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Around the Worlds

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Once the Avengers Initiative had everything as sorted out as it was going to get - island base set up, portal generator working perfectly, security locked down - it was time to get back to work saving the world. Or worlds, rather. In between bouts of saving their own, of course.

They started with a ‘near’ world, and so nobody was too surprised when the person they connected with was another Tony Stark. Tony waved at himself. “Hey, glad to see I’m not fat or bald.”

The other Tony slowly sat back in his chair. “Ditto, I guess. Jarvis…”

“It appears to be a trans-dimensional portal, sir. I do not advise going through it.”

“Wasn’t planning on it - I’m already there, anyway.” He raised an eyebrow. “Do you…”

“He does, sir,” portal-side Jarvis answered. “I see you have not upgraded the speakers in the mansion for optimum sound quality. Shall I send the specifications to my other self?”

“Jarvis is getting spoiled,” portal-side Tony told his double. “We…inherited a new base that has a kick-ass sound system. You can have the specs if you want.”

“Sure, go ahead.” The eyebrow stayed up. “So, to what do I owe the trans-dimensional Skype call?”

“You may have a major bad guy coming,” Tony told him. “Asshole that’s trying to take over the multiverse, apparently, and it’s possible he’s already got agents in place.”

“Oh, him.” Other Tony waved it off. “Yeah, we had a team of Space Avengers show up a while back to tell us about Thanos. Big purple dude, apparently he really really wants to get his hands on a full set of Infinity Stones so he can declare himself god-emperor of the universe or something like that.”

“I haven’t heard about stones,” Tony told him. “Here he has a bunch of camouflaged alien killers infiltrating the planet, and he sent a witch and her brother from yet another dimension over to take out me and the other Avengers and sundry in one big swoop.”

His double appeared a little startled by that. “Wait, you and…the other Avengers? They’re all there, with you?”

Tony sat forward. “What happened?”

Other Tony made a face. “I did, unfortunately. Long, stupid story. Short version: I said some things I shouldn’t have, to the press. Things snowballed, Rogers gathered up the rest of them and enacted some contingency plans nobody knew he had to keep everyone safe. They work with me if it’s necessary, but we aren’t exactly buddies.”

“Because they don’t trust you.” Tony was nodding. “Yeah, I can see how that could happen. Pepper?”

Other Tony grinned. “We got married last year. You?”

“Still living in sin, but I’m working on it. Space Avengers?”

“A mostly human guy who got abducted from here when he was a kid, a green assassin woman a la Star Trek, a big green guy with red tattoos, a talking raccoon, and a tree.” Other Tony rolled his eyes. “A really sarcastic tree. It gave Rogers a twig because it decided he was lonely - which he was - so now he has a tiny little sarcastic tree all his own.” He made a face. “Ooh, I’ve got one. Have you guys found Bucky yet?”

“Yeah, he’s here. The thing the witch did to us deprogrammed him, then Steve and the new kids broke him out of SHIELD’s secret underground dungeon.”

Another face. “I wish that had happened to the one here. He seems to be doing okay now, though, he lives in the Bat Cave with the rest of them…oh, and he and Barton are an item. Did you know Barton was deaf?”

Tony shook his head. “I know ours isn’t, he has ears like a fucking bat. He’s also married and has a kid. Your Barton is gay?”

“Apparently it was him and Coulson until SHIELD resurrected Coulson from the dead and decided to delete all the parts of him they didn’t like while they were at it. ‘They’ being the HYDRA part of SHIELD - you know, the Nazis?” Tony nodded. “Yeah. Fury was ignoring it, what they’d turned the guy into, but it finally got bad enough that I went and had a talk with him. According to Jarvis he went out the next week, picked up Rogers from work, and went to take care of the problem…and now the Avengers won’t let him anywhere near Rogers and they’ll just barely work with SHIELD. When Fury wants to talk to them, they send Thor.”

Tony tried, he really did…but he just had to snicker. “Tell me you’ve managed to record those meetings.”

Other Tony snickered too. “Of course I have - they do try to keep me in the loop for the important stuff, but it’s better to keep myself in. The first time Thor showed up wearing Saville Row and Italian leather shoes I thought Fury was going to wet himself.”

“Thor was wearing a suit?” Reed stretched his head around so he could see in the portal. “Here he wears flannel shirts and blue jeans, Johnny calls it lumberjack couture.” Other Tony’s eyes widened. “Oh, sorry. I’m not in your universe?”

“You’re in New York,” Other Tony told him. “You guys work with the Avengers. And you’ve publicly stated that you think I’m egotistical and completely unacceptable as a role model.” He cocked his head. “You know, there was an incident - from what Rogers says it wasn’t an isolated one - you had with Dr. Doom. He’s…well, hot for you?”

Reed colored up a little. “Apparently he was, yes. Ours appears to have moved on now, we haven’t had any more…incidents like that since Sue got pregnant with Toby.”

Other Tony frowned. “Hmm. I’m not sure the you here can have kids - at least, you guys don’t have any here. Since we found out about the Thanos thing and a bunch of other stuff that had been going on, though, they may have just decided to hold off until it was safer.” He cocked an eyebrow. “Wait, did you build this portal thingy or did I?”

“I did,” Reed confirmed. “And I’m not the only one of me who did so. The next time you speak to the me there, warn him from me-here that the portals are inherently unstable unless he can find a way to modulate and filter the generator’s quant-ion output. Tony was the one who solved that problem with mine, so if my double wants a stable portal generator the two of you may have to learn to work together.”

“Hmm. And when it’s unstable?”

“Johnny compared the result to a television show called Sliders.”

Other Tony winced. “Crap. So when it’s stable?”

“Still dangerous, but you’re going to need Bruce and Stephen for that part,” portal-side Tony told him. “Between the two of them they should be able to create the bio-filter you need to keep anything nasty from coming through.”

Other Tony cocked his head. “Stephen?”

“Crap. You don’t have the Sorcerer Supreme there?”

Other Tony’s eyes bulged, just a little. “Sorcerer?”

“Sorcerer.” Tony made a face. “Double crap, I bet that means no magic. Okay, in that case, get with your Space Avenger buddies on that if your Reed makes a portal generator, okay? Bruce should be able to figure out the parameters for the shield, but he had no way to make it stick to the portal - and we have a fail-safe on this room, too. Ours are sealed with magic, you’re probably going to have to use tech.”

Other Tony was looking grimmer now. “Sounds like you already know something bad is out there.”

Reed nodded. “I’m not the only one of me doing it…and one of me is extremely careless. Several worlds he visited were infected by a necrovirus which even Steve’s enhanced immune system couldn’t defeat.”

“It’s a zombie plague,” Tony elaborated. “Possibly cooked up by Thanos as a going away present for one of the Earths where we beat him.”

“Of course he’s a sore loser, of course he is.” Other Tony pinched the bridge of his nose. “Okay, if you have Thor, you had Loki, am I right? Because if you had the blue cube…here that had one of the Infinity Stones in it. Just one has enough power to blow up a galaxy, and there are apparently only a few races of beings in the whole universe who can touch one of them and live - Star Lord, the kid who was abducted, his daddy was one of those. The suit won’t protect you,” he warned portal-side Tony. “We’re hooked into the suit’s power because of the arc reactor, we’d get fried if we tried to pick one up, but anyone else can do it with a pair of ice tongs and they’ll be just fine.”

Tony was nodding. “So even if the Stones are unique to your universe, it’s possible we could see some here because Thanos is collecting them. Do we know what he wants them for, other than destructive power and hoarding issues?”

“Worse than that,” Other Tony said. “They fit into a gauntlet, sort of like ours only a lot gaudier. If he can get them all in it…well, he basically becomes God and we’re all screwed.”

“Not going to let it get that far,” Tony assured him. “The other versions of our Sorcerer Supreme twigged to this problem a while back and started hopping around the multiverse trying to head it off, and now that we have a safe, stable portal generator we’re pitching in to help.” He made a face. “There’s something else, but I’m not sure they’d believe you. Got your phone?” Other Tony held it up. “Video call them so I can tell them myself. You guys have trust issues, they might not listen to you-me but they might to me-me, right?”

“Right.” Other Tony made a call. “Hello to you too…well, sort of. Guess who just called me from another universe?” He turned the phone around. “Say hi to the me who managed to keep his natural impulse to fuck things up under control.”

On the palm-sized screen, Steve Rogers rolled his eyes but didn’t comment. “Okay, that’s…a different you. You called Iron Man?”

“I called me,” portal-side Tony corrected him, even though he hadn't actually 'called' himself on purpose; the portal had a magical finding function layered over the controls which would open it in front of whoever was best-suited to help. “We’re making sure everyone knows about the Thanos situation, someone clued us in a while back and we just now got Reed’s portal generator working so we could pay it forward. Your me has all the details I could give him - we can’t keep the portal open too long, it might attract some bad attention - but there’s something you specifically need to know. Is Thor around?” Steve held the phone farther away, and he saw that pretty much everyone was around. “Okay, that…fuck, I knew we’d be seeing a lot of ourselves doing this, but that is just creepy. Anyway, Thor, since you guys don’t have a sorcerer there that I can pass this on to…do you know what a lynchpin is?” Thor nodded, and Tony pointed. “Steve is one. The way the Sorcerer Supreme who helped us explained it, that means that if you lose him too soon or in the wrong way, you’ve lost the last war. Does that make sense to you?”

Thor nodded again, and clapped a hand on his Captain America’s tense shoulder. “Far too much sense, yes. It would explain much of what has gone on. Had this sorcerer any advice to give?”

Tony shook his head. “Just don’t let SHIELD kill him.” He locked eyes with the other Steve Rogers. “Steve…this isn’t something you have to do anything about, okay? I asked. Just keep doing your thing, it will all work out.”

The other Clint Barton - thinner and somewhat blonder than theirs - chuckled. “You really do know him.”

“We’re good friends, yeah. Which is a good thing, since we all live together on an island for security reasons. Our Steve pops back over to New York to do his tour bus shtick in Brooklyn a few times a week, though. The Army never did get his pension worked out.”

That made the other Steve’s worried blue eyes widen with disbelief. “He’s a tour guide?! I thought I got enough of that on the USO circuit.” He answered the raised eyebrow with a shrug. “I’m with Ladder 196 here, FDNY.”

Reed stretched back into view. “I can see that being a good job for you too. I should suggest it to Johnny.” 

The Steve on the other side of the portal quirked a smile. “He’d be a natural, that’s for sure. Our Johnny volunteers sometimes if we need to check a structure that’s too hot to get in.” His blue gaze swung back to Tony. “You know SHIELD is not your friend, right?”

“Oh believe me, we know,” Tony assured him. “Our Steve has come close to killing Fury a couple of times already. I would have even helped him that last time - bastard was spying on his wedding, we had it at the mansion.”

That seemed to surprise him. “Your me is married?”

“Yes, to me.” Josie scooted her chair into view - she’d been off to one side, out of view and silently monitoring the conversation - and gave him a little wave. “Hi, I’m Josie. He met me at a friend’s wedding and we hit it off.” His eyes widened again, and she patted her protruding stomach. “Yes, he did this. Now where’s your baby tree friend, I want to see it - I don’t think we have the Space Avengers here in our universe.”

Steve rolled his eyes again. “They’re actually called the Guardians of the Galaxy, only Tony calls them the Space Avengers.” A little head poked over his shoulder, big liquid black eyes looking right at her. “This is Groot. To us they’re all named Groot, all of their species, because their language is…complicated.”

The little creature nodded vigorously at that, climbing the rest of the way up so it could sit on his shoulder, and piped, “I am Groot!”

Josie’s mouth fell open. “Oh my god, you aren’t kidding.” Tony and Reed were both giving her a look, and she shook her head. “That…it’s hard to explain, but he just told me all about it.”

“Yeah, it’s really hard to explain,” Clint agreed. He tapped his ear at the questioning looks. “My hearing aids double as translators. Is your Clint…” Tony shook his head. “Huh, weird.”

“We’re actually fairly close to you, dimensionally speaking,” Reed chimed in. “So most of the differences are probably minor. As we go farther afield I’m sure that will change.” This time he raised an eyebrow at Steve. “Your version of me, he is…responsible?”

“Very,” Steve assured him, echoed by Bruce. “Some of you aren’t?”

“At least one of me isn’t, no.” Reed picked up what looked like a bound technical manual and carefully fed it into the portal, giving it a little flick with his finger to make it fall through to the other side. “There, that has all the information we have to give you in it, and the technical schematics for the portal generator. Tell him I said to be extremely careful…but I think all of you might need it.” He pulled back, checked something. “Ten seconds, Tony.”

“Other me?” Tony pulled back the phone, looking around it. “Hang in there, dude. And congratulations on beating me to it. I’ll try to convince her again this weekend. ”

The portal shut down. On the other side, Tony Stark sat back in his chair, turning his phone around. “Jarvis, please tell me you got all of that.”

“I have recorded it, sir.”

“Good, good. Put this call up in the conference room, please.” He picked up the manual and walked down the hall into said room, dropping into a chair. “Well, I don’t know what to say. I’ll get this copied for everyone, but I don’t think we should trust it to the mail or even a courier.”

“I agree.” Steve was giving him a very thoughtful look; so was Groot, but then Groot always looked kind of like that to Tony. “It sounds like they all had to move to a secure location. Thanos?”

“Thanos sent someone to attack them, and then a sorcerer from yet another dimension stepped in and bailed them out, told them what was going on. They have magic there, one of the guys on their team is called the Sorcerer Supreme. And the reason they were so worried about whether our Reed Richards is responsible is because the one that isn’t spread a necrovirus through several Earths he visited using his portal generator. A necrovirus they think was created by Thanos to wipe out the heroes that beat him on yet another Earth.”

Steve’s eyes went wide. “So even if we drive him off…”

“The war won’t be over,” Tony said. “Constant vigilance is about to become everybody’s middle name around here.” He ran a hand through his hair. “Oh hell, this is gonna be bad. SHIELD?”

“I wouldn’t trust Fury as far as the Other Guy could throw him,” Bruce said. “He’s got surveillance on the Baxter Building, round the clock, and eventually he’s going to find us and do the same thing - he already watches everyone when they’re at work.”

“Yeah, the Chief is about ready to turn a hose on the one he has watching the ladder,” Steve concurred. “He’s watching the Tower too, but those guys are in a whole different class. We think they’re not just there to watch, they’re also there to protect Pepper.”

Tony couldn’t help it, his jaw set. “I wouldn’t doubt it, because I know he likes her, but that probably also means he knows something we don’t - something he hasn’t been sharing.”

“Sharing is not the way of a man such as Fury,” Thor intoned. “I agree, however. When I have spoken with him, it is apparent that he is hiding many things, and choosing his words with care so as not to give more information than he wishes us to have.”

“Or in other words, the bastard’s gonna end up getting us all killed,” Clint said bluntly. “And probably a lot of other people, too.”

“Yeah, possibly.” Tony thought for a minute. “Okay, do you guys all want to come here, or should I come to New York?”

“We’ll come out there,” Steve told him. “We’ll be on our way as soon as we can get the Quinjet cleared for takeoff. Take every precaution for your own safety until we get there, Tony.” When that appeared to startle the other man, he rolled his eyes. “You know, even I don’t hold a grudge that long. Yes, you fucked up, but I never did think you did it on purpose, or with malice. So in light of the situation we all just found out we’re in…I have a plan, okay? And I’m going to trust you with it, you’re going to be part of it, just…don’t let me down again, please?”

It took Tony a minute to find his voice. “I’ll do my damnedest not to, Steve.”

Steve smiled at him. “That’s good enough for me.”

Chapter Text

They had to spread out their ‘visits’ to other universes so nobody would pick up on a regular signal and get suspicious, interspersed with the regular heroing that had to be done around their own Earth and just, well, living their lives. And they’d mostly all agreed that the spaced-out schedule was for the best anyway, because seeing themselves over and over again but different in an ever-changing variety of ways was…well, sometimes it was disturbing. Especially to Clint, who had started getting pretty upset about the number of universes where he was gay. “Not a single one!” he complained. “So far, we haven’t seen a single one where I’m straight. And the fact that in most of those I was doin’ Coulson is just creepy.”

“It’s just the section we’re in,” Stephen reassured him. “If we’d gone a different direction, we’d probably have gotten you being consistently deaf, or Tony being consistently an alcoholic, or Reed being consistently a careless asshole.” Reed stuck out his tongue at him for that. “Oh stop, you know multiple versions of that you is out there - remember the one who’d gotten his Steve stranded on the other side of an unstable portal for two years? But the fact that most of the yous we’re seeing are responsible if varyingly absentminded should be reassuring.”

“Yeah, I’ve been varying degrees of an asshole in more than one of them,” Tony pointed out. “Moreso than I normally would be on a bad day here, anyway. I’m surprised none of those Steves have killed me yet.”

“That’s probably because a good third of those mes are sleeping with those yous,” Steve said. “And you don’t have any complaints, Clint, because in almost all of them those mes had at some point also been sleeping with Bucky. Who’s been like my brother for most of my life, so I have more reason to be weirded out than you do.”

“Point,” Clint conceded. “Tip the bottle up, Steve, you’re gonna give her gas.”

“Oops.” Steve tipped up the bottle his weeks-old infant daughter was sucking hungrily at. “You eat like Daddy, little piggy.”

“They all eat like that,” Clint told him, patting his son’s back where the toddler was sleeping on his chest. The childrens’ respective mothers were on the mainland with Sue, having a mini mothers' day out while they shopped for baby supplies. “I guess it’s not just weird for us, though. I’ve noticed a lot of the other us’s were just blown away by the idea that some of us are married and have kids. Although the Tony, Bruce and Steve we found building a base on that tropical island looked kind of intrigued.”

“So did the version of me two trips back with all the tattoos who’s married to that immortal fighter guy and running a diner in the middle of nowhere,” Steve said. “I hope they go for it, I think those two would make great parents.”

“I agree,” Stephen said. “Although it was disconcerting to see the King of Hell pop in to check out the portal and then stay for pie because he’s a friend of the family.”

“The me there called to check, too,” Tony reminded him, grimacing just a little. “Because he’s too old and beat-up to travel, apparently.”

“Their Tony probably has twenty years on you,” Clint reminded back. “And it sounded like he’d lived a lot harder than you, too. It was interesting that I’d been standin’ in for him with the suit over there, though. I’m not sure I’d be up for that here unless we didn’t have any other options.”

“I wasn’t in that universe,” Reed said. “Or the one after that.  We may be hitting a point where things will start to diverge more. And remember that man from three or four universes back, the one with the metal claws? He was in one of the necrovirus universes Sue and Johnny and I saw.”

“So we may also be hitting a point close to where the Witch got started,” Tony said. “Because the only way she could have showed it to you was if she’d seen it.”

“I wouldn’t say close,” Stephen cautioned. “‘Close’ is extremely relative when you’re talking about the multiverse. But we may be entering an area where that pattern showed up. Although I do think the last universe without the Fantastic Four might have been the original one where one of me popped in to fix things. Remember what they said he told them, about their universe continuing?”

“Yeah, which he managed to do by gettin’ someone to take the serum from their Steve to keep Fury from usin’ him anymore.” Clint shook his head. “That was so fucked up. Our Fury can be bad, but that was about ten levels past the point where he’d stop.”

“Five,” Steve corrected. “Maybe six at the outside. The only reason it never got that bad here was because I’m not actually immortal - quite a few of these other mes have been, remember? And in that one universe where Dum-Dum was still around…well, that one had the Fantastic Four in it, and in a lot of other ways it was really similar to this one.”

“Yeah, that was one of the few places where I wasn’t sleepin’ with Coulson.” Clint snorted. “I liked that universe, I was happy to be a part of it.”

“Yeah, I wasn’t an asshole in that one either,” Tony agreed. “I still can’t believe Thor’s mom sent them an Asgardian warrior-woman to be their cook. I was actually getting love-handles over there, did you see that?”

“Wrong universe for me to be checking you out that closely,” Steve told him. “So, tomorrow we have to check back to see if the Avengers in that one portal-generator universe managed to get away from SHIELD, right? And then we’re back to letting Jarvis pick the next mathematically-likely universe to visit?”

“Correct, Captain,” Jarvis said. “And if you would tip the bottle up more, the baby would experience less digestive upset after her feeding.”

Steve rolled his eyes…but he did tip the bottle back up.    

 

The next day was a somewhat bad day, because the universe they’d been checking up on had apparently fallen; the portal wouldn’t even open there. And so a week later nobody was feeling very optimistic, and Max joined them in the portal-room to make sure they ‘didn’t contaminate another universe with existential dread’. “You make contact looking like the world ended and they’re going expect it to,” he said. “We’re already the bearers of bad news.”

“True,” Reed agreed; he’d originally opposed allowing Max to improve the general mood in the room, but once it was done he’d had to admit it had been the right call. And when the portal opened up into the next universe on their list, he was sure it had been. Adding more bad vibes to this particular universe would have been beyond cruel, from the looks of it.

The room on the other side of the portal looked like it had seen better days, and so did the man who started upright in his chair when the portal opened. “What…oh. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that you decided to help, should I?” He waved a shaking hand at the dilapidated disarray around him. “As you can no doubt see, though, we’re pretty much beyond that point now.”

“You’re losing?” Tony asked, and grimaced when the fashionable-not-flamboyant version of Dr. Strange nodded tiredly. “They couldn’t pull it together.”

“Oh, they tried,” the sorcerer said. “But there were too many powerful hands invested in keeping them pulled apart.  Captain America is dead, via treachery no less, and his shield passed to a friend of his who luckily for all of us was worthy to bear it. That incident made Stark realize he’d been backing the wrong side and it nearly destroyed him, so some days he’s a help and some days he’s…not. SHIELD is a rogue agency now, and they’re absolutely running amok - and the blame for half of everything they do falls on the ‘rogue’ Avengers. The world is going straight to hell all around me, and there’s nothing I can do about it because too many people actively want it to be that way.” He rubbed his eyes. “I’m glad I was able to help save your universe, because I’m not able to do a damn thing with mine.”

“Sounds like someone needs some cheering up,” Max said, standing up. “Blue!” The glowing demon-cat popped into being beside him, and he ruffled her fur. “Come on, girl, let’s go visit our friend Dr. Strange.”

Tony raised an eyebrow. “Max?”

Max shook his head. “He’s lost hope - probably they all have. I might be able to fix that for them. And I don’t exist in their universe, so I’m the only person who can go. Re-open the portal in ten minutes so Blue doesn’t have to teleport me home through the Netherworld, okay?”

“Be careful,” Reed warned. “They might have been infiltrated.”

“I’m almost sure they have been. Ten minutes,” Max repeated, and then he and Blue stepped through the portal. “Well crap, you guys have really let this place go…”

Reed shut down the portal, shaking his head when Tony raised an eyebrow. “He must have seen something we didn’t. If he’s not there when we open it again, though, I’ll go in and get him myself - I don’t believe I exist in that universe either.”

“Neither does Steve, apparently.” Tony made a face. “Jarvis, tell Stephen to get down here, and Blake and Steve too. I want some people we know aren’t over there ready in case we need to go in and get him.”

“You won’t.” Stephen was already standing in the doorway. “I doubt he’ll go very far from the portal. What…”

“Your very helpful doppelganger from before,” Tony told him. “He looked like death warmed over, their Steve is dead, and their me is apparently off the track as much as he’s on it. Is there anything…”

“Probably not, except for what I’m going to assume Max is doing,” Stephen said. He sat down in the chair Max had been using with a sigh. “How long?”

“He said ten minutes.”

“On their side, that’s more like half a day,” Stephen pointed out. “Which should be enough time to re-moralize the remaining troops, try to fix your doppleganger’s mental issues, and expose a few infiltrators. Maybe start them evacuating people to the Netherworld, if necessary. Blue can help the other me with that.”

 

Exactly ten minutes later, Reed opened the portal back up…and to his great relief, Max was standing right in front of it and immediately stepped through. “Close it up,” he said quietly. The room on the other side was even more wrecked than it had been before, and nobody else was in view. “Blue is staying with Dr. Strange for the time being, he needs the help. She’ll come home when they’re done.”

“Evacuating?” Tony asked, and Max nodded tiredly. “So they…lost?”

“Sort of, but not entirely. There’s still a chance they can regroup…maybe. If they all want it badly enough.”

“You’re not sure they do.” Max shook his head, and Reed sighed, stretching out a hand to pat his shoulder. “Well, that’s disheartening.”

“Tell me about it.” Max looked at Tony for a long moment, and then abruptly hugged him. “Please don’t ever go crazy,” he requested. “Please…please don’t.”

Tony had been unsure what to make of the sudden hug, but now he returned it. “Couldn’t fix him?” Max shook his head, and Tony tightened the hug himself before letting go. “I am a stubborn bastard sometimes. Not like that, though, not here. Where…”

“He sealed himself in his tower, which he somehow managed to ward against magic - Dr. Strange was still muttering to himself about that when I left, he says that’s all they need is ‘Stark mucking around with magic AND technology while he’s five bulbs short of a chandelier’.” That made Tony laugh in spite of himself, and Max smiled, shaking his head. “Yeah. Their Tony is safe in his tower, though, so everyone else is busy evacuating as best they can. Stephen, your other said to tell you he’s building a ward-fence around the spot they’re putting everyone in, and you would know what that means.”

“It means he’s closing it off magically so nobody wanders out into the Netherworld and gets lost.” Stephen stood up. “He’s…better?”

“No.” Max gave him a hug too. “If you’d seen what was going on over there you’d know why, too. Scarlet attacked and then infiltrated the way-too-forgiving group over there and then ‘accidentally’ triggered the shitstorm that got the governments of the world to insist on registering and/or hunting down all the supers. Which of course gave their Steve severe Nazi flashbacks, but their Tony liked the idea and so the group split right down the middle. Scarlet and her brother disappeared right after Steve was killed, I guess that was the trigger for Thanos to pull them out. Oh, and he’s apparently purple and looks kind of like Homer Simpson and Hellboy had a baby, I’m still not sure what to think about that.” Blake appeared in the doorway just then, Steve right behind him, and Max patted Stephen’s shoulder and went to join his husband. “Blue is visiting the other Dr. Strange for a while, Blake. He promised he won’t let her eat anyone she shouldn’t.”

“If she…she comes back with diarrhea again, he’s…he’s cleaning it up,” Blake said. “Done for the day? We can go…we can go sit on the beach.”

“Sounds good, except for the part where we’ll have to walk down there and back. Or will that count against leg day?”

“Yes.”

“I love walking, let’s go.”

The two men left, and Steve stepped into the room. The trail of sadness that had just flowed past him had been telling. “They lost?”

Tony nodded. “They lost and a half, from the sound of it. But on the bright side, Thanos is apparently a purple cartoon character we might be able to distract with donuts…”

Chapter Text

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…” 

Chapter Text

They did manage to hit some universes where Superman was pretty much the only superhero around, and weirdly he was a really nice guy in most of those and very grateful for the warning they were trying to pass on. The one universe they hit where Batman was the only superhero, though…well, Tony drank his dinner that night and Reed told Jarvis to just send through the warning and close the portal if they ever came upon that situation again. And unfortunately, the other universes they encountered which contained the Justice League were exponentially worse the farther into that section of the multiverse they went. In half of them the world was basically destroyed. In the other half, it was getting there. The supervillains were flat-out insane. The superheroes mostly couldn’t work together. Half of the superheroes had, at some point, also been considered supervillains or would probably end up being reclassified as supervillains later on. There was some intergalactic police force running around that wore power rings and could do almost anything, but half of them were either evil or seriously considering it. And then one of the yellow-suited ones had tried to use his ring to force his way through the portal, and the only thing that had stopped him was Jarvis calling in Max and Josie and Stephen because Tony, Reed and Clay had been too petrified with fear to move.

The general consensus after that was that universes with the Lantern Corps or anything like it were just going to have to handle their own problems, most of which appeared to be self-caused anyway. “Unfortunately, my research says they may also have kicked off the problems the rest of the multiverse is having,” Stephen said at their of-necessity all-hands-on-deck meeting the next day. “Someone was fucking around with time, and they believe they created the multiverse.”

Reed frowned - only partly because of the headache he still had. “That isn’t possible.”

“No, of course not. What I believe they actually did was contaminate other nearby universes, causing them to replicate patterns from their own. But because they believe it, they think those universes need to be merged back into one.”

Tony’s pallor became tinged with green. “That isn’t possible either. They’d destroy…” He trailed off at the look on the sorcerer's face. “They don’t care, do they?”

Stephen shrugged. “Power does tend to breed arrogance. And in this case, since they’re absorbing and physically manipulating intangible primordial powers, arrogance seems to be pretty much running the show over there. Those sections of the multiverse are already doomed, is what I’m saying. Because rumor has it they do have enough power built up to start the merging process, and all hell is going to break loose in those universes once they do. I’m talking dinosaurs rampaging through Times Square while World War I combat planes fight side by side with laser-weaponed spaceships to try to stop them. Wars breaking out because shifted borders are perceived as an invasion. People waking up one morning and realizing everyone they loved has ceased to exist because they’ve been shoehorned into their doppleganger’s life.”

“Will it stay confined to the contaminated area, though?” Reed swallowed. “If it doesn’t…”

“It won’t.” That came from Max, who had spent the better part of the previous day and night closeted with Stephen and Josie and looked like he hadn’t gotten much sleep. “It has to be stopped. That’s why…” He hesitated, clenching his fist for a moment before opening his fingers and holding up his hand. A round of gasps went around the room; his ring was visible, the pink-red stone glowing brightly. “That’s why these exist. There are five of them, one for each foundational primordial element. And those powers can be combined into something much greater than the sum of their parts.”

Stephen nodded. “Max is guarding one-fifth of the power of creation right now - he doesn’t have all of it, he only has access to a fraction of a fraction. And as the first one called, because his predecessor was the last one standing, it’s his responsibility to find and call the other four.”

“Which is probably why I was called,” Max said. “I was the only potential in a position where I could actually reach the others in time - or at all. My predecessor had been waiting…for a really long time.” Josie flinched, and he sighed. “We don’t know why nobody else was called before that. He didn’t know. I don’t know. This is just the way it worked out.”

“We do know why it’s no longer confined to one planet, though,” Stephen said. “An inter-dimensional problem requires an inter-dimensional solution. So we also know that anyone who’s called is going to be someone who has access to a way to hop from universe to universe - a portal generator, magic, something.”

“Should we be looking for these people?” Clay wanted to know.

Max shook his head. “I just…the ring sort of lets me know when it’s close to time,” he said. “And then it sort of pulls me to them.” He seemed to curl in on himself, just a little. “Actually, that may be another reason why things worked out the way they did. The rings have a connection to their elements, and since mine is the Ring of Heart...”

Stephen covered the younger man’s hand with his. “Max, that is not something to be ashamed of,” he said. “Your predecessor wasn’t.”

Max snorted. “Ma-Ti was all of eleven when he got the ring, Stephen. He was using it to charm animals so he could play with them.”

Jake sat bolt upright. “Ma-Ti?” Max nodded. “Oh holy shit. So on their planet, Gaia…”

“Was long dead by the time I got there,” Max said. “Their Earth was dying too. And Ma-Ti was…an old man, Jake.”

Josie winced again, and this time Steve put his arm around her. “So now Dr. Holland has the Ring of Earth.”

“He does. Next will be the Ring of Water.”

Tony drummed his fingers on the table. “What about the Infinity Stones, where do they factor in?”

“Oh, you’re…you’re gonna love this one,” Blake said. He’d been part of the extended emergency mini-meeting the day before as well, helping the other three to make some kind of cohesive sense out of the huge amounts of information they had to work with. “The same…same kind of cosmic idiots who created the Lantern rings made their own by…by condensing whole systems into ingots. And then they kept messing with them, trying to make them even more powerful.”

“Which they did,” Stephen said. “The difference, though, is that the Infinity Stones are pretty much only good for destroying things. Or rather, everything, at least when they’re uncontained - only a minuscule number of beings across the multiverse can touch one without being destroyed immediately, everyone else has to put them into something in order to use them.”

“Like a staff,” Thor said, making a face. “The staff my brother used when he came here the second time had been gifted to him by Thanos, it contained a portion of the power of the Stone of Mind.”

Clint jumped. “But, he touched people with it - he touched me with it!”

Thor nodded. “Yes. Had the Staff contained the entire stone, all of your minds would have ceased to be; you would have become unrecoverably enslaved to the wielder of the Stone, as would all others upon this planet with a single gesture. It is how Thanos gained control of the Chitauri. But Thanos does not trust his…minions with such power, as he knows they will inevitably attempt to betray him. He gives them toys to use as tools instead, and amuses himself with the havoc they wreak, all the while knowing he can call the power back to the Stone the moment they cease to be of use to him.”

“Okay, so he’s a sadistic megalomaniac, good to know,” Tony said. “Does he only have the one Stone right now?”

“He has two, possibly three,” Stephen said. “I…called someone. He’s an Elder, one of the oldest beings who exists in physical form, and he’s made it his life’s work to collect things like that so sadistic megalomaniacs don’t try to use them.”

“He also collects other things, including heroes and even some lynchpins,” Josie chimed in. “He’s not lying when he says he’s trying to protect them, but it’s not like he asked their permission before slapping them all into stasis, either. He’s scooped up ‘samples’ of different species as well, preserving them before they could be wiped out of existence.”

“Yes, and luckily he’s smart enough to keep the really important ones stored separately from his museum of dangerous artifacts,” Stephen said. “He had an Infinity Stone in his collection, the Reality Stone. Thanos came for it and…managed to get it away from him. By calling on the power of the Stone to reveal itself. Tivan is still shaken over that. Thanos is not one of the beings who can touch the Stones, he shouldn’t have been able to call the power that way.”

Clay swallowed. “So you’re saying Thanos is someone else’s minion playing with toys, is that it?”

“Yep.” Stephen sat back in his chair with a sigh. “Well, maybe. Nobody knows. Tivan doesn’t even know, and he knows half of everything.”

“Well, he knows something,” Josie said. “Something he can’t talk about, the same way Max can’t talk about his ring. The kind of knowledge that I can’t ‘hear’ when someone talks unless they want me to.” She considered for a moment, weighing what she could and couldn’t - shouldn’t - share. “He was delighted when he saw Max. And not in an acquisitive way.”

“He called me ‘Bearer’,” Max said. “Respectfully, even. And he said something about creation always rising through destruction, like plants growing up over the rubble of a destroyed city.”

“That was all he would say about it, though.” Stephen informed them before anyone could ask. “And I understand why. Just having knowledge of the Rings and the Bearers is so dangerous that I had to layer spells over this room before we called this meeting. Because you all needed to know what was going on, but we needed to make sure nobody could figure out you had the knowledge later because they would target you to get it - by any means necessary. So it can’t be read from your minds, can’t be forced out of you by other means, nothing. And you can only talk about it with someone else who knows, and then only if your location is completely secure from eavesdropping.”

Clay raised an eyebrow. “And you didn’t tell us about those precautions ahead of time because…”

“Because one of the layers was a detection spell,” Stephen said. “Our enemy has the Stone of Mind, Clay. In fact, later this afternoon I’m going to add that spell to every outer door in this building, and to the dock entrance - honestly, I’m kicking myself for not thinking of it months ago. Normally Skrulls wouldn’t play with power-infused items like that, they’re more than a little contemptuous of anything that smells like magic, but the sadistic control element to using power from the Stone of Mind would appeal to them on a different level.” Everyone looked at each other. “No, nobody here is compromised, thank goodness. Although we’ll need to have a second meeting after this one to discuss how to discretely check all of our allies.”

Elise leaned forward, sharing a look with Allison. “If any of them are compromised, can it be fixed?”

“Yes, and not by giving them a severe concussion the way Natasha did with Clint,” Stephen told her, which prompted a smirk from Natasha and a huff from Clint. “That discussion is for the second meeting, though. Does anyone have any questions we can answer about the Rings or the Bearers or the geis?”

The qualifier wasn’t lost on anyone. “I have one,” Ben rumbled. “What’s the power hierarchy between these things? Because you said the ‘power of creation’, but it took all three of you to kick that yellow bastard’s ass.”

“Well, not really,” Stephen said. “Jarvis called all three of us because it looked like a situation we were equipped to deal with, but Max didn’t need Josie and I to beat back the Yellow Lantern. I blocked the Lantern from physically entering the portal while Josie broke through the imposed fear on Reed so he could close it, Max is the one who…well, if what I think I saw before the portal shut down is correct, that man’s ability to wield the Power of Fear may be permanently broken along with his ring. Honestly, the fight only took as long as it did because Max isn’t used to fighting with another ring-holder and the Yellow Lantern was formally trained to do it.”

Ben raised a rocky eyebrow. “Okay, but you didn’t answer my question.”

Stephen shrugged. “Well, like Tivan said, creation always trumps destruction, but not always by stopping it. What I’m saying is yes, there’s a power hierarchy, but unless all five of the foundational primordial powers are combined they aren’t at the top of that pyramid.”

“Which is why the really big bad guys would do just about anything to keep them apart,” Jake said, and Max nodded; so did Josie and Stephen. “Because once there are five of them together…poof?”

“If that’s how you’d describe the Big Bang, then yes, ‘poof’,” Blake told him. “Still…still a fight. But one they know they’re going to lose in…in one way or another.”

The implications of that statement mostly ended the meeting, because nobody had much of anything else left to say. Except for Ben, who spoke up again as everyone was standing up. “So how do we protect Max?”

“You don’t,” Max told him in the dead silence that followed, although a little wave of affection rolled out that made Ben come as close as he was ever going to get to blushing; Sue and Johnny both hugged him. “If you tried, someone would notice that I was important and start trying to figure out why. You all absolutely have to keep treating me exactly the same way you have been, for everyone’s safety.”

“You do,” Josie echoed, making the truth of that statement settle in. “Not to mention, Max can take care of himself. And if he needs immediate backup that doesn’t look suspicious, he’s got the rest of the Kestrels and Blue.”

“Fury is suspicious already,” Tony warned. “But luckily he’s so fucking paranoid that he hasn’t shared his suspicions with anyone else. Him we’ll have to keep an eye out for, though, because he’s not nearly as subtle as he used to be. Stephen, are you sure…”

“I’m sure,” Stephen told him. “I think what the Witch did to him may have sped things up, and eventually his own people are going to notice the symptoms and he’s just going to disappear. Hopefully to a private care facility somewhere, but more than likely to a private hospital with a lab attached. Because after the initial exam to see how far the condition has progressed, there is no way someone won’t connect the dots and figure out he’s almost twice as old as he looks.”

“Then we should kidnap him before that happens,” Josie said, less as a statement and more as an answer to what he’d been thinking. “What they’d have to do to him to keep him from escaping…that’s inhuman. We can’t let that happen.”

Stephen nodded slowly. “There are places…we couldn’t keep him here on Earth, but there are places…elsewhere that wouldn’t have a problem with it, places where he’d be well taken care of. Which would also serve to keep his organization from tracking him down. Kidnapping him without having them figure out it was us, though…”

“We can use the Skrulls for that,” Todji said. “An illusion, not actual Skrulls, but with you doing it SHIELD won’t know the difference.”

The smiles Max and Josie both tried to hide said Stephen was probably going to reward his lover handsomely for that later. Clay was nodding. “And that would have the added benefit of forcing SHIELD to start working with everyone else when it comes to the current issue - although I thought losing three-quarters of their people in Hong Kong would have done that too, so maybe not. When this afternoon, Stephen?”

“I need a few hours, and possibly a nap, too. You guys can start figuring out approaches without me, though, since all I have to do is give you the detector spell and instructions on how to fix any problems you might find.”

“I already know how to approach Trench,” Elise said. “Do you feel like ice cream, Allison?”

Allison smiled. “I always feel like ice cream. I’ll bring Seth, that way it looks like we’re introducing them.”

“Good thinking.”

Everyone trickled out of the meeting room, some more reluctantly than others, but as soon as the last person was through the door Max’s smile faded away and a tense, sharp feeling filled the mostly-empty room. “Stephen, you’re sure the geis will work?”

“Positive. If anyone had been resistant or compromised, they’d have been pinned to the wall like a fly on flypaper.”

“Yeah, I just…” Max shook his head. “You know why I’m worried.”

“I know,” Stephen assured him. “But you know they were safer knowing what was going on, Max. After the incident with that Yellow Lantern, we had to tell them.”

“Because now the Lanterns know the power that can put an end to…to all the bullshit is on its way back,” Blake said. “There’s no way they aren’t going to spread that information to everyone they can to try…to try to head it off.”

“True.” Max gave him a hug. “Want to go down to the beach? I need to see the sun for a while, but I don’t want…people right now.”

“Sure.” Blake put his arm around his husband’s waist. “It’ll…it’ll be okay, Max. Come on, let’s get Blue and go for…go for a walk.”

Stephen lingered in the room by himself for a moment after the two younger men left, thinking dark thoughts. He’d learned more than he’d bargained for from Tivan about what was going on, much of it from the information the man had allowed Josie to read from him. Tivan was frightened, and with good reason.

Things were much, much worse than Stephen and his other selves had originally thought.