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The All-New One Universe RPG


Episode One: Flight of The Scarecrow
Part Two
Dr. Mid Nite’s Office, The Watchtower
Just Outside The Earth’s Orbit
Hours Before The Attack on The Morrison Suites

”So, what do you think, doc?”

McNider huffs, expediting his expression of displeasure so that the moment doesn’t become awkward for either of us. The answer obviously isn’t good.

“Well, Tim, I don’t want to lie to you. I really don’t ... oh gosh… I really don’t.” He pauses angrily for a moment. “****!” He roars. “It’s bad. It’s really ****ing bad.” He kicks his desk with the steel toe boot, cracking the fibers apart before kicking and kicking it again. “I honestly haven’t ever seen anyone live through something like this.” The wooden desk breaks and splinters. He keeps kicking it. I wonder how long his office furniture usually lasts. “****!”

So much for bedside manner.

”How long do you imagine that I have to live? Years, months, dunno?”

“Unfortunately, Tim, I do know. A growth like this is just about guaranteed to run it’s course within the next two weeks, give or take two or three days. It wouldn’t be unexpected if you were to have another episode within the next few days or hours. So don’t go out and do ANYTHING exciting, now. I pretty much guarantee it’ll kill you.”

”What happens if I do get excited? Or something?”

“You’ll probably drop to the ground and start spasming. I don’t guarantee it, but you’ll probably lose consciousness. We need to operate damn near right now.”

“What sort of risks do you anticipate running into with an operation like this?”

“Well Tim, lots of risks. You could bleed to death during the operation, you could be infected, some of our enemies may have heard about your condition and take advantage of your vulnerability.

”So I’m damned if I do and damned if I don’t.”

“Nah, Tim. These extreme times call for extreme language. You are ****ed if you do and ****ed if you don’t.”

”Sorry, doc. But even if it puts my life on the line, I have a measure of responsibility. There’s this killer, we’re calling her ‘Bloody Mary’ for now. It’s really gruesome stuff. I’m not sure how many lives would be on the line while I put this off, but I know that I don’t have time to not get excited.”

“You ****ing moron. You and the rest of the Batfamily save more than one life on a regular basis. It hardly takes a second grader to see that you’re risking more lives than your own by killing yourself for this lady. Am I right, Archie?”

“Hoo!” His avian partner replies from the other room.

“Think of all the people you won’t be around to protect. Hell, you’re nineteen years old. Don’t you want to start a family or something?”

”If I have a thing in common with Batman, I’m pretty sure I’d wind up with Deathstroke’s daughter, anyway.” I walk toward the door, I’m not sure that there’s anything more to say, but I pivot and face him again. McNider means well. ”Can’t you put a band-aid on it or something.”

“I thought you’d never ask,” he slings a bottle of pills my way like he’s throwing a batarang. “Lorazepam: Take one whenever you go out. Don’t operate any machinery. Don’t mix with alcohol. Don’t be a vigilante.” McNider turns his back. “And don’t combine with any other chemicals. Got it?”

But I’m already gone.


"Truth be told, I have looked forward to an occasion such as this," Victor Von Doom gloats as a dark red ray blasts forth from the palm of his hand, striking me in the chest and sending me tumbling backwards. "An opportunity for Doom to put the high and mighty 'Superman' in his place. I had assumed such a confrontation would result from one of my machinations reaching fruition. It seems, however, that I merely needed to wait for someone else to unnerve you to the point where you would panic like a frightened peasant."

As the crimson light washes over me, I feel my strength being sapped away. Doom's equipped himself with some of the most advanced technology on the planet, and he's obviously been studying me looking for weaknesses. That blast replicated an hour of direct contact with red solar radiation.

I can't take many more hits like that. Have to either withdraw or put him down for the count quickly.

And I'm in no mood for running away.

"I'm going to ask you one more time," I say, picking myself up from the rubble in Doom's throne room, "either stand down and tell me where to find who I'm looking for, or we start doing this the hard way."

The masked tyrant gives a contemptuous laugh as he raises his gauntlets for another attack.

"If I did know who you meant, I'd take the knowledge to the grave before giving you the satisfaction," he sneers, "but rest assured, for this outrage, I will find out who this person is, and I will make them suffer. Every second you have wasted Doom's time today, will count for a year in my torture chambers. They will beg for death before it is done, and you will bury them knowing it is your fault."

I twist my head to one side and pop my neck, then crack my knuckles.

"Have it your way."

In the split-second it takes for the thought-activated controls of Doom's suit to fire his red-sun projector rays again, I'm on him, spear-tackling him hard through the back of his throne and into the stone wall behind us. Several feet of ancient stone buckle and crumble as we plow through the castle wall and into the countryside.

In most respects, Doom is cut from the same cloth as Luthor, a megalomaniac with a gift for science. His armor is loaded with powerful weaponry and nearly invulnerable defenses. On top of that, he's versed in the supernatural arts, and can deliver devastating magical attacks that I've got no defense against. He has plans within plans, layers upon layers of contingency stratagems with the express purpose of undermining and destroying me, either in direct combat or through underhanded means. And he will stop at nothing to prove his superiority over any perceived enemy.

Like Lex, though, he has one very notable flaw, in that he routinely underestimates me. He thinks I'll hold back. Not today. It's not the way I like to do things, but in an unprepared showdown with someone like Doom, the only real option I've got is to overwhelm him with sheer brute force.

As I fly with him at ground level, dragging the mad dictator through dirt and rocks and pavement, Doom activates another countermeasure on his suit. My senses explode with pain as a field of supernatural energy bursts out from him, throwing me off and crashing into a row of trees.

"You dare to put your filthy alien hands on Doom?!" he bellows, hovering in the air as the mystical field takes the form of a sinister-looking spear floating above his right hand. "You miserable,
insolent, wretched--"


Before he can complete his tirade, a blue-and-red streak tears through the air from over the horizon, and slams into Doom's back with meteor-force. The armored megalomaniac is sent reeling, kicking up clouds of dirt and dust as his unconscious body bounces off the ground before skidding to a stop.

"I tried to tell you, Kal," says Supergirl as she favors her fist, "This wasn't going to do any good."

Emerging from the downed trees, I meet my cousin in the air, my anger giving way to embarrassment and shame.

"You were right," I admit, not meeting her gaze, "Doom doesn't know about J-....about the situation. This was a wild goose chase."

"Kal....are you okay?" she asks with concern.

"I'm fine," I say. "A little banged up from the fight, but--"

"That's not what I meant," she says, putting a hand on my shoulder. "I don't think you're in the right state of mind for this. I know you've had loved ones in danger before, but this is a whole other level. Maybe you should hang back for a bit, let Conner and I--"

She's cut short when another bolt of red-solar plasma strikes her in the face, knocking her out of the air.

"Enough of this!!!" Doom snarls. "After this, the two of you will never leave Latveria alive! I will pull the name of your missing loved one from your minds, and then I will make you watch as I--"

In a hundredth of a blink of an eye, I rush him, grabbing him by the throat. I can see Doom's eyes widen as the metal of his armored suit creaks and groans in my grip.

"If you even think about following through on any of your threats, Doom," I say, so angry I begin to literally see red, barely able to hold back a blast of Heat-Vision, "I'll come for you, Doom. And I will kill you."

The words hang in the air with a horrible gravity. I'm not sure who's more taken aback by it: Kara, Doom, or myself.

What's worse, the realization that beyond merely saying it, deep down.....I meant it.

Taking a few uneasy steps back, I let Doom drop to the ground, and look back at Kara.

".....you're right," I all but mumble. "Maybe I should sit this out.....at least until we--*nggh!*"

In the highest end of the electromagnetic spectrum, the air hums with an unmistakable Zee-Zee-Zee signal. Reflexively, Kara and I put our hands to our ears, but we both know the sound. Jimmy's Signal Watch.

Lois had said he was coming over to help with things at the farm. Did something happen? Did they find a lead?

"Let's go," Kara says simply, and we take to the skies, leaving Victor Von Doom to dust himself off and lick his wounds. Knowing him, there'll be hell to pay for what I did today. But right now, all I'm worried about is whatever's going on at home.

The Kent Farm, Hamilton County

"Lois? You okay?" Jimmy Olsen asked as Lois Lane-Kent stared in wide-eyed horror at the letters on the ceiling.

"Jimmy," Lois answered, her voice barely able to avoid cracking. "You know that watch you've got that calls Superman when you're in trouble?"


"I'm gonna need you to use it right now," she said, not taking her eyes off the message, her son's name written backwards in cracked plaster.

"Okay, gotcha," he said, fumbling with the device on his wrist. "I'm.....I'm guessing this is bad?"

"I honestly can't imagine a way for it to get worse," she said.

Jimmy looked at her, puzzled, then put his hand over his mouth.

"Hmmph," he stifled back a laugh. "Hmmmmmhmmmmphhhhmmmmheeeheeee....."

"Jimmy, what's--"

"Heeeeheeeeheeeaaaaahoooohooohooo," the red-haired photographer giggled, crumpling over and shaking. "Ooooooohooooohooooohaaahahahahahaheeeheeheeeeheeee--"

Jimmy wiped away tears from his eyes. Flicking them away, the walls were flecked not with teardrops, but a foul-smelling, ink-like black ichor that seemed to seep into the room.

"Jimmy?!" Lois shouted, knowing full-well that Jimmy wasn't in there anymore.

"AAAAAAAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAAAAAAAAAA!!!!!" he cackled, arching his back so far that his vertebrae began to snap and crackle like a bundle of twigs.

'Jimmy' opened his eyes wide, revealing eye-sockets that poured out the foul-smelling black ichor. The air itself seemed to crawl like a mass of worms as he lifted himself off of the ground, levitating in place above Jonathan's desk.


"Mxyzptlk," she spat, shaking with anger and fear at once.


Lois stared daggers through the imp as he dangled Jimmy's body like a marionette.


With a thunderous sonic boom, two blurs of blue and red burst in through the window.

"Lois!" Superman blurted as he rushed to his wife. "What's going on?!"

"HEYYY, THERE HE IS," Mxyzptlk cheered, Jimmy's hands slapping together in a mockery of applause. "THE MAN OF THE HOUR, THE MAN WITH THE POWER! HAVE FUN ROUGHHOUSING WITH DOCTOR DOOM? MAN, HE IS PIIIISSSED RIGHT NOW!"

"Wait.....Mxyzptlk?!" the Man of Steel said in horrified realization. "What did you do?!"


Her anger overrunning her fear, Lois lunged forward and pinned Jimmy against the wall, her hands at his throat.

"What did you do with our son?!" she yelled.

'Jimmy' turned his head to Lois, and smiled wider than his face would normally allow.


"Enough!" Superman barked sharply. "You're going to tell us where our son is, one way or another."

Turning away from Lois, 'Jimmy' titled his head to the side, and smiled at Clark.

"NUMBER ONE IS YOUR COUSIN," he said, turning to Kara and winking.

"Oh, Rao, eww," she backed away with a disgusted shiver.

"Stop it!" Clark shouted. "Stop messing around and tell us--"


"Where is he?" Lois demanded.


Without so much as a poof, Mxyztplk was gone, and Jimmy with him.

"Kal? What was....any of that?" Supergirl asked, still shocked and nauseous.

"An old enemy of mine," Clark said, trying to regain his composure. "A hostile entity from a higher plane of existence, who amuses himself by wrecking the lives of people in this dimension. Normally his antics are just madcap lunacy, changing people into vegetables and turning gravity inside-out. I've never seen him do something like this, though."

"....so what do we do?" she asked.

"We play his game for now, try to beat him at his own rules," he said, determination returning to his voice. "And we get Jonathan back, no matter what the cost."

Lois found herself staring at the mirror on the bedroom door.

"He told us where we need to look," she said, more to herself than to Clark or Kara, "on 'the flip side of time-space.' To take a look...."

She looked back at Clark, whose eyes were wide.

".....in a funhouse mirror....."

Somewhere Else

"Mom? Dad? Anyone?" Jonathan Kent called out, trudging through knee-deep sludge and trying to peer through the dense fog that hung all around him.

In the distance, he saw shapes moving, things that might have been animals if they didn't look so...wrong. Not far away, he heard things making wet, slurping noises before gurgling back down into the bog. Everywhere, the air practically squirmed all over him.

As he waded through the sick-smelling muck, he saw the trunk of a large tree. The only visible landmark he'd encountered so far, Jonathan headed towards it. Maybe he could climb it, get a better view of the area, and find a way to signal for help from there.

As he approached, something looked off about the tree. Its bark was shiny, like the scales of a snake. It seemed to sway back and forth, but not in the direction of the wind.

"....whuh.....what's--" he stammered before the muck splashed up all around him.

Bursting from the bog were a dozen serpentine tendrils, each branching out into dozens of smaller limbs. At the end of each limb was a clump of leech-like mouths, ringed with fangs and oozing green drool. The tendrils filled the air with high-pitched shrieks that stung Jonathan's ears.

"AAAAAAAHHH!!!" the boy screamed, stumbling backwards as the tree-roots lashed out at him, trying to bite and latch onto him. "Get back! G-get back! Don't--"

From behind him, another tendril whipped out from the bog and wrapped around the boy, tightening like a boa constrictor. As Jon struggled to break free, the head of the tendril leveled itself in front of his face, a dozen drooling mouths eager to chew into him.

"Leave......me......ALONE!!!!!" he shouted before everything went red.

The tree-root tendril vaporized instantly as jets of unbearable heat blasted forth from Jonathan's eyes. Looking around frantically, Jon saw the other tendrils and the tree itself burn away to nothing. The bog was boiling, everything around him was smoke and steam and fire, and he had no idea how to turn it off.

"Mom! Dad!" he called out. "ANYONE, HELP ME!!!!!"

No help came as he staggered, alone, burning everything he saw to ash.

"Wh....what's happening to me?" he muttered as the energy drained from his body. ".....what is this place?......Mom? .......Dad?"

".......where am I?"
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"Hey," I say as Barbara opens the door to her apartment. Holding up two cardboard cartons of Chinese takeout, I can't help but grin when I see her face.

She backs her chair up and nods, gesturing for me to come inside. "Hey yourself. What'd you get us?"

"Beef and broccoli with fried rice, or General Tso's with lo mein. Compliments of Chow Lin's Chow on 151st Street." Her old favorite; we used to go there just before sundown, before patrolling for bad guys. There aren't a whole lot of things I miss about Gotham City, but I've never had better General Tso's than that old place. That could just be the nostalgia talking, though.

"Oh wow, I haven't been to Chow Lin's in years," she says, and I feel a slight sting, realizing the place is way outside of any convenient range for her, "There's a really good new Hunan place just around the block that I go to most of the time these days."

"Ah, cool, I, erm, I didn't know about that one," I mutter, putting the cartons down on a TV tray. I guess I shouldn't be weirded out by her finding new places to go. Still, it's just one of so many things that have changed since I've been gone. Even before breaking away from Bruce, I'd been so wrapped up in drama with the Titans and college that I had all but checked out of Gotham.

And Barbara's been through absolute hell over the past three years. The physical toll the attack had on her was bad enough, but the psychological scars run pretty deep, too. She's colder than she used to be, more focused on the particulars of the job than on the thrill of it. I can't help but wonder if we're even the same people who were so crazy about each other way back when.

Then she smells the cartons to see which she likes better, and she does that adorable thing where she wiggles her nose when she's picked the one she wants, and I'm a stammering sixteen-year-old again, ready to shout from the rooftops.

"Anyway, it's good to see you again, you look.....really good," I sputter when she catches me staring.

"That took you a second, Grayson," she says with a sly look, and I can't help but notice the dark circles around her eyes.

"Well, I mean, erm...it just....looks like you didn't get much sleep last night," I say, wondering if she's okay.

"I didn't," Barb says, looking away. "Last night was a pretty rough one. There's a new guy in town, and Bruce has his hands full dealing with him."

"Think it might be the same guy who's calling me out?"

"Whoever your guy is, he's being subtle," she answers, shaking her head. "Bruce's guy, his methods are....messier."

"....oh. Well, erm, I hope you guys stop him."


There's a long silence, an unspoken accusation in the air. Where were you? We could have used your help. It's a conversation always just on the tips of our tongues when Barb and I talk, and one that frustrates me to no end. After everything that's happened, after everything that's been taken from us, how can she still work with him? Why is it that she was so quick to forgive Bruce, while I'm the one that still holds a grudge?

She doesn't push the subject, and that inevitable argument is held off for another day.

"So....where are you going to be staying while you're in town?"

Ah. The other subject we dance around whenever we run into each other. She dresses it up as casual small talk, but the subtext couldn't be clearer if she made a big flashing neon sign that said "Are we just flirting for fun, or is it for real this time?"

"Ehhh, I hadn't really made any arrangements. I'm probably going to just crash in a motel for a couple of nights." It's passing the ball back to her, yeah, but I can't help but get nervous when the subject comes up. Apparently I have a reputation in the hero community now as some big pick-up artist, but I can count on one hand the times that I was the one who actually made the move.

"Well, I mean, you don't have to," she says, those piercing green eyes looking out from over the rims of her glasses. Is she.....is she making the move?

"I'm not gonna bug Alfred to set up a guest room for me," I say, once again taking the safe route by playing dumb.

"That's, erm, not what I meant."

Oh my God, she's making the move.

For a second, I blush so hard it's almost painful, grasping for something cool to say, unable to look away from those glittering emerald eyes.....

.....until I see the red laser-light playing across her forehead, and my blood turns to ice.

On instinct, my right arm whips out, triggering the shuriken holder hidden underneath my plainclothes, and I shout, "Barbara, GET DOWN!!!"

Before the words leave my mouth, the world slows to a crawl, the years of combat meditation kicking into high gear, and I can see the bullet as it comes crashing through the living room window.

My arm is already in motion, the shuriken held between my fingers with the lightest of pressure. In the hundredths of a second I have, I subconsciously trace the bullet's path and adjust my wrist in order to set the throwing star on an intercept course. The bullet has several feet to travel, and the star maybe two or three inches. If my timing is off by even a millisecond.....

I stare in wide-eyed horror as the spinning steel slips from my fingers, cartwheeling through the air in a perfect arc, before it's obliterated by a blur of lead.

Sparks fly, and the world returns to full speed. I feel something warm and wet on my face, a light spray of.....no.

Barbara's on the floor, a pool of blood spreading from her head. She isn't moving. No, oh please God, no.

My body moving on instinct, my left hand produces a trio of smoke pellets from another hidden pocket and whips them towards the window, obscuring the sniper's line of sight. I vault over the TV tray and her chair, and crouch down.

"Barbara? Barb? Oh please, oh God," I mumble in a panic as I turn her over.....

There's a nasty gash running down the left side of her head, her glasses shattered and blood pouring down her face. The shuriken couldn't have deflected the bullet completely, but it knocked it off-course for the wound to be non-fatal. The force of her head turning so hard to one side was enough to knock her unconscious, like taking a hit from a heavyweight boxer. It may have been a graze, but even a graze from a high-powered rifle could do serious damage. Possible skull fractures, a risk of brain damage. I need to get her to safety, to get treatment....

....but first, I'm going to make sure that sniper doesn't get a second shot.

Checking her neck for spinal injuries, I pick her up and carry her into the bathroom-- maybe not to safety, but at least out of the line of fire. I raid her medicine cabinet for a first aid kit and do an admittedly slap-dash job of bandaging her head, then head back into the main room. As the smoke starts to dissipate, I get a running start, and dive out the window.

Reaching underneath my shirt tail, I produce a grappling line and throw it onto the roof of the adjacent building. It takes me only a few seconds to climb, practically running up the wall with reckless abandon, until I get a look at the shooter.

........of course. It just had to be him.

The Narrows, Gotham City
Eight Years Ago

"You're going to pay for what you've done tonight," he said with a growl, unleashing a barrage of Batarangs that whirled through the air in a swarm of steel. Tumbling with nearly supernatural skill, his target flipped, spun, and rolled around each of the projectiles with virtually no effort.

Earlier in the evening, the Cave had received reports of officers down in the Narrows. Batman had gone in to investigate, reporting a new player who went by the name 'Red X,' before he too went silent. Fearing the worst, he went out into the night, hunting down the mysterious killer to either save his mentor....or to avenge his death.

"I'm hearing a lot of talk, kid," Red X taunted from underneath his skull-shaped mask, "But you're going to have to do a lot better than talk if you want to impress me, let alone beat me."

With an angry snarl, he charged towards Red X, peppering the ground with flash pellets to disorient the masked assassin as he closed the distance. Once they were within arm's reach, the fight began in earnest.

Fists shot out, only to be deflected or trapped in an attempted grapple. Feet arced high in lightning-fast kicks or low in sweeps, meeting empty air. Knees and elbows crashed together, joints twisted and contorted as excruciating holds were applied and escaped. Whoever Red X was, he knew everything he was going to do before he did it.

Going in low, he attempted an uppercut, only for the assassin to grab hold of his wrist. Red X answered with a hook, which was in turn intercepted by a wrist hold. For a moment, the two struggled, locking horns like rams....

...until he reared back and smashed his own forehead into the plate of Red X's mask, the villain's visor cracking into a spiderweb of broken glass. He followed with a push-kick to the chest, and the assassin went tumbling backwards.

Ready for the next attack, he balled up his fists as Red X stood, throwing away his mask.....

.....and revealing the face of Dick Grayson.

".....wait....what?" Jason Todd asked, uncertainty and confusion washing over him.

"You need to work on your spacing with your Muay Thai," Dick said, wiping away a trickle of blood from a fat lower lip, "But otherwise, you're a natural."

"But.....you're Red X?!" Jason sputtered. "How could you do this, to those cops, or to Batman?!"

"He didn't do anything of the sort," came Batman's voice from Jason's earpiece. "The 'Red X' persona was a training exercise for you."

"More to the point, this was your final exam" Dick said with a grin, "I hope you appreciate me flying in from Jump City to administer it. Because you, my friend, have passed."

He tossed the 'Red X' helmet to the side, and patted Jason on the shoulder.

"Bruce did an amazing job training you," he said, beaming with pride. "I couldn't be happier with you as my replacement, Jason......or should I say.....Robin."
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"Y'know, I always liked good ol' Babs," he says as I pull myself onto the rooftop. "That's why I wanted to take her out myself. Make sure it was quick, that she wouldn't suffer. But, of course, you had to go and screw that up."

I feel my blood boil as the Red Hood taunts me. Jason Todd was supposed to be my replacement as Robin while I went away to lead the Titans. His tenure was cut short by the Joker, who beat him with a crowbar and left him to die in agony. Years later, he came back thanks to Ra's al Ghul in some kind of misguided attempt to make peace with Batman, only for Jason to be brought back a remorseless killer. Since then, he's moved on from tormenting Bruce to coming after me, which I guess is his screwed-up idea of 'sibling rivalry.'

"You're not trying to kill me," he observes almost casually, "Which means Barbara's still alive. But you're also not cracking one-liners and yammering on, which means she's hurt. This doesn't have to be messy; just step aside and let me finish the job."

"You want her, you'll have to kill me first," I say, shaking with anger.

"Ohhh, not yet, Grayson," he says, throwing his gun to the side. "She's only the first on my list."

"You might as well throw that list away, Jason," I answer as I take a fighting stance, "because you're not getting off this rooftop unless I throw you off."

Jason laughs, and assumes a fighting stance of his own. Circling each other, we close the distance and begin the exchange.

At first, we're essentially comparing notes, trading back and forth the same set that Bruce puts all of his students through at first. Wing Chun for punches and traps. Savate for kicks. Muay Thai for knee and elbow strikes. Jiu Jitsu for grappling. Krav Maga for disarms and joint locks. And a good bit of Hapkido to gel it all together.

The real differences start to show when I spin to the side underneath a right hook, and respond with a tornado crescent kick which catches him on the side of the helmet.

My advanced training took advantage of my history in the circus, the last of the celebrated Flying Graysons. A born acrobat, the next set of styles were natural fits for me. Tae Kwon Do and Capoeira for aerial kicks. Wuxia for evasions. Monkey and Crane style Kung Fu for unpredictability and supreme balance. And even a bit of lucha libre for more acrobatic grappling.

All of which adds up to me being able to dazzle lesser opponents and make myself nearly impossible to hit, but I have to keep moving and expending lots of energy against someone who knows what they're doing.

Jason catches me in the chest with a hard shoulder, and I see traces of his own advanced training. Punches perfected with high-end western boxing. Limb manipulation and force absorption with Spetsnaz Sistema. Enhanced aggression and joint breaks with Keysi. High-intensity impacts with Tameshiwari and Tai Tzu.

In short, he hits like a truck, but only when moving in a straight line. If I can keep flanking him, I can wear him down, but if he's able to line up a solid chain of offense, I'm screwed.

"I'm surprised you're wasting this much time dancing around," Jason mocks, trying to goad me into fighting him straight-on where he's got the advantage. "Especially with your old flame bleeding from the head in the bathroom. Is it because you don't have anything in your arsenal to take me down quicker? Or do you just not care about Barb all that much?"

That strikes a nerve, and I explode with a mule kick that could cave in his ribcage. That's exactly the reaction he wants, though, and he easily intercepts the kick, grabbing my leg and flinging me off my feet.

I'm quick to recover, but before I can, he charges like a bull and knocks me back to the ground with a running knee to the ribs. I hit the concrete hard, and he's right on top of me, pressing his knee hard into my chest.

"You've left a lot of broken hearts in your wake, Grayson," he says, pulling a knife from his jacket. "I'm gonna cut out each and every one of them before I let you die."

I gasp for breath as he continues to crush the wind out of me. Have to fight out from under him. Not easy, especially when you're letting yourself get blinded by anger. Have to focus. Can't let him get under my skin again.

I let my muscles relax, center myself......and then I produce one last shuriken from its hidden pocket in my sleeve and plunge it as hard as I can into Jason's inner thigh. The bladed star bites into my own flesh before it can cut through his thick fatigues, but with enough force it does.

"Nnnnnghhhh!" he winces, rolling off of me as blood spurts from his leg. "You ass! That was almost my femoral artery!"

I pull myself to my feet, holding my bloodied hand in a tight fist. "Come near Barbara again, and it'll be your throat."

He looks up at me, not sure if I'm bluffing. Honestly, I'm not sure either.

"Fine," he spits. "I'll move down to the next target on the list. See if you get as sentimental about her too."

Before I can press the attack, Jason throws down a smoke pellet, flooding the area with inky black gas. By the time it dissipates, he's gone.

"Damn it," I hiss through gritted teeth as the sound of police sirens draws closer.

I have to get Barbara out of here. Jason likely knows the various hideouts and safehouses in the city, so I may have to take her out of Gotham entirely.

And I need to make sure she can get treated for her wound. Even in disguise, a hospital is going to leave her as a sitting duck, and I don't believe for a second that the Red Hood is really going to leave her alone just because I got angry.

And, on top of all that, I need to warn the most likely #2 on Jason't hit list.

Lucky for me, if it's who I think it is, I may be able to do all three things at once....
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"I'll tell you exactly when, Bruce. When you finally give up on this misguided predilection for the sanctity of life."

Feeling the rage swell up into my chest, I just manage to leap to my feet fast enough to dodge Lazarus' next attack. The adrenaline's starting to kick in, and I use it to my advantage to push past whatever words that my enemy is trying to use disarm my defense. Perhaps a bit surprised, he goes in for a high kick, followed by a short-range palm strike. I'm able to dodge both attacks before utilizing his momentum against him, grabbing his arm and flipping him onto his back against the hard concrete. He retaliates with a hard knee to my jaw, sending me stumbling back. Every time that I seem to learn more about how to throw him off his guard, Lazarus seems to adapt to my method of attack just as quickly. It's like he's studied very similar methods if not outright put mine to practice, not unlike Bane in the weeks before he broke my spine over his knee. And while that theory would certainly lend credence to how he could possibly know that Bruce Wayne and Batman are the same man, there's just something too... off about all of this.

For one, whoever Lazarus really is, he seems to want to present himself as a talker. A fighter who utilizes mental combat just as well as he does the physical. But beyond his retorts and his criticisms of my mission thus far, there's a hesitance present that I don't quite understand. If he truly believed all of this, why would it be difficult for him to get the words out? Unless he's working off of a scripted set of events, as it were, to make it seem as though that I've met my match at his hands. Or more importantly, to make it seem like I'm facing an enemy not too dissimilar to myself, in a bid to cause me to doubt everything. Even the style of his costume seems directly designed to mimic mine.

This is all something that hardly goes without precedence, as there've been many "Batman" themed criminals over the years. Whenever Kirk Langstrom originally transformed himself into The Man-Bat, many in Gotham thought that he was me having finally gone berserk. There was also a cop-killer from a few years ago that more directly intended to copy me, going as far as to call himself The Wrath while applying a very similar motif and weapons to mine in his insane war against the police. Even The Justice League has had to face a self-styled criminal mastermind, calling himself Prometheus, who had to have indulged in at least some partial inspiration.

"You're only holding yourself back. Gotham deserves a better champion than you, but you can be better. I can make you better than you've ever been."

He throws a haymaker into my ribs, and connects a spin-kick into my cauterized wound. A wave of pain overcomes me and I nearly double over, but I refuse to relent. All of this is practiced. Get me to focus on one area of pain, distract me with another. I respond, in kind, with an uppercut that's delivered so hard that he goes flying back into the empty remnants of the "Bat-Signal" he fashioned to the roof.

"I'll never need to kill to be better."

I feel the anger start to take over. Have to bury it, before it gets me killed. He's quick to re-engage, and I seize the opportunity to lock him into a Hapkido hold. It utilizes half of my body weight to build pressure onto his shoulders, weakening his stance through the spine. Even if he's disciplined in all manner of pain, it will take him less than thirty seconds for his body to give in.

"That's what men like you will never understand. The minute you've killed, you're never going to be better."

Yet he still struggles, even under the circumstances. Prepares himself to fight it, even going as far as to allow his left shoulder to take the brunt of the pain. His left ankle locks against mine. Could be a lucky guess, or he could be preparing to fight this in the only way it could possibly be undone. It's a method that I haven't seen in action since I first trained Dick. It... almost astonishes me that he even knows it to begin with.

"I used to believe that. I truly did, Bruce. You and I are more alike than you realize."

And then he manages to do the unthinkable and breaks the hold. His elbow loosens itself first and collides with the bridge of my nose, forcing me to let go. His leg grapples mine and I immediately fall backward, hitting the ledge of the roof. But before I can recover, he thrusts what little strength is left into a meaningful right hook. It's designed to feed on the pain I'm already experiencing to prevent me from going unconscious.

"But I woke up from that delusion a long time ago. I realized that there's nothing left to salvage from all of this. The cycle only repeats, and the only recourse any of us are left with is is to tear it all down to start again."


"Death is the solution, and resurrection? That's where it all finally begins. You'll realize this soon. Soon enough, I hope, to prevent what's to come."

He grabs me by the throat and lifts me off the ground, readying his fist.

"Until then, I'm just going to have to beat you senseless. Shouldn't be much of a problem for the great Batman, I imagine. You're used to taking one."

He's insane. That much is made clear by his overall mantra. I knew by the codename that the gimmick of resurrection would eventually come into play, but I didn't know how until he said it. Now I know he's a student of Ra's Al Ghul. A free agent, perhaps, but still too heavily indoctrinated to let The Demon out of his system. What I have to learn from this is the angle.

Revenge seems almost too likely a motive, borderlining stereotype. And I feel that if it were an enemy I'd fought in the past, I'd more readily come to realize who this is. But I've never faced anyone that matches Lazarus' level of fighting prowess and his physical build or level of agility while retaining knowledge of my dual identity.

Bane is several feet taller, while Ra's Al Ghul is nimbler. Deathstroke is almost twice his size in terms of muscle definition, while Hush's method of combat relies largely on firearms. And for as biased as my judgement may be on the matter, Jason Todd was never capable of anything like this. His actions were always too heavily weighed down by his emotions, even when he was Robin.

Which leads me to think that this man, for as difficult as it may be to believe, is someone entirely new. Someone who holds intimate knowledge of my secrets, either derived from an old enemy or learned firsthand, and is using that information to taunt me.

To what end? I'm not entirely sure. But for as long as I can stand, I'm determined to keep this going for as long as possible. The more that he fights, the more that I learn about him. And if there's anything I need to fight back against an enemy like this, it's the information nessescary to put us on a level playing field.

"Hope I didn't arrive too late to the party."

The rain's started to pick up, dousing out the fire from before. To my dismay, a leather whip cracks against the water, and Lazarus finds his wrist ensnared by it before he can deliver another blow. Our eyes are directed towards the far end of the roof, where the whip's owner manages to barely hold grip over the enemy. My eyes go wide. Knowing what Lazarus is capable of, and knowing that she doesn't stand even a fraction of a chance if he decides to attack, this is the last person that I needed to see arrive to my aide.


Selina Kyle. The current protector of the East End, and Gotham's most notorious thief. Despite what either of us might say, we have a history. And to say that it's complicated is a grave understatement that I've lost all interest in trying to make sense of. To see her here, now, should come as a comfort. But I can't allow her to be put in danger.

"But it looks like you boys have already made a mess of things."


"Allow me the honor of cleaning it up."

She hisses, like her namesake, baring the razor-sharp claws that are spring-loaded into her gloves. Lazarus seems relatively transfixed on her, but not to the point of aggression. He isn't intimidated. To be perfectly honest, I don't know what he's thinking. It's like all of the anger has suddenly left him, and his body language seems to suggest a state of serenity upon sensing Catwoman's presence.

"Who's the new player, and how do you want me to hurt him?"

Without a second's thought, Lazarus reveals a bladed portion of his gauntlet, not too dissimilar to mine. It slices through the whip in one swift motion, leaving Selina too distracted by the tug to engage him in a fight. He lets me go, and I move to try and stop him from going for her. But surprisingly, he... doesn't. Instead, he leaps for an escape, landing onto the other ledge just as we both recover enough to give chase.

"Oh, I was just leaving. But I can't say it hasn't been a pleasure."

Selina angrily dives for him, but he lifts his cloak and reveals a cloud of the same gas that's been used to coat the front of the building. His belt has some sort of release trigger, ready to disperse it at a moment's notice. I grab a few flash grenades from the back of my belt and toss them into the air, using the force of their detonation to create pockets in the cloud. Selina rises and realizes that she hasn't grabbed onto anything, looking at me with a bewildered gaze.

"The gas. It's... toxic. Don't go near it."

Brushing herself off, she makes her way over to me as I move forward, nearly ready to collapse. Heart's pounding. I can feel a mountain of sweat building under the cowl. Tonight's taken too much out of me, and it's a feeling I'm actually very unaccustomed to. I've spent many nights - perhaps too many, indicating why this has taken such a toll - fighting off worse threats and bigger fish, coming back to the cave with only scrapes by comparison. One serial killer and a man who clearly believes himself to be the next Arkham Asylum inductee should not bring me to the point of exhaustion.

"Whoah there, easy. You need to take it slow."

She guides my arm around her shoulder, allowing me to stand.

"Lazarus... where..."

The cloud has already dissipated. As I feared, he's gone. Vanished without a trace. Even my infrared lenses can't pick up any trail or signature left by his escape, meaning that he may aswell not have even been here to begin with. Selina places a hand on my face, seizing my attention as I try and scan for any sign that I may have missed.

"You know that I appreciate your passion as much as anyone, but you've got to take a breath."

I place my hand ontop of hers, my forehead tenderly placed against her own. It's enough to get me to calm down. As much as I hate to admit it, she's right. I'd be in no condition to go after him, even if there was a trail to follow to begin with.

"Selina, you don't understand. He knows my name. He can't be allowed to..."

"I know. I know, just... try and take it in stride. The bad guy got away this time. It happens. There'll be another chance. Hell, there usually is, right?"

She places her lips against mine, and we share a long, passionate kiss. If I could feel this every night, then this life, the endlessness of the war... it wouldn't be so bad to have to endure. This is perhaps the first time I've ever realized that, which makes it even harder for me to break away. But eventually, I have to.

"What do you mean, 'you know'?"

"Damn it, Bruce..."

For as strong as she usually presents herself, I know that something's terribly wrong whenever Selina can't even dare to look me in the eyes. I grab her by the shoulder and try to make sense of why she's struggling to get the words out.

"I'm only telling you this because it's you, and you'd probably figure it out anyway. But contrary to appearances, I didn't come here to lend a hand. I came here because he... wanted me here."

I prepare to press even further, due to the fact that that requires some much needed elaboration, but she beats me to it before I can ask.

"The bastard contacted me before all of this happened, and told me exactly where to be. I tried to get ahold of you, but you're not the easiest person to get into contact with, so I just..."

"What are you trying to tell me, Selina?"

Angrily, she fights back something. Tears? I wouldn't have expected it, but I can just barely catch them glistening off of the moonlight. They're bitter, having been held back for quite some time.

"Lazarus. That's what he called himself, right? At least, that's what he introduced himself to me as over the phone. These idiots always have to have a name, like it's got to be a rule of thumb or something."

She's putting on a brave face, but the truth is in her eyes. I don't think I've ever seen her this distraught.

"I got a call at my home. My own personal number, the one that I made damn sure never to give out unless I had to. He told me what he knew about you, what he knew about us, and then he... he held someone up to the receiver. A voice that I swear I'd never heard until an hour ago, but I knew exactly who it belonged to."

She can hardly keep herself from breaking down, finally working up the nerve to stare back at me.

"He has my daughter, Bruce. He has Helena."

And suddenly, I'm back to square one. I thought I was learning more, but there's really very little about my enemy that I truly know. As soon as the shock of what Selina just told me begins to register, something comes in over the comms. I try and ignore it in order to attend to the present situation, but I end up answering it out of habit.

"This is Orphan. I'm downstairs."

"Now isn't the time, Orphan. I..."

"Red Robin told me to contact you. Needs you to look at this. He's going to the Batcave to begin analysis."

There's the slightest hint of urgency in Cassandra's voice, enough to even surprise me.

"He's killed again. Many more inside. Hurry."

I can't bring myself to react, beyond shutting down the line of my communications link. My hands are shaking with anger, as Selina turns her back to me, trying to keep herself together.

Lazarus, whoever he is, is clearly something far worse than I realized. He has Selina's daughter, despite the fact that we arranged for the child to be given up for adoption years ago. He's killed Jim's men, injured Captain Montoya, and Orphan's telling me that there are more bodies inside the hotel.

"The Batmobile is parked two blocks away. Take it and go to the Manor. Tell Alfred everything that you know and wait for me."

Selina turns back around, surprised.

"What the hell are you talking about?"

"He might have vanished, but I've just been told that he's left more evidence inside. I'll see what I can find and get back there as soon as possible."

She rushes to my side as I approach the ledge, persistently disregarding my instructions.

"If you think for a second that I'm not coming with you, you're out of your..."

"I'm sorry, but I have to do this part of it myself. Lazarus did all of this to provoke me, and now he has your daughter."

Firing out my grapple line, I leap onto the ledge.

"Which means it's my fault that she's in danger. But I'm getting her back, Selina. You have my word."


Out of respect for her, I pause.

"I wasn't just being cute earlier. Do you have any idea who he is? I mean, who he really is?"

Frustrated with myself and everything else, I'm the one who refuses to look back at her, now.

"I wish I did."

With that, I dive straight down and leave Catwoman to choose whether or not to believe me.

Regardless of anything, I've made a new enemy tonight.

He calls himself Lazarus, he knows the true identities of me and possibly everyone I care for, and he fights unlike anyone I've ever encountered.

But completely dissimilar to the many enemies I've made in the past, he's gone out of his way to make this personal within our first encounter.

That's a decision that he'll come to severely regret.

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Daredevil knelt on a rooftop listening to the streets below. He'd only been out for a little over an hour. In the past, he would just be getting warmed up and ready to go for more. In the present though, he was struggling to catch his breath and to focus. He was in great physical shape but the Neogene treatment he was undergoing with Connors was causing his strength to ebb and flow. Connors told him that could be a temporary side-effect, but then again once he dealt with the side effect would his body be in any condition to continue on.

Daredevil shook his head briefly and said, "Come on Matt, get it together! You've been through worse than this." He let his mind wander for a moment back to the times when he knelt down over his father's dead body, and then cradling Karen and Michelle in arms as they laid dying. He began to feel exhaustion give way to anger, and that anger began to fuel his desire for justice again.

Daredevil stood up and said, "Never underestimate the amazing healing power of hate!" With that he began to run off the rooftop. Daredevil fired his cable and began to swing from building to building. He said with a smile, "Now I see why Peter uses this mode of transportation."

Landing on another rooftop he felt the heard the relays of a silent alarm began activated. Daredevil's jaw locked in place as he headed off towards the alarm. Using his radar sense Daredevil was able to pinpoint the alarm to a liquor store and within seconds he was on the scene. Standing in the doorway he tapped his billy-club on the ground twice and was able to "see" the two robbers. They looked at him with their guns pointed and Daredevil shook his head and said, "Big mistake." It took Daredevil less than thirty seconds to take out both robbers and to be gone from the scene.


"Okay, lemme think...." I say, nervously gripping the wheel of Barbara's modified SUV, having finally gotten the hang of the accelerator and brake pedals being replaced with hand-operated levers. "Sixty-First and Haney....how do I get there from here? Do I take the bridge, or....Barb? Stay with me, Barb, come on."

Reaching over, I nudge Barbara on the shoulder. Still holding a huge wad of blood-soaked gauze to her head, she stirs. I still don't know the exact extent of her injury, but as long as she's conscious, it's a step in the right direction.

"Nnnnngh...." she groans, a nauseous look on her face. "Nothing on....Sixty-First and Haney.....access to the tunnels....three blocks down, on the right...."

"We're not taking the tunnels," I say, shaking my head. When he's not jumping across the rooftops or tearing up the streets in a billion-dollar rocket car, Bruce has a subterranean tunnel network, retrofitted from Old Gotham's subway system, which allows quick access to anywhere in the city without drawing attention. "If this was anyone else, that'd be a good idea. But Jason knows Bruce's tricks just as well as we do, so it's a good bet he knows about the tunnel network. We're gonna do something else."

Late afternoon traffic is starting to get heavier as the schools let out for the day. Thankfully it's not full-blown rush hour, but I can't help but get increasingly frustrated at how long it takes. Red lights seem to stretch on for days, and every half-wit with a driver's license is out in force. How do normal people put up with this every day?

I'm constantly checking my mirrors, making sure we're not being tailed. Jason may have left after I wounded his leg, but Barb mentioned he's got backup. I'm confident I can take a handful of former Penguin goons in a straight fight, but all the hand-to-hand training in the world won't do me much good if they run the wheelchair-accessible Ford Explorer off the road before I can get a good crack at them.

"What I don't get," I say, trying to keep Barbara engaged in conversation, "is why Jason called me out before attacking. I mean, he knew I was in the apartment with you. He had to have known I'd try to stop him. He's messed up and crazy, sure, but he's not stupid. It's not his style to make things more difficult for himself...."

"....all I know..." she mutters, "....is you and Bruce.....really need to get your.....enemies....to stop shooting me."

"....yeah," I say with a mix of shame and anger, "once we regroup and plan or next move, I'm gonna make sure he never comes after one of us again."

Barbara gives me a sideways glance, full of disapproval.

"I didn't mean it like that, I'm not gonna..." I trail off. When we were fighting on the rooftop, I was ready to kill him. I let my emotions get the better of me, and if I'd gotten the opportunity, I may very well have taken it. Something similar happened about three years ago, and it's a big part of why I don't talk to Bruce anymore.

"Anyway, we're, erm, we're coming up on the location," I say, turning left onto Haney Avenue. "Y'know, it's....heh.....it's kinda funny. I always thought, hoped that you and I, we'd get to run away together. Just didn't think someone would be trying to kill us when we did."



"Just.......shut up for a little bit, okay?"

"...okay," I say with an embarrassed nod. We spend the rest of the drive in silence before we reach Sixty-First street.

Turning into a back alley behind an old condemned building full of empty storefronts, I park the SUV, apologizing to Barb for the fact that we're going to have to ditch it. Tucked away in a corner, plastered with faded flyers and graffiti, are the hollowed-out remains of a phone booth. The glass panels on one side are shattered, the coin box has been ripped out, and the door has been pulled off the hinges. You'd think this had been here for ages, broken down by the cruelty of the city and the ravages of time.

Picking up the dust-caked receiver, I hear a distant dial-tone and sigh with relief. It still works. I just hope my old pass code does too.

I run back to the SUV and help Barbara down the ramp on the passenger's side, checking the entries to the alleyway and scanning the rooftops for unwanted company as I lead her to the phone booth.

"Fair warning," I say, "This is going to give you one hell of a headache."

"....like the bullet wound didn't?" she says with weary sarcasm.

"Okay, fair enough," I concede, before stepping into the booth and picking up the receiver.

I type in my old pass code, and am relieved again to hear a digitized voice. PASS CODE ACCEPTED. WELCOME, DESIGNATED MEMBER 02-B: NIGHTWING. PLEASE ENTER COORDINATES.

"Dick....what are we doing?" Barb asks.

"Multitasking," I answer as I type in another set of digits. "We need to get you somewhere to get treatment, put as much distance as possible between us and Red Hood, and warn his next target."


"So, you ever wonder how I got back and forth between the Cave and the Tower so fast?"


"Take my hand, Barb," I say, grabbing hold of her hand just as the countdown reaches zero, and everything goes white.

Titans Tower
San Francisco, CA
Seven Years Ago

My head is still spinning as I stare up at the ceiling, watching the vapor clouds of incense and perfumes swirl in pastel patterns above me. Physically and mentally spent, it's all I can do to just breathe and let myself get lost in the intoxicating atmosphere.

Drifting through the air as easily as the incense smoke is the most beautiful girl I've ever seen. In fact, beautiful sells her short. She's perfect, the kind of otherworldly, heart-aching perfection that painters and sculptors and poets have tried to describe for centuries. Her long flowing red hair twists and swirls around her as she floats in lazy circles above me, looking down with shining emerald eyes.

"That was wonderful, Richard," says Starfire, slowly drifting down and landing next to me on her bed. The gentle music in her voice, the wide-eyed joy on her face, projects the very picture of child-like bliss.....though I wouldn't call anything we just did 'child-like.'

When Kory and I first started dating, she was very hesitant and insisted we take things slowly. I was Star's first serious boyfriend, and once we both agreed that we wanted to take our relationship to the next level, she wanted to do things according to her people's scriptural courting rituals . That was fine with me, since my relationship with Barbara moved too fast and wound up ending too soon. I'd thought, at the time, that it would do me some good to engage in a more wholesome, traditional sort of relationship for once.

Little did I know that the traditional Tamaranean courting scriptures made the Kama Sutra look like Green Eggs and Ham.

Starfire strokes my chin with her fingers and pulls me into a long, deep kiss. My head floods with sensation, both physical and emotional in a feedback loop that's like fireworks going off inside my soul.

Back when we first met, Kory kissed me and said that that was how her people learned new languages. It didn't make any sense to me at the time, but who was I to turn down a kiss from the prettiest girl I'd ever seen? Later, she explained that her people had an ability called 'tactile empathy,' allowing them to read the thoughts of other beings as long as they were in direct contact with them. The more nerve endings touching each other, the stronger the connection, and my lips were the most sensitive area she could touch without a huge breach of privacy.

A quick kiss to learn English was one thing. What we'd just been doing, though? That was intense in a way I'd never thought possible, experiencing her deepest feelings for me first-hand. I'd say it was like an out-of-body experience, but the two of us were both very aware of the physical aspect.

"Etghall uz rufa nish talla kash," she whispers in my ear.

"What, erm, what does that mean?" I say, embarrassed that I still haven't learned her own language.

"Oh! Forgive me," she says, sitting up. "I sometimes forget Earthlings lack the ability to learn our tongues. It means...." she pauses, searching for the right words, "....it means that I love you."

"I love you, too, Kory," I say, before I realize the look on her face is one of dissatisfaction. "You okay? You look....disappointed."

"It is merely a frustration of linguistics," she assures me. "Your language has such a limiting vocabulary, particularly when it comes to emotional bonds. You say you love me, yet I have also heard you say that you love supreme pizza, and your motorcycle, and the music of the group called 'Radiohead.' On Tamaran, we have over a thousand words for the emotions and bonds that you categorize as love. So to use such a general word for my exact feelings for you is.....unsatisfying."

"Well, I mean, I hope you know that I feel a lot stronger about you than I do about pizza," I say with a slight chuckle.

She giggles, and lies back down, reaching her hands up as if trying to frame an imaginary picture. "Picture a field of stars, each one representing a connection between two people. Some are dull and fade over time into nothing. Some appear bright, yet are small and cold. Some collapse, some explode. Red dwarves, fluctuating T Tauri stars, pulsars. And then there are the giants, burning so brightly they can be seen far across the galaxy. Ours is one of the blue hypergiants, the ones that burn hotter, brighter, and more powerfully than any other star in the cosmos."

Vaguely remembering my astronomy lessons, I ask before I can stop myself, "But don't those burn out faster than all the others, too?"

Kory's smile fades just a bit, a small wave of sadness and pity washing over her face.

"Focus on where we are and what we have now, Richard," she says, kissing me on the forehead. "You are here with me, and I with you. I am yours, and you are mine. That is what matters."

I sigh, letting go of my doubts, and losing myself in the present.

"What was it you said? Etga ez ru-ermmm...."

Star laughs, saying "I really must teach you my language at some point."

"Well," I say with a blush, "I guess in the meantime, I'll have to settle for saying I love you."

"And I you," she answers, wrapping her arms around me and giving me another kiss that would set the cosmos ablaze.
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"Oh God....you were right," Barbara groans as she clutches her head with both hands. "I think....I'd rather take another bullet....than have this headache."

"I wish I could say it gets better," I say as I try and shake off the disorienting effects of the Zeta beam transporter, emerging from behind a disused photo-booth behind an abandoned Lex-Mart. "We're not far from our destination now."

"Okay....so where are we?" she demands.

"San Francisco," I answer as we emerge onto the street near the Bay. "To see an old acquaintance who might help."


Getting from the mainland to the island is a lot more difficult when you don't have grappling cables and a deployable wingsuit handy--to say nothing of how hard it must be when you've lost the use of your legs--so we call a cab to pick us up and take us across the bridge. The gleaming T-shaped structure is quite a sight to behold, but the roads and parking facilities around it are largely empty.

While the Hall of Justice in Washington and the Avengers Mansion in New York get a constant stream of visitors and tourists, very few people venture out from the city to see Titans Tower. Partially because the Titans were never as big of a deal as the other two teams, but also because the Tower is more a functional school and training facility than the tourist-friendly locations that the League and the Avengers set up.

I hadn't been out here since the original team split up. I'd heard Kory had been putting together a new team, now with the adult supervision and counseling the old team lacked, and she'd picked some real talent. Blue Beetle, Miss Martian, Superboy, and the new Wonder Girl-- word was she was scouting Bruce's current protege Tim, too. Seems like a good fit; I may be biased in saying it, but it's just not the Titans without a Robin.

As I approach the front doors, the Tower's security system scans me. The same digitized voice from the teleport says GREETINGS, AND WELCOME TO TITANS TOWER. PLEASE STATE YOUR IDENTITY AND THE PURPOSE OF YOUR VISIT.

"It's, erm, Dick Grayson. Nightwing," I say. "I have a wounded friend in need of medical attention, and I've got a warning I need to deliver. I need to see Starfire, as soon as possible."


I pace back and forth for what feels like hours waiting outside the doors. My heart starts to pound and I can feel hands starting to shake. It's been a while since I've seen Kory. Years, in fact. And, like most of my really close relationships, we didn't end on the best of terms. I genuinely have no idea how she's going to take me showing up on her front door, with Barbara Gordon of all people in tow.

I nearly flinch when at long last, the doors slide open, and I'm greeted by a familiar face.....

......just not the one I'm expecting.

"Dick Grayson," says the pale-skinned witch, folding her arms as if to create a brick wall with her small frame. "What are you doing here?"

"Raven?" I say, not expecting to see my former teammate and ex-friend ever again, let alone here. "What are you doing here?"

"I live here," she answers, rolling her eyes like it's the most obvious thing in the world. "Kory's in the training room with the team, but I can let her know you're here."

"Thanks," I say, avoiding eye contact. "My, erm, my friend here....she needs to be taken to the infirmary, too."

"Don't bother with that," she says dismissively. "I can heal whatever wounds she's got, as long as they're not permanent. That should save you some time, meaning you can leave sooner and we won't have to deal with you as long."

"Oh, erm....thanks?" I say, honestly happy that she's willing to use her magic to treat Barb's wounds, while trying to ignored the insult lobbed at me.

Raven looks over my shoulder to Barbara, and raises an eyebrow.

"Is that who I think it is?"

"She was attacked by one of my enemies, and I think Kory might be next," I explain.

She looks back and forth between Barbara and me.

"So let me get this straight," she says. "Someone attacks your ex-girlfriend, and your best course of action is to take her all the way across the country....to come hide out with your other ex-girlfriend." Raven shakes her head, with equal parts amusement and disdain. "Only you, Grayson."

Suddenly I'm finding myself wishing I was back in Gotham getting shot at by Jason Todd, rather than getting needled by Rachel Roth.

"Well, are you coming in or what?" she finally says, stepping aside enough for me to wheel Barbara inside.

I have to believe nobody on the Justice League has to put up with this sort of thing when they need help.
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Brockton, MA
3:34 PM

Parker jumped across the bank's counter, one hand planted on the marble surface and the other clutching a submachine gun. He landed behind the teller's desk with a thump and looked at the three terrified employees.

"The vault," he said without any inflection in his voice. "Now."

He marched the three of them to the vault that sat off to the left of their desks. Behind him, Stiess kept a gun trained on the three unlucky people who had been in the bank when he and Parker came through the door. Outside, their driver Mitchell sat in an idling Altima with Connecticut plates.

Parker walked into the vault behind the tellers, reaching into the back of his pants and pulling out large nylon sacks with drawstrings on top.

"Put all the bills bigger than a twenty in those sacks."

Three minutes later, Parker was running out the bank with Stiess by his side. He slowed down long enough to look up at the camera bolted over the door. Stiess wore a ski mask, but Parker had opted not to. Just like when they had robbed the bank in Weymouth.... and the one in Randolph... and the one in Fall River. The three man stick up crew was on its third state now. They'd torn through Connecticut, Rhode Island, and now Mass.

Harbor Inlet Savings and Loans were the banks they targeted. Not too many of them around, but more than enough to make the people behind Harbor Inlet hurt. With the help of Graves, Parker knew that Harbor Inlet's owners were a subsidiary of a banking conglomerate, they themselves part and parcel of a larger company, and behind that company were The Vasco Family. The people responsible for coming after him.

"Drive," Parker said once they were in the backseat of the Altima. It peeled off down the road and headed north through the streets of Brockton. Stiess started counting the haul while Parker pulled a crinkled piece of paper from his pocket and looked it over.

"Hyde Park," he said. "On the outskirts of Boston, right in the city limits. That's were the next one is."


Center City, WA

Tracy Lawless pulled up a chair and watched the little boy eating a sandwich. Six-year-old Anton Belyakov didn't make eye contact as he chewed on his bologna and cheese. Anton's father was Konstantin Belyakov, boss of Center City's Russian organized crime. Kidnapping the boy was borderline suicide and Tracy knew it. But Thomas Flynn wanted to kidnap Anton and Thomas Flynn always got whatever he wanted. It was going to happen whether or not Tracy took part in it, so it felt better that he be in on the job to prevent someone getting killed.

"You'll be home soon," he told the boy. "I know you're very scared, but you're also very brave. You're a big boy, Anton. Your father would be proud of you."

He stood and patted Anton on the head before leaving the room. Two of Flynn's heavies stood outside the room as guards while Tracy went upstairs to Flynn's study. The old man was rocking in the chair behind his big desk with a wide grin on his face.

"They're an hour late with the call," Flynn said jovially. "The ********ers are freaking out."

Tracy kept his thoughts to himself and sat down across the desk from Flynn.

"These criminals think they know about hustling," said Flynn. "Tracy, you're talking to the ultimate hustler. They can intimidate idiots, but these sons of *****es wouldn't last a day in the boardroom. The sharks I swim with will cut your goddamn throat."

Flynn's rant was stopped short by a ringing phone. His grin grew wider as he hit the speakerphone to let Tracy listen in.


"You son of a *****," said a voice with a thick Russian accent. "You kidnap my son?!"

"I kidnap your son," Flynn said in a mocking fake Russian accent. "This is America, Boris. You **** a man over, you best prepared to get ****ed."

Tracy leaned forward and tried to get some control on the situation. The voice on the phone that he assumed was Belyakov cursed in Russian. Tracy spoke loudly over the cursing to try and calm the man down.

"We propose an even exchange," he said into the speaker. "Your son will be returned whenever Mr. Flynn's daughter is returned safe and sound."

"Not an even exchange," Flynn said over Tracy. "I deserve something for my suffering, you Commie ****. I want my daughter safely returned and a million dollars!"

"What?! I do not have--"

"I don't give a ****, Boris," Flynn said with glee. "I get my daughter and a million dollars or I'll have my friend here strangle your son to death. I'll be sure to leave the speakerphone on so you can listen in. What do you say?"

Belyakov fired off rapid Russian to someone, either Tracy and Flynn or an unknown party wherever he was. Flynn looked across the desk at Tracy with a big smile and raised eyebrow as they heard Belyakov talking softly to someone.

"Fine," he finally said. "I will have your million dollars and daughter."

"That's what I want to hear," said Flynn. "Meet us at midnight tonight at the Harbor Front. Have the money and my daughter there. If you're late, your son dies."

Flynn hung up and whooped in victory while Tracy sat back down and started to question why exactly Hyde sent him into this situation. The last thing Thomas Flynn needed was help. If anything, the Russians needed him more than Thomas Flynn ever had.


11:52 PM

Tracy stood out in the chilly night air and smoked a cigarette. Center City's harbor area was one of the few safe parts of the city. Tourists flocked to the water during daylight hours and filled the piers with activity. Tonight, it was nearly deserted. Tracy counted himself as just one of four people on the expansive pier that jutted out into the Pacific Ocean. The other three people on the boardwalk were all Belyakov's men. The Russian crime lord's men started filtering into the area a half hour earlier. He made them all thanks to their Slavic looking faces, thick beards, and tracksuits. Tracy got there two hours earlier and watched the comings and goings ever since. His military training taught him the value of patience. When it came to work like this, be it assassinations or covert meetings, patience is what separated the pros from the amateurs. A serious operator would stake out the place sometimes twelve hours in advance. Tracy once spent two days in a wadi in Iraq, watching a road until a specific vehicle showed up at a certain time. When they showed up, Tracy killed the driver and the four passengers in the car with a sniper rifle before quietly disappearing into the desert.

He finished his cigarette and tossed it to the ground, stomping it out. Thomas Flynn and his group of armed thugs were two blocks away, waiting Tracy's confirmation that the coast was clear before moving into the area. The fact that Belyakov's men hadn't showed up until a half hour before the meet spoke volumes to Tracy. The chances of a wrinkle happening in the hostage exchange was very slim. If a double-cross did take place, Belyakov's men would have beaten Tracy here... or so he imagined. Tracy pulled his flip phone out and texted the number Flynn gave him to contact when he was ready.

Right at midnight, the black SUV carrying Flynn, his men, and Anton Belyakov rolled down the street and parked by the harbor entrance. Tracy stayed where he was and watched the party of five climb out of the car. Flynn walked by himself with two guards flanking him while one carried Anton. The boy seemed spooked and unsure of what was going on. Tracy felt for the kid. Hopefully this would all be over.

Tracy went still when he saw one of the men he marked as Belyakov approach Flynn's party. Words were exchanged between the man and Flynn that lasted for nearly twenty seconds. Tracy read the displeasure in Flynn's face at once. The party started stalking back to the SUV. Tracy gave them a long leash before walking towards his car. The Russians were sending them somewhere else. That made sense to Tracy. Flynn's choice of the harbor would upset a lot of criminals because of its openness meant plenty of room for a double cross or police interference. Belyakov was trying to get the upper hand by moving the venue on them.

He followed the SUV distantly in his Charger, never losing sight of the car's taillights. His phone rang just as he followed the big car onto the freeway.

"These ********ers are ****ing with us," Flynn said loudly into his phone. "They moved the meet to Rucka Park!"

"I'm right behind you," Tracy said. "I'll be there when you do the exchange."

"You better be."

The phone went click and Tracy tossed it into the passenger seat as he accelerated to catch up the SUV.

Tracy led the procession to the middle of the empty soccer field. Flynn, Anton, and the goons walked close behind him. At midfield was another small group of people. The faces Tracy recognized well, Konstantin Belyakov and his goons with Linda Flynn. Her tight club outfit with torn in spots and she was barefoot. The thick mascara from the night before was all runny and made her eyes look like the rings around a raccoon's eyes. Konstantin Belyakov carried a thick briefcase in one hand.

"Boris I presume," Flynn said once the two parties had met.

"Here is money," Belyakov snarled, holding up the briefcase. One of his men pushed Linda Flynn forward. "Here is ****e daughter. Now, give me son."

One of Flynn's guards walked Linda over to the other side of the meeting while Tracy took the briefcase. He began to start Anton back over towards his father when Flynn held out a hand.

"Not yet," he said with a finger wave. "I want to count the money."

He took the case from Tracy and opened it up. Tracy saw the nervous look on Belaykov's face and knew trouble was coming. The Russian mob was successful, but not successful enough to round up a million dollars in cold, hard cash in under twelve hours. Flynn laid the case down and started to sort through the money. Tracy saw about half a million dollars on top... followed by shredded newspaper below.

"You mother****ers," Flynn said as he looked up. "You lying mother****ers!"

"I could not get that much money in so little time," Belyakov shouted back.

"But you expect me to get ****ing five million dollars in the same about of time?!"

Tracy pushed Anton Belyakov behind his back as both sides started to reach for their weapons.

"You bit off more than you could chew, Boris! Somebody kill this *******."

Tracy pushed little Anton down and fell on top of him as the shooting started.

Hyde Park
Boston, MA
3:14 AM

Parker lit a match and chucked it into the Altima. The flames hit the gas soaked in the seats and floorboards caught fire rapidly. He walked away from the burning car, leaving behind almost all of his share of the robbery spree. Steiss and Mitchell hit the bricks after they split the take three ways. Parker stayed behind to get rid of the car.

Three quarters of a million dollars. That's what was going up in flames behind him. Save for twenty grand for expenses and folding money, Parker had made sure to burn it all so the cops and the people who pulled their strings knew that all the theft and violence of the last two days was not about money.

He wanted the Vasco Family to know it was personal. He wanted them to hurt.

Captain America snuck quietly through the STAR Labs facility. He hadn't run into another set of guards after coming inside. It was odd, he had to admit. Two men by the entrance, and none roaming the halls. Even more worrying was the fact that he had been unable to hail Sam since the two men entered the building. There must have been some sort of jamming frequency running through the lab. Might have been intended to keep any secrets from escaping the walls of the facility. Who knew. But it was certainly interfering with Cap's ability to do his job.

"This is not what I was hoping for," Cap grumbled as he continued down the hall toward the main lab. The directions were marked well enough. That made the lack of goons even more worrying. Batroc and his boys knew whoever was sent against them would find them quickly.

And they didn't care.

It wasn't that Batroc and the Brigade were sloppy. Far from it. They were good at what they did, especially when it came to stealing something. This wasn't a slip up. This wasn't an accident. They wanted someone to walk in and try and stop them. Which means there was more than likely a trap lying in wait. Leaving only one thing to do...spring the trap.

Cap reached the end of the hallway and the main lab, still without seeing another soul. He shifted the shield on his arm and prepared to breach the room. Without really knowing what was on the other side, he took a deep breath before moving a few steps back. Figuring it was now or never, Steve broke into a sprint towards the doors. When the unbreakable shield made contact with the doors, they blew off their hinges and clattered across the floor of the lab.

Before he could really see what was on the inside, however, he had to raise his shield to deflect a projectile that was screaming towards him. The cold, steel sphere bounced harmlessly off the vibranium shield. Cap lowered the shield slowly, and found himself staring down Sportsmaster, who tossed another sphere up and down in one hand, "Well, well...look what the cat dragged in."

Sportsmaster, real name Lawrence Crock, was a former All-American in three different sports. After an injury sidelined his career for good, he was led into a life of crime by Batroc. He was strong, agile, and deadly with a slew of sports-themed weapons. Sure, the sports thing was tacky, but he was still more intimidating than Condiment King.

"Crock," Cap nodded at him. "It's been a while."

"Too long, boy scout," Sportsmaster chuckled as he tossed the final projectile at the Avengers. Cap blocked it easily, but was surprised to find Sportsmaster almost on top of him, now brandising a metal bat. He wailed away at the shield, backing Cap up a few paces. "You've lost a step. Can't fight without your friends, huh?"

Cap spun out of the way as Crock came down with another strike, then drove his fist across Sportsmaster's chin, sending him stumbling backwards, "Swing and a miss, Lawrence."

Unfortunately, Cap's victory was short lived, as a concussive beam slammed into his back. He tumbled across the floor of the lab before being able to deflect the beam away with his shield. He looked up to find Swordsman laughined from a platform above, "En garde, Captain!"

"Great," Cap mumbled.


Falcon saw Batroc load a case into a truck, giving the hero two options. One, he could continue to look for Steve. Being out of touch with him was hampering their plan. Two, Sam could follow Batroc. He had taken down worse than him on his own before. But it was still risky, and this all still smelled fishy.

As Batroc pulled out of the loading dock, however, Sam had no choice. He'd have to stop the tech from falling into the wrong hands.


"He's on the move," the Winter Soldier said into his comm. "In pursuit."

The assassin revved up his motorcycle and sped off in pursuit of Falcon and Batroc, his plan falling perfectly into place.


Somewhere Else

"....I just wanna go home...." Jonathan Kent muttered between sobs, hugging his knees as he curled on what he hoped was a large boulder overlooking a wide, flat plain of utter madness.

He'd seen thousands of shadow people skitter on their bellies across rocky fields, scrambling into cavernous holes that only revealed what they really were when they began to chew them up and swallow.

He'd watched birds with flattened heads scream in human voices as they swooped down and splattered themselves against a hundred-mile-long worm.

He'd seen lumps of mold spring up from cracks in the dirt and form an elaborate fancy-dress dinner party, complete with dozens of guests babbling in total gibberish, ending when all involved very politely stabbed each other to death before dissolving into clouds of spores.

Jon looked as far as he could, scanning the horizon as hard as his superhuman senses would let him, trying to find something that made any sense. Even the land itself was insane; it didn't matter how far he looked or how high he jumped, he couldn't find a horizon line. Somehow, this world had no curvature, a flat plane on all sides.

He knew none of this was real. This was all some crazy, bad dream, and any minute now he'd wake up and be safe in his bed, and all of this would be forgotten.

Except he couldn't. Try as he might, he could not wake up.

"Jon?" He startled when he heard a familiar voice coming up from behind him. "Jonathan? Is that you?"

Jon looked around, and saw that climbing up the rock face below was a skinny, red-haired man with a bow tie and a camera slung around his neck.

".....Uncle Jimmy?!"

"Oh thank God," Jimmy Olsen said with a relieved laugh, "I thought I was going crazy."

Scrambling down the rock face, Jonathan rushed to meet his dad's friend and hug him.....but stopped just short.

"Wait," he said, taking a few wary steps back. "Are.....are you....."

Jimmy shook his head.

"I'm not one of those things," he said. "I was talking to your mom about where you might be, and she said we should call Superman, and then.....then I woke up here just a second ago."

The red-headed photographer looked around, taking in the geometrically paradoxical rock formations that folded in on themselves, the crackles of purple lightning that arced down from TV-static clouds, the giant balding head that dragged itself across the ground by a single hairy arm sprouted from its top while it muttered about calling its mother.

"God," he mused, "it's like if Hunter S. Thompson went on a really bad trip with Bosch, Escher, and Giger."


"People you'll hear about if you hang out with the weird kids in college," Jimmy waved off the question. "Oh man, this is really bad."

"....do you know where we are?" Jonathan asked.

"Maybe," Jimmy answered. "Superman told me about a place like this one time, where everything's all backwards and messed-up and impossible. If this is the same place, we might be in trouble."

"....so.....what do we do?"

Jimmy shrugged.

"We should probably keep moving," he said. "I don't think it's safe to be out here in the open. I thought I saw something that looked like a city not far that way. Maybe it's less crazy there."

"....maybe," Jon nodded, uncertain about anything as he and Uncle Jimmy began a long walk through a place that didn't make any sense, wandering in a nightmare he couldn't wake up from.

The Cube
S.H.I.E.L.D. Black Facility, Mojave Desert

"It's called the Underverse," I say, still unable to make eye contact with the person bound in the detainment cell in front of me. "The best way I can describe it is that it's like the feedback sound you get when you hold two live microphones together. Only on a universal scale. A place where every vibration on the quantum scale produces matter and energy that's a warped and twisted reflection of another universe. Reed Richards believes this particular iteration of the Underverse was created as an echo of two previous universes, which collided and absorbed each other to become our current one. And it's potentially the most dangerous place in all of existence."

My 'host' doesn't look up. He doesn't even acknowledge my presence.

"There's an Earth in the Underverse," I continue, "A backwards and impossible Earth, but an Earth nonetheless. 'Bizarro-Earth,' Jimmy called it."

For a moment, his eyebrow raises slightly at the mention of Jimmy, before his face falls back into stone-set darkness.

"Someone I care about is trapped on that Earth," I say. "He's powerful, like us, but he's alone and inexperienced, and probably scared half to death. I have to go there, to find him and bring him back. And I need your help."

Again, this gets no response. I might as well be talking to a brick wall.

"To get there," I explain, "Reed Richards has been developing a device, based around the 'universe feedback' idea. To travel between here and the Underverse, I need to create a feedback frequency of my own. And to do that, I need to combine my own DNA with samples of the DNA of a Superman from another universe. And that's where you come in."

With great effort and discomfort, he shifts against his restraints, and finally speaks.

".....and why....would I help you?" Ultraman asks.

"Because you've been where I'm at before," I answer. "And I don't think you'd want another one of us to wind up where you are now."

An iteration of myself from a parallel world, 'Ultraman' lived the worst nightmare I've ever had, losing everyone he loved. It began a slow but deadly spiral that saw him forsake everything he held sacred, turn on his friends and allies, and ultimately become the very thing that he swore to protect his world against: a madman, a butcher, and a tyrant.

After conquering his own world, Ultraman and his 'Justice Lords' launched an incursion into this world, hoping to bring his cold and fascistic image of 'order' onto every other world in existence. With the combined help of his world's remaining resistance, we were able to stop them, but only just.

In the following trial, it was settled that he would be kept on this Earth, where a united League would be better prepared to stop him if he broke free. Now, Ultraman is the single greatest and most dangerous secret SHIELD keeps from the world, his very existence known to fewer than five people, myself included.

"Losing someone you loved was what started you down your path," I say to him, hoping to get through. "You know, better than anyone, the kind of pain that causes, what it can do to someone with our kind of power. This is a chance to stop that kind of tragedy....and maybe to redeem yourself a bit from all the things you've done."

"The person....you lost...." Ultraman says. "....who is it?"

"You know I can't say that," I tell him, gesturing to the cameras in the corners of his cell. Beyond that, every micrometer of the cell has hidden microphones, seismic sensors, air pressure recorders, a myriad of clandestine methods of knowing everything that goes on in this place.

"....tell me....." he demands, "....or you get nothing."

I pause for a moment, considering my options.......and then I release a broad beam of Heat Vision throughout the cell, frying every piece of surveillance equipment in the place. SHIELD must have spent hundreds of millions lining this place; I'm sure they can afford to do it again. Besides, even with the surveillance going down, the constant exposure to red-solar lamps, Ultraman's not going anywhere any time soon.

Satisfied that nobody else is listening in, I finally answer.

"It's my son."

"....your son?" he says, looking up at me, his eyes full of sadness and hurt. "...I was.....we were....going to have....a daughter....."

"Then you'll help me?" I emplore.

Ultraman looks at me for a moment, his bitterness and enmity giving way to pity.....

....then he spits at my face, a wad of saliva and mucous splatting against the transparent-titanium cell door.

"You want...my DNA? ...use that," he hisses, his voice weary but still full of hate. I look away again, both because I'm disappointed at my failure to get through to my double, and fear that I could just as easily have that same darkness in me if things go wrong.

I cautiously open the cell door, collect his 'sample' of DNA in a vial Richards had provided for me, then lock him back in.

"I'm sorry for everything you've lost," I say to him as I begin to leave, "but I won't let myself go down the same path."

At this, he actually laughs, a bitter, mirthless chuckle.

"Don't you sound.....so sure of yourself...." he says, shaking his head. "Sounds....familiar....."


"Okay, I was wrong," Jimmy Olsen said, shuddering behind a bench as he looked around, "maybe going into the city isn't any safer."

If the wastelands were chaos, the city was utter pandemonium. Impossible structures climbed high into the inky-black clouds of smog that hung above them, towers and arches that were just geometrically wrong and hurt the eyes to look at. Buses with faces like giant lampreys hurled themselves down the streets, slamming into buildings and other freakish vehicles alike.

And the people......if they could be called that. They shambled about with only the faintest hint of control over their limbs, their skin the texture and color of rice pudding. Their 'faces' were mismatched lumps and impressions where eyes and mouths should be, occasionally letting out an inarticulate moan or a string of mumbled gibberish.

Crawling along the surface of a row of buildings was what appeared to be an enormous dog's head, supported by eight long, knobby spider legs. it happily panted and yipped, before pouncing on one of the mush-people and ripping it to pieces. Some of them stopped and began clapping for it.

"We need to get out of here," Jon said, not sure what to do but more than anything that they weren't any safer here than out in the wastelands.

"Yeah, I think you're right," Jimmy nodded. "Stay close to me, Jon, and keep your head down. I'm gonna try to--.....wait!"

Looking upwards, Jimmy nudged Jon on the shoulder.

"I think I see something!" he said, excitement growing as he pointed to a speck in the clouds. "Yeah, yeah, look! Up in the--"


Before he could finish his sentence, the speck became a blur, which rocketed down like a comet and slammed headlong into the ground. Jonathan was sent flying by the impact, losing Jimmy in the cloud of dust and debris kicked up by the impact.

"Jimmy!" Jon called out. "Uncle Jimmy! Are you okay?"

As the smoke began to clear, Jonathan saw an enormous crater had formed where the object had hit. And in the center of that crater, he saw a figure emerge.

"What's......who is....."

The figure was large, but slumped over, like it had difficulty holding itself up. It grunted, and for a second, the voice sounded familiar.

Then he saw it, and Jon's heart skipped a beat. That red cape. He'd know it anywhere.

"Dad!" he cried out, so elated that he entirely forgot to keep his father's secret identity around Jimmy. "Oh my gosh, Dad, you're here! I knew you'd--"

Jonathan stopped dead in his tracks. The dust and smoke had finally cleared, and as the figure pulled itself to its feet, he saw that whatever it was, it wasn't his father......

.....it wasn't his father at all......
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"Mothers of Azerath, hear me," Raven begins her incantation again, kneeling and resting one hand on Barbara's forehead while the other makes signs and patterns above the semi-conscious woman laid out on the couch. "This one has been wounded in the service of good. Bind her wounds, I beseech you, and make her pain my own."

I find myself pacing back and forth nervously in the main room of Titans Tower, my immediate thoughts on my friends' safety, but being pestered by a hundred memories fluttering up and around inside my mind.

That couch, the long, semicircular sofa that dominated the room, was where Beast Boy, Cyborg, and I would play video games until dawn.

It was where I'd sit in the still hours of the night, brooding after a disastrous encounter with Deathstroke or Doctor Light, plotting the strategies that would take them down.

It was where I sat Starfire down and told her all my feelings for her.

And it was where I sat, alone and fighting back tears, long after my friends went their separate ways and told me to go to hell.

It's only when Barbara suddenly takes in a quick, urgent gasp of air that I realize that the couch from back in the day was a completely different color. It must have been replaced and thrown out years ago.

"Feeling better?" Raven asks as Barbara pulls herself up to a seated position.

"Much better," she nods, tenderly putting a hand to where the bullet wound used to be, surprised that it was gone without so much as a bruise. "I still feel a little, I don't know......greasy? Like my mind was just dipped in sludge."

Rachel nods like it's the most natural thing in the world. "That's the residual effects of making a minor Faustian bargain with beings from another plane," she explains. "Even with a mostly benevolent entity, some corruption of the soul is inevitable when performing unnatural tissue regeneration. I kept the brunt of it to myself, but you may have a little bit of a spiritual stain-- I wouldn't worry about that, though; you're a superhero with a long list of good deeds, so you'll be fine in the long run. That 'greasy' feeling in your soul should go away in a day or two."

"Oh, um.....thank you," Barbara says, uneasily. As crazy as things get in Gotham, supernatural stuff is pretty rare, so I guess she never really got a lot of active experience around magic. "So I'm gonna be okay?"

Raven shrugs, barely interested at this point.

"I recommend taking it easy," she says. "You may have a minor concussion. Tissue damage and broken bones I can handle, but brain damage is permanent, and that sort of thing requires miracle work. And the people who do miracles, well.....they don't like me very much."

".....ah. Right," Barbara nods, a disappointed sort of understanding on her face as she and Rachel both glance at her wheelchair. For a moment, Raven's normally stoic expression gives way to a deep sadness, apologetic and full of sympathy. She practically says out loud 'I would if I could,' before looking away.

"Anyway, you should probably stay the night to make sure the charms are set," she says, standing up and scooping up the leather-bound spellbook next to her on the floor. "We can set you up in one of the extra rooms."

"I, erm, I guess I'll need a spare room, too," I finally pipe up.

Rachel shoots me a poisonous glare.

"You get to sleep on a couch," she says. "If only because we don't have a doghouse."

"You're all heart, Rachel," I say with a sneer. "Anyway, now that Barb's okay, I really need to see Kory and--"

"I didn't forget, keep your shirt on for once," she says testily. "I'll go get her, she's probably finished her training session by now. In the meantime, Barbara, make yourself at home. And as for you? Don't wander off, don't touch anything, don't talk to any of the new Titans, don't look at any of the new Titans, just stand here and keep quiet until Kory decides what to do with you."

I snap to attention, with a "Yes ma'am" and a mock salute, to which she responds with an evil eye before leaving the room, muttering curses (maybe literal ones) under her breath.

As the door closes behind her, I glance around and see Barbara looking at me with a knowing grin.

"What?" I ask.

"It's shameless how she flirts with you," she says, stopping just shy of a wink.

"What, Raven?" I scoff. "I'm pretty sure she'd kill me if she thought she could get away with it."

"Oh, I know," she nods, "It's sweet, really."

"That's one word for it," I say, my face still burning with annoyance. "I've had arch-enemies who have a higher opinion of me than she does."

"Weren't you two close back in the day?" she asks, raising an eyebrow.

"'Close' didn't really cut it," I answer. "When the team first started, we were inseparable. The Titans were her idea, y'know that? I mean, I'd done the whole sidekick-team-up thing with Wally and Donna and Roy a few times before, but Raven was the one who had the idea for a permanent team. She sought me out first, and the two of us put the rest of the team together. Since we were the first two, we went through the most together, and just kinda bonded that way. By the end, we knew each other inside and out, could tell what the other was thinking just by looking at them. I've had plenty of friends and lovers, but Rachel was the only time I ever felt like I had a soul-mate."

"So what happened?"

I sigh, sad and tired.

"It all went to hell," I say with a shrug. "A bunch of emotional twentysomethings all living in the same place with no chaperone? It was always going to be just a matter of time before the whole thing blew up. Cyborg graduated up to the League, Beast Boy went off the grid completely, I holed up in Blüdhaven, and Star--"


As if on cue, one of the hallway doors open, and floating a few inches off the ground is the most beautiful woman on the planet. Her hair catches the light just perfectly, her emerald eyes seem to glitter on their own, her every movement is the very definition of otherworldly grace.

Flanking her are two of the new Titans--Superboy and Miss Martian, by the looks of them-- and bringing up the rear is Raven, who leans against the doorjamb and glares.

"Forgive my delay," she says as she floats toward me. "I was unaware it was you; Raven only informed me that 'some ass-hole' was here to see me."

Kory lifts herself another foot or so off the ground, her usual precursor to swooping down and scooping me into a big dramatic embrace......but then she stops, and sets her feet back on the ground awkwardly.

"It's....um....it's good to see you again," I start, not really sure what to do with myself.

"Yes, erm, likewise," Starfire nods in a sort of stiff cordiality. She looks over my shoulder and sees Barbara. "And may I extend our welcome to you as well, erm...."

"This is, um, Oracle," I introduce Barb for her. "She's an.....associate."

"That's Barbara Gordon," Raven chimes in curtly. "You know, formerly Batgirl? Dick's hoping you wouldn't recognize her so he could avoid embarrassment."

"Well, no getting around that now," Barb says, offering a handshake. "It's been a while, Starfire."

"Ah! Of course! My apologies; I did not recognize you without your mask," Kory says, taking her hand and shaking it warily. Back when she was Batgirl, Barb bumped into the Titans a couple of times, when we were together and, well....after. While they never had an outright confrontation, it was always pretty clear that Barbara and Kory were not fans of each other.

"Megan, Connor?" Star says brightly, turning to face her students, "Don't you still have chores to complete before breaking for supper?"

The green-skinned girl looks puzzled for a moment, then says with a start "Oh! Right! Silly me, heh, he-llo Megan! Connor, could you help me clean out the lint traps in the laundry room?"

I can practically see the message go sailing over Superboy's head.

"But I already did that this--*oof!*"

Miss Martian nudges him in the ribs with her elbow, and leads him out of the room by the hand. With the kids leaving to let the grown-ups talk, Star turns back to me, the bright and pleasant look on her face replaced with one that's all business.

"Raven said you had a message for me?" she asks, her arms crossed.

"Umm, yeah," I say. "Earlier today, Barbara was attacked by an enemy of mine, a guy called the Red Hood."

"Another former Robin," Barbara adds in, "originally meant to be Dick's replacement. Now he's basically what Dick would be if he were a homicidal lunatic."

"Pretty much," I say. "Anyway, when I fought him, Hood said he was going to go after everyone I've been...close with. And that means you're probably next on his list."

"Define 'close,'" Raven says from near the doorway. "Because if that means anyone you've ever fooled around with, he's going to be gunning for every living thing with a leotard and a uterus."

"Come on, I'm not that bad," I say defensively.

"You're pretty bad," Barbara interjects, grinning slyly.

"Richard's above-average libido notwithstanding," Starfire brings the conversation back on track, "I appreciate the advance warning. I will make sure the Tower's defenses are operational, and that the Titans are on full alert. If this Red Hood makes an attempt on my life, I will take him down without hesitation."

"I wouldn't take him lightly," I caution her. "This guy's got weapons and training from the best in the world, both from the good guys and bad. He's not going to make a move on the Tower unless he's got a game plan all figured out. Think Deathstroke all over again, but younger, angrier, and with more to prove."

"I see," Star says, considering her options. "I will take extra precautions, then. And perhaps I should send word to the League and the other former Titans to take precautions as well."

"Not a bad idea," I say, glad she's taking the threat seriously but still not satisfied. "And hey, erm, I know it's a long shot, but back when....y'know, the team split.....I left some of my gear here. A couple of gadgets, an old suit. You guys didn't, like, throw it out, or--"

"Your things are in storage," Star answers, "I can find them for you, so you may equip yourself in the event of another attack."

"...cool," I say with a bit of relief; it's probably going to be a while before I get back to Blüdhaven, and I don't like the idea of going twelve rounds with Jason Todd without any gear, old or not. "And, um, hey, while I'm here, maybe I could teach the new team a thing or two just so they know to--"

"That....won't be possible, I'm afraid," Star says.

"Why not?"

Starfire glances back to Raven, then sighs.

"Richard," she says, "Do you know why Batman does not lead the Justice League?"

"Because he's a domineering, manipulative psychopath who ruins the lives of everyone around him?" I say, my mouth running off before my mental filter can catch up.

"Hmph," Raven chortles. "Reminds me of someone."

I sneer at Rachel before Starfire continues.

"In order to thrive, a team must have the utmost confidence in their leader," she says, "and that is impossible without trust. During your time as our leader, you often kept secrets from us. You would deceive us, under the pretense that we were 'better off' not knowing the truth. Even after all this time, you have yet to be honest about why our relationship ended. Because you did not trust us."

She looks away, floating towards the framed picture on the wall of the old team and turning her attention towards it.

"I still believe the Titans have the potential to be a major force for good," she says. "That is why Raven and I returned to the Tower and assembled a new team. This time, however, we operate on a policy of total openness. Everyone here can speak their minds, express their feelings, trust each other with their deepest thoughts. There are no secrets here, no deceptions, no lies...."

"Basically, no you," Raven finishes for her, her voice laced with contempt.

The silence that follows is thick and oppressive. Star and Raven make it plain that their decision may not have been an easy one, but that it was final.

"....I....um....I guess I deserve that," I mutter, unable to look Kory in the eye. "....I'm sorry."

"As am I," she says sadly. "I still think of you fondly, Richard. I treasured our time together, and I admire your skills as a warrior and as a hero. Beyond that, however.....I'm afraid I can no longer trust you."

I close my eyes and nod, unable to raise any kind of defense.

"Thank you again for the warning," she says, returning to a more cordial tone. "I will have your things brought to you shortly. You may stay for the night while Barbara recuperates. In the morning, we will arrange transportation to get you home."

She nods in a sort of semi-formal half-bow, before walking out of the room. It's one of the few times I've ever seen her travel on foot; I guess my being here doesn't make her feel like flying quite so much.

"I'd better get your room set up" Raven says to Barbara as her excuse to leave. "I'll get Jaime to set up a station for you to take care of your Oracle stuff while you're here. Word of warning, though: the wi-fi here sucks."

As Rachel leaves, Barb wheels up to me and gives me another knowing look. This time, though, there's nothing playful or sly about it.

"You cheated on Star, didn't you?"

".....yeah," I answer, now no longer to look anyone, not even her, in the eye.

"Who was it with?"

I take in a deep breath, wrestling with the answer, before I finally give up.

"....doesn't matter," is all I manage.

She looks me over, inspecting every micro-movement and physical tell I've got, before shaking her head.

"You're an ass," she says, before heading towards the door and down the hallway after Rachel.

"I know," I say, not knowing or caring if she heard me.

Alone, I pace back and forth for a moment, then sink down onto the couch, holding my head in my hands.

"Damn it."
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Top-Floor Living Room, Titans Tower
San Francisco, CA
Four Years Ago

The low and steady drumming of rain thumps against the windows, the storm obscuring the view of the city from the bay. As big and open as the room is, the air feels stuffy, unbearably hot. In the heat and the darkness, I sit on the edge of the couch, trying to breathe, holding my head in my hands.

I'm sore and I'm spent. There are dozens of angry red scratches from fingernails raking across my back. There are three painful bite marks on the side of my neck, and a fourth on my inner thigh, not enough to break the skin but enough to last for days.

She's curled up on the other side of the couch, knees pulled in tight to her chest, fighting back tears.

"Damn it," Raven says, cursing the both of us. "Damn it, damn it, damn it....."

"I know," I say, staring at the floor. "I liked it too."

"That's not funny," she spits angrily.

"No.....it's really not."

Neither of us know what to say next, so we sit there, hating ourselves, as the storm washes over the Tower.

Rachel had been with Beast Boy for a few months now, comforting him in his sorrow after the incident with Terra. In the meantime, Star and I had begun looking for a place in the city to live together, and while I hadn't officially asked the big question, I'd tapped Bruce to help me look for a ring. After all, I'd joked, after all that time he spent around Catwoman, he had to know a few things about diamonds.

That left little time for either of us to hang out, to talk about our usual drama, to hear each other's take on what should happen next. While both of us were happy, Rachel and I had become distant. We weren't on the same page anymore. As Gar and Kory took up more of our respective lives, we knew we were slowly becoming strangers.

When Star led Vic and Gar to Tokyo for some hijinks with an ink monster, Rachel and I stayed behind to hold the fort. Alone together for the first time in ages, we had it out. Every bit of dirty laundry, every ugly memory, every thing we'd ever wish we'd said but couldn't, got aired out.

All that repression and frustration gave way to desire and passion.

And once we'd finished, that desire and passion gave way to guilt. And shame.

"What do we do?" Raven asks. "You're the one who has plans for everything, what do we--"

"I don't know," I cut her off. "I just....I don't know, okay?"

There's another long pause, before Rachel starts again.

"Gar can't know about this," she says. "He's still hurting from what happened with Terra. If he finds out.......it'll kill him."

Searching my mind for answers, I feel my fingers pulling my hair so hard I may rip it all out.

"Kory's going to find out," I say. "Her empathic powers, the next time she kisses me, or if we......she'll feel my thoughts. She'll know what happened."

It kills me to even think of the suggestion, but it's the only option I've got.

"Maybe I can, I dunno.....trick it with a false memory," I say. "Lie to myself, just enough that it can throw her off. I won't be able to hide what I did, but maybe if I think of someone else at the time....."

She looks up, hurt and indignant.

"You'd just write me out?" she asks. "Pretend I didn't mean anything to you, and tell her it was, what, Batgirl again?"

I shrug, not able to provide a better answer.

"You said it yourself, Gar can't know," I say. "I'm going down for this one way or another, but at least....at least you'll be clear of it."

She doesn't say she's okay with it, but she doesn't protest any further.

".....Dick," she says, "....it's over."

"You and Gar, or you and me?"

"All of us," she answers. "You and me, me and Gar, you and Kory, the whole team. It's over. They don't know it yet, but the Titans are dead. We just killed them."

I don't know what to say. I don't know what to do.

More than anything, I want to go over to her. To hold her, kiss her one more time, tell her everything will be okay as long as we have each other.

But I know that would only make things worse.

Outside, thunder rolls over the bay.

"I'm sorry," is all I can manage.

Picking myself up, I slowly head to the corridor to my room. There's nothing I can do to make it better now. I was their leader. They trusted me, believed in me, and in return, I betrayed them. I stabbed the girl I love in the back, and I'd broken my best friend's heart.

"If it's any consolation," I say, weakly, as I stand in the doorway, "I wasn't lying. I really did mean it, when I said that I love you."

Rachel chokes back a sob, and looks at me with reddened, tear-stained eyes.

"That's the worst part," she says. "I meant it, too."

"You guys are really getting on my nerves," Cap said as he deflected another shot from Swordsman's weapon. It ricocheted off towards Sportsmaster, who lept out of the way. The beam of energy slammed into the wall of the secure lab, blowing a fresh chunk into it. The two had done little but dance around the Captain. They weren't a physical match for him in a straight fight, and they knew it. But the fact that they were doing so little to engage added to the air of uncertainty Cap still had about this mission. Everything the Brigade was doing was uncharacteristic. "Let's go back to Stryker's Island and we can all have a little chat."

"You'd like that, wouldn't you, boy scout?" the Swordsman mocked. "But you haven't even come close to touching us."

"Yea, well, I was playing nice," Steve responded through gritted teeth. The villain wasn't wrong though. They had stayed out of his reach by working together. It was a game of straight cat and mouse, and so far the mice were winning.

"Maybe Captain America is losing a step," Sportsmasted taunted as he tossed a string of darts the superhero's way. One managed to break trhough the super soldier's defenses, but didn't manage to break the armor of his gear. Unfortunately, it wasn't meant to. The dart exploded with a concussive force, taking Cap's legs from underneath him. The shield hit the linoleum flood of the lab, cracking it as Steve steadied himself.

He brought it up to deflect a swipe from Swordsman, before realizing he had to end this encounter now. It had gone on too long with no contact from Sam. Something was wrong, and it was time to find out why.

Swordsman came beck around for another swing, expecting Cap to again deflect the blow away. Instead, Rogers bent himself backward, dodging the slash. This threw his opponent off balance, Cap came back to an upright pose, and drove his knee into Swordsman's shoulder. Cap felt it pop under the impact of the strike. Swordsman yelped in pain and dropped his weapon. Cap then flipped him over, slamming him into the hard floor, knocking the wind out of the villain. With his shield hand, he shattered his opponent's weapon, leaving Sportsmaster as the only threat remaining.


Falcon followed Batroc's escaping truck in the air, keeping up the best he could. Batroc was speeding through the streets of Baltimore with no regard for the traffic around him. So far Falcon had watched the thief create three accidents that could have resulted in serious injuries. He had to stop this now. Batroc knew he wasn't getting away, and he was trying to do his best to create as much havoc before he was caught. It was a normal move for him.

Falcon dove towards the truck, ready to bring this chase to an end.


The Winter Soldier took a deep breath as he peered through the scope of his rifle. He saw the birdman dive towards the truck, just as he had watched him do in hundreds of hours of film. The assassin had found that these heroes were set in their ways. They believed their gifts and abilities were infallible. They believed that they could skate by on them without changing up their routines. Maybe they could on normal occasions. The Soldier had to admit he wasn't impressed from what he saw from Batroc and his friends. They were sloppy, flamboyant, and relatively ineffective. Against foes like this, the superheroes wouldn't need to work towards something greater fighting the likes of them. It was a vicious cycle of mediocrity.

At least it was until he was put on the playingfield.

The Falcon continued his dive towards the truck, and the Winter Soldier began to exhale slowly. It was as it was hundreds of times before. One bullet for one target. He had never missed before. Every target eliminated.

As the last of his breath left his body, the Winter Soldier fired.


Firey pain exploded through Falcon's body as his flight pack exploded. Shrapnel dug into his back, causing wounds to spray blood into the air as he started to free fall. Falcon could feel the consciousness slipping away as he tumbled through the air. As the darkness closed around Sam Wilson, he trew his wings up, hoping to slow his descent. The concrete sped towards him as Falcon blacked out.


Sportsmaster through everything he had at Cap while the superhero progressed towards him. Alone, the villain stood little chance against Cap, who warned, "You want to do this, Crock? You know it's gonna hurt."

"I ain't givin' myself up," Lawrence Crock snarled at Captain America. "You wanna take me down? Then take me down."

Rogers figured this would be the case. Crock was proud, and it had always been his downfall. Still, he wasn't without honor, even if he was a criminal. Cap moved in, and Sportsmaster fell into a judo stance. He was a capable hand-to-hand combatant, though he couldn't keep up with a superhuman. But he was out of weapons and without other options. He hung back in a defensive posture, waiting for Cap to make the first move. It was the wise course of action in an equal fight.

It didn't matter here. Cap advanced, throwing a feint right hook. When Sportsmaster went to block the blow, Cap spun around and delivered a devastating elbow to the back of the villain's head. It cracked his helmet and sent him face-first into the floor. He groaned into unconciousness.

Steve took off into a sprint towards the front of the building, where he found the tracks of Batroc's truck and the emergency sirens that lined them. Batroc had gotten out, and if Steve knew Sam, Falcon had followed. He continued running down the street, helping where he could. He pulled a family out of a burning car, and lifted a car to free a dog from a grisly fate. There were others, of course, and all thanked him profusely.

But as he followed the trail, a pit began to form in his stomach. He came to find a spot where SHIELD helicopters hovered above. There stood Nick Fury. He turned, and his face dropped when he saw Steve, "Cap."

"What happened?"

"Falcon fell," Fury sighed. "Shot through his pack. It exploded on him. Managed to slow himself down before he hit...but it doesn't look good. We airlifted him out."

Captain America cursed himself. He knew something was wrong with this mission, yet he did nothing. Now Sam had paid the price.

"Who was it?"

"We don't know."

"Well I'm going to find out."
Peter and Miles sat on a rooftop overlooking Manhattan, both of them sipping on coffee. Parker felt that after stopping a few car thieves the kid could use a little down time to talk. After they strung up the perpetrators, reporters swarmed them, asking Miles about the incident from days before. Spider-Man could tell it bothered the younger hero, so they swung by and picked up some lattes.

It hadn't been an easy time for the young hero. While the official statement from the NYPD absolved him of any wrongdoing, public opinion wasn't so forgiving. The talk shows had been pondering if the Scarlet Spider was truly innocent, and if he had gone rogue, what was the reason. Peter had tried to tell the boy to ignore the press and try to stay off social media, but that wasn't an easy thing for a teenager to do. Peter had been in the same position as Miles was. He was a kid with more power and more responsibility than any kid could ever dream of. When you can barely control your hormones you've got little chance of controlling your media intake.

"I mean, come on," he protested, "I helped take down the Spider Slayers! I saved the mayor like two times! What else do they want from me!?"

"It honestly doesn't matter," Peter chuckled. These were all thoughts Peter himself had at one time or another. When he broke the Goblin's grip on New York he expected to be hailed as a hero. Instead, he was framed for the murder of Norman Osborn, the true identity of the Green Goblin. Osborn had impaled himself on his own glider, his hubris and insanity killing him in the end. Still, it's easy to blame a superhero for the death of a billionaire. "When people get an idea in their head they can make money on, they're going to push it. Wondering if a hero in the city turned bad gets eyeballs and clicks. It gets people talking, which gets more clicks. I know it's hard, but you need to know they don't mean it."

"Does it matter if they mean it?" he asked sincerely.

Spider-Man pondered the question for a moment, "I think it does. You're good at this, Miles. You're a hero. Keep being one and they won't have any reason to question it."

"But we're still patrolling together?"

Peter had decided that since the incident it would be a good idea for the two of them to work together. That way Miles would have an alabi should any more questions arise. It might not work, in the end, but it was worth a try. Not to mention it restricted the area they could patrol. Trying to ease the populace was the important thing for now. They'd be able to handle the rest afterwards.


"It's performing surprisingly well," the one man rasped as they watched the black figure pace in its quarters. The creature had been a stroke of genius, he had to admit, which was hard for him to do. "I have to congratulate you."

"I'm honored," the other smiled a hideous smile. "Praise from you is hard to come by, though I couldn't have done it without you."

"No, you couldn't have," Otto Octavius responded. "But with our genius together we may have finally created a weapon that can kill the Spider-Man."

"Venom is the perfect weapon," Miles Warren, better known as the Jackal, spoke as a proud father. "Once it disposes of the wall crawler we'll be able to sell it off to the highest bidder to eradicate the superhero plague of Earth. Millions to kill Captain America and Batman. The possibilities are endless."

"Money doesn't interest me," Octavius waved him away. "As long as Spider-Man's dead body is at my feet I'll be satisfied."

"Revenge is the sweetest prize, my friend," The Jackal smiled. "Shall we perform another test?"



The Baxter Building, New York City

"And you're sure this is going to work?" I ask, adjusting the straps of the ramshackle harness I'm wearing, covered in a jumble of circuits and wires attached to about a hundred different gizmos I couldn't even begin to recognize.

"Sure as I can be," answers Mister Fantastic, carefully monitoring data readings while also entering in lines of code on a separate computer on the other side of the room, his arms stretched like saltwater taffy, "Which is to say, not as sure as I'd like. Assuming there are no hardware failures, and that there are no mistakes in the code I'm entering, and that my predictive coordinates for the current location of the Bizarro planet are accurate, and that Ultraman's DNA colliding with yours creates enough multiversal feedback to result in the resonance cascade powerful enough to transport you.....aaaand that my initial theories regarding the nature of the multiverse are correct........then yes, there's about a seventy-eight percent chance this works."

"What's the other twenty-two percent?" I ask, not really wanting to know.

"Ermm.....you'd cause an internalized 10-D membrane collapse, and every iteration of yourself across every iteration of spacetime would instantly cease to have ever existed," he says with a gulp. "I did say it was going to be risky putting together something this quickly. If you'd give me more time, just a few days, a week or so at the most--"

"I'm afraid I don't have that kind of time," I say, steeling my nerves. "Someone I love is trapped on that nightmare world; I can't waste any more time getting to them."

Reed pauses, trying to choose his words as carefully as he can.

"I know it's in your nature to come to the aid of those in danger as quickly as possible," he says, "But you've been to the Underverse before. You know, first-hand, just how dangerous the Bizarro planet can be. I'm not saying you should give up on this missing person, but it may behoove you to consider the most logical outcome here. There's a very real possibility that the person you're looking for is already--"

"Absolutely not," I cut him off. "I know he's still alive. I just......"

In my encounters with the world-killing AI Brainiac, I learned the sentient program had a scale by which he judged the intellects of all life forms. A First-Level Intellect, for instance, would be a simple virus or bacterium with no nervous system but still capable of survival and replication. On the other end of the spectrum, a theoretical Twentieth-Level Intellect would have complete awareness of all things in every conceivable facet of reality. Brainiac designates itself as a Twelfth-Level Intellect, and according to it, only three organic life forms have ever made it beyond Eighth-Level: the first being my father Jor-El, the second being my greatest nemesis Lex Luthor.

The third, meanwhile, is Professor Reed Richards, the man whom I've just tried to convince to trust in the power of a parent's intuition. He has to assume I'm being ridiculous, completely irrational....and maybe I am. He also must have determined the state I'd be in if anything happened to Jon and there was something I could have done about it.

After a moment's consideration, he simply nods his head.

"I'd like it on record that I'm not comfortable with this," he states, "But the odds, unsatisfactory as they may be, do point towards success."

"I trust you, Reed," I assure him. "You're the smartest person on the planet. And you've been to other universes before...."

"Parallel universes, yes, but this....." he says, "this is more of a perpendicular one, you might say. But I believe we're digressing. When you're ready, there's a ripcord on each of your shoulder straps. Pull those simultaneously, and the device will place the DNA samples of both you and Ultraman into the compact quantum accelerator and then, well......we'll see."

"Right," I say, grabbing hold of the ripcords. "On the count of three then. One...."

I close my eyes.


Hold on, Jonathan. I'm coming.


Bizarro Earth
The Underverse

Jonathan Kent tried not to make any sudden moves, carefully backing away from the hunched-over figure that looked like a backwards and inside-out version of his father. Like the other 'people' on this world, this phony Superman had skin that curdled and crawled, clothes in tattered rags, and shambled like it had no control over its own body. And if this thing was as powerful as his real dad, there was no telling just how much danger Jon was in.

Jon's eyes darted around, looking for a place to hide, somewhere he could get cover and lose the monster before--

"wHAt yOu aM nOt?" the creature gurgled, his voice a garbled, distorted mockery of Superman's, the noises sounding like an old-timey record being turned backward.

"I....don't know what you're saying," Jon said meekly, backing away as carefully as he could.

Before he could blink, however, the monster rushed towards him, looming over the young boy with blank, empty eyes and a twisted scowl.

"Me aNswEr yOu NoT agAiN...." it growled. "wHaT....yoU Am...nOt???"

"I don't know what you're saying!" Jon pleaded, trembling.

"yEs plAy sMaRt wiTh yOu," it snarled, circling him like a lion. "yOu goInG ThEre aM...rIgHt. YoU bEloNg hEre, shOuLd aLwaYs haVe cOme. pUt nONe oF bIzaRrO wOrLd iN sAfeTy!"

"....Bizarro World?" Jon repeated. One of the bedtime stories his dad used to tell him was about a Bizarro World, where everyone did everything backwards and the only way you could get anything done was to try to do the opposite of what you wanted.

He'd always thought it was just a funny story, like the ones about his dad's friends from the future or the crazy little man in the purple hat. Even after he learned his father was Superman, some things were just too crazy to have been real.

Jon guessed that those stories weren't any crazier than what he'd seen, though.

"Erm...." Jonathan cleared his throat, daring to try something. "Me....am....happy here. Me want to stay....to never go home?"

The Bizarro Superman grunted, confused.

"iT toTaLly pOsSibLe tO stAy heRe," he said, "bIzaRrO wOrlD aLwaYs lEt nOn-BizArRos sTaY. aM eVeRy wAy tO gEt oN tHiS pLanEt."

Jon pieced together what the creature was saying, and his heart sank. He and Uncle Jimmy were trapped here, forever.

"Well," he pleaded, "Can't you....erm...no think....of nothing? There, um, can't be nothing you can't do!"

"YoU dO unDeRstAnd...." the Bizarro Superman snorted. "bIzaRrO wOrLd aM liKe eArtH....nO cAn tHiNk fOr sElf. iT aM WaNt yOu hEre. bIzaRro mUst disObEy bIzArRo wOrlD...."

The monster balled its hands up into fists, and shakily raised them above its head.

"nO Am haPpY fOr tHis..." it groaned. "tO deStrOy bIzaRro wOrLd....bIzArRo mUst sAVe yOu!"

Jonathan put his hands up and clinched his eyes shut, bracing himself.....when he heard a series of quiet whooshes through the air, followed by ineffectual pings and the tinkling sound of metallic objects scattering on the ground.

He opened his eyes to see the Bizarro Superman had something lodged in his eye. It was rusty black metal, and he could barely make out its shape due to how crude and twisted it was. Still, through the warping and distortion, Jon could see it was in the shape of....

....a bat?

"aSk yOu...." boomed a voice from the shadows, emerging from an alley behind two collapsing buildings. ".....aM yOu nO hEal?"

Bizarro Superman glared at the shambling figure that stepped out from the darkness and scowled, before leaping into the skies and flying away.

"yOu wOn'T."

Jonathan stared, disbelieving, at what he was seeing. A Bizarro Batman? Were there other Bizarros on this world? He supposed there would have to be. Messed-up and backwards versions of every good guy and bad guy back home.....and what if it didn't stop there? Was there a Bizarro version of his mom? Of Uncle Jimmy?

Of himself, even?

The Bizarro Batman took two more steps forward....

....then crumpled to the ground in a heap.

"Whaa....?" Jon stammered, before he noticed something even stranger.

The Batman's arms and legs, even his head.....they all had strings attached to them. Like a big, terrible puppet.

"nO aM sOrRy, oLd wOmaN," said another voice from the shadows, this one in what sounded like a refined British accent. "seRvaNt bRuCe hAs neVeR beEn lIke tHis, siNce hiM no wAs sHot dEad by hIm paRenTs aS An adUlt. NoW hIm fiGhT a pEacE agAinSt juStiCe noNe oF tHe tiMe. hIm aNd biZarRo sUpeRmAn aM woRsT eNemiEs, bUt noBodY waNt sEe tHem fiGHt nONe oF tHe tiMe."

Jon shook his head, more confused than ever.

"Who are you?" he asked. "I mean....who aren't you? What, erm, isn't happening?"

"nO apOloGiEs," the voice said as another stumbling humanoid creature emerged, holding the strings attached to Bizarro Batman's body.

"nO aM bIzArrO aLfReD. aNd yOu, oLd wOmaN, mUsN't gO wiThoUt mE aT twIce."
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The Old Gotham Underground

"You disappoint me," rumbled the monstrous voice, darker than the shadows in which the hulking figure lurked. "I had been led to believe the Red Hood was every bit Nightwing's equal, even his superior in a direct confrontation. Yet here you are, nursing your wounds and stewing in your failure."

Jason Todd fumed, still favoring the gash in his thigh. He had already stitched himself up well enough to prevent further tissue damage, but even a flesh wound would limit his mobility ever so slightly in the long run. In the short term, moving his leg at all, much less putting his weight on it as he stood in defiance of the figure in the darkness, sent waves of near blinding pain throughout his body.

The only sign of discomfort he let on, however, was the tension in his clenched jaw and balled fists. Once one has been beaten to death and blasted to pieces, 'blinding pain' was just an annoyance.

"I'll admit, he caught me off-guard," he said brusquely. "He was carrying different gear than I'd anticipated, and reacted with more aggression. But the encounter wasn't a failure."

He heard a contemptuous snort, a short and mirthless laugh.

"Your first target is still alive," the huge, imposing figure said, "and both of them have eluded you."

"They think they've given me the slip," the Red Hood corrected him, "but I know exactly where they're going. I know how Nightwing thinks. He's running scared, looking for friends to protect him, and now he's brought all of our targets into the same place at the same time. Now we can take them all out in a single go."

"What makes you so sure there is still a 'we' after your failure?"

Jason shrugged.

"I'm still alive, aren't I?"

"For the moment," the voice answered. "I suggest you do not push your good fortune in that regard, Red Hood. Your usefulness to me is fading quickly, as is my patience."

"You're gonna have to do better than that if you want to intimidate me," he sneered. "I'm not one of your underlings."

"Indeed," he said, his booming rumble of a voice tinged with mockery, "One of my underlings would have succeeded where you failed."

"Oh-ho-hooo, so that's where you wanna take this?" Jason said, his ire raised. "Turn our alliance into a pissing contest? Or get me so mad that I tell you where to find Nightwing so you and your boys can claim my kills?"

"If your skills are so superior to those of my men," said the man in the shadows in a condescending tone, "then they will fall even more easily than you, so you have nothing to fear, yes?"

Jason considered this, and then smirked.

"Funny thing is, I know you're playing me," he said, "But you're right. He's gone to San Francisco. Titans Tower. He's going to try and link up with Targets 2 and 3. I assume your little club has agents in the city?"

"They will be upon the Tower in moments," the dark figure confirmed. "Nightwing will watch the ones he loves die in front of him, before he is brought before me to end it."

"Hang on," the Red Hood butted in. "I give you the information, I get to be the one who kills him."

"I have not forgotten the nature of our arrangement," he said, placating. "I will indeed allow you to kill him. But not before I break him."

Main Dormitory Hall, Titans Tower
San Francisco, CA

It's a weird feeling, walking through a place you know like the back of your hand, while fully aware that you're no longer welcome there. It's easy to get caught up in memories, whether the whole place has been changed or if it's just the same as you left it. But those memories, fond and painful ones alike, make you feel guilty for dwelling on them. They're not yours anymore; you lost the right to nostalgia when the place became off-limits.

That's one of many, many reasons I'll never set foot in Wayne Manor again. Barb told me that Alfred refuses to let Bruce turn my old room into guest quarters, in the hopes that one day I'll be back and pick up right where I left off. I guess it's nice he can still be an optimist after all this time. That, or he's gone just as crazy as the rest of them.

As I stroll down the hallway carrying the dusty old cardboard box where they'd been keeping my old suit and gear, I feel a tap on my shoulder.

"Excuse me," I hear as I turn to face Miss Martian, with Superboy following her like a loyal puppy. "Mr. Nightwing? We were wondering if we could ask you some questions."

I can't suppress a grin at the sound of 'Mr. Nightwing.'

"No need to be formal," I tell them, "I'm not a teacher or anything like that. In fact, Starfire's told me I'm not even allowed to talk to you new kids. Apparently I'm a bad influence."

"We know," Superboy says with the sort of 'I'm too cool to follow orders' tone Wally always tried and failed to pull off. "That's why we're back in the kitchen doing dishes right now and not talking to you."

"Or, at least, that's what everyone has the mental image of us doing," Miss Martian chimes in with a mischievous giggle.

"Heh, smooth," I laugh. "Well, I'm here under Kory's good graces for the night, so I'm not gonna go filling your impressionable young heads with subversive rot. Buuuut I guess I can't do too much damage if I answer just one question, right?"

The two of them take a moment to whisper to each other, before Superboy clears his throat and steps up.

"Okay, um," he begins. "I want to lead my own team some time, whether it's the Titans or the Justice League or something else completely. You led the original Titans back in the day, right? So, I mean.....do you have any advice for someone who wants to be a leader too?"

I look up blankly at the ceiling, considering the question, before taking in a long, deep breath.

"Yeah," I sigh. "I've got some advice: don't do anything I did. Don't keep secrets from people. Don't tell nice lies because you assume your teammates can't handle an ugly truth. Don't try and pull rank on Atlantean or Themysciran royalty. And whatever you do......do not date your teammates. Trust me, nothing good can come from it."

The two of them go wide-eyed, uncomfortably looking back and forth between myself and each other.

".....oh! Oh, jeez, I'm sorry, I didn't realize--" I sputter as the two red-faced kids noticeably shuffle away from each other. "Look, Star's right about me-- I'm a bitter old cynic who's usually wrong about everything. I, erm...I'm sure you two will be fine."

Miss Martian's eyes begin to well up, and she takes off down the hallway. Superboy shoots me an angry look, before chasing after her. Nice going, Dick-- you haven't even been in the city a full day, and you've already upset two people. You're in rare form tonight.

I eventually find the room they're letting me use for the night-- a cramped bunk space way at the end of the hall away from where everyone's staying, filled with half-unpacked boxes either from when the old team moved out or from when the new team moved in. I squeeze my way to the twin-size bed, unpack my own box of stuff, and do my best to fit into my old costume.

A few minutes later, I step back out into the hallway, uncomfortably shifting as I try to get used to the old suit again.

"Ugh," I grumble to myself, "I can't believe I used to think this looked cool."

It's a lot tighter than I remember, either because something caused the fabric to shrink over time or I'm putting on weight (I choose to believe the former), and it doesn't have a lot of the protective materials my new suit has, but as long as I can move around without accidentally splitting the crotch open, I think I should be fine.

Once I'm confident I can walk ten steps without giving myself a wedgie, I head up the hall to the room where Barbara is staying, and knock on her door.

"Come on in, heartbreaker," Barb says from inside, and I open the door. Inside, she's got a work station set up at a corner desk, with dozens of tabs open on her laptop, showing news from Gotham, security footage from everywhere from GCPD precincts to right here in the Tower.

Barb's leaning back in her chair, studying the small housefly that's skittering around on the tip of her index finger. For a second, I'm reminded of all those cheesy kids' movies where the pretty princess lets a bird perch on her hand and they sing a happy little tune together. When she glances up at me, the fly takes off and buzzes away into the air ducts.

"Ooh, I like the old duds on you," she jokes as I step inside. "Disco's making a comeback."

"Oh, you're funny," I say, my voice dripping with sarcasm. "Been taking lessons from Alfred on how to be droll?"

"Please, with that getup, the comedy writes itself," she jokes. "Still, I can't complain too much; it makes your butt look amazing."

Blushing, I glance over to her laptop and see she's got the Tower's surveillance cameras pulled up, with a rear-shot of me on loop for what I assume is comedic effect.

"Okay, first of all?" I sputter, trying to regain my composure. "My butt always looks amazing. Secondly, I don't think Miss 'Biker Jacket with a Snap-On Cape' has room to poke at me when it comes to costume choices."

"Uh-huh," she says dismissively. "It's a good thing Superboy and Miss Martian didn't ask you for fashion advice; you traumatized those poor kids enough as it is."

I pause, more embarrassed than ever now.

"You, erm....you saw that on the cameras?"

"Saw it, heard it, hell, it was so uncomfortable I practically felt it," Barbara says.

"Yeah," I say, looking at the floor. "I think Star's right about me being a bad influence. But listen, hey, the reason I came is I want to apologize. For, y'know....getting you tangled up in all this."

Barbara sighs.

"Dick, this situation isn't your fault," she says. "I get that Jason's targeting me--and Starfire, and Raven, I guess--for our past history, but you can't blame yourself for his actions."

I sit down on the nearby bed, shaking my head.

"I know, but....that's not really what I meant. I meant the bigger picture, this whole...mess I've always got going on. If I'm not getting you shot at by one of my arch-enemies, I'm making you stay with my ex. If it's not that, I'm driving a wedge between you and Bruce. I feel like....like you keep paying the price for my bad decisions."

She leans forward and puts a hand on my shoulder.

"We're superheroes, Dick," she says. "Collateral damage is just something that comes with the territory. That goes double when you're dealing with a bunch of attractive people in skin-tight clothes. I used to have half of the Burnside area trying to kill me; I can handle some dating drama."

"Well, that makes one of us, at least," I joke.

"Oh, please," Barb scoffs. "Did I ever tell you about that one time I teamed up with Spider-Man? There's a guy who can't handle his drama."

I laugh, and she laughs, and for a second everything doesn't seem quite as screwed-up as it is.

"Seriously, though," she continues, "you act like you're this tornado that just destroys the lives of everyone in your way. But how many bad times did we have together, compared to all the good ones? It's not even close. I'll bet you Starfire and Raven would say the same thing. Hell, you talk about Bruce like he talks about the Joker, but I've never heard him say an unkind thing about you. Yes, people get mixed up each other's lives and sometimes it's painful when things don't work out. That does't make you a bad person, Dick. It just makes you a person."

It's hard to look at her without smiling.

"Well, I mean, right now it makes you a person with a ridiculous disco collar, but--"

"Okay, that does it!" I say, leaping up from the bed and pouncing on her while she half-laughs and yelps in surprise.
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Master Bedroom, Titans Tower

Rachel Roth tried to read the old leather-bound book in her hands, but she could not bring herself to focus on it. Stubbornly, she forced herself to stare at the page, but she was too distracted to take in a word. Normally, the rolling rumble of the waves from outside the open window were soothing, but tonight they were just another of many things that got on her nerves.

Raven had been in a sour mood most of the evening, and couldn't wait for it to be over. The sooner he was gone, the better.

"Is everything all right, Rachel?" asked Starfire as she floated in from the bathroom, still tying the sash of a pink silk bathrobe around her waist. Koriand'r never truly grasped Earthlings' need for modesty even in private, but Rachel had insisted on it when they began living together.

"I'm fine," Raven said curtly, turning the page she hadn't read to another page she wasn't reading.

"I don't mean to be contradictory," Kory responded, "but you barely touched your dinner this evening, you didn't speak at all at the team meeting, and you look as if you could pull a Grob'drak's teeth out. I know I am still naive about many things on this world, but I know you, and I know when you are upset."

"....I'm fine," she insisted.

Starfire nodded, resigned.

"Suit yourself," she said. "You know I will be here for you when you want to talk."

As Kory floated towards the door, Raven stood up, her book tumbling to the floor.

"It's just..." she started, "...how can you stand him being here? After what he did, how can you just....forgive him like that?"

Starfire blinked, like she didn't understand.

"I forgave you, didn't I?"

Rachel turned away, holding herself.

"I'm sorry, I just....I don't forgive as easily as you do," she said. "Not when it comes to him. Or myself, really."

Kory swooped through the air towards her friend, touching Raven's cheek as she landed.

"Life is filled with too many pains and hardships to bother with revisiting old ones.," she said. "I may not trust Richard's judgment as a leader, but I gain nothing from hating him or turning him away. And you have proven yourself time and again that you are the most wonderful friend I could have wished for. You are loved, Raven. And you always will be."

Rachel closed her eyes, blinking back tears.

"May I give you a hug?" Star asked brightly.

"I've told you a thousand times, I don't like hugs," she said, trying and failing to keep the sardonic edge in her voice.

"Oh, I know," she said as she wrapped her arms around Raven's waist and pulled her close. "I also know you lie about that."

The two held each other in a warm embrace, and as they did, their thoughts mingled. Between Starfire's empathic abilities and Raven's supernatural telepathy, they had spent a lot of time in each other's heads, and with great practice, they could have an entire conversation over the span of a few seconds of contact.

We are not alone, Raven, Starfire's mind spoke.

I know. I sensed their presence as soon as they crossed the hermetic seal I'd placed on the room.

The Red Hood's assassins?

Most likely. There are about a half dozen of them hiding in the suite, waiting for their opening to attack. I'm going to alert the team.

No need. I believe the two of us will be more than able to dispatch them.

On three, then. One....



The upper floor of Titans Tower shook with the force from the explosion that followed.
Daredevil could hear the reports on the various police bands and even internet chatter about his return. Word was travelling fast about his comeback, and to an extent he was hopeful that his return would generate a feeling of safety and hope in this part of town which desperately needed it. It was balanced out though with a realization though that sooner or later Daredevil would be no more. He was fighting not only the battles on the street, but also the battle within his own body. The one opponent he was never going to beat was his own mortality. Daredevil realized that but he figured maybe somehow he might be able to hold his own for a little while.

Crouching behind a gargoyle at St. Mark's Cathedral Daredevil took a couple of deep breaths and he could smell something in the air. He said, "All right Murdock, time to get back to it." With that he threw a grapple line and swung from the gargoyle to a nearby rooftop. He landed and rolled perfectly to a nearby doorway. Giving the doorway a bit of a shove Daredevil quietly entered in. On the outside it looked like a burned out abandoned building, but his sense of smell told him that something was in the basement. A poison that had been preying upon this part of town far too long. It was a cocaine processing plant. It wasn't part of a major operation here, but it was here and Daredevil wanted it out.

Daredevil managed to make his way to a the basement. He ran his fingers along the wall and found a secret compartment. Daredevil managed to open the compartment and using his heightened sense of touch he was able to discern that there was a combination lock. He shook his head and said, "These guys haven't gotten any smarter since I've been gone." Daredevil was able to figure out the combination and once he did he stood at the top of the steps. He heard six heartbeats and with his radar sense he knew where each man was and that three of them had guns.

Daredevil said under his breath, "Okay lights out time!" With that he pulled the cables to the light-switch. Daredevil heard the fear and surprise in their voices as the room went pitch black. Daredevil jumped into the room and took out two gunmen in a matter of seconds. The adrenaline rush brought him a sense of strength and hearing the third gunman start to fire blindly enraged him. He could imagine that sound echoing in the air as Karen and their daughter died. Daredevil tossed his billy club at the gunman and followed it up by breaking his jaw.

Once they were out of commission the three workers tried to run, but Daredevil stopped them by taking out the lead one with his billy club line. He said, "Oh no, you three aren't escaping justice that easily!" Daredevil made sure that they weren't going anywhere either.

Daredevil made a phone call to the police and swung off into the night.

The faint, rhythmic beep of Falcon's heart monitor echoed through Captain America's ears like a church bell. While the sound was nothing more than a soft, successive chime, it reverberated in his mind like a reminder of his failure. Steve was more than likely being to hard on himself, but he couldn't help it. Here, his friend laid broken before him. Sam had trusted Steve, and he let him down. This felt like Bucky all over again.

Of course, it wasn't necessarily as dire. Falcon was gravely injured, that much was certain. Bones were shattered and the body was broken, but Sam would heal. It would be a long, painful process, but this wouldn't be the end of him. Not like Bucky. Sam and Steve would have further adventures.

"I know that look," Sharon said from beside him as she shifted in her chair. She was clearly uncomfortable, but refused to go home. He loved that she wanted to keep him company at a time like this, especially in her condition. "It's not your fault."

Steve sighed and smiled slightly. She always knew what he was thinking.

"I know it's not my fault," he explained. "But that doesn't mean I don't feel like it was. I was point on the mission. I knew something felt off. But I didn't stop it. I didn't pull us out. I pressed forward because I was overconfident. We both were. And it got Sam here."

"You've always been too hard on yourself," Sharon ran her hand across his shoulders. "You can only prepare for what you know. There were parameters you didn't know. There were parameters that Fury didn't know. You can't blame yourself for that."

"Sure," Steve seethed, "but I can damn sure find who did this. And when I do, they're gonna wish they'd never been born."


Tony Stark fiddled with his sunglasses across the table from Steve. The two man had their ups and downs, but at this point they were on steady ground. The two could be like oil and water at times, and at others could be the greatest teammates the world had ever known. They had come to blows, and had saved the world more times than they could count. Still, Tony was never one for moments like these.

"I'm sorry, I really am," he stuttered. "This stuff isn't supposed to happen to us. We're supposed to stop this. I should have been there."

Steve smiled at his old friend, "For all we know they would have been prepared for that as well. I don't know Tony. They were ready for my every move. That's not like these guys. I'm not used to getting jumped."

Tony chuckled, "Oh, trust me, I know. I may be a scientific genius, well, super genius, but it always bothered me how great you are at strategy. It keeps me up at night. Ask anyone I've dated."

"I would, but none of them talk to me because I'm friends with you," Steve shot back.

"Probably for the best," Tony smirked. "We'll find this guy."

"We better," Nick Fury said as he entered the room. He turned on the briefing hologram, illuminating numerous news reports from throughout the years. They spoke of a mysterious assassin, each with the same description. Dark hair. A mask. Freakishly fast and strong. Sporting a metal arm. Steve felt Tony tense up next to him. There was something about this man that put him on edge. "Yes, Stark. It's him."

"Who?" Steve asked, puzzled.

"For decades since the outset of the Cold War, a mysterious assassin known as the Winter Soldier has performed almost impossible hits against high profile targets across the world," Iron Man said through gritted teeth. "Same description all the time. The metal arm tends to stand out. He's deadly. He's precise. He killed my parents."

Steve was taken aback. Tony normally wasn't one to divulge personal information, especially when it came to his parents. They had always been a sore spot. Steve knew they had died when Tony was a young man, and that it send Tony on his self-destructive path that led to him becoming Iron Man. That's about all Iron Man had ever told Captain America. To get this now meant Tony was ready to go hunting.

"And whenever the Winter Soldier shows up, something changes in the world," Nick continued. "Tony's father was on the way to unlimited clean energy, something we're just catching up on now. JFK was on his way to world peace, which clearly we never achieved. You get the idea. If he's been activated now, something bad is in our future."

"Well," Steve cracked his knuckles, "let's get to finding him."


The Red Skull ran his hand over the power generator Batroc lifted in their operation. Everything had gone to plan so far. The Winter Soldier had finally rid the world of the Falcon, and Batroc had gotten this piece of the puzzle. Now it was time to move to the next phase. The world would soon be rid of Captain America and all that were like him. It would be the glorious victory that he had hoped for as long as he lived.

"Beautiful, isn't it, Doctor?" he asked his counter part sitting across from him. "The only thing that can power our plan."

"Luckily for us, the Leaper got it to us intact," Arnim Zola responded with the electronic hum of his robotic voice. "The fool isn't usually this reliable."

"Well he usually does not have backup from the Winter Soldier, Doctor Zola," Red Skull smiled with his grim, haunting visage. "How long until the Omega Device is complete?"

"It will take a few days, Herr Skull. After that, Captain America and his friends will be of no concern."

"Death. Nothing but Death."​

2215 Local Time

The lone scuba diver swam through the dark waters of the Persian Gulf towards the destination; A container ship anchored off the coast of the city. From a hundred feet below the surface, the hull of the tanker above looked like some alien object hovering in the sky. The diver swam upwards slowly, stopping periodically to stave off any decompression from the sudden change in pressure. Shrouded in the dark of the waters, the diver held their hands against the hard metal of the bottom of the tanker.

There was a satchel attached to the diver's side by a carabiner. The diver reached their gloved hands into the satchel and produced a round metallic object. It was a small charge, no bigger than a dinner dish, but capable of breaching the hull's thick metal walls. The diver placed the rest of the charges in the satchel, a dozen in all, around strategic spots on the ship's underbelly. The bombs would only be used as a last resort if nothing else could be salvaged. The diver's head popped from the water and groped through the dark towards the starboard side of the boat.

The diver held their hands against the tanker's metallic side and pressed their palms to the sheet metal. The diving gloves made a low electronic whine and attached themselves to the metal on the side. With the glove's powerful electromagnets activated, the diver began to slowly scale the side of the tanker. They came to the railing nearly a hundred feet above the water and climbed over it and on to the deck of the tanker.

The diver stripped away the aqualung, gloves, and flippers. Pulling away the mask, James Bond breathed his first breath of fresh air in nearly an hour. He checked the coast to make sure that there were no sentries or prying eyes before hosting his scuba equipment over the side of the railing and dropping it into the water below. There was a quiet splash as the gear floated to the bottom of the ocean. Better it be wasted than to have some guard discover it and raise an alarm. Bond reached into the satchel at his side and removed his Walther PPS, wrapped in plastic to keep the water out. After making sure it had stayed dry, Bond checked that the magazine was full and then chambered a round into the gun.

"007 to Mother," he said into the microscopic microphone implanted in his back molar.

"Mother here," said a crisp voice in Bond's ear. It was M's chief of staff, Bill Tanner. "You have the green light to go play with the neighborhood boys."

With MI6's approval, Bond wordlessly began his journey across the deck of the tanker. The ship in question's paperwork identified it as coming from Yemen, but Bond and Six knew that wasn't the case. In reality the ship had come from Jakarta a week earlier. Bond knew because he was in Jakarta just after it set sail. He was investigating a lead that HYDRA were preparing to launch another terrorist attack. Bond had gotten the intelligence from HYDRA's weapon master in Jakarta after breaking about twenty of the two hundred or so bones in the man's body. Now, Bond was infiltrating the ship to confirm that the weapon was on board. As soon as he gave a signal, British Special Forces along with the UAE Coast Guard and police would raid the ship and arrest all those involved.

Bond's wetsuit shoes were silent as he crept across the deck of the ship. Shipping containers were stacked all across the top of the ship, creating a twisting and elaborate maze. Bond turned a corner, but quickly backed up when he saw the dull light of a cigarette tip in the dark. He glanced a peek and saw a guard. The heavyset Indonesian man had a gun, just a pistol from the way it looked. He didn't seem to carry himself like a man would if he had anything bigger than a handgun. Bond crouched and stepped back from the edge of the container. He willed himself to get as low as he could as the man approached. The guard came into view, his eyes not seeing Bond in the dark. Once he was past, Bond stood and swiftly struck him in the back of the head with the butt of his pistol. He splayed to the ground, dazed. Bond kicked him in the head and bound his wrists with nylon zipties to make sure he stayed down. With the guard unconscious, he continued his journey.

He covered the deck in quiet and peace before coming to an entrance that led down. He leaned against the side of the door and looked down into the doorway. Dim lights went down a level before disappearing into a stairwell. This, Bond knew, was where it would get hard. He activated a button on his watch. Q Branch's latest toy, it was designed to send out a short EMP burst every ten seconds. In theory, it would make Bond electronically invisible to any cameras or detection devices he met. With the watch activated, Bond ventured down into the carrier.

He hurried past an opening when he heard the sounds of snoring and soft Arabic music being played on a radio. He only looked back to make sure his suspicions had been confirmed. Nearly a dozen men were sleeping in bunk beds. Bond figured a skeleton crew working the boat. That appeared as a bit of a double-edged sword in his eyes. If there was a smaller crew, that meant fewer men for Bond to avoid. But that also could mean they weren't carrying anything illegal.

Bond put that out of his mind and continued down. He came to the ship's cargo hold. Shipping containers filled the hold to its brim, each one stacked upon another one all the way up seventy-five feet or so. Bond holstered his gun and scanned the area. He found what he was looking for just beside the entrance to the hold: An old desktop computer with a nicotine-stained keyboard.

"The shipping number?" He asked Tanner in a low whisper.

"India Romeo Hotel Sierra Tango Niner Eight Two Oscar."

Bond typed out the serial number Tanner had relayed to him and pressed enter. Item IRHST982O was on the ship, and it was in a sector relatively close to his current location. Bond came to the shipping container and found the padlocked entrance. He reached into the satchel and pulled out a small case wrapped in plastic. Inside the case were a set of lockpicks, a miniature torch, a flashbang grenade, and the remote detonator to the charges underneath the ship. He picked the lock and quietly opened the door. He turned the torch on and shone the light into the container.

"Contact," he said.

Inside the container was a device no bigger than the engine of a diesel truck. It had tubes running from it that connected to two large vats of chemicals. Alone, the chemicals were relatively harmless. But the machine combined the two chemicals together and created NP0198AZ, a chemical agent that was three times as powerful as mustard gas. After mixing it, the machine would collect the gas into a canister and then shoot it out of a CO2 pressurized barrel into the air. Placed at the right spot at the right time in downtown Dubai, the machine could easily kill thousands.

"Kipling,"Bond said. The go word for the operation.

"We have eyes on the machine," said a new voice. Not Tanner's, but the deep voice of M. "All units move in. Disable it and pull back, 007. The SBS and UAE men are moving in as we speak."

Bond confirmed and started into the container to cut the wires to the chemical vats. He was just a few feet in when he heard footfalls from behind him. A loud click followed the footsteps. Someone pulling back the hammer of a gun.

"Not so fast," said a voice behind Bond.

He turned and saw a tall, Indonesian man with a 9MM Glock in his hand.

"Hands where I can see them."

Bond complied, palming the flashbang grenade with his left hand. The Indonesian man began to walk into the container towards Bond. The man had a look of smugness to him that only came when one was certain they had attained absolute victory.

"Won't do you any good," said Bond."Authorities are already on their way to the ship. Doesn't matter what you do now."

"I think it does," he said with a smirk. It was then that Bond noticed he had a switch in the hand not holding the gun. "You think this machine is the only one HYDRA has? It's one of many, my friend. We already have five inside the city, another twenty aboard this ship. Your friends step foot on this ship, I activate the ones inside Dubai and kill as many people as I can."

"We have the shipping manifest," M said into Bond's ear. "Says here six containers have been dropped off to the mainland sine their arrival in Dubai."

"What do you want?" Bond asked, stalling for time.

"Death," he said coldly. "Nothing but death. I'll bargain my way out of this mess and then detonate the machines we have in the city. Regardless of what your people try to do, HYDRA will succeed. You may cut off one head, but two will-"

"Oh, blow it out your arse," Bond said with a sigh. With the pinkie of his hand, he pulled the grenade pin and tossed it at the man. He turned away as the bright light exploded in the small, dark space. The man screamed, holding his eyes and stumbling around in pain. He dropped the detonator and Bond rushed forward to grab it. He ducked to avoid the man's flailing and nabbed the detonator from the ground. He tucked it into his satchel and pulled his pistol towards the blind man, but stopped when he saw him crash into Bond's small carrying case. Confused, he picked up the detonator to the bomb's under the ship.

"HAIL HYDRA!" he screamed.

"No, you goddamn git!"

That was all Bond could get out before the explosions rocked him backwards. He slammed into the side of the shipping container as the ship vibrated heavily. The sound of the charges going off had been replaced with that of rushing water.

"Get out of there, 007!" ordered M.

Bond looked back at the blind man. He was now crawling on the floor and groping for some way out. Bond slammed the container shut behind him and slipped the padlock back in before running through the hold. Water was already ankle-deep in the hold. By the time he got to the stairs, it was up to his shins and rising. Crewmen were running around frantically, not caring who Bond was or what his purpose was here. He was halfway up to the deck when the entire ship shifted sideways. He slammed hard against the wall and fought against the gravity as he climbed upwards.

There was the sound of groaning metal below, followed by a loud metallic snap. Bond came on to the deck, now seeing that the cause of the snap was the hull cracking in two. Cursing, Bond raced towards the front of the ship and felt the deck slide under his feet as the bow of the ship began to rise into the air. He knew he had to get free of the boat before it sank. The suction that accompanied the sinking would drag him to the bottom of the ocean. Running as fast as he could, Bond came out of the maze of containers and rushed towards the bow. There came another snap, this time the front half of the hull was nearly vertical. Fighting against the slippery deck, Bond leaped from the boat's front port side and straightened his body out as he dove the hundred feet to the water below.

He splashed into the salty ocean water and positioned his body parallel to the surface. Bond used the speed of his fall to distance himself from the sinking tanker. He began kicking after the momentum slowed, ignoring the sounds of swirling water in his ear. After a minute's swimming and not feeling the suction, Bond surfaced from the ocean and looked around. The tanker's tip was barely visible above the choppy waters of the ocean. It was rapidly descending down into the water. Bond treaded water and looked around for any other survivors.

"007 to Mother," he said between breaths. "I'm about a hundred yards due west of the shipwreck."

"Stay where you are," said Tanner. "Chopper's inbound to pick you up."

Bond's breath relaxed as he looked towards the bright lights of Dubai. HYDRA's weapons, save for the few that made it to the city, were out of commission. The rest would be a simple mopping up exercise that involved following the trail of the shipping containers to where they were delivered. He had the detonator, and he had stopped the devices from being distributed. For the most part, it was a mission accomplished.

Unbeknownst to Bond, there was someone watching him nearly a mile away. In a perch on a highrise beside the shore, a sniper sat and watched through his scope. He had just watched the events play out with a playful smirk on his lips. This Bond was a rare specimen. A man who was as dangerous as he was chaotic. The sniper had been shadowing and studying him for nearly a month. Now, like countless times over the past four weeks, he had Bond right in his sights. His night vision scope had been lined up perfectly with the man's head in the cross hairs. One squeeze of the trigger, and no more Bond. But that was not the sniper's orders. SPECTRE didn't want a dead James Bond, they wanted a stalked one. When the time came, the sniper would pull the trigger. But until then, he watched and waited.

The sniper was sure that, when the kill order came in, he wouldn't do it in this fashion. No, James Bond deserved more than just a bullet in the head from long-range. He had to be bested face to face, the sniper needed to watch Bond's eyes as all life left them. Bond was a prey of the finest caliber, and just the sort of prey that kept Kraven worthy of his title of Hunter.

Ian Fleming's
James Bond 007

Maker's Mark

Chapter 1

Operation: Midas​

Hamburg, Germany
0185 Local Time

The squat six-story building was not much to look at. It was a dull gray and designed in a manner that made it look like a concrete block placed upright. It was on the outskirts of the city, where the metropolitan Germany gave way to the old rural German of the past. A sign on the side of building read Hamburgische Münze. The Hamburg Mint, just one of three locations that are responsible for printing and distributing the currency of Germany. A mile away, a craft moved seemingly silent through the air.

To the average eye, it would appear as a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter. The only major differences between this chopper and the Black Hawk design were twofold: this craft's outside paneling was a black metal alloy that made it invisible on radar and nearly any other electronic devices. The second difference could be found in the chopper's rotors. The stealth rotors made a relative whisper of the normally loud noise that accompanied any helicopter. Only a small handful of people in the world actually knew how many of these stealth helicopters existed. This one in particular had been stolen six months earlier from an American military base in North Carolina. Virtually invisible and unheard, the chopper slowed and began to hover above the roof of facility. Doors on opposite sides of the helicopter slid open, ropes falling from the openings and hitting the flat rooftop.

Two by two on each side, a dozen black-clad figures slid down the quick rope to the roof below. They were all clad in the same gear. Black combat boots with black tactical pants and shirts, black kevlar body armor on their chests, and black ski masks on their faces. They each had black M4 carbines in their hands. Ten of the shocktroopers appeared as men of average height and build. The only two stand outs were very noticeable. A large man, 6'6 at least, led the way across the roof. He was nearly as wide as he was tall, with a chest nearly the size of a barrel. At the very back of the group, a skinny figure in baggy clothes trailed behind. This man was maybe 5'5, the combat boots giving him a few inches of height.

The chopper flew away quietly as the twelve troops approached the side of the roof. The giant held out a hand and motioned towards the edge of the roof. Two men hurried up and slammed spikes into the roof. They attached nylon cables to the spikes and tossed the cables over the side. Waving a hand forward, the giant and his little friend stayed in position while the rest of the men took the two cables and began to slowly repel down the side of the building two at a time. Halfway down, the two men in the lead stopped at a row of windows and pulled round devices from their belts. There was a single yellow button on the black face of the device, a sticky epoxy on the corresponding side. They slapped the devices on the glass epoxy first. Trading a glance and a nod, they pressed the buttons on their devices at the same time. The windows here were rigged with alarms. Any attempt to break or cut into the glass and it would sound. That was where their tiny gadgets came in. They couldn't hear it, but a sonic pitch emitted from the devices and vibrated the glass of the window. The vibration was so fast and unstable that it turned the window's glass from solid to nearly a liquid.

The two men tested the glass, their hands going through the window without a problem. They signaled the men above and swung through the unstable window into the office on the other side. One by one, the ten men came through the glass without feeling the glass on their skin or tripping an alarm. The ten shocktroopers formed into two five men lines as they carefully navigated through the dark office. They way they had it timed, they had just come through the window not ten seconds after the security guard had made his rounds through the office. There were cameras, but the nightwatch was patrolling and not looking at the footage. Who cared if they saw them after the job was over? They wouldn't see anything of consequence, just ten men in all-black with weapons pulling off the greatest robbery of all time.

The two leaders of the columns stopped and held up their hands to stop their men. In front of them was a workstation terminal with a six servers underneath it. The leader of the group held his wrist-mounted microphone up to his mouth and broke radio silence for the first time.

"У меня в наличии," he said in Russian.

"Выполните планируется," came a gruff voice reply over the radio.

Nodding, he waved one of his men forward. The man came to the computer and pulled a USB stick from a pouch on his pants. It was larger and bulkier than most jump drives. The thing that caught someone's eye that it was different was the two wires running from the back of the USB drive and to a small motherboard attached to the stuck. The black-clad soldier found a port and slid the stick into it. He activated a switch on the motherboard and watched as the screen of the computer flashed on. Numbers and code speed by on the screen for about five seconds before it went to black.

"Данные загружены. Выезда," the leader said into the radio.

The soldiers turned and began to head back the way they came, but they stopped in their tracks as a sound came through the office. Somewhere, a door was opening. There was the sound of footsteps and the jangling of keys. Before the team leader could order, an older man in the uniform of a security guard came around a corner and right into the men.

"Was zur Hölle?" he shouted, stepping backwards. He pulled the pistol from his holster as the ten men opened fire on them with their suppressed weapons. The bullets made the guard jerk like some sort of perverted ragdoll. His body jerked as he fell, his finger spasming around the trigger of his weapon on instinct. The gunshot broke the quiet German night, the bullet striking one of the men just in the stomach below his kevlar vest.

"Ебать!" Shouted one of the men as his compatriot crumpled to the ground. The team leader ordered the rest of the men to hurry and move out. A shrill alarm sounded as he looked down at his wounded man. He put him out of his misery with three quick shots to the head. Sighing, he followed the rest of his time back through the unstable glass and up the cables to the roof. The stealth chopper was back hovering above the building. The team hurried up the ropes and, five minutes later, they were already ten miles away from the Hamburg Mint.

Inside the hold of the stealth helicopter, the men watched as their small leader railed into them in Russian. The men had been berated for their slowness and ineffectiveness. The berating only stopped when the men produced the USB drive. Their leader nodded and removed the ski-mask. Underneath the dark wool was a beautiful woman with her raven black hair tied up in a bun. She pulled a pair of glasses from her pocket and inspected the jump drive before pressing a second button on the motherboard.

"Number 3 to Number 2," the Baroness Anastasia Cisarovna said into her satellite uplink. "We lost a man, but we recovered the data. I am uploading it to you now."

"It was not perfect," a deep voice in an Italian accent replied in her ear. The communication link was private and for her ears only. "You and your pet giant finish the job. Leave no links to these Russian criminals and yourself. From there proceed as planned."

"Yes, sir. Number 3 out."

The Baroness took a deep breath and leaned back in her seat. The men around her didn't know it, but the gigantic man to her right would soon kill them all. It was partially the plan, but she wanted their deaths as slow and agonizing as possible. She wanted them to know SPECTRE's price for failure, that death would be a walk in the park compared to the punishment they would receive. But that would come later. For now, she could bask in her temporary victory and know that the first part of Operation: Midas had done its job.

SPECTRE's most audacious plan yet was now underway. She had set into emotion a series of events would end up bringing Europe to its knees. The Baroness smiled at that thought. After having to suffer at the hands of those who were more fortunate all her life, she was now turning the tables. She leaned back and began planning which country she would end up buying with her money.

London, England
0821 Local Time

The black Aston Martin DB11 drove through the rainy streets of London. The traffic on Horseferry Road moved along faster than its normal pace. This time of day in this part of the city, it was very lucky that there wasn't twice as many cars out on the road. The weather was potentially a factor. The DB11 rode over Lambeth Bridge. Victoria Tower was in the distance to the car's left. After a few minutes of driving, the car came to a closed off parking garage that led down. A sign beside the closed metal door said Universal Exports. The car's driver punched in the code to the garage door and drove through after the door was open. The Aston Martin went down into the garage and found a spot marked 7. The engine off, the door swung open and out stepped James Bond. He dressed in a charcoal gray suit, onyx tie, and black leather shoes. He wore a brown rain coat and carried a briefcase in his hand as he walked through the garage. Clipped to his chest was an identification badge that said he belonged in this facility.

He went through the checkpoints and security stops before finally coming out into the office space on the building's fourth floor. Known to the world at large as the headquarters of international trading company Universal Export, this was the headquarters of MI6's Overseas Development Group. The name was for the number crunchers and budget men. Overseas Development Group looked dull and boring. Section 00 could potentially catch someone's eye and raise questions. The building was only four blocks from Vauxhall Cross and an ideal off-site location to house the 00 agents. There was a shooting range, an armory, and an obstacle course below the garage level to help the 00's keep up their form in times where they were inactive from field duty.

Bond was going through a time such as this. It had been nearly six weeks since the incident in Dubai. In that time, Bond had acted as head of ODG. The rule of thumb was that one 00 had to always stay in-country to manage the office and consult and offer advice to Six on any ongoing ODG operation happening abroad. Bond didn't mind the time off too much. He had whiled away the days and weeks with a Danish woman who was in the city modeling for some boutique fashion designer. Her English wasn't great. It limited their conversations, not that it bothered Bond. He had found her stimulating in areas other than conversation.

"Good morning, Goodnight," he said as he approached his office.

"A year in, and I still haven't gotten tired of that joke," quipped the tall and slender blonde woman standing beside his office door. She gave him a kind smile and took his briefcase.

Mary Goodnight was Bond's personal assistant, a role she had been given a year ago when Bond was bestowed 00 status. She was ten years Bond's junior and breathtakingly gorgeous in a natural way. She was the polar opposite of the Danish model Bond had spent his nights with. Whereas the model spent hours primping and preparing to look good, all Mary had to do was wake up. If she worked anywhere else, Bond would have already made a pass at her. But she was his PA. He recalled a saying he had heard in the Royal Marines in regard to dogs. "Don't piss where you eat," was how it went. Although Bond was a man, he tended to follow the advice. But, Bond thought, seeing as the reputation he had perhaps the metaphor of a dog was an apt one.

"Anything I need be aware of?" he asked as he took his raincoat off and hung it on the coat rack beside his door.

"Overnight traffic from 00's, nothing marked Flash/Urgent. Also, Vauxhall Cross needs to see you as soon as possible."

"Who rang?"

"Miss Moneypenny."

Bond sighed. Moneypenny meant that it was M who needed to talk. He wasn't looking forward to going back out into the rain, but there were an upshot or two. If M wanted to see him, it may mean he was back on field duty. Plus, he would get to see Moneypenny. From where he was sitting, the pros outweighed the cons. He smiled at Goodnight as he slipped his raincoat back on and took the briefcase from her hands.

Almost an hour later, Bond was in M's office. They were watching footage from a security camera on the wall-mounted monitor. The black and white footage showed ten black-clad figures with assault rifles sneaking through a dark office building. The men came to a computer terminal and one man proceeded to start some sort of program.

"Thoughts?" M asked as they watched.

"They're professionals," said Bond. "Look at their formation and tactics. They're experts at this. Methodical and well-trained, not to mention the technology they seem to have used. Where was this video taken?"

"Hamburg. Two days ago, these ten men broke into the national mint there."


"No," said M. He looked away from the screen and made eye contact with Bond, his grey eyes meeting Bond's blue-grey. "Something more. They took files. The complete details and specifications of the Euro, specifically the five, one hundred, two hundred, and five hundred banknotes."

"I thought they used plates for that or some other sort of thing?"

"They used to," said the old man as he leaned back in his char. "But it's all going digital now. The Euro has security codes and watermarks all through it that make sure its authentic. Those files were like a bloody road map on how to print them."

"Can't the EU just create new ones and reprint them?"

"Yes, but you know how much time and effort that would take, Bond? Billions of dollars are in circulation at the moment. They've begun work on new security measures, but by the time they'd be done and ready to print it will be much too late."

"I seem to recall a thing called Brexit, sir. What's Six's stake?"

"Personal favor to the commissioner of Interpol," he grunted. M tapped his right fist on the desk, his university class ring chattering against the desk's rich wood. "We're doing a separate investigation alongside theirs. I want you on it."

"But my duties here at Universal Exports?"

"I'm recalling 006 from Egypt. That operation seems bust, and Wisdom could use some time to recharge his batteries."

"Fine by me,"Bond said, trying to hide his excitement. Hunting down counterfeiters wasn't an ideal mission, but it was a job. "Where do I get my start?"

"Belarus. One of the robbers was killed in the fighting along with a security guard. Interpol says he was a criminal from Minsk with the name of Zus Shulman. Part of a ring of criminals... guess what they do..."


"And the boy gets a cigar."

M leaned forward in his chair, putting his hands together and preparing to speak. This worried Bond because this was the stance M took when he prepared to deliver less than thrilling news.

"There is one caveat," he said cautiously. "You're going to work with a partner."


"Someone from SHIELD."

"Why?" Bond furrowed his brow. What did SHIELD have to do with this?

"The Americans have been quiet about it, but it seems that they were hit in the same manner last week. At a mint in California. Someone stole the layout of their hundred-dollar bills."

Bond did his best not to roll his eyes. This was the third time he would have to clean up America's messes in the last year. First the mobile warheads in Mumbai, then the rogue American colonel, and now this. He could have sworn he worked for the British government as a secret agent, not as personal custodian to SHIELD's messes.

"Is it that man I worked with in India? Dugan?"

"No. SHIELD sent an agent who has experience in Russian matters." M reached out and hit the intercom on his desk. "Send her in, Moneypenny."

There was a buzz and the door swung open. A red-haired woman sashayed through the office. Bond and M stood as she approached them.

"James Bond, this is Natalia Romanova of SHIELD. Ms. Romanova, 007."

"Pleasure to meet you, Mr. Bond," she said in a light Russian accent. She shook Bond's hand.

"All mine," he replied.

Bond kept a neutral look, but inside he was grinning. On the trail of dangerous and deadly criminals with a sexy Russian secret agent at his side. The only downside was that their destination was Eastern Europe in cold weather. Bond wished that these counterfeiters had been from the Bahamas instead. He had no doubt Agent Romanova would look amazing in a bikini. Oh, well, he supposed. All things considered, he could certainly think of worse things in the world he could be doing.


'Bizarro World.' The Earth-facsimile of the chaotic un-space that is the Underverse. In every sense of the term, a thing that should not be.

Looking down on the warped, shifting landscape, I hear billions of gibbering masses, lumps of non-life that shamble and groan and flail and shriek. Impossible structures hang sagging in the air, leaking toxic sludge into oceans of filth, or spouting random jets of plasma into the air, or growing heads that demand someone ask them about their grandchildren. Inexplicable...things wriggle from the shadows and pounce upon unsuspecting inanimate objects before shrinking away into nothing. Bloated and withered parodies of cities clump across the landscape, roads twisting and tangling off of the ground, making it look from this distance like every place inhabited by the Bizarro 'people' is covered in patches of body hair.

Everything about this place is wrong. It's nauseating to even look at. But Jonathan's down there somewhere, and if I have to turn over every rock on this fever-dream of a world--


Is that....Jimmy's signal watch?

Rushing down towards the source of the noise, I pass through clouds of foul smelling acidic vapor and rock-hard chunks of nothing, plowing through the chaos and madness until I see him, disoriented and terrified as he runs from a horde of Bizarros through the streets of what looks like a bad impression of Metropolis.

"Jimmy?" I call out to him. I'm careful to check his eyes when he looks up at me. It looks like wherever Mr. Mxyzptlk has gone, he left Jimmy alone for now.

"Superman?! Oh, thank God!" he exclaims as one of the Bizarros lunges at him.

Before the misshapen imitation of a person can grab him, I've lifted him off the ground, away from the stumbling mob of monsters.

Setting him down on a rooftop, I touch down. "Are you all right?"

"Y-yeah, I'm....I'm fine," Jimmy stammers. "Well, actually, no, I-I'm freaking out, Superman. This place, it's....it's messed up beyond belief. I'm barely able to j-just keep myself alive, b-but.....but there's a kid here, too! We've gotta find him!"

"I know, Jim," I say, as comfortingly as I can, patting him on the shoulder. "We're going to get you out of here. But first we've got to find Jonathan. Did you see him? Do you know where he went?"

"Yeah, I was...I was with him when we came into the city," he says. "B-but we got separated. There's....there's a-another you here, a Bizarro S-Superman, and he started smashing things and then I couldn't find Jon, and then the other Bizarros s-started chasing me, and--"

"The other me, the Bizarro Superman," I say, trying to get Jimmy to focus. "Did you see where he went? Did he have Jon with him?"

I've fought opponents more powerful than me in my time. The Hulk. Doomsday. General Zod and his followers. With them, though, there was always some method to their thinking, something I could work out a strategy to overcome. Bizarro, on the other hand? His mind is absolute chaos; there's no way to predict what he's going to do. And with his copying of my powers, he may be one of the most dangerous things in existence.

"I th-think I scared him off," he says, meekly pointing at his signal watch "He doesn't seem to like the frequency on this thing. I guess it makes sense; it's supposed to get you to come to me, so it makes the backwards-you stay away. The problem is, since nobody on Earth but you can hear it, it means everyone on Bizarro-World can hear it, so they started coming after me."

"I'd turn it off, then," I tell him.
"If the Bizarro Superman comes after you, I'll stop him. And I'll make him tell me where I can find Jon."

I'm not entirely sure, but the few times I've been here, it seems like the Bizarro creatures are connected to their world, like they're growths or extensions of the planet itself. If that's true, then it's possible that my opposite will be able to sense where Jon is and lead me to him.

"Beating up a hapless goon until he tells you what you want?" Jimmy asks, an unsettling sneer creeping across his face. "I dunno, isn't that more Batman's style?"

"Jimmy, what are y--" I start to say before I realize his eyes have begun to seep that black goo again.

Mr. Mxyzptlk, joyriding in Jimmy's body again, levitates off the ground, thoughtfully stroking his chin.


"Why are you doing this, Mxyzptlk?" I ask. "What kind of sick game are you playing at by endangering my friend, my son?!"


I stare him down, refusing to play along with him.


"What could I possibly learn from you?" I all but spit at him.


I glare at the imp in my friend's body, not dignifying him with an answer.


"That's got nothing to do with Jon," I say, feeling my blood begin to boil.


"No, I don't," I answer.


"Get to the point," I demand.


"I don't care about what happens in the far future," I say, balling up my fists. "Right here and right now, my son is in danger because of you. And if anything happens to him, I'll spend the rest of eternity finding a way to make you pay for it if I have to."


"Wait, you can't--"


I'm barely aware of what's speeding towards me before there's an explosion of pain.....

....and the whole world spins upside-down.

Chapter 2

Mr. Smith & Mrs. Wesley-Smith​

Minsk, Belarus
1544 Local Time

Bond opened the door into the hotel room and stepped aside for Natalia to enter first. They were booked into a room together on the eighth floor of the Garni Hotel. The room was modest with the usual furnishings of a mid-level hotel room. There was a television, a couch, a table with two chairs, and the all too familiar generic paintings than hung on the dull gray walls. A window looked out over the city, a fresh snowfall blanketed the buildings in a light powdering and gave the entire city a still look even in the mid-afternoon.

The settings fit with their cover story here in Belarus. They were a married couple on holiday, Mr. John Smith and his wife Mrs. Carol Wesley-Smith. Anonymity was the plan here. There wasn't a need draw anyone's attention to their presence just yet, so the quieter they played it the better. They dressed for the part. Bond was wearing dark slacks, a white button up shirt with no tie, and a black sports jacket underneath his black pea coat. Natalia wore a black coat with a dark green blouse, denim jeans, and sensible heels. They both wore faux wedding bands on their left hands.

"I'll take the sofa, you can have the bed," Bond said as he laid his bag on the floor. He began to unpack, but stopped when he noticed the SHIELD agent watching him. "Something wrong?"

"You surprise me, Mister Bond. I had heard stories-"

"Stories?" he arched an eyebrow. "Oh, good god. You too? What do you people think I am, some sort of nymphomaniac?"

"All I am saying is that Dugan and I had a bet back when you were in the hospital in India. An over/under on your STD count."

"I hope you lost every damn cent you bet."

"I won, actually." She gave Bond a soft smile. "I picked the under."

"Look, we're here on a mission. You're a fellow agent. I don't mix business and pleasure-"

"Unless the woman is a high-ranking member of HYDRA?"

Bond's cheeks flushed in equal parts embarrassment and anger. "Now would be a good time to remind you I have a license to kill." He said through gritted teeth.

"Hard to kill someone when they've broken both your arms before you can blink."

Bond fumed while Natalia gave him a crooked smile. Shaking his head, he opened up his case and activated the false bottom. The lead-lined bottom contained electromagnetic emitters to throw off any x-ray or video scans the bag went through at the airport. Inside the bottom was his Walther, Romanova's 9MM Glock, suppressors and spare clips for each weapon, a small collection of knives, a few Q branch gadgets, and a pair of black gauntlets Natalia brought with her from America. Bond went about laying them on the bed.

"So, what's our first move?" He asked as he checked his Walther and loaded a clip in. He removed his pea coat and sport jacket, slipping on the leather shoulder holster where he kept his gun. His gun secured, he slipped his coats back on and adjusted them so the holster was no longer visible.

"This man who killed in Germany, Zus Shulman, he has contacts here in Minsk. We will check them out and find out if they have anything we can use."

Bond nodded and picked up a butterfly knife that he slipped into his pants pocket.

"Six doesn't have much intelligence on Minsk. Station R mostly keeps their eyes peeled towards Moscow. Does SHIELD have any information worth a damn?"

"No relevant data," she said as she walked towards the equipment Bond had laid out. "But I have some contacts I can use here in the city. It was five years ago the last time I came here."

"Question, how does a Russian of all people end up working as a SHIELD agent?"

"It's a long story." She picked the Glock from the bed and slid it into the holster in small of her back. "It involves the KGB, the Cold War, and a lot of secrets."

All ready to go, Bond watched as Natalia slipped the black gauntlets on her wrists. Once secured, she covered them with the sleeves of her blouse.

"Now, what are those?" He asked with a nod towards her wrist.

"My toys."

"What kind of toys," he asked with a playful smirk.

"There's the James Bond I've heard of... But, no these bracelets were designed by SHIELD. They perform a variety of features. Too many to get into at the moment."

"Play coy if you wish. Shall we?"

"Yes," she said. She picked a switch blade from the bed and placed it into her jacket. "Let's."


Natalia's contact was a fat, ruddy-faced man named Nikita. A commander in the Minsk police, he told them that he was named after the famed Soviet leader. Nikita had been born at the height of Khrushchev's popularity and the name, which had been a mark of pride as a boy, had steadily meant less and less as the years passed. Now, a name was all it was.

"So, my dear," Nikita said in Belarusian-accented English. The English, Bond presumed, was for his benefit. The three of them sat at a table in a small café. Nikita's usual table sat in the far corner facing the door. He sipped a café mocha while Bond and Natalia passed on any food or beverage. "You don't write or call, and now you show up out of the blue asking for a favor."

"Only because I need the help of a man who knows what he's doing."

Bond wasn't sure, but he could have sworn he saw Natalia bat her eyelashes at Nikita. The fat man laughed and winked at her before taking a long sip from his drink. He wiped the foam from his lips before he spoke. "So what is it I can do for you?"

"We're looking into a local criminal named Zus Shulman."

"Anyway you can tell me what this is in regards to, my dear?"

"You would be doing me a great service," she said, placing her hand on top of Nikita's. "What else do you need to know?"

He smiled softly to himself and looked down at her hand before looking up. "Tell me how you spell it and I will find out what I can."

Five minutes later, Bond and Natalia were walking towards the airport rental car. Bond pulled his coat close around his waist and quietly chuckled.

"What?" she asked with a curious look.

"You talk about me," he said, looking up at the sky and laughing again. "But you're something worse than loose."

"And what is that?"

"You're a tease."

"What makes you so sure?" she asked with a look that bordered on offended. "Who is to say Nikita and I aren't old lovers?"

"You would only be an old lover in the literal sense, but I don't think so. The way you flirted with him, the way he responded. I know the look of a man who's being strung along. After all those years he's still wrapped around your finger."

"Flirtation and charm is part of our business, Bond," she said coldly. "If anyone understands this, I would assume it would be you. What is that saying? If you have it, flaunt it."

And you do flaunt it well, thought Bond. Very well, indeed.

A half hour later they were back in the lobby of their hotel, heading up to the room to work on field reports for their respective agencies when Natalia's mobile rang.

"Hello?" she answered. Bond stopped and watched as her curious face melted into a playful smile and laugh. "Ах, вы. Где? Заводского? Спасибо, Никита. Я буду говорить с вами в ближайшее время. До свидания."

She closed her phone and slid it back into her pocket.

"Have a nice chat did we?" Bond asked with a smirk.

"Shulman runs a bar in Minsk's Zavodski neighborhood." Natalia ignored Bond's dig and began walking back towards the hotel's entrance. "Nikita says that the bar is a front for his criminal enterprises. They fence stolen goods, peddle drugs... and used to have a printing press in the back where they printed phony rubles."

"Wonderful," said Bond.


Bond and Natalia sat in the parked rental car down the block from the bar. They were watching the location for nearly two hours. Plenty unsavory types came and went in that time, none staying longer than ten or twenty minutes at a time. When they left, they each carried packets under their arms. Mules, Natalia had guessed. Bond agreed. They were either carrying drugs or phony money.

"We should go soon," he said. "We only have an hour of daylight left at the most."

"How do we approach it?" She pulled her pistol from the holster on the small of her back and checked it.

"You go in the front since you speak the language. I'll cover any back exits."

"What are the odds the stolen data is in there?"

"Almost nil." Bond pulled his PPS from the shoulder holster and laid it on his lap. "All the technology and skill they used on that raid, there's no way they would set up shop in some rundown bar."

"Let's go."

Without another word, they stepped out of the car and headed towards the bar. Both kept the guns low around their thighs to hide them from the prying eyes of any passing pedestrian or motorist. There was a side alley ten yards from the bar's entrance. Bond ducked down it and hurried around the back of the building. He found a metallic green door with rust stains on it. It had a sign in Belarusian, a crude sign in English underneath it that said the entrance was employee's only. Bond tested it and found it locked. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a long, thin wire. He stuck it into the lock and wiggled it slowly. The wire, a Q Branch invention, was the world's fastest lockpick. Optic sensors in the wire read the shape of the pin tumblers inside, the sensors would relay the data to the wire and it would conform to the shape of the lock, becoming as rigid as steel. With his freshly made key, Bond popped the lock and tucked the wire back into his jacket as he stepped inside.

He stepped through a back office that was quite shabby in appearance. There was a desk made of cheap particle board disguised as oak, on top of which sat an old desktop computer. Through a door on the other side of the office Bond could hear voices. Loud voices shouting in Russian. He could hear Natalia yelling, followed by a second and third voice that belonged to men. Bond leaned against the door and listened in. He heard footsteps fast approaching and stepped back as the door slung open. A thin, rat-faced man with gray hair saw Bond and recoiled backwards in shock. Bond came forward and grabbed him by the shoulder with his left hand, keeping his gun hand trained on the man. Over his shoulder, Bond could see Natalia squaring off with three men. She was just a blur of motion to Bond's eyes. He saw her jump and kick one man hard against the bar with a roundhouse, blood flew from the man's mouth and spattered the surface of the bar. Ignoring the fight, Bond shoved the man against the wall and held him there while Natalia finished up her work inside the bar.

"Okay," she said as she walked towards them unarmed, her gun back in its holster. Bond stepped back and looked to where Natalia had just come from. Two men were on the ground clutching feebly at their body parts and moaning quietly. More disturbing, one man was flat on his face and not moving at all. It wasn't until Bond saw the shallow breathing that he was sure the man was alive.

He turned away from the hurt men and back to the one against the wall. He and Natalia had a rapid conversation in Russian. Bond couldn't follow, but he could read the universal language of the body. He was nervous, pleading with Natalia about something. She shook her head and gave him a fixed gaze. Bond caught a few words he recognized in their conversation: "Shulman", "Minsk", "Control," "Pain", "Gun", "Gambling." Satisfied, Natalia drove her palm into the man's face and knocked him down to the ground.

"Let's go," she said.

"What'd he say?"

They came out the back door of the bar and hurried through the alley that led back to the street out front. Bond slipped his Walther back into the shoulder holster as they approached the mouth of the alley.

"The last time any of them saw Shulman was a month ago. They all thought he was dead, because the last thing he talked to them about was having a big meeting with a man named Jan. He is apparently the man who runs the criminal rackets in Minsk. He operates out of a casino downtown. The Belaya Vezha casino."

They passed by a homeless man propped against a wall, Bond looked at him warily and didn't speak again until they were out of earshot.

"A casino would be a damn good front to pass off counterfeit money. And if they cater to people from the west, that means exchanging euros and dollars."

They came to the car. Bond slipped into the passenger's seat while Natalia got behind the wheel.

"The only question that remains," she said as she started the car. "Is how good of a gambler you actually are."

"I don't gamble. The word implies that there is a chance I may lose. I win, simple as that."

"We shall see."

The rental car pulled out on to the street and sped down the road.

Once Bond and the woman drove off, the homeless man stood and watched their car fade off into the distance. His midnight black hair touched with gray dye, the same with his goatee. Even though he refused to shave, Kraven was certain Bond hadn't noticed him. He crossed paths with the secret agent on a nearly daily basis since Bond's return to London. He used the camouflage of the city's working class as his cover. Each time he wore a different disguise, one day as a taxi driver, the next as a man at a magazine stand. Each day, Bond just passed by without a second glance. Today was the hardest Bond had looked at him since Kraven started the hunt.

With the car hurrying off, Kraven pulled a mobile from his shabby clothes and dialed the number he had been given.

"Speak," said Number 2.

"I am in Minsk. I have followed our friend here."

"Minsk? What the hell is he doing in Belarus?" Number 2 sounded surprised, possibly even shocked.

"I have not gotten close enough to figure out their mission. He is with a woman. Red-haired with a Russian accent."

There came from the other end of the line a long string of obscenities in Italian. Kraven waited patiently before continuing.

"Are my orders still the same?"

"No. Take out Bond and the woman immediately."

"Yes, sir."

Kraven disconnected and tucked the phone back into his coat. He could barely contain the smile on his face. Finally, after long months of watching, it was time. The waiting was over. Now it was time to move in for the kill.

Peter Parker | Mary Jane Watson

"Let's see what I have on the old DVR." Peter stated while picking up the television remote for his Spectrum cable box. When he pressed the DVR button on the remote, a listen of recorded shows and movies appeared on the television screen. Peter then used the arrow buttons to scroll through the list of titles.

"Why am I not surprised that you have Red Sonja saved." Mary Jane half-heartedly complained before eating a mouthful of Lo Mein.

"What? Can I not watch shows starring my beautiful girlfriend as the lead role?" Peter asked with a smile on his face. "Would your rather me watch reruns of Secret Hospital?"

"I hated that soap." MJ complained. "Playing such as vindictive ****e of a character pained my heart. I was so relieved when they wrote my part out with a coma."

"Does that mean we can watch Red Sonja? Please," Peter begged MJ with the saddest puppy eyes that he could muster. "I missed the series premiere because Black Bison was making some trouble. By the time I kicked his sorry butt and got back to my apartment, it was already over. Plus, how many chances do you think you'll get to be more knowledgeable about a nerdy show than me?"

"Fine," MJ yielded. "Thank God my costume wardrobe is far more practical than the comic version."

However, before Peter could select the television show that he want to watch, his phone buzzed. When he checked the phone, Peter frowned.

"Rhino is on the loose. I bet Jameson wants some pictures."

"I thought you stopped working for that hotheaded miser?"

"Of course I did. But he still thinks I do. Might as well earn some cash from selling selfies."

"Can't someone else take care of it?"

"It will only take me 30 minutes to an hour." Peter told MJ while he got up and placed his dinner in the microwave so that it would keep somewhat warm. He then started to put on his Spider-Man costume. "You know what? Why don't you pick out something to watch and we'll watch it when I get back."

Then Peter, now fully dressed in his Spider-Man costume, opened up one of his windows, blew a kiss to his girlfriend, and leaped out into the New York night. Mary Jane was left alone, as she had often found herself ever since she started to date Peter. The lonely feeling this situation fosters made minutes seem like hours and hours like days. Sometimes, she often wondered whether having powers like Peter would make the relationship less stressful. Would seeing what he goes through and being there with him ease her fears, or would they make them worse?

After she had the stray thought about having powers like Peter, MJ thought she saw the ring that her sister gave her glow. But when she examined the ring, MJ could not figure out what could have caused the light. Maybe she imagined it.

She then took another bite of her Chinese while looking through the shows on Peter's DVR stored. After she took that bite, she felt an acute pain in her lower abdomen. The Chinese must have set her stomach, although she had never been bothered by it before. Therefore, she set down her half-eaten meal on the nearby coffee table and focused her attention to the list of movies and television series on the TV.

Three years ago

Peter has witnessed some bizarre things in the years he had been Spider-Man, but this day might take the cake. An evil Sorcerer that had been trapped in a gem in a time prior to known recorded history escaped from his imprisonment because of the rare carelessness of the museum staff. Then the comic book character, Red Sonja, whose books Peter had read as a teenager, an age when he would peruse those books more for the red-headed bombshell in the chainmail bikini than for the story, appeared almost out of nowhere in the museum. Let's not forget the evil Sorcerer's plan to transform the entire earth into a replica of the world during his time. Sure, everything bad that doesn't happen in Gotham City or Metropolis always seems to occur in New York City, but this is just crazy.

Dressed in his Spider-Man costume, Peter scaled the side of the Empire State Building, with Red Sonya hanging on his neck. The evil Sorcerer had settled in on the top of the Empire State Building, where he was preparing to complete his master plan. Right before they reached the observation deck, Peter remained out of sight until he received the signal.

"Kulan Gath!" Doctor Strange exclaimed. "You do not belong in this time. By the powers of the Vishanti, I will banish you from this realm!"

"You will try, Sorcerer Supreme!" Kulan Gath countered as he descended down to face Doctor Strange.

Now that the evil Sorcerer was momentarily distracted by Doctor Strange's challenge, Peter leaped over the chain fence that bordered the observation deck and made his landing without making a sound. Red Sonja released her grip that allowed her to hold onto Peter's back. For the entire way up, she had been holding her sword in her hand, so Peter was wracked with nervousness, hoping she would not accidentally let her grip slip. She then pointed her sword at Kulan Gath and charged at him, making a surprising little amount of noise. Before he knew it, Red Sonja had pierced him with the sword.

After the She-Devil had run the evil Sorcerer through, Doctor Strange raised up the gem that had acted as Kulan Gath's prison for thousands of years and he began to chant a mystical spell in a tongue that I could not understand. A red beam of light engulfed Kulan Gath and absorbed him back into the gem, leaving Red Sonja standing there with her sword.

However, once Kulan Gath was gone, Red Sonja began to faint. Before she could crash into the floor of the observation deck, Peter leaped forward and caught her. When he peered down at the red-headed warrior, Peter was shocked to discover that Mary Jane's head was now sitting on the She-Devil's shoulders, almost as if someone had seamlessly transplanted her head there. Peter knew he was not seeing things: he would have otherwise noticed this a long time ago if Red Sonja had MJ's face this entire time.

"Where am I?" Mary Jane murmured, as if she had just awoken from a night-long sleep.

"What do you remember last?" Peter asked MJ, looking directly into her eyes.

"Well, there was that commotion in the museum. Then these demonlike creatures started to appear everywhere and I picked up a sword I found on the ground and then everything went back."

After she told Peter this, MJ shivered at the biting cold of the wind, since they were standing exposed on the roof of the Empire State Building. She looked down at herself to see why she could feel the chill of the wind on her bare skin on most of her body. When she finally realized what was causing that sensation, Mary Jane's eyes grew wide.

"What the hell am I wearing?" MJ cried out in horror when she realized that she was only wearing a chainmail bikini. It also did not take her long to see that her physique had been changed. "And what happened to my body?"

During MJ's outburst, Doctor Strange had pulled away Red Sonja's sword from MJ's hand. Before creating a portal back to the Sanctum Sanctorum, he briefly addressed Spider-Man.

"This sword must allow the spirit of that ancient warrior to possess a compatible body in times of peril," Doctor Strange speculated. "I believe that both the sword and the gem would be safer in my custody."

"And what about fixing me?" MJ complained as she gestured at her body.

"I will consult my mystical library to see if there is a counter-spell for a metamorphosis into a comic book character." Doctor Strange said before opening a mystical portal back to the Sanctum Sanctorum. "Otherwise, I guess it is farewell until next time, Spider-Man."

"Isn't he so nice? Peter whispered to MJ.

"I think I've been hanging out with you too much, Tiger." Mary Jane rubbed her hands against her upper arms to try to stay warm. "You're Parker Luck seems to be rubbing off on me."

"Or my luck has turned for the better!" With that comment, the only response that Peter got from MJ was a punch to the shoulder.
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