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Content Warning: Cussing 

 

June 18, 2017 

5:35AM 

Bedlam City, Wisconsin 

 

Fast-Forward skidded to a halt in the middle of Hardwick Park. Not bothering to take off his helmet, he looked around wildly before declaring "...what the hell?!" 

 

5:37AM 

Chicago, Illinois 

Millennium Park 

 

Fast-Forward stared up at the statue of the Barnstormers, ignoring the few flatscans in the park this early. "WHAT THE HELL!?" This time he did take off his helmet, never mind the risk when he was away from home, and cast out with his psychic connection to his wife - finding her in Freedom City of all places? She'd probably felt that but she was just waking up - and he didn't have time for her to catch up with him.

 

"Come on, man, wakeupwakeupwakeup-" He ran in a little circle, hitting himself on the side of the head, using the psychic feedback Paige had taught him to break out of an illusion. Nothing. Motherfucker! 

 

Finally deciding it was worth the risk, he put his helmet back on and girded his loins for the run into Freedom City. 

 

5:38AM 

Freedom City 

In front of the Cline household 

 

Staring up at flatscan suburban hell for a long moment, Richard Cline took off his helmet in honest bafflement - and decided to leave it off since whatever was happening had evidently happened right through the helmet's psionic bafflers. He tried the door, found it locked, and banged on it - surprised when what looked like mundane wood didn't immediately shatter under his fist. "Hey!" he called, both out loud and psychically, hot anger and bafflement turning to fear loud in both voices, a second before winding up for a blow that would have knocked a regular door out of his hinges entirely. "What the hell is going on!?" 

 

 

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That morning, Paige was enjoying a dream about a perfect bubble bath in a tub the size of a hotel swimming pool, the sort of dream that always seems to occur moments before the alarm clock goes off. Or in this case, the moment before one gets a psychic poke from one's husband and the door starts rattling off its hinges. Her lovely dream shattered into fragments, leaving nothing more than the faint whiff of lavender in her nostrils and a sense of melancholy. ~Richard?~ she asked, sleepy and cross. ~What the hell are you doing? Did you forget your key?~ Paige sat up in bed and yawned hugely. She'd been hoping for a quiet morning, with Holly off on a school-sponsored sleepover trip, but there was apparently no rest for the weary. 

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~Dammit, what the hell is going on?~ It was Richard's psychic voice - but something was wrong - the effect reminding Paige of a radio dial turned almost but not quite to the right station, so the thoughts were overrun with static. 

 

The knowledge that Paige was somewhere in this stupid little shack persuaded Richard that he needed to punch in the goddamed door - and so he did! With one mighty blow, he punched the door through time, in one hit aging the wood a century, in another hit aging it another, and then with one last punch kicking the now-rotten, crumbling wood out of the frame entirely. He ran inside the house, casting about wildly for Paige - and in that moment's pause was beset by the simultaneous sounds of a crying baby and the shrieking of a loud home security system! Normally he could have handled that easily but between everything else today, it was too much.

 

Swearing profusely, he slammed his helmet down on his head, the bafflers cutting off his psychic contact entirely. He'd intended to search the house for Paige, but instead he found himself staring at a living room full of pictures of himself and Paige cast through a funhouse mirror of flatscan suburban normality, together with two, no, three kids - none of whom he recognized. Shutting out the sounds of raucous confusion in the house, and anyway a step or two ahead of them, he picked up a framed picture of himself, Paige, a boy and a girl, and a baby, standing in front of Freedom Hall!?! 

 

He'd been in his share of fights, some of them mortal ones, but all he could yell was "WHAT THE HELL IS HAPPENING!?" 

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Even sleepy, even after a restless night with the baby, Paige was a veteran super and she could wake up fast when she had to. Unfortunately, her best speed was nothing when compared to Richard, any version of Richard. Her first impulse was to run downstairs and see what was happening, but she ruthlessly quashed that idea. Instead, she reached out along the well-trodden paths of her psychic linkage, finding Will's psychic pattern reassuringly clean and normal. ~Will, baby, wake up! Something's wrong with your father.~ A tightly focused burst of impressions conveyed everything that her words could not. ~I need your help.~ 

 

Throwing on her bathrobe, she raced across the upstairs hallway to the nursery and gathered Bryant up out of the crib, holding him protectively against her chest. "Shhh, shhh," she murmured, keeping her gaze focused on the closed door that was the only thing separating them from the intruder in the house. Now she could barely feel him at all, whoever he was, he was nothing more than a shadow of a presence on the first floor. 

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Paige and Richard both heard a series of *thumps* from one of the upstairs bedrooms. The first sounded like someone falling out of bed, followed by that someone hitting a couple of walls, as if stumbling around. Just...at slightly higher-than-normal speed. 

 

~Not ****ing again!~ she heard from Will, the tightly-controlled anger an unusual emotion from the young adult. He clearly was recollecting the last time the home had been invaded.

 

Richard, the intruder, would suddenly hear something rushing down the stairs, before a young man wearing naught but pajama pants, ones decorated with luxury cars, standing a few feet away from him. He was breathing heavily, his eyes a bit wide; he looked a man awoken in a panic, but also focused and full of adrenaline.

 

He was also holding two glowing green gladii, assuming a fairly classical twin-sword stance as he glared at the newcomer.

 

"Who the hell are you?"

 

~Mom it looks like Dad, but not. Some kind of helmet. Looks angry.~

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"I'm the fuckin' ghost-a Hot Rod, what does it look like?" demanded Fast-Forward, vaguely stirring a memory in his son that Hot Rod had been his high school gym teacher's superhero name before Mr. Archer had retired from superheroing. He'd heard his father talk like this a few times - but never directed at him, and never quite with this tone of frantic fury. "Who the Hell are you, and why do you-" Up close and not in a two-dimensional picture, the kid looked like Charley - well, Charley ten years earlier and with a better haircut. He shifted his ground, a little. "why the hell are you standin' between me and my wife? Cause that'd be something you'd have to have a fuckin' death wish to do, ya little dumbass!" He set the picture down and raised his fists, the air around him beginning to slow as he began to activate his powers. "You get one warning, kid!" 

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"I didn't ask who or what you looked like. I don't care whose face you stole, I know you're not who you look like, so tell me why you're here, now!"

When the vicious impostor mentioned "his wife", Will tensed up further, his grip on the two swords shifting, and his stance moving to a slightly more defensive posture.

"I'm not letting you within ten feet of my mother. You won't ever touch her." 

~Mom I don't know what's going on but this guy freaks me out. He looks like Dad but sounds nothing like him. And I don't like how he's talking about me standing between him and you.~

Will was almost vibrating in place at this point, though another speedster wouldn't find it difficult to ignore the blurring effect. 

"Leave now and there's no trouble. We didn't pick a fight with you, jackass. You're the one that busted down our door, and I for one am sick of violent jackwads breaking into our house!"

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Saturday mornings were usually - usually! - quiet at the Farretti household. Even if her nocturnal offspring had fought sleeping during the evening, they were well out of steam by five am and, since Taylor didn't need to sleep herself anymore, it was the perfect time to enjoy the quiet, or get a bit of work done. Curled up in the large chair in her study with tomes and manuscripts spread on her desk, she was involved in research of the more mystic sort when her senses were jangled by multiple alarms as the dimensional fabric of Earth Prime stretched and warped far too close to their neighborhood for Taylor's personal comfort. 

 

Of course, since she was dealing with speedsters and psychics, apparently, things had escalated in the time it took to call up to Jack that work called and then teleport into the center of the room, appearing first as a floating mass of fabric that unfolded into the long draping layers of Phantom's cloak. Intangible, she hovered like some baleful specter, not seeming to notice when her cloak billowed through furniture and walls as it spread out. The Clines she was passingly familiar with - well, the parents. She saw them enough at the PTA meetings at Nicholson. Enough to frown at the slight differences in Richard. 

 

"Ah," she finally pronounced after taking in the scene, "Someone is breaking the dimensional barriers again, I see."

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Fast-Forward had been about to put his fist through this punk's teeth or get himself stabbed trying when Phantom arrived - he has no idea who Cape Lady was but he wasn't going to start a fight with her at his back and this guy at his front without getting a better read on the situation. Luckily, that was something he could do in a hurry - even if this was bad news. Dimensions! With that bit of news, he seriously considered running out the door and back to Wisconsin to see if he could try pushing his powers across the barrier - but then his time-controlling powers had never really worked that way. He'd been warned about other dimensions extensively - their dangers, their opportunities, and the problems they might pose. "...okay. Okay, well, that explains some things." He balled his hands into fists, then slowly released them. "So my family's okay. I just have to go back to my home dimension. Where's the other me?" he asked. "Run to the market for some groceries, or...?" From his tone of voice, he might have been describing a visit to an alien planet. 

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From upstairs, Paige tried to track the confrontation through her mental senses and the voices she could hear through the air vents, but it wasn't easy with whatever psychic baffle the stranger had up and Bry's continuing fretful whimpers. ~Don't you try and fight with him, William Cline!~ she pathed insistently, loud enough that it might cause a wince. ~You're faster than him, we can get out- what's that?~ The intrusion of yet another mental presence in the house was confusing and disturbing, but at least this one didn't seem to have harm in mind. ~What's going on down there?~  By now Paige had the diaper bag and the emergency go-bag from the closet and was ready to go out the window if necessary, but not without Will. 

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~Phantom is here. She showed up out of nowhere. Something about alternate dimensions. Makes as much sense as a shapeshifter or whatever.~

 

In a couple of eye-blinks Will is at the stairs, still facing the living room, seemingly both guarding the stairs and preparing to head up them.

 

~But I'm not going to let this guy hurt you. Nobody comes after my family, especially not in our house.~

Paige was all but assaulted by a flood of images, all of them memories of Will's desperate fight against high-end mercenaries in this very home, on the night when Paige and Richard had been off keeping the world safe from the Communion. The night Will had almost died. That his sister had almost been taken. 

~Do you still want evac now that Phantom's here?~

 

Finally, he spoke out loud.

 

"This guy busted into our house and started ranting about getting to his wife. Naturally I moved to protect my family from some violent psychopath. Can you just, I dunno, kick him back home, Phantom?"

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"Hhrm," Phantom replied which, for those who had worked with the guardian on enough occasion to know was not, necessarily, a good sound. Her eyes glowed white as she took in the tableau balefully. It might have looked like she was judging them when actually, she was seeing far more than mortal eyes ever would, taking in the magic traces of the house as well as the dimensional integrity of the Veil. The fact that this dimensions Fast Forward played with time AND dimensions AND magic made those muddy waters indeed. Finally she answered Will, "Unlikely."

 

Finally she shifted her attention away from dimensional residue and back towards the people in question, in time to take in William's very protective stance. He wasn't all that much older than Huang. Behind the shadows of her cowl, her expression softened from impassive into something a little more empathetic. "I am not going to let any harm come to your family while I am here, young man. Does your mother know where your actual father is?"

 

She turned her attention back to Fast Forward then, "Where did you cross over, if you know? The trail here is muddy."

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Paige chose that moment to come down the stairs, leaving the bags at the top, but keeping the baby carefully shielded in her arms. He'd stopped crying by now, and was now watching the scene with huge gray eyes. "I can't find him," she told Phantom aloud, the strain obvious in her voice. "I should be able to find him anywhere on Earth within a few seconds, I've done it before. Even if he were unconscious, I'd sense him." She stared at the doppelganger of her husband in disbelief and dismay, then brushed a hand over Will's arm as though to reassure herself that her son, at least, was the real thing. "Whoever this is, it's not him." 

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"...ah, geez," said the other Richard, his anger considerably mollified at the sight of Paige. Up close, even slightly muffled by the helmet, Paige could hear the difference in his voice - a twinge of old-style Jersey that suggested a version of her husband who spent much more time around his mother. "Listen, I'm sorry I busted into your house like this - I worry a lot about my family. My wife's old man takes a real unseemly interest in the kids and grandkids, ever since-"

 

Cutting himself off, he made a point of speaking directly to Paige - "If the other guy and I traded places, he's just a ten minute run from our place. My Paige probably found him and he's fine." He caught sight of the baby and his eyes lit up. "Hey, did we _just_ have a baby? Well good for him - and you too, honey." He laughed nervously, then went on, "I was running on the beach by Green Bay when there was this big flash of light - so big I thought it was a real hit. Next thing I knew, I was in flatscan Wisconsin - then I ran all the way here." 

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Will tensed at both the words and touch of his mother, but within an eye-blink of this...other Richard...seemed to stand down, his own energy blades were gone, and within three eye-blinks, he was standing at the foot of the stairs dressed in actual clothes, his arms crossed and his expression surly. 

 

"What do you mean, 'flatscan Wisconson'? Do you have more than one state named Wisconsin where you're from?"

 

His tone was terse but calm, his mother's immediate presence helping him steady his emotions, even as he sent her as much comfort as he could over their psychic connection. 

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"One of... those dimensions then." Phantom said, in a manner that no doubt sounded a little judge-y. Of course, most of the things Phantom said often sounded like she was not so silently judging the people around her. There was a reason that she had never been the face of any of the groups or partnerships that she'd taken part in. Taking that into account, she turned her attention back to the dimensional threads floating in the air, echoes of where Fast Forward had come from, even as she tried to assuage Paige's worries. No one liked when their spouse fell down a worm hole after all. "He's probably not on this Earth. Hopefully he's not started shattering barriers to try and get back home. It gets so messy..."

 

Phantom's tones trailed off with the sort of sigh of someone who saw a great deal of clean up in her future. Speedsters, after all, weren't well known for sitting still. Phantom floated upwards a bit, her cloak billowing out wide to show the Void hidden in its folds. "Shall we take a look at where you crossed over then?"

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"Are you going to be able to find my Richard?" Paige asked Phantom worriedly. "Is there anyone who might be able to help? I can make some calls, we know all sorts of heroes." Being helpless never sat well with her, and at least trying to get in touch with more assistance would give her something to do. "We've time-traveled, but I don't think he's skipped dimensions under his own power before. He probably won't be able to get back on his own." Automatically she reached out mentally for both her boys, comforting Will's nerves and Bry's fretful hunger as best she could. It was bizarre to be able to see Richard, any Richard, and not be able to sense him at all. "Why are you wearing that helmet?" she asked the doppelganger. 

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"Uh, well..." From the reaction of the boy and the wizard, Richard guessed that flatscan wasn't a good word to use here. I guess the other guys are in charge here, he thought. Better play it cool. "The helmet's to keep out psychic attacks," he said to Paige, concentrating on what was almost a familiar face. "We have a problem with those where I'm from." He took a shot in the dark. "I don't know what things are like here, but in the world where I'm from, Parker Psion's one of the most powerful men in America - and he's a real bad guy. If you want to stay out from under his thumb, you either bulk up your brain or you know psychics. Thanks to my Paige, I did a little a'both." Even through the clear covering of the helmet, Paige knew her husband's face when he wasn't giving her the whole truth. He knew how smart Paige was, and how powerful she was, and how worried she had to be about her Richard. He decided to leave the helmet on for now. "I can take you right where I changed over - I could tell right away something was off. Why don't we all go?" he suggested. 

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Will had just started to relax a bit at his mother's mental comforts, when the Other Richard mentioned Parker Psion. At those comments, he tensed again, just a bit physically, and quite a bit more mentally.

~I still don't trust this guy, Mom. I don't like the sound of any of this. And what do we do with Bryant? We can't drag him out into the field with us!~

Physically, Will turned toward Phantom.

"If we're going looking, I need to change."

Without waiting for permission from anyone, he was a blur upstairs. Just a few seconds later, he blurred back downstairs, now dressed in a padded and layered suit that was primarily black, but with glowing green highlights. The domino mask actually blurred his facial features and cheekbones pretty well, but did nothing to disguise the light scowl on his face. 

"Right. So who is actually going on this little trip?"

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Phantom hesitated for a moment, although her deep cowl covered most of her features. "We can drop your infant with my children, if you wish," Phantom offered, finally going against her usual resistance in mentioning anything about her family while in costume. If Paige and Richard hadn't already known of her family, that struggle would have been significantly harder. "My husband is watching them in our lair. It's very safe.

 

Her cloak flared open to shimmer fully into a portal to the Void with the faint outline of a door floating in the darkness, the back door to the mansion. "I will need to take Fast Forward to return him to his proper dimension. Paige will likely be key in locating where your father has gone. I assume that you will wish to accompany everyone to ensure your family's safety, although you are welcome to stay in my home as well to watch your sibling... should you so desire. I would rather attend to this swiftly. Dimensional trails grow cold quickly on Prime."

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"Thank you Phantom, I appreciate that." Normally Paige would've run Bryant across the street to their neighbor Ned, whose daughter was Holly's best friend, but a situation like this called for a little more paranoia. It wasn't often that the superpowered danger showed up at their home and wearing the face of a loved one, after all. A light mental touch had the diaper bag floating obediently down the stairs and into Paige's free hand. She rummaged quickly to make sure that the diapers, prepared formula bottles, and spare clothes were all present, then slung it over her shoulder. Phantom and her husband had a child a bit younger than Holly, surely Avenger could change a diaper and administer a bottle. They couldn't take the chance of the trail going cold.

 

~I'd like you to stay with Bryant but I won't make you,~ she told Will silently, already knowing what his answer was going to be. Another quick thought had her flannel pajamas disguising themselves as her uniform, so that all she had to do was slip on her shoes by the door. Without hesitating, she hid the baby's face against her shoulder and stepped into the Void. 

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Richard's directions, Paige's telepathy, and Taylor's dimensional attunement soon led them to the place where the other Richard had come through - a cool stretch of Great Lake beach near the city of Green Bay. It would be warm here later in the day, warm enough to attract crowds of tourists, but this early in the morning it was still semi-dark out, the breeze from Lake Michigan downright cold to people used to the Atlantic off New Jersey. Richard Cline, his helmet still firmly on, looked at the sign for Bay Beach Amusement Park with an expression best described as sorrowful. "Used to take the kids here for a run every morning. Now it's just me." He smiled faintly. "Well, just me who can run, it's not really Paige's bag." He closed his eyes, then said, "Hey, listen, I ain't much good at this diplomacy thing, but if we go over there, it's just like a humanitarian thing, right? Put me back, pick up your guy, everybody goes home to the wife and kids?" 

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Thoughtspeed stood watch over the group at their arrival. In almost any other moment, any other situation, this would be an enjoyable experience, albeit probably with Phantom's presence. A moment of family, together. Perhaps just him and his parents, a chance to ask any questions he had about...just being an adult. He knew they weren't perfect, but they tried, and they'd come a long way from the stories he had pieced together over the years. He was proud of them. He was proud of his father.

 

Which is why this...impostor...in front of him rankled so much that Paige could still pick up her son's agitation, leashed that it was. He paced slowly a bit behind the group, but when Not-Father spoke, his helmeted head turned slowly toward the interloper.

 

"Why do you ask? Do you think there's something there that might offend our delicate sensibilities?"

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"My duties are only to see that the barriers between the worlds do not deteriorate further with this sort of traffic," Phantom said, which was certainly true although she'd absolutely interfered when the situation warranted it and she had the time and wherewithal to do so. Of course, anyone who actually knew of her, would likely know as much. Hopefully this Fast-Forward had never dabbled enough in the arcane arts to hear of Heshem's chosen guardian. She floated a good foot off the ground, her cloak billowing in wind that was not of this dimension. The travel through her Void had been blessedly brief if unnaturally cold and without any sense of direction or time while within its confines. 

 

Lifting her gloved hands up, she sketched out the lines of Fast-Forward's recent passage as she puzzled out the recent dimensional disturbance. Her attention was only minimally on the Clines as she added, "Which, in this case, means restoring the right man to the right dimension. There are countless numbers of worlds, each with their own problems. I endeavor to keep my involvement to a minimum where I can."

 

Phantom was well aware that to many ears that likely sounded cold; it had certainly caused her conflict in the past. Perhaps that was why she kept so very much to herself now. 

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Paige was tempted to say the hell with it, she just wanted her husband back and this other universe could go to hell for all she cared. But she'd been married to her Richard for a very long time, and this doppelganger with his face was just as completely lousy at keeping a poker face when he wanted to hide something from her. She fixed him with her steeliest gaze, the one that usually worked even with no mental mojo behind it. "Richard, what exactly are you trying to conceal about your world? What the hell is going on there that you don't want anybody messing with?" 

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