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I do not own either One Piece or Justice League Unlimited.
Beta read by the wonderful rose7anne101 and MasterQwertster. Make sure to check out their own stories! Also thanks to other readers who have given incredible help, like Kolomte'49, lincoln time, mellra, scl04, King of Fans, Anycents, Crossovernaru, TheWhiteTitan, coalface, Creation Teller, Bellduke, Bkaa19, and VixenRose1996. I know several of you will see your contributions here, even if they will be a surprise ;-)
Guest Review answers :-D
The mention of Maxima is not foreshadowing. Just Sanji fixating upon the idea of an attractive alien invader.
Here is the latest chapter, and I hope it was worth the wait! Thank you for your review and support! :-D
1) Thank you, really proud of the outfit I chose for Sanji. Although some people made some very convincing arguments for a chef's outfit like what Zeff has.
The reason I said no to the invisibility is I felt not even Franky could perfectly alter the suit without issues. He is good, no question, but so are the Vinsmokes, and they would have gone to a lot of effort to keep their secrets classified. Plus, the shipwright is busy. Later they may get some upgrades to it though ;-)
2) Watching the first few minutes of "Twilight" will give you all you need to know about what Darkseid and Desaad were up to.
3) LOL loving that image with the 'Green Bull' :-P But yes, I do so like the idea of that bag of filth waking up with nightmares of Whitebeard :-)
Here is the latest chapter, and I hope it was worth the wait! Thank you for your review and support! :-D
No, no, I am pretty sure those were names you were using to refer to yourself.
Oh wow, guess I have to kill off all the Deckhands this chapter . . .
Yes, onto season two now (a bunch of people apparently missed the comment about watching "Twilight"), and hoping to condense it into a single chapter. Will see how that goes.
More clues in chapter 24, but I will say it is during the Wano arc.
Here is the latest chapter, and I hope it was worth the wait! Thank you for your review and support! :-D
I really appreciate you passing that on about "This Bites!" A high honour indeed! :-D
Yeah, having to rotate through my stories, but here it is at last! I hope it was worth the wait! Thank you for your review and support! :-D
LOL reminding me of a joke where the heroes end up in another universe and deadpan about how it is ANOTHER one where Superman turned evil and took over the planet. His reason? Because of the toilet paper over-under argument… X-P
Here is the latest chapter, and I hope it was worth the wait! Thank you for your review and support! :-D
Thanks for the recommendation! :-D
Darkseid has a lot on his plate right now…
Great to hear for Sanji! :-D
Here is the latest chapter, and I hope it was worth the wait! Thank you for your review and support! :-D
Chapter 25: Twilight
After their brutal experiences fighting against alternate versions of the Straw Hats driven to madness by vengeance, and against technologically advanced Nazis in the past, a majority of the Justice League determined it needed to focus on their training and teamwork to improve. Meanwhile, during a trial run for the Royal Flush Squad, some of the Straw Hats had a confrontation with some of the New Gods of Apokolips. When the aliens were forced to retreat, they discovered Apokolips devastated, all right before an ominous ship appeared overhead.
This chapter is an AU of a DCAU episode by the same name.
You are also recommended to watch the Superman episode "Legacy."
Despite the investigation ongoing down below, the rest of the Justice League had found themselves with a bit of downtime.
To her pleasant surprise, Shayera was spending it talking to J'onn about her home after he caught her watching videos about birds. Despite how heavily sanitised her story was, and all of the horrors she dared not share with the others, she could not help but be nostalgic about Thanagar. About Hro.
"Honestly, it may be because of that video we saw about the Straw Hats," she grimaced. "Seeing them come out of that portal into an unfamiliar world with no idea of where they were."
"The similarities to your own experience," observed J'onn.
"Yes, stumbling into a trap, with their particle beam ripping my molecules apart and shooting them halfway across the cosmos. Is that what happened to them? At least I ended up where nobody was around so I could adjust."
"Mmhmm," he hummed in agreement. It was quite the coincidence. "And you've no idea where home is?" he asked for clarification, as he had not been part of the earlier talks with her when the League had first been formed. Of course, between Green Lantern and the javelins, if they did know, they should have already been able to get her there.
"J'onn, Thanagar is so far away, we've never even come into contact with the Green Lantern Corp." She would have said more, but she caught his body language shifting into something more pensive. "What?"
"I was just thinking, you, me, Wonder Woman, Superman, we are all of us orphans and exiles."
Wanting to cheer him up, she quirked a grin and said, "Maybe we should call ourselves the Just-us League." Her bad joke worked, eliciting a smile which was more glad than sad.
The Watchtower shook around them.
"What the devil!?" she cried as the sirens went off.
A minute earlier
"What if I tried using red sun solar lamps?" offered Superman. "Build up muscles under it, and then seeing how it works when I'm done." This was all guesswork for him, as he had never had to try and be stronger before. He did not really want to be stronger.
Except he had two scars on himself from someone he had badly underestimated, and was still at large. Albeit an alternate version of the pirate.
And . . . not all of his fights have been victories.
"Worth exploring at least," conceded Batman, tapping away at the computer. "I have designs for some variable exercise weights that Wonder Woman, Hawkgirl, Shining Knight, and Martian Manhunter can use."
"And the training camp?" asked Wonder Woman.
"Nearly ready." Personally Batman still did not feel it was necessary for him to be a part of it, but if they were going to outvote him on this, at the very least he could be sure the rest of them were up to scratch.
"You don't seem satisfied," she said.
"From what you told me, it can't just be about hitting harder," he responded.
"And you don't do teamwork," said Superman. Despite this, he was going to make sure that it was part of what they worked on. He feared it was the only reason they had not lost anyone to Roronoa Zoro. So yes, Batman was going to be a part of it, or so help him, as dirty as it was, he was going to call Alfred.
Instead of reacting to that, Batman deflected. "You need to learn how to do more than punch."
". . . Fair," acknowledged Superman. "Something else we can use the red sunlight for." Although he would keep to his regular form against most villains. It was comfortable for both himself, and for others to see.
Silently Batman kept typing at the keyboard instead of acknowledging that. Not that Superman could fault him, given the reveal of an Apokoliptic presence on Earth. However, Shining Knight had pointed out that they could not be solely dependent upon only Batman for investigations, and Green Lantern had volunteered his Ring, and Flash had claimed some familiarity with forensic science. As for Superman, he knew that whatever was going on, it was no longer happening there, and needed to be ready.
As if summoned by these thoughts, the entire Watchtower began to shake.
Instantly Batman switched the screen to call up whatever the sensors had, while he and Wonder Woman looked over his shoulder. Without even looking up, they sensed Martian Manhunter and Hawkgirl swoop down to join them.
"Sensors are picking up a powerful energy surge," said Batman. "But I've never seen a signature like this."
"I have," said Superman warningly, having half expected this. "It's a boom tube." Upon his words, a hole in space made of white light was ripped open behind them, and the heroes turned to see who would come through. Superman stepped forward to take the lead, being the most familiar with them and the New Gods who used them.
Before they knew it, the figure stepped through, tall, broad, and strong like a mountain, and just as pitiless. Red eyes lit with an eternal malice despite the slight scars around them, rocky face set into a smug smirk.
His presence was sick and suffocating to its very core, intended to invoke a sense of 'evil' in whoever felt it, so its wielder could rejoice in their fear and feed upon it.
The very symbol of tyranny. The Lord of Apokolips.
Mockingly he said, "We meet again, Kal-El."
The words jolted Superman out of his shock, and sheer hatred rang through his voice. "You!" Fast as a speeding bullet he closed the distance to plant a haymaker on the god's face. Another. His third blow sent Darkseid slamming into a wall, and the entire massive space station tilted beneath the Justice League's feet at these feats of strength.
Such was what the Man of Steel was capable of when he was no longer holding back.
"Stop him before he knocks us out of orbit!" ordered Batman, pointing at the Kryptonian.
Instantly Wonder Woman complied, grabbing onto his arm with all her might. "Superman, don't!" she yelled, while Martian Manhunter wrapped his hands around his neck and over his chest.
"Let go!" struggled Superman, not wanting to hurt them.
"I see you haven't forgotten me," said Darkseid with a touch of menace as he got up unhurt.
"What do you want?" demanded Superman, pausing in his urge to get free.
"Though it pains me to admit it, I need your help," said Darkseid. "My latest skirmish with New Genesis has left my military forces at considerably less than full strength."
"It's not just New Genesis!" snapped Superman. "There are dead Parademons down there on Earth!"
"Indeed," said Darkseid with a touch of bitterness. "I used the remnants of Intergang to establish lines of communication with those Straw Hat Pirates you've been dealing with." He grinned as the heroes failed to hide how they stiffened at his words. "Alas, the talks broke down. They were more interested in the kryptonite. Although I believe most of it was destroyed in the subsequent skirmish."
"Kryptonite?" repeated Wonder Woman with deep concern. Uncharacteristically Superman did not react, automatically assuming the worst, and that Darkseid was trying to fan the conflict between them and Luffy's group. Instead he focused on the more important issue. As he relaxed his muscles, his teammates let him go. Straightening, he coldly said, "Why should we help you?"
"Because my enemy, is your enemy," answered Darkseid, raising his Father Box to project a hologram of a figure. Blank white eyes in cold expression with fake skin upon his hairless head, a three-circle emblem upon his forehead, clad in purple and silver armour.
"Even as we speak, Apokolips is being assimilated by the Kryptonian menace known as Brainiac."
Horror shot through Superman before he regained himself. "You're lying. I destroyed him."
"Apparently he is harder to kill than you realized," said Darkseid, changing images for emphasis to display a large spaceship hovering over Apokolips. "You know his pattern, Kal-El. Once he's finished syphoning the memory banks and technology of my planet . . ."
"He'll annihilate it," finished Superman. He paused as he absorbed the implications of this, and then said the Impossible:
Wonder Woman, Hawkgirl, and Martian Manhunter reacted in shock to the man supposed to be the pinnacle of them all. Uttering exclamations of disbelief.
"You may not care what happens to me or my world," said Darkseid, reactivating his Boom Tube, "but know this, if Brainiac isn't stopped, countless billions more will perish." He looked Superman dead in the eyes. "Think about it."
With that he turned and left while Superman glared after him.
"So what are you saying?" demanded Hawkgirl to Superman, his back turned to the group. "You'd sacrifice millions of lives just because you don't like this guy?"
"You don't know Darkseid like I do."
"We know he used you," said a soft voice as Batman advanced upon the Man of Steel. "Humiliated you. Brainwashed you. Wound you up like a tin soldier and turned you loose against Earth."
If any of them had been from Metropolis, Superman would have thrown in the murder of Dan Turpin as well.
Getting into Superman's face, Batman said with utter derision, "Cry me a river."
Knowing that Batman, that Bruce, was intentionally trying to provoke him with that sheer hypocrisy, helped Superman reign in his temper from boiling over at those words. From venting his hatred out at a convenient target before him.
Nonetheless, he had a lifetime of keeping his temper in check lest he hurt anyone.
Moreover, he has had far too much bitter experience with people trying to get a rise out of him over everything that had happened during that month-long nightmare. Only recently, maybe half a year before the Justice League had formed, had it really stopped; and even then, he had kept his guard up on the subject. Because he knew it was not over. Not by a long shot.
It was not just the sense of violation when Darkseid had warped his mind and memories.
Nor the violation when the Furies had taken him to their beds.
As much as it sickened him, it was not even the Human and alien lives he had killed, or the conquests he had carried out in the name of some sick perversion of 'peace and order' for the universe. Although he had done what he could to atone for those, including discretely liberating those worlds in a way Darkseid could not retaliate for without Highfather taking action.
Not even that with his own two hands he had nearly killed Kara.
It had been the tainting of his home. How Darkseid had turned the people of Earth against him. Filled them with hatred and fear towards him. No longer accepting him as one of them despite his foreign origins. Making him an outsider with only very few willing to stand beside him.
Even now, years later, he had yet to regain that level of trust from those he just wanted to protect. To be free to love them as he had been shown love while growing up.
"A final gift, my wayward son."
Another flare of agony beyond even kryptonite as the Omega Beams struck.
"A fast death. Infinitely preferable to the shame of returning to Earth. There your legacy would of fear and distrust. A pariah desperately chasing the favour of a world that cursed your name."
For all that Clark had been the one left standing at the end of his fight with Darkseid . . . it had not felt like a victory.
If not for Lois, twice over in ways he could never truly thank her for, it would have been the end of Superman.
All of this he was certain Bruce already knew, so he stopped to listen even as surprise flirted across Superman's face before he frowned at his friend.
"On the outside chance that this isn't another one of his schemes," Batman continued, "we have to take action. So I suggest you get over it!" he glared, as the lenses of his cowl narrowed.
Nearly chest to chest they glowered at one another before Martian Manhunter broke the stalemate.
He rested a hand on Superman's back. "Brainiac has already destroyed countless civilizations, and now he threatens another. Do you want this to be the legacy of your people?"
There was a ring of truth to that, as Brainiac had been a creation of Krypton, and the threat was indeed real. Distantly he was also aware his friend was aiming for an emotional argument to sway him, as Darkseid's entrance had already aptly demonstrated the threat of what Brainiac was acquiring:
Nowhere would be safe; including Earth.
Except it was all too simple for someone as twisted as Darkseid.
He turned to Martian Manhunter, and angrily said, "I'm telling you, there's something wrong with this whole scenario."
Thoughts and feelings flew through his mind as he tried to think of a solution. "Alright," he said, stepping a little closer to Batman, "we'll play Darkseid's game. But I need you to do something for me."
Now the lenses shifted in surprise and curiosity.
"In Metropolis' Star Labs, there's a Mother Box." He gave quick directions. "Use it to get to New Genesis, and find Orion. Tell him what's happening, and ask for his help."
"Understood," said Batman.
"I'll go with Batman," said Wonder Woman. At their looks, she elaborated, "We don't want to risk everyone going directly into a possible trap, and it doesn't seem like we have time to wait for the others."
"Good thinking," approved Superman.
"We should also pass on a warning to more than just the rest of our team," she added, which made Superman pause.
Telling Kara was . . . risky. She might come after him. But . . . if anything happened, she deserved to know. Maybe tell Steel as well, that he would be on his own defending Metropolis for a bit.
The Amazonian was staring directly at Batman now, "That includes Batgirl, Nightwing, and Robin, so they'll know that you're unavailable."
For an instant it was like there was something else there, yet Superman dismissed it. He had a quick call to make so they could deal with this mess and the inevitable treachery. Silently, Batman stalked off to one of the javelins.
While the others contacted Apokolips and made a call for a boom tube ride to take the other javelin through, Batman and Wonder Woman quickly sorted out their own mission.
And yes, he had made the call to 'Agent A' to say where he was doing, and not just because he did not want to have to deal with Wonder Woman's judgmental look the whole flight down.
Once at Star Labs, he quickly infiltrated the facility with practised ease, having done so before, and within minutes the duo were on an alien world via Boomtube. Trees surrounded the clearing, while mountains were visible in the distance.
Not that Batman could appreciate it, given how nauseous walking through that ride had made him.
"That was fun," he said sarcastically, after having had to sit down for a moment.
Thankfully, the Amazonian was polite enough to focus more on the ancient ruins around them, entirely unlike anything from Earth.
"Let me get this straight: Orion is Darkseid's own son?" she asked.
Never mind training sessions on teamwork, clearly Batman had been slacking on making sure everyone in the League was informed.
Because not only was Darkseid a serious threat to Earth, and Orion an important ally, Superman's destruction of multiple NATO military bases had been a rather serious event with lasting consequences. For instance, while Project: Achilles may have been shut down, Batman knew several other related anti-Kryptonian government programs had been formed over the years. Thankfully, none of them had amounted to anything, and any which looked like they might cause trouble he had discretely sabotaged.
Not that Superman was aware of any of that.
It would also surprise Superman to know though, that if anything that whole disaster had been reassuring to Batman.
Oh, the deaths had been a tragedy as always, but it was proof to him of how Superman could try and take over the world if he wanted to, and didn't! Could tear it all apart with his pinkie. And even after he had been forced into becoming an outsider once more, he had sought to make amends for his actions, even if they were done against his will, and had never embraced what Darkseid had shoved into his face. To continue to serve the people instead of ruling over them like some sort of god.
Of course as a precaution, Batman had still kept the research from those operations. That was just common sense.
"New Genesis and Apokolips have been at war for centuries," he explained. "Apparently Darkseid and High Father exchanged sons as part of some peace treaty." She gave him a sceptical look. "Sounds whacky to me too," he conceded. "But with a conflict on this scale, we could use some back-up."
"So where do we find this Orion?"
The ground beneath them split open, and out burst a giant monster.
What followed was an experience to be sure. One never to be repeated.
Batman got eaten until he detonated an exploding batarang within the mouth.
Wonder Woman tried to lasso it, only to be knocked out when the creature proved stronger than her.
As she was about to be eaten, Batman could only stare in horror as those fangs approached her, only for a canister to be thrown into its mouth at the last second and explode with a type of smoke, distracting it as it reared back with a roar of pain. An unfamiliar figure in red and white came through the trees and slung her over his shoulder. "This way," he cried as ran up to Batman. "That buzz bomb won't hold it for long."
Instantly Batman catalogued all that he could. By voice and body build, he would say this alien was male. A blue shield on his right arm. He wore a white tunic, but for the life of him the detective could not tell if the red covering most of their body was a form-fitting outfit, or his actual skin. Were those sunglasses he wore, or his actual eyes?
Regardless, he was not about to argue, and they retreated with the figure easily keeping up despite his load; not losing even a single step while slipping his shield onto his back, or readjusting his grip upon the Amazonian. Eventually they made it far enough away for their saviour to gently place Wonder Woman down on the grass. "You should be safe here."
To his relief, she woke up a moment later, and accepted Batman's hand in getting up.
She held her aching head for a moment before turning to the red alien. "Who are you?"
"They call me Forager."
"Do you know someone named Orion?" asked Batman, cutting to the chase given the uncertain deadline they were under.
"Orion?" said Forager in shock, backing away several steps. "I'm just an unworthy bug," he said downcast. Forager placed a palm upon his chest while bowing his head. "Orion is a god far above us."
He and Wonder Woman shared a long look, and she took the lead as she said, "You're too modest. You've shown courage, compassion—"
"No, no, you don't understand," Forager interrupted. He turned to point overhead. "All the gods are far above us."
Craning their heads back, the two heroes took in the sight of a massive golden city floating high up in the sky. The architecture flowing and oh so alien to anything they had ever beheld before. Radiating an air of grace and nobility, peace and prosperity.
". . . I'm gonna need a longer grapple," said Batman.
Only for Wonder Woman to give him a knowing look.
She turned to Forager and said, "Thank you for everything." Then before Batman knew it, he was resignedly being flown up by her, one hand around each other's waists.
He drank in the sights of the city as it grew larger, worked to calculate how large it was, and the implications of the technology they possessed, all to try and distract himself from how he had . . . almost lost her. Again.
A valued teammate.
Like at Gorilla City when he and the others had thought her dead, killed by Grodd's fratricidal launching of nuclear weapons against his own homeland. Crushed and buried beneath the disarmed weapon. Only for her to be alive and thanking the Fates, reassuring the Gorillas, and seeing the dirt on his hands from trying to dig for her, and then—
. . .
That city is even more insufferably bright than Metropolis.
Straw Hat Base
Of the many, many things Ace appreciated about being a genuine Straw Hat Pirate, high on the list was definitely their willingness to party whenever they could.
Although there was no question that the Royal Flush Squad being accepted as full-fledged members of the Deckhands, especially after an Apokoliptic attack, warranted it.
It had been about an hour already, with everyone laughing, dancing around, or alternating between different hijinks. Luffy was doing his chopstick trick again, and a giggle escaped her every time she saw it. She had wanted to try it, but Nami had intervened, saying it was only for dumb boys, which was weird. Even so, it was great to see the Captain up and about again after that Turkey Coma.
"My, you're looking very nice," complimented a certain skeleton. "Brings a tear to my eye at how well you look. Oh wait, I don't have tears! Yo ho ho~!"
"Thank you, Brook," said Ace a little shyly before spinning around to show off. The group did not really have anyone good at making clothes, but they had still managed to find for her a long, black dress with little white skulls on it. Just perfect!
"I'm doing another rendition of Bink's Brew later tonight, if you'd care to join me."
"Of course! Will Clayface be joining us?"
She looked around for him, and saw Clayface was still in the form of that soldier he had taken since they had first gotten back to report what had happened, with Luffy demanding they had to celebrate properly. From what she had overheard earlier, she bet he was still telling Usopp how he had used method acting to become a leader in the fray. The sniper was certainly still waving his arms around in enthusiasm.
"Well, just between you and me," the skeleton crouched down with a bony hand raised to help keep it private, "I'd rather we didn't. We're working on helping him extend his time transformed without thinking about it."
Oh! That was interesting. She would have to ask about that more later. For now though, she gestured zipping her mouth shut.
"Much obliged. Ah, 'scuse me, I just remembered a question I need to ask Volcana."
He scurried off, leaving Ace to look around to see who to talk or dance with next. There were so many people, and so many activities to be distracted by (like earlier when Zoro roped her into a game of throwing bean bags at a blindfolded Usopp to win a nerf-sword, or seeing how many people could balance atop of Luffy), that she had not spent time with everyone yet.
Hmm, for some reason Harley kept glancing at Ivy, who was wearing a green outfit which reminded her of the swimsuits Ace used to wear as part of training. It was kind of cool actually, like Jinbe's fancy bathrobe or Franky's shirts. Anyways, Ace had no clue why Harley was so concerned, but she trusted their resident psychologist had it handled. After all, the blonde said she made sure everyone's brains were working right.
Hmm, Ivy was drinking her regular tea though, while Zoro said booze was what you should drink to make you feel better. Of course, Ace was not one to talk as she took another sip of Franky's personal blend of cola instead. Oh sure, the others had been fine with her drinking alcohol, except she felt uncomfortable with the idea given how much her powers were mental based. Maybe later.
Still, Ivy looked like she wanted to be alone right now, so she would leave chatting with her to someone like Luffy. Or Sanji. Or Usopp, since the two hung out to work on plants a lot.
Maureen? Nah, she spent a good part of the first half hour with her already. Soon though.
Volcana? No wait, Brook had just said he wanted a word with Maureen's Big Sis, and there they were together now. Maybe later.
Then the crowd shifted a bit, and she saw the men and lady of the hour, the Royal Flush Squad, standing off to the side a bit. For a moment she looked at them with concern, before realising they were just getting more drinks and maybe a quick breather.
Things had been awkward with them, hence why she had spent more time with Maureen despite being a bit older.
Plus, she knew they were jealous of her. Maybe the other Deckhands were too; of how they had to prove themselves while Ace had stepped right up to be a full member of the Straw Hats.
Of course, she also had a strong hunch she was still the only one to have asked to be a proper pirate.
It had been as impulsive a decision for her as Luffy's acceptance had been, yet she could not bring herself to regret it. Even given the warnings Volcana had privately told her about what kind of world the Straw Hats had come from. Robin had already told her beforehand though, if only so she knew what they were going to overcome.
Ace would not allow herself any doubts on the matter. She was a pirate now, and was going to prove it!
Except that was no reason to be alone.
So she took a breath, and walked over to them. "Hey," she said as firmly as she could.
Startled, they turned to her. "Uh, hey," said Jack.
"Not sure if I said it already, but great work," she smiled.
"Well, of course," said Queen, flicking her hair back.
"Bet we could take on the Justice League now," smirked King.
"Especially with the lessons they're gonna give us," added Ten.
"Cool," said Ace.
There was a beat of silence, and Ace's mind raced to find something to say. Because while none of them had been friends while locked up, she felt there remained an unspoken bond between them all the same from their shared experiences, a sense of familiarity with one another while the whole world had seemed against them. Despite some initial tension and lingering mistrust, this was why the four of them had still gravitated together into a single squad, especially with the Straw Hats around to discourage any feuding or violence.
So why not the same for her? More friends were better, right? That was why Luffy loved 'nakama' so much.
"What movies have you guys seen so far?" she asked.
Surprised, they glanced at each other, before Jack spoke up. Though it was uncomfortable how nervous he seemed. "Just the ones at the dinner shows," he said as if a confession. "We can't all agree on one."
Aww, so you don't want to watch any separately, realised Ace. That's sweet!
A little messed up if you're having trouble like that, but still progress from sniping at each other like the old days.
"The Mask of Zoro was cool," shrugged King.
"Even if we had to keep pausing it," muttered Ten, just loud enough to be heard.
Despite how much she loved the swordsman, Ace had to snicker at that. That had been one of the films everyone had seen together, and Luffy, Chopper, Usopp, Brook, and especially Sanji, had kept laughing at Roronoa Zoro's expense at the hijinks of the movie Zoro, making Volcana keep pausing the film to let them get it out of their systems while Zoro yelled back insults at them, and then kept complaining about the improper swordsmanship being shown. They had to keep dragging him back from giving demonstrations on how to do it right, or going off to track down the movie cast.
"What about you?" asked Queen.
"I saw Lilo and Stitch," smiled Ace. "Ohana means family."
"Was that with Miss Nico?" asked King.
"Yep! . . . Is something wrong, Jack? You don't look well."
"He's just terrified of Miss Nico," huffed Queen.
"Well you shouldn't be. She's really nice!" Briefly Ace considered pointing out that if Robin wanted to hurt Jack, she would have already done it already instead of toying with him, only to decide that might not help.
"Maybe a film about aliens?" she suggested. "Since Luffy and the rest are some, and you just beat a bunch?" That got some interest, so she hesitantly added, "If you want, I can help you choose one we can watch together." Catching the riot of emotions which played over all their faces, she quickly added, "Unless you're busy with training of course."
"Uhm," hedged King for a moment before stiffening his shoulders with the confidence she remembered. "Sure! If you want. We can talk later about it."
The other three glanced at him, yet did not complain, so she took that as a win.
"Maybe with some cool violence?" asked Ten.
"Yeah," nodded Jack, a little more relaxed now. Queen just nodded.
"Alright," she grinned. "Well, I'll let you get back to it." Then she went off to find some others to talk to, trying not to be too obvious by skipping away.
For a moment she considered talking to Jinbe, only he was deep in a conversation with Nami about water currents. She liked the big blue guy, especially when he made a point of sitting down so she did not have to crane her head up as much to talk to him. Briefly she considered joining in, being something she needed to know before sailing herself, before dismissing it as something she did not need to learn right away. Especially as she was already confused by what they were talking about.
Skittering around the massive figure, she found a pleasant surprise in Robin obviously waiting for her.
"Well done," the older woman smiled, spreading her arms in an offer of a hug.
"Thank you," said Ace, gratefully accepting it. "Oh, so you were listening?"
"Yes. I'm glad you're staying friends with them."
"Hmm," hummed Ace into Robin's side as she stopped to think. "Is that why you showed me that film?"
"No, I really do find Stitch adorable."
"Is there something like him where you come from?"
"I don't know. We'll have to find out."
"Oh, is that what you watched last night?" pouted Chopper as he idled up. Now that she thought about it, Stitch reminded her of Chopper. They were both so cuddly and fluffy, even if she could never imagine Chopper being as manipulative as the alien.
"Yes," said Ace, hesitantly sticking her tongue out at him like she had seen Luffy do at times. "We even brought you to watch with us, only you were still kinda out of it."
"Maybe next time not so much turkey," chided Robin.
Chuckling in embarrassment, Chopper rubbed his head. "Sorry! Is it less creepy than that other movie you two watched?"
"The Thing?" asked Ace in confusion. "But that was so funny." Robin had kept laughing at it, and speculating how they would all die. "Ooh, is it because you had a bad experience with shapeshifters before? Are there shapeshifters where you come from?"
Groaning into his hooves, Chopper moaned out, "Yes but only the one, and he was awesome. But I'm not watching anything like that again!"
"How about you watch Lilo and Stitch with Luffy and the others, and then we can all watch the sequel together?" offered Robin. "I'm sure you'll enjoy that too."
Chopper was pretty fun to hang out with too, even if he was really busy doing science and medicine things. She should get him to hang out with her and Maureen more!
Oh wow, Maureen just popped up!
Seeing the wide grin on her friend's face, Ace knew this was going to be great. "So Sanji asked Harley to ask Ivy to make these," she held up some seeds, "to grow moss if you plant them in Zoro's hair, and said we could do it!"
On the one hand, Zoro was the second coolest Straw Hat after Robin, and Sanji might be taking advantage of how Zoro would never get angry at kids. On the other hand, that sounded hilarious!
"Oooh, I can do it!" said Ace, smile widening so much it almost hurt. She concentrated, and the seeds rose up out of Maureen's palm.
"Now how are you going to get it close enough to someone like Zoro?" asked Robin, looking like she was ready to start giggling herself.
"We'll distract him!" gushed Chopper.
"Yeah," said Maureen, pumping her fist. "I'll make an ice slide and you can go down it right past him!"
"You can ride me even!"
Darkseid had been telling the truth about Brainiac at least.
The android's ship was hovering above Apokolips behind a shield not even Superman could get through. Alongside Hawkgirl and Martian Manhunter, they had thrown themselves against the shield and Brainiac's drone fighters, while alien tanks and ships fired everything they had at it. Except the entire time, Brainiac had just hovered there as he prepared his machines, not so much as looking at them.
Groaning, Superman pulled himself out of the rubble after being thrown there by the barrier.
"Idiot," hissed Darkseid from above him in a cold fury. "You're wasting your time."
"I suppose you have a better idea."
"You should know by now I always have a plan."
"Such grandeur," said Wonder Woman as she took in the sights of the city. "It even outshines Themyscira. I've never seen the like."
"We can take in the sights some other time," said Batman, a comfortable, warm presence pressed against her side. "Let's concentrate on finding Orion."
Well, that was fair. Except there was no one to be seen. It was as if the city was deserted.
As if summoned by her thoughts, a flying figure zipped past them. A moment later he reappeared beside them as a man who appeared as Human as Superman did, with red hair, a white suit with red trunks like Superman, and gold guards at his wrists, ankles, neck, and around his forehead.
Before she could say anything, be it to ask for Orion, or apologise for intruding, he said, "I've never seen bugs like you before."
"We're not bugs," she testily shot back.
Amused, he said, "Well you're certainly not gods." And the New God slapped her rear.
"Hey!" she cried out in shock even as fury ripped through as he flew off.
"Try and catch me," he called back.
In another universe, she might have taken it better, merely telling Batman that her harasser was worse than the Flash —who did understand and respect what boundaries and basic manners were—
Only here and now there was a seed of insecurity buried within her at how in her last two major battles, both fought relatively recently, she had lost.
Lost to Parasite who had violated her people.
Lost to the Nico Robin twisted and corrupted by her own grief. Forced to abandon the alternate version of Batman to who knows what end.
(She knows; there's only one way it could have ended with such darkness.)
And now this pig was treating her like he was allowed to do that and—
With a growl she took off after the infuriating man who had just made himself an acceptable target for her simmering frustrations.
He led them on a merry chase throughout the city, Wonder Woman fixating on him even as they passed right by other inhabitants they could have stopped to talk to. Until they reached a tall tower which he led them in a downward spiral around.
"Stay on him!" barked Batman before slipping free of her grip to fall below.
The shock of it helped cool her temper, yet with her faith in him, she never faltered. She continued her circle, and upon another full rotation she arrived just in time to catch sight of Batman standing upon a walkway and entangling their quarry in his detached cape.
"Hey!" came the muffled cry as the New God fell from the sky.
Without hesitation Wonder Woman went after him, releasing the rest of her anger. There was no shame in her teammate helping her, but the manner he had done so was a reminder they were here to seek help. Lashing out would be counterproductive to that.
So she swept him up in a bridal carry, still wrapped up, and brought him back up to Batman. Taking her prisoner into a bear-hug, she said, "Hold still! We won't hurt you!" She meant it too, however reluctantly.
The sound of air shifting behind them, and a mechanical hum, made them turn to see a figure familiar from Batman's description, riding some sort of flying, metal harness with an attached gun pointed at them. A red suit over his powerful, muscular body, and a metal helmet which covered his eyes but left his mouth free.
"No," said Orion. "You most certainly will not."
The situation with Brainiac had become . . . complicated.
As promised, Darkseid had masterminded a plan to use Superman as bait to provoke Brainiac into opening up a hole in his ship's shield to attack the Kryptonian. One which Darkseid had fired a cannon through, damaging the android and allowing for Superman to capitalise upon the opportunity to bring the shield down. Being beaten by Superman's fists even as his ship now took fire, Brainiac had retreated.
Furious, Darkseid had demanded the Justice League pursue and finish off the menace.
Which, as much as Superman might resent it, was indeed what they needed to do. So they had followed in their javelin.
Only for Brainiac's ship to lure them to what they had initially mistaken for 'just' a massive asteroid until they realised the android had hollowed it out and reshaped it into a hidden base. It was outside of the Apokolips solar system, and yet close enough that Superman thought it was mobile. Certainly Darkseid would never have allowed such a threat to take up permanent residence in his domain if he had known. But what better place to hide from Superman and everyone else than under the arrogant nose of the intergalactic tyrant?
Regardless, it had been a trap, as a beam enveloped the javelin, and seized control of it, guiding them down into the installation. Signs of Brainiac's technology were all around, as was his personal symbol: three circles in an equilateral triangle, two of them at the top, with a single line from each connecting to the one at the bottom.
Screens lined the walls, depicting the planets which had been destroyed by Brainiac, and the knowledge he had preserved for himself.
Overall, it was the most ambitious project of Brainiac's that Superman encountered yet.
Once their ship had landed and the ramp had lowered, a floating disc approached them as an obvious invitation. Seeing no other alternative, they had gotten aboard to be carried through long halls obviously meant to leave them intimidated and in awe.
Finally they reached their destination: a domed room the size of a football stadium, with three deep holes and two trenches for its creator's ego once more.
Gently the platform landed, and the trio looked around for a few seconds before a throne rose before them, upon which sat a restored Brainiac. "Welcome, Kal-el," he said as he stood. "Once I offered you the chance to join me in carrying on the legacy of Krypton. Today, I renew that offer."
"You must be joking," said Superman flatly.
"Why do you reject your great heritage?" Behind Brainiac, a screen lit up with an image of planet Krypton. Around them others showed different scenes from the dead planet. "The entire history of your planet. Its knowledge and splendour. Its awe and mystery, are encoded within me." A final image appeared, and even for Hawkgirl and Martian Manhunter the resemblance made it obvious that these were Superman's biological parents smiling down at them. Regret fell across his features.
"Superman," said Hawkgirl with concern, "don't—"
With a single raised hand, he cut her off, expression steeled with resolve.
"I am Krypton," concluded Brainiac.
"You're a perversion," snapped Superman. "Dishonouring the very memory of my father and all my people."
"And this is your final decision?"
"Read my lips: go to—"
"Unfortunate. But predictable."
From each of the three pits rose what were essentially oversized dual cannons on a hover-pod, forcing the heroes to scatter.
Martian Manhunter phased right through his, yanking out vital components to make it explode.
Wielding her nth-metal mace, Hawgirl blocked the powerful laser blasts before breaking the drone under her weapon.
A flash of Superman's heat vision, and his fell into three pieces. Turning, he had no time to react as Brainiac's arm extended to grab him and shock him with electricity. He screamed in agony before Martian Manhunter used a piece of debris to knock him free. In retaliation, the android grabbed the Martian next and tried to electrocute him too while also slamming him into the ground.
It was all the opportunity Hawkgirl needed though, as her mace smashed into his face, exposing the robotic skull beneath. "HAAAAH!" she cried out in fury as again and again she hit him, knocking him sitting down into his own throne before crushing his chest in. "HAAAAH!"
Brainiac went motionless.
Her teammates joined her to see for themselves, and she said to Superman, "Someone had to do it," and he smiled at her.
"Then it's over."
"Again you've miscalculated," echoed Brainiac's voice from the walls. Doors all around the room opened up, and ten copies of him emerged, flying towards them. "It hasn't even begun," they all echoed.
Spread out around them was a majestic garden, full of lush greens, rich flowers, and best of all little children learning of the world.
"It's hard, isn't it?" said Highfather, leader of New Genesis. Long, white hair and a full beard, blue cape, and a golden shepherd's crook in hand. "But we must lovingly tend our garden if we want it to grow strong and tall."
"I hate this," said Sera in irritation.
While the cause appeared obvious, he asked, "What's wrong, child?"
"I've tried, Highfather, really I have, but look!" While all the others had managed to grow lovely bushes with flowers poking out, hers remained a twisted branch with only about six leaves on it.
"Patience, my dear," he said, expression softening. "Everything has a purpose, and a place."
As her response was to flick off a little insect which had crawled up her plant, he suspected the lesson had not sunk in. "Everything?" she asked sulkily.
"Give it time," he said, and raised his crook and released some of his power as a blue beam which grew the poor branch into a bush as rich as the others. She gasped with delight, while all the other children rushed over to see.
"Highfather!" Instantly concern went through the old man at the sound of that voice. For all that he loved Orion, his son was not one to come to the gardens. And that tone . . .
Orion ran up to him, and behind him were two Humans he recognized as some of Superman's new allies, with Lightray right behind them. Hmm, hopefully Lightray had not caused any trouble.
Standing straight, Orion reported, "I have urgent news from Apokolips."
Glancing at Batman, Highfather turned his focus back to Orion. "Indeed."
"We're friends of Superman," said Batman, not actually giving his name.
Wonder Woman took up the thread. "He sent us to warn you that Darkseid is under attack on Apokolips."
Eyes widening in shock and anger, Highfather glanced back towards the garden, "Do not speak that name in front of the children; you'll frighten them."
"They should be afraid," said Orion harshly. "For too long the shadow of Apokolips has threatened New Genesis."
Father and son locked gazes for a handful of seconds, before he stepped around Orion. "Come with me." He stopped briefly, "Would you excuse us, children?" It was a courtesy and not really a request, but Highfather continued walking without waiting for their answer because he could not bear their frightened looks. The knowledge that matters were afoot by the monster who haunted their nightmares. A name they had only ever heard the adults whisper when they thought the young were not around, speaking of senseless violence, torture for the sake of torture, of the gaping holes within their families and entire generations lost, and a relentless hatred for all of New Genesis.
Once out of earshot, he turned to Orion. "Well?" he said, a tad crisper than he wanted to.
"Let me mount an army. While Darkseid is under siege," he raised a fist, "we will attack! And end his reign of terror once and for all!"
"Superman asked for your help," said Wonder Woman in concern. "He doesn't want to start a war!"
"Don't be so sure," said Orion.
During this exchange, Highfather's mind raced, especially on what had been unsaid. Unlike the Humans, he and Orion knew how badly Darkseid's forces had been severely damaged less than a day ago when the latter had tried to test their defences. However, they had also not shared any specifics of this 'siege,' forcing him to conclude that it was some sort of ruse. It would not be the first time.
"You forget," said Highfather sternly, "in the name of peace, we swore not to interfere on Apokolips. We made a pact!"
"As long as Darkseid is in power, there can be no real peace!"
Bowing his head in acknowledgement, he allowed, "There is truth in what you say."
"Then give the order!" demanded Orion.
"No! Though I love you like a son," Highfather's eyes closed as the memories of the past rose up, and his voice softened a fraction, "you are too young to remember the endless bloodshed we endured." He turned to walk away, "Before making such a terrible decision, I must commune with the Source," he said, referring to aspect of the cosmic entity that was the very source of all that exists, and acted as the limitless energy from which all life sprang forth in the universe.
Without looking back, he sternly called back, "You will await my verdict!"
There was more at stake here than they knew, and this was all unforeseen.
Faintly he heard Orion say, "Yes, Highfather." Moments later came the sound of his son venting his rage in breaking off part of a wall. He would have to dispatch someone to fix that later.
It was a brutal, no holds barred battle as Brainiac's duplicates swarmed the heroes, who retaliated without mercy, and already the floor was littered with metal components.
Atop the throne's platform, Hawkgirl blocked a laser blast by one android, and when it closed upon her she cleaved it in two with a single swing of her mace. Another shot a sustained beam at her, to which she raised her weapon to shield herself.
The head of one Brainiac crumpled under Martian Manhunter's punch, before spinning to backhand away a second. For the third, he did not even phase through, his solid fist tearing straight through it and then pulled out still gripping various wires. He tossed it aside and noticed the android which had been shooting at Hawkgirl had now grabbed her mace, so he flew up to pull it close and then reached over to tear out its chest.
A familiar white light erupted before them as a boom tube opened, and out stepped Darkseid.
Without a word, white death burned from his eyes, and Martian Manhunter threw himself before Hawkgirl. The impact sent them flying off the throne, and the sheer force of the Omega Beams smashed them straight through the floor.
Stepping out, Darkseid stepped down onto a Brainiac body, his foot resting upon its head, while fire burned from his eyes.
Destroying another Brainiac, Superman turned to see the newcomer. "Darkseid!" he said in anger and surprise, even as his blood turned to ice in horrified realisation. It caused him to hesitate. To drop his guard which had been up since he had first seen Darkseid on the Watchtower.
Just for a millisecond.
But that was all that was needed. The final drone shot him with lightning in the back, paralysing him as he screamed. Mercilessly, the dreaded ruler of Apokolips solidified his betrayal by unleashing his depraved beams once more, and their sustained power set every cell of the hero on fire until he collapsed.
Alive, but at the mercy of two of his greatest enemies.
"It appears our stratagem was a success," said Brainiac, looking down at the last Kryptonian as dark smoke wafted off of him.
To be sure, Darkseid walked over to the hole he had burned through the ground, noting the molten metal and lack of bodies, and concluded the two irritants had been successfully vaporised. "Yes," he said. "As promised, I've delivered Superman into your hands."
Straw Hat Base
Eventually the party had died down.
Or rather, despite their protests, after such a long day, the Royal Flush Squad had looked dead on their feet, so Luffy had graciously called it an evening.
Before bed though, the Straw Hats had retreated to their private living room.
Or, well, maybe that was not the right term.
Originally they had slept with most of the Deckhands in the same two rooms, but since the members of the Royal Flush Squad had wanted their own private rooms, ones which were actually theirs, the other Deckhands had been offered their own again, and had reluctantly admitted they wanted them. Luffy had been confused as to why they did not speak up sooner, and the Straw Hats as a whole felt weird about the idea of ever sleeping apart, but had nonetheless agreed.
Regardless, the Straw Hats had a room each for the ladies and men, both branching off from a room right in the middle, which at some point they had filled with various couches and such.
Personally, Jinbe was bringing his right-sized beanbag home with him. Perfect for him to relax into while enjoying their new tradition of catching up on everything serious before bed. Or not so serious of course.
"—so yeah," concluded Sanji, "no trouble at all."
"Except you had to pull out your trump card, weakling," scoffed Zoro.
"Oh puh-leeze!" sneered Sanji. "I bet you wouldn't even be able to cut 'em! And I only did it because that guy wasted my time by wrecking the kryptonite!"
"Shi shi shi shi!"
Everyone stopped to look at their Captain laughing as he rolled back and forth atop a big, inflatable ball. "Good for you guys! It's awesome you got to find strong opponents!"
"Hah! You know it!" grinned Franky broadly, flexing his arms into his signature pose. "For 'morrow's training, we should have a spar to see how my Armament's doing!"
"Don't slack off on your Observation," said Nami pointedly. "Did you even use it during the fight?" Her own training with that haki has been going well.
Honestly, Jinbe had to admit this was a bit of a blessing. While his fellow Straw Hats had been very productive during the two years they had been independently honing their skills, the majority of them had only advanced in their specialties. In the New World, especially for a crew where others would consider them to be officers and generals for the Fifth Emperor, that sort of narrow focus could be dangerous. Especially if that did not include haki training. Moreover, not all of them had spent that time gaining actual combat experience, in contrast to the other crews of the Worst Generation who had sailed straight into the New World.
Although given how by all accounts Kidd had lost an arm and a good chunk of his face during that time, he knew most of the Straw Hats were fine with how they had handled it.
Moreover, a little extra training meant nothing against the gnawing fear of how many of their allies in Wano were dead by now.
Nonetheless, they would respect Luffy's orders not to think about it until they got back home and knew for sure.
"What about me?" asked Ace, sitting on a stool and kicking her legs out.
Leaning forward, he said, "Robin and I were discussing practising palm strikes with you tomorrow to see how you do with them."
"And then I'd like to work on trying out some weapons with you!" winked Usopp while giving her a thumb's up.
"Great!" she smiled.
Yes, they were throwing a lot at her, and without the benefits of growth those from Gaia seemed to have, yet she was rising to the challenge. Moreover, her innate powers were nothing to sneer at if they could nearly take down Zoro like that. Ace had been hesitant to demonstrate on anyone else, although he was sure she would come to agree down the road; if only so everyone could have an idea what her powers even looked like when she was using them.
"Tch," huffed Zoro. "Well then I guess I'll settle for cutting up the stupid cook; remind him of his place," said Zoro, sitting on the soft carpet and leaning against a wall.
"Haaaaah!" sneered Sanji. "No can do! I'm working on my fire against Brook's ice tomorrow!"
"Tch," repeated Zoro. "Alright then. Usopp!"
"What!?" cried the sniper.
"I need you to fire that laser cannon at me some more tomorrow." With his Foxfire Style techniques, he had already mastered fire and explosions, but he still was not satisfied with how he handled multiple lasers. Personally, he could not wait for a rematch with a certain admiral.
"Huh? Okay. I'll do it blindfolded some more."
"Great." Sighing, the swordsman rested his head back. "I've gotta get a better sparring partner. Or get more of you into swords." Oh, sure, he and Brook could spar, except they had two very different styles, which made it trickier.
"Hah, as if," deadpanned Nami.
"Well at this rate I'll have to go hero hunting for a decent fight, since the cook is lame, and I can't go all out against you guys."
A slight exaggeration, Jinbe knew, as a true swordsman only cut what they intended to with their blade, but flying slashes were another story.
"I know, we're still laying low! Calm down, witch!"
"Don't you say that about Nami-swan!"
The familiar sounds washed over Jinbe comfortingly.
"I'm on meditation," said Chopper, raising a hoof.
"Same," said Nami. There were several different ways to bring one's 'will' to the fore, and the weaker members had definitely preferred the less-violent means to manifest it.
"Any new ideas for the others?" asked Robin, to which the crew indicated they did not. Which was unfortunate, even if Jinbe was coming to suspect the Deckhands would not be following them.
In the past, Luffy would have dragged along anyone who caught his fancy, with memorable examples apparently included a samurai's legs and talking butt, a zombie-unicorn, a man stuck in a treasure chest, and of course the actual Straw Hats themselves. Even after his loss to Kaidou he would have been fine bringing along those whose bodies were as fragile as people straight from the Blues, regardless of the difficulties in keeping them safe. Thankfully, he had —eventually, after some careful arguments— listened to the warnings of the others about what it would mean dragging their Earth friends into a warzone where they would need to save all their allies from captivity —which had been extra tricky without 'thinking' about Wano—, and what the cost of any hesitation would be. Albeit quietly and very reluctantly on his part, and with great discomfort from the other Straw Hats as well. For now, only those who truly wanted to come with them would come to Gaia, despite whatever Luffy might sense in their hearts.
Once they had beaten Kaidou and liberated Wano though, Jinbe absolutely knew his Captain would return to conscripting whoever seemed awesome if he could see in their hearts a longing for adventure.
Jinbe was looking forward to it.
A prickling at the back of his neck, and Jinbe turned to see Luffy staring at him inquisitively. The former Warlord smiled in reassurance, and then stood up. "Well, we'd better get our rest then; we've got a busy day tomorrow."
"Brook!" cried Luffy. "Sing us a song first!"
"Can I hear another story too?" gushed Ace.
"No worries, Ace! I, the Great Usopp, shall tonight tell you the story of how Luffy and the others first met me, and I saved them from an evil butler!"
Chuckling, Jinbe heaved himself out of his bean-chair, looking forward to hearing again about one of the adventures he had missed, while drifting off to slumber.
Smiling, Volcana closed the door on the sight of Maureen snuggling down into her pillow, the photo of her mom resting on her bedside dresser.
Satisfied, she made her way down a few hallways and turns to where the Deckhands could relax, and complain about, speculate about, and ultimately praise their eccentric, mysterious, and frankly whacky bosses without being overheard.
Well, most of them.
Only Cheetah, Clayface, and Grundy were there, as they had not gotten around to telling the four, newbie teens about it yet. Actually, Volcana could not recall if she or the others had told Ivy and Harley. Heck, she did not know if the Straw Hats even remembered about this part of the underground complex.
. . . Except for Robin. Robin knew everything. Or failing that, knew who did know what she wanted, and how to convince them to tell her.
Mentally she shrugged and dismissed the thought as she grabbed for another beer.
"Cheers," said Cheetah, holding up her bottle, which Volcana and Clayface clinked theirs against. Then she remembered about their member who did not drink, so the fire user passed Grundy an empty one so he could join in, which he enjoyed.
Oh, sure, a few months ago she would probably have told the zombie to scram if he was not going to drink, dismissing him as too dumb for conversation. Now though, as weird as it was, they were all in this madness together.
"Now alien invasions, huh?" said Cheetah.
"Think I'll get a medal for it?" asked Clayface with a grin, showing a sharp salute while being the very image of a patriotic soldier.
"Hah!" grunted Grundy, while the others snorted in agreement.
"Still, we should keep it in mind for ourselves," pointed out Volcana. "Throw in some practice tomorrow for fighting fliers like Parademons." Swishing her beer around a little, she added, "Make sure Maureen understands they're something she can go all out on. Keep her safe."
Cheetah made a strange noise, which made her glare at the hybrid woman. "What?" she said coldly.
"What," she stated.
When Cheetah glanced at Clayface and Grundy for help to find them studiously examining the ceiling, she gave a shrug, and said, "It's just that I'd never have imagined you'd become such a mom."
. . .
"What?" repeated Volcana, only now it came out strangled.
"You and Maureen."
"Oh. No. Take that back. Right now. I'm like her big sister," waved off Volcana dismissively. "Getting her ready for the whole cruel world."
"I mean it," she warned.
"We believe you," said Cheetah innocently.
Briefly Volcana considered shooting a warning shot at the fur-ball before dismissing it.
Then she wondered why she had done so.
It was . . . a few months ago she would have set Cheetah on fire without hesitation, the variable being how much it was. In fact, she had just been thinking about how they had changed with Grundy. They were all almost . . . domestic together.
"At first I thought it was because Luffy was keeping you guys on a tight leash," said Superman. "Except the woman I knew before would never show genuine concern for anyone else. Much less be protective. Would I be right to assume the others are mellowing out a little too?"
"Well," said Volcana, "we'd be junior partners doing what they and the government said. The reason they're considering it, is apparently they think Luffy and the others are rehabilitating us." When the others laughed at that, she joined in as well.
True, she had changed, but that was Maureen, and . . .
Taking a deep breath, she put a hand over her face, and the others let her be, falling into silence while they watched her.
It took her a few minutes, yet you did not last long in this sort of life without learning some sort of patience. Finally she dropped her hand, chugged back the remainder of her beer, and said to them, "Sorry, I, just had a bit of an epiphany. And, as much as I love Maureen and the Straw Hats, it kinda just dawned on me how much of my life has become centred 'round them."
They all gave quiet flinches of their own as they realised the same of themselves.
"Right . . . I need . . . something for myself. Like, I dunno, Harley said something the other day about hobbies. Guess I'll take one up?"
Oh how she hated how unsure she sounded about that.
"That sounds like a marvellous idea," said Clayface, despite remaining a little perturbed, with Cheetah and Grundy nodding in agreement. "Any ideas? Or we could find a list of suggestions."
A beeping noise cut her off, and a frowning Cheetah turned to her laptop sitting beside her, raising a finger. They waited as she worked at it, and then she started to swear.
Leaning over her shoulder, Clayface took a look at it, and proved himself a true soldier by the way he cussed.
"What?" asked Grundy with concern, beating Volcana to it.
"Joker struck again," hissed Cheetah.
"What?" asked Volcana, even if she belatedly gave herself a mental dopeslap at how often she was saying that tonight. However she acknowledged she did have reason to be off-guard, given how he had just hit Blackgate Prison the other day, 'rescuing' a small army's worth of crooks.
An army they and their contacts were sure was aimed at them. Except she had assumed he would lay low at least for a while.
"Yep," said Cheetah. "Hit prisons all across the seaboard. Quieter though, and only grabbing a few this time."
"How you know?" asked Grundy.
"This is why the Straw Hats hired me," reminded Cheetah distractedly. "Even if they've got Karrde now and Robin's burgeoning network, they wanted contacts within the villahin community, and I provided." Her eyes narrowed. "Huh, and I think everyone's a bit too unnerved by the Joker right now, so they're hoping we'll deal with him."
Volcana shared a sceptical glance with Clayface, who gave a resigned shrug. On the face of it, you would assume that the Straw Hats would want to deal with the likes of Joker before he became a problem for them, except the truth of the matter was that the pirates did not care.
Partially it was their power, Volcana would admit. The sheer gap between them and everyone else. But the bulk of it could be tied down to Luffy's selfishness, and keeping the others focused on their goal of getting home. They would only deal with Joker if he stepped right in their way.
Which was a mistake.
Despite everything, she could not shake the feeling that they were underestimating the Joker, especially given how casually Sanji had crushed him before. The lunatic was cunning, a master manipulator at getting people to follow him, endlessly innovative, ruthlessly opportunistic, and would be coming after the Straw Hats and those with them knowing he could not win a fair fight.
Even worse, given some of the rumours, he might even be doing so feeling he had nothing left to lose. Maybe they should try to talk to Robin or Brook again?
"They're . . . hmmm. Weird," frowned Cheetah, breaking Volcana out of her concerns.
"Okay, so the ones he broke out and took with him are Carrie Cutter, Hannibal Bates, Arnold Etchinson, Alexander Wyvern, Michael Amar, Richard Redditch, and Sylbert Rundline."
It took Volcana about half a minute to place all those names, and could see the others struggling as well. "Serial killers, right? But no powers or anything special."
"Okay, so he's getting some talented killers who he can keep in line, I get that. Then what?"
"He's supposed to be after us and the Straw Hats," nodded Clayface, shifting from a soldier into what she recalled as a detective role. "Those posers wouldn't be enough to slow down the League, much less us."
"Heh, heh, squish 'em," chuckled Grundy.
"Cannon fodder then," offered Cheetah.
"Same," grunted Volcana. She frowned in thought, and then raised her hand, fire licking around her fingertips. "This time he doesn't get to go to any asylum," she declared. "If he's coming after us, then he's coming after Maureen, and that's unacceptable."
Grimly, the others nodded in agreement.
While they waited for Highfather, Wonder Woman and Batman took the opportunity to explore the city. Lightray, the one who had slapped her, had left shortly after Orion.
They did not meet anyone else, and she had to wonder how deliberate that was. Granted, given her first impressions so far, she did not mind at all. Especially since in truth she could not say if these 'New Gods' were truly divine beings like the ones she worshipped. Certainly they were not her gods. All without getting into her mother's recent warning about bringing down the attention of the gods upon mortal affairs.
Nonetheless, Highfather was king here, and she would respect his wishes and authority within his domain.
Even if he was taking too long.
"Do you think the others are okay?" she finally asked her companion.
At his flat response, Wonder Woman glanced towards him to see how honest he seemed. Eventually, "I'm worried about Superman," she confessed. "After what we saw with those alternate Straw Hats, to see him so full of hate—"
Batman turned to her, and she broke off to look away.
". . . Superman is all about saving people," he finally said. "Every individual."
Is that why you were so harsh about his attitude towards Darkseid? she wondered. No, that's not all of it.
"Yes," she answered. "But for some reason," she said with confusion, "Orion thought Superman would want an army. Not help from a friend."
"You think he would."
"I think I don't have enough batarangs on me to fight a war," he answered. "Or an idea of how we'd handle Darkseid."
Her eyes sharpened as she began to put it together. "You're thinking about le Fay again."
An ageless madwoman who had been killed by a friend of Batman's, satisfying Jason Blood's own bloody vendetta. Who had then thrown in the others' faces how there was no other way to stop the evil sorceress.
"You all saw how vengeance and killing destroyed those versions of the Straw Hats."
"We have killed people," Wonder Woman gently reminded him. "The Imperium. The Nazis during World War Two."
Those transports they had destroyed, her and Superman included, had been full of hundreds, if not thousands, of men. Each.
"Because we had no other choice."
"Except this time," he flatly responded, "the consequences will stick with us beyond just who you kill. If Superman does attack Darkseid, who knows what will happen?"
Especially after Superman's mortality had recently been thrown in their faces.
"We'll find out together, and do better," she said sternly. "After all, you won't back down from the challenge."
The Dark Knight shot her a glare, to which the Amazonian returned a knowing smile.
Briefly she considered switching topics, not wanting them distracted, but his comment about consequences stuck with her. "How is Mordred doing?"
"As well as can be expected given how he was orphaned," said Batman, and she could not help wince at the sheer flatness behind that last word, making it obvious he was repressing some deep emotions.
While having never met le Fay's child, he had sounded like a brat with far too much power in his hands. Hopefully he would grow up alright though.
". . . Being heroes isn't easy," she acknowledged. "But we can't do it alone."
"I'm a part-timer," he gruffly reminded her.
"And I've met your other partners," she said back, before she frowned in thought. He did not distract her while she looked for the right words to use. Acknowledging he was more experienced than her at this. "Before us, how did you handle it when things went badly? Beyond your control?"
She suspected the answer might be: not well; and yet she had hope overall. The man was still alive and sane for one.
". . . By doing what you can to live with yourself," he acknowledged. "Unfortunately we're dealing with things far bigger than overdosed teens, muggers in back alleys, or the mob."
Seeing what he was getting at, she placed a hand on his shoulder. "None of us are perfect, including Superman. That's why we need to do this together," she reiterated.
". . . There's Orion."
Blinking at the sudden change in topics, she looked ahead to see their walk had indeed led them to him. Orion was doing something with what he had earlier called his Astro-Harness.
Respecting that Batman did not want to talk about this anymore, she joined him in taking advantage of how they were at the edge of the city, and free to enjoy the horizon of the planet spread out below them. Eventually though, Wonder Woman's curiosity got the better of her once more.
"Those people we met down below," she said to Orion, "who are they?"
"They're not important," said Orion dismissively, sliding his gear on. "Just bugs." He attached his Mother Box, and then hovered just over the ground.
"And where are you going?" said Batman.
"To face Darkseid," he declared.
"But Highfather ordered you to wait," said Wonder Woman. She went right up to him, with Batman right behind her as they blocked his way. "Why are you so eager to fight?"
"I have my reasons. Now stand aside!"
"We can't let you go," she warned him. Not alone to what sounded like his death. Not against the rule of his king and father, for all it made her sound like a hypocrite.
"Try to stop me!" The lights of his Mother Box lit up, and a boom tube opened up facing him and towards their backs. Casually he brushed them aside as he raced inside.
As they picked themselves up and threw themselves in after Orion, Batman snapped out, "Next time I let Superman take charge, just hit me real hard!"
Through a wide, red tunnel, Brainiac rode a flying scooter while carrying Superman within a gravity beam. Beside him, on a hovering disk like the Justice League had used earlier, was Darkseid. Although as a reminder of their relationship, Darkseid was kept at a lower level than the android, so that he would have to crane his neck up to look at his host. Instead, the tyrant just looked ahead.
"Remember the terms of our bargain," reminded Darkseid, arms clasped behind his back. "In exchange for Superman, you promised to spare my planet."
They arrived within a sphere even larger than the throne room, and yet it was clear there was something even more crucial about it than the last place. At the bottom was a massive hole in the floor, with the sides raised up, and indications of sophisticated technology which meant it was much more than just decorative. In the ceiling were two more of them, all at sixty-degree angles from one another. Circling the lower hole were pods carrying more of Brainiac's android bodies. Floating in the middle, was a platform which was again in the form of three circles connected in two lines, and their destination as they came to rest upon one of the 'side' circles.
"But I still can't fathom why you need him," observed Darkseid. "Surely not for simple revenge."
"It is quite elementary," said Brainiac. "Observe." He tapped a button, and blue circuitry lit up, and the central circle of the platform split apart in the middle to reveal a restraining apparatus which he floated Superman into where he was strapped into place as if he was on a crucifix.
"Over the years I have roamed the universe collecting data," the body of Brainiac spoke, as he gracefully flew down to an empty pod. "As my appetite grew, I changed and evolved into what you see today." With those words, he settled into place as metal cords extended into its brain, and it went silent.
Now the voice of Brainiac emanated from the walls themselves, proving that the asteroid itself was the cybernetic menace. Every drone Superman had bested in the past was merely a disposable extension of the true legacy of Krypton.
"From this central core, I can send countless drones to the farthest corners of the galaxy to gather more data for my collection." Darkseid glanced to the side to see the computer consoles beside him lit up with blue circuitry, and the screen displaying blueprints of the drones below before settling into its iconic three circle symbol. "But it is not enough. I have reached the limits of my programmed functions. To evolve to the next level, I must extract living DNA from the last Kryptonian."
Balls of yellow energy formed around Superman's hands and bound feet, and he screamed awake in an endless wail of agony.
"Now I become a true lifeform," declared Brainiac while three yellow dots appeared on Superman's forehead, "the likes of which this universe has never seen."
As it basked in its victory, Darkseid unclasped his hands to reveal the Father Box concealed within them, and placed it under the computer core beside him.
Instantly the electronics around it shifted from blue to venomous red, with the new colour rushing out to consume the rest of the lines.
"Wait," said Brainiac as after only bare seconds most of the room had been converted. "What have you done!?"
"Just a minor modification to override your control circuits," Darkseid casually explained as the entire room shifted to a dark, comforting purple. There was no gloating in his expression, no deep satisfaction, only the simple statement of facts. "You are now the instrument of my will."
Behind him, Superman's screams intensified, while Darkseid leaned over the computer and began inputting instructions.
A new destination for one.
"You deceived me, Darkseid," accused Brainiac. "Used me."
"It's what I do."
Grunting with exertion, Hawkgirl pulled herself out of the deep hole Darkseid had blasted her into. With a final heave, she pulled Martian Manhunter out right after her into Brainiac's throne room.
Lightly she slapped his unconscious face. "J'onn," she said, "wake up."
Groaning, he did, and she helped him to his feet. Holding his chest, he asked, "What hit us?"
"It was Darkseid."
"Then Superman was right. This was all an elaborate trap."
"Where is Superman?" she asked, looking around the torn up battlefield, images of Krypton still on the walls around them.
His eyes glowed yellow for a moment, and then he said, "I can't locate him. He's either unconscious, or . . ."
Her eyes widened in concern before steeling herself. Pausing only to retrieve her mace, her new toy still strapped to her back, she took flight with her teammate right beside her.
They flew through corridors full of more images of different worlds. "All these worlds that Brainaic visited," observed Martian Manhunter. "Somewhere in here there might be information about Thanagar."
Her chin jerked up at the thought, before she decisively said, "There's no time to think about that. Superman needs us."
Lightning crackled through Superman's frame while a sensation like drills burned within his skull as Brainiac continued his intrusion.
But none of that mattered now as he was faced with the absolute worst case scenario imaginable.
Desperately he fought through the pain and demanded, "Why are you doing this!?"
"Before, Brainiac had the power to devour planets," answered Darkseid, making one final adjustment. "Now he can consume an entire universe."
Words were torn from the hero as the agony spiked higher and his skeleton became visible under his skin while from the three balls of light came crackling bands of energy which flowed into the openings in the ceiling and floor.
It was beyond Superman's ability to see or know, but the energy erupted from the very asteroid itself, spreading its avarice across the cosmos.
Solidifying his will, Superman adapted to the pain so he could focus.
Seeing he had an audience once more, Darkseid turned to address him, hands clasped behind his back again. "He is my solution to the ultimate problem: the Anti-Life Equation."
And now he allowed himself to bare his teeth in a smile of victory.
Despite himself, Superman could not help but gasp out, "But why!?"
"You of all people should know the universe is filled with chaos, confusion, and uncertainty. I will it tear it down to nothing." He raised a fist. "And then rebuild it, bringing order, discipline, and yes, justice at last. Think of it Superman, a new universe created . . . in my image."
It would be glorious, and he smiled as he envisioned what it would be like while listening to Superman scream.
Highfather knelt before the great black stone, a cosmic fire burning within the middle as he sought guidance from the Source upon this crossroad.
The city shook.
"What!?" he demanded in shock at this impossibility. Pieces of the ceiling fell before him. "By the Source!" He hurried away, even as the fire behind him faded away.
Before he reached the doors they were ripped off of their hinges, and he could see the air being sucked up along with uprooted trees. More and more chunks of the buildings were lost, and he went down on one knee to steady himself while half of a giant statue rose before him.
Never before had the city been so imperilled, not even when Apokolips' assaults had made the streets run red with blood.
With difficulty, Lightray flew up to him, pointing up to the sky where everything was being sucked up while lightning crackled across it.
"Darkseid," Highfather hissed with loathing. Yes, whatever had 'laid siege' to him was but another plot. "Get everyone to the escape pods!"
"We have no choice! Evacuate the city!"
Stone-faced, Darkseid checked the readouts confirming the inevitable destruction of New Genesis down below, having quickly moved his new weapon here to guarantee this place fell before all others.
"Darkseid," said Brainiac, "I calculate this reaction will soon reach critical mass. If you do not release me, there will be no stopping it."
"Precisely," smiled Darkseid smugly. Upon reaching that point, all his enemies would burn while the universe was remade.
Something smacked him in the face, and white light screamed into his eyeballs.
"Then I guess it's up to us!" cried Hawkgirl, flipping her gun up to rest in the harness on her back she and Batman had designed. Smoothly she grabbed her mace from her side, and swung it down into the blinded Darkseid's head, sending him crashing through the platform and to the ground below.
Next she went to free Superman, only to be sent flying back into Martian Manhunter's arms with a yell of pain as she ran into a barrier. Undaunted, they immediately began to swing at it to free their friend.
She dared hit me!? seethed Darkseid to himself as he shoved his way out of the rubble while grasping his face. "Brainiac!" he snarled. "Stop them!"
"I have no desire to save you," said Brainiac snarkily, "but I am compelled to obey." Every last one of his drone bodies activated themselves, and took to the air to surround the two heroes; easily three times as many as they had fought before. As one they raised a hand to shoot lasers at them.
"Get back!" said Martian Manhunter, putting himself in front of Hawkgirl as a living shield, flinching in pain at the impacts.
"No way!" she said, swooping up above them all. Swinging her mace by its handle-loop, she created an impromptu shield for herself while she swerved, while pulling out her grenade launcher to fire at the androids. The futuristic, alternate history flashbangs blinding even the androids momentarily.
Taking advantage of the reprieve, Martian Manhunter took full advantage of what he had learnt in their earlier fight. Shoving his fist through the head of one Brainiac, he adjusted his physiology to take control of the circuitry within, and redirected power to its armaments. Turning around, he used its body as a shield against the rest, while raising the arm with his own and made it fire back. Where his survived multiple impacts, a single precision shot was all it required for its duplicates.
"Finish them. Now!" barked Darkseid, vision cleared.
A blue-white beam cut through a wall and a dozen Brainiacs fell in a single stroke from the outside, filling the room with smoke from the explosions.
"What!?" said Darkseid, whirling around.
Out of the smog flew a snarling Orion, the Dog of War, with Batman and Wonder Woman right behind him.
The tyrant's eyes widened in astonishment right before Orion's punch sent him flying back down to the floor.
"Hello, father," said Orion, discarding his Astro-Harness as it was too vulnerable for what was to come, and Darkseid was less likely to use Omega Beams up close. "Don't I get a hug?"
Blood dripping down his face clenched with hate and wrath, he only silently glared at his progeny.
Meanwhile Wonder Woman threw herself into the fray, bracelets deflecting laser fire so she could get close enough to punch them. More tried to gang-pile her, but bitter experiences had forced her to increase her situational awareness, and she ducked aside just in time.
A wave of batarangs by Batman took out a dozen more drones, while he used his grapple to get up to the main control console. "Having fun?" he asked.
"Yes," said Martian Manhunter flatly, still firing with his overridden Brainiac.
"Cover me," Batman ordered Martian Manhunter, while Hawkgirl dazed the drones pursuing Wonder Woman, allowing the two ladies to then tear into them.
"My pleasure," he grunted out as his improvised shield took another impact.
Meanwhile Orion and Darkseid's reunion had shifted back up to one of the other flying platforms in the room as the tyrant tried to stop the heroes. His son tackled him off, and punched him again mid-air, but the far larger figure brought both fists down to strike him into the ground below.
Landing on his knees, a dazed Orion looked up just in time for Darkseid's feet to crash into his face and ram them both through the floor and out of sight.
Up above, Batman searched all over the console, unable to recognize anything in its alien designs.
So he broke it with both fists.
Lightning crackled over it, and an ominous hum came from Superman's restraints until they detonated and shot him out to hit the platform right beside Batman.
"Warning, circuit incomplete," said Brainiac in a monotone, while more electricity raced across its machines, and more small explosions began to ring out across the massive room. "Critical system failure."
Even as the last Brainiac drone fell, all the heroes instantly interpreted those words to mean they were standing in the middle of a ticking time bomb. They could only hope it would remain localized without endangering the rest of the galaxy.
For all his exhaustion and lingering pain, Superman picked himself up undaunted, and from a torn throat rasped out, "Where's Darkseid?"
"I don't know!" yelled Batman, "But we've got to get out of here!"
Grimacing, Superman jerked his chin down minutely in silent acknowledgment.
Wonder Woman grabbed Batman again, and they all flew out even as the room was consumed in fire and smoke.
None of the Justice League spotted Superman stop and look back.
The Dog of War tackled the Lord of Apokolips through a wall and into a red corridor, slamming him against the other side.
Before they could break through this one, Darkseid brought both fists down again on Orion's back. A black boot snapped up to kick the younger god in the chin, making him stumble back.
As Orion reasserted himself and wiped his chin, Darkseid advanced. "I'm glad to see growing up with Highfather hasn't made you soft and weak."
Knowing better than to be caught up in those words, Orion lunged forward with a strong right hook which Darkseid blocked, and then returned one of his own to knock Orion's head back. Seizing the opportunity, and remembering his son's mocking request, powerful grey arms wrapped around him in a sick travesty of a 'hug.'
Even as he gritted his teeth with the effort of crushing with all his strength, Darkseid barred his biggest smile of the day. "You make an old man proud," he said over Orion's grunts of pain and struggles for breath. "But I won't let you or anyone else stand in my way!"
Orion gasped as his spine snapped, and collapsed motionless to the ground.
"Spare the rod . . ." mocked Darkseid.
He turned away, only to falter in shock.
Arms crossed, gaze firm, Superman locked eyes with the monster before him.
"Any minute now," he said calmly, uncompromising, rage boiling beneath him, "Brainiac will explode. And guess what? You're going with him."
Darkseid stared back for a beat, before breaking away to reach for Orion's boom tube generator.
A flash of heat vision ruined it, leaving his friend unharmed while his enemy grunted in pain as his fingers were singed.
"No, Darkseid," he said, having anticipated Darkseid would prefer to abandon Superman here to die. "To get off this rock, you'll have to go through me."
"You really are a glutton for punishment," said Darkseid smugly, resting his already healing hand against his hip. "Time and again I've beaten you. Humbled you. What makes you think today's outcome will be any different?"
Cold and unyielding, uncrossing his arms to fight, Superman told him the truth.
"Because this time I won't stop until you're just a greasy smear on my fist."
The words were said, and there was no backing down from them now. He could feel his face twist into a frown harsher and darker than any before, and committed himself. "Let's go."
Furious, Darkseid opened with his trump card. "Hah!" he yelled while firing his Omega Beams which Superman dodged around, the attack taking itself out by hitting a wall. Flying forward, both his fists impacted the tyrant's chest. While not enough to hurt him, yet, it did faze Darkseid enough to make him stumble back, exposed for a mighty fist to the face.
Four times, keeping close and inside Darkseid's guard!
He ducked under Darkseid's swing and punched him again in the head.
Snarling, the madman pulled back for a powerful strike, only for Superman to duck around and behind to slip an arm around Darkseid's throat and start choking him out while his other hand grabbed the Apokolpitan's head.
Strong, gloved hands grabbed his arms in an effort to break free, but Superman had forgotten about the Omega Beams as they shot out of Darkseid's eyes and curved around to hit his attacker in the back.
As Superman screamed, Darkseid broke free and punched him in the face. Again. Again! Again!
Tossed back by the impact, Superman pushed himself up as his enemy advanced. Reaching out with one hand, Darkseid threatened, "Seems you need another lesson in humility, boy."
The Justice League reached the javelin and rushed aboard when Wonder Woman went, "Wait! Where's Superman!?"
Batman looked behind them in shock for a precious second, and under his breath hissed, "That idiot." He raced the way they had come, calling back, "I'll get him. The rest of you take off. Now!"
"But—" said Martian Manhunter.
"Just do it!"
"I hope he knows what he's doing," said Wonder Woman, remembering their talk earlier. Except she also knew she had to show her faith in her team.
Superman's head made a crater in the wall.
He fell to his knees, and before he could stand Darkseid grabbed him by the font of his uniform to hoist him up to slap him repeatedly in the face, the sheer force of the impacts rattling the air, before hoisting him up higher to slam him back down to the ground, making it shake.
Quickly he rolled onto his back, just in time to see the black boot stamp down on his face, grinding into him.
"This is where you belong, Superman," snarled Darkseid. "Under my heel."
Superman saw red.
The full force of his heat vision burned straight through the foot of the God of Apokolips, making him cry out in agony while Superman flipped himself back onto his feet.
Despite his injury, Darkseid straightened himself just in time to take a punch. A left hook next. Darkseid recovered for one of his own, except the hit did not faze Superman this time, and he did not hesitate from unleashing another right punch.
For the first time Darkseid stopped to rub his injury, failing to retaliate, and Superman could see in slow motion the dawning realisation and concern in the tyrant's expression.
The inability to move as Superman drew back for his strongest strike yet.
An uppercut carrying all of his unyielding rage which rocketed Darkseid headfirst into the ceiling so that he carved a line through it as his sheer momentum carried him back twenty metres, still taking the brunt of the force to his cranium, before dropping down.
All the accumulated damage to their surroundings from the fight occurring even as Brainiac went critical set off more secondary explosions which forced Superman to pause until he could see through the smoke again. Fires burned around them.
Past Orion, Darkseid laid covered in rubble.
Not much. Easy for him to push his way out of.
Only be stuck on his hands and knees, struggling to rise.
It was not over.
Superman walked forward to end it when he heard Batman behind him. "Superman!"
He paused and turned back to glare at the other hero. "Go! I'm finishing this!"
Satisfied, he returned to stalking forward when the Dark Knight ran up to grab his arm, "Kent, don't be a fool."
Yanking free, Superman slapped behind him, knocking Batman into a wall, the hard surface crumpling beneath his shoulder which the Human grasped in pain, dropping to a knee.
"Get out of here!" screamed Superman, jerking a finger at where the man had come from, before stabbing it down for emphasis. "Now!"
Shock held Batman in place for a precious second as Superman turned back to killing Darkseid and ending this, his whole frame radiating violence. But then a grim resignation filled the Dark Knight as he accepted words were useless. Standing tall, he reached for his utility belt.
With a lunge his arms were wrapped around Superman's shoulders, and the boom tube generator activated, the white tunnel activating behind them to suck them in.
"NOOOOOOOO!" raged Superman.
Limply Orion floated in after them to safety, while the pinned God of Apokolips could only watch as his only means of escape disappeared.
Blood pouring down his face, he huffed and sneered, "Loser."
Brainiac's asteroid erupted, consuming the dark legacy of Krypton, and Darkseid along with it.
Safely upon the surface of the planet, Superman and Batman watched the explosion.
"Nothing could have survived that," said the latter, walking up to the Man of Steel. "Not even Darkseid."
". . . You know something, Bruce?" said Superman with a soft anger. He turned to the other man and shoved his face almost nose-to-nose with him. "You're not always right."
With that he walked away, while Batman frowned after him in concern.
Upon a flat piece of an old ruin, Highfather looked down upon his son where Wonder Woman had laid him. Orion was breathing heavily and in pain, but alive, and carefully Highfather adjusted his chin to be a bit more comfortable, eyebrows kneading together in concern and aggravation at his boy getting himself hurt.
He turned to see Lightray fly up to him. "Any sign of the others?" he asked, except he could already see the answer in the younger man's sorrowful frown. In the chaos of the escape pods evacuating, they had lost track of the others even as Darkseid sought to consume them all.
"I've searched everywhere," he answered softly before his gaze dropped to the ground in despair. "There's nothing."
". . . Then all is lost," said Highfather, lowering his head in grief.
Silently they mourned, until a sound caught upon the wind.
"Listen!" said Wonder Woman.
"I'll race you!" said Sera as she appeared in sight and saw them. "Highfather! Highfather!"
"It's a miracle!" he gasped, dropping to a knee to embrace them.
Out from the trees emerged the rest of the New Gods of New Genesis. Whole and well, undaunted from their recent struggle.
"How did you survive?" he asked Sera.
"He found us," said Sera, pointing back. "And hid us in his hive until the storm blew over."
Hesitantly Forager emerged from the crowd.
"You did this?" said Highfather to the Bug.
Forager dropped to one knee and bowed his head. "Forgive my presumption, Highfather," he pleaded.
"No," said Highfather humbly, reaching over to help their saviour to stand. "Forgive me. For forgetting that everything has a purpose," he rested a hand upon Forager's shoulder, "and a place. Today, here at our side, you have found your place."
As they watched from the side, J'onn turned to Hawkgirl. "Perhaps someday you will find yours as well."
". . . Someday," she said a touch wistfully, while the stars of the cosmos twinkled behind them.
Afterwards the people of New Genesis celebrated.
That they were alive. That the nightmare of Darkseid was no more.
Plans were made to return to the ruins of their fair home, to rebuild. Throughout it all, Forager was kept in the thick of it, as everyone made a point of personally repeating their thanks.
Wonder Woman found Orion to the side of it all, helmet still on, arms crossed and watching, but not joining in. He reminded her of Batman honestly.
"Not your kind of thing?"
"Hmph," he grunted. "No."
"What are your plans now?"
"Rebuild. Remain vigilant. Can't let anyone on Apokolips think our guard is down. Even if they'll be in the middle of a civil war by now."
She considered the man for a long moment. Orion had his flaws, that was for certain, and yet he had charged into battle against evil without hesitation. She had witnessed him set aside his pride to express his gratitude to Forager as well, no longer seeing him as "not important," and was sure it would be a lesson he would continue to learn for other 'lesser beings.'
"You could come with us," she offered.
Even behind his helmet, his shock and disbelief were obvious. "What," he stated.
"To Earth. There are a lot of threats ongoing there, including some who Darkseid showed an interest in. They're strong as well. Besides, maybe getting away for some to think might do you some good."
For half a minute he just stared at her, but what she saw was enough. So Wonder Woman gave him a smile. "Think about it," and walked away to see how the others were doing.
Orion gave it careful thought.
Including the actual threat to New Genesis. His 'dear father' had surrounded himself with the sort of lieutenants incapable of ever holding the throne themselves, not that they would ever recognize it in their arrogance and sycophancy. Indeed, his biological brother Kalibak was too dimwitted, and Orion had just killed Steppenwolf, and when he had discretely asked the heroes earlier, they had seen nothing of Desaad, automatically removing several of the strongest competitors. So yes, with the inevitable infighting, it should easily be a few years before he had to be remotely worried about them stopping from killing one another to turn their attention outwards. Moreover, for the time being, Highfather would never sanction an assault upon Apokolips itself.
The Dog of War had no wars to fight. His greatest enemy was dead, and by his own hubris at that.
Of course, Apokolips would emerge as a threat again. Except Superman was capable, and maybe if Orion helped the League with their problems, he could convince them to help him in turn.
So . . . why not?
He could always leave if it became too irritating.
Plus, Orion knew for a fact that Mister Miracle and Big Barda only lived on New Genesis because it was not Apokolips, so maybe they would come along. They were hardly friends, but at least there would be more New Gods around.
Even if these so-called 'threats' were probably lacking.
As the night wore on, Highfather expressed a need to find some time to himself. He was not as young as he used to be after all, and it would help the others relax more to be out of his presence.
With everyone reassured, he went for a walk, taking about half an hour before he found someplace comfortable enough. Nothing much, but still somewhere for him to sit and lean back.
And confirm no one would disturb them.
Privacy assured, with none of his subjects there to witness him, he collapsed back into his improvised throne with weariness and self-disgust.
"So it's done then," he intoned.
"Yes, Darkseid is dead. For now," confirmed Metron as he emerged from the shadows upon his hovering chair. The New God was the greatest scientist of their collective race, inventing even the Mother and Father Boxes. Cold and calculating, he cared little for the 'politics' of New Genesis or Apokolips, so long as he was free to observe the universe from one end of infinity to the other, learning all that he could.
Given how many lives were lost due to this apathy, Highfather spared him no sympathy for being forced to help in this joint venture.
"Thank the Source," he breathed out. For all that Darkseid's clash with Superman and the Justice League had been inevitable, the very nature of the assault upon New Genesis had been a complete surprise, and too-near a tragedy. Now however, they had a chance to make the rest of the plan succeed—even if he had caught the caveat.
With a sigh and a gesture of his hand, Highfather conjured a series of probable futures before him. Most ended in disaster, with only a scant few leading to something worth fighting for. Unfortunately, to reach that point he had been forced to raise the odds already, and may have to do so again.
One possible timeline in particular drew his attention. In it, Darkseid was revived by the foolishness of a Human, and merged with Brainiac to begin his conquest of Earth. Due to Metron's machinations, that same Human —Lex Luthor, was the name that popped into the god's mind — would cause the death of them both via the Anti-Life Equation itself. Peace would reign . . . until it all ended.
The end of that timeline showed a young Kryptonian girl with blonde hair, an evolved yet heroic version of Brainiac —Kara Kent and Brainiac 5 Kent— and other heroes, all lying dead at the feet of some hidden menace. The same unknown threat which was inevitable in every timeline, consuming the galaxy in a final darkness.
So by the guidance of the Source, the God King had decided to cheat.
So the Straw Hats were brought in.
A gamble. A terrible gamble.
The End of All Things would emerge all the sooner now, centuries sooner, except this time there was a chance to win.
With a heavy heart, Highfather sagged back into his chair, while Metron kept his silence. The older man was not in the mood to be comforted, and regardless the scientist did not know how to. "Probability of Darkseid's resurrection within the current timeline branches?" he asked instead.
"Precisely 50%," answered Metron. "With a 98.2% probability that if he returns, he will be stronger than before."
"Typical," grunted Highfather sourly.
Despite his absolute loathing for war, a part of him remained tempted to strike at Apokolips now while it was vulnerable, to at least weaken the resources available to Darkseid if he did return. After all, as proven just a few days before with Orion's destruction of Darkseid's fleet and the calculated attack upon Apokolips with those very defeated ships, it was well within their power. Indeed, Highfather had delivered his mad opposite a 'last warning' which emphasised this.
And earlier today when the Earthlings had brought word that Apokolips was under siege, Orion's words, demanding, pleading, for the order to launch an assault, for a heartbeat he had almost said yes.
Except Highfather had been deadly honest about the bloodshed of the past wars, and the necessity of not re-sparking them. A single misstep while Darkseid still lived could have ignited the death and madness once more. Especially as it had reeked of another trap.
Of course, now the monster was dead.
Moreover, his violation of their peace pact by assaulting New Genesis aside, it was now null and void by the very wording of the treaty, as Darkseid had tied it to his very life as one more act of petty spite.
Indeed, victory would be more than assured by sending Orion to Earth to ask for Superman's aid, and doubtless the hero would find others who trusted him enough to go to battle on an alien world. Formidable warriors all! With the two of them together, Darkseid's remaining lieutenants would be unable to unify in time.
Not without cost of course. For all its recent losses, still much of Darkseid's military lay untouched during his false assault upon Brainiac. To say nothing of men like Mister Miracle or Batman needing to locate and disable any doomsday devices maliciously set to detonate if it appeared the dark world would be conquered. Still, reinforced by the heroes of Earth and the Green Lantern Corps, the end result would have been inevitable. Then would start the difficult matter of freeing all the slaves and teaching them to be free—a task that would last generations given the depth of Darkseid's taint, yet that was no reason not to act.
For a king, to not act against such evil was unconscionable. Contemptible.
For a god king, it was vital.
The nature of New Genesis and Apokolips was the newest cycle of gods, locked in eternal conflict. Good versus evil.
When one finally triumphed, it would be time for the next generation of gods to rise. Something that the universe was not yet ready for.
So . . . Highfather needed to break the rules. To cheat.
"Good and evil are subjective," warned Metron, unfazed by the thunderous glare he received. "It was written all over your face. An issue that has prevented you from fully committing yourself to Darkseid's destruction until now."
"Because," snarled Highfather, "the next generation must learn how to be just and good without the necessity of seeing the evils of their opposites!" With effort he choked back his temper. He was particularly infuriated by reminders of the arrogance of even the New Gods, which he himself may have only recognized too late; as aptly demonstrated by how even noble Forager had been treated. How naturally Highfather's own initial behaviour to the saviour of their people had been so readily accepted. Yes, it would take potentially decades to reverse that damage. Maybe centuries.
Thankfully, a little nudge had ensured that Batman and Wonder Woman would meet with the heroic 'Bug,' and help set things in motion there. Even if the extent to which Forager would prove himself had genuinely shocked Highfather as well, as the opportunity to save the entirety of New Genesis had certainly not been anticipated. Regardless, the children would remember that, and learn.
That Orion would most likely leave with the heroes was good as well. As much as he would miss his son, it might be what he needed to reach his full potential.
The boy had better remember to visit home once in a while though, or Highfather was following after him.
Same with Mister Miracle and Big Barda, even if Earth would be their first chance to truly live away from the very man who had given his own son to Apokolips and all their torments.
"Darkseid conquered planet after planet not just to satiate his lust for suffering, or need for resources, but to also prevent the rise of those who could surpass us! The Anti-Life Equation would have —and may still— grant him the power to become all-powerful for all eternity!"
"And you still think Earth is the place to both create that next generation, and assure Darkseid's eternal defeat?" Metron sceptically asked.
"You know we've gone over everyone else! It's not perfect, far from it! Except with the influence of non-Humans like those in the Justice League, divinely empowered beings like the Amazons, and their own raw potential, you know it has the highest probability!"
He did hope that he would live to see what role New Genesis would also play in that future. But at minimum his people would be safe within the shadow of what would rise to supplant them.
"Unfortunately, this unknown threat has forced my hand!"
"As you have forced it in turn!" Metron snapped back with his first display of genuine ire. "Bringing the Straw Hats to Earth was folly beyond measure! They have accelerated the arrival of this threat, while simultaneously entering into conflict with the Justice League, the forerunners of the Fifth World and Newest Age!"
Mastering himself once more, Highfather casually asked, "What are the most recent odds?"
Metron was unfazed by the jab. He could compute the actions of events with incredible precision, except that with individuals it was much harder. Particularly when one considered how the variety of different abilities those people had, gave them the opportunity to influence the fates of many. "It keeps shifting," he admitted. "Especially as I calculate a 73.6% probability that the Old Gods who still reside on Earth, particularly Zeus' ilk, will begin to involve themselves, throwing the variables off further."
"Gods do tend to mess things up," sighed the god king. "Continue."
"Currently, if a full-scale conflict breaks out, the probability of government forces besting either the League or pirates are 4.5%. In contrast, the Justice League has a 39.2% chance of winning, and the Straw Hats with 56.3%. Of course, there's a 93.9% probability that if either side wins, both their worlds will inevitably be destroyed.
"However the government forces will continue to grow stronger as time goes by, increasing their odds. I estimate that by the point they raise to 45.4% chance against either of the two other groups, a three-way violent conflict will be inevitable, in which case the chances of global destruction are 28.9%."
"So we must hope it does not come to that," Highfather laconically said. "For in the end, if Superman and his fellows are to plant the seeds for Earth to become the Fifth World, then it must be done by free will. In matters such as these, to do so otherwise will lead to disaster."
Now his glare to Metron held dire warning. "I chose carefully.
"At minimum, the Straw Hats will continue to spur them on to become ever greater warriors. What is most important is the lessons the heroes will learn in order to become those who will surpass us in every way that matters. Superman and his friends must come to learn more about what both 'Justice' and 'Freedom' mean. To pull back from the self-righteousness slowly infecting them, which has already thoroughly corrupted my own subjects.
"As to what happens next, we will have to see."
Knowing he was dismissed, Metron floated back into the shadows.
Sadly, Highfather conjured an image of Darkseid's slaves. Their lives would continue to be one of suffering, where evil was the very world they grew up within. To try and save them and their souls now would be folly, as they continued to worship their master. Moreover, all of Apokolips would unite to stop such liberation. For now let them weaken themselves in civil war; they would leave the slaves out of it, because their labour and suffering were so valued. Their eventual rescue would either have to be a delicate operation, or wait until the oncoming, unknowable threat was suitably dispatched. Only then could he begin the long and difficult process of their healing, no matter if it took the rest of his life.
Hmm, maybe after they've done what I need on Earth, I could send the Straw Hats to Apokolips next?
. . . Well, that all happened. Aside from answering quite a few questions that people have been asking, my original intent for this chapter was to highlight not only Darkseid's threat, yet also to show Superman at one of his darkest moments. Here is an enemy that, unlike almost any other in the DCAU, he outright hates, and it shows. He is a good man, a great man even, but not a perfect man.
A surprising number of you were hoping for a Gear 5 Luffy vs. Darkseid fight this chapter, but truthfully it would be much too early plot-wise to do something like that. There would be absolutely no chance then of the heroes ever managing to catch-up if faced with such a gap.
I should note that my inspiration for this approach with the New Gods came from "Stains of Time," by theamerican91. A very long yet extremely well written DCAU fic. Although for the record, I prefer how Young Justice did New Genesis and its inhabitants much more.
For the record, I do not condone slapping people's butts. Lightray should be thankful that he did not do that to either Nami or Robin, as otherwise he would have been made to eat that hand.
In episodes 1,046 of the anime, Zoro can now cut lasers, and the scene is too awesome for me to deny it as canon.
Next Chapter: "Tabula Rasa"
(An adaption of the Justice League episode by the same name, which may be helpful to watch beforehand)
Please Review, and I will get back to you!