Reality briefly broke through the dark clouds that confused his mind. But he was still lost. Lost and alone.
The sun glared down on his bare skin as he stumbled across the desert path -- memories of his parents guiding each step. The urge to find the source of their voices was overwhelming, as confusion still muddled his mind.
He remembered their cries for help, and he remembered J'onn begging him to wake up, telling him that he was dreaming. Was he dreaming now?
Then he remembered darkness and pain, and someone familiar. Someone worth fearing.
"Ra's," he whispered hoarsely, but no one was there to listen.
He stumbled onward. He couldn't stop, but he wasn't sure why. He just knew that he had to get up -- he had to keep moving.
Ra's had disappeared in the midst of the fray, with his men scattering to secure escapes of their own. It was an organized effort, and Nightwing realized that the Demon and his men were mobilized -- a rendezvous, no doubt, in the works. But Nightwing had been unable to pursue Ra's. Superman had needed his help. Therefore, after he'd dismantled the shield, he'd helped his friend to sit up against the stone wall -- hoping beyond hope, that Wonder Woman had been successful in stopping those missiles.
Then he turned toward Talia, gently covering her blood-smeared face with his borrowed jacket. He hadn't known her well -- only that Bruce once loved her, and from their brief conversation before entering the compound, he knew that she'd loved him too. He only wished things had turned out differently. That Talia would have had a chance at life without her father's influence -- that she would have trusted Bruce to give her that.
A wisp of air brushed against his skin, and he looked up to see Wonder Woman entering the lair, followed by J'onn. Fear rose from the depths of Dick's belly, when he realized that J'onn was not tending to Bruce.
"What happened?" His voice shook with emotion.
"J'onn dismantled the missiles before they were launched," Wonder Woman said, then turned to Superman.
J'onn placed a reassuring hand on Dick's shoulder. "He is alive, but still unconscious. The missiles necessitated my leaving him."
A sigh of relief escaped Dick's lips, and he lowered his head, trying to control the emotions that he'd kept buried throughout this ordeal, while J'onn moved to examine Superman.
"How is he, J'onn?" Wonder Woman asked as J'onn peered at the wound left by the kryptonite-charged laser.
"We need to get him to the surface. The sun's rays will help in his restoration."
Wonder Woman stood and faced Nightwing. "What about Ra's? What happened?"
"He disappeared. He'd always been good at that." Nightwing's fists clenched in frustration. "His men scattered quickly. I'm sure they'll be meeting up with him at any of a number of secret locations around the world. I tagged one with a tracer. I'm hoping he'll lead us to right to him." He looked to where Talia's body lay. "He won't get away with what he's done."
Wonder Woman took his hand in hers. "Her death will not go unpunished. We will find Ra's al Ghul."
Nightwing squeezed her hand gently in agreement. "Let's get out of here," he muttered.
Wonder Woman and J'onn carried Dick and Superman to the desert surface, landing on the sun-scorched sand. Superman was already showing signs of recovery; the sun's yellow rays were restoring his body at an amazing rate. J'onn helped support his unsteady frame as they followed Wonder Woman to the location of the Invisible Plane.
Without warning, an opening revealed the entrance of the plane, the door-shaped aperture an odd and awesome sight against the desert backdrop. Dick shook his head in amazement. Sometimes he really loved his life, and the mind-boggling events he was able to experience.
But his awe was short-lived when they entered the plane and found it empty.
"Where is he?" Dick asked.
"He's gone," Wonder Woman said, running out of the plane to begin the search. Dick and the others followed.
"He can't have gotten very far," J'onn said. "He is very weak."
"Do you think Ra's found him?" Superman asked.
"The plane would have been impossible for him to detect, let alone enter," Wonder Woman replied. "I don't know how Bruce could have found an opening."
"I don't know of much that Bruce can't escape from," Nightwing said.
"J'onn, can you sense him?" Superman asked.
J'onn's eyes faintly glowed red, but too soon returned to their normal hue. He shook his head sadly. "With the dampening fields still active, I am able to sense him within short distances only."
"Dampening fields." Nightwing had an idea. "If the computer in the lair was the main control board for those missiles, then it must be the main artery for all of his security measures. If it's destroyed…"
"Then the sensors and dampening fields will become inactive," Superman finished.
"I'm on it," Wonder Woman said, and flew back down into the lair to destroy the computer.
"In the meantime, we spread out and search for him," Dick told Superman and J'onn.
Sparks and smoke ascended out from the tunneled opening to the lair, signaling Wonder Woman's success in destroying the computer. With it destroyed, Dick prayed that J'onn would be able to telepathically lead them to Bruce, before it was too late.
The Martian stood unmoving, his eyes glowing red in a telepathic link. Then without warning, J'onn began to lead them on a path that Dick hoped would take them to Bruce.
Stopping by a rocky hillside, J'onn smiled as he pointed to a cavity in the side of the hill. "He's fine. He's in there."
Dick grinned. "Leave it to Bruce to find a cave in the middle of a desert."
"Go to him. He needs you," J'onn told him.
Sitting on the cave's floor, Bruce looked up as a shadow crossed the lighted path of the entrance. He squinted through swollen eyelids, trying to focus his attention on the apparition, not knowing if he was still dreaming.
The shadow moved closer, solidifying upon its approach. He rubbed his eyes with bruised knuckles, and flinched in surprise as a hand touched his. He narrowed his eyes again to clear his vision, and attempted to speak, but his voice failed him.
"Its okay, Bruce. You're going to be okay."
Bruce tried to clear his parched throat, and finally managed a hoarse whisper. "Dick?"
"Yeah, it's me."
Bruce nodded, then looked around the narrow space. "They're not here?"
"Mom and Dad. I can't find them."
Dick frowned . "No. They're not here."
"It was a dream, wasn't it?"
"Yes. It was a dream."
Bruce nodded slowly. "Ra's?" He was remembering.
"Yes. Ra's gave you a hallucinogen."
Bruce was about to fall over from exhaustion when Dick grabbed him, holding him to his chest. "I've got you, Bruce. I've got you."
"You got my message." A coded message sent to Dick while Bruce was tortured at the hand of a madman.
Dick smiled. "Did you think I wouldn't?"
"I knew you'd be here," he whispered, before passing out.
Dick held Bruce in a tight embrace before shouting to be heard from outside the cave.
Walking into the cave, J'onn detached the cape that hung from his shoulders, covering Bruce with the garment. He then took Bruce from Dick's arms, carrying him to the Invisible Plane.
Bruce had returned to reality. Although he was in direct need of medical attention, Dick had no doubt that Bruce would make a full recovery.
Bruce wrapped his robe tightly around his waist, trying to ward off the chill from the cave's damp climate. He was not yet fully recovered from his ordeal with Ra's al Ghul, but could no longer endure another day in bed. So, without Alfred's notice, he made his way down into the cave to update himself with the League's progress in pursuing his arch nemesis and to prepare for a scheduled visit from a friend.
"Sir, I must insist that you return to your room at once. In your weakened state you will catch your death of cold."
Bruce hadn't heard Alfred approach, and determined that his weakened condition was the cause. Although, he had to admit, even he envied Alfred's talent for stealth.
"I'm fine, Alfred." He continued his review of the logs.
Alfred sighed audibly. "I don't know why I bother. It's not as if you will listen to reason."
Bruce stiffened and swiveled his chair to face Alfred. "Don't say that. Don't you know how much I need…." He stopped, not sure how to continue.
Alfred seemed surprised by the sudden outburst. "Master Bruce…Bruce."
Bruce held up a hand, stopping Alfred. "Let me do this," he said and paused as he sought for the right words. His hallucinations in the dungeon would forever haunt him. "Your approval means a lot to me. Your help in my mission -- in my life…. I just want you to know that I couldn't have done any of this without you."
"Dear boy. Don't you realize how proud I am of you? If I did not approve, I would not have continued to support your efforts."
Bruce lowered his head and nodded. "Thank you, old friend."
Alfred laid a hand on Bruce's shoulder. "You can thank me by getting well."
Bruce smirked. "I'll come up in a minute. There's something I need to do first."
"Very well," Alfred said and straightened his jacket. "I shall go and prepare dinner."
Bruce turned again to the computer but his thoughts wandered. He'd been confronted with some of his worst fears while in the clutches of Ra's al Ghul. Fears he'd buried beneath the mask of Batman. Fears that had control of his life, pushing those closest to him farther and farther away, until he would someday be left alone to live his life in solitude.
For the Batman the outcome would be ideal. There would be no outside influences to interfere with what drove him to patrol the streets of Gotham every night.
But Bruce Wayne didn't want to be alone. And he realized that there was another driving force in his life, embracing those who joined in his mission -- in his life. Alfred, Dick, Tim, Barbara. They weren't a deterrent to his cause, but an aid. They weren't just soldiers in this fight, but his family.
It was too late for Talia. Too late to save her from the clutches of her father. Too late for their love. He'd live with that regret for the rest of his life. But he would no longer carry the weight of regret with those closest to him -- Alfred, Dick…Diana. He would make things right.
Diana received his handwritten invitation, which read "Transport to the cave tonight at six. B"
She couldn't help but wonder if it was Batman who sent her the note, or Bruce Wayne. The last time she was summoned by Batman, a relationship was ended before it had a chance to begin.
But a lot had happened since then. Ra's, the torture, …Talia. Talia had loved Bruce, and the last words she'd uttered to Diana would forever be burned in her heart , "He deserves to be loved. Deserves someone who would do him no harm."
Now Diana wondered if she'd ever be given the chance to love this man. She couldn't help but hope that perhaps he'd changed his mind about a relationship. And at exactly two minutes before six, Diana keyed in the coordinates to the batcave, and stepped into the transporter, hopeful, but realistic about what might transpire.
He turned at the sound of the transporter, and nervously finger-combed his hair before she materialized. He chanced a quick glance at his reflection in the now darkened monitor, hoping that somehow the bruises that covered his features had magically disappeared. But they hadn't, and he resolved not to hide behind the mask of Batman. This was something he needed to do as Bruce Wayne.
The transport was complete and she stood before him. But he couldn't move. Suddenly his mouth was dry and words would not form into coherent sentences.
Diana smiled, and he was warmed by her glow. "Hello, Bruce. How are you feeling?"
"Fine. I feel fine."
To her credit, Diana was patient, not filling the stillness with useless chatter. Although any type of chatter would be a welcome relief to his sudden lack of vocal expression.
Diana placed her hand on his arm. "Bruce? Are you sure you are all right? Perhaps you should sit."
Bruce shook himself from his mental void. "Uh…no. I'm fine," he said, but sat down anyway, landing heavily in the leather chair.
Diana pulled up a chair and sat beside him. "Shall I get Alfred?"
"No. No, I'm fine, really. I just…." He paused, trying to gather his thoughts. "This was all so much easier when I replayed it in my mind."
"Take your time. I'm not going anywhere."
Bruce nodded. "I want to apologize for before. I said some things that, at the time, I thought were for the best." He was a coward when he last spoke with her, only hours before he was abducted by Ra's al Ghul.
Diana looked away. "And now?"
"Now? Now I'm not so sure it was for the best."
Bruce felt Diana's hand slip into his. "Talia loved you," she said.
He sighed, knowing why Diana had broached this subject. He'd allowed himself the luxury of loving Talia. Diana was asking if he could, or would, allow himself to love again. "I know."
"She told me that you deserved to be loved. By someone who wouldn't hurt you like she did."
He looked at her, surprised. "She said that?"
"I wish things could have been different for her -- with her," he admitted.
Diana smiled. "I know."
"Yes, I do"
"I'm not sure where to go from here, Diana. I've never been very good at this."
"I know that, too."
"Then, what do you suggest?" He smirked.
Diana put her finger to her chin in mock thought. "Let me see…perhaps we can begin with a date."
"Yes. Isn't that what most men and women do to get to know each other?"
His smirk grew into a grin. "We already know each other."
"We know each other in a professional manner, and as friends. We do not know each other on an intimate level. We've never dated."
His grin was now a smile. "Then Diana, may I have the honor of escorting you to dinner? That is, when Alfred has given me a clean bill of health."
"Yes you may, Mr. Wayne. You certainly may."