A/N: A madwoman with a banner dashes across the Author's Note portion of the fic. Banner text reads: Sorry! Sorry! Sorry! Been busy touring, traveling, moving, getting engaged, moving again, and being pregnant! Sorry! I love you! Sorry! This, among other things, should have been finished and posted more than a year ago, but I've been so busy I'm just now putting the finishing touches on things.
And when the threads of the universe came back together again...
Gotham was burning. Gray clouds of smoke choked the bright fire-orange sky and ash rained from heaven like snow flurries. What had been a thriving metropolitan area full of skyscrapers was now nothing but ruins that merely suggested the gleaming—if somewhat grim—jewel the city once was.
Decimated buildings with their top twenty floors blown off leaned against each other for support like books haphazardly thrown on shelves, all teetering dangerously near collapse. The bridge stretching across Gotham Harbor was gone and the harbor itself stank of the rotting fish floating on its murky surface. Sidewalks were cracked apart, revealing the earth beneath, road signs were twisted into incomprehensible shapes, bodies hung like trophies from street lamps and the air was tainted by screams and weapons blasts and the stench of sulfur.
Chaos was everywhere and Jonathan Crane found himself thrust into the heart of it with no time to adjust to all the sights and sounds assaulting his senses. He spun where he stood on Kirby Avenue, neck twisted uncomfortably as he tried to take in everything at once. It was dizzying and confusing and...
"Kneel before Darkseid!"
Something heavy and solid connected with Jonathan's kneecaps, sending electric splinters of agony up his legs, making him falter. It felt a lot like a pipe or a crowbar, but somehow seemed worse. The world flashed red and a figure darted briefly into his line of view, but he was too distracted trying to keep his balance to pay much attention to it as it moved swiftly.
And while he didn't fall on the first blow...
"I said kneel!"
Another blow, this time to the back, threw him further off balance and Jonathan's legs were swept out from under him by the too-quick-to-see assailant. He landed face down on the ground, cracking his front tooth on impact with the concrete as it connected. Tears sprang to his eyes— merely a biological response, of course —and he felt blood gush from his mouth in a spurt.
The copper smell stung his nostrils. He squeezed his eyes shut to clear them of salt water, and when he opened him again, a woman's black, shiny, steel toed platform boot was mere inches from his nose.
His gaze traveled upward from the knee high boot to the canary yellow body stocking, overlaid with chain mail and a fitted silver breastplate. The hands that held the weapon that had struck him down wore plate armor gloves and as he finally focused on the woman's face, he came to the realization that it was the henchgirl he'd known as Techie looking down at him coldly.
She was nearly unrecognizable. Though the woman he'd known was by no means small, this version was a blocky little tank of solid muscle. Her bushy hair had been shorn short—very, very short—with a single lock of white at the widow's peak, her face was scarred in fine crisscrossing lines and her lips twisted into a sneer.
"Worthless subcreature," she spat, kicking him viciously across the face.
She reached down and grabbed him by the collar, hauling him up off the ground. With her boots, she was taller than he was, and it was very alarming to be held an inch off the ground by somebody who, in every universe than made sense, was half a foot shorter than he was. She shook him and shouted in his face, "How dare you stand in Lord Darkseid's presence?"
"Hey, you no-goodnick!"
Something bright green, solid-yet-see-through, knocked Jonathan from Techie's grasp and he went flying into the nearest pile of rubble. Sharp, pointy rubble.
When he struggled out of the pile, miraculously avoiding the worst of the broken glass shards, he saw a female Green Lantern swoop down from the sky on a collision course with Techie, arm outstretched and fist clenched.
"I don't see Darkseid anywhere, do you?" The Lantern's fist connected with Techie's abdomen and she went down under the wave of force.
"Lord Darkseid is everywhere!" Techie screeched, leaping to her feet and snatching the Lantern by the boot, yanking her right out of the air like a child grabbing a model plane. "Lord Darkseid is God!"
But the Lantern compensated, and while the Lantern's torso remained floating, Techie braced her feet in the rubble and held her by the leg, keeping her stationary—rooted to the spot.
Techie clearly didn't think this through, though, as the Lantern brought up her other leg and slammed it heel first into her captor's skull.
"Good thing I'm an atheist," the Lantern retorted as her boot struck its target.
Techie made a noise that was somewhere between a growl and a howl of pain and the Lantern laughed, flitting just out of her reach.
Instantly, Jonathan recognized the laughter. His eyes went wide and he rather loudly blurted, "Captain?"
She didn't turn or respond to the longstanding nickname like he expected her to, she just resumed the fight with Techie. But even though she didn't answer, he knew it was her. Her hair was back to its natural brown— the color she'd so often referred to as 'mousy' —and she was about twenty pounds of lean muscle heavier, but there was no denying that this woman, in another universe, was his Captain.
(Well, not his Captain, because...well, just because! But you get the general idea.)
She wore the standard black and green uniform used by the members of the Green Lantern Corps and like most of the other members, she distinguished herself as an individual by adding a few touches of her own— namely a white bolero jacket and matching knee-high boots. It was…dated, but definitely distinct.
The Not-Techie picked up a piece of debris and hurled it in the general direction of the Not-Captain, who deflected it easily and dove for her opponent. The projectile, knocked off its former course, ricocheted off a crumbling building, the top of a dented mailbox and then a lamppost before it went directly for Jonathan Crane's dumbstruck head. He didn't even have time to duck.
Thankfully, as he was yanked away from the object's trajectory by the collar, he didn't have to. In the space of a few seconds, he was pulled behind a twisted heap of metal that at one time had been an interference blue Toyota, just in time to see the corner of the building he'd been standing near get blown out by a shock wave of green energy. The piece of rubble that would have hit him in the head was all but vaporized in the blast.
He gaped. If his head had stayed where it had been mere moments before…
"Come on!" Absently, Jonathan acknowledged another tug, this time on his sleeve, pulling him away from the crumpled car. Though his eyes remained fixed on the corner of the building that was now beginning to teeter, his legs automatically started moving in the direction he was being jerked in, picking up speed until he was running at full tilt.
The building's bricks continued to shake and shift until entire portions of it crumbled and collapsed, blocking his view of the continuing fight between Not-Techie and Not-Captain- which Not-Captain seemed to be winning, but only just. Only then did he turn to see in which direction and by whom he was being led.
He didn't recognize the blonde who savagely gripped his wrist and pulled him along after her, but that was hardly surprising considering all he could see of her was the back of her head. She was of fairly average build, a bit on the short side, her clothes nondescript and tattered. Altogether, she seemed wholly unremarkable from what little he could tell. "This way!"
They changed course, ducking down an alleyway and moving swiftly to the next block, zig-zagging past charred bodies and minor skirmishes in the streets between winged monsters who were too busy fighting over the remains to notice them. Past overturned trash cans and crumpled cars left in the middle of the streets, past caved in pizza parlors and broken shop windows, shattered abandoned thirty-two inch televisions that had been forgotten by panicked looters, further and further into the heart of the city. Jonathan tried to get his bearings, but the landscape only vaguely resembled the Gotham he knew, so he had no idea which way they were headed until they rounded what seemed like the millionth corner and…
Several blocks ahead, Jonathan could see Gotham Central Cemetery's gates, the cast iron warped and melted to the point that they resembled gaping jaws or grasping fingers more than anything else. The grass was seared away in many places and what few trees still stood were nothing but pillars of smoking ash.
"The cemetery?" he asked, surprised by the sound of his own voice against the cacophony of blaring car alarms, screaming and exploding glass.
"It's safe there," she called back to him over her shoulder. He caught a glimpse of her profile for a split second but it didn't register as familiar until well after she'd pulled him into the cemetery and led him to one of the broken down crypts, as far away from the gates as possible. The stone was smashed nearly beyond all recognition, but it was piled up enough to provide adequate shelter. She shoved him behind it and piled it up a little more, while he took a moment to catch his breath and look around.
The cemetery itself, though in the heart of the torn city, was fairly untouched. Oh, the grass had been burned, the tombstones overturned and the crypts left in ruins, but there were no bodies, no monsters and no collapsing buildings raining from the sky. The shrieking car alarms, though still omnipresent, seemed very far away here. In comparison to where he'd 'landed', the cemetery was downright peaceful.
Jonathan turned back to look at his rescuer, who'd plopped down behind the pile of rubble to wipe the sweat from her forehead with her sleeve, intent on exploding with questions.
He wanted to ask what was going on, why Gotham City had become a post-apocalyptic living hell, but the only words that came out of his mouth were, "I had no idea you were a blonde."
Al blinked at him.
Al. Of course she's Al, he felt like railing and shaking his fist at the sky. Who else would she be?
She was a little thinner, a little more bruised and her hair was dirty blonde, a startling contrast to the black she'd always had in the universe where things made sense, but definitely the same woman.
"Damn," she muttered, moving towards him and poking at his head with her fingers. "And here I thought I pulled you out of the way in time to avoid a concussion."
He slapped her hands away but she poked him once more out of spite. Some things never change.
"I don't have a concussion!" he snapped impatiently. "I…thought you were someone else."
"Oh. Well, then…I'm sorry I poked you."
"No, you're not."
She shrugged a little and smiled, but wearily. "You're right, I'm not."
"What happened to Gotham?" he asked, gesturing around vaguely in no particular direction.
"What happened?" she parroted. "We were invaded by aliens. Duh."
His eyes widened without his express permission. "Aliens? From outer space?"
"No, from beneath the kitchen sink," she said. "Yes, from outer space. Have you the brain worms? The invasion's been going on for ages. Where have you been?"
"I…uh…" he scrambled internally for a suitable explanation, discarded several and then settled on one that wasn't too terribly farfetched. "I was in a coma. I…just…woke up."
He didn't think she'd believe the fumbled lie, but Not-Al seemed to accept it.
"And you wound up taking a leisurely stroll through downtown? That explains why you didn't know to avoid one of the Furies."
"The chick with the swatty rod thing? Works for Granny Goodness, one of Darkseid's—"
He stared at her blankly. The names rang only the most distant of bells in his head.
"Oh, for crying—I have to tell you the whole story, don't I?" She sighed and brushed her hair out of her eyes. "Okay, short version. Maniacal scary alien dictator from a planet called Apokolips—that's Darkseid—decides to declare war on earth. Sends one of his high ranking generals to start recruiting humans as sleeper agents—that's Granny Goodness and her Female Furies. Some are recruited by choice, some by force, all are fiercely loyal. With me so far?"
"A few months later, they declare war: a simultaneous attack on all the major cities. Keystone, Star, Opal, Metropolis, Gotham, you know, all the big ones. The superheroes are so busy trying to protect their hometowns that the Justice League can't do what they usually do and band together to stop the intergalactic army.
"They call in the reserves, all the B-listers, then the reserve-reserves, the C-through-F listers, and then they run out of heroes…so all the super villains who want to keep breathing join up, but most of them aren't super powered, so…er…they're dead. I hear the Joker and what's-his-name with the Luchador mask are still kicking up sand, but that's probably just a rumor."
She stopped to take a breath while Jonathan's head reeled.
"So the Green Lantern Corps sends in every member they can spare, but it's still not enough, so…they start deputizing humans to join the fight and give out bunches of power rings all willy-nilly." Not-Al paused to take a deep breath. "That happened about a week ago…and it still hasn't backfired, but it totally will."
Jonathan stared, wide eyed and open mouthed in horrified astonishment. "Exactly how long has the war been going on?"
"Ummm…" Not-Al stared off into space for a moment and silently counted on her fingers. "Twenty-eight days? I think?"
"Who knows? News reports stopped being broadcast on like, day six…though I've been seeing more Lanterns and fewer Parademons around lately, so that might be a good sign."
"Monsters," she made a grotesque face to demonstrate. "Big, hulking, ugly. They've got wings. If one hasn't tried to eat you yet, don't worry, it will."
Jonathan sat back heavily, barely even feeling the chunk of tombstone digging into his back. "This isn't possible," he muttered quietly. "It just isn't possible."
"Hey, look," Not-Al put a comforting hand on his shoulder, "I know this has to be a huge shock for you, but it's…well, it's not okay, but you're alive for now, right? And, sure, we're in the middle of an intergalactic war and the planet's been torn asunder and stuff-"
He shrugged out of her grasp and leaped to his feet, hands fisted at his sides and proceeded to scream at the heavens.
"It isn't possible!" he shouted furiously, his voice so loud it wouldn't be unreasonable to think he were trying to reach the ears of God himself. "There is no way all this happened because I never met them! You can't tell me Armageddon could have been prevented if I'd just gotten a hug and a sammich!"
(He was so angry, he didn't even register the mispronunciation.)
"Hey, now, maybe you should calm—"
He continued, ignoring Not-Al entirely, "Where are you, Mix…Myx…damn it! Where are you, you little yellow nightmare? You're my delusion, I demand you show yourself!"
Time ground to a halt. Not-Al, who'd been getting to her feet, hand outstretched toward Jonathan, was frozen in place, as was the rest of Gotham. Even the clouds in the sky stopped moving.
Jonathan looked around expectantly, but Mxy was nowhere to be seen. A few moments passed, during which Crane grew more and more irritable, until he finally lost his temper and flailed his arms in exasperation. "Well?"
A popping sound heralded the abrupt arrival of the imp, who bobbed in mid-air, seated in a tiny director's chair. This time, he was clad in puffy yellow pants tucked into a pair of black boots, a cream colored button down shirt covered by a magenta vest and his bowler derby had been replaced with a canary yellow newsboy cap. In one hand he held a comically large megaphone, in the other a martini glass full of radishes.
"Who d'ya think you are yellin' 'cut', buster?" Mxy asked, leveling a disapproving glare at Jonathan. "That's my shtick!"
Jonathan ignored the imp's role playing and furiously gestured around at the still life that was Gotham. "What is the meaning of all this?"
"Alien invasion!" Mxy said with a careless flip of his hand. "Weren't you listening to that massive exposition-dump in dialogue?"
"I wa— the what?"
Mxy rolled his eyes. "I always forget ya still have the fourth wall in this dimension. The exposition-dump. All that vital information she just told ya in one huge clump. Real people don't actually talk like that!"
"You don't seriously expect me to believe everything she just said, do you? Invading alien dictators and secret brainwashed armies and Green Lantern rings being handed out like Halloween candy?"
"Hey, yer the one who wished for this, can't blame me."
"But how is it possible?" He nearly screeched. "How could my not meeting them cause a chain reaction of such apocalyptic magnitude?"
"Oh, no, no, no, this wasn't caused by...well, no, it's more complicated than that. This is one of a million possibilities!" Mxy wiggled his fingers at Jonathan. "There's a universe where yer a well respected psychiatrist at Arkham, and a universe where yer a high school chemistry teacher, and a universe where yer a pirate and a universe where yer—"
"What am I in this universe?" Jonathan asked impatiently.
"Oh." Mxy shrugged and studied his nails casually. "Dead."
Jonathan's eyes went buggy. "Dead?"
"Well, yeah." He said it as though it was a foregone conclusion. "Yer dead in most universes where you didn't meet—"
He snatched Mxy by the collar and pulled him out of his director's chair, shaking him violently. "What do you mean I'm dead?"
"Hey, hey, hey, that's watered silk yer manglin'!" With a pop, Jonathan was left empty handed, shaking his fist at nothing. Mxy reappeared, this time dressed in his yellow checked suit, smoothing the purple satin ascot that had replaced his tie. "I mean yer dead. Six feet under, pushin' up the daisies and feedin' the worms, dead. That's what happens to guys like you, mack, when they work the supervillain gig solo for long enough."
Jonathan was, to put it bluntly, completely agog. His jaw worked for a few seconds, but no sound came out of his mouth, no matter how hard he tried to force it. Mxyz-whatever-his-name-was had a very inconvenient point. As many beatings as he'd taken before the arrival of his henchgirls, and as many as he'd taken after their abrupt departures, it was entirely reasonable to think that he'd have eventually been beaten severely enough to wind up with a ruptured spleen or something equally gruesome and just...died in an alley somewhere. Hell, he'd barely avoided that fate a few times even when they were around. But...but...he was the master of fear! He'd survived more scrapes than most villainous upstarts could dream about!
"How many universes am I dead in?"
"You want percentage-wise or—" Mxy popped in and out of existence again, reappearing with a lit cigar, wearing a crisp white shirt with yellow elastic bands around the upper arms, and a green see-through visor on his head. An old fashioned adding machine hung in mid-air in front of him, bobbing like a buoy. "—raw numbers?"
Jonathan didn't even get the opportunity to answer, Mxy's fingers flew so fast over the adding machine's keys, the receipt paper spinning off its spool so fast it quickly piled on the ground.
"By my calculations," he said, ripping the paper, bringing it up close to his face and squinting at the bottom line, "...death is inevitable in every universe!"
Without warning, the pile of paper exploded into a shower of confetti and rained down on their heads.
Jonathan was not amused.
"How many am I dead in now?"
"Now? Eh, 'bout...fifty percent...but that's includin' the universes where ya stayed legit. As a supervillain? About forty percent of the time, yer croaked."
Well...maybe forty percent wasn't so bad.
"There are a bazillion different Jonathan Cranes out there in a gillion-kazillion universes. Some of 'em got henchgirls, some of 'em don't, some of 'em got henchmen, some of 'em don't, some of 'em have entirely different henches than the ones you've got...but most of the ones who never bothered with finding any hired help wound up dead."
"And this," he motioned around, "this is the most likely of these...alternate scenarios?"
Mxy stared at him for a minute. Though the entire world had lost its motion and sound, from somewhere, a the sound of crickets spontaneously erupted.
"Ya mean you didn't want the worst case, million-to-one alternate universe scenario?" Mxy said with a sour face. "Ya wanted the most likely to succeed option? Oh, how boring. With all the Elseworlds to choose from, that's the one ya want to visit? Phooey!"
Jonathan blinked again. "Else...worlds?"
"Oh fer...you are just so...three dimensional. I'll show ya." With a snap of his fingers, a small red velvet bag burst into existence. The drawstring untied itself and it opened, releasing a handful of marbles that hovered in mid-air, circling Jonathan. With a brilliant flash of light, he found himself standing on a playground blacktop, shrunk down to the size of an ant, staring up at the marbles that were now five times his size, but still to scale with the imp. Mxy knelt close to the ground, looking mischievous.
"This one's a world of the supernatural," he said, pointing to a red marble to Jonathan's left, "Batman's a vampire and Catwoman's a werecat. And in this one—" he indicated a smaller green marble, "—you're a flesh eating Nazi zombie."
"In these," he waved a hand over a small bunch of marbles clustered together, "ya got loyal henchmen—but not always the ones ya got now. Lots of Mistresses of Fear in those."
Jonathan's lip curled into a sneer before he gave it permission to do so.
"And in these—" he indicated another scattering of orbs, "ya never took up crime. Yer a pastry chef in one 'a those. Ya make a divine baklava."
"Baklava," he repeated dully.
"Ya've got yer universes where ya haroo-harrah and declare yerself the God of fear of on a weekly basis—" Jonathan was shown another clump of spheres, and then another, "and ya've got yer universes where yer barely a threat. All of 'em perfectly valid, ya understand."
Mxy held up a deep blue marble bringing it close enough that Jonathan could reach out and touch it if he felt like it so that he could see an entire vast universe spinning inside it. "And this one? Ho-ho, this one is the Eternity. A universe so alternate that it has an entirely different set of heroes and villains." He dropped it on the ground and Jonathan actually felt the shock wave of the impact go through his body. "There are others like it—the Image, the Chaos, the Tangent—but none of 'em rivals yours the way this one does. It's even got its own Scarecrow, but his archenemy is some guy on a bike..."
"But what you want..." The imp's expression changed ever so slightly, eyes growing more mischievous, smile growing a little more cruel. Mxy produced another marble, this one flat black in color, like a bowling ball but without any shine. "Is this."
Jonathan suddenly had a bad feeling about this...
"It's kinda ordinary. Doesn't even have any superheroes. Pret-ty boring." He dropped it on the ground across from Jonathan. "This is the average. This is every most-likely-to gathered up in one great big boring ball. Wanna see?"
"Sure ya do!"
For some reason, the muscles in Jonathan's legs twitched with the inexplicable instinct to bolt. "I assure you, I do not."
Mxy squeezed one eye shut, stuck his tongue out one side of his mouth, and aimed the marble directly at the Scarecrow. The imp knocked it with his knuckle and it started its forward trajectory, rolling towards his prey with startling speed. The impulse to run overtook Jonathan, and he took off like a shot, zig-zagging amongst the other marbles in hopes that he could lose the one that was chasing him.
It didn't matter—the gray, 'ordinary' world stayed on his heels, defying all the rules it should have adhered to...and it was gaining.
Jonathan decided then and there that this was the worst extended hallucination he'd ever had and he made a mental note to take it out on somebody later. Who? It didn't matter, but somebody would pay.
"No quitsies!" Mxy declared as the marble collided with Jonathan.
Like quicksand, it swallowed him up and dragged him down into darkness.
The ribbons of the universe as he knew them uncoiled, flexed and twisted together again, weaving themselves in a new and altogether unfamiliar pattern before he was slammed back into reality with all the force of falling three floors face first onto the concrete.
He lost consciousness on impact.
A/N: So much comic book geek continuity porn in this chapter, you guys. So. Much.