#22 - Aftermath
"Stark Invasion, Day Two, Part Three"
Hank Pym could see the blood on his hands.
It wasn’t there literally, of course. But he knew it was there. He could see it, even if no one else could. He had been part of the “brain trust” that had developed the virus that had all but annihilated the Stark before the survivors committed mass suicide in a foiled kamikaze attack on the Earth. He had helped commit genocide, and now one of his best friends was dead.
How could they have let things come to this? They had known that the Stark were coming. For God’s sake, they had known! Why hadn’t they been better prepared?
How many hundreds of thousands had died during the one-week war? The Thunderbolts, the New Warriors and the Great Lake Avengers had been wiped out with the majority of their members either dead or badly injured. Paris and Denver were still in flames after ships from the Stark fleet had crashed into the cities during the Stark’s suicide run. The population of Albuquerque, New Mexico had been slaughtered like so many other towns across the world. Even his own team of Avengers had been badly affected.
Tony Stark lay in a secure hospital bed recovering from life threatening surgery.
Husk was mourning her lover, Jesse Bedlam, who had been killed by the leader of the Stark race.
Noble, sweet, pure Firebird…
The woman who had stopped him from committing suicide during the lowest point in his life and who had helped him become a man again even though they had barely been acquaintances back then…
Firebird was dead.
Hank did not have to look up to know that his wife was standing in the doorway of his laboratory, concerned.
“I woke up and you weren’t there, Hank,” Tigra told him gently, turning on the lights so that she could see her new husband properly. He looked utterly defeated, sitting with his shoulders slumped in the dark. It had been so long since he had shaved that he practically had a beard, and there were dark circles under his eyes that testified to his almost total lack of sleep since the War had begun. “It’s four o’clock in the morning. You need to get some rest. Come back to bed with me.”
“I can’t sleep, Greer. Every time I close my eyes, I see them.”
Greer knelt down before her husband and put her arms around him. “Who? Who do you see?”
The man who was at least a Simon Williams sat uncomfortably alongside an Avenger he had but a passing familiarity with in a quinjet flying over Los Angeles. They had been working together for a number of hours, dealing with minor emergencies and looters while their fellow Avengers rested after the hectic pace of the invasion. Chrome and Living Lightning were due to relieve them in a few hours, but he had not felt the need to rest. Even his ionic body was beginning to feel the strain after the battles in space, but he knew that he could carry on for another few days if needed to. The second Mockingbird seemed as professional and ready for action as ever despite only being a normal human (even with the strange artificial hand that had been grafted to her two weeks previously), but he could see the tiredness on her face when she briefly removed her mask at one stage. She did not complain though, as did none of the other Avengers. Tigra and Hank would relieve Chrome and Living Lightning once their eight-hour shift was complete, and Hank had ordered both Hercules and Husk to take some time off despite their objections. Husk was mentally in no state to be in a combat situation after the death of her lover, and Firebird had badly burned Hercules in order to ensure he did not sacrifice his life lost alongside her. They all knew that the only way he would have left her side would have been in a hearse if she had not unleashed enough flames against him to overwhelm even his healing abilities. It was typical of Firebird – she had always employed unconventional solutions to put the welfare of others over her own. Simon was once again ashamed at how the original West Coast Avengers had mishandled her initial desire to join the team so many years ago.
“Do you want me to drive?” Simon asked Mockingbird, trying to be helpful.
“I’m fine, thank you,” Mockingbird replied, neutrally.
“I don’t mind. You must be getting tired now. You could stretch and get yourself a coffee.”
“If I am unable to cope with my responsibilities, then I will let you know,” Mockingbird told him, attempting to end the brief conversation.
“Uh… Right…” Simon told her. “You know, I can’t believe Bonita is dead. I mean, I didn’t know her that well, but she was so… vibrant. It’s hard to believe she’s not with us any more.”
“I barely knew the woman,” Mockingbird stated. “People die in wars. Her death was a meaningful one, unlike the majority of those who were killed.”
“Well, I’m sure that’s a comfort to the Swordman’s widow,” he told her pointedly, opening the door of the quinjet to fly alongside her and end their close proximity to one another. He had only spent a little time in her company since his ‘return’, for want of a better word, but he was beginning to see why Tigra disliked her in spite of Greer’s begrudging respect for the SHIELD agent’s abilities. He had heard Ant-Man complain that Mockingbird had ordered that the Swordsman be left behind during the Stealth Squad’s mission to infect the Stark mothership with the virus that had eliminated the invaders. It was probably the only decision that could be made, as the surviving members of the Squad had barely escaped with their lives, but she certainly was not showing it if she was in any way tormented by her decision.
He allowed himself to feel angry for a few minutes before he started feeling guilty about what he had said. At the end of the day, he did not know this Mockingbird and he had no way of knowing how she was feeling. People mourn in different ways. Insisting on helping when she was plainly exhausted was probably her way of dealing with the devastation they had all experienced in the last week. Face it, he told himself - she hardly had reason to open up to him. The other Avengers had welcomed him into the team despite his fragmented memories, but he had no right to expect any one’s trust. They had found him amnesiac and working with the Gatherers, a team of survivors from alternative realities. He had quickly realised he was on the wrong side and helped the Avengers defeat the Gatherers, but even he could not tell them that he was the Wonder Man that they believed dead and gone. His fragmented memories were returning fast, helped by fighting alongside the Avengers and time spent with both Hercules and Tigra reminiscing, but they were far from complete. It was far more logical to assume that he was simply a Simon from an alternative reality like the other Gatherers, something that this new Mockingbird was probably well aware of. She was an elite SHIELD agent after all, with no emotional desire to want him to have returned from the grave, yet she was giving him some benefit of the doubt by willingly working alongside him.
“Mockingbird,” he told her using his Communicard, “I think I owe you an apology.”
“Unnecessary,” Mockingbird told him curtly. “We’ve just been notified of a disturbance. Someone is tearing up the heart of Los Angeles. I’m setting in a course and notifying the Compound. I’ll tell you if we get an i.d. on whoever’s responsible.”
“Understood,” Simon told her, feeling like scum. Her tone was practically impenetrable but, although he barely knew the woman, he was used to being around actors. Something told him he had managed to hurt her far more than he would ever have thought possible…
Hercules ignored the physical pain that surged through his body and continued to sit in a lotus position as he attempted to soothe the far greater pain in his soul. He had been positioned such for hours, as he sought to do the one thing he had never expected to have reason to attempt again.
He sought to communicate with Olympus.
After twelve hours had passed so, when he thought that there was no hope but had vowed to continue until the end of his life if necessary, a portal appeared in the very air. An impossibly beautiful woman stepped through. She was over seven feet tall, with long red hair tied in braids and a simple but striking white tunic. He allowed himself a small smile as she stepped through to this world, as he knew that she was the one member of his family he could still rely on. She had been worshipped as a minor deity throughout mortal history by many names, including Dia by the Phliasians and Juventus by the ancient Romans. He knew her only by the name she had been given at birth. She was Hebe, the last legitimate daughter of Zeus with his wife, Hera. She was Hercules’ half sister. She was also his wife by Olympian law, and mother of two of his children.
“Husband,” she told him solemnly, in a voice as sweet and pure as that of the most innocent child. “I risk much by agreeing to communicate you. You know that our father has forbidden all in our Pantheon from any contact with you. The fact that he helped you recently in human weeks does not mean he will be forgiving to any who disobey him, particularly in edicts involving his favorite son.”
Hercules allowed himself to stand, and noticed the concern on Hebe’s face at the obvious discomfort this caused him.
“I know, sweet Hebe. I would not have compromised you so if it were not vital that I be heard. You have ever been among the most noble of Zeus’ children. Our marriage may have ended in all but name due to my many sins, but I besiege you for your mercy. I do so not for my own whims, but for the ultimate fates of souls that would eclipse the brightest in Olympus.”
Hebe observed Hercules in silence, before beckoning him to continue.
“Hebe, two noble spirits have passed from this realm, having willingly sacrificed their lives for all who live on this world. The first was but a lad called Jesse Aaronson. The second was a woman who reminded me of all that is good in you, a woman called Bonita Juarez whom I have been proud to fight alongside. I would have gladly perished alongside her, but her kindness of spirit would not allow this. She is the one who caused the wounds you see on my now mortal body, an act that defied everything that made her soul soar so that I would not share her fate, and it is due to this action on her part that our sons still have a father. These two mortals could teach the very gods nobility.”
“Was she another of your lovers to have earned this homily?” Hebe asked, having lived with her husband’s indiscretions for countless centuries.
“That honor was not mine,” Hercules admitted to his sister and wife in name, for she knew him far too well for Hercules ever to dishonor her again with a lie. “I was far from worthy of her graces, and never attempted to burden her with my affections. I praise her not as someone who brought me physical comfort, although my soul itself did indeed take comfort from her spirit on many an evening. I praise her as a fierce and mighty warrior who might be robbed of her eternal reward and doomed to wander cowardly Pluto’s realm. Both Bonita and the lad died without a coin in their lips to gain them passage across the river Styx. I fear they might not be granted an audience with Rhadamantus, Minos, and Aeacus, who would doubtlessly pronounce them worth of the Elysian Fields. They deserve to spend eternity among the blessed dead! They should spend it in the heroic pursuit of the hunt and the banquet! They should compose poetry, sing, dance, and tend to their chariots! I implore thee, Hebe! You are the cupbearer of their Gods and keeper of the council of all in Olympus! There is nothing worth accomplishing that is beyond your influence! I beg you do all in your power to rectify this great injustice so that two mighty warriors might be granted the reward that few deserve as much!”
“It… it is a long time since I have heard you speak to me with such… passion…” Hebe conceded. “To risk the wraith of Zeus by ignoring his laws is far more than you have any right to ask of me as our marriage is now as dead to me as it was to you and your philandering ways millennia past. However… Gods should have mercy despite what others of our family might think, and if these warriors are as great as you describe… Particularly and mortal female that could inspire you to control your libido… I will do what I can, husband. If their souls make it to the borders of the Styx, I will grant them coins. Their faith beyond that is assured if your judgement is sound.”
Hercules allowed himself to stagger as relief caused the concentration he had mustered for this ordeal to shatter. “Thank you, fair Hebe,” he told her after a few moments had passed and he regained enough composure to speak. “As ever, you have proven to be fair greater soul than this wretched Son of Zeus has any right to have ever blighted.”
Hebe stroked her husband’s face in empathy for his pain. “You are not wretched, Hercules. You were just as weak to your lusts as your father. Fare well, my husband.”
“Fare well, my wife,” he answered as Hebe returned to Olympus, prepared for any punishment Zeus might inflict should he learn of her visit to Earth and to Hercules. In truth, their marriage had been an arranged one and Hercules loved her more as a sister than as a wife, but that love had never been stronger than it was at that moment.
Hercules allowed himself a few minutes while his body regained enough strength to once again move, and then walked confidently towards the living quarters of Paige Guthrie. He could not hide the burns that still covered his all too mortal frame, but he would not unduly worry the younger Avengers by appearing in obvious discomfort.
He found the youth known as the Living Lightning standing outside of Husk’s room, obviously unsure of what to do but wanting to be available should he be needed. This did not surprise Hercules in the slightest. The secret flames of affection that the lad had for the mutant girl burned visibly to one as old as Hercules.
“Herc! Should you be up? You look like hell, man!”
“It takes far greater than this to stop the Lion of Olympus,” Hercules joked, putting him at ease. “I have come to offer whatever little consolation I can to the tragically begrieved Paige. May I enter?”
“Of course! She’s… she’s a bit upset, Hercules.”
“That is to be expected, lad. Hopefully my words may bring her some small peace,” Hercules replied, before opening the door. He could see the trauma on Paige’s face immediately. The young blonde girl’s normally petite features were distorted with grief, as she had obviously been crying for hours. The paranormal Chrome was holding her, trying to support her new friend in her hour of need, but Hercules could see that she was feeling frustrated from her inability to do so. As an Exile, Chrome had travelled from traumatic moment to traumatic moment on numerous Earths, but she had always been transported to the next once the crisis had been resolved one way or another. The steel skinned woman was not used to witnessing the aftermath on the survivors.
“Hercules…” Paige whispered.
“I bring news which I hope may bring you some small measure of comfort. I have made contact with… an old friend. Your noble lover will be granted an audience in my realm when his soul travels to Olympus, and I have no doubt that his immortal soul with be granted the eternal bliss that befits such a warrior.”
“Yes, Fair Paige. It is a fate that all warriors in Ancient Greece aspired to. I have no doubt that tragic Bonita and your Jesse shall be so blessed in reward for their sacrifices. I apologise for not visiting you earlier, but time was needed to ensure the wraith of my father Zeus was not incurred. His temper could have condemned them unjustly if the right measures had not been undertaken.”
“You were there,” Paige told him with disbelief. “You were there when Jesse died. You were talking to him when he was killed and you did not nothing to prevent it, and now you come to me with… mythology?”
“Lady Paige!” Hercules tried to explain, in shock. “I assure thee that this Son of Olympus would gladly have died in Jesse or Bonita’s place where it within my humble power, but such a deed was beyond my meagre abilities.”
“Get out,” Paige told him coldly. “Get out! Get out of my sight, you son of a bitch!”
“I think you better leave, Hercules,” Chrome told him sympathetically as she tried to calm her distressed friend. “Your presence… isn’t helping…”
Hercules nodded his head once and withdrew, seeing the cold fury in the young Guthrie’s face. “I meant no offence. I would gladly have traded my own wasted life to spare two great ones that had just begun.”
He closed the door behind him and closed his eyes, feeling once again to be a fool among men.
“She doesn’t mean it,” Living Lightning tried to comfort the legendary Avenger.
“She’s just upset. She’ll calm down. Hey, how about we get a beer from the kitchen? Things have been so crazy lately we could all do with relaxing.”
“A beverage would be nectar from the gods at a moment like this,” Hercules told him, before walking away. “But I have sought refuge from my failings in Dionysius’ sweet oblivion far too many times in recent years. I will not dishonor the sacrifices of our dead by doing so again.”
“You thought those aliens were tough? You’ve seen nothing yet!” The Absorbing Man shouted, his body and wrecking ball having taken on the properties and appearance of asphalt. Sunset Boulevard was already badly damaged after the Stark’s attack. The invaders sought to destroy Earth’s gods, and had included the celebrities of the entertainment industry in that category as a damning verdict of Earth’s society. Sunset Boulevard links the gritty, urban streets of downtown Hollywood to the lush, green, residential avenues of Beverly Hills. To the Stark it had briefly been a landing point. To the Absorbing Man, it was shortly going to be history.
“Hey, that’s not very nice,” Wonder Man told him, picking him up and flying into the air. “How’s JLo meant to get to work if you destroy Sunset? Plus I made a movie here once – I’ve a lot of good memories.”
He dropped Crusher Creel, who crashed to the ground slightly dazed but not in the slightest bit injured.
“Do you think I care about you Hollywood fakes?” Creel shouted, throwing his wrecking ball at Williams. “I don’t give a damn where I am! I just want to destroy every thing!”
“That’s not a very nice attitude,” Mockingbird told him, somersaulting over him and making contact with a hyped up SHIELD taser in an attempt to weaken him so that the vastly more powerful Williams could end his rampage.
“I’m definitely detecting anger management issues,” Simon replied, hurling the wrecking ball back at Creel. “Maybe his mother didn’t hug him enough?”
“You Avengers think you’re all so smart!” Creel yelled, throwing himself into the crowd of normal people who were running away. “I’ll show you smarts!”
Mockingbird instinctively threw herself towards him to protect the civilians, attacking him with her battle staves. Creel was faster than expected and managed to grab one of the staves. He shrugged off the energy blast Mockingbird fired at him through the staves, and grabbed her hand. He was about to tell her that all hero types were predictable and that he knew threatening others would bring her within hitting range, but the words died in his mouth only to be replaced by a scream. The hand he held was her artificial hand, given to her by the Exile known as Deathlok. SHIELD’s finest scientists had been struggling to gain even a basic understanding of the techno-organic substance that comprised the replacement for the hand destroyed by the Gatherer’s Vision. When Creel touched it, his control of his skin’s absorbing abilities was over-ridden and he began to change into something uncontrollable and horrific…
Tigra and Pym were oblivious to what their fellow Avengers were facing as they returned from visiting the fallen Iron Man in a secure hospital in Baltimore, Maryland. Tigra tried to think of things to say to her new husband as they flew back to Los Angeles. She had known Hank Pym since she had first joined the Avengers, and had seen him at his worse during the crux of his nervous breakdown where he had been thrown out of the Avengers and been divorced by the Wasp. She thought she had seen every side of him.
She was wrong.
He had barely spoken to any one since awaking from a brief, fitful sleep that night. They had flown to Baltimore to visit Tony Stark in the hospital where he was recuperating from having a life vest attached to keep the recently released transmode virus from destroying the cybernetic parts of his body.
“I thought he was looking well, considering every thing that happened to him,” Tigra tried to cheer up her husband, who merely nodded in response. Tigra had seen Hank switch to happy team-leader mode when they had finally been allowed to see the man that most of the world now considered to be a peer of Hitler and Bin Laden. If she had not known better, she would have thought every thing was fine during that brief visit, but he had immediately returned to his guilt-stricken morose state once they left the room of their seriously ill comrade. In a way she supposed it was a testament to his feelings for her that she alone was allowed to see what he was going through, but it was little comfort. She felt utterly useless at helping him to realise that he was not to blame for the devastation the Stark had achieved or for the final solution that Earth had to invoke in order to guarantee it’s continued survival. The Stark had invaded Earth, not the other way around. She and Firebird were never best friends – Tigra had not had any close female friends since the first Mockingbird, as she knew that the cat aspects of her personality irritated other women and made her equally impatient of other women being uptight – but Greer had admired Bonita and would mourn her. But she knew her grief was nothing compared to Hank’s. Hank and Bonita had forged an unbreakable bond of friendship when Tigra and the original Whackos had been lost in time, although neither had ever mentioned exactly what had occurred to cause that bond. None of the other Avengers even knew that Hank and Greer had been dating, not to mention their impulsive wedding before the first Stark attack, yet Bonita had given the impression that she had figured it out although she was far too discrete to say anything. She even seemed to approve.
No wonder Hank was in pieces. And it was Greer’s job as his wife to help him put those pieces back together.
“So what do you think of this temporary Iron Man that Tony’s lining up for the team? Not sure how I feel about a mercenary joining while he’s sick, but Tony has good instincts and an experienced fighter should help us buck up the ranks for a while.”
“I trust Tony’s judgement,” Hank replied. “But he’s giving me the ability to shut down the Mauler’s armour at the first sign of trouble. I won’t hesitate to use it if needed.”
“I’m sure you won’t,” Greer smiled, taking Hank’s hand before pausing at what she saw. Or what she did not see, to be more precise.
“Hank, where’s your wedding ring?”
Hank looked at his hand where the ring should have been, and then at Greer before reaching into one of the pockets of his jumpsuit and putting the ring back on. “I… I took it off while I was working on a machine to fine-tune the transmode virus. I didn’t want it to get scratched.”
“Oh. Okay…” Greer remarked, before deciding to trust her husband and ignore the doubts she felt about his explanation, even though she had no reason to not believe him…
“Oh hell…” Living Lightning whispered, as he unleashed a barrage of electricity at whatever the Absorbing Man had become.
Creel had grown in size to around five metres tall, maintaining a vaguely humanoid shape but looking like nothing that ever came from this world. His skin had been replaced by lumps of dark metal overlapping each other in an infinite pattern, with yellow energy cascading along the joins. He was screaming, but his voice sounded more like a sound from a computer than a man.
“What the hell happened to him?” Lightning asked, having just arrived in response to the emergency signal from Mockingbird and Simon Williams.
“He touched Mockingbird’s hand,” Williams replied from where he was floating beside the young Avenger.
“You did that?” Lightning asked Mockingbird in amazement. The African American SHIELD agent was the closest thing to rattled that he had ever seen her approach, and was obviously in a state of equal disbelief. Lightning had no way of knowing the thoughts that were running through her head, which primarily were worries about whether there was a chance her daughter could suffer a similar fate if Mockingbird touched her again…
“Hit him fast!” Mockingbird shouted, once again in total control of herself as she hurled explosive blasts from her battle staves. “He’s disorientated, but he’s still a threat! SHIELD can figure out what happened to him later!”
“What… have you… done to me?” Creel screeched, as he lashed out and practically demolished a building with a single swing of his arm.
“I wish I knew…” Mockingbird whispered, before shouting instructions to her fellow Avengers. “Keep fighting, but don’t touch him! We don’t know if he’s contagious!”
“Contagious!” Creel shrieked, before advancing towards Mockingbird. “I’m going to rip you in two, bitch!”
“Not in this lifetime…” Lightning responded with a full barrage of electricity as Mockingbird rolled out of the way. Creel yelled but continued to slowly advance towards the SHIELD agent. Lightning would have been sweating if he had been in human form as he increased the power of his assault to the point where he could have annihilated a building, but Creel was only being slowed down. Whatever he had become, his strength and invulnerability appeared to have been increased exponentially.
Simon Williams wished he still had the ionic form that his demonic doppelganger had when he was being impersonated by the demon used to seduce Wanda into becoming Nexus. His energy powers would be useful in battle with a foe that he was afraid to touch, but he was still far from helpless. He flew behind Creel and straight into the concrete behind him, ploughing out a deep trench behind him. Lightning recognised what he was doing from training exercises he had done with Wonder Man back when he had first been an Avenger, and exerted himself into increasing his attack even further. Creel staggered backwards angrily, and fell into the pit Williams had created, crashing downwards and falling into the remains of the building he had destroyed.
“Good work! Keep on the pressure!” Mockingbird ordered over the sound of her battle staves firing as a quinjet landed near them.
“What’s happening?” Hank ordered, rushing out of the quinjet to assist his Avengers, amazing Tigra by how quickly he had banished his personal doubts for the benefit of those who looked at him for leadership. She had never been so proud of him.
“I’m going… to kill… you all!” Creel shouted, throwing his wrecking ball towards the quinjet, which Tigra was standing in front of.
“Greer!” Hank shouted, as Tigra narrowly jumped out of the way before the quinjet exploded. She landed on her feet, but shrapnel from the quinjet violently flew through the air, with one piece making contact with her leg.
Hank rushed over to his secret wife who told him to get back into the fight as she tried to stop the bleeding. “I’ll be fine! Nine lives, remember? Your team needs you!”
Hank paused for a moment, wanting to stay with her but knowing she was right. He pulled her towards her and kissed her passionately, not caring that the others could see, before turning all of his attention to the battle. He could see Lightning’s electrical form begin to flicker. The young Hispanic Avenger was exhausting himself, but refused to rest as he knew he was buying the rest of the team valuable time. Hank was proud of him, just like all of his Avengers.
“Why is Creel on a rampage?” he demanded off Mockingbird, who he knew responded best to clear commands. “Last I heard he and his wife Titania were working with Justice and Firestar to fight the Stark!”
Mockingbird tapped into the SHIELD database via a console in the silver bracelets she wore on each arm. “Unclear. According to the latest SHIELD reports, Titania is in a prison hospital near here. She sustained a serious head injury in one of the final battles with the Stark.”
Hank stared at Creel and everything was suddenly clear. He had been reaching into his jumpsuit to take out a miniaturised weapon that could drain most technologies, but he stopped himself as visions of Bonita came to mind. That would be the easy solution. He knew what Bonita would do now. It was riskier and more difficult, but when had Bonita ever let that stop her from doing the right thing. Hank knew what he had to do if he had ever learned anything from her. He had to honour her memory, or else he was not worth the second chance she had given him when she stopped him committing suicide so long ago. He owed her that at least.
Hank gave the weapon to a puzzled Mockingbird, ordering her not to use it unless it was absolutely necessary, and then signalled Lightning to cease his assault.
“Hank?” Williams asked, as the worn out Lightning practically fell to the ground. “What are you doing?”
Hank ignored him and held his arms up to signal to Creel that he was not looking for further confrontation. Creel was as unsettled by the Avengers ceasing their assault as the Avengers were, and looked down at Hank curiously, unsure what new ploy the Avengers leader was employing.
“No more fighting, Creel! I was just want to talk!” Hank told him.
“I’m sick of talking!” Creel told him angrily, but did not strike him. “Talking gets you no where! All people want to use are big words that change nothing.”
“You’re talking about Titania, aren’t you? What happened to her?”
“She was being a hero!” Creel shouted, wiping away the tears that he refused to let his enemies see. “For once in her life, she thought we should do the ‘right’ thing. She talked me into fighting the Stark, and now… now she’s a bleedin’ vegetable! Minimal brainwave activity they say! They think she’s never going to wake up!”
“Anything is possible, Creel. You and I both know that. Just look at what we both can do and you don’t need any more proof of that. She chose to do the right thing, Creel. She chose to be a hero and to put the welfare of others ahead of her own when it came to the crux. Do you think all of this is really what she would want? Do you really think this is how she would want you to honour her sacrifice?”
“You don’t even know her!”
“I know she was a hero when it mattered, Creel. I know you love her and you want to do right by her. I’m married myself – that’s my wife over there who was injured when you destroyed our quinjet. I don’t know how I would cope if anything happened to her. My first wife was murdered and I almost went under. Losing her almost killed me and set me on a dark road I’m only getting off now. My best friend died two days ago showing all of us the meaning of the word heroism, just like your wife did when she chose to enter the fight that has left her critically injured. We owe it to them to be better men than we are now, Creel. We owe it to them to show them that we have learned the lessons they had to teach us. Even if the worst happens and your wife dies, you owe it to her to honor her, not to inflict our pain on other people who might have wives or husbands or children. End this, Creel. If not for yourself, do it for her.”
“I…” Creel paused, not sure how to react. He would be the first to admit that he had never been a clever man. He was cruel and impulsive and violent. But he was not evil, not really. He loved his wife with all his heart, and something in Hank’s words struck a cord in the slender shard of decency that remained in him. “I just want… I just want her back. Nothing else matters…” he whispered, as he allowed himself to revert back to normal, his absorbing powers having assimilated the techno-organic material that made up Mockingbird’s hand well enough for him to gain control of his abilities once more. “Nothing else matters if I don’t have her…”
“I know, Creel,” Hank told him, comforting the man with whom he had so little but so much in common as he stared at his wife and vowed to get through his grief for her. “I know…”
The other Avengers slowly walk towards them, Williams supporting the injured Tigra who was openly crying at the admission of love from her husband and the public admission of their marriage. She knew then that Hank would be okay, and that they had a fighting chance to make their marriage work. And she knew who she had to thank for it, the woman who they all owed their lives too.
“Avengers Assemble, Bonita,” she whispered, as she took Hank into her arms as Mockingbird and Lightning took Creel into custody, all fight gone from him for the moment. “God bless…”
The next day, Hank Pym stood before a small assemblage in a conference room that was like something out of a science fiction film. Holographic displays danced and shimmered to illuminate the meanings that any given speaker wished to convey, and exotic materials informed the structure of the place…materials with names like vibranium and adamantium.
Hank was not utilizing any of the room’s fancier capabilities at that moment. He was simply speaking, one man addressing seven men and women…and though Dr. Pym had the unique ability to change his size, including the power to grow as large as a legendary Titan, he did not look especially large at that moment. In fact, he looked a bit smaller than he should, bent by grief and loss.
Seven men and women stared at the conference table’s polished surface and tried hard to listen to Dr. Pym’s words. Sorrow and anger and loneliness permeated the room like local weather patterns that had decided to stay for a while, and though the California sun was shining somewhere outside the walls of this room, it did not touch the atmosphere of this place in the slightest.
“Our sessions with Dr. Samson,” Henry Pym was saying, referring to the psychological counseling sessions he had been planning for the benefit of the team long before the Invasion, “are more important now than ever. After the…devastation of the Stark Invasion…” He trailed off for a moment, groping for words, and his eyes fell on the lone empty seat at the table, a statement of undeniable absence among the assembled men and women there. “After the loss of…of so many brave men and women…heroes and civilians alike…”
He wanted to say her name, but was afraid he might choke up in front of them – he, their current leader, a founder of this mighty grouping of heroes. He wanted to say it, and was deciding not to, when he felt the eyes of Hercules upon him, smoldering, beaming laserbeams of mute fire and fury at him. Henry Pym said the name.
“After the loss of our friend and teammate…Bonita Juarez…Firebird…”
Hercules nodded, grave wrath and some promise of vague retribution evident across his brow, and the metal-sheened woman called Chrome, seated to his right, placed a sympathetic hand on his massively-thewed arm. Paige Guthrie and Miguel Santos, the youngest members of the group, both hung their heads, and only the enigmatic spy known as Mockingbird seemed at least somewhat removed from hot and scalding tears.
Dr. Pym continued, though his words were indeed clotted for that moment with emotion. Greer Grant – the stunning and exotic “were-woman” called Tigra, as much feline as human – looked at Henry Pym, the man she loved, and choked back emotion of her own. “Our losses are so great…we need to…I think it is critical that we spend some time with Dr. Samson, talking out our reactions, and trying to just cope. He will be a tremendous help to us, and while I had thought about postponing our sessions in the wake of all this…I’ve decided that that would be a bad idea. Not in our best interests at all. Now, Hercules, Iron Man, and myself have the most experience with this sort of thing, so I think it’s even more crucial that the rest of you start in with Dr. Samson first. I’ll call his office and set up a schedule, with our first group heading up to his offices some time next week.”
He regarded them, these heroic men and women he felt so privileged to serve with…these good and selfless people who should never have to know such grief and loss.
He did not know that soon – very soon – they will be granted yet another new chance to hone again their skills at coping with loss…and death.
Dr. Henry Pym spoke for a bit longer, wrapping up several other matters on the meeting agenda, and then he adjourned the gathering. The men and women of the Avengers West Coast filed out, and despite the wondrous scientific marvels packed into the conference room – indeed, packed into the entire compound headquarters – none of the Avengers could yet sense the tragedy waiting for them just ahead, dwelling within the as yet unturned pages of the calendar, an ill wind ready to blow, and ticking away like a black and terrible time bomb…
A few days later, Chrome stretched and got up from her seat in the mini cinema within the Compound. With Paige on her way to Doctor Samson’s clinic, Chrome had decided to take some time just for herself. From the thousand of films available in the Avengers’ database, she had decided on an old John Wayne movie that she had remembered watching with her Dad as a girl. It seemed that history in this world radically changed from her Earth approximately around the late eighties, so it was reassuring in a way to watch something that reminded her of her childhood.
It was almost funny. She had been so calm during the Invasion. It was just another world-threatening crisis facing an Earth, just like all of her missions with the alternate-reality travelling Exiles, but she was completely disorientated now the threat was over and she was still here. It had been so long since she had spent time somewhere without a crisis to deal with. She had become a school teacher on her world before being chosen to be an Exile against her will – she had taught the mutated children of paranormals like herself in a New York deserted by most ‘normal’ humans. Yet for so long since she had been trying to be a hero – risking her life and seeing so many good people die before being transported to the next world and the next emergency. She had almost given up hope about ever getting home, before being left here by the Timebroker and being told it was the closet to home he could bring her due to some cosmic restriction she did not even pretend to understand. This was her world now, and she had to face the consequences of devastation on an Earth not even her own, while the other Exiles presumably had visited half a dozen worlds since they had parted company with her.
Well, to hell with the Timebroker, she decided.
This was a good Earth, and the Avengers had made her feel very welcome, but it was not her Earth. She decided then and there that she would not give up on her home. Some how, some where, there had to be someone on this planet who could get her home, and she was determined to find it. Bonita’s death proved one thing that she had almost allowed herself to forget. Life was short and was for living. She was going to go home.
Now all she had to do was figure out how…
She passed the communications room and noticed someone was trying to get through to the Compound. She activated the console and found herself face to face with a petite brunette woman wearing a black and yellow costume. She gave the impression of being someone used to pampering and taking care of herself, but there was a confidence and poise that indicated that she was not to be underestimated.
“Oh, hello. You must be Chrome,” the woman told her. “I’m the Wasp – I lead the East Coast Avengers. Is Hank there?”
“No,” Chrome replied honestly, with no idea the consequences her next words would bring. “I think he’s with his wife in her cottage here on the Compound. Do you want me to see if I can connect you?”
“His…” The Wasp’s voice trailed off as she stared at the oblivious Chrome in amazement. “What did you just say?”
Next: The Avengers prepare to bury their dead (yes, plural!) as a grief-stricken Husk must decide where her future lies – with the Avengers, or the X-Men! Plus: fresh from claiming victims elsewhere in the Avengers 2000 universe during the Invasion - Scourge returns, and he/she is getting closer to crossing paths with the Avengers as we begin the build-up to Avengers West Coast #25!
The Invasion is over. Thank god. But if you think things are going to get easier for our exhausted heroes, then you obviously don’t know me very well… or Mr. Steve Seinburg.
I hope every one has been reading Super-Villain Team-Up, and if not you should be. Steve has slowly but brilliantly putting together a new Lethal Legion to kill Hank Pym, and in #7 the Legion claim first blood! Yes, Bonita is not the only Avenger to die. Steve and I have been plotting this for months, and another Avenger is going to join Firebird in death. Who is it? Now, that would be telling… Go read one of the most exciting titles at Avengers 2000 and find out as the Whackos face foes that not all of them will walk away from.
Special Thanks to Steve for Epilogue 1, which was lifted almost word for word from SVTU #6.
The Stark Invasion is over. A new era for Avengers 2000 starts now!