Justice League Unlimited
Point of View
What was wrong with this picture? She was sitting in one of the most romantic and expensive restaurants in all of Bludhaven, with soft music fluttering gently in the background. The mini dress she was wearing perfectly hugged the curves of her body like a glove, with just the lightest tint of lavender in the white fabric complimenting her naturally tanned skin. That same lavender shade could be seen in her open-toed stiletto shoes with the spaghetti straps that perfectly accentuated her shapely legs. It was the perfect setting and she had gone out of her way to look equally perfect for it…so what was she doing alone? Why was she sitting with her chin propped up on one hand, tracing circles in the tablecloth with the other and staring across the table at an empty chair?
"Excuse me, Miss?" the polite young waiter chimed in, taking care to speak quietly enough so as not to draw attention to the fact that she'd been sitting at that same table by herself for almost an hour, "Would you like something else to drink besides water while you're waiting? Perhaps maybe even an appetizer?"
"Hm…? Oh…no, thank you," she seemed to struggle in reply, as if she was unsure of exactly the proper way to answer the question, "I'm…okay. Water will be…just…fine."
With that, the waiter simply nodded and took his leave, leaving her to stare across the table once again, almost searching in vain for a companion that wasn't there. She just couldn't understand it. She was sure it was the right day and the right time. The reservation confirmed it. So why wasn't he there yet? It just didn't make sense. Just then, she happened to hear the Bludhaven Police Commissioner, who just happened to be eating dinner with his wife just two tables away, answering his cell phone.
"Yes?" he spoke in a curt, dismissive tone, indicating that he wasn't particularly thrilled to have his meal disturbed, "What…? And you're sure the call was legit…? Okay, yes…Yes, I'll be right there. And send all available units to the scene."
"I'm sorry, Dear," he was heard to say to his wife a moment later as he slapped his phone shut, "I hate to do this, but this is an emergency. 9-1-1 just got a call from an eyewitness who reported a break-in at a lab downtown."
"A break-in?" his wife noted with some surprise, "No offense, Sweetheart, but doesn't something like this seem a little…trivial to be calling the Police Commissioner for?"
"Not when it's THIS guy," the Commissioner answered grimly, leaving a credit card on the table to pay for the meal before making his way out of the restaurant. But as he passed the young lady's table, her whole body seemed to tense up as her fist tightly clenched the tablecloth. NOW things made sense. Without a moment's hesitation, she rose from her seat and hurried out of the room.
… … … …
"RAAAAH!" the monstrous Bane growled as he threw a crushing fist towards Nightwing, who was cornered against the building of the STAR Labs Bludhaven division. Nightwing, however, picked his spot and reacted with split-second timing, leaping into a high flip over Bane's titanic frame before planting his feet into the back of Bane's head, driving him face first into the concrete wall.
"I think all that Venom you've been pumping has killed your sense of direction, Bane," Nightwing remarked calmly, "You're a LONG way from Gotham right now."
Bane, however, didn't offer a verbal reply as he simply pulled his head out of the concrete and turned around to Nightwing, cracking his neck before flashing a wicked smile. Any normal person would be unconscious from something like that, if not be completely without a face. Unfortunately, Nightwing knew all too well that Bane was ANYTHING but normal. However, this was also a well-known fact to another party as well as Batman, concealed in the shadows on a nearby rooftop, kept a keen eye on the goings-on below with a vested interest.
"So…you're just going to sit here and watch?" a gentle voice spoke as Wonder Woman walked up behind him and peered over the edge.
"Nightwing's a grown up. He can take care of himself," Batman replied simply, still not taking his eyes off the action, "He doesn't need me looking over his shoulder."
"And yet, curiously enough, isn't that exactly what you're doing?" Wonder Woman felt the urge to point out. Batman, however, simply replied with a blank stare, making it perfectly clear that he wasn't amused.
"Sorry," Wonder Woman responded sarcastically, rolling her eyes slightly, "I didn't realize this was one of those 'The World According to Batman" moments."
Nightwing, meanwhile, was still completely focused on his fight with Bane. So far, he'd managed to keep a fair distance from those devastating fists of his, which was definitely to his benefit. Bane may have been wild and unfocused whenever he fought, but with power like his, he didn't need style or finesse. Nightwing knew enough to realize that would be it for him if even one of Bane's blows made contact. Like the one that was coming straight towards him as Bane lashed out again. This time, however, Nightwing caught him by surprise, grabbing Bane's arm as he sidestepped the attack and using the momentum of Bane's massive body to throw him over his shoulder and send him sliding along the ground, proving at that moment that there was still something to be said about finesse after all.
"He's good," Wonder Woman noted, clearly impressed.
"He's going to have to be," Batman replied gravely, "This is just the undercard. The main event is about to begin."
"So what's the deal, Bane?" Nightwing asked as Bane made his way back to his feet, "Breaking and entering's pretty small time for you, isn't it?"
"Let us just say that my associate is paying me a LARGE sum for this small job," Bane answered simply, tossing Nightwing an amused smirk before reaching for the dial strapped to his wrist, "Of course, I consider the pleasure to dealing with you to be a fringe benefit."
A split second later, large doses of Venom began pumping furiously throughout Bane's entire body. And Bane's heartbeat echoed rapidly in his ears as his already enormous body grew to even larger proportions. But his size did nothing to hamper his speed as he let out a crazed roar and charged towards Nightwing almost like a blur. Luckily, Nightwing was also as quick as ever, leaping into the air over Bane's body as his fist smashed into the concrete where Nightwing had just been standing. But Nightwing's aerial evasion left his body committed to the air, which was an advantage for Bane who whirled around, slamming his tree-like arm across Nightwing's back as he was about to land and sending him flying across the parking lot. Batman's eyes went wide as Nightwing bounced along the ground into a lamppost several yards away and readied himself to jump in at a moment's notice. But as Bane's giant footsteps slowly thundered towards a recovering Nightwing, a pair of shrill beeps entered Nightwing's ears as he lifted his glove just enough to see the time on his wrist watch.
"Oh boy," he groaned with a wince of pain as Bane towered over his kneeling form, "You don't know it yet, but you just started a whole lot of trouble."
"Oh please," Bane replied with a chuckle as he readied his fist to deliver the final blow, "Even for a second-rate Batman, I expected more from you then just an empty threat."
"Oh…it's no threat…," Nightwing responded, looking up at Bane with a curious smirk. Just then, a blinding flash caught Bane's attention as a beam of energy struck him hard in the chest, sending him flying back the way he'd came into the concrete wall of the lab.
"…And I never said it was from me."
Nightwing didn't have to look behind him to see who was responsible for his rescue. But as he struggled to his feet and turned around, Batman and Wonder Woman looked from the roof to see who had dispatched Bane so effortlessly.
"Who is THAT?" Wonder Woman asked, her voice a mixture of curiosity and awe.
There she was, floating just inches off the ground a few yards away from Nightwing. Her boots, stretching all the way up to her thighs, seemed to be made of some violet armored material. The same material made up her forearm bracelets, the wide collar around her shoulders and what could only be described as a V-shaped swimsuit. But if her provocative ensemble didn't make her stand out, the blazing hands and glowing green eyes certainly would have. To say nothing of the flames that flickered around her flowing red hair, draped just below her knees. Of course, the look on her face made it clear that she was not in the mood for any comments about her appearance.
"You kept me waiting," Starfire announced calmly enough, although the tone of her voice was clearly one of annoyance.
"Yeah…I did, didn't I?" Nightwing answered, wincing both from the pain in his side and at Starfire's emerald eyes seeming to burn a hole right through him. But he would have time to make up later. First, he had to make sure that Bane was well and truly down for the count.
"We had reservations," Starfire continued, unimpressed by Nightwing turning his back to her as she flew around in front of him, a thin trail of fire jetting from the end of her hair, "I was even wearing that outfit you like."
"Look, I didn't forget, okay?" Nightwing asserted, looking over Starfire's shoulder in Bane's direction, "Let's just say an old friend came to town and we got a little nostalgic."
Just then, Bane began to recover from Starfire's attack. Groaning as he rose to his feet, he noticed the pair still standing by the lamppost he'd knocked Nightwing into earlier. Starfire, however, still had her attention squarely on Nightwing and didn't even acknowledge Bane's presence, which to Bane, was every bit as unforgiveable as attacking him in the first place.
"I do not know who you are, little girl," he remarked angrily, "But it is of no consequence. Whoever is foolish enough to cross me…I break."
Surging ahead with a bellow of rage, Bane thundered towards Starfire, eager to repay her for her insult. Nightwing, meanwhile, was quick to notice the charging giant and his eyes went wide as he slowly stepped back. But it wasn't Bane he was backing away from. Because as Bane continued on with the momentum of a rampaging beast, Starfire whirled around with a yell, slamming the palm of her hand into Bane's face. And Batman and Wonder Woman could only look on in amazement as Bane, a man easily more than twice Starfire's size, was taken off his feet, his legs snapping out from under him as Starfire drove the back of his head into the ground.
"Not bad," Wonder Woman commented with wide-eyed amusement.
"Be quiet," Starfire spoke threateningly through gritted teeth as her hand actually appeared to be shoving Bane's head into the concrete, "We are having a disagreement."
Bane, astonishingly, could only groan in agony, his body flailing helplessly before the pressure Starfire was placing on his head finally rendered him unconscious. A moment later, Starfire released her grip and Nightwing, favoring discretion, tossed one of his wing-shaped throwing blades towards Bane's Venom intake tube, severing it and shrinking his body back to its normal size. With the situation finally quelled, the glow faded from Starfire's eyes and the flames disappeared from her hair as she turned her attention back to Nightwing. She was still disappointed in him, but seeing him hurt as he was and realizing that he had taken such a risk to defeat such a daunting adversary, she somehow just couldn't find the heart to stay mad at him.
"Well…it IS possible that I could forgive you," she stated, tossing him a flirty look and running a suggestive finger down his chest, "But you're going to have to…I believe the term is…'make it worth my while'?"
"Sounds tempting," Nightwing replied with a knowing grin, but curiously pulled back as Starfire leaned in to kiss him, "But not just yet."
Before Starfire could figure out what was going on, Nightwing lifted his arm up and fired a capsule from a small tube. A moment later, the capsule exploded into the sky, revealing to be a powerful flare, lighting the entire parking lot as if it were day. But it also lit up the surrounding buildings and it didn't take long for Nightwing to spot Batman and Wonder Woman on the nearby rooftop as Starfire turned upward around to see what he was looking at.
"Let's just say that right now…the night has eyes," Nightwing added, looking up at Batman with a stern frown.
… … … …
All the way across Bludhaven, in a darkened structure that had once been a factory, the air was filled with the sights of shadows and the sounds of creaking metal. Inside, a lone masked figure dressed all in black slowly made his way to the end of a large room, where another figure sat in darkness at the top of a small flight of stairs. Reaching the foot of the steps, the first figure looked up at the second, feeling a moment of uncertainty before he prepared himself to speak.
"I know," the seated figure replied, a slightly dark rasp in his voice as he interrupted his subordinate, "Bane has failed."
With the simple press of a button from a remote control, the entire side wall of the room sprang to life with a glittering array of screens, all of varying sizes. As each screen showed various angles of Nightwing and Starfire standing over Bane, as well as different angles of Batman and Wonder Woman staring at them from the rooftop, the seated man simply looked on. Only his left eye could be seen, glistening from the white glow of the screens.
"It would seem that this phase of the plan is going to require a more…personal touch,"
… … … …
"So…what's wrong with this picture?" Nightwing commented as he and Batman watched Bane being loaded onto an armored transport from the roof of the lab, "Someone like Bane being paid top dollar for a simple B & E? Does that make sense to you?"
"Depends on what they're shopping for," Batman replied simply, "The last few weeks, there have been a series of laboratory break-ins all over the country, stealing various mechanical components. Each theft has been attributed to a different perpetrator…super-villains, mercenaries, Intergang. They all seem like random occurrences at first glance. But each theft has also been preceded by large financial transactions from dozens of international banks around the world. I've had the computer…"
"Ahem! Excuse me?" Wonder Woman's voice sounded off behind them as they turned around to see her and Starfire standing just a few feet away, each presenting a rather annoyed glance at being left hanging, "But don't you think that perhaps introductions might be a more polite way to go?"
"Uh, right," Nightwing replied, caught slightly off-guard, "Okay…Wonder Woman I presume? Batman? Allow me to introduce…"
"Koriand'r…a.k.a. Starfire," Batman cut Nightwing off, dismissively turning his attention back to the scene below, "A member of the Tamaranian Royal Family…sold into slavery to a conquering world and crashed on Earth while escaping her captors."
"Well…THAT'S certainly minding your manners," Wonder Woman remarked towards Batman's curt attitude before turning her attention to Starfire with a whisper, "I have to apologize for him. Don't let it bother you. He's always like this."
"Was that absolutely necessary?" Nightwing objected under his breath as Starfire simply looked on with a pair of wide-eyed blinks.
"Just cutting to the chase," Batman replied dryly as he made sure Bane was secure and driven away before returning to the matter at hand, "As I was saying, I've had the computer working overtime to determine what, if anything, these particular components might have in common. But most of the stolen items have been so small or insignificant, it's been like putting a jigsaw puzzle together without the box and only half the pieces. Right now, I need to run down a complete inventory of everything this lab has in stock and see if anything fits a pattern. I'll keep in touch when I know more."
With that, Batman turned and prepared to leave. But Nightwing's hand grabbing his shoulder stopped him dead in his tracks.
"Not gonna happen," Nightwing replied grimly, "Whoever's behind this, they're hitting MY town now. Which means whatever they're up to, it involves me…whether you like it or not."
At first, Batman simply responded to Nightwing's declaration with a stern glance. But the conviction etched across Nightwing's face made it abundantly obvious that he was not about to take no for an answer under any circumstances.
"Suit yourself," Batman replied, shrugging off Nightwing's hand and taking a few steps away before reaching to press an earpiece concealed behind his mask, "It would probably go faster if we compare notes. Batman to Watchtower…four to transport."
Before Nightwing or Starfire knew what was happening, all four of them were individually bathed in a wave of light. The next thing Nightwing and Starfire saw, they were on the main bridge of the Justice League's Watchtower space station, surrounded by dozens of League members, all milling about their business.
"Make yourselves at home," Batman stated matter-of-factly as he simply walked away towards one of the computers, leaving Nightwing and Starfire awestruck at the sight that beheld them.
… … … …
"Well, I'll say it," Nightwing remarked, leaning against a side wall as he looked around the enormous gymnasium, loaded for bear with every high-tech exercise machine imaginable, "It's certainly interesting up here."
"Are you sure you don't want to give Bruce a hand? He DID kind of give you the brush-off back there," Wonder Woman responded, staying close by, "Of course, knowing him like you do, you're probably used to it by now, right?"
"I wouldn't say you get used to it," Nightwing answered soberly, "You just stop being surprised after a while, that's all."
At that moment, Wonder Woman felt as though she should say something encouraging, but the tone in Nightwing's voice indicated there was no point in trying to make him feel better. So she simply chose to look away and leave it alone. Still, there was something in his voice that sounded so much like Batman at that moment. Before Wonder Woman had the chance to dwell on it, however, a small crowd of Leaguers at the far corner of the room caught her eye. And it only took her a brief second to find out just what…or who…had piqued their interest.
"Well, at least SHE looks to be enjoying herself," she noted, getting Nightwing's attention as she nudged her head over towards Starfire, who was lying back at one of the gym's weight stations. Her hands gripped firmly as she pushed up on the handles, the look on Starfire's face was definitely one of strain as the weight machine exerted every pound of crushing force it had to bear down upon her. Still, the challenge didn't seem to present her with too great a deal of difficulty as she still managed to raise and lower her arms in a slow, but steady rhythm, in spite of the distorted whirs and grinds of effort from the enormous machine. Several of the women in the room, however, seemed even more astonished than the men, particularly Shayera and Vixen, who could only look on with wide eyes and hanging jaws. Expressions which refused to fade even after Starfire sat up and the group efficiently dispersed, realizing the show was over.
"Okay, let me get this straight," Shayera spoke up, "You just mastered that machine on its highest setting on your first attempt?"
"What…of it?" Starfire replied as her eyes shifted back and forth in confusion, unsure as to what exactly she did to warrant such disbelief, "It was…challenging. But not overly difficult."
"'Not difficult'? You're kidding, right?" Vixen chimed in, "Girl, there are only two other women here who have topped out that machine AT ALL, never mind on the first go 'round. Supergirl…and…"
At that moment, Vixen cut herself off and both she and Shayera tossed a wandering glance in Wonder Woman's direction. Wonder Woman, meanwhile, simply offered a curious grin as Starfire simply looked on with a pair of wide-eyed blinks.
"Impressive. Makes me wonder what else she can do," Wonder Woman stated.
"You might want to be careful what you ask for," Nightwing replied as Wonder Woman started walking away, "She never backs down from a challenge."
"Well, that makes me even MORE curious, now," Wonder Woman answered with a smile tossed over her shoulder in Nightwing's direction, "She's starting to sound more like me all the time."
Starfire, meanwhile, remained seated on the bench as Shayera and Vixen continued hovering over her with looks of awe. But when Vixen noticed Wonder Woman walking in their direction, she signaled Shayera with a gentle nudge to the ribs and the pair made themselves scarce as well. It was only then that Wonder Woman caught her attention again as she leaned towards her with an inviting grin.
"Hey. I thought you might want to try something while we're waiting," Wonder Woman said simply. And Starfire could only look on with a curious stare.
… … … …
"What IS it?" Nightwing had to ask with a shrug as he stood with Starfire and Wonder Woman inside a darkened room. Displayed in the center of the room was an enormous computer with chairs and helmets connected with cables on either side, along with what looked like a massive three-dimensional screen on top.
"It's a special VR program the Justice League's been tinkering with," Wonder Woman explained, "You enter in your physical parameters and the computer creates a computer battle simulation. Essentially, you control a computerized avatar that's programmed to react exactly the way your real body would if you were specifically injured or fatigued. Mind you, it's hardly a replacement for actual physical training. It's meant primarily as a tactical tool, to test out a strategy before using it in an actual combat situation. Of course, some League members have found other ways of using it, such as settling a disagreement or blowing off steam without actually getting hurt. It also helps anyone who's strong enough to keep from knocking this whole station out of orbit."
"Amazing," Starfire breathed, taken in by the sight. Wonder Woman, meanwhile, found herself turning away, almost bashfully.
"This might sound a little juvenile of me…but I've never tried this out yet. And I've been wondering a lot about what it's really like to go in there," she admitted, looking over at Starfire with an inquiring stare, "So how about it? Feel like giving it a whirl?"
"Who…? Me?" Starfire exclaimed, clearly taken aback by Wonder Woman's request.
"Why not? I think it would be fun," Wonder Woman answered simply, although she couldn't help but follow up with a sinister grin, "Just don't say I didn't warn you. I won't be holding back in there."
At that moment, Starfire only replied with a smirk of her own as she felt her Tamaranian blood begin to race through her veins. Dared she refuse THAT invitation? Of course, if asked, she wouldn't be able to tell anyone what her physical parameters were. She never really thought about things like that. However, there was one person she knew who would keep those kinds of statistics on record as she instantly turned her attention back to Nightwing. Nightwing, meanwhile, could only respond with a look of surprise, but the enthusiastic glint in Starfire's eyes was all he needed to see to tell that she wasn't about to take no for an answer.
… … … …
"Okay, let's see here…height…weight…stamina…physical endurance…flight speed…land speed…lifting strength…punching strength…energy projection maximum force…maximum temp…" Nightwing thought out loud, rattling numbers into the computer as Starfire sat in the nearby chair, strapping on the Virtual Reality components and preparing the put on the visor, "Look Starfi…Kory…are you really sure you want to do this?"
"There's nothing to worry about. After all, she said no one would be hurt doing this. Why would she lie?" Starfire replied, although she couldn't hide a twinge of anticipation as she lowered her voice to an excited whisper, "Dick…this is WONDER WOMAN. Imagine…a chance for someone to test their abilities against warrior of her caliber and SHE asked ME. Who could POSSIBLY refuse an opportunity like this?"
"Famous last words," Nightwing replied dryly as he tossed a glance over towards Wonder Woman, who was calmly preparing herself as well, "Oh well…here goes."
"PHYSICAL PARAMETERS FOR WATCHTOWER GUEST, 'STARFIRE', HAVE BEEN ACCEPTED," the computer announced in a rather delicate feminine voice, belying the machine's enormous size, "PHYSICAL PARAMETERS FOR LEAGUE MEMBER 003, 'WONDER WOMAN', HAVE BEEN ACCEPTED. DO YOU WISH TO SELECT A SPECIFIC COMBAT LOCATION?"
"Guest's choice," Wonder Woman replied, leaving the decision in Starfire's hands. Not wanting to waste any time, Starfire ran a quick scan through the photos of the various plains, islands and forests and after a few seconds, made her selection.
"WATCHTOWER GUEST, 'STARFIRE', HAS SELECTED THE JUNGLE TERRAIN ON THE SENTIENT GREEN LANTERN PLANET, MOGO," the computer voice stated as Wonder Woman and Starfire lowered their visors to begin, "PLEASE WAIT WHILE THE BATTLE SIMULATION IS PROCESSED."
That was it. Nothing for Nightwing to do now except let it happen. But as the computer began its loading process, he couldn't help but examine the competitors' stats up on the 3D screen and observed with worry that there was more than one area in which Wonder Woman possessed a significant advantage, most notably the areas of strength and physical endurance. Still, Starfire did have a slight edge in flight speed, not to mention access to a respectable array of energy attacks. An ability Wonder Woman did not possess at all. With a little luck, those factors just might be enough to even the odds. Just then, the screen burst into white light.
"RUNNING SIMULATION," the computer voice announced. Nightwing, meanwhile, could only look on as the image on the screen cleared, realizing that whatever happened next was now well beyond the scope of his control.
As the flash from her visor subsided, Starfire found herself making her way through the dense undergrowth of the jungle location. As she looked around to find herself at the base of a large mountain, she gradually began to feel more confident in her choice of location for this battle. The tropical foliage was indeed thick, but at the same time, not so congested that it denied her access to her ability to fly, a crucial advantage if she had to keep Wonder Woman at a distance. Of course, at that moment, that begged the most important question of all. Namely, where WAS Wonder Woman?
The answer, however, came much faster and more pronounced than Starfire had expected. Because right at that moment, a large boulder, at least 10 feet wide, came hurtling from the sky towards her. With no time to dodge, Starfire was left with only one option. Take it head on. A wide stream of Star Bolt energy was all it took to reduce the giant rock to a smattering of gravel and dust. But little did she know that she had done exactly what she had been expected to do as Wonder Woman burst through the haze, flying towards her at top speed. Gasping in shock, Starfire had just barely enough time to dodge as Wonder Woman's fist slammed a crater into the ground where she had just been standing not a half-second before.
Wonder Woman, meanwhile, pressed her attack, bursting forward and lashing out with a forward punch that Starfire was lucky enough to catch in her hand. Reacting quickly, Starfire's free hand flashed forward to counter-attack. But her strike met with no greater success as Wonder Woman ended up catching her fist as well. Thinking instinctively, both Wonder Woman and Starfire's fingers locked together, trying their luck in a heated test of strength. And outside, Nightwing could only bear silent witness to the events unfolding, his fists clenched with uncertainty.
"Is something wrong?" Starfire's strained voice was a clear indication of the effort she was putting in, but she still had enough presence of mind to realize that something was amiss, "I thought you told me you wouldn't be holding back."
"I did say that, didn't I?" Wonder Woman replied, her slightly less tense tone of voice indicating that she only seemed to be putting out just enough effort to hold Starfire at bay, "I guess I owe you an apology, then."
Before Starfire could react, Wonder Woman pulled a hand free from her grip, clenching tightly and following up with a crushing fist across her cheek. The force of the blow not only shook the surrounding trees, it drove Starfire to one knee, her whole body tensing in a stunned twitch. Nightwing, meanwhile, could only wince at the sight. Just because it was a computer generated image didn't make it any easier to watch.
"Feel better now?" Wonder Woman asked simply, towering over Starfire's kneeling form. But even she was taken aback as Starfire whirled her head to look up at her, a wicked smile crossing her lips and her eyes glowing with excitement.
"Very much," she answered with a sinister tone before she snapped to her feet, driving a thunderous punch into Wonder Woman's stomach which actually lifted her off the ground. Two more wild cross punches followed, forcing Wonder Woman back as Starfire pressed forward. But Wonder Woman brought Starfire's momentum to a screeching halt as she blocked a fourth strike and immediately countered with a short uppercut and two punches of her own.
Meanwhile, as Nightwing watched Wonder Woman and Starfire trading blows on the screen, it was clear that strategy was not going to be a factor here as this fight was quickly degenerating into what could only be described as a barroom brawl. But right at that moment, Booster Gold and Kimiyo Hoshi, a.k.a. "Dr. Light", happened to walk by the open door to the VR Room. At first, they only gave what was happening inside a passing glance, but as the image set in a moment later, they both whirled around and looked back inside with wide-eyed shock. A moment later, they were both making a beeline for the Watchtower Commissary, where several League members, including Shayera and Vixen, were in the middle of eating.
"Everyone, quick! You've got to come right now and check this out!" Hoshi shouted as she and Booster burst through the Commissary doors, "You're not going to believe what's happening!"
"Diana and that alien redhead are beating each others' brains out in the VR Room!" Booster added.
Nothing more needed to be said. Almost immediately, League members were charging for the door, jumping over tables and chairs in their mad dash to catch the show. Meanwhile, back in the VR Room, Starfire's war with Wonder Woman continued to rage as Starfire struck with a kick to Wonder Woman's stomach. Wonder Woman, however, was quick to act, catching Starfire's ankle and whipping her around, smashing her body through a line of trees before throwing her clear. Luckily, Starfire's flight ability managed to straighten her out, landing on her feet as Wonder Woman burst forward and countering with a shattering backhanded fist to her jaw, followed by a rapid flurry of punches to drive her back.
But Wonder Woman still had plenty of fight left in her. Grabbing Starfire's shoulder collar, she lunged forward, driving her knee straight into Starfire's stomach. Starfire collapsed to one knee a second later, but Wonder Woman refused to let up her assault, raising her arms and slamming her bracelets down across Starfire's shoulders with pulverizing force. A second crushing blow followed as Wonder Woman brought her arms down again, driving Starfire's body into a small crater. For a moment, it looked as though Starfire was going to be pounded into the ground like a railroad spike. But as Wonder Woman brought her fists down for a third time, Starfire's hands snapped up and actually caught her wrists. And before Wonder Woman could think to respond, Starfire's head looked up at her with a vicious scowl, her eyes flashing wildly.
"Hera…!" Wonder Woman could only blurt out as a stream of energy burst from Starfire's eyes, striking her hard in the chest and sending her flying off her feet. Luckily, Wonder Woman was able to recover as she bounced along the jungle floor and rolled back to a standing position. But it wasn't quick enough to counter Starfire, who slammed into her at top speed with a flying tackle and smashed Wonder Woman's body into the mountainside. From there, it was an unrelenting barrage as Starfire began raining furious blows upon her, only to be stopped as Wonder Woman snapped forward, forcing her back with a vicious headbutt. A metallic clang rang in Starfire's ears a second later was Wonder Woman lashed out, striking her bracelets against Starfire's temples before bracing herself against the mountainside and driving her feet square into Starfire's chest, taking her on a flight of her own. Fortunately, Starfire had enough presence of mind to slam her feet into the ground, grinding to a stop. And as she looked up to see Wonder Woman bursting through the air towards her, she instinctively countered with a rapid fire volley of Star Bolts.
For the most part, Wonder Woman's bracelets managed to keep her well protected from Starfire's assault, but the force from the blasts was still enough to force her back. That is, until Wonder Woman planted her feet firmly into the ground and dug in. And after a few moments of struggling, she slowly began forcing her way forward. Realizing she was losing ground quickly, Starfire's eyes flashed again, sending another stream of energy which struck Wonder Woman in the head, sending her flying back into the mountainside.
At that moment, there was a pause in the action. Both combatants looked well and truly drained, neither one of them able to stand up straight. As Starfire looked over at Wonder Woman still slumped against the mountain, she noticed her vision was starting to blur. She'd also noticed as the fight had gone on that a lot of her more recent blows didn't have the speed or force that they'd had when the fight began. One thing was for sure, this was certainly a VERY accurate simulation system. And in the back of her mind, Starfire found herself being thankful that a simulation was all it was. If this had been a real fight, she would have hated to think of the broken bones and internal injuries she'd surely be suffering right now. But now wasn't the time to think about that. It was clear that last barrage of Star Bolts had tapped the last of her reserves. At this point, Starfire could only hope that Wonder Woman was as banged up as she looked and that whatever she had left would be enough to finally put the Amazon away.
This was it. A moment later, both Starfire and Wonder Woman stood tall and readied themselves for what was to come. Clearly, both sides were preparing to put everything they had into one final move because as it stood, neither side was likely going to get another chance. Whatever happened, this fight was going to be over in a matter of seconds. Both flashing a determined glare, they flew towards each other at top speed and with a yell, planted their feet firmly into the ground as they met, each slamming a fist into the other's face with such force, the impact actually broke the surrounding trees in two.
Only the sound of toppling trees could be heard as both Wonder Woman and Starfire could still be seen standing amidst the falling branches and leaves, unclear as to who had finally come out on top. For a moment, Wonder Woman's legs looked like they were about to buckle, but she clenched her fists tightly and forced herself to remain standing. A second later, however, Starfire crumpled to her knees, her arms going limp at her sides and her eyes rolling back in her head before she fell back in a heap. And as her computer-generated body became unconscious, Starfire's visor went dark.
… … … …
"Hey," Wonder Woman's voice sounded in Starfire's ears as her visor suddenly came on again a moment later to see Wonder Woman smiling down at her and holding her hand out to help her up, "So…was it fun for you?"
Starfire didn't answer at first. But as she reached up and Wonder Woman pulled her to her feet, she found herself returning a satisfied grin.
"I have no complaints," she replied simply.
"SIMULATION TERMINATED," the computer voice announced as the screen went dark. But as Wonder Woman and Starfire finally removed their visors, they turned in surprise to a din of cheering and hooting as they saw the entire room packed with League members, most of whom were applauding and shouting their approval at what they had just witnessed, while others could only stand in stunned disbelief. As the ovation went on for several more long moments, Wonder Woman and Starfire were unsure of exactly how to respond to such praise. But a moment later, Batman suddenly appeared through the crowd, his face showing its usual grim demeanor. And almost instantly, the celebration ceased and the roar faded as the other Leaguers slowly retreated from the room, returning to their business. However, a few members found themselves pausing at the door to reflect on what they'd just seen as Batman walked over to Wonder Woman, who was unplugging herself from the computer.
"Having a good time?" he asked straightforwardly.
"Actually…yeah, I am" Wonder Woman answered with an amused lilt in her voice, "Too bad you missed all the fun."
"I wouldn't say that," Batman remarked as he glanced over at Nightwing helping Starfire out of the chair, "She's very good."
"Tell me about it," Wonder Woman replied with a hint of surprise as she lowered her voice slightly, "If that last punch of mine had been a half second slower, she might have been the one picking ME up off the ground."
"Are you okay?" Nightwing whispered as he helped unfasten the last of Starfire's chair straps, unable to avoid a look of concern.
"I'm fine. Everything's alright," Starfire replied simply, tossing an impressed glance over in Wonder Woman's direction, "I have to admit…she certainly lives up to her name."
"I thought you might want to see what I found," Batman's voice got Nightwing's attention as he turned to see a small collection of papers being handed across to him, "I managed to get an inventory of every component STAR Labs had in that particular wing of the compound. It doesn't appear to match anything WayneTech or LexCorp have housed in Bludhaven. But I think it's safe to assume that LexCorp probably has more than just what they're showing on record."
"Actually, I might be able to help with that," Nightwing responded, giving a thoughtful nod.
… … … …
"THIS is where your LexCorp contact is?" Wonder Woman asked, feeling slightly confused as she stood with Batman, Nightwing and Starfire outside a run down watering hole in the center of one of Bludhaven's dankest slums.
"His name is Liam Bennett," Nightwing explained, "He used to be a top technician in LexCorp R&D. But he got caught in the first wave of layoffs when Lex's assistant took over the company. He spends most of his time here now, but he's good for a nugget or two of information every now and then. Particularly anything that LexCorp might be working on, off the books."
Without a pause, Nightwing headed for the door, showing no concern for what any of the other bar patrons might think of his presence. But as Nightwing opened the door, none of them were prepared for the sight that greeted them. The interior of the bar had been completely destroyed, littered with broken furniture, shattered glass and unconscious bodies. Only the occasional dazed groan could be heard as the four made their way across the bar, looking for Nightwing's informant. If Bennett was lucky, tonight was a night he chose not to come. But as Nightwing looked towards the far end of the bar, his fears were confirmed.
Tonight wasn't Bennett's lucky night.
"Is he okay?" Batman asked as Nightwing gently laid a rasping Bennett back onto patch of floor that was clear of debris.
"He'll live. But he won't be talking to us anytime soon," Nightwing answered soberly, "Not with that broken jaw."
"Who could have done this?" Starfire could only ask, still looking around, her eyes pained at the devastation that surrounded them.
"Someone who didn't want us to get too close," Batman replied simply.
"Perhaps…," a stranger sounded off from the darkness, instantly getting Nightwing's attention.
"That voice…," he thought out loud, his eyes lighting up as he snapped to his feet and whirled around. Instantly, Batman and the others followed his gaze, only to see a mysterious group, dressed head to toe in black converging from the shadows at the far end of the bar. Just then, a last figure, clearly the leader, calmly strode out from a nearby hallway, a pirate-like saber slung over his shoulder and a black mask completely concealing his face. Until he turned a moment later, revealing the left half of his mask a fiery orange, with one single, emotionless eye gazing at the four with a piercing stare.
"…or perhaps it's something else altogether."
"Slade Wilson," Nightwing growled under his breath, his fists clenched tightly as he gritted his teeth. Starfire, meanwhile, also scowled in contempt, her eyes and hands flashing angrily.
"Oh come now, Nightwing. Why so formal?" Wilson replied, his taunting dry humor accented with the usual menacingly slight rasp in his voice, "After all, we've known each other for so long. Why not just call me…Deathstroke?"
"You did this?" Nightwing responded after taking a moment to look down at the unconscious form of the man who was once one of his informants.
"Well, you can't expect me to make it TOO easy for you, could you?" Deathstroke answered simply. But just before Nightwing could lunge forward, Batman stepped in front of him, barring his way.
"Well, well, so you called in the big guns. Does this mean I'm making this too HARD for you, Nightwing?" Deathstroke continued to taunt, "And the Batman, no less. Somehow, I was hoping my first meeting with you would have been in surroundings more…worthy of the moment."
"Does this mean you're working for the same people who paid Bane?" Batman asked with his usual emotionless air.
"Ah, starting off straight to the point. Now I see where HE gets it," Deathstroke replied, his eye tossing a glance in Nightwing's direction, "But…what makes you think I'm NOT the one who paid Bane?"
"So what is this all about?" Wonder Woman chimed in from behind, regarding Deathstroke and his minions with a look of impatience.
"Isn't that what THEY'RE supposed to figure out?" Deathstroke answered, pointing in sword towards Batman and Nightwing, "After all, what's the point of them being such great detectives if I just open my mouth and…?"
"Starfire!" Nightwing announced sharply, cutting Deathstroke off as Starfire streaked forward in front of Batman. And without a pause, she unleashed a Star Bolt at full force, striking Deathstroke in the chest and seemingly blowing his upper body to pieces.
"What did you do?!" Wonder Woman exclaimed in shock. Even Batman was surprised by Nightwing making such a blatantly reckless decision.
"He wasn't going to tell us anything," Nightwing answered calmly before walking over and lifting "Deathstroke's" head by a tangled mess of wire, "Besides…it wasn't him anyway. He NEVER shows up in person unless he knows it's to his advantage."
"Very good Nightwing," Deathstroke's voice could be heard coming from his robot duplicate's still-standing lower half, instantly regaining everyone's attention, "I see you HAVE been learning. But then…so have I."
Just then, one of Deathstroke's shadowy henchmen, none of whom had retreated or attacked, but simply stood their ground, began to twitch and shudder, revealing that it was nothing more than another robot. A moment later, the others followed suit, only to have their bodies rupture in a sequence of white lights and ear-splitting explosions.
"Flash Bang grenades!" Batman cried out as he and the others managed to retreat out the front door, fighting the blinding swirls in their eyes and the ringing in their ears. It took them all a few moments to recover from the sensory assault. But not long after, as they watched the bar patrons being loaded into ambulances from a nearby rooftop, it was clear that the trip had not yielded the results they were hoping for. After all, aside from a brief encounter and a few phrases of conjecture, they really hadn't learned anything new with any kind of certainty.
"So…now what to we do?" Wonder Woman asked with a shrug. Nightwing, meanwhile, found himself looking down at the head of Deathstroke's robotic replacement, still dangling from the wires gripped in his clenched fist.
"Well," he answered, "We do have THIS."
… … … …
Back up at the Watchtower, the computer room being used by Batman and Nightwing was silent, save for the clattering on a keyboard as Batman attempted to use the Watchtower's system to see if anything could be salvaged from the computer processor in the Deathstroke robot's head. That was assuming of course, that it hadn't been too badly damaged from Starfire's attack.
"I used to hear things about Deathstroke for a while, but he's been off the radar the past few years," Batman remarked as Nightwing simply stood behind him, staring at the robot head connected to a larger computer, "Any idea why he would suddenly step into the spotlight now?"
"Wilson's a mixed bag. Sometimes he'll play it straight, sometimes he'll throw you curves," Nightwing answered, his arms crossed in thought as he continued to stare at the head, "He likes to be unpredictable."
"You think he was telling the truth when he hinted at being the one who planned all these robberies?" Batman logically asked next.
"You mean, do I think he's arrogant enough to actually admit it? Oh, you'd better believe he is," Nightwing replied with a sneer of contempt before his mood turned thoughtful again, "Still, it was strange."
"What?" Batman inquired, curious for Nightwing's input.
"It's just…he went to a lot of trouble to silence Bennett. What I can't figure out is why he would even try," Nightwing noted, with Batman paying thoughtful attention to each of his words as he continued working, "There's just no payoff. A guy like Wilson is smart enough to know that taking out Bennett would only make us even more suspicious of Lexcorp being his next likely target. He didn't do it to stay anonymous either, not after he just announced himself like that. He could have gotten out of there without any of us noticing. And I can't see that he would decide to wreck a bar just to tell us that he's back in business. There are a lot more efficient ways that he could have done it. More high profile ways, too. It just doesn't make any sense."
"Well, you DID say he likes to be unpredictable," Batman surmised, "Of course, he could have also done it specifically to goad you. If memory serves, the two of you DO have a history."
"Well…that IS a possibility, too," Nightwing stated with a nod, "I hope I'm not just getting paranoid."
Another moment of silence followed as Batman continued working. But all of a sudden, his voice came up again, taking the subject in a VERY different direction.
"Speaking of which…you and the princess," he began to say, "Any history repeating there?"
"Maybe," Nightwing answered curtly, cutting Batman off while trying to hide his surprise at just what Batman knew and how much. Still, he couldn't avoid tossing a glance over his shoulder in Batman's direction a moment later.
"You disapprove," he remarked with a note of cynicism, getting Batman's attention. Batman, however, merely tilted his head slightly over his shoulder towards him.
"Did I say that?" he responded dismissively.
"You usually don't have to," Nightwing was quick to answer, laying the foundation for what could quickly become a rather thick moment of tension.
… … … …
Across the Watchtower, in the Commissary, Starfire was helping herself to a meal that she didn't have the luxury of enjoying earlier in the evening. She had thought about asking Nightwing to join her, but she recognized that look that he'd had on his face since they'd returned from their encounter with Deathstroke. It was that look that he had whenever he retreated inside himself to be alone with his thoughts. And once he was in that state of mind, it was almost impossible for anyone to get through to him…even her. So instead, she opted to leave him be and deal with her own gnawing hunger. However, there was more than one curious eye turned in her direction when she walked into the main dining area balancing two trays, each piled high with every different type of meal the Commissary produced.
"Well…someone's got a healthy appetite," Shayera noted under her breath, her eyes wide as Starfire sat down a few tables away.
"Healthy for an ELEPHANT, maybe," Vixen added silently as well, "And she's got a body like THAT?"
"Just don't ask me what I'm going to be thinking if she goes back for seconds," Shayera commented. But both she and Vixen became even more confused as they noticed Starfire taking the top off one of the mustard bottles she'd brought with her.
"What is she…?" Vixen started to say, only to have her eyes go wide and shake her head as Starfire inserted a straw into the bottle, "Oh girl, TELL me she's not about to do what I think she's…"
"Oooooh, yes she is," Shayera replied, squirming uncomfortably with Vixen as they both winced at the sight of Starfire actually sipping mustard through the straw. This, however, was well beyond Starfire's notice as she turned her attention to her trays, wringing her hands as she wondered exactly where to begin. But before she could decide, her train of thought was interrupted as she felt a hand on her shoulder and turned to see Stargirl looking down at her excitedly, her face practically beaming with shimmering eyes and a wide smile.
"Okay, I know we haven't met, but I just have to say this," Stargirl blurted out with the voice of a giddy schoolgirl, "You TOTALLY just became my hero today."
With that, Stargirl trotted out the door, giggling as Starfire sat staring into space, her eyes blinking in perplexity. That was without a doubt one of the more unusual encounters she'd had that day. But just as she was about to shift her focus back to her food, she turned to see Shayera and Vixen standing across her table, each flashing her a knowing smirk.
"Well, well. Looks like someone's got herself a fan," Shayera declared.
"If…you…say so," Starfire replied, still unable to shake her confusion, "But...I'm afraid I…don't understand."
"Oh, come on," Vixen argued as she and Shayera invited themselves to sit down, "After the show you put on in the VR Room today, you can't seriously say you're surprised."
"You mean that simulation from earlier?" Starfire asked, unsure what that had to do with anything, "But…I lost."
"That doesn't matter!" Shayera exclaimed, still trying to keep her voice down, "What you did was more important than that! Don't you see? You're not even a member of the League and you just raised the bar for every female here!"
"Girl, listen…you took WONDER WOMAN…to the LIMIT!" Vixen added, "Do you realize how monumentally HUGE that is? There are maybe only two or three MEN in the ENTIRE Justice League who could do what you did today!"
"Oh, I don't know," a familiar voice sent a brief chill down Shayera and Vixen's spines as they looked up, wide-eyed, to see Wonder Woman standing behind them with an amused grin, "I'd say the number is actually closer to five or six."
"Uh…well…," Shayera finally uttered, taking a moment to clear her throat as she and Vixen rose to their feet, "I guess you two have some things you want to…talk about. So we'll just…leave you alone…okay?"
With that, Shayera and Vixen walked off, ending the conversation abruptly. Wonder Woman couldn't help but let out a somewhat regretful sigh. But just then, she turned her attention back to Starfire and shifted her focus, not wanting to appear impolite.
"May I?" she asked, motioning her hand to one of the now-empty seats.
"Oh…! Of course!" Starfire blurted out, although she couldn't help but toss a concerned eye in the direction of Shayera and Vixen as they continued walked away.
"They seem somewhat…uncomfortable…around you," she added as Wonder Woman sat down.
"It's not really all that surprising," Wonder Woman responded, tossing a quick look of her own, "There was an…altercation…a little while ago. It…wasn't really anybody's fault, but…well, let's just say it's still left a bad taste."
"Hmmm," Starfire murmured thoughtfully. Wonder Woman, meanwhile, let another moment pass by silently before she finally found herself able to speak again.
"Look, about before. I hope it didn't seem like I was putting any pressure on you to try that…"
"What? Oh no! No! Of course not!" Starfire exclaimed, cutting her off, "To be honest, it was actually rather…nice…to be able to see how far I could really push myself…to see how I really compare. I mean, when I'm not…"
"…when you're not fighting for your life. It's a little late at that point, isn't it?" Wonder Woman chimed in, her eyes staring into space as she flashed as satisfied smile, "I have to admit, it WAS nice to be able to let my hair down and just cut loose without worrying about any consequences. The truth is, even on Themyscira, with other Amazons, I always found myself holding back a step. I was always afraid that if I really did go all out, someone would end up getting hurt. But here…"
At that moment, Wonder Woman paused to look around the Commissary at the other League members who were sitting and eating. And right then, all she could do was give a look of concern. Admittedly, she hated herself for thinking this way. It made her seem smug and arrogant. But as her eyes panned around the room, it was hard to ignore the facts. There wasn't a single person she saw who possessed HALF the power that she did. Granted, there were a handful of them who were reasonably powerful. But even a good percentage of those people had powers that were artificial, not natural. Take away their weapons and their toys and in the end, all that was left underneath was mortal flesh. In a way, it gave Wonder Woman a great deal of respect for each and every one of them, acting in spite of their limitations for the greater good, without a single thought for their own safety. But at the same time, she still couldn't avoid one thought that almost always seemed to visit her at least once every single day.
"They're all so…fragile…aren't they?" she uttered quietly. Sparked by her words, Starfire took a slow look around the room herself and a moment later, found herself letting out a rather heavy sigh.
"Yes…they are," she replied sorrowfully. A tone that was not lost on Wonder Woman as she tossed a glance in Starfire's direction and noticed a sudden faraway look in her eyes. A look that she quickly began to suspect there was a reason for.
"Mmm…thinking about someone in particular?" she asked, catching Starfire off-guard as she looked up with surprise. But as she saw the knowing smile on Wonder Woman's face, she quickly realized there was no point in keeping it quiet.
… … … …
"And anyway, who are you to complain?" Nightwing protested as Batman continued his work, "After all, what's going on with you and her?"
"Who?" Batman simply asked in a dismissive manner.
"Don't talk to me like I'm still a dumb kid. You know…something about a certain star-spangled sweetheart?" Nightwing remarked, making his point abundantly clear. But his words only brought out the slightest of pauses from his former mentor, who simply tossed a passing glance over his shoulder.
"First of all, call her that to her face and see how far you get," he replied plainly before turning his attention back to the computer screen, "And second, nothing's going on. Diana and I are friends, nothing more."
"Uh huh, that's not what I've been hearing. Care to try again?" Nightwing fired back with a knowing smirk. This time, however, Batman didn't even bother to offer a response, which only resulted in Nightwing rolling his eyes in annoyance.
"Whatever. I'm going to get something to eat," he stated with a huff as he turned and walked away.
"Dick," Batman's voice caught Nightwing's attention just as he reached the door. Turning around, he saw Batman still sitting at the computer. But once again, Batman's head tilted, tossing the slightest of glances.
"She IS a nice girl."
Nightwing's gaze widened slightly at being caught off guard by Batman's words. But it only took a brief second for him to regain his composure, after which, he simply responded with a hollow chuckle.
"Don't I know it," Nightwing answered with a warm smile. With that, Batman simply shifted his focus back to his work.
"You know," Batman added in passing, "One thing you've never had a problem doing, is being able to see beyond the mask. You've always been able to relate to anyone, whether you're in OR out of costume. That's not something just anyone can do."
Again, Nightwing was given pause by Batman's words. It almost seemed as though he was actually trying to sound encouraging for a moment. But a moment was all it took before Nightwing responded with a cynical glance.
"Oh please. You're forgetting who you're talking to again," he remarked, "What you're REALLY trying to say is that it's not something YOU can do, but that's garbage and you know it. You're only saying that because you know that something is starting to happen between you two…and you know it's starting to show…and you're trying to sidestep the situation by making excuses."
Again, Batman made no reply. But this time it wasn't going to stop Nightwing from having his say as he continued on.
"Whether you like it or not, Bruce, I always knew you a lot better than you thought I did." he added, "I know the real reason you've never tried for an actual relationship with her, or ANY woman, for that matter…"
"…and it has NOTHING to do with Batman."
Before Batman had another opportunity to either respond or attempt to ignore Nightwing's comments, the computer monitor sprang to life, flashing up a map of Bludhaven on the screen. On the map, two main areas were highlighted, complete with not only location coordinates, but also a time index.
"I've got something. A secondary program in the robot's processor," Batman announced as Nightwing ran up behind him, "According to this, these two locations are scheduled to be hit simultaneously…A Lexcorp storage lab and a second attempt on the STAR Labs facility."
"When?" Nightwing asked instinctively. But as Batman scanned the timeline indicated on the screen, his face took on a deathly scowl.
"Two minutes ago," he answered grimly, whirling out of his chair, "Let's move!"
"Hang on!" Nightwing blurted out as Batman made a dash for the door, "Shouldn't we go get…?!"
"No time!" Batman interrupted as he whipped around the corner and down the hall.
"Oh, HERE we go," Nightwing muttered to himself. But his disapproval still didn't stop him from racing after Batman, who was already well on his way to the Watchtower transporters.
… … … …
"I don't know," Starfire spoke as she sat across from Wonder Woman, her two loaded down food trays already cleaned off, "I suppose…what I mean to say is…I know he's only doing what he believes is right. But…he has so many limitations…Limitations that he…tries so hard to ignore."
"Smart enough to know better, but too stubborn to quit," Wonder Woman added, "Believe me, I know exactly how you feel."
"You do, don't you?" Starfire mused. Looking into Wonder Woman's eyes, Starfire was beginning to determine for herself just who it was that she was reserving her particular worry for. And the look on Wonder Woman's face was a clear indication that she felt it every bit as strongly as Starfire did.
"It's not easy, is it?" Wonder Woman remarked, her concerned gaze refusing to fade.
"No…it's not," Starfire replied, looking away somberly. Wonder Woman, meanwhile, could only pause with a heavy sigh.
"I guess the hardest thing to understand is…you can't protect them all the time," she said, looking away herself even as her voice directed Starfire's attention back towards her, "It doesn't matter how strong you are, how much you love them or how hard you try…"
"…you just can't."
Starfire didn't respond right away. She only seemed able to sit and stare at Wonder Woman's slightly sorrowful expression before she hung her head and let out a forceful sigh of her own.
"Sometimes…sometimes I wish…," she started to say, but her voice trailed into silence as she cut herself off. It was at that moment that Wonder Woman realized the conversation needed to be redirected.
"Well, maybe you can't PROTECT them all the time," she declared, trying to build herself up and Starfire in the process as she reached for her earpiece, "But you can still help out from time to time. So what do you say let's start by seeing if we can get those two to finally eat something? Wonder Woman to Batman."
No response. Her face showing a curious look, Wonder Woman tried again.
"Batman?" she called through the earpiece before trying another avenue, "Watchtower, confirm Batman's location."
"JUSTICE LEAGUE MEMBER, BATMAN, TRANSPORTED OFF THE WATCHTOWER WITH WATCHTOWER GUEST, NIGHTWING, AT TIME INDEX 00:21," the Watchtower's computer voice responded in its usual quiet tone. But the computer's calm demeanor wasn't about to rub off on Wonder Woman, who only responded with a stern glare.
"What was that really stupid thing I was just saying about being smart enough to know better?" she thought out loud before leaping from her chair. A second later, she was running out of the Commissary at top speed, talking through her earpiece once again as Starfire followed right behind her.
"Mr. Terrific, I need a coordinate fix on Batman's last recorded transport location, NOW!"
… … … …
Back at STAR Labs, a black figure moved silently through the darkness, spying intently from the ceiling rafters upon a shadowy group slinking through the very same building that Bane had attempted to force his way into just hours before. It had taken them only a matter of seconds to bypass the lab's security system with a small hacking device and now, the intruders were stealthily making their way towards a section of the building that was littered with various experimental computer components. However, a brief glimpse from the small amount of lighting the lab provided indicated that it was Deathstroke who appeared to be leading the operation himself. Gaining access to a corner safe using the exact same device used to break into the lab's security, he reached inside and pulled out a small, innocent looking computer motherboard.
"This is it. The last piece of the puzzle," he gloated under his breath, greedily clutching the motherboard in his hand. But just as his robot followers were about to retreat alongside him, they were all simultaneously struck in the head with throwing blades which shorted them out and eliminated any threat before Nightwing himself dropped from the ceiling, cutting off Deathstroke's escape route with a cold stare.
"Ah, Nightwing. I was wondering when you'd show up," Deathstroke responded in his usual smug fashion, "Did you figure this out all by yourself, or did someone have to help you?"
"Get to the point, Wilson," Nightwing shot back, "Why are you here? You've been off the grid for years. Why come back now? What are you REALLY up to?"
Before Deathstroke could reply, a flash of cold steel sliced through the shadows behind him, separating his head from his body and revealing him to be nothing more than another robot double. But nothing could have prepared Nightwing for what he saw next as a figure stepped out of the darkness.
"What, indeed?" the voice pierced through Nightwing's brain as he looked in shock at the single cold eye staring back at him, with a familiar saber slung over his shoulder. At that moment, Nightwing hadn't the slightest idea what to think. All he knew at that moment was that the person standing across from him…was no robot.
"I suppose I owe you a modest thanks, Nightwing. My robots were not built to be someone else's toys," the man who could only be the real Deathstroke noted, "Someone has clearly gone to a lot of effort to rebuild some of them. But did they REALLY think that I wouldn't KNOW if any of them had been reactivated? I've been tracking their electronic signals for days."
"Indeed," another voice sounded off, causing Nightwing and Deathstroke to look back over towards the robot Deathstroke had just beheaded. A moment later, the robot's chest burst open revealing a monitor screen inside, which displayed a shadowy face. The face was meant to look like Deathstroke and sound like Deathstroke, but at that moment, it was obvious that it WASN'T Deathstroke. These robots had merely been puppets meant for distraction this entire time. But if that was the case, then just who was the puppet master?
"I must admit, I WAS hoping this charade could go on slightly longer, Mr. Wilson," the fake Deathstroke declared on screen as his face and voice began to warp back into its true form, "But you have chosen a poor moment for an unannounced re-emergence…a re-emergence which now threatens to upset an operation representing months of planning and significant financial investments…"
"…This is an inconvenience to me, Mr. Wilson…"
"You…," Nightwing uttered under his breath, his eyes widening in shock as the appearance and voice on the screen became instantly recognizable to him.
"…An inconvenience I simply cannot tolerate…"
With that, the screen went black, replaced by a five-second digital timer with blood red numbers. And Nightwing and Deathstroke could only look on as they both knew such a countdown could mean only one thing. And neither of them had any hope of getting out of the building in time…
"NIGHTWING!!!" Starfire's voice echoed through the lab as she smashed through the doors at top speed, streaking across the room like a comet and putting herself between the terminating robot and its intended victims, much to Nightwing's surprise. With a loud yell, she unleashed two full force streams of Star Bolt energy, slamming into the robot and sending it flying through the wall of the building. But Starfire's attack still wasn't enough to stop the timer, which reached its ill-fated end a split second later. The resulting explosion instantly ripped through the air immediately after, bathing the entire building in a searing wave of fire…
… … … …
At the Lexcorp Labs on the other side of Bludhaven, Batman was completely unaware of the situation, quietly making his way through the darkened building in an attempt to catch who appeared to be Deathstroke and his henchmen unaware. But just minutes into his skulking, a blinding white light pierced through the shadows, revealing Batman's presence to the room. Another beam of light followed just seconds later as one of Deathstroke's robots lashed out with a shoulder mounted laser, courtesy of Lexcorp's weapons development. Luckily, Batman was as quick as ever, flipping away and dodging several blasts before sending a bat-a-rang flying into the robots throat, short circuiting it and ending the assault. But no sooner was the robot henchman dispatched than a large section of the room was bathed in light, revealing not only Batman, but the two dozen other robot guards surrounding him.
"Well, well, well," A familiar voice sounded as the figure who appeared to be Deathstroke strode out of the shadows with a second motherboard in his hand, "I must say that given the reputation you enjoy, this entire first encounter with you has been considerably…disappointing."
"You can drop the act now, don't you think?" Batman replied simply, his relaxed posture indicating that he was looking more for an answer than a fight, "Nightwing suspects, but I already know the truth…"
"…Whoever you are…you're NOT Deathstroke,"
At first, the Deathstroke double appeared quite taken aback, which only added further confirmation to Batman's theory. But Batman wasn't about to let it end there, continuing on so as to ensure that "Deathstroke" had no possible way of arguing the point.
"Granted, you certainly went to a lot of effort to make it LOOK that way. Unfortunately, you overplayed your hand," he added, "I thought it was curious that someone with such vast resources would go to the effort of hiring thefts of all these different components, when you could have easily bought or developed them on your own. But what really threw me is when you went out of your way to personally silence Nightwing's contact. Up until that point, you had been so careful to use third parties in order to distance yourself at every turn. So why step into the spotlight now? It just didn't make sense, unless…"
"…The only logical conclusion was that someone had plans to implicate Wilson at just the right moment. After all, a well-known criminal vanishing from the mainstream for years, conceivably even dead? What better scapegoat for somebody who wanted to give anyone paying close enough attention a shadow to chase? And provide a distraction from their true agenda? So the real question is…who ARE you really?"
Unfortunately, Batman's only answer was a stun gun in the back from one of the robots, sending a powerful electric current ripping through his body. And before Batman even knew what was happening, he was set upon by the entire group, stripped of his utility belt and quickly restrained. Granted, this was a likely scenario, given the odds he was faced with at that moment. His main goal right then was to see who the real mastermind behind this conspiracy was. And it seemed that he would indeed get his answer as a screen burst from the Deathstroke robot's chest, showing another image of a Deathstroke doppelganger.
"Well done. In retrospect, I suppose it WAS naïve of me to expect this ruse to be in any way effective against the likes of you," the face on screen replied as it slowly reverted. Although Batman didn't have to wait for the true face to come into view as he quickly recognized the original voice of his true opponent. A voice which was every bit as unmistakable as the waved back dark hair with a strip of white…or the short handlebar beard protruding from his chin like barbs.
"Your instincts and deductive reasoning are as acute as ever…Detective."
"Ra's Al Ghul," bound and helpless, Batman could only reply in a throaty growl as he looked up at Ra's smirking face on the screen with gritted teeth and a deathly glare.