Wonder Woman momentarily stopped her work to see Hawkgirl and the Martian Manhunter advancing toward her, scoping out the area and ready for battle. She had been digging through the rubble and scattered rock, trying to reopen the cave entrance. She had scarce gotten a few large stones removed when the backup arrived.
"Batman and Flash were in the cave when it collapsed," she told them, resuming her work.
Hawkgirl stowed her mace and activated her com link. "Superman, Hawkgirl. Flash and Batman are in trouble. We need you and Green Lantern hear ASAP," and she joined the excavating effort.
J'onn stood away from the two women, his orange eyes glowing fiercely. After a short moment, the huge Martian's head slowly sank as his eyes dimmed. "I can't sense them," he announced softly.
The two women froze, their collective breathing stopped. Shayera straightened up slowly as she stared wide-eyed at the pile of debris in front of her. Uncertain what to do, she turned toward J'onn.
Diana, still holding a massive boulder in her hands, felt pain. Physical pain from deep inside. The pit of her stomach went hollow and her lungs burned. Her grip on the rock grew tighter and her fingers started digging into the object, cracking stone, dust crumbling between her fingers. She finally released the breath she didn't even know that she was holding and it escaped her quivering lips in gusts. The implication of J'onn's statement was taking hold and she could feel the welling behind her reddening eyes. The first tear escaped past her eyelashes and left a clean trail on her dusty cheek.
"No," she hissed through clenched teeth. "No!"
Her protests did little to vent the building anger. Pain and anger mixing within her, pouring fury from her heart, through her veins.
"NO!" she screamed and threw the rock against the mountainside.
"Diana, I…" J'onn tried to console his teammate.
"Try again!" She commanded. The daggers in her eyes warned him that refusal wouldn't be accepted.
"I will try. I suggest you and Hawkgirl continue to dig," he offered, slipping into a meditative state.
Shayera nodded and resumed her labor. Diana soon joined her. The debris before the two warriors had little chance of stopping their determination. What wasn't thrown aside was pulverized by fist or mace. It wasn't long before the original cave entrance had been unearthed, although there were still several dozen meters' worth of digging to go.
As the teammates did their best to burrow, J'onn walked between the two women and phased through the rock. "I will try to locate them inside the mountain," he reported as his ghostly form disappeared into the earth. Within a minute he was back and it looked as if the Martian had been through a battle.
He sat down and held his head in a dazed state as Diana took to his side.
"Did you find them?" she asked impatiently. "What's the matter?"
"I'm not sure," J'onn answered regaining his clarity. "I couldn't go more than a few meters before something trapped me within the rock. It felt as if I was caught within a spider's web – I couldn't move at all and I could feel myself getting weaker. I barely had enough strength to make it back out."
"What kind of material can do that, J'onn?" Shayera asked joining the other two.
"Nothing that I know of," he replied. "In fact, I don't think it was the rock doing it. As I phase through material, I can feel the material within me, and if it affects me in any way, I can feel the affect from within as well. This was different. This felt like an outside force. I think there maybe some unknown energy field within the rock repelling me."
Diana's face grew darker as helplessness took deeper root. Shayera, too, seemed to have her hopes whittled away, but her face took to enlightenment as a realization seeded in her brain.
"J'onn, if there's an energy field within the rock keeping you from phasing through, could that also be blocking your telepathy?"
J'onn sat up straight. "Yes, it could…"
The three heroes exchanged looks of hope.
"We've got work to do."
"Are you alright?" Flash turned toward Batman in the total darkness, only to be surprised at the sudden glow from a bat-light in completely different direction.
"Fine." Batman's terse answer served as a warning to the younger man not to do anything more to complicate the situation – and that included getting in his way. The Dark Knight had a hand to the side of his head in an attempt to better hear the com link. Flash realized that he was getting nothing on his.
How did he get over there? Flash thought as he joined the figure that was all but invisible in the darkness of their cavernous prison. He boyishly stood behind Batman at a socially-safe distance as the great detective examine every angle of the cave-in. When the focus of investigation continued for more time than Flash could stand, curiosity suddenly became too great to contain.
"Whatcha lookin' for?"
"A way out." The answer stung. Upon hearing it, Flash realized how obvious it should have been. Rolling his eyes at his own stupidity he mentally chastised himself. Minus 10 points for stupidity.
Alright West, it's bad enough being trapped in here with… him, let's not get ourselves into more trouble than we already are.
Batman turned and looked Flash square in the eye. "What were you thinking?" he demanded.
"I told you and Wonder Woman not to move and the first thing you did was to run."
"Hey, I saw a bad guy and I went after him," Flash snapped back defensively. "That's what we do. We catch bad guys."
"Did you catch him?" Batman challenged back rhetorically.
The eye lenses on the bat narrowed dangerously.
"I would have if the mountain didn't cave in!" Flash argued. "Besides, you should be thanking me for saving your slow a…"
"From a cave-in that wouldn't have happened," Batman finished for him, "if you had done what you were told in the first place! This whole thing was a trap, an ambush! Somebody triggered the cave in because we were inside. The person you chased never came in here."
Flash was about to respond, when he considered that he just may have messed this one up. The thought came with the appropriate level of guilt, but what made things worse was the smug way Batman was all but saying 'I told you so.' That really irked him.
"What are you talking about?" Flash protested. "I saw him run in here."
"Then where is he?"
Flash cocked his head to the side as if listening for another person in the cavern with them. He tried to repeat the events in his head. There were no off-shoot tunnels that they passed on the way in. So either the person he was chasing was in the stone room with them, or Batman was right. Damn.
"There's nobody here but us. You chased an illusion." Batman's 'I told you so' tone switched to one of observation. "Once you were knocked through the bushes, he probably teleported away. The fact that our com links don't work means that this whole mountaintop is laced with some kind of shielding material or energy field."
Wally turned and looked around, but for what he had no idea. The small light wasn't bright enough to illuminate more than a few feet in any direction.
"Wonder Woman knows where we are," Wally said as if discovering something. "And since she's outside, that means her com link should still work. She and Supes will have us out of her in no time."
"Don't count on it," Batman answered. "Whoever shielded this cavern, cloaked all the sites around the globe and caused those meteorites to crash with pin-point accuracy. They have technology beyond almost anything else on earth. They obviously knew how to bait us into this trap. Now Wonder Woman is outside alone, taking enemy fire from a limited-cover defensive position. Green Lantern and Superman could be falling into similar traps at the other locations because I can't warn them. Hawk Girl and Manhunter could fall into the same ambush as we did when you ran off half-cocked…"
Batman's voice grew louder and more accusing with each theory outlined. Flash felt the bitterness swell within him as he grew more defensive. His discomfort was boiling into something more akin to hatred. There was just no pleasing this man, no matter how hard he tried. Everybody in the League walked on eggshells around him. Everybody in the League didn't question a single thing he did or said.
Flash had tried so hard to earn his respect, his approval and came up short every time. And the times he tried harder, he fell even shorter. He tried to be more like Batman, but looked ridiculously childish doing so. He tried to be himself, but couldn't seem to relax. He tried to be even more Wally-ish, but that seemed to annoy Batman more. Now, he was trying to catch the bad guy and save the day and he couldn't even do that right. He even saved Batman's life and he was getting the blame for putting his life in jeopardy to start with.
No more trying.
No more cowering before this man.
No more living life like an excuse around him.
"ENOUGH!" It took Flash a second to realize that he'd actually yelled it out loud. If he wasn't so mad at himself and infuriated with the intimidating shadow among the shadows in front of him, he may have actually been embarrassed at the uncontrolled show of anger and emotion. He did the best he could to not get mad – or at least stay mad. Now he'd been pushed too far. This time he wasn't backing down.
This time he stood toe-to-toe with the dark, menacing man in the heart of a cave. He sized the taller man up and looked him square in the eye. Every muscle in his body was tense and his physiology was kicking into hyper-speed. Flash didn't know what to expect, but if it got physical, he'd be ready. This would NOT be a replay of the training arena. This time, Flash was going to show this arrogant, non-powered brick of a man that The Flash was just as much of a hero as anybody in the League, just as much of a presence as any force on earth, and just as much an equal as Superman or Wonder Woman.
Precious seconds ticked by as the two stood mere inches apart, trying to stare each other down. The first flinch would set the tone for their relationship forever. Flash wasn't about to let it be him. The intimidation of Batman's glare wasn't working this time, if anything, it was emboldening him. Flash wasn't letting down, not this time. The energy and emotion he was holding in at this moment made him indestructible, fearless.
Inside, Flash was ready to explode. He wanted to rip the bigger man's head off. He wanted to open his mouth and unload all the rage he was keeping in. He wanted to take off, screaming at the top of his lungs - not out of fear, but just to let it all out. But he didn't do any of that. It was clear to him that his exclamation was all he needed to say. It was clear to him that his physical stance and proximity to his antagonist was being received in the manner in which he meant it. He was no longer the recipient of aggression in this conflict, now he was the aggressor. His position was clear and he knew it. He all but challenged the taller man to make the next move.
Still precious seconds crawled on.
What happened next was not only completely unexpected, but also completely disarming. It was the absolutely last thing Flash would have anticipated to witness from Batman – ever – let alone in a staring contest.
He smirked and nodded his head almost imperceptibly. It wasn't defeat, it was acknowledgment he displayed.
Letting out a sigh, the black figure turned and stepped past Flash towards the middle of the cavern. Taking out a grapple from under his cape, he fired it up at the stony overhead, where the metallic clank evidenced that it caught fast. Fastening the small flashlight to the wire on the end, turning up the brightness and hoisting it up towards the stalactites, the newly-lit cavern didn't look so cavernous anymore.
Flash watched with uncertainty. The rage had all but vanished and had been replaced by question.
What's he doing? What does this mean? Are we still mad at each other?
It wasn't clear what that meant. Batman's voice, calm and casual was betraying nothing of his emotion or his view of the present situation.
Huh?! Did Batman just THANK me? Was that sarcasm? So, he IS he picking a fight! Well then if he wants…
"For what?" Wally replied as casually as his mixed emotions would allow. Now didn't seem like the time to instigate any more - nor appear defensive. If there's going to be a conflict here, he would make damn sure that he would come out on top, but he wasn't about to start one if it could be helped.
"For saving me from the cave in." came the reply. There was something about the tone of voice that seemed out of place. Wally couldn't put his finger on it, but whatever it was, it was definitely unfamiliar. Was it… sincerity?
"Don't mention it," Wally said just as sincerely.
Batman meandered towards a rocky formation that looked like it could have been an easy chair for some prehistoric family, slumped down into it and took off his cowl. Looking over at Wally, he smiled.
"I guess we got some time to kill, huh?" he asked the bewildered speedster.
Slowly, tentatively, Wally found his own little stone seat and tried to get comfortable as well. He took his mask off and looked around as if with new eyes.
"There's no way out then?"
"I can't find anything," Batman… no, Bruce admitted. "Can you?"
The question was sincere. It wasn't condescending or hypocritical in any way. It almost seemed that they were just two men talking, not two of the greatest heroes on earth trapped inside a mountain, no tension in Batman's voice. There was no darkness, no brooding. If Wally didn't know better, he'd think that he was being talked to rather than at.
"Look, Batman…" Wally began.
"Do me a favor," Bat-Bruce raised a gloved hand. "When the mask is off, call me Bruce."
"Yeah," Bruce explained. "Batman's taking a break for a few minutes."
Wally thought about that as deeply as he could for about a second and a half. His logic ran so many loops inside his head, he tripped over the tangles and got confused.
"The last time I called you 'Bruce' you looked at me like I just kicked your puppy." Wally said with a touch of disbelief in his voice. "In fact you've never let me call you 'Bruce'… let anybody call you 'Bruce'."
Wally's voice built with a streak of accusation as he talked. Bruce smirked as he finished.
"The last time you called be that, I was Batman. Batman is Batman, I'm Bruce," he said with a disarming smile growing across his face.
The frown on Wally's face begged for more explanation.
"Identity," Bruce said with a pause to let it sink in. "I've worked very hard over the years to build a specific identity for Batman. He's a symbol… an idea more than a person."
There it was – the start of a conversation… one that seemed long overdue. Without being asked, Bruce had started explaining the first of many things that had beguiled Wally for some time. Without prompting, Bruce was confessing something within – sharing a part of himself to… a friend?
"People are vulnerable," he continued. "corruptible… fragile."
"But you are a person." Wally protested. "I don't get it."
Bruce's eyes drifted to the far end of the cavern as he nodded in understanding. He carefully contemplated the best way to explain things from Wally's point of view.
"How many honest politicians have you known?"
Wally's snicker was enough of an answer.
"How many American Flags have lied to you?" Bruce continued without receiving an answer. "A politician is a person. Even the most powerful and most honest of them still have their limits. It's the truly incorruptible ones that have been immortalized because of their virtue. Even they, however, had their flaws. The history books just clean them up a little."
"Like Abe Lincoln," Wally injected, wanting to add to the conversation and show understanding. He started to realize that this was an honest conversation – the first he'd ever had with this man. It was clearly a poignant time in his life. To be accepted by Batman… Bruce Wayne… as an equal… it felt like a right of passage.
"A symbol," Bruce continued with a nod, "like the American Flag… or any flag, for that matter… is a representation of an idea. An idea is untouchable – it is what it is. It represents something in people's hearts and minds.
"Batman is a symbol. It's his inhuman characteristics that separate him from other people involved with the law – other people that can be bought & sold, threatened… coerced… even ransomed into going against their beliefs. You can't do that to a symbol. Symbols are unstoppable."
Wally nodded in thoughtful understanding. The two men sat in silence for a moment as the magnitude of the explanation sank in. It wasn't too far off from what Wonder Woman had said earlier that day. But hearing it from Batm… Bruce illuminated the whole concept.
"Y'know I can see that," Wally started after a moment. "I can see how you would want to keep that kind of a reputation in-tact. It gives you a mental edge against your enemies – they perceive you… "
Bruce's eyebrows rose as he corrected Wally with a glance.
"…Batman as a modern-day Elliot Ness. They are disarmed by that perception…"
"And Power perceived…"Bruce interrupted.
"…Is power achieved," they finished in unison.
"But why do you insist that the rest of the members of the league call you Batman all day? It's not like we don't all know each other's secret identities or anything. Heck, we know more about each other than most of the other people in our lives… "
"It's practice, really," Bruce answered. "To put it simply, I am Batman when in uniform. I have to act like him, think like him. Walk, talk, move, fight…"
"…sulk like him (thank you) in this uniform," Bruce pointed to the bat symbol on his chest. "Or at least when I have the cape and cowl on. If I get into the habit of becoming too comfortable around people while I'm in uniform – while I'm Batman – even around the others in the Leaguer, then I may get sloppy. I could let my guard down when I'm out on patrol. That could be deadly – and not just for me."
Wally considered that. How many times had he, the fastest man alive, been taken by surprise because he wasn't "on" at the time? In hyperspeed, he was The Flash. Unless he was using his superspeed, he was just Wally West. The duality of his situation had always helped him appreciate the same in the others within the League. Even Superman and Wonder Woman could be taken by surprise if they weren't prepared for the situation.
Prepared. Batman is always prepared. The light all but went on over Wally's head. Maybe he isn't always prepared. He has never shown any chink in his armor, figuratively or literally. He always seemed indestructible… Wally had never perceived… Perceived!
There it was. His intimidation of Batman – everybody's intimidation was all because of perception. Call him Batman when in uniform. The serious tone he took – even in the most light-hearted situation. The show of invulnerability in any situation, even if he was injured. He can't tip his hand, not to his enemies or even his allies. He can't let his guard down, not in uniform anyways.
Suddenly, Wally was completely aware of Bruce. Batman wasn't in the room any more. Bruce was sitting there talking with him, a living, breathing, thinking, feeling human being that can be hurt, killed, embarrassed, flattered, just like any other human being in the world. How good of a job had he hid that fact? How long has Wally known Batman, but never understood him? To understand him was to know his weakness. Batman made it a point to let no one understand him. If no one understands him, no one knows his weaknesses. No weaknesses means that he's indestructible… A symbol… untouchable.
"I can't anticipate everything," Bruce admitted, seeing the expression of understanding grow on Wally's face. "But I do everything I can to make it look like I can. I've gotten pretty good at it over the years, but I'm still learning, still teaching myself. I could be better…"
"Better at what?" Wally blurted. "I don't know anybody that can do what you do."
"What do I do?" Bruce said sitting forward. "I absorb the details of a situation and calculate the cause and effect of it all based on what I understand. We all do it. I just do it a little differently."
"Differently?" Wally stammered in disbelief. "Man, Sherlock Holmes had nothing on you."
"Did you ever read Sherlock Holmes?"
"Well… no. But I saw the movie… The one where the gun was tied to a string and a rock and when the guy shot himself, it dropped into the river…" Wally West was slowly sliding into a comfortable state of mind. He was rambling again.
"Movie," Bruce interrupted, bringing Wally back into the conversation rather than hovering around it. "Try reading it next time. You'll find out that Holmes wasn't the smartest guy around. He wasn't dumb, but he was no Einstein. He just trained himself how to think and what to observe. He had connections all around London and a keen eye for observing the facts – logic did the rest."
"But you have all those things in your belt!"
"Options," Bruce's response didn't completely quell Wally's curiosity. "I have so many things in the bat cave that I could carry – I just make sure I cover as many possibilities with the things I have available."
"Tell me about the zip ties!"
Bruce's confusion was evident.
"You pulled out a plastic zip tie and secured a loose cable on the Watchtower once and I…"
"Oh, yeah," Bruce smiled. "I carry a pack of those on patrol every night. They're great at binding suspects. Handcuffs are bulky and heavy. I can carry 50 zip ties in one compartment."
The cleverness and simplicity of it amazed the young Mr. West.
"And I thought Boy Scouts were supposed to 'Be Prepared'!" Wally said and his little allusion was not lost on Bruce.
"Superman is good," Bruce commented. "One of the best. I mean, there's only so much he can carry in his suit, but he really doesn't need to much, does he?"
Wally shook his head with a smile.
"He can use his mind pretty well, too, when he has to. But having that much physical ability, it can become too easy to rely on it, rather than use it. I'm amazed and afraid of how much power that man has and how he hasn't used it to do some of the things that other people would try if they had it."
"The Justice Lords." Wally nodded in understanding.
"Among others," Bruce added. "Can you honestly say that you'd be as reserved if you had all the power he had?"
Wally's first instinct was to object as Superman isn't as fast as The Fastest Man Alive. However, he didn't. He let that… juvenile(?)… protest pass and thought about it more deeply.
"I don't know what I would do if I had just one of his abilities, let alone all of them," Bruce offered.
"Wait a second…" Wally considered a possibility. "You sound… jealous of him."
Bruce laughed. "A little. Yeah, I guess I am in some ways."
"Huh," Wally smiled thoughtfully.
"I tell you what I'm not jealous of," Bruce continued. "The constant struggle he goes through to NOT use them."
"You think he struggles with that?"
"Yeah, I guess I do. Never thought about it, really. I mean, it's pretty simple – if I can help somebody because I'm fast, I do."
"How often do you help yourself?"
"What? You mean like stealing something because nobody's fast enough to catch me? I don't do that." Wally didn't want to add 'any more', but it would have been too obvious. His past was just that – past.
"No, just doing things because you can," Bruce had a point to make. "Ever speed down to the store for something to eat? You don't steal it, but you're there in a split second…"
"Sure. That's nothing bad. I'm not hurting anybody or abusing my powers in any way."
"Really?" Bruce challenged. "How is that different than, say, a police officer turning on the lights to his squad car when there's no emergency so he can run a red light – even if nobody's around?"
"Well, I guess if you go letter-for-letter by the book, that's wrong, but if nobody's around…"
"Ah! There it is!" Bruce pointed. "that word 'if'. The Policeman has been trusted with power for a specific reason. He knows what he's supposed to do with it – it's written out for him in a book somewhere. Wiser heads than his outlined that book. All he has to do is follow directions."
"But you…" Bruce continued. "Nobody has told you what to do with your powers. Nobody told you why you have them. With the exception of John and maybe Diana, none of you metas were given outlined instructions about what to do, how to do it, what you can't or shouldn't do with it.
"That policeman example… What if there was somebody there that he didn't see? What if he didn't feel it wasn't against the rules and did it more and more often? What if it became so comfortable with him that he doesn't think twice? What if the law becomes only so many suggestions in his mind, not hard-set rules? Ever hear about the frog and boiling water?"
"Yeah," Wally nodded in corrected understanding. "It's easier to stay out than to get out."
Bruce smiled in shared satisfaction. His point had been made.
"I worry about it all the time," Bruce confided in all seriousness. "I worry about myself – if I'm doing the right thing, if I will continue to do the right thing. I worry about people that don't do the right thing. I worry about people that try to do what they think is the right thing. I worry about people, like Superman and you and Diana and pretty much anybody with that much power, who do the right thing, but for whatever reason my choose to not do the right thing."
"ME?! And Supes?"
"Sure, why not? How hard would it be to drive a person to do the wrong thing?"
Wally didn't know if Bruce was referring to it or not, but he thought about the rage he was containing just ten minutes earlier, when he almost accosted the world's greatest detective. The thought of Superman – or any of his teammates - going rogue was something Wally had never thought of before now, but he could easily catch the nature of those implications. What could be done to stop him? Kryptonite, maybe…
"THAT'S why!" Wally sat up with a streak of eureka in his voice.
"You carry Kryptonite with you, don't you!"
Bruce seemed a little uncomfortable for the briefest of moments. It was clear that he was mulling over something in his mind before he spoke. Was he getting uncomfortable sharing this much information? Was he tipping too much of his hand?
"THAT'S how you were able to knock him down at that meeting that one day!"
Bruce sat back lost in thought. Harkening back to the incident described, he completed the picture.
"I was in the process of many things on that particular day," Bruce recalled. "There was a nerve agent detected in a grade school in Gotham and the police thought that Scarecrow could have been behind it. Clark… Superman called that meeting and demanded that Batman's presence was required. It wasn't. And…"
Bruce considered continuing. He leaned back further and lifted his hips off the stone seat. Pulling up the left side of his Kevlar vest and peeling up the under layer, exposed a nasty looking scar on his abdomen, just below the rib cage. Wally looked on with concern at the mark. When Bruce twisted over to show another on his back, Wally was aghast.
"Armor-piercing round," Bruce explained. " went straight through. Simple burglary job – or so I thought. They knew what they were doing and they were prepared for me – I wasn't. I was able to take 'em down…"
Bruce trailed off as he reminisced about that one of thousands of incidents. Wally thought about the perception of invulnerability – or in this case, of somebody challenging that perception.
"Did they know they got you?"
"They know they hit me," Bruce laughed. He understood why that question was asked. "But, I think I did a pretty good job of covering it. The guy that fired that shot… You should have seen the look on his face when Batman didn't go down! He even saw the cape flinch when the bullet came out the back…"
Bruce imitated the expression. Wally sat back and laughed with him. He could envision some hapless perpetrator thinking that he got the drop on the infamous Batman, and the consequences of that error. It was interesting to hear Bruce talk about Batman in the third person. The two men chuckled and died down into a comfortable silence. Realization then hit Wally.
"Wait, that happened the night before that meeting?"
Bruce nodded, eyebrows raised.
"You must have still been bleeding!"
"Leslie did a good job of patching me up that morning. I had Alfred cancel all my appointments for the next couple days. The rest of the group was going to cover for me…"
"Perception, Wally," It was the first time he could remember Bruce or Batman calling him that name. "Dick sometimes takes over as Batman if I can't go out for some reason. If I'm injured, well… nobody would be able to tell that I got injured. Sometimes it lets me go out as Bruce Wayne while Batman makes an appearance…"
Wally's head bobbed as he could finish the sentence in his own thoughts.
Batman was suffering from an injury that would have put a normal person in the hospital for days, if not longer. Yet he was up at the watchtower within hours of the incident as if nothing ever happened. And he didn't seem any grumpier at the time, just upset about having to be there… then about the fact that Superman had been seen working in Gotham… then about Wonder Woman calling him Bruce. No wonder.
"It's not Kryptonite," Bruce started. "Not exactly. Carrying that around on a long-term basis would hurt me, even if it was encased in lead. No, it's a close derivative of it, with softer effects. I keep it just in case… well, just in case."
Peaceful silence reigned in the cave for a few brief moments. Just two men talking and explaining some of their tensions away. Wally's appreciation for Bruce's openness was evident. What wasn't so obvious was Bruce's appreciation for Wally's understanding.
"I try to take into account," Bruce broke, "as many contingencies as I can. It's a lot of hard work. It takes a lot of time to pull it all off. I'm pretty lucky in that I had the means and a great support group around me. Then again, I get lucky sometimes."
It hit Wally that he had probably never heard Batman say "I" more than 5 times in his whole life. He wasn't even too sure if he had actually talked with Bruce, but if he had, he wouldn't have recognized his voice over the phone. The duality of it all was recognizable at times, but completely foreign at others. To watch this man, Batman, and yet to hear him talk about Batman… it was almost surreal.
The conversation continued, at times deep and serious, at times light and laced with laughter. Wally talked about his childhood. He wasn't too surprised that Bruce already knew a lot of it. They also talked about their first encounters with the others in the League, some heroes not in the League, and each other. Diana was right, there was a lot that they had in common; many things exactly the same, yet many things that, on the surface, seemed exactly the opposite, yet not.
"… within 15 minutes of meeting Wally West, I knew you were Flash…"
"OK, now what exactly gave it away?" Flash challenged. "Because you're the only person without x-ray vision or mental telepathy to figure it out!"
"The first clue was your posture. Clark stoops, Superman doesn't. You… you've got good posture… always standing up straight. Even as Wally West. You slouch when you sit on the sofa watching movies."
Wally thought about that for a second.
"Not many people stand or sit up straight these days," Bruce continued. "You're left handed. You don't do much to disguise your voice….and…"
"I had heard Flash sneeze plenty of times. You sneezed the exact same way."
"Everybody sneezes! Are you saying that no two people sneeze alike?"
"No, I'm saying that a person with the same height, weight, build, posture, voice and sneeze living in the same city as a superhero could possibly be that superhero. I took an educated guess and it was right."
Wally considered changing some things about himself when not in uniform as they carried on. The lessons and the learning continued on both sides of the room. Bruce seemed keenly interested in Wally's memories of what he felt like before he was the Flash as compared to after he got his powers. It was clear that he was cataloging that as data for his knowledge and analysis of how people's mindset may be altered when something extraordinary, like super-human powers, enters their lives. But Wally didn't take that as offensive or insulting. It was just as clear that Bruce was trying to understand him, Wally West, the man.
"… keeping fit and sound. That's hard work and long hours. I try my best to make sure it never becomes 'routine'. When Batman is on patrol, nothing should be routine."
"So, when you spar with Shayera, does she take it easy on you?" Wally asked. "Sometimes I wish she would take it easy on me!"
"I can tell when she does," Bruce answered, "and I let her know that I don't appreciate it, despite her good intentions. I use the 6 of you to keep myself sharp. Basically, I'm practicing on you guys. How good of a job am I doing if I can evade J'onn's senses? How good am I if I can surprise Superman or Wonder Woman? How good am I if I can leave a room before you notice I'm gone?"
Wally took that as a compliment, although he couldn't help but feel a little used. He had to admire the concept though. How much work and practice did it take to accomplish all of this? Let alone all the other things he does and can do… Diana was right, he is an incredible guy. No wonder that she sees more in him than most people do.
"Can I ask you something kinda personal?" Wally was going to push the envelope a little more.
Bruce didn't respond, but simply looked at him expectantly.
"What's up with you and Diana?"
Batman was back. Even without the cowl, the 'don't go there' look said it all. Wally knew he had made a mistake the second it left his mouth, his big, fat, juvenile mouth…
"I love her."
"Probably can't tell, though, can you?"
Wally shook his head and Bruce nodded in turn.
"It's… difficult… living my life. Maybe more so than any other member of the League. It's a path I choose a long time ago and I have no intention on leaving that path. Unfortunately, when it comes to Diana, that path was never intended for two."
"Dick's different. He chose a path darn near parallel to mine. I helped him along it, gave him the tools he needs to accomplish the goals that he set on… that day. Sometimes I have to help him stay on that path."
Bruce pondered his estranged adopted son, all grown up and living life anew in a different city. Wally felt like he was on eggshells again. He was curious to know more, but didn't want to risk pushing the topic. The last thing he wanted was to turn the situation sour again.
"But Diana… She's on a parallel path, too, isn't she?"
"Even if she is, our relationship is very different from my relationship with Dick, doncha think?"
"Listen, Bruce Wayne gets… involved… with a lot of women – and makes it publicly known. He's a playboy, a faithless, flakey spoiled brat that thinks nothing of spending more money on one date than most people make in a year. The tabloids love that guy. He's on the cover of one every other day. He can't just… drop out of the society pages. The paparazzi would be all over Wayne Manor… worse than they already are.
"If I'm going to have a lasting relationship with Diana," Bruce's voice shifted, something… morbid. "All that glitz has to end. And it can't end… not just yet. Not too quickly – it would raise more questions than it answers."
The deliberate public image that Bruce used Bruce Wayne for – to cover for Batman – was a dimension that Wally had never considered. He didn't have three lives, just two.
"I still don't know how to make it all work – or even if I can – or if I should," Bruce said forlornly. "She deserves more than I can give her right now. Sometimes I think she deserves more than I'll ever be able to give her. If I live to get old and gray, I'll go to my grave with her looking just as young and beautiful as she does now."
"But she is here now," Wally observed. "She's here and you're here and you have the chance to make each other happy now. To heck with the future."
"At times I think the exact same thing. All those old clichés; the bird in the hand… love lost is better… all that. I've even thought about dumping the whole thing for her and…"
"You mean, the whole Batman thing… ?"
Bruce nodded an affirmation. The magnitude hit Wally in waves. Gotham without Batman. The League without Batman. The world without Batman. Then, slowly, other angles… the tabloids without Bruce Wayne's antics. The tabloids with Bruce Wayne and the Princess together. The coincidences of Wonder Woman, Batman, Bruce Wayne, Princess Diana… could somebody figure it all out? So much to think about and Wally wasn't even involved!
"Believe me, if it can work, I'd move heaven and earth to make it so."
"You'd pretty much have to, wouldn't you?"
"Well, you must know what I mean. What about Linda…"
The two plain-talking heroes discussed relationships they'd tried, regretted… the gossip. They shared laughs about the press. They traded stories about defeating bad guys and teaming up with other good guys. The only thing missing was a few beers.
"…OK, I've gotta ask you; Something that's been buggin me for a couple years now…"
Bruce's face slid into an expectant smile.
"How in the world did you catch me…"
"… in the training arena?" Bruce finished the question for the bewildered young man.
"Y'know, if it's any consolation to you, that one still puts a smile on my face now and again. I couldn't have scripted it any better..."
Wally was stunned. Was it LUCK?
"I knew you were going to be tough to catch. We were still pretty new as a team, so I was certain that each member would try to catch you on their own before they figured out how to work together. I used that time to observe your techniques. I saw a pattern in your escape routes… that and you're left handed. Compound that with your… natural tendencies to boast. It was only a matter of time before you were pinned down temporarily. Once you escaped, depending on the location and who was still left in the arena free to catch you, I took a guess at your most likely route and waited."
Wally was still in the throes of awe.
"I had actually missed you twice before that – but you didn't see me. That last time, you made the mistake of turning your head as you ran - over your left shoulder (left handed), so all I had to do was give you a little bump and send you off course. The rest was easy. By the way, next time, don't tease people so much as your escaping; if you hadn't looked over your shoulder, you probably would have seen me setting that ambush!"
Bruce let a soft chuckle escape recalling that particular incident. He truly was relaxing, being… human, despite all Wally knew. Wally was learning to be more at ease around him as well. To anybody else, it would appear that two old friends were laughing about the good old days. There were no signs of any past tension or animosity. Could these two polar opposites have actually found common ground?
Perhaps it was more of a father/son type of bond building between them. Wally was hanging on every word Bruce said about certain missions or ways that he had beaten the odds, or just been plain lucky, but made it seem as if the whole wide world was his to master. The young hero was taking cues from the old pro. Their differences aside, Wally had started to appreciate Batman, and Bruce even more. He never had taken his powers for granted, although he talked a lot of trash to make it seem otherwise. But at times he had forgotten how lucky he was to have his gifts. This time together with Bruce, he was deeply reminded that his powers meant that he indeed had an obligation to use it for good and not let the power go to his head.
The minutes ticked on as the two sat and talked about whatever they felt. They would occasionally check their com links for signs of activity or progress in their rescue. They had long since discussed survival options. The volume of the cavern allowed for several day's worth of air and the temperature was a relatively comfortable 68ºF. Unfortunately, there was no food or water available, so if anything they would starve or dehydrate to death before suffocating.
Wally was more particularly worried about the starving than anything else. He hadn't been in high gear for a while now, so his metabolism wasn't much higher than the average young adult. But he was still getting hungry.
"I was wondering when you were going to mention food."
"Hey, you know me… I enjoy the culinary delights of our world with reckless abandon…"
"Cupcakes and iced mochas?"
"Yeah! What's wrong with iced mocha? Your girlfriend seems to like them!"
"OK, one; It would be best for you to NOT refer to Diana as my 'girlfriend'. And 2; I wasn't saying that there's anything wrong with iced mocha…I like them too… I just wonder sometimes how much your diet affects your abilities."
"Oh, that. Well the sugar rush is definitely a good thing. Those fast calories get me into top speed even faster. I do tend to tire more easily when I'm on a long burst of speed, though."
"What about your health? I wasn't aware of any special regeneration abilities or things of that nature. It's one thing to burn off the calories – that just keeps the fat off, it's another thing to actually consume a healthy diet. Wouldn't it be better for your stamina if cream filling wasn't one of your major food groups?"
"Probably. But do you know how much easier it is to eat sponge cake at top speed? I'd pull a jaw muscle trying to chew broccoli that fast."
"To be honest, Wally, I don't think many people would mind if your yapper was disabled once in a while." Bruce meant that as a joke, despite most people's belief that the man was incapable of humor. Unfortunately, that particular comment was a little too close to the truth to be taken completely as humor. Perhaps it was the hunger, perhaps sitting on the rocks for too long was making his back ache. Whatever it was, Wally didn't take that comment as harmlessly as it was intended.
"OK, I know I talk a little too much some times," He confessed. "I'm trying to help the situation. Really. I can't understand why some people would just let situations sit like they do when just a few words could clear things up. I mean, look at the two of us right now… a few hours ago, we were at each other's throats…"
Bruce had sensed the frustration and insecurity resurfacing in the young man. He saw that his friendly jab had been received as a slap in the face. Bruce had observed from day one that Wally had always played the role of the younger brother in the League, and although his personality had already fit that part to a tee, there were times when there seemed to be a lack of proper respect shown. To his credit, Wally never disrespected the others out of spite, but sometimes he tried too hard to win recognition. That kind of dwelling for attention, credit, respect, whatever it was… it had occasionally served to further cement his baby-of-the-League status.
Clearly this was a sore spot with Wally. Bruce knew there was that dimension there within the League. He never tried to do anything about it, personally. In fact, he at times felt guilty for maintaining it – either by deliberate or subconscious action.
Taking a rare step for Bruce, Bruce Wayne or Batman, the veteran crime fighter interrupted and offered some sincere advice.
"Wally, can I say something critical and you promise not to get mad or defensive about it?"
Wally had almost taken that question as patronizing as well. His mental defenses were on high alert and he was getting sensitive to the little things. Had he spoken without thinking, the situation wouldn't have improved. Fortunately for both trapped men, he didn't. He took an honest look at his new friend's face and decided that he was attempting to be frank. Upon Wally's silent consent, Bruce continued.
"I think you're a spoiled brat some times."
Bruce paused to let that sink in, get Wally's full attention and to test the speedster to see if he would allow him to finish or blurt out a rebuttal right away. Bruce was pleased that he didn't.
"You have powers that I don't think you fully appreciate or understand. You don't have to go to the gym to maintain your physical abilities. You don't have to practice to out-run the bad guys. When you're moving at mach speed, your mind is moving just as fast. You don't seem to use that to your advantage like you could."
Wally felt the guilt and discomfort intensify within. As his mind was at that moment, this kind of criticism wasn't very welcome. It was hard to make a conscious decision to hear Bruce out, but he made it.
"I don't do this very often," Bruce continued. "I usually just point out what's wrong and either fix it myself or leave others to their own devices to fix it. I figure they'll learn more from something by doing it themselves. I've tried that with you over these past couple years; to express to you how much I disapprove of some of your methods, habits, whatever…"
"That's who I am," Wally disputed.
"I'm not trying to change who you are… not directly. What I'm saying is…"
Bruce took a second to select the best approach for his thoughts.
"You're a great hero – one of the best around. You have a personality that helps keep the rest of us in check sometimes. You're thoughtful and considerate. You have so much potential. But Wally, that's a word that I hate… potential. It means that you're capable of more and you're not doing it."
Wally had always thought that potential was a good word. He would take that word as a compliment. Not two months ago Shayera and Diana had said a similar thing to him. Something to the effect that someday he would be legendary in the lore of heroes on earth. How could he not take that as a compliment?
Now he knew how. What's keeping him from being that good now? What was he waiting for? Why can't he focus his efforts on doing his job better now? Was he waiting for something or somebody to tell him that it's time to step up his game? Bruce was doing just that right now, Wally understood.
"Imagine what you could do if you did train more. Imagine how much more potent you could be if your diet had more carbs and less carbonated soda. Your enemies hardly stand a chance now, but how much more positive will your victories be if you realized your potential and unlocked all your power? I don't have what you have Wally."
And there it was. Bruce's last little statement was a flashing red light in Wally's mind. He doesn't have what I have. He envies me.
All those times when Batman chastised Flash; from goofing off on monitor duty to running off half-cocked without a proper plan to single-handedly depleting the Watchtower pantry of all but some base ingredients. They were expressions of disappointment, but not of animosity-laced rejection. Bruce was trying to shame Wally into making better choices. Batman was challenging Flash to grow up.
"You're a great kid, Wally. We need you for your speed and your personality. I'd never try to change those, except to make them better. Take it as you will."
The silence that concluded the last of the assessment was a time for both men to ponder. Neither really knew what to say after that. Fortunately, neither of them had to say anything.
A faint buzz sounded from inside the discarded cowl next to Bruce's rock throne. Wally put his mask back on to hear the slightest indications of transmissions being received.
"… Batm… lash… not receiving… sending… J'onn has isol...ted… signal gen..ator… shut down."
"They've found whatever it was that was shielding us from the outside!" Wally's exclamation earned him a quick shush as Batman was trying to pick up the massage from the fragments.
"…rypton..te… Superman from br..king… rock. He and Wond… oman… engaging with… emy forces…"
"Hawk Girl! This is Batman! Respond!"
"…atman! Rec…ving you… reaking up."
"When can you get us out of here."
"Batman! We…xpect to hav… ou and Fla… out… 20…inutes…"
"20 minutes! Roger! Batman out!"
"It's about time!" Flash said sitting back on the rocks with a sigh.
"Actually, I'm surprised they're getting us out this early."
"Who did this? Do you know?"
"Grodd," Batman harrumphed. "When J'onn and I discovered that this mountain top was cloaked, I thought it might have been similar technology used to hide Gorilla City. When the origin of the force generators that rerouted the meteorites turned out to be tropical places, then that confirmed my theories."
"Did he do all this just to trap us?"
"I don't think so. My guess is that he built this trap to catch at least one of us – maybe more. His energy field not only cut off communications, but prevented J'onn from phasing through. Shayera just mentioned Kryptonite as well – that would take care of superman. And I'll bet that, when we get out of here, we'll find that Themiscyra was the first major target of his meteorite summoning weapon – that would have preoccupied Wonder Woman. He tried to neutralize or preoccupy as many of us as he could."
"Now that you mention it," Flash recalled, "that guy behind the trees – the one I tangled with before we came in here – I didn't get a good look at him, but I know he was big. He was probably one of Grodd's soldiers in disguise."
Both men turned to see the Martian Manhunter materialize before them as he stepped through the stone walls of their mountain prison.
"About time," the deep baritone voice echoed throughout the cavern.
Wally looked and saw that Bruce was now gone and Batman had returned from his break.
"Good to see you, too Batman."
"Hey, J'onn…" Wally put his hand on a huge green shoulder. "You got anything to eat?"
A few minutes more and the cavern had a new opening opposite side of the original. Grodd hadn't secured enough Kryptonite to surround the entire void, so he put as much as he could around the entrance of the cave. With the energy field blocking all forms of scans, it was impossible to see that there was only a few square meters laced with it. J'onn couldn't phase through nor communicate telepathically with the captives. The energy field had affected Green Lantern's ring as well, making excavation very slow.
Wonder Woman was defending her home island from the projectiles Grodd's technology had reigned down upon it. When Grodd's forces staged all-out assault on Athens, where many of Europe's leaders were meeting in a Summit, the excavation had to be abandoned altogether. The other members of the League helped to quell the attack before returning to the mountain.
"Looks like we missed out on all the action!" Flash turned to Batman as the two emerged into the glow of the setting sun. The Montana sky shown purple and orange with the first hints of night and a few stars peeking out to the east.
Wonder Woman, dirty, exhausted and disheveled, couldn't contain her relief at finding Batman and Flash alive and well. She threw her arms around Flash. However, an almost imperceptible shake of Batman's head warned her not to give him the same greeting. It seemed to Flash that everyone present was turning away to hide knowing smiles from the two.
In the Watchtower later that night, all the meetings adjourned, all the reports filed and all the stories exchanged, J'onn retired to the monitor womb to take over duties for his shift and the rest were headed to their homes or rooms in the orbiting space station for a well-earned night's sleep.
As Bruce Wayne awoke in the gossamer folds of his bed at Wayne Manor, he was greeted by his loyal Alfred, who had mysteriously included a frothy iced mocha with Bruce's normal breakfast fare.
At almost the same moment on the Watchtower, Wally was joined by Shayera and John Stewart in the cafeteria as he was finishing up his second breakfast.
"This was left for you in the conference room by someone," John stated as he handed Wally a copy of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.
"Who gave you that?" Shayera inquired over her coffee.
"Mr. Dark and Gloomy, himself," Wally responded with a quiet smile.
"Bruce gave you that?" John asked.
"No," Wally corrected. "Batman did."