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Around the Worlds

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The worlds after the one with Depressed Dr. Strange and Crazy Tony unfortunately, didn’t get any better. Earths that had been practically destroyed. Earths where the government had surrendered to Thanos and killed or imprisoned most of their heroes. Earths where too much loss and anger had turned the good guys into much less good guys. An Earth where Steve had been working for Hydra all along. A universe where Thor had gone insane, killed his brother - sort of, anyway - and then hung himself from something called the World Tree, invoking magic that destroyed all the worlds in their universe. Again, sort of. Nobody was really sure what was going to happen to that universe, but Loki’s head - which was attached to his sort-of-dead brother’s belt - had stopped screaming when he’d seen the portal and told them that things would eventually reset themselves, because they always did, and that if he remembered anything afterward he’d keep an eye out for Thanos. And then he’d started screaming again.

Nobody had been willing to open the portal again for almost three weeks after that, and when they finally did, Reed and Tony told Jarvis to pick a different direction. Or a combination of directions, something.

To everyone’s relief, the portal opened up on a completely unfamiliar man sitting in a large room that was absolutely stuffed full of tech - computers, monitors, equipment, vehicles. He had thickly silvered brown hair and tired brown eyes that narrowed when the portal opened. “This is new. Alien, god, demon, what?”

Tony snickered. “You sound like me. None of the above, though, actually. We’re from a different Earth in another part of the multiverse. I’m Tony Stark, heard of me?”

“Should I have?”

That made Bruce laugh; he’d decided to sit in on this one, just in case they somehow ended up with another universe where everyone was dead or crazy. “Not if he doesn’t exist on your Earth, no. We’re actually calling around to pass along a warning. There’s this being called Thanos, wants to take over the multiverse, sends out advance troops and gets idiots who are greedy for power to do his dirty work for him. You haven’t had any reports of lizard aliens replacing people, have you?”

The man shook his head, sitting back in his chair and steepling his fingers in front of him. “No. We had rumors, but I investigated and they were bullshit. We have plenty of people turn up who are exceptionally greedy, though.”

“Watch out for the ones who turn up with a whole lot of power you’ve never seen before,” Tony told him. “We’re the Avengers, by the way. We’re superheroes…I’m guessing you are too?”

That made the man smile. “Not really, but sort of. Sometimes. We have a collective called the Justice League, I helped form it because the enemies attacking Earth were getting more and more powerful and we all needed to work together to stop them. We know there’s a pattern to the attacks, we just haven’t been able to figure out who’s behind it all. You said his name is Thanos?”

“That’s the name we get on our end of things, in the universes similar to ours,” Reed chimed in. “I’ve been in others where that name wasn’t known, though, or at least wasn’t being talked about.” He stretched around so he could look directly through the portal. “You haven’t seen anyone who looks like me, have you? Most of us are careful, but there’s at least one of me who isn’t.”

The man’s eyes widened. “Wow, that’s…” He leaned forward again, more visibly interested now. “Lab accident?”

“Space accident, a very unusual type of radiation,” Reed corrected. “Dr. Banner here was the victim of a lab accident, however.”

“I can’t show you, at least not in here,” Bruce immediately disclaimed, raising his hands. “Let’s just say I get bigger.”

“I’m guessing a whole lot bigger, since that isn’t a small room.” The man nodded. “I’m Bruce Wayne, have you ever heard of me?”

“The same Bruce Wayne who dresses up in a bat costume because it scares the bad guys?” Wayne looked surprised. “Yeah, you’re a comic book here, and sometimes a movie.”

“I like the animated series best,” Steve said, coming into the room. He gave the man on the other side of the portal a little wave. “Hi, I’m Steve. Huge fan, you’re awesome. I always loved that you were just a normal guy.”

Wayne smirked. “I’m one of the richest men in the world, Steve.”

Steve shrugged, clapping Tony on the shoulder. “So’s Tony, but that hasn’t stopped him.”

Tony raised an eyebrow at him. “Three words: Star. Spangled. Man.”

Steve blushed…and Wayne’s eyebrows went up. “Wait…Captain America? But you…that was World War II!”

“And we have a parallel on your end,” Bruce said, grinning. “It’s a long story with a whole lot of improbable accidents in it, but yes, this is him. Comic book?”

Wayne nodded. “A lot of them. But there really was a Captain America, I…know someone who met him. In Europe.”

“I was in Europe. My team was called the Howling Commandos.” Wayne nodded again; Steve nodded back. “He died?”

“He died,” Wayne confirmed. “Before the war ended. I don’t suppose you ever met a woman named Diana Prince?” Steve shook his head. “Okay, so I guess the similarities end there.” Everything around him…vibrated for a second, and he grimaced. “Just ignore that, I’m trying to.”

“Wait, you’re…” Wayne pushed his chair back; he had a cast on one leg. “Well crap. Losing how badly?”

The man’s square jaw set. “We’ll keep fighting until there isn’t anyone left.”

“Too soon, in the wrong way,” Tony muttered. “God dammit. Reed, you know what I’m about to say.”

Reed nodded. “We can go. Someone will have to stay behind to monitor the machine. I can check the time dilation on the other side, then tell them what day and/or time to turn it back on.”

Wayne was looking dumbfounded by this. “Wait, you’d…come over here? You don’t even know what we’re fighting!”

“Then tell us,” Steve told him. “That way I’ll know who needs to come and who doesn’t. We have a huge team right now.”

The other man made a face. “We have gods - literal gods - on our side.”

Steve shrugged. “We have one of those. Think yours will get upset if he shows up? We don’t want to start something.”

Thor came running in. “Jarvis summoned me. Other gods? From where?”

“Greece.”

Thor nodded. “I just barely remember them. I was but a small boy the last time they paid a visit to Asgard.”

“Meaning he might already be in your universe, so that’s a no-go on the godly help,” Tony said. “The rest of us should be okay, though.” More people came in. “And here’s part of everyone.”

Clay leaned over the back of Tony’s chair. “What kind of battles are you down to? Lots of little ones or a few big ones?”

“It’s been steadily escalating,” Wayne told him. “This is probably their last regular attack before the big one. I think they’ve been trying to soften us up before their boss got here, and what little intel we’ve got says he should be showing up any time now.” Everything shook again, and he quirked a wry smile. “Thank goodness I’m underground.”

“We’ll come through in small groups,” Steve said. “Stephen!” The Sorcerer Supreme pushed his way through. “Can we temporarily replace a lynchpin?”

Stephen’s eyes widened. “Maybe. You were there?”

“Too soon, wrong way,” Tony confirmed, and the other man grimaced, but nodded. “Go, Steve - I’ll bring your uniform through.”

“Just you being there may help,” Stephen confirmed. He raised a saturnine eyebrow at the man in the portal. “You have magic there?” A nod. “Okay, I’ll come with Steve. Jake can monitor the portal with Amanda - she and Clint have another bun in the oven, so no she is not coming.”

“Jarvis, tell Pepper we have another baby shower coming up,” Tony sang out, standing up. “Mr. Wayne, I’ll see you shortly in all my glory, we can compare tech.”

“Steve, Stephen, Reed, Bruce, go,” Clay said. Steve stepped through first, holding his shield…which he held up when he got there to keep a trickle of falling dirt and rock from hitting their host. “Oh shit, you weren’t kidding underground. Jarvis! Tell Tony this is a cave!”

“I will tell him, Captain Rogers,” Jarvis intoned. “Colonel Clay, sir says Mrs. Barton is rather upset.”

“You tell Amanda that I said she’s not going,” Stephen called over his shoulder. “We have no idea what portal travel on this frequency might do to a developing fetus, and until I know she stays in her own reality. Tell her I’ll do some tests when I get back, and remind Clint that using protection keeps his wife off the bench.” He pulled one of his elaborate high-collared cloaks out of thin air and then stepped through, following Bruce. “Oh wow, Tony is going to be too busy admiring all your equipment to remember he’s in a cave,” he said, and then swept the astonished Wayne a bow. “Dr. Stephen Strange, the Sorcerer Supreme, at your service. Now please tell me you didn’t set that leg yourself…”

 Reed slipped through after Stephen, and Clay started organizing everyone else. He raised an eyebrow when Max showed up with Blue, though. “This is a battle, Max.”

“I know,” Max told him. “That’s not why I’m going. There’s someone over there I have to talk to.”

A chill ran down Clay’s spine. Max helped when they fought, sometimes he helped a lot, but he still hadn’t told them…well, much of anything. “Have to?”

“Absolutely have to. And he’ll help where I can’t,” he said. “Come on, Blue, the other daddy wants us home for dinner.”

On the other side of the portal, Reed shrugged. “Time dilation isn’t too bad, a few hours,” he called across. “A late dinner, possibly tomorrow.”

Clay sighed. “I’ll tell him. He’s not coming why?”

“Because someone has to stay here to protect the island,” Max said, and then walked past him and through the portal like it was no big deal. He shook himself on the other side. “That tingles. You okay, girl?” Blue shook herself too and made a rumbling noise. “We’ll see if you can eat a bad guy later, they must have some to spare by now…”

Tony came in, wearing one of his more over-powered suits and carrying a heavy case in each hand, and did a double-take when he looked through the portal. “Wait, why is Max over there?”

“He said he had to talk to someone,” Clay told him. “We may be about to find out why he couldn’t tell anyone anything, so keep an eye out - he has to have been keeping it secret for a reason. Spare suit?”

“And Steve’s suit, and spare parts and tools - who knows if measurements are the same over there. And my pills,” he said before Clay could ask. “I know, it’s a cave. Hopefully I won’t need them, but I’m not taking chances. Coming through!” he called out, and people on the other side got out of the way. “And bringing toys!”     

He clanked a little bit going through, and Clay couldn’t help but chuckle when he saw Wayne’s reaction to the Iron Man suit. “Yeah, isn’t it awesome?” Tony said. He stepped out of it and opened one of his cases, tossing Steve his uniform, and then pulled out a bottle of wine, which he offered to Wayne. “Host gift,” he explained. “Hopefully the portal didn’t do anything weird to it.”

Wayne took the bottle, looked at the label and smiled. “We have this winery here, too - it’s one of my favorites. Thank you.”

“Welcome.” Tony closed up his case again and waved at Clay. “Anyone else?”

“Johnny, Sue, Clint, and Rhonda. I’m keeping the rest of them, that’s all we need is to send everyone over and then get attacked here at home.”

“Yeah, that would be bad.”

The aforementioned people all came in, armed to the teeth, and slipped through the portal. Reed waved at Jake and Amanda, who had taken his place beside the portal generator’s control board. “All right, open it up again for check-in in eight hours your time, that will be approximately twelve hours here. I’ll put a piece of paper with the coordinates where you’ll be able to see it, so you’ll know you have the correct location.”

“Got it,” Jake said. “Kick ass, guys.”

“We always do,” Johnny sang out. “But just in case we can’t kick it all…”

“We’ll be prepared for a refugee situation,” Amanda confirmed. “Oh, and Bruce?” Both Wayne and Banner looked, and she grinned. “Our Bruce, sorry. Bruce, Nick’s here.”

“Tell him to stay off the beach,” Bruce told her. “Remind him - forcefully if necessary - that Max isn’t there to wrangle Jerry or any of the other mutations for him. And he can only go look for things in the sand if Thor goes with him.”

“Got it,” she said. “Clint, you have to come back alive so I can kick your ass!”

Her husband’s response was to blow her a kiss, and then Jake closed the portal. And moved himself and Amanda away from the control panel. “I want this room cleared,” he ordered. “Jarvis, if anyone who isn’t Amanda and I - together - so much as tries to open the door, sound every alarm in the place. And monitor the interior of the room for movement.” Clay raised an eyebrow, and he shook his head. “This is dangerous as fuck, Clay. If anything happens to this panel or the generator, even something as innocent as a mouse chewing a wire, they’re screwed and so are we.”

“Noted.” Clay preceded them out of the room, listened for the distinctive sound of the door sealing and the little hum that was Stephen’s layered containment spell folding itself back around the door. “See you in twelve hours, then. Thor, come with me to talk to Nick, ten to one he’s gonna want to go beachcombing right now…”

  

On the other side of the now-closed portal, Bruce Wayne was finding himself more than a little bemused - and more than a little amused, too - by the other-universe superheroes who’d come to help. He’d called in some of the Justice League, being very selective about who he let in on what was happening, and things were pretty much sorting themselves out. Diana had almost cried when she’d seen Steve, and had been delighted to see pictures of his family; the Captain America she’d known, apparently, had told her once that he didn’t think he’d ever get to have one. They were in the center of a circle of people now, plotting out the best strategy for making use of their new reinforcements to surprise the enemy - a few of the plans seemed to mainly consist of something called ‘Hulk Smash’ that made Dr. Banner, the other Bruce, smirk every time he said it. Tony Stark was on the outskirts of that group, checking tech, handing out spare tech, and fixing tech that was broken or that he just didn’t think was up to the task at hand. Dr. Richards and his wife and brother-in-law had reinforced the Batcave’s ceiling to make sure it wouldn’t collapse, after which they’d gone upstairs to help Alfred manage the refugees from Gotham that were currently overflowing Wayne Manor. Dr. Strange had looked at Bruce’s leg and then put some kind of magical splint on it for him just in case things went south and he needed to make a run for it. The sorcerer was in a huddle with Zatana now, and John Constantine left them and wandered over. “Bruce, he has two lovers,” he complained. “Two! I can’t even hook up in a bar, and he’s got two hot young commandos - he’s got wizardin’ photos of them, like in Harry Potter. They waved at me, and one of them got all flirty and blew him a kiss.”

Bruce smiled. “You could switch teams, John.”

“Are you offerin’?”

“Are you going to bottom?”

“You only fuckin’ wish.” John pulled up a chair and sat down. “They’re from a universe with no light-dark balance. I already warned Stephen about what we’ve got here, he’s gonna do somethin’ to keep the reapers off his people, just in case - unfortunately he can’t do it for the ones of us who live here. And we were able, between the three of us, to verify that bringin’ their Captain America here sort of shored-up things on this end. So we’ve gone from havin’ no chance in hell to havin’ just a tiny bit more of one.”

“An ice cube instead of a snowball?”

“A glacier instead of a snowball,” John corrected. “Still not all that much, when things are this hot. Somethin’ weird, though…that guy, the normal-lookin’ one with the demon kitty?”

“That’s a demon?”

“Yeah, but it’s his pet - Dr. Strange gave it to him and his husband, they’ve raised it from a kitten. He’s not a superhero, he’s not got magic, but he’s makin’ the hair stand up on the back of my neck. And not a one of these people knows why he tagged along.”

Bruce considered that. “I heard him tell the guy in charge over on the other side that he had to talk to someone. And then that guy told Stark it probably had something to do with what he hadn’t been able to tell them and to keep his eyes open. I don’t know what’s going on there.”

“You could just ask me,” Max said, and they both jumped. He smiled. “Sorry. Okay, not so much. Although I’m sorry I seem to be creeping you out,” he told John. “Yes, I’m here to talk to someone. I was told I needed to come talk to him, and if he listens…well, that’s going to be a really good thing, and not just for you guys, for all of us.” He shrugged. “I can’t tell anyone any more than that because no one can know. Even my husband doesn’t know all of it, it’s too dangerous. I’m not, however, a danger to you…or to anyone you love.”

John scowled. “You stay out of that.”

Max raised his hands. “Not getting in it, just letting you know. I’ll help where I can while I’m here. You can ask the others, I help back home too - they just don’t entirely understand how I’m doing it.”

“Because you can’t tell anyone.” Max nodded; Bruce did too. “You’re not just protecting one world, are you?”

Max just smiled. “You really are a great detective. So, while I’m over here, do you need anything? I can fetch and carry for you while we’re down here in your really awesome hideout.”

Bruce had to smile back. “Thanks, but I don’t need anything right now. Just out of curiosity, though…what do you feed a demon cat?”

“Cat food. If Blue wants something else, she goes to the Netherworld to hunt. Or at least we hope that’s the only place she’s going to hunt. Speaking of which, she might try to eat some of your bad guys, hope that’s okay.”

“I don’t have any cat food on hand, so she can have as many of them as she wants.” Blue materialized next to his chair, making him jump again, but the demon cat just bumped his shoulder with her huge head, rumbling a purr deep in her throat. He risked raising his hand to scratch her ear, and the purring intensified. His smile widened; he’d always liked cats. “You’re welcome, Blue.”

 

By the time the alarm was given that more enemy soldiers had appeared, and possibly their boss as well, they were ready. Bruce let the rest of the League know that they’d gotten some unexpected help in, ignoring the grumbling from Superman. And then Dr. Strange and John did something and the entire group walked through a swirl of nothing out onto what was about to become a battlefield again. Max stayed behind in the Batcave with Blue, listening to his own team on his earpiece while watching the monitors intently from behind Bruce’s chair. He’d already been upstairs to help calm down the refugees, and then he’d gone out before the rest of the fighters had, making sure any remaining civilians were out of the area; his sadness at the casualty count he’d found was practically a physical thing. Bruce felt the same way and told him so. “I was…well, retired. Mostly,” he said. “But when these types of battles started hitting the cities, I couldn’t not try to do something. The League does its best to get things away from the most populated areas…but it’s not always enough. And some people won’t leave.”

“A lot of the ones I saw looked like they were homeless,” Max confirmed. “We have that problem too…dammit, what are those things attacking John?! Blue, go get him!”

Blue vanished, reappearing on the monitors seconds later. She scattered the hooded figures around the downed wizard, then latched her teeth into his coat and disappeared again to dump him unceremoniously on the floor beside Bruce’s chair. “Thanks, Kitty, owe ya one,” he groaned, and didn’t resist when Max gave him a hand up and put him in a chair. He rubbed the back of his head. “Bastards. Takin’ advantage of a battle like this, seekin’ balance my ass.”

Bruce raised an eyebrow. “Injured, or just ran down your battery?”

“Was doin’ just fine until the reapers showed up.” He squinted; on the monitor, Dr. Strange had appeared in the place he’d just been and was taking out the reapers with extreme prejudice. “Well, there’s the difference between a wizard and a sorcerer in action, I guess. Did that one just explode?”

“Yeah, Stephen apparently doesn’t like those hooded things either.” Max got a funny look on his face, raising a hand to his earpiece. “Wait, the bad guy’s name is…oh shit, Tony’s going to hate that, he loves that band.”

Bruce couldn’t help it, he smiled. “Steppenwolf is a band on your Earth?”

“Yep, classic hard rock. I’m sure Tony’s got at least one of their songs on him, have him play it for you when he comes back in.” They kept watching, and twice more Max sent Blue out to drag a fallen hero out of harm’s way. The tide was definitely turning against Steppenwolf and his army, though. Everything he tried was countered by someone, and he actually screamed in frustration when the Hulk tore his battle chariot in half and then threw the half of it he was in to Superman. The supervillain tried to call in the rest of his troops, but the heroes were ready for them and the reinforcements who tried to come charging in through a small forested area to one side of the field of battle - probably once it had been part of a park - were met by something in the trees that apparently ripped them apart, if the level of screaming was anything to go by. “Oh there he is.” Max patted Bruce’s shoulder. “I’ll be back, but if anything happens yell for Blue. She likes you, she’ll come,” he said, and then he and Blue disappeared.

“He was here to talk to…” John, horrified, started to get up; Bruce pushed him back down. Letting a wizard with a concussion try to teleport would be a bad idea. “Bruce, there’s no way he knows what’s happened!”

Bruce shook his head, thinking of the sadness that had almost been a physical presence in the room earlier. “Actually, John…I think that’s why he’s here.”

 

Max appeared right in front of the tree line, and couldn’t help but wince. It was carnage in there, literal carnage. He sent Blue away with a nudge, then gathered himself and walked right up to the huge, raging figure, stopping when it spotted him. Angry vines were everywhere, but he just stood there, looking up into those angry oil-black, pupilless eyes. “Dr. Alec Holland, right? If you’re finished separating that last guy into parts, we need to talk.”

The pieces of alien soldier fell to the ground and were mulched into the soil by writhing, shredding roots. The green face twisted with a complicated mix of unpleasant emotions. “Alec Holland is dead.”

“Obviously not, since I’m talking to him.”

“Not anymore. You don’t understand. He was taken from me!”

“No, what was taken from you was a keepsake, a memento. Bones, Alec.”

“That was my human self!”

“No, it wasn’t - it was just bones.” Max folded his arms across his chest. “Dammit, have you always been this stubborn? Or this emo?”

Vines lashed at him, hitting a nearly invisible bubble of pink power instead; they burst into flower, and Swamp Thing drew one of them back to look at it. “What the hell…who are you?!”

“Someone who was told to look for you, Alec,” Max told him. “Now tell me, why are you so angry?”

Vines lashed and roots churned the soil; the Swamp Thing got even bigger, and vines writhed furiously over the remains of a vehicle that looked like it had been fronted by some type of rotary saw cutting attachments. “Did you see what they were doing, to the trees? This is war! Humans, at war with plants! Killing us, killing everything!”

A flower withered and fell, and Max caught it. He held it up. “You mean, like this?”

The huge plant-creature grimaced. “Flowers…don’t last very long.”

“Neither do people,” Max reminded him. “Or animals, or most other plants. It’s the circle of life, Alec. Things live and then die so more things can live. And then die. Animals rely on other animals to eat them so they don’t overpopulate and kill all the plants, meaning there won’t be any food for the rest of the animals later. Even plants kill to feed themselves, and some of them die to reproduce - by getting animals to eat them and poop out their seeds into nice fresh piles of fertilizer.”

A vine touched the dead flower, the pink bubble not stopping it this time. “Humans aren’t part of that circle.”

“They are,” Max countered, putting his hand over the vine. “They can do better, Alec. But someone has to teach them, someone has to show them.”

The vine twitched away. “They won’t listen.”

“Start small,” Max advised. “They won’t listen if you scream. They won’t listen if you try to scare them. But if you teach, some will learn, and then they’ll teach others.” He considered. “Why not write a book, for gardeners? You know more about plants than anyone on earth, share it with the people who want to listen.”

Swamp Thing gave him a dirty look. “Books kill trees.”

Max rolled his eyes. “Ebooks don’t. Write books for gardeners, write plant information manuals, have one of the Justice League’s techy people make you a plant identification app people can carry around on their phones. You want people to care about what’s in their water? Show them what bad water does to their flowers. You want people to improve agricultural practices? Show them how to grow more and better food in less space.” This time he reached out and took hold of one of the vines. “Alec, you have to meet them halfway. I know they do stupid shit that makes you angry, but they won’t learn any better unless you teach them.”

The vine wrapped around his wrist. Thorns emerged from it, drawing blood, but Max didn’t let go and after a moment the thorns drew back. “You don’t keep plants.”

“I can’t keep them alive,” Max told him. “I’m not going to bring a living thing into my house just to watch it die, that’s pointless and cruel.”

And Swamp Thing…smiled. “I guess someone needs to teach you how to take care of plants, then. Maybe an app?”

“That would probably help,” Max agreed. “I bet Batman knows someone who can make an app like that. Talk to him about what it takes to do rooftop gardens, too - what’s left of Gotham could use some green, but from what I understand the last person who tried to give them some was a supervillain.”

“Oh, her.” Swamp Thing sighed. “Yes, she’s crazy - really good with plants, but crazy. I’d hoped at first that she might be someone who actually understood…but she wasn’t.”

Max covered the vine with his other hand. Behind them, the waning battle noise had died down to a few scattered shouts and crashes. “I’m sorry, Alec.”

“Don’t be. It’s her fault, she wouldn’t listen to reason.” He shrank again, and most of the vines and roots pulled back; the vine Max was holding became a green and brown hand. “You’re right, being angry hasn’t been solving anything. And the more people fear me, the more they destroy. There are enemies I need to fight, yes…but not all of humanity.”

“That’s good, since you’re part of humanity.” Max took hold of a cord that was hanging around his neck, under his shirt, pulling out a little woven pouch. Fishing in it, he took out something and put it into the green hand he was still holding. “The person who told me to find you, told me to give you this. It’s from…a friend of his. He said you’d understand.”

Tiny vines wrapped over the small, whitish object, then held it up. “This is…was his friend?”

“Yes. The last of them to die, he told me.” Max looked the Swamp Thing in the eye. “Will you accept this as your new talisman, Alec? No, it’s not yours…but it belonged to someone who fought for the Earth with the Power of Earth. Someone who was loved and missed, just like you.”

The Swamp Thing closed his fingers around the piece of bone, nodding. “I…can do that.” He blinked, and the flat oil-black eyes were human eyes again, pale blue and sad, but determined. Something glowed on his finger, green and gold. “What…”

“It’s the Ring of Earth,” Max told him. “Nobody but you can remove it.” He held up his own hand, light glinting off gold and pink. “This is the Ring of Heart. Even my husband can’t take it off my finger, and most people can’t see it at all.”

Alec rumbled. “Probably a good thing. Even some of the heroes here…have a problem with others having power they don’t understand.”

“I saw - he didn’t even like it that we showed up to help. The ones who Batman called in to work with my people first were okay, though, even John the Suspicious Wizard. Make friends where you can, Alec.” Max grinned up at him. “If you want a hug, you’re going to have to shrink down some more - the height difference right now is going to put us in creepy territory and possibly get me in trouble with my husband.”

And for the first time in years, Alec Holland laughed. He shrank down, got the hug, and then tucked a showy flower behind Max’s ear. “Give him that, so he knows you were thinking about him,” he said. His ring glowed; his eyes did too, just briefly, and then he rumbled and pulled up something into his hand, a round little ball of hard earth which he placed into Max’s palm and closed his fingers over. “I understand now, I think. Your next ‘talk’…give her this. She’ll know what to do with it.”

“Got it.” Max tucked the ball into his pouch, then hid the pouch under his shirt again. “You take care, okay? I’ll see you…when I see you.”

“When I see you,” Alec agreed. And then he turned and waded off into the trees, disappearing.

 

Stephen met Max halfway as he was walking back toward the others; Blue was nowhere in sight. He smiled at the flower, which had nestled itself into Max’s hair and curled its tiny-leaved root end around the bottom of his ear. “Should I tell Blake he has a rival?”

Max shook his head. “Alec gave it to me to give to Blake. We all done?”

“Mopping up, the big bad is all taken care of.” He raised an eyebrow at the man in the red cape who landed near them. “Yes?”

Superman folded his arms across his chest. “I want to know what that was all about.”

“You aren’t entitled to know that,” Max told him calmly. “It wasn’t about this battle, or about you.”

“We need to know!”

“No, you want to know.” Max wasn’t budging. The others were starting to close in, some looking more worried than others. “But I repeat: You aren’t entitled to know that. Not even my husband knows that, or any of the people we work with. Because not only is it none of their business…it’s just too fucking dangerous to tell anyone.” He cocked his head. “You know, I’ve seen this attitude before. Guy on our Earth, thinks he has to have every string in his hands and his hands alone. Well guess what that’s gotten him? He’s managed to make the entire superhero community distrust him; at a time when we really all should be working together to save the fucking world, he’s playing games and spying on people and withholding information and still - still - trying to cause rifts within the community because that’s something he knows how to use. Oh, and he’s slowly driving himself nuts. Is that where you want to go, really?”

 

Back at the Batcave, Bruce leaned back in his chair and looked over at John. “Is it wrong of me to want popcorn?”

In answer, the wizard reached into nothingness and pulled out a bowl heaped with fluffy white kernels glistening golden with melted butter. “You’ll have to share with me.”

 

Superman was shaking his head. “You don’t understand,” he said. “We need to know these sorts of things. What if that,” he waved his hand in the general direction of the trees, which were visibly growing with more greenery spreading back out to form a park-like area, “becomes a threat?”

 Max drew himself up, jaw setting. “ ‘That’ is a person,” he said. “His name is Alec, Alec Holland. More specifically Doctor Alec Holland. You will use his name when you talk about him, because he deserves your respect - and he for damn sure hasn’t done anything to lose it.”

“He could be dangerous!”

“And you can’t be?” This time Max waved his hand, indicating the battleground around them that had once been the outskirts of the city. “Nobody can argue that this wasn’t necessary - it sucks, but sometimes it is - but it’s still more damage than anything short of a whole army could have caused. And you did that whole block over there all by yourself.”

“It’s not the same thing…”

“When it’s not you doing it?” Max smiled, not meanly, when that one hit home. “Dude, admit you have a problem - you want to be in control of everything all the time, and that is bad. For you, for everyone around you…for the world, even. What if someone compromises you, what then?”

“That happened last year,” Zatana said, and rolled her eyes when Superman glared at her. “Please. If you’d known what we were doing, I wouldn’t have been able to stop you.”

The look on his face said very clearly that he didn’t like the fact she’d been able to stop him, and Max sighed. “Really? That’s why I kept seeing you shooting eye-daggers at her and Constantine and Dr. Strange, because you don’t like it that magic can stop you? What would have happened if she hadn’t?”

“He would have killed Batman,” Wonder Woman said. “We have it on video. Magic was the only thing that saved us all that day. And it cost Alec Holland most dearly.”

“It cost him…a memento,” Max told her. “He’s going to be okay. He just needed to hear someone else say he was.” He saw the sneer, turned back to Superman. “Okay, you wanna do this the hard way? We can.” The moonlight gained a slightly pinkish hue. “I get that your alien persona started out as just that, a persona - a way to protect yourself and your human family from the bad guys. But you’ve taken it too far, you’re living it now. Sure, your biological father set you up to be just short of a god…but your human father is the one who raised you, you’re his son. Was he a stubborn ass sometimes? Well, so are you. Did his inflexibility frustrate you, growing up? Well, it frustrated your mom too - when both of you did it. But she didn’t expect you not to have flaws, any more than she did him. She loved you both the way you were, warts and all. But if she could see you right now, if she could see the way you’re treating the people who are supposed to be your friends…you’d get the disappointed look, wouldn’t you? You know, the one that makes you hate yourself for letting your mom down.” He took a breath, shook his head. “Kal-El is a costume you put on, Clark - he’s not you. And your mom would hate him, because he’s an arrogant bastard who embodies everything she raised her son not to be.”

It took Superman a minute to decide how he felt about that; he almost looked sick. “I…you don’t understand. I’m the only one who can stop most of these people if they become corrupted, start abusing their powers and hurting people, killing people. My mother told me I didn’t owe the world anything…but I do, because I can stop things from happening that no one else can.”

“I do understand,” Max told him. “You chose to take that responsibility on yourself, because you’d seen power abused and you were worried. I think everyone here gets that, and when you’re not acting like an ass I’m sure they all appreciate that you feel that way. Except when you’re resentful and suspicious when people try to help. Except when you’re insisting that you have the right to know everyone’s weaknesses but you don’t want anyone to be able to take advantage of yours, because you’re so completely sure that everyone is going to go bad except you. Why would these people start abusing their power? They’re doing the same job you are, for the same reason - because it’s the right thing to do.”

Superman stubborned up again. “Anyone can go bad, sometimes without meaning to. What about what you just did, you…well, I’m really not sure what you did, or how you got through to the…to Dr. Holland. What if you hadn’t been trying to help him, though? If you start abusing your power and nobody knows how to stop you, what then?”  

“Mine doesn’t work that way, and my friends trust me to be responsible with it even though they don’t entirely understand it.” Max shook his head again. “If I was going to abuse mine, though…you know, you’re not even anywhere close to the front of that line and neither are any of them, so don’t worry about it.”

That apparently wasn’t good enough for Superman. “Who is at the front of that line, then?”

Max didn’t answer him, he just raised both hands in surrender, turned and walked away; Superman might have tried to hold him back, but Blue appeared and the two of them vanished before he could. “That would be his parents,” Tony said. He was furious. “They refused to even come to the wedding when he got married. Second in line would probably be his sister, who’s such a bitch that marrying her off to a supervillain would be cruel and unusual punishment - for the supervillain.”

“And third would be Nick Fury,” Steve said quietly. “The man who thinks his husband should never have been born…and says so to his face.”

Superman’s eyes had gone wide. “He’d kill his family?”

“No, he would take away their free will.” Wonder Woman shook her head. “He does not go home to visit, does he?”

Clint shook his head back. “Nope, never - they even asked once, recently, and he wouldn’t go. He loves them, he wants them to love him back. He says he can’t trust himself, he’s afraid the temptation would be too great.”

“It would be for me as well,” she agreed, and did not quite roll her eyes when Superman gave her a look of disbelief. “Please. I have the power to compel truth, do you think I have never feared I would use it unjustly? And do you think I have never been tempted?” She raised an eyebrow. “I am tempted right now, but perhaps that would not be an injustice at all. Your behavior is a danger to the rest of the League, and it makes no sense. Perhaps we should find out why this is so?”

“I’m more powerful than the rest of you.”

“Ooh, and there’s another road you don’t want to go down,” Tony warned him. “We ran into a me in another universe who went there, he played that card and the rest of the group cut ties with him. Bad shit ensued. These people,” he said, indicating the rest of the Justice League, “are not backup fighters or your support staff, they are your teammates, your allies. And yes, no matter how powerful you are, you do need allies. What if someone comes along who knows how to defeat you? Or what if you get compromised again?”

Green Arrow rolled his eyes. “Half the planet knows the main method, his arch-enemy saw to that. And Batman’s supposedly had a handful of just-in-case plans tucked away somewhere since before the League was formed, as I understand it.”

“You know, I’m not surprised.” Tony leveled a finger at Superman. “There you go, that’s your first job right there: Make sure Batman knows you appreciate the fact that if you get compromised he’ll be there to limit the damage you can do - sit down and discuss it with him so the two of you are on the same page.”

“Don’t go there,” Bruce ordered mildly when Superman started to open his mouth to protest that; he’d changed back, and standing there in just his knee-length uniform pants he looked disturbingly vulnerable next to all of the other armed and armored superheroes. He pointed at Tony. “He does that for me. We sit down and discuss it. We even joke about it.”

“You do have to keep your sense of humor about it,” Steve agreed. He rolled his eyes at the look. “It’s there, you just can’t see it unless you know what to look for. I’m the same as Bruce, I just don’t get big and turn green - I basically turn into you, just meaner and without the stick up my ass.”

“Hey!” Steve raised an eyebrow, and Superman made a face. “Okay, yeah, I’ll give you that one. My girlfriend says that sometimes too.”

 

In odd, mostly unnoticed places around the planet, something was happening. Here a community garden that had been struggling started to thrive, somewhere else tough grasses sprouted from the eroding banks of a watering hole, preventing it from drying out any further. In damaged cities, neglected parks greened and brightened. In dying grasslands, dormant seeds sprouted, reaching bold green leaves toward the sun. In dry gray forests, mosses and mushrooms erupted in the shadows, quietly beginning the process of returning richness to over-cleared soil.  

And in the bowels of Arkham Asylum, a scuffed white tile cracked, the sound sharp in the cool air. The red-haired woman who had been lying on the cot sat up, looking around for the source of the noise. Movement caught her eye, the tile cracked a little more and a thin tendril of green snaked out, tip curling into a tight spiral. She touched it with her finger, but drew back quickly when a little thorn appeared at the point of contact.

Poison Ivy smiled. He hadn’t forgiven her…but he hadn’t forgotten her, either.

 

When Max and Blue reappeared back inside the Batcave, and Bruce immediately stood up to put his hand on Max’s shoulder. “I understand,” he assured the upset younger man. “You aren’t the only one who has a line they don’t dare let themselves cross.”

“You aren’t,” John agreed, joining them. “Or power they don’t dare use to its fullest. Unless the last trump is soundin’, of course.”

Max hugged him, then hugged Bruce, and a vague, jangling tension in the air eased somewhat. “That silence we’re all about to hear after the current storm is something sucking in a breath to blow that horn,” he warned quietly, pulling back. “That’s all I can tell you, though. Stay in communication with Alec, he can reach me if he needs to. Oh, and I kind of volunteered you to help him create an app.”

Bruce chuckled. “I can do that. It’ll give me something to work on while my leg heals - Tony did so much of the work I had laying around that I don’t have anything left to tinker with.”

That made Max smile. “He’s bad about that. I’m going to go make sure no mobs form downtown, then I’ll be back - I think it’s about time for the portal to open back up.”

“You have about half an hour,” Bruce confirmed. “Be careful.”

“Always.”

The tall man and his demon cat disappeared again, and Bruce eased himself back down into his chair and took another look at the monitors. Superman had already taken off, of course, but the rest of the superheroes were discussing and hugging and back-slapping prior to going their own separate ways. J'onn J'onzz appeared to take a few people back to the Watchtower and ended up taking Tony and Dr. Richards too, presumably to give them a quick tour. Dr. Strange seemed to be explaining to Zatana how he’d destroyed the reapers, Wonder Woman was taking selfies with Captain America, and Hawkeye and Green Arrow were apparently comparing their ‘scores’ in a good-natured way that had gotten several other people around them to teasingly join in. Bruce smiled. Even if he’d been out there he probably wouldn’t have been joining in on the fun…but seeing it gave him hope he hadn’t felt in a while.

 

The portal opened right on time half an hour later, and several of the people Bruce had seen before were there…as well as one he hadn’t, a compactly-built man wearing glasses who looked too worried to be anything but someone’s husband. The man brightened up considerably when he saw Max, who…well, Bruce knew he had a sappy smile on his face, but he didn’t care because getting to share even a little bit of that much love was worth it. The feeling faded when Max went through the portal, but the memory of it was there, a warm spot in the center of his chest. On the other side of the portal Blue was jumping on the smaller man to demand ear scratches, and then Max handed him the flower and a hug happened, and then both of them waved before getting out of the way so everyone else could come through.

Tony shook hands before stepping back into his suit, but he kept his visor open, pausing to give Bruce a concerned look. “I don’t know what to tell you,” he said. “We may have managed to screw the guy’s head back on a little straighter…but honestly, I’m not counting on it lasting. He’s just going to keep sticking it up his ass, Bruce.”

Bruce nodded. “Unfortunately, that’s exactly what his problem is - I think it might have been genetic on Krypton, because I’ve met his adoptive mother and there’s no way it’s her fault.”

“In the stories in our universe, his adoptive parents were amazing people who raised him to be a good man,” Tony agreed. “Hopefully he’ll grow up and start working with the rest of you one of these days. If he doesn’t get there in time, though…call us, we’ll come back.”

“I’ve got the generator schematics Dr. Richards gave me in a safe place,” Bruce said. “Take care, Tony.”

“You too, Bruce. Maybe once things have settled down everywhere, you can come visit us - our base is on an island, it’ll be a vacation.”

“I might just take you up on that.”

Steve went through last - even a few more seconds of having a lynchpin in place might help - and reiterated Tony’s warning. “Don’t hesitate to call us if you need us, especially if the Darkseid guy today’s bad guy kept invoking shows up,” he said. “That might be another name for Thanos. And if you aren’t able to call, I’m pretty sure Dr. Holland can get hold of Max.” He smiled and shook his head when both Bruce’s and John’s eyebrows went up. “My wife is something called a truth-hearer. She couldn’t tell me what she knows…but she found a way to show me.”

John goggled at him. “You married a truth-hearer? On purpose?”

Steve laughed and slapped him on the shoulder. “It’s actually pretty great - I never have to explain myself. Probably wouldn’t work for a lot of people, though.”

“No, probably not.” The two men did feel something change, like reality losing a little bit of stability, when the seemingly younger man went through the portal, and then everyone waved and it shut down. Bruce sighed. “Well, that was interesting.”

“And a half,” John agreed. He sat back down, and then he did something that made the air around them hum - a magical privacy shield to prevent eavesdropping. “We need to make some contingency plans for pullin’ someone’s perfectly-coiffed head out of his ass again, Bruce. Because I’m not entirely sure, but I think if he’d gotten just a little bit more aggressive with Max, Dr. Holland might have killed him.”

Bruce’s eyebrows went up. “You think…”

“No, I’m pretty sure I know - it’s the same reason he wasn’t fast enough to stop Max from walkin’ away from him. Pull up the video of their confrontation.” Bruce did, and John paused it and then zoomed in on the ground beneath Superman’s red-booted feet. “See that ‘grass’ creepin’ up through the asphalt? It’s glowin’.”

Bruce nodded slowly. “We’ll make plans. We’ll even ask Dr. Holland to help us - I need to talk to him anyway, get some more details about the app he’d like me to make…”