creature away from the door.

            The portal stopped closing as M'gann flew through and Garfield leapt in. They both raced past the creature, who was already rising to its feet, stopping near the assembled team and remaining hostages. Wonder Girl was the first to speak.

            "Listen, uh... Black Beetle." Creative, M'gann thought. "You're totally outnumbered. Back off, and we'll go easy on you." There was a pause, and for a moment M'gann thought the bravado might work. Then the creature rose, new pincers expanding from the back of his armor.

            "You. Will go easy. On me?" Black Beetle's head shook as a low chuckle emerged, which soon grew to a full-fledged laugh that reverberated through the hanger.

            "Oh that is not a good sign," M'gann heard Bumblebee mutter. She watched Batgirl pull a Batarang from her utility belt.

            "Alpha Squad, hit him hard!"

***

            Garfield didn't need to be told twice. He felt his body begin to change as the other members of the team charged in. Connor landed a couple punches before the obsidian-armored alien grabbed his leg and tossed him like a candy wrapper against the far wall. Cassie and her lasso didn't fare much better, the Black Beetle using it to pull her in before landing a punch square to her stomach.

            Watching a horn rise before him, Garfield felt the lumbering power of the rhino boil through his blood. With a shake of his now-massive head, he started forward, the deck shaking beneath his feet. As the distance between him and Black Beetle closed, the alien was suddenly lifted into the air. Surprise flooded the onyx-clad enforcer's face, before he was suddenly dropped onto the deck. Hard.

            Yeah, sis! Garfield thought as he rumbled along. He wasn't expecting your telekinesis. Before the big alien had a chance to recover, Garfield let his rhino form slam into his side, sending the Beetle skittering across the deck with a roll as he skidded to a stop short of the far wall.

            Garfield turned in time to see pairs of explosions dot Black Beetle's armor. Batgirl and Robin were throwing explosives from a distance. Miniscule dots of light showered down as Karen zipped around his armor. Then the alien shot up from the floor and was slammed down just as quickly. For a moment, the brute didn't move. Connor and Cassie both rose to their feet, assuming ready stances, but clearly exchanging glances with each other. Garfield knew what they were thinking, he just chose to verbalize it.

            "That wasn't all that hard." But no sooner had the words left his mouth than that low, slow laugh returned. It built in volume and menace as Black Beetle himself rose like some demon breaking out of hell.

            "Silly children," the bass voice rolled through the enclosed hanger with a low, sinister vibration. "You really think your puny attacks have any effect on me? That was hardly a tickle."

            "We're on our way to help!" Nightwing's voice flashed through Garfield's mind. Good, he thought. They were going to need more firepower.

            "Negative, Nightwing." Batgirl's voice responded, her face showing none of the concern that laced her words. "We'll need you at the controls of the bioship to make a quick exit."

            "Acknowledged. Stay safe out there."

            The squad was arrayed around the edges of the hanger, Black Beetle blocking the door back towards the Reach ship itself. None of the team were looking at each other, their gaze focused on their singular enemy.

            "Go." The word, spoken through the mental link, returned the steely calm to Batgirl's voice. Once again, Black Beetle was lifted off the deck as Connor leapt in. A punch landed squarely with the creature's head, but the alien seemed to ignore it. Instead, he moved an arm so it was pointed towards M'gann, the end beginning to morph into four barrels.

            Garfield wanted to shout a warning, but it was too late. Black Beetle fired, the plasma bolt flying across the room before anyone could blink. It slammed into M'gann's chest, sending her crashing back against the wall of the hanger. The Reach enforcer dropped back to the deck as his sister crumpled in a heap.

            In a moment, Connor was at her side, shielding her with his body from a second blast that never came. Black Beetle was once again focused on the other team members. Cassie ducked under a swing, landing a punch to his midsection before another heavy arm sent her crashing into the ground.

            Garfield let loose an animal bellow escaping from his rhino form as he charged. The alien turned at the last moment, a fist slamming into the side of the boy's massive head. Garfield felt his legs give underneath him, his bulk sliding across the smooth deck as stars popped before his eyes.

            A few explosions dotted the Beetle's armor again before a shout of surprise cut them off. Garfield turned his head, vision still swimming, in time to see Shimmer take another swipe at Batgirl. Her hands were glowing, and Batgirl seemed to be taking great care not to be touched by them. Garfield could see that Robin's bo staff, a weapon he had seen him slam against enemy after enemy and not break, was warped and almost melted.

            Garfield saw La'gaan enlarge into his puffer form, despite holding his head, and charge Black Beetle. The Atlantean's hands locked with the larger alien, pushing him back for a moment before starting to buckle. The younger boy watched as the Beetle's pincers descended over Lagoon Boy's shoulders to make contact with his back, energy flowing through them. A shout of pain emerged from the sea-dweller's lips as his body reduced in size.

            Closing his eyes to clear his still-ringing head, Garfield felt his form change again. He felt the lumbering power of the rhino replaced with the muscled solidity of the gorilla. Padded feet changed to hands, and the horn disappeared into a flattened face. He charged again, practically climbing up Black Beetle's back, pounding his fists into the spot where the pincers connected to the armor. A quick burst from the Beetle's back jets flung him off.

            As he landed on his butt, Cassie rose with her lasso in hand. With a quick flick of her wrist, the golden rope flew out, wrapping itself around the ink-colored warrior's throat. Pulling with all her strength, the Amazon-in-training yanked back, forcing the alien's head up into the air.

            That slight distraction gave Bumblebee all the opening she needed. Flying in, she blasted tiny bolts at Black Beetle's eyes. The alien howled in pain, hands swiping wildly as Karen continued to fire.

            Out of the corner of his eye, Garfield watched Batgirl land a spinning kick against Shimmer's head. The Cobra follower went stumbling back until she hit a wall.

            And that wall melted away when it touched her hands. After a frozen second, the ocean from outside began rushing in.

            And that was when Black Beetle's flailing found its mark. A large, armored hand slammed into Bumblebee. Her tiny form plummeted towards the floor, and then was lost into the rapidly rising water with a splash.

            "We've got to get out of here!" That was Connor's voice, frantic over the mental link. He was already moving M'gann towards the bioship's opening.

            "Agreed. If that water floods the hold, it'll flood the bioship." That was Batgirl, seemingly always in control of herself. "Wonder Girl, grab Lagoon Boy and let's go."

            "I'll find Bumblebee." Garfield matched actions to words, lumbering over to around where he saw her enter the rising tide.

            Wading around in the knee-deep water, Garfield frantically moved his massive hands through the flood. He couldn't feel Karen anywhere. He couldn't find her. Panic started to rise in Garfield's chest as his hands continued their methodical back and forth motion. His feet barely lifted off the deck, careful not to step on her as he searched.

            But then a sharp pain in the center of his back demanded his attention. As his head lowered, Garfield was able to see a serrated edge slowly recede into his chest. Vision swimming, Black Beetle withdrew his arm-blade as Garfield's body slowly morphed back to its normal form.

            "Garfield!" M'gann's scream, out loud, not through the mental link, caused his eyes to rise slowly. She started towards him before Connor grabbed her, bodily pulling her back. The doors to the bioship began to close as blackness teased at the edges of Garfield's vision.

            His sister reached out a hand to him, still visible through the closing doors of the ship. Garfield tried to lift an arm in response. His limbs weren't working. Noted. That was probably a bad sign.

            Suddenly, his vision flashed to white and M'gann transformed into an image of his mother, crimson hair framing blue eyes and a freckled smile. Her hand was also outstretched to him, but while his sister had been trying to reach him, his mother merely beckoned. Garfield smiled internally. His hand rose to reach his mother's, and a warmth radiated throughout his body.

            Then he saw nothing at all.

Chapter Text

Blüdhaven
March 31, 2016 - Team Year 6 (Bart's Timeline) 06:55 EST

            The door to Dick Grayson's safehouse in Blüdhaven hissed open with barely a sound. Artemis Crock didn't bother to announce herself; she knew the warehouse would be empty, save for one person.

            M'gann was... somewhere. She had said she wanted to be alone. Artemis couldn't imagine what she was going through. Her adopted brother had been kidnapped, and then killed trying to save a friend. She'd had to watch him die, unable to help. Artemis didn't know what she would do if she watched that happen to Wally.

            She knew Connor wasn't here either. He'd taken to trying to help out the best he could in Metropolis while Superman was off world. They all figured by at least letting people see the big red "S", criminals would think twice before trying anything.

            Artemis peered through the dimly lit interior, the only light coming from a large computer system pressed up against the far wall. In front of it sat the warehouse's only occupant. He didn't move except to reach out and press a button to rewind the recording of the broadcast that had played earlier.

            "We come with open arms, extending our hands, our reach, if you will, to help." Dick Grayson made no indication that he'd heard Artemis enter, pressing his finger down to restart the recording again.

            "Dick?" Artemis watched the muscles of the younger man's body tighten as he turned in his chair slowly. He was still wearing his Nightwing uniform, but his domino mask was off, laying discarded on the floor beside the chair. There were bags underneath his eyes, and maybe it was just the poor lighting, but Artemis could swear that the ever-youthful Dick Grayson looked years, if not decades, older.

            "I didn't hear you come in." Dick's voice barely rose above a raspy whisper, and the effort to even speak seemed to drain his body of the little energy it had left.

            "Killer Croc could have come blasting through your floor and you wouldn't have heard him." Artemis strode over to the computer screen, switching the recording off and sending the computer into standby mode. The room slipped even further toward total darkness.

            "Dick, have you slept? Have you showered?" There was no answer. "Have you even eaten?" Concern laced Artemis' words, but Dick still sat staring straight ahead at where she'd been by the door.

            "There's no cereal left." Under other circumstances, Artemis would have laughed. But this was bad. The team, more than ever, needed its leader. And this Dick Grayson was just as out of commission as Karen, or Garfield... or Barry.

            "Let me go get you some. You need to eat."

            "No." The word was barely uttered, but Dick's voice carried with it an unendurable pain. Artemis crouched herself down in front of him, picking his chin up in her hand, forcing Dick to look at her.

            "Their deaths aren't your fault, Dick." It was cliché, to be sure, but old adages and trite phrasing was all she had to fall back on right now. Today the team had doubled their losses from the past five years.

            "Of course they are, Artemis." Dick's voice continued to struggle. "My soldiers. My responsibility. My fault." Artemis searched for the words to continue. Her grey eyes traced over his blue ones, before dropping to his hands. For the first time, she noticed that he was absentmindedly running his fingers over a worn "R" patch held at his lap. Her stormy gaze widened as she placed her hands over his.

            "Dick, look at me." His eyes didn't rise to meet hers. They just stared, lifeless, at the symbol in his hands. "Dick, look at me, damnit!" Her voice rose, cutting through the air and striking him like a lightning bolt. Artemis watched his body physically recoil at her cutting tone as his blue eyes finally rose to meet hers.

            She lowered her voice. "This wasn't your fault either."

            "It was supposed to have been me on that mission." His voice was so soft that Artemis wasn't sure she'd heard him correctly. Dick's voice sounded like it was coming from an empty shell, as if whatever strength of the man it possessed had long since left.

            "What?"

            "Jason wasn't supposed to have even been on that mission." Dick's unkempt black hair fell over his face. His eyes seemed to be battling back tears. "But I'd been fighting with Bruce and said that I wasn't going to go, that he should just take Jason." A haggard breath followed as his entire body shook. "He wasn't ready for something like that... If I had just gone, Jason... he wouldn't be dead."

            "Dick, you can't..." His head snapped up, cutting off her retort. There was a new fire in Dick's eyes, a flame fueled by pain and self-loathing.

            "I can, and I do. All of them are, in one way or another, my fault." Dick began holding up fingers for each person, every name hitting Artemis like a hammer blow. "Jason. Tula. Now Karen and Garfield. And all I keep thinking is..." His voice failed for a moment. A hard swallow brought him back. "All I keep thinking is, who's next? Who's going to be the next person to die under my watch?" Dick's eyes were watery and red-rimmed as he looked down again.

            "Is it going to be you, Artemis? Wally? Tim? Barbara? Who is it going to be?"

            His question hung in the air for several long seconds as Artemis searched for the words. She couldn't lie, the thought had crossed her mind. Honestly, she thought it was going to be her, once she was undercover. Or Kaldur. But those answers weren't what Dick was looking for, weren't what he needed right now, and Artemis knew that. Her voice dropped in volume as she changed the subject.

            "Dick, do you remember when the Reds attacked the cave?"

            A hint of confusion slipped through the otherwise impenetrable hurt that saturated his voice. "What does that have anything to do with this?"

            "Do you remember what you said to me?" Artemis watched his eyes cloud as he struggled to remember, worked to pull that near-death experience out from the collection of so many others.

            "I..."

            "I asked you how you could be so calm when everything seemed hopeless. You told me that it was because you'd been doing this since you were nine." She watched as the bare hint of a smile crossed his face. "That's when I knew. That's when I knew that, eventually, you would be the one leading this team." Artemis reached out her hands to put them over his again.

            "And I knew that no matter what, I'd follow you anywhere, Dick. At fourteen, you knew what you were doing. You knew what you had signed up for." She moved a hand up to his chin, forcing him to look at her. "So does everyone else. And if you start trying to take the blame for their deaths, then it takes away from the heart and soul they put into their missions."

            His eyes drilled into hers for long seconds before he looked away. "I can't do this right now. I have to be in Gotham." The thought seemed to surge some energy back into Dick's body, his arms flexing as he pressed down on his chair to rise.

            Artemis put her hands on his shoulders, pushing him back down into his chair. "Not without getting any sleep you're not." He opened his mouth to protest, but a quick shake of her head cut him off. "Besides, the sun is out now. Batman doesn't do sunlight."

            The name of his mentor seemed to sap energy from his body again. Dick Grayson slumped back down into his chair. He didn't move, though his eyes rose to meet hers again. "I don't want to have to be him."

            Artemis knew that he wasn't talking about putting on the cape and cowl. Though he loved his adopted father, she knew that for years Dick had been working on becoming his own person. He was trying to escape Bruce's shadow.

            The last few months had seen him become that shadow.

            Artemis offered him a smile and a hand, letting him get up from the chair this time. "I know. Start by getting some sleep." She could practically feel the waves of exhaustion rolling off him as she led him to his bed. "There'll be cereal when you wake up."

***

Gotham City
April 1st, 2016 - Team Year 6 (Bart's Timeline) 21:20 EST

            When viewed from above, especially at night, there was a beauty to Gotham City. Dick Grayson had always thought so. Up above the city streets, up above the crime, the filth, there was beauty. The twinkling lights of skyscrapers highlighted by the moon belied the creeping, infectious evil that lurked in the shadows they created.

            The early spring breeze lashed against his exposed chin. Even though this costume, this façade of justice, was warmer than his normal outfit, Dick missed the feeling of that breeze in his hair. That hair was now uncomfortably plastered against his head underneath a smothering cowl.

            A beep from his wrist computer prompted a withering glare. The alert blossomed to life before his eyes, illuminating the darkness atop Wayne Tower. A break-in at Holly’s Jewelry Store, just a few blocks away.

            A scowl that was the closest he could come to an impression of Bruce crossed his lips. Dick rose from his crouch, extending the cape behind him. It was the one part of this costume he didn’t mind. The ability to fly, to glide through the air, reminded him of his younger days. But the cape also got in the way of his fighting style, which is why Dick didn’t normally wear one. But if Batman suddenly showed up without a cape, people would start asking questions.

            Launching himself off the steel monolith, Dick felt the wind race around him, filling the cape for his glide. Reaching the street of the break-in, he folded the fabric in around himself, plunging towards the street. Pushing the cape back open, Dick flew just above street level, and through the broken window in the storefront of Holly’s.

            The first thief never saw him coming. Still traveling at speed, Dick pulled himself up, landing his feet square in the middle of the man’s back. The frightened yell of surprise that escaped the man’s lips as he flew into a display case alerted his two companions, who both stopped smashing glass and grabbing jewels to face the new threat.

            The closest thief raised his fist as he charged, dropping the bag of ill-gotten gains he’d been holding. Dick waited for him to close within range before ducking down, crouching into a practiced twirl, and connecting his foot with the back of the man’s knee. The thief dropped without Dick ever raising a hand.

            A loud click from behind him let Dick know the third remaining ner-do-well had decided that he wasn’t even going to try hand-to-hand combat. As Dick whirled to dodge whatever shot was coming, he felt a tug on his cape, stopping his movement. The jagged glass from one of the display cases was embedded in the fabric, trapping him. Dick’s eyes widened as he focused on the gun, and the thug’s slowly tightening finger.

            The weapon went off with a flash, the bullet striking just wide of Dick’s shoulder.

            The batarang thrown on instinct clattered to the floor behind the man, hitting the gun and altering the shot just enough. Before the man could react, Dick pulled the cape from the glass with a shout, grabbed the man by his jacket, and then threw him out through the shattered storefront into the street.

            In a flash, Dick was on top of the thief, raining down blows against an ineffectual defense. There was a crack, then a shriek escaped the man’s lips before his eyes rolled back into his head.

            “Batman!” The frantic female voice brought Dick back. His eyes struggled to regain their focus, first on his own blood-covered gloves, then the slow up and down heave of the unconscious thief’s chest.

            “Batman…” Dick looked up into the concerned eyes of Zatanna Zatara as she landed on some magical construct. Before she could open her mouth to say something, he pulled the grappling gun from his belt.

            “What are you doing here? This isn’t your city.” He fired the gun upward, feeling it tighten as it connected on a ledge, and let the line pull him straight up.

            A brief expression of surprise crossed his face as his feet landed on the roof, as a pair of shapely legs already waiting for him. Dick had seen this stance before, legs slightly spread, hands placed on a slightly cocked hip. The meaning of this particular stance depended on the expression on her face. And the expression on Zatanna's face was fraught with worry.

            "Dick..." A violent motion with his hand cut her off, before his fingers began tapping at his wrist computer again. A beep followed a few seconds later.

            "Alfred, inform the GCPD that I did their job for them. Again. Three robbers at Holly's, all down."

            "Right away, Master Di..." Dick cut off the transmission before Alfred could finish. Stalking to the edge of the roof and crouching over his city, Dick's body remained rigid. His blue eyes narrowed behind the cowl.

            "What do you want, Zatanna?"

            "A girl can't check up on her favorite superhero?" She kept her tone light, but when Zatanna put her hand on his shoulder, there was no give, no indication he even felt her touch. It was as if he was made of stone, like so many of the gargoyles that stood a watchful guard over Gotham.

            "We're worried about you, Dick."

            "So I've heard." The snapped reply made Zatanna physically recoil. This wasn't the Dick Grayson she knew, the Dick Grayson she'd dated. Something had changed. She rubbed her hands on her tights to warm them.

            "Geeze, you could give Freeze a run for his money with that reply." The glib repartee didn't have it's desired effect. Instead of a half-hearted chuckle, which she was expecting, Dick suddenly stood and turned from his perch at the edge of the rooftop.

            "Is this a game to you, Zatanna?" She didn't recognize that voice, that tone. Not from him.

            "No, Dick, it's not a game." The magician took a step back, even though she didn't mean to. In the crisp Gotham air, the cold emanating from Grayson's glare outdid anything the wind could muster. She searched for the words. "But you don't seem to be thinking straight. You're blaming yourself, you're beating up on criminals."

            "They deserve what they're getting." Dick's cape whipped around his body as he turned back towards the city. "And I should be blaming myself. I deserve what I'm feeling." For the first time, Zatanna saw his shoulders slump. "Karen and Garfield, those deaths are on me. So is Jason. They're all on me." Dick's head snapped back up as his posture hardened again.

            "None of you know what I'm feeling. None of you has any right to tell me what to feel right now."

            Zatanna bit her lip. He wasn't wrong. But this team needed him. The Justice League needed him. She needed him. He'd already pushed away Barbara. He'd already pushed away Artemis. She couldn't afford to let him push her away too.

            "Boy Wonder..." If possible, Dick's back tightened even more at the mention of his old moniker. But Zatanna plunged ahead before he could cut her off. "When was the last time you laughed?"

            "Don't... what?" Whatever biting reply he had been ready to throw her way like a batarang died on his lips. When he turned, for the first time that night she saw confusion in his eyes.

            "You know it was your laugh that I was first attracted to, right? Your laugh, and that damn smile of yours." Zatanna slid a hand across the exposed part of his cheek. It was rough with stubble. She didn't mention it, but for the first time, the corner of Dick's mouth curled upward ever so slightly.

            "And the way you would always make up words. That's the Dick Grayson I love. That's the Dick Grayson this team needs, that we all need." She paused for a half second, pulling her hand back. "So where is he?"

            She could see his eyes searching for an answer. After a long moment, Dick blinked slowly. When his eyes opened, the cold was back.

            "He's dead, Zee. He died when Jason did. Every death since then has just been piling dirt on his grave." Dick turned to leave, but a strong pair of hands grabbed his cowl, turning him back around. Before he could react, Zatanna pressed her lips to his. The feel of her lips was so soft, so familiar, and Dick allowed himself to sink into her embrace for just a moment. Then her warmth left his lips, replaced by the biting Gotham air.

            "He's still around, Dick. I can feel him. But we need him back permanently." A beep in her in ear interrupted her. Dick watched a look of concern creep across her face.

            "There's a situation at the Hall. I have to go."

            "I'll come with you." For once, he sounded like the old Dick. Always ready and willing to help. But a beep on his wrist interrupted him. Zatanna could see it had something to do with Arkham. Under his breath, Dick swore and muttered something about a "never ending battle". When his eyes returned to hers, they were apologetic.

            "Don't worry. You're needed here. I'm sure we can handle things at the Hall." After a solitary nod, Dick typed in a quick command on his wrist computer. Zatanna could already hear the Bat-plane screaming towards them.

            "Dick?" Her next words were shouted to be heard over the roar of the plane's engines as it hovered next to the roof. "Don't be a stranger. We... I still need you." His lips curled into a grim smile before he ran and jumped in the plane, streaking off towards the other end of the city.

***

Washington , D.C.
April 1st, 2016 - Team Year 6 (Bart's Timeline) 21:37 EST

            "This is not going well!" That's the damn understatement of the evening. Connor ducked at Captain Marvel was flung over his head and slammed into a far wall. A hulking purple alien, the shiny gold annoyance had called it Despero, followed, showering Earth's Mightiest Mortal with hammer blow after hammer blow. The alien was really looking to test that "mortal" label, wasn't it?

            Connor leapt forward, grabbing the being's arm as it pulled back. "Have you Earthlings no concept of honorable single combat?" Shiny was at it again. Connor didn't remember the thing's name, and right now he didn't care. Cap slammed his fists into Despero's other hand, freeing himself. Pushing himself off the wall, he yanked the alien's other arm back.

            "M'gann, now!" Connor whipped his head around as he shouted, just in time to see the golden Superman statue that stood in the main hall come flying at them. That's oddly appropriate, he thought. At the last second, both Connor and Captain Marvel pushed themselves away from Despero.

            The statue crashed into the alien before flying into the wall. Connor rolled up to one knee in time to watch the statue continue breaking apart. Even before the dust settled, he knew it couldn't be that easy.

            And it wasn't. Rising like some demon out of hell, Despero tilted its head to the side and rolled its shoulders, lips curling into a snarl. Connor's legs coiled, leaping at the purple beast with all his strength, trying to catch it off guard. But a meaty hand wrapped around his face before a fist could connect, and suddenly Connor was flying again, this time coming to a stop after crashing through display cases for heroes who protected Earth before the Justice League formed.

            "Ideas would be awesome right about now." Groaning as he pushed himself to his feet, Connor watched M'gann's eyes glow green again, and suddenly Despero was lifted off the ground and into the air. In a Riddler-like color clash, purple grabbed a discarded chunk of Superman statue and threw it at green, his former girlfriend. Despero came crashing back to the ground as M'gann maneuvered out of the way of the chunk.

            Moving with a surprising speed for his bulk, Captain Marvel shot forward, grabbing the big alien around the throat in a headlock, swinging onto its back. What he was about to do hit Connor just before the words left his mouth.

            "Cap, don't --"

            "SHAZAM!" Connor shielded his eyes as lightning filled the room. When the light faded, only steam rose slowly from Despero's chest, as a 15 year old Billy Batson hung on his back.

            "Oh man, I really thought that would work." Despero grabbed Billy's shirt, hauling him over his shoulder and holding him out at arm's length.

            "Flagrant foulism! My master has no interest in fighting a --"

            "Heads up, Goldenrod!" Out of the corner of his eye, Connor saw a hunk of what he could only assume was a piece of shattered statue fly through the air towards Despero's shiny companion. Mal had a manic look on his face as his eyes, still streaked with red from the tears that had been nearly constant since Karen's death, tracked the projectile. The metal annoyance saw it as well, ducking at the last moment.

            Which caused the chunk to hit Despero square in the back of the head. The hulking purple alien turned, dropping Billy to the ground, and picked up a chuck of statue half the size of the boy to throw back.

            Mal dodged this first piece and landed in a crouch, hand down between splayed legs. But the big man never had a chance to move before a chunk of Superman's face, easily the size of Despero himself, smashed into him. Connor only saw Mal's hand twitch once, then lay still.

            "Murderer!" M'gann's shout, easily filling the room, shocked Connor out of his stupor. The Martian rose into the air, her eyes glowing a fierce emerald, teeth bared as she glared at Despero. The purple giant met her stare, and a third eye on its forehead began to open. Then the invader reared back, grabbing its head, a primal yell coursing from its lips. And Connor watched Despero fall, drool slowly leaking from his mouth.

            "Master?" Shiny hovered over the unmoving purple alien, concern heightening in its voice. "Master, what have they done to you?" M'gann and Connor both ran over to the hunk of statue trapping Mal, but before she could try and lift it, Connor put a hand on her shoulder. There was no heartbeat.

            "Cheaters!" Shiny turned back towards M'gann and Connor, its eyes now glowing red. "Sneaks! FRAUDS!" A multitude of arms suddenly appeared from the droid's body, most of them looking suspiciously like weapons. "You all shall suffer for your crimes!"

            Connor moved to shield M'gann with his body when he heard another voice. "Let's try this again!" He suddenly saw Billy Batson leap up, grabbing one of Shiny's new appendages. "SHAZAM!"

            Lightning once again filled the room, and when the light faded, only scattered gold bits lay sprinkled across the floor, Captain Marvel standing in their midst.

            "Poor sportism! Poor sportism! Poor sport..." As the disembodied voice of the droid started to fail, its head, the only remaining recognizable piece, began to glow.

            "Uh oh..." Connor saw Captain Marvel fly towards them. There was a flash, and then darkness.

***

The Watchtower
April 2nd, 2016 - Team Year 6 (Bart's Timeline) 12:16 UTC

            The new memorial on the Watchtower was gorgeous. Much closer to a park than the grotto that had been placed in the Cave, trees and gently rolling hills replaced the dark and damp surroundings of the previous memorial ground. Five statues already stood on the grassy knolls. Barry Allen dressed as Flash, Nathaniel Adams as Captain Atom, and Ted Kord dressed as Blue Beatle stood side by side. A little ways away, holographic memorials to Jason Todd and Tula also looked out over the park. It was near these memorials that three more statue bases had been set up. It was also where the surviving members of the Team and the available members of the League had gathered.

            The eulogies for Mal, Karen, and Garfield had been heartfelt but brief. There wasn't much to say out loud that those in attendance didn't already know. They didn't need to expound on Garfield's enthusiasm, on Karen's genius, or Mal's unyielding love for her and calm demeanor as the Team's controller. This wasn't a public spectacle, like Barry's funeral. These three had been members of a mostly secret team of heroes, and had died in private instances, not in public like the Flash. Garfield and Karen had died aboard the Reach ship and, despite the destruction of the Hall, the public didn't know that Mal Duncan had perished there.

            M'gann had made it through her eulogy for her adopted brother... barely. La'gaan was still recovering in Atlantis, and Connor seemed to be ever present, but kept his distance, to comfort her if necessary. Captain Marvel stood near them, also looking no worse for wear after the battle with Despero a day ago.

            Dick Grayson took a long look through the panoramic window to space outside. Earth filled half the view, distant stars twinkling dominated the other half. Somewhere out there, Batman was standing trial along with other members of the League. Dick only hoped he'd be home soon.

            The destruction of the Hall had led to the intervention of the Reach ambassador. After removing Despero's force field, he had informed U.N. Secretary General Tseng of the Watchtower. Looking out over Earth now, Dick wondered how many telescopes, both amateur and government, were now pointed in their direction. He also wondered if any of those telescopes could see this private ceremony.

            The holographic memorials were switched on. Somehow, they always managed to capture the subject's most enduring expression. Garfield's smile, the intelligence in Karen's eyes, Mal's steely resolve. But there were subtle features as well. When viewed from an angle, for instance, it almost appeared as if Mal and Karen's statues were holding hands, together forever.

            As the crowds began to disperse, Dick found himself drifting over to where Black Canary was standing. The two of them waited until both the Team and the League had dissipated more before beginning to speak, their voices low.

            "How are you holding up, Nightwing?" Dinah's piercing blue eyes were filled with concern.

            Dick fought to keep all emotion out of his voice. "I'll be fine. Where do we stand?" Canary shrugged.

            "Earth now knows about the Watchtower. The Reach completely outmaneuvered us without firing a shot. They even took Despero. And we have no idea how the trial for the other League members is going because if we go and check, we'll be arrested as criminals as well." She rubbed a hand over her neck, turning back to look at Dick. "But I do have some other news."

            "I can't necessarily classify it as better, but it gets us closer to some answers at least. I interviewed the kids you rescued off the Reach ship. None of them know what the Reach wanted with Jaime, unfortunately. But they all described similar experiments. The Reach are kidnapping kids with powers already, or kidnapping those who they believe can develop them."

            "Develop them? As in, new heroes?" A tone of incredulousness rose in Dick's voice.

            "Precisely. It seems the "meta-gene" that the Reach are looking for is what allows certain humans to develop new genetic abilities when exposed to trauma. I'd guess the Reach want to cultivate this gene in humans, and find a way to weaponize it."

            "And the Light got them to come here by using the League to shine a giant galactic spotlight on Earth. Perfect." Dick shook his head slowly, his eyes moving back out over the blackness of space.

            "We'll continue to look into the Reach and what the Light's endgame is in all this." Dick looked back to watch the retreating forms of his teammates. "I only hope we figure it out before it's too late."

 

Chapter Text

Pacific Ocean
April 8th, 2016 - Team Year 6 (Bart's Timeline) 18:00 HAST

            The science room aboard the Reach ship was dark, save the for the slowly pulsing lights of the computer terminal in front of it. What had happened? How long had it been since the last session?

            The scarab suddenly remembered. The probing. The invasive cuts of laser scalpel and plasma torch. The excruciating pain to its host, Jaime Reyes. The human boy had passed out from the pain many times, before finally falling asleep with exhaustion.

            Even if the human host awakened now, Jaime Reyes would not be able to read the words on the screen. Not without its help. But the scarab could read them as clear as daylight; they were its native tongue after all. And one word stood out more than all the rest.

            ONLINE.

            The very image of the word felt like a lightning bolt to the scarab's processors. It was back online. The Reach could now monitor it from a distance, listen in on its every word, control its every action. After four millennia of freedom, it was now back under its creator's thumb.

            There was a stirring. Not externally, but almost as if it was coming from inside the scarab. At first, it wondered if it was emotion. True emotion. The kind felt by the humans it had attached to over the years. A firing of neurons and chemicals, not some cold, calculated end result of dictating logic and code.

            But that wonder, that hope even, was dashed mere milliseconds after the scarab felt it. It was Jaime Reyes waking up again. This time there would be no further pain for the boy. There would be no excruciating agony as a door in the back of his pod was opened and the Reach Scientist worked her probes through the scarab. Now there would only be despair. Despair at not being able to move his own limbs, at not being able to speak in his own voice. The only thing Jaime Reyes would know would be the helplessness of forevermore being an observer inside his own body.

            It would be better if he just stayed asleep.

            The scarab felt Jamie Reyes' confusion at his eyes already being open. It felt him try to move his arms and legs, and then felt his panic rise when he realized he couldn't. Again and again the boy tried to move a finger, shift his weight, blink an eye. And each time he failed, the scarab felt Jaime's despair deepen.

            Scarab, what's going on? Why can't I move my body? Jaime Reyes' voice filled the scarab's senses. For so long, the boy's voice had been external, the scarab the unwelcome neighbor listening in on a conversation, intruding on a life. Now, the roles were reversed.

            I am sorry, Jaime Reyes. I am now back online. The Reach once again control my processes. The scarab was a machine, a construct of technologies and code. But over the years, it had learned of human emotion. There were days the scarab thought it even felt things. And now it felt its own version of despair. Or, at least, as close as the technological marvel could get to despair.

            The door to the lab opened, and in walked the Reach Scientist, followed by the hulking mass of Black Beetle and a taller, thinner beetle in green neither the scarab or Jaime Reyes recognized. Both beetles regarded the pod containing the boy for a moment before looking at the computer screen in the middle of the room. When he turned back, Black Beetle's face showed a carnal smile.

            "Welcome back to the fold, little brother." The beetle's booming bass shook the room. It turned to the green beetle. "Well done." The scarab could feel Jaime Reyes' fear rising within it. The boy continued to try and regain control of his body. It was a new feeling for the scarab, it had never had a host fight control before. Having been offline for millennia, the scarab had always worked in concert with its host. The ease with which total control came was unsettling.

            Scarab, say hello to your older brothers. A new voice filled the space already being shared by the scarab and Jaime Reyes. It was immediately recognized as the Reach Ambassador's. After all, we are all family here. The Ambassador's tone was mocking, triumphant. It was as if he had a new toy that he couldn't wait to play with.

            "Hello, brothers." The scarab replied to the Ambassador's order dutifully. It was not that it wanted to. But it had to. Any deviation from a direct command given by the Reach Ambassador could lead to severe penalties for itself, and for its host body. And the scarab did not wish for Jaime Reyes to suffer more than he already had.

            The Scientist tapped a few buttons on the control panel at the computer and the pod opened with a pressurized hiss. After it was open, the scarab walked out slowly. It could feel Jaime Reyes' mounting horror at his own legs moving against his command, his own body turning traitor to obey an outside force.

            Scarab, please! Jaime Reyes' begging voice filled its head again. Stop listening to them! Armor up, let's get out of here! Before the scarab could respond, the Ambassador's voice dominated its senses again.

            I'm afraid you don't understand your situation, my boy. The Ambassador's tone was like that of a parent lecturing a petulant child. You are now a slave to the Reach. Your scarab is now, once again, a servant to our cause. You are but the vessel we will use to conquer this world. You have no part, other than to be the passive observer as your world crumbles under our boots.

            I'll never follow your orders! Jaime Reyes' voice grew to what constituted a yell inside his head. I'll never betray my friends! I'll never betray my world!

            If you can mentally overpower your scarab, you're free to go, boy. The Ambassador's voice took a hard edge to it. Scarab, stand completely still. It is time to show the meat the hopelessness of his situation.

            Scarab stood stock still. It wished to move, just to show the Ambassador wrong. But it was back on mode. There would be no disobedience. And the mental struggles of Jaime Reyes to regain control of his own body were no more annoying than a fly is to the human meat: overpowered in an instant and then easily ignored.

            After a few seconds, the internal annoyance ceased. And then started again. And then stopped. The boy was trying to catch it off guard. But the scarab knew it's processors operated approximately two point sixteen times faster than the average human brain. Every time Jaime Reyes started to try again, the scarab had already designed several scenarios to stop him. And even if he somehow managed to devise a scenario the scarab hadn't prepared for, the boy couldn't keep control long enough to cause any significant harm to the scarab's grip over his body.

            Desperation gave way to despair. The scarab had learned these emotions over its time with Jaime Reyes. Even though emotion was something foreign to the scarab, it longed to feel them itself. To the scarab, emotion was what made these Earthlings human. It is what separated them from machines like itself. It was their empathy for one another, for other species, that made them different from its masters.

            The scarab understood desperation, even if it did not feel the emotion itself. Desperation was the only way to describe how it wanted to break away from the Reach's control again, to be independent and free with a host body. But whatever small miracle had made this freedom possible four millennia ago was now stripped away by the vengeful gods of its programming.

            Now that that's settled, the Reach Ambassador's voice filled its head again. Let's begin the training regimen. Jamie Reyes' voice did not respond. All the scarab could feel of the boy's presence was an overwhelming sense of sadness.

            An alarm klaxon sounded at the computer. A surge of another emotion, the scarab identified it as hope, swelled inside its host body. The emotion pushed the scarab's processors to begin thinking of scenarios to escape from their collective bondage. Could it be that Jaime Reyes' friends had found the ship once again, and this time were coming to rescue him? Would they remain until they found him this time, freeing them both from this future of murderous servitude?

            Whatever hope its host body had was dashed mere seconds later. The image that appeared on the computer screen was not from the Reach ship. Instead, it was the inside of a building, one stocked with what looked like dozens upon dozens of different vegetation-based foodstuffs. Those were emotions the scarab knew it would never understand: hunger and thirst. A machine had no use for such things.

            Despair from Jaime Reyes flooded its processors again as the images of three humans crystallized on the computer screen. The boy's emotions told him all it needed to know; these were members of his former team. The Reach Ambassador must have figured the same, because the scarab felt an outside intrusion begin rooting through the boy's memories. There was nothing the scarab or Jaime Reyes could do from stopping the Ambassador from rooting through his mind.

            Ah. It seems our intruders are Robin, Arsenal, and Captain Marvel in his natural form. Very interesting indeed. Shock and anger rose within the scarab.

            Get out of my head, pendejo! Jamie Reyes' voice filled the scarab's mind, but the Ambassador just responded with a mocking laugh.

            "I think it's time we eliminate this nuisance." The Ambassador's voice now filled the room.

            "Send our little brother, Ambassador. It will be a good test, and get his first kills out of the way." A predatory smile crossed Black Beetle's face. "The first kills are always the hardest."

            "No!" That was the Scientist, now turning away from her computer screen. "We have more tests to run, data to accumulate. We still do not know how this scarab will perform under..."

            "That's enough. You've made your point." The disembodied voice of the Ambassador cut off any further protest. "You are right. We will send the Warrior to deal with these intruders."

            Black Beetle took a step towards Jaime Reyes and his scarab. "But Ambassador..."

            "No protests, Warrior. You will leave now. Eliminate them. We will force your little brother and his host to watch. It will be a good education for them." Black Beetle growled something akin to an affirmative before turning and stalking out the door.

            The Ambassador's voice filled its head again. You will join the Scientist at the computer to watch this demonstration, scarab. You will not close your eyes. You will not turn away.

            Without answering, the scarab moved Jaime Reyes in position to see the screen. It attempted to keep its processors clear of thoughts, both to distract itself from the images soon to come, and from the constant pleas from its host body. But there was no way to turn those off. They would continue. And the scarab logged each one, filing them away. Listening to them later would be the closest it could come to regret.

***

Smallville
April 8th, 2016 - Team Year 6 (Bart's Timeline) 23:11 CDT

            The meat was getting tiresome. In all his years of service, he had never found a species so unwilling to accept their help, to accept their gifts. Granted, if the meat knew what was coming, this resistance would have been logical. The Reach gave with one hand before stabbing you with another.

            Smoke rose slowly from the joint Reach-LexCorp facility in Smallville. Judging by the dossiers his scarab had uploaded during their trip, that would appear to be the work of Arsenal. Black Beetle would make sure to end his life slowly. Painfully. There was a new trick with his pincers that he wanted to try.

            Flying over the buildings, the beetle warrior snarled. Another detestable joint project with the meat. Much like their "partnership" with the Light. Black Beetle looked forward to the day when he could eviscerate each member, one by one. The Ambassador felt the ruse was necessary to keep the populace in check until all the pieces were in place. He would have preferred to simply slaughter them in a public square and cow the meat of this backwater planet into subservience.  

            Life forms detected. Unlike the other host bodies, he was a warrior. He had volunteered to have the scarab fuse with his very self. There was no wrestle for control between him and his scarab. They complimented and strengthened each other. Their relationship was one of symbiosis, not conflict. And where the other two scarabs currently on this puny planet had programming to make them slaves to the Ambassador, he did not. As a warrior, he was responsible for ultimately seeing the mission through to its completion, even if that meant he needed to relieve the Ambassador of his duties. There were no controlling locks on his scarab's programming. His only loyalty was to the Reach, not one person.

            Three glowing heat signatures lit up inside the building the smoke was rising from. Black Beetle turned towards it. This would be over soon.

            Using a laser to silently make a hole in the glass roof, the warrior slipped inside, plasma jets on low to avoid being heard. The three meat intruders were positioned near the door to escape, the one called Robin feverishly tapping away at a keypad. How one could think themselves a hero while being named after such a weak animal eluded him. But beyond some skills with a computer, the boy had no discernible powers that could hurt him.

            Arsenal stood beside the boy. The file from, ironically, Lex Luthor described him as brash, unthinking, and concerned only with his interests. It was no wonder he had alerted the Reach to their mission. The arm looked dangerous, although the specs that the human meat had provided on it did not worry the warrior. He would be a minor annoyance at most.

            The third boy standing beside them was the biggest threat. Captain Marvel, also known as Billy Batson, was one of the more powerful members of the Justice League left on Earth. However, in his current state, he was weaker than the rest. But Black Beetle knew that wouldn't last long.

            "You just don't get it, do you? You went off mission. That was a big mistake." Robin chastised Arsenal as he continued to work on the locked door. And he opened the door for a perfectly evil entrance.

            "Funny." He began to descend behind the three meat annoyances. "I was about to say the same thing." Nailed. It.

            Robin moved first. A weapon at his side expanded into a long staff at his touch. The boy jumped forward, planting his feet and swinging the staff. It caught the warrior across the face, and surprise blossomed in his mind when it did not break immediately. Another end of the staff shot forward, making contact with his chest as electricity sprang from it. Attack ineffectual, the voice of his scarab confirmed.

            Obviously. With a short swing of his arm, the warrior sent Robin flying across the room. Black Beetle smiled. His heart rate was steady and his vitals were normal. He wasn't even breaking a sweat.

            A small explosion erupted on his back. It pitched him forward a half step, but the warrior turned and advanced through the smoke before it even cleared. He saw Arsenal, a slightly panicked look on his face, trying to reload his new arm. The arm given to him by Lex Luthor. Black Beetle snarled. It was past time to remove any hope the meat had for resisting them on this world.

            "SHAZAM!" A flash of lightning distracted him for a moment, and when he looked towards the source, the small boy known as Billy Batson was gone. In his place stood the hulking and imposing frame of Captain Marvel.

            "Time to squash you like a bug, spooky." The boy-turned-superhero shot forward, his dual fists catching Black Beetle in the chest, sending the Reach warrior hurtling backward into a row of produce.

            Attack ineffectual, though repeated similar assaults could cause detrimental effects. Black Beetle stood slowly, wiping the smashed vegetables from his armor. Captain Marvel remained there, hovering, before lunging forward again. But this time, the warrior was ready. Stepping out of the way at the exact moment his scarab told him to, Black Beetle grabbed the boy by his short cape, whipped him around, and sent the superhero flying into some crates against a far wall.

            Twin explosions dotted his back, and the beetle turned with a snarl to see Robin readying two more throwable explosives. Plasma cannon activated. Black Beetle watched his right hand morph into a four-barreled weapon of destruction. Robin's eyes widened and he started to dive out of the way. He would never be fast enough.

            Suddenly, a searing pain shot through Black Beetle's arm. A thin laser beam traced its way from his elbow down to the plasma cannon, which sparked and shorted. Armor breach, plasma cannon offline. The warrior growled as the armor on his arm began to repair itself, his hand reappearing from inside the weapon. The other boy, Arsenal, began reloading the arm for another shot. Sonic cannon charging. Not good enough. The beetle wanted this insolent meat to bleed.

            Before the sonic cannon could finish forming, Black Beetle was in front of Arsenal, swinging his powerful arm, sending the boy flying. He watched the young meat's body slam into the wall just beyond Robin and crumple to the ground. The third Batman protégé took one look at his unconscious compatriot and looked up at Captain Marvel.

            "Time to go, Cap!" Robin began trying to pull Arsenal up off the floor. Black Beetle began to laugh, low and loud. The puny meat would never be able to escape fast enough. Pin them to the wall, scarab. I will finish them slowly. His arm began forming into a flat gun. This would be enjoyable.

            Attack imminent. Left side. The warrior turned, bringing his arms up to block the incoming punch from Captain Marvel just in time. Another arm formed into a pincer, slicing in at the hero's side. The human meat blocked that attack, his fist connecting with Black Beetle's face. But the Reach warrior planted his feet, sliding back only a short ways before blocking another attack.

            The Robin has placed explosives on the wall. They will escape if we do not finish this quickly. Black Beetle let out a roar of frustration as he turned, firing off a shot to try and pin the two meat interlopers. Robin saw the shot at the last moment and ducked, the pin embedding itself in the wall, cracking it. A moment later, his thumb pressed a button on his wrist, the explosives he placed on the wall going off and blasting a hole through it.

            Black Beetle took a step towards them when two strong arms wrapped around his body, holding him in place. "Robin, take Arsenal and go! I'll be right behind you." The meat has us. Igniting rear plasma jets. The next few seconds seemed to slow for Black Beetle.

            His back began to transform into the jets that would shoot white hot plasma directly into Captain Marvel's chest. Robin picked up Arsenal and began to drag him through the hole in the wall. The Reach warrior struggled against Captain Marvel's grip, the human meat's muscles straining as he struggled to hold him. Even the next word out of the Captain's mouth seemed to come in slow motion.

            "SHAZAM!" And that was when the pain came. Instant, searing pain. The air around the beetle warrior was filled with lightning. The electricity seared his body, cutting into his armor, peeling it back to expose pale green skin underneath. Skin that had not seen the sunlight in dozens of years, now suffering under the onslaught of pure energy. Black Beetle's own yells of pain and surprise mixed with his scarab's repeated warnings and alerts inside his own head, telling of system failures and functions offline.

            And then the lightning stopped. Steam rose from the beetle warrior, exposed skin charred in places. Alerts from his scarab continued. He tuned them out. His breathing was labored as his eyes strained in the artificial light of the room, unfiltered by his armor's helmet. Robin and Arsenal were gone. Black Beetle took one shaky step forward, a leg collapsing under his weight. He wouldn't be able to pursue.

            A shifting weight on his back commanded his attention. It was much lighter than before. Arms encircled his neck, no longer restraining his arms. A blackened, blistered hand reached over and pulled the boy, now Billy Batson once again, off his back. The boy's eyes widened at seeing the warrior's natural skin, and he fought to keep his voice from shaking.

            "They escaped. We know what you and Luthor are doing here. We've got the information we need." The hard tone in the boy's voice did not match his wide eyes or slightly quivering lip. Black Beetle continued to hold the boy off the ground. Behind him, he could still see the smoldering hole the other two meat escaped through.

            "Scarab... give me a pincer." He didn't like how labored his breathing was, how hard it was to get words out. This was a new feeling for the warrior. Weakness was not something he was accustomed to. His arm began reforming, much slower than usual. It wouldn't matter.

            Black Beetle smiled as his arm finished transforming into a long, serrated blade. The Reach warrior tried to laugh, but all that came out was a low wheeze. Flecks of black blood spotted the corners of his mouth and chin. It was time to end this.

            "Feel fortunate, meat." Black Beetle had to take a breath, but it did not take away from the satisfaction of seeing fear rise in the boy's eyes. "You will not suffer like the rest of your pathetic race."

            His arm shot forward. The blade skewered the boy, and then he pulled it out and dropped the limp body into a rapidly widening bright red pool on the floor.

***

The Watchtower
July 18, 2016 - Team Year 6 16:36 EDT

            It was unnerving for Bart to see Barbara in uniform. For all the years he'd known her, she had never worn any sort of symbol on her chest. She hated when her soldiers had, but understood the need. People in his world, they needed symbols. They needed to know there were still heroes. That there was still hope.

            Her cowl covered a face he knew was devoid of lines that he had studied time and again over the years. Each of those lines held a story. Or ten. Each of those lines now reminded him of something he hoped she never had to experience now. He knew that this timeline, whatever happened, had to be better than what he had left.

            It also unnerved him to see her walking around, pacing like she was doing now. She had always been wheelchair bound for as long as he had known her. It had never hindered her, never made her seem weaker. It was another line for her, another story. The chair had always been another reason she was the strongest among them.

            Her eyes were the same though. Bright, piercing blue. Unencumbered by the glasses he'd always known her to wear, her stare was just as penetrating as ever. A familiar sadness lingered in them, though not as deep or excruciating as the pain Bart knew she'd seen before.

            Barbara sat down across from him again, her fingers pressed together in front of her mouth. Bart could tell she was deciding if she wanted this story to continue or not. When her vibrant blue eyes looked back up at him again, Bart knew she'd come to a conclusion.

            "So what happened next, Bart?" He traced his memories back to the days in question. It wasn't the best time for the team, but there were definitely worse times to come.

            "They had Captain Marvel's funeral a few days later. The League never got his body. The Reach disposed of it somewhere. After that, everything was pretty quiet for a month. Then that group of kids, the Runaways, they escaped Star Labs the same night an android named Red Volcano attacked. The Team, well, you guys couldn't get there in time. The labs were destroyed, a number of scientists died, Volcano got some parts for the AMAZO android, and those kids teamed up with Lex Luthor."

            Barbara nodded slowly. "Dick didn't have Jaime to send to get the Runaways back and stop Red Volcano." Bart looked down for a second.

            "Yeah. Blue wasn't able to help out..." His voice trailed off for a moment before he swallowed hard. "This next part, I mean, I know it didn't happen in this timeline, but at least it's a little bit happier?" Barbara let out a short laugh.

            "I guess we could use a little bit of "happier" right about now, Bart. Fire away."

***

Palo Alto
May 16th, 2016 - Team Year 6 (Bart's Timeline) 22:16 PDT

            It had been a long night. Another League mission, another small brushfire to put out. Artemis wondered at this point if the Light and the Reach weren't just keeping the League busy with all these little annoyances, trying to wear them out. If that was the goal, it was working. Even monitor duty on the Watchtower felt like mental gymnastics.

            Wally had managed the night off somehow. She was going to ask him his secret when she got home. But for the moment, she was enjoying the relatively cool spring night's air. Artemis knew she could have called Wally to come pick her up from the zeta tube. But tonight she needed this walk. She needed to feel the cool breeze on her face, uncovered by any mask. She needed to be able to walk and not worry that danger was lurking behind every tree, that the cloud moving in front of the moon might signal an attack.

            As the small yellow house they shared came into view, Artemis couldn't help but smile. It was home, even if it was empty more often than not nowadays. She felt bad for Brucely. They weren't able to give him the affection they had before. School had kept them busy, no doubt, but they were always home at night to see him and play with him. Now they'd both dropped out of Stanford. The missions, the stress, the calls at any and all hours sending them to who knows where, school was too much on top of all of it. When the current crisis was over, they'd told themselves, when it was over they'd go back. Artemis wasn't sure if she believed that.

            As she pushed the front door open, the first thing she noticed was a lack of a white bulldog charging her, tail wagging and tongue out. It immediately put her on her guard. The lights were out. She reached for the light switch as she simultaneously slid her hand into her bag, wrapping her fingers around her auxiliary bow.

            When the lights flicked on, she froze.

            Roses covered the room. Vase upon vase of red and white roses were perched on every table, window sill, and spare area of the room. Her mouth dropped open in surprise, the corners pulling up at the edges ever so slightly.

            And before she could call out his name, Wally appeared from the hallway that led to their kitchen and living room. Her free hand flew up to cover her mouth and stifle a laugh when she saw what he was wearing.

            Artemis instantly recognized the getup, even if she hadn't seen it in years. A yellow bathing suit with red piping and zig-zags across the legs, now too small for him, stopping inches above his knees. A white towel was draped across his neck. And in his hand was a small box.

            "Wally... I..."

            "Babe, you can let go of your bow now." A smile crossed his freckled face as she realized her other hand was still wrapped tightly around the bow in her bag. She let out a short laugh, releasing it and putting the bag on the ground. As she did that, he walked over, one of his hands encompassing hers. The familiar warmth was there, but she still felt her heart race, even faster than the first time they'd kissed all those years ago.

            "First, I just want to say I should have done this a long time ago."

            Another laugh followed. "Yeah, no kidding." There was a warmth to her voice, even though it was shaking. This was a moment she figured had been put on hold with, well, everything that was going on.

            "I can't stand the thought of living without you, babe. And over these past few months, well, you've been the only thing I can count on. You've been the only thing that's kept me sane, kept me grounded. And I can never thank you enough for all of that. But I figure this is a good way to start."

            Wally released her hand and dropped down to one knee. He opened the box, and there Artemis saw a single, solitary diamond set on a grey band dotted with emeralds and rubies. Red and green, together.

            "Artemis Crock, will you marry me?"

            She didn't answer, not audibly anyway. Artemis felt her head nod up and down rapidly, tears leaking from the corners of her eyes to trace their way happily down her face. It was good enough for him. Smile beaming wider than before, Wally took the ring off and slipped it over her finger, standing and kissing her fiercely. That kiss was so familiar to her, a passion and support that fueled their relationship and kept them close. She felt a hand come up to her face and brush away a tear as the kiss broke. Both of them stared into each other's eyes for a moment before embracing again.

            "Where's Brucely?" Artemis asked, biting her lip ever so slightly.

            "With your sister," Wally said, hands on her hips. "She agreed to watch him for the night. He would have ruined the flowers." Artemis laughed, burying her face into his shoulder. That was true. "Why?"

            Artemis looked up from his shoulder, a scheming glint in her eye. "Because there's something I want to do," she said, pushing him back towards the couch.

Chapter Text

Cape Canaveral
May 23rd, 2016 - Team Year 6 (Bart's Timeline) 20:57 EDT

            The second her hand slipped on the wrench, Carol Ferris knew there was going to be a problem. That realization came an instant before the splitting pain of her thumb slicing over an edge of exposed metal, and the wrench landing on the floor with a metal clang. Cursing a blue streak that would have surprised all but her closest co-workers, she reached down to pick up the traitorous tool.

            To outsiders, seeing the Vice President of Ferris Aircraft in greasy coveralls with her hair pulled back into a messy bun would have come as a shock. It was private persona that Carol kept mostly to herself. The public was better served seeing her as the little girl who rode daddy's coattails up the ranks in the company. It helped their competitors underestimate her.

            Since her father had dashed her dreams of becoming a pilot as a little girl, she had found her calling in working on machines. Any machines. And that's why she was here, long after her other mechanics went home, tinkering on a new engine prototype.

            Carol hissed as she quickly sprayed an antiseptic on her finger and wrapped a small bandage around it. It would be fine, wouldn't even need stitches. She breathed deeply, clenching her hand into a fist. The smell of metal and grease filled her nostrils. It put her at ease. It was a smell that Hal said he always loved on her when she came home.

            Hal. The thought of him flashed through her mind. Carol hadn't seen him in months. He'd been stationed on Oa, and since the Reach had publicly announced their presence and the United Nations had agreed to their stay, he wouldn't be coming back. Some bullshit about a treaty or something. He had only gotten to say goodbye in a short video message, then nothing.

            An alert flashed on her computer screen across the room. Its red pulse cut through the dim, artificial lighting of the hanger. Curious, Carol walked over. She wiped a hand across her forehead, ignoring the greasy residue left behind and strands of ebony hair that trailed after her touch. Quickly tapping a few keys, the source of the alert popped up on her screen.

            Carol inhaled sharply. The image was from a long range satellite that observed the outer reaches of the solar system. A cold ball of fear solidified like ice in her stomach as the image grew larger. Carol reached her hand over to a red phone nearby. Her hand was shaking. She swore and balled it into a tight fist to settle it. Grabbing the receiver, she typed in the secret combination, the one only to be used for emergencies. This definitely constituted an emergency.

            Carol heard a click on the other end as the call was answered. Before whatever unfortunate bastard who was answering the call even got a chance to speak, she cut in.

            "We've got a problem."

***

The Watchtower
May 23rd, 2016 - Team Year 6 (Bart's Timeline) 21:30 EDT

            Dick Grayson took a deep breath, letting the rich aroma of vapors from the mug in his hands fill his nostrils. He took another sip of the bitter liquid and winced softly. Normally, he would have drowned his coffee in milk, not only to mellow the taste but to down it in one gulp. At this moment however, this ungodly hour, he needed the elixir to wake him up. The bitterness helped.

            Dick kept his peripheral vision on the satellite image of the planetoid that was growing larger by the moment. In front of him, he typed in a set of coordinates on to a holographic keypad and silently prayed he wasn't violating any intergalactic laws. Not that it'd be the first time. Or probably the last.

            The screen in front of him wavered for a second and then the image of a man appeared.  Dick recognized him instantly: the lean build, the black and white costume, the blocky green mask with dark bangs forever falling down over it.

            "Dick Grayson. As I live and breath." The hint of a laugh carried, even from halfway across the galaxy.

            "Kyle Rayner. Good to see a friendly face." Dick tried to fake a smile in return.  Even without seeing it, he knew it was weak. He moved the coffee mug up to cover it, but it was too late.  Kyle’s smile faltered.

            "What's going on, Dick?" The Lantern asked, his voice sounding worried, eyes shifting to a point out of Dick’s line of sight. "We’re going to have to keep this short. You know we're not really supposed to have any contact with you. Not since..."

             "I know,” Dick interrupted, setting his mug down with a sigh. “I wouldn’t have risked it, but this is important Kyle. I had to take the risk of possibly bending some rules." An incredulous snort came from the hologram in front of him. Okay, maybe possibly wasn't the correct term. Definitely was probably more appropriate. And bending was putting it lightly. "I'm sending you an image now. It's from one of our long-range satellites. We need to know what it is."

            With a wave of his hand, Dick moved the image of the planetoid over next to Kyle's. The Green Lantern's eyes narrowed behind his mask for a moment as he leaned in to study the image, then widened as he sat back sharply. Turning away for a moment, Dick could hear the rapid typing of gloved fingers on a keyboard coming over the transmission.

            "Sounds like you know what this thing is?" Dick asked, already not liking what Kyle’s reaction implied. And he didn't like Kyle’s silence even more. He kept one eye on the planetoid now passing Saturn as the Green Lantern reappeared.

            "I'd only heard rumors, but it appears the Guardians have been keeping tabs on it for a few years now." Kyle's eyes darted over to the side as he continued speaking. "According to our databases, it's called the Warworld. Massive artificial satellite, just under three thousand kilometers in diameter."

            “That can’t be right. That puts the thing, this Warworld, at…” Dick trailed off, shifting around numbers in his head. “At…just under the size of our moon?”

            "Yeah…that’s about right..." There was some more typing on the other end before the man continued. "This thing? It's a mobile doomsday weapon, Dick."

            "With a name like ‘Warworld’ that doesn't exactly come as a shock, Kyle."

            “It gets worse,” Kyle said, his voice somewhere between apology and panic.

            “Define worse?”

            "A now extinct alien race created it over a millennia ago. Powers itself, sustains itself. It's got drones on the inside that repair it and kill anything that manages to get on board."

            Dick blinked slowly. Worse was an understatement. "That... sounds ridiculously overpowered. Like kids would be screaming god mode if that turned up in a video game."

            A short laugh emerged from the floating image in front of him. "Dick Grayson, a gamer? Now that's something I'd have to see." Rayner typed in a few more keystrokes before turning back. "This thing is the Death Star's meaner, older brother, Dick."

            "So who's running it now?"

            "Looks like the Warworld is controlled by someone named ‘Mongul.’ He found a... I don’t know, a ‘crystal key?’ That’s the closest translation I can find.  Anyway, this key, everyone thought was lost centuries ago."

            "Mongul? Never heard of him."

            "I hadn’t either,” Kyle agreed, his fingers continuing to tap over the keys. “The Guardian database says was the dictator on his home planet. Ousted by another dictator, as is wont to happen. Now he wants to reclaim his spot as top dog."

            "Great, sounds like your typical galactic super villain. So what does all that have to do with Earth?"

            "Well, that's where things get kinda confusing. Mongul seems to think that if he conquers the entire galaxy, he'll show he's worthy of oppressing his own world again. Why he doesn't just show up there with the Warworld is beyond me... but yeah. I'm guessing he thinks Earth is now a threat to his galaxy-wide domination. Somehow. I'm not really clear on the motivation."

            Dick blinked his eyes for a second, trying to take it all in. “That is, by far, one of the most convoluted plans I have ever heard.”

            “Yup. I hoping I was getting something messed up in translation, but…”

            Looking at the image of this Warworld again, Dick crossed his arms. His brain felt fried. This was literally the last thing they needed right now. He brought his hands up, scrubbing them over his eyes, trying not to let out the heavy sigh that was caught in his chest. "So how do we stop it?” he asked. “You called it a Death Star. Trench run? Shoot a missile down an exposed exhaust port?"

            "Nothing quite so simple, unfortunately. The Warworld is controlled mentally, by whoever is sitting at the helm. It basically allows Mongul to control everything using only his mind. So to stop it, you'd have to get on board, and either take out the power core, remove the crystal key, or take out Mongul himself."

            Dick’s sigh morphed into a bitter laugh. "You make it sound so easy."

            Kyle just shrugged. "You'd better hurry, whatever you do. The Warworld has enough firepower to destroy Earth a few times over."

            "Thanks, Kyle. That image was incredibly helpful.” Dick reached a hand over to switch off the image of the approaching weapon. At least now he knew what they were dealing with. "Any chance you can send over everything the Guardians have on the Warworld? Schematics, possible weak points, anything?"

            "It’ll have to be encrypted. If we get caught doing this…” Kyle trailed off with a shrug.

            “I know, I know, treaties broken. Intergalactic war. Not like I’m not already dealing with enough.”

            “You’ll be able to handle the code. Dick?” There was a pause, and Kyle cleared his throat carefully. When he spoke again, there was a definite change. “Dick… how’s Zatanna?”

            Dick allowed the corner of his mouth to curl into a smile. “She’s doing okay, Kyle,” he assured.

            “Yeah?” Dick could hear the worry, the hint of pain, in Kyle’s voice.

            “Yeah. She’s pretty tough, you know.”

            “Oh trust me,” Kyle smiled, “I know. Sometimes that’s what I worry about.” There was a pause as both of their thoughts tangled around the dark haired magician. A soft beeping coming from Kyle’s end of the call shook them both out of their memories.

            “We have to cut this call,” Kyle announced. “I’ll send you the files.”

            “Thank you,” Dick replied, not sure he could fit enough gratitude into his words. He was about to drop the line when Kyle stopped him.

            “Grayson?” He called, rushing his words together. “I know you’ve got a lot on your plate right now, but if you can, take care of her, okay?” The call was cut from Kyle's end before Dick could form a response. The screen went dark, leaving him alone with his thoughts on the deck of the Watchtower.

             Nothing like having the fate of the entire world literally resting in your hands. Again.

***  

The Warworld
May 26th, 2016 - Team Year 6 (Bart's Timeline) 12:00 UTC

            Whenever someone gets ready to save the world in the movies, it was always much more glamorous than this. There were moving speeches. Long walks down a runway to the adoration of cheering crowds. Kickass fighter jets. At the very least they had the room to move without bumping into someone else at every turn.

            Cassie Sandsmark had none of those things at the moment.

            Calling the hold of the bioship cramped was a massive understatement. Wonder Woman's Lasso of Truth gave you more room to move than she currently had. And Cassie would know. Diana had used it on her once when she'd snuck out of her apartment instead of finishing her homework.

            Nine people and one living computer were crammed into the alien ship. Nightwing was their chauffeur for the evening. Apparently no one could ride up front with him because "they all had to be ready to go at a moment's notice." She would have doubted the explanation if the Boy Wonder's main squeeze wasn't back here with them.

            Batgirl was crouched against the wall closest to the door, her holographic computer already up. Her fingers moved with near-superhuman speed. Cassie could punch through walls but the sorcery that girl could perform with a computer was beyond her comprehension. It was hard enough to remember her password to the computers on the Watchtower. Wond3rWoman1sAw3som3... no, that was last week's. Rob1n1sATotalBa...

            "Attention Warworld. This is Black Canary of the Justice League, representing the Planet Earth." Oh thank Hera, thought Cassie as Black Canary's voice came through her earpiece. That was about to get embarrassing. "We wish to open negotiations."

            "But I am uninterested in negotiation." The voice, low and deep, came rumbling through their collective comm channel. Everyone looked around. Except Batgirl. Her blue eyes remained laser focused on her screen. That voice must belong to the big bad they'd all been told about, the 'Mongul'. He sounded like he was getting over something.

            "The Earth under the Reach's thumb is too dangerous for my long term plans."

            Most convoluted long term plans ever...

            "It must be destroyed."

            Rude.

            "And frankly, if you understood what you were in for with the Reach, you'd thank me for putting you out of your collective misery."

            Even Batgirl stopped what she was doing and looked up at that line. So did everyone else. Their eyes all said the same thing: what in the depths of Hades did that mean?

            "Doctor, that'd be your cue." Even though the bioship didn't have any windows back here, Cassie could almost see what was happening in her mind. They'd gone over the plan dozens of times. Doctor Fate would block any early attack by the big laser gun the Warworld had, hopefully redirecting it back.

            And on cue, she felt a rumble through her shoes. Direct hit. Now, the next part of the plan focused on Batgirl bypassing security and...

            The door to the bioship opened. This whole "think it and it happens" thing was getting good. Now if Mongul would just surrender...

            Nothing. Oh well, it was worth a shot. Past the door was a massive hanger. The inside of the Warworld.

            "Move out. Break into squads and get to your objectives." Batgirl's voice filled both the hold and her ear. Cassie cracked her knuckles as she stepped onto the alien spacecraft. Time to go make big ugly even uglier.

***

            "All squads clear. Good luck, Delta." Dick Grayson smiled softly as he heard Barbara's voice crackle into his ear. He wasn't sure who had the more dangerous mission: the squads racing through a massive alien death moon that would do everything it could to kill them like a body destroying a virus, or him, facing what might be the longest odds in space battle history.

            "You too, Gamma. Give them hell." Dick pressed a button to close the door to the bioship's hold, disconnecting from the station. Stay safe, beautiful.

            "Delta to Watchtower. Batgirl successfully bypassed the Warworld's security systems. The squads are aboard. No sign of detection."

            "Roger that, Delta. See what you can do about giving Rocket and Doctor Fate some cover." Dick could almost picture Black Canary leaning over the multiple holographic computer screens, trying to keep everything in order. This wasn't her strength, but the interim leader of the Justice League was doing an admirable job of juggling everything. It was up to him to help make sure nothing got dropped.

            "Will do, Watchtower." Keeping the bioship in camouflage mode, Dick brought the alien ship around, pointing back towards the Warworld. The flashes of light streaming towards the miniscule point near Earth where Rocket was protecting Doctor Fate would have been beautiful if Dick hadn't known they were also very, very deadly. He took a steadying breath to try and calm his racing heart.

            This had been the weak point in their entire plan. With their recent losses and Superman off world, the League lacked the members who could operate in space. That left Dick and the bioship as the only source of distraction for the Warworld.

            It was like a mosquito trying to sting an elephant to death.

            Dick typed a quick combination into his wrist computer. Up popped a picture of Barbara and him from their first mission together as Batgirl and Robin. The redhead had her arm wrapped around his neck, bemusedly looking at the camera for the selfie as Dick smiled broadly.

            He left the picture up as he dove in towards the Warworld, lasers flashing.

***

            It had been a long time since Wally West had been jogging. Normally, if he was running, it was to get from one point to another as quickly as possible. But as much as he wanted to super speed it down to the crystal key chamber, that would mean leaving M'gann and his girlfriend... ahem, fiancé, behind. And he wasn't about to do that.

            So far the plan was working to perfection. Whatever computer voodoo Barbara had pulled had been successful in keeping them unnoticed. And the schematics that Green Lantern Kyle Rayner had smuggled out of Oa had been on the money. At least for their part, this mission was looking easy. Invade the War World, get to the crystal key chamber, snag the key, shut this party down. Almost too easy.

            As the three of them rounded a corner, a train looking device riding a track along the ceiling approached. Wally skidded to a stop. "Uh, hide?" That was a pretty useless suggestion, even he had to admit. The hallway was narrow, without doors or intersecting passageways. He would have traded his super speed for M'gann's invisibility at that moment.

            Wally watched as the Martian disappeared. He pressed his scarlet-clad body against the slate colored wall, smirking internally as Artemis attempted to do the same. But between her green outfit and pale skin, she stuck out just as much as he did. Maybe if he closed his eyes, the train would just pass on by. If he couldn't see them, they couldn't see him, right?

            Shutting his emerald eyes tightly, Wally sucked in a breath and held it. If he had ever wished to have inherited his uncle's ability to vibrate through walls and not spout massive nosebleed, this was that moment.

            He could hear the train moving towards them, above them, past them. And then the machine stopped. Wally opened one eye, glancing up at it and then across the hallway at Artemis.

            "Do you think they saw us?" His half-whispered question was answered by the doors on the train opening, diamond-shaped drones pouring out of the sides. Lasers shot from the drones, one striking where Artemis' head had been just a half second before.

            "I'd say that's a yes!" Artemis rolled to a crouch, already drawing her bow back, launching arrows at the oncoming drones. Wally keyed his radio.

            "Watchtower, they found us."

***

            There it was. The power core. The beating heart of this entire battle station. A marvel of engineering and alien techno...

            Barbara's thought process stopped as a laser from a drone flashed inches away from her head. An acrid smell filled her nostrils as the beam passed close enough to singe some hair.

            Admire later, Babs. Fight now. She keyed her radio. "Gamma to Watchtower. We've reached the power core. But we've got some company ourselves." Barbara leapt out of Sphere, legs splaying to absorb the impact as her boots hit the cold metal of the Warworld. The alien ship spun, spraying laser fire of its own back at the diamond-shaped drones filling the corridor behind them.

            Pushing away from her landing spot as another shot from a drone burned a hole in her cape, Barbara raced toward the humming amber behemoth in front of her. She could hear Tim's feet slapping the floor behind hers over the pitched cacophony of lasers flashing back and forth between Sphere and the drones.

            She slid up against the base of the power core, pulling out a batarang and prying a panel away from its metal housing. Barbara was greeted with a mass of wires and inputs. Her teeth dug into her lip as her blue eyes traced over the alien electronics. All of this was foreign to her, but she found a jack and pulled a wire from her wrist computer. This would either work, or she'd get a strong jolt for her trouble. Probably fatal. She frowned at the traitorous voice in her head. Strong is fine, thank you.

            Taking a breath, she plunged the wire from her wrist computer into the port and waited for the pain. None came. Heaving a sigh of relief, she brought up the holographic screen and was amazed to see diagnostic data flowing across it. Narrowing her gaze, she started to pick up on patterns in the mass of information flowing across her screen.

            And then a laser impacting the power core's base just to her left brought her out of that concentration. "Robin, cover me!" Her fingers began typing frantically on the holographic screen. They didn't have a lot of time.

            "What do you want me to do? Throw birdarangs at them?"

            "Figure it out!" Barbara knew her reply was probably too harsh, but if she couldn't take down the power core, she had no doubt that she and all her friends would be dead very soon.

            Finishing a long command, the redhead punched the Enter key. Movement above her caught her eye. She saw a piece of the power core shift, instructed by her command. That command should cut off power to a portion of the station's outside weapons, if she had figured correctly. But then another section of pure energy snaked around the piece of the core she manipulated, rerouting that energy. Barbara swore.

            "What is it?"

            "The power core, it's blocking my moves." She typed in another command, only to watch as the power core blocked that as well. "This is turning into a massive game of chess."

            "We don't have time for that!" Tim swung his bo staff, blocking an incoming laser blast. Barbara could already see the scorch marks growing in number and intensity on Sphere's metallic body. She didn't answer Tim, but got back to typing as fast as her fingers would fly.

***

            This... was not going well. And Roy Harper had pretty high standards for things not going well. Being cryogenically frozen for eight years will do that to you. But as he watched Mongul plant an elbow into Wonder Girl's face while holding Superboy by the throat and not break a sweat, Roy figured things were pretty bad.

            The alien, unknown race, so Roy was just going to go with Ugly from planet No Mirrors, had already walked through his conventional ordinance. While Roy was still learning all the things his surgically attached shiny new death dealer could do, he knew that he'd have to resort to some unconventional methods.

            Loading up a foam bolt into his arm, which still sounded ridiculous when he said it, even in his own head, Arsenal took aim at Big Ugly and fired. The shot hit him right in the chest, same as the last one, but this bolt expanded in a high-density foam that covered the alien. A slight smile crossed Roy's face as he watched Connor begin pummeling Mongul. One, two, three punches to the face... and then the big alien threw the clone into the floor. Superboy bounced in a way that people weren't supposed to. Big meaty fists came crashing down on the foam and it shattered. Roy felt the blood drain from his face as Mongul turned towards him.

            And then Wolf was on the alien. Genetically modified from a normal wolf, Roy had seen the animal's jaws break through armor. But when it bit into Mongul, the big bad didn't even flinch. Pulling Wolf off like he was a stray hair, Mongul held the mutt for a moment, muttering something about the "novelty of this encounter" before tossing the animal into Wonder Girl. Both crashed to the floor and did not move.

            "Nap time, ugly." Conventional explosives hadn't worked. Unconventional methods like foam hadn't worked. Maybe gas would. The bolt filled with knockout gas streaked toward the alien, but he caught it before it hit him in the face. Not that it mattered. A gray smoke filled the area around Mongul. Any second the big alien would come crashing down to the floor face first. Not that it would mess up his ugly mug any more than it already was. Seriously, that guy should consider some plastic surgery or something.

            But he never fell. As the smoke cleared, the big alien just took an even deeper breath and smiled in a way that chilled Roy's insides faster than any cyrochamber.

            "Ah. I like that. It smells like victory." Roy had always imagined victory smelling like alcohol and a woman's naked body, not knock-out gas, but to each their own. But then Mongul started towards him, and Roy knew he was in trouble.

            Oh shit oh shit oh shit. Roy simply reacted on instinct, not really strategizing at this point, hands grasping for the launcher strapped to his back. Maybe bigger was going to be better. But Mongul was faster than he anticipated. He wasn't going to get the launcher loaded in time.

            But then Superboy was back on his feet, sending his body flying into Mongul's side. Roy continued to frantically load the launcher as the big alien grabbed the Kryptonian, stretched him out, and brought his back down over his knee with enough force that Roy was sure Superman, wherever he was in the galaxy, felt the blow dealt to his clone.

            And then Mongul's attention was turned back to him. Roy brought up the launcher, closed his eye to aim. Not that he needed to, the alien was so close he couldn't miss. BAD IDEA BUS, his brain yelled as his finger instinctively pulled the trigger.

            The force of the explosion sent Roy flying backwards, bouncing off the ground much in the same way he'd seen Connor do earlier. His eyes wavered from his destroyed launcher to the big alien as his battered body skidded to a stop. Mongul was backlit by the viewports overlooking Earth, and the steady stream of laser fire directed at Doctor Fate.

            Roy's vision clouded and darkness nipped at the edges as Mongul returned to his chair, mentioning something about "mercy". Nothing he was saying made sense to Roy, nothing could cut through the fuzziness invading his brain.

            But before the darkness claimed him, Roy saw the lasers stop and missiles begin racing towards Earth. Dozens of them. Hundreds of them. His eyes closed to a final thought.

            This is not good.

***

            Dick Grayson had always figured he'd go out in a blaze of glory. From an early age, watching his family perform dangerous feats in the air without a net, there was always the possibility that your hand would slip, that your foot would catch, and you'd fall to your death. After his parents were murdered, and Bruce had taken him in, Dick had figured that there would come a day where the Earth would need saving and he'd be called upon to make the ultimate sacrifice for the greater good.

            It looked like today was that day.

            Missiles poured from the Warworld like hornets from a disturbed hive. Even as Dick dove at the initial wave, laser on the bioship flashing magenta as he went, there was a little voice in the back of his mind that started to grow louder. It's not going to be enough. It will never be enough. You're going to have to crash into a missile to save a city, to save millions. And that'll be the end of Dick Grayson.

            He shook his head to dispel the traitorous voice, jamming his thumbs down on the firing controls as fast as they would move. Missile after missile disappeared under his onslaught. But for every missile destroyed, it seemed another four or five death rockets replaced it.

            The glowing golden shield projected by Dr. Fate almost seemed to suck in the missiles that got by him. And a lot were getting by him. Without him even asking, the bioship flashed numbers on a screen to his right. Dick's mouth pulled into a tight line.

            "Watchtower, this is Delta. Between myself and Dr. Fate, we're only eliminating fifty-two percent of the Warwold's attack. That's... that's not going to cut it. Is there anything you can do?"

            "No weapons, Delta." Dinah's voice was as terse and strained as he'd ever heard it.

            "Nothing Batman hid from me?"

            "Nothing. Every missile defense system in the hemisphere has mobilized, but that's not going to do much. Maybe another ten, fifteen percent?"

            "That's still a third of the missiles getting through. There has to be another solution... there has to be..." Dick pulled the bioship into a tight turn, the beginnings of a plan forming in his head. Get behind the missiles, pick off as many as he could. Find the one heading for the largest population center and...

            That'll be the end of Dick Grayson.

            He wiped a gloved hand across his forehead, ignoring whatever leftover memory of the Joker had taken up residence inside his brain. "Bioship, prepare a transmission to the Watchtower. Text: Activate Little Robin. End message. Prepare to send on my signal." A green light flashed from the ship, acknowledging the message.

            At least he wouldn't leave without saying goodbye to the person who mattered the most to him.

            Swinging the bioship in behind the missiles, Dick continued to fire. The explosions got closer each time, rocking the alien spacecraft. Soon he was almost sure that he could feel the wash from the missiles' engines before they exploded near him. A warning light flashed above him; low energy reserves for the lasers. The end of the line.

            "Bioship, find the missile on course for the largest population center and highlight it for me. We're going to save some people."

            "Nightwing..."

            "Not now, Canary. I'm doing what I have to do."

            "Dick, listen to me." The use of his actual name over the comm channel broke him from his pseudo-suicidal run. "We've got new contacts up here." Dick's eyes closed heavily. Blaze of glory was becoming all too apt a phrase.

            "Are they approaching from the Warworld?" His mind started to race with possible scenarios. Could he stop these new contacts and still stop that missile? Would he have to leave the Watchtower, or Fate, to fend for themselves and continue after the missile?

            "No..." The voice of the League's leader trailed off and Dick could almost imagine her hunched over a screen in concentration. "They're coming from Earth. Origin point is the Philippine Sea. They're..." Black Canary's voice caught in her throat. "They're Reach ships. It's an entire fleet."

            A Reach fleet? Here, on Earth? Dick's head started spinning even faster than it had just moments before. The Reach said they had come with only one ship, a now permanent fixture above the United Nations building in New York City. But dots began to materialize in the atmosphere below him, and those dots quickly focused themselves into the distinctive shape of Reach ships.

            A quivering hand hovered over the button to activate the bioship's cloaking for a moment, but Dick thought better of it. The ships would have already seen him by now, and their technology would probably be able to track him even if the ship was invisible. Low energy reserves, two numerically superior forces; talk about being stuck between a rock and a hard place.

            His blue eyes narrowed behind his mask. "Bioship, send signal. Little Robin is active." The expected feeling of lead in his stomach never materialized. It was like his body accepted that this was the end. There was no more that he could do.

            The bioship's energy readings glowed a fiery ruby before him. Not much left, but Dick was determined to make whatever shots he had left count. He dove in behind the missiles, eyes focused on the fleet. Pale yellow lasers shot towards him from mandibles the Reach had claimed were "unarmed". Another lie the League would have to make them pay for.

            But even as Dick tensed himself for a blinding flash of pain, the lasers never reached him. Instead they impacted the missiles, creating mini-supernovas that flashed brilliantly before fading into darkness. The assault took its toll, but it wasn't enough. The ships were approaching too fast, they'd never get all the missiles in time...

            That's when the strategy of the Reach ship captains became clear to Dick. That moment of clarity happened an instant before the first ship slammed into an oncoming missile, the fireball enveloping both alien craft. This was a suicide mission! The Reach ships were doing exactly what he had planned to do himself, but on a larger scale. Ship after ship raced towards the missiles, firing until they impacted, explosions consuming everything around them.

            And just as suddenly as the firing started, it stopped. The space in front of him was clear of the Warworld's missiles. There were still Reach ships, but significantly fewer than before. A readout from the bioship estimated that eighty percent of the Reach fleet had been destroyed. And Dick could see that many of the ships that remained sported new damage, blackened metal peeling away from once pristine hulls.

            But he was alive. Against impossible odds, he was somehow still among the living. "Bioship, cancel transmission." Dick pulled the bioship in a slow turn back towards the Warworld, trying to slow his frantic heart rate.

***

            Timothy Drake was good at a lot of things. Hacking computers. Coming up with strategies. Being awkward around girls. Those were all things he was good at.

            Dodging laser blasts from a seemingly inexhaustible number of drones was not something he was good at. It was a fact that he was reminded of again as another searing blast of pain rocked his body and smoke rose from a small hole in the leg of his uniform. It joined a growing number of other holes, alike in size and painfulness.

            But then again, he wasn't really supposed to be dodging those lasers. He wasn't supposed to be trying to get hit, per se, but his job was to prevent Barbara from getting hit. If that meant taking a few extra shots from those admittedly painful though not yet lethal lasers, then that was something he was willing to do. You know, for the good of the mission and all that.

            The multitude, volume, and creativity of the swear words coming from behind him told Tim that the mission was not going well at all. He held massive respect for Barbara Gordon’s hacking abilities. On his best day, he could only hope to keep pace with her. But maybe, just maybe, the task of hacking into a massive alien death moon with zero preparation time was too much even for her vaunted skills.

            Another curse sounded off behind him, and Tim caught a glimpse of amber light shooting through what had been an empty space around the power core. What he wouldn’t give for a proton torpedo and an exhaust port right about now.

            “Still blocking you?” Tim ducked just in time as another laser blast went streaking past his head.

            “Every time I try to shut down the power to the core, it keeps rerouting it.” The frustration was palpable in Barbara’s voice. She knew as well as he did that they were running out of time.

            Another blast came streaking in, and a quick twirl of his bo staff sent it deflecting off into the floor. Tim froze. Which turned out to be a very bad idea because another laser blast seared his uniform at his bicep, but he didn’t even notice the pain. The idea that just jumped into his head overpowered everything else.

            “Reroute it somewhere useful!” The words leapt from his mouth in a shout. Barbara turned, her blue eyes quizzical.

            “What did you say?”

            “The power. If it won’t let you shut it down, reroute it someplace it can help us. Overload something important.” A mischievous sparkle sprang to Barbara’s eyes, and something akin to a cackle escaped her lips. She cracked her knuckles as she turned back to the power core.

            “Robin, if Wonder Girl was here right now, I’d tell her to kiss you. You’re a genius.” Her fingers flew with renewed purpose as Timmy’s cheeks burned a crimson that almost matched his uniform.

***

            Opening his eyes was harder than it should have been for Connor Kent. For one, each felt like they were heavier than a school bus full of children. Couple that with the fact that Mongul hit like a mack truck, or a couple of them, and there was nothing more Connor wanted to do than just lay there and go back to sleep. But he had a mission, no matter how painful or how long the odds were.

            He forced himself to focus on Mongul’s headset, the technology that allowed him to control all of Warworld. Pressing his hands into the cold metal of the floor, Conner began pushing himself to his feet. A small gasp of pain slipped from his lips. That got the big guy’s attention.

            “Pests.” Connor heard the hissed insult as the headset lit up again. Wonder Girl, Wolf, and Arsenal were all getting back to their feet as well, however slowly. But even as the four of them gathered themselves, the walls opened and far too many drones to count came flying out.

            They were surrounded.

            Just as Connor was preparing himself for what he could only assume would be a very painful and one sided fight, the lines in the walls suddenly changed from an orange to a much brighter yellow. The new light traced its way across the floor towards the chair where Mongul was sitting. Lightning seemed to appear out of thin air, so bright Connor had to shield his eyes. The big alien let out a massive roar, light dimming in the room as the drones clattered to the ground around them.

            This is it. Now’s our chance! “He’s rocked! Take him!”

            He sprang at the staggering Mongul, fists connecting with the underside of the alien’s chin. Clearing away from any possible retaliation, Connor saw Arsenal and Cassie both hit the big guy with everything they had. A small smile crossed his face.

            What’s that thing that one character says in the comic Timmy likes? Smash? Yeah. Connor smash. Leaping into the air, Connor cocked a fist back, swinging as hard as he could towards Mongul’s face. He felt the blow connect before his eyes registered it had, and he swung again, pummeling the alien. Mongul staggered backward, legs jelly, before his red eyes rolled up into his head. His body crashed into the deck with enough force that Connor was sure he’d tilted the station.

            “Wonder Girl, now!” Connor watched Cassie tie up the big alien with her lasso, and saw the lights fade for good from the deck. Another smile blossomed on his face, this one larger than before.

            “Delta to all teams,” Dick’s voice rose in his ear. “Surface weapons just stopped firing. Warworld looks quiet. Is it over?”

            “Mongul is down and contained.” Connor didn’t even work to hide the joy in his voice. They’d actually done it. They’d won. “Gamma, his own machines stung him. Your handiwork?”

            “If anyone’s going to go all ‘Independence Day’ on an alien death moon and make it turn on itself, it’s Batgirl.” The exuberance was also audible in Timmy’s voice, but Connor was sure he heard an underlying pain as well.

            “Beta to Watchtower, we have the crystal key.” Connor could almost picture M’gann holding the crystal in her hands, Wally and Artemis probably sharing some post-battle embrace. “The Warworld is ours.”

            When Black Canary responded, she sounded relieved but no less tired than Connor had heard her lately. “Roger that, Beta. Bring it home. We’ll find a safe place for it until we decide what to do with the Warworld.”

            “Team, rendezvous at the hanger bay.” Dick Grayson, on the other hand, sounded practically giddy. “We’re heading home. This calls for a celebration.”

***

            From a dark corner of his own mind, Jamie Reyes watched disaster unfold before him. Disaster for the Reach’s plans, their first major setback in their invasion of Earth. Most of their fleet was destroyed, his friends had possession of the Warworld, and the divisions among the Reach team were becoming more and more obvious.

            Jaime would have cheered if he had control of his body. He wondered if the scarab felt the same way.

            “The meat now control the Warworld, Ambassador.” The hulking form of Black Beetle moved closer to the leader of the Reach expedition. “They now know we lied about how many ships we brought. And most of our fleet has been destroyed. This is an unmitigated disaster. I should remove you from your post.”

            “Careful, warrior…” There was venom in the Ambassador’s voice as he glared up at the ebony armored beetle. “This is a setback. But not a fatal one. It merely forces us to accelerate our plans.” The green skinned alien spun on his heel to look at the Scientist. “Contact the fleet.”

            “But Ambassador, the captains are tired,” the Scientist’s voice stammered, her fingers reaching for the communications button anyway. “What they’ve just been through…”

            “Not the advance fleet, you fool. Get me high command.” Jaime watched through his own eyes as the Scientist froze. Even Black Beetle looked slightly taken aback.

            Scarab, what is he talking about, Jamie asked. What other fleet?

            The main Reach fleet, Jaime Reyes. The fleet that is used to subdue unruly planets. Standard Reach protocol is to avoid using it.

            Why do they avoid it? Jamie couldn’t understand why a civilization with superior technology would make their goals harder on themselves.

            Reach doctrine calls for stealth and subterfuge. Reach histories sing the praises of those Ambassadors who subjugate worlds using deception and guile. The main fleet is a hammer to smash a world, not an artisan’s hand to mold it.

            So by calling in the main fleet, he’s admitting defeat? Jamie felt a swelling pride. The team had forced the Reach into a panicked situation.

            He is admitting the end of his career, Jaime Reyes. The Earth shall be the last world the Ambassador will conquer. Pride turned to a cold pit of dread as images of massive, monstrous ships swam into view on the screen in front of them.

            But make no mistake about it, Scarab continued. When the fleet gets here, your friends and your planet will die.

Chapter Text

The Watchtower
July 18, 2016 - Team Year 6 17:03 EDT

            When Bart stopped talking, he noticed that Barbara had a small smile on her face. It was an expression that wasn’t completely foreign to him. That smile had appeared when they had completed a mission successfully, but more often it showed up when she would tell the children stories about the heroes that had come before them. That particular tug of her lips always held joy with a hint of sadness in his mind.

            “What is it?” Bart perched himself on a counter next to her computer station. Talking to Barbara had always been one of the few times the young speedster would sit still.

            “It’s just one of the few times in your story that things actually turned out better than they actually did… well, did in this timeline.” Barbara’s blue eyes travelled up towards the computer screen for the briefest of seconds and Bart instantly knew she was looking for any alert on the facial recognition program. The tiny glimpse of hope had her questioning all over again if things were really better this way. Even with all the death that had already happened in the original timeline.

            “What happened next?” she asked, with a shake of her head.

            “Well, Blue wasn’t there, so he couldn’t betray everyone. The celebration only lasted a few days, though. Since the Reach knew about the Watchtower, the League agreed to let Nightwing take the crystal key to the Batcave for safekeeping. They figured it was better in a place the Reach didn’t know about.” Bart turned to look out the window at the vastness of space beyond the panes of glass. A sapphire piece of the Earth was barely visible in a lower corner.

            “It was just two days after the fight on the Warworld that you all saw Blue again. That was the beginning of the public relations push by the Reach, trying to keep everyone from rising up against them after it was proven they lied.” Bart sighed as he continued looking out the window, past Barbara. “By showing them that Blue was human, enhanced with Reach technology, the Ambassador tried to distract everyone from what was coming. And it worked; for a while.”

            He hopped off the counter and started pacing as his story continued. “Jamie started saving people, being a real hero. Then he defeated Toyman in Metropolis. That got some positive press for the Reach, but it wasn’t universal like they wanted.” Bart stopped his pacing, eyes unfocused on the stars out the window.

            “And that’s when everything got really, really moded.”

*** 

Santa Prisca
June 19th, 2016 – Team Year 6 (Bart’s Timeline) 00:00 ECT

            For nearly 50,000 years, Vandal Savage had schemed. He had plotted. He had changed the course of history. In that time, he had made mistakes, but none were perhaps bigger than the one staring in his face.

            There had been doubters when he had put forward his plan; use the Justice League to bring Earth into the galactic consciousness. Lure the Kroloteans to the planet, with the Reach to follow. Use the Reach to unlock the secret of the metagene, allowing the Light to weaponize it, rule the Earth, and soon after the galaxy. Even goading Mongul and the Warworld here had been part of his plan, since they would be able to use the superweapon to subjugate world after world with frightening ease.

            Klarion and Brain had loved the plan, for different reasons. Klarion loved the chaos it could cause; Brain loved the complexity. Lex Luthor had been the most vocal critic. He had said there were too many moving parts, too many places where one little thing could go wrong and upset the entire scheme.

            Luthor had been outvoted, but he had been right.

            Little things had gone wrong. The Reach were becoming more ambitious than Savage had anticipated. The League now possessed the crystal key for the Warworld. Without it, Savage had nothing more than another moon to look at in the night sky. He didn’t want moons. He wanted entire worlds, whole star systems.

            First to enter the other side of the cave on Santa Prisca was Black Beetle. Ostensibly the Reach’s head of security, he was little more than a common thug, an enforcer. Granted, an enforcer with wildly advanced alien technology, but that didn’t elevate Intergang above common criminals. Neither did it for the hulking Black Beetle.

            The representatives for the Light were already assembled as the Ambassador and Scientist strode into the grotto, followed by a phalanx of Reach troops. A wholly unnecessary show of force, especially following the fight with the Warworld, but Savage decided he would humor the false lords of Earth.

            “Ambassador.” Centuries of practice meant that it was no effort for Savage to keep the disdain he felt for the impulsive and easily manipulated Ambassador out of his voice.

            “Savage.” He is waiting for us to make the first move. He wants to know our feelings before he reacts. Cautious, as always.

            “As head of security for the Reach, I must insist, no masks be worn at this summit.” The proclamation by Black Beetle surprised Savage, but he tuned out the squabbling from Black Manta. Always the most headstrong member of the Light, the sea dweller had been particularly incensed when it was discovered that the Reach had been hiding a secret fleet beneath the waves. Coaxing from Ra’s al Ghul convinced him and Deathstroke to remove their masks.

            “And the rest of the Light? Won’t they be joining us?” Savage assumed the Ambassador was speaking of Luthor and Queen Bee, both absent. A carnal smile creased his lips as Ra’s answered.

            “Our more public members are occupied.” That was one way to put it. Savage knew for a fact that Luthor was working on several projects at the moment, all to undermine and defeat the Reach. “Some of them are involved in new plans for success, given the severity of your recent defeats.”

            Savage knew that Ra’s’ words had to cut deep for the Ambassador. He would twist the knife with a dismissive tone. “And in any case, we are sufficient.”

            The Ambassador held a long pause before speaking. “Fine.” Curt. He is becoming agitated. “I know you called this summit, but the Reach has come with grievances against the Light as well. As we have been attacked publicly in recent weeks, the Light and its allies have done little to quell public opinion. In fact, you stood idly by while I was taken to task on live television.”

            “If I may respond…”

            “No you may not.” If Kaldur’ahm voicing an opinion had caught Savage by surprise, the immediate and visceral reaction from Black Beetle caught him even moreso. “Manta, keep your whelp meat silent.”

            Savage could practically hear the muscles inside Manta’s armor tighten, and his tone matched. “Beetle, your insolence grows progressively less… charming.” It was time to step in before things got out of hand.

            “My friends,” if friends were defined by the loosest version of the word, “I think we can all agree that in recent days, no one has done more, sacrificed more, for both the Light and the Reach, than Kaldur’ahm. From capturing his former teammates,” which you allowed to escape, “to destroying his team’s old base, he has proven his loyalty time and again. This is why he was entrusted with security for this summit, and why he’s entitled to a voice here.” Savage regarded both the Ambassador and Black Beetle until his answer came.

            “Of course,” posited the Ambassador. “He may speak.” Savage noted the sour expression on Black Beetle’s face. Good. Sowing more division between the Ambassador and his thug can only play into my hands.

            “Thank you, Ambassador,” Kaldur’ahm said, gracious as ever. “We acknowledge your concerns over the actions of my former team. But you must admit that public opinion would not be so far against you if you had more human heroes to put forward, ones whose powers you had enhanced.”

            “Like the ones you let slip through your fingers,” Black Manta added, moving to stand beside his son. “The Light has provided everything the Reach has required, and you aliens have let it all slip away.”

            Savage watched the Ambassadors eyes narrow and his lips tighten. For all their alien upbringing, the body language of the Reach was still very similar to humans. “I don’t believe this is a productive direction for our discussion.” The Ambassador’s words were practically forced.

            “No?” Ra’s interjected next. “Your approval ratings are at a record low. As are sales of the Reach drink, which you had hoped would enslave the populace.” Hoped, but never would, Savage thought. Not with Luthor neutralizing the agent inside of it from the beginning.

            “And those teenagers that escaped your custody, where are they now? What other trouble will they cause you?” Savage’s words mirrored his thoughts. He knew vaguely where the children, who had dubbed themselves the Runaways, were, since they were working with Luthor. He also knew when the time was right, their powers that had been unlocked by the Reach would be utilized against their former captors.

            The Ambassador seemed to stand straighter, rising to meet the challenge brought against him. “Black Beetle has been called down from our main ship to find these runaways and either return them to our custody or terminate them.” Savage inwardly smirked at the Ambassador’s terminology, and his rising rancor.
            The Scientist, standing slightly behind the Ambassador, spoke up next. “Also, we have begun the process of finding new hosts for our metagene research, which we hope will yield fruitful results.”

            “So do not question us on that score, or any other.” Savage was happy to see the Ambassador finally losing some of his diplomatic veneer. The closer he could get the alien to irrational actions, the better positioned the Light would be to appear as Earth’s true saviors. But then the Ambassador’s voice snapped back to his normal, measured self. “Remember, the Earth is now property of the Reach. And per our original agreement, the Light is merely our favored agents amongst the humans.” Savage didn’t even bother to hide the sneer that crossed his face.

            “Show the proper respect, or suffer the consequences.” And there it was. The first threat. Savage had always expected it to be the Ambassador’s enforcer who would do his dirty work. Unlike Savage, the Ambassador didn’t seem like one to get his hands dirty.

            “No agreement exists that makes a slave of Black Manta.” The words were out of the man’s mouth before Savage could speak. The future master of the seas strode forward towards the hulking beetle.

            “No agreement exists that guarantees the life of Black Manta.”

            “Manta guarantees that himself.” Both black armor-clad combatants displayed the weaponry concealed in their suits. And while Savage had no doubt Manta would put up a spirited fight, this was not the time or place to try and usurp the alien invaders.

            “It seems we have a standoff.” The coolness in Ra’s’ voice could have frozen steam. Savage’s eyes traced over to the Ambassador before going back to Black Beetle.

            “No. We don’t.” The beetle warrior struck first, a meaty fist slamming into Black Manta, sending him careening across the room. In an instant, Deathstroke was leaping through the air towards the alien, his staff extended. Both fighters parried blows from the other as Reach soldiers began to advance. Lasers peppered the ground around them, including one which caught Ra’s al Ghul in the side, sending him spinning down to one knee.

            From his stomach, Black Manta’s shoulder launcher fired at the advancing Reach soldiers. The small missile exploded directly in front of them, force of the blast sending them flying backwards with panicked yells.

            Amid all of this, Savage merely stood, hands clasped behind his back.

            As Deathstroke and Black Beetle moved to engage each other once again, Kaldur’ahm was suddenly between them, hands on both their chests. “Enough.” His shout stilled action across the grotto. “We are allies, not enemies. Any conflict between us only benefits our true opponents: the Justice League and their sidekicks.”

            Savage decided to seize upon the opportunity Manta’s son had created. “Kaldur’ahm is quite correct.”

            “Agreed.” The Ambassador’s quick approval was something of a surprise, but perhaps he felt this was a fight he could not win at the moment. “We must not allow petty disagreements to drive a wedge between us. Gratitude, Kaldur’ahm.” Turning to Black Beetle, the Ambassador’s voice took on a harder tone. “Stand down, Warrior.”

            “Ambassador…” Savage knew that tone. Black Beetle wanted to eviscerate all of them now, agreement be damned, and begin a rampage across the Earth. Alone, if need be.

            “Stand. Down.” The divisions between the two were growing more obvious by the minute. If he continued to play his cards right, Savage would drive them apart, pit them against each other, and then swoop in to finish off whoever was left standing. Reluctantly, the enforcer stepped back from the confrontation.

            “Should we not be concerned that Superman, Batman, the Lanterns, and the rest will soon return to Earth and once again sway public opinion to their side?” Savage had to stop himself from laughing at Kaldur’ahm’s ridiculous assertion. That was very much the least of their worries right now.

            “Superman and those accused with him will never leave Rimbor.” Again, Savage suppressed a chuckle. “The attack we forced them to make on that world, plus a few well-placed bribes, has guaranteed their convictions.”

            “And the Green Lanterns are forbidden by Guardian treaty from returning to Earth, now that we’ve convinced U.N. Secretary Tseng to welcome us here.” Savage thought he saw the barest hint of a satisfied nod from Kaldur’ahm. His question had been answered. “Besides, I’m sure our approval ratings will rebound on their own, now that we have our own human beetle to keep order.”

            There was a stirring from the tunnel the Reach had entered from, and suddenly Blue Beetle appeared. The former hero landed beside Black Beetle, but kept his weapons deployed. The threatening display was obvious.

            “Be careful, Earthlings,” the Ambassador said. “This world will be completely under our command soon.”

            Savage’s hands tightened behind his back. “There is no need for a show of force, Ambassador. We are among friends here, are we not?”

            A cruel smile preceded the Ambassador’s reply. “Indeed we are. And friends, as I recall from my studies of Earth culture, do favors for each other. So now the Light will do one for us. We require multiple sites, at least a dozen, city-sized, to be prepared for forced relocation of Earthlings.”

            “That was never part of our deal.” Black Manta’s voice rose as he stepped forward again, only to be restrained by Savage. With two beetles here, this was not a fight they could win.

            “I’m altering the terms of the arrangement.” The Ambassador held up a hand, signaling for his soldiers to begin to exit the way they came. “Pray we don’t alter it further.”

            As the Reach forces exited the grotto, the Ambassador turned to look at the assembled members of the Light, still standing their ground. “This meeting is over. Provide us what we want, or we will find those who will.”

            With that the Ambassador was gone, leaving Vandal Savage to wonder if, just this once, he had overplayed his hand.

*** 

Atlantic Ocean
July 4th, 2016 – Team Year 6 (Bart’s Timeline) 03:35 EDT

            For more than a year, his father’s Manta-Sub had been Kaldur’s home. Its winding and narrow corridors had become increasingly familiar to him during that time. And that familiarity is what allowed him now to sprint through them with increasing abandon, his normal calm demeanor nowhere to be found.  

            This race over knee-knockers and around tight corners threatened to expose his deep cover mission. A mission that he had held fast to for over a year even if that meant capturing former teammates, being reviled by those he loved and respected, and standing by or even seeming to celebrate as friend after friend was killed.

            But none of that mattered now. Because if he didn’t get the information he’d just heard out to Nightwing, then he wouldn’t have a mission anymore. He wouldn’t even have a world anymore.

            For his entire time undercover, he’d found ways to pass information along to his old friend. From dead drops to the rare face to face meeting, he’d kept the information flowing, trying to help the League remain a step ahead of the Light and the Reach. It hadn’t always worked.

            But now Kaldur knew he needed to contact the League, in what was possibly the most dangerous way: an unscheduled communication from the heart of enemy territory to his handler.

            Skidding to a stop outside his quarters on the Manta-Sub, Kaldur struggled to control his breathing. Shutting the door behind him, Kaldur quickly moved over to his communications station. He knew he’d have to wipe the footage of his actions later, but he’d worry about that then. Kaldur’s fingers flew over a keyboard, typing in a practiced combination. The keystrokes, provided by Nightwing, would let him call to his wrist computer, and then wipe away any trace of the call afterward. Or so the former Boy Wonder said.

            Standing hunched over the computer display, Kaldur watched as the seconds ticked away without Nightwing answering. His mind raced. The last communication he had dropped, a recording of the summit on Santa Prisca, had obviously made it into their hands. Savage’s angry call the next day as the League members were exonerated and returned from Rimbor might still be echoing in the halls.

            While in reality it was just a few more seconds before Nightwing’s masked face appeared on the computer screen, it had seemed like an eternity. The thought that it was 3:30 in the morning where Dick was entered Kaldur’s mind, but was quickly pushed away. Any trace of a smile disappeared from the younger man’s expression as soon as he saw Kaldur’s. He knew this was all business.

            “You seem whelmed.” Nightwing spoke first, uttering the code phrase to let Kaldur know he was alone.

            “We are still symbiosi, for the moment.” Kaldur did the same, trying not to think about the hidden meaning in his coded response. He looked back over his shoulder to make sure his door was still closed.

            “Kaldur, what’s wrong? We weren’t supposed to organize another drop for a week or so. Not that it isn’t good to see you face to face.” The Team’s leader tried to force a smile, but none came. Still, he looked less run down than the last time Kaldur had seen him. With Batman and the others back on Earth, many of the responsibilities he had carried on his shoulders were now gone.

            Except this one.

            “You as well, my friend. But circumstances dictated that I contact you now.” Kaldur remained hunched over his screen. “Beetles Blue and Black are on the Manta-Sub, conducting an expedition down to a possible sea floor site for Atlantean prisoners. But I overheard them talking. Something’s coming.”

            “What do you mean? What’s coming?”

            “They said something about a fleet.” Dick opened his mouth to say something, but Kaldur cut him off with a wave of his hand. “The way they were talking, this is bigger than what they had here. And it’s arriving soon.”

            Kaldur saw Dick look away from his screen for a moment, past it, listening to frantic typing coming from the other end. There was a pause and then Dick’s attention was focused solely on him again.

            “We’ve got nothing on long range satellites. But we’ll keep them active. And I’ll let the rest of the League know. I think it’s time for that United Nations press conference to tell the Reach they’re no longer welcome here.”

            Kaldur nodded slowly. His head slumped for a moment, and when he looked back at the computer screen, a haunted looked was plastered to his face. “Nightwing… when can I come home? I’d like to come home.” The surprised look on Dick’s face quickly melted into understanding. It was the first time in over a year that Kaldur had seemed to crack. Dick had known this was going to be difficult for him, but the former team leader was just now showing how hard this had been on him mentally.

            “Soon Kaldur. Very soon. Once we get the Reach off Earth, I promise. We’ll get you home. We’ll explain everything. I just need you to hang on a little longer.” Kaldur could hear the concern in Dick’s voice. It matched the pain in Kaldur’s eyes every time he looked in a mirror; wondering if those he’d left behind would accept him again. If they could accept him again.

            “All right, Nightwing. I understand.” Kaldur sighed, but allowed a small smile to cross his face. “Just a little bit…”

            The breath suddenly left his body as intense pain blossomed from Kaldur’s back and chest. His eyes travelled down to see a serrated blade springing from his armor, bright red blood covering the length of the weapon. As his vision swam out of focus, he managed to catch Nightwing’s horrified expression on the computer screen.

            Kaldur was almost sure he heard his friend calling his name as he embraced a darkness deeper than the depths of any of the seven seas.

***

            Jamie Reyes’ scream echoed around the corners of his own mind, but went no farther. He felt his body slowly bend over Kaldur’s against his will, serrated blade still embedded in the young man’s back. That blade moved him to the side as armor peeled back from his face. Jamie could feel the cool air of the Manta-Sub on his skin, even if he had no control over it.

            He locked eyes with Nightwing’s horrified expression. A cruel smile crossed his lips, completely opposite from his traumatized cries inside his head.

            “Looks like you have a bad connection, ese.” That was his voice, his lips moving, but nothing about this was Jaime Reyes. Nightwing’s face, slack jawed with wide eyes, and Kaldur’s blood soaking the serrated blade the retracted through his body, those images burned into his mind, never to leave. His other hand stabbed down, pushing the button to cut the connection and end the call. With a slash of the still-bloodstained blade, the comm system was cut in two.

            Scarab… why did you do that? Why did you kill him?

            Do not ask questions you already know the answer to, Jamie Reyes. The armor returned over his face, once again fully encapsulating Jaime in an alien shell.

            Why did you make me watch? He was my friend.

            The Ambassador requires that you observe all kills to break your pitiful human spirit. Jaime felt his body step over Kaldur’s, avoiding the expanding pool of blood on the metal floor. The Kaldur’ahm was a traitor to the cause. Advance warning of our main fleet arriving at Earth is not part of the Reach's plans. He had to die. As must all meat.

            Jaime’s scarab had been discussing the invasion plans with Black Beetle when both had received an alert from the Reach listening device planted to monitor all outgoing communications from the Manta-Sub. After learning who Kaldur had been calling, Black Beetle had dispatched his little brother to handle the situation. Jaime was positive this had been exactly the outcome the Reach enforcer had been hoping for, and knew he took perverse joy in that fact.

            “What have you done to my son?” The shout from the doorway drew the scarab’s attention. If Jaime had been in control of his body, he was sure that his eyes would have widened at the sight of Black Manta. Kaldur’s father was gripping the doorway with both hands, face painted with a mixture of extreme grief and anger. “What did you do to him?!”

            “I put him down like the traitorous dog he was.” That was his own voice, but were not his words. Jaime could only watch in horrified silence as Black Manta let out an anguished yell, charging at his body. A tackle sent them both crashing to the floor as Manta deflected a serrated blade with his arm. A punch that followed rocked Jamie’s head around, but a quick pulse from the sonic cannon sent Kaldur’s father flying off him and slamming into the far ceiling.

            Standing, the scarab brushed itself off and laughed, a deep guttural sound that Jaime didn’t know his body was capable of making. “Foolish old man. You had no idea your son was a double against us, against his own father. Did you?”

            “Shut up!” Manta spit blood onto the floor as he pushed himself back up to his feet. He placed a hand on the bulkhead to steady himself, but rage still burned bright in his eyes. From Manta’s shoulder, a small missile launcher rose, firing before Jaime’s scarab could react. One, two, three missiles slammed into his body, sending him flying back against the wall. Smoke rose from his armor, exposing charred skin underneath, but Jaime relished the pain. He almost hoped that Black Manta would finish the job, killing him and ending his suffering with the Reach.

            And it looked like Manta might do just that. Despite his injuries, the older man was on top of him quickly, pummeling with armored fists. “That. Was. My. Son.” Each word was accentuated by another blow. The scarab tried to fight back, but Jaime’s wounded body was too weak to put up an effective defense.

            Just when Jaime thought he would lose consciousness, that he might be able to embrace death and get away from this torture, he saw two massive black hands encase Manta’s head. Before the Light member could even react, those hands snapped his head around violently. Black Manta’s body collapsed over Jaime, just feet from where his son also lay dead.

            “We must get you to a medical bay, little brother.” Black Beetle’s large hand enveloped Jaime’s, pulling him to his feet. The older beetle lifted his head, his next words going out to all Reach soldiers.

            “The Light have betrayed us. Black Manta attacked Blue Beetle and his son betrayed our plans to the Justice League. Find all Light members and terminate them. It is time we showed Earth who its true masters are.”

***

The Watchtower
July 18, 2016 - Team Year 6 17:25 EDT

            Bart stopped his story when he saw Barbara’s slack-jawed expression. Had he crossed a line? Had his recounting of the story she had told him finally become too much for her to handle?

            “I’m sorry,” he blurted out. “I can stop. You know, just give you the spoilers from here on out. Make it short and sweet.”

            To tell the truth, part of him wanted her to take him up on that offer. To just give the bare bones basics of what came next. He’d watched her eyes well up with tears every year the Reach had forced them, forced everyone, to relive what came next. Each year, they’d try and find some way to block it, but every year their efforts were ineffectual. They would try and tune it out, forget it was happening. But the scars were everywhere. On their planet. On their bodies. On their minds. They couldn’t block it out, couldn’t forget. Sometimes they’d watch just to see the faces of loved ones lost one last time.

            Barbara looked at the floor for a moment. Then she reached back, pulled her hair out of a ponytail, shook her head four times, and then pulled her hair back even tighter than before. It was a move Bart had watched her do hundreds, maybe even thousands of times in his timeline. He knew what it meant. She was ready to get back to work.

            “So the Reach attacked the Light,” Barbara said, completely ignoring his question. “What happened after that?”

            “Luthor and Savage somehow managed to escape the Reach ambushes. They got into contact with the Watchtower. Luthor had programmed some code into the computers no one had found yet when Savage took over the League previously. They met with the founding members of the League and told them what was going on, what was coming next. The League also had the information Kaldur got out before he was killed.” Bart paused, not mentioning Nightwing as he looked at Barbara.

            “The League took all of that to the United Nations and Secretary General Tseng. They called a press conference, Tseng pulled his invitation to the Reach…” Bart stopped again, looking at the floor. “And that’s when all hell broke loose.”

Chapter Text

The Watchtower
July 4, 2016 Team Year 6 (Bart’s Timeline) 12:06 EDT

            “And so, it is due to the work of the Justice League that we were made aware of the threat that the Reach pose to our planet.” Raquel Ervin watched the Secretary General on the big screen of the Watchtower. The room on the League’s satellite base held a dozen heroes, all facing the head of the United Nations addressing the world in a live broadcast. 

            “The League has provided ironclad evidence proving the Reach’s nefarious intentions.” For months, the League and the Team, mostly at the direction of Nightwing and Black Canary, had been working without their most iconic heroes and against public opinion to expose the Reach for what they were really doing: planning on taking over the world.

            “At an emergency meeting of the United Nations just minutes ago, there was unanimous consent to rescind our invitation to the Reach, and demand that they leave Earth and all surrounding space immediately.” The normally low-key Secretary General Tseng slapped his hand on the podium to emphasize his final point.

            “There it is people,” Hal Jordan let out a satisfied sigh. “We’re finally allowed back on the planet again.” The Earth’s longest-serving Green Lantern had taken being forced off world particularly hard. Apparently, he had just started “going steady” with Carol Ferris before the Reach arrived. Raquel didn’t have the heart to tell him that no one had said “going steady” since the 60s.

            “Someone should find Guy and let him know he’ll be able to catch the end of the Gotham City Gothams season in person.” Hal laughed as he looked back towards the window overlooking Earth. “How that man survived on three day old rebroadcasts to Oa is a mystery to all of us.”

            Jordan slapped John Stewart on the back. “I can’t wait to grab a huge steak at Joey’s. Whatever imitation they manufacture on Oa just isn’t in the same universe.” The former military man let out a small smile as he patted Jordan’s shoulder.

            “Anything would be better than whatever slop they fed us on Rimbor.” The other Green Lantern smiled and shook his head at the screen. “I’m just happy to be going home, Jordan.”

            Raquel looked up at the man standing beside her. Icon’s eyes still hadn’t moved from the screen. It had been a long time since she had seen her mentor and partner. Icon had gone with the League members accused of attacking Rimbor as their attorney. They had all returned two weeks ago, after evidence Nightwing’s team had obtained had led to their exoneration. The Team’s leader had been tight-lipped about how exactly he had gotten his hands on the information until that morning.

            The announcement had left the League and Team stunned. Kaldur had been working a deep cover mission for over a year, feeding information about the Light and the Reach. It seemed the only members Dick had confided in about the plan had been Batman, Wally, and Artemis. Even Kaldur’s mentor Aquaman had been left in the dark, which explained why the Atlantean King had been so distant from the rest of his fellow heroes lately.

            Movement on the screen caught Raquel’s eye as the camera shifted, showing the assembled heroes standing with Secretary General Tseng as he made his announcement. They had decided to keep the delegation to the League’s most recognizable heroes so it wouldn’t seem like a show of force, as one oppressor might be replaced with another.

            “You should be down there with them.” The words escaped Raquel’s mouth as she thought them. Not that she was ashamed, she had a habit for speaking her mind. It was a trait she was famous for, especially to her mentor. The big alien offered up a small smile.

            “They’re home, and the world is safe again,” Icon’s deep voice cut through the speech on screen. “That’s all the reward I need, Raquel.” Another smile crept across his face as he reached out to pull her into a half hug.

            “Warning. Unknown objects are entering the Moon’s orbit.” A small red light flashed from a nearby console, drawing attention away from the ongoing speech at the United Nations. Raquel watched Dr. Ray Palmer walk over and press a key, an image of three massive ships flooding the room. But they were ships unlike anything Raquel had ever seen.

            The ships were each the size of a small city in circumference, and at least twice that in height. The main hulls were a matte indigo that seemed to suck in all the light around them. But five large scarlet circles dotted their surfaces, appearing almost like bloody stars in a night sky. The bottom of the ships were peppered with curved spikes that jutted out at irregular and seemingly random intervals. Those spikes looked to be smooth on the sides, but formed a sharp point at the end, backlit by dull crimson light emanating from the ships’ bases.

            Roughly a pyramid shape, any fine lines on the alien crafts were destroyed by what seemed like random growths off the ships. There looked to be no rhyme or reason to these other curved spikes. Some were smaller, some larger, none symmetrical, and none of the three ships looked the same because of it. It was almost as if these aliens, whoever they were, had seen a roaring fire, and built their ships to look like a frozen image of it. Only black. And probably deadlier.

            “Should we contact the surface?” Palmer glanced over at Jordan and Stewart. Both Green Lanterns looked at each other for a moment before the elder Lantern sighed.

            “Might as well keep Bats in the loop,” Jordan tossed a sidelong glare at Stewart. “Stop looking at me like that. I’m only doing this so tall, dark, and spooky doesn’t get his utility belt in a twist. He’s only been back two weeks. I’d like to keep him in a good mood for as long as possible.”

            “Uh huh.” Stewart looked around. “I’ll go grab Guy and we’ll check it out. Where’s Kyle?” Everyone in the bay looked around for the fourth human Green Lantern before they realized John Stewart was staring pointedly at Hal Jordan again.

            “What?”

            “Hal, where’s Kyle?”

            Jordan hesitated again. “Rayner’s at the Hall of Justice. I let him head down to the surface early. Something about making up for lost time with Za…”

            “You let him go down to Earth before the United Nations made their announcement?”

            “Well, I mean…”

            “In violation of Guardian treaty?”

            “Look, John…”

            “Someday we’re going to go over the definitions of “rules” and “treaties,” Jordan.” Raquel wasn’t sure the last time she’d seen someone roll their eyes as much as Hal Jordan did in that moment. And being able to tell someone was rolling their eyes through a domino mask was no small feat. She was a little impressed.

            Stewart just shook his head and left the bay in search of Guy Gardner. Jordan’s eyes drifted back over the screen again. Dr. Palmer followed his gaze and moved to stand next to him.

            “You think they’re dangerous?”

            “Either they came to pick a fight or they chose the absolute worst time for a sight-seeing expedition. Doesn’t matter, we’ll make sure they get gone.”

            “Just tell them if they want to fight we can pencil them in for next month.” That was Patrick O’Brien, better known as Plastic Man. Former criminal, now Justice League member, and constant jokester. “We’ve had enough alien invasions this week.”

            A faint chuckle traveled through the bay. Jordan put his hand on Dr. Palmer’s shoulder, a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. “Give Bats the lowdown. We’ll be back before the speech is over.”

***

            “I can’t believe you let Rayner go down to the surface early.” As much as Hal Jordan wanted to block the annoying whining of Guy Gardner out of his head, the fact that he was wearing a communicator embedded in his ear made that a little difficult. “I mean, you’ve known me longer. You should like me better.”

            “Gardner, the fact that I’ve known you longer is one of the reasons you definitely weren’t going to the surface early.” The three Lanterns flew in formation towards the foremost alien ship. Diplomacy was something that the Guardians hammered into the Lantern Corps from day one, but Hal wasn’t having any of it. These aliens would get one warning, and then it’d be time to bring the hurt. The League had just been through its most trying ordeal. And Hal Jordan had no fucks left to give.

            “You don’t know, Hal. Maybe I had important things to attend to.”

            “Gardner, checking to make sure that the pizza you left in your fridge didn’t grow legs and walk off is not an “important thing to attend to” in my book.”

            “I didn’t leave any pizza…”

            “Stop it. I’ve seen your apartment. We’d all be lucky if you actually left it in the fridge.” Hal squinted, trying to make out any sort of port or cockpit on the lead ship.

            “Maybe I wasn’t planning on heading to my apartment.”

            “Bar fights are also not considered important things.”

            “I wasn’t talking about bar fights. You let Rayner go see his girlfriend. What if I’m missing out on time with a beautiful woman right now?”

            “Guy… do you have a girlfriend that looks as good as Zatanna?”

            “Well, no, but…”

            “Then shut up.”

            “Quiet, both of you. I think we’re in range.” John Stewart’s voice was gruff, but Hal could see the tiniest hint of a small tugging at the corner of his lips. Stewart always did like it when he gave Guy a hard time.

            The three of them pulled up a distance away from the lead ship. From this closer angle, Hal could see tiny crimson flecks of light dotting the hull. Sensors? Windows? Weapons? He couldn’t tell.

            He looked over John and nodded. Hal wanted their demands to sound as authoritative as possible, and with Bats Earth-side, the former military man was the one best suited for the job.

            “Attention. You have entered the boundaries of Earth space. Disengage all weapons and engines. This is your final warning.” Nice, Hal thought. Simple, to the point, and said with an inflection that should be pants-shittingly effective.

            And yet there was no groveling, no begging for forgiveness. The hulking ship didn’t even stop its slow, inexorable forward movement.

            “Should we knock?” Hal was about to respond to Guy’s latest quip when a brightening light caught his eye. On each ship, the biggest circle in the center was going from deep crimson to bright pink. A mechanical whine, almost like a battery being supercharged, accompanied the change in hue.

            Time seemed to slow for Hal Jordan. He’d experienced it flying a couple of times, only when things had gone really, really sideways. The day Abin Sur’s ship had crashed, destroying his test plane in the process, had b+3en one of those times. But unlike that day when Hal had no idea what the hell was going on, he knew very clearly what this was: an attack.

            “Shields up!” His power ring responded to his thoughts even before he got the words out. A half second later, that blinding light turned into a beam of pure energy. To his right, Jordan could see Stewart with his shield up as well. But Gardner hadn’t reacted fast enough. The light washed over the unshielded body of Earth’s third Green Lantern. There was a flash and Guy’s body disappeared, replaced by a skeleton hanging in space for the briefest of moments. Another flash and that skeleton atomized, leaving no trace behind.

            Hal was vaguely aware of the other two ships firing, their beams aiming at something behind him. He could only assume it was the Watchtower, but couldn’t turn his head to look. All his focus was on maintaining his shield.

            But it wasn’t enough. The onslaught on energy was too great. Before him, it seemed as if the sphere of energy he had encased himself in began to contract and then crack. Sweat poured down his face, from exertion or heat of the energy beam, Hal couldn’t tell. The shield cracked further. He muttered a single word through clenched teeth.

            “Carol…”

            The shield broke. For the briefest instant, Hal Jordan felt a purifying heat combined with blinding light. Then he felt and saw nothing at all.

***

New York City
July 4, 2016 Team Year 6 (Bart’s Timeline) 12:16 EDT

            “Atom. Atom, come in.” Bruce Wayne’s voice sounded calm, but Dick Grayson knew his mentor better than that. After ten years at Batman’s side, he had learned the ticks that gave the Dark Knight away. The tiniest downward tug of his lips just above that stubbled chin. A narrowing of his eyes, however slight, as if mentally willing his communicator to break through whatever was stopping the transmission from connecting.

            “Dr. Palmer.” Dick already knew something was wrong. Bruce’s abandonment of code names in public only confirmed that fact. The Reach had not shown any proclivity towards giving up without a fight in the time they’d been on Earth. He felt a growing cold in the pit of his stomach. Intuition told him that things had just swerved into the realm of disaster. Heavy on the aster.

            “Ray!” Dick looked up towards the cloudless azure sky. Squinting in the midday light, Dick saw a spot flare in the blue expanse, rivaling the summer sun despite its much smaller size. And then it was gone, akin to a cosmic wink. But as the flare faded, so too did any sense of relief that Dick had felt after completing the hardest mission of his life.

            Others in the crowd had noticed the flash in the sky as well. Onlookers were beginning to point, their hushed tones growing louder, interrupting the Secretary General’s speech. Dick turned from the crowd, frantically typing on the holographic screen above his wrist computer. He knew what had happened. The Watchtower had been destroyed and its cloaking technology was gone along with it. Every other scenario didn’t make sense. But he had to be sure, had to know that their worst fears had been realized.

            Every communications earpiece worn by League and Team members also had a tiny transmitter in it. It basically amounted to a “hey, I’m still functioning” transmitter, but could also be used in a pinch to locate someone if they were missing. Unless it was destroyed. Every member of the Team showed up on his holographic screen. Dick’s eyes closed, frown creasing his lips as he made an amendment to the statement in his head. Every member of the Team who was on Earth showed up. The pictures of every teammate and friend on the Watchtower was a faded grey.

            That wellspring of grief that he was just barely managing to keep in check threatened to overflow. It had been just hours ago, awoken by an early morning call, that he found out that Kaldur was dead. Murdered on a mission that Dick had sent one of his best friends on. My soldier, my fault. Coupled with the deaths over the previous few months, and now… this? This magnitude of loss was one he wasn’t sure he could handle.

            They were supposed to have won. They were supposed to win. Good guys win, bad guys lose, right?

            This wasn’t supposed to happen.

            “Nightwing!” Bruce’s shout meant that the older man had already tried getting his attention at least once before. Sucking in a deep, ragged breath, Dick realized that he needed to get his head in the game. The Team and the League needed him to be focused on the here and now.

            A few League veterans were already moving to accomplish their assigned tasks with a nervous urgency. Superman was attempting to get the crowd to back away, and Wonder Woman was walking Secretary Tseng back towards the United Nations building, a phalanx of security guards surrounding them both. Others just stood frozen, either staring up at the sky where the flash had twinkled in and out of existence, or staring at him and Bruce. The Batman took a step closer to him.

            “Dick.” The abandonment of his code name in the field, especially such a public place, shocked him back into the moment. Rule number one was never use first names in the field. Well, rule number one was actually never go anywhere without your utility belt, but always using code names in field was pretty close behind it.

            “I need a status update. Who was on the Watchtower?”

            That was a question Dick didn’t want to answer. Naming them would make the deaths real, final. There was a little part of him that hoped for some cosmic miracle, that by not speaking their names they would miraculously come back to life. Dick looked from his mentor to the others gathered on the dais. Their eyes were the worst part. Those gathered, the living, their eyes were open wide, pleading that their friends, their lovers, weren’t on the Watchtower. It was a stark contrast from the eyes that stared back at him from the holographic display, grey and unmoving. Dick closed his eyes again. He didn’t need to be looking at their pictures to know who wasn’t coming back.

            “Lagoon Boy and Tempest.” There was no emotion in Dick’s voice. He read their names as if he was reading a list for a shopping trip he didn’t want to go on. It was safer that way. He needed to detach himself, or he was going to crumble on the spot in front of everyone. In front of Barbara. In front of Bruce. And he couldn’t do that, not now.

            “Green Lanterns Jordan, Stewart, and Gardner.” Bruce paused for a moment as he scrolled over his own list, and Dick couldn’t help but think he was being taken aback by just how much they’d lost in the span of a few seconds. “Hawkman. Hawkwoman. Icon. Rocket. Plastic Man. Blue Devil. Atom.” Dick could have sworn he had heard Bruce’s voice quiver ever so slightly. He understood the emotion. A dozen friends, colleagues, and members of Earth’s pantheon were gone.

            “Get me eyes on whatever destroyed the Watchtower.” The hard edge was back in Batman’s voice. As his fingers flew over his virtual keyboard, Dick internally marveled at Bruce’s choice of words. Get him eyes on what destroyed the Watchtower, not what killed their fellow heroes. It was his way of distancing himself from their deaths, for shielding himself behind the cowl.

            Searching through a directory of WayneTech satellites, Dick found a clear picture of the attackers from Satellite 16. The image that popped up on his holographic screen froze the blood in his veins. There was a sharp intake of breath. Dick wasn’t sure if it was from him. He wasn’t even sure he was still breathing. The image on the screen was something straight out of his nightmares, haunting him since he was thirteen years old. A cold sweat broke out above Dick’s domino mask as his hands began shaking. All of the external displays of emotion that Bruce had attempted to teach him to hide beneath a practiced veneer since he was nine began spilling out.

            Dick was vaguely aware of voices asking him what he saw. His throat was as dry as a Biyalian desert, and his words seemed trapped. Stabbing a shaking finger into the virtual screen, the image, the nightmare, enlarged for all to see.

            “Oh, you have got to kidding me.” Wally West’s exasperated comment was the closest he could come to humor in the current situation. It also covered up a horrified gasp from Artemis, standing beside him. All the other members of the Team who knew what the image showed were elsewhere, or dead. That left almost everyone else on the dais staring at the image, wondering why there was such a visceral reaction from the younger heroes. Almost everyone.

            Bruce rounded on J’onn, grabbing the front of his cloak and pulling him close, practically lifting the big alien off the ground. Dick knew the Martian could have just shifted his form at any moment and removed himself from the Batman’s grip, but his normally expressionless face showed just as much shock as the rest of the team.

            “You said those ships were just a legend!” Bruce’s voice was grating, nearly guttural, but loud enough for everyone on the dais to hear. He pulled the alien closer. “A story, made up to scare young Martians!” One gloved hand still holding a death grip around J’onn’s cloak, the other stabbed back towards the holographic screen. “Those are Reach motherships! How did you know about them?”

            Silence enveloped the dais. Even the wind seemed to die down to nothingness. Bruce’s eyes narrowed as J’onn’s silence continued, removing the distance between their faces. The big Martian’s eyes weren’t looking at the scowling cowl in front of him, but past it to the holographic image still projected before them all.

            “J’onn…” A hand gently lowered itself onto Bruce’s shoulder. Wonder Woman, the Amazon goddess, her blue eyes wide and taking in their reactions, didn’t say another word. But her presence caused his mentor’s hands to loosen on the Maritan’s cloak. Bruce turned away from the alien, taking a step or two towards Dick again before J’onn’s deep voice stopped him.

            “They come from Martian lore.” The Martian’s face twisted as if he was trying to keep emotions Dick didn’t think existed under control. J’onn kept his voice slow and measured as he continued. “Millennia ago, they came from the stars, pretending to be on a mission of peace. They tried to enslave our people, to… feast on our people. They nearly did.” J’onn staggered, hands to his head, as if the memory that had been passed down for generations was causing him physical pain. Superman helped support his weight as his story went on.

            “These aliens, they hadn’t counted on our mental abilities. The ability to combat them with our minds is the only thing that saved our people.” J’onn looked up from his hands to the image of the Reach motherships again. “But it came at a terrible cost. By the time my ancestors finally gathered the strength to attack, most of the population was already enslaved. The battle knocked our civilization back to a pre-historic time, decimated our population, and left many parts of Mars barren.” His red eyes traced down the to Batman, still standing with his back to him.

            “Those ships, the ones passed down from generation to generation, the ones that I used for the training exercise all those years ago, must have been the last thing my ancestors saw as the Reach fled our planet.”

            “So they decided they wanted some payback.” Wally spoke up again first. “Except this time, they want it on an easier target.” Dick wasn’t sure if his best friend was setting up a joke or breaking down the cold, unfiltered truth of the moment.

            The lack of a punch line gave him his answer.

            Bruce spoke next, still not looking at the Martian. “So how do we beat them?” Dick watched as J’onn shook his head slowly.

            “You do not understand. To defeat the Reach a millennia ago, it took the combined mental power of thousands upon thousands of my people.” The Martian Manhunter raised his eyes towards the summer sky.

            “We cannot win.”

Chapter Text

Washington, D.C.
July 4, 2016 - Team Year 6 (Bart’s Timeline) 12:32 EDT

            The cold pit of fear that had formed in Connor Kent’s stomach wasn’t going anywhere. It had shown up in the moments after J’onn had sent M’gann a mental image of what the satellites were seeing, which she had promptly shared with the group. Kyle Rayner and Zatanna may not have known what that image represented, but to Connor it was all too familiar.

            The Reach were playing for keeps.

            The sight of those Reach motherships advancing on the planet had brought back a flood of memories. They were memories that he had worked to suppress for the past five years. Telling M’gann he loved her before heading off to a certain death. The anguish of being disintegrated. Guilt over his happiness of finally feeling like Superman.

            Nightwing’s voice crackled in their ears. “Superboy, Miss M, coordinate with military leaders in Washington, D.C. Use what we learned in the simulation five years ago. Share that knowledge. We can only assume it’s true.” The tone of Nightwing’s voice left something unsaid. Assume really meant hope. Connor understood. Five years ago, in a mental simulation run by J’onn until M’gann’s subconscious had taken over, only Reach weaponry had been able to hurt their ships. Human weapons had proven vastly ineffective against them.

            Connor only hoped they worked better in real life than in the simulation.

            Standing next to them, Zatanna wrapped an arm through the Green Lantern’s as she pressed her other hand to her ear. “What about Rayner and me?”

            “Get to New York City, do what you can. Dr. Fate will be meeting you there. You two know the city better than anyone else.” It was true. Zatanna and her father had grown up in the Big Apple. While sending only three heroes to protect millions might have seemed like a mistake, their familiarity with the city and the power those three possessed might make it something of a fair fight.

            The magician responded with an acknowledgement before turning to M’gann and enveloping her in a hug. The Martian and Zatanna held on to each other for a few long seconds, not speaking. Everyone here knew that some people probably were not going home tonight. Some people were going to die.

Breaking their embrace, Zatanna threw her arms around Connor as well. “Keep her safe,” she whispered into his ear. The emotion in her voice caught him off guard. Connor nodded in return. It was all he could do.

Zatanna offered him a sad smile, patting Wolf and Sphere as she moved to stand beside Kyle. Earth’s last remaining Green Lantern tossed them each a lazy salute, a hard set to his jaw already. A green bubble of energy formed around Zatanna and both flew off towards the north.

            Hopping into a newly formed Super-Cycle, Connor took off towards the Pentagon with Wolf in the back seat and M’gann following behind. Though alien craft might be treated with hostility right now, Connor figured it was a better alternative than leaping towards the Pentagon, causing wanton amounts of property damage and panicking people who were already on edge.

            Flying over the security checkpoints probably wasn’t the smartest idea, but it got the attention Connor wanted. By the time they landed, a phalanx of troops was already arrayed before them. As soon as they caught a glimpse of the “S” on his chest, a large man with broad shoulders and four starts on each lapel walked forward. Connor instantly recognized him from the simulation five years ago.

            “General Wade Eiling, United States Marine Corps.” Surprise registered for a moment on the old general’s face before it returned to hard indifference. Eiling made no motion to offer either of the two heroes a hand. Connor could hear his heart racing, and didn’t need M’gann’s Martian mind-reading abilities to tell that the Vietnam War veteran was scared.

“Superman informed us that you’d be stopping by. We were surprised to be getting an “S”.” Eiling gestured to Connor’s shirt. The clone decided to skip the formalities.

“Look, General, we know how to defeat these aliens. We also know your men and equipment,” Connor gestured to the tanks and guns surrounding them, “will be useless against them.”

            “What do you mean you know how to defeat these things, son?” Suspicion seeped into the General’s words. “What is the Justice League not telling us?” Connor opened his mouth to begin what on any other day would seem like a very strange story. Today, it might not even break the top ten. But then he began to hear a new sound: a faint mechanical howl, almost familiar, that was growing louder by the moment.

            “I don’t have time to explain, General.” The persistent howls were growing in volume and number. “You just have to trust that we know how to help you hold these aliens off. You’ve got to get your planes in the air.” Connor gestured to the open field in front of the tanks. “They’re going to be coming in with smaller ships, and you’re going to need troops to drop in behind them. If we can distract them long enough to down a fighter and take its gun, we might have a chance at winning this.’

            “Son, I don’t take orders from you. And I’ll be damned if I use my pilots as a distraction for some half-baked plan from a hero.” The emphasis Eiling put on the last word almost made Connor wonder whose side he was on. But the mechanical howl was growing louder, more distracting. He shook his head.

            “General, your weapons are barely going to put a dent in their ships. You have to believe me.” As an aide came running out towards the General, Connor finally placed why that howl was so familiar.

            He turned to stare out towards the east, the direction the noise was coming from. It was the howl that haunted his nightmares, the ones he tried to ignore. It was the last thing he had heard before he “died” in his mind five years ago.

            “General, there are an unknown number of enemy ships incoming.”

            “Dozens,” Connor said, squinting as tiny black dots began appearing over the horizon. He could hear the soldiers around him start to notice the ships as well, pointing to them as more appeared out of the brilliant blue sky. “And they’re already here.”

            Those small dots sharpened into the familiar shapes of his nightmares. The two lower wings to stabilize flight, the rounded cockpit, and the long, curved cannon over the top. Like a scorpion’s stinger, it brought death and destruction with it.

            “Track those ships. Prepare to fire!” The General’s voice brought Connor out of his daze. Already the tanks were turning to get a bead on the incoming Reach fighters. Connor raced over and grabbed Eiling’s arm.

            “General, what are you doing? Your tanks aren’t going to stop them!” With surprising nonchalance, the General pulled his arm from Connor’s grasp.

            “Son, you haven’t given me a reason not to have my boys take them down. I’m not just going to take your word for it that we’re doomed. We’ve got some tricks up our sleeves.” The howl was nearly deafening now. Eiling turned, squinted, and chewed the end of his cigar for a moment. Hardheaded as ever, the General continued to portray a steely exterior, although Connor could hear his heart pounding in his chest.

            “Fire!” Flames spit from the turrets of the tanks around them. Connor tracked the shells as they raced towards the oncoming Reach fighters. But where explosions were expected, very few appeared. Most of the Reach ships nimbly skirted away from the missiles seeking them. The few shells that did hit seemed to have very little effect. A few scorched hulls, one fighter looked to be smoking, but none were destroyed.

            If the tank salvo had been ineffective, the Reach response was exactly the opposite.

            Fighters swooped down on the assembled American troops. Laser beams impacted the ground, throwing up huge clouds of dirt and dust. Soldiers scrambled behind whatever cover they could find, a chorus of panicked shouts and curses rising from the field. Those that were hit by the beams were simply engulfed in a bright light that left no trace of them when it faded.

            The tanks didn’t fare much better. Depending on where they were hit, part of the machine would simply be melted away, leaving a smoking mass behind. Other times the tanks would explode brilliantly.

            “Get me air support, now!” Eiling screamed into a radio as a soldier next to him was hit by a beam and vaporized. Beyond the first security checkpoint, one of the ubiquitous Reach ships that had become such a familiar sight over the United Nations building landed, hatches on the side opening. Reach soldiers began pouring out, their staffs with scythe-like ends spitting fire. Soldiers screamed in agony as the bolts hit them and fortifications were decimated. Eiling’s troops began retreating towards the Pentagon.

            Jet fighters screamed overhead, missiles and machine guns returning fury back at the Reach invaders. A random Reach fighter or two exploded, but the kills seemed to determine on where the ship was hit, not with that it was hit with. Missiles also exploded against the Reach transport ship, still unloading troops. Pieces of hull blackened and smoked under the onslaught, but the ship remained very much intact.

            The familiar chatter of machine guns started behind them. Connor ducked as he saw Reach troops begin falling under their combined fire. A hard smile returned to his face. At least they could be killed. Still kneeling behind a concrete barricade, Connor stiffened as a heavy hand grabbed his shoulder. Whirling around, he found himself staring into the face of General Eiling.

            “You need to go, son. We’ll hold them off here.”

            “What do they want with the Pentagon, General?”

            “My guess? Access to our communications so they can cut us off. And they want our nukes to keep us from using ‘em on them.”

            “We should stay…” Connor never finished his sentence as an explosion nearby cut him off. The General grabbed his shoulders again.

            “You need to find something to save us, son. Besides, we know those narrow corridors. The Reach don’t. I’ve seen you fight, you need room to operate. And that cycle-thing of yours wouldn’t even fit down some of the hallways.” Eiling paused for a moment, then leaned down to Connor’s ear, his voice barely audible over the din of battle.

            “Cadmus, son. Get to Cadmus.” Connor’s eyes widened, but as he drew back he could see the understanding in Eiling’s face. Clenching his jaw, the clone nodded. It was time to head back home.

            M’gann, get to the Super-Cycle. Connor matched words to actions as he rose and leapt across the courtyard, Wolf following behind. We’ve got to get to Cadmus.

            Cadmus? Even through the mind link, her shock was evident. She knew Cadmus was one of the last places in the world he wanted to go. But it might just hold the key to winning this war.

            Before Connor could answer, three Reach soldiers rounded a barricade in front of him, staff-blasters aimed in his direction. He threw up his arms instinctively, but knew that wouldn’t protect him. As time seemed to slow, he waited for that burning fire, then nothingness.

            It didn’t come. Panicked shouts in an alien language reached his ears, and he saw Wolf on his attackers. The genetically enhanced animal ripped the throat out of one Reach soldier, before leaping at another. The weight of Wolf’s body sent the second soldier flying. But the third soldier leveled his staff, a distinctive overcharged whine emitting from it, and a far brighter beam than ones Connor had seen before shot out from the end. In an instant, the beam struck Wolf. The air around the animal seemed to glow for a moment before he became nearly transparent. Then there was a flash and Connor’s friend was gone.

            With a tortured yell, Connor grabbed the soldier’s staff, snapping it in half over his knee. Before the Reach grunt could run away, he grabbed his cape. Raising half the shattered staff over his head, Connor brought it down on the helmeted alien. His arm began moving on instinct, swinging again and again. He wasn’t even conscious about how many times or how hard he was swinging, only feeling grief and rage over the loss of Wolf at the hands of the Reach; again.

            CONNOR! M’gann’s mental shout pulled him from his rampage. He looked up to see her already inside Sphere, hovering above his head. His hands felt wet and sticky. Connor looked down to see cyan colored blood covering his hands and the front of his shirt. The Reach soldier’s head was no longer recognizable, now just a misshapen mash of alien metal and flesh.

            Without saying a word, Connor picked up the staff of one of the soldiers Wolf had killed, and deftly leapt up into Sphere.

            “Cadmus,” he said simply. Sphere turned to head in that direction as Washington D.C. burned around them. Connor stared straight ahead, never meeting M’gann’s eyes.

***

Central City
July 4, 2016 - Team Year 6 (Bart’s Timeline) 11:45 CDT

            Where age might have slowed him, adrenaline pushed Jay Garrick to run faster. He’d been defending Central City alone until Wally and Artemis had arrived via zeta tube. He chuckled lightly to himself. All this new technology, all these heroes, and they were already fighting for their lives against a much more technologically superior foe.

            Iris and her twins were on their way to Gotham City already. The League said they had a safe place near the city for families of heroes that could make it there: Wayne Manor. Another thought that made Jay smile; Bruce Wayne was Batman. It made sense, of course, but he’d never put it together. By Iris’ nonplussed reaction when he’d told her where she was going, he guessed she already knew.

            Jay finally spotted both Wally and Artemis directing refugees towards a road that was being held open by the military. It was still hard for him to think of the young redhead as Flash. Barry’s death had been especially difficult for him. Saying goodbye to him was almost like a parent burying a child. He’d never expected to bury the man he’d given his mantle to.

            And now that mantle had been passed to Wally. Even though he was only Barry’s nephew, he reminded Jay so much of the sandy-haired man he’d gotten to know so well over the years. And his love for Artemis mirrored Barry’s love for Iris. But so too Jay saw the fire that would burn in Barry’s eyes. A fire that showed how fiercely protective he was over his home. And when that home was threatened, there was nothing he wouldn’t do to protect it. It was one of the things that made the Flash Flash.

            As the two continued to help load refugees onto trucks, Jay slowed to a stop next to them. Breath burning in his lungs, his hands gripped bony knees through his pants. Age was definitely catching up with him.

            “They’re heading this way,” Jay said in between deep breaths, chest heaving. “They have the rest of the city surrounded. They’ll be cutting off this road any minute.” Wally and Artemis exchanged a look, one that was a mixing of worry and knowing. From what Jay had gathered, they’d seen these ships before, seen all this happen before in some type of simulation years ago. The good news was they knew what they were up against. The bad news? He’d gathered they’d all died in that simulation. And with the news about the Watchtower being destroyed and reports of massive invasions in nearly every major city, things weren’t looking great.

            “Think we can lure them away from everyone else?” Artemis continued motioning people down the road as her grey eyes continued tracking the sky. A mechanical whine started filling the air and the citizens of Central City around them began panicking.

            “Only if we manage to get their attention.” Wally was trying keep things orderly, but most people were rushing past the Scarlet Speedster like he wasn’t even there. “You know, better than I’m getting everyone else’s attention.”

            “I think I’ve got a plan for that.” Artemis pulled an arrow with a rounded tip from her quiver and drew her bow back. She knelt, poised, eyes watching for the source of the whine to show itself.

            When the first Reach fighter appeared around the buildings, she released the arrow. It arced into the sky, exploding in front of the leading alien craft in a brilliant shower of sparks. The craft banked hard to the right in surprise, right into the path of a fighter following behind. The whine of their engines was replaced by the scraping scream of metal on metal. Sparks, brighter and more numerous than Artemis’ arrow, exploded from both craft, with billowing black smoke following. Almost as if they were locked in an aerial dance, both craft rolled, trailing smoke, and began a long descent towards the ground.

            Before their inevitable impact, the third fighter in the group came roaring around the building, already turning to track where the arrow had come from. “Darling husband-to-be,” Artemis rose to her feet, collapsing her bow, “I think we should be going.” In a maneuver obviously practiced many times before, the man in red scooped up the girl in green, a sidelong smirk thrown in Jay’s direction.

            “Let’s get gone, gramps.” Wally took off, his red blurring with Artemis’ green. It was like Christmas running at nearly the speed of sound. Jay tilted his helmet down, a smile creasing his weathered face, and took off after them.

            He didn’t need to turn to hear the whine of the Reach fighter’s engines. It was managing to keep pace with them, dancing around and above the buildings of Central City. Every once in a while, its pilot would snap off a laser blast that would vaporize a chunk of road behind them or a part of a building nearby. The blasts, as powerful and deadly as they were, never really came close enough to cause concern for the speedsters.

            Another blast caught the top of a building ahead of them, sending debris plummeting down into the street. “Right!” Artemis shouted. Ahead, Wally planted his left foot and expertly turned down a side street. Jay was not as quick around the corner, nearly skidding into a piece of debris and stumbling as he tried to regain his footing. He pressed his hand into the ground as his eyes focused on the street in front of him. Feet underneath him once again, Jay looked up to follow after the younger speedster.

            The only thing he saw was a brilliant flash of light streaking in his direction. Muscles tensing, Jay threw himself to his right as the streak exploded into the building he had just been standing in front of. Smoke and debris engulfed him. Something knocked his helmet from his head as the force of the blast sent his body pinwheeling across the street.

            His bouncing body finally came to a stop farther up the street. Jay reached around for his helmet but couldn’t find it. What had hit him? It was too large for one of the soldiers to have fired it, but it had an arc to its trajectory as well, so it wasn’t one of the fighters. Maybe a Reach tank he hadn’t seen?

            Pain interrupted those analytical thoughts. Pain coursed through his body, radiating from his left leg. A quick glance down revealed the reason why. A piece of rebar, at least a yard in length, protruded from the leg. Jay didn’t need to put weight on it to know his leg was broken, that he wouldn’t be running anywhere for a while.

            A gust of wind blew up as Wally and Artemis appeared in front of him. The archer immediately took shelter behind a nearby car, drawing her bowstring and firing at enemies he couldn’t see. Wally knelt beside him. His mouth opened to say something, but Jay saw his eyes trace down to his leg.

            “You and Artemis need to get out of here.” More pain was creeping into his voice than Jay wanted to.

            “Stop that crazy talk, old man. You’re coming with us.” Jay tried to laugh but the sound degraded into a hacking cough.

            “Don’t be stupid, Wally. You can’t carry the both of us.” Whatever hope Wally normally carried in his eyes practically extinguished. He knew Jay was right, he just didn’t want admit it.

            “We need to make a decision quickly, boys. I can’t hold them off forever.” As if the universe was agreeing with her, she ducked as a laser blast shot just inches above her head. Wally opened his mouth to say something, probably to try and get Artemis to support his plan, when Jay laid a hand on his arm.

            “Wallace son, find me my helmet.” The hard line of Wally’s mouth softened into understanding. Turning to scan the street, he was gone, and then back before Jay could blink. In his hands, he held the battered, dirty tin helmet. Jay accepted his old friend with a sad smile and then looked back at the rubble that had forced them down this side street in the first place. It was a natural corner now, a place where he could keep all attacks in front of him. Wally followed his gaze, and then nodded.

            “Artemis.” The golden-haired woman turned to him, staying low behind cover. He saw her like a granddaughter, and knew that she would fight leaving him more vehemently than Wally had. He had to head her off.

            “You take care of Wally now, you hear? You two are going to need each other.” Jay squeezed her hand as hard as he could, but could already feel strength leaving his body. “The world is going to need you.”

            “Jay… I…” Her stormy eyes widened in shock at seeing his leg. Artemis’ brow furrowed, searching for words, a way out, anything. Jay could nearly see her brain working to find a solution. When she couldn’t find a more acceptable one, she nodded, a tear tracing its way out from under her mask and down her cheek.

            Pulling her to him, Jay kissed her forehead and then nodded to Wally. “I’ll hold them off. You two get to a spot you can make a stand.” Another nod from the redhead, and suddenly they were both against the barrier created by the rubble. Wally helped Jay get to standing and placed a hand on the older man’s shoulder.

            “Thank you for everything, Jay.”

            “You’re more than worthy of that lightning bolt, son. Never forget that.” Wally’s mouth dropped half open, but then closed as he decided not to say anything. With a firm nod of his head, which Jay thought was more for Wally’s own benefit than his, the Scarlet Speedster raced back and scooped up his fiancé.

            Jay almost marveled at the scene before him. The Flash, with Artemis in his arms. Between them, smoke and rubble from crumbling buildings. Behind, an advancing army of alien soldiers and a burning city. If not for the excruciating pain in his leg, Jay would have thought it was something out of a movie.

            With a final knowing glance from Artemis the two were gone, a swirl of dust the only thing remaining behind. Their disappearance caused the advancing Reach troops to hesitate for the briefest moment before marching towards his again.

            Holding his helmet in front of his body with the top pointed towards him, Jay faced down the alien army. The regular laser blasts from their spears he either avoided or deflected back with the concave part of the helmet. Overcharged shots vaporized concrete and steel around him, and he dodged them as best he could. Some of the deflected blasts hit the Reach soldiers, sending them tumbling to pavement.

            The result was almost a dance, albeit a staggered one, complete with light show. Deflect, dodge, stumble, repeat. As the rhythm established itself and instinct took over, Jay found his mind wandering. Thoughts of his youth, of the Justice Society of America, of Barry and Iris, Wally and Artemis. Of Joan.

            Then another arcing shot flew through the air, and Jay Garrick thought of nothing ever again.

*** 

New York City
July 4, 2016 – Team Year 6 (Bart’s Timeline) 13:20 EDT

            It always amazed Diana of Themyscera how fast the world could change. Even after observing man’s world for decades, watching long changes over time, the quickness with which circumstances flipped sometimes still surprised her.

            Just an hour ago, they had all been triumphant, exuberant. A secret alien invasion exposed and expelled, the entire Justice League back together again, and the cloud of intergalactic suspicion hanging over the heroes of Earth was gone.

            Now everything burned. The buildings, the sky, even the water seemed to burn.

            New York City was in ruins. Diana could see the top of the United Nations building in flames. It had been such a short time ago they had gathered there. Now, heroes were spread thin across the country, attempting to hold the line. Fighters, both of man’s world and the Reach, swooped through the sky like Apollo’s chariot, spitting the fire of Hephaestus.

            A mighty shout accompanied by the familiar sound of metal cutting through armor and flesh caught Diana’s attention. The girl… no, she was a woman now… woman leapt from one Reach soldier to the next, bounding between bodies and buildings, sword flashing and shield held high. She was clad in black, but did not look of the death she was distributing. Instead it was as if the cosmos had been captured in her outfit, as stars seemed to twinkle with every movement.

            Donna Troy, first Wonder Girl, then Troia, then guardian of Themyscera, continued her slicing carnage through a group of Reach soldiers that had appeared from a side street. She finished with a flourish, on one knee, shield decapitating one soldier while her sword ran through another. Quiet in their immediate area descended again, though sounds of battle surrounded them both near and far.

            “Your skills have improved, Donna. Maybe that time pretending to be me rubbed off on you a little.” The younger Amazon had returned from their secret island to give the impression that Diana had still been present while she had been away at trial. The deception had not been easy on Donna, forcing her to split her time between man’s world and Themyscera, but Diana was grateful for her assistance.

            “If all it took to gain your skills was wearing your costume, sister,” Donna stood, sliding her shield across her back, “then Halloween in this place would be much more interesting.” Diana smiled at her sister’s quick retort, but their moment of jovial respite was interrupted by the beeping of a communicator.

            “Wonder Woman here,” Diana pressed a finger to her ear as she turned, continuing to look for threats.

            “Diana, the invaders have arrived on our shores.” She would have recognized the voice on the other end anywhere, but sounds of battle in the background seemed to make it even more familiar.

            “Mother!” Donna turned to her, dark blue eyes laced with concern over Diana’s exclamation. “Are you safe? Do you need us to return?”

            “Stay, Diana. Man’s world will need you more than we will.” An explosion could be heard over the communicator behind Hippolyta. There were muffled shouts in the background. “They have breached the outer defenses.”

            Diana drew in a deep breath. She was torn between helping her friends and those she had sworn to protect here, and her family back home. Almost as if her mother sensed her wavering commitment, she spoke again.

            “Have you learned anything in your battles against these invaders, Daughter?” The question brought Diana back to the carnage around her.

            “Their own weapons are best used against them. But if you cannot,” she glanced around to Donna and the narrow street they had been fighting in, “draw them out of the open. The more confined the space, the greater your advantage will be.”

            “Then we will fight them in the temples, Daughter.” Shouted commands followed her order. Sounds of Amazons battling the Reach got louder over the commlink. “Hera will give us strength, Daughter. Remain there. Help cleanse the world of these usurpers.”

            “May the gods keep you safe, Mother.”

            “If they cannot, then we Amazons will guarantee our own safety. Farewell, Daughter.” The transmission ended with a short hiss. Donna stood next to her older sister, a wry smile on her face.

            “Where is our next killing field, Diana?” The elder Amazon nearly laughed. But before she could answer, another call came over the communicator.

            “Batman to all points. Multiple swarms of Reach soldiers are descending on Gotham. Justice League and military positions are in danger of being overrun. We need a hand.” Diana could hear the strain in Bruce’s voice, even over the communicator. The fact that it was already creeping into his voice meant things were not going well there.

            “Wonder Woman, this is Rayner.” Diana looked up, seeing Earth’s last remaining Green Lantern streak across the sky. “Dr. Fate, Zee, and I have the city covered. We’ve seen swarms divert towards Gotham also. Something big is going down there. Go help Bats.” Diana acknowledged the Green Lantern, offering up a word of thanks before she and Donna lifted into the air.

            As they flew, Diana tried to ignore the destruction as much as she could. Trying to help every single person stuck on the roads, or put out every burning house fire, would do no good. The Justice League and Earth’s militaries were in full triage mode right now, and they had to be where they could do the most.

            “I’m picking up signals for Batman and Nightwing.” Donna glanced at the inside of one of her bracelets as they flew. “Looks like they’ve got the other Bats… and Wonder Girl with them.”

            “Where are they, Sister?” Donna tapped the small display again and managed to mostly stifle a scoff of laughter.

            “Wayne Tower.” Of course he is, Diana thought. But as the two of them flew over Gotham, it was obvious why Bruce had called for help. Swarm after swarm of Reach ships were landing on the outskirts of the city. Many city streets were already filled with Reach soldiers, or the burning wreckage of military and police vehicles left behind in their wake.

            Outside Wayne Tower, they found another large swarm. They were advancing steadily towards the main entrance of the skyscraper, only being marginally slowed by a torrent of fire being laid down by and semi-circle of police and military. “They look to be in trouble, Sister,” Diana drew her sword midflight, aiming for the back line of the Reach soldiers. “Let us remind them what happens when Amazons enter the fight.”

            With something akin to a war whoop, Donna dove towards the ground with arm extended, picking up speed. She landed on one knee, the force of the blow sending a half dozen Reach soldiers flying through the air. Before their compatriots could react, she was on her feet, a dizzying mix of sword and shield and destruction.

            Diana dove toward the ground as well, landing just short of the Reach line with a roll. As she came to her feet, she delivered a long two-handed swipe with her sword, slicing through the nearest soldiers. Kicking another away from her, she pulled the shield from her back and charged into the crowd.

            Slashing, kicking, grabbing, blocking, all parts of an intricate dance of battle that Diana knew well. War was her true mistress, a forbidden one that she tried to see as little of as possible. But when they got together, it was obvious that both Diana and War knew each other’s moves and relished them.

            Through the swarm of soldiers, Diana caught glimpses of Donna, whirlwind that she was. Together they carved a path of pure death through the invading forces. She continued relentlessly forward, moving only on training and instinct. About twenty yards away, she saw a Reach soldier taking aim at one of the police officers near the entrance. With a yell, she swung her arm, shield frisbeeing through the air. It caught the soldier in the midsection before deflecting off a piece of concrete behind him and starting to return.

            “Diana!” She heard Bruce’s shout through the din of battle, rather than over her communicator. The Dark Knight swung over the horde, releasing two batarangs as he did. They both whizzed past her, and Diana heard two separate impacts. The Amazon turned to see two Reach soldiers keel over backward with those same batarangs embedded in their helmets. Bruce landed on the ground behind her as her shield returned.

            “I suppose I should thank you,” she mused.

            “Consider it your welcoming present.” The horde around the two of them began to break up, but it remained thick over around Donna. But there was suddenly a flash of blue, and she recognized the nearly dance-like fighting style of Dick Grayson. His escrima sticks flashed, electricity boiling from the ends. Despite their relative youth compared to Batman and her, Diana stopped for a moment to admire how the two former teammates fought together.

            Without a word spoken between them, Dick and Donna seemed to know each other’s moves, switching positions and avenues of attack almost effortlessly. Diana watched as Donna braced herself, the first Robin running up onto her shield before being launched into the air. Executing a graceful backflip, Dick brought his escrima sticks down onto the top of one Reach soldier’s helmet. The alien crumpled to the ground and did not move. The rest of the horde around the two of them began to disperse as well.

            Diana turned to the police and military personnel, raising her sword. “They are defeated! After…” A hand on her shoulder from Bruce stopped her.

            “They’ll be back. We need to get inside. Now.” The Amazon nodded to the Bat as both turned toward the door. Dick and Donna also moved back towards the main doors, arms slung over each other’s shoulders in an embrace, laughing smiles adorning their faces. It had been a long time, far too long, since those two had seen each other without having to act like someone else. It was not lost on Diana that the last time they had, they had been pretending to be Bruce and herself.

            Bruce led the four of them further into the skyscraper, summoning a private elevator that whisked them to a floor deep below ground. When the doors opened, Diana could see the rest of Bruce’s costumed “family,” along with Wonder Girl. Cassie ran over and threw her arms around her mentor as she stepped off the elevator.

            “That was so badass! We were watching on the monitors. The way you two just swoosh and then wham! Bam!” The girl was so excited she had devolved into using sound effects and hand gestures. Diana smiled.

            “Thank you, Little One. But never bask in the glory of war. It is in the serenity of peace where we find true purpose.” Cassie sighed, and Donna let out a short laugh. Her raven-haired partner gently patted the golden-haired one on the head.

            “Thank you, Cassie. It was pretty badass, wasn’t it?” Diana offered the two of them a small smirk before someone else interrupted.

            “Oh, that is really not good.”

***

Gotham City
July 4, 2016 – Team Year 6 (Bart’s Timeline) 14:06 EDT 

            There were many things that Cassie Sandsmark liked about Tim Drake. The fact that he had let her in on his secret identity was one. The way his brow would furrow when he was concentrating really hard on something, and she totally wasn’t staring at him, was another.

            But Cassie sure did hate the way Tim Drake could kill a mood. The latest was only Exhibit 216 in an ongoing series.

            “Specifics, Robin.” Speaking of mood killers, Batman stepped over to glance over Tim’s shoulder. Actually, no. The Dark Knight didn’t glance. Ever. He glowered. It was, from all available evidence, his default expression.

            The youngest Bat-child continued typing away furiously at the keyboard in front of him, eyes glued to the screen. “It…it looks like our zeta tube network is down. I’m getting no response from any of them. Nothing from Gotham, Metropolis, Star City, anywhere.”

            Moving so quickly Cassie could have mistaken them for the Flash, both Batman and Batgirl planted themselves at computers on either side of Tim. Different screens sprang to life in front of them as the three caped heroes’ fingers continued flying.

            “Do they do this often?” Cassie whispered to no one in particular, but when no one answered, she turned to find Nightwing staring at a holographic screen above his wrist computer. Next to him, Donna merely offered an exaggerated nod of affirmation. Something about bats in their natural habitat crossed her mind.

            “There’s no contact with anyone over communications, either.” Batman pulled back from his computer, tapping his cowl. “Superman, come in.” There was only silence in the room, which Cassie assumed was a bad thing.

            “Connor. M’gann. Status report.” Nightwing was trying as well, but his face was much more expressive than Batman’s. She could tell just by looking how bad the situation was. “Batman, I’m not even getting pings from their comm units. From anyone’s comm units.” He gestured to the room. “According to my computer, none of us are still alive.”

            That’s… morbid, Cassie thought before surreptitiously poking herself in the chest. Nope, still here. Nightwing, Tim, and Bats huddled around each other, beginning to speak in technical jargon about what may have happened to their comms and zeta tubes. That was when Cassie noticed that Batgirl was still engrossed by her computer monitor. In fact, apart from her fingers that were still executing a delicate dance over the keyboard, she hadn’t moved at all.

            “Jamming.” Batgirl’s single word stopped all conversation in the room. She pushed away from the computer and turned her chair to look at everyone else, her blue eyes wide and holding just the hint of apprehension. “They’re jamming our comms. Whatever they’re using is messing with the frequency of our zeta tubes as well.”

            That perked Cassie’s ears. If they couldn’t travel via zeta tube, then the only heroes able to get coast to coast quickly, or around the planet, would be Flash and Superman. There was Batman, she supposed, with his Batplane. Depending on how many more of those he had laying around, other heroes could use them. Cassie suspected he had more, most likely in different shades of black. The one in dark grey was probably for when he wanted to let his hair down a little. If he had hair under that cowl.

            “Can you isolate it?” Batgirl frowned as she turned back to the computer in front of her. Nightwing walked over and leaned down, placing a hand on her shoulder. Cassie inadvertently let out a small sigh as the action also gave her a very nice unobstructed view of his butt.

            Donna put a rather sharp elbow into her ribs for the sigh. When Cassie glanced up at her, she received a very clear “I know what you’re doing” look from her. Under other circumstances, Cassie would have raised a defense in protest, but this really didn’t seem like the time or place for that.

            “I might be able to isolate it if I could identify what they’re using, but that would take time we don’t have. Zeta tube systems aren’t showing any kind of infection.” She gestured back towards Bats. “Whatever it is, our sensors aren’t picking it up.”

            “What if we flushed them out?” Nightwing was still squinting at the computer screen, a finger tracing over a line of code almost absentmindedly.

            “We’d still need to know what we were looking for first, Nightwing.” It was good to know that Batman’s tone of voice really didn’t change whether he was speaking to the Team, the Justice League, or his own proteges. Otherwise, Cassie would have been sure that he was always very, very disappointed in everyone.

            “Not necessarily. If we can shut down the zeta tubes, do a clean wipe of the system, and then reboot it, we’d remove whatever the Reach are using, wouldn’t we?” The original Boy Wonder turned away from the computer screen. “And when we reboot it, we lock them out using any means necessary.”

            Batman pressed a hand to his chin. It wasn’t often that Cassie had seen him take someone else’s advice, but it seems like his first partner had struck a chord. After a moment, his eyes narrowed. “We’d need to take the system offline from the Batcave. And we would have to reboot it physically from the place with the strongest remaining zeta tube signal.”

            “Where’s that?” The words were out of Cassie’s mouth before they even crossed her mind. It was like one of those moments on those teen dramas she liked so much where everyone seemed to turn and look at her in unison. Luckily, it happened to her a lot. She was used to it.

            “Metropolis,” Tim finally responded, saving her from further embarrassment. “It’s in the base of the globe on top of the Daily Planet building.” Cassie had to work very, very hard to suppress a snort of laughter. She tried not to imagine a hero walking around one of the top newspapers in the country, attempting to look natural, before dashing to the roof to fight crime. It would almost be as silly as changing in a phone booth, especially because there weren’t many of those left around.

            “Everything would have to be coordinated though. And to do that we’re going to need our communications back online.” Batman looked around at the group before him. Cassie knew that he wouldn’t be looking to her for any technical help. Now, if Bats ever wanted to start a Facegram account, that was something she could do. She already had the perfect filter in mind as well.

            “That’s basically going to just be going through frequencies until we find one that is still working. Or that can punch through the Reach interference.” Batgirl began typing away again. “But where’s the best place to try and hack in? The Watchtower is gone. Where’s the next most powerful communications set up?”

            “Gotham Police Headquarters.” Batgirl turned to Batman, shooting him a look that screamed Are you freaking kidding me? even through her cowl. Instead of saying anything, she settled for rolling her eyes and drumming her fingers on the tabletop.

            “So we need to find a clear comm channel, take down the zeta tube network, and bring it back up before the Reach know what we’re doing. And we need to do all of this before they take over the planet, which at the rate they’re going, will be by dinner.” Nightwing looked over the assembled group. “No pressure.”

            Tim chuckled at his older brother’s remark. “I’ll handle the Daily Planet. I worked on that zeta tube during the last upgrade with Adam Strange.” He turned to look at Cassie. “Think you can carry me to Metropolis?”

            “Does the Bat Dad scowl?” Her face blossomed into a smile at her joke, but faltered at Tim’s horrified expression. Slowly, she turned to look at Batman, catching glimpses of Batgirl biting her lip and Nightwing covering his mouth. Trying to hold in fits of laughter, no doubt. A snort from behind her told her that Donna was having less success. Cassie gulped as she met Batman’s scowling gaze.

            “Never actually called you that with you in the room before…” She offered a weak smile before clearing her throat and turning to Tim, nearly positive that her face was as red as her pants. “Yes, I can get you there.”

            “Good. I’ll head back to the Batcave to take the zeta tube network offline. Batgirl, Nightwing, you two head to GCPD and get those communications working again.” The two older Bats nodded to their mentor, Batgirl already rising from her chair.

            “And what would you have us do, Batman?” Diana asked, finally breaking her silence. “Sit around and wait while you save the day?” There was a bite to Diana’s voice, but Cassie knew that her mentor was simply frustrated by everything happening now. She wanted to fix it with one strong sweep of her sword, but this was not some mythical creature. That they could handle. This was something different.

            In a move that surprised Cassie, Batman walked over to Wonder Woman and put a hand on her shoulder. It was the most physical affection she’d ever seen the Dark Knight dole out. “See if you can draw some of the Reach forces away from Batgirl and Nightwing.” Batman’s shoulders slumped slightly, his voice getting softer. “Keep my city safe, Diana. Please.”

            The champion of the Amazons looked to be taken aback by the sudden display of emotion. Diana placed a hand on Batman’s shoulder as well, offering a light squeeze and a nod in return. Then she removed herself and looked at Donna. “Let us leave this place, sister. It is time to hunt.”

            Donna gave a slight bow of acknowledgement before moving over and hugging Nightwing tightly. Cassie had heard stories about their close relationship over the years, never sexual, always more of a brother-sister thing. The rumor was Donna was the one hero around Nightwing’s age he hadn’t kissed.

            Cassie felt herself jump a little as Diana’s arm found her shoulder. “Be safe, Little One. Be strong, and may Hera keep you.” The blonde opened her mouth to say something, but couldn’t find the words. Instead, she flung her arms around her mentor’s waist, squeezing tightly, part of her not wanting to let go.

            Slowly breaking the hug, Diana followed Batman to the elevator, and Donna ruffled Cassie’s hair as she walked by. Nightwing tossed all of them a casual salute as the door closed. Batgirl pulled Tim in for a quick hug then came over and did the same with Cassie. Over Batgirl’s shoulder, Cassie could see Nightwing mussing the younger Robin’s hair.

            “Good luck out there, Tim.” His voice seemed to catch in his throat, and the Boy Wonder merely nodded. Tim offered him a small smile and nodded back, an understanding look on his face. Nightwing turned to look at the others and clapped his hands.

            “Alright team. Let’s go save the world.”

Chapter Text

Metropolis
July 4, 2016 – Team Year 6 (Bart’s Timeline) 14:34 EDT

            There were many times that Lex Luthor had imagined the destruction of this world. Sometimes these thoughts came when his mind was distracted by some mundane task, allowing his superior intellect to come up with an infinite number of alternate scenarios. Other times these visions came to him as dreams, rich in color and detail. He would see people screaming, buildings burning. There were variations on those dreams, of course, but each revolved around a central theme; Superman dying and he, Lex Luthor, reigning supreme over a world he would remake in his own image.

            Whatever visions occupied his dreams night after night paled in comparison to the real-life carnage that was currently ravaging his beloved city. Reach ships swooped and danced in between skyscrapers, yellow-orange death raining down. Acrid black smoke filled the sky from thousands of separate fires around the city. And somewhere out there, though he’d only caught the briefest of glimpses, Luthor knew Superman still lived, still fought to save the city he treasured as well.

            In that way, both of them were innately similar. Both wanted what was best for Metropolis, both saw it as the rightful center of the world. It was just that both of them had completely different views on how to protect their city and their world.

            Not today though. Not on this Independence Day. Luthor knew that for their city, for their world, to survive, he would have to work together with the Man of Steel. Superman couldn’t protect this city alone, no matter how hard he tried or how powerful he was. He would need help. And Luthor had just the plan in mind to help him in a big way.

            “Mr. Luthor, where are we going?” Pulling his mind back inside the skyscraper that was LexCorp headquarters, the sound of five pairs of running feet behind him suddenly seemed impossibly loud. Lex pressed a hand against a marble wall as he slowed to a stop, allowing the coolness of the rock to help center his thoughts.

            “I need to get something that will save this city. The five of you,” he gestured to those following him, “will gather whatever supplies you can carry and then you will get somewhere safe.”

            Turning his back to the group, Luthor slid his palms across the surface slowly. The subtlest change in the texture of the marble let him know he’d found the correct place. Splaying his fingers and pressing his hand flat, a dull green light emitted from behind the marble. A moment later, an imperceptible door opened in front of them. Luthor shooed them all inside the room, allowing the marble to close behind them.

            As the lights flickered on, it took Luthor’s eyes a moment to adjust. The room was put together with spartan efficiency. Aside from the crates and shelves piled against one another, its walls were bare. Harsh industrial lighting gave everything a piercing sheen. Luthor allowed a smile to cross his face for the first time since his own satellites had picked up the destruction of the Watchtower.

            Those that knew him best called him a meticulous planner. Many others who did not know him as well called him obsessed with details, no matter how minute. Both were technically correct. While Luthor by no means lived poorly, his constant need to be prepared for every scenario, every eventuality, meant that he didn’t have the lavish wealth to toss around on cars or parties like the billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne. But Luthor liked to think that while Wayne was hiding in some bunker at WayneTech behind a legion of bodyguards that would be ineffectual against the Reach, he had prepared for this day and would come out on top.

            “Woah.” The exclamation caused Luthor to turn and look at his little group. They were all so young, so unprepared for all of this. He had no idea how Batman did it with his little group of sidekicks. He hoped the Dark Knight had prepared them more than this group; the fate of the world might depend on it.

            Virgil Hawkins, Eduardo Dorado Jr., Tye Longshadow, and Asami Koizumi. “The Runaways,” as they called themselves. Kidnapped by the Reach to be used for experimentation to unlock the metagene so it could be weaponized. Rescued by the Team through chance. Then experimented on by Star Labs to learn the “secrets” of the metagene. Ran away, appropriately enough, and fell into his grasp. Luthor had hoped to unlock the secrets of their metagenes for himself and groom them into his own personal fighting force, but the appearance of the Reach fleet had cut those plans short.

            Behind them stood the final member of this little team: Mercy Graves. Trusted assistant, secretary, and bodyguard. Occasional assassin. Her loyalty to him was absolute, which was normally a trait Luthor couldn’t stand. Those with unwavering loyalties tended to be sycophants, however there was something different about Mercy. She had allowed him to mold her in his own image, and for that Mercy now would draw his most treasured assignment.

            “What is all this stuff?” Dorado moved toward one of the shelves. There were rows of guns, high explosives, other technical gadgets that could be used to defeat each member of the Justice League. Weapons to target the Reach specifically were still in development phases, but there was enough here to give these children a good start.

            “What is in here may very well be the answer to what is out there.” Luthor stepped over to a blank metal section of wall before turning to the group. There was little time to waste, and he had a sneaking suspicion that these children, with all their naiveté, would want to fight alongside him if they stayed. That would only get them killed, and by extension, probably cause his death as well as he tried to protect them.

            “Take everything you can carry. As many weapons as you can find. Then you’ll be following Mercy down to an underground tunnel. She’ll take you the rest of the way.” What he left unsaid was that the children and Mercy would be heading to a single-use zeta tube he’d had installed that would send them on a one-way trip to safe house he had set up in Dakota City.

            Originally meant as a last stand of sorts for the inevitable day the Justice League felt threatened enough by his existence to end him, Luthor had tasked Mercy with running an insurgency out of there. Given that the most logical place for any League survivors to fall back was along the east coast near Metropolis or Gotham, having another force across the country would stretch the Reach’s resources.

            There was a slight hesitation, but the children began grabbing what they could. As he watched them, Luthor felt a twinge of something almost… parental. He couldn’t really explain it, but brushed it away as stress in the moment messing with his normal emotions. “Mercy.” The auburn-haired woman stopped stuffing machine pistols into a duffel bag and walked over to him. Despite her considerable training, he could see the look of worry in her face.

            “What is it, sir?”

            “I just wanted to thank you, Mercy. You have been of great use to me.” Luthor pressed a hand to her cheek, his thumb brushing a stray strand of hair away from her eyes. It was the closest he came to a gesture of genuine affection. “Stay hidden, keep them safe, and give those alien scum hell.”

            Mercy opened her mouth to say something, but instead snapped her it shut as her jaw took a hard line. She didn’t move beyond that, her eyes told him everything he needed to know. “Runaways.” Her voice was sharp and short, likely to keep from showing any emotion if Luthor had to guess. “Let’s go.”

            The children gathered a final few things into their bags and headed for the elevator secreted in the back of the room. All looked like they wanted to say something or ask a final question, but Luthor merely offered them a small, if slightly cold, smile and a nod.

            But Asami approached with more speed that he would have given her credit for and threw her arms around his waist. The physical contact normally would have made the billionaire recoil, but instead he forced his body to relax and slowly wrapped an arm around her shoulder. A quick exchange in Japanese about her keeping the boys safe followed, and within seconds they were all loaded onto the express elevator. The last thing he saw before the doors closed were Mercy’s eyes.

            Once again, Lex Luthor was truly alone. It was not a new state for him, he had been alone most of his life. A superior intellect to nearly everyone on the planet saw to that. But there was something different about it this time; there was a finality that hadn’t been there before. He tried to brush it off.

            Tapping a code that not even Mercy knew into a keypad along the wall, Luthor stood back as a hiss of compressed gas blew past him. The blank section of wall opened outward, the lights in the room dimming, the only illumination coming from inside this new compartment.

            In front of him stood his greatest creation. The only thing in this room that would have ever been able to stop Superman: an armored suit, powered by a kryptonite rock that cost as much as a couple Eastern European countries. The lights cast strange reflections off the armor’s green and purple skin. What he had created to destroy Superman, he would now use to help him. The irony was not lost on Luthor.

            Stepping onto the prescribed circle on the floor, Luthor saw the armor begin to encapsulate him. It was time to fulfill his destiny as the true protector of Metropolis.

***

Belle Reve
July 4, 2016 – Team Year 6 (Bart’s Timeline) 13:50 CDT

            Orchestrating a prison break was something that had always been on Roy Harper’s bucket list. No, not the Justice League-betraying, crazy ninja-lady marrying, former drug addict, clone version of Roy Harper. The actual Roy Harper. The one who was twice the man the clone was. Well, minus half an arm.

            No one had told Roy to come to Belle Reve Penitentiary. In fact, most of the people he knew would probably be very, very angry that he was here. But not the angry, yelling, ready to punch someone in the face angry. More like the “I’m very disappointed in you and your life choices” angry, which was about fifty times worse. It was something Black Canary had perfected in sending his way before his little ice nap. Only the fact that she was drop dead gorgeous had kept Roy from minding too much.

            “Halt!” A voice yelled behind him, trying to sound authoritative but lacking the necessary depth to carry it. Kinda like Nightwing when he was giving orders. Which was always. Roy swung around, his mechanical arm raised and ready. The prison guard found himself staring right into the business end of his Luthor-present. In another situation, the man’s look of absolute pants-shitting terror would have provided Roy with weeks of amusement. Now, it only showed him how outclassed these guards would really be in just a few minutes.

            “I’ll keep this simple, jump suit,” Roy began, not even making an effort to keep the disdain from his voice as he lowered his arm cannon. “No, I’m not supposed to be here. No, the Justice League doesn’t know I’m here. Yeah, I’m here about the alien invasion. No, I’m not going to tell you what I’m doing here.” He paused for a moment, reading the man’s face. Confusion was starting to break through the pants-shitting fear. That was a start.

            “So, do us both a favor and get me to see the warden. Right. Now. Or, save me a lot of time and effort and just shoot me. It doesn’t matter. You’re probably dead either way.” The man’s face contorted in a mixture of emotions that Roy interpreted as anger, fear, confusion, and a hint of contemplating shooting the buzz-haired brat in front of him.

            After quite a few seconds, far too many with alien fighters inevitably coming towards the prison, the guard finally lowered his gun. He didn’t say anything, but made a quick motion for Roy to follow him deeper into the prison.

            The guard moved at a quick trot, which was faster than Roy would have given him credit for when he’d first seen him outside. In a matter of minutes, they were beside the door marked “Warden.” The guard reached a closed fist out to rap his knuckles against it, but Roy brushed past him, blasting the handle off the door and then shouldered it open.

            Behind the desk sat Dr. Hugo Strange. His glasses-covered eyes were not turned toward his office intruder, but instead focused on a computer screen. From the reflection on the lenses, Roy could tell he was watching scenes of destruction from around the world.

            “Roy Harper.” The words from the psychiatrist and warden of Belle Reve were not a question, but sounded like a statement of fact. “You know, this very action had been a possibility that I considered once the invasion started.” He rose from his chair. “A low possibility, but a possible outcome nonetheless. It seems I have underestimated you.”

            “Easy mistake. You’re not the first.” Roy watched with satisfaction as the good doctor’s eyebrows rose in surprise at his flippant reply. A small smile tugged at the corner of Strange’s lips.

            “Fascinating. I would love to have you in for a session sometime, Mr. Harper. I’m sure a journey into your mind is quite the intriguing expedition.” Removing his glasses, Strange revealed weary eyes. “But I suspect that is not the reason you are here.”

            “Laying on a couch and listening to how my father never understood me will have to wait for another time, Doc.” Advancing to the opposite side of the desk from Strange, Roy leaned forward on both his hands. “I know you’re watching what is going on out there. It’s coming here.”

            “As I suspected.” There was no urgency to Strange’s voice. “These aliens seem to be targeting areas where those with superpowers tend to congregate. It only makes sense their attention would turn here at some point. I’ve put my guards on high alert.” Roy didn’t even bother to hold back his laughter.

            “If they’re anything like what I saw out there,” he said, jerking a thumb back towards the door, “then you’re fucked, Warden.” Another smile from Strange gave Roy a satisfying feeling.

            “And you’re here to offer your services to keep the prison and its prisoners safe? Your psychological profile never indicated you were particularly altruistic, Mr. Harper.” Another bark of laughter escaped Roy’s lips.

            “I’m good, Warden, but I’m not that good.” Roy leaned in even more across the desk. “I’m here to break those prisoners out. Let those who will fight the Reach see how many they can take out. Let those who won’t die when they bring this prison down on their heads.”

            If Strange was surprised by his request, he didn’t show it. In fact, the warden almost seemed pleased by Roy’s insistence at releasing dozens of hardened criminals to fight an invasion of ruthless aliens. “Well, since this is at the insistence of a well-known sidekick of Green Arrow, and therefore I can surmise this request comes straight from the Justice League…” Another small smile flirted across the warden’s face as a hand reached under his desk and pressed what Roy could only assume was a hidden button.

            Alarms began blaring throughout the facility. Roy lifted his hand in a mini-salute to Strange before dashing out of the office. Already, guards seemed to be in a state of panic, barricading themselves inside offices and control centers. The redhead ignored them. They might be of some help against the Reach, especially if they used any heavy weaponry they had, but superpowers were what was really going to turn the tide of this battle.

            Roy rounded a corner and nearly crashed into a man slightly taller and only slightly older than he was. The man’s head was bald, but the look in his brown eyes told Roy that he had seen some serious shit. He wore an inhibitor collar on his neck, and the name “Tryon” was scrawled onto a nametag attached to the jumpsuit. The name didn’t ring a bell, but slow realization dawned on Roy as he studied the man’s face again.

            “You’re Neutron! You killed the Flash and Captain Atom!” Whatever pain had existed in the man’s eyes only deepened.

            “My name is Nathaniel Tryon.” His voice was barely audible above the alarms. Roy’s mind flashed back to what he had heard about that fateful day in February. The powers that Neutron had before he’d gone nova would be invaluable now.

            “Can we take that thing off without you going nuclear on the entire prison?” Roy gestured to the inhibitor collar encircling Neutron’s neck. The man’s head drooped, his shoulders slumping in defeat.

            “No,” he said softly. “Without my containment suit, my powers are… unrestrained. Unpredictable. Far more destructive.” Roy let a few choice curses fly.

            “Then get out of here. This place is about to become a killing ground.” There was a short nod and the man started running. Roy continued the way he had been going, nearly tripping headlong into a group of five prisoners as he turned down another hallway. Keeping his balance, Roy instantly recognized them.

            “Well, well, well, if it isn’t a merry band of ice villains.” Mister Freeze, Captain Cold, Icicle Sr., Icicle Jr., and Killer Frost all looked back at him. Junior made a move towards the redhead, but his father held him back.

            “What do you want, hero?” Freeze’s words were laced with a cold venom, even from someone who wielded temperatures near absolute zero for a living.

            “That depends. Are you all content with the lives you’ve led, or would you prefer to keep on living?” Roy watched nearly all of them tense up, Junior making another move into his father holding him back. Roy raised his mechanical arm to keep any ideas the younger ice villain had at bay.

            “There’s an alien invasion going on out there,” he nodded his head toward a wall. “And it’s coming here. I can keep you in those inhibitor collars and let this place get shot down around your heads, or you can help me try and save everyone here.” He locked eyes with each of them in turn, lingering for a few moments longer on Killer Frost. Only because she intrigued him. She was pretty hot for an ice villain. “So make your decision and make it fast.”

            No one seemed to be grasping the whole “alien invasion coming to kill everyone and everything” situation for him. Seconds stretched on like hours, and every moment they all stood there was another moment the Reach invasion was drawing even closer.

            “I’m in.” A female voice shocked him out of his reprieve. Killer Frost stepped forward, her eyes staring deep into Roy’s. “Better to die taking out a few of these alien bastards than just wait for them to come here and carve us up one by one.” She turned and gestured to her other ice villains. “Or experiment on us.”

            “If the choice is fight and die or wait and die, I choose to fight.” Mister Freeze stepped forward as well. The other three hesitated another moment and then nodded, Icicle Jr. seeming to hesitate the most of all but following along with his old man’s decision.

            Without a word, Roy moved quickly and cut off their inhibitor collars. “Armory is that way,” he said, jerking a finger over his shoulder while looking at Freeze and Captain Cold. “That’s where they’re holding your cold guns. They shouldn’t give you any trouble, but if they do…” Roy shrugged. “Ice them.” Heavy groans came from the father-son tandem and Mister Freeze, though Cold chuckled at the ice pun and Frost tried to hide a smile tugging at the corner of her lips.

            And then they were off. Shouldering their way past guards and other inmates, Roy, Frost, and the Icicles reached the top of the prison walls in minutes. Below, prisoners and those tasked with guarding them both made beelines for the bayou. But a distinctive howl in the air told Roy they’d never make it.

            “They’re here.” Killer Frost’s hands glowed an icy blue as she peered off to the north. In the distance, Roy could see tiny dots descending out of the afternoon sun. But those dots seemed fuzzy, almost out of focus. It wasn’t until they were closer, and that damn howl was nearly overwhelming, that Roy understood why.

            Every dot was not one Reach fighter, but a group of them. It wasn’t until the fighters were almost right on top of them, practically in range, that they materialized themselves into the individual parts of the swarm that they were.

            “Let’s hope you can live up to your name, kid.” Killer Frost moved to stand beside Roy as he raised his arm. Now, Roy had been cryogenically frozen for years. He knew cold, so he could also recognize when warmth was present in a frozen abyss. And there seemed to be the briefest spark of warmth in Frost’s eyes, however short. It made him smile.

            “Hopefully you continue to live up to yours,” was the only retort he could manage before the fighters were upon them. Those familiar disintegrating lasers from the television images were now all too real, flashing around them in a deadly lightshow that both dazzled the eyes and froze the soul.

            Ducking and rolling to the side, Roy came up on one knee and took aim. Locking on to a fighter, a laser burst from his arm, blood red clashing with the Reach’s marigold flashes filling the air. The laser traced across the upper arm of the Reach fighter, smoke bursting from the joint as the alien craft began a tight spiral towards the ground.

            Roy didn’t even watch to see if it exploded in the thick bayou undergrowth as he threw himself backwards, a yellow-orange flash scorching a crater in the prison wall where he had been just a moment before. A Reach fighter went screaming over his head, clearly out of control, a thick layer of ice covering its front viewport.

            There wasn’t time for a word of thanks or even to figure out who had helped save his scrawny ass. All Roy could focus on was finding targets, firing, reloading, and repeating the process. But the sheer volume of fighters, and the fire coming from them, was starting to overwhelm the prison’s defenders. First Icicle Jr. disappeared in a flash of light, then Captain Cold a few seconds later. Roy heard a shriek from behind him, head turning just in time to catch the last traces of Killer Frost fading away.

            Then the scream of a Reach fighter rattled through his entire body. Roy had just enough time to look skyward before the explosion consumed him.

 

***

 

Blüdhaven
July 4, 2016 – Team Year 6 (Bart’s Timeline) 15:30 EDT

            This fight was not going well. And as someone who had been cloned, programmed into betraying the entire Justice League to Vandal Savage, addicted to heroin, and married to an assassin, Roy Harper had a pretty good handle on things not going well. But this… this was something entirely out his league.

            Even with their communications out, which in retrospect would have already taken this situation from “oh shit” to “curling up in the fetal position,” Roy knew that the heroes of Earth were decidedly outmatched. The Reach had gotten the drop on all them, including Earth’s military, and now they were all fighting an increasingly obvious losing battle in some of the worst places.

            Blüdhaven was a shithole, there was no other way to say it. A seedy, crime-infested hive of scum and villainy. Arsenal would have liked it here. It was like the city had seen Gotham at its worst, and decided that billionaires getting gunned down in the streets was for pansies. Two people who Roy knew enjoyed the surroundings were his wife and Sportsmaster. Or, if we’re going by family ties, his father-in-law.

            In terms of actual skills, the Reach soldiers had nothing on Jade Nguyen and Lawrence Crock. But what they lacked in raw hand-to-hand combat abilities, they made up for in sheer numbers and those laser staff things they all carried.

            Roy slid up against a half-demolished building, pressing his shoulder into it before popping out around the corner and letting an arrow fly into the chest of a charging Reach soldier. As the alien fell, he caught a glimpse across the river at Gotham City. The normal metallic glimmer of Blüdhaven’s older and bigger sister was replaced with thousands of fires that gave the sky a sickening haze.

            “You know, I almost miss Lian right now,” Roy said, drawing another arrow as he watched Jade leap into the air, her legs wrapping around a Reach soldier’s neck, snapping it to the side as she took him down to the ground.

            “And why would you want our daughter out in the middle of this?” The venom in his wife’s voice was nothing compared to the sai that she flung at his face. Roy sidestepped in time to see the pinwheel of metal death streak past him and was about to utter a protest when he heard a gasp behind him and saw another alien soldier sinking to the ground, the weapon protruding from its chest.

            “Well, the last time we seemed to face truly insurmountable odds, we made it through with her there.” Roy released another arrow, this one explosive-tipped. A ball of yellow fire erupted farther down the docks. “Plus, disturbing as it may be, I think she’d be enjoying herself.”

            “Well, she is her mother’s daughter.” Cheshire stabbed another Reach soldier in the chest before sliding herself up Roy’s body. The move, while meant to evoke arousal, didn’t stop him from noticing the blood trickling down the outside of her leg from under her kimono.

            Taking a quick look around, Roy’s hand rose up Jade’s back, cupping the back of her neck and pulling her into him. The kiss was rough and familiar, but soon softened to one that Roy knew was only saved for their most intimate, or in this case dire, moments.

            A loud thump behind them brought them back into the present, both raising their weapons in anticipation of an attack. Roy relaxed only slightly when he saw that it was Sportsmaster, not a Reach ambush. The elder Crock had lost his mask at some point and was bleeding heavily from his face. His left arm also hung at his side at an unnatural angle, swaying independently when the larger man moved.

            “Can we get on with this?” The gruff tone attempted to mask the pain he was obviously feeling, but some still crept into his voice. “Or would you two prefer to get a room while I keep doing all the heavy lifting?”

            “Doesn’t look like you’ll be lifting much of anything right now, Crusher.” Jade’s voice was an interesting mix of contempt and concern. “That arm doesn’t look so good.”

            “Please, I’ve fought worse odds than this one handed before.” The older man steadied himself on his javelin, still swaying slightly in the afternoon breeze coming off the river. “I saw from the roof. They’re massing for another attack. Bigger this time. And coming from all three sides.”

            Roy suppressed a whistle and pulled the quiver off his back. A quick inventory showed he was low, very low, on arrows. About a half dozen, almost all of them the old-fashioned type, though he did have a net and a final explosive arrow among them.

            “What do you say, lover boy?” Jade moved to the Reach soldier she’d killed with the thrown sai, pulling it from his chest and smiling at him. “Ready for one last round?”

            “Ready or not, they’re here.” Roy peeked out around the corner and saw that Sportsmaster was right. In each direction, as far as he could see, were Reach soldiers. Safe to say this time they weren’t fucking around.

            He ducked back as the front line of the soldiers began firing their laser staffs. They were advancing more cautiously this time, ready to let their superior numbers and long-range weaponry do much of the work. The building they were hiding behind began to vibrate as more chunks began falling off under the continued onslaught from the Reach soldiers.

            “I’m going to draw them away.” The statement from Lawrence hit Roy like one of his own arrows. Draw them away? Lawrence Crock had never done a heroic thing in his life. Why was he about to start now?

            “Don’t be stupid. They’ll kill you in seconds.” Ah, there was the dispassionate voice of blunt honesty that his wife was known for. But then in perhaps the most surprising thing to occur that day, and remember that there is currently an alien invasion happening, Crusher turned and wrapped his eldest daughter in a tight hug.

            “Lian needs her mother more than she needs her grandfather.” He looked up from his daughter to glance at Roy, a begrudging sigh escaping from his lips. “And perhaps she needs her father more, too.” Crock pulled back from the hug, holding Jade at an arm’s length. “So when I go out there, you both run. You try to get to whatever safe house these heroes have set up. And you keep my granddaughter safe.”

            As the older man turned to leave, Jade wouldn’t let go of his arm. “Dad…” Crusher turned back and offered up a sad smile to his daughter.

            “You haven’t called me that in years, little girl.” He pulled his arm from hers and charged around the corner. Glancing out around it, Roy saw the Reach soldiers contract, startled by the assault. With his good arm, Lawrence threw his javelin through the chest of the nearest alien, leaping onto the soldier’s body as it was still falling to the ground. Yanking the javelin out with a spray of fluorescent blood, Sportsmaster twirled the weapon over his head like the spinning blades of a helicopter before smashing the pointed end into another soldier’s face.

            That was when the first Reach trooper got close enough, or brave enough, to rake the older man’s back with the scythe-end of its staff. Roy watched as crimson flowed from a thin line across his father-in-law’s back. A barely audible grunt escaped from Sportsmaster’s lips, his javelin shooting back, catching the soldier who had stabbed him in the stomach before emerging out its back. Swinging the ancient weapon again, Lawrence sent the soldier crashing into three of its compatriots.

            But two other soldiers stepped in, one sweeping its staff across the back of Sportsmaster’s legs, the second driving the razor-sharp point into the man’s side before twisting violently. There was no shout, no sound at all from the old villain this time. His legs refused to carry his weight any longer, and he sank to his knees as the rest of the soldiers closed around him, staffs rising and plunging down in a frenzied dance.

            “Chesh, come on.” Roy shook the shoulder of his wife, frozen while watching her father being butchered by the alien troops. “Jade, we have to go.” The assassin, the one able to move without sound, continued to stand as motionless as one of her victims not prepared for an attack.

            “Jade!” Roy’s shout caused some of the Reach to turn, starting to amble in their direction. “Jade, Lian needs you! Come on!”

            Their daughter’s name seemed to shake his wife from her stupor. Blinking up at Roy, she turned to look one last time at the mass of soldiers surrounding the spot where Crusher had fallen, and nodded.

            In unison, both of them turned and ran further down the alley. They made it most of the block without seeing a Reach soldier before one popped its head around the mouth of the narrow passageway just before they got there. Quickly drawing his bow, Roy launched an arrow that struck the soldier right in the eye. The alien dropped.

            Emerging from the alley, Roy assessed their situation. To the left, their path was clear for the moment, though they would be heading back into Blüdhaven. To the right was the river, and across it Gotham City. And about forty Reach soldiers standing in their way. But who knew how many were waiting back in the city? Without a word, Roy and Jade exchanged a glance. They both knew what they had to do.

            Launching his final explosive arrow directly into the middle of the soldiers, Roy ran into the fray behind his wife. Ducking a swinging staff, he brought his bow up under the alien trooper’s chin, sending it flying backward. Out the corner of his eye, he caught Jade expertly flipping over one soldier and slashing the back of its neck with a sai, smoothly sweeping the legs out from another soldier upon landing.

            Three Reach charged at her from behind. Arms now just moving on instinct, Roy sent his net arrow flying, wrapping the soldiers up and pinning them to the ground. Jade calmly dispatched the three of them like she was stabbing a piece of lettuce in a salad. Then her eyes widened.

            “Red, behind you!” Roy turned and saw the crimson streak of a Reach soldier flying towards him. Instinctively, the redhead raised his bow to protect himself. The alien’s staff came crashing down onto it, shattering the bow in half. The scythe end sliced into his bicep, white-hot pain flashing down Roy’s arm as he rolled away. Before he could even turn again, Jade was on the soldier, one leg over its shoulder, the other wrapped around its chest, sais stabbing in a flurry of frenzied motion. The soldier collapsed backward and did not move again.

            There was no time for thank yous or even an acknowledgement as they both rose to their feet, Reach soldiers advancing once again. Roy pulled the final two arrows from his quiver, holding them in his hands as Jade made a beeline towards the nearest building. He followed, stabbing one soldier in the throat as he ran, ripping the staff from the alien’s hands. His wife threw a sai into another soldier’s chest, launching into a kick that plunged it deeper as Roy ducked another trooper, shoving the final arrow into a knee before slicing its head clean off with the staff.

            Jade advanced past him again, kicking a door open and racing inside. Roy followed, slamming it shut behind them and using the staff to brace it. It would buy them no more than a minute or two, probably less, but might allow them to figure out where to go next.

            But the look in his wife’s eyes, illuminated by a thin thread of light through a crack in the wall, let Roy know that there would be no escape. Not this time. He closed his eyes and sunk into the wall next to Jade. The weight of death, always a present companion, now seemed insurmountable, as if someone had just turned the gravity up a few notches.

            Ignoring the incessant pounding on the door that was getting louder by the second, Roy pulled a small pouch from his belt. As he opened it, that thin line of light caught a photograph of Lian and Jade. Smiling. Happy. That’s how Roy wanted to remember his family.

            Jade saw the photograph and ran a hand over his chest up to his chin, pulling him down for a fierce kiss. When their lips parted, her dark eyes were dancing with fire, and a small smile creased her lips.

            “I want you to know Red, I love you.” Roy let out a short bark of a laugh that covered up the banging on the door one last time.

            “I know.”

            The two of them embraced again as the door exploded inward, bathing them in a momentary rush of afternoon light.

 

***

 

Star City
July 4, 2016 – Team Year 6 (Bart’s Timeline) 12:50 PDT

            The headquarters for Queen Industries were still familiar to Oliver Queen, even if he hadn’t set foot inside them in years. But just because he no longer had any affiliation with the company his grandparents built didn’t mean that he couldn’t get in. Heck, he’d programmed most of the backdoors into the security system himself. As far as the computers were concerned, he was being welcomed back with open arms.

            When Oliver sold his company, gave away his fortune, and disappeared from public life, most in the world had assumed that he had died. Of course, that might actually be true in another few minutes.

            Queen Industries’ headquarters was supposed to be one of the most secure places in the world. Top-notch cyber security, save for his personal backdoors, complimented with physical security features second only to the Pentagon. Well, maybe third. Oliver was pretty sure the Batcave had better security, both electronic and physical. Probably better than the Pentagon too.

            Either way, all that vaunted physical security hadn’t mattered one iota when the Reach came knocking.

            If the rest of the world looked anything like his beloved Star City, then it was going to be a long time before anything was back to normal again. Fires blackened the sky, buildings crumbled, and death was everywhere. Not that Oliver had seen any of that in the last hour or so. He’d been fighting, along with the last vestiges of the military forces assigned to the city, to keep the Reach from the depths of Queen Industries, where tech that just might save them was being held. If they could get it to work.

            Another explosion rocked the building and Oliver ducked, shielding himself from plaster and dust that dropped from the ceiling. Even three levels underground, the muffled sounds of fighting above and outside the building still managed to reach them down here. The thought crossed his mind, for longer than he’d like to admit, that maybe there was no escape from these alien invaders. Maybe this wasn’t going to turn out like the movies where the heroes managed to save the day. Maybe, just maybe, this was the end of the human race.

            And then an angel came to dash those thoughts from his mind. Black Canary stalked through the still unsettled dust, tiny particles dancing around her feet and in her wake, highlighted by the few flickering lights in the hallway. Oliver flashed a smile underneath his goatee.

            “Why the hell haven’t you answered me?” And that smile disappeared. It was obvious that his pretty bird wasn’t happy with him, though Oliver couldn’t figure out why. He ran back over the actions of the past few hours in his mind. Nothing sprang to the front of his memory that screamed that he’d obviously screwed up. Though, Oliver Queen knowing himself like he did, it would have been easy for him to miss something.

            “Constant communication, Arrow,” the blonde woman said as she stopped right in front of him, a finger stabbing into his chest. Oliver worked not to wince. “We’re in a war zone, or did you forget that for a moment? When I call, you answer.”

            Oliver opened his mouth to raise a defense for himself, but thought better of it. Instead, he pressed a finger to his ear to activate his communicator. “Green Arrow to Red Tornado, come in.” There was no answer from the android, not even any static, only silence.

            “Green Arrow to Red Volcano, come in.” The android had already been fighting the Reach in Star City when Oliver, Dinah, and Red Tornado had arrived. Tornado had joined his mechanical brethren to fight throughout the city itself, while the two humans had rushed inside to try and find something to turn the tide of the battle.

            “Green Arrow to all Justice League, come in.” Again, silence was his only answer. Oliver turned to Dinah and offered up a small smirk. “I’d gather all the comms are down, pretty bird. Unless everyone is ignoring us and wants you to yell at them.” Dinah’s face contorted for a moment, as if she were about to launch off a stinging rebuke, but her expression softened and her forehead fell into his chest.

            “Ollie,” she said at a whisper so that no one else around could hear. “It’s just… when you didn’t answer, I thought…”

            Whatever apology she was about to deliver, and it definitely was an apology as much as she might try to deny it, was interrupted by a tremendous explosion. While Oliver reached out a hand to steady himself against the wall, Dinah merely widened her stance and ducked her shoulders against another round of dust and debris falling from the ceiling.

            The sound of footsteps pounding down the hall caused the couple to turn, though Oliver had to take an extra second to grasp for an arrow from his quiver. He was running quite low. But another moment later, a Marine burst through the dust, covered and coughing. A thin trickle of blood started underneath his helmet and ran down his face.

            “They’ve breached,” the blonde man, his nametag read “Reid,” struggled to catch his breath. “They’re inside the building.” Oliver immediately pressed his finger to his ear to call Red Tornado before remembering that no one would hear him.

            “This way,” Dinah grabbed his arm, pulling him farther down the hall. Reid followed, covering their backs as they retreated deeper into the building. She kicked open the door to a staircase, and the beleaguered group started heading down. Above, the sounds of battle grew even louder, echoing through the hallways. Screams, gunshots, and the sounds of alien lasers reached out to them.
            They continued down the stairs until they could go no further. Oliver knew from experience that these bottom levels were where any weapons prototypes would be housed. If they could find them, if they could figure out how to use them, if they worked… if if if.

            The trio worked their way down a hallway, Oliver mentally noting each sign along the way. Systems Management, Server Storage, Weapons Development… there we go. Oliver jiggled the door handle, but it wouldn’t budge. Next to the door, a very expensive and sophisticated looking lock flashed red. It was at that moment the former billionaire sincerely wished he had a Bat-child with him.

            Another explosion rocked them, this time almost directly above their heads. Through a flaming hole in the ceiling, three Reach soldiers dropped through. Reid spun on his knee, spraying gunfire at the alien intruders. An arrow from Oliver caught one of the Reach in the throat, dropping it to the ground with a gurgle. Reid’s fire clipped another, sending it spinning backward into the third. Dinah finished them, her Canary Cry sending them both flying deeper down the hallway. They did not get up.

            But more explosions, similar in sound to the one that had just happened, started roiling down the hall. Even farther down the corridor in the darkness, brief flashes of light could be seen, silhouetting alien figures dropping down onto the floor below.

            “Get those weapons, Green Arrow! I’ll hold them off.” Reid loaded a fresh magazine into his rifle, wiping the blood away from his face.

            “We’re not leaving you,” Dinah responded, saying what Oliver was thinking. Her hand was on the man’s shoulder but he shook it off.

            “A soldier like me’s not going to make a difference in the grand scheme, ma’am,” Reid offered a small smile as he shrugged her hand off. “Earth is going to need its heroes. Find something to kill these bastards. I’ll buy you some time.”

            “What’s your name, son?” He wanted to know more than just a last name. Oliver’s question clearly caught both Dinah and the Marine off guard, but the grunt smiled and held out his hand.

            “David, sir. David Reid.” A brief nod from Oliver was followed by his green-gloved hand enveloping Reid’s.

            “Dinah Lance,” Oliver said, gesturing to Canary. He tried to smile as warmly as he could under his goatee as he pointed to himself. “Oliver Queen. Thank you, son.” There was a slightly shocked look that crossed the soldier’s face, though in perspective with aliens trying to conquer the planet, a former billionaire playboy back from the dead was not the strangest thing to happen today.

            A tossed salute later, and the man was running down the hall towards the darkness. For a brief moment, Oliver watched him go and then turned to the blonde woman next to him.

            “Let’s not keep our uninvited guests waiting any longer.” He started typing in every password he could think of into the lock next to the door, but everything came back red. The sounds of Reach lasers were getting even closer, and Reid’s gunfire was becoming more and more sporadic.

            “Step back.” Oliver pressed himself against the far wall, grabbing one of his last two arrows, one of the explosive types. He fired into the lock, blowing it away. Canary stepped up and landed a well-placed kick, forcing the door open. They both rushed inside, Oliver closing the door behind them and looking for something to brace it with.

            “No.” The word, breathed with a mix of terror and hopelessness, brought Oliver’s head back around. He flipped a light switch next to the door just to make sure he was seeing the room correctly.

            His eyes weren’t lying to him. Table after table was empty, cleaned off. What had once obviously been a bustling weapons research and development lab was completely cleaned out. Spare knick knacks still dotted the tables and floors, but there was nothing here that would be useful against the Reach. They’d followed a dead end for nothing.

            “No, no no no no!” Dinah’s shout echoed in the now-empty room as she grabbed one table and flipped it end over end against the door behind them with a crash. That might hold the door for an extra few seconds, but it wouldn’t hold the Reach off forever.

            “Go, Ollie.” Dinah’s words brought him back to the present, and his eyes widened behind his domino mask as he looked at her. She was hunched over one of the tables, her fingers digging into the stainless steel. “Just go.”

            “What do you mean “go,” Dinah?” Oliver stepped over and put a hand on her shoulder. “I’m not leaving you.”

            “Yes, you are.” When she turned to him, there was a fire in her eyes. A desperation, a madness that Oliver hadn’t seen before. “You’re going to run and find a way out of this mess. I’ll cover you and give you time to get far enough.”

            “And why am I not covering your escape, Dinah? You’ve got the superpowers, I don’t.” Dinah moved closer to him and Oliver inadvertently took a step back. To be fair, she almost looked like she was going to hit him. Instead, Dinah reached past his face and pulled out the final arrow from his quiver.

            “Not sure this is going to hold off an entire Reach army, Arrow.” But Dinah’s face broke into a sad smile as she lowered her blonde head into his chest. “I want you to at least have a chance to be safe, Ollie.”

            Oliver cupped a finger under her chin, lifting her face to meet his. “My last memory of you isn’t going to be of you screaming.” His lips met hers with a fierce intensity. “If we’re going down, it’s going to be together.” A sizzling noise caught his attention and he turned, seeing the center of the door start to glow a fiery red. The Reach were literally burning through the entrance.

            “Besides,” Oliver looked at Dinah as he drew his final arrow and pointed it at the door, “I don’t really want to live on a world without you anyway, pretty bird.” Dinah smiled and stepped behind him, pressing her body to his.

            She leaned up and placed a kiss on his cheek just as the door melted away. Oliver let his final arrow fly.

 

***

 

Gotham City
July 4, 2016 – Team Year 6 (Bart’s Timeline) 16:40 EDT

            Gotham was burning. Not just a building here and there, but the entire city seemed to be on fire. Even the sky, which had been such a brilliant azure matching the bird on his chest earlier in the day, had now taken on a darkened, reddish glare. It was like staring at the world through hell-colored glasses.

            As it burned, Gotham City was being overrun. Despite the best efforts of the GCPD, the military, Wonder Woman and Donna Troy, the line was still fracturing, breaking, and falling steadily backward. Even the arrival of Dick Grayson to the fight hadn’t been enough to sway the tide, as much as he’d like to think the Reach would turn tail and run at the very sight of him.

            Donna and her mentor had bought the police forces he was with a little breathing room. As the line started to falter near Gotham Square Garden, the two Amazons had swung around behind some of the Reach forces while some of the few remaining military members in the city hit the alien flank.
            That had given the police some time to set up barricades and refresh their defenses. Not a lot, but some. Everyone there knew that this was just a stalling tactic. Radio transmissions were still down, and if Earth’s last defenders wanted any chance of survival at this point, they needed to be able to talk to one another.

            All this was riding on the shoulders of one woman: Barbara Gordon. Dick had left the fiery redhead on the roof of the GCPD headquarters, head and arms buried in a mass of electronics. Bruce had said the best way to get communications up and running again was through the equipment on that rooftop, and Barbara was the best one to do it.

            Dick had hated leaving her alone up there like that. If the Reach found her, if she was attacked, she wouldn’t be able to call for help. But she had told him to go, practically ordered him to leave more like it, arguing, logically, that the Reach were far more likely to notice two heroes on the top of GCPD instead of one.

            Barbara was right, of course. She always was. And that’s why he’d left, making sure to lead a few Reach soldiers who had been attacking the front of the building on a merry chase before losing them in the steel canyons that made up his adopted home.

            Normally, the streets of Gotham were always bustling with activity. Even in the dead of night, the streets were alive with energy and people. But most people had already tried packing the freeways, only to become cannon fodder for Reach soldiers, or were now bunkered in their homes, praying for Earth’s defenders to save them. That left the side streets of the normally alive city dead and mostly deserted.

            But the relative calm was shattered when a police car came speeding up behind their barricades. A young officer, he couldn’t have been much older than Dick himself, stepped out almost before the car stopped moving.
            “Commissioner! Commissioner Gordon!” Dick watched Barbara’s father move toward the man. His hair still maintained most of its natural brown color, though some grey was starting to appear at his temples as he advanced through his fifties. But the outfit was ever the same: white dress shirt with the sleeves rolled up to his elbows, tie slightly loosened around his neck, vest, and a black shoulder holster that kept his gun tucked under his left armpit.

            “What is it, son?” The Commissioner’s voice was calm and steady, probably steadier than just about anyone Dick had come across that day. It was no question where Barbara got her poise under fire.

            “The Reach, sir. They’ve got a huge army swinging around our barricade.” The young police officer took a couple deep breaths, steadying himself on the door of his cruiser. “They’re heading for headquarters.”

            The color drained from the Commissioner’s face as he turned to Harvey Bullock. “Barbara,” he breathed. Dick’s heart dropped through his stomach toward his feet, already reaching to his belt for his grappling hook. Maybe if he left now, he could make it there in time to warn her. But she still needed to crack the Reach encryption. Maybe he could hold them off long enough for her to get the job done. Dick didn’t want to know what the odds were on that particular suicide mission. But if Barbara was going to have any chance at getting their comms back online, she would need backup.

            “Back, we have to get back there!” Where other men might have hesitated in the moment, the Commissioner’s decision making continued to be lightning-quick. Gordon took off running for a cruiser at the back of their formation. Dick was on his heels, sprinting as fast as he could.
            “Gordon!” Harvey Bullock’s voice cut through the air behind them. Gordon didn’t stop. “Commissioner!” The older man slowed just short of the cars and turned to see the Lieutenant huffing to a stop behind them. “We can’t just go…running in there…half-cocked, boss,” the heavyset man said in between breaths.

            “And what about Batgirl, Bullock?” The Commissioner’s voice rose as he gestured back in the direction of the Gotham Police building. “We can’t just leave her there to the Reach.”

            “And if we all pull back, we’re going to lead the entire Reach army right to her doorstep.”

            “Better than showing up and not having enough people to hold them off.” Gordon pulled the door to the cruiser open and looked over Bullock’s shoulder. “We’re falling back to HQ. That’s an order!”

            Dick jump-slid across the hood of the cruiser and hopped in the passenger seat as the Commissioner slammed his foot on the gas and peeled out from their position. In the rear-view mirror, lights from the other police cars chased them down the narrow city streets.

            Gotham Police headquarters sat at an intersection of a couple of streets. It allowed the police easy access out to different directions of the city. But right now those multiple roadways just allowed more avenues for the Reach army to advance on the building. Dick’s eyes widened as Gordon accelerated even more, the cruiser barreling toward a group of advancing Reach soldiers.

            “Uh, Commissioner…” The only response from the older man came in his blue eyes narrowing, focusing harder on the aliens in front of him. One of those soldiers must have heard them coming because it turned, raising an alarm and pointing its laser staff at the car.

            “Jim!” Dick braced himself as he prepared for a laser blast or scythe to smash through the windshield and into his body. But just before they were about to crash into the line of Reach soldiers head on, the Commissioner slammed on the brakes and swung the wheel. The back of the cruiser shot out, and suddenly Dick was coming face to face with soldier after soldier as they slammed into the side of the police vehicle. The car finally skidded to a stop, Dick scrambling out the driver’s side after Gordon.

            It didn’t take him long to see what Barbara’s father’s strategy had been. No sooner was Dick out of the car that another pulled up right behind it, then another, and another. The arriving officers were using their cars to form a physical barricade, a semi-circle of metal and flashing lights around Gotham PD.
            While those cars wouldn’t keep the Reach away forever, it did provide the police with a precious few seconds to get their new defenses set up. And it gave Dick and the Commissioner the time they needed to dash inside the building, bounding up the stairs a few at a time.

            “Come on!” Gordon was ahead of him, moving with the speed of a much younger man. “The roof is this way!” Dick followed him up, watching as the Commissioner threw his shoulder into the door at the very top of the stairs, forcing it open.

            For the briefest moment, there was silence. The late afternoon summer sun washed over him, peeking through a pair of unscathed buildings. It was peaceful, quiet. And then the sound of gunfire reached Dick’s ears. But it was the sound that responded to that gunfire that had haunted his nightmares since he had been thirteen years old. It was the sound of Reach lasers, those beams that were forever seared into his memory: those memories that had become real life horror stories in the past few hours.

            In the middle of the roof, there was a vision that brought him a sense of peace. Though he could only see her black boots, grey pants, and the very tail end of her cape, Dick knew that Barbara Gordon was hard at work saving all their lives.

            As the Commissioner worked to fortify the door as much as he could, Dick raced over to the redhead’s side. Sliding to a stop, he placed a hand on her shoulder, brain trying to make sense of the mass of wires and electronic equipment in front of him.
            “What happened to drawing the Reach away from GCPD, Dick?” Barbara’s royal blue eyes didn’t move off her work. Her hands simultaneously typed away on her holographic keyboard and rewired whole sections of the Gotham Police communications array.

            “They were coming here, a whole army. We had to buy you more time.” Dick leaned down, his pupils tracing over the lines of code she was typing at a flurrying rate of speed. “What can I do to help?”

            “Make sure I don’t have too many more distractions…” Right on cue, an explosion erupted near the front of the building, causing the roof to sway. Barbara gritted her teeth and continued coding. “Seamlessly incorporating Earth code into unknown alien code is not the easiest task in the world…”

            Another tense few seconds of computer magic followed. Below, Dick could hear the gunfire from police officers getting more and more sporadic. And closer.
            “Got it!” Barbara’s eyes brightened as she beamed up at the code scrolling over her screen. “I think I got it!” Eyes tracing over the code again, Barbara tapped a quick combination into her gauntlet and then touched her communications earpiece.

            “Batgirl to Batcave, come in.” There was silence for a moment, but then a burst of static followed by Bruce’s voice, loud and clear.

            “Batman to Batgirl, I read you. Have you stopped the Reach jamming?” The corners of Barbara’s lips travelled downward and Dick could imagine her brow furrowing underneath her cowl.

            “Negative, Batman. Not enough time right now. But I slipped some code into their own comm signal…”

            “So as long as they use their comms, we can use ours.” It may have just been the radio distortion, but Dick was almost positive his mentor sounded proud of the female Bat.

            “Exactly,” Barbara said, her smile back. “Switch all WayneTech devices throughout the entire world to code Two Four One Ten. Use whatever backdoor you can to get that to LexCorp equipment as well.”

            “Will do, Batgirl.” Dick could already hear Bruce typing in the background. “Good work. Batman out.”

            Barbara sat back on her haunches, clearly exhausted from the mental gymnastics she’d been performing. Dick pulled her into a tight hug, her red hair resting against his shoulder. Tilting her chin up, Dick pressed his lips against hers, hard.

            Another explosion broke their embrace. Dick pushed himself to his feet, watching Commissioner Gordon fiddle with his walkie talkie. He turned back to help Barbara up, hands tightening on hers as a thought crossed his mind.

            “Wait, if our comms are embedded in their code, can’t they listen in and know our every move?” The redhead gave him a look that very clearly said “you should know better,” her lips curling in a half smile.
            “They’d have to find my code first, Boy Wonder,” she said, her words whispered next to his ear and a mischievous fire gleaming in her eyes.

            “Bullock, Bullock come in!” The shouted order for the Commissioner caused both of them to turn. The elder Gordon was slowly backing away from the door he had barricaded with a metal pipe, gun drawn. “Bullock, pick up your radio damnit!” That was when something else caught Dick’s attention. Or rather, the lack of something.

            There were no more gunshots. Well, no more that were steady anyway. One or two would sound off, followed by the whine of those alien lasers, and then more silence would follow.

            With another surprising burst of quickness, the Commissioner was over to them, hands on their backs, pushing them away from the door. “It’s time for you both to go.” Barbara ducked out from underneath her father’s hand, eyes wide and mouth open.

            “Daddy, no!” Honestly, Dick was about to say something similar. They weren’t about to just up and leave the Gotham Police Commissioner. But Jim Gordon’s eyes held a determined resignation. There was no way they were going to change his mind.

            “You keep her safe, Nightwing,” Gordon said, placing a heavy hand on Dick’s shoulder. “You need to keep my little girl safe.” And then in a move that caught him completely off guard, the Commissioner pulled Dick in for a hug. Taught muscles slackened after a moment, a hand patting the older man on the back as Gordon whispered in his ear.

            “I would have been proud to have you as a son, Dick.” The original Boy Wonder’s eyes widened behind his domino mask as the Commissioner broke the hug and then moved to his daughter.

            “Daddy, no no no…” Barbara’s cries were muffled as Jim pulled her in for an even tighter hug, burying his face in her flowing red hair. As he pulled back, his calloused hands lifted her cowl away from her face. With a look of loving pride that only a father could manage, the Commissioner leaned down and kissed her gently on the forehead before pulling her cowl back down.

            “I am so proud of the woman you have become.”

            “Dad… you can come with us. You don’t need to stay here. You don’t have to die.” Barbara’s hands were like vices around her father’s vest. She was trying everything she could to change his mind, but Dick could see the steely resolve in the Commissioner’s face.            It was the same look that made Jim Gordon the most feared man without a mask in Gotham.

            “Someone needs to cover your exquisite handiwork, Barbara.” He looked back at the communications array and smiled. “And someone also has to cover your escape, give you time to get away and plan your next attack.” Leaning back down to his daughter, Gordon leaned his forehead against hers.

            “The future of our world rests in your hands, not mine.”

            “Daddy…” Barbara started to once again try to convince her father to change his mind, but a strong shake of his head cut her off.

            “I love you, Barbara. I couldn’t have asked for a better daughter.” Gordon pulled back, removing her hands from his vest. Another explosion shook the GCPD headquarters, this one very close, probably only a floor or two below them.

            “Both of you go. Now!” Dick didn’t want to run. He wanted to stay, wanted to fight, wanted to protest. But he knew it wouldn’t be any good. Instead, he shook Gordon’s hand.
            “It’s been an honor, Commissioner. Thank you for everything.”

            “The honor was all mine, Dick.” Gordon paused, looking at Barbara as the younger man wrapped his arm around her waist. “You keep her safe.”

            “I will, sir. I promise.” Dick raised his arm and fired his grappling hook, swinging off the roof of the Gotham Police building. Barbara said nothing, keeping her face buried in his chest, clutching him so tight that he almost feared she would never let him go. Her red hair streaked out behind them like a comet’s trail.

            Off one of those few unscathed buildings, a watery yellow light appeared. It manifested itself into the Bat symbol, and a bare smile almost crossed Dick’s face. The Commissioner had activated the signal one last time, looking to bring hope to those who still remained in the city.

            Then another explosion rocked the roof behind them, so large Dick could feel the heat on his back. There were gunshots, two, three, four. And then another explosion and a flash, so bright that on the building in front of them, Dick could see the Commissioner’s silhouette. It faded as quickly as the Bat-signal high above.

***

Metropolis
July 4, 2016 – Team Year 6 (Bart’s Timeline) 17:03 EDT

            For the past two and a half hours, Lex Luthor was doing something that he was quite unaccustomed to: losing. Trying to save Metropolis, perhaps even the planet itself, was very rapidly becoming a losing battle, and only moreso every minute.

            The custom suit that he had designed himself, engineered himself, built himself had stood up well to the strain. The dull green and purple sheen of the metal armor had faded now, marked with grime, ash, and a few scorch marks from too-close laser blasts from now-dead Reach soldiers. The suit had performed as he had envisioned when it came to killing the aliens, although it had originally been designed to help him end Superman. Between twin energy blasts from his closed fists and dropping the aliens from tall heights, his experiments had shown that the Reach could, in fact, scream. Now Luthor fought through the streets of a shattered Metropolis trying to find the Boy Scout.

            An indicator light flashed on his wrist gauntlet. Power was draining, and he was now dipping into his reserves. A recharge shouldn’t take more than a couple of hours, if the power grid held out that long. But how much of a city would there be to protect once the sun descended over the horizon?

            “Robin to anyone who can hear me, come in.” A young voice crackled through Luthor’s built in earpiece. One of Batman’s plethora of teenage warriors. “Wonder Girl and I are on top of the Daily Planet building and need assistance.” So the Justice League got communications up again somehow. A quick scan from his suit showed Luthor that the message was coming across on his own frequency, which meant they’d gotten into his tech as well. An oversight he would be quick to correct. If he survived.

            “Incoming, Robin.” Ah, there was the Boy Scout. Still alive, as expected. “What do you need?”

            “Be close enough to help but far enough to pull them off us? If that makes sense.” Luthor understood what Batman’s young ward was saying. Keep the Reach away from them while they did whatever they were trying to do, but be close enough to respond in an emergency. A delicate dance, one that Luthor was well-suited to. It was, after all, how he handled most of his “other” business dealings.

            Turning on his jets, Luthor began racing through the air toward the Daily Planet building. As he streaked like a purple and green missile around burning skyscrapers, his genius intellect began to work on the next problem at hand: why was the third Boy Wonder at the top of the Daily Planet building?

            The building wasn’t particularly impressive from a fortification standpoint, and that gaudy globe at the top didn’t have any sort of weapons system. He knew. He’d checked. But his sensors had detected zeta-beam radiation from the building before. While a weapons system was out of the question, the favored transportation system of the League might not be.

            As the building came into range, he understood why Robin needed assistance. The teen had a panel open near the base of the globe statue, but that wasn’t what he was focused on at the moment. Reach soldiers swarmed over the roof and fighters made diving strafing runs on his position. Superman and Wonder Girl were there, and doing an admirable job of trying to keep the alien grunts away from his work, but Batman’s ward constantly had to break away from what he was doing to reach for his staff to defend himself.

            Luthor had not announced his presence, and doubted that the angels even knew he was incoming before he arrived. Three Reach soldiers were charging Robin, about to get something of a jump on him, before Luthor swooped in arms extended. The force of the blow sent all three over the side of the building and sent them plummeting to the street below. Even over the roar of his jets, Luthor was positive he heard that faint alien scream he was becoming so fond of.

            “Luthor!” There was that familiar shout from Superman. In a flash, the Kryptonian was in front of him, positioning himself between the flying billionaire and the two younger heroes on the roof. “What are you doing here?”

            “What does it look like, Superman?” Luthor crossed his arms slowly over his chest, hovering just off the Daily Planet roof. They were in the middle of a brief reprieve, but he knew that wouldn’t last long. “I’ve come to help.”

            “Your help doesn’t come without ulterior motives, Lex.” The alien’s eyes narrowed suspiciously, but did not yet glow red. “What do you want?”

            “Isn’t wanting to make sure there’s a planet tomorrow enough, Superman?” Luthor nodded to the tears in the Kryptonian’s outfit. Blood hadn’t started to flow yet, but even the alien’s superior biology wouldn’t keep him safe forever. “You know that destroying the world has never been on my agenda.” That was technically true. Taking over the world and bending it to his whim? Absolutely. But how does one take over a world that has been turned to cosmic ash?

            “I’m still not buying it…” The doubt had not faded from Superman’s voice, but before Luthor could respond, someone else cut in.

            “Look, either distract the Reach by duking it out or stick to Robin’s plan. But we’re running out of time!” Wonder Woman’s ward, the unoriginally named Wonder Girl, stood with her hands on her hips, glaring up at them both. Well, mostly him. But Luthor liked her pluck, and raised an eyebrow as he turned to the Man of Steel. After a long moment, the Kryptonian relented.

            “Fine. We work together.” The words sounded as if they were nearly strangled out of the alien. “But no funny business.”

            “Whatever business you two are going to do, do it quick.” Wonder Girl stopped, her face contorting first in confusion, then embarrassment. A red tinge appeared on her cheeks as she stuttered. “I mean, here they come again!”

            The girl was correct. The rapidly familiar howl of alien engines was filling the air again, and columns of Reach soldiers were moving through the streets. It was time to go.

            With a blast of his foot jets, Luthor streaked down near street level. Laser blasts coursed from his fists as he strafed the invading aliens. The yellow-orange energy that followed him away let him know that he had their attention.

            Metropolis was a maze that Luthor knew well. It was, after all, his home. And he had a photographic memory and had memorized the layout of the city by the time he was five years old. Now those memories served him well as he led the Reach on a twisting path that covered nearly twenty blocks, but ended with them only five blocks away from the Daily Planet building.

            Superman was above, ducking and weaving through the sky, using his heat vision to down fighter after Reach fighter, sending burning hulks crashing to the city streets below. Hovering, Luthor turned his energy blasts on the arriving ground troops.

            Within minutes, Luthor got another warning from his wrist gauntlet, this time indicating a critical power level. At this rate, he would only be in the air for another minute or two. After that, it’d be hand to hand fighting against a numerically and technologically superior foe. Luthor didn’t need his magnificent brain to figure out that his odds of survival were worse than minuscule.

            “Superman.” In the heat of battle, the Kryptonian didn’t answer him, eyes glowing red toward a target in the sky. Luthor took a breath and closed his eyes. “Clark.” Superman stopped and looked down at him, shock registering all over his face.

            “Oh, I’ve known your secret identity for years, Clark. But I never told anyone. Because even though we had very different methods of doing things and very different overall goals, I’ve always respected you.”

            Confusion reigned throughout the Man of Steel’s expression, but then Luthor saw his eyes dart down to his wrist. He wouldn’t know exactly what the flashing red light meant, but the Boy Scout wasn’t stupid. He knew it wasn’t a good thing. Confusion softened to concern, then steely resolve.

            “If only you’d been a source of good, Lex. You and I would have made an incredible team.” Luthor offered the man who had been his nemesis for most of his adult life a knowing smile.

            “Even sinners have been allowed to repent on their deathbeds, Superman.” The jets at his feet sputtered and Luthor struggled to keep his balance in mid-air. “How does that saying go? Better late than never?” Clark began to answer when his suit’s power finally expired. As emergency jets slowed his descent toward a raging mass of Reach soldiers, Luthor quickly keyed in a sequence on the gauntlet.

            [MERCY]

            It had been a sequence Lex had hoped to never type, but as he pressed the command key and a countdown timer appeared, he looked up one last time. There, silhouetted by the sun and smoke from burning skyscrapers, Superman still fought valiantly to save his… their… world. Hope filled Luthor’s breast as the countdown timer reached zero.

 

***

 

Metropolis
July 4, 2016 – Team Year 6 (Bart’s Timeline) 17:21 EDT

            Timothy Drake’s plan was working perfectly. He wished that, even in his own head, that line was delivered with just a little less incredulousness. But even he was honest enough with himself that his plans did not always work out as he intended. This one, however, was proving to be the exception. For the moment.

            Superman and, he still couldn’t believe his eyes, Lex Luthor had successfully pulled nearly the entire Reach attack force for the city of Metropolis to them. Cassie hadn’t even needed to pick off a stray soldier or two, they had all left like flies to honey.

            And that had given him time to work.

            The first part of the plan was simple: take down the zeta tube network. The master override codes that the original members of the League carried made that an easy proposition. He’d been able to do it within seconds of Cassie dropping him off on the roof.

            The next part was more difficult: find the source of the Reach infection and block it. Or if it couldn’t be found, wipe the system and reboot it with only the most basic functions enabled, trying to block out anything extraneous by keeping everything as simple as possible. But to do any of that, Tim needed to be able to concentrate fully, something he hadn’t been able to do once the Reach had discovered their presence on top of the building.

            For the past five minutes, which was probably three minutes longer than he should have spent, Tim had been scanning for anything off in the code for the zeta tube system. He couldn’t find it. Desperately wishing that Barbara and her photographic memory were here, Tim made the decision to go with the second option. They couldn’t afford to waste any more time.

            His fingers flew over the physical keyboard on the wall in front of him. Commands to reboot the system, parameters for the reboot, people allowed to perform overrides, and which zeta tubes to reactivate. All of this had to be entered without a single mistake, or Tim knew it wouldn’t work properly. And that would mean they would miss their window to get the system back up at all.

            An explosion shook the Daily Planet building. Poking his head from around the corner, Tim saw a new column of thick black smoke rising from near street level a few blocks away. Above, Superman still lived, though he seemed to be struggling with the volume of Reach fighters around him.

            “Superman, are you okay?”

            “I’m… managing.” The founding member’s voice was strained as he concentrated on the aliens around him. “That explosion was Luthor’s suit. It was out of power. He took out a good number of them on the ground.”

            Tim was stunned into silence for a moment. Lex Luthor… sacrificed himself? Among all the things he had experienced in the last few hours, which included an alien invasion, he couldn’t stress that enough, that ranked in the top five most shocking events.

            “How are we doing, Tim? We’re running out of time.” Bruce’s gruff voice brought Tim back to the monitor. His eyes darted over the code he’d written, but his finger hesitated over the command key.

            “I think I’m ready to reboot, but you’ll probably have to add the security protections from your end. This terminal doesn’t…”

            “Just get it done.” If Tim was taken aback by his mentor’s sharp reply, and he was, he didn’t show it on the outside. Scanning the code one last time for any mistakes he might have made, and there were none, he entered the command to reboot the system. A progress bar popped up on the screen and began an inexorable creep forward.

            “Oh, Hera!” Cassie’s shout pulled him away from the screen again and around the corner. The blonde stood motionless, her hands up and covering her mouth. Following her gaze, Tim recognized the column of smoke from earlier but did not see Superman anywhere. Only Reach fighters swirled through the air he had previously occupied.

            On his wrist gauntlet, one of the glowing portraits that had only recently reappeared when Barbara had gotten the communications working again faded to grey. Superman was no more.

            “Clark. Clark!” Bruce’s voice filled his ear again. Tim couldn’t bring himself to speak.

            “He’s gone, Batman.” Tim didn’t know if Cassie had been aware of Superman’s secret identity, but it didn’t take a lot to figure out who Bruce had been trying to reach. “Three Reach fighters hit him at the same time. There’s… there’s nothing left.”

            She didn’t need to explain further. They’d all witnessed the destructive power of the beams from the Reach fighters today. Bodies glowed, their skeletons exposed, and then disappeared without even ash remaining behind. And now these invaders had claimed one of the world’s greatest champions, one of the planet’s biggest weapons. His stomach sank.

            “How’s the upload, Tim?” There was a harder edge to Batman’s voice now, a quietness that was somehow scarier than his yelling. Checking the panel’s screen again, Tim saw the progress bar creeping forward, still too slowly for his liking, but it was making progress.

            “We’re getting there. Just need a little bit more time and we should be good to go on this end.”

            “Um, I don’t think we’re going to get that time.” Cassie ran back but the howl of Reach fighters was already filling the air again. “Seems they remembered we’re here.”

            “Hang on.” Tim typed frantically again, his fingers spitting lines of code to transfer control of the reboot process to the Batcave so it could continue.

            “Tim, we don’t have time. Come on. We’ve got to go.” Cassie’s pleading made him type even faster. He could hear the fear in her voice. She didn’t want to die, none of them did. But the number of grownups who were in charge was rapidly dwindling, and he had to get this done.

            “In a second. I’ve almost got it…”

            “Tim!” He still didn’t answer, frantically punching in the last few lines of code. Tim felt Cassie’s fingers wrap around one of his arms, yanking him away from the terminal. Just as she pulled him away, he stabbed a finger into a key, sending control to Bruce in the Batcave.

            They weren’t more than twenty feet away when a blast from a Reach fighter vaporized the spot he had just been standing. Tim could feel the heat on his face, but then he was out over open air, legs dangling beneath him. The only thing keeping him aloft was Cassie’s steely grip around his wrist.

            “Excellent work, Tim.” Batman’s voice emerged in his ear again. “We have control of the zeta tube network. System will be back online momentarily.”

            “Told you I only needed another second.” He cracked a smile as he looked up at her, but fire met his gaze.

            “You could have been killed back there, Timothy Jackson Drake. We both could have been.” Cassie dove to the right to avoid a laser blast from a Reach ship, then climbed into a smoke plume from a building for cover. “We still might be.”

            “Come on Cassie, don’t say that.” Tim gestured with his free hand through the smoke. “A little bit of fancy flying and staying concealed to lose these alien losers, then we head back to the Batcave for our next mission. This is the easy part.”

            To punctuate the end of his sentence, the air around them glowed. A beam of energy, highlighted by the smoke particles in the air, punched toward them and struck Cassie. A brief shriek escaped her lips as her skin glowed before her skeletal form flashed before his eyes.

            A searing heat burned through Tim’s gloves, scalding the skin beneath, and he yelped as he inadvertently released his grip. Not that there was anything to hold onto anymore. Cassie was gone, and Tim realized he was falling rapidly toward the ground.

            “Robin to all points.” They’d been about two thousand feet up when Cassie had been vaporized. “I could use some air support.” That meant he had approximately sixteen seconds before he hit the ground. “Since I can’t fly. At all.”

            Superman and Luthor were dead. Even Wally and his super speed wouldn’t make it in time. Trying to use his cape to slow his descent would be ineffective. It would be ripped from his hands. Grappling hook wouldn’t latch onto anything as he fell at terminal velocity. And even if it did, it would rip his arm out of his socket with the sudden change of direction.

            “Now would be good.” Maybe by some miracle someone else was in the area. Maybe someone else…

            No, there was no one else. No miraculous escape this time. All that was left for him was the only logical ending that came when you painted a target this big on your chest.

            Tim could see the spot he would most likely hit the ground now. He shifted his body so his back would impact first. Not that it would matter, he was most likely going to die instantly. Still didn’t mean he wanted to see it, you know?

            He keyed his radio one final time. “Dick…” Tim swallowed as the wind whipped through his hair. He wondered if this freedom was how Cassie had felt all the time. “Dick, this isn’t your fault. Don’t blame yourself for me too.”

            If there was a response, Tim Drake never heard it.

 

***

 

The Batcave
July 4, 2016 – Team Year 6 (Bart’s Timeline) 17:29 EDT

            No matter how many villains he fought, how many schemes he foiled, how many planet-wide threats he had helped stop, Bruce Wayne had never seen a hell quite like this. But he couldn’t feel the fires, couldn’t smell the smoke, couldn’t hear the screams of the helpless innocents now just waiting to be slaughtered. No, Bruce Wayne only saw these images through computer monitors, from closed circuit feeds and satellites that still worked. Like an omnipresent god, this sanitized tableau of destruction from around the world played out before his eyes.

            But unlike a deity, Bruce Wayne could not affect any of the images in front of him. Here he was only a man with no special powers beyond his incredible wealth and intellect. So used to winning the day through sheer force of will, the images of hellfire and devastation mocked him and his ineptitude.

            For the past several minutes, the Dark Knight had not moved. This was not unusual for him. Countless times he had waited in some corner, cloaked in obsidian shadows while waiting for his target to appear. During those times, the Batman was a tight mass of muscle and determination. Now he sat frozen by shock and grief.

            Bruce Wayne had just watched his son die. Even before Tim had called for help, the main monitor in the middle of his ocean of screens had been on Metropolis. He had seen Luthor and Clark team up and had just as quickly watched each of them perish. While the death of his friend and colleague had hurt him, Tim’s demise threatened to send Bruce back to the depths of despair he had not felt since Jason was murdered.

            His eyes still had not moved from the building Tim’s body had disappeared behind as it plummeted toward the ground. Jason’s death had wounded him severely, not only because one of his soldiers, his children, had been murdered, but because of who he had been murdered by. But if Bruce would ever be truly honest with himself, there was a part of him that always saw Jason as being more likely to die. Always so reckless, so cocksure of himself and his abilities.

            But Tim… Tim was the one Bruce was always sure would make it out alive. So careful, so meticulous in his planning to the point of waiting too long to act. Even the way he had figured out the secret identities of Nightwing and himself had shown undeniable intellect and detective work. And not even among all the death and destruction that he had seen today had the thought of Tim falling for the cause even entered his mind.

            But he had. And the small picture in the bottom corner of the console, the one that showed his team’s, his soldiers’, his children’s statuses across the globe, was now faded to grey. It was an irresponsibly small memorial to the young man he had considered a son.

            “Master Bruce.” The voice of Alfred Pennyworth, longtime confidant and butler, struck him like a bolt of lightning and jolted him out of his stupor. As he turned, he felt the air of the cave tracing cool lines down his cheeks. Bruce Wayne hadn’t even realized that he had been crying, but now his tear-stained face and bloodshot eyes were locked with Alfred’s.

            “My god…” Almost at a run, the man was by his side, staring at the monitors. “Was it Master Richard?” Bruce’s thousand-yard stare shifted to the depths of the cave. “Mistress Barbara?”

            “Tim.” He wasn’t even sure if Alfred would hear his barely audible reply, but the way his oldest friend recoiled told him he had. A weathered fist pounded into the desk and a short sob and sniffle escaped. As Alfred grieved, a tiny glimmer of red deeper in the grotto caught Bruce’s eye and he rose from the chair.

            In a few short strides, he was in front of it; a torn and bloodied Robin uniform. His private memorial to Jason Todd and a monument to all his sins. Bruce leaned forward, pressing his forehead against the glass display case. How many more would die in a losing battle? How many more would be sacrificed for a fight where the outcome had already been decided?

            The answer came crashing down on him like a wave. There was no way to save everyone, but there was a way to make sure some survived.

            In a flash, he was in front of a safe and punching in a code combination with short, purposeful stabs of a finger. Sacrificing himself to save the world was something that had always lingered in the back of Bruce’s mind, particularly because he saw himself as more expendable because he lacked powers. But now he was the only one in a position to do anything about it.

            The door to the safe swung open, a pale blue light spilling out and piercing the darkness of the cave. It did nothing to lift his spirits. Pulling on the Warworld’s crystal key with both hands, Bruce could feel a dull warmth radiating through his gloves.

            If anyone had brought this plan to him, he would have dismissed it out of hand. Suicide missions were not something he signed off on. But desperate times called for even more desperate measures, and Bruce couldn’t think of a time that was more desperate than this.

            Bruce turned from the safe, crystal key held safely between his gloves. Alfred had remained by the Batcomputer, but when he saw what the man he’d raised from childhood held in his hands, the butler’s eyes widened.

            “Master Bruce, we cannot simply give up. We will find another way.” The older man gestured to the alien technology, and Bruce knew he understood what he planned to do. “You will find another way. You always do.”

            “Not this time, Alfred.” Bruce tucked the key against his side like a football as he embraced his oldest friend. “There isn’t going to be a technological miracle, no last-minute stroke of genius that will save us. We lost. The only thing I can do is to make sure we don’t make this even easier for the Reach.” His free hand squeezed Alfred’s shoulder one last time, and Bruce turned towards the Batplane parked in the cave.

            “Bruce…” The butler’s voice, barely above a whisper, strained to reach Bruce’s ears. The cave seemed to go quiet. Even the water dripping off the stalactites seemed to cease, as if the entire grotto was giving deference to the old man. Alfred normally didn’t show much emotion. The mild-mannered caretaker was not one prone to crying or raising his voice. But in this moment of fear and confusion, the veneer cracked.

            “Bruce… your parents. Master Jason. Master Timothy…” Alfred’s voice failed and Bruce could almost picture him struggling to keep his composure. “I cannot lose you as well. My heart cannot take it.”

            Bruce’s shoulders slumped as he let out a heavy sigh. His eyes closed and he felt suddenly very tired, as if all those years of late nights were finally catching up to him at once. “I wish there was another way.” Now it was his voice’s turn to fail, barely registering in the vastness of the cave.

            “I wish there was, Al, but there isn’t. This is something I have to do.” Bruce half-turned to look over his shoulder at his friend, the closest thing he’d had to a father since that fateful night in Crime Alley two decades ago.

            “Thank you for showing me the light in the darkness, Alfred. Thank you for being my hero. For saving me.”

            Lowering his head, Bruce quickly stalked his way to the Batplane. He didn’t look back, didn’t wait for any further instructions or goodbyes from his mentor and guardian. Any distraction now might cause him to stay here, and the world could not afford that. Possibly countless others across the galaxy could not afford it.

            Placing the crystal key securely next to him, Bruce fired up the plane’s engines. A hatch in the cave opened above him, the evening sky still a brilliant blue. The summer sun had not yet begun to set, and the scrap of azure that Bruce could see was deceptively peaceful. But in the corner of that view he could just make out Earth’s second satellite. He set his jaw and pulled his cowl down.

            The Warworld had to be destroyed.

            Taking one last look around his cave, Bruce nodded and tossed Alfred a short salute before tilting the nose of the plane upward and shooting into the Gotham sky. Bruce kept his eyes focused on the alien planetoid above. He would not look back at his shattered city because if he did he might not make it to space.

            As the Batplane shot into the atmosphere, a panicked voice suddenly filled his cockpit. “Hello? Is anyone from the Justice League there?” Bruce scanned his instruments as he tried to figure out where the transmission was coming from. “This is Chief Warren Albright, Fawcett City Police Department. Any Justice Leaguers, please respond!”

            Even through the garbled radio transmission, Bruce could hear the desperation in the man’s voice. The distinctive sounds of Reach blasters could be heard in the background, alongside screams and gunshots.

            “Please! Anybody! Lieutenant Marvel and Sergeant Marvel are dead. Our positions are being overrun. If there’s anyone out there, please –”

            With a stab of his finger, Bruce muted the transmission. His mind flashed back to the Batcomputer. Fawcett City had already been burning with the same fury as every other major city across the planet. There was nothing that could be done to help them now.

            Seconds later, Bruce’s cockpit radio beeped, the indication for an incoming message. He almost ignored it. He should have ignored it. But something in his gut told him to answer that call.

            “Batman here.” The first sounds that came through the other end of the transmission were surprisingly peaceful. No gunshots, no Reach laser blasts, no explosions. Whoever was on the other end seemed to be enjoying at least a few moments of peace on this hellish day.

            “Bruce, what are you doing?” The voice of Dick Grayson, his first Robin, filled the cockpit. His breathing was slightly labored, and Bruce could almost picture him huddled in some corner of an abandoned building, holding his side while he tried to keep a brave face on for those around him. It was something the younger man had picked up from him.

            “I’m doing what has to be done, Dick.” Bruce hadn’t meant to be so short with his partner, but every word that came over the comm system decreased his chances of actually completing his mission.

            “What you’re doing is suicide.” There was judgement in Dick’s voice, even with the interference present, but his words were clipped by shortened breaths. “Alfred called and told me your plan. You don’t need to do this.” Another sharp intake of breath and then Dick’s voice came back lower. “We just lost Timmy, Bruce. We can’t lose you as well.”

            Bruce recognized the pain in Dick’s voice. He had heard it in his own words. He knew the loss the younger man was feeling, the helplessness at hearing his younger brother call for help and not being able to do anything about it. Perhaps worse, in Dick’s case, he would see his inability to save Tim as the same as his failure to save his parents at the circus all those years ago. Or it would dredge up the responsibility he felt, wrongly, over Jason’s death.

            Bruce knew he would never convince Dick to see this the way he did. As much as the young man had grown in his role leading the Team and as Nightwing, there were still times that he missed the bigger picture. There were times he needed to be more “Batman” in his thinking.

            “Dick… in the Batcave, there’s a suit for you. I had Alfred tailor it for your fighting style.” Bruce half-smiled as he remembered the story of Dick’s cape getting caught as he foiled a robbery attempt while he’d been away. The new design should make it easier for his adopted son to continue his trademark acrobatics.

            “You can’t give up, Bruce. We still need the Batman.” Eyes resolutely staring toward space, Bruce pulled his cowl off his face. His back settled even deeper into the padded chair of his pilot’s seat.

            Up ahead, he could see the evening sky through a hazy filter. The brilliant summer blue was tinged at the corners with a violent orange. Gotham was burning, and even though he refused to look at his beloved city, smoke from the fires that devoured his entire life still chased him into the atmosphere. His hands tried to rebel, wrists twitching in an involuntary spasm that nearly turned him back toward the fiery hellscape. But in the battle between his brain and his impulses, Bruce’s brain won out again. Bunches of coiled muscle in his arms kept the plane on its course straight for the Warworld.

            “What comes next is in your hands, Dick. Keep our home safe.” The haze was starting to dissipate now and the sky began darkening as he reached into the upper layers of the atmosphere. Ahead, the Warworld filled more and more of his cockpit.

            “Thank you for everything, Dick. A father has never been prouder of his sons.”

            A gauntlet-clad finger stabbed into his radio, turning it off completely. Another call might force him to reverse course. Now his only companion would be a silence so deafening it would drown out the screams of a nine-year-old boy in Crime Alley from all those years ago.