Title: Rain Before Midnight
Rating: Teen (battle violence and descriptions of injuries)
Summary: This time, Batman can't be saved. What will it take to make Clark understand?
Disclaimer: DC owns all. This piece of fiction was created purely for entertainment purposes, and I am making no profit from it, nor claim ownership.
A/N: I should warn that I have no practical knowledge of comic canon at all. The characterisations/events utilized here are almost without exception drawn from screen adaptations, (Superman Returns and Nolan-verse) as well as the Animated Series of Batman, Superman and the Justice League. Since writing this, vague background reading has made me aware that similar issues are probably addressed in recent comics (I think Hush for one?). If that's the case, I was unaware of the plot at the time of writing and am still pretty much clueless. I hope this can stand alone in it's own right.
A/N 2012: This story has recently been split into three parts and re-uploaded, at the suggestion of a very wise reviewer. Hope it hasn't caused confusion, but it was definately for the best.
Tis now the very witching time of night,
When churchyards yawn and hell itself breathes out
Contagion to this world: now could I drink hot blood.
And do such bitter business as the day
Would quake to look on.
He finally saw it.
It was two weeks after Killer Croc had escaped from Arkham in his most recent bid to rule the Gotham criminal underworld. True, an escaped Killer Croc, especially one doped up Arkham's finest antipsychotic drugs, wasn't exactly a Joker-level emergency, but Batman wouldn't be Batman if Arkham escapees were treated with anything less than single-minded obsession until they were caught. However, events outside Batman's control – namely an extremist terrorist cell launching biochemical attacks on Berlin, an uprising on Phygar 8 and no less than three attempts by a jaded ex-government physicist to upset the balance of space- time by opening cross-dimensional portals into bank vaults – forced him to devote less than his complete attention to Killer Croc's antics.
What that all amounted to was that by the time he returned to the cave to review the records of Croc's actions over the past fortnight, he was already angry, exhausted, and nursing a cracked rib and bruising from where Hawkgirl had less than helpfully clipped him with her mace three days ago. It was an accident. Big deal, it still hurt. He'd been keeping up to date with Croc's movements as best as he could via Oracle while he was away but it was only when he pulled the files up side by side on the screen did he see the pattern. It shouldn't have taken that long. Croc had long ago proved to be so dense that light had to bend around him. There was no way he should be intellectually competent enough to have infiltrated five different organised crime groups in two weeks. There was no way he should be running rings round Batman. Bruce rubbed his face, and then he saw it.
He finally saw it. Croc had interacted with five different crime groups in the last two weeks, from small timers to big action players. He been involved in general thuggery at a scrap between two illegal chemical smuggling groups, joined in gangs involved in human trafficking and worked with the go between for a dealer in stolen electronics. It all seemed too random, and that was the pattern. It was too random. Croc wasn't really trying to build up a position in the underworld, not with his loyalties flitting from group to group like that. It was a trap to draw him, Batman, out into the light. Croc was trying to be caught. Interesting. There was only one way to find out what the plan was, of course.
Batman went out to catch him.
A relentless voice, calling a name. His name?
"Wake up, sir. Please, wake up."
Then a sudden odd sensation, an abrupt cessation of feeling he hadn't even been aware of all over his body and everything around went very quiet and still.
"Master Bruce, wake up!"
He kept his eyes shut. If he said nothing, Alfred might leave. Alfred knew not to touch Bruce if he was partially unconscious and might be unable to tell friend from enemy. And that meant he had to recognise Alfred by name first; it was one of Bruce's first rules. It didn't do to startle someone with Batman's reflexes. But this time, Bruce had no intention of responding.
"Master Bruce, can you hear me? Wake up!"
Then again, if he continued to ignore him, Alfred might call Dick or Clark. That would be unfortunate.
"Alfred?" he mumbled.
"Yes, sir. That's right, you're safe now."
The relief flowing off the butler as he moved closer was almost tangible. Bruce felt a warm hand on the icy cold skin of his bare shoulder, and opened his eyes to the dull metal of the cave's industrial decontamination washroom. Like so much of Bruce's life, function of design had long since anaesthetised aesthetics. His eye was drawn to the plug hole where the last of the water from the shower Alfred had turned off was flowing away. A trickle of blood running from his body met the water, and the red was transformed into a transient swirl of dull gold that gently spiralled towards the drain. It was oddly beautiful.
"Come on, Master Bruce. We need to get you warm and patched up."
He heard the odd echoes of Alfred's voice when the other man spoke, and something cold dripped against the back of Bruce's neck. The plumbing in the Batcave wasn't perfect, but it normally functioned within acceptable levels. If the water in the shower had run cold, he must have been sitting here for an hour at least.
Alfred was crouched beside him now and was trying to get him to stand with hands under his arms. Bruce did his best, trying to push himself onto deadened legs and balance with clumsy, numb hands.
"That's it, sir." Alfred encouraged at his unsteady efforts, and between the pair of them managed to drag him, stumbling, from the shower cubicle. There was a sharp burn of hot pain from his malformed shoulder as he tried to balance. The three deep slashes across his stomach just felt numb.
Everything blurred a little then and suddenly he found himself sitting at the edge the low pallet in the med bay, wrapped in a warm terry cloth robe and a blanket while Alfred dried his hands and arms.
"I was reading when I heard the cave alert go off to indicate you'd returned, sir, but when you didn't call up to say you needed anything I assumed you were just working late. I'm ashamed to say I dozed off and it was only when I just awoke and realised you hadn't come up to the house yet that I thought something might be wrong."
He didn't comment, head spinning, and then Alfred was trying to get him to lie down.
"Those cuts are bleeding again, sir. You've only the cold to thank that you haven't lost more blood already. You need to lie back and let me put some stitches...Master Bruce?" He hesitated as Bruce tensed.
No, Bruce wanted to say. Don't touch me. He should push Alfred away, make him leave, make him get out while he still could. But his voice wouldn't work and all he managed was a slight wobble of his head. Alfred mistakenly took it as an affirmative, and Bruce watched the shadowy ceiling spin gently overhead as the wound on his stomach burned first with alcohol and then with the gentle tugging of Alfred's stitching. He submitted to Alfred's tender mercies and felt like a traitor doing so. His night's work was not yet done, and he had little time. He would allow Alfred's treatment up to the point where he could function again, and no further. There would be time for rest afterwards.
Bruce only realised he'd passed out again when a bright light flickered across his retinas, and he heard Alfred's distant voice, like an underwater echo.
Bruce blinked the after images of the penlight out of his eyes and the med bay swung back into view. Alfred's forehead was creased with worry.
"How hard did you hit your head, sir? You've got quite a goose egg above your ear but your pupils seem equally responsive..."
"Leave it." Bruce snapped, brushing his hand away. He noticed the fresh dressing across his abdomen and an ice-pack taped to his swollen right shoulder. Alfred was finished. Bruce climbed to his feet and managed two steps towards the cave before the world suddenly faded to grey and he was hanging all his weight off Alfred's arm. The elderly butler just managed to haul him back onto the bed, and he slumped there.
"Try not to move, sir. Is it concussion?"
Bruce shook his dizzy head, and mumbled. "Need a blood test."
Alfred paused. "Poison again?"
"It's a modified fear toxin. Took me twelve minutes to administer the antidote, but it's not breaking down well. I need to know how much is in my system -"
Bruce stopped suddenly and laughed; a horrible, empty sound. "Actually, it doesn't matter. Forget it."
Alfred looked even more bewildered. "Sir?"
"Leave me alone!" Bruce snapped, twisting away around his aching wound.
Alfred frowned. "Master Wayne, you need to rest. You've lost a lot of blood –"
"I'm staying here. I have things to do."
"Sir, you have to sleep off the effects of the toxin and blood loss, and you need to do so now. You've already passed out three times! It's a wonder you got home at all."
"If I have to sleep, I'll sleep down here. Go away, Alfred!"
Bruce was suddenly tired, and so hollow he could barely bring himself to care anymore. Couldn't Alfred see?
"Please," he conceded quietly, looking up. "I just want to stay down here tonight. Please go away."
Alfred was silent for about six seconds and then said; "Something bad happened out there, didn't it?"
It wasn't a question. Bruce just lay down and closed his eyes. He felt a blanket settle on top of him.
"Very well," said Alfred, quietly. "I'll come and check on you in a few hours. Sweet dreams, sir."
There was silence.
If he hadn't been wearing armour, the swipe of Croc's new reinforced metallic claws across his belly would have ripped his insides out onto the dark concrete. As it was, Killer Croc's attack still sliced straight through the joints between the Kevlar plating and through several layers of skin beneath. Batman felt the burn of the cut instantly transform into a cold wash of shocky pain. He could already feel the slickness of hot blood starting to well up under the suit. He didn't think it was life threatening, but debilitating? Certainly. And he was already losing this fight. Croc swiped again, snarling with delight at the coppery tang of Batman's blood in the air. Batman leapt back to avoid the claws and turned the stumble into a roll that took him out on to a ledge above the black river.
Croc lunged again, but the grapple gun was ready and he fired high over Croc's shoulder, the retract whisking him out of the range of the jaws. He swung onto the roof smoothly, though his torn abdominal muscles tensed a little with agony at the landing. He quickly stowed the grapple gun, crouching low. There was a scrape of metal on brick below as the creature clawed its way up after him, he also heard shouting below, and feet on stairs. Other thugs would be here soon. Batman stood to move back from the edge, to find the most defendable position but a sudden wave of light-headedness assaulted him. He staggered a little as the street lights below seemed to flare with a painful brightness, and the rooftop shadows swirled around his legs. The shouts in the stairwell became whispered taunts on the wind, ghosts and demons crawling into his head, making him angry, driving him mad.
Exactly two hours and three minutes after Alfred had left him, Bruce woke up. Pain was pounding through his skull and sending shooting tendrils down his neck and shoulder. He ignored it, peeled the warm ice pack off and sat up. He felt the stitches under the bandage on his stomach pull painfully; he ignored it, and stood. His vision swam a little and nausea rolled in his stomach. He ignored it.
There was work to be done.
Barbara Gordon stared at her computer in astonishment and building horror. Four hours earlier, at 0515, while she had been peacefully sleeping, a remote server had entered a command code into her system, which had instantly bypassed her firewall and nullified every encrypted security defence. At 0517, an upload instruction had been initiated from the same remote station, and now a little electronic bombshell, in the form of sixty-four terabytes of compressed data was sitting on her hard drive.
She didn't touch it for the moment. First, she rechecked every firewall and ran a full system diagnosis. There were no flaws. It was as sabotage-proof as it had always been. As she already knew, there was no way to override the firewall from the outside. Secondly, any hacker, no matter how skilled, left evidence of their activities in a system as sophisticated as hers, and there was nothing. Not even a ghost of a digital fingerprint. Nothing had been downloaded or stolen from her own system either. She checked every contact and every informant, even the Pentagon defence network, for similar recent activity on such a scale. There was nothing. It was like someone breaking into Fort Knox just to leave a bunch of flowers and complementary fruit basket.
Only then did Barbara trace the origin of the remote instruction and the code that had started the upload. But of course. The hacker hadn't gotten around the firewall at all. They just remotely activated a pre-existing protocol hidden deep into the basic operating code of the system, a code planted long before Barbara had been given the equipment by-
She opened the data file.
Blue prints. Journals. Records. Crime stats and design specs and lists of names, addresses, aliases and informants. CCTV footage, contingency plans, financial accounts, computer viruses, psychoanalytical and pharmacopeia articles, databases of fingerprints, ballistics and gang tattoos. Thousands of experiments with nonivamide, Kevlar, pancuronium, compressed gases, kryptonite, C4. Files on the Justice League, magic, Lex Luthor, Judo, bent cops, gun running, Cadmus, hypnotism, structural engineering. Files on Barbara Gordon. Files on Bruce Wayne.
With a trembling hand, she picked up the phone.
A scream of sheering metal, and the rusted fire-escape below tore from the wall and fell away, but not before Croc's super- strengthened claws punched into the brickwork and the beast hauled himself over the roof edge. Batman clenched his teeth. Why couldn't Croc just stay down? What was the point of all this pain and blood? It was infuriating, maddening...he shook his head, trying to drive away the dizziness and nausea, noting sudden tachycardia and a rise in body temperature. The shadows loomed around him and they were waiting for him the dark... Something was wrong. This reaction was more than just blood loss.
He clawed back his control, trying to slow his breathing, balance himself as well as he could for Killer Croc's attack. The huge reptilian man leapt at him, bellowing, but Batman dodged sideways, slinging his last reinforced batarang at Croc's back. The blade wedged in between two shoulder scales and triggered the electric shock circuitry. Croc contorted with another roar as electro-convulsive sparks flared across his body. Batman ducked to avoid the flailing arms, pulling out a bolas and used all his strength to launch himself onto Crocs back, wrapping the wire around his body. With a sharp tug, they both went over backwards and Batman rolled aside in the last second. Croc hit the roof, hard and Batman was on him, blows from his brass-knuckles connecting with his enemy's ribs and face, heedless of Crocs jaws snapping at him.
Flash was multi-tasking; Watchtower monitor duty and researching Central City gangsters at the same time. It was a good job he could type with both hands at super fast speed. There was some serious catching up to be done over the last couple of weeks of craziness and he didn't want to lose track of what was going on in his own town just because he'd drawn the short straw of monitor duty. He sighed a little but there was no-one around to hear. It was only he and J'onn in the Watchtower anyway right now, and they were somewhat under-handed. Batman had taken off back to Gotham the moment they landed back on Earth a few days ago and Wally doubted they'd see him in the near future, not in the temper he'd been in. Superman had also left shortly after to see what had managed to go wrong in Metropolis in his absence, and John Steward was still on Phygar 8 representing the Green Lantern Corp in the planet's political restructuring. With him and J'onn manning the tower, that left Diana and Hawkgirl to do everything else on the planet. Right now they were rescuing refugees and delivering aid packages to flood victims in Bangladesh.
Something caught Wally's eye in the police report he was reading about a raided meeting between two crime kingpins in Central City last week. Anton Svobodnik was an old player in Central City, but his new business partner... Flash frowned; he recognised that name, Killian "Killer" Connolly, as well, but he was sure he'd never crossed paths with him in Central City before. Had he seen the name in one of the Gotham files?
Glancing at the main news monitors for a moment, Wally quickly minimised the file and went back to the main menu.
There was the main page with a file icon for each Justice League member. Superman, the Martian Manhunter, the Flash, the Green Lantern, Hawkgirl, Wonder Woman...
Six icons. Six.
He clicked back into the main directory and found the records for joint Justice League missions. There, the first file.
"The Justice League was officially formed on May 15th, the day after the first White Martian invasion was repulsed. The League served as a joint venture by several of Earth's greatest superheroes, to provide a strong, diverse, multi-skilled team to combat both internal and external global threats and protect and defend the innocent across the world. Although the members were chosen and telepathically summoned by J'onn J'onzz, the idea for a permanent league of superheroes has been credited to Superman and all six founding members have played an equal role in the League's creation and subsequent successes...
Flash stared. He clicked on the next file. And the one after. Moved on two years, clicked on another. Soon he was flicking through pages as fast as the computer could handle, reliving each adventure, each near miss, each loss, each triumph.
There was no denying it. Batman was gone.
Well, gone was the wrong word. The records of his exploits in Gotham were still complete, but every suggestion that he had ever been associated with the Justice League had vanished. Someone or something had simultaneously been through and deleted every mention of the Dark Knight from the Justice League's mission logs. Wally pulled up a file from a mission two months ago where he, Batman, Wondy and Lantern had been chasing down some Secret Society members hiding out in Shanghai. The robbery-turned-fight had led into the Shanghai World Financial Centre and Gorilla Grodd had dragged a hostage up into the tower in some blatant and extremely unamusing movie parody. Wally had followed, of course, and the beast had taken an unprecedented chance while he was distracted by the screaming woman to drop kick him off the side of the building. He'd been pretty sure Wonder Woman was on the other side of the city fighting Dr Psycho, and the Green Lantern and the Calculator were slogging it out way above their heads. He'd fallen only about ten floors when he had been forced to conclude his number was well and truly up, when Batman had appeared from nowhere and snatched him to safety. He later worked out the man had thrown himself off the tower after the falling Flash, risking both their lives in the hope that fate would find somewhere for his grapple line to fix on smooth vertical glass and steel. There was no way Batman could have known about the open window that eventually saved them.
Wally looked at the report. Gorilla Grodd's attempts to kill the Flash were apparently thwarted by Green Lantern who flew the Flash to safety.
Bull. What the hell was going on? Who would do this, and why?
Just then, an incoming message flickered onto a small screen off to one side. He nearly didn't notice it. With growing trepidation, Flash opened the communication, and suddenly he had his answer.
Then he ran to find J'onn, as fast as he could.
Continued in Part two.