The Watchtower was quiet. Eerie quiet. Batman's footsteps echoed ominously throughout the halls as he made his way toward the meeting. There was heaviness to his posture, his shoulders rigid and his footsteps both harsh and purposeful— he might have been bearing the world on his shoulders. He opened the door to the meeting, and was greeted by the silent faces of the League.
Batman stood still at the door way, looking at the aftermath of his choice: Flash was nursing a bandaged forearm and wrist, where an explosive had been bolted onto; John sat quietly, rubbing his Green Lantern ring while his eyes were closed—his mind, undoubtedly, still fighting off the lingering effects of Jonathan Crane's fear toxin; J'onn, the Martian, sat stone-faced and rubbed his hands together methodically, his green-hued skin showing the faintest signs of charcoal black from the flames that engulfed him a few days prior.
Superman, however, didn't have so much as a scratch, despite the fact that he recently escaped certain death by way of a kryptonite bullet that had been fatally lodged into his chest—it must be nice to possess a handy healing factor.
Batman looked at the final person, the person that held his gaze the longest. Like Superman, she looked completely unscathed. She was sitting down, gently twirling a small strand of her lengthy and vibrant black hair, her eyes intently focused on the table in front of her. She didn't show the slightest reaction to Batman's entrance, and proved even more oblivious to his lingering stare—her eyes remained firmly on the table. After what seemed an eternity, Batman tore his eyes away, walking toward his seat while his logical-driven mind went to war with his emotional-driven subconscious.
His actions were perfectly valid, surely they realized that? It wasn't his intention to hurt them; he didn't go out of his way to purposely harm them. He just wanted to be sure. He always had to be sure. Nothing left to chance. Nothing left to trust. Nothing left to hope. That was his mantra, his modus operandi (as his father used to say). On countless missions and operations, whenever he would do something unorthodox or "not according to protocol", he'd be forgiven, regardless of how serious an infringement or breach.
This time, however, Batman knew he had gone too far—in their eyes, that is—he crossed a moral boundary in which they couldn't cast aside.
But, unsurprisingly, he didn't care.
That's who he was; the outcast and the freak; the one who could make the hard choices; the one who flitted along the shades of grey; the one who didn't get to come home to a wife and kids; the one who didn't get to call in sick; the one whose head was damn heavy from wearing the crown of Gotham's Protector.
He sat down into his seat—slightly distanced from everyone else—making no motion to greet or even acknowledge anyone else around him. He sat down in his chair, his fingers in a steeple. He waited.
Clearing his voice, Superman stood up and addressed the table.
"Now that all members are here, it is time to go over the events that have transpired. Following our recent attack by Vandal and company, we, fortunately, emerged victorious. And yet..." he looked around uneasily, glancing quickly at everyone's faces.
"and yet we suffered...unprecedented damages. We gained clear insight onto how delicate our organization is when precarious information falls into the wrong hands."
The members all glanced darkly upon one another, unprecedented was an underestimate. Never before had they been so close to death—so broken and defeated as their enemies showed new appetites for cruelty and savagery, exposing their weaknesses to the pitiless extent...
Batman, however, sat indifferent to silent exchanges around him, his gaze unsettlingly rigid on Superman.
"In light of the recent events," continued Superman. "I believe it is imperative that we review the evidence on how this information was obtained, what party obtained in, for what purpose, and, finally..." Superman's gaze briefly flickered over Batman, "...how it came into the possession our enemies."
He never said "Batman", but he never had to—everyone present at that table knew who it was who had kept logs on their abilities and weaknesses; who kept to himself and trusted no one; who designed extremely effective (and secretive) incapacitating contingencies. Not for personal benefit, he assured them after Vandal attacked, but it was just in case something happened...just in case...
Batman's stoic demeanor reached historic levels; remaining completely still despite the less-than-obvious silent acknowledgments around him. The members all quietly listened and watched as evidence was brought forward. They traced the information backwards, from one villain to another, finally culminating in the database christened "The Batcomputer", at which everyone, as if they had just finally solved the long and complex mystery, as if they had finally gained permission, turned and stared directly at Batman.
He never even blinked.
The members looked at him with anger and uproar, the revelation of the "Batcomputer" seemingly giving them the needed confidence; they scowled at him, sneered at him, and shook their heads at him. They were all perfectly justified in doing so, of course—not even for a second, did Batman believe he was morally justified.
This was an outcome he long ago accepted as a possibility when he developed his contingencies. Of course, he never did expect it to become a reality.
He knew his "betrayal" would sting, and he expected equal retribution.
But, in the midst of all the passionate emotions, there was something else mingled in the stares of hate and anger... something that would have gone unnoticed to anyone...anyone except a person with the extraordinary (and bleak) experiences of Bruce Wayne.
Oh yes, Batman was well-versed in this particular emotion. After all, it was he who had fallen into an endless black void of that well, helpless and alone; he, who had lost his parents to the very people they were trying to help; he, who had traveled the world, searching desperately to understand the criminal mind; he, who had spent a decade under the cruel tutelage of Ra's Al-Ghul and The League of Shadows; he, who returned to a filthy cesspool of crime and corruption; he, who spent his nights living among the dead and mutilated victims of Gotham's underworld; he, who would wake up from restless sleep, drenched in sweat, revisiting that night all those years ago.
He knew why they were fearful of him—they weren't paralyzed by that fear, oh no, they could easily kill him if they took the time to plot it out—Batman wasn't a fool; yes, he was trained in extremely deadly arts; yes, he was blessed with genius level intellect; yes, he was capable of feats that would catapult him into the top tiers of human achievement...
But he was mortal, and they were gods.
Well most of them were. Lantern and Flash were humans, but even they, if they put their utmost effort into it...
Yet, they were fearful of him because, despite his knack for contingencies for everything, he never even showed the slightest signs of deceit or abnormality; no awkward conversations, no guilty looks, no suspicious activity...nothing. After all, he had learned from the best. Ra's Al Ghul, the master of stealth and deceit.
Guilt, sadness, love, hate...no emotion ever passed the Cowl, even if he might have been strangled by it.
"Batman" said Flash, breaking through the silence. "I understand why you might have felt this was necessary, but...We're your friends—aren't we? I thought we could all trust each other..."
"Agreed" said John. "I thought we could talk about these things. I see us as family, one that's been through hell and back—we could have worked an arrangement out."
"I would have readily told you about ways to stop me Batman" John stated matter-of-factually. "Although your inevitable research on Martians would lead you to the same conclusion."
"We ARE a family" said Superman, frustration now seeping into his voice, "Family doesn't do this Batman, we all would have told you about our weaknesses and abilities—together we could have designed contingencies on how to stop us, because we trust each other. I trust Flash not to rob a bank, I trust John NOT to kill people, I trust J'onn NOT to invade my mind, I trust Diana NOT to bind me in her Lasso, I trusted YOU not to stab us in the back!"
Batman said nothing, Ra's brutal methods for masking emotions worked too well. He was considering a pointed and succinct reply when Diana spoke up.
"How could you do this to us?" she whispered. "We thought...I thought...that you were our friend...my friend."
Batman almost winced as a sharp pang of guilt seared through him, like an icy cold blade jutting deep into his ribs. The pain never reached his face, but it was surely there, it hurt...more than he cared to admit... he couldn't lie to himself, there had been times when the two of them bonded close...closer than anyone he let in before...
"Do you have anything to say Batman?" Superman stated, bringing him out of his thoughts. "In your defense?"
Batman didn't reply. He merely sat still, his gaze locked. Diana spoke again.
"We're going to vote Batman, please...say something" she pleaded softly.
Her words seemed to work. Batman spoke up, his head bowed as if delivering a eulogy.
"I...I'm not ashamed of what I did" he began slowly. "The power in this room is incredible. Should we lose respect for that power or lose our principles—we're only a hairline away from becoming what we fight against. We are all the heroes of our own crusades; the villains we fight truly believe that they are doing the right thing. Should any of you fall into that void, who would stop you? The better question is—who could stop you?"
Nobody answered; they all stared at him, repugnant at what he was suggesting.
Batman went over what the rest of what he had planned to say to them—he'd be kicked out, of course. They couldn't keep a member who operated like he did, they would clash and fight like a lone wolf amongst the pack.
He looked at his fellow members faces, and, just as he expected, he saw flashes of betrayal, disappointment, and anger. At Diana's face, however, he saw something else—the anger, disappointment and betrayal were there, no doubt—but underneath the rage, there was a glint of sorrow in her eyes, disappointment.
Batman insides squirmed with guilt, he had seen that same look only once before. It was on Alfred's face the night Bruce told him he didn't care about his name...about being a Wayne.
"How could you not trust us Batman?" said Diana, bringing him out of the memory, a faint tone of hurt in her voice. "How could you ever think that we would—that we even could—do the things that you're suggesting? That I would change my ways? How could you not trust us? We're your friend...I'm your friend."
The other members winced at this, Superman looked away, John continued to play with his ring, J'onn closed his eyes, and Flash looked down at the table, hanging his head.
They all had long suspected something between the two, and the hurt in Diana's voice proved it.
"You're not my friend" snarled Batman.
All the color drained from Diana's face.
"I don't trust anyone...I can't trust anyone." Batman growled, now rising from the table. "I can't sacrifice my principles, not for you or anyone in this room—no one!"
More shocked faces. The rest of the League didn't even try to hide their concern, they all turned to Diana, who looked like as if she might have been stabbed.
"I don't have the luxury of friends. I did what I had to because it was necessary. Had I come to you and devised those contingencies with your collaboration, they would be useless as you would expect them. I had to make sure you had no idea—that they would be effective!"
"We never went behind your back!" fumed John, abandoning amiability. "Never betrayed your trust!"
"Then you're a fool." Batman said coldly. "Fools who only see the good in people."
The sound of metal grating against metal screeched throughout the room as Superman leapt to his feet, throwing his chair behind him without concern. "Fools are we!?" he demanded, his face livid. "Fools that could break your neck with as much effort as blinking? Fools that could decimate your entire city at will? Fools that could—"
"My point, exactly." Batman said testily, his own anger rising. "You've just said it yourself—what is stopping you from decimating cities at will? From realizing just how easy it would be for you to murder and steal?"
Diana stared at him, her eyes wide and horrified. "How could you even suggest that we would...?"
"Because it's so easy, dammit!" Batman shouted. "It's so damn easy to just give in! You—all of you!—don't know the half of it! You've never had to get your hands dirty—you don't know what it's like out there! It's not about who is right and who's wrong—!"
"Batman" said Superman irritably. "We never said that it wasn't easy—"
"BECAUSE YOU DON'T KNOW!" roared Batman, abandoning all restraint. "IT'S NOT THAT SIMPLE!"
They all jumped instinctively—John's ring began to exude a bursting green light.
"John" said Diana warningly, "Don't."
"Sorry," he said, never taking his eyes off Batman. "It reacts like that whenever it senses a hostile situation."
"Oh, what would give it that impression?" Flash muttered, eyeing Superman and Batman nervously.
"My planet was destroyed Batman...my people were destroyed!" Superman said firmly. "I'm an alien, for crying out loud! Don't you think that would have been enough to send me over the edge? To decide that Earth was a planet right for my taking?"
"You lost your home with the explosion of your planet and people, Superman" said Batman without compassion. "Earth was the one place that you felt somewhat accepted—you wouldn't have jeopardized that in any way. That doesn't mean you won't turn, the easiest way to someone is through their emotions—matter-of-fact, your prolonged life-span would assure that; you'd go insane over the years, watching all of your mortal friends perish and die, while you stay young."
"Really!?" Diana hissed, glowering at him from across the table. "I have lived for hundreds of years already—and you do not see me ready to—!"
"Because you have not experienced the emotional turmoil that I speak of—such as the death of a loved one" Batman said coolly.
"I haven't seen the death of a loved one..." breathed Diana, rising up from the table, looking thunderous. "How could you—how dare you say that to me!"
Except for Batman, whose posture never wavered, everyone around the table flinched at her shriek.
"I have seen the deaths of thousands of warriors in Battle!" she said powerfully, "I have cradled the dead bodies of sisters— woman I've known since birth in my arms. I've looked into the eyes of dying warriors and watched the light die out! I've seen the horrors of war, Batman—unrestrained and horrible war! I've heard the cries and the screams, I've seen it all...so don't you go accusing me of ignorance!"
"You did not love the women that you've seen die, Diana." snapped Batman.
Diana's face contorted with rage, "You have no idea of the things you speak—"
"You respected them" he said brusquely, continuing as if he hadn't heard her. "You respected them as warriors, as equals. You, however, did not love them; the emotion of love is not something that an immortal Amazon princess, who comes from an isolated island that has banned men from entering, would know about—Have you ever been in love?" he asked bluntly.
"I—I..." sputtered Diana, thrown off-guard at his argument. "..I...of course I have..."
"The answer is no." he said flatly. "You know nothing about caring and the feeling of loss that comes with it."
Diana scoffed, "My mother—!"
"—Is the immortal Queen." Batman finished primly, "And as a result, she does not fight—not out of cowardice!" he added quickly at the look of murderous rage on Diana's face. "She does not fight because she's the Queen, thus, no harm has come to her, and there lies my point!"
"What I speak of is alien to your people, and as a result, you've never felt the pang or the torment...It is something that can only be felt during a specific time between a husband and wife, mother and her child—between a father and his children."
For a fleeting moment, Batman felt a rising surge of anger toward her, jealousy—and then it was gone, replaced by his familiar neutral mask.
"And what time is that?" Diana asked skeptically.
"Death" Batman said simply "The death of someone you truly care about. Under the right circumstance, it is enough to turn you around—enough to turn anyone around."
"And you would know?" Diana asked, sounding highly curious now.
"That" Batman said shortly, "Is none of your concern."
"Right" she said, "So you're just going to blindly accuse us of our eventual moral downfalls without any actual evidence—you do know what evidence is, don't you? It's the stuff you use to prove your point."
"I don't need to prove anything" he snapped, "Especially not to you—a woman who is so thick and stupid she can't even understand a basic human emotion!"
"I can't understand a basic human emotion!?!" Diana said indignantly, shooting up from her seat. " I suggest you analyze yourself before you go accusing me of emotional ignorance. You stand there, accusing all of us of crimes that you say are inevitable—I left my home—I left my people—my family— so I could do some good, so I can fight for the things worth fighting for! What have you done!?"
Diana's chest was heaving, her hair wild, and she was glaring straight at Batman—who wasn't giving her any ground, he was giving her the harshest glare he could muster.
Everyone else, John, Superman, Flash and J'onn, were all looking at one another out of the corner of their eyes, purposely keeping quiet as to avoid getting mixed into the cross fire of the scorching gazes between Batman and Diana.
"I suppose you think that gives you special-privileges," Batman said venomously. "Perhaps you believe that the world will refrain bringing you any harm or unhappiness: 'Oh no, the princess has already undergone far too much misery, after all, she left a world of immortals where people cannot age and suffer, where she never experienced hunger or despair. She left that cruel paradise of happiness and wealth and came to fight evil in Man's world—we cannot possibly allow anymore harm to come to such a selfless and troubled individual.'"
"And of you!" she spat. "A man who flits in and out of the shadows, who is too stupid to accept help and whose arrogance is so unrivaled that he assumes nobody else could possibly be up to the insurmountable task of looking after one city!"
"You all would be flailed alive if you even spent one minute in Gotham—!"
"Oh yes!" she laughed, "It completely slipped my mind that our combined abilities of flight, strength, and speed would be completely useless in Gotham's criminal underworld!" She turned to face the rest of the table, "I'm sorry, Superman, Flash, Lantern, and J'onn!" she said shouted sadly, her voice dripping in sarcasm "It looks like we aren't up to the task of handling one mortal city! What, with all those guns and knives!? What could we do!? How could we ever fathom to do what The Dark Knight does on a regular—!"
Batman slammed his fists viciously on the table.
"YOU'RE NOT UP TO THE TASK!" he roared, "NONE OF YOU ARE! It's not about catching the bad guy and shipping him off to jail! You've never had to examine the corpse of a woman raped to death—never had to piece together a butchered body—never had to watch scum and trash play the legal system and watch them walk away innocent—never had to tell a child that mom and dad weren't coming home today!"
"And you have!?" she shrieked, her voice painfully shrill, "You—someone with the emotional capacity of teaspoon—have knelt down and told a child gently and soothingly that their parents are dead!? Oh yes I can see it now! 'Sorry kid. Your parents are dead. Cheer Up.'"
"You wouldn't—you have no idea what—"
"Because that's why you do it, isn't it!? You can't be happy—you haven't got anyone: no friends, no family, nothing! Your own parents must be sick of you! That's why you never let us into Gotham; you don't want to be smuggled out of all the precious opportunities to bring despair into people's lives!"
"I—I—" Batman sputtered, the memories of that night resurfacing and suffocating:...the gun...the screams...the blood-stained pearls...
"Oh, did I hit a nerve!?" she shouted, sounding close to tears. "It's nice to know that you can actually feel something! Maybe now you can understand how much it stings when somebody you care about hurts you!"
Diana let out a restrained sob and began quietly crying in front of him..
Batman opened his mouth to speak and then closed it—for the first time, in quite a long time; he was at a complete loss for words. He stood there, feeling very much out-of-place. Slowly he turned and walked away—leaving a very silent and awkward exchange behind him: Flash, Superman, Lantern, and J'onn all hastily (and quietly) trying to decide on the next course of action. All of them determinedly avoiding the gaze of a particular member.
His boots echoed again against the floor, thud thud thud...
He stopped again under the doorway, waiting there quietly with his back turned to them.
After a moment, he spoke quietly, his voice carrying by the sheer silence in the room. "I wish none of you were hurt, I didn't want it. But if I had to decide again; I would not hesitate. You are all blessed with extraordinary powers—powers that I couldn't let that go unchecked."
He turned around, his eyes determinedly avoiding Diana—in his peripherals, she appeared as a blur.
"You think I'm weak, that my mistrust of everyone is a sign of foolishness and idiocy, but you're wrong. I can't just take your word for it—as easy and as much as I might want to—because the world isn't that simple. You start trusting people to look out for you—and you start getting hurt, and people start dying. I need to expect the worst, because that is the ONE THING you can expect out of people."
Batman took a deep breath, his mind was made up.
"You can keep your vote, I resign" he said without heat. "I will continue to fund the League for another six months, as well as leave the equipment." He nodded slightly. "It's been a pleasure."
"You're leaving?" Superman asked, his eyebrows arched. "Wouldn't that be a big hole in the 'keeping an eye over us' plan?"
"Staying here would be a lose-lose situation for both of us; the League will constantly look over their shoulders, paranoid and incapable to trust me with anything, while I would be constantly have to work double time to ensure that I receive the adequate information and watch over Gotham."
"'Adequate information'?" John said incredulously, "You mean you'd still continue to develop contingencies behind our backs!?"
"Yes." Batman said calmly, looking at John as if he was the one out of his mind.
Batman looked at the shocked and exasperated looks (still avoiding Diana).
Batman sighed, "I will never be 100% sure that you all would never turn, that you would give up your principles." He said tiredly, "It only takes one bad day to turn somebody into a monster, to leave them so damaged..."
His mother's lifeless eyes flashed before him—his father's last words—
"...that they discard everything they were before" he said quietly. "You think being superhuman protects you from these things, but it won't. Your emotions—my own as well— lie vulnerable, they always do..."
In his peripherals, the blur that was Diana shifted slightly.
Batman looked at them (still avoiding her gaze), and his voice lowered to a hoarse and icy chill.
"And one day—I pray it never does—but one day, somehow, somewhere...a madman will find a way to use that against you."
His cloak flourished and his boots echoed into the ringing silence of his ominous statement as he turned to walk away.
A voice rang perfectly though the silence.
"Is that what happened to you?"
Batman stopped dead in tracks, blinking at the floor underneath him. His armor immediately felt heavier than it ever did, his cowl felt like lead...
The room behind him was quiet, but he could feel all of their eyes boring into his back. Waiting.
The voice of reason spoke within him: You can't say anything. Nothing. It could give away an essential clue to your identity—this is the essential piece to your identity! His entire existence came from that night, when he lost them. He remembered it so clearly, the beginning of his promise, the beginning of his new life...his mission...
Yet, in the quieter and far recesses inside his mind, a tug of emotion surfaced that no human could simply banish or whisk way...regardless of the amount of training or experience...
It jutted through him like a sword, with each word. You. hurt. them. You. hurt. her.
You owe her something.
He slowly turned back around, his heart beating furiously inside his chest. He looked at the expectant faces of J'onn...Flash...Superman...Lantern...and finally, he couldn't keep avoiding her...
It hurt horribly. Looking at her so distraught and upset, knowing he was responsible. His stomach boiled and his insides wanted to claw their way out through his esophagus, he felt like he was going to pass out, he wanted to run and hide from the look of her face, run far far away where he wouldn't have to feel so guilty ever again.
His hands fumbled on the panel of the door way as he pushed the button to close the doors.
You can't say anything...nothing...
Right before the slide doors met, before she was cut-off from his sight, he made his choice.