IN DARKEST LIGHT
By Meljean Brook (email@example.com)
Sorry this chapter took so long, but stuff happened. Thank you for your patience and wonderful comments while you were waiting. I'd like to thank a couple of people who gave me a ton of insightful comments and suggestions: Cyn, Luke, superninja (the greatest defender of a Batman/WW relationship I've ever seen), T. Claybon, and, just because, A. Tullberg, the ruler of Batman/WW fanfiction, a relationship which I've thought about for a long time, but never considered writing about it until I read that fantastic Unusual Mission story (which I re-read again lately, and still loved it). To Shelley, who would like this if it was a songfic: just imagine a scene in every chapter where Alfred sings a verse from the Beatles' "Hey, Jude" and make "Jude" = "Bruce" ;-)
Disclaimers: This is a work of fiction, for which I am making no money, nor receiving any other form of compensation. I do not own the characters herein, nor claim to own them. All characters, representations, and likenesses are owned by DC Comics and Warner Bros.
Rating: 'R' for violent images, sexual references and language.
Chapter 5: The Long Way Down
Donna rubbed her neck, wishing that she possessed a super power that prevented painful cricks. And, she added ruefully, protected her from menstrual cramps, headaches, hangnails and men.
She checked her watch: eight o'clock in the evening. Batman and Diana had been in the Underworld a more than thirteen hours--over two days to them. Sitting up in the chair, she stretched, then stood and walked to the bed to verify that neither had suffered any kind of injuries while she had been napping. Not that she expected them to, she thought. Donna suspected that they were in a safe place, because an hour ago, she had felt -- something -- through the bond she shared with Diana.
Something strong enough and personal enough that Donna had automatically suppressed their connection; some things should not be shared, even between sisters. Especially between sisters, Donna thought with a smile. Talking about it was one thing. Feeling it was another.
Her expression turned thoughtful as she looked at Batman. What she had felt from Diana was more than just sexual; there had been real emotion, real love. She touched Diana's hand where it lay on her chest, squeezed it gently for an instant.
She hoped Diana wouldn't get hurt.
But she also knew that she probably would. It was Batman, after all. A man who'd barely been a father to his son--her good friend, Dick Grayson--and who, in his Bruce Wayne persona, changed his women more often than his underwear. Diana didn't stand a chance.
Donna sighed, then lifted Diana's satchel to test its weight. They needed more food, she decided, and left the room, heading for the kitchen.
She walked through the kitchen entrance, then blinked. Dick was sitting on one of the counters, eating a piece of pizza.
"Hi," he mumbled around a mouthful of food, then swallowed. "Got your message."
Donna eyed the pizza carton; it was from a local pizzeria, and she was sure it was one that had been sitting in their fridge for almost a month. She kept that to herself, said, "I didn't hear you come in."
He grinned, took another bite, then jumped down from the counter to sit at the table. "Turned up the sound nullifiers when I saw you were sleeping. Helped myself to your pizza."
Donna smiled, dropped into the chair next to his. "Eat it all, if you want. I don't think it's something I'll send to Diana and Batman."
Dick raised an eyebrow, paused in the middle of a bite. "Send to them? Hell's Postal Service?"
Donna rubbed her forehead, her neck again. "Kind of. Magical bags, actually."
"Of course, magical bags." He nodded knowingly. "I keep a bunch around my apartment." His expression changed as Donna continued massaging her neck. "You okay?"
"Yeah. No. Yeah." She frowned. "I don't know." She sighed. "It's Diana and Batman."
A crease appeared between his eyebrows. "Are they in trouble? They looked like they were sleeping in there."
"They are fine, I'm pretty sure," Donna reassured him, then looked at him squarely. "Diana's been in Gotham a lot lately, hasn't she?"
"Yes," he said, and waited. Donna could tell he was in his listening mode; he would wait until she told him everything, then try to solve whatever problem she had. He was, she thought, a great friend. Her best.
"I know you've heard rumors about something going on in the Watchtower a few weeks ago between them." Donna stood up, started filling a glass of water at the sink.
Dick watched her. "Yes, I've heard."
Donna turned off the tap, set the glass on the counter untouched, stared at the tiles above the basin. Finally, she turned back to him. "Something did happen between them. Caused by me."
Dick smiled, but his eyes remained serious. "You forced them to have sex? You just beat them unconscious and poked it in?"
She appreciated his attempt at humor, but couldn't find it in her to smile back. "No, there was an accident with a spell."
Dick released a long breath, sat back in his chair. He wasn't smiling now. "Batman wouldn't have liked that," he said softly. "Did he say anything to you?"
Donna shook her head. "Not really." She hesitated. "But there's more to it than that. Diana went to the Underworld because of the spell; she had to go there to break it."
"And Batman's down there to get the Joker," Dick said. She'd told him as much in her message.
"Right. Anyway, I think that as much time as Diana's been spending with Batman--because of that spell--she's fallen in love with him. And he's going to break her heart," she finished miserably.
"How can you be sure?" Dick's tone was even.
"I felt it through our bond; her love was real, not because of the spell."
"I meant that he'd break her heart."
Donna stared at him. "He's Batman. He doesn't exactly have a stellar record when it comes to relationships."
"Or being a father. But we aren't talking about those things. We are talking about Diana and him."
"I expected that you, of all people, would understand my worry for Diana." Donna was well aware of the sometimes bitter feelings Dick had toward Bruce. "Batman doesn't even like metas."
"It's not that he doesn't like them, he just thinks the world is better off without them."
Donna's eyes widened in exasperation. "What's the difference?"
"Trust," Dick said simply. "As long as he can trust Superman, or Diana, he might like them. But he still thinks they have too much power." He added, "Of course, with metas who you can't trust running around committing crimes, he is, at times, glad the powered heroes are here. Batman can do a lot of things, but even he can't stop something like Mageddon or Imperiex on his own."
She sat down again, deflated, but more worried than ever for her sister. "So even at the best, the most he could feel for her would be reluctant appreciation."
"Are you worried that she loves him, or that you think he can't feel anything for her?"
Donna chewed on her lip, then finally said, "Both. If Batman could feel anything for anyone, it would be Diana. She's Diana, after all. But, I don't think he would, and in any case, they are too different."
Dick nodded. "Of course they are. They are both heroes dedicated to their missions, both will save the universe or die trying. . . "
". . . One works from a cave and is obsessively private, the other is constantly in public; one keeps their secret identity closely guarded, everyone knows who the other is. . . "
". . . both are intensely loyal with definite opinions of right and wrong . . . "
" . . . one listens to her heart, the other listens only to his head . . ."
". . . and neither one cares anything for what anyone else in the world thinks." Dick finished as if Donna had never spoken. He leaned forward, tone serious. "Not one of us really has any opinion that will matter in this. Both of them will do exactly what they want to do. I know Batman, and you are right, he can be cold and keep himself fixated on his mission at the expense of everything and everyone else. I know that better than anyone. But no matter what has gone between us, he's still . . . important to me. Sometimes I would give anything to have the man I used to know back. And I think that maybe being with your sister might bring something back to him that he's lost. A little feeling, a little light. Maybe that's selfish, I don't know. You want your sister to not get hurt; I want the man who raised me to stop hurting, just a little. Of all people, I think Wonder Woman can do that."
Donna stared at Dick; she loved him, he was as close to her as a brother. But Diana was her sister. She reached across the table, gripped his hand in her own, feeling his worry for the Bruce, her worry for Diana. "Yes, Wonder Woman could, if anyone." Donna sighed. "But I just have a feeling it's doomed from the start. I--" She broke off, aware of a sudden sensation of pain and loss. Her connection to Diana. She tried to focus on her sister; the feeling intensified; became nearly overwhelming. Gasping, near tears, Donna repressed the connection again. Dick grasped her hand, searching her face, eyes wide with worry.
"What is it?"
Donna pulled her hand away, pressed the heels of her palms against her closed eyes. "It felt like something broke Diana's heart."
"Oh." Dick sat back, looked blankly at the pizza he'd been eating. "Stupid, stubborn Bat," he muttered.
"No," Donna said, "It wasn't him. It was Hippolyta."
Diana spoke gently to the horse, checking the girth on the saddle, measuring the stirrups and adjusting their length. The stables smelled like any stable on Earth--a mixture of hay, wood, dung, and horseflesh. It was the horses themselves that were different. Although in form and temperament they seemed like any living horse, Diana knew they could run like a hurricane, and left a trail of fire in their wake. She buckled the stirrup strap, looked over her horse's withers at Bruce, who was doing the same.
She had woken that morning to find him standing at the window dressed in his Bat costume--except for the mask, which Hades had made disappear. His face had been pensive, yet determined, his expression immobile as he'd stared out into the changing landscape. Then he'd turned to face her, and she had known he'd withdrawn from her, not just physically but also emotionally.
And she had let him. Just because a wall had crumbled didn't mean that the keep had fallen.
He'd made no promises, said not a word of love. She would not make him say them, would not ask for them. For now, she was patient. She had not expected the possibility of him loving her; she wanted to savor the feeling, the knowledge. Even if he would never admit it to himself, even if his withdrawal from her was permanent, she was beloved by him, by Bruce, by Batman. And one day, she hoped, his love for her would be greater than his fear of himself. Until then, she was content to wait. She couldn't, wouldn't force him to admit anything.
She smiled as she led the horse out into the red, early morning light. Persephone stood near the stable's entrance, looking up at the sky as if she could see Mount Olympus in its infinite crimson vault.
"My lady," Diana said, surprised and pleased that the goddess had come to see them away. She wondered, not for the first time, if Persephone was even more lonely than she seemed at Hades' side. The courtiers in the palace were there by Hades' choice, not his Queen's. Most of them had once been mortals, and so saw the Queen of the Underworld as a tragic figure; Greek tradition dictated that they didn't become friends with her, barely even talk to her. Only on Olympus would anyone approach her; even then her presence made the other gods and goddesses aware that they, too, were at the whim of greater powers then themselves, and so avoided Persephone. And, although it was her mother's--Demeter's--pleading that had allowed Persephone to visit the gods' mountain at all, when Persephone did visit Olympus Demeter often had to be absent, attending to the harvests and plantings in Man's World. It was, Diana thought, a solitary existence for the Queen.
Persephone inclined her head in greeting. "Diana." She looked past her, into the stables where Bruce was checking his horse's tack again. "Walk with me, my friend." Persephone turned, robes fluttering like wings. Diana glanced back at Batman, then followed the goddess, the horse clomping along beside them.
A hundred yards later, Persephone stopped, faced Diana. Her eyes were alight with humor. "Something has changed between you and your companion."
"Changed?" Diana considered that, shook her head. "That is only true in some respects. In others, things are very much as they were."
"But not how you wish them to be," Persephone replied. She laid a hand on the horse's flank, stroked the beast idly. "He loves you."
Diana shifted the reins from one hand to another. The goddess' touch made the animal restless; not unlike, Diana imagined, the way a ray of sunshine made a plant that had been shut away from the light move and seek the warmth. "I know."
"He is brave, and loyal, and does not simply love your for your beauty." Persephone sighed, then added, "That in itself is worth ten realms over which to rule." She looked up at the sky again; Diana remained silent, waited for the goddess to continue. When she continued, her voice was amused. "He is also very ignorant. He called me by my name."
Diana grinned. "I'm not convinced that would be ignorance, my lady. He might have known, but he rarely feels bound by rank and tradition."
Persephone raised an eyebrow. "You find this an admirable trait?"
"I do." She always knew that Batman's opinion would never be influenced by her background as a princess, nor her wealth, physical power and status.
Persephone nodded. "As do I." Her tone grew serious. "Why do you never call me by my name? You were once my equal, and well acknowledged by we Olympians as rather rebellious. And I do not think that you are swayed by status any more than your friend is."
Diana blinked in surprise. "My lady, it never occurred to me to call you by your name. Though my friend, you are also the Queen of this realm, and I have always tried to remember that. Perhaps I have been bound by tradition as are all of your subjects." Bound by her upbringing as well, Diana thought. Had she failed to see the woman before the queen, before the goddess? She was suddenly afraid she might have done exactly that.
She had done the same to her mother.
Persephone sighed. "Perhaps it is what the Fates have decreed, however unwelcome that may be."
"No, my lady." She paused, forced the name. "Persephone. It is simply the blindness of those around you. Including myself."
Persephone's smile was brilliant, blinding. "Thank you, Diana. I think I have grown weary of tradition, even though those around me have held onto it more tightly in the last few centuries. Here and on Olympus."
Diana nodded, wondering if the same could be said of herself and her fellow Amazons. They'd had change forced upon them, but not all had taken it unwillingly, and many had helped instigate the changes. "Everywhere, my lady." She smiled then. "Persephone."
The goddess laughed delightedly. "It is not so easy, is it?" She took Diana's free hand, and began walking back toward the stables.
Diana looked at Bruce, who was standing beside his mount near the door. "No, change is not always easy."
"For mortals or gods," Persephone said. They neared Batman, and Persephone reached inside her robe, produced a small vial from a fold. "Sir Knight. I have something for you."
"Lady Persephone," he replied, and held out a gauntleted hand to receive the object. He held it up, observed it. He looked questioningly at Diana, then Persephone.
"It is to hold water from the River Lethe," she explained. "I couldn't help but notice your discomfort when unmasked last evening. I assume that you prefer your identity to remain hidden."
Batman nodded slightly.
"This vial measures enough liquid to erase one month's memories. Earth months," she added. "When you encounter your Joker, he will see your face. But if you should have him drink the liquid before returning to Earth, he will forget permanently what he has done and seen here, and the method by which he came."
Diana watched for Bruce's reaction; of course, there was none. A memory wipe--no matter how small--was unethical, but it had been done before when memories would pose a danger to a person or the people around them; since it was Bruce's secret, she would accept his decision. It wasn't just his identity, Diana knew. Batman would consider the Joker's knowledge of the Underworld and the Styx more dangerous. And, if she knew Batman, he had probably already figured out a way to conceal his identity from the Joker, like creating a temporary mask out of his cape.
"Are there any other effects besides recent memory loss? I thought drinking or eating items from here would link us to this realm permanently."
"It links only certain memories to this realm. That is all the Lethe takes, although the same can not be said of other food and drink. As for effects, there will be temporary ones. He will seem to lose all of his memories for a few hours, then his older memories will resurface, except for the previous month." Obviously taking Batman's question as a sign that he would use the river's water, she added, "You will have to cross the Lethe on your way to the Styx. It will be a simple stopover to fill the vial. The horses know the way." She hesitated for a moment, then said, "Diana, Hippolyta is at the Lethe."
Diana's heart froze. Her eyes searched Persephone's, found truth, and sympathy. "How? Why?" She whispered the words. "Why not the Elysian Fields?"
"She was at the Fields, but made a journey here to ask that Hades allow her to return to Earth," Persephone said gently. "Hades granted her request. I am sorry, Diana. Perhaps she will be born in your lifetime, and you will meet with her again."
"Is she already a shade? Perhaps she is still in human form, has not yet been transformed…?" Persephone shook her head, and that hope died within Diana. Her shoulders slumped. "Even should she be born while I live, she will not know me."
Persephone squeezed Diana's hand. "Have faith that her soul will recognize yours, my friend."
Diana tried to find comfort in that, straightened, took a deep breath. "I will try." She let go of the goddess' hand, turned to Batman. "Shall we ride?"
His eyes searched her face; she schooled her features, tried not to let her grief show. It was time to be a warrior.
Bruce's answer was to mount his horse; after a brief embrace for Persephone, Diana did the same.
Diana nudged the horse into a gallop; the hoof beats were like thunder, echoing through her. She held on, the wind whipping around her, tearing the breath from her lungs, stinging tears from her eyes. She tried not to think of her mother; to whom Diana could never apologize, from whom she would never find forgiveness.
It weighed on her heart; she wondered if she'd have the strength to bear it.
Bruce's parents had taught him to ride when he was four years old. His mother had steadied his pony while his father had placed him on its back; with their support and guidance, he'd never fallen off, never had to pick himself off the ground and get back in the saddle.
That had come later, and the fall had been in an alley, not a paddock. More falls had followed: his first night as a crimefighter, but not yet Batman, Jason's death and Barbara's paralyzation at the hands of the Joker, his broken back, No Man's Land, every death that he hadn't been fast enough or smart enough or strong enough to stop. Each time he'd had to force himself to continue, to go on--and he had. And each one of his falls had given him even more reason to continue his work.
If he had been a weaker man, he would consider last night with Diana one of his hardest tumbles. He had fallen in love with her, and it had taken all of his strength to leave the bed before she woke, to tell her with that one action that nothing had changed, no matter that part of him wanted it to. If he had been a weaker man, he would have attributed their lovemaking to something else: lust, their close proximity, the effect of the spell. But he realized now that there was no longer a spell, and that everything he'd done the night before was because he loved her and because he was afraid of the consequences of that love. If he had been a weaker man, he wouldn't have cared about consequences, wouldn't have admitted his love.
He wished that she was a different woman, someone who whined, wanted and claimed, not a woman of acceptance and generosity. There would be no conflict then; he couldn't have fallen in love with her if she had expected anything from him other than what he was. And he wished he was a different man, one who could love her as she deserved, openly.
Instead he was bound by his masks, and he wouldn't give them up, couldn't remove them.
Just as she couldn't change whom she was.
Diana rode ahead of him, back straight, head high. He knew what it cost her to ride like that, and his pride almost overwhelmed his concern.
She had truly lost her mother. The Lethe was the River of Forgetfulness; souls slated to be reborn on Earth drank from the river to forget their past lives. Drinking from the river made the souls--once as corporeal as he or Diana--into literal shadows of their formers selves, not unlike the shade that had been in the cave that first night. Souls without memories, or personality.
Unlike Artemis, or Superman, Hippolyta wouldn't be coming back from the dead as herself, even if she was reborn during Diana's lifetime. And unlike the rest of Diana's Amazon sisters and friends, Hippolyta wouldn't be waiting for her in the Elysian Fields to spend eternity in bliss.
Batman knew Diana had incredible faith in the afterlife, and death must have seemed a surmountable obstacle to her: she herself had died, then been resurrected. Even those she knew who had died and weren't resurrected, she would have been certain that their souls existed in some other, better place. But now, that certainty would be shaken to her very core. And the belief that things could be made right, even after death.
Her parent was as out of reach as his were to him. He knew how she was feeling; even as he wished he could take her pain away, though, he hoped it would make her stronger, give her new purpose. The way his own pain had given him something for which to fight.
And they would both have to use their missions to forget about their feelings for each other. It was, he decided, the only way. The only thing more powerful, more compelling, than the need to lose himself in her was his mission. Ironic, he thought, that the thing that made them so similar--their missions--was also what kept them apart, and what would fill whatever space was created by the other's absence.
His horse shifted gaits, began slowing. Ahead, he could see a shimmer of water -- the River Lethe. It had taken a little less than ten minutes to reach it.
Diana had dismounted by the time his horse reached the river's edge. The banks were lined, Batman realized, with shades whose forms began to take shape the longer he looked at them. They crowded together, and through each other, a mishmash of souls.
His cape fluttered as he swung down from the saddle. Diana didn't look at him as he withdrew the vial from his belt; she was slowly scanning the riverbank. Searching, Batman knew, for her mother. He stepped down to the water's edge and filled the tube, using a small pair of tongs to hold the vial in the enchanted water. He didn't want to touch the river itself, even while wearing his gloves.
"Is this how you felt?" Diana asked behind him. "Helpless?"
He capped the vial, made sure it didn't leak. "Because you can't bring them back? Undo what's been done?" He glanced toward her, caught her nod. "Yes. At first, and mixed with other emotions. Anger. Shame that it was them and not me, that I didn't do anything to save them. That they died saving me." He stood, looked down the riverbank, realized the shades were crowding in around him. The longer he looked, the better he could see their faces, their bodies. He stepped back, kept his eyes moving so that the dead never took shape. He hated this place. "We should go," he said.
"Yes," Diana answered, but her eyes continued searching the shades, and she made no move toward her horse.
"Diana," he said softly. She didn't look at him, so he reached out, cupped her chin, made her see him. "If you saw her, would it make it better? You wouldn't be able to talk to her, nor could she speak with you."
Her lip trembled, but her eyes remained dry. "Yes. I could tell her I'm sorry. That I love her."
Bruce shook his head. "She wouldn't hear or see you. And do you think she didn't know that?"
"I don't know." Diana closed her eyes, took a deep breath. "I was awful to her."
He understood her grief, but he needed her to refocus her emotions. If it had to be anger towards him, it was better than lethargic self-pity. "Ah, you are right. I remember Hippolyta well, and she was much too stupid to see past her daughter's selfishness. She must have thought you hated her," he said, his tone serious.
Diana stared at him, astonished, then slowly smiled. "Did Alfred try that line on you when you were young?"
"A few weeks ago, actually." Bruce took her hand, led her to her horse. Better to get away from this place quickly, he thought, and better for her to have action and a purpose. "A couple of days before the Joker escaped," he added. And a couple of days before the spell, and a couple of days before he fell in love with her. A few bullets, a few weeks; his life had been defined by small incidents.
She caught his hand when he turned toward his own horse. "Does it get easier? Does the mission ease the grief?"
He considered lying, but offered the truth. "No. But it was never supposed to. I'm simply trying to keep it from happening to anyone else."
"But my job has always been to bring peace."
"Maybe it should be to make sure no more daughters lose their mothers in war."
Diana drew her eyebrows together. "Isn't that the same thing?" She let go of his hand, turned to step into her stirrup, swung her leg over the horse's back. Her movements were smooth, efficient.
"No. It just has the same end." He pulled an extra mask from a pocket in his cape lining. It wasn't filled with gadgets like his standard cowl because it had to be compact to fit in the small compartment, but it would keep his head covered and identity hidden, and had the same general shape as his usual disguise. He hadn't put it on earlier, certain that Hades would have made his spare disappear if he had worn it in the palace.
"Perhaps." Diana drew up her reins, waited while he mounted his horse. "So you don't fight crime, it's just that your mission dictates the fighting of crime to save lives?"
"Exactly," he said, and urged his horse to a gallop. Diana caught up with him in seconds.
She grinned, and yelled to him over the rushing wind and hoofbeats, "You just don't want any more Batmans created who could edge in on your territory!"
He twisted his lips into a Bruce Wayne leer and called back, "That's right, Wonder Babe. My territory. Gotham . . . you . . ." She laughed delightedly, her face brightening the Underworld. Bruce smiled. A laughing Diana was far better than a grieving, uncertain one. He was glad dead parents did not a Batman make; he hoped that Diana never became what he was. And he would fight with his last breath to see that she never did.
This wasn't funny anymore. The Joker gunned down another stinking, flying hyena, laughed at the thud it made against the ground. He'd thought the first time they had come back to life it was the best joke in the world; after the eighth time, the joke had worn thin.
"Get a new act!" he screamed at the corpses littering the ground, and wished he had killed the whining bitch who had sent him here. He stopped shooting and looked around, thinking how enjoyable it would be to show her a trick or two with a magic hat and rabid bunny. The image cheered him again, so he shot a dead demon to watch its black blood spatter. He used his foot to draw a smiley face with the blood, and grinned.
No, he was glad he hadn't killed Medea. The pleasure he would get when Batman realized the Joker's invulnerability would outweigh any temporary delight received by ripping Medea's head from her shoulders.
He would kill her when he got back, though, he decided. Then he would double his pleasure. Double his fun. He suddenly wished he had some chewing gum.
He searched through his pockets and came up empty, but he did find the golden apple Medea had given him.
"Don't eat it," she had warned. "It'll lead you to the Styx."
He considered eating it for a second, wondering what gold fruit tasted like, if it would make golden shit when it passed through his bowels, and whether it would kill him faster than the disease that was breaking down his body, but was distracted by the glint of the river in the distance. He was almost there. The apple glowed subtly. He spit on it, then shined it against his jacket lapel and stuck it back into his pocket. Poking one of the demon's eyes with his rifle barrel, he yelled, "Out, vile jelly!" then continued on his merry way.
He made up ditties to sing along the way and was trying to think of a word that rhymed with 'Batguts' when he realized he had reached the riverbank. He rubbed his eyes comically and laughed, because it really was a good facial expression and worth a laugh, even if he didn't have an audience.
The water flowed sluggishly, and he stepped forward. The cold and the current caught him by surprise, and he shouted aloud, then noticed how hoarse his voice sounded from the singing. Hoarse, horse, he giggled to himself, and imagined hoof beats. He stepped in further, bracing himself against the pressure of the water. His legs tingled. Ha, Bats! he thought. He was going to be invulnerable. He would be able to stand next to a bomb and watch from the center of the explosion as it blew people up. Bliss. The water was up to his chest now. He took another step and it reached his neck. He wished now that he had done this differently, maybe like Bugs Bunny when he got into a hot bath. Testing with the ass, jerking up, testing again, then settling in with a sigh. Oh well, he thought, no need to be derivative, and took a deep breath, preparing to dunk his head under. He shut his eyes, closed his mouth, plugged his nose with a pinch of his thumb and forefinger. He started to bend forward, Joker baptismal, but he couldn't move his head. He frowned, and tried again. Nope. Something was around his neck. And, he realized, it was pulling him backward. He opened one eye.
Nope, nothing there. Just the river. He turned his head, couldn't see anything else, then remembered to open his other eye. Something brushed against his leg, so he looked down and caught a glimpse of faint and glowing, but he was tugged again by the neck back toward the riverbank before he could make it come into focus.
"Aghh!" It was, he thought, the most appropriate sound to make when something was dragging you by the neck. He scratched at his throat, felt a line of thin rope, and turned his head to look behind him. A cast member from Gladiator was sitting on a horse and had him secured with a yellow fishing line.
"Thumbs down!" he tried to yell, but the pressure from the loop around his neck made it come out as a squeak. He wished briefly for an axe, or a knife, or even a really sharp spork to cut off a movie critic's fat thumb and throw it at his captor; then he saw Batman standing next to her horse. "Aghh!"
If Batman was here, did that mean the winged rodent was dead? The idea filled the Joker with rage. He took a better look at the gladiator, realized who it was, and wondered if his gunmen at the auction had been better shots than he'd counted on. Wonder Woman pulled him inexorably forward, but the Joker resisted just for the sake of resisting. A new thought occurred to him then, something so shocking and wonderful that he could almost ignore whatever was playing with his pants' pocket. If Batman were dead and in the Underworld, did that mean he could be killed over and over like the demons? That the Joker could think of endless scenarios and jokes with which to murder him? Previously, he had always held back because of the knowledge that he could only kill Batman once.
The Joker laughed. He laughed as he tried to hit the thing prying into his pants, his swats hampered by the water, laughed and stepped forward, intent on killing Batman for the first but not last time. He had a gun in his pocket, and an apple. He'd use the gun then eat the apple.
His hand searched his pocket--yes, there was the gun, but where was the apple? The Joker frowned. He quickly checked his other pocket, then down the front of his waistband, just in case, but there were only fruits of another sort there. Trying to remember if he had eaten it already, or dropped it, or put it somewhere else, he almost missed the look of horror cross Wonder Woman's face--which would have been a shame, because horror on a hero's face was worth at least ten belly laughs.
She jerked on the lasso, hard, and Joker landed on his face on the bank, his eyes and nose filled with black sand. He choked on a chuckle.
"Aghh," he said.
Diana didn't take her eyes off of the form floating above the river, in whose hand was clasped Maxie Zeus' Apple of Discord. She watched as Eris became solid, corporeal. Eris was taking power from the apple, Diana realized, changing from a shade back to a goddess.
Batman had trussed the Joker and slung him over his horse's hindquarters. He climbed into the saddle. "What are our options, Diana?"
Diana began backing her horse away from the river, slowly. She didn't know yet if Eris was conscious of her surroundings, and didn't want to attract the goddess' attention. "We have to get to the gates of the Underworld. It's our only way out. We can't just wake up. And the Joker came here physically, so he has to leave that way, even if we didn't. Which we do," she added. Eris' eyes were still closed; a good sign, Diana thought. "Eris will gain power from the apple, but won't be able to leave the Underworld on her own." And if Eris remained in the Underworld, Hades would eventually take care of her. No need for Diana and Batman to get involved, especially without her powers.
"On her own?" Batman repeated.
Diana nodded. "There are two ways for her to leave: eating the apple, but that would drain its power and leave her a shade again, only a shade on Earth instead of in the Styx; or, she would enter a host body and use it to leave the Underworld."
"Us," Batman said, voice grim. He turned his horse so that it walked alongside Diana's, the Joker struggling and coughing behind him.
Diana glanced at the clown, then back at Eris. She frowned. "I think I understand. This was never about the Joker--"
"--it was about Medea completing her father's work," Batman finished for her. "She must have used the Joker to get the apple into the Styx. She and Dr. Kaeklis most likely cooked up the plan and the disease between the two of them."
"Because it was too dangerous for Medea to come here on her own? So she sent the clown?" Diana wondered. They were almost a quarter of a mile from the river now; she could still see Eris, a small figure in the distance, floating motionless above the ribbon of water. She nudged her horse into a canter--they could move more quickly now, they needed to move quickly.
The Joker giggled. "Revenge." Diana barely heard him over the hoof beats of the horses.
Revenge? On whom? Diana thought back to that night in Gotham, remembered Medea's expression when she had seen Batman emerging from the church. Horror. Fear. Just minutes before, the spectre of Batman's shadow had covered the city, striking fear into its citizens, a shadow created by the merging of Phobos and Batman's psyches. And, Diana realized, Medea had never seen the gods inside the church. She had only known that her father had gone in, Batman's shadow had entered her heart and terrorized the city, then Batman had emerged from the church. Maxie Zeus hadn't. Medea wouldn't have known Maxie had sacrificed himself; she would have associated her father's death with Batman and immense fear.
"She thinks you killed her father!" Diana yelled to Batman. He nodded once; he must have come to the same conclusions as she.
Medea either had gotten very lucky, or she had heard and known enough about Batman to make a plan for vengeance that created a win/win situation for her. If Batman didn't detect the Joker's plan to go into the Styx, then the Joker would return to Earth, and Batman's greatest enemy would be invulnerable. And if Batman figured out what the Joker was doing and followed him to the Underworld, then the dangers of the realm and Eris would be waiting for him when he tracked down the clown, who might have made it to the Styx before Batman reached him. Either way, Medea would have her revenge.
But the Joker hadn't become invulnerable, not completely. They had caught him before he'd submerged his head. And Eris hadn't approached them -- yet. Diana and Batman might still make it out, and foil Medea's plan. In the future, Batman would simply have to remember that when he needed to take the Joker out he'd have to do it with a blow to his vulnerable head.
The horses raced south; toward, Diana hoped, the gate to Earth. She trusted that Persephone had communicated somehow to the horses their destination, and hoped that Hades hadn't changed the location of the gate out of spite. After endless minutes, punctuated by the pounding hooves and Diana's glances behind them to make sure they weren't being followed, the gate finally rose into view on the horizon.
Like Hades' palace, the exit to the Underworld was a mountain; unlike the palace, however, the entrance was not at the base, but the summit. They would have to ride the horses up the mountain as far as possible, then climb the rest of the way, pulling the Joker along behind them. At the top, they would claw their way through the portal. Batman and she would wake up in her bed, and the Joker would physically climb through, arriving in the same place he entered the Underworld.
Would Medea be waiting for him? Diana wondered. How long would it take for she and Batman to track them down? The two criminals had traveled to Greece, but would they stay there long after the Joker returned?
Diana grinned at herself. She was assuming, of course, that Batman would tolerate her help once they got back to Earth. Their reason for working together – breaking the spell – was gone. Unless, Diana realized, Batman really didn't know that the spell on him had been broken. Or that he wouldn't let himself realize it.
Diana was certain that he loved her, but she didn't know if he accepted it. Or if it would make any difference to him if he did accept it. If that morning had been any indication, then it wouldn't make a difference; but, Diana couldn't help but hold out hope because he had given in to his need for her--for a night, at least.
Ahead of her Batman's horse galloped, the Joker bouncing up and down on the animal's rump. Diana smiled slightly. The Joker deserved much worse, but for now she would take the pleasure of his discomfort to heart.
Diana pulled back on the reins when they reached the mountain. She studied the terrain, pointed at a faint trail going up the side. "We'll take that. It looks like our best option—I don't think the horses can make it all the way up. We'll have to dismount eventually."
Batman gestured to the Joker. "Once we start walking, he'll be more difficult to control."
Diana looked at him, gaze steady. "Do you want to use the Lathe water?"
"Water, smotter. I feel like a horse's ass," the Joker said. Diana and Bruce ignored him. He frowned, muttering and wiggling against his bonds.
"He might make it back here and become completely invulnerable," Diana said.
Batman pulled the vial from his utility belt. "It's also destroying evidence. His memories are clues to the murders of Farletti and Nichols."
Diana frowned. She hadn't considered that. She understood why Batman was hesitating now; it wasn't the ethics of erasing the Joker's memories of the past month, it was removing the possibility of closing the case publicly, of giving some measure of relief to grieving family members. "Even if he did remember, no jury would convict Medea on the testimony of this clown; she would get off. And the Joker is just going back to Arkham. You know that."
The corners of his mouth raising into a small, tired smile, Batman replied, "I know." He grinned fully then. "I had just hoped you would be more optimistic about it, and save me from choosing to do this."
Diana grinned back. "Even I am realistic about Gotham's legal system."
"Are you smiling, Bats?" The Joker demanded. "What's the joke?"
Batman swung down from the saddle. "A man and a woman go to hell and meet the Devil." He pinched the Joker's nose closed. "'Hey,' the Devil says, 'I'll make you a deal. You can get out of here if you just chase down the jerk who's letting all ghosts get in here.'" He flicked the vial open with his thumb, and continued. "So they agree, and they pick the guy up."
"Dis idn't berry bunny," the Joker commented.
Batman poured the liquid into the clown's open mouth, then pushed his jaw closed, forcing the Joker to swallow the water. "No, it isn't funny. That's because the joke's on you."
The Joker kicked once, then fell unconscious. Diana didn't feel sorry for him, but she ached for Bruce, who'd done what he thought best. "And it's on us," she added.
Bruce sighed. "It's always on us." After checking the Joker's vitals, he climbed back on his horse, clicked it forward. It picked its way along the rocky path—no more running, the trail was simply to steep, narrow and dangerous.
"Why 'always'?" Diana asked. This time, they'd been forced to do something unethical in the name of the greater good. But she didn't think that was always true.
"How many times have we done things like this, making ourselves like the people we fight? Using methods that shouldn't be used?"
"What would the alternative be? Let the Joker know that he was mostly invulnerable? He'd put on an indestructible helmet and start wreaking havoc." She paused, then amended, "More havoc. And if he remembered how to get here, he might do it again, and finish making himself completely invulnerable. Not that it matters," Diana muttered, "since he's safe from you anyway."
Batman's head whipped around. "What?"
"Vulnerable, invulnerable. What does it matter? You won't kill him. When it comes down to it, that's all invulnerability would have helped the Joker. You could still capture him, you just wouldn't be able to beat him in a fight, since he wouldn't be hurt easily. You would have to think of other ways to bring him down. Luckily, he only got into the river to his neck, so beating him physically is still an option."
"Do you think I should kill him, Diana?" Batman's voice was soft.
Diana shook her head. He wouldn't be Batman if he started dealing out that ultimate justice. He wouldn't be Bruce. "No." A smile touched her mouth. "I'm the only one who crosses that line. So if you ever get tired of him, call me." She tried to joke, tried to get that serious, angry tone of his to go away.
"You don't cross that line."
Diana couldn't decide if that was a statement of fact or a command. "But I would, if it came down to it. No one else in the JLA would, except me."
"We all have our breaking point, Diana."
"Maybe. I don't think you do, though."
His back stiffened visibly, then Diana watched him relax with an apparent effort. "Still convinced that I won't lose control?" She heard the smile in his voice.
"Yes," she said simply.
"You would have by now."
"Every day, Gotham gets worse."
"Every day, you get stronger."
"Every day, I get older, Princess. Weaker."
She thought of his perfect physique and laughed. "Oh, you have a few good months left, old man."
Batman twisted around in his saddle, checked the Joker, then looked at her. "My body is a tool, Diana. Once it starts going, it will be tempting to resort to other, easier methods. I could kill with half the effort it takes to knock a criminal out. Restraint takes effort."
Diana thought of her strength, her power of truth. Her humor faded. "I know that better than anyone. Do you know how often I've wanted to fly to the White House, wrap the lasso around Luthor and make him admit to the world what kind of a man he really is? How often I have wanted to fly to military bases around the world and take away, with my fists, everyone's ability to wage nuclear war? I could do it."
"What's stopping you?"
"Knowing that it wouldn't solve anything. That people have to learn peace for themselves, learn compassion for themselves. I can only show--" The back of her neck prickled, as if an icy wind had blown across it. She quickly looked behind her. Nothing.
"Diana?" Batman's hand went to his utility belt.
Her horse shied under her, spooked. She grabbed onto the pommel of her saddle and fought to stay on as it reared and kicked. "I think it's Eris!" She shouted. "Go! Get to the top of the mountain!" Her horse suddenly screamed and fell to its knees; Diana lost her grip and sailed over its head, letting her body go limp so that she wouldn't get hurt too badly. Her forehead slammed against the ground and stars burst behind her eyes. She shook her head and looked up, hoping that Batman had fled even though she knew he wouldn't leave her there alone. The edges of her vision were blurry, but she saw the streak of gray that hit Batman hard, knocking him from his horse, and she cried out in anger. Phobos, she realized. Eris must have freed him from his punishment and then come here to intercept them.
The dead travel fast, she thought even as she struggled to her knees, intent on reaching Bruce, trying to establish Eris' location. Diana could see Phobos standing over Batman's prone body, but she didn't see the goddess. "Eris!" Diana called the name as a challenge, an attempt to make the goddess show herself.
Wonder Woman felt something squeeze in her mind then, and the world became dark, and she realized that the battle wouldn't take place physically. The Goddess of Discord was inside her, and would use every bit of conflict within Diana's heart and mind to break her. And Diana would have to win to purge Eris from her head, and to help Batman.
Diana closed her eyes and fell willingly into unconsciousness, into the fight.
Batman wished he could close his eyes, but they remained open, his gaze fixed on Diana's torn body. So much blood: in a pool beneath her head, copious amounts smeared between her thighs, and on her arms. He staggered forward, fell to his knees at her side, gathered her into his arms. He tore off a glove and searched for a pulse, for breath, even though he could feel how cold and limp she was, could see the neat little hole in her forehead. .22 caliber, an analytical part of his mind immediately recognized. He looked at the blood staining his bare hand.
"Diana?" His hoarse whisper held the echo of a little boy in an alley.
"That old gray mare she ain't what she used to be," the Joker's voice sang; Bruce looked up, saw the clown sitting on a ledge in the cliff, swinging his legs to the beat of the song, Diana's lasso twirling in one hand. He held a pistol in the other.
Bruce laid Diana gently back down, smoothed a stray hair from her face, then stood up, facing the Joker. "You did this," he stated quietly.
"Did what?" the Joker asked, expression innocent..
"Shot her." Batman took a step forward.
Scratching his head with the muzzle of the gun, the Joker said, "Well, not exactly. We were playing a game, you see. She was supposed to deflect the bullet with her bracelets. She missed."
"Playing a game? You tied her." The blood on her arms had been caused by Diana struggling against something; a thin rope or a wire. "How could she deflect bullets while tied?"
"She's strong," the Joker shrugged. He eyed Batman, who was now standing twelve feet below him, directly under the ledge. "She was unconscious, I tied her so that I'd have a head start. When I saw she couldn't break the wire, well…" The Joker grinned. "I decided to play a game."
"You raped her." Bruce said flatly.
"No," the Joker laughed. "Not when she could still kick me. Do you think I'm crazy?" He licked his lips. "I waited until afterward. I mean, she was just lying there. Wonder Woman, you know. Hubba hubba. Quiet and still warm, just the way I like them. Not a cold fish at all." He pointed the gun at Batman.
A batarang knocked the gun out of his hand, and a jumpline wrapped around the Joker's neck; Batman yanked, and the clown toppled over the edge and landed at Bruce's feet. He pulled the Joker up by the thin cable, looked once into the grinning, crazy face. His fist, still wet with Diana's blood, slammed into the clown's nose, crushing cartilage and bone, forcing the mess into the Joker's brain.
Bruce let go of the jumpline, and the Joker flopped over like a used Whoopee cushion. Bruce didn't look at him again. He picked up the lasso, moved to Diana's body and placed it back on her belt, then lifted her carefully and began the trek up the mountain, taking one death with him, and leaving one behind.
The goddess smiled. Diana watched her warily. Around them, Amazons fought encroaching shadows.
"Your psyche is fascinating, Diana." Eris' eyes gleamed with pleasure. "Here we are in a peaceful setting reminiscent of the Elysian Fields, yet you have Amazons making war. You have made my task easier. Discord is all around us."
"You'll find plenty of contradictions in me, Eris," Diana said. "But you will not be able to use them against me." She gestured toward the battling women. "They are fighting what you have brought here. They do not fight for the sake of fighting alone."
"Perhaps." Eris stood, waved her arm. Diana's armor changed to clothing, a simple linen dress. Diana held herself motionless as Eris ran a hand over the material. The goddess spoke again. "Do you know what I'm looking for?"
"A cheap thrill?" Diana said dryly. She had to force herself not to withdraw from the cold, searching hand.
Eris continued, "This linen is a manifestation of your mind. The weave is created from the threads of your being, and I am looking for loose ends." The hand stilled. "I believe I have found one. A young woman -- Vanessa. Once like your younger sister, your negligence has allowed her to be transformed into a hideous, screaming killer. Oh, Diana, how can you live with the guilt?" Eris asked, voice melodramatic, accusing.
Diana's face was impassive. "I was not the one who transformed her."
"Yet she would never have been a target if you had not entered their lives."
"Perhaps not," Diana admitted. She had exposed her first foster family, the Kapatelises, to a lot of danger because of her friendship. "But they were my friends and loved me. They accepted my position; if I ever felt that their fear overwhelmed their friendship, I would have left."
"You did leave and it didn't protect Vanessa," Eris pointed out. She pulled on the thread she was holding; Diana felt it unravel on the dress, inside her.
"If I had stayed, there would be no certainty that Circe wouldn't have gotten to Vanessa."
"But the fact remains that your presence made Circe notice her."
Diana frowned. "Yes. But had I remained on Themyscira, Vanessa might have died from other causes. I have protected her from dangers that were not attracted because of me, like Circe is. And Vanessa is not dead as the Silver Swan; she can still be saved."
"You could have stayed apart from the family."
Shaking her head, Diana said, "No, I couldn't have. If I don't live with the people in Patriarch's World, I can never know them. And if I don't know them, or learn from them, I can never help them."
"Help them?" Eris laughed. She tugged on the thread, then tied another loose end around it. She waved it under Diana's nose. "This string tells me that you have never helped the people in Man's World." She sneered. "You have not accomplished anything."
Diana almost smiled. She had won the first argument, or Eris would still be picking at her guilt over Vanessa. The goddess was like a maggot, feeding off open sores and infections; she wouldn't move on unless there was nothing left to consume.
"Pull harder, Eris. You'll see that I have made a difference. I know I have."
"In the lives of a few measly mortals. Where is the peace you were supposed to bring?"
Diana clasped her hands together. "It's in the future. Those few measly mortals you talked of are the first step." Next will come the questions about the paradox of being a warrior for peace, Diana thought. Eris must not have realized that Diana asked herself these questions every day, the lasso wrapped around her. How long would this take, she wondered. Hours? Days? What was happening to Bruce?
Eris grinned and drew back. "Your threads communicate to me your confidence, and your worry for your companion. Phobos is controlling him."
"He beat Phobos before."
Eris drew the threads tight and Diana's sleeve unraveled. "In Gotham, Phobos made the mistake of trying to join with the Batman. This time he will break him, and use the body. As I will do to you."
"He can not be broken," Diana said.
"No?" Eris' hair writhed as if alive; behind her, Diana could see the Amazons fighting the creeping darkness. "Phobos is the god of fear. He can give men fear … and he can take it away. He has removed your companion's fears: his fear of losing control, the fear of killing, the fear of losing his humanity, the fear that gave him purpose long ago, the fear that created the part of him that is the Batman. And Phobos has left him with anger, and guilt, and hate."
"He isn't just fear, and guilt and anger," Diana retorted.
Eris grasped another loose thread. "No, but he hides his love, and his generosity and kindness. He won't fall back on them because he is too accustomed to pushing those emotions away. You know this better than most." She slid her finger along the new thread. "I can feel it here. Your wish that he would open himself to your love."
Diana ignored her. "You can not override his humanity."
"Oh, but we can. We have." The goddess smiled again. "Batman just killed the Joker in the illusion my brother has created for him. Because of you."
"The Joker killed and raped you, so Batman killed the Joker. Ah, what love makes men do. Simple, really. Now he exits the Underworld in his dream, and my brother Deimos will give him the terror of the murder being discovered. To prevent that from happening, Batman will do what he fears most."
"Kill," Diana guessed.
"Not just that," the goddess laughed. "He is also afraid that those he loves will be hurt or killed. Imagine his pain if he was the one who killed those closest to him. Phobos will manipulate both of his greatest fears, combining and exacerbating them."
"Monster," Diana whispered.
"Yes," Eris replied, "I believe I am."
Oracle stared down at Bruce from his monitors. "If you didn't find the Joker, isn't it possible that he became invulnerable and left?"
She knows."No," Batman said. "Hades said he could tell that the Joker had never gone to the Underworld. He would be dead from his disease by now."
Barbara adjusted her glasses. "Do you think it is possible that the Joker was killed by the thing that killed Diana, and Hades never realized it?"
She can tell you are lying. She knows Diana was killed by a bullet, and the bullet must have come from the Joker."Perhaps that is true, but if that is the case then there is no need to track him down."
"We should ascertain that--" Oracle began.
"No! This case is closed." Batman disconnected the transmission, then dropped into his chair, his head in his hands.
Oracle will figure it out. You trained her to find facts, discover motive. She's brilliant at solving crimes--even yours.
"Master Bruce?" Alfred stepped into the cave. Batman lifted his head.
"I'm sorry, sir, I can see that you are still grieving for Miss Diana." Alfred sighed. "It is a pity that you couldn't save her, and that you couldn't avenge her death."
"I'm sorry, too, Alfred." Batman watched his butler carefully. Was Alfred's comment a hint that he had guessed the truth and approved? He knows you better than anyone. He knows.
Bruce's hand shook; he tucked it under his cape. Alfred frowned. You're giving yourself away. They know you are a murderer. Barbara will tell Dick, then Tim, then Cassandra. Maybe even her father. And Alfred already knows. "I'll eat with you in the kitchen tonight, Alfred," he said suddenly.
If Alfred was surprised, he didn't show it. "Very good, sir. It will be ready at seven-thirty." The butler turned and left.
Batman clenched his teeth, trying to resist, but still got up and took out his special gloves and prepared the metracardazine. The drug could save the life of someone who'd had a heart attack, or it could cause one. It would be untraceable, painless and quick.
After all, Alfred had been like a father to him.
Batman crouched on the ledge, looking into the Clock Tower with his binoculars. Guilt weighed heavily in his stomach, yet a smile played around the corners of his mouth. He would be safe soon. You need to finish this, quickly.
He used the jumpline to swing across the alley onto the tower. Barbara had been waiting for him, but she didn't expect the kick that broke her ribs, the pieces of bone piercing her lungs. She fell onto the floor, flecks of blood wetting her lips.
"Did you tell them?" Batman demanded.
Shaking her head, coughing, she tried to pull herself across the floor, to the weapons in her wheelchair. He didn't want her to suffer, so he broke her neck.
You know she told the others. They'll come looking for her when she goes offline; they'll come looking for you. You can take them out one by one.
Dick's voice crackled over the speakers. "Oracle, Nightwing here. Status report." Then, "Babs?"
Batman's heart filled with despair and grief, but he readied the room for the fight ahead. It looked like his son would be the first. Third, he remembered, then chuckled. What did it matter?
He could still taste the bile in his mouth; he'd vomited when he had finished.
You know what you've done. There's no way you can live with it.
Bruce stared down at the concrete one hundred and fifteen stories below. The WayneCorp building was one of the highest in the city, affording him a spectacular view of Gotham in her nighttime glory, her corruption hidden in the darkness.
You don't deserve to be her protector.
There wasn't any blood on his hands; he'd been quick and methodical. Yet he felt as if he'd bathed in it, and that eventually it would the vision of his city incarnadine.
They will all know soon. But you don't have to face your city's loss of faith in you.
No, Batman realized, he didn't. The solution was simple: he could throw away his jumplines and walk off the edge. Even if he used his cape to catch air, he'd be going too fast for it to do any good. It would be over.
After one last piece of unfinished business.
Bruce didn't hear Superman land, but knew he was there before he turned around.
"What is it, Batman?" Clark said, his voice tired, bitter. Batman studied him, wondering how much of Superman's expression had been caused by Diana's death. Clark's grief and reaction was, Bruce thought, nothing compared to his own.
"Look into Oracle's tower," Batman said. He knew what Clark would see with his x-ray vision: the bodies of Batman's allies, his family.
Superman turned to Batman, eyes agonized. "Who did it? Was your identity compromised?"
"No, I did it. Alfred's at the mansion." Why are you telling him? He knows now, and you can't kill him. You can't hide anything from him.
Clark looked at him uncomprehendingly, then his shoulders slumped. "Why, Bruce?"
"The Joker killed Diana, so I killed him. They knew, and would have taken Gotham from me."
"I'm going to take Gotham from you." Clark sighed. "I should have realized Diana's death would have affected you like this. You have gone insane."
"Maybe." Batman smiled. "But you aren't taking me from Gotham."
"I have no choice, Bruce. You know that." He reached out a hand, pleaded, "Come with me without a fight. We'll get help for you."
Bruce dropped into a fighting stance. "Try to take me."
Superman stepped forward, said, "Hit me if you like, Batman. You can try to fight, but you are coming with me."
"No," Batman corrected softly, "I'm not. I'm going to win." His fist shot out, connecting with Clark's chin, snapping the Kryptonian's head back. Batman grinned. "Gloves lined with kryptonite, Clark." He laughed at Superman's look of surprise, then hit him again, heard the crunch of bone and teeth.
Superman fell back, but Bruce followed him, pounding at his head and body.
Batman laughed when he saw how Clark's face was swollen from the blows, how his eyes were puffy, meaty slits. He laughed harder when he realized the kryptonite had left Superman too weak to fly or hit him back. And he laughed hardest when Clark, blinded by his injuries, didn't see Bruce toss the gloves away, far enough that the effect of the kryptonite would wear off. Clark wouldn't realize until too late that his strength had returned, Batman calculated.
What are you doing!?
I'm going back to hell,he answered, and stopped laughing a second before Superman hit him with full Kryptonian strength.
The linen dress hung from her like rags.
Eris had intended to distract her by telling her about Phobos' plans for Bruce, Diana realized. And had succeeded brilliantly. Eris had managed to unravel most of her dress with a few inconsequential conflicting threads that Diana should have been able to resolve: she lived in a luxurious apartment while people were homeless and starving, she wasn't a virgin, she cried too easily. All things that, Eris had argued, demonstrated Diana's unsuitability as Wonder Woman. Worrying about Bruce had cost too much, Diana thought as she looked down at her exposed skin; she should have been able to refute those arguments with ease, rather then letting them tear her up.
She felt Eris' confidence. The goddess was certain she was winning. Diana wasn't certain Eris was wrong--Diana had lost a lot of ground. The crux of Diana's spiritual self was in the field, with Diana herself in the center. That was what Eris was attacking, trying to take over. Once the darkness reached Diana, covered her, she would lose. Diana looked around them, at the Amazons fighting, falling back as the darkness slipped further and further toward the center. The Amazons were, Diana knew, a manifestation of the defense of her inner being. There were Bana-Mighdalls in their Egyptian armor and Themyscirians in white shifts; they were sisters that were alive, and those who had fallen in battle over the years--Diana focused on one face--including her mother.
Eris laughed with glee. "I've been waiting to get to this." She reached in, grabbed the frayed edge of the torn dress. "Hippolyta."
Diana fixed her gaze on the goddess, pushed thoughts of Bruce, Amazons, and darkness to the back of her mind. She was going to win this. "My queen. My mother."
"And once Wonder Woman." Eris narrowed her eyes. "Although you didn't think so."
"I said words to her which I regret," Diana admitted.
"You gave in to jealousy, and anger," Eris said. "Petty feelings for someone who calls herself Wonder Woman."
"You didn't act very much like Wonder Woman then, did you?" Eris yanked on the cloth; a large strip of the dress fell away. The Amazons to Diana's left broke formation and the darkness rushed in to fill the space they left. She could see the gleam of claws and teeth, felt the hunger that emanated from the shadows. Eris continued, "You think that you are the only one who should be Wonder Woman, don't you? Artemis, your mother--both were the victims of your pride."
"I am proud of being Wonder Woman," Diana said.
"You aren't Wonder Woman," Eris challenged. She tore at the dress, pulling cloth away until Diana stood naked in front of her. "You've accomplished nothing. The only time you've stopped a war you used Batman's methods, not Wonder Woman's. The Amazonian ideals that you spout have had little affect on Man's World. You are petty, and jealous, and proud. What Wonder Woman stands for is something better than you could ever be, or hope to be."
"You are not wrong." Diana felt the darkness nip at her feet. The Amazons had fallen.
Eris' predatory smile flashed in the shadows. "I have shredded every belief you have had, Diana. The evidence lays at your feet. Your defenses are shattered. You are nothing. Give in to me."
"No," Diana stated quietly. She reached out and snatched the goddess by the neck. The shadows around her hesitated. Diana stared into Eris' surprised eyes, said, "Wonder Woman is not just the 'Wonder'. She's also the 'woman.'" Eris clawed at Diana's hand around her throat, drawing blood with her nails. Diana didn't flinch, didn't relinquish her grip. "And at the core of every woman is a human. A human who has faults." Diana squeezed. "Call off the darkness; get out of my mind. Or I'll destroy you here."
"You … nothing," Eris wheezed. "Not … human. Clay."
Cocking a brow toward her bleeding hand, Diana replied, "Then why do I bleed? Why do I love and hate, fear and hope? I am as human as Batman, as anyone. Every single one of the things you claimed were faults make me more human, more Diana, and a better Wonder Woman."
"Not Wond … woman." Eris' voice was weaker. "…perfect."
"If Wonder Woman is perfect, then she forgives. She forgives faults in others, and gives them second chances. And she forgives herself, and learns from it. It makes her stronger." Diana said. "You don't understand that, Eris. Which is why you lost here."
"Did not lose," Eris grated out. But her hands fell away from Diana's, the darkness receded.
"No?" Diana grinned. "Then why are my Amazons coming back? Why am I dressed again?'
Eris' eyes widened in anger and shock. Diana's clothing had reappeared, but as a mixture of her uniform and traditional Amazonian garb.
"I am Wonder Woman, Eris. Now get out."
Diana's hand suddenly clenched on nothing. She sighed in relief and looked around, at the Amazons staring at her in amusement and affection. Hippolyta stepped forward.
"Mother," Diana said, her tone respectful.
"Diana." Hippolyta smiled. "You took a long time to come to the right conclusion."
"Too long?" Diana wondered.
Hippolyta shook her head. "No. Just long enough. Something important should not come easily." She stepped forward, embraced Diana. "Now go. I'll be here if you need me."
Diana remembered Danielle Nichols, how she had said her mother would live in her--the memory of her mother, at the very least. "I'm sorry, Mother."
"I know." Her voice was gentle, then became that of a queen. "Now, go, Diana. Wonder Woman."
"Hey!" The fierce whisper broke through the silence. "Lady, wake up!"
Diana opened her eyes, looked into the anxious face of the Joker. He was tied to a rock with her lasso.
"Hurry, they are distracted by something." The Joker glanced behind him. "That woman showed up just a few seconds ago."
Diana's gaze followed his, saw Eris pacing back and forth in front of Phobos and Deimos--who held Batman between them. As far as she could tell, Bruce was unconscious. She looked down at herself; she had all of her weapons, but knew the gods had the upper hand in swiftness and strength. She needed a plan.
"Don't just sit there, lady, untie me so we can go," the Joker demanded. "Then you can tell me what is going on here."
Diana frowned. Lady? Not Wonder Babe or some other Jokerized cute name? "I'm not going to untie you yet," she said. "Not until I get Batman."
The Joker snorted. "Batman? Is that his name? Ridiculous. And who am I, by the way?"
The Lethe water, Diana remembered. It would erase all of the Joker's memories for a few hours, then eventually they would return, except for the last month's. The Joker didn't know her, or Batman. "Your name is Bob. Batman's a friend of yours," she lied.
"He is?" The Joker looked interested. "I couldn't help but notice my own outrageous clothing. Are we actors, or something? "
"Or something," Diana replied, distracted by Phobos' sudden gesticulations.
The Joker watched, too. "Those two have been standing over the batguy for about an hour now. What are they doing to him?"
"Trying to break him."
"They should try a heavy rock, it works best." Diana glanced at him sharply; the Joker shrugged and grinned. "Just a joke. Trying to make the best of a bad situation."
She heard the gods' voices, she motioned the Joker to be quiet.
"He is fighting him now!" Phobos was yelling at Eris. "We can not stop him."
"Fools. If he dies in battle, his soul will remain intact. It must be suicide born of despair and fear. We have already lost one host." Eris gestured toward Diana. "I could not take her."
Deimos sneered. "You could never control any host, Eris. Discord is nothing next to the power of terror."
"You lost the clown before, Deimos. You are no better than I."
Deimos smiled, his reptilian hair hissing. "But this time the clown is not tainted with his madness and memories. There is nothing for him with which he can resist."
"No, there is not," Eris said thoughtfully.
"We may not lose Batman," Phobos interjected. "He has the upper hand, he is killing the Superman."
Diana gritted her teeth, hoped that Batman knew what he was doing.
"Perfect." Eris rubbed her hands together. "If he murders the brightest light on Earth, who is also a friend, he would have ever the more reason to despair. And we would still have two hosts."
Two hosts. Three gods. Diana smiled.
"No! What is he doing?" Phobos dropped Bruce as if burned. "He just--"
Batman's foot cut off the rest of his sentence, knocked Phobos backward. Diana stood, ready to rush forward to help, but Bruce dodged Deimos grab, flipped over Eris and backed away from the trio until he was beside Diana.
"We can't beat them fighting," Diana said in a low voice. "They didn't even really try to get you just now."
"I figured as much," Bruce returned, never taking his eyes from the three gods. "What now?"
One host. Three gods. "We have no choice but to give up," Diana said. And let nature take its course, she added silently. The gods' natures.
He was going to be limping for a couple of days, he thought. He'd landed on a rock when Phobos had knocked him from the horse, and the subsequent unconsciousness and inactivity had left the bruised muscle stiff and tight. And, tied as he was to Diana, he couldn't move his arms to massage some of the ache away.
It would be a painful getaway if they had to run out of there.
The Joker had tried to escape three times since he'd been released from the lasso, but each time one of the gods had caught him easily and brought him back to the center of their circle. They were strong and fast. Batman watched them now, Eris, Phobos and Deimos standing around the Joker, arguing.
They'd been arguing since Batman had gotten out of the nightmare they'd created for him.
"I'm glad you are all right," he said suddenly, then frowned. He hadn't meant to say that. "Dammit."
He felt Diana's chuckle, her back vibrating against his. "Don't worry, I won't hold anything you say with the lasso around us against you."
"I can probably untie us--" he twisted his hand around between them, trying to create some slack, "if you--"
"No," Diana interrupted. "They didn't kill us because, in their vanity, they'll eventually try to break us again. The lasso affords us some protection; its truth won't allow them to get inside us while we are in its bindings." She paused. "And I'm glad you are all right, too. How did you break the illusion?"
"Simple forensics. Too much blood from an injury the Joker said he did after he killed you. Without the heart beating, there wouldn't have been such massive bleeding. It was an obvious attempt to twist my emotions so that I would take revenge. I played along until I saw a way out." He watched as the Joker crawled between Phobos' legs toward Diana and him. Diana had told him the Joker hadn't regained his memory yet--but an hour had passed since then. The memories could return any time.
The Joker reached them; Batman tensed, ready for anything, but the Joker just sat next to Diana, watching the three gods fight. "They keep arguing over me," the clown said.
"They all want to get out of here," Diana said, "but only one can leave. It's a power struggle."
"Who will win?" Batman asked.
"Whoever has the apple, which is probably Eris. She would have used the power to re-animate Deimos and free Phobos from the wheel, but she wouldn't trust them with the actual apple."
"An apple?" Joker questioned.
"A golden apple," Diana explained. "If you see it, try to get it to us so that we can destroy it. If it is destroyed, the power that fuels them will be gone." She glanced toward the gods, whose argument had become more heated. "They'll start fighting soon. That will be the best time to escape, when they are occupied beating each other."
Batman liked the idea of draining their power better than running and hoping they wouldn't notice in the fight. "How is the apple destroyed?"
"Crushing it, splitting it, anything."
"Eating it?" the Joker wondered.
"No," Diana shook her head vehemently. "If one of the gods ate it, they'd be okay and it would just tie them to the mortal world, since that is where it originated; but if a mortal ate it, it would tear their mind apart. It is an Apple of Discord, after all."
"From an apple?" The Joker laughed, then turned to Batman. "Does this happen to us everyday?"
"No." The lasso wouldn't let him feed a lie to the Joker.
"Good," the Joker smiled. "I think I am remembering some things, though. You and me, in a play, I guess. I was the bad guy."
Batman clenched his teeth; behind him, Diana was silent as well.
The Joker continued. "A real maniac, actually. Pretty funny in some ways, but pretty horrible in others. There is one I remember where I had a crowbar and was…." He looked between Batman's set jaw and Diana's bent head. "I'm not an actor, am I?" His tone was resigned.
"No," Batman said. "You're an insane monster."
The Joker nodded. "I thought the memories were too … real. Special effects are not that good." He sighed. "I'll go back now. If I see that apple…"
"I'm sorry," Diana said. "I wish we could tell you something else." She really was sorry, Batman thought. He wasn't sure if he was.
He watched the Joker crawl back to the middle of the circle, then leaned the back of his head against Diana's. "If Eris wins, and gets into the Joker, then what?"
"Then she'll probably kill us," Diana said, then laughed. "I was going to be more optimistic just now, but…" He felt her shrug. "…the lasso. The good news is that she probably wouldn't be able to stay in him. In a little while he'll have all of his memories back, and she won't be able to hold onto his mind."
A thunderous clap sounded; Deimos had struck Phobos.
"Here we go," Diana murmured.
Batman watched the fight even as he worked furiously at their bindings. Maybe Diana was right, that the huge scale of their battle would distract them long enough to escape. In any case, he wanted his movement back, safe in the lasso or not.
The bindings suddenly loosened around him; he frowned. He hadn't done that. Sneaking a glance at Diana, he saw her smile.
"Well, it's my lasso," she whispered quickly. "How could anyone really tie me up in it?"
He wanted to laugh, but silently got to his feet, calculating their best options. He needed to get the Joker, but Eris was holding him to the side while she watched her two brothers. The mountain trembled as Phobos slammed Deimos against the ground; the tremor made the Joker fall against Eris, tangling in her robes. She swatted him away like a fly.
Good, Batman thought. The more distance between the Joker and the gods, the better. "Diana," he whispered, and pointed to a ledge above the Joker. "I'll get him from there."
She held up her lasso in response. "I've got a better idea; we'll go fishing."
The loop settled neatly around the Joker's shoulders, and Diana started to slowly draw him back, trying to keep Eris from noticing him. The Joker, Batman noticed, was smiling. The apple gleamed in his hand.
"Maybe he's a natural-born thief," Diana whispered.
Eris turned then, saw the two heroes free of the lasso; Batman sprang forward, but he wasn't fast enough. The goddess caught him, held him up by his throat, her back to the Joker. A sharp word from her, and the brothers stopped fighting, and held Diana between them less than a second later.
Eris smiled at him. "Very impertinent of you two, trying to take away our host and escape." Batman stared over her shoulder. The Joker stood, looked anxiously between Batman and Wonder Woman. Could Batman trust him? "Maybe we should make your nightmare real, Batman. We could end up with two hosts if we play it right. Make you watch. I guarantee you'll break when she curses your name."
Batman's eyes met the Joker's.
"Kill her," Eris ordered.
Eris turned at the Joker's yell, amazement plain on her features, then anger when she saw the apple the Joker held. "Worm," she seethed.
"Destroy it, Joker." Diana's voice rang out.
The Joker looked desperately around him; he had no weapons to destroy it with, Batman realized. Eris must have, too, because she relaxed, and smiled again.
The Joker asked, "I'm already insane, right?"
Batman managed the best nod he could with Eris' hand wrapped around his neck; at the same time, he heard Diana's answer:
Determination crossed the Joker's face and lifted the apple to his lips. Eris shrieked with rage and dropped Bruce, but she was too late to stop him from biting it in half, frantically chewing, swallowing.
Bruce landed in a crouch, leg muscle screaming, swung around. Eris was gone. Behind him, Diana was free from the brothers, who had also disappeared. Finally, he looked at the Joker.
"Hey, Batsy," the Joker said, giggled, and passed out.
Diana hesitated, then punched in the transporter coordinates before she changed her mind again. It was business, she told herself. Just wrapping up the case. Wanting to see Bruce had nothing to do with it.
Well, almost nothing. She hadn't seen him since he'd left New York for Greece to pick up the Joker and Medea.
She stepped into the transporter and activated it, arriving instantly in the cave. Bruce was expecting her; he had turned his chair toward the transporter. She lifted her eyebrows in surprise at his mussed hair, jeans and t-shirt. And, she noted, bare feet.
"Alfred's gone today," he said.
"So you take advantage of that to dress down? A rebellion of sorts?"
"No." A calculating look entered his eyes. "It's my way of keeping him with me. On one of these days off, he might realize how much easier life is without me and take off permanently; but, if he remembers what happens to the Manor and me when he's gone, and the mess I make, he'll feel obligated to keep coming back." When Diana laughed, Bruce added, "You should see the kitchen."
Diana shook her head, grinning. "No thanks. My sympathy level is already at its maximum where Alfred is concerned; if I saw the kitchen, I just might have to rescue him out of pure human kindness."
"And put him up at your own place."
"Oh, of course. A purely altruistic endeavor. I couldn't leave the poor man unemployed after saving him from your clutches."
"His cooking has nothing to do with it whatsoever."
"No, but his ability to stitch wounds might." Diana paused, then said, "I actually came down here to find out about the Farletti and Nichols case. Will the police be able to charge Medea with anything?"
"Aiding and abetting, at the very least, for helping the Joker escape. Plus, I am tracking down the poisons used in the apples. If I can connect her purchase to the poison, it'll make a more solid case for the murder. She'd be charged with accessory then."
"That's something, though hardly enough," Diana said.
"It rarely is." Batman's eyes never left her face. Diana looked away. "You could have asked me this over the communicators."
Diana shrugged. "I could have, but I thought I'd go see Danielle Nichols and tell her what I could about the Joker's capture, to comfort her a little, and eat any brownies she offered. So I was coming to Gotham anyway." An awkward silence reigned for a moment. "So, capturing the Joker and Medea was ridiculously easy, I suppose?" Batman had slapped a tracer onto the Joker before pushing him, still unconscious, through the gateway out of the Underworld.
"Oh, ridiculously," Bruce agreed.
"Hmm," Diana said. She clasped her hands in front of her, then put them into the pockets of her slacks, shifted her weight from foot to foot. She probably looked, Diana thought, like she either had to use the restroom or was a nervous schoolgirl. She started pacing, hoping it looked less absurd. The diplomat, warrior and former princess, wondering how to make small talk. She looked down at her casual shirt and pants. "How's the weather today in Gotham? Did I dress correctly?"
Bruce lifted an eyebrow. "Sunny. And the Yankees are playing in Gotham today."
Diana stopped mid-pace. "Really? I thought the season was over."
"It is." Batman leaned back in his chair, steepled his fingertips. "You're not here because of Farletti and Nichols, Princess."
"No, I'm not. But I'm not sure why I'm here, exactly." Diana, frustrated, ran a hand through her hair, then looked up to meet Bruce's gaze. "Yes, I do. I want to know how you are doing."
"My leg hurts. How are you doing?"
Diana snorted. "I meant, how are you doing after whatever it was that happened in the little nightmare Phobos concocted for you."
"I'm fine, Princess."
"Really? Because even if you knew it was an illusion, it wouldn't have been easy to follow along with their little plan, killing everyone close to you."
Bruce surprised her by laughing. "Even if they hadn't messed up with the blood from the rape, I would have known something was wrong, because of one simple thing: the idea that I would kill my family--even think of it--is ludicrous."
"They were trying to combine two of your worst fears," Diana said. "Killing and your family dying."
"I assumed as much," Bruce nodded. "The god of fear would have used the best ammunition, but he didn't consider how those two fears would interact."
"Oh." Diana pinched her bottom lip between her teeth, decided he really didn't need her there. She glanced toward the tunnel that led outside. "Since you are fine, I'll be running along. Mind if I go out the cliff exit?"
"Actually, yes." Bruce reached behind him, grabbed an object that had been sitting on the console. A flashlight, Diana realized. "There's something I want to look at, and you could help me." He got up, walked over to the edge of the cave floor.
Brow furrowed, Diana followed him and peered down. Darkness. "What did you want to look at?"
"The bottom," Bruce said. "You can fly me down there."
"I charge twenty-five dollars a ride," Diana said.
Bruce smiled, and Diana had to remind herself that she couldn't throw him to the floor and have her way with him. Yet. "I think I can come up with that much," he said.
"Fifty. There's the ride back up, too." Diana grinned and wrapped an arm around his waist, lifting them both into the air, then began to descend. She set a slow pace, in no hurry to go anywhere else for a while. They sank past the lower levels of the cave which stored the large vehicles and generators. "This is bigger than I realized," Diana commented.
"One can never be too prepared."
"How did you manage to have all of this constructed without anyone noticing? And who constructed it for you?"
"Wayne Enterprises often completes classified contracts for the government. This followed the same rules: blind transport, no one going in or out. Most of it was built off-site, though, and brought here piece by piece." He shifted against her and turned on the flashlight, shining it past their feet. The powerful beam revealed nothing. "If you have a couple hundred million, I can have one built for you." She heard the humor in his voice.
Diana grinned. "No, thank you. If I ever need solitude, I prefer warmth and light. No fortresses of ice or caves for me."
"It served its purpose, even though it's better put to use elsewhere since the war." Remembering that Batman had once told her to throw it into the sun, she added, "And during the war."
"Heh. Maybe." Bruce clicked off the light. "We should come upon the second colony of bats soon. Some live in the cave's ceiling, and some are down here. We don't want to disturb them, so we'll leave the light off for a bit."
"Good idea." Diana didn't like the idea of thousands of startled bats overhead, and no umbrella. "Is the Joker back in Arkham?"
"For now," Bruce said.
"Since we've been back, I've wondered if we shouldn't have just erased all of his memories," Diana said. "He might have shown some signs of imbalance, but it was without the violence or complete disregard for life."
"It might have saved a few lives in the future; then again, it might not have."
"What do you mean?"
"I don't know who the Joker was before he became the Joker. I don't know if something happened to him and he snapped, or if he was just is wired so wrong that it wasn't any one thing, but inevitable."
"Predestined? I find it hard to believe that you might buy into that, Bruce."
"Not predestination or fate. Everyone has the capacity for violence and insanity, and if the chemicals are wrong and the brain can't repress urges, then yes, it is almost inevitable that the person could become socio- or psychopathic."
Diana considered that. "So you think that even without his memories, the Joker would have gone down the same path? Ended up the same?"
She felt him shake his head. "No. He might have, though." He sighed, his breath brushing past her neck. "In any case, with or without his memories, I would hold the Joker responsible for what he's done, no question about it."
"But, if the memories did make him violent, if we had taken them away permanently would we enacting justice against the wrong man?"
"I see your point," Bruce said. "But on the other hand, maybe the best--or worse--punishment would be to make him sane, then let him know what he's done, so that he'd try to make amends. Right now, his incarceration is just a brief pause in his big, joking life."
Diana nodded. "Yes, although he would run the danger of becoming insane again from the guilt of being the Joker, and you have the same dilemma as before. I don't know if someone can live with that much guilt and still function. How many people has he killed?"
"Directly or indirectly?" Bruce grimly recited two numbers that made Diana's heart ache and her anger rise. "And those are just the murders I've positively identified as his. There are many more possibles that don't have enough evidence to be sure." He flicked on the light again; they were past the bats, but still couldn't see the bottom, just the rocky walls revealed in the circle of light.
"He saved our lives," Diana said quietly. "He willingly embraced the madness of the Joker to save us."
She saw his bitter smile in the diffused light. "Seems I was wrong when I said he was like this cave, then. All dark, no capacity for good."
"I suppose it would be worse, though, to be deceived into thinking that someone is good, when they aren't," Diana said.
Bruce's eyes met hers. "I think it is worse to know that the good is in him, and he just can't or won't stop killing."
Diana frowned. "Maybe. It's depressing that, in him at least, the inclination for evil is more powerful than the inclination for good. But it isn't a sign of the larger picture, Bruce. Most people don't get their laughs by hurting others, and good usually prevails." She glance at him. "And I know you know and believe that. When Mageddon had Clark in its thrall, you reminded him that we--the good guys--always win to force Clark out of his depression. If you hadn't really believed it, Clark would have known since you were telepathically linked."
"Who told you that?" Bruce scowled.
Diana grinned. "I'll never tell." She tilted her head, listened. "I hear water."
"There's a river under here that feeds into the bay," Bruce said. "We must be nearing the bottom."
Looking down into the darkness, Diana said, "I find it hard to believe that you don't know what is down here. You would have checked everything for possible security breaches."
"I know what's down here, Princess. I've just never looked myself. I've always used sensors and probes."
"Why the sudden curiosity?" she wondered.
Bruce paused, then said, "I wanted to see how much longer you would go without mentioning that we had sex because of a spell a month ago, closely worked together for a couple of weeks, journeyed through the Greek Underworld, discovered we'd already broken the spell, the spent our last night together, but never spoke of it afterward." He brushed a gentle finger across her cheek. "You are usually much more direct, Princess."
Diana opened her mouth to speak, then closed it. What could she say? Please, I want you to admit your love for me despite your fear of losing control? Please forget that you saw me murdered in a nightmare, and that it made you kill someone, which probably made you more determined not to love me in case it really happened? No. She wouldn't beg for his love, or his time, and she wouldn't force him to give them to her.
"I fell in love with you during that time," she said finally, "but that's all I have to say about it, except that I won't let it burden you. And I don't expect you to say or do anything about what I feel, either."
"How generous of you," Bruce said.
Diana studied his face, trying to decide if he was being sarcastic or if the comment was honest, but his expression was inscrutable.
"There's the river," he said. Diana looked down; the light glistened against the water. He shined the flashlight ahead of them. "There's a cavern in front of us, which my sensors have indicated is the size of an amphitheater. I thought we'd take a look."
She floated them forward; after a couple hundred yards, the walls widened. Above them, the ceiling domed a hundred feet above their heads. The beam from the flashlight sparkled and reflected across the face of the rock, bits of light twinkling like stars in the walls and ceiling.
Diana breathed a sigh of pleasure.
Bruce smiled. "It's the quartz in the granite. The parabolic shape of the cavern allows it to reflect several times." He shined the flashlight downward, and the twinkling disappeared. "There's a place to land." He pointed to a flat piece of rock alongside the river.
She set him down, took a step back, looked up. "This really is magnificent. Your own little planetarium powered by 'D' batteries."
She hesitated, then looked over at him. She'd had a feeling he wouldn't let the subject of the spell and their night in the Underworld be laid to rest. She didn't look forward to whatever he had to say. "Yes?"
He was casually leaning against the cave wall, but she could see the predatory gleam in his eyes in the dim light. It was the look he usually had when he was explaining to villains why their plan was going to fail in the very near future. The look he wore when he implemented his counterattack.
"I have an alert that tells me when someone tries to use my transporter," he said conversationally.
"Do you?" She tried to sound uninterested. "How handy. The Watchtower has one, too."
"You entered the code for my location twelve times before you actually came here."
Inside, she winced. She'd forgotten about the alert system. Stupid, but understandable. She had a lot on her mind--most notably the man who was now walking toward her. She watched him, decided stalking was a better description. "Thirteenth time is a charm on Greece. Those transporters, very unpredictable."
"Do you know what I think, Princess? I think that you changed your mind, over and over, about coming down here to seduce me."
Diana's eyes narrowed. "Your arrogance astounds me."
He drew closer, stopped less than a foot away. She stood her ground. "You are an Amazon, Diana. Yet here you are, with your 'I'll sacrifice my love for you, Bruce'--and it must be killing you."
"Are you mocking me? My emotions?"
"No." He took a final step forward so that she was forced to tilt her head back or look at his nose. "I'm wondering why you are repressing the part of you that wants to lay claim to me. The part of you that told me you'd be angry if I loved you and stayed away."
Diana stared at him, amazed, furious. This time she was the one to step forward; it pushed him back one step, two. "What am I supposed to do? You leave a bed still warm from our lovemaking, which happened after you told me you could never love me. You tell me that you can't love me or you'll lose control and kill someone. You have a nightmare where I die and you do just that. You don't want anyone in your city; am I supposed to disregard that and impose myself on you?" Her voice had risen; it echoed around the cavern. "You are right, Bruce. I was up in the Watchtower, trying to decide whether to come down here and try to break through the ice you keep around yourself. I want you. I want you so much that I thought of scenarios, seductions, different clothing, even damn perfume." She shook her head vehemently. "But none of those things were me, and I knew they wouldn't affect you. Those are things the Gotham society women do to attract Bruce Wayne. So I used the one thing to get close to you that I knew you'd respond to--your work." She leaned in close to him, stood on her toes to look at him in the eyes. "But do you know what I really wanted to do? I wanted to sit you down and yell at you for letting me get away."
"Like you are now," he said mildly.
"Yes!" she shouted. "And then I was going to convince you, through any means necessary, that just because I died in a illusion didn't mean that you would kill someone in real life if the same thing happened. That you wouldn't give in to that temptation, and that loving me would make you less likely to snap and kill someone, because giving into lust or love does not mean that you'll lost control over your sense of humanity and honor." She took a deep breath, then continued more quietly, "Besides, part of that worry stemmed from your belief that the Joker didn't have anything good in him--but he does. Everyone does, especially you. So everyone is safe from whatever you think will happen if you allow yourself to love me."
Diana blinked in surprise. "You do?"
He frowned. "Of course I do. I constantly over-analyze myself, and I've been doing little else since Hades' throne room."
She stared at him with a mixture of exasperation and amusement. "Then why did you make me yell at you?"
His frown deepened. She could almost see his costume and cape swirling around him; he looked like he did at a JLA meeting. "Because it won't be easy. I'm stubborn, I don't like people questioning my methods, I am used to solitude except for when I'm playing Bruce Wayne, I have specific ways of doing things. I would argue with you, frequently, and if you just accepted what I had to say in that self-sacrificing manner, so that you wouldn't burden me with what you really feel, it wouldn't work. You'd hate me in a week."
Diana's eyebrows raised in confusion. Was he outlining reasons why a relationship would never work, or warning her that they were going to be at each other's throats in one? "Could you clarify?" If it was his attempt at telling her he loved her and wanted to try something, it was the least romantic method she'd ever heard.
She'd take it, though.
He ran a hand through his hair, tried again. "I'm emotionally distant sometimes."
He slashed her a troubled glance. He was, she realized, very uncomfortable. Continuing, he said, "When I get emotionally distant, I push people away. If you accepted that, said you wouldn't make me open up to you, it wouldn't work. You'd resent me. But if you fight for me, don't let me push you away, it will work."
She understood suddenly. "Because things worth fighting for are the most important. If I didn't fight for it, there's no hope."
"Exactly." He rubbed the back of his neck, as if he'd been tense the entire time. "And I will try not to push you away in the first place."
His way of fighting, Diana realized. Her heart soared, but she said casually, "And if you do, I'll tie you up with the lasso and make you my love slave until you give in."
He nodded, as if seriously considering her comment as a method of action. "That might work, although I'd resist at first."
"We can practice," she suggested.
He laughed. "I would take you up on that, but I've got work, and you've got to go see Danielle Nichols."
"I'll bring you back a brownie." She paused. "Will I see you tonight?"
He shook his head. "I have a meeting tomorrow in New York, though. I'll drop by." He pulled her to him, kissed her. When he finished, she was pleased to see that he was breathing as hard as she was.
"Tomorrow," she repeated. "I'll be waiting for you."
She was exhausted when she finally arrived at the penthouse. He was waiting in a corner of the darkened room. She wanted to go to him, but she sat on the edge of the bed instead, started pulling off her left boot. "You saw?"
"It managed to feed into the news channels I run in the cave." He didn't mention he'd picked up on the alert instantly--he'd set his computer to warn him when she was in a major battle.
She rubbed tired hands over her face, but managed a smile. "I think I got through to her, a little. It took her daughter to do it, though. I just happened to be there to beat the sense into her."
"You spared her life."
"I had to," Diana said simply. She looked at him fully for the first time since arriving. "Have you been waiting long?'
"No," Bruce said. "But I can only stay for a few more minutes."
She nodded. "I know. I'll try to make it out to Gotham tomorrow. I'd like to patrol. It seems nice and easy after this fight with Circe." She yawned, then blushed. "Sorry."
He grinned. "Don't apologize." He bent down, quickly removed her other boot, then efficiently stripped off her armor. "Goodnight, Princess. I'll ravish you another day."
"Good," she said sleepily, and pulled the covers over herself. She caught his hand. "Stay with me for a minute or two."
He crawled into bed behind her, curled around her. "Only for a minute, though."
Diana nodded against the pillow. She fell asleep an instant later.
Bruce breathed against her hair. He waited a half an hour, until he was sure she was sleeping soundly, then got up. Their missions might be different, but they had the same effect on the mind and body. Tomorrow night, he thought, she might be doing this for him, if he let her. If she made him.
He bent down, pressed his lips to her forehead, then opened a window, and slipped out into the night. She'd be in Gotham tomorrow. Until then, there was work to do.
4/16/02 12:14 am