Disclaimers: Don't own 'em, don't make money off 'em. The only real crime I'm committing is the overuse of adverbs, and ending far too many sentences with prepositions.
A/N: This story was inspired by a challenge given on the JL Animated RPG message boards (like Artemis's "Sick Day" short). The first paragraph was given to us…the rest was up to the author. This is not a continuation of my other fic, "Tell Me Lies"
Diana had just finished her morning work out with Shayera and was on her way to her quarters to shower and change. She walked through the main room and saw Batman lying on the couch asleep. That wasn't like him, he hated anyone to see him sleeping or appearing weak. Diana sat on the edge of the couch and took his hand gently in her hand.
"Wake up sleepy head," Diana said.
He didn't jerk out of sleep, disoriented or confused, as most people did, but simply sat up smoothly, disentangling his hand from hers. "Sorry," he said. "I didn't intend to fall asleep."
Diana blinked in surprise. He had apologized -- and he looked awful. The portion of his face visible underneath his mask was covered in stubble – at least three days worth, she judged – and lines of fatigue were drawn beside his mouth and evident in his posture. For someone who was meticulous about his appearance in his attempt to terrify criminals into compliance and intimidate anyone else, his unkempt look was completely out of character. "Are you all right, Batman?"
He ignored her question, stood. "I have monitor duty."
Now, that was in character, Diana thought. Even though Batman could be kind, more often he was brusque to the point of rudeness, especially when anyone questioned him about personal matters. Diana liked Batman, respected him – would even consider him a friend – but she also knew that their friendship would always have an impenetrable wall of his making between them. She was tempted to let him be his usual stubborn self, and pretend that he was fine.
But it was obvious he was exhausted, and under considerable strain; and, no matter how stubborn he was, she knew she could be much more so. As he began to walk down the corridor toward the monitor room, she fell into step beside him. "We haven't seen you in a few days," she said conversationally.
"I have other responsibilities."
"Sleeping obviously isn't one of them," she pointed out. "You look particularly horrible today. Is this a new part of the costume? A change to inspire more fear? Because you look about as ferocious as a used scrub brush."
He didn't even bother to try to intimidate her then, or give her one of his patented BatStares that she had seen work so well on the Flash. A sure sign, Diana thought, that he shouldn't be on his feet.
"How much have you slept in the last three days?" she asked. "If you tell me, I'll leave you alone."
"Two hours." He growled the words. "Now go."
"I lied." Diana stopped, put her hand on his arm, bringing him to a halt. Her expression was serious as she stared up at him, wishing she could see the expression in his eyes behind his lenses. "Batman, you are in no condition to be up and monitoring right now. I'll take over monitor duty for you. Why don't you go home to your cave, or use my room, and get some sleep?" Batman didn't have personal quarters on the Watchtower as the rest of the league did.
He didn't bother to answer her, just pulled away and resumed walking down the corridor. Diana firmed her lips, made a decision that she knew would make him furious.
She flew to him, and using her superspeed so that he couldn't react or deflect her movement, hit him twice with her index and middle fingers, once on the back of the neck, once on the chest.
He had just enough time before collapsing to realize that she'd hit two of his pulse points in a very specific pattern, and his lips drew back into a snarl, but he was asleep before he could say anything.
She caught him before he hit the floor.
Batman bent over Diana's chair, his face inches from hers. "Don't. Ever. Do. That. Again."
Diana pushed against his chest, and he was forced back several feet. She stood, stepped forward and lifted herself onto her toes until her nose was even with his. "Don't. Be. An. Idiot." She turned, and he caught the scent of the shampoo she used on her hair – the same scent that had clung to the pillow he'd woken up on. She held up her hand, lifted her index finger. "One, you were exhausted. You were no good to the league like that. Monitor duty requires the ability to monitor diligently. If you had monitored in the state you were in, it would have been like the Flash coming in drunk to duty." She lifted a second finger. "Two, you needed sleep. You now can function because you've had six hours of sleep. It's not enough, but it is better than earlier. If we had needed you in an emergency, you may have endangered the team if you had insisted on fighting while fatigued." A third finger went up, and he began to wonder if she'd spent the entire six hours while he'd been sleeping finding excuses to justify what she'd done. "As a member of the team, I made a judgment that overrode your wishes. I would have done the same to any of the other members of the league. If it had been Shayera or GL with an injury, you would have drugged them to keep them from endangering themselves or the team – I've seen you do so. You weren't injured, but you had a medical need for sleep. I did nothing you wouldn't have done under the same circumstances." She stopped, took a deep breath. "And I was concerned about you."
The anger abruptly drained from him. He knew Diana genuinely cared for him; if things had been different, if he had been different, he might have pursued that, seen if it could ever have developed into something more. But they weren't, and he wasn't; as it was, he found himself letting his guard down far too often around her, found himself talking to her easily or confiding in her at times. He wondered if she was even aware how much closer he was to her than the rest of the league, except perhaps Superman.
She narrowed her eyes as if considering, then nodded.
"You are right." He saw her eyes widen in surprise. "Next time, however, instead of attacking me, just outline your reasons."
She gave him a wry glance. "You weren't exactly in the mood at the time to listen." She sat back down in her chair, and added, "You still look tired, and you need a shave."
He ran his hand over his chin. "I haven't been at home in a while," he said slowly. He could see the curiosity on her face, but was glad that she didn't ask him to talk further about it. He hadn't meant to say that, to admit it – even to himself.
Home. It had once been his refuge, and now…now…
Now he didn't know if it was heaven, or hell.
***************(A/N: I apologize in advance for this ridiculous setup scene – it's filler simply for plot movement, and not really important, but at least it is short)
The atmosphere around the table was tense. They had just received word that an unknown species of giant spider was attacking the citizens of a South American village.
Superman looked at them, each in turn. "Ideas?"
"I have BatSpiderRepellent in the cave," he said. "But I will need to take the Javelin to transport it. It is in huge barrels."
"Good," Superman said. "Why don't you and Diana collect the repellent, and the rest of us will go directly to the village to fight the spiders?"
Batman was already shaking his head. "I can manage it on my own."
"But it will go much more quickly if you have me to load the Javelin," Diana said. It was obvious that Batman didn't want anyone in the cave, but speed was of the essence. They needed that BatSpiderRepellent.
She watched as Batman visibly struggled with his decision before finally saying, "Fine."
He stood, and she stood, and they left the room, heading for the hangar.
She'd been in the cave before, but she was struck anew with the immenseness of it, the order that Batman had imposed even on this natural structure. In its own way, it reminded her of home; on Themyscira, too, they had carved order out of nature without ruining the impact and grandeur of the original setting.
She took in everything that she could: the giant penny, the row of costumes, the giant computers. Diana intended to ask Batman about everything, someday, when he was willing to talk about it. How had he gotten the penny into the cave? Why was one Robin costume set up differently than the others, as if in memorial? She sensed that there were stories there, stories of his past battles, and even more fascinating, hints about the type of man he was under the mask.
But for now, she kept her thoughts and questions to herself, and followed him to the back of the cave, where he pointed out the two barrels of chemicals that they needed. She picked them up easily, one over each shoulder, and turned to follow him back to the Javelin.
As they walked, she frowned. Was it her imagination, or did he seem edgy? He had begun glancing around him -- in any other man she would have said 'fearfully' -- once they had disembarked from the Javelin. At first she had put it down to his paranoia, but now that she considered it more carefully, she realized that whenever she had been in the cave with him before he had been completely at ease.
Had something made him afraid? Had his security been compromised? Was something down here? She felt a prickling on the back of her neck, told herself that she was being silly.
Batman looked back at her, and froze, looking past her. "Hurry, Diana," he said, and this time she was sure there was a note of urgency in his voice.
She felt something cold, clammy against her back. She increased her pace, but didn't look around.
"Don't touch her." Batman's voice grated past her, and the feeling -- whatever it was -- left her skin. A few steps later and she was in the Javelin, setting down the barrels. She whirled around, looked out of the doorway into the cave, but couldn't see anything.
Batman was already in the cockpit, closing the doors, firing the engines. She joined him, peered out the front windows into the darkness.
For just a second, out of the corner of her eye, she could have sworn she saw a young boy dressed in a Robin costume. He smiled mischievously and waved, but when she turned her head to look directly at him, nothing was there.
She shivered, but said nothing. She knew this was a clue to Batman's strange behavior lately, his appearance and the reason he'd been in such bad shape earlier.
What in Hades was going on down here?
Diana saw the couple several times while she volunteered at the clinic the next evening, but didn't think anything of it. Her mind was preoccupied by what she had seen -- thought she had seen? -- in the cave the day earlier. She would have asked Batman about it, but he had disappeared almost immediately after they had neutralized the invasion on the village.
In any case, she was sure he wouldn't have discussed it with her anyway.
She sighed and continued her work, gathering the clinic's medical equipment that needed to be sterilized. Batman had told her of this place once when he'd realized she was feeling useless in the Watchtower during her spare time: it was run by a friend of his, Dr. Leslie Thompkins, in one of the poorer, crime ridden sections of Gotham. He had told her that Dr. Thompkins was always in need of reliable volunteers, since the clinic existed primarily on donations by wealthy Gotham citizens and charged its clients nothing for the medical attention they received.
Diana had been glad to offer her services, and although she was needed from time to time to act as a nurse during an emergency, she spent most of her time helping with the never-ending tasks of cleaning examination rooms, helping illiterate or injured clients fill out their paperwork, and sterilizing used equipment.
As she came out of the last exam room, she noticed the couple again, staring at her. Diana assumed they must have recognized her; despite her best efforts to look nondescript by wearing street clothes, removing her bracelets and tiara and pulling back her hair, someone inevitably realized that she was the same woman who wore star-spangled briefs when she fought with the Justice League. She gave them a friendly smile and carried her burden back into one of the labs.
The couple had been well dressed, in their mid- to late-thirties and with the air of money around them -- obviously not clients of Leslie's. Probably Gotham's elite, Diana thought. They often liked to tour the clinic before donating money. Odd that they would tour it at night, but who could anticipate the eccentric activities of the bored and wealthy?
Diana smiled at that -- obviously, she thought, some of Hawkgirl's attitudes about the lazy rich were rubbing off on her.
Thirty minutes later she had completed her duties, and her volunteer shift was over. She waved goodbye to the remaining staff, and stepped out into the Gotham night. She walked a few blocks, trying to decide whether to go back to the Watchtower immediately or to stay in town for a meal.
This part of Gotham was always depressing, Diana thought, even during the day. The housing was dingy, the storefronts run down. The sound of emergency sirens echoed almost non-stop through the streets, and the report of gunshots could be heard on at almost rhythmic intervals. The music of Crime Alley, the music that Batman liked to dance to. Or, she amended, felt compelled to dance to.
She prepared to launch herself into the air, then caught sight of the couple from the clinic across the street, standing in front of a burned out movie theater. They were talking quietly with each other, oblivious to the stares from the neighborhood's inhabitants who passed them.
Diana saw a group of young teenagers eye the two with a calculating gleam in their expressions, and knew that unless she did something, the couple would very probably be mugged on the sidewalk -- or worse.
She flew across the street and landed beside them, hoping that the display of superpowers would be enough to deter the teenagers. It was -- after a few startled shouts, they took off down the street.
She turned to the couple. "It's not safe for you to be here at this time of night. You should probably call a cab; or if you brought your car, leave as soon as possible."
The woman smiled at her -- a genuine smile, not the artificial one that Diana was used to once people realized who she was -- and Diana couldn't help but immediately like her. Though older, her face retained a youth and beauty that actresses and models would have killed for; and it also contained a kindness that Diana instantly felt. "You are the one they call Wonder Woman, aren't you? The one who works with our Batman?"
Diana raised her eyebrow at the 'our Batman'. She hadn't realized that the citizens of Gotham felt proud enough of him to claim him as their own. In fact, from the newspaper reports she had read, most Gothamites still thought he was a myth. "I am Diana," she said simply, still not used to the title 'Wonder Woman'. "And I'm sorry if I seem rude, but I'm afraid that this really is not a place that is safe for you. I must urge you again to leave this neighborhood quickly."
The woman laughed, and her husband smiled. He reminded Diana of someone, but she couldn't put her finger on whom…
The man spoke. "My dear, we are the last people who will worry about something happening to us here. Believe me when I say that everything that could possibly happen to us already has."
"Oh," Diana said, not really understanding. She decided to wait with them until she was sure they were safe -- if they intended to stay here, then so would she.
"We saw you at the clinic," the woman said. "Thomas here used to be a doctor himself." She indicated her husband. "We think Leslie has done wonders with the place -- she's a dear friend of ours."
Diana nodded. "She's very dedicated, and compassionate. I wish that more people would take an interest in her work, give her the honor she is due." She also wished the couple would call for a taxi, but had to admit that talking to them was interesting. Outside of the clinic and the Watchtower, Diana didn't get the chance to converse with many people.
The man smiled at Diana again. "You are as kind as you are beautiful, Diana," he said, and his blue eyes twinkled when she blushed slightly. "Martha and I have a son, and we'd always hoped that he'd find someone like you when he was older, and be happy, but…" His voice trailed off, and both of their faces grew sad. "But he's determined not to be happy, and we feel so distant from him," Thomas finished.
Diana didn't know what to say, but the sorrow in their faces touched her. Her own relationship with her mother was … well, non-existent since Diana's exile. She searched for words to comfort them. "I'm sorry. I know what it's like to be separated from the family that means the most to you -- but I'm sure he still loves you, even though you feel distant. I feel the same about my mother. No matter what comes between us, I'll always love her."
Thomas took Martha's hand in his own, and stared at his wife. So much love shone from his eyes that Diana's breath was nearly taken away -- what was it like to be loved like that?
"I told you she was as smart as she is kind and beautiful, Martha," Thomas said softly.
Martha smiled back at him, her love reflected in her face. She swatted his arm playfully. "I believe I was the one who told you," she countered. They gazed at each other a moment longer, and Diana felt as if she was witnessing something rare, something wonderful. Then they both shook themselves, looked at her without a touch of embarrassment.
"Sometimes we get carried away," Thomas said. "It used to drive Bruce crazy. 'How gross!' he'd tell us when we did this during his childhood years."
Diana grinned. She'd never had that problem herself -- at least not until a couple of months ago, when she'd realized her mother had been with the god Hades. "I think all children go through that stage -- some of us later than others," she said.
They both smiled at her again, then Martha said, "I'm afraid we have to get going, but before we do I'd like to invite you to our home tomorrow evening."
Thomas reached into his pocket, pulled out a square envelope. "It's a fund-raiser for the clinic, hosted by the Wayne Foundation," he added. "We'd love to see you there."
Diana took the envelope, felt a sudden chill at the end of her fingertips that disappeared once Thomas let go of the invitation. "I'd be honored to attend," she said honestly, "but I must admit that I don't have any money to donate."
Martha laughed softly. "You already donate your time, which is far more valuable than money. Just ask Leslie. In any case, your presence alone will probably squeeze a few more dollars from Gotham's wealthy bachelors, who will undoubtedly try to impress you."
"Just watch out for our son," Thomas said, although Diana had the distinct feeling that he meant the exact opposite. "He'll try to dazzle you more than any of the others, but don't let him pull the wool over your eyes. His playboy attitude is just a mask he wears."
Because he's really unhappy, Diana remembered them telling her, but also felt there was more behind Thomas's words than she could interpret. She tucked the envelope into the back of her jeans, looked behind her, hoping to see a taxi that she could hail for the couple. The street was empty.
When she looked back, Thomas and Martha were gone. She turned around, scanning the sidewalks, the street. Nothing.
"Hera," Diana muttered. "What do they put in the water here? Does everyone in Gotham have the ability to just disappear without a sound?"
Convincing herself that they must have owned one of the cars parked nearby, and had simply gotten into it while she had been distracted, Diana resumed her walk, listening to the deadly beat of Crime Alley, wondering if Batman was out there listening to it, too.