Disclaimer: DC owns all these characters as far as I know. No profit is gained by this fic.
As always, a mighty thanks to Kipling-Nori for being the mega-beta and so much more.
This story is a sequel of sorts to "A Better World". There are spoilers. It is also a companion piece to another story of mine; The Powers That Be (which is a prequel to "A Better World"), but I'm going to try to write it so you don't have to read that one. We'll see how it goes.
Chapter 1: The Only Way
"I have to admit, Alfred," Bruce started with a sigh, "I've never seen Gotham so clean… so… ideal."
He leaned back into the leather sofa in his study and covered his face with both hands, wiping the exhaustion from his eyes. Chalk it up as another in a long string of events he had thought impossible before the Justice League had been formed.
"Yes, but at what cost, sir?" Alfred asked as he set down the tray of ice water and fruit on the mahogany table nearby.
"That's the catch, isn't it?" Bruce replied. "Are the little freedoms worth the pain or is the over-all concept of a Utopian society better in the long run?"
"Well, I can speak from experience, sir, in coming to America from Great Britain. You see, over there, many people will behave very differently in public than they do in private because they don't wish to appear improper. Keeping up appearances and that sort of thing. Here, well, so many people do whatever they feel and far too often are not held accountable for their actions."
Bruce turned thoughtfully to his butler and waited for more pearls of wisdom to sneak out with this sanitized words.
"Those are very loose generalizations, of course," Alfred continued casually, "but in many ways they show opposite ends of the spectrum. We're speaking of an ideal society where everything is pristine, yet the people are devoid of any individuality, verses a radical, anarchistic approach where liberty rules and everyone lives for one's self."
He paused, standing tall and proper, thinking deeply about the concept. His old eyes showed the spark of the genius behind them and his expression gave precious hints towards the lessons that he considered. So many civilizations throughout human history strived to find the balance between the two extremes about which he was speaking, and he was well-read on many of them. His maturity often had given him clarity to understand that he and his charge were neck-deep in a life that was forming Gotham in the annals of history into another one of countless cities striving to achieve that goal of perfection. He sometimes wondered and worried if Bruce really understood the magnitude of his life on this planet. Alfred knew that he was needed to keep the younger man on track, if not for his love for him or for his long-deceased parents, then for the city and the world in general.
"It's a hard balance," Bruce agreed, much to Alfred's delight. "This mess with the Justice Lords has really forced me to consider a lot of things I hadn't before – at least not to the degree I do now. A better world than what we have here is achievable, but I'd rather see Gotham burn than to see the League go down that road. I'm going to have to remember that… and keep it in mind more than I have been, I think."
"That's a good idea," an eerily familiar voice sounded from the doorway, making both men jump.
Bruce was on his feet and ready for action before he recognized the unexpected visitor. Once he did, he understood that action might not be necessary, but kept his body tight just in case.
Looming in the doorway, the Justice Lord Batman waited for the others to accept his presence. When it was clear that no confrontation would take place, despite the tension in the room, he calmly pulled off his cowl and strode silently towards a chair. He made himself comfortable while the others kept their eyes locked on his every move.
"I secured the others in my Batcave," he began as if he were sitting in an interrogation room. "and I began disassembling the trans-dimensional portal when I found something in my readings. I had to tell you right away because it involves your world, too."
The others stood sternly, looking down at him while keenly assessing their surroundings, just in case this visitor was simply a diversion. Despite their cooperation earlier that day, there was still very little trust.
"While the portal was opened, an unknown source transmitted a communication through it. I don't know who sent it, but it started from this side. And I don't know who it was intended for on my side, but a response was made. I've only been able to piece together parts of the code."
"And?" Bruce said in his deep Batman voice.
"It seems that it was a message informing somebody in my world that the Justice Lords have been stripped of their powers."
The silence dominating the room outlined that the magnitude of that statement was understood.
"Somebody's trying to coordinate an attack."
Bruce's fingers pummeled the keyboards. His counterpart stood stone-like behind him agreeing with everything he saw.
"The internal sensors detected a huge spike in electromagnetic activity while the portal was opened," he announced, not caring that the visiting Batman already understood that. "The patterns and the magnitude were erratic. In fact, it looks like it would be virtually impossible for anybody outside the cave to actually pinpoint the location of the portal, but they would be able to tell that one was open and somewhere in the vicinity of Gotham."
"That's good news," Batman replied. "They wouldn't be able to trace the readings back here."
"No, but clearly somebody did detect something. Otherwise, they wouldn't have known enough to send the signal."
Working to recreate the timeline, the two Batmen deduced that the portal was first opened long enough for almost anybody on the planet to detect it, especially if they were looking for it. The second time it was used (when the Justice Lords began their charade), it was opened for a very brief time, but long enough for a coded transmission. The third time (when the Justice League returned), a response had been sent. The final time (when the Justice Lords were sent back) was the one with the disturbing message about the Justice Lords and their current status.
Once the Justice Lord's Batman discovered the intruding signal, he constructed equipment and set parameters to prevent any further unwanted transmissions and came immediately to the other dimension, seeking help. He brought with him a one-of-a-kind device that could send an encrypted message back to his own world, opening a secured portal for the return trip.
Bruce leaned his forehead in to his hand, his elbow planted on the desktop. He was lost deep in thought. Only a few feet away, his counterpart was thinking virtually the same things.
"Who?" Bruce finally asked.
"I don't know," the other replied. "That's why I came here."
Bruce considered the answer for a moment.
"No it's not," he said after he pieced together many things. "You didn't need to come here - you could have communicated a message."
He swiveled in his chair to face the Lord Batman, who subsequently turned away without responding.
"There's something else," Bruce declared.
Batman sat down and took a second to collect his thoughts. Then, in true Batman form, stated things as plainly as possible, regardless of their true magnitude.
"I can't do it alone," he admitted simply.
"Reform the Justice Lords and re-establish them to a position where they can help the people of my earth."
"Why would you want to? You stole power once. You betrayed the trust of the people. What makes you think you won't do it again?!"
Every ounce of the severity and tone Bruce used was received in full. And Batman knew he was justified in what he said and the voice he used. But it still stung.
"That's my point," Batman confessed, his voice a little softer than he wanted it to be. "I've already proven that I don't have what it takes for that big of a task. The odds are stacked against me too high. But this message… you can't deny that there are still forces out there that only a fully-powered Justice organization can handle. My world needs a Justice League like yours. But I don't trust myself to make sure that it's done right."
Bruce's keen mind ran through countless considerations and angles, calculating the details that his counterpart left unsaid.
"You feel that you… not just the others, but you, yourself… will fall again for the trappings of power too easily."
The two men sat in silence for a moment, considering the others' thoughts. Finally, the visitor added more to his confession.
"I want you to do it for me."
Bruce couldn't hide his shock.
"Yes. I want to trade places with you."
"Hear me out."
Bruce got up and pointed to Batman's portable triggering device.
"Use that thing, get the hell out of my world and never come back!"
Batman suddenly turned to the offensive.
"Do you think sending me away and hiding your head in the sand will keep you safe?!"
"I'm not going to deny," Batman continued, "that you did my world a favor by righting a great wrong, but in doing so, you left us vulnerable to attack."
"You brought that upon yourselves," Bruce spat back. "If it wasn't us taking you down, it would have been somebody else."
"But it was you. And what you're not acknowledging is the fact that your organization is still subject to the same trappings that we fell into. Not only that, but now there's somebody in both our worlds that knows the other exists. What makes you think that they won't coordinate and attack in both places?"
Bruce had no answer. He turned his head in stubborn frustration, conceding both points.
"You've given this some thought," he observed darkly.
"And this is what you've come up with? For you and I to trade places?"
Bruce took a breath and considered the idea deeply while the other expounded.
"Your organization is already on the right track. You were probably thinking about the best way to keep them on that track when I got here. There's no doubt that you can do it, but I have the wisdom that comes with experience. I've been there. I can make sure they don't fall like we did. In a way, it's an easier task; they just have to be kept in line."
Bruce internally acknowledged the truth of that observation, but he didn't like any part of it. Still, the other continued.
"You don't have the burden of knowing some of the things that I know. Sometimes it takes an outsider to point out the things that are wrong and make them right. You have just enough 'outsider' in you to make that happen for the Justice Lords. And you and I both know that there's nobody else in either of our worlds that could keep those five in line."
Those FIVE. No Flash.
"It really is the only way, isn't it?"
"We would have to keep it a secret."
"Alright. I'm in."
AN: This is the start of another Epic story, my friends. And I gotta tell ya... I'm pretty pumped about the whole thing. There are SO many ways to go with this - almot TOO many. And while I have a pretty good idea of where I'm going to take it, I'm also going to ask a favor to all you hard-thinkers out there... Tell me what you want. Send me a Personal Message of an idea you think would be cool to encorporate. I can't promise you that I'll use it, but I want the story to be as fun to read as possible! Just send it as a PM and not a review (otherwise everybody will know!). Now, that being said, that doesn't mean I don't want reviews!