Disclaimer: I no owny, you no suey.
A/N: This isn't going to be long, and I'm afraid it might offend rather a lot of people. If you feel the need to rant and rave, then do so by all means, but don't get nasty. You'll see what I mean when you get further down this chapter.
Crisis of Faith
Chapter One - Lashes
Diana sighed. "Not yet. Still moving."
"How long is it now?" Wally asked, handing her a coffee.
"Thanks," she smiled, taking it. "And ten hours. I can't believe they haven't discovered the locator card yet. Surely it's standard practice for terrorists to remove it before they move an illegally obtained nuclear weapon."
Flash shrugged. "Maybe they're not well-educated terrorists."
Diana smiled, taking a sip of the scalding beverage in her hand. Normally she'd have an iced mocha, but somehow the chill of January had penetrated the artificially-maintained temperature of the Watchtower, so coffee it was. "Well, we're still crossing Syria at the moment. They've gone almost all the way around the world — I'm starting to wonder…" She cut herself off, shaking her head.
"Doesn't matter. It's best not to jinx it."
"You may as well say it," he grinned. "It's too late now anyway."
The princess sighed. "I'm starting to think that perhaps they have discovered the locator card, and someone's just taking it around the world, so we're on a wild goose chase."
"What, while the actual nuke is somewhere else?"
She nodded, returning her gaze to the screen. "It's a possibility."
"Yeah, but I mean…" Wally trailed off, his eyes widening behind his mask. "You don't think that's what they're actually doing, do you?"
It had been idle speculation before, but once verbalised it seemed an alarmingly real idea. "I don't know," she said honestly. "But I think we should wait before we jump to conclusions."
"You mean before we call Bats."
She wasn't laughing an hour later. The locator card was still moving, and she couldn't believe that, more than twenty-four hours after the original theft, the nuke hadn't reached its buyers yet. She sighed, bringing up another screen. On it was the shortlist of terrorist groups — one of them was responsible for the theft, and by now they were supposed to have narrowed that list down to one. They still had eight.
"We need to call Batman."
Wally nodded, leaning forward to press the sequence of keys that would access Batman's com-link. "Watchtower to Batman."
The answering voice was brusque, but after so many years that bothered neither of them. "Batman here. What is it?"
"We lost the nuke we were tracking."
Diana spoke. "The GPS locator card is being taken endlessly around the world; it makes sense that it's no longer connected to the device."
"Agreed. I'm busy, you'll have to deal with it."
She sighed. "You know that means a long-winded-"
Diana ground her teeth in annoyance; Flash only looked thoughtful. "Huh. Wonder what's wrong with him…"
"What makes you think there's anything wrong?"
Flash raised an eyebrow. "Well, he normally hangs up on me with that fast. But you, Di?" He grinned. "You get at least a minute more of Bat-time than the rest of us."
She rolled her eyes and gave him a very light shove. "Shut up, Wally. Now come on, we have to organise teams to do in-depth searches of these organisations on the shortlist."
Just doing that was going to take at least a day, she knew, and add to that the week or more it would take to actually search, it would be extremely risky, but they had no choice. Not unless Batman was prepared to help. At four a.m., her shift was over. Batman still wasn't answering his com-link, so she was going to go down to the Cave and demand he help. She didn't think he'd refuse to her face. At least not if she brought coffee.
Armed with two double espressos, she teleported down to the Batcave, hoping his patrol of Gotham had been smooth.
She was not prepared for the sight that greeted her. Bruce was alone in the Cave, facing away from her and sitting on a table in the medical area. He was wrapping thick white bandages around his torso, starting at his waist and working his way up. His muscled back was covered in bleeding lacerations.
Diana dropped the coffee. "Great Hera!"
Bruce's head flicked to the side as he spoke over his shoulder. His voice was tight with both pain and anger. "For God's sake don't just stand there," he growled.
She flew up to him rather than use the stairs, landing behind him and taking the roll of sterile white linen from him. "What in Tartarus happened?"
Diana stared at the expanse of his back before her — there were at least two dozen cuts here, one laid on top of the other. And they were all oozing blood. "This is nothing? Bruce. Tell me the truth."
He was silent. Diana pulled the bandages tighter slowly. Bruce made no sound at first, and she knew he wasn't breathing. Finally a gasp of pain was torn from his lips, and she stopped, immediately feeling guilty. Blood was already soaking through the white cloth.
"You won't believe me."
She raised her eyebrows, crossing to stand in front of him. Thankfully the rest of his body seemed to be cut-free. "I'm an immortal princess from an island of mythical warriors. Try me."
He sighed, then began speaking. Recognising her end of the deal, Diana went back to bandaging. "It's happened every night for the last week. I have no idea what's causing it; I'm being…"
"Whipped? Because that's what it looks like to me," she put in. "Bruce, this is…"
"Impossible?" he asked with a bitter laugh. "Tell me about it."
"Well, at least the bleeding's stopped," she said, tying a gentle knot.
She shook her head. "I don't understand. Is it one lash a day, or does this happen all at once every day?"
"All at once," he replied. "What time is it?"
"About four fifteen."
He nodded, meeting her eyes for the first time. She frowned further. He looked tired — he looked genuinely, world-wearily, bone tired. Like he had the weight of the world on his shoulders. "Well, you'll get to see in a few minutes, Princess."
"Bruce, your back is covered in wounds, how can your skin possibly take anymore?"
"Is it?" he asked. "Check."
Eyebrow raised, she peeled away the top of the bandages. To find that the cuts had gone. His skin was unblemished, except for a few scars that were not caused by lashing. "But that's- That's impossible!"
Bruce stood, moving over to the computer. "You wanted help finding the nuke?"
She blinked, startled. Right, she'd come down here for a reason. "Uh, yes. The locator card is still moving, but we think the nuke has reached its destination."
"And these are the groups you have under surveillance?"
She moved closer, standing beside him. "Yes. Personally I'm inclined to suspect the third one down — there's been almost a total lack of chatter according to the Liaison Officer; it dropped off about a month ago. And there's been no significant downturn or uptick with the others."
He nodded. "Good logic. And there's little expectation from an attack in that direction." He pulled up the file photo of the group's leader. He had fearfully intelligent eyes, and a cruel mouth. "He likes surprises — the bad kind."
"Alright," she nodded. "I'll inform the League."
"You should go home, Princess."
"And leave you alone?" she snorted. "I don't think so."
"Isn't here," she noted. "And I'll bet my favourite battle axe that you've told him not to bother waiting up for you."
A glare told her everything she needed to know.
She folded her arms. "I'm not leaving, Bruce, end of story."
His mouth tightened. "I don't need your help."
She cut off as Bruce lurched forward, a shocked cry of pain escaping him. Instinct made her move forward, hands reaching for him. She received another glare. With an effort of will, she stopped herself, clenching her fists. He didn't need sympathy; there was nothing she could do, no enemy she could defend him from. All she could do was wait until it was over, and tend to him then. She watched in horrified fascination. Bruce was leaning forward, bracing himself against the computer console. His hands were clenched, white knuckled, either side of the keyboard. He didn't make a sound.
There had been a little red on the bandages from before; now they were saturated in blood. Diana stared as one after another, thin red lines appeared, then spread. Soon she couldn't tell where the new wounds were opening; only that droplets of crimson were joining together and trickling down to stain his unmarked skin.
Finally, after six and half minutes — she'd counted — it stopped. Bruce barely looked as though he were capable of standing by himself. No longer caring what he might say, the princess moved forward and scooped him into her arms as gently as she could, flying back up to where the necessary medical equipment lay.
Bruce tried to speak, but she shook her head. "Hush. Let me tend to your wounds first."
Accepting the opportunity to gather his strength, Bruce nodded, his breathing still ragged. Diana worked quickly, wrapping fresh bandages around his torso. The bleeding slowed, but didn't stop, no matter how much pressure she applied.
"I can't stop the bleeding."
"You won't be able to," he told her. "It won't stop until this time tomorrow night. The bandages will need changing in a few hours."
"Alfred doesn't know, though, does he?" she asked shrewdly.
"No, and he doesn't have to."
"Bruce, he cares about you, you can't just leave him out of the loop like this-"
"This isn't normal, for Hera's sake! How are you coping by yourself?"
Huffing out a sigh, she shook her head. "You're being impossible."
The briefest ghost of a grin crossed his face. "What else is new?"
"Bruce-" Realising she was fighting a losing battle, Diana changed topic, on to the injuries again. She wrinkled her nose at the odd scent of it. "It- It doesn't- It doesn't smell like blood, even. Or it does, but-"
"But you don't dislike it?" he said. "It's pleasant, perfumed."
She nodded. "What is this, Bruce?"
"I have my suspicions. But until the second stage-"
"Second stage? How much worse is this going to get?" she demanded.
"I don't know yet." He stood, then disappeared into the changing area. She watched him go with mingled incredulousness and admiration. His spine was ramrod straight — there was no sign whatsoever of the pain he must be in. When he came back, he was in the full Batsuit, eyes narrowed against the world.
"Now come on. We have a nuke to find."
A/N: Review please!