Rictor always loved how completely unselfconscious Shatterstar could be. It had taken him a while to get used to it, sure, but he'd envied it at the same time, how attracting stares (and 'Star couldn't avoid doing that if he tried) was something he could always just take as his due. He knew he'd spent plenty of time staring at Shatterstar over the years, especially in those early days when Ric was still telling himself to look but not touch.

Man, was he glad those days were over. "You gonna hit the showers soon?" he said, letting his eyes linger appreciatively on the way Shatterstar's workout pants hung low on his hips. "You've been at this two hours already."

"Stop trying to distract me." 'Star gave Ric an over the shoulder look that was equal parts censure and leer, then went right back into training mode, launching himself into the air and turning a perfect somersault before bisecting the practice dummy into two neat halves. He whirled the swords over his head in a dramatic flourish as he landed, playing to Rictor exactly the way he used to play to bloodthirsty crowds once upon a time.

"Yep, that is one dead dummy."

Shatterstar glanced up at him, his eye flashing. "You're very eager for me to finish. Did I forget something?"

"We're going shopping for Rahne today, remember? It's her kid's first Christmas, kind of a big deal." Which was true, but much more importantly Ric had been watching Shatterstar practice for more than an hour and if he didn't touch 'Star soon Ric was going to tackle him to the floor, impossibly sharp swords or not.

"That's true," Shatterstar said, finally putting the swords away and frowning. "How're we going to get it to them?"

"That's...we'll figure it out later," Ric said, realizing he hadn't thought through all of this particular gesture. Probably there was some half-god courier service, God knew he'd seen weirder. "Hey," he said, grabbing Shatterstar by his wrist and pulling him closer. "You nicked yourself."

He ran his thumb under the faintest of scratches on Shatterstar's arm, drawing a rueful sigh. "My transitions from my left side have gotten sloppy," he said. "I've been trying to correct my technique."

He was not going to get a better opening. "Looked pretty good to me," he said, pressing Shatterstar against the wall and kissing him, one hand pressed against his chest to feel 'Star's heart still pounding from the workout.

"Julio," 'Star murmured, and Ric didn't think he'd ever get tired of the way Shatterstar said his name, "are you sure the trip isn't the only reason you wanted me to stop?"

That was a ridiculous question and they both knew it; it was a rare day when Rictor could keep his hands to himself after watching Shatterstar train and 'Star was always up for anything. And not at all shy about saying so. "Could be there's something to that," he said, leaning in for another kiss.

One second he was kissing Shatterstar in the hallway, ignoring the memo Jamie had sent around about creating "amateur porn" at work (because seriously, a memo? C'mon.) Then he blinked his eyes and he was alone in the hallway, the training room beyond dark and cold. Ric frowned, not sure why he was standing there. He'd been doing something, he knew something...

Rictor shook his head. "Old age is creeping on on you," he said to himself, shrugging his shoulders. He'd ask Rahne when he went back downstairs, it was probably something for her.

He ducked into his room, thinking that maybe that would jog his memory. Everything just looked normal, though, and he was just about to forget the weird deja vu or whatever that was when he looked down and saw a loose VHS tape sitting on of the VCR, the label simply stating "Julio."

A label written in his own handwriting.

Rictor felt like a lot of the time he was just playing at this whole detective business but he didn't need to be Sherlock Holmes to see this a was a clue. He carefully put the tape in the player and turned on the TV, looking around the room for a second to find the remote. Then he sat on the bed and pressed play, expecting...he didn't even know. But he knew he hadn't made this tape and it had been left here for him to find. A lifetime of experiencing the ridiculous told him this was the sort of thing you ignored at your peril, and he'd be damned if six months from now Apocalypse was ruling the world because he hadn't watched a home movie.

After a few seconds of static the picture cleared up, revealing a young woman with long blond hair sitting on what looked like his bed, her chin tipped up as she looked into the camera. She had an M branded over one eye and Rictor felt his stomach drop. Oh, great. Future stuff. "Hi, Ric."

Rictor frowned, his skin crawling. "Who are you?"

"I'm Layla Miller." She leaned forward, her elbows on her knees. "And you feel like you've forgotten something."

Ric's hand curled around the remote but he didn't press stop. "How did you know that?"

Her lips curled up into a strange, rueful smile. "I know stuff."

"I don't...wait. Can you hear me?" Mutants could do weird things. Video tape powers would be a new one on him but again, a lifetime of the ridiculous.

She just rolled her eyes, visibly scoffing. "No. It's a video. Stop trying to make this even more complicated."

"Then how do you know what I'm going to say?"

"We work out the script in the future," she said, waving that away. "I actually have what you're going to say in front of me on white boards, the gist of it anyway."

"I don't get this. Why?"

Layla shrugged. "Because it was the best idea we could come up with and it worked pretty well on Doctor Who that one time."

Rictor could feel the beginnings of a headache coming on. "Worked pretty well on what?"

She shook her head, looking visibly disgusted. "You see what a crappy alternate universe you're stuck in?"

Ric rubbed his forehead, regretting ever getting out of bed that morning. "Great. Alternate universe future stuff," he muttered. "That never gets old." He looked back at the TV, where Layla was smirking at him like she knew a thousand secrets. "What do you mean, I'm in an alternate universe?"

"Seriously, an alternate universe where people still use VHS. You can't have any idea how hard it was to make this tape." She let out a deep breath. "A reality warper in Uganda is dreaming. He's going to be a big problem in five years but this is the first manifestation and he doesn't know what he's doing. Everything's shuffled around – some things didn't happen, some people don't exist-" she scowled at that and it didn't take three guesses for Ric to know who she was talking about - "you know, the usual."

And yeah, that did sound pretty par for the course. "So, what am I supposed to do then? Head off to Uganda?"

Layla shook her head. "Once he wakes up everything will snap back into place."

The headache was only getting worse. "So what's the deal, then? Why did I make this tape?"

Her smile turned sad. "You'll know." She looked up, like she was glancing at a clock beyond the camera. "This is where you hit stop."

And Ric did, his hands shaking. Then he hit eject, a last second bit of hesitation the only thing stopping him from throwing the tape out the window. "My luck I'll have just made two," he said, putting the tape back on top of the VCR before heading downstairs, resolving to wash his hands of the whole thing.

He found Jamie and Rahne sitting on the battered office couch watching TV and for a second he felt the floor sway under his feet. "Rahne!" he said, delight and surprise overwhelming him even though he didn't understand why, he'd just seen her that morning. "When did you get in?" Then he stopped, any further words trailing off as he tried to figure out why he'd said that.

That Jamie and Rahne both turned around to look at him like he'd completely lost it didn't help at all. "Ric, if you're drinking you'd better share," Jamie said, turning back to the TV. Rahne elbowed Jamie – not hard enough to make a dupe, a skill they'd all long mastered – and frowned as she looked Ric up an down. "Are ye feelin' alright?" she asked, and although there was real concern there Ric could also hear the teasing. "Yuir not allowed to go crazy before the wedding. We agreed."

Rictor shook the echoes of that strange video tape out of his head. "Sorry," he said, kissing the top of her head. "I remember."

"Ye better," she said, also turning back to the TV.

Rictor leaned against the back of the couch. "What're we watching?"

"Mojoworld," Jamie said, cracking open a beer.

Ric didn't know why he shivered at that. "I don't like this show," he said, not sure why that slipped out.

"What're you talking about? You did yesterday."

"I..." That was true, he did. He and Jamie watched this all the time, they'd even had to block Jamie's access to the internet so he couldn't look up spoilers and ruin the show for everyone else. "Where's Guido? The two of you are usually fighting over the couch by now."

"Out with Monet. Poor sucker."

"Yeah? I thought they broke up."

That was the second time in five minutes Jamie and Rahne looked at him like he'd gone crazy. "You sure you're feeling okay? The day the big guy blows it I'm gonna have to hide all the sharp objects."

Rictor didn't know why he'd said that. He realized that he'd been surprised to hear that Guido was around at all, let alone out with Monet. Before he could ask anything else incriminating the commercial ended and Jamie gave up paying attention to him, completely focused on the show. "Ugh," he said when the camera panned to Mojo watching the festivities up in a box seat and all but oozing out of his hover harness. "Man, I wish the CGI on this show weren't so good sometimes."

Rictor only just barely hear him. Already standing in the gladiator ring was a four armed fighter who Jaime loved and whose name Rictor could never pronounce, it was like trying to sound out a random scrabble table.

Once the contender stepped through the gates Ric stopped trying. He felt like his brain was a lit match, then that lurching sense of deja vu. The contender looked human enough, not all that tall with short, strawberry blond hair and the lean, muscular build of someone who depended on speed rather than strength. "Shatterstar," he whispered, not sure where the name had come from but knowing he wanted to say it again.

"Hey, no fair," Jaime said, tossing popcorn over his head in the rough direction of Rictor's face. "If I can't go to the spoiler sites neither can you."

It was all so much noise to Ric. He watched the two square off, the fighter with four arms dwarfing Shatterstar by almost two feet. The two of them said something to each other, then Four Arms swung his enormous broadsword, striking in a clumsy arc. Shatterstar danced away and somersaulted over him, landing a glancing blow that was more a statement than an attack. This back and forth kept going on for the next few minutes, Four Arms lumbering around the exhibition and Shatterstar striking and moving, opening up cut after cut but not able to hit anything vital. Rictor could feel the buzzing at the back of his mind and tried to ignore it, not knowing what he was supposed to do. Shatterstar turned a graceful somersault in mid air and Ric couldn't breathe; he realized he was clutching onto the back of the couch so tightly his knuckles are white.

"Relax, Ric," Jamie said, cracking open a beer. "Enjoy the show."

888

Shatterstar felt the roar of the crown thrum through his veins like the drugs some of the gladiators took before combat. Not that he had ever indulged; let the lesser warriors lean on whatever crutches they could find, Shatterstar had never needed any of it.

His opponent now was powerful but lumbering, a four-armed wall of muscle wielding a sword so large he needed to wrap all of his hands around the hilt to manage it. Well, fine then, if that was the battle he wanted. It wasn't as if Shatterstar didn't have swords of his own.

He made the first move, charging the monstrosity only to drop down at the last second, sliding between its legs to make a strike at its undefended flank. Shatterstar's swords drew blood but it was barely more than a flesh wound; the creature dodged the brunt of the blow with surprising grace, indulging in a triumphant grin at Shatterstar's surprise. The sequence repeated a few more times, his opponent just managing to avoid a lethal strike and Shatterstar keeping away from the clumsy counters.

So it wanted to make this interesting, then. Shatterstar returned the grin, giving his opponent a respectful nod before launching himself into the air, taking a standing leap over the creature's head and twisting in the air to make sure the audience was impressed. He heard the prattle of the announcers and twisted it out; it was the approving burst of cheers from the crowd that set his heart beating, cheers that only grew louder when he made another leaping strike that struck his opponent through the shoulder. He twisted the sword as he pulled it back out, creating a blood spray that hit the first row and only delighted them all more. "Are you not entertained?" he shouted to the top rows, brandishing his swords over his head in a flourish and the audience all roared their approval.

"Tell me, Shatterstar: do you like Gladiator movies?"

"Apparently so."

Shatterstar took a stutter step forward, the crowd growing ugly and foreign in the time it took him to blink his eyes. He looked behind his blood curdling in his veins when he saw Mojo leering down from his place of honor, every bit as grotesque as in his memory. He didn't remember how he got here, how they'd taken him and dragged him back to this, to slavery and battle and blood and everything he'd left years ago.

He'd been with Julio. He didn't remember what had happened to Julio.

Rage set his mind aflame and he charged his opponent, all technique forgotten. "Where is he?" he roared, the words lost in the crown noise. At any rate, his opponent didn't respond – or at least not with words. Shatterstar's charge was too artless to strike home and his opponent nimbly sidestepped it, again displaying that unexpected agility. Shatterstar lost sight of the creature for the briefest instant, barely long enough to blink his eyes.

It was long enough. The sword felt like ice as it plunged through his back, all the way through his chest; there was surprisingly little pain, something he'd always heard other warriors claim but he'd never believed. His legs buckled beneath him but all Shatterstar could do was stare at his own blood dripping from the blade of the sword. He could feel his vision going black and blurry around the edges, like he was being pushed down into a pit. It made him think of a word he didn't understand, Cortex, a word he knew was a name without understanding why and that sank into him even sharper and colder than the sword had. His opponent wrenched the sword out and now he felt the pain, a suffocating throb that pushed him down to the ground. His vision kept going black and he thought the name Cortex again, remembered being locked in the dark by whatever had worn that name and then Julio reaching in to pull him out.

He felt his opponent's shadow fall over him and readied himself. Julio was out there. Julio would find him again.

He had to make sure to be there to find.

888

Something had gone wrong. Shatterstar paused – no, he hesitated, taking a stutter step forward instead of striding toward his prey and he's not watching his left. Rictor realized he was shouting at the screen, half-touched memories buzzing in his head like a pot about to boil over, memories he was afraid to look at because didn't know what hid there.

Four Arms made a feint, dropping to one knee and getting behind Shatterstar, a more fluid move than he thought anyone would ever give him credit for. As the crowd cheered he pulled back his broadsword, skewering Shatterstar through the back and Ric felt all of those memories slam into him like a subway train.

...fumbling in a hand-to-God closet (and how embarrassing was that little detail to remember a few years later?), too dark to see and Ric wants it that way, wants 'Star against him like this all hard, lean muscle, that long, find hair tangled around Ric's fingers and those lethal hands sliding past Ric's waistband...

...waking up in a dark room, hospital bed, fucking Sinister and his fucking band of freaks but 'Star's sitting there in the dark, that eye of his flashing as he says, "Julio, do not ever do that again" and Ric doesn't know what he did besides not duck fast enough when Scalphunter saw him. But 'Star's hands are shaking and he kisses Ric on the lips...

...that nightclub, no one takes their eyes off 'Star, guys, girls, no one but he only looks at Ric, whispering "Julio" into his ear on the dance floor and saying it louder in the alley out back...

….under the stars in Mexico, sweating in the summer heat and talking strategy while twining 'Star's hair around his fingers and later on listening to him breathe in the still, quiet night...

'Star dropped to his knees, his expression slack with shock. Ric felt his stomach try to crawl up into his throat when he saw the gout of blood rush down Shatterstar's chest; 'Star collapsed down to the sandy ground and the announcers were talking rapid-fire about records but it was all so much noise to Ric; the camera zoomed in for a close up and all he could see was the blood on 'Star's lips, the way his body jerked up as his opponent pulled the sword free. Four Arms stood over him, raising the sword high to land the coup de grace.

It just didn't work out that way. To the shock of everyone, especially Four Arms, Shatterstar pushed himself up to his knees; Four Arms tried to course correct but as much agility he'd displayed that final trick was beyond him and he fell off balance, the sword burying itself more than halfway up its hilt in the ground..

It was the only opening 'Star needed. He brought up those double swords of his up at a sharp angle, going right through the thing's unprotected throat. Four Arms dropped like a rock and the crowd went wild, chanting Shatterstar's name.

The camera switched back to the announcers but they were talking gibberish as for as Rictor was concerned; Shatterstar had crumpled back to the ground after that desperate burst of adrenaline and hadn't moved, lying there as still as the dead man next to him. Over the announcers' shoulders he could see beings he could only hope to God were medics scurry out, strap both fallen fighters to hovering gurneys and push them out. The camera was pulled back too far for him to tell whether 'Star was still breathing.

Ric shouted "No!" when the show cut to commercial, startling Jamie and Rahne so much they visibly jumped. "It didn't say if he'd be okay."

Jamie quirked an eyebrow at him. "Who, the Shatterstar guy? I bet not, that sword was practically bigger than he was. Would be a pretty big twist, though..."

"Is this live?"

Jamie clicked a button on the remote to bring up the information sidebar. "Says it is. Usually is."

Good. Good, there was still a little hope then. "We've gotta go there. We gotta get him back."

He saw Jamie and Rahne exchange a worried look. "Um...Ric, you know it's just a show, right? I mean, it's not even that well-written a show..."

"No!" Rahne startled again but he saw Jamie switch modes, his eyes narrowing like Ric was a case to solve. He couldn't worry about it. He could take Jamie if he absolutely had to. "It's not. Look, I know I sound completely loco right now but all of that, that was real. Shatterstar, we know him, we've known him for years. He's my..." Ric bit off the words but it was too late, Rahne caught the implication enough for hurt to shine bright in her eyes. God, the last thing he'd wanted to do was that and he felt like it wasn't the first time. "He's your friend," he said. "We can't leave him there."

"Ric, one more time, it's a show."

"We're in an alternate universe," he countered, the strange girl on the video's words echoing in his head. "I know how that sounds but it's true. Guys, believe me, please."

"I want to," Rahne said, rising from the chair and approaching him as carefully as if he were a rabid dog. Which struck him as fiercely ironic.

He backed away when he she tried to touch him, letting a warning vibration reverberate through the floor. "Don't."

She backed off but wolfed out, a low snarl escaping her muzzle. "Yuir not making sense." She was coiled to pounce if he moved the wrong way, which considering that he was spouting what had to sound like crazy talk he could understand. He just couldn't let it slow him down. "Let us help."

"You wanna help, find a way to get me there," he said, pointing at the TV. "Otherwise get out of my way." He let loose another warning tremor then backed away, putting Rahne's heartbroken confusion out of his mind. The close up of the pool of blood on the TV screen was all his mind could hold.

888

The only way he could have gotten to his room faster would be if he'd figured out teleporting. He turned the lock, a good solid one that could hold up to Rahne and a small army of Jamies, and paced the room for a few seconds, trying to get his pounding heart under control. His hands shook so much that it took him two tries to put the tape back in the player, fumbling the remote for a second before hitting play. He stumbled back against the bed when that strange woman appeared on the screen; he wasn't much for praying anymore but he swore he would hit his knees and say a whole rosary for one word of good news. "Well," she said. "Guess you know now."

"Is he dead?"

Layla shook her head. "Not yet."

Ric let out a long, long breath. "You said the universe was going to snap back to normal. When it does, will he be okay?"

She pursed her lips, like she was choosing her words. "If he's back in this dimension. It's funny, the way this kid's powers work; if you're where you were when the shuffle started it's like if nothing happened, but if you're somewhere else – like shunted into another dimension, like 'Star – all of that sticks."

"So if I get him back here, he'll be fine?" Ric almost couldn't let himself believe that; Jamie hadn't been lying when he'd said the sword had almost been bigger than 'Star.

"That's how it works."

Ric nodded. He was on a team with an X in front of it – invading alternate dimensions came with the territory. "Tell me what I do."

"Thought you'd never ask." She took out a notepad with a clear set of directions written across the page and held it up to the camera. "There's a tree surrounded by a mushroom ring. Dig one foot down from the biggest one and you'll find a book. Turn to page 34 and start reading, trust me, you'll know when it starts working. When you get him, go to the archway in front of the tunnel where the fighters go the the ring and do it again."

"Why do I remember? Why me and not Jamie or Rahne?"

She shrugged. "Because you were with him when it happened." She tilted her head to the side, her voice softening. "Or because him disappearing into the ether again is one of those fears that keep you up at night."

Ric didn't know if he wanted an answer to his next question. "You know me in the future. Did this work?" He wondered about that future self, writing out half a conversation from memory. Had he done it because he knew it would work, or was it giving himself a second chance? "Do I get it back in time?"

The guarded expression on her face did nothing to reassure him. "There are a lot of futures," she said, a devastatingly kind expression on her face. "Lots of ways things go. Telling you something specific would just make more." She looked up at the off-camera clock again."Show time. Try to keep that husband of mine out of trouble. I mean, you won't, but try anyway."

He didn't know what that meant and couldn't bring himself to care; the picture degraded to static and Ric could feel his heart pounding so loud he was sure they could hear it in that other world.

Good. Let them know he was coming.

888

Jamie broke into a run to keep up with Rahne; she could go a lot faster on all fours than he could on two and was a lot more graceful about it. A branch smacked him in the face and but he didn't break stride – couldn't, not if he didn't want to lose her in these trees. "Rahne, slow down! I want to find him too but we should try to do it at the same time."

She growled but slowed from a gallop to a fast trot, a pace he could match without his calves screaming in protest. "I don't believe he snuck away."

"I do. He probably thought we'd stop him."

"I'd hope ye'd stop me if I ever went this mad."

Jaime didn't think he had enough caffeine in him to try arguing with a mutant wolfwoman who'd worked herself up into a righteous fury. He was tempted to create a dupe to pawn the job off on but didn't think they had the time. "We don't know he's nuts. The alternate universe thing could be legit."

"So ye believe him?"

"It's not like it hasn't happened before. Tell me you can rule it out." She didn't answer and Jamie wondered how hard to push. "Because the two of you have been a thing since the X-Force days, and since when is he into guys anyway..."

"Yuir right," she muttered, as much to himself as to him. "This has happened before." She looked up at him. "Tell me ye don't feel it. That empty hole where somethin's missing. Tell me I'm not the only one catching myself saying a name and not knowing why."

Jamie didn't answer. He wondered how obvious it was that he'd been scrubbing at his face, trying to touch something that should be there but wasn't. "Thought you were jealous."

"I am," she admitted. "But not just."

There wasn't time for any more soul searching; they reached a strange sort of clearing, one that pinged his instincts in all the wrong ways. Standing beyond a ring of mushrooms he could see Ric, an enormous tome cradled in his hands and oh yeah, that didn't look like a terrible situation at all. Rictor stepped back when he saw them, pressing the book protectively against his chest. "Stay back."

Rahne stayed in wolf form but reared back on two legs and Jamie raised his hands. "Hey, Ric. We're all friends here. We are all still all friends here, right?"

"Yeah. Yeah, we are. As long as you're not here to stop me."

"Then I have great news for you, 'cause we're here to help you."

Ric took another step back, a very skeptical frown on his face. "You mean that in the 'Yo, amigo, we think you're crazy' way or in a useful way?"

"Little of both?" Jamie nodded to the book. "Looks like you're in the middle of something. Could probably use a hand with that. And if this does work I can't just have employees disappearing in to other dimensions, it's hell trying to declare that."

"Why would you help me? You think I'm crazy."

"Well, sure, but I don't see how that changes anything. Crazy and poorly thought-out plans are pretty much out business model."

Ric hesitated for a split second more but Jamie could see the instant he decided to trust them. Which was good, because for once Jamie was out of pretty words to sling back. "I have to read from this book, " Ric said, as if it just occurred to him how ridiculous that sounded.

"It's Reading Rainbow time, then. Have at."

Rictor nodded and started reading, stumbling over words in what sounded a lot like Gaelic to Jaime for almost a whole thirty seconds before Rahne crossed the mushroom ring barrier and snatched the book from his hands. "Ach, yuir making a hash of it," she said, studying the page and paying Ric's protests absolutely no mind. "I'll read it."

Jamie crossed the barrier too, since that seemed like the thing to do. After ten words he felt the earth shaking beneath him and looked to Ric. "That you?" He shook his head and Jamie sighed. "Well, guess whatever this is, it's working." The shaking worsened as Rahne kept reading, until it reached a steady, powerful roar, one Jaime finally closed his eyes to because if the earth was about to swallow him alive he'd really rather not see it coming.

He opened his eyes as the vibration ceased and found himself in the fighting arena of his favorite show. Kind of cool. Y'know, except for the very real crowd throwing alien produce at his head and the nine foot tall security goons making their way toward the three of them. "You guys believe me now?" Ric said.

"Yep." Because it wasn't the arena or the guards or the fact that he could literally smell Mojo from all the way down on the arena floor – whatever had been in those magic words, they'd shaken the truth loose in his head. He looked over at Rahne and saw he wasn't alone in that, she was all but vibrating with rage. "Take it easy."

"They made me forget my son," she snarled, her head swiveling around to glare at Mojo like she was a second from clawing her way up to get to him.

"Don't know this is his fault," he said, keeping his voice low and even. "I mean, this particular thing, anyway, all the rest of this is definitely his fault," he added, gesturing to the crowd. Not that he didn't understand where she was coming from; Jamie now understood why when he'd spotted a woman with long blonde hair while they'd been tracking Rictor he'd had to smother the impulse to stop and ask her what she knew. "We'll get all of this sorted, then figure out everything else."

"It'll snap back," Ric said. "We have to say all of that again under the archway by the tunnel, and by the time we get that done it'll be over." He glanced over to Jamie. "Layla told me."

Jamie grinned. "That's my girl." And that did make things easier. "Go find 'Star," he told Ric, stepping between Rictor and the guards. "Rahne and me will cover you."

"No. No, you guys die here, you'll stay that way."

Just then the announcer's voice rang out. "It looks like we have some volunteers!" he said, sending a ripple of excitement through the crowd. "Let's see how they stack up against our Mojoworld Champion!"

The guards withdrew and a door at the far end of the arena slid open, revealing a humanoid thing so tall it had to duck as it stepped through the doorway, all spiky skin and three heads and toothy grins. And something else very interesting. "Hey, Rahne," he said, nudging her. "That a mace he's holding?"

"Aye," she said, a feral grin on her muzzle.

He clapped Rictor on the shoulder. "Find 'Star, get to the arch and we'll meet you two there." The champion rushed forward, hitting Jamie with the mace only to reel back in surprise when all that happened was Jamie splitting in two. Jamie really, really loved his job sometimes. "We got this."

888

Ric raced through the inner workings of the stadium, trying to remember every word Shatterstar had ever told him about his Mojoverse life. It wasn't much; 'Star was stoic about pain both mental and physical, always had been but Ric knew there were plenty of things Shatterstar didn't like remembering. He thought about one of those nights out under the stars in Mexico, on the way to torch another of his cousin's gun depots; 'Star wasn't prone to nightmares but he'd had one that night, waking up in a panic believing he was back in fighting in an area as a slave, his entire life since then a lie.

And now that nightmare had come true. Ric shook that mental image away and focused back on the search; of all the aspects of his past life 'Star had talked about the arena the most, the same bittersweet emotion in his voice Ric knew he fell into when talking about his abuela's Christmas dinners. This had been the closest thing to a home for 'Star and Ric reached for those old words to remember the layout of the corridors, searching for what might pass for a medical wing.

In the end he stumbled onto 'Star though pure luck anyway. He wasn't in the proper medical area; Ric found that first and almost tore the wing apart before he could accept Shatterstar wasn't there, panic tearing him open when he thought about why that might be.

After another frantic minute of searching Ric found a small room that looked more like a storage room than a hospital, even the pitiful Mojoverse version of one. The room's two inhabitants other than 'Star were laid out on gurneys and already dead, making Ric realize this was where they parked the lost causes. He put that out of his mind and crouched by Shatterstar's gurney; he was breathing but just barely, too fast and too shallow, his skin cold and clammy when Ric brushed his hair out of his face. "'Star. 'Star, wake up, amigo."

To Ric's delight 'Star's eyes fluttered open, widening when he saw Ric there. "Julio?" he whispered, and Ric never wanted to hear this much pain in Shatterstar's voice ever again.

"Yeah. Yeah, it's me."

His eyes closed again but his hand latched around Ric's wrist. "Wondered...if I'd imagined you." He squeezed Ric's wrist with more strength than Ric would have given him credit him for. "Did I win?"

"'Course you did."

Shatterstar actually smiled at that. "Good. I hate losing." His brows drew together. "I get to fight the champion now."

Ric heard a roar echo through the building and remembered the shock on the alien fighter's face when Jamie's dupes swarmed him so Rahne could go for its eyes. "I got Madrox and Rahne subbing for you." He slid one arm under Shatterstar's shoulders. "'C'mon. Let's go home."

'Star always felt like he weighed nothing and never more than now, with adrenaline pumping through Ric's veins. 'Star passed out again almost immediately, blood starting to soak through the half-assed bandages they'd wrapped around the wound and Ric knew they'd wasted enough time. He took off in the most direct route back to the arch, each extra second it took wrapping around his throat and squeezing. Around half-way there a squad of guards cornered them, blocking his path and pointing their weapons. "That is private property," their leader growled, indicating 'Star's limp body. "You will return it and submit to justice. Now."

Ric felt his temper snap at the thought that Mojo's people hadn't bothered to do more than the bare minimum to save Shatterstar but wanted to lay claim to him now. "Get out of my way," he said, feeling the edges of his power thrumming under his skin.

"Surrender the property you're taken from Mojo."

"Don't think you heard me." He tapped his power and the walls started to shake; he escalated the vibrations until cracks spiderwebbed their way up the walls, until the subordinate guards took involuntary steps back. "I will bring this arena down," he said, stepping forward. "Try to stop me and I will bury us all, and I am absolutely not bluffing. Now. Move."

The rattled guards stepped aside and Ric rushed past; there wasn't any more delays in getting to the arch and Ric felt disappointment crush him when he saw they were alone there. He sank down against the wall and pulled 'Star into his lap. "Jamie and Rahne'll be here," he whispered to him, kissing his forehead. He had the book, he could say the words but that would strand them both here. He couldn't do that, not yet. "Hang in there," he said, cradling 'Star's head against his shoulder and counting the seconds. "Hang in there."

888

"Rahne! Two o'clock!" Jamie saw her nod and launch self at the guard coming around the corner, disabling him with one swift strike. "Good job, keep moving." Fighting their way out had taken way too long; Jamie could only hope Ric had found better luck finding Shatterstar than they had trying to meet back up with them.

Rahne dropped back to match his pace. "All of ye accounted for?" she asked, and Jamie didn't think if was fair that she wasn't even breathing hard.

"Didn't exactly have time for a head count." He'd completely lost track of how many dupes he'd spawned over the past five minutes; he felt like he'd reabsorbed them all but it wasn't like he hadn't made that mistake before.

Well, no time to worry about that now. "If one of them wants to sneak off and become king of Jerk World, he's got my blessing, let's move." It took another two precious minutes for them to reach the arch and any relief at find that Ric had found Shatterstar and beaten them there was smothered by the sight of 'Star lying limp and still in his arms. "Oh, he looks bad," Jamie said, earning murderous glances from both Ric and Rahne.

Rahne strode forward and snatched the book from Ric's backpack, snarling "Give me that!" before she started reciting. Jamie felt the charge of the words vibrate through the air; Shatterstar stirred as the spell built, his eyes cracking open. "Hey, buddy," Jamie said, trying to encourage that along.

"What's happening?"

"We're opening the doorway home. You hold tight." He crouched down to eye level with him. "Sorry about cheering when that guy got you. It was an awesome shot."

Shatterstar grinned at that, because Jamie knew full well he was exactly the kind of weirdo who would grin at that. "Was it...an entertaining combat?"

"Fight of the night. Easy."

'Star's lips twitched up again. "That's all that matters, then." His chest heaved once, his hand spasming as his eyes rolled back and Jamie felt a ball of ice lodge in his stomach.

"'Star!" Ric said, cradling his head. "No, no, no, no." He put his fingers to the pulse point in Shatterstar's neck. "Jamie, he's not breathing. 'Star, you can't die now, no se muere, por favor no se muere..."

"Ric, breathe for him." He locked eyes with his teammate, pitching his voice low. "You breathe for him. Don't unravel," he said. "We've both been here before." Ric nodded and laid Shatterstar out flat on the floor, starting CPR as Jamie felt his hands ball into fists. He'd watched too many members of his family die too many times for one lifetime.

Rahne said the last word of the ritual and Jamie felt that whoosh of energy. "Ric, grab him, we're moving." He saw Ric cradle 'Star back against his chest and then closed his eyes against the sickening rush of energy swirling around him.

He came back to in that mushroom ring; Ric and Shatterstar were in front of him but Rahne was no where to be seen.

First problem first. He touched Ric's shoulder, startling him back to consciousness. "How's the patient?"

Rictor cradled Shatterstar's head, letting out a soft, relieved sob when 'Star's eyes opened. "I didn't like that," 'Star murmured, earning a slopply kiss from Ric.

"Don't you ever scare me like that again."

'Star frowned. "I don't know how I did it the first time."

Ric laughed, kissing him again and Jamie drew back to five them some privacy, because he sure as hell wasn't going to be the one to make them stop. He looked around for the book but instead found a cell phone, a note wrapped around it that read See you tonight. Order pizza after you burn the pasta. "Love you too," he said. He'd buy a whole restaurant full of pizzas right now.

He flipped the phone open and selected the only saved number, having to lean against the tree when he heard Rahne's voice on the other end of the line. "Yeah, it worked out," he said after the initial burst of questions died down. "Everyone's fine. It's actually about to get pretty indecent over here." Jamie grinned. "Well yeah, I DID need to give you that mental image, thanks for asking."

The conversation was too short, because the happy ones were always too short. "Yeah. Yeah. And bring the kid around next time you're here, okay?"

Rahne hung up and Jamie let out a long, long sigh. Real victories were rare and he intended to enjoy this one for as long as he could.

888

Late that night Jamie stood outside on the office building roof. "So," he said, clearing his voice. "This is about as close to praying as I'm gonna get, y'know. You'd said you'd come by if we needed it."

He felt a presence behind him, arriving with the flutter of wings and the smell of the Irish moor after a rain. He supposed he should be calling her "Morrigan" now, even though he had no intention of ever doing so. "Hey, Ter."

Her cloak drifted in the nonexistent breeze as she hovered a few feet in the air. "Hello, Jamie." Her voice was different, a deep, resonant reverb hiding beneath the familiar accent.

"Wanted to thank you for the assist today."

She titled her head, her lips curling up in a god's imitation smile of a smile. "What gave me away?"

"The mushroom fairy circle was a big clue. And the designs on the book Layla sent Ric after had crow wings all over it."

"Ravens."

"Big black birds," Jamie said, not liking how the one on her shoulder was looking at him. "So those were two pretty big clues. I figure you had a hand in getting that tape into Ric's room, too."

"I hadn't though you'd discern my involvement."

"I am a detective." He let out a long breath. "Ric never would have gotten over it if he hadn't been able to save 'Star, and we wouldn't have managed it without you. So, y'know. In case the two of them don't figure it out, and they're both pretty distracted now so I'm betting they won't, I wanted to make sure you knew I knew."

"I thought you'd understood that my new state never meant I didn't still consider you all friends. And we all know the pain of someone disappearing from our lives."

"You ever gonna forgive me?"

"I'd thought it was clear I was asking for yours."

Jamie waved that away. "I kept you on the payroll, in case this god thing ever gets old. You've always got a job here. Assuming that's not a come down." It was hard, not being able to read Terry anymore. "And you're invited to the Christmas party, assuming you still do the Christmas thing."

She floated toward him and pressed a cold kiss to his forehead. "You know how to find me." Then she disappeared with the sound of wings fluttering on the wind.

Jamie leaned against the ledge, watching the city slowly wake up below him. "Miss you too." His work phone went off and Jamie answered before the end of the first ring. "X-Factor Investigations." He listened to the details of the case and set up an appointment, watching the sun rise over the skyline.

Yesterday had gone pretty well, all things considered. Now to see if they could string together two wins in a row.

He had a good feeling about it. Time to get to work.