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-”
“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.
Todd is a name with Scottish influence, meaning fox/wily/cunning. Damian is very aware of this. Damian is also 15, and still finds time to bait his older brother figure even though they both have better things to do.
John Constantine’s monologue is inspired by his monologue in Sandman volume 1. Mad Hettie is also from the Sandman series, which is Vertigo but come on it is so, so good.
Before things get dark, I’d like to share with you that my headcanon of Hal Jordan is that all his friends have really distinct tastes in shows (Barry like rom coms, Ollie like crime scene investigation dramas, Carol likes documentaries, etc) and Hal really doesn’t like TV at all. Maybe a football or soccer game is the least objectionable thing for him. So he sits and watches shows with all his friends not because he likes any of the shows at all but because his friends do, and he just wants to spend time with them, so he goes along with it. In realizing this, I have become so much more fond of Harold Jordan, who I used to think was just a massive douchecanoe. THE MORE YOU KNOW.
Chapter 2: Blitzkrieg
With all the post and pre New 52 shenanigans, I have no sainted idea of who knows Billy Batson’s true age/identity/etc. For the plot purposes of this fic, no one (living) knows his true age/name/unmagical wizard ego save the people explicitly stated in this chapter (and his foster family, obviously).
To take this one step further, not everyone in the League knows everybody's true name/identity, as will become apparent in this chapter.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Chapter 1: Blitzkrieg
June 21st, 20xx
Bludhaven, 7:45 AM
It was one of those juxtapositional dreams where the layer cake he was holding was actually the key to stopping Alfred’s unwanted pregnancy, yet all he could do was stuff piece after piece into his mouth.
It tasted like cardboard and the smoke used in tear gas. It was also yelling at him, in increasingly urgent tones.
He took one more bite and something inside the mass wriggled.
“Timothy Jackson Drake! Answer me! Answer me right now!”
Timothy Jackson Drake, also known as Red Robin, shot up out of bed at once alert and alarmed. When Barbara Gordon woke you a scant two hours after you collapsed into bed after a long night of patrolling the city under your ‘older brother’s’ vigilante protection, you woke up without protest. Tim suspected that whenever she used that tone of voice alongside your full civilian name you woke up immediately under any circumstances.
“I’m up,” he said, in a voice that was rough with sleep. “Oracle, what’s wrong?”
There was a harsh intake of breath over the line, but when she spoke there was no trace of weakness. This was game mode, and it meant something had gone horribly wrong.
“You need to get out of the building,” she commanded him, glacial and unfeeling. “Now. Get to the Cave, ASAP. Don’t respond to anyone’s hails. Don’t take your bike, and don’t use any equipment more complicated than your grapple gun. I think that was how they got Garfield.”
Tim had slipped out of bed as she spoke and pulled on his jacket over his muscle shirt, fixing the batbelt on over his striped pajama bottoms. He’d been moving on autopilot, but that last made him freeze. Got Garfield? The way Barbara’s voice had hitched . . .
“We’ve been compromised?” He said, mind skipping past the horror of a teammate’s death to the crux of the issue.
Oracle was no longer impassive, or perhaps she never had been. Her pauses and audible intakes of breath clued Tim in. Barbara was crying, or trying her hardest not to. That scared him most of all.
“Something like that,” she admitted. “Take nothing with you, just clear out. Jason has a safehouse near you: 1308 Billiards; he’s above the butcher’s. He’s left a modified bike behind in the back alley. It should respond to frequency 408 on the scanner. Take cover, remote start it, and if it doesn’t explode, use that. If it does . . . I’ll figure something else out on the fly.”
If she was dropping their civilian names the line was beyond secure. Tim made his way to the window and snuck a peek outside. He was struck by the lack of people out. It was nearly 8 in the morning, where was everyone? The news vendors at least should have set up their stands!
When the answer came, he blamed its delay on his growing panic. The building had been cordoned. That meant the enemy—whoever they were—was already in the building, and he was trapped.
“O, status on the family,” he demanded. He would not ask about the Titans. If Garfield was out of the picture, he couldn’t know about the others until he was in a position to do something about it.
Barbara’s sniffle was audible now. “Girls are safe, and you-know-where. Got ahold of Steph; Cass is chasing down a lead but reported in. Dick and Damian were at the manor last night, they’re with B and Alf.”
As she clued him in, Tim tapped out a few quick commands on the console he’d installed in the wall behind his bed. In seconds, he had the security feed to the entire building at his fingertips, as well as the security features. From that he learned that every single doorway was either sealed by an outside source, or, judging by the bulky packages wedged against other doors, fitted with an explosive.
His enemies had been thorough. Tim swore quietly under his breath. Damn it all, he’d have to escape through the basement.
Before he’d moved in, he had made passageways through several of the other apartment buildings—no worry about the exorbitant cost of renting a room on each floor when his subset of Wayne Enterprises owned the entire building. It was his last resort, but his pursuers had sealed off all the more obvious options. Tim could only hope they didn’t know about the basement chute, otherwise his escape plan was about to get slightly more exciting. It would help it if he knew who was coming after him, or how extensive that force was.
He readied both grapple guns—just in case—and asked about the last, wayward member of their family, “And Jason?”
“He’s good. I’m not sure he and the Outlaws were even targeted—no attack has been registered, at least. He’s not at the Manor, but he’s on his way.” Barbara hesitated. “Tim, don’t ask me about anyone else. Not until you get here.”
His intruder alarm went off, startling them both into silence. The enemies had managed to get past the other doors unnoticed, but his personal door had protections the likes of which were rarely seen on Earth. As it was, a quick glance at his security monitor assured him that someone was currently using something electromagnetic to get through the primary keypad lock to his door, and they were progressing more quickly than he’d like.
Barbara, with her own resources at her fingertips, knew this as well. She quietly swore, “Shit., they’re bypassing security. Tim, get out of there.”
Time to go. Tim shot one grapple gun, shattering the side window that took up the entire south wall. He then shot the other to grapple up to the the ceiling frame, releasing the now-superfluous gun as he rose. He tucked his legs and rolled into the hidden crawlspace just as the door was thrown open. He hesitated for one brief moment to see if they would reveal anything. Would he recognize them? Would there be a sign of who had sent them? Just how badly had they been compromised?
He hesitated long enough to watch three men move purposefully and silently into his apartment. Dressed in identical suits, sunglasses, and security headsets, there was no obvious indicator of who they were working for. At Oracle’s quiet but insistent hiss of his name through his earpiece, Tim decided it was time to go.
He waited for two of them to lean over and examine his security console before beginning his slide down the chute. The zipper of his jacket rattling against metal made enough noise to notify his pursuers, but not enough for them to accurately pinpoint where he was. There was the rattle of a semi-automatic—so incongruous with their bespoke suits, Tim thought wildly—just above his head, bullets piercing through the metal of the chute. Before they could fire another round, Tim had gained enough momentum and had slipped down another two floors, and within another few seconds was out of reach.
The slide swerved a little, enough to protect him from the danger of landing a straight drop. Curving out at the end, it shot him out into the padded basement, where he tucked into a roll at the end so that he wouldn’t break his legs upon landing. He hated that damn escape plan, but it was the safest. For one thing, it got him to the bottom of the building faster than anyone else could chase him. For another, it lead to the abandoned sewer system, which he had made sure to learn like the back of his hand, and was, hopefully, harder to monitor than his apartment complex.
“O, I’m good. Escaped, won’t say where. I’ll let you know when I get to the bike,” He reported as he hiked open the trapdoor leading to the sewer system. He climbed carefully down the ladder in stockinged feet, careful both for rusty metal, unexpected holes, and also to close the trapdoor behind him.
“Be careful, Tim.”
He signed off as he walked along the dimly lit path, doing his best not to touch the green, algae-ridden walls. From his bat belt he pulled a domino and adhesive—Batglue, Dick had proudly called it, back when Tim had been younger and Robin and a hell of a lot more gullible than he was now—and firmly affixed the domino to his face. He was wandering out in civilian wear, pajamas for chrissake, but he was also toting a grapple gun along with the standard bat belt. The mask wasn’t the best protection, but he’d prefer not to blow his cover, even if someone had already done it for him.
If someone has blown my cover, I’m taking this remarkably well, Tim thought. It hadn’t exactly hit him yet. None of it had, but questions bombarded him. How had they found him? How had they found out who he was? And what of everyone else? Did they know Bruce? Dick? Damian?
And what had Barbara meant by they got Garfield?
Tim counted the byways, and took a left when he’d gone three blocks. He hadn’t mentioned this to Barbara, but he knew exactly where Jason had a safehouse in Bludhaven. He’d even been there once, back when Dick had been running the city and Jason was still hellbent on pissing Nightwing off. Tim was willing to bet there would be a passageway from that house to the sewers—all good safe houses had at least three distinct exit plans, and that wasn’t taking into account Jason’s well-developed sense of paranoia—but he didn’t know about it. He did know there was a manhole in the alley leading to the parking lot where Jason stored the bike, however, and it was a perfect point to test the remote start and not end up like the wife in the Godfather.
It also gave him a moment to send out a few messages of his own. Barbara had told him not to respond to any hails, but hadn’t said anything about sending them out. Knowing that the Batfamily was all right was his first priority, but he needed to know about his subsection of the Teen Titans: Kon and Cassie and Artemis. Bart was still stuck in the future, paying for sins that Tim couldn’t blame him for, but at least it made him safe in Tim’s present. He’d leave worrying about the older subsection of Teen Titans, internally dubbed the ‘Post-Titans,’ to Dick (who used to lead them) but if Garfield, one of their main members was down, he worried for Jackson, M’gann, Wally, and . . . well, the other honorary members.
The group text was short and impersonal: Status report. If all hell was raining down upon them, it would at least let them know that he was alive. If they were by any means incapable of receiving the message, it was significant enough to him and his enemy.
Red Robin was alive and ready to avenge them.
June 21st, 20xx
Gotham, 8:38 AM
By the time Jason Todd made it into Gotham he half expected a ghost town. Martial law at best, and a meteor from the sky at worst, but nothing had changed except for the sick feeling of surreality that licked up his spine, one vertebra at a time. Bab’s call had been frantic. She barely had time to spit out a prerogative before it sounded like she was forcibly pulled from the line.
We’ve been compromised, and they’re picking us off one by one. I’m getting death reports from all over the country, and there are so many more I can’t contact.
Jason, come home. We need you here.
She had asked for the Outlaws too, safety in numbers and all that, but Jason needed to know ex-fucking-actly what was going on before he dragged his team into this mess. Roy and Kori were watching the news, shacked up in a seedy motel about 20 miles outside Gotham. Kori could get them both there within 5 minutes, putting them in range if Jason was walking into a trap. If they figured out what the hell had gone wrong before Babs told him, he’d have a jump on that, too.
Jason grit his teeth. He had woken up this morning feeling good. Too good. The universe was clearly punishing him, and he had a feeling he knew why. It wasn’t for blowing something up or killing someone—if anything, it was the opposite.
I should never have dreamed of leaving vigilantism, he thought, and then rather than reflect further on that tantalizing line of thought, he gunned his bike, leaving all thoughts of happiness behind. He drove directly to the tunnel leading to the Batcave, eschewing secrecy for speed. There was no point in off-roading or backtracking, especially if Babs was right and their secret identities were known to a hostile force. Or the world, she hadn’t specified. Either option was pretty shitty. It made a guy almost glad he was legally dead.
Legally dead and on the wrong side of the hero to villain spectrum, but still part bat, apparently, Jason thought when the retinal scan guarding the side entrance to the Cave let him in without sounding an alarm. It had been a long time since he’d entered in through the Cave, and he hadn’t been sure it was still working. He’d been to the Manor, of course, to bother Timbelina and Demon Child and Dick, but he’d always let himself in the servant’s entrance so he could ostensibly run into Alfred, too. Never when Bruce was home, obviously, but with how busy Batman had been over the last six months, Jason had been popping in fairly frequently as of late. The Demon Child hadn’t been amused, although he’d taken the opportunity—demanded the opportunity, the pompous brat—to refresh some of the darker teachings Talia had passed on to both.
Jason winced. He hoped Bruce didn’t know about that part. They were still all so hung up about killing, although if things had really gone as to shit as Babs had implied, they might be willing to overlook that . . .
The Batcave was quiet and dark, and it made his hackles rise. If this was an emergency, where was everyone? He crept through the darkness, and every moment of stillness ratcheted his tension up further. Turning the corner that led to the supercomputer, he heard a hitching, gasping noise—someone was either choking to death, or crying. Jason slunk around another corner so that he was in the Cave proper, and over at the far console was Tim, awkwardly patting Dick’s shoulder as he wept.
Oh hell, Jason thought, that answered that question. He ignored his inner voice that seethed you are walking into a TRAP, and strode purposefully towards the impending altercation. Replacement glanced over at him as he approached and looked relieved. How jacked up did the situation have to be for Timily to look like that? At him?
It had to be worse than Babs had told him. Now that he was presented with a sobbing Richard Grayson, he kind of wished he’d asked for more specifics.
Jason was practically on top of them by the time Dick looked up with the most stricken expression he’d ever seen him wear. Had he looked like that when he’d died? Maybe, but before he could follow that fascinating line of thought any further, Dick choked out his name and threw himself at him.
He froze. Years of training bade him defend himself, but his brain was still trying to parse through what the hell was going on. Dick pounded on Jason’s chest with his fists; a wailing, flailing mess, and it was all Jason could do to catch one of his arms. Dick’s next blow went wide, and the fight burnt out. He collapsed against him, tamed, clutching at Jason’s shoulder as he sobbed.
Timmers watched on in horrified fascination, his eyebrows up at his hairline. Jason was willing to bet his own expression mirrored his. Dick so rarely blew a fuse, but if his inarticulate grief was any sign, it was a symptom of the current situation . Hoping to distract Tim as Nightwing broke down, he nodded to the earpiece that Dick had dropped when he’d launched himself at him.
“What the fuck is happening?” He asked, equally torn between figuring this shit out, making Dick stop fucking crying already, and regaining his cool before Bruce walked in on them. Tim started and grabbed the transponder, turning up the volume so all could hear.
Tim winced. “Yeah, Barbara. He’s here. Jason’s got him. Whatever you just told him . . . he didn’t take it well.”
Jason tried to ignore how Dick’s wracking sobs made his stomach feel like it was crumpling inwards like a crushed can. He had never seen Dick grieve like this, and he’d never wanted to. He’d almost rather be dead again than experience this.
“What the hell is going on, Babs?” He demanded, pressing his lips together before he could say anything referencing Dick’s sobs. They echoed through the Cave, and even Babs had to hear them.
Barbara’s response came with no preamble, cutting right to the bone. “Victor Stone and Wally West have been confirmed deceased. They were murdered early this morning, sometime between 4 and 6 AM. As far as we can tell, they were both killed while in bed, if not asleep. Wally by some sort of lethal injection, and Victor by an electrical charge that overrode his suit’s protection.”
The stillness from earlier was back, pressing down on Jason like a tangible force. It felt like this in his dreams, sometimes, when he dreamt about digging himself up from his grave. Tim seemed to be similarly affected, as the only move he had made was to tighten his grip on the microphone. Dick, pounding his fist weakly on Jason’s chest, was the only person moving in the eerily static room.
Jason understood. Cyborg and Kid Flash had been two of his best friends, and Dick was powered by his grief. He would have reacted no better if he had lost Roy or Kori. He would undoubtedly react worse, and with a hell of a lot more explosions, so he wrapped his hand around Dick’s fist in an attempt to anchor him. Dick wasn’t hitting very hard, but he was still going to leave bruises if he kept this up.
“What’s going on?” He asked. “Who’s targeting us?”
Barbara’s voice came over the line, tinny and defeated. “If it was just them I’d have some idea, but I’m getting reports from all over the country. The list of missing or dead just keeps getting longer, and there’s no discernable pattern! Heroes that barely knew each other: humans, metas, aliens—”
Tim jolted and nearly crushed the mic. “O, status on Conner Kent.”
Fingers tangled within his own. Surprised, Jason looked down at Dick, who had apparently decided he’d rather hold Jason’s hand and clutch his jacket in his bid to stand upright than continue fighting him. He took it a step further and rested his forehead on Jason’s collarbone, his hot breath fanning across Jason’s chest.
Ok, a small, irreverent voice in Jason’s head said. So this is a thing that is happening.
It took Barbara a moment to respond, in which all Jason could hear were Dick’s quieting sobs. He could feel them reverberating through his own chest, and it was driving him a little insane.
Then, “Tim, I can’t find him,” she admitted. “He’s on the MIA list. I can tell you for sure that he’s not in Metropolis, Gotham, or Smallville. I don’t know any more than that.”
Tim’s eyes fluttered shut for a moment. When he opened them again his face had flattened out into a mask of determination. Jason would bet cash money that he had compressed all his pain and fear, transmuting it into something usable and feeding it into his iron will. Jason had learned to do something similar, except all his pain just became rage. Still, he was struck by how small Tim suddenly looked. For some reason, the thought of his replacement being weak in any way didn’t sit well with him.
Ah, shit. He was fond of him, wasn’t he? When the hell had that happened?
Jason glanced down at the man who was still in his arms. Had the Wonder Boy finally realized how awkward this position was? What was he saying—this was Dick Grayson, who had probably learned to hug before learning to talk. Knowing that, Jason could be here for a while. He should probably get comfortable, or prepare to apply strategic violence.
“Yeah?” He asked, when nothing more seemed to be immediately forthcoming.
Dick picked up his head to stare up at him, and it was just pitiful. His olive skin was stained with tears, and his big blue eyes were now small and puffy and red. Some indescribable emotion passed through them, and it made Jason’s breath catch in his throat. Dick was wrecked, and Jason really, really, really did not know how to handle this.
Maybe he should fight something? Yes, he should fight something. Not Dick though. Not until he stopped crying.
“Kori? Roy? Are they ok?” Dick forced out.
“Did they come with you?” Bab’s voice over the transponder was no less interested.
Jason glanced over at Tim as he responded, who watched passively, clearly more preoccupied about his best friend’s fate. “They’re fine,” he replied. “They’re not here but in position. I can call them down. Are they coming in through the Cave, or through the Manor?”
Tim glanced to the side, his breath catching. Jason would have looked too, but he could practically feel the temperature drop 10 degrees, and knew who had just entered the Cave. His shoulders tensed—he couldn’t help it, it was an ingrained response—but the situation was marginally saved by Tim, who stepped close enough to rub Dick’s back, reassuringly. Now they were a tableau of brothers comforting the oldest rather than two men just hugging it out in the Batcave.
Jason dropped Dick’s hand before giving Tim a warning look. Tim returned it with equanimity, and while he was currently grateful, it cemented Jason’s opinion that Tim was an evil little shit who may or may not have an information hoarding problem, and that in the future, something would have to be done about this.
Dick, by virtue of sobbing himself blind, missed all of this. “Just have them come, Jay,” he pleaded, and brought his free hand up so that both were clutching Jason’s trademark jacket. “We need to be together now. Otherwise they’ll keep picking us off . . . like . . . ” He swallowed thickly, and then forced out a shaky laugh. “God, I gotta’ get ahold of myself before Bruce gets here.”
Jason and Tim very carefully did not look over to where Bruce now lurked in the shadows, his youngest son at his side. For a moment it appeared that Bruce might actually give them a moment, would wonders never cease, but Damian forged ahead, as directly as he did everything else.
Even he was not without a small level of tact, however. Jason suspected that even Damian loved Dick, and that being so, the Violet Lanterns had missed out on a good thing here. “Grayson. Drake. Todd,” Damian said, more ire in his voice when he got to Jason. “Am I correct in assuming that Oracle is on the line?”
At the sound of his name, Dick finally detached himself. Jason shook his arms, rubbing the areas where Dick’s iron grip had temporarily ceased blood flow while Dick turned his sights on Damian, and scooped up the protesting teen into a bear hug. Jason turned to the console, delaying the moment when he’d have to look at Bruce—at Batman—and see nothing at all of his own whirling, powerful, barely comprehensible emotions for him reflected in the man’s stone visage. He tapped his own earpiece and spoke into it, taking care to use the code phrases he and Roy had picked up from Kori’s native language.
“Roy, Kori, come. First family is secure. Add your safety to ours.” And then, in English: “I’d stop watching the news if I were you.”
June 21st, 20xx
Gotham, 12:04 AM
Zatanna Zatara watched as survivors crowded around Bruce Wayne’s dining room table. The remains of the American supercommunity were either physically present or connected over what they hoped was a secure network, seeing and hearing through a dozen monitors arranged around the room. Not everyone was in a position to make it there on time, but all needed to be present at a League meeting of this level of enormity.
Not that everyone present was a member of the Justice League. Nor had all of them known that Batman was Bruce Wayne’s secret identity. Zatanna had known, of course, although she had been really damn careful not to say anything, and especially not to goggle at him when she had met him as a civilian that one time. Everyone not already in the know had found out approximately 3 hours earlier, when his identity had become public knowledge during the 9:00 AM World News.
Whoever had compromised them had done so completely. Very few identities were left untouched, or otherwise unmolested: Bruce Wayne had been unmasked, as had almost his entire family—Richard Grayson, Timothy Drake, Stephanie Brown, Cassandra Cain, and by extension, Alfred Pennyworth. So had Clark Kent, Harold Jordan, Oliver Queen, Roy Harper, Bartholomew Allen, Diana Prince, Arthur Curry, John Stewart, Dinah Lance, Carol Ferris, Helena Bertinelli, Ted Kord, Michael Carter, and herself . . . and those were the few still alive.
There were a few exceptions. The angry-looking Red Hood hadn’t been compromised, but legally—technically—Jason Todd was dead. It had been an infamous, public death, too. Bruce Wayne’s foster kid dying of a ‘mysterious and sudden illness’? You better believe that made the evening news. What good was outing him as a zombie when the super-community, let alone the public, couldn’t understand how he had returned from the dead?
Barbara Gordon—Oracle—had also been unrevealed, although Zatanna suspected she may simply be holding back the news with her security skills. Damian Wayne had also been left alone, although his connection to Bruce as his only biological son would make him the obvious, if not only, candidate for the current Robin.
Most of the aliens on earth—disregarding Superman, of course—were also left untouched, but this too was unhelpful, as the only aliens represented right now were Starfire and Hawkgirl.
The biggest surprise of the morning, at least in Zatanna’s opinion, was that Shazam’s identity had not been publicly revealed. Granted, he had not come through the event unscathed. His normally handsome face was wan, and he could barely stand upright. Ah, but his powers were magic based, weren’t they? No wonder he looked so ill. It was certainly in keeping with how sick she had been on and off throughout the morning . . .
Of course, Shazam wouldn’t be Shazam had he kept this strategic secret. As one of the kindest and most straightforward members of the League, he had come forth with his identity almost immediately. Bruce had attempted to argue him down for less than a minute before Shazam turned to everyone in attendance and announced, with a self-deprecating air, “I uh, must have missed the cue to unmask, but we’re all in this together. You all know my face, but my real name is William Batson. Just call me Billy.” He had managed a sad smile. “I’d say it’s a pleasure to meet you all for real, but we all know it’s kind of not.”
It was on the heels of that admission that the meeting was called to order. Zatanna swallowed down the churning nerves swirling in her gut as the room slid sideways, distorting into 5 rooms, then 50. She was getting worse. She’d had moments of clarity spaced out throughout the morning, but they were getting fewer and farther between. The effects from the event of this morning were starting to partition her mind again . . .
Barbara Gordon wheeled herself up to the head of the table, and Bruce made room for her. She had been a tall, striking woman before the Joker had crippled her, and since then she had relinquished none of her presence or beauty. All attention turned to her, even those hundreds of miles away.
“Thank you all for coming,” she began, panning the room to include everyone. “I would like to begin by congratulating all of you for surviving each and every attempt on your lives that have taken place over the last 12 hours. All of you have gone through terrible trials to reach this moment, but we are not safe yet. This is a dark time for all of us, but we need to stay strong and informed. That’s why I’m here. What I’m about to tell you is terrible and hard to accept, but until we do so, we can’t fight our enemy effectively.”
She ended with an entreaty, “So please, listen, and don’t let your pain or suspicion master you. Otherwise they will win, and I believe I speak for all of us when I say that is unacceptable.”
The room waited in stony silence—a rarity for the League, Zatanna was impressed— and Barbara cleared her throat. “As everyone already knows, we have been compromised. Nearly every single one of us is now known to the public, and our civilian lives may be beyond retrieval. That is to say nothing of our immediate safety. To those of you in the room we are for the time being safe. The Manor has its own defenses, and as of yet Gotham is nearly unanimous in its decision to support Bruce Wayne, and his vigilante persona. To those of you streaming in, I hope that you all have found secure locations and are in possession of iron-clad backup plans. If not, we can discuss this later. As it is, we are pressed for time and I must continue.”
She took a deep breath, organizing her thoughts. “5 days ago, Talia al Ghul sent out a mysterious recording that we still have not been able to decipher. About 22 hours ago, she sent out a long-range distress call warning of ‘an alien invasion,’ before it was cut out by her father, Ra’s. We have not been able to confirm this, but word from our operatives in the League of Shadows is that she was then mounted in a crucifixion tableau, and died within half a day. We are operating under the assumption that she was murdered under Ra’s orders, and that her death may be connected to those that followed.
Zatanna threw a quick glance to Damian Wayne. This was his mother, and Oracle had dealt with her death somewhat callously. He betrayed no expression at all, however, and that seemed wrong to Zatanna. Shouldn’t he care that his mother had been crucified?
Jesus, she did, and she actively disliked the power-mad woman!
“14 hours ago, I discovered that my supercomputer was in the process of being cracked,” Barbara continued. “I was able to halt the infiltration, yet as soon as I stopped it a virus took over my system, destroying my computer in the process. By the time I had access to another computer of that power—Batman’s spare— the first reports of our secret identities had already begun pouring in from news programs from all over the world.”
There was a murmur of dismay from several around the table, but Barbara continued, “Unmasking us is but one part of our enemy’s three-pronged attack. The second prong took place between 4 and 9 AM this morning, wherein the following individuals were murdered: Wally West, Kid Flash; Victor Stone, Cyborg; Kyle Rayner, Green Lantern; Guy Gardner, Green Lantern; Garfield Logan, Beast Boy; Artemis Crock, Tigress; Cassandra Sandsmark, Wondergirl; Patrick O’Brian, Plastic Man; Jackson Hyde, Aqualad; and Rose Wilson, Ravager.”
In the stunned silence that followed, Barbara took a deep breath, her professional facade wavering. “Some, like Wally, Victor, and Artemis, were killed in their sleep, or at the very least were in bed alone when it happened. Garfield was killed in an attempt to escape, and managed to send up a signal flare before his car exploded. Jackson was surrounded by the corpses of several assassins, and was also able to signal for help before they subdued and killed him. Rose managed to kill several of her attackers as well, but did not signal for help. She did place an untraceable call to a blocked number before she died of blood loss.
“This all points to a powerful organization. Someone knows exactly who we are, where we live, and how best to take us down. Yet there are some deaths that tell us something more: beginning with Kyle Rayner and Guy Gardner. Neither sent out a call for help, and Kyle was literally stabbed in the back. It would appear that they were killed by someone that they either trusted, or did not perceive to be a threat. Of course, it could all be positioned that way. Kyle might not have known someone was in the apartment with him. Whatever happened, it happened quickly: a modern day blitzkrieg.”
Barbara’s voice had grown hoarse, yet she continued on. “One of the latest victims was Cassandra Sandsmark. She and her mother were found dead in their house just a few hours ago. Seeing as how Supergirl is nigh invulnerable—yet human, and I’ll get to why that is important in a minute—we are at a loss as to how they were able to accomplish this. Wonder Woman, I realize this may be encroaching on Amazonian secrets, but do you have any idea on how this could have happened?”
Wonder Woman was one of those watching through a monitor, several hundred miles away. Like everyone else in the room she looked exhausted, although Zatanna thought it veered closer to the wrecked section of the spectrum. The monitor started to grow bigger and smaller at will, and Zatanna held tight to the mockery of John His Royal Bastard Constantine’s smile, her anger keeping the world in place.
She would get through this, she would. Even if she had to rely on him again to do it.
The Amazon Princess kept her chin up and her body stiff. After a long moment, she sighed and rubbed her forehead with her fingers. “I think I might, actually,” she admitted. “Cassandra’s powers were given to her by Zeus, and there is a long history of his children and benefactees rising up against him. He would have ensured some sort of safeguard, a way of temporarily disabling her powers if she ever threatened to rise up against him. In the past, he has used something we could call . . . Maternal Dispowerment. In this instance, her mother could have been tricked into thinking her daughter needed to be temporarily stripped of her powers. One touch and it would have left them both open to attack.”
Many heads were hung and jaws were gritted, and there was the sound of uneven inhales signalling the fight not to cry or scream or rage. Barbara took back control before Bruce had to call everyone to order.
“Thank you. Morbid as it may seem, that is a small relief as such a thing cannot be replicated. I mentioned that her humanity was an important aspect to her death. It has to do with the last prong of their attack: a magical pulse went out just before 8:30 this morning. It seems to have targeted all alien lifeforms on Earth. It killed most instantly.”
There was an uproar at this, but Barbara talked over them, and within a few moments the din died down. “Besides Hawkgirl and Starfire who thankfully are still with us, Superboy is MIA, and uncompromised. My contacts are looking for him, yet it’s been several hours, and there is no trace of him. In terms of other alien life forms, the bounty hunter Lobo died in a brothel in Marakesh, whereas Doomsday died in his prison cell in the Fortress of Solitude. The tracer we placed on Darkseid shorted out, which either means he too is dead, or he finally discovered the location of it at that exact moment after 3 years of living with it embedded in his flesh. I start with these three because I want you to understand the enormity of the pulse.”
She swallowed, and kept her gaze firmly on the space above Oliver Queen’s head. “On the other hand, M’gann M’orzz—Miss Martian—died in her home, watching a rerun of Twin Peaks.” She swallowed again. “Kara Kent—Supergirl—died in a coffee shop, just after placing her order. Krypto, Superman’s dog, died at his foster mother’s feet.”
The silence was profound. These were some of the most powerful beings on the planet, and they had all been wiped out instantly. Zatanna, who had known of it nearly as long as it had happened, chose to watch the two surviving aliens instead. Shayera looked wrathful, and her face took up all of the monitor. Koriand’r was shocked. She was flanked by Roy and Jason, and their expressions mirrored Shayera’s. They saw what was coming, even if Kori did not.
Barbara was not quite finished, however. “So far, the pulse seems to have no negative effect on humans or metas, but does on magic users. Zatanna has been working with me to determine the source and effects of the blast, but it is slow going. Zatanna?” She invited, gesturing Zatanna to step forward.
Zatanna stepped forward to the table, parking herself only a few feet away from Barbara and Bruce. She took that time to try and will the room back to normal. She felt like she was spiralling into madness, and if she couldn’t pull herself together, using her magic in this state might seriously hurt herself or someone else.
“Well,” she began, trying for her normal tone but just sounding pained, “Let me start off by admitting that I have no idea where the pulse came from; who started it, or what powers it. I do know it is probably the single most powerful expenditure of magical energy the world has ever seen.” She swayed, yet Bruce leaned out and caught her. She spared him a small smile, and kept going.
“As you can see, I’m a little out of it. To be honest, it feels a little like my mind is cracking open like a coconut. It gets worse with every spell. I don’t know if it’s like this for everyone, but I would be very careful with how everyone uses magic. Try not to. Or at least use it sparingly.”
Her pupils dilated suddenly, and the room shrank to a tiny pinpoint before exploding outwards. She was nearly lost in the sensation, but just as her knees threatened to buckle underneath her, she heard his voice, John’s voice, bubbling up from somewhere deep inside of her.
It’s just a trick, luv. Isn’t that what all magic is?
She took a deep breath and the world righted, cemented into place by her hatred and dependence on John Fucking Constantine. “I’m meeting with several contacts, later,” she said, as soon as she could. “As soon as I get something concrete, I’ll pass it along. Once again, I beg everyone not to use magic. Otherwise, you’re going to feel like Shazam and I look.”
“Jesus fucking Christ.” All eyes turned to Green Arrow, who had just ripped off his domino in exasperation. “So instead of dancing around the obvious, let’s just say it straight, yeah? You keep saying we’ve been compromised. Let me translate that for you: we’ve been betrayed. One of us—or more than one—has gone rogue, and doomed us all, and we’re just round table discussing it, like this little talk won’t come back to bite us in the ass?”
“Ollie,” the Flash hissed, grabbing his friend’s arm. Arrow shook him off but Aquaman piped in, also through a monitor, before he could continue his rant.
“That’s not the only answer, Oliver. Bruce, has the Watchtower been compromised?”
All throughout the meeting, Bruce had watched them with his signature, steely gaze, giving nothing away. He was one of the few dressed in full costume, although his wore his cowl back, revealing his face to everyone. He had taken the dissolvement of his secret identity and his entire secret life better than Zatanna had expected. Perhaps it was a testament to his emotional repression, or simply that he knew how little it all amounted to when the death count was this high.
Bruce shook his head. “The Watchtower has been on lockdown for repairs and overhaul for the last 5 days. No one has come in or out for more than 48 hours. Oracle and I have been going through security footage, and I can answer definitively that no one accessed any pertinent files from the Watchtower for the past six months. If information was taken away, it was taken prior to that, by someone who had the right to be there.”
Wonder Woman broke in. “Has there been any word from Clark, J’onn, or Hal? Have they been warned? Will they be able to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere, or will they be harmed?”
“Hal’s fine, he’s human.” Barry Allen interjected.
“And wearing alien technology as a fashion statement,” Oliver Queen muttered. “It’s now gaudy and dangerous!”
“I’ve left messages in the Watchtower,” Bruce answered, ignoring them. “I can’t contact them any more directly than that, but they should be alerted before they re-enter orbit. As to the lingering effects of the magic pulse . . .” He glanced over at Zatanna, who did her best to shrug.
“Still looking into that, Batman. I can’t say about Hal, but I would say it’s dangerous for Clark and J’onn to come home, although all I have to go on is how magic users still feel. Even if it doesn’t kill them outright, it will probably be bad for them, too.”
“Holey moley,” Shazam groaned from across the table, his hood slipping back to reveal dark tufts of hair. “How are we gonna get them home?”
Green Arrow had clearly not calmed down, although he kept still enough that Barry let go of his arm. “Here’s another fun thought to chew on. Why did Shayera and Koriand’r survive? Not that I don’t love the girls, ‘cuz I really do, but what’s so different about them that kept them from snuffing it?”
Arsenal snarled at the man who had adopted him. “Shove off, old man. Kori’s done nothing wrong, don’t you dare try to make this about her!”
“Half the people we know and love are dead, Roy,” he snapped back. “Don’t be stupid. We have to examine all the goddamn angles—”
Roy broke formation and charged at Oliver, shoving through Jason Todd’s attempt to restrain him. Kori, who could have stopped the whole debacle in a heartbeat simply watched them, eyes glazed over, arm wrapped protectively around her ribcage. Oliver surged forward to meet him, and Barry, who was more than fast enough to stop them both, did nothing.
Dinah Lance did it for him. She let out a concentrated blast of her canary cry, directly in between Green Arrow and Arsenal. The two men stumbled back, clutching their ears.
Oliver recovered first, having built up a little more tolerance. "Damn, babe. We're not even in the bedroom—"
Black Canary had no time for her on again, off again boyfriend. "You are being children,” she addressed them both. “This panic and distrust needs to stop. We have all lost someone—many someones—that we love, and unless we pull ourselves together and act like heroes, we are going to lose more than just that."
In the moment of silence that followed, Shayera Hall piped up through her monitor, "Amen, sister."
Not willing to risk Dinah’s rage, all the men in the room eyed the seething Black Canary askance. Wonder Woman growled in frustration, her tone distorting through the speakers. “How did we miss this? How did we not know such a force was moving against us? How can we still not know anything about them?”
The Robin standing next to Jason—Red Robin, Timothy Drake, whose identity Zatanna had not definitively known but a child could have guessed, at this point—glanced up. “There were signs. Just not enough to piece everything together.” His gaze cut down to the floor, his face twisting in pain. “And no one could have predicted the magical death pulse.”
Zatanna swallowed thickly, world spinning. One person had predicted something . . . but until she knew for certain whether Nick was just forecasting doom and gloom as usual or was actually involved, she would hold her tongue.
“Signs?” Arthur Curry leaned forward until he nearly was pressing against his camera. “What signs?”
Tim glanced at his mentor, and all eyes turned to Bruce, who took the floor, answering for him. “There were a few hints, but nothing obvious enough to explain what’s happening now. At first they were oddities, but nothing too sinister: Bane went to ground, ignoring the relatively open playground of Gotham, with all its premier villains locked away in Arkham. Although he’s not shown his hand, I would not be surprised if he had contributed to several of the murders.”
“Bane doesn’t have any beef with us,” Oliver argued. “Just you.”
Bruce glared at him. “There is also the matter of Lex Luthor’s shady deals with the government.”
“And do we know the extent of those deals? Could they have anything to do with the magic pulse? Can we safely assume Lex Luthor is the prime perpetrator?” Barry didn’t often speak as quickly as he could, but Zatanna had trouble picking apart each sentence.
“Perhaps,” Bruce replied. “There is also the chance that Luthor is genuinely moving to protect against the magic pulse. Remember the hold he has over Superboy, potentially a victim of the pulse. He would be hard pressed to give up a half-clone of himself.” He hesitated before admitting, “There is also another angle.”
He leaned over and placed a portable audio player on the tabletop. “Barbara mentioned that Talia al Ghul sent a recording a few weeks back. Damian and I were unable to decipher it. It seems to be no language recorded on Earth. This, in the light of her murder, may also point to Ra’s. Or, as she later warned, an alien incursion.”
“Or all three,” Dinah said. “Is there any reason that Bane, Ra’s al Ghul, and Lex Luthor couldn’t work together, with or without aliens?” She gesticulated with one hand while her other rested against Ollie’s bicep. Her touch seemed to calm him, but Zatanna could practically feel his anger and panic bubbling underneath his skin. Some people broadcasted like that. While it normally was distracting, today it was stabilizing. If she focused on his anger, it was easier to overlook how her perception of the world was unravelling.
“A valid question,” Bruce allowed. “Possibly, although I doubt they could do so for long. Too many big egos running around in that group. We’ll have a better idea soon. If it’s Lex, he’ll be all over the news in a matter of hours. If it’s Ra’s . . . he won’t. Bane could go either way, and Gotham will be ready for him. Regardless, the League need to make a plan.”
Shayera Hall grunted approvingly. “Damn straight! We need to plan a counterattack! We need to hit them fast and hard, show them their move didn’t finish us off.”
“Moving too quickly is worse than not moving at all, Shayera. We need to know who is behind this, first.” Their monitors were at angles to each other, so John Stewart bestowed his disapproving glance on her, rather than the room. “I agree with the impulse, however, and we will make them regret this.”
Others spoke then, offering advice and ideas but Zatanna could not hear them. She had not been able to tear her gaze away from the audio player since Bruce had set it down on the table, and now it commanded her entire attention. It was important, that much was obvious, but in her weakened state she couldn’t tell whether it was the kind of important that would solve the mystery, or would detonate in a matter of minutes.
She had to know. Slowly she reached for it, brow furrowed with concentration. At the far edge of her consciousness, she became aware that Bruce was watching her, and Billy was fidgeting.
“Zatanna, wait. Ask Batman—”
“It’s fine, Billy,” Bruce cut in. “I’d like everyone to listen to it, just in case someone recognizes something.”
Her fingers stretched the last half inch towards the device, and she thought she could hear the file already. Wasn’t it already playing, whispering in a discordant chorus? She couldn’t quite make it out. She hit play, and then leaned back.
She’d get it now, she knew she would.
It began with a crackle, like an old timey record player. There was a beat of silence. Before the silence could fully settle, however, a rising scream cut through, ending in a belligerent, guttural exclamation. It took everyone present aback, and Oliver Queen went so far as to nearly trip over his own feet in his initial surprise.
The scream was accompanied by an odd clicking noise, rhythmic as a pair of castanets. Across the table, Billy hunched over and began to moan. “No, no—please,” he begged. “Turn it off. Turn it off!”
Zatanna knew all this was happening but could not see it, as all the world’s colors and shapes had bled together and coalesced into a spinning ball. She gravitated towards it without meaning to, and the doom in her heart matched the agonizing pain in her head. Through the ball of light she felt rather than saw Billy collapse onto the table, body twitching as if he were having a seizure. That was fitting, Zatanna distantly supposed, as she was currently having a lobotomy. What was left of her brain was boiling in her skull. Not even John Constantine could save her now.
The inhuman voices rose and fell in tandem, and the ball of light went black. The world was ending all around her, yet she could still hear—and what she could hear was the cadence of the voices. While she didn’t know what they were saying, or what language they were saying it in, she knew that rhythm in her bones. She had been right, before. She was sure of it, and all she’d had to do was press play.
“It’s a spell,” she forced out through lips that were as unyielding as blocks of wood. Then the sphere of darkness rushed in around her, and she knew no more.
June 21st, 20xx
Gotham, 1:49 PM
Jason leaned back against the wall and watched Dick’s attempt to bridge the gap between Roy, Kori, and himself, and wondered if he’d have to step in. Probably not, as Wonder Boy was aptly named and had found nebulous ways to make almost everyone in the super community love him, hello and are you paying attention to this (for the second time today) Violet Lanterns. Still, he continued to watch as Dick’s body language became more and more submissive, until Roy reared back and punched him hard in the gut. Dick took it, and then punched him right back.
Yeah, they were going to be just fine.
That worry assuaged, he tilted his head back and wondered how long this intermission would be. After Shazam and Zatanna had their magical seizure episode, Bruce had called a short break so that they could offer medical assistance to them, and for everyone to gather themselves and their resources. In that time, both Wonder Woman and Aquaman had offered to make their way there, and Bruce had agreed to wait for them. Most people had vacated the dining room pretty quickly, either to the Batcave or other rooms on the first floor of the manor. Jason and his Outlaws had taken up space in the sun room, and Dick had trailed after, seeking reassurance and punches in the gut, apparently.
There was, of course, another reason for Bruce to let everyone split off into little groups of twos and threes. Every inch of the Manor was bugged, and this was the best chance to monitor everyone for weak links, suicidal resolves, and betrayal. Green Arrow had been exactly right, although Brucie hadn’t been too pleased with him showing his hand like that. As far as B could figure, there were at least two, if not three people in on this, judging by preliminary reports Oracle, Timmerson, and Bats had made up for how so many were able to be targeted in such a short amount of time. Furthermore, although Jason was not in on them, he was sure that Bats had his suspicions. He was equally sure that they were probably right.
Paranoia was the byword of the Batfamily, and it was for precisely these situations.
Speaking of family, Dick had had more than enough time with his outlaws. Jason sauntered over, ready to subtly redirect the flow of conversation, but he was distracted by the sight of Kori, standing near the baby grand piano, looking uncharacteristically glum. Seeing as how she was the wisdom and backbone of their trio, the expression sat badly with Jason. She had been the one to talk him down from what was effectively fratricide and patricide more than once, wisely teaching him that she was not defined by the men in her past, and neither was he. She was also the one who provided the most support to Roy during his ongoing battle with drug addiction, and that she looked so lost now was therefore unacceptable. Jason changed his plans accordingly. He wrapped an arm around her when he got close, steering her away from Roy and Dick, who now were arguing about something involving pop cans, mentos, and destroying the old City Hall. Trusting them to be reminiscing—he was fairly sure he’d heard that story before, and it definitely included Cyborg—he leaned over and squeezed Kori’s arm gently.
“Hey, Princess,” he murmured. “You know that Roy and I aren’t going to let anything bad happen to you, no matter what the League decides. Don’t let that shit with Roy’s old man get to your head. No one in their right mind could suspect you, and that includes the rest of the League.”
She glanced over at him and he gave her his warmest smile, the one that had the old Jason Todd at its edges. He finished with, “The three of us are family, Princess, and I’m not letting anything happen to either of you.”
“Family,” Kori whispered, eyes alert and intently searching his. “You are sure?”
That took him aback. She hadn’t known? They’d been together for almost 4 years now, living and fighting and making plans together. Hell, she and Roy were practically married, and she still had to ask?
Before Jason could assure her, however, Roy stepped in to do it for him, leaving his argument with Dick behind. “Of course we’re family, babe!” He effused. “You’re pretty much the reason why! I mean, not that I don’t love Jason and all, ‘cuz I totally do—even with that hair—but you’re what holds us together. Just like I’m what keeps you both sane, and Jason is what keeps us hoppin’. You know. Family.”
Somehow, that all made perfect sense to Kori. She relaxed enough to smile at her lover, leaning in to kiss him on the mouth. The kiss continued for quite some time and finally Jason had to look away. He was fairly used to Roy and Kori kissing (and making out, and stripping, and sexing, for that matter) in front of him, but for once he wasn’t their only unwitting audience, and he knew that Dick and Kori had once had a thing. Kind of a big thing, if Roy’s jealousy and an old newspaper article announcing an engagement that never quite came to fruition was to be believed.
Watching his ex-fiancee and his old best friend carry on right in front of him probably wasn’t easy, even for Dick-I-Spread-My-Love-To-All-And-Sundry-Grayson. Therefore Jason was surprised to find that Dick didn’t seem to be all that concerned. In fact, he wasn’t even watching them. Instead, he stared at Jason with a complicated expression, maintaining unwavering eye contact until Jason broke down.
“What?” He asked, and his tone was just as harsh as it should be. Ok, it was a little harsher than it should be, but Jason had not forgotten how Dick had broken down earlier, and there was no part of him that was willing to accept a repeat performance.
Dick tilted his head away from the kissing couple, and Jason hesitantly followed. They stepped out into the foyer where the checkered marble flooring gleamed. Alfred must have waxed the floors recently, Jason realized. Before he could ask where the old man was, (he hadn’t seen him all day, and how many guests had been in the Manor?) Dick fixed him with a small scowl.
“How many families do you have, Jaybird?”
Jason shut his open mouth with an audible clack. Once, arguing with Dickie had been as easy as breathing. Now, with so many of their compatriots unable to do that, it was harder. Also, he could not forget the tears, and he openly admitted that he, as a guy, was kind of weak to those.
“Is that what you really want to talk about?” He asked, incredulous.
Dick grimaced. “No. I just . . . What are you guys going to do? Are you going to do your own thing? Or are you going to stick close to Gotham?”
Oh. So that was it? Dick should know better by now, although Jason was kind of thankful he didn’t. He shrugged. “Part of it depends on Roy’s old man, or anyone else who’s got a problem with Kori. If she’s targeted, Roy and I are getting her the hell outta’ Dodge. Until then . . . I guess we’ll stick around. Do what needs to be done.”
And what the rest of you won’t was what he left unspoken. His tactics were an ongoing battle between him and most of the Batfamily, and while he was a stubborn jackass who was always up for a good argument, (or spar, or fight to the death, or whatever) even he knew this was not the time. Particularly not when Dick had him cornered in the entranceway to their childhood home, looking a little like he might burst back into tears at any moment. If that was the case he’d probably glom onto him like a weeping child again, and this time there was no Timina to deflect the inevitable consoling. Bruce would definitely walk in again because that was how Jason’s life went, and then his goose would be cooked and served because—
“Will you guys stay at the Manor?” Dick asked.
Jason’s internal monologue broke off. That was a loaded question, in more ways than the obvious. Still, it couldn’t hurt to start with exactly that. “Don’t think I’d be all that welcome with the bossman, Dickie. Besides, Kori and Roy are a bit open with their sexuality, in case you couldn’t tell. Doubt that would go over well with Alfred or the Demon Child.”
“Jason.” And there was the look, the one that never failed to make Jason do exactly what he didn’t want to do, and whatever Dick did. It was the look that took him back to his teenage years, when Dick was a total jerkface loser who could not dress himself like a normal person, for chrissakes, but was also the guy that Jason had secretly looked up to and not-so-secretly needed to keep him on the straight and narrow. The look was manipulation, pure and simple, and the worst part of all this was that Dick didn’t mean it to be. It was just Dick being honest about what he wanted, and Jason being completely unable to deal with that.
Damn him and his powers of self-awareness, Jason internally grumbled.
He glanced to the side so he wouldn’t have to look at him, but now he was remembering Cyborg’s easy smile, and Kid Flash’s brash sense of humor. Dick was reeling, that much was obvious. It made Jason want to agree, just so the natural order of things would be righted, but coming back felt like giving in; giving up on all the reasons why he chose to stay away in the first place.
Underneath the internal tug of war was a voice that sounded a bit like Bab’s, reminding him of the obvious. Our enemy is picking us off one by one. You were spared the first round. Who is to say that you, Kori, or Roy will not be targeted next time?
This, of everything, made up his mind. “If Kori and Roy want to stay, we will,” he sighed.
“I’m going to be honest with them about the cameras though, and all the crap people don’t expect about living with B. Also if the Demon Child attacks them for no good reason we are gone. Gone, Dick. There is no negotiation on this.”
Dick froze, looking up at him. He did not try to hide his surprise, nor, a moment later, his relief. “You—you’re serious?”
“Don’t make me repeat it. And don’t make me ask B if it’s ok. In fact, we’re never speaking of this again, and—”
At the far end of the foyer, the front door swung open. Dick slipped into a defensive stance, and Jason aimed one of his modified pistols at the door, thumbing the safety. He brought the gun down immediately when Alfred Pennyworth stepped in out of the pouring rain, holding a three-year-old in his arms.
“There, now,” he tutted, whisking out a handkerchief to wipe the face of the small boy he was carrying. “We’re safe and sound, Master Michael. Soon to be dry, as well.”
The boy picked up his head as Alfred fussed over him. “You talk funny,” the toddler informed him. “We gonna fight more guys now? I like making ‘em all wet.”
Jason whistled as he reholstered his weapon. Alfred had fought somebody? Damn, he’d pay good money to see that.
Alfred demurred, “No, we’re safe now, and—”
“And wet!” The boy said delightedly. “We gotta shutta doors! I can do it. See!” He reached out with his tiny hand, his little fingers stretching wide. The corners of his mouth stretched down in a focused frown. After a moment, the rain outside coalesced into something with near-solid shape, pulling hard against the door handle. Everyone jumped when the door slammed shut behind Alfred. Tuckered out, the boy leaned back down against the butler’s shoulder before popping his thumb in his mouth and sucking contentedly.
“Ten bucks the kid’s a meta,” Jason muttered out of the side of his mouth. Without sparing a glance for aim, Dick whacked him squarely in the stomach.
“Oh my,” Alfred muttered as he hoisted the young boy to a slightly more secure position. “It seems that the young master’s ancestry comes with some unexpected benefits.”
In his arms, the newly orphaned Michael Wilson giggled delightedly around his thumb.
June 21st, 20xx
Gotham, 2:37 PM
Bruce activated the full security sequence as soon as Barry settled himself down at the Cave’s roundtable. He kept his eyes on him for a moment longer, taking in the man’s tight expression and clenched fists. He was close to the edge, but Bruce thought he wouldn’t be the one to buckle under the pressure. Losing Wally was a terrible blow, but Barry had been tempered by losing Iris more than a year ago. Besides, the man was a natural protector. As long as he had someone to look after (and until Hal got back, it would likely be Oliver) he would remain strong himself.
Barry settled in between Oliver and Billy, and across from Diana and Arthur. The latter two had both made good time. Arthur had luckily been taking some time on shore when the disaster had struck, and Diana had broken speed records coming from Themyscira. Bruce could only hope the tragedy had not been repeated in their home countries.
Dinah wasn’t present as she was helping Barbara, who would brief her on everything while they raced to keep what was left of the superhero community from collapsing. The women worked well together in Birds of Prey, and Bruce assumed they would have Helena, the ‘third bird,’ as she called herself, help as well. All good, as they were all people he trusted, and, along with the still-unconscious Zatanna and his own family, had rock-solid alibis for.
Finishing out that small list was John Stewart and Shayera Hall. Neither were present, of course, as it would blow their covers. John had his own set of rules to follow, in keeping with the game he’d been playing with Luthor for the last year. Shayera was acting as both his inside agent and protector, gathering information when John couldn’t, and always assuming that Luthor was playing a more deadly game than even John expected.
John had returned to Luthor’s camp and Shayera had fallen off the grid immediately after Billy and Zatanna’s break down. They had been in contact with the League for less than an hour, and had never set foot in Wayne Manor. For now, that would have to be good enough to maintain their covers, and to assuage any of Luthor’s distrust.
Beyond them, Bruce kept his eyes wide open. He knew that they had been betrayed like he knew his own name, and he would not rest—could not rest—until he had pinpointed exactly who had done it. Apart from Barbara and his boys, these were the only people he could trust.
Even then, he would watch them all carefully.
With a glance at Bruce, Arthur opened up the floor. “If I may, I’d like to call for a moment of silence for Victor and all the others.”
“Agreed.” Oliver and Diana chimed in, glancing at each other in surprise. For once, they were in perfect accord. All heads bowed, and Bruce observed them from his peripheral vision. Arthur was the only one who openly prayed, lips moving in an Atlantean psalm. Barry, in a reflection on his Midwestern, more traditional upbringing, might be praying as well, but Oliver just closed his eyes, brow furrowed in thought. Bruce was unsure of how Amazons prayed, but he suspected it was not like Diana was doing now. She was silent and quivering with anger, hands clenched at her sides, ready to mete justice out for the souls of their fallen friends, and comrades.
Billy was the last, and he was not so much praying as struggling to remain upright. Just thirty minutes ago his vomit had been tinged pink, and he was currently equipped with Bruce’s own portable IV drip, carefully tucked away in the folds of his robes. He was clearly suffering, but he did his best to stick to the agreement he had made with Bruce this morning, half an hour before the rest of the League had been invited.
“Your identity is safe,” Bruce had told him. “Lying about your surname and age in the Watchtower database was a smart move. By now they know your name isn’t William Davis, but only because they killed all twenty-two adults in the USA with that name last night. It will only be a matter of time before they discover who you truly are. When that happens, you’ll be denounced like the rest of us.”
“I can’t accept that,” Billy had said sadly. “Why should I be spared?”
Bruce did not agree. “What they don’t know, they cannot control. With any luck, they won’t discover that we lied about your age, as well. You’ll have to give up your name, but under no circumstance show anyone your actual identity. There are only two adult William Batsons in the US, and they’ll hardly believe you’re 18 or 82, but we need as large a margin for error as possible. Stay as Shazam the entire time if you can. I promise you, it will pay off.”
“But Diana already knows, and Clark too!” Billy protested.
“She’ll keep the secret. As will he, when he returns.”
“What about the others?” Billy had asked, hesitantly. “Can’t we trust them? Even if it’s just the core League members?
“No, Billy. You must trust no one. Only yourself.”
Billy was nothing if not stalwart. His magic was debilitating, but only when he was Shazam. A quick change back in the bathroom after his vomiting spell was over had proven the effects did not carry over to his natural form. That went along with Zatanna’s suspicion that the pulse was still targeting magic users, and likely alien life forms as well. Clark and J’onn couldn’t come back until they had gotten to the bottom of this, and by God, did Bruce ever mean to.
Arthur’s head rose, prayer over, and Bruce took that as his signal to begin. “Diana, Arthur, status report on Atlantis and Themyscira. Are your people safe? Have the effects of the magic pulse reached them?”
Ever the gentleman, Arthur gestured for Diana to take the floor. She nodded to him in thanks. “My people are safe, for now. No attack was made on the island as far as we can tell, yet the existence, if not the location, of Themyscira was mentioned on the news when they unveiled me, and I fear that will bring too much attention to the lost isle of the Amazons.” She hesitated, then shook her head and continued. “About the magic pulse . . . it may be affecting the island. Not the people, but the protections laid in place to keep the island unassailable.”
Billy winced. “Your home is protected by magic? Uh oh . . .”
“Not entirely,” she returned. “The protection is from the gods, and their magic is—”
“Exactly what powers Shazam,” Oliver cut in, with his characteristic abruptness. Rudeness, in Bruce’s opinion. “I mean, we’ve all heard him say it. Strength of Hercules, power of Zeus . . . and we can all see how fantastic he’s feeling.”
Diana fixed him with a quelling look, and he trailed off.
“As I was saying,” she continued, “The gods’ power are above and beyond even the most powerful human practitioner, but our priestesses communed with Hera before I left and her message was not optimistic. While the pulse is not strong enough to undo our protection outright, it is slowly eroding it. Given enough time, even the gods’ protection will be undone. We need to discover and defeat the enemy quickly, or my people will be at the mercy of man’s world for the first time in millennia. I will not let that happen.”
She finished with a side glance at Bruce, and while her message was not overt, it was received. Over the years of their friendship, Clark and Diana and he had spent collective weeks discussing contingency plans, and while Diana was loathe to give away many details about her homeland, she had been very interested in Bruce’s tactics and ideas. He remembered what he had most strongly advised in the hypothetical situation that Themyscira was discovered. He suspected she had already put that plan, or something very like it, into place.
Attention turned to Arthur. “I bear slightly better news,” he said. “As far as I can tell, this magic pulse does not affect Atlanteans, nor our own brand of magic. Atlantis is safe and there is no sign of attack, either physical or magical. I have given warning, but there was no reported sickness even among the most prolific mages, nor fluctuation in power of . . . of what keeps Atlantis protected.”
“Do you think being underwater helps? Perhaps the magic can’t pass through liquids the same way it passes through gasses or solids?” Barry drummed his fingers against the tabletop, a rapid fire rhythm too fast to find a pattern in.
“Perhaps,” Arthur allowed. “I hypothesize that it is more closely tied to the subtle biological differences between human and Atlantean, as I was on land—and therefore unprotected by water—when the pulse went out.”
Oliver snorted. “That’s convenient.”
Arthur’s jaw set, but that was the only sign of his annoyance. “I had come up at dawn to visit my father’s grave and then to meet with Jackson and his young son. I had hoped that together, we’d find a way to convince Rose into letting their son explore some of his Atlantean heritage.” Arthur’s face crumpled with sorrow. “Now it doesn’t matter. I suppose the boy is dead, even though it was kept off the news. Poseidon watch over him.”
Bruce watched his comrade for a long moment. “Michael Wilson is not dead.”
Arthur’s head shot up. “What? Michael lives? Bruce, are you sure?”
Bruce nodded. “Forgive me for not making this public, but I thought it best to consider the boy’s safety. The call Rose placed before she died wasn’t to Deathstroke, it was to the boy’s daycare. One of my covert operatives retrieved him, and brought him to the Manor about twenty minutes ago.”
“That’s great news,” Barry noticed, glancing over at Arthur. “Jesus, at least something good happened today.”
“Alfred has offered to watch over him in the Manor,” Bruce offered. “We thought it safest, although if Michael could handle it, it may be better for the boy to go back to Atlantis.”
Arthur smiled, yet it more clearly outlined his pain. “Thank you, Bruce. I don’t know if being one-quarter Atlantean will be enough. I’ll have to test the boy after this.”
“That won’t piss Slade Wilson off? His only surviving grandchild haring off to Atlantis?” Oliver glanced around the table as he spoke. “Remember how well he took Rose’s dalliance with Jackson in the first place? Pretty sure that’s why they never got married; Rose was probably too worried Daddy Deathstroke would do a number on the hubby.”
Arthur’s expression turned to stone. “Let Slade come after the boy if he dares. I will protect him.”
“We will protect him.” Diana reached out, lightly touching Arthur on the arm. “Just as we will protect all others still left in our care. Bruce, what news on civilian casualties? Were we the only ones targeted?”
“Apart from a number of unluckily named civilians, yes,” he replied. “There were a number of terrorist strikes in Metropolis around the same time, but Luthor has mobilized Metropolis’s defenses and as governor, has declared martial law. So far it’s worked to keep the panic down. Until our enemies reveal themselves, or we reveal them, we’re at a standstill.”
“And our undercover agents?” Diana kept her gaze on Bruce as she spoke, not caring for the effect her question might have on others in the room.
“Staying in position,” Bruce said quietly. “We’re watching them closely, however, for their protection, and ours.”
“Waitwaitwait. We had undercover agents? Like, watching Luthor and Ra’s and all that?” Oliver looked from Bruce to Diana with his usual pout when something wasn’t going his way. Bruce knew that was an unfair way of seeing it, but he and Oliver had known each other since their youth when they had attended Charles Agatha Drummonds Boarding School for Boys only two years apart. They had not always been fond each other. In fact, Bruce being Batman was probably what annoyed Green Arrow the most—he was one of the few people in the room who had not realized that Bruce was Bruce Wayne until this morning.
“We do,” Bruce admitted stonily. “Forgive me for not going into more detail about them, or their mission. I can assure you I am not the only one directing them. Clark, Hal, Dinah, Barbara, and Diana are or were also doing so.”
Oliver sputtered, and Bruce felt slightly sorry for Dinah, who’d have to bear the brunt of his whining. Next to him, Barry looked up quickly, an odd expression flashing across his face. Bruce blamed Hal for his faulty circumspection. Clearly he had let something slip, but perhaps the whole scenario had been too obvious. Barry had fostered a crush on Shayera, after all. The man was bound to notice something.
“And even with them in place we were unable to prevent this?” Arthur’s question was not as pointed as it could have been, and Bruce was grateful for that much. They had been looking for this for months, and still had found nothing. He would never stop blaming himself for this, just as he could never forgive himself for Jason’s death.
“Yes, and it’s more than just that,” Bruce clenched his hand into a fist, unable to hide all of his frustration. “Victor and Barbara had been combing Luthor’s assets for months and could not find where all the money had been channeled to. Now the only clues we have to go on are tabloids, an indecipherable recording, and the mounting death count. We have pieces of the puzzle, but until I have more of them, I can’t put it together fast enough. This is my failure. I cannot apologize enough for not catching any of this in time. I am sorry. I—”
The shock of hearing Batman apologize so fervently immobilized everyone but Billy. Hesitantly he laid on hand on Bruce’s shoulder, holding it there until Bruce looked over at him. Then he pulled it back, looking like he’d done something wrong.
“Er—it’s ok, Batma—Bruce. It’s not your fault—not our fault. If we blame ourselves they’re just gonna win, and we’re the ones who gotta make it right.”
“Make it right,” Bruce repeated, and only the knowledge that Billy was 18 years old kept him from making his tone as scathing as it could have been.
“I mean, this is bad,” Billy continued. “Maybe the worst we’ve ever faced, but I still believe in you, and in us. I still believe in the League, even if it’s taken a hit. We’ll just have to make a new league, one that won't fail.”
“A new league,” Bruce repeated again, as if doing so would make more sense. Was Billy’s health worse than he knew, to babble on like this?
Billy finished with, “Look, we gotta have faith, ‘cuz if we don’t, how is anyone else going to? So just . . . c’mon. Be Batman, ‘cuz Batman always brings us through.”
Something in Billy’s stuttering earnestness brought out the best in Oliver. Brusquely, he shoved his hand palm down into the center of the circle, and rolled his eyes when everyone simply stared at him.
“Oh come on guys,” he said. “Billy set that up for us, now we gotta team it up. You know, League style. Well, New League style. Or whatever we want to call us, just get your damn hands in the center and let’s pump ourselves up!”
After a moment, Barry and Arthur extended their hands, and Billy laid his on top. Diana followed suit with a small smile. All looked at Bruce who watched the hands pile up with no small amount of self-loathing.
Finally, he placed his hand on top of the pile.
The New League had been formed.
Personal note: I went with Jackson Hyde rather than Kaldur’ahm because that’s how I was introduced to the character, rather than the smoking hot Young Justice counterpart. Not that it matters, now. RIP Half of DCU :(
I straight up made up the boarding school Bruce and Ollie went to. I think I also made up the fact that they went to boarding school together, but at this point things have been retconned so many times that I honestly do not know. It is a mystery.
Michael Wilson is the ONLY O.C. in this fic (apart from the bad guys, and even then . . . well, you’ll see). He’s not going to be a ridiculously overpowered toddler, no worries.
Chapter 3: Fallout
Note—we’re pretending that no one other than Hal and Ollie have met Appa Ali Apsa. Please, and thank you.
Also, in this lovely Elseworld I am imagining, Dinah and Ollie have never been married (but not for lack of trying on Ollie’s part, as you shall see.)
I went with Ted Kord as Blue Beetle, rather than Jaime Reyes, and instead of having both of them in the continuum, let’s pretend Ted was never killed. There are too many characters for my brain as it is.
Now on with the show.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
June 22nd, 20xx
Oa, 3rd hour of ‘morning’ by their reckoning
At the heart of the Milky Way galaxy, Clark Kent entertained dark thoughts about the Green Lantern Corps.
At the edges of his concentration, a door whooshed open and a familiar voice said, “Hey, J’onn. Woah. What’s with big and brooding over there?”
He knew his discontent was unmerited. They had done much good while they were here, and had presented a strong, dignified representation of Earth’s power and diplomacy at the same time. The Oans were nothing but friendly, wise, and ready to teach them anything they desired. Even their accommodations were thoughtful. Large and spacious, each with their own room, and they were not lit by the green flame that was otherwise everywhere on Oa, and on their ships. This way, even J’onn with his instinctual fear of fire could be at ease.
Outside the realm of his thoughts, another familiar voice rumbled, “He’s just thinking, Hal. Leave him be.”
Clark’s disquiet sprang from this: there was no mission. At least, not as far as he could see. The Oans spoke of the Ikons, an ancient enemy recently awoken. They were dangerous beings that had, eons ago, come close to ruling over the entire universe. From their humble beginnings on a small planet in the Cosmos Redshift 7 galaxy, they had utilized cloak and dagger guerilla tactics, rather than wage all out war.
If they were a modern-day threat, those tactics must be still in use, however, as they were nowhere to be found. Their homeland was deserted, and there was no trace of them throughout the galaxy. This was the eighth planet they had combed for any clues as to their whereabouts, and Clark was getting a little antsy. It was clear that the Ikons were not here. How many more planets, solar system, or even galaxies would they have to investigate before they found any trace of them or their plans?
A clear baritone infringed on the edges of his awareness. “Just saying, he might go and break the window with all that brooding. Bats certainly would. Actually, Bats would be proud, right about now. Probably taught him everything he knows.”
According to old Oan legends, the Ikons were a race steeped in dangerous magic, and had used such magic to bend other worlds to their will. While they were at the height of their power, the Oans had pushed them back with the help of several other races—thus laying the framework for the first Green Lantern Corps—yet several turns of their world ago (about eight months, Earth time) a few archaeologists had uncovered startling prophecies.
It was impossible to be sure, but they thought several planets in the Milky Way galaxy might be targeted. Clearly, more investigation was needed. The other Lantern warriors on Earth were busy with their own missions, so they looked to Earth’s premier delegate, along with a few of his friends.
All this was fine and good, Clark thought, and nothing had changed his resolve to protect Earth even before the danger stretched that far. Yet this was chasing shadows, and something he had never been good at. Bruce was good at this kind of thing, and—
Wait, had Hal walked in while he was thinking?
He turned just as Hal raised a hand to clap him on the shoulder, a grin splitting his face at Clark’s rapid turn.
“Ah, now you hear me, buddy,” Hal said. “Are you done brooding, or should I start running really, really fast?”
Clark sighed in exasperation. Several of Hal’s friends from the Lantern Corps had docked on their spaceship last night, and his mood had risen proportionately. It was a little unnerving to see him smile. While they had worked together in the League for years now, and Clark had a great deal of faith in Hal, he hadn’t had too much experience with the Lantern side of Hal. Nor the side of him that could only be termed giddy. Perhaps this was what he was like with Ollie and Barry? It was definitely not the way he was with Bruce, Diana, or Arthur.
Shaking his head, Clark asked, “Hal, is there any word on the missing Ikons? Anything? At all?”
Hal winced, and J’onn floated closer. “Not as such,” he admitted. “Although I do have some good news. Or, well, interesting news. Ok. It’s probably not bad news . . . ”
Even J’onn looked askance at that. “What’s not bad news?” He asked.
“Hey, any news at all is welcome, by this point.” Hal grinned up at the Martian and then activated his ring so that he could float up to their level. Clark glanced down, surprised. He hadn’t realized he’d been floating too. He must be more distracted than he’d thought.
Hal continued, “Anyway, the news is this: an old guardian has called us out for a secret rendezvous. If anyone knows the truth about what’s going on—and don’t get me wrong, I love the Oans but something about this is a little sketchy—it’ll be him.”
“Can we trust him?” J’onn’s low, monotone voice was a comforting contrast after the reed thin Oan voices, and Hal’s natural expressivity.
Hal shrugged. “He’s . . . mostly a good guy. He kind of looks like he’s been sticking fingers into electrical sockets, and he gets a little lost in the mysteries of ‘The Universe’ from time to time, but he’s reliable, and always wants to do the right thing. And he’s a big Earth fan. So I’d say yes.”
“When do we meet?” Clark asked.
“After we scout. We’ll take our time coming back, and he’ll hit us up then. So after we’re called, we stay together, and then—”
Hal cut off, inadvertently clenching his hand into a fist. A moment later, it began to glow with a soft green light, emanating from the ring. They were being hailed.
He grinned. “Perfect timing. Let’s do our thing and then get to the bottom of this, yeah? Then we can go home.”
They flew out the door, merging with the mass of Corps members making their way to the docking bays. Happy to have a plan at last, Clark grinned over at Hal just before they became lost in the throng. “Missing Carol?” He teased. “Or is it all that Oan cuisine that has you anxious for home?”
An odd expression flashed across Hal’s face when Carol was mentioned, but he covered it up with, “Clark, I haven’t had a cheeseburger in months. Do not bait me unless you are offering me one, is all I am saying . . . ”
June 22nd, 20xx
Oa, 1st hour of ‘afternoon’ by their reckoning
It had been a few years since Hal had seen Appa Ali Apsa, but he hoped the little goon was just the same as ever. Well, the same as he’d been when he’d taken human form and road tripped it across the continental US with him and Ollie, a few years back. Not when he’d gone a little nuts and tried to implement himself as a God. Hopefully, those days were over . . . and Appa wasn’t feeling nostalgic enough to mention them.
(Christ, that would be awkward.)
No, what Hal was banking on never changing about Appa was his insatiable need for knowledge, and finding the core of truth in a mystery. Knowledge was sacrosanct to him, and Hal hoped he’d have something to work off of. Otherwise, Clark and J’onn may get distracted by the eccentricities of his past history, and not on the validity of his information.
The bottom line was this: if the Mad Guardian knew what the hell was really going on, he would trust him. Even if Hal had firsthand experience of why he had earned that nickname.
The rendezvous cave was on the other damn side of the planet, and after twenty minutes of flying at super speed over desert, more desert, and oh, that’s a lovely patch of desert over there, Hal’s eyes were spinning from all the beige. Green was by no means his favorite color, (he favored orange, as a matter of fact, and then a nice sky blue) but the strain was enough that he was ready to head back to the Oan ship to be inundated by emerald.
Just as he was about to call a circle back, sure they had missed the slight indent that signalled the underground cave, he saw it—a flash of blue against the beige. It was Appa, waving them down. He signalled to Clark and J’onn and they spiralled down, kicking up small dust devils in their haste.
The ancient Oan awaited them in the middle of a dry, dusty cave, which was mercifully far cooler than the heat of the desert above them. He stood with his feet spread in a wide-legged stance, his bony hands clutching a wooden, knob-ended walking stick. Had Hal not known him to be an immensely powerful and only occasionally lucid entity, he would have underestimated him as a doddering old man. Maybe he should have given Clark and J’onn a bit more warning?
Nah, he chuckled to himself. They’re supers for a reason.
As soon as all three landed Appa spread his arms in greeting. “Welcome. I apologize for my lack of formality, but there is not much time. I have only just learned the truth, and I feel honor-bound to present it to you before convincing my brethren.”
“Ok,” Clark noticed in an undertone. “Hal, how trustworthy is this guy again?”
Rather than replying—Clark probably wouldn’t like the answer, to be honest—Hal stepped forward. “Thanks, Appa. We’ll take anything you can get. Looking for these damned Ikons is starting to feel like a wild goose chase.”
Appa stiffened. “It both is and isn’t what you would deem a ‘wild goose chase.’ The Ikons are indeed the enemy we all seek. They are simply not where we expected them to be.”
“Their homeworld was deserted,” Clark said. “As is this one. As have been all the others. How did you determine where they were headed when no one else could?”
“You been deciphering prophecies in your spare time?” Hal jibbed.
“Of course not,” Appa sniffed. “I simply followed an unfortunate hunch. There, I found traces of their presence. So yes, I know precisely where they are.”
“Yet your people do not,” J’onn pointed out.
“They do not believe,” the old Oan replied. “They do not wish to admit that in relying on the prophecies, they have allowed the Ikons to set up their first wave.”
“First wave?” Hal asked, wondering how long Appa was going to keep up his cryptic schtick and get to the goods.
The answer was apparently now. Appa settled his hands back over the knob of his walking stick and began his lecture. “The Ikons attack in several distinct waves. The first is comprised of a small group of shapeshifters; the most adept and powerful in diverse types of magic. They are sent to the projected planet to ease the way for the oncoming army. They target and eliminate the most powerful of the world’s protectors, leaving the world open to attack.
“All this after months of selecting important individuals, observing them, learning all they possibly can about them, and then capturing and testing them in horrific ways, all so that they can witness their reactions and motivations.” Appa continued. “After they kill them, they assume their lives. They become the faces everyone turns to when the rest of their heroes and protectors die. They are the ones that promise the people salvation in the form of the second wave, the cavalry of the Ikons. The natives of the planet are then annihilated, and the world empty for takeover.”
Hal shifted uncomfortably, but neither Clark nor J’onn moved.
Appa continued, “While they can rely on the invaded world’s weapons and resources, not excluding the necessary propaganda, and warriors under control of their stolen forms; only one major weapon is utilized by the first waves: a magical ‘pulse’ that was stolen from a race destroyed long ago. It is a two-fold weapon. It provides defense by precluding any alien life form—save those with DNA attuned to its frequencies—from arriving on the planet, while also bestowing invincibility to the first wave of Ikons. It also is an offensive weapon as well—”
“Of course it is,” Clark muttered, and Hal suspected that he saw the issue too. If this magical pulse barred any alien lifeforms from reaching the planet, what good would it do for them to be there?
Appa gave him a serene look before continuing. “Not only does it bar all aliens from reaching the planet, it will kill off any existing alien whose DNA is not resonant with the magic. In essence, when the pulse goes off, it will kill off any non-native and non-Ikonic lifeform on the planet.”
“That is unfortunate,” J’onn muttered. “And it makes a counterattack much more difficult.”
“Well, how does it work?” Hal asked, eying his friends nervously. Somehow, he was beginning to regret bringing them all here, even though he knew they could not move forward until they better understood the threat they were facing.
“It is powered by the natural magic of the invaded world, and more so the mages of the native species. It leeches their power and stability, leaving them unable to move against the Ikons, as well as sacrificing their mental and physical health.”
Hal groaned. That was both incredibly specific and not at all helpful. He narrowed his eyes and asked, “Anything helpful you can tell us, Appa?”
“All of my information is helpful,” the ancient Oan replied with a frown. “But if you must be so impatient, I can tell you where they are.”
“That’s not above our pay grade?” Clark snarked.
Appa, either not registering the comment or not caring, gave them all a pitying look. “The pulse was activated two days ago, as far as I can tell. Judging by the erratic behavior of the planet’s magical signature, it can’t be more than that. This is most fortunate news, as otherwise—”
“Appa,” Hal interrupted. “Just tell us where they are, will you?”
“Oh,” Appa murmured. “I thought you’d determined that already. Earth. They’re on Earth.”
June 22nd, 20xx
Earth, Metropolis 7 O’Clock News
The news anchor was young, blonde, and beautiful, but she had a pleasingly low voice that gave her a measure of gravitas.
“We can’t express how grateful we are that you’re here with us tonight, Mr. Luthor,” she began, and no one watching doubted her sincerity. “The overnight collapse of America’s superhero community has shaken the country’s foundation, yet you’re one of the few who is willing to pick up the pieces, and perhaps attract the wrath of whoever or whatever targeted them. Can you explain your decision to take up Superman’s reins?”
If the reference to his nemesis nettled him, the cameras didn’t pick it up. Luthor merely smiled at the woman, just enough to be friendly, but not enough to be taken as insensitive.
“It wasn’t really a conscious choice, not in a time like this. This is a terrible blow not only for America, but for the world. I grieve for what and who we have lost—some of the world’s best and brightest heroes. I cannot be but thankful that several of us, both civilians and superheros alike, have been preparing for just such an emergency for years. This was simply the time when America needed us to step into the void and protect humanity.”
“And can you go into more detail about what that would entail?”
“Only a little. My confederates and I have been working closely with the US government to implement programs that would be able to provide the protection generally supported by superheroes, without providing the same . . . enticement to destroy them. Seeing as how no one other than a super has been harmed since the attacks, I can only guess that the enemy’s hatred is based towards them alone. So far our tactics have proven successful in keeping civilians safe. Beyond that I’m afraid I must keep mum. You understand.”
“Of course,” she agreed, nodding as her eyes track minutely over to the teleprompter. “Now to change tracks slightly. The enemy, as you called them. Mysterious as they are, the media has, somewhat irreverently, taken to calling them Iconoclasts. What do you know about them?”
Luthor nodded. “Yes, I’d heard. A morbid but fitting name, I suppose, if you imagine superheroes to be gods. I know little more than you, however. Since they have struck they have remained perfectly concealed, leaving no trace, making no demands. It is as if they were ghosts. Even the use of a plural pronoun is an assumption, based on how many ‘they’ were able to murder in such a short span of time.”
The news anchor nodded. “And is there any advice that you can offer our viewers?”
“Of course.” He linked his fingers together and looked directly at the camera before saying. “I know that this is a very difficult, and very frightening time for all of us. It is a very serious crisis. Yet people of America, please do not panic. The Iconoclasts, as they have been termed, show absolutely no interest in upsetting our way of life beyond their attacks on our superheros. Those left behind are far from helpless, and the government’s countermeasures will keep you safe. Trust in us. Depend on us. All will be well.”
The news anchor began nodding along with him before he finished. “And is there anything we can do to help our heroes?”
“Well, the worst thing you could do is to put yourself at risk,” he pointed out. “If there is a way to discreetly assist, it is probably to keep calm. Putting yourself in danger will just make the situation worse, and yourself a target. Leave as much as you can to the professionals. The government and what is left of the superhero community will address the Iconoclasts and defeat them, as they have always done, in due time. Until then, you must support them with your belief.”
Her eyes flicked once behind him, reading the signal to wrap up. “One more question, Mr. Luthor. Has there been news on Superman? Any word on when he’s coming home?”
There was a tiny flicker in his left eye only, like a light had passed over a reflecting glass. Then it was gone, and that warm, meaningless smile was back. “I doubt I’d be the one he’d contact. Mr. Wayne—I’m sorry, Batman would be a better guess. But I can tell you what I will do. I will work my hardest to ensure that there is a world for him to come back to.”
The news anchor’s smile was warm, but professional. “Thank you once again, Mr. Luthor.”
June 22nd, 20xx
Washington, D.C., 9:19 PM
Diana Prince paced through her apartment one last time, making sure everything was unplugged and put away. She was taking very little with her, although she would be gone for longer than she’d like. As long as Themyscira was in danger—to say nothing of the World of Man—she was loathe to leave at all. But there was a realm that was in more danger than theirs, and if it was taken, all was lost.
The only point of gratitude was that Themyscira’s evacuation plans were well underway. The size and location of the fabled city of the Amazons had been brought up again and again on all the news programs she’d watched today, and Oracle had assured her it was impossible to move too soon. Scattered amongst various pre-selected bunkers, safe houses, and secluded communities around the globe, her people would not be hidden as well as they were now, but they would be less of a target than had they remained on the island.
The gods’ protection was failing them, and there was no other choice. Diana could only pray that Bruce and the New League were able to destroy these ‘Iconoclasts’ and their magic pulse quickly enough so that everyone might be able to return home undiscovered.
If wishes were fishes, she told herself, thinking of something she’d heard Barry say, once. That made her think of Arthur, and their mission. As if on cue, the doorbell rang.
“Diana? Are you ready? She heard him call through her deceptively thick door. Although it looked like a modern, sparsely tasteful apartment, it was decked out with state of the art surveillance and a few unexpected defense systems. It was part of why she had decided to come here after the Iconoclasts had attacked, wanting to put a few things in order.
No, she thought in answer to his question. Hera help her, but nothing could prepare her for what she was about to do. None of that was Arthur’s fault, however, so she opened the door and invited him in.
Arthur’s eyes widened at the sight of her. “What happened?”
There was no point in trying to cover her defensive wounds. The bruises coloring her face, chest, and legs, the slice of a dagger along her upper bicep and another just above her left bracelet, and the stench of burning flesh and synthetic material that inundated her apartment.
“Assassins with kill-switches,” she growled.
Arthur stepped inside, shutting the door behind him. He frowned as he reached for her arm, hesitating before he could touch her. Knowing he was far too much of a gentleman to touch her without permission, no matter how perfunctory the inspection, she turned her arm on her own, showing him the full length of the wound.
“You’re going to have to be more succinct than that,” he said, grave as always.
It had been a danger to come back here alone, as the five scorch marks on the roof of her apartment attested to. The agents had been lying in wait for her, but she had torn through them with righteous rage. She was lucky she had drawn them away from her apartment, and onto the rooftop. Otherwise the stench would have been unbearable.
Diana pursed her lips. “Five assassins targeted me once I crossed into Washington, D.C. The first I knocked unconscious. The second I captured with my lasso, but as soon as I did so the rest . . . exploded. Likely so we could not capture and interrogate any of them.”
He wrinkled his nose. “That explains the odor.”
“I apologize for the smell,” she said. “I showered, but it’s hard to cut the scent.”
Arthur’s expression was grim, and his gaze rested on her wounds. Diana knew he hated the sight of her injuries more than most. It was the same for Shayera, Dinah, and all the other ladies in the League. It was not sexism, as he had the utmost respect for them and their abilities. He was simply a traditional gentleman, and he hated to see women getting hurt. Sometimes, this made her angry. Other times, it made her wonder why more men were not like that.
“Have you let Bruce know?” He asked.
Diana nodded. “He said to continue on with our mission. He’s hoping we reach Atlantis with no more serious attempts on our lives.”
For that was the mission of utmost importance. Atlantis, with its non-human magic, must be preserved. Arthur had told her and Bruce enough of his homeland’s magic that it had become their first priority. Were the Iconoclasts able to gain control over it, the war would be over, and Earth would belong to them in more ways than one.
Diana was the only one who could help Arthur in Atlantis, and only after striking a deal with one of her gods. The deal had been . . . unpleasant, and she had been placed in a terrible position. A veritable rock and a hard place, she mused. She would not reflect on it now, lest it weaken her. It had been the hardest decision she’d ever had to make, and failure was untenable.
“Not many of us were targeted twice. I don’t understand their methods,” Arthur mused, speaking too quietly for anyone to overhear, as she locked the apartment behind her. “Apart from the unmasking, of course. Some, like the Red Hood and his Outlaws were left alone. You and I both had no trouble fighting off our attackers, and the same could be said for Barry and Oliver. Yet they took down two Green Lanterns, Victor, and Wally! It just doesn’t make sense.”
Diana looked directly at him, her bearing as regal as his. “Don’t avoid the truth, Arthur,” she said, in the same low volume. “There may have been different methods of attack, each with varying levels of success, but we both know that betrayal must have factored into this. I would guess for all those you’ve named, they were killed by someone close to them. Someone they trusted implicitly.”
Arthur sighed roughly. “There are few of us that fit that description.”
“That is why it is so hard to bear.”
“I worry most about Bruce,” Arthur said in a dark tone.
Diana frowned in confusion. “What do you mean?”
“He wasn’t targeted, Diana,” Arthur explained. “And perhaps it’s because his true identity is so well-known, so powerful, in and out of Gotham. Or perhaps it’s because they want us to wonder why he and his family were left largely unmolested.”
“You can’t be saying he’s the traitor,” Diana breathed.
Arthur drew back. “Of course not! You and I and the rest of the League know better, but those don’t know might wonder. There may be some who survived the purge who are lying low, afraid to pledge their loyalty to someone who they fear has betrayed us.”
“It’s not Bruce,” she said stubbornly. “That goes against everything he is.”
That made Arthur smile, and his blue eyes softened. “I agree with you. That’s why I’m worried. If our enemy tricks us into doubting him, I fear we are lost.”
“If they trick us into doubting one another we are lost,” Diana corrected. “Not just Bruce. We have to trust each other. You and I most of all.”
Arthur stopped and looked at her. He was every inch a king, even when standing in the dimly lit hallway of her apartment complex. She understood and appreciated his essence of regality. That, along with his moral integrity—no to mention his astounding power in and around the water—were two important reasons why she had enjoyed working with him in the past.
“Diana,” he began, quietly, “I want you to understand that even if every other member of the League were able to accompany me to protect my homeland, you would have been my first choice. You would always be my first choice. Not just because of your power, and your intelligence, and your upbringing, but because I consider you my friend. I trust you entirely, and not least because I know you will not embarrass yourself in a culture that is not your own.”
His speech was concluded with a little smile, lightening his content. Still, it was heartfelt enough that she had to look away for a moment, just to still herself. There was something powerful in Arthur’s regard, and after all these years she was still not quite immune to it.
“I’m glad to hear that, Arthur,” she said. “Truth be told, I don’t wish to leave Themyscira, nor the World of Man. Accompanying you makes it bearable.” As they stepped into the elevator, she gave him her the closest thing to a smile she could manage. “And it’s nice to hear that I’m your favorite in the League.”
“Well, I am fond of Barry, as well,” he admitted. “But he would be little use to us on the bottom of the seafloor.” Arthur flashed her a small smile, and it sparked a moment of attraction within her. She was aware of Arthur, but it was something containable, something she could fight down. That frisson of interest reminded her of who she had no defenses against.
Where are you, Clark? She asked herself as the elevator doors closed in front of them. We need you. I need you. Please stay safe, and find a way to come home.
June 23rd, 20xx
Gotham, 6:18 AM
Zatanna leaned her head against the glass, feeling the reverberation of the train through her entire body. Dark shapes whizzed by, all punctuated by the soft glare of underground lighting. She was exhausted, and the day would only get more tiring as it went on. It had taken her several hours to reach the subway, especially as she could not travel through her normal means. John had once taught her how to travel in his effortless manner, although she’d never been so good at it as he was. Now, exhausted, disheartened, and with her magic hounded by some inexplicable force—spell, she reminded herself—she had no choice but to travel like a muggle.
It left her plenty of time to reflect on how much trouble she was in. Barbara, Dinah, Helena and Carol were not going to like her much when they woke up and found that she was gone. Relying on her was a little like counting on a drunken Chihuahua, but they had strong armed her into helping shore up the remains of the Super Community. Between setting up safe houses, overseeing transportation, supplying badly needed goods, arranging protection for supers and their families, and thousands of other little tasks that needed completing, they all had their hands full and Zatanna had effectively run out on them.
As little as they liked her gone, she figured they would like her goodbye note even less. All she had been able to scrawl was:
Need to find Nick.
Be back soon.
She hoped they would understand she was seeking out her ex in hopes of learning what he knew, and not that she was defecting. She did plan on being back soon. Probably. Hopefully.
The subway car turned a corner and its wheels screeched in protest. Zatanna winced at the pain in her temples. She felt as if she were walking along the edge of a knife—using magic would incapacitate her, yet pain might center her. Still, she had been lucky so far. With the disguise she had lifted from Bruce’s manor, she had not been recognized. When she was, or if the baddies stumbled onto her anyway, she would have no choice but to protect herself with her magic.
That was why she needed to get to Nick. They needed information, and he was one of the two people she could think of that might possibly know what was going on. Especially since he’d been all moody and cryptic as of late, getting all gloom and doom about the smallest things. If he didn’t . . .that was when things would get tricky.
Then she’d have to seek him out. John Constantine. The man who had chewed her up and spat her out, both magically and emotionally. The man who was inarguably the most powerful mage she had ever met, but was also the most capricious. The doomed one, some called him; the hanged man. The man whose name still made Shazam blanch—John had once stolen Billy’s powers, and only Billy’s fantastic luck and cleverness had allowed him to win them back.
She and Nick Necro had history as well, of course, in and out of the bedroom. John Constantine had figured largely in both aspects, honestly. But she thought that without John as an instigating force, she might be able to talk to Nick with no one dying, opening portals to dangerous magical realms, or at the very least shouting.
In her current state, her headache blinding, the thought of lowered voices was pleasing, indeed. In fact, the thought of a moment’s quiet so enchanted her that when someone jostled her, large hand gripping firmly around the curve of her posterior, she reacted instinctively.
“kcaB ffo,” she intoned, pulling on a whisper of her power to make him leave. In that moment, pain crashed down on her, making her cry out.
Shit, she thought, as her legs wobbled beneath her. You’re an idiot.
The tram was full, most were now staring at her. The man she had told to back off was ranting louder and louder about being forced away from her. “It’s not natural! She forced me away! Just with a few words!”
Pain crested over her like a wave, and a larger one loomed. She’d weather it—she was tougher than she looked—but she had to get off the train. There was only one thing for it. Gritting her teeth, she thought of John and his special mode of travelling. Time to go, she told herself, bracing herself for pain and confusion. Then, when her legs buckled beneath her, she harnessed that momentum, and whispering levart, sank right through the floor.
Doing this like John could, slipping through the cracks in the world and calling it travel, was hard enough at the best of times. Truthfully, Zatanna had her doubts that she could pull it off now. But she was desperate, and so as the world and her perception of it whipped by at a fantastic pace, she found the strength to whisper orceN kciN, and her destination was set.
The world spun faster before stopping abruptly. She stumbled forward, trying to catch her balance. Then, as if her feet were glued to the floor, she could go no further. Her momentum was such that she had to throw her hands forward to catch herself before falling to the ground entirely.
For a moment she half-thought she had somehow left her feet behind her on the train. She couldn’t understand why she couldn’t just shift them, even an inch. Then blue, glowing rune light activated on the ground beneath her, and she knew. Rare as they were, her father had spoken of them. This was a mage trap, designed to hold her here by the strength of the caster’s magic. And she had just stumbled into it.
It was also in the middle of an abandoned warehouse. Points for originality, Zatanna thought. Never been in one of these, before. Blessedly, her headache was gone. Although she was unsure as to the finer details of how a mage trap worked, something about it seemed to be holding her headache at bay, even if she was restricted from using her magic, as well.
Well, there was no point in sitting around. Now that she could think clearly, she was almost chipper, even though she was captured. Besides, this was probably one of her paranoid ex-boyfriend’s defenses.
“Nick!” She shouted, before she could think better of it. “It’s just me. I only came to talk. It’s important. Let me out, please!”
There were several minutes of waiting, glorying in her relatively healthy status, and admiring the crumbling brickwork before a door opened at the far end of the warehouse. A slice of sunlight cut across the floor as it opened. It was a little jarring. Abandoned warehouses were nighttime places, in her opinion. Not 6:30 AM places.
As soon as the second person walked through the door, however, Zatanna tensed. She exhaled slowly when two more walked through. This was not Nick. None of them were Nick. That meant she had triggered some trap—potentially made for him—set by people who knew she could travel like John Constantine. Only a handful could. In fact, as far as she knew, it was only she, John, and Nick.
So who had caught her? And where was Nick?
The four figures were hooded and cloaked, and a small, irreverent part of her thought that was just ridiculous. Unless you were straight up coven’ing at midnight on Samhain, or whatever it was teenagers tended to get up to, these days, anything more than streetwear was just melodramatic.
Then again, she tended to wreak havoc in a leotard and a top hat, so who was she to judge?
The four figures surrounded the mage trap glyph, so that Zatanna had to pace to keep them all in sight. She refused to spin wildly, however. This wasn’t her first rodeo, and she wouldn’t give her captors the satisfaction of seeing her afraid.
“Human mage,” one of them hissed, through a throat that sounded a bit like he’d been gargling glass. “We welcome your contribution to our overthrow.”
Huh, Zatanna thought. Talia al Ghul was right. Unsubtle alien invasion it is, then. “Um, no. Sorry, but I’ll have to decline. Helping alien invaders is not on my to-do list for today. Try again . . . never.”
“Your wishes are ignored,” Another said, with that same unsettling roughness. This voice was slightly lower, and in some indefinable way sounded more humanistic than the first. “The same as your pleas for mercy shall be.”
Before Zatanna could open her mouth to argue that she would be begging exactly no one for mercy, the third spoke. “Just as the last victim’s were.”
“Last victim?” She said instead, as slowly, the gears in her mind began to turn.
“The dark haired male,” the familiar-sounding captor not-so-helpfully explained.
“Strong in magic,” another added. “He had much power to exploit. Very useful sacrifice.”
Zatanna stared at the last alien in horror, piecing it all together. She had asked to travel to Nick, but Nick wasn’t here. Unless . . . he was here. At least a part of him. Like a hand, or a foot . . .
Or his magical essence . . .
Bile rose up in Zatanna’s throat. Was this how the mage’s trap was powered? Her father had told her they were horrible, painful experiences, but this energy was actually somewhat soothing, for all that it left her powerless. Was it because it was Nick’s? They had loved each other, once. Did his magical energy still retain some of that fondness for her?
Zatanna closed her eyes. “Nick isn’t dead,” she told them, even though she was now fairly sure he was. Now, however, she had to stall for time or an idea, or at least an opportunity. If these beings killed Nick, they would have zero trouble killing her. “You’re lying.”
“There is no reason to lie, human woman,” the robed figure directly in front of her gargled. Then, as if that was some kind of signal, all four raised their arms at once.
Zatanna rocked her weight back as she scrambled for her holster. The loaded pistol had been just part of her costume that she had ‘borrowed’ from the mansion, although she doubted Bruce would mind. Especially if it meant she could take down one of the baddies now, before they killed her.
Her aim was neither smooth nor efficient—she wasn’t highly trained in firearms, for Christ’s sake, she was no Red Hood—but she managed to get the gun on the alien in front of her just as they began to chant.
She pulled back the trigger, but just as the gun fired, her world went dark.
June 23rd, 20xx
Wayne Manor, 9:27 AM
Alfred Pennyworth had several times noticed that important decisions, in the Wayne Household, were not restricted to the Batcave. Sometimes they were made in the kitchen. Sometimes with his input.
“People are panicking, Master Bruce,” he told his grown charge, all the while subtly corralling his newest one away from the sugar bowl. “They need a tangible sign that someone is protecting them. It’s one thing to hide away when you’re still in danger. Now, when all the attacks against supers have apparently stopped, it just looks cowardly.”
Bruce grunted, his visage dark. He didn’t even notice when Michael Wilson tottered over to him. Alfred bent down and scooped him up before they were forced to interact. In his current state, that would be nothing but disaster.
“What would you recommend?” Bruce asked, and Alfred took it as a positive sign that he was speaking at all.
“To make a show of strength,” Alfred said bluntly. “The world needs to see that its heroes have not abandoned it. While I understand it’s necessary to split up our remaining forces, I believe that Batman and Robin belong to Gotham. Let Richard and Timothy go off and provide assistance where they are most needed. I think you need to remain here.”
“Or lend Dick my spare suit,” Bruce muttered.
“Or that,” Alfred agreed, absently handing the toddler in his arms a carrot stick when he began to squirm. From across the kitchen, Damian squinted and frowned at the child, perhaps trying to find some resemblance to either Rose or Jackson.
Thinking Damian was playing with him, Michael covered his face with his hands before peeking out between his fingers.
Damian was decidedly unamused.
Alfred took note of this all peripherally. His attention was focused on Bruce, waiting to hear what had already been decided. For it already had been decided, that much he knew. Bruce did this sometimes—came to him with pre-made decisions, simply to check, at the last minute, whether he didn’t disagree with him too profoundly.
Alfred no longer pretended that it didn’t drive him spare. But in this circumstance, it made sense. Diana Prince and Arthur Curry had left for Atlantis last night, after it was decided that the Atlanteans’ brand of magic was far too dangerous to fall into enemy hands. As they were the two beings on Earth that could best survive the pressures of the ocean floor, as well as integrate into Atlantean society, they had set off to protect Arthur’s kingdom. As they were two integral members of the New League, Bruce would have made every decision he could with them, simply to have their input. Now all that was left to see them through, after running them by Alfred, of course.
“I will stay here,” Bruce finally said. “At least until I hear from Jim. Of all the times for him to take a vacation down in the tropics. But Barbara’s gotten through to him, and he’ll be back in a few days. Airline travel isn’t exactly as smooth as it used to be.”
Alfred nodded. “And the boys?” No need to ask about the girls. Barbara was in charge of them, and as far as they knew they were far safer out in Asia than here. Worse came to worst, they would be two of the remaining supers on foreign soil that might have to combat the Iconoclasts if the rest of them somehow fell.
Bruce glanced over at his youngest son. “Damian will continue as Robin. Tim is primarily going to help Oracle, but will retake his mantle as Red Robin if needed. Dick elected to stay Nightwing and work more closely with Birds of Prey, although will switch off with me as Batman as needed.”
“And Jason?” Alfred asked, offhandedly. Michael squirmed in his hold and he hoisted him higher, so that now he and Michael Wilson fixed Bruce with curious expressions.
Bruce had never been good with young children. His eyes flicked over to the toddler, his jaw tightening before responding. “Red Hood and the Outlaws are going to do what they always do, I suppose. Cause trouble. For once, I hope it will be to our benefit. He’s not given any specifics.”
It was a loose plan, but at the outset Alfred could find nothing he disagreed with. There was, however, one last point he had to discuss before Bruce became almost impossible to track down. “It sounds like you have all accounted for, Master Bruce. But before you go—I assume since Mister Curry did not take Michael Wilson, that we shall be caring for the young master here?”
Bruce winced. “One-quarter Atlantean is apparently not enough to survive the trip down, at least not at such a young age. Barbara and Helena are looking into establishing safe houses. We could probably—”
“Master Bruce,” Alfred interrupted, a look of stern disapproval on his face. “You aren’t insisting we send the tot away from us. Wayne Manor is the safest place for him; our identities compromised or not.”
Bruce narrowed his eyes at him, and Alfred was struck with a visceral memory of him at 11-years-old, making the exact same expression. He was hit by a wave of nostalgia. So much and yet so little had changed.
“You’re going to keep him here no matter what I decide, aren’t you?” Bruce asked flatly.
Alfred nodded serenely. “Quite right, Master Bruce.”
“I know better than to argue with you,” Bruce muttered. “Fine, just . . . try to keep him from getting underfoot. Damian, let’s go.”
Damian hopped up out of his chair, following his father down to the Batcave. Alfred looked down at the boy in his arms, who watched them go curiously.
“His Daddy?” He asked, pointing towards Damian.
With a lifetime of determining the odd logic of children, Alfred came to the correct conclusion. “Yes, Master Michael. Mr. Wayne is Damian’s father.”
Michael Wilson looked down. His eyelashes were long and dark, like his father’s, yet the curve of his nose was all his mother’s. “I have a daddy,” he told Alfred. “I dunno where he is. Momma, too. D’you know where dey went?”
Alfred’s heart throbbed. The boy was not yet four, and would never see his parents again. How was he to explain sudden death to a toddler?
“They are protecting us,” he informed the tot gravely. Someday he would be the one to Michael what had happened to his parents, but not until he could understand. “They are heroes, and have already protected many, many people. Now, they want to protect you.”
Michael’s lower lip wobbled. “I wanna see dem!”
“I know, I know,” Alfred rubbed his back comfortingly. “But the best way to keep them happy is to stay safe, with us. Can you do that, Master Michael?”
“But I miss them,” Michael protested, his entire voice wobbling. “I want Momma. I want Daddy!”
Alfred could see that a full on breakdown was imminent, and there was only one thing left to do. “Well, until the crisis is over, I think we may have to console ourselves with cookies,” he told the boy. “Do you like cookies?”
Michael nodded up at him, blinking away tears. Alfred knew that tonight would be a difficult one, particularly as it had been almost three days since he’d lost his parents. For now, he was lucky that Michael still seemed more interested in cookies than crying.
“Yes, please,” he told Alfred. Alfred was charmed that Rose had, for all her sins, taught her son good manners.
“Well then, could you be my helper? We need to make them from scratch, you see. And then I think we get to taste them.”
“Ok.” Michael agreed, and they set to work making cookies.
June 23rd, 20xx
Wayne Manor, 10:18 AM
There was a time, back when he was a kid in the orphanage, and before he’d been farmed out for the last time, when Billy had gotten sick. Really sick. 104 degree fever sick. He’d laid there on his cot bed, too weak to get up for a glass of water, let alone make it to the matron’s office. His fellow orphans had only gotten the matron when he began to rave about his own death in his delusions. He’d recovered after four nights spent in the hospital, and the matron had been cruel to him for weeks after. As if he’d gotten sick on purpose, just to make her look incompetent.
He remembered very little of that illness, and what he could remember made no sense. At one point he was convinced the window was melting, and that there had been a two inch tall velociraptor nipping at his eyeballs. Beyond that, there was only a sense of purpose, of determination.
I will not die yet, he had decided, ill and unravelling; fever heating his brain. I am not done.
That resolve had been strengthened through his meeting with the wizard, the gifting of his magical powers, every interaction with Black Adam, and his years of fighting in the Justice League. Every time he had felt weak; every time he had felt overwhelmed; every time he had whined to himself but I’m only a kid!, that remembrance would stiffen his spine, and make him keep going.
Today that resolve had been tested once again. Was being tested, even now. He had been steadily degrading since the magical pulse three days ago, but he’d always been able to combat the worst of the effects by turning back into plain, unmagical Billy Batson. Now, he could not. He had called down the living lightning three times—three times, and each time it felt like his body would split apart with the pressure—and nothing happened. The power was there, he could feel it, but something was blocking his transformation. Something was keeping him trapped in his magical form.
Something was controlling part of his magic.
Anger surged. How dare someone control him, control Shazam? With his anger came a tidal wave of dark energy, washing over him and making it hard to breathe. Every time he lost control of his emotions—and that was happening with growing frequency with every hour—some dark, murky, magical impulse overtook him. It was the surest proof that the magical pulse had lingering effects. Each rush was painful but also provocative, and as it lapped at him, he felt parts of his personality erode. First to go was his pride, and there was no shame in his obvious weakness, there was only the gratitude he could move at all. Next was his optimism, and he had long since given up hoping for him being well again, as long as he could help protect his friends. His self-worth was nearly gone, but he worried more for what was to come.
What would be stripped away next? His determination? His loyalty?
Billy was facing an enemy that he did not know how to fight. He could only rely on his remaining friends to save him. That, and do his best not to succumb. For that would be what was last to go.
His sense of purpose—I will not die yet. I am not done.
June 23rd, 20xx
Wayne Manor, 2:51 PM
Three and a half days since the Iconoclast attack, and no one else had died. Not yet, anyway. At least, to Bruce’s knowledge. For all his technology and his connections, there were places he couldn’t access. Right now, he was worried about one place in particular: Arkham Asylum. For whatever reason, he’d been unable to connect with anyone on the island. Nor could he hack into the security system, even when he tried via remote access through his old computer, located in his secret base located in one of the least accessible, subterranean caves beneath the island.
With enough time and effort he’d be able to break into their security system, but this wasn’t the time to devote his efforts to side projects. Nor could he ask Barbara to assist, not when she was being run ragged trying to protect every superhero in America. Yet the radio silence from the island when nearly every single major criminal from Gotham was currently ensconced within was slowly driving him mad, particularly as Selina was there, and there was no way for him to ensure she was safe.
She shouldn’t even have gone there this time! He raged internally. What the hell was wrong with that judge, sending her there instead of Blackgate? Not that Blackgate could hold Selina long, and every judge in the state knew it. Still, Arkham on a lockdown was no place for Bruce’s on-again, off-again lover, especially as she had been so damn good for the last three years, during her contractual efforts with Birds of Prey.
Then she had to go and steal that new blood diamond from a prominent jeweler’s, and all bets were off. It hadn’t even been him that caught her. She had slipped and fallen on the ice, leaving her easy pickings for the GCPD. The trial was open and shut, and as soon as the fractured ankle had healed enough for her to stand a chance, they had shipped her off to Arkham.
Bruce could only hope that she would be safer in there, than out here. Who was to say she wouldn’t have been targeted had she been on the outside? Jason was an equally controversial figure and hadn’t been targeted, but he was also legally and technically dead. Selina Kyle had no such protection, and everyone already knew she was Catwoman.
The bottom line was that there was nothing he could do. It went against everything he was, but he had to believe in her, and trust that everything would be well. She is one of the most capable women you know, he tried to convince himself. And she has as many lives as a cat. She will be fine.
She must be fine.
“You’re brooding up a storm, buddy.”
Bruce glanced up at Oliver, who was watching him with a pinched expression, sans domino.
“I’m not your buddy,” he informed the marksman, who held up his hands placatingly.
“Look, point still stands. Brooding. And now that I have the full effect of your face doing it, it is somehow more effective. Petulant, but effective.”
This was one of the greater considerations in keeping his true identity away from the Green Arrow. He was annoying. “What do you want, Arrow?”
Oliver made a put-out face. Only God knew how Dinah found this man attractive, and how Harold Jordan could stand him. Only his strictures on murder had kept Bruce from killing him in a fit of pique long ago.
“Oh come on, Bruce,” he whined. “We’ve known each other how long? Hell, counting our secret identities, we’ve known each other since we were 12. Well, you were 12. I was 14.”
“Get to the point, Arrow.”
“That’s just it!” He exclaimed, hitting his leg. “I think we should be on first name terms. And then you and I should call a meeting for Billionaire Superheroes United. Let the record show that I suggest we call ourselves BSU for short.”
Bruce looked skyward, as if beseeching the heavens for assistance. It was something that he did often enough as Bruce Wayne that he’d had to work to keep it from slipping into his repertoire of reactions as Batman. Now, it didn’t matter anymore.
“I’m serious,” Oliver continued, his tone becoming less flippant. “Now that our real names are out there, there’s no reason to keep our assets separate. I want to put my resources as Oliver Queen on board, and not just to funnel into the Watchtower. I want to know what as superheroes we’re going to do to address poverty, clean water, food, education . . .”
Bruce frowned. “Those are noble goals but is now the time? We don’t know the extent of our enemies. Wouldn’t it be better to wait, and see what the war effort dictates?”
Oliver shrugged. “See, that’s what I figured you were gonna’ do. Don’t get me wrong, I’m leaving the accounts I already have keyed to contribute to the Watchtower and basic superhero upkeep funds. I’m still contributing, but what I want to do is pull out of all the non-essentials, and make it obvious what Oliver Queen and Green Arrow stand for.”
“You gonna’ run for President, next, babe?” Dinah asked, as she sidled up next to them, slipping an arm around her boyfriend’s waist.
“Hell, no,” he said. “Too much politics. Too few weekends free.” He turned back to Bruce. “Are you on board? You put your cash towards the war, and I put mine towards the people?”
Bruce couldn’t see any immediate problems with the plan, but declined to answer immediately on principle. He really didn’t like Oliver, and only half of it stemmed from their time at school together. Instead, he glanced at Dinah. “What do you think?”
She smirked. “I’m not a part of your club. BSU, was it?”
Oliver sighed, aggrieved. “You could be if you would just marry me already.”
Dinah snorted, but leaned in and pecked her boyfriend on the cheek. “You haven’t convinced me yet, babe. But come on, the meeting’s ready to start, and I’m pretty sure you both have to be there.”
It was the first meeting called since most had left the Manor. Canary and Arrow were close enough to come back for the meeting, and Shazam had remained, too ill to leave, even had he wanted to put his foster family in danger. John and Shayera would check in if they could, but their covers were paramount. All others would watch in from monitors. Flash had gone back to Central City, scrambling to put his affairs in order, and to make sure his city was safe. Huntress, Carol Ferris, and Zatanna were assisting Oracle in the Clocktower and abroad. Booster Gold and Blue Beetle had headed south to keep several states a piece from panicking, but both were checking in to hear everyone’s status report.
Dick, Tim, and Damian were out scouting Gotham, staying together and searching for any sign of the Iconoclasts or their influence among their contacts in Gotham. They would miss the meeting, but would be briefed later. And while Bruce had given Roy Harper the time and frequency to listen in on the meeting, he was not sure the Outlaws would attend either. As he had told Alfred, he had no idea what Red Hood and his team were up to. He wasn’t even sure what part of America they were focusing on.
He guessed they were close to home, however, as they had been spent the last few nights in the Manor. This was less of a hardship than Bruce had feared. Roy was slightly less of a headache than Ollie, and Koriand’r was unfailingly polite. Jason had done everything he could to avoid him, which Bruce supposed was warranted. Painful, but warranted.
He would have done the exact same thing if his and Jason’s positions were reversed.
He may be doing something quite similar as it was.
Bruce took his place at the head of the table, watching as Canary and Arrow sat side by side. Across from them sat Shazam, and next to him, a latecomer to the New League.
The clock struck 3, and around them, the monitors flickered to life. Barry was the first to the draw when he saw the lanky, dark-haired man sitting next to Billy. “Patrick!” He cried out, and his smile was sudden and wide. “You’re ok!”
Plastic Man—Patrick ‘Eel’ O’Brian—gave a jaunty little salute. “Come on, guys. Did you really think they would take me?”
“Not with our luck,” Helena Bertinelli muttered from her own monitor. Patrick turned and gave her the finger, but they were both grinning.
“What happened?” Ted Kord asked. He and Michael Carter were sharing a monitor. They were working together to restore order in the South, and were listening in from the same location.
Patrick shrugged. “They left me for dead. Got me to go liquid, and they brought out the acetone.” He sighed dramatically. “I told them that painting my nails was a personal choice, and that if they didn’t like the color they could take it up with the salon. But nooooo they had to try and remove it themselves. Amateurs, one and all.”
“We’re glad you’re back with us,” Bruce said. He liked Patrick well enough—better than he liked most people, if he was being brutally honest—but his flippancy wasn’t always timely. “Can you be more specific about the identity or even nature of your attackers?”
Patrick grimaced. “Run-of-the-mill assassins, boss. All human; no supers.”
“Then how did they catch you?” Dinah asked.
“There were just too many of them,” Patrick admitted. “That, and they had this nifty gadget that somehow tricked my body into going more liquid than I would like. I don’t know how it affected the mutagenic change, but it took me a lot less time to burn through the acetone than I’d expected, so maybe it’s a toss up? Thankfully they didn’t know that would happen, and I limped my way off into the arms of the lovely Birds of Prey.”
Helena snorted again. She had been the one to find him, according to Barbara, and Bruce couldn’t tell if they were fond of each other, neutral, or annoyed at being stuck together for the last day.
“So we’re pretty much where we started,” Oliver said, frustrated. “We already knew the ‘Iconoclasts’ have an army of earth-bound assassins—a hint that Ra’s al Ghul is involved. And that they have a magical death beam, which hints to I don’t even know who. And—”
The last monitor had flickered to life as Oliver began his rant. John Stewart’s face was grim, and far too close, like he was holding his recording device up to his face. From what little they could see of the background, it appeared as though he was transmitting through a storage closet.
“If I may,” he interrupted Ollie. “I have news on that.”
“Oh hello, John,” Helena muttered. “What perfect timing.” Clearly she was in a mood. Bruce wasn’t sure why Barbara had sent Helena as her representative, but he was regretting it. Zatanna was much more pleasant, even when the magical pulse was slowly eroding her mind.
Bruce nodded at John. “Proceed. We know your time is limited.”
Those in the room had a clear view of John. The others listening in had to make do with only hearing his clipped tones. “Thank you, Bruce. My news isn’t good. The rumors are true: Luthor has sunk billions of dollars into a defense program with undefinable parameters. It could very well be connected to the magical pulse he’s kept it away from me, and the few military contacts I could subtly sway to my side were dropped from the project. The man has an uncanny sense for betrayal.”
“All the more reason for you to be careful,” Dinah said firmly.
John nodded. “I’m confident in my position. He trusts me more every day, and he’s keeping himself so busy there’s little time to suspect anyone. As you know, he’s touring the continental United States lending support to every city he stops in. It’s all an attempt to feed his ego, but he’s hitting upwards of seven cities a day, six states a week. The people are rallying around him. We have to be extremely careful when we find a way to take him down.”
Bruce kept his expression carefully impassive. He and Tim had thought through more than ten scenarios to oust Luthor from power. Not all of them resulted in the man’s death. They had to be carefully implemented, however, and with perfect timing. Otherwise it would backfire and all would be over.
Of course, if they found evidence that Luthor had sided with the mysterious Iconoclasts, everything would become comparatively easy. “Thank you, John,” he said. “You’re doing us a great service.”
John nodded. “I’ll let you know when I have anything definite. Everyone, stay safe. When all this over, I expect to get a drink with each and every one of you.” He panned the room, taking in everyone from the limited view of his transponder—part of his ‘wristwatch’ that Lucius Fox had specially outfitted both he and Shayera for their time undercover. He hesitated when he saw Plastic Man, and offered a little nod.
He signed off, and his monitor went dark.
“That was marginally helpful,” Ollie allowed. “So now we have Ra’s and Luthor, and—”
“And Bane,” Bruce interrupted. “Without a doubt, Bane is in on it.”
“Do you have evidence?” Booster Gold asked.
Bruce gave a non-committal hand gesture. “My boys are working on it. He’s not making a move on Gotham, and that’s enough for me. I can only assume he’s part of this.”
“While we’re on the subject of bad news,” Helena interjected. “Zatanna’s missing. She did a runner yesterday and neither Barbara nor Carol can find her. Said she was going off to find Nick—think she means Necro—and we haven’t heard from her since. We’re assuming the worst, and advise everyone to protect themselves accordingly.”
“Zatanna isn’t a bad guy!” Billy slurred. He was still holding onto his Shazam form, with a stubbornness and strength of will that Bruce approved of. He was in terrible shape, however, and when he was in his Shazam form he was quickly degenerating.
“No one’s saying that,” Dinah said firmly. “But she may have been captured, gone mad . . . She may be dead, Billy.”
“Way to bring down the mood, babe,” Ollie said, with a glance at Billy. They weren’t close friends by any means, but even he seemed to a little unnerved by Billy’s poor condition.
“That’s not all,” Helena continued. “Barbara hasn’t been outed—yet—but they’re targeting her in a different way. Someone has set every hacker alive on Oracle’s supercomputer. Whoever can bring it down gets 10 billion.”
“Shit,” Barry breathed.
“What?” Bruce hissed. He was furious that he hadn’t already been told. “When did this happen?”
Helena’s lips thinned. “About 40 minutes ago. Tim and Carol are running backup, and I’ve spent the last half hour trying to get every computer specialist we know to help. They are tearing down our walls as fast than we can build them up.” She huffed with mirthless laughter. “Really could have used Cyborg, about now. He could have handled this better than anyone.”
“If there’s anything the Outlaws can do, just let us know,” Roy Harper said, from a monitor across the room. From the looks of it, he was listening in from a storage warehouse. “We’ve got no problem targeting the hackers themselves.”
Bruce glanced over at Ollie. Green Arrow was staring pointedly at the table, ignoring his foster son, even though their argument about Koriand’r had run its course. His gaze flicked up to the monitor. Koriand’r wasn’t on screen, but Jason was, in profile, and several feet back. His helmet was off, and the sight of his wild tufts of dark-dyed hair sent a lance of pain through Bruce’s chest. So often, when he looked at Jason, he was amazed at how the lanky boy had grown into a man.
And I missed it, he castigated himself. Every minute of it. Because I failed him. I let him die.
“Counterattack?” Helena clarified, with a side glance at Bruce. She was reporting through one of Oracle’s large screen monitors, so she had a better chance of seeing everyone’s reactions.
“We pick some of the biggest, high-profile targets, and we eliminate them,” Jason said, glancing over at his transmission device, making it look like he was making eye contact with everyone in the room. “We make no secret that anyone taking this bounty is putting their lives at risk. It won’t deter everyone, but it will slow the rate of attack. Dissuade some of the less-motivated ones.”
“We are not assassins,” Bruce growled, both furious and proud with Jason. Furious that he would jump so quickly to murder after years of abstinence, yet also proud that he would help Barbara and the New League without hesitation. It was like he’d come home, even knowing Bruce couldn’t accept his methods.
“It needs to be done, Batman,” Jason said, and the refusal to use his name was like an icepick to his chest. How had he managed to wiggle his way back into their lives? Jason must be kinder to Damian and Tim than he was to Bruce, or Dick. To them, he could be a big brother, displaying more patience than Bruce thought he possessed, rather than a continual thorn in the side of those who couldn’t protect him from the Joker.
Or perhaps it was simply easier for them to forgive? Understandable, as they hadn’t known Jason as he was as a boy; hadn’t seen his eyes wide with wonder, and his crooked smile that was both wicked and pure. They didn’t understand Bruce’s disappointment with Jason, but Dick might. Moment of weakness in the Batcave aside, Bruce doubted his eldest boys were friendly. Dick had seen Jason at his best and worst, and suffered through the pain of losing him alongside Bruce.
“And I say no,” he said, snapping out of his reverie with not a moment of hesitation. His personal pain was not enough to detract from doing the right thing. It never was.
“I say yes,” Oliver said. When Bruce glared at him, he shrugged. “Drop in the bucket, now, Bruce.”
“I’m sorry, but I agree,” Dinah said. “I don’t like it, but we need to protect Oracle.”
“Vote?” Patrick offered.
Bruce closed his eyes. There was no time to argue this, not when they still had everyone’s reports to go through. “All not in favor of the Outlaws assassinating key targets among the hackers, raise your hand.”
He, Billy, and Barry were the only ones voting against. Patrick sheepishly voted for. Helena, Ollie, Dinah, Ted, Michael, Roy, and Jason weren’t sheepish about it. Even if Koriand’r, Barbara, and Carol voted against it—which at least Koriand’r would not, not if the Outlaws were decided on it—they were outvoted.
Bruce’s lips flattened. “Confer with Oracle,” he told Jason’s monitor. It was the closest he’d come to allowing this. “And know that I don’t agree.”
Jason saluted lazily, his lips twisting into a sharp smile. Roy leaned in to turn off the monitor, and then they were gone.
“Kori will keep them from going too far,” Oliver offered up in the quiet that followed.
“Thought you blamed her for this?” Dinah said, with a pointed look at her boyfriend.
He shrugged. “Don’t know why she lived, but when it comes to her boys, she knows what’s best for them.”
“Moving on,” Bruce cut in. He couldn’t handle any thoughts that led back to Jason. Not right now. “Flash, your report from Central City?”
June 24th, 20xx
Central City, 3:52 PM
The phone rang twice before a red-gloved hand tapped his bluetooth earpiece, answering it. “Flash.”
“What is green, blond, and devilishly handsome all over?”
Barry Allen rolled his eyes before landing a quick one-fourteen punch on the goon in front of him. Every single fight he’d been in since the Iconoclasts attacked had been laughable, but there were a lot of hapless thugs that needed putting down. They must have enlisted everyone they could find just to slow him down, or, on the off chance they got lucky, bring him down.
Barry could practically hear Hal joke now. They’re doing this all wrong. Now, had they known about your rom com addiction, they’d have plunked you down in front of a couch and then you’d be doomed. They’d have to call me back to save your little red heinie. Which I would, of course, but I’d laugh at you while I did it.
His inner Hal was kind of a dick, Barry realized. So was the real one. Why the hell did he miss him so much?
So you don’t think about Wally, and how you were unable to protect him. Just like you were unable to save Iris.
“Hello, Ollie,” he said, trying to think about anything other than the West family. “I’m a little busy at the moment.”
“Oh, so am I!” Ollie laughed. There was the distinct sound of someone in the background wheezing for breath. “I’ve taken down 22 baddies today. Oh, wait—is he? Yeah, he’s down. 23. You?”
Barry sighed before lightning-kicking another henchman. “37. I think they’re trying to take us down with sheer numbers.”
“Agreed. It’s awful. And so annoying. So I figured I’d call you up and we could have a way more interesting conversation while we take them down!”
Barry rolled his eyes, but at least it might prove a welcome distraction from the memory of dead friends and loved ones.
“I’ll start,” Ollie said when Barry refused to play along. “How do you think Hal is doing?”
Two goons had tried to double team Barry, and he dodged around their attacks so quickly he was a blur. While no less annoyed with Ollie flippancy and timing, he did feel slightly vindicated that he wasn’t the only one thinking about Hal. “Better than we are, that’s for sure.”
Ollie’s reply was far too chipper. “True! And who do you think he misses the most?”
That was a no brainer. “Carol.”
Barry would like to flatter himself that this was another no brainer, but deep down he wasn’t sure. He knew what he’d like the answer to be, though. “Me. Or did you think you were in the running?” He said, and it was slightly easier to force his bravado.
Ollie sputtered, and there was a twang of a taut bowstring released. “I beg your pardon. I’m so out of the running, I have won.”
“You can keep telling yourself that, I don’t mind.”
“Um, you have clearly missed out on the manly understanding that Hal, my best friend, and I share.”
Barry began running in circles around the remaining henchmen, moving so quickly that they worked themselves into a dizzy frenzy trying to catch him. It did his heart good to see them stumbling into each other and knocking each other out with wildly aimed punches. Then he remembered that Wally had loved doing that exact move, and his heart fell down to his stomach.
“He may be your best friend, but who is his?” Barry said, trying to think of Hal, rather than Wally. Hal, with his caustic sense of humor, inexplicable inability to multitask when not in Lantern mode, and gruff demeanor that hid the occasional heart of . . . well, maybe not gold. Silver, though. Or maybe bronze, Barry wasn’t exactly sure how far that idiom could stretch.
“Obviously the answer is me,” Ollie said, sounding mildly aggrieved. “We are known far and wide for the strength of our bond, and the profundity of our friendship. We’ve gone on a life-changing road trip together. Or had you forgotten about that?”
He hadn’t, but up rose a memory of his own that was more gripping. About a week before Hal had left for Oa, Barry had been moody from Shayera’s refusal, even though he’d never really expected to get anywhere with her in the first place, and had crashed at Hal’s place for a night. Hal, for all his rolled eyes and complaints and I told you this was a bad idea only 1000 times Bartholomew Allen’s, was one of those guys who knew what his friends needed before they did. After the requisite bitching he’d sat Barry down on the couch, opened up his Netflix account—purchased solely for Barry, don’t think he didn’t know that; Hal actively disliked television, the grumpy weirdo —and voluntarily brought up the single girliest film either of them had ever watched together.
Hal had fallen asleep thirty minutes in. Mouth open, lolling over on the couch until he was in danger of sliding right down into Barry’s lap. Barry had propped him up with his shoulder and watched to the end of the film, torn equally between the gripping romance on the screen and the solid weight of his best friend at his side.
“He watches rom coms with me, sometimes,” Barry allowed, although that wasn’t the emotional whole of it, not by any means.
Ollie gasped dramatically. “No.”
“Yep. Last one was The Notebook.”
Ollie began to sputter. “I—what—this . . .! No. Hell no. You have got to be trolling me. Oliver Queen does not stand for this. When Hal gets back—”
There was a small crackle of static on the line, and Black Canary cut through her boyfriend’s stumbling avowal. “When Hal gets back he’s going to hear all about the big man-boners the two of you are nursing for him, unless you boys cut out the chat and pick up the slack. Lady’s promise.”
Barry winced. He’d forgotten Dinah was working with Oracle to monitor all their feeds to help keep them safe. This, in between fighting off all the cyber hackers who weren’t getting systematically culled by Red Hood and the Outlaws.
“Yes ma’am,” he said meekly.
“Yes, my love,” Ollie said, in exactly the same tone.
“Good,” she said. “And just so you know, you’re both wrong. I’m Hal’s favorite, and don’t you forget it.” She cut off then, leaving the two men alone on the line.
“She has a point,” Barry offered ruefully, and from the corner of his eye he spotted four more goons slinking past the opening of the alleyway. Reinforcements. “They do share an inexplicable and profound bond.”
“Ok, so next question,” Ollie said, bouncing back quickly. “Who was your favorite newscast team in the Anchorman fight scene?”
June 24th, 20xx
Wayne Manor, 10:39 PM
It had been a long day, and was nowhere near over. Bruce was not as young as he used to be, and the strain of living as Batman during the daylight hours was more than he anticipated. This, on top of the simmering tensions in his own home. Could he go half a day without seeing Tim and Damian at each other’s throats, or Deathstroke’s grandson tottering in Alfred’s wake? He needed an hour to himself. Just an hour, and then he could check back in with Oracle and see what needed doing. Patrolling was non-negotiable, but he also wanted to check in on how the hacking prevention movement was coming along.
He needed to see if Jason’s methods were as effective as they were abhorrent.
He really needed that hour, however, so Bruce crept along the shadows of his own damn home, not sure whether he was more worried he’d run into Alfred, who might have the toddler with him; Tim, who was driving him crazy looking for news about Connor Kent; Damian, who wanted to patrol with a single-mindedness that reminded him of Talia and therefore worried him, or Dick, who—
“So, you’re back,” Dick said, in what might be the least expressive voice Bruce had ever heard him use. To not know how Dick felt about something was unnerving. For a heart-stopping moment Bruce thought he was speaking to him, before he realized that Dick was facing the opposite direction. He was in Bruce’s path, lounging against one of the marble pillars in the foyer, addressing someone Bruce couldn’t see.
Bruce slunk back into the shadows, and waited for a chance to slip by.
“Not for long,” Jason replied, in tone that was uncharacteristically free of mockery. “The Manor was on the way to the next target, now we’re heading right back out.”
Speak of the Devil and he shall appear, Bruce thought. This was a rare opportunity. He hadn’t heard his two eldest sons converse alone and out of costumes for over a year. Although he had one thousand things to do tonight and the need for a nap loomed, he found himself stilling, settling back against the marble pillar.
“I thought that part of your life was over.” Dick sounded upset, but in a different way than Bruce was. Bruce had expected Jason to backslide. Dick, apparently, had not.
There was the sound of something rustling, but it didn’t sound metallic. Jason was fidgeting with something, but not his guns. “Someone needs to do it, Dick. I don’t want to, but—”
“And what will it accomplish?” Dick was angry. Good, he was on the same page as Bruce.
“It might save Bab’s life, for one thing,” Jason argued. “And ours. We need her at the helm. What the hell are we gonna’ do if they clip her wings?”
Bruce inwardly sighed. Of course Jason would hit on the argument that would hold the most sway with Dick. Both boys were fond of Barbara—she had been their beloved Batgirl, before her current stint as Oracle—but Dick had loved her in a different way. Probably still did, if Bruce was any judge of love.
A long moment of quiet stretched, to the point where Bruce wondered if he should interrupt them, just to get on with his evening. Then, in a low, quiet voice, Jason asked, “Will it be over if I do this? Should we not come back to the Manor?” He sounded exhausted, and more than a little defeated. Bruce’s expression hardened. It was so hard on him to empathize with Jason, mostly because it was so easy.
God, they were so alike. How could they have turned out so differently?
“No,” Dick said, sounding sure of himself. “No, we’re not—” A hitching breath. “We’ve got a lot to do after this. Our family has a lot to do after this. So just . . . come home, ok? When you’re done. Bring Roy and Kori and don’t—don’t run away.”
“Y—Everyone’s gonna be mad at me,” Jason said, and there was a funny hitch in his voice. Like he meant to say something else, but something made him change his mind. “I don’t think I’ll be all that welcome at end of this.”
“Yes, you will. Tim and Alfred love you,” Dick argued. “And Dami, too, even though he’s just as incapable of showing it as his father. And . . . you know. You belong here, no matter what you do.”
Bruce reeled. That . . . was not what he had expected Dick to say. He had thought that Dick would have as hard a time with Jason’s return as he did, especially as he was in between assassination missions. How could Dick forgive him so easily?
It was Jason who was on the same page as Bruce, for once. “Are you talking for everyone?” He asked, in an hesitant, low-pitched voice.
“I’ll talk B around,” Dick promised him.
Bruce raised an eyebrow. Oh he would, would he?
“You sure about that?” Jason asked, with exactly the same amount of disbelief Bruce was currently feeling.
“I’m not losing anyone else,” Dick said, and Bruce winced. He knew that tone of voice, and he knew exactly how persuasive Dick could be when he went on one of his crusades. “I have been so, so lucky not to lose anyone in the family so far, and I am not going to start with you. Not again. And I know you don’t believe me, but I don’t think B can stand to have you walk away again. He loves you, Jaybird. Even if he’s crap at showing it.”
Bruce’s chest tightened, and he actively sought out escape routes. How badly would Alfred berate him if he set off a small detonation in the main hall? He was a grown man who had faced unimaginable horrors—literally, when taking Scarecrow into account—and yet he was still terrified to hear Dick talk about his love for them. He was even more afraid of Jason’s reaction.
Salvation came from an unlikely source, when, before Jason could make a response, Roy Harper’s voice called out, “Hey, Hood, quit the kissing, we gotta go! The Koriand’r Express is at the station, and she says it’s time to set off.” Now his voice was closer. “Oh, hey, Dick. Didn’t see you there.”
“Roy,” Dick said, his voice a little strained.
“Yeah, I hear you,” Jason said. “We’re out.” The next was ostensibly addressed to Richard. “Tell Demon Child not to mess with Timberly’s hair while I’m gone. I’ll uh, see you when we get back.”
“As long as you come back,” was Dick’s muttered response, just loud enough for Bruce to pick up on it.
Bruce flattened himself against the wall as Roy and Jason jogged past, heading for one of the side exits off the main hall. Hidden by the shadows, neither spared him a second glance. He listened to the faint sounds of Dick’s footsteps, and didn’t move until his partner had reached the second floor. Then he exhaled, and rationalized what he had overheard.
He had been wrong about Dick. Blame his sleep-deprivation for being so, but he should have known Dick would be on high alert where Jason was concerned. What fueled Bruce’s disappointment was simply another source of anxiety, to Dick. He was scared he’d lose him again, and that it would negatively affect Tim and Damian this time, as well.
Bruce would leave those worries to Dick and Alfred. He was currently bearing the weight of the world on his shoulders. He couldn’t carry Jason too, no matter how much the boy—man, now—tugged on his heartstrings.
June 25th, 20xx
Gotham’s Clocktower 1:17 AM
With fighting off the cyber hackers’ attacks; doing some hacking of her own into Ra’s al Ghul and Lex Luthor’s accounts; providing aid to the flagging super community, and checking in with her array of assistants and their staggering task lists, Barbara hadn’t slept more than 10 hours since the Iconoclasts attacked. So when the news feed popped up at the bottom corner of her massive computer screen, it took her a good 15 seconds to comprehend what she was seeing.
METROPOLIS DESTROYED screamed the headline, and behind it was a picture of the city in ruins. Barbara’s breath hitched, and her eyes scanned the article with a renewed sense of purpose. No sign of nuclear radiation, nor of bio-chemical weapons. Phrases jumped out at her: unknown technology, and space of an hour, and no known survivors.
At the end of the article: Lex Luthor cuts short his philanthropic mission to lead commemoration ceremony.
Barbara put her head down on the console, and felt like crying. Instead, she picked up the phone, and called Bruce.
Can you tell how much I love Oliver Queen. Also the movie Anchorman. Also Batman being tired and grumpy and wanting to give Jason Todd a hug. All these things are good things.
This is one of the happier chapters. Hooray!
Chapter 4: Metropolis
As a reminder, the only characters in this Elseworldish universe who have died and resurrected are Jason Todd, Damian Wayne, and Kon-El, in their canon ways. This fact isn’t incredibly important to the story, I’m just establishing it for contextual purposes.
Also, if it is not explicitly stated, none of the characters have been married/had children/etc.
Dinah purloins one of Ollie’s famous Clash phrases from Injustice, because it pleases me immensely.
Towards the end, Dinah designates a movement of a concerto that my piano teacher played for me before she died of cancer. It is a beautiful piece of music, but to me it shall always signify death. It may be fitting to give it a listen.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
June 25th, 20xx
Chicago, 5:47 AM
When news of Metropolis’s annihilation reached them, the Outlaws were in one of their safe houses at the southern edge of Chicago. They had just finished three assassinations back to back, and Koriand’r, who had kept from the killing in order to transport them both more quickly than car or bike could have taken them, was exhausted. Not as exhausted as Roy, who had landed the killing shot on all three targets, however, so it was he who crashed first, after giving her a soft kiss, and Jason a piece of brusque encouragement.
“They’re gonna forgive you, man,” he’d said to their reluctant leader before flopping face first onto the mattress. “Do what you gotta do. Also, stop making me kill everyone, as I am getting too old for this.”
It was technically Kori’s turn to rest, and usually she would have slipped into the bed beside Roy, but tonight she had a mission of her own. She donned a hat, a pair of Roy’s loosest jeans, a hoodie, and make her way to the nearest 24 hour convenience store. In this getup she would appear mostly human, and as long as the exotic color of her skin was covered up she should be relatively safe. Since the Ikon attack she had taken to hiding her alien status as best she could when she wasn’t actively fighting. It was safer that way. Not only would it make her less of a target, but no other aliens were left save Shayera, and people mistrusted her now more than ever.
If only they knew why she had survived, and so many others didn’t! She had an idea, but it needed to be tested. Thankfully, she could do it by herself, so if she were wrong, no one would know her suspicions but her.
When she’d returned, purchase hidden in the hoodie’s pouch, Jason was on the phone. Even from across the room she could hear Timothy Drake, sounding more frantic than she’d ever heard him.
“—completely destroyed, Jason! It’s gone! He’s gone!”
“You don’t know that,” Jason said, and it was in a voice as serious and as measured as Batman’s. It was the tone of voice he clung to when he himself was close to falling back into the abyss. “Babs couldn’t find him, he might not have been there.”
“Where else could he be? If he was fine, he would have found a way to contact me!”
“He’s my last living teammate. My best friend! He can’t be gone again. He can’t!”
“Timothy!” Jason said, and the iron in it made Kori still. “Listen to me,” he continued. “You cannot lose faith in him. You have to believe that he is ok. Repeat after me: I believe in Superboy.”
“Do I need to get Dick involved?” Jason threatened. “‘Cuz he will hug the shit out of you.”
There was a shaky inhalation of breath coming through the receiver. “No, I just— Ok, ok. I believe in Superboy,” Tim said quietly.
“I believe he is alive.”
“I . . . I believe he is alive.”
“I will not let this defeat me.”
“I will not let this defeat me.”
Tim repeated the mantra thrice more before Jason was satisfied. He nodded, forgetting that Tim couldn’t see him. “Good. Now go find Dick and Demon Child. Stay with them, and every time you feel like rushing off to find your superbro, you remind yourself: I believe in Superboy. I believe he’s alive. I won’t let this defeat me.”
There was a pause, and then, “Thank you, Jason,” Tim said quietly. He sniffled a little, and Kori’s heart pulsed in sympathy. Tim was such a kind boy in such a difficult position. It was hard for Kori to imagine such a sensitive young man becoming one of the Robins, especially when held up against Dick, Jason, and Damian.
“You were sweet with him,” she noted after Jason hung up the phone. “Is it because he is family?”
He glanced over at her and his shoulders tensed. Kori hid a smile. Jason had never done well at expressing his softer emotions, and now was no exception.
“Good timing, Princess,” he said, brusquely. “Got bad news. Maybe you should sit down.”
Kori remained standing. “Does it have to do with Superboy?”
Jason made a see-saw motion with his hand. “Hope not, for Tim’s sake.”
He was stalling. Trying to find the words. “Jason, just tell me.”
He looked down at the ground, and took a deep breath. His handsome face was dark as he admitted, “Metropolis was destroyed.”
“What?” She breathed. “How can—how did . . .?”
“Unknown technology is the best they got. There were a couple bombs that went off underground, but no radiation, no chemicals . . . Hell, even the ozone layer is pretty much undisturbed. Everyone just up and died in the space of an hour.”
Kori felt herself slipping into a dark, cool, place inside of her. To be anywhere else would be to fall prey to weakness, and empathizing so strongly with the victims that she would be crushed by their loss. “It only affected living organisms?” She asked.
Jason shook his head. “Something tore through a lot of buildings, especially those over 20 stories. There may have been some explosions down in the subways—no one’s been able to get that close, yet. Beyond that it’s inexplicable. The entire island is on lockdown. Bats and Oracle are trying to get to the bottom of it, and I’m sure we’ll have more eventually. For now, I think we gotta’ get you back to the Manor.”
Kori’s head whipped up, and she was suddenly very aware of her recent purchase. “What? Why?”
Jason frowned at her. “Because you’re not from this planet, Kor. Unknown technology, remember? That’s only one step away from alien technology. You and Hawkgirl have to be quadruply careful, now. Everyone’s looking for someone to blame, and I’m not gonna let it be you.”
There may be another reason she should sequester herself, but her own fears were irrelevant. The Iconoclasts had just murdered millions of individuals. “Will you tell Roy? I need a moment,” she said, nodding toward the bathroom.
He nodded. “Sure. Leave in five?”
“Ten, please,” she requested.
Jason quirked an eyebrow. “Your wish, Princess,” he said, with a ghost of his humor. As soon as he was gone, Kori rushed into the bathroom. She moved on autopilot, doing all that was required to determine her suspicions. All the while she mourned Metropolis’s loss. She did not have friends or family centered in that city, but so many did. So many lives had been cut short, so many endeavors. It had been the Superfamily’s home, and a shining example of positive relations between a city and its supers. Non-human supers. Now it was gone, a smoking heap of rubble, and all those beautiful, vibrant lives had been snuffed out like a candle.
All this was hard enough to bear, but in her hands lay something more personal. Kori stared down at the pink plastic tube, watching a faint plus symbol form on the tiny screen. She blinked, and when the meaning of it hit her, she leaned forward until her head was pressed against the cracked mirror.
They were at war, and she was pregnant.
Her boys were waiting for her when she walked out of the bathroom. She had buried the pregnancy test beneath the detritus in the bathroom’s waste bin, but she had forgotten to change into her regular attire.
“Damn, babe,” Roy said. “That’s a new look for you.” There was a hard sheen to his eyes that told her he knew of Metropolis’s destruction. He was just trying to act like everything was normal; his way of keeping stabilized when the world was going wildly off-kilter.
Now she was going to take away the last vestiges of his composure. “I have something to tell you both before we go.”
Jason shifted uneasily. He didn’t want to be away from the Manor, not when his first family needed him. He eyed her expectantly as Roy stepped close to her, taking her hand.
“What is it?” He asked, light eyes searching her face, shadowed by his baseball cap.
It was harder than she expected to force the words out of her. “I am—I am with child.”
For a moment, everyone was silent. Jason’s eyes were wide, and they were directed towards her flat abdomen. Roy handled the announcement with less tact.
“You are?” He exclaimed. “Is it mine?”
With a groan, Jason smacked the back of his head.
“Yes, Roy,” she assured him. “It is yours. But do not feel as if I am pressuring you to take responsibility. I am honored to bear and raise this child on my own, and—”
Roy interrupted her with a squeal of delight. He threw his arms around her, and his excitement became slightly more coherent. “Babe! This is . . . This is . . . ! A baby! Oh my God, you’re having a baby. This is the best damn news! Ok, the worst damn time, but babe. A baby.” He pulled back to kiss her, but even that did not curtail his excitement long.
“I love you so much,” he rambled. “You’ve made me so freaking happy. Oh, goddamn. I’m going to be a father. With you! Babe. Babe. You are amazing. You’re having a baby!”
His voice was getting worrisomely high-pitched. Kori looked over at Jason, a little flustered. She hadn’t expected Roy to be so exuberant about this, particularly on the heels of such a tragedy. Perhaps this outpouring of joy was in direct response to it. Out of tragedy came a joyous moment; from death came life.
Jason’s joy was quieter, but it transformed his face. All the hard edges softened, leaving him looking years younger, and, in her opinion, far more handsome. “That’s wonderful, Kor,” he praised her before leaning in to press a firm kiss to her cheek. “I’m so happy for you guys.”
“Jason! Kori’s having a baby!” Roy exclaimed, as if he could have possibly missed the first announcement.
He gave her a fond look over the top of Roy’s head. “I heard. Congratulations, you two.”
“Are we keeping it a secret?” Roy asked. “Or may I tell people? May I tell everyone we know?”
“Let’s start with everyone at the Manor, huh?” Jason suggested as he steered them towards the exit. “I mean, I kinda want to see the look on Dick’s face when we tell him. Don’t you?”
Kori shot Jason a look. She was beyond her former lover, although she would always care greatly for him. Roy, on the other hand, still suffered from moments of insecurity.
Unless she was very wrong, so did Jason.
Thankfully, Roy hadn’t been listening. “We’re going to have to tell the old man, aren’t we?” Roy asked, deflating momentarily. “Ugh. Queen is such a dick sometimes.”
“I thought you wanted to tell everyone we know, my love?” She asked him, slipping her hand into his.
He brightened immediately. “Do you think it will be a girl? I kinda like the idea of having a girl. Oh, but a boy would be good too. What would you rather, a boy or a girl?”
Warmed by his enthusiasm, Kori laughed. “I don’t mind either way,” she admitted. “As long as it’s healthy, and happy, and whole.”
June 25th, 20xx
Gotham, 8:17 AM
There was barely enough time for Tim Drake to handle (i.e. repress by any means necessary) his fears for Kon’s safety before the next New League meeting was called. Jason and the Outlaws hadn’t even had enough time to make it back to the Manor before Bruce shuttled him, Dick, and Damian down to the Batcave. Shazam was the only guest at the Manor, and far too ill to leave his bed, so it was their turn to attend the New League meeting via the supercomputer in the Batcave. They all hunched around it, and while their protected chat system booted up, the monitor reflected their faces.
Bruce was wearing his cowl, and thus his expression impenetrable, but Tim was struck by the grim expression on Dick’s face. He had been eerily calm when he heard the news about Metropolis, although he had thawed slightly when Tim let him know Hood and the Outlaws were safe, and on their way back.
Tim’s own expression was no better. His eyes were too wide, and there was a thin tendril of panic that made it impossible to center himself. He took a deep breath and tried regardless, while his eyes slid to Damian’s face in the reflection. The youngest Robin’s expression was little different than the one he adopted for all his missions. He had been here long enough to understand the blow of losing Metropolis, but not long enough to develop enough empathy to be crippled by it.
Perhaps that’s what we all need, Tim thought. Maybe Damian’s handling this the best of all of us, for once.
One by one faces flickered onto the screen, until the monitor was split into equal columns and rows, displaying the Flash, Green Arrow, Black Canary, Plastic Man, Booster Gold, Blue Beetle, Huntress, Carol Ferris (who had stayed in the community even after her time as Star Sapphire was over) and Oracle. Even Shayera Hall had been able to check in, although no one knew how long she’d be able to stay. The only ones missing were Red Hood, Arsenal, and Starfire, who were on their way back and would be debriefed then; John Stewart, who was unable to break cover, and Shazam, who had been unconscious for the last six hours. His magic was eating away at him, and unless he wrested its control away from the magic used by the Iconoclasts, Bruce admitted there was a chance that it could destroy him.
It was Barbara who began the meeting. “There’s no time, so I won’t take long. Half an hour ago one of our contacts came through with an urgent message. We have the coordinates of an abandoned research facility they believe may be connected to the destruction of Metropolis. What we need are volunteers to determine if this is true.”
“Trap,” Green Arrow muttered.
“Amen to that,” Huntress agreed.
“It is our only lead,” Barbara stressed.
Bruce was silent. He didn’t like it, and neither did anyone else in the Batcave. “This is ridiculous,” Dick muttered. “They only managed to get the coordinates after the attack? Something about this doesn’t feel right.”
Tim agreed, as did half those watching. Everyone began talking over each other, offering up their own insights until a reedy voice cut through them all.
“Guys, guys,” Plastic Man interrupted them. “Come on. I’m the obvious candidate. I’ll go.”
“Pat—” Dinah tried.
“No, no,” he talked over her. “I literally cannot die. Worst they can do is set me back a couple months, and that’s if they get a better toy gun than their last one.”
“Not if they take you captive,” Bruce pointed out.
Patrick laughed. “Bruce, have you met me? No prison can hold me for long. Again, literally.”
“But will you be able to decipher the most pertinent information?” The Flash asked. “I’m not insulting your intelligence, but you’re more of a lateral thinker than a logical one. I can go with you, help you determine the most critical data.”
“That seems like a solid plan,” Shayera agreed. “Better to have backup in case something goes wrong. No offense, Putty-Guy.”
“None taken, Bird-Nose,” Plastic Man quipped back.
“No,” Bruce said. “If we send someone in, Plastic Man should go in alone. He specializes in stealth, and he is in fact, immortal. We can’t risk Flash or anyone else on this.”
“But the data!” Flash protested.
“We have other ways of getting that information,” Oracle said cryptically, looking directly at the Batcave’s section of the monitor.
“Shit, gotta go,” Shayera mumbled, before she abruptly switched off her wrist-device. Her section of the screen went blank.
“Am I going in mic’d, boss?” Plastic Man asked. “Because you’re cramping my style if you stick me with the solid stuff. Going liquid is kind of my shtick.”
“What’s the last part of your body that you liquify?” Bruce asked.
“Say whaaaaat?” Plastic Man asked, his thin eyebrows climbing up his forehead. “That sounds kind of naughty, Bruce.”
Tim saw where he was going with this and broke in before Bruce could shake, strangle, and/or verbally emasculate the easy-going hero. “When you go liquid, what’s the last part of you that you keep solid?”
Plastic Man scratched his head. “Uh . . . my eyes, I guess? Then I can still see what’s going on in the regular way. And they’re a bitch to reform, I’ll give you that.”
“Giving him the contacts, Batman?” Oracle asked.
He nodded, and addressed Plastic Man. “If you’re determined to do this, you won’t be going in blind.”
Green Arrow perked up. “Did Bruce just make a joke? Shut the front door.”
“Oliver, I swear to God . . .” Black Canary warned him.
“Plastic, how close are you to Gotham?” Dick asked, cutting them off.
“We’ll outfit you in the Batcave,” Bruce said. “Oracle will give you the coordinates then. Everyone else, stay in close contact. If anything else happens—anything—let us all know.”
As soon as everyone else had signed off, Bruce turned to Dick. “I don’t like this,” he growled.
“Because it’s a trap?” Damian pointed out, acerbically.
“Not just that,” Bruce replied. “It’s something more than that. I just can’t . . .” He trailed off, searching for a way to describe the feeling.
Tim thought he understood a little. It feels like this trap may trigger others, he thought, but there was nothing concrete to back it up.
June 25th, 20xx
-----------, 9:12 AM
The two figures in the shower moaned as they clung to each other. Water pounded down on them, sluicing away dirt, grime, and their inhibitions.
“Need you,” one rasped as he leaned down to lick his partner’s neck. “God, I needed you so much last night.”
“I’m here,” his lover replied. “Baby, I’m always here.”
“I couldn’t—I couldn’t do it. Couldn’t shoot—I thought I’d lose you,” he ground out, choking back a groan when his lover reached for what hung thick and heavy between his legs. “Thought I’d fuck it all up. Again.”
His lover slipped down, trailing kisses over his corded thighs. “Not now. Not over this. Not with me.” The earnest promise was augmented by a soft kiss to the head of his penis. “I love you too much for that.”
“Oh, shit, I—” He groaned as his lover sucked him down. For a long time after there were no discernable words. Just praises and endearments uttered by both upon reaching their climaxes—a feat more desperately beautiful when it was a brief spark of light and love in a dark, hopeless time.
June 25th, 20xx
Wayne Manor, 9:27 AM
Billy awoke, and he was not himself. Over the last five days, the dark energy had engulfed him so completely that he steadily felt like a tiny spark of light in a dark place; or an island in the midst of a roiling ocean.
Now, there was not even that. He had been completely subsumed by the dark energy.
No, no, no! He struggled, flailing against the encroaching dark. I’m not even angry. I’m not feeling anything at all! He could not rage outwardly. His body was no longer under his control. He could not wiggle his fingers, call for help, nor even blink. He could breathe, but even that range of control was limited. His attempts to hyperventilate failed, as the dark energy calmed his body as faster than he could rile it.
There was one last recourse. Concentrating, he sent out an all-access telepathic cry, hoping to reach anyone who might help or hear him.
Help me! He managed to articulate, Please, it’s got me!
From far off, an accented, loathsomely familiar voice replied. Billy?
A great curtain came down in his mind, cutting off all communication. The dark ocean was in his mind, rushing in from all corners, frothing and roiling and dragging Billy down into the undertow. He screamed once, and then he was gone.
The thing that was Shazam sat up. It mechanically swung one leg onto the floor, followed by the other. It stood, wobbling a little as it found his balance. It took a step towards the door, and then lifted his arm so that it pointed towards the door. With a creak, the door swung open all on its own. Sitting in the hallway just a few steps past the door sat three-year-old Michael Wilson.
He beamed up at him. “Hi!” He said brightly. All about him, colored pieces of plastic were strewn. “‘M playing legos. Wanna playa me?”
Shazam hesitated. It reached down slowly, fingers grasping for the boy. At the last moment, it picked up a lego piece from the floor next to the boy’s knee. It handed the lego to the boy, who, not knowing how close he had come to mortal danger, smiled up at him.
“Bye Mr. Shazam!” Michael called out after the thing wearing Shazam’s flesh.
It did not turn to acknowledge the boy.
June 25th, 20xx
Outer reaches of Solar System, 12:07 PM
Hal Jordan stared out the window of the spaceship, watching the edges of his home galaxy slowly grow larger. The Horizon, or so it would be called in English, was one of the fastest in the Oan fleet, yet he begrudged every hour it took to reach Earth. It would be another day before they reached Earth’s atmosphere, and he was losing his sainted mind wondering what was happening down there. Had the Ikons moved openly? Were their machinations obvious? It was too late to save those who didn’t possess human DNA, and he grieved for them, but how many of his human friends had been compromised, or killed?
Had Carol been targeted? No, now that they had finally defeated her Star Sapphire persona, she was barely in the super community as it was. Surely they’d leave her alone. Barry would have been hit, no doubt, but Hal couldn’t imagine anything bad happening to him. Not Barry. Not when he could outrun anything.
Not after Hal had promised Iris . . .
Hal exhaled roughly. Ollie and Dinah would have been targeted as well, but as long as they stayed together, they would be fine. Not to mention Diana, Arthur, Bruce, Victor, Billy . . .
They are all fine, Harold Jordan, he scolded himself. Now stop worrying yourself to death. Focus on your mission.
But that was the hardest part, wasn’t it? He had to go to Earth, alone, leaving Clark and J’onn with the Oans. He had to convince everyone that there were angles to this war that no one had uncovered yet. That there were traitors in their midst, and they could be anyone.
Hal leaned his forehead against the cool glass, and remembered.
“Appa,” Hal interrupted. “Just tell us where they are, will you?”
“Oh,” Appa murmured. “I thought you’d determined that already. Earth. They’re on Earth.”
Hal knew what was coming the moment before it did, but he was too slow to stop it. Clark roared, and shot straight up into the air. He would have torn through the roof of the cave had he not jerked to an abrupt stop. He was surrounded by a vivid green light, but it was not the color of a lantern’s light. It was the crystal green cage of kryptonite, shining forth from Appa’s ring. Clark sank back down to the floor, unable to break through. From the looks of it, he was stymied, but not in pain.
“Let him go,” J’onn threatened Appa.
“Not until he cools his head,” the elderly guardian replied. “Rushing off to Earth will not help anyone. You are not human, Kal-El. If you return before the magic pulse is obliterated, it will kill you.”
“Kon. Kara,” Clark choked out, gaze swinging over to J’onn. “And M’gann! They’re all on Earth! How can you be so calm?”
J’onn J’onnz closed his eyes. “Haste will not save them. Nor avenge them.” He slit his eyes open at Appa. “Is what you told us true? That any alien on earth would have died when the pulse activated?”
Appa nodded sadly. “Any being without human DNA would have been eradicated immediately. I’m sorry.”
Clark’s head snapped up. “Kon. What about half-bloods? Half-humans?”
Appa’s head tilted to the side as he considered. “The pulse cannot harm anyone with native or Ikonian DNA. There have been tales in the past of pregnant women surviving the pulse, all because they carried a small amount of native DNA within them. If those tales are correct, even a very small amount of human DNA would be enough. I imagine a half-human would have survived easily.”
Clark let out a ragged exhale. J’onn clenched his fists.
“Appa, if there’s anything else you can tell us, now is the time,” Hal said. His head was spinning, but this wasn’t the time to be stunned. His losses weren’t as personal as Clark’s and J’onn’s, so he needed to be calm, level-headed. He had not just lost a member of his family, and he needed to step up and be a goddamn Green Lantern.
“I’ve told you all I know,” Appa said. “I apologize for the lack of specificity, but all I have to go on are their tactics from millennia ago. There will be five or six shapeshifters, and they will have targeted the most powerful beings on your planet. I cannot tell you who they are or how to determine them. Let your friends at home determine the imposters. You are needed to stop the second wave of invading Ikons, the ones who will descend en masse to prepare the planet for colonization.”
Clark stood, an enormous effort when he was still subdued from the effects of Appa’s kryptonite-enhanced ring. “You can’t tell us all this and then demand we stay here! We have to warn them!”
“Do you have so little faith in them? Perhaps they already know,” Appa challenged them. “Perhaps they have already countered the threat.”
“We aren’t playing dice with our friends’ lives,” Hal growled. A beam of energy shot out from his own ring, bisecting Appa’s. Don’t cross the beams! He could imagine Ollie yelling, but this time it was just what he needed. His energy overrode Appa’s, his will stronger than the guardian’s. Appa’s ring went out, and Clark was free.
Appa raised his hand again but Hal stood between them. “Listen to me,” he growled, primarily at Appa but he hoped Clark was listening in as well. “This isn’t going to go the way you want, so take what you can get. Clark and J’onn will stay and help the Oans fight off the Ikons. I will go back to Earth.”
“Hal—” Clark protested, but Hal cut him off.
“No, Clark. Until we shut that magic beam bullshit down, you guys are barred from the planet. I will send word to the Watchtower about Kon, and when it’s safe to return. You guys gotta’ stay here and kick some Ikon ass, and then some Oan ass, because what the fuck do they think they’re doing hiding this from us? This is our planet!” He finished, addressing Appa. “Why didn’t they tell us?”
“They wanted to be wrong,” Appa said sadly. “For the Ikons to have amassed enough strength for a hostile takeover, they would once again be a serious adversary. We barely defeated them before, and they are likely stronger than ever. We all prayed we were wrong.”
“Yeah, well, you weren’t,” Clark said harshly. “And now we’ve lost people we love.”
“You will lose more if the Ikons are not stopped,” Appa pointed out.
“You stuck your head in the sand and asked us to trust you!”
Appa frowned. “I’m not sure what sand has to do with this, but I accept my part of the blame for my people’s actions. I apologize, Kal-el. To all of you,” he added, panning so he included both J’onn and Hal.
This argument was not going to be resolved any time soon. Appa had done what he thought best, but he had been too slow in doing it. Clark and J’onn were never going to appreciate being left behind when their friends, colleagues, and teammates were suffering. Hal was lucky enough that they were listening to him so far, and not fighting him harder on this.
“Appa, thank you for telling us all this, but we have to get going.” He said. “I’m going to meet with our commanders and let them know we have been apprised of the situation.”
Appa nodded. “Before you go, I have something for you.” He reached pulled off his ring and extended it to Hal.
Hal looked down at it. “Thanks, but I’ve already got one.”
“You misunderstand me,” Appa said. “This is a far more powerful ring than your own. Unlike yours, it operates at a baseline 185% capacity, rather than 100%. It also does not need to be charged with each turn of your Earth. Or ever, really.” He sighed. “It does carry faint but inherent weakness to the color yellow—I am not as brave as you, and I have influenced the ring in wearing it—but resistance to fear is a natural strength of yours. I believe you will be able to offset my failings.”
“No charging?” Hal asked, stunned. “Not ever?”
“No. It is a sister ring to one a previous human Green Lantern bore, a man named Alan Scott. It is powered by the same mystical process. I cannot bequeath it unto you forever, but while the Ikons are still a threat, I present it to you on loan.”
“Shit,” Hal breathed, turning the ring over in his fingers. “I mean, thanks. 185%? That’s . . . wow, thanks.”
“It is a practical decision,” Appa said wryly. “Their magic blocks most others. Your ring, powered by the Central Power Battery, would be useless. This one should be effective.”
“We need to go,” Clark said as he paced the cave restlessly. “I can’t stand to look at you, right now.”
Hal didn’t ask whether he meant him or Appa. It was a toss up, and knowing wouldn’t help much.
“Let us return to the Oan ship,” J’onn counselled. “Then Hal can set off for Earth all the sooner.”
The three heroes all turned to the cave opening. J’onn and Clark shot off, racing off towards the ship. Hal hung back, looking at Appa one last time.
“Be wary,” the Mad Guardian warned him. “They are merciless and will stop at nothing. Be prepared to do whatever you must to protect your home.”
“Sounds like Thursday,” Hal had quipped then, and repeated now as he came back to himself. He opened his eyes to see the galaxy spreading out before him.
“Hold on, everybody,” he murmured. “Cavalry’s coming.”
June 25th, 20xx
Batcave, 10:42 PM
Tim stumbled into the Batcave after a three hour patrol that felt twice that long. In the past 24 hours Gotham had become a hive of theft, rape, murder, grand theft auto, and a few strikes that hinted at something more sinister. Nothing on the scale of terrorist attacks Metropolis had seen before its destruction, but enough to exhaust the bat team. Minor villains from every part of America were flying in to roost, looking to step into the power vacuum and take advantage of the Bat family’s overworked state. They’d had their hands full, and Gotham’s police force—overwhelmed at best, hapless at worst—was little help.
It was getting to all of them in different ways. Bruce was at his best, of course. He always was when the pressure hit. He was fast, efficient, and ruthless, a veritable crime-fighting machine. Such a pace couldn’t be healthy, nor could it be sustained long. Tim worried for him, but knew there was nothing he could do to make the burden any easier.
Damian was clearly trying to be a carbon copy of his beloved father. It was easiest for him to slip into apathy, to be nothing more than a battle-hardened soldier. He was a growing boy, however, and his body was giving him trouble. He was hungry all the time, and had mentioned odd pains in his arms and legs.
“You literally have growing pains,” Tim had informed him the last time they were on patrol together. “That’s all it is. It’ll stop when you stop growing.”
“You are a pain,” Damian had moodily replied. “Now are you going to feed me, or shall I assassinate a hot dog vendor and eat all his wares?”
Jason had been quietly added back onto the patrol rota when it was clear that they were all run ragged, with the silent agreement that he and Bruce would never be paired together. The assassination missions were over. Oracle had created and set up an impassable firewall just in time, and between that and the nine assassinations, the hacking attempts had slowed to a trickle. He left Kori and Roy to take on their own patrols, in the parts of Gotham they were more accustomed to. When he had patrolled with Tim, Jason approached everything with a grim seriousness that made Tim think he was only one step away from shooting everyone who crossed him in the head, just to keep it all moving faster.
On the other hand, Dick had looked over at him about halfway through the patrol they’d just come back from and joked, “Tim, after this, I’m putting in for retirement.”
Tim had laughed hysterically. It was that or cry, and he was not ready to be weak, yet.
He was ready for sleep, however. He’d only gotten an hour or two of sleep since Metropolis fell; since another nail hammered itself into the coffin of his best friend. All he had to do was report in, strip off his Red Robin costume, and then fall into bed. With the way he was feeling, he might be asleep before he finished step 2.
He was passing by the lockers when he heard something from the main room. “ . . . your manor, and he escaped! Where do you think the blame will fall?”
Tim frowned. The voice was familiar, but in his exhausted state he couldn’t quite place it. He poked his head out from behind the locker room’s door.
“Squarely on his shoulders, Jim. I’m not saying Shazam is inculpable. But there is more at play here than simple guilt or innocence.”
Bruce was hunched over the computer, partially blocking the monitor. There were dozens of windows scattered around the screen, and the largest of these was dedicated to an audio-visual line with James Gordon, Commissioner of Gotham.
Tim crept closer, and listened in to the rest of the conversation.
“I don’t know what to say, Bruce. It’s all over the goddamn media. Since 10 o’clock this morning he’s been cutting a swathe through the United States. Whole towns were destroyed in his wake. Lightning everywhere. Last I heard, the death toll was more than 30,000. There’s no coming back from that.”
“Shazam is not choosing to do this, Gordon. He is being manipulated. Our enemy has somehow gained control of him.”
Commissioner Gordon shook his head. “Doesn’t matter now. The whole country is baying for his blood. It’s not gonna take long to move from one superhero to all superheroes. You gotta protect yourself and the boys, Bruce. You gotta do what’s right.”
“We will stop him,” Bruce promised. “But we cannot hand him over to be killed without understanding how and why they did this. If we could break the hold they have on him, we are a step closer to overthrowing them.”
Gordon sighed. He ran a hand through his greying hair, and adjusted his glasses. “I’m on your side, Bruce. I always have been, always will be. And I’ll help you if I can, but I don’t see how. Ask me to tighten up patrols on Gotham, I can do that. I will do that. But Shazam? What can I do against him?”
“Nothing,” Bruce said abruptly. “I’m not asking you to. He is our problem, now.”
“What can I do for you, then?” Gordon asked.
Bruce hesitated. “Do you have any news on Arkham?”
“Arkham?” Gordon sounded surprised. “Just that it’s on lockdown. Standard procedure, especially since Metropolis . . . Metropolis.” He finished with a huff, and shook his head. “Catwoman, right? I wouldn’t worry about her, Bruce. She’s probably safer than we are, right now.”
“Not with the Joker incarcerated,” Bruce muttered darkly.
“Maybe someone will do us a favor and do him in,” Gordon agreed. “Hell, maybe it’ll be your girlfriend. I’d pardon her for that.”
“You can’t actually do that, Jim.”
“If the Joker died, I doubt anybody would stop me.”
Bruce sighed. “I have to go. Thank you for meeting with me.”
“Keep in touch, Bruce. Let me know if you need anything.”
Bruce signed off, and then looked down at the console. “He must have already talked to Barbara,” he muttered to himself.
“Why do you say that?” Tim asked. He took a muted pleasure in seeing Bruce whip around. It was rare to sneak up on Bruce. It was probably not a good sign that he had just done it.
“He didn’t threaten me about her personal safety, for one thing,” Bruce said.
Tim nodded. As if Barbara would let her father’s worries dictate her fate. She’d thrown herself into danger for the last 15+ years without her father’s approval.
“Is Shazam being manipulated?” Tim asked. “Are we certain?”
Bruce sighed. “My gut says yes. Billy would never, ever choose this, and the security cameras attest that something changed. Until we stop him we won’t know for certain.”
“How are we going to stop Shazam?” Tim asked. He regretted having to do so. He liked Billy, even though it was a little awkward talking to him. Sometimes he seemed every inch the hero; confident, experienced, brave. Other times, he seemed so young, almost like he was closer to Tim’s age than Bruce’s. It was an odd affectation for a man in his prime, a good fifteen years older than Tim.
“We might not be able to,” Bruce replied. “Without Arthur and Diana, Billy is inarguably the most powerful being on Earth.”
Tim blinked. “If we can’t take him down, what are we going to do?”
Bruce gave him that steely, thousand-yard stare that still had the power to make Tim feel like he was 12-year-old boy. Young, untested, and definitely not ready or worthy to measure up to Batman’s standards. Then he turned back to his computer, pulling up another window.
The Watchtower communication link dominated the screen. Tim’s eyes widened when he saw the familiar figure sitting on the other end of the monitor.
“Kon,” he breathed.
“We send him in,” Bruce said. He laid a hand on Tim’s shoulder. “I have to go patrol. Take this time to talk.”
Bruce escaped before Tim could summon up the wherewithal to be anything other than stunned. Grateful, but stunned. All at once it hit him. Bruce had known Kon was alive the entire time. Bruce had not told him this. Bruce had allowed him to think that Kon was dead.
Kon’s approach was straightforward as usual. “Heya, Tim. Buddy. Timbuddy. You’ve got that murder look on your face. Please tell me it’s not directed at me.”
Tim’s first attempt at answer was an enraged growl. His second was a nonsense stream of syllables. His third was more coherent: “He didn’t fucking tell me! I thought you were dead!”
Kon threw up his arms. “I don’t like it any better than you do! I wanted to tell you right away, but he’s right. He needed you not to know. ”
Tim was so furious he couldn’t see straight. “How can you say that? Do you know what I went through? I thought you were dead!”
“And I watched my city be annihilated!” Kon yelled back. “Do you think I enjoy this? Watching my friends and loved ones die when I’m stuck in outer fucking space?” He took a deep breath and his expression turned pleading. “I wanted to tell you, Tim. I begged Batman to tell you, but he needed your reaction to be genuine. If he and Oracle were going to hide my survival from everyone, you needed to be blindsided.”
Tim blamed his inability to piece this together on the combination of his crippling rage with Bruce, and his relief that Kon was alive. Alive and well and arguing with him, just as it should be. “Why is it so damned important that you’re hidden? You—I just . . .” He shook his head. “How did you make it up there, anyway? The Watchtower’s totally closed off. And how did you survive the pulse?”
Kon smiled weakly. “I didn’t. I was poisoned the night before the pulse went off. I barely got to the Watchtower in time, and detoxed in one of the med tanks. And yeah, it was on lockdown, but it let me in because it registered Clark’s DNA. Guess he and Bats have a backdoor installed. Jesus, I have never been glad to be a clone before.”
“Poisoned?” Tim said, and then it hit him. “Kon. They must have thought you wouldn’t be susceptible to the pulse. Otherwise they wouldn’t have resorted to that.”
Kon nodded. “That’s what Batman and Oracle think, too. Maybe half-human is human enough for the Icono-whatevers. They still want me in reserve, though. Not just to guard the Watchtower, but also so I can stay hidden from the spies.”
“Spies,” Tim said flatly. “Does Bruce know who they are?”
Kon shrugged. “You think he’s gonna tell me that? I’ve been sitting up here monitoring every piece of communication I can get my hands on—and helping with that god awful firewall, shit, Tim, I am so bad at coding—but I can’t figure out who it is. I mean, I know who it can’t be, but there’s still a few too many possibles for who it can.”
“How many would you project?” Tim asked. It was easier to slip into Red Robin mode and to deal with the logistics. He knew that he was repressed as hell, but he couldn’t deal with his emotions right now. Even though a lot of them were jumping up and down shouting Kon’s alive! My best friend’s alive! I’m not the last Titan left!
“Two? Maybe three? I mean they obviously have al Ghul’s League of Shadows and Luthor’s assets. And in the poison they used on me, there were traces of not only kryptonite, but Venom.”
“That’s why Bruce was so sure Bane was involved,” Tim realized. “He’s the only one mad enough to dabble with Venom who’s not locked up in Arkham.”
Kon winced. “Yeah, Arkham. Did you know they’ve been off the grid ever since the Iconoclasts attacked? I can’t tell you exactly when, ‘cuz I was dying and all, but Batman is losing his mind over it. We can’t even access his hidden base on the island. You can imagine how that is going over.”
Tim stared at Kon. His resolve to stay in Red Robin mode was flickering, and all he wanted to do now was punch Kon, punch Bruce, and then hug them both. Maybe punch Damian too, for good measure, but there wouldn’t be a hug at the end of that.
Kon gave a weak grin. “Keep looking at me like that and you’re gonna make me blush, bud.”
“You’re alive,” Tim said simply. “I thought—Kon, you have to know. About Artemis, Garfield, Cassie . . .”
Kon’s face fell. It flattened into something almost unrecognizable. “I know. Kara, too. I can’t talk about it. Not yet. Not when I’m stuck up here.”
“Maybe not for long. If we can’t stop Shazam . . .” Tim trailed off.
“Then I come back and face him.” Kon didn’t sound enthusiastic about the prospect.
“Are we sure that the pulse won’t kill you? What if it weakens you?”
“No idea,” Kon admitted. “So while I want to come back and fight with you guys, I think you gotta try to take him down yourselves.” He scrubbed his hands over his face. “Shit. Out of everyone here, I never thought Shazam would go dark side.”
“He didn’t,” Tim said. “He’s being manipulated. You know how that is.”
Kon looked down. Luthor, the donor of his human DNA, had installed control mechanisms into his own body. Kon had been controlled before, and it had been a terrible struggle to break free. “Yeah,” he admitted roughly. “But I didn’t kill all those people. Shazam did.”
“Do you think he’s gonna be ok, after this? I felt bad enough when I hurt those close to me. He’s got the blood of how many thousands of innocents on his hands?”
“We need him to fight the Iconoclasts.”
“What if we can’t free him from their control in the first place? Then his power is only going to be used against us.”
“I don’t know, Kon!” Tim exploded. “I just need to figure out a way to do this that doesn’t end in me losing anyone else, ok?”
Kon settled back in his chair. “I’m not going anywhere,” he said quietly. “It’s not gonna be like last time. I promise.”
Tim swallowed around the thick lump in his throat. He was reaching the end of his tether, and unless he wanted to burst into tears in front of Kon—and wouldn’t that be the clincher to his day—he needed to sleep. “Kon, I’m glad to see you, but I gotta crash.”
Kon nodded. “Go on, bud. You look awful. Come talk to me again when you’ve had your beauty sleep, ok?”
Tim scowled at him, but it was half-hearted. “As soon as I can,” he promised before signing off.
Tim’s plans to fall immediately into bed were foiled by Damian, Dick, and Jason arguing in the Manor’s main hall. For a fleeting moment he was surprised to see Damian still here, as he was patrolling with Bruce tonight, but then he noticed that the door leading to the kitchen was open, and the light was on. Bruce was either checking in with Alfred, or was being force-fed before a long patrol. Maybe both, but it still left Tim’s three bat brothers to contend with, and Damian’s hands were clenched into fists. Clearly Tim needed to resolve this, as they were all that stood between he and his bed. How best to defuse the situation quickly without resorting to bloodshed?
Tim had an idea, and he was just loopy enough to put it into motion.
“The two of you are never going to get any better if you won’t patrol together,” Dick scolded, and it was not immediately apparent who he was addressing. It looked as if he was talking about Damian and Jason, but they had patrolled together just yesterday.
“He is not patrolling with Father!” Damian argued, clearing up Tim’s confusion. “He doesn’t need to be patrolling with us at all!”
“I am right here,” Jason said, aggrieved. He was slightly quieter than Dick and Damian, but not by much. “And Bruce doesn’t want to patrol with me either. Nobody’s feelings are hurt, Dick, just let it go.”
“I can’t let it go. Not when we’re dropping like flies!”
Tim squeezed in between them, and, ignoring everything, gave Jason the biggest hug he’d ever given anyone in his life.
The foyer fell silent so quickly one could have heard a pin drop. Jason’s body felt like a marble statue. Jesus, Tim thought. What do I have to do to get abs like that? And then, I am so tired I may just fall asleep riiiiiiiight here, on his abs of adamantium. Christ.
“Uhhhhh,” Jason said, in a moment of rare eloquence.
Damian recovered first. “What on earth are you doing? Drake, have you lost your mind?”
Out of the corner of his eye, Tim saw Dick frozen in place, his eyebrows up near his hairline. Sneaking up on Bruce and then stunning Dick into immobility? He was 2 for 2, and that felt great.
“You were right,” Tim mumbled. “I can’t give up believing in Kon.”
“Uhhh,” Jason tried again. “Yes. That.”
Dick stepped closer, looking concerned. “Tim, has there been word on Kon?”
Tim shook his head without lifting it off of Jason’s chest. “I won’t give up,” he said instead. “I will believe in him.”
“This is disgusting,” Damian tsked. “Take your love affair with the bumbling Superboy somewhere else, Drake.”
“Ours is the bromance to end all bromances.” Tim yawned as he quoted Stephanie. There wasn’t an ounce of romantic or sexual attraction between them, but he couldn’t deny they were abnormally co-dependent. It was part of why the younger group of the Teen Titans had been so damn efficient, and also their best-friendship.
“Ooooooook,” Jason said. He carefully patted Tim on the shoulder. “I think baby bird needs to get to bed. He’s sleep talking.”
“Carry me,” Tim demanded sleepily.
Dick’s wide-eyed stare somehow grew even more astonished. Between that and Kon, this may be one of the better days of Tim’s life.
Damian threw up his arms and flounced off. “Disgusting!” He hissed. “What the hell is wrong with this family?”
“Family, huh?” Jason said, his chest rumbling against Tim’s cheek. “Welp. Duty calls,” he said to Dick. Then, he hoisted Tim straight up, folding him over his shoulder like he was a sack of potatoes.
It was jarring enough to wake Tim from his daze. “This is not very romantic,” he informed Jason’s shoulder holsters.
“Buck up, buttercup,” was Jason’s cheerful reply. “At least you get to sleep, now.”
June 26th, 20xx
Wayne Manor, 5:42 AM
Alfred Pennyworth had seen more than his share of difficult mornings in his time serving the Wayne family. More so when that family branched out into the fondly dubbed ‘Bat’ family. He was well-used to the rigours needed to keep a household of crime fighters at their best, but he was getting old. Waking this early was beginning to be a trial, particularly when there was a rambunctious toddler climbing up the mattress with no attempt at stealth.
Alfred peeked open one of his eyes as Michael Wilson pulled himself up the mattress, straining up on his toes on the box spread. His little tongue poked out of the side of his mouth as he concentrated. Alfred opened his eyes fully, but took care not to move suddenly. If he were to startle the boy, he might topple over backwards, and then the morning would be begun with tears and wailing.
Michael looked up at him and smiled. It was peculiar that two grim-faced individuals, at least, in Alfred’s experience of them, could produce a child that smiled like a veritable ray of sunshine.
“G’mornin’ Mister Afred!” The boy chirped. “Unca Dick say time’ah breakfast. He say we can alllll eat in ya bed!”
Alfred paled. Oh, saints preserve us, he thought. Richard was a terror in the kitchen, and still, after all these years, was unreliable with anything more difficult than toast. Damian was exactly the same, and Tim was little better. Had it been Jason in the kitchen Alfred would have been wary, but accepting. Out of all of the boys he alone had interest and ability in the culinary arts, although it likely had more to do with a childhood spent on the streets, where fear of starvation was an ever-present and unwelcome shadow.
“Not if ‘Uncle Dick’ is cooking,” he said, unwilling to lie to the child. “Hup hup, little one. As soon as I am dressed we shall save the kitchen.”
“Save the kitchen!” Michael agreed, clearly tickled with the idea. He held his arms up, signalling his defeat to scale Mount Alfred’s Bed. Alfred picked him up and pulled him onto the bed, before easing his creaky bones out of it. As he dressed, Michael played with his two new favorite toys —a plastic stegosaurus, and a barbie doll that was dressed like a gymnast. Alfred had no earthly idea how either of the toys had ended up in the Manor. He suspected Richard, but the barbie doll was throwing him. Had he gone out and purchased the boy a barbie? Or had that somehow just been laying around?
When they reached the kitchen, Alfred was relieved to see that Richard had not yet begun to cook. Perhaps the threat had been an empty one, and was simply to rouse Alfred fifteen minutes earlier than usual?
“Morning, Alfred. Time for breakfast?” Richard asked hopefully, and it was with the exact same amount of cheek as he’d utilized as a boy of twelve.
“Monin’ tea?” Michael asked, who had, after five days of living in Manor and acting as ‘Alfred’s helper,’ had the morning routine down pat.
“Quite right, Master Michael,” Alfred said. “Can you tell Mas—I mean, Uncle Dick what his options are?”
Richard was grinning widely. He’d led a minor crusade to get the boy to call him that, and now that he’d won, Alfred worried over the natural progression of this. Richard knew that ‘Uncle Bruce’ would be a step too far, didn’t he?
Michael spun on the bar stool. He looked up at his favorite new uncle and very seriously recited, “Ooh long, Chinese peekout, English breakfast, or sai.”
“Chai,” Alfred corrected him gently. He’d leave Chinese Pekoe for another day.
“What about coffee?” Richard asked. “Can you ask the chef if that’s ok?”
Michael wrinkled his nose. “Coffee is yucky. Don’t drink that.”
Richard laughed and pulled the tot into his lap. “We’ll eat whatever Uncle Alfred brings us, right kiddo?”
Michael, eminently pleased to be made much of, did not resist. Alfred set to preparing a big batch of scrambled eggs with chopped vegetables and breakfast sausage. When next he turned around, Michael was still in Richard’s lap, but they were both holding a knife and fork in each hand, fists down on the table.
It was such a precious image that it made Alfred’s venerable heart flutter. Here was his happiest Robin, wearing a matching smile with the tot on his lap. Michael’s eyes and skin were darker than Richard’s, but they could have been father and son. Alfred had to turn back to the eggs to keep his composure. He loved all his Robins, and the extended members of the Bat family, but he longed for Bruce and his boys to find happiness in a more traditional way. To see Richard like this gave life to that long-buried hope.
“You’re a natural with the boy,” he remarked as he plated their eggs. “One would think you were born to fatherhood.”
Alfred stole a glance at Richard’s face as he set the plates down in front of them. It was just in time to see an odd expression flit across his face. Not quite disappointment, but not quite resignation, either.
“Thanks, Alfred,” Richard said. He nudged Michael. “What do we say?”
Michael looked up at him. “Thank you Mista Afred!” He set to with a messy will, and soon, remnants of his breakfast scattered the counter, his plate, and Richard’s lap.
Richard ate more sedately, taking care not to jostle the little one in his lap. When he used his napkin to swab Michael’s face, Alfred’s heart became too full to hold his tongue. “Do you plan on having children of your own, Master Richard?”
Richard’s face went still. Alfred could not tell what he was thinking, and that in itself was unnerving. “I do not,” he said quietly.
That was a surprise. “May I ask why?”
Richard fixed a false grin on his face. “It doesn’t exactly fit the life I’ve chosen, does it? Besides, other people need me more.”
Alfred frowned. “If you feel beholden to Bruce to continue fighting crime—”
“No, no,” Richard interrupted. “Not at all. Are you kidding me? Bruce would be so freaking happy if I had a kid. I mean, in his own repressed way, of course.” He shook his head. “Don’t worry about it, Alfred. It’s my own choice, and believe me, I’ve thought about it at length.”
It was clear to Alfred that Richard was not speaking from his heart, however. He venerated his natural and adoptive families, and would do anything to protect them. How could that not translate into having a family of his own? “Does the reluctance lie with Miss Gordon, then? Perhaps when all this is done, it might be possible to change her mind. I don’t mean to meddle, but I don’t want you to miss out on this particular happiness.”
“There’s no future for Babs and I,” Richard said, more firmly than Alfred expected. “She’s not the person for me.”
“I apologize,” Alfred said, even though he meant no such thing. “It was simply to something to consider. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ll go and see if Master Bruce will be eating breakfast today. Could you watch the little one for a moment?”
“Sure,” Richard agreed, relieved the conversation was over. He turned back to the sprout. “Hey, Mikey, where are you putting those eggs? Those are for eating, not wearing!”
Alfred smiled to himself as he wound his way down to the Batcave. Richard may protest now, but his true desires would out. Alfred had been wrong to push; this was not the time for family planning. Wait until the threat had been removed, and then he could apply pressure with more subtlety.
Alfred ducked into the Batcave through the main entrance. Bruce was sitting at the Batcomputer, but he was leaning backwards in his chair, his arms hung down by his sides . . . asleep at his computer. Alfred snorted. This wasn’t the first time that had happened. Alfred would have to do a better job at insisting that Bruce take a longer sleep shift. He was running himself ragged, particularly as there was no respite from being Batman. Now that the world knew who he was, he no longer pretended to live a double life as Bruce Wayne.
Now that his secret was out, he had become Batman in all ways.
“Master Bruce,” Alfred called out when he was a few feet away. “Master Bruce, it’s time for breakfast.”
Bruce woke with a jolt. “Alfred? What happened?”
Alfred suppressed a smile. “Nothing, Master Bruce. The eggs are ready if you are.”
“I—yes. Eggs are fine. I’ll be right—”
He was interrupted by an alert that flashed red across the computer screen. TRANSMISSION it read, and when he saw it, Bruce sighed. “There is it. Patrick’s finally reported in. Must have taken him longer than he thought.”
Alfred said nothing. He shifted back, but did not leave the Batcave. He was curious, and fond of Mister O’Brian. He had a levity that Alfred, firmly ensconced in the Batfamily, did not get to enjoy very often.
Bruce opened the transmission. The visual was from Patrick’s contacts, and the audio from tiny, specialty earpieces that had been clipped through Patrick’s ears like earrings. Both contacts and ear pieces were small enough that they could slip through tiny cracks, and Patrick had demonstrated he could hold his ears and eyes in their solid form while the rest of him liquified. He’d only lose them if he had to enter a fully liquid state again.
The transmission began at 3:17 AM when Patrick entered the research facility. It was abandoned, and there were no guards outside. All Patrick had to do was shift his putty hand into the exact same calibration as Lex Luthor’s—which was on file in the Batcave—lay down his hand on the scanner, and he was in.
“Too easy,” Bruce muttered. “And it couldn’t have taken him three hours for this . . . Was this delayed?”
Patrick silently slipped his way through the empty halls, ducking into rooms and rifling through filing cabinets. The power was cut. Lights were off, and none of the computers were online. Patrick hesitated over certain papers which seemed important, and quickly glanced over others. From the way Bruce was shaking his head, nothing was what they were looking for.
“No,” he murmured. “This isn’t right. Patrick, get out of there.”
Patrick went through the double doors at the end of the hall. “Bingo,” he whispered under his breath, although it was loud enough to be picked up by the ear pieces. Unlike the other rooms, this one was in total disarray. There had been no time to put everything back neatly, and papers, notebooks, tablets, and coffee cups were everywhere. Something had happened here, and the evidence of it was left behind.
Patrick flit from table to table, stretching his arms and neck to grab and glance over a truly staggering amount of information. All this could be slowed down and replayed later, but for now, Bruce let the transmission play at speed. Finally, Patrick found something that made him double take. It was a simple, dated list, written by some low-level peon, and read almost like a travel itinerary.
June 20th—Flight to Keystone. Meet with contact. Procure substance. Pass to Frank.
June 21st—Drive home. Take back roads, do not stop for anyone. Especially Morgan, the little bitch. Talk Boss out of giving me to the magic division? She can find her own way home.
June 22nd—Half-shift. Boss said to watch the news. 50 bucks says Batman’s real identity is in the police force. How else could he know where all the crime in Gotham is? Graham bet Batman was a woman. What an idiot.
June 23rd—On loan to Atlantis team. Do not agree to test gear this time. Remember what happened to Kevin. His insides were everywhere. Took hours to clean out the tank.
June 24th—Call Aunt Susan, tell her to get out of Metropolis. Do not call Sandra, the two-timing slut.
June 25th—List of next wave strike locations posted. Hoping for Europe, or Latin America. Fuck the States. I want to destroy some culture.
June 26th—Planned evacuation. All personnel to research lab. Boss said there might be a party. Better be, because Des Plaines is ass-end of nowhere. Hate Illinois. Hate the entire Midwest.
June 27th—Day off. Call Jeremiah. Make excuse for why he has to leave Chicago. Not as gullible—
The list ended abruptly, torn at the bottom. “Shit,” Bruce breathed. “Shit, shit—Patrick, get out of there!”
Patrick couldn’t hear him; this was an old transmission. Alfred narrowed his eyes at the list. Judging by the state of the room, something had gone wrong. There had been no party here; they had not even made it to Day 6 of the itinerary. Something had happened that forced this dimwitted lackey to leave this list behind, and—
There was a sudden jerk, and the paper rose up to meet them. Only when Patrick’s body fell to the ground did it become obvious what had happened. Someone had come up from behind and clubbed him.
“Get the gun!” Someone cried.
“Aw, hell no!” Patrick groaned. He shot out both his fists, forearms stretching over five feet in order to punch the nearest soldiers in the bracket. Both toppled over, but three more took their places. Patrick leapt into a motion, twisting and stretching and snapping back without stopping, a blur of arms and feet and a few well-placed headbutts. He was incredibly dangerous, particularly in close quarters, but every time he took a soldier down, more moved in, like heads of an unconquerable hydra.
Eventually he cleared a path towards the air vent, and Patrick took the opportunity. The camera shot forward as he elongated, stretching and thinning to evade capture. He had taken down at least eighteen men, but more more were coming—from off camera there were the sounds of men moving together, calling out orders.
Patrick was almost to the air vent. When he passed through the ear pieces, at least, would be lost. His fingers stretched out ahead of him, straining. His fingers were actually through the cracks when the camera shuddered violently, as if he had been electrocuted. When the jolting stopped, the camera angle sunk down to the floor. It reminded Alfred of a boat sinking very, very quickly.
“They liquified him,” Bruce breathed. “Shit. They’re gonna douse him with acetone again.”
The earpieces sunk to the bottom of Patrick; muffled, but still working. One of the contacts slid away, staring up towards the ceiling. The other slid inwards, and by miraculous chance was in perfect position to see the men standing over Patrick’s liquified body. One held what looked to be a small, modified handgun. It flared at the nozzle, and the aperture was latticed with tiny, silver metallic rods.
“Shall I hit him again?” The soldier who was holding the gun asked.
“No need,” said a deep, Latin-accented voice. Alfred’s eyes cut to Bruce. They both knew that voice. It was unmistakably Bane.
His soldiers parted as he made his way towards Patrick. Apart from his signature mask Bane was dressed atypically—not in his loose pants and tight muscle shirt, but in a fitted suit. All that was missing was a tie, and he’d look like he was attending a board meeting as a representative of the Mexican lucha libre division.
“So,” he said in his rich accent. “This is what they sent? A puddle on the floor?”
“We’ve killed him once, sir,” one of his soldiers reported. “He doesn’t stay dead.”
“Lo entiendo,” Bane murmured. “Clever, spy, but not clever enough.” He reached into the pocket of his trousers, and brought out a small, cylindrical vial. In it shone something blue and pulsing.
The soldiers nearest to him took a step back. “What is that?” One of them quietly asked his fellow.
Bane’s eyes crinkled. Had his mouth been visible behind his luchador-styled mask, it would have undoubtedly been grinning. “A little help from our new friends,” he chuckled, and he uncapped the vial. He tilted it over Patrick, and the last thing Alfred saw before the transmission cut out was the blue energy, pulsing and dangerous, coming ever closer.
June 26th, 20xx
Gotham, Clocktower, 6:29 AM
Dinah Lance had no sooner fallen into bed after a long night of conferring with Carol about transportation, Helena about the safe house system, Barbara about security, and then Ollie about . . . other things (she loved him, she really did, but sometimes that man just could not shut up. Just the other day he had been fighting with Barry over Hal, and it was times like those that made her wonder why on earth she was even dating him) when she was woken by a new and very specific ringtone. Unlike her other ring and text tones, used for both her personal life and her duties as Black Canary, this one denoted only one purpose: someone else had died.
Barbara had assigned what Dinah considered the ‘death number’ after the blitzkrieg. Everyone member of the New League would get an alert when someone else had passed, or was considered MIA. This was the first time it had been used. Dinah had set the death number ringtone as the first few lines of the second movement of Beethoven’s last piano concerto, No. 5, ‘The Emperor.’
Oliver had opted for Queen’s Another One Bites the Dust, which was just another reason why she refused to marry him so far.
She rolled over in bed to stop the alarm and read the message.
Channel 42 in 20 minutes.
Dinah dressed quickly. She had known the news was going to be bad, but not incomprehensible. The mutagenic change that had given him his power had made Patrick immortal. As in, he couldn’t be killed. Not long term. Why, then, were they sending out an all-out alarm?
Dinah met up with Helena in the kitchen. Her dark-haired counterpart had snagged an uncooked bagel, and was chewing on it as they made their way to Oracle’s computer room.
“You get the message?” Dinah asked, unsure why Helena was so business as usual.
“Yep,” she said around a big bite of cranberry bagel.
“You’re not worried?”
Helena swallowed and then said, “A little, but it’s Plastic. He can’t actually be dead. He’ll be unrecognizable for a bit, then come back all sunshine and daisies.”
That was what Dinah thought, but something made her nervous. “I don’t know. A meeting so soon after? What if something happened?”
Helena spoke around the bagel in her mouth. “He probably managed to send back important info.” She swallowed and continued, “You know, I wasn’t sure Bruce was making the right move sending him in alone. I guess it worked out after all.”
“Yes, but . . .” Dinah trailed off, not sure how to articulate her anxiety. Something just felt wrong. She shook her head. If there was something wrong, they’d know soon enough.
Helena punched in her code that allowed them access to Oracle’s lair, as Dinah liked to consider it. Barbara was already within, of course. Dinah wasn’t sure she ever slept, especially during times like these. She glanced over her shoulder at them, and waved them over. Her expression was grim.
“Uh oh,” Helena muttered. “Looks like bad news.”
Dinah and Helena flanked Barbara, who sat ramrod straight in her wheelchair. Her posture was a sure sign shit was going down.
“What’s wrong?” Dinah asked, but Babs just shook her head.
“In the meeting,” she said, and then fired up the communications control. At once, every member of the New League’s face flashed onto their screen.
Oliver looked exhausted, and Dinah was comforted that he looked no better than she felt. Teach him to try and sext her awake at 3 AM. That he was successful meant nothing at all. They both needed more sleep, no matter how badly she had needed some release, as well. He smirked when he saw her looking at him, and gave her a look that managed to be lecherous, even through a computer screen.
“Does he ever turn off?” Helena leaned over and asking in a mutter.
“Every other Tuesday,” she murmured back.
For the first time since the Iconoclasts had hit, every member of the New League—save Wonder Woman and Aquaman, down in Atlantis—were present. The Birds of Prey were all assembled, and the Batfamily as well, all of them hovering around the supercomputer down in the Batcave. Red Hood and the Outlaws shared a monitor, and the peeling paint behind them hinted they were not at the Manor. Ollie and Barry and Carol all had their own screens, as did Michael Carter and Ted Kord.
Even John Stewart and Shayera Hall were able to get away from their covers. John was stony faced, and Dinah didn’t doubt it was wearing on him to pander to Luthor’s ego, all the while openly denouncing his true allies. Shayera was even worse. She looked like she hadn’t slept in a week, her hair was a matted mess, and her eyes were dull. She had been selected as a double agent primarily because of her history with the JLA, and how she had come to Earth in the first place. Dinah hoped it wouldn’t be too much for her.
Bruce opened up the meeting. “Thank you all for attending. I know it took some doing for us all to be here in time, but this is important. As Oracle sent in the alert, Patrick has died. Whether or not this is a more serious setback than their first attempt remains to be seen. We have his final transmission—what he saw and heard right before his death. I’ll replay the pertinent parts, and then open the floor to discussion.”
He leaned forward and pressed several unmarked buttons on his console. The transmission began playing immediately, fast forwarded through the non-essential parts. He paused it for a minute when Patrick had looked down at the technician’s list, but then let the rest of the video play in real time.
“Shit!” Shayera blurted out, as soon as the video ended. “ I know what that was! That’s a blue star energy pulse converter—the Gordanians use a simplified version of it to power their ships. Shit,” she said again, her voice wobbling. “It eats through anything organic and converts it into harnessable energy. Do you know what the half-life on blue star is? 5,000 years!”
Dinah’s eyes went wide with shock. 5,000 years? And that was just the half-life? After a time-travelling misadventure in Atlantis, Patrick had rebuilt himself on a molecular level for 3,000 years, and it had nearly shattered him, mentally and psychologically. And that was in the past, wherein he’d finally reformed himself in their current time, with all his friends and family to keep him sane. What would he be like in 5,000 years? In closer to 10,000 years?
“That is why we are treating this as a semi-permanent death,” Bruce said heavily. “Not only because we cannot retrieve his . . . remains until we have cleared the facility for traps, bombs and the like, but we also cannot begin to aid in his resurrection until we have eliminated the threat of this happening again. As difficult as this is, Patrick’s death was not the primary reason we called you all together, however.” He tapped on his console, and pulled up a copy of the agent’s itinerary.
“This is the single most straightforward idea of their plans we are ever going to get,” Bruce continued. “If it is accurate. There is always the possibility that this was planted. Either way, we have a problem.”
“Oh hell no,” Ted exclaimed. “They aren’t setting a single foot in Chi-town!”
“Excuse me,” Koriand’r muttered, looking distinctly green around the gills. She ran off screen, and both her boys watched her go.
“Chicago may be their next target,” Barbara agreed. “And as we have no idea how they destroyed Metropolis in an hour, nor how wide the devastation may spread, we are left with only a few days to act. I propose that we begin an immediate evacuation of Chicago and the surrounding areas; as many as we can convince to leave their homes.”
“Even with their traffic grid the streets are gonna be jammed,” Carol murmured. “You’re gonna need alternate forms of transportation. Ferris Aircraft can help with that.”
“As will Queen Industries,” Ollie added, unflinchingly serious. “We have and will provide for those who need temporary shelter, food, and a way outta there. Say the word and I’ll get it for you, Bruce.”
Dinah bit back a little smile. Ollie could grate on her nerves at times—could grate on everyone’s—but in times like these, she didn’t know which aspect of him she loved more; the man, or the superhero.
“Hey hey don’t leave me out, guys!” Ted said. “K.O.R.D. Inc is based in Chicago, and I’ve got plenty of contacts in the city that will convince people to get the hell out.”
“And I’ll help him,” Michael said, flashing his 100 kilowatt smile.
“Keystone,” Barry whispered, his eyes glazed. He hadn’t heard a word of conversation, he was still caught up in the itinerary’s first day. “He went to Keystone to procure a ‘substance.’ This fucker helped murder Wally!”
“Barry, deep breaths,” Dinah counselled him gently, but firmly. “We need to keep our heads.”
“Fuck that!” He yelled, losing his cool completely. “Wally’s dead because of him! I’m done keeping my goddamned cool!”
There was a blur of red and yellow, and the next moment he was gone. Helena sighed and closed her eyes, and Jason and the Outlaws all exchanged glances.
“So, uh, anybody know how to catch an angry speedster?” Roy asked.
“We’ll fill him in when he’s done throwing his tantrum,” Bruce said. He was in a piss-poor mood, and Dinah bet it was only partially because things were beginning to spiral out of control. She assumed it had more to do with Patrick’s ‘death’. For all their differences in personality, Patrick and Bruce had been friends. Losing him for the rest of his lifetime, and at his direction, would haunt him.
“Will the government help if we tell them?” Tim Drake asked, bringing the conversation back to the matter at hand.
John Stewart let out a pained laugh. “Pah! Don’t hold your breath. Luthor’s convinced half of Washington that Shazam was acting under our orders when he went on his killing spree. Even if we handed them Billy’s head on a platter, it’s too late to get their support.”
“Even if we could prove the next target?” Tim argued, young and idealistic enough to think he could change stubborn minds.
John shook his head. “They won’t believe anything we show them. Not until the Iconoclasts strike again.”
“Is there any information you can pass along?” Bruce asked, his voice strained.
Shayera winced. “Bane’s got nothing in Chicago, and I haven’t seen any assassins in my neck of the woods since the blitz. Unless John’s got something on Luthor, our best bet may be hitting their site in Des Plaines.”
“Luthor has not focused on the Midwest,” John admitted. “That may mean he’s trying to keep out of blast radius, or he’s already popular enough in that region to spend more time in others. I don’t know, Bruce. He’s been trying to shift my responsibilities, lately. I believe he’s taken an interest in me in a new way.”
There was a moment of stunned silence. Then, “If he touches you, I will end him,” Shayera promised, her voice dark and dangerous.
John realized what he’d insinuated. “No, not that! Lord, your minds are filthy. He’s trying to keep me firmly out of the mud. He has me playing in the politician’s sphere rather than assisting with the seedier aspect of his ‘empire.’”
“So, nothing useful?” Jason Todd drawled.
John glared at him. “Bit like yourself.”
“Ok,” Dinah cut in. “Great. So we’re all agreed—we have to focus on evacuating Chicago. There’s something else we need to focus on: that site in Des Plaines. Any leads?”
Oracle glanced back at her and nodded. “We’ve got a market research facility that was bought out last year by one of Luthor’s puppet companies. It was a fairly high-tech building, with a testing lab and kitchens built in, along with the more basic mic’d rooms and two-way mirrors. God knows what he wanted it for, but we think that’s where the agent was referring to in his note.”
“So who’s going in?” Dick asked.
“I am,” Dinah said at exactly the same time as Helena. They glanced at each other before she amended it to, “We are.”
“Birds of Prey call this one, guys,” Helena added. “We’ll show you gents how the ladies get it done.”
“Woah, woah, woah,” Ollie said. “Babe. Are you thinking this through? Patrick just died. Patrick. Need I remind you that you are not immortal?”
“Helena and I are of less use in the evacuation effort,” she pointed out. “Not in the BSU club, remember? We are, however, dangerous as fuck.”
“I am not arguing that,” Ollie said in a tone of voice that suggested he was, in fact, arguing just that. “But Patrick is dead. You are not, and I’d like to keep it that way.”
Dinah narrowed her eyes at the monitor, and debated whether it was worth it to use her canary cry to incapacitate all the listeners just to piss off her overprotective boyfriend.
“Thanks to Patrick’s sacrifice, we have a way better idea of what we’re up against,” Helena said before Dinah could go through with it. “We work well as a team, and if things go badly, we can bail.”
“Like Patrick could bail?” Dick asked, sarcastically. He clearly didn’t like the two of them going in alone either, yet while Batman was brooding in front of him, he couldn’t offer to help. For now, he had slid back under Bruce’s wing, and was part of the Batman bloc, rather than acting independently as Nightwing.
“We could go with,” Jason offered. “Roy and I. We’re not much help with evac either.”
“Ok, we could do that,” Roy said, sounding put out. “Thanks for offering me up, Fearless Leader.”
“No,” Bruce said. He was wearing his cowl, but there was still something deeply unhappy about his features. “I will go with them.”
Dick and Tim whipped their heads around in perfect sync, and in identical expression of shock.
“Say whaaat?” Ollie prompted.
Bruce glowered at him. “I sent Patrick to his death. I will not let it happen again. Dinah, Helena, and I will go to Des Plaines.”
“Bruce,” Dick said quietly. “Are you sure about this?”
“Yes,” he said. “While I’m gone, you will be Batman. Keep the patrol rotas until I get back. Red Hood, if you and the Outlaws would continue helping patrol Gotham, that would be . . . appreciated.”
Dinah’s eyebrows went up. Wow, could Bruce sound any more like he was pulling his own teeth out of his mouth? From the look on Jason’s face, he agreed.
“Not doing it for you, old man,” he said, his eyes sliding to the right so that it looked like he was staring at Tim or Richard.
“But you’ll do it,” Bruce said, and it was not a question.
Jason’s gaze stayed just off center. “Yeah.”
“Waita waita wait,” Roy said, waving his hands in front of his face. “We’re doing some A+ planning here, but what about Shazam? Isn’t he tearing through the US? He’d destroyed eight cities, last I checked.”
Barbara shook her head. “He fell off the grid about three hours ago. No sign of him, but the death toll has stopped entirely.” She adjusted her glasses. “He may be unconscious, or found a way to break free of the compulsion . . . He may also be dead. I simply don’t have a trace of him.”
“Did he get off-world?” John asked.
“I don’t see how,” Bruce replied. “Not with the magical pulse barring or even controlling his powers.”
“Jason and I can find him,” Tim offered. He stood up a little straighter when all the eyes turned to him. Many were incredulous, including Jason’s. “We’ve worked together in the past, and between us, we’ve got contacts on all ends of the spectrum. One way or another, we’ll get a lead on him.” He hesitated. “But I don’t think he and I should fight him.”
“No,” Bruce agreed. “That I think should be up to Arrow and Flash. Working together, they have a chance.”
“Oh, thanks,” Ollie snarked. “A chance. What, are you crazy? Shazam is one of the biggest bruisers in the League. In the universe! We’re boned!”
“What about Koriand’r?” Helena asked. “She’s incredibly powerful.”
“No,” Jason and Roy said at exactly the same time, with exactly the same forbidding tone of voice.
“Wow, sexist much?” Dinah remarked.
Jason frowned at everyone, looking angry. “What is wrong with you?” He asked. “If you were pregnant, would you be throwing yourself into battle with Shazam?”
I really should be counting these moments of stunned silence, Dinah thought in the stunned silence that followed. This makes three.
“Kori’s pregnant?” Dick asked, with an odd tone coloring his voice.
Jason whipped around to glare at Roy. “I thought you were going to tell everyone!”
Roy winced. “I just . . . the right time never came up!”
Ollie had other concerns. “Jesus. Is it Roy’s?” He asked, amazed.
Dick’s eyes narrowed, and Dinah foresaw an awkward day at Wayne Manor. If Dick wasn’t over his feelings for his ex-fiancee, things were about to get hella awkward, hella fast.
“Yes, Kori’s pregnant, and yes, it is Roy’s,” Jason explained through gritted teeth. “The point is that she has elected to stay out of pitched battle. Strictly transport duty, guys.”
“Congratulations,” the smallest and angriest Wayne said, in a tone that was distinctly un-congratulatory.
“Well, fuck!” Ollie exclaimed. “Do you honestly think Barry and I can take Shazam down on our own? Because I don’t!”
“There is a backup plan for if we are truly outmatched,” Bruce said heavily. “Oracle has all the necessary information. If Shazam lies low long enough, we may be able to regroup before engaging him. I’d feel a lot better if all of us were going after him.”
“Is it normal to be vomiting this much during human pregnancy?” Koriand’r asked, walking back onto camera as she did. She sounded worried but her color was a little better, and Dinah realized she had just raced off to the bathroom to yark.
“Yep. It’s called morning sickness,” Helena offered. “Can stick around for the whole trimester.”
Dinah said nothing. Why should she? She couldn’t have children, no matter how badly she and Ollie wanted one. That Roy was able to have one so easily stung a little, and for once, she understood why Ollie was being a bit petulant. Well, that and facing Shazam, she thought. That might make me a bit moody too.
Starfire frowned. “Human pregnancies seem far more uncomfortable than Tamaranean pregnancies.”
“And more dangerous,” Roy muttered. “Did you know Tamaraneans don’t miscarry? Ever? Kori thought we were shitting her when we explained it to her. Now do you see why we’re worried about you fighting?” He said to her. “The kid’s half-human. The pregnancy’s gonna be different than what you’re expecting.”
“Not too different, I hope,” she murmured, but took her place next to him, allowing the conversation to move forward.
Barbara took control of the conversation once more. “It’s decided, then. Batman, Canary, and Huntress will infiltrate the Des Plaines site, and Carol, Beetle, Booster, and Arrow will focus on evac, until Shazam is found, and then Arrow and Flash will focus on containing him. Red Robin and and Red Hood, your first priority is finding Shazam. Starfire and Arsenal, do what you can do, help out with Nightwing and Robin in Gotham. John and Hawkgirl, keep your covers. I’ll continue overseeing everyone, but my efforts will be towards the evacuation. If we don’t learn anything from the Des Plaines site, or find a way to stop the attack on Chicago, I will hack everything and make the announcement public. The government will not stand in our way of saving countless civilian lives. Any questions?”
Ollie raised his hand. “May I register a complaint?” His eyes cut to her section of the monitor, and she knew he was going to argue her role in this.
“Not if you want to have sex ever again,” Dinah shut him down.
His mouth worked soundlessly for a moment, then he slowly lowered his hand.
“Whoever sees him next, fill Flash in, please.” Barbara concluded. “This is going to be a difficult couple of days. Stay alert, and if anything happens—anything at all—do not try to handle it on your own. Our strength is in our unity. Alone, we will fall.”
DUN DUN DUNNNNNN.
I have seen Tamaraneans spelled about 4 different ways, and it has been so long since I’ve read it in an actual comic I have no idea, now. I apologize for any/all spelling mistakes, both specific to the comics and in the general English language.
Also, I have no real idea how Roy and Kori would take to being parents (together). I kind of like the idea of Roy being v. excited about this, and extremely silly as well. (And if not . . . oh well, Elseworld.)
I worked a really, really terrible job in Des Plaines, IL. I may hate the city by association but am quite fond of Illinois on the whole. My apologies to anyone who is from (or has ever been to) Des Plaines, disregarding the amount of time you spend in the O’Hare airport.
Chapter 5: A Good Soldier
As always, this is unbeta’d. I do my own edits, but am sure to miss things, so please let me know if anything glaring pops out.
If the title of this chapter isn’t making you at least a little nervous, it should be. The end of the chapter may require hankies. The crying (and hateful comments) will probably start . . . now.
Trigger alert: language, main character death, emotional destruction, torture (although it is non-explicit/audio only).
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
June 26th, 20xx
Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, 3:17 AM
The water around him is dark, and he has been treading it long. Days (or weeks, or months, or years) ago, he learned how to breathe in the water, else he would have been lost. Time and time again he has found his way upwards, only to be repelled by the surface. It is smooth and glassy and thicker than a thousand diamond bars. He cannot break through them, and so he sinks down below, to the still, dark waters, until he summons himself for another attempt.
I will not die yet, he tells himself occasionally, when he is lucid enough to form coherent thought. I am not done.
But his body is heavy, and the waters are deep. Only his determination keeps him floating, fighting, forcing his way to the surface. And with every passing moment, that which bars the surface grows ever thicker.
It frustrates him, and after what feels like a lifetime, he finds himself doing something new. “I will not die yet. I am not done,” he says, aloud for the first time since he was drowned. Bubbles escape his lips, trailing upwards. They ricochet against the glassy surface, and drift their way back down. They band together as they sink, and by the time the now humongous bubble reaches him, there is something inside.
It is an incongruous image. An old, wizened man; a bearded man, sits within on a throne carved from stone. The old man’s hair is matted and his eyes are wild, and something inside of the drowned man clenches at the sight. The old man is powerful. The old man is dangerous.
The old man is familiar.
“Why do you linger here?” The old man asks him, from inside his bubble.
The drowned man looks at him curiously. He has known only darkness and water and failure for what feels like lifetimes. He had forgotten about people. He had forgotten what they sound like.
“I cannot get out,” he admits, when he remembers the words to speak.
“Why not?” The old man asks.
The drowned one looks up. “The surface is blocked. I am not strong enough to break free, so I cannot get out.”
“You are only as strong as you know yourself to be,” the old man says, and the drowned one has a flash of memory. Of course he is wise. The old man’s power is specific—he is magic. A wizard.
“Can you help me?” He asks.
“Why should I?” The wizard muses.
The drowned man tries to think of a reason why. He does not know who he is, nor why he is here, but he does still have that one piece to himself; the flotsam of who he once was to cling to in this endless ocean of unknowing. “Because I will not die yet. I am not done.”
“Then help yourself,” the wizard counsels. “If you know yourself, you know your true strength and no prison bars will hold you.”
A flare of hope lights the drowned man’s belly. “How do I do that?”
“You must reclaim yourself.”
“But I don’t remember myself,” the drowned man says sadly. “It was taken from me.”
“Almost,” the wizard agrees. “But not entirely. I will help you, but first you must do something for the both of us. I have forgotten my name, as you have yours. If you can remember mine, you shall remember yours.”
“Your name?” The drowned one asks. “But I don’t know you.”
From far off, echoing in the lost hallways of his memory, he hears a quiet voice whisper, ‘The wisdom of Solomon; the strength of Hercules . . .’
“Don’t you?” The wizard looks at him, and the drowned one has another flash of recognition. He does know the wizard.
‘The stamina of Atlas; the power of Zeus . . .’
‘What is my name?” The wizard prompts, his voice growing louder. So too do the whispers in his mind, coming together in a mantra he knows in his bones.
‘The courage of Achilles; the speed of Mercury . . .’
It comes to him all at once. “Shazam,” the drowned man whispers, and there is a light above him, cutting through the inky waters.
The wizard nods, and something in his mien is approving. “And what is the name that we share?”
“Shazam,” the drowned one says again, more confidently this time. There is an edge to his voice, a power in his conviction. The light from above flares ever brighter, and the water grows warmer.
“And what is the name you alone bear? What is the name which holds your true power?”
That takes longer. There is another name, and another sense of himself hidden deep within these lifeless waters. It is the name of a little boy in the orphanage; an angry, powerless boy who rails against the idea of a happy, normal life. It is the name of a boy with five foster siblings, all of whom he loves as much as any full-blooded sibling. It is the name of a young man who grows into himself, hates bullies and those who do evil, and always, no matter how dark things become, tries to do the right thing.
It is a name of no magic. A human name. But it is his name. And he wants it back.
“Billy,” he remembers, and the light from above is blinding now. “Billy Batson.”
The water roils and froths around him, and echoes with the creaking and breaking of the diamond bars that keep him pinned. He is so close to freedom, he can almost feel the sun on his face, and the air in his lungs. He is not quite free, however. There is one last bond in place, and the wizard Shazam asks him one final question.
“And what is your true strength, Billy Batson? What can they not take from you, no matter how hard they try?”
“My humanity,” Billy says, and he knows this is true. Knows it deep down in his bones, where he had not forgotten his name or his resolve, no matter the strength of his enemies’ magic. “I am human. I am Billy. Not whatever they would make me!”
The wizard Shazam smiles, and in an instant the ocean is drained away. The bars are undone, and there is a great and terrible light that fills Billy entirely, leaving no part of him in the dark. The light is more terrifying than the magic, but its purpose is not to control him. It is a cleansing light, a purifying light, and in it, nothing can remained unchanged.
Billy screams, and in it is his resolve, writ large: “I WILL NOT DIE! I AM NOT DONE!”
The light shone brighter for one, unbearable moment—
Billy Batson opened his eyes to the waking world.
June 26th, 20xx
Chicago, IL, 11:47 AM
Barry began to kick himself for running out of the League meeting almost immediately. He was a grown man, with almost a decade of acting as the Flash. This wasn’t the time or the place to revert to his emotional, teenage years. He needed to gain control over his emotions, and be someone everyone could rely on.
It was easier said than done, of course. Memories of Wally had overwhelmed him. Everyone liked Wally: he was kind, considerate, funny, a great team player who would step up to lead when needed . . . and that was just his superhero persona. Out of uniform he had looked up to Barry as a full-fledged family member, even though Barry hadn’t exactly been married to his Aunt Iris. Not yet, anyway. Barry had made little secret that he considered Wally to be his nephew, by choice, if not by birth.
And now he was dead. Dead, dead, dead, just like Patrick, Victor, and half the earthbound representatives of the Green Lantern Corps.
Dead, just like Iris.
What eventually snapped him out of his depression was remembering his promise to Hal to look after Ollie. He called Arrow and got an earful, but was also brought up to date with the current situation. That call gave him another set of worries that were immediate and vibrant enough to take his mind temporarily off of Wally. Subduing Shazam was practically impossible at the best of times, but that would have to wait for Red Hood and Red Robin to find him. Dinah’s safety on the mission was another worry he could not assuage. If anything happened to her, both Ollie and Hal would be wrecked, and with the addition of Bruce and Helena, the New League would be crippled.
Chicago was the immediate priority, however, and something he could assist with. He sent out texts to Carol, Ted, and Ollie, asking what he could do to help them. Transport, was the immediate reply from all. Ollie’s had the helpful addition of Use that super speed and get Carol what she needs. She’s got less capital to throw around than Ted and I do, so she’s gonna need you.
So Barry raced to Chicago, startling Carol as she coordinated the planes, boats, busses, and trains that would, barring any future developments from the Des Plaines team, start transporting everyone they could out of the city.
“Direct me,” he had told her, and she did. For the next three hours, he had pushed his speed and strength to the utmost, delivering what needed to be delivered, shoring up what needed to be shored, and smoothing the way for all the little tasks that kept such an immense enterprise running. Eventually he received a message from Oracle that he should check in with Tim in Gotham. He may have a lead on Billy’s location, down in Nevada. Flash agreed, and then raced across Chicago one more time to deliver his last report to Carol.
“Thank you,” she said, stiltedly, as he handed her the report from her naval division, organizing ships to ferry people across Lake Michigan. “Your work is much appreciated.”
She began walking away, flipping through the pages on her clipboard. Stung, Barry opened his mouth to ask her to act her age, please, but then paused. He wasn’t an idiot. He could read body language as well as anyone, and, unlike the majority of his sex, openly admitted to crying during Jack’s death scene during Titanic. Bottom line was, he was better emotionally equipped to deal with upset women than most men.
“Carol, what’s wrong?” He asked, trying to sound as gentle and compassionate as he could. He knew from Hal that she was not a woman to be gentled, but he wasn’t going to be crass about this. “I know we’re behind schedule, but just tell me if there’s something else I can do.”
She hesitated, looking back at him over her shoulder. She was a beautiful woman, in well-tailored clothes; the polar opposite of handsome yet scruffy Hal and his Walmart wear. They were an odd couple when Barry thought about it, but opposites attracted. Looking at her now, Barry felt an odd shiver of inadequacy. He wasn’t attracted to her, nor were they in competition for anything at all, but something in her expression made him feel like he was measured up and found lacking.
“Not right now,” she said. “Thank you for all your help, but if Oracle says she needs you, she needs you. You should get going.”
Enough of being subtle. Barry didn’t have time to waste, even with how fast he moved. “Am I missing something? There is no problem in relying on me. With how important you are to Hal, and how important he is to me, we’re kind of like family. I mean, aren’t we at least friends?”
She looked directly at him. “No.”
His mouth dropped. He couldn’t help the reaction, although he regretted his loss of face immediately. “I—Is there a reason why?” This frigid reception was new and completely unexpected, particularly as they’d marathoned three Nicholas Sparks movies in a row, just before Valentines Day. He hadn’t seen her much since then, but wouldn’t Hal have told him if something had happened?
Carol sighed. She glanced around the warehouse, as if salvation might come from one of the workers. They were alone, however, and eventually she admitted, “Barry, I realize this isn’t very helpful, but I simply don’t like you.”
This was somehow even more surprising. He stopped moving for a moment, that was how surprised he was. Movie marathon(s) aside, his next thought was does Hal know? Is that why we never double dated? How did I miss all this?
“I’m sorry if I’ve done something—”
Carol cut him off with a frustrated gesture. Now she at least looked a little apologetic, if annoyed. “It’s not you, personally. Nothing you’ve done. I just . . . you rub me the wrong way.”
Bullshit, Barry thought. The only person I rub the wrong way is Ollie, because he has a big man crush on Hal. What’s Carol’s problem? “Maybe it would be better to hash this out,” he suggested, with a touch of steel in his voice. “Smooth down the edges. ‘Cuz I’m not going anywhere, and I want to know if that’s gonna be a problem for you before you marry Hal.”
There was a quick intake of breath when he mentioned Hal. Barry had a bad feeling about this. Had he stumbled onto something painful? Was this going to culminate in a conversation that Hal would kill him for, later? She was still glaring at him, icy and untouchable in her perfect femininity, and Barry honestly had no idea what the hell she was so angry about, and he was not backing down until he did.
“Perhaps you’re right,” she allowed, and her capitulation only served to make Barry more nervous. “But can you afford to keep Oracle waiting?”
“I’ll make up time on the way,” he assured her. Tim could wait. Shazam hadn’t killed anyone for upwards of eight hours, and he would keep.
Carol took a moment to formulate her thoughts. She exhaled slowly and met his gaze before admitting, “Fine. If you really want to know, I proposed to Hal, a few months before he left. On Valentine’s Day, actually. When we went out to dinner.”
A cold pit formed in Barry’s belly. He was having a change of heart. Now that she’d begun, he didn’t want her to finish. Hal hadn’t told him any of this. There had to be a reason for that, and that reason was that Hal didn’t want him to know.
He must have broadcasted his surprised because it made Carol laugh, mirthlessly. “Wow, that’s a surprise. I thought he would have told you everything.”
Barry stiffened. Hal hadn’t. Not a blessed word. “No, he wouldn’t have told me that. Not after Iris.”
Carol hesitated, and then bowed her head. “I . . . I suppose that makes sense.” She didn’t apologize for what she’d said, or even for Iris’s passing, which Barry appreciated. Too many people tried, and it just made him upset. There was no one to blame but cancer; nothing to blame but the cells of her own body failing her.
Carol cleared her throat before continuing in a clipped, clear tone, like she was reciting bullet points at a board meeting. “He turned me down, obviously. Not entirely, just that he wanted to wait. I was disappointed, but I understood. His lifestyle . . . well, you know how hard it is. I was going to be understanding.”
“What changed?” Barry asked softly.
She gave him a calculating look. “The night before he left back in April . . . I was a little drunk. I wasn’t handling the imminent separation very well. I asked again, and when he reiterated his desire to wait, I demanded a different answer.”
It was an effort to behave normally. Even his breath was quicker now. I’m nervous, Barry realized. And I have no idea why. What the hell, me? “And?”
She smiled, the curve of her lips was sharp and unhappy. “He said that he couldn’t leave you alone like that. That marrying so soon after you’d lost Iris would be the worst thing he could do as a friend.” She frowned, looking faintly confused. “He said he’d be breaking his promise.”
Oh, Hal. Barry thought. Hal, no. It was difficult to string together anything more coherent than that. It had only been a few days ago that he and Ollie had been playfully competing over who Hal liked best. This blew it all out of the water. Hal had turned Carol down for him. Just so Barry wouldn’t feel alone.
Barry blamed the profundity of his silly victory over Ollie for the flash of contentment that warmed him.
“What promise?” Barry asked. It was better than asking what in God’s name is wrong with Hal, or, your boyfriend picked me over you? Twice? Ollie would have been making quips about how he was pretty sure that made Barry Hal’s new girlfriend, or something like that. Bad enough that Barry was kind of thinking that in the first place.
Carol shook her head. “I thought that you might know. It was clearly important to him, but he refused to get into it.”
“I have no idea. He hasn’t made any promises to me,” Barry said frankly. “I’m amazed he told you any of that. It’s never come up between us, even when Iris was . . . passing.”
Carol sighed, and something in her posture unclenched. “He thought I’d be too drunk to remember. When he gets back, he’ll pretend like he never said anything.”
“Shit,” Barry said eloquently. And then, “Well, I guess I see why you don’t like me much. Carol, if it means anything, I’m sorry Hal is such an idiot. I’ll talk to him when he gets home. I refuse to stand in the way of your happiness.” His breath shuddered when he admitted, “I know what it’s like to lose that. You and Hal deserve better than this . . . indecision.”
Carol’s smile was small, but her manner was slightly thawed. “I don’t think it’s that simple, Barry, but thank you. I guess I am glad we had this talk.”
“I’ll make it simple for him,” he assured her, before he turned and sped off towards Gotham. “Things will get better. The last thing we need are misunderstandings when we’re at war.”
June 26th, 20xx
Gotham, 2:14 PM
Barbara leaned down against her computer console, her mind drifting. This was the third day in a row she’d stayed awake for 20+ hours, and at 33 years old, the pace was wearing on her. Particularly as it was all mental stimulation. She couldn’t go out and physically work off her tension, or give her mind a break the way everyone else could. She was bound to the wheelchair, and in her darkest times, she felt like she was trapped within the confines of her mind.
She had been monitoring Bruce, Dinah, and Helena for the last 4 hours, and so far the mission had (thankfully) been predictable and boring. They had reached Des Plaines with no difficulty, and had entered the research facility posing as respondents for a project. Part one of the project had wrapped up a little while ago, and from Bruce’s terse mutters, they weren’t ready to come home yet. They had not yet had the opportunity to explore the whole facility without blowing their cover, but from his equipment’s readings, it looked as if there was a huge cavernous space below their feet.
Although their slow pace was worrisome, Barbara knew they’d get there eventually. They’d find a way to access that space discreetly, and whatever they found there she would know. They had all been fitted to the nines with every listening device Lucius Fox had ever created, and had they not all been connected to her supercomputer, she would have had a hellish time trying to separate the noise from the three listening devices all were wearing. Certain members of the focus group really needed to learn about volume control. Wires were woven into their clothing, and all three supers wore the visual recording contact lenses. Helena had another pair fitted onto her sunglasses.
Dinah had an additional device, a tiny, plastic, flesh-colored, experimental device in the piercing in the forward helix of her left ear. That was the only one that wasn’t currently transmitting any information, but it wasn’t meant to. It was their back-up, and it could not transmit any information until the end of the mission, when physically activating the device would send all auditory information to Barbara’s supercomputer.
Barbara couldn’t focus her utmost attention on any one thing, not with this many recording devices in play. So she rigged a program that would alert her if there was any dramatic change in volume or speed at which they were moving, and until then, she would focus on preparing to evacuate Chicago.
And maybe take a five minute nap—
“Oracle!” Came an unfamiliar, British-accented voice that jostled her from an alpha-wave nap.
Barbara flailed, half convinced she was under attack. In doing so she knocked over her mug of coffee, long forgotten and ice cold. Thankfully it only splashed all over the floor, and not her computer.
“What?” She cried out. “What’s going on?” She glanced up at the monitor, and had her answer. There was John Constantine, and he’d managed to do what no computer hacker could.
“How did you get access to my computer?” She asked, equal parts enraged and worried.
He waved his hand in front of his face. “Magic, darling, but I’m not here to muck about. Whatever your magic man did, make him do it again,” he commanded.
Maybe she was dreaming. Surely that would make more sense than a British mage commandeering her supercomputer, and then making nonsensical demands. “Our who-now did what?”
John growled, frustrated. “Your wizard! Sha-zam! Billy bloody Batson, keep up, Barbara Gordon! Whatever he did, make him do it again, because if he can, I might not have to get serious. You do not want me getting serious.”
Barbara sat forward in her chair. She was beginning to catch up. “We can’t find him, Constantine. Nor do we know what he did. Do you have any information that will help us?”
His eyebrows rose to his hairline. “You misplaced a magical superhero with enough power to bring this planet to its knees? How exactly did that go about?”
Barbara narrowed her eyes at him. “Does that mean no?”
John sighed roughly. He glanced back over his shoulder as if checking to see if anyone was listening in. When he turned back he began, “How to explain it so you pinheads can understand . . .? The Iconoclasts’ spell is laid down like a big, fuck-off, fancy house. Main floor, first, second, third . . . Except it’s an antique house, and there’s no adding on to—or fixing—what was originally built. It’s powerful, but rigid—there’s no changing it, no adjusting it, so in that sense, it’s incredibly fragile.
“Billy just tore off the entire top floor. If he can destroy another, my associate and I can possibly tear the rest down without opening up the gates to Hell, and getting demons involved in the fate of our planet. Otherwise, that’s where it looks like it’s going, ‘not gonna lie.’ That’s how you Americans say it, right?”
“Thank you, John,” Barbara said acerbically. “That’s truly helpful. As soon as we find Billy, we can send him your way.”
“Oh Heavens no,” John said. “He hates me, and for good reason. You need to keep him. If it’s as I suspect, he’s found a way to tear his magical signature out of the foundations of the spell. He may be the only other mage on Earth whose powers are completely unrestricted.”
Constantine winced. “Well, that or he’s dead. I’d prefer he wasn’t, honestly, but either way, he did manage to weaken their spell considerably. I’ll take what I can get.”
Barbara closed her eyes and took a deep breath. John Constantine was difficult for her to deal with at the best of times, and this was so far removed as to make him unbearable. “John, can you elaborate on the demons?”
There was no response. She opened her eyes and the monitor was blank. He’d gone as quickly as he’d come. Barbara leaned her head back, and let loose a frustrated yell.
After 10 minutes of yelling, swearing, and throwing an all around hissy fit, she felt marginally better. That being the case, she hailed her premier minion.
“Tim, did you find Shazam?”
Red Robin’s reply was nearly instantaneous. “No, false alarm. Why, did something happen?”
Barbara paused. Now that’s she’d gotten a mental second wind, she realized that something was odd. She had expected Tim to get results, false or positive, but not that quickly. Were he and Jason such a good team?
Belatedly, she realized the truth. “Is Kon helping you look for Shazam?”
Tim’s hesitation was telling. “Maybe.”
Barbara sighed. “In that case, pull Jason off and put him on Gotham patrol. Tell Kon to keep looking. We need to find Shazam, but do not engage. He may need medical attention, and we must give it.”
“Because John Constantine just told me that he’s our best chance of wrecking the Ikon’s spell. We need him.”
June 26th, 20xx
Highway 95, 50 miles west of Metropolis, 6:47 PM
The hitchhiker had been making her way to Gotham ever since Metropolis fell. All she had with her was the backpack she’d had when she left the city only hours before it fell; filled with clothes and a little food, her wallet, and one or two items that in her current situation she probably wouldn’t live long without. She’s already had to use the long-range pepper spray on a few vagrants who had tried to rob her. She used a few well-placed aikido movements on the truck driver who drove her 10 miles and then tried to stick her hand down his pants.
At this rate it’s going to take me a month to reach Gotham, she thought, wishing she trusted the cell phone lines enough to make a call. She knew better, however. There was only one person left she knew to trust, no matter what the news anchors were saying. She knew when they were lying, and when the truth was being twisted for someone else’s ends.
She was a journalist, after all.
Ironically enough, her profession was how she had survived the destruction of her city. She’d been out of Metropolis when disaster struck, interviewing a veteran of the Korean War for an internal piece. It had been a favor for a colleague, and it resulted in her being alive while he was not.
It was the one point of luck she’d had over the last week, besides swapping her recording equipment for a gun. Tonight she had another stroke of luck, however. The truck driver that pulled over for her was not what she expected. Loretta Davies was female, for one thing; short and squat and full of salt-of-the-earth humor.
The very first thing she did was offer up gruff but sincere advice. “A woman shouldn’t be hitchhiking, right now. Lotta’ men out here take what they can get, and then some. And ever since Metropolis was destroyed, just about all of ‘em have been carrying guns.”
“What are they afraid of?” Asked the hitchhiker, thinking idly of the sig sauer she carried in a concealed holster at her hip. It was her last line of defense, and she was not looking forward to the day when she had to use it.
Loretta laughed. “Hell if I know! Supers, or the Icons, or whatever they’re called. I think they just like having the opportunity to carry a big stick around, you know what I mean?” She leaned over without taking her eyes off the road. “And you can tell the ones that are compensating for something by the size of their gun. Tracy—she’s another lady driver—she and I had a good laugh over Dave’s ridiculously long rifle.”
The hitchhiker gave a calculated laugh, friendly and open enough to get people comfortable and talking. “You don’t worry about the Iconoclasts, then?”
Loretta shrugged. “The good supers will stop ‘em. The TV says the Icons are really just bad supers parading around as something different, but I dunno about that. My cousin used to live in Metropolis, God rest his soul, and said that Superman was something special. But he’s not here now.” She looked over at her passenger. “Do ya think we’re gonna need him? Superman, I mean.”
Lois Lane looked over at the truck driver from beneath her baseball cap. “I think we will,” she said seriously. “Let’s just hope he comes home soon.”
June 26th, 20xx
Gotham, 9:45 PM
Six hours after he’d been pulled off Shazam duty, Jason found himself out on patrol with his least favorite Robin. It had been a slow evening so far, leaving Damian with plenty of opportunity to whine like a little girl, and Jason to suffer mightily.
“I just don’t see why you get to wear the Batman suit,” the little shit complained after they zip-tied a couple of low level goons to a lamp post. This, after a solid hour of nothing. After days of deluge this drought of evildoers was unnatural. The sensation of something is wrong was so strong Jason could hardly sit still. It took all his patience, plus the image of Tim and Dick’s disappointed expressions to keep from murdering the Demon Child, simply to make something happen.
“I’m bigger,” was his succinct reply. “Also, Dickebird likes me the best.”
Damian harrumphed, and his expression was the picture of petulance. Jason tried to cut him some slack. He was moody because Daddy Bats wasn’t home yet, even though Babs had said there was nothing to be worried about. She’d been listening in on the trio’s chatter all day, and glancing through their video feeds. They’d packed it in an hour ago, having found nothing noteworthy, although they were going to investigate one abandoned building along the way. They hadn’t even faced much in the way of baddies to beat down—just a couple of gung-ho security guards a couple hours back, easily zip-tied and stowed in one of the storage rooms.
Des Plaines had been a bust, and an hour ago, Oracle had given Operation Chicago Evacuation the green light. Jason had missed Bab’s public announcement that was broadcast across every channel in the US, not to mention all over the internet, but he could imagine Bruce’s mood when he returned. It was harder to imagine the devastation the Iconoclasts would wreak upon Chicago in just a few days.
“Grayson does not like you best,” Damian finally scoffed. “You’re his least favorite.”
Jason just shrugged, letting the subject drop. Maybe Damian would get the hint and let them patrol in peace.
Alas, it was not to be. “Where were you last night?” Robin asked, a few minutes later.
Jason raised an eyebrow. “What, were you looking for me?”
Damian scowled at him. “Arsenal was. He attempted to enlist my aid.”
Jason whistled. Sometimes he wasn’t sure if Roy had a death wish or what. “Maybe I was out killing people,” he baited the angry batling. “You jealous?”
The teenager sniffed. “Hardly. I’m a changed man. Unlike you.”
Jason snorted quietly, under his breath, but Damian still caught it.
“I thought the assassination missions were shelved,” the little shit said with a sly side glance.
Of all the times for him to be as nosy as his dad, Jason thought, fighting down an internal wince. Thank god he had Batman’s cowl on. He had to play it cool, otherwise Damian would be like a dog with a bone, and there were certain things he never, ever wanted to explain to the youngest Robin.
“I did too,” he said, feigning an exhaustion he didn’t really feel. “Guess we were both wrong.”
Damian frowned at him. “I couldn’t find Grayson either,” he admitted. “At least I know he wasn’t with you.”
Jason didn’t say anything for a moment. Why the hell was Damian looking for both of them last night? What was going on here? “He was probably with Michael Wilson,” he offered. “The little guy’s pretty fond of him, and misses his parents. Might have had a sleepover with the kiddo.”
“I don’t understand why Grayson humors the infant,” Damian said, completely sidetracked. “He’s hardly useful.”
“Kid can direct the rain. That’s kinda cool.”
“Yes, but not useful. I was better off as a three-year-old.”
Jason smirked. “Don’t like Mike much, huh? There anything you do like?”
“He’s not one of us,” Damian said, aggrieved. He didn’t seem to realize that he had included his current patrol partner in that statement. Jason carefully kept his expression neutral. It was . . . a little uncomfortable to realize that Damian considered him family, of a sorts. Uncomfortable, but also not a bad thing.
Oh, damn it, he thought. Dick was right. I’m just as emotionally repressed as Bruce is.
“Not all of us were born to the bat,” Jason said, trying to steer this back onto Michael Wilson, rather than himself. He gave Damian a cocky grin. “Most of us were made. And we’ve turned out ok.”
“You did not,” Damian argued. “You failed. You died.”
A year ago, this would have been crippling. A week ago it would have hurt him. Now, with so much more than only his death on the table, Jason only grinned, his teeth flashing white and sharp in the Gotham murk. “You did too.”
This brought Damian up. He was only 15, the same age Jason had been when he died. He had been even younger when his cloned brother had killed him, hadn’t he? Shit. Now Jason felt like an asshole.
“I won’t again,” Damian eventually promised, taking less offense than Jason thought was merited. “Not until I’m old and useless.”
“Neither will I,” Jason said. “Let’s let someone else take a turn with that, yeah?”
June 26th, 20xx
Gotham, 11:05 PM
It was a slow night in Gotham, and it was making Dick Grayson nervous. Not in the least because he was the one hanging behind in the Batcave tonight, on call for any disasters larger than those to be found on patrol. Tim was on the premises, but he’d skulked off with one of the untraceable Batphones, the ones which routed through the Watchtower. If he was calling Stephanie instead of helping out, there was going to be a reckoning later, Dick through darkly. Unless he was using it to actively finding Shazam, (who may no longer be their enemy? No one seemed to actually know for certain, and he was about done questioning this) Dick was going to be pissed.
As it was, Tim wasn’t the only one breaking the rules. To stave off his anxiety, Dick had done something Bruce would never allow—he brought a toddler into the Batcave.
(He made no excuses; being alone would only key him up further. He was literally born in a circus, and he loathed being alone.)
As little Mikey wasn’t sleeping anyway, he toted the kid down to the Batcave and let him play on the floor while he monitored Gotham. Michael was happy as a clam down there, in the presence of Unca Dick and the damp air of the cave. He quietly played with his dino and his barbie (and wherever that came from, Dick would be interested in knowing. Who had given Michael Wilson, the grandson of Deathstroke, a Gymnast Barbie? He may never know, but they deserved an actual medal.) and Alfred’s ipad, which he had downloaded several games onto, just for the little sprout.
Bruce would have had kittens, Dick knew. But he hates kids, so there was really no winning scenario, here. It was also not like B was there to stop him. There had been some trouble catching a plane back, almost like they had forgotten every one of Ferris’s planes had been tied up in evacuating Chicago, and the Batwing had been powered down and given new access codes, just in case the trio was compromised. As it was, they were still 40 minutes out of Gotham, and—
At 11:08 PM, a window popped open on the Batcomputer screen. Dick frowned as he scanned the intro text. A transmission from Black Canary . . . and her tracking location was still in Des Plaines? Last Babs had heard, they were already on the plane. Had she lost one of her recording devices? Was it picking up something now?
This could be the break they needed. He leaned forward and started up the recording. It was a complete file, and an old fashioned audio recorder player popped up, giving the total length of the recording as 12 hours. There was a faint hiss of static—something had been partially blocking the signal—and then he heard Bruce and Helena, quietly discussing their plans to get into the building.
Boring, Dick thought, and tried to skip ahead to the end of the recording. The cursor got stuck about an hour in, however, and a snippet of audio played before he could reset.
It was Helena’s voice, and she sound determined, albeit defeated. “I am not afraid to die,” she whispered. “Even at your hands.”
Dick stopped breathing. Waitwaitwhat? He let the recording play. This had been recorded at—what the hell? 11:47 AM?
There was the sound of an electrical charge, and a high-pitched scream. Black Canary’s muffled no! And then, for the space of a few minutes, nothing at all.
What was unmistakably Ra’s al Ghul’s voice broke the silence. “This is but a taste of our sincerity. We will take much more from the two of you,” he declared in his gentle accent. “Let us begin.”
Dick paused the recording, his heart hammering in his chest and his eyes stinging with unshed tears. Then, for the first time in their vigilante careers, he went over Barbara’s head.
He pulled up the deceased member alert, and sent it to everyone.
Only then did he hail Jason and Damian. “Come home, guys,” he said, his voice breaking. “Come home right now.”
June 26th, 20xx
Gotham, 11:16 PM
Deceased—BATMAN, BLACK CANARY, and HUNTRESS.
Repeat: they are all dead.
Urgent: Do not answer any hails or communication from any of ‘them.’ If seen, do not engage. The enemy has found a way to trick us.
Audio and Visual only, Channel 63.
June 26th, 20xx
Gotham, 11:39 PM
There had been many meetings since the Iconoclasts attacked, but none of them had begun with Richard Grayson screaming at her.
“What the hell, Oracle?” He was practically frothing at the mouth. He had listened to more of the recording before the meeting, and now was beside himself. Tim stood there with his hand on his older brother’s shoulder, grim-faced, but trying his best to keep Richard together as he continued to rave. “How the hell could you have thought they were ok? Helena died 12 hours ago! The audio is clear!”
Barbara hung her head. The first thing she had done was to run the new recording through a program that would separate all the audio from the silence, leaving them with a recording that was a little over an hour. Then, she had run it through a transcription device, and speed read as much as she could. What she’d read broke her heart. She deserved every ounce of vitriol he could throw at her.
Their technology had trumped hers, and she had fallen for their trick. She had failed Bruce, Dinah, and Helena . . . and if not for an incredible stroke of luck, they would have never known.
“This was not what I’d been listening to all day, Richard,” she attempted to explain. “I have audio and visual from all of them, throughout the day. I have run it through voice recognition software. It was their voices!”
“So is this!” Richard argued. “One of them’s gotta be a trick. Which one is it?”
Flash’s connection lit up on her monitor, but Barbara was surprised to see a haggard looking Oliver Queen tied to a chair.
“What the fuck is going on?” Green Arrow spat, and contrasting with his usual expressivity, his voice was cold as stone. Barbara was not entirely surprised. In the span of 20 minutes, he had lost the love of his life. “Dinah’s not dead,” he continued. “Why the fuck aren’t you letting me contact her?”
Barry Allen sidled next to him in the same monitor. He must have raced to Seattle and then dragged him back to Central City when he received the death alert, all to keep Ollie from doing something stupid. “I’ve got his phone. And him,” he said, explaining the captivity. “But someone better tell us what the hell is going on. I thought everyone was fine. Did something happen to the plane?”
“The plane they were on changed course the minute the death alert was sent out,” Carol said, her voice grim. “Someone on that plane got the message, and turned it right back around.”
“Shit,” Oracle breathed. There was confirmation she hadn’t wanted. “Everyone, try to keep calm. The Iconoclasts tampered with the recording devices, but they missed one on Dinah. We have this warning, which gives us some time.” Her breath shuddered on the exhale. “Bruce, Dinah, and Helena are dead. We will play the untampered recording as soon as everyone gets on the line.”
“No, she is fucking not dead!” Ollie screamed, and Barry quickly adjusted the ropes binding him. He tried to comfort his friend but Ollie leaned over and attempted to bite him.
“Oliver, there is nothing I can say that will make this any easier for you, or for any of us,” Barbara apologized. “You have lost Dinah, Damian has lost his father. Richard has lost his partner, and I’ve lost three, beloved friends and mentors. This is not going to be easy to accept, but we have to bear it. We have to keep on fighting, because no one else can.”
Ollie’s chest was heaving. He began to cry, his face red and splotchy. Just then, Jason and Damian slid into view on the Batcomputer screen, followed by Roy and Koriand’r.
“Oracle, how did my father die?” Damian asked, in a voice that sounded so small, so weak, that Barbara couldn’t answer for a moment.
“What happened?” Jason asked, in a calmer, if expressionless tone. Barbara had never thought she’d see the day when Jason was the most reasonable of the boys. Now, with his anchoring grip on Damian’s shoulder, and Tim’s attempt to keep Richard calm, he was one of the few people in the cave that she could rely on.
Until the end, at least. Until the part where Bruce had broken down and talked about them. Even Jason wouldn’t be calm, then.
Blue Beetle and Booster Gold signed on, once again sharing a monitor. It was a fortunate thing that those two could actually stand each other, in Barbara’s opinion. They might keep each other strong when others might falter.
“We got the message,” Ted said. “What happened? We thought everything was fine!”
“Someone’s going to pay,” Michael Carter said, in a darker tone than Barbara had ever heard from him.
“I’ve had no word from Shayera,” Barbara said. “John said Luthor was in a rage, and he can’t get away. I think we can begin. Flash, if you would untie Arrow?”
“He might run,” Barry said.
“I won’t,” Ollie promised. “If she’s . . . I gotta know. I gotta know everything.”
After a moment’s hesitation, Barry leaned forward and untied Ollie. Arrow remained sitting in the chair, slumping forward and putting his head in his hands.
Barbara leaned forward and pressed play.
File ID: 68772_6/26—HH/MM/SS
File Name: BC_1.4_Helix.mp4
File start time: 10:47 AM.
File end time: 11:08 PM.
[00.00] Background noise—clicking sound to indicate start tape
Huntress: [00.00.09] All I’m saying is that you’re the most recognizable of all of us. Or did
you forget that you moonlight as Bruce Wayne?
Batman: [00.00.14] Have any better ideas?
Huntress: [00.00.17] For starters, we can call in a bomb threat and get everyone to leave
the building, including the civilians. And then—
Canary: [00.00.21] And let them know something’s coming? Helena, it’s going to be ok.
We have all the requisite equipment to sneak into the focus group meeting at 11.
We’re going to get in, find the evidence we need, and get out. Now are we all set?
Batman: [00.00.32] How come she listens to you?
Huntress: [00.00.35] You’re not wearing fishnets. Those are a big symbol of authority to me.
[00.00.38] Background noise—sound of door opening
Batman: [00.00.40] Right now, neither is she.
Canary: [00.00.42] Focus, guys. Her voice turns bright, and she ends her sentence with
an upswing. Oh, hi! We’re here for the focus group on cars?
Hostess: [00.00.47] Your name?
Helena: [00.00.48] Morgan Ciampaglia.
Hostess: [00.01.03] Campaglia . . . Ciampaglia . . .annnnnd here you are! Right through those
doors. Help yourself to coffee and pastries before the group begins—you can’t take
any food with you when you go. And you are?
Batman: [00.01.10] Peter Richards.
Canary: [00.01.11] Olivia McQueen.
Hostess: [00.02.31] Ummm. Here you are and here . . . oh, there you are. Perfect. Follow Ms.
Ciampaglia through the double doors. The group will begin in just a few minutes.
Canary: [00.02.39] Thanks. Is there time for me to use the ladies’ room, first?
Hostess: [00.02.43] Absolutely! They’re down that hallway. Third door on the left. Be
careful on your way back. It’s like a maze in here.
Canary: [00.06.27] To herself. Playing hooky in the research facility’s bathroom. How
the mighty have fallen.
[00.06.39] Background noise—the sound of a door swinging open.
Batman: [00.06.43] Is ‘Morgan’ with you?
Canary: [00.06.45] Jesus, Bruce. This is the ladies room. You can’t just come in here.
Batman: [00.06.50] We won’t be here long. Where’s Helena?
Canary: [00.06.52] She’s gonna do thirty or so minutes of the session and then fake being ill.
That way if they catch us she’s in position. Ready to go?
Batman: [00.06.56] Always.
Canary: [00.17.07] Receptionist wasn’t kidding. This place is a maze.
Batman: [00.17.11] Something’s wrong. Why haven’t we seen anyone yet?
Canary: [00.17.13] They’re all in the group, aren’t they? Wait, wait, look. This door isn’t on
[00.17.22] Background noise—the sound of a door creaking open.
Canary: [00.17.26] Huh. Spooky. Didn’t know this place had a basement.
Batman: [00.17.35] Speaking softly. Helena, we’ve found a lower level. We’re heading
down. Target our coordinates to follow. Speaking louder. Let’s go.
Canary: [00.24.46] Shit. Are you seeing this?
Batman: [00.24.49] This isn’t good.
Canary: [00.24.54] Those are cages. Who or what were they keeping down here?
Batman: [00.24.59] I don’t recognize all the technology in this room. The rest has Luthor’s
stamp on it . . .
Canary: [00.25.05] Well, we’ve found them, all right, and what Luthor’s putting his money
towards. You take left, I take right? Whenever we find something about Chicago
we send it through to Barbara?
Batman: [00.25.16] We’re going to need to quarantine the building afterwards. Possibly
destroy it. We can’t let them keep their base.
Canary: [00.25.26] Chuckles weakly. Guess Helena gets her bomb threat after all.
Batman: [00.25.38] Start looking. The sooner we get out of here, the better. Something
about this feels wrong.
[00.32.17] Background noise—the sound of file cabinets opening, papers rustling,
and murmurs too quiet to be distinct.
Batman: [00.39.08] Dinah, take a look at this.
Canary: [00.39.18] Oh my God.
Batman: [00.39.30] Bomb drops, choke points, planned mechanical malfunctions . . . He even
mapped out all the bunkers and safety zones. And what is . . . Luthor’s Bane? That’s
what they named the mystery weapon?
Canary: [00.39.55] This isn’t Chicago. This is Metropolis.
Batman: [00.40.02] They must have used the test weapon on Metropolis, first. That’s
where all Luthor’s money went. It wasn’t alien technology at all!
Canary: [00.40.18] But this doesn’t make any sense. Metropolis is Luthor’s home. As much as
he hates us, he loves Metropolis.
Batman: [00.40.42] Keep looking. The answer must be here somewhere.
Canary: [00.44.55] Muttering to herself. No, this isn’t it either. You found anything?
Batman: [00.45.06] I can’t get the computer to even turn on. Nor can I reach Oracle. I think
Huntress: [00.45.12] Her voice is tinny, echoing through the receiver. Her panic is audible.
Trap trap trap! Get out of there, it’s a tra—
[00.45.17] Background noise—something is dropped to the floor.
Canary: [00.45.19] Shit.
Batman: [00.45.19] Let’s go—
[00.45.22] Background noise—a door is thrown open with a clatter. There is the
sound of many people rushing into the room. Indistinguishable orders are called
out. Within several minutes all sounds come to a complete stop.
Huntress: [00.51.45] Fuck you, asshole! Get your hands off of me!
[00.51.49] Background noise—quiet grunts, gasps, and sounds of struggling.
Canary: [00.53.05] What the fucking fuck? Why can’t we move?!
Batman: [00.53.10] His voice dark, and full of menace. Ra’s.
Ra’s al Ghul: [00.53.14] Hello, Bruce. So good of you to drop in. And you’ve even brought
some friends along. They’re not quite the calibre of your little protegés, are they?
My grandson in particular. How is he doing?
Batman: [00.53.28] Better than his mother.
Ra’s al Ghul: [00.53.31] You wound me, Bruce.
Batman: [00.53.33] You killed her!
Ra’s al Ghul: [00.53.35] And that upsets you? How sentimental of you. Ah, but it seems your
friend has a better idea. Dinah Lance, is it? You can stop trying to send out any
distress calls. Ikon technology prohibits such annoyances.
Canary: [00.53.50] Well fuck you and the pony you rode in on. We’ll have to do this the
hard way, huh?
Batman: [00.53.58] Don’t bait him—
Ra’s al Ghul: [00.54.01] Laughs charmingly. On the contrary! I find her determination delightful.
You know how much I enjoy breaking the wills of those who defy me.
[00.54.12] Background noise—there is an incredible shriek that rips through the
room, scattering the soundwaves on the audio recording. For several minutes, all
is white noise, and then the recording comes back online.
Ra’s al Ghul: [00.57.55] So that was the infamous ‘canary cry?’ It’s nothing but an ultrasonic
scream. How disappointing.
Batman: [00.58.11] How are you immune to that?
Huntress: [00.58.14] Muffled, as if speaking around some obstruction. Guys no, I saw him
change. He’s not—
[00.58.17] Background noise—the sound of a sharp crack. Helena falls silent.
Ra’s al Ghul: [00.58.22] Exciting as this all is, we have a schedule to keep. Bring Huntress
Canary: [00.58.31] Don’t touch her!
Batman: [00.58.34] Ra’s, they are nothing to you. Let you and I settle this. That is the
Ra’s al Ghul: [00.58.40] Perhaps, but it is not what will happen.
[00.58.46] Background noise—the sound of something electric sizzling. Helena
screams in pain.
Canary: [00.58.57] Goddamnit! Helena, stay strong!
Batman: [00.59.00] Ra’s!
[00.59.05] Background noise—another electrical discharge. Helena cries out again, but weaker.
Ra’s al Ghul: [01.00.12] Hmmmm. Tougher than you look, aren’t you? Most die in only one
application of this device. It took three to kill Victor Stone. I thought it was his
mechanical plating that protected him. Perhaps it was something else.
Huntress: [01.00.57] Weakly, and in pain. You . . . fucker. . . . I am not afraid to die. Not
even at your hands.
[01.01.29] Background noise—Ragged, pained breathing. A third electrical
discharge. Helena’s scream tapers away, and Dinah cries out. Then there is silence.
Ra’s al Ghul: [01.04.06] This is but a taste of our sincerity. We will take much more from the
two of you. Let us begin.
[01.05.19] Background noise—sound of struggle, and several heavy objects fall
to the floor.
Ra’s al Ghul: [01.07.22] Applauding. You managed to down my men even when you should be
totally unable to move? You find new ways to impress me every day, Bruce. Flood
Soldier: [01.07.35] But sir!
Ra’s al Ghul: [01.07.37] Do it.
[01.07.42] Background noise—hissing sound as gas is pumped in through the
vents. Coughing and choking from all those in the room.
Batman: [01.09.17] Weakly, gasping for air. You won’t . . . win, Ra’s.
Ra’s al Ghul: [01.09.25] Oh, Bruce. We already have.
[02.30.16] Background noise—the squeaky wheel of a gurney.
Interrogator: [02.30.27] Her voice is young, and expressionless. Subject Dinah Lance
responded well to the neural stimulation program. Barring any excess of will, she
should be malleable within reasonable parameters. She will regain
consciousness in approximately twenty minutes.
Ra’s al Ghul: [02.30.41] What was on her?
Interrogator: [02.30.45] Besides a plethora of hidden weapons, we found three recording
devices on each, all set to instant transmission. Their clothes were wired, and there
were visual recorders in all their contact lenses. Subject Helena Bertinelli had them in her sunglasses, as well.
Ra’s al Ghul: [02.30.59] Have you ‘fixed’ them?
Interrogator: [02.31.07] Of course. Their compatriots should see and hear only what we allow
them to. We began overwriting the earlier data with falsified images and audio the
moment they entered the doors. Our agents are in place, although we won’t send them back to Gotham until we finish interrogating the subjects. Any and all information is crucial at this junction. They are too close to suspecting.
Ra’s al Ghul: [02.31.26] We can’t have that.
Interrogator: [02.31.28] How goes Subject Bruce Wayne?
Ra’s al Ghul: [02.31.31] Woke five minutes ago. Had to paralyze his entire body. We can take
no chances with that one.
Interrogator: [02.31.38] Five minutes ago? That’s too early. He should have been out for
another half hour.
Ra’s al Ghul: [02.31.44] Speaking harshly. Don’t underestimate him. Nor this woman. We’ve
succeeded so far only because they were blindsided. We can still fail.
Interrogator: [02.31.52] We shall do no such thing. Failure is inconceivable.
Ra’s al Ghul: [02.31.55] Then why are our agents on the inside growing worried?
[02.32.04] Background noise—Dinah moans quietly.
Ra’s al Ghul: [02.32.08] See? She already begins to wake. Get her into the chamber and begin the
interrogation. I will see to the Bat.
Interrogator: [02.46.48] Good afternoon, Dinah Lance.
Canary: [02.47.14] Where . . . what . . .?
Interrogator: [02.47.20] I have a series of questions I am going to ask you, Dinah Lance. Every
time you answer honestly, I will activate a rush of endorphins that will stimulate
the pleasure receptors in your brain. Every time you do not, I will hurt you, in a
variety of ways. Do you understand?
Canary: [02.47.44] Fuck . . . you.
Interrogator: [02.47.52] Excellent. You currently reside in the Clocktower of Gotham City,
Canary: [02.48.00] Where’s Batman?
Interrogator: [02.48.03] Incorrect.
[02.48.22] Background noise—the sound of a faint motor, like a dentist’s drill.
Dinah gurgles in pain.
Interrogator: [02.52.14] Let us try again. You are currently engaged in sexual and romantic
overtures with Oliver Queen, also known as ‘Green Arrow?’
Canary: [02.52.25] Slurring her words. Don’t you dare. Don’t you dare touch him.
Interrogator: [02.52.33] Incorrect, again.
[02.52.37] Background noise—the whisper of something metallic being
withdrawn. Dinah grunts, her breath hitching.
Interrogator: [02.57.55] Next question: your body is infertile, correct?
Canary: [02.58.02] More clearly. Fuck off!
[02.58.12] Background noise—Dinah’s sudden scream, rising high before it tapers
Interrogator: [03.04.29] You will not last long if we continue at this pace. Let’s try another dose of
the serum. That will make you more cooperative . . .
Interrogator: [04.20.16] Let’s try this again, shall we?
[4.20.22] Background noise—sound of a console beeping, and a hiss of air.
Canary: [04.23.10] Mumbles incoherently.
Interrogator: [04.23.40] The dosage was a bit stronger, this time. Human bodies are so frail. Here
is a jolt of something pleasant to wake you up.
[04.23.55] Background noise—Dinah moans in surprised pleasure.
Interrogator: [04.24.28] See what we can do for you, before the end? All you have to do is
answer a few questions. Can you do that, Dinah Lance?
Canary: [04.24.40] Go to Hell.
Interrogator: [04.24.44] Such ingratitude. Your ability, your ‘canary cry’—is it magical, or
Canary: [04.24.51] Want to find out?
[04.24.53] Background noise—a garbled, failed version of her ultrasonic scream.
Dinah sobs, and struggles to speak around wet gurgles and choking.
Canary: [04.25.11] In a whisper. Oh God, that’s blood . . . What did you do to my throat? Line
it with glass?
Interrogator: [04.25.22] This is what happens when you stand against us, Dinah Lance. Are
you prepared to continue?
Canary: [04.25.30] No . . . No, I won’t . . .
Interrogator: [04.25.38] If you could only save one, would you save Oliver Queen, or Barbara
Canary: [04.25.49] Both, you bitch. I’d save both.
Interrogator: [04.25.53] That wasn’t so hard. As a reward . . .
[04.25.56] Background noise—Dinah moans, and attempts to choke it off.
Canary: [04.26.12] Goddamnit. Get out of my brain. Get out of me!
[04.26.15] Background noise—sounds of a struggle. Something metallic creaks, and
there is a popping sound, like a lightbulb went out.
Interrogator: [04.27.00] Again you resist? I’ll leave you to a more standard form of torture. When I
return, I hope you will be more forthcoming.
[Truncated] [05.15.56]—[06.48.17] Background noise—for a long, long time, there are bitten
back groans, gasps, hitched breaths, cries, and inarticulate pleas. In periodic bursts
there are sounds of a motor, of drills, the dull smack of blunt objects, sharp
cracks of a whip, and of blades being sharpened.
At the end, Dinah sobs quietly.
Interrogator: [07.32.06] Hello again, Dinah Lance. Are you feeling more cooperative now?
[07.32.13] Background noise—Dinah moans in pain.
Interrogator: [07.32.17] Excellent. I’d like to revisit the one question you felt capable of
answering. Who would you save, Oliver Queen, or Barbara Gordon?
Canary: [07.32.36] Rasping. Neither.
Interrogator: [07.32.40] I admit I do not know whether to punish or reward you. Are you
Canary: [07.32.46] Yes.
Interrogator: [07.32.49] Can you explain?
Canary: [07.32.53] They don’t . . . need me to save them. I . . . need them to save me.
Interrogator: [07.33.02] Excellent. Your reward—
Canary: [07.33.06] No. Don’t—ahhhh! Goddamnit!
[07.34.02] Background noise—Dinah sobs openly.
Canary: [07.36.10] Stop—stop making me come when I’m ripped open from the neck
down . . .
Interrogator: [07.36.18] You answered honestly, so you get your reward. Your species reacts
very strongly to both pleasure and pain. It is invigorating to be the cause of both.
Canary: [07.36.29] How . . . am I still alive? I should be dead. Why won’t I die?
Interrogator: [07.36.37] You are very resilient, Dinah Lance. But the question remains: whose
life means more to you? Oliver Queen’s, or Barbara Gordon’s?
Canary: [07.36.48] Fuck . . . them.
Interrogator: [07.36.52] Is your answer once again, ‘neither?’
Canary: [07.36.56] I said fuck them! Fuck all of them! Her voice rises angrily. This is all
Oracle’s fault. She sent us here to die. I hope she spends the rest of her
miserable, crippled existence blaming herself for not saving us. Why didn’t she
save us? Didn’t she care?
Canary: [07.37.12] Less coherently. And . . . and Barry’s no good to anyone. All moody and
depressing, he should stay alone forever and not infect us with his bullshit. And
Hal. Where is he, huh? Saving all the worlds in the universe and can’t help us?
What the fuck good are you, Hal Jordan? You spineless coward. You should be
wearing a yellow ring because you can’t face your fucking fears!
Interrogator: [07.37.37] Dinah Lance, if you do not calm yourself, you will die soon.
Canary: [07.37.42] And Ollie? Ollie. I want him to put an arrow through your brainpan, you
soulless bitch. And then I want him to be fucking miserable without me. I want
him to spend every day wishing he were a little bit smarter, faster, better, so that
he could’ve saved me. But that’s a lie, because I don’t want him to live without
me. Her breath hitches. I want him to die and be with me.
Interrogator: [07.38.12] Is that all?
Canary: [07.38.15]Very weakly. Helena used to pray, you know. I liked the one she did to
the rosary. I’ll say it for you, Helena, and if you were right about what comes
after, you’ll hear me. Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee—
Interrogator: [07.38.35] Dinah Lance—
Canary: [07.38.38] Blessed are thou amongst women—ahhhh!
[07.38.46] Background noise—there is a ragged inhalation of breath.
Interrogator: [07.38.54] One more might kill you.
Canary: [07.38.57] Whispering. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners . . . now,
and at the hour—
[07.39.06] Background noise—there is the muted sound of something falling
Interrogator: [07.39.18] From a distance. She is unconscious again. I have all I need from her.
Bring her to the observation room. Let us see if she reveals anything else before
[08.24.04] Background noise—the sound of a door opening. Men murmur quietly.
The door is slammed shut, and Canary moans in pain.
Canary: [08.25.36] Prays quietly to herself. Hail Mary, Holy Queen—no, no. Pray for us
sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Blessed is the fruit of thy womb,
Jesus . . . now and at the hour. Hour of . . .
[08.26.12] Background noise—a quick intake of breath. Quiet sound of nails over concrete, and the shift of cloth across the floor.
Canary: [08.28.05] Bruce! Why are you sitting like that? Why is your leg . . . on the . . .
[08.28.16] Background noise—ragged, pained breathing.
Canary: [08.29.02] Hey Bruce. Bruce, wake up. I have to tell you something. A rattling
breath. I lied to them, Bruce. Everything I said was bullshit but I think they believed
me. Ollie will know. He’ll know how much I love him. How much I want him to be
better, and to . . . to live, and . . . and be happy. And Barry’s . . .the sweetest of all of us.
So kind, keeps everyone together. And I know you don’t like him but Hal’s the
bravest guy I know. Strongest, except for you and Clark, I guess. And Babs . . . Babs is
amazing. She’s my best friend, and why we made it this far.
Canary: [08.30.09] Voice grows ever weaker. They’ll know. Our friends. They love us. And
[08.30.16] Background noise—sound of cloth whispering over stone.
Canary: [08.32.48] Whispers. Oh God. You’re not Bruce.
[08.33.00] Background noise—the sound of a choked gurgle, and a slow exhale. The
sound of a body falling to the floor.
[11.52.05] Background noise—door swings open. Men laugh as something falls
to the ground with a pained, masculine groan. The door slams shut. A moment of silence and then there is a shocked inhale.
Batman: [11.55.49] Dinah? Oh, God. Dinah.
[11.56.13] Background noise—rustling noise, growing louder. There is the sound
of something coming very close to the microphone, jostling it slightly.
Batman: [12.00.06] Whispers. Thank God, they didn’t find . . . Your suffering is over, Dinah.
[12.00.46] Background noise—the door opens.
Batman: [12.01.08] Growling. What more do you want?
Interrogator: [12.01.12] This is goodbye, Bruce Wayne. You are dying. You have passed the
critical amount of blood loss, and your internal organs are failing. When your heart
stops beating, this facility is rigged to explode. Then all will be over.
Batman: [12.01.33] Why are you telling me this?
Interrogator: [12.01.35] So that you may despair in your last moments.
Batman: [12.01.46] You don’t know me, do you?
Unknown: [12.01.50] Quietly. He said to watch him die.
Interrogator: [12.01.54] He’s all but dead. We need to get to Gotham.
Unknown: [12.02.00] But—
Interrogator: [12.02.05] When he dies, the facility will blow sky high. We’ll know that he’s dead.
Let’s go. We need to prepare for the Atlantean stage of the invasion.
[12.02.16] Background noise—door slams shut.
Batman: [12.05.36] In a hushed, rasping voice, very close to the microphone. I didn’t give them
anything. Not a single word. I don’t know what they injected us with, but it’s like
nothing I’ve ever experienced. It made me . . . it made me want to talk to them. Made
me want to unburden myself. I couldn’t. Not to them. But maybe . . . maybe I could to
[12.06.01] Background noise—the device is jostled again, crackling. There is a
Batman: [12.06.23] I always wanted Selina to join Birds of Prey, full time. I thought she could
do such good with you. Wouldn’t be bored so quickly. I could fight with her, instead
of against her. It’s such a rush when that happens. I love it. I . . . I love . . .
Batman: [12.06.53] Clears throat, chokes. I wish I could have said goodbye to Barbara
and Alfred. Oh God, Alfred. After all he’s done for me. He’s more of a father to
me than a man I barely remember. I wish I could have been the man he wanted
me to be.
Batman: [12.07.16] The boys. My Robins. Thank them for all they’ve done. All they’ve
sacrificed. I wish I could given them better lives. Happier lives. I wish none of
them had ever died. Dick . . . he was my first partner. It couldn’t have been
anyone but him. He changed me so much. I think he made me bearable. And Tim
- he’s brilliant, so much more than I was at his age. So calm, level-headed . . .
he’s going to be a force to be reckoned with, and more for what makes him Tim,
[12.08.02] Background noise—Bruce gurgles, spits something out. Something
clatters on the floor. Wheezing, ragged breathing.
Batman: [12.10.35] Weaker now. Damian. He’s so much like his mother that it surprises
me when I find myself in him. I want so much for him. He’s a firebrand, and I
want him to burn his own path, until he’s something greater than his grandfather.
Something greater than me.
[12.11.08] Background noise—the receiver rustles again.
Batman: [12.12.06] I’m going to send it, Dinah. Before I die. I should send it now. I should—
[12.17.45] Background noise—a deep, labored breath.
Batman: [12.18.38] Softly, barely more than a whisper. But you know the one I think of
most? Now that I’m so close to death? I think of Jason. Jason, more than any of them.
I could . . . I could never find the way to his heart. Even though . . . he’s the most like
me of all my sons. I think now . . . now I’ll have the chance. I won’t fear death. Not if it
. . . it will help me understand him.
Batman: [12.19.47] I’m sorry, Clark. I couldn’t keep my promise.
[12.20.57] Background noise—a fumbling sound directly up against the receiver.
[12.21.01] End of Recording.
When I began this story, I was working a job that was a serious detriment to my emotional and mental well-being. I was depressed, and completely adrift. The end of this chapter was the scene I could imagine most vividly, and in my opinion this is the darkest hour of the story, and it was born of my unhealthy frame of mind. It was the most vibrant picture I had of the story, and I think it drove me to keep writing when all I wanted to do was give up.
There are still some difficult things ahead of us, but nothing so hard as this. It will get better. It will.
(To those who are turned off by major character death, go back to chapter 1 and read the intro notes/archive tags. Just saying.
Also, do you know how long it took me to format this? Way too long. I used a timer. That is dedication.)
Thank you for reading.
Chapter 6: Downward Spiral
I would like to point out that each chapter introduces a new character’s point of view. The last chapter was Dick Grayson, the chapter before that Dinah Lance, etc. The trend will continue, and here is the hint: no one aligned with the Ikons will have a POV. (Although not every single character, innocent or not, will have the story told from their perspective.)
That in mind, can you tell who is/are the traitor(s)?
Also, Michael Carter utters an infamous line from Firefly. Can you find it?
As always, this is undbeta'd. Sorry about that.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Chapter 5: Downward Spiral
June 27th, 20xx
Gotham, 2:04 AM
“I’m sorry, Clark. I couldn’t keep my promise.”
Silence reigned after Bruce’s last words. No one could move, not even Barry. He felt as if his entire body had somehow been removed from the Speed Force.
In this case, normalcy felt like stagnation. It felt like despair.
All at once, Dick Grayson began to sob. He turned away from the camera, jarring Jason Todd, who had been staring at the ceiling, stunned, eyes wet and hands clenched into fists at his sides. Clumsily, as if he barely knew what he was doing, he reached out for Dick; grabbing him by the shoulders, just as Dick lost it entirely.
“Why?” Dick wailed, throwing himself at Jason, swinging his elbow into the taller man’s midsection. “Why?!”
After a moment of scuffling, Jason adjusted his grip so that that Dick couldn’t fight his way free. “Richard, you—,” Jason choked off, just loudly enough for the speakers to pick up. “We need to—” It took another try to spit out, “You gotta keep it together. Think of Tim and Damian. You gotta do it for them ‘cuz they need you. They need their big brother.”
Jason turned his head to the side and murmured something else, too quietly for anyone else to hear. That, along with his earlier entreaty, appeared to calm Dick down. He collapsed bonelessly against Jason, who staggered a little under his weight. Nightwing wept like a child; lost, alone, and struck to the heart.
Standing next to them, Tim and Damian looked no better. Tim was hunched over the console, his hands clenched into fists. Damian stared wide-eyed and uncomprehending at the monitor.
It never occurred to the kid that his dad could die, Barry realized. He’s died himself, and yet in his head his dad was invincible.
Jesus, in my head Batman was invincible!
“I . . .” Damian began, haltingly, gaze unfocused. “Alfred. We . . . must tell . . .”
Tim picked his head up. His cheeks were stained with tears, but his face was fixed with determination. “Oracle, permission to tell Alfred?”
Barbara jerked her chin. It was the closest she could come when she was crying, herself. “Permission granted. Tell me if he needs anything, I’ll do what I can.”
Tim nodded before leading Damian away from the supercomputer. Bruce’s youngest son was so upset, so in shock, that he allowed it without fuss. Tim kept his hand firmly on Damian’s back the entire time, and their pace was slow.
Koriand’r stepped up to Dick and Jason, and she put her arms around both of them. Roy followed suit a moment later. The four of them locked together, sharing their grief, made him remember Ollie.
Barry turned to comfort him, hearing the echoes of Dinah’s last words to him—‘And Barry’s . . . the sweetest of all of us. So kind, keeps everyone together.’ He felt as if her accolade was unearned. He had no idea what to do or to say, because after Iris died he had retreated so far into himself that only Hal, a lot of angry words, and a big fight in the middle of nowhere, Missouri, had been able to bring him back.
He didn’t think he could bring himself to fight Ollie, not when he was as badly off as Nightwing. But Ollie was not crying. Nor was he grieving, as far as Barry could tell. He was staring at their monitor, pale-faced and furious. The force of his rage astounded Barry. He had never seen Ollie like this. He’d never known the man had such depths of emotion.
This is how evil is born, he thought, looking at him. This was followed by the more practical, how can I keep him from this path?
“What do we do?” Carol murmured, and her makeup was smeared from her own tears. She was more in control of herself, but she had lost two friends, and one of the greatest heroes of her age. “What do we do?”
“How are we gonna tell Superman that Batman is dead?” Ted whispered, his normally intelligent features now slack with shock. “How are we gonna get past this?”
“We have to carry on,” Michael Carter decided. He was never very sympathetic even at the best of times, but now it was particularly jarring. “We need to end this war, and—”
“Shut up,” Ollie whispered. Barry glanced back at him from the corner of his eye, ready to restrain him if he needed to.
“We need to make a plan, Oliver,” Ted said gently, trying to smooth over the fight before it erupted. “If we don’t—”
“Oh, I know exactly what will happen if you don’t,” Ollie said, his voice dark and dangerous. “Because I know exactly what you are. No one is making any plans with you two on the line.”
“Excuse me?” Michael asked, clearly offended.
“Ollie . . .” Barry began.
“Agents on the inside, Ra’s said,” Ollie spat. “Don’t you get it? They’re among us! And if Bruce hadn’t sent us that recording—if they hadn’t missed the device in D—Di . . . in her ear, three of them would have come back wearing their fucking faces.”
“Arrow, this is not the time—” Barbara said, only to be cut off.
“Like hell it isn’t the time!” Ollie screamed. “They’re the traitors! They’re the Iconoclasts! They’re the reason Dinah is dead!”
Barry moved just in time. He grabbed Ollie and held him just as firmly as Jason had Dick, only minutes ago.
“And if they are, you’re blowing our chance to use it,” he murmured, right next to Ollie’s ear. “I believe you, Ollie, but if we tip our hand, her death will be for nothing.”
Ollie shuddered violently before shoving him away. He didn’t continue his accusations, however, so Barry took that as a win.
“You don’t know,” Ollie moaned, and now that the rage was passing, despair was moving in its wake. “Iris wasn’t—she wasn’t tortured, goddamnit,” he whispered, breaking down.
“We are not the traitors,” Ted said, his voice low and serious. “I don’t know why you think that, Ollie, but it is not true.”
“We wouldn’t be helping evacuate Chicago if we were the Iconoclasts,” Michael added.
“If not you, then who?” Carol asked, frantic.
“Arrow in your brainpain, Booster!” Ollie yelled, overcome.
The meeting devolved into a mass of unfounded accusations and blinding rage Ted and Michael stood up for each other, shouting down Ollie, Carol, and even Roy, who tore himself away from comforting Dick and Jason. In a rare show of solidarity, he agreed with his foster father.
“Get off the line!” Roy screamed at them, hunching over the Batcomputer. “Get out!”
“Roy, please. Think about what you’re saying,” Kori begged him.
Jason left a still-sobbing Dick in her hold to pull Roy away from the monitor. “It’s gonna be ok,” he reassured him, in a robotic tone. “We’ll get to the bottom of this. Kori and your kid are gonna be safe. I swear.”
It was a strange, dark day when a shell-shocked Red Hood was one of the most rational members of the league. Barry wondered why Oracle had yet to weigh in. It almost looked like she wasn’t paying attention—her gaze was up and to the right, and she was clearly clicking on another screen.
“Oracle?” He prompted. “Are you gonna bring this meeting to order, or shall I?”
Her eyes refocused. “Actually, I think we might let Green Lantern do it,” she said.
“Hal?” Ollie choked out. “He’s back?”
Barbara nodded. “He just hailed the Watchtower. He, Superman, and Martian Manhunter all have override codes to get in—he should beam down in a few minutes.”
Barry felt his entire body relax. It was silly, but even just the sound of his name was enough to focus him. It would be all right. Hal was here, and he would find a way to keep Ollie from the brink.
He looked over at Carol’s section of the monitor. “Carol, I know you want to see him, but I think Ollie needs him most.”
Carol narrowed her gaze at him. Barry held her gaze, feeling unaccountably guilty. This isn’t even for me! He thought. It’s for Ollie! Why is she looking at me like that?
Eventually, she nodded. “You’re right, but he’s going to grieve Dinah as well. Who will comfort him?”
Barry’s breath caught in his throat. “I’m going to be there for both of them,” he promised. “I’ll do whatever needs to be done, and when Ollie’s stable, I’ll send him to you.”
“Mom, Dad, stop fighting,” Ollie ground out, bitterly. “I’m right here.”
“I’m telling him to beam down to Central City,” Barbara said, ignoring their interaction. Her fingers flew over the keyboard. “Let’s hope he has good news for us.”
“Did Clark and J’onn not come with him?” Ted asked. Michael was still seething, upset at being perceived as a traitor.
Her eyebrows raised. “No, but I’m going to try and get through to John and Shayera again. If if doesn’t break their cover, they really need to be present for this.”
“And what about Ted and Michael?” Ollie spat. “Are we really keeping them on the line for this?”
“Innocent until proven guilty,” Koriand’r spoke up. “Isn’t that what your race says?”
“We also say, ‘an eye for an eye,” Ollie told her, glaring mutinously into the computer screen.
“Hal’s on the planet,” Barbara announced.
Barry glanced over at Ollie. “I’ll pick him up. Stay here. And stop yelling at Booster and Beetle,” he whispered, for Ollie’s ears alone. “Until we can figure out what to do.”
Before Ollie could respond, Barry was out the door, down the street, and several miles downtown, towards the landing site of the beam. The world blurred around him, yet it was all crystal clear to him. In less than a minute he saw Hal flying towards him, a grim expression on his own face.
“Hal!” Barry called out, and Hal rocketed down to Earth. He didn’t slow his descent, so Barry staggered back when his best friend flew himself down into a tight hug.
Hal’s voice was low, raspy, and utterly relieved. “Jesus, Bar, thank god you’re ok. When I saw Oracle’s face, I assumed the worst.”
Barry’s stomach flipped, and his mouth went dry. For a moment he gripped him back, closed his eyes, and breathed deeply. Something warm uncurled in his stomach at Hal’s raw emotion, as well as the presence and power of him. They were at war, however, and he was about to deliver terrible news that would hurt him badly, so he bit back the physical relief at seeing Hal again, and pulled back out of the hug.
“Carol’s all right,” he said, starting with what he figured Hal’s biggest worry would be.
“And?” Hal’s eyes searched his, trying to determine who wasn’t.
“We’ve got to get back to Ollie,” he said instead. “He needs you.”
Hal gripped his forearm. “Barry, I need you to tell me.”
Barry closed his eyes against Hal’s earnestness. When he opened them again, his expression was resolute. “Hal, I— I . . . I’m so sorry. Bruce, Helena, and Dinah just died.”
Hal hugged Ollie for three minutes straight when they got back to Barry’s house. Hal muttered lowly in Ollie’s ear, and Barry assumed it was something comforting until Ollie pulled back, with an upset look on his face.
“No, of course I didn’t—wait, why are you asking me that? Are you fucking testing me?” He asked, incredulously. Barry stepped closer, worried he might have to intervene.
“Yes,” Hal said flatly. “I’m gonna test everyone, Ol. If it’s any consolation, you passed. You’re you.”
Barry frowned. Hal hadn’t tested him. Not unless he knew Barry by the physicality of a hug, alone. Ollie sputtered, and Hal turned to the monitor, where everyone had waited for him. Tim and Damian had come back, accompanied by a grim-faced Alfred Pennyworth, holding a dozing toddler in his arms.
Barry had completely forgotten Michael Wilson had survived until that moment.
“I’ve got bad news, worse news, and then maybe some middling news,” Hal began. “Bad news is that we’ve got a swat team of magical, shape-shifting aliens on the planet. Worse news is that they’ve been here for at least eight months, maybe more, and will have had a chance to infiltrate our ranks.” He sighed. “Middling news is that Clark and J’onn and the entire Green Lantern Corps are onto them. If we can stop this first wave here, the Corps can help keep the second wave from setting up shop.”
“We already know all this!” Ollie yelled. He stabbed his finger at the monitor. “Bruce and Helena and Dinah just gave their lives for that information! They’ve got at least two inside agents, and I’m pointing fingers at Beetle and Booster.”
“They wouldn’t be Beetle and Booster if they were shapeshifters,” Carol pointed out, wearing a pinched expression.
“No, they would not,” Hal agreed. “And before this becomes a witch hunt, I’ve thought of a way to test for this.”
“Oh?” Barbara leaned forward.
“DNA testing,” he said. “As long as they’re human, they’re safe.”
Everyone in the Batcave froze. “No,” Roy said. “Kori is not the fucking traitor!”
“I don’t believe he’s saying that she is,” Barbara said. “Continue, Lantern.”
Hal took a deep breath. “It has to do with their magical pulse. You know about that, right? Drives all mages crazy, and killed off all the aliens? Makes the Iconoclasts impossible to kill? It’s keyed to human and Ikonian DNA, so any being with even a little of either DNA cannot be targeted.”
“Oh,” Koriand’r breathed, slumping in relief. “That is why. I had wondered . . .”
As Roy slung an arm around her waist, Barry leaned over to Hal and explained. “She’s pregnant. It’s Roy’s. Is that enough?”
Hal nodded. “Appa was pretty sure all that was needed was a tiny amount, so that’s why Superboy’s safe, but not Supergirl or Miss Martian.”
“Then why can’t we find him?” Carol asked. “Wouldn’t Superboy be useful right now?”
“They probably did him in another way,” Roy muttered lowly.
Hal hesitated for a moment before continuing, “As I was saying, the pulse also targets and weakens all magic that is not Ikonian. So if they’re still shapeshifting slash using their magic, they have to have at least some Ikonian DNA left. If we test everybody for DNA and something shows up that’s not human, or you know, whatever Kori is, we should be able to isolate who the spies are.”
Barry’s blood ran cold. “Wait a minute. Shayera’s alive too. Undercover, but she definitely survived the pulse.”
“She’s not pregnant too, is she?” Roy muttered, calmer now that Kori was no longer in danger. “What, with the way she and John Stewart were carrying on, it’s totally possible.”
“What?” Barry asked, as his stomach dropped. “She and John are . . . they were . . .?”
“Why do you think she went undercover to protect him?” Roy asked. “What?” He asked, when half those left in the meeting eyed him in disbelief. “You mean no one else picked up on that? I’m not even part of the League and I knew that.”
Barry closed his eyes. Shit on a stick, how had he missed that? No wonder she hadn’t gone for his half-hearted flirting. God, he was so embarrassed. He’d never have done anything if he’d known she was into John!
He’d have never done anything period if it hadn’t been for the sinking feeling that if he didn’t try to find a woman soon, he’d start appreciating people that he should never, ever have noticed in the first place . . .
“We have to find out,” Barbara ordered. “And we all will undergo testing.”
“How do we know it’s going to be a fair test?” Ted asked, which, considering Ollie and Roy’s animosity towards him, was a fair question.
“Because Hal will go first, with me in attendance,” Barbara said. “Once we’re both clear we can alternate overseeing the tests. I’ll contact Dr. Leslie Thompkins and see if she can assist us.”
“Where’s it gonna be?” Jason asked.
“Gotham,” Barbara said. “The majority of us are already here. And all throughout, no matter what, we need to continue with the evacuation of Chicago.”
“Wait, what?” Hal asked. “Somebody’s gotta fill me in on that.”
“I assumed Arrow and Flash would do so,” Barbara said. “The rest of us . . . I think we some time to grieve, and continue the evacuation procedures. I will contact you all individually with separate times and locations for the DNA testing, while I try to determine how badly we’ve been compromised.
“Other than that I reiterate: go nowhere alone. Contact at least three members of the League if a situation arises and you are needed beyond your usual sphere. As soon as we isolate the traitors we can all breathe more easily, but Chicago still needs to be evacuated, Shazam found, and the Ikons stopped.” Her breath caught. “Stay safe, everyone. Try and get some sleep. We’ll reconvene tomorrow.”
One by one, the monitors flickered off. Blue Beetle and Booster Gold’s were among the first. Ollie grabbed Hal’s arm and jabbed his finger at the screen in an accusatory manner.
“It’s them. I know it’s them. Who the hell else could it be?”
Hal glanced at Barry quickly, as if making sure he was still there. Then he turned back to Ollie. “Slow down and tell me from the beginning. Can you do that?”
“I’ll make some coffee,” Barry said, and sped off towards the kitchen. They were going to need it. Between Ollie’s grief and the time it would take to fill Hal in, it was going to be a long night.
June 27th, 20xx
Gotham, 8:16 AM
It was light that woke him. Filtering in through Barry’s blinds, a shaft of morning sunlight lay right across his face. It pulled Hal from the two and a half hours of sleep he’d managed, after Ollie had raged and then sobbed himself into an uneasy slumber.
Hal blinked the sleep from his eyes, wincing at the gritty feel. Sleepy seeds, he thought, half-remembering his mother had called them that, a long time ago when he was a little boy and things were still good. He glanced over at the two other occupants of Barry’s ridiculously large couch. Ollie lay in the middle, and he was the only one who managed to get horizontal during the evening. He clutched a pillow, rather than laying his head on it. His head lay near Hal’s thigh, and tufts of fluffy blond hair poked up everywhere.
Barry was on Ollie’s far side, sitting upright with his feet on the coffee table, just like Hal. His mouth had fallen slack while he slept, and even in sleep he looked exhausted. He also looked ten years older than when Hal had left, and still Hal couldn’t find fault with him. Barry had stayed with them for hours as Hal and Ollie had gone through the early stages of mourning Dinah, although Hal’s grief could never equal Ollie’s. Hal was pretty sure that Barry and Ollie didn’t even like each other all that much, but still Barry had fallen asleep with his hand on Ollie’s ankle, comforting and anchoring him in one simple gesture.
Hal watched them sleep, and was filled with a sense of peace and contentment so strong, yet so at odds with the shadow war they were embroiled in, that he almost couldn’t make sense of it. It should sicken him, to feel this way when so many of their friends had died. Dinah, Patrick, Helena, shit, even goddamn Bruce was gone, but he knew that at his core, this was all he needed. He had his purpose, he had people to protect, and he had friends that he loved.
It was also probably in response to losing Dinah, Hal thought as he carefully extricated himself from the couch. After a night of grief, anything would be a relief in comparison. Waking exhausted on the couch after the worst sleepover any of them had ever attended was going to be better than the immediate punch of losing someone they loved. The good feeling would fade as the day went on, and then Hal would no longer blame himself.
For now, he had work to do.
“Going somewhere?” Barry whispered, cracking an eye open.
Hal winced. “Oracle and I are meeting for the DNA testing. She said she’d schedule the two of you together, first. Can I leave him with you for a couple hours?”
Barry nodded. “As soon as we’re tested I’m going to help him evacuate Chicago. I’d focused on helping Carol, before, but we both need something to throw ourselves into. You gonna be back, or . . . ?”
Hal shrugged. “I don’t know yet. Depends on what Oracle needs me to do. I’ll try, Bar.” His hand flopped awkwardly down to Barry’s shoulder. He had to fight off the sleepy impulse to rest it on his head instead, to card his fingers through Barry’s short, blond hair.
Barry looked up at him with eyes bluer than the fucking ocean, and Hal needed to get gone, already.
“Stay safe,” Hal murmured. “And if Ollie gets suicidal ideas, tie him up again.”
“I heard that,” Ollie muttered from down the couch.
Barry reached up and pressed his hand against Hal’s. Just for a moment, but it still made his stomach clench. “You too,” he said. “Grab something to eat before you go. And call Carol. She’s uh.” Barry swallowed and looked down for a moment. “She’ll want to hear from you.”
At any other time, Ollie would have made a cutting remark about Barry being a good little housewife, looking out for his big, manly husband. As it was, Ollie burrowed his face down into the couch, and said nothing at all as Hal slapped together a ham and cheese sandwich, and then made his way to the Watchtower teleporter in Central city.
Hal winced. Whenever Carol answered the phone in that tone of voice, he knew to start scrambling. Time to adopt the solicitous boyfriend persona. “Hey, Carol. How are you feeling?”
“Better than Oliver,” she admitted. “How is he holding up?”
Hal looked down at the ground as he flew by. It was very, very different piloting a plane and piloting himself, but he’d like to think he was good enough to do that and talk to his girlfriend on the phone at the same time. Also, in case the conversation went really badly, he could always say he dropped the phone, which was not something that he could claim when he still worked for her.
“He’s not good. I don’t know how he’ll take this in the long run. Barry’s with him. Oh, he said to say he won’t be much help today—he’s gonna’ stick with Ollie to make sure . . . well. You know.”
“I completely understand,” she said. And she did. It was one of the reasons Hal cared for her, even though her ability to be logical with every single thing except their relationship drove him a little insane. “And you? I know Dinah was one of your closest friends. I’m so sorry, Hal.”
“Yeah,” he said. He could never come close to articulating how much it fucking hurt that brave, intelligent, sassy-as-all-hell Dinah Lance was dead. Who would smack sense into Ollie, now that she was gone? Who would smack sense into him?
“It hasn’t hit me yet,” he admitted. “Not really. But it can’t. There’s no time, and too much to do.”
“Don’t I know it,” she growled. “We’ve only managed to evacuate about 350,000 people from Chicago. That’s too few. If the weapon is primed to go off on the 28th, we’re not going to get everyone out in time. We’re not going to get half.” She continued, getting more upset as she went. “Everyone is panicking, and it’s making our jobs so much harder. We’ve had three riots in the past hour, and that’s just in the Loop! Ollie’s working the south side of Chicago, and I can’t imagine how he’s getting on down there. It’s ridiculous!
“They’re afraid of dying, Carol,” Hal reminded her. “And they’re not in the military. They’re not trained for this.”
“Not trained to form orderly lines? We learn that in kindergarten, Hal!”
Hal took a deep breath, and swerved around a high-rise building. He was in Gotham proper now, and it was only a few more minutes until he reached the Clocktower. “What’s this really about, Carol? I know you’re under a lot of strain, but—”
“I want to see you,” she cut in. Her voice was tired. “Just, I want . . . Can’t we do this in person?”
Carol had the worst timing, sometimes. Like right now. “I can’t, sorry. I’m meeting with Oracle. I don’t have time.”
“Just for five minutes, Hal. I just—I need . . .”
“Carol, when all this is over, I can give you all the attention you need. Right now I’ve got a job to do,” he said. It was a little harsh, but he was in full on Green Lantern mode. Besides, he was kind of a dick at the best of times. She should probably know that by now.
“Fine,” she said, with an edge to her voice. “We can do this over the phone. I thought your ‘promise’ was to Barry, but he didn’t know anything about it. Who was the promise to? Or were you making that up?”
Hal nearly dropped the phone for real. Not only was that the worst conversational segue in the history of ever, she’d talked to Barry about that? This was the last thing he needed. Hal tried his hardest to keep Carol Ferris and Barry Allen in completely different areas of his head, let alone his life. For all the ways they overlapped inside of him he needed to keep them disparate.
Because otherwise he was fucked.
“You—you talked to him about that?”
“He doesn’t know what’s wrong with you either!” She exclaimed. “I didn’t think we’d see eye to eye on that, but there it is. Why won’t you marry me, Hal?”
Hal took a deep breath, trying to calm his thoughts. He could still play this off. He could still come out relatively unscathed, as long as he only told part of the truth. “I promised Iris on her deathbed,” he admitted, in a low, quiet voice. “I can’t go back on that.” And I promised myself, he thought. The night we duked it out in the corn field.
“But he understands!” Carol entreated him. “Wait until he talks about it with you—”
And that was all he could take. “Carol, this isn’t the time. I’m at the Clocktower and I gotta begin the DNA testing. Your time is in the afternoon, right? I’ll see you then.”
There was a long moment of silence. She’s piiiiiisssssssed, Hal thought. I’m boned.
“ . . . I’ll talk to Barry, and then to you,” he said, knowing he’d rather take an off-world mission for the rest of his life than do just that. “It’ll all work out. I promise.”
“I love you,” she said, and it was pointed. This is what I can do, she was saying. Why can’t you do it too?
“Love you too,” he said, and then he hung up. He flew in for a landing at the Clocktower hangar and took a deep breath. Then another. And another. Shit, he thought. Shit and shit and shit. He had to come into the meeting with a clear head. He wasn’t just Hal Jordan, after all. He was a goddamned Green Lantern, and one of the last living superheroes on planet Earth.
Let his secrets come back to haunt him later. For now, he had work to do.
An hour and a half later, he stood beside Oracle as Dr. Leslie Thompkins, the venerable, grey-haired, Wayne family physician presented her findings on both his and Barbara’s DNA.
“Congratulations, you’re both human,” she said drily. “Not even a meta-gene to complicate the results. Can I hope that all the tests will be that straightforward?”
“The next will be,” Hal said. “I’ve met with Barry and Ollie and I know they’re human. Although Barry is a first-generation meta.”
Leslie waved him off. “That’s an easy enough gene to map. Anything challenging?”
“We will have a couple aliens for you to test,” Barbara said. “But only one today. Non-Ikonian, obviously. She claims she’s pregnant.”
Dr. Leslie pursed her lips. “The pregnancy will be a welcome change, and easy enough to test for. But if I don’t have a template DNA on file, it might take a while to isolate all the strands. We’d better save her for last, at least if you want to clear as many humans as possible, first.”
Oracle glanced over at Hal. “We . . . have suspicions as to who the Ikons may be masquerading as. I want you to be very careful around Theodore Kord and Michael Carter, Leslie. If they come in and everything is fine, please tell me right away. Otherwise, I don’t want you alone in the room with them.”
Dr. Leslie gave her a distinctly unimpressed look. “If the Ikons are dangerous enough to destroy Metropolis and murder Bruce Wayne, being careful is not going to make a damned bit of difference. I’m going to do my job, Barbara, and I will do it without fear.”
“Just be careful,” Hal reiterated. “We’ve all lost enough. We can’t lose anyone else.”
Now Dr. Leslie turned her unimpressed gaze onto him. “I’m always careful. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got the next set of tests to run. Your friends should be here any minute.”
“We’ll be in the computer room if you need us,” Barbara said.
Hal’s stomach grew cold. They had listened to the Des Plaines recording while they waited for Leslie to finish with her results, and only Barbara’s stony resolve kept him from breaking down. What they had done to Dinah was horrific, and her last words . . .
“I can’t listen to that recording again, Oracle,” he said.
Barbara shook her head, looking queasy. “Once was enough. We have other things to discuss.” She said nothing else until they reached the computer room.
It was a long, awkward walk down the hallway. One of Oracle’s wheels needed oiling, and Hal couldn’t stop thinking about how for all their dissimilarities, during their last living moments, both Bruce and Dinah had taken the opportunity to make their final goodbyes. What would he have said, were he in that position? And how might it affect those left behind?
As soon as the doors sealed behind them, Oracle wheeled to a stop, and fixed him with a serious expression. “You know, in about a third of my projections, I considered the Flash as having been compromised,” she began without preamble.
Hal’s temper flared. “What?”
Barbara held up a hand. “You should know that I no longer think he is the most likely candidate. Nor did Bruce agree with me at the time. But his behavior over the last few interviews was erratic, and I had to consider all the options.” She licked her lips. “I also considered Damian. To be even more honest, I still do.”
Hal tried to calm himself. Tried to remind himself that Barbara was right, and that someone had to keep a level head about all this. It had all fallen on her shoulders, and he couldn’t begrudge her that.
“What about the rest of the ex-Robin club?” He asked, to get his mind off of Barry as an Ikon.
She shook her head. “I’d be surprised if it was Tim. And it can’t be Richard or Jason, unless it’s both. Two spies in one household would be too obvious, and thus dangerous. If one of them is in the Manor, it’ll be Damian.”
Hal didn’t ask why Barbara was so confident about both Jason and Dick. For now, he was going to assume she had access to some knowledge that he didn’t, and move on. The Waynes were full of secrets, after all, and Hal wanted no part of the inner workings of the Bat family hierarchy.
“Roy and Kori? He asked, moving down the list.
Barbara shrugged. “If Starfire’s pregnant, that answers the big question of why she survived the pulse, and I’m assuming that she or Jason would notice if Arsenal were acting oddly. I think that’s what we need to be looking out for. Those who are on the fringes, and isolated enough that moments of uncharacteristic behavior won’t be picked up on.”
“Like Booster and Beetle.”
Barbara hesitated. “And the Flash. Since you’ve been gone, he hasn’t been around much.”
Hal narrowed his eyes at her. “Yeah well, neither have John and Shayera. I’m not sure why they aren’t the first suspects. They’re undercover—who’s to say they haven’t been taken over by the shapeshifters?”
Barbara rested her head in her hand. “Now that we know the Ikons are shapeshifters, yes, they are under suspicion. Before we assumed it was a matter of personal integrity, and perhaps even magical compulsion. Bruce and I considered them strong enough to stand up to that. Now that they may no longer be themselves . . .”
“It’s either Michael and Ted, or John and Shayera,” Hal summed up.
“Or Damian and Barry,” Barbara said. “Until we know for certain, those are the six I’d watch the most closely. I’m not going to take my eyes off of anyone now, however, even though I know you’re human.”
“Fair enough,” Hal agreed. If she was going to be eying him askance as well, he didn’t mind her paranoia about Barry as much. “Now why don’t we talk about Superboy, and how nobody knows he’s holding down the Watchtower.”
Oracle sighed. “Tim knows, but that’s it. Kon got out just before the pulse. He was poisoned, and whoever did it didn’t realize Bruce and Clark have secret backdoors built into the Watchtower, keyed to their DNA. Kon made it to the teleporter, and it let him in. Until we know for sure who the spies are, he’s being held in reserve. Bruce and I had hoped to find a way to use him against Luthor. We thought he could turn him away from the Ikons, but that only works if Luthor is still alive. If he’s been taken over by the Ikons . . .”
“I think it’s safe to say he, Ra’s, and Bane are no longer the villains we know and love,” Hal said with a hint of sarcasm. “And according to what Barry and Ollie have been telling me, neither is Shazam.”
Barbara sighed. “We don’t know what was done to him. Nor how he managed to break free of the Ikon’s control over all Earth’s magic. Technically, we don’t even know if he’s alive. We’re hoping he is because Constantine needs him to do . . . whatever he did, again. Either way, we need to find him before anyone else does.”
“And we’re sure he’s not a shapeshifter? That would explain his out-of-nowhere killing spree nicely.”
“It’s hard to imagine John Constantine being wrong about something like that, but that’s something we could check. Shazam languished in the Manor for days, and Alfred did a bunch of medical exams on him. Definitely took blood, maybe tissue samples. We could give it to Leslie and check.”
“But you don’t think it could be him?”
Oracle shook her head. “He was still using his magic, up until he was taken over. If the Ikons are shapeshifters with their own brand of magic, there’s no reason to believe they can use Earth-based magic, especially because of the weapon that makes all Earth-born mages crazy. Shazam definitely went crazy by the end, and he was coughing up a lot of blood. That’s hard to fake. I’d guess it really was him.”
Hal nodded, going with it for now. A DNA test would be more definitive, but he’d take Oracle at her assurance. “He’s not gonna be able to come back from this. If he really killed that many people . . .”
“He’ll do what he needs to do, Lantern. He’s Shazam.”
“If you say so. Who’s looking for him?”
“Tim and Kon-El. When they find him, Kon may be the only person who can go after him. Or you. If he were sane, Dinah might have been able to get through to him, but . . .”
“Shit,” Hal said, unable to think of the might have beens. “So let me get this straight. We have at least two Ikons impersonating our friends, and three more running around in Ra’s, Luthor’s, and Bane’s bodies. We have to evacuate all of Chicago by tomorrow, and also find Shazam, who may or may not be sane, evil, or alive.”
“That’s about it.”
“Well let’s get working,” Hal said. “Tell me what needs to be done.”
June 27th, 20xx
Khandaq, 1:57 PM
All around him was desert. Heat blistered his skin, sand bit his feet, and wind scoured his body. He had been without food and water for more than 24 hours now, and he had no idea if the forces that had controlled his body before that had thought to feed or hydrate him.
Billy Batson, the freed hero Shazam, did not care.
He had gone this long without eating before, but never in this circumstance. He mentally added it to the list of other, far more terrible things he had never done: he had never before betrayed his colleagues. Neither had he left his friends to fight on their own. His magic, while once stolen, had never been twisted in his grip.
He had never killed tens of thousands of people, before.
Billy’s eyes stung, but he could not cry. The desert sucked all the moisture out of him, or was that his grief? He felt hollow, like he was a tiny fleck of dirt dirtying the enormous cavern of the world. It did not matter that he had not chosen to kill those people, had not even been aware when it happened. His body had done it. His body, and his power. If he had never been empowered by the wizard, it never would have happened. If he had never been born . . .
Pain overwhelmed him, and Billy closed his eyes. He’d thought the grief was worse when he came back to awareness, somewhere in the middle of the Porcupine Mountains State Park. It was the first time he’d been fully in control of himself for the last 24 hours. The memories his subconscious had blocked came rushing down, and horror overtook him. It was too much, too quickly. Coupled with the physical strain the Iconoclasts’ magic had forced him through, his body and mind failed him. He collapsed to the forest floor, and fell unconscious.
That had been eight hours ago. Eight hours of consciousness, of reliving snippets of the pain and devastation he had caused. So many were dead because of him. So many have lost their sense of safety, they homes, their jobs, their friends, their families . . . He was as bad as the worst supervillains he had ever faced. So what if it hadn’t been his choice? Because of him it had still happened!
Billy remembered how the wizard Shazam had saved him, had come to him in the deepest, darkest reaches of his subconscious and gave him the key to unlock the prison doors of the Iconoclast magic. Yet the wizard was far from him now, and Billy could not summon up the energy to search for him. He could not summon up the energy to do much of anything. Grief and guilt and depression clouded his entire being, and it was hard to think clearly, if he was thinking at all.
All he knew was that he couldn’t go back. No one would ever forgive him. He would never forgive himself. He could not even muster up the resolve that had carried him through his life—I will not die, I am not done. Now, with every step he took in the scorching desert, a new resolve began to form.
I am tired. I want it to be over.
June 27th, 20xx
Gotham, Clocktower, 2:32 PM
When Dick was little and still lived in the circus, before the great tragedy that shaped his life, his father had told him about the Dreaming Tree. It was an old story, one passed down from their Romani ancestors about a tree that dreamt, and the creatures that relied on it to live. The day-birds that lived in its branches sang songs that reflected its dreams, as did the chattering of the chipmunks, and the hoot of the nighttime owl. The snakes in the grass slithered paths that reflected the wisdom of the tree’s dreams, and the insects that trundled through the earth next to its roots knew all the tree’s secrets. Even the larger woodland creatures that rested in its shade were influenced by the dreams of the wondrous tree. Once they rested in the strange tree’s shade, they never sought out another, knowing that all trees in the forest were inferior to this one.
And the tree was happy, for what the tree dreamt of most fondly was to never be alone. Let the entire world surround it and it would love them all; giving up the best of itself simply to keep those it cared about happy, healthy, and safe.
Dick’s father told many, silly little stories about the tree to him, all designed to appeal to his young son. His bright, chirping, inquisitive son, whom his mother had fondly dubbed Little Robin.
Dick had never told anyone the stories of the Dreaming Tree because they were too painful. He had almost told Bruce once, but he’d been unable to go through with it. Back when he was 16, on one of his last gigs as Robin, they had just put Dr. Fries back in Arkham Asylum. He’d been ranting and raving about the honor of his deceased wife, Nora, and Dick had been taken over with a nigh overwhelming impulse to tell Bruce everything.
This is a story Papa told me, he would have said. It’s about you. Well, I mean, it’s about a tree, but you’re the tree. And I’m the day-bird, obviously, Batgirl is the squirrel, and Commissioner Gordon is the owl. Catwoman is the snake, the villains are the insects . . . and your superhero colleagues in other cities are the woodland creatures that cannot stay away from you, not only because you are the freaking Batman, but also because your dream is all of their dreams, and it’s of a world that’s safer and saner than the one we live in.
Now that Bruce was gone, Dick wished he had told him. Standing in the Clocktower with Damian at his side, awaiting the DNA test results that would reveal them to be nothing other than what they appeared, he wished he had told Bruce many things. He almost wished he could tell Damian, now, if only to establish a link between them. My father told me a story once, he’d say. And it’s what made me want to fight at your father’s side.
But he did not. Damian wouldn’t understand, not in his current emotional state. The youngest Robin had shut down after hearing the Des Plaines transmission, and refused to do anything other than eat, sleep, patrol, and spar. After their first practice bout ended in him nearly murdering Tim again, only Jason was allowed to spar with him. Alfred had insisted on being in attendance. Dick hadn’t understood why until Alfred had begun crying during their second spar held late last night; quiet, reserved tears that unnerved Dick more than open wailing.
Needless to say, neither of them were sparring much anymore. Even Damian could not stand Alfred’s sorrow, and so he had taken up training on his own, spending all the hours not on patrol in the gym, pushing himself to his limits.
Damian’s inability to accept Dick’s comfort wasn’t the only reason he couldn’t tell him now. Barbara was in the room with them, waiting alongside them to learn that they were, in fact, who they claimed to be. While she was amazing and brilliant and the best damned backup a superhero could ever dream of, her soul was shot through with iron, rather than that which might appreciate romantic imagery. She also looked as if she hadn’t slept in two weeks, so she might not understand the nuance in Dick’s message. If even she did not, what chance did he have at getting through to Dami?
No, it was better to say nothing at all. He’d wait for the right time, and if that didn’t work, he’d just have to try, try again.
“How long will this take?” Damian asked quietly, without inflection. Dick never thought the day would come when he missed Dami’s entitled arrogance. He’d have that back in a heartbeat if the reason for it was Bruce’s resurrection.
“She should be almost done,” Babs answered for him, tapping away at her laptop. She had only come down to supervise the last 10 minutes of their meeting with Dr. Leslie. Apparently she wasn’t very worried about them. “Then the two of you are out to Chicago?”
“To help stop riots, yeah,” Dick answered her. “Jay’s coming too. Roy and Kori are keeping an eye on Gotham. Tim said he was helping you, but he’d take the Bat suit out from time to time.”
Because I can’t, went unsaid. Not yet. Even though he left it to me.
“Hmmm,” Babs said, tapping away at her laptop.
“Unless you need something?” Dick offered weakly. Things had been awkward between them for the past couple of years, but never when they were in costume. They were better than that, no matter the disappointments they suffered as Dick and Barbara. Even if the last one—the one that was absolutely still happening, even when the world burned down all around them, so help him God—had been a doozy.
“No, I just . . .” She trailed off, glancing over at Damian. “Let’s just wait for Leslie.”
As if on cue, Dr. Leslie chose that moment to sail into the room. “Sorry for the wait,” She said, tapping something on her tablet. “Good news. Richard Grayson and Damian Wayne are both human. As is everyone else I’ve tested today. The only one left is your pregnant alien friend.”
Dick pretended he didn’t see the way Barbara’s body slackened just slightly in relief.
Dr. Leslie glanced up from her tablet to look directly at Barbara. “I also managed to run the swab sample that was mailed in.”
Barbara narrowed her eyes. “Was it contaminated? He had to ship it quickly.”
Dr. Leslie shook her head. “Surprisingly clean. You may pass congratulations onto Mr. Stewart, he is completely human as well. Now if you don’t mind me, I’m going to go prep the room. It’s been awhile since I’ve worked with a pregnant woman,” she muttered to herself before she left the room.
Barbara frowned. “That doesn’t make sense,” she murmured.
“What, that Dr. Leslie doesn’t normally work with pregnant woman?” Dick raised an eyebrow. “She is the family physician, and it’s not like we’ve been awash in pregnancies.”
“No,” she replied, annoyed. “The swab test. I thought for sure it would come back contaminated.”
You thought John Stewart was a spy?” Dick asked, appalled.
Barbara sighed roughly. “Both Booster and Beetle have been tested. It’s not them, Richard. I thought . . . well, shit. This just goes from bad to worse.”
“What do you mean?” Damian asked.
Barbara bit her lip. “Shayera has been unable to send a sample. Until she can, she can’t be exonerated, and I’ve had to cut her from the communications links.”
Dick frowned, beginning to see where this was going. “Why can’t we get ahold of her?”
“She’s down in Mexico hunting down the supplier for Venom. We hope it will provide a connection to how the Ikons are supplying their own products, and how they augment them with other poisonous compounds. Even if she does send it today, it will still be several days before it gets here.”
“So we don’t know if it’s her,” Damian said, completely unphased.
“There’s another thing,” Barbara admitted, pinching the bridge of her nose. “Carol Ferris didn’t turn up for her test.”
Dick’s first thought was of a rampaging Green Lantern. “Shit,” he breathed.
“That isn’t a surprise either,” Damian said, in a clipped, uncaring tone. “She’s in an excellent position to operate as an alien spy. As she’s no longer Star Sapphire, she doesn’t have a power or even enhanced ability to fake. She is also somewhat removed from the community as a whole. Save for Green Lantern, she doesn’t associate with many of us. If they took her after he left for his off-world mission, it would be difficult for any of us to spot her as an imposter.”
Dick didn’t know if he was dismayed at the callous turn of Damian’s thoughts, or grateful that Damian was thinking at all. He was 100% thankful that Hal wasn’t in the room, however. Green Lantern was kind of one-track minded, and, while surprisingly sensitive to the few people he was close to, was not the most subtle hero of the bunch.
“You thought Carol was the spy?” He asked Damian incredulously.
“No,” Damian replied. “I thought it would be John Stewart and Shayera Hall. It would appear I’m wrong about one of them. Carol is a sensible option, and I accede that I had judged her innocence too quickly.”
“She may not be guilty, Dami!” Dick argued. “Her lack of powers makes her an easy target. They could have kidnapped her!”
“What the point of that? Apart from her role in Ferris Aircraft, which someone else could easily take over, she’s worthless.” Damian pointed out.
“She’s not worthless,” Dick argued. “Think about it this way: losing her now would destroy Hal, just like losing Br—just like we’re already suffering,” he finished lamely, knowing both Barbara and Damian would know what he meant to say.
“She was fitted with a tracking device,” Barbara admitted. “As were Helena and I. It’s still active, so I know that she’s alive. I know where she is, Richard. I just don’t know if we should go after her.”
Damian scowled, clenching his big hands into fists. “Another trap. Is that all the Ikons know? They should just face us and have done with it!”
“Not until we tear down their magical weapon,” Barbara reminded him. “Until then, they’re invincible. We need to use the time they’ve given us. They may think they’re playing with us, but we can use it to formulate a plan.”
“What if we’re wrong?” Dick argued. “What if Carol was kidnapped and we leave her to her torture and death? What the hell do you think Green Lantern is going to do with that information?”
“We’re not keeping this from him,” Barbara said tiredly, rubbing her temples with her fingertips. “We will simply tell him when we tell everyone else.”
“Oh, yeah, that’s gonna go over great,” Dick muttered.
“Where is she?” Damian asked. “Let me guess. Chicago?”
Barbara said nothing, and he harrumphed. “I’m not going to do anything with that information. I think she’s a spy. Jordan does not, so you’d best have an acceptable lie ready for him.”
“She’s in DC,” Barbara admitted. “For a ten minute period, she was in Wonder Woman’s apartment.”
“That . . . doesn’t bode well,” Dick admitted. “Unless they dragged her through it just because they knew we were tracking her?”
“You and your excuses,” Damian muttered. “Always trying to make make everyone redeemable. Ferris is not. Neither is Todd. When will you learn?”
A flare of anger made him grit his teeth. He wanted nothing more than to yell at Damian, to tell him how little he knew of the world and of the people in it. “Not the time, Damian.”
“I say we sit on it for now,” Barbara decided. “We can’t risk Lantern flying off in a rage when he’s all that’s keeping Arrow from losing it completely, and we need both their help with the evacuation. After that’s done, one way or the other . . . I’ll tell everyone, and we’ll put it up to a vote.”
Dick sucked in a breath through his teeth. “She’ll be dead by then. You’re leaving her to die—”
“Unless she’s the spy,” Damian reminded him.
“If that happens, Lantern is going to kill you,” Dick finished.
“No he’s not,” she said confidently. “He’s going to be angry, but in time he’ll understand.”
“I’m just reiterating. Angry Green Lantern. Furious Green Lantern.”
“Well, it’s not like we don’t know what to do with angry superheroes,” Babs said, and it was the closest thing to a joke she had made in weeks. “If anything, Bruce would probably be proud of him.”
June 27th, 20xx
Gotham, Clocktower, 2:49 PM
Just outside the testing room, in earshot of Oracle, Nightwing, and Robin, two other superheroes lurked.
“So they’ve taken her to D.C. . . .”
Michael Carter looked over at his friend. “We’re going after her, right? Saving the day, clearing our names, proving ourselves and Carol’s loyalty?”
Ted Kord smiled grimly. “Hell yeah. Let me just turn the evacuation protocols over to my 2nd in command before we go . . .”
“All right,” Michael said, flashing his pearly whites. “Let’s go be big damn heroes.”
June 27th, 20xx
Washington, D.C., The White House, 3:00 PM
At 3:00 PM, the President of the United States and his entire cabinet, including the Vice President, the White House Chief of Staff, and the Ambassador to the United Nations, sat down for a meeting. The docket could be broken down into three specific areas of concern: whether to request aid from the United Nations, whether to assist the superhero community in their evacuation of Chicago or to denounce it entirely, and how best to catch and kill the rogue superhero Shazam.
All three issues had been discussed before, but the situation had shifted enough to rehash. The Mayor of Chicago had elected to side with the superheroes, and was directing individuals to either K.O.R.D. Inc, Ferris Aircraft, or Queen Industries to evacuate. Additionally, several of the U.S.’s allies across the sea were offering aid on exceptional terms, and they had to discuss how much they would give to get some support. There was no word on Shazam, but the indiscriminate killing had ended, as well. The President was quietly hopeful that the situation had been resolved, one way or another. Others were not so sanguine.
None of the issues were ever resolved. At 3:34 PM, an explosion went off that killed every person in the room, instantly.
The news broke at 4:15 PM.
By 7:00 PM, a new President had been unanimously ushered into office.
June 27th, 20xx
Washington, D.C., The White House, 7:47 PM
Joseph “Lex” Luthor was inaugurated President with little fanfare. His vice-president was an older, more conservative member of the Democratic party, but he elected his cabinet from popular senators among both Republicans and Democrats, as if to say he had no need for traditional, partisan politics. He did elect three non-politicians to his cabinet: little-known Ray Ghulia headed the Department of State; Javier Bañe was given the Department of Homeland Security to run, and John Stewart, decorated war hero, was named Secretary of Defense.
Luthor’s very first decision was to declare a state of emergency, a decision he explained during his Inaugural Address. Given from the confines of the Pentagon, rather than the sprawling White House lawn, it was succinct, to the point, and due to the breathless speed in which it occurred, there were no reporters present to interject with questions.
“This is no time for hesitation,” he began. “Our country is at risk. Metropolis, that brave, beautiful city, is no more. I grieve the loss of it. It was my home, and the best one a man could ever ask for. But I take strength from its destruction. It is what fuels my resolve to protect the rest of our nation. The Iconoclasts, whatever their true nature, will not destroy any other cities. Not under our watch.
“Many of you have heard rumors that the Iconoclasts are not aliens at all, but human beings—misguided super ’heroes’ who have turned to evil. I cannot confirm this at the moment, but there are some unsettling signs that point this is true. From Patrick O’Brian’s—Plastic Man’s—attempt on my Chief of Security, Javier Bañe’s life; to William Batson AKA Shazam’s murderous rampage through the US, we have proof enough that some now stand against the American people.
“These could be isolated incidents. I do not want you to panic, nor to assume that all supers have joined forces with or even become these mysterious ‘Iconoclasts.’ But there is one further account of terrorism I must address, particularly as it targets one of the largest and most prosperous cities in the United States.
“Residents of Illinois, take heart. Chicago is not at risk. Whatever codename ‘Oracle’ wants you to believe, you are completely safe. Stay in your homes and do not create a situation that could lead to panic, riots, and loss of life. We will not let what happened in Metropolis happen in Chicago. We have created a defensive weapon for this very purpose, and if a single superpowered being—Iconoclast or not—steps foot into Chicago with dire purpose, they will be dealt with swiftly, severely, and without mercy.
“Thank you all, and God bless America.”
June 27th, 20xx
Gotham, Wayne Manor, 8:39 PM
Dinner at Wayne Manor that evening was subdued. While Kori did not know what an average dinner at the Wayne family table was like, she assumed that it could not be like this. The current lack of energy had to be from the loss of Batman, hanging over all of them like a shroud; particularly as it was why they were all sitting around the table in the first place. Alfred had called for this family dinner to be held in his honor, and as a chance for all to make their goodbyes.
Roy and Kori were invited as guests, and also to keep Jason from flipping his shit and killing them all, at least, according to Roy. Knowing what she did of her boys, Kori found his crude explanation likely. Jason had not come to terms with his strained relationship with his father figure in life, how much harder would it be to do so in death?
It was a motley assortment of individuals without Batman to hold them together. Damian sat at Alfred’s left hand, ostensibly so that the aged butler’s presence would keep the young firebrand calm. Dick sat to his right, and next to him, Tim. Jason was next, followed by Roy, Kori, and then tiny Michael Wilson, whose little legs swung in the air, far too short to reach the floor. He sat upon a stack of thick textbooks simply so he could reach the table.
Even he was not untouched by grief. She had awoken last night to his wails for his mother, who, in the nighttime hours, he could not but miss.
Kori watched the toddler, wondering if the life she carried inside her would look like him. Look up at her with the same absolute trust and devotion that he showed towards Alfred Pennyworth. She took Roy’s hand. Whatever species their child was; whichever parent it favored, she would love it all the same. Fiercely, and without reserve, even though it would set her up for crippling weakness, as well. She would not hold herself back from it, no matter the pain in their lives.
Perhaps it was time to admit as much to her child’s father, as well.
(It might also prove a fitting segue into another conversation that was long overdue: her people’s cultural and psycho-emotional bonds . . . and how she could now track him effortlessly within a five-mile radius. That she could likely find him were he farther away from her than that, solely due to the strength of her feelings for him—transmuted by people’s empathetic power—might make him nervous. How she was going to tell him all this was as of yet beyond her, but she might as well begin making headway now.
She could no longer be afraid of loving him. Not after this.)
They were halfway through their dinner of roast chicken, mashed potatoes, and fresh vegetables when Alfred raised up his glass. Next to him, little Michael raised his sippy cup, watching Alfred expectantly, having learned it was best to follow his new guardian in all things.
“A toast,” Alfred began. “To Bruce Wayne, the most frustrating and beloved charge I could have ever asked for . . . and to Batman and his legacy. May we be capable enough to see his mission through.”
Kori glanced over at Jason, unsure if she should participate in the toast. No one else moved, and Jason did not meet her eye. He stared down at the table, teeth clenched. From the corner of her eye she could see Roy eyeing the exits. He was probably gauging how quickly he could reach his bow before Jason flipped the table over, attacked them en masse, or some other catastrophe befell them.
Perhaps she could offset violence? She raised her own glass, looking Alfred in the eye. “To Batman,” she echoed. “One of the single greatest heroes this world has ever known.”
Alfred dipped his head graciously at her.
Michael Wilson saw this as his cue. “Badman,” his mispronounced. “He’s scary.”
Damian Wayne glared at the child, who took a drink from his sippy cup in response. The child’s misunderstanding of the nature of the toast caused the mood to ice over more, until Tim Drake held his own cup aloft.
“To Bruce,” he said quietly. “May we never let him down. May he be proud of what we do, and who we become.”
Dick took a deep breath and stared up at the ceiling. His adam’s apple bobbed as he swallowed. Kori frowned, moved with pity. He was trying to keep himself together for the sake of those at the table, but he was drowning in grief. Kori could feel so much of it, even though they were no longer romantically involved, and her heart throbbed with the echoes of his pain.
“To my father,” Damian said, his voice clipped. “The greatest man on Earth. I will not disappoint you. I will not let anyone slander your name.”
“To the man who brought this table together,” Roy said diplomatically, a moment later. “And the man who’s saved Gotham more times than I am years alive.”
“We get it, you’re old,” Jason murmured, in a distinctly bitter voice. “Congratulations.”
“As for you, Master Jason?” Alfred prompted.
Jason let out a long, deep sigh. Kori knew that even at his darkest moments he never wanted to let Alfred down. He felt the same for Barbara Gordon, and, to a lesser extent, Timothy and Damian. Dick was, of course, a whole category of his own . . . as had been Bruce Wayne.
Was he thinking of Bruce’s last words to him? Kori wondered. Of how he had thought of Jason at the last? How desperate he had been to understand him? To love him? To be loved in return?
“To Bruce,” Jason finally said, voice thick with emotion. “To . . . Bruce.” If Kori had been moved in Dick’s pain, now she was awash in Jason’s. Had he felt less perhaps he could have managed more. As it was, Jason stood abruptly, pushing back from the table. He turned to leave the room, but Damian shot to his feet.
“That’s all you can do?” He hissed. “That’s all you can give to the man who saved you from a life on the streets? Gave you the power to fight at his side? The chance to be something more?”
“Master Jason’s words are his own,” Alfred warned him. “Leave him be.”
“That’s not all he gave me,” Jason muttered darkly, and Kori was unsure if he meant it as censure, or twisted praise.
Damian’s face twisted with rage. “You selfish bastard. You’re a disgrace. He should never have picked you. He was a fool for thinking you were worthy of his legacy. You shouldn’t even be here.”
“You don’t know jack shit about it, so why don’t you take a seat and shut up,” Jason said harshly. “Just stay the fuck out of this!”
“There’s a three year old at the table—” Roy tried to intervene.
Damian sneered at him. “I know more than you think, Jason Todd. I know about the depths of depravity you lowered yourself to—”
“You know nothing about that!” Jason yelled.
“I know how you are nothing!” Damian yelled back.
Before anyone could react, there was a butter knife in Jason’s hand. Tim reached out to stop him, and Dick cried out.
Both were too late. Jason wound up and flung the knife towards Damian Wayne’s head. The silver knife hurtled toward the teenager, flashing in the light of the chandelier. Moments before it would penetrate his skull, Damian reached out and swatted it aside, sending it into the wall with such force that it quivered upon impact.
“Pathetic,” he sneered. “Is that the best you can do?”
“No,” Jason ground out. “But I’m not—shit. I can’t . . .” He trailed off, looking helplessly towards Alfred before glancing quickly over at the door. “Fuck!” He cried out, before shoving back from the table, and charging out of the dining room.
Damian made to move after him, but Alfred stopped him with a gesture. “Are you in control of yourself, Master Damian?”
“Of course I am,” he bit back.
“Then are you nothing but an attack dog?” Alfred challenged him. “Mindlessly gratifying your most immediate instincts?”
Damian eyed the door Jason had just ran through. The strain of keeping himself from chasing after him was so great he shuddered. “I am not,” he finally said. “I . . . I apologize for his display.”
“Then sit down. We are going to finish our dinner,” Alfred commanded.
Tim glanced at Dick before standing up. “I’ll go make sure he’s ok. I’m done eating anyway. I’ll be right back.”
“Wait, no, I’ll—” Dick said, but Tim was faster than he looked. The door was closing behind him before Dick could finish his sentence.
Roy nudged Dick’s shoulder. “It’s gonna be ok,” he murmured. “Don’t tell anybody, but now that he’s done trying to kill all of you, Jay’s pretty fond of Tim. I think he’s one of the few people he calms down enough to listen to. Total big-brother complex, it’s really heartwarming.”
Kori watched the way Dick took Roy at his word, and her own heart warmed. She had been worried that her past relationship with Dick, or the history between them would keep him from reconnecting with Roy. It seemed that her worries were for nothing.
“You have still not said your toast, Master Richard,” Alfred reminded him, after some time had passed in silence, save for the clink of their cutlery on their plates.
Dick barked out a laugh. “How can I? I can’t put words to this. I—I . . .” He breathed out hotly. “I can’t. It’s Bruce. And I can’t say any more than Jason can.”
The door opened and Tim stuck his head back in. “Dick, will you spar with him? I don’t think anybody’s gonna get through to him until he’s gotten his ass kicked.”
“Weakling,” Damian muttered.
“That I can do,” Dick said. He stood, but Alfred stopped him.
“Master Richard. Do not run away from this. We must say our goodbyes. Do not let Bruce live on as a ghost in your heart.”
Kori thought that was sage advice, and her respect and admiration for the butler rose. He would have fit in nicely with her people. His wisdom was likely why he had done so well among his own.
Dick did not appear to share her sentiments. He turned back around, a miserable expression on his face. “To Bruce,” he finally said, brokenly, but with determination. He stared up at the ceiling, unable to make eye contact with anyone as he continued, “May his dreams live on, even though the tree’s branches have burned. May the animals mourn the loss of his shade. May the birds find a new tree to roost in, and the insects wither away with his roots.”
After he finished, he slipped from the room. Silence reigned over the dinner table as Tim Drake retook his seat.
“Errr, the bird symbology is throwing me,” Roy admitted. “Shouldn’t it be bats? Don’t they nest in caves, not trees?”
“I believe it may have something to do with Master Richard’s Romani background,” Alfred said quietly.
“Fuck!” Michael Wilson said. When everyone at the table looked at him in surprise—some more than others—his expression turned triumphant. “Fuck fuck fuck.”
“Oh dear,” Alfred muttered. “That came earlier than I’d hoped. ”
Kori leaned over to the young boy. “Michael,” she said gently. “Do you know what that word means?”
“Nope,” Michael informed her. “But Mista Jason says it lots. Unca Dick, too!”
Kori shook her head. “That’s the word we say when we don’t want dessert after dinner.”
Michael’s eyes opened comically wide. “Nooo! I want dessert!”
“Then you must tell Mr. Alfred that you are sorry, and that you won’t say it again.”
Michael twisted around to face Alfred. “I’m sorry Unca Afred,” he said, and his dark eyes seemed to glimmer with unshed tears. “Won’t do it again.”
“This is disgusting,” Damian muttered. “Can’t the child be the next victim?”
Tim glared at him. “What was that? You don’t want dessert either?”
Roy leaned in a pecked her on the cheek. “Babe, you’re a natural,” he said, smilingly. “You’re going to be a wonderful mother. Which is fortunate, because I hear that we’re having a baby.”
Alfred patted his lips with his napkin. “That’s right, you had your prenatal test today. I assume all went well?”
“As far as we can tell,” Kori admitted. Dr. Leslie hadn’t done too many prenatal exams on women with alien biology, but their bodies were similar enough that she could proceed with many of the tests. “I’m about 10 weeks along. My hormones aren’t exactly synced with a human female’s, but the infant looks to be developing along the lines of what she would expect. She also checked for the paternity of the child, to ensure it was half-human, and therefore that I was not an Ikon shapeshifter.”
She smiled at Roy. “Congratulations, my love. We have genetic evidence that you are, in fact, the father. Now everyone can stop teasing you about it.”
Roy grinned back at her before taking her hand and kissing it.
“How will this affect your role in the war against the Ikons?” Alfred asked her. “I know that you’ve taken yourself out of the more violent skirmishes, but you’re still patrolling Gotham?”
“Someone needs to,” she said. “Particularly as everyone else is tied up in the evacuation effort.”
“I still can’t believe they’ve managed to evacuate 80% of the city,” Roy said, shaking his head. “When do you think the weapon will go off?”
“They’re to pull out by 11 tonight,” Tim said. “In case the weapon goes off before midnight. We can’t risk much later than that.”
“What if the weapon doesn’t go off?” Alfred asked. “What if we’re wrong?”
“Then we look like fools at best, terrorists at worst,” Damian said darkly. “At this point, we need it to go off.”
Koriand’r closed her eyes. The urge to lash out at the petulant teenager was almost overwhelming. Jason had told her once that Damian was the Robin who most favored him. We’re both angry. We’re both dangerous. We both don’t give a shit about human life, deep down.
But that was wrong. Jason did care. So much that he went out every night into the deepest, most dangerous parts of Gotham in a quest to keep innocents safe. It was not lack of empathy, or even a removed respect for human life that drove him, but a deep-seated desire to protect it. It was, in his own twisted way, a form of Jason’s love, which he expressed by sacrificing his safety for the well-being for others’.
If Jason didn’t understand that much about himself, could he be wrong about Damian Wayne, as well?
“It’s still dangerous for you to fight, isn’t it?” Tim asked, with that earnestness that set him apart from the other Robins. “Knock on wood, but if you lose the baby, the magical pulse will kill you instantly. Isn’t there a way we can get you to the Watchtower?”
“No,” Kori said, and Roy’s hold on her hand tightened. He hadn’t liked the conversation they’d had about this, and she couldn’t be sure that he hadn’t enlisted Tim in the effort to change her mind. “My fate is tied to that of humanity’s. If the child miscarries—which is unheard of among my people—I will share its fate. I will not court death by throwing myself into the most dangerous situations I can find, but I will not run and hide when I could be helping save this world.”
“And the most badass person at this table award goes to the mother of my unborn child,” Roy said, with notable glumness.
“I beg to differ,” Damian sniffed.
June 27th, 20xx
Gotham, Wayne Manor rooftop, 11:18 PM
“Speedy’s pizza delivery, how can I help you?”
“Quit it, Kon. This is not the time.”
“I can’t help it, man! You and Oracle and Lantern are the only people I’ve talked to in a week. And I can’t even use their civilian names without feeling awkward. You’re all I’ve got, Timmy.”
“It’s not the time for jokes.”
“Isn’t it? Because it’s either that or weeping like a baby. Nobody wants that.”
“I know, I just—not tonight, Kon. Not with me. Please.”
“Aw, jeez. Sorry, dude. Lay it on me, I know you’re hurting.”
“I can’t do that. Not when you’re hurting more.”
“I didn’t just lose my pseudo father/mentor/boss/reason for living, Tim.”
“No, but you’re stuck in the Watchtower and relatively helpless, and I know how badly you need to help.”
“Well, you’ve got my number. So? Let me help you!”
“Aghhhhhhhhh. Kon, I can’t talk about Bruce. Not yet. I will someday, but not now.”
“Then what else is spinning around in the Tim-noggin?”
“Tim-noggin? Kon, have you been talking to Stephanie about me again?”
“Uh, not for the last week, no. But yeah, I may be going through Timmy gossip session withdrawals.”
“You are not funny, Kon.”
“No, but I make up for it with good looks and charm. Also, I can fly.”
“I’m not going to tell you anything if you’re being like that, Peter Pan.”
“Oh yeah? I can hear the smile in your voice from outer space. But seriously, you should tell me what’s wrong. It’ll give me something to think about while Chicago inexplicably doesn’t explode.”
“You don’t think it will?”
“I’ve got nothing so far. No atmospheric changes, not even the whiff of gunpowder in the air. All readings are way down because of the evacuation, but I’ve got no sign anything is about to happen. Tell the truth, I’ve got a bad feeling about this. We’re out on a mighty thin limb, here.”
“My worries are closer to home. Dick and Jay have been acting . . . oddly.”
“Like, how oddly? Iconoclast spy oddly?”
“No, I don’t think so, and both their DNA tests came back clean. I think they’re keeping something a secret from us. I just don’t know what it is.”
“Uh oh. I know how you are about knowing everybody’s secrets.”
“I know how you are about pirating video games.”
“Dude, you said you wouldn’t tell anyone!”
“And I haven’t. Yet.”
“Uh. Ok then, do you want me to watch them? See if I can figure out what they’re up to?”
“Only if you have any spare time. Don’t let it detract from whatever Oracle or Lantern assign you.”
“Got it. I’ll monitor them for any suspicious activity. Maybe they’ve made an ex-Robin secrets club.”
“Kon, you’re being ridiculous. And what they’re hiding could be unconnected, but I doubt it. They were down in the sparring ring for two hours after Jason made an attempt on Damian’s life during dinner—”
“Damn! Was he successful?”
“What? A guy can hope!”
“ . . . Damian is still alive and well. The attempt was half-hearted at best.”
“He should try harder next time.”
“What was that?”
“Uh . . . I said Alfred should stick him in the larder, next time.”
“You are the worst liar in the entire super community.”
“Um, not everyone needs to be good at everything, Timothy.”
“Oh what was that? Was that a laugh?”
“Ahem. I need to go patrol. Alert me if anything happens.”
“Sigh. Yes, dear.”
“I hate you.”
“No, you don’t.”
“I’m hanging up.”
“No, you’re no—”
Tim and Kon being superbros lifts my heart. I love them and their nebulous bromance. It’s the best, and one of the few happy parts of the fic, hooray!
Have I mentioned this is the darkest Arc? This is the darkest Arc. I’m sorry. It gets happier.
Chapter 7: Abduction
If you have so far ignored the times on all those POV changes, I’d pay attention to these ones. Especially the last three . . .
At the time of writing this chapter, I have not yet seen the Captain Underpants movie. I would totally like to, if just to be all nostalgic because those books were hysterical. So would Michael Wilson, but for entirely different reasons.
I never knew there was such controversy about Billy Batson’s birthday. I was just going to make one up, but apparently there are many to choose from, already. Went with April 1st because I found actual screenshots of the comics where Ancient Wizard Shazam wrote about teeny newborn Billy in his diary (which is not creepy at all).
Lastly, I’m taking cover.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Chapter 6: Abduction
June 28th, 20xx
Gotham, Wayne Manor, 7:14 AM
Roy was still blinking sleep out of his eyes when the next, inevitable League meeting was called. He was exhausted because he’d ended up patrolling with Tim Drake at 3 AM, when they’d been called in to upset some shady deals at the Gotham docks. It had been handled easily enough, thankfully, and Roy was still kind of impressed with what fighting with Tim was like. He wasn’t as reactionary as Jason, nor as fluid as Dick; he was more methodical, a thinking and planning kind of guy. Total tactician, which was something Roy could appreciate. Most importantly, he was also a good leader, level-headed and responsive.
It didn’t help his mood for the inevitable meeting, however. Well, he said inevitable—and had known it as early as 11:03 last night—because Chicago hadn’t exactly been destroyed. Or at all, really. And that was pretty much it for their credibility, Roy figured. Boy who cried wolf and all that. Between Shazam’s killing spree; the shapeshifting baddies managing to ascend to the highest position in the land, and now this, the public might even be convinced that the Icons had never been aliens at all—just moody superheroes who saw a chance to level the playing field when a few of the League’s hardest hitters stepped out for a mo’.
To quote the venerable game of chess, it was a check.
But not checkmate, Roy told himself. Not yet.
They were all hovering around the supercomputer down in the Batcave, again. Dick was sitting at the console, dressed as Batman. It had taken several days of mourning, three passive aggressive conversations with Alfred, and finally an actual argument with Tim, of all people, to get Dick into his old mentor’s costume, but he’d finally manned up enough to do it. Everyone else was in their respective uniforms as well. Even Kori, whose uniform consisted of a leotard.
Roy was definitely not complaining.
Oracle opened the meeting, looking as if she hadn’t slept or showered in days, and then a truck had come along and decided to run her over, just for yucks. “Good morning, everyone,” she began in a gravelly, sleep-deprived voice, “I assume you’ve all heard the news.”
“That Chicago is still there?” Ollie said listlessly. “Yes. Picked up on that.”
Green Lantern sidled up and put his hand on his shoulder. How Hal Jordan could be such a dick to everyone but the three or maybe four people he actually liked Roy didn’t know. All he knew was that Hal was not his favorite of his old man’s friends. Barry Allen was better, but he was never around much. Roy had the feeling they were only friends when the pressure was on or Hal was in the room, which was a little weird, but Roy wasn’t going to judge. The one he had liked without reservation was Dinah, and now she was gone. God rest her soul, and more importantly, God help them because what were they all going to do without her?
Barry was sharing the monitor with Hal and Ollie, and was the only one out of uniform. Oh, scratch that, on another monitor John Stewart was wearing a fancy new suit and tie, with a nifty pin of the US flag pinned to the breast pocket.
It was he who jumped on Ollie’s listlessness. “You don’t understand,” he said, and he sounded at once both impassioned and exhausted. It was not a pleasant mix. “If Chicago isn’t attacked by the end of the day, this is the end of our League. No one will believe us now. It will be all too easy for the government to turn against us. The only thing keeping Luthor from doing so already is the average citizen’s trust in us—if we lose it now . . . !”
“We may have to go underground,” Oracle admitted. “Cut contact. Instigate Protocol Greenland, for those of you who know what that is.”
Hal, Barry, and Ollie’s eyes widened at the same time, and Roy thought that was kind of impressive, as well as worrisome.
Dick swore. “Shit. Protocol Greenland? Babs, are you sure about that?”
Roy had no idea what Protocol Greenland was, but he was fairly sure he was about to find out. He was equally sure he didn’t want to know what it was.
“What about Koriand’r?” Barry asked, concerned. “And the baby?”
Oh, yeah. Definitely didn’t want to know what it was about.
“There is another problem,” John said, looking as if he couldn’t give a shit about Protocol Greenland, and was unsure why anyone else did. “Shayera missed our meeting, yesterday night. Bane discovered someone was tailing him, digging into his roots in Mexico. I fear that he’s found her. If so, I may only have a finite amount of time before she cracks and gives them my name. I cannot bank on her being as strong as Bruce and Dinah.”
“Are you sure?” Barry leaned forward, looking concerned. “Can’t she just be lying low?”
“Bane’s focus is incredible,” Tim murmured. “He won’t stop until he’s broken her.”
“He’s not actually Bane,” Roy pointed out. “Shapeshifters, remember?”
“We need to get you out,” Dick said, ignoring them both. “John, you gotta break cover.”
John shook his head. “I cannot extricate myself now. Not before I know for certain, nor if there is a chance for me to save her. If she manages to hold out and not name me, we will lose the only chance we have of taking them down from within.”
“But it’s too late for that, isn’t it?” Dick argued. “They had their spies! They have to know you’re one of us!”
“No, Richard,” Oracle said. “John knows what he has to do.”
“You don’t understand!” John admitted brokenly. “I love her. I will not leave her to them. If I can find her by staying in position, I will.” His breath hitched, and his tone turned dire. “And if she is dead, all I have left is to bring them down. I don’t care if I go down with them.”
“Suicidal resolve isn’t what the rest of us needs, John,” Hal said. “I need you to be honest with us. Can you continue on in your position? Or are you emotionally compromised?”
John lifted his chin. “At this point, I have more credibility than all of you combined. If I can find evidence linking them to the Ikons, I can make it public, and give us a foothold back into our old positions of power. I will not give up, and neither should any of you.”
“Should we even be talking about this?” Damian Wayne piped up, unimpressed. “There are spies among us.”
“Not today,” Ollie said darkly. “‘Booster’ and ‘Beetle’ must have caught a freaking clue. They’re not here.”
That was damning and true. Booster and Beetle were noticeably absent. They were not the only ones, however, and Oracle shook her head. “Booster Gold and Blue Beetle are not Ikons. They underwent their DNA testing yesterday, and came back clean. I don’t know where they are now, but they are not shapeshifting spies.”
“Then they’re the non-shapeshifting ones,” Roy said. “What else could they be?”
“Captured,” Tim Drake offered up.
“Dead,” Jason muttered a moment later. “Seems to be the trend.”
And that was how you earn Oliver Queen’s undying enmity, Roy thought as his foster father glared down Jason through their monitors. Roy was now 2 for 2 on people he loved the most but his foster father wanted to interrogate, hurt and/or kill with arrows. Counting himself, he may just be 3 for 3.
“They’re not the only ones missing,” Hal said, in a tight voice. “Where the hell is Carol? I haven’t been able to get ahold of her. I thought she was just busy, but she wouldn’t miss a meeting.”
“Here it comes,” Dick muttered, too low to be picked up by the speakers.
Roy shot him a look. That tone of voice was not reassuring, and so although there were thousands of miles between them and Green Lantern, he stepped closer to Kori.
She’d protect him, right?
Barbara grit her teeth before looking directly at Hal and admitting, “We know exactly where she is, Lantern. We just don’t know if she’s human.”
“What?” He hissed, rising up in the air. He began glowing with a sharp, green light.
Barry grabbed his ankle as Barbara explained, “She didn’t show up for her DNA test. At about 1PM yesterday she was en route to D.C. instead.”
“That doesn’t mean anything!” Hal shouted. “She could have been kidnapped!”
Barbara nodded tightly. “You’re right. We don’t know if it was voluntary or not, and I made the choice not to act on the information until Chicago was evacuated. We do know that—”
“Goddamnit, Barbara!” Hal raged, and bright green constructs formed around him, a baseball bat, a jet, a turbine, flickering in and out of creation. “You hid this from me while you ran me ragged all day yesterday? What the hell were you thinking? This wasn’t a decision for you to make! This is Carol’s life!”
“Who needs to be calm now?” John Stewart answered for her. “Hal, center yourself. You’re losing control of your ring.”
Hal took several quick, ragged breaths. “This is Carol,” he ground out.
“And I may have lost Shayera. I can assure you I love her no less than you do Carol,” John said pointedly.
Hal stared down at the floor, clenching his teeth together. Slowly, he floated down to the ground. He took a few steps away from both Barry and Ollie, purposefully distancing himself from both.
“What were you saying earlier, O? About what you do know?” Dick prompted. It was a little weird hearing his warm, expressive voice coming from behind Batman’s austere cowl.
Had she been a lesser being, Oracle may have smiled gratefully at Dick. As it was, her voice thawed a little as she said, “We do know that she was in Wonder Woman’s apartment for about 10 minutes. Since then, she’s been in the Pentagon.”
“Awwww shit,” Roy swore, before he could activate his brain to mouth filter. “So either she’s in with them, or they’re in so deep in the government that they can keep their prisoners in the goddamned Pentagon.”
“How do you know this?” Barry asked, keeping one eye on Hal, and the other on Ollie.
“Tracking device,” Oracle answered. “She volunteered for one during the first few days of the Ikon takeover. We just don’t know if she’s a true hostage or if this is a trap.”
“It’s always a trap,” the little Demon Wayne said. “It all boils down to how artfully you spring it.”
“And that’s what we have to discuss now,” Dick said. “How we spring it, if we spring it at all.”
“We are going after her,” Hal said. “She’s not an Ikon. I talked to her on the phone the other day. It has to be her. It’s Carol.”
John held up his hands. “Please remember she’s being held in Washington D.C., and in two hours a bill is going to undoubtedly pass that will bar any super-powered beings, metas, aliens, or those allied with them from so much as passing through. If caught, any of you will detained or even killed. I can’t protect any of you. All I can do is warn you.”
“Oh, that’s way helpful,” Roy muttered to himself.
“Roy,” Kori muttered back, censoriously.
He threw her a wink before remembering that this was a super important mission, and that not everyone responded to his flippancy as well as Kori and Jason did.
“Can you at least try and find out if Carol’s on their payroll?” Dick asked, partially to cover Roy’s immaturity, and partially because he liked to hear himself talk. (Roy knew this to be true. They’d been besties as teens, and had gotten drunk with each other so many times. Dick had admitted it, there was no denying it at this point.)
“That, I can attempt,” John promised.
“Thank you, John,” Barbara said. “I’d like to put this to a vote. For the time being, it boils down to attempt to save her, or leave her for now. Hal?”
“We go get her,” he said, glaring at them all as if that alone could influence their decision. “She was captured, she’s not a spy.”
“I also say we save her,” Kori voted.
Roy sighed. She was leaving it up to him to protect both her and the child, was she? “I’m sorry, Lantern, but I say we leave her,” he said. “It’s a trap no matter how you look at it.”
“Agreed,” Damian said.
“We just don’t have enough information,” Tim said, diplomatically. “When we find a way past their magic, we should attempt a rescue mission.”
“Two for save, three for leave,” Barbara noted.
“To hell with this,” John said, his expression torn. “We have to at least try. I say save her. I’ll do whatever I can to run interference. Maybe a stealth mission could be successful.”
“I say save,” Hood said, startling the hell out of Roy, and at least half those listening. “We don’t leave her to die.”
Dick sighed deeply. “Goddamn it, Jay,” he murmured, so quietly that only Roy, and perhaps Damian on his other side could hear. “Don’t make me do this.” He picked his head back up and it was with his approximation of Bruce’s voice said, “I vote leave. We can’t risk it.”
“Screw that,” Ollie said. “I vote save her. No one else dies. Not if we can help it.”
Just like that, it was down to Barry. He had his head in his hands. Both the people in the room with him had voted to go after Carol. Hal might never forgive him if he voted against it.
Yet that was exactly what he did.
“We can’t,” he said, shaking his head. He turned to Hal. “I am so sorry, Hal, but we can’t risk it. Deep down, you know that.”
“Fuck you, Barry,” Hal spat. “Don’t you dare.”
Barry’s face grew resolute. He turned back to the monitor. “I vote leave. For now. If we can go after her in the future, we do.”
Hal would have rounded off and slugged him right then and there if Barry didn’t speed step so close that Hal couldn’t swing. He murmured something in his ear. Whatever he said to Hal managed to keep him from fighting outright, although neither of them looked very happy when Barry pulled back.
“Hung vote,” Tim observed.
Oracle closed her eyes. “Hal, I’m sorry,” she said. “I cannot do it. I would be sending in people to die. I have to do what’s best for all of us.”
“Fuck you,” Hal said quietly. And then, more loudly, “Fuck you all. Call yourself heroes? You’re all a bunch of cowards!”
“Hal—” Dick tried.
“No, shut up, Richard. You voted to let her die, so don’t even—”
“Hey, what was that about being emotionally compromised?” Jason cut in, shifting forward like he’d find a way to drill the Lantern full of holes through the monitor. Roy knew Jason and his insane luck better than to entirely discount that possibility.
“Don’t get me started, you fucking assassin—”
“Lantern, calm down, please,” Oracle cut in. “We need to keep our heads, otherwise there’s no hope of—”
“Jesus Christ will you just shut up?” Hal raged. “You’re the worst of all of them! Sitting there all pretty, manipulating us like a spider, and—”
“And that’s enough,” Barry said, grabbing Hal by the forearm. “Oracle, we’ll be in touch.”
Hal was cut off by Barry bodily dragging him off screen. There was a blur of red and green, and then Ollie was the only person left in the room.
“Well, it’s not like you can blame him,” Ollie said, with a listless attempt at humor. “With a mouth like that, who but Carol will ever love him?”
“Putting Hal aside for a moment, Project Greenland?” Dick asked, tersely. “You can’t be serious. You know what that would mean.”
Oracle bit her lip. “John, we need more information. See if you can find any word or even openings on Shayera and Carol. As soon as you get back to me, I’ll let you know the final decision.”
“Done. I’m being hailed, so let me cut off here. Stay safe, everyone.”
John Stewart’s monitor flickered off. A moment later, an alarm window popped up from the side of the Batcomputer’s screen.
Warning—explosives set off at the docks. Calibrating exact location and blast zone. GCPD eta 16 minutes.
“Shit,” Jason muttered. “Roy, let’s go check that out.”
Thank Christ. Something to do that wasn’t sitting around a dark cave talking. “Lead the way, Fearless.”
“If villains are moving in we need to be more present. Time to patrol,” Dick decided. “Damian, come with me. Tim, stay here and help Oracle. O? You know how to reach us if anything changes.”
“Will do. Stay safe, everybody.”
“I’ll head up to my own computer,” Tim said. “Be back in a minute.”
“All right, team,” Roy said as Dick closed the communication window. “Break.”
June 28th, 20xx
Central City, 8:02 AM
As soon as everyone began turning off their monitors, Ollie saw his chance.
“Hey, Oracle. Stay on the line a minute?”
She eyed him cautiously. “What is it, Arrow?”
“Not to parrot the New-Bat, but are you serious about Project Greenland? Because we’re all being awfully blasé about implementing a plan that would have us all drop off the face of the earth.”
Project Greenland was one of the last ditch plans the League had set up, years ago when they were first forming. Each member had a different set of directions, and would, after faking their deaths in a variety of ways, end up in different countries to lay low until it was deemed safe to re-emerge. Ollie was supposed to end up in Mexico, after fighting Bruce to the ‘death’ over some slight to Dinah’s honor, or something like that. Ollie’s death, that was. No one had actually expected him to kill Batman, even in this hypothetical scenario.
He hadn’t been told the specifics of Dinah’s Project Greenland, but he knew that she had been assigned to a country in Latin America, seeing as how they’d made a private contingency plan to meet up in Buenos Aires six months after the start of the project. He wasn’t sure what his Project Greenland would be, now. Not just because Bruce was dead, but also because Dinah was dead, and what point was there in living now when his death could be honestly come by?
Oracle hesitated. Narrowed her eyes as if gauging his worth, credibility, or trustworthiness. Don’t even bother, he wanted to tell her. I’m nothing now that Dinah is gone.
She must not have agreed with him. “No,” she admitted. “There will likely be drastic measures taken very soon, but they will not be our old plans. I have no idea how deep the spies have gotten, and can only assume they know our Greenland plans. Keep that to yourself, Arrow. I want certain people to believe that the situation is more dire than it is.”
“Wow, Hal was kinda spot on about you, wasn’t he?” Ollie noted. “I mean, he was being a dick, but manipulation much?”
She gave him the severe schoolmarm look that he’d always been a little turned on by, especially during his teenage years. Now he was a dried out husk of a man and the utter lack of interest made it clear to him how deadened he was emotionally.
“I don’t believe we’re completely rooted out the spies,” she admitted. “I’m doing everything I can to keep the rest of us safe.”
And that segued nicely into what he actually wanted to talk to her about.
“Is there anything I can do with that?” He asked, trying to keep his voice light. From the look on her face, he had not been successful.
“For the time being, it might be best if you could stick with Lantern or Flash,” she said cautiously. “Particularly now that Carol has been taken.”
“Oh, so you should stick the two guys with suicidal resolves together? Yeah, not thinking that’s a good idea. Leave Hal to Barry. He’ll keep him grounded. I’m only gonna bring him down.”
“Suicidal resolves?” She repeated, slowly. “Is there something you want to tell me, Arrow?”
He laughed bitterly. “That I wanna die? That’s no surprise. It’s why I’m here, Oracle. Now that the Chicago evac is worthless, I need something to keep me going. Give me something to do. Something important, because I’m gonna throw myself at the Ikons if I have to sit here, waiting.”
“Arrow . . .” she said hesitantly.
“I had an idea, although I doubt it would work,” he told her, as conversationally as he could when his throat was closing up and his eyes were burning. Shit, what was your life when you started tearing up right in front of Oracle? Not good, that was for goddamned certain. “If I could guarantee I’d get her out, I’d do a suicide run for Carol. That would fix Hal, you know? And then I’d be with her. But—”
“That would not fix Hal and you know it,” Oracle cut in. “He needs you, Ollie. And Dinah didn’t want you to die. You’d be going against everything she wanted for you. For all of us. For the League.”
Oh, shit. Now Oracle was crying. It was just a little tear, gathering at the corner of her eye before it trailed down her cheek. He had forgotten she and Dinah had been close. Had been friends. That Dinah’s loss was hitting her hard, too. In making this all about his own pain, Ollie was aware that he was acting like a petulant teenager, but he could not stop.
He could remain silent, however. He could at least not make the situation any worse.
“I have something you can do,” she finally said, after she had taken a few deep breaths and mastered herself. “Tim finally managed to find him, earlier this morning. He’s still moving, so he’s still alive.”
It took Ollie a moment. “Shazam?”
Oracle nodded. “Billy Batson is in the desert of Khandaq. I’ll update you on the coordinates when you get close. Bring him home alive and in full control of his magic . . . and then we can talk about giving up.”
June 28th, 20xx
Coast City, 8:16 AM
Hal fought like a wild thing, and by the time Barry let go of him, he knew he’d be feeling it the next day. It didn’t help that he couldn’t fight Hal back. Between making sure he had a good grip on his friend and moving as quickly as was safe for Hal across the continental U.S., he’d had his hands full. Hal cursed his ears off the entire time, between punching, kicking, and writhing as effectually as he could. Had Barry not understood, deeply and intimately, what it was like to lose the love of one’s life, he would have dropped his ass somewhere in the cornfields of Iowa.
As it was, he had a slightly different plan.
He began,“Ok, so whenever you’re done yelling at me, we have to—”
“No, don’t give me that shit, Barry!” Hal yelled. His face was mottled red, and he was completely losing his cool. Exhaustion, desperation, and personal loss hung heavily on all of them, but for Hal, who didn’t have the buildup everyone else had, it was particularly jarring. He had only just returned home, and within 24 hours had lost two of the people he loved the most.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” Lantern continued to rant. “Now it will take me hours to reach D.C.!”
And of course the first thing Hal would think of doing was to go against orders to save Carol, Barry thought bitterly. He won’t even listen to me, first.
Good thing Barry was prepared to make him. “Hal, you’re not going to D.C. We have to check—”
Hal’s voice dropped, worryingly calm and quiet. “Oh, I think I am. Unless you think you’re gonna stop me?”
Oh Lord love this man. “I don’t want to fight you, Hal. If you’d just listen to me for one minute, you’d know that.”
Hal threw his arms wide. “Then why did you stop me, back there? Why did you keep me from going after Carol?”
Jesus, hadn’t his murmured advice penetrated? “I told you! I promised you I’d keep Ollie safe, you moron!” Barry yelled back. “Remember him? Have you looked at him since Dinah died? He’d go with you in a heartbeat, and he’d do it to die!”
Hal shook his head, but he looked vaguely troubled. “No, he wouldn’t. He’s not that weak.”
Barry knew better. After Iris had died, he’d once thought about following her. Only his duty kept him from that dark moment. His duty and Hal, who let Barry pummel the shit out of him in a hayfield in Missouri.
The memory of it sparked, fleeting and powerful: A week after he’d lost Iris, Barry had lost himself. He’d suited up and then sat on his couch, ignoring the scheduled League meeting, powerless against the force of his grief until Hal came, opening his apartment door with a spare key and dragging him out of doors. The night had been warm and beautiful, with thousands of stars spilled across the night sky, and Barry was so far removed from everything that he could not care. Hal brought him out to the field and yelled at him for what seemed like hours, before something finally penetrated and Barry snapped.
They beat the everloving shit out of each other, but the only moment that stood alone, crystal clear in its clarity, was when Hal stopped fighting, spread his arms wide, and said, ‘Come at me, Bar. Do what you’re gonna do. I’ll let you do anything, because I can’t live without you, man.’
Something inside of Barry fractured, and all the pain and grief he’d bottled up came pouring out of him. He wept on his knees until the sun came up, and Hal was with him every minute, his arm warm and heavy around his shoulders. Barry had not let him move away, the one time he’d eventually tried. That was the one night he’d allowed himself to be set adrift in the ocean of his grief, and Hal was the only thing that kept him from drowning in the depths.
That had been the most personally painful night of his life, and one that he never wanted to relive again. Yet it was how he could empathize with Ollie, and why he’d stood by him when his grief had turned made him cruel, thoughtless, and desperate. He’d learned from Hal’s example what to do in this most painful of times.
If that was what Hal needed him to do now, he’d do it.
“No,” Barry said quietly, back in the present day. “You know better than that. It doesn’t matter how strong you are. Love is love, and it messes all of us up.”
Hal exhaled quickly. “I don’t have time for this. I’m getting her back.”
Hal’s expression was set, and Barry guessed this was the part of the evening where they threw down. He took a deep breath. “Then you’ll have to go through me,” he said, before he shot forward and punched Hal in the gut. This was the riskiest part of the plan. If Hal remembered he could fly and Barry could not—something he tended to forget when they were sparring—this could be over quick.
Thankfully, Hal wasn’t thinking straight. He went right for Barry, his hands encapsulated with glowing brass knuckles. His weapon set the tone, and Barry began dodging accordingly. Hal needed a close-range, highly physical fight, otherwise he’d have just slammed Barry with a turbine, or some other ranged construct. Barry jabbed and kicked at Hal, all half-heartedly, as he continued dancing just out of range. Hal continued swinging away, getting closer to Barry than he’d like.
The green glow of his power was far, far brighter than normal. Barry had forgotten about the souped up ring he was borrowing. Maybe this wasn’t a good idea, Barry realized. One hit’s gonna break my ribs.
“Quit dodging!” Hal yelled. “You started this, so fight me already!”
“You’re a little more powerful than I realized,” Barry admitted, no longer hitting Hal, but blurring around him. “You sure you can control that new ring?”
“Don’t be a pussy,” Hal snarled, and grazed Barry’s jaw. Blood spurted out in a small arc, but he’d missed the bone. “Or can’t you take it?”
Of all the days to not wear my costume, Barry winced as blood dripped down onto his shirt. Not that it offered too much protection. If Hal got a hold of him, he’d destroy him. But maybe that’s what Hal needed most? And if Hal broke his ribs, he wouldn’t leave Barry lying there, surely. He’d have to get him to someone who could help. Right?
What was he saying. Hal was a bag of dicks at the best of times. With his heart in tatters and Carol’s life at stake, there was absolutely no guarantee he’d help him. But that wasn’t what mattered. This wasn’t for Barry’s sake. It was for Hal’s.
“God damnit!” Barry yelled out loud, and planted himself about five feet in front of his friend “Fine. Come at me. Hurt me, Hal.”
Hal rushed him, but stopped at the last moment. His arm was pulled back, ready for a crippling blow when an odd look passed over his face. “Hurt me? What the hell?”
Barry winced. “It sounded better in my head.”
“This isn’t S&M, you moron!”
“Not without a safe word,” Barry agreed, before he lunged forward and wrapped Hal in a hug; one that trapped his arms down by his sides. It was both comforting and practical, or so Barry hoped. He looked up the scant inches that separated them in height, ready to tell Hal his plan . . . and the next part of his speech withered up and died.
The look in Hal’s eyes . . . Barry didn’t know how to describe it. The effect it had on him was slightly easier. He’d been attracted to people when fighting them before. Hell, they all had. The adrenaline was flowing, and the super community was jam-packed with attractive men and women. But it had never been like this before—a punch in the gut that left him breathless. It had never been from meeting someone’s eyes.
It had never been from a man, before.
Never from Hal.
Hal struggled and Barry clamped on, regaining his purpose. “Hal, will you listen for two freaking seconds? I brought you here for a reason. Look around. Where are we?”
Hal gritted out, “Coast City. What does that have to do with anything?”
“Two words: Ferris Aircraft.”
Hal tried to wrest himself free. “I can fly. We don’t need a plane.”
Lord love him, Hal was kind of a dumbass sometimes, wasn’t he? “Look, you’re an idiot, but you’re my idiot, and I don’t want you dead. I brought you here to determine whether or not Carol’s a goddamned Ikon. If she’s not, I’ll change my vote and go with you. If she is . . . I’m not letting you waltz into a trap any more than I’m going to let Ollie commit suicide.”
“She’s not an Ikon!”
“Are you sure? She’s done nothing to make you question her identity in the last couple of weeks?”
Hal hesitated and his eyes tracked to the right. He was clearly remembering something. But then, “No. I mean we’re all acting a little off, but nothing too out of the ordinary.”
“Then prove it to me!” Barry argued. “Because the last conversation I had with her was that she hated me because you wouldn’t marry her. This, after a solid January of Netflix binging with her! I thought it was weird at the time, and now, knowing they’re shapeshifters . . . What am I supposed to think?”
Hal closed his eyes and exhaled, and all the fight leached out of him. “Shit. I know. She told me. That’s Carol,” he said, his voice ragged. “Please don’t ask me for specifics, but that’s . . . goddamn. I’m hoping that’s something that a shapeshifter wouldn’t have cause to know.”
Oh god, that made sense to him? Hal really had turned down marriage because of him? Stunned, Barry let go of him slowly. He’d unpack that revelation later, when their lives weren’t at risk from alien superbeings.
“Let’s make sure,” he coaxed. “We’ll talk to her colleagues at Ferris, particularly those who were helping out with Chicago. They’ll know if she was acting oddly, or making poor decisions.” He winced. “As long as they haven’t been lynched, that is. I’m sure the Chicagoans are getting pretty pissed they evacuated for nothing.”
Hal’s mouth tightened, but he wasn’t wearing that maddened look any longer. “Goddamnit. Goddamnit, Barry. If they have Carol . . . Fuck. Fine, but we need to be fast.”
Barry grinned weakly at him. “Who do you think you’re talking to?”
June 28th, 20xx
Gotham, Wayne Manor 10:20 AM
Koriand’r looked down at the tiny human child in front of her and wondered what, exactly, he was doing. He stood at the foot of the manor’s grand staircase, wearing nothing but a white pair of underclothes, and a bright red afghan tied around his neck.
“Stan’ down, evah doer! ‘N back away from dat toilet!” He proclaimed proudly, hands on hips.
Kori raised an eyebrow.
Michael Wilson continued on, undaunted. “For I . . . am Captain Undapants!”
This one was a new one to her. Of all the heroes in this world he chose one that venerated underclothing?
She bent down to look the newly instated Captain Underpants in the eye. “I see,” she said. “And what is it that you fight?”
This seemed to throw the young hero. “Poopy diapers?” He ventured up after a moment of thought. “Nighttime pee-pee?”
Kori bit down a smile. It felt inappropriate to do so when so much was at risk, but this strange child was enchanting. “May I assist Captain Underpants? Does he have a sidekick?”
The boy was perplexed. “Sidekick? No, I kick right in the front! Wanna see? Ka-pow!” He kicked out, and she stepped back.
He grinned. “Did I scare you? I kick real hard!”
Kori smiled down at him openly, now. “The baby was frightened,” she said, pointing to her tummy. It had not begun to round out yet; her torso was long even by human standards, and Dr. Leslie thought she would not begin to show until well into what the humans dubbed the ‘second trimester.’
Michael’s eyes blew wide. “You have baby in there?”
“That’s where we tend to keep it, yes,” she answered with a ghost of Roy’s humor. “Would you like to say hello? You have to be very gentle.”
Michael crowded close. Tentatively he reached out and touched her stomach. “Hello, Baby,” he said solemnly, before looking up and asking, “How’s it fit?”
“It’s very tiny right now. It’s growing inside of me.”
The look on his face as he processed that was priceless. Kori had to bite down on her molars to keep from giggling.
“When will Baby come out?”
“It will come out in about 6 or 7 months. Then you can meet it properly. Maybe you’ll be its first friend.”
He cocked his head to the side. “Are babies funna play with?”
“People tend to think so, yes,” she said. She was definitely channeling Roy, today. It was probably not such a bad thing. “If you’re gentle with them.”
The tot nodded firmly. “Ok then. I am Baby’s friend.” He pronounced carefully. “I show it alla my hiding spots. And take ‘m to meet Unca Afred and Unca Dick and Unca Tim. Then we can have cookies. It’s lotta fun!”
Alfred Pennyworth sailed in from stage left, just when Kori couldn’t be more charmed. “There you are, Master Michael. It’s time for your bath.”
The boy let out a wail. “Noooooo! I’m Captain Undapants, and he don’t take no baffs.”
“Doesn’t take any baths,” Alfred corrected him mildly. “And he most certainly does. Else how can he fight crime?”
Michael pouted. “I’mma make you wet, Unca Afred,” he muttered mutinously.
“With your power, I don’t doubt it. It is a possibility I am prepared to face.”
Michael turned back to Koriand’r, clearly hoping she might save him from the dreaded bath time. “This mah Unca Afred,” he told her. “He likes baffs. He makes me take ‘em every day.”
“If Uncle Alfred told me to take a bath I would do it,” she told him seriously. “Besides, if you do as he says, maybe he will be your sidekick.”
Michael looked up at Alfred. He appeared to be considering it, even though he was still unsure about what a sidekick actually was. “Sidekicks make cookies?” He asked, clarifying an important criteria for sidekick-dom right before Alfred picked him up.
“Excuse us, please,” Alfred said politely. “We have a date with our bathtub.”
“I know those!” Michael called out, delighted. “Those’re yummy!”
Now Kori smiled outright. If the child she carried inside of her was that odd and adorable, she would have no qualms about rearing it. Fear set in quickly. But what if it wasn’t? She barely knew what it was to be a good sister and daughter, let alone mother. And while she could not regret many of the decisions she had made in overcoming her past, what if the strain of madness that had overtaken her sister infected her child?
Or Roy’s addiction? He knew—as did they all—that such things were genetic. They would have to watch their child carefully to keep him or her from falling to the same impulses that had nearly destroyed Roy’s life. He worried about this, but she reminded him of the incredible work he had done in denying himself the drugs he craved. Were their child to fall prey to such an affliction, they at least knew what to do to combat it.
That would not necessarily be the case for whatever had caused her sister to sell out their homeland, her kingdom, and then her.
Kori shook her head. These worries were not things she could address, not until the child was grown. There were other more immediate concerns, many of which centered around the child’s viability. As far as she knew, she and Roy were the first human and Tamaranean to produce a child together. She wondered constantly what their child would be like. Who would it favor, in looks, attributes, or abilities? What color would its skin be? Would its eyes have pupils? It was human enough to protect itself and her from the Ikonian pulse, but whose biology would it be closer to—hers, or Roy’s?
Would it have any serious health problems from the joining of their species? She was not so sanguine as to believe the child would only be enhanced from the genetic mixture. Even were it to grow healthily, would it be viable with either of their species? Or would this child be the end of its line, unable to have children of its own?
At least it would not be alone, she thought as ‘Captain Underpant’s’ wail carried down the stairs. Even if it was unlike anything she’d seen before, her child had two parents that loved it, and a little human boy who had promised to be its friend.
June 28th, 20xx
Khandaq, 1:47 PM
Billy had walked for a long, long time through the arid desert; over towering dunes and scorching sand. He had walked through the night, when the desert came alive with the movement of snakes and hardy desert insects, and the air around him grew startlingly cool. And then through all through this morning, when he thought that with every other step he must drop . . . but then he would not, and so he kept going.
The wind howled around him, and it sounded like voices. The voices of all those you’ve killed, he told himself. A morbid conviction, but one he couldn’t quite shake. Not when he was dizzy with thirst, wracked with hunger, and suffered far worse from guilt.
He’d thought the change back to Billy would kill him instantly, but his natural body was made of tougher material than he’d expected. He’d stood in the desert as a skinny, shaking teenager, but he felt nowhere near death—and he’d come close enough to know—so he traveled the desert as Shazam.
He’d changed back once more when he’d teetered on the precipice of an enormous sand dune. All I have to do is fall, he’d thought, and let his body sway forward. For several breathless moments, he thought it would all be over. But before he fell halfway down the dune, he called the living lightning down.
He couldn’t do it. Not that easily. Killing himself would take effort and precision, and no small amount of willpower. It was with that in mind that he took to the air and flew across the desert, back to Khandaq.
If he was to die, it would be in the shadow of the home of his old nemesis, Black Adam. Here Adam had sacrificed everything after experiencing his greatest happiness and most crushing defeats. His time in the desert had made Billy feel closer to his nemesis, even more so than when he had stood at Adam’s side during his wedding, as his best man. Those had been the fleeting good days, before Adam’s had lost his second wife, and his tenuous hold on being good for goodness’ sake. This was before Billy had been forced to kill Adam, once again.
And now I’m the one with the blood of countless innocents on my hands, Billy inwardly raged as Khandaq grew large beneath him. I can’t deal with this. I can’t become this. I can’t do it anymore!
He sank down to the outer walls, curling himself against a shadowed corner. Would that the world could pass him by, just like this. What if he just stayed here? Wasting away with every day he did not eat? If he lasted long enough, he could simply turn back to Billy and then die instantly, like Black Adam had done.
I want that, he thought, and it was with a vague feeling of surprise. I want to die. It was hard enough to string coherent thoughts together, and the realization brought a muted relief. It was the first time he had put words to this nebulous feeling, rather than fantasizing about the ways in which he could do it.
Then do so, a familiar voice said. Deep and accented, the sound of it brought Billy’s head snapping up.
“Adam?” He called out.
If you long to die, then do so, and rid the world of your presence! Adam continued. He sounded disappointed. I hadn’t thought you so weak, but apparently I was wrong.
“It’s not about strength,” Billy argued. He had a flare of energy as he continued, “I just—all those people, Adam. I know what I did. I killed them! I destroyed their towns, set the farmlands on fire with my lightning . . . I tore through schools, and hospitals, and apartment complexes for Christ’s sake! You don’t come back from that!”
I have done far worse in my reign, Adam said, dismissively. And suffered more, too. Two wives I have buried, and my people have been destroyed, time and time again. Yet I did not mewl like a pathetic weakling. I vowed revenge; to slaughter and subjugate my enemies until they and their kingdoms were mere stains upon the Earth.
“Yeah, well, you’re kinda evil,” Billy said miserably. “I’m not. I can’t be. I won’t let myself fall. I need to . . .”
Need to what? Grovel for forgiveness? There is none. You have the powers of the gods at your command—you know better than anyone there is no forgiveness from them. But there is no need to ask for it. Even the wizard Shazam does not blame you.
“What are you talking about? Of course he does! Everyone does!”
Did he take his powers back from you?
Billy hesitated. “No . . . but he needed me to free us from the Ikon’s control.”
Sand swirled up, eddying around them. Billy had to close his eyes against it. It helped him think. The wizard had not taken his powers back. What did that mean? Was he not evil now, even with all he had been forced to do? Or did the wizard simply not care which side of the struggle those he blessed with his power were on?
It was almost enough to make a difference, but his mind was made up. “If the wizard is not prepared to help me, I’m going to have to do it myself,” he decided, and when he looked up, he could almost see Black Adam, hovering in front of him with his arms crossed, his usual scowl in place.
That shock of that, as well as his deteriorating mental state, kept him from noticing the robed shape that steadily made its way over to him, only a few sand dunes away.
Fine, Black Adam decided. If you are so determined to die, I can do this much for you. He reached down into the sand at his feet, digging in a way most incongruous for a ghost, and pulled out a dagger. He tossed it in front of Billy.
Billy reached down for it, running his fingertips over the hilt before he picked it up.
Or will you disappoint me in this, as well? Black Adam murmured. Again and again you defeated me in life. Perhaps I shall finally have my victory in death.
“What?” Billy asked. He picked his head back up to see Adam was gone. Before him was a vast expanse of desert, with shimmering heat mirages off in the distance. “Adam?” He called out.
There was no response. Adam was gone. Billy was alone in the desert, with only this dagger for company. He chuckled drily, and it sounded more like a sob.
“So I guess I gotta do this, then,” he said to himself.
“Or we could talk this over,” a familiar voice said.
Billy’s head shot to the left to see a robed figure walking up to him. Irrationally afraid that the man had come to steal his dagger, Billy clutched it tightly to his chest.
“Billy, put the crusty-looking ancient ceremonial dagger down,” the robed man said cautiously. “You’re gonna get tetanus from that thing.”
Wait a minute. He knew that voice. “Green Arrow? Is that you?”
Oliver Queen pushed back his hood. “In the flesh. Speaking of, do you know how hot it is out here? You’re gonna be a lobster come the morning. Actually, I’m not sure how you’re not one already, seeing as you’ve been out in the desert for days. Red Robin had a hell of a time finding you. Maybe it’s because the desert is awful, and therefore we should leave immediately. ”
Billy blinked. None of this was making sense. Arrow was here, making polite, if kind of random conversation when he should be throwing down. Billy wouldn’t stop him. Hell, he’d go back to being Billy just to make it all the easier.
Oliver looked really upset, though. His face was a mask of pain, and Billy figured he felt bad for what he’d come to do. “Have you come to kill me?” He asked, and there was a thread of hopefulness in his voice. If he didn’t use the dagger, it was less like Adam won.
“Not you,” Oliver muttered under his breath. “What is it with you and death, huh? Jesus. Boy scouts like you don’t know how to handle shades of grey. Yes, you killed a bunch of people. If John Constantine is to be believed, it wasn’t actually you doing it, though. So buck up, buttercup. We’ve got a world to save.”
Billy was utterly boggled. Green Arrow wasn’t here to kill him? He was here to bring him back? No, it couldn’t be—this had to be a trick. It took him several tries to speak. “Arrow, don’t do this to me. I have to atone. Don’t bring me back for some bullshit trial. Let me die here. It’ll be better this way.”
“Better for who?” Ollie asked. “‘Cuz what it looks like to me is that you’re trying to shirk punishment.”
“No! I’m punishing myself! The ultimate punishment!”
“Why, so you’ll feel a little less guilty?”
Shazam frowned. “No, so the world be safe.”
“Oh, no you don’t,” Ollie argued. “We already know you’re free of their control. More importantly, if I don’t get to die, you don’t either. Not until the Ikons are defeated. We need you, Shazam. We don’t have any bruisers left.”
“What good am I?” Billy cried out. “How can I help you when I killed all those people?”
Ollie pursed his lips. His weight shifted to the side and now Billy could make out the bulk of his bow underneath his robes. “It won’t happen again,” he assured Billy. “You’ve broken their hold over you. You’re free.”
“Free and a murderer,” Billy muttered darkly. The hand that held the dagger rose, until the business end of the blade rested gently against his throat. “I can’t do it, Arrow. I’m sorry.”’
June 28th, 20xx
Khandaq, 2:18 PM
Well, shit on a brick and use it for building, Ollie thought as Shazam brought the blade to his throat. This isn’t going well. He cursed the robes that shielded him from the desert heat. There wasn’t enough time to draw his bow, nock it, and shoot the knife from Billy’s hand. Not with Shazam’s speed.
Would the cut be enough to kill him? Was the knife itself special? Ollie had seen Shazam recover from incredible wounds, enough to kill a normal man 100 times over. But Shazam was taking this so seriously . . . he must think it had a chance of working.
How else could he stop him? His only weapon was his bow, and—oh. Oh yeah. His big, fat mouth.
“Remember what you said to Bruce, back at the beginning of this? When he was beating himself up for not saving everyone?” Ollie said, as offhandedly as he could. Memories of Dinah swamped over him, but one in particular stood out. A late-night date, a couple bottles of wine, and a conversation about Batman and guilt that he’d never been able to forget.
He had to hope she’d been right, because otherwise he was screwed, and Shazam might be way worse than that.
Billy hesitated. “No?”
Ollie sighed, pretending to be aggrieved. “You know, that he’s gotta be Batman, because Batman always sees us through? Well, you gotta be Shazam, because we need Shazam.”
Billy breathed out harshly. “Batman didn’t kill all those people!”
“No?” Ollie asked. Billy’s hand faltered, and he thought this might just work. “Think about it. How many people has the Joker killed? Scarecrow? Bane? The Riddler? Now think about how many people every member of the Rogue’s Gallery would have killed off in their collective careers.”
Ollie arched his brow, driving the point home. “Now think about all the times Bruce didn’t kill the fuckers who were terrorizing Gotham. All those innocents are dead because Bruce couldn’t kill a dozen crazies.”
Billy’s eyebrows drew down, making him look just a little like Roy had, during his petulant teenager stage. “But that’s not . . . that’s the villains’ fault, not Batman’s!”
Ollie shook his head. “That’s not how he sees it. He suits up every night, staggering under the weight of all the people he’s let die. And if that’s what Batman can do—normal, unmagical Bruce Wayne—what can you do, when you’re powered by the might of an ancient freaking wizard?”
Billy looked up at him with huge eyes. “That’s . . . what he does? He lives like that? That’s not fair to him. It’s not his fault!”
“It’s not yours either,” Ollie said, even though he knew the kid wouldn’t believe him at this point. “But for Bruce it doesn’t matter anymore. He’ll never have to worry about that ever again.”
The finality in his tone made Billy still. “What do you mean?” He whispered.
Only then did Ollie realize that Billy didn’t know. Couldn’t know. He’d been wandering around the desert for long enough to hallucinate dead enemies—at least, that’s what Ollie assumed he was doing when he’d been calling out for Adam—and he’d been cut off from Oracle and the New League, so how could he know?
Ollie understood all this, but he still hated that he’d have to be the one to tell him. Hated that he had to say it with his own mouth. “Batman is dead. So is Huntress. And . . . and Dinah.”
The dagger fell from Billy’s fingers. “What?” He breathed.
“The Ikons got them.”
Shazam stared up at him, wide-eyed and silent. Eventually the dam broke and he began to cry; deep, heaving sobs, and Ollie’s stomach churned. It was one thing for a woman to cry. Kids were also manageable, they cried all the time. But a grown man? A grown man who could punch through solid stone and survive the unthinkable? It was like Superman crying, except Ollie didn’t know Billy the way he knew Clark.
Ollie was so not prepared for this. Distantly, he hoped that he would not be required to hug Shazam, or something.
“I’m so sorry,” Billy sobbed. “Arrow, I’m so sorry about Black Canary. I know how much you guys loved each other.”
“No you don’t,” Ollie snapped. “You don’t know anything. About her, or me, or us.”
Shazam hiccupped, like he was a kid for Christ’s sake. “I don’t. I know I don’t,” he wailed. “But I’m still sorry. I liked her a lot. She was really cool. One of the adults in the League I really looked up to. And Batman? I can’t . . . He . . . “ He had to swallow before continuing. “I have met actual gods and I still think that he is greater than them. I can’t believe it. He can’t be dead!”
“Yeah, well, it happened,” Ollie said bitterly. “Now can you see how why we need you?”
Billy shook his head, still in the throes of his grief. “I’m so, so sorry you lost Canary. And Batman. And Huntress. I just—I should have been there to help. I’m so sorry.”
Ollie swallowed past the burning lump in his throat. “Can you prove that?”
“What?” Billy asked, his face stained with tears.
“Prove how sorry you are,” he said harshly.
“I—I can try.”
“Good. Don’t kill yourself until the Ikons have been defeated. Then I’ll believe you. Then you’ll have atoned for some of your sins. Can you do that?”
“But . . .” Shazam trailed off, looking back down at the dagger. “But I’m a bad guy, now.”
Oh, his sainted aunt. “Did you not listen to a word I said? You’re not a bad guy unless you leave us high and dry while the Ikons are still here. What if they kill more of us and you refused to help us?”
Billy choked on a sob. “That’s not fair. You can’t—”
“Can’t what?” He gritted out. “Make you face reality? ‘Cuz it’d be so damn easy to just off yourself, I get that, but you have a responsibility to yourself, to us, to the world. If the Ikons win it, you have done worse than killed all those people. You’ve failed every single person on the planet.”
Oh shit, he thought to himself, as he saw the light of understanding reflect in Billy’s dark eyes. This goes for me, too, doesn’t it?
“Is it that close?” He whispered, aghast. “Are we in that much trouble?”
“Did you miss the part where I told you Batman was dead?”
Billy bowed his head. He breathed in deeply as the desert winds stung Ollie’s face. Finally, “Ok,” he said. “Ok. I’ll prove it to you. I won’t die until it’s over.”
“Good. Now let’s get going—hey, wait,” he said, as something inconsequential hit him. It was just a funny feeling, but it niggled away at him, like he was missing something. “What did you mean, adults in the League? Even Cyborg was almost 25 when he joined, and he’s the youngest member to date.”
Shazam slowly got to his feet. “Oh. Batman said I shouldn’t show anyone who didn’t already know, but I can’t do this on my own. If . . . if I’m gonna keep living, I can’t hide it anymore.”
Ollie narrowed his eyes at him. He was missing something, and here it was. “Billy, what are you talking about?”
Billy bowed his head. “Shazam!” He cried out, and when the lightning cleared, there was a skinny, floppy-haired teenager standing in Shazam’s place. The incongruity of it was so great Ollie couldn’t take it in.
“What—what just . . .?”
Billy sniffled as he shuffled his feet, clearly unnerved by Ollie’s amazement.“This is what I actually look like when I’m not the magical wizard Shazam. My name’s Billy Batson—oh, but I guess you already knew that, right.”
“Billy,” Ollie said, mind stalling. “How old are you?”
The kid tried to smile and failed. “I’ll be 19 next April. I’m uh. A little younger than you thought, huh?”
Ollie could not handle this. Shazam was the all-powerful wizard, but also a child? “But you—you . . . You’ve been fighting with us for the last 7 years. 8 years? Oh, my god. I just . . . what?”
Billy nodded. “6 and a bit. I had just turned 12 when I joined the League.”
The shock finally got to him. His legs gave out, and Ollie sat right down on the blazing hot sand. “12?” He shrieked. “You were a 12-year-old and Bruce let you in? To do what we do? To kick the ever-loving shit out of evil?
“And Superman,” Billy said, hesitantly. “And Wonder Woman. They were the three that knew. Well, Victor too, but not until later. That’s why they paid so much attention to me in the beginning. They were worried I’d have a breakdown and not be able to handle it.”
“They shouldn’t have let you in,” Ollie said, stunned. “A kid your age? You should have been living a normal life! Bruce I understand, because of his fixation on 13-year-old boys that he inevitably renamed Robin, but what the hell were Clark and Diana thinking?”
“What were they supposed to do?” Billy asked. “I was a 12-year-old with incredible power, and a lot of anger, too. They thought it was better if they trained me, and made sure I didn’t go dark side.” He took a deep breath. “Besides, the wizard chose me for a reason. “
“He likes 12-year-old boys too?” Ollie asked weakly.
Billy tilted his chin up, and Ollie saw a flash of Shazam in him. Oh, he thought. I see it now.
“Because I am the one who can see it done. I will not let evil go uncontested,” he announced, and it was like he was coming back to life. For a moment, he was so far removed from the hopeless wreck on his knees with a knife in his hand, that Ollie couldn’t put them together.
“Well, that’s . . . good,” he trailed off lamely. He needed a moment to wrap his head around this. Ollie had long considered Shazam to be the biggest boy scout in the business. He didn’t drink, didn’t sleep around (or with anyone, truth be told), didn’t even swear all that much . . . but now it made sense. He’d been, on average, a good decade or two younger than anyone else in the League, and had to operate as their equal; not just in power, but in social and emotional intelligence. No wonder he was so forthright and honest and, truth be told, childlike sometimes. He was a child.
“Shit,” he murmured. “I’m sorry for thinking you were so lame, before. No wonder Clark and Bruce never let you drink.”
“Errr, that’s actually the first thing I tried to do,” Billy admitted sheepishly. “Right when I got my powers and looked like an adult.”
Memories of Roy and his addiction to drugs rose up, and Ollie was suddenly thrust back into his mindset of eight years ago. “No drinking! No drugs! Or I’ll kill you myself, Shazam or no!”
Billy blinked. “Um. Yeah. I know. Actually I don’t like drinking all that much.” He gave a pained smile. “I don’t like feeling like I’m not in control.”
Ollie heaved a sigh before pushing up to his feet, just as Billy began weaving on his. “Jesus, Billy. Are you ok?”
“I won’t drink ever again if it makes you feel better,” he said woozily. Now that he was unprotected by his magic, the moment of coherence was gone. The heat, exhaustion, dehydration, and hunger were hitting him hard. “It won’t bring Canary back, but I’ll try and be good.”
“Oh, shit, kid. You’re gonna—”
Billy cut him off by passing out. He slumped down face-forward onto the desert sand. Ollie sighed, before leaning over and hoisting him up.
“Jesus, kid. You’re heavy. At least you’re not in magical wizard form. That would be way harder,” he muttered to himself as he leaned him back against Khandaq’s outer wall. The shade would help, and so would the water he’d make him drink in just a minute. First, he had to secure their way out of here.
Ollie pulled out a handheld communicator. Not quite as high tech as Wayne’s toys, but a nice piece of equipment, nonetheless. “Need pickup pronto. Picked up the goods, and we’re ready to head home.”
“Yes, sir,” Kevin, his personal pilot replied. He’d been flying Oliver Queen around for years, and he’d taken the news that he’d now be flying Green Arrow around astoundingly well. It had encompassed a raised eyebrow and a single nod. “ETA 4 minutes.”
“Thanks,” he said before hanging up. He glanced over at the unconscious teenager next to him, and sighed. It was going to be a long trip back to Gotham. Now that suicide was no longer an option for either of them, it was going to be an even longer life.
June 28th, 20xx
Gotham, Clocktower, 3:07 PM
It was around 3:00 PM on the eighth day of the Ikon takeover that Barbara Gordon realized she could no longer put her trust in either Shayera Hall—from whom there was still radio silence, and that didn’t bode well—or John Stewart. Shayera was either dead, a shapeshifter, or running so hard she was beyond their reach, but for John this was a harder decision. He was still in position, their highest placed spy, and one who’d passed the DNA test. She could no longer argue past the main problem, however. Although she believed him to be uncompromised, he was surrounded by Ikons.
Now that they knew it was an alien takeover, his efforts to play them were no longer enough. Slowly cutting ties with Lantern Corps and the superhero community throughout the past year might be enough to convince the actual Lex Luthor, but Ikons would not care past a certain point. Assuming they had his loyalty might be why they had left him alive and relatively untouched for so long, but would not continue to protect him forever. There was no way he could effectively feed them unfiltered information, nor take action if the time was right. Her advice for him to break cover had been more for this than Carol Ferris’s disappearance.
And then she’d been shot down because of his feelings for Shayera. If only she had known! She would have couched that differently, in ways that might have been more persuasive. Barbara was thankful he was level-headed so far, but she knew how emotions could work on a man, could make him almost unrecognizable . . . to say nothing of shredding his common sense and bright future.
Take Richard for example, she told herself, bitterly. He went and found the ‘love of his life’ and now look at the decisions he’s making!
The point was that she had three men at the point of committing themselves to suicidal resolves, and very few people to rely on. John Stewart was suffering, but so far staying the course. If he snapped, however, there was nothing anyone could do to save him. Oliver Queen may be past saving, but if he brought Shazam home, she hoped that he might come to his senses in doing so.
In Hal Jordan’s case, she was profoundly grateful that Barry had somehow gotten ahold of him and made him see sense. They were still investigating Carol’s last few days with her colleagues, and as yet hadn’t decided if she truly was an Ikon, or an innocent. Although Hal still remained insistent that she was innocent, there were apparently several inconsistencies that worried Barry.
Barbara had not yet warned them that Project Greenland was a smokescreen, designed primarily to confuse the Ikons if John was somehow forced to give them that information. Only Ollie and Alfred knew so far, and, when she stopped being mad at him, she would tell Richard as well.
Let him tell Red Hood and his Outlaws, if he was so fond of them.
She planned on telling Barry tonight, if Hal hadn’t convinced him to do a suicide run on the Pentagon. Other than that, the information would trickle down through them, and hopefully give her enough time to create and implement the beginning of a new Project Greenland, if needed. They’d have to name it something snappy. Maybe she’d get Roy to think of something? He was pretty much the perkiest member of the New League, at this point.
Barbara lay her head down on the desk in front of her with an audible thunk. If the words ‘Roy’ and ‘perky’ were coming up in the same sentence, that was a bad sign. The strain was clearly getting to her. The whole situation was interminable, but it was just so hard to carry on without Bruce, or Dinah, or Helena. Barbara had gone from three pillars of support to none, and now she was dangling out on a thin limb with half the League upset with her. She remembered how Hal had lost it, and accused her of being a manipulative spider.
Dark thoughts plagued her. Isn’t that what I am? All I can do broker information, and run New League meetings. I’m pathetic.
And then, tiredly, I want to talk to Dad.
But that had been the bridge she’d burned herself, at least for the time being. The last time they’d talked she’d been pulling out her hair, and he’d tried to get her to come home and leave the superhero community. She’d lost it, and told him exactly what she’d be doing—which was nothing of what he’d suggested. Just leave me alone and let me do my job had been the crux of it, and in the end, he’d done just that. He’d shrugged (and even now, the callousness of it made her stomach churn) and cut off the audio-visual chat.
He’d been furious with her, but it was so hard to bear that he’d cut off contact with her since. Even though it was exactly what she’d asked for. He had stayed in contact with Bruce, and now Richard, but that was no surprise. Gotham needed Batman and Commissioner Gordon more than Barbara needed her father. More than she needed help, and more than she needed sleep.
I’ll make it up to him when all this is over, she promised herself, as exhaustion overtook her, and she fell into a deep sleep.
June 28th, 20xx
Gotham, 5:47 PM
Dick Grayson was prepared to argue that it wasn’t irresponsible or unsafe to leave Jay and Damian acting as Batman and Robin for a couple hours with only Tim as backup while he and Roy picked up take out. Not when they disguised themselves so carefully and placed the order on a burner phone Roy had picked up on one of their recent assassination missions. They were being cautious, and more importantly, he needed a couple hours away from the suit. From the Manor. From being Batman.
“So, what’s Project Greenland?” Roy asked, thankfully before they got out of the plain, beige sedan that they’d taken rather than anything identifiably Wayne. A few raindrops fell around them, and the humidity was stifling. The stormy skies above them signalled worse to come.
“A smokescreen, I think,” Dick replied as he shut the driver’s side door. “I’m fairly sure Babs was bluffing, but it would have been our disappearing act.”
Roy played with the brim of his hat. It was a different one than what he normally favored. Even though he was nowhere near as high profile as Dick, they were taking no chances. “Would you have gone through with it?” He asked.
Dick’s Project Greenland had him ending up in the Czech Republic, relying on one of the languages his Romani mother had taught him. While Bruce had played with making him Damian’s caretaker, it was eventually decided that it was too suspicious for the two of them to hide together, and Damian would have been sent to Iceland. Damian wouldn’t have lasted two months there—they didn’t even have an army—yet Dick was in no position to talk, as he wouldn’t have lasted two weeks undercover.
“No,” he admitted. “And you probably know why.”
Roy nodded. “Yeah, I guess I do. I don’t know if this helps, but I don’t think he’d have gone with you. Not at first. He doesn’t know how to run away from things. But when it was all over he would have found you. He’s not exactly the kind of guy to give up on things, either.”
Dick’s heart was so full he could not speak. This, coupled with what had happened last night, made up his mind. “I can’t hide this anymore. No matter what happens, I can’t go on keeping him a secret.”
“Didn’t have a problem keeping it from me,” Roy muttered. “Let me tell you, walking in on you two the other night took ten years off of my life. I thought you guys still hated each other!”
Dick smirked. “We do. Occasionally. And then the sex is even more fantastic than usual.”
Roy held the door open for him, and the smell of greasy yet delicious Chinese cooking wafted out. He faked gagging. “Dude. Dude. But in all seriousness, we’ve got your back. I’m uh, not exactly sure how you’re gonna come out with it, though. We’re kind of at war. We do have more immediate priorities.”
Dick shrugged. “I’m not going to make a League wide announcement, or anything. I figured I would tell A first, and then the rest when I saw them.”
“Well, if you want a nice segue, I might have one for you.”
Roy chuckled. “Kori wanted to be there when we asked you, so pretend to be surprised when we do, ok? But we wanted to know if you’d be the godmom for our kid.”
Dick’s mouth fell open. “Godmother? Me?”
Roy held up his hands. “Well, we definitely want Jason to be the other godparent, and it would be a little weird sticking him as the godmom, so . . .”
Dick’s face lit up. “No, I’d be honored! Roy, that’s wonderful.” He shook his head. “It still just doesn’t feel real,” he observed. “You and Kori are having a baby.”
“I keep telling myself that, and it’s just as awesome every time.”
Dick shook his head as they moved up in line. “And you’re sure that you want us as godparents?”
Roy punched his arm. “Of course, man. We figured that between the two of you, the kid’s gonna end up all right.”
“More than all right,” Dick grinned back. “Your kid’s gonna be awesome if we’re the ones teaching it the ropes.”
“Oh and that reminds me,” Roy said. “None of the circus stuff until it is old enough to walk. I mean, I realize you are a contortionist and all, but our child is probably not going to be as bendy, or able to walk tightropes in the living room. And yes, we have already warned Jay away from the toy guns.”
“What about a bow and arrow?” Dick teased.
“I got my first at three,” Roy admitted. “Granted, I grew up on a Reservation, so . . .”
They were now the first in line. Dick laughed a little as he glanced up at the tiny Chinese woman at the till. “Hi! We’ll have three orders of fried dumplings—”
“Four.” Roy interrupted. “K’s gonna eat one all by herself. Eating for two, remember?” He twitched and touched his ear, activating the hidden bluetooth that masqueraded as a wrap-around earring. “Oh, hey babe. Was just talking about you!”
Dick turned back to counter. “Four orders of fried dumplings, and order of kung pao chicken with fried rice, and one of sesame . . .” He trailed off when he realized the woman in front of him was not moving. She was just staring at him, expressionless.
Too late his self-preservation instincts kicked in.
“What the . . .?” He trailed off. Then, “Roy, get out of here!”
Dick vaulted back from the counter, shoving back through the people in line behind him. Before his eyes, the tiny Asian woman melted away, until there was nothing but an indeterminate grey shape in front of him. Neither completely solid, gas, or liquid; bright or dark, it hurt his eyes to look at it.
“Shit, shit!” Roy called out. “Babe, requesting backup—” He cut off abruptly as the grey thing—Iconoclast? Dick’s mind hysterically provided—slithered over to Roy faster than Dick could make out, and wrapped around him. Roy choked and kicked, mindless of the screaming patrons of the store. Dick fought his way through the people fleeing the store, but before he could reach either his friend or the exit, the grey shape split into two. The newly separated piece hurled itself at his face, and he knew no more.
June 28th, 20xx
Gotham, Wayne Manor 6:10 PM
“Tim! Timothy Drake, come in!”
Tim jolted awake. For a moment he was back a week ago, sleeping in his bed in Bludhaven, when it had been Barbara shouting him awake. This time he was drooling onto his keyboard, and it wasn’t Barbara shouting in his ear, it was John Stewart.
“Tim, do you read me?”
“Loud and clear, John,” he said, rubbing the sleep out of his eyes. “What’s wrong?”
It was only an audio connection, but John’s panic was unmistakable. “I can’t get ahold of Oracle, but there’s no time. Dick and Roy are heading for a trap. I just overheard a transmission saying they were going to a Chinese restaurant on Harlem street, and that one of ‘special agents’ was in position to intercept. You have to stop them!”
Tim felt as if his mind was moving at lightspeed, and not at all. “Shit,” he breathed, as he scrambled on his computer, his fingers flying over the keys. “Shit—I can’t find . . . I can’t get ahold of Dick’s signal—I can’t even get through to him! John, how many—”
“I have to go. Be careful!”
And with that, John Stewart was off the line. Tim threw back his head and swore, loudly. Then, he jumped over the back of his chair to race down to the Batcave. He tried hailing Jason and Damian who were out patrolling, but got no response. Nor could he get Oracle. Have our systems been jammed? What the hell is going on? He wondered, but there was nothing for it. All he could do was dictate a vocal message to Damian on the channel they used for Teen Titans as he hurriedly threw on his Red Robin suit.
“Going after Dick and Roy. May have been captured. Chinese place on Harlem street. Inside agent gave info.”
Then he placed one more call. Thankfully, this one went through without a hitch.
Tim threw one leg astride his motorcycle. “Got a mission. Ready to be my backup?”
Kon’s reply was clear, even with all the Earth’s atmosphere between them. “Always. What are we doing?”
Tim grit his teeth. “Saving Nightwing and Arsenal.”
June 28th, 20xx
Gotham, Wayne Manor 6:04 PM
“Oh hey, babe. Was just talking about you!”
Kori smiled at the sound of her lover’s voice. She peered out through the french door, watching the rain fall steadily harder. “Perhaps I should be worried if you and Richard are discussing me? But before I forget—have you already ordered? Will you bring back—”
“Wait, what?” The tension in his voice made her pause. And through the receiver she could hear sounds of a commotion, and distinct screams.
Her fingers tightened around the phone. “What’s happening over there?”
“Shit, shit!” He said instead, audibly panicking. “Babe, requesting backup—”
The line was cut with chilling finality. The dial tone blared in the stillness, and the phone dropped from Kori’s nerveless fingers.
They had him. They had taken Roy.
A moment later, she shot through the french door of the second floor balcony of the East Wing into the storm, a screaming, mindless thunderbolt hurled upwards from the earth.
She would find him.
She would make them pay.
Still resolutely taking cover.