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.

Rise of the Extraordinary Avengers

Chapter 1: Some Assembly Required

It was early in the afternoon as Mari Illustrious Makinami lay in her bed, allowing herself a brief period of peace and quiet to contemplate her current situation. As she studied the ceiling of her new home, she couldn't help but feel out of sorts. For the Fourth of July was very nearly upon her once more.

One year. It had almost been one year since her first encounter with the Joker R gang and the Golden Four. A year since she had almost singlehandedly ruined their scheme to unleash a powerful combination of gammeroids and TITAN that would have transformed all who were affected it into massively powerful Titan-monsters, and even worse, would have given Goldie Musou, the leader of the Golden Four, the means necessary to brainwash everyone who had been affected as soon as they were reverted, allowing her to dominate the city as never before. A year since Mari had fought alongside her surrogate uncle Steve Rogers, an alternate of Captain America, putting an end to another Goldie's cruel schemes and saving Avengers Infinity and New York City from almost certain destruction. And almost a year since she had been invited to join the ranks of the Avengers, the first member of a new division of Avengers Infinity; the Extraordinary Avengers.

And as Mari continued to look about at her new surroundings, trying to tune out the labor of the people still working to make her new home complete, she found herself thinking of everything that had happened since the last Fourth of July. Of all the changes she and others had gone through. Of...

A soft warbling sounded for Mari's attention, causing her eyes to go wide as she practically fell off the bed in surprise. "Wha-?!" she started, confused for a moment until she realized what the sound meant. "Oh, right!"

Reaching into the pocket of her dress, Mari withdrew her Avengers ID Card, which continued to flash and warble for her attention. Realizing that it wasn't a call for her or her team to assemble, she frowned slightly even as she pressed the button...and had her frown completely erased. "Hey, Uncle Steve!"

"Hi, Mari!" returned the alternate of Steve Rogers that had befriended her in a time of need and whom she had ultimately grown as close as family to. "Hope I didn't catch you at a bad time."

"No. I was just relaxing a bit after spending some time in the gym," Mari replied with a soft smile. "Anything interesting happening in New York?"

"Aside from the usual?" Steve wondered with a friendly expression. "Well, it turns out that Amora - Doom's wife? She's expecting."

The instant this was said, Mari's eyes went wide with delight. "No way! Sensei's going to be a mother?! Are you kidding me?!"

"Not at all. We just found out about it," Steve reported with a broad smile. "You should have seen Victor when he got the news. I thought he was going to pass right out."

Despite her present situation, Mari couldn't help but issue a chuckle over this. Victor and Amora were heroic alternates of the notorious villains Dr. Doom and the Enchantress, and were not only teachers of hers, but people she considered good friends in Avengers Infinity. They and other members of the Astonishing Avengers, a division of Avengers Infinity that consisted of heroic versions of known villains, had done much to help Mari deal with many of the issues she had been forced to deal with since her arrival in the Core Timeline, and Amora had taught her much about magic and more during her time in Avengers Academy. "Oh, wow!" Mari couldn't help but say, thinking of the handsome and controlled version of Doom she had befriended. "I - I can't even imagine him passing out like that!"

"Nor could I. Before today, that is," Steve admitted with a tiny laugh. "Still, I'm a bit surprised by this bit of news."

"The only thing that surprises me is that it took this long for it to happen!" Mari declared with a roll of her eyes even as she thought of the many, many times she had dealt with either of them in her time at the Infinite Avengers Tower, and her super-sensitive nose had made it clear that they had recently been doing the dirty. "So...when is their little bundle of joy going to arrive? Is it the usual nine month trip, or does it take longer for Asgardians?"

"She should be delivering sometime this winter," Steve reported easily. "Anyway, we're already making preliminary plans to throw a baby shower for her and Doom."

"The standard three-day deal?" Mari wondered, recalling the two baby showers she had seen during her time at the Tower. Because of the sometimes hectic life a superhero, it was all-too-likely that one or more of the invited members to the shower would miss the appointed event, and so things like baby showers and such events were spread out over a three-day period to allow for as many Avengers as possible to attend at least one of the three days.

"Absolutely," Steve confirmed with a nod. "So I hope you and at least some of the others on your team will be able to attend."

"Oh, it's a done deal!" Mari assured him, managing a slight smile for her surrogate uncle. "Just be sure to let me know when it's all going down, and I'll be sure to pick up something nice for the little, uh..."

"We don't know what's on the way just yet," Steve explained with a shrug. "We only just found out that she's expecting recently."

"Well, just let me know what kind of bundle of joy we're dealing with here, and I'll pick up something nice for him - her - them - whatever," Mari declared with a wan smile, glad to hear of the happiness impending for two of her friends among the Astonishing Avengers, "So, anything else interesting happen since we left the nest and headed out here to Chicago?"

Steve smiled thoughtfully at this. "Getting a little homesick, Mari?"

"Uh...not exactly," Mari replied hesitantly even as she studied the gorgeous room that was hers and hers alone. A room that was such a vast improvement over the tiny little space she had once called her when she had been living, just as the Avengers Mansion she now lived in, under construction as it was, was worlds apart from the hastily converted warehouse she and her friend and companion from the world of her origin, Maria Vincennes, aka Thunderstrike, had been living in prior to joining the Avengers. "I mean, the Mansion's great and everything...more than enough room to stow all of the stuff Goldilocks and I have..."

"Including all of the novelties from that had been left in that old warehouse for you to deal with," Steve noted with a hint of disapproval. "Seriously, I thought you were going to dispose of all that stuff!"

"Sorry, Uncle Steve, but I wound up promising your Hawkeye that I wouldn't do that...after he did a lot of bowing and scraping, that is," Mari replied, rolling her eyes at how quick that particular Avenger had been to throw out his dignity to guarantee she didn't dispose of the kind of novelties that were now virtually impossible to find anywhere. "Besides...and I have to be totally honest here. I had a lot of fun setting up and running that haunted house Goldilocks and I set up a couple years ago. I was toying with the idea of setting up something similar this year. Not only would it be fun, but...hey, it'd make for some great PR for the new team."

"You and your team already have good PR. That was the whole point of setting you up in Chicago," Steve reminded her. "You'd won over the people there after what happened last year, so we knew that they'd accept you there. And since we didn't have a team of Avengers stationed in Chicago -"

"I know, I know. I remember all that," Mari promised him, thinking about the discussions leading up to the big decision to move her team of Extraordinary Avengers to the Windy City. After she had taken down two of the worst gangs in residence there and made a speech that she didn't think she could even get out in the first place, let alone repeat or top in the future, she had managed to win the acceptance of the people there. And acceptance was a rare thing for a Mari Illustrious Makinami alt in the crazy mish-mash of worlds that was the Core Timeline, given how they were generally perceived as lunatics at best and outright disasters at worst. And the fact that she also bore the name of Captain America, a title she had received and upheld in the world of her origin, somehow had seemed to make things even worse for her. Like they somehow took it as an insult that she would even try to bear such a title, try and live up to the name and legacy of the legendary hero. "But...we seem to be getting off-topic here, Uncle. So seriously, anything else happening back in New York?"

Clearly not satisfied with this, Steve ultimately shrugged. "Not much. Things have been relatively quiet; the quiet before the storm, I'm certain," he replied helplessly. "Our team just got back from a joint operation with a team from Justice League Unlimited. Shut down another version of the Injustice Gang."

"Ooh, that must've been a party!" Mari declared with a tinge of regret. "Wish I could've been there for it!"

"So do I," Steve admitted. "Unfortunately, the responsibilities of leadership come before everything else. And you have a team of your own that you need to get off the ground. And you and I both know you have your duties to your team. Especially now, with so much work to do in getting it properly established."

"And speaking of getting things established...how's the Extraordinary Avengers division at the Tower coming alone?" Mari wondered with genuine curiosity. "Pick up some more new recruits since we made room in the nest?"

"Everything's going well with our newest division. And our new recruiting program has found plenty of excellent candidates," Steve assured her with a broad smile. "Let's see...we've got couple alternates of Misato Katsuragi who became She-Hulks, a Street Fighter Ryu who gained the power of Iron Fist and an alternate of Guile that was mutated by Bison, came to call himself Justice, as well as an alt of Samus Aran who goes by War Machine..."

"Whew, that sounds like a pretty impressive lineup!" Mari admitted. "But...a couple She-Hulk Misatos?" Steve nodded in response. "That's getting to be a pretty popular combination. So, let me guess; they met their mutation in the Jet Alone robot?"

"That's right. Both of them," Steve confirmed with a wry look.

"Figures," Mari noted. "I actually knew a She-Hulk Misato back in my own world. I wonder if there's any chance one of them is from where I came from?"

"Anything's possible, though I'd advise you not to get your hopes up," Steve told her in a cautionary manner. "Also, we've gotten a Keitaro Urashima who bonded with the Venom symbiote and became a special agent, a Sari Dumdac going by the name of Yellowjacket, and a Conrad S. Hauser - you might know him better as Duke - who was put through the Super Soldier process."

"A GI Joe Captain America, huh? Wow, he must be popular!" Mari declared as she thought of alternates of the famous GI Joe hero. But even as she did, she found herself frowning, for it reminded her of something that had been bothering her off and on for a while now. "Uh, actually, Uncle Steve...that reminds me. There's been something I've been meaning to ask you," she began with a trace of anxiety. "Do you really think that me being the leader of this team was such a great idea?"

A beat passed as Steve's smile faltered somewhat. "I know it's what your team wanted, Mari," he assured her. "Thunderstrike, Iron Maiden, and the others, they all agreed that you should be in charge of this team."

"I know, back at the Tower!" Mari thinking back to a time that felt like an eternity ago. "But things have changed so much since then, Uncle Steve! We're not at the Tower anymore! And..."

As Mari trailed off, Steve gave her a sympathetic look. "Been butting heads with some of the newer members, huh?"

"Fsh. Like every single day now," Mari admitted with a tone of weariness. "Lately, it feels like it's just been one argument after another!"

"Can't say I'm surprised. But this happens, Mari," Steve assured her in a quiet, calm manner. "I've seen this with every team that's been together since we first landed in the Core Timeline. And every time, some...assembly is required." When Mari let out a low groan, her surrogate Uncle went on to say, "We discussed this before you even left the Tower, Mari. So you know that I'll be glad to help you in any way I can. But at the end of the day, it's you that has to earn their respect. No one else can do it for you."

"I know, I know. But...well, if it was just that, then maybe things wouldn't be such a pain! But it's not!" Mari went on, the dams she had put in place over her grievances loosening. "I've got two members that I can't do anything about! One of them locked himself in his quarters as soon as we arrived and hasn't left them once! He has his partner fetch his meals for him! And speaking of said partner, we've had precisely five conversations since she's joined the team, and each and every one of them has ended with her comparing me to a nerf herder before proceeding to completely ignore everything I've said! And on top of that, the Mansion isn't even finished yet, our vehicles are -!

"Wait, what?" Steve frowned, his brows furrowing as he broke in. "Construction's fallen behind? By how much?"

"The foreman in charge says that it'll be another two weeks at least before the Mansion itself is complete! And that's not even counting all the defense systems!" Mari hurriedly explained. "I already called Tony to tell him about it, but it'll take time to send more workers and equipment to compensate! And until then, the only things keeping every supervillain, scumbag, and squatter in Chicago from making a march on the Mansion is the cloaking field we've got surrounding it and Tai monitoring everything using the American Dream's scanners!" A beat passed before she added, "And if we were to wind up having a firefight on our own front lawn with people still working here..."

As this point sank into Steve's mind, he frowned heavily. "Hmm...that's not good," he slowly admitted. "Can't your team compensate for the problems? With all the talent you have there, you should be able to finish things up soon enough"

"We've already been assisting the work crew's where we can, but we've run into a few problems," Mari was forced to admit. "We've been able to get away with working on the building's structure itself, but stuff like the micro circuitry and hardware for all of the essential systems is a whole different story! It's electronic systems and high-end machinery like that that's really slowing us down here!" Then she made a face and added, "Plus, we've had some...disagreements about the design of the Mansion and it's defense systems..."

"Design? What -?" Steve started, only to groan in realization. "Oh, right. That."

"Yeah. That, among other things," Mari groaned wearily. "Also, our Infinity Door still isn't up and running, so we can't access the Tower from here."

Steve's face became that much graver. The Mansion Mari and her team now lived in, like all other Avengers Mansions located throughout Coreline, were connected to the Infinite Avengers Tower through a series of portals called Infinity Doors. This made it simplicity itself for any group of Avengers anywhere to get easy reinforcements from the Tower or even other Mansions...assuming that the Infinity Door in question happened to be working. "That could be a serious problem," Steve admitted, clearly not liking the sound of that at all. "Still, if you ever really need help, you still have Thunderstrike. She can easily create a portal to here if you need us."

"I know, but...her portals won't let us directly access the Tower, thanks to all the security in place to prevent uninvited guests from dropping by," Mari grumbled somberly. "And...well, I know that if things get really serious, I can always contact the Champions for backup..."

"Yes, you can," Steve confirmed with a nod. "And you can't tell me that you can't think of ways that a gamma mutant, three Kryptonians, a Martian, an Amazon, two Atlanteans, an alternate of Captain Marvel, an alternate of Vision, as well as the others they have there can take the sting out of a bad situation."

"Oh, I can think of several ways, in fact," Mari assured Steve. Only to sigh as she lowered her eyes somewhat. "Except the one I'm dealing with right now..."

Frowning that much more, Steve returned, "Has something happened, Mari? Something serious?"

"Well...that depends on your definition of serious," Mari eventually replied, only to heave a large sigh. "Okay, I admit it. I'm in big trouble here, and I have no idea how to get out of it."

"What kind of trouble?" Steve wondered. "Has something happened?"

"No, but it's going to," Mari replied with grim certainty. "The Joker R gang and maybe the Golden Four are going to attack City Hall on the Fourth of July and probably kill a whole lot of people while they're at it."

Steve's eyes expanded in shock at this. "Wait, what?!" he demanded, staring in disbelief at the girl he had taken as his niece. "Mari, how do you know that?!" he wondered. "Have you had a run-in with them or -?"

"No, nothing like that," Mari admitted with a pensive look. "Fact is, the Joker R gang has been keeping pretty quiet lately. Same with the Golden Four."

"Then how do you know they're going to attack City Hall?" Steve wondered perplexedly.

"Because that's where I'm gonna be on the Fourth," Mari responded. When Steve just looked at her in clear confusion, she sighed and declared, "I might as well start at the beginning."

"That might help," Steve admitted.

Heaving another sigh, Mari explained, "As you know, the Governor is one of the people Avengers Infinity had to notify when we decided to establish our new team here in Chicago so we could start building the Mansion. So this morning, I was trying to deal with another problem when we got a call from him, telling me that he wanted me over at his office right away." As Steve opened his mouth, she went on to say, "And before you ask, yes, I've been staying indoors ever since we've moved in. We've all confined ourselves to the Mansion as much as possible, and I did use the decoy exit we set up at the Meta Hotel, just in case I had to go out for something." Pausing at this, Mari thought of the Meta Hotel, one of many established to cater to superhumans or metahumans or whatever it was people called them. They had beds to support a gamma mutant and rooms designed to withstand the more lively guests engaging in a night of passion. And through some serious trickery on their part, they had made it look like that was where Mari was staying in the event she needed to reveal her presence in Chicago. "Anyway, when I got to his office and asked me what was so important that he needed to talk to me about, he told me that, in honor of everything I've done for the city of Chicago, and to celebrate the fact that drug-related crimes are at an all-time low, he was holding a ceremony in my honor as which he would present me with the Key to the City on the Fourth of July."

As these words sank in, Steve frowned unhappily. "Oh, boy..."

"That's one way of putting it!" Mari declared with a touch of annoyance. "It's like an open invitation to the Joker R gang and the Golden Four! Holding a big ceremony like this on the Fourth of July, the one-year anniversary of the night I pretty much curb-stomped each and every last one of them before they could even scream for mercy, sent them to jail, and fried Goldie's brains in the process! It's not enough that both gangs had already busted out of jail, or that they hate my guts and want me dead, or that they were already likely to try something on the Fourth of July because of what happened, but to hold a big ceremony in my name and give me some dumb award with all those people in attendance?! He's practically begging for them to try something big, nasty, and liable to end in a lot of people winding up dead!"

"Agreed," Steve nodded sourly. "Did you try explaining this to the Governor?"

"I did, and everything I said went in one ear and right out the other," Mari declared with a sour expression. "He went on and on about how the drug trade was at an all-time low in Chicago, down even lower than it was back before the Vanishing, how great everything is and all the good it's doing for his approval ratings, and...well, I think you get the idea."

"Politics. A publicity stunt," Steve groaned, clearly having had his own dealing with politicians. "What about his security precautions?"

"Pretty much the same as last year, which means they're basically useless," Mari grumbled sourly. "He also said he was going to have the Champions there to provide security, but we've had some new villains appearing on the Line here recently. Like this crew of nasties calling themselves the Horrorshow, and trust me, from what I've seen of them, they more than live up to their name. So...yeah. They might have their hands full already."

"I see," Steve nodded, clearly understanding Mari's dilemma. "So if you and your team were to engage the Joker R gang and Golden Four, given what we know of them, you could certainly beat them...but not without putting the public at large at risk, or revealing that Chicago now has its own team of Avengers."

"At which point we'll have every creep in town trying to find our nice new home," Mari confirmed. "And when they find out that we don't even have anything better than a cloaking shield that makes our place look like a regular construction site and a burglar alarm to keep out unwanted guests, we're going to have some serious problems." Frowning unhappily, she then sat up in her bed and added, "And...well, maybe this seems stupid, but I'd really rather not call in the Champions unless I absolutely have to. Because...well, if I did that, then...I might as well tell everyone here right to their faces that I don't trust them to get the job done. That I don't believe in them. And like you once told me -!"

"Trust is a two-way street," Steve nodded somberly. "And you're right. Something like that could very easily damage the team."

Nodding to this, Mari heaved a deep sigh. "So that's where I stand now. I can see a bunch of things I can do, but they all end badly! And...I can't think of a way around it." Shaking her head slowly, the younger Super Soldier then grumbled, "Key to the City...what the hell do you even do with a Key to the City?! It's a great big key to nothing! What good is that?!"

"Mari..." Steve began.

"Now, medals, I get," Mari went on, complaining just for the sake of it. "They're nice, they're a convenient size, and they make great fashion accessories that don't get in your way if you suddenly have to kick some ass! But a Key to the City?"

"Mari," Steve tried again with a bit more force.

"If they have to give me an oversized key, why couldn't they give me a Keyblade?" Mari continued. "Now those are practical! Great for fighting, casting magic spells, countering evil brainwashing, and -!"

"Mari!" Steve very nearly shouted, and very nearly knocking her to the floor in the process. When she recovered and looked back at her card. "Look...I understand your concerns. And you're right; you have a serious problem on your hands, and there's a lot of ways that this can go badly for you. But at the same time, I think you're forgetting something important, and you're not approaching this in the right way."

"Uh..." Mari started, momentarily tempted to remind Steve that, like him, she had a perfect memory. Instead, what she asked was, "What do you mean?"

"That this situation isn't your problem alone," Steve stated. "This is something the entire team should have to deal with, and so I think it's something that you should bring before them."

"But - wait!" Mari started, shocked and a little surprised by Steve's advice. "The whole reason this is such a mess is because we're barely even a team right now! I count precisely four people in this whole Mansion that I would even want to talk about this with, and -!"

"Then maybe you should start with those four," Steve told her, stopping her protests in her mouth. "Trust is a two-way street, Mari. And not telling the others would show them that you don't trust them the same way you're worried that going to the Champions would." Mari opened her mouth to protest this, but even as she did, she realized that Steve was right about that. And so she sighed even as he went on, "You were trained in this back at Avengers Academy, in how to work with your team. And right now, that's precisely what you need to do. Because it's only by working together that you can go beyond your own limitations. You might not be able to find a way past this situation alone, but maybe..."

As Steve trailed off, Mari once again issued a heavy sigh. "But maybe if we take a little time to put our heads together, we can figure a way out of this mess," she finally said, something to which her surrogate Uncle nodded. Pressing her lips together, she finally managed to force a small smile onto her face. "Well...okay. I guess it can't possibly make things any worse than they already are."

"No, it can't," Steve assured her. "And I'd be willing to bet that it makes things a lot better for you."

"Grraahhh!" Hikari roared as she smashed a pile of already-broken furnishings into even smaller pieces of rubble. "I hate this! Hate it, hate it, hate it!"

I know how you feel, Hikari-chan, Joker R thought even as he studied the wrathful and delightfully buff amalgam of Bane continue to vent her frustrations on the rubble even as he surveyed their current hideout. This is a far cry from our former digs. Hell, everything's a far cry from where we were before!

As the amalgam of Ranma Saotome and the Joker surveyed his current hideout, he didn't bother trying to compare it to their former lodgings, an abandoned YMCA club that he and the rest of his gang had gone to a lot of hard work and trouble to retrofit into the perfect place for a Clown Prince of Crime and his cohorts to hang their hats between acts of wanton murder, destruction, and chaos. A hideout that, after a disastrous encounter with a certain star-spangled simpleton, had since been subjected to the wrecking ball, with virtually everything he and his gang had kept there having long since been confiscated by the police and the Champions. Leaving them to find a new place to set up shop, which in this case was an old abandoned hotel that had clearly seen much better days, but was relatively easy to convert into something more livable for something quick and easily secured via the various black market channels.

However, it would take some time and effort to make a truly worthwhile hideout of this abysmal hole, assuming that something better didn't come along before they did. Their Rei, an amalgam of Killer Croc, had been lucky in that there was an indoor pool that had been easily converted, but the rest of the place was sorely lacking. For while the lobby Joker R and most of the others were in was decently roomy, it was still too small for their bigger boned members, and thus was extremely frustrating for Hikari, who was already on edge because of a very serious personal predicament.

"Look, Bane-Brain, we get that you're mad, but sheesh!" grumbled Minnie-May "Crushette" Hopkins. "Would you try settling down before you bring this damned dump down on our heads?!"

"Aiyaa! A gamma mutant telling someone to calm down?!" muttered his group's alternate of Shampoo, who was an amalgam of Harley Quinn. "Kettle, meet pot!"

"You know what I mean!" May grumbled, shooting a green glare at Shampoo even as she rose to her full height. And while six-and-a-half feet wasn't much by gamma mutants, it was still all muscle. "We're all mad about this mess! But that doesn't mean she has to tear this place apart before we can even try and make something of it!"

"Ease off, May," Rally instructed her. "It's not Bane's fault, and you know it. The Venom shortage is getting to her, that's all."

Wincing as Hikari smashed a helpless chair into oblivion, May countered, "But, Rally, you use Venom as well, and you aren't having any problems!"

"Because I don't use nearly as much of it, remember?" countered the amalgam of Rally Vincent and Bullseye, whose tank top shirt and shorts revealed a powerfully built frame. "Just enough to be able to carry the bigger guns. But Hikari...it takes a lot more to get and sustain that kind of bulk!" Then Rally frowned at their pained friend. "And with everything that's been happening, we haven't been able to get our hands on the good stuff from the NSO in months! So Hikari's had to make do with regular Venom! And we don't even have much of that available!"

That was a very painful truth, Joker R was forced to admit. Made even more painful by the fact that, not only was the standard Venom Hikari had been forced to use in order to maintain her strength considerably less potent than the good stuff she had gotten used to, it also came with some nasty side-effects. Including very serious withdrawal symptoms that she was forced to deal with on a regular basis, thanks to the fact that even regular Venom was in short supply these days.

"One canister! Just one goddamned canister to last me an entire month! Rraaarrrghhh!" Hikari roared as she sent another wall off to wall heaven.

As Joker R looked at his girlfriend rant and rage, he felt a touch of genuine sympathy that would have been out of place in most Clown Princes of Crime. But the truth was that he did truly care for his little family, including its most recent additions, and seeing his lover suffer the ravages of Venom withdrawal was unpleasant, to say the least

"We had to go out of state, just to get our hands on that canister," Shampoo sadly mused, also affected by her teammate's plight. "And it should've been four canisters, too."

"What did you expect?!" demanded the Asuka Langley-Sohryu of their team, who was bonded with a highly unusual version of the Venom symbiote. "Ever since Goldie and her operations were shut down, all the normal channels for drugs and chemicals have been wiped out! And all our old connections are in jail or dead!"

"How sad but true," Joker R was forced to admit. "I haven't even been able to whip up a decent supply of happy gas since dear Goldie got her brains cooked!"

"Goldie!" Hikari snarled as she continued to stomp around, venting the wrath spurred on by her withdrawal symptoms. "Her fault...all her fault!"

"No! It was that Mari's fault!" snarled their version of Rei Ayanami, a hulking monstrous creature was clenching her fists. "If it weren't for her screwing us up, we'd already be ruling this damned town! And she's the one who led the Champions to all our old operations and connections!"

"Maybe, but Hikari's right as well," Rally growled disdainfully as she folded her arms across her chest, the bullseye mark on her forehead showing prominently. "If Goldie had ever bothered to warn us that she was onto us, we could have been ready for her to show up! But thanks to her keeping it a secret, we weren't ready for that bitch, and we all wound up paying for it!" Sniffing disdainfully, the Bullseye amalgam lowered her eyes to the floor. "Frankly, I'm just glad we decided to ditch her and Radinov when we did!"

"No kidding!" May declared with an enthusiastic nod. "Goldie was getting so crazy! Well, she was crazy before, but after she woke up from whatever it was Mari did to her, she was worse than ever!" Then she looked over at Joker R with undisguised feelings. "At least this way, we're all together."

"That's right! One great big Joker R family!" Joker R declared with a note of satisfaction. "And so we've hit a few bumps in the road? It wouldn't be the first time! We just need to -!"

"J-san!" came a harried and hurried voice even as a door was slammed open. As Joker R and several others looked about, they witnessed someone that looked like your average John Q citizen burst into the room, panting heavily even as he morphed into a massive blob of clay that was already rushing forward.

"Shinji, dear boy!" Joker R declared, unfazed as he watched the amalgam of Shinji Ikari and Clayface hurry towards the big screen TV at the end of the lobby. "Did you manage to get to that stash we heard about?"

Starting at this, Shinji paused in his advance to turn his amorphous face towards Joker R. "Uh...no," he hesitantly admitted. "I found the place, alright...just in time to see the Chemical Warfare bunch driving off with everything in their van!"

Unsurprised by this, Joker R still heaved a deep groan of dismay. Which was as of nothing compared to Hikari ripping out a section of wall and chucking it at Shinji, who was promptly flattened. "Chemical Warfare...!" the Bane amalgam breathed in sheer, unmitigated hatred. "They screwed us up before...gonna...!"

"Later, Hikari!" Shinji cried out even as he oozed his way out from under the chunk of wall and continued towards the TV. "J-san, you need to see this!"

"See what?" Joker R asked, already wondering what could have Shinji of all people so worked up and excited even as he switched on the TV and started flipping from one channel to the next. "What're you -?!"

"Here! Look!" Shinji called out, having apparently found the right channel and subsequently oozing away from it. Allowing Joker R and the others to look at the TV, with even Hikari settling down somewhat to see what had one of their number so worked up.

"- here at City Hall as preparations are already in progress for the Fourth of July festivities," spoke a reporter who was clearly standing in front of City Hall, a cheerful expression plastered on her face as people worked in the background, hanging banners and stringing up balloons and more everywhere. "And spirits are high as we celebrate the anniversary of the day when all of Chicago was saved from total disaster."

"Shampie, get me a hard drink, would you?" Joker R requested with a look of annoyance. "From what I'm seeing, I'm not gonna want to be sober while I watch this."

"Right!" Shampoo quickly replied, already bouncing away to the nearest kitchen.

Scowling as she took in the news broadcast, Rei growled, "Why are we watching this, Clayface?!"

"You'll see!" Shinji tersely returned even as he continued to watch.

By this point, the view had shifted to a shot of the Governor of Illinois, who was smiling the same political smile as a shark. "This is truly a grand day, and not simply because it's the anniversary of the founding of our nation," the Governor stated for the press, "but also because it's the anniversary of the day when we were saved from total destruction! The day our big anti-drug initiative began! And it was the day when our most notorious drug lord, Goldie Musou, was toppled and her empire began to fall!" His smile deepening that much more, the Governor went on to say, "And we owe all of this, our lives, and this great victory against the scourge of drugs to one young woman; Mari Illustrious Makinami, better known to all our citizens as Captain America!"

"Mari...!" Hikari snarled in a voice rife with hatred even as Shampoo handed Joker R a can of beer. Making a face at Mari's mentioning, he hurriedly cracked the can open and took a deep swig of it.

"And so, we will be paying homage to her feats and courage!" the Governor went on in a resolute manner. "For this Fourth of July, at 9 PM, it will be my supreme honor and privilege to commemorate the heroism of Chicago's newest citizen and hero by giving her the Key to the City, and -!"

Joker R didn't hear the rest of the sentence, for the part that he had heard caused him to gag on his beer and immediately spray the deep chug he'd taken all over creation. "What?!" Hikari bellowed, her eyes rounding with hatred. "That bitch...she's here?!"

"That's right! She's moved to Chicago, and -!" Shinji confirmed, only to cut himself off when Hikari hefted up another chunk of wall and sent it flying towards the TV. "Uh, wait! Hold on!" he cried out, leaping forth and intercepting the projectile before it could strike home. "Would you please stop wrecking everything in sight?!"

"Forget that! They're actually giving her a big award for screwing us over?!" Asuka snarled, her symbiote covering her face, transforming her expression into a mass of gnashing teeth and a long, slavering tongue. "We're gonna -!"

"Hey, settle down, everybody!" Rally called out as everyone in the room got more agitated. "Look, I know we're all royally pissed off at that little piece of shit, but can we please just settle down and -!"

A loud, piercing snicker filled the room, immediately stilling the bickering members of the Joker R gang. As one, their eyes widened with confusion as they swung their eyes about to find the source of the mirth. Only for their eyes to grow even wider when they saw it was Joker R himself laughing, laughter that was growing deeper and more powerful with each passing second. Laughter that had him doubling over with mirth even as he struggled up to his feet, glaring daggers at the television.

"Uh...J-chan...?" Shampoo nervously wondered even as Joker R continued to laugh. "What so funny...?"

A few more spurts of laughter were heard before Joker R turned his eyes towards Shampoo. "What's so funny, my dear?" he wondered, his features twisted dangerously as he returned his gaze towards the television, upon which was a video being played of when Mari had been awarded the Excelsior Gold Star by Stan Lee himself. "Isn't it obvious, Shampie? They're going to be throwing a big party for our star-spangled spoilsport! And what party is complete...without party crashers?"

At these words, the mood of everyone in there shifted. The face of every member of the Joker R gang creased with eager hatred, something May put into words by saying, "He's right! This is gonna be our big chance to pay that bitch back...by turning her into a bloody smear on the ground! And on live television, too!"

But even as most of those there clearly shared that sentiment, there was one who was clearly nowhere near as enthusiastic about this notion. "Uh - now wait a minute! Hold on!" Rally protested, swinging her gaze this way and that. "You're not seriously thinking of going after her?! After what happened last time?!"

"Are you kidding me, Rally?!" May immediately protested. "This is perfect! She won't even see us coming!"

"No, she will!" Rally immediately countered even as she turned towards Joker R. "Think about it! That Mari has to know we'll hear about this and go after her! Don't act like she's stupid! We all went to jail and Goldie's whole operation was wrecked because we underestimated her last time! And that's a mistake I'm in no hurry to make again!"

"What can I say, Rally, my dear? When you're right, you're right!" Joker R declared, already making his way over to her. "Even the most Genre Blind buffoon to come down the pike would be hard-pressed to not see that we simply couldn't resist being the pooper for this big party!" Issuing a few more chuckles at this, the Clown Prince of Crime studied the footage of Mari using the magic of her shield to create a massive fireworks show for everyone to see. "However, that was last year...and this is a new day! And the perfect chance to settle some old scores..."

"Exactly!" Shampoo eagerly seconded. "That Mari dragged our reputation through the mud! We owe her!"

"That we do, my dear!" Joker R confirmed. "But Rally does make a good point! Underestimating that star-spangled stick-in-the-mud was a costly mistake, one we're all guilty of making! Even yours truly!" At this point, the clown martial artist smiled even more deeply before adding, "Which is why we're going to be spending the next few days before the Fourth rolls around again, planning out the perfect plan...to make sure she celebrates this Fourth of July in the nearest mortuary...!"

At this, the entire hotel began to reverberate with the cruel laughter of the entirety of the Joker R gang...

"Oh, great..." Mana grumbled as she sat at the table of the Mansion's Assembly Hall, her face propped up by one hand and a sour expression weighing it down. "As if things were crazy enough around here as it is...!"

"I heard that!" Mari couldn't help but respond as she looked at her fellow Extraordinary Avengers. As well as the dismal expressions each and every last one of them now wore.

Without any better ideas, Mari had lost no time in summoning the four members of her team that she trusted not only to listen to what she had to say, but to keep it quiet for the time being. And thus she had taken advantage of the relative confusion that was the rest of the team still settling in and dealing with the construction taking place throughout the Mansion to dodge the others and come to the Assembly Hall, hoping that the others didn't attract any attention when they came to join her. And so, it wasn't long before the four original members of this team, along with their very first recruit, came to be seated at the round table at the center of the Assembly Hall.

The first to arrive had been Maria Vincennes, the lone member of the team Mari had known and had been friends with prior to landing in Coreline. In her civilian form as she was now, she was an attractive blonde with blue eyes and was quite fit and had even boasted good musculature, having trained with Mari for a time. But she also had something else; a magical Asgardian Hammer called Storm Bringer that would transform her into Thunderstrike, a warrior with powers comparable to an alternate of Thor.

Next had been Alphonse Elric, who looked fairly similar to most alternates of the kindly alchemist, save for the fact that he was far more muscular and had eyes that glowed gold. Save for that, he looked fairly normal, making it impossible to tell from a glance that he had been transformed as a result of an alchemic disaster mixed with lightning, resulting in him having the powers of Wonder Man.

The third to arrive was Mana Kirishima, who looked much like most alts of that girl and was physically fairly normal, save for being visibly tougher due to the training she had been put through at Avengers Academy. Mari had already been working with her somewhat to improve her physical prowess, but her greatest power lay in the technological genius of her mind, and the armor she wore as Iron Maiden.

Last and to the eye least to appear was Glitter, a fairy that had once lived in a chaotic world called the Flipside that was marginally crazier than even the Core Timeline itself. Mari had heard that a pocket universe version of the Flipside was accessible via a dimensional gate, though she hadn't had a chance to go and find out just how crazy it was. But she did know that Glitter was a lively, energetic fairy that had gained the ability to use Pym Particles to grow to human-size, among other things, and fought evil as an amalgam of Wasp.

Right now, all five of them were in their civilians garments and Glitter was her usual size. And all of them wore similarly unhappy expressions after Mari had finished telling them of the big problem confronting their barely established team of Avengers. "So that's where we stand. I tried to convince the Governor to cancel when I met with him this morning, and he refused," Mari concluded with a scowl. "And the TV crews I saw outside City Hall tell me that it won't be long before all of Chicago knows exactly where I'm gonna be this Fourth of July."

"Regrettably, I'd say that a great many people are already aware of this fact, Captain Makinami," came the familiar voice of JARVIS, the AI that regulated and served all Avengers' installations. "I've been monitoring news broadcasts as per standard operating procedure, and I've already recorded several such broadcasts reporting about this ceremony and your promised attendance."

Making a face at this unsolicited piece of bad news, Mari replied, "Thank you so much, JARVIS, for making my day that much worse." Giving a weary shake of her head, she then grumbled, "Anyway, as near as I can tell, we have precisely two options; call in the Champions to deal with this mess instead of our own team, which would likely have the side effect of making everyone else think that I have zero faith in them and totaling whatever trust they might have in me. Or mobilize our team to deal with the Joker R gang and Golden Four ourselves, which would result in the bad guys becoming aware of our team's existence and thus start looking for where we hang our hats. And when they find out that the Mansion isn't even finished yet -"

"It'd be a disaster," Mana grimly concluded with a sour expression. "I've been reading up on all the local villain reports like you told us to, and there's plenty of super scientists who would have a field day with our systems if they knew how much still wasn't working. An amalgam of Jinnai and Arnim Zola, of Hikari and the Leader, and that's just the beginning!"

"Regrettably, I must agree," JARVIS chimed in with a grim voice. "Although my core functions are online, the vast majority of the Mansion's hardware and software have yet to be installed. The Mansion's systems are operational enough to sustain everyday life here but little more."

Nodding her head to this, Mari then sighed. "I've been banging my head against this ever since I left the Governor's office this morning, and so far, all I've got for my trouble is the worst headache I've ever had!" she declared in an irritable manner. "So if anybody's got any brilliant ideas on how we can get out of this mess, I'm all ears! And you don't have to raise your hand before you speak!"

"Well, I'm really sorry about your headache, Mari," Glitter assured her in a sympathetic tone. While the Super Soldier was kicking herself for not taking into consideration the little fairy's problem with slang, the Wasp amalgam went on to say, "But if going to this ceremony would be such a bad idea, I don't understand why you don't just...well, not go!"

As everyone shot a look at Glitter, Mari snorted a slight laugh at the fairy's naiveté when it came to matters of politics. "Believe me, Glit, there are very few things that would make me happier than to call the Governor up on the phone, give him a great big FU, and tell him where he can shove that Key to the City," she declared, smiling internally at the thought of doing something so outlandish. "Unfortunately, it ain't that simple."

"That's right. We are talking about the Governor of the state of Illinois. A high-ranking politician with considerable influence and power," Maria said by of explanation. "It would be a mistake to get him on our bad side under most circumstances, but especially when we're only just establishing this team. And if Mari failed to attend, she would embarrass him and many other powerful politicians and people of business. People we don't want as enemies unless there's no way to avoid it."

"And then there's the fact that, even if I don't show up, I have no doubts that the Joker R gang and Golden Four will. Meaning that people's lives will be in danger whether or not I go," Mari added. "In fact, my not being there might make things even worse than they already are. Because if I don't show, Joker R and the others might start taking hostages to try and force me to show up, or douse everyone with Fear Gas, or worse."

"They might do that anyway," Al pointed out. "Also...and I really hate to say this, but...if people already know that you're living here, doesn't that mean that they might already suspect you're starting a team of Avengers in Chicago?"

"It's possible but doubtful. Or at least, people might not realize that we're as far along in getting established as we are. Truth is, Uncle Steve and several other Avengers already thought of that one before we moved out here," Mari quickly reported. "Don't forget, they put a cover story in place, just in case we needed to explain what the heck I'm doing out here. If anybody asks, I'm working with the Champions while I'm looking for a place to live."

"That's right," Maria nodded. "And given that you've already worked with the Champions to take down Goldie's empire, that makes the cover that much more plausible."

"Right. So hopefully, nobody will stop to wonder if we're already started construction of an Avengers Mansion. But the instant we mobilize the team, that cover will be completely blown," Mari explained. "So, what other options do we have?"

"Maybe we could call the Infinite Avengers Tower, ask for another team to be publically sent here to help," Al suggested with an earnest look. "It wouldn't be the same as calling in the Champions since we'd be asking for help from other Avengers. And if you were to explain to the others why you were calling for another team, maybe they'd understand. After all, this is their home as well, and they'd have to know how important it is to keep it a secret until it's finished."

Blinking a few times at this, Mari fingered her chin for a moment before replying, "Hmm...that's not bad. Not great, but...it'd be better than calling on an outside group like the Champions, and -"

Then Mari's nose pricked at something. A fresh scent wafting into the room, one that caused her eyes to widen in surprise and displeasure as she cut herself off. "Mari?" Maria wondered even as the Super Soldier looked about, sniffing at the hair. "What is it? Do you smell something?"

"No..." Mari began, her brows creasing with annoyance at the intrusion her nose had just ferreted out, "...I smell someone!" Scowling fiercely, she looked off towards one end of the Assembly Hall, at a patch of dark shadow in the corner. "Zuko!"

"Zuko?!" Maria, Mana, Al, and Glitter repeated as one before following Mari's gaze towards the patch of darkness. With the fairy demanding, "When did he -?!"

"Get here? Just now," spoke the handsome firebender, dressed in the typical loose garments of the Fire Nation. He looked exactly like most alternates of Prince Zuko did in their teens, save for the fact that the burn mark that had once disfigured the section of skin around his left eye had long since been regenerated and looked perfectly normal. Regenerated the day he had first been given the ability to transform into a Red Hulk. "By the way, Mari...thanks for the lessons on...what'd you call it? The Stealth Hi/Bye?" he asked, gazing at Mari and the others with a look of patent disinterest. "I'm not up on the names of all the Tropes."

"Yeah, you got it right. And in more ways than one," Mari reported, scowling at the uninvited guest. "Nice entrance. Most people wouldn't have even noticed you unless you'd spoken."

When Zuko failed to respond to this, Al and Glitter groaned in dismay, with the alchemist sputtering out, "Uh, Zuko - we -!"

"Be quiet, Al!" Zuko snapped, shooting him a glare so fierce that the Wonder Man amalgam nearly fell out of his chair after being struck by it. "You're not the one I want to talk to! She is!" he decreed, pointing an accusing finger at Mari. Then he turned his fierce gaze at the Super Soldier, he let his arms fall back to his sides before demanding, "My quarters. Now!"

Without another word, Zuko turned on his heel and departed, the doors parting for him instantly and closing behind him. Leaving Mari and the others to groan in dismay. "Well...shitballs..." the shield slinger grumbled sourly. "This day just keeps getting better and better." A beat passed before she glanced back at the others and added, "And for the record, Glitter...that last part was me being sarcastic."

"I thought so. I'm getting better at recognizing it after hearing so much of it," Glitter reported in a voice completely devoid of snark. "Thanks for making sure I understood, though."

The corner of her mouth curling wryly up, Mari was about to say something when Maria wondered, "So what are you going to do?"

"What else? Head up to Prince Anger Management's room and stop him from making this day any worse than it already is," Mari declared, wondering if all her critics who thought they would be better suited for the job than her would actually want it if they realized the kind of crap the title of leader came with. "The rest of you, try and come up with some other ideas on what we can do about our main problem. I'll be back soon enough."

"Very well," Maria replied even as Mari departed the Assembly Hall, already making her way towards Zuko's room. Even if she hadn't already memorized the location of everybody's living quarters, the unmistakable and extra potent scent of gamma mutant was as easy to detect to her nose as a flare gun was to a person's eyes. Making her way past the other Avengers that had taken up residence there, exchanging pleasantries and so on, she went upstairs and before long found herself in front of Zuko's quarters, which had the emblem of the Fire Nation emblazoned upon it.

Despite the fact that she was not looking forward to this in the slightest, Mari still knocked on the door before calling out, "Mari here."

"It's open. Come in," Zuko gruffly returned. Not wasting a moment, Mari then pushed the door open and made her way inside.

Zuko's room was pure Fire Nation decor. Oriental styling, candles, plenty of golds, reds, and blacks, and a tapestry with the Fire Nation emblem hanging from the wall. And in the middle of it, staring into an open fire with his back turned to her, was the firebending gamma mutant himself. "Nice digs," she remarked as she approached. "I prefer things a bit brighter, but hey, to each their own." She paused and placed her hands upon her hips and went on to say, "By the way, notice what I did back there? I knocked on the door. That's what polite people do before entering a room."

"You have no right to speak to me about things such as politeness!" Zuko growled, turning just enough to glare at Mari over his shoulder. "Just when were you planning on telling the rest of us about this?! About this ceremony and the threat to our home?!"

"As soon as I got some advice and came up with some decent ideas on how to handle it," Mari retorted, her sense of humor fading in the wake of Zuko's accusatory manner. "And I'd say you had even less right to talk about good manners! But you are the perfect guy to tell me how the hell you found out about this, and precisely how much you heard!"

Scowling that much more intensely, Zuko heaved a deep breath before turning to face her. "I was getting back from the gym when I noticed Maria and Glitter heading towards the Assembly Hall. Since they were in a hurry, I realized that they had to have been summoned for some reason," he carefully explained, making it clear that he was doing his best to keep his emotions in check. "And since I didn't get any such summons, I assumed something was up."

Making a mental note to tell Maria and Glitter to be a bit more careful when it came to avoiding attention, Mari then asked, "And the part about how you managed to listen in on us before making your big entrance?"

"I used this," Zuko declared, pulling out his Avengers ID Card. "I bent the electricity in Maria's ID Card, turned it on so I could hear what you were saying."

Her eyes popping open at this, Mari just looked at him for a time before saying, "Wow. Didn't know you could do that."

"I am an Embodiment of the Fire. What you call a...Red Hulk," Zuko gruffly retorted with not just a bit of pride. "I was transformed by a fragment of Sozin's Comet that fell within the heart of the Fire Nation. It's power ignited an inferno within me, causing my blood to burn with its fury. My bending is much more powerful and precise than that of an ordinary firebender." A beat passed before he added, "Also, I picked up a few things about the theoretical applications of lightning bending and using it to hack electronics back in Avengers Academy."

"Oh," Mari returned, not sure what else to say. "That sounds convenient."

It was clear that this was not the kind of reaction Zuko had wanted because he scowled that much more furiously. "Listen! It doesn't matter how I came to learn about this! What's important is that you were keeping something like this from us!" he declared angrily. "This ceremony may be about you, but you are far from the only one being affected by this! You should have told us all about this as soon as you came back from meeting with the Governor! And I want to know why you didn't!"

This vehement declaration chased any urge to be funny Mari might have had right out of her, and instead caused growl lowly in her throat. "You want to know why? Fine!" she shot back. "The fact is, I think it's high time we got some things settled between us! So I hope you understand it when I say, 'to hell with being polite and decorum and all the rest of that crap I learned when I was studying diplomacy at the Academy'! Since you're being so honest about how pissed off you are with me, I'm gonna be 100% brutally, in-your-face honest as well!"

"That'd be a refreshing change of pace!" Zuko decreed, his eyes flashing a brilliant gold. "Certainly better than joking your way out of everything!"

"It can't be any worse than being a brooding emo-jerk who acts like he's always one second away from blowing his stack at you for whatever reason!" Mari quickly countered. "You want to know why I handled things this way?! Because I know this team has a lot of problems! Virtually everyone here is still new to the Core Timeline! Except for me and the others in the Assembly Hall, everybody here fell into this crazy mish-mash of a world after the original team was formed! And I know that a lot of the people here don't think I have what it takes to lead them! And you know something?! I honestly don't blame them! We've got military leaders, a trained spy, and more running around here, including you! And I've heard the kind of things they say, the questions they ask about me! I'm too young, I haven't had enough training, I don't have any command experience! You name the reason people don't like me being in charge, I've heard it! Including from you! I can't even remember the last time I told you to do something or helped you with training and you didn't listen or you gave me grief about it! And considering that I literally can't forget stuff like that, that's saying something!"

Unfazed by the explosion of emotion from Mari, Zuko just stood there and looked her in the face. Which ticked her off that much more. "Now like I said, I can't blame people for having doubts! Dammit, I've had plenty of my own! And I know that I have to earn their trust! Their respect! Unfortunately, last time I checked, there's no magic formula or step-by-step guide to doing that! Even worse, thanks to Governor Asswipe, I don't have the benefit of having the time to try to get everyone to trust me before I make my first real command decision! So I decided to ask for some advice on how to deal with this mess before going to the rest of the team! I'm not trying to keep secrets or hold some conspiracy! I'm trying to do my job the best way I know how, and if you don't like it, then fine! You haven't liked most of what I've done, anyway! Why should this be any different?!"

The last of her words expended, Mari stood there, recovering her breath for a moment. Leaving Zuko to say, "If you've said everything you're going to say, then I'll speak my own piece. And like you, I'm going to be '100% brutally, in-your-face honest'!" As the Super Soldier braced herself for what was to come, Zuko scowled and declared in a relatively calm voice, "First of all, you're right about me. I don't think you're fit to be our leader. Perhaps in the beginning, it worked out, but a lot has changed since I joined the Avengers. There are people here far more capable of leading this team. And I feel that leaving you in charge instead of turning command over to one of them was a terrible mistake." As Mari continued to glower unflinchingly at Zuko, the gamma-powered firebender went on to say, "Make no mistake, I do feel that you are fine and skilled as a warrior. But much of that is because of this...Super Soldier Serum you took. You may be able to copy my stances just by watching me use them once, but that doesn't mean that you understand the heart, the passion behind each move. Nor does it mean that you have been adequately learned in the ways of leadership." Pausing for a brief moment, as if to consider his next words, Zuko then went on to say, "I was raised to be a successor to the throne of the Fire Nation. Military tactics and leadership skills were ground into me, even when I was a child. You've only been training for a few years. You only have a fraction of the experience I have! And there are others here who have far more training or experience in the ways of leadership than either of us. So while you may be skilled as a warrior, and you may even have the potential to be a leader in your own right some day...that day is not today. And I truly believe that it would be in all our best interests if you were to stand down for someone better suited to command."

Even as Mari felt a sore temptation to do just that, Zuko frowned and closed his eyes. "However, you are also right about other things. There is no magic formula to earning the trust of others, something that I was forced to learn over the course of my exile. And you are also right in that there is no time to deal with the issues of command now. Not when we only have days to prepare for the current situation." As the two continued to face each other, the former prince opened his eyes and went on to say, "So for now, I think it best that we set aside the question of who should be in charge here, and focus on what needs to be taken care of now."

As these words sounded in Mari's ear, she managed a slight sniff. "Wow. So we can agree on something," she snarked mildly. "Alright, Zuko, since you're all in favor of clearing up this mess before we move on to other matters, and since you already know as much as the others about what's happening...I don't suppose you have any brilliant ideas on what we can do to clean it up?"

"As a matter of fact, I do," Zuko confirmed with a nod. "As I understand it, the chief problem with allowing the criminals of this city learn of the team's existence is that they would then learn about the Mansion and how vulnerable it is."

"That's about the size of it," Mari confirmed with a nod. "It'd be like letting an enemy army find out that there's a great big hole in your castle where they could slip in unnoticed before you even have a chance to fix it. Which would be really damned dumb!"

"Agreed," Zuko replied, a slight smile curling his lips. "But what if, instead of letting our enemies discover the Mansion...we revealed its existence ourselves? And convinced everyone that it is fully armed and ready for battle?"

"You mean fix the Mansion up so that it looks like it's ready for action?" Mari wondered before shaking her head. "I already thought of that, but the problem with that is, once the Mansion was out in the open, we'd have to keep up the impression that everything's working perfectly for as long as it would take for this place to actually be completed. So whatever we set up would have to withstand the scrutiny of all of Chicago's evil geniuses, mad scientists, and worse for more than two weeks. Possibly longer, if we have any more delays. And considering the kinds of evil brains running around out there...I'm not sure we could fool them all. And all it would take is just one seeing through our scam to sink our ship."

"You're right, but that's not what I had in mind," Zuko explained to Mari's surprise. "Now, we might not be able to create an illusion that would fool everyone for as long as we need to finish the Mansion. But...what if we were to prove to everyone that the Mansion's systems were fully operational? What if we were to demonstrate its full power...in battle?"

"You mean...bluff everyone? Put on some big light show that makes it look like everything's working the way it should be?!" Mari replied with a touch of surprise.

"Exactly! Hook up enough weapons and equipment to make it look like everything's fully functional and ready for an attack!" Zuko decreed with a touch of a smile. "I've seen plenty of animals that were able to scare their enemies off by making themselves look more formidable than they actually were."

"Same here, only it didn't always work," Mari retorted with a frown. "Besides, the only way we could pull something like that off is if we could get a bunch of villains into position to actually try to attack or be attacked by the Mansion! It wouldn't work if all they did was get in close to observe or scan us."

"That's true. We'd need to show everyone that the Mansion was operational in an actual battle," Zuko confirmed. Then he grinned a dangerous grin before saying, "Fortunately, if you're correct, we already know of at least two groups of villains who would be more than happy to attack us." Then he narrowed his eyes and leaned in closer to Mari. "And we just happen to have the perfect bait to lure them wherever we want them to go."

"You mean using me to bait the Joker R gang and Golden Four into attacking the Mansion on the Fourth?" Mari replied with a slight frown.

"Precisely," Zuko confirmed. "We lure them away from City Hall and any potential hostages, draw them here, and put on a show that they'll never forget. As soon as word gets out about the kind of firepower we have here, people will think twice about knocking on our doors."

Frowning as she considered this plan, Mari began slowly shaking her head. "With all the powers we have on hand, we could definitely put on a show. Especially once we throw in some of the special effects stuff I have in storage," she conceded after a time. "But there are a couple problems you seemed to have overlooked."

Now it was Zuko who was again frowning as he wondered, "And those would be...?"

"First off, Avengers Mansion isn't exactly down the street from City Hall. It's a long way between here and there, with plenty of civilians to wind up in the line of fire and wind up as hostages. Plenty of property and people to get blown up if we parade the Joker R gang and the Golden Four down the streets of Chicago," Mari explained in a terse manner. "And second, all the fancy light shows on Earth won't fool anyone is somebody were to read one of our minds and find out that we're trying to fake them out. And the Golden Four just happens to have a very powerful, very dangerous telepath heading them up."

"I thought you aced Amora's courses on blocking out telepaths," Zuko demanded haughtily.

"I did. But I can't say the same for everyone else here," Mari admitted with a frown. And for a moment, she was tempted to reiterate her point about the long distance between City Hall and the Mansion, and the dangers of trying to bait the Joker R gang to that location just to put on a show such as the one Zuko had suggested.

But even as she did, Mari realized...that there was no point.

She had already gone as far as she could at the moment. Done everything she could think of.

It was time for the next step.

"Still...that's more ideas on what we could do then I had before," Mari decided even as she drew forth her Avengers ID Card and switched it on. "Attention, Avengers," she began, the Card warbling that made it clear that it was broadcasting to everyone in the Mansion. "We have a situation. Report to the Assembly Hall at 1700 hours for a mandatory meeting. Full attendance will be required." Then she switched off her Card and looked up at Zuko. "I got some advice, some ideas. And now I'm bringing this before the rest of the team."

"So I see," Zuko noted, clearly not impressed. "So what next?"

"Next, I'm going to go back to the Assembly Hall and tell the others about your idea, and wait for the rest of the team to show," Mari explained. "But in the meantime, I need you do something you're gonna hate; follow one of my orders."

Scowling another shade of scowl, Zuko slowly wondered, "And what order is that?"

"I can think of two members of this team living on the top floor who are almost certainly guaranteed to completely ignore what I said about this meeting being mandatory and that full attendance is required unless they're properly persuaded to join us," Mari explained, glancing upwards at the ceiling even as she spoke. "So I need someone to properly persuade them, and I've just elected you for the job. Think you can handle it?"

Making a face at this, Zuko retorted, "I can get one of them down to the Assembly Hall. Not so sure about the other one." Then he looked squarely at Mari and asked, "Besides, do you really think we need them for this?"

"What I think is that this is their home, too, so they have as much a stake in this as the rest of us, and I'm really getting sick and tired of having everything I say to them being completely ignored," Mari declared with a touch of annoyance. "I realize they've got problems, but - news flash! So's the rest of the world! So I want them down there for this meeting." Then she cocked her head to the side and wondered, "Got a problem with that?"

At this point, Zuko managed a slight smile. "Not at all," he declared, his eyes shining with golden power. "Truth is...I wouldn't mind twisting her arm at least."

"I can think of a whole lot of other body parts I'd like to twist," Mari returned even as Zuko began his transformation. "Just be sure they're at the meeting and are fully conscious for it."

"I want it on record that I'm totally against this!" Jinnai grumbled as he stood at the large table in the dining area of the hotel, what the Joker R gang used as a planning room. "This is a complete waste of time and energy, and a very large mistake if you ask me!"

"Yeah, well, I don't recall anybody asking you!" May countered even as Jinnai began depositing papers and materials on the table for the others to see.

"Well, maybe you should've before you decided to start something!" the amalgam of Katsuhiko Jinnai and the fear-mongering Scarecrow irately shot back. "We're still recovering from Goldie's fiasco from last year, and we still don't have nearly enough resources to be throwing them away on a plan that doesn't get us anything in return!" He then gave a loud sniff before adding, "And besides, with everybody distracted with this ceremony, we could go rob a bank or an electronics firm or chemical factory! Any one of those would be an easier target, and would help us recoup some of our losses!"

"He's right, you know! We don't have nearly as much firepower as we had before," Nao seconded with a scowl, the Sinestro Corps ring she wore glinting in frustration. "Besides, Jinnai and I just got engaged! You think I want to put our wedding on hold just so we can go to jail again?!"

"My, my, what's with all the pessimism I'm seeing here?" Joker R demanded with a slight but definite frown. "So we've had a few setbacks! So what? We can still take that red, white, and blue buffoon!"

"The same way we took her last year?!" Rally demanded with her arms folded across her chest. "That bitch of a Mari made us all look like idiots! And that was when she was on a damned probation with most of her powers locked down! What do you think she'll be capable of doing with all her powers and equipment back up to full?!"

"What she said," Jinnai nodded, jerking his thumb at Rally.

"Hey, I know all that! But the truth is, we stand to gain a great deal from splattering this American girl's red blood all over the place!" Joker R readily countered. Then he narrowed his eyes and glared about at everyone present. "Or aren't you all as tired as I am of walking into the Black Cross Bar and having that fiasco thrown in our faces? Of having the Black Scars and all the rest of them thinking that we're a bunch of washed up losers because of that disaster? Of having the name of the Joker R gang being tarnished, and all because of one little girl who didn't know enough to keep her nose out of our business?" As the clown martial artist looked about at his cohorts, saw the fury and shame they still burned with as a result of that disaster rise up in their expressions and smiled gleefully. "This is our chance to wipe that bit of red, white, and blue off of our ledgers! To show everyone why Chicago is still and always will be Joker R territory! And why they should respect our name...unless they want to laugh themselves all the way to the cemetery...!"

Even as Joker R punctuated his statement with a bit of laughter, Nao pointed out, "But you realize that we're not going to be taking this bitch by surprise! She's bound to see this coming! And then there's the Champions! Do you really think that they won't expect us to pull something like this?!"

"Of course not! In fact, I fully expect them to be planning for our arrival!" Joker R promptly admitted. "Which is why I had the both of you do some scouting for me! Between our Scarecrow gathering up some dirt on our patriotic pain-in-the-neck, and you scavenging up some extra goodies we can use on her, and some of our other...acquisitions we've made since then, we should be more than ready to deal with her, and any other long underwear types that happen to waiting for us to show!" Chuckling deep in his throat, the Clown Prince of Crime leaned in closer to his crew. "All we need now is a brilliantly conceived plan to shut the good Captain and the Champions down! And that's what we're going to cook up, right here and now!" Then he fixed Jinnai with a glare and intoned, "So, Scarecrow, what do you have on our All-American twit? What little tricks does she have that she's not going to be able to surprise us with this time around?"

Author's Notes: Here it is, the sequel to "Legends of the Fourth of July"! Not much else for me to say except that I hope you all enjoy it!