They had been waiting on the steps of the Capitol Building for maybe thirty seconds, watching interestedly as crowds of people scattered in chaotic fashion away from the green in front of them. The huge white dome loomed above, providing a suitably dramatic backdrop. Gar bounced on the tips of his toes.
'Damn, I love this.'
'Why did we never do this before, Rae?'
'No clue. Ask Dick.'
'It is kinda his fault, ain't it?' There was a pause. Gar tapped his foot impatiently. 'Fastest man alive, my ass. It's been at least a minute since –'
The air in front of them erupted, a thunderclap echoing around the huge space. Raven shielded her eyes, squinting uncomfortably into the glare.
'Right on time.'
Barry was nervous. He tended to be, when it came to these things. It wasn't his fault that it took a moment for the fight to kick in, because he was all flight. That was his deal. So when it came to taking down two former heroes, he thought it understandable to worry about the dangers involved in the actual execution of the thing. Though, he thought, they didn't look too threatening.
Barry grimaced. He remembered Captain Boomerang.
These two… at least they weren't gimmicky. On the left there was Garfield Logan – Beast-Boy, or something of that ilk – and on the right there was Raven. He knew enough about her. Surely this wouldn't be too difficult. Surely.
'Ahem,' he said briefly. Logan raised an eyebrow. 'I'm sure you know the drill, guys. I don't want to have to hurt you.'
'That's the benefit of being fucking psychopathic,' Raven responded. 'We do want to hurt you.'
Barry grimaced. 'You know who you're dealing with here, right?'
Logan started to stride down the wide marble steps. 'Well aware, Flash.'
Barry took a breath. He wasn't Barry Allen any more – not just now – in this moment, he was the Flash.
Lightning crackled around him as Logan trotted down the steps, apparently unconcerned. Flash balled his fists, concentrated the pit in his stomach, leaned forwards, and the world exploded into colour as he channelled the Speed Force into his body. Across what remained of the green, leaving scorch marks in the grass, one huge leap up onto the Capitol doorstep, and then he swerved sideways suddenly as he realised that Raven wasn't there any more. Flash frowned, looked at Logan, who had reached the bottom step, and then he heard a rush behind him and boom he was gone, away onto the green again where the sun shone and he could see clearly. There was another rush behind him, and he moved again, up the side of the pillar and across the roof, checking behind him to see –
A dark shape pushing out of his shadow, following him at the exact same pace as he happened to be running. Impossible. There was no way, except then he remembered how Shade had done the exact same thing. What's the speed of dark, Barry? And then Run, Barry. Run!
An air-tearing shriek signalled the rapid departure of Flash and therefore Raven. Gar smiled. Perfect. He adjusted his bone-armour a bit, shifting the colour of his cartilage joints to give it a bit more of a blood-and-shadows vibe, and watched as a single black man strolled out into the clearing.
'Manhunter!' Gar cried jubilantly, striding towards the approaching figure. 'So you're next.'
The man frowned. 'Logan.'
Gar grinned wickedly. 'Oh, don't act so surprised. Shapeshifter to shapeshifter. I know your tricks. The eyes don't change, not really, because they're so difficult to get right. Aren't they?'
The Manhunter grunted noncommittally. Gar threw up his hands. 'Where are the rest of your friends? The rest of the League?'
'They'll be here soon.'
Gar smiled again. 'Oh, gooood. Goodgood. I'd really, really been hoping you'd say that.'
The Manhunter noticed that the boy was still smiling – as in his toothy grin kept on expanding, moving round the sides of his head, unzipping his skull to reveal more and more teeth.
'I've beeeeen wannnnting to showwwww you allllll my NEW SMIIIIIILLLLLLE.'
Flash ran like hell. Dodge-weave-spin-ducking in an attempt to lose the shadow chasing along just behind him. He'd need to run at the speed of light to get away from this thing, he thought. He'd need to outrun light itself. Or – or maybe something less impossible, something more like –
Flash veered onto a main road, zipping back and forth between cars as his passage shattered windows and damaged eardrums. No time to think about that now. No time. He had one of several solutions, and this was the closest. Wall up ahead and jump and shift and whoomph and the sensation of cold as he passed through the bricks of the wall. That ought to have done it. No shadows inside the stone. Unless – he checked back, and she was still there, reaching from his long cast like a much more terrifying Grim Reaper.
Flash wasn't afraid of death. He knew the face of the underworld like an old friend, had stared into the abyss one time too often to fear his own end. But Raven unnerved him. The way she reached out of the darkness, joints clicking and eyes glowing with a soft white light, he felt wasn't quite human. It was off. How had she passed through the pillar with him? Time for solution two.
Flash kicked it up a notch.
The Manhunter dropped his disguise, the flesh and clothes melting off him as he shrugged his way back into a more comfortable form. 'Stop, Logan. This isn't going to end well for you.'
In front of him, the boy flowed muscle-over-bone such that blood ran slick through temporary gaping wounds as his insides rearranged themselves bigger and bigger and bigger. J'onn tensed himself, digging his heels into the dirt in anticipation of a huge forward leap.
Something resembling a head shook its way free of the rapidly shifting mass, dislodging copious amounts of viscera from atop its shuddering form. Reptilian eyes blinked sideways, twice. The body switched sideways, scales rattling over ribs and tendons tightening in rapidly forming legs. There was a thump as one giant claw impacted the grass with a mighty surge of muscular energy, and then the creature swayed to its feet and looked at J'onn lengthways with a baleful orangish eye. J'onn frowned. He couldn't shift into anything quite that big. Nonetheless, as the humans say - the bigger they are…
He pushed off with one foot and soared into the air, bringing his heel down onto the beast's nose with a resounding crack. The thing roared in pain, flung him to the side, and swung its long tail like a battleaxe. J'onn leapt, missing it by inches, and fell awkwardly into empty space over the lawn. He righted himself in mid-air, shrugged a large claw into existence in place of his right hand, and watched as the lizard creature charged him, gleefully intent on murder.
Flash looked back again, nervously, as he flickered in and out of the shadows cast by large apartment blocks in the city suburbs. Raven was still right on his tail, smiling mischievously. He could have sworn she should have caught up to him by now. He had to think, and quickly – got it. He adjusted the placement of his feet, and with a sudden burst of energy Flash powered himself up the side of a building and into the air, arcing out over the city. There were no shadows in mid-air. She couldn't follow him here, except when he glanced back there she was.
Flash caught the side of another city block and executed a perfect vertical 90 degree turn into the traffic. He could feel the cold on the back of his neck, nearing closer and closer. So it wasn't the shadow that was the problem, it was something else. Magic? Something incorporeal, something locked on to the very core of his being, or…
Flash thrust more lightning into the soles of his shoes, bursting with force as his static electricity grounded itself behind him. He'd remembered something in the file Batman had sent him, something about Raven's 'soul-self', and he knew it had something to do with the fact that the thing behind him wasn't Raven. It was a projection, her sheer force of will manifesting a consciousness outside her body. Which meant her body was vulnerable, possibly unconscious.
If anything, Flash was quick on the uptake.
J'onn ducked and rolled under the creature's swiping claw. He was holding up reasonably well, he thought, landing just enough solid hits to make a difference. This was challenging, perhaps, but not overly difficult. With that in mind, he slashed at one of Logan's tree-trunk tendons with a fine blade and got a satisfying roar of pain in response. He'd taken down tougher monsters than this, and arguably more resourceful enemies.
He suddenly noticed the monster's tail swinging his way with whiplash precision, too fast to dodge, and with a quick thought J'onn phased his molecules into nonexistence just in time for the appendage to pass right through him. It was a lucky save, but he didn't have time to reassemble himself before the huge head came down from the other direction and had to wait while the workings of Logan's brain swung through his intangible own. What was he playing at? There wasn't any way the boy could touch J'onn in his present state, so what did he gain by keeping him non-physical?
Head out of the way, J'onn solidified himself and suddenly choked. The T-rex grinned. From behind, something pinned his rapidly weakening arms to his sides, and a head rested on his shoulder. He felt Logan smile, and looked down to see another arm projecting out of his chest such that it passed directly through his heart, lungs and windpipe.
'Rookie mistake, Martian,' came Logan's soft voice from just next to his ear. 'Never decide that your enemy has shown you the extent of his abilities.'
J'onn tried to speak, to shift, to do anything, but the arm lodged inside him anchored him to the world. His vision started to dim, piece by piece, and then finally everything went dark.
Gar stepped back, sliding the Manhunter's body free of his hand so that it slumped to the floor with a solid dead thump. God, that was a rush, a terrible fierce rush, and he couldn't help but laugh at the ridiculousness of the whole thing. The T-Rex started to shrink, rushing back together along its tail to where the tip had connected to the back of his neck. Gar had been in two places at once, connected through that tail as part of a whole. He'd made out like the Manhunter had hurt him, and it had paid off. His enemies tended to underestimate him, so why not use that to his advantage?
Flash reached the Capitol Building a couple of seconds later, leaving a shockwave of Speed Force in his wake. He went straight up the stairs, not even clocking J'onn's body until he spied Raven's prone body propped up behind a pillar. All he had to do was disable her somehow, deprive her of consciousness and then J'onn. He looked over to where his friend lay bleeding his lifeblood out into the grass and his heart filled with rage only for it to stop beating as Raven pushed a knife through his spine and into the left atrium with clinical precision.
Flash juddered, and then he was only Barry, and a brief whisper escaped his lips – 'Iris' – before his head sagged and Raven laid him gently to earth. She regarded his still face quietly, electricity still crackling and arcing around his surprisingly heavy corpse, and walked away gingerly, still sore from the out-of-body experience.
Gar laughed. 'Copycat.'
Raven shoved him playfully. 'I had no idea you were going for the stab-in-the-back route too.'
'Fair, fair. How'd it go?'
'As planned. Kept him away long enough for you to kill this guy, then got him in his moment of surprise. Right on time too.'
'He didn't hurt you?'
'No. I don't think he even realised that I couldn't touch him like that.'
Gar looked down at her, happy for a moment. 'We make good villains, huh?'
She kissed him, briefly, then smiled back. 'Yeah.'
Gar frowned. 'It doesn't freak you out, the killing?'
Raven eyed the Manhunter's body. 'Maybe just a little.'
'Me too. It still sends a shiver up my spine, despite –'
There was another concussive boom, and three figures dropped out of the sky. On the left, a man and woman in bright shining green. On the right, a figure in a cape, shrouded in darkness.
'You take the Lanterns,' Gar said. 'Batman's mine.'
The dark figure drew in a breath, kind of like a -hh- sort of sound, and the Lanterns blazed with sudden anger on seeing the bodies.
'Let's do this –'
Dick glared down at Gar, who cringed away slightly under his domineering gaze. 'What the hell did you think you were doing? And you, Vic!' he yelled, spinning to point at a similarly guilty cyborg sitting behind a computer desk. He yanked the modified motorcycle helmet off Raven's head. Raven cried out in shock, raising her hands as if to defend herself from an unseen enemy, and stopped.
'Are you insane? This is high-level military equipment, only funded because of my personal help researching confiscated mind-control technology, and you use it to plunge yourselves into a fantasy world where you what? Kill two superheroes?'
Gar grinned uneasily as Dick paced the concrete room. 'Come on, Dick. It's a training simulator, right? Why not give it a try being villains? We were about to fight Batman!'
Dick turned on him, furious. 'Don't. You. Talk. About. Batman.'
Vic was trying to sneak out of the room. Raven had stood up, and was edging her way around the rapidly developing argument. No use getting embroiled in some petty conflict.
'Victor Stone. Raven Roth. Come back here right now, and you are going to have a severe talking-to.'
'You sound like somebody's mother.'
'Gar, I swear to God, if one more word comes out of your mouth then I don't even know what's going to happen.'
Raven and Vic looked at each other. This wasn't going to be pleasant.
Raven peered round the doorframe. Dick and Star lay strapped into the specially-built chairs, eyes closed and bodies unmoving. 'They're in the simulator and Vic's monitoring them.'
'Sweet lick! So the couch is free for an impromptu makeout session!'
Raven blushed crimson as Gar grabbed her hand and dragged her away. 'Be quiet! Vic's gonna hear you!'
Meanwhile, Koriand'r was having the time of her life. 'What I lack in raw strength, Kal-El, I make up for in combat skills!'
Dick spun to the left as Wonder Woman's sword came crashing down onto the stone next to him. 'Kory! Now!'
There was a cry from above, and Diana looked up just as Superman smacked into her at high speed. Both heroes were thrown to the floor, groaning. Kory flexed her throwing arm jubilantly. Dick beamed up at her.
'I love this! We make good villains, huh?'