"Where are your bracers?" I demand of Wonder Woman as I stare at her bare wrist.
"On one arm," she replies.
"Where's the other one?"
"What is the problem, Bruce?"
I stand up at once and glare at her. "Thanks to you, all of Gotham is going to be destroyed tonight." Without waiting for her, I head for the Cave through Alfred's entrance.
She's faster than I am. "What are you talking about?"
"You've left one of the most powerful weapons in existence unprotected and vulnerable somewhere. What made you think that that was a good idea?"
We've descended into the cave by this time. "It's not a weapon unless the wielder knows how to use it. I spent years training with that bracer before I could use it properly. And—"
I have no interest in hearing her defend herself. "Leif Thompson isn't going to use it as a bracer. He's going to use it as his afxitìs, because, like the Argonaut shields and ancient Greek vases that he has been stealing, your bracer is derived from Zeus's Aegis."
Diana stops in her tracks. "Why didn't you tell me about the Aegis and afxitìs?"
"Because when I came to warn you that night, you wouldn't listen. In fact, you've done the complete opposite and agreed to marry him. You've only known him for a month, Diana. What were you thinking?" I don't wait for a reply – I tear off my suit and start changing into my armor, but she grabs my arm and spins me around.
"Here's my bracer," she snarls, and strikes her right forearm. Underneath the bracer that snaps open is another one; she flings the first one at my chest and it hits me with more force than I'm comfortable with. "You only told me about his being a dragon – you said nothing about afxitìs or that it was Aegis!"
I'm relieved to see that her bracer isn't missing, but now it means that I don't know what afxitìs Leif is going to use tonight. "Why were you hiding it?"
"I was hiding it from Leif. I left a decoy bracer behind. I had my suspicions when he kept insisting that I take it off so that no other accessory distracted from my engagement ring."
"Don't send me an invitation to that wedding," I grumble.
"You can be sure of that," she snaps, "I only agreed to marry Leif because of your warning! If he's truly as dangerous as you say, I thought it would be wiser to keep him close by rather than at a distance in case he decided to do something drastic."
I'm not pleased with the waves of relief that wash over me when I hear her say this. In fact, the anger I felt towards her is now being diverted at myself. I questioned her loyalty. I forgot seven years of working side-by-side with her because I was angry that she might have moved on romantically.
But this isn't the time to dwell on it. "Did you know what he was going to do tonight?"
"…No," she admits. "But I don't think that he would have had the audacity to use his powers to destroy Gotham if I hadn't staged leaving a piece of pure Aegis behind."
And it was my fault for not telling her, as her look was trying to communicate. I turn away and finish changing. She rips off her dress and tosses it onto the pile of my discarded clothes, then stands with her arms crossed.
Wordlessly, I move to stand face-to-face with her so that there are only centimeters between us. I take her hand and gently pull it toward me so that I can fasten her bracer back onto her forearm. Then I reach behind her and grab a utility belt, which instead of clipping onto myself I secure around her waist. She appraises me in surprise.
"Since you're fighting in Gotham and your armor is a liability, you're going to need some extra weaponry," I explain, and I take her other hand. This is the only way I can ensure that she'll remember, because in my initial assessment of each Justice League member I learned that Wonder Woman was a kinetic-auditory learner. "Here's the acetylene torch." I guide her hand to the first pocket on the left and press it on there. "Here, the grappling hook," and I move her hand to the next compartment.
Her eyes don't break contact from mine, and she lets me guide her hand, pocket by pocket, across the width of her waist. Her breath becomes faster, and she swallows, but her gaze remains steady.
So, she hasn't forgotten about me.
When I'm done, I let my hand linger a split second longer on the last pocket. Before she can say anything, I pull away. "Let's go."
- - -
Finding Leif isn't difficult – the thermal readings on the Batwing monitor were off the charts. He is waiting on the roof of the Gotham Police Department, leaning on the Batsignal. When I drop from the plane, he straightens. "Ah, the Guardian of Gotham. I wanted to see you before I lay waste to this ulcer of a city. I—" He stops mid-sentence when Wonder Woman drops in after me.
"Diana?" he sputters, and his eyes dart to her arms. "You have your… But then what is this?" From underneath his trench coat, he pulls out the decoy bracer.
"Stand down, Leif," she orders, walking past me. "You have nothing to gain from going through with this."
"I was hoping that you wouldn't find out about this, Diana," he says. "I didn't want to keep such a dark secret from you, but I had no other choice. Lying to you was the only way I could keep you."
"I see. Well, if you surrender now, we can still consider some kind of relationship that won't involve me beating you into Hades." She says it with such calm entreaty that my mouth twitches.
"No! I may have lied to you about my true identity, Diana, but I never lied to you about how much I love you. I need you to look away and let me do this, because I can't start a new life with you until I purge myself of this old one."
"It sounds like you don't know me at all."
A look of disappointment crosses his eyes, but then he narrows them. "I'm sorry you feel that way, but neither you nor Batman is going to stop me from fulfilling my destiny." He tosses the imitation bracer aside. "Even if we weren't meant to be together, Diana, we were destined to meet each other."
Diana gets the same fleeting look of hidden pleasure and rage that she gets before every battle. And then she attacks.
I hang back long enough to contact Jason over the comm. link. "How do we stop him?" I demand. Leif is putting up a fight, even for Wonder Woman.
"With the Gorgoneion sword plunged under his jaw. I've just retrieved it; I'm on my way."
"Hurry," I bark, just as I dodge a volley of flames emitting from Leif's mouth. Diana launches herself towards him again. Instead of moving aside or protecting himself, Leif grabs hold of her by her wrists and forces them together.
The scream of abject pain that escapes from her drains all of the blood from my face. Her powers are gone, and Leif grasps each one of her bracers with his hands; a blood-red glow envelops him and he begins to transfigure into a dragon. He's using the Aegis without removing it from her body. Had she been Clark or anyone else, I would still have enough command over my senses to determine a logical plan of attack. But this is Diana suffering. I'm too consumed with emotion to think clearly. This makes her a liability.
Desperate, I try to free her from his grip with tools from my belt, but he roars out a shock of flames with so much momentum that it slams me into the Batsignal. Half of my armor is burnt away in the process.
I can sense my consciousness slipping. I'm dimly aware of the pain from the dozens of tiny shards of glass that are embedded in my body. I see disconnected images of the dragon growing rapidly in size as Diana struggles, trapped. It's not until Etrigan's face is inches from mine that I begin to remember where I am.
He slaps me across my face. "WAKE UP!" he bellows.
Diana. "She's hurt."
He scowls as he pulls me from the shattered Batsignal.
"The sword," I demand.
"Not you," he warns as he thrusts it into my hands, "The princess will have to do it." As I'm about to rush towards Diana, he stops me. "Allow me." His eyes glow. "Inferno!" he roars, and with this incantation begins to hurl fire at Leif.
It works; Leif the dragon, now towering at thirty feet, tosses Diana aside and focuses solely on Etrigan. They begin to battle, sheets of flames colliding in mid-air and vanishing into plumes of smoke and combustion. Beneath them, the building begins to crumble. I rush to Diana's side.
She is critically injured, but breathing; the burns and lacerations across her body are especially pronounced on her arms. Carefully, I try to lift her into a sitting position. She blinks slowly, and I see the familiar brilliance return to her eyes.
"When will you regain your powers?" I ask in what I hope is a tone that won't betray the fear I had a moment ago of losing her for good.
"I can sense them. They've returned." She shakes her head in an attempt to clear it. "How can we end this now?"
"The Gorgoneion sword." I hand it to her. As soon as she wraps her hands around its hilt she sits up straighter and smiles.
"Immediately behind his mandible?" she confirms.
She brandishes the sword in one hand and with her other one unclasps her lasso. "In case." She presses it onto my chest, and then leans in for a kiss so fleeting that I might have imagined it.
"Go," I tell her.
She nods and takes off into the air.
Etrigan is still holding his own against Leif, but I can see that he's slowing down; Leif is five times his size and perhaps even more powerful, although not as experienced. We communicate over the comm. link. "I have Wonder Woman's lasso. I'm going to try to bind Leif's jaws together so that she can get close enough to use the sword." I guess Diana's confidence is infectious.
"By all means," Etrigan sneers, "Go right ahead," but he moves aside at once when he sees Diana streak past him. I tie two large pieces of rubble to either end of the lasso to turn it into a long, unbreakable bola. Etrigan breaks into a grin at this.
Not too far away, Wonder Woman is having trouble getting close enough to Leif's muzzle to use the sword as he keeps her busy with a barrage of fire. For someone who was professing his undying love to her just half an hour ago, he seems pretty bent on killing her. I toss Etrigan one end of the rope; he throws it up, which gives me enough momentum to swing it around several times before I launch it into the air. I warn Diana over the comm. link to move aside; she dodges the flying lasso just in time.
It works. Leif's jaws are clamped shut, and no matter how much he struggles, he's unable to break the unbreakable lasso. Diana shoots forward again, but in attempt to loosen the bola Leif starts to shrink. But even he can't match her speed; she reaches into the utility belt around her waist and pulls out a handful of smoke pellets, which she hurls at his face.
The dragon is now blinded and suffocating, and with a warrior's cry Diana lunges forward and thrusts the sword into the vulnerable skin under his jaw. The dark red glow that preceded Leif's transformation once again fills the night sky – it encircles him and Wonder Woman and then concentrates into one orb that launches itself into her bracers.
The impact of the massive energy knocks her over and she comes hurtling downwards. "I'll take care of the dragon," Etrigan yells over Leif's embittered roaring, "You take the princess."
That's what I was going to do anyway. I'm not quick (or strong) enough to catch Diana in my arms; the roof crumbles even more where she lands, and I'm at her side at once. I know that she's a trained and highly skilled warrior, but still I can never bring myself to stop worrying about her.
I'm relieved to see that she's conscious; most of the blood that she's covered in isn't hers. I take her hand and say her name with more feeling that I would normally betray. I've consciously decided to abandon self-control for the moment. She just saved Gotham, after all.
She sits up gingerly with my help. "Is he gone?"
We both look at where Leif was standing just moments ago. All that's left of him is a fist-sized ruby resting on a pile of ashes. I'm considering whether I should take it to the Cave when Etrigan bounds over to the gem, inspects it, and then promptly eats it. "Rock of Knowledge," he explains when he sees us staring in amazement.
Diana and I exchange glances, but she looks away first. She sighs as she pulls off her engagement ring and rests it in the palm of her hand. "What's the protocol on returning rings when one of the partners is an evil, murderous dragon?" she inquires in mock concern.
"In Gotham engagement rings signify payment for the eventual fulfillment of a marriage contract. When the contract isn't fulfilled, the ring has to be returned to the giver," I return with equal seriousness.
"All right," she nods, and tosses the ring at Leif's ashes. Etrigan looks at this new addition as well, and after considering for a moment he slips it onto his own finger.
"Any objections if I pawn this off?" he demands gruffly.
"None at all," Diana replies.
He curls up the corners of his mouth in grotesque sign of appreciation and leaves.
I turn back to Diana. She prolonged a fraught relationship with a known murderer, risked her own life to fight him, and even removed one of her sacred bracers – and all of it for me. I don't think that I'm being presumptuous in assuming that she went out of her way for my sake. "Thank you…for everything."
"It was my duty."
It wasn't for me. She would do the same for any of her friends. But I want to confirm this, so I lean forward and kiss her. When she returns it with rivaling intensity, I have proof of the feelings she has just for me.
We kiss again, and again, until she pulls away. "This never ends well," she murmurs, and closes her eyes. I want to put my hand on her cheek, but I stop myself. The mood between us is rapidly fading as the sounds of the police sirens grow louder.
"I'll leave Gotham without letting this become difficult," she declares, "…as long as you promise not to destroy my next boyfriend." Despite her state, she grins.
"I'll give you one thing," I say as I help her up, "You really know how to pick 'em."
Diana's eyes are piercing. "I know," she agrees softly. Sadly. She turns and takes off into the air. I watch her fly into the distance until she's so small and out of focus that all I see is the Gotham skyline.
- - -
At the next Gotham party, Leif Thompson is the topic du jour and Veronica is the center of attention, a position in which she thrives. "I was engaged to him! For a whole year!" she cries to anyone who mentions the subject even in passing. She waves her hand excessively as she relates the story in order to show off another reason to gossip: an ostentatious bracelet from her new admirer, Jason Blood.
I find myself missing Diana. She was a calm voice of reason at these things, engaging and intelligent but never effusive. Compared to characters like Veronica or even Brucie, she never received any inordinate amount of attention.
I'm still thinking about her during patrol. If it wasn't for her, I wouldn't have a city to protect right now. I see flashes of her throughout the night: there's the glint of her bracers in Two-Face's coin, the dangerous blue of her eyes in the sapphires that the Penguin tries to abscond with, the gold of her lasso in the artificial teeth of the goon who just tried to take me out with a machete.
When Tim and I get home from patrol that night, he marches straight to bed, but I stay behind in the Cave and pull off my cowl. Alfred has left a plate of sandwiches and cold tea by the phone. I go straight for the tea, but my eyes keep returning to the phone.
Diana has never stopped me from doing what I need to do. When I let myself get distracted, it's because I'm busy feeling sorry for myself for not being able to have her. I've used Gotham as an excuse for my unhappiness. That's exactly what Leif did, but even he managed to have a romantic life, which didn't deter him from his mission in the end.
I sigh and pick up the receiver.
She answers. "Hello?"
"Hi, Wonder Woman? This is Bruce… Bruce Wayne. From Gotham."
"…Yes, Bruce, how are you?" She's taken aback.
"I'm doing great, thanks. Listen, I heard that things between you and Leif Thompson didn't take off. I was wondering if – when the whole media frenzy around him dies off – you'd like to have dinner with me? I know this great place in Gotham."
There's a silence. Maybe I was presumptuous to assume that she'd want anything to with me after all the times I've brushed her off.
But then – "That's very nice of you, Bruce, but I don't know. I don't have a very positive impression of romancing wealthy Gotham socialites. You're not hiding a secret identity, are you?" I can hear the smile in her voice.
"Oh, funny you should ask. I'm also the Batman."
"Thank you for your honesty. I suppose we'll just have to explore this. Call me in a month's time – the League's social secretary will set something up."
"Great! That's great. See you in a month." I realize with a start that I'm grinning. "Good night, Diana."
"Good night, Bruce."
AN: I know that I took plenty of liberties with Diana's bracers, but I did some research and it's not totally unheard of for her to take them off, and DCAU continuity is pretty spotty when it comes to Wonder Woman anyway.
Thank you to those who read this story and gave good (and honest) feedback! Loved it.