Justice League Unlimited
Point of View
No sense playing it subtle. The thundering crash echoed through the Lexcorp lab as a single punch from Wonder Woman bashed the twin main doors off their hinges. Wonder Woman herself charged into the building a second later and it was clear that there was only one thing on her mind
"Batman!" she called out as she ran inside. But her only response was silence as a dark, empty room was all that greeted her eyes. And the sound of her boots tapping on the floor being the only sound she could hear made her feel even less at ease as she quietly, but determinedly, strode through the shadows.
"Batman?" she called again, this time much quieter than before. Again, she received no reply, but she continued on, hoping that she was still in time to help. Just then, a splash of moonlight shining in through one of the windows happened to cast a dim glitter off the floor which caught Wonder Woman's eye. Walking over, she knelt down and felt around the floor for the source of the reflection. But as she located the tiny object and picked it up, she didn't even have to open her hand to know what it was…
…Batman's earpiece. She was too late.
"Bruce…," she uttered under her breath, clutching the earpiece in her fist as she looked upward, hoping the heavens would give her some sign to calm to twinge of fear taking hold as her worried heart began to pound furiously.
"Uuunnnh…," Nightwing groaned as he slowly managed to pull himself out of a pile of debris on the other side of the city. Instinctively, he tried to get his mind to work and get his bearings. How long had he been out? The explosion at the STAR Labs complex had reduced the entire building he was in to a smattering of fiery rubble. Luckily, he'd been thrown clear by the blast and was protected by the worst of the explosion after Ra's Al Ghul's Deathstroke robot had been blasted outside the building. But…what had happened to…?
"Starfire!" he called out as loud as he could, his eyes frantically scanning the area for any trace of her. Suddenly, he happened to catch a glimpse of her exposed arm poking out of another pile of the building's remains, much closer to the blast site. Forcing himself to his feet, Nightwing stumbled over, clawing away the wreckage before he was finally able to pull her body free.
"Starfire?! Starfire, come on, wake up! It's me, wake up!" Nightwing called, shaking her firmly. But he received no answer as Starfire lay motionless in his arms, appearing completely dead to the world. And instantly, Nightwing's could feel his worst fears begin to slowly creep into his soul.
"Oh, no," he shuddered, his voice beginning to falter as he cleared her bangs away from her eyes, "Oh please, God no…"
Again, no answer. And Nightwing could feel his entire body trembling as Starfire's lifeless arm sluffed off her stomach and felt limp to her side…
The droning and beeping of the machines in the Watchtower Infirmary did little to improve Nightwing's disposition. If anything, it only made him feel worse, looking down at Starfire lying unconscious in bed with an oxygen mask over her face and connected to every type of monitor the Justice League's medical staff had to offer in order to keep a close watch on her vital signs. Listening to the slow, rhythmic sounds of the equipment, to Nightwing, felt more like a countdown to death than salvation. All he knew was at that moment, he just felt so completely helpless. There was really only other time he felt this way…
…that night… up on the trapeze so long ago…
"For the moment, her condition doesn't appear life threatening," Dr. Mid-Nite announced, seeing to Starfire's treatment personally as he examined her chart, "Unfortunately, we have no way of knowing when she could regain consciousness. We're doing everything we can, but the truth is, there's just so much we don't know about her physiology. At this point, I'm afraid all we can do is wait."
"Thank you Doctor," Wonder Woman replied. Nightwing, however, only stood in silence, his fists clenched so tightly, it seemed as though his knuckles were going to pop. Instinctively, Wonder Woman reached out from behind to offer a hand of comfort, but Nightwing whirled around before she could reach him, walking at a brisk pace as he headed out of the Infirmary. Unfortunately, leaving the room seemed to offer him no comfort. He could still see Starfire's unconscious body lying in that bed as his whole body became one giant tense muscle.
"RAAAAAAAAAAHHHHH!" Nightwing's cry of agony was not lost on League members who happened to be passing by at that moment. But no one made any plans on staying around as Nightwing grabbed a trash can by the door and sent it hurtling down the hall in a fit of rage. A nearby bench was next to feel his wrath and despite being bolted down, Nightwing still managed to tear one side out of the floor before storming to the other side of the hall and slamming his fists into one of the windows opening out over the earth below. Not even the awe-inspiring spectacle of seeing the planet from orbit could come close to putting his soul at ease as he hung his head in despair. A moment later, the Infirmary doors could be heard opening and closing once more, but Nightwing didn't have to look up to know that it was Wonder Woman standing out in the hall, her eyes filled with concern as she silently stared towards him.
"She was protecting ME," Nightwing trembled as the words came, appearing almost on the verge of tears as he inwardly cursed himself and his frail mortal weakness.
"She loves you. What else COULD she do?" Wonder Woman replied softly. But her words offered Nightwing little comfort when it did nothing to change the fact that Starfire was still lying injured in a hospital bed. And for all he knew, she still could be…Just then, Nightwing felt Wonder Woman place her hand gently on his shoulder, which finally caused him to lift his head slightly.
"Nightwing…Dick…listen to me," Wonder Woman spoke in a calm, straightforward demeanor, "I know you're hurting right now. But we need your mind HERE. You're the only other person who knows ANYTHING about this Ra's Al Ghul. And if he really HAS taken Bruce, you may be the only chance he's got."
Before Nightwing could respond, a brief sequence of beeps caught his attention. A familiar sound, but one he hardly ever heard anymore. As Wonder Woman looked on, he pulled out a small communication device, slightly battered and worn, but with the letter "T" still visible on the cover. A second later, Nightwing flipped it open, but to his curiosity, displayed on the screen was simply a map of Bludhaven's old Industrial District. A set of coordinates scrolled across the bottom of the screen shortly after, followed by a mysterious letter "S". Wonder Woman was still puzzled by the strange message, but Nightwing seemed to understand exactly what it meant as his face twisted into a deathly scowl.
"Wait here. This won't take long," he uttered through gritted teeth as he proceeded down the hall, leaving Wonder Woman still looking rather bewildered.
The creaking of metal and beams of pale moonlight streaked across the walls gave the abandoned factory the feel of a haunted tomb. But Nightwing was in no mood for taking in the ambience as he walked with purpose through the shadows, his face still glowering in anger. Eventually, the factory opened into a large room, again, mostly in darkness, but lit enough to see a single chair all the way to one side, facing a network of monitors lined along the opposite wall. One look at the layout was all Nightwing needed to figure out that this must have been where Ra's Al Ghul had been based while using the guise of Deathstroke to conduct his plans in Bludhaven. After all, it looked practically identical to the types of bases Deathstroke used.
"Impressive, isn't it?" a voice sounded behind Nightwing as he whirled around to see Deathstroke stepping out of the shadows. Admittedly, Nightwing had been so focused on Starfire that he had never even bothered to look for Deathstroke after the explosion, alive or dead. But in all reality, the fact that he survived the explosion as well really should have come as no surprise.
"I have to admit, he did his homework," Deathstroke added, taking a slow glance around the room, "You really can't help but admire such attention to detail."
Nightwing, however, was clearly in no mood for witty banter, charging towards Deathstroke at top speed with an angry yell. Deathstroke instantly responded, drawing his saber to defend himself. But Nightwing was quick to react as well, scooping up a piece of rebar from the factory floor and sending it flying towards Deathstroke as he ran, striking his wrist and knocking the saber out of his hand. Before Deathstroke could recover, Nightwing was on him, sending a vicious left punch into his stomach that actually lifted him off the ground. Nightwing instantly followed up with a powerful right cross smashing across Deathstroke's face before whirling him around and slamming him back into the concrete wall.
"You picked a REALLY bad time to go looking for a fight, old man," Nightwing hissed, his hands clenched tightly onto Deathstroke's uniform as he kept him pinned. But Deathstroke was still far from beaten as he shot a knee straight into Nightwing's gut, driving the air out of him before adding a hard elbow to the back of his head, knocking him to the floor. Coughing and sputtering, Nightwing forced himself to his feet, trying to get back into the fight. But as he whipped around, Deathstroke had already recovered his saber and lunged forward like a flash, driving the tip of the blade into the wall, just millimeters above Nightwing's left shoulder.
"You know what? I have to say…these temper tantrums of yours REALLY get on my nerves," Deathstroke growled, forcing his blade across, just under Nightwing's throat as his one eye glared furiously, "If you'd bothered to THINK for one minute, you'd figure out it's not YOU I want to pick a fight with…!"
"…I WANT RA'S AL GHUL!"
"Well, you certainly have a funny way of directing your anger," a third voice echoed from across the room, forcing Nightwing and Deathstroke to look over in surprise to see Wonder Woman standing in the moonlight. How could she have POSSIBLY…? It wasn't until Wonder Woman tossed up and caught the small tracking device in her hand that Nightwing looked over and noticed the miniature tracer delicately clinging to his back. Wonder Woman must have slipped it on him when she put her hand on his shoulder up on the Watchtower.
"You're not the only one who's learned a few things from Batman," Wonder Woman said to Nightwing with a smirk before turning her attention to Deathstroke, who was still holding him against the wall, "So…are you going to take your hands off him now or am I going to have to tear them off?"
As Wonder Woman cracked her knuckles, Deathstroke was in no position to protest, releasing Nightwing and sheathing his sword. But he showed no sign of intimidation either as he and Wonder Woman walked past each other, looking her in the eye with his face just inches away from hers.
"Another time, Princess…when I'M in the mood," he replied defiantly before taking a few more steps into the center of the room, scanning the area of any sign of the Society of Shadows' true location, "The truth is, I was as surprised as anyone when I noticed that the signals from a few of my destroyed robots had suddenly begun rebroadcasting. After all, I wasn't the one that had rebuilt them. The last few years, my attention has been focused on…other matters."
"Yeah? Like what?" Nightwing asked with an antagonizing tone.
"You writing a book?" Deathstroke answered sarcastically before continuing, "Suffice it to say, I WAS curious, so I did some checking. When I found out that someone was posing as me for a crime wave of tech thefts, I have to admit, at first I thought it was almost kind of…flattering…"
"…But when he turned around and tried to KILL me tonight…that was NOT flattering. If he thinks he's going to get away with THAT, he's got another thing coming."
"If you and Ra's want to obliterate each other, I'll be the first to say good riddance," Nightwing remarked, "But what makes you think for one SECOND that we'd want to team up with YOU on this?"
"Because frankly, the two of you aren't going to be able to do this alone," Deathstroke answered simply, "And you KNOW it."
For the moment, Nightwing didn't respond. He simply stared blankly into the darkness of the room. But a moment later, again without a word, he simply walked off, past Deathstroke and out of the room, with Wonder Woman walking right behind him.
"Come back here in an hour," he finally replied, getting Deathstroke's attention just as they reached the doorway.
"Does that mean, yes?" Deathstroke inquired, a small hint of smugness in his voice. Nightwing and Wonder Woman however, simply kept walking, not acknowledging him in the slightest.
"It means, come back in an hour," was Nightwing's only response. A moment later, the two disappeared into the darkness of the factory, leaving Deathstroke alone in the room.
"Network uplink established," Alfred Pennyworth stated from the Batcave's com system as he added the execution keystroke, "You now have full access to the Bat Computer from the Watchtower's systems."
"Thanks Alfred. This'll go a lot faster if we work from here," Nightwing replied. Alfred however, simply gave a concerned gaze. Clearly, his mind was focused on only one thing at that moment.
"Sir…bring him home," he requested solemnly.
"Believe me, that's the plan," Nightwing answered before terminating the connection and setting himself to work. Wonder Woman, meanwhile, could only stand behind Nightwing as he sat at the computer, somewhat mystified as to exactly what manner of strategy he was really trying to come up with.
"So…exactly what are we going to do about Deathstroke?" she felt compelled to ask, "You can't seriously be thinking about this alliance he's proposing. What do you think he's going to…?"
"He's going to stab us in the back at the first opportunity that presents itself. He just wants us to find Ra's for him," Nightwing answered, cutting her off, "But if there's one thing I ABSOLUTELY can't stand about Slade Wilson, it's the fact that he's not always wrong. Even with YOUR power, the two of us aren't going to be enough to take on the Society of Shadows. We're going to need help from SOMEWHERE."
"But I don't understand. We have access to the entire Justice League here. If you don't trust him, why are you even CONSIDERING…?" Wonder Woman began to ask until suddenly, a revelation streaked across her brain like a bolt of lightning, "Oh, wait a minute…you're going for two birds with one stone here, aren't you? You're hoping that the two of them weaken each other enough so that we can take them BOTH down."
Nightwing remained silent as he continued his work, which ironically was all the answer Wonder Woman needed. And Wonder Woman couldn't help but give an amused smirk in Nightwing's direction.
"You know," she observed, "I think you may have more in common with Bruce than you realize."
"I'll pretend I didn't hear that," Nightwing replied abruptly before returning to his work. But after a few moments of feeling it gnawing at the back of his mind, he felt the need to bring one particular subject up.
"But while we're on the subject…is there…anything going on that you…might want to mention?"
"What? You mean…me and Bruce?" Wonder Woman responded, the tone of her voice indicating that she had been caught off guard, "It's…nothing really. Bruce and I are just…good friends…"
"Uh huh," Nightwing answered back before turning to Wonder Woman with a serious gaze, "Look, don't take this the wrong way, but I've seen that look on your face a lot from women who are 'just friends' with Bruce. There IS something between you two, isn't there?"
Wonder Woman wasn't entirely sure what answer to give. All she could do was let out a heavy sigh as she shrugged and dropped her arms to her sides.
"Well, it's not that I wouldn't…LIKE something to be there," she replied uneasily, "But every time I bring it up…well, let's just say he's not the easiest person to try and get to know on the inside."
Nightwing couldn't help but look away at that moment. Having seen this kind of thing before, he understood Wonder Woman's frustrations all too well. But at the same time, he knew enough to understand that Bruce wasn't getting the good end of this situation either. Talia…Selina Kyle…Andrea Beaumont…Dick Grayson knew the entire list off by heart. To say nothing of that "Susan" woman Bruce married a few years back who turned out to be part of a legion of mutant plant people that Poison Ivy engineered to seduce and murder Gotham's wealthy and powerful in an attempt to lay claim to their fortunes. Of course, Bruce had been heard to say time and again that that one didn't count. But deep down, Dick knew better. She counted.
"Look, there's something you need to know about Bruce," Nightwing pointed out, feeling he had a need to explain, "He's tried to reach out before. Really he has. It's just…every time it's happened…well…he's been burned…and burned pretty badly. I'm not saying it as an excuse. I'm just saying it…tends to make you…cautious…after a while."
"Mmm, I figured," Wonder Woman replied, drawing back Nightwing's attention as she walked over and leaned back against a nearby railing, "I understand a little about Bruce too, you know. That's mostly why I don't bring it up any more than I do. I know a lot of people might say I should be more demanding and forceful, but the truth is…well, my mother told me once that one of the gods who granted her the power to give me life was Aphrodite, the Goddess of Love. In a way, I guess you could say that makes her my grandmother. And I don't think she'd be too proud of me if I disregarded someone else's feelings just to get what I wanted."
"I know he's not ready yet," she continued with a sigh, glancing towards Nightwing with a smile that clearly showed the warmth and love behind it, "But I'll be there for him…whenever he needs me. Until then…I can wait."
"Well…you might be waiting for a WHILE," Nightwing remarked cynically as he turned back to the monitor.
"Do I look like I'm going anywhere?" Wonder Woman replied matter-of-factly. And turning to see her confident grin made it impossible for Nightwing not to let out a hollow chuckle.
"Well, I'll hand it to you, Lady," he commented, "You're better than most of us."
"I try," Wonder Woman joked, causing both her and Nightwing to flash each other an amused smirk. But now, it was time to move on to more important things as Nightwing rattled away on the keyboard, interfacing with the Bat Computer in order to quickly determine Batman's location.
"Okay, we can assume that Ra's' goons checked Bruce pretty thoroughly for tracking devices…at least all the obvious places," Nightwing thought out loud as he keyed up the map program that was meant specifically to trace Batman's location anywhere in the world. But his and Wonder Woman's eyes went wide as they noticed five different tracking signals, each headed to a different remote section of the world.
"O-kayyy," Nightwing sighed, "That's a cute trick."
"Now what do we do?" Wonder Woman asked, "Even with the Watchtower's transporters, it would take HOURS for us to search all those locations."
"Hmmmmm," Nightwing mused for a thoughtful moment before going back to work on the keyboard again, "Hang on a second, I'm going to try something. Maybe, just maybe…What do you know about Radio Frequency ID tags?"
"Is there anything I SHOULD know?" Wonder Woman replied, "Where are you going with this?"
"Wayne Tech is one of the country's top manufacturers," Nightwing explained as he continued to work, "It's been talked about for years that they might eventually be used in the mainstream to replace medical bracelets by injecting chips into patients as scanning tags. But Bruce thought they might have another potential use. He only mentioned it in passing one time…but if I'm right…"
With a few more keystrokes, Nightwing reconfigured the scanning program to perform a new search. A moment later, the map reappeared on screen and Nightwing found himself giving a triumphant grin.
"Well, would you look at that," he stated before pointing at one particular spot on the map, "Now I AM glad we're up here. If we'd been in the cave, we NEVER would have found this. Right there, in the lower EM band. It's very faint, but it's there. And it's moving."
"Moving where?" Wonder Woman responded curiously. Taking a moment to scan the map carefully, Nightwing came up with a quick theory.
"Looks like…the Antarctic."
Meanwhile, as Nightwing was making his discovery, Batman was bound in the rear of a cargo plane flying south at top speed, surrounded by a dozen members of the Society of Shadows. At least they hadn't cut a notch out of his shoulder for good measure. It was the only tracking system on his person that they didn't find. Still, with such a weak signal, it would take the Watchtower to find it and only if someone knew to look. Granted, with only a dozen lowly soldiers to guard him, this would only be a minor nuisance under normal circumstances and his chances of escape were much greater at that moment than they would ever be secured at Ra's' stronghold. But with Ra's Al Ghul, Batman was fully aware that the circumstances were going to be ANYTHING but normal. And he had a better chance of learning Ra's' true agenda from a Ra's brimming with overconfidence than one on high alert. So for now, his best option was simply to sit tight and be patient. Another opportunity would present itself…hopefully.
Before long, the cargo plane was descending over the South Pole, flying dangerously close to an enormous glacial wall. But moments later, a pair of giant doors slid open, revealing a massive landing strip within. The Society of Shadows had actually built their headquarters inside the glacier itself. As Batman was pulled from the plane and forced into a small tram, he was careful to take note of every inch of the base's layout. Any detail, no matter how insignificant, might turn out to be an important factor later on. Such as the large room they drove past, where Batman curiously observed row upon row of large red nose cones…almost as if they were…But soon, such concerns became trivial as they reached what was clearly the central room of the operation, filled with monitors, computers, and of course, Ra's Al Ghul himself on the topmost level, with none other than his daughter, Talia, on one side and his manservant, Ubu, on the other.
"Beloved…," Talia uttered, feeling her heart begin to flutter. Ubu, however, merely reacted with a contemptible sneer. But Batman's was far more focused on the cocky smirk coming from Ra's, the man in the middle.
"Welcome, Detective," he announced with his usual air of superiority, "You should feel honored. You are standing in what is soon to become the birthplace of the new world order."
"I don't know, Ra's," Batman replied sarcastically, "Seems kind of puny for something like THAT, don't you think?"
"Silence your tongue, Dog!" Ubu shouted, storming down the steps towards him. But even bound, Batman was in no mood for posturing from the hired help. And all Ubu got for his troubles was the heel of Batman's foot across his face in a roundhouse kick that sent him flying back into the steps before Ra's' guards were able to pull Batman down to his knees. Ra's, however, had no issues with letting the incident play out, simply regarding it with amusement.
"Your abrasive sense of humor notwithstanding," Ra's declared, "a series of events has been set into motion that I simply cannot allow to be disrupted. Not even by you."
"I have to say Ra's," Batman still commented as he struggled against Ra's' soldiers, "At least you look better than you did the last time I saw you."
"Courtesy of your friend, the Kryptonian," Ra's replied, "My body has still retained a significant portion of the strength siphoned from him with the Shaman's Staff. Strength that I have used constructively in plans to finally repair this crumbling world."
With a simple nod, Ra's signaled to one of his henchmen at a computer station. And a moment later, mechanical blueprints appeared on the large central monitor…Blueprints that Batman instantly recognized.
"The irony is that the path to Earth's salvation might never have been revealed to me had it not been for a dead race's plans to destroy it," Ra's continued, guiding his hand to the screen, "I trust you recognize this device?"
"The AFD anti-fusion device," Batman answered, "The same one that was used to try and neutralize the sun two years ago."
"Yes. You have the vengeful spirits of the Ophidians, serpentine life forms extinct for millennia, to thank for that," Ra's stated, "But it was through their misguided actions that I was given knowledge of this device and in the months that followed, I went to great lengths to obtain its design."
"Along with a stockpile of enough nuclear warheads to blow the entire planet into an apple core?" Batman added cynically, "Did you think I wouldn't notice?"
"Purchased years ago from various former Soviet nations as their empire crumbled," Ra's explained, "Admittedly, my original intention was to use them simply as an act of absolute last resort. If my plans failed to come to fruition within my lifetime and if I became unable to find a suitable heir to continue my legacy, I planned to use these weapons to purge the entire planet upon my death…thus giving the world a chance to start over from scratch. But this device gave me the chance to capitalize on a far more practical alternative."
Walking over to one of the terminals, Ra's called up video footage of various nuclear bomb tests that had been recorded over the last five decades. The brief smattering of clips not only displayed the tests themselves, but also the unparalleled devastation that was wrought as a result. It even included video footage from the World War II bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
"Fear, Detective. That is the only thing that has kept the human race from using these weapons to obliterate themselves a dozen times over," Ra's added, "Fear of the knowledge that these weapons were simply too terrible to be used under ANY circumstances. However, over time, people have begun to grow comfortable in the belief that no person would ever DARE choose to unleash this force of destruction. They have chosen to take their safety for granted…"
"…I intend to make them remember their fear."
"So where does the AFD come in?" Batman felt compelled to ask, although he already had a sick feeling in the back of his mind that he knew exactly where Ra's' train of thought was taking them. Ra's, however, seemed all too amused at giving him an answer as he switched one of the computer monitors to display a view of another section of the compound, which contained a giant signal dish ready to ascend. Next, Ra's switched another monitor to a computer-generated image of the planet, outlining over a dozen highlighted sections, which appeared to indicate orbiting bodies.
"Upon discovering how the AFD neutralizes atomic detonations, it was a relatively simple matter to produce an identical effect over a global scale," Ra's announced, "The transmitter you see before you, has been programmed to deliver a signal to a series of independent satellites orbiting the planet, equipped with stealth technology and undetectable by any known means of tracking. These satellites will then blanket the world with the AFD's energy signature, thus rendering any and all nuclear attacks completely inert."
"Except yours," Batman concluded, "With those satellites, you can shut down the AFD signal over any part of the world at any time you want…"
"…You're setting yourself up to be the only nuclear power on the planet."
"A rather blunt approach, I grant you. But effective, nonetheless," Ra's answered, "These weapons were intended to be used as deterrents against one another. But instead, they've been used for petty saber-rattling, rendering world leaders impotent and weak. With this, I will be the only deterrent this world has left. From now on, no action will be taken by any government without my consent…or without my order."
"You don't think anyone is going to have a problem with the fact that you're essentially planning to hold the entire world hostage?" Batman shot back.
"I'll hardly be giving them a choice in the matter," Ra's responded confidently, "The ice shelf of this glacier is deep and cold enough to protect this base from both radar and infrared detection. And the warheads are equipped with the same stealth technology as our satellites, so no one will be able to determine where they are being launched from. Also, all the satellites operate on an interconnecting signal. Even if they are found, any attempt to tamper with or destroy them will result in missiles being automatically launched upon all world capitals. So as you can see, whether or not I have the world's approval is entirely beyond my concern. No one is in any position to prevent what is about to happen."
"Still, I knew full well that an operation of such scope would hardly go beyond the notice of someone like yourself," Ra's added, "Which is why for this action to be successful, I knew I could not allow it to be connected to myself in any way. And why I went to such lengths to implicate the notorious Slade Wilson as the puppet architect in this endeavor. Though he has long been absent from the criminal stage, he would still be exactly the kind of man ambitious enough for you to believe capable of such a 'nefarious plot'. And I must say that collecting and reactivating so much of his destroyed technology proved to be a most painstaking process."
"Of course, I had no illusions that my ruse would confound you over the long term. I simply needed it to distract you for a few short hours as I instituted the endgame of my strategy," Ra's continued to explain, "So I was understandably surprised when I discovered that the REAL Deathstroke had crawled out of hiding and learned of my operations in Bludhaven. Of course, had I known you had seen through my little charade so quickly, I would not have been quite so eager to eliminate him when he confronted us at STAR Labs…"
"…an act which sadly…resulted also in the death of your former ward."
Suddenly, the screen behind Ra's switched to a video feed of STAR Labs in Bludhaven just hours before. A second later, the very building Nightwing had gone to investigate became obliterated in a torrent of flame. And Batman could only look on in stunned silence, his face frozen in wide-eyed shock.
"The REAL tragedy of these events, Detective, is that none of them would have been necessary had you only seized the opportunity that had been given you," Ra's went on, walking towards Batman and tossing him a scowl of disdain, "You and your friends, your so-called 'Justice League'…you had countless chances to do what needed to be done during your feud with the American government and their 'Project Cadmus' last year. All the power you needed was placed right within your grasp and time and again, you refused to reach out. You had the perfect opportunity to finally lead this world down the path it needed to go…and you SQUANDERED it."
"Now, sadly, it has become painfully clear that it falls upon me to do what you would not."
As a final show of indignation, Ra's turned and quietly walked off, leaving Batman to consider the loss he just suffered. Ubu simply regarded him with a smirk before following behind his master. Talia, however, seemed visibly torn. For a few short seconds, it seemed as though all she wanted to do was put her arms around him to offer some small measure of comfort. But eventually, even she relented and turned to join her father. Batman, meanwhile, could only scowl in unrelenting fury. It was taking every ounce of willpower he could muster right then and there to keep himself where he was. Deep down, in the back of his mind, he knew he had to bide his time, wait for the right opening to make his move. And this wasn't it. He would have no chance at all if he acted now. But at that moment, all he wanted more than anything else was to feel his hands around Ra's Al Ghul's throat.
As Nightwing entered Starfire's Infirmary room, the scene was exactly the same as he had left it, right down to the slightest sounds of the machinery. Not the kind of sight he was hoping to see, really. At that moment, any change in the room would have been an improvement. But there was even the same female medic on staff looking after her, who reacted with more than a little surprise as she chanced to glance up from her clip board and notice Nightwing's presence.
"Oh!" she blurted out, "Dr. Mid-Nite just stepped out for a moment. I'm sure he'll be back any minute if you'd like to…"
"No, it's…it's okay. I'm just going to be a minute," Nightwing replied with a solemn nod before turning his attention back to Starfire with a worried gaze, "How is she?"
"She seems stable. No change," the medic replied, even though she knew full well that wasn't the news Nightwing wanted to hear. Nightwing, meanwhile, could only look down at Starfire's unconscious form with concern, which the medic immediately translated into a need for privacy.
"I'll just be outside if you need me," she announced quietly before excusing herself. Once she was gone, Nightwing slowly walked over to the side of Starfire's bed. Looking at the the fog appearing and disappearing from Starfire's oxygen mask as she breathed, he could only let out a heavy sigh of regret as he reached down and softly slid the back of his fingers down her cheek.
"Kory, listen. I know this isn't what you're going to want to hear but…I have to go now," he whispered, taking his hand away from her face to gently brush her bangs aside as his free hand reached down and closed over her own, "It's just…before I do, I just had to say…I'm sorry. I never meant for this to happen…"
"…But then…I guess I never do…do I?"
A moment later, he slowly leaned over and pressed his lips to her forehead in a long, soft kiss before backing away and heading towards the door. But just as he was about to leave, he couldn't help but take another longing look back towards her.
"I'll see you soon…I hope," he added under his breath before turning and walking out the door. As he left, the room once again returned to its deathly silence.
"Okay, this is where Bruce's signal last transmitted right before it cut out," Nightwing stated from the passenger seat as flew one of the Justice League Javelins along the Antarctic, noting the enormous glacier off in the distance, "This is as good a place as any to start looking."
"Still, I wish we could have come up with a better plan than this," Wonder Woman replied, a distinct tone of uncertainty clouding her voice.
"Believe me, I know how you feel," Nightwing answered, "But if I know Ra's, it's a pretty fair bet that whatever he's planning, it's going to happen sooner than later. We don't have the luxury of playing it safe right now."
"I'm not disagreeing with you," Wonder Woman remarked, her voice slightly lowering, "I just hope this works."
Meanwhile, inside the control center of Ra's' stronghold, Batman was still doing everything he could to hold himself together. All he could see in his mind's eye was the STAR Labs building going up in flames, with Nightwing still inside it. But even more unbearable, if such a thing were possible, was the fact that the man responsible for that vicious act was standing just scant yards away. And Batman was powerless to do anything about it. No matter how strong his desire to act may have been, deep down, he knew that any attempts he made at that moment would most certainly end in failure. He had to use every mental resource at his disposal to recognize the proper time to make his move when it presented itself and to know exactly what to do when that moment came. But how could he be expected to come up with ANY kind of strategy when the only thoughts flashing through his mind were of anger and vengeance?
"Beloved?" Talia's voice sounded softly from the side as Batman turned to see her looking down on him, her eyes filled with pity, "I only wanted to say…I am so very sorry for what happened. I know how much he meant to you."
"Do you honestly expect me to believe that?" Batman growled through his teeth, turning his head away with disdain.
"H…how could you think me so heartless?" Talia innocently protested, "I do not relish the taking of ANY life…LEAST of all someone closest to YOU…"
"Don't!" Batman's harsh tone abruptly cut her off, "I've heard enough of your excuses Talia! Your father is…!"
"Whatever my father has done, it has only been to ensure that billions more do not suffer in a world dying from the corruption that mankind has infected it with. Do you not see that?" Talia argued, "Beloved, you and my father are both fighting for the same goals, but you think too small. In the end, you focus all your energy on one small city when there is an entire world that could benefit from what you could achieve. Beloved, please…"
"…Look into your heart and ask yourself…how much longer must you continue to be a slave to your parents' memory?"
Without a word, Batman finally glanced over in Talia's direction and for the briefest of moments, Talia held out hope that maybe…just maybe…her words had managed to reach him. But her faith was instantly crushed as Batman's face twisted into an enraged scowl.
"How long do YOU have to keep being a slave to your father's approval?" he hissed bitterly. And the look of contempt on his face cut through Talia's heart deeper than any blade possibly could have. At that moment, it seemed that all she could do was hang her head and sorrowfully turn away, leaving Batman seething in his anger. Just then…
"Master, I've located something on radar! An unidentified aircraft coming in fast!" a Society of Shadows henchman called out, gaining the attention of everyone in the room. It took only a moment to reveal its presence on the monitor screen and Ra's recognized the plane's design all too well as his eyes widened in shock.
"It's one of the Justice League Javelins! But how…!?" he exclaimed, whirling around in Batman's direction. Could Batman have actually been able to…? No…impossible! Even Batman looked as surprised as anyone by the Javelin's appearance on the screen. And yet…it couldn't be a coincidence.
"We've come too far to allow any disruptions now!" Ra's commanded, "Jam its communications and shoot it down! Bring whoever's on board to me!"
Within moments, two compartment hatches opened up on the glacier's summit, with a pair of henchmen emerging in white to camoflauge themselves with the drifting snow. As the Javelin streaked overhead, the men loaded a pair of shoulder mounted missile launchers and fired. The missiles struck the engines, rocking the Javelin and nearly tossing Wonder Woman and Nightwing from their seats as the plane broke into a freefall dive.
"We're going down!" Wonder Woman shouted.
"Can you level us off?!" Nightwing hollered in reply.
"I'm trying!" Wonder Woman answered, pulling the Javelin's steering as far as it would go, "Have I mentioned how much I REALLY wish we'd come up with a better plan?!"
Nightwing, however, wouldn't get the chance to answer as he braced for impact. The Javelin slammed into the glacial ceiling a second later, skidding nearly three quarters of a mile before friction finally ground it to a halt. For several moments after, all was silent, save for the frigid polar winds howling around the Javelin's crumpled form. Nightwing would loosely regain consciousness a minute later with a groan, looking over to notice Wonder Woman beside him, awake, but dazed. Shifting his gaze, his blurry eyes could just barely make out the silhouettes of Ra's' henchmen slowly making their way towards the Javelin through the driving snow. At that moment, Nightwing could feel himself already beginning lose consciousness again. He had to act fast. Pulling out a small device, he set a 30-minute timer and placed it in a hidden Javelin compartment before his body slumped over and he passed out.
Just shy of a half hour later, Ra's' search party returned to the stronghold, with a groggy Wonder Woman trudging behind them into the main hangar, her wrists bound in metal restraints. As Ra's watched from the control center with a triumphant grin, Batman couldn't hide his surprise. Not at seeing her, but by the fact that her capture made no sense. Why would she take a Javelin and not her own plane? Ra's would never have been able to find her then. And how could those simple metal bands possibly be strong enough to hold her? However, any questions he had immediately fled his mind as Nightwing's face appeared on the screen, walking close behind Wonder Woman, his hands equally restrained. Ra's could only look on in confusion, but for Batman, it was impossible for him not to give a faint smile of welcome relief.
"I assume there's a perfectly logical explanation for you surviving that explosion," Ra's commented from a hangar view screen, regaining his composure as quickly as he could, "But I'm afraid there simply isn't time to hear it. My ultimate victory is close at hand and I have no patience for uninvited guests."
"Oh really?" Nightwing replied with a hollow chuckle, straightening himself and cracking his neck to loosen up before looking back towards Ra's with a smirk, "Then I guess this REALLY isn't going to be your day, is it?"
As Ra's was trying to determine exactly what Nightwing meant, outside, a recovery team of henchmen was still going over the smashed remains of the Javelin they had shot down. But just then, the very timer Nightwing had stowed away after the crash reached zero. And in that exact instant, three large compartments at the rear of the Javelin to burst open and release a volley of powerful flares into the sky. The flares burst into a shower of brilliant lights, catching Ra's' men by surprise. But they nowhere near as surprised by what happened next as a powerful blast of air blasted across the glacial ceiling, causing them look upward in wide-eyed shock.
"Master!" Ra's' monitoring henchman cried out again, "A second unidentified aircraft has just appeared several hundred yards from the Javelin's crash site! It's…it's right on top of us!"
"WHAT?!" Ra's shouted, his voice filled with stunned anger.
"I can't explain it! It just came out of nowhere!" the monitor exclaimed, "It must have a form of stealth capability we've never encountered before!"
"SHOOT IT DOW…!!!" Ra's tried to command, but his words were cut off as the entire compound suddenly began to tremble. Outside, the enormous black jet hovering overhead was deploying a huge cutting laser, burrowing through the glacial ice and metal until it breached the main hangar, exploding into the floor to the horror of everyone in the room. Everyone, that is, except Nightwing and Wonder Woman, who both immediately sprang to life. With a swing of her arms, Wonder Woman swept a half dozen men aside as if they were nothing but dust as Nightwing dispatched several more with a few well-placed kicks. At the same time, dozens of thick ropes dropped into the main hangar, followed quickly by invaders repelling into the fortress. No mistaking it, they were Deathstroke's robots, four to a rope, with none other than Deathstroke himself leading the charge.
"Knock, knock," he announced mockingly as Ra's' face could only glower in anger on the screen. An instant later, Deathstroke's robots attacked, the laser cannons protruding out of their arms making short work of Ra's remaining forces in the hangar who were caught completely unprepared.
"Am I fashionably late?" Deathstroke joked as he ran over to free Nightwing amidst the ensuing chaos.
"You're late, that's all I know," Nightwing answered sarcastically.
"You could show a LITTLE gratitude, thank you very much," Deathstroke noted as small cutting laser made short work of Nightwing's shackles, "I didn't have to waste my time coming over here to help YOU, you know."
"Well," Wonder Woman interjected, tensing her arms and snapping her restraints with ease, "I know I don't recall asking."
At that moment, reinforcements from the Society of Shadows led by Ubu were already amassing inside the hangar. Thinking quickly, Wonder Woman smashed her fist into the ground, freeing an huge mass of ice which she effortlessly lifted and cast towards the advancing party, sending Ra's' men flying in all directions. Nightwing was impressed, but he still couldn't help but toss a worried eye towards Deathstroke's forces as he realized that the Society of Shadows still far eclipsed them in terms of numbers.
"Are you sure you brought enough robots to handle this?" Nightwing was forced to ask.
"Well, actually, it's more than we need," Deathstroke replied simply, much to Nightwing's confusion. But he would soon understand what Deathstroke meant as one of Ra's' men charged in with a yell, impaling one of Deathstroke's robots with his saber. For a moment, he seemed quite satisfied with his achievement. Just then, the robot began to shudder violently and suddenly, a powerful explosion ripped from its body, sending its attacker and half a dozen other men flying from the sheer force.
"Case in point," Deathstroke added as Nightwing looked on, stunned, "Consider it an upgrade. I may hate Ra's Al Ghul's guts right now, but I know a good idea when I see it. These robots have been reprogrammed to self-destruct if they receive any major damage."
Before Nightwing could respond, Ubu burst from the commotion, brandishing a large saber and bellowing in fury. But to Nightwing, this was a small matter as he stepped into Ubu's attack, sweeping his sword arm aside and planting a fist square into his gut before heaving him over his shoulder into a running throw which sent Ubu flying into the side of a nearby aircraft, rendering him unconscious. Deathstroke, meanwhile, wasn't about to waste any more time as he shifted his focus to the battle at hand, rushing to the front line to command his troops.
From the control room, Ra's could only look on in wild-eyed rage as the combined efforts of Nightwing, Wonder Woman and Deathstroke were laying waste to his forces. His men were already at a loss of how to attack Deathstroke's robots, having already seen the carnage that ensued when just one of them received critical damage. However, Deathstroke's robots were operating under no such restrictions and were already making short work of their hesitant opponents. But Ra's would soon have other concerns as he heard a yell of pain behind him. Whirling around, his eyes widened to see Batman Bearing down on him at top speed, smashing a flying roundhouse kick across his jaw and running up the steps to the main computer, dispatching Ra's two remaining operatives with a handful of well-placed punches.
As Ra's whirled around, gnashing his teeth in fury, Batman had already disappeared from view, having recovered his utility belt from the main computer and leaving only unconscious bodies in his wake. Ra's acted quickly, grabbing a nearby saber and trying to mentally ready himself for anything, but the damage had already been done. And as he searched the room frantically for any sign of Batman's presence, Ra's knew he had only himself to blame. He became so focused on the presence of Nightwing, Wonder Woman and Deathstroke that he sent all his available forces to the main hangar to try and repel them, leaving only a handful of men to watch over Batman. A grave miscalculation on his part, as a handful of men was nowhere near being enough to keep someone like Batman in check.
"You still refuse to understand," Ra's called out, hoping to draw a response from Batman that would reveal where he had hidden himself away, "All the power you and your precious League possess…and what good is it…if you won't use it to do what MUST be done?"
"Because the price for abusing that power is too high!" Batman's voice echoed through the room, making Ra's unable to determine his precise location, "Just because we COULD do things your way doesn't mean we SHOULD!"
"A pity," Ra's replied, still looking about in the hopes of finding him, "I would have had much more respect for you if you'd had."
"You're breaking my heart, Ra's!" Batman sounded off sarcastically, "You know, it's actually kept me up nights worrying about whether or not I had your respect!"
Even as the two were exchanging words, Ra's was wracking his brain trying to determine exactly what Batman was up to. Batman isn't the type of person to waste time needlessly. What could he possibly be trying to accomplish with this childish game? Unfortunately for Ra's, it would only take another few seconds for him to finally get his answer.
"WARNING!" cold, mechanical voice boomed throughout the control room, "FULL LAUNCH OF ALL NUCLEAR ARMAMENTS TO COMMENCE IN T-MINUS FIVE MINUTES AND COUNTING…!"
"...WARNING! NUCLEAR SILO DOORS COMPROMISED! LAUNCH SEQUENCE ABORTED…!"
"…WARNING! ABORT PROTOCOLS OVERRIDDEN! CONTINUING LAUNCH SEQUENCE!"
His face frozen in shock, Ra's could only stand stunned at images on the screens of the nuclear silos sealed shut, with every missile primed to launch within mere minutes. And if all those missiles attempted to launch while still sealed within the silos…if all that energy from the missile rockets remained bottled up, the resulting explosion would be roughly equal to filling half of Ra's' fortress with TNT and lighting a match. Only one person could have possibly hacked his computers so deftly. But how could Batman, who was nowhere to be found, possibly have pulled off such a feat?
His eyes darting back and forth over every inch of the computer station, Ra's finally chanced to see a small object out of the corner of his eye. A portable drive inserted into one of the computer's open USB ports, with a Wi-Fi connection and a small bat symbol imbedded on it. Batman was using the drive to hack Ra's system through a portable computer. With a yell, Ra's took one swipe of his saber, slicing the drive in half and putting an end to Batman's interference. With luck he might still be able to regain control of the computers and halt the launch. But before Ra's could attempt to right his system, Batman dropped from the ceiling, planting both feet into Ra's' chest and knocking him back from the computer. Miraculously, Ra's was still on his feet, but this was of no consequence to Batman, who surged ahead, swinging one wild haymaker after another across Ra's' jaw, forcing him further away from the computer system. But Ra's quickly put an end to batman's assault, catching one of Batman's fists and looking back with a smirk before throwing a thunderous blow that sent Batman flying back into the computer station.
"Come now, Detective," Ra's couldn't help but gloat, as Batman struggled to get back on his feet, "I DID warn you that my body has still retained a portion of Superman's strength, did I not?"
"Then I guess that means the kid gloves are off!" Batman growled, grabbing a nearby work chair and whirling around, smashing it against Ra's' skull. A second heavy swing to Ra's' head was all it took to reduce the chair to bits as Batman cast the remains of the chair aside and locked his fists together into a vicious impact that sent Ra's tumbling down the steps. But Batman wasn't about to let it end there. Fiercely determined, he charged down the steps after Ra's.
Back in the hangar, the Society of Shadows was quickly losing ground as Deathstroke's legion of robots pressed forward, with Deathstroke, Nightwing and Wonder Woman right alongside them. Over a third of Deathstroke's robots had been destroyed in the fight, but the losses that Ra's' men had suffered from the resulting explosions was far greater. Scattered into small, ineffective pockets of resistance and with no leader to rally behind in order to launch a coordinated effort, the Society was soon left with no choice but to retreat from the battle. Nightwing, meanwhile, was all too satisfied to finally be seeing his enemies' back as he and Wonder Woman prepared to search for Batman.
"Let's go," Nightwing announced as he and Wonder Woman ran on ahead. However, it only took a few steps for them to realize that Deathstroke and his robots were no longer accompanying them. Whirling around, the two finally caught sight of him standing a few short yards away, alongside his Robots, which each had their laser cannons trained on Nightwing and Wonder Woman.
"You know, I just had a crazy thought. Spur of the moment, top of my head. Tell me what you think," Deathstroke stated calmly, his saber slung over his shoulder, "It seems to me that this location is going to have to come under new management. Know anyone who might be good for the job?"
"Well, you sure called THAT," Wonder Woman remarked cynically as she realized Nightwing's prediction of Deathstroke's betrayal had just come to pass.
"Yeah," Nightwing muttered grimly. But just then a series of beeps caught his attention as he pulled out a small communications device. Recognizing instantly what it meant, he simply looked over towards Deathstroke with a cocky smirk.
"Too bad he didn't try it two minutes ago."
Both Deathstroke and Wonder Woman were equally puzzled by Nightwing's words, but just then, the large bay doors at the far end of the hangar were ruptured with an explosive surge of green energy. And all but Nightwing were stunned to see Starfire bursting into the stronghold, her eyes flashing with rage. Letting out a yell of anger, she unleashed a furious stream of Star Bolt energy, laying waste to Deathstroke's remaining robots in a single pass before any of them had time to react to her presence. Deathstroke, meanwhile, barely had time to leap out of the way as the force of the robots' explosions sent him flying and skidding along the icy hangar floor.
"Might I be of some assistance?" Starfire called down with a smile, sensing that the immediate danger had passed.
"Wait a minute! How did SHE find us?!" Wonder Woman exclaimed, still perplexed as Starfire landed beside them. Starfire, however, simply smiled again as she flashed a small transmitter screen in front of Wonder Woman's eyes.
"What can I say?" Nightwing answered, looking back to the moment he'd placed the transmitter in Starfire's hand when he'd gone to visit her at the Infirmary, "I didn't think she'd want to be left out."
"So SHE was your backup plan?" Wonder Woman had to ask, unable to forget that Starfire had just hours ago been laid up in a hospital bed on the Watchtower, "No offense, but don't you think that was just a SLIGHTLY big gamble?"
"Not so big," Nightwing replied simply, looking at Starfire with a confident grin. Starfire couldn't help but respond with a smile of her own. But everyone soon had to shift their focus as Nightwing noticed Deathstroke struggling to his feet. This fight was still far from over.
"Go. Get Batman," he added to Wonder Woman, motioning his head towards a nearby hallway leading out of the hangar before turning his attention to Deathstroke along with Starfire, "We've got THIS guy."
With a simple nod, Wonder Woman turned and ran off down the hallway, leaving Nightwing and Starfire to deal with Deathstroke. Deathstroke, meanwhile, still needed a moment to shake out the cobwebs and clear his head before he turned around to see Nightwing and Starfire across the room, already preparing themselves for anything to happen.
"Close, Wilson!" Nightwing called over tauntingly, "VERY close…but not close enough!"
"So…what now, Nightwing?" Deathstroke groaned as he cracked his joints and tried to loosen himself up from being thrown by the explosion, "Take some time to relive the 'good ol' days'?"
"Huh…good for who?" Nightwing replied cynically as he walked over to a metal staff that was dropped by one of Ra's henchmen, kicking it up into his hand, "Now be gentle. I'm a little out of practice."
"Hmph! You really expect me to believe that?" Deathstroke responded, collecting his saber before turning to face Nightwing and Starfire. Nightwing, however, simply smirked as he twirled the staff in his hand with all the skill of a trained master twice his age before snapping it under his arm and taking his stance for the battle ahead.
"I wouldn't," he answered before holding out his hand and waving Deathstroke over, "Well…here we are now…"
"…Entertain us!" Starfire finished with a wild grin, her eyes and hands blazing with raw power. Deathstroke, meanwhile, twirled his saber in hand and loosened up his arm before he took his own stance, readying himself for what was to come. As both sides stared each other down, one thing was clear. Win, lose, or draw, no matter what else happened in between, they were about to leave it all out on the field.
Focusing on the task at hand, Wonder Woman charged ahead through the corridors of Ra's Al Ghul's fortress, determined not to stop for even an instant until she'd finally found Batman. Occasionally, a retreating henchman who chanced to cross her path would try to block her way. But in the end, each one might as well have tried to block an oncoming car as Wonder Woman effortlessly bashed them aside and kept running, without even missing a step. Before long, the tunnel opened into a large chamber, with only one single path of ice leading to another passage on the opposite side. But Wonder Woman was momentarily halted by none other than Talia standing just outside the corridor entrance with a saber in hand.
"So you're the one I've heard so much about," Talia declared with a smirk, although her tone of voice clearly revealed her contempt, "I do not know exactly what interest you have in my beloved, but I know this. Whatever petty feelings you may THINK you have for him are in no way a match for the fire that burns within me."
"'Beloved'? You mean Ba…" Wonder Woman remarked with a hint of surprise, but she didn't have time for such distractions as she regained her focus and determinedly strode forward across the room, "Look, I don't know what kind of adolescent dream world you're living in, little girl. But I don't have time to wake you up. One way or another, I'm going on ahead. You can either get out of my way or I can MAKE you."
"Hmph! Unlikely," Talia responded confidently, pulling out a small control box and pressing the large red button. An instant later, four large laser cannons folded out of the wall on the opposite side of the room, much to Wonder Woman's shock. Instinctively, she raised her bracelets to defend herself as the cannons fired. But her bracelets offered her little protection from the combined power of the four large streams of energy and she was sent flying back the way she came, bouncing along the icy path and rolling to an unconscious stop.
Talia, meanwhile couldn't resist smiling triumphantly, deactivating the cannons and slowly walking across the room to Wonder Woman's prone body, taking as much time as she could to savor the satisfaction of the moment. Moments later, Talia was standing over Wonder Woman, unceremoniously turning her over with her foot. And Wonder Woman's body simply flopped lifelessly before her as Talia brandished her saber, picking her spot with the tip of the blade hovering above Wonder Woman's throat.
"You fool. As if someone like you could ever hope to satisfy him," she gloated as she lifted the saber over her head, preparing to strike, "My father and I are planning to give him the entire WORLD. What more could you POSSIBLY have to offer?"
With a yell, Talia brought the tip of the blade down with all the strength she had, preparing to end it all. But her intentions came to a most abrupt end as Wonder Woman's hand flashed upward like a blur, catching the blade and holding it fast just inches from her throat. No matter how much force Talia exerted, the blade refused to budge from Wonder Woman's grip. At that moment, Wonder Woman's eyes snapped open, looking up at Talia with an angry glare.
"First of all," she stated calmly enough, despite her expression as she rose to her feet, her hand still with a death grip on Talia's blade, "I would never offer him anything I know he wouldn't want."
With a flick of her wrist, Wonder Woman tore Talia's saber out of her hands before effortlessly snapping the blade in two like a dry stick. And as Wonder Woman tossed the two halves aside, Talia broke into a panic as she ran back across the room. Her only hope was to reactivate the laser cannons, but she was too close to use them without being incinerated herself. She had to get to the other side to ensure she was at a safe distance. However, as she reached the entrance to the opposing corridor, she turned around to see Wonder Woman already standing in front of her, grabbing her by the collar of her jumpsuit and lifting her off the ground. And as Talia kicked and struggled, Wonder Woman snatched the control box for the cannons out of her hand and crushed it as though it were nothing more than a mound of dirt.
"Second of all, I was BORN a warrior," she added, her tone clearly more angered than before Talia dangled from her hand like a rag doll, "Don't believe for one second that what you THINK you are makes you equal to what I KNOW I AM!"
Talia could only hang from Wonder Woman's hand, trembling and shuddering in fear at what was to come as Wonder Woman gnashed her teeth in rage and pulled back an eagerly waiting fist. Wonder Woman, however, had other ideas as she slipped her free hand forward, giving Talia three firm flicks in the head with her index finger, one in each temple and one right between her eyes. For Wonder Woman, nothing, but for a mere mortal like Talia, the impact was like taking three of the best punches that a heavyweight boxer could throw at her. And that was all it took to render her unconscious, her body falling limp in Wonder Woman's hand before Wonder Woman indignantly dropped her to the ground in a crumpled heap, looking down at her with a stern gaze.
"…be thankful that for Bruce…that's all you get from me."
With that, Wonder Woman stepped over Talia and prepared to go on ahead. But just at that moment, Ubu stumbled into the room, having regained consciousness from his brief encounter with Nightwing. Upon seeing his master's daughter lying broken and defeated at the feet of another, Ubu glared in fury and charged forward, ready to avenge such an unforgivable insult.
"Don't be stupid!" Wonder Woman shouted firmly as she tilted her head slightly over her shoulder, the grim sharpness in her voice and the sight of her tightening fists enough to freeze even the blindly loyal Ubu in his tracks, "Take her and get out!"
That said, Wonder Woman shifted her gaze back ahead and strode off down the corridor. There didn't seem to be anything Ubu could do that could possibly change the situation. So he simply did as he was told, quietly collecting Talia's prone form and carrying her to safety.
In the control room of the fortress, Batman's battle with Ra's Al Ghul rolled on, with neither side giving an inch. But realizing that possessing even a microscopic portion of Superman's power gave Ra's a monumental advantage, Batman had adjusted his tactics to simple "stick n' move" fighting rather than attempting to stick it out in a toe-to-toe slugfest. Every blow that Ra's attempted to land, Batman would dodge to counter with two of his own, always doing his best to keep himself at arms length. Still, with all the effect his blows were having on Ra's, Batman might as well have been fighting a punching bag, always shrugging it off and coming back for more no matter how many hits it took. It also didn't take long for Ra's to analyze Batman's fighting plan and counter it, blocking one of Batman's punches and following up with a devastating right that brought Batman to his knees with a single blow.
"Really, Detective, why do you persist?" Ra's gloated, standing over Batman with an amused smirk, "Surely you must realize at this point that your efforts are futile. It's quite obvious that as I am now, you have no hope of defeating me."
"I don't have to beat you," Batman replied, looking up at Ra's with a cryptic grin of his own, "Not for another 30 seconds, anyway."
At that moment, Ra's eyes widened in terror as he whirled around to see the missile launch countdown still in progress on the computers' monitors. Batman had been purposely drawing the fight out to pad Ra's ego. And Ra's, in his desire to always prove himself forever superior to Batman, had been completely blind to it. Inwardly cursing himself at having been so easily deceived, Ra's made a mad dash for the computer terminals. If he could just disconnect them, he could prevent the system from sending the launch commands to the silos. But right then, Batman flipped the end of his cape over Ra's' face from behind and yanked hard, sending Ra's feet flying out from under him and cracking the back of his head on the icy floor. A move that finally managed to hurt him as Ra's clutched the back of his head in agony while Batman ran ahead to cut him off. Within moments, the shooting pain subsided as Ra's pulle3d himself up to his feet. But as he looked up at the monitors, it was clear that he was already too late.
"NO!" Ra's cried out as down in the missile center, each missile roared to life, their rockets firing at full capacity. But with the silos sealed shut, the energy from the rockets had nowhere to be released. And the end result was exactly what Batman had intended as each missile silo was transformed into a giant stick of dynamite. And as the silos ruptured in a simultaneous blaze of destruction, the force of the explosion rocked the entire fortress like an earthquake. Entire levels were bathed in waves of flame and the icy walls surrounding the fortress began shattering like spun glass under the sheer pressure being released. There was nothing Ra's could do as all his plans were literally falling apart around his ears. But he knew who he could take his frustrations out on. Turning his attention squarely on Batman, a twisted glare scarred across Ra's' face as he lunged forward with a yell of rage.
The control center was little more than a crumbling ruin by the time Wonder Woman reached it. After the explosion rippled through the base, she needed little encouragement to quicken her pace as she broke into a run. When she finally burst into the room, it was filled with smashed computers, cracked walls and shards of ice hailing from the ceiling. But such images immediately fled Wonder Woman's mind as she saw Batman struggling to free himself from Ra's Al Ghul, who was holding him over his head, his hands wrapped tightly around his throat.
"Hera, no…," Wonder Woman breathed with wide-eyed dread as she hurried to Batman's aid. However, she barely made it three steps before a massive explosion from the levels below sent a geyser of flame blazing into the room, the force knocking over Ra's and sending Batman flying out of his hands. Batman still had yet to notice Wonder Woman over by the entrance as he flipped to safety staring down Ra's, who slowly rose to his feet and prepared to attack again. But a second explosion from below sliced the room in half, separating Batman and Ra's with a searing wall of fire. By the time the flames subsided, the whole side of the room that Ra's had been standing on had vanished without a trace, including Ra's himself. But before Batman could even think to determine what he should do next, a large mass of ice tumbled from the high ceiling above, striking him in the back of the head and knocking him out cold. Wonder Woman gasped in shock as Batman crumpled to the floor with a groan of pain, but her horror was even doubled as at that moment, the entire ceiling began to cave in, sending an avalanche of ice roaring down to crush Batman's prone body.
"BRUCE!!" Wonder Woman cried out as she surged ahead, reaching Batman just as the chucks of ice began to hit. Within moments, she was holding tons of ice off of Batman's body with nothing but her hands and her shoulders. But she was already struggling hard as she groaned from the strain, her legs shaking violently. After all, it would take Superman to lift a load like this. Such a task might very well beyond Wonder Woman's abilities even if she weren't fatigued. But the combination of the crash and those laser blasts that Talia hit her with had clearly taken a very real toll on her. And if that wasn't enough, the ceiling was still continuing to fall, weighing her down more and more with each passing second. Eventually, her legs buckled as she dropped to one knee, still trying desperately to hold the collapsing ceiling over her head. But she could already feel all the muscles in her upper body straining beyond their limits. She could hold it up for another five seconds, maybe 10, but after that…
Just then, she happened to look over and her eyes went wide as she noticed Batman lying lifeless just inches away from her. And her eyes went wide as she remembered precisely what she was doing at that exact moment. If she dropped her arms now, she might very well survive the crushing impact to come, but there was no possible way that Batman could. If she didn't do something soon, this man lying before her…this man who she had come to care for more than she ever thought she could feel for ANYONE…was surely going to die. And as she looked down, her eyes curiously examining every feature of Batman's unconscious face, something inside Wonder Woman seemed to snap…
…What was she thinking? She couldn't let this happen. She wouldn't. She refused…!
…She knew deep down in her heart that there was no way she could allow this man to die. Not so long as she could still draw breath…
In all the days she had walked the earth, Princess Diana of Themyscira had never imagined that she, of all people, could be capable of emitting such a piercing, ear-splitting scream as she did on that day. The day when she miraculously heaved the equivalent of an entire mountain of ice off her shoulders to save the one person who meant more to her than anything else in the world. Scooping up Batman's body, she dashed to safety as the ice continued to fall, reaching the corridor just outside the control center. But the roar of the entire room caving in on itself behind her was little more than a dull hum in her ears as Wonder Woman fell to her knees, gasping and shuddering as her entire body trembled in wrenching agony. At that moment, she would have given very nearly anything to be unconscious at that moment herself as the pain shooting through her muscles was almost too much to bear. But one look at Batman still lying unconscious before her reminded her that rest was a luxury she couldn't come close to affording yet. Collecting Batman in her arms with a heavy groan of effort, Wonder Woman braced herself for one final surge and ran down the corridor with all the speed she could muster.
The entire fortress was shaking itself to pieces and it would be only moments before the entire facility came crashing down into the frigid Antarctic waters. Henchman of the Society of Shadows were already well aware that there was only one way this scenario could possibly play out as they collected their fallen and retreated to whatever air or watercraft could deliver them to safety. Even Ubu, carrying the unconscious Talia had managed to escape the collapsing structure.
However, all these facts were beyond the notice of Nightwing, Starfire and Deathstroke, who were still locked in their fierce battle. They didn't even notice the fact that the floor of the hangar they were fighting in and cracked away from the wall and what they were now standing on was little more than a wide pillar of ice, surrounded by a sheer chasm on all sides. In all honesty, Nightwing and Starfire were becoming more frustrated than anything else as the fight went on. As much as Nightwing hated to admit it, the years Deathstroke had been out of the spotlight certainly hadn't dulled his edge. He and Starfire were hitting Deathstroke with everything they had and he was somehow still managing to keep up with them.
Bursting through the air, Starfire yelled in anger as her fists blazed to attack. Unfortunately, Deathstroke was already one step ahead as he sidestepped her body, grabbing her arm and using her forward momentum to slam her into the ground before raising his saber to strike. But Nightwing had other ideas as he lunged forward, forcing Deathstroke to jump away as his staff slammed into the ice. From there, it was a fierce and unrelenting exchange as Deathstroke's saber clashed with Nightwing's staff. Nightwing, however, was already formulating a plan of attack. He just needed the right opportunity and he would get it just a few strikes later. Swirling the tip of the staff around Deathstroke's saber as he lunged, Nightwing slipped his staff under Deathstroke's sword arm, holding him at bay just long enough to whirl around behind and slam an open handed fist into Deathstroke's shoulder blade.
Deathstroke cried out in agony as his entire arm fell limp, completely dislocated at the shoulder. But he still had enough presence of mind to not let such an offense go unpunished as he whipped around, his one eye glaring wildly through his mask. And Nightwing could only let out a stunned cry as Deathstroke drove a crushing knee into his side. Nightwing staggered back, but he was still able to keep his footing long enough to plant a forward kick into the side of Deathstroke's leg, blowing out his knee. Letting out another yell of pain, Deathstroke rolled of as Nightwing dropped to one knee and clutched his side, assessing the damage done. He had at least three, possibly four ribs cracked, maybe even broken. The good news was that Deathstroke was in no better shape. With a dislocated shoulder and an injured knee, he was barely able to stand, let alone fight. One thing was for sure, Nightwing and Starfire may have taken a few lumps. But at that moment, there was no question as to who the winners were going to be in this contest.
For Deathstroke, the end was all too clear as well, but there was no way he was about to leave it at that. Working his way through the pain, he pulled out a small canister that Nightwing immediately recognized as a thermal grenade, an explosive weapon of enormous destructive power. An act like this was pure desperation on Deathstroke's part to avoid a simple defeat. Even if the grenade was powerful enough to take out Nightwing and Starfire just to keep them from winning, there was just as much chance that the resulting explosion would incinerate Deathstroke as well. But one look in Deathstroke's eye made it clear to Nightwing that such a risk was one that Deathstroke was more than willing to take.
However, it wasn't a risk that Starfire was about to allow as she streaked in front of Nightwing like a blur, her eyes burning intensely as she blasted Deathstroke with two full force Star Bolts, knocking him back through the air and sending him tumbling over the edge of the ice shelf. Luckily, Deathstroke was still clear-headed enough to reach up with his good arm and grab the edge, just barely saving himself. But as he dangled by just the tips of his fingers, he now had a difficult decision to make. With Nightwing and Starfire above him and a sheer ocean drop, hundreds of feet down, should he try to save himself and face certain capture? Or should he take his chances with the frigid waters below?
However, fate was about to take the decision out of Deathstroke's hands as just at that moment, the ceiling began to cave in, sending massive chunks of ice plummeting towards him. No choices now. With no time to pull himself up on one arm, there was only one way to go as Deathstroke released his grip on the edge of the ice shelf. And there was nothing Starfire or Nightwing could do as Deathstroke tumbled headlong into the chasm, the enormous mounds of ice following right on top of him. It may not have been the result they wanted, but at least the danger was passed, giving Starfire the time she needed to tend to Nightwing's injuries.
"Are you alright?" she asked, kneeling down to help him up.
"I'll be fine…!" Nightwing answered sternly. But as he looked over to see the disheartened look on Starfire's face as she turned away, the sharpness in his voice immediately became silent.
"…later," he added quickly, causing Starfire to turn back around to see him offering her a reassuring grin, "For right now, though…I think I COULD use a hand."
With a smile and a nod, Starfire was all too happy to help Nightwing to his feet, propping him up to take as much pressure off his ribs as she could. At that moment, Wonder Woman came flying into the hangar, with Batman in her arms and a few unconscious henchmen she had stumbled across draped over her shoulders.
"We're getting out of here!" she shouted. The rumbling of the collapsing fortress made it a difficult point to argue, but all the vehicles in the hangar were either taken or destroyed. What was left? Just then, Nightwing, Starfire and Wonder Woman happened to look up through the hole Deathstroke had blasted into the ceiling to see his black aircraft still hovering overhead and ready to go.
"I'm not too proud!" Nightwing replied over the sound of falling debris. With that, Wonder Woman and Starfire flew up through the hole with their precious loads, reaching the plain just as the entire fortress began to cave in on itself. And as their newly commandeered getaway vehicle flew off at top speed, the entire glacier housing Ra's Al Ghul's fortress crumbled into the ocean like an avalanche and disappeared.
Nightwing awoke several hours later in a darkened room. After taking a moment to collect himself and looking over to see the stars glittering outside the window over the earth below, he remembered that he was back on the Watchtower. Wonder Woman had arranged a private room for him so he could recover from his injuries without any risk of exposing his identity. Sitting up in bed, he winced slightly as he felt his taped up ribs. It still hurt…a lot. But he had to admit, it could have been a lot worse. Looking over at the clock on the bedside table he quickly realized that he'd slept at least a good seven hours. He couldn't even remember that last time he'd gotten that much sleep. Still, in his mind, he'd held things up for long enough. However, a few moments later, Starfire walked into the room with a tray of food for Nightwing, just in time to catch him reaching for the top half of his uniform hanging on a nearby stand.
"And just where do you think you're going?" she scolded, placing the tray down firmly on the table and walking around the bed to confront him.
"Where does it look like? I'm leaving," Nightwing replied straightforwardly, despite hissing in pain as he raised his arm to reach for his uniform top. Starfire, however, was quick to snatch it away, out of his reach.
"Oh no. You're staying put," she asserted, holding out her hand to keep Nightwing at arm's length, "That's why I'm here."
"Starfire, I'm fine…!" Nightwing started to argue, but his protests were only met with a firm shove back down onto the bed.
"No you're not!" she responded sternly, "Now you listen to me! The medical staff here said you needed to get at least two days of bed rest and that is exactly what's going to happen…Even if I have to hold you down the whole time!"
"Well, do I at least get to see you in a hot nurse's outfit if we're going to do that?" Nightwing asked dryly, staring wide-eyed at Starfire's hand placed firmly on his chest.
"I'M NOT JOKING…!" Starfire shouted. For someone who was usually so upbeat, her sudden outburst caught Nightwing off guard. But not nearly as much as a second later, when he looked into her eyes and saw an expression he'd almost never seen in all the years he'd known her as her voice lowered almost to a whimper.
"…You scared me the other night."
Instantly, Nightwing's mind drifted back to the explosion at STAR Labs when Ra's Al Ghul tried to have both he and Deathstroke killed. If Starfire hadn't shown up when she had…but even then, after what happened to her as a result…Starfire, meanwhile simply hung her head as she turned away, sitting on the side of the bed and sighing.
"Dick…sometimes…" she started to say, straining to get the words to come, "Sometimes, I wish…I wish that you weren't who you are…that you didn't do the kid of things you do. When I think about how I almost lost you that night…"
"Kory, I…" Nightwing tried to respond, although he wasn't sure exactly what to say in the awkwardness of the moment. But just then, he noticed Starfire reach over and firmly squeeze his hand before looking back up and seeing her turn her head towards him.
"But then…I have to remind myself," she added, her lips curling into a gentle smile, "If you weren't who you are…if you didn't do the things you do…then you wouldn't be the man I love…"
"…and you ARE the man I love."
Feeling the affection, but still a note of pain in Starfire's words, Nightwing couldn't help but reach up and gently slide his hand down her cheek. She had clearly made her point. But while she was sitting there, looking up at him with such an affectionate gaze, Nightwing had a point of his own to make as well.
"Kory…I know it hasn't been easy…I know I haven't been easy," he uttered, almost under his breath in an attempt to hide how much his voice was struggling, "But I need you to believe me when I say how much you…that you're the one person I just can't stand to see hurt…"
"…Especially…because of me."
Nightwing didn't have to say anything more. Starfire understood perfectly what he was really telling her as she reached over and gently pulled off Nightwing's mask, allowing her to see Dick Grayson's face staring back at her. Without his mask, he always had a brightness in his eyes that Starfire simply could never get enough of, especially when he smiled at her like he was at that moment. Maybe it was a brightness that only she herself got to see. But it was a brightness that always seemed to lift her spirits as the smile on her face became lighter and happy. A welcome relief to Dick, who firmly believed that Starfire should always look like that, even in the darkest moments.
"So…does this mean you're wearing the nurse's outfit?" Dick asked jokingly.
"You should be so lucky," Starfire replied with a smirk before going back to the enjoyment of the moment. As Dick's thumb caressed her cheek, she gently reached over and held his face in her hands, looking deeply into his eyes once again. And it wasn't hard for Dick to see where she wanted the conversation to go from there.
"Be gentle," Dick noted, "I'm not a hundred percent right now."
"Mmm…That IS my intention," Starfire replied softly as she tilted her head and leaned in. A moment later, a pair of gentle pecks passed between them before their lips finally met in a long kiss. After a moment, the kiss deepened as Dick took his hand from Starfire's cheek and gently ran his fingers through her hair, his free arm wrapping around her waist and pulling her closer. Starfire, meanwhile, slid her hands from Dick's face and softly pressed them against his chest, letting herself be carried away by the moment.
At the same time, Wonder Woman was walking down the hall, carrying a food tray of her own. Her arms, legs and shoulders were peppered with muscle relief patches, but she was a fast healer. Such minor aches and pains would soon be behind her. As she passed by Dick Grayson's room, she couldn't help but give a gentle smile, hoping that he and Starfire were getting a chance to reconcile some things. But that was their business. She had her own to attend to.
After turning down a few corridors, she finally found the room she was looking for and after tapping in a quick pass code, let herself in. Sure enough, lying in a nearby bed was Bruce Wayne, staring up at the ceiling, a heavy wrapping of tape around his head.
"I heard you were awake. Thought you might be hungry," Wonder Woman announced with a hint of optimism. Bruce, however, didn't respond right away, his eyes still fixated on the ceiling of his room.
"What happened to the compound?" he asked quietly.
"Most of it is at the bottom of the ocean," Wonder Woman answered, placing the food tray on the bedside table, "All the nuclear weapons that Ra's Al Ghul appropriated have been confiscated, destroyed or not. The League even managed to find a few more of his men."
"What about Ra's and Deathstroke?" Bruce asked, still not shifting his gaze.
"The Watchtower ran multiple scans of the area, but we never found their bodies," Wonder Woman replied, "Still, I find it hard to believe that either one of them could have survived, given the circumstances."
"Hmph…THAT kind of luck we're not known for having," Bruce stated grimly. At that moment, Wonder Woman simply let out a heavy sigh and pulled up a chair to sit down next to Bruce's bed. Bruce still didn't make any movements, but even without looking, he could feel her eyes staring at him. And after a few moments, he finally shifted his eyes in her direction for the just the briefest of seconds to see that she hadn't moved an inch since she sat down before staring back at the ceiling of his room.
"I'm alright, Diana. You don't have to check up on me," he said dismissively. But Wonder Woman simply smiled and shook her head.
"I'm not here to ask if you're alright," she responded straightforwardly, "I'm here because I made a promise. And I intend to keep it."
Reaching over, Wonder Woman gently folded her hand over Bruce's before leaning in and placing a soft, slow kiss on his cheek. An act that finally drew a reaction out of Bruce as his eyes widened slightly in surprise and he looked over to see Wonder Woman continuing to stare at him.
"You can't get rid of me THAT easily," she stated calmly as her fingers gently intertwined with his. And as Bruce felt her caressing his hand and watched her gazing upon him with warm eyes and a tender smile, he couldn't help but offer up a slight smile of his own. A smile that seemed almost…thankful as he squeezed her hand slightly and the stars continued to glitter outside his window.