With the fight over, the villains imprisoned, and the insurance companies notified, the Justice League retired to the Watchtower to dress their wounds. Some of them had more wounds than others.
Wonder Woman's had healed, fortunately, by the time she reached her quarters, but that didn't make the experience any more enjoyable. Given the level at which the League fought, she was used to muscle soreness, fatigue, even the occasional bruising; but it still made her uncomfortable to see the red-tinged water swirling down her shower drain. For someone who was, under ideal circumstances, immortal, it was a disturbing reminder of mortality.
"Come to Man's World," Diana muttered to herself. "Meet interesting and exotic people, and break their legs. See marvels of architecture, as they're being pushed on top of you." And find out that despite the wild claims made by manufacturers of hair care products, every single one of their offerings is ineffective at getting out caked blood.
Big, fluffy bathrobes, however -- ah, now *those* Man's World had gotten right. The bunny slippers weren't bad, either.
The knock at the door caught her by surprise. She cinched the robe and peered into the corridor, where a urban legend stood, looking slightly worried.
"Are you all right?" said Batman.
"I'm fine, thank you," said Diana. "I'm just lucky you had that handcuff key in your utility belt."
"Luck had nothing to do with it," he said.
It was a very Bat thing to say. "'Chance favors the prepared mind,'" said Diana. "And the paranoid perfectionist."
"Guilty as charged. Are you sorry?"
"Not in the slightest," she said. "Please, come in." She stepped back from the door, leaving it open for him.
After a moment's hesitation, Batman entered the room. He took everything in with a glance -- and stopped cold. "Bunny slippers?" he said.
"Yes," said Diana cheerily. "They're terribly comfortable. You should get some."
His expression didn't change. A small, strangled noise, barely perceptible, came from the depths of his throat. "I'll think it over," he said.
Diana fought off a smile at the image. She had to throttle the giggles quickly, or he'd stalk out of her quarters in a huff and glower at her at every League meeting for the next month. "Thank you for checking up on me," she said. "I healed very quickly."
"I was worried," he said. "I'd never seen you get caught like that before."
"And by friendly fire, on top of everything else," said Diana. "The poor security guard was was terrified. He caught a glimpse of me in the shadows, went for his gun, and grabbed the handcuffs by mistake. I think he was just as surprised about it as I was. Then, before we could rectify the mistake, Luthor's robot caught up to me and -- well, you know the rest." The robot had pummeled Diana mercilessly before tossing her aside to focus on Superman. It wasn't one of the prouder moments of her career. When Batman had caught up to her, she'd barely been conscious.
"I'd have gotten to you faster," said Batman, "but I've seen you bench-press a Volkswagen. I thought you'd just break the chain."
He didn't know. That had never occurred to Diana. "I couldn't," she said. "It's my weakness."
"Weakness?" he said. She could tell he hated having to ask. Superman hated dishonesty, the Flash hated freshly-waxed floors, and Batman hated, hated, *hated* not knowing absolutely everything. Wonder Woman decided to make the explanation as short and sweet as possible.
"When a man binds an Amazon," she said, "she loses her strength."
He stared back at her, expressionless as ever. She wished his jaw would drop, or his head cock to the side, or something; when Batman stared like that, she was never sure whether he was close to turning his back in disgust or just fighting off laughter. If he laughed. The League had doubts.
"You're kidding," he finally said.
"It was a curse of Zeus," she said. "His son Hercules needed to make amends for misdeeds, so Zeus condemned him to a year as the servant of Queen Omphale of Lydia. But Omphale let it go to her head. She was of Amazon blood, and she remembered how Hercules had treated the Amazons. She made him spend that year in women's clothing, sewing and spinning." Diana shrugged. "Zeus was humiliated by proxy, so took his revenge the same way."
"That's disturbingly perverse."
Now Diana stared back at him. "Well, we *are* talking about a god who impregnated women by manifesting to them as a river, a swan, and a shower of gold coins."
He sounded uneasy. "Does talk of gods make you uncomfortable?" she said.
His jaw set so fast she heard his teeth click against each other. "You getting beaten, then tossed into a cinderblock wall by an eighty-foot robot makes me uncomfortable," he said.
"It wasn't particularly comfortable for me, either," said Diana. She decided not to mention the caked blood on her shower drain. "Should I carry a handcuff key?"
"What about ropes? Chains? Padlocks?"
"You *are* paranoid," said Diana.
"Am I?" he said. "As often as the members of this League get bound, tied, or otherwise restrained, I think I'm taking a decidedly optimistic view. You didn't just lose your strength when you were handcuffed. You lost your speed, your agility, your resilience. You can't afford to wait for help from one of us. If an opponent manages to bind you, you could easily be killed."
"I can be killed out of bondage," she said.
"You've thought about it, have you?" she said. He didn't say anything to that. The corner of his mouth quirked for a split-second. Oh, she thought. He has. Apparently, he *did* plan for every contingency. She wasn't sure if the thought was comforting or terrifying.
"What do you think I should do?" she said.
"Train," he said. "There are skills. Ways to escape from ropes, to pick locks. Look into it."
"Will you teach me?" she said.
He looked almost startled at the question. For someone capable of identifying two and two separately, he didn't seem to think of adding them to make four. Unless -- "You do know how to do those things, don't you?" she said.
Now he looked affronted. "Of course I do," he said.
Diana raised her hands in a placating gesture. "All right," she said defensively. "I didn't know. You used a handcuff key, after all. For all I know -- "
"I could have gotten you free in as little time in three different ways *without* using a handcuff key," he said harshly.
"So show me," she said.
He stood there silent for a long moment.
"Tomorrow night," he said finally. "In Gotham. We'll run through some basics, to begin with. It'll take some time. You'll have homework."
"All right," she said. "How often? Every week?"
He looked at her as if she'd just suggested they take a skiing holiday. "Every day," he said. "There's no sense wasting time. We'll take a few days off in between once you get your sea legs. But that will take at least a week."
A trip to Gotham, every day? Diana raised an eyebrow at that. "That's quite a daily commute for my lessons," she said.
He looked back over his shoulder as he left, with a grim half-smile. "I'm worth it," he said smugly.
As the door closed, Diana's eyes shot daggers at his back.
Diana was caught off-guard when he handed her the blindfold before they'd even left the Watchtower. "Are we starting already?" she said.
"No," said Batman. "I just take my privacy very, very seriously."
"We're flying to Gotham? You don't want to use the new transporter?"
"I have to take the Javelin down for a minor refit, anyway," he said. "Besides, *I'm* not going through that thing."
"Because it's alien technology?"
"Because I'm still not convinced that it doesn't atomize you, then replace you on the other end with an exact copy that has all your memories."
He sounded dead serious, and Diana was taken aback. "You don't really think -- "
"No. All the same, I'll let Flash go through it a few more times first."
He was gentler than she'd expected fastening the blindfold. Diana realized, once his hands were gone, that the blindfold smelled of him. Leather and plastic, and a man's scent under that. And clinging to it, she was surprised to note, was a whiff of women's shampoo. She recognized the scent from her shower; it was one of the products the manufacturers insisted on sending her, free of charge.
"Do you do this to all the girls?" she said jokingly.
"No," he said. "I gas some of them."
Diana didn't think he was joking.
The Batman was a good pilot, at least. The flight was smooth, and faster than she'd thought. The end of it, though, was unnerving. Even blindfolded, she could tell when the outside light abruptly vanished. A chill shadow fell across her skin. And still the ship descended.
"You can take the blindfold off, now," he said.
Wonder Woman had never seen the Batcave before.
She'd heard of it, from Superman, but that hadn't given her a sense of just how... how *much* of everything it was. It was huge. It was oppressive. And yet Batman, who was already sweeping his way from their landing pad to the catwalk leading to the cave proper, wasn't dwarfed by the setting. If anything, he loomed larger than ever. Diana wondered how he did that.
She kept wondering, because the cave got only more bizarre. A massive computer mainframe, with the biggest displays she'd ever seen. A giant penny. A robotic dinosaur. Souvenirs of cases, no doubt -- but those monstrosities were bizarre choices to fit into a hole in the ground; he must have called in favors from Superman to get the moving done. They didn't seem to fit Batman's "late industrial grim" motif. Either Batman was schizophrenic (which she wasn't ruling out), or he'd had help decorating. From somebody who thought giant pennies and robotic dinosaurs were cool.
She wondered if that unknown party were responsible for the trapeze.
Batman's gymnasium was admirably equipped. The trapezes were only a small part: she saw parallel bars. And rings. And free weights. And wrestling mats and punching bags and uneven bars and --
"You take this very seriously, don't you?" said Diana.
"I'm in a crime-fighting society in which each and every other member could beat the snot out of me in three seconds without trying hard," he said. "I have to do something to try to keep up."
Diana was trying to remember everything she knew about Batman. It wasn't much. Superman had said something about an assistant, once -- a sidekick -- Robin, was it? Maybe he was the one behind the giant penny, and the dinosaur, and the trapeze. She had a hard time picturing Batman willingly spending time with anyone who had such an adolescent mindset. Then again, he had teamed up with the Flash.
"We'll start with rope," Batman said. He picked up a small length of soft cord that had been draped over a rail. "The secret to escaping rope is in controlling slack. If you have enough slack, you can get free without bothering about knots. Example." He held the rope out to her. "Tie my hands in front of me," he said. "Just loop the rope around and knot it tightly. Then hold on to the ends of the rope to keep it taut."
It was an unusual sensation to have the Dark Knight restrained at her hand. Diana had played her share of prisoner games as a girl among the Amazons, but that was long ago. As the book Superman had lent her had said, she'd put away childish things. Now, though -- the rope was tight around Batman's wrists, and she knew she'd tied good knots. The ends of the rope were in her hands, and she was far stronger than he. She was in absolute control of the situation, and he wasn't going anywhere.
She realized just how vulnerable he was in this moment, and that (the blindfold episode aside) he'd placed a considerable amount of trust in her. By giving her power over him. She found it quietly thrilling.
That lasted all of three seconds. Then, in an instant, Batman had ripped his hands free and was wadding the rope into a ball.
"A cheap trick," he said. "Houdini used to do it, to get a laugh. Here's the secret. Do it again." She took the rope and repeated her actions. This time, Batman parted his hands in the direction of her face, rather than the ground. Diana watched as he stole a loop of rope with his little finger, then tucked it into place between his palms. "When I let go --" The loop sprang free. Now he had enough room to withdraw his hands. "You try," he said.
She was ridiculously nervous. It wasn't a question of trust: they'd saved each other's lives too often for that. But Diana had never willingly held her hands out for someone -- anyone -- to take her strength away.
Batman dealt with her trepidation by not noticing.
His grip on the ropes was firm, professional; he was deft with knots, despite his gloves. The trick was easy. She performed it twice in rapid succession.
"Good," he said. "Of course, that trick doesn't work in any other circumstances or positions. Most of the time, escape will be more difficult, and you'll be able to steal much less slack. The techniques involved are more subtle. And, of course, if you're bound while you're unconscious -- most likely, in your case -- you won't be able to steal slack at all."
It was a challenge. Wonder Woman felt up to it. "Show me," she said.
They started with ropes and worked down to finer cords. He taught her how to bunch her muscles, how to subtly shift her position in order to make things more difficult for whoever was tying her, and -- above all -- how to hide what she was doing from an observer.
"Let them underestimate you," he said. "Make them believe you're more helpless than you are. Then they'll pay less attention to you once you're out of the way. Less attention means more time. And escape from any bond is possible, *if you have the time.*" With rope, the keys to escape were slack and time. He taught her to steal both.
"Cross your wrists in front of you," Batman said brusquely. "Keep your muscles tense. Try to steal as much space between your wrists as you can get away with."
He wrapped the rope around the outside of her crossed wrists, then the inside, between her hands. His knots were tight. He did it quickly, as if he were tying up a boat. And just like that, she was helpless.
She tried to calm herself by thinking of ways she could use her legs and body to take Batman down. That helped. Then she remembered that, right now, he was much stronger than she was. He could hurt her very badly, if he wanted to.
She moved faster than she'd meant to, twisting her wrists, trying to exploit what slack she'd managed to secure. There wasn't much. The ropes refused to budge. She strained harder. Once, then again. Nothing. When she stopped straining, the sudden shift in her weight nearly threw her off balance. Batman stopped her fall. She hadn't seen him move.
"Easy," he said. "Don't force it. This isn't about strength. Here." He stepped behind her. The swirl of his cape brushed it against her calves. He gently gripped her upper arms. His fingers were strong. "Kneel first. It gives you a stable platform."
Diana knelt before him, facing away. She felt slow and clumsy. Surely the bonds couldn't have affected her that much.
"Now close your eyes," Batman said. "Take a deep breath."
She did. His fingers slid clear of her arms, and he stepped away. She could hear his steps, long and measured, on the floor of the cave.
Kneeling there, in the dark behind her eyes, she remembered how oddly exciting it had felt in those few moments she'd had (or thought she had) Batman bound. She wondered if he felt that way, to see her now. Diana wasn't sure how that idea made her feel. She knew she trusted him absolutely. She found it was possible to fear him at the same time. And that her vulnerability went beyond the physical.
Batman's voice cut through her thoughts. "Start slowly," he said. "Remember, you're not stressed for time, not now. Take your time. First, find the limits of your movement."
Diana tested the bonds, carefully. Side-to-side, up-down.
"Now look at your bonds. Consider the problem. Where is the knot? Can you reach it? Can you escape some or all of the bonds before you attack the knot? Can you do anything to give yourself more slack?"
Yes, she thought. If she rotated her arms medially, so her wrists lay side-by-side, she could try to move slack around on the rope. Gather it in one place. Tackle the problem one loop at a time.
"Then do it," he said. "But slowly. Carefully."
And she did. The rope burned her wrists, but she managed to get the loops free. Then she had room to move. Then she loosed the knot's position. And then she was free.
Now that Diana had her strength back, she could laugh at herself. "I was nervous," she said. "Isn't that funny? When you tied me. I wondered what you'd think of me for it. But you didn't even notice."
"I noticed," he said. "I just didn't care."
Diana's jaw dropped -- and then she realized it was a joke. She tossed the rope at him. "All right," she said. "Give me another."
He gave her another. And another. It really wasn't hard, once she contained her initial surge of panic. Who'd have thought of treating physical confinement as an intellectual puzzle to be solved? Batman would, of course. But he was an extremely unusual man.
"Do you know what I just realized?" she said.
"That cotton rope is more difficult to unknot than artificial fibers?"
Diana hid her smile. "No," she said. "It's just that this is the longest amount of time we've spent in each other's company when the universe wasn't about to end, or a parallel world invading, or a giant monster laying waste to Metropolis."
"Luthor's robot is still out there," he said. "Don't be too optimistic."
"Yes," said Diana, "but the last time we saw it, it was nowhere *near* Metropolis."
Was that the ghost of a smile? She bent down and scooped the rope lengths off the floor. "C'mon," she said. "Give me something without slack."
"Are you sure?"
"You pointed it out yourself," said Diana. "If I do get tied up, it's likely I'll be unconscious or close to it at the time. I won't be able to steal any slack. So I'd better learn to cope with that possibility."
He considered briefly. "All right," he said.
Two minutes later, Diana lay on the floor of the batcave in a modified spread-eagle, with her wrists and ankles tied to small pitons Batman had fired into the cave floor from one of his grapnel guns. There was no slack. There was no play in the rope. There was no way for her to get to any of the knots. After ten minutes of effort and concomitant rope burn, Diana reached the conclusion that she was well and truly screwed.
Batman offered no advice. He stood there and watched her struggle.
For a while, she had tried to take cues from his reactions. That didn't work. He didn't have any. So she'd closed her eyes and ignored him. Tested the ropes. Moved this way, then that. She'd wondered -- could she try to sit up? Just a little? Get access to the knots that way? And she'd tried. And tried. But absolutely nothing had worked. And the Batcave floor was cold.
She opened her eyes and turned to Batman. He hadn't changed position at all. He still hadn't said a word. Diana began to feel annoyed. Although -- was it her imagination, or was his breathing a little heavier than usual?
Then she realized what she must have looked like, writhing around on the Batcave floor. Men were such visually-oriented creatures; she kept forgetting that. Diana felt little embarrassment for herself, but it was amusing to see that Batman had some human reactions after all. She couldn't resist the opportunity.
"If I didn't know you better," she said teasingly, "I'd think you were enjoying yourself."
His hand flew to his utility belt. The knife was out in a flash. Before she realized what had happened, he'd cut her bonds and was stalking away.
"Batman!" she said.
He stopped. Then, slowly, he turned and looked back at her.
"I'm sorry," Diana said. She brought a hand to her wrist and rubbed at the marks on her skin. "I do trust you."
Batman cleared his throat and looked away. "You can take the transporter back," he said.
Diana rubbed her wrists, where his bonds had been.
Her soft bed in the Watchtower couldn't have been more removed from the Batcave floor -- or the finest pallets of Themyscira, for that matter; her home island was unsurpassed in the armor it made, but it pained Diana to admit the textiles of Man's World were far superior -- but she still could feel the ropes on her wrists. She wasn't sure what to make of the experience. Or what Batman had made of it.
On one hand, he had told her to come back the next evening.
On the other hand, he'd told her to take the hated transporter back, and hadn't seemed especially worried at the prospect of her being atomized.
The marks on her skin had faded, but the memory remained. Diana wondered if there was a way to escape from that last set of bonds. How Batman would have done it. Perhaps he would tell her. Or -- she flashed again on the strange sense of power she'd felt at having him (however briefly) bound -- he might show her.
It would be interesting to watch him escape.
It would be even *more* interesting if he couldn't.
Diana grinned to herself and rolled over into sleep.
"Where's Batman?" Diana said.
"Haven't seen him," said Flash, who was barely visible behind his morning stack of pancakes. "Don't know, don't want to know, don't care."
"He might've gone with Big Blue. Though I don't think Supes was in any mood to slow down enough for him."
"Superman in a mood? Why?"
"Well, you were there the other night," said the Flash. "Luthor's robot got away. Big Blue's taking that pretty personally." He shrugged. "I guess when you have telescopic vision, super-hearing, and X-ray eyes you're not used to something the size of a building being able to hide from you." He shoveled a forkful the size of Diana's fist into his mouth. "Why're you looking for Grim and Gruesome, anyway?" he said around it.
"He was scheduled to be up here today," said Diana. "He's on the duty roster. I wanted to ask him about our lessons."
Flash blinked. "Lessons?" he said. "Who's teaching who what?"
"He's teaching me. Escape artistry. So I can get out of handcuffs and things on my own, if need be."
Flash stopped chewing. He froze for a moment, then swallowed with a mighty effort.
"Wait," said Flash. "Wait, wait, wait. Let me get this straight. He's taking you off to his Batcave on a regular basis."
"Yes," said Diana.
"Where he ties you up, restrains you, chains you, binds you, and otherwise engages in forms of bondage."
"From which you then attempt to escape."
"Meaning you're writhing around, tied up, on the floor, while he watches."
"Yes," said Diana. It was, after all, an accurate assessment of the previous evening.
Flash was silent for a few moments.
"I hate him and everything he stands for," he said.
Batman wasn't in the Batcave, either.
Diana materialized on the JLA transporter platform to absolutely no reception. She looked around. As far as she could see, the cave was empty. Where on earth was Batman?
She stepped carefully off the platform and began to move toward the gymnasium. "Hello?" she called. "Hello?" Her voice bounced off the walls. The only answer was her own echo. Then she heard a faint noise. It sounded like a flapping cape. "Batman?" she said.
Something flickered in Diana's peripheral vision, above her and to the right. It took her a moment to realize that it was a person. Then she turned her head, and saw it was a boy. A black-masked boy clad in red, green and yellow.
"Wonder Woman, I presume?" he said, in a remarkably good impression of a British accent.
Then he vaulted the railing in front of him, dropped fifteen feet, absorbed the shock of landing with a perfect forward roll, and came up standing in front of her.
Diana blinked twice before her eyes caught the R emblazoned over his heart. One mystery solved. "And you must be Robin."
"One boy wonder, at your service!" he replied. He couldn't have been more than sixteen, she thought. Younger even than Flash. And Flash was *young.* "Sorry, Batman had some stuff to do. So you're stuck with me."
Diana hesitated. "Don't take this the wrong way," she said, "but I'm not sure you count as a man."
"Hey, I'm fifteen!" he said with only-partially-mock indignation. "How old were your ancient Greek guys when they went off to war? Or fought their monsters? Or had their great love affairs?"
"You've got me there," she said, smiling. He did have a point, especially about the great love affairs. Though she didn't think either he or Batman would appreciate those parallels.
"All right, then," he said. "Batman briefed me on this thing of yours -- curse of Zeus, right? C'mon. We'll see if it works."
It did. He seemed slightly uncomfortable tying Diana to a chair, and he blushed when he had to lay rope around her legs, or her waist, or -- he stammered an apology -- her bare shoulders, just above her bosom.
"You could have just tied my hands," she pointed out.
"Yeah," he said, jerking on a knot to make sure it was tight. "But where's the fun in that?" He grinned again, and the sweetness of his smile made her realize he was referring to the fun of the escape, not of tying her up. "Besides, this one's easy. The chair actually gives you more slack to work with than you think."
"Did you learn this way?" she said.
"...actually, no. He had me hanging upside down, wrapped in rope, with my hands cuffed behind my back. But he's a little hard-core."
Diana's face must have betrayed her. Robin spoke up quickly. "He really is a great guy," he said seriously. "Really. I couldn't imagine my life without him."
Diana couldn't imagine a life lived wholly with the Dark Knight. Especially with him as some kind of father figure. Of course, she'd never known a father herself. "After all he puts you through," she said, "you still love him?"
"I didn't say I want to grow up and be just like him," Robin said. He mock-shuddered at the thought. "But love him? Yeah, I can do that. Not that we ever say it, because we're guys and we're terribly manly, but off the record? I love him to death. Hey, somebody's gotta. The man's never going to love himself." He shook his head sadly, then gestured at Diana's bonds. "Well?" he said.
Diana tested the bonds, the legs of the chair. Nothing. She smiled at him. "You're a man, all right."
"Told you!" he said triumphantly. "Now, if you can just convince Batgirl on that..."
"Sorry," Diana said. "You're on your own there."
"Worth a shot. Okay, come on. Let's get going. We'll start with your arms..."
Robin couldn't have been any more different a teacher than Batman. He chattered constantly, offering advice, acting as a cheering section, or just talking about some of the adventures he and Batman had been on. It turned out he and Flash were friends; Robin had hung out with Flash when Flash was Kid Flash. Which wasn't all that long ago.
He was right about the chair being easy. She was out of it fairly quickly. Having her wrists and ankles tied behind her back was harder. It took a long time and a lot of sweat, but finally she managed to get one hand loose. And then she was free and clear. Diana was enjoying herself now. Robin was careful to challenge her just enough to make the lessons clear. She worked through more ties than she had with Batman to achieve the same relative progress, but the experience was much less frustrating. And when Robin broke out some horribly painful and uncomfortable ties -- her wrists and ankes tied behind her back, with a rope to her neck so any movement put pressure on her throat -- she had enough confidence in her ability to escape quickly and with grace.
"Great!" said Robin as she cast the last of the ropes aside. He was grinning broadly as she sat up, and she didn't think it was just from watching her writhe. "You've got a real talent for this."
"Good teaching," said Diana. She turned her head from side to side and stretched, relishing her freedom.
"Well," said Robin. "Do you want to do a couple more? We could take a short break -- "
The sound of a powerful motor suddenly rose from one of the cave's larger tunnels.
"Er," said Robin. "Maybe not."
The Boss, evidently, was back. Diana scooped up the small towel Robin had provided and wiped the sweat from her face. She draped the towel over her shoulder and headed for the great turntable that marked the Batmobile's parking space. Batman was just climbing out of the cockpit as she arrived.
"I thought you and I had an appointment," she said.
"I had things to do," said Batman.
"Oh," Diana said. "Is that your way of saying you were avoiding me?"
Silence fell, heavy and thick.
"Well," said Robin quietly. "*I'll* just be going now." He turned to Diana. "Nice to meet you, finally."
"And you," she said. She watched him as he ran toward the staircase that went up into a tunnel in the rock. He did three handsprings along the way, for no reason she could see. She wondered where that tunnel staircase went.
"He's a fine young man," she said.
"He's not my eromenos," said Batman.
An instant's surprise, at his knowing the Greek term. "I didn't think he was," said Diana.
"If he were," she said, "I doubt I'd make you nervous."
"You don't make me nervous, Princess," he said.
"No?" she said, deliberately baiting him.
"No," he said. "*I* make me nervous."
That was as much about the way he thought -- or felt -- about himself that Diana had ever heard him say. She searched for some reply, and couldn't find one. She turned the subject back to Robin, instead. "He's a good teacher," she said. "You should be proud. I think he was easier on me than you were on him."
"He told you about hanging upside down with the cuffs," he said. It wasn't a question.
"Are you planning to do that to me?" she said.
His mouth quirked. "You don't know how to pick handcuffs." He reached into his utility belt and pulled out a pair. "Yet."
Diana caught the cuffs as he tossed them. Oddly, considering she could lift small automobiles, they were heavy in her hand. She placed a finger along the thin half-moon of one bracelet and pushed. It clicked into place, and she could feel the ratchet inside moving as she tightened it. The keyhole seemed very small. She wasn't sure how well this endeavor was going to work.
She looked up at Batman, to ask him how to proceed, and saw that he hadn't taken a step toward her. At her look, he hesitated, then glanced toward the stairs.
"Are you going to call Robin back?" she said. "To teach me this, too?"
There was a long pause. She dangled the cuffs from one finger and locked her gaze directly on him. He was slow to meet her eyes.
"No," he said very softly. But he didn't move.
"Are you going to teach me from all the way over there?"
He still didn't move, and his voice was more human than she'd ever heard it. His... shyness? was bizarrely endearing. Diana had to fight to hide her smile. She kept her tone as light as possible, and put a gentle tease into her voice.
"Are you going to come over here?" she said.
He visibly swallowed at that. And then he took in a deep breath, and something happened in his face.
"No," Batman said. His voice was quiet, but firm. The voice of a man used to being obeyed. "*You're* going to come over *here.*"
It took Diana three steps, and her knees felt weaker with every one.
Batman took the cuffs from her gently. Without looking away from her eyes, he slapped them on her wrists. A chill ran through her at the touch of the metal. Or maybe that was his hand.
"This is how it works," Batman said. He held up a small piece of stiff wire in one gloved hand. He pressed the pick into one keyhole, then the next. The cuffs were off so fast she hadn't even seen what he'd done.
"Do that again," she said. "But slowly."
She held her breath as the cuffs went on. One. Then the other. A pause, before he raised the pick again. "This way," he said. "Insert the pick. Feel for the tumbler. It feels like a small lever inside the lock. Get a good grip on it with the pick, find your angle... and flip it." There was a small click, and Diana's hand was free. "You try the other one," he said.
What had taken Batman a fraction of a second took Diana three infuriating minutes. She poked and prodded and swept and scoured the inside of the lock without finding the tumbler. Once she found it, she couldn't get it to move. Once she got it to move, she couldn't get it to move all the way. Until, finally, there was a soft click and the cuff slid open.
"Ugh," said Diana.
"You'll get better," Batman said. "But it takes time."
He seemed calmer now that they were dealing with a problem at hand. It seemed like a good moment for Diana to ask him something that had been nagging at her.
"That tie," she said. "The spread-eagle, last time. There wasn't any way out of that, was there?"
He met her gaze with something like approval. "Under those conditions, at your level... no."
"Then what was the point?"
"A demonstration. If you're unconscious, you lose control of the situation. When you wake up, you may be in a situation in which none of your preparation can do you any good. If you're not in control..." he paused. There was more feeling in his voice than Diana had heard -- well, ever. "If you're not in control, anything can happen." He turned his gaze to her eyes. "I'd hate to lose you, Princess."
Diana smiled. "You know," she said, "that's the nicest thing you've ever said to me."
One of these days, Diana thought, she would solve the mystery of how Batman could arch an eyebrow and make the effect come across with his entire forehead covered. So much for the moment of intimacy. "All right," she said. "So I'll practice. And try not to get knocked out."
She pressed the handcuffs closed again and fumbled in the lock with the bit of wire. Then a thought occurred to her. "What if I drop the pick?"
"Then you're screwed," Batman said. "Breaking handcuff chains takes a lot of sheer strength; I can do it, but you won't be able to without your powers. Your only option is slipping the cuffs over your hands. Not always possible. And extremely painful."
"Any tips for making it easier?"
"Blood," he said. "You can be hurt when you're bound, but once you're free, you heal almost immediately. Cut yourself, use your blood as a lubricant. That could be enough to get one hand free." He paused, struck by a thought. "You could break your hand, too, I suppose. Crush the bones. To narrow it."
"There are times," said Diana, "when you scare me."
His smile was thin and dark, and did not show his teeth. "Good," he said.
"It wasn't Luthor," Superman said.
Diana had a mouthful of stuffed grape leaves and faced an awkward decision of whether politeness was worth a risk of choking. Politeness lost. "Excwush muh?"
"I found him. It took a bit of doing. We talked."
Superman's uniform was covered in unidentifiable bits of muck. Diana didn't want to know where Luthor had been hiding. Or what "a bit of doing" meant to a man who could leap tall buildings in a single bound.
"And?" she said, having swallowed.
"Somebody stole his robot."
Flash, who had just inhaled half a glass of milk, did a spit-take. He coughed vigorously, wiping his nose.
Batman reacted even more stiffly than usual. "Somebody *stole.* Luthor's *robot?*"
"Careful, Batguy," said Flash, still coughing. "You nearly cracked an expression there."
Batman ignored him. "What's his next excuse? His dog ate it?"
"He's serious," said Superman. "Luthor disavowed any knowledge of his robot's activities. It seems one of his hideouts was raided, and the only item stolen -- "
"Was the robot," said Flash. "Ooh, I'd love to see the police report for that. 'Item: Robot, eight stories tall, nigh-indestructible, suitable for mayhem and destruction. Send usual alert to pawn shops.'"
"You believed him?" said Diana.
"We rounded up a bunch of petty crooks at our last fight with the robot. They're not talking, but none of them had any ties to Luthor's organization that the police have found. Besides, Luthor's a predictable liar. If he's accused of something he's actually done, he'll deny it, calmly. He was still swearing when I left. Luthor's taken the theft as a personal insult. He wants a piece of whoever it is."
Batman's face was grim. "Not if we get him first."
And then the League alarms went off.
As was the case with most places in Man's World, Diana had never been to Baltimore.
Man's World was interesting, and beautiful in its way; she hoped that one day she'd have a chance to see more of it when it *wasn't* in the process of being destroyed. Her trip to Baltimore, unfortunately, did not count as a mark in that column.
"Man," said the Flash, "they're gonna have to float a new bond to pay for that one."
Superman winced as the robot smashed through part of the Inner Harbor complex and made its way for several ships coming into port. "What's it after?" he said. "Last time it was diamonds -- "
"There's a shipment of ancient statues coming in on one of those ships," said Batman. "Destined for the Smithsonian."
"If they're so valuable, why didn't they fly them in?" said Flash.
"Too heavy. The smallest is twelve feet tall and they're made entirely out of gold."
"All right," said Superman. "Wonder Woman and I will take the robot on directly -- but Diana, if you see any thugs assisting the robot's theft on the ground again, or putting civilians at risk, stop them. Flash, we'll need to divert its attention, to keep it from focusing in on either one of us."
"I'll run up some water-spouts. That should keep it busy."
"The new missiles are loaded. I make no promises, but they should slow it down some."
"All right. Then you're air support. Let's move!"
"One more thing," Batman said. "I'm jamming the control frequencies Luthor gave you. There's no effect. Its brain isn't complex enough to handle situations like this on its own. Which means there's somebody inside."
Superman was out of the Javelin before Wonder Woman heard his response, but it sounded suspiciously like, "Good."
Superman flew much faster than Diana could. She wished he weren't so impulsive at times like these. If the last fight had taught them anything, it was that they needed to face the robot as a team. She wondered if it had something to do with Superman's sheer power: he wasn't used to not being able to solve a problem, so on those rare occasions he was frustrated, he came back champing at the bit to make up for his previous mistake. And Superman had been itching to teach the robot a lesson for two days. Except he was leaving her behind.
Looking over her shoulder, Wonder Woman saw that the Javelin had lowered to the surface of the water to let Flash out. He'd catch up to Superman before she would.
The robot must have had some onboard radar capability. Or its eyes were excellent. It spotted Superman well before he made contact. It raised an arm. A hatch on the forearm opened and a formidable laser cannon emerged. It fired instantly. Superman was fast, but not faster than light. The beam hit him dead center. Superman was flung backwards -- whether by the beam or by some spasmodic reflex, Diana couldn't tell. He stopped his fall, but was sufficiently stunned to hang in mid-air, motionless, while the robot targeted him again.
But now she was in a position to do something about it. Diana flung her lasso over the laser cannon and pulled it aside enough to spoil the robot's aim. As Superman gathered himself and made a beeline for the robot again, it fired, and missed. Then it turned its massive head to the side and saw her.
The robot didn't hit her. It just waved its forearm. Diana's lasso went taut in a heartbeat. She tried to hang on, but her inertia dragged her outward. Like a stone from a sling, she went flying.
As she tumbled through the air, she felt a moment's satisfaction to see the first of Flash's water-spouts hit the robot from behind. An instant later, two missiles from the Javelin hit dead center, to no appreciable effect.
Before she could arrest her flight, a powerful arm wrapped around her waist and carried her back in the direction of the robot.
"Going my way?" said Superman.
"Depends," she said. "Will you stick to the teamwork this time?"
He nodded apologetically. "What do you have in mind?" he said.
"Throw me," she said.
Diana went back toward the robot faster than she'd gone out -- much faster than she could have flown on her own. She used her own abilities to guide her path right back to the dangling end of her lasso. She grabbed it and let her momentum carry her around to the robot's elbow. She had an instant's purchase there. It was enough. She braced herself and yanked with all her might on the unbreakable golden cord.
For an agonizing moment, nothing happened. Then, with a wrenching of metal, the laser cannon tore away. Once free of the robot's arm and the inertia of that initial tug, it fell. The weight pulled Wonder Woman free of the robot just as it started to spin round on her again. Quickly, she adjusted the knot on her lasso, slipping it for a quick release. Then she launched herself into a rapid spin, sending the cannon out to the full length of the rope.
Diana whirled around and around, building up speed until her arms ached. Then, with a harsh, wordless battle cry, she pulled the release cord.
The loosed cannon tore through the air like an eight-hundred-pound Olympic hammer and buried itself with a ferocious crunch in the robot's right eye.
Ha! she thought as the robot reeled. For once, an unqualified success.
Then the robot regained its balance. It swatted Superman aside, then turned to Diana and lifted its other arm. That forearm hatch opened. Out swung a new laser cannon. With six barrels. All of them pointed directly at her.
The robot fired.
The barrels, spinning like those of a minigun, spat energy in rapid succession. Diana brought her bracelets up to block the beams as best she could, but the lasers' sheer power still seeped through. There was a sizzling sound, and the hairs on her arm shrivelled. Diana kept up the best defense she could, but it wasn't much. The heat of her bracelets was rising. At any moment, she expected the smell of burning meat.
Her rescue, when it came, was from an unexpected quarter. With a roar of wind and water, Flash's new water-spout changed course and came between Diana and the robot. The robot's laser hit the spout, which abruptly vaporized into a massive cloud of steam. The robot vanished into the superheated maelstrom.
Diana crossed her arms over her face and let the blast of hot air pass over her. Even outside of the steam cloud, the heat was tremendous. She clipped her lasso to her belt and stared into the depths of what looked like a voluminous, localized fogbank. No sound, no movement.
Then, suddenly, she glimpsed a moving shadow.
"Oh, Hera," she thought.
The robot hit her.
The blow wasn't a brushing aside, as had been had given Superman. The robot punched her dead-on, with all of its weight behind the blow. Diana's near-invulnerability was no match for the robot's strength and sheer mass. She went flying. The powerful acceleration sent her blood rushing away from her head, and as the G-forces battered her she struggled not to pass out. She sensed dimly that she was travelling very fast, but she couldn't see anything she recognized, and wondered if the blue flashing before her eyes was sea or sky.
Then she went through the wall.
Wonder Woman tried to get up, but nothing happened.
"I'll be all right," she whispered to no one in particular. "Just give me a minute..." Lights danced in front of her eyes. What had just happened?
Hang on, she thought. There's something on top of me. And, dancing lights aside, it was awfully dark. Where on earth -- ? Diana tried to wipe her eyes, but couldn't. Her fingers came into contact with something that felt an awful lot like broken cinderblock. Then she realized that it was broken cinderblock, and there was lots of it. She was lying in a pile of rubble.
That made sense, she remembered. She'd gone through a wall. She must have made the docks. Hit a warehouse.
"Ow," she said.
Diana's limbs were starting to work again. Always a good sign. She pushed feebly at the rubble surrounding her. Some of it shifted. Good; she wasn't too far buried. She'd be up and about in a few minutes. Really. And then she'd give the robot a piece of her mind.
As she tried to get a better angle to dislodge the rubble, she heard running footsteps. Then scrabbling sounds from outside the pile. Batman, digging her out again. Nice of him, really.
"Hey, you ought to be proud of me," she said. Her tongue seemed twice as thick as usual, and her mouth was caked with dust. "I went clean through a wall. Last time, I just bounced off one."
She could see light now. More air filtered down to her as he cleared the rubble away. She raised her hands through the hole to help him. Bless that annoying, arrogant, domineering chauvinist...
Wait. Why would Batman be putting handcuffs on her now?
Diana looked up just in time for her supposed rescuer to deliver a hard blow to the side of her head. Black clouds swam before her eyes. She wanted to fight, but her limbs were heavy. More hands grabbed her and pulled her out of the rubble. There was conversation, but Diana couldn't make any of it out. She pawed aimlessly at the air, and realized she was being dragged across the concrete. The handcuffs were tight on her wrists. She fought desperately to stay conscious, to control the situation. Then she saw where they were going. It was a shipping container. Surely her captors didn't mean to ship her.
And then the black clouds rolled over her again.
When Diana came back to herself, she found good news and bad news. The good news was that despite a headache, her brain seemed to be back in working order. The bad news was somewhat more extensive.
Diana's hands were cuffed together. The chain between them ran around a rail of some kind. The rail was bolted or welded to the side of the container. Her feet were cuffed on a longer chain that ran up over the handcuff chain. She was caught in a semi-kneeling position. Her head still rang from the knock she'd been given after the cuffs had been first slapped on. The battle was still raging, and seemed to have moved dockside. Every so often, she heard the sound of something being smashed, or vaporized by the robot's laser.
Oh, she thought, this is very bad.
Diana decided to get her feet first. They were curled up in a horribly uncomfortable position, and if she got them loose she could turn to get at a better angle on her hands. Maybe even see what she was doing. Wouldn't that be nice. Her captors hadn't bothered to search her before locking her up. Her pick was where she had left it.
The lock-picking didn't go as smoothly as it had in her practice sessions in the Watchtower, or even in the Batcave under the Dark Knight's all-disapproving eye. But it worked. Soon she had the first leg cuff free. The second quickly followed. She let them hang from the handcuff chain and twisted her body around.
Very little light penetrated the shipping container, so Diana was forced to work by touch. She found the keyhole and started to work. She tried to ignore the robot's footsteps, and the fact that they were getting closer.
And then the sliver of light was blocked, and a massive boom came from outside the locked container doors as the robot came to stand just outside.
The sound of creaking metal came. Movement. Then a whoosh and a loud collision of some kind. The creaking metal and whoosh came again, and this time Diana faintly heard the shrieking of the Javelin's engines as the craft was put through a high-G maneuver. Then there was a splash.
With a chill, Diana realized what was going on outside. The robot had picked up shipping containers and was throwing them. Her mouth grew dry. Her fingers shook as she redoubled her efforts.
Then the walls of *her* container bulged in, and it was lifted -- goods, Diana, and all -- off the ground. Before Diana could react, she was in free-fall.
She didn't have time to do anything but think a frantic *No* before the shipping container hit --
-- the water. The sides held.
Her fingers didn't.
The pick flew from her hand as her body slammed painfully into the side of the shipping container. Her tool, her salvation, skittered off somewhere into the darkness. She groped for it with her feet, but it was too far gone. All she came up with were the heavy leg restraints, which dangled in front of her face. She tossed them down in disgust. She'd cut her lip, and for the second time in a week she knew the unwelcome, unfamiliar taste of her own blood.
Diana spat. She sat facing the railing to which she was cuffed, pressed her boots against the container side and pushed. Once, twice, again -- nothing. The railing's connection was secure, and she couldn't move more than six inches in either direction before stanchions blocked her progress. She screamed in frustration, then settled down to some serious swearing before her tongue tripped over itself and she was reduced to hammering her fist impotently into the side of the container.
It was a thoroughly unprofessional tantrum, and it didn't do her one damn bit of good. She should have gotten her hands free first -- no, that wouldn't have done anything. She'd still have lost the pick, and wouldn't be able to reach it. And if her legs were chained and her hands free, then she wouldn't have been able to get any leverage against the railing, because she'd be lying face-down in that puddle --
The container was leaking.
She thought she heard a steady flow from the doors and a further trickle from the top, where the robot's grip had dented the metal. She held her breath and listened, trying in vain to calm the thudding of her heart. She couldn't tell how fast the water was coming in, and she couldn't see anything. Which, she realized, told her something. Diana wasn't just floating in the water, or even bobbing along just below the surface. She was sinking.
Diana didn't know how much time she had. She only knew that she was in serious trouble. She realized something about herself that she would been too proud to consider before. Though she was an Amazon, prepared to give her life in battle if need be, Diana did not welcome the idea of dying. And there, in the dark, under water, she realized she was terrified by the prospect that she might drown.
"Oh, hell," she said.
She used her feet to pick up the leg restraints from the floor. She managed, with difficulty, to transfer them to her hands. Wrapping the chain of the leg restraints around her right hand, Diana grasped the bracelets in her fist and pulled her right arm back as far as it would go. Closed her eyes. Breathed a brief prayer to Hera.
And swung with all her might.
The bones of her palm snapped with more difficulty than she'd expected. She needed to take several swings. Her thumb was the hardest; not only did the muscle beneath it make for padding, but she kept trying to tuck it away by reflex, and finally had to put all her weight on it to make sure it held still long enough to smash. Around the third swing, the bracelets -- or maybe it was a splintered bone -- opened her skin and started the blood flowing. Good, she thought. Blood is helpful. She realized it was a very Bat thought to have, and that sickened her a little. She shook her head to clear it, and went back to smashing. She had to hurry. Not long before her hand began to swell, and then she'd really be stuck. Maybe I could gnaw it off, she thought dizzily. She braced her feet along the wall of the container and pulled. And pulled. And pulled. Then threw caution to the wind, rocked her torso forward to gain momentum, and *heaved* with all her might on the backswing.
Her screaming hand came free. So did a fair amount of her skin.
But her strength came flooding back.
The cuff was free of the rail now. Her shattered left hand was too weak to pull the other bracelet off, so Diana tore it free with her teeth. She could feel the bones trying to knit, but it felt wrong. She jammed her left hand into her armpit and ignored its existence. Then she ran, full-tilt, for the shipping container doors. The steel and the ever-increasing water pressure on them were no match for a desperate Amazon. The doors exploded open.
In the next instant, Diana realized she'd have been better off opening them slowly, and letting the pressure equalize. The rushing water threw her right back into the container, where she bounced off the far walls. It knocked the air out of her lungs, which was good for avoiding the bends but not for staying alive however the hell far down she was. She tried to swim back out of the container, but the water was still flooding in. She gulped at the little air remaining. An Amazon doesn't panic, she told herself, and fought a scream. She punched her right hand into the top of the container, in a frantic attempt to escape. She hadn't been thinking. The water sprayed through the hole, pressing her away. She was underwater now. Her lungful of air was running out again.
She throttled down her fear. She couldn't clear the doors, couldn't navigate the top --
Wonder Woman tore through the bottom as if it were a sardine can and swam/flew blindly for the surface.
At least Aquaman hadn't been around to see any of this.
"What in the world were you thinking?" said Superman.
He looked into her face with endearing concern. His handsome features were softly lit by the Earth, glowing through the window behind him. That silly spit-curl hung down on his forehead; some day, Diana thought, she was going to give in to her ever-present urge to brush it away. He shook his head gently, then smiled at her. His fingers curled tenderly around her gnarled, misshapen palm.
Then he broke her hand.
Diana hissed as he eased the bones into a normal configuration. He squinted at her metacarpals, using his X-ray vision to check the placement, then held them and watched the bones knit.
"You know," Superman said nervously, "you really should go to a doctor for this."
"I'm given to understand it'd sort itself out on its own within a few weeks," she said. "I'm just not in any mind to wait around."
"Well, if it's all the same to you, I'd really rather not make a habit of this sort of thing."
"Believe me," said Diana, in the most heartfelt tones of which she was capable, "neither would I."
He smiled at that. And broke another bone.
"Did *he* give you the idea for this?" he asked gently, when her eyes quit watering.
No need to ask who "*he*" was. "He saved my life," Diana said. "And he wasn't even there when he did it."
She saw guilt on Superman's face, then. "I'm sorry," he said. After all these years, it still hurt Kal-El that it couldn't save everybody. He'd been so busy with the robot he hadn't even noticed Diana was missing until she spluttered to the surface. Then he'd been frantic to pluck her from the water and take her safely to shore. The robot took the opportunity to get away. Again.
She touched his hand with her good one. "It's not your fault," she said. "Never think that. But I'm glad he thought of it." She shook her head. "When he suggested it as a possibility, I told him he scared me."
"I bet he liked that."
She smiled in memory. "He did."
Superman watched her bones knit in silence for a few moments.
"He's an interesting man, you know," Wonder Woman said. She rested her chin on her good hand and looked at the blue-green planet far below.
"I'd be inclined to agree with you," Superman said. "If I didn't have the feeling you and I would mean something different by 'interesting.'"
"You modern men are something of a mystery to me," she said. "I think I understand you, sometimes -- and then I find I don't, at all. Too many cultural assumptions that are invalid. Too many different manners, beliefs, gut reactions. But Batman... Batman feels familiar."
"I think," said Superman, "that's actually the *last* word I'd use to describe him."
"He reminds me of a Spartan," said Diana.
"I confess I don't remember much of Greek history," Superman said. "I suppose I should read up as a courtesy to you." He frowned. "Spartans. They were a nation of soldiers. Heroes, weren't they?"
"Sometimes," she said. "Just break the next one, will you? I hate waiting."
"Sorry," he said. *Snap.*
As Diana winced reflexively, she caught a reflection in the window. She turned to look. It was Batman. When he'd shown up, she didn't know. She found it unnerving that a man without any superpowers could be so utterly stealthy. Superman, whose ears could hear a pin drop a mile away, didn't notice. Or pretended he didn't. He just held her hand and watched her ravaged bones mend.
Diana turned her head to look directly at Batman. He looked back at her. She felt surprisingly vulnerable now that he was watching her. His emotions were unreadable as ever. He seemed... proud? admiring? jealous? (now where had that last thought come from?) She wondered if she'd surprised him, or if in pulverizing her own hand to tear her way out she'd only lived up to his impossible expectations. She hoped it was a reminder to him that while she accepted his tutelage in some areas, her will was as formidable as his own. And gods, she could feel that look he was giving her in her *toes.*
When Superman broke the last two bones in her palm to set them, she locked her eyes on Batman's and didn't make a sound.
"How's your hand?" Batman said.
"Better," Diana said, flexing it. "The Boy Scout did a good job." Batman smiled at her use of the nickname he'd coined, but still seemed wary. "I'd have asked you to do it," she added. "If you were strong enough to break my bones, and had X-ray vision." He seemed to relax at that, if only for a moment.
She could, she realized, have bound her wrists for him and weakened her bones enough for Batman to break them. And she was sure he had an X-ray camera here in his cave, somewhere. The thought made her nervous, and a little ill. Because if she'd thought of the possibility before, she might have actually considered it.
What in Hera's name was happening to her?
"So what's next?" she said, more cheerily than she felt. She sat on his desk and swung her legs back and forth. It should have elicited a disapproving glare. He didn't even look at her.
"What do you mean?" he said.
"Well, I seem to have gotten the handcuffs down. Mostly. So do we move onto other locks? Or do you want me to work on my fundamentals?"
A long pause, then. "No."
"No to which part?"
"All of it," he said. He turned to the light microscope and pressed his eyes to it. "Hmm," he said in reaction to whatever he saw there.
"What happened to 'every night for at least a week'?" said Wonder Woman. "We still have chains and padlocks to go." Her question hung in the air for a long minute. No answer came.
Diana didn't want to ask the next question, but she had to. "Is this your way of saying we're done?" she said quietly.
"I have things to do," Batman said. He pushed his chair away and stood up. "If you really want to learn, Robin can show you everything you need to know."
"Robin is a wonderful teacher," she said. "But I came here to learn from the best." She let him chew on that for a moment, then added, "Besides, if you have 'things to do,' the least you can do is let me help."
"Why?" he said.
He could have at least sounded a little less revolted, Diana thought. "You're working on the robot case," she said. "You don't believe in coincidences. I've been shackled and nearly killed twice in a week by that thing, and no one's taken advantage of my Amazon weakness quite that way before. The first time was an accident. Now it's deliberate. Somebody's figured it out. You're the world's greatest detective. Surely, you've noticed that."
"If you say so," he said. He turned on his heel and started to walk away.
Diana was having none of it. "Batman!" she called.
As Batman automatically looked back at her, her hand moved -- faster, she calculated, than his eye could see. He raised his hand instinctively, to ward off a blow. When no blow came, he paused, then looked down at his own hand.
Her golden lasso was around his wrist.
"Diana -- " Warning.
"Do you trust me?" she said.
"As much as I trust anyone."
She wasn't sure if that was good or bad. "I'd never hurt you," she said.
"I know it," he replied.
"I have the deepest respect for you. I won't pry. I won't ask you anything you wouldn't ordinarily be inclined to tell me."
"Then why the lasso?"
"Because I want you to really listen to something I have to say."
"And the golden lasso commands obedience," he said. His eyes were firm on hers. "Is that what you want from me?"
"I don't know what I want from you," she said honestly.
His gaze broke from her eyes and travelled lower. "Don't you?" he said.
Diana considered, and rejected, blaming the Batcave's lousy heating. "I'm not going to spar with you," she said. "I only want to tell you: whatever you're thinking, whatever you're feeling -- let yourself. Make your own mind up as to what you want to do about it, but don't discard it out of hand."
He opened his mouth, and tried to speak. He couldn't.
"Did you just try to tell me you don't know what I'm talking about?" said Diana. His glare answered the question for her. "You know better." She lifted the end of lasso she was holding. "Compliance and truth, remember?"
"What makes you think I'd discard it out of hand?" he said.
"I know you," she said. "That's what you do. So don't."
"You know me?" he said. There was the ice and gravel she knew. And oh, yes, he was every inch a Spartan.
"Yes," she said. "I know you better than you think. And I'd like to know you more." She paused. "But I can't, if you won't let me."
Batman said nothing.
Diana reached out to him and loosed her lariat. As she pulled it free, his hand, like steel, caught her wrist. And held it.
Well, she had muscles too.
Diana flexed her elbow easily. Batman's boots slid on the cave floor as she pulled him closer. He was braced with all his might, but against Amazonian strength that didn't matter. He didn't let go of her wrist. Not until they were face-to-face, and his hand almost by her ear. Showing her strength to him this way gave her a strange thrill -- and underneath that, a feeling of something else. Something very like fear.
She wasn't sure who was in control -- her or him -- or who she wanted to be. He made her feel powerful. He made her feel weak. If the only way he'd face up to her this way was in a situation where one or the other of them had seized full control, so be it. She'd let that situation arise. For a brief time, she realized, she wanted to control him, or for him to control her -- and somewhere, between those artificial weaknesses, she wanted the walls that separated them to be broken. To meet him on fair ground, without any obstacles in the way.
She looked into his eyes, and wasn't sure who was trembling harder, him or her.
"Tie me up," she said.
She hadn't been planning for him to leave her.
Hanging upside down by her ankles, trussed in rope from head to foot, her hands cuffed behind her back, Diana could see what Robin had meant by "hard-core." This escape would be a challenge, she knew, and she welcomed it. She'd surprised Batman in escaping from the container, and just now in dragging him across the floor. Diana looked forward to surprising him again.
Then he surprised her: he walked away.
Diana was so stunned she couldn't get words out of her mouth for a moment. When she did, her choice was uninspired.
"Hey!" said Diana sharply. "Where do you think you're going?"
"I told you," Batman said. "I have things to do."
"You also told me it was important to have a spotter. For safety reasons. Remember?"
"Robin or Batgirl will be along shortly," he said. "I don't think you'll get into any trouble in the next few minutes. Besides, I have every confidence in you. You'll get out -- " she could swear the bastard grinned " -- eventually."
Diana swallowed her anger. It wouldn't do her any good in making the escape. She took deep, long breaths, and relaxed as best she could. This was a test. She could beat it. By the time any sidekicks arrived, Diana would be sitting in the big chair by the computer, rearranging all of Batman's meticulously arranged preference settings at random. She concentrated on breathing in through her nose, then out her mouth. Yes, she thought. Calmness was the key. Her anger drifted away.
Then he switched off the lights.
I will kill him, thought Diana. I will wait for him by the cave entrance and I'll pound the Batmobile into scrap and then I'll tear him out of the wreckage and then I'll *really* get mad. For all her earlier thoughts about breaking down walls, what she really wanted to do now was put Batman through one.
First things first, though. She had to get out of these handcuffs.
Diana would have to pick both the locks. Because of the rope ties, just undoing one binding wouldn't get her strength back. Batman, of course, had placed the handcuffs with the keyholes pointing down. The short chain made the hand position terribly difficult. And, of course, she was fighting gravity.
Testing the limits of her bonds, Diana carefully reached for her bracelet, where she'd secured her pick. One of her picks. After her experience in the shipping container, she'd invested in multiple lockpicks and secreted them all over her body. One in her boot. One in a bracelet. One in her tiara. One, even, in her bustier (though she might have to reconsider that; it poked her uncomfortably from time to time). The bracelet was the only one she could reach. Diana slid a finger between her bracelet and wrist and probed.
The pick wasn't there.
After the initial moment of shock, Diana probed at the other end. Then she switched hands; maybe she'd put it in the wrong bracelet. No such luck. She racked her brain, trying to imagine what had become of it. She couldn't have left it in the Watchtower. She distinctly remembered putting it in just before she left her quarters to get into the transporter, before she'd teleported into the Batcave --
-- *before Batman had grabbed her wrist.*
Now it was official. She had to kill him.
Diana dangled, grinding her teeth, and considered her next move. She couldn't think of one. She could work on the ropes, a little, but they went *through* the links on the handcuff chain. And Diana didn't feel up to breaking her hand again. Not to mention that she didn't have anything to do it *with.*
Then she heard the sound of a motorcycle's engine. Someone was in the cave.
The engine cut off. Diana waited patiently. In short order, a small figure emerged from the parking bay and made its way toward the desk and the workout area. The newcomer was grumbling in a light soprano. Wonder Woman wasn't sure, but she thought she made out, "Rassenfrassen rich-as-hell vigilante, too cheap to put a lightswitch in the parking bay, he's gonna make me buy him a friggin' Clapper for Christmas, the dirty rotten..."
"Hello there," said Diana.
"Gaaahhhh!!!" screamed the newcomer. The small figure -- Batgirl, it had to be Batgirl -- jumped nearly a foot in the air, then staggered back, clutching her chest.
"Sorry," Diana said.
"God!" Batgirl bent over, hyperventilating. "I thought you were a new punching bag!"
"It only feels like it, sometimes," said Diana. "Hello. I'm Diana."
"Hi, I'm --" Batgirl paused. "Diana? As in *Wonder Woman,* Diana?"
"Not much of a wonder at the moment, I'm afraid."
Batgirl's mouth fell open. "Wow. Um, I mean... wow. Hi. I... wow."
"He didn't -- " No, of course Batman wouldn't have. "*Robin* didn't tell you?"
"No," said Batgirl mildly and deliberately. "No, he didn't." There was an unspoken *and he is so getting an ass-kicking for that* appended, Diana sensed. "Um. Hi. Again. It's really an honor to meet you. Really. I admire you a lot. Which is probably why Robin set me up like this. Which is why I must kill him. Er, I mean... hi."
"I don't suppose you could give me a hand," said Diana hopefully.
Batgirl's face wrinkled sympathetically. "Sorry," she said. "I don't think I can. If it's any consolation, he did the same thing to me." A sour expression. "Many, many times."
"I understand," said Diana. "Normally, I wouldn't have asked. It just seems that my pick has gone missing."
"Ooh," said Batgirl. "I hate it when he does that. I wish I could help." She sounded honestly disappointed that she couldn't. "He's probably watching on the video cameras right now, though. In case you haven't noticed, the man redefines paranoia -- hey, wait a minute."
"You have an idea?"
"He can't blame me for making an honest mistake. I checked in on you, and you seemed okay, so I hit the showers. It should've been safe to leave my stuff here. There's no way you could have known that I keep a spare pick in my glove."
"I owe you," said Diana with feeling.
Batgirl grinned. She peeled off her gloves and tossed them onto the corner of the desk, just within Diana's reach, if she swung her weight and bent just right at the waist. The cape was next; she tossed that over a chair. Then came the mask, revealing a young woman with red hair and a light spray of freckles across her nose. She was older than Robin, and Flash, but not by much. Early twenties, Diana guessed. Batgirl sat on the floor to remove her yellow boots, then peeled off the leggings and shirt. She tossed those onto the chair, too, leaving her in a sports bra and boxer briefs. Then she stood up, draped her utility belt over her shoulder, and regarded Diana solemnly. "Yep," she said. "Everything seems secure here. I'm off to the showers."
"You're a very kind person, Batgirl," Diana said.
Batgirl smiled. She took a few steps away, then turned back. "You know who, uh...?"
Diana understood: she was being asked if she was in on the secret. She nodded as best she could. "Bruce," she said.
"My name's Barbara," Batgirl said.
"You're a very kind person, Barbara," said Diana.
Barbara grinned at her, then dashed off for the showers.
Diana waited until she heard the water running to start swinging the rope in the direction of the desk and the pick in Barbara's glove.
"He thinks a lot of you, you know," Barbara said.
It had taken some time for the conversation to reach this point. Barbara -- who, it turned out, had been a classics major -- had been bursting with questions about the Amazons and Themyscira. She'd also asked for advice on dealing with the vagaries of male superheroes. There Wonder Woman was of little help. Diana wouldn't have traded away her Amazon upbringing for the world, but it did leave her at a disadvantage when trying to deal with half the human race. Barbara had more insight into men than Diana did. Which brought the conversation around, of course, to Batman.
Diana lounged on the sofa in a comfortable tracksuit that Barbara had raided from Batman's -- Bruce's -- closet. They'd moved upstairs to the manor quite a while ago. Diana wasn't sure Batman would have been so inviting. Not that she hadn't known his identity, the stunt with the blindfold aside. But being sprawled across his sofa, wearing his cast-offs, eating a bowl of his popcorn supplied by Alfred, his butler, somehow made it more official.
Barbara, lying on her stomach on the rug in front of the fire, propped her head on one hand and gestured with the other as she spoke. "While you were in the shower," she said, "I compared notes with Alfred. And Dick -- that's Robin, Dick Grayson -- fessed up, under threat of dire wedgie."
"Yeah, it's where you -- um. Could we maybe discuss vengeance involving Boy Wonder's Underoos later? 'cause I really look up to you and I figured if I ever met you my first impression wouldn't revolve around being the woman who initiated Diana, Princess of Themyscira, into the mysteries of the wedgie."
"All right," said Diana, who was still trying to puzzle out what Underoos were.
"Anyway, what I'm trying to say is, your being around really explains a lot."
Barbara stared at Diana as if she'd grown another head. "How else do you explain Batman being in such a good mood recently?"
This was news to Diana. "He's in a good mood?"
Barbara looked embarrassed. "...well, yeah," she said. "For him. Look, I know that sounds scary, considering the creep trussed you up, abandoned you, and left you hanging like a sack of meat, but hear me out." Barbara raised one finger after another, ticking off points as she spoke. "Yesterday morning, Alfred caught him whistling. *Whistling!* Weird, but not unprecedented. Then, last night, after your whole escape-from-shipping-container stunt -- and that was very cool, by the way -- he didn't go on patrol. Seriously weird. Especially because he was just sitting in the Batcave, staring into space and looking like the cat who got the canary. Oh, and this afternoon -- he took Robin fishing. Now *that* was downright disturbing."
"Have you ever watched Batman try to play 'real people?' It's *creepy.*" Barbara shuddered. "Brrrrr."
"He seems real enough to me," said Diana quietly.
Barbara cocked her head and looked at Diana. "Have you ever met Bruce Wayne?" she said.
"Only briefly," said Diana. "We shared half a dance, in Paris. Then gunmen showed up."
"Ha," said Barbara mirthlessly. "If I only had a nickel for every time *that's* happened." She sighed, then moved from the rug to sit next to Diana on the sofa. Barbara gently rested a hand on Diana's shoulder. "Batman... Bruce... he's all about his masks. He puts one on when he's fighting crime. He puts another one on when he's being a playboy. I think he doesn't really know how to take them off. But he's gotten used to it. I think he even kind of likes it that way. Anything that gives him more control."
Control that Diana had taken from him, with a flick of her lasso and a few well-chosen words. If Barbara only knew. Diana looked into Barbara's face, where the firelight was reflected. For a moment, she felt as if she were back on Themyscira, in the company of her Amazon sisters. "So what would you do, if you were me?" she said.
Barbara bit her lip. "I think you're really good for him," she said after a moment. "At least, you would be. I just don't think he'll let himself admit it."
Except, Diana knew, Bruce didn't have a choice.
The sound of the heavy front door opening startled Diana. She turned reflexively. When she turned back -- the study door was closed; had she expected Bruce to just... what, *materialize?* -- Barbara was grinning at her. Diana shot Barbara the best imitation-Batman glare she could come up with on the spur of the moment. It didn't work. Then again, Barbara probably spent a fair amount of time on the receiving end of the real thing.
The study door flew open.
Batman entered a room in one of two ways: either so quietly you didn't know he was there, or with a cape-swirling flair that drew your attention. Bruce Wayne, by contrast... staggered.
He was rumpled, beaming, and extremely drunk. Lipstick was conspicuous on his face and neck, and his left arm was wrapped around a slim blonde woman with a short, expensively arranged hairdo. The woman froze when she saw Diana.
"Brucie?" said the blonde. "Who's this?"
Bruce Wayne looked over Diana with wide, blinking eyes. "Huh," he said, in the tones of a man who was confused, but not unpleasantly surprised. "Well -- " he brushed a lock of hair behind the blonde's ear and grinned " -- she sure isn't you, babe." He waggled his eyebrows. "Hey, I know!" he said excitedly. "Why don't you just nip into the kitchen and fetch us some Kristal?"
Bruce pointed nonchalantly to the swinging door in the far wall. The blonde shot him a dubious look, but obeyed. Bruce slapped her backside as she left the room, and, instantly sober, turned back as the swinging door closed to face Diana.
She was laughing at him.
He glared, and she knew he'd keep glaring at her at regular intervals for weeks, but she couldn't help it. She only laughed harder.
"Your mask slipped, in Paris," she said. She wiped a tear from her eye. "Goodness. I've never actually seen you do 'Brucie' before. It's... it's..."
"So, 'Brucie,'" said Barbara, "who's the bimbo of the week?"
"Alina Montressori," said Bruce.
Barbara whistled. "Nice." She turned to Diana. "Montressori Senior owns an international security company," she said by way of explanation. "Mucho bucks. Only the best. So, Bruce, tell us: you contemplating a merger?"
"She is," said Bruce. "Aggressively."
Barbara snickered. "Don't let him fool you," she said to Diana. "He may pretend that he hates it, but the truth is... he really, *really* hates it." Bruce glared at her. Barbara ignored him. "All for the sake of that playboy reputation," she confided.
"Really?" said Diana. She was fascinated; the complexities of Batman's secret identity had never occurred to her.
The door opened again and Alina returned with a bottle of champagne and only two glasses. She handed one glass to Bruce and kept another for herself, then turned to face Diana and Barbara. "I don't think I caught your name," she said. "Either of you."
The cattiness in Alina's voice was plain. Diana considered possible strategies -- then decided, why not? and elected to see it and raise. "Our names are for our customers," she said archly. She paused long enough to let that sink in, then added, "Unless she's included in the festivities, Brucie."
As Alina Montressori went white, Diana ran a lock of Barbara Gordon's hair between two fingers. She raised the lock to her face, closed her eyes, and inhaled Barbara's scent deeply through her nose. Then she looked up and stared meaningfully into Alina's eyes.
Alina gulped and took two steps back. She opened and closed her mouth like a fish, then turned and slapped Bruce Wayne hard in the face. Then she was out of the room, storming down the hall to the front door. In the process, she nearly ran over Dick Grayson, whose face was caught in a titanic struggle between his attempt to feign complete innocence of eavesdropping and his all too natural deer-in-headlights expression. His eyes, Diana realized, were locked on the sofa, where Diana still held Barbara's hair between her fingers.
Diana would have laughed, but something in Barbara's scent struck her as familiar. Then she placed it: the blindfold. That whiff of a woman as Batman had fastened it and stepped away.
"He blindfolded you, too," she said. It wasn't a question, but if it had been Barbara's look would have been all the reply Diana needed. Diana shook her head sadly and rose. Then another thought occurred to her. "Does he actually gas women?" she said.
Barbara nodded. "He gassed me."
"No wonder you have trouble keeping dates," Diana said to Bruce. Then she turned and offered the other two a winning smile. "Goodnight, Barbara. It was lovely meeting you. 'night, Dick."
Still frozen in the doorway, Dick Grayson managed a strangled "Erwmgmp."
Barbara waved a hand. "We *have* to do this again sometime," she said, through a far-too-evil grin.
Diana grinned back, then turned to smile winningly at Bruce, who was still holding his jaw. "'night, Brucie," she said.
She slapped his backside on the way out.
Batman caught up to her in the hallway. Even out of costume, there was no mistaking him for Bruce Wayne. Diana didn't break stride. Let him hurry, if he wanted to keep up.
"Somebody's gunning for you," he said.
"Really?" she said. The front door was fast approaching. "What was your first clue? That I got tied up and nearly killed two fights in a row?"
"I thought it was dumb luck on the part of the robot's crew," he said. "'The first time was an accident,' isn't that what you said?" Diana opened her mouth to protest, but he cut her off. "There's no room for assumptions in this business. Detective work means covering *all* your bases, Princess."
"Oh," said Diana, "is that what you were doing?"
"The man who put handcuffs on you that first night was a convicted felon," he said.
Diana stopped dead in her tracks.
"I found his fingerprints on the cuffs," Batman said.
He'd stopped before she did, confident his words would hold her in place. And damn him, Diana thought, it worked. "You *kept* those?" she said. It was the only thing she could think of to say.
"I keep everything," he said.
Diana leaned against the wall. She folded her arms and met his gaze. "All right," she said. "Tell me."
"Alina's father's company provides the uniformed guards for the Gotham warehouse we had that fight in," Batman said. "Alina was kind enough to invite me to a party at the Montressori estate. I took an opportunity to upload her father's personnel files to the Batcomputer. All his employees are bonded. They're fingerprinted and photographed, given background checks. No felon would get through that. Our man didn't. He didn't even try. And his photograph and assumed name didn't match any of Montressori's records, which means he didn't get the job with a false identity. Which means the guard was an imposter. Which means he's part of the robot's crew. Which means whoever was running the robot knew about your weakness from day one, and this whole scheme has been about one person. You. The gems, the statues, all of it -- it's a fraud. You're being targeted."
That was more -- far more -- than Diana had expected. It was a moment before she found her voice.
"Someone's trying to kill me?" she said.
"No," he said. "If somebody were trying to kill you, you'd be dead already."
"Thanks for the vote of confidence."
"Confidence has nothing to do with it," said Batman. "It's physics. I stay well away from that robot because one sweep of its arm would turn me into strawberry jam. Once you were rendered powerless, the slightest blow from it should have killed you instantly. It didn't. The only possible conclusion is that it deliberately tried not to."
"I nearly drowned in the shipping container, the second time we fought it," Diana pointed out. "That doesn't exactly fit into your scenario."
"Because you escaped," said Batman. "Whoever did it wasn't counting on that. The container would have kept you safe enough, for a time. Superman would easily have found you with his X-ray vision before your air ran out. But you'd have had a scare. And needed rescuing again."
"Who? Why?" A disturbing thought occurred to Diana. If Batman was right, then whoever it was had known her weakness from the beginning. "An Amazon?" she said. Aresia was dead. Wasn't she?
"Somebody who enjoys seeing you humiliated," said Batman. "Rescued by men. So my guess is it's not an Amazon." He paused. "Or maybe it's someone who wants to prove you're an inferior one."
Ugh, thought Diana. That would be just like Aresia. But she couldn't see where the robot came in. Or how Aresia (who was *dead!*) would have beaten Luthor's security to steal it. Then she realized something else. "You could have told me your suspicions earlier," she said.
He didn't reply immediately. He glanced down at his feet. Then he raised his head and looked into her eyes. "I wasn't sure," he said. "But if I was right, then you were in no danger. I thought I'd have a chance to see how well my lessons took."
Diana could have sworn she was hallucinating. The words were typical Batman -- smug, arrogant, and smug again -- but the tone in his voice was something she'd never heard before. He actually sounded... *apologetic.*
"How'd I do?" she said.
Batman opened his mouth, then closed it and swallowed. He cleared his throat. "You made me proud," he said quietly.
His voice was husky with emotion. Diana looked at him, and saw a man struggling with his masks. She didn't let him turn away. When he tried, she stepped forward, closing the distance between them. "And tonight?" she said.
"The pick?" he asked. "Or Alina?"
"Did you think either of those would drive me away?" she said. "Or shock me?"
"I don't know," he said very softly.
He wasn't Batman any more. Nor was he "Brucie." Diana saw something she'd caught glimpses of before. Only now she understood. This was Bruce Wayne, with his masks off and nowhere to run.
"You don't have to shock me, Bruce," she said. "All you have to do is make up your own mind."
"I know," he said. His voice had a level of melancholy she'd never heard, and her heart ached for him. Her earlier anger had melted away, and all she wanted was to give him comfort.
"I wasn't," she said gently. "Shocked, you know."
Bruce looked up from his shoes to face her. "So why *did* you pull that stunt with Alina?" he said.
Diana grinned. "What's the matter?" she said. "Don't I get any points for adding to your playboy reputation?"
He smiled at that. It was a softer smile than the Batman's: shy, boyish, and a little nervous. And, in the oddest way, clumsy. As if he'd seen it done, but was terribly out of practice.
"Do you really want to add to my playboy reputation?" he said.
The evening gown fit splendidly, but the high heels were a little -- awkward.
"These shoes make my bottom sway from side to side when I walk," said Diana.
"That's sort of the point," Bruce said.
She considered that as she slid into the back of the car. Bruce followed her, and Alfred closed the door behind them, then climbed into the driver's seat, where a dark partition separated him from his passengers.
Glancing out the window, Diana saw Barbara and Dick peering out the study window at them. Barbara gave Diana an enthusiastic thumbs-up. Dick, shaking his head at Barbara's exuberance, waved to catch Diana's eye. He pointed at Barbara, then himself, and mouthed "Thank you." Evidently, time spent in the manor alone with his crush was a cherished commodity. Even if Barbara did seem to view Dick as more of a little brother than a potential suitor.
A small sound from Bruce caught Diana's attention. She turned to see him lean forward, reach around behind him, then pulled something hard and flat out of a back pocket. He tossed it onto the far seat. Diana glanced after it curiously.
Oh, she realized. A little black book; Flash had talked about those. That's where he keeps his lists of women. Alina Montressori was in there, somewhere between the covers, under the gold filigree. When she looked back at Bruce, she saw he was glaring sullenly at the book, as if it were a small, yappy dog that might do something to stain the upholstery.
"Do you ever feel that you're a prisoner of all this?" said Diana.
Bruce shrugged. "A lot of people have jobs they don't like very much. My job is just to pretend I'm the happiest man in the world."
He smiled fleetingly, putting on his "Brucie" face. Now that she'd seen Bruce Wayne for real, Brucie didn't strike her as comical. Far from it.
"I've made things difficult for you, haven't I?" Diana said.
"Things were difficult for me before I ever met you," said Bruce.
"Have I asked so much?"
"You haven't asked at all," he said.
True. She'd ordered. Diana felt another twinge of guilt. "I'm sorry," she said. "I'm not proud of it. Quite the opposite, in fact. I -- it --" She realized her hands were groping air, on her lap, as she tried in vain for words. Diana gripped her knees, and hoped she looked less foolish. "You're a very difficult man to deal with," she said.
"I know," he said. He had the good grace to sound embarrassed, at least.
"Do you want me to ask?" she said.
He seemed unsettled at the thought. "No," he said. "If you ask, then I'll have to answer you."
"Are you afraid that I won't like your answer?" she said. "Or that you won't?"
Bruce didn't say anything for a long minute, and she worried he might not say anything at all. Then, finally, he took a deep breath and spoke quietly. "I made a decision about my life a very long time ago," he said. "It was a hard choice, but I made up my mind to live with it. I didn't expect that I'd ever have to make it all over again."
Because she'd forced him to. "Should I leave?" Diana said.
Bruce hesitated, then shook his head. "No," he said. "Not yet. Let's... let's try to be happy, for a little while."
"Why?" said Diana. "Are you sure it's not going to be a vain exercise?"
"No," he said. "But as you said once, we never got to finish our dance."
She'd forgotten that he was a graceful dancer.
She'd forgotten that his arms were strong, but gentle; that he telegraphed his motions precisely; that his bare hand was rough against hers, incongruously so given the perfection of his manicure. She'd forgotten that he moved on the dance floor with the same elegance with which he fought. And she'd forgotten how good he looked doing it.
This time, Diana thought, she would remember. Very carefully.
Napoleon was Gotham City's finest elite club -- the place to see and be seen, Bruce had said. Diana hadn't seen much other than him, though she supposed she'd been seen enough. Being recognized was common enough, even on those occasions that she donned civilian garb. But she'd never been in a situation in which she was expected to recognize people back.
"Don't look," said Bruce, "but you've just created a small earthquake in the entertainment industry's economy."
"Hm?" said Diana. She was halfway through a twirl, which was no small feat in her new shoes.
"The cell phones are out," said Bruce. He placed his hand on the small of her back and gracefully sidestepped an elderly Gotham society matron. "I expect that two recording stars and an award-winning actress are firing their publicists as we speak."
"That seems excessive," said Diana. "Just because I'd never heard of them?"
"It's not you personally," said Bruce. "They fire their publicists every time it's brought to their attention that there's *anybody* who's never heard of them."
"Oh," said Diana. She arched her back as Bruce lowered her into a dip. "Well, I'm doing my part for the economy, I suppose. 'The business of America is business.'"
"Calvin Coolidge?" he said. "I take it you're reading history now."
"I can't remain wholly ignorant of Man's World, if I'm living in it," Diana said. She smiled. "Although perhaps I should take my nose out of your books long enough to see a film or attend a concert every now and then. If only for the sake of those poor publicists."
Bruce opened his mouth to reply, but was interrupted by applause from the other dancers as the band finished its tune. He stepped back from Diana and clapped politely.
The next song was much slower. Diana noticed that several of the other women had placed their hands around their partners' necks. She copied the fashion. Bruce's hands met in the small of her back. Oh, she thought. That is nice. Then Bruce's head moved forward and his cheek came to rest against hers.
They weren't doing much of anything but stepping back and forth while moving in a small circle, Diana realized. She didn't mind.
"I like this," she said very quietly into Bruce's ear.
"So do I," he said as softly.
His breath was warm against her skin. It was nothing like the horror Diana had imagined, growing up, that being so close to a man would be. "You *gave this up?*" she said.
"All but the appearance," he said. "I made my choice. It wasn't easy."
"But the masks make it easier to deal with."
"Yes." He sounded surprised that she understood.
"Bruce..." said Diana. She closed her eyes. It was easier to say if she didn't look at him.
"I'm excited when you bind me," she said. "It gives a certain freedom. In my mind. My universe becomes very small. There's the problem." She took her hands away from his chest, briefly, and raised her crossed wrists, miming bonds. "And then there's you."
He didn't say anything, but she felt the intensity of his gaze increase. His hand tightened on her back. Diana drew closer to him. Their bodies pressed together.
"But I know that it's a game," she said. Her fingers lightly traced the outline of his collar. "You can't go about in bondage all the time."
Bruce closed his eyes. "I can't change the way I am, Diana," he said.
"I know," she said. "I wouldn't want you to."
"You're not tempted to give me any further orders?" he said.
"Only one," she said, then wished she hadn't.
He waited. She didn't want to say it. She couldn't say it. She *shouldn't* --
"More than anything else in the world," Diana said quietly, "I wish I could wrap my lasso around you and tell you to be happy."
Her voice shook as she spoke, and she was embarrassed. Then she looked up and saw Bruce's face. His lips parted, but no words came out. Bruce's eyes reflected the light with a softness he tried to blink away.
Then he glanced over her shoulder.
"Photographers," he said, stepping back.
"It's all right," Diana said. "We were photographed together in Paris, weren't we?"
"Not like this," he said. "I don't want to damage your reputation."
Diana tightened her grip on his neck and looked into his eyes. "I'll worry about my reputation," she said.
It occurred to her that he might kiss her. She didn't know what she'd do if he did. Diana realized that one way to circumvent that problem would be to kiss him first. That doesn't make any sense at all, objected one part of her brain. Oh, shut up, said most of the rest. She interlaced her fingers on his neck and tilted her head slightly --
"Hit me," Bruce said.
"Hit me," he repeated. "In the face. With the palm of your hand."
Was that his plan all along? To put on a public show? "I'm not going to hit you for no reason," she said.
His response wasn't what she expected. He grinned, the stupid "Brucie" grin. And then slid his hand down *inside her backless dress* and took a firm grip on her bare rear end.
She decked him.
As he landed in the punchbowl, Diana realized that flashbulbs were going off.
The new edition of the Gotham Gazette, Gotham City's much-reviled (and even-more-read) tabloid, landed on the monitor desk with a *thwap.*
Blinking at it, Diana realized that she was on the cover. The photographer had tripped the shutter just as her punch had lifted Bruce Wayne into the air. Inset was a smaller picture of the moment Bruce had grabbed her posterior: Diana's face was turned into the camera lens, and the shot had perfectly captured her look of ire.
The headline, in screaming type more suitable for a triple homicide or developments in a foreign war, read, BRUCIE, WILL YOU EVER LEARN?
"This is officially the greatest thing ever," Flash said.
"Jealous?" she said.
"Ha!" said Flash. "As if! Okay, only slightly. Tempered by the fact that you probably broke rich boy's jaw. I hope you know you're in for a Bat-lecture." Flash's voice deepened theatrically. "'You were in *my* city. Without permission. Now you're on the front page. Of *my* newspaper. But what really bothers me is, somebody raided my closet at the Watchtower, and in that picture you're wearing *my* evening gown.'"
"It's not my color," said a grim voice from behind Flash.
A red blur streaked across Diana's vision. When it cleared, Flash was gone, and Batman stood in his place.
"He had a point," said Diana. "It *was* your evening gown."
"Trust me," he said. "Wouldn't fit."
Diana almost laughed, before she remembered she was mad at him. Then she noticed that the left side of his jaw was purple and swollen. It couldn't be comfortable with the cowl. "How's your -- "
Batman brought his arm out from under his cape. He was holding a bouquet of long-stemmed roses.
"My rear end can't possibly feel that wonderful," she said.
"Last night," he said, "ensured my cover for the next year and a half, minimum. That front page means parties I can skip out on. Debutantes I don't have to date. Time I can spend beating up criminals instead of acting like a dim-witted fop." He paused, then added, "And don't sell your rear end short."
Diana glared at him, but took the flowers. "I should hit you more often," she said. The roses smelled lovely.
"You could try."
"Tempting," Diana said. "Do I get to tie you up first?"
When he didn't say anything, she looked up from the roses, expecting a patented Bat-glare. Instead, he looked stunned. Diana made a note to remember the moment. She'd never seen Batman flabbergasted before. "It's a joke," she said. "Laugh."
He cleared his throat instead. "Any sign of the robot?" he said.
Back to business. Some things never changed.
"None," she said. "Kal's been flying across half of North America searching for it. I get in radio contact every so often to remind him to eat, sleep, or take a shower."
"That's good of you," he said. "But I don't think he's going to have much luck."
Batman reached over her shoulder and pressed several buttons on the console. A file opened on one of the smaller monitors.
"I've been tracking potential targets," he said. "Gold, jewels, cash. Art."
The level of detail was impressive. "You drew this up in the past few days?"
"No, I always do this," he said. "Criminals are a superstitious and cowardly lot, but super-criminals are obsessive and predictable. I find it's worth my time to have some idea of where they may strike next."
That explained the 'feline-related valuables' subheading. "And the robot stages a big heist to draw us out, makes an opportunity for its henchmen -- whose pay is a promise of the takings from the heist -- to get the drop on me, then escapes underwater," Diana said. "What were you looking for? Combination of value and mass, proximity to waterfront?"
That got half a smile out of him. "I'm impressed," he said. "You're turning into a detective."
"You're a bad influence," said Diana. She looked over the list. "There are some good probabilities here. Easy to recruit some henchmen for this kind of thing. Why hasn't it struck any of these?"
"I don't think it's going to try to draw us out anymore," Batman said. "We almost shut it down the last time. It's not going to come out on its own and hope to get lucky again."
Diana shook her head.
"What?" he said.
"I'm just trying to reconcile 'giant robot' with 'lucky,'" she said. "Think about it: why is somebody smart enough to break into one of Lex Luthor's secure hideouts and steal one or his prize toys following a plan that depends on a combination of dumb luck and us being too stupid to figure out what's going on?"
When Batman said nothing, Diana looked over at him. She'd seen the same look on Robin's face, when he coached her through a difficult tie. Now she knew where he'd gotten that from. "Go on," Batman said.
"There is no 'on,'" said Diana. "I just can't figure out why anyone went to the trouble of stealing the robot in the first place, just to tie me up and pummel me a bit. It's just a waste. I bet you could think of a dozen better ways to use my weakness against me. Or make me look bad."
"Yes," he said. "*I* could."
Diana rolled her eyes. "At least there's no bruise on your ego."
"I keep it well-maintained," he said. "But maybe it's some small consolation to know you're right."
Had she hit him harder than she thought? "Who are you?" she said. "What have you done with Batman?"
That got her a little mouth-quirk. "I should have realized it sooner," he said. "But I'm used to supervillains obsessing on me, even to the point of absurdity. It gives me a bit of a blind spot. I think you're right. The two halves of the scheme don't fit together."
"What does that mean?" said Diana. "Two perpetrators?"
Batman shook his head. "Stealing the robot took real skill," he said. "Nobody that good would put up with a partner so incompetent. We're looking for an amateur. Someone of limited skills. Not a professional criminal."
A thought occurred to Diana. "What if the theft was a paid job?"
"Then our enemy isn't skilled," said Batman. "And we've got a complete idiot on our hands."
"Why is that not reassuring?" Diana said.
"Because idiots are dangerous," he said. "But they're also vulnerable. And if you show them something bright and shiny, they grab it."
"I take that to mean you have a plan," she said.
"You *do* know me well," he said.
"Did you ever doubt it?" said Diana.
He smirked at her. "You get invitations," he said. "Requests to speak. To be interviewed. To sign autographs. Offers for personal appearances."
"Yes," said Diana. The entire League got those. Most of them were politely declined with a form letter, although Batman's were invariably shredded and dropped on Earth, to burn up in re-entry.
Diana looked at him keenly. Something in his voice gave her a dark suspicion. "Why," she asked, "do I have the feeling that I already did?"
"It is my great pleasure to be here at -- " Diana surreptitiously checked her notes " -- the opening of the Camden, New Jersey Monster Truck Arena -- " Note to self: kill Batman. " -- which I hope will give joy to citizens for many years to come."
Wild applause greeted her remarks. She scanned the next paragraph of her speech, but got only half-way through it when the flashbulbs from the army of press photographers turned her vision into a field of dancing spots. Fine; she'd wing it. She might even remember most of the remarks that had been prepared for her.
"This arena will be a home to four-by-four power. To tractor pulls, motocross, and the mighty Truckasaurus." Truckasaurus? Diana thought. A roar of engine noise caught her attention, and as the press corps turned its attention stage left, she saw a giant mechanical beast rear up on its hind legs and spit fire. Oh. "And also to the power of will, of muscle, and of bone. The riders of the rodeo, and the men and women who fit themselves in and around the steel of these fine machines -- the Monster Truck Arena is your Colosseum!"
The audience erupted again. Diana scanned the skyline, or what she could see of it. No sign of Luthor's robot. She hoped it was on its way. Personal appearances by Wonder Woman were rare events, and this one had been trumpeted in the newspapers, television, and radio, as happening SUNDAY -- SUNDAY -- SUNDAY. Alone, unprepared for battle, without visible back-up from the League -- only an idiot would pass this opportunity up.
Then again, maybe their opponent *was* an idiot.
And only an idiot speechwriter would give a Greek heroine a speech containing a Roman metaphor. Diana swept the pages aside and provided her own conclusion.
"I leave you with these words," said Diana. "Not everyone can be victorious in this arena. This was so in the Olympics of old; it is so even in the paradise of the Elysian Fields. But for those who do not attain the crown of olive leaves, there is yet consolation. Win, and you win glory for yourself -- lose well, and you bring glory to the Games!"
As Diana raised her arms and stepped back from the podium to more cheers, she caught a glimpse of something on one of the lighting rigs. At least Batman hadn't abandoned her. Or Superman -- Clark Kent was in the audience, somewhere. If the robot showed up, it wouldn't be expecting all of them. They'd have that much of an edge, at least. And advance knowledge. Supposedly, Bruce Wayne was looking into acquiring a local shipping company or three. He'd been in town several days, and hadn't spent one night in a hotel bar, or local nightclub, or even made a quick jaunt to Manhattan for an evening of nightclubbing with women far too young for him, Batman had told her -- not, she was amused to note, as reassurance, but boastfully, as if he'd lost a great deal of unwanted weight and was eager to share the news with everyone he met.
Diana's good humor had been tempered when he added that all the men he'd met had been more than usually eager to shake his hand.
Members of the crowd, with hands outstretched, pressed around the barricades lining her way off the stage. Diana shook as many as she could. It seemed the thing to do. One young man with a shock of reddish-blond hair caught her attention. "That was inspirational," he said reverently.
It was Flash, she realized. She'd never seen him in full-on civilian garb before. Especially not --
"You're wearing a Truckasaurus T-shirt?" said Diana.
"You're *not?*" he said. He raised his hand, which held another shirt. It looked about her size. "C'mon! It's Truckasaurus!"
Oh, what the hell, she thought, and put it on. The photographers were delighted, and the resulting flashbulbs blinded her entirely for a good minute. Diana found she was enjoying herself. The Monster Truck Arena was loud, and overblown, and it was a waste of manpower and preparations in laying this trap. But, thought Diana, it *was* fun.
And then the floor of the arena exploded.
Luthor's robot, shaking dirt off itself, emerged from the depths of its tunnel and charged into the center of the stadium. It flexed its limbs and turned from side to side. Looking, Diana realized, for her. The crowd roared its approval. Then the robot began to move toward the seating, and panic set in as people realized it wasn't part of the show.
Diana hadn't realized Batman had swung down from above until she turned to see him standing beside her. "I've activated the Javelin," he said.
"We can't fight the robot in the stadium," said Diana. "We'll have to lure it away. I thought it would hit me on the way out; I didn't think it would tunnel *in.*"
"Nobody did," said Superman. He hovered above her, tucking in his cape. "Diana and I will hit it high. Batman, get to the Javelin and have it ready. Flash -- "
"Look!" cried someone in the crowd.
Truckasaurus was on the move. Slowly, clumsily, it dragged itself across the arena floor. Luthor's robot stopped in its tracks and watched the smaller metal behemoth as Truckasaurus settled into position. Truckasaurus's metal jaws opened wide as the machine reared up on its hind legs to stand between the robot and the crowd.
"That's the bravest thing I've ever seen," said Flash.
Truckasaurus spat fire.
The robot's arm swept in a casual arc. The back of its hand hit Truckasaurus in the mouth with devastating force. Truckasaurus's mighty head was ripped away. The metal skull flew through the air and buried itself in one of the dirt hills set up in the arena floor.
"Truckasaurus!" cried Flash.
"Let it go," Batman said.
Truckasaurus fell, spewing oil and flame. The fire spread to the line of monster trucks and dirtbikes awaiting the inaugural lap of the arena.
"Er," said Superman. "Perhaps we should get the people out of the stadium."
The explosions began.
The next few minutes were a blur of screams, panic, and violence.
With Superman at work containing the fires, Batman off to the Javelin, and Flash conducting the fastest mass evacuation in history, Diana was left to handle the robot. Now that she knew the robot's purpose, she was looking forward to it. The robot wouldn't kill her. It didn't plan to kill other people, or destroy any more property than it had to in a quest to make Diana look bad. Diana was free to do exactly what she wanted. And it felt *good.*
She stepped out into the arena and waved her arms. "Hey!" she called. The robot didn't hear her over the crowd. Diana ripped a tire loose from one of the burning monster trucks, twirled quickly, and hurled the tire like a discus. It beaned the robot in the temple. The massive head turned to regard Diana with its one good eye.
"Hi there," she said. "Remember me?"
The robot charged. So did Wonder Woman.
At the last instant, she planted her feet, then broke left, flying. The robot's hand missed her, barely. Staying low, she moved to its feet, where she pounded its ankle. No effect, so she moved up to the knee. There she met with more success. Her Amazonian strength produced very satisfying damage to the metal. If she could reduce its mobility, and hold it long enough for her teammates to add their weight, there was no question that she would win.
The robot lifted its foot to kick her away. That was what Diana had been waiting for. She moved under its foot, then heaved.
She wouldn't have been able to hold out against a stomping attack with the robot's full weight behind it, but she'd caught it off-guard. The robot clutched desperately at the air, trying to compensate, then overbalanced and toppled into a section of empty seats. It took out a chunk of concrete balcony along the way.
Wonder Woman didn't wait to press the advantage. She rose into the air and flew to the robot, which lay in a pile of rubble. If she could reach it before it recovered, she could end this now --
The fallen robot lifted its arm, and the six-barrelled laser cannon emerged.
Diana threw up her bracelets. The energy cascaded around her, and the world disappeared into a violet curtain. She couldn't keep up this defense for long: her bracelets might hold out, but her arms wouldn't. She could already feel the heat rising.
She flew up as quickly as she could, putting what remained of the second-tier balcony between herself and the robot. The lasers ripped into the concrete, sending another shower of debris onto her opponent. As the robot disappeared under concrete and dust, Diana realized that among the debris on the balcony was the monster truck tire she had thrown at the robot.
Diana grabbed the tire, flew toward the robot, and jammed the tire down over the barrels of the laser cannon. As soon as the robot realized she was there, it fired. The tire engaged with the robot's armor, preventing the gun from spinning. Only one barrel, the one on top, fired. Diana grabbed that barrel and bent the tip in a U.
The robot swatted her away, hard.
Wonder Woman flew across the arena and slammed into a dirt hill. She clawed herself free of the loose earth and wiped grit from her eyes. Her hand caught something solid, and she used it to lift herself to her feet. The robot, she realized, was using the concrete stairs of the arena to do the same. It regained its feet as she did, and for a strange moment the two combatants regarded each other. Then Diana saw what her hand was on, and realized she had a weapon.
Diana lifted the severed head of Truckasaurus. It was too awkward to throw easily, and she didn't want to take the time to deploy her lasso. She tossed the head up in the air, then flew back and up slightly as she swung her leg with all her strength.
Her drop-kick sent Truckasaurus's head whizzing through the air. With a crunch of rending metal, it put out the robot's remaining eye.
The robot reeled. It made a strange, grinding sound as its arms windmilled in space -- looking for her, looking for a support, she wasn't sure which -- to regain its balance. She thought it might freeze in place; she thought it might fall. She wasn't expecting it to lower its head and charge.
Diana realized it was on a collision course with the wall. Getting the robot out had been a good plan when thousands of spectators had been inside the arena. Not when they'd been evacuated to supposed safety outside. Diana had to stop it, but with its advantage in mass she might as well have tried to stop a rolling mountain. She tried anyway. The robot pushed her blindly aside and continued its headlong charge.
The stadium wall exploded out, and the robot staggered into the night. Diana followed it.
"Go!" Superman called after her. "I'm right behind you!" Diana caught a quick glimpse of him using his freezing breath to shut down one of the fires that had broken out among the cars. Then she was gone.
Diana launched herself into the air and soared over the parking lot. The robot already had reached the meadow beyond. Diana picked up a car the robot had left crushed in its wake and hurled it. Her aim was off, but good enough: the car hit the robot's knee, and Luthor's monster staggered. It threw out an arm to break its fall, and smashed a billboard reading COMING SOON -- MEADOWLARK WATERFRONT APARTMENTS! The robot got back to its feet and slowly staggered into the construction zone. Diana gritted her teeth and headed into the meadow, after it.
The communicator in Diana's ear buzzed. "I've got the Javelin," said Batman. "Control frequencies are jammed. Status?"
"Robot's still moving," said Diana. "I'm on it."
"I'm in the stadium," said Superman. "Everyone's evacuated, but there are still some fires below ground level." He paused. "Oh, no."
"What?" said Batman.
"X-ray vision. Fuel tanks. Under the ground. Basement level. Lots of them."
"Get out of there!" said Batman.
"I've got it!" said Superman. "I've got it!"
A massive explosion ripped through the night. The ground shook, and the concussive force was staggering, even to Diana. A vast pillar of smoke and flame rose into the air above the arena. The remaining arena walls directed the fireball upward, away from the people on the ground. But the arena shook under the strain. Then, as Diana watched from the far meadow, the first piece of concrete fell. Then another.
The arena collapsed on Superman.
"He don't got it," said a weak voice.
Flash, now in his uniform, was lying flat on his back in the grass.
"Are you all right?" Diana said.
"Hey," he said faintly, "*you* carry thirty thousand people out of a stadium and to a safe distance in less than two minutes and see how you feel."
Diana rested a hand on his forearm. "I have to go after it," she said.
"That's fine," Flash said. He could barely lift his head. The effort clearly had taxed even his super-fast metabolism beyond its ability to bear. Under her hand, his muscles were trembling from exhaustion. "I'm just gonna lie here for a minute."
As Diana raced off, she could hear him snoring.
"Ow," said Superman's voice in her ear. "It's okay. I'm all right. Just a little buried." He paused. "Er, can anybody tell me which way is up?"
Diana ignored him and ran.
The robot, blind as it was, was making its way through the construction zone toward the Delaware River beyond. Diana thought she glimpsed a man on one balcony, staring at the robot; he probably hadn't planned for this when he'd come to work late. She lifted into the air and cleared the beginning of the construction zone in time to see that the robot had almost reached the water. She wasn't going to make it in time --
Then the Javelin rose up from the waterline and loosed a barrage of missiles into the robot's head.
The robot staggered back. Its hands cleaved the air, frantically trying to intercept the League's shuttle. Its movements were clumsy, and its arms too short. It was a hair's breadth between escape and capture --
Diana keyed her communicator. "Hit the knee!" she yelled.
The robot fell.
It twisted as it collapsed, falling limply like a child's doll. Its arms, outstretched, fell to either side of one of the buildings, and its head and massive torso crashed partially through the wall. There it lay, its knees on the ground, its arms around the building, looking all the world like a drunk using a lamppost for support.
Diana pumped her fist in the air in celebration, and allowed herself a hoarse victory cheer. Then she keyed her communicator. "What kept you?" she said.
"Timing is everything," said Batman. "Go get him."
Wonder Woman didn't wait for him to set the Javelin down. She soared up to the robot's chest level, then powered her way through an adjacent building wall. The apartment inside was unfinished. It would be nice when construction was completed, but Wonder Woman was in no mood to spare the builders' work. She kicked a bedroom door off its hinges, smashed into a hallway, and found herself face-to-face with the crippled robot.
Its chest had smashed through the window at the end of a hallway, with apartments on either side. The slumping head had fallen through several more floors, and now its dead gaze stared at Wonder Woman through the hallway ceiling. She wasn't sure if the building could support the load, or for how long. Best to get this over with as quickly as possible.
She ripped the chestplate of the robot open.
There was no one inside.
Wonder Woman's jaw dropped. She took a reflexive step back. She wondered how -- it was impossible -- Batman had jammed the control frequencies --
Then a bolt of lightning hit her in the back.
Wonder Woman fell prone to the floor. She was dimly aware of the rope winding around her wrists -- dammit, not *again;* she tried to take advantage of Batman's lessons, but only remembered the simplest before a slap in the face jarred her back to reality. A powerful hand clenched around her throat and lifted her off the floor, and Diana looked, at last, into the face of her enemy.
And found it was one she recognized.
"*Zeus,*" she said. "I might have known."
"Yes," he said. "But you didn't. Makes you feel rather stupid, doesn't it?"
Looking over Zeus's shoulder -- and the robot's -- Diana could glimpse the smoking rubble of what had been the Monster Truck Arena. Superman was buried in there, somewhere. She hoped he'd figured out which way was up.
She shook her head to clear it and focused on the smirking Greek god of the skies.
"No wonder the robot didn't shut down when Batman disrupted the control frequencies," she said. "You didn't need them. And you didn't need to be inside, either."
Zeus nodded proudly, glancing at the robot. "Electricity," he said. "It's like thunderbolts. Only you can do far more interesting things with it." An odd expression crossed his face: nostalgia, tinged with embarrassment. "Do you know the most interesting thing I did with thunderbolts in the old days? I got drunk at one of Dionysius's parties and fried an entire herd of Apollo's sacred cows." He laughed. It sounded hollow, forced. "And I thought I had power then. I had *nothing.* These mortals. Today, the poorest peasant in this city throws a little thunderbolt across the room at a whim, just because he wants to read a book before he goes to bed."
Diana met his gaze evenly. "But you still have power over me," she said.
He nodded with satisfaction. "Yes," he said happily, "I do."
"Is that what this is about?" said Diana. "Delayed revenge for Omphale's long-ago slight, just so you can remind yourself that you're a god?"
"Being a god is overrated," said Zeus. "Prayers to answer, sacrifices to accept, temples to maintain..." He shuddered with distaste. "No, I'd accustomed myself to a peaceful retirement some time ago. And then you came along. Traipsing around in your little star-spangled outfit -- your adoptive nation just *loves* that, by the way... actually, come to think of it, so do I. Woof." He smirked at her. "If you weren't one of those Themysciran bitches, I might actually make you mother of a demi-god."
"Thanks, but no thanks," said Diana.
"You wouldn't be in a position to argue," Zeus said. He paused for reflection. "Though I can't say it's an easy decision as to what position you actually would be in."
Diana almost laughed; would have, if his fingers hadn't been like iron around her neck. "That's the emptiest threat I've ever heard," she said. "You like your women willing. Not to mention pliable, overawed, and easily impressed."
Zeus casually lifted Diana off the floor and shoved her hard into a wall. Powerless from the bond he'd placed on her wrists, Diana couldn't resist. The wall crunched around her and cascaded dust into her eyes and hair. She felt a knot rising on the back of her skull. He pushed harder, and Diana sank deeper into the wall. Easily impressed, she thought groggily.
Zeus held her tightly by her throat and let her hang.
"I read the news stories about you," he said. "Did you think I wouldn't? You paint my son Hercules as a gross beast, a despoiler of women... and the mortals love you for it. He's one of their greatest legends; your presence proves his deeds are true -- but do they honor him? No. They're mad for Amazons, Amazons, Amazons."
He dropped her. Diana fell out of the wall and onto the floor, where she lay, desperately trying to suck air through her battered throat. Zeus, watching her, laughed scornfully. "Well," he said, "let them see. See what a pathetic thing is an Amazon. How weak. How frail their vaunted female warrior, who at every step needs to be rescued by *men.*"
A dark shadow flitted by the window.
"Ah," said Zeus. "A case in point."
He grasped Diana by her bound wrists and hauled her to her feet. Diana leaned against the wall for balance. Her legs were wobbly. "Why now?" she managed to rasp.
"An opportunity presented itself," Zeus said. "You might tell your acquaintance Mr. Luthor that if he doesn't wish his activities to catch the attention of the gods, there are wiser places to build a hidden cache than a cave on Mount Olympus."
Where Zeus's power was strongest. He'd walked right through Luthor's vaunted security, thought Diana. And used her weakness because he knew it, and the giant robot to hide behind because it was there and big and because Batman was right: he *was* an idiot.
Unfortunately, he happened to be an extremely powerful idiot.
"That opportunity's lost now," she said.
"Only for the moment," he said. "But I'll come back every so often. To make your life more interesting. To *remind you of your place.*"
He would. And she'd never really beat him. Zeus was immortal and possessed of godly powers, and for all his mental inadequacies he was terribly single-minded. He'd just come back. And come back, and come back, and come back. Like Batman's obsessive foes, she thought. Perhaps she was dizzy from the knock on her head, but it seemed like quite a demotion: from king of the gods to just another supervillain.
And then Diana saw past the powers, past the godliness, past the vanity, and saw the petty core of Zeus's motivation.
"You're not angry with me because of Hercules's reputation," she said. "Or that I publicized what was done to the Amazons. You're angry because I remind you of it. It's not the people's opinion of you and your son you're concerned with, Zeus. It's your own."
That was probably the wrong thing to say. Zeus bared his teeth in anger. He grabbed her throat again, lifting her off the floor, then drew back his other hand to form a new thunderbolt. At point-blank range, without her powers, it probably would take Diana's head clean off. The binding cord was snagged on her bracelets. If only she could get her hands to work -- all she needed was a moment of distraction -- where the hell was Batman?
Ah, thought Diana. The cavalry.
Batman stood at the end of the hallway. He held a grapnel gun pointed at Zeus, and his other hand kept a batarang cocked and at the ready. "Don't," he said.
Zeus lowered his hand. "Or what?" he said with real curiosity.
"Or you'll answer to me."
"Oh," said Zeus, sounding mildly concerned at the thought. "All right, then." He began to lower Diana toward the ground -- and then turned and cast his lightning bolt. It smashed into the floor where Batman was no longer standing. An open apartment door in the hallway testified to the direction he had taken.
"You're quick!" Zeus said merrily. "Nicely done. Though I should tell you, I'm a little out of practice."
"I'm not," said Batman. "Neither are my friends. Who should be along soon."
Zeus glanced out the window. Diana, hoping, looked with him. In the rubble of the arena, one of the few standing girders creaked and fell over on top of the already substantial pile.
"Yes," said Zeus doubtfully. "Well, that's nice for you."
"But if you leave her -- and us -- alone," said Batman, "I'm willing to offer you a trade."
Zeus raised his eyebrows. "Really?" he said, sounding astounded at the concept. "And why should I take it? When I can just embarrass her further and make her life miserable?"
"Because that's more trouble to you than it's worth. Because it takes time, and I don't see you as the patient type." Batman paused. "And because it's better for you than the alternative."
Batman's voice was closer. Diana was puzzled. She turned and -- oh. He was crouched on the robot's shoulder, not far behind Zeus. Zeus was visibly surprised. He looked at the doors Batman had dived out of, then into, then back over his shoulder where Batman lurked, just outside the window at the end of the hall.
"You *are* good," said Zeus admiringly.
"Yes," said Batman. "And I'm the weakest one in our group. Trust me: you don't want to take us on when we know you're coming."
Zeus considered. "What are you offering?" he said.
Batman held up something. Diana could barely see it. It was rectangular, small, and black, and about three inches square. Something in gold filigree that she couldn't make out. Then she realized what it was, and if she'd had the breath she would have laughed.
"And what," said Zeus, "is that? What is that that I could possibly want it enough to ignore the insult to the honor of my son?"
"Bruce Wayne's little black book," said Batman.
The iron pressure on Diana's throat eased, and the tips of her toes found purchase as Zeus lowered her back toward the ground.
"I see you know his reputation," said Batman. "Let me assure you this doesn't disappoint. They're all women. They're all famous. They're all beautiful. And the shower of gold coins bit? Trust me. Still works."
A grin slowly spread across Zeus's face -- and was just as quickly shuttered. "My son's humiliation --"
"Your son has ever-lasting fame," said Batman. "What's a small joke at his expense, to the glory of the man who beat the Hydra?" He paused. "And you're still a god. You have the power and the virility you've always had. With willing women -- and I guarantee there will be plenty -- " he waved the black book "-- you can make more sons."
There was a moment of silence. Then Zeus laughed, loud and long. "And my part?" he said. "Shall I let her loose? Or would you like her this way?"
"I'm not particular," Batman said. Diana made a mental note to get him for that, later. Maybe. Because his bargaining had given her the moment she'd been hoping for.
"I actually have half a mind to let you go," Zeus said to Wonder Woman. "Such a wonderful coda. Because it leaves your humiliation complete. You needed to be saved, yet again. By a *man.*"
Zeus's smarmy grin vanished as Diana's suddenly free hand grasped his throat -- and her other hand, a weak spot lower down. She squeezed forcibly and lifted the god of the skies easily off the ground. The loop of rope dangled limply from one of her wrists. Gods couldn't be killed, but they could be hurt. She took full advantage of the fact.
Then she powerlifted him over her head, slamming him into the robot's face hard enough to leave an eight-inch-deep dent, pulled him down, and threw him through a wall.
Wonder Woman didn't give him time to pick himself up. She tore through the wall and stamped on his ankle hard enough to dent tank armor. Zeus's yelp of pain was curiously satisfying. And it proved something she'd suspected from his words: retirement was hard on gods whose worship was forgotten.
"You're weakened, Zeus," she said. "You can sucker-punch me with a thunderbolt. Take me on when I'm tied up. But you're not the god you used to be. In a straight fight, maybe you'll win. But it'll take time. And I guarantee you'll be hurt. I don't like getting hurt -- but I've gotten used to it. You haven't."
Zeus shrank away, raising his hands in the air and cowering behind them. "The terms are clear," said Zeus quickly. "I'm willing to accept an accomodation -- "
"Really?" said Diana, drawing back her fist. "I'm not." She'd always wondered how long it would take a god to regenerate a punctured skull --
"No!" cried Zeus. "It's a deal! It's a deal!"
"Diana!" Batman said.
She turned to rebuke him for presuming to command her --
-- and realized what she was doing.
She turned and looked back at her fallen enemy. The pathetic, broken being that once was king of the gods. Cowering before her. Because, for all his power, he was desperately afraid of pain.
Diana was torn between contempt and an unexpected pity.
"How about that?" Diana said, lowering her fist. "He saved you, too."
Zeus seemed to regain some of his bravado as she stepped away. At least, he made a feeble effort. "You see?" he said. "Women! You have to control them! That was always *my* mistake."
"I'll bear it in mind," said Batman with a perfect poker face.
Diana touched Zeus's shoulder as he began to limp away. "Just be glad he made you an offer before I did," she said.
She enjoyed the sight of Zeus rubbing his tender spots as he left, tucking the little black book into an inside pocket. Perhaps a bit too much. She turned to face Batman's raised eyebrow. Which, she was surprised to note, he wasn't giving. He was looking down. Not at her bosom. Lower, to her wrist, where the loop of rope still hung. He looked, she thought, proud.
Diana pulled the loop free and balled it up. She tossed him the wad of rope. "A cheap trick," she said. "Houdini used to do it for a laugh."
From her perch on the edge of the desk in the Batcave, Diana watched as Batman updated his files on gods, Greek, and Zeus, last known address of. Occasionally, she glanced at one of the many computer monitors. NASA satellite footage showed Luthor's stolen robot -- battered, limping, but still functional -- making its way across the desert toward Las Vegas. Diana wondered whether Zeus had any passengers on board. Given what she'd seen of the women Bruce Wayne went about with, she decided it was entirely likely.
"I still can't believe you actually gave him the book," she said. "Aren't you the one who gave me that volume of Kipling's poetry? 'That if once you have paid him the Dane-geld / You never get rid of the Dane'?"
"I don't believe in paying Dane-geld," Batman said. "But I have no qualms about throwing the Dane something worthless and shiny, if playing with it will keep him busy. Besides, you're forgetting: I know those women. Bruce Wayne has been dodging them for ages. Trust me when I tell you that they and Zeus deserve each other." He paused, reflected. "Actually, Zeus may be getting the short end of that deal."
"Poor Brucie," she said teasingly. "Whatever will he do now?"
"There are always more eager would-be conquests," Batman said.
"*Really,*" Diana said icily. "Any in particular? Should I call Alina for this evening?"
He snorted. "Why do you think I was so eager to get rid of the book? She's in it."
Diana stared at one of the video monitors. "Not anymore, she isn't."
Batman looked quizzically at her, then followed her gaze. One of the cable news channels had picked up footage of the battered robot strolling along the Vegas Strip. Alina Montressori sat on the robot's shoulder, waving gaily to passers-by.
"That dress she's wearing is completely impractical," he said.
Yet another a very Bat thing to say. Diana was amused. "Is there a practical dress for riding into Sin City on the shoulder of one of Lex Luthor's giant robots that's been commandeered by a semi-retired Greek god?"
As Batman returned to his typing, Diana turned her attention back to the television screen. The sight there couldn't please Lex Luthor, a thought that amused her no end. She couldn't see Zeus -- he was, presumably, either inside the robot or awaiting it at its destination -- but Alina Montressori certainly looked happy. Perhaps Zeus and Alina really did deserve each other, but Diana had a sneaking suspicion they'd get along. It would be a pity if they were the only ones to get a happy ending.
"Well," said Diana, "I suppose this leaves us with some free time."
"'Free time?'" Batman said, as if it were something to be trod in by accident and then scraped off his boot with a stick.
Ignoring the warning sign, Diana plunged ahead. "Flash has been doing his level best to make sure I have a firm grip on the concept," she said. "Actually, i asked him for suggestions."
"Let me guess," said Batman. "Tequila shots?"
"I asked him if he knew any good restaurants in Gotham City. There was one he mentioned -- he made it sound almost like a modern temple to Athena. Her bird was the owl, you know, and -- "
"Yes, that's it," said Diana. "Why don't we go there?"
Batman was silent. She could almost *see* the gears turning in his head.
"If you don't know what's wrong with that picture," he said, "there's no use in my trying to explain it to you."
"Oh," said Diana disappointedly. She reached into her waistband and pulled several bills free. She'd have to give them back to Flash with her apologies. "He'd asked me to pick up a T-shirt for Hawk Girl."
Batman stopped typing. He closed his eyes briefly, then pinched the bridge of his nose through the cowl. Diana eyed him with concern. "Do you have a headache?" she asked.
"Oh, there's a pain," he said. "But that's not where it's located."
"Ha," said Diana dryly. "I'll have you know that Flash was very helpful."
"I'm sure he was," Batman said. "But I have work to do."
"Well, then perhaps another time. I still have to learn padlocks, you know. Maybe we could make an evening of it. Dinner and lock-picking. Not necessarily in that order."
"You don't need me for that," he said. "I told you, Robin can teach you that kind of thing."
It was his pride. His stiff-necked Spartan pride. It had to be. There wasn't any other reason he was forcing her to say it. To ask, and hear his answer. She'd travelled to Man's World and other worlds beyond; fought mortal men and alien monsters and gods and -- yes, even giant robots. And she couldn't keep the nervousness out of her voice, or her hands from perspiring. Silly that such a little thing could make her feel a coward.
"What if I wanted to spend time with you?" she said.
There it was. Diana held her breath.
"Why?" he said coldly.
And that was that.
There was his answer. The rejection was worse for what she knew: he hadn't rejected it out of hand. He hadn't pushed her away by reflex. He couldn't; with her lasso, she'd ordered him not to. He'd considered it carefully. Examined his feelings, the situation. Looked into his heart and mind. Made his choice. And then coldly pushed her away. Not because he didn't care for her. Not because he didn't want her. But because he couldn't make her fit into his spare existence.
Robin had as much as warned her: *we never say it,* he'd said, though he was closer to Batman than anyone. But Robin had also said that Batman needed love. That he was human. Diana had just been a fool to think she could make him choose it. She didn't think she loved Batman, she *hoped* she didn't, but she'd begun to realize that she *could.* Infuriating as Batman was, as even the thought of loving him might be now, she could. And sometimes it could be so easy. He gave glimpses of something that felt both familiar and utterly alien. But when all was said and done, he didn't have the courage to take a risk. Some Spartan hero, she thought.
And then Diana realized she'd been right all along. It was only fair she tell him.
She looked at Batman evenly. "You know what I told Superman?" she said. "I told him you reminded me of a Spartan."
"Really?" he said. He sounded pleased. He would.
"I just realized it's one particular Spartan, actually."
"Leonidas?" he said. He sounded almost happy at the prospect. "Or Dienikes?"
Both among the martyrs of Thermopylae. One a king who, when Xerxes had demanded the Spartans turn over their arms, had replied, "Molon labe" -- "Come and get them." The other a soldier who on being told the Persian arrows would blot out the sun had laughed and said, "Good; then we'll have our battle in the shade."
"No," she said. "You remind me of the little Spartan boy. The one who found an orphaned fox kit."
"I know the story," he said. The warmth was gone from his voice now. "He stole it to eat, as I recall."
"That's one version," agreed Diana. "I heard growing up he took it for a pet. It ends the same. He couldn't show weakness, so when some older Spartans came along he hid the fox in his tunic. The fox was desperately hungry, and it gnawed on the boy's stomach. But he didn't show his pain, because he didn't want to admit the fox was there. And the fox gnawed him and gnawed him, and finally the Spartan boy bled to death. All because he didn't dare to admit that he had a heart."
"You're leaving something out," said Batman. "The Spartans honored him. They gave him a funeral befitting their greatest warrior. They wrote elegies of praise, and they sang his fame to the heavens as they committed his body to the earth."
"They buried him in honor," agreed Diana softly. "But Batman?" Her voice hardened, just enough to keep it from wavering. "They *buried* him."
He turned away from her then, the curt dismissal of the man who always knew best and never brooked disagreement. Diana felt a wave of anger -- and then it was gone, replaced with an aching pity.
She left him there, buried in his grave of rock and steel.
The grave's a fine and private place,
But none, I think, do there embrace.
-- Andrew Marvell