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May 18, 2012

The first thing that Kimber Storm noticed as terribly, urgently wrong as she staggered, coughing from the cloud of smoke was not in fact that she had to cough or even stagger. Neither should have been a concern for the long since deceased poltergeist, but her first thought was that she was wearing absolutely the wrong hood. Rather than the ethereal cowl of her usual reaper's cloak, this was a heavy fabric attached to a sweatshirt with the sleeves ripped off and something scrawled on the front in stylized spraypaint. The jumpsuit underneath she recognized as the Claremont Academy uniform, which she was also sure wasn't right. Raising her hands to pull the hood out of the way, she saw that they were a healthy pink, undeniably solid and beating with a pulse.

"Oh, marmalade," the living girl gulped.

Thirty Minutes Earlier

It took a lot of concentration from Kimber to keep her excited feet on the floor as the group of students entered the famous 'Super Museum' in Midtown, and even more concentration to keep her excitable body language confined to the shelter of the black umbrella blocking the sun's rays from revealing her as a translucent specter. The school trip to see the recently unveiled Lucas Collection had prompted a few significant looks between the senior members of the current iteration of Young Freedom, but the entusiastic Canadian was just looking forward to seeing all of the memorabilia in person. If all of the pieces were half as interesting as the ones mentioned specifically in the brochure, it was bound to be a memorable day!

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Sunny days always gave Indira a strong urge to find someplace high and secluded to just bask, but the opportunity to go out and see a collection of trophies and keepsakes wasn't a bad option, either. At least, not when the collection was like this one. She kept pace with the group, perusing the brochure and alternating between trying to imagine what kind of stories must be behind some of these items, and trying to not run into anybody, hum from somewhere that humans couldn't hum from, or do that eyes-turning-black thing she was told she did between blinks sometimes.

"I hope they do not take the stories behind these items and...you have a phrase for it, I think it is 'water them down'?" She blinked at her friends, looking curious and slightly pleased that she'd remembered that one. "I do not want clean, 'safe' versions of the stories if they are less interesting, and they usually are."

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"Well, there's always a little tweaking with superhero stories. Can't give out detailed information on weaknesses or stuff like that, can't give out identities. But beyond that...hm. It can be complicated."

Corbin's voice was as absent-minded as his gaze as he walked near Indira and Kimber, his stride easily keeping pace with the rest of the group. He mused to himself as they walked.

'Not so simple as what's "interesting", Indira. I didn't see them myself, but...Mark's dad did some shameful things. He was generally a good man, but in the end he was just a man. None of us are perfect. When you have the power he did, those imperfections shine through. Maybe it's better if the stories are boring and "safe", and we don't have riots because one reality warper tried to change us all. Even if, in the end, he was a true hero. Or maybe not. Argh. Whatever. I'm not in charge of a museum, not yet, so I guess I just have to see what they've got and judge from there. No use getting worked up over maybes and ought to's.'

With that thought, he seemed to relax a bit, his gaze casting about trying to take in everything it could as they walked onward.

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Sharl stood eye to eye with the Curator drone Rick Lucas and the Black Avenger had captured after encountering it attempting to kidnap and replace someone named James Marshall Hendrix in 1969, his face unreadable as he studied the robotic facet of the intelligence that had once held his people in chains. After a moment's hesitation, his nerve failed him, and he turned away, his silhouette briefly occluding the deactivated robot's. "It's amazing how much of the changes that came to this place happened in two generations. Eighty Earth years ago, a man flying under his own power would've been crazy. It's the same with technology, society, and everything else you've had change. I think it's good you have museums like this; otherwise people will lose track of who they are."

He left the robot behind and found himself hmming as he looked over an alien artifact left behind by one of the early Lor visits to Earth in the early 1950s. "I'm just surprised more people don't think about this. You have absolute proof of the fantastic things all around your world, knowledge of a whole universe of aliens and civilizations, and most people just...shrug it off."

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"Not that fantastic," Koshiro argued, looking into a display of memorabilia from even before Rick Lucas' day, all about "Jimmy Lucas and His Genie." It was mostly a collection of very white photographs, which made sense given that at the time black people weren't even considered for most super-teams and Japanese people were in concentration camps out west. "We've got people that fly, but at least in your world everyone has enough to eat and a safe place to sleep. We're not fantastic enough to manage that, or anything close to it." He snorted and wandered further into the exhibit with a faint sneer on his face.

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"He is right, in a way," Eve observed, eying Koshiro's back as he walked away. "We're a selfish people wrapped up in our own problems and that will always influence our thinking. It's easy to say things need changing, but seldom will you find one willing to step into the trenches and do something about it."

Eve pinched the bridge of her nose and she let out a sigh, "Rogue had a point," she murmured, her shoulder suddenly aching at the phantom memory of pain, "Humans make a mess of things."

"Still," she continued brightening, "This museum is proof that there is still some hope, and that some people are willing to back up their words with action."

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There was a lot to see in the Lucas Collection, with something for everyone among the assembled teen heroes to take in. Sharl found himself drawn to an exhibit about the Furies Three, the trio of golden-skinned robot sisters who had been first heroes, then grim vigilantes and outlaws, in Freedom City in the 1960s and 1970s. Before the Centurion even found us. There was something almost pathetic about the "spare brain module" laid out for everyone to see, the assembly of transistors and daka crystals a potential mind if repaired and powered up. Between that and the disappearance of Galatea from the same era, Freedom City didn't seem to treat its robotic defenders very kindly. I should talk to Protectron about that sometime...

Eve and Corbin, the only ones there who'd actually met either one of the elder Lucases, found plenty of pictures of Mark's dad in his prime; a laughing, confident young man in the company of the Centurion and the greatest heroes of his day, with no hint of the darkness that would cloud his later years and ultimately overwhelm much of his legacy. Going back a few years, the black and white sight of bow-tied and cardiganed Jimmy Lucas hugging La Renard Rouge with a picture labeled "After Gender-Switch Reversed, 1943" was certainly not the way Eve's relative was typically depicted in the historical record: she seemed to like it!

Meanwhile, Rick Lucas had evidently visited the Kinigosi homeworld at one point! The sight of the squishy human alongside the space-going heroes of the 1960s was certainly not a typical sight for people on Wraith's homeworld. He'd gone there in the company of the second Angel of Vimy, the patriotic Canadian heroine who had retired from True North about the time Daniel Storm had become associated with that organization, during one of True North's first big extra-terrestrial trips: Rick seemed to be taking quite an interest in the maple-leaf clad heroine, and someone had actually included a picture of the two of them canoodling in the section on "Heroes on All Nations".

The 1970s had been an era of somewhat more free-wheeling morals, if the picture Koshiro found of Rick, a gold medallion on his bare chest, in a hot tub with Lotus Blossom and Tsunami, two Japanese-American heroines of the 1970s, were any judge: the display was theoretically one devoted to the defeat of the Chrysanthemum Menace, a sentient plant that had swallowed one world and threatened to devour Los Angeles, but Rick had managed to do so in the company of some very fine ladies. At least the pictures and short video feed included from the other side of the rift, an eerie, haunted and nearly abandoned city covered in a bizarre coating of flowers, were interesting.

Kimber found no ghosts, at least, none besides the sort that haunted museums whether you could see them or not. In fact, come to think of it, there were no 'monsters' here at all: though there were collections about Dracula's visit in the 1970s, selected pictures and artifacts from Rick Lucas' pairings with Adrian Eldritch and other magical heroes, all told the same story about evil undead monsters and the heroic human heroes who took them out, fast and hard. It was as if people like her hadn't existed at all.

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Indira felt a twinge of homesickness deep in her...well, not her heart, but where her heart would probably be if she was half as human as she currently looked. Safely facing away from anyone who might have been watching, her eyes went completely black as she gently touched the glass protecting the pictures - her attention not on Rick Lucas (though, now that she thought about it, the name had seemed vaguely familiar somehow) but on the scenery and the people. Her people.

She took a deep breath (for all that she didn't breathe), set her shoulders, and made her eyes go back to normal before turning around to look at the rest of the exhibits.

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KImber jutted out her lower jaw slightly as she regarded a purportedly heavily used matching ash wood stake and mallet set in a display that she frankly thought was in rather poor taste. Sure the nest of vampires described in the accompanying article had definitely been bad guys - the newspapermen of the seventies got a little more graphic with their descriptions of the victims than she might have liked - but there sure weren't any weapons used to destroy pre-mortem villains so casually out for everyone to see. Making a small harrumphing noise, she excised a bit of the telekinetic control she'd been practicing with Eve to give the illusion that her umbrella was tucked under her arm and headed over to see what Indira was looking at.

The phantom caught up to her roommate just as she was leaving a display of photos and took a moment to glance over them herself. Kimber blinked once as she reread the inscription below one of the pictures, then let out a little squeal of delight as she bounded after Indira, her bouncing steps hanging just slightly longer in the air than gravity really should have allowed. "I didn't know True North went to Kinigosi! That's just so rad!" she enthused. "It's like we were going to be friends even before we... Hey, are you okay?" The disguised specter's expression turned from cheer to concern as she finally noticed her friend's melancholy attitude.

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"I am fine," Indira reassured her friend, smiling. "It was a sudden bit of...do you say, 'homeache'? ....no, 'homesickness'. I do like it here, but sometimes I miss where I am from."

She hummed to herself, glancing back at the photos. "I did not know True North had gone there, either," she said, keeping her voice low. "Visitors in general were somewhat...rare. It is a very amusing coincidence, however - history seems to predict itself, sometimes."

The alien paused, silently mouthing that last bit over again. "...you know, I do not think that sentiment translates very well. I think you understand what I meant?"

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Kimber made a commiserating face, nodding in understanding. "You gotta pretend I'm giving you a hug right now, okay?" she insisted gravely, prodding the shapeshifting alien in the shoulder with the handle of her surreptitiously levitating umbrella. The ghost suspected she'd be more homesick herself if she could actually remember any of her life before death, but even so she did frequently find herself thinking about her home country in general and her cabin in particular. Sure, it had been a rickety, abandoned pile of logs in the middle of a dense forest but a poltergeist needed a place to haunt.

As they continued to browse the collection, looking for enough information to write the obligatory reports assigned to them for the trip, Kimber's attention was caught by a piece set aside in its own case, far enough out from one corner of the room that there was ample room to walk around it entirely. "Huh. A chunk of rock?" With a smooth curve on one side and rubble on the other where it had been broken off from a larger granite tablet, the item rested on a simple cushion so as not to distract. "Looks like there were numbers or letters carved into it, but they're broken off so you can't read it. Hey, I think this was the corner of a gravestone! Neat! Wonder who's...?"

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Koshiro, who'd given up on looking at the exhibits and started making penguins of the field trip packet, looked up at Kimber's words. He didn't know what the ghost girl was talking about, but his eyes were immediately drawn to the case she was standing by. The red origami dragon was like nothing he'd ever seen, intricate and fierce, clearly paper and yet oddly organic. He set aside his own papers and walked closer, trying to figure out how it was made, or who might have made it. But the closer he got, the less sense it made. The folds didn't add up, they didn't even make sense... That, plus the way the paper eyes seemed to watch him, drew a shudder from him that he tried to suppress.

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"What? No." Having walked over to get away from all the dead robots looking at him, Sharl all but pressed his nose against the glass, leaving no smudge and no breath misting behind. "Unless," he added diplomatically with a glance over at Kimber, "that's some kind of Lor grave you've encountered?" Not every Lor planet was as civ...had a culture like his own, some still made use of grave markers like this. "It's definitely from off-Earth, I've never seen human sculpture like that. Rick Lucas did travel extensively into near-galactic space..." Hmming, he looked around for a label, reminding himself that it was unlikely to be holographic here the way it would be at home.

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Corbin had been slightly distracted trying to find his girlfriend, who had come on this trip. Well, sure he'd been looking at the exhibits, but nothing was "popping out" at him. Maybe talking it over with someone with a fresh perspective who wasn't grumpy (like most of the rest of his team seemed to be) would help him, too.

'Good practice for college; have to try to approach things from a less personal level. I keep thinking of these guys as "Mark's dad" and "Mark's grandpa". Not really a good way to write history, Mr. Hughes.'

He gave himself a half-smile before he noticed the display Kimber had just said something about. He raised an eyebrow when he heard her say it was a gravestone.

'That's a piece of wacky crystal, no mistake.'

His academic curiosity piqued, he strolled over, eyeballing the display next to his shorter, decidedly lighter classmate. He frowned, rubbing at his right ear for a moment as he looked around.

"You guys hear that?"

He didn't offer any other explanation as he kept glancing away from the crystal, trying to spot the elaborate clock that had to be making that noise.

'Seems familiar, too. Man, this crystal is weird. Almost hurts to look at it...Okay, it can't be a huge clock, it's not loud enough, but where is that dang blasted contraption making that noise? I can't concentrate on this display with it ticking away like that...'

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Eve stifled a groan, turning away from the picture of her Great Aunt and Jimmy Lucas; she knew it was an irrational reaction on her part, but the young telepath couldn't help but feel irritated at the number of times the Lucas family and her own mingled. Once was quite enough, Eve thought to herself as she brought to mind her cousin. Still can't get over how foolish she acted.

The Claremont senior caught some of the conversation as she silently joined her friends clustered around a strange object. She was about to make a comment about the contradictory things they were saying but the words died on her tongue. The glass, crystal, whatever it was in the case played merry hell with her perception. There was also a faint clicking... but crystals don't click.

"Hey, Corbin," Eve whispered, pitching her voice low so it wouldn't carry past the cluster of students. "Remember that day when it was raining, and the Freedom League disappeared? Remember Overshadow, some other jerk and the Universal Clock?" It was one of the first times Eve and Corbin, as Sage and Cobalt Templar respectively, worked with Young Freedom--so she hoped he remembered. Granted that was also one of their first multiversal jaunts so it would be understandable if things got a bit jumbled.

And each world we visited was basically the multiverse thumbing its nose at me, Eve reflected sourly.

Another thought entered Eve's mind unbidden, and she shivered at the thought of a world where Jimmy Lucas and Amelie Dutemps shared something more lasting than mere hugs. Focus.

"Well the thing in that case is prodding my memory," she continued in a low voice. --And you know how good it is.--

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"Hear what?" Indira curiously inquired, frowning at the...thing. "I do not think it can make noise - and if it was ever placed to mark graves, it was terribly misused. Though...I confess I am not sure exactly what the correct use would be?"

She furrowed her brow, resisting the urge to just extend her neck to get a better all-around look at the thing. "The construction is...odd. It is not offensive, like parody, but rather...very confusing? Marble and coral are for icons of passive deities, but the shape is not right. It is kind of like someone went to a...you would say 'church', I think...went to a church and saw the icons, and decided to make their own without knowing why certain things are certain ways. I do not know why it would be here, or part of a...you said a 'Universal Clock'?"

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Kimber looked between Sharl and Indira with a furrowed brow and deepening frown. "Huh? It doesn't look like any kind of space rock to me, Sharl. Probably just, I dunno, granite or something." She indicated an arc with her index finger. "See, lots of people on Earth put these sort of slabs called headstones on grave sites, y'know, with the person's name and date of death and stuff carved into them. That's the smoothed edge of the corner there, and here's where it must have broken off the rest of it." The phantom gestured to other points inside the glass case, none of which corresponded to anything the others were seeing. She turned around enough to address their friend still hanging back from the exhibit. "Tell them, Koshiro!" Surely her fellow human - well, Earth-native, at least - would be able to confirm what she was saying!

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Koshiro looked up from his examination with a faint look of irritation. Not that such a look was terribly unusual for him, but right now he just wanted to get a better look at the strange piece. "I have no idea what you're talking about," he told Kimber. "Or any of you. They've never put origami dragons on gravestones anywhere I know about, and it sure as hell isn't ticking." He paused, looking around with his brow furrowed. "Actually, nothing anybody is saying about this thing jibes with anything else. It's like we're all describing something totally different." He looked again at the display, but there was no identifying label on his side. "What's it supposed to be, anyway?"

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"It's called the Quantum Bauble," offered Sharl, peering with some confusion at the label. "A souvenir Rick Lucas brought back from another dimension, which is evidently an artifact of unknown origin that manifests itself as something different for every observer, this effect is not an illusion but is actually...oh, c'mon." Sharl glanced around at the museum all around them, seeing no one looking too closely in the direction of the curious teenagers, and shoved his hand right through the glass case! He ran holographic fingers through the artifact expectantly and sighed, withdrawing them a moment later. "And it feels exactly like it looks. Well, that's pretty undramatic." Unconsciously, he flexed his fingers. "Weird, though. Why would it show me a fake holosculpture?"

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Corbin barely managed to facepalm when Sharl read the descriptive plate. He couldn't believe he'd gotten all hyped up before reading the display description. Then something struck him. He leaned in to reread the display label.

"Wait, it's supposed to be something different for everyone? Why are Eve and I seeing the same-"

Then Sharl shoved his hand inside the case and groped at the display like a 2-year-old kid. Corbin's eyes went wide before he all but snarled at the holographic teenager. He kept his volume low enough to not disturb the other patrons, but his annoyance was blatantly obvious.

"Te rudibus saeva cur quod? Sharl, for the love of Herodotus don't touch the displays. I don't care if you can ignore the security systems you don't know what touching them might do, and you have no right to go about disturbing pieces of history like that!"

His left hand twitched reflexively at his side, and the large teen had to take a moment to close his eyes and take several deep breaths. When he opened his eyes again he was still annoyed, but he seemed to be in better control of himself.

"Please don't treat these things like an amusement park exhibit. If they're behind cases that say "don't touch", it's for a reason."

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I do not know why it would be here, or part of a...you said a 'Universal Clock'?"

"It's a little complicated," Eve began, still keeping her voice low so other museum patrons couldn't hear. She would have preferred to resort to telepathy but Sharl's mind, though the telepath could sense it, was still maddeningly closed to her. "I'm not sure if you've taken the time to read the previous Young Freedom's debriefings, but it's something Corbin and I encountered well over a year ago."

"The Universe we live in is but one in, as far as anyone can tell, an infinite number of others. But there are certain constructs that exist outside these universes, certain places which form the very mechanism that allows the multiverse to work. The Universal Clock is one such mechanism; it's operation is what helps keep the other universes from bleeding into or colliding with each other."

"That fragment looks like it belongs as part of that machine. Corbin and I have seen what lies behind the curtain, so it makes sense that we'd recognize it, at least partially. But there is a chance in another museum on another Earth that there is a gravestone in this case, or an origami dragon, or a religious icon."

The telepath shrugged. "It's kind of neat."

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"Ah," Indira answered, though she paused for a moment as Corbin ranted; it clearly wasn't a discussion she wanted to get involved in, though, as once he was done she rather deliberately avoided commenting on it. "I have not yet read...many of the debriefings. It seemed a bit too much like studying, and I think I get enough of that from school," the alien admitted, sounding amused and a little rueful. "Perhaps the icon makes more sense in the dimension it is supposed to be a part of, if there is such a place. It is a shame we cannot see what the others are seeing, however - I think I would like to see the origami dragon, or the gravestone."

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Kimber made a glum face at the irritated look Koshiro shot her but Sharl's reading of the Bauble's placard at least cleared up the confusion. If she was being completely honest, the phantom would have had to admit that being as used as she was to passing through walls and other objects unhindered, the holographic youth placing his hand into the case barely registered with her until Corbin snapped angrily, a which point she hopped back from the display, not incidentally placing Indira between her and the fuming upperclassman. Ducking her head down between her shoulder blades, she listened to Eve's explanation of the Universal Clock. "Wow! That's just--"

The Canadian's exclamation was cut short by a crash of glass as the done overhead was shattered my a massive, rocky form. Eight feet and two thousand pounds of orange-brown stone in the rough shaped of a man collided with the museum floor, leaving an appreciable crater and sending visitors running screaming for the exits. As the hulking thing stood up, a torrent of water slid like a python through the opening in the ceiling, followed by a semi-transparent cloud of gas and a streak of roaring flame. Each coalesced into a humanoid form instantly recognizable as the Atom Family's long time and frequent foes the Factor Four!

"There it is!" crowed Professor Fathom is a voice like water circling a drain. "The fifth Prime Element and my -- rather our ticket to mastery of our element forms!"

"Richard, I still don't think that's--" Sylph began, not looking particularly pleased to be there. Granite and Pyre, for their part, were occupied looking about expectantly and spoiling for a fight.

Fathom interrupted her, sliding closer to the Bauble's display, his body from the waist down a geyser leaving a spreading puddle that reached the feet of the Claremont students. "Enough, Sylvia! We'll grab the Element and discuss this later! Out of the way, idiot children!"

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"Oh jeez, it's these clowns." Gina had taught Sharl all about some of the more colorful science villains of Freedom City, and the Factor Four, decades-old mutants who had tried to blend 'magic' and science and had turned themselves into a salutary lesson for scientists everywhere, had been among the most prominent in those lessons. Stupid and powerful. Just like most supervillains.

With no secret identity to protect, Sharl covered for the others, trusting on his nigh-invulnerable nature and fast reflexes to protect him as he flew up to confront the four supervillains face-to-face. He knew the pyrokinetic could actually hurt him, and there wasn't much he could do to bother either the rock-man or the gas girl, so instead he confronted the leader of the Factor Four face-to-face. Just like Miss Americana would do...gulp!

"All right, all right, I'm all alone here and there are four of you, I'm not stupid. Hey, I'm Citizen, by the way, you must be the famous Professor Fathom." He stuck a hand out to the watery villain, glad the emitter he'd left down at floor level was insulated. "Listen, the museum obviously doesn't put working artifacts out in public display, all that would do is attract thieves and that's the last thing they want with all these civilians, right? Anyway, the real Bauble is down in the basement: let's go down and get it and maybe you can be gone quick before Young Freedom shows up here. They're pretty tough, and you've got to be tired of fighting generation after generation of teenagers, right? Right." he said expectantly.

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Fathom pulled up short as Citizen flew up the greet him, looking at the teenager's proffered hand incredulously. The other members of the Factor Four looked blankly as well, obviously caught off-guard by the reception - although admittedly there wasn't much change in Granite's stoney expression of which to speak. "Perhaps I judge too quickly; you seem at least marginally more intelligent than the dull masses," their leader allowed, pointedly leaving Sharl's hand hanging in the air which he made a gesture reminiscent of straightening lapels about his liquid shoulders. "The basement? Hmm..."

"What? Boss, c'mon!" Pyre protested, his flames flaring noisily as he flew forward the span of a few paces. "You're not seriously going to cut some random punk in, are you? I say we toast him and anybody else in our way, grab this thing and whatever's stored away!" The rest of the Claremont students around the display case could hear Kimber's breathing get louder and halting as her wide eyes focused on the burning villain.

"Silence, fool, before I'm forced to douse you myself," Fathom snapped angrily, his attention divided as he considered his options, watched for signs of incoming heroes and dealt with his own team.

Granite shifted his weight with a grating sound of rock sliding on rock. "...so ain't nobody gonna ask why there's some flyin' kid hangin' around, huh? Alright."

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