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World's Finest Writer's Corner From the Ashes [JLU, C]

Discussion in 'The Story Board' started by SilverKnight, Apr 29, 2010.

  1. Jadeling

    Jadeling Member

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    Cackle? Did you start cackling?

    Crap. I just hope I don't do something stupid, like drop my laptop because of your twists and turns.
     
  2. SilverKnight

    SilverKnight Sigh.

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    The first thing John noticed was how sore his shoulders were.

    The second thing John noticed was that he was suspended over a vat of boiling green acid by his wrists, and was steadily being lowered towards it.

    He gaped up at the shackles that bound him, groaning low in his throat when he saw that they were – of course – yellow. Shaking his head to clear the fog from his mind, he quickly took in his surroundings. His wrists were bound to a pulley that was attached to the ceiling some thirty feet above him. The luminescent jade pit he was hanging over seemed to be a naturally formed ravine of some sort – it reminded him of an underground spring, with dense foliage and vines snaking along the jagged cliffs. It would have looked beautiful, if he hadn't been slated to be murdered in it.

    Squinting his eyes, his features hardened as he willed the ring to lift him to safety. The ring, to his dismay, merely sparked and went out. “Bad time to be low on juice,” he huffed. Inhaling the fumes of the pit, his lungs screaming in protest, he tried again – commanding the power of the Lantern to form a beam to destroy the pulley he was attached to. Again, the ring flared and proceeded to die just as swiftly. He stared down at the boiling substance inching closer to him, its unbearable heat wafting up in dense clouds and slamming into his body. A thin sheen of sweat broke out over his skin as the sharp scent taunted his nose – it reminded him of a mix between bleach and burnt rubber.

    “Great.”

    For the second time, he scanned the natural cave formation he found himself in, searching for a way to get himself out of this mess. After all, Batman had a point before – an Achilles heel was only effective if the person didn't have anything else to fall back on besides their powers. Luckily enough for him, he had a brain, as well as brawn. 'Outsmart him – got it.' He tossed another glance up, checking for any thugs designated to watch him, and was slightly surprised to find no one within his vantage point – which, admittedly, wasn't too great. Never the less, he was almost insulted.

    They left him alone? Bad plan.

    12.
    The Weakest Link

    Wrapping his hands around the golden bonds, Green Lantern quickly judged the distance between himself, the cave wall, and the pit below him. Sucking in another fume-filled breath, he kicked out, arching his back as his stiffened legs swung back in counterbalance. Several seconds passed, gaining momentum with every swing until he was able to start rocking the chain he was dangling from. A rush of heat burst from below, searing the back of his legs on a forward arc, and he hissed in pain as he felt the flash-burn begin to form. Oh well, he'd dealt with worse. He was a Marine. Marines overcame everything.

    Grunting, he put every last ounce of thrust he could into his back swing, twisting and reaching out with his feet as he neared the cave wall. Stretching, he managed to dig the heels of his boots into a small, vine-covered outcrop no more than ten feet from the bubbling vat below him. “I hope this works,” he panted, scrambling for whatever bit of purchase his feet and ankles could make on the jutting rockface as he strained and twisted his foot into a vine. Hopefully, it would hold his weight when the rest of his body succumbed to gravity with the slackening of the chain that currently held him securely, if awkwardly, aloft. If it didn't...

    John grimaced. Well, he did think about how good one of these Lazarus Pits would be for him.

    As expected, the pulley kept lowering until the shackles could no longer buoy his upper body, and he felt his stomach lurch from freefall as he plummeted. His stomach righted itself a moment later when his back hit the jagged rock wall, his sweat-dotted head a scant few feet from the pit. He breathed a quiet sigh of relief; the vine held. There was enough slack in the chain for him to snatch another looping branch and haul himself onto the tiny lip, albeit precariously. With a frown, he watched as the chain brushed against the bubbling acid and liquefied with a harsh sizzle. He momentarily imagined the metal links being replaced with his legs and torso, biting back a shudder. “Maybe I'll pass on the skinny dipping for now.”

    He looked up...and up, and up, and up to the main cliff of the grotto, well over a hundred feet above him. John sighed. Well, he had some climbing to get to.

    ---

    Batman slipped silently into the window of the nondescript office building. Despite his city being swarmed with the military, it was all too easy to evade them and traverse the city limits at will. After all, they weren't any deadlier than the police whenever he was ordered Kill-on-Sight (which was quite often, these days), and they knew the lay of the land far less than any native – least of all him.

    A gust of wind blew in from the opened window, billowing the venetian blinds and his cape as he turned on his flashlight. Powers Technology was a small-time tech firm that had, until fairly recently, been doing little more than treading water. Its founder and CEO, Warren Powers, was regarded in similar economic circles as a wolf in sheep's clothing – dangerously business savvy and a smooth talker. His company was small, smaller than one would expect from a man widely regarded among his equals as a corporate shark, but he supposed several bad multi-million dollar deals could sour any company's reputation. At least one of those failed technological endeavors involved Dr. Dahluzett directly, and two more as an indirect result of her design specs being manufactured improperly.

    It made the sticky note he found attached to the underside of the desk, with the phrase, 'PT 7.6 10.3 A–' scribbled across it, all the stranger. He'd been able to decode the message almost instantly – 'Powers Technology, 7/06 at 10:30 AM.' Why would he want to meet with her after costing him millions? Stranger still, she was reported missing three days later. If he intended to have her killed, what triggered Powers' need to call a hit?

    He tapped his finger against the manilla folder in his hand, absorbing the financial reports. The papers were saturated with debt – expenses, bad business deals, damages from faulty equipment and failed experiments. How, then, was his quarterly report showing an increase in revenue? His latest venture was – compared to the company's prior history – resoundingly successful. Too successful to be legal.

    Batman closed the file, resting it on the open drawer as he rubbed his chin with his hand. All of this involved Ra's somehow; he felt the tenuous connections between each point in his mind. But he needed specifics – and more importantly, proof. “What are you up to...?”

    “Who's there?”

    Batman's head whipped up, eyes narrowed. Warren Powers flicked on a nearby desk-lamp quickly, waving a 9-millimeter Beretta in the air as his deep set brown eyes cautiously skittered around his office.

    He found only an open window, thin metal blinds clattering against the glass.

    Warily, handgun still primed to fire into the shadows that pooled eagerly from the corners of the dimly lit room, he crossed over the thin beige carpet and slid the window closed. He sighed heavily, running a hand over his damp forehead as he switched the safety back on his gun. “I need to get more rest.” Turning to leave, he muttered, “Why would Janet leave the window open on a night like th – “

    He slammed into the brick wall that was the Dark Knight's caped chest, and promptly gasped in terror.

    The gun was out of his hand and on the ground before he remembered he even had it – hell, before he remembered he could still breathe. Batman didn't move a single molecule, and yet, he was suddenly towering over him like some sort of angel of death. “Who's your deal on the side?”

    Warren moved his tongue in his mouth, prepping it for use. He swallowed, loudly. “What are you talking about?”

    A hand made of steel yanked him forward. Batman held up a manilla folder for him to see. “This,” he hissed, tossing the files to the nearby table. “I've looked at your reports, Powers – you've been drowning in red ink. You should've gone bankrupt six months ago, but lo and behold, you've not only made good on your bad deals, you've turned a profit. How?”

    Warren bluffed with a serpentine grin. “That's how businesses work, Batman.”

    The toes of his shoes scraped helplessly on the carpet as he was lifted off of his feet. The look on the Batman's face was nothing short of deadly. “Don't play games with me, Powers. I know you're getting money off the books from whatever dirty deal you're covering up. What are you making, who are you selling it to, and what does it have to do with Sarah Dahluzett?”

    Powers blinked, stammering nonsensically. “W-what? Dahluzett? That lunatic? Why would I ever want to work with her again?”

    The Dark Knight's eyes became slits. “You tell me. She left for a meeting with you and never came back.”

    Warren's face ticked in fear, panic cloying at his chest. “Wha – you can't be serious!”

    The nose of Batman's mask dug into his cheekbone as he leaned in, growling, “Do I look like I'm joking?”

    “I'd never send an invitation to her, not after all the money she's cost me!” he shrieked. “She was a basket-case, a complete loose-cannon! She nearly destroyed one of my facilities in one of her 'little tests'.” His breath hitched when his captor's expression didn't change in the slightest. “I swear, I don't know where she is!”

    “What about your off-the-record deal?”

    “I – I don't – “

    He breath left in a rush when his back slammed into a nearby wall, paintings rattling from the reverberation. “I'm losing my patience, Powers. That is not a good place for you to be.”

    “Alright, al-alright!” He held his arms out wide in a gesture of peace, though he figured it wouldn't do any good.

    Slowly, he felt the soles of his slip-on shoes touch the floor. His heart beat a little less rapidly as Batman ordered, “Start talking.”

    He gulped, trying to catch his breath. “M-my son, Derek – he came to me a few months back and said that he had an idea that could put us back on the map, but he told me it was risky and that we had to be quiet about it.” He saw something click in the Batman's mind, his already straight posture going even more rigid. “He said he was contacted by a...third-party buyer, interested in the kind of teleporter technology that the Justice League uses. We don't have the blueprints for anything like that ourselves, but he said he was gonna meet with someone who could hel – “ His jaw went slack. “Oh. Oh my Lord. Y-you don't think he – ?”

    “Who was the buyer?” Batman interrupted, the words nearly lost in the harsh rumbling of his baritone.

    “I don't know, he never told me!” White eyes hardened. “I – I don't even think he knew; you know how these things work! Paper trails aren't very good for under-the-table business deals.”

    “Where is he?”

    Warren stammered, “He – he just got married a week ago; they're on their honeymoon still. He isn't supposed to be back for another – “

    He found himself off his feet again. “Where?”

    “Havana,” he gasped, heartbeat racing in his ears. “I swear, I – I didn't know what he – “

    Batman let go of Powers, the simpering man slumping against the wall heavily as he turned away. “Save it for the police, Powers. You'll be hearing from them soon enough.”

    “No!” Batman went still as he heard the cocking of a gun behind him. Clenching his jaw in irritation, he spared the dirty businessman a cold glare past his shoulder. “I've worked too hard to get my company where it is today! You're not going to take it away from me!”

    “Have you come in contact with any of Gotham's tap water recently?” he asked suddenly.

    Powers' brows twitched down. “What does that have to – “

    He lunged forward without preamble, clasping the man's wrist and twisting. Warren let out a shrill cry of pain as the gun, again, fell to the beige carpeted floor. “Believe me when I say, Mr. Powers,” he growled, “that I should be the least of your worries, right now.”

    The Batman had vanished through the newly-opened window before Warren registered his right hand was free. He rubbed at it fervently, cursing that crazed freak in a wetsuit, and went about trying to plan a proper alibi to tell the police, when he noticed a handful of small black splotches dotting up his forearm.

    “Huh,” he huffed, bemused. “Strange.”

    ---

    “They knew exactly how to bypass my power ring,” Lantern asserted, clenching his fist for effect. He stood at a monitor alcove on the bridge, along with Superman, Wonder Woman, and Flash. From the sound of the debriefing he received after barely escaping that underground hellhole with his life, it sounded like everyone's day had been just as rough and unyielding. “I'm guessing the place was rigged for everyone else here, too.”

    “Did you get access to their main database?” Batman asked from the speeding Batmobile.

    John sighed, massaging the back of his neck wearily. “They've got every major city in the US targeted, but that's about as far as I got before they fried the circuits.”

    Superman sighed in brief disappointment. He was beginning to see why Ra's Al Ghul had remained untouched for so long. “So, we're back to square one.”

    “Not necessarily,” Batman replied. “Dahluzett's disappearance coincides with a quiet deal made by Powers Technology to construct a teleporter for anonymous third-party backers.”

    Flash quirked an eyebrow. “And by 'anonymous', you mean 'Spooky the Eternal', right?”

    “If Ra's has actually gotten a hold of those schematics,” Batman continued, ignoring Wally's heart-felt contribution to the conversation, “that means he'd need the proper power source.”

    Clark took a closer look at the scenery behind Batman, his enhanced eye-sight spotting brief flashes of color dancing along the buildings that blurred past the Batmobile. Come to think of it, were those...sirens he heard in the background? “Batman, are you being pursued by the police?”

    “The CEO mentioned something about his son visiting Havana for his honeymoon,” Batman responded, pointedly side-stepping the question. He watched as Bruce rounded a corner sharply, a cop car skidding past him. Why had he expected an answer? “Doesn't Cuba have a nuclear reactor?”

    J'onn, seated at the computer module, answered, “A non-functioning one, yes. It was never fully completed.”

    Batman hummed quietly to himself. “I thought so. We may finally have a lead.”

    John leaned on the console forcefully. “What I wanna know is, how did Ra's Al Ghul know of the ring's weakness? That's not exactly something the Green Lantern Corp likes to advertise.”

    Wonder Woman braced her hands on her hips, hair spilling over her shoulder as she tilted her head to look at Green Lantern. “Could there be anyone else that would know your weakness, John? Anyone that might ally themselves with Ra's?”

    Superman's keen instinct – far more honed than many gave him credit for – aptly noted an imperceptible shift in the Dark Knight's demeanor. He was always the silent type, but the mention of the ring forced the man's focus inward in a way that meant he was contemplating something of grave importance. He'd learned as a kid that pride was a foolish, selfish, destructive thing to hold onto, but he couldn't stop the small warmth of it from swelling in his chest whenever he was able to read Bruce. It always felt like figuring out an impossibly difficult puzzle. Granted, this particular puzzle would always go and rearrange itself whenever he wasn't looking, so the feeling of victory was normally fleeting. Never the less, he took those triumphs when they came without hesitation.

    Lantern shrugged, removing one arm from the keyboard to gesture with his hand. “Sinestro, but you don't see many Yellow Lanterns for hire.”

    Flash snapped his fingers, long face brightening with an idea. “Hey, what about Grodd? He was all about the creepy mind-control and manipulation of powers.”

    John squinted in thought. “Maybe, but dead guys aren't very talkative.”

    The Scarlet Speedster shrugged. “Well, I can't really think of anyone else. Luthor would've used that kind of info on us already.” He scratched the back of his head. “I mean, what other evil geniuses are there?”

    Batman suddenly interjected, “J'onn, did you check the computer database after the Metro Tower break-in?”

    The Martian nodded. “We did. Nothing in the system was accessed.”

    “Did you check everything?”

    “Of course.” Superman felt the tickling spider-legs of apprehension crawl up his spine. He already didn't like where this was going.

    “Even the maintenance logs?” Batman queried, jerking the wheel to his left with a grimace.

    J'onn blinked, furrowing his brows. “That directory is for routine diagnostics only.”

    “Did you scan it?” he emphasized through grit teeth.

    “No.”

    “Check it for any recent copies or downloads.”

    J'onn acquiesced tentatively. “Very well. A moment.”

    Flash gave the Batman a strange look, eyebrow cocked in faux-amusement. “Know something we don't?”

    Silence greeted them.

    “Batman, I have something,” J'onn stated, surprised. “One file was opened in the past twenty-four hours; a file – “

    “On core-system specs?” The timbre of his voice hovered somewhere between guilt and disgust, and with that, his behavior became entirely too understandable to Clark. This time, he felt no pride in figuring out his best friend's motives. He placed the current emotion in the neighborhood of disappointment. 'Damn it, Bruce...'

    “How did you know?”

    Batman ground his jaw, tersely responding, “Those were the counter-measures.”

    Superman's expression became blistering. “Always carry a spare?”

    “The file was encrypted and hidden,” Batman rebuked sharply. “No one without Omega-level security clearance should have even been able to see it, let alone access it.”

    John slammed a fist down on the metal console. “We're getting set up. This guy's playing all of us like violins.”

    Bruce's eyes thinned angrily. “Not all of us. Just me.”

    The connection cut off abruptly.

    Clark wanted to slam his head against the nearest solid object. Bruce Wayne was the single most infuriating man he'd ever met in his entire life (that wasn't out to kill him). He knew that Batman's involvement in this catastrophe was out of duty to his people and was tenuous at best. Still, he'd held out hope that maybe the interaction with his fellow Leaguers and friends – people he'd nearly died for on a dozen separate occasions – would have spurred some sense of camaraderie; that he would remember why he initially trusted them. In hindsight, perhaps it was too optimistic an outlook.

    Well, he began to steel himself for one hell of an argument, because he was not going to give up on him so easily. This nonsense had gone on for far too long. It was high time that insufferable jerk learned how much his pigheadedness was affecting the rest of them. Martyrdom only worked when someone had a good cause to die for. Quietly labeling oneself as poison wasn't exactly something the masses could rally behind.

    “Batman,” Wonder Woman intoned for the third time in ten seconds, frowning when there was no response. “He's not answering.”

    Of course there wouldn't be an answer, he thought acerbically, this was Batman they were dealing with. He pinched the bridge of his nose. “He won't. J'onn?”

    The Martian shook his head. “He's shut me out of his mind, as well.”

    Wally glanced between the other four founding League members curiously. “Sooo, are we drawing straws or doing Rock Paper Scissors?”

    ---

    Gotham burned.

    Batman's attempts to control what he could of the population vaporized like steam when Loeb caught wind of his presence in the lower east-side. He'd stopped a home invasion by some punks; had the home-owner, an elderly lady, trussed up like Thanksgiving dinner as they circled her. Blood-thirsty wolves. He'd saved her life – possibly theirs, too, as he doubted the military personnel he ran into as he hastily exited would have given a second thought to gunning every last one of them down for their transgressions. He was never looking for a reward for the things he did, but he could have done without the twenty-five minute pursuit down Gotham's streets.

    Currently, he stood atop a towering spire, cape flapping insistently behind him from the howling wind that was stank of smoke, and watched his beloved city writhe in turmoil. All of this, all of this, because he hadn't thought to fully shut down that machine before racing off to a futile situation he knew he couldn't have stopped. All this disaster because he let fear get the better of him. And now Ra's Al Ghul had his counter-measures – the means with which to render the entire League ineffective in one bold stroke, should he see fit to use it. And knowing Ra's, he most certainly did.

    Bruce squared his shoulders, breathing in deeply. No point crying over spilled milk – Ra's had the information, and understood his methods, damage-control was his only option, now. The disease was spreading too quickly for him to be of any use on the streets; his best bet was to isolate the key cellular sequence in the toxin in order to nullify it and synthesize an antigen. He had extra resources beyond the Batcave and Watchtower, he always had extra resources, he'd just have to make use of them. The League already knew of Ra's plans to infect other cities, so that particular ball was in their court. A teleporter was dangerous technology in the wrong hands, but without a deadly bio-chemical weakening the world's defenses and panicking the populace, its threat was significantly reduced.

    So, priority one was Leopard Fever. Once he came up with a way to combat it, he would have to anonymously send the information to the others through different channels to ensure that Ra's wouldn't intercept the message en route. After all, if he was able to access an Omega-level security clearance file, he could certainly piggyback onto private League frequencies.

    He heard the faintest rush of air come from behind him. Knowing that wind didn't blow in two directions at once, he stared directly ahead of him, through the landscape. “Aren't you banned from entering Gotham City limits?”

    By this point in their relationship, Kent had long-since grown used to his arrival being noticed before he said anything. Touching down on the stone outcropping of the deco-inspired skyscraper, he assuaged, “I'm not here for heroics.”

    “Then leave.” Bruce knew the statement would fall on deaf ears, but his reputation demanded that he say it, anyway.

    Superman, as expected, didn't listen. “You cut off communication with us before we were finished.”

    “There was nothing left to say.”

    Clark sidled closer to him. “You might've missed something important.”

    He angled his head to stare evenly over his shoulder at the Man of Steel. “Did I?” The lack of a response told him all he needed to know. “What do you want?”

    Clark sighed, a weary and long-suffering sound. “You're doing it again.”

    A brow twitched beneath his cowl. “Define 'it'.”

    “Blaming yourself.”

    The bluntness of his statement pricked at Bruce's ire. Feigning ignorance, he asked, “For what?”

    “Oh come off it,” Kent snapped, circling around to challenge him face to face. “What do you think isolating yourself is going to accomplish? Do you really think that's going to keep us safe?” Something flashed across his features, but it disappeared too quickly for him to place what it was. “We're superheros, for Pete's sake – if you didn't want to see us in danger, then you picked the wrong line of work.” Clark met his glare defiantly, azure eyes combative. “I suggest accounting.”

    He schooled his features to keep the grimace of dissatisfaction from crossing them. “It's for the best, Clark. If I'm not around – “

    In the span of a millisecond, Bruce found himself held two inches off the ground in a painful, unbreakable grip, staring down at one very annoyed Superman. Well then. It looked like he had finally found Clark's last nerve. He'd have felt triumphant, but was too busy trying to remember what possessed him to ever humor him and partially-join this League of his in the first place. Damn it, why did he have to stop carrying around Kryptonite?

    “Listen,” Clark hissed, “I don't know what's gotten into you, but it's stopping right now.”

    His lips twitched in a humorless smirk. How cute, Kent was trying to be threatening. “Even if you have to beat it out of me?”

    Kent's expression twitched in remorse and he relinquished his hold, setting him down on his feet. (He hated being shorter than him.) Maybe he hadn't pushed the farm-boy so far, after all. “Sorry.” He exhaled slowly, running a hand through his hair. “We're depending on you, Bruce. And if the League is depending on you, that means seven-billion others are, too. You can't walk away now.”

    “I have to.”

    “Why?” Kent questioned emphatically, gaze boring into him. “Because of the files?”

    “Because Ra's knows how I operate, and he's using that knowledge against all of you,” he explained impatiently. “I won't endanger everyone's lives by being predictable.”

    Clark scoffed. “Believe me, that's the one thing you're not. But leaving would be.” The Boyscout's hand landed solidly on his left shoulder. It felt like being pawed by a bear. “So, if you really wanna throw him for a loop, stay.”

    He struggled to understand the logic behind Kent's statement. Surely, Ra's had plans in motion for either choice he made. “And do what?”

    A small grin touched Superman's lips. “Well, trusting us would be a nice start.”

    “I do.”

    “Do you?”

    Bruce shrugged the hand off, muscles of his jaw rolling uneasily beneath his skin. “It's not a matter of trust, Kent. It's a matter of priorities.” He strode to the other side of the roof, sensing more than hearing that Clark was floating closely behind. Stopping at the ledge, he continued, his baritone losing its terrifying edge. “I can't be directly involved anymore, or I could risk all of your lives – more than I already have.” He inwardly flinched at how tired he sounded. The effects of exhaustion were slowly, inexorably, beginning to creep up on him. He couldn't afford that.

    Clark landed to his left, leaning back against the stone wall with a foot propped up and muscular forearms folded casually over his chest. They could've been talking about baseball, for all the world knew. “So, it is about the files.”

    “It's not – “ He hissed a sigh. “I'm a liability, Clark.” There, he said it. The words felt dirtier coming out of his mouth than the did locked up inside his brain. Why didn't Clark understand that? “I won't be any good to you if I wind up second-guessing every decision I make.”

    Superman shrugged, looking confused. “Why would you need to?” Several very unsavory phrases flitted through the Dark Knight's mind as Kent continued to be obtuse. He'd already admitted he was weak; what else did he want? “We can take care of ourselves, Bruce – no counter-measure is foolproof, remember? Green Lantern already proved that.”

    “I won't be responsible for anyone getting hurt.” His voice was lined with steel. No one was going to suffer on part of him. Not while he had a choice in the matter.

    “No one would hold you responsible, Bruce.”

    “I would.”

    “Which is exactly what Ra's Al Ghul wants.” He glared darkly at his uninvited companion. “You said it yourself; he knows how you think. He knows you're a decent human being and he's exploiting it. Deep down, you know that.” Clark pushed himself from the wall, coming up next to him to stare at his profile. “But, the thing is, you know how he thinks, too – and that's what he's afraid of. He wants you to walk away, he's banking on it, because he knows that's the only way he'll win.” The Man of Steel's cobalt blue eyes were radiant and expressive, full of warmth and compassion that Bruce simply didn't feel worthy of accepting. “Don't let him, Bruce. Do what you do best – be unpredictable.”

    A bolt of electricity traveled down his spine. 'Don't let him win.' He shut his eyes to ward off the memories. “Tell me something, Kent. Why would you trust a man who carries around an object specifically designed to kill you, who you know could use it at any given moment?” He twisted his head to look at the Kryptonian fully.

    Clark flashed a dazzling, boyish grin that never failed to either irritate the hell out of him, or make the ice-wall constructed around his heart temporarily melt. In this case, it was a healthy mix of both. “Because you know the difference between wanting to use it and needing to.”

    He understood the undertone perfectly. “If anyone kills me, I'd want it to be you.”

    In spite of being utterly mortified at the idea of killing anyone, least of all his closest friend, Batman felt almost...touched by the sentiment. “Now who has trust issues?”

    Kent quirked an eyebrow. “You're not the only one who has contingency plans.” He inhaled deeply, resting a hand on his waist. “By the way, did that sliver of Kryptonite you tried to hide from me survive the explosion?”

    Bruce was too disciplined to allow himself to double-take they way he'd wanted to do. “I don't have – “

    An undignified snort rolled from the back of Kent's throat, shooting him one of those reproachful, soul-searing glowers that made even him feel the slightest bit sheepish (though he'd have cut out his own tongue before admitting as such). “Oh please. I know you.”

    “How did you know?” He could've bluffed him. He just didn't feel like it.

    “Because you're always prepared,” Superman replied, adding with an amused lilt, “and people call me the Boyscout.” He scowled. Clark's smirk widened. “Besides, it was the only compartment in the Batcave lined with lead.”

    He grunted. “Investigative journalism at its finest.”

    “Having X-Ray vision helps, too. So, are you coming?” Kent's grin, his spirit and aura, were infectious – it buoyed him against his own worries, allowing him to center himself and focus clearly on the daunting task ahead of them both. Clark was a good man, and a good friend. He only hoped one day he could work up the nerve to tell him that.

    For the moment, he stayed in safer waters and answered, “I'll be along in a bit. There's one more person I have to talk to.” Superman hovered in place, hesitant. “I'll come back, Clark.” The corner of his mouth tugged up into a miniscule sardonic smirk. “Trust me.”

    Clark did.

    ---

    Jim Gordon had done exactly what he was told, and stayed as far away from Gotham's tap water as he could. That meant that he'd forgone a shower, washing his hands, doing the dishes, and coffee. It was times like this he wished he hadn't given up smoking. As often as his life was in danger, it wasn't like lung cancer was the most likely way for him to go. Rubbing at his weary eyes beneath his glasses, fruitlessly trying to massage away the caffeine withdrawal headache, he stood from the sofa slowly. Working out the ever-present kinks in his back, he glanced at the wall-clock – 11:52 – as he scooped the remote from the corner table and turned the muted TV off.

    Martial law in Gotham. Christ. “What was Loeb thinking?”

    “Quarantine.”

    He jumped with a yelp, hand slapping against his chest. Tossing a halfhearted glare at the shadow to his left, he said, “Don't sneak up on an old man like that. Are you trying to give me a heart-attack?”

    “Sorry.” Looking down, Batman fiddled under his cape for a moment before holding out a cylinder in his right hand. “Here – I brought this with me. I thought you might need some.” Blinking, he strode forward and took the black thermos from the vigilante's grasp, unscrewing the cap and cautiously sniffing the contents.

    He could've cried. Oh God bless this wonderful, thoughtful man. “Coffee?”

    It was normally difficult to read Batman's expression, but he appeared pleased. Well, as pleased as someone like him could get. “Columbian. Black. From a different water-source; I ran tests on it four times.”

    Wasting no time, Jim hurried to the kitchen and plucked his favorite mug from a Formica pantry, pouring some of the contents of the thermos into it with barely-contained glee. Taking another whiff of the aroma, he brought it to his lips and took a small gulp, savoring the rich, bitter flavor of it. It was definitely high-quality, but a guy like Bruce Wayne had the money to spare. He opened his eyes, not realizing that he'd closed them, and looked at his silent companion, who watched him with open interest. “Good?”

    “Sure beats the sludge they gave at the headquarters,” he answered, tipping the mug up in way of thanks. He tapped the thermos with his forefinger. “Want some?” Batman raised a hand and shook his head. He took another sip of the glorious caffeinated beverage, shoving his left hand in the pocket of his blue robe. “You don't usually make house-calls. What brings you here?”

    “You've heard about the inclusion of the military,” Batman stated, still as a stone.

    He scoffed. “Who didn't?” He glared at the refrigerator like it was the source of all his problems. “Lousy feds and their cockamamie schemes – how did they expect to stop the spread with soldiers?”

    “They didn't.” Jim looked up at that. “The populace was purposely infected, and the military knows it. They're sending in troops for show, and to keep as many citizens within city limits as possible.”

    “They can't corral ten million people forever,” he retorted.

    “I know,” Batman agreed, “and so do they.”

    Gordon grimaced, the aftertaste of the coffee leaving a bitter taste along his tongue. At least, that's what he told himself it was. “What do you think they're up to?”

    The Dark Knight produced a small folder, the word 'CONFIDENTIAL' stamped across it in blocky red text. “General Marshal Vreeland is officially in charge of the troops on the ground,” he explained, opening the folder and laying it out on the counter next to the thermos. “But he's not in charge of the operation.” He pointed to the top of the sensitive document. “Sound familiar?”

    Jim put down the mug slowly, the glass clinking hollowly against the wooden counter-top, and read the name typed next to Batman's finger. “General Rick Flagg? Wasn't he a part of that spooky NSA unit – “

    Batman nodded grimly. “Cadmus.”

    His fingers curled around the warm edge of his mug pensively, frowning. “Why would a guy like him be put in charge of a quarantine?”

    “Because it isn't a quarantine.”

    Jim stared at his long-time friend, studying his features. He looked more exhausted than he'd ever seen him. And given how bad he'd seen him in the past, that was saying something. “What is it, then?”

    Batman shook his head slowly, the motion unsure. Then, he turned suddenly, catching his gaze. “I came here to ask you to leave.”

    He spluttered into his mug. “What? Leave?”

    “Whatever they're planning to do isn't for Gotham's benefit.” Batman's eyes under those lenses, what he could see of them, were intense, imploring. “I can get you out, now, tonight. You'll be out of harm's way.”

    He floundered soundlessly for several seconds, trying to wrap his mind around what Batman was asking of him. Abandon Gotham? It went against everything he stood for, everything he fought against. “Batman, I appreciate you looking out for me, but I'm not gonna turn tail and run at the first sign of trouble.”

    Batman stepped forward and placed impossibly strong hands on his shoulders, visage under the mask showing more emotion than he probably felt comfortable with. “Jim, you need to come with me. I – “ his baritone faltered for a heartbeat, “ – don't know if I can stop them, this time.”

    The words hit Gordon like a fist to the gut. Batman never admitted uncertainty. Plunking the cup down on the counter, he placed his hand on the cloaked figure's elbow. “What's going on, son?”

    “I'll explain later.” When Jim frowned, because he knew damn well that he wouldn't, Batman added, “I promise.” He motioned to the wall-clock that read 11:58. “We need to leave quickly – the next patrol will arrive in a few minutes.”

    He sighed heavily, ignoring the voice that said he was a coward for running away in the night. If Batman said it was a good idea to leave, then it was a good idea to leave. He nodded. “Gimme a minute to grab a couple of things. Does Barbara know about any of this?”

    “Barbara's in Seattle with Tim, they should be safe there.” Batman made to walk out the back door, cape unfurling behind him. “I'll be waiting outside.”

    On impulse, he asked, “How is Tim, anyway?”

    The Dark Knight lurched to a halt. There was a moment of hesitation that stretched on forever. “Scarred,” he answered quietly, slipping through the back door.

    Jim ran a hand down his face, jogging into his bedroom. Some day this turned out to be. He yanked out an old ratty bag and hurriedly tossed in a change of clothes, his medication, a picture of Barbara, and his standard-issue gun with a spare clip of bullets. Taking one last look at the bedroom he'd lived in for over thirty-five years, he closed the door behind him. He stopped at the hallway closet, reaching for a pair of shoes, and gasped.

    Six bricks of plastique sat amiably at the floor of the small cubby, red light flashing ominously as the small digital clock ticked away to midnight.

    He dropped the shoes and dove into the kitchen, under the counter.

    ---

    Batman ascended the ladder of the Batwing apprehensively, unsure of just how he was going to fix this mess. He got Gordon out, but that wasn't going to –

    He was thrown roughly onto the wing of the plane with a surge of incredible heat as the thundering boom of an explosion rocked the ground beneath him. Shoving himself up, he twisted around to find the Gordon home engulfed in flames, pieces of mortar, brick, and drywall plummeting into the grass in a fiery wreck.

    Bruce's heart seized in horror. He launched himself from the hull of the craft and ran full tilt into the inferno, the next thirty seconds passing in a blur of adrenaline. He continued to silently berate himself as he dragged the barely conscious former Commissioner from the burning building, having removed his flame-retardant cape and all-but cocooning it around him. Idiot! Why did he leave him alone? Why didn't he think to check the premises earlier? Why didn't he assume that Ra's was targeting everyone that was close to him? Why didn't –

    “Barbara's in Seattle with Tim, they should be safe there – “

    His helped the miraculously unharmed man in his arms to a sitting position, stalwartly fighting back the bitterly cold, clammy tendrils of fear that began to snake through his veins. Dick's words to him the last time Jim Gordon was nearly killed due to his incompetence came screaming back to the forefront of his memory. He couldn't be everywhere. Especially not now.

    “Heh,” Jim chuckled weakly, rubbing at his mussed and singed white hair, “well, the coffee was good while it lasted.”

    Trust them, Superman said. He looked down at his unofficial working partner of twenty-five years before returning his gaze to the ruined, immolated Gordon home. His grip tightened without thought. He might not have a choice, now.


    To be continued...

    ***


    It's pretty bad when I write 11 pages of a story and feel like it's all filler. Feh. ; ; I'll get to more fun stuff next chapter, I promise! (I think. Yeah.)
     
    #62 SilverKnight, Jun 27, 2010
    Last edited by a moderator: Nov 10, 2012
  3. aiwac

    aiwac Member

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    Filler?! Hardly.

    The scenes with Bruce and Superman and Bruce and Jim are some of the best Batman scenes I've read or watched. Hell, I'm thinking of copy-pasting those scenes for posterity.

    I really like that you've avoided the "god-damn" Batman route. You have shown so effectively in this chapter why we love Batman - to quote Waller -

    "...behind that fierce exterior, I've never known anyone who cared as deeply about their fellow man as Bruce Wayne..."

    Keep up the good work (and looking forward to more of Blight...um Derek Powers...whom I actually like more than Ras [ducks tomatoes])
     
  4. Jadeling

    Jadeling Member

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    Adored the whole Batman/Superman conversation and banter. There is a reason why they're the World's Finest and why they're such good friends, even if Bruce will never say it to Clark's face.

    Awesome job!
     
  5. SilverKnight

    SilverKnight Sigh.

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    Bad news, guys -- my computer just went up in a big way. I managed to salvage my ficcy from the flaming wreckage, but my, er, financial situation prevents me from replacing it anytime in the near future. That means that, barring mooching off the good faith of friends with comps, this bad boy's gonna have to be put on hold for a while.

    :( Sorry.
     
  6. Jadeling

    Jadeling Member

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    Eeek! I'm sorry about the computer. I hope that you'll be able to find a replacement soon.
     
  7. SilverKnight

    SilverKnight Sigh.

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    Shayera laid on her old bed, in her old room, inside of Doctor Fate's Tower. She had told Inza that she was going to try and get some shut-eye while Fate was jabbering away with Nabu and the other Lords of Order. Thus far, in the nearly eight hours that crawled on by, she managed one fitful twenty minute slumber. She wanted to blame it on the situation – evil baddie, festering plague, the usual worries associated with saving the world, but she couldn't. No matter how many times she shifted on the mattress, flexing and bending her wings, flopping from her back, to her stomach, to her back, she just couldn't get comfortable. It didn't feel right laying alone, anymore.

    Damn it, she'd gone native.

    Thanagarians never indulged in useless pining. Sure, she loved her parents (Were they even still alive? Probably not.) and her parents loved her in return, but their society wasn't one of coddling. It was one of strength, of sacrifice and honor, of standing tall and proud on your own. There were heroes and officers designated to protect the populace from hostiles, but the populace was more than capable – and willing – to jump into the fray of any violent battle. No one ran away from a fight there. Humanity was...so completely opposite – they sheltered the weak and infirm along with the fit, reared the timid as well as the brave. She understood now, after being a part of their society for over a decade, that both methods of operating had their strengths and weaknesses. One weakness, of which, was poking incessantly at her ribcage.

    She missed laying next to John. She missed little Rex being snuggled in her arms, in spite of all the hell that toothless little sadist had put her through so far. She missed them even when, deep down, she felt she didn't deserve to miss them. This room, this tower, brought her back to the lowest point in her life – she'd never felt comfortable here, even when it was her only sanctuary on two worlds. Shayera would never be able to outrun those terrible memories; maybe one day, she'd get that absolution. Until then, though, her only hope was to spend the rest of her life atoning for the billions of lives she directly ruined.

    Hey, it was a goal to shoot for, at least.

    13.
    Mortal Coils

    The door opened with a muted whoosh of air. Shayera peered from her prone position, currently on her side, to see Inza standing with a displeased expression upon her face. Granted, the woman normally didn't smile much, but her features were unusually severe, even for her. She sat up. “Bad news?”

    Inza merely said, “Come with me.”

    Shayera stood, stretching her wings behind her, and followed silently through the winding stairwells and hallways of the mystical tower. Her thoughts quickly drifted to John and Rex, and more belatedly, to Alfred. The man was a miracle worker, no doubt, but Rex was a handful, and that beleaguered butler already had his own filled with Bruce – especially now. Briefly, she felt a stab of guilt for shoving more responsibility on him, and promised to make it up to him before this was all over. Help him with the chores, do some heavy lifting, maybe slap Bruce upside the head when he was being clearly obstinate. (With or without the mace depended upon Alfred's wishes, though she preferred 'with' greatly.)

    But then, she'd made a lot of promises before.

    She strode through the main study, with its bookcases spiraling up into infinity, as her eyes befell Doctor Fate. “So, Doc,” she began, all business, “what's the verdict?”

    His expression was impossible to gauge from the golden mask hiding his features, but she got the distinct impression he was disappointed. “I'm afraid that the Lords of Order cannot be of assistance.”

    She frowned. “Any particular reason why?”

    “When I explained the unique nature of the disease,” he explained solemnly, “Nabu said only that neither he nor the other Lords of Order could intervene.”

    Shayera crossed her arms, slightly annoyed at the response. “Well, I wasn't exactly expecting them to poof up a cure, but a little information would've helped.”

    “They have no information to give you.”

    The three occupants in the room turned suddenly, facing a tall, mysterious man clad in a long blue cape and matching fedora. Shayera loosed her mace from its loop on her side, gripping it dangerously. Fate laid a gloved hand on her tightly knotted forearm before she managed to close the distance between them. “Shayera, wait; stay your weapon. Phantom Stranger is an ally.”

    Glancing between the newcomer and Fate for a tense five seconds, Shayera begrudgingly acquiesced, eying the Stranger warily. “Next time, use the door.”

    The cloaked figure turned to Shayera, an unnatural shadow falling across his gaunt features that masked the top half of his face. “Time is short,” he said, deep voice eerily calm. “There's far more to this situation than is readily apparent.”

    Her right hand found her hip, while her left clasped the butt of her Nth metal mace. “What, a crazy eco-terrorist armed with a super-bug isn't enough?”

    His tone was disconcertingly soothing as he replied, “The disease is merely an instrument to achieve a much larger, more deadly goal.”

    Shayera gaped at him, green eyes alight with incredulity. “What could be more deadly than a plague?”

    His unseen gaze intensified under the inky shroud of darkness. “Many things,” he replied enigmatically. “I'm prevented from directly interfering with the current chain of events; I can, however, offer advice.”

    “Alright. Let's hear it.”

    He stepped forward, and she ignored the instinctive urge to back away – he exuded an aura that seemed to electrify the air around him, one of pure, undeniable power. “Ra's Al Ghul has long taken the natural fonts of energy that you call Lazarus Pits and abused them for his own ends. One such abuse may be responsible for this pestilence.” With a wave of his hand, an image sprang to life in front of her. Shimmering in it was a verdant, mountainous region, with pockets of white clouds bisecting the lush peaks, and a clear blue sky hanging above. “Do you recognize this area?”

    Shayera wracked her mind for any discerning features that she could spy from the elevated perspective. It was the type of view she was privy to when soaring the skies. She felt a momentary pang of regret, for what, she wasn't sure. After several moments, she shook her head in the negative. “It's some place that has a temperate climate, but that's it.”

    He stared down at her with dispassionate, pupilless white eyes. “Perhaps your husband might know the land better,” he stated. The image changed, dove down deep through the canopy and into the dense underbrush – there was that pang, again – and hovered easily in front of a dilapidated, but still miraculously standing step pyramid. Midway up the cracked structure was a tiny figure, dark against the slate gray of the stairwell.

    Her lips parted in a barely audible gasp. “John!” Her green eyes flared, pinning the Stranger in an openly distrustful glare. “What is this?”

    In response, he merely cocked his head to the side slightly. “This is Green Lantern, circa seven hours ago.”

    Fine red brows furrowed in momentary incomprehension as she muttered, “Seven hours ago? That would've put him in – “ Her eyes widened. “Copán!” Again, her features twisted in thought. “But he didn't find anything.”

    The image faded abruptly. “Puzzle pieces rarely make sense by themselves.”

    Shayera appraised Phantom Stranger intently. He was playing the mysterious card pretty hard, but it seemed as though Doctor Fate knew of him, even deferred to him. That meant seniority – or superiority. Superiority to one of, if not the, strongest sorcerer on Earth was bad news for somebody out there; she just hoped it wasn't for her and the rest of humanity.

    Yup. She'd gone native, alright. “What's your stake in this?”

    He appeared no taller than Batman, but somehow, he gave off the impression of towering over her with no effort at all. “My stake is the same as yours,” he said. “Preservation of life.”

    “So why haven't you bothered showing yourself to anyone until now?” she questioned.

    His answer was as deadpan as it was evasive. “There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Shayera Hol, than are dreamt of in your philosophies.”

    She snorted. “Y'know, you could save yourself a lot of breath by just saying, 'Don't ask.'” The faintest of smiles curled at the corner of his thin lips. Well, at least she finally got a reaction out of him.

    Her communicator tweeted. She pivoted away, pressing a finger to her ear. “Go ahead.” Pause. “Right; I'll debrief you when I arrive. Shayera out.” She turned to Fate. “I need to head back.”

    Fate tossed an arm out wide, a portal of light materializing in front of the trio. “This will take you directly to the Watchtower.”

    She nodded. “Thanks.” She made to leave, then paused to stare at the silent Stranger. “Aren't you coming?”

    He shook his head. “The warning has been given – your fates are now your own.”

    She grimaced as she strode confidently through the gleaming pathway of light. “Thanks for the support.”

    ---

    Batman surreptitiously watched Gordon stare down at the world that streaked below them from the pressurized cabin. He looked okay, but then, he looked okay when he was diagnosed with Stage-2 pancreatic cancer. Even as his body withered and shrunk from the chemotherapy and the treatments, he always looked like he was stronger for it. Like it was a test he was determined to pass. He wondered if Jim knew how much influence he'd had in the choosing of his doctors. “Hopefully, the engineers behind the explosion will assume that you're dead long enough for the trail to go cold.”

    Jim snorted quietly, and he couldn't blame him. It wasn't much of a silver lining, but any upside at this point was not to be ignored. “To be honest, I was expecting something like that to happen a little sooner.”

    Bruce shot him a look over his shoulder that was, for him, downright perplexed.

    Gordon cocked an eyebrow. “Don't look so surprised – in this line of work, if people aren't trying to kill you, you're not doing your job right.” He shrugged. “So, who is trying to kill me this time, anyway?”

    “Ra's Al Ghul.”

    “What?” Jim grunted, confused. “Him? Why?”

    “Because your...affiliation with me is well-publicized.” There was a momentary, clumsy pause before he added, “In short, he's trying to get to me through you.”

    Jim hummed quietly in understanding. “Good thing you were there, then.”

    “Good thing,” he halfheartedly agreed. He was being stretched too thin. He knew it. And if he knew it, that meant Ra's knew it, too. He couldn't protect Gotham, and Tim, and Barbara, and Lucius, and everyone else that ever had anything to do with him, while trying to find a cure for a virulent disease capable of wiping out humanity, while keeping one step ahead of an organized criminal element determined to make that a reality.

    He was only human.

    At that particular moment, that unfortunate limitation was met with nothing short of red-hot hatred. “J'onn. I need a favor.”

    “What is it?” He sounded aloof – good, John and Shayera wouldn't expect anything out of the ordinary.

    “Keep a mental link on Tim and Barbara for me,” he requested, glancing behind him. “There was an attempt on Jim Gordon's life tonight; I want to make sure Ra's Al Ghul isn't gunning for anyone else.”

    “And where will you be?”

    He felt, more than heard, the curiosity in his voice. He made a point of mentally swatting the Martian away. 'Get out of my head, J'onn.' “There's something I have to look into. The military has General Rick Flagg leading the operation in Gotham behind the scenes. If he's there, then Amanda Waller won't be far away.”

    “Do you believe Waller is behind the rally for martial law?”

    He harrumphed. “No, I'm certain that's entirely Commissioner Loeb's fault, but Waller would jump at the opportunity to regain credibility in higher circles with a successful mission here.”

    “What do you think she's planning?”

    “With her? Nothing good.” He was still there. Damn him. 'That isn't “out”.' “I'll contact you when I find out something more. Keep in touch. Batman out.”

    The connection only strengthened. He growled quietly, and sent the psychic equivalent of a Batglare across the link. “J'onn. Stop it. Now.”

    “Stop what, friend?”

    “Don't be coy,”he snapped. “You were – “ His thought-process ground to an instantaneous halt when he felt J'onn's presence lightly touch against his mind, like a warm, comforting hand on his shoulder, as he carefully finished, '...Reading my mind?'

    He felt the Martian's confusion and his curiosity. It was different than before. Warning bells sounded, loud and baleful. “I was not. You seemed preoccupied with personal matters; I wouldn't have intruded.”

    “I know,” he replied distractedly, withdrawing to tentatively feel out the ends of his consciousness to search for...

    'There!' He snagged the connection in the grasp of his iron-wrought will and severed it violently. Despite himself, a startled gasp of pain hissed through his clenched teeth.

    Gordon's head shot up. “You alright?”

    “I'm fine,” he huffed, exhaling smoothly and silently to dull the warm throb nestled in the back of his skull. It felt like the mental equivalent of someone yanking a chunk of hair out of his head.

    J'onn blinked across the link, as bewildered about the situation as he was. 'What was that?'

    'Our mole,'
    he answered, eyes flashing. 'Could you trace where that came from?'

    'I'm afraid not. I didn't know there was another presence in your mind until you forcibly removed it.'

    His skin crawled beneath the thick weave of his suit. If someone had been secretly tracking all of his movements... 'How many telepaths are you aware of?'

    'Dozens,'
    came the reply, 'but none that are powerful enough to shield themselves from me.'

    'How powerful would they have to be to pick information from my mind?'
    he questioned.

    'That is not easy information to discuss,' J'onn stated.

    'This is important, J'onn; your personal comfort level will have to take a backseat.' Besides, he added to himself, he'd apparently had someone riding shotgun in his brain for God only knew how long. He was rewarded with a small mental snort, and he reminded himself that J'onn was still on the proverbial line. 'Well?'

    'An average mind is of no consequence to interpret,'
    the Martian disclosed, sounding nearly scandalized for it. 'But your mind is...significantly more complex to navigate.' He couldn't stop himself from feeling proud of that. 'You have all the markings of a telepath.'

    'So, we have on our hands an incredibly strong rogue telepath that, presumably, now knows everything that I know.'
    He knew it – he was a liability. Pinching the bridge of his nose, he muttered, “Great.”

    “Cadmus dealt heavily with the training of telepaths and other metahumans,” J'onn offered. “Someone this powerful would not have missed Waller's eye.”

    “No, they wouldn't have,” Batman agreed forbiddingly. “I think it's past time that Ms. Waller receives some attention.”

    ---

    The twittering of her communicator dragged Diana out of a heavy, if troubled, slumber. Opening her eyes with effort, her right hand slapped against the nearby metal bedrest, fingers curling over the ovular device. One eyelid shut without her consent as she plugged the com into her ear canal. “Wonder Woman here.” She was inwardly amazed at how cognitive she sounded, because Hera knew, she certainly didn't feel it.

    “Princess. A word.”

    Princess. She hadn't heard that from him in four years, now. From anyone else, it was a formality; an honorific with no real significance. From Batman, it was...a caress. Four years, and she still turned to putty from the most insignificant things he did. Some Champion of the Amazons she was. “What is it?”

    “Watch Nightwing.”

    Her fore and middle finger massaged her closed eye. She could juggle tanks, but she couldn't hold up an eyelid. She frowned, asking, “For what?”

    “To make sure that he doesn't exacerbate the process and wind up doing the disease's work for it.”

    She blinked in confusion, which turned out to be the wrong idea, because the right eyelid succumbed to narcolepsy again after two seconds of movement. “I thought you told him to rest.”

    “I have him researching something for me.”

    Her slowly kneaded the flesh along the bridge of her nose with her fingertips. “Bruce – “

    “He asked if he could help. Right now, I could use it.”

    “What does that have to...” Diana stiffened in the relative comfort of her bed, her ordinarily sharp mind catching his words later than it should have. Grabbing the linen sheet and tugging it from her bare legs, she planted her feet on the cold metal floor. “You're worried no one will be there if something happens.”

    “His vitals are wired into everything I have,” he riposted clinically. “If something does happen, I'll know it before he does.”

    Shaking her head, the six-foot-tall Amazon stood and headed for her stored armor. Why did he have to make everything so difficult? His self-assured posturing wasn't fooling her. “Why do you need me, then?”

    I don't. He will.”

    She rolled her cobalt blue eyes skyward. Obstinate man. “With research? I doubt I could help him with that.”

    “You being there will help him.” Her hands stilled along the tiara for a moment. Her first instinct was to feel humility and gratitude for being trusted with his son's health, but knowing Bruce, there was... “There's evidence that the disease reacts based on psychological state. Looking into Project Cadmus may be ultimately dangerous for his health without a positive counterbalance.”

    ...Always a logical excuse. She pressed the golden crown against her brow, letting the latent power of Athena's armor seep into her tanned skin. “And you think I could change that?”

    “I know you would.” Without the hard edge to it, his voice was soulful; warm and compassionate. He probably hated it. “Will you go?”

    By Hera, this man could yo-yo from one extreme to the other at the drop of a hat. How could she possibly say no? She nodded in the darkness. “Yes, I'll go, but I'm on-call. I can't guarantee how long I can stay.”

    “For as long as you can, Princess. That's all I ask.”

    She sighed and bowed her head. A little over twenty-four hours ago, this was precisely what she wanted – him reaching out to her for help. It seemed oddly bittersweet, now. She wanted to offer words of encouragement, some consolation, but it sounded hollow even in her own mind, let alone from her lips. She would spare him the indignity of incidental pity. “I'll keep you updated.”

    The link closed silently. She shook her head. “You're welcome.”

    ---

    Dying of a contagious disease sucked. There was really no other way to say it.

    Dick wound his arms straight above, palms pressed together, and let his chin droop to his chest. Breathing in deeply, he slowly rolled his head along his shoulders, letting gravity stretch the muscles and relieve the joints of unnatural pressure. He was hoping that it would do something about the now steady thrum of prickling pain, like a thousand pissed off fire ants burrowing under his skin, but the only thing the momentary stretch achieved was a satisfying pop of his spine realigning itself. Sighing in relief, he let his arms fall limp to his side, just in time to spot the chem-door slide shut.

    He folded down the laptop balanced on his knees as he brought a curious gaze to his visitor. “What are you doing here?”

    Wonder Woman smiled warmly, pushing back a loose strand of hair behind her ear. “You looked lonely. I thought you could use the company.”

    Wow, she was a really terrible liar, wasn't she? “No offense, Princess, but I haven't gotten many visitors in here. Sure, Flash came by a little earlier with some food, but it turns out you can't fit three boxes of pizza into this little...” He waved his hand to the safety chamber jutting into his containment unit. “...Airlock doorway thing. That's the technical term for it, y'know.” Dick flashed her a million-dollar grin. “So, what really brings you here? I'm assuming it's Bruce, because you haven't taken your eyes off of me since you walked in, and you're standing equidistant from both the emergency call button and the cell door.”

    “You may not be a member of the Justice League, but you are a valued ally,” she responded plainly. “Is it wrong to be cautious?”

    He pursed his lips. “No, but if this were your idea – “ He pointed nonchalantly to her still-raised hand near her head, “ – you wouldn't keep tucking your hair behind your right ear, which is where your League communicator is.”

    Diana blinked and peered at her treacherous hand, before she rested it against her hip with an appreciative nod of her head. “Batman really did train you well.”

    He shrugged, waving the compliment off. “I just know how he thinks.” He reopened the laptop and scanned another report, the pale blue glow of the monitor distorting the shadows along his gaunt features. “He's worried about me.”

    She rolled the nearby computer chair to where she stood, sitting down primly. “In his defense, he has good reason to be. How are you feeling?”

    He took a deep breath, and stopped halfway through from a line of fire that ran along his ribs. He regarded her amiably, if honestly. “On a scale of one to ten? Like crap.” He returned his attention to the screen, his fingers clattering against the keys. “But don't tell Bruce that.”

    “Tell me what?”

    He knew that was coming. Closing his eyes in momentary annoyance, he answered, “That Wonder Woman decided to stop by and chat. Want to say hi?”

    “I have her communicator frequency if I need to contact her.”

    “I bet you do.”

    “What do you have for me?”

    “I'm fine, thanks for asking.” Biting back a sigh, he brought up yet another screen, rubbing at his pounding temples. The words were beginning to blur in time with the pulsing in his head. “I've been pouring over all of these confiscated Cadmus files. I can't believe what they got away with – cloning, genetic mutation, blackmail...this stuff is all sorts of illegal. I thought the government wasn't supposed to be above the law.”

    “Normal people aren't supposed to be above the law, either,” Batman rebuffed. “Find anything about telepaths?”

    “Yeah, lots, but none of it's relevant. Nearly all of the subjects died before testing was complete.” Nightwing scoffed lowly, shaking his head. “Those poor people; they probably thought they were getting treated, not weaponized.”

    “Did anyone besides Ace survive the testing?” Bruce grated through the communicator.

    “The records aren't complete,” he mused, hand in his chin, stark blue eyes hard with concentration, “but it looks like there might be one roaming around.”

    “Who?”

    He hummed, shifting to raise one knee and drape his arm over it. “That's funny, this one doesn't have a given name, just a number – 993271-B. His aptitude screenings are off the charts.”

    “Stronger than Ace?”

    He wove his fingers through his thick black hair, fingertips massaging the base of his skull. “Tell me which one's Ace out of these hundred of so different files, and – “

    “Forget it.” Hmph, touchier than usual. He made a mental note to do more research specifically on 'Ace' later. “Do you have any other information on him? Height, weight, anything?”

    “I have age, that's it. They went to a lot of trouble to hide this one.” That struck him as incredibly odd.

    Evidently, Wonder Woman agreed with his assessment. “Cadmus documented everything down to the most minute detail. Why would they bend the rules for this one?”

    “We'll find that out later. For now, age.”

    Nightwing scrolled down, wiping a hand over his bloodshot eyes. “According to this 'Initial Aptitude Testing' sheet, he's listed as...eleven.” The young vigilante leaned back on his bed, feeling he wanted to collapse on its starched sheets and never move. Eleven. By the time he was eleven, he was on the streets as Robin, kicking butt with the big guy himself. He wondered why he wasn't furious with Bruce for bringing him into this kind of life at such an early age – strictly speaking, Bruce's actions were morally and ethically dubious at best, and outright criminal at...slightly less than best. But he'd been young, and heartbroken, and angry; and Bruce had been so kind to him in his time of need...

    Heh. Go figure, right?

    “Those papers were for new subjects. When was it dated?”

    “May of 2003,” he responded. “So, that would make him – what? – sixteen, now? Seventeen?”

    “Around Ace's age.” There was a nebulous, inarticulate sadness floating amidst the static that pricked at Dick's ears. Oh yeah, he was definitely checking out this Ace character. “And possibly working for Ra's Al Ghul.”

    “Not exactly a step up in terms of employment,” he remarked with a small groan as a wave of warm, sharp pain rolled across his body.

    The line went silent for the length of three incredibly loud heartbeats (it felt like he ran a marathon) before Batman's stern voice cut in, “Did you find anything in your lab tests?”

    The throbbing subsided momentarily, and he relaxed his muscles gratefully. He reiterated to himself, and to any telepath or deity that was tuning in, that dying sucked. “Nada so far. Any theories on where this goop came from?”

    “I'm working on that,” he explained. “J'onn, Green Lantern, and Shayera have gone back to the Copán site to see if they can gather more clues.”

    Dick tossed Diana a curious glance, trying to gauge her reaction on the decision, but to his joined disappointment and approval, he realized that her poker face was almost as good as Bruce's. He must have given her lessons. “But I thought the Lantern didn't find anything.”

    “Lantern found plenty. He said that the Lazarus Pit he was held over melted his chains when they came in contact with it.” He stopped reading the reports, furrowing his brows in confusion. “Last I checked, steel isn't a living creature. It must have been modified, somehow.” White noise buzzed awkwardly. Have your symptoms progressed any?”

    He put on a good face – well, voice – for his former mentor. The man had more than enough on his plate. Sure, half of it was his own fault, but he wasn't about to pile his own crap on top of the mound. “No, not really,” he lied, staring at the diseased patch of skin that continued to crawl across his flesh. Before it had looked like leopard print; now, it was a solid black stain that nearly looped his entire forearm. He shuddered to think what the rest of his body looked like. “Whatever you gave me seems to be doing the trick for now. Hopefully, it stays that way.”

    He knew Bruce didn't buy it – not for one second. But it gave him a plausible, if momentary, out from the situation. Given the type of world ker-boom things going on, it was probably the only one he was going to get any time soon. “It buys you time, at least. We'll have a better game-plan once they get back from Honduras with that sample.”

    “If this modified pit eats through stuff, how do you expect them to contain it long enough to get and analyze a sample?”

    “A Green Lantern bubble is impervious to everything.”

    He blinked, unsure. “Everything? Are you sure?”

    “Ninety-nine percent sure.”

    Dread tingled down his slightly-deadened nerves. All of a sudden, he had a very strong urge to call Tim and make sure he was alright. He hadn't been giving the little squirt his due time lately. Funny, he'd always harped on Bruce for never being there when he felt it counted, and where was he during Tim's abduction? Off-world, on a glorified babysitting job. God. Kory had felt so guilty, she swore she'd never ask for his help on an off-world mission again. He didn't turn the offer down. “That's what I'm afraid of.”

    Diana appraised him, openly trying to discern his words. Bruce just remained stoically silent. He sighed. “Is there anything else I should be looking for?”

    “I'll call you when I've been updated. Until then, don't overwork yourself.”

    A dry, sardonic chuckle bubbled up from Dick's throat without really meaning it to. He could practically feel the temperature drop from the glare Batman was giving through the communicator. “I mean it. Bedrest.”

    He wanted to reply with his usual brand of snark and witty repartee, when his tearing up eyes caught an update on the current hacked page that hadn't been there moments ago. Leaning forward to inspect more closely, he hovered the mouse over the link and clicked. He proceeded to go ramrod straight on the bed, fists clenched at his side. “Oh, man.”

    Both Wonder Woman and Batman questioned simultaneously, “What is it?”

    “Something just came down the horn from the Defense Department involving Waller,” he reported, attention glued to the screen.

    “What did you find?”

    “Trust me,” Dick huffed, light blue eyes flickering up to Diana's with barely concealed concern as he waved her over, “you're gonna want to see this for yourself.”

    ---

    Several hundred miles below the floating satellite, soaring at Mach 3 over Newfoundland, Batman temporarily engaged the bat-shaped fighter jet's auto-pilot as the monitor downloaded the document.

    Three-thousand miles away from him, soaring through the canopy of a Honduras jungle, J'onn was suddenly rattled by a vehement wave of murderous rage echoing through his mind. Pressing the fingers of his right hand against his temple, he temporarily severed the connection between himself and Batman. He could only imagine the litany of rarely-used obscenities that were currently churning in the Dark Knight's psyche, and came to the conclusion that he really didn't want to be there to hear them.

    John slowed briefly, twisting in the still-humid midnight air to give his friend a once-over. “J'onn? Are you okay?”

    “I am,” he said with a nod, “but Amanda Waller may not be.”


    To be continued...
     
    #67 SilverKnight, Aug 7, 2010
    Last edited by a moderator: Nov 10, 2012
  8. SilverKnight

    SilverKnight Sigh.

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    Amanda Waller rubbed at her eyes, trudging up the steps to her townhouse in northern Washington, D.C. – her home away from home. It had been an exceptionally long night in a string of long nights. First, she'd been assigned to squeeze her resources to find out more about the disease decimating southern Asia, its risk for outbreak in the United States, and were that to happen, how badly it would affect the already-floundering economy. Good old Washington, she thought bitterly, always about the bottom line.

    Her life had gone to Hell when reports of the Leopard Fever in Gotham spread like wildfire. On the plus side, the ensuing state of emergency thrust her back into a position of power, despite their current dislike of her. Frankly, she didn't much give a damn about their personal opinions, so long as they shut up and let her do what needed to be done to ensure the safety of hundreds of millions of Americans. Sometimes, what needed to be done was...less than tasteful, but they were generals, for God's sake; they understood the concept of collateral damage.

    Flagg had wanted to meet with her in Gotham, but she nixed his request instantly – that was Batman's backyard, and knowing him, he'd already learned of their involvement in the military operation, if not their intentions. Instead, they'd met at a neutral location in New York to discuss their options. Currently, those options were grim at best. With no cure for the Fever in sight, and the knowledge that it was purposely disseminated, the loss of life was going to be astronomical regardless of whatever solution they found. There were times she hated this job. She massaged her eyes again, unlocking the front door. Sucking in a weary breath, Amanda closed the door with the heel of her shoe as she sightlessly tossed her keys toward the small mail basket resting against the far wall.

    They jingled lightly in the air for two seconds, before the sound was cut short abruptly. Her head whipped around. A pair of white eyes glowered back at her, her keys held firmly in an outstretched, gloved fist.

    She released her breath in a sigh, unsurprised by his arrival. 'And so, the territorial Alpha arrives to stake his claim.'

    14.
    The Prince

    She flicked on a nearby table lamp, tugging off her thin jacket. “I was wondering when you would pay a visit,” she started amiably, opening a nearby closet and grabbing a wire hanger. She placed the coat on it as she motioned with her head to a chair. “Care to sit down? You must be tired.”

    “My god, Waller,” Batman growled, “you've outdone yourself this time.” The keys fell to the antique end-table beside him with a sharp clanking of metal. “Requesting clearance for the use of nuclear ordinance? On my city? You could pretend that it was a difficult decision.”

    She hung up her jacket, closing the off-white sliding door. “It was.”

    Bulls**t.”

    That made Waller turn. In all her dealings with him, some of which were far more tense than this, she'd never heard him swear. She still considered the League a possible menace – too much power, too little accountability – but of all the juggernauts within its ranks, she thought Batman was easily the most dangerous. She firmly believed that he was the single smartest, most resourceful and committed creature God had ever put on this Earth. If he truly wanted, he could take this entire world for his own, and not a single soul would be capable of stopping him. That was not a power to be trifled with, and from all current accounts, trifling was precisely what Ra's Al Ghul was doing to him. That worried her more than she cared to admit.

    She straightened her back, ignoring the kinks, and closed the distance. In two inch heels, she was still eleven inches shorter than him. “Contrary to popular belief, Batman, I don't enjoy making these kinds of decisions,” she said, her expression austere, but not without a measure of compassion for his obvious plight. She stiffened her shoulders. “But unlike superheroes, I don't have the luxury of cherry-picking which city I'd like to protect.”

    His exposed jawline rolled in fury. “You're slaughtering millions for no reason.”

    “It wouldn't be for no reason,” Amanda responded, crossing her hands in front of her. “As you know, there's no vaccination for Leopard Fever, and the creation of one in the near future doesn't look likely. If left untouched, Gotham will become a breeding ground for the plague, and within a matter of weeks, if not days, containment will break and it will spread to neighboring cities.”

    “Destroying Gotham won't stop anything,” Batman rebuked.

    “It wouldn't,” she agreed, “but it would slow the spread down; long enough for the boys in the CDC to whip up a vaccine.”

    His eyes became angry slits. “The city was purposely infected from an outside source. It doesn't matter what you do – Ra's Al Ghul has every city in his sights. Gotham was just the first.”

    She grimaced, turned, and started toward the nearby walk-in kitchen. “I realize that.”

    “Do you.” The derision in his baritone was palpable.

    “I do.” She reached for a small teacup. “I also realize that leaving a dead limb attached can kill an otherwise healthy body.”

    He followed her into the mini-room, his bulk blocking the exit almost entirely – though, that description didn't really fit him. He was...large, larger than life. “This isn't a case of gangrene, Waller – these are the lives of ten million people we're talking about. Lives you're forfeiting.”

    She tossed him a glance past her blue-clad shoulder. “As far as the Joint Chiefs are concerned, they're already dead.”

    He blinked, as if he didn't comprehend her words at first. It was strange, really, seeing that split-second of absolute cluelessness cross his normally rigid, commanding features. The momentary lapse into stunned silence was made up for an emphatic, “Are you insane?”

    “On the contrary,” she retorted, “I have full control of my faculties.” She handled the antique china teapot with care, fingers running over the faded flower-print along the ivory sides. “Why do you think I sent the request through the proper channels instead of just using my cell phone to call the President?”

    He decoded her statement perfectly, as she knew he would. “You were getting my attention.”

    Waller felt the corner of her lip twitch up. “Not quite as easy to spot as a Batsignal, I'll grant, but it got the job done.” A thin trail of steam wafted from the pot as it filled with hot water. “I wanted to give you fair warning that we're both officially on-the-clock – a highly-toxic, highly-contagious virus has been introduced on American soil, and the government must act in the best interest of everyone, not just the unfortunate few.”

    The heartbeat of silence that followed was absolutely deafening. “Tell that to the 'few'.”

    She frowned, suddenly feeling every ache deep in her bones. “I don't like the thought of it, either. Believe me. Those are American citizens up there, and they're in dire need of aid. I would like to extend that aid in any way that I can.” She sighed, sliding the teapot onto burner and setting it. “But, what I like is irrelevant to the reality of the situation. We're facing a pandemic of Black Plague proportions – and worse, it was intentionally cultivated as a weapon for a known terrorist network that the Defense Department has been trying to crack for almost thirty years.” Her frown deepened. “Our latest attempt was found somewhere off the coast of Guam. In pieces.”

    She shifted, opening a cupboard door and straining to reach the small box of chamomile that had somehow gotten shoved all the way into the back of the pantry. Her fingertips brushed the corner of it, before the box skittered away from her. Gritting her teeth, she leveraged further on the counter to grab it. “And if he managed to slip something like this past you – “

    Her breath hitched when she felt his right hand on her wrist (his hold was surprisingly gentle) as he reached his left into the cubby. He looked down at her, looming ominously, visage hard and unreadable. It occurred to her, then, that she was trapped in a small enclave of a sound-proofed building by a highly-skilled vigilante who saw her as a direct threat to the safety and security of his beloved city. He could strike her down now, effectively stopping that nuke before it got off the ground, and she would have no means at all with which to defend herself. She would've taken the shot without hesitation.

    Instead, he held out the tea container for her to take. “There are other ways, Waller,” he reasoned, his voice quiet; soothing, almost. “You know that, or you wouldn't have had me come here.”

    “You're right.” Amanda plucked the box from his grip and set it down on the counter. “Let's hear them.”

    “I have a lead on the plague and Ra's Al Ghul's whereabouts,” he explained. “If you want an antigen, Waller, I can give you one – but I'll need time to make it.”

    “Time is a commodity that no one can afford right now,” she declared softly. “Going through official channels was the best I could do without arousing suspicion.” His expression darkened. Her mood soured. “If I don't do the job, they'll replace me with someone who will – I'm affording you every opportunity I can find.”

    He appraised her silently for a moment. “How long before your bosses give you the go-ahead on the nuke?”

    She answered out of rote, “That's classified.”

    She found herself backing into the counter, the sharp edge digging painfully into her ribs, when Batman leaned down over her, his bulk stifling her with an air of impatience. The ability to shift his demeanor at a pin-drop was dizzying. She recognized that violating her personal space was a means of putting her on edge. Unfortunately for her, it was working pretty damned well, too. “I'll get the information one way or another,” he assured in a deadly hiss. “But every minute I waste hacking government files could be time spent on working up an antidote.”

    She detected a small whiff of iron and copper mingled with something distinctly sharp. “Don't threaten me,” she ordered, channeling her shock into outrage, and that outrage into fighting spirit. She glared up at him, poking a well-manicured index finger into his chest. The material of his cape was both rough and smooth. She wasn't sure why that intrigued her. “You want to save your city? Then give me real options. I don't want to drop a nuke on US soil anymore than you want to see it dropped, but I won't needlessly endanger the lives of three-hundred million people on the prayer of an antidote. I'll do what has to be done.”

    “What has be done,” he repeated with disdain, voice whip-tight. “Do you really think that the rest of the world isn't going to notice Gotham going up in a mushroom cloud? What if you miss? One single infected person survives, and ten million people will have died for nothing,” he seethed. “They're already dying for nothing.” He scowled, a gesture of churning, boiling rage that would flay the flesh from her bones, were it a corporeal object and not the psychological by-product of his repressed emotional state.

    On cue, the teapot whistled, steam jettisoning from the spout in a hot rush.

    'Don't I know it,' she thought despondently.

    “I need time, Waller,” Batman emphasized. “How long do I have?”

    Though he certainly didn't believe it, what she said was true – she didn't want to become a mass-murderer of the very citizens she was hired to protect. If anyone could find a solution, it was Batman. She'd have to trust him. Amanda sighed, backing down. “Twenty-four hours,” she answered tiredly. “I can stall them, maybe buy you another day, at most. That's all I can give you.” Again, her eyes met his fearlessly, unwilling to be truly cowed by anyone, even the great Dark Knight Detective. “After that, we go our own ways.”

    He removed himself from her personal space, the rush of cold air causing goosebumps to prickle her skin beneath her dress jacket. “If it comes to that,” he warned, “you know I'll stop you.”

    She nodded. “You do what you have to do, and I'll do what I have to.”

    He gave no outward reaction, whatever anger she saw a scant few seconds prior vanishing beneath that rough-smooth black cloak that smelled faintly of blood and sweat. For his sake, if not for the sake of humanity itself, she only hoped that she wouldn't have to live up to her own bold words. She pivoted to grab a small pouch of tea from the box, slowly dipping it into the hot water. “Would you like some – “

    He was gone. Of course he was gone. “Good luck.”

    ---

    The four descended into the underground stronghold cautiously. “If there are Society of Shadows members here, they'll likely already know that we've arrived and will be planning accordingly,” Talia said, unholstering her gun defensively as she carefully scanned the walls and ceiling for any hidden threats. “We must move quickly.”

    In silent agreement with her assessment, they hastily made their way down the single long corridor that stretched before them. Green Lantern pointed to the hallway on their left at the intersection. “I came from that hallway over there.”

    Shayera's piercing green eyes wandered to the hallway opposite of John's hand, noting that it had no doorways or adjoined corridors that she could see. “Hey, what's down this hallway?”

    John shrugged, waiting for her to join the others. “I wasn't really looking at the décor as I was leaving.”

    Her full lips twisted in annoyance, jerking her head toward the oddly barren hall. “Who builds a dead-end hallway with no rooms in a secret underground stronghold?” Without waiting for a response, she glided down the passageway, knowing that the rest would come along, if only to sate their own curiosity or prove her wrong.

    Several seconds later, her yellow boots touched down on the grimy concrete floor lightly, the slate gray wall standing imposingly in front of her, twelve feet across and ten feet tall. Slipping her mace into her belt loop, she strode forward and pressed her hands firmly against the cold stone. Talia watched the display with impatience. “I've seen the blueprints for this compound; there is no doorway here. I would know.”

    John stared at her coolly. “You didn't know your father was making a plague – what else don't you know?”

    Her icy blue eyes hardened, but whatever riposte she was preparing was cut off by a triumphant Shayera declaring, “Wait – there is a passage.” She glanced over her shoulder quickly, her fingers splayed oddly against the natural grooves of the rock. “I can feel it in the walls.”

    She stepped aside as John carefully ran a wide beam across the pitted stone wall, the hidden door turning luminescent green underneath its scrutiny. “She's right. J'onn?”

    He nodded, his form fading through the doorway. Moments later, the walls churned and rattled as the false wall slid back to reveal a dimly lit, sterile metal corridor that seemed never-ending. Shayera glanced distrustfully at the door when her feathers brushed against the frame, muttering, “It just isn't a secret base without an extra-secret lair that nobody knows about.”

    J'onn queried, “What about the tainted pit?”

    “It's not going anywhere,” John answered. “This might be something important.”

    “Or it might be another trap.”

    The once-Hawkgirl graced them with a wolfish grin. “In a place like this? It goes without saying.”

    “Long walk,” John said with a frown as he spied the hallway stretching on into what looked like forever. “How far do you think it goes?”

    “One way to find out,” Shayera replied as she slipped her arms under Talia's, who gasped in surprise, before they both took off at breakneck speed.

    J'onn curled his lips slightly. “She's decisive.”

    “She's impatient.” His ring lit up, coating himself in energy. “She could get us all killed.”

    They both shot forward to catch up to the Thanagarian. “It's good to see that your working relationship is still as abrasive as ever.”

    “I'm not the abrasive one,” John muttered.

    J'onn smiled and passed him. “Of course not.”

    ---

    Diana sat on the computer chair, her attention switching from Nightwing, to his vitals, and back. Disliking the feeling of helplessness that was beginning to creep into her veins, she stood and went to an adjacent computer terminal. Her fingers easily danced over the keys as she typed out the name, 'Robin'. Entering her security clearance as prompted, the monitor flashed momentarily, as if debating whether or not it thought her trustworthy (whether or not Batman thought her trustworthy), and eventually, relented. Fascinated, she watched and read what scrolled up in front of her.

    Accessing...............

    [Robin I]
    Name: Grayson, Richard
    DoB: March 8, 1978
    Bloodtype: O-
    Current Status: Active (Alias:
    Nightwing)
    First appearance: May 9, 1988
    Last appearance: June 2, 2000
    Abilities: Master in various forms of hand-to-hand and armed combat; prefers unarmed martial arts, but will use any item available to adapt as a weapon, if need be. Well-versed in fields such as criminology, psychology, forensics, ballistics, toxicology, chemistry, physics, and escapology, and is a master of disguise. Highly-keen sense of observation and deductive reasoning. Displays natural leadership, diplomacy, and teamwork skills; often able to rally the assistance of otherwise-unwilling participants.
    Threat level:
    Omega-1

    Nightwing as an Omega-1 threat? That rating was saved for the likes of Superman, J'onn, and herself. Certainly, he would be dangerous if he went rogue, but...

    Additional notes: Has superior fighting prowess, and equal-to-superior detective skills to Batman; is also an unparalleled acrobat.

    She started, gaping at the screen to make sure she'd read it correctly. Did Bruce actually write that Dick Grayson was a better Batman than Batman? That showed a tremendous amount of respect for him; Batman was nothing if not painfully, brutally, cruelly honest in his analytical assessment of his teammates. Frankly, the statement disturbed her slightly. She continued on.

    Has memorized counter-measures for each of the seven core members of the Justice League, with tertiary-to-detailed knowledge of takedown methods for every other standing member on the roster. Has one hell of a right hook.

    The last line made her lips twitch in surprised humor as she glanced over her shoulder. No wonder Bruce's file on him was so glowing; it took strength to stand up to one's mentor. The ghost of a smile fell. Or, perhaps, it only took incredible frustration. Her gaze washed over the young man who slumbered fitfully, hissing and grunting in pain every few moments from the disease that was eating him – and in turn, Bruce – alive from the inside out. There had to be something she could do.

    The air chilled abruptly, her nose catching the minor scent of ozone. Whirling around, she came face-to-face with a mysterious figure cloaked in blue. She immediately dropped into a defensive stance, guarding the unit door protectively. “Who are you? How did you get in here?”

    The visitor raised a single gloved hand, hidden features stoic. “Fear not, Diana of Themyscira, I mean you no harm.” The hand briefly touched the circular golden crest on his chest. “I am called Phantom Stranger.”

    Warily, she evaluated him, making note of his height, weight, and build; quickly doing the math on how much force she would have to exert to break every bone in his body, if the need arose. She was tasked to guard Batman's son, and she would not fail him – either of them. “You were the one that talked to Shayera.”

    He nodded. “I am.”

    Her eyes remained distrusting. “You told her you couldn't help us directly.”

    “I can't.”

    “Then why are you here?” Diana demanded.

    “To help indirectly.”

    His voice was familiar, somehow; it calmed her in ways she didn't fully understand or trust. She relaxed her stance slightly, chin lifted regally. “With what?”

    A pair of unnerving white eyes met hers. “Saving Batman's soul.”


    To be continued...

    ***

    Rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated. About the obscene delay -- on top of my comp dying (Which I finally got back! Yay! >huggles GS<), I also moved back in with my parents to take care of a fairly ailing relative. So, unfortunately, I can't chill and write as much as I used to. Sorry. :(

    Over 9000 words in these two chapters, and it still kinda feels like filler to me. >< Ah well. I hope you guys appreciate the sorta-but-not-really subtle references to Warcraft III in here, since you mentioned it. On another note, watching Waller talk in Epilogue drew me to the conclusion that she had a total thing for Batman, and was kind of an unstable whackjob. Ruthless as hell, but was absolutely convinced she was doing the right thing. She's a hell of a lot of fun to write.

    Hope you enjoy. ^^
     
    #68 SilverKnight, Aug 7, 2010
    Last edited by a moderator: Nov 10, 2012
  9. SilverKnight

    SilverKnight Sigh.

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    Wonder Woman stared evenly at Phantom Stranger, unwilling to remove herself from blocking the containment unit. Her body language, at first glance, was one of acceptance, but the hand that remained poised inches from her mystical lasso belied the wariness of a veteran warrior and skilled tactician. Her innate concern for Bruce and his loved ones only heightened her desire to protect them.

    Of course, Stranger's words to her didn't help, either. “You have known Batman for quite some time. You've seen the change in him, and it worries you.”

    Her gaze hardened. “Suppose that's true – why is Batman's health any concern of yours?”

    “My concern lies with all of humanity,” he stated. “Batman will be vital in ensuring your victory against Ra's Al Ghul's machinations.”

    “You see the future,” she declared.

    “I see many possible futures,” he corrected evenly. “All of the best outcomes have one common denominator – Batman plays an integral part in each of them.”

    She stilled her fingers before they could twitch towards her lasso. “What does all of this have to do with me?”

    “You and Superman are the two outsiders he trusts the most. He will need you both.” Diana quietly fumed at the label 'outsider' while his attention turned to the golden twine looped at her side. “You can verify my claims with your lasso, if you wish.”

    Her hand moved instinctively to her side to do just that as she regarded the mysterious figure in front of her, but stopped shy of unwinding the cord for use. There was something about his words that struck a chord within her. She wasn't clairvoyant, but it was plain to see how important Batman was to solving this crisis – how important he was to his friends and family. If anything went wrong...

    The Stranger tilted his head slightly. “You care for him deeply.”

    She couldn't help but briefly glance behind her. “So do many others. Why come to me?”

    Phantom Stranger took two long steps forward, stopping within arm's reach of her. What she could make out of his expression was...almost warm. “No one can ignore you, Diana. Especially not Batman.”

    She nearly snorted. As it was, a fine eyebrow shot up in acerbic amusement. “What do you call the last four years, then?”

    “Fear.”

    15.
    Sors Salutis

    Diana paused, letting his words sink in. In her heart of hearts, she knew he was right, but to hear it spoken aloud so bluntly never the less sat poorly with her. Her first knee-jerk reaction was to defend Batman's actions against this stranger, because he wasn't fit to accuse such a fearsome warrior with such an ugly term. But the truth was, unfortunately, rarely pretty, and she tempered the urge to retaliate with Athena's granted wisdom. “What do you propose I do?”

    “Fight him.”

    “Fight him? How will that help?”

    “Batman is losing his way,” he said matter-of-factly. “He needs someone to keep him on the right path – someone who is willing to stand up to him, that he can't drive away.”

    “Someone like me.” A curt nod. “What about Superman?”

    “He has a different role to play in all of this.”

    Annoyance tightened her features, her royal upbringing and Amazon heritage sharing a common hatred of dancing around a subject. “It's clear you know what the most likely outcome is, so why not simply tell me?”

    “I'm forbidden to.”

    Her hand gripped the lasso firmly. “I can make you tell me.”

    “You wish to divine the future?” He raised his left hand, the material of the glove such a stark white that it appeared luminescent, and gently pressed a long, steady finger to the center of her forehead. The warmth and brightness saturated her, levity tinging down her limbs and whorls of patterned spots dancing in her blurring vision. “You must first study the past.”

    Too soon, the warmth turned burning and the brightness turned blinding, and she felt her limbs prickle with the latent electricity of beings far stronger than her. Her mind opened, broadened, was flattened and then stretched, as the knowledge of this man – this creature – abruptly became her own.

    Diana was too far gone to hear herself scream.

    ---

    Selina Kyle was unusually apprehensive. One would never know it by looking at her, but her sharp mind was abuzz with contingencies and outright worst-case scenarios. She'd seen Batman come through her window.

    That he arrived on her balcony, in an of itself, wasn't an incredible shock; the city was in danger, and he was likely checking in on all of his little Rogues to ensure they were good and secure while he dealt with the crisis of the week. It was that she'd seen him arrive on the balcony, a looming shadow that detached itself from the night sky long enough for her to spot the pointy ears poking through the satin drapes. She couldn't place the reason why, but it set her teeth on edge.

    Currently, she laid casually sprawled across the end of her queen-sized bed, with her right arm propping her head up and her left resting sensually on her round hip, jade green eyes taking in the Dark Knight's ever-immaculate silhouette. It had been so long since they'd had one of their special tete-a-tete's, and she missed it (and him). “I'm surprised to see you here,” she murmured demurely, sliding to a sitting position with her legs tucked under her, “what with the way Gotham's being assaulted and all.”

    “I want you to leave town.” Right to the point, as always.

    “No need to run me out after I just got back, Batman. This kitty knows when to keep her claws retracted,” she purred with a grin. “And besides, you did miss my birthday.” Her fortieth birthday. She resolved to never say those words aloud, to anyone, ever.

    His stance remained unchanged. “For your own protection.”

    She snorted with a wave of her hand. “I can take care of myself. Anyway, how am I supposed to get out?” She nodded towards the open window, with its sheer curtains billowing from the soft wind. If it hadn't carried with it the faint smell of ash, it would have almost been romantic. “The military has the entire city sealed up tighter than a drum.”

    His cape rippled open, a large gloved hand holding a small slip of paper in front of her. Knitting her brows, Selina pulled it away and gawked at Batman's distinctive scrawl. “Your chicken-scratch is as bad as a doctor's,” she quipped with a quirk of her lips.

    He almost looked flustered. “I've arranged for a flight out of a private airstrip on the south side; it leaves at 5:30 on the dot, no questions asked. Your ride arrives in an hour – pack your bags.”

    “I can read your handwriting, you know,” she retorted, waving the post-it in the air.

    He blinked. “Then why – “

    She smiled, all Chesire cat. “I like making you blush.”

    It could have been a trick of the light – or the lack of it – but she would swear until the end of her days that she saw a fine misting of bright pink color his exposed cheeks. Long legs unwinding, she rose from the bed and ambled over to him, her red silk robe swishing about her legs and catching the minimal light. “I appreciate what you're doing for me – really,” she backpedaled, his unique scent tickling her sinuses as she lifted one hand to brush against that gorgeous, stained cheek of his, “but you know how much I hate playing the damsel in distress.”

    A small hiss escaped her when his right hand, strong and sure, suddenly clamped down on her wrist and pulled her arm away before contact could be made. In the same motion, his left roughly tugged the fabric of her sleeve up to her shoulder. She gasped when she laid eyes upon small splotches of purple and black, like bruises, dotting the inside of her upper arm. Sneering, she muttered, “What are those?”

    His gloved fingers traced over the unsightly aberrations, as if he were memorizing where they were. She gaped up at him confusedly. She had rarely ever seen him so tender with any injuries on her person. “Batman?”

    Her eyes locked with his. They were filled with grief as his hands slid from her am and came to rest, heavily, on her shoulders. “You've been infected, Selina.”

    She tensed under his warm palms as understanding descended upon her. “But, how is that possible? I didn't – “

    “It was in the water,” he growled, fingers curling into the red silk slightly. “Most of the city is infected with it, by now.”

    Well, then. No wonder his entrance was so sloppy.

    Batman put pressure on the heels of his palms, guiding her back onto the bed. From her sitting position, she craned her neck up in a strange mixture of irritation and hunger – she hated being manhandled, but every touch from him was measured and precise, and absolutely electric. “Stay here.” He turned, cape swirling, and strode away.

    Irritation took the lead, crossing her leg and arms with a dour expression, the smooth fabric falling away from the shapely muscles of her knee and calf. “I feel fine.”

    “You do now,” he said from the eat-in kitchen as he leaned down to examine the contents of her refrigerator, “but the disease works quickly. You'll need to eat and drink something with enough nutrients to temporarily boost your immune system.”

    Her lips twitched, then tugged into a smirk, when she took in the bizarre, impossible banality of watching Batman rummaging through her fridge. “What, you don't have an anti-plague repellant in that belt of yours?”

    He twisted his head to glare sideways at her, the florescent lighting streaking ominous black shadows across the valleys of his face.

    Selina didn't back down, not really. Instead, she sidestepped the touchy subject with, “If slowing this thing down was as simple as eating all my fruits and vegetables, I don't think it would be this big of an issue.”

    He returned his attention to the fridge. “Every extra precaution you take can be the one that saves your life,” he stated as he pulled out a quart of milk and, flicking the cap off with this thumb, carefully brought the open carton to his nose. He jerked his head away with a small noise of disgust. “This milk is bad, Selina. How long has it been sitting in here?”

    She shrugged noncommittally. “I usually don't eat at home.”

    He replaced the cap with a scowl and plunked the carton, still half-full of curdled milk, into the trashcan. “I noticed.”

    “You know, there's such a thing as recycling,” she remarked with an arched eyebrow. He ignored her and started rifling through her nearly bare cabinets. “You're incorrigible.”

    Creak. “I've been called worse.” Thunk.

    She sighed quietly and stood, heading to a nearby closet to slip on a pair of black nylon gloves. If the news reports were right, they said Leopard Fever was passed through skin-to-skin contact. Adjusting them across her fingers, she flexed her hands once and listened to the sound of whining hinges and wooden doors closing as she made her way to the dining room. She was touched by his desire to help her, but he had to have known it was fruitless.

    By the time she reached him, he'd evidently exhausted his search and now stood, arms wide and head stooped, leaning on the counter. She'd never seen him look so embattled. She rested a hand on his upper back, and savored the feeling of his coiled muscles beneath the cape and armor. She smiled slightly. “Looks like my trip's been canceled.”

    He shook his head. “You're going.”

    She bristled. “Don't I get a say in this?”

    “No.”

    “I'd be a danger to other people,” she exclaimed.

    “Since when do you care about other people?” he snapped, glowering at her out of the corner of his eye.

    “Since when do you not care about other people?” she retorted just as hotly, manicured nails digging into his trapezius.

    “Selina – “ Batman looked away, his shoulders going lax under her fingertips. After a few tense moments of her waiting for him to defend or explain himself (and wondering why she thought she'd ever get either), he inhaled deeply and straightened his back.

    He then proceeded to bring a hand to his cowl and yank it off.

    The only coherent thought that passed through Selina's mind was that she didn't remember Bruce's eyes ever being that blue.

    ---

    Tim Drake flexed weakly against the thick leather straps that bound him to the table, squinting from the harsh lights of the examination room he was currently trapped in. Time had lost all meaning a while ago, becoming something horrifically fluid, as the Joker and his girlfriend tried to make him crack. Well, they were in for some disappointment, because he wasn't going to. He was Robin, a hero – heroes didn't break under pressure. Besides, Batman was looking for him, he knew it.

    He couldn't completely ignore the voice, quiet and cold and treacherous in the back of his mind, though. It asked why Batman hadn't rescued him, yet. It told him, plainly, that he couldn't hold out for too much longer, and wondered if this operation theater was going to be his grave. It admitted to being afraid, of being lost, of succumbing to the toxic brew that he could feel pulsing like fire through his veins.

    He had to hold out. Batman was coming.

    Bruce was coming.

    He was.

    Robin tugged at his bonds again, and was surprised when he saw them give, the brown rawhide inching just a tiny bit along the brass buckle. Through the constant green haze that clung at the edges of his vision, he studied the belt intensely, carefully testing it again. The leather creaked in protest, but never the less slid another inch out, the tarnished golden prong being lifted. Hope flared, bright and dangerous, in his chest.

    Feverishly, his cloudy blue eyes scanned the room and surrounding area, praying that he wasn't being watched (again). Once he concluded he was by himself, he ground his teeth and forced his stiff and sore limbs to cooperate. He fervently rocked his wrist against the leather, sweat burning against the raw skin that was being steadily worn away by his frantic pace. Five minutes passed before his right restraint triumphantly popped from the buckle. Grunting, he yanked twice more and watched the brown leather strip unfurl completely, exposing the skin to a gust of cold, stale air. It felt glorious.

    Another quick scan of the area revealed he was still thankfully alone, and he clumsily gripped the left strap, fingers unwilling to work up the fine motor skills required to grab the belt successfully on the first try. “Come on,” he growled, slapping his hand against the table roughly, jolting the extremities awake. It seemed to do the trick, as his fingertips slid underneath the rawhide with little muss, tugging the strap free. Arms quaking from the adrenaline, the weeks of weakness, and the newly-emboldened terror, he reached down and repeated the process for his legs. His feet connected with the ground harshly, the shockwave traveling up the length of his body as the message – the hope – was finally driven home.

    For the first time in two weeks, Robin was free to fly!

    Shakily, he bounded through the operation theater door and tore down the dank, poorly-lit corridor. Rats squeaked and skittered out of his way, puddles of bacteria-ridden water splashing under his bare feet as he ran; his hearing was filled with the discord of his pounding heart and harsh, ragged breathing. Faintly, he smelled the sharpness of seawater, and knew that he was close to exiting the horrible, partially demolished asylum. His face a mask of crazed determination, he forged on, leaping over caved-in walls and scampering across debris.

    It was pitch black out, with nary a star in the sky – a perfect night to patrol in. He reached one pale, skeletal arm out for the reinforced steel door guarding the front of the complex, the sting of overjoyed tears just beginning to make themselves known.

    Hah. And here Bruce thought he wasn't fit to be Robin.

    (Wait, when did Bruce ever say he wasn't fit to be Robin?)

    His momentary confusion, split-second long as it may have been, was enough to avoid deflecting the flying kick aimed towards his side from a red and black clad figure. He hit the corridor wall hard, sliding down the slime-covered stone to the ground with a groan. He looked up and saw Harley Quinn, all smiles, with her left arm akimbo, and her right brandishing an oversized mallet that laid casually over her shoulder. “Ah-ah-ah, Bird Brain!” she tutted with an exaggerated wag of her finger. “Mistah J's not finished with your lesson yet.”

    No. He was so close. He wasn't going to give up his chance at freedom now.

    Tim rose to his feet, jaw and fists clenched, and settled into a defensive stance against the wall. He felt the tremors in his shoulders and thighs, realizing that he stood little chance of going toe-to-toe with her in his state. He decided to stall – for what, he didn't know. Something. Anything. “I got a few lessons of my own,” he said defiantly with a belligerent nod of his head. “Wanna learn them firsthand?”

    She shook her head, like an exasperated mother that was stuck with an unruly child to rear. “Such a naughty, undisciplined student! You oughtta be lucky that my Puddin' decided to take you under his wing.”

    “I have another wing to be under, thanks,” he jibed with a sour grin. (Why did it feel so strange?)

    “What, Bat-breath?” she mocked with a guffaw. “He got sick of the other little bird, and that one was actually smart. What makes you think he'd even bother comin' after you?”

    He didn't dignify her remark with a response. Instead, he lunged forward, arm snapping out to catch her in the face. She sidestepped easily, holding her foot out. He almost smirked – like clockwork. He hopped over the outstretched leg and whirled on his heel, darting behind her and back down the hallway he just came from. “Wha – hey! Get back here!”

    He took a right and dove behind what remained of a cell wall, hunkering small into the crevice, holding his breath and refusing to blink. Harley raced harmlessly past him, turning a corner with her hammer held high and shrieking threats. He wasted no time, slipping back around and continued back towards the front gate. He stumbled, breath in his throat, when his eyes fell upon a shadow that was retreating through the now-open steel doors at the end of the hallway. “Batman!”

    He halted briefly, pivoting to stare over his shoulder.

    Tim skidded to a halt at the disapproving glare. What did he...? Hesitantly, he took an unsteady step forward. “Batman?”

    His eyes narrowed, gaze raking over his weakened – and very unmasked – form.

    Heat flared across Tim's face, shame welling up to replace the assurance that had been there a mere moment before. He took another two steps, reaching a hand out. “Batman, I – this isn't what it – I didn't say – “

    He smartly turned on his heel and stalked off.

    Tim's legs burned as he pumped them at a furious pace, trying to chase Bruce down before he exited the building. The terror he valiantly fought against wedged itself firmly in between his ribs. No no no no, he survived the Joker for so long, he wouldn't, he couldn't

    “Batman! Where are you going? Wait!” His eyes stung as his words echoed without response. This couldn't be happening – “Batman, please! I didn't...” – this couldn't be happening, this couldn't be happening...

    He reached the gate, harried gaze flickering across the desolate, pitch-black expanse of the asylum grounds to find himself completely, inexorably alone. He didn't notice the tears that crested over his lower eyelids and began to slide down his too-pale cheeks.

    Batman left him.

    Bruce left him.

    He felt something in him break as the ground suddenly rushed up to meet him, gravel and dirt tearing at his pallid face and quaking hands. Tim was roughly rolled onto his back with the toe of a black shoe, and he sightlessly stared at the gleefully triumphant clown-girl. He didn't care. He left he left he left he left he left he left he

    “No leavin' the school premises before the bell rings!” Harley's feet slid across the concrete steps, her body's center of gravity lowered closer to the ground as she hefted her gigantic hammer in both hands. She grinned viciously. “Looks like somebody needs a time-out.”

    The mallet flew.

    Tim Drake gasped, flying into a sitting position with a cry caught in his too-dry throat. His terrified blue eyes darted from shadow to shadow, pooling long and thick like bloodstains around the corners of his darkened apartment bedroom, fruitlessly trying to find the source of his terror (salvation?) within them. He blinked once, gulping back the urge to scream, and brought a quaking hand to his damp brow.

    A dream. A dream. That was all. Old clams. Just bad memories.

    He had half a mind to call up Batman and say the nastiest things. He'd sure get a laugh out of –

    Tim clamped his eyes shut, pressing his fists against his temples. No, he was not the Joker, he was...

    A chuckle hissed through his clenched teeth. No Bird Boy here, anymore. Just ol' Timmy-boy. Just another loser. Just another faceless killer, skulking in the crowd, acting like a civilized little monster.

    No. No.

    He opened his eyes wide, gulping a large, unnecessary breath. He needed some air.

    He threw the sheets aside and unsteadily rose to his feet, eyes glancing to his desk briefly before he padded to his closet to throw on some clothes. Running his hand through his still damp hair, he walked out into the darkened living room. The television was still on, quiet background noise as he made his way to the kitchen for some food.He opened the refrigerator door blearily. Guess Barb did raid his fridge, after all. He picked up a slice of pizza from the box, taking a large bite out of it. His face screwed up in distaste, but he swallowed it, anyway, tossing the rest of the slice into the nearby trashcan. He slammed the fridge door and leaned heavily on it, wishing he could feel the coolness of the insulated appliance through the warm plastic coating. He needed to cool down. It felt like his head was on fire. Rubbing at his temples, he turned and –

    His eyes, better than most, caught the shadow out of the corner of his eye right before the fist landed.

    ---

    If Bruce were honest with himself, he would concede that there were situations rarely more confusing and agonizing than loving two incredibly different women, and that secret identities, private crusades, and daily life-and-death situations only compounded the issue. If he were honest, he would admit to himself that the thought of Selina dying, no matter how remote the chance of failure might have been, was enough to override the clear and present danger that her current...situation posed to potentially dozens of innocent bystanders if he went through with evacuating her. Horrifying as it was, he would also admit that he simply didn't give a damn, because he was desperately in love with her.

    If he were honest, he would realize that even as he acknowledged how strongly he felt for her, his thoughts still invariably wandered to Diana and how much she didn't deserve this kind of betrayal; in spite of him rebuffing her every advance and heartfelt confession – in spite of him hurting her, over and over again, in profoundly deep ways. If he were honest, he would come to understand, in a sudden flash of insight, that as dearly as he loved Selina Kyle, he loved Diana of Themyscira that much more – that he would literally do anything for her. And if he were really honest, he would wonder why all of this decided to crop up now, when Gotham was poised on the brink of destruction by a madman and a handful of cold-hearted, Machiavellian bureaucrats.

    Denial was a beautiful thing.

    “Bruce...” Selina whispered, mouth agape. He silently waited for the slap, and when she raised her hand – now gloved, he noted – he didn't move to block the blow. After all, he deserved it – Bruce Wayne was one of Selina Kyle's closest friends, and her one true confidant since arriving to Gotham. He was surprised, then, when her fingers trailed down the side of his face, stopping to cup his chin lightly with her thumb and forefinger. “I knew there was more to you than meets the eye.”

    He raised a brow. “You mean, you're not going to claw my eyes out for lying to you all this time?”

    “Well, you never actually said you weren't Batman.”

    The corner of his lip curled up. Irony.

    “Penny for your thoughts.”

    “It's nothing.” He refocused his attention on her, now without the benefit of the mask, and reasoned, “You have to trust me, Selina. You'll be safer outside of the city.”

    “Safer from what?” she retorted. “I'm already infected, what else do you expect to happen?”

    He debated on filling her in. He summarily denied it. “It can always get worse.”

    Her green eyes narrowed, glinting like jades. “You're hiding something.”

    He stepped away from the counter, cape fluttering in his wake. He couldn't remember the last time he wore the suit without the mask. “It doesn't matter.”

    “It matters enough for you to smuggle me out of a locked-down city.” Selina used her smaller size and slid herself between him and the kitchen archway, arms pressed against either wall. “Tell me what's going on.” He debated putting her into a submissive arm-lock from his current position to get past. He denied that, too. “If you don't, I'm going to go out there and find out myself.”

    He casually slipped under her arm and around her body. She tried to elbow him on the way out, and then knee him in him in the stomach (or worse) when he easily blocked the blow. Her kneecap connected with the wooden archway with a pronounced thump. 'I bet that had to smart.' “You'll be gunned down before you get anywhere near their base camp.”

    The far window gave him clear view of Selina licking her wound with as much dignity as she could muster. “I'm much better at espionage than you think. But, just in case I'm not, you might want to spill the beans.”

    Bruce wished he could say that she was always true to her word, but more often than not, she wasn't. She was, however, stubborn enough to follow through with her threat if she thought she was being lied to. Which, he supposed, he was; lying by omission. He wasn't sure if he could drag her out of whatever mess she got herself into this time, so he decided to err on the side of caution. “The US government has authorized the use of nuclear weapons on Gotham.”

    What?”

    He glanced behind him; Selina's expression was – rightfully – one of complete shock. “Now do you understand why I want you to leave?”

    She blinked three times, mouth working soundlessly. Finally, she murmured soberly, “You don't think you're going to win.”

    Failure was not an option. “I'm planning for every possibility. That's all.”

    “Oh really?” she huffed, hands on her hips. “Have you planned for what's going to happen when infect a hundred people the moment I land...” She fumbled for words. “...Wherever it is I'm going to land? Did you think I wouldn't get infected like everyone else? You knew how it spread,” she accused, “why didn't you – I don't know – leak it to the media or something?”

    “I didn't know what it was until everyone else did,” he answered defensively. It was a poor excuse.

    You didn't know something beforehand?” she scoffed archly, crossing her arms over her chest. “Well, you picked a bad time to start slipping.”

    Selina,” he hissed angrily before he forced himself to fall silent, molars grinding against each other as the guilt drew a line through his chest. She was right, of course; he should have known beforehand. Because of his error in judgment, millions of lives were slated to be lost in a mushroom cloud before Monday morning rush hour traffic. It was inexcusable.

    Her expression softened as she laid a hand softly upon his knotted shoulder. It brought him no comfort. “Bruce – “ She paused, then chuckled quietly with a shake of her head. “Bruce,” she murmured again to herself. “It all makes sense now.” She looked askance at him. “Why didn't you ever tell me?”

    He stared blankly out the window. “Would it have made a difference?”

    “Of course it would have,” she said. “I would've known who you really are.”

    He tilted his head to catch her in his sights. “I already showed you who I really was.”

    “What, Bruce Wayne, billionaire playboy fop who couldn't even tie his own shoelaces? That's not you.” Something hot and thick bubbled up from deep within, something he didn't even know existed until now. Here he was, unmasked – being completely honest with someone for once in his life, letting her see him in all his endlessly complicated and painfully lonesome glory, and she was being purposely obtuse. It galled him.

    “The Bruce Wayne that said he cared about you was,” he growled. His voice was low, but it rumbled and shook with the same kind of destructive energy that was behind every volcano. “Every time you saw me in private, Selina, every time I talked with you, every time I didn't have to put on a show, that was me.” Above all else, he'd held the faintest hope that she of all people would understand. “I'm more than just the mask.”

    Her grip on his shoulder tightened. “Fine. Then take everything involving Batman out of your life and tell me what's left.”

    Bruce blinked, then bowed his head in defeat, his anger turning inward.

    He was wrong. She did understand.

    Her aristocratic features fell. “I know there's more to you than this – “ She ran her fingers over the black symbol on his chest with a sigh, “ – but I'm not sure you know there is.” He didn't answer; he didn't have one to give. He felt her palm against his cheek again, turning his head to face her – Selina, with her beautiful eyes and razor sharp mind. “I always respected what you did,” she confessed with a smirk. “I thought you were crazy, but I admired your dedication.”

    He harrumphed. “You had a funny way of showing it.”

    “So did you.” Her eyes locked with his, her thumb running over his lips with something akin to reverence. Slowly, she gripped the silken red cloth of her loose sleeve in her hands and gently folded the soft material over the lower half of his face. He didn't recall giving the order to lean down for her benefit, but he did, anyway, head tilted and stormy blue eyes catching the light from the kitchen in a way that made them incandescent. He was tired and alone, and God only knew if he was still going to be alive in two days to save her.

    Her lips had barely brushed against his through the cloth when he felt another impressive stab of guilt, his mind's eye picturing Diana watching over Dick like he'd requested her to, dutifully, like any good friend would. He was a horrible human being. He drew back abruptly. “Selina...” he murmured hesitantly, trying to force his vocal chords to form the words that he knew were there – words he wanted to say, but couldn't.

    She smiled sadly, her hands patting at his collarbones, like she were trying to straighten wrinkles out of his cape. Her gaze fell to the bat symbol with resignation. “It's alright, Batman,” she comforted, her voice an affectionate purr. “You don't have to explain to me.”

    He found himself asking, “Explain what?”

    Selina stared at him frankly, green eyes glittering with life and strength. “Well, for starters,” she replied, “that you're in love with someone else.”

    He stiffened. “I have no idea what you're talking about.”

    She made a face, slapping his chest. “Please, that was like kissing a log.”

    He tried not to feel offended at the roundabout slight to his manhood. “I didn't realize I was being graded on my performance.”

    Her expression twisted even further, her hands coming to rest on her hips. “I'm not dumb, Bruce. Who is she?” He pivoted, striding back silently into the kitchen to collect his mask. She broke into a sprint, lithely winding around his larger frame and stretching her hand out to seize the prize from his fingertips. Literally.

    She made up for her earlier lack of apparent fighting prowess by expertly dodging every attempt he made at grabbing for the cowl, waving the cloth in her hand like a banner after she did a split under his legs to avoid a painful wrist-lock. He realized distantly that he was as turned on as he was annoyed, which, in turn, only annoyed him further. “I don't have time for this, Selina.”

    She popped up behind him, bounding through his cape of all things, and halted at the same window he'd been gaping out of for the better part of five minutes. It opened with a faint whine of metal hinges as she held the cowl out of the sill like it were a hostage. “Tell me who she is or the mask gets a free flying lesson.”

    Bruce almost sighed. A jealous, territorial Catwoman had access to his cowl. 'This is what I get for being an idiot.' “There's no one else.”

    “Liar,” she shot back. “I'm not angry, you know. I'm...actually happy for you,” she admitted, her stance relaxing slightly. “You deserve to have someone that's good to you.”

    He slid his hand to his grapple beneath the cape. For the twentieth time this evening, he wondered why he simply didn't just knock her out and evacuate her by force. “You wouldn't be?”

    The wind tugged at her shoulder-length brown hair, rustling the curls against her shoulders. “Cats are loners. That's not fair to you.”

    His finger pressed lightly against the trigger mechanism for the pneumatic device. “And it's fair to you?”

    She chuckled lightly. “Don't worry about me, I always land on my feet. So – who is she?” When he didn't answer, her lips twitched into a small, curious grin, tentatively asking, “He?”

    He nearly dropped the grapple as he tried not to gag at the thought. No. Very no.

    She laughed, a warm and sultry sound. “A she, then. What's her name?”

    He decided he'd waited long enough and fired, the thin metal cord coiling around her forearm as he unceremoniously yanked her from her feet. She cried out in surprise when she landed roughly on her rump in front of him, affronting arm held above her head by the titanium twine. She craned her head to glance up at him impishly, shaking the mask. “I think this is yours.”

    Bruce snatched the cowl away from her grip, releasing the line on the grapple as he sternly and clearly answered, “I'm not having this conversation with you.”

    The cord crumpled to the hardwood floor as her grin widened, leaning her elbows against her bent knees with her head lolling to the side to stare in amusement at him. “Well, you're probably going to be having this conversation with somebody, eventually.”

    “I won't.” It was absolutely out of the question.

    She rested her chin against her fist, as though she could see right through him. She could, but he would never let her know that. “You're determined to make yourself as unhappy as possible, aren't you?”

    He tossed a withering look over his shoulder. “The world is in danger, and you're worried about petty romance?”

    She shrugged, rolling easily to her bare feet and stretching. “Lennon was right. All you need is love.”

    In hindsight, he was well and truly amazed that the migraine only began right then. His patience having long since worn thin, he demanded, “Are you taking the flight or not?”

    “No. I'll put too many people at risk.” She leaned her weight on one leg, adding tartly, “Oh, and for the record, I've always cared about other people. I'm a thief, not a monster.”

    He detested being wrong. Never the less, he came to the conclusion that she was right on all counts – all counts that mattered, anyway. He quashed the twinge of fear at her remaining in the city, and instead, vowed to redouble his efforts to find a cure and keep Gotham in one piece. He would see her safe, through Hell or high water. “Well, if you aren't going to leave the city, then maybe you can help me out while you're here.”

    Selina balked. He enjoyed throwing her for a loop – it was eye for an eye, as far as he was concerned. “You want my help?”

    “Consider it an opportunity to turn over a new leaf. You keep talking about it.”

    Talking about it, yeah, but...” She stared at him, her face a mixture of disbelief and dread. “You really don't think you're going to win this time, do you?”

    “I think,” he started as he pulled on his cowl, “that I'm going to need all the help I can get.”

    ---

    “I don't get it,” Shayera huffed in exasperation, throwing her hands up. “We've been up and down this hall three times now, and there's no secret doorway, no latch, nothing!” She eyed Talia, whose visage was vaguely troubled. “I know your father's something of a kook, but – “

    “Alright, we're wasting time,” John cut in. “We should've brought the sample back to the Watchtower for testing an hour ago.” He stalked past Shayera, adding, “Do you have any other wild goose chases to lead us on?”

    She clenched a fist, ready to send it upside his head. “I didn't see you hesitating to come down here.”

    They both stalked off, voices echoing sharply as they continually sniped at each other. J'onn sighed, rubbing his temples with his hands wearily. There was a very specific reason why he requested not to work alone with those two on missions – their fights sent off the equivalent of psychic earthquakes that would decimate the landscape of any mind within a ten mile radius. Hmph. Humans.

    Talia paused and gazed at him sympathetically. “Does their arguing trouble you?”

    “As troubling as their verbal argument is,” he replied with a grimace, “their mental one is...” He trailed off, comment forgotten, as he sought out their minds...and came up with absolutely nothing. He stiffened and held a hand out. “Green Lantern, Shayera, wait.”

    John stared at him incredulously. “Aw, c'mon, J'onn, don't tell me you agree with – “

    “I can't sense you,” he interrupted urgently. “Any of you.”

    The married couple exchanged quizzical looks. “What?”

    “Your minds,” he clarified, clamping down the instinctive urge to panic at the loss of a vital sense. “I can't find them with my own. That is...unprecedented.”

    John's green eyes hardened in thought. “Psychic dampener? Like the one the military used?”

    “Maybe that's why you couldn't sense anyone in the complex,” Shayera supplied.

    J'onn nodded warily, carefully probing forward for any sign of change. “Perhaps, but the kind of machine required to shield an entire building would be...”

    The psychic waves pinged softly.

    His eyes glowed brightly. “There is another.” Without delay, his form became incorporeal. “Wait here.”

    John reached a hand out to stay him. “Wait, where are you – “

    J'onn dove into the wall.

    Green Lantern frowned deeply, hands latched onto his hips as he glared at the monochromatic corridor. “Going.”

    J'onn traversed the stone sightlessly, but never the less with unerring direction; a bloodhound with a strong scent. Straight, then down, then to the right, and... He emerged through the wall of a tiny guest room. Its cold stone walls were painted beige, and the concrete floor was covered in a thin layer of hardwood. The furniture layout was spartan at best, with a single bed, a small wooden nightstand, and a side enclave with requisite human toiletries hidden by a sliding metal door.

    In it, casually sitting in a wooden chair against the far wall, was a girl. Her expression was soulless, her icy blue eyes cold and unforgiving. Her hair, dark and thick, spilled in waves over her shoulders, halting at the mid of her chest. Her gaze caught his, momentarily warming in temperature. “Are you here to rescue me?”

    He nodded. “Yes, I am. My name is J'onn J'onnz; I am with the Justice League.” Gently, he reached out for her mind. “Who are you?”

    He gasped when he felt a mind reach back for his, answering as clear as a bell, 'I am Nyssa Al Ghul.'


    To be continued...

    ***

    This has been the chapter from ****ing hell. It occurred to me after day three that if I really put everything in here that I initially wanted to put in, this thing would be almost 30 pages long, so I've spent the past two weeks trying to pear it down in my head. I'm incredibly dissatisfied that the BatCat scene dominated the chapter so much, which took another several days of musing to figure out if I should even keep it or not, but in the end, I figured it gave a glimpse into Batman's pathology in a way working with more "true blue" heroes didn't. Besides, angst is fun. Also, fun tidbit: Sors salutis means "Fate is against me". Yay overused latin choir songs! :D

    In other news, I spent twelve hours watching a House marathon this weekend, which has a habit of yoyoing from angst to humor and back with an almost schitzophrenic glee. I'm home. :D

    But yeah, more plot next time, I swear.
     
    #69 SilverKnight, Aug 30, 2010
    Last edited by a moderator: Nov 16, 2012
  10. klammed

    klammed the fool.

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    Right, so, I've finally got off my bum and read through it all now. Very nice on characterisation, though I'm wondering if Batman's musings during the third person narrative are becoming a tad snippy/whiny for him (or even for him, whichever you'd prefer ;) ). I did like the reveal there with Selina, the ensuing conversation about his love life made me crack up. Point there though, I'm not sure if you remember the talk he pretty much had with Zatanna in 'This Little Piggy', which to me kinda counts, but each to their own, ah well.

    I do like how you're using Nyssa here. There's not much of her in the comics so far apart from 'Death and the Maidens', and I'm guessing you're just taking the name and creating a pretty new character of it. I likesz. :anime:
     
  11. SilverKnight

    SilverKnight Sigh.

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    Coming from first and second hand experience, ensuing nervous breakdowns tend to twist your mind into something it's ordinarily not -- you wind up thinking, saying, and acting in ways that might come across as neurotic, overly morose, and just plain out-of-character for you. That's what they're all about; just like physical over-exertion, when you tax your psyche too much with baggage, the mind starts essentially sabotaging itself, forcing your hand to deal with whatever trauma you've been ignoring. Well, maybe sabotaging isn't quite the right word -- it's more like your subconscious begins to buckle under the strain, sending all that emotional toxin streaming into you.

    Did I mention I'm speaking from first-hand experience? ;)

    I mean, Bruce's mind is already ****ed up enough to begin with, and a lifetime's worth of mental and emotional repression is finally catching up with him at the worst possible time ever. Pent up anger and depression is like acid; it eats away at who you are, warps you into something you don't want to be. Up until recently, he's always channeled that acid and funneled it out by doing Batmany things, but since Tim was kidnapped, and especially recently, that tenuous funneling system is beginning to fail, and alllll that crap is building up with nowhere to go. That = bad.

    But yeah, I guess I could be overdoing it a bit. I'll make a point to watch that in the future.

    Always good to lighten the mood briefly in a serious story. ^^

    Oh, it very much counts. The thing is, ROTJ happened between TLP and this fic, which means that Batman has put the curbstomp to all of his feelings towards everyone in the hopes that they won't end up the way Tim did. He's denying what he's already admitted, sure, but how many people admit something and then go back on it later when it's convenient to do so? The entire point of that was that, deep down, he knows he's in love with them, but he refuses to accept the reality because doing so opens up a can of worms that he doesn't think he can handle.

    In short, he's afraid.

    Yeah, pretty much. Researching her, she basically sounded like your average psychotic daughter type, and that was le snore, so I'm gonna revamp her to make her somewhat more relevant. Yay improvisation! :D
     
  12. klammed

    klammed the fool.

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    I know, I know :) It's just the slight self pitying that's breaking through is making him (to me) at certain points to either read like a teenager, or like a girl. Neep. Or it could just be me, really. Doesn't stop this from being a great story though.

    And as for the first hand experience, I give you online huggles. <3 and double scoop ice-cream cones as my friend likes to call the typed heart.
     
  13. SilverKnight

    SilverKnight Sigh.

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    Hmm, I wasn't really going for, "Woe is me," so much as, "**** me, I suck." He doesn't really care what happens to himself, he has no sense of self-worth stemming from a seriously 'roided out case of Survivor's Guilt. I was trying to aim more towards self-loathing than self-pity; he hates himself for what he believes he's done to other people, he hates that he can't save everyone, and that the people that he loves are still getting injured and killed despite his every effort to the contrary.

    On a more broad note, the concept of self-pity/self-loathing and depression in general is rather selfish, and I suppose "whiny", but it's not something that can be really quantified -- only experienced. You can't ever truly explain it to someone who hasn't seen it first hand, because everyone I've met that hasn't will write off depression/suicide as people simply being "weak-willed", and such small-mindedness makes me want to stab them in the face with a butter-knife.

    Imagine for a second. Imagine someone who knows every dirty little secret, your every insecurity, every chink in your armor, every white lie, every broken promise, every failure, everything you hate about yourself and what you have and haven't done, and imagine all of that being stuffed down your throat, every second of every day, for your entire life. You can't shut it off, you can't make nice or compromise, you can't ever, ever please it, and you most definitely can't ignore it forever -- your best bet is to push through it, bury yourself so deeply in a project that you don't have the time to dwell on anything else, because if you let your mind wander, it will invariably lead to Bad Things. That is depression, and anyone who writes it off as a matter of just, "Sucking it up," needs to ensure that they don't infect the gene pool with their asinine, myopic stupidity.

    Not that I have a heated opinion on this or anything.

    Basically, those types of thoughts/emotional episodes occur due to very real problems that have been denied for too long, or from chemical imbalances that result in more bad juju than good, essentially. People who have as many issues as Bruce does, regardless of what they do to cope, absolutely cannot sustain themselves forever without actually removing some of that overbearing pressure from the equation. If more steam builds up than is being let out, it's going to blow. Period. And it's not going to be pretty.

    Either way, "whiny" as it may come off, Bruce, here, is skidding towards a major breakdown. They are not clean, they are not nice, they are inordinately self-absorbed because it's your psyche's way of telling you that whatever emotional support system you've created for yourself has broken down. Bruce is usually absolutely not the type to indulge in his own emotional turmoil, and that's precisely the point -- he can't take the step to deal with his issues, so his subconscious is doing it for him. Shame that it's deciding to take the plunge when the entire world is depending on him not to screw up.

    I guess I should make a bigger point about Bruce 'snapping out of it' though, to prove he's more "manly" and stuff, or something. :shrug:

    Thanks.
     
  14. klammed

    klammed the fool.

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    Fml? :p Yes, that I do get. Nods.

    Really? You and I both then. Which means...

    Not so much the 'snapping out of it', because I think if you're heading towards the emotional breakdown thing, it's kinda hard to 'snap out of' things. I was thinking just more self-awareness that he was going down that sort of rabbit hole and not stopping himself despite it, though I suppose he wouldn't be too big on that while getting sucked in and under. Either way, don't let what I'm saying impinge on your voice, not that you would ;)
     
  15. SilverKnight

    SilverKnight Sigh.

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    Ra's Al Ghul was a decent man living in indecent times. His current plan to save Mother Earth was a daring and frightening one – he, of all people, hated that it had come to this. The Detective had his own deluded fantasies on what drove him; for a man with such a stunning intellect, how could he fail to see what was so blatantly obvious? Did he really believe that Ra's had not tried to achieve his goals through peaceful measures? That he hadn't devoted over two centuries to resolving the ever-decaying situation amicably? Of course not – for all of Bruce Wayne's efforts to protect the Earth, he had never once tried reversing the process.

    He had learned long ago that simply throwing money at a problem would never solve it, only delay the inevitable. He'd wasted so much time trying to convince his greedy and apathetic brethren to nurture the Earth that gave them all life, instead of plundering it for its bountiful, though finite, resources. Their insatiable appetite for more – more power, more land, more pointless knickknacks and meaningless baubles to display wealth and prosperity – was leading to the extinction of species faster than could be counted. Once, he'd loved his people, his fellow humans, for their tenacity and ingenuity, but no more. Theirs was a sad and steady decline, heedless to the risks of their descent, and their ultimate fate would be well-deserved. It was merely a shame that his hand would be forced in such a way; he believed that all life was sacred. But when one life was causing the deaths of thousands of others, the choice was obvious: balance must be restored.

    If humanity could not be reasoned with, it would be dealt with.

    After all, the world wasn't going to save itself.

    16.
    Conflict of Interest

    Master,” said one of his soldiers, “one of the Justice League has happened upon Mistress Nyssa.” He sent a command, bringing an overhead display of the room along the screen in front of him. “It is the Martian.”

    Still no sign of the Kryptonian. It appeared the Detective had an attachment to that one. Interesting. “And the location of the others?”

    “They are within the observation deck.” There was a short, but significant, pause. “Your daughter is among them.”

    “Talia...” he sighed. That was not unexpected, but it was disappointing. Foolish girl – she should have taken her chance at freedom while it was dangled in front of her. “Send in a small force of troops.”

    “Master.”

    “Pah, the Justice League! They sully the grounds with their filth!” Ubu scoffed with disdain, slamming one fist into an open palm. “I would relish teaching those dogs humility.”

    He raised a hand to stay his faithful servant. “Calm yourself, Ubu. Though I have no doubt of your fighting prowess, Shayera Hol and John Stewart are among the League's most powerful adversaries. It wouldn't do to pit you against them unnecessarily.”

    Ubu nodded in deference, though his chiseled features were tensed with tightly-checked anger. “Of course, Master.”

    A faint smile touched Ra's lips. “Patience, you will be granted your chance in due time. For now, the facility has served its purpose; we have more than enough of the contagion to secure our victory. Signal our agents, they are to be transported immediately. Once the facility is evacuated...” He trailed off for a heartbeat, sparing a silent farewell to his beloved, if treacherous, progeny. He so dearly wished it hadn't come to this. “Destroy it.”

    ---

    “Well, we can't just sit here and wait while J'onn goes sniffing out a clue,” Shayera groused with a frown. “There has to be more here than this.” Stubbornly, she set out to find a hidden latch, hands splayed across the white wall.

    “Shayera, we don't have time for this,” John responded heatedly, waving an arm in the air. “We've been up and down this corridor with a fine-toothed comb; if there was something hidden here, we'd have found it.”

    She promptly ignored him, going about her business and coming up with nothing, as she had the last three times she'd done this. Her fingers roamed over the sleek surface of the cement, blindly searching for –

    Wait, sleek surface?

    “Wait a sec,” she said, red brows pinched together. She stalked the six feet to the other side of the narrow corridor and touched the wall, rewarded with the uneven, bumpy texture of painted over concrete. “This is the wall J'onn went through, and it's made of concrete. But that wall isn't.” She nodded to the far wall. “Check for yourself.”

    Skeptically, John pressed his hand against it. He blinked in surprise. “It's smooth.”

    She nodded. “Like metal.”

    “How did we not spot this before?” he wondered aloud.

    She shrugged. “Can't see the forest for the trees? Doesn't matter, now.”

    Talia rested her palms against the cool white wall, gazing at it curiously. “I wonder what is behind here.”

    “Could be nothing,” John suggested.

    “Could be everything,” Shayera rejoined.

    John glanced in her direction, full lips twitching into a knowing smirk while he clenched his right fist. “One way to find out.”

    A laser powered by willpower sparked and hissed as he cleanly etched a five foot tall oval into the camouflaged metal. Extending the ring's power, the light melted onto the newly-liberated section of wall and tugged it free, setting it on the ground next to them. A moment later, the trio found themselves crowding around a reinforced window that was hidden behind the foot-thick false wall, staring down into the bowels of an impossibly large hangar. Men, dressed in black uniforms, scurried around like cockroaches, hurriedly loading supplies into land and aerial transports. John whistled. “That's enough weapons to supply Kasnia!”

    Shayera narrowed her eyes, taking in the massive room that stretched in front of them. “I don't see any exit – they're almost half a mile underground, how do they expect to get out?”

    “Batman said that the lady who constructed the League teleporter went missing a couple of months ago, along with all of her blueprints and notes.” He shook his head. “Instant-access to anywhere in the world,” he motioned to the trucks loaded with ammunition, “armed like that.”

    Shayera pointed to a handful of Society members that were busy loading a large ovular drum onto the back of a cargo plane. “That doesn't look like any weapon container I've ever seen.”

    Talia's fists clenched at her side. “I have.”

    ---

    It had been quite some time since J'onn had ever needed to worry about someone reading his mind. Ma'alaca'andran culture had strict formal and informal laws on the use of telepathy. Invading another's mind was considered a particularly heinous crime, as the mind was sacred, along with the body, and not to be forced upon by another. Still, it was part of his people's physiology; the act of protecting oneself against it was common, ingrained early.

    As his pupilless red eyes locked on Nyssa's and felt her mind decisively press against the barriers of his own, he concluded that spending five-hundred years in solitude, and another decade surrounded by the mind-blind had eroded his natural defenses to the point of near uselessness. He would have to correct this lapse immediately. “Come with me,” he said as he stepped forward, holding out one green hand. “My friends and I will see you to safety.”

    The teen didn't move. “No, you won't.”

    He moved closer, glancing at the closed door and willing to see what was beyond it. “We're here to help.” Whatever was dampening his mental abilities, though, remained otherwise intact, save for the girl in front of him. “Do you know how many are in this complex?”

    “Hundreds,” she answered, her accented alto flat. “They know of your intrusion.”

    “All the more reason to leave quickly.”

    She pursed her lips, then nodded, as if satisfied. “So be it.” She stepped to the wall opposite of the clearly defined steel door, pressing her thumb against a nondescript box. It twittered, then beeped, and a section of the wall promptly rolled back to reveal a small elevator. “This way – that door is booby trapped with kryptonite and explosives.”

    “Kryptonite?”

    “My grandfather assumed that only you and Superman would brave a room sealed with lead to find a hostage,” she explained.

    So, Ra's Al Ghul not only knew their physical weaknesses, but knew how to use their psychological traits against them, as well. That was distressing, to say the least. “Your grandfather is cunning.”

    Nyssa's thin lips twisted into a grin that would have been disturbing on anyone, let alone a pale-faced teenager. “So am I.”

    ---

    That's the plague strain?” Shayera exclaimed as she pressed her hand against the glass. She looked back at Talia urgently. “Do you know where the communications room is in this place?”

    She blinked. “Most of my father's bases keep it nearby the Lazarus Pit, to – “

    “On it!” Shayera exclaimed as she took off.

    Bemused, she allowed Green Lantern to shield her in a bubble as he sped forward, the florescent lights streaking above them. “I don't understand. Using his computer won't allow communication to your League.”

    The ex-Marine shook his head, expression unreadable. “We're not trying to contact the League, we're going to jam the transporter's frequency – make sure they don't get any of that stuff out of here.”

    “But, how do you know what its frequency is?” she asked.

    “We don't.”

    At the top of the stairwell, the Thanagarian gaped at the now-closed doorway as John and Talia landed solidly behind them. “That's not good.”

    “Yeah, no kidding, help me find a way out.” Her keen eyes, more acute than a human's, scanned her surroundings for a release. “They have to get out of here somehow.”

    The doorway shuddered with a pneumatic hiss and slowly began to pull itself back into the wall. She took a step back. “Wasn't me.”

    Talia readied her gun, its deadly dart gleaming in the stark lighting. “My father's soldiers have found us.”

    “Good,” Shayera replied as she gripped her mace in both hands. “Saves me the trouble of having to hunt them down.”

    ---

    The Copán base was deceptively large, and hideously complex. The amount of adjacent hallways, stairwells, elevators, and security checks that they had passed through began to blur together three floors ago. Hadn't Talia told Green Lantern that this was one of his smaller strongholds? “You know your way around.”

    “My grandfather led me through here, once, shortly after I arrived,” Nyssa stated, easily bounding up a flight of steps. She was quite fit for her particular weight class. “I think he wanted me to understand his madness and adopt it.”

    J'onn stared at her profile evenly. “But you haven't.”

    She shook her head. “He has forgotten that there are good people as well as evil – that for all of humanity's selfishness, they hold a capacity for change and hope.” She paused, the silence hanging heavily in the increasingly stale air. “He is misguided.”

    He couldn't discern any lack of sincerity, but her comprehension of the situation felt contradictory. They turned at another corner, a mirror image of the last six they rounded. “Where are we going?”

    Her shoulder-length brown hair fluttered as she glanced over her shoulder. “To rendezvous with your allies on the observation deck.”

    She spoke as though she were far older, more experienced and battle-hardened, than she appeared. He mulled over how large a role the Lazarus Pits have played in her life thus far, and whether or not this was one incredibly elaborate trap. “Observation deck?”

    “It overlooks the facility's armory and supplies depot,” came her reply. “Some of my grandfather's men are en route to them now.”

    How did she know where the others were? She was clearly telepathic, so lifting information from the soldiers wasn't out of the question, but this dampening field would otherwise prevent that. He then stuffed his suspicions as far down as he could manage, recalling that she could sense him. “They will prove very difficult to kill.”

    “They're not trying to kill them – only detain them for a short period of time.”

    His brow ticked in something that, at any other time, could have been considered amusement. “They will prove very difficult to detain, as well.”

    “They know your weaknesses,” she clarified dubiously. “All of them.”

    The woman-child before him was a conundrum – her body language and mannerisms were, as far as he could sense, truthful, but she navigated the terrain with comfort and efficiency, and seemed to have an intimate knowledge of where everyone within this complex was and what they were doing. The only conclusion he could reach was that she was no mere victim. “We know. That is why we've come prepared.”

    The ghost of a smile appeared on Nyssa's angular face. “You sound like Batman.”

    J'onn detected a hint of something in her voice, but without access to her emotions, he couldn't be sure what it was. Never the less, it set him on edge. “What do you know of Batman?”

    “I know my mother admires him,” she declared, “loves him. She wishes she could disappear from this life and join his.” Her voice dropped low, “She stayed in part because she feared retribution towards me if she ever betrayed my grandfather.”

    The muscles along his jaw tightened briefly. “You're avoiding the question.”

    “For good reason – these walls have eyes and ears.” She slowed, making eye contact. There was a flicker of desperation, and he felt the low thrum of fear radiate from her for the breadth of a second through the blanket surrounding his mind. “I will tell you everything I know, but not here, not now.”

    J'onn, at length, acquiesced with a guarded nod. “Very well.” He pressed his fingers against his temple, attempting to break through the psychic barrier, to no effect. His eyes then fell upon the girl keeping pace with him in the deserted corridor and dared to take the chance. “Nyssa,” he asked, “are you able to breach the dampening field?”

    She furrowed her brows. “Dampening field?”

    “Yes,” he assented. “The only person I can sense within the complex is you; perhaps it doesn't affect you.”

    Her gaze only became more confused as he spoke. “You can't sense anyone? I can feel everyone here,” she said. “Including your friends.”

    He gaped at her, a waif compared to his impressive 6'5” height, and cautiously laid a hand on her shoulder. His skin had barely made contact with her custom-fitted purple tunic when he was immediately assaulted with voices, thousands of them, screaming and wailing from all directions. He wheezed, struggling to keep his balance through the cacophony of emotions and thoughts, his eyes finding hers. They were steady and unflinching; hardened against the insanity of conflicting minds that tore through her like a tornado.

    Ra's Al Ghul wasn't using a machine to shield the others from him – he was using his granddaughter.

    Oh yes – he was most definitely brushing up on his internal defensive capabilities.

    ---

    Amanda Waller had just fallen asleep when the jingle of her cell jarred her back into the waking world, to her immediate and intense irritation. Rubbing her eyes, she reached for the phone and stared at the number that blinked at her in muted blue. Grimacing, she flipped it open and pressed the device to her ear. “Go ahead, General Flagg.”

    “Wrong general, Amanda.”

    Her back went stiff. “Eiling?” She glanced around her darkened room, as though she could feel Batman peering out from the shadows themselves. “What are you doing with Flagg's number?”

    “Falsified the cell signal,” he explained in his usual clipped monotone. “I knew you wouldn't answer just any number.”

    Her attention turned to the lacquered oak nightstand alongside her bed. “Last I heard, you trashed a research facility, used a highly unstable mutagen on yourself, destroyed some of downtown Metropolis and then went AWOL.”

    “You heard wrong, then,” he rebutted flatly. “Our government decided that simply throwing my knowledge and expertise away was a bad idea. I've been given a new lease on life. But that's not why I'm calling.”

    “Why are you calling, then?” she inquired carefully, a polite chill in her voice.

    “I have information on Leopard Fever you might find useful,” Eiling stated. “But, we'll need to discuss this in person, this line isn't secure.”

    My line isn't secure?” Amanda all-but scoffed, eyebrow arched.

    “If I could get access to your phone, imagine who else could.” She scowled darkly at the disembodied voice. “Meet me outside of our old stomping grounds in an hour. And bring your research with you. We'll compare notes.”

    “Of course, General,” she agreed tritely, free hand moving to unlock the drawer with a practiced ease. “In an hour, then.”

    The line clicked and went silent.

    She slowly folded her phone shut, watching the display go black, plunging the room back into total darkness. Turning her head, she reached into the drawer and pulled out her handgun. She pressed her fingers across the clip release and double-checked that it was loaded. Slamming it back in with a sharp chak, she ran her thumb over the safety and casually flicked it off. “In one hour, then,” she repeated to herself.

    She slammed the drawer shut, then paused. She could've sworn... Carefully leaning over, she tugged it open again, hearing the faintest rattle. Amanda yanked on the golden chain of the mounted lamp, blinking against the sudden intrusion of light into her dilated pupils, and reached into the drawer. Feeling around for a moment, her fingertips finally brushed against something foreign. She hastily retracted her hand to examine her findings.

    It was a small, bat-shaped bug.

    Waller shook the device between her curled fingers like a dice. That sly bastard – he never failed to impress. “I take it you heard that conversation, then?” she asked into the silence. “Good. If I don't come back, then you'll know that whoever was on the line is a bigger threat than you believe I am.” She shook her head, surprised to find herself smirking as she got to her feet, muttering, “Never thought I'd live to see the day where I'd be happy to find a bug in my room.”

    ---

    J'onn's current charge was a living, breathing psychic nullifier. This...complicated matters. Extremely.

    He promptly released her. Her mannerisms suddenly made more sense. “You...are powerful,” he admitted, watching as the compliment seemed to please her greatly. Filing that information away for later, he continued, “Nyssa, are you able to find out what the soldiers here are doing?”

    She nodded, closing her eyes briefly. “They are evacuating.”

    “Why?”

    She shook her head lethargically, “I don't...” Her eyes flew open. “They are taking canisters of the plague with them.”

    He drew in a breath. This was where they were producing the disease strain. More pieces fell into place, but the whole picture remained elusive – Batman would want to hear about all of this, in great detail. For now, though, he had more immediate concerns. “Where is their evacuation exit?”

    “They don't have one,” she said. “They are being transported via a teleporter.”

    He straightened abruptly. “Do you know where the communications array is?”

    She tilted her head to the side, a strangely child-like gesture for a young woman that acted so adult. “But what of your friends?”

    “They'll be heading in the same direction,” he assured her quickly. “Can you show me the way?”

    “We are actually very close, it's just around this...” Nyssa skidded to a halt, words dying to a squeak in her throat when a black-clad soldier sailed past her, landing in an unmoving heap on the ground. “Corner.” She looked from the unconscious to the Martian with a raised eyebrow. “Your friends?”

    J'onn smirked at the teen. “Great minds think alike.”

    ---

    “Is this the best Ra's Al Ghul's got?” Shayera remarked as she ducked a punch, crushing her attacker's ribs with a debilitating blow from her mace. “I fought tougher people in school!”

    Talia twisted a soldier's arm to the breaking point, dropping the butt of her gun against the crown of his masked head and watching him collapse to the ground. “Military?”

    “Elementary.” A trio went flying down the hallway.

    She gaped at the Thanagarian for a split-second – long enough for another assailant to creep up behind her. She whirled, eyes wide, and moved to fire her gun, knowing her reaction time was too slow to properly aim even as she did so. Something ghosted past her, through her, and collided with the faceless thug before he could react, slamming him into a nearby wall with an audible crunch as the green figure passed through his now-limp body into the cement. A moment later, rising from the floor, serpentine, solidified the Martian Manhunter. His eyebrow ridge arched by way of greeting. “You have a visitor.”

    Confusedly, she followed his gaze, staring past Green Lantern, the former Hawkgirl, and the pile of unmoving bodies that were strewn along the corridor, and saw –

    She gasped. “Nyssa!”

    Talia shoved past the League duo, charging down the hall in a dead sprint, not caring that she was trampling men beneath her heeled boots in her rush to hold her daughter again. They sought to take her child away – there was no room for compassion or mercy in her heart for them. A lump in her throat, she flung her arms around the lanky teen, holding her tightly. “Oh, I have worried so much for you!”

    Nyssa politely patted her back, as though she were a stranger. “It is good to see you well, Mother.”

    Pulling back, Talia took in the sight of her – when had she become a woman? The last time she laid eyes on her, Nyssa was a quiet, soft-spoken seven year old. Regret tweaked at her ribs. “It has been too long,” she lamented, stroking her daughter's dark hair.

    Nyssa offered her a wilted smile. She'd always been something of a sad and lonely child; it broke her heart to see that she still found no true happiness in her life. “It has, Mother.”

    Talia felt Shayera's hand land solidly on her shoulder. “Don't mean to cut the reunion short, but we've got some disease trafficking to stop.” She nodded towards her allies as she started off. “Come on.”

    She turned to face Nyssa again, smiling and brushing a strand of hair from her face. “Let us go.”

    ---

    The communication room was as cramped and hard on the eyes as one would expect – computer terminals and monitors lined every inch of the walls, with barely enough space for two people to adequately maneuver, let alone work. Many of the monitors were linked to specific rooms; two were dedicated to the landing bay below them. Of the dozens of screens, only one was blank. J'onn surmised that was a good place to start, his hands flying over the keyboard. “What are you doing?” Talia asked.

    “Locking out the Watchtower transporter frequency,” he huffed, adjusting settings that flashed across the screen.

    John stood at his side, studying the controls. “You think the frequencies are identical?”

    “If Ra's Al Ghul used the same blueprints for both transporters, it's entirely possible,” he offered, pressing the Enter key.

    Satisfied, John started towards the door. “I'm going to go collect the pit sample.”

    Shayera uncrossed her arms and fell into step beside him. “Alright, then, let's go.”

    “Hang on a second, Shayera,” he ordered, staying her with a hand to her shoulder. “It may be better if J'onn comes with me.”

    “What? Why? My mace is resistant to magic and yellow.” She poked a finger into his chest. Hard. “You need me with you.”

    He clenched his jaw, his broad shoulders going rigid. “Sorry, Shayera, but I can't risk being slowed down.”

    Shayera's eyes became as volcanic as the bubbling pit he was nearly killed in a few hours ago. “Slowed down?”

    “We're running out of time,” J'onn interjected, standing between the couple before they came to blows. “I will go with Green Lantern as back-up, you can monitor our position from here and warn us of any impending trap.”

    She crossed her arms, fiery red hair swaying as she cocked her head to the side. “And how, exactly, am I supposed to warn you two? Our communicators and your brain are both jammed.”

    J'onn's gaze fell upon Nyssa. She shifted uncomfortably.

    ---

    John and J'onn flew down the abandoned, winding corridors with the speed and efficiency that came from years of working together. J'onn would have said he was keeping an eye out for anything abnormal, but given the somewhat hellish nature of this complex, here, abnormal was normal. He glanced at Green Lantern. “Shayera would have been the better choice to accompany you.”

    John, for a beat, pretended that he didn't exist. “I know.”

    He knit his brows. This man was more confusing than Batman, sometimes. “Then why keep her behind? She is fully capable of defending – “

    “I know,” he grated out with a pronounced sigh. “Look, J'onn, I'm here to do a job. We need this sample so we can potentially save billions of lives. Making sure it reaches the Watchtower is my main priority.” He looked away as the double-doors pulled back to reveal the yawning chasm of rock and the dangerous matter that it cradled in its earthen hands. “She was a soldier, too, she should know – the mission comes first.”

    J'onn appraised his ally of almost a decade, pining for the ability to brush against his mind and better discern the ex-Marine's train of thought. “Is it because of the mission,” he asked, “or because you fear you would choose her first in spite of it?”

    John grimaced, staring down at the boiling cauldron over a hundred feet below them. “I thought you couldn't read my mind here.”

    J'onn's lips twitched. “I didn't have to.”

    ---

    This, thought Shayera as she watched the two green men chat up old times while they sped down the hallways, was probably why the Amazons hated men so much. Her attention flickered to the monitors of the massive landing bay beneath them, pleased that none of the cargo seemed to have moved since John put in the jamming frequency. John. That pigheaded jock. It wasn't like she was some wet-eared rookie – she knew damn well about mission priorities; she'd made tough choices before. (Nevermind that many of those choices continued to haunt her, years after she'd made them.) She knew the importance of him retrieving the pit sample and was fully prepared to lay down her life to make sure he did just that. (It would be only fair.) He was compromising the mission by keeping the better-suited Leaguer on babysitting duty, instead of down in the fray, where she belonged.

    Her focus darted from her friends to the landing bay and back, tensely waiting for one of the two groups to get a clue and do something. She huffed, leaned on her palms, and decided, firmly, that she was not going to be relegated to crowd control when important work needed to be done. She returned to the blank monitor, bringing up the command display. “Do either of you know any of the access codes here?”

    Talia studied the screen. “My security clearance has likely been revoked, but I could try.”

    Shayera stepped aside. “Have at it.”

    The woman slipped past her easily, taller than she was, but thinner – more lithe and agile. The staccato clacking of keys was the only sound made in the cramped room as she hurriedly worked through the various screens and verifications. All for naught, evidently, as red letters flashed forbiddingly, bathing the two of them a dull crimson. Talia exhaled crossly through her nose. “It's no use; my codes have been denied. I cannot risk hacking the database, or else it may cause the security system in the complex to fully activate.” She craned her neck to look at Shayera. “What were you planning to search for?”

    “The jamming frequency has to be coming from somewhere,” the Thanagarian reasoned. “If we can trace that back to the satellite it's coming from, we might be able the find the location of the original signal.”

    “I can help.”

    Shayera pivoted, gaping at the gangly, younger carbon-copy of Talia Al Ghul. “You have access to the computer systems?” she questioned.

    “I don't,” Nyssa produced a key card from her sleeve with that same sickly little grin and off-kilter blue eyes, “but the soldier I stole this from did.”

    Shayera wasn't sure whether to be impressed, disturbed, or both. Personally, she was leaning towards the latter fairly heavily as she plucked the plastic card from her fingers, inserting it into the small slot next to the keyboard. 'Creepy kid.' “Well, let's see what we can find.” The screen winked out, then was filled with endless lines of code, before it filtered out to a single figure. Counting down.

    Three pairs of eyes went wide. “Is that – “

    Shayera wheeled around to the teen, gripping her shoulders tightly. “Nyssa, you have to warn J'onn and Green Lantern to leave.”

    Nyssa blinked and stammered, “I – “

    Do it!”

    The girl's face twitched and twisted in a mixture of concentration and frustration. “It isn't – your friend's mind – I – “

    She growled and stalked to the mic mounted onto the landing bay console, slamming her fist down on the call button. “Attention everyone,” she commanded, “this complex has activated its self-destruct sequence. If you don't want to go up like kindling, you better haul ass and be out of here in less than five minutes.” She was almost tempted to add, “Have a nice day,” but immediately thought against it, before resolving to punch Wally once, just because of his corruptive influence on her.

    'Well,' she mused wryly as she witnessed hundreds of uniformed men clamoring like headless chickens for the nearest exit, 'at least that poison isn't going anywhere, now.' A few moments later, J'onn emerged through the floor of the communication room, quickly taking in the situation. Shayera motioned to the countdown sequence on the screen. “This place is set to blow in five minutes,” she explained hastily, all but shoving the two women into his chest. “Take these two and get out of here – I'll go back for Green Lantern.”

    He wrapped his powerful arms around their waists, but hesitated briefly. Her shoulders almost slumped. 'Not you too, J'onn.'

    She couldn't be sure whether he read her thoughts or her expression, but the message was delivered loud and clear all the same. “Understood. I'll return to you both shortly.”

    She was already out the door.

    ---

    Ra's stood silently, arms folded behind his back beneath his velvet cloak. “Have you been able to re-establish contact with the teleporter?”

    “No, Master,” spoke an agent, “the frequency is still being jammed.” His fingers danced over the keys expertly, to no avail. “Shall I halt the destruct sequence?”

    He hummed in thought, regarding the images being fed to the screen from the Copán base with a detached sort of concern. “No. The loss of the contagion should prove only a minor setback.”

    The agent started. “B-but, Master, the men – “

    Ubu lunged forward without preamble, bunching one gigantic fist into his tunic and yanking him off his feet. “Dog! Do not presume to question the Master's judgment!”

    The masked underling choked and gasped in terror as he attempted to stammer an apology. Ra's held up his hand. “Ubu. That is enough.”

    Ubu glared at the simpering man in his grip for another moment before dropping him heavily back into his chair. He stood where he was, towering over the worker as his Master approached the display with authority, light blue eyes scanning the information before him. “Master,” he asked quietly, careful to maintain a visage of deference, especially in plain view of the whelp he'd just disciplined, “what of Miss Talia and Nyssa?”

    Ra's stared ahead blankly, expression devoid of emotion. “It is...unfortunate,” he said at length, “but Mother Earth has lost far more than a child in humanity's unquenchable thirst for conquest.” He straightened. “Their sacrifice shall not be in vain.”

    ---

    Fat beads of sweat dotted John's forehead as he hovered fifteen feet over the tainted pit that seethed in rage at his intrusion. It was proving surprisingly difficult to maintain his concentration on the construct he created to hold the stuff; twice now, the bottom fell out of the beaker as soon as it was full for reasons he couldn't fathom. He supposed he would have the chance to dwell on it later, after they got out of this underground sinkhole and back to the Watchtower. Neck muscles twining like vines beneath his dark skin, he forced all of his willpower into the miniscule vial and lifted it from the fetid green muck. It held.

    Breathing out a sigh of momentary relief, he willed a cork to cap the flask in his hand and shot up out of the small grotto – away from the sickly mire that churned and frothed, releasing toxic fumes that sat and burned like acid against his lungs. And to think, someone actually figured that diving into one of these things was a good idea? The things people did to try and prolong their lives. He wiped the sweat from his brow with the back of his spare hand, leaving the Lazarus Pit behind him as he hurried for the cross-locked double doors that sealed the chamber. They opened prematurely, Shayera's ever-beautiful figure backlit by the red warning lights that strobed in tandem along the ceiling corners. “Shayera? What – “

    She surged forward, grabbing his wrist roughly and wrenching him ahead with a staggering amount of power. There were times he forgot that Thanagarian women were many times stronger than humans. It certainly made their love life interesting. “We gotta go! Come on!”

    Naturally, when a teammate said to run, he did. When that teammate was his wife, though – the same one he was trying to protect by keeping her out of harm's way – things became a bit murkier. “I thought I told you to stay with the others.”

    “J'onn can evacuate them faster,” she responded, all business. “This place is set to implode in less than a minute, we need to – “

    The chamber they hovered in quaked violently, the earthen floor pitching and rolling with the force of a powerful explosion. John gaped at her. “How much less than a minute?”

    The natural ceiling of the grotto thundered, crooked lines skittering across the slate, etching an ever-growing spiderweb. A chunk the size of a Javelin dislodged itself, spinning leisurely as it plunged downward. Shayera launched herself toward the massive boulder and let loose a fearsome warcry. Her mace connected with the rock and shattered it into smaller, jagged chunks that rained down around the currently defenseless Lantern, a spray of dust and dirt sprinkling over them both. She swiveled her head on her rounded shoulders, very much like the bird of prey she once named herself after, jade eyes sharp and demanding. “Move! I'll cover you!”

    'The mission comes first.'

    He flew into the corridor.

    ---

    J'onn heard the muted sonic boom of a triggered explosive device before either of the women did, his back tensing. He set them down in the underbrush with a quick, “Wait here,” and whisked off to assist his friends. He dove into the grass-covered ground that was currently being rocked by tremors. The innate dampening field Nyssa generated was still in effect, so he couldn't be certain where they were, let alone how quickly he could aid them. None of that was relevant, though – he would not leave his friends behind.

    He emerged in time to see the roiling cloud of fire barrel directly into him.

    ---

    They weren't going to make it.

    They weren't going to make it.

    Shayera angled herself up mid-air, jamming her mace into a crumbling support beam overhead, grunting through bared teeth as her husband narrowly dodged a section of wall that collapsed inward. Once he was through in a green blur, she released the groaning beam, shoving herself back awkwardly as it creaked, and then buckled; the five-hundred pound slab of steel twisting free of its frame like it were a bent playing card. Doing so sent her off-kilter, slowing her momentum enough that she didn't avoid the next steel beam from drilling into her back, slamming her into the ground with enough force to knock the wind from her lungs.

    She felt strong arms slip under hers and drag her into flight, her wings obeying out of rote and instinct more than any command she rightfully gave. His hand was clamped tightly to the crook of her left elbow as he suddenly halted to back away from a jet of dust that sprayed from the ceiling. He shifted and edged past the column of oppressive dirt, tugging her along with him. The main stairwell was within reach, but that didn't stop the wall of white-hot fire, brimstone, and molten steel from hurtling toward them both at more than terminal velocity.

    She wasn't going to make it – but she'd be damned if John wasn't going to get out alive.

    Shayera shoved her husband out of the way.

    ---

    Batman received Waller's message loud and clear, and her assessment of the situation was correct – whoever arranged a meeting with her was clearly a threat. However, Waller was going to be sorely disappointed if she believed that any rescue attempt was coming by him; he was currently shoulder deep in his own problems. “Nightwing, how did you get Wonder Woman's frequency?” he demanded.

    “From her communicator,” Dick answered tensely. “It was lying on the floor outside of the cell.”

    Pondering how exactly Dick was able to breach the security of the bio-chemical containment unit that he himself designed from the inside, he repeated, “It was on the floor.”

    “Yeah,” came the uneasy reply. “I'm guessing that's not something she normally does?”

    He felt the sickly threads of worry tickling up his nerves and stamped it down – stamped everything down. His voice became hard. “Access the room's security cameras.”

    “I thought this room didn't have – oh wait, this is you. Let me find it.” The next ten seconds of silence dragged on slowly as he crouched at the base of a building's water tower, closely watching the military helicopter that buzzed overhead, streaming a searchlight over the area for him. They would come up empty-handed. “Got it! Want me to patch it through?”

    Batman unclasped the palm-top computer from his gauntlet, inputting a command. “Go ahead.”

    The information streamed onto the tiny flat-screened monitor. Diana sat at the nearby computer interface, researching someone from the looks of it, when she whirled into a defensive stance, protectively guarding the unit. The unauthorized visitor remained frustratingly off-screen, but the words she spoke were more than telling enough. His lips pressed into an angry line. “Who is this guy?” Dick asked.

    “Dangerous,” he hissed as he watched Diana's mouth open in a wordless scream from whatever the blue-clad figure was doing to her, before a flash of blinding light engulfed the screen. When it faded, they were both gone.

    “Do not worry for her safety, Batman,” came a voice from behind him. He whipped his head around, leveling a baleful glare and a Batarang at the very same man that vanished from his screen. “She is unharmed.”

    “Where's Wonder Woman?” he growled, eyes slits.

    “Not where,” the stranger responded coolly. “When.”

    To be continued...



    ***

    All my chapters seem to end in explosions. Well, whatever. YAY FOR PLOT. :D
     
    #75 SilverKnight, Sep 27, 2010
    Last edited by a moderator: Nov 16, 2012
  16. klammed

    klammed the fool.

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    'Yay plot' indeed!

    OOh. Nice. Nice. I much enjoy the inclusion of Ubu. Ah how I've missed the brute, and I'm guessing we're going to see more of him later. Dick escaping the bio-containment unit, for however brief a time, can't possibly be good. But proves Batman's whole assessment of him in the logs that Wonder Woman was reading, which is cool. Neat exchange there as well. 'It was on the floor'. Loll xD. I can so hear that line being said.

    Also, explosions are good.
     
  17. SilverKnight

    SilverKnight Sigh.

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    The Spectre noted how intrigued Phantom Stranger was by Batman. The Dark Knight was, by all accounts, his living antithesis. However, in spite of his rage, his thirst for bloody retribution, he denied himself all of it. He refused to be cowed by those who sought to break him, by the vices that whispered lovingly to him; he resisted the temptation to unleash his hatred upon those who, in his own eyes, justly deserved all his wrath and more. His want for vengeance was great, but his need for justice was greater.

    Truth be told, it irritated the Spectre to no end. He was certain the Stranger enjoyed that. That pompous fool.

    He imagined that was partly why Stranger was down there, on Earth, trying his hardest to avert a crisis that could not be averted – even he, the Wrath of God incarnate, could only bow before the forces at play. It was not his place to impede upon humanity's fate; indeed, it was their own choices that called him to their doorsteps in the dead of night, seeking to mete out true justice, and not that...farce Phantom Stranger subscribed to. What laid in store for them all was nothing short of just desserts – the true innocents would be rewarded for their fealty, and the guilty would burn, as they always should have.

    Where did Batman fall, though, he wondered? Was he an innocent, struck down by the wicked, and twisted into the very terrors that the wicked themselves feared? Or was he as guilty as those he tried to stop, succumbing to the sins of human nature? The Spectre tilted his ashen, gaunt face up, soulless yellowed eyes fixating upon the hourglass that hung above them all. A single grain of sand had the power to move worlds, galaxies, transplant billions of souls from one form to another with the faintest shift of its miniscule axis. He did not know which grain held Batman's soul, nor did he know where that grain would land.

    It wasn't his place to interfere. However, for the sake of his most favored servant, perhaps he would.

    When the time was right.

    17.
    The Tangled Web

    The Spectre observed the scene below. It would do well to at least keep himself apprised of his mortal protege's situation, especially in light of how dire the circumstances were. Especially if Phantom Stranger was sticking his nose into it.

    They stood atop a particularly dilapidated roof, Batman semi-crouched beneath a steel girder to blend further into the shadows it created, glaring at Phantom Stranger distrustfully. A helicopter hovered nearby, close enough that it could have seen Batman. Close enough that it should have seen Batman. They didn't. “What do you want?”

    “Don't be alarmed, I am – “

    “Phantom Stranger,” Batman cut in impatiently, “a powerful mystic of unknown origin that many in the arcane community consider an authority – and in some circles, the authority.”

    Phantom Stranger inclined his head. “Impressive.”

    The Bat's eyes narrowed. “I'll ask you again: what do you want?”

    “I'm alarmed at the way you've been conducting yourself lately,” Stranger stated.

    The Dark Knight's features, already tightened with fatigue and irritation, twisted further into a scowl. “Go haunt a house. I'm busy.”

    Phantom Stranger's lips quirked into the faintest of smirks that disappeared as quickly as it came. “So I see,” he remarked smoothly, eying the Blackhawk that soared in a grid pattern search, search lights cutting through the night like a scalpel through diseased flesh. That last streak of light clipped a small section of Batman's cape. The marvel of technology stopped midair, the powerful beam focusing on the girder he huddled behind. His face remained out of view, even as his flowing cape gave him away. The Stranger raised a gloved hand. “Allow me to assist.”

    Batman glared at him darkly. “I thought you couldn't directly interfere.”

    “I'm not.” Despite his words, the world around them shifted, swirled, and warped into whorls of color before it resettled to a room that was familiar to Bruce from blueprints alone.

    He blinked once, acquainting himself with the architecture, though the sight of built-in incubators and sterile metal cribs was quite telling enough. “The Watchtower nursery?” he grunted, brows furrowed. His eyes, dulled by overexertion he failed to admit existed, fell upon the slumbering butler, holding an equally unconscious newborn in a surprisingly homely looking wooden rocking chair right next to him. He never remembered having that brought in; he wondered which of the other founders had a hand in that. Clark came to mind almost immediately. His shadow spilled over them both, his eyes fixed on them even as he aimed his words at the Stranger, who stood at his side. “What did you want from Diana?”

    His voice was frustratingly soothing. “It was Diana who wanted something.”

    And he was playing the mysterious angle entirely too hard. “And that is?”

    “She wanted to understand you.”

    The words burned like acid in his ears. “I don't want her to understand me,” Batman growled through curled lips, a flare of familiar anger warming him. “I don't want anyone to.” No one should ever know what it was like – no one would ever know. Ever.

    The Stranger gave no reaction. “Wonder Woman can save you.”

    His stomach was too empty to taste bile on the back of his tongue like he was expecting. “She's wasting her time.” The even stare he was being given manifested itself as a constant unwanted pressure against his right temple. He felt compelled to elaborate, lest Stranger draw unwarranted conclusions. The last thing he needed was a pseudo-omniscient being plucking at his already-frayed strings. “Millions of lives are at stake. There are more important things to worry about.”

    In front of him, Alfred snorted quietly and awoke with a groggy, “Master Bruce?” He blinked milky eyes and continued, “Might I inquire – “ half aborted yawn, “ – as to who you're speaking with?”

    Bruce glanced to his right and found only empty air. His teeth clacked together in chagrin – that really was irritating, wasn't it? “It doesn't matter.” He gazed down at the loyal butler, still dutifully holding the tiny bundle against him as protectively as any guardian should be. He laid a hand on the elder man's shoulder. “Get some rest. I'll take care of the baby.”

    Eyes clearing of their fog, Alfred warned, “Master Bruce, I wouldn't...” His refined tenor trailed off in surprise as he witnessed the Dark Knight Detective, fearsome terror of the night, gently slip a muscled and calloused hand under the newborn's belly, his leather-clad palm nearly dwarfing the child in its entirety as he rested baby Rex against his broad, armored chest. It was quite possibly the most contrary image Alfred Pennyworth had ever seen, and he had lived through more than a few strange occurrences in his eighty-seven years of life. What truly sold the image, though, was how Master Bruce was handling him with such ridiculous ease, as if holding a gurgling and helpless infant was something he was born to do.

    It pained Alfred. If only he could tell Bruce just how much he took after his father without fear of watching those haunting blue eyes cloud over with pain.

    “Wow, Bats with a baby!” came the astounded voice, belonging to a silhouette lounging against the doorjamb. On cue, Batman's eyes became glowing slits of barely-restrained malice aimed at the lanky speedster. Said lanky speedster was quite obliged not to care. “If that's not a sign of the apocalypse, I don't know what is.”

    Bruce was sorely tempted to reply, “Shut up, Wally,” which was something he found himself wanting to say to the redhead a great deal, and the ability to resist became harder every time the opportunity presented itself. Instead, he quietly shushed the red-suited figure and glided toward the only crib showed had any sign of occupation.

    “Why'd you even build this room, anyway?” Flash continued, undaunted and cheerful as ever.

    “It pays to be prepared,” he answered, careful to keep his voice low. Children were notoriously light sleepers, and he wasn't about to handle a squalling half-Thanagarian infant that, from what he'd heard, liked to come out swinging.

    “Hey, careful now,” Flash jibed with a waggle of his eyebrows, “you're starting to step on Superman's lines.”

    His earlier migraine returned with a vengeance, and he pinned the speedster with a harsh glare.

    Flash held his hands up in placation, lips curving down in an expression of innocent shock. “Whoa, easy, Bats, we're all friends here.” He paused, looking slightly hurt. “We are friends here, right?”

    Bruce deigned not to dignify the question with a response and placed Rex in the cushion-lined crib, careful to make plenty of room for fresh air to circulate. His research into Sudden Infant Death Syndrome concluded that a majority of the cases stemmed from laying the infant on their stomach or in poorly ventilated areas, their inability to turn over causing them to eventually suffocate on their own carbon dioxide. In spite of his self-imposed embargo on all League members, he ensured that information quietly and anonymously found its way into Shayera's quarters within the first month of her pregnancy. His hand unconsciously came to rest on the baby's outstretched arm (that wasn't even the size of his index finger) as he flatly stared at the lean hero. “A little late for you, isn't it?”

    Flash shrugged. “Hey, evil never sleeps,” he commented offhandedly. “Besides, I was waiting on some test results to come in.”

    “Test results?”

    Wally stared at him like he was dumb. “You aren't the only science whiz around here, y'know.”

    The urge to hit him was unusually strong, but when Rex's pudgy arm twitched beneath his fingers, the sudden spark of anger was unceremoniously snuffed out. He withdrew his hand from the crib. “I thought you only worked on forensics.”

    “Forensics is more than just dusting for fingerprints, Bats, you oughtta know that,” Flash responded with a caustic snort. “It's chemistry, physics, some good-old fashioned detective work, and lots of medicine.” He held up a folded sheet of paper between his fore and middle fingers, brows raised. “Wanna compare notes?”

    ---

    Amanda Waller adjusted her coat for the third time in two minutes, dark eyes skittering across the barren parking lot next door to the French restaurant she and Eiling often chatted business in. She stood next to her unlocked car door, hands patiently behind her back (and one holding onto the handle, in case it proved to be the trap she expected it was) and her heeled toe impatiently tapping against the cracked and resealed pavement. A gust of wind raced around the watermarked pillars of the deserted lot, causing her skin to prickle uncomfortably beneath her clothing. A fine choice for a meeting, all things concerned. It would have made a great scene in a movie.

    The rumbling of a car echoed from the tightly looped ramp, its brakes wheezing and screeching sharply in the otherwise silent evening as it halted a few yards in front of her. She reached her free hand up to shield her squinted eyes, trying to discern the figures that exited the purring black vehicle. Three stepped in front of the lights, two of them casting their shadows over herself and the hulking, monstrous silhouette that lumbered toward her. For a moment, she thought it was Doomsday. She sucked in a breath when she recognized the face, despite its disfigurement. “You've seen better days, Eiling.”

    He wasn't in uniform, but the custom-tailored black suit he wore might as well have been, from the way he carried himself. Even as a monstrosity, he he held the same rigid posture of a lifer. “So have you, Amanda. I hear you're up to your neck in this pandemic business.”

    “That's why we're having this little meeting, aren't we?” she clarified archly.

    “Not quite,” Eiling said. Waller clenched her teeth, her fingers gripping the door handle tighter. “The Joint Chiefs had some...doubts as to whether or not you'd be willing to fully commit yourself to the task.”

    “You mean, whether or not I'd be capable of killing innocent civilians to save the nation?” His form was gargantuan, grotesque and deformed even beneath the fine black threads of his blazer. She did not fear him. “You know as well as I do, Eiling – I'll do whatever it takes to keep my country safe.”

    A scaled and calloused gray hand slid into his jacket, procuring a small recorder between his meaty fingers. “Commitment is more than just words and wants, Amanda,” he chided as he flicked the play button on the device.

    “Time is a commodity no one can afford right now,” her own voice, tinny and warbling, spilled from the speakers. “Going through official channels was the best I could do without arousing suspicion – “

    Click.
    Waller remained steely, defiant, under Eiling's damning gaze. “It takes dedication to your cause.” He pocketed the recorder. “That's something you've apparently lost in the past few years.”

    She lifted her chin proudly, unwilling to let the slight pass. “I've done more for the stability and security of this country in the last six years than you've done in your entire tenure, General. And not only do I have the full backing of the United States government, I have the most dangerous man on the planet working for me on this.”

    A ridged eyebrow tugged up. “Is that so?” He subtly nodded to the duo behind him. One stepped forward, faceless against the glaring headlights, and held out a thick manilla folder inches from her chest.

    Brows furrowed, she hesitantly released the car handle and took the offered file, asking distrustfully, “What is this?”

    Eiling appeared almost smug as she opened it. “Think of it as a gift. You might want to know who you're trusting.”

    Wordlessly, she opened the folder and began rifling through its contents. Within, it contained dozens of pages and photographs – Ra's Al Ghul's meager government file with a foggy picture attached, a list of Batman's sightings and dated, cross-referenced to dates that Society activity peaked in the same area. “We've been keeping track of your pet Bat for a while now,” Eiling continued casually, a faint leer adorning his hideous face. “He's been quite the busy bee, as you can tell.”

    Amanda's searching stopped abruptly when her fingertips brushed against a small stack of satellite photos taken five years prior, the location cited as Milan. In it, from an overhead angle, was Talia Al Ghul, daughter and heir-apparent to the Al Ghul operation, in the arms of one Dark Knight. She flipped to the next one. They were in a similar embrace, but her flowing purple blouse came untucked. Then... She closed the folder and her eyes. “This...doesn't mean anything,” she affirmed, gripping the file tightly.

    “It means,” Eiling asserted, “that the daughter of the terrorist responsible for the pandemic has an intimate relationship with your savior.”

    Had a relationship with,” she rebuked sharply, glaring up and up at the mountain in front of her. “For all we know here, Batman could have been seducing her to get information on her father.”

    “So what's this, then?” he retorted, pulling out another, smaller, photo for her to see. The glossy paper illustrated in digital clarity the very same woman standing shoulder to shoulder with three founding members of the Justice League, ascending an ancient Mayan ziggurat that, she recalled from previous reports, they had suspicions of hiding a Society stronghold. “This was taken three hours ago in Honduras.”
    She shook her head, denying the information entry into her mind. “Why would the League purposely disseminate a disease when they have the power to take us down outright?”

    “They wouldn't be the heroes, then,” he explained, eyes cold. “This way, they can swoop in with the cure, save billions, and the nations of the world would be so grateful, we'd just roll right over for them.”

    She couldn't ignore what was in front of her, her mind working overtime to connect the dots and reignite old animosity, but...this was Batman. She wouldn't believe that he would sell out humanity for personal gain. “Batman would never go along with this willingly.”

    “Of all the people in the world who could come up with an idea like this, who do you think would be able to pull it off?” Eiling questioned, pointedly adding, “Don't forget, Amanda – Batman was a Justice Lord, too.”

    The truth in his words made her chest hurt, just a little. She ignored it. “That Batman turned the other Lords in.”

    “That Batman convinced his allies to take over the world.” His eyes, still the same stark blue she remembered from almost half a decade ago, became nearly pitying. That was enough to make her want to vomit, in and of itself. “You're smarter than this, Amanda. Think.”

    Oh, she was. She was, and Lord above save her, she didn't want to. Batman was dangerous, cunning, manipulative – but he had heart. He sacrificed so much of himself for other people, gave up every semblance of a normal life to wage a war on crime that could never be won. And he did it only because he couldn't stand the thought of remaining idle while others were suffering. That was not the earmark of a man who would let billions die so he could grab even more power than he already possessed. He was already the undisputed King of Gotham, and that King was quite obviously bleeding for his beloved and ailing people. That it could all have been a ruse was...unthinkable.

    But she was, anyway.

    She held the folder to her chest. “What do you propose?”

    “Push up the timetable,” Eiling stated forcefully. “Pull all vital contingents out of Gotham by sunrise and then take the shot.”

    “In broad daylight, Eiling?” Her left hand went to her rounded hip. “And what are we supposed to tell the American public when they watch one of their oldest cities destroyed by a government-issued thermonuclear warhead?”

    “We tell them that the nuke was an act of war from Ra's Al Ghul and all who harbor him,” Eiling countered, raising two pillar-like fingers. “Two birds, one stone.”

    Waller mulled the idea over in her steel trap of a mind. “It has merit,” she admitted, tapping her manicured nails against the manilla folder absently. “Why didn't you bring any of this to my attention earlier?”

    One massive shoulder rolled indifferently, lumbering back to the black Sedan. “I thought you had it covered.” Her eyes darkened at the pot shot, but before she could speak, he tossed back to her, “Someone has to watch the watchers, Amanda. Otherwise, they may forget what they're watching for.”

    ---

    J'onn found it difficult to breathe, at first, as he blinked dazed red eyes that stared aimlessly through the rustling canopy. Reacquainting himself with the world around him, namely the distinct lack of rumbling of the earth below him, he hauled himself from his prone position in the tall grass onto his burnt and stinging knees. Rubbing the side of his head, he focused all of his energies onto the now-imploded temple, struggling to search for his friends telepathically. He grit his teeth in annoyance when, again, Nyssa's interference prevented him from such a simple ability. He turned to the forest behind him. “Nyssa,” he barked, “can you feel Green Lantern or Shayera?”

    'I'm not certain,' she replied inside his mind. 'Which ones are they?'

    He knew she felt his anger, and didn't care one whit. 'Nevermind.' Rising to his feet, he dove head first into the smoldering rubble. The green blur that was the Martian Manhunter bobbed up and down through the mountain of charred stone for several moments, before the clattering of debris brought him to the surface again. Rushing forward, he began to hurl soot-covered boulders over his shoulder, helping to dig out whatever was trapped beneath him.

    The mound cracked open after an agonizing fifteen seconds, revealing two very dirty and injured, but otherwise alive, Leaguers. Green Lantern cradled his unconscious wife beneath the safety of his body as the skin-tight green bubble dispersed back into his ring. He looked from Shayera to J'onn, unnaturally light emerald eyes rueful and relieved simultaneously. “Guess you were right, after all,” he murmured to the Martian as he slid her into his arms more comfortably, standing with minimal assistance.

    J'onn smirked grimly, laying a comforting hand on his shoulder. “Soldiers never leave one of their own behind.”

    The weakest flicker of a smile graced his darkened features. “No, they don't.” His focus turned to the rubble they stood amongst, expression tightening. “I lost the pit sample. There's no way to get it, now.”

    “Then we will make do without it,” J'onn reassured.

    Green Lantern grunted with a frown, staring back down at the Thanagarian. “Tell that to Batman.”

    ---

    “So, Nightwing,” Flash began amiably.

    Batman didn't look up from the microscope. “What about him?”

    “How'd he go from Little Bird to Batman Lite?” he chirped, leaning against the worktable.

    Batman studiously ignored him, focused intently on the droplet of blood they'd obtained from Nightwing minutes before.

    “Oh, I get it,” Flash said. “Personal, huh? Right. My mistake.” He tapped the heel of his right foot against his left ankle. Checked the computer. Returned to lightly kicking his ankle. Scuffed the toe of his shoe against the floor uneasily.

    The Dark Knight sighed quietly. “What is it?”

    He shook his head. “What? Nothing.” Flash thought he saw Bats' hand twitch, but that could've been a trick of the light. Easily. Yeah. Totally wasn't a sign of restraint. “I'm just curious, is all. I mean, sure, we all heard of Batman and Robin, but I never thought that ol' Robbie number-one would be so...so...”

    “Normal?” Batman evenly supplied, still pointedly analyzing the blood sample.

    “Yeah – no!” Flash stammered and tried to think of a less lame way to say, 'He's totally not a whackjob like everyone assumes you are.' He decided opening that particular can of worms would only wind up with him as a Flash-pretzel. Flash-tzel? Whatever. “He's...pretty well-adjusted for growing up as one of the Longjohns Brigade, I mean.”

    Was that the most miniscule smirk ever on Batman's face? That had to have been a trick of the light. Probably just a scowl gone wrong, or something. “Nightwing has always been very strong-willed and independent,” he said clinically. “I doubt I could've made him do anything he didn't want to do.”

    “So, why'd he stop being Robin?” he asked, tilting his head to the side.

    More ignoring.


    Complicated?” No response. “Really complicated?” Batman adjusted the magnification of the microscope. In spite of the lack of response, or perhaps, because of it, Flash nodded in understanding. “Ooh. So, you think that maybe he really didn't want to, but only thought he wanted to because you were so awesome, and then decided he didn't really want to, but that you made him think he wanted to?” Flash rambled. It sounded like something out of some really bad soap opera, so when it came to Bats, it had at least a fifty percent chance of being true. He nodded again. “Yeah. Makes sense.”

    Batman leaned back in his chair and pinched the bridge of his nose. Flash frowned. “Headache?”

    “You have no idea.”

    Misinterpreting the cause, he sidled over and clapped a hand on the Caped Crusader's tensed shoulder. Feeling the already-taut muscles bulge beneath his palm wasn't a big deal. “Don't worry, Bats, between the two of us, we're bound to get this thing figured out.” The terminal across the room beeped and the Scarlet Speedster zoomed over to print out the results, oblivious to how close Batman was to breaking every bone in his hand.

    “Bummer,” Flash groused, walking back toward Batman at a significantly slower pace. He dropped the sheets onto the table next to the silent Knight. (Heh, silent knight – awesome.) “The results came up negative again.” Leaning onto his hands, he stared hard at the report, as if he were willing them to change or yield something more positive than what was there.

    Batman quickly scanned the document, returning to the slide. “This disease has been run through every conventional test there is; did you think the best scientists and toxicologists in the world might have missed something?”

    “Oh come on, Bats,” Flash snapped, “you know I'm trying to help!”

    He still didn't bother looking at him. “Trying to help and actually helping are two different things.”

    Anger was pretty rare for Wally; he was an exuberant puppy with big eyes, a big heart, and a lot of excess energy to go around and get into trouble over stupid things with. When something hurt him, he was more likely to shrink back and wonder what he did wrong, rather than feel the need to make them hurt in kind. It just wasn't his thing. Bats had that kind of effect on people, though; making them do things they wouldn't ordinarily do – that was his thing. Stiffening, he dropped a hand forcefully between Batman's pointy-eared head and that stupid microscope that was getting all his attention. “Hey, look, Bats, I – “

    Batman twisted his head like that one machine dude from that one scary movie he saw as a kid, and just glared.

    He lost the ability to form coherent thoughts, let alone words. Still, he gulped and managed to blurt out, “Sorry.”

    Unblinking, Batman returned to the microscope. He took the slide out from beneath the high-powered tool and held it out for Flash to take. “Analyze this for me.”

    Unsure, he plucked the small rectangular glass from the Bat's grasp. “I thought you just did.”

    “A second pair of eyes can't hurt.” He slid another sample under the scope and began scribbling notes in that distinct chicken-scratch of his.

    Flash blinked. “Didn't you just say trying to help and helping aren't the same thing?”

    Batman's gaze remained steadfast on the sample. “You're helping.”

    He almost dropped the slide. From Batman, that was like the nicest thing he could ever say. For him, not wanting to leave you hanging upside down from a skyscraper was complimentary – outright saying that he was actually helping the Big Bad Bat out?

    So. Awesome.

    He totally wasn't going to let this go to his head. At all.

    He grinned brightly, dashing to the nearest microscope, pen and paper in hand. “One majorly awesome analyzation, coming up!” He was so concerned with doing Bats proud, so concerned that he was being given a chance to really prove himself, that he didn't notice the man turn his head and stare at the Scarlet Speedster with a tiny, appreciative smirk.

    ---

    Barbara trudged up the stairs of Tim's apartment building, cursing that she didn't take the elevator like she should have. What did she have to prove by walking up six flights while lugging two incredibly large paper bags full of groceries? So what if two of the men waiting inside were looking at her like fresh meat? She was Batgirl; she could've easily taken them in a fight. But, that would've raised questions and garnered attention, and she would have dropped all of this perfectly edible food in the process. She didn't just spend seventy-five dollars for nothing.

    Besides, with guys like that, she was bound to run into them sometime soon, and then she'd...

    'Arrest them, like any officer of the law would,' she amended tightly. She was Batgirl – past tense. Bruce, and those two bullets near her spine, saw to that pretty effectively. She could still hold more than her own in a fight, but high-flying acrobatics and gymnastics were a thing of the past. She was lucky she could still use her legs at all. She supposed she had Bruce to thank for that, too.

    Her booted foot landed on the landing of the sixth floor with trumpets blaring inside her skull, and she rounded the corner –

    Just as someone plowed right into her, sending her sprawling down the stairs; fruit, cans, and frozen dinners tumbling down the carpeted metal steps around her. Her back on fire, she latched onto a thin steel baluster and dragged herself to her feet, the groceries forgotten. Making a gut decision, she ignored the figure in black as they disappeared through an emergency exit and sped toward Tim's room. Fists primed, heart pounding, she said to Hell to the doctors that told her she wouldn't be able to do a somersault anymore, and aimed a flying kick at the ajar door.

    Barbara took one look at what was left of the room and screamed.

    ---

    Flash was just about done with the third slide Batman had given him, silence stretching between them both, when he spied the Dark Knight's head perk up. He raised a finger to his ear. “Go ahead.”

    Keeping an eye out, Flash scribbled down another four pages of notes on the slide, ranging from haematocrit to differential white blood cell count, when he noticed Bats stiffen. Well, stiffen more than normal. “Slow down, Barbara,” he ordered, “what happened?”

    His ears pricked up. Barbara? The only Barbara he could think of was Barbara Gordon, who used to be Batgirl (and here everyone thought he didn't do his homework, pshaw). Halfway pretending not to look – and failing miserably at it – he witnessed Batman's spare hand grip the armrest of the chair so hard that the steel began to actually warp. Alarm bells began going off in his head like crazy, and for a split second, he wasn't sure whether he should offer to help, or find the nearest fallout shelter to hide in, because when Batman got cheesed off, bad things started happening.

    Batman stood to his full, imposing height, his glower so sharp it could cut through a sheet of paper like it wasn't even there. “Stay there – I'll be there in a minute.”

    A voice chattered ominously in Wally's head, 'One-percentville – population: Bats.'

    Oh, he was so unbelievably screwed.

    ---

    This was logical. This was rational. Bruce knew this was going to happen; he'd counted on it, after watching the Gordon home get blown apart like cheap tinder. It was an inevitability, and after all, he had trained Tim to take care of himself – even all of the Joker's twisted machinations couldn't have completely robbed him of the ability to defend himself, right?

    He felt Flash's openly worried gaze upon him and steeled himself further as he made his way to the door. Emotions did nothing for him at this point; remaining focused on the facts at hand was the singular way to solve this. Tim was young, but he was strong, and capable, and very street-smart; he would be fine.

    He ignored the sense of deja vu that washed over him, knowing that he'd said those exact same words to himself four years ago, and knowing that he'd quashed the same initial fear. It did him no good. He silenced it, clamped it down, set it aside and buried it in a tiny little box to be dealt with later, because the boy needed him, and this time, he would not fail him.

    Flash laid a hand on his shoulder for the second time in five minutes. “Bats?” he queried timidly. “A-are you...okay?”

    He gaped at the Flash, wondering how anyone could possibly ask such a stupid question. He was preparing to grate out a simple, “I'm fine,” but instead, actually looked at the young man before him. His selfless concern stung inexplicably; dabbing antiseptic on a fresh wound. Wally, always so trusting and compassionate to everyone – even him. Especially him. He wasn't sure he deserved it.

    “Tim's gone missing,” he announced, voice neutral; sterile.

    Wally's eyes widened. “Robin number-two?” His gaunt face hardened in determination, his grip on his shoulder strengthening. “Where do you want me to start looking?”

    He almost felt humbled. Almost. He shook his head. “Nowhere. Keep working on the samples.”

    Flash shot him a disapproving look. “C'mon, Bats, seriously? Your little Batscout's gone poof in the night, and you want me to look at slides? How am I supposed to do that?”

    He clutched Flash's wrist tightly, yanking his hand away. “Because seven-billion people are depending on you to.” He fell silent for a heartbeat. “Including me.”

    Flash still had the temerity to appear dubious of his near-confession. “If it turns out you do need me to find him, will you at least call me?”

    No. “Yes.” There was no other way.

    Wally nodded, a little relieved. “Alright.” A red finger was shoved an inch away from his nose. “But I'm gonna hold you to that, Bats.”

    “I know you will,” he said. 'I'm sorry.'

    Calmly, he brushed past the Scarlet Speedster.

    ---

    Diana groaned, head throbbing in time with her elevated heartbeat, throat raw and lungs burning from the bitterly cold air. Her mind swam with fading images of atrocities, of death and destruction and sorrow beyond anything she could have imagined feeling, and all from one person. Her limbs ached and her soul wept for that person, whose name and face were now too far from her mind to recall – perhaps, who her mind refused to recall. Semantics, regardless. She blinked, wrinkling her brows as she shifted on the cold, wet ground.

    “Honey, she's coming to!” a voice exclaimed, a vibrato; splendorous.

    Testing her limbs, she wiggled her toes in her boots and her fingers at her sides, pleased to know they were all in working order. Footsteps sounded to her left, a muted sploosh of water reverberating just as she felt a large, warm hand press itself tenderly against her neck, thumb brushing softly against the soft spot along her jaw. The movement was familiar and erotic, and it was enough to force her eyes open blearily.

    A handsome face swam into view, concern etched on his chiseled, strong features. Warm blue eyes gazed at her own, gauging her every thought and feeling in the single tick of a watch. Her red lips curled of their own accord. “Bruce,” she whispered contently.

    The man blinked, eyes briefly flickering over to the woman that knelt next to him in alarm. “Bruce?”

    Confusedly, she regarded Not-Bruce evenly, then took stock of the young woman at his side. They looked so familiar

    Her blood ran as cold as the slush she laid in. 'Oh Hera.'

    “I'm afraid you have me mistaken with someone else, ma'am,” the man apologized with a kind smile that broke her heart. “My name is Thomas. Thomas Wayne.”


    To be continued...

    ***

    Batman + baby = die of cute. Oh, and requisite "Flash is awesome" shout-out. Because he is.
     
    #77 SilverKnight, Oct 11, 2010
    Last edited by a moderator: Nov 16, 2012
  18. SilverKnight

    SilverKnight Sigh.

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    Tim's apartment was in tatters. Furniture was overturned or outright broken, the beige drapes were torn from their rings and lay puddled against the off-white carpet, both stained with splotches of drying blood. A cold gust of wind whistled through the living room via the broken sliding glass door that led to the equally demolished balcony. It was quite the desolate picture.

    Or, at least, it would've been, if it were true.

    Batman glanced at Barbara, who, by the time he'd teleported into the living room, had seemed to regain most of her composure. She still looked unusually pale, though. He frowned, kneeling at the shattered balcony door and pressing two gloved fingers solidly against the remnants of glass that littered the cement floor. “Have you canvased the scene, yet?”

    Her eyes became hard, hands at her elbows. “The scene? In case you haven't noticed, this is – “

    “Did you?”

    She sighed in exasperation. “Of course I did,” she spat. “I was your partner, and before that, a cop's daughter. I know how to observe a crime scene.”

    He stood. “Did you find any explosives?”

    Her hands fell to her sides. “What?”

    “A bag of C4, a stick of plastique, anything?” he ground out.

    Barbara shook her head. “No, why?”

    “Are you sure?”

    Her anger intensified, masking her all-too palpable fear. “I would've noticed a ticking time-bomb.”

    His silence spoke volumes. 'You didn't when you dated me.'

    18.
    Ancient History

    Barbara switched gears suddenly – she was always an incredibly efficient multitasker, he remembered – and took a step toward him. If he weren't a foot taller and a hundred pounds heavier than her, he might have considered it an inherent threat. “What's going on?”

    He was getting really tired of hearing that question. When he didn't immediately answer, she stalked up to him, jutting a finger into his solar plexis with each word. “What's. Going. On?”

    His frown deepened a fraction. “This was staged.”

    Barbara balked. “You're telling me this – “ she waved a hand around her incredulously, “was all staged.”

    “Look at the evidence,” he answered succinctly, pointing to the sparkling shards near his feet. “The glass from the sliding-glass door landed on the balcony floor – which means that whoever broke it, did so from inside the apartment.”

    “That could have been from the struggle,” she supplied.

    “Then the curtains wouldn't by laying the way they are.” Batman nudged the blood-spattered cloth with the toe of his boot, craning his head to eye the rings that hung along the aluminum pole just above him. “Look at the where the drapes landed, and where the rings are in comparison.”

    Barbara stood carefully behind him, analyzing both points of interest with steely features. “It... It looks like they fell straight down,” she admitted with furrowed brows.

    “Or were torn down,” he added distantly, observing the seeming randomness of the destruction. Why would Ra's go through all this trouble to fabricate a struggle?

    “You didn't answer my question, Bruce,” she needled, eyes narrowing. “You know what's going on.”

    He shook his head slowly. “Not entirely.” He turned to her. “Where does this building store its security feeds?”

    Barbara started for the door. “In the basement. I'll show you.” He followed, but was stopped short by a small hand pressed against his chest. “But I deserve to know what's happening.”

    He would have preferred to keep her out of it. However, Ra's was fast making that impossible. He supposed it was best to get her up to speed. “I'll tell you once we get there.”

    She gazed up at him, all beauty and light, anger (momentarily) forgotten, but still unsure. Damn him for doing that to her. “Promise me.”

    He relented begrudgingly. “I promise.”

    Barbara nodded and slid out the door.

    ---

    Diana sat in the padded booth, politely tugging at the fur coat donated to her by one smiling Martha Wayne, and stared at the couple. She hadn't been to the Manor all that much, but she'd seen the painting that hung like a holy shroud over the fireplace. At the time, she thought that their expressions were vibrant, but now, sitting across from them in a tiny restaurant on Gotham City's lower east side, she decided that whoever painted that picture of the couple did not – could not – fully capture their essence.

    She noted that they were younger than what she had seen; both looked no older than their mid-twenties, Thomas clean-shaven, Martha with her shoulder-length brown hair pulled back into a loose ponytail – likely, that meant Bruce wasn't even born, yet. While that helped prevent any universe-shattering paradoxes, the tactician in her still tried to discern what any of this had to do with Batman's fate in the present day. Still, the opportunity to meet the people who held Bruce's heart more than anyone else that had ever existed was simply too amazing to pass up.

    Too bad they could never know that.

    “A model, you say?” Martha asked inquisitively, stirring her cup of tea delicately with a spoon.

    'Hera, grant me strength,' she prayed to the Goddess, 'so I don't make a complete fool out of myself.'

    Diana nodded. “Yes. In Paris.”

    Thomas sat back and smiled fondly, his expression kind and untroubled. It seemed so odd from a disturbingly familiar face – she'd never seen more than a faint smirk or a clearly fake playboy grin out of Bruce. “Paris; what a beautiful city!” he sighed, drumming the fingers of his right hand against the wooden tabletop as his left tapped against his dark blue coffee mug. “I remember visiting there one summer; the wine was cheap, and the women were – “

    “Thomas!” Martha exclaimed.

    He blinked and gaped at her innocently. “Dressed oddly,” he finished with a slightly hurt lilt. His eyes darted to her with a hint of mischief. “But nothing as oddly as you, Diana – if I may.”

    “This is just a...fashion statement, from my employers,” she lied, inwardly wincing at how poor it sounded. 'Forgive me, Athena, for cheapening your offer so thoroughly.' “I have to admit, I've grown rather used to it since arriving here.”

    Martha blinked, startled. “You didn't bring a change of clothes?”

    She bit her lower lip. “I,” she shrugged, “wasn't exactly expecting to find myself alone for so long. I only wanted to see the sights, and...”

    “Found yourself in one of Gotham's gutters?” Martha supplied with an arched brow and a small, amused smirk. Now, that was more in line with Bruce's range of emotions.

    Diana tucked a hair behind her ear. Then she remembered what Nightwing had said to her earlier and dropped her hand to her lap. “I guess I wandered a bit too far.”

    Thomas rested an arm on the table. “And you have no memory of how you got there?”

    She shook her head. “I'm afraid not, Doctor Wayne.”

    He dismissed her formality with a jovial wave of his hand. “Please, call me Thomas. 'Doctor Wayne' makes me feel old.”

    Her smile wavered briefly, like a candle that was caught in a gust of wind. “I'm sorry. I've heard a great deal about what you've done for this city. Calling you by your first name feels disrespectful.”

    “No disrespect here,” he assuaged. “I do what I can for Gotham because I care about her people – and you can't care about something you can't connect with.”

    Martha laid a hand on his outstretched arm, leaning over the table conspiratorially. “Thomas was the one who found you, you know. He absolutely wouldn't leave your side until he knew you were alright.” Thomas looked away and scratched at the back of his head, embarrassed.

    Diana's brows twitched down in surprise. “How long were you two waiting there?”

    “Only a couple of minutes,” Thomas half-grumbled, clearly flustered by the praise. Somehow, his reaction and mannerisms reminded her vaguely of Kal. She wondered if Bruce came to that conclusion, too; it would explain why he kept the Kryptonian at arm's length. “I certainly wasn't going to leave her laying in the snow!”

    Martha patted her husband gently on the arm. “Oh, I know, dear – I'm only teasing you.”

    He glanced askew at her, as if wary. “You always tease me.”

    Martha grinned deviously. “That's because it's so easy.”

    Thomas grunted, resting his chin against an upraised fist, grousing, “You could try shooting fish in a barrel.” Martha snorted, mimicking his gesture with her left fist and staring at him with arched eyebrows. His gaze flickered over to her thrice, frowning. “Stop that.”

    “Stop what?”

    “Staring at me like that.”

    “Why?”

    “I'm angry.”

    “No, you're not.”

    His eyebrow quirked up. “You think so?”

    She grinned between her fingers. “I know so.”

    Thomas continued to pout for another five seconds, staring down his wife, before he buckled and dropped his fist to the table with a light thud. “Oh, alright.” He nudged her with his elbow and a leer. “You're lucky I love you.”

    Martha smiled back in return. “I know.”

    Diana took in the quiet and startlingly private exchange with interest. They were...cute together. Contented and completely at ease with one another. She felt a sudden pang of sadness, knowing deep down that even if something were to ever arise between herself and Bruce, it would never be this comfortable. He would never let it be this comfortable.

    Martha's hazel eyes regarded her curiously. Thomas followed her gaze, glancing between the two. He then stood to his full height, running a hand down his blazer to smooth out the wrinkles that had formed. “If you'll excuse me, ladies, I'm going to check on our order.” He bent down, pecking his wife on the crown of her head and whispering into her hair, “Be nice.”

    Martha acknowledged his comment with a glib nod and shooed her husband away. She watched him weave through the tables and disappear around the corner before turning her attention back to the Amazon. “Diana,” she asked, “may I ask you a question?”

    Wonder Woman nodded respectfully. “Of course, Mrs. Wayne.”

    Martha folded her hands on the lacquered table in front of her, pitched forward a little, and smiled. It was not a kind smile. “Who are you really?”

    Diana blinked. “Diana Prince, Mrs. – “

    She glared.

    Oh. So, that's where he got it from.

    “Don't lie to a psychologist, dear. It never ends well for you.” Her eyes flitted to the hallway her husband disappeared down a moment prior. “You aren't the first stray that Thomas has picked up off the street – “ Diana bristled. “ – And I sincerely doubt you'll be the last. That man can't walk two blocks without promising to rescue someone from their ill fortune.”

    Diana coolly replied, “You make that sound like a bad thing.”

    Her grin became more severe. “Oh, it's a wonderful, selfless, charitable trait – and there have been plenty that have seen that charity as a free pass to get whatever they please.”

    “Isn't he a renowned doctor and businessman?” Diana retorted neutrally. “I would think that his line of work requires being a good judge of character.”

    “He is an excellent judge of character,” Martha agreed emphatically, defensively, even. “But he simply can't stand to see someone suffering, no matter the reason.” Her eyes, by this point, had changed from their warm brown to a dark, unforgiving green. “And because of that, he needs someone to remind them that his best interest is in their best interest.”

    Diana squared her shoulders, unable to fully shake off the indignation she felt at the accusation – however reasonable the accusation might have been. “I would never try to take advantage of anyone's hospitality.”

    “Then why haven't you told us the truth?” Martha questioned pointedly.

    Diana looked away, unwilling to lie, but unable to answer. 'So much for not making a fool of myself.'

    Martha's expression softened as the silence dragged on, brown seeping back into the glittering emerald. “Are...you in some sort of danger?” She reached forward and laid a hand on her fur-covered bracer, forcing another round of eye contact. Like before, her visage was forceful, but there was now an added layer of compassion that softened the edges. She recognized the maternal instinct for what it was, and respected it. “My husband and I know a great deal of people – we can help protect you, if need be.”

    Diana looked down the still-vacant hallway. “Should we be discussing this without your husband present?”

    Martha waved off her question with a caustic snort. “I'd be shocked if Thomas didn't offer to escort you to the safe-house personally.”

    Diana murmured, “He has a strong conscience.”

    “He has a guilty conscience,” Martha amended, features clouded. “He blames himself for every death in that hospital, even if he had nothing to do with the case. He truly believes he can single-handedly save everyone in this city.” She gazed sharply at the Amazon, devotion and the instinctual need to protect what was hers shining brightly in those hazel eyes. “I'm sure you see my dilemma.”

    Diana's lips twitched into the ghost of a smile. Funny, how the Fates weaved the lives of mortals together the way they did. “I can,” she answered, taking a deep breath and lifting her chin. “I appreciate your offer, Mrs. Wayne, but I assure you, I'm not in any kind of trouble. My story is just...” She struggled for the right word. “Unorthodox. It isn't one many would believe.”

    “Tall tales are my favorite kind,” a voice rang out jovially. Both she and Martha jumped as Thomas shoved off from the banister behind them, uncrossing his arms and ambling up to the booth. “Sorry, didn't mean to eavesdrop on your girl-talk, but...”

    Martha scowled at him. “Yes, you did.”

    He slid into the red-cushioned seat with a bright grin. “Yes, I did. Can you blame me?” He turned to Diana as he pointed in Martha's direction with his thumb. “I especially loved the part where she called me a sucker.”

    “I did not call you a sucker, Thomas!”

    “Subtext, dear.” He rested his elbows against the pine table, fingers laced against his chin. “So, I believe you left off at 'once upon a time'?”

    Diana laughed, unable to resist the affection and humanity that rolled off of the young doctor in waves. If only her sisters had ever met a man like this, perhaps their hatred of Man's World would not be so all-encompassing. She stared at the couple, marveling at how joyous and alive they were, and found that, like their son, they were simply too large to be denied. “Alright,” she acquiesced. “Once upon a time, I was born on an island called Themyscira...”

    ---

    Barbara kept her expression as clear as she could manage as she digested the information Bruce just gave her. Daddy's house, gone? The Batcave destroyed? Nevermind the fiasco about Leopard Fever, Ra's Al Ghul, and talk of outright genocide – and now Tim was embroiled in all of this.

    She rubbed the heel of her palm down her face wearily, resting her hand on the chair that Bruce sat in as he downloaded the camera feeds from the building's in-house datacenter. “How are you holding up?”

    As expected, she received no answer. Instead, he pointed to the monitor; specifically, to the playback of her rendezvous with the stairs. “Look.” She winced at the replay; she'd tumbled end over end in what looked to be a rather painful manner, but at the time, she was so busy relying on instinct and training that she only felt the burning of her back, and not the welts that were currently forming on her arms and legs. “Did you see that?”

    She squinted at the screen. She needed to get glasses. “Him slamming into me at full speed? Yeah, I was there.”

    “No, this.” He paused and rewound the video, replaying it at a reduced speed. In slow-motion, Barbara witnessed the perp forcefully sticking his arms out, shoving into her as hard as he possibly could, shifting around and somersaulting overhead, hand planted along her side, obscured by her coat...

    She went rigid. “Wait.” She plunged her hand into her coat, seconds later yanking out a device from the folds of her jacket lining. She held it up to the minimal light just to make sure that she wasn't starting to see things that weren't there.

    It was a bat-shaped tracer.

    Barbara gaped at Batman, then at the tracer, and then at the paused screen of the black-clad thug frozen mid-flip. They both recognized the pose, in spite of the garb. “My god,” she murmured, “was that Tim?”

    Batman was instantly on his feet, cape swirling angrily behind him as he charged up the service steps. She pocketed the device and followed briskly in his wake. “Tim knew where the cameras were placed,” he explained hurriedly, taking the stairs three at a time. “He purposely avoided them so no one would be able to tip off Ra's men to the switch.”

    “Why would he trash his own apartment?”

    “Authenticity.” He wheeled around a corner, slipping through the steel-reinforced emergency door that led to the sixth floor. “Ra's knows that he was Robin, he'll have expected a struggle from him.” He halted at the ajar apartment door, scanning the area. “There are cameras lining this entire hallway, in order for him to have hidden the body – “

    “Body?” she reiterated. “You think he – ?”

    “No,” Bruce answered quickly, firmly. “Whoever attacked him is likely unconscious.” He entered the domicile, making a beeline to Tim's bedroom. “Tim knows that he'll only have a limited amount of time before he's made, so he'll have put him somewhere that no one will readily access...” He trailed off, abruptly reaching behind Tim's disaster area of a desk and tugging up a black, unmarked duffel bag. His movements were unusually slow, not quite as precise and measured as they normally would be, as he opened the bag and pulled out a garishly bright red costume that dangled from his grip like a fallen banner. Bruce stared at the suit, unmoving, for nearly fifteen seconds.

    Barbara closed the distance and placed a hand, so much smaller than his, on his clenched fist. “Bruce.”

    He remembered himself, gently placing the suit onto the desk and searching through the rest of the jean duffel. “His utility belt is gone. Along with his mask.” He dropped the black bag on top of the suit haphazardly, gazing through the wall for another moment.

    She touched the bag tentatively. He'd stashed a Robin costume all this time...? After everything that happened? She shook her head. “I hope he knows what he's doing.”

    By then, Bruce had finished his cursory examination of the bedroom, stepping over a broken lamp and two overturned tables to head back into the living room. While he went through the area with a fine-toothed comb, Barbara busied herself with checking the guest room Tim had offered her when she arrived earlier that week. She'd politely declined – after all, she'd booked a hotel closer in the heart of the city in case of a work emergency, and...on a personal level, she just couldn't handle listening to him scream while he slept anymore. It tore at her in ways she would never admit to anyone. Looking upon the empty room, now, knowing that he'd likely arranged it specifically with her in mind... She halted at the twin bed, running her hand over the white and gray patterned quilt – she'd given that to him as a housewarming gift. Her fingers bunched into the cotton angrily. Oh, she was such an idiot for not staying with him! So busy being selfish and petty, she couldn't even bother to stay one night! She sat down on the bed wearily, running a hand through her hair.

    Something brushed against her ankle.

    Stifling a yelp, she shot off the bed and backed away, poised to lash out. Steadying her breath, she carefully and silently knelt down at the base of the bed, grabbed a fistful of quilt and threw it onto the mattress.

    In the other room, Bruce was busying himself with collecting a dried blood sample from the carpet fibers when he heard Barbara call out urgently, “Batman!” Slipping the baggie into a pouch, he hurried into the guest room to find her standing tensely next to a twin bed, holding a section of covers in a death grip. She motioned to beneath the mattress. “I found something for you.”

    He dropped to one knee, curving his body down to get a better look at Barbara's catch. Jammed beneath the box-spring, bound, gagged, and bleeding, was a nearly naked Society foot soldier. The man's gaze, as they fell upon his serpentine silhouette blocking all of his view, became unfocused and glassy; his breath, already erratic, quickening and whistling through his nose in frightened gasps. The Dark Knight's eyes narrowed to soulless, menacing slits in response, his voice low, like the ominous rumbling of thunder, as he stretched one hand forward and growled, “You and I need to have a little talk.”

    ---

    Thomas propped his chin against his knuckles. “Let me see if I understand this,” he began. “You're a super-powerful princess from a race of immortal warrior women, who's traveled back to the past in order to find information that could save humanity from a plague that's ravaging the planet in your time?”

    Wonder Woman nodded. “Essentially.”

    He tossed an astounded look at Martha, and then shrugged. “Well then. Where do we start?”

    Diana gaped at the doctor, surprised at his lack of dismissal. “You don't think I'm crazy?”

    “Oh, I think you're absolutely insane,” Thomas replied with a cheeky grin as he took out a small pad and paper from the breast pocket of his blazer, plopping the medical pad onto the lacquered pine table. “But, on the off chance you're not,” he added, pressing in the spring-loaded button on his ballpoint pen, “well, who am I to deny help to billions?”

    Martha caught her gaze knowingly. “See what I put up with?”

    Diana smiled quietly in return.

    ---

    In spite of the crisis in Gotham, the Watchtower was largely silent since they were forced to sit on their laurels and wait for something to happen. The quietude, which should have been a godsend for Nyssa, turned out to be an extra curse, as the on-board League members continually turned over what few answers they had in the hopes of uncovering more. It proved difficult to concentrate on the Martian Manhunter, who stood impassively across from her in one of their brightly lit examination rooms. Even though she had never stepped foot aboard the floating complex, she felt as though she had been there for years. In some respects, she had.

    “Nyssa,” J'onn began after a lengthy pause, “do you remember our agreement?”

    “Where is Batman?” she asked abruptly. She had tried to find her mother's mind, to cling to it and steady herself against the torrent of unfamiliar thoughts, but as always, Mother's mind was just as chaotic, if not more so, than the maelstrom around her. Being at the mercy of thousands seemed almost easier to deal with.

    “Batman's whereabouts should not be your concern,” J'onn responded carefully.

    “Please,” she continued, forcing back a swell of panic. She had believed that being so far away from the Earth's surface would make it better, not worse. “Without a mind to connect with, to hold onto, it can be very difficult to keep myself...intact.”

    His red eyes became more luminescent, falling silent for a moment. “Then I will offer you mine.”

    Nyssa's gaze was piercing, distrusting. “You had difficulties interacting with my mind, either. Are you sure that is wise?”

    “Do either of us have a choice?” he retorted, eyebrow arched.

    She briefly felt around for another viable mind, one strong enough to withstand her, one calm enough to ground her, and found only his. She bowed her head minutely. “No.”

    The Martian nodded and sat down stiffly. “Very well. When do you wish to begin?”

    “Now,” she answered, immediately before she opened the floodgates on him.

    ---

    Amanda Waller tightened her coat around her as she turned off the ignition on her car. Sitting on the passenger seat, like a smoking gun, was the manilla folder that held every last bit of information that she would have ever needed to take down the Justice League once and for all. It was sorted meticulously and incredibly thorough; times, dates, locations, numbers. There was more than enough here to send every League member, backer, and supporter to the gallows for high treason – in multiple countries.

    She held onto the wheel numbly, cold from the unnaturally cool September evening, and stared at the pile of documents, a single photo of Batman and Talia Al Ghul peeking out from beneath its cardboard confines. She sighed, reaching over to scoop the file up into her grasp, sliding out of the car door and locking it behind her. Tiredly, she trudged up the cement steps of her D.C. townhouse, housekeys jingling, and stopped just shy of turning the lock as an epiphany struck her.

    This folder had everything.

    Amanda spent years hammering away for something solid to give to her superiors, and she couldn't even so much as find a breadcrumb of damning evidence to use against the League, let alone the mountain she held against her chest. If the US government had been compiling all of this behind her back, why wait until now to show it?

    She shifted her keys to into her right hand and hastily yanked out her cell phone to confirm her suspicions, when her previous conversation with Eiling sprang to mind. She flipped her phone shut. Whatever else the former General was intending to do, he was right about one thing – who else could be listening in on her? No, she needed something more anonymous. She scanned the area, spying a telephone booth across the street.

    Waller smirked. Well, it worked for Superman.

    ---

    Barbara stood anxiously amid the wreckage of Tim's living room, continuing to fight the urge to call the local authorities. Five years ago, she wouldn't have felt so guilty over it, but having worked in the system for so long, having seen how vigilantes like Batman (and Batgirl) tainted entire investigations, all the moonlighting she used to do made her a little queasy to her stomach now.

    Batman – Bruce – was a hero, a trailblazer, a great and selfless man that gave everything for a populace who would never see him as anything other than an idiot or a lunatic. But Batman had served his purpose. A generation of children grew up watching mafia empires topple and armies of street thugs scattered into whatever darkened holes they crawled out of. They grew up with the knowledge that they could stand up for what was right, and they were doing just that – GCPD enrollment had more than quadrupled in ten years, with students of law and criminal justice pouring into the universities to try their hand at finishing what Batman started over twenty years ago.

    Batman, for all his skills and adaptability, was fast becoming a relic of a bygone era. And yet, she was still letting Bruce interrogate the perp illegally, very illegally, in order to get information on a crisis that affected the entire world. She justified it as being necessary – this one time, Batman was still necessary.

    This time only.

    She told herself that firmly.

    A hulking black silhouette emerged from the shattered balcony door, framed glumly against the dimly lit sky. “Ra's has a vaccine,” he declared in a way that, for him, sounded hopeful. “He gave it to all of his soldiers before he let the disease loose.” He shoved his cape aside and held out a small vial of dark red liquid. “I took a sample of his blood in the hopes that I could reverse engineer it.” He carefully placed the sample into one of the many pouches of his utility belt. “How good are your hacking skills?”

    Her stomach tightened. She had just gotten used to not having to look over her shoulder every time she was on the GCPD computers. “Still better than yours. Why?”

    “He mentioned something about a seal,” Batman explained, stalking to Tim's bedroom for a second time.

    “A seal?” she repeated. “A seal on what?”

    “I don't know,” he admitted, quarter-turning to glance over his shoulder at Barbara, expression unreadable. “That's where you come in.”

    Her back flared, red-hot, beneath the folds of her blue turtleneck; reminding her all-too strongly of what happened when she got involved in extralegal affairs of vigilantes. Still, a small voice, one that sounded strangely like Daddy, kept chiding at her. 'The world needs you, Barbara – Batman needs you,' it said. 'Help them.'

    “Alright – this time, and only because the world is in danger,”she emphasized with a finger, “I'll help you.” She sucked in a deep, long-suffering breath and bit the proverbial bullet. “What do you need?”

    Batman picked up the duffel bag that he'd left on the metal desk and began rifling through its meager contents. “I need to know if any artifacts, relics, or archeological finds have gone missing recently. I also need an up-to-date analysis on worldwide seismic and geothermal activity.”

    “That sounds awfully specific for an, 'I don't know.'” He didn't respond, dropping the black bag to the table as he held up a round object between his thumb and forefinger with a pronounced frown. Barbara blinked. “Is that a tracer?” When he ignored her again, thus answering her question in the affirmative, her face screwed up in incredulity. “You bugged his duffel bag?”

    “No. I bugged all of his suits,” he replied, adding under his breath, “for all the good it did.” He placed the costume into the knapsack and slung the now-filled bag over his right shoulder. He curtly brushed past her, then stopped in the open doorway, his head stooped so the ears of his cowl wouldn't catch against the top of the frame. The second of silence that followed was excruciating. “Barbara...” he began softly, voice stilted.

    Her back pulsed in pain in time with her heartbeats. She couldn't stand to hear his apology. Not now. “Don't.”

    Something flickered across his face, but it vanished as quickly as it came. “Right,” he stated, barely fitting his broad shoulders through the thin door frame. “I'll be in touch.”

    She felt a twinge of regret on top of the near-constant ache of her back. The gunshot wounds hadn't been his fault. “Bruce – “

    He disappeared in a flash of hazy blue light.

    She snorted. “Always gotta leave 'em hanging, huh?”

    ---

    Thomas sat, pressed formal shirt rolled up to his elbows, the back of his pen lightly clamped between his teeth, while Diana scanned his notes from across the table. He grimaced and took the pen from his mouth, tearing the paper from its sleeve and crumpling it up. “That wouldn't work, either,” he growled, dropping his head to his propped up hand and raking his nails across his scalp in agitation.

    Martha, concerned, rested a hand against his shoulder. “Thomas, don't wear yourself out,” she chided soothingly, catching the Amazon's eyes briefly.

    Diana, for her part, felt like a heel. “I wish I had brought along Batman's notes. You would have more accurate information to go on, then.”

    “No, no, I've been given more than enough to work with,” Thomas assured her, tossing her a faintly perturbed look. “This...uh, 'Batman' of yours seems to have researched every angle I would've cared to look at. Is he a physician?”

    A warning flare streaked across the expanse of her mind. She had to change the topic of conversation immediately. “No, he's...just very thorough in his research, as he is with everything he does.”

    The doctor's thick eyebrow and lip quirked up in unison, light blue eyes boring into hers evenly. She suppressed a groan. Oh no. She knew that look. “So I've gathered – his knowledge of neurology, immunotoxins, and infectious diseases is very detailed. He probably knows more on the subjects than I do,” he confessed, steepling his fingers against his chin. “I don't see how someone like him could need my help. I'm just your average doctor.”

    She struggled to find a way to give them the truth without actually giving them the full truth. “To be honest, I'm not sure why I wound up at this particular time and place, only that something I learn here will be vital in saving Batman's life.”

    Thomas and Martha shared another look, much like the one they'd given when she blurted their eventual-son's name. Oh Gods above, what did she just do? “This Batman of yours – “ Why did they keep saying he was her Batman? “ – I take it you're good friends with him?”

    “He is a seasoned and unparalleled warrior among his people, and a renowned tactician. He's responsible for saving humanity numerous times,” she disclosed proudly. If nothing else – even if they would never know who she spoke of – they deserved to know, on some level, that their son was as worthy and honorable a successor to their name as there ever could be. “I have a great respect for his deeds. Man's World can't afford to lose him now.”

    A third look passed between the young couple, before Thomas frowned apologetically. “Well, unfortunately, whatever it is you're dealing with is unlike anything I've ever seen before,” he professed. “I don't think I'll be of any help to you or your friends. I'm sorry.”

    She stamped down the twinge of disappointment, smiling faintly and nodding. “That's alright. It was worth a try, in any case.”

    “Where will you go now?” Thomas inquired.

    Diana rolled one shoulder. “I'm not certain. I believe the Gods will guide me in the right direction, though.” She slid from the booth and rose to her feet. “Thank you for your hospitality.”

    She began slip the fur-lined suede coat off, but halted when Martha held out a hand. “Keep it.”

    “That's alright, Mrs. Wayne, I don't really need – “

    The diminutive woman's eyes flickered green. “Keep it,” she repeated.

    Diana weighed her options, and opted not to spurn the gift being offered to her. She tugged the coat over her bare shoulders. “...Thank you, Mrs. Wayne. And you, too, Doct – Thomas. I've read stories about the both of you, but....” She felt saddened at leaving so soon after having met them – they were kind, caring, intelligent people. Doomed people. Her heart tweaked in pain. “They didn't do you justice.” 'No, the Fates truly didn't.'

    Thomas rubbed the back of his head sheepishly. Then, he seemed to materialize next to her. “At least let me see you out safely.”

    She shook her head demurely. “I appreciate the thought, but I – “

    “Please, Princess?”

    Oh, Hera. Princess. In that voice. With that face. And not that man.

    All those centuries of training and discipline melted like butter. She acquiesced. “Okay.”

    He grinned brightly, hooking out an elbow for her to take. “Shall we, your Highness?”

    She caught herself smiling in return, and flitted her gaze over her shoulder to his wife. She winked at her and waved them both off.

    Thirty seconds after they disappeared out the front door, a figure disentangled themselves from the shadows of a nearby booth, quietly slinking into the seat that Diana just vacated. Martha met his dark eyes inquisitively. “Was that her?”

    “It was,” he confirmed impartially. “She said her name was Diana?”

    Martha nodded. “Do you know her?”

    “Can't say that I do,” he replied, “and I would remember a face like that.”

    She looked over her shoulder, stooping down a bit. She felt like a harlot, sitting with another man besides Thomas, discussing another mysterious woman that he just left with. “How did you know she would be here?”

    He smoothed back his dark, red-streaked hair, running his fingers over the shock of white absentmindedly. “I felt the ebb and flow of magic – I knew someone would be arriving soon.”

    “Oh, please, Jason,” Martha scoffed, “you know I don't believe in that nonsense!”

    Jason Blood smiled thinly. “If you didn't believe me, Martha, why did you carry around that trinket like I asked you to?”

    Martha flushed a little. “You're my friend. I trust you not to make a fool out of me.”

    His smile grew. “Was I wrong?”

    She glanced over her shoulder again, pressing her hand where the pocket containing the supposedly enchanted ring would be, if that pocket weren't attached to a coat that currently hung from the shoulders of an Amazon princess. “I guess we'll find out.”

    He shook his head. “No. We won't.”

    ---

    Thomas stopped at the street corner, the overhead lamp slicing through the otherwise impenetrable darkness. He took a cursory look around before letting go of Diana's hand; Park Row wasn't quite as safe as it used to be. “Are you sure you'll be alright from here?”

    She flashed perfect white teeth at him teasingly. “Need I remind you, Thomas, I am an Amazon.”

    He held his hands up in surrender. “Okay, okay, I relent.”

    Diana stepped forward, voice sincere. “Thank you for believing me. Not many would have, in your place.”

    He shrugged off the compliment. “I'm happy to have listened.” He scuffed the bottom of his shoe against the pavement once. “Well...”

    She inhaled deeply, smiling wide. “It really has been good to meet you. I...” She paused, contemplative. “I never really thought I'd ever get the chance.”

    He whistled, shoving his throbbing hands into his pockets for what little protection they offered. “That far ahead, huh?”

    Her blue eyes were so sad. “Unfortunately.”

    He smiled ruefully, feeling his chapped lips sting from the cold. “Just as well, I suppose.” He took a step back and bowed his head in goodbye. “Take care of yourself, Princess.” She nodded and disappeared into the darkness of a Gotham City night.

    Thomas remained there for another few minutes, watching the steam puff from his lips and curl into nothingness, carried away by the bitter February wind. He ignored the chill that ran up his spine and the way his ears pulsed painfully from the lack of heat. He'd always been the sentimental, softie type. He'd always wanted kids – a whole litter of them, running and screaming through the Mansion, tearing the entire place up on a daily basis while unsupervised, as kids were supposed to do. He already had trust funds set up for at least the first four, untouched and untouchable by anyone except himself and Martha. He even had names picked out. He always told himself he'd name his eldest after one of his grandparents.

    Coincidentally enough, his paternal grandfather had been named Bruce.

    Silly. That's what Martha would tell him. And she'd be right, of course, because Martha usually was right about those kinds of things. Still, he gazed skyward into the starless night and let his mind wander, anyway.

    Like he said. Tall tales were his favorite kind.


    To be continued...
     
    #78 SilverKnight, Nov 4, 2010
    Last edited by a moderator: Nov 16, 2012
  19. klammed

    klammed the fool.

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    gllb.!

    Oh I love Martha. I love Thomas. They are... so cute. Flash is also awesome. The 'pshaw' totally got me xD I also hate Babs, and you're writing her really well in that stubbornly naive sort of realism that she emitted through most of her DCAU incarnation ROTJ flashback onwards (of which we can imagine based on what she was in BB itself). Bringing in more mystics with Blood, eh? Can't wait to see where this is going next.

    Also yes, Batman + Baby is awesome cuteness.
     
  20. SilverKnight

    SilverKnight Sigh.

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    The first thought that crossed Batman's mind as he stared at the lanky, pale-faced teen that sat motionlessly in the examination room was how eerily similar she looked like Talia, who remained stoically at her side. That fact should not have struck him as much as it did; given how Talia seemed to have inherited most of her father's attributes – hair color, eye color, complexion, and predilection for betrayal – it stood to reason that her genes would likely be the dominate ones with any children she were to have. “How is she?”

    J'onn stood beside him, eyes glowing a constant, fierce crimson from whatever link he shared with her. “She's unstable.”

    He ground his teeth together. Great. The last thing they could afford was more instability. The last thing he could afford was another Ace. “Mentally or physically?”

    “Both,” J'onn answered. “Her telepathic abilities are strong – too strong for her to control.”

    Another child, robbed of a normal, healthy life. “So she's dangerous.”

    J'onn shook his head. “Only to herself. And only if she doesn't have an anchor.”

    He raised a brow, looking askance at the Martian. “Anchor?”

    “Nyssa's powers are extremely potent, but unfocused,” he explained, voice a warm monotone. “It appears she has engineered a way to link herself to another person's mind, in order to prevent getting lost in the internal chaos of those around her. It is a rather ingenious solution.”

    “Necessity is the mother of invention,” Batman replied dully. “Have you learned anything from her?”

    J'onn's visage tightened in consternation. “You remember the presence in your mind earlier.”

    He gazed blankly at Nyssa through the glass even as his hands curled into fists at his side. It just couldn't be simple, could it? “The girl?”

    J'onn nodded. “Yes.”

    If he were another man, one that didn't bear the weight of millions while clinging to the edges of a fraying rope, he might have laughed. Seven billion people on Earth, and the one caught playing peeping Tom with his mind was Talia's daughter. It really was a painfully, bitterly small world.

    19.
    Beneath the Surface

    Batman stated with certainty, “She was Waller's mystery telepath.”

    J'onn regarded him evenly. “You knew it was her.”

    He grunted. “I knew it had to be someone important for Waller to go to such lengths to hide their identity. This makes sense – I don't think the government would look too kindly on Cadmus training the granddaughter of a Kill-on-Sight alumni.” The teen's aristocratic features remained devoid of any emotion as she sat. He pondered if she was always so restrained, or if it was only a side-effect of her 'anchoring' to another's consciousness. “How did Waller find her?”

    “It was Nyssa who contacted her,” J'onn clarified, adding more cautiously, “she learned of Waller and Project Cadmus through you.”

    That got his attention. He shot the Martian a wary, nearly accusatory glare. “The documents said the subject was admitted six years ago.”

    J'onn's long face became pinched in something that could have been minor pain. “Her connection with you lasted far longer than you may realize.”

    How long?”

    J'onn hesitated. “Nearly a decade.”

    His head snapped in the Martian's direction. “That's not possible.” He would've noticed something if it had been occurring for that long. Things just didn't slip by him, not like that.

    An uncharacteristically timid voice reminded him, 'There was Leslie – '

    He mercilessly crushed the dissenting train of thought. Neither the time nor the place. “How much does she know?”

    “About Ra's Al Ghul, or you?”

    He didn't like the way J'onn read into his question. He liked even less the way J'onn's counter-question essentially answered his own. He fought back the sudden, powerful wave of nausea and ignored the way his flesh crawled beneath his Kevlar armor. “Either.”

    Green brows drew together momentarily. “This is something you may wish to discuss further with Nyssa herself.”

    A spark of anger rose in his chest. He made no attempt to snuff it out. “I'm discussing it with you.”

    J'onn exhaled; a soft, defeated sound. “As I said, her powers are too strong for her to control. She can't choose what information she picks up from those around her.”

    He frowned. It sounded as though the girl's trip to Cadmus left her with nothing to show for it. That concerned him slightly. “And those she's anchored to?”

    “She is little more than a spectator.”

    His relief that she hadn't gone snooping around in his subconscious was tempered by the knowledge that she'd still had access to his waking thoughts for the better part of ten years, if J'onn was to be believed. He felt his pulse pound behind his eyes. Talia's daughter...he did not need this. “Has Superman had any luck with the Cuban officials?”

    J'onn made a noncommittal sound of denial. “Did you expect him to?”

    “No. That's why I told him not to bother. They wouldn't listen to Superman.” In fact, he'd explicitly told Kent that it would only arouse suspicion and tip their hand. But, of course, he had to fly off like the Boyscout he was and ask questions to a government that was more than happy to ignore the League every other time of the day except when it involved their hides getting saved.

    Suddenly, he found himself wishing that he'd accepted Jim's offer to a cup of coffee earlier that evening. He was fairly certain he was beginning to feel the effects of severe caffeine withdrawal.

    “That's why Superman didn't ask the questions,” a baritone riposted airily from beside them. Superman strode through the closing double doors, expression fairly grim – for him, anyway. “I have some connections within the Cuban government that were able to give me these.” He held up a small stack of papers for the two to take.

    Batman grabbed them with a gloved hand as he asked, “Since when does Clark Kent have connections?”

    Clark smiled wanly. “Bruce Wayne isn't the only one who can hobnob at dinner parties.”

    “Bruce Wayne is usually the one throwing those dinner parties.”

    Superman furrowed his brows. “Has anyone told you that it's strange to refer to yourself in the third person?”

    He flipped a page. “Once or twice.” He studied the newest sheet in front of him, the lines chiseled into his steely features deepening with discontent. “They've finished building the reactor.”

    Kent motioned at the files ominously. “Keep reading.” He continued, suspecting he already knew the answer. He wasn't proven wrong. “After years of trying to beg, barter, and steal whatever money they could get to complete Juragua, sometime last year, the Cuban government suddenly gets the entire lump sum from a 'private investor'.” Kent grinned acerbically at him. “Know any golfing buddies that would up and donate eight-hundred million dollars to a failed nuclear reactor in a foreign country?”

    He gripped the papers tightly. He should have seen this coming. He would have seen this coming, if he hadn't tunnel-visioned on Gotham to the point of isolationism. 'Wasn't that how you started out, though?' a voice hissed in the recesses of his mind. 'Isn't that what you wanted to go back to? Simplicity? The rest of the world wasn't your problem anymore, remember?'

    “We need to find out exactly what they built in that reactor,” he declared.

    J'onn pursed his lips in thought. “It may be possible for me to infiltrate their ranks and learn more of their plans.” Like wax, his body melted into an amorphous, floating puddle of green, and immediately reformed into that of a masked, black-garbed thug several inches shorter than them both. The now-human Martian Manhunter lolled his head up to meet his gaze, dark eyes glinting in the florescent light.

    Batman mulled his options, weighing the risks. Having him go in alone would be dangerous under the best of circumstances, but with Ra's having access to his countermeasures, it could easily turn into a deathtrap. Still, the opportunity was there, and they had to seize it. He trusted J'onn's capabilities. He would have to. “Find whatever you can use, but get in and out as fast as possible. Maintain radio silence unless absolutely necessary.”

    J'onn's false guise fluidly morphed back into the humanoid form everyone had grown accustomed to seeing. “I won't be long.”

    Batman's visage was as severe and unyielding as ever, perhaps more so, as he pointedly added, “And J'onn. Be careful.”

    The Martian tipped his head in assent. “Understood.”

    Both occupants watched him glide through the door. When they were alone, Superman returned his attention to the brooding figure beside him. “Do you think he'll be able to successfully get in and out without being detected?”

    Batman tried his hardest to ignore him. It didn't work. “I hope so.”

    He moved to exit the small room, but was stopped short by a strong hand to his shoulder. He knew it wouldn't have been that easy. “This isn't just about finding out what they've built there, is it?”

    Eyes narrowed, he tilted his head to glare at him out of the corner of his eye. “So you're a psychic now, too, hm?”

    Predictably, Clark didn't let up. “I heard about Tim.”

    Fury didn't begin to cover the boiling sensation that shot through his veins when he thought back on the notoriously un-secretive speedster. Even as he chided himself for being surprised at any of this occurring, because he knew these people, he never the less vowed to make the loudmouthed idiot suffer before all of this was through. He tried to brush past the Kryptonian. “Tim is fine.”

    The hand on his shoulder kept him stationary. “You said that last time.”

    He grit his teeth. It always had to come back to that, didn't it? “This isn't 'last time', Kent.”

    Superman's eyes bored into him with a level of intensity and sincerity that he did not appreciate. “He's been through enough, Bruce. And so have you.” There was a certain, faint grief in the perennially younger man's face that made him wonder if Kent's conscience unnecessarily bore the burden of Tim's disappearance, too. Soft-hearted fool; why would he blame himself for something he had nothing to do with? “I don't want to see either of you get hurt.”

    The words escaped his lips before he realized they were there. “Then you picked the wrong line of work.” He brought a hand to the one pressing down on his shoulder and tugged.

    It didn't budge.

    For some reason, that almost pleased him. “You're not going anywhere,” Clark ordered sternly. His scowl darkened in response. “I'm not going to just stand by and watch everything happen, this time. I'm helping you find him. Right this instant.”

    Bruce could've punched him. Instead, he inhaled deeply, ribs twinging in protest as they stretched. An obstinate Superman meant that, short of Kryptonite or magic, he was stuck in this room until he managed to appease him. Besides, he reminded himself, the farmboy meant well; his insistence on helping was...touching, if incredibly overbearing. It appeared that honesty, in this case, truly was the best policy, if it would help get Kent off his back. “Tim went undercover.”

    Clark blinked in shock; his grip loosened enough for Batman to successfully pry his hand off. “You sent – “

    I didn't do anything,” he rebuked sharply. “He was already gone by the time I got there.”

    Clark's brows knit together. “Then how do you know he's undercover?”

    “He left me clues.” When he noted the way Superman's jaw clenched at the ambiguity, he smiled internally. Good. “Hopefully he'll find something important.”

    Kent's hand, rather annoyingly, found its way to his shoulder again. “He'll be alright, Bruce.”

    He cocked an eyebrow at his long-time friend, once again removing the errant hand that was giving far too much comfort for his tastes. “Did I ever say he wouldn't be?” Kent was just lucky he was what he was, otherwise the hand might have been bending in a direction it shouldn't have by the time he was done with it. He didn't need to be coddled. “Like I said, Clark – this isn't last time.”

    “Hey, Bats,” Flash's voice rang out through the comm-link, “I think I might've punched a hole in your little magic plague theory.”

    “How so?”

    “Well, for starters, your plague isn't a plague.”

    He frowned, glancing at Clark to see if he was also listening in. Judging by the confusion written all over his face, Batman supposed he was. He stalked to the door. “Show me.”

    ---

    Diana strolled down the darkened Gotham City street, feeling the chill of the bitterly cold February evening seep through the fur coat, but not being bothered by it. Her heart ached for the Waynes, and for their son – still, from such a horrid tragedy rose a champion, the likes of which humanity had never seen before. Had the Fates decided that the loss of two forthright people and the permanent scarring of an innocent child was the price to be paid for forging a weapon of justice? Who was responsible for such a decree? Themis? Nyx? Eris? Hades? Man's World was given a great defender, but at what cost? Any weapon, no matter how sharp, would eventually dull and, Hera forbid, break without the proper maintenance. Such maintenance was something Bruce desperately needed, and was stubbornly refusing from all avenues. That stubbornness was liable to get him killed before long.

    Her mind wandered as she turned the corner. How could she make him see that she wanted to help him, no – how did the saying go? No strings attached? Protecting Man's World from harm was her main priority, and right now, that world needed Batman; ergo, that meant his health and safety was a priority, regardless of whatever their relationship was (wasn't). It was her duty.

    The lightness and warmth she felt whenever she saw him genuinely smile was irrelevant.

    A car puttered down the road, lights blaring harshly in the darkness. Diana gave the vehicle a token glance as it neared, shielding her eyes from the blinding headlights as they engulfed her and everything around her. Hera, it felt like she was standing in a sauna! Blinking, she dropped her hand to her side...

    ...And realized she was back on the Watchtower.

    Startled, she took in her surroundings – since when did the Watchtower have a nursery? – staring aimlessly through the porthole into the limitless, sparkling void of space. What was the significance of what Phantom Stranger showed her? Batman would never accept her story; he would only further close himself off to her, and everyone, if she brought it up. She absently toyed with the short gray fur fibers beneath her fingertips.

    “Miss Diana,” a cultured voice interrupted her train of thoughts, “I didn't expect to see you here.”

    She turned, rose red lips curving into a quiet smile. “Hello, Alfred.”

    He appraised her with a single glance, brow arching of its own accord. “That is quite a lovely overcoat; are you by chance thinking of a day trip to one of the poles, madam?”

    Diana looked down at herself, only now remembering that she had a heavy winter jacket hanging from her impressive frame. She slipped it off of her shoulders, folding it neatly over a high-backed wooden chair that seemed completely out of place in the sterile metal space-station. “No,” she answered at length, resting a hand on the plush, silky surface, “it was a gift from a friend.”

    Alfred nodded sagely. “Ah, I see. If I may, your friend has exquisite tastes; I haven't seen that particular style of clothing in...” He paused. “Well, in decades, I should say.”

    Her back muscles tightened. “It certainly is a rare find. I was honored to receive it.”

    “Might this gift have something to do with your sojourn with Phantom Stranger, miss?”

    She blinked in surprise, turning to face him. “How did you – “

    “Master Bruce had quite the discussion with him concerning you,” he replied. “It appears as though your attempts to persuade him haven't gone unnoticed, after all. He sounded quite worried...for him, at least.”

    Her smile wavered and then vanished altogether. “Phantom Stranger said that Batman is key to saving Man's World from destruction.”

    “Master Bruce may be the key factor in solving this dilemma, madam, but he's hardly the only one,” he said, expression unreadable.

    She quashed the pang of guilt she felt, trying futilely to search his gaze for clues. This man could be as infuriating as his charge, at times; that was, in retrospect, probably where Bruce picked it up. Neither Thomas nor Martha were so deftly inscrutable and hard to pin down in a conversation. “You're right, I've got some catching up to do. Do you know where the others are?”

    “I'm afraid not. I've been tending to young Rex here all evening,” he answered, lifting a hand in the direction of the single occupied crib that stood ten feet to her right. He then motioned to the far wall. “Perhaps you can contact them via the communicator near the door?”

    Diana frowned at the small off-colored panel. The topic on her mind was not one she wanted others listening in on. “No thanks, I'd rather talk to them in person.” She nodded at the Englishman. “Take care, Alfred.”

    He returned the gesture. “And you, your Highness.”

    He watched her channel the powers granted to her from the Pantheon, flying through the pneumatic doors with grace and confidence. “Godspeed, dear.” He carefully scooped up the forgotten fur coat and folded it over his arm, running a hand over the surface to smooth out any errant wrinkles in the underlying fabric. As he did so, he heard something strike the ground with a soft, hollow tink. Gaping down, he found a small, golden object glinting against the dull metal floor. Curiously, he plucked it from the ground and let it lay in his palm, observing its illustrious gleam. “A ring? How peculiar.”

    ---

    Barbara Gordon sat, straight-backed in her plush leather chair, teeth clenched so tightly together that she could hear the rush of blood in her ears from the pressure. Her fingers hovered over the keyboard that hung suspended over her thighs, fingers poised to unleash a fury that she hadn't felt in...probably forever, but unsure of what to actually use that rage on.

    She had only squeezed her way into the Justice League intranet to talk to Bruce about her findings, since he'd summarily shut down all other avenues of contacting him she normally relied on. When she'd stumbled over a patient that was admitted into the Watchtower's upper echelon med-bay sometime yesterday, her curiosity – one of her dominant traits – got the better of her. Having deep knowledge of Batman's inner workings, she knew that the patient had to have been someone important to the League. She never realized it would have been someone important to him. Or to her. (Even if she'd closed the door on that path, even if she'd chosen the father over the son, and the Mission over the Life, only to wind up losing both. None of that mattered.)

    Her monitor was jammed with every scrap of information she could get from the Watchtower database on Dick; vitals, blood tests, tox screens, everything. Looking at what was in front of her, it was clear that he was going downhill fast, in spite of his valiant efforts to fight it off. The image of him half-clothed, unconscious, and torso speckled with dark, disgusting splotches that was slowly, inexorably, winding up his body and leaving only death in its wake, was something that caused her lightning-paced mind all but grind to a halt.

    And Bruce would have never told her. She didn't know why she was surprised – this was hardly anything new for him.

    Really, she hadn't been actively seeking a romantic relationship with him, and any silly fantasies she might have had regarding it were just that – fantasies. Silly. But she didn't resist when he interpreted her attempts to comfort him, broken and lost in the depths of the Cave mere weeks after Tim's return, as an advance. She didn't complain when he clung to her, whispering nonsense into her skin during one of his many nightmares. She waited, so patiently, for him to open up to her on his own terms, to trust her with himself. All she'd ever wanted out of their relationship, whatever its status, was for him to know, understand, and accept that she could help him carry his burdens.

    Instead, she got two bullets in her spine and a strained relationship with her father.

    A nearby terminal beeped, data slipping along the flat screen. Barbara frowned, and with a last, forlorn glance at Dick's failing condition, flicked the visual off. This was bigger than him – maybe bigger than everyone.

    ---

    One of the nice things about being Superman was that he could go for much longer without food or sleep before negative effects started to become apparent. Theoretically, the power from the yellow sun on his Kryptonian physiology was more than enough to keep him up for weeks, while the average human only lasted a few days.

    Theory was great, until reality fairly trounced upon it.

    Clark resisted the urge to rub at his eyes while he, Bruce, Wally, and John stood crowded around a monitor. On it was displayed an animation of a human cell being infected by the Leopard Fever strain, the globule shriveling up like a raisin as it blackened and died. It chilled Superman, watching the animation loop endlessly, with that knowledge that people were dying to this. All of his strength, all of his abilities, and what good was it doing the world now? Nothing.

    He pressed his fingertips against his closed eyelids. 'No going down that road, Clark,' he told himself. 'You know it won't do any good.'

    He glanced around the room, frowning. “Where's Diana?”

    “With Phantom Stranger, attempting to get answers. She'll contact us when she returns,” Batman replied automatically. Instantly, he switched gears, shifting his attention to the Flash. “What did you find?”

    The Speedster tapped at the console once. “This.” Globs of color began to overlay the video as it played. “The reason we've had so much trouble figuring out what it's doing to people is because we've been treating it like an infectious disease.”

    “Isn't that what it is?” Superman asked.

    Wally shook his head. “Infectious? Yeah. Disease? Not so much. See here – “ he pointed at the screen, “ – the way the cell's energy signature stays the same until the very end? Dying cells don't do that. They're actually being mutated into something that the body can't recognize, and since the immune system doesn't know what it is – “

    “It attacks,” John supplied.

    “You got it.”

    Batman frowned in thought. “What are the cells being mutated into?”

    Flash shrugged, returning his hand to his hip. “Don't know. Everything about them seems pretty much the same, except it's...”

    “Dormant.” Bruce stepped forward, glaring at the monitor as though he were interrogating it. For all Clark knew, maybe he was – and knowing him, he could probably get answers out if it, too. “So it's reversible, then.”

    “Probably, if we can extract that mojo from your little guinea pig's blood,” Flash agreed with a tilt of his lips. “What I'm worried about is the whole process – you don't see human cells sponge up energy like that and then just have it disappear into nothing. There are universal laws against that kinda stuff.” He caught Batman stiffening out of the corner of his eye. “I mean, sure, magic breaks universal laws all the time, but – “

    “What did you just say?”

    Flash blinked. “Magic breaks universal laws?”

    “Sponge.” Flash blinked again. Bruce scowled for a half-second. “Here.” He stepped to the terminal, creating a virtual mockup of Nightwing's body; self-updating bio-signs written in each corner. “The human body is capable of outputting anywhere from eighty to over sixteen-hundred watts of energy, depending on what they're doing at the time. Scientists have been trying unsuccessfully for years to harness it.”

    “And you think Spooky's magic plague is doing that?”

    A gloved finger aimed itself at the screen as another color overlay blanketed the 3D image. Most of the hero's extremities had turned a darkened blue, while his torso and upper legs were a wild, dangerous red. “Take a look for yourself. Nightwing's central nervous system is working overtime trying to combat the disease. Meanwhile, the affected cells are soaking up all those electrical impulses – “

    “Like a sponge,” Superman finished, comprehending the Dark Knight's earlier moment of insight.

    John frowned, expression stony. “You're telling me he's infecting people to use them as batteries? That doesn't make any sense.”

    The console beeped suddenly, a small, red light flashing in warning of an unauthorized transmission. Clark straightened, on alert (and thanking his lucky stars that the Binary Fusion Generator had been dismantled), while John and Bruce rushed to the computer, trying to pinpoint and shut down the frequency. Both were amazed to find the controls unresponsive. “I'm locked out,” Batman growled.

    “Sorry, I wanted to make sure you wouldn't boot me out before I introduced myself.”

    Superman, for lack of anything else to look at, stared upwards at the steel-tiled ceiling. “Who is this?”

    “I'm a friend of a friend,” the voice, clearly altered to a low, warbling tenor, answered with a nearly playful lilt. “Don't worry, I'm here to help.”

    Lantern huffed. “Pardon me if I don't take your word for it.”

    “Sounds like Batman's rubbed off on you,” he chuckled over the line.

    “Who is this?” Batman repeated the question tightly.

    There was a beat of silence. “Call me...the Oracle.”

    The four exchanged glances. Whoever this was obviously had the skills to shut them down completely, but chose instead to offer assistance. Clark would take them at their word – for now, at least. It wasn't like they had much choice, anyway. He again spoke up, “You said you're here to help, Oracle?”

    “I've found something you guys may need,” he replied. “Batman is on the right track; electromagnetic interference has skyrocketed worldwide since the first outbreak of Leopard Fever. And it gets worse – geologists are reporting unusual readings at several major tectonic fault lines.” Without anyone's command, the screen flickered and was replaced with a computer-generated Earth, highlighted with colors to show varying levels of activity. “You're looking at all seismic and geothermal activity in the past forty-eight hours. Notice a pattern in their location?”

    Batman's eyes narrowed. “Every known Lazarus Pit is a hotspot.”

    John studied the display, leaning on his fists against the computer array. “There must be hundreds of those things around the world, then.”

    Flash shrugged at the voice. “So, what, Ra's is building another run-of-the mill doomsday device with an extra side of disease?”

    “Ra's isn't out for conquest or annihilation – he wants to return the world to a pre-humanized, pre-industrialized state,” Batman explained. “He'll want to do as little permanent damage to the landscape as possible.”

    John's faintly glowing green eyes darted in Bruce's direction. “He might wanna reread the manual, then, because what he's doing could turn the entire world into one gigantic lava field.”

    Superman hummed, musing, “Maybe that's what he wants.” The others turned to him expectantly. “Well, think about it – just because a forest burns down doesn't mean that it's now dead land. In fact, ashes can actually be very potent, fertile ground for regrowth."

    John and Wally gawked at him. Bruce's eyebrow arched beneath his protective cowl. He rolled his shoulder in a halfhearted shrug, feeling a bit sheepish for theattention. “I used to go camping a lot as a kid. You learn things.”

    Flash raised his hands in the shape of a T. “Uh, small problem there, Supes – if Ra's turns Earth into Lavaland, that means he's gonna get smoked along with the rest of us. That doesn't sound like the M.O. of a guy with a royal flush up his sleeve. He's gonna want to live to see it all go down.”

    “This may be of interest, then,” Oracle commented, the Earth display zooming in to a archipelago of islands along the south Pacific. “According to Philippine mythology, the Agimat can grant the wearer superhuman strength, telekinesis, clairvoyance, control over the elements, and sometimes, out-and-out invincibility. Ordinarily, they're just seen as good luck charms, and can be crafted by shaman and town elders, but this particular piece – “ the display shrunk to the far corner, the majority of the screen being replaced by a golden necklace with a small, red pendant dangling from the thick chain, “ – is said to have belonged to a nameless Philippine hero who, according to legend, single-handedly stopped an erupting volcano sometime in the late tenth century, saving all the nearby villages. It's considered a national treasure.”

    John grimaced. “Looks like something you get out of a crackerjack box.”

    “So does your ring,” Flash jibed with a lopsided smirk. He held his hands up in defense at the glower he received. “What? It does.”

    “If the pendant is a national treasure,” Batman said, arms folding over his chest, “then it should be in Quezon City's Metropolitan History Museum.”

    “It was,” Oracle corrected, “but it was recently put on a display tour last month that rounds all of eastern Asia. Its last stop was Hong Kong, right before the Leopard Fever outbreak forced the tour to stop.”

    “Where was the Agimat being housed?”

    “Chen Republic Holdings.”

    Superman's head snapped up. “That was the bank Firefly and Volcana were breaking into when Wonder Woman and I showed up. Could that have been what they were after?”

    He could feel the glower against his right temple. “You didn't question them?”

    “Their motives seemed pretty straight-forward,” he answered.

    Most crimes seem pretty straight-forward until you examine them,” Bruce shot back, clearly annoyed at what was, to him, a grievous oversight.

    His own irritation rose to the occasion. Clark normally didn't mind being put on the spot, but Batman had the uncanny ability to make anyone he rebuked look like a toddler trying to drive a car. It got old, fast. “We stopped the robbery, and all the stolen property they tried to make off with was returned.”

    John folded his arms over his chest. “Sounds like a distraction to me.”

    Flash added, “Anyone wanna take bets on who they were working for?”

    Batman turned to the door. “I'll find out Ra's wanted with them.”

    “You won't get much out of them,” Oracle interrupted. “After they were apprehended, Chinese officials placed them in a high-security quarantine.”

    Batman halted, and then pivoted back toward the console. “Let me guess. They've been infected.”

    “More than that.” The screen fizzled once again and was remapped with a grainy, grisly feed of the two villains strapped to beds side by side, their bodies writhing in agony as sickly lines of black twined across their torsos and up their necks. “If the normal body is a battery, then these two are industrial generators.”

    The room went silent momentarily as the images played out before them. Superman's blood ran cold as the realization dawned on him – even with protective Hazmat suits, their fire powers were more than enough to melt it from their impervious skins. “Ra's knew that someone from the Justice League would be sent in to take them down,” he said, voice hushed. “He was trying to infect all of us.”

    “Pretty straight-forward,” Bruce commented acerbically. Clark shot a glare in his direction that was pointedly and summarily ignored.

    Green Lantern stared at the slate gray ceiling. “Can you access Juragua's systems? We need to find out what that lunatic is doing.”

    “The reactor is still offline, and the Cubans are completely clueless,” Oracle responded apologetically. “There's nothing I can do from here.”

    Batman's scowl darkened that much more. “You can't, but I know someone who can.”

    ---

    Diana fitted the new comm-link in her right ear, dialing it through to its proper frequency out of rote while briefly wondering where – or when – her previous one ended up during her foray into a 1950's Gotham. She appeared to have only been gone for a few hours, but given how quickly the situation appeared to be escalating, that didn't offer her much comfort. She needed to find out what she missed immediately. “Wonder Woman to Batman.”

    “Welcome back,” he answered gruffly, voice as sure as a rock – and about as enthusiastic as one, too. “Meet me in examination room two – and make sure you have your lasso with you.” The link was abruptly severed with a hollow tweet.

    Diana stifled a sigh. What, exactly, did Alfred consider 'worry'?

    ---

    Batman saw Wonder Woman walk down the deserted hallway preceding the interrogation rooms from the corner of his eye. He angled his head toward her, hiding both his momentary relief that she was unharmed, and his annoyance that she was once again prying into his business – and was even enlisting the aid of a paranormal entity to do so, at that. She didn't know when to quit.

    He dismissively noted the irony. “Princess.”

    Her face ticked, as if in grief. That didn't bode well. “I need to speak with you.”

    “It can wait.”

    “For now.”

    “For however long it needs to.” With luck, that meant never.

    She smiled faintly, as if he were capable of saying something funny. Especially now. That boded even worse. “You're as stubborn as a mule.”

    “So I've heard.” He nodded to the steel hatch labeled 'Examination Room 2', striding forward. “Follow my lead.”

    ---

    The examination room's doors slid open with a quiet hiss. Nyssa gasped quietly as her eyes befell the Batman, in all his glory. She had been part of his mind for so long that it felt rather odd to see him from the outside, looking in, but doing so provided her a perspective she'd never had before. He was...impressive; strong, confident, infinitely dangerous. Breathtaking. He was every bit the perfect specimen that her mother and grandfather seemed to appreciate him for, but she knew much more than them. She saw what they never would, she understood his mindset far beyond those around him, and that knowledge provided her a security and strength she cherished deep within her heart.

    And no one would dare take that from her.

    Behind him stood a woman, also of impressive stature, but she was easily ignored in favor of the man she knew so well. His gaze trained on her, firm, but not cold. “I need your help.”

    Her breath caught in her throat. She felt humbled. “Anything.”

    He stood in front of her, cape shrouded over his form. “I need you to find out what your grandfather is planning.”

    She blinked, aqua orbs confused. “Isn't that what your friend is attempting to do now?”

    If her response phased him, he didn't show it. But then, he was exceptional at that. “Never put all your eggs in one basket.”

    She cocked her head to the side. “You believe he will fail.”

    “I believe in contingencies.”

    “You believe everything will fail, given time,” she pressed, lips quirked upward. “Don't you?”

    “There are billions of lives at stake,” he said, undeterred by her (admittedly paltry) attempts to throw him off balance. Marvelous; he truly was a master at this game. “We need to know what he's doing.”

    Nyssa paused in thought. During her silence, Mother decided that her opinion was warranted. “My daughter has offered you everything she knows. Let her rest, beloved. Please.”

    Batman may have been a master at hiding his emotions, but the woman behind was not, her dark blue eyes glinting like sapphires at Mother. She recognized her, now – she was the one that caused him no end of grief from her embarrassing attachment to him. Did she truly believe she laid claim to him? How adorable. “We'll offer it as soon as we can,” she assured, alto carefully devoid of offense. “However, we're short on time, and the risk your father poses to Man's World is great. We'll need your daughter's help to defeat him.”

    Batman pressed his gloved hands against the stainless steel table, lenses fixated on her intently. She did not squirm. “Could you locate him?”

    Her abilities were large, unwieldy things, but this close, she could feel so much from him – he hid behind his cloak and mask, but all was open to her. The combined weight of humanity pressed down against him, slowly squeezing the spirit from his immaculate physique like juice from an orange. He was becoming frustrated; desperate. That wouldn't do. “I will try.”

    He nodded and fell silent, limbs withdrawing back into the safety of his weighted cape. The Martian's prowess was something she wish she possessed. His mastery over it, the ease with which he could enter and exit a person's mind at will, sparked an intense envy within her. His abilities supplemented hers – steadied them in a way she had always dreamed of achieving. Cadmus, for all their money and technology, only offered hollow promises and weak advances – they were piddling. Impotent. Perhaps, with time, she would be able to wrangle a similar level of control on her own, but for the moment, she was content with her current state.

    She closed her eyes, focusing on the spinning globe miles below them. She called upon her abilities, and then upon the anchor that secured her amongst the maelstrom, and reached out. The minds of human civilization were as loud and chaotic as she remembered, each one shrieking in their own unique wail of dissatisfaction, each vying for power, wealth, and superiority over their fellow man. The disgusting taint of their own selfishness threatened to drown her, whorls of color and light twisting around her like serpents ready to crush the life from her.

    Holding her breath, she plunged deeper into the torrent, struggling blindly among the swirling muck of human depravity and indifference to find the essence that, for all its noble intents, only succeeding in embodying all it strove to destroy. Her power, enhanced by the Martian, touched against something familiar, that which Mother's beloved – her beloved – sought, and she curled tendrils of her will around it and squeezed.

    Nyssa felt but a flash of idle amusement from the other end, Grandfather softly chuckling, 'Silly child,' before her world went black completely.



    To be continued...
     
    #80 SilverKnight, Mar 24, 2011
    Last edited by a moderator: Nov 16, 2012

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