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Discussion in 'The Story Board' started by SilverKnight, Apr 29, 2010.
Thanks! I hope I can keep it up. ^^
Okay, so now that the plot's starting to roll, hopefully the chapters will be getting a bit longer to accommodate said plotness. Also, I'm a *****. I freely admit this.
J'onn J'onzz stared at the Earth solemnly across the bridge of the Watchtower. Currently, South America peeked through the whorls of white that ghosted over the planet, still shrouded partially in darkness. The sun would soon touch its fertile lands, and with it, a new day for those inhabitants would begin. One such day was almost over in the city of Guiyang, China – his current home. The city, holding a serene, indescribable beauty that might have had something to do with his beloved wife, had long since grown dark with the terrified whispers of its people. “The sickness,” they said, “it's already been seen in Nanning and parts of Hunan; it's only a matter of time before it spreads here, too.”
He had been keeping a close eye on the development of this newly-dubbed 'Leopard Fever', named for the patterns of black spots that would cover the body as the disease progressed. Through surreptitiously scanning the minds of the scientists and physicians researching it, he had come to learn that they had no idea exactly what it was, much less how to combat it. It held nearly all the attributes of an infectious disease, but none of its short-comings. It only transmitted through physical contact or ingestion – most victims likely absorbed the disease through the skin – but was spreading faster than an airborne pathogen. Most disturbingly, every attempt at killing the diseased cells, both common and extreme, was met with failure.
Though he by no means called Guiyang his city, he sensed the fear of the townsfolk starting to seep into his wife's demeanor. She, too, was growing restless at the invisible predator stalking its way across their land, killing its people without mercy or reprieve. Had this been any other threat, he would have gladly jumped into action, laying his immortal life on the line to protect them from such a terrible danger. However, he was learning that all his incredible powers meant absolutely nothing to a foe that fought on a material plane he simply couldn't touch.
J'onn was beginning to realize that the Justice League, responsible for repelling all manner of invasions, was helpless to combat the systematic storming of a deadly plague.
Pocket Full of Posies
The elevator doors behind him parted with a rushed exhalation of air pressure equalization. He didn't turn around. “Hello, John,” he hailed, “I did not expect to see you here.”
The ex-Marine grunted tiredly, marching up to lean casually upon the work-station. “I could say the same thing about you. I thought you were taking another sabbatical.”
“That ended two days ago,” was his calm, detached response, his green fingers splayed over the command controls. “I thought you had taken time off, as well.”
John shrugged, quickly hiding the wince of pain as he did so. “I did, but I'm still a Green Lantern; still got a sector to protect and all.”
“What happened?” he asked, only half-listening as he read the reports on the monitor in front of him.
Green Lantern rubbed at the tear on his right sleeve absentmindedly. “Some intergalactic warlord was looking for another planet to add to his collection. You know, the usual.”
A faint smirk briefly crossed his features. If only he'd known five-hundred years ago that something like this would become the norm in his life. “Where is this warlord now?”
“I dragged his scaly butt back to Oa to face trial,” John answered, rolling his head back along his shoulders with a handful of quiet pops. “Man, am I exhausted. Hey, do you know if Shayera's on board?”
He nodded. “Most likely. She has spent a majority of her time floating between your quarters and the commissary.” He glanced askew to the solidly-built figure beside him. “It appears your son finds looking down at the Earth soothing.”
John smiled tiredly. His glowing green eyes were quietly mournful. “Yeah,” he murmured, “I guess he would.” He shook his head, gaze clearing. “Anyway, I'll catch you later. I've got a week's worth of shut-eye and diaper-changing to catch up on – “
Warning klaxons wailed from the control panels, several devices and buttons lighting up in distress. Conversation forgotten, both heroes turned to the holographic images that sprang up from thin air. They were staring at floor-plans that, to John, looked incredibly familiar. He furrowed his brows. “What is it?”
J'onn's fingers flew over the keys, zooming in on a spacious room, nestled in the center of the top floor. A red dot flashed ominously on the pale-blue of the image. “The Metro Tower – the security protocols in the meeting room has been breached.”
The ex-Marine's eyes widened in disbelief. “The Metro Tower? That place is more secure than Fort Knox; how could someone break in there?”
“I suggest we find out.” One green finger slammed onto the comm button. “Watchtower to Metro Tower, do you read?” Silence. “Metro Tower, please respond.”
John fisted his right hand in front of his chest, simplistic Lantern ring glowing brightly. “Guess we're doing this the old-fashioned way, then.” He flew to the transporter pad, silently sending an apology to Shayera, as J'onn issued the call for reinforcements.
Three minutes later, the dull blue haze of teleportation faded, and Green Lantern, Vigilante, Shining Knight, and Stargirl all stood staring at the locked reinforced titanium doors protecting the meeting room that only the founders had access to. John motioned for the other three to get ready, willing a skin-tight protective shield around himself as they slipped into a well-practiced battle stance.
Holding his arm out, poised to strike, John barked, “Computer, open the meeting room door, priority Tango-Alpha-Victor zero-zero-four.”
The computer chirped, “Priority recognized.”
Before the doors had even finished rolling back, Green Lantern charged in, energy ring forming a giant rectangular shield for himself and his allies. The remaining three followed, flanking the senior League member and filing inside. There was a tense, pregnant pause as they stood among the inky blackness, preparing for any manner of assault upon themselves.
The green glow of the Lantern's ring dimmed slightly as he shifted, ordering, “Lights.”
The room was engulfed with stark florescent lighting, the darkness retreating into frightened pools beneath the sparse furniture within it. The table, the chairs, the monitors – everything appeared to be in perfect shape, completely untouched. Confusedly, Lantern dropped his right arm, scanning the room with his eyes a second time as Vigilante flicked at his rawhide cap. “Well, if this here ain't a dinger.”
John's hand went to his communicator. “Green Lantern to Watchtower...Watchtower, come in.” Frowning, he turned to his team. “Can any of you get a signal?” Stargirl dropped her fingers to her side, shaking her head. The other two repeated the gesture. His frown deepened. “Alright, let's head to the nearest com-sat station, and try to get a steady signal to – “
“Hey, I think I found something,” Stargirl interrupted him, gripping her crescent staff and floating to one of the light fixtures on the ceiling. Beckoning for Lantern with a tug of her head, she pointed at a small, black device the size of a fifty-cent piece as he flew up beside her. “Look at this. Do you think it's a bomb of some kind?”
He swept a wide green beam over the contraption, momentarily highlighting its innards. “Doesn't look like any bomb I've ever seen.” He shook his head, saying, “Only one way to find out. Get back.” The blonde nodded, rejoining the rest of her team. He steadied his hand, and fired a single, green streak of super-heated plasma at it.
The device sparked and melted on contact, a frenzied choir of static and voices suddenly erupting in his communicator. “ – to Green Lantern, do you read – ”
“ – to Watchtower, we've got something – “
“ – emergency situation at the Metro Tower – “
“ – anyone hear me? Hello?”
John nearly tore the thing from his ear before it died down, all the different sources realizing that they were finally being heard and going quiet. He tugged the device from its place on the ceiling, spotting a small relief on the back of it, now partially destroyed. “Green Lantern,” J'onn voiced, “can you read me?”
He grimaced, his ear still ringing. “Yeah, I read you.”
“Do you require assistance?”
“No, the situation seems to be under control,” he answered, running a finger over the melted design. Why did it seem so familiar? “I think we need to have a meeting.”
“Agreed.” He could practically hear the man nod his head. “I'll transport you up. Vigilante, Shining Knight, Stargirl, I want you to coordinate with the technicians in the Metro Tower and comb the facility for any other devices. If they could infiltrate the founders' meeting room, they could very easily have access to the rest of the building, as well.”
“On it,” Vigilante said with his trademark mid-western country lilt as the three filed out of the room, leaving John alone.
J'onn, even from a thousand miles above, seemed to sense his disquietude. “Problems, friend?”
“I don't know,” he replied distantly, staring at the small black object in his hand. “There's a symbol on the back of this thing – it's distorted and I can't really make it out – but I know I've seen it before.”
“Hmm. Describe it.”
He rotated it in his fingers. “It's pretty melted, but it almost looks like a – “ Words dried up in his throat. That wasn't right, he couldn't possibly –
“What is it?” J'onn asked tensely.
“We need to hold a founders meeting,” he ordered. “Now.”
Bruce exited the Batmobile, his jaw set in a mixture of agony and rage. The Cave was frightfully silent now that Tim had been given a large dose of Lorazepam, but the screams and wails of the sixteen year old were still echoing in his mind. He suspected they would for decades, the same way the sound of a bullet being chambered did. But he couldn't think about that now. He still had to get rid of the evidence.
Blood seeped through the makeshift bandage wrapped around his tattered knee in thick, dark globs as he hobbled like an old man to the nearest medical table. He felt the uncomfortable stickiness of the blood vacantly, catching on the rim of his leather boot and oozing down both the outside and inside of it; it plastered the Nomex-weave lining to the suit, and the suit to his skin. Not like it mattered – the suit was contaminated with DNA and soil samples; the entire thing would have to be incinerated, and its ashes dispersed in the ravine below. Similar would have to be done with the Batmobile – he couldn't allow the murder to be traced back to them. He would not allow Tim to suffer anymore than he already had.
He calmly set the first aid kit on the counter, placing the contents relevant to his injury on the steel tabletop. Antiseptic, needle, thread, gauze, medical tape, flexible wrapping to limit movement. He had to admit, it had been a couple of years since he'd needed to stitch a wound as deep as this one; the damage was extensive enough that he wasn't certain if he could fully suture it or not. Never the less, Alfred and Barbara had their hands full. And so did he, really. The Joker's body was hidden well enough for now, but decomposition would set in soon, and should any unlucky soul ever chance upon him, every sordid detail would come to light. No, he would have to return later and find a more secluded resting place for him.
A small, shrieking part of him – still bloodthirsty, still reeling from the shock and horror of the past three weeks – wanted nothing more than to pike that sick son of a b**ch on top of Gotham PD Headquarters and just watch the Hell that would follow.
He slid onto the medical table, resting his left leg straight as he ripped the shredded cloth of his pant leg to provide better access to the wound. Twisting behind him, he grabbed a large piece of gauze and took to staunching the blood-flow as best as he could while threading the curved needle to prepare for the suturing. It took him three tries. He would have to come up with an alibi for Wayne and the others; Tim's condition couldn't be treated by Leslie alone – she'd have his head on a platter if he tried. It had to be something suitably traumatic to invoke the kind of mental scarring he'd lived through. Car accident while on vacation, maybe? Head trauma, shock, seeing those he cared for in bad straights could theoretically be enough to cause severe mental injury to a teen.
He remained absolutely silent as he slid the needle through his skin, over and over, dabbing and catching the blood with an ever-increasing pile of used wads of gauze. An idea like that could work, but only if people didn't ask questions. The alibi was fairly flimsy – paper-thin, in his book – and definitely wouldn't hold up to scrutiny. He would have to keep the whole thing as quiet as humanly possible; the fewer prying eyes, the better. But, there was the matter of police interference. Even something as innocuous as a car accident required a token police report, and any wet-eared rookie could take one look at Tim and figure out that no crash was responsible for his condition. He would have to tell Gordon, enlist his aid, somehow. Otherwise, they were all up the river.
His gaze fell onto his gloves, caked brown with the now oxidized residue of blood and gore, onto his chest, torn open by a knife he should have seen – why didn't he see it why didn't he check Arkham sooner why didn't he ask for help why didn't – and his stomach suddenly lurched. The needle and small glass vial of iodine clattered harshly against the stainless steel as he unsteadily bounded for a nearby wastebasket. Stumbling to his knees, the left bursting open with dark red fury, he barely had time to clutch the cylindrical can before he expelled the meager sum of food he'd eaten the day before into it. He remained that way long after his stomach was empty; hunched, gagging helplessly over a trash-can that reeked of a sharp-sour scent. Every muscle in his body seized, eyes stinging with reflexive tears, his face and neck burning, as his stomach tried fruitlessly to purge the pain, the wrongness, from his system.
He was a murderer.
It didn't matter if he didn't pull the trigger, he was directly responsible for all of it, he was the one that failed to stop Tim, he was the one disposing of all the evidence – him, all him.
“Master Bruce.” A hand rested upon the crown of his head as another tugged the wastebin away with a hollow metal clink. Gasping, his throat on fire and being able to smell and taste nothing but bile, he allowed the hands to remove his mask and cape; unable to bear taking his eyes off the dirty floor. His faithful servant, his closest confidant, gently lifted Bruce's right arm and slung it like dead weight over his much thinner shoulders, winding an arm across his aching back to support his weight. “Master Bruce.” The butler's voice was tired. He had a right to be – cleaning up his messes; who was he to bring all of this madness upon such a good man?
Delirious from shock, blood-loss, and exhaustion, he tightly squeezed the elder man's shoulder, simultaneously warning him to leave for his own safety and begging him to stay. In response to his desperate movement, the ever-mannerly Englishman allowed the rarest slip in propriety, when he felt the hand on his back slide up to briefly stroke the back of his head. It felt like a benediction.
He finally gathered the strength of will, siphoning it from the palm brushing against the back of his neck, and turned his gaze upward...
...And opened his eyes.
Bruce blinked blearily, sluggishly reacquainting himself with the world of the living as he focused on the concerned face of Alfred Pennyworth leaning over him. “I'm terribly sorry to wake you, sir,” he apologized, “but, well, it seems that while waiting for Master Dick's return, I – I must have dozed off, and...”
Bruce's gaze sharpened abruptly, spotting the clock on the far wall. “7:30?” Nightwing was late. He swung his legs over the bed in his private quarters – he supposed Clark was too sentimental to bother changing the passcode to it – and ran a hand down his face quickly.
The butler nodded solemnly. “Yes, I'm afraid so, sir.”
He immediately pressed a finger to the communicator. “Batman to Nightwing.” No response. “Batman to Nightwing.”
Alfred sighed solemnly, stepping back as Bruce stood. “I do apologize in the lapse, sir – ordinarily I'm up and about by five o'clock – “
He placed a hand on Alfred's shoulder. He wanted to smile at him, but couldn't find the means to. “It's alright, Alfred.” He marched over to a compartment hidden within the wall, pulling out a fresh Batsuit and slipped into a nearby changing room. “If anyone needed the rest, it's you.” He emerged from the small chamber thirty seconds later, fully clothed and adjusting his gauntlets. “I'll find him.”
He headed to the door and had a hand poised over the lock button when they slid back of their own accord. His head snapped up, whip fast, to face the looming figure of Superman, arms folded over his broad chest. “So, does this mean you took up my offer?”
Batman glowered darkly. “Get out of my way.”
Superman shook his head. “We need to talk.”
He was getting really sick and tired of people arguing with him. He leaned forward, angling his head up to get right in the Boyscout's smug face. He was far beyond the point of not being in the mood for this. “I need to get down to the surface, now.”
“Board meetings can wait – “
“Nightwing may be in danger,” he snapped, gritting his teeth. “He was supposed to report in over two hours ago.”
Superman's brows furrowed as he processed this information. “Do you need any – “
“Bruce,” Kent warned sternly.
His eyes narrowed dangerously. He wished that he still carried around that chunk of Kryptonite, but he'd had it destroyed after their encounter with the Brainiac-Luthor hybrid in a show of hard-won trust for the Man of Steel. Granted, he still had a small sliver of it carefully tucked away in a secret, lead-lined compartment of the Batcave, but what Kent didn't know wouldn't hurt him.
“I don't want anyone getting hurt,” Superman said, his pinched expression silently adding, 'Not like last time.'
His hands balled into tight fists, leather creaking in protest. Dick was not Tim; Ra's Al Ghul was not the Joker. The situations were nothing similar. “Then you need to move.”
The man in front of him stubbornly stood his ground.
That caught Superman off guard, his strong features falling in surprise. Dick's life was in danger; he could take the momentary hit to his pride if it got this self-righteous idiot out of his hair. 'That's right, Kent – I'm pleading. Satisfied?'
Clark wavered, arms falling to his sides. “Promise me that you'll contact us when you find him.”
He nodded distractedly. “You have my word, now move.”
Superman exhaled tiredly, and barely had time to step aside before he brushed past them and stalked down the hall, cape billowing ominously behind him. “Batman, one more thing.”
The Dark Knight didn't bother turning or slowing his pace, instead flicking his communicator to Superman's channel. If it was important, then Kent would continue without prompting. True to form, the familiar baritone rang in his ears, “The founders' meeting room in the Metro Tower was infiltrated a half hour ago. There was no evidence of illegal entry or exit, but they still managed to install a highly sophisticated frequency jammer before virtually disappearing.”
Curiosity piqued, he answered, “Was the device black and the size of a half-dollar?”
“You've seen it before?”
He made a note to analyze the device he still held in his belt once he got Nightwing back safely. “I ran into something like that last night. Ra's Al Ghul used it.” His mind whirred in thought; the thought sickened him, but it was reasonable that Ra's henchmen would find their way into the Batcave undetected. But the top floor of the Metro Tower?
“Ra's Al Ghul, huh?” He didn't like the tone in Superman's voice. “Would he have any reason to frame you?”
“Frame me?” he repeated. “For what?”
“The device we found? It had a Bat-symbol on the back of it.”
His finger paused for a second over the elevator keypad, trying to convince himself that he didn't feel the slightest bit betrayed by their lack of trust in him. “And you think I did it.”
“Well, no, of course not, it's just – “
He pursed his lips in thought, setting aside the roundabout accusation for the moment. “It was a message.”
“To all of us – that he can reach us anywhere,” he stated. “Only the founders know that I resigned – everyone else has been lead to believe I'm working strictly behind the scenes now.”
He could practically feel Superman's confusion on the other end. “So why your symbol, then?”
“To sow distrust.”
“Distrust towards you?”
“It worked, didn't it?” He tried not to sound bitter. The attempt failed miserably.
“Batman, we didn't think – “
“Forget it,” Batman scoffed in disgust. His excuses were meaningless and insulting. “The important thing is that Ra's couldn't have come up with that sort of technology himself. I suggest you start doing some research on leading communication outlets to see which one has been leaking specs to the Black Market. Once you find that, you can narrow down his movements and predict where he'll hit next.”
“You think he'll try again?”
“Wouldn't you?” he asked. “The break-in at the Metro Tower was a show of force. He knows he can bypass our security, now, so he'll feel confident enough to continue with whatever scheme he's cooked up.”
He entered the bridge with the air of self-assured purpose, ignoring the looks of shock he got from several techs as he passed them. After all, his quitting was one of the League's best-kept secrets. He knew there were potential criminal syndicates that remained small-time specifically because they feared the Bat's watchful eyes. If nothing else, that would be his legacy. “By the way,” he added shortly before he stopped at the Monitor Womb, “don't get used to this. The answer is still 'no'. Batman out.”
The faceless Question, positioned at the control hub, peered up at him. “And here I was led to believe that the Illuminati had silenced you.”
'No, just a clown,' he commented silently. “Find Nightwing's location.”
“Nightwing,” the half-crazed detective muttered as he complied, “Nightwing, the vigilante from Bludhaven. Your first star pupil.”
He ground his molars. Vic Sage was a brilliant man – in some cases, far too brilliant, if his perchance for conspiracy theories was to be believed. Still, the man had his heart in the right place, and his dogged pursuit of justice was what led Batman to bring his name up for recruitment in spite of his...stranger attributes. But right now, he just didn't want to hear it. “Can you find his communicator frequency or not?”
The Question hadn't been expecting an answer, truthfully, but the reactions themselves were more telling than the words people often spewed forth. “Got it.”
“Transport me there.” The footfalls of his steel-lined, custom-tailored combat boots were silent as he trod onto the plasti-steel teleporter pad. Batman nodded.
Seconds later, he remolecularized in Arkham Cavern, dropping into a defensive stance with a Batarang primed to fly. Scanning the area, his eyes befell the modified purifier and a humanoid shadow pooled into a heap at the base of it. “Nightwing!” he called out, the dusty pathway smoking behind him as he darted over, kneeling over the prone figure. Reaching out with his right hand, he carefully placed his fore and middle fingers against Nightwing's neck, counting the heartbeats against his own. (He didn't acknowledge the surge of relief that washed over him.) Pulse was steady, that was a good sign.
As if hearing his thoughts, Nightwing groaned miserably, limbs moving lethargically to right himself. Batman replaced the Batarang, clasping his shoulders to help steady him as he sat up. “Easy. Are you okay?”
Nightwing ran a dirt-covered hand down his gaunt face, stopping to massage the bridge of his nose. “Yeah, I'm... What time is it?”
“Oops.” He shook his head. “Wow, whatever it was they pumped me with was a doozy.”
Batman frowned. “'They'?”
Nightwing hummed in pain, rolling his shoulders to work out the kinks. “Figured it was easier to say than, 'He, she, or it.'”
Bruce took the fallen silver dart between his fingers and examined it closely. “So, you didn't see who fired at you?”
“Well, I saw their boots, right before I passed out face down in the dirt,” Dick offered with a halfhearted shrug. “Does that help?”
“Y'know, I hear they sell senses of humor for cheap down at the local discount store,” he drawled as he cracked his neck.
The corner of Batman's mouth curled up against his wishes. He stood, towering over the lean vigilante and offered one large, thick hand. “Are you coming?”
Nightwing took the proffered grip and hauled himself to his feet. “Yeah, yeah.” He gestured with his head toward the silent machine next to them. “You might wanna take a look at this.” Batman glided next to him, leaning over his shoulder like a bird of prey sizing up its next meal. He tapped the small antechamber with a knuckle. “See that gunk in there?”
The Dark Knight's pivoted his head to get a better angle of both Dick and the machine. “It was like this when you found it?”
“Yeah, but I don't think it started like this. The machine was warm when I got here.” He nodded at the muck puddled at the base of the container. “Which means that whatever that is...”
“...Is now in Gotham's water supply,” Batman finished ominously.
To be continued...
Hmm...so what we have here is a fascinating mixture of the Batman Begins plot combined with a biological weapons scheme (that reminds me of the Scourge Plague from Warcraft III for some reason) and Ras can apparently bypass JL security? My guess...boom tubes or some variation thereof; ergo an impending Apokoliptic invasion (which would only strengthen the Warcraft III connection...). Add just a few dashes of the unforgettable RotJ flashback sequence and its consequences, and we have a perfectly dark and deadly concoction.
I can't wait for the entree to be served.
Yes, there are definite shades of Warcraft III in here -- if you're gonna steal, steal from the good stuff, I say -- but hopefully it doesn't seem to blatantly obvious, except to fellow Warcrack fiends like you and me. Don't expect Arthas or Kel'Thuzad to suddenly show up, though.
And I'm glad you're enjoying my latest helping of WTF Stew. May each dish be as full of OMGWTF as the last. ^^
Dun dun dunnnn, another chapter. This one was a pain to write for some reason. I suck.
And just for you, aiwac, I'm going to have to throw in a subtle Warcraft III reference before the story's out. XD Thanks!
The shrill ring of a cell phone stirred James Gordon from a deep, peaceful slumber. He had always kept strange hours – and stranger company – while working as the Commissioner of Gotham City's Police Department, but since his retirement, his life had settled into something of a routine. He would wake at around 8 AM, he would take a shower, and afterward, he would sit down at the breakfast table with a black coffee and the morning paper. The day would pass slowly, as they always did, because there was no rush to go from one place to another, no crimes to solve, no disasters to mitigate. There were times he missed the action.
Then he would read the headline of the day and immediately renege the thought.
Jim shook awake abruptly, hand reaching for the object of the infernal noise, fumbling as his eyelids refused to cooperate and stayed closed. “Gordon here,” he grumbled, habit taking over while his brain wasn't up to task.
“Don't go anywhere near the water.”
His eyes opened wide, brain kick-starting into action. He hadn't heard that voice since shortly after his wife's funeral, over two years ago. “Batman?”
“Have you or Barbara come in contact with any tap water in the past six hours?” he asked urgently.
He rubbed the sleep from his eyes with an arthritic hand. “Barbara's out of town until tomorrow, and as for me, well, I'm still in my pajamas.” He glanced at the clock; red digital letters scrawled out 7:39.
There was the briefest of embarrassed pauses. “Sorry to wake you, Jim,” Batman apologized, “but there's a situation. Gotham's water supply has been contaminated.”
He could've laughed. He hadn't even gotten out of bed yet, and it was already one of those days.
“Contaminated? With what?”
“I don't know yet,” the Dark Knight responded, “but the order for it was given by Ra's Al Ghul.”
He stared at the receiver like it had transformed into a snake. “The eco-terrorist?” he questioned as he brought the phone back to his ear. “What's his stake in all of this?”
“Not sure of that yet, either,” Batman answered, sounding frustrated – though he doubted anyone else would've noticed the change in tone, “but I'll find out soon enough. Do you have a pen and paper handy? I've got some coordinates to give you.”
“Yeah, just a sec,” he muttered, flinging the thin cotton sheet from his legs and fumbling with the drawer next to the bed. “But why are you telling me all this? I have no authority in the department, anymore – the best I can do is pass the information along.”
“And that's exactly what I want you to do. Commissioner Loeb may take it better from you.”
Jim frowned. He knew of Loeb's stance on the Caped Crusader and how strongly he was pushing to drive the vigilante out of town. If only that small-minded prick knew just how much Batman had given for this city... “He doesn't like late-night visitors?”
Batman's voice was oddly neutral as he stated, “The last time I tried to warn him of a city-wide threat, he shot me.”
Jim nearly dropped the phone. “Shot you? As in – “
“With a gun.” Another quick pause. “We can reminisce later; right now, we're short on time. Do you have that paper?”
He fiddled with the pen in his hand. “Got it. Where am I sending SWAT?”
He could hear the grim smirk in his friend's gravelly baritone as he replied, “Just like old times, huh, Jim?”
Gordon grunted. Guess he didn't need to read the paper today. “Don't remind me.”
Batman closed the link with a tap of his index finger, turning to Nightwing. “Gordon's been informed. Do you have the sample?”
Nightwing carefully screwed the vial filled with purple-black goop shut and flicked it with a finger. “Yup! Let's roll, partner.”
Just like old times, indeed. He motioned to the thin glass container. “Head to the Watchtower, analyze the toxin, and cross-reference it against all known pathogens.”
Dick nodded. “And where are you going?”
His turned away, eying Nightwing over one finely-toned shoulder. “Ra's tailored this entire scheme with me in mind. I doubt the Manor was the only decoy trap he set. He might have left a clue.” He tapped his ear, starting off toward the surface. “I'll be in touch. Call me when you find something.” He rounded the corner, climbing the winding stairwell swiftly as he switched communication frequencies. “Superman, I've found him.”
There was silence for three seconds before Superman asked, “Is he alright?”
“He's fine,” he replied, vaulting over a fallen supply shelf that blocked his way out of the basement. He took a cursory inspection of the room as he sped through it – someone had fought here recently.
The Man of Steel sighed in relief over the line. His personal concern was equal parts touching and irritating. “That's good. How about you?”
The scales tipped in irritation's favor. “Don't worry about me.”
“It's pretty hard not to when – oh, thanks Lois.”
He raced down the demolished hallway, the air stale and decaying in spite of the roof being missing. This pestilence of a facility would remain a blight on the land for the rest of time. “You're at work?”
“Well, it is Friday, Mr. Wayne.” Bruce grit his teeth, irritation pooling with frustration to create a molitov cocktail of rage that only Clark Kent could ever coax from him. “Anyway, sorry for the interruption, I can tell you're busy. Should I call back at a better time?”
Nearly a hundred miles away, the mild-mannered reporter in question sat at his desk with his cell phone against his ear, cleverly masking his conversation with a clearly-annoyed Batman to the world. Clark, for one, wasn't really sure why Bruce was being so untenable – he was the one that called. The Dark Knight growled into his ear, “Don't bother; I'll call you.”
He pushed the rim of his wire-framed glasses up to the bridge of his nose with his forefinger. “Alright, thanks again, Mr. Way – “
Clark pulled the cell phone away from his ear and gave it a dour, withering stare. That man... Lois, at the adjacent desk, caught his gaze and quirked an eyebrow in silent question. He shrugged and smiled sheepishly. “Guess he really was busy.”
The Batmobile purred as Bruce tapped the break, parking the sleek black vehicle in a secluded knoll near the roadside entrance to the Batcave. Suspecting that the entryway was going to be destroyed, he loosed a grapple and sailed to the top of the jagged cliff, cape pooling around him as he landed. Ensuring that the area was deserted, Batman stole to an upper entry of the Cave that no one else had ever learned of. Kneeling at the opening, he took the remainder of his acid container and poured it over the titanium-alloy grate he'd installed shortly after he became Batman, the metal bars bubbling and hissing as it liquefied. Shifting his weight to one leg, he kicked the loosened square free, listening as it fell silently for a full ten seconds before it rattled sharply against stone. Evidently, the Cave wasn't as fully demolished as he'd initially feared; that was a good sign. Tying a line to the remainder of the grate, he pulled on the wire once to test its strength, before he slid himself into the opening and slowly rappelled down.
Carefully, he planted his feet on the ground where only the faintest of light streamed down, one hand still gripping the rope tightly in his hand while the other pulled out a high-powered flashlight. Running the light along the ground, he spied the grate lying tilted against the dank cave wall; the hollowed and cramped corridor to the Batcave was in front of it. He gave the rope one more cursory tug, then left it and hunched his upper body down to fit through the tight space.
The passage felt far longer than it actually was. He must have been leaner back then; he didn't recall jagged rock brushing painfully against his shoulders and upper back like this. It widened mercifully and he rose to his full height, a pair of agitated bats whizzed past between his pointed ears, sailing up into the cacophony of frightened warbles and squeaks. He hadn't even thought about them – just like always, these creatures understood his plight only too well. He shook his head and moved on, winding through the thin and uneven path until he came to a stairwell terraformed into the rockface. Setting the light to shine directly in front of him, he briskly climbed the stairs.
It had been twenty-five years since he'd last stepped foot in this section of the Cave. Bruce, at the time, wasn't concerned with his Mission, so much as where the sudden swarm of bats had come from, shortly after proposing to Andrea. He later learned that this particular species was extremely territorial, but the beady-eyed creatures remained deathly still while he spelunked into their nest. He'd spent hours down here without realizing, or frankly caring – he was strangely fascinated by the expanse of the cold cavern that seemed to stretch on in both directions forever. At the time, he wondered why he felt so at ease while being engulfed in darkness. If only he'd known.
His only warning of danger was a rumbling roar of stone tearing apart shortly before the steps crumbled beneath his treads. With a startled cry, he reached for the railing as his flashlight went skipping down into the abyss, along with a sizable portion of the stairwell. Struggling to find footing, he powered on his built-in night vision goggles – which, unfortunately, offered him very little in the way of help. He was left staring at a haze of barely distinguishable green, but he none the less managed to secure the ball of one foot against a small outcrop, lessening the load on his awkward grip. Staring up into the void, he searched for a particular point to latch his grappling hook onto. He thought he spotted a suitable candidate – it looked sturdy enough – but wasn't certain it would hold, if the fiasco with the stairway was anything to go by. Scanning the darkness again, he found his landing point, should he not plummet to his unceremonious death.
Batman steadied his right arm and muttered to himself, “Only one way to find out.”
His aim was true, the serrated arrow-head slamming into the rock with a tinny clank. The air, stale and humid, rushed past him as the pneumatic grappling hook reeled him to the pointed rock formation high above. Swinging his legs forward, he clicked the line release button and felt gravity take hold of him as he careened toward the last intact section of stairs. The Dark Knight landed roughly against the semi-destroyed bottom step, a portion of it giving out under his weight. He stopped himself short of skidding off the edge with a grunt, retractable claws out and digging into the stone in a veritable death grip as he hoisted the rest of his body onto solid ground.
He was getting too old for this.
He tested the half-demolished step with a tap of his boot before he rose to his feet. Grabbing the thin metal railing, he continued up the remainder of the stairway, until it leveled off to the Batcave proper. A faint blue glow emanated in the distance, the pungent, acrid scent of smoke and chemicals burning his nose and throat. Coughing, he procured a gas mask and hastily slipped it over his face, inhaling and exhaling deeply through the filters to rid the noxious fumes from his inflamed lungs. He switched off his night vision and tentatively strode through his ruined trophy hall, sliding around and climbing over the giant chunks of rock that littered the ground. Despite himself, he wondered how long it would take to restore the Cave once Ra's was in custody and Gotham was safe again – months? Years? Many of the gadgets he'd confiscated were one-of-a-kind – irreplaceable. Some of the owners were dead and gone; others had reformed and moved on to lead normal lives.
Others still were working hard to replace the old guard, toiling to earn a name for themselves in the underworld as this codename or that. Truthfully, they were all beginning to blend together. All of these people, hurting others, lashing out at them – all of them tortured, disturbed, looking for something they could never find in the doldrums of everyday society. They turned to crime because it offered them a way out, a freedom, a means to survive where they previously felt they had none. It was becoming increasingly difficult to empathize with them. His heart grew a little harder, a little colder, every time he offered his hand – his time, his resources, his kindness and forgiveness, if he could truly reach them – only to have it spat upon and used against him. In a perfect world, Bruce didn't want to see anyone, anywhere, suffer alone.
His boot nudged the remains of the Freeze gun. He reached down and plucked it from the grimy cavern floor, staring dully at its highly polished surface.
Unfortunately, the world was very far from perfect.
A sound of a rock clunking against the floor caught his attention; the gun fell to the ground unnoticed as he readied a Batarang. A slender figure rounded a fallen stalactite, a gun gleaming softly in their grip. Oh, no – no one else was perusing his home, not on his watch. Batman sprung into action, the Batarang connecting with the assailant's outstretched hand. The silhouette gasped in pain, foolishly watching the weapon fly end over end into one of the puddles of darkness. He pressed the advantage, lunging forward and slamming them into the ground with a breathy rush of lost air. Glowing eyes slit angrily, he forcibly shoved the intruder onto their back, pinning them to the ground with solid muscle and a grip of cast iron.
The person gaped up at him, startled, but neither surprised nor terrified. Given who was he was holding down, he supposed her reaction only made sense. Talia smiled thinly. “Hello, beloved.”
Lois Lane flicked her wrist and checked the time; ten minutes to 9 o'clock. She sighed blandly, going back to proof-reading her article while lamenting how slowly the day was passing. She'd already questioned the police officials on the scene of the Wayne Manor explosion, hoping to snag a good front-page article while trying to eschew enough of the controversy away from Bruce that his secret wouldn't be exposed – and doing so without making it look like she was pulling her punches. A soft Lois Lane story would only entice her more ambitious and sharp-elbowed colleagues to go snooping for themselves. She knew Bruce could more than fend for himself – and she wasn't above letting the lout do just that if he decided to be an ass about it – but having a friend in your corner never hurt.
Besides, she felt she owed him.
She ran a finger absentmindedly over the thin gold chain of her watch. When Clark told her that he'd been courting her as Superman while silently working side-by-side with her – for years – she'd slapped him, then removed his glasses and slapped him again, just to make sure she got them both. Supe – Cla – whoever he was had apologized profusely and promised to make it up to her, saying that he'd wanted to tell since he watched her cry at his – Clark's – funeral, but was afraid of what she might think.
She'd balked. “What I might think? Of what?”
Clark's face – Superman's face – had been uncharacteristically meek. With the glasses, she could've taken the expression in stride; without them, she simply couldn't wrap her head around it. His sterling blue eyes were sullen as he'd answered hesitantly, “Of being in love with some small town Kansas boy.” He shrugged. “That you always tease.”
Lois Lane, daughter of an army general, tough-as-nails modern woman that took absolutely zero crap from anyone or anything, had felt her heart melt like warm butter in her chest.
A smile had dangled from her lips as she stood on her tiptoes, staring into his eyes. “Don't be so self-conscious, Smallville. If I didn't like what I saw...” She carefully replaced his glasses, pushing them up the bridge of his nose with a finger, the way she'd seen him do a thousand times before. “I'd tell you.”
Then she kissed him.
It had been strange for the first two seconds, feeling the wire-rims underneath her fingers as her hands roamed over the immaculate, chiseled planes of his face – knowing that the doting Kansas boy she called her best friend, her most trusted companion, was also the gold-hearted hero that risked his life for strangers everyday. It had been even stranger to realize, with a sudden flash of understanding, that she was hopelessly in love with them both, and that she could no longer imagine them as separate individuals. They were two halves of the same whole – the same amazing, klutzy, selfless, strong, compassionate, forthright, and loving man that she was so proud to know.
When they'd parted, she gave the tip of his nose a chaste peck, smirking. “Though, if you really do want to make it up to me, Clark...”
His deep blue eyes were glazed over as he panted lightly. She couldn't believe he was out of breath – he was Superman, for Christ's sake. “Sure.”
“Dinner. Tomorrow night at La Buchelle's. As yourself.” Her grin widened a touch. “And you're paying.”
Their dinner was fabulous and his gift, a gold watch, was as beautiful as it was extravagant – too extravagant for a man of Clark's pay-grade. She'd done some snooping, as it was her ply and trade of choice, and learned of a desperate call to one very rich Bruce Wayne. When she questioned him about it, he politely denied any involvement, other than, “Trying to calm the babbling idiot down before he gave himself a stroke.”
“That 'babbling idiot' is my boyfriend,” Lois had snapped, her instinct to protect the honor of the dopey little farm boy bubbling to the surface, in spite of her knowledge that said dopey little farm boy could snap Batman in half. It was the principle of the thing, really.
“No accounting for taste, I see,” he'd retorted, an odd gleam in his eye.
A hand curled into a fist, ready to sock him right in his arrogant, broody, paranoid-schizophrenic face, before recognition clicked in her head.
Bruce was teasing her.
Batman – the ******* Batman! – was teasing her.
She settled for punching him in the shoulder and thanking him for helping Clark in his time of need. Bruce, in return, merely rolled the joint once for effect and muttered, “Not bad.” His gaze was alight with a subdued warmth as he shook her hand and escorted her to her car. He appeared...genuinely happy for her – for them both.
A week later, he fell off the face of the Earth.
Three weeks after that, a shell-shocked and ashen-faced Bruce Wayne reappeared, informing the public that his adopted sixteen year old son, Timothy, had been abducted and brutalized in a bid for ransom money. He'd given her the world-exclusive interview – to date, the only interview he'd ever held on the subject – and shakily recounted the twenty-day long ordeal. Her heart, tough as it may have been, broke for him; she knew that the tears he'd been blinking back during their short conversation weren't fake.
When they'd finished, she shut off her recorder and laid a hand on his arm. “Off the record, Bruce,” she asked tentatively, “what really happened?”
He looked down at her. His blue eyes were so dull. “Don't ask me that, Lois,” he said with a tone that would have sounded neutral, if it hadn't been laced with so much misery. “Don't ever ask me that.”
Lois never asked again. Lois also never saw him again.
She wondered what he was involved in this time to get his home blown to pieces. Whatever it was, she just hoped he came out of it in one piece.
“Lois?” Her head darted up to see Clark staring at her, slightly concerned. “You okay?”
She forced an impish grin. “Of course, Smallville! Why wouldn't I be?”
He gave her that, 'I can hear your heart-rate and I know you're lying' look. “Well, for starters,” he responded blandly, “you're rubbing your watch like you think there's a genie stuffed in there.”
Her expression became exasperated, scoffing and resuming her proof-reading. “Oh, it's nothing. I'm just finishing up this article on the Wayne Manor explosion, and I couldn't help but wonder...”
“...How such a flake like him didn't manage to do it years before?” he supplied with raised eyebrows.
She almost blushed. If she didn't know Bruce's secret, that's exactly what she would've thought. “Something like that, yeah.” She grimaced. “Does 'perpetual' have one T or two?”
She hastily corrected the error. “I just get the feeling there's more to this fire than meets the eye.” Lois gazed at Clark evenly. “I mean, you know the World's Richest Slacker better than I do – did he get himself involved in something?”
Clark's expression fell in vaguely defined sadness. Her reporter instincts piqued up. Oh, there was definitely something going on, then. “Doesn't he always?”
“Alright, everyone,” Perry's voice boomed over the newsroom, the chatter and noise dying down to hear him. “We've got some sort of big chemical spill in Gotham's waters – front-page disaster headline, who – “
The din drowned out the rest of his words as dozens of reporters jumped up and clamored for the glory. Clark's body language shifted imperceptibly, straightening in his chair. “Chemical spill?”
“Where do you think...” Lois and Clark's eyes met, violet against azure, a secret message passing between them. She smiled wanly at her husband. “Gotta go?”
Clark nodded. “I'll meet you there.”
“Sure you will, Smallville,” she answered as she rose from her seat to claim her place on the front page, as always, “but I'm getting the byline!”
“A chemical spill?” Jim Gordon yelled over the phone. “You told the public it was a chemical spill?”
Commissioner Harold Loeb rubbed his temples wearily. He'd never really liked Gordon that much. Oh, he got where the man was coming from, but his years in retirement must have softened his mind. He wasn't going to send the populace into a panic when they didn't have the facts. “What was I supposed to tell them? We don't know what that mess SWAT uncovered even is, much less if it's toxic or not.”
“Batman said – “
Ah, yes, his pet Bat. Another reason Loeb didn't really like Gordon that much. Shortly before his retirement became official, he'd taken Harold aside and made the cryptic statement, “Sometimes, the long arm of the law just isn't long enough.”
“Then you're not doing your job,” he'd replied before storming out to pack his belongings. Gordon had relied on a vigilante to do all his legwork, reaping all the rewards for lowering the crime-rate when it was some revenge-crazed lunatic running amok that did it for him. That hypocrite.
“Batman didn't know what it was, either,” he reminded his former boss tartly. “And this Raz Algool – “
“Ra's Al Ghul – “
“Whatever it is,” he said, “the guy's a myth. A boogeyman.”
“You'd be surprised at just how many boogeymen exist in the world, Loeb,” Gordon answered, his tone sharp, “when you try pulling your head out of your ass long enough to bother looking!”
Yeah, they didn't get along. At all.
Good thing the Mayor was on his side. “I appreciate the procedural critique, Jim,” he replied, a scaly grin on his face that did not reach his eyes, “but I'm handling this the way it needs to be handled. No two-bit nutjob in a cape and mask is going to call the shots in my city while I'm in charge.”
“Your city?” Jim queried. “He says the same thing, you know.”
Harold snarled. That bastard.
“Keep in touch, Loeb.”
He hung up roughly. “Keep in touch,” he huffed, drumming his fingers against the cradle of the phone as he looked at preliminary reports of the substance they found. If follow-up tests confirmed that it was toxic, he could be in for the most epic *****torm of all time.
He wadded the paper up and hurled it into a wastebasket. “Keep in touch. I'll get right on that.”
Batman didn't move or loosen his grip. “Running errands for your father, Talia?”
“No, beloved, I came here to help you,” she denied, her accent thinner than he remembered hearing last.
The Dark Knight hands remained locked on her elbows. “You've said that before,” he stated, baritone harsh and disbelieving. “Why are you here?”
Her features, angular and aristocratic, ticked in grief. “I came to warn you of my father's plan, but I was...delayed.” Her pale blue eyes fell upon a fallen rock inches from her head, filled with sorrow and uncertainty. “I see now that I was too late to stop him.”
Wary, he slid away from her, kneeling at her side as she rose to a sitting position, rubbing the inside of her elbows. “Stop him from doing this?”
Her alto was shameful. “No, from releasing the plague into your city.”
Lightning shot up his spine, and he found his hands clamping on the sides of her arms like a vice. “Plague?” he hissed, eyes wide and teeth bared. “You mean you introduced a disease into my city?”
“No, beloved, it was not me!” She shook her head emphatically, peering into his lenses with a stark desperation. “You must believe me – I did not know what my father was planning to do! If I had, I would have aided you sooner!”
He yanked her forward, the point of his cowl digging into the skin of her cheek as he glared. Her breath was warm on his face. “Tell me everything you know. Now.”
“Superman to Batman.”
Batman tilted his head to the side, swearing under his breath. “I'm busy.”
“What can we do to help?”
He glared out of the corner of his eye, aimed at Talia. “Nothing; I'm handling it.”
“Oh, for God's sake!” Superman snapped, his static-laden voice was rough with frustration. “Can you put your pride to the side for once and let us help you before the rioting gets out of control?”
He knit his brows, going stiff. What? “Rioting?”
Clark's tone was flabbergasted. “You mean you don't know?”
“Superman,” he growled, voice volcanic, “what the hell is going on?”
“Leopard Fever,” Clark answered, baritone bereft. “It's hit Gotham.”
To be continued...
Oooh, the reappearance of Talia. Is this a bad time to state that I always liked her DCAU character, even though we only saw her in a handful of episodes?
I'm also ship Talia/Bruce from DCAU, but not comic Talia/Bruce, don't ask, I'm not sure I could explain it either.....
Anyway, I'm curious to see how she'll effect the changes to Bruce's life, and exactly how did the two of them ended up in Milan as we saw in the photo from Out of the Past.
Yeah, Talia's pretty cool by me, too, even with her whole 'Running off to daddy' issues that makes me want to slap her every time she did it. But she's a cool character when in lieu of that. XD
I could. Talia from the comics is a freaking psycho that, from what I've heard, is about as far gone as Daddykins at this point. I mean, she drugged/date-raped Batman in order to have him sire a child. That's, um...yeah.
You know, I'm not sure how I'd fit that in, or if I even want to--the details on the Talia/Ra's thing is really foggy, so we don't know if Ra's completely overwrote Talia, or if her memories before her death were still intact in her noggin. Since I'm assuming the former, that means that Talia and Bruce had that nice little dinner after Talia got brain-fused with Ra's. Which, if that's the case, is also a little...um, yeah. I mean, Bruce is looking at the pic and saying, "Rest well, beloved," and all I can think to reply is, "THAT'S HER FREAKING DAD. IN HER BODY. FLIRTING WITH YOU."
BB has some really ****ed up stories. It's so awesome. XD
I agree; though, having actually read The Son of the Demon storyline, I thought. "Maybe Talia and Bruce have a future..." Then I found out how they messed up that storyline...
Yes, I suppose that is one way of looking at that photo. I always viewed it as at some point Talia realized that her father would never appreciated what she gave up for him, and kind of just ditched him.
It was then that she decided to look Bruce up and helped him with to go against Ra's because she finally realized that what he wanted wasn't worth the price.
If I ever get my a** in gear, then I'd try to write a xXxholic/BB story where Talia makes her way to Yuko's shop because she's aware what Ra's has planned and makes a wish so it doesn't go as her father planned.
I mean that episode had a lot of plot holes, like if Ra's wanted an heir so much and was in his own daughter's body, why didn't he try to get pregnant earlier, and like you said, how much of Talia's influence remained, or was it really gone?
That's a nicer idea, and totally plausible, but the first thing that came to mind when he was looking at the picture was, "EW, YOU'RE MACKING ON A GUY, BRUCE."
>.O; My brain isn't a nice place to be.
I'll admit there have been times when I've wondered about when that photo was taken too, because it's entirely possible that it was taken after the whole "I need your body, daughter," fiasco.
*Sigh* poor Bruce...can't catch a break. Then again, considering how much of an hard a** he is towards Dick, Alfred, and others......maybe he deserves it sometimes.
This is true. It is kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy, but at the same time, he's never had a reason to believe otherwise. Poor bastard.
Poor bastard indeed...so how else to you plan on torturing the Dark Knight? Having Talia and Diana meet? Oooh, add a dash of Selina and that would be an interesting conversation. Even better if you can make Selina be her snarky self to the other women.
Now that would be something.
Alfred desperately wanted to clean something.
The room adjacent to Batman's quarters were, strictly speaking, for any guest of the Justice League. That didn't stop Batman from ensuring that no one ever entered it without his direct authorization. To Alfred's knowledge, he was the first and only person to ever be allowed into this room in the six years the space-station has orbited Earth. Somehow, that knowledge didn't surprise him in the slightest.
However, the lack of occupancy meant that there was, quite literally, nothing to do while remaining there. As per nearly everything that Master Bruce did, the room, and the Watchtower itself, was nearly sterile in its efficiency; sanitary, functional, and very impersonal. He already wiped down every piece of furniture with a spare handkerchief, made the bed four times, and adjusted the textbooks on the shelf – the subjects of which ranged from quantum theory to criminal psychology to robotics – according to the proper Dewey Decimal System. Currently, he stood at the small porthole, gazing out into the abyss of space, and came to realize that this marked the first time in forty-seven years that he called some place other than Wayne Manor his home.
It was temporary, he told himself. The Manor had been damaged before, after all, and Master Bruce always fixed the building up, right as rain. Why, Master Bruce's recollection of the expansive mansion quite possibly surpassed his own; his eye for detail was impressive and not to be trifled with. By the time it was fully rebuilt, he doubted anyone would be able to tell anything had happened. Until that point, though, Alfred was to make his accommodations here and, as Master Bruce said, “Sit tight.” He knew the comment was harmless, but he bristled at it, all the same. It just went to show how little the boy knew about him, even after all these decades. Alfred never, ever 'sat tight' while Batman was off, gallivanting across the city – or in some cases, across the globe or even cosmos – to wage war on the wicked and unjust. What did Bruce think he was doing all that time? Twiddling his thumbs? Playing solitaire? Watching the clock? Hmph. The nerve of that man.
No – whenever Alfred found himself in lieu of something to help Master Bruce with, he cleaned. Scrubbed, swept, dusted, and tidied anything he could get his hands on. Anything to keep him busy and occupied, so he didn't have to think about how his best friend's son, whom he raised as his own, was out in the dead of night, often alone, risking his life for a city that many thought wasn't worth saving. Naturally, Master Bruce knew nothing of this, and never would. He was a former member of the SAS; he was quite acquainted with duty and personal sacrifice. His purpose for existence was to keep the progeny of Thomas and Martha Wayne alive – and true to his virtues – at any and all cost. Bruce Wayne walked a razor's edge as it was; that man would never know the horrors of falling in, so long as Alfred Pennyworth had a say in it.
He glanced down at the small patch of purple spots that pockmarked the back of his withered right hand. A non-trained eye would see only the common variety of age-spots that nearly all people his age would get. His own eyes, though old, were wizened enough to see them as a symptom of Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia – cancer of the white blood cells. It was gradual, and treatable to an extent, but still ultimately terminal.
Alfred supposed, rather wryly, that the tired cliché of only allowing something over his dead body was quickly becoming a reality.
We All Fall Down
A siren broke the deafening silence of the guestroom. Alfred calmly pivoted and stared at the automatic double doors, expecting the Dark Knight to come rushing through them at any moment, only to remind himself that he was abroad, looking for clues. Scanning the room, his eyes fell upon a flat-screen television and the remote that was paired with it. Striding forward, he picked up the sleek black object from nightstand and powered it on.
“ – Center for Disease Control has issued a statement urging all citizens to remain indoors whenever possible, refrain from unnecessary traveling, and to wash your hands as often as possible in the light of the outbreak.”
“Outbreak?” Alfred queried to himself. He turned the volume up two notches.
The anchor stared into the screen, brown eyes clearly fighting the instinct to panic and instead stay neutral to the situation. “Again, for those who are just tuning in, approximately two hours ago, six cases of Leopard Fever were confirmed in Gotham Central Hospital in Gotham City.”
His hand flew to his mouth. “My word!”
“Mass rioting has broken out in parts of the city, with police officers struggling to reign in the chaos amid this terrible news.” The anchor paused for a moment, head tilting to the side. “Breaking news, folks, it seems that there may be a bit of light at the end of the tunnel – we're getting reports that the Justice League has been spotted entering Gotham and is trying to stem the rioting.”
Alfred muted the television as he stared again at the closed doorway, listening to the shrill alarm blaring outside of it. He longed for a feather-duster. Sighing, he sent a silent prayer to whatever powers might have been listening that his surrogate son would endure the trials being set before him. “'Sit tight,' he said,” he muttered to no one in particular. “If it's all the same, Master Bruce, I believe I'd prefer to stand.”
Batman stood within the confines of his mostly-destroyed sanctum, fingers flying across the keys of the Batcomputer – miraculously undamaged – as he reconnected its core systems with the slave database he'd had installed on the Watchtower years ago. With the link established, he could upload and restore the Cray system to full working order in a matter of hours. Hours he currently didn't have.
He brought up feedback from multiple security cameras stationed across Gotham – nearly all of them were displaying various forms of panic and brutality in its full, ugly glory. “The city's tearing itself apart,” he declared, leaning onto the keyboard. Even with the mask, the fumes from the chemicals were beginning to affect him. There quite simply wasn't enough breathable air left in the Batcave for his lungs to work with. He whipped his head around to glare at Talia, now sporting a mask of her own, as he continued, “Tell me about this 'Leopard Fever'.”
Talia's gaze fell upon the chaos unfolding on the streets. “I do not know much.”
He stopped just short of snapping his hands out and yanking her to him, the way he would any punk criminal. “You're lying.”
Her expression hardened at his accusation, her lithe frame going rigid. “I am not. I know little more than you about this plague my father has unleashed on the world.”
“A little more is still more,” he pressed. “What do you know?”
She sighed, her face distantly sad. “I know that the disease has been cultivated from scratch by my father, and that he has spent years – perhaps decades – creating it. He never told me about it, and when I found out, he refused to tell me what it would be used for.”
“It's a disease, Talia,” Batman snapped, lips a thin line. “What did you think he would use it for?”
“I don't know, beloved,” she lamented. “I only learned of its existence shortly after it manifested itself in Hong Kong. Even then, I...” She shook her head despairingly, winding her arms across her belly, as if to shield herself from the horror of her own words. “As twisted as his means have been in the past...I couldn't believe...I could not allow myself to think...”
He ground his jaw. “That your father was a monster?”
Her eyes shot up to his, glassy and hurt. He still had enough decency and compassion in him to feel contrite for the thoughtless comment. His posture slumped a fraction, his focus landing somewhere over her rounded shoulder. “I'm sorry.”
“No,” she replied shakily, those bewitching pale blue eyes of hers filling with a thin sheen of tears, “it's alright, beloved. The truth is...rarely pleasant when we are face to face with it.” She inhaled. “I am at fault for failing to believe what my father has become. For that, there is no repayment, save to do whatever I must now to ensure he is stopped before all is lost.” Smaller than him, she craned her neck and looked up through the curtain of thick black hair, through the pain and bitter disappointment, and asked, “Please forgive me, beloved. Please, let me help you.”
She wasn't a vaunted, gifted hero that was looking to draw him out of the shadows and into their world of perpetual light – she was a simple human being, flawed and miserable like him, trying to find absolution for the grievous mistakes she'd committed. Who was he to deny her what he so desperately sought for himself?
He mentally slapped himself. What was he thinking? She chose to blind herself to her father's corruption – his sin was drag innocents into his personal battle. Their situations weren't comparable, and he would be a damned fool for ever believing otherwise. Besides, she had burned him before. “I don't trust you, Talia.”
She smiled weakly, resigned. “I don't expect you to.”
His lungs began to itch from the fumes. “Then why are you coming to help me, anyway?”
Her response was as forced as it was nebulous. “You and I both know the answer to that.”
She sighed, begrudgingly answering, “He is my father.”
He put two and two together, expression clouding beneath the mask. “You think stopping him is your best chance of saving him.”
“I think stopping him is our best chance of saving everyone,” she corrected, her arm flailing to the footage of Gotham's ravaged streets. “Including you.”
“You think he released this plague specifically to get to me?” he questioned, squinting one eye and tilting his head minutely.
Her face was carved marble. “Or to draw your attention away.”
He squared his shoulders, the flexible cape fabric rippling from the subtle movement. “Away from what?” When she didn't immediately answer, he took one step forward, making a point of letting the boot-tread slap against the stone floor loudly. “You know something.”
Talia looked away, producing a small disc hidden within her glove. “I lifted this from the remains of one of my father's men in here. I was going to use your computer to analyze it when...”
He snatched it from her fingers expertly, his reflection pale and distorted in the mini-disc's frame. “How did you know he was holding something?”
“When I overheard my father's order to attack your home,” she explained as he slipped it into a belt pouch, “I knew it was to seek information. I left to warn you, but I was – “
“Delayed, yeah. You said that. With what, exactly?” He paid no mind to the warm thump of a headache pooling at the base of his skull and winding down his neck.
She gaped up at him, her accented voice tense. “Father found out about my betrayal and sent men to apprehend me. I had to first evade them.”
“And yet, they still caught up to you in Arkham,” the Dark Knight interjected, arms folding over his chest expectantly.
She knit her brows, confused. “How did you know?”
“The basement showed signs of struggle, but no men. Where did they go?” He carefully read her body language as the answer left his lips. She was hiding something.
“I don't know.” His eyes narrowed. “I swear it. I bested my father's guards, but Ubu was waiting for me in the reservoir.” Talia's head hung low in shame. “He overpowered me. When I awoke, your ward was unconscious and the others were gone. I feared they had gone hunting for you, since they failed to capture you at the cavern, so I headed here to search for a way to contact you first.”
He glowered at her skeptically, resting one hand against his hip while he leaned on the other pressed flat onto the computer console. “You can't honestly expect me to believe that you're doing all of this for my sake.”
“I cannot force you to believe what you don't want to, beloved,” she answered enigmatically, shoulders slumped in defeat. “What must I do to prove myself to your cause?”
He pressed a finger to his ear, steadfastly ignoring the lightheadedness that came from being oxygen-starved. “Superman,” he started, “get the other founders together. We're holding a meeting.”
“Now?” the Man of Steel questioned. “But, what about the – “
“The League's ranks were expanded for a reason,” Batman rebuked. “Meeting room in five minutes. Batman out.”
Talia's features brightened at his mention of the Justice League. “Requesting assistance from your Justice League? Does that mean you – “
Her words died in the air as a pair of silver handcuffs clamped down on her thin wrists. Her gaze met his, crestfallen. He was quickly becoming too dizzy to care. “It means I'm going to get to the bottom of this, one way or another. Until then,” he tightened the bracelets, “you're getting acquainted with one of the Watchtower's cells.” His face a stern mask, he towered over her like a cobra ready to strike. “Trust is earned, Talia. And, right now, it looks like you've got your work cut out for you.”
It had been over four years since Batman had stepped foot in the Watchtower meeting room. He'd wished the circumstances had been better, but then, the reason for the meeting room was never for idle chit-chat. All seven founding members of the League sat – or, in his case, stood – at the round table tensely, along with a quietly troubled Nightwing. Personally, he would have still preferred to work on this alone, but he wasn't so prideful as to shrug off the help when it was so obviously vital.
J'onn's voice was as cool and collected as ever, but he noted the undertone of anger buried deeply beneath it. He reached over Nightwing's shoulder and jammed a finger down on a panel button, displaying a hologram of the plague's effects on human tissue. “Yes; more precisely, a highly potent malignant disease meant to infect quickly and spread exponentially – weaponized for maximum damage in the shortest period of time possible.”
Wonder Woman took in the flickering images in front of her with an expression of uncertainty on her sharp, regal features. “If it was designed to cause so much destruction, why haven't any officials made any criminal connections, yet?”
“They have,” J'onn answered. “But not officially. The investigators I scanned have been looking to various Black Markets across the globe, as well as several countries that are known to house deadly bio-chemicals.”
“Did they make any connections?” Superman asked.
“They're not going to,” Nightwing responded, pressing another key to bring up a series of scans he'd run on the sample. “I've cross-referenced this stuff to every toxin known to man, Kryptonian, Martian, Thanagarian, and ape, and the computer came up blank every time. This thing's definitely home-grown.”
The Green Lantern propped an elbow against the table, leaning forward with interest. “A synthetic disease?”
Nightwing shook his head. “It's properties are too all over the place for that. Usually man-made toxins have a certain cellular sequence that gives it away – a pattern. This stuff is...” He motioned to the still-frame, a close-up of garish purple-black globs. Even in microscopic form, the contagion looked deadly. “I've never seen anything like it.”
The Martian Manhunter nodded his assent. “The scientists already on the case have come to similar conclusions. Nothing has proven effective at stemming its virulence.”
Superman rubbed a thick hand over his mouth and chin, pensive. “Okay, so we've ruled out what it's not. Where do we go from here?”
“Well, something funny did come up while I was running some tests in one of the labs.” Nightwing scratched at the back of his head, fingers digging into his shorn locks. Bruce was glad to see that the boy – man – finally lopped off that abomination of a ponytail. He never looked right with long hair. “It almost seems to be affected by psychological state.”
The rest of the room was stunned into silence. Flash was the first to recover, an expression of mixed confusion and amusement plastered across his face. “Sooo, it's like the mood ring of infectious diseases?”
Seven pairs of eyes glared at him.
One pair in particular burned into the back of his skull with all the welcoming presence of a red-hot poker. He shrugged. “What?”
Nightwing grinned abruptly. “I like you.”
The Batglare shifted targets. “Nightwing.”
“Never too busy to kill a buzz, are you?” the vigilante muttered. “Anyway. The sample I had was completely unresponsive to everything I threw at it. But, when I sat back to think of what I missed, I looked back and saw that the sample's toxicity had nearly doubled.”
“Doubled?” J'onn repeated dubiously. “Could it have been a delayed reaction?”
Nightwing squinted his eyes in momentary thought. “I don't think so; I didn't do anything other than stop for thirty seconds and try not to get annoyed.”
Batman listened to the exchange silently, the wheels in his mind turning with this new piece of information. He hummed quietly and began to pace in a tight line. “Certain strains of virii have been known to strengthen or weaken due solely to the host's emotional state – “ he motioned to the fluctuating still, “ – that is, the virus can feed off of the chemicals and nutrients created by the nervous system dependent on a particular mood.” He shook his head slowly. “But even then, it has to be infecting someone before it can do that. No disease is advanced enough to replicate based on the feel of a crowd.”
Shayera bent forward in her chair. The espionage officer in her never stopped being utterly fascinated at watching the Dark Knight's mind at work. He took intelligence gathering, detective work, and subterfuge, and heightened it an art form. Some drooled over Picasso's, others mooned over Shakespeare – she reveled in the dissection of a classic Batman scheme. “So? What do you think it is?”
He halted behind his chair, currently occupied by Nightwing, and laid a hand along the back of it. “When you rule out the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” He rested his other hand on the table, fairly huddling over the high-backed chair as he caught everyone's gaze with his own. “We already know that it's not a naturally occurring disease, but we've also learned that it isn't a manufactured one, either. If it's not natural or man-made, what option does that leave us?”
Wonder Woman's eyes lit up, his meaning clear. “...Magic.”
Batman nodded grimly.
Flash expelled a scoff of disbelief from the back of his throat. “Oh c'mon, Bats, really? A magic plague?”
Nightwing hunched down on his folded arms, shooting the Scarlet Speedster an irritated glower. “You got any better theories, Wally?”
Flash frowned. “Hey, Nights, chill with the first name, okay? I mean, sure, everyone here knows it, but you're not a part of the club yet.” He crossed his arms. “You don't even know the secret handshake.”
An angry, territorial Batman materialized two inches in front of his face, lenses a harsh, cold white against the endless black of his cowl. “Wally.”
Flash shrank back, hands splayed out in a gesture of peace. “Okay, protective of the kid, got it.”
Batman coalesced behind Nightwing's chair, as quickly as he'd vanished. “J'onn. What can you tell me about Talia?”
The Martian's eyes glowed a bright red, gaunt face hard with concentration. “She is...very conflicted.” They dulled to their normal crimson, focus coming to rest impassively on him. “She desperately wants to aid you, and us, in stopping her father from causing irreparable damage to the world.”
So, she truly had good intentions. That didn't stop his instinct from warning him away from her contact. “But, she was lying to me.”
J'onn nodded regretfully. “Yes. She was the one who subdued Nightwing with the tranquilizer dart.”
“I knew it,” he hissed.
Nightwing winced and craned his neck to gape at him. “You did? How?”
“She told me she was knocked unconscious underneath Arkham and left there – and then said that she feared Society members were tailing me because they didn't find me at the cavern.”
Flash snapped his fingers, resting his long chin upon a raised fist. “And if she was really out, then how could she have known that you hadn't been there?”
“Exactly.” Bruce fought against his anger and disappointment. He found absolutely nothing more personally insulting than being lied to. Talia should have known this about him, by now. “Did you find out why she was lying?”
“Her thoughts are jumbled; it's difficult to make out exact reasons,” the Manhunter responded. “But there was one name that kept popping up – Nyssa.”
“Does the name ring a bell?” Superman asked.
He shook his head. “No. In the meantime, we have work to do. Hong Kong was a trial run, and Gotham is meant as a diversion.”
Green Lantern's dark features pinched in surprise. “That's one hell of a diversion.”
Shayera motioned to the Dark Knight with a nod of her head. “Batman's right, though – our forces are being divided.” She pointed at the hologram, green eyes piercing into all of them as she continued. “Ra's Al Ghul has access to a virulent and deadly poison, and the means with which to spread it anywhere he pleases. We need to find out where he's going to hit next, and more importantly, where it's coming from.”
Superman schooled his expression. “Right. I'll fly to Washington and inform the President of what we found. From there, the government can hopefully take steps to safeguard other cities from falling to the same attack.”
“Knowledge that this Leopard Fever has been purposely disseminated could throw Man's World's entire society into chaos,” Diana warned.
“What other choice is there, though?” Flash questioned with an expressive wave of his red-clad hands. “We can't not tell people.”
Superman tapped a finger against the circular table. “The best thing we can do at this point is try to stem the inevitable panic as much as we can while stopping Ra's and finding a cure for those he's infected.” He subtly looked askance at Batman. The silhouette nodded. He turned to the Amazon. “Diana, you and Wally head to Gotham to give the other Leaguers a hand with crowd control. Maybe with the two of you there, it will help calm the citizens some.”
Nightwing cracked a grin normally reserved for the gallows. “You don't visit Gotham much, do you?”
“It's the best we can hope for,” Batman interjected. “Nightwing, I want you and J'onn to do some research on any and all Society activity in the past six months; if we can find a pattern, we might be able to find out their next target.”
Wonder Woman straightened even further in her chair, her brief conversation in the Batcave slipping to the forefront of her mind. “While I was interrogating one of the assassins, he mentioned a particular area – Copán.”
Nightwing narrowed his eyes in thought. “That's in Honduras. A long ways away from...well, everything. As good a place to hide as any, I suppose.”
Green Lantern raised his fist, ring radiating power. “I'll check it out.”
“He also said he stole blueprints to the Watchtower, along with...” Diana hesitated for half a second, “counter-measures.”
Superman arched a brow, shooting the Dark Knight a withering look that would have been right at home over the rim of a pair of black wire-framed glasses. “Counter-measures?”
Batman countered the Man of Steel's glower with one of his own. “You sound surprised,” he drawled. “Don't worry, those were dummy files – encrypted dummy files, at that. The blueprints they stole will take them days to unlock, and will ultimately send them to an empty warehouse in Chicago. The real files are backed up safely on a mainframe separate from both the Batcomputer and the Watchtower database, in case either are ever compromised.”
Superman's eyes never left him. “And the counter-measures?”
The Batglare escalated to Defcon 3. “Also a dummy file.”
Were Kent's eyes beginning to glow red? Spite reared its ugly head. “Are you going to tell us what they are?”
“Never show your hand, Clark.” He continued coolly, “The files are irrelevant; you already know your weaknesses. Use that – plan your movements with them in mind, and you can turn a shortcoming into an attribute. Each one of you has the capability of outsmarting me, if you put your mind to it. No counter-measure is foolproof.” He swept his gaze over the table's occupants, searching for any more objections. Satisfied there would be none, he stepped back. “I'm going to follow up on a lead. The residual energy signature left from the Metro Tower break-in was almost exactly like the one left behind whenever we use the transporter. I haven't checked, but I'm willing to bet the Batcave has the same signature, as well.”
Superman's temper simmered beneath his skin, but he reigned it in, like he always did. Maybe one day, Bruce would tell him how much he respected that about him. “You think he has access to a teleporter?”
“I think I should finally take you up on that investigation offer, Kent,” he replied with the slightest of nods. With a more pronounced one, he said to the others, “Time's short – let's go.”
The others moved to stand, when Shayera halted them with a heated, “Wait – what am I doing during all of this?”
Batman blinked, perplexed. “Taking care of your son.”
Shayera looked for all the world like she was about to jump the circular table and behead the Caped Crusader on the spot. With a mace. Superman stood from his chair, ready to deflect the killing blow, if necessary. “Thanagarian mothers would be back on active duty the next day after giving birth! I can contribute just as much as anyone else here!”
John stood to calm his wife. Or, at the very least, to keep her from murdering Batman. “Shayera, he's – “
“Oh, no, John,” she spat. “No, no – he's cute, but I'm not getting sidelined to play homemaker while the Earth's in danger!”
Sensing his own demise was steadily rising on the Thanagarian's To-Do list, John promptly threw in the towel. “She's got a point, y'know. We need everyone on their A-Game, which means we need Shayera.”
Superman nodded at length. “Okay, okay. Sorry.” She looked pleased with his assessment. “But, who's going to watch Rex, then?”
“Me, sir?” Alfred squawked, elderly face uncharacteristically slack with open shock. “But – but sir, really, a baby? Me? I-I'm not – “
“You've always enjoyed reminding me how often you changed my diapers as an infant,” Batman replied evenly, pointedly ignoring the juvenile snickering of his ex-League mates behind him. Why did they have to insist on coming along? “I think you'll do fine for a few hours or so. If you need any help, you can always ask one of the technicians or League members.”
“But, Mast – er, Batman, I – “
Shayera strode forward purposefully and deposited the tiny bundle into Alfred's arms with a wide grin on her face. “Have fun,” she chirped, before leaning across said tiny bundle and kissing the butler on the cheek. She waved at the baby as the man holding him blushed a beet red. “Be good for your great uncle.”
“'Great uncle'?” Batman's brain stopped functioning for a solid two seconds as he tried, and failed, to wrap his mind around those words.
“Good lord, as if I didn't feel old enough already,” Alfred groaned.
Bruce simply couldn't help himself; a small grin stretched across his chiseled features as he clapped his surrogate father on the shoulder, murmuring conspiratorially, “Thanks, Alfred, you're a life-saver.” He tossed a quick, nearly paranoid glance over his shoulder to the retreating Thanagarian. “Literally.”
Alfred raised a brow. “All in the name of heroism, then? I see.” He gave his charge a dour look. “You're merely happy that you're not the one watching the child yourself.”
He wheeled around, exiting the room, the slight smile still hanging from his lips. “See you in a few hours, Alfred.”
Bruce grimaced at the intrusion of his thoughts as he stepped on-board a Javelin. 'Yes, J'onn?'
'Troubles, friend? You seem concerned.'
Fingers worked on auto-pilot as he initiated the pre-flight sequence. 'There's a lot at stake, J'onn; of course I'm concerned.'
'About Nightwing,' J'onn clarified.
'But, he was attacked by Talia,' the mental voice rejoined. 'Is that why you didn't ask him to question her about this mysterious woman she is protecting?'
'I didn't ask him to question her because she wouldn't tell the truth,' he answered roughly, the space-faring vehicle pitched towards the Earth's surface. 'She can't be trusted.'
'She wants to be trusted.'
'Then she shouldn't have lied to me.'
'Would you have given her any clemency if she had told you the truth?'
He gripped the wheel with entirely too much force. 'That isn't the point.'
'That is exactly the point. She was coerced into the role she played out of fear for another's life.'
He had difficulty believing that, and frankly, didn't want to bother. It complicated things endlessly. 'Talia has never been coerced into anything. Manipulated, maybe, but never outright forced. She's blinded by loyalty to her father.'
'It appears her loyalty to you is beginning to supersede that.'
Batman harrumphed. 'She has a funny way of showing it.'
He felt the Martian's cool gaze in his mind. It was always unnerving when he did that. He nearly shut him out entirely when J'onn telepathically said, 'You're angry that she chose her father over you.'
'No peeking,' he hissed as the clouds parted to give him a clear view of the flat, densely forested land that made up most of the Delmarva peninsula, Metropolis a gleaming beacon in the far distance. 'I'm disappointed. She thinks of Ra's as some benevolent benefactor with the world's best interests in mind.'
'He is her father,' J'onn offered. 'She wants to believe the best of him.'
'Not good enough.' Dark storm-clouds were rolling in from the west, painting the sky a dangerous gray as he landed on a stretch of land half a mile from an opulent three-bedroom house. 'She's smart enough to recognize the truth, and strong enough to go her own way, but she never utilizes either.'
'It appears that she's trying to, now.'
'Maybe, maybe not. Time will tell.' The hatch lowered with a mechanical efficiency, a harsh wind tugging at his cape as he stalked through the rustling tall grass that swiped at his calves. 'Until then, though, I'm considering her a security risk.'
'She cares deeply for you.'
He closed his eyes, sighing. 'She's in love with me.'
J'onn quirked an eyebrow. Bruce wasn't sure how he knew that. 'And you?'
The two-story home loomed in front of him; its warm golden and cool green hues were ominous when paired with the swirling cauldron of clouds he had just cut through. 'I don't trust her.'
'And still,' J'onn countered without skipping a beat, 'you brought her to the Watchtower, even though you knew you were being lied to.'
He felt something in him give weigh under the scrutiny, a pressure-valve of stress releasing. 'He doesn't deserve her loyalty, J'onn. She sits around, waiting for him to make the right choice, and it's never going to happen. One day, he's going to kill her,' he seethed, adding a subdued, '...and she's going to let him.' He sighed, deflating as the abrupt outburst of rage left him. 'I can't fight her battles for her.'
That was the story of his life. Always pulling lost souls from the edge, just to watch them hurl themselves over when they were beyond his reach. Not again. If there was a way to reach Talia, he was going to find it. “Nightwing,” he ordered into his communicator, “talk to Talia. See what she knows.”
“No problemo, Batman,” the vigilante confirmed. Bruce spared a wisp of a smile. Just like old times.
There went the green eyebrow again. 'Are you certain?'
He slid through the second floor window with a feline grace, procuring a flashlight. 'We need all the help we can get.'
'The League? Or her?'
Nightwing stood in front of the thick, transparent, cell door, a lopsided grin hanging on his lips. “Hey, Talia,” he greeted jovially with a quick wave of his hand. “Long time, no see. How's life treating you?”
Talia's eyes, that cold, piercing blue, warmed with sadness. There was no love-loss between them, that was for sure, but the regret that weighed down her posture and expression was clear as day. “Forgive me for the attack, Nightwing. I did so under duress.”
His arms folded over his chest, shifting to rest a shoulder casually along the rim of the cell-block, head lolling to the side in curiosity. “So I'm hearing. Wanna share?”
“My beloved doesn't believe me,” she asked with a sorrowful lilt, “does he?”
Dick's smile grew a little acidic, fusing a bit of the Bat into his stance. “Lady, none of us believe you.” He jabbed this thumb to the tall, muscular Martian standing adjacent to him. “That's why I've got the mind-reader with me.”
J'onn saw his cue and stepped forward to be more clearly seen, raising one calming hand as her eyes instantly widened. “Do not be alarmed. I will not peruse memories you do not wish to divulge, but I ask that you open your mind to me concerning the events leading up to this. We require your full cooperation and honesty, if you wish to leave this cell. Do you understand?”
She nodded, features calm and collected. Resigned. “Fully. What do you want to know?”
“Well, first off,” Nightwing began, “who's this Nyssa character?”
Talia's eyes bulged suddenly, her shapely body jerking in surprise. “I...” she stammered, breathing shallow. “How did you...?”
“I read the name from your mind when you were brought on board by Batman.” J'onn regarded her coolly, red gaze neither sympathetic nor condemning. “She is important to you. Who is she?”
Talia Al Ghul all but collapsed onto the uncomfortable, steel-framed bed, every ounce of fight leaving her. She looked like a puppet whose strings had been cut. Maybe she was. “...She is my daughter.”
Nightwing straightened with a jolt, shoving himself off the wall as his arms disentangled themselves in shock. Oh hell. This just got really complicated.
Batman stilled mid-action, fingers spidered over an open filing cabinet. “Talia has a daughter?”
“Yup,” Nightwing responded soberly as he recovered, poring over the manilla folders locked in the five-foot tall cabinet. “Her name's Nyssa Al Ghul – sixteen; apparently lives in some hidden estate in eastern Europe.”
The empty home he was in belonged to one Dr. Sarah K. Dahluzett. She was responsible for the teleporter design that the newest Watchtower currently used, one of the chief engineers behind the building of the Metro Tower, and generally considered one of the brightest scientific minds on Earth. The teleporter had been her greatest achievement – a culmination of her life's work. Its only flaw was the obscene amount of energy required for it to operate, and with Earth's technological level still being what it was, the only source capable of maintaining that level of power was a nuclear reactor. That particular detail had caused Bruce no end of grief during its construction. More than once, he'd wished that he had simply stuck with an armada of Javelins.
Her last known job was designing was a smaller, more streamlined version of her teleporter. He'd looked over the notes two months ago; Star L.A.B.S. was building a prototype that consumed far less energy, at the cost of range capabilities. Theoretically, the design spec would revolutionize emergency services, allowing for the instantaneous transportation of the sick and injured instead of being forced to shuttle them from one location to another. She had been hired to spearhead the project.
There was just one problem – Dr. Dahluzett never showed up.
“She says that when she found out about Ra's little pet project, she spoke up,” Nightwing explained over the line, his voice smoldering with a low anger. “To make sure she was the good little girl, he kidnapped her daughter and threatened to give her a Lazarus bath if she didn't go along.”
Bruce paused again, his former ward's outrage resonating with him. “Do you think she's trustworthy?”
“Well, your green buddy does,” he quipped. “And for what it's worth, Bruce, I believe her. She needs our help.”
He knew Ra's was dangerous and vile, but to use a child – his grandchild – as a bargaining chip? Sadly, he hadn't put it past him. It was that kind of cold, calculating behavior that he kept trying to warn her about. He smothered the old frustration with cold logic. He would deal with memories later; he had to focus on solving the mystery in front of him.
Clark had come to him six weeks ago, asking for his help on the case. Kent had done some digging and found that Dahluzett had been getting phone calls regularly for three months prior to the disappearance, but the numbers were dummies and lead nowhere. Beyond that, there was no evidence; no paper trail, no forensics – the entire apartment was wiped clean. That alone told him foul play was involved, but he'd told Clark, point blank, that he wasn't interested in anything outside of his city.
Kent had not taken that response well. “Her computer was wiped down, also.”
Kent planted one hand in front of the keyboard he worked on, towering over his sitting form like divinity came naturally to him. “When does a keyboard not have fingerprints on it?”
He would later admit to being impressed with the boyscout's deductive reasoning. “Since when did you become a detective?”
“I'm an investigative reporter, Bruce. I investigate,” he'd retorted sharply. “If someone got on her computer, that means they may have the specs on the Metro Tower. Thousands of lives could be in danger, including Dr. Dahluzett's!”
“Call in the Question.” To both men, it sounded a lot more like, “Go to Hell,” than a helpful suggestion. Clark had left, but he'd been pestering him ever since – apparently their meeting had given Kent the idea that something was wrong. (A lot of things were wrong, but it was nothing he would ever admit to anyone.)
Batman stifled a sigh, closing the drawer. Kent was right – all information on the Metro Tower was gone. Worse yet, he couldn't find any information on the teleporter specs, either. Nor could he find any evidence of a break-in. It didn't add up.
“Alright,” he answered with finality, “have J'onn release her from the cell and come along with you. Maybe she can give us a lead on where Ra's is manufacturing this stuff.” No response. “Nightwing?”
Several hundred miles above the Earth's surface, Dick Grayson groaned and stumbled to his hands and knees in the deserted computer room, breathing labored as fat beads of sweat rolled over his pallid skin. “Nightwing?” Batman boomed in his ear. “Nightwing!” He tried to speak, he really did, but his tongue felt like it was suddenly too big for his mouth. “Dick! Answer me!”
A small, sickly frown tugged at his lips. It'd been a long time since he heard worry in Bruce's voice, especially over him. He felt bad. He'd have to apologize later, once his body started working again. Weakly, he tried pulling himself up into a kneeling position on the computer desk, but his grip failed. He thudded against the steel, pain and sickness twittering down his nerves as he heard Bruce switch to a more general frequency and order, “J'onn! Find Night – “
He heard the sloshing reverberation of doors sliding open through a mile of seawater. “I have,”he stated tersely as arms, cold and unforgiving, wrapped around his crawling and burning body and rolling him onto his back. His glassy eyes bulged when it felt like an elephant sat on his chest. In reality, it was only J'onn's hand. “He needs immediate medical attention.”
“What happened? What's wrong?”
His gloves were peeled off, and he shuddered at the sudden, bitter cold on his exposed skin. “I don't know, but his temperature is skyrocketing – “ The Martian gasped. He didn't know Martians could gasp. “Oh no.” Well, that sounded bad; good thing he wasn't a puddle of misery on the floor, or he might've gotten the feeling something was wrong with him.
“What is it?”
Blearily, Dick commanded his eyes to function through the...whatever it was that ailed him, and keenly observed a small trail of black spots weaving up his arm. If he hadn't known it was a tolling of a death knell, he would've thought it was a pretty cool looking tattoo.
“He's been infected with Leopard Fever,” J'onn exclaimed, baritone solemn.
“Get him to the medical bay! NOW!”
J'onn didn't need to be told. Dick exhaled a shaky laugh as he felt the Martian lift him from the ground and fly down the halls at breakneck speed. “R-Robin the Boy Ho-hostage, a-at your s...serviiiiice...” The last word hissed from his lips as he lost consciousness – again (seriously, what the hell) – and welcomed oblivion. At least it was balmy, there.
He didn't know that his communicator frequency was still open, allowing Bruce crystal clear reception of his comment. He, therefore, didn't know that a two-hundred pound desk carved from pure cherrywood, belonging to one Sarah K. Dahluzett, was cleanly snapped in two when an enraged Batman's fist plowed through it in response. Reports and folders calmly fluttered to the ground all around him, forgotten, like they had all the time in the world to settle in their places. The Dark Knight leaned heavily on remains of the decimated table; head and shoulders stooped with the weight of seven-billion souls – though there was really only one he was thinking of.
Dick was condemned to die.
Ring around the rosie
Pocket full of posies
We all fall down...
To be continued...
So yeah, this was the longest chapter yet -- mostly chatting, I know, but hey, I <3s the dialogue. The feel was a little all over the place, ranging from Bat-angst to off the wall humor from Dick and Wally, but...hey, they're Dick and Wally. Besides, there needs to be a bit of humor to offset the fairly dark tone of the story (trust me, you'll need the reprieve). Also, I know that Nyssa Al Ghul is Talia's older sister in the comics, but as she was never introduced in the animated continuity, I can take some artistic liberties for the sake of a good story. Besides, if Ra's is all about having the male heir, why would he leave a female heir around to use the pits with?
Oh, also, small historical tidbit, for those who might not know. The children's song, "Ring Around the Rosie," is actually referring to the Black Plague, which would bring about a physical symptom of black spots looking like rose petals along the person's chest and arms. Totally a children's song. Yup.
Alfred AND Nightwing?! Is anyone going to be left standing at the end of this?! I think WTF is an understatement...
I must commend you once again on your seemingly effortless, spot-on dialogue and characterization. I felt like I was actually watching a JLU ep .
Sir, I'm hooked.
Gotta say, except for the last bit, this chapter had me grinning like an idiot for a while. First with the idea of Alfred cleaning the Watchtower (totally in character), to Dick and Wally having that great banter scene, to pushing babysitting duty on Alfred (genius really), to Dick and Talia exchanging words it was so much fun to read.
That said...what the hell do you think you're doing with Dick Grayson! He can't die! Okay, got over my fan girl moment...seriously, you really do like to punish Bruce, don't you?
Thanks! I've been trying to go for the feel of an epic JLU-esque tale, with some good old BTAS/TNBA references thrown in there, because BTAS was the bomb diggity. And as far as people left standing...eeeeh, we'll see. They may be standing, but they may not have all their limbs/faculties, knowing me.
As has already been established, I'm a b**ch, so.
I'm glad the humor didn't feel out of place. Too much drama, and you get depressed just reading the story -- that's not what I want. Besides, a good dose of humor makes the dramatic turn have that much more punch to it.
There are fates worse than death, you know.
See above. XD
Are you trying to give me a stroke? I know; I know; you're a witch with a "B" in front, right? *Le Sigh* Well, I'm already on the ride no sense on trying to bail out now.
Talia Al Ghul felt like the biggest fool on Earth.
She stared at the carefully sealed evidence bag that contained a small, used metal dart. She recognized it instantly, of course – it belonged to the tranquilizer gun she'd used to subdue the Bat's child. Curiously, her blue eyes rose from it to the room's other occupant, meeting the soulless white lenses of one incredibly irate Dark Knight. She struggled against her instinct to back away from the imposing silhouette mere feet in front of her as he stood, ram-rod straight, and willed her to speak with his narrowed eyes alone. “Tell me you didn't know,” he challenged (pleaded?), lips a dangerous downward curve on the exposed lower half of his face.
She opened her mouth to reply, but quickly thought better of it. She had never seen him this angry – this hurt – before. He grimaced, taking her lack of response as an affirmative to his question, and glided across the small cell to grip the small baggie in one large, gloved hand. “The sedative you shot him with was actually a concentrated form of your father's plague.”
She gasped, hands flying to cover her open lips as she shook her head in denial. “What? No, that's – “
“He was injected with thousands of times the amount of toxin that any other victim has had so far,” he continued, undaunted; unforgiving. “By all rights, he should be dead – should've been hours ago.”
Her fingers attempted to still her quivering lips, her mind churning with the terrible reality of her situation. What had she done? “No...he wouldn't have...”
Batman's voice was like tar, black and thick and boiling, as he growled out, “He did.” The dart clattered onto the metal table; the dropping of a judge's gavel.
Talia gaped at it, panic gnawing at her ribcage. No, no, no, that wasn't right, he'd said – he had given his word –
She closed her eyes briefly.
She was such a fool.
Batman scrutinized her harshly as she fought to reign in her emotions – her own betrayal and rage. Abruptly, his expression went utterly flat, decoding her terrified silence. “The dart was meant for me, wasn't it?”
She bowed her head, a damning gesture. “I was told it was a sedative, and that he would release my daughter in exchange for you. If I had known – “
“But it was me he wanted, not Nightwing,” he insisted, closing in on her. “Why did you fire on him when he wasn't your father's target?”
The wall of the Watchtower cell was as cold and hard as the expression on Batman's face as she pressed her back against it, wanting to fade through it and disappear. Oh, what had she done? “Father said it didn't matter – that I couldn't afford to be spotted.”
“Didn't you want to be spotted?”
“He would have found out – “
“How?” he rebuked sharply. “How could he have known?” The livid creature of darkness stood tantalizingly near to her, waves of heat crashing against her chest, tightened with fear. In another situation, she would have craved for this level of intimacy – would have felt secure and content within it. She never imagined a day where she wouldn't feel safe around him.
“My father has his ways.” The excuse sounded hollow, even to her ears.
The cape parted, a gust of warm wind brushing against her skin as fingers dug into her upper arms. “So, why didn't you leave a clue for me to follow earlier?” Batman questioned, eyes frantically searching hers beneath the nearly-opaque lenses. “Why didn't you contact me to help you retrieve your daughter? Why didn't you question his motives when he gave you the gun?” His hold became painful, blood cells and vessels popping under the searing vises that were his hands. “Why didn't you put up a fight?”
Talia's breath hitched in the back of her throat, feeling herself shrink under the harsh condemnation of his inquisition. She'd wanted to fight – she had wanted to flee and warn her beloved, warn everyone, that the man who called himself Ra's Al Ghul was no longer the man she knew – the one of lofty ideals and eternal, calculating patience. The man that had stood before her was something frightening and dangerous. He had said, so calmly, that Nyssa's abduction had been an agonizing last resort; that even she, his beloved daughter, could not interfere with his final, desperate bid to save the Earth from the whims of its foolish children. She hadn't believed him, couldn't believe that anything good could come from something so terribly destructive. But she'd seen her child, bound and gagged, and knew that the threats he made were anything but idle.
She never imagined a day where she would learn to hate her father.
“I had no choice,” she replied, accented alto regretful.
“There's always a choice.”
“You must think I'm a monster.” She dared to connect, laying a hand softly on the obsidian crest emblazoned on his chest as her eyes sought for his. “But know that I love my daughter above all else, and would give anything to to ensure that she comes to no harm.” Her voice was little more than a whisper when she added, “I couldn't bear to see it.”
The unbearably tight grip on her bruising arms loosened somewhat, his expression still furious but his voice strained in something like sympathetic pain. Well, he certainly could understand – she had just forfeited his child's life for her's. “It looks like we're in the same boat, then.”
Talia wanted nothing more than to apologize.
“Gotham's a dump.”
Wally tried to find a nicer way of wording it – a more respectful way of looking at Bats' home – but...man, the city was a cesspool of the first degree. He found himself stopping more crime here than in half the world combined, all together, all at the same time. It wasn't just the crime, either; it was the way the cityscape itself seemed to feed on the misery it brought forth – disease upon cancer upon ailment, tripping over each other and sucking the hope from its beleaguered people. It was really depressing.
“Batman may not want to hear you say that, Flash,” Wonder Woman warned over the communication frequency, sounding busy with a shootout.
“What, and you think this city's squeaky clean, Di?” he scoffed as he sidestepped a hail of bullets and two molitov cocktails from a petty gang, clearly wasted out of their minds, and chomping at the bit to blow away anything that moved – and probably anything that didn't, either. One was even drooling snot. He didn't even wanna know how that was possible. “Aw, man, that is seriously like one of the grossest things I've seen today,” he chided, disarming their weapons in one streak of red and rendering them unconscious in another. He gathered them against a lamp-post and got to work tying them together.
“Well...” she waffled with an uncharacteristic amount of uncertainty in her voice, the line crackling and hissing. Another apartment fire? “Gotham has seen better days recently.”
The Scarlet Speedster looked to the sky and spotted – yup, another apartment fire. Did they build this entire city out of kindling or something? Forest fires didn't spread this quickly. Of course, forests didn't have millions of apparent pyromaniacs living in their borders, either. He'd have to talk with the city's fire marshal after all of this was over – provided the guy didn't change his name and move to Aruba. “If by 'recently', you mean 'fifty years ago', yeah.” He sliced through the tattered building, searching every room for survivors. In the course of twenty seconds, he pulled out two crackheads, a malnourished three year old (belonging to the crackheads, probably), a hobo, three winos, and a hooker. 'Great company for a kid,' he seethed silently.
Setting the child down gently, he softly patted her head and smiled. “It's okay, sweetie. I'm gonna get some help for you, okay?”
Uncomprehending, she blinked large, black eyes at him and smiled. Her baby teeth were black. His stomach twisted, partially from the foul stench of rot emanating from the toddler's mouth, and partially from the horror of seeing a three year old that needed dentures already.
God, this city was a dump.
He shook his head, gazing to the red sky blanketed above the living Hell he was currently trying to save, and felt a sudden, overwhelming pity for Bruce. “No wonder Bats turned out the way he did. If I grew up in a place like Gotham – “
“Then you'd want to fight tooth and nail for it, too.”
Wally wasn't sure what exactly he choked on, but whatever it was didn't feel or taste remotely pleasant. “Hiya, Bats!” he backpedaled with a weak chuckle. “So, um, how long have you been listening in?”
“Long enough.” Knowing him, that meant, 'Since the beginning, and I'm planning your painful demise as we speak.' He was so dead. “Anything to report?”
He snorted. “Yeah, your city's a dump.”
“Anything I haven't already heard?”
Oh, did he call that one, or what? “You heard that, huh?”
“I've heard that from a lot of people.”
He frowned as he watched an obviously overwhelmed duo of cops pull up to the cluster of people everyone else in the world had stopped caring about years ago. Everyone but Batman, the patron hero of lost causes. He glanced at the child being towed away in the back of the battered vehicle and felt the low thrum of shame in his chest. He sucked. “Well, other than stopping about a gazillion crimes, not much. Sorry.”
There was a short pause over the line. “Diana? Anything on your end?”
“There are a lot of fires to put out, here.” Her tone became wry as she added, “Your people work fast, don't they?”
“Then we've got to work faster,” he answered laconically. “How badly has the population been infected?”
Flash zoomed through alleys and down roads, wind kicking up litter and trash – syringes, food, torn and blooded articles of clothing – as he moved. Nearly everywhere he looked, eyes peeked out from the shadows and corners, some frightened, others deranged. The handful of souls bold or crazy enough to brave the embattled streets were pockmarked with leopard-print, eyes blood red and sunken into their sockets. “Bad.” How could a city – any city – ever get this out-of-control? How could its people become so terrified, so lost, so apathetic, that they would become these half-dead shells shuffling from one meek corner of existence to another? It was anathema to him. “Y'know how Nightwing said it seemed to be affected by negative emotions? These poor guys have bad karma in spades.”
“Well, when you grow up in a place like Gotham...”
He scuffed his shoe against the cracked pavement of the sidewalk, duly chastised, as Diana filled the silence. “The hospitals are already overflowing with Leopard Fever patients; I can't imagine where they're going to put an entire city's worth of sick people.”
“I don't think they're worried about where to put the sick people,” Batman stated darkly. Flash's eyes wandered to a trio of panicked-eyed teenagers huddled in a doorway of a nearby derelict apartment complex, already showing the signs of the Fever. He only stayed half-awake during European history in high school, but he remembered the stories of the dead piling up in cities like snow drifts of decaying flesh and disease. The endless pit of ravening that was his stomach fairly quailed at the thought of food. “Contact me if anything important comes up.”
The link twittered quietly in his ear. He grimaced, muttering, “Well, he's as optimistic as always.”
“His city's being ravaged by a monster we can't even touch, let alone stop,” Wonder Woman sighed sadly. “Batman's being more level-headed about this than anyone, really.”
Flash slowed to a halt along the roof of a dilapidated building, posture going rigid at the sight in front of him. “You're telling me.”
Rolling down the road as the sun sunk beneath the jagged silhouette of the condemned city, smoke belching from its exhaust pipes, was an M1A2 Abrams battle tank; its gears and parts chugging in a sick cacophony of sound. Following it were a fleet of camouflaged Jeeps and light-armored vehicles, along with dozens of armed soldiers, marching in perfect unison; their footfalls echoed desolately in the narrow corridor of the city street. He'd seen footage like this during World War II – it was even creepier, seeing the World War II footage thirty feet in front of him, live and in person during that whole Vandal Savage time-travel fiasco.
Seeing it in the present day, in a US city – even if it was Gotham? His Creeped-o-meter promptly shorted out. “Uh, Diana? Are you seeing what I'm seeing?”
“This constitutes as something important, right?”
John Stewart flew over the ruins of Copán, Honduras. Nestled between mountain ranges and endless expanses of trees, the ancient Mayan stronghold was in surprisingly good shape, for being supposedly abandoned over 1200 years ago. Appearances were deceiving, though, as beneath the overgrown pyramids was a hidden complex crawling with assassins, thieves, and soldiers. Talia had been thorough in her instructions on where to go and what to look for, in terms of booby traps.
“His base in Copán is among his smallest,” she had told him, “but if the database you're searching for is there, it will be well-protected. He'll likely know that you, or someone from the Justice League, is coming. Be prepared for a conflict.”
He'd flexed his hand, feeling the strength of the ring humming through his veins and his soul. “Don't worry about me. I've got it covered.”
The woman – he guessed she was eastern European, judging by her accent – had eyed him warily, unconvinced at his display of confidence. “Do not underestimate my father, Green Lantern. As Batman can attest, he is far more cunning than you may initially think.”
“He told me about that.” He paused, glowing green orbs pensive as he watched her attention drift to a point beyond reality. “Listen,” he begrudgingly said at length, “I heard about your kid. I've got one, too.” He'd felt his heart soften when he recalled her plight. (His inner soldier scolded him for sympathizing with a former and still-potential enemy.) “I don't know what's gonna be there, so I can't promise anything, but I'll make sure to keep an eye out for her.”
Talia smiled thinly, the mirth not reaching her icy blue eyes. “Thank you for helping me.”
The soldier in him took the reigns. “I'm not helping you. I'm helping the girl.”
He landed soundlessly at the top of the pyramid, once heralded as the pinnacle of Mayan culture and architecture. Scanning the altar, worn and cracked from centuries of disuse, he spied a small, round indentation at the bottom of the sacrificial slab, partially obscured by thin, thorny vines that clung to the stone table like a small child to their parent. Kneeling, he inspected it more closely, green eyes narrowing to discern any booby traps. He pressed his right palm against the button, the circular stone sinking into the stone with a hollow, sharp scrape – fingers across a chalkboard. The entire altar rumbled and quaked as it dragged away to reveal a hidden staircase, the tremors of the limestone shooting up through the soles of his shoes.
“They might as well put down a welcome mat,” he said to himself, readying his power ring and descending into the darkness below.
“Which one is it?”
“Green Lantern, Master.”
“The one with the power ring.” The disembodied voice sighed slightly. “Alas, I was hoping it would be the Kryptonian. Very well, set up the proper defenses. Make sure he doesn't leave the facility alive.”
“Your will be done, Master.”
Diana landed quietly next to a halted Jeep, a uniformed older man poring over an unfolded map laying spread on the vehicle's hood. The figure looked up as she approached, a subdued smirk tugging at his wrinkled lips. “Ah, Wonder Woman, I presume,” he stated, holding out a hand. “General Vreeland of the 43[SUP]rd[/SUP] regiment.”
She accepted his greeting with a curt nod. “General, if I may ask, what's going on here?”
The older man, a couple of inches shorter than her, blinked as if caught off-guard by her question. “You weren't informed?” He tottered his head from side to side. “Well, I suppose not – it's rather difficult to get a hold of the Justice League through proper channels.”
Her brows tugged closer together, confused. “We have open frequencies that all government and local officials have access to.”
“Right, right,” he answered in a semi-distracted tone, returning to the crumpled map of Gotham with a wave of his hand. “Either way, there's nothing that can be done about it now.”
Diana's dark blue eyes cooled. “Done about what, General Vreeland?”
City sirens wailed in the distance while he took the time to carefully form his next words. The acrid smell of sulfur wafted through the darkening sky, sticking to the back of her tongue and throat. She swallowed to rid herself of the bitter ash. It didn't work. “Your services towards this...historic city have been exemplary, as always,” he explained primly, “but the United States government has decided to take control of the situation itself from here on out.” He patted the map once for effect. “They want to keep things in-house.”
“You're declaring martial law?” she found herself bellowing, purposefully lowering her voice when she saw a dozen heads whip around to find the source of the outburst. She continued, more calmly, “Do the city officials know of this?”
Vreeland's sagging round face brightened with a self-assured grin. She immediately imagined a crocodile wearing a gold-trimmed helmet. “Who do you think called us in?”
“What is he, crazy?” Superman balked as he gaped at the image of Wonder Woman on the display in front of him. The Watchtower seemed suddenly quieter as his voice boomed through the central hub.
The hologram flickered as Diana held up a paper to the Javelin camera, her sharp features taut with regal irritation. “It's official; a standing order to cease and desist all League activity within Gotham City limits.”
“Yup, straight from the big guy himself.” Flash nodded from behind her, sounding about as happy about it as he felt. “Looks like he didn't take your news very well, Supes.”
Clark propped his hands against his hips as he fought back the wave of frustration. Negativity was Bruce's game, not his. “I don't understand why General Vreeland would order the League not to provide assistance.”
Wally exchanged a dubious look with Diana over her shoulder, halfheartedly offering, “Maybe they're concerned that one of us could become infected?”
“Commissioner Loeb doesn't like metas in his city.”
Superman didn't have to turn to know that Batman had taken up his old spot, to his right and very slightly behind him – close enough to disable him with Kryptonite, and in one of Clark's few blind spots to prevent his movements from being tracked. There were times he found Bruce's inherent tactical prowess comforting. Planning every movement to double as a takedown in case he suddenly went rogue again really wasn't one of them. Sparing the Dark Knight a quick glance, he quipped, “Sounds like you two would get along great.”
He heard the scowl more than saw it. “The standing order only prevents any League activity – “ Took the high-ground, as always. “ – There's no mention of non-affiliated people working under their noses.”
“What are you saying?” Wonder Woman questioned. “We dissolve the League and go down there, anyway?”
Batman shook his head. “No, that would be too risky. Besides, the League has to maintain the image of cooperating with the authorities.”
The Amazon quirked an eyebrow knowingly, expression bordering on mischievous. “Where does that leave you?”
“I don't play well with others.” The cape rippled as Batman squared his shoulders in defiance. “No General is going to go traipsing around my city – not while I have a say in it.”
Flash shrugged. “Why? Isn't that what you were gonna do?”
Clark shifted his footing, angling himself so the Batglare wouldn't clip his arm. And people thought he shot lasers out of his eyes.
The Scarlet Speedster blinked, mouth working soundlessly for three seconds while he searched for backup. He received none. “Listen, all I'm saying is, the whole reason we went down there was to try and get the city under control. The military can do just that, without us getting stretched so thin.”
“Flash does have a point, Batman,” Superman agreed. He met the glower, crossing his arms fearlessly. “Maybe you're not the only person in the world who cares about the city's best interest.”
“He's a four-star General – he cares about the country's best interest first, and only.” The Dark Knight opened another holographic screen of the chaos that still reigned in Gotham – only this time, the responders were fighting fire with firefight. “They're not there to stop the rioting – they're locking Gotham down to prevent the plague from spreading.”
Diana's cobalt eyes contracted dangerously. “I knew there was something more to it than General was leading me to believe.”
Flash took in the violence in front of him pensively. “A city-wide quarantine? Will something like that work?”
“It didn't in the 1300's.”
Clark furrowed his brow in thought. He'd divulged to the President and Joint Chiefs that this disease could be artificially introduced into the population. Quarantining the city made sense, from a logical standpoint – even Bruce couldn't argue that – but why remove the League from the premises? What were they planning on doing to save the city? Unfortunately, he didn't like the answers that came to mind.
“We'll be arriving at the Watchtower shortly,” Diana announced. “When we get there, we'll need to put our heads together and compare notes. Maybe Shayera and John have found something fruitful.”
“Let's hope. Watchtower out.” He closed the link and motioned with his head to the Earth spinning slowly through the bridge window, asking as he turned, “Do you think John's found anyth – “
Batman was gone.
Clark sighed, throwing his hands into the air. “I'm glad we had this chat, thanks for stopping by.” He shook his head, muttering, “Would saying 'goodbye' once in a while really kill him? Jeez.”
Dick Grayson sat cross-legged and bored on a sterile white bed, chin in his hand, arm on his knee, as he blandly watched his former mentor configure the settings for the chamber he found himself in. It wasn't like he had much else to look at – the small unit at the end of the medical bay was as spartan as everything else in the Watchtower seemed to be. Efficient and cold, just like its creator. “So.”
Silence. More button pressing.
It was worse than watching paint dry. He decided for the more direct approach. “I'm a walking Petri dish, huh?”
A pair of white eyes flashed over Batman's broad shoulder. “Dick.”
He wilted a little at the steel-melting glare being leveled on him. “Okay, so it wasn't a very good joke.”
Bruce returned to his tinkering, setting up a cadre of health displays along the decently sized monitor. His tone had more brimstone in it than usual when he declared, “This isn't a laughing matter.”
“Nothing's ever a laughing matter to you, Bruce.” Not that it was a laughing matter – he of all people realized the severity of the situation; namely, just how screwed he was right at the moment. However, he couldn't go about spouting doom and gloom and generally being a useless lump of sadness. It just wasn't his style. “Listen, I'm not stupid enough to say, 'Sure, let me out to infect a whole bunch of people while doing my job,' but keeping me cooped in this...uh...” He motioned fruitlessly at the hermetically sealed room.
“Bio-chemical containment unit.”
Dick made a face. “Yeah.” He flashed a grin at the Dark Knight. “Can we shorten that? How about 'cell'?” When said Dark Knight made absolutely no effort to acknowledge his existence, he stuck his tongue out. “Okay, how about 'birdcage'? Y'know, for the intellectual, poetic types.”
Pause. Pivot. Glower.
He flopped onto the bed, exasperated at the statue that played at being a man. “Oh, come on, Bruce – there are situations worse than this!” His jaw clicked shut loudly as his mind went blank while reaching for an example. “...I mean, sure, I can't think of any right now, but that doesn't mean they don't exist.”
Bruce, apparently satisfied with the modifications, dropped his arms under the glorified security blanket that was his weighted, scalloped cape and finally turned to face him. “I've given you booster shots to hopefully strengthen your immune system, but with the amount of toxin in your bloodstream, and the potency of the disease itself...”
Nightwing grunted, resting his head on his arms folded behind him. “Yeah, I get it. I'm toast.”
“No you are not.”
He looked up quickly. There was a fire in Bruce's eyes that said, in no uncertain terms, that Dick would come out on the other side of this tunnel unharmed, and anyone who disagreed with his assessment was going to get an all-expenses paid trip to the nearest ICU, courtesy of the Caped Crusader. It would've been one of those warm-fuzzy moments, if a voice of dissent hadn't highlighted that Bruce must have thought he was giving up. “Hey, does it look like I'm quitting, either? Give me a laptop and a microscope; I might as well make myself useful while I'm here.”
“Researching your own disease may not be wise,” Batman replied with a short shake of his head. “You said it reacted on emotional state – Flash and Wonder Woman have been able to at least partially verify that with anecdotal evidence.”
His voice soured with the barest hint of disdain. “And you think if I don't find something immediately, I'm gonna get depressed and the Little Disease That Could will eat me alive?”
The Dark Knight looked away, standing as still as a stone. 'Busted,' he thought with triumph, before he actually paid attention to what he was staring at. The cowl was specifically designed to make reading Bruce's expression borderline impossible, but Dick knew enough to gather that he'd struck a nerve. A big one.
If he didn't know better, he'd have thought that Bruce was afraid. Great. As if things weren't complicated enough, already.
He rose from the comfort of the bed – Bruce sure spared no expense on those puppies, that was for sure – and ambled to the edge of the containment unit, resting an arm casually over his head against the sealed chamber wall. No matter how strained or flat out broken their relationship may have been, he couldn't sit idly by and watch the man tear himself apart from the inside out. Especially not over him. “Bruce...” He scratched the back of his head sheepishly, trying to find a way to word himself that didn't sound like some cheesy Saturday afternoon teen drama. “Look, you're not the only one fighting this.” He scrunched his nose. Well, that definitely didn't cut it. He decided to forgo sounding cool in the favor of honesty, in all its cheese-tactular glory. “You're not as alone as you think you are.”
How many times had he given Bruce this kind of pep-talk by now? Ten? Twelve? This was why he'd cut ties – beyond butting heads with him and Barbara constantly, it was just too painful to see him hoist the world on his shoulders when he didn't have to. All that training and willpower wouldn't magically turn him into God; he wasn't Atlas, he was only a man. That kind of weight would only crush his spirit eventually, if not kill him outright.
The sharp, biting reality of that stood right in front of Nightwing through an inch of transparent metal alloy, hanging his head like it threatened to tumble off his shoulders if he dared to move.
Dick forcibly swallowed a sudden swell of terror. Bruce didn't hold the monopoly on fearing for loved ones. 'C'mon, Bruce, snap out of it.'
He'd already lost one father. He didn't want to lose another.
Batman's head slowly pitched to the left, catching his alarmed gaze. The vigilante righted his posture, remembering himself. “I'll have someone bring down equipment. For now, get some rest.” A ghost of a smile touched his lips; a poor attempt at being uplifting. He knew it was forced – he couldn't remember the last time he'd seen Bruce smile naturally...or if he ever had. “I'll get you out of here as soon as I can, Dick. I promise.”
There was a certain open honesty to his pledge that simultaneously warmed Dick's heart and broke it. He forced a smile of his own. “Thanks. I'm looking forward to it.”
John Stewart cautiously strode down the long metal corridor, buried far beneath the ancient Mayan ziggurat. Thus far, he hadn't seen another soul in the ten minutes he'd been poking through the hidden base. The word 'trap' came to mind almost instantly. Still, he didn't have much of a choice, he mused as he entered an expansive workroom. It appeared to be a sort of abandoned chem-lab – simmering beakers and computers were left unattended, gloves, goggles, and various pieces of equipment were strewn about the room hurriedly, like the workers literally dropped what they were doing and ran.
He calmly hovered a foot from the ground, a skin-tight layer of fortified green willpower protecting him, and made his way through the laboratory. He arrived to the imposing set of double doors, clearly reinforced and shielding something of great importance, judging by the sophisticated keypad with a built-in retinal scanner that was jutting from the wall. Flexing his hand, he aimed his glowing ring towards the door.
Moments later, the heavy steel barrier groaned miserably and toppled in pieces to the chem-lab floor with a thundering clang. John stepped into the newly-created ingress, dimly silhouetted by the chemical lab's light fixtures. He stared into the darkness ahead of him, a lone computer array glowing brightly at the other end of the room. Scrawled across its large screen were various maps, each with blips of red, green, and gold flashing in key places. One of the maps was the eastern seaboard of the United States.
A red blip rested securely over Gotham City.
Oh yeah, this screamed 'trap'.
He grimaced and leaned his weight onto his left leg, resting his hands on his hips. “How stupid does he think I am?” He nudged a piece of the steel door with the toe of his boot, plucking it from the ground and tossing it into the obviously booby-trapped room. It pirouetted in front of the pale luminous screen for all of a heartbeat before the flash of four lasers sliced through the curtain of darkness and obliterated the scrap metal in a shower of sparks.
Four yellow lasers.
He blinked, face falling in surprise. Well, that was unexpected. “Never underestimate him, huh?” Shielding himself, he retreated from the makeshift opening and solidly gripped a computer chair. “Thanks for the advice.” He rolled it to the doorway and scanned the inky blackness in front of him, trying to discern where the weapons were mounted. Coating the chair with his ring's power, he said to no one in particular, “One decoy, coming up.”
He made a quick mental note to stop hanging out with Flash so much.
With nary more than a thought, he sent the object headlong into the darkened alcove. As expected, the yellow lasers found its lifeless prey and skewered it, briefly illuminating their positions connected to each corner of the room. John had his opening. He dove forward, destroying one with a beam of energy as he landed and rolled. Launching from the ground in a single, swift movement that even Batman would've approved of, he flew along the wall while rays of amber death peppered and melted the steel in his wake. He twisted to his right, slicing through the barrel of a second gun in the opposite corner, the weapon exploding in a fiery plume. Deftly, he avoided the searing golden beams as he propelled himself upward at a 45-degree angle. He reached the ceiling and halted purposefully, both of the remaining plasma cannons flanking either side of him. Gritting his teeth, the guns swiveled and targeted him with a faint mechanical whirring, firing simultaneously.
John planted his hands on the ceiling and pushed.
Two beams of identical yellow plasma passed harmlessly two inches over his head, slamming into the opposing weapon with a pyrotechnic display of fire, smoke, and red-hot steel. He watched the streaks of flame tumble thirty feel to the floor and sighed with relief, lowered himself to ground-level. He wondered just how the hell Ra's Al Ghul knew about the power ring's specific weakness as the ruined machinery burned in each respective corner, painting the room a dull orange. Dropping to one knee, he reached out to inspect the burnt out remains of the first cannon, when the sound of clapping rose over the sizzling of melting plastic and metal.
Springing to his feet, ring at the fore, Green Lantern narrowed his eyes at the high-backed chair in front of him. For the first time since entering the rigged room, he noticed the stately gentleman dressed in green that idly sat in it, a lazy smirk curling the corner of his lips. “Most impressive,” the man stated, voice both rough and smooth – sherry over sandpaper. “I see why the Detective has chosen to accept your aid.”
“Ra's Al Ghul,” he growled, ring illuminated. He recognized the face from a file photo. He guessed the rumors about those pits offering immortality were true – the last surveillance photo of him was taken over twenty years ago in Beirut, and there wasn't a single extra white hair or line anywhere on his features.
'I'd like to get me some of that,' he confessed silently.
The Demon's Head steepled his fingers in front of him. “Ah, so you've heard of me. I've been told that Green Lanterns are designated to protect entire sectors, filled with hundreds of worlds – each with their own share of difficulties. Earning the recognition of one so well-traveled is truly an honor.” He closed his eyes and bowed his head in humility.
John snorted. “Honor this.” He willed a clamp to erupt from his ring, sending it flying towards the notorious super-criminal.
The construct buried itself into the back of the chair, through the flickering, stuttering form of Ra's Al Ghul.
His eyes widened in shock, murmuring, “A hologram?”
The hologram of Ra's cocked a smug eyebrow, his smirk tugging higher, as he placed a hand at his chest mournfully. “I do apologize for not being there to personally greet you, but unfortunately, my mission requires me to be elsewhere.”
John clenched his fist angrily. Damn! He should've known better. “What are you trying to pull here, Al Ghul?”
“I had thought my plan would be obvious by now,” the image retorted in amusement, “but if you are so inclined to find out, simply check my computer's database.” He waved a hand nonchalantly to the massive monitor behind him. “Everything you need will be on there.”
“You're kidding, right?” Stewart huffed, cautiously stalking closer to the occupied-but-not-occupied chair. Unbeknownst to him, the tiles he stood on began to glow faintly below his green boots. “With the custom-tailored booby-trap you just laid for me in here – “ The holographic Ra's pressed a finger onto the side of the chair. “ – Do you really think I'm dumb enough to just take your – “
His words were drowned out in a pained scream as five-thousand volts of electricity shot through him, his body arching backward and curling in unspeakable agony. Five seconds later, the hologram pressed the same non-existent button, the electrical feed shutting off abruptly. The flickering image smiled like a fox, watching with satisfaction as John Stewart crumpled the ground, tendrils of smoke rising from his unmoving body.
“A pity that you chose not take my advice, John Stewart,” Ra's said as his image faded, its transmitting signal closed. “Rest assured, that is a decision you will come to regret.”
Tim Drake, safely nestled in his apartment's living room in Seattle, watched the breaking news report with nothing short of morbid fascination. A legion of army personnel filed down the streets of Gotham City, arresting and subduing any and all that stood in their path. Buildings went up like firecrackers in the distance, and the citizens that weren't being introduced to military justice were cowering away like frightened animals.
Well, he thought bitterly, they were doing a better job of instilling fear in the hearts of the populace than Batman ever did.
Tim jumped slightly and stared past his shoulder at the unusually grim-faced Barbara Gordon. He shook his head. “No.”
Her frown deepened, leaning over and resting her forearms against the back of the cushioned black couch. “Daddy's not gonna like this.”
“Neither is Bruce.” He grimaced, as he almost always did, when he spoke his name – it just felt wrong to his tongue, now. Batman came out so much easier than it had before...before. So young and reckless, so naïve and idealistic; thinking that the great Dark Knight would ever want to keep him around. Useless...
He hunched over, rubbing his temples. Barb clued in on his shift in temperament and rested her hands on his shoulders. “Tim? You okay?”
He grunted, nodding. “I'm fine. Just cobwebs.” Cobwebs. What a funny way of putting it.
“Well, however he's taking it,” he found himself saying as he stood, “it's not really our problem anymore, is it?”
Barbara balked at his callousness – it was callous of him, wasn't it? – and stopped him dead in his tracks with a hand to his chest. “Hey, we both grew up in Gotham, too, remember? Whether Bruce – “ He expertly hid the tick of his eyelid. “ – wants to admit it or not, he could definitely use our help in some capacity or another.”
Tim scoffed, stepping back. “Please, seriously? You saw him, back then.” His gaze turned mischievous, borderline cruel. “I bet you saw a lot of him, back then.” Her face reddened at the pot-shot, and he continued before she could interrupt. “You saw how he looked at me. He couldn't even be in the same room with me without wanting to bolt. I tainted him.” His dark gaze to the ground, feeling dirty and guilty and wrong. “I tainted everyone.”
Barb's fingers found his chin, gently tugging the twenty-year-old's head up to face her. Her bright blue eyes were sad like his, but filled with endless kindness. She was too kind. And way too in denial. “You didn't taint anyone or anything, Tim. You were the victim, and you survived when so many others wouldn't have. You beat him, Tim. You won. Don't ever tell yourself different.”
He wanted to believe her.
He forced a small grin, for her sake. “Thanks, Barb.” On impulse, he reached forward and wrapped his arms around her thin frame in a tight, desperate hug. His head felt better when she was around. He wouldn't tell her that he still had nightmares – she probably knew, but she was nice enough not to push him about it. He needed time, that was all. Time, and distance. He'd forget, eventually. The pain, the loss of innocence, the rejection, they'd all go away, one day.
Tim knew it was a lie. He didn't care.
“Listen, Barb, I'm gonna go lie down for a while, okay?” He scratched at the back of his head. “You can raid my fridge, if you're hungry.”
Her rose red lips curled into a faint smile, her arms winding around her chest as she gaped back at the television screen. “No thanks; I don't have much of an appetite.”
He shrugged, plodding into his room and shutting the door behind him, leaning his back on it like it was all that kept him standing. A hand threaded through his thick black hair, fingers kneading his scalp to massage away the cooped up tension. It wasn't any of his business. It didn't matter what happened in Gotham, or to Bruce – no reflexive twitch, that time – or to anyone else. He was done with being the hero. All it ever caused him was trouble.
Tim opened his eyes, immediately zeroing in on the small duffel bag carefully hidden behind his computer desk. All the excuses in the world, and he still carried a Robin suit with him. How stupid.
He was at the desk and rifling through the bag's contents in the breadth of an exhale, keen eyes searching for – aha, there it was. The small, ovular communicator gleamed in the waning light of another dreary, rainy Pacific northwest day. Feeling suddenly hesitant, suddenly stupid, suddenly terrified, he almost threw it back into the duffel and stuffed them further into the camouflaged crevice, but he held fast. Robin or not, Barbara was right – Bruce wouldn't be taking this well, at all.
Besides, he missed his voice.
Pressing it to his ear, he switched it on and set it to the frequency he'd memorized almost ten years ago.
Batman froze, eyes staring sightlessly into the containment unit as the blood in his veins turned to ice. He forgot how to breathe.
“Bruce, are you there?”
His heart hammered so hard in his chest, he was amazed the sound of it didn't wake Dick. He raised one hand, tempted to open his channel in response. He hadn't heard the boy's voice in thirty-three months – well, that wasn't strictly true. He heard the boy's voice in his head every single night, but to hear it alive, around him, it...
His palm rested against the transparent steel wall, anchoring himself against strangely unsteady legs.
“I heard about what's going on in Gotham. I know...I know you don't think I'm cut out to be Robin and all, but...” He closed his eyes. It wasn't that, it was never that, it was himself he couldn't trust... He forcibly told his lungs to function. It was like inhaling napalm, liquid fire clinging to the cilia and incinerating them. He took the pain as a sign that he wasn't dead yet. “I can help out, Bruce. Just tell me what you want me to do. I can hang back, look up stuff...whatever you need.”
He rested his head against the unit with a dull thump. He couldn't do this. Not now. Not with so much at stake if he got distracted.
“...Say something, Bruce.” Tim's voice was quietly pleading. “Please.”
Bruce's throat tightened against his consent. His hand, again, reached for the communicator. With a hitch in his motions that normally wasn't present, he flicked his finger against the device.
“Bruce – “
And shut it off.
His hand fell heavily to his side. “I'm sorry.”
He clenched his teeth. He was such a coward.
“Batman?” He immediately straightened, glaring over one minutely trembling shoulder. Diana stood in the opened doorway, face etched with a clear concern. “What's the matter?”
He was thankful for his cowl. He would never allow her to see him so weak. No one would. “Nothing,” he growled, pushing off the pane and stalking into the hallway, leaving the worried Amazon in his tracks.
Standing silently in the corner, beyond mortal insight, Phantom Stranger impassively watched the strangled, aborted exchange with a slow shake of his head. It seemed direct intervention was inevitable.
If Batman fell, the world fell with him.
To be continued...
Sorry in the delay in getting this up -- I'm trying to play 'catch up' with what I have on fanfiction.net. I could just post what I have up there faster, but I feel that robs me of the chance to [strike]be lazy[/strike] keep up the pace I've set for myself. Insofar as the chapter is concerned, I can't ever make things easy, for the characters or myself. While writing the latest chapter I have, I've kept going back to previous ones, just to remember what the hell it is that I wrote. >< Maybe I can fully figure out where I'm going with this before I actually finish it! There's a thought.
Also, requisite "I love Wally" shout-out. Wally FTW. <3
Edit: You know, I've been sitting on this thing for like a week and a half, and I'm still finding typos all over the place? ; ;
I know how you feel. I don't type half as much as you do for a chapter and I will still find the random typo every so often.
I don't know how you do it, one moment I feel bad for Bruce and want to give him a hug, and then the next I want to smack him for being such a jerk to his friends and family. Good Job!
Once again, love Wally! I think you got him down perfectly.
Can't wait to see what you have plan for John and the rest of the League.
The thing is, I've been reading over it for a week, specifically checking for typos. I apparently fail at reading. Doesn't surprise me.
That's the idea! Bruce is a complex, multi-faceted individual. He wants to help people and keep them safe, but his own deep-seated inadequacy issues along with being emotionally stunted basically twists that instinctual need to protect into, "If anyone gets close to me, I'll only get them killed." His horrible luck with loved ones getting hurt -- regardless of whether or not it's as a result of him -- only confirms it. I imagine the events of ROTJ really, truly, cements the idea in his head. The thing I like about him, though, is that deep down, he knows he's being an ass to these people, and hates resorting to it, but he thinks it's the lesser of two evils.
Your urge to slap him is spot on, because I want to slap him while writing it. XD
Wally FTW sums it up. <3
I've got the next chapter nearly finished (I've been slacking some ><). You'll find out soon enough! <cackle>