Book One: Good Intentions
-- Fight As Though The Odds Aren't Against You --
The door to the Batcave closed with the faintest of clicks, and Bruce stood in the empty hallway and listened to the silence.
Outside Wayne Manor, the wind whistled past, a blustering thing that rattled at the windows to gain entry to the house, denied at every turn. Bruce lifted his gaze up towards the darkness hovering in the high reaches of the ceiling, pushed back by the lamp on the table by the stairs, but waiting to rush back in and claim its rightful place.
He savoured the silence with only a little bitterness. There were moments in his life when he wondered what it might have been like to be normal. If his parents had lived and he'd never become Batman, what kind of man would he be?
Tonight, he'd seen parents weep as they were told about their kids. He'd crouched in the shadows over the police station, seen white-faced men and women arrive and watched them leave, haggard. Some wept, some raged, some begged, some snarled, but the emotions they felt were the same at the base. Loss, grief, the end of innocence...
Bruce understood those emotions only too well. His perspective was different, the child bereft of parents, but the sentiment was still the same. A sundering of what had once been whole and the knowledge that nothing would be the same again.
If not for his parents, dying on a cold autumn night in Gotham, would he have been one of the men who walked out of the Gotham Police Headquarters, hands clenched in anger and frustration, in fear and grief for what his son or daughter had done?
If not for his parents, dying on a cold autumn night in Gotham, would he have been like one of the teenagers who went to a party, young and immortal, leaving behind a cold corpse devoid of the beauty with which life had imbued it?
His rational side knew there was no answer to such a question, but sometimes...sometimes...
Sometimes he wondered.
A door creaked, further along the hallway. Bruce turned just as Alfred stepped out of the kitchen, carrying a tray with a steaming mug and a plate of cookies. "I take it was a long night, Master Bruce?" Alfred indicated the stairs, and Bruce led the way up them. He'd have offered to take the tray from the old man's hands, but knew better than to try.
"Harder than usual." He rubbed lightly at the back of his neck easing some of the muscle tension there. He'd have to get Alfred to give him a full-body massage tomorrow - it had been long enough since he'd availed himself of the old butler's services as a masseur that Bruce was all knots.
"Watching the news was unpleasant. I cannot conceive it being any more pleasant in person," Alfred remarked from behind. "Did Miss Barbara find any leads to assist you?"
Bruce grimaced. "Plenty of leads," he said. "But very few were helpful." He led the way into the master bedroom. "Not her fault, just no clues as to how the drugs got into Gotham." Alfred put the tray down on the table as Bruce flung himself into a chair, frustrated by tonight's events.
Logically, he knew there was nothing he could have done to stop the teenagers from using the drugs. Emotionally, he felt as though he should have done more.
"You did what you could to stop the drugs from coming in," Alfred observed.
"But they got past our guard," Bruce muttered.
"If I may recycle the old cliché, Master Bruce; you cannot save them all."
Bruce regarded Alfred over the edge of his mug. "Have you been talking to Diana?"
Alfred paused with a plate of cookies halfway towards him. "I have not," he observed. "She has not been around, although I have received a call inquiring about the recipe for the honey-nut slice she enjoyed during her stay at the Manor."
Bruce took a cookie from the tray and began nibbling it. After a moment, he became aware of the frosty silence from his butler, and glanced over at the elderly man. "Alfred?"
"Are you going to do my cooking justice, Master Bruce, or should I have saved my breath in protesting Miss Barbara's appropriation of all the chocolate cookies?"
"Sorry, Alfred," Bruce said in a reasonable attempt at penitence. "My mind was elsewhere."
"I'm sure," Alfred sniffed. He set the plate down, and moved to shake out the dressing gown at the foot of the bed.
Bruce finished the cookie before he spoke. "One of the dead kids was Damian Belcourt's daughter. She's only a few years younger than Dick."
"That is sad. Miss Jemima was a lovely child. I shall send a card of condolences."
Bruce didn't ask how Alfred knew the name of the girl. Over the years, Alfred had entertained assorted Wayne Enterprises directors and their families. Some had come and gone and blurred into the background; some had stayed long enough to make an impression on the old butler. "Dick never got into the wild party scene," he murmured.
"Master Dick knew the consequences of that lifestyle," remarked the older man, moving to fold back the bedcovers. "In no small part, thanks to your involvement of him in your nocturnal outings."
"He accused me of not caring, earlier," Bruce muttered. The young man's shot had hurt, and even Dick's adjustment of his statement didn't alleviate the initial stab.
"Your relationship with Master Dick has always been somewhat...adversarial," Alfred murmured. "Not terribly surprising considering your personalities and the difficulties you both have showing affection." He paused by the door. "Will there be anything more for the evening, Master Bruce?"
Bruce shook his head. "No, Alfred. Thank you. Get some sleep," he added. "You shouldn't have waited up."
"Who was home to stop me?" Alfred inquired. "And, Master Bruce...?"
The old man's eyes twinkled a little as they rested on him, and Bruce saw the gleam of pride in the old sharp eyes. "I disagree with Master Dick's assessment of you; I believe the problem is not that you do not care, but that you care too much." There was a moment's pause for effect before Alfred added, "Good night," and closed the doors of the suite behind him.
Later, as Bruce lay back and stared up at the overhead canopy of his bed, he focused on the night's efforts to track the shipments that had come in through the Madeira Star and tried to think like a criminal.
How could they have brought the shipments in? How could they have distributed them? Had Dick really checked the cargo loads as he'd said he had? Had he been as thorough as Bruce would have been?
He had to trust Dick. He had to trust himself and the training he'd given Dick through the years. The young man knew his skills and his limits, and was still learning to stretch them. Bruce was still learning to stretch his own limits, if it came down to that. Limits like the boundaries he'd set between him and Diana.
The control you exercise to avoid killing them is not that which you would lose with me
This was one of the moments where he hated the silences of his soul and his trained recollection. Her voice echoed in his mind and, coupled with the memory of her body beneath his in the training room, haunted him.
Desire stirred, coil upon coil of a hunger that wished to be sated in soft flesh.
Bruce groaned and turned over in bed. He couldn't allow himself to think of that now, not when he had Diana gently pushing his boundaries with every action, every word, every touch. It wasn't intentional or deliberate, it was just who she was and he had no defenses against that.
He needed everything that was him to go into fighting against Gotham. Because if it didn't...
As Batman, Bruce lived his life in shadows. The mask might come off, but the Bat remained - and nothing could or would ever change that. A wife, children, family - those would come second to who he was as Batman: second to Gotham, and he had never yet met a woman who understood who and what he was, who believed in everything he did, and was willing to take him and everything he entailed.
A rich kid with issues didn't even scratch the surface of what he had become over the years.
No. No dating for the Batman. It might cut into your brooding time.
He groaned again and climbed out of bed. He was tired, but tonight, sleep was beyond him. Instead, he pushed back the draperies of his windows to reveal the city that he had made his own. Bruce shivered in the pre-dawn cold and began a tai-chi form to centre himself. As he moved slowly and smoothly through each stage, he emptied his mind of all thought, concentrating on the play and interplay of his muscles and his breathing.
When he finished the first form, he moved onto the second; and when that finished, he moved into the third. As he closed the third and final form, he exhaled and looked out at the city before him.
His city. Gotham was his and would always come first in his life.
Gotham needs the Batman - and the Batman needs Gotham. I wouldn't try to take you from your city, Bruce.
She had a gift, the ability to enter his mind and memory, unannounced, unheralded. She slipped into his consciousness as gently as miniscule motes of dust floated on the breeze - unnoticed until they formed a gentle patina on the surfaces around the house.
Other attractions had been immediate, obvious: Andrea, Selena, Talia, Lois, Zatanna...
Diana had been gradual, and unexpected in that way.
You and I are just good friends. There's something more between you and Diana. Zatanna's statement had been startling and canny, touched by the magician's insights.
It said something that the first time he and Diana had kissed, it was intended as a deceit - not of each other, but of the Thanagarians. The deceit had been delightful enough, but her embarrassment afterward was more for the precipitous nature of her actions than the kiss itself; she knew he hated being taken by surprise. And everything was a surprise with Diana.
The dawn was stealing across the sky overhead, the rich blackness of it slowly shading to midnight blue overhead, as the sun crept up behind the horizon, bringing with it the day. The sun would shortly rise and a new day would begin.
Down in Gotham, there were kids for whom no new days would ever begin and parents for whom the nightmare was only just beginning.
You care; you just don't like other people to know it. Nightwing's words rang in his ears again, laced with the bitterness that lay between them.
Tonight, he'd watched men and women leave the police precinct, shaken by what they had seen, witnessed, heard. Of the eighteen kids who'd attended the party that night, eight fatally overdosed, another five were critical, and the last five were emotional wrecks.
One couple had fought outside the precinct, the woman screaming at her husband. "You were supposed to be going camping this weekend! And if you had gone, instead of staying for your stupid meeting, then this would never have happened!" The man had stiffened, then moved away jerkily as his wife followed. "He didn't even know you loved him - because you were always too busy with your work!"
More than one man had flinched; more than one officer had winced; Gotham was not a city that lent itself to happy families.
"I'd phone Babs again," Jim had muttered as Batman slipped into the Commissioner's office. "But she wouldn't appreciate the wake-up call." The career officer sighed as he sat back in his chair. "Things like tonight make me wish I'd spent more time at home than at work. It's like that old story," Gordon said, "If you knew the day someone you loved was going to die, you'd hold them a little closer, make them laugh a little more, spend just a little more time with them..." Then the man smiled ruefully, returning to business. "Guess this case cut closer to the bone than I figured."
Although Batman said nothing to Gordon then, something in him understood. He could call Dick, but at this hour, Dick was most likely to be in bed - or on Barbara's couch, asleep.
A star twinkled on the horizon of the sky, a last-ditch attempt to be seen before the daylight swept in.
Bruce did some mental calculations and realised the Watchtower was in that part of space right now. Up there, the night watch would be changing place with the morning watch: overseen and co-ordinated by J'onn, but manned by people from all over the globe. The advantage of an international roster meant body clocks could remain in their timezones as the monitor duties cycled, as the events and dramas played out through the world and the universe. The US wasn't the only source of superpowers and metahumans - it was just the one that most reliably identified them.
Bruce rested one hand on the windowsill, looking up at the stars. Then he turned to look at the phone on the table. She'd just be coming off monitor duty now.
His hand reached for the phone. Then it drew back.
His fingers closed into a fist and he gritted his teeth. No, he couldn't. He didn't dare.
The afternoon she got injured by the volcano creature, Bruce had sat at the Watchtower computers, observing every angle they had on the beast. He'd watched the huge, fiery hands smack Diana out of its way, watched the limp deadweight of her body as it ploughed into the ground.
The creature should have been the focus of his attention, but the first time watching, he'd only seen her. He'd seen the burns and welts gleaming bright and awful on her skin as she tumbled through the air, and he'd had to grit his teeth, to remind himself that he needed to be impartial and distance himself from what was happening to her.
She was dangerous to him, and, through him, to the Batclan and the League. Bruce was well aware of the role he played to both groups: leader to the first, anchor to the second. He could not give up those roles - there was nobody he trusted to take over those positions. They needed him.
It was logical and sensible. Yet, somehow, all the logic in the world could not stop the emotion that took hold of him, then or now.
Before he could stop himself, his fingers were on the phone, dialling a number that scrambled a program in the Batcave. The program would activate a link to a handset in the Watchtower, and by dialling a specific number, he could get...
She answered promptly, although he could hear the slight laziness in her voice that indicated she was on the verge of sleep.
He shouldn't have called, but he had. He could hang up and leave her wondering. She would never know, although she was sharp enough to guess, and he would never tell.
You care; you just don't like other people to know it. Dick's words rang in his ears, and Bruce kept his fingers on the handset. He would not hang up. Not after calling her like this. But he couldn't seem the find the words to say.
Great, a speechless Batman.
"Hello?" Now she sounded exasperated. "Is there anyone there?"
He found his voice, forced it past his lips. "Diana."
She paused. "Batman?" He could almost hear her mental adjustment, almost see the frown that drew her eyebrows together - the way her eyes narrowed slightly. "What's wrong? I saw the newsfeeds about the party. Do you require assistance in Gotham?"
...because you were always too busy with your work!
"No," he made himself say. "It's not...it's nothing to do with work. It's Bruce."
"Yes." It would be so easy to fall into the lazy tones of the playboy. He didn't. "I thought...I'd see how you were doing." A flimsy excuse - too flimsy for the Bat. She would see right through it.
"I'm doing fine, thank you for asking," she said. There was a pause, then, "Did Clark make you do this?"
His first instinct was to be offended. "Can you imagine Clark making me do anything?"
She laughed then, like cool water closing over his head as he drowned. It would be an exquisite way to die - hearing her laughter. "I apologise for maligning you both, then!"
"Both of us?" He took mock-offense at her words.
"Yes." The smile was still in her voice as she said, "For suggesting that Clark would be so foolish as to try to force you to do anything, and for suggesting that you might be persuaded otherwise once you had your mind made up!"
"I'll take that as a compliment. Tenacity is a good thing."
"I suppose 'tenacity' is one way of describing it."
He grinned at the delicate tone of her voice, and found his way over to the armchair he'd sat in before. "What word would you use, Princess?"
"Stubborn," she said immediately. "Pig-headed, obstinate, inflexible, uncompromising."
Bruce had not expected to be spared. That wasn't Diana's way. And he'd heard all the accusations before - from friend and enemy alike.
"Yet wouldn't you agree that there are some matters on which a person should stick by their decision?"
"And the terms you mentioned are usually used by the side which has failed to persuade the other side to defect or change their position?"
There was a sigh at the other end of the line. "Bruce?"
"Why am I talking to you at this hour of the morning?" There was at once a rhetorical aspect to her question, but also a hint of bewilderment at his call.
It was the Occam's Razor of answers: the simplest was also the correct one - and also the one most guaranteed to annoy her with its straightforwardness. "Because I called you, and you haven't yet hung up on me."
"I..." He paused, trying to find the words to say. He had faced down psychopaths and thieves, gone up against some of the most powerful beings in the universe armed with nothing more than his array of weaponry, and worked cheek-by-jowl with people who could pulverise him in an instant and yet who relied on him to speak his mind plainly.
At this moment, he couldn't speak anything plainly, let alone his mind.
"I wanted to hear your voice," he said at last. The words almost stuck in his throat and he stifled the tremors of his body as he uttered that truth.
Speaking his mind was easy; it was speaking his heart that was impossible.
In the pre-dawn dark, he could see her expression, the astonished look on her face, lips parted in an 'oh' of shock. Her eyes would be wide as she stared into the dark of her room, and her hair would tumble darkly over her bare shoulders, the only movement in the room as she registered his words.
"You're hearing my voice now."
"I know," he said, relieved now that she'd picked up the thread of the conversation again. "But that was why I called."
She hesitated - and even through the phone he heard the catch of her breath that indicated she'd almost begun to ask a question but hadn't completed the words.
"Bruce, what happened tonight?"
"Why do you assume--?"
"Because this is you, Bruce," she said, simply, and there was frustration in her voice - and a little fear. "Because you don't call people for anything other than business. You don't do favours, you don't make allowances, and even if you care, you don't show it. Yet you have called me at what must be nearly five in the morning in Gotham, saying it was just to hear my voice. It--" Diana paused, and when she spoke again there was a tiredness in her voice. "It doesn't make sense."
Perhaps he'd pushed her too hard, earlier tonight. Perhaps he'd done so in order to prove a point to himself.
You'll lose her someday - whether to the fight or to another man. The prospect of having to watch her die, and to be unable to stop it was a nightmare he'd never be without, but the thought of seeing her with another man was like a knife in his gut, tensing him with a wariness that was entirely automatic.
But just because it was automatic, didn't mean it was the right course of action.
If you knew the day someone you loved was going to die, you'd hold them a little closer, make them laugh a little more, spend just a little more time with them...
He was telling her about the night before he even realised he was speaking again. His words were short and clipped, Batman rather than Bruce, but the distinction blurred when he was around her; he was both personas and yet neither. And whether he spoke as Batman or Bruce, or the man who used both and yet neither, she still listened.
She listened - and talked - until the sun rose and she yawned in his ear. And by that time, they'd talked of shoes and ships and sealing wax, and cabbages and kings, and argued and fought, but never explicitly mentioned what was or was not between them. Oh, they'd talked of Dick and Hippolyta, and duty and responsibility, of the League and the Batclan, and everything in between; but the topic that was the reason for this call went unsaid.
Finally, she was so tired, her voice faded away, and he just listened to her breathe for a few seconds and had time to wonder if the lure of sleep had proved too much for her, before she spoke into the receiver again.
"I'm about to fall asleep on you," she began. Bruce's mouth curved into a rueful smile as his body responded to the thought of her physically asleep on him, but she continued, unaware of his thoughts. "So I'm going to hang up now, Bruce."
The smile in her voice would be showing itself now in a graceful curve that he'd watched stretch over her lips often. He wasn't there to see it now, but he could imagine it only too easily.
And for one instant, he was neither 'Batman' nor 'Bruce' but someone between the two: an ordinary man on the phone with a woman he loved. The moment was like chains dropping from his tongue, freeing him to say what he never would have otherwise said.
"Love you," he murmured.
"Mmhm," she answered, and it was a mark of her weariness that she didn't question his words at all, but merely replied with her own. "I know."
End of conversation.
Bruce listened to the terminating tone for a full five seconds before he put the phone down, smiling like an idiot.
Love makes fools of us all. Even Bruce Wayne, more usually known as Batman.
But as he settled himself back beneath the covers, sleep poking gently at the edges of his mind, Bruce reflected that he could do with a little more of this kind of idiocy.