Arc 1: Invasion
- a person who attacks cherished beliefs or institutions.
- a destroyer of images used in religious worship, in particular.
Etymology: mid 17th century, via medieval Latin from ecclesiastical Greek eikonoklastēs, from eikōn ‘likeness’ + klan ‘to break.’
Prologue: What Came Before
March 19th, 20xx
Excerpt from the Metro Tattler, sensationalist tabloid based out of Metropolis.
LUTHOR MAGNATE SINKS MILLIONS INTO PROTECTION PROGRAM
The secret is out, ladies and gentlemen, and we’re bring it to you first: billionaire Lex Luthor, Superman's on again off again rival, and metropolitan man about town has once again tried to one-up the Man of Steel in his bid to protect our planet . . . and this time, he may have done it.
According to government websites that have since been taken down (one screenshot pictured below) Luthor has channeled hundreds of millions of dollars over the past year into a shadowy National Defense program, that when asked directly by yours truly, no government official will acknowledge the existence of. The most even my best informed contacts will admit to is that, “There was a movement Luthor greatly attributed to, but it was most lamentably and unexpectedly cancelled prior to this telephone conversation.”
That doesn’t mean the project doesn’t exist, however. Snippets from an overheard conversation at the recent charity gala thrown by the Committee for Distressed War Veterans seem to confirm our suspicions. Luthor was overheard by several when remarking to his ‘date’ for the evening, "It will all come together, John. Your fears and mine will be assuaged. Soon, Earth will be for humanity alone, and our people better protected than ever.”
John’s reply went unrecorded, but Luthor finished with, “Oh yes, the program had better work, after all the money I've sunk into it!"
Luthor's partner for the evening was none other than decorated war hero John Stewart, whose recent philanthropic undertakings have attracted Luthor's attention and support. The two have been seen together quite often lately, causing the experienced reader to guess at another motive for their recent companionship. Whatever the reason, this new dynamic duo has the power and opportunity not only to turn heads at the charity ball, but also to reshape our country’s defensive structure from the ground up. With Stewart’s military contacts and Luthor’s billions, our country’s defense may finally be secured.
As to how this fits into Luthor's defining distrust of all alien lifeforms on Earth, sources close to Luthor report that he commonly boasts, "It is time humanity protects its own, and I am in the perfect position to enable our people!"
All this humble reporter can conclude with is look out, Superman—Metropolis may have found a new hero!
March 30th, 20xx
Excerpt from Gotham Citizen Patriot, a small, locally run news agency.
CAPED CRUSADER SCORES FULL HOUSE
Last night was an exciting one to be a Gothamite as Batman finally brought the Joker’s week-long shakedown to a close. The Joker’s mad plan to take over the Old Town District resulted in a rising death toll that finally capped at 32, largely due to a collapsed warehouse that created a devastating domino effect, and a cloud of thick dust as deadly as any toxin, or poison vapour. As there is nothing Batman can do about the shoddy architecture of the Old Town District, his efforts are universally lauded in recapturing the insane clown and carting him back to Arkham Asylum.
This, on the heels of the infamous Selina Kyle, AKA Catwoman’s recent recapture and the surprising court ruling to send her to Arkham when her stint in the hospital is over, makes for a rather full set at the Arkham “Funhouse.” Now within its confines are the Joker and his lady, Harley Quinn; the Scarecrow, Poison Ivy, the Riddler, Dr. Fries, Victor Zsasz, the Mad Hatter, the Ventriloquist, Prometheus, Hush, Killer Croc, and Two Face, along with a cadre of lesser supervillains.
It’s an intimidating line up, but not quite everyone is attending the party. The Penguin’s losing battle with AIDS has ensured him a slow decline in an undisclosed hospice, while Bane, Batman’s most physically powerful enemy, has remained quietly in hiding for over a year now.
Aaron Cash, longtime head of security for the asylum, was less than pleased when faced with the impending reunion. “It’s a f***ing madhouse when they’re all in here!” He exclaimed, all the while batting away recording equipment with the silver hook that replaced his missing hand. “Not that I want them to be free, but the point stands,” he continued. “Half of these goons shouldn’t be here anyway. Blackgate was made for a reason, you hear?”
The nearly complete Rogue’s Gallery in Arkham makes for a twisted anniversary present for Dr. Joan Leland, a macabre celebration for her decade of working with Arkham’s elite and criminally insane. As well as being one of the foremost psychologists in the field, she has also proven to be refreshingly incorruptible in an institution that fostered Dr. Jonathan Crane, Dr. Harleen Quinzel, and the Arkham family itself. This is no mean feat when one looks at her patient lineup, which reads like a who’s who of Arkham: Poison Ivy, Two-Face, Harley Quinn, the Scarecrow, Mad Hatter, the Ventriloquist, and the Riddler.
Dr. Leland declined an interview, but we wish her all the best in the coming years. She’ll need all the luck she can get when her life revolves around probing into the minds of Gotham’s supervillains.
April 19th, 20xx
Coast City, 6:18 PM
“Jeez, Hal. It’s your last night here, and all you wanna do is sit on the couch?”
From his spot on his old, lumpy couch, Hal Jordan craned his neck back and admitted, “And I’m having a great time. Now quit charging around my living room and hang out with me.”
Barry Allen rounded the couch and his Justice League cell phone flashed from hand to pocket so quickly that all Hal could see was a dark grey blur. What was easier to catch was Barry’s frown, and those things combined told him all he needed to know: the source of Barry’s poor mood had nothing to do with him. No, it was all because of Shayera and that being so, Hal wasn’t going to say a blessed word about it.
(It wasn’t like he hadn’t already tried, for chrissake. He’d told Barry that asking Shayera out on a date was a bad idea; everyone knew about her histories with Hawkman. Everyone but Barry also seemed to know about her somewhat more present interest in John Stewart, but that was a can of worms Hal refused to open. The point was, there were plenty of other hot, sassy ladies out there; Barry just had to find one that wasn’t tied down to several thousand years of reincarnation for the sake of true love. Or, you know, another Green Lantern.
But did Barry listen to him? Of course not. Barry asked her out, Shayera turned him down, and that led to a solid week of moping around Hal’s apartment. He’d had to renew his old subscription to Netflix just so that Barry could feed his romantic comedy addiction, and not do something worse like cry on Hal’s shoulder. Not that he wouldn’t provide said shoulder if it was needed, of course. Barry was his first super friend, arguable best friend ever, and was always down to watch said rom coms with Carol, thus freeing Hal for more manly pursuits.
Bottom line was this: Hal loved the guy; he really, truly, did. But honestly, would it kill Barry to listen to him, just once?
Hal thought no, but clearly no one listened to him, anyway.)
Barry flopped down on the couch next to him, giving him moody little side glances. When Hal didn’t rise to the bait, he settled for sulking and tapping at his phone screen too quickly for human eyes to make out.
Ignoring Barry’s mood was slightly easier to do when Ollie was there, making a fool of himself as he was prone to do. “Hal, what the hell is wrong with your TV?” The archer asked, frowning at Hal’s second hand TV from about six inches away. “Where are all the channels?”
Ollie’s thumb jabbed ineffectually at the remote, and Hal resigned himself to being ribbed for the next few minutes. He didn't have cable or HBO or actually, any channels at all, and if Ollie wasn’t set on being a giant dick he would remember how taxing and off-world a Green Lantern’s lifestyle was, and leave him alone about it.
Yet an Ollie who wasn’t being at least a medium-sized dick was not their Ollie.
“Don’t tell me you don’t have service,” Ollie, the dick of varying size continued. “What are you, 22? You can’t just watch Netflix all the time . . .”
Hal grimaced. It wasn’t even him who was watching it. Between Carol and her documentaries and Barry and his rom coms, he hadn’t had control of his TV for the past two months.
Ollie’s eyebrows rose to his hairline. “Oh god, you do. You awkward tween. This is why Carol won’t marry you. I have solved the mystery, Hal. I will accept thanks by way of back massages, and by forcing HBO upon you.”
Hal laughed dryly before glancing over at Barry. It was too late for Bar to jump to his defense, but he wondered if he would take offense at the jab to his beloved Netflix. Barry hadn’t caught a word a word, however. He had chosen instead to thumb through old text messages, his pout growing in magnitude with every text he re-read. Were Ollie paying attention to anything other than Hal’s netflix queue, he would have jumped on this awkwardness in a heartbeat and then Hal would have to scramble to keep him from catching wind of Barry’s recent heartbreak. Seeing as Ollie was thick-skinned about his own matters of the heart (let alone everyone else’s), he’d give Barry a hard time, and then the trip to the bar would be uncomfortably frigid.
He was not adverse to Ollie being insensitive after he was off-world, however. Then, it would detract from Hal’s own dickery, and maybe even redirect Barry’s anger when he found out that Hal not only knew that Shayera would turn him down (because of her fairly obvious infatuation with John Stewart, come on) but also what she was doing on her current mission, which was the other part of why she was avoiding everyone. When that came out, Hal’s ass was grass, and Barry would be slipping on his cleats.
Still, until Hal was off-world he wanted to keep them all smiling. Ollie and Barry were his best friends, no matter how embarrassing that was to admit at his age, and deep down he knew they weren’t always so fond of each other. Most days, Hal focused on being grateful that he was both of their best friends, rather than longing for an equal triumvirate. How they both liked him, who was a prickly son of a preacher man at the best of times was a mystery, but he would take what he could get.
Great, now he was getting sentimental. Extended trips off-world tended to do that to him, but at least this time he’d have some Justice League colleagues along for the ride. Still, he had to buck up before they left for Oa, otherwise this last night with Carol was going to be brutal. He loved the woman something fierce, but damn if she couldn’t tear him down faster than Barry could run a mile. He didn’t want his last memories of her to be tinged with humiliation, not when she was as disappointed with him as she already was . . .
“Silence isn’t going to save you, Hal,” Ollie said, bringing him out of his thoughts. “Neither is ignoring me. My revenge shall be rearranging your Netflix queue while you’re gone to reflect your heretofore unsuspected love of My Little Pony, and then—”
“Hey guys, have either of you heard from Shayera recently?” It said something about their friendship that their banter was background noise to Barry. My Little Pony threats no longer intrigued him.
“Your winged not-girlfriend?” Ollie snarked. “Can’t say I have. Dinah would kill me.”
Hal winced. Saying the wrong thing at the wrong time in the most flippant manner possible was like a special, inborn gift that Ollie possessed. At times it could be even more devastating than his aim.
“Let’s not call her that, please,” Barry said, his mouth thinned down to a line.
It was time, once again, for the Green Lantern to save the day. “Yeah, no talking sass about my second girlfriend,” he said, throwing Barry a quick wink before Ollie whipped his head around, his eyes wide. “And yes,” he continued, in a deadpan voice. “Carol knows all about it. She’s on board, if you know what I mean.”
Ollie blinked, processing this fallacious information. Carol’s possessiveness was legendary, and Hal, for all his faults, was monogamous. Ollie was smart enough to know that if Hal was standing up for Barry now, he’d be stonewalled later on. Still prepared to push his luck, apparently, he opened his mouth to unleash some no doubt witty and devastating quip about moving on and literally flighty women, but Hal nipped that in the bud by clearing his throat and giving him a meaningful look.
Ollie settled for, “Anything I could say would eventually direct either Dinah or Hal’s wrath upon me, apparently, so I will stick with no. No, I have not. Not for several months, to be honest.”
Barry nodded before glancing over at Hal, who was still glaring at Ollie. Ollie stuck out his tongue when Hal’s expression made Barry frown.
“Are you guys 5?” Barry asked. “Did I miss something?”
Hal offered up a grin. Here was an opportunity to let Barry down gently, or at least show that Hal had tried to let him in on the classified information. God, being a superhero was hard. Why wasn’t he still flying planes for Ferris Aircraft?
“Shayera’s taking some time off, Bar,” Hal said. “Her last mission went a little longer than we expected, and she asked for some me-time down in the tropics. At least, that’s what I heard.”
That was the cover stories prepared by Clark, who, as a journalist and the goddamn Superman, was unsurprisingly good at them. If either Barry or Ollie became suspicious, Bruce had offered up an addendum to get them off the scent: that Shayera had done so in hopes that a little time away from the Justice League might enable some of the other members to clear their heads without hurting them too badly. Clark, who had known absolute jack about Barry’s interest in Shayera, had only nodded in confusion. Hal had no trouble working that little addendum out, and neither would Ollie.
While Ol watched the proceedings with the avid interest of a tabloid journalist, Barry was giving him that look that Hal swore he’d picked up from Bruce—that probing stare that pretty much announced I don’t believe you, you Kentucky Fried Jackass. Except in Barry’s case, it was more like there’s more to this, don’t think I don’t know it, buddy. Much less sheer and blatant hatred in his, if the same amount of disbelief.
(Hal and Bruce didn’t really get along. Nor could Hal imagine Bruce saying the word buddy. It was just too weird.)
Time for deflection. “I only found out a couple days ago, Bar. Didn’t have a lot of time to talk, with the upcoming mission. You know how it is.”
His mission this time would take him off-world for at least a couple months. Even with years of practice, it took more time than one would think to quit a temp job, wrap up all loose ends, and go about the destructive normalcy of uprooting himself once again. It was also why he had made such a concerted effort to have one last night out with his closest friends. Clark and J’onn were cool and all, and he was glad they’d be helping the Green Lantern Corps out on the mission, but they weren’t Bar and Ol, no matter how much his human friends might drive him up the wall.
Barry nodded slowly, the moment stretching on uncomfortably until Ollie turned off the TV and pulled them up off the couch, linking his arms through theirs and tugging them close together. Not for the first time, Hal entertained the possibility of Ollie actually being a 13-year-old girl trapped in the body of a dirty old man.
“Well, this is fun,” Ollie noticed. “And awkward. I bet it’s going to get better though, as the night goes on. When we all have a beer or thirty inside of us, illuminating, too!”
Hal rolled his eyes, aware that Barry was once again staring at his phone. Annoyed, he shrugged out of Ollie’s death grip and snagged his coat and keys.
“Let’s get going, guys,” he said. “Carol’s going to leave me for sure if I don’t see her before I go this time . . . ”
It took 2 hours, 15 beers—12 consumed by Barry and far too quickly for human eyes to see—and a chance run-in with some of Barry’s co-workers from the lab for Ollie to get the chance to pump Hal for the dirt. With the exception of Barry’s co-workers, Hal wasn’t all that surprised at how the evening unfolded. Ollie was, as he had already pointed out, a little gossiping girl who was bound and determined to pry into the personal lives of the super community. How Dinah put up with it Hal would never know. All he could be grateful for was that Barry wasn’t around for Ollie to assuage his curiosity on firsthand.
“So, are you going to voluntarily tell me about Barry’s little thing for Shayera, or am I going to have to embarrass you into spilling?” Ollie asked, leaning back against the high-backed chair. Droplets of beer foam clung to his mustache. “Because I am fine with either option. In all honesty, I prefer the second.”
Hal rolled his eyes as he glanced over at the bar, making sure Barry was still deep in conversation. “It’s over and done with, Ol. Nothing happened. It was just Barry being . . . Barry.” He took a long pull of his lager, memorizing the taste and softness of the foam for when he’d be out in space. It was the little things you clung to, he’d learned. “Besides, it’s really not our place to judge him.”
Ollie settled his beer down on the cheap coaster, revealing his upbringing was far classier than Hal’s, who put his beer down wherever there was rom. The archer’s fingers drummed against the tabletop as he said, “Us? Judge him? Hal, buddy, in case you hadn’t realized, Barry’s the one who should be judging us. I mean, what with you refusing to settle down with Carol-”
Hal swallowed back a wave of guilt. “Oh, so now I’m refusing Carol? Earlier you said—”
Ollie waved him off. “Ignore the man behind the curtain, Dorothy. As I was saying, you refuse her with your, ‘I’m a Green Lantern and have to save all the worlds’ lifestyle,’ and Dinah refuses to succumb to my manly overtures and marry the hell out of me already.” Ollie pointed upwards, as if driving the point home. “Barry, for all his awkward, homey charm, is clearly the best of us, because if Iris hadn’t died—”
Ollie cut off suddenly, glancing back at Barry who was still in the middle of polite conversation with the taller of the two co-workers. His name was . . . Henry? Harry? Hector? Hal had met him once, briefly, yet all he could remember was that his name was something with an H and wasn’t Harold.
(Hal also knew he really, really didn’t like him. H-Something was one of those guys who just had to be friends with everyone, and Hal did not feel like sharing Barry with some moron who tried to bond with him over watching The Bachelorette.
Barry didn’t really like the show, he was just being polite. Or so Hal fervently hoped.)
“He can’t hear you, Ol. It’s too loud in here,” Hal spoke quietly, just in case. They weren’t superheroes for no good reason. “And thanks for not bringing this up when he was here.”
Ollie had been nursing the same pint of beer for the last 20 minutes, and it had no doubt gone warm, but he made no move to drink it. “I’m not heartless, Hal. Iris was a wonderful woman, and her passing was hard for all of us. Worst for him, yeah, but bad for us too, because we all saw how destroyed he was afterward . . .”
Hal hummed and took another drink, reflecting. Iris West had died nearly a year ago, after a battling tongue cancer for ten months. She had been diagnosed only two months after Barry had proposed, and by then it was far too late to save her. No one liked to remember her decline, especially those who were close to Barry as Barry, and not just the Flash.
Hal, who had never wanted a reason not to, had visited Iris in the hospital with and without Barry all throughout her convalescence. He had watched her as she wilted, body failing even as her spirit refused to dim. The last time he had seen her was when he went alone on a night where Barry had to patrol his city, only a week before she had died. She was rail thin, skin drooping from the chemo, scarf wrapped around her bald head. Yet her eyes had burned like stars, nearly as green as the manifestation of his ring’s power. Her grip was strong as he held her hand, and she had made him swear . . .
“Promise me, Harold Jordan,” she had forced out past the tongue lying thick and awkward in her mouth. “You promise me that you’ll look after him. That you’ll fix him. That you won’t let him be alone.”
Hal closed his eyes against the rest of the memory, draining the bottle, tipping it up to avoid Ollie’s stare.
“I’m surprised you haven’t said anything to me yet. You’re pretty overdue, friend.”
Maybe he’d overestimated his level of sobriety, as Ollie’s statement seemed pretty apropos of nothing. Hal raised his eyebrows in lieu of answering.
Ollie scoffed. “Oh, come on. You’re heading out for God knows how long, and you haven’t even asked me to watch out for our little speedster? I’m hurt, Jordan. Cut to the quick.”
Ah, so that was it. He grinned and kept his tone light. “Nah, but I had a talk with him earlier about keeping an eye on you. Who knows? Maybe he could give you some pointers on landing a woman while he’s at it.”
“Very funny, Hal,” Ollie sniffed. “I already know a way to a woman’s heart. Jewelry. Oh wait— that’s just the way to yours.”
Neither man had noticed Barry making his way back to their corner of the bar. “Now now, Ollie, Hal’s already got a pretty fancy ring,” he said, clapping Hal on the shoulder and making both men jump. “You’re going to have to lay down a damn fine rock to get him to choose yours.”
Hal leaned back and laughed as Ollie sputtered, more out of surprise than consternation. Without question he knew that this was the moment he’d take back with him to examine and remember and relive when things got lonely out there, saving worlds other than his own. Just the three of them, drinking and talking and laughing like they were nothing but normal men.
At times like these, his life seemed pretty damn good.
April 19th, 20xx
Gotham, 9:27 PM
Meanwhile, back at the Batcave, a very different brand of goodbye was taking place.
“You’ll update the Watchtower’s archives with word on everyone, right?”
“I always do.”
“And you won’t forget to recalibrate the security codes?”
“And try not to be too obvious about monitoring Kara and Kon in Metropolis, ok?”
“Is that something you really need to ask?”
“And could you check in with Lois and Jimmy, from time to time?”
“Yes,” Bruce Wayne drawled, in his bored socialite voice. “But if you ask me any more questions, I’m going to steal both your girlfriend and your lackey, and with their help, Metropolis.”
Clark Kent smiled fondly. The next couple of months wouldn’t be the same without his best friend. He could never rile up J’onn or Hal the way he could Bruce. “I know, I know. Just being careful.”
Bruce may or may not have murmured something along the lines of damned conscientious Midwesterners, but Clark let it go. Batman was going to have a tougher time of it until they got back, with several of the hardest hitters in the League gone for an extended mission, but the Green Lantern Corps almost never involved non-members into their business until it was nearly too late. Whatever danger had risen in the Oan’s quadrant of the galaxy, Clark and J’onn were more than happy to help resolve it before it reached Earth.
Even if it meant leaving Bruce holding down the metaphorical cover on the boiling pot. It wasn’t even Bruce’s pot in the first place. It was Clark’s longtime enemy, Lex Luthor, who was up to something, although only the tabloid writers were willing to place a guess as to what. Batman, Oracle and Cyborg had spent collective weeks pouring through every encrypted file and snippet of communique they could get their hands on, to not avail.
They had no idea what Luthor was planning, and there was little evidence pointing to any plan at all. But Clark was a damned good journalist, who knew if even the tabloid journalists were watching Luthor, there had to be something to watch. No matter how carefully the man covered his tracks he would leave something behind. Bruce, who wasn’t the World’s Greatest Detective for nothing, would uncover it.
All this was in addition to Batman’s own issues. Bane’s conspicuous absence when Gotham lay largely emptied of its villains and was in the perfect position for plucking; Selina Kyle’s incarceration in Arkham, rather than Blackgate, and even the odd behaviour of Jason Todd: his second adopted son, Robin, and current Red Hood. As far as they could tell he hadn’t killed in almost a year, and it took someone like Bruce to worry that something like that could mean something sinister.
There were other things too, like Dick’s decision to bequeath Bludhaven to Tim so that he could move back to Gotham, and Shayera Hall’s persistence in being sent undercover . . . although that last wasn’t such a concern to Bruce. He had only rolled his eyes and muttered something about League romances after she left. Clearly, Clark was missing something here, and when he got back he was getting to the bottom of that.
He knew from long experience that Bruce would only talk about the bare minimum, however, so for all his laundry list of concerns he focused on that which concerned Metropolis. “Seriously though, any word from John? It’s not like him to go this long without sending word, even if Luthor’s running himself ragged.”
That garnered an actual response. Bruce looked away from the console, frowning. The artificial light in the cave played shadows across his face, and for a moment, he looked every minute of his age. “That is worrying me,” he admitted. “It’s been three days since our last conversation. If I don’t hear back from him by tomorrow, I will assume his cover’s been compromised. Tim and Barbara have been tracking him to ensure his physical safety, but—”
When Clark was agitated, he liked to feel the ground underneath his feet. He came down rather suddenly, and Bruce cut off, watchful.
“You can’t honestly think John Stewart has chosen to defect, can you?” Clark argued.
Bruce’s eyebrows rose. “It’s a possibility I have to consider. Have you forgotten who you’re talking to?” And then, because Clark was beginning to pace, “I’m not saying that’s what I want to have happened, Clark. Nor that it’s what I think. Just that it’s a possibility. We can’t underestimate Luthor. If he’s done something to control John, or knows we’re onto him . . .”
Clark sighed in a heaving rush. “No, no. I know what you mean. You have to be ready for any contingency. Sorry, Bruce, I’m just a little distracted.”
He settled back in his chair, and not for the first time Clark was struck by the incongruity of his not wearing the Batsuit while down in the Cave, talking to him on League business. It spoke volumes as to Bruce’s trust in him, allowing him to experience both sides of the veil, but there was Batman mode and there was Bruce Wayne mode, and it was an odd thing to see the lines blur.
“Clark, you’re doing that thing where you worry too much about others when you should be worrying more about yourself. The Lanterns pulled no punches when they called for help. Leave worrying about Earth to the League. Focus on your mission.” Bruce smirked to lighten the sentiment. “I don’t want to go haring off after you when you need my help, after all.”
Clark managed a grin. Bruce was exactly right about his tendency to worry, yet knowing that didn’t mean he was going to stop. Nor would arguing avail him at all, particularly when he had people to say goodbye to before he left in the morning. He glanced back at the hidden exit, wondering how to politely mention that Diana and Arthur were waiting for him —and after that, Lois—when Bruce surprised him. He turned back to see him standing in front of him, wry smile on his lips, arms outstretched.
Clark laughed. He really was in Bruce Wayne mode—but then again, Bruce was minutes away from leaving to attend some sort of gala, or ball, wasn’t he? Clark stepped into the hug, holding it for just a moment before they both stepped back.
“Give my best to your boys, you hear?”
“Oh stop being so damned Midwestern. You’ll see them when you get back.”
Clark laughed and turned to go, hovering several feet off the ground. “Hold down the fort, Bruce. I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
His last memory of his best friend was of him standing there, and his poor attempt at a joke. “The world will still be standing when you get back, Clark. This I promise you.”
June 17th, 20xx
Gotham, 6:47 PM
Father and son wore identical frowns as they replayed the audio file one final time. Nothing had changed: the same garbled message, the same indecipherable language. Bruce had run it through the Watchtower’s database countless times last night, yet the sounds on the file correlated to no known language in the galaxy, or at least any of those spoken by civilized, space-traveling species.
If it hadn’t been sent by Talia al Ghul, Bruce may have chalked it up to an odd Lantern prank, sent it to be relayed out of the Watchtower to the League members in space, and moved on.
Damian Wayne shifted next to him, uncrossing his arms. “I don’t understand, Father. It’s not a language I know, nor is that Mother’s voice on any frequency. What purpose does she have in sending it to you?”
“A warning, perhaps?” Bruce spoke quietly, his tone was guarded. Whether it was a warning to him or for him he did not specify, wanting to hear his son’s insight.
Damian restarted the file, listening closely. Bruce was struck by the intensity of his gaze, and how he had grown. It had been five years since Damian had thrust his way into their lives, taking no prisoners on his quest to become Robin. Now that he was 15, he was a physical powerhouse, and of all his ‘brothers,’ he resembled Jason the most. They were both bigger and broader than Dick, who stood at 5’9” in shoes, and Tim, who, even with his intense physical training, still tended to the willowy.
There was a part of Bruce that saw his youngest boy as the demanding 10-year-old he had once been, and it always caught him by surprise to see him maturing. Someday, he would be as old as Tim currently was, then Jason, and then Dick. Someday, he’d be a man, fully grown. What sort of legacy would Damian leave behind, following in the shadows of his three older ‘brothers?’ What sort of future would he shape when he followed Batman’s shadow?
Damian let out a little puff of air, and he managed to infuse an otherwise innocuous sound with annoyance. “I’m more concerned about the suddenness of it. Mother hasn’t contacted me in years, and what little contact she’s had with you isn’t what anyone might term cordial. Sending this so unexpectedly is a bad sign, Father.”
Bruce grunted. Five years ago, he would have agreed with Damian, knowing Talia’s devious nature. Her silence over the past year and a half made him wonder otherwise. Talia was not a woman who baited her prey like Ra’s was wont to do. She came in and conquered, much like Damian still did. If she meant to keep them on their toes with this mysterious recording, she had succeeded. Sending it now hindered her from acting on it later, however, and he wasn’t sure what she could do with it, anyway.
Damian’s little huff of amusement caught his attention. “Perhaps she’s developed a whole new crop of clones and made up a whole new language for them.” His lips curved into a smile that was anything but pleasant. “Just another test for the two men she hates to love.”
Bruce’s eyes narrowed. While true, that last sentiment certainly didn’t sound like Damian. Far too flippant and bitter. If he didn’t know better, he could have imagined someone else saying it far more easily. Perhaps he’d heard someone say something similar, before? His mind cast about and fell on glass showcases and little green pixie boots, and then he had it.
He eyed his son speculatively. “Has Jason been hanging around the Manor again?”
Damian scowled, and for a moment all Bruce could see was an aggrieved teenager. “You really must spend more time at home, Father. Then Todd wouldn’t be skulking about, bothering Grayson and Drake . . . and more importantly, me. I’ve had words with Alfred about feeding strays, but the man refuses to listen. Someday, I’m going to take matters into my own hands. He really is too aggravating to be borne.”
Bruce’s face shuttered so that his thoughts would remain his own. The idea of Jason coming home and interacting with his brothers was simultaneously wonderful and terrifying, and he had never been good with complex feelings. On the one hand, it had broken his heart to lose Jason, and then subsequently lose him more every night he roamed Gotham as the Red Hood. Yet when they were Red Hood and Batman, Bruce knew how to deal with him, no matter how painful it was. If Jason was now changing for the better or worse, Bruce would have to go through the difficult process of relearning their relationship all over again.
Perhaps he was overthinking this, however. After the years of holding himself apart since his rising and rebirth through the Lazarus Pit, it seemed that Jason had mastered enough of his rage to muscle through semi-antagonistic relationships with his brothers. That, at least, was good. Even if Damian seemed a bit more put out about it than he’d have expected.
“Damian,” he scolded him. “Neither Jason nor Alfred would appreciate what you have in mind for them. May I remind you that angering Alfred is not wise, as he is the only one who knows how to cook all your favorite meals.”
Or cook at all, he allowed. I certainly can’t.
“Father, I was not referring to Alfred. I was talking about Todd, who swaggers through the Manor like he owns it, and walks around half naked at the oddest times, sits the wrong way on all the furniture, cheated during our last spar, and . . .”
Damian continued, grievances fluctuating in levels of importance. Bruce was suddenly struck by a sense of displacement. Damian and Jason were sparring? What was he thinking—of course Damian and Jason would be sparring! They had learned from both he and Talia at opposite ends, and due to that and their builds, their hand-to-hand fighting styles had grown to be incredibly similar. If Jason had spent enough time in the Manor to do that, he was probably sparring with Tim and Dick as well, even though they didn’t spend nearly as much time there, splitting their efforts between Gotham and Bludhaven. Were that was the case, that meant Dick and Tim must trust Jason enough, if not as much as Damian seemed to.
If all that held true, then didn’t it follow that maybe, just maybe, it was time for Bruce to start trusting Jason as well?
“ . . . I just told you that Drake dances around the house wearing Brown’s red sequined dress and you didn’t even bat an eyelash. You’re not listening, Father. Should I garner your attention with a few well-aimed shurikens?”
Bruce recovered quickly. “Perhaps I’m merely surprised that you’re that acquainted with Miss Brown’s wardrobe. Does she know that you remember that particular garment so fondly?”
Damian’s moment of wide-eyed mortification was fleeting yet immensely gratifying. Bruce swallowed back his smile. Dick had always been, and would always be, impossible to embarrass, and Jason had been worryingly precocious for his age around the opposite sex. Tim had either shown no interest in anyone at all or was dating Stephanie, and by then Bruce had hardly been in the state of mind to tease him about it anyway. It was left to Damian to bear the brunt of Bruce’s underdeveloped sense of humor, and his was in the unique position of being totally incapable of dealing with it.
Damian regained his cool, yet the tips of his ears were tinged red. “You are not amusing, Father. Now, if that is all you need, I will retire. I have a pathetic excuse for a paper to write and a fox to bait.” He glanced over at the console one more time and his expression hardened. “As for the recording . . . you haven’t heard from Grandfather, lately, have you?”
Bruce’s aggressive silence was answer enough. Damian swallowed, aware that he had potentially stumbled onto a landmine. Ra’s al Ghul had driven deep splinters into Bruce’s family, and even though they were at a temporary detente, Bruce feared he had the power to break them apart entirely. If Ra’s had sent the audio, then it would be no warning. It would be a mockery; a poisoned dagger to twist into just an inch of flesh.
Either way, the danger was real. He would send a copy to the Watchtower and have J’onn and Clark listen to it firsthand before they returned. If he was lucky, perhaps they could get an Oan or two to listen as well.
For now . . .“Thank you for your help. I’ll see what I can do about spending more time at the Manor. It may be time for Jason and I to have another talk.”
Damian’s face broadcasted excitement, even though he tried to mask it. Judging by his son’s stoic upbringing, showing this strong an emotion was clearly something he had picked up from Dick. When had his youngest son grown to reflect his brothers? And what might he reflect from the other two?
“A conversation? Words or fists? May I watch?” And then, after a moment, “If he displeases you, may I kill him?”
His face wiped clear, mirroring Bruce’s impassivity. He nodded before turning to go but Bruce impulsively laid a hand on his shoulder.
“Tell Alfred we should watch a movie after dinner. See if he and your brothers would like to join us.”
Damian’s eyes narrowed. “We’re not going to watch one of Grayson or Drake’s movies, are we?”
Dick thought the world needed more Disney, while Tim’s favorite movie was Run Lola Run. Bruce clenched his jaw at the thought of sitting through either option. “I was thinking we could try something new. Something relaxing. Something where no one dies, for once. What do you think?”
Damian would say yes, that was clear as day. If he were going to say no he’d have already done so in increasingly loud tones. Yet he couldn’t look too eager—perhaps that’s what he had learned from Jason? No, he’d not known him as a boy. That was just another similarity.
“Not a driveling romance?” Damian asked, quirking up an eyebrow.
The day Damian fell in love would be the day the world changed, Bruce suspected. He could only hope it was as suitably mortifying and wonderful as it had been for him, when he’d met Selina. “Not a romance.”
Damian eyed him suspiciously, but his entire demeanor lightened. “All right. I will inform Pennyworth. Grayson and Drake too, if they’ve arrived in the last hour. Not Todd though.” Damian turned to go but Bruce could hear him muttering to himself as he went. “I bet his taste is even worse than Grayson’s . . .”
Bruce watched his son as he left. His thoughts were already beginning to drift from their after dinner plans to the more dire implications of the audio file. No matter what it was, if Talia sent it, that meant he and his family was targeted. He would have to take measures to protect them until they had a better grasp of the threat.
Bruce strode to the console and tapped in a 14 digit number sequence. Files pertaining to both Ra’s and Talia flashed across the screen. After pulling up several articles, he called Barbara.
“Oracle, are you in?” That was a courtesy. Whether she was working on her own consultant business, brokering information, networking the Gotham vigilante network, or heading up Birds of Prey, Barbara practically lived in the Clocktower. The chance that she was out was slim.
Still, it took her a few minutes longer to respond than he’d expected. “Am now. Everything all right, B?”
“Is the line secured?” The lines were always secured, although not always made unavailable to other members of the Bat family. By asking, Barbara would know to clamp down the line so that no one—and he meant no one—could listen in.
“Is now, Bruce. Bad news?”
“Not necessarily. It’s about the audio from Talia. Damian couldn’t recognize the voice or language either. I’m sending it now to the Watchtower, but I’d like to ensure that the family is safe.”
“Of course. What do you need me to do?” Her voice was low and calming, with not a hint of that high strung and fearless Batgirl she had been. Age had done much, and being crippled by the Joker even more. Her trials had tempered her into a presence far more powerful than she ever could have become as Batgirl. Oracle was irreplaceable in the world of heroes, Gotham, and his own patchwork family.
“You were saying that you wanted a Bat presence in Japan. I think it may be time for Stephanie and Cassandra to duck out of Gotham for a while. Perhaps Tim as well, if he could apply for a semester abroad. What do you think?”
Barbara hummed. “Well it’s not very subtle, Bruce. What’s next, an enforced cross country bonding between Dick, Damian and Jason?”
The image made Bruce shudder. “God, no. I doubt any of them would make it back.”
“Oh, I don’t know. You might be underestimating how persuasive Dick can be. With our luck, they’d come back bedecked with daisy chains, singing Kumbaya.”
There was a hint of pique in her tone. She and Dick were fighting again? He generally tried to stay out of all that, but he really needed her at her finest. “Barbara, I’m serious. If the al Ghuls are planning something, I want the family out of range. It’s also a good opportunity for independence. In most respects I trust the girls more than I would Damian, at this point. I think we should put them to the test. ”
There was the faint clatter of her fingers flying over the keyboard as she responded. “Well, seeing as how I’ve been pushing for an Asian expansion for almost a year now, I’m not going to say no. I’ll run it by the girls later this evening, and have it all ready in a couple days. You can ask Tim, although I doubt he’ll say yes, seeing as how he just agreed to intern with me for the summer while he’s on break from university. Still, you can try.”
Bruce hesitated. Since the Teen Titans had gone on a temporary hiatus last year, following the inclusion of Dick and Victor into the Justice League, and the clear divide between the members pushing 30 and those pushing 20, Tim had clearly been chafing at returning to his position of Red Robin. Bruce had thought the answer to the solution might be having him take over Nightwing’s duties in Bludhaven for a while, but perhaps training with Barbara might appeal to his intellect. They would have to have a serious discussion about this soon.
As to the other three targets . . . He reflected, and the image of Damian and Jason fighting to the death on the roof of Dick’s car lingered.
“I’ll talk to Tim and see what he would rather do,” Bruce said, pinching the bridge of his nose through the cowl. “At the very least I want increased security on those that remain.”
Her amusement was audible. “That’s going to go over like a lead balloon, Bruce.”
He smirked. “Not if you don’t get caught, Barbara.”
June 20th, 20xx
London, 9:02 AM
The most powerful mage in the known universe stopped beneath a smoky gaslight and pulled out a cigarette. The gaslight was more for show than anything else, and he didn’t begrudge it. London had a sordid history, and little touches acted as a nod to authenticity for tourists. Besides, symbols held great power, and he was all about lights in dark places.
Speaking of lights . . . He tucked the box of cigarettes back into a deep pocket of his signature tan trenchcoat. With a tiny flare of power, he lit the cigarette. After taking a drag, he then proceeded to engineer both halves of an inner monologue.
Hello to you, John Constantine.
Don’t take this the wrong way London, but it’s cold and dreary for June. Anything you could do about that?
Oh piss off, John Constantine.
Bad breakup, eh? Tell me it wasn’t Bermuda. The weather there is to die for, I’ve heard.
Oh, sure. Let’s talk bad breakups, shall we? How’s Nick Necro these days? Or Zatanna Zatara, there’s a love, how has she been getting on?
John pouted. He knew it wasn’t going to be a good day when he got the best of himself in less than 30 seconds. Well, he knew exactly what to do in situations like these. It was just after 9 AM, he’d had his morning coffee and a cigarette, and he was going right back to bed.
The walk to his flat could have been instantaneous, but he preferred not to use his power in this neighborhood. Too many old acquaintances. Like Mad Hettie, who was far, far older than she looked. She hadn’t died yet, even though they were friendly. John liked that. He liked consistency, and people who smiled at him and didn’t die, forget him, or lose their minds directly afterwards, so he walked by, flipping her a coin for a dark-dyed chrysanthemum. He meant to stay and talk, but took in her hunched shoulders and skittering eyes, and moved on.
There was a queer turn to the air, and if Hettie felt it too, perhaps it was something he should pay attention to.
The stairs to his apartment creaked alarmingly, but that was nothing new. He could probably afford a better place . . . oh, who was he kidding. He absolutely could not afford a better place. He was the poorest mage he knew, and he had the sinking feeling it was all his own fault. Things were dangerous to tie oneself to, he counselled himself. Almost as dangerous as people. Better to be a bit of flotsam on the sea, washing in and out of trouble.
Had his mother said that, on another of his infamous internal dialogues? He couldn’t remember. Ah well. He’d figure it out someday.
Unlike 90% of the people he knew, and the people who survived dealing with him, in any capacity, John pushed boldly through his door without even checking from traps. If there was something inside strong enough to kill him, it was like to do so without petty traps and safeguards. That wasn’t very likely, at this point. Far more likely any altercation would result in the intruder’s painful demise, because that was what the universe did, apparently, to fuck up his life further.
This all went double if his enemy was also his friend, of course.
Odd mood aside, his apartment was empty. Everything was as he’d left it, and John scoffed. Of course he had gotten all worked up for nothing. It was simply going to be one of those days. His dour mood, and that jittery feeling in his shoulders was likely the aftereffects of too much caffeine and nicotine the night before.
John stubbed out the cigarette in an overflowing ashtray, exposing a sliver of his wrist. His pale, translucent skin did nothing to hide his veins—undeniable proof he was blue-blooded, he’d joked to Zatanna once—that glowed like blue fire through the epithelial layer.
John blinked. This was not how his arm normally looked. “What’s all this, then?” He murmured, as he brought his wrist up for closer inspection.
A moment later, he shrugged off his trenchcoat along with the rest of his clothes, and soon found every visible vein on his body was glowing blue. He examined himself in the mirror and determined that it was most unflattering, particularly on his buttocks. He took a moment for careful thought. He couldn’t imagine glowing blood to be a positive thing. More than likely it signalled some awful danger—terrible, all-encompassing, death-and-destruction-to-all-on-Earth kind of danger.
John heaved a sigh.
Well, wouldn’t that just make his Monday.
June 21st, 20xx
-------------------, 3:01 AM
Wake, heaving. Pain like knives, like magma. Something wrong. Everything wrong. Can’t breathe. Panic, panic, panic. Red flickering at corners in vision—fire? Danger. Get out get out get out.
Stumble over bed. Legs feel broken. No breath to swear. Can’t walk—float instead.
No better this way. Air feels like lead—keep going. Must keep going.
Going to die. Can’t take this. Pain shutting down sight—everything blurry. Have to get out. Out out—up?
Blast through door. Hurts to breathe. Hurts to use powers. Feels wrong. Everything wrong. Can’t get high—fly at eye level. Dark out. Shadows are watching. Blood exploding in veins.
Know the way. Find door. Can’t see, so feel. Hands scrabble at wood, find catch. Shove through. On ground now. Too weak to fly. So crawl—crawl over embers.
Face wet. Salt on lips. Air is warm now. Yellow light. Fingers numb. Press button down hard.
Thoughts getting quiet.
Don’t wanna’ die.