Disclaimer: I do not own Evangelion, any of the characters or concepts depicted here, or anything associated with them. I have written this story solely because I enjoy writing.

Legends Of The Fourth of July

Chapter 1: An Unlikely Hero, A Deadly Scheme

The Fourth of July had come to the United States of America in the strange amalgamation of worlds that was referred to as the Core Timeline, or simply Coreline. And in that world's city of Chicago, one of the many costumed heroes that had been brought there prepared for action.

As she looked on from a safe distance, she watched as the group of criminals she had been trailing for what felt like forever went about the work on one of the skyscraper rooftops. And as she did, she confirmed that the information she had gathered had proven to be true; the Joker R gang was at it again, and this time, they were working with some spectacularly unpleasant friends of theirs, the Golden Four.

The costumed heroine knew of these two teams of villains, if only by reputation and what she had scanned from their files. The Joker R gang was led by an analog of Ranma Saotome of the infamous Nerima Wrecking Crew, only this particular Ranma had apparently had an even more messed up childhood than most of his analogs. Rumor had it that his father, Genma Saotome, had decided to train him in something called the Clown Fist, the results of which were even more mind-warping than that of the infamous Cat Fist. Though not as cruel as most Joker amalgams, he was still deadly dangerous, mixing up the typical tricks of the Clown Prince of Crime with an exceptional skill and knowledge of martial arts.

Like most Joker variants, this Ranma had his own version of Harley Quinn, only his female sidekick was an analog of Shampoo from his home universe. As loopy and fanatically in love with her Joker as most Harleys but with her native Chinese Amazon training intact, she was no laughing matter.

While Shampoo wasn't Joker R's actual girlfriend, the Hikari Horaki present on the roof was. And unfortunately, she was also an amalgam of Bane, was a good deal taller than most Hikaris, was seriously buffed up, and had a variation of the power-amplifier that pumped an improved version of the drug Venom straight into her brain. While the experiences that had put her in this role weren't as bad as that of some Bane's, it was bad enough to do not nice things to her sanity. She was still as polite as most Hikaris, but that didn't stop her from breaking people in half.

And Hikari wasn't the only girl from a world of Evangelions in this crew, nor was she the only one with a kind of Venom. The newest member of the Joker R gang, having joined them after they had arrived in Coreline, was a variant of Asuka Langley-Sohryu, and she had bonded with part of one the Angels from her world. A part that had turned into a being of black sludge, a symbiote known as Venom, and had bonded with Asuka. The costumed girl didn't know much about her background, but she did know the kind of things that a symbiote such as that did to a person's mind was enough to make anyone dangerous.

As the superheroine looked on, the group's version of Rei Ayanami paused in her strolling to sniff the air, as is searching for prey. This wouldn't have surprised the costumed girl, because this Rei was an amalgam of Killer Croc, and was every bit as feral and deadly as her namesake. No one knew what had caused her to be this way. All there were was rumors that she was a prototype of Rei that the Gendo who had created her deemed a failure and tried to dispose of. Only for this Rei to wind up disposing of him instead...by literally eating him alive.

This Rei had no such inclination towards that Gendo's son, Shinji, and it was just as well, because the costumed girl suspected that eating an amalgamation of Clayface would have very nasty consequences. From what she had heard, this Shinji had had the misfortune of getting into an argument with his world's Ritsuko Akagi at a point when she was not only upset with his father, but either on the verge of losing her mind or having already lost it. The costumed girl didn't know what the doctor had done, but it had left Shinji with the typical powers of Clayface; extreme metamorphic abilities and superhuman strength. Allowing him to become virtually anything, and attack with overpowering force.

Which bugs me, because there's no sign of him, the girl thought with a distinct frown. She had been scanning this building and the other adjacent ones for a while now, and she had completely failed to track down this Shinji. This, of course, meant he was concealing himself in the shape of someone or something else there, ready to strike any unwanted guests without warning. Which was an unpleasant prospect to say the least.

Frowning, the girl continued scanning the rooftop, focusing on the people she could find, such as Nao Yuuki. The costumed girl didn't have much information on Nao; all she knew was that she had lost her left eye at some point, and worse, had gained a Sinestro Corp power ring. Even now, she was hovering at one of the building corners, scanning for possible enemies.

While Nao was doing this, her boyfriend, Katsuhiko Jinnai. was busy elsewhere. Though Jinnai analogs typically hailed from worlds involving El-Hazard, this one had taken a much different path that had led to his becoming his world's Scarecrow. He was as conniving as most Jinnais, and worse, was an excellent schemer and strategist like some of the more intelligent variants. Combined with the Fear Gas he wielded, and he was a nightmare for just about anyone sane.

At the present, Jinnai was supervising several goons they had on hand as they loaded chemicals into some nearby rockets, alongside the current leader of the Golden Four, a variant of Goldie Musou, an infamous enemy of the Gunsmith Cats who delighted in brainwashing people with mind control drugs, even making a host of sex slaves of beautiful woman. This particular variant was all that and worse, being a telepath capable of mental communication, telekinetics, and naturally mind control. And in the event she was being confronted with someone who could withstand her mental attacks, she had built up her physical strength as well. A powerfully built Amazon, this Goldie was also known to carry a large variety of weapons in her coat.

Gonna have to take her out pretty fast, the girl noted before turning her eyes towards another member of the Golden Four. Her and Radinov...

The costumed girl was fairly certain that the Natasha Radinov that was presently pacing about the roof impatiently, snarling and growling with ill-controlled rage, had once been very like other Radinovs, who had all been tough fighters even as normal humans. The human equivalent of a Terminator, for all practical intents and purposes. But this one had started taking gammaroids, a drug that temporarily endowed the taker with Hulk-like powers. Even worse, this Radinov had made the mistake of overdosing on them, and as a result, she was a Hulk all the time, something that had made her incredibly strong, even by Hulk standards, but basically destroyed her mind. She was incredibly angry, incredibly vicious, and when in a bad mood, needed to be kept on a short leash by Goldie's mental powers.

That's two of the Golden Four...but the others... the costumed girl frowned unhappily, because like Clayface Shinji, there was no sign of Goldie's remaining compatriots. She didn't know how Goldie had gotten analogs of the Gunsmith Cats on her team, though mind control and brainwashing were pretty good guesses. All she knew was that her version of Irene 'Rally' Vincent had taken up the moniker of Bullseye, and she lived up to that name. A perfect shot with virtually anything that could be shot or thrown. And even worse, she was also a user of a variant of Venom. She didn't use enough to require a pump like Banes needed; just enough to give her extra muscle in hand-to-hand, and the ability to easily wield the heavier guns.

Their Rally is probably on another building. A lookout, ready to gun down anybody who tries to mess with whatever they're up to, the girl decided with a frown. She's deadliest at a distance. Unlike her partner...

Like Radinov, their Minnie May Hopkins had wound up as a gamma mutant, though a more stable one. Though short for a Hulk, standing only at six and a half feet, "Crushette" Hopkins as she liked to be called was gleeful ball of homicidal insanity. She lived for killing, and if rumors about her taking a shine to the Joker Ranma were true, then she was even more insane than the costumed heroine really wanted to think about.

She's probably somewhere close by. On standby as well, a reserve in case something goes wrong, the costumed girl reasoned. Still...I don't have much time. If I'm right about this, I have just over fifteen minutes before they light those rockets...and Chicago goes straight to hell!

"Aw, man, this is boring," Joker R complained even as he watched several disposable henchmen they had picked up working hard, even as the rest of his crew and his allies worked to put their scheme into action.

"What wrong, J-chan?" Harley Shampoo asked in broken English. "You no like fireworks?"

"No, fireworks are fine, Shampie. You know me; I simply love things that go boom!" Joker R returned in a somewhat snippy manner. "It's repeating myself that I hate!"

"Which is why this is perfect, Ranma," Goldie remarked from where she stood, eyeing the loading of chemicals into the rockets with the intensity of a predator about to make a kill. "Everybody knows how much you and other Jokers hate pulling the game joke twice in a row. Why do you think I asked you to pull that little gag last night?" Smiling dangerously, the blonde continued to eye the chemicals she had worked so long and hard to prepare for this night's festivities. "After that mess, everybody will think that you will and the others will be laying low. No one will see what's coming...before it's too late."

"Not that anybody would see it coming anyway," Jinnai remarked with the usual smugness of his kind. "I must say, Goldie this little scheme...it's perfect, that's what it is! Absolute perfection!" A malicious grin stretched across his face as he watched the goons continue to labor. "Before tomorrow morning, this entire city and everyone in it will be all ours! A veritable sea of oysters, waiting for us to come along and pluck them clean of every pearl they have!"

Jinnai punctuated this statement with the lunatic guffaw that was the trademark of every Jinnai analog. Only to quickly cease laughing when Radinov paused in her irate pacing and snarled menacingly at him. As the fear-monger recoiled, raising his arms before him in alarm, Goldie gave her a teammate a poisonously sweet look. "Settle down, Radinov," she instructed the gamma mutant, the way she spoke making it clear that she was also using her telepathic abilities to soothe Radinov. "I know how much you hate his laugh, but you can't kill him. He's an ally, and we need his little concoctions for our plan to work." The irate gamma mutant snarled, her massive musculature bulging beneath her clothes as her eyes sparked with emerald rage. "Don't worry; you'll have plenty of things to kill. I just need you to be patient for a little while longer."

A low, hateful growl escaped Radinov's lips before she finally muttered, "Al-right." Casting one final, menacing glare at Jinnai, the Russian Hulk renewed her pacing, bristling for any excuse to lash out.

As Jinnai recovered from his close call, he snorted and practiced looking indignant, while Joker R chuckled lowly. "Hey, don't let it get you down, Scarecrow. So she doesn't have a sense of humor! So what?!" the clown martial artist wondered. "Personally, I like a guy who can keep a positive attitude and enjoy himself in this line of work!" Then he gave Jinnai another look and asked, "Speaking of positive attitudes...how much longer will I have to maintain mine before the fun actually starts?"

Recovering some of his usual swagger, Jinnai checked his watch. "Hmm...the fireworks are scheduled to begin in less than five minutes." Then he gave Joker R another of his monstrous grins. "And once these beauties start lighting up the sky, they'll spread our combo platter of chemicals all over the city! The effects will be instantaneous!"

"And we've already seen what this stuff can do, J-chan," Hikari noted, her voice muffled slightly by her mask, though her eagerness was not at all disguised. "The entire city will be one big free-for-all in seconds!"

Joker R had indeed seen the effects of the chemical cocktail they were about to unleash, and the thought of it made him grin a true Joker's grin. "Well, in that case...maybe I can stand repeating myself. Just this once, of course."

"Of course," Goldie noted with a nod. "And once the party's over...the real fun begins...!"

Nao really hated being a lookout in situations like this.

She knew why she had gotten this duty, of course. She was a bearer of a power ring, one of the Sinestro Corps rings and thus one of the more stable and controllable powers of the emotional spectrum. She was capable of instilling great fear, and she had tremendous creativity when it came to her constructs. Even if the local police or one or two heroes showed up now, she was capable of defeating several of such forces, or at the very least, holding them off until the others came to assist.

That didn't make what she was doing any less tedious. Just looking around, seeing nothing, doing nothing. With nothing to indicate that anyone even knew or cared that they were there.

Which is a good thing, Nao was forced to remind herself. Pulling this thing off will make both ours and the Golden Four's careers! But if we blow it...Goldie will be screwed, and in all likelihood, so will we!

Which meant that success was of paramount importance, and if none of the local costumed types or other do-gooders had taken notice of them, then so much the better.

But as Nao continued to hover just above the rooftop, she scowled, for no amount of logic made the tedium any easier to take.

How much longer, anyway? Nao wondered with a scowl. Even if I can't get in on the party we're kicking off, I want to be able to at least -!

The Sinestro Corps member was cut off when she felt something grab her by the hand. An instant later, something clasped over her mouth and nose, completely obstructing them.

What the hell?! Nao thought, letting out muted noises of shock as she struggled to break free of whatever held her. Acting on sheer instinct, she called forth the power of her ring, already mentally shaping the power of fear that she wielded...only to mentally gasp when nothing happened. No yellow energy appeared in front of her to dispatch her assailant. But how is that - ?!

Looking about wildly, Nao looked towards the hand where her ring hung about her finger...only to let out a muted cry of horror when she realized it was no longer there. Instead, it was hovering a short distance away, parts of it obscured as what could only be an invisible hand moved.

Invisible or someone with a stealth suit! Nao thought bitterly as she continued to fight against her unseen assailant. But now that her attacker had gotten a hold of her ring, he or she or whatever was using both arms to hold her tight. And while the attacker didn't feel particularly big, he or she was more than strong enough to hold the now-powerless Nao as her struggles faded, her mind clouding over as her lungs burned from lack of oxygen. But...why? Bullseye has a...stealth-cracker. Why...didn't she...warn...?

This unfinished question was the last thing to go through Nao's mind before she collapsed utterly, sagging into her attacker's arms and into the lands of unconsciousness.

So far, so good, the costumed girl thought as she gently set her subdued victim on the roof before slipping away, already slipping Nao's power ring into one of the pouches of her utility belt. One of their heavy hitters are down, and their Bullseye hasn't picked up on me.

Then she frowned, and gingerly crept across the roof. Better keep moving, though. Even if Bullseye hasn't noticed me yet, she'll definitely spot Nao the next time she looks that way! she thought urgently. And while Nao might not have made much noise...it might have been enough to attract attention!

As Goldie studied the rockets that were now in the final stages of preparation, a puzzled grunt sounded in the night air. "What is it, Rei?" Bane Hikari wondered, prompting Goldie to look in the crocodile woman's direction. She was presently looking about suspiciously, sniffing the air. "You smell something?"

"No," Rei promptly admitted with some of the guttural growl that all Croc variants had. "But I did hear something." Narrowing her slitted eyes, she glowered at the far end of the roof. "From over there."

"Well, well. Maybe we have company?" Joker R wondered, his voice carrying with it a dangerous spark of interest. "Asuka, Rei, do be good little girls and make any guests you might find feel quite unwelcome!"

With an ominous growl and a hiss of deadly hunger, the Killer Croc and Venom variants started off in the direction Rei had indicated. As they did so, Goldie furrowed her brows and opened her mind to one of her own teammates. Rally dear, it looks like we might have a problem.

What is it? Rally wondered.

Nothing much. Rei says she heard something, Goldie returned. What about you? Seen anything yet?

No. Nothing so...hold on, Rally cut herself off, her mental voice going from cool confidence to surprised confusion in the span of a second. Nao's down! She's not moving! And her power ring is gone!

"What?!" Goldie blurted aloud, surprise eroding her self-control. As her allies in general and Joker R in particular looked her way, she grimaced and announced, "Nao's down. Someone got to her and stole her ring!"

"Oh, dear!" Joker R got out, cupping his cheeks in concern that wasn't as much mockery as would be for other Jokers. "I hope they didn't take anything else!"

As Hikari proceeded to alert Rei and Asuka to what they had learned, Goldie returned her focus to one of her prized attack dogs. How did this happen, my dear Rally? she wondered in a dangerous manner. You are wearing stealth-crackers, aren't you?

Of course I am! Rally quickly assured her. I should be able to see anything, even if it's invisible or using stealth! A beat passed as the professional gunwoman mentally frowned and added, At least...as long as it's moving...

Goldie groaned inwardly at this point, knowing that it was valid. Powers and technology pertaining to stealth varied, both in terms of maintaining it and breaking it. And it was a point of pride for Goldie that she had managed to get the very beast stealth-crackers that money could buy. But even she had to admit that they could be fooled, assuming that the stealth field or invisibility power was good enough, and if the person implementing them knew enough to remain still when the stealth-crackers were pointed in his or her direction.

But how is that possible? Whoever's here would have to know exactly when you're not looking at them to avoid being seen! Goldie demanded. How could -?!

"I've found Nao," Rei growled in announcement from somewhere outside Goldie's line of sight. "She's not waking up. And her ring is definitely missing."

Growling in his throat in consummate disgust, Jinnai grumbled, "I don't believe this! We have the perfect plan going, so of course some imbecilic moron bumbles into us and starts trying to ruin everything!"

"Then we don't let that happen. It's as simple as that," Goldie announced in a cold voice.

Asuka was so hungry. A hunger that became increasingly palpable as she skirted about the shadows, moving about the various crates she and the others had brought up there, as well as the various objects protruding from the rooftop. A hunger that was given physical manifestation by the long, slavering tongue stretching out from the huge, toothy mouth that her other gave her in this form.

We haven't eaten in so loonnnng...! Asuka thought, slowly scanning her surroundings, listening for even the slightest footfall, the tiniest breath. Things that would lead her to the food she so craved.

For some time now, the symbiotic creature had been forced to make do with standard fare. Human foods, the kind of things that could be found in restaurants. But since she had been transformed, merged with her Venom, Asuka craved real meat. Living flesh. And as a result, virtually everyone around her looked very much like a banquet feast.

Making it that much harder for her to restrain her hunger, even if Asuka's feeding would endanger the group as a whole.

I hope we find whoever attacked Nao first! Asuka thought, caught between the impulse to shine that so many Asuka variants had, and the opportunity to sate her hunger. Brains, heart, lungs, liver...so many delicacies! So many -!

A faint, jabbing pain was felt in Asuka's right arm, and was immediately followed by the sensation of two arms wrapping about her body, with one of those arms covering her entire mouth. What - you! Asuka and the symbiote hissed as one, realizing that their foolish foe had effectively shoved part of her own body into their waiting mouth. You want to lose that arm so bad, you've got it!

Without hesitation, Asuka chomped down as hard as she could on the arm, only for the white eyes of her symbiotic covering to expand in surprise when they failed to penetrate whatever was covering said arm. Must be armor-plated! she and her other realized, the symbiotic mass already rising up about her, instinctively wrapping about anything nearby. And with a cruel grin of satisfaction, the German watched as her other began coating the creature stupid enough to try attacking them. Already, arms and legs were revealed as they became enveloped in their black substance. But armor always has cracks! she thought as her foe becoming increasingly coated in symbiote, revealing a roughly feminine figure. We'll find them, we'll get through them and then to you, bitch! And then we'll...we'll...

Even as she worked to overcome her prey, Asuka realized that something was wrong. Her mind was clouding over, her thoughts jumbled and confused. And even worse, a terrible lethargy was spreading throughout their combined body, both human and symbiote. Wha...aw, schisse! they hissed furiously, recalling the pain in their arm, and realizing what had happened. Must've...drugged us...! Getting...sleepy...!

As one, Asuka and Venom tried to fight back, to purge whatever sedative had been used on them. But it was moving too fast through their combined systems. Must've been...tailor-made...for us... the hybrid creature realized, groaning in hateful defeat as the symbiote sloughed off the person that had done this to them. Dammit...Ranma, everyone...when you...catch this asshole...make sure you...save the bitch...for us...we want...to eat...her braaaains...

Two down, a lot more to go, the costumed girl thought as Venom collapsed in her arms. Realizing that Rally was already turning her stealth-crackers in her general direction, she quickly took cover behind a nearby crate, knowing that she would have to leave that position fast before the German's allies arrived. But I don't think I can get much further with stealth. Not with Rally where she is, and all these creeps searching.

As she moved, keeping track of her surroundings and Bullseye's ever-present gaze, the costumed girl considered her options. She could take out the gunwoman that was presently trying to get her in her sights, but doing that would likely set off Goldie. Put her in a position where she felt she would have to launch what rockets she had now, lest her scheme fail entirely. And the remaining members of her enemy were either too powerful physically to take down in a stealthy manner, or too clustered together for her to be able to disable without someone else noticing.

If only I could... she thought, fingering the device about her neck, only to scowl. Dammit, no use crying about things I can't change! All I can do is take these bitches down! And I will! With that, she kept moving, already planning out her next attack. Just like he would...

"Ranma!" Rei cried out, her monstrous voice taking on a note of alarm now. "Venom's down as well!"

"What?!" Joker R got out, his expression contorting with incredulous annoyance. "How the hell does somebody take down a Venom, much less an Asuka, without making so much as a peep?!"

"They used a sedative of some kind," Rei reported from her present position, rising up to growl unhappily. "A powerful one, by the smell of it. She's out for at least a day."

Her ire mounting over this latest failure in her allies and her plan alike, Goldie reached out with her mind once more. Rally, Venom's down. Don't tell me you didn't see what happened.

I saw something! Bullseye reported with a scowl. Just after Venom fell, I caught a glimpse. A bit of movement, but then whoever did it got behind the crates before I could get a target!

Hissing in disgust, Goldie muttered, "Two people down, all without anyone seeing it happen." Shaking her head irritably, "Clean, silent, and neat. Whoever we're dealing with is good."

At these words, Joker R's eyes widened ever so slightly, a strange expression on his face. "Clean...silent...neat...and good at sneaking up on people and beating them senseless...?" he asked, something akin to awe and joy in his voice as a monstrous grin split his face. "You don't suppose...there's a chance...we have a Bat in our belfry?!"

"J-chan!" Shampoo cried out in surprised delight even as Goldie groaned inwardly.

"Oh, is it possible? Have my antics, my attempts to spread mirth, whimsy, and carnage throughout the Windy City, finally earned me the attention of my very own Bat?!" Joker R went on in a singsong fashion, fluttering his eyes in hopeful joy. "Have I found what every Joker wants; an eternal rival, an enemy to match wits and skills with for the rest of their lives or until one manages to kill the other?! Can it be?!"

As Joker R grinned the biggest grin Goldie had ever seen from him, with Harley Shampoo jumping about in eager hope, the mind-controlling mistress groaned in dismay. While Joker R and his gang had proven valuable allies to her, with the Golden Four's Minnie May being attracted to him and his gang often in need of chemicals Goldie routinely handled, he shared the same fixation every Joker seemed to have with those who wore the mantle of the Bat, and had at times been quite upset that he had yet to warrant his own personal nemesis.

Before Goldie could say anything, Jinnai put her annoyance into words. "Look, as much as I can appreciate the need to find and utterly annihilate one's great rival in life, does it have to be now?!" the fear-mongering Scarecrow amalgam demanded. "We're less than three minutes away from launch! And the last thing we need is a Bat or any other costumed idiot messing things up for us!"

As Radinov growled menacingly, Goldie nodded. "For once, you and Radinov are in complete agreement," she announced as she reached into her coat. "We can't afford any delays. And if this is a Bat or someone using a stealth suit, then I know just how to flush them out!"

Bringing forth the weapon in question, Goldie brandished what looked like a high-tech gun, drawing the attention of several of her allies. "Wait - is that a photonic scrambler?!" Jinnai wondered with a raised eyebrow. "But if you use that thing now -!"

"It'll register on the police scanners, as well as any tech-based heroes that might be around here!" Goldie admitted. "But we're too close to achieving our goals, and I am not going to have all the hard work and money I've sunk into this operation ruined because of one costumed cretin who can't keep their nose out of my business!"

"But you'll have to sweep the entire roof with that thing in order to make sure you hit the target!" Jinnai protested. "And if you fire it off for more than a few seconds, we'll have every costumed cretin in town coming right down our throats!"

"And by the time they get here, our unwanted guest will be dead and the rockets launched!" Goldie countered. "And when that happens, they'll be too busy to -!"

"Now, hold on for a moment, Goldie! Our Scarecrow has quite the point there!" Joker R broke in, much to Goldie's surprise. "The last thing this party needs is for a bunch of poopers to show up and screw everything up! Besides, I've got a better idea!" Starting at this, Goldie gave her clown compatriot a look, a look he responded to with a truly devious grin. "It takes a few seconds for a photonic scrambler to register as such on scanners, right? So as long as you can get our intruder with a quick shot, no one will notice, correct?"

As she continued to study the clownish Ranma, Goldie again reminded herself that Jokers and amalgams of Jokers may act like idiots on the outside, but they rarely were on the inside. "That's right."

"Then all we have to do is flush our uninvited guest out so you can give 'em a quick little zap that won't show up on anybody's radar! And I know just how to make that happen!" With that, Joker R looked out across the rooftop, cupped a hand to his mouth, and called out, "Oh, Shinji-kun! Do be a good boy...and blow yourself up!"

Even as Goldie's eyes expanded in surprise, the mind-manipulator wondering if she had actually heard what she thought she had, a garbled voice replied, "Got it, J-san!" Even as she tried to make sense of what Joker R had in mind, their version of Clayface appeared from behind some of the crates in the form of a massive ball of mud, one that continued to swell up larger and larger and larger. Several crates were shoved aside as Shinji continued to build himself up bigger and bigger.

Until he literally exploded.

Taking a step backwards as one of her allies blew like Mount Vesuvius, Goldie watched in astonished confusion as scraps of clay Shinji felt up into the air, only to come raining down upon the rooftop and everyone on it. The goons they hired groaned in dismay as they were pelted with living clay, something Goldie understood well when she herself wound up with several blobs of Shinji marking her clothes. "Don't you worry about Shinji, troops. He'll come right out in the wash," Joker R assured them with a wicked smirk. "I know this from personal experience."

Making a note to never, ever ask about this, Goldie continued to ponder what Joker R had in mind. Right up until Shinji's garbled voice was heard crying out, "Hey! I - I got her, J-san!"

Swiveling her gaze about, Goldie watched as several clods of Shinji seemed to levitate near some of the crates, while something seemed to wipe those clods away. Of course! Why didn't I think of that?! the mind-manipulator demanded of herself. Shinji's made of living clay! He feels what any part lands on! And even if our unwanted guest is invisible, that doesn't make them intangible!

With a grin nearly as broad as Joker R's, Goldie watched as the stray globs of Shinji swarmed in on the few floating ones. Bypassing crates, vents, and even his own teammates, the clay child's fragments came together about their invisible intruder, assembling themselves about the invader that had already disabled two of their crew. And now that I know precisely where you are...! Goldie thought as she raised the photonic scrambler at the wretched little gremlin in her perfect scheme, ...let's see what you look like!

With that, Goldie pulled the trigger, discharging a single burst from her weapon, nowhere near enough to register on any scanners as more than a momentary blip. A single burst that rushed towards the still-forming Clayface, and the prisoner he held.

As soon as the burst struck home, it washed over its victim, highlighting the frame of a girl, somewhat taller than Minnie May but not as tall as Rally. And as the photonic scrambler had its way with whatever stealth technology the girl was employing, she slowly faded into view. And to Goldie's considerable surprise, she saw no black on the intruder's garb, nothing to indicate that she was a Bat or related to any Bat Family. Instead, she saw the brilliant colors of red, white, and blue marking her frame. A brilliant white star garnishing her chest, and golden trim about her suit. A gold and silver utility belt hung about her waist, and large red pouches were attached to her thighs. A strange metallic collar hung about her neck, and she wore a blue helmet with a red-tinted visor, leaving only her mouth exposed to the air. She bore red gauntlets and boots, and upon her left arm was very familiar shield.

"Wha-?!" Joker R cried out in a mix of surprise and disappointment. "Aw, you're no Bat!"

"Indeed, she isn't. But I do think I know who she is," Goldie purred, smiling contently now that she had her captive contained, and more importantly, a visible target for Rally to put down at any time. "Mari, isn't it? Mari Illustrious Makinami?"

His eyes going wide with shock, Joker R groaned despondently. "She's a Mari variant on top of anything else?! Almost as big a loon as me, but without any of the style?" Letting out an even more pathetic groan, the Ranma variant looked up at the sky before letting his arms flop down to the sides. "And to think I had such high hopes..."

As Shampoo and Hikari moved to comfort their clown compatriot, Goldie looked over at Jinnai. "How much longer until the party starts?"

Smiling the infamous Jinnai smirk, Scarecrow answered, "Two minutes and counting, Goldie!"

Heaving a deep breath of satisfaction in the knowledge that her scheme was again moving ahead as it should be, Goldie nodded. "Then get the rockets ready," she ordered. "I've been waiting for this fireworks display for a very long time, and I want for everything to be perfect!"

Nodding, Jinnai promptly went to work, leaving Goldie to focus on her unwanted guest. Leaving her to play one of her favorite games; games of the mind. "So...I have to admit to being surprised," she cooed as she studied the girl before her. "I always knew that there was a chance that one or more of you heroic types might put in an appearance. Your kind certainly makes a habit of that. But...I would never believed that such a primitive creature such as yourself would have blundered into my business." When the Mari frowned dangerously, saying not a word in response, Goldie simply smirked. "I have heard about you, you know. I make it a habit of keeping track of all you so-called heroes that arrive in Coreline. After all, you never know who might get in the way...or who might make a convenient pawn...or even a plaything."

The Captain America amalgam remained silent even as Clayface wrapped tightly about her. She just stared at Goldie with eyes filled with disgust.

"What, don't have anything to say?" Goldie wondered with a raised eyebrow. "I find it hard to believe that any Mari and especially you could ever keep your mouth shut. In fact, I'm amazed you've managed to stay silent this long." When the Mari variant again failed to rise up to this bait, Goldie felt a twitch of annoyance, but decided to keep playing her game, at least for a while longer. "That's right. I know everything there is to know about you. A pitiful pawn of SHIELD in your own world, a miserable joke in this one, a failure trying so hard to live up to the greatness that is your namesake, only to fall so very short every single time. All the while making pitiful jokes and sorry one-liners to hide the truth of what an absolute fraud you are."

Mari's lips twisted into a tiny sneer, her eyes narrowing with barely expressed fury.

Delighting in this tiny reaction, Goldie proceeded to twist the knife in even deeper. "And what's with that collar you're wearing?" she asked in a playful manner. "That isn't a suppressor collar, is it? The kind some so-called heroes get fitted with when they cause trouble and get put on probation?" Tsking at this, Goldie shook her head in a mocking fashion. "Ooh, you've been such a bad girl, haven't you? And now you're being punished for it. With that collar on, whatever powers you have...well, I suppose you don't even have any right now? Maybe some extra strength, and of course your ability to mimic people like the chattering monkey you are...but that's all, isn't it?"

"Goldie, what are you thinking, doing the monologue bit?!" Jinnai wondered disgustedly. "I've seen what happens whenever someone goes with one of those! You're practically begging for something to go wrong right now!"

"Don't worry, Jinnai. This little nuisance isn't a threat. She can't even throw her own shield straight," Goldie smirked, eyeing the little girl that was trapped like a fly in amber. "And there's no harm in my amusing myself for a bit before Mr. Miles and Mr. Thornton come out to announce their big initiative."

"Yes, there is," Mari spoke, taking Goldie by surprise. There was no levity to her words, none of the devil-may-care attitude that her breed was so famous for. "You're done, Goldie. All of you are."

Confused by Mari's words and not liking the attitude she was displaying, Goldie frowned and retorted, "And just who do you think is going to stop me? You?" When the Mari variant failed to answer, she asked, "And how do you plan on doing that while Shinji's got you all wrapped up?"

"I wasn't," Mari admitted in a hard voice that seemed more fitting for a Bat. "Which is why I released an ultra-coagulant into his body when he grabbed me. I was just waiting for him to finish hardening."

Goldie's eyes went wide, as did the eyes of everyone else there. Which was all the reaction time any of them had before Mari snarled and snapped free of the now-brittle Clayface. Kicking fiercely, the Captain America amalgam sent hardened chunks of Shinji flying in all directions, pelting them all and sending one especially large piece right into Goldie's face.

"Ach! Goldie!" Jinnai cried out as the mind manipulator staggered against him, clutching at her injured face. Her cool, confident mood shattered just as Mari was shattering what was left of her living restraints.

"Radinov...!" Goldie snarled, clutching at her injury, staring bloody murder at the girl responsible as she freed herself. Releasing the mental restraints that kept the Russian Hulk restrained, focusing her natural rage on the girl before her. "Kill!"

As the Russian behemoth snarled eagerly, finally free to unleash her rage, Goldie focused her mind on another target. Rally, have you got a lock on our guest?!

Had one the instant Shinji started wrapping himself around her! Bullseye replied with feral confidence.

Then be ready to put her down! I want to let Radinov have her fun! Goldie explained, watching as the Russian Hulk charged right at the star-spangled girl. But if something goes wrong -!

Got it! Rally assured her ally with calm confidence. All I'll need is one good shot, and she's mine!

Satisfied with this, Goldie turned her attention to the show she was about to get. Rushing towards her impending victim, looking as unstoppable as a Juggernaut variant, Radinov shook the entire building with her footsteps. "Diiiiiieee!" she roared with a voice of determined hate and joy. Reaching out towards Mari, who narrowed her eyes, raised her shield, and braced herself for impact.

The last second before Radinov could wrap her arms about her, Mari threw herself into a quick controlled roll and narrowing avoided the Russian Hulk's monstrous green hands. As Radinov gasped in confusion, her bestial mind wondering what had happened, Mari came up under her and forced her shield right into her foe's stomach. Coming to her feet even as she forced Radinov off of hers with a strange variant of a judo toss, Mari then whirled about, grabbing the gamma-enhanced assassin by her leg and pivoting on her heels.

What the -?! Goldie wondered, taken aback by this sudden turnaround. Rally, take her! Don't worry about Radinov! Just kill this bitch! Without hesitation, Bullseye responded, and that response came in the form a high-powered round coming from the gunwoman's weapon. But to the mind-manipulator's surprise, the round simply bounced off. As did the ones that came immediately after. Rally?!

It's her suit! It's made with some kind of special metal! Adamantium or vibranium or something! Rally protested. I'll have to go for her visor and - what the -?!

Rally?! Goldie wondered, not liking the sound of her mental voice. And liking it even less when that same voice went silent in her mind. Rally, what are you -?!

"Rrraaarrgghh!" Radinov screamed in pure outrage, returning Goldie's attention to the battle before her. To her consummate horror, the gamma-powered assassin was now flying through the air, having been thrown by Mari right at her.

And in her current state -! Goldie thought, knowing full well what happened when gamma mutants got angry. Even if she didn't intend to lash out at her allies, there was no question she could do her and Jinnai a great deal of damage without even realizing it. Radinov, sleep!

The instant this powerful mental command flowed from Goldie's mind into the primitive and properly conditioned consciousness of Radinov, the bestial assassin's eyes fluttered, her wrathful snarls subsiding into a dazed grunt, just before fell unconscious.

But even though Radinov had been pacified, she was still airborne, almost half a ton of her. And so Goldie and Jinnai were forced to throw themselves to the sides before being crushed by her immense bulk. "Dammit!" the Scarecrow amalgam hissed even as he got out his infamous mask. "Stupid bitch! Next time, just shoot her!"

Goldie didn't know if it was the Mari or herself that Jinnai was calling stupid, but at the moment, she wouldn't have blamed him either way. "Alright, you, I've -!" she snarled at Mari - only to freeze when she saw that the Captain America amalgam was holding a gun. And that gun was pointed right at her.

An instant later, a shot was heard, and a painful stinging sensation registered in Goldie's neck. Just before she felt something akin to being struck by lightning before mercifully passing out.

So much for the big threats! Mari thought as she glanced away from the prone Goldie, the taser round from her gun having done its job well. Just as the remote floater disk she had been using to monitor Rally's movements, to keep ahead of her trained eye and to ultimately incapacitate her with sleeping gas.

But even as Mari studied the prone visage of the evil alternate of Rally Vincent, the image of her lying prone on the floor being displayed on her visor's HUD, she focused on her current predicament. The rest of the Joker R gang was still ready for trouble, as well the goons they had brought with them. Crushette Hopkins was still unaccounted for and was bound to show up, sooner or later, and worst of all, her adversaries looked to be ready to launch the rockets that would plunge this city into madness and win Goldie her prize.

No time for subtlety. Got to wrap this up and fast, Mari thought grimly, raising her shield to her foes. This is where all that training pays off...

"Have to admit, didn't see this one coming," Joker R admitted. "Well, seeing as it's almost time to launch - or close enough - Hikari, Rei? Do me a favor and pound this pain in the neck bloody red, black, and blue! Everyone else - let's light these babies!"

"No!" Mari called out even as the Bane and Killer Croc amalgams launched themselves towards her. Reaching for her utility belt, she brought forth a couple smoke bombs and tossed them past the lumbering behemoths and straight at Joker R and the others. The bombs exploded, releasing plumes of smoke and sending the villains choking and coughing, and most importantly of all, preventing them from launching the rockets for a few more precious seconds.

With Joker R and the others coughing pitifully, Mari took aim at the Hikari Bane's arm, and more importantly, the power enhancer that sent Venom into her brain. Firing her gun, she sent three more taser rounds into it, each round striking the controls that regulated the flow of the powerful drug. Crying out in alarm, Hikari looked down at the device just as it began sending increased amounts of Venom into her system, causing her muscles to bulge horribly.

"No! The Venom!" Hikari cried out as she began swelling hideously. When the Killer Croc amalgam paused to look back at her, the Bane amalgam shook her head frantically. "No - Rei! Stop - her - fir-arrrgghhh!"

Rei hesitated just long enough to watch Hikari as she began to grow right out of her clothes, but then renewed her charge. Holstering her gun, Mari reached into her utility belt for another of her gadgets before rushing towards the monstrous crocodile girl. The two superhumans ran full out at each other, with the star-spangled girl leaping into the air, raising her clenched hand. Surprised by this frontal assault, Rei hesitated just long enough for Mari to land right in her face and shove her fist right into her mouth.

"Ha! Are you kidding me?!" came Jinnai's voice even as Rei wrapped her clawed hands about Mari's frame, squeezing with all her strength. Glancing in his direction, Mari watched as he aided Hikari, disconnecting her pump from her brain even as she groaned in pain after the massive overdose she had just suffered. "What kind of idiot would deliberately stick her hand into a crocodile's mouth?!"

"Better question!" Mari gritted out as she squeezed the trigger on the device she had rammed down Rei's throat. "What kind of idiot would swallow a mouthful of explosive gel?!"

"What?!" Rei garbled out around Mari's arm and the explosive gel she had just sprayed down the crocodile girl's throat. Taking advantage of her surprise, the patriotic adventuress pushed free of Rei's slackened grip, discharging even more explosive gel into her mouth along the way.

"Enjoy your teeth...while you can!" Mari declared just before thumbing the detonator control. An instant later, an explosion sounded from within the confines of Rei's mouth and throat, staggering the monstrous behemoth and sending sparks of fire and plumes of smoke spilling out of her mouth, nose, and ears. Waving her hands frantically before her face, Rei issued a pained groan before her eyes rolled up into her sockets and she finally collapsed to the ground.

As the fallen Killer Croc amalgam lay about on the ground, moaning pitifully, Mari focused on other matters. The smoke was clearing, and while Hikari Bane was still conscious, she didn't look too good after her forced overdose of Venom. Then she focused on Jinnai, who was wearing his mask and thus had been able to escape the smoke. Even now, he was standing with the kind of swagger one would expect from a Jinnai variant...just before a thick spray of crimson smoke appeared from his mask. "Ooh, nice work, beating down on the monsters in this world!" he began as the cloud headed towards Mari. "But let's see how well you do against the monsters rattling around inside your -!"

Two things happened in close succession before Jinnai could finish his speech. The first was a special face-covering slid into place over Mari's mouth, acting to protect her from the Fear Gas. The second was that grabbed her shield from her left arm, and with a quick wind up, sent it flying right into Scarecrow's midsection. With a cry of surprised pain, Jinnai was sent flying towards his compatriots, trailing Fear Gas even as he crashed into one of the goons they had hired even as the shield bounced back towards Mari.

Instants later, cries of absolute panic were heard from the dwindling clouds of smoke, following by the goons the Joker R gang had brought with them running out of them, utterly consumed with fear. Screaming desperately for help, they were blind to everything else, leaving them easy prey for Mari who again grabbed her gun and subdued each of them with a few quick taser rounds.

Making her way over to Hikari, Mari shot her with the last taser round in her weapon's clip. While it would not have been overly effective against her normally, with her body still recovering from the overdose of venom, it was enough to send her into the depths of unconsciousness. And as the last of the smoke cleared, she saw that Jinnai was currently slumped upon the ground, dead to the world. Leaving just two members of the Joker R gang to contend with; Harley Shampoo, and the clown martial artist himself.

"You know, it's a point of pride for me that I don't let little things like having my thugs get trounced or my plans blowing up in my face get me down," Joker R declared, looking hard at Mari even as she holstered her gun. "After all, when you have a life like mine, you have to roll with the punches! And man, have I ever rolled with a lot of punches!" Then he looked over at the bodies strewn all over the roof, and the sociopathic clown scowled. "However, one thing I will never accept is losing to such a loser! Shampie!"

"Got it, J-chan!" Shampoo returned, launching herself towards Mari. Not bother to roll her eyes, the star-spangled girl glanced over at the leader of this group, and noticed as he drew forth his cell phone even as he started towards the controls for the rockets.

"No!" Mari cried out as she launched herself out of the way of Shampoo even as she launched into a flying kick. Without hesitation, the star-spangled girl threw her shield once more, watching as it struck one of the crates and obediently ricocheted off of it, and then flew right into Joker R's chest before making its return trip.

"Ugh...so much for not even being able to throw your shield straight!" Joker R grumbled as Mari retrieved said shield and turned her attention towards Shampoo. Now wielding clownish variants of the maces other versions of Shampoo were known for wielding. the costumed adventuress watched her moves, effortlessly dodging her attacks before again reaching into her utility belt. Grabbing one of her disk weapons, she quickly threw it at her harlequin opponent.

Even as Shampoo moved to dodge the disk, weighted lines appeared from its sides, transforming it into a high-tech bolo. And while she was able to avoid the disk itself, the lines ensnared her, tangling about the crazed Amazon's leg and arm. Slowing her down just enough for Mari to rush in and deliver a crushing series of blows to her head and body.

As Shampoo fell down in defeat, Mari whirled about, and found Joker R grunting in effort as he struggled back up to his feet. Not giving him a chance to do anything else crazy, the red, white, and blue battler marched up to him and hastily drove her foot down towards his face. Unsurprisingly, he rolled out of the way before coming back up to his feet.

Scowling at this, Mari muttered, "Guess I should have expected that you wouldn't go down easy."

"And I should have seen you making such a big mess out of things!" Joker R shot back even as Captain America took a battle-ready stance. "That is what you Maris do best, isn't it?"

Mari was considering saying something in return, but before she could, a distant explosion caught her ear, as well as a burst of light. As she and Joker R glanced towards the source, she watched as several fireworks exploded in the night air, sending plumes of brilliant colors throughout the sky. As thousands of people looked on in joy and awe, she returned her attention to her clown antagonist. "The fireworks are starting. Which means that Devon Miles and Peter Thornton will be making speeches and announcing the new anti-drug initiative they and the Governor have been working on," she intoned with a deadly look. "Which means that if you want your little scheme to work to the fullest, you're gonna have to launch those rockets now."

"Ooh, thanks for the reminder!" Joker R returned mockingly. "Don't worry, I'll be sure to get right on it...while you're being turned into splat! Oh, Minnie May!"

Grimacing at this name, Mari glanced about just in time to see a green, musclebound woman leap into view. "Sorry to take so long, J-chan! I had to get the rest of the equipment in place, and -!" Cutting herself as she landed on the roof, the Minnie May Hopkins variant looked about in astonished shock at the decimated members of the Golden Four and Joker R gang. "Sweetie, what happened?!"

"She happened! And as much as I would love to give her the beating she deserves myself, I have fireworks to launch!" Joker R hurriedly explained, pointing at Mari. "So do me a favor and get some licks in for me while I send out the party favors!"

"Gladly!" Crushette announced, cracking her knuckles while Mari readied herself. For while she was only about six and a half feet, she was still a Hulk. And Mari had no illusions about what would happen if she managed to land a blow.

Crying out in homicidal glee, Minnie May launched herself at Mari, firing off a punch that would split a mountain in two. And it was only through a combination of powers that hadn't been nullified by the suppressor collar she wore and a lot of recent training that Mari was able to avoid the blow and wrap her arms about the gamma mutant's forearm. Using Minnie May's momentum against her, the Super Soldier was able to launch her into a respectable judo throw.

Unfortunately, Minnie May's momentum didn't carry her very far. And as soon as she landed, she scrambled back up to her feet. "Ooh, you're in trouble now!" Joker R gloated even as he prepped the rockets for launch. "It's just too bad you can't get Goldie to shut my little Crushette down the way she did Radinov! But - oh, well! I guess that's just how the cookie crumbles!" Chuckling dementedly even as the gamma mutant again launched herself at Mari, he added, "Not to mention your bones, brains, heart, lungs, and -!"

Preparing herself to launch Minnie May with another toss, knowing exactly where she would put her this time, Mari braced herself...only to start when twin beams of energy lanced into the gamma mutant's side. Surprised by this affront and taken off balance, Crushette was launched up off her feet and off the roof.

"What the -?!" Mari and Joker R exclaimed simultaneously, looking about towards the source. Only for both their eyes to widen at the sight of what looked like a suit of Iron Man armor, only heavily modified from the original design. This particular suit was clearly meant for a girl of roughly Mari's age, and its design bore a heavy influence from giant robot anime and manga.

"Wow, nice party!" came an electronically distorted voice that was a perfect match for Mana Kirishima. "Hope you don't mind me crashing it!" With that, she angled her chest forward, and from the arc reactor in her chest, unleashed a potent unibeam that smashed into the crazed clown, driving him into the roof.

Looking down at the foe Iron Maiden so readily defeated, Mari scowled irritably before turning her gaze up at the armored superwomen. "What are you doing here?!" she irately demanded. "I had this under control!"

"Yeah, I know. Right until the green crazy girl showed up!" Iron Maiden retorted in what was supposed to be a warm-yet-teasing manner. A manner that soon turned grim when she added, "And speaking of..."

Mari already heard it. A furious growl combined with a whooshing of the air, followed by something heavy coming down on the concrete. "You think you can just blast me away, huh?!" Minnie May demanded, her green features twisted with outrage. "Well, nobody messes with Crushette Hopkins or her sweet Joker and gets away with it!"

Glancing away from the furious gamma mutant, Mana suggested, "Here's an idea. Let's put down Ms. Anger Management, tie up these goons, and get back to how you were handling everything afterwards?"

"Fine," Mari returned, glowering at the enraged Crushette. Bracing herself for further battle even the gamma mutant charged her and Iron Maiden.

"This is not how I wanted to spend my Fourth of July, Sid," Mana grumbled as she placed the neuro-disruptors on the now-prone Minnie May.

"Yeah, I know," Sid returned in a sympathetic manner. "I was hoping for a nice, quiet night out on the town myself."

Nodding in response, Mana stood up straight to survey the handiwork of herself and the Mari variant she had encountered. Every member of the Joker R gang and the Golden Four was now securely bound and secured, including Rally, whom Iron Maiden had found sleeping like a baby at a nearby building, gun still in hand. Of course, the armor-user knew how long such bindings would not last when the superhuman maniacs finally woke up. "You did contact the Champions, let them know the kind of mess we've got here, right?"

"Yup!" Sid promptly confirmed. "They're sending a team over her to pick them all up."

Nodding to this, Mana remarked, "I just hope they don't send Martian Manhunter Hikari to help." Wincing as she looked at the Joker Ranma and Bane Hikari that they had secured, she thought of the horror stories that came of the Martian Hikari's attempt to link with the clown's mind, as well as her trying to deal with her evil counterpart. "A Joker's mind is never a nice place to be."

"Tell me about it. Or better yet, don't," Sid remarked as Mana looked over at the Captain America that had done most of the dirty work there. All the while thinking she wasn't acting much like the costumed hero she was an amalgam of, and was definitely not acting like any Mari she had ever met.

Ever since they had managed to defeat Minnie May, she had worked in silence to secure the Joker R gang and Golden Four. And since she had released her faceplates, Mana could easily see the anger and frustration creasing her expression, making her look more like she should be wearing a Bat costume, or at least an outfit belonging to a member of the Bat family. And the fact that she's obviously on probation...that's not good, Mana knew as she studied the collar the girl wore. What's the deal with her, anyway? She's not acting at all like any Mari I've ever met...

Considering this for a moment, Mana then asked the other girl, "All done?"

A beat passed as the Mari variant paused to consider the prone villains. "Yeah. It's not great, but...it'll do for now." Frowning at this decidedly un-Mari-ish statement, Iron Maiden looked on as the other girl sighed. "Look, I...I guess I should thank you for...showing up when you did. I...I might not have been able to stop them myself. At least...not in time." Blinking a few times at this, Mana was to ask what she meant by this when Mari continued with, "Say...how'd you happen to...?

"Find you? Dumb luck," Mana admitted, sliding up her faceplates to look the other girl with her own eyes. "The Foundation asked me and a few other metas to keep an eye on things. With both heads of the Foundation out in the open, you can bet they weren't taking any chances." As Mari nodded her understanding, Iron Maiden shrugged. "Anyway, I was doing a sweep of this area when I picked up a strange energy reading. Wasn't much, but I figured it might be worth a look, so..."

"Must've been the photonic scrambler Goldie used on me," Mari commented, looking over at the prone leader of the Golden Four. "Jinnai said it might show up on scanners."

"Well, he was right, luckily enough," Mana confirmed. "The reading didn't last long; just a faint blip, and I almost missed it. But Sid said it might be something bad - like a photonic scrambler - so I decided to look around. But with the energy reading so brief, I couldn't get an exact lock on the source, so I had to search for a while." Then she glanced over to where Minnie May lay and shrugged. "Lucky thing I noticed her. She led me right here. And...well, the rest, you know."

Nodding, Mari then sighed sourly. "Dammit...if I had known that a photonic scrambler would've made people sit up and take notice, I'd have gotten one myself..."

"Not very likely!" Sid remarked in a singsong fashion. "That kind of tech is way up there on the list of illegal toys! Not the kind of thing someone on probation could get her hands on!"

As Mari's expression soured that much more, Mana sighed. "Thanks a bunch, Sid," she muttered before rolling her eyes. "So...what's going on here? What was this all about?" The star-spangled girl frowned at this, prompting the armor-user to elaborate with, "The Joker R gang and the Golden Four? Trying something with the Foundation holding a rally for a big anti-drug push with the Governor, not to mention an election coming up soon with tons of candidates trying to get into office? You don't have to be a genius to know they were up to something, and it was big!"

Narrowing her eyes at this, Mari muttered, "I'm not so sure about you not having to be a genius to figure it out, but..."

Frowning at the enigmatic remark that sounded like an attempt at a joke, but wasn't quite, Mana tried again. "So...what were they trying to do?" Glancing over at the equipment both crews had brought there, she continued. "I see a lot of fireworks, and it looks like they had a bunch of chemicals. So...what were they planning on doing?"

A beat passed as Mari studied Mana, her features taut with emotion, completely unreadable. "You really want to know?" When Iron Maiden nodded, making an affirmative noise in her throat, the Super Soldier hesitated for a moment before nodding. "Alright. I'll tell you. But on one condition."

A beat passed before Mana asked, "And...that is...?"

"That you take me seriously," Mari replied. "You don't laugh at me, you don't accuse me of making things up or playing a stupid joke or anything like that. Got it?"

Making a querulous noise, Mana hesitated before asking, "Well, why wouldn't I take you seriously?! In case you haven't noticed, we're surrounded by some of the worst villains in Chicago, and it's clear they were up to something! What's not to take serious?!"

Frowning intently, Mari considered this for a time before nodding. "Alright. Just...hear me out, okay?" When Mana nodded in return, the Super Soldier took a deep breath. "You know how big a drug problem Chicago has, right?"

"Of course," Mana confirmed. "Ever since that Goldie showed up, she's pretty much taken control of the entire drug market here."

"Right. And she has access to pretty much every drug or chemical known," Mari nodded. "Substance D, Digitalin, Plasmids, Nuke, Venom, MGH, as well as chemicals needed for things like Joker Venom and Fear Gas, you name it. Goldie could get it for you...at a price." Then the Super Soldier looked out in the distance. "That's why the Governor contacted the Foundation; to get help in bringing down Goldie and the drug trade. So they got together and came up with this new anti-drug program, which the Governor is trying to get approved."

"Which Goldie wouldn't like," Mana nodded thoughtfully as she studied the fallen villains. "So I guess that explains why they were here. But what exactly were they up to? Loading fireworks with bombs or poison?"

"Worse," Mari stated flatly. "From what I was able to find out, Goldie, Jinnai, and some of her other scientists were able to create a new version of the TITAN formula." The Super Soldier was about to continue, but frowned and asked, "You've heard of that one, right?"

"Of course!" Mana confirmed with a slight shudder. "It's more powerful than Venom, and can turn people into mindless TITAN monsters! And in the cases of metas -!"

"Using it can be fatal. Right," Mari nodded. "Well, this new version is even nastier. Goldie combined TITAN with gammaroids, causing whoever's exposed to turn into a Gamma-TITAN. Even worse, you don't have to be injected with it. Simply touching a small amount of it can cause a transformation."

As these words echoed in Mana's mind, her jaw fell open even a Sid realized what this meant. "And they were going to load this stuff into the fireworks and launch them over the city?!" the AI demanded in pure horror. "But - half the people in Chicago would have been changed into gamma-powered TITAN monsters! The entire city would have been flattened!"

"Worse than that. For good measure, they added some of the Scarecrow Fear Toxin to the mix," Mari informed them, causing Mana to blanch. "Not only would people change into Gamma-TITANs, they'd be hallucinating their worst nightmares at the same time."

The implications of such a scenario fell down upon Mana's head like a ton of bricks. "They'd...oh, god, they'd attack anything...!" she breathed, scarcely able to conceive the horror of such an event. "And anybody that didn't change..."

"If they didn't have powers, they'd be dead," Mari confirmed. "And probably a bunch of people with powers as well."

A shudder ran down Mana's spine as she conceived such a horrendous scenario. As she looked over at the innocuous-looking fireworks, she envisioned their monstrous payload and the doom it represented. "B-but - why?!" she finally asked, glancing at the bound members of both groups. "I - I can see a Joker pulling something like this, but why would Goldie get involved?!"

"Mana's right, you know," Sid pointed out. "All those people dying wouldn't do Goldie's business any favors! And even if this worked, then that wouldn't stop the anti-drug initiative! Even if Devon and Pete and the Governor were killed, the Foundation would carry on and keep pushing for it! If anything, something like this would make it even more likely for the state to pass it!"

"And that's exactly what Goldie wanted to happen," Mari replied with a frown.

Mana opened her mouth to reply, only for whatever she had been out to say to fall flat in her mouth, right before her jaw clattered to the ground. "Wait - what?!" she blurted out, trying her best to reboot her brain into something resembling functional order. "Mari, that doesn't make any sense at all! Why the hell would Goldie want the state to pass new laws and more that would work against her?!"

"Because she'd figured out a way to make them work for her," Mari explained in a terse manner. "You see, they included one more chemical compound with the Gamma-TITAN and Fear Toxin. Or maybe I should say, half of one." Furrowing her brows in confusion, Mana looked hard at the Super Soldier. "It's one half of a binary chemical mix. Completely harmless on its own. But when it's mixed with the other half, it forms a powerful consciousness control agent. Perfect for brainwashing and implanting post-hypnotic suggestions in people."

"Goldie's specialty," Mana breathed, again staggered by the scope of what had been planned. "And with so many people infected -!"

"Including the heads of the Foundation, a lot of government higher-ups, and who-knows-how-many metas!" Sid chimed in, the AI's voice shaking badly. "But - okay, one half of the control drug was in with the Gamma-TITAN! But how was Goldie going to get people with the other half?!"

"She wasn't. The local law enforcement, military, and a whole lot of superheroes would have done it for her," Mari informed them, twisting Mana's stomach even further. "Gamma-TITAN has a lot in common with regular TITAN, so the same drug used to counter TITAN would have worked on it as well."

"So? What's that have to do with anything?!" Mana demanded.

"The fact that the process of making the cure is long, slow, and doesn't make much in the way of anti-TITAN," Mari informed the other superwoman. "In fact, anti-TITAN's so rare, there's only one place in all of Chicago with a supply of it; a medical company specializing in agents for treating dangerous drugs." Giving this a moment to sink in, the star-spangled girl gave the armored adventuress a look before asking, "Now, if you do enough digging, guess who happens to own that company?"

Her heart sinking right into her toes, Mana breathed, "Goldie."

"Right," Mari nodded. "Pretty sneaky, huh? People pay her for her poisons, and the government and hospitals pay her for the things they need to treat those poisons. No wonder she's made it so big in this city."

Her eyes wide with horror, Mana took a long, hard look at the woman that had set all of this in motion. "So the instant we started curing people of the Gamma-TITAN...we'd be creating the mind control serum inside their bodies!"

"Exactly," Mari declared with a slight note of satisfaction. "Now, from what Hopkins was saying, I'm guessing she and some more of Goldie's people were setting up some kind of machine to help her implant whatever kind of suggestion she needed in everyone as soon as we started treating the Gamma-TITANs. And as soon as that happened...she'd basically have the Foundation, the state government, and a lot of other important people in her pocket." As Mana groaned in low horror at thought of such a thing, the Super Soldier continued. "And once that happened, the success of the initiative would only have worked for her. She would have made it look like the anti-drug push was working, that she was taking a beating, maybe even put in prison -"

"All the while she was bleeding the Foundation and the entire state for anything and everything she wanted!" Mana gasped, shaking her head in low horror. "And if you hadn't figured all this out and tracked them down...!"

At this point, a tiny semblance of the cat-like smile worn by so many other Maris appeared on Captain America's face. A smile that was ruined when Sid demanded, "But if this is all true, then why'd you try and take them all down by yourself?! Especially with a suppressor collar around your neck?! Why didn't you tell somebody like the Champions or Avengers Infinity or - or - or somebody?!"

Her features hardening into a scowl that sent Mana back a step, Mari demanded, "And what the hell makes you think that I didn't?!"

"What?" Mana breathed in confusion. "But - then why -?!"

A strange sound cut Mana off. The sound like that of several jets approaching. Looking about, the armor-user saw a couple VTOL jets, helicopters, and other airborne craft approaching their position. "Well, this looks my cue to leave," Mari declared grumpily. "Be sure to tell whoever's in charge about this whole mess for me, okay?"

Not waiting for Mana's approval, Mari darted away from her. Watching as she made her way to the other side of the roof, Iron Maiden raised her hand in protest. "H-hey, wait a second!" she called out. "Where're you going?! You need to tell them about this yourself! You're the one who stopped Goldie from pulling this off, right?"

Pausing to look back over her shoulder, Mari looked hard at Mana for a brief time before asking, "And who do you think is going to believe that?"

"Huh?!" Mana started, unable to fathom the meaning behind the Super Soldier's words. And before she could ask anything further, Mari stepped off the edge of the roof and disappeared. "Wha- no!"

Without a second thought, Mana slid her faceplate back into place and fired her repulsors. Launching herself into the air, she hurriedly flew to the other side of the building and began searching for any sign of Mari

Only to find no trace of her at all.

"What in the -?!" Mana demanded as she looked this way and that, her armor's scanners searching for any sign of the Super Soldier. Anything to indicate where she had gone. But ultimately, finding no trace of her.

But...! Mana breathed, trying to make sense of this. Where could she have...?!

"Iron Maiden! Attention, Iron Maiden!" came a voice over a speaker. Looking up in surprise, Mana saw a highly advanced VTOL craft hovering just overhead, panning a searchlight at her. "This is the Champions, Iron Maiden! Please come aboard for debriefing!"

Blinking a few times at this, Mana sighed wearily. "This is definitely not how I wanted to spend my Fourth of July..."

Author's Note: I wrote this story for the Coreline challenge being hosted by Marcoasalazarm on DeviantArt. But then I decided that I should share it over here on FFNet. So here's Chapter 1 of 2.

For those of you wondering what the heck Coreline is...well, here's the opening narration regarding this mega crossover, as written by Marcoasalazarm:

''It has been ten years since the end of the world as we knew it. A world-wide Internet infection by an unusual type of virus (called CLULESS) was the trigger. Reality was torn to bits, never to come back fully to normal.

90% of mankind vanished without a trace for 23 hours. The things we believed to be Fictional appeared in their stead. The battles that followed devastated the world.

And once the 23 hours ended, mankind came back, adapted to this new world, willing to embrace the Fictions with open arms... something that many of those who survived the "23 Hours of Madness" are not willing to accept, nor take lying down.

This is an Era of Badass. The Tropes mold your destiny. Out in the open and within the shadows, it is the Ultimate Showdown of Ultimate Destiny-Good versus Evil, Real versus Fiction, Canon versus Non-Canon, Rationality versus the Rule Of Cool, the final victor still undetermined.

No place is "safe", only "safer". And outside of it, there is a Multiverse and one timeline-the CORE timeLINE, "Coreline", "C-Line" or "The Line" for short-slowly going crazier.

We bid you welcome. Leave your sanity at the door. And for what's worth, enjoy your stay.''