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Breakdown took Cobalt Templar's hit and sneered at him, empowered by his sheer malignant hate even against Corbin's righteous wrath. Just as he was pulling himself away from the wall, Corbin distinctly heard "Cobalt Templar, get down!" seconds before a blast of energy came sparking up from the panels around them, searing their way across Breakdown's costume and further singing the wicked hero-turned-villain: the distinct odor of burning chest air stunk up the room as Breakdown pushed his way out of the cables that Edge had tried to entangle him in.

"You think you can stop me, Lucas?" he spat, floating above the catwalk and the ground where some of his friends were beginning to regain consciousness. His words didn't come through the air, rather they seemed to vibrate through the very harmonies of the universe like a needle scratching across the record of everyone's skin, or maybe just fingers reaching out to feel very unpleasant. "My master is ready for you and yours! I have the music of the Terminus inside me, and I AM INVINCIBLE! Ahaha!"

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"Yeah, they all say that," Wander shot back, still standing next to her fallen doppelganger. In a sudden burst of movement, she launched herself at the nearest support pole and grabbed onto it with her free hand, swinging around and up the pole in a singularly improbable fashion that was equal parts superhuman strength, exhaustive training, and an extra dose of luck in the air. When she reached the level of the catwalk, she braced her legs on the pole and leapt at DJ Breakdown, bat-first.

They tumbled across the catwalk in a confusion of limbs and bat, not stopping until they both fetched up against the far railing, Wander's bat pressed down hard against the villain's throat. He was clearly unconscious. "I've owed you that for a long time," she muttered, too quietly for her colleagues below to hear.

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As DJ Breakdown slipped into unconsciousness, voiding his bowels and bladder as his body collapsed into immobility and imbecility thanks to the savage beating he'd taken at the hands of Young Freedom, Radio Freedom began rising to their feet, shaking off the effects of the former hero's mind control, they began to realize what had been going on. "Oh Eddie, man, Eddie baby..." Rubbing his head, Disco Edge looked up at the fallen former hero. "Time to send you to school." He fired a blast of energy at Breakdown that brought about quite a change in him, transforming Breakdown's battered flesh into something with the consistency of a shiny, sparkly disco ball in the shape of a man. "By the time that wears off, they'll have pulled all the power out of him and dropped him in the deepest, darkest pighole they can find. Thanks, Young Freedom. You guys are pretty groovy."

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Midnight turned off his sonic dampener just before Wander's bat cracked into the alternate Breakdown with an audible crunch. Leaving the others to see to whatever was left of the would-be Annihilist, the young man stepped calmly back over to the reality bomb and set to work. It was a much easier task now that he was familiar with the design, and in little time he had another cosmic lightning rod safely tucked away. "Should dispose of the remains," he noted to one of the scientists who'd been trapped inside when the fight had broken out.

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Cobalt Templar moved when Edge told him to; in Young Freedom, you learned to pay attention when Edge warned you to get out of the way. He let a satisfied grin as the blast struck home on Eddie, and seemed to actually do something (unlike his own blow).

HIs grin burst into a full smile as Wander took Eddie to sleepy-time-land in a single blow with her bat.

"Hah! Nice hit!"

Only then, with the threat gone, did his fiery covering begin to fade to normalcy. He popped his neck as he looked around, walking over to Cobalt Ranger and offering him a half-smile and a hand to stand up.

"Well, could have gone better, but definitely could have gone worse."

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Sage shrugged at Disco Edge, "It's what we do." For how much longer though, she wondered glancing at the senior members. Giving her head a quick little shake Sage wandered over to her Radio Freedom counterpart and helped her to her feet. Reaching out with a gloved hand she brushed some debris off the other girl's shoulder and offered her a wan smile.

"Sorry about the car, but Eddie really had it coming." she muttered, looking a little sheepish. "Oh, and for what it's worth, it gets better."

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Wander made a disgusted face as she realized what Eddie had done to himself, quickly disentangling herself from the unconscious villain. Her costume was in very sad shape by now, burned, ripped, and dirty, but she herself was undamaged. Dropping from the catwalk, she landed next to her counterpart, who was sitting up by now and looking much more herself.

"I can't believe that jerk made me take the hit for him!" Wonder exclaimed, rubbing the side of her head where a dent was rapidly smoothing itself out. "Ungroovy, man. Totally squaresvillainy. He's never done anything like that before," she assured her counterpart. "He's always been a jerk, but he's been our jerk, dig?"

"Yeah, I dig," Wander assured her. "Kind of the same way it happened on our world, but with slightly less peeing himself. I don't know how long we're going to be here now that the bomb is disarmed, but if we have any time, we could use a little rest and food, and maybe a chance to clean up. We've been at this for a lot of hours now."

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The heroes wound up staying on the planet of the disco longer than they'd anticipated; an entire night passed for them on the world Mark's dad had created. This wasn't as easy as it sounded: not only there was a lot going on what with the other Breakdown's incarceration and interrogation, but there was the urgent fate of the multiverse to deal with. Still, the fact that as hours went by and the nebbishy scientists of ASTRO Labs dismantled the cosmic bomb entirely, as hours went by and the kids of Radio Freedom put the kids up in the groovy clubhouse of Alex Albright, where mp3s of wacky disco music played on the sound system and where a disco ball spun overhead, was certainly suggestive that for the moment the multiverse wasn't going to collapse into ruin and despair. In the next couple of hours, anyway. Between the day-glo posters on the wall and the groovy dialogue of Radio Freedom, It was all like something out of Scooby-Doo, if Scooby-Doo had done more crossovers with the Freedom Friends.

It had been a long day and night without rest or sleep for the heroes of Young Freedom, and the possibility of rest was really very tempting. Given the chance to rest up and recuperate, Mark took the opportunity to shower and change into a clean costume with a funky new silver-colored cape thanks to the courtesy of his host, only when he was alone stopping to think about this world and just how had it come to be? Were the heroes here all better off thinking that all Breakdown had said had been product of his mind twisted by Omega and the promises of a reunion with an ex-girlfriend as shocked as anyone else by all this terrible news? He thought, he hoped they were: he certainly wasn't going to disillusion another version of himself that way.

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Trying though Midnight found Radio Freedom's home reality on the whole, he was at least able to replenish his belt's store of explosives from Nightlife's stores along with a number of other items he'd expended. The satin black clad dancer was notably more subdued after Breakdown's betrayal, quite clearly blaming himself for not seeing it coming. His brooding made him considerably easier for Midnight to interact with, at least, after which point he took his leave, presumably to find a rooftop to stand upon while the sun set behind him.

For his part, Trevor doubted he would be able to get any real sleep, but with the day's trials wearing on him, he took the opportunity to settle into a sufficiently restful meditative state on one of the clubhouse's couches. He could only hope that they were simply ahead of schedule, and nothing had gone wrong on Oliver and Rick's end of things.

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Wander was very happy for the chance at a real meal and a shower, even if she found her counterpart's living space bizarre and a little bit disturbing. This Erin White had lived the way Rick Lucas thought she should've, with a wall full of sports awards and academic achievements and her healthy, happy family living close by. Erin found herself drawn to a framed photograph of Wonder in flight with a middle-school aged girl on her back, both of them laughing as they mugged for the camera. She stared at it for a long moment, then had to look away. Her counterpart didn't catch the momentary interlude at all, busy digging through her own closet for replacement clothes.

In the end, Wander ended up wearing the very first version of Wonder's outfit, one very much like her own but with several rows of sequins and bell cuffs added on, as well as a neckline that went several inches lower than Wander was used to. She hoped she could get Mark to take off some of the shiny stuff, but for now she was just glad to be clean and dressed. While Wonder went off to read DJ Breakdown the riot act in his brand-new cell, Wander made her way to the main living area of Radio Freedom's clubhouse. Sitting down next to Midnight on the couch, she drew her legs up into the lotus position and sighed. "You awake?" she murmured after a few moments.

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"More or less," Trevor confirmed without opening his eyes, shifting on the couch to lean against Erin while he remained sitting, tilting his head to lightly touch against he auburn hair. "Hard to rest not knowing when we'll 'jump' again." Even with the absolutely mind boggling stakes of their latest mission hanging over them, the strain slipped from the young man's shoulders with his love's comforting presence beside him. Letting one onyx and crimson eye crack open slightly, he deadpanned, "Nice bellbottoms."

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"Shut up," Erin muttered, even as she cracked a half-smile. "At least it's clean. Maybe I can get Mark to fix it for me without turning it pink and sparkly." She lifted a hand to run her fingers through his dark hair, then rested her head on his shoulders. "I don't think I'm going to sleep much either. We've come this far, but it's probably not going to get any easier. And... the idea of going back bothers me," she admitted. "It was one thing I told myself I'd never do, and now I'm going and taking all of you, too."

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"...could have just asked him to fix the old one. Or made a whole new one," Trevor pointed out after a silent pause. "Not that I mind the cut," he added in an attempted bit of levity, but tired as he was, his subtle smile faltered almost immediately. What could he say to make the idea of returning to Erin's hellish world of origin any more palatable? Rubbing one hand over his eyes, you the young man sighed heavily. "Wanted to apologize again for Erde. Not sure what happened. Discorporealization? Nngh. Unexpected." Giving up on his breathing exercises, he instead collapsed wearily into the couch.

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"I stopped being mad when I realized you hadn't known you could do it," Erin replied, absently stroking his hair. "I mean, you've done some crazy stuff in the past, but you wouldn't have done something like that without telling me if you'd known. It just scared me so much." Her fingers went still as she remembered. "I thought they'd shot you with something and disintegrated you, just like that. It was like my heart stopped beating."

She turned her face against his shoulder and closed her eyes for a moment. "That's the worst part of all of this," she told him. "I would be okay with dying to save the world, but I don't know what I would do if anything happened to you. And this mission may well kill us."

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Wrapping his arm around Erin's shoulder and holding her head as she pressed her face into him, Trevor spoke softly, even by his standards. "Not going anywhere," he promised her, pausing until she lifter her eyes to meet his. "Won't let anything happen to you. Don't let anything happen to me, we'll be covered." Brushing his lips lightly across her forehead, auburn bangs tickling his nose, he pulled back just enough to regard the formidable young woman. "Love you."

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"I love you too," Erin told him, studying his face with sober eyes as though she were trying to memorize him. "We've come through bad situations before, but not anything like this. If we go up against the Terminus, just the five of us... I believe we can win," she said, her voice flat. "I think it's the sort of fight you don't win without paying a hard price for it. This is the second time we've gotten thrown out of the universe to save it. Eventually we're not going to be able to get back in again, even if we win, even if we live." She shook her head, then reached out a hand to lace her fingers with his. "It's just hard to think about. Easier just to have the fight and be done with it, I guess."

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While the others had moved off into couples, or to a party, or other such activities, Cobalt Templar had migrated to the roof of the clubhouse. There he conjured himself a vaguely recliner-like chair, and sat back to stare at the stars, and conjure up a ghostly image of Quo-Dis, the love of his life. He reached up to touch the glowing blue face-

"Wait, is that Ultiteen?"

Faster than an eyeblink, the image is gone. In two eyeblinks, CT is halfway to standing before he realizes it's just Cobalt Ranger. He breathes a sigh of relief and returns to his chair and contemplation of the image of his girlfriend overlaid on the stars. CR walks over and conjures his own, slightly funkier, chair.

"Yeah. Quo-Dis. She's my girlfriend. We've been going out for...about 8 months now. It's been an incredible ride. She...she's one of the reasons I got mad back there. I mean, we were at the graduation ceremony. We have this near-constant mindlink if we're close by these days. I was talking to her, trying to help her guide the evacuation to the shelters. And then, she was just gone. One moment I felt her fear and her love and everything, and the next nothing at all. It hurt."

He gave a bitter chuckle.

"I guess it's not as bad as poor Eve, who basically felt everything go way too quiet, but still. After a point, playing the "it sucks worse for you" game feels a bit pointless."

He visibly tried to cheer himself up a bit as he turned to his Western-wearing double.

"What about you? Are the two of you one of the top 5 funkiest couples on campus?"

CR shifts uncomfortably in his chair.

"I never worked up the guts."

CT blinks and frowns.

"Say again?"

"I said I never worked up the guts, okay? I mean, bad enough I was the "square redneck rube" who didn't have much in the way of friends for my first couple of months here. Bad enough I was getting in fights most of that time. But...she's captain of the Women's Roller Derby Team! She's got that whole "natural grace and power" thing going on! Plus, she's got the whole crystal-disco chick vibe going on. Whenever I'm near her, I just can't think of what to say!"

"Start with asking her to the movies. Or dinner. Or something."

"But-"

"No buts! You're a frigging superhero! You're on Radio Freedom! You're slinging around one of the greatest weapons created on this planet, and you're using it to help the lives of people all around you! You're one bad hombre! Forget the crap the rest of those losers say! Your team appreciates you. Your parents appreciate you. Who else do you need to appreciate you? Why do you hide yourself behind that whole "funk cowboy" thing?"

"I'm tired of being another "square"!"

"If people can't see you're an awesome guy when you're just being yourself, they're the squares. Who cares what they think? What they define as square or not? Take a little of that willpower you pour into that ring, and use it on yourself! Ask her out! Worst case, she says no, you move on with life. You're not me, so don't get caught up in thinking you have to end up in the same life, just wearing a cowboy hat and playing disco music."

CR blinked, clearing needing a few minutes to mull the idea over. The two Corbins lapsed into silence, each staring at the sky for different reasons. Finally, CR conjured up a hand of fire, and held it out halfway to CT. After a moment, the armor clad hero caught on, and with a grin, conjured his own hand. They proceeded to fist-bump the hands of fire.

"You're alright for a guy stuck in the Middle Ages."

"And you're not bad for a reject from Silverado."

They laughed at their own jokes, comforted by the fact that each knew the other bore no ill will in the words.

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Slipping his fingers into Erin's, Trevor gave her hand a slight squeeze. "If we can't get home, we can make a new one. If we were ever separated, I'd find you." The dark haired young man's soft baritone held the slightest suggestion of hesitation as he struggled to adequately put his feelings into words, the strength of those emotions outweighing his laconic nature. "This is just one more fight. We'll win. We'll survive." Leaning forward, he kissed her lightly, letting the contact linger as he ran his free hand through her hair. "This... may not be the time, but...?"

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The question drew a faint smile from Erin even as she mirrored his movements, cupping her hand behind his head as they kissed. "If not now, then when?" she asked rhetorically. "Wonder was telling me earlier about how she was planning to track Nightlife down at his pad so he couldn't get too bummed out about the fight earlier. If they're not even here tonight, he probably wouldn't mind if we borrowed his room for the evening." Wonder's room would be the other obvious choice, but for its problematic decorations. Closing the tiny distance between them, she kissed Trevor again, this time longer and deep enough to let some of the fear retreat for a few moments.

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Letting his hand slide from the back of Erin's hair across her shoulders and down to the small of her back, Trevor made a subtle sound of amusement into the kiss as he pulled her closer. "Love it when you're pragmatic," he confessed as they broke for air, standing from the couch and leading the way with their fingers still entwined. It was likely madness when they both needed the sleep and might be whisked away to another hostile world at any moment, but they'd missed the chance to make love while the world was ending; there was no sense putting it off afterward.

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Sage vacated the spot she occupied in the clubhouse when Wander came back in, clad in the uniform of her counterpart. The telepath had a bittersweet smile on her face as she slipped away, neatly removing the memory of her presence from the teen defenders of Freedom City, the ones she called friend and their mismatched duplicates alike.

When her eventual wandering brought her to the Zen garden, she wasn't really surprised to see her own counterpart there. The other Eve's eyes opened when Sage approached, having obviously detected the presence of her mind. She had changed out of the provocative costume into something that was a bit more tasteful (though it still wasn't something Sage would wear.) Silence stretched between the two women until the native Eve finally sighed and asked,

Sage said, taking a seat next to her duplicate. When her disco duplicate opened her mouth to object Sage smiled and held up a gloved hand, cutting her off.

Her Radio Freedom counterpart had the sense to blush at least, Sage reflected, so she knew some of her words hit home.

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Early the next morning, Mark woke up to the realization someone was watching him sleep, and that someone was his father. His double had crashed in the room opposite in their little clubhouse, sleeping on the shag carpet so Mark could enjoy the comforts of a bed before he went off to save the multiverse. "Dad?" Anger was forgotten in the moment, given the work his father and Oliver were doing to save the multiverse from total destruction. "What's going on?"

"You're doing really well, son," said Rick. "I knew you could do it." He was smiling, a little, anyway. "I've always known you'd be a better hero than I was, and you've certainly proven me right."

"...thanks, Dad," said Mark, who couldn't look his father in the eye after saying so much and telling him that his father hadn't started acting heroic until very, very recently. He concentrated on getting dressed, glancing at the clock as he did so with a wince. God, was everyone else awake, probably ready to yell at him for sleeping in so late when they were supposed to be saving the world."It's not me, anyway, it's the others who are saving the day. I'm just helping. But how are you even here? Shouldn't you be with the-"

"I stole a moment. Listen, Mark..." Reaching into his pocket, Rick took something out and showed it to Mark: a sparkly, glittery ball the size of a marble on the end of a short black baton like a magician's wand. "With everything that's happening, we may not have another moment, and I don't want you to be surprised This will be in my study when everything's done. When everything's done, go find it and keep it safe. It's...it's something from me. Something better than me. Please." There was a plea in his father's voice, one that made Mark nod.

"All right. All right, I'll do it. If you're here, does that mean we need to..."

END OF PART FOUR

Continued in >Leaves from the Vine

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