IN DARKEST LIGHT
By Meljean Brook (email@example.com)
Archiving: Go ahead, just send me an e-mail letting me know where, and keep my name and e-mail address at the head of the story. No editing without written permission and an approved edited sample (if you want to change it from an R rating to PG, for example).
Continuity: No specific continuity. Generally, after Wonder Woman #174. Primarily, I've changed Batman continuity around so that Officer Down takes place after OWAW and this story. I've changed things and made them up as needed. Last Laugh never happened in this universe.
Disclaimers: This work of fiction is blatantly infringing many copyrights, but it is a work for which I am making no money, nor receiving any other form of compensation (except, of course, personal gratification and greatly appreciated reader comments). I do not own the characters herein, nor claim in any way to own them. All characters, representations, and likenesses are owned by DC Comics and Warner Bros.
Kyle Rayner, the Green Lantern, was craving double chocolate walnut fudge ice cream. He headed to the kitchen for the third time that day to get a bowl of it. He wasn't sure why last month he had started craving the ice cream, but it was so bad that he had stocked the freezer in the Watchtower's kitchen with several more gallons than it originally had, and had noticed a slight weight gain under his skin-tight, green, white and black uniform from his several-times-a-day ice cream binges. Kyle thought that no one else had noticed the extra ounce or two that he was carrying, but he was sure that in the next day or so Batman would probably say from some dark corner, "Too many Doritos, Kyle?" with an accompanying stare that would send the Green Lantern running to the weight room to burn off the four gallons of ice cream that he had eaten in the last week.
He strode through the kitchen's swinging door and was halfway across the room when he noticed the scene that was playing out on the kitchen table. He froze. Wonder Woman--naked, Kyle's mind registered ecstatically--with her head thrown back, hands clenched in the hair of the man whom she was straddling, moaning softly from whatever it was that his mouth was doing to her breast and his body was doing under her.
The couple must have sensed Kyle was there, because they stopped mid-thrust, looked at each other, then at Kyle. Kyle forced himself to look away from Diana's body and into her glazed eyes, and at her face, which registered confusion as she looked down at the man she was astride, then back at Kyle, then down at the man again. And then Kyle realized at whom Diana was looking. Bruce Wayne. The Batman.
In one fluid movement, Batman rolled over, pulling Diana with him, toward the chair where his black cape was draped over his cowl, body armor and Wonder Woman's uniform, swept the cape up and covered their nude forms. Kyle filed away the information that Diana was wearing only her red boots and bracelets for later self-erotic use, then felt his stomach jump into his throat when Batman turned to look at him. Kyle would rather have had Diana crush his skull with a flick of her hand than to receive *that* look from Batman.
"Eep," said the Green Lantern, wielder of the universe's most powerful weapon.
"Get out, Kyle," the Batman said in his softest voice.
Kyle got out.
Superman, the Flash, and Plastic Man were scanning for unusual incidents in the Monitor Room when GL burst in, white as a sheet, stumbling over his feet in his hurry. He skidded to a stop, and said, "I just saw Wonder Woman naked!"
Wally jumped up. "Wherewhichroomisshein?"
Plastic Man's chin dropped, literally, to the floor. He pulled it up again to say, "You lucky bastard."
"Not so lucky," Superman said mildly, "if his fear is anything to judge by. I suppose she threatened the life out of you and then threw you out?"
"No, that was the Batman." Kyle looked fearfully toward the door of the room as if he expected the Dark Knight to come through it at any moment. "Man, she was naked on top of him! And he was naked, too," he added, almost as an afterthought.
"Oh, man, I can't believe I missed that," Plastic Man lamented.
GL threw himself theatrically at Superman's feet. "Please, Supes, you gotta protect me when he comes after me."
She looked at him, figure stiff, eyes stricken. "I've never..I don't know...." She shook her head, composed her face. "We'll both figure out what happened. One way or another." She ran her hands through her hair. "Maybe we should start with the security discs in this room." Superman saw her grin. "Before Kyle distributes them over the internet."
"There's enough fake ones online about you that it wouldn't even make a difference," Batman said dryly. He turned to leave the room, hesitated, turned back. "Diana, are you all right?"
Her grin faded. "I should ask you that; we weren't exactly gentle."
"I don't mean physically." Batman grimaced. "I mean...emotionally."
"Oh, that." Diana waved her hand dismissively. "It wasn't exactly a bad experience, Bruce. I'm fine. Are you?"
Batman nodded, then leaned toward her, touching her bare hand with his gauntleted one. "No, it wasn't bad, Diana. But that doesn't mean it should have happened, or that it wasn't a violation of us both." He gave her hand a squeeze and let go. "I'll go get those discs now."
Wonder Woman watched Batman leave the kitchen, then sank to her knees, burying her face in her hands. "Great Hera," she whispered.
Superman looked away, feeling like a voyeur. Green Lantern was saying, "...wait until Donna finds out! She'll flip her lid, that's for sure."
"Donna won't find out," Superman said. His tone brooked no argument. "I'm not exactly sure what has happened, but I don't think it was of their own volition."
man," Wally said, sinking into a chair. "You mean we are in
possession of the best piece of gossip since
"I mean," Superman said, looking at each one of them in turn, "that if word of it gets beyond this room, they'll find tiny little pieces of each of you floating around Pluto." They could tell he wasn't kidding. "In other words, you'll have to answer to a very disappointed and furious me."
"And me," Batman said from the doorway. He strode silently across the room to the security station. GL, the Flash, and Plastic Man looked at each other, and started to edge toward the door.
"Stay away from Diana," Batman said without turning from the console in front of him.
"Okay," the three said in unison, then ran out of the room. Superman had the feeling that they probably wouldn't even look at Wonder Woman for three weeks; Batman's tone had been low, very dangerous and deadly serious.
"Did you find anything?" he asked.
J'onn J'onzz, the Martian Manhunter, materialized beside him. "No. There isn't a single sign of an outside influence or chemical imbalance in their minds. As far as I can tell, they just acted on feelings that they already had. Perhaps we should look at the magic angle?"
"Except for my unusual craving for your mom's apple pie instead of Oreo cookies and the abundance of ice cream in the freezer? No." J'onn paused. "Someone could be trying to disrupt the JLA, to divert our attention away from something else."
"That's what I've been thinking. Keep an especially watchful eye out, and I'll get in touch with some of the magic users." Superman eyed the man next to him wryly. "I'm not sure how to explain the problem we have without explaining the situation to them, but hopefully one of them will know of something similar and can give us a clue."
"I wouldn't be surprised if Batman has beaten you to that."
"Bruce and Diana?" At
"Did she go in with her sword?"
Superman's shoulders drooped. "I'll call Steel and have him get a crew ready to do repairs to the room."
Wonder Woman cocked her head, listening to Superman and the Martian Manhunter. They didn't have a monopoly on super-hearing, and she wasn't sure if they had forgotten that or thought that she was too distraught to listen. So they thought she was reacting normally? How was a woman supposed to act, she wondered, after she has come onto a man like a cat in heat? Was there a precedent for this sort of thing that made her reaction fit into the category of 'normal'?
She sheathed her sword and called up the highest training level on the computer. She wouldn't use her weapon unless she had to; it suddenly seemed more satisfying to pound the holograms with her fists. A simulacrum of Darkseid appeared and hit her with his omega beams before she could react, throwing her back against the reinforced wall, knocking the breath out of her. She flew toward him, dodging his energy beam, landing a punch that made her hand go numb but barely jarred the dark god. And who had given J'onn permission to scan her mind? She broke the neck of a parademon that tried to attack her from behind. Granted, it was probably in the JLA's best interest to know if there was an outside source influencing her or Bruce, but why hadn't they asked? Did they think she would break, that her sensibilities were so delicate that she would never recover from a direct question? Darkseid slapped her against the ground, stepped on her. She thought he might have cracked a rib, so she drew her sword and speared his foot. She breathed heavily while he pulled out the sword with two of his fingers. She yanked it out of his hand with her lasso and re-sheathed it. And what about the magic? Did they think that Batman would only give into her charms under the influence of magic? She dodged another omega beam, punched another parademon. Or that she was so sexless it took magic to make her give in to a sexual urge? Another rib cracked when she tried to come around behind Darkseid and he hit her in mid-air. Granted, it had been odd that *they* had had sex and it was out of character for them both, but--she threw a parademon at Darkseid's face, then used the split second his vision was blocked by the creature to kick him in the back of his leg, causing his knee to buckle--it had been nice. For the first time in a long time she had been swept away by a feeling, and it had been wonderful. She crashed against the ceiling when a parademon she had been unaware of rammed into her from below. She pulled off its head by wrapping her lasso around it and yanking.
but wrong, she admitted as the scenery around her changed from Apokolips to
"And he's right," she said aloud.
"Who's right, Wonder Bitch?" Circe sneered as she caught Wonder Woman's lasso before it snaked around Vanessa.
"Batman," Diana replied, yanking sharply on the rope. Circe didn't let go quickly enough, and flew off of her glider into Diana's fist. Her nose crunched. The Silver Swan screeched and attacked. Wonder Woman blocked her flailing nails with a bracelet, kicking Circe out of the way. The witch landed on her feet, holding her nose.
"Where's your mommy, Diana?" Circe taunted. "Are they going to make her a goddess so that Zeus can fuck her whenever he wants, just like Herakles did? The retroactive Wonder Slut."
minutes later, Wonder Woman stepped away from the pulped body of the witch, and
took a deep breath. She closed her eyes. "Computer, program off," she
Mother, she thought, I wish you were here.
Her mother didn't answer her; Batman did. He said over her comm-link, "Diana, I think I've found something. Come to the cave."
Diana found Alfred waiting for her in the cave.
"Good evening, miss," the butler said. "Master Bruce was called away on sudden business. He said that he should only be away for two or three hours. He tried to reach you, but you were . .. . indisposed, and he felt that under the circumstances, leaving a message with the others telling you to delay your visit to him would be unwise."
Diana smiled slightly at the butler's polite unwillingness to mention that she had been in the shower, and acknowledged that Batman must have told Alfred at least the basics regarding their "circumstances." She was grateful for his tact; the Watchtower would have been abuzz with new rumors had they known she was visiting him alone less than three hours after GL had found them in the kitchen. She had taken a few hours to herself after Batman's summons to the cave; she felt she needed to calm down before she saw him again. She had written a letter to the Chinese government, contacted Artemis to discuss Cassie's training schedule while Themyscira was being rebuilt, then showered and taped her ribs. They would heal quickly, but the pressure of the tape eased the pain her movements caused her while they knitted back together.
"Would you like any dinner if you wait, miss, or would you rather return when Master Bruce does?"
"Thank you, but no dinner, Alfred." She looked toward the huge computer screen at the center of the bank of computers. A fuzzy image of a large male pointing a gun at what looked like a bank teller filled one half of the monitor; the other side had a name and a list of stats.
Diana nodded toward the monitor. "Is that Bruce's 'business'?"
Alfred nodded. "A particularly nasty criminal element, I believe. He held up this teller this afternoon; just before you arrived, Oracle managed to track down this man, and Master Bruce went out to apprehend him."
Intuition made Wonder Woman ask, "It wasn't just a hold up, was it?"
"No, Miss Diana," Alfred said. "I'm afraid that the teller and a security guard were killed during the robbery. He didn't use the gun to do it."
Diana looked at the statistics for the man more closely. "It says that he's a metahuman. Class C strength and speed, Class B invulnerability," she read. She turned back to Alfred. "Why didn't he wait until I got here? Even with his belt of tricks, taking this guy down won't be easy."
"I don't expect it will be; I'm afraid that this might be another night spent bandaging and medicating him," Alfred said.
Determined, Diana walked over to the computer station. "Not tonight. Will you show me on this thing where to find him?"
"Of course. However, I would suggest that you do not go."
"Master Bruce does not accept help often from what he calls the "flashier heroes" for two simple reasons, Miss Diana: flashy heroes are obvious targets that are dangerous for non-powered humans to be around, and, if word were to spread that the Batman needed help, he would lose that element of fear that, more often than not, gives him an edge over the criminals of the city."
Diana hesitated, then insisted, "But if he's lying bloodied and beaten, they'll lose their fear of him, too."
Alfred smiled. "He's walked away on a broken leg and breathing with punctured lungs, miss. He doesn't show them weakness, and they would consider help from a metahuman a weakness."
"By the gods, that man is stubborn!" Diana drummed her fingers on the console, thinking. Her gaze lit upon a Robin costume in a lighted tube. So damn stubborn, she thought. Even when Robin had been killed by the Joker--a boy who had practically been his own son--he had not sought comfort from anyone. Instead, he had embroiled himself deeper in his quest, shutting out nearly everyone for months. How in the world did she expect him to let her help with one metahuman, when he didn't accept help when his world was ripped apart? How would he--
Wait, she thought. The costume.
"Alfred, is there another Bat costume that I could use?"
Alfred didn't hesitate. "Of course, miss. We'd have to alter it slightly, though."
"Very slightly," she said, pulling off her WW breastplate. "We don't have much time."
Diana looked at herself in the mirror. The costume was too big; it hung from her loosely in several places. Alfred had taken out some of the body armor, zipped her lasso into a pocket in the cape lining--"just in case," he had said-- and covered her bracelets with the costume's sleeves and gauntlets. Diana watched as Alfred used a penknife to cut a slit in the back of the cowl and pulled her braided hair through the hole.
"That should suffice, miss," Alfred said, stepping back to survey his handiwork. "I have a locator that you can use to find Master Bruce. I use it when he needs me to send him one of the jets or collect him when he can't make it home himself."
"Hopefully this won't be one of those nights." She checked her image in the mirror again, amazed by the difference the costume made for her look and, she noted with some excitement mixed with trepidation, feel. She felt more powerful, more dangerous. "Any last minute suggestions, Alfred?"
"Two, Miss Diana." Alfred adjusted the cape so that it draped around her shoulders, hiding her body. "Try to make yourself look as big and as frightening as possible. Be theatrical, but don't use your powers in a flashy or obvious way. The point is not to seem metahuman."
Diana nodded. "And suggestion number two?"
"Amazons are hunters as well as warriors, aren't they?"
"The best in the world, Alfred."
suggest then, Miss Diana, that you change your demeanor and approach from that
of a warrior to that of a hunter." He smiled very slightly. "
"I *am* Wonder Woman, Alfred."
"No." Alfred turned her to look in the mirror again. "Tonight you are Diana, goddess of the hunt."
Diana smiled. "You are well versed in your mythology."
"There have been many nights when I've stayed awake waiting for Master Bruce with nothing to do but read, miss. Hopefully I'll sleep well tonight."
Diana picked up the Bat locator. "I'll do what I can, Alfred." She turned and flew toward the cave entrance.
Alfred watched her leave. "Happy hunting, miss."
Chapter 2: The Jungle
Batman shifted his weight to his right leg to keep his left foot from going numb. He glanced at Batgirl, briefly envying her easy posture before returning his attention to the scene below. Four men sat around a table counting money. A fifth stood by the door as sentry; two more were in an enclosed office. The room was open and well-lighted, making it almost impossible to take the men out one by one; he and Batgirl would have to make one concerted effort and take down the men in the room as quickly as possible before the two in the office came out, guns blasting. Normally, Batman would not hesitate this long. It was usually easy, especially with Batgirl's help, to have men in the open disabled before anyone in another room was even aware they were under attack; in this case, however, one of the men, David George, was metahuman.
Batman ran the scenario through his head several times: Batgirl takes out the sentry then the three non-powered men while he goes after the metahuman, trying to knock out George chemically at first, but if his metabolism processes the depressant too fast, Batman has to fight George, whose strength and speed far exceed his own. Batman doesn't underestimate his own talents--he's fought metahumans and won many times--but doesn't like to physically engage a metahuman in a fight if he can help it, especially when that metahuman is backed up by two men with guns who enjoy the cover of an enclosed room.
Batman didn't like the odds. Even with Batgirl's amazing talent to help him, fighting David George involved taking on a metahuman whose abilities weren't well-documented and whose known history--which consisted of one double murder during a bank heist earlier that day--was spotty at best. It was a wild card he didn't need.
A change in the shadows to his right caught his eye even as Batgirl pointed at the movement. And here is another unneeded wild card, he thought. He changed his lenses to night vision so that he could see into the gloom of the rafters. A Bat costume? One of his, he noted immediately. Female form, long black braid.
She ran silently along the wooden beams on the opposite side of the warehouse ceiling from where he and Batgirl waited, vaulted over a pipe, and then crouched in a corner, out of the sight of the men below. Batman frowned. Wonder Woman didn't move like that. Diana ran boldly, with purpose and efficiency, like a warrior into battle. This woman's movements were subtle, almost feline in their stealth.
Batgirl had seen Wonder Woman in
Batgirl nodded. He noticed that one of the men below had changed position without him being aware of it.
Diana. She had distracted his thoughts all evening in the cave; now she was distracting him in person on patrol.
Batman wanted to swear, but instead forced himself to consider how her arrival could benefit their operation. Aside from his own circle of Robin, Nightwing, and Oracle, there was no one in the world--maybe Superman--that he trusted more than Diana. He could count on her to help him with George, even though what he wanted to do was tear a verbal strip out of her for wearing his costume and daring to come to his aid. In his city.
himself through to the receiver in the ears of the cowl she was wearing.
"I told you to stay out of
He could almost hear the smile in her voice when she said, "You invited me to the cave, you are the one who left George's stats up on the screen, and you know my personality; it doesn't take the World's Greatest Detective to know that I would come here. Count yourself lucky I changed costumes and am doing it on your terms."
Bruce frowned. She was right--and he didn't like it.
"And don't call me 'Princess.'" He almost smiled at that. He hadn't forgotten she'd given up her title, of course; he had known it would irritate her. She was so predictable.
He frowned again. She hadn't been predictable in the JLA kitchen earlier. Neither had he. But they'd deal with that later.
"Diana, you cover the two in the office; they've got guns. Batgirl will take out the guard and the three non-metas around the table--they are armed, too. I'll hit George with the narcazine. Hopefully he'll go down. If not, I take Diana's place, and Diana, you take out George, as quickly and cleanly as possible. Batgirl, you back me up and take care of any unexpecteds. On my mark."
He threw three batarangs, destroying the fluorescent light tubes over the table. One second. He dropped to the floor behind George; Batgirl had already taken out the sentry and was on the men at the table before they could stand up. Two seconds. Batman broke the vial of narcazine under George's nose as the meta stood, and heard Diana's murmur of astonishment over the transmitter as Batgirl took down the three men with a fist, foot and final backward kick. Three seconds. George swayed. Batman heard shouts from inside the office. Four seconds. George fell to his knees, then onto his face. Five seconds. Silence now from inside the office.
Batman turned to watch Diana, who cocked her head as if listening to the men inside. "I'm going up," she said, and he watched as she lifted herself to the low roof of the office, sliding along the top on her hands and knees. She stood when she reached the middle, her head inches from the rafters, then fell through the roof. He realized she must have put enough downward pressure on the roof to cave it in, probably taking out the light fixtures in the process. There were yells from inside, a shot, and two distinct thuds. At Batman's feet, George stirred. Bruce flipped backwards just as the man's beefy hand closed on the air where his legs had been. George was on his feet in an instant; Batman got another vial ready, but wasn't sure he'd have the chance to get it close enough. "Diana," was all he was able to say before George hit him, knocking him backward through the door of the office. Underestimated his speed, Batman thought. Knocked on my ass--humiliating.
He felt the brush of Diana's cape as she left the office. From his perspective on the ground, she looked taller than normal--no, he realized as she drew close to George, she was floating about twelve inches above the floor, the cape hiding the fact that her feet weren't touching the ground. George tried to hit her; she caught his fist mid-swing. She bent over him; Batman didn't think that George could see anything in the dim light other than a menacing shadow coming closer and closer to his face.
Diana--closely imitating his own voice, Batman realized--said, "You murdered two people in my city. Never again." She slammed her fist into George's chin; he flew backwards and hit the ground. Diana settled to the ground and walked to his prone form, bending to examine him. "He's out," she announced in her own voice.
Standing in the shattered office doorway, Batman contacted Alfred. "Call GCPD and have them bring their reinforced wagon to pick up George and six others at this address."
"Very well, sir. Did Miss Diana find you?"
"Very good, sir. I hope she was able to offer assistance." Alfred paused. "Were you aware, sir, that the Bat-signal has been lit?"
Batman looked up at the ceiling automatically. No skylight to confirm the Bat-signal. "How long ago?"
"Only a few minutes."
"Thank you, Alfred. I'll be back later."
"Good luck, sir."
Batman broke the connection and looked at Diana. She was shaking hands with Batgirl; Bruce imagined that under her mask Cassandra's face was probably filled with adoration, not unlike Dick's had been the first time he'd met Superman.
"I would love to learn some of your techniques," Diana was telling her as Bruce bent to snap titanium cuffs around George's wrists. Batgirl nodded, then shrugged, pointing at Batman. It's his decision, her gestures said. Diana glanced at Bruce. "What do you think?"
"Batgirl, cuff the others." He tossed her some plastic quick-tites. She quickly complied. "I didn’t know you did impressions, Diana," he said when Batgirl was out of earshot.
"Kal taught me." Batman saw the flash of her teeth in
the dark. "’Precise muscle control,’" she
"Keep not practicing it." Batman reached forward and tugged the locator out of Diana’s belt, then punched a few buttons. "I’m resetting this to locate the Batmobile. I need to you stay here with George until the PD arrives, then meet me at the car. No flying, no powers. If you have to, walk." He gave her the instrument, turned to go, then said over his shoulder, "Stay out of sight of the police when they get here."
"I’ll skulk in a corner, let a detective talk to me, then when he looks away for a brief second I’ll disappear, leaving him scratching his head in wonder." Batman could hear the smile in her voice. Her current cheerfulness was almost as distracting as the memory of what they had done earlier that day, and how she had felt. So, he ignored it.
"Good. Batgirl, when you are done here, go patrol east-side. Keep in touch through Oracle."
Wonder Woman crouched on a gargoyle, looking out over the city. She could see the Batmobile below her; Batman was nowhere in sight. The police had arrived at the warehouse quickly; an unconscious George had posed no problem to them. After allowing them a shadowing glimpse of her on the rooftop, she sped away. She hoped she was an imposing a figure to them as Bruce seemed to be.
power, she thought. Fear. Not the kind she could
instill with her fists and strength, but the type of fear that made men stay at
home instead of selling dope on corners. Not a fear of death—she knew that she
inspired that kind of fear in some people; they looked at what she could do and
imagined her crushing them, killing them with her powers. No, the criminals in
She, on the other hand, had been trying for years to instill a love of peace to the world without much success. And she was starting to wonder if people weren’t swayed by love, but by fear and hate.
Diana watched as, below, a woman walking down the street was pushed into an alley by a much larger man. She heard a short scream, quickly muffled. She started to fly down, then stopped herself. She would continue to play by his rules tonight. Pulling a grappling hook from her belt, she aimed it at an outcropping on a lower building. It wedged firmly around the ledge; she smiled. It wasn’t much different than her lasso. She swung into the air, fighting her urge to control her descent, and for a moment felt the unfamiliar panic of freefall. Her swing reached its downward arc, and she let go of the rope, exhilarated by that instant of fear, landing silently on the sidewalk next to the alley. It was dim, but not dim enough, she thought. She would make this quick, no theatrics, so that the man and woman would never have time to realize that the face showing beneath the mask wasn’t masculine.
Diana stepped into the alley, then stopped. The man lay facedown on the pavement, and the woman was holding her shoe in her hand. She looked over at Diana. Fright and pride warred on her features. "I did it! Just like in my self-defense class; and Jerry had said they were a waste of time. Ha ha. I just thought, 'What would Batman do?' even though I really don't believe in you, but here you are." She stopped to catch a breath. "And I was so afraid, but I guess it was like those grandmother-picking-the-car-up-off-the-grandson things. One whack! and that was all she wrote." She began laughing hysterically.
Diana cuffed the unconscious man, checked his vitals, and said, "He should stay out until the police arrive. Do you have a phone?" Shaking and holding her sides in her laughter, the woman nodded. "Call the police."
"Oh-Okay." The woman rummaged through her purse, trying to calm herself. She pulled out her cell phone triumphantly after a few moments; the alley was empty except for her attempted rapist and her. She looked up and down the alley, then ran to the corner to look up and down the deserted street. "Holy shit," she said finally.
Back on the
gargoyle, Diana drew her cape tightly around herself, trying to dispel a cold
that had settled deep within her. But it wouldn't be warmed, she acknowledged,
because it wasn't physical. The police arrived at the alley, their lights
flashing garish red, white and blue over the gothic facade of the buildings.
Her own colors; here in
Diana traced back through her memories; she could remember several women mentioning how she had inspired them, but only to a small extent. Some women left their abusive husbands, or they stood up for themselves at a male dominated workplace--Diana recognized the value of that for the individual woman, but she had always hoped for more. That men and women would join her cause and act in the name of peace and love, instead of waiting for Wonder Woman to do it all for them. And Batman, he had inspired action from an outmatched woman who hadn't even known that he was anything more than an urban legend. Wonder Woman was a public presence--a reality--and she couldn't generate that kind of action, no matter how many speeches she made, supervillians she fought or TV shows she appeared in, espousing her message. What was she doing wrong?
Diana barely kept herself from jumping when Batman appeared beside her. "Let's go, Princess." She curled her lip at the name but didn't say anything; instead, she followed him over the rooftop and swung down to the Batmobile. The top slid open and she climbed into the passenger seat.
"Back to the cave?" she asked.
He didn't spare her a glance as he reversed the car. "No. We are going to pay a doctor a visit first."
Diana bit her lip, wondering how to phrase her reply, before finally saying, "Bruce, I don't think that is necessary. I won't become pregnant."
His head whipped around and he slammed on the brakes. The tires screeched. Diana could see the horror and surprise in his eyes, and in the expression on his face beneath the line of his mask. His voice hoarse, he said, "No, that's not what I--" He shook his head. Diana watched in fascination as he composed himself, became The Bat once more. He put the Batmobile into gear once more.
"The Joker escaped tonight, and his last visitor was a Dr. Kaeklis. Gotham PD has tried to question him about what he told the Joker, but he is claiming doctor-patient confidentiality. We are going to get some answers out of him."
"What if he won't talk?"
Batman smiled grimly. "That's why you are here. If I have to administer a truth serum, he might be disoriented enough to only speak his native language--Greek."
The buildings seemed to fly by outside the car, a collage of gothic architecture and modern sparity. Diana was struck again by how alien this place felt to her. "Your ethics are questionable, but when it comes to the Joker..." Her voice trailed off.
After remotely commanding his computers to sweep for transactions involving the Joker's usual aliases, Batman cast a sidelong glance at the woman beside him. It had been five minutes since Diana had last spoken. She had pushed back her mask and he could see her face clearly; she was gazing blankly out of the passenger window.
She was brooding, he could tell; he usually had a monopoly on that. It didn't exactly make him nervous, but he couldn't ignore the fact that the one and only other time he had seen her brood, six hours later she had thrown a piece of granite at his head and put him an escape pod headed for the asteroid belt so that she could die in place of the JLA. It was probably better to find out now, he thought, what was going on in her head. He didn't think it was their sexual encounter in the kitchen. He wasn't sure he wanted to talk about that yet anyway, so he started out on a safe topic--the Joker.
"More often than not I break a few ethical rules when dealing with the Joker," he said abruptly.
Diana's eyes narrowed. "You never start conversations."
"I am a man of surprises." He ignored her disbelieving snort. Then her eyes widened, and he knew she was thinking of what happened in the Watchtower and how *that* must have surprised her, so he hastily continued. "I am simply stating that in times of life or death circumstances, ethical considerations are by necessity often thrown out the door. The path that you followed when confronting that dragon wasn't exactly black and white. You betrayed and deceived every one of your friends."
"I'd do it again in a heartbeat," she replied, her face serious. "It broke my heart to do it, but if it saved your lives, I wouldn't hesitate to do it again." She paused. "It did make me, however, more sympathetic to your situation when you devised ways to take out every JLA member. What I did, I did to keep all of you from dying. What you did was plan a way to save the world from us."
She added quietly, "I'm not sure there is a difference between the two anymore."
He frowned. "What do you mean?"
"I'm not sure." She waved a hand in the air as if whatever she wanted to say she could grab out of thin air and hold on to. Batman didn't think he had ever seen her at such a loss for words. "I think...I think I can't help but wonder if the world does need saving from us. We have good intentions, but are we doing more harm than good?" She leaned her head back against the headrest and closed her eyes, as if she was very tired. "How many years have I been in Man's World? How long has Kal been here? Are we just making the problem worse by letting the people of the world rely on us?"
"Yes," Batman said as he pulled to a stop behind an apartment complex. "And no. And it's not just you and Clark, you know."
"I know, but we are considered the symbols, the epitome of the powered hero." She grinned ruefully. "That sounds incredibly conceited."
Batman shrugged and opened the car. "It's true." He got out. "We're here."
Diana pulled the mask forward over her face. "So I gathered," she said dryly, and climbed out.
"He's in one of the penthouses."
Diana tilted her neck back, looking up at the building. It was smooth glass and steel. "On what do we fasten our ropes?"
"We are in a hurry. We'll fly." He stepped close to Diana and put his arm around her waist. She immediately lifted them, sliding smoothly through the air. He gave himself a brief moment to enjoy the feel of her taut muscles under his own, then tried to stop feeling when he realized that enjoyment was quickly turning to lust.
cheating," he heard Diana mutter. He didn't know if she was talking about
the flying or the physical contact. He forcefully pushed every thought not
concerning the Joker and his escape out of his mind:
"His is the second balcony from the top."
Diana set him down easily on the landing. He immediately moved to the shadows and motioned for her to follow him. Kaeklis lived alone; hopefully, he wouldn't have company tonight--it would make this easier.
"I can hear snoring from out here." Diana said. Batman nodded; snoring was a good sign.
He picked the lock on the French doors, then slipped inside. Diana trailed him, as silent as he had been. At the bedroom, he signaled for her to stay outside. He listened at the door--light snoring, as Diana had said. He turned the doorknob, pushed the door open, heard a click, took in the scene with a glance. He turned and ran back to the balcony, trusting that Diana would follow him, and that she would catch him when he dove from the edge. She caught him two stories down, knocking the breath from him; above, the penthouse exploded.
Diana dropped him unceremoniously to the ground, glass and burning debris raining down on them. "I’m going back up," she shouted, then flew back into the smoke and flames.
"Just a few singed hairs, Alfred," Diana was saying as Bruce came out of the changing room. "The fire exploded outwards instead of upwards, luckily. There were only a few flames when I reached the families in the apartments above and below."
Bruce caught the glance his butler threw his way. "She has a bunch of glass in her back that needs to be cleaned out, Alfred."
Diana glared at him. "I’m a fast healer."
"Miss, if I may say, your healing abilities seem to be reduced lately." Alfred looked pointedly at the faint scars over Diana’s eye that had been deep scratches three weeks ago. They all knew there shouldn’t have been any sign of them.
"But those are because the Cheetah is a magical being…" Diana started to argue, then stopped as Bruce shook his head slightly.
"It’s no use, Diana. Submit to him now, or he’ll force you to later, with much unpleasantness."
Diana looked between his amused face and Alfred’s unyielding one. "Very well."
Batman turned to his computers as Diana slid off the top of the Bat-costume. He began running a search for laboratories connected with Dr. Kaeklis’ medical practice.
"What was in the room that tipped you off, besides the click when you opened the door?"
He looked back at her. She was facedown on the med table, Alfred working on her back with a small sponge and a pair of tweezers. Her ribs were taped—Batman didn’t remember them being taped earlier, and briefly wondered what had happened between the time he left her in the kitchen and she arrived in the cave—and he could see splotches of red on the tape where the glass from the explosion had acted as a projectile into her skin. She didn’t wince as Alfred probed at a particularly nasty cut.
"This one will need one or two stitches, miss."
Diana opened her mouth, then shut it. Batman smiled and turned back to his console. She had probably been going to argue about stitches, then realized the futility of it. Alfred was immovable when it came to caring for injuries properly.
"Green and purple balloons. "Die, Batsy" and "Ha Ha" written on them. Kaeklis was propped up in the bed; he’d already been administered a fatal dose of Joker venom. The snoring was coming from a tape recorder."
Diana sighed. "I should have heard the tape recorder mechanism; I just wasn’t listening close enough."
"We can’t all have atomic level hearing and x-ray vision." Bruce found the lab he was looking for, then swore. "Dammit. Kaeklis used a Luthor subsidiary. If it had been a Wayne Corp lab, this would be much simpler."
"How long will it take to sort through the files?"
He looked back at her—Alfred was sewing up one of the wounds. "With Luthor, it’s not a matter of sorting, but of access. Sorting will be relatively easy; we’ll look for tests from Kaeklis’ office in the last two weeks that are numbered differently than usual, since the inmates at Arkham use certain codes. It’s supposed to be a way of protecting their identity, but to me it is a red flag. Access, however, is completely different. Luthor is almost as security conscious as Bruce Wayne. I’ll put Oracle on that part of it." He tapped a few keys, creating a non-visual link between his computer and Barbara’s—partly to keep Diana from learning Oracle’s true identity, and partly because he didn’t want Barbara to see Diana in a Bat-costume, half naked, in the cave. He sent Barbara the data with a few more taps of the keys.
idly, "Did I ever tell you about the time in
Bruce swiveled his chair around, interested. "No. I knew you had an encounter with him there, but I didn’t know he had poisoned you. That wasn’t in the file."
"It wasn’t in the file because the paralysis didn’t last more than a minute or two. I don’t think that it was supposed to be fatal; it just paralyzed me."
Bruce frowned. "I’ve seen the Flash paralyzed by that venom for nearly thirty minutes, and he process poisons faster than anyone else I know of."
Alfred stepped back from the table. "That should do it, miss. I’ll be back shortly with a robe."
Diana sat up. "Thanks, Alfred." She twisted from side to side, testing the bandages and stitches. Bruce averted his eyes. He had seen her nude before they had had sex; her costume had ripped during a battle, or it had pleased a villain to try to embarrass her with her nakedness, which never worked, much to the villain’s disgust, and he knew Diana had different ideas of modesty than most of the world—growing up on an island populated entirely by warrior females did that—but he was too aware of her physically now to pretend that he just saw her as a comrade-in-arms tonight. And it bothered him, he admitted to himself, that obviously Diana didn’t think of him as anything other than a fellow warrior, since her breasts were in full view, and she made no effort to cover herself.
He wanted her to see him, if just for a moment, as a man, and she a woman. To do so would be an indulgence; he should be investigating the Joker's escape, or at least showing her the video from the kitchen.
An indulgence, he reminded himself. But still, he let his expression change slightly. His lids lowered and his face showed some of the desire he was feeling. He didn't use playboy Bruce Wayne's lazily seductive look; Diana would never fall for that. This was The Bat, wanting what was in front of him--Diana.
"So, as I was saying, I was paralyzed," Diana continued, then looked up. Her expression froze, eyes as wide as a jacklighted doe's. A faint blush spread across her cheekbones; she looked away. "And, um..." She brought an arm up across her breasts. She glanced at his face again briefly, then focused on a point above his head. "Uh, then I left my body to dance with Pan, then came back, and the chaos of Pan's dance overwhelmed the poison, and I was free," she said in a rush.
Bruce stood and walked slowly to the med-table. Diana's eyes darted from side to side, as if looking for somewhere to go.
"That sounds . . . dangerous." He lowered his voice on the last word. He reached out, lifted her chin. She licked her lower lip nervously. He heard her breath catch, saw the same expression on her face that she had worn in the kitchen in that first wild moment, except that this time her eyes weren't glazed--she was aware of what she was doing. So was he.
An indulgence. But he knew now that he would kiss her, the lust was surging like it had before, only more clearly, hotter, so he would kiss her and then he would be inside her, on the table, finding comfort finally in a place he usually felt pain, or on his chair, where he spent most of his time solving crimes, alone, almost always alone, the chair where he had spent too many seconds, minutes, thinking about her, even before the kitchen, before tonight.
Alfred cleared his throat behind them. Batman pulled away, handed her a towel from the cart beside the table, casually, as if he had only approached the table to do that. "This should get the rest of the soot off of your face." Indulgence over. Time to focus on work.
Diana glanced at Alfred, accepting the towel. She cleared her throat. "Thank you." She scrubbed her face with the towel for a moment; by the time she was done, her face was composed, serene. Alfred gave her a robe, which she slipped on. She continued their conversation as if nothing had happened. "It wasn't dangerous to leave to go to Pan--indeed, it would probably have been disastrous had I stayed paralyzed. It wasn't like going to the Underworld or a demon dimension; Pan lives in a place untouched by outside influence, so there's little danger of the spirit being damaged while it is outside of the body."
"Actually, I meant embracing chaos." Bruce slipped the security disc from the Watchtower into the computer.
"Then it probably was a little dangerous."
Bruce lifted his left eyebrow. "Why? What happened then?"
She shrugged. "It worked out for the best. I told him some jokes, electrocuted myself on a light socket, then lit a fuse on his bomb." She grinned. "I told him the fuse was from my Wonder Utility Belt."
Bruce laughed; behind him, he heard Alfred's soft chuckle.
Diana smiled, then said thoughtfully. "Of course, the hard part was repressing the chaos after that. It's still in me, just not as immediate or as powerful." She yawned. The clock read four-thirty. "How do you manage to stay awake so late every night?"
Bruce replied, only half-seriously, "I have a playboy reputation to protect. Stay awake all night, sleep all day, be late for meetings, and the like." He tapped a few buttons on the keyboard, calling up video from the security disc. He glanced at Alfred, signaled that he and Diana needed privacy.
Alfred nodded slightly. "I'll bring you some coffee, miss," the butler said, then went back up to the main house.
Batman waved her over to the console, determined to keep his hands off of her. The indulgence is over, he reminded himself. There is only this case. But he was still hyper-aware of her movements, her scent, her voice. "This is why I called you down here."
"When was this?" She was looking at the stilled image on the oversized screen. Her sister, Donna, Nightwing, the Flash, and some other Titans were gathered around the table.
"Thirty-two days ago." Batman pointed at Troia. "Watch your sister."
He pushed a button. The video began to play. Onscreen, Donna got up from her seat, walked to the refrigerator. She opened the freezer, pulled out a half-gallon of ice cream. At the table, Arsenal and the Flash began a heated argument about cow's milk versus goat's milk, capturing the amused attention of the rest of the Titans.
"Here it is," Batman said. Donna pulled something from a small pocket on her uniform, threw it on the ice cream bucket and into the freezer. Her mouth moved slightly. She placed the bucket back into the freezer compartment.
Diana's brow furrowed. "I think she just cast a spell."
Batman nodded. "That is what I thought. Interestingly, throughout the tape it shows the Green Lantern going to the freezer for ice cream one hundred and seven times."
"Why would she--" Diana shook her head. "Never mind about that right now. She's off-planet, we can't ask until she makes it back here."
"I know. Helping the S'Edput colonizers rescue some of their miners. Five miles underground, out of transmission range." He pulled up another file from the disc. The two of them earlier that day. "I've heard estimates of at least another one and weeks before they return."
Drumming her fingernails on the console, Diana said, "Yes, that's right. There's got to be a way to figure out what the spell was before that, though."
On the monitor, Diana leans against the counter next to the fridge, eating a pomegranate, carefully taking the seeds off, one by one, then popping them into her mouth. Batman enters the room, heading directly to the fridge for water.
Diana greets him, then mentions the Wayne Foundation auction and fundraiser at which she is slated to speak in two weeks.
She asks him, "Do you have your date lined up yet?"
"Yes." He looks into the fridge, frowns. "The water is gone."
"Wally just drank it all. Try the sink," Diana says.
"Because he was thirsty, and because there is water in the tap."
The camera caught Batman's long-suffering look. "Why do you ask about the date?"
Diana sighs. "Mine just turned me down."
"Funny." Batman says, filling a glass. "Count yourself lucky. Bruce Wayne is obliged to try to seduce all of his dates. On a date with Wonder Woman, not only would they film every second of the seduction, the paparazzi would follow us into the bedroom."
"Do you actually seduce them?" Diana looks horrified by the thought. "ALL of them?"
"No. Too many scars for them to ask questions about." Batman opens the freezer, looking for ice. "Usually Wayne just kisses and fondles, then slips them something harmless so that they think that something happened but they won't remember, or he tells them that something isn't working."
Diana chuckles. "So that is where those rumors started."
"What rumors?" Batman looks at her sharply. He jerks an ice cube tray from the back of the freezer; several ice cream cartons start to wobble.
"That Bruce Wayne--" Diana puts out her hand to catch a carton as it threatens to fall, "--isn't interested in women. That he can't do the deed. I read it in a tabloid, I think." She replaces the carton in the freezer; Batman sticks the tray back; their hands--his gloved, hers bare--touching in the process. Their expressions and postures suddenly change.
"I can do the deed, Diana," Batman says, pulling her close. She wraps her arms around his neck, lifts herself into his kiss.
In the cave, Batman stilled the video. The tension between them was palpable. Determined to remain on track, Batman ignored Diana's quick, heavy breathing, ignored his own urge to throw her down and re-enact the scene that had been about to take place onscreen
"As you can see," he said, "there was a significant change when we made contact with the ice cream cartons and/or the freezer."
"Yes," Diana whispered. She said at a normal volume, "You lip read. Is there a way that we can find out what she said in the spell?"
"I've had the computers working on isolating her voice from the rest of the video, but I don't think she said it out loud." Batman made a few adjustments on his computer. "We might be able to, at least somewhat, determine what she said. The problem is that her profile is to the camera."
"Can it recreate her face in a 3-D model?"
"That might work. It'll take me a few minutes."
Diana wandered around the cave while Bruce worked; he was thankful for that--it was easier to concentrate when she wasn't within arms reach.
"I've got it," he said after ten minutes.
Diana returned to the console station. He played the computer generated model of her mouth movements, and he realized almost immediately that it wasn't English, and told Diana.
"Between the two of us, however, I'm sure that we know enough languages that we can do this," he added.
He began sounding out the words. Diana leaned in closer to him, listening carefully.
"It's Greek," she announced. She picked up a pencil and starting writing what Donna had said. They went through it three times--some of the words they simply could not identify with certainty. Lip reading did not provide perfect phonetic translation.
She read, "By the gods of Olympus, I entreat that desire suppressed, want not wanted, shall be--this isn't clear here, it sounds like both 'enacted on' and 'horseflies.'" She grinned. "I think it is 'enacted on'--enacted on, until--and I'm not sure about this, either, but I think it is--the object is destroyed." Diana sighed. "I'm pretty sure that we missed a few words in there."
Batman nodded. "She was whispering, so she wasn't enunciating and using her mouth as precisely as someone speaking at a normal tone would. We were bound to miss a few." He hesitated before adding, "It's pretty clear what the spell was, though. 'Want not wanted.' For me, I've always had a thing for unattainable brunettes: Selina, Talia. I suppose it's my way of punishing myself for surviving when my parents didn't. Wanting what I could never have. Up there, that must have been you." He was only partially lying; he didn't think that Diana would pick up the lies--she was too distracted, shaken.
He saw the brief flash of hurt in her eyes and suppressed the niggling of guilt it caused. She said, "And for me--well, I've been feeling a little lonely lately, and my date had just turned me down, and I think that I just wanted that physical comfort that a man's touch could bring me."
Batman bit back a snort of laughter. She was a terrible liar. At least his lie fit in with his personality, so that it was plausible. The idea that Diana would crave a man's touch because she was lonely and depressed was ludicrous. He wondered why she thought he would believe it. And what was she lying about to hide?
"Well," Diana said, looking desperately toward the transporter. "I can go destroy the fridge. The middle of a volcano should do it."
"'Destroy the object'? Good idea." Batman watched as she grabbed her uniform from a counter and hurried to the changing room. He smiled when she closed the door. Diana, modest in front of him? It seemed that she was aware of him now, in a way she hadn't previously been. It used to be, she would have stripped down and changed right there.
He suddenly scowled. He shouldn't be taking pleasure in this, he thought. She was going to go to the Watchtower, destroy the freezer, and it would be over.
It seemed too easy, though.
Wonder Woman emerged in her uniform a minute later. He had returned to the Joker file, searching for signs of unusual activity before the escape.
"Will you consider letting me train a few times with Batgirl?"
Swinging his chair around to face her, Batman shook his head. "I don't think so."
He was relieved when she didn't argue. Batgirl would probably have benefited from training with a powered individual, especially a warrior as skilled as Diana; he just wanted to limit his own contact with Diana for a while.
She entered the transporter, punched the coordinates for the JLA tower. She met his eyes for the first time since their contact on the med-table, and said wistfully, "It may be the spell talking, but I almost regret destroying the fridge. It was a great night, Bruce. All of it. And if things were different, if things would work, I would love to do it all again." She smiled wickedly. "Especially the sex."
She vanished with a buzz of electrified air molecules, leaving Batman in his cave, his mouth open, expression astounded.
When that woman was honest, he thought, she was REALLY honest.
Great Hera, are you stupid? Diana raged at herself as she strode down the corridor toward the Watchtower's kitchen. As priceless as his expression had been . . . she shook her head. How would she look at him at the next JLA meeting?
It was the spell, she reminded herself. Just the spell.
kitchen, she tore the refrigerator from the wall, said hello to an amused
Martian Manhunter, who was eating cereal at the
table, and carried it back down the corridor to the transporter. She sent it to
the center of
She opened a link to the Green Lantern. "GL, are you awake?"
Kyle, his hair mussed and eyes sleepy, appeared on the monitor. "Wonder Woman?"
"Kyle, do you still want ice cream?"
He looked confused. "What? No." Then, more happily, "No! Whoo hoo! My craving's gone!"
Diana frowned. Hers wasn't.
Bruce spent two restless nights, thoughts of Diana plaguing both his dreams and waking moments. Destroying the refrigerator hadn't worked; avoiding her wasn't working. GL had been released, though.
Batman had been through the video several times, but couldn't find anything. His investigation into Joker's escape was going nowhere, too. The clown simply wasn't making appearances anywhere. He told himself to concentrate on his work, to forget her. It hadn't worked.
And he wanted to see her.
He told himself that he was simply worried; her behavior had been, of late, slightly erratic. Their conversation that night in the Bat-mobile had betrayed a shifting in Diana's beliefs, and doubt in her mission. He told himself that he was simply going to keep an eye on her until he was sure that she didn't pose a danger to herself or anybody else.
With Batgirl as an unwitting chaperone.
He could tell Diana was surprised that he had contacted her. She looked distracted, uncertain of how to act. Wondering if she was having the same problem getting him off her mind as he had thinking about anything but her, he said, "I'm sending you an address. It's a sewer entrance, and a map will be there. ."
"To train with Batgirl."
He saw the sudden excitement in her eyes; despite himself, he hoped that a little bit of it was in anticipation of seeing him. "Then we will patrol. Seeing her techniques is useless unless you see her in action."
"Thank you, Batman. You won't regret it." She switched the monitor off.
"I hope I won't, too," he said to himself, his words echoing in the depths of the cave.
Chapter 3: The Light
Dick Grayson plopped down on the chair next to Barbara Gordon's desk and sighed heavily. He sighed again, louder, when he noticed that she hadn't been paying attention to his first one.
She looked up from her computer screen. "What?" She wrinkled her nose. "What's that smell?"
"Me." He leaned over and pulled off a boot, grunting. "He's insane, Babs. In. Sane."
"The Joker? Of course he is." She glanced at a piece of equipment when it beeped softly, and hit a few buttons on her keyboard. The beeping stopped. "Get those boots out of here--god, you're all wet and stinky. Change out of your uniform in the bathroom or something."
Dick sat forward in the seat, waving a malodorous finger in front of her face. "Not Joker. Batman. Our dear beloved Bruce. You know Tim and I were going into the sewers, but do you know why?"
"Tell me before you permanently ruin that chair with the puddle you are creating," Barbara said, "then get out of here and change."
we were checking up on a lead he had. 'Dick, I need
you and Robin to check out this faint signal. It might be the first sign of the
Joker that we'd been hoping for,' he says." Dick swiped a hand through his
hair; droplets of water fell onto the desk. Barbara glared. "And you know
what the signal was from? A toy. A
dumb remote control boat that got caught in the sewers. Robin and I
chased that thing all the way to
"Well, she is a princess. Or was," Barbara said. "And used to be a goddess. Would you send her down there?"
Dick leaned back in the chair. "I wouldn't presume to send her anywhere."
"My point exactly." Barbara turned back to her monitors. "Go change, then bring back a mop."
"Yes, ma'am," Dick stood and saluted her, but did as she said.
He returned ten minutes later, showered and in fresh jeans and t-shirt, carrying a sponge and a bottle of spray detergent.
"Good boy," she said when she saw the cleaning supplies, and smiled. "Now you smell like peaches."
"Yeah, well, it's to serve as a startling juxtaposition to my astounding manliness."
Barbara rolled her eyes. "Sure it is."
Dick looked up at the screens, each filled with data or a video picture. "Anything going on?"
"Batman and Diana are on their way downtown to check out a tripped alarm in a jewelry store, and Batgirl and Spoiler are chasing down some baddies east-side."
"No word on the Joker?"
"How comforting it is to know that he's out there, waiting, preparing to die and most likely planning to take most of the city out with him," he said dryly. "And nothing more on Dr. Kaeklis?"
Barbara pushed her glasses up, eyed him seriously. "Except for that lab test showing that Joker's gonna bite the big one anytime soon, and one modest donation to the recently departed conjurer of gods, Maxie Zeus, there is no indication at all that Kaeklis had any dealings with any other criminals in his life--ever."
"Maxie Zeus." Dick shuddered. "Now that scene wasn't pretty. A possessed-Batman-as-god-of-fear-ugly-demon-thing gave even me nightmares. Good thing Wonder Woman was there. Or is it Wonder Bat now?" He lifted an eyebrow. "What is it with those two? Are they, you know, doing it? I've heard rumors. . ." His voice trailed off.
Barbara grinned. "From Wally?" Dick nodded. She added, "So have I."
"Do you think there's any truth to that? In the kitchen?"
"I don't know, but--" Barbara stopped, and checked around the room to make sure that Batman hadn't entered silently at some point. He had a habit of doing that. "--Bruce removed the security video discs AND the backups for the kitchen two weeks ago."
Dick's mouth dropped open. "Holy secret humpings. It's true then." He laughed, then quickly sobered. "Wait, no it's not. Not only have they had Batgirl as a chaperone eighty percent of the time, he's been like a bear with a sore head the last two weeks, snapping and angry, and brooding even more than usual. I assumed it's just the pressure over the Joker missing, but . . . well, let's face it: no man on Earth--or beyond--could be unhappy while bumping uglies with Wonder Woman. Wonder Woman!" He smiled dreamily.
Barbara snorted. "You look like a horny calf when you get that look in your eyes."
"Moo," Dick said, then sat up straight in shock when he heard Diana's voice. He was relieved when he realized she was speaking over the network.
"Oracle, I'm plugging in a feed from the recorder on my cowl. We found a body on the floor; see if you can run a make on his face. Looks like there was a double-cross in here. I'll be up on the roof in a minute to scan the onlookers; Batman thinks that this guy's partner will probably hang around to get a look at the results of his handiwork." Wonder Woman's voice came clearly through the speakers.
"He's usually right," Barbara spoke into the small microphone on her headset. "Okay, receiving feed." A picture of a man lying in a pool of blood next to a jewelry counter appeared on one of the monitors.
"I'm always right," Batman said. "As soon as you get the identity of the man here, cross reference it with the faces Diana's going to scan in the crowd."
"Starting search now." A name popped up on her screen. "Wow, that was fast. Batman, Diana, that guy's name is Roger Brit. Small time thief, but he's got record a mile long. All petty stuff, nothing of the nature of a high security jewelry chain. We've got a list of known associates to work with."
"Good. Diana should be up there now to get you some faces."
"Almost there. Patching through live feed." A monitor showed a stairwell; by the jiggling of the camera, Dick could tell she was running up the stairs.
"Why doesn't she fly?" he whispered, and Barbara shrugged.
Diana was on the roof now, looking over the ledge down at the crowd watching the spectacle of police cars and ambulances. She swept the camera over the onlookers.
"No matches yet," Barbara said.
"There is going to be something," Batman's low growl came through the speakers. "Keep looking."
Diana walked the perimeter of the roof, scanning the face of every passerby.
"Still nothing," Barbara updated them.
Dick spotted a familiar face and grabbed a headset. "Hold on, Diana, swing back."
"Yeah, hi, Wonder Woman. The blond guy, glasses, red backpack standing far back and to the left of the farthest police car. I know him."
Barbara ran him through the database. "Not an associate of Brit's. Checking criminal database. It'll take a minute or two."
"Give me a visual," Batman said. Barbara sent a digital picture to his handheld viewer. "That's Donnie Hager. Likes explosives. Diana, quickly, sweep the roof and surrounding dumpsters, everything, for a bomb. I'll do the inside here."
"Do you think he might be trying to cover up a new penchant for murder?" Dick asked.
"Yes," Batman said.
Dick wrote on a piece of paper, then showed it to Barbara: I HATE IT WHEN HE'S RIGHT. She grinned.
Dick watched as the picture on Diana's monitor blurred as she searched for the explosives, moving more quickly than her recorder could accurately portray. The picture stilled a moment later, the camera pointing at a large tangle of wires and plastique behind a pile of crates.
"Found it," Diana announced, and moved in closer. She gently lifted it. "Oh no." The clock read seven, six seconds. "Batman, mind if I break the 'no flying' rule?"
She was already in the air when he said, "Break it. Use the harbor."
Dick watched as her camera picked up a stream of lights as she sped over the city, then darkness. She must be over the harbor, he thought. Her monitor showed a white splash from the impact of the bomb hitting the water, then the screen blanked out.
The sound of the explosion reached them in Barbara's tower; her windows rattled. Dick looked at her. "That was huge! The idiot might have been killed by his own bomb."
"Maybe not," Batman said. "The bomb was on the other side of the building, and he was a block further down than that. GCPD just put him in custody. Looks like his pack is full of jewelry. Diana, meet me at the car." A pause, and silence. "Diana?"
"Her monitor went blank at the explosion, Batman," Barbara informed him. "I thought it might be because of the lack of light over the harbor, but her equipment might have malfunctioned in the shockwave. She was pretty close to it."
"Her radio headset is designed to withstand that." Batman tried again. "Diana?"
Barbara and Dick looked at each other. There was an edge to Batman's voice, one they didn't recognize.
"I'm here," Diana's voice came through the speakers. "Sorry. Ouch. I had to turn off the headset for a minute; my ears were ringing."
Dick could hear the relief in Batman's voice, but was sure no one else, except maybe Barbara, would notice any difference from his usual growl when Bruce said, "Meet me at the car."
Barbara's eyes widened. So she noticed it, too. Dick turned off his microphone and motioned for her to do the same.
He said when she muted her headset, "He sounded awfully worried about someone who is near invulnerable, super-strong and super-fast, didn't he?"
Diana lay on her back, panting, sweating, trying to catch her breath. He’d done it again. She fought the urge to bounce up and lay waste to his handsome, smirking face; instead, she gathered her wits and considered her next move.
The roundhouse kick followed by the uppercut hadn’t worked; he’d caught her foot and upended her on her ass. She’d agreed not to use super-speed or strength, but at this point she was starting to regret that decision. She frowned. Not that it might have made a difference—she’d seen him defeat many villains and heroes who outclassed him in strength and speed. No, she had to find another way.
She glanced over at Batgirl, who was performing exercises on a dummy while Diana and Batman sparred. Batgirl cocked an eyebrow at Wonder Woman, executed a series of maneuvers on the dummy, then nodded slightly in Batman’s direction. Diana grinned. If that was a hint about how to get Bruce on his behind for once, she’d try it.
Not that Bruce was a dummy, she reminded herself. He wouldn’t stand still while she pounded on him. But, she thought, if I apply the moves right, and give careful consideration to his probable reaction to each one, and react accordingly, I can incorporate Batgirl’s suggestion into a new, quicker fighting style.
She flipped up to a standing position, tweaked her fingers in a "come on" gesture. The two combatants circled each other for a few moments, then engaged. Diana felt a moment of triumph when Bruce lost his balance for a split second; she knocked him over with a foot behind his left knee coupled with a punch to his right shoulder. He couldn’t counterbalance and went down on his knee.
"Nice," he said, then lashed out with his leg. She easily dodged his kick.
"I’m not falling for that one again."
They fought for forty more minutes, continually altering their fighting styles, until Batman slowly gained the upper hand again and took advantage of a gap in Diana’s defensive tactics. She went down.
She growled. "What was it this time?" She was heartened to hear his labored breathing. She wasn’t the only one who was getting a workout.
"After a series of low kicks, I notice that you lower your arms slightly. That gave me the ability to find a weak spot, because you overcompensate when I switch from kicks to punches. It takes a while, though, and I’m not sure how much your conscious dumbing down of your reflexes affects it."
Diana wiped her brow. "I am a warrior born, whether or not I am Wonder Woman. I shouldn’t be affected by having to deal with mortal constraints. I didn’t realize until that last two weeks how much I have relied on my powers when I fight; I have gotten soft."
Bruce rubbed his ribs. "I wouldn’t say soft." He motioned for Batgirl to join them, then continued, "You’ve always had an amazing amount of fighting skill; in the last two weeks you’ve picked up even more new fighting styles. Unpowered, you would still be a formidable opponent to anyone, including Batgirl and me."
Diana smiled at the seventeen year old Batgirl, whom she outweighed by at least forty pounds and topped by six inches. "Maybe not Batgirl," she said, completely serious.
Batman nodded in agreement. "Maybe not." He walked to a shelf where protective body pads were stored, took one down, and threw it to Diana. "Batgirl learned a new technique called Koga-Ryu while fighting the Shadow Thief last week. I want her to demonstrate it."
Diana positioned the pads over her torso and pulled the mitts over her hands. "Why do I have to be the dummy?"
Batman said, his focus on Batgirl, "Two reasons: I want to watch how she moves in relation to the other person, and your ribs are a lot stronger than mine. I've seen her do this without an opponent; the acceleration and force is astounding. The pads are actually for her sake; I want her to go all out, and hitting you can sometimes be like hitting a brick wall. I don't need her injured in practice."
"Do you want me to defend myself?"
"Can..try," Batgirl answered, an impish smile curving her lips.
Diana blinked, then Batgirl's hand slammed into her chest. It didn't hurt, but she was surprised by the force. She swayed backward, absorbing some of the impact so Batgirl's hand wouldn't break. Batman was right: at that kind of force and speed, Batgirl needed the protection more than Diana did. Fighting certainly was easier, she thought, when gifted with the strength of Gaea, which included Earth's ability to withstand blunt impacts. She glanced at Batman, whose attention was on Batgirl's swift execution of punches and kicks. He'd been fighting crime for years, Diana knew; she wondered how he managed to still walk, let alone fight and capture criminals without his body breaking down on him.
under a fist that had been aimed at her face. He'd been stabbed and shot
several times, had numerous broken bones, had even had his back broken, and
been paralyzed, yet was still as dedicated -- perhaps more dedicated -- than
the day that he'd first started, than the day his parents had been murdered.
She'd seen him on patrols: he gave every bit of his attention to the city,
missed nothing, and, if he could, allowed no injustice to harm anyone in
grudgingly, she thought now, and dodged a kick. She returned with a kick of her
own and missed. Batman would probably help out the Justice League more often;
he was simply that type of man. But, he was only a man, just the same as Superman
or the way that she was only a woman. Even Batman couldn't stretch himself too
thin, and his seeming unwillingness at times was, she thought, probably just
weariness. Not to mention a matter of priority.
The city was
quiet. To Batman, it seemed as if
Waiting for the Joker.
He tried to think of an angle he had missed, a clue he'd ignored, and couldn't. The data wasn't coalescing into a pattern like it usually did; instead, he only saw random acts: an escape and the murder of the last man who had visited the Joker. The man who had told him he was dying, that he had three, maybe four weeks to live.
But the Joker wasn't dead yet -- Batman was sure of that. He trusted his intuition, and it was telling him that the Joker would take as many people with him as he could before he died. The last joke. So Batman waited for something big, something awful. And he had no idea what it would be, but he did know it would be soon. The Joker was running out of time.
Diana waited beside him, eyes and ears attuned to the night. He debated sending her home; nothing was happening tonight, she didn't need to be there. He had tried to rationalize her continuing presence in Gotham -- her superhuman abilities made it safer for the rest of the Bat family to operate since she could handle the metas, the spell was affecting him, he was keeping an eye on her while she battled whatever inner demons she faced, her skill as a warrior was an invaluable training tool for Batgirl -- but he had forced himself to face the simple truth: he liked her presence.
And he didn't like that he did.
She was a distraction. On patrols, he found himself wondering what she was thinking. During practice, he appreciated more than just the way she moved, he found himself appreciating the way she looked. In the cave, he looked forward to her easy laugh, her quick smile, her wit; in the last two weeks, it had seemed colder and darker in there when she wasn't around.
It would have been easier if she didn't fit in as well as she did, if she didn't work seamlessly with his allies; if that was the case, he could blame the distraction on her inability to mesh with the Bat clan. But that wasn't the case. She wore the Bat uniform easily, in more ways than one.
remember a time when Superman had worn his costume to cover for him when he'd
been missing -- Clark had been uncomfortable with the darkness of Gotham and the Bat uniform, and seemingly couldn't wait to
remove it. Batman's crew had felt it--despite their awe and respect of
Superman, they had kept him at a slight distance. Diana, on the other hand,
embraced what the Bat stood for and his methods much more readily than he would
have thought, and the Bat clan, for the most part, had accepted her new role in
their lives. They questioned and wondered about her, yes -- but they didn't
have that same distance as they did with
Donna would be back soon, they would find out what had happened between them in the kitchen, and the strange bond that had kept them together, that had fueled his need to see her, would be broken. By unspoken agreement, he and Diana hadn't talked about what they had done since that first night in his cave, but he knew that she thought about it. She had never been good at hiding her thoughts and emotions; he had caught her, more than once, looking his way with a mixture of hunger and uncertainty in her eyes.
God knew that he thought about it, too. And it was yet another distraction -- sexual frustration.
He'd felt it before, of course, and he'd had years of practice repressing it, manipulating the sexual energy into another form: he would work harder, fight harder, and, when the frustration became overwhelming, a quick masturbatory session in the shower eased the pressure. But with Diana, it wasn't easing, self-gratification wasn't working, and he was having difficulty channeling it into something else, which he should be doing: the Joker was loose, after all.
A rasping noise made him turn in Diana's direction. She had picked up some debris from the roof of the building; it was abandoned, having been severely damaged in the earthquake, and was a popular hangout for gang members and drug dealers who preyed on the homeless. She crumbled the concrete in her fingers and let it drift back to the rooftop.
"Is it hard?" Her tone was wondering, and she was looking pensively out over the city.
You have no idea, he thought, but waited until she clarified herself to answer.
Her eyes finally focused, and her gaze met his. "Rebuilding the city. You care so much for it, then to see it practically destroyed, become a lawless place, then rebuilding -- does it feel futile?"
realized, she was thinking about Themyscira. After
they had fought Maxie Zeus and the gods Phobos, Eris and Deimos in
carefully before answering. "Not futile. What happened to
"It didn't make people more selfish? Or create a "get-what-you-can" philosophy so that survival was possible?"
"Of course it did. But that was then, when there was nothing. People fought for food, clothing for their loved ones; it was understandable. I would have done the same. Now, people have what they need," he pointed out, "and it makes them appreciate what they do have all the more -- and not just the material things. Relationships, too. Once you've lived through something like that, you realize how lucky you are."
A smile curved Diana's lips. "Does that include you?"
"Yes." He had lost some friends, some allies. It gave him more of a reason to keep fighting. "And it makes the city even more important to me than ever now."
"And you are more important to the people of the city now."
"Perhaps, but it also made them more self-reliant."
"I've seen that." She didn't say what she had seen, and Batman didn't ask. He sensed it was something that she was still wrestling with. She said, "Bruce Wayne is more important, too."
nodded. "His money is useful; he can help people on a larger scale when it
comes to support and programs to get people back on their feet." He was
careful to refer to Bruce Wayne in the third person on the off chance that
someone was listening. It had become a habit when he was in the Batman uniform;
he barely noticed himself doing it. "But, his image was not exactly helpful
when he fought for
him a sympathetic smile. "I know; I heard the whispers around
you reap what you sow, or so I hear.
"I guess so," Diana said, then grinned. "I know a bit about being judged by my appearance."
probably would have had more luck in
her head. "I actually had a private audience with the President about the
Batman was surprised. "You did?"
"Mmm hmm." She sighed dramatically, and joked, "I made the usual offer of sex, but he turned me down."
Batman's laugh rolled out over the rooftops. He decided to play along. "Luthor turned you down?"
"Yep. It seems that Lex isn't interested in me; what he really wants is Superman and his super-loving."
"Super-loving? Is that what it is?" Bruce kept his voice light, determined not to betray his annoying interest in her answer.
Diana tilted her head as if considering. "I suppose you would know as well as I would." Batman choked; she smiled and continued. "I mean, you were there."
shrugged. "Neither did I, not really. It all
happened so quickly, anyway." Bruce suppressed a comment about men with
super-speed and their sexual performance. Diana added, "And I haven't
exactly…I mean, except with you…" Batman was glad she didn't finish the
sentence; she was heading into dangerous territory. He guessed she thought so,
too, when she changed the subject. "Anyway, I did talk to Lex, but nothing came of it. He smiled and said 'of course
you're right, Diana,' then promptly forgot about it, I think. Two weeks later
and they closed off
Diana frowned, picking up another handful of rubble, crushing it between her fingers. "That lowly dog. I had gone to him in the hopes that he would support me in my peace effort between three war zones. Instead he undermined me so that my speech at the UN General Assembly might as well have been delivered on deaf ears." She threw the concrete dust out into the air; it drifted slowly down into the empty street. "It is so frustrating -- I am an ambassador of peace from a country that just went through a civil war. I try to convince the world that the way of the amazons leads to peace, but instead of listening to what I'm saying, they focus on what happened." She turned toward Batman, her eyes haunted. "I know that some people think that my way of doing things is a contradiction: I am a warrior who espouses the merits of peace. I talk about the need for love and understanding, and yet I fight. But it is worth fighting for; it's worth dying for." She sighed, closed her eyes. "But, anyway, what were you doing reading that article? It was in the gossip section."
Bruce wished she wouldn't retreat behind friendly banter; he felt he was finally beginning to see the cause of her recent turmoil more clearly: it wasn't just the wars, it was their effect on her mission. But he also knew there was more; she would eventually reveal it, and then he would ascertain whether she was truly balancing on some sort of emotional precipice, or whether her current mental state was just a natural grieving process for her mother, her island and herself.
He knew a lot about grieving, and even more about contradictory missions. He stood for justice by breaking the law. He had realized long ago, however, that sometimes seemingly opposite terms and ideas actually went hand in hand. Making peace and making war. Fighting for justice and defying laws. In many ways, there was no contradiction, just a lack of understanding by the public.
Or, he thought ruefully, a delusion on the part of the person with the mission.
usually check the society pages for mention of
He was saved
from whatever comment Diana was probably going to make about
Thoughts of articles and egos disappeared as he focused on this new information. "Where?"
"Farletti's Music Store.
"We're on our way."
He glanced at Diana, who had heard the short conversation. Equal parts relief and horror showed in her eyes.
It looked as though the wait was over.
The neatness of the music shop disguised the violence of the death the owner must have experienced. Diana thought that it would have been more appropriate, and more respectful, if the shop had been torn apart as haphazardly as John Farletti's mind must have been. Looking at the pristine store, a person would never realize the absolute horror of dying with a smile on your face. Something, she thought, should stand for this man, should show how awful his death must have been. She wanted to smash something in sympathy, in honor.
"The office is in as good of a condition as the store. It was quick; he didn't have time to react." Batman was examining the body behind the desk in the small office at the back of the store. He was with Jim Gordon; the rest of the officers had been moved from the site while Batman and she were there. Diana decided to stop listening from afar and joined them in the office. Neither man looked up from their perusal.
"The rope burns on his wrists indicate he was bound for a time when he could resist slightly. They aren't severe though, so either he was drugged shortly thereafter, or the Joker made him a promise that let him relax. Probably got information from him."
"What kind of info?" the police commissioner asked.
"I don't know." Batman nodded toward the digital camera Diana was carrying. "Did you get pictures of the entire store?"
"Yes." She noted that Gordon was trying very hard not to stare or ask about her presence. She had met him before as Wonder Woman; he was a smart man--he had probably already figured out her identity, and was just trying to figure out why she was patrolling with Batman, who was notorious for working alone. If he managed to find an answer, she hoped he would let her in on the secret. She had been shocked when Bruce hadn't asked her to remain out of Gordon's sight, and instead had given her the duty of recording the scene.
"With the pictures and the inventory lists, we can identify what was taken, if anything." Batman frowned. "There's nothing here to indicate that the Joker acted with his standard operating procedure: no gag items left around, nothing disturbed or broken, and nothing left behind for us to find." He stroked his chin, lost in thought. "He likes keeping us on our toes and being one step ahead of us while frustrating us with his little jokes and games. But I don't see the joke here. If it weren't for the Joker venom, I wouldn't even consider this one of his jobs."
"Any hint of the method of delivery for the venom?"
Batman patted a plastic bag with several Q-tips in it. "I've swabbed his mouth and nose, and checked for needle punctures in the obvious places: his hands, arms and neck, but didn't find any. The medical examiner will do a more thorough check, though, and might find something I've missed. In the meantime, I'll analyze the swabs, and try to determine if the venom's composition has been changed, and get to work on a counteragent, in case he tries to strike again." Diana noticed that he didn't mention the slim chance of finding a victim and administering the antidote while there was still a chance for the victim to recover. Some things were better left unsaid.
Oracle's voice sounded in her ear. "Batman, Diana -- there's been report of another Joker hit at Ellie's Bakery and Eatery, Eighth and Mason. The daughter just called 911. Her mother didn't come home, and there was no answer at the bakery. The daughter found her; she's still there."
"Copy that." Batman gathered up his tools and evidence from the desk. "Eighth and Mason, Ellie's Bakery," he said to Gordon. "The Joker again."
Gordon's fist slammed into the wall. Diana approved; she felt the same way. "We are going to get that son of a bitch, Batman."
Diana turned and left, heading for the Batmobile. Behind her, she heard Batman say, "We'll meet you there. Have your men keep the area secure until we arrive."
She heard Gordon sigh. "Of course. If they get there before you do. How you find out this stuff before I do, I'll never know, and -- of course, you've already left, and I'm talking to myself again."
Batman caught up with her, unlocked the Batmobile. "I want you to handle the daughter when we get there. Ask questions, especially about her mother's schedule and services of the bakery. Ask her to look around for something unusual." He started the car. "Be sympathetic, but firm. Use your own voice, not mine. We don't want to scare her."
Diana studied Batman's face while they drove; at least, the part that was visible. She could see the tension around his mouth, pulling his lips thin; his jaw was clenched. It had been the same with every person they had found beaten or murdered, she realized. He didn't vent his anger, but it showed in small ways. He drove differently, with both hands on the steering wheel, instead of in his usual, casual manner. She imagined that under his gloves, his knuckles were white with strain from gripping the wheel so tightly. And she thought she finally understood him, at least a little--she had wanted something to stand for Farletti, and his death. And something did.
He took each death, each victim personally. He felt it, took it into himself, made it a part of himself. So different, she thought, from most homicide detectives or police officers she knew who had to keep their distance from the victims in order to keep from burning out.
But what kept him from burning out? From exploding with anger and frustration and pain? Or, she thought, was it the anger, frustration and pain that kept him going?
They arrived at the same time as a GCPD squad car. Batman glanced at it, told Diana that Gordon would clear them to enter once the police had secured the site. "Some things," he said, "have to be done by the book." He shook his head. "Not that the Joker will ever get to a courtroom or worry about proper police procedure. We'll go in after a minute or so."
"You wait because of Gordon. Because you respect him, not because of any book."
He bent his head in acknowledgment. "Perhaps. Gordon is a good man. His belief in the system is unshakable, but he's not blind to its faults, either."
"Are you a friend to him, or a necessary evil?"
Batman smiled humorlessly. "Both."
"Much like the JLA is to you." It wasn't a question.
He met her steady gaze. "Yes. Although, in both cases, 'evil' is not the right term."
"What is the right term?"
Smiling as though he had thought of a joke he'd once heard, he replied, "A distraction," and opened the door.
Muttering about facetiousness, Diana followed him.
The bakery was in the same state as the music shop: clean, sparkling and homey, as if murder hadn't been committed there in the last couple of hours. Batman went directly to examine the deceased; Diana waited in a corner, observing the girl as she made her statement to a uniformed officer.
A woman really, Diana thought. The daughter was probably in her late teens or early twenties, and wore, Diana was surprised to note, a shirt with a Wonder Woman symbol emblazoned across the front.
"Like I said, she didn't call or come home, so I got worried, you know? It's not like Mom to work this late. Oh, she'll stay up late if she has a special order, or if she is catering something, but there wasn't anything on her calendar, and anyway, she didn't answer the phone." Her voice was steady, but her face was pale and drawn, and she sat hunched in the chair as if expecting a blow. "I have an extra key, because Mom makes me work here some nights and lock up after her. Those are the nights she goes on dates, or out with her friends." She eyed the officer, suddenly defensive. "But she had a hard life, you know? Raising me? She wasn't any kind of party animal or anything, she just liked to go out and have fun, and she knew I was old enough to handle myself in here. She wasn't bad for going out, or anything."
"Of course not," the officer said soothingly. "Do you know any of the men your mom may have dated lately?"
"Yeah, but you don't need to question them. I saw her." The defensive attitude drained from her posture, and she looked small, and very young. "I've seen news reports before, the pictures. That was the Joker." Her breath hitched on a sob. She pushed her fists into her eyes as if to hold back tears. "The Joker. God."
Diana strode forward, placed her hand on the officer's shoulder. "Do you need any more questions from her for a little while?"
The officer looked relieved. The grief of victim's families was heart-wrenching. "She can make the rest of her statement down at the station later." He stared curiously at her; Diana ignored him, her attention focused on the girl. She glanced at his clipboard; the girl's name was Danielle Nichols.
She looked up, and her eyes widened. In amazement, Diana was happy to see, not fear. Her lip trembled. "Are you here to get the Joker?"
Diana didn't have any doubt that Batman would catch him, and didn't think that she was giving the girl false hope when she said, "Yes."
"Good." Diana was happy to see a spark of life enter the girl's eyes. "I hope you beat him within an inch of his life, or further."
"Would you like to come with me? I have a few questions." She held out her hand; Danielle took it, giving her a few suggestions about what to do with the Joker. Diana led her out of the entrance; she didn't think that Danielle needed to see the eventual removal of her mother's body. But, she thought, we need to keep out of sight as much as possible; the news crews will get wind of this soon. Diana looked up, then told Danielle, "I need you to trust me. Don't scream."
Danielle nodded, and Diana swept her up and shot a grappling hook up to the roof. She let it lift them both, speeding the process by half-flying. She was beginning to have a penchant for roofs, she realized. She set Danielle down easily.
"Wow, I need to get me one of those. Then I can sneak in the house at night without Mom knowing. . ." She trailed off, her face registering horror and acceptance. She sat down, hard, as if her legs wouldn't hold her anymore. "No," she whispered.
Diana kneeled beside her and put her arms around her, Bat costume be damned. Danielle held on to Diana tightly, and said it more loudly, "No. No." Diana felt the sobs the girl was repressing shudder through Danielle's frame. Danielle pulled away, screamed, "No!" and hit Diana's ribs and face. Diana let her. "Where were you! Where were you, damn you!"
Diana pulled her back into her arms, hugging her tightly, Danielle struggled, then collapsed against her, sobbing. She held her that way, until, slowly, Danielle's crying eased. Eventually, she sat up, wiping away her tears, and got to her feet. "Sorry."
"You have nothing for which to be sorry."
"I guess so." Danielle hiccuped, and walked to the edge of the roof to look out over the street. Diana stood beside her. The squad cars were still there, along with several unmarked cars and the Batmobile. The ambulance was gone, Diana noted. She wondered if it had left because it took away the body, or because there was no one living to take away, to save.
"I thought you were a man."
"I am," Diana said, then corrected herself. "I mean, Batman is a man."
Danielle eyed her appraisingly. "So, you're his sidekick?"
The idea amused Diana. "Something like that. More of an associate."
Danielle nodded, as if she understood. "Will he get him?"
Danielle took a deep breath. "Ok. You wanted to ask me questions, right?"
"If you feel up to it."
"If it helps catch that scum, then, yeah, I'm up to it."
Diana sat on the low wall along the edge of the roof, and patted the space beside her. "Tell me about your mother, Danielle. Were you named after her?"
Danielle sat. A wistful smile touched her mouth. "Yeah. My dad was Dan, my mom was Ellie. Eleanor. He died in a car wreck while my mom was still pregnant; she said she named me Danielle because I was proof that both of them would be together forever somehow."
"How lovely." But sad, Diana thought.
shrugged. "Yeah. Anyway, my mom was a great lady.
She put herself through culinary school while I was a kid, then we moved to
"What were some of her interests besides the shop?"
"Are you trying to find a link to the Joker?" She continued when Diana nodded, "Like I told the other guy, she went out, but well, with low key guys, you know? No criminals. Usually just friends of friends."
"What about hobbies?"
Danielle shook her head. "Nah. She didn't really have time. She would curl up with a book if she got the chance, but she didn't often get the chance." She rubbed her arms, even though the night was balmy. "She won't get the chance now."
"No, but you will."
Danielle tilted her head, considering. "Another way of living through me? Like my name?"
"I guess you're right."
"I hope so," Diana said, a little more emphatically than she'd intended. At Danielle's questioning stare, she said, "I lost my mother not long ago, too."
"Oh. Does it get any easier?"
Danielle nodded; she looked much older than when Diana had first seen her. "I guess not. At least she knows that I love her and am proud of her. It at least makes you feel a little better, right?"
She hesitated. "Right," Diana lied. Her last words to her mother echoed in her ears. You're not Wonder Woman.
And when I said that, she thought, neither was I.
"Let's go down and see if you can tell if anything is missing," she said.
She didn't bother with the grappling hook on the way down; she simply floated them down along the side of the building. Danielle looked at her again, more closely this time. "An associate, huh?" She looked at the emblem on her shirt.
"I'd appreciate it if you would keep that to yourself."
"Of course," Danielle said. "Will I see you again?"
"I love blueberry muffins and brownies. It won't be often, but I'll stop by to see how you are doing."
Diana was heartened by Danielle's grin, even though it faded when they entered the bakery and was replaced by a look of concentration. "Mom always baked some stuff the night before, if it didn't matter that they were super-fresh. Cakes, pies, cookies, dessert bars, and stuff like that. She made the breakfast muffins and bagels in the morning, since it goes stale faster. I found her over there." She pointed to a display case filled with desserts. Diana followed her into the kitchen, where Batman and Jim Gordon were talking. Danielle ignored them, and looked through the freezers, cupboards and drawers. "Nothing seems to be missing in here."
"She had been baking when it happened." Danielle jumped a little when Batman spoke.
Danielle looked at the clean prep table and counters, then at him. "How can you be sure?" She held up her hand. "Never mind. I don't want to know."
They followed her out to the display case. "Cakes, two pies, cookies." Danielle frowned. "There aren't any bars. I saw a package for fyllo dough in the trash in the kitchen. That means baklava. There wasn't any in the fridge, and there's none here."
Gordon drew his eyebrows together in confusion. "Baklava? Why?"
"Music and food. Desserts. Maybe it
has something to do with a party, or he plans to poison the baklava and serve
it somewhere?" Diana was pacing a path in the floor behind his chair.
"Are there any big events taking place in
Batman had already thought of that, so his answer was confident and quick. "The Wayne Foundation charity auction in two nights. After that, there's nothing for almost three weeks. The computer finished analyzing the poison and spit out a sheet listing its makeup.
Diana snapped her fingers. "Right. The auction." She blinked. "I'd forgotten about the auction. I need to get the branch." Batman nodded absently. It had been well advertised that Wonder Woman would be donating a golden olive branch from the Tree of Athena that grew on Themyscira and would be delivering a speech promoting the Foundation's new program to help families devastated by the earthquake and No Man's Land. "Do you think that's where he'll show up?"
Batman hesitated for an instant; he hated giving an opinion unless he was sure of the answer. Under normal circumstances, he would say 'yes' with almost no reserve; however, the Joker wasn't acting normally. At least, Batman thought, what could be considered normal for the Joker. "I think he will be. If nothing else, because the Batman will be watching for him. The Joker will want one last chance at me." He didn't consider the statement arrogant; he was well aware that the Joker took their animosity as seriously as he did.
Diana stopped pacing. "But you won't be there, will you? Bruce Wayne will be."
"Unfortunately." He tapped the piece of paper on his desk. "This has two different venoms: his paralyzing venom and his Joker venom. He probably used the first to immobilize Farletti and Nichols, then restrained them with the rope. After which he either waited for it to wear off, or he administered a counteragent." He thought about that. "He probably administered a counteragent by needle. He wouldn't want to wait long enough for the paralyzation to wear off. Then he got whatever information from them that he needed, took the baklava and whatever it was that he wanted from Farletti's, and administered the Joker venom by unknown methods."
"Why clean Ellie's kitchen?"
"I don't know." That didn't concern him as much as finding the link between Farletti and Nichols, and the goods that they sold. He gave the computer an instruction to look for corresponding vendors, suppliers, or accounts, then turned to look at Diana.
She was at the edge of the cave floor, looking down into the abyss, her features pensive. "You know more about the Joker than anyone, Bruce." She glanced back at him. "Why in the world is he like he is?"
Batman stood, joined her at the cliff. The darkness does stare back up at you, he thought. "There's a simple answer and a complex one."
Diana tilted her head, regarded him seriously. "What's the complex one?"
He knew he should get back to work, but, he thought, a break might give him a chance to get a fresh view and a new perspective. He gathered his thoughts for a few moments before he answered. "Have you read anything by Nathaniel Hawthorne?" Diana made a face, but nodded. "He spent his life, his entire life, trying to uncover the secrets of what lies in a man's heart. He rejected the Puritan idea that everything is black and white, good or evil, and instead wrote that there are shades of gray, and that every person has the capability to do evil." He stooped, threw a piece of rock down into the abyss. He waited, but he didn't hear the noise of it hitting bottom. He never did. "Everyone. You, me, Superman, the little old lady down the street."
"What a depressing way of looking at things." Diana sighed. "Of course, that also means everyone has the capacity for good," she pointed out.
but that's not what concerns me." Batman knew that sounded harsh, but he
dealt with one side of people; Wonder Woman could deal with the other side.
"In any case, somewhere along the way the Joker has lost his capacity for
doing good. There are no light places in him anymore.
"What was the simple answer?"
Batman turned and walked back to his computer. "He's insane and beyond help."
"Aren't we all?" Diana mused lightly.
"Probably." But not everyone went around killing people as a joke in music shops, bakeries and other public locales. Like charity auctions. "The night of the auction I'll need you to handle anything that comes up. You'll be backed up by Oracle, Nightwing, Robin, and Batgirl. They'll be out of the building, though, except for Batgirl. I won't authorize them to engage the Joker directly. I can run some interference, but I have to be Bruce Wayne. You are openly Wonder Woman, so they'll be no conflict there." Not having a secret identity could be, at times, helpful. "I'll spend tomorrow working on an antidote to the Joker venom; it'll be easy to mix up, it is just a slight variation from his other formulas. I'll give you a vial to inject yourself with should anything happen. Do it immediately upon exposure."
"What about the rest of the guests?"
work out a contingency plan with Gordon." Probably a gas
that could be deployed over a large area quickly. "Bruce Wayne has
to be in
Alfred's face appeared on one of the monitors. Behind him Bruce could see the galley style kitchen. Probably preparing him a late supper, Bruce thought, and felt a twinge of guilt for keeping the older man up so long. "You'll find it in the changing room, Master Bruce."
"Go to bed, Alfred."
"Very well, Master Bruce." Batman knew that Alfred probably wouldn't retire for the night for a couple more hours.
"I don't need a different costume, Bruce," Diana said when he closed the intercom.
he said, "you do. Mine is too big for you; there're too many accidents
that could happen if the loose material catches on something, or it restricts
your movement. If you're going to be in
narrowed her eyes. "How much longer will I be working with you in
swiveled his chair so that he faced the computer again. Her practice and
He was expecting her reaction, and had his arms braced against the chair when she whipped it around. But she was, he realized, less angry than he'd assumed she would be.
She braced her hands on the armrests, leaning over him, bringing her face close to his. She lifted an eyebrow. "Say 'please, Princess'." A smile curved her mouth, and he was suddenly aroused. He struggled to keep his face blank, his gaze steady. She straightened up, stepped back. She ran her hand through her hair, exasperated; the movement lifted her breasts. He turned back to his desk, this time to disguise his reaction to her. Behind him, he heard her chuckle. "It's a good thing you are a friend, Batman, because at times you can be a real ass." A few seconds later, he heard the dressing room door slam, and released a deep breath.
Well, he thought, that had backfired. Although he didn't exactly know
why he'd wanted to goad her in the first place, except to divert her attention
from her question about how long she'd be in
But then again, a shrink would have a lot of things to say about him.
Diana emerged from the dressing room, cowl and cape in hand; his stomach clenched. Not because the uniform fit her body perfectly, which it did, and not because she looked beautiful, although she was, but because Alfred had made a change to the utility belt. Batman had redesigned the bat on the uniform, expanding the wings so that the general outline of the emblem was very similar to Diana's Wonder Woman emblem; he had done it as a favor to her, since he knew that the WW symbol came from her namesake, Diana Trevor, but he'd also been careful that the costume was dark enough so that the black bat would have to be scrutinized extremely closely for anyone to see the resemblance. Indeed, they would have to be looking for the resemblance to notice it.
Alfred had taken Batman's gesture one step further; he had restyled the belt so that it was shaped like the WW belt that Hippolyta had worn. Not a huge change--the suggestion of a 'W'--but enough of one that someone would notice if they were looking, and they wouldn't have to look very hard. The yellow of the belt was in high contrast to the dark gray of the costume.
Diana was obviously delighted with the belt design. She looked happier than she had in weeks.
And he was going to have to tell her she couldn't wear it.
She could dance on air, but she hadn't felt like doing it in a long time. She had once sworn that she would always fight under Diana Trevor's emblem; she hadn't realized until now how torn she had been wearing the Bat costume without her insignia; it had been an enormous relief to see her symbols when she had looked into the mirror. They weren't exactly right, no--but the intention was there. And, she thought, the mixing of symbols reflected very well how Bruce had influenced her: her mission, her ability as a warrior, and as a crimefighter.
She acknowledged the brief niggling of doubt she felt upon seeing the emblems, the one that said: Batman's way is not Wonder Woman's way. Then she pushed it aside. Every peacemaker, she reminded herself, knows the value of compromise. And she'd seen with her own eyes that Batman's way worked. If she used a little bit of his way as Wonder Woman, she thought, wouldn't that make her more successful?
And, it was her mother's belt. Well, as close as he had probably been willing to make it.
Batman had done this for her. She wanted to throw her arms around him and kiss him for it. But, she noted, he didn't look very pleased with her.
removed his cowl and cape; she could read his face more easily when he did. He
wore his normal expression: stoic, unamused. She knew
that he was quicker to smile than most people realized, and the rumors about
his never laughing were patently untrue. It was part of being Batman; a lot of
it was in the attitude, the quietness, the
humorlessness. What criminal would be afraid of a laughing Bat? No, she
She recognized an edge behind his expression, but what it was, she didn't know. She studied his mouth, his eyes, looking for clues; finding none, she waited. He would tell her what it was soon enough.
"It looks fine, except for the belt."
A small ball of dread settled in her stomach. "What's wrong with the belt?"
It was so much like her mother's belt.
"It's too much like Wonder Woman's belt. You know why I can't let them know you are Wonder Woman."
"Gordon knows I'm Wonder Woman," she pointed out, fighting a wave of panic at the thought of taking it off.
It was her mother's belt.
"Gordon will keep it to himself. You can't be Wonder Woman here." His voice was gentler than she expected, and that somehow made it worse.
"Why give me the belt and then decide it won't work?" she asked, her eyes pleading with him.
Her mother's belt.
He didn't answer her question, but repeated, "You can't be Wonder Woman here."
"I am Wonder Woman, Batman." I am, she said to herself. I am.
"You're not Wonder Woman," he said, "not all of the time. You
are also Diana. In
You're not Wonder Woman.
A red haze swam before her eyes. She tried to push it back. "Like you are not just Batman, but Bruce Wayne? Bullshit," she spat out. He didn't blink at her sudden vehemence or use of the expletive. He didn't react at all. Damn him.
"I am both."
She advanced on him. "Bruce Wayne is just a function of Batman. Dick is a function of Batman. Everything you do is a function of Batman." Her anger built. Standing toe to toe with him, she said, "Cold, calculating Batman. Don't let anyone in, don't care about anyone." She knew it wasn't true; she had seen how he cared for his family, his city. But she couldn't stop. She pushed against his chest.
He didn't budge. Taking a deep breath, he said, "Diana, don't. I'm sorry. I know this is about Hippolyta, but don't --" The anger swelled, overwhelmed. She grabbed his costume, lifted him, slammed his back against the cave wall. She put her face close to his.
"Don't mention my mother," she whispered dangerously. She dropped him, stepped back. Her breath hitched. What was she doing? Yet she still didn't stop. "You don't have a monopoly on grieving for your parents, Batman," she said.
The change came over him so quickly and he moved so rapidly that she barely had time to register it before he reversed their positions, holding her up against the wall, pressing himself against her. He was furious, she realized.
"Careful, Princess." His voice was soft. She wished that he would rage, would match his anger against her own. His eyes stared down into hers, the shadows making his irises look like . He suddenly buried his nose in the crook of her neck, inhaled. She felt the brush of his tongue, and her anger started to change to desire.
"I feel, Diana," he breathed into her ear, and pushed his hips into hers, pressing his erection against her belly. His mouth trailed fire down the line of her jaw. She tilted her head back, parting her lips. He brought his mouth close to hers; their breath mingled. "I'd like nothing more than to take you up to Bruce Wayne's bed and fuck you until you scream my name out loud--" Her eyes widened, in surprise and arousal, "--and to lose myself in you. But I can't." He let go of her, stepped back, leaving her filled with frustration instead of anger.
Diana stared at him, amazed that he had opened up to her like that. And every sense told her that he was telling the truth, that he believed absolutely in what he was saying. She knew he was better than that, though. Stronger.
"It doesn't have to be that way. It might not happen like that," she argued.
He rubbed the bridge of his nose as if fighting a headache. Or an inner battle. "I never am going to take that chance and find out."
Diana bit her lip as two more truths hit her with the force of a locomotive. Her own truths.
She was in love with the Batman.
And he would never, ever allow himself to love her back.
It was true; Diana was soaked, her hair plastered to her head and hanging limply down her back, her casual pants and shirt were water-stained and wrinkled, yet she still exuded the grace and glowing beauty of a born princess.
"Thank you." She started wiping off her arms.
yet said why she was there, and
"Why don't we go into the kitchen?" he suggested. Perhaps a casual breakfast setting would help Diana say whatever it was had brought her there.
He and Lois
trailed after Diana into the kitchen. Behind Wonder Woman's back, Lois lifted
I'm not sure, he said with another shrug.
Lois pursed her lips, which meant, Does it have anything to do with you and me?
herself at the kitchen table, Lois joined her after pouring them all cups of
mince words, as usual. "So what brings you to our neck of the woods,
Diana?" she asked, then took a sip from her mug.
"I'm in love with Batman," Diana said quietly.
"Thanks," Lois croaked when she could speak again, then coughed. "I suppose this conversation is going to be off the record?"
Lois sighed. "All of the good ones are off the record."
"Sorry, Lois." Diana smiled at her, but her eyes were serious again. She spread her hands in an entreating gesture. "I came here because I need advice. From you, Clark, because you know Batman as well as any of us, and from you, Lois, because you're a woman."
"Next to you, I'm not," Lois muttered good-naturedly.
"And," Diana continued, "you are a woman in a relationship with someone whose secret identity must stay hidden."
That would explain it, he thought. Batman and Diana. He couldn't make the image work. He had accepted that they had sex in the kitchen due to some outside influence, but love?
happened two weeks ago?" Lois said.
and I had sex," Diana said bluntly.
continued, "But what happened then is and isn't the reason why I am here
now. It is because it started everything, but it isn't because what I'm feeling
has everything to do with what has happened since that day." She took a
drink of her coffee, seemed to be gathering her thoughts. "We've
ascertained that what happened in the kitchen was the result of a spell."
Lois sat up straighter in her chair. This must be killing her,
"In the meantime, I've gotten to know him better. I've always respected his work, but . . ." She sighed. "Anyway, I just realized what I was feeling an hour ago."
"And you came straight here," Lois said dryly.
"Of course," Diana replied, seemingly surprised that Lois would think that she might do anything else.
happened to Trevor Barnes?" Lois asked. She had told
"He turned me down, twice."
Lois nodded sympathetically. "I know what you mean, then. You can't keep going after a guy who doesn't want you."
"That wasn't the reason why I stopped asking. I asked him once after the
war, but he said no again. I was going to ask him again, but
then...Batman." She looked at
"Two men in the world who don't want you--" Lois looked
Diana laughed. "Lois, you are too funny."
know how serious Lois was,
Diana shook her head. "No." She frowned. "Should I have told him?"
"No!" Lois and Clark exclaimed in unison. They glanced at each other. For the first time since Diana made her announcement, disbelief and surprise was replaced by worry in their eyes.
As much as
Diana knew about love -- sisterly and brotherly love -- and despite her natural
sexuality and sensuality,
About the Batman, of all people.
He was torn between wanting to give her encouragement and hope, and telling her bluntly that it would never work. He was her best friend, he thought. What should he tell her?
He sat at the table. "Diana, are you sure what you are feeling is real? Not an effect of the spell?"
Diana nodded. "Yes."
"You tried your lasso and everything?" Lois asked.
A crease appeared between Diana's eyebrows when she frowned. "No." She looked at them wonderingly, as if surprised she hadn't thought of that herself. "That's usually the first thing that I would have done, but this time...well, I just knew."
there is a chance it isn't real, then." The thought relieved
"No." Diana's voice was certain. "But I will make sure, since there is a question."
Lois repeated. She turned to
His gaze met Diana's. Her best friend, he reminded himself. And the most important woman in my life, except for Lois and Ma. One of my best friends.
And best friends were honest.
"It would never work, Diana." He saw sadness touch her expression, acceptance, but she didn't crumple or cry.
Lois looked at him, astounded. "Why not?"
answered her, but kept looking at
He could see Diana considering that, as if she had known of Batman's wariness, but hadn't applied it to herself before. "Perhaps, but he trusts us."
"To a point. But he's also fears the damage we could cause if we ever lost our control. It's just not his own self control he guards; he's also vigilant against the possibility that we might also cross a line." He glanced at Lois, hesitated, then added, "I gave him kryptonite in case I ever crossed it."
Lois' lips tightened, but she didn't comment. He knew they would discuss it later.
"So you agree with him? That we shouldn't be trusted?"
"No, but I agree that there is a need to be vigilant. Anyone has the capability to lose control."
Diana smiled sadly. "You sound just like him."
sounds like an idiot." Lois stood up, paced the room. She stopped, glared
could pose a danger to society if--"
"So could I!" Lois slammed her fist on the table. "I could grab a gun, hijack a plane and ram it into a building, or get a nuclear bomb and lay waste to Metropolis. Despite your strength, and your flying around, Smallville, the only real power you have is that the people of the world look up to you, and respect you. Because of that, they'd do nearly anything for you. But if you lose control, you'd lose that respect and power -- hell, you've done it before -- until you've proven that you are worthy of it again." She looked at Diana. "And if Batman doesn't recognize that, then he's not worthy of you anyway."
"You would have made a fantastic Amazon," Diana said, her admiration plain to see.
the hair from her forehead and grinned. "Thanks." She gestured toward
"Oh, do I have absolute power over you, Clark?" She teased. She winked at Diana. "See? 'By the power of Greyskull, I have the power!'"
"I don't want power over Batman, though," she said when Clark and Lois had quieted.
The expression on Diana's face told him that she had already come to the conclusion he had. His heart ached for her, and he hoped with everything in him that the spell was responsible, that she wouldn't really be hurt.
"Or," Lois suggested, "you could fight for him."
Diana shook her head. "That was my first impulse. To fight for him, like a warrior. To make him love me. But that's not how it works, is it?"
that's that, then."
the subject change without missing a beat. "She's fine, considering."
Lois had held up remarkably well following her father's death,
"Where's breakfast, Smallville?" Lois eyed the half-finished omelets on the stove.
Diana and Lois bent over, laughing. "You're asking the wrong two women, Clark," Diana grinned, holding her sides.
He grumbled and muttered his way back to the stove, pleased that he had lightened the mood in the kitchen. When Diana left an hour later, she was still smiling. He hoped it would last a while.
He wandered into the bathroom where Lois was brushing her teeth. She spit into the sink. "Do you think she'll be ok?" Her expression was concerned.
"I don't know," he said, picking up his own toothbrush.
what she did for you in
"I didn't realize you had seen the tape before Luthor ordered a squash." The video of the scene had included footage of Air Force One falling to the ground, and Luthor as a giant spider. The administration had considered both things a danger to national security and morale, and ordered all media companies to destroy any copies of the video.
did." She rinsed her mouth. "Funny,
"Maybe." She shrugged. "Anyway, she helped you through your grief, at a time when I wasn't so sure that I could do that." Her face was serious. "I wanted to be mad at her, but I can only thank her for what she did. She's a spectacular woman."
He also loved that she could look at a video of a beautiful woman comforting him and appreciate what the woman was doing instead of being torn by jealousy. Her trust in him humbled him. "Don't you mean a wonderful woman?"
Lois rolled her eyes. "Your corny small town roots are showing, Clark."
He made a show of checking his hair. "Where?"
She laughed, then wiggled her eyebrows suggestively. "I'll show you a wonderful woman if you go back to the bedroom with me."
"You'll dress up in her costume? My dream come true," he teased, then dodged the hair dryer.
He ran from the room, letting her catch him near the sofa. The exciting life of a superhero be damned, he thought--life would be dull without Lois.
until three in the afternoon, then lounged around,
catching up on the stack of newspapers that had accumulated while she had been
busy running between
be expecting her tonight; she was attending and participating in a lecture at
would be attending the
Her lasso hung from her bed post. She hadn't yet used it. She was waiting, she told herself, until she knew the right questions to ask herself.
Asking herself if she loved him was completely different than asking if she was in love with him.
She heard the front door open and slam, then the familiar tread of her sister's walk across the marble entryway. Diana shrugged into a robe and rushed out of her bedroom.
Donna smiled wearily, dropped a duffel bag onto the floor beside a sofa, and collapsed into its cushions. "Hey, Di." She yawned and stretched. "I am so tired, I didn't even have the energy to fly up to the balcony."
Probably for the best, Diana thought. No use in letting everyone know where they lived by flying in and out. Then she grimaced. That sounded like something Batman would think.
"When did you get back?" Diana sat in the chair adjacent to the sofa, then turned so that her legs rested on the arm, with her back against the chair's other arm. Comfort, she thought, was important. She planned to talk to her sister for a while.
Donna checked the clock above the mantle. "About an hour ago. It took us a little longer than we expected to make the mine structure safe again once we got everyone out." She groaned. "For two weeks we've been moving rocks."
"You helped them." Diana thought that was worth any effort.
Donna smiled. "I know, I know." She looked around the room, as if trying to notice changes. "It just feels like I've been gone forever. Has anything happened since I've been gone?" She seemed to think of something, and suddenly sat up. "Diana, you wouldn't believe the rumors I've heard since we've been in radio contact. About you and --" She burst into laughter. "About you and B..B--" She laughed harder, unable to finish the sentence. She wiped her eyes, tried once more. "About you and B--" She sputtered again.
Diana decided to help her out. "Batman?"
"Yes!" Donna howled. "You've heard them, too? Isn't it outrageous?" she added when she could talk again.
"Outrageous," Diana agreed, smiling. "And true."
Donna froze mid-guffaw. Her eyes wide, she said, "Huh?"
"You actually helped Batman rape a monkey?"
Diana's jaw dropped. "No!"
Laughing, Donna said, "Just kidding, sis. So what did happen? I just heard something about the kitchen and GL finding you and Bats in a...um, compromising position."
"That's exactly what happened. And I was going to ask you about it."
"Me?" Donna lay back down on the sofa. "I thought you knew about the birds and bees."
"I am speaking of the spell on the Watchtower's refrigerator."
Donna blushed. "You know about that? It was just a joke and--" She stopped, and closed her eyes. "Please don't tell me it had anything to do with you and Batman doing the nasty."
The nasty? Diana wasn't sure she had heard it phrased that way before. It didn't seem like an accurate description. "We think so."
"Rhea," Donna breathed. She sat up again, placed her hand on Diana's. "Diana, I swear to you that it wasn't supposed to affect you. It was specifically designed and intended for Kyle."
"What was it supposed to do?"
"A bunch of us were out for dinner one night, and Kyle made a joke about women and their ice cream, and their hips. We girls decided to think of a way to get back at him. I came up with the idea." She hesitated. "Diana, I got the spell from Magala. Before..."
Before Fury ripped out Magala's heart. Ariadne's heart.
"What exactly was the spell?"
Donna scrunched her eyebrows together and tried to remember precisely, then recited, "'By the gods of Olympus, for the light of green from the woman of wonder, I implore that desire unrevealed, want not wanted, shall be realized; until the cold has been warmed or the object of affection has been destroyed.' Magala said the 'cold' was the ice cream. And that the green light was GL, of course." She turned agonized eyes on Diana. "But, Di, she told me that 'from woman of wonder' meant that it was just a way for me to give the spell instead of her. But do you think...?"
"That she was really directing it at me?" Diana asked, expression grim. "Yes."
"Diana, I'm sorry." Donna's face was grave. "I had no reason to believe that Magala would do evil at that time. We didn't know that she was really Ariadne."
"I know, sister," Diana said gently. "Ariadne must have thought that I would give into some unspoken urge, and that somehow that would damage my standing in Man's World or with the Amazons." Until the object of affection is destroyed. That explained GL's release from the spell. When she had destroyed the fridge, she had destroyed the ice cream. Did that mean for her and Batman to be released that she would have to destroy him? Or herself?
That wasn't going to happen. There had to be another way. She thought of one, but wanted to test something first. She got up, strode to her room for her lasso, and looped it around her waist.
"Am I under the influence of Ariadne's spell?"
The answer came from her mouth instantly. "No."
Diana frowned. It was as she had thought, but why had the spell broken? The reason struck her a second later.
Until the cold has been warmed. She was in love with Batman. Her frown deepened. Ariadne had intended for her to fall in love--why? It was hardly something that Diana considered a punishment.
Unless, of course, the punishment was that Batman wanted her against his will. Or that she fell in love with a man who would never return the feeling.
And, she realized, that meant something else: Batman wasn't in love, so he was still under the spell's influence. That meant she would have to get the anti-spell from Ariadne.
Which meant she would have to travel to the Underworld. Donna came into the room after her. She would go alone, Diana decided, looking at her sister; she wouldn't put anyone in danger because of this.
And she wouldn't tell Batman. At least, not all of it.
"So are you under the spell?" Donna flopped onto Diana's bed and snuggled into the pillows.
"No," Diana said absently, planning her actions.
"Ah, good." Donna yawned sleepily and closed her eyes. She opened them again, blue irises twinkling. "So, how was it?"
"You know." Donna moved her hips up and down on the bed. Diana laughed. "With Batman."
"Well," Diana said, grinning, and joined her sister on the bed and settled in for a session of girl talk. "He's picked up some interesting tricks in his travels, I think."
"Do tell, do tell!" Donna urged.
scanned the surrounding buildings, then lifted himself
from his balcony onto Diana's. How convenient, he thought, that one of his
The lights in her penthouse weren't on; he'd checked the schedule she'd filed with the JLA, and it had indicated that she had a newspaper interview at three, then a ribbon cutting ceremony at five. He was scheduled to pick her up at eight. He'd estimated the time the ceremony would take, then flight time from the site--she should be back by at the earliest. He glanced at his watch. . Good. That gave him plenty of time to determine whether her penthouse was secure.
If she was working with him, she would play by some of his rules whether she knew it or not. That included weekly sweeps for transmitting devices and the installation of discreet sound dampeners. She was a celebrity--a reporter would love to get a scoop off of her. He just didn't want that scoop to be an overheard conversation between Batman and Wonder Woman.
He remained in his civilian clothing; he had left his Bat costume tucked in a locked compartment on the Wayne Corporation's private jet. It left him with a slightly odd, exposed feeling; although he was always Batman underneath Bruce Wayne, he rarely mixed the two as he was doing now--there were simply too many chances to make an error. Using the wrong voice. Being caught doing un-billionaire-like things. Although it had never happened, and being Bruce in civilian clothes was almost second nature, there was always the off chance of a mistake. One could never be too careful.
And just being in Bruce Wayne's clothes made his personality, his inner thoughts seem different. Most of the time, he didn't want to take the risk that the Bruce Wayne in him would override the Batman.
Not that it had ever happened. Not that he would ever allow it to happen.
Except with Diana. His presence in her penthouse was proof of that. He frowned thoughtfully as he removed an electronic detector from his inner jacket pocket, and set to work sweeping for bugs.
He'd had sex with her. That, he could blame on magical interference. But what about the rest? He'd let her train with Batgirl and himself. He'd let her patrol his city--hell, he'd let her in his city. He'd allowed her to work with him on the Joker case, and had let Gordon and a few other officers see her with him.
Either he was becoming very sloppy, or the spell was having more impact on him than he would have assumed. After all, it had only stated that he would act upon 'want not wanted'. That explained the sex with Diana.
So, if it was
the spell, what else did he want? He affixed a sound dampener to the inside of
a vent. A partner to patrol his city? Nonsense. He had Batgirl, Oracle, and if he asked, Nightwing, Robin and Spoiler. Even the
Huntress or Azreal. Someone
to share his mission? Diana had her own mission, and, again, he had his
Bat family to share in his quest to protect
Donna's bedroom was free of bugs; he attached a transmission scanner to the bottom of her nightstand, then unscrewed the light fixture above her bed to install another dampener. He worked smoothly, automatically, the task made simple by repetition. He'd installed many of these electronics before.
He forced himself to turn his thoughts from the situation with Diana to the mystery of the Joker -- he didn't know whether the spell was causing him to act out of character, so he would wait until he found out, one way or another, before he made a decision about Diana. He could wait a while; one thing that the Batman had was patience. He didn't think he'd have to wait long: Donna had arrived home yesterday. In all probability, Diana had already asked her about the spell and was working on a way to break it; then, things would return to normal.
The Joker, he reminded himself. Focus on the Joker.
He hadn't been able to find any link between Farletti and Nichols, except that the Joker had killed them both. With a poisoned apple, according to the medical examiner's report. The Joker had made them eat the apples; why he delivered the poison in that manner, Batman wasn't sure. What he was sure of was that it was the Joker's clue to the police detectives, and to Batman. But Bruce wasn't sure if the apple was the joke or the punchline.
He'd considered several possibilities: the apple as the fruit of knowledge, the poisoned apple from the Snow White story; and in relation to food, Nichols' area of expertise, the list was endless. He didn't know about Farletti, though; in any case, all of the ideas he had come up with had felt … wrong. There was something that he was missing, that he couldn't put his finger on. His computer could find a million links to apples in a second, but if he didn't know the right question to ask it, all of the links it found were useless. He had to find out the Joker's angle.
Which he would do tonight, hopefully. The Joker loved to
He smiled at
the irony of it. Just yesterday he had told her that she couldn't be Wonder
he now knew what had set her off. It hadn't just been the belt. It had been his
words. You're not Wonder Woman. Superman had told him about that day,
about his desperate flight to save the woman falling from the sky wearing
Wonder Woman's armor, whom
Bruce finished in the kitchen. Only Diana's room left. He made his way silently toward that door.
Guilt over her mother. If he could be glad about anything regarding his parents death, it was that he knew that they loved him, and that they had died knowing they had their son's absolute love. There was nothing that he had said that he regretted.
But why, he wondered now, would her mother's death make her lose faith in her mission? If anything, Hippolyta's actions would seem to reinforce everything that Wonder Woman stood for, and her death should have made Diana more certain of her goals, her place in the world. Stop war before more people died. Before more daughters lost their mothers.
The way that
his own mission had been formed with his parents
death. No more loss of life due to crime in
Diana's room was in shadow, the drapes drawn against the light of the city below, so it took a few seconds for his eyes to adjust from the half-light of the penthouse to the near darkness of the bedroom. Took a few seconds for him to register the figure that was kneeling on a rug in front of a cold, dark fireplace.
He swore silently to himself. He should have verified that she had attended the events on her schedule. A huge mistake, the kind that under other circumstances could get him killed.
And this was worse than death. This could lead to loss of control. She was truly, truly beautiful.
She knelt in profile to him, her eyes closed, her bronzed skin pearlescent in the dim light. The subtle glow of her lasso, wrapped around her waist, emphasized the feminine curve of her warrior's body, her perfect form. A woman of steel--steel body, iron courage. In her, the antipodal phrase seemed to fit, as surely as the idea of a peaceful warrior made sense when it was applied to her. A woman who could own her contradictions. A childhood rhyme, inexplicably, ran through his mind:
of iron, the other of steel;
If the left one don't get you,
The right one will.
He wouldn't let her get him, get to him. He closed his eyes, fighting arousal, fighting the sudden desire to go to her, to take her, to make her his. Make her Batman's.
"You're early." Her voice was low.
He let Bruce Wayne take over. "I came to see if you needed help getting dressed. But if you are just wearing that, well, gold looks good on you."
Diana opened her eyes, looked down at her naked, lassoed form, then at Bruce. "Ah, Bruce Wayne, I see." Her voice matched his, playful, but he was struck by the serenity of her countenance, of the peaceful light in her gaze. She hadn't displayed that kind of tranquility for weeks, and the last time he had seen her, she was leaving the cave in a state of high agitation and confusion.
Caused, he reminded himself contritely, by his own near attack on her and subsequent avowal that he would never give in to baser impulses. He understood her anger yesterday; his own response to her goading had been unacceptable.
He glanced at the lasso. It could compel someone to do what she commanded. Had she given herself a false sense of peace? He stifled a grunt of disapproval. As much as he hid most of his thoughts and feelings from others, he was always brutally honest with himself, and had always imagined that Diana was, as well. She didn't need to lasso herself to tell the truth; she would know whether she was lying or not. Compulsion was the only reason for her to use it on herself.
Unless, he thought, the lasso had properties that she hadn't told anyone else about.
He liked that idea even less.
"Meditation is good for the soul, I hear." He didn't let his voice betray his dark thoughts. Bruce Wayne's voice.
She slanted him a disbelieving look as she stood. "I know you studied Eastern techniques for years, which means you must have had hours of meditation. You know as well as I do." She stretched and yawned, then unwrapped the lasso. "Did you let yourself in?"
"Yes," he said simply. Then, innocently, "What do you meditate about?"
She smiled slightly. "I thought the point of meditation was not to have it be about anything." She opened an adjoining door, an entrance to a large closet, where she pulled a t-shirt from a hanger, and jeans from a shelf. "Why were you skulking around out there? I could hear you."
She'd heard him, another mistake. And she must have known it was him, because she hadn't come to investigate. "I was sweeping for bugs and installing sound nullifying equipment." He watched as she pulled on the jeans, then slipped into the shirt. One thing about being Bruce Wayne, he thought, was that he didn't have any shame. "Why the lasso with the meditation? Does it help you focus?"
her hair through an elastic, examining her reflection
in the mirror above a vanity. "You're paranoid," she said finally.
"And I use the lasso to search out lies in myself." She turned to
him. "And for your information, I've already installed nullifiers,
though not for the same reason as you, probably." She grinned. "I
have superhearing, so does Donna. We like to get a
good nights rest, which, in the middle of
"Paranoia is a handy survival tool," he said, then added, "Did you find any lies?"
"Yes, but I found truths, too." She took his hand, led him out into a family room. She could crush his hand with barely a squeeze, but he didn't pull away. Her palm was cool and dry against his. "And I suppose it's not paranoia if they are really after you, hmm? Coffee?" She asked, and indicated for him to sit on one of the overstuffed sofas.
"I'm after them, but paranoia still applies. And yes, I'd like a cup." They still had quite a bit of time before they needed to get to the airport. He switched back to the topic that interested him. "What lies and truths did you find?"
"About myself, my mission." With that, she left the room without expounding whether it had been truths or lies that she had found in each. Bruce let out a sigh of frustration. Diana didn't lie, but she wasn't offering a lot of information, either. At least, he thought, it wasn't as he had assumed. She wasn’t forcing herself to find peace; she really had been looking for truth in herself with the lasso.
grimly. God forbid the lasso should ever be used on him. Just lately she had
forced Superman to confront his grief with it, leaving him bawling in her arms
in the middle of
He was best alone.
Diana returned with a carafe of coffee in one hand and a precariously balanced tray holding mugs, cream and sugar in the other. Bruce jumped up and grabbed the tray, setting it down on the low sofa table.
"Thanks," Diana said. "There are times when telekinesis would be handier than super-strength." She poured the coffee, mixed in cream and sugar. "So what is the plan for tonight?"
Batman's voice. "It's as I outlined yesterday. You'll have backup on the outside from Oracle, Nightwing and Robin. I'll have Batgirl inside, working on the periphery." Cassandra was willing to forego her secret identity, which allowed Batman to use her in ways that he couldn't use Tim, Dick and Barbara. "She'll be in a waitress uniform. I've instructed them not to engage the Joker himself, only his cronies. If they are non-powered. Their primary function is to make sure the crowd is safe. I've developed an antidote to be deployed through the ventilation system should the Joker poison the group." He pulled a small vial and hypodermic from his suit pocket. "Wear this under your clothing. If you are infected, immediately inject yourself. I'll have one as well."
She took the contraption, studied it, then nodded. "Any new information on Ellie Nichols and John Farletti?"
He told her about the apple, hoping that she might have some insight into a joke that he had missed. She didn't. Finally, she finished her coffee and stood up.
"I should shower and get ready. Did you want to wait here or will we meet somewhere?"
He leaned back in the sofa. There was one more issue they needed to discuss.
"I'll wait here." He could change quickly in the penthouse below while she bathed and dressed. He didn't want to be in here while she was wet and naked less than fifty yards away. "Have you spoken with Donna?"
Diana gathered the mugs, rattling them against each other. "Yes." She glanced up at him, then averted her eyes. "I'm going to Themyscira after the auction tonight to get the counterspell from Magala. Donna got the spell from her as a joke on Kyle, but I guess she got a word or two wrong, which is why it affected us. But it'll be easy enough to get rid of." She hefted the tray, walked to the doorway, and said over her shoulder, "There are newspapers under the coffee table, and the remote is on top of the television. The computer is connected to the Watchtower's network. Make yourself at home." She left the room.
He frowned at her retreating back. Diana, former goddess of truth, superhero who searched for falsehoods with a golden lasso, had just lied through her teeth to him about the spell.
And, he promised himself, after Joker's capture, he'd find out why.
Chapter 4: The Dark
with these functions, Diana thought, is that everyone is more interested in
being seen caring than actually caring about the problem for which they are
raising money. There were notable exceptions, of course, but for the most part
She knew that she was an effective speaker, and that her speech before dinner had garnered some real interest and enthusiasm for the Wayne Foundation's cause, but she was also aware that most of them would forget about it in the next two or three days. They would pay their money and consider their duty done.
The money helped, but an hour of time from each of them would do much, much more.
Or, she thought, looking at Bruce, a lifetime of hours.
His date for the evening was, Diana imagined, the type of woman Bruce Wayne would have married had his life taken a different turn. Marcia, a stockbroker: sharp, elegant, lean and gorgeous. Blonde, Diana noted. She remembered what Batman had said about brunettes, and smiled. Probably blonde so that he wouldn't be tempted to get into a relationship, since he preferred darker women. Except for her.
"Your speech was marvelous, my dear." An elderly woman, Greta Janesson, said from the seat next to her. "I'm sure that the Wayne Foundation feels indebted to you. They'll exceed their expectations for tonight, I think."
Across the table, Bruce looked up from his date's chest. "I'm sure we will, Mrs. Janesson, and indebted we are." He grinned wolfishly. "I'd be happy to show the princess exactly how indebted."
Diana noticed the brief flash of hurt in Marcia's eyes. "I don't think, Mr. Wayne, that what you have to offer would even begin to satisfy me--or your debt."
Touché, Bruce's eyes said, but he added, "But, Princess, my assets are very large. I feel that I can satisfy any debt."
Mrs. Janesson giggled. Diana glanced at her blushing cheeks, then at Marcia's stony glare. She picked up a small carrot from her plate, bit it in half with a flash of white teeth. Bruce gulped theatrically. "However big your ass is, Mr. Wayne--"
"Assets," he interjected smoothly.
"Same difference." Diana waved her hand dismissively. There were a few chuckles from the table next to theirs. "No matter their size, Mr. Wayne, I don't think that you have anything to offer me worth accepting." Her gaze raked his figure, found him wanting. "Besides, I've heard that reports on the size of your assets are exaggerated."
"My accountants and portfolio managers would disagree." He nodded at Marcia. "Right, honey?"
Marcia curled her lip; Diana silently applauded her reaction. This Bruce Wayne was a womanizing jerk. Marcia said, voice dripping with venom, "I can vouch for the size of your portfolio, honey, but as for your other assets, all I can say is that they seem overblown, little used and never seen."
"And there's no accounting for taste, anyway. Isn't that how the saying goes?" Diana looked around the table for confirmation. Eight heads nodded.
Bruce turned away and made a show of trying to console Marcia. Diana wondered how he could constantly alienate people in his need to maintain his secret identity. It must be very lonely.
"He's a good boy, really," Mrs. Janesson said in a low voice next to her. "We've known him for years, we knew his parents."
Diana lifted an eyebrow in feigned disbelief. "A good boy?"
"Don't look at me like that. It's true." Mrs. Janesson assured her. "Mark--my husband--and I have a theory that he is afraid of commitment because of what happened to Thomas and Martha. Bruce's parents."
Little did she know just how much their deaths had affected him, Diana thought. Did anyone, anyone at all, know who Bruce really was, who Batman really was? Maybe Alfred. But it was likely that Bruce kept things from Alfred, as well. The butler was like a father to Bruce, and Diana knew of no child that shared everything with its parents.
And the things that were shared were not always the things that should be said.
"Oh, dear, I'd forgotten that you just lost your mother as well." Greta patted Diana's hand sympathetically. "For a moment there you looked as if you wanted to cry."
Diana caught Bruce looking at them, listening, before he noticed her attention and winked suggestively. She ignored him and smiled at the older woman. "I was thinking about her, as well as other things."
"I know, it sneaks up at odd moments, and you'll see someone, or do something that reminds you of her, and it'll hurt all over again." Her face creased into a wistful smile. "I lost my mother young, too." She shook herself. "But no matter. I met your mother once. I was stationed as a nurse in a field office during the war." She began telling the story; Diana listened with half of her concentration on the tale, the other half on the room, alert for any hint of the Joker.
Batman thought he'd show tonight; and, as Oracle had pointed out to Diana many times, he was usually right.
He might have been wrong, Bruce acknowledged, checking his watch. The auction was nearly complete; the only item left was Diana's golden olive branch. The announcer was currently building up excitement in the unique object.
"And to give away this magnificent item is Wonder Woman herself, of Themyscira, the magical isle where this amazing tree grows. Princess Diana?"
Bruce clapped with the rest of the guests as Diana returned to the podium where she had spoken earlier. The sound of applause mingled with the murmurs of approval her appearance always elicited; in her blue silk sheath that perfectly matched her eyes, she was breathtaking. And, Bruce noted with approval, the dress was functional. Although ankle-length, the dress had slits all the way up both thighs, allowing maximum movement. And, he couldn't help but observe, showing a disturbing amount of smooth, toned leg. Which was stupid to notice, he reminded himself, since in her Wonder Woman uniform she showed much more than that.
She wore no jewelry except her bracelets and a small pendant that held the vial of Joker venom antidote enclosed in the tiny hypodermic. She would simply have to grab the necklace and inject herself, should something happen.
Which, increasingly, it looked as though nothing would.
She took the
branch in hand and stepped to the microphone, smiling warmly. "Athena,
from whose tree this golden bough has been taken, is a goddess of
contradictions: she is a warrior, yet her favorite tree, the olive, has become
a symbol of peace and harmony." Not unlike Diana herself, Bruce thought. A warrior who wants peace. "She is also known for her
wisdom. It is no mistake that the most wise of the
Olympian gods values both war and peace. What
Thunderous applause filled the room. Diana remained at the podium, her smile fixed on her face. The crowd slowly quieted, anticipating another part to her speech, or the commencement of the bidding. She remained quiet, eerily still.
The Joker. Hot fear clawed at Bruce's stomach, before he forced it into cold calculation. Murmurs rose around him; he ignored them, focused on Diana. The paralyzing venom. The Joker must have deployed it through the microphone, or a mechanism under the podium. She hadn't had time to inject herself with the Joker venom's antidote. The Joker could infect her now, and she would be in a dire situation unless she got help.
Cassandra, dressed as one of the servers and hanging back in the shadows, moved toward the podium. She had an extra dose of the anti-venom, but, Batman realized, it wouldn't affect Diana's paralysis. He gave a barely perceptible shake of his head. Batgirl returned to the corner, waiting.
Where was the Joker? He scanned the room.
High pitched giggles floated into the conference room; the murmuring of the crowd stopped, replaced by a silent dread. They were Gothamites, they knew what that giggle meant. And something was obviously wrong with Wonder Woman.
There he was. Batman sat in Bruce Wayne's skin, watching, expression nonchalant, as the clown floated into the room on a seat of balloons.
He raised his
Don't be relieved to soon, Batman thought. He glanced at Diana. Still frozen. She just needed time, he thought. And if the Joker did infect her, she would be okay. He'd seen her fight through Joker venom with the help of her healing gods. The antidote would work much more quickly, but she probably wouldn't die from it. Unless the Joker did something to her while she was paralyzed.
He wouldn't let himself consider that. If worse came to worse, Batgirl would act. And if that didn't work, if it meant saving Diana, Bruce Wayne would stop the Joker himself, and face whatever questions followed. But that wasn't going to happen. Diana would break through her paralysis. He knew that she could.
What had she said? I left my body to dance with Pan, then came back, and the chaos of Pan's dance overwhelmed the poison, and I was free. But there had been a cost. I told him some jokes, electrocuted myself on a light socket, then lit a fuse on his bomb. Of course, the hard part was repressing the chaos after that. It's still in me.
Diana had already been skirting the edge: her grief over her mother, her doubt over her mission. She might be as much of a danger as the Joker if she let the chaos out. A danger to herself, a danger to the guests. But it was a risk Batman decided he might have to take.
The Joker floated to the podium, jumped from his balloons, and squealed with glee. "What have we here? Wonder Babe, but," he said, turning soulful eyes on the crowd, "she's not here to save the day. Yoink!" He plucked the golden branch from Diana's unmoving fingers, then ran his gloved hand up her bare arm. "From one limb to another, hey, Wondy?" He fanned himself, the branch waving wildly, glinting above the stage lights. "Is she hot or what? Or is it something else?" He laughed at the crowd as they immediately envisioned themselves being burned to death by the Joker.
*J'onn,* Batman called to the Martian Manhunter. There was always a very, very low-key connection between all of the JLA.
*Batman?* The familiar touch of the Martian's mind entered Batman's.
The Joker was circling Diana now, looking her up and down. *I need you to connect me to Diana's mind.* Batman sent the message to the telepath.
A pause, then J'onn's shocked response grated harshly over Batman's brain. *It's a mess in there, Bruce. I'm not sure if you'll be able to reach her. What's going on?*
*The Joker,* Batman thought, then, *Connect me.*
Swirling thoughts, half memories rushed into Batman's head, bombarding him. He had been in the Joker's mind before, it was chaotic like this, but with a difference. There was no overwhelming current of evil; this chaos was pure, and filled with light. It gave him hope.
But, he reminded himself, it was still chaos. He felt the brush of something strong, solid against his mind, and he grasped onto it. He didn't have much time. *Diana.*
*Bruce?* Her mind touched his, recognized him. Warmth filled him, an outpouring of emotion from her, staggering him. What was that? he wondered briefly, before telling her, *I need you to come up, out of this. The Joker's here. Fight the poison.*
He felt her hesitate. *It'll bring the chaos up.* He absorbed a brief flash of fear from her--fear of his disapproval? That couldn't be right.
*Fight that, too, Diana.* She had to fight it, but if she couldn't, he would deal with that later. She needed to wake up, help him. He felt her waver, pushed harder. Her mind slipped from his, slightly, torn away by her brain's disorder. He would lie if it meant that she would save herself. *Diana, people are going to die here. I am going to die if you don't come out of it.*
A surge of power erupted from her mind, and the link between them broke. He looked onstage; she wasn't moving, the Joker was prodding at her immobile body.
Then she blinked.
"Oracle, tell the others to get ready. And to be as wary of Diana as of anyone else," Batman whispered into his cufflink, which doubled as a microphone. He hated to give that order, but he didn't know what was going to happen.
*Batman, I felt the link break. Diana's still in turmoil, even greater than before.* J'onn sounded worried. *But there's also an overwhelming sense of purpose, not to let you die. Should we be concerned?*
*Put Superman on standby.* If something went wrong, they might need his help.
The Joker rubbed the silk of Diana's dress between his gloved fingers. "Nice, but I have to admit I like your biker chick outfit better."
Diana grabbed his hand, grinned, a wild light in her eyes. "I'll wear it for you if you lend me your Harley to ride."
Batman noted the relief of the guests, but waited for the trick. The Joker would have been aware that Diana could break out of paralysis; she had done so before.
The clown pulled away from her, leaving Diana with a plastic hand in her grasp.
"Diana, don't grab him. We don't know what else he might have up his sleeve." Literally.
She must have heard his low command; she stopped mid-reach for his lapels. The Joker laughed. "Oh, you Amazons. Always looking for a way to take a guy's girl away." He pointed up to the ceiling. Several panels had been removed while the Joker had played with Diana; two thugs held automatic rifles, pointed at the crowd. "But this time the guy's going to get away from the girl. And take a few girls out while he does."
Diana looked up. Batman saw the indecision war on her features: take out the Joker, or save the innocent. Normally, he knew, it wouldn't have been a choice for her. Finally, she moved.
She flew in front of the rifles, bracelets flashing as the bullets slammed against them.
Under the cover of the noise, Batman issued orders, fast and furious. "Batgirl, follow the Joker. He's going. Don't fight him, don't let him see you." He looked up. "Robin, Nightwing, two of his men are in the ventilation system, with automatic rifles. I want them for questioning." They had been on the roof, waiting for his signal, watching for the Joker. He wondered how the Joker had gotten in past them, but at this moment, that wasn't as important as stopping the two gunmen.
Click. The gunfire stopped, the ammunition gone. The men disappeared from sight, scurrying back through the air ducts.
"Diana, stay here. Nightwing and Robin will get them."
She looked down at him, then glanced away. She floated gently to the ground amidst whistles and applause. She flew to the podium, and cupped her hand over her ear as if listening.
She smiled at the crowd. Bruce held his breath, wondering what was going on in her head. Her eyes were still wild, her expression carefree. "I've just been informed that the Gotham City Police are on their way to take statements, so if everyone will take their seats, we'll finish this while we wait."
Batman relaxed. That was probably true. Oracle confirmed that it was a second later.
She continued, "We have a problem, though. The Joker took my branch." She made an exaggerated pout, her lower lip thrusting out. The crowd tittered. "What can we auction off in its place?" No suggestions from the guests. They were still too wound up from the appearance of the Joker to take advantage of Diana's playful mood. Too playful, Batman worried.
Her eyes lit up, and she held a finger up triumphantly. "I know!" She paused. "A kiss. I will kiss, Amazon style, the highest bidder." She grinned wickedly. "And don't forget, ladies, you can bid, too. I believe in equal opportunities."
Batman fought a scowl. At least the Wayne Foundation would be happy, if the shouted bid amounts were any indication. He glanced at the door, wondering if he should try to leave now, or wait until she finished. He needed to get into costume, go after the Joker. Bruce Wayne would be missed, though, and he still had to get rid of his date.
"Bruce, there's no way you can pass that up," Nightwing's amused voice crackled over the tiny receiver in Batman's ear. Oracle had apparently relayed what was happening in the conference room to them while they chased down the Joker's goons.
"Get back to work," he growled. Beside him, Marcia looked at him askance. She'd heard him. He smiled winningly. "I was daydreaming about making Diana my slave," he said, to Marcia's obvious disgust. She slid her chair as far away from his as possible.
Well, might as well do the job completely, he thought, and raised his hand to enter a bid. He had a reputation to protect, and Marcia would probably leave by a taxi in about ten minutes.
One thousand, one hundred twenty six Gotham City women down, millions more to go.
Joker's gunmen had been useless; they knew nothing of the Joker's plans. They'd just been hired guns. Hired by a woman, not the Joker. Bruce screeched the Batmobile to a halt in the cave. Batgirl had lost the clown when he'd sped away in a car driven, Batgirl had said, by a woman. Who? Batman wondered. Who would be helping that insane maniac? And was she using the Joker, or was the clown using her?
And where was Diana?
"Computer -- locate all known female associates of the Joker in reverse chronological order," he commanded, then got out of the car. Two murders. He'd taken baklava and, most likely, a musical instrument. The GCPD was going through Farletti's inventory, looking for whatever was missing; they should be finished soon. And now a golden branch. Which, Diana had assured him, held no special properties, magic or otherwise.
"Computer -- link to JLA locator. Give position of Wonder Woman."
"Wonder Woman's position unknown."
Batman frowned. She had left minutes after the police had arrived, before Bruce had given his statement and gone to question the two gunmen. Had she gone after the Joker? Batgirl hadn't mentioned seeing Diana follow them.
A light flashed and a short beep from the computer indicated that someone from the Watchtower was trying to contact him.
Superman's image filled up the monitor. "Where's Diana?"
Under his mask, Batman's eyes narrowed. Clark's concern was wasting his time. Talking about Diana being missing wasn't conducive to finding her. "I don't know." He reached forward to disconnect, but Superman's next words stopped him.
"What did you let the Joker do to her? J'onn told me her mind was in ruins."
I let the Joker to do her? "That came from Diana herself, not the Joker."
closer to the monitor in the Watchtower, as if trying to intimidate Batman, to
force him to see something
"She didn't break. She opened herself up to it." A thousand years. As if Batman had forgotten.
"To save you!"
What was he
getting at? "She's a hero, Superman. I'm her comrade. That's what she
does." A new thought occurred to Bruce; news of the auction would have
reached the wires by now, including the final bid and kiss with Bruce Wayne. "Jealous,
A mixture of anger and sadness played across Superman's face. "Some detective," Clark said, and closed the link.
went dark, and Batman smiled, then pulled off his mask
A list of names popped up onscreen; Batman considered each woman carefully, noted their locations, and sent a list of a select few to Barbara, asking her to have Nightwing and Robin check them out. The other names on the list he could account for: they were locked up, or simply wouldn't have helped the Joker with his murders. Every criminal had their own methods; for the most part, the women on the list had split with the Joker because their methods hadn't meshed with his, and wouldn't work with him again. The Joker was simply too unstable to have partners for any length of time.
Except Harley Quinn, Batman acknowledged, but she was currently in Metropolis. In any case, it wasn't her style to stay out of the limelight. She would have been in that conference room with the Joker, laughing and dancing as he terrified the guests and stole the branch.
"Computer, cross reference apples, baklava, a golden branch, and musical instruments." Before the golden branch, the computer had listed too many possibilities. Perhaps the branch would narrow things down.
A proximity alert flashed on the monitor. A flying person approaching the cave entrance. "Computer, identify."
of Themyscira, code name Wonder Woman, member of the
Justice League of
"Enough." Good, she was back. She had probably waited until she had pushed the chaos back, deep within her, not wanting to endanger anyone.
Less than five seconds after she entered the cave he realized that she had repressed some of it, but not all of it. She landed near the Batmobile, smiling, still in her blue dress. She leaned a hip lazily against the side of the car, brushed a hand through her wind-tangled hair.
She looked like a siren bent on luring men to their deaths.
Ignore it, he told himself, and said brusquely, "Come here, Diana. We need to test your blood to make sure that you are processing the paralyzing venom without side effects."
She walked toward him, a sway to her hips that usually wasn't there, a determined glint in her eyes that told him he was in trouble. Control, Batman knew, wasn't just about strength. When Diana lost some of her control, she also lost some of her other inhibitions--her emotions had a freer reign: anger, joy, selfishness, her sense of humor, her sexuality.
Diana strolled to the med-table and lifted herself onto it. She held out an arm. "My blood's all yours, Batman." She smiled; he watched her warily. He readied a test tube, moved in close to her. He smelled the faint perfume she had sprayed on earlier that evening, light, seductive. He could remember how she had tasted.
He jabbed the needle into her inner elbow, harder than he had intended. She didn't flinch. Red fluid filled the tube; he removed it, grabbed another tube.
"You paid far too much money for that kiss." Her voice was low.
The second tube filled. He removed the needle, covered the puncture with a puff of cotton, then taped it. "It was for the Foundation." He tried to step back, but she caught his hand as he finished smoothing the tape, held it firmly. She scooted to the edge of the table, pulled him to her, wrapped her legs around his waist, trapping him against her, against the table.
"You could have my kisses for free."
Her legs were like a gentle vise; he thought of seventeen different ways to escape. He stayed. "Nothing is for free."
Her fingers traced the breadth of his shoulders, the line of his pectorals, the Bat emblem. "I offer them freely. What cost would they be to you?"
He said nothing. He had already told her of the cost.
"Oh, yes, your control." She leaned forward, bit his collarbone. She wasn't sitting on the table any longer, he realized; she was floating to keep her weight off of him, her legs holding his body to hers.
"Yes." He hissed the word. His control. Which was breaking down by the second. She rubbed her groin against his, and knew she would feel his involuntary reaction. "Diana, stop. You aren't yourself."
"Not myself?" She leaned back, tightened her legs slightly, so that her pelvis pressed fully against his erection. She sat up suddenly, caught his lower lip between her teeth. He felt the brush of her tongue against it before she released him. "I feel very much like myself." Her nose touching his, he stared into her light blue eyes, which burned with hunger.
His arousal matched hers, but he wouldn't let himself give into it. Not because of his control, but because of the lack of hers. When it had happened under the spell, it was different. They had both acted without hesitation. Now, he was resisting. Even if he gave in to her seduction, when she was back to normal she would remember that he started out reluctant. If they followed through on what she was offering, when she was like this, she would never forgive herself. He just had to get through to her and make her see that.
She didn't give him the chance. Moving quickly, she flipped them around; he landed on his back on the med-table, she straddled him, her chest against his, weighing him down. "What if you don't lose control; what if I take it from you?" she whispered, her breath hot against his cheek. She sat up, grabbed his collar and ripped the top of his uniform in half, shredding the body armor like cobwebs. "What if I change strategies? You force justice, what if I force … love?" She looked down at his chest, licked her lips. "I've seen a lot of men with flawless bodies, Bruce, but I've always looked at them as if they were Greek statues: perfect, but cold. But you…every scar, every mark on you makes you more impressive, more human."
Batman kept his expression impassive as she ran her hands over his torso, rested her arms on his chest, her bracelets surprisingly warm from the heat of her wrists. She dipped her head and kissed an old bullet wound; it burned straight to his heart. He wanted to give in, wanted to let her take him.
But he couldn't.
Nor, he realized, could he throw her from him. She needed to be brought to her senses with logic, not with violence. "It's the chaos talking, Diana, not you. Think. 'Forced love'? It is impossible. This isn't what you stand for."
She licked a knife scar, then looked up. "Yes it is, I -- how did you put it once? Ah, yes. I 'force peace.' Why not this, too?"
He played a different card. "What would your Amazon sisters think of you forcing me?" They had been raped and beaten by Herakles' men long ago, before they built their cities on Themyscira.
She paused a moment before answering; he latched on to her hesitation. Her heritage was a key. Despite her faltering, however, her answer was resolute. "They. Are. Greek." She punctuated each word with a lick to an abdominal muscle. Diana looked up at him, a lascivious smile curving her lips. "Did you know, Batman, that in ancient times, one night a year during the Dionysus feasts, women were allowed to take any man who wandered out into the night for their own pleasure? You do wander out into the night often, Batman." She tugged at his waistband, pulling his pants down over his hips, exposing him.
She continued as if he hadn't spoken, and cupped him, gently. "They would approve of me taking a man that I want. And I do want you, Batman. I want to pleasure you." She took him into her mouth.
The cords stood out on his neck as he fought against the sensations that threatened to overwhelm him. Dear God. His mind clawed for restraint. Her heritage.
"Princess--" No, that was wrong. He had to hurry, he was going to slip over the edge, and if he did he would lose her forever: lose her in her guilt, in his inability to be in control. "Wonder Woman. Stop. Wonder Woman. Wonder Woman."
She froze, then sat up. He nearly groaned in relief, in disappointment.
She stared at him, face filled with shock, shame and horror. "What am I doing?" She glanced down at his groin, then back up at him. He lifted his hips, tugged his pants over his erection. He ignored the ache; it would go away. "Great Hera, I nearly raped you. What was I doing?" She shook her head, climbed down from the med-table. Her eyes pleaded with him. "Bruce, I'm sorry. I'm so sorry." She looked at her hands, as if amazed and ashamed she had used them to hold him down.
He sat on the edge of the table, their positions opposite of when they had started, of when she had given her blood. Reaching out a hand, he grasped her chin, made eye contact. "It wasn't you, Diana. You were forced to embrace the chaos. And the spell is still at work."
She jerked away from him, turned her back, rubbing her arms as if to dispel a terrible cold. "That's not an excuse. You know it, I know it."
"No, but it is a reason. You should work on dealing with the chaos, to make sure it doesn't happen again."
A short laugh escaped her. "Are you offering to help train me in that, too?"
It would be too dangerous, for him and for her. Not physically, emotionally. "No."
slumped ever so slightly. She took a deep breath. "I can head to Themyscira and break the spell tonight, then, and after
that I won't be in
And I won't run into you as often, either. She didn't say the words aloud, but he heard them nonetheless. His stomach tightened. He stared at her back and told himself her leaving was for the best.
She finally turned, her face pale but determined. She nodded at his work station. "Do you need me to do anything tonight before I leave?"
Yes. Stay. He banished that voice and glanced at the computer. It was still working on his previous requests and had compiled a substantial list. Only seven minutes had passed since she had come into the cave; it felt like hours. "I don't think so."
She took a step back. "I'll be going then. I'll see you at the JLA meeting."
her hand. "I'll get Alfred to take you to the airport for a flight to
"I can fly. Or transport," she said, rubbing her thumb against his palm.
tired, Princess, and shaken. Take a rest. At least to
"It's no effort."
"It's no effort for me to do this for you. Please." He added the last, knowing it would sway her decision.
"Very well." She sighed.
Aw, hell. He pulled her close, kissed her hard. Her lips were soft under his; he deepened the kiss, then pulled away. "Go break that spell, Princess."
She lifted a hand to her lips, nodded. "Until the meeting, Batman," she said, but they both knew, in many ways, it was a goodbye.
He watched her disappear into the corridor leading to the mansion, and hopped down from the table, then walked over to the exercise area. The computer was still working, and he needed to burn off some energy.
Her absence left a hollow in the pit of his stomach, but, he reminded himself, it would go away once the spell had been broken.
A dummy's head flew across the cave, fell down the abyss. He listened for it to hit bottom, stood there, chest heaving. He hadn't found out why she had lied to him about the spell at her apartment earlier; but, he thought, it had probably had something to do with her sister's involvement in it. Diana would break the spell, and it wouldn't matter, anyway.
Batman wiped himself down with a towel, walked back to the computer. The loneliness would be gone in a few hours, soon after Diana arrived on Themyscira. Until then, he would lose himself in his work, in capturing the Joker.
The incoming message alert beeped--the line from GCPD headquarters. Batman accepted the transmission, and an inventory list scrolled across his screen. Farletti's list. The computer quickly cross-referenced Farletti's records and the police inventory, and found which instrument was missing.
A lyre. Batman frowned. What the hell?
Diana caught Alfred looking at her in the rearview mirror, his eyes concerned. She had probably been sighing for the last six miles. Giving him a reassuring smile, she said, "I'm not very comfortable in vehicles. Strange, I know." She felt smaller, more vulnerable in cars. She didn't know why, considering she often flew at mach speeds through the air.
"Perhaps a little radio to help you relax, miss?"
"Please, Alfred. A news channel, I think."
"Very good, miss."
--called a unexpected press conference, where he announced he would immediately stop his bombing campaign against dissident tribes in the northern part of the nation. The dictator gave no explanation for his decision, except to say that he had finally realized the horror of war, and did not want to be the instigator of such terror any longer. In other news, Superman--
"I've changed my mind, Alfred. I think I'd prefer to have the radio off."
The radio clicked. The low purr of the motor was the only sound in the car. Diana closed her eyes, leaned back in the plush seat. So it had worked. Batman's way had worked. She might not have done it, had she been in complete control of herself, but that wasn't something she could change now.
Her heart felt heavy. She had finally stopped a war, but at what cost to herself? She had left the auction, flown across the world to kidnap a military dictator, frightened him, and forced him to witness what his bombing had done. The children, hungry and homeless. The men and women, injured, crippled or dead. Then she had told him she would come after him, and do the same to him, if he allowed it to go on one more day.
All while wearing a dark cloak, a mask, and using a voice different from her own.
Hours ago, at her apartment, she had used the lasso of truth to recognize that she believed that Batman's way would be successful, but she had also been forced to acknowledge that it wasn't Wonder Woman's way. So she had decided to follow the edicts of Wonder Woman, and had accepted the contradiction within herself. It had brought her some measure of peace. But now, she had done what she had sworn she would not do, because she hadn't been able to control the chaos that had raged within her.
And she had forced herself upon Bruce, hours after she had accepted and found peace in knowing that she loved him, but he would never love her. And now…now that peace was gone.
Wonder Woman wouldn't have done the things Diana had that night.
Athena, she thought, I could use your wisdom now.
"We are entering the city, miss. Are there any stops you would like to make before we merge onto the freeway to the airport?"
hung heavily over
"No, Alfred. Thank you."
obviously thought the same thing. "It's probably best, miss. The people of
Diana hid a grim smile. Such as herself. She wondered if he would say that if he'd known what she'd done to his Master Bruce thirty minutes earlier.
"Will you be returning soon to continue your training with Master Bruce, miss?"
Regret tugged at her heart. She had enjoyed the training sessions with him and Batgirl. "I don't think so, Alfred. Bruce will have his hands full with the Joker, and I need to return to my duties." Not that she had neglected them, but it was a convenient excuse to use.
"Ah, the Joker." Alfred shook his head, sadness touching his features. "He and Master Bruce will destroy each other some day."
"There is nothing good left in the clown, miss; I fear that one day Master Bruce will be forced to bring about his end." Alfred met Diana's eyes in the mirror. "Not that, under some circumstances, that would be wrong. But such an action would make him fear himself."
Diana thought of the thin line Batman said he treaded. "I think that he already does that, Alfred." The butler gave a slow nod of agreement. "Do you also believe, then, that there is no chance of rehabilitation for the Joker?"
"I do not know, miss. But a man's heart is a strange thing; it can be surrounded by darkness and still give off its own light, or it can be surrounded by light, and cast shadows all around it. The clown seems to be of the dark, and his heart eats away at the light around it."
Diana considered that, then asked, "What about Bruce?"
Alfred smiled fondly. "Master Bruce is convinced that his heart is dark, but the simple fact is that he simply lives in darkness. He surrounds himself with light, though: young Master Dick, Robin, the heroes of the JLA. In an attempt, I think, to remind himself of what he once had. At the same time, though, the lights remind him what he is fighting for and what he lost, and unfortunately, he must fight in the dark."
Alfred drove onto a private airfield, and stopped the car, then got out. He strode around to open Diana's door. "What about you, Alfred?"
"I live in light, Miss Diana, and that light is Master Bruce. Even when he is surrounded by the dimmest, darkest light, he is the brightest light for me, like the sun. Like a son."
"I hope he realizes that." Diana smiled, kissed the older man's cheek. "I'm glad he has you."
"So am I, miss, but I also hope he finds someone else one day." Alfred looked directly at her.
Diana looked away. It wouldn't be her. "So do I, Alfred." She held out her hand, gave him a small transmitter. "This is the Bat radio that he gave me; I won't be needing it now."
Alfred took it, rolled it around on his palm. "Are you sure, miss?"
Alfred nodded. "Very well, Miss Diana." He guided her to the left. "The plane is this way."
Diana stopped him with a gentle hand to his forearm. "I think I'll get home under my own power, Alfred." She saw him about to argue, and continued before he could convince her otherwise. The butler had a way of coercing a person before they realized it. "I need the time to think, to clear my head."
"As you wish, miss," he said, and watched as she lifted into the night sky.
Diana flew quickly, the wind roaring past her. The night was bright, clear, the stars burning icy holes in the dome of the sky. Constellations from her Greek history floated above her: Casseopeia, Herakles, Orpheus' lyre, Orion, Pegasus, Andromeda.
In my own history, this is what I would consider my period of darkest light. Her mother's death, the civil war and destruction of Themyscira, her uncertainty about her mission, her impossible love for Batman, her recent actions; but, she thought, she was not surrounded by darkness. There was light, too. Her Amazon sisters, Superman and her comrades in the JLA, her human friends that had welcomed her into Patriarch's World. And Batman.
Especially Batman. She touched her lips, cold now from the brisk flight.
She opened the French doors to her bedroom, went to the chest at the end of the bed. She had work to do. She needed to enter the Underworld and remove the spell from Batman. She had gone before; it required preparation and meditation. And the courage to face whatever the dark realm threw at her.
She had to do it, though; Bruce was counting on her. She understood, now more than ever, what his control must mean to him. She had nearly lost her own, nearly raped him; his worry was much larger: he didn't want to kill.
He must have hated that the magic took away his control, made him have sex with her. It wasn't the sex itself, she knew, but that the choice had not been his. And, as long as the spell remained on him, as long as it altered his thoughts, however slightly, he would live in fear of losing control, that the decisions he made were not his own, and that they would lead to other alien decisions.
If the price of that was losing whatever hold over him the spell had given her, so be it.
For Diana, love was a gift; but, if Batman considered it a burden, the last thing she would ever do was lay her feelings on his shoulders. She was not ashamed of her love, nor would she hide it--but neither would she use it against him.
And now, the best way that she could love him was to erase any false feelings of love he had for her, physical or emotional.
She stood for love. She stood for truth. They were not the same thing, and sometimes, couldn't co-exist.
Batman stared at the monitors. The baklava had been too specific, any treat would have done.
Orpheus used his lyre to enter the Greek mythological Underworld to rescue his wife, Eurydice.
Aeneas needed a golden bough to gain entrance into the Roman mythological Underworld.
Both Aeneas and Psyche had subdued the three headed dog, Cerberus, guardian of the gates of the Underworld, with a bit of cake. Baklava would work just as well, Batman theorized.
The Joker was headed for the Underworld. Why? And how did the poisoned apple he'd used fit into this? Batman ordered the computer to search Greek and Roman myths.
Atalanta had been tricked by her lover with a golden apple. The Trojan War had begun over a golden apple that the goddess of Discord, Eris, had thrown into a banqueting hall--wait.
Eris. He and Diana had fought the goddess, along with her two brothers, Deimos and Phobos, not long ago. One of the apples, the golden apple of Maxie Zeus, had been lost. Maxie Zeus had sacrificed himself to give rise to the war god Ares; and, Batman remembered, Maxie had a daughter: Medea.
Dr. Kaeklis, the doctor who had diagnosed the Joker with his fatal disease, had once made a donation to Maxie Zeus, had been one of the supporters of Maxie's religious theories.
He needed to talk to Medea.
And, he realized, Diana. There was no one who knew more about Greek mythology than she. He punched a button on his console.
"Alfred, have you dropped Diana off yet?"
"She flew out almost a half an hour ago, sir. I'm nearing the mansion now."
Well, she would have to fly back from the plane, then. She could jump out in
mid-air. He needed her in the cave, needed her expertise when he questioned Medea. He called up the location of the Wayne Corp private
jet, noted it was still at the
"Alfred, did you say she flew out?"
"Yes, Master Bruce, but I'm afraid it was under her own power."
"She was supposed to use the jet."
"I am only a man, Master Bruce. Should I have manhandled her onto the plane?"
Batman ground his teeth together. "Thank you, Alfred."
"Very good, sir."
Bruce tapped his hand against the arm of the chair. He knew Diana wasn't wearing her JLA commlink and locator, because he'd tried that earlier in the evening. And, if she had gone directly to Themyscira, he wouldn't have the chance to speak with her until she returned to Man's World.
Her sister might be able to help him, however.
"Computer, locate Donna Troy."
"Donna Troy logged in at Titan headquarters."
He established a link, told a startled Flash to get Troia. While he waited, he started a search for Medea Zeus. He found the information he was looking for sooner than he expected.
purchased for that evening on the Concorde to
appeared onscreen, her eyes and face so much like Diana's that Bruce blinked. Twins, but with subtle and not so subtle differences. Diana
was taller, heavier, her features more sharply defined. But the hair, eyes were
exactly the same color, her face the same shape. Wonder Woman Lite,
Not so 'lite', Bruce thought now, remembering the stories Dick had told him about Troia: her loyalty, her strength, her history of lifetimes lived in tragedy. And it was her history, her familiarity with Greek myth, for which Batman needed her now.
"Batman," she said simply.
He didn't waste time. "Why would the Joker, dying of a fatal disease, travel to the Greek Underworld?"
her lips, thinking. "This is really Diana's area of expertise, but my first
impulse is to say he is going to the
A river? Ah, the Iliad. Achilles.
He would thank Alfred for his classical tutors later. "So
that he would become invulnerable against wounds or disease."
Achilles' mother had dipped him in the
Batman tried to imagine the Joker, invulnerable. It would be disastrous. He needed to get to the Underworld, to stop him.
"Right." Donna hesitated, then added, "But you should really ask Diana about this. There might be a different reason."
"She's gone to Themyscira to talk to your sorceress about breaking that spell you put on Green Lantern." Batman made his tone harsh, letting her know in no uncertain terms what he had thought of the spell.
But Donna was frowning, not cowering. "Diana hasn't gone to Themyscira. I would feel it. In any case, Magala isn't there any more." She tilted her head, regarded him thoughtfully. "I'm not sure if I should tell you this, since Diana obviously didn't."
Batman's jaw tightened. No, Diana hadn't told him. Dammit, he knew something wasn't right, and he had let it go. "Tell me," he grated out.
Donna seemed to come to a decision, nodded. "All right. Magala's dead. She has been for quite some time, but she had been replaced by Ariadne, another sorceress who has always hated the Amazons. We found out just recently who she really was during the civil war on Themyscira, which Ariadne started."
"Then Diana is getting the spell reversal from Ariadne?" Would probably have to fight it out of the sorceress, Batman thought. But if anyone could, it would be Diana.
"No, Ariadne is dead, too. Fury ripped her heart out." Donna tapped a fingernail against her teeth, considering. "That means Diana would have to travel to the Underworld to ask Ariadne about removing the spell from you." She frowned. "I wonder why she didn't ask me to watch over her?"
"Why would you have to watch over her?" He kept his expression blank. He was seething.
Worry touched her tone. "Because Diana enters the Underworld spiritually, not physically. She doesn't have any powers down there." She drew her eyebrows together. "And anything that happens to her down there, happens to her in the physical world. She gets hurt there, she gets hurt here. Usually, an Amazon will have a sister or healer stay with her body to help tend any wounds that she incurs."
Batman leaned back in his chair, steepled his fingertips. The Joker was headed for, or already in, the Underworld. Diana was either there or on her way, without powers. He knew she could handle herself in a fight, but she didn't know the clown would be down there. The Joker would have an element of surprise, something Batman knew to be very, very effective.
Joker caught a flight to
out a long, frustrated breath of air. "You think I can fathom his
mind?" Batman didn't answer, simply waited. Donna rolled her eyes.
"He probably wants to enter the Underworld physically. That would support
"Can you tell if Diana is there yet?"
Donna closed her eyes, a look of concentration on her face. "No, not yet. At least I don't think so. Our connection isn't perfect." She glanced at something behind her, then back at the monitor. "Look, I'm going to call our apartment, and see if she's there. That's probably where she'll make the journey; it's a secure location for her body to remain. If she doesn't answer, I'm flying home to check."
"I'll meet you there." Batman stood. He had a feeling Diana wouldn't answer, and even if she did, he needed to get there. He had to stop the Joker.
Donna shook her head. "I don't think so, Batman. If Diana had wanted--"
meet you there," Batman repeated, disconnected, then pulled out a new
costume to replace the shredded one. If Diana was still on this world, he would
go to the Underworld with her. He couldn't let the Joker swim the
And if Diana was already down there, then Troia would have to guide him. Either way, it looked like he was going to Hell.
Batman smiled as he readied the small Batplane. Something about the costume made his life seem much more dramatic than it was.
Hell. More likely, another dimension that the so called gods of myth had accessed long ago. To Batman, the gods were more likely simply another form of metahuman or alien, who received their powers through the energies of their followers.
Powerful, yes. Immortal, maybe. Undefeatable, no. He'd seen too many 'gods' die to believe in them, or whatever message they spouted.
Gods. He didn't know any. What he knew was that his parents had lain in a gutter dying, and there had been no gods around to save them.
Now that was hell.
He found the two women in Diana's room; Diana was lying on her bed in full armor, Donna was leaning over her, face pale.
"I felt her go under when I was about halfway here. I don't think she landed in a happy spot." Even as she spoke, a cut appeared on Diana's cheek and began to bleed. "Oh, damn." Donna held a cloth against the wound, began dressing it.
down there?" He had reviewed descriptions of the realm on his flight to
Donna smiled grimly. "What isn't? Warlords fighting over territory with their armies, roving packs of demons, the occasional monster or chimera."
"Is there anywhere safe for her to go?"
"The Elysian Fields, but she won't find Ariadne there. She might find comrades, though. She will need to find Magala, Antiope or a Bana-Mighdall, at the very least. They're one of the few who know what Ariadne looks like in her true form. Maybe Theseus."
"Will she find her mother?"
Donna nodded. "Maybe." She looked up at him. "What I don't understand is how she isn't under the spell and you are. You still must be, or she wouldn't need to have gone. Did she have any theories to that end?"
Batman stared down at Diana. How much more had she kept from him? And why? "No theories that I know of," he said carefully. Best not to let Donna know how uninformed he was. He took an educated guess. "Just that the lasso had revealed she wasn't under the spell."
Donna confirmed his assumption. "Yes. She must have tried it out on you, too?"
Batman didn't answer, let her think that was the case. Diana had known for at least twelve hours that she wasn't under the spell, yet she had let him go on thinking that she was. How had she broken it?
He would ask her in a few minutes, he decided. He turned to Donna.
"How do I join her?"
Donna shook her head. "You would have to be very skilled at meditation, and--"
"--and you have to believe in the Underworld. In the gods. They are the anchor that lets you access the realm."
Batman looked down at Diana again, her hands clasped around her bow, her sword, her lasso at her side. "Can she be my anchor?"
Donna frowned thoughtfully. "Maybe. That might work. You know her well, have a physical connection with her, as a comrade-in-arms and as a previous lover. You have an emotional connection to her, through friendship, and whatever feelings for her the spell has created. False or not, it might be enough to get you down there. Friends and lovers used to go to the Underworld regularly for someone they'd lost in the myths." She paused, glanced up at him. "Plus, since she was once a goddess, that might give you a better chance. We'll make sure you have a physical connection here, too. Hold her hand or something, so that your spirit will find hers more easily."
Batman checked his gear. "Whatever I have on me will go with me?"
Donna opened a chest at the end of Diana's bed. "Yes. Plus we'll need to get you some other weapons, some food, things like that." She stood, closed the lid, held up the leather bag she had taken from the chest. "Diana took one of these, put a bedroll and some food in there, so she obviously thought she might be gone a few days. They've been magically treated so that anyone can put food or other items in them here, and in the Underworld, they will appear. It's important not to eat or drink anything down there that isn't from your bags." Donna grinned. "Remember Persephone? You don't want to be Hades' new queen." She slung the satchel at Batman. "She must have known I would find her like this, and take care of her, but she didn't tell me she was going." She sighed heavily. "I wish I knew why."
"A few days?" The more Donna spoke, the more irrational and irresponsible Diana's actions seemed. Not only had she lied to Batman, she had kept her going a secret from everyone who might help her.
"It's a big place, and you never know where you'll land. I'll let Dick and Alfred know where you are." She shrugged at his stare, gave him a once-over. "Okay, we need to get you some weapons." She strode outside of the room; Batman followed. Donna ticked off Diana's weapons on her fingers as she walked. "She took her lasso, of course, and a sword, probably for fighting at close range, and a bow with a ton of arrows, for things at long range. She also put on armor."
Batman looked down at his suit, lined with kevlar. "I think my costume will be fine for armor."
Donna nodded, then said, "Yes, but you might want a shield, anyway. The warlords' armies use arrows very proficiently." She stopped in front of a large doorway, which the blueprints Bruce had perused when installing nullifiers had claimed was to a closet, and turned to look at him. "There are no guns in here, of course, but I don't think you use them anyway."
Heh. She might as well just call him 'Bruce' and be done with it, Batman thought.
Donna opened the door, said, "What kind of weapons can you use?"
Bruce smiled. There wasn't much he hadn't trained with until he'd mastered it. "What do you have?" he said, and stepped through the door. Definitely not a closet. He looked up and down the walls and display cases of the large room, and his grin widened. Diana. She had everything.
Diana yanked her sword out of the demon, attempted to clean off its black blood from the blade by wiping it on its scaly hide. It smelled like dung. She glanced cautiously around her; the other demons lay still; now and again a leathery wing fluttered in a death seizure.
Her arms ached pleasantly; her sword was much heavier when she didn't have the strength of Gaea to keep it aloft for long periods of time. Her cheek itched, but it had stopped bleeding almost immediately. She was sure that meant Donna had found her, was caring for her. Thank Hera. Donna would be upset that Diana had gone without telling her; but her sister would be furious if Diana had died because there was no one to care for her.
Diana grinned at that. She wasn't going to die, and even if she did, the last thing she would be worrying about then would be her sister's wrath. She imagined Donna coming down to the Underworld to find her, and launching into a tirade about Diana's irresponsibility.
A laugh escaped her; she kicked aside a demon and started to resume her journey, the acrid smell of the Underworld tingling in her nostrils. She was in her element. This was what she was made for: fighting demons, going on a quest to remove a spell from a handsome pr--Er, Bat.
Something rustled behind her. A wing? She spun around, sword ready, and her eyes widened in shock.
Batman, crouched, staring hard at her, then looking around him, at the pile of demon carcasses. She knew what he must think of what he saw: the dark, almost black sand studded with boulders and stones, the steep incline on which they stood, the bodies of the demons above them, the long, shadowy plain below the foothills they were in. The Underworld was dark, ugly.
He sniffed, but said nothing. A crossbow was slung over his shoulder, and he held a quarterstaff in his right hand. Both hers, she noted.
She was going to kill Donna.
Maybe Batman, too. There was no doubt in her mind that he had coerced her sister into this.
She sheathed her sword. "I suppose there is no point to me saying that you need to go back?" Not that he could.
She hadn't thought so. She glanced up at the sky. Dark red. "We need to get moving. Night is falling fast, and there won't be any lights by which to see. These demons will be re-animated by then, and hunting for us. We have to find shelter before then." She turned, picked her way down the rocky slope, slipping now and again on the shifting sand.
Batman fell into step behind her; neither of them spoke. Diana looked ahead. Across the plain was a towering mountain, the seat of Hades, god of the Underworld. She judged the distance between here and there; at least another day and a half of travel. She had been lucky she hadn't arrived in one of the outlying realms, where it might have taken her weeks to trek to the this side of Hell.
She looked back at Bruce and sighed. She hadn't counted on him. She frowned. Why was he here? He obviously must have found out that Magala was dead, and perhaps Donna told him about Ariadne, but that alone wouldn't have made him come.
She stopped mid-stride, pointed at a cave on the side of the hill. "We'll stop there for the night."
Batman stepped up beside her. "How long does night last?"
"About four hours." Diana jumped over a rock. "The demons can see in the dark, but they can't really hear or smell anything. If we stay out of sight in the cave, maybe block off the entrance, they'll leave us alone."
"The same ones that you killed." It wasn't a question.
"Yes," Diana said, reaching the cave entrance. "Nothing down here stays dead for long." She stuck her head into the cave, then looked back at him and grinned. "Except for us." The cave was perfect: narrow entrance that could be easily defended, room to maneuver if something managed to get in, and not too deep, so nothing could wait along the corridor to ambush them. "Do you have a flare?"
He produced a mini-flare from his utility belt, struck it, then threw it into the cave. It illuminated the cracks and niches in the rock walls. Nothing was hiding in them, nothing flew out. Perfect. She moved forward to step more fully inside.
"Hold on, Princess." Batman gripped her arm, and pointed at the cave floor. Diana looked more closely. At a shadow. A moving shadow. The longer she looked at it, the more shape it began to take, until she could make out the faint human outline. "It's a shade," she said, and clarified for Batman's benefit. "A lost soul. Like a ghost, and primarily from dishonorable suicides or improper burials." She frowned. "Usually they can't get past the gates of Hell, though. The only shades allowed within the Underworld are the souls waiting to be reborn at the River Lethe. I wonder how it got here."
"I think I might know," Batman said. Diana glanced at him. He knew something; he had come down for a reason, and it wasn't for her. "I'll tell you once we are settled and have secured the perimeter. Will it be safe with that in here?"
Diana nodded. "Shades don't interact with other spirits often--including us, since we are in spiritual form, and just a physical manifestation of that form. They'll notice humans who are in true physical form only."
They worked quickly in the failing light; Batman set up traps to alert them to any movement outside, Diana scanned the sky for demons while moving rocks to make the mouth of the cave less obvious. With Batman's help, she rolled a large boulder in front of the entrance to deter any rush attacks into the cave. The last bit of light faded from the sky. She tucked her lasso inside the waist of her breastplate to hide its glow, which would seem like a beacon in the utter darkness.
Diana crawled over the boulder into the cave, her armor clanking against the stone. She heard the rustle of fabric as Batman climbed in after her. The interior of the cave was completely black; there were no stars or moon to illuminate the outside, and no hint of light or sound inside, aside from the noise of their own movements and breathing.
She heard a soft click, then a low chuckle. "What is it?" She stretched; the muscles in her back were groaning from the strain she placed them under, first fighting with the demons then pushing rocks around.
"It is so dark here that even the night-vision lenses in the cowl are worthless. They need at least some form of light to work." By the sound of his voice, he was standing right next to her. She took a step back. Her actions earlier that night still weighed heavily on her mind, and there was no need to tempt herself. Distance, as much as she could get in this hole, would be the key.
She forced an easy tone. "Batman's famous toys."
"Tools," he corrected.
"Even the car? Wouldn't a tank be safer?" She couldn't resist teasing him. There was a running bet in the JLA that the car was supposed to make up for something Batman lacked. Although, she thought now, she could put those rumors to rest.
"I have a tank, too," he said, and she laughed softly. "And speaking of toys, Princess, I've seen your armory."
Diana backed up against the cave wall, slid down to sit on the floor. "We should probably eat and then each try to get two hours of sleep while the other keeps watch." The sand by her leg shifted, she felt the brush of his cape as he sat next to her. She caught a whiff of the cologne that Bruce Wayne had used earlier. "I can smell Bruce Wayne's cologne on you. Isn't that dangerous?"
"Probably. I usually make sure that I've cleaned it all off before I put on the costume. Tonight, I didn't want to waste time after the auction. It was a calculated risk that no one who had seen or smelled Bruce Wayne at the auction would see Batman after it."
She heard the crunch of an apple, reached into her own bag for some bread and cheese. He had been at the auction longer than he'd needed to be because he was buying her kiss, she thought. She didn't want to mention that. Not here, when she was less than a foot away from him, in the dark. Better to talk about work.
"Any word on the Joker before you left?"
"Yes." He took another bite of apple; she envisioned his strong white teeth, his lips, then shook her head, waited until he'd swallowed. "He's here."
"Here?" she repeated blankly. Her human level hearing must be worse than she had thought.
"In the Underworld."
explained the conclusion he'd come to, about the stolen items, Medea, the plane tickets, and the
His voice was grim. "The Joker leaves chaos in his wake, even down here. We'll find him before he gets to the river."
An idea occurred to Diana. "That chaos might work to our advantage. I always intended to see Hades', but now we might also ask him to send us where the Joker is. Lord Hades allows the Warlords to fight, but any other disturbance in his realm is an annoyance to him." She took another bite. "Especially if the Joker is the reason shades are creeping into the Underworld," she said.
The contents of Batman's satchel rustled as he looked for something in it. "That's what I was thinking. He's careless enough to leave whatever object he used to get in here lying around for anything else to use. I imagine that is how this shade got in; the Joker probably left something open."
Diana nodded, even though Batman couldn't see her, and yawned. "Right. Unfortunately, shades travel very quickly, so it is hard to ascertain how far the Joker is from here. Don't throw your apple core away," she warned. "If something here eats it, they could access Earth." She pulled out her bedroll, used it as a pillow. "You get first watch. Can you tell when two hours have passed?"
She yawned again, couldn't believe how tired she felt. "Wake me up after two, then." She rolled onto her side. "Do you think the Joker has the golden apple?" she asked, her voice sleepy.
"Get some rest, Princess. We'll talk about it tomorrow."
She drifted off almost immediately, barely felt it when Bruce draped his cape over her like a blanket, didn't realize she murmured his name in her sleep.
When she woke, she could see the pink sky outside the cave entrance. Batman crouched next to the boulder. She sat up, preparing to reprimand him for letting her sleep while he stayed awake, then heard it. Slithering.
Sword unsheathed, she crept to the opposite side of the cave entrance from Batman, looked out. Nothing. Bruce jerked his finger toward the ceiling. Whatever it was hid on the hill above the cave entrance. A pair of demons flew by, a hundred yards in the air. Diana frowned.
"It's not them. They don't think, they just attack," she whispered. "They don't have the brains to make an ambush. If they knew we were here, they'd be storming the entrance."
Batman looked up at the ceiling, then out at the sky. "We'd be in a bad position if we left the cave, not knowing where exactly it was, or even what it is." He glanced at her thoughtfully. "What about bait?"
Diana shook her head. "With my powers, I could run fast enough, but if we don't know what it is..." She trailed off when Batman grinned.
He pointed out at the flying demons, which were circling outside. "I meant them."
"Oh." Diana looked at them, considered. "If we shot them down from here, whatever it is might go after their bodies. Would it be far enough, though?"
"If nothing else, it'll let us see what we are up against."
Diana nodded. "Okay then." She put her sword away, grabbed her bow from where she had left it leaning against the cave wall. She notched an arrow, watched as Batman loaded a bolt into the crossbow. "You take the right, I'll take the left."
They waited until the demons passed into their line of sight again, followed their flight, took aim. "Now," Diana said, and they let the arrows fly. The demons shrieked and fell, hitting the ground with dull thuds. The slithering changed to heavy footfalls; a shadow blocked the cave entrance, then Diana and Bruce saw the creature, twenty feet tall, covered in blue scales. Its long tail ended in a scorpion's stinger, from its chest grew two long necks with spitting, hissing heads.
"I think that's the Hydra. When you cut off one of its heads, two more grow in its place." She slung the bow over her shoulder, prepared her things to go. "Herakles defeated it during his labors, found out that the stumps have to be cauterized so more heads don't grow. One of its heads is immortal, not that it matters down here. Its breath is deadly." She stopped in the middle of picking up her bedroll, touched Batman's cape wonderingly, then shook herself, threw it to him. "It's a water creature, though. There must be water around here."
"I thought you knew the Underworld well." He whisked the cape around his shoulders and fastened it.
Diana tucked loose hairs back into her braid, put on her helmet. "No one except Lord Hades knows the Underworld well. It changes at his whim." She smiled reassuringly at him. "But these are the winter months, so his wife is here, and he's in a better mood than normal. We don't have to worry about him suddenly creating a bottomless pit under our feet."
"How encouraging," he said dryly. Diana grinned.
She looked out of the cave again. The Hydra was leaving, heading to the right. "We'll go the other way," she said. They might have to detour for an hour or so, but better than running into the monster and trying to fight it.
They left a few minutes later after downing a hurried breakfast, when the sound of the Hydra's footsteps were barely audible in the distance.
Diana was enjoying this, Batman realized. Another demon flew at them, claws extended; She shot an arrow through its eye with disturbing precision. Her face was rigid with tension and concentration as she fired arrow after arrow, but Batman could see the delight she was getting from it. Not from the killing--if what they were doing could be called killing, since the demons revived in a short time--but from the fight. There were no politics here, no baby steps, no mincing around differing viewpoints and moral makeups; this was battle, pure and simple. No right or wrong to be considered, no shades of gray. They had to kill the demons or be killed.
Batman cut off a demon's head with Diana's sword. He had to admit he was enjoying it, too. He'd much rather have the Joker in his hands and in jail, would rather be in Gotham than fighting demons in the Greek Underworld, but he couldn't ignore the pleasure derived from letting his body do what he had trained it to do, without worrying about hurting bystanders, or accidentally killing a criminal. Or deliberately killing one. He felt he should be concerned about that, too; killing these demons might make him more likely to strike a murderous blow without thinking about it, if the action became too normal to him, but in this realm, those concerns seemed out of place.
Diana lowered her bow, her eyes a fiery blue. Her gaze skimmed the corpses lying around them. "I think that is all of them. For now."
Bruce stuck her sword upright in the sand, pulled some high tension wire from his belt. "Would it slow them down if we tied them?"
"It should," Diana said.
Bending over the demon he had just beheaded, he looped the thin wire around its hands and feet, then pulled it tight, breathing through his mouth. The demons reminded him of a cross between a monkey, hyena and vulture, and they smelled like death.
"They will probably panic when they realize they are tied," Diana spoke from where she was binding another creature. "They don't have the brains to reason their way out of this; we might actually make it to Hades' palace before they release themselves." She stood, brushed a stray hair out of her eyes. "There isn't any shelter tonight; we will be crossing the asphodel fields. No caves. We'll hear them coming if they do escape."
outlined her plan to him earlier: she was going to ask Hades to let her
confront Ariadne, find out the counterspell,
then tell Hades they would rid the Underworld of the Joker if he would allow
them transport to the
The demon he was tying twitched; he speared it with the sword, and frowned. Diana would have had to face these things by herself, and had known that when she made plans to travel here. She shouldn't have come alone. He had to admire her determination and courage, even if he didn't like that she had kept the knowledge from him.
His mouth twitched. Most of the other JLAers probably said the same things about him on a daily basis. In some ways, he and Diana were very much alike.
Except, he remembered, she had broken the spell, and he hadn't. He looked up at her, where she was holding a demon's hands together in preparation to secure them. "You are no longer under the spell, Diana."
She hesitated for an instant, then continued trussing the demon. "No," she said. "I'm not." She finished, stood.
He looked around. That had been the last demon. "How?"
Diana looked off into the horizon. "We should go."
Gritting his teeth, he replied, "We'll talk on the way."
Batman kept her sword; it had been more handy than the staff he'd chosen before he realized he'd be required to use lethal force. She gave him the scabbard, shouldered her gear, and began walking toward the towering figure of Hades' palace.
He pushed his cowl back from his face, wiped sweat from his brow with his cape. He kept stride with her easily, despite her long steps and apparent attempt to keep a pace that would prohibit conversation. "Diana?"
She stopped, swung around to face him, looked him in the eyes. "Bruce, I don't want to lie to you. I'm a miserable liar, but the truth at this time would be burdensome to you. Please, trust me," she beseeched. "Trust me and know that what happened is nothing that I did, or an action I performed that you could have repeated. I would not keep that from you." She broke eye contact, looked toward Hades' mountain. "Although I doubt it will be kept from you long," she muttered sadly.
He frowned. "Is this truth going to endanger you, Diana?" Her last words hinted that she dreaded something that would happen at the palace. That would explain her secrecy, her desire to travel alone. If she had to sacrifice something for the counterspell, or do something that would imperil her associates, her loyalty would make her tread this journey alone. She had done so before, when a prophecy foretold the death of the JLA. She had taken their place, disabled their ability to help her, prepared to sacrifice herself. And she had died, he remembered. For an instant.
He wouldn't let her do it again. Compared to letting her sacrifice herself, the spell was preferable. Here, without her powers to aid her, he would have the advantage should he be forced to physically stop her. Although, he told himself, she had the advantage of knowledge.
She was shaking her head. "No danger. Actually, I find this truth to be beautiful." Her eyes glowed in the diffused light of the Underworld. "But I know that you would not."
"You do not give me the chance to decide that for myself." His voice was harsh.
Hers was gentle. She reached up, placed her hand against his cheek. "No, I don't. Because you've already decided, Bruce. This is something that you've told me before." Her palm scraped against his whisker rough jaw when she removed her hand. She smiled, and turned, started walking again.
His brow furrowed. What was he supposed to say to that? He caught up with her, tried to think of something he'd told her was a burden. But when? And under what circumstances had he said it? "You're a stubborn woman, Diana."
She grinned. "Thank you."
"I could make you tell me," he growled, disgruntled, but not angry. He did trust her.
"With Bat-torture techniques?" She shot him an amused glance.
He was half considering it. "No, by being Bruce Wayne for the rest of this trip."
She laughed. "If you mean the Bruce Wayne from the charity auction or your other public appearances, I'd consider that torture. I like the other one, though."
He raised an eyebrow. "The other one? You actually like the Bat?" He was well aware that his darker personality was hardly friendly.
She examined the sky's color, looked for more demons. "No, I understand the Bat, and respect him, like to work with him. But I mean the other Bruce Wayne." She smiled. "And now I'm picking up your habit of referring to these things as if they aren't you."
He stared at her. "Diana, there's Bruce Wayne and Batman. Not three."
She stopped at pointed at a gray, wavering line in the distance. "That's the asphodel. We're making good time, unless he's changed things completely." She turned to him. "Which one are you? Bruce Wayne or Batman?"
She had asked him that before. "Both."
"That's what you said earlier, but I disagree. I don't accept that postmodern schizophrenia idea that you can be two or three people in different roles without being a whole individual." She resumed walking.
Behind her back, Batman grinned. The Princess didn't accept something, so therefore it must not be true. He'd plowed through Frederic Jameson's essays about postmodern schizophrenia before, not to examine himself but to gain further insight into criminal behavior. Villains, at times, were snobs, and conducted themselves according to one critical theory or another. It was no surprise that Diana, who came from a culture rooted in ancient beliefs, would have a quibble or two with postmodernism.
He was curious about her opinion of his personality, though. And, he thought, there was something to be said about disagreeing with Diana, even if he wasn't convinced she was wrong; it was entertaining, at the very least. "Then what is your theory, Princess?"
"That there is something in between the Bat and Bruce Wayne, and that's what you really are." She reached into her bag, pulled out a bagel, and smiled. "Donna must have refilled our supplies. When she runs out of food in the apartment, though, we will probably get take-out Chinese food and pizza stuffed in here."
Batman grimaced. Hopefully they'd be back before it came to that. "What's in between?"
thoughtfully. "Simply 'Bruce' would be the best way to put it. Have you
ever notice that you always add the '
He nodded. It
was necessary for distance between the Bat and Bruce Wayne. It made his
alter-ego seem less personal, and therefore he'd be less inclined to mix the
two up in a public setting. Protecting his identity was imperative. "Why
do you think
She shot him
a disbelieving glance. "You know he is, because you allow imperfections in
him. They are there so that you can also remain Batman, but they lend
"How so?" He knew, but hearing it from her was fascinating.
"Bruce Wayne breaks women's hearts so that the Batman can save their lives. Bruce Wayne is lazy so that Batman can work. He's indulgent so that you can be alone, be without excess. Batman couldn't exist without Bruce Wayne."
"That's true, but the opposite is also." He knew that with certainty. When Bane had broken his back, he'd been forced to face life without the Bat. He wouldn't accept it, had needed to be Batman.
She tilted her head in acknowledgment. "Perhaps. I am more inclined to believe, however, that without Batman Bruce Wayne would simply function differently. He would be what bridges the Bat and Bruce Wayne now, the in-between."
"The simply Bruce." He wondered if this was how she thought of herself. Simply Diana between the Wonder Woman, Princess and ambassador. It would make sense that she applied her theories about herself to others.
"Exactly. Bruce Wayne persuades, Batman forces. Bruce Wayne adopted Dick, became a father to him. Batman uses him as a sidekick in his mission. Bruce Wayne allows himself to love, but Batman won't allow himself to be loved. Bruce Wayne and Batman are opposites in so many ways; something has to stand between them. Something has to be the individual, be the core. That's the simply Bruce." She regarded him, in his costume but not his mask. "I think you might be him right now."
He looked down at himself. "And you think that both Batman and Bruce Wayne have grown from this Bruce?"
"Yes, they are both a part of the deeper man, who functions through them."
He smiled. "You sound like Freud. Id, ego, superego. Bruce, Bruce Wayne, Batman. So, what is simply Bruce?"
She curled her lip. "I hate Freud." She would, Batman thought. Diana continued. "I know you think he is a scared young boy, and yes, that boy is why you became Batman and Bruce Wayne, but I also think that boy would have grown up by now to stand for something else: Justice." She glanced at him from the corner of her eye. "You think I'm insane."
He knew insane. "No, I think you are being Diana." She was idealistic--it was just like her to boil someone's personality down to one virtue. A virtue with a capital letter. "I think there's more to it than that, however."
She snorted. "Of course there is. Just like there is more to me than Truth."
"The princess, Wonder Woman, the amazon, the ambassador, simply Diana, and so on?" He hid a smile. He had been right, she did think of herself the same way she thought of him.
"Yes," she said, then muttered, "but no longer a princess, and barely even Wonder Woman."
He heard her, decided not to comment. He would not be able to convince her she was Wonder Woman if she doubted it, just as he knew no one could convince him he was not Batman.
laughing. "You can't stand that I call him 'Kal,'
can you? You think it takes away from his humanity," she said, and shook
her head. "But
She did see it. "Then why call him Kal?" She was right, he didn't like the name. It seemed equivalent to a pet name for Superman, reminded him of socialites who called him 'Brucie.'
She looked at him, her stride not faltering for a second. "Very simply, it's my way of not calling him Superman. He's a friend, and in public I call him by a more personal name. Since I work with him so often as Superman, I simply have come to think of him as Kal rather than Clark."
reply. She had been honest, but he also knew there was more to it than that. Kal represented something she could be with;
continued, oblivious to his thoughts, "And before you ask,
Batman glanced up at the darkening sky. Red, like Superman's cape. The piece of Wonder Woman's uniform that covered her heart. His own blood.
It would be night soon.
The full moon had risen above them, shedding silvery light on the ghostly, pallid asphodel flowers. Selene, the moon goddess, descended into the Underworld once a month during Earth's new moon, in the form of Hecate, Goddess of the Dark of the Moon. She was also the Goddess of the Crossways, to whom the Joker would have made sacrifices before he could enter the dark realm. If Hecate was at Hades' palace, she would tell him of the clown's crossing, and Hades' could pass the information on to Diana. It would, she thought, give them more certainty as to where and when the Joker had entered the Underworld.
She turned, looking at Batman, who was examining one of the flowers with a small flashlight. By her calculations, he hadn't slept in three days. She was exhausted just from that day's travel; she could imagine how tired he must be. "We'll stop here for night. If we cross these fields under the moon, we'll be an obvious target to any creature roaming tonight. At least on the soil, we won't stand out as sharply."
Batman looked up. "And the demons?"
"If they manage to break their bonds, they would be a problem," she said. The demons sight didn't depend on contrast and moonlight. They sensed the heat of their victims. "Unless your cape is lined against infra-red detection."
Diana smiled back, considering the best course of action. Batman needed sleep--that was her first priority. Her concern for his well-being aside, he wouldn't be as sharp or function as well without sleep. "We'll roll out the bedrolls, then cover ourselves with your cape. That will provide maximum visual camouflage because of the darkness of the cape, and IR camo from the air against the demons. I'll keep watch."
"For two hours."
"My two hours will match yours from last night."
Bruce frowned. "Diana, this is not a tit for tat situation. My body is accustomed to fatigue. Yours isn't."
"I've gotten more sleep in the last twenty four hours than you have had in seventy two, Bruce." Then added: "And don't think just because I usually have powers that I don't experience fatigue. My Amazonian trainers were well aware of my capabilities, and made me work accordingly and in proportion to a typical Amazon. In any case, I can rest my body fully and remain alert." Every warrior knew how to take rest where she could find it.
Bruce stared at her, then seemed to come to a decision and detached the cowl from his cape. "You'll need this if you are keeping watch, then."
Diana caught the mask, a little surprised by his easy capitulation. "Don't agree now and then wake in two hours, Bruce. Get four hours of sleep."
He smiled a little. "Your distrust of me is showing, Princess."
"So are the bags under your eyes, Batman," she replied. "And it's not distrust, it's experience. You do what you think is best." She spread out her bedroll, patted it down.
He did the same, then took off his cape. "Because I'm always right," he said, and a startled laugh escaped her. She hadn't expected self-deprecating humor from him, not when it was about the Batman, anyway. Bruce Wayne, yes. But she'd never heard him poke fun at his darker image.
Unless, of course, he was serious. For some reason, that seemed even funnier to her. She chuckled, imagining the arrogance of someone who believed he was always right. Either way, whether he'd meant it or not, she couldn't deny that in most cases, he really was right.
He handed her the cape, then lay down on his bedroll, linking his hands behind his head. She pulled on the cowl, then wrapped the cape around herself and sat down, verifying that it hid her body entirely. She draped the excess material of the cape over him, making sure that his head--the only part of his body not protected with the IR repressing uniform--was covered. It would be slightly stuffy for him, but better than leaving his head exposed.
She could feel his breath against her leg under the cape; it was steady, even. He probably had the ability to fall asleep at an instant's notice, she mused, much like she was able, and many of the warriors that she knew. It would be a light sleep, so that if he needed to wake quickly he could, but a sleep nonetheless.
She waited, shifting her body occasionally so that her limbs would not go numb. The night was silent. Beside her, Bruce slept. She wondered what he looked like while sleeping; she'd seen him unconscious before, but not asleep. Would his face be calm, relaxed? Or tortured by dark thoughts and dreams?
Her own dreams had been twisted lately. Dreams of the war, of her mother, dying. Of saying time and again the last words she was certain her mother had heard. Not words of comfort and love, but words of condemnation, disapproval. She tilted her head, looked up at the night sky. The moon, no stars. Down here, one would never realize there were other suns, supporting other worlds. Down here, the world of life barely seemed to be a consideration at all.
Hippolyta would be in the Elysian Fields, Diana was certain. She
had been, without a doubt, one of the greatest heroes the Greeks had ever seen.
She would be with her lost Amazon sisters, Odysseus, Jason, Achilles.
She would be, Diana thought, happy. The words of her selfish daughter would not
give her pause in
Or so Diana prayed.
Diana would meet her mother in the Elysian Fields when death finally took her, Diana knew. Still, she hoped that the path to the Joker would lead them through the Elysian Fields, so that she could make sure that her mother knew what Diana really felt. So that she could take back her last words, replace them with words of love.
She looked down at Bruce's cape covered form. He'd never had the opportunity of another chance with his parents. Their circumstances were different--she regretted what had been said, he regretted what hadn't been done, the years without his family--but no matter the circumstances, she knew she was lucky for even the smallest chance of seeing her parent after death.
Even if it meant that he would be a different man, that she would never have met or worked with him, fell in love with him, she wished he'd had that chance.
The moon, which had hovered over Hades' palace most of the night, finally began its descent. Hecate returning to Earth, becoming Selene once more. The sky reddened, then turned pink. She swept the cape from Bruce's face, touched his shoulder, but his eyes were already open. She wondered if he had slept at all, or, like her, just rested.
He sat up, stretched, then methodically checked the compartments on his belt, as if verifying nothing had slipped out during the night. She admired his discipline, his precision. He rivaled most of her Amazon sisters in his constant readiness for battle.
They ate a silent breakfast on the move, each content with his or her own thoughts. The asphodel flowers, petals closed under the sunless sky, were eerily still; the Underworld had no wind to make them sway and dance. The seemed a dread parody of the colorful flowers on Earth, with their transparent stalks and gray petals. They reminded Diana of a scene from The Wizard of Oz, one of the first films she had seen when she'd entered Patriarch's World, in which Dorothy fell asleep in a field of poppies. And if she was Dorothy, she thought now, would that make Batman the Scarecrow, Cowardly Lion, or the Tin Man? The Wizard? Or, she grinned, Toto?
And that would make the Joker the Wicked Witch, she supposed. Unless Ariadne had claimed that title. Either way, it would take more than a bucket of water for she and Bruce to complete their journey.
mountain was closer now; they only had an hour or so of their hike remaining.
Not really a mountain, Hades' had built a palace in a replica of
Diana had no illusions about her gods; she'd been one of them, seen them in their true characters. They could be greedy and thoughtless, yet also generous and kind. They were, Diana knew, more human than they would ever admit, and more inhumane than they would ever realize. She slid a glance toward Bruce, who was eyeing the palace as if memorizing and mapping its form. She didn't blame him for his disdain of her gods; to him, they were much more powerful and less responsible than Superman, or Captain Marvel, or herself. If she or Superman had displayed the destructive behaviors of her gods, Batman would have taken them out long ago, friendship be damned.
But they had also created the Amazons and herself, given her life and purpose; to fight evil, to be their champion, to promote peace and prosperity. Despite their pettiness, they deserved her thanks and fealty; much in the same way a daughter still loved a selfish parent.
"How long will it take us to get the information that we need?" Batman said.
that Hades' will receive us quickly; it might take a day, or a day and a
half." Which, Diana decided, was not so bad.
Twenty-four hours here was one fourth of a day on Earth. They wouldn't lose
much time. To Donna, who was back in
the Joker have made it to the
If he had made it at all, Diana thought. He might have run into the same demons and variety of monsters that they had. "I don't know," she said. "We'll have a better idea when we find out where he entered the realm."
"Will Hades fulfill our requests?" Batman smiled. "We won't have to dance and sing or play a lyre, will we?"
Diana grinned. "Worried about your image?" She shook her head. "My history with Lord Hades has been rocky at best; however, I am a friend of Lady Persephone." She tilted her head, considered him carefully. "You must have brushed up on your Greek myths before you left. Orpheus and his lyre."
"Briefly. Enough to know that I don't want to end up like him."
Diana chuckled. "Because he failed in his mission to the Underworld or because of his ultimate end?" Traveling to the Underworld to get his wife, Eurydice, Orpheus had played his lyre for Hades, then failed to trust the god's word and lost the chance to bring his wife back to life. While mourning for her, the musician had taken up with a group of young, nubile boys, then been torn apart by the boys' jealous wives on a night of Dionysus' feasting.
Bruce raised an eyebrow. "Both. Dick and Robin will remain safe from me."
Diana burst out laughing. When she could breathe again, she told him tales of more successful forays to the Underworld. She recited them poetically, in the old style, just as she would nearing the end of a journey with her Amazon sisters, when there was no need for silence; she only made it through two before they reached the gates of Hades' palace.
The gates were heavy, with ornate scrollwork and enormous locks. Two guards, with leathery wings and an array of weapons, blocked their entrance; a porter, speaking ancient Greek, bid them to state their intentions.
Diana saw Bruce insert a JLA translator into his ear before she replied in the same language. "I am Diana of the Amazons, champion of the Olympian gods, seeking an audience with my Lord Hades."
The porter peered suspiciously through empty eye sockets at Batman, who had replaced his cowl and mask a mile back. "And your companion?"
the Batman, the Dark Knight of Earth, defender and champion of
The porter looked them up and down, then nodded and said, "Very well. I will report and return with Lord Hades' reply. Wait here." With a click of his heels he disappeared behind the gate.
She looked at Batman.
The Dark Knight of Earth? he mouthed the words to her.
She shrugged. "Better than 'Bruce Wayne, Entrepreneur and Womanizer,'" she said, her voice low.
"Better than 'Simply Bruce?'" His bland expression belied the humor in his voice.
"Nothing's better than him," she said, then turned her back on him as the porter returned.
He motioned for the guards to throw the gates open, then bowed obsequiously. "Lord Hades welcomes you to his palace, Lady Diana and Master Batman. He regrets that he is unavailable to receive you at this moment, and urges that you rest and refresh yourselves until he summons you." Diana smiled a little. That sounded more like Persephone than Hades. "Will you require one room or two?"
"One," Diana said firmly. She wanted there to be no chance of being separated from Batman. His slight nod was an indication that he agreed. They followed the porter past room after room of banquet halls and parlors, up too many flights of stairs to count, encountering a variety of humans, creatures and different varieties of demons, who regarded the two living humans with varying expressions of disgust, interest and indifference. She noted that Batman held two batarangs in his hand, and hid a smile. Always prepared, always paranoid. She had her own hand on the hilt of her sword.
was almost as large as her apartment in
Diana let out a huge breath, flopped back onto the bed, suddenly exhausted. Batman remained by the door, setting, she realized, a trap should anything force its way in. She grinned up at the ceiling, then frowned. Above the bed was a painting of Icarus falling from the sky. The artist had caught the boy's surprise, panic and dread as he lost control, lost his life.
Not the most uplifting sight.
She sat up. Batman was examining the rest of the room, checking the windows, the doors to the columned balcony, the corners and crannies. He even, she realized with a small giggle, tapped on a statue of Aphrodite to make sure that it was marble, not some kind of posing creature. Finally, as if he was satisfied with the room's security, he pushed back his cowl and looked out one of the windows.
She began removing her armor, intending to take advantage of the bath.
Bruce glanced at her when her breastplate thudded against the rug, then turned back to the window. "The view is different than it really is outside."
Diana shimmied out of her plated metal skirt, slid off her boots, and joined him at the window. Instead of black sand and fields of asphodel, Hades had created the illusion of a lush paradise for the palace dwellers. Waterfalls abounded, colorful birds soared the skies. Even as they watched, however, it shifted to a desert oasis.
"Eternity is a long time," Diana said. "Especially if you have only one thing at which to look." She watched with him for a few minutes longer, then turned away. "I'm going to bathe. I stink like a Minotaur's den."
Batman continued to stare out of the window as she stripped off the remainder of her uniform and climbed into the tub; she groaned in pleasure as the heat sank into her tired muscles. She closed her eyes and leaned back, letting the water soak her hair, feeling the grit of travel wash away. She let out a sigh of contentment.
Bruce chuckled; she opened her eyes to find him sitting on the bed, removing his boots. He had already taken off the cape and top of his body armor, leaving him in a white undershirt and uniform bottoms. "Reminder to self to update Protocols," he said. "Wonder Woman's real weakness is a hot bath."
And men who work in caves and have bodies like him, she added silently, but replied, "Amazons know where the pleasures of life lay. Hot baths and thick steaks." She dunked her head, came up and wiped water from her eyes. "And beating the hell out of anyone who dares cross us."
He kicked off his other boot. She hoped his pants would be next, but he leaned back against the pillows instead. "How long before we'll be called?"
"At least a couple of hours. You can get some sleep if you like," she said, but he was shaking his head.
"I'm fine. I'll relax, but no sleep."
A knock sounded at the door. "The food," Diana said. "We can't eat any, but it would be rude to refuse it." They didn't want to offend their host by rejecting his hospitality.
He nodded, then stood, grabbed her sword from where she'd dropped it, and carefully opened the door. The servant bustled in and out, after setting the heavy tray on a low table. Diana sniffed, then sighed. "That smells much better than what Donna has been giving us."
Bruce examined the contents, and grinned. "One of your pleasures. Thick steaks."
Diana pretended to whimper, and sank deeper into the water. "At least I have my hot bath." She lifted a foot out of the water, wiggled her toes. "Will you be joining me?" she asked before it occurred to her that she shouldn't. The tub was huge, and Amazons frequently bathed together. It was a social experience for her, nothing sexual implied or attached.
Not that she
had ever asked Superman, Green Lantern, or any of her other male comrades to
join her in a tub, she thought, and grimaced. She knew there were differences
in Man's World, had always remembered to keep her habits on Themyscira
from spilling over into her life in
"And you call me a rakish seducer, a womanizer," Bruce said good-naturedly. "I'll wait my turn, Princess."
Disappointment battled with relief that he hadn't thought she was trying to seduce him again. Not that seducing him sounded so awful, she thought, watching him through lowered lashes. Just that she knew he wouldn't appreciate her efforts.
She smiled mischievously and began soaping her hair. There was something to be said for the days when Amazons took what they wanted, and who they wanted. Progress had a lot for which to answer.
He finally knew what the poets meant when they spoke of 'terrible beauty.'
Persephone's radiance made him want to close his eyes, to protect himself from her gaze. He considered, for a moment, lowering the torch shields of his cowl against the sight of her, but he knew it wasn't actual light that made his eyes and brain hurt. He glanced at Diana, and wondered if the goddess affected her the same way.
She knelt before Hades' and Persephone's thrones, dressed in a sweeping white gown that she had found in the room. Batman remained standing. Diana had not suggested he change his own uniform, for which he was grateful. When Diana spoke, her tone was formal, never hinting at a familiarity with the gods in front of her.
"Lord Hades, you have honored us with your attention. We have traveled through Your Majesty's realm, seeking your advice and help; which, in your wisdom and great power, only you can provide."
Hades nodded slightly, then looked at Batman. Bruce remained silent. He hated this; waiting, dependent upon the will of a bad-tempered, too-powerful 'god'. Diana stood.
Hades voice thrummed through Bruce's body. "And your companion?"
"The Dark Knight of
Hades leaned forward. "Your companion looks as though he belongs in my realm; indeed, his heart is such that I would not hesitate to name him one of my own warlords." The god sat back in his chair. "But I feel the disdain you have for me, Dark Knight. I would prefer that you show it openly." Hades waved his hand; Bruce's mask and cowl disappeared. Batman said nothing, did nothing. "Do not assume to hide yourself from me, mortal." He met Batman's eyes, tried to stare him down.
The room was silent for several interminable minutes. Finally, Hades looked away and commanded, "Tell me your request, Diana of the Amazons." Batman detected the slight relief in Diana's posture. She hadn't been as positive of Hades as she had seemed.
"My lord, the long-time deceiver of the Amazons, Ariadne, has recently entered your realm. Before she crossed, she took the form of the great sorceress, Magala, friend to the Amazons and the gods. In that form, she placed an enchantment on me and my companion. I request that you bring her here, so that we might gain from her the knowledge to release the spell."
"Why should I inconvenience myself with your mortal concerns, Amazon?"
Batman's mouth tightened. He hated this even more, hated to see her prostrate herself before this arrogant scum. He felt Persephone's eyes on him, kept his face expressionless.
lord, I have served as the champion of the Olympians willingly, with great
reverence and honor to you and your siblings. I recently fought alongside you,
reclaiming the glory of
Hades tapped his fingers together; it sounded like the beating of drums. "You ask many things, Amazon. Most recently, to see your mother."
Batman stepped forward; without taking her eyes from Hades, Diana motioned for him to stop. "Indeed, my lord, I entreated your honored niece, the Lady Artemis, to give me a moment with my mother. In her infinite wisdom, she did not grant my request."
"Then why should I?"
Diana played what Batman saw as their trump card. "Because, my lord, my companion and I would rid your realm of the mortal scourge known as the Joker."
Hades frowned. Silence stretched across the room once more, broken, after a few moments, by an exasperated Persephone. "By Gaea, husband, you've been pondering for days the best way to rid ourselves of that mortal; bring the witch here."
Hades glanced at his wife, smiled slightly. "Very well."
Ariadne appeared before him, her back to Diana and Bruce. He could see that wherever she'd come from, it hadn't been pleasant. Her clothes her torn and lined with soot, her skin cracked and peeling.
She saw Hades, fell to her knees. "My lord! I do not know why you have seen fit to remove me from Tartarus, but I submit myself to you. I am your humble servant."
Hades' voice was cold. "You are my humble servant in Tartarus as well, witch. Stand," he commanded. Ariadne did, looking behind her as she complied. She saw Diana and frowned. When she saw Batman, a pleased, calculating light entered her eyes. Hades continued. "Ariadne, you have placed a spell upon the champion of the Olympian gods. Explain yourself."
"Yes, Lord Hades." She took a deep breath. "The Amazons have always held me in hate, my lord, accuse me of murdering the sister of Queen Hippolyta, Antiope. The truth is, my lord, Antiope was a usurper who laid claim to a man who had already promised himself to me. I loved Theseus, Lord Hades. I killed Antiope so that I could recover my rightful place at his side."
Murder still, Batman thought. Hardly justifiable. But Hades nodded. "And the spell?"
As if sensing her story had swayed things her way with Hades, Ariadne's voice became more beseeching still. "My Lord, for thousands of years the Amazons spoke ill of me, for something I had done in the name of love. They held their ideals of peace and love, yet they despised me for loving Theseus. I devised the spell as a way of making them learn about love for a man. I thought if Diana, champion of the Amazons, would fall in love with a man, feel the despair of loving someone who would not have her, she might finally know my pain, and clear my name." Ariadne looked at Diana, smiled. "And, my lord, if I may add, there is no need to remove the spell from the Amazon. She has broken it already by falling in love with this mortal."
Bruce looked sharply at Diana.
So did Hades and Persephone. "Is this true, Diana?" the goddess asked.
She didn't glance at Bruce. "Yes, my lady." She stepped forward. "But the spell has yet to be removed from my companion, as he does not love me. It is a false desire he feels, Lord Hades. He has had no part in the history of the Amazons and this witch, and does not deserved this punishment."
Ariadne laughed. "And now you know, Diana, this pain. Batman's reaction tells me that you had not told him, were too ashamed of your love." Batman fought the dreadful exhilaration that swept through him. Ariadne didn't understand Diana, he thought. She hadn't hid her love out of shame, but to save him from being conflicted about her feelings. Diana would never think of love with shame. What had she said? I find it to be beautiful.
Ariadne was continuing. "You confided in me--in your dear Magala--following your encounter with this one and the Superman in your damned invisible craft. I sensed then your feelings, Amazon, that despite your dream with Superman, you had found your true match in this Dark Knight, he who stood for the truth as you did, who you believed had the same core of strength, loyalty and honor as you do, even if his approach was darker than yours. He made you face your truths in that dream. But you also knew he would never feel the same, so you hid your feelings even from yourself. And so I planned, and waited." She turned back to Hades. "My lord, what is done is done. I can not remove the effects of the spell from the Amazon; I can not erase her love. I have accomplished what I wanted. I can, if you wish, remove the spell from the other."
Diana kneeled again before Batman could stop her. He wouldn't have her subject herself to this for him. She shouldn't have to kneel for him. He would find a way to break the damn spell without selfish gods and murdering witches. "Please, my lord. Let her remove the spell," she pleaded.
Hades considered, said finally, "Very well."
Ariadne turned to Batman, a triumphant smile on her face, lifted her arms, said words his translator could not interpret. She froze suddenly, began laughing. "This one, too, has broken the spell, Lord Hades." Diana turned to Bruce, disbelief in her eyes. "I did not see it before, because he has hidden it even from himself. Oh, this is better than I'd ever dreamed, Amazon. Greater pain than loving someone who does not love you, is loving someone who loves you in return, but will never let himself be with you. Forever separated."
Diana's lips thinned with anger. "You lie, witch." She turned to Hades. "May I use my lasso, force the truth and the spell from her, my lord?"
Batman knew, even before Hades denied the request, that the god's pride would never let him consider that Ariadne had lied to him. Which she must have done.
He was not in love.
Their visit had not been for nothing, however, there was still the Joker. They would find a way to break the spell elsewhere.
Because, he told himself again, he was not in love. He glanced at Diana; she was looking at him with concern, regret.
He hardened himself against that look, watched at Hades blinked Ariadne away and stood, holding out his hand to his wife.
"Let's go to dinner, shall we? We'll discuss your plans to capture this Joker."
How they were going to discuss it, Batman didn't know. The table at which they sat was easily five times longer than the longest in Wayne Manor, and every seat was taken. At one end, Diana sat to Hades' right. At the other, Batman was at Persephone's right hand. In front of both Bruce and Diana sat their dinner plates, untouched.
He kept his eyes on Diana; she returned his gaze often, when the god did not command her attention. The glances she sent him were probably intended to be reassuring, he thought. He could read her well enough, however, to tell that she was furious.
And she was in love with him. He could barely comprehend it, wouldn't even have believed it had she not confirmed it herself.
"He goads her endlessly, my husband does."
Bruce turned, tried to look at Persephone, ended up staring at her shoulder. She gave him a headache. He noted that her own plate was untouched.
She saw where he glanced, smiled. "I, like you, do not eat in the Underworld."
He knew the myth. She had eaten pomegranate seeds, sealed her fate that she must spend several months of the year with her husband. "You are already bound to this realm," he stated carefully. With solicitous responses, he might be able to get the information he needed from her about the Joker. He doubted that at the other end of the table Hades was being forthcoming.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw her smile sadly. "Bound, yes. I would not give him reason to make my stay longer, however." She smelled of wildflowers and freshly turned earth. "But do not misunderstand me, Dark Knight, I love my husband. But this darkness is no place for me." She nodded her head at Diana. "That one, she is stronger, better suited to this kind of life. She can withstand the darkness, without making it a part of herself. And, if she does take some into herself, it only makes her inner strength grow."
He realized that the goddess was matchmaking and hid a smile.
Hades' voice roared through the hall suddenly. "My guests! The Amazon has agreed to entertain us with some poetry." Beside him, Diana stood, mouth set, eyes flashing.
Beside Batman, Persephone was shaking her head. "He will try to embarrass her, but he doesn't understand her any more than Ariadne did." She looked at Bruce. "I call her friend, as you do. And I, like you, am wishing now that she would set Hades in his place. But she can not." Batman wondered briefly if she could read his mind on a superficial level. That had been exactly what he had been thinking. She smiled. "No, I have just had eons of practice reading inscrutable faces, Sir Knight."
Hades smiled darkly, looked at Batman. "Diana, my wife loves Sappho's poetry. Why not recite to her the poem beginning, 'He is more than a hero?'"
Persephone sighed, then said loudly, "My lord, Sappho sits at the table with us. Why not have the poem read by its originator?"
Hades scowled, then said, "I believe the Amazon will recite it with more feeling, wife." He growled. "Speak, Amazon."
Diana bowed her head. "As you wish, my lord," she said tightly. She stared down the table at Persephone; when she began, her voice was warm, with no sign of her anger toward Hades.
He is more
than a hero
he is a god in my eyes--
the man who is allowed
to sit beside you -- he
who listens intimately
to the sweet murmur of
your voice, the enticing
laughter that makes my own
heart beat fast. If I meet
you suddenly, I can'
speak -- my tongue is broken;
a thin flame runs under
my skin; seeing nothing,
hearing only my own ears
drumming, I drip with sweat;
trembling shakes my body
and I turn paler than
dry grass. At such times
death isn't far from me
A hush had fallen over the room, eyes turned to Batman as if realizing why Hades had wanted Diana to recite that specific poem. Diana's gaze met Bruce's, briefly, burning him with its intensity, before she turned to Hades. "These poems are well known by your guests, my lord. Perhaps I should recite something newer to entertain them and my lady? Perhaps from the English Bard, Shakespeare?"
"Barbaric language," Hades muttered loudly enough for all to hear.
"She is thinking of one that will reveal him to be a fool," Persephone whispered to Bruce, then said loudly, "I would like to hear it, my lord."
Diana began reciting the scene between the fool and his king from King Lear, lacing the lines with enough sarcasm to make their double meanings clear to the guests, but not, Batman realized, to Hades.
Persephone murmured, "Hades is too vain but to take her at the face meaning of this. Diana chose well." She leaned closer to Batman, said, "Let us speak of a different clown, Sir Knight. Hecate informed us that he crossed over three days ago. He has been traveling, first through the Wastes, then the Elysian Fields. He caused a stir there, and we were first alerted of his presence then, before Hecate arrived. Now he is nearing the River Styx."
"Can you or Hades transport Diana and myself to his location?"
Persephone shook her head. "I have no power here at all; Hades has no power to affect mortals, or he would have dealt with the Joker when he first heard of him. I can, however, supply you with our fastest horses. They will have you there in an hour. I will inform the stables to have them ready by daybreak."
"Not earlier, Persephone?" He didn't want to remain in this palace longer than was necessary.
She blinked. "No one has spoken my name to me in thousands of years, not since I came here the first time. How odd that I hear it now with your accent." Humor touched her lips. "I am the Maiden That Must Not Be Named. But I appreciate your lack of fear." She shook herself. "There is no light by which to guide the horses, Dark Knight. I could not guarantee your safety. Your Joker will not be traveling, either, so it makes no difference."
She didn't know the Joker, Batman thought, but didn't argue. Around them, the guests burst into laughter and clapped as Diana finished her recital.
Persephone stood. "My lord, I am retiring for the evening. I wish to escort our mortal guests to their rooms, bid my friends good evening."
Hades frowned, but said, "I was tiring of her presence anyway. Begone, Amazon, and Dark Knight."
Outside of the Great Hall, Persephone clasped Diana's forearms, kissed her warmly on the cheek. "My friend," she said. "How wonderful to see you, despite the setting and circumstances."
Diana smiled. "You bring light to any setting, my lady."
Persephone gestured to Batman. "I have made arrangements for you to find this clown of yours. Your knight will tell you of them. Until then, let's walk, and tell me tales of your Outer World."
Bruce trailed behind the two women, listening idly. Diana never mentioned her mother, which surprised him. He wondered if some part of her had plans to see her while she was in the Underworld.
They reached their room. Persephone looked inside, wrinkled her lip in annoyance. "He had you installed in a servants' quarters."
Diana laughed, and assured the goddess they were not offended. With a final kiss and embrace for Diana, Persephone left them. Bruce followed Diana into the room, re-set his traps, and performed another survey of the room's security. He took extra time; he was, he realized, avoiding a discussion with Diana about what he had learned in Hades' throne room.
He stopped his sweep of the room, looked at Diana, who was watching him from beside a roaring fireplace. No, he decided, he wouldn't avoid it. He would face it head on, take control of the situation at once.
"You love me. There is no hope for us, Diana." He didn't let himself feel anything.
She gazed at him steadily. "I know."
"I do not love you." He didn't.
She never wavered. "I know that as well. In any case, if you did, Ariadne was right. You not loving me is better than loving me and rejecting me."
"If you want to be sure of me, you can use your lasso." Not that he needed to be sure, but she was his friend, his comrade; she might want to know the truth. He didn't love her.
She shrugged. "There is no point. If Ariadne didn't lie, then you wouldn't believe what the lasso had to say, either, and if she did lie, we still have to break the spell on you."
"The lasso would not reveal love I don't feel."
"Of course it wouldn't, and for that I am glad." Diana took a deep breath. "If you loved me, yet stayed alone, I would be very angry with you." She turned to the side, mini-fires reflected in her eyes.
"Angry?" What right would she have to be angry? His temper sparked. He fought for control.
"For denying yourself something for which you fight."
He stepped up to her, forced her to look at him. "I don't fight for love, Diana. I fight for life, for people to live."
She tilted her head, eyes wide, face gentle. "You fight so that families don't lose each other. You fight because your mother and father will never be able to fulfill their promises of love to each other. You allow yourself the family, but not the love between a man and woman. You're a hypocrite, Bruce."
were hard. He had to end this, now. "Because I don't love you, I'm a
hypocrite? Maybe I don't love you because I don't want to be your
frozen, expression hurt, then angry. "That was the fantasy of a girl, Bruce, it accessed a fantasy from when I first entered Man's
World. This is a woman." She smiled suddenly. "And I would be the
Control. He would have to show her, she wouldn't listen. He
couldn't love her. He spoke through clenched teeth. "Do you know what it
would be like to be loved by that hero? If you could only
have Batman?" He pushed her backwards until she was pressed against
a wall, against a frieze depicting the fall of
Her warmth grabbed at him, clutched at him; he closed himself off from it. "The. Batman. Diana. Cold. Hard. Fucks. Unfeeling. No. Love." He punctuated each word with a powerful thrust into her. "Is this what you want from him?"
She was breathless, arching against him, taking him deeper. "Sometimes I'd want it this way," she breathed, met his eyes. "But this isn't all it would be, you know it isn't."
He stared down at her. He was buried inside her. He was using her cruelly, yet she held onto him, her face open, trusting. The face that he had seen happy, he'd seen cry. That had alternately been naive and wise, innocent and sensual, serious and full of humor. He'd seen her save millions of people with barely a lift of her finger, had seen her risk her own life to save one. She was strong, she was beautiful.
He was in love with her.
He leaned forward, rested his forehead against hers, closed his eyes. "No, that's not all it would be."
She lifted herself, sank back down. "Show me how else it would be."
her to the bed. He was the Batman, but he wasn't thinking of
He was both. He could be both with her. He was both to her.
But, he realized later, holding her next to him, he couldn't have her and also have complete control. There was still the danger of slipping, of his lack of control spilling over into killing.
And if he didn't have complete control, he couldn't be Batman.
He pulled her to him tightly, listened to her even breaths as she slept.
It would be dawn soon.
Chapter 5: The Long Way Down
Donna rubbed her neck, wishing that she possessed a super power that prevented painful cricks. And, she added ruefully, protected her from menstrual cramps, headaches, hangnails and men.
She checked her watch: in the evening. Batman and Diana had been in the Underworld a more than thirteen hours--over two days to them. Sitting up in the chair, she stretched, then stood and walked to the bed to verify that neither had suffered any kind of injuries while she had been napping. Not that she expected them to, she thought. Donna suspected that they were in a safe place, because an hour ago, she had felt -- something -- through the bond she shared with Diana.
Something strong enough and personal enough that Donna had automatically suppressed their connection; some things should not be shared, even between sisters. Especially between sisters, Donna thought with a smile. Talking about it was one thing. Feeling it was another.
Her expression turned thoughtful as she looked at Batman. What she had felt from Diana was more than just sexual; there had been real emotion, real love. She touched Diana's hand where it lay on her chest, squeezed it gently for an instant.
She hoped Diana wouldn't get hurt.
But she also knew that she probably would. It was Batman, after all. A man who'd barely been a father to his son--her good friend, Dick Grayson--and who, in his Bruce Wayne persona, changed his women more often than his underwear. Diana didn't stand a chance.
Donna sighed, then lifted Diana's satchel to test its weight. They needed more food, she decided, and left the room, heading for the kitchen.
She walked through the kitchen entrance, then blinked. Dick was sitting on one of the counters, eating a piece of pizza.
"Hi," he mumbled around a mouthful of food, then swallowed. "Got your message."
Donna eyed the pizza carton; it was from a local pizzeria, and she was sure it was one that had been sitting in their fridge for almost a month. She kept that to herself, said, "I didn't hear you come in."
He grinned, took another bite, then jumped down from the counter to sit at the table. "Turned up the sound nullifiers when I saw you were sleeping. Helped myself to your pizza."
Donna smiled, dropped into the chair next to his. "Eat it all, if you want. I don't think it's something I'll send to Diana and Batman."
Dick raised an eyebrow, paused in the middle of a bite. "Send to them? Hell's Postal Service?"
Donna rubbed her forehead, her neck again. "Kind of. Magical bags, actually."
"Of course, magical bags." He nodded knowingly. "I keep a bunch around my apartment." His expression changed as Donna continued massaging her neck. "You okay?"
"Yeah. No. Yeah." She frowned. "I don't know." She sighed. "It's Diana and Batman."
A crease appeared between his eyebrows. "Are they in trouble? They looked like they were sleeping in there."
are fine, I'm pretty sure," Donna reassured him, then looked at him
squarely. "Diana's been in
"Yes," he said, and waited. Donna could tell he was in his listening mode; he would wait until she told him everything, then try to solve whatever problem she had. He was, she thought, a great friend. Her best.
"I know you've heard rumors about something going on in the Watchtower a few weeks ago between them." Donna stood up, started filling a glass of water at the sink.
Dick watched her. "Yes, I've heard."
Donna turned off the tap, set the glass on the counter untouched, stared at the tiles above the basin. Finally, she turned back to him. "Something did happen between them. Caused by me."
Dick smiled, but his eyes remained serious. "You forced them to have sex? You just beat them unconscious and poked it in?"
She appreciated his attempt at humor, but couldn't find it in her to smile back. "No, there was an accident with a spell."
Dick released a long breath, sat back in his chair. He wasn't smiling now. "Batman wouldn't have liked that," he said softly. "Did he say anything to you?"
Donna shook her head. "Not really." She hesitated. "But there's more to it than that. Diana went to the Underworld because of the spell; she had to go there to break it."
"And Batman's down there to get the Joker," Dick said. She'd told him as much in her message.
"Right. Anyway, I think that as much time as Diana's been spending with Batman--because of that spell--she's fallen in love with him. And he's going to break her heart," she finished miserably.
"How can you be sure?" Dick's tone was even.
"I felt it through our bond; her love was real, not because of the spell."
"I meant that he'd break her heart."
Donna stared at him. "He's Batman. He doesn't exactly have a stellar record when it comes to relationships."
"Or being a father. But we aren't talking about those things. We are talking about Diana and him."
"I expected that you, of all people, would understand my worry for Diana." Donna was well aware of the sometimes bitter feelings Dick had toward Bruce. "Batman doesn't even like metas."
"It's not that he doesn't like them, he just thinks the world is better off without them."
Donna's eyes widened in exasperation. "What's the difference?"
"Trust," Dick said simply. "As long as he can trust Superman, or Diana, he might like them. But he still thinks they have too much power." He added, "Of course, with metas who you can't trust running around committing crimes, he is, at times, glad the powered heroes are here. Batman can do a lot of things, but even he can't stop something like Mageddon or Imperiex on his own."
She sat down again, deflated, but more worried than ever for her sister. "So even at the best, the most he could feel for her would be reluctant appreciation."
"Are you worried that she loves him, or that you think he can't feel anything for her?"
Donna chewed on her lip, then finally said, "Both. If Batman could feel anything for anyone, it would be Diana. She's Diana, after all. But, I don't think he would, and in any case, they are too different."
Dick nodded. "Of course they are. They are both heroes dedicated to their missions, both will save the universe or die trying. . . "
". . . One works from a cave and is obsessively private, the other is constantly in public; one keeps their secret identity closely guarded, everyone knows who the other is. . . "
". . . both are intensely loyal with definite opinions of right and wrong . . . "
" . . . one listens to her heart, the other listens only to his head . . ."
". . . and neither one cares anything for what anyone else in the world thinks." Dick finished as if Donna had never spoken. He leaned forward, tone serious. "Not one of us really has any opinion that will matter in this. Both of them will do exactly what they want to do. I know Batman, and you are right, he can be cold and keep himself fixated on his mission at the expense of everything and everyone else. I know that better than anyone. But no matter what has gone between us, he's still . . . important to me. Sometimes I would give anything to have the man I used to know back. And I think that maybe being with your sister might bring something back to him that he's lost. A little feeling, a little light. Maybe that's selfish, I don't know. You want your sister to not get hurt; I want the man who raised me to stop hurting, just a little. Of all people, I think Wonder Woman can do that."
Donna stared at Dick; she loved him, he was as close to her as a brother. But Diana was her sister. She reached across the table, gripped his hand in her own, feeling his worry for the Bruce, her worry for Diana. "Yes, Wonder Woman could, if anyone." Donna sighed. "But I just have a feeling it's doomed from the start. I--" She broke off, aware of a sudden sensation of pain and loss. Her connection to Diana. She tried to focus on her sister; the feeling intensified; became nearly overwhelming. Gasping, near tears, Donna repressed the connection again. Dick grasped her hand, searching her face, eyes wide with worry.
"What is it?"
Donna pulled her hand away, pressed the heels of her palms against her closed eyes. "It felt like something broke Diana's heart."
"Oh." Dick sat back, looked blankly at the pizza he'd been eating. "Stupid, stubborn Bat," he muttered.
"No," Donna said, "It wasn't him. It was Hippolyta."
Diana spoke gently to the horse, checking the girth on the saddle, measuring the stirrups and adjusting their length. The stables smelled like any stable on Earth--a mixture of hay, wood, dung, and horseflesh. It was the horses themselves that were different. Although in form and temperament they seemed like any living horse, Diana knew they could run like a hurricane, and left a trail of fire in their wake. She buckled the stirrup strap, looked over her horse's withers at Bruce, who was doing the same.
She had woken that morning to find him standing at the window dressed in his Bat costume--except for the mask, which Hades had made disappear. His face had been pensive, yet determined, his expression immobile as he'd stared out into the changing landscape. Then he'd turned to face her, and she had known he'd withdrawn from her, not just physically but also emotionally.
And she had let him. Just because a wall had crumbled didn't mean that the keep had fallen.
He'd made no promises, said not a word of love. She would not make him say them, would not ask for them. For now, she was patient. She had not expected the possibility of him loving her; she wanted to savor the feeling, the knowledge. Even if he would never admit it to himself, even if his withdrawal from her was permanent, she was beloved by him, by Bruce, by Batman. And one day, she hoped, his love for her would be greater than his fear of himself. Until then, she was content to wait. She couldn't, wouldn't force him to admit anything.
She smiled as
she led the horse out into the red, early morning light. Persephone stood near
the stable's entrance, looking up at the sky as if she could see
lady," Diana said, surprised and pleased that the goddess had come to see
them away. She wondered, not for the first time, if Persephone was even more lonely than she seemed at Hades' side. The courtiers in
the palace were there by Hades' choice, not his Queen's. Most of them had once
been mortals, and so saw the Queen of the Underworld as a tragic figure; Greek
tradition dictated that they didn't become friends with her, barely even talk
to her. Only on
Persephone inclined her head in greeting. "Diana." She looked past her, into the stables where Bruce was checking his horse's tack again. "Walk with me, my friend." Persephone turned, robes fluttering like wings. Diana glanced back at Batman, then followed the goddess, the horse clomping along beside them.
A hundred yards later, Persephone stopped, faced Diana. Her eyes were alight with humor. "Something has changed between you and your companion."
"Changed?" Diana considered that, shook her head. "That is only true in some respects. In others, things are very much as they were."
"But not how you wish them to be," Persephone replied. She laid a hand on the horse's flank, stroked the beast idly. "He loves you."
Diana shifted the reins from one hand to another. The goddess' touch made the animal restless; not unlike, Diana imagined, the way a ray of sunshine made a plant that had been shut away from the light move and seek the warmth. "I know."
"He is brave, and loyal, and does not simply love your for your beauty." Persephone sighed, then added, "That in itself is worth ten realms over which to rule." She looked up at the sky again; Diana remained silent, waited for the goddess to continue. When she continued, her voice was amused. "He is also very ignorant. He called me by my name."
Diana grinned. "I'm not convinced that would be ignorance, my lady. He might have known, but he rarely feels bound by rank and tradition."
Persephone raised an eyebrow. "You find this an admirable trait?"
"I do." She always knew that Batman's opinion would never be influenced by her background as a princess, nor her wealth, physical power and status.
Persephone nodded. "As do I." Her tone grew serious. "Why do you never call me by my name? You were once my equal, and well acknowledged by we Olympians as rather rebellious. And I do not think that you are swayed by status any more than your friend is."
Diana blinked in surprise. "My lady, it never occurred to me to call you by your name. Though my friend, you are also the Queen of this realm, and I have always tried to remember that. Perhaps I have been bound by tradition as are all of your subjects." Bound by her upbringing as well, Diana thought. Had she failed to see the woman before the queen, before the goddess? She was suddenly afraid she might have done exactly that.
She had done the same to her mother.
Persephone sighed. "Perhaps it is what the Fates have decreed, however unwelcome that may be."
"No, my lady." She paused, forced the name. "Persephone. It is simply the blindness of those around you. Including myself."
smile was brilliant, blinding. "Thank you, Diana. I think I have grown
weary of tradition, even though those around me have held onto it more tightly
in the last few centuries. Here and on
Diana nodded, wondering if the same could be said of herself and her fellow Amazons. They'd had change forced upon them, but not all had taken it unwillingly, and many had helped instigate the changes. "Everywhere, my lady." She smiled then. "Persephone."
The goddess laughed delightedly. "It is not so easy, is it?" She took Diana's free hand, and began walking back toward the stables.
Diana looked at Bruce, who was standing beside his mount near the door. "No, change is not always easy."
"For mortals or gods," Persephone said. They neared Batman, and Persephone reached inside her robe, produced a small vial from a fold. "Sir Knight. I have something for you."
"Lady Persephone," he replied, and held out a gauntleted hand to receive the object. He held it up, observed it. He looked questioningly at Diana, then Persephone.
"It is to hold water from the River Lethe," she explained. "I couldn't help but notice your discomfort when unmasked last evening. I assume that you prefer your identity to remain hidden."
Batman nodded slightly.
"This vial measures enough liquid to erase one month's memories. Earth months," she added. "When you encounter your Joker, he will see your face. But if you should have him drink the liquid before returning to Earth, he will forget permanently what he has done and seen here, and the method by which he came."
for Bruce's reaction; of course, there was none. A memory wipe--no matter how
small--was unethical, but it had been done before when memories would pose a
danger to a person or the people around them; since it was Bruce's secret, she
would accept his decision. It wasn't just his identity, Diana knew. Batman
would consider the Joker's knowledge of the Underworld and the
"Are there any other effects besides recent memory loss? I thought drinking or eating items from here would link us to this realm permanently."
links only certain memories to this realm. That is all the Lethe takes,
although the same can not be said of other food and drink. As for effects,
there will be temporary ones. He will seem to lose all of his memories for a
few hours, then his older memories will resurface, except
for the previous month." Obviously taking Batman's
question as a sign that he would use the river's water, she added, "You
will have to cross the Lethe on your way to the
Diana's heart froze. Her eyes searched Persephone's, found truth, and sympathy. "How? Why?" She whispered the words. "Why not the Elysian Fields?"
"She was at the Fields, but made a journey here to ask that Hades allow her to return to Earth," Persephone said gently. "Hades granted her request. I am sorry, Diana. Perhaps she will be born in your lifetime, and you will meet with her again."
"Is she already a shade? Perhaps she is still in human form, has not yet been transformed…?" Persephone shook her head, and that hope died within Diana. Her shoulders slumped. "Even should she be born while I live, she will not know me."
Persephone squeezed Diana's hand. "Have faith that her soul will recognize yours, my friend."
Diana tried to find comfort in that, straightened, took a deep breath. "I will try." She let go of the goddess' hand, turned to Batman. "Shall we ride?"
His eyes searched her face; she schooled her features, tried not to let her grief show. It was time to be a warrior.
Bruce's answer was to mount his horse; after a brief embrace for Persephone, Diana did the same.
Diana nudged the horse into a gallop; the hoof beats were like thunder, echoing through her. She held on, the wind whipping around her, tearing the breath from her lungs, stinging tears from her eyes. She tried not to think of her mother; to whom Diana could never apologize, from whom she would never find forgiveness.
It weighed on her heart; she wondered if she'd have the strength to bear it.
Bruce's parents had taught him to ride when he was four years old. His mother had steadied his pony while his father had placed him on its back; with their support and guidance, he'd never fallen off, never had to pick himself off the ground and get back in the saddle.
That had come later, and the fall had been in an alley, not a paddock. More falls had followed: his first night as a crimefighter, but not yet Batman, Jason's death and Barbara's paralyzation at the hands of the Joker, his broken back, No Man's Land, every death that he hadn't been fast enough or smart enough or strong enough to stop. Each time he'd had to force himself to continue, to go on--and he had. And each one of his falls had given him even more reason to continue his work.
If he had been a weaker man, he would consider last night with Diana one of his hardest tumbles. He had fallen in love with her, and it had taken all of his strength to leave the bed before she woke, to tell her with that one action that nothing had changed, no matter that part of him wanted it to. If he had been a weaker man, he would have attributed their lovemaking to something else: lust, their close proximity, the effect of the spell. But he realized now that there was no longer a spell, and that everything he'd done the night before was because he loved her and because he was afraid of the consequences of that love. If he had been a weaker man, he wouldn't have cared about consequences, wouldn't have admitted his love.
He wished that she was a different woman, someone who whined, wanted and claimed, not a woman of acceptance and generosity. There would be no conflict then; he couldn't have fallen in love with her if she had expected anything from him other than what he was. And he wished he was a different man, one who could love her as she deserved, openly.
Instead he was bound by his masks, and he wouldn't give them up, couldn't remove them.
Just as she couldn't change whom she was.
Diana rode ahead of him, back straight, head high. He knew what it cost her to ride like that, and his pride almost overwhelmed his concern.
She had truly
lost her mother. The Lethe was the
Unlike Artemis, or Superman, Hippolyta wouldn't be coming back from the dead as herself, even if she was reborn during Diana's lifetime. And unlike the rest of Diana's Amazon sisters and friends, Hippolyta wouldn't be waiting for her in the Elysian Fields to spend eternity in bliss.
Batman knew Diana had incredible faith in the afterlife, and death must have seemed a surmountable obstacle to her: she herself had died, then been resurrected. Even those she knew who had died and weren't resurrected, she would have been certain that their souls existed in some other, better place. But now, that certainty would be shaken to her very core. And the belief that things could be made right, even after death.
Her parent was as out of reach as his were to him. He knew how she was feeling; even as he wished he could take her pain away, though, he hoped it would make her stronger, give her new purpose. The way his own pain had given him something for which to fight.
And they would both have to use their missions to forget about their feelings for each other. It was, he decided, the only way. The only thing more powerful, more compelling, than the need to lose himself in her was his mission. Ironic, he thought, that the thing that made them so similar--their missions--was also what kept them apart, and what would fill whatever space was created by the other's absence.
His horse shifted gaits, began slowing. Ahead, he could see a shimmer of water -- the River Lethe. It had taken a little less than ten minutes to reach it.
Diana had dismounted by the time his horse reached the river's edge. The banks were lined, Batman realized, with shades whose forms began to take shape the longer he looked at them. They crowded together, and through each other, a mishmash of souls.
His cape fluttered as he swung down from the saddle. Diana didn't look at him as he withdrew the vial from his belt; she was slowly scanning the riverbank. Searching, Batman knew, for her mother. He stepped down to the water's edge and filled the tube, using a small pair of tongs to hold the vial in the enchanted water. He didn't want to touch the river itself, even while wearing his gloves.
"Is this how you felt?" Diana asked behind him. "Helpless?"
He capped the vial, made sure it didn't leak. "Because you can't bring them back? Undo what's been done?" He glanced toward her, caught her nod. "Yes. At first, and mixed with other emotions. Anger. Shame that it was them and not me, that I didn't do anything to save them. That they died saving me." He stood, looked down the riverbank, realized the shades were crowding in around him. The longer he looked, the better he could see their faces, their bodies. He stepped back, kept his eyes moving so that the dead never took shape. He hated this place. "We should go," he said.
"Yes," Diana answered, but her eyes continued searching the shades, and she made no move toward her horse.
"Diana," he said softly. She didn't look at him, so he reached out, cupped her chin, made her see him. "If you saw her, would it make it better? You wouldn't be able to talk to her, nor could she speak with you."
Her lip trembled, but her eyes remained dry. "Yes. I could tell her I'm sorry. That I love her."
Bruce shook his head. "She wouldn't hear or see you. And do you think she didn't know that?"
"I don't know." Diana closed her eyes, took a deep breath. "I was awful to her."
He understood her grief, but he needed her to refocus her emotions. If it had to be anger towards him, it was better than lethargic self-pity. "Ah, you are right. I remember Hippolyta well, and she was much too stupid to see past her daughter's selfishness. She must have thought you hated her," he said, his tone serious.
Diana stared at him, astonished, then slowly smiled. "Did Alfred try that line on you when you were young?"
"A few weeks ago, actually." Bruce took her hand, led her to her horse. Better to get away from this place quickly, he thought, and better for her to have action and a purpose. "A couple of days before the Joker escaped," he added. And a couple of days before the spell, and a couple of days before he fell in love with her. A few bullets, a few weeks; his life had been defined by small incidents.
She caught his hand when he turned toward his own horse. "Does it get easier? Does the mission ease the grief?"
He considered lying, but offered the truth. "No. But it was never supposed to. I'm simply trying to keep it from happening to anyone else."
"But my job has always been to bring peace."
"Maybe it should be to make sure no more daughters lose their mothers in war."
Diana drew her eyebrows together. "Isn't that the same thing?" She let go of his hand, turned to step into her stirrup, swung her leg over the horse's back. Her movements were smooth, efficient.
"No. It just has the same end." He pulled an extra mask from a pocket in his cape lining. It wasn't filled with gadgets like his standard cowl because it had to be compact to fit in the small compartment, but it would keep his head covered and identity hidden, and had the same general shape as his usual disguise. He hadn't put it on earlier, certain that Hades would have made his spare disappear if he had worn it in the palace.
"Perhaps." Diana drew up her reins, waited while he mounted his horse. "So you don't fight crime, it's just that your mission dictates the fighting of crime to save lives?"
"Exactly," he said, and urged his horse to a gallop. Diana caught up with him in seconds.
She grinned, and yelled to him over the rushing wind and hoofbeats, "You just don't want any more Batmans created who could edge in on your territory!"
his lips into a Bruce Wayne leer and called back, "That's right, Wonder
Babe. My territory.
This wasn't funny anymore. The Joker gunned down another stinking, flying hyena, laughed at the thud it made against the ground. He'd thought the first time they had come back to life it was the best joke in the world; after the eighth time, the joke had worn thin.
"Get a new act!" he screamed at the corpses littering the ground, and wished he had killed the whining bitch who had sent him here. He stopped shooting and looked around, thinking how enjoyable it would be to show her a trick or two with a magic hat and rabid bunny. The image cheered him again, so he shot a dead demon to watch its black blood spatter. He used his foot to draw a smiley face with the blood, and grinned.
No, he was glad he hadn't killed Medea. The pleasure he would get when Batman realized the Joker's invulnerability would outweigh any temporary delight received by ripping Medea's head from her shoulders.
He would kill her when he got back, though, he decided. Then he would double his pleasure. Double his fun. He suddenly wished he had some chewing gum.
He searched through his pockets and came up empty, but he did find the golden apple Medea had given him.
eat it," she had warned. "It'll lead you to the
He considered eating it for a second, wondering what gold fruit tasted like, if it would make golden shit when it passed through his bowels, and whether it would kill him faster than the disease that was breaking down his body, but was distracted by the glint of the river in the distance. He was almost there. The apple glowed subtly. He spit on it, then shined it against his jacket lapel and stuck it back into his pocket. Poking one of the demon's eyes with his rifle barrel, he yelled, "Out, vile jelly!" then continued on his merry way.
He made up ditties to sing along the way and was trying to think of a word that rhymed with 'Batguts' when he realized he had reached the riverbank. He rubbed his eyes comically and laughed, because it really was a good facial expression and worth a laugh, even if he didn't have an audience.
The water flowed sluggishly, and he stepped forward. The cold and the current caught him by surprise, and he shouted aloud, then noticed how hoarse his voice sounded from the singing. Hoarse, horse, he giggled to himself, and imagined hoof beats. He stepped in further, bracing himself against the pressure of the water. His legs tingled. Ha, Bats! he thought. He was going to be invulnerable. He would be able to stand next to a bomb and watch from the center of the explosion as it blew people up. Bliss. The water was up to his chest now. He took another step and it reached his neck. He wished now that he had done this differently, maybe like Bugs Bunny when he got into a hot bath. Testing with the ass, jerking up, testing again, then settling in with a sigh. Oh well, he thought, no need to be derivative, and took a deep breath, preparing to dunk his head under. He shut his eyes, closed his mouth, plugged his nose with a pinch of his thumb and forefinger. He started to bend forward, Joker baptismal, but he couldn't move his head. He frowned, and tried again. Nope. Something was around his neck. And, he realized, it was pulling him backward. He opened one eye.
Nope, nothing there. Just the river. He turned his head, couldn't see anything else, then remembered to open his other eye. Something brushed against his leg, so he looked down and caught a glimpse of faint and glowing, but he was tugged again by the neck back toward the riverbank before he could make it come into focus.
"Aghh!" It was, he thought, the most appropriate sound to make when something was dragging you by the neck. He scratched at his throat, felt a line of thin rope, and turned his head to look behind him. A cast member from Gladiator was sitting on a horse and had him secured with a yellow fishing line.
"Thumbs down!" he tried to yell, but the pressure from the loop around his neck made it come out as a squeak. He wished briefly for an axe, or a knife, or even a really sharp spork to cut off a movie critic's fat thumb and throw it at his captor; then he saw Batman standing next to her horse. "Aghh!"
If Batman was here, did that mean the winged rodent was dead? The idea filled the Joker with rage. He took a better look at the gladiator, realized who it was, and wondered if his gunmen at the auction had been better shots than he'd counted on. Wonder Woman pulled him inexorably forward, but the Joker resisted just for the sake of resisting. A new thought occurred to him then, something so shocking and wonderful that he could almost ignore whatever was playing with his pants' pocket. If Batman were dead and in the Underworld, did that mean he could be killed over and over like the demons? That the Joker could think of endless scenarios and jokes with which to murder him? Previously, he had always held back because of the knowledge that he could only kill Batman once.
The Joker laughed. He laughed as he tried to hit the thing prying into his pants, his swats hampered by the water, laughed and stepped forward, intent on killing Batman for the first but not last time. He had a gun in his pocket, and an apple. He'd use the gun then eat the apple.
His hand searched his pocket--yes, there was the gun, but where was the apple? The Joker frowned. He quickly checked his other pocket, then down the front of his waistband, just in case, but there were only fruits of another sort there. Trying to remember if he had eaten it already, or dropped it, or put it somewhere else, he almost missed the look of horror cross Wonder Woman's face--which would have been a shame, because horror on a hero's face was worth at least ten belly laughs.
She jerked on the lasso, hard, and Joker landed on his face on the bank, his eyes and nose filled with black sand. He choked on a chuckle.
"Aghh," he said.
Diana didn't take her eyes off of the form floating above the river, in whose hand was clasped Maxie Zeus' Apple of Discord. She watched as Eris became solid, corporeal. Eris was taking power from the apple, Diana realized, changing from a shade back to a goddess.
Batman had trussed the Joker and slung him over his horse's hindquarters. He climbed into the saddle. "What are our options, Diana?"
Diana began backing her horse away from the river, slowly. She didn't know yet if Eris was conscious of her surroundings, and didn't want to attract the goddess' attention. "We have to get to the gates of the Underworld. It's our only way out. We can't just wake up. And the Joker came here physically, so he has to leave that way, even if we didn't. Which we do," she added. Eris' eyes were still closed; a good sign, Diana thought. "Eris will gain power from the apple, but won't be able to leave the Underworld on her own." And if Eris remained in the Underworld, Hades would eventually take care of her. No need for Diana and Batman to get involved, especially without her powers.
"On her own?" Batman repeated.
"There are two ways for her to leave: eating the apple, but that would
drain its power and leave her a shade again, only a shade on Earth instead of
"Us," Batman said, voice grim. He turned his horse so that it walked alongside Diana's, the Joker struggling and coughing behind him.
Diana glanced at the clown, then back at Eris. She frowned. "I think I understand. This was never about the Joker--"
was about Medea completing her father's work,"
Batman finished for her. "She must have used the Joker to get the apple
"Because it was too dangerous for Medea to come here on her own? So she sent the clown?" Diana wondered. They were almost a quarter of a mile from the river now; she could still see Eris, a small figure in the distance, floating motionless above the ribbon of water. She nudged her horse into a canter--they could move more quickly now, they needed to move quickly.
The Joker giggled. "Revenge." Diana barely heard him over the hoof beats of the horses.
Revenge? On whom? Diana thought back to
that night in
"She thinks you killed her father!" Diana yelled to Batman. He nodded once; he must have come to the same conclusions as she.
Medea either had gotten very lucky, or she had heard and known enough
about Batman to make a plan for vengeance that created a win/win situation for
her. If Batman didn't detect the Joker's plan to go into the
But the Joker hadn't become invulnerable, not completely. They had caught him before he'd submerged his head. And Eris hadn't approached them -- yet. Diana and Batman might still make it out, and foil Medea's plan. In the future, Batman would simply have to remember that when he needed to take the Joker out he'd have to do it with a blow to his vulnerable head.
The horses raced south; toward, Diana hoped, the gate to Earth. She trusted that Persephone had communicated somehow to the horses their destination, and hoped that Hades hadn’t changed the location of the gate out of spite. After endless minutes, punctuated by the pounding hooves and Diana’s glances behind them to make sure they weren’t being followed, the gate finally rose into view on the horizon.
Like Hades’ palace, the exit to the Underworld was a mountain; unlike the palace, however, the entrance was not at the base, but the summit. They would have to ride the horses up the mountain as far as possible, then climb the rest of the way, pulling the Joker along behind them. At the top, they would claw their way through the portal. Batman and she would wake up in her bed, and the Joker would physically climb through, arriving in the same place he entered the Underworld.
Would Medea be waiting for him? Diana wondered. How long would it
take for she and Batman to track them down? The two
criminals had traveled to
Diana grinned at herself. She was assuming, of course, that Batman would tolerate her help once they got back to Earth. Their reason for working together – breaking the spell – was gone. Unless, Diana realized, Batman really didn’t know that the spell on him had been broken. Or that he wouldn’t let himself realize it.
Diana was certain that he loved her, but she didn’t know if he accepted it. Or if it would make any difference to him if he did accept it. If that morning had been any indication, then it wouldn't make a difference; but, Diana couldn't help but hold out hope because he had given in to his need for her--for a night, at least.
Ahead of her Batman’s horse galloped, the Joker bouncing up and down on the animal’s rump. Diana smiled slightly. The Joker deserved much worse, but for now she would take the pleasure of his discomfort to heart.
Diana pulled back on the reins when they reached the mountain. She studied the terrain, pointed at a faint trail going up the side. "We’ll take that. It looks like our best option—I don’t think the horses can make it all the way up. We’ll have to dismount eventually."
Batman gestured to the Joker. "Once we start walking, he’ll be more difficult to control."
Diana looked at him, gaze steady. "Do you want to use the Lathe water?"
"Water, smotter. I feel like a horse’s ass," the Joker said. Diana and Bruce ignored him. He frowned, muttering and wiggling against his bonds.
"He might make it back here and become completely invulnerable," Diana said.
Batman pulled the vial from his utility belt. "It’s also destroying evidence. His memories are clues to the murders of Farletti and Nichols."
Diana frowned. She hadn’t considered that. She understood why Batman was hesitating now; it wasn’t the ethics of erasing the Joker’s memories of the past month, it was removing the possibility of closing the case publicly, of giving some measure of relief to grieving family members. "Even if he did remember, no jury would convict Medea on the testimony of this clown; she would get off. And the Joker is just going back to Arkham. You know that."
The corners of his mouth raising into a small, tired smile, Batman replied, "I know." He grinned fully then. "I had just hoped you would be more optimistic about it, and save me from choosing to do this."
back. "Even I am realistic about
"Are you smiling, Bats?" The Joker demanded. "What’s the joke?"
Batman swung down from the saddle. "A man and a woman go to hell and meet the Devil." He pinched the Joker’s nose closed. "’Hey,’ the Devil says, ‘I’ll make you a deal. You can get out of here if you just chase down the jerk who’s letting all ghosts get in here.’" He flicked the vial open with his thumb, and continued. "So they agree, and they pick the guy up."
"Dis idn’t berry bunny," the Joker commented.
Batman poured the liquid into the clown’s open mouth, then pushed his jaw closed, forcing the Joker to swallow the water. "No, it isn’t funny. That’s because the joke’s on you."
The Joker kicked once, then fell unconscious. Diana didn’t feel sorry for him, but she ached for Bruce, who’d done what he thought best. "And it’s on us," she added.
Bruce sighed. "It’s always on us." After checking the Joker’s vitals, he climbed back on his horse, clicked it forward. It picked its way along the rocky path—no more running, the trail was simply to steep, narrow and dangerous.
"Why ‘always’?" Diana asked. This time, they’d been forced to do something unethical in the name of the greater good. But she didn’t think that was always true.
"How many times have we done things like this, making ourselves like the people we fight? Using methods that shouldn’t be used?"
"What would the alternative be? Let the Joker know that he was mostly invulnerable? He’d put on an indestructible helmet and start wreaking havoc." She paused, then amended, "More havoc. And if he remembered how to get here, he might do it again, and finish making himself completely invulnerable. Not that it matters," Diana muttered, "since he’s safe from you anyway."
Batman’s head whipped around. "What?"
"Vulnerable, invulnerable. What does it matter? You won’t kill him. When it comes down to it, that’s all invulnerability would have helped the Joker. You could still capture him, you just wouldn’t be able to beat him in a fight, since he wouldn’t be hurt easily. You would have to think of other ways to bring him down. Luckily, he only got into the river to his neck, so beating him physically is still an option."
"Do you think I should kill him, Diana?" Batman’s voice was soft.
Diana shook her head. He wouldn’t be Batman if he started dealing out that ultimate justice. He wouldn’t be Bruce. "No." A smile touched her mouth. "I’m the only one who crosses that line. So if you ever get tired of him, call me." She tried to joke, tried to get that serious, angry tone of his to go away.
"You don’t cross that line."
Diana couldn’t decide if that was a statement of fact or a command. "But I would, if it came down to it. No one else in the JLA would, except me."
"We all have our breaking point, Diana."
"Maybe. I don’t think you do, though."
His back stiffened visibly, then Diana watched him relax with an apparent effort. "Still convinced that I won’t lose control?" She heard the smile in his voice.
"Yes," she said simply.
"You would have by now."
"Every day, you get stronger."
"Every day, I get older, Princess. Weaker."
She thought of his perfect physique and laughed. "Oh, you have a few good months left, old man."
Batman twisted around in his saddle, checked the Joker, then looked at her. "My body is a tool, Diana. Once it starts going, it will be tempting to resort to other, easier methods. I could kill with half the effort it takes to knock a criminal out. Restraint takes effort."
Diana thought of her strength, her power of truth. Her humor faded. "I know that better than anyone. Do you know how often I’ve wanted to fly to the White House, wrap the lasso around Luthor and make him admit to the world what kind of a man he really is? How often I have wanted to fly to military bases around the world and take away, with my fists, everyone’s ability to wage nuclear war? I could do it."
"What’s stopping you?"
"Knowing that it wouldn’t solve anything. That people have to learn peace for themselves, learn compassion for themselves. I can only show--" The back of her neck prickled, as if an icy wind had blown across it. She quickly looked behind her. Nothing.
"Diana?" Batman's hand went to his utility belt.
Her horse shied under her, spooked. She grabbed onto the pommel of her saddle and fought to stay on as it reared and kicked. "I think it's Eris!" She shouted. "Go! Get to the top of the mountain!" Her horse suddenly screamed and fell to its knees; Diana lost her grip and sailed over its head, letting her body go limp so that she wouldn't get hurt too badly. Her forehead slammed against the ground and stars burst behind her eyes. She shook her head and looked up, hoping that Batman had fled even though she knew he wouldn't leave her there alone. The edges of her vision were blurry, but she saw the streak of gray that hit Batman hard, knocking him from his horse, and she cried out in anger. Phobos, she realized. Eris must have freed him from his punishment and then come here to intercept them.
The dead travel fast, she thought even as she struggled to her knees, intent on reaching Bruce, trying to establish Eris' location. Diana could see Phobos standing over Batman's prone body, but she didn't see the goddess. "Eris!" Diana called the name as a challenge, an attempt to make the goddess show herself.
Wonder Woman felt something squeeze in her mind then, and the world became dark, and she realized that the battle wouldn't take place physically. The Goddess of Discord was inside her, and would use every bit of conflict within Diana's heart and mind to break her. And Diana would have to win to purge Eris from her head, and to help Batman.
Diana closed her eyes and fell willingly into unconsciousness, into the fight.
Batman wished he could close his eyes, but they remained open, his gaze fixed on Diana's torn body. So much blood: in a pool beneath her head, copious amounts smeared between her thighs, and on her arms. He staggered forward, fell to his knees at her side, gathered her into his arms. He tore off a glove and searched for a pulse, for breath, even though he could feel how cold and limp she was, could see the neat little hole in her forehead. .22 caliber, an analytical part of his mind immediately recognized. He looked at the blood staining his bare hand.
"Diana?" His hoarse whisper held the echo of a little boy in an alley.
"That old gray mare she ain't what she used to be," the Joker's voice sang; Bruce looked up, saw the clown sitting on a ledge in the cliff, swinging his legs to the beat of the song, Diana's lasso twirling in one hand. He held a pistol in the other.
Bruce laid Diana gently back down, smoothed a stray hair from her face, then stood up, facing the Joker. "You did this," he stated quietly.
"Did what?" the Joker asked, expression innocent..
"Shot her." Batman took a step forward.
Scratching his head with the muzzle of the gun, the Joker said, "Well, not exactly. We were playing a game, you see. She was supposed to deflect the bullet with her bracelets. She missed."
"Playing a game? You tied her." The blood on her arms had been caused by Diana struggling against something; a thin rope or a wire. "How could she deflect bullets while tied?"
"She's strong," the Joker shrugged. He eyed Batman, who was now standing twelve feet below him, directly under the ledge. "She was unconscious, I tied her so that I'd have a head start. When I saw she couldn't break the wire, well…" The Joker grinned. "I decided to play a game."
"You raped her." Bruce said flatly.
"No," the Joker laughed. "Not when she could still kick me. Do you think I'm crazy?" He licked his lips. "I waited until afterward. I mean, she was just lying there. Wonder Woman, you know. Hubba hubba. Quiet and still warm, just the way I like them. Not a cold fish at all." He pointed the gun at Batman.
A batarang knocked the gun out of his hand, and a jumpline wrapped around the Joker's neck; Batman yanked, and the clown toppled over the edge and landed at Bruce's feet. He pulled the Joker up by the thin cable, looked once into the grinning, crazy face. His fist, still wet with Diana's blood, slammed into the clown's nose, crushing cartilage and bone, forcing the mess into the Joker's brain.
Bruce let go of the jumpline, and the Joker flopped over like a used Whoopee cushion. Bruce didn't look at him again. He picked up the lasso, moved to Diana's body and placed it back on her belt, then lifted her carefully and began the trek up the mountain, taking one death with him, and leaving one behind.
The goddess smiled. Diana watched her warily. Around them, Amazons fought encroaching shadows.
"Your psyche is fascinating, Diana." Eris' eyes gleamed with pleasure. "Here we are in a peaceful setting reminiscent of the Elysian Fields, yet you have Amazons making war. You have made my task easier. Discord is all around us."
"You'll find plenty of contradictions in me, Eris," Diana said. "But you will not be able to use them against me." She gestured toward the battling women. "They are fighting what you have brought here. They do not fight for the sake of fighting alone."
"Perhaps." Eris stood, waved her arm. Diana's armor changed to clothing, a simple linen dress. Diana held herself motionless as Eris ran a hand over the material. The goddess spoke again. "Do you know what I'm looking for?"
"A cheap thrill?" Diana said dryly. She had to force herself not to withdraw from the cold, searching hand.
Eris continued, "This linen is a manifestation of your mind. The weave is created from the threads of your being, and I am looking for loose ends." The hand stilled. "I believe I have found one. A young woman -- Vanessa. Once like your younger sister, your negligence has allowed her to be transformed into a hideous, screaming killer. Oh, Diana, how can you live with the guilt?" Eris asked, voice melodramatic, accusing.
Diana's face was impassive. "I was not the one who transformed her."
"Yet she would never have been a target if you had not entered their lives."
"Perhaps not," Diana admitted. She had exposed her first foster family, the Kapatelises, to a lot of danger because of her friendship. "But they were my friends and loved me. They accepted my position; if I ever felt that their fear overwhelmed their friendship, I would have left."
"You did leave and it didn't protect Vanessa," Eris pointed out. She pulled on the thread she was holding; Diana felt it unravel on the dress, inside her.
"If I had stayed, there would be no certainty that Circe wouldn't have gotten to Vanessa."
"But the fact remains that your presence made Circe notice her."
Diana frowned. "Yes. But had I remained on Themyscira, Vanessa might have died from other causes. I have protected her from dangers that were not attracted because of me, like Circe is. And Vanessa is not dead as the Silver Swan; she can still be saved."
"You could have stayed apart from the family."
Shaking her head, Diana said, "No, I couldn't have. If I don't live with the people in Patriarch's World, I can never know them. And if I don't know them, or learn from them, I can never help them."
"Help them?" Eris laughed. She tugged on the thread, then tied another loose end around it. She waved it under Diana's nose. "This string tells me that you have never helped the people in Man's World." She sneered. "You have not accomplished anything."
Diana almost smiled. She had won the first argument, or Eris would still be picking at her guilt over Vanessa. The goddess was like a maggot, feeding off open sores and infections; she wouldn't move on unless there was nothing left to consume.
"Pull harder, Eris. You'll see that I have made a difference. I know I have."
"In the lives of a few measly mortals. Where is the peace you were supposed to bring?"
Diana clasped her hands together. "It's in the future. Those few measly mortals you talked of are the first step." Next will come the questions about the paradox of being a warrior for peace, Diana thought. Eris must not have realized that Diana asked herself these questions every day, the lasso wrapped around her. How long would this take, she wondered. Hours? Days? What was happening to Bruce?
Eris grinned and drew back. "Your threads communicate to me your confidence, and your worry for your companion. Phobos is controlling him."
"He beat Phobos before."
Eris drew the threads tight and Diana's sleeve unraveled. "In
"He can not be broken," Diana said.
"No?" Eris' hair writhed as if alive; behind her, Diana could see the Amazons fighting the creeping darkness. "Phobos is the god of fear. He can give men fear … and he can take it away. He has removed your companion's fears: his fear of losing control, the fear of killing, the fear of losing his humanity, the fear that gave him purpose long ago, the fear that created the part of him that is the Batman. And Phobos has left him with anger, and guilt, and hate."
"He isn't just fear, and guilt and anger," Diana retorted.
Eris grasped another loose thread. "No, but he hides his love, and his generosity and kindness. He won't fall back on them because he is too accustomed to pushing those emotions away. You know this better than most." She slid her finger along the new thread. "I can feel it here. Your wish that he would open himself to your love."
Diana ignored her. "You can not override his humanity."
"Oh, but we can. We have." The goddess smiled again. "Batman just killed the Joker in the illusion my brother has created for him. Because of you."
"The Joker killed and raped you, so Batman killed the Joker. Ah, what love makes men do. Simple, really. Now he exits the Underworld in his dream, and my brother Deimos will give him the terror of the murder being discovered. To prevent that from happening, Batman will do what he fears most."
"Kill," Diana guessed.
"Not just that," the goddess laughed. "He is also afraid that those he loves will be hurt or killed. Imagine his pain if he was the one who killed those closest to him. Phobos will manipulate both of his greatest fears, combining and exacerbating them."
"Monster," Diana whispered.
"Yes," Eris replied, "I believe I am."
Oracle stared down at Bruce from his monitors. "If you didn't find the Joker, isn't it possible that he became invulnerable and left?"
She knows. "No," Batman said. "Hades said he could tell that the Joker had never gone to the Underworld. He would be dead from his disease by now."
Barbara adjusted her glasses. "Do you think it is possible that the Joker was killed by the thing that killed Diana, and Hades never realized it?"
She can tell you are lying. She knows Diana was killed by a bullet, and the bullet must have come from the Joker. "Perhaps that is true, but if that is the case then there is no need to track him down."
"We should ascertain that--" Oracle began.
"No! This case is closed." Batman disconnected the transmission, then dropped into his chair, his head in his hands.
Oracle will figure it out. You trained her to find facts, discover motive. She's brilliant at solving crimes--even yours.
"Master Bruce?" Alfred stepped into the cave. Batman lifted his head.
"I'm sorry, sir, I can see that you are still grieving for Miss Diana." Alfred sighed. "It is a pity that you couldn't save her, and that you couldn't avenge her death."
"I'm sorry, too, Alfred." Batman watched his butler carefully. Was Alfred's comment a hint that he had guessed the truth and approved? He knows you better than anyone. He knows.
Bruce's hand shook; he tucked it under his cape. Alfred frowned. You're giving yourself away. They know you are a murderer. Barbara will tell Dick, then Tim, then Cassandra. Maybe even her father. And Alfred already knows. "I'll eat with you in the kitchen tonight, Alfred," he said suddenly.
If Alfred was surprised, he didn't show it. "Very good, sir. It will be ready at seven-thirty." The butler turned and left.
Batman clenched his teeth, trying to resist, but still got up and took out his special gloves and prepared the metracardazine. The drug could save the life of someone who'd had a heart attack, or it could cause one. It would be untraceable, painless and quick.
After all, Alfred had been like a father to him.
Batman crouched on the ledge, looking into the Clock Tower with his binoculars. Guilt weighed heavily in his stomach, yet a smile played around the corners of his mouth. He would be safe soon. You need to finish this, quickly.
He used the jumpline to swing across the alley onto the tower. Barbara had been waiting for him, but she didn't expect the kick that broke her ribs, the pieces of bone piercing her lungs. She fell onto the floor, flecks of blood wetting her lips.
"Did you tell them?" Batman demanded.
Shaking her head, coughing, she tried to pull herself across the floor, to the weapons in her wheelchair. He didn't want her to suffer, so he broke her neck.
You know she told the others. They'll come looking for her when she goes offline; they'll come looking for you. You can take them out one by one.
Dick's voice crackled over the speakers. "Oracle, Nightwing here. Status report." Then, "Babs?"
Batman's heart filled with despair and grief, but he readied the room for the fight ahead. It looked like his son would be the first. Third, he remembered, then chuckled. What did it matter?
He could still taste the bile in his mouth; he'd vomited when he had finished.
You know what you've done. There's no way you can live with it.
down at the concrete one hundred and fifteen stories below. The WayneCorp building was one of the highest in the city,
affording him a spectacular view of
You don't deserve to be her protector.
There wasn't any blood on his hands; he'd been quick and methodical. Yet he felt as if he'd bathed in it, and that eventually it would the vision of his city incarnadine.
They will all know soon. But you don't have to face your city's loss of faith in you.
No, Batman realized, he didn't. The solution was simple: he could throw away his jumplines and walk off the edge. Even if he used his cape to catch air, he'd be going too fast for it to do any good. It would be over.
After one last piece of unfinished business.
Bruce didn't hear Superman land, but knew he was there before he turned around.
into Oracle's tower," Batman said. He knew what
Superman turned to Batman, eyes agonized. "Who did it? Was your identity compromised?"
"No, I did it. Alfred's at the mansion." Why are you telling him? He knows now, and you can't kill him. You can't hide anything from him.
Joker killed Diana, so I killed him. They knew, and would have taken
going to take
"Maybe." Batman smiled. "But you aren't taking me
"I have no choice, Bruce. You know that." He reached out a hand, pleaded, "Come with me without a fight. We'll get help for you."
Bruce dropped into a fighting stance. "Try to take me."
Superman stepped forward, said, "Hit me if you like, Batman. You can try to fight, but you are coming with me."
Batman corrected softly, "I'm not. I'm going to win." His fist shot
out, connecting with
Superman fell back, but Bruce followed him, pounding at his head and body.
laughed when he saw how
What are you doing!?
I'm going back to hell, he answered, and stopped laughing a second before Superman hit him with full Kryptonian strength.
The linen dress hung from her like rags.
Eris had intended to distract her by telling her about Phobos' plans for Bruce, Diana realized. And had succeeded brilliantly. Eris had managed to unravel most of her dress with a few inconsequential conflicting threads that Diana should have been able to resolve: she lived in a luxurious apartment while people were homeless and starving, she wasn't a virgin, she cried too easily. All things that, Eris had argued, demonstrated Diana's unsuitability as Wonder Woman. Worrying about Bruce had cost too much, Diana thought as she looked down at her exposed skin; she should have been able to refute those arguments with ease, rather then letting them tear her up.
She felt Eris' confidence. The goddess was certain she was winning. Diana wasn't certain Eris was wrong--Diana had lost a lot of ground. The crux of Diana's spiritual self was in the field, with Diana herself in the center. That was what Eris was attacking, trying to take over. Once the darkness reached Diana, covered her, she would lose. Diana looked around them, at the Amazons fighting, falling back as the darkness slipped further and further toward the center. The Amazons were, Diana knew, a manifestation of the defense of her inner being. There were Bana-Mighdalls in their Egyptian armor and Themyscirians in white shifts; they were sisters that were alive, and those who had fallen in battle over the years--Diana focused on one face--including her mother.
Eris laughed with glee. "I've been waiting to get to this." She reached in, grabbed the frayed edge of the torn dress. "Hippolyta."
Diana fixed her gaze on the goddess, pushed thoughts of Bruce, Amazons, and darkness to the back of her mind. She was going to win this. "My queen. My mother."
"And once Wonder Woman." Eris narrowed her eyes. "Although you didn't think so."
"I said words to her which I regret," Diana admitted.
"You gave in to jealousy, and anger," Eris said. "Petty feelings for someone who calls herself Wonder Woman."
"You didn't act very much like Wonder Woman then, did you?" Eris yanked on the cloth; a large strip of the dress fell away. The Amazons to Diana's left broke formation and the darkness rushed in to fill the space they left. She could see the gleam of claws and teeth, felt the hunger that emanated from the shadows. Eris continued, "You think that you are the only one who should be Wonder Woman, don't you? Artemis, your mother--both were the victims of your pride."
"I am proud of being Wonder Woman," Diana said.
"You aren't Wonder Woman," Eris challenged. She tore at the dress, pulling cloth away until Diana stood naked in front of her. "You've accomplished nothing. The only time you've stopped a war you used Batman's methods, not Wonder Woman's. The Amazonian ideals that you spout have had little affect on Man's World. You are petty, and jealous, and proud. What Wonder Woman stands for is something better than you could ever be, or hope to be."
"You are not wrong." Diana felt the darkness nip at her feet. The Amazons had fallen.
Eris' predatory smile flashed in the shadows. "I have shredded every belief you have had, Diana. The evidence lays at your feet. Your defenses are shattered. You are nothing. Give in to me."
"No," Diana stated quietly. She reached out and snatched the goddess by the neck. The shadows around her hesitated. Diana stared into Eris' surprised eyes, said, "Wonder Woman is not just the 'Wonder'. She's also the 'woman.'" Eris clawed at Diana's hand around her throat, drawing blood with her nails. Diana didn't flinch, didn't relinquish her grip. "And at the core of every woman is a human. A human who has faults." Diana squeezed. "Call off the darkness; get out of my mind. Or I'll destroy you here."
"You … nothing," Eris wheezed. "Not … human. Clay."
Cocking a brow toward her bleeding hand, Diana replied, "Then why do I bleed? Why do I love and hate, fear and hope? I am as human as Batman, as anyone. Every single one of the things you claimed were faults make me more human, more Diana, and a better Wonder Woman."
"Not Wond … woman." Eris' voice was weaker. "…perfect."
"If Wonder Woman is perfect, then she forgives. She forgives faults in others, and gives them second chances. And she forgives herself, and learns from it. It makes her stronger." Diana said. "You don't understand that, Eris. Which is why you lost here."
"Did not lose," Eris grated out. But her hands fell away from Diana's, the darkness receded.
"No?" Diana grinned. "Then why are my Amazons coming back? Why am I dressed again?'
Eris' eyes widened in anger and shock. Diana's clothing had reappeared, but as a mixture of her uniform and traditional Amazonian garb.
"I am Wonder Woman, Eris. Now get out."
Diana's hand suddenly clenched on nothing. She sighed in relief and looked around, at the Amazons staring at her in amusement and affection. Hippolyta stepped forward.
"Mother," Diana said, her tone respectful.
"Diana." Hippolyta smiled. "You took a long time to come to the right conclusion."
"Too long?" Diana wondered.
Hippolyta shook her head. "No. Just long enough. Something important should not come easily." She stepped forward, embraced Diana. "Now go. I'll be here if you need me."
Diana remembered Danielle Nichols, how she had said her mother would live in her--the memory of her mother, at the very least. "I'm sorry, Mother."
"I know." Her voice was gentle, then became that of a queen. "Now, go, Diana. Wonder Woman."
"Hey!" The fierce whisper broke through the silence. "Lady, wake up!"
Diana opened her eyes, looked into the anxious face of the Joker. He was tied to a rock with her lasso.
"Hurry, they are distracted by something." The Joker glanced behind him. "That woman showed up just a few seconds ago."
Diana's gaze followed his, saw Eris pacing back and forth in front of Phobos and Deimos--who held Batman between them. As far as she could tell, Bruce was unconscious. She looked down at herself; she had all of her weapons, but knew the gods had the upper hand in swiftness and strength. She needed a plan.
"Don't just sit there, lady, untie me so we can go," the Joker demanded. "Then you can tell me what is going on here."
Diana frowned. Lady? Not Wonder Babe or some other Jokerized cute name? "I'm not going to untie you yet," she said. "Not until I get Batman."
The Joker snorted. "Batman? Is that his name? Ridiculous. And who am I, by the way?"
The Lethe water, Diana remembered. It would erase all of the Joker's memories for a few hours, then eventually they would return, except for the last month's. The Joker didn't know her, or Batman. "Your name is Bob. Batman's a friend of yours," she lied.
"He is?" The Joker looked interested. "I couldn't help but notice my own outrageous clothing. Are we actors, or something? "
"Or something," Diana replied, distracted by Phobos' sudden gesticulations.
The Joker watched, too. "Those two have been standing over the batguy for about an hour now. What are they doing to him?"
"Trying to break him."
"They should try a heavy rock, it works best." Diana glanced at him sharply; the Joker shrugged and grinned. "Just a joke. Trying to make the best of a bad situation."
She heard the gods' voices, she motioned the Joker to be quiet.
"He is fighting him now!" Phobos was yelling at Eris. "We can not stop him."
"Fools. If he dies in battle, his soul will remain intact. It must be suicide born of despair and fear. We have already lost one host." Eris gestured toward Diana. "I could not take her."
Deimos sneered. "You could never control any host, Eris. Discord is nothing next to the power of terror."
"You lost the clown before, Deimos. You are no better than I."
Deimos smiled, his reptilian hair hissing. "But this time the clown is not tainted with his madness and memories. There is nothing for him with which he can resist."
"No, there is not," Eris said thoughtfully.
"We may not lose Batman," Phobos interjected. "He has the upper hand, he is killing the Superman."
Diana gritted her teeth, hoped that Batman knew what he was doing.
"Perfect." Eris rubbed her hands together. "If he murders the brightest light on Earth, who is also a friend, he would have ever the more reason to despair. And we would still have two hosts."
Two hosts. Three gods. Diana smiled.
"No! What is he doing?" Phobos dropped Bruce as if burned. "He just--"
Batman's foot cut off the rest of his sentence, knocked Phobos backward. Diana stood, ready to rush forward to help, but Bruce dodged Deimos grab, flipped over Eris and backed away from the trio until he was beside Diana.
"We can't beat them fighting," Diana said in a low voice. "They didn't even really try to get you just now."
"I figured as much," Bruce returned, never taking his eyes from the three gods. "What now?"
One host. Three gods. "We have no choice but to give up," Diana said. And let nature take its course, she added silently. The gods' natures.
He was going to be limping for a couple of days, he thought. He'd landed on a rock when Phobos had knocked him from the horse, and the subsequent unconsciousness and inactivity had left the bruised muscle stiff and tight. And, tied as he was to Diana, he couldn't move his arms to massage some of the ache away.
It would be a painful getaway if they had to run out of there.
The Joker had tried to escape three times since he'd been released from the lasso, but each time one of the gods had caught him easily and brought him back to the center of their circle. They were strong and fast. Batman watched them now, Eris, Phobos and Deimos standing around the Joker, arguing.
They'd been arguing since Batman had gotten out of the nightmare they'd created for him.
"I'm glad you are all right," he said suddenly, then frowned. He hadn't meant to say that. "Dammit."
He felt Diana's chuckle, her back vibrating against his. "Don't worry, I won't hold anything you say with the lasso around us against you."
"I can probably untie us--" he twisted his hand around between them, trying to create some slack, "if you--"
"No," Diana interrupted. "They didn't kill us because, in their vanity, they'll eventually try to break us again. The lasso affords us some protection; its truth won't allow them to get inside us while we are in its bindings." She paused. "And I'm glad you are all right, too. How did you break the illusion?"
"Simple forensics. Too much blood from an injury the Joker said he did after he killed you. Without the heart beating, there wouldn't have been such massive bleeding. It was an obvious attempt to twist my emotions so that I would take revenge. I played along until I saw a way out." He watched as the Joker crawled between Phobos' legs toward Diana and him. Diana had told him the Joker hadn't regained his memory yet--but an hour had passed since then. The memories could return any time.
The Joker reached them; Batman tensed, ready for anything, but the Joker just sat next to Diana, watching the three gods fight. "They keep arguing over me," the clown said.
"They all want to get out of here," Diana said, "but only one can leave. It's a power struggle."
"Who will win?" Batman asked.
"Whoever has the apple, which is probably Eris. She would have used the power to re-animate Deimos and free Phobos from the wheel, but she wouldn't trust them with the actual apple."
"An apple?" Joker questioned.
"A golden apple," Diana explained. "If you see it, try to get it to us so that we can destroy it. If it is destroyed, the power that fuels them will be gone." She glanced toward the gods, whose argument had become more heated. "They'll start fighting soon. That will be the best time to escape, when they are occupied beating each other."
Batman liked the idea of draining their power better than running and hoping they wouldn't notice in the fight. "How is the apple destroyed?"
"Crushing it, splitting it, anything."
"Eating it?" the Joker wondered.
"No," Diana shook her head vehemently. "If one of the gods ate it, they'd be okay and it would just tie them to the mortal world, since that is where it originated; but if a mortal ate it, it would tear their mind apart. It is an Apple of Discord, after all."
"From an apple?" The Joker laughed, then turned to Batman. "Does this happen to us everyday?"
"No." The lasso wouldn't let him feed a lie to the Joker.
"Good," the Joker smiled. "I think I am remembering some things, though. You and me, in a play, I guess. I was the bad guy."
Batman clenched his teeth; behind him, Diana was silent as well.
The Joker continued. "A real maniac, actually. Pretty funny in some ways, but pretty horrible in others. There is one I remember where I had a crowbar and was…." He looked between Batman's set jaw and Diana's bent head. "I'm not an actor, am I?" His tone was resigned.
"No," Batman said. "You're an insane monster."
The Joker nodded. "I thought the memories were too … real. Special effects are not that good." He sighed. "I'll go back now. If I see that apple…"
"I'm sorry," Diana said. "I wish we could tell you something else." She really was sorry, Batman thought. He wasn't sure if he was.
He watched the Joker crawl back to the middle of the circle, then leaned the back of his head against Diana's. "If Eris wins, and gets into the Joker, then what?"
"Then she'll probably kill us," Diana said, then laughed. "I was going to be more optimistic just now, but…" He felt her shrug. "…the lasso. The good news is that she probably wouldn't be able to stay in him. In a little while he'll have all of his memories back, and she won't be able to hold onto his mind."
A thunderous clap sounded; Deimos had struck Phobos.
"Here we go," Diana murmured.
Batman watched the fight even as he worked furiously at their bindings. Maybe Diana was right, that the huge scale of their battle would distract them long enough to escape. In any case, he wanted his movement back, safe in the lasso or not.
The bindings suddenly loosened around him; he frowned. He hadn't done that. Sneaking a glance at Diana, he saw her smile.
"Well, it's my lasso," she whispered quickly. "How could anyone really tie me up in it?"
He wanted to laugh, but silently got to his feet, calculating their best options. He needed to get the Joker, but Eris was holding him to the side while she watched her two brothers. The mountain trembled as Phobos slammed Deimos against the ground; the tremor made the Joker fall against Eris, tangling in her robes. She swatted him away like a fly.
Good, Batman thought. The more distance between the Joker and the gods, the better. "Diana," he whispered, and pointed to a ledge above the Joker. "I'll get him from there."
She held up her lasso in response. "I've got a better idea; we'll go fishing."
The loop settled neatly around the Joker's shoulders, and Diana started to slowly draw him back, trying to keep Eris from noticing him. The Joker, Batman noticed, was smiling. The apple gleamed in his hand.
"Maybe he's a natural-born thief," Diana whispered.
Eris turned then, saw the two heroes free of the lasso; Batman sprang forward, but he wasn't fast enough. The goddess caught him, held him up by his throat, her back to the Joker. A sharp word from her, and the brothers stopped fighting, and held Diana between them less than a second later.
Eris smiled at him. "Very impertinent of you two, trying to take away our host and escape." Batman stared over her shoulder. The Joker stood, looked anxiously between Batman and Wonder Woman. Could Batman trust him? "Maybe we should make your nightmare real, Batman. We could end up with two hosts if we play it right. Make you watch. I guarantee you'll break when she curses your name."
Batman's eyes met the Joker's.
"Kill her," Eris ordered.
Eris turned at the Joker's yell, amazement plain on her features, then anger when she saw the apple the Joker held. "Worm," she seethed.
"Destroy it, Joker." Diana's voice rang out.
The Joker looked desperately around him; he had no weapons to destroy it with, Batman realized. Eris must have, too, because she relaxed, and smiled again.
The Joker asked, "I'm already insane, right?"
Batman managed the best nod he could with Eris' hand wrapped around his neck; at the same time, he heard Diana's answer:
Determination crossed the Joker's face and lifted the apple to his lips. Eris shrieked with rage and dropped Bruce, but she was too late to stop him from biting it in half, frantically chewing, swallowing.
Bruce landed in a crouch, leg muscle screaming, swung around. Eris was gone. Behind him, Diana was free from the brothers, who had also disappeared. Finally, he looked at the Joker.
"Hey, Batsy," the Joker said, giggled, and passed out.
Diana hesitated, then punched in the transporter coordinates before she changed her mind again. It was business, she told herself. Just wrapping up the case. Wanting to see Bruce had nothing to do with it.
nothing. She hadn't seen him since he'd left
She stepped into the transporter and activated it, arriving instantly in the cave. Bruce was expecting her; he had turned his chair toward the transporter. She lifted her eyebrows in surprise at his mussed hair, jeans and t-shirt. And, she noted, bare feet.
"Alfred's gone today," he said.
"So you take advantage of that to dress down? A rebellion of sorts?"
"No." A calculating look entered his eyes. "It's my way of keeping him with me. On one of these days off, he might realize how much easier life is without me and take off permanently; but, if he remembers what happens to the Manor and me when he's gone, and the mess I make, he'll feel obligated to keep coming back." When Diana laughed, Bruce added, "You should see the kitchen."
Diana shook her head, grinning. "No thanks. My sympathy level is already at its maximum where Alfred is concerned; if I saw the kitchen, I just might have to rescue him out of pure human kindness."
"And put him up at your own place."
"Oh, of course. A purely altruistic endeavor. I couldn't leave the poor man unemployed after saving him from your clutches."
"His cooking has nothing to do with it whatsoever."
"No, but his ability to stitch wounds might." Diana paused, then said, "I actually came down here to find out about the Farletti and Nichols case. Will the police be able to charge Medea with anything?"
"Aiding and abetting, at the very least, for helping the Joker escape. Plus, I am tracking down the poisons used in the apples. If I can connect her purchase to the poison, it'll make a more solid case for the murder. She'd be charged with accessory then."
"That's something, though hardly enough," Diana said.
"It rarely is." Batman's eyes never left her face. Diana looked away. "You could have asked me this over the communicators."
shrugged. "I could have, but I thought I'd go see Danielle Nichols and
tell her what I could about the Joker's capture, to comfort her a little, and
eat any brownies she offered. So I was coming to
"Oh, ridiculously," Bruce agreed.
Diana said. She clasped her hands in front of her, then put them into the
pockets of her slacks, shifted her weight from foot to foot. She probably
looked, Diana thought, like she either had to use the restroom or was a nervous
schoolgirl. She started pacing, hoping it looked less absurd. The diplomat, warrior and former princess, wondering how to make
small talk. She looked down at her casual shirt and pants. "How's
the weather today in
an eyebrow. "Sunny. And the Yankees are playing in
Diana stopped mid-pace. "Really? I thought the season was over."
"It is." Batman leaned back in his chair, steepled his fingertips. "You're not here because of Farletti and Nichols, Princess."
"No, I'm not. But I'm not sure why I'm here, exactly." Diana, frustrated, ran a hand through her hair, then looked up to meet Bruce's gaze. "Yes, I do. I want to know how you are doing."
"My leg hurts. How are you doing?"
Diana snorted. "I meant, how are you doing after whatever it was that happened in the little nightmare Phobos concocted for you."
"I'm fine, Princess."
"Really? Because even if you knew it was an illusion, it wouldn't have been easy to follow along with their little plan, killing everyone close to you."
Bruce surprised her by laughing. "Even if they hadn't messed up with the blood from the rape, I would have known something was wrong, because of one simple thing: the idea that I would kill my family--even think of it--is ludicrous."
"They were trying to combine two of your worst fears," Diana said. "Killing and your family dying."
"I assumed as much," Bruce nodded. "The god of fear would have used the best ammunition, but he didn't consider how those two fears would interact."
"Oh." Diana pinched her bottom lip between her teeth, decided he really didn't need her there. She glanced toward the tunnel that led outside. "Since you are fine, I'll be running along. Mind if I go out the cliff exit?"
"Actually, yes." Bruce reached behind him, grabbed an object that had been sitting on the console. A flashlight, Diana realized. "There's something I want to look at, and you could help me." He got up, walked over to the edge of the cave floor.
Brow furrowed, Diana followed him and peered down. Darkness. "What did you want to look at?"
"The bottom," Bruce said. "You can fly me down there."
"I charge twenty-five dollars a ride," Diana said.
Bruce smiled, and Diana had to remind herself that she couldn't throw him to the floor and have her way with him. Yet. "I think I can come up with that much," he said.
"Fifty. There's the ride back up, too." Diana grinned and wrapped an arm around his waist, lifting them both into the air, then began to descend. She set a slow pace, in no hurry to go anywhere else for a while. They sank past the lower levels of the cave which stored the large vehicles and generators. "This is bigger than I realized," Diana commented.
"One can never be too prepared."
"How did you manage to have all of this constructed without anyone noticing? And who constructed it for you?"
"Wayne Enterprises often completes classified contracts for the government. This followed the same rules: blind transport, no one going in or out. Most of it was built off-site, though, and brought here piece by piece." He shifted against her and turned on the flashlight, shining it past their feet. The powerful beam revealed nothing. "If you have a couple hundred million, I can have one built for you." She heard the humor in his voice.
Diana grinned. "No, thank you. If I ever need solitude, I prefer warmth and light. No fortresses of ice or caves for me."
"It served its purpose, even though it's better put to use elsewhere since the war." Remembering that Batman had once told her to throw it into the sun, she added, "And during the war."
"Heh. Maybe." Bruce clicked off the light. "We should come upon the second colony of bats soon. Some live in the cave's ceiling, and some are down here. We don't want to disturb them, so we'll leave the light off for a bit."
"Good idea." Diana didn't like the idea of thousands of startled bats overhead, and no umbrella. "Is the Joker back in Arkham?"
"For now," Bruce said.
"Since we've been back, I've wondered if we shouldn't have just erased all of his memories," Diana said. "He might have shown some signs of imbalance, but it was without the violence or complete disregard for life."
"It might have saved a few lives in the future; then again, it might not have."
"What do you mean?"
"I don't know who the Joker was before he became the Joker. I don't know if something happened to him and he snapped, or if he was just is wired so wrong that it wasn't any one thing, but inevitable."
"Predestined? I find it hard to believe that you might buy into that, Bruce."
"Not predestination or fate. Everyone has the capacity for violence and insanity, and if the chemicals are wrong and the brain can't repress urges, then yes, it is almost inevitable that the person could become socio- or psychopathic."
Diana considered that. "So you think that even without his memories, the Joker would have gone down the same path? Ended up the same?"
She felt him shake his head. "No. He might have, though." He sighed, his breath brushing past her neck. "In any case, with or without his memories, I would hold the Joker responsible for what he's done, no question about it."
"But, if the memories did make him violent, if we had taken them away permanently would we enacting justice against the wrong man?"
"I see your point," Bruce said. "But on the other hand, maybe the best--or worse--punishment would be to make him sane, then let him know what he's done, so that he'd try to make amends. Right now, his incarceration is just a brief pause in his big, joking life."
Diana nodded. "Yes, although he would run the danger of becoming insane again from the guilt of being the Joker, and you have the same dilemma as before. I don't know if someone can live with that much guilt and still function. How many people has he killed?"
"Directly or indirectly?" Bruce grimly recited two numbers that made Diana's heart ache and her anger rise. "And those are just the murders I've positively identified as his. There are many more possibles that don't have enough evidence to be sure." He flicked on the light again; they were past the bats, but still couldn't see the bottom, just the rocky walls revealed in the circle of light.
"He saved our lives," Diana said quietly. "He willingly embraced the madness of the Joker to save us."
She saw his bitter smile in the diffused light. "Seems I was wrong when I said he was like this cave, then. All dark, no capacity for good."
"I suppose it would be worse, though, to be deceived into thinking that someone is good, when they aren't," Diana said.
Bruce's eyes met hers. "I think it is worse to know that the good is in him, and he just can't or won't stop killing."
frowned. "Maybe. It's depressing that, in him at
least, the inclination for evil is more powerful than the inclination for good.
But it isn't a sign of the larger picture, Bruce. Most people don't get their
laughs by hurting others, and good usually prevails." She glance at him. "And I know you know and believe that.
When Mageddon had
"Who told you that?" Bruce scowled.
Diana grinned. "I'll never tell." She tilted her head, listened. "I hear water."
"There's a river under here that feeds into the bay," Bruce said. "We must be nearing the bottom."
Looking down into the darkness, Diana said, "I find it hard to believe that you don't know what is down here. You would have checked everything for possible security breaches."
"I know what's down here, Princess. I've just never looked myself. I've always used sensors and probes."
"Why the sudden curiosity?" she wondered.
Bruce paused, then said, "I wanted to see how much longer you would go without mentioning that we had sex because of a spell a month ago, closely worked together for a couple of weeks, journeyed through the Greek Underworld, discovered we'd already broken the spell, the spent our last night together, but never spoke of it afterward." He brushed a gentle finger across her cheek. "You are usually much more direct, Princess."
Diana opened her mouth to speak, then closed it. What could she say? Please, I want you to admit your love for me despite your fear of losing control? Please forget that you saw me murdered in a nightmare, and that it made you kill someone, which probably made you more determined not to love me in case it really happened? No. She wouldn't beg for his love, or his time, and she wouldn't force him to give them to her.
"I fell in love with you during that time," she said finally, "but that's all I have to say about it, except that I won't let it burden you. And I don't expect you to say or do anything about what I feel, either."
"How generous of you," Bruce said.
Diana studied his face, trying to decide if he was being sarcastic or if the comment was honest, but his expression was inscrutable.
"There's the river," he said. Diana looked down; the light glistened against the water. He shined the flashlight ahead of them. "There's a cavern in front of us, which my sensors have indicated is the size of an amphitheater. I thought we'd take a look."
She floated them forward; after a couple hundred yards, the walls widened. Above them, the ceiling domed a hundred feet above their heads. The beam from the flashlight sparkled and reflected across the face of the rock, bits of light twinkling like stars in the walls and ceiling.
Diana breathed a sigh of pleasure.
Bruce smiled. "It's the quartz in the granite. The parabolic shape of the cavern allows it to reflect several times." He shined the flashlight downward, and the twinkling disappeared. "There's a place to land." He pointed to a flat piece of rock alongside the river.
She set him down, took a step back, looked up. "This really is magnificent. Your own little planetarium powered by 'D' batteries."
She hesitated, then looked over at him. She'd had a feeling he wouldn't let the subject of the spell and their night in the Underworld be laid to rest. She didn't look forward to whatever he had to say. "Yes?"
He was casually leaning against the cave wall, but she could see the predatory gleam in his eyes in the dim light. It was the look he usually had when he was explaining to villains why their plan was going to fail in the very near future. The look he wore when he implemented his counterattack.
"I have an alert that tells me when someone tries to use my transporter," he said conversationally.
"Do you?" She tried to sound uninterested. "How handy. The Watchtower has one, too."
"You entered the code for my location twelve times before you actually came here."
winced. She'd forgotten about the alert system. Stupid, but
understandable. She had a lot on her mind--most notably the man who was
now walking toward her. She watched him, decided stalking was a better
description. "Thirteenth time is a charm on
"Do you know what I think, Princess? I think that you changed your mind, over and over, about coming down here to seduce me."
Diana's eyes narrowed. "Your arrogance astounds me."
He drew closer, stopped less than a foot away. She stood her ground. "You are an Amazon, Diana. Yet here you are, with your 'I'll sacrifice my love for you, Bruce'--and it must be killing you."
"Are you mocking me? My emotions?"
"No." He took a final step forward so that she was forced to tilt her head back or look at his nose. "I'm wondering why you are repressing the part of you that wants to lay claim to me. The part of you that told me you'd be angry if I loved you and stayed away."
at him, amazed, furious. This time she was the one to step forward; it pushed
him back one step, two. "What am I supposed to do? You leave a bed still
warm from our lovemaking, which happened after you told me you could never love
me. You tell me that you can't love me or you'll lose control and kill someone.
You have a nightmare where I die and you do just that. You don't want anyone in
your city; am I supposed to disregard that and impose myself on you?" Her
voice had risen; it echoed around the cavern. "You are right, Bruce. I was
up in the Watchtower, trying to decide whether to come down here and try to
break through the ice you keep around yourself. I want you. I want you so much
that I thought of scenarios, seductions, different clothing, even
damn perfume." She shook her head vehemently. "But none of those
things were me, and I knew they wouldn't affect you. Those are things
"Like you are now," he said mildly.
"Yes!" she shouted. "And then I was going to convince you, through any means necessary, that just because I died in a illusion didn't mean that you would kill someone in real life if the same thing happened. That you wouldn't give in to that temptation, and that loving me would make you less likely to snap and kill someone, because giving into lust or love does not mean that you'll lost control over your sense of humanity and honor." She took a deep breath, then continued more quietly, "Besides, part of that worry stemmed from your belief that the Joker didn't have anything good in him--but he does. Everyone does, especially you. So everyone is safe from whatever you think will happen if you allow yourself to love me."
Diana blinked in surprise. "You do?"
He frowned. "Of course I do. I constantly over-analyze myself, and I've been doing little else since Hades' throne room."
She stared at him with a mixture of exasperation and amusement. "Then why did you make me yell at you?"
His frown deepened. She could almost see his costume and cape swirling around him; he looked like he did at a JLA meeting. "Because it won't be easy. I'm stubborn, I don't like people questioning my methods, I am used to solitude except for when I'm playing Bruce Wayne, I have specific ways of doing things. I would argue with you, frequently, and if you just accepted what I had to say in that self-sacrificing manner, so that you wouldn't burden me with what you really feel, it wouldn't work. You'd hate me in a week."
Diana's eyebrows raised in confusion. Was he outlining reasons why a relationship would never work, or warning her that they were going to be at each other's throats in one? "Could you clarify?" If it was his attempt at telling her he loved her and wanted to try something, it was the least romantic method she'd ever heard.
She'd take it, though.
He ran a hand through his hair, tried again. "I'm emotionally distant sometimes."
He slashed her a troubled glance. He was, she realized, very uncomfortable. Continuing, he said, "When I get emotionally distant, I push people away. If you accepted that, said you wouldn't make me open up to you, it wouldn't work. You'd resent me. But if you fight for me, don't let me push you away, it will work."
She understood suddenly. "Because things worth fighting for are the most important. If I didn't fight for it, there's no hope."
"Exactly." He rubbed the back of his neck, as if he'd been tense the entire time. "And I will try not to push you away in the first place."
His way of fighting, Diana realized. Her heart soared, but she said casually, "And if you do, I'll tie you up with the lasso and make you my love slave until you give in."
He nodded, as if seriously considering her comment as a method of action. "That might work, although I'd resist at first."
"We can practice," she suggested.
He laughed. "I would take you up on that, but I've got work, and you've got to go see Danielle Nichols."
"I'll bring you back a brownie." She paused. "Will I see you tonight?"
He shook his
head. "I have a meeting tomorrow in
"Tomorrow," she repeated. "I'll be waiting for you."
She was exhausted when she finally arrived at the penthouse. He was waiting in a corner of the darkened room. She wanted to go to him, but she sat on the edge of the bed instead, started pulling off her left boot. "You saw?"
"It managed to feed into the news channels I run in the cave." He didn't mention he'd picked up on the alert instantly--he'd set his computer to warn him when she was in a major battle.
She rubbed tired hands over her face, but managed a smile. "I think I got through to her, a little. It took her daughter to do it, though. I just happened to be there to beat the sense into her."
"You spared her life."
"I had to," Diana said simply. She looked at him fully for the first time since arriving. "Have you been waiting long?'
"No," Bruce said. "But I can only stay for a few more minutes."
"I know. I'll try to make it out to
He grinned. "Don't apologize." He bent down, quickly removed her other boot, then efficiently stripped off her armor. "Goodnight, Princess. I'll ravish you another day."
"Good," she said sleepily, and pulled the covers over herself. She caught his hand. "Stay with me for a minute or two."
He crawled into bed behind her, curled around her. "Only for a minute, though."
Diana nodded against the pillow. She fell asleep an instant later.
Bruce breathed against her hair. He waited a half an hour, until he was sure she was sleeping soundly, then got up. Their missions might be different, but they had the same effect on the mind and body. Tomorrow night, he thought, she might be doing this for him, if he let her. If she made him.
He bent down,
pressed his lips to her forehead, then opened a window, and slipped out into
the night. She'd be in