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On the Brink

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Batman thrashed in her arms, the thing inside him driving him wild with rage and terror. Diana grabbed the back of his neck and shoved him over the lip of the stone, forcing him into the fumes. Volcanic ash from the vent billowed up into their faces, coating them both.

The earth felt angry beneath her feet. She’d brought corruption and lies to Delphi, to a sacred place. Her lasso had burned Bruce the second it touched him, which was what had given her the idea to bring him there. Whatever was infecting him fed on lies, or was powered by them; It found the touch of truth deadly.

Batman scrabbled at the edge with his hands, trying to shove at her, trying to twist his face away. She leaned on his back and strong-armed him into obedience, but no matter how necessary it was, doing it tasted bitter. She was not like Clark; She had no fear of her own strength. She had learned from the beginning of her training to take care, to use only as much force as she needed. Diana was drilled in precision until it was as natural as breathing. She used that precision now to force Bruce into place without hurting him.

Using her strength to control a friend was always unpleasant, but using her strength to control Batman felt worse, like a raw betrayal. She wanted to pause the fight and apologise.

The thing was much less intelligent than Batman, and it sapped his focus. He would never have let her get control of him so easily if he were whole. The thing was still cunning in its own way, though. She noticed twenty seconds in that he was holding his breath.

Diana quickly slipped a hand around his ribcage and struck him sharply on his sternum, knocking the breath out of him. He struggled in her arms again, this time fighting for air. She angled him further out over the crack in the earth. He inhaled raggedly and choked on the fumes, going as tense as a frightened horse under her hands. His skin was suddenly hot to the touch. The stony growth on his infected arm split, a faultline on his skin.

Batman flinched as if someone had fired a gun off next to his ear. Bright red blood was welling up from the point the stone had broken.

“Easy,” she said. Batman inhaled, and the cracks in his hideous armor spread. A chunk of stone detached itself from his wrist, falling down the hole in the earth, into darkness.

The fumes from the oracle burrowed in quickly, hunting lies. Batman’s skin was left raw and bleeding in its wake.

“Diana,” Batman croaked, surprising her. The thing that was controlling Batman hadn’t let him speak. He sounded confused, as if he didn’t remember, didn’t know why she was hurting him. He stopped fighting against her, tried to turn his head and look at her. She caught a flash of his eyes. Diana saw that look on his face, and knew it was Bruce. Even half dazed he was thinking, trying to understand, making and dismissing theories as to what was going on.

Diana softened her hold on him, running her fingers through his hair. He was pouring sweat. “I’ve got you,” Diana said into his ear, soothingly. “This must be done, if you are to live.”

Batman made a soft sound with his next inhale, and it tore at her heart. She had seen him remain silent on a battlefield, holding his broken ribs in place with his hands. She could not imagine the pain he must be in.

“The infection,” Bruce managed. He coughed, hacking in an alarming fashion. She could see black flecks of corruption spraying from his lips. He could see it too, and she saw a flash of revulsion on his face.

Batman turned to look at her, and somehow, his eyes were clear and completely his own. “Don’t let me hurt anyone,” he said. He sounded like he was clawing his way up out of a well, but his face was sober and rational. He had somehow dragged his sanity up out into the light, and Diana marveled at the indomitable strength of the man. She nodded, her face grim.

Diana saw something, some brief flash of relief, before Bruce heaved in her arms. He leaned into the fumes and retched helplessly. Diana had to fight not to recoil at the things he brought up. Black and wet and alive.

Batman made a soft, high sound in the back of his throat that went beyond disgust and spiralled up into horror. She turned her head and saw in his eyes how close he was to the edge of self-control. He would start fighting again soon, out of pure defense of his sanity. She understood the impulse. Every instinct she had screamed at her to get away from the poison he was bringing up. To get it out of her sight by any means necessary.

Diana pulled one arm around him tightly, angling him away from the fumes. With the other, she reached out and rested her free hand on top of his. She pressed her lips to his ear. “Will you let this brainless, vile thing defeat you? You?!” She spread her fingers, covering his hand. “It is less than nothing, compared to what we’ve already fought and defeated.”

Bruce tilted his head, looked at her out of the corner of his eye. She felt the attention he gave in that moment like a physical touch. It was as if she had clasped his forearm before going into battle, and he had just returned the gesture. His eyes were hard as steel.

“We’re at Delphi,” he said, his voice rough. He wasn’t asking.

“Modern man has forgotten how to harness the power of this place. It’s where lies die,” Diana confirmed.

Batman stared at the ash and steam rising from the pit and shivered. He nodded to himself, tilted his head in her direction. A corner of his mouth turned up.

“I’m impressed,” he managed, and swallowed thickly.

Don’t be.

Bruce suddenly looked like he was about to fall apart. Then he leaned over the edge, and vomited up several ropes of ghastly black sludge. It twisted in the air as it fell, alive and wriggling. He shut his eyes.

Beneath her hand, Batman spread his fingers, entwining his with hers. She squeezed his hand bracingly.

He pressed his face into the fumes and deliberately took several deep breaths. The remaining stone clinging to his skin fell off him onto the floor. Ash was thick in the air; it was sticking and clotting to the bloody raw flesh that the retreating infection left exposed.

He retched again and again, each time bringing up more decay and horror. At a certain point he brought up nothing, but continued to heave. The fumes were still affecting him, so he was not clean. But he couldn’t expel whatever was left inside him.

Batman’s legs abruptly gave out. She was caught off guard and had to move quickly to keep him from pitching forward into the abyss. She tried to pull him back, away from the fumes. Batman grabbed at the ledge with surprising strength, obviously unwilling to be moved.

He shook his head sharply, sagging in her arms. “We’re not done,” he said, his voice painful and raw. “I can feel it.”

“I didn’t bring you here to kill you,” Diana said firmly.

He glared up at her, furious. “I won’t be taken over again by that thing,” he snarled. “We keep going.” His eyes were streaming, his face gray with ash. The ash was darker where it had mixed with his blood. There was something black and terrible spattered on his chin. He had to stop speaking then, turned his head and did his best to vomit up nothing.

He was dying, Diana realized.

“I didn’t bring you here,” she muttered to herself, her brain suddenly sparking. “To...kill you.” Diana said, an idea forming. She stared at the wall for a moment, feeling ill.

Batman reached to pull himself back over the vent and Diana grabbed his wrist, stopping him. His eyes flashed at her and he wrenched his hand away.

“I won’t do this alone. We have to try something else,” she said, avoiding his eyes.

He was weaker physically that she was, but he had a fire inside that was formidable. It was as if he expected the world to bend in the face of pure determination. Antiope would have loved him.

“This is the job, Diana,” Bruce said with starch. “We do what we have to do.”

She snapped her head up, angry all at once. He deserved better, she thought. He deserved better than he was willing to give to himself.

It was hard to lie in this place, even to herself. She hated her new idea almost as much as the old one.

“Hang on,” Diana said, yanking him close and literally sweeping him off his feet. He hissed out a breath through gritted teeth, either at the pain of being jostled, or pure irritation. Batman hated being carried. Diana ignored him. She took a single step and jumped, flinging them both down into the pit.

There was a ledge deep below, wedged into the earth, out of sight. A small path was cut into the darkness, leading to hidden places. The air was smoke and heat and ash; Bruce was coughing and choking. Diana took off running.

Almost half a mile beneath the earth, a natural spring fed a small underground lake. The fumes seeped from the stone beneath, slowly infusing the water, leaving the air clear and breathable. The surface hissed here and there, bubbles fizzing up as if the water was carbonated.

Batman was clutching his chest, his face tight. “Diana,” he said. His voice was shockingly soft. It was somewhere between warning and pleading.

She looked into his eyes and knew he didn’t have much time. The thing still had a hold on him, and it was already trying to spread.

Diana dove into the water, plunging them both under the surface. She shot down like an arrow, pinning Batman to the rocks below. The water hissed around him, and he struggled against her. She knew it had to be painful, but his skin literally began to heal in front of her eyes, so it was worth it. Batman froze, looking down at himself. He turned his hand over, eyes fixed on the skin of his arm. Whole and unblemished, clean of blood and corruption.

He looked at her sharply, questioning. Had she known this was going to happen?

She shrugged.

Batman gave her a dirty look.

He was annoyed with her, but there was trust there, and her conscience twinged to see it.

Bruce pushed against her hand, meaning to surface and breathe. The motion was casual, as if he couldn’t imagine he wouldn’t be able to.

She shoved him back against the rock. He looked at her for a moment in honest shock. He pushed against her again, received the same reaction. She put her hand over his mouth, hoping he would understand.

Batman narrowed his eyes, and the betrayal on his face scratched at her heart. He grabbed her wrist and twisted, kicking out at her stomach with the full force of his body.

She lost a little air, and Batman got enough space between them to pivot against the rock and squirm away from her. She was lucky he was so slow in the water. She snagged his wrist before he could get far and pulled him down, away from the surface.

The light of battle was in his eyes. She knew him, she could tell he was reaching into his utility belt for an object that would do something she wouldn’t like.

Diana reached up and ripped his shirt in half. Beneath it, the water was hissing against Batman’s chest, reacting against the corruption hiding inside him.

Bruce went still, looking down at himself. He touched it, and pulled his hand back quickly, as if it felt strange. He lifted his head and met her eyes. The infection was still there, under the skin.

His eyes flicked to the surface. Diana knew firsthand that he had enormous lung capacity, but even he had limits. He needed air. She squeezed his arm, demanding his attention. This time, she raised her hand and fit it over her own mouth. She pushed her face in close.

Batman searched her eyes with his. Trying to figure out what she was doing, making theories and discarding them.

Deliberately, Diana lifted her hand from her mouth, and opened her lips, as if to let the water in. Batman’s eyes widened in understanding. He had the look of someone who had just realized they were standing in front of an oncoming train.

The water was even better at cleansing than the air was. They just had to get the water to touch everything that needed to be cleansed.

He nodded once. Diana gripped him on the shoulder reassuringly. Batman reached up and curled his fingers around her forearm, accepting the situation without any words needed. As if his initial reaction to Diana drowning him was a misunderstanding as trivial as mixing up a pair of umbrellas.

Batman was starting to look desperate, but made no move to try and reach the surface. The courage was humbling.

He lifted his free hand up to her shoulder. He had lost his gauntlets at some point during his transformation- he wasn’t wearing them. Bruce’s fingers looked very bare moving through the water without them. Strange and oddly fragile in a way that pricked her heart. It felt too private, like she should cover him up, protect him.

He opened his mouth and she tensed a little, expecting that to be it. He struggled with it, fighting himself. Finally he grimaced, shaking his head. His hand clamped down on her arm as he fought his own instincts. Survive. Keep fighting. Deliberately giving in wasn’t in his nature. He was getting hypoxic and he lost his grip on her, fumbling, grasping at her arms.

Her heart twisted, and she pulled him closer. She slid her hand around the back of his neck, her face very close. His hand trailed across her face, and their eyes met.

They had fought many battles together, in situations where hope seemed lost and there was nothing to do but fight on without it. She had seen his face in those moments, and he hers. There was a terrible rapport in understanding perfectly the look in a warrior’s eyes as he realized death was closing in upon him.

Swift as a bird on the wing, she darted in and kissed him, just at the corner of his mouth. A quick press of lips, marking the moment of affinity.

Batman made a fist, catching some of her hair. He inhaled.

He convulsed in her arms, his eyes wide and dark. He grabbed at her in a sharp, desperate moment of panic. She held him tight, saw his expression start to go vacant as his oxygen ran out. Drowning was, after all, essentially suffocation. She cupped his face and he looked at her. Just a moment of focus, and then he passed out in her arms.

His chest fizzled, and then the water stilled around him. Clean.

She got her hands under his arms and hauled him up into the air. Diana laid him out on the nearest flat piece of rock and covered his mouth with hers, breathing out into his lungs. She did it with agonizing delicacy, aware how fragile his lungs were in comparison to the force of her breath. He had barely shut his eyes; his heartbeat was still strong under her fingers. She did not let herself panic when a minute had passed and he did not respond to her.

He was tired, she could feel it in him. Bruce was exhausted, body and spirit. He’d been fighting desperately just to remain himself for at least a week.

“You can’t rest now,” she told him. This time as she breathed out she ground her knuckles against his breastbone. The pain would be shocking.

Bruce convulsed under her hands, coughing up a surge of water. She turned him on his side, rubbing at his back as he choked and gasped.

After only a moment or two he lifted his head. He paused, then held his hand up in front of his eyes, turned it over. Normal skin, free of corruption. His hand was shaking, and he dropped it, pressing it against the ground.

Diana knelt beside him. “Are you all right?”

For a moment, he looked blindingly relieved that she was there. “Diana.” Bruce took a breath, wheezing. “Where were you? I called- we looked for you.”

He coughed hard, bent over with the force of it. “We-” Something dark and furious flashed across his face. He wiped his mouth and glared at her. “We needed you here. I needed you here.”

It was hard to lie in this place.

“Bruce please, we don’t have time-”

“Time?” Bruce said. “It took a week for the world to go to hell.” There was something wild and threadbare in his eyes. “A week.” He passed his hand over his forehead in a movement that made her suspect he had a tremendous headache. “I didn’t know about this,” he gestured at himself, then at the water that had purified him. “If you’d been here- I could have saved someone, I could have saved Barry-”

“Barry,” Diana said, feeling sick.

“It affected him first. With his metabolism, he didn’t last a day. It just burned right through.” Bruce looked away. “We had Star Labs put him in stasis, but by then…” Bruce shook his head. “He wasn’t Barry anymore.”

They shouldn’t have favorites. It made no sense- they were all adults, neither Bruce or Diana had any cause to act parental toward anyone on the team. Regardless, Bruce always watched over Barry, and Diana did the same with Victor.

She put her hand on his arm. He stared at the floor, his mouth a thin line.

“And the others?” she asked.

“Victor has quarantined Star Labs- he’s working on the problem with his father. Arthur hasn’t shown any symptoms. Victor thought Atlanteans might have immunity, he’s running tests.” Bruce blinked, a ripple of emotion hitting the surface and then falling away. “At least he was before I was too far gone to care.”

Diana let out a breath. “Superman?” she asked, hesitantly.

“As soon as he showed symptoms he took off.” He shook his head, looking bitterly disappointed. “We don’t know where. Maybe he wanted to protect people, I don’t know.” Bruce pressed his fingers against the bridge of his nose, suddenly looking very much like the man she had first met, years ago. Utterly exhausted in every way. Body and spirit worn down to bare threads.

“We needed him.” Bruce met her eyes, and if it had been possible, the betrayal on his face might have killed her on the spot. “We needed you.”

Diana sat back on her heels, her imagination spinning horrors. The moment she’d seen what had happened she’d gone straight to Batman like an arrow loosed from the bow. When she got to Bruce he was turning, and that became her main concern. She’d been going from crisis to crisis with no time to think, but she was thinking now.

“It must have been a nightmare,” she whispered. “All those people. I don’t know if I could have survived seeing it.”

There must have been something in her face or her voice that dug into him; The air went out of his anger all at once. It left, and without it he just looked wrecked and tired. He rested his head on his arm, and for a moment she thought he’d passed out.

“You’d be surprised what people can stand when they’re low on options,” he said, not looking at her.

“I’m sorry, Bruce. I should have been here. I got back as fast as I could.” She put her hand on his arm. “I would have never left you if I’d had any choice.”

He lifted his head and searched her face in a way that made her think he desperately wanted to believe her, but wasn’t used to the feeling. His voice, when he spoke, was very soft.

“You have no idea how much I missed y-” Bruce made a choking sound and stopped, startled. He visibly struggled against himself. Surprise and embarrassment flashed across his face.

Diana’s lasso was glowing at her waist, just slightly. Not the way it did when it was compelling someone to tell the truth; It was more like it was reacting to something in the air.

Bruce stared at it, then over at the fizzling surface of the water.

“It’s hard to lie here,” she said apologetically.

Bruce winced a little. “Ok.” He looked up at her, his eyes sharp. “So where were you?”

She couldn’t lie. He was, as always, impressive.

“Far away,” she said, feeling vaguely ill at the memory. She reached out and stroked his wet hair off his forehead. He let her. “Alone in a world of monsters.”

Bruce gingerly pushed himself up into a sitting position and leaned heavily on his knees. “Well, right now, this is a world of monsters.” Bruce said, sounding brittle.

“Yes,” she said, her voice faltering. “I know. I had to fight my way back. It took a lot more time for me than it seemed for you.” She held out her hands casually, baring scraped and bloodied knuckles. Most of the leather she used to wrap her hands for battle had burned away, revealing the damage to her skin underneath. Some wounds were old and healing, while others were fresh and raw. Layers upon layers.

Bruce reached out and pulled one of her hands close, frowning.

Diana flinched, and Bruce froze, looking up at her. When she made no protest, he turned her hand over delicately. He examined the burned remnants of her leather hand wrap and the blisters underneath it, as gently as if he was cupping a small bird in his hands. Bruce stared at her quietly for a moment, his fingers spreading over her palm. It was like just seeing evidence of a fight on her skin had sanded the sharp edges off him all at once.

“How long is ‘a lot more’?” He sounded like this particular detail was very important to him.

“Months.” She shrugged. “It’s hard to say exactly.”

Bruce let out a breath, looking thrown. “Months.” He coughed a little. “Okay.” He nodded to himself, some of the tension falling away from his shoulders. Diana felt, strangely, as though she had been forgiven for a trespass she didn’t completely understand yet.

“Okay,” he said. “We need to contact Star Labs. You’ve got some catching up to do.”