"Great spirits have always found violent opposition from mediocrities. The latter cannot understand it when [one] does not thoughtlessly submit to hereditary prejudices but honestly and courageously uses [their] intelligence."
"If someone you love hurts you cry a river, build a bridge, and get over it."
Democratic Republic of Kasnia
Kasnia's royal palace hadn't seen this much destruction in two hundred years. The building which had stood for centuries as a symbol of the royal family, was on the brink of collapse. With hundreds of people trapped inside.
Wally West was moving so fast that the wind shear alone was tearing his tuxedo to shreds. No costume, unfortunately, since even the fastest man alive didn't have time to retreat to his quarters and don it.
Slowing down just enough so that he wouldn't crush them on impact, Wally scooped up an elderly couple milliseconds before a falling rafter crashed to the ground where they had once stood. He skidded to a halt outside of the palace, setting them down and zooming away before the sound waves of their breathless 'thank you's even reached his ears. He was looking for someone. . .
"Wally!" came the shout from behind. He looked up to see Queen Audrey dextrously scaling a banner that was unfurled over the edge of the balcony. She'd scavenged an assault rifle, which swung wildly from its shoulder strap as she made her way up the banner and toward the upper level. Noticing the speedster below, she stopped her ascent ascent just long enough to yell, "You have to free the other hostages!"
"I already have," he shouted in response. One of the guerrillas chose that moment to fire at him, the launch tube attached to the bottom of his rifle belching out a grenade trailed by acrid smoke. Dodging the projectile was child's play, but it kept going until it impacted with the upper balcony. The explosion was instantaneous and brilliant, sending yet another concussive boom across the court. Audrey was hurled away from her perch and down a hundred feet toward the hard, unforgiving ground.
Wally raced in tight circle, creating an updraft of wind to cushion her fall. Audrey was buoyed, as if by some invisible life raft, before dropping unceremoniously into his arms. Without skipping a beat, he used his free hand to pick up a chunk of brick from one of the shattered walls and hurl it at the guerilla with pinpoint accuracy. It ricocheted off his skull, and the man dropped like a rock, instantly unconscious.
Wally cracked a smile. "Your highness, this is hardly the time to be rock clim-"
She cut off him with an impulsive kiss, and for perhaps the first time since infancy, Wally West was left speechless.
"Oh, relax," said Audrey nonchalantly when he set her back down. Still, she raised a slightly embarassed hand to the back of her neck. "Anything to get you to stop talking, right? Now come on, we have a palace to secure."
Above them Vixen and Vigilante were dispatching what they thought were the last of the terrorists. Vixen had imprinted a rhinoceros and was charging at the remaining fighters, their bullets bouncing off of her improvised hide while the impact of her assault was enough to send them flying. One who tried to get up after that walloping found himself on the receiving end of one of Vigilante's stun rounds. The kinetic forced knocked him clean off of the balcony.
Vixen smirked. "Nice one Greg. I think-" Her breath suddenly whooshed out of her as a pair of powerful arms encircled her from behind. She'd discarded the rhino imprint, and it didn't take her long to realize there was no way her hands were getting up to touch the totem again. With a gasp of pain, she felt a rib give way even as the realization of who she was dealing with dawned on her.
The attacker gave a menacing chuckle from behind her. "Oh come now, pathetic little Vixen. You didn't think it would be that easy, did you?" He flung her at Vigilante with such strength that the gunfighter had no time to dodge. The duo went crashing against a section of railing, which fell down partway from the impact. Vixen's eyes fluttered open to see that they were literally inches away from tumbling off and onto the ground below.
He didn't give her a chance to do anything about it. With a kick he obliterated the rest of the railing's supports, sending it, Vixen, and Vigilante sailing over the edge.
Two Weeks Earlier. . .
Democratic Republic of Kasnia
Queen Audrey never would have thought the long hours studying combat under the careful eye of her chief security advisor would save her life. It was a training regimen that had been initiated not long after the Vandal Savage debacle. That had been a victory for the Kasnian royal house, albeit at a very heavy cost. With the death of Kasnia's regent, Audrey was forced to assume the throne long before she'd been prepared to. Of course, she'd known that the marriage would put a stop to her celebrity behavior. Just not that it would be in such a dramatic fashion. In the end, the was left with even more responsibility and no husband to share it with.
The perceived weakening of the royal house had resulted in the resurgence of several militant separatist groups. They considered themselves freedom fighters in the struggle to gain 'independence' for their respective ethnic or religious affiliations. But they represented only a small portion of those groups, and their violent methods betrayed their true nature. Terrorists, hoping to capitalize on Audrey's inexperience to create more chaos for the government. And Audrey, for her part, was largely clueless about the strife existing within her own country. It was something that her father had always seemed to manage. . .
Her rude awakening was not long in coming. The first assassination attempt came from a young girl of fourteen who had gotten herself hired on the palace's cooking staff. One night, during an innocent trip to the kitchen, Audrey opened the door to find the girl wielding two butcher knives with a wild look in her eyes. The first came whistling toward her through the air, narrowly missing her head. The next thing she knew, the girl was flying at her with the remaining knife poised for the kill.
Then, one single gunshot. Audrey had opened her eyes, peeking between the fingers clutched over her face to find her chief of security standing over the now-deceased girl, his sidearm drawn and still smoking. Were it not for him, Kasnia's new queen would have had the shortest reign in history.
She soon found out that his name was Diric Chenkev, and that he was one of the most capable military men that Kasnia could call its own. He'd declined any monetary reward for saving the Queen's life, but had instead taken it upon himself to teach her the basics of self-defense. Guns went from ugly noisemakers to lethal machines that she had to be able to assemble, load, and us with unerring accuracy. Swords, no longer decorations, became very real instruments of combat that she had to learn to wield. He showed her techniques from every continent in the handling of knives, batons, and virtually every handheld weapon known to man.
And of course, unarmed combat. Diric's specialty. He had trained in disciplines from all over the world. Muay Thai, jiu jitsu, savate, and of course the specialized commando techniques used by infamous SpecOps organizations like the Israeli Mossad or his native Russia's feared Spetsnaz. It hadn't even been a whole year since the informal regimen had begun, but already Audrey could see the sharp contrast between her former naivete and her present competency. Perhaps the only thing in her past life she'd had to sacrifice was. . .fun.
Democratic Republic of Kasnia
Gardenia Research Facility
Now, for instance, she was bored out of her skull. Visiting the Gardenia was certainly important for symbolic reasons, if anything. But it was mind-numbingly dull, on the kind of night that had once been perfect for hitting the local discoteques and bars. Music, lights, dancing. . .here the only sound was the nasally voice of the scientist who was leading her on this tour. And the steady breathing of her two-man guard contingent, never more than a step behind. Their presence should have been reassuring but instead Audrey found it only increased her desire to do the tour and be done with it.
Still, the Gardenia was an exciting project for a number of different reasons, as the lead scientist was explaining. He led her into one of the biosphere's greenhouses, where robotic trolleys delivered concentrated nutrients to the rare plant life being grown. The massive structure was the biggest of its kind in the world, an artificial ecosystem enclosed in a fiberglass and solid-light casing. It had an internal landmass of five acres, the largest manmade structure in the world. And the mainframe, the quantum supercomputer that aligned all of the millions of natural and biological variables to peak conditions. . . was a revolution in its own right.
Audrey processed all of this information as if she understood half of what the scientist was talking about. Truth be told, she didn't care all that much about the Gardenia's inner workings or the advanced physics theorems and ecological controls that made such a feat possible. What she did care about was that it worked, and as such put Kasnia's scientific achievements in the global spotlight (for good reasons, this time). Hopefully, when theGardenia was unveiled it would help cleanse Kasnia of the stigma surrounding their deadly rail gun.
The scientist had just begun explaining the viable applications when he died. Audrey heard a small pfft from behind her, like the sound of a concealed cough. And then suddenly there was a neat hole in the center of the scientist's forehead, a reddish mist erupting from the back. Like a marionette with its strings cut, the man just fell. Dead, before he even hit the ground.
Audrey knew exactly what that sound was- she'd heard it countless times at the gun range with Diric. It was the sound emitted by a silenced semiautomatic pistol. Inaudible usually, but then she'd been standing right next to the shooter. She whirled around to find one of her security guards wielding a handgun. Pointed at her.
A traitor in the ranks, she thought before she died. Clever.
Except she didn't die. Instead, the other guard kicked his traitorous companion's hand right before the fatal shot. She felt the displaced air on her cheek as a second round whizzed past her right eye, zooming off into the night. The loyal guard, wasting no time, screaming "Run, my queen!" as he launched another kick at the traitor. No sooner had he said it than the first guard dodged to the side, steadyied his weapon, and coldly executed the second with four rapid shots. The loyal guard's body spasmed from the impact and then he fell over, as dead as the scientist.
The traitor brought his gun back up to Audrey, who hadn't moved an inch. He gave a mirthless smile. "This is for the K'Naedi," he said in an even, measured tone. "Tonight, Kasnia is reborn."
Audrey stared at him, not giving him the satisfaction of wincing or shirking away from her death. "Coward," she said.
The mirthless smile widened. "Goodbye, my queen," he murmured and then pulled the trigger. Only to hear the hollow click of an empty chamber being struck.
The queen didn't waste time questioning this stroke of luck, mostly because she'd known it was going to happen. He'd wasted the last of his six-round magazine on the other bodyguard, creating an opening that she couldn't ignore. She sprung into action. Unarmed, though thanks to Diric's training she didn't need to be. She shoved the gun aside and rammed a knifehand blow into the man's throat. He let out a strangled yelp and reached his hand into his jacket. Audrey gave him no time to withdraw whatever it was though, leaping into the air and delivering a savage headbutt to his, bone and cartilage giving way. He stumbled back even further, disoriented and reeling in pain. Audrey quickly grabbed the man's tie and ran behind him, tightening the knot on his already-damaged trachea. His eyes bulged out of their sockets and large hands flailed to get a grip on the petite woman. He was much stronger than she was, but she had leverage and a will of steel.
Desperately, he fell back, trying to crush her beneath his weight. If Audrey hadn't landed on the corpse of her other bodyguard, the tactic might have even worked. As it was, the wind was knocked out of her and stars danced in her vision. But she did not let go. With her one free arm and legs, she worked him into a basic jiu jitsu hold, trapping his limbs between hers or against the ground where they could do no damage. The flailing continued. He was fighting for his life, and he knew it. They both were. And even Audrey was beginning to lose consciousness. She could barely inhale, with the weight of this man on top of her, crushing the breath from her lungs. And the energy she was expending. . .
The stars were back dancing again, and this time they didn't subside. Audrey wondered who would die first, herself or the man on top of her. The adrenaline rush was beginning to subside, her muscles going leaden. Soon, even leverage wouldn't be enough and-
Suddenly the weight on her body was lifted. Her arms and legs flopped back down to the ground as the hold was disengaged. She took in a deep breath of air, and then she was being lifted herself into an upright, into a sitting position.
"My queen!" came Diric's urgent voice. "Are you hurt?"
Audrey blinked, and wordlessly shook her head. Around her she saw Diric, some of the lab technicians, and a dozen of the royal guard."Where did you all come from?"
"The body of one of the guards was found a few hours ago by a group of schoolchildren," Diric said. "His name was Rohn, and he was scheduled for your security detail tonight. There was strong evidence of foul play, but we did not make the connection until. . .well, until it was almost too late."
"What connection?" Audrey asked, the fogginess clearing away quickly.
He was murdered, so that the traitor in our ranks, the man who just tried to kill you, would be included on the security detail instead of Rohn. Shame we can't interrogate this pavainikis about the particulars of this mission though."
Audrey suddenly looked down, where the traitor had been laid. His head was cocked at an unnatural angle, his eyes wide and sightless and his tongue lolling grotesquely out of his mouth. The man's neck was a mass of purplish bruised and raw skin, and there was a deep indentation at the front of his throat. He was dead as any corpse she'd seen.
She recognized her own handiwork as Diric laid a comforting hand on her shoulder. He let out a low whistle. "Well done, my queen. It would seem you've learned well-"
His congratulations were cut short as Audrey suddenly doubled over and vomited on the ground, shaking uncontrollably. It was the first time she'd ever killed anyone, in person. "Oh God. . ." she gasped trying to rise to her feet. Diric immediately stood to steady her, while the gathered security personnel shooed away the scientists. Two men lay dead, and the entire biosphere had become Kasnia's number one crime scene. The media frenzy alone would be spectacular. . .
Audrey looked around at the men. Her men, sworn to give their lives for her, if necessary, without a moment's hesitation. And indeed, one had.
But another had tried to kill her. Would have, had he not run out of bullets. Audrey realized that she would never be able to fully trust even her royal guard.
She turned to Diric. "How did this man infiltrate my royal guard?"
To his credit, he offered no excuses. "I do not know, my queen. The situation astounds me, as our selection process is among the most rigorous in the world. I promise that we will get to the bottom of this however."
"I want every member of the guard to undergo polygraph and truth serum tests. Including you. I'll bring in university researchers to conduct the tests at random intervals. Also, I want the master key for the Guards' barracks. I will be doing a personal inspection. There are what, 40 of you altogether? I want the digital contents of every single laptop, cell phone or electronic device owned by each member of the guard. They will be pored over by independent analysts." Audrey realized she was talking too fast and so paused to take a breath.
Diric arched an eyebrow. "So you distrust me enough to require I take the polygraph, yet trust me enough to implement all of these other security measures?"
Audrey sighed, lowering her voice so that only he would be able to hear her. "At this point, I don't fully trust anyone. I trust you more than the others though, and I figure that if you are a traitor, I'm dead already. And if you're not, then you're the only one I can rely on to help weed out any others that have made it into our ranks."
Diric nodded. "I shall have to do my best to earn that modicum of trust," he said solemnly.
"Oh, and Diric. . "
"This impostor, whoever he is. . .he claimed to be working on behalf of the K'Naedi. Look into this group, I'm not familiar with them and it appears I should be."
"The K'Naedi. . ." Diric mused. "I will do as you wish." With a bow, he turned and helped the other royal guard members secure the area.
Wearily Audrey sat down on a nearby bench. The 'nighttime' sky- she had to remind herself that in here it was completely artificial- was not the comfort it usually was. Sitting in what could easily be called the future of biological and ecological research, all she could think about was the strife that threatened to tear her country apart. Strife that her father had tried to squelch through oppression and that as a result was ten times more dangerous to her reign. Kasnia was capable of such great things, if only they could unite. . .
Diana's face briefly flashed in her mind, an unconscious longing for friendship and mutual trust. The thought refused to dissipate however and suddenly she found herself thinking of the Justice League. Noble, powerful, trustworthy. .
She hadn't spoken to them in a very long time, but they were well-regarded among the Kasnian populace. And deservedly so. Perhaps, she reasoned, they would be willing to assist her one more time. . .
Watchtower Orbital Station
"You outta your mind," John Stewart said through a mouthful of mixed vegetables, punctuating each word with a jab of his fork. "Absolutely not."
Wally West, aka the Flash, gave an exasperated look around the cafeteria before finally honing back in on John. "Look, I'm not taking no for an answer on this man. You're gonna-"
"Birthday Party! You. Tomorrow. In the Watchtower."
John took a gulp, his green eyes flashing. "I hate birthday parties."
"See, it's when you say things like that I think 'Man, does this guy need a birthday party'. Listen, I've made arrangements."
"Arra- you made arrangements?"
With a smirk, Wally ticked off his fingers. "J'onn signed off on it. The lounge is a perfect venue, and it's free. Canary and GA agreed to bartend. I'll DJ. It's perfect, we'll invite all the Leaguers who aren't on active roster or monitor duty."
John blinked, mostly at the fact that Flash was already bringing others into his little conspiracy. "You really planned this out huh?"
"Pretty much. It'll be fun, no supervillains or tsunamis or evil sorcerers. Just a night of dancing and drinking and relaxation. . ." He went for the gold. "Plus, you know Mari loves that kind of thing."
John pursed his lips. "Yeah, she does."
"So it's settled then. I'll see you in the lounge, which believe me will be completely unrecognizable, at say. . .8 tomorrow night."
"I'll come by," John said tentatively. "But that doesn't mean I'll stay. Honestly I'm not even sure I'd want to party with a bunch of other superheroes anyway."
"C'mon man, ain't no party like a Justice League party. This is gonna be great man, you won't regret it."
"Uh huh," said John, thinking, Famous last words. . .
"Perfect," said Wally, thinking, This'll be one for the history books. . .
The night of John Stewart's birthday found his girlfriend, Mari, alone in her quarters preparing for the big celebration. John seemed to be the only one on the Watchtower who didn't know that Wally was using his birthday as an excuse to throw a massive party in the League Headquarters. She hadn't yet seen the speedster's redesigns to the main lounge, but knowing him it would look like a goddamn disco by now.
For the occasion, she'd chosen a purple backless dress that swept up in the front, cinched around her neck by a brilliant diamond collar. A famous Italian designer had gifted the ten-thousand dollar dress to her, his way of saying thanks for the flurry of sales he'd received after she modeled another of his creations. More importantly, it was one of John's favorites. His genuine smiles were rare enough these days. . .maybe she'd at least be able to coax a small compliment out of him tonight.
Her earrings were a breeze to affix, and then she was ready. The woman who looked back at her in the mirror was gorgeous. Even more stunning than usual. She knew, and not from conceit but rather experience, that every male eye in the room would be glued to her that night.
Well, almost every male eye. Johns' seemed to have drifted elsewhere as of recently. Ever since the whole Shadow King debacle, he'd been distant. And she would catch him giving Shayera the weirdest looks, like there was some sort of secret privy to just the two of them.
Thinking of the Thanagarian suddenly sent a cold wave of jealousy through her. Mari knew she was beautiful- it was how she made her very lucrative livelihood. But Shayera's appeal was effortless and genuine, and Mari suspected the latter attracted John Stewart on a level she couldn't hope to compete with. The thought that Shayera might even be at the party suddenly occurred her. Hell, she probably would be. What if she came with John? What if-
Stop it Mari, she chided herself. Turning into a neurotic, paranoid harpy was not the way she intended to celebrate John's birthday.
He'd said he would come a little bit late, so there was no need to wait up. With one final glance in the mirror, she retrieved her Gucci handbag from the shelf and left for what was sure to be a memorable night.
Flash was pleased with his handiwork. And given his penchant for trying ill-fated recipes he'd caught on television, this was a pretty momentous event in and of itself. Granted, his experience in the party planning department was thin at best. . .but he'd always wanted to throw one and having a bunch of other superheroes on the guest list was an added plus.
The scene was perfect. The tables at the front had been replaced with an expansive DJ booth, with his truly providing the honors. The turntables were more or less for show- the assorted mix of club hits, techno, and jazz all came courtesy of his iPod. If anything, the hardest part of his job was coordinating the various strobe lights and visual accoutrements. The place was lit up like a Parisian nightclub.
There was a dance floor of course, on which he was delighted to see a lot of the League's resident single (and beautiful) female members not only dancing but looking spectacular doing it. He could make out Fire and Ice, both dressed to impress and eyeing the DJ booth rather appreciatively. He gave them a wave and made a mental note to get a dance in before the night was over. The music was perfect after all, the kind of bass-heavy techno-pop that could literally make anyone start moving.
There were a good forty people in attendance, which was perfect for the medium-sized space. Hawk and Dove were involved in some good-natured fight at the bar, while behind it Black Canary mixed drinks with an ease that suggested hero work might not have been her first profession. Beside her, Green Arrow chatted affably with some of the newer arrivals. He was one of the few Leaguers who still kept a secret identity from the rest of the roster, and as such was the only one whose version of 'dress to impress' entailed his Green Arrow costume. Flash chuckled to himself. It was the only time that superhero garb had ever looked out of place on the Watchtower.
Other familiar faces included Huntress, Question, Booster Gold, Zatanna, B'Wana Beast, Aztec, Gypsy, and Crimson Fox. Some of them were hard to recognize without their 'work clothes', and some of them were simply current and former non-powered Watchtower personnel.
"Ugh, turn this off," complained Huntress, materializing next to him in the makeshift DJ booth.
Wally flashed her a look of annoyance. "Hey, I like Rihanna."
"Me too, but not this one. Total party killer."
"Yeah, speaking of which. . ." Flash gestured pointedly to the Question, who somewhat unsurprisingly stood aloof at the door. He wore a casual brown blazer, black designer t-shirt, slacks, and loafers. It would have been the perfect attire, were it not for the faceless mask. Somehow without the trench coat and hat that thing was even creepier.
Huntress rolled her eyes. "Okay, touché. He refused to part with the mask, alright. I'm just lucky I got him out of that godawful coat."
"You really think that helped?" joked Wally. Nevertheless, he flicked to a different song.
"Well hey it's a- oooooh, showtime" Huntress said conspiratorially. With the music as loud as it was though, it might as well have been a whisper. "Look who just showed up."
His eyes followed hers to the door, where Mari strode into the party, treating the ground like her own personal catwalk. Though he hadn't touched the volume, the music seemed to sort of fade out as she made her way to the bar. Like everyone was holding a collective breath.
"Huhmunah. . ." gasped Wally.
Huntress snorted. "Yeah, I know right. Popular girl in high school all over again. But yeah, if you can manage to get your jaw off the floor, you'll notice who else is here. . ."
Wally followed the direction of her gaze until he realized. . .yeah, that might get interesting indeed. . .
Shayera slammed down the shot glass, her ninth, to be exact. Across the table Atom Smasher had just finished his eighth. He didn't look like he'd even be able to go the distance on this one.
"Take it back yet?" asked the Thanagarian smugly.
The huge man looked warily at the last shot glass. "I. . ."
"C'mon big guy, put up or shut up."
Atom Smasher reached gingerly for the glass. Even got it halfway to his face before a whiskey-induced loss of coordination sent it tumbling from his fingers. "Shit," he mumbled. "Fine, you win. I'm. . ." He sighed. "I'm a weenie."
Atom Smasher's eyes strayed past Shayera for a brief second, returned, and then darted back over her shoulder. That was followed by the almost imperceptible rustle of dozens of heads turning toward the same object. Or person.
Shayera slowly craned to look, expecting (okay, hoping) to see John. Instead she saw Mari, striding into the room with the grace and poise of runway model. It was interesting though. . .she hadn't come in with John, the man of the hour. Shayera didn't know what that meant, or if it even meant anything. But she could always hope.
Shayera started to rise, only to feel a restraining hand on her shoulder. She glared at the huge man. "What?"
"No, you're drunk."
"Yeah, but I still know you going over to Mari isn't a good idea. Everybody knows-"
The look she fixed him with could've spoiled fresh milk. He withdrew his hand. "Just be nice."
"Am I ever not?"
Mari was glad to see a lot of familiar faces from the League, such as Shining Knight, Gypsy, and Fire. Vigilante didn't seem to be in attendance, which was too bad since she didn't know many of the other members that well (oftentimes because she simply intimidated them). It was a phenomenon she'd been dealing with ever since her teen years, and had consequently grown accustomed to.
She managed to get a glimpse of Flash at the DJ booth, and gave him a quick thumbs up for playing music that she actually recognized. John would hate it, she knew, but everyone needed to get out of their comfort zone now and again. And Lord knew John needed to cut back more than any of them. All the back-to-back missions and recruit training were running him ragged.
"Hey," said an annoyingly familiar voice from the side. Mari stepped back to see Shayera leaning causally against one of the pillars. She was wearing an eye-catching golden blouse over a black miniskirt and boots. Her hair hung straight and long down her back, which the blouse left mostly bare to accommodate her wings.
Simple. Elegant. Beautiful. The Thanagarian had spent a minute fraction of the time and money Mari had on getting ready for the event. And Mari found herself feeling a rare insecurity that only seemed to creep up around Shayera.
"Hey," Shayera repeated. Smiling, but only with her mouth.
"Oh. Hi." Mari reflexively straightened up, regaining her composure. "Having a good time?"
Shayera laughed. "Yeah, I just drank Atom Smasher there under the table. Wildcat's been talking a lot of nonsense too, so maybe I'll straighten him out before the end of the night. What about you, just getting here?"
"Where's John then?" Shayera asked.
Mari bristled at the other woman's tone, the implications hidden in the way she'd asked the question. "He'll be here soon," she said defensively.
"Of course." Shayera held out her right hand, which Mari noticed contained a drink. "Sicilian rum, you should try it it's actually pretty good stuff."
Mari rolled her eyes, but nevertheless took the proffered drink and downed it in one fell swoop. It tasted almost like honey, followed by a volcanic eruption. Her eyes went instantly blurry with tears.
Shayera whistled. "Wow, never seen anyone drink it like that before. What did you think?"
Mari coughed as gently as she could. "I think it tasted cheap, diluted, and overpriced, to be perfectly honest."
"Oh?" Shayera pushed off the pillar. "You know, speaking of cheap, diluted, and overpriced. . .I bought a bottle of your signature perfume last week. I figure you owe me. . ." she ticked off her fingers for dramatic effect, "$102.99 plus tax."
Mari furnished an icy smile. "Darling, I can't help it that glamour simply. . .rolls off some people."
Shayera didn't miss a beat. "Clearly. Anyhow, the bar's actually pretty good. Lot of other options if the Sicilian's not your thing. I'm gonna go talk to Wally so. . .enjoy."
Bitch, Mari's cattier side couldn't help but think as Shayera walked away. It wasn't even the banter, really. There'd been a time when they could tease each other and still remain friendly, despite being in love with the same man. But then something had changed. Not with Mari, that was for damn sure. She hadn't changed a bit. It was John and Shayera, and the ever-growing feeling that they were hiding something.
Any further reflection was jarred by the music's abrupt ending. "Ladies and Gentlemen," Flash's jovial voice announced from the speakers, "I present to you. . .the man of the hour. . .John Stewart!"
A more accomplished DJ might have managed to cue in a musical theme, not that it was necessary. Mari found herself whistling and clapping with the rest of the attendees as her clearly-flustered lover came in. Flash finally caught on and started playing 50 Cent's 'In Da Club' much to John's obvious chagrin.
He saw her and after a few more compulsory 'happy birthday' wishes finally managed to get within range for a hug. For a brief second all of the dour thoughts that had just been forming dissipated. He smelled fantastic, looked great, and the heady rush of familiar attraction pushed everything else briefly to the background.
"Hey babe," he rumbled, smiling when he saw her.
She kissed him. "Hey yourself, birthday man."
"Yeah, yeah. . ." He looked around. "Hate it already."
"Well not for now you don't, Wally put a lot of work into this."
"Mmm." He didn't sound entirely convinced. "Hey you look great by the way."
Mari reached out and tweaked the collar of his black button-down shirt. "Right back at ya."
Another hip-hop song came on and Mari threw Wally one of her trademark exasperated looks. He gulped, and suddenly the track was replaced with a much smoother, soulful ballad.
"C'mon," Mari murmured in John's ear. "Let's dance."
John nodded, even as other couples began forming around them. Ollie and Dinah, behind the bartenders counter no less. A reluctant Vic and an equally stubborn Helena. Watching the rest of the attendees pair up was fun in a high school prom sort of way, but even as John held her close in his arms, she couldn't help but note Shayera at the tables. Not dancing (and even a room full of superheroes could doubtfully furnish someone with the stones to ask her). Staring. . at her and John.
Forget about her, Mari reasoned, reflexively pulling him even closer. I'm with him. She's not. Still, something about the way Shayera was looking at them. . .like she was actually hurting. . .
"Everything alright?" John asked. "You realize we've been standing still for the half the song already."
"Oh. Right." She took a deep breath and allowed herself to sway in his arms to the soft, husky melody being poured throughout the room. She tried to clear her mind of all the nagging doubts and insecurities and just enjoy being with the man she loved.
It worked for about thirty seconds. "What?" John asked when she abruptly stopped, stepping back.
"John, baby. . .we need to talk."
Mari opened her mouth to answer, but something told her that the middle of a makeshift dance floor wasn't the best place to have that conversation. So she tugged on his hand. "Outside."
"What?" His voice was laced with pure and unadulterated confusion. "Mari what the hell-"
"Just come with me," she insisted, already weaving between dancing couples and toward the door.
She pushed it open and was glad to hear John step out and close the door behind them. "Mari, what is going on?"
She threw her hands up in frustration. "I don't know John, you tell me." Ever since that whole Shadow King thing. Or no, before that really. Ever since you and Batman's little 'Back to the Future escapade', something has been going on. Between you and Shayera.
"I don't know what you're talking about."
"Yes, you do," she said, poking him forcefully in the chest. "The looks I always see you giving her. The looks she gives you. . .that woman is heartbroken, John. But instead of moving on, she's just. . .waiting. Like she knows something about us and our future that I don't."
There it was again. Something in John's eyes had flashed both times she mentioned the future.
"What did you see, John?" she asked, softer this time.
"What did I see when?"
"In the future. That's what this is about right. That or Shadow King. You still haven't told me about what happened during those. . .events. What did you see in the future?" Mari asked, her voice cracking because even as the words poured out she knew what the answer would be.
John fixed her with a hard stare, as willing her to take the question back. Then, with a sigh he slumped back against the wall. "When I went to the future. . .I met my son."
An icy numbness settled in the pit of her stomach at those words. "Not. . .not our son."
"No. He was. . .half human. Half Thanagarian."
"Ohmigod," Mari finally breathed. She felt dizzy, like she was going to be sick. "You're serious. And you told her?"
"She had the right to know," protested John.
Mari let out a humorless laugh. "So what, how did that conversation go, huh? 'Oh, don't worry we'll be together in the end, just let me have my fun with Mari in the meantime. Before you have my child, of course'."
"Hey," said John, raising his voice. "That is not what I told her. I told her I was staying with you. I told her I was not going to be Destiny's puppet and-."
"Oh bullshit," spat Mari. "You already were, or else you wouldn't have told her in the first place. My God, no wonder she looks at you like that. At me like that. I'm with the father of her future child."
"Mari, that is so beyond uncalled for-" John began, reaching for her arm.
Mari slapped his hand away. "No, you are so beyond uncalled for, you ass!" She wiped furiously at the wayward tears that had begun forming in her eyes. "When were you gonna tell me? Our second anniversary? The honeymoon? The divorce?"
"Well you know what," he shot back angrily, "probably never, because I knew you'd overreact like this."
The words hung between them in a horrible silence, Mari processing what he'd just said. She straightened up. Wiped the last tears from her eyes and stepped back even further. This feeling, it was so unfamiliar. Like being on a ship and suddenly realizing that it's about to capsize. With a start she realized that perhaps for the first time, her heart was breaking.
"Go to hell, John Stewart," she said softly. And then she left, leaving him stunned and speechless right outside the door of his birthday party.
When John re-entered the party, he did his best to smile though the emotion was so disingenuous that if any the partygoers had been the least bit sober they would have picked up on it. Glumly, he found a secluded, empty table in the far corner and took a seat. That conversation had not gone well.
"Hey soldier," said a familiar voice behind him. He looked up briefly to see Shayera, circling behind him, two glasses in her hands. Her eyes were a bit glassy but at least she could still walk straight. "Mind if I take a seat?" she inquired.
He shrugged. "Go for it?"
The red-haired woman did just that, pulling up directly across from him. The table really wasn't that big, and their knees bumped underneath. If she noticed, she wasn't showing. Although she didn't move her knee either. . .
"Two glasses huh?" John said. "A bit much, don't you think?"
Her eyes twinkled. "Don't tell me you've forgotten about my drinking abilities already, John Stewart. How many times have I drunk you under the table before?"
"Touche," he admitted, smiling a bit despite himself.
"Besides, this second glass isn't for me, it's for you." She reached over and slit across the table. "Guaranteed to turn that frown upside down."
He peered down into the dark liquid suspiciously. "What is it?"
"Doesn't matter. Now drink, birthday boy."
John sighed and took a gulp of the strange concoction. The alcohol stung, but then a pleasant, citrus flavor settled in, making for a decent buzz and a tart, yet refreshing aftertaste.
"Ha. I knew you'd like it," said Shayera, smiling in the wake of her own sip. She was looking at him so openly that John had to revise his earlier assessment. Her eyes weren't glassy, they were luminous. Like layers of pretense had been stripped away, revealing the true Shayera underneath.
He shook his head. Remember, girlfriend. Right. Besides, that was all probably just the alchohol talking. Hell, he had dated Shayera for quite some time, and it wasn't like the attraction had ended when the relationship did. It was natural that he should feel so. . .drawn to her. Natural, but horrible timing all things considered.
"Whatcha thinkin?" Shayera asked, cocking her head to the side in an oddly fetching manner. Her knee bumped his again, definitely not by accident. The sparks were like sticking a fork into an electrical outlet.
John pursed his lips. "I'm thinking. . .that you're a bad influence," he said, jokingly.
She gave a coy smile. "Not bad enough," she said softly. Then, completely switching gears before he could think too hard on that one, "Hey, where's Mari I haven't seen her recently."
"She left," John said flatly. "We had a bit of a spat."
"About what?" wondered Shayera, trying to conceal the rush of pleasure that the news gave her.
John seemed on the verge of telling her, but then he shook his head, and leaned away. "I. . .don't really want to talk about that right now."
Shayera nodded. "It's okay. We can talk about whatever you want."
"You should just let me mope over here," said John with a sigh. "Don't waste the whole rest of your night though-"
She snorted. "Oh, stop already with the 'woe is me' crap. You're not sitting over here in a depressed bubble for the rest of the night, I won't have it! Now talk or else I'll bring Booster Gold over here and tell him you've been dying to see his Gorilla Grodd impression-"
"Alright?" John exclaimed, actually breaking out into laughter. He gave her a mock glare. "You don't play fair, Shayera."
"All's fair," she said simply. She didn't add the 'in love and war part', because it was so dangerously close to the truth.
Watchtower Orbital Station
The Next Day
"Mari," said Mr. Terrific without looking up, his fingers flying across three different holographic screens. "To what do I owe the pleasure?"
She cleared her throat. "I um, I want an assignment."
"Mmm hmm. . .I should be able to find one for you in the next few weeks."
"That's too long."
He looked up. "Too long? What's the hurry?"
"I just really need something to divert my mind, okay," Mari told him. "Don't you have any open missions?"
"Afraid not, we have a lot of newbies who need the live experience and- wait, okay here's something."
"Kasnia. We received a message from the queen of Kasnia- you've been there correct?"
"Kasnia. . .yeah, yeah. I went there for a show a few years back. Man that was one weird place."
"Well, the years have been rather unkind, especially since the king's assassination and his daughter's rise to the throne. Apparently, the nation is nearing some medical and scientific breakthrough, but repeated terrorist attacks threaten to derail the process."
Mari drummed her fingers impatiently on the edge of the command station. "That's nice and all, but I was thinking something on a bit of a. . .bigger scale," she began.
"Then you'll have to wait," said Mr. Terrific matter-of-factly. "Look, I don't know what it is that has you itching to get out of here and vent some steam, but I can guarantee you that Kasnia is more than far enough away from whatever or whoever you're trying to get distance between."
Mari didn't bother to comment on his assessment. "Fine, whatever. I'll take it. Just send me the mission briefing-"
"Not so fast. You'll be partnered with Flash."
Mari winced. She hadn't talked to John in the day that had elapsed since the incident, and she doubted being cooped up with his best friend on a peacekeeping mission wouldn't suit her too well either. "You didn't say anything about this being a two-man job."
"Well it's not. It's technically a three-man job, Mari. Flash already had the assignment, but all the Mark X's have to have a minimum of two flight-licensed members on board. If you want to go, you'll have to find someone trained who still has theirs." The way he said it was probably a subtle dig at Mari for losing her own certification in a recent adventure, but she found herself strangely not caring. "Alright, I'll find a third. Any other 'parameters'?"
"Nope. Have fun, and bring some warm jackets. Kasnia can get cold this time of year."
Greg Saunders, known to most of the League as Vigilante, hadn't gone to the party. It was partially because of his loner nature. He saw the League as work and not a place to socialize, especially not with bad music and cheap drinks. True, there were a few good friends like Justin and Mari that he'd found along the way. . .but whatever was going on at the Watchtower sounded like plumb idiocy no matter how you looked at it.
That said, he woke up the next morning one of the few inhabitants of the Watchtower without a hangover (and inhabiting his own bed). 'Own' being relative considering he had a much nicer place down planetside. He instinctively looked for the window, only to remember that up here there was no atmosphere to filter radiant, sunlit beams of morning dawn into the window. Hell, there wasn't even a window.
Truth be told, he didn't even hate it anymore. The cramped living space, the artificial lighting and the recycled air. In fact, he thought as he exited the shower, for such a busy space station there was still a pretty good sense of priva-
The sight that greeted him as he stepped out of the bathroom, one hand holding a towel around his waist and the other a toothbrush, was enough to stop him dead in his tracks. Sitting on the kitchenette's counter, legs crossed in pure repose, was Mari. Dressed in full costume.
The toothbrush dropped from his mouth. "The hell. . ."
"Relax cowboy," said Mari, eventually remembering to avert her eyes.
"How'd you get in here?" he asked incredulously.
"Oh please, like you'd ever bother getting that broken biometric scanner on the door fixed." She paused realizing that this was the longest she'd ever seen him without the mask. Kind of cute, she decided. He had lean, aristocratic features that seemed somehow interrupted by the sardonic smile and the thin, almost imperceptible scar that grazed his cheekbone. And he was cut- broad shoulders, six-pack, tapered waist, the works. . .
"What?" Greg wanted to know. She was giving him some kind of weird look. He put a hand self-consciously to his face, feeling rather embarassed.
Mari shook her head sharply, as if to force her thoughts in a less awkward direction. "Just thinking, you should ditch the bandana more often."
Greg rolled his eyes. "I do. In the privacy of my own home." It sounded like, 'prahvacy of mah own home'.
"Nothing I haven't seen before Clint Eastwood. Look, I know it's pretty rude of me but I'm in a hurry and I just have one question for you."
His eyes narrowed, even as he cinched the towel tighter around his waist. "Go on."
"Are you flight certified on the new Javelins?"
"Um, the watchumcallits, the Mark X's? Yeah. Why?"
"Great. Now hurry up and put some clothes on, you're coming with me on an assignment."
"Whoa hold up," he protested. "That was two questions-"
"Wasn't a question. I need a licensed flier to go with Flash and I to Kasnia, and you're the only one I know who fits that qualification and isn't recovering from. . .Lantern's birthday party."
The way she said 'Lantern' instead of 'John' wasn't lost on Greg, but he decided not to press her on it. "What if I had other plans?"
"Well. . ." Mari bit her lower lip thoughtfully. "I guess I'd have to remind you about that favor you owe me."
Greg's face went red enough to make him long for that bandana right about now. "Oh, right. . .the um, favor."
"So it's settled. 1200 hours on the main deck?"
"Great." She gave him a wink and then with the grace of a cat slid off the counter and onto the ground. "Seeya then." She opened the pressure door and stepped out into hallway, leaving a somewhat-dazed Greg behind.
He blinked, and after confirming he wasn't dreaming let out a low whistle. What the hell was that about? He wondered. And why was Mari so interested in Kasnia all of a sudden? More importantly, why hadn't she just asked John to go with her? Had he done something to hurt her? If so, then Greg's already low opinion of the Green Lantern would just about flatline. Taking a woman like Mari for granted seemed to Vigilante a particularly awful kind of lunacy, and that wasn't even just because he was half in love with Mari herself.
He sighed, knowing that he wouldn't find out what was going on until they were well on their way to Kasnia. Giving up the mental gymnastics, he went to start packing his luggage.
Kasnia. . .well I'll be damned. . .
A/N: Well, this is just a sneak peek at my next big project. I love Batman and Wonder Woman but there's a lot of other interesting characters floating around in the JLU animated verse so I figured I'd give some of them a grand adventure and sort through some of the relationships that the cartoon left hanging (lookin at you GL and Hawkgirl). Oh, and most of this was done on my crappy work computer, so apologies for any typos, etc. I did edit but the story hasn't been to a beta yet, so any mistakes are mine alone.
Anyway, if you're reading this then thanks for making it through the first chapter. Any comments, suggestions, critiques welcome.