Batman and the Outsiders:

 Dance With the Demons

 Part 21

 by DarkMark

Olivia Ortega did her standup with a mike in front of her face before the gates at Wayne Manor and was as professional as possible.  Her face was neutral and her voice, though carefully modulated, did not betray overt emotion.

"Now, after two attempts on her life within a week--one of which may not have been necessary--it seems as though Selina Kyle may be reaching her final hours.  As bizarre a death, perhaps, as her life has been...a pet store owner who became a premier lady thief, costumed villainess, and an enemy of Batman, then turned over a new leaf to become a heroine and the wife of Bruce Wayne.  Only minutes after the vows were said, Selina Kyle Wayne was poisoned, her assailant unknown.  Since then, she has been fighting valiantly for life, but even a whole blood transfusion seemed only to buy her some more time.  Now, the Wayne family physician, Dr. Douglas Dundee, is enconsced within the manor, doing what he can to sustain Mrs. Wayne's life...while Bruce Wayne cannot be located."

A voice in her earplug said, "Olivia, has any explanation been made for Mr. Wayne's abscence?"

"I...don't think so, Herb," she replied.  "It's been rumored that he may be in hiding, fearing an assassination attempt on himself.  It's also rumored that he may be in contact with Batman, who could be trying to locate a cure for Mrs. Wayne.  But nothing has been officially confirmed."

"Thank you, Olivia," said Herb, the anchorman for her TV news broadcast.  "We'll check back with you later."

"Thank you," she responded, and, as soon as she was off camera, gave the microphone to a grip and sighed.  Melvin, the producer, handed her a styrofoam cup of hot coffee.  In mid-drink, she noticed an old friend in the crowd and waved her over.  "Vicki! Vicki Vale!"

Vicki was wearing a green dress and a matching kerchief to tie her hair with, since the wind was getting up a bit.  She went back so many years with Bruce and Batman that to some it was a shock when the playboy married Selina.  Now, she was keeping company with her physical trainer.  But at present, she looked as though she'd spent the night in a cement mixer.  Olivia, who wasn't involved with the Waynes except as the source of a story, felt sorry for her.

"Hi, Vicki," said Olivia, offering her a hug.  "How's things at Picture News?"

"Oh, okay, I suppose," replied the redheaded editor.  "I just can't believe they won't let me in there."

Olivia frowned slightly.  "Well, after all, Vick, she is dying in there."

"I know, Livy, and I'm sorry.  But I've known Bruce for so much of my life, and now to be cut out of it like this, not even in the inner circle of friends...well...it feels bad."  She shook her head.  "I shouldn't feel this sorry for Selina.  She tried to kill me once, I think."

"She really tried to kill you?"

Vicki nodded.  "She thought I was beating her time with Bruce.  I was, I guess.  But killing isn't in her, and Batman stopped her anyway.  Still, it's...good Lord, Livy, I don't want her to die.  Especially so soon after marrying Bruce."

The television reporter looked at Vicki appraisingly.  "You've got a lot more forgiveness in you than I think I have in me.  If she'd tried to kill me, she'd be the last one I'd shed a tear for."

The editor shook her head.  "You didn't see them at the wedding.  The looks on their faces when they were together...I hate to use a cliche like ‘they were made for each other.'  But maybe it's true, in their case.  Both of them were alone for so long.  Now they had a chance to find somebody else.  And wham, somebody tries to take her out of the picture while they're walking out of the manor.  It's like Orpheus and Eurydice with the sex roles reversed."

Olivia nodded.  "For a guy as rich, handsome, and all the rest of it as Bruce...it's incredible.  All the tragedy, Vicki.  You'd think he was one of the Kennedys, or something."

"Yeah.  Both of his parents killed by a mugger when he was in grade school, then he takes in two kids whose parents were murdered as well."  Vicki looked at Olivia.  "That'd be a great reason for somebody to become the Batman, wouldn't it?"

"So...you're thinking that Bruce Wayne and Batman could be...?"

Vicki leaned against the side of a green Ford Duster parked behind her and folded her arms.  "I've thought that for years, Livy.  So many of the things would fit.  The motivation, the boy who could be Robin...but it's just like Jack the Ripper.  You can put all the clues together and find a good suspect.  But when it comes down to saying, ‘All right.  That's definitely the guy,' you can't do it.  There's always a gap.  It could be Bruce.  It could be a lot of other men.  Given the eight million people in Gotham, there's always at least a couple hundred that could fit a profile."

"Guess you're right," said Olivia.  "But if we could prove it, that'd be a Pulitzer story, for sure."

"Yeah.  If we'd print it, which I probably wouldn't.  Gotham needs Batman.  And, Livy?"

"Uh huh?"

"If he is the Batman, I sure as hell hope he's out there searching for a cure for Selina.  In my mind, that'd be the only thing that'd excuse him not being here."

 -B-

The man in the back of the limo was a lot older than he looked.  And he looked to be in his sixties.  It didn't seem to matter.  Sixty or a hundred and sixty, he had the aura of a man you didn't want to cross.

Right now, he was holding a cane and wearing a black suit and a Homburg on his head.  There was a diamond stickpin in his cravat and another kind of gem on one of his fingers.  The latter shone quite in a quite bright crimson hue.

The chauffeur was not the one he'd started out with, back in the Twenties.  The aides he'd used were much less resistant to age than himself.  And, God knew, there would come a time when his hand would fall and not be raised again.  One of his offspring would take up the cause after that.  He just hoped whichever of the brats it was could keep from getting himself killed within a year's time.  There'd been so much work for him, in his Depression days and afterward, that even he couldn't remember all the cases.

He didn't take on that many cases these days.  Couldn't afford to.  Age affects even one such as he.  But when a friend was in trouble, he could be counted on to give aid.  Even if it was not asked.

The Batman was such a friend.

"To Wayne Manor, Paul," he said.  "We must learn as much as we can, before we strike."

"Yes, sir," said Paul, and floored it as much as he dared.  He weaved in and out of the traffic with the zen of a practiced cabbie.  More than once, he chanced a look in the rear-view mirror at his boss's hands.

The red gem still glowed on his finger, just like his granddaddy had said it did.  The description never did it justice.

And the old man was getting ready for action.

 -B-

Dr. Dundee was checking Selina's pulse when he saw the sight that made him regret, not for the first time, having agreed to the role he played in Bruce Wayne's life.

A green light purled into existence in the sickroom in Wayne Manor and resolved itself into a circular shape, through which stepped a worn-looking Batman.  There were others barely visible through the thing, which appeared to be a portal of some sort.

Alfred and Helena Wayne were in the room, as well.  Alfred exclaimed, "Master Bruce!"  Helena, smiling for the first time in hours, said, "Uncle, you're back!"

"Bruce," said Dundee, in awe.

"Doctor," said Batman, in greeting.  It was obvious to Dundee that the man had been through quite a lot.  Luckily, he didn't appear to be injured.  But he looked like he needed a hell of a lot of rest.

And then Batman had Selina in his arms, holding her as a man holds his beloved, and if there was any doubt of his love for the woman, Dundee knew from seeing him then that it had to be set to rest.  At least he and Alfred knew that the Batman was fighting back tears.

For Selina hung limply in his arms, and could not answer the Batman with a word or a voluntary touch.

"Master Bruce," said Alfred, at last.  "Have you succeeded?"

The great hero of Gotham forced his voice to normalcy.  "Only in part, Alfred.  Only in part.  Doctor, how long does she have?"

Dundee shook his head.  "A matter of hours, Bruce.  If there is no antidote, and even the National Poison Control Center can't reccommend one that works, I--she won't see the morning.  I'm sorry."

"There is an antidote," said Batman.  "I just have to find the man who has it.  Kobra."

"Kobra" said Helena, stepping forward.  "Where in hell is he?  And how can I get my hands on him?"

"Just a minute," said Batman.  He turned to the portal and put a hand to his lips.  "GL, come in!"

Through the green warp-portal came another figure, one Dundee had only seen in photographs or the occasional TV newsclip.  "Green Lantern," said the physician.  He realized the man must have been one of Bruce's wedding guests, but had no idea which one.

The Lantern sniffed the air and Dundee could see he was trying not to make a face.  The poison sweat stench was disgusting, though he and Alfred had to get used to it.  Without saying a word, the green-and-black clad hero pointed his fist at Selina.  A burst of greenish light came from the ring on his hand.  Dundee caught his breath in awe.

The green power contacted Selina's body and poured into it for a half minute.  Then the Green Lantern shut it off.  The line of verdant energy was immediately retracted into the ring like a reeled-back line on a fishing pole.

Quietly, the brown-haired hero said, "It'll give her a little while longer.  No more than a few hours.  I'm sorry, Bruce."

Batman stood meditating before Selina's bedside for a moment.  Then he whipped around to face Green Lantern.  "Don't be.  You did your very best, again.  Thank you."

"Isn't there anything else you can do?" asked Helena Wayne.  "Isn't there anything?"

"Mistress Helena, please," said Alfred, stepping behind her to lay friendly hands upon her shoulders.  Her muscles were unbelievably tense, and he wondered if she even knew he was there.

Another person was stepping through the warp, a beautiful, black-haired woman in patriotic dress, wearing Roman sandals and a tiara.  "Batman, I may be able to help somewhat," said Wonder Woman.

Batman jerked his head towards her.

"The Purple Ray of the Amazons," explained Diana.  "It has great curative effects.  Once, it was used to bring Changeling back from Pluto's portals.  I would have to go to Paradise Island to retrieve it, but--"

"Go," said Batman.  "It's worth a try."

"I'll send you there," said Green Lantern.  He aimed his ring at her, and the woman simply vanished.

Dundee felt as though he was an intruder on the plane of the gods.

Batman turned to Alfred.  "Get Daphne and Julia out of here.  Tell them Bruce and the Batman are back and we want privacy with Dundee and Selina."

"At once, sir," said Alfred.

"Has anything happened while I've been gone?"

Alfred hung his head.  "Most assuredly, sir."

Helena spoke up in the butler's behalf.  "He was there to defend Selina, uncle Bruce.  He took down some of the ones who came after her, in the Batcave."

Batman's face betrayed no emotion.

"Get the girls away, get the Squad in here, and tell me all about it," he said.  "Make it fast."

 -B-

Within a short time, the Outsiders and Bat-Squad were in the Batcave, with the JLA and the Titans on stand-by status in Markovia, save for Wonder Woman and Wonder Girl, who were now on Paradise Island.  Nightwing and Starfire had remained with Batman's group.  Alfred had informed Batman concisely of what had transpired while he was in India.  By the time he was finished, even the Creeper didn't feel like making a joke.

Batman said, "He'll be coming here.  He'll be in Gotham City."

"So you think he'll want to finish things up personally, Bruce?", asked Nightwing.

The cowled crusader nodded.  "It's a vendetta.  He'll want to see me dead for bollixing his plans in Markovia.  And he'll want to...ascertain Selina's death."

Starfire queried, "Even if it might put you within his reach?  Even if you might force the antidote from him?"

Batman looked tired.  "Especially so.  It's a game.  It's a challenge.  ‘Stop me before your wife dies, or before I can kill you.'  Even with all the real destruction that we've been fighting against...to him, it's also a competition."

"Then he shall find us extremely competitive," promised Geo-Force, who had not forgotten or forgiven his torture or the threat to Markovia.  Looker slid her fingers around his arm.

"King, Talia," said Batman.  "Did Kobra give any clue as to his headquarters in this city?  Any mention to yourselves or someone in your presence? Anything?"

King Faraday, a cigarette in his hand, looked embarrassed.  "I wasn't with him all that long, Batman.  Didn't hear a thing about Gotham operations.  Sorry."

Talia said, "I paid him to deliver me from my father, Batman.  I was not privy to the nature of his Gotham operation.  He took me from Europe, where I had gone on pretext, to India.  I made no stop in Gotham.  I am also sorry."

The Batman didn't answer.  He walked briskly to the master computer in the Batcave, sat down, and began to work.  It was always online.

Halo nodded to Katana.  "He's about twice as old as me.  I keep thinkin' I'll catch up to him in computer skills someday, but I never do."

Katana said, "With the Batman's level of dedication, Gaby, it is difficult to ‘catch up' to him in any area to which he truly applies himself."

Gabrielle also noted that Katana always managed to position herself between Talia and Batman.  But she did not call attention to it, and wondered if she should.

Plastic Man elongated his head towards Batman to look at the computer screen.  Without pausing, Batman said, "Please don't, Plas."

"Sorry," said the stretchable sleuth, and returned to his normal shape.

Robin the Elder was sitting beside Helena, now in her Huntress costume, and holding her hand.  Young Robin, Firebird, Batgirl, Batwoman, and the Cat King were also nearby.  Nightwing and Starfire went to sit with them.

"We need to get the hell out on the trail, Dick," breathed the Robin from another world.

"Soon as we find out what it is," Nightwing answered.  "Best man in the world to do that is doing it now."

Karl Kyle fidgeted.  "I don't know that I can stay here.  I don't know that I can leave, either.  That's...almost my sister up there.  Damn this double-Earth thing to hell, anyway."

Batwoman put her arm around his shoulders and leaned his head against her shoulder.  "I know, Karl.  But it isn't over with yet.  And as long as this Bruce is on the thing, I've still got hope."

"That's the only reason I do," admitted the King of the Cats.

"She's not gonna die," said Jason Todd, to himself more than anybody else.  "And if she does, I'm gonna find the guy who did it, without Bruce.  And I'm gonna kill him."

The Huntress took his hands and said, "You'll do nothing of the sort, Jason.  The...family...does not kill.  We leave that to scum like the Joker.  My father did kill, early on, but he stopped doing it.  You know why?"

"Because he wanted to be a white knight in a Batman suit?" said Jason, defiantly.

"Because he knew if he kept doing it, he would be another Joe Chill," replied Helena, strongly.

"Oh."

Starfire sat with Batgirl and Flamebird.  "I had hoped that our wedding would be a thing of joy, like Donna's," she said.  "I suppose I was being a bit naive."

Flamebird said, "What do you expect me to say to that, Kory?  You know what our lives are like.  Hell, on that other Earth, I'm dead!"

Batgirl said, "This is getting to us all, I know it.  I keep wishing the night was done...but at the same time, I'm afraid for it to be.  You know what the problem is.  We're all wanting to go out there and bust somebody and save Selina.  We want action, but, well, you know."

"Barbara," said Betty Kane.  "Even if we do manage to save Selina's life, do you suppose her brain will be...intact?"

Silence.

"I shall see about Mrs. Wayne," said Starfire, and left to go upstairs.

The talking continued, in low voices, with stretches of nothing being said.  Nightwing ventured to Batman's side.  The man had been working for fifteen minutes, scrolling through a long list of names.

"I'm rather busy, Dick," said Batman, quietly.  "When I'm ready, I'll..."

"Bruce," said Dick.  "I'm not living in the mansion anymore.  Please don't talk like that to me.  Okay?"

Batman looked at him, sharply.  Dick gave the look back.

From the sidelines, the elder Dick Grayson looked on, and was pretty sure of the dynamics between the two.

In a somewhat louder tone, Batman said, "I am scrolling through a list of persons registered in the best hotels of Gotham, or who maintain expensive apartments.  The city has required such information be computerized and databased.  At my request."

"I see," said Nightwing.

"Kobra is used to finer accomodations," continued Batman, looking at the screen.  "He's been doing enough in town to require a base.  Therefore--"

"You're looking for a name that reeks of an alias," finished Dick.

"Exactly," said Batman, his gloved hands almost blurred on the keyboard.

"But, Bruce," said Nightwing.  "What if he hasn't chosen an obvious alias?  Not everybody's obvious enough to go by the handle of ‘Thomas Twin' or ‘Joe Kerswag'.  Most likely, he'll just be ‘George Smith' or something like--"

"There it is," Batman said.  His finger was pointed at a name on the screen.  Dick leaned in to look.  Several of the others also quietly got up to do the same.

"Ned Hawker?"  Nightwing stroked his chin.  "Okay.  Explain the bit that's so obvious to you, but which I'm totally in the dark about."

Batman was already up and heading for the Batmobile.  "Ned Hawker is close to Nidhogger.  A name from Norse mythology.  You should be able to fill in the rest."

"Hold it," said Nightwing, bounding over towards the car's rumble seat.  "If the ref is to Norse myths, and it's Kobra...it must be the Midgard Serpent!"

Metamorpho and Element Girl, who had been conferring with Black Lightning, looked in their direction.  "So now we've got our marching orders, kid?" said Rex.  "But if this name's so obvious, why in hell did Kobra choose it?"

Batman was starting the engine.  "The equivalent of a barrio gang painting ‘Y Que?' on a stop sign, Mason.  He knew I'd find it.  He wants me to come after him, to step into his trap.  I intend to oblige him.  To the hilt."

"Wait for us!" said Element Girl, elongating her four-colored body towards the car.

"Catch up," said Batman, as the Batmobile tore out of the garage area.

Black Lightning looked at the others.  "Um.  Okay, tell you what I'm gonna do.  This place on Bats's computer screen?  The Chambers Building?  We're going to go upstairs, get some keys from Alfred, and take a couple of Bruce's cars down there."

"‘We' as in Outsiders?" asked Batwoman.

"Yeah," said Jeff.  "You folks need to stand guard on Selina.  If we don't come back...it's your job to take Kobra.  Take him out."

"I am coming with you," said Starfire.

"Kory, maybe it'd be better if you stayed here," Black Lightning said, softly.  "You're the only one amongst ‘em who has powers.  If those freakin' Cultists attack, you're gonna be needed."

"How do you know they will attack?  Or that they are even here?"  The orange-skinned girl in the scanty costume had her hands on her hips, staring defiantly at Jeff.  "My place is at my husband's side."

"Kory," said the elder Robin.  "Lightning's got a point.  We're good, but we could use a power person.  The last time the Cobras attacked, it took a surprise attack by Kathy and Karl to beat them.  This time, if they hit, they'll be prepared."

"Plus the fact that we would've been in bad shape against Dr. Phosphorus if Man-Bat hadn't shown up, and he's still in the hospital," admitted Batgirl.  "If you could, Kory, please stay.  After all, you are family."

The girl from Tamaran wavered for a moment, then her green eyes grew resolute.  "All right, Barbara.  I will stay.  But if my husband dies because I was not at his side, I will damn myself forever for it."

"Don't talk like that," said Element Girl.  "The only casualties on this mission are going to be Kobra's.  Let's go, guys."

Rex Mason smiled.  "Is she getting into this team business, or what?"

There was nothing left to say.  Black Lightning and his cohorts, including Talia, who was led physically at first by Katana, left.

Batgirl picked up the phone in the room and pressed a button.  "Alfred," she said.  "We're coming up.  Where are Daphne and Julia?"

"In the living room and very angry," the butler said.  "Julia mentioned feeling like a human shuffleboard marker."

"If you can get them out of here, do it.  We may be under attack soon.  Kobra may see us as...unfinished business."

A pause.  "As best I can, Ms. Gordon.  Is this confirmed?"

"Not for certain.  Does it have to be?"

"Until the master shows up with the viper himself in hand, Ms. Gordon, it most certainly does not."

She replaced the receiver and looked at the others.  The Batpeople from her Earth, and the other one, and the golden girl from another world who wanted to be with her husband of less than a week.

She supposed that every one of them was thinking of the woman dying in a room one floor above.

And that every one of them was wondering if, just this once, the Batman would be too late...

...Or that they might not live to know it.

 -B-

Within his mind was a large zone of blackness.

Batman focussed on the white sliver of hope as he piloted the Batmobile forth.  Gotham's streets were always busy, but the cops had cleared as much of the path as they could, which wasn't much.  Still, it never seemed to stop him.

(she's going to die and everything you can do won't stop it)

(Shut UP)
 

Through the city he'd known all of his life, from the earliest memories at his parents' side

(and you couldn't save them either could you mister big dark knight of gotham)

(Shut the hell UP)

to this very night.  He wondered if tonight was the last night he would see its skyscrapers, its lighted bridge spans, the statue of Father Knickerbocker, City Hall, the Hall of Justice where Jim Gordon held court

(how about those hundred plus people the joker's killed so far did you manage to save them either)

(SHUT UP!)

"Bruce."

the man who'd been as close to a father or brother as he'd known since Dad's death, hell, a friend, just like Dick, in a way

"Bruce."

"Dick?"

Back to reality, Bruce...

He ventured a short look at Nightwing.  For a moment, his mind superimposed the eight-year-old kid that he'd found in Newtown all those years ago, the night two aerialists had fallen to their deaths in the Haly Circus.  The night that both of them learned that the Flying Graysons' deaths had not been an accident.

So much older now.  So much bigger, so much stronger.  In a costume that owed nothing to the one Bruce himself had worn when partnered with Harvey Harris, then passed on to Dick, along with the name Robin.

The name had been passed on, as well.

"I was just thinking, Bruce.  How many times have we been in this car together, or one like it, over the years?  I can't even remember how many Batmobiles we've gone through since I've been with you, y'know.  The ones we wrecked, the ones we had built in new ways..."

Batman shifted his hands a bit on the wheel.  "I'd have a hard time remembering myself, Dick.  Even with this so-called photographic memory."

Nightwing smiled.  "I've got a pretty good memory, too, Bruce.  You wanna hear what I'm remembering tonight?"

"Tell me."

Nightwing shifted back in his seat.  "I'm remembering...a kid.  A circus boy.  An eight-year-old who just saw his mom and dad take what looked like one chance too many.  Then he found out that it wasn't a bad chance at all, but some bad men that just decided to use them as an example.  And he wanted to go to the cops, but he turned and ran into a guy all in black and grey who said that wouldn't be a good idea.  That the town cops were corrupt, and that he'd be dead inside an hour if he talked. Whether from a crook's bullet, or a cop's bullet, it didn't matter.

"And I want to tell you, Bruce, that the kid was a little scared of that big guy back then.  I mean, he was a stranger.  Sure as hell wasn't one of the circus folk.  But the big guy was strong. As strong as a guy would need to be to straighten things out.  To make sure...his parents got some kind of justice.  And the kid wanted to be in on it too."

"I remember," said Batman, looking at the road ahead.

"That kid.  That eight-year-old kid took his first ride in the Batmobile that night.  It wasn't even as good as the one we had built a year later.  But it looked like it was a mile long to the kid, and he was a little leary of getting into it.  Then again, he had to, to stay with the big guy in the cape, to try and make things even out.  So that's what he did.  And he argued with the guy in the cape for all of the way.  The big guy was going to take him to the Gotham orphanage for safekeeping.  But by the time they got to the Gotham city line, the big guy had started seeing things the kid's way, just a little."

The man at the wheel nodded, faintly.

"That was the start of it.  When the big guy took the kid into the cave, and made him swear the oath to fight for justice, and then took off his mask.  And the kid found out the big guy looked just as human as...well, as his dad.  And the big guy, Bruce, he was smiling.  But he was still strong, mighty, mighty strong.  And...that's how the kid knew he could be strong, himself. If he could draw some of that strength off the big guy, and make that part of it his own."

"Dick," said Batman, struggling with his own emotions.

"Bruce.  What I mean to say is...as routine as all the trips we took in that car, and all the others...there's always something of it that feels like the first night we were in it together, to me.  My God, Bruce, everything...everything I am now, I owe to you.  You were my father.  You were my second father.  I...dammit to hell, I just don't know how to give it back.  And I want to, so damn much."

"Dick," said Batman.  "Please.  Don't you think...don't you know...that everything you took from me, you gave back tenfold?"

"I..."

"Please, Dick. Shut up.  Don't you know how lonely it was for me, back then?  I didn't even have Alfred.  It was just me, and the bats in the cave, and the fury.  I was going to fight through every hood in Gotham back then, until I got to the one who'd killed my parents, my parents, Dick, and make him pay.  Only sometimes I didn't know if I was going to live long enough to do it.  Sometimes I didn't know a lot of things.  Then, when you came along, I began to think that I would make it through.  You know why, Dick?"

Nightwing spread the fingers of one hand, palm up.

"Because I wasn't just living for hatred then, Dick.  I was also living because I had somebody to love."

The younger man tried to speak and found that someone had shoved a large immaterial ice cube down his throat.

"That's why I was so glad to have you, Dick, although I may not have shown it as well as I should--"

"You did, Bruce," said Nightwing, haltingly.  "You did."

"--because I knew back then I could never have a wife."  His face grew a bit grimmer, and his hands tightened on the wheel.  "At least, that was what I thought.  But with you, I could have  someone very like a son.  And that's what you were to me, though the courts would only let you be my ward.  And that's why it...why it hurt so very much when you had to leave."

Nightwing's face was turned away from his old partner's.  Batman continued.

"But nobody can stay a Boy Wonder forever, I suppose.  And Alfred and I were so proud of you, every time we heard of Robin taking down some hoods in New Carthage, or with the Teen Titans.  Then we tried to get together again, and we worked well together..."

"Yeah," said Dick Grayson, hoarsely.  "And I left again."

Batman nodded. "Because you had to, Dick.  Because you had to.  I don't think you did anything wrong.  When you reformed the Titans...when you became Nightwing, as much as that hurt...I had to admit you were doing something very right.  Choosing your own path, and sticking to it."

"I'd have never lived long enough to do it, if not for you," Nightwing said.

"Don't you see, Dick?  Without you, I wouldn't have, either.  The fury might have broken me.  I had to learn to love again, from you."

They went on for three more blocks before either of them said anything.

"We're partners again, Bruce," said Dick.  "Tonight, and any time you need it.  Batman and Robin, again."

"No, Dick," said Batman, gently.  "We're friends.  And it's Batman and Nightwing.  Because it has to be."

Nightwing breathed heavily.  "Tonight, I'm going to pay you back for everything.  Tonight, we're going to bring Kobra down, and save Selina.  Because she's another person for you to love, Bruce...and I don't aim to let you lose her.  My...wedding gift to you."

"Hold that thought, partner," said Batman.  "We're about a mile away from our target."  He noticed a green light on the communicator panel.  Pressing a button, he said, "How far back are you?"

Katana's voice answered.  "Only two blocks.  Should we close?"

"Negative," he said.  "Nightwing and I will blaze the trail.  You cover for us.  How was it back home?"

"Nothing had changed when we left."

"Good.  Stand by."  He thumbed the connection shut.

"Tonight's probably the last night, Bruce," said Nightwing.

"For somebody, Dick.  For somebody."

The Batmobile sped on.

 -B-

The vans looked suspicious, so the cops stopped them a mile away from the Wayne mansion.  Bruce owned a large enough spread to keep himself at a fairly good distance from neighbors, but Commissioner Gordon had insisted that the force keep a decent shift of boys in blue on the few roads around there until the Selina Kyle Wayne thing was resolved.  The guys who filed out were of some Eurasian sort.  Given what info had filtered down, that didn't seem good.

Baker, who was in charge of the unit, said, "We'll have to search your vehicles.  We don't want any problems, so don't cause any."

The Eurasians looked at each other but didn't seem perturbed.  "But of course," said one, in faintly accented English.

Baker took two men with him and stuck his head in the first van.  That was as far as he got before his knees got weak and things began to double and weave and he suddenly resumed a dream he'd had before about being on Mars, fighting alongside Captain John Carter, and it was such a good dream he didn't even feel the impact when his chin struck the floor of the van.

The gas was odorless and colorless and spread quickly.  Before a minute was out, all the cops on the scene, who weren't wearing nose filters as the Eurasians were, fell asleep in their tracks.  One of them, in his car, tried to radio a message to headquarters but got about as far as depressing the send button before he went under.

One of the Eurasians leaned inside the prowl car, took the hand mike away from him, and pressed the off button.  Then he reached over and took the keys out of the car.  The others were disabling the three other police vehicles in similar ways.

There was no need to kill the police unless it was decreed by Lord Naja-Naja.  Their true objectives lay ahead.

"Suit up," said the squad leader.  Obediently, the men got into the vans and, as the vehicles drove away, started changing into their Cobra Cult uniforms.

Almost time for work.

Behind them, a voice was heard in the radio of several of the cars.  "Lt. Bullock callin' 547.  Repeat, Lt. Harvey Bullock callin' 547.  Baker, acknowledge.  Baker.  Baker, acknowledge."

Baker was still fighting Tharks alongside John Carter, but had no way of telling Lt. Bullock of such.

 -B-

The Chambers Building is located in the Uptown part of Gotham, not many blocks from where Vicki Vale keeps her apartment.  As the crow flies, it is about 30 miles from Wayne Manor.  The Batmobile was able to make it in well under an hour.  But both men riding inside knew that every minute was another one ticked off of Selina Wayne's dwindling life.

The two of them had no time for rubberneckers or doormen.  The great brakes of the Batman's vehicle brought it to a stop in an area where only emergency vehicles would have been permitted.  Gotham's laws permitted the Batmobile to stop by and large wherever Batman wanted.  The two of them leapt from the car almost before the motor stopped running.

"There'll be traps," opined Nightwing.

"Wouldn't settle for anything less," rapped Batman.

The two of them rushed for the service entrance of the Chambers, bowling over a few pedestrians who were too shocked to get out of their way.  One of the Batman's skeleton keys and a whisk of an ID card good for anywhere in the city got them through the door.  A worker pushing a buggy of laundered uniforms gaped at them.

Batman reached into his utility belt and pulled forth a $50.  "This is yours if you give us what we want."

"Uh, what do you want?" said the mustachioed man.

Three minutes later, the man found himself outside the back door, while Batman, in a service uniform pulled on over his costume and a cap which he hoped concealed some of his mask pushed a buggy, within which Nightwing lie hidden.  He didn't really want to take the elevator--Kobra was bound to have traps installed there, whether the management knew it or not--but there didn't seem to be another way to get up in time.

A concierge saw them in the hall, waiting for the lift to hit their floor.  "What are you doing?" he asked, coming closer.  "That stuff's supposed to go on this floor."

Batman smiled as broadly as possible and went over to the man.  He might be just a regular employee, or he might be in contact with Kobra.  His ungloved hand went to the man's shoulder.

"Well, y'see, it's like this," he explained.

The concierge caught sight of the mask under the cap's brim just about the time several fingers squeezed a place near his neck that brought him unconsciousness.

The elevator pinged the arrival of the cab.  Batman eased his man to the floor, then propped him behind a potted plant.  The doors opened and three people got out.  Nonchalantly, the manhunter wheeled his buggy into the elevator and pressed the button to shut the doors.  There was no one else in the cab.

He heard somebody yell, "Hey, there's a guy over here, and he's out!" before the doors closed.

From underneath a layer of uniforms, Dick Grayson asked, "Are we there yet?"

"Soon enough," said Batman.

 -B-

The Outsiders were stuffed into three cars from Bruce Wayne's garage and pulled into the parking lot of the Chambers Building only about five minutes after Batman and Nightwing.  Black Lightning was damned glad that Bruce had car phones in just about everything he owned, except for maybe a motorcycle.  He dialed police headquarters as the others piled from the cars.  "Put me through to Gordon or Bullock," said Jeff.

A couple of seconds later, he heard the gruff voice of the biggest slob and one of the finest cops among Gotham's Finest.  "Bullock," said the lieutenant, around a cigar.

"Bullock, listen.  This is Lightning.  We're all at the Chambers Building, Bats included.  He's gone ahead of us.  The big fish is bound to be inside."

"You sure of that?"

"You want to tell Batman he's wrong?"

"I'll call for backup now."

"Set up blockages, keep the civilians out of it as much as you can, get some cops in the lobby.  You know the drill."

"Oh, yeah.  Go make like Audie Murphy.  I'll do my Edward G. Robinson."

"I hope not.  I've heard your Edward G. Robinson.  Later."  Black Lightning broke the connection.  Then he jumped out of the convertible.  Metamorpho, Element Girl, Halo, Katana, Talia, King Faraday, Geo-Force, Creeper, Plastic Man, and Looker were already out and headed for the front door.  The man whom Batman had paid off gaped at the newcomers and wondered how many more people in nutty costumes were going to show up tonight.  And what they would pay for an exclusive laundry service.

There was a park a block away and three vans had been parked in it until a few moments before, when their engines were gunned to life and they made three streaks for the back door of the hotel.  As they got near enough, the uniformed soldiers inside opened windows, doors, and even hatches on top of the vans, and started firing at the heroes before they even came to a stop.  And not all that they fired was bullets.

Battle was joined.

 -B-

In Markovia, the Justice League and New Titans picked through the wreckage of the atomic accelerator.  They had already used their combined powers to damp down the temperature and negate the radioactivity from it.  Most of the area was covered with charred plastic and wiring and fused metal.  Luckily, no human life had been lost.  At least, as far as they knew.

Wonder Woman still held onto the end of her lasso, with Clayface encircled about the waist in its loop.  The woman looked the part of her name, resembling a hunk of brown modelling clay shaped into the form of a human female.  "You said he was within the machine?"

"Yes," Clayface confirmed.  "He activated it when I couldn't.  He was supposed to be protected by a force-field."

"What if it didn't work?  What if Kobra gave him a defective shield, so that he wouldn't live to tell of the plot?"

The villainess said, "I don't know."

Firestorm, flying a few feet off of the ground, said, "So, like, wouldn't it be a better assumption that Doc Light didn't survive?  Maybe the energy charge did kind of overload his capacity, or something."

The Elongated Man was stretching along beside him, and his nose was twitching.  "I doubt it, kid.  The nose knows.  There's still a mystery in Markovia."

A large green bloodhound was snuffling the ground not far away from them.  Suddenly, the dog raised his head, sniffed the air, then opened his mouth and clamped down on solid air.

"Yipe!" said another area of air.  "Let go of my leg, you mongrel!"

Another green being, J'onn J'onzz, was there in an instant.  His Martian speed had brought him to the spot, his Martian vision revealed something else to him, and his Martian strength was employed a second later to lash out and punch whatever Changeling, in dog-form, was holding.  There was a groan and a thud.

The Martian Manhunter stooped, reached out, and tore something with an audible rip.  A white belt became visible in his hand.  On the ground below was an unconscious man with a white goatee, who wore a black and white uniform.  Dr. Arthur Light, aka Art Lyte, aka Dr. Light.

Changeling returned to his normal shape as the villain became visible.  "Score one for Team Chartreuse," he grinned.

Several other heroes appeared beside them, including Kid Flash and Superman.  "Good going, you two," said the Kryptonian.  "Let's get these two under wraps."

"Then can we head into Gotham?" said Wally West.

Superman's face became grim.  "Batman asked us to wait till he contacted us.  He was afraid Kobra might strike on another front, as a distraction.  But, Wally...if I don't hear from him within another hour, I vote we go in anyway."

"Let's do it now," said Steel, who had appeared with the rest.

The others looked at him.  Superman said, "You've worked with Batman before, I know.  What do you think he'd say?"

Abashed, the young hero said, "Guess you've got a point.  All right, let's wait."

 -B-

The young woman in the air berated herself for her cowardice.

She had not sided with her old comrades in this matter, preferring to break away and stand with the heroes.  At the same time, she had been elsewhere during the entire affair, not feeling comfortable with the mass of supermen and superwomen who had attended the wedding of the Waynes.  Halo had tried to get her to come, but at the last moment she had begged off.

When the news came of Selina's attack and the subsequent events, she had still remained aloof.   Through what sources she had, she learned of the fight between the Outsiders and the Masters of Disaster.  But that was a continent away, and she could be forgiven her noninvolvement with that.

She hoped.

But she had maintained a vigil over Wayne Manor for some time now, and when she saw the Batmobile tearing away, she knew that the end of the affair must be coming soon.  Three other cars came from the Wayne garage later, and she recognized their occupants.   She counted them as friends, but did not know if they would count her as such.

She had trailed the vehicles at a slow rate of speed, half-heartedly, then lost them.  She debated whether or not to try and find them.  After all, she wasn't even sure she wanted to be a super-heroine anymore, if she even was one.  And the others would have power enough to deal with what they had to.

But it hadn't been enough to protect Selina Wayne, had it?

Grudgingly, and slowly, she admitted it hadn't.

Wafting herself on the wings of the wind, the young woman took to the skies once again, and vowed she would find where her friends had gone.

And she prayed that, if they were in trouble when she found them, she would have the courage to help.  The courage would have to come from God.

It sure couldn't come from her.

 -B-

Batman figured that the elevator would either start spewing gas, heating up, or threatening to drop within about ten stories or so.  It took fifteen, and it was 42 stories to the top.  He figured the giveaway was when he spotted the minicamera near the top and broke it.

It was gas, but he and Dick had already put on their nose filters before they went in.  Nightwing was out of the buggy by the time the hissing had started.  Batman's thumb had already gone to the emergency-stop button to freeze the car between floors.

"No sense in letting it open on a floor where civilians could get a whiff," he said.  "Let's poke the hatch."

Nightwing leapt into Batman's cupped hands, bounced up, banged his hands against the emergency hatch, then flipped back to the side of the car as gunfire racketed through the space in an almost perfect pattern.  Batman was against the car's side as well, having leapt back as soon as he finished boosting his partner.

"I'll handle this," said Dick.  He bent his wrist at a certain angle and touched a stud on the wristband he had brought along for this job.  He kept his head and the rest of his body out of the backblast of a shortrange but powerful wrist rocket.

The weapon lanced through the hatch and travelled to the top of the shaft in seconds.  Its explosive warhead blew the machine gun implant to shrapnel.  The masked twosome were hugging the sides of the cab again, then took hold of the handrail about its walls as the cab made a short drop.  The brakes caught it before it had fallen very far.

"Wonder how he managed to keep that from the inspectors?" said Nightwing.

"They do it all the time in this town," said Batman.  "You know that."

They hopped through the hatch, stood atop the greasy roof of the cab, and used a mini-jack from Batman's utility belt to force the doors of the next floor.  A few bewildered people stood facing them, drawn by the noise, most of them standing before open doors.

"Get back inside," said Batman. "Don't come out again before the police or I tell you it's all clear."

They obeyed, and doors slammed shut and were locked.

"You've still got the touch," remarked Dick.

"Hope so," clipped Batman.

They ran for the stairs, preparing mentally for the next set of traps.

And Batman wondered whether or not, before he got to the top and Kobra, his wife would be dead.

 -B-

Bruce Wayne had a decent enough set of motion detectors installed along the roads to his home.  The monitors were activated in the Batcave when they were tripped.  After the fiasco in which the Kobraites had invaded the mansion, Alfred had new one installed and made a general check of all of them.

Some minutes beforehand, the infrared pictures came in and a tone-alarm was given.  The Bat-Squad knew about the vans while the latter were still on the road, some distance from the house.

The elder Robin made the decision about teams.  "Starfire, Helena, and Batgirl, come with me.  Jason, Firebird, Kathy, Karl, you stay here with Alfred.  No arguments."

"That's only four against a mob of Cobra Cultists," said Batwoman.  "Only one of you has powers.  Not good."

"I said, no arguments," snapped Dick.  "We're going to try and hit them before they get here.  Alfred.  The girls.  Is there a place of safekeeping to which you can get them?"

"Why, yes," said Alfred.  "But it's in, ahem, the Batcave.  I can blindfold both of them, tell them it's for their own good..."

"Good.  Do it.  Come on, crew, let's go!"  The red-yellow-and-green costumed man rushed to the door of the drawing room, followed by the Huntress, Starfire, and Batgirl.  Firebird looked at Batwoman, the Cat King, and young Robin.

"Guess we're perceived as the weaker set," she mused.

Karl Kyle said, "We've got to be strong enough to hold off these creeps from Selina.  And we will be."

Robin pounded his fist into his palm.  "Best believe, Karl.  If these guys try to get at my second mom, we're gonna shove these Cobras' tails down their mouth and let ‘em bite themselves!"

Batwoman hugged Jason lightly from behind.  "If I thought it would do any good, I'd tell you to stay out of it.  You're too young to die.  Would it?"

"No," he said.

"All right," she said.  "If Bruce has got any weapons around here, we'd better find ‘em."

 -B-

The Outsiders were ready for a fight with Kobra's men.  The problem was that the Cobra Cultists were a bit readier.

Kobra did not want to be bothered by Batman's auxiliary while he was luring the Masked Manhunter into his lair.  Therefore, the strike force that encountered the Outsiders was equipped with weapons more suited to countering their powers.

Plastic Man was the first to encounter the foe, stretching out thirty feet to do it.  He was grim, eager to pay the Cobraites back for his imprisonment, but even more eager to prove himself to his teammates.  He made a fist more than a yard across and pummelled one Cultist down with it before Black Lightning could holler, "Plas, wait!"

But the Pliable Paladin hadn't waited, wasn't facing the guy who carried a large spray-rifle attached to a case on his belt, and, thus, wasn't able to avoid the yellowish glop with which the guy was covering him.  He turned his head towards the man, but couldn't quite make it.

The stuff was a polymer compound, quick-hardening, and able to restrain even Plastic Man himself.  He started to elongate his head out of the trap.  A second blast covered his head, making it difficult for him to breathe.  He tried to use his feet, his hands, but his glasses were covered by the glop and he couln't see where to direct them.

There was a sleeping drug of some sort mixed with the polymer.  He guessed this only a few seconds before he pitched onto the pavement of the hotel's parking lot.

Black Lightning let fly with two great static electric charges from his hands that hit the metallic spray-gun and were conducted into the sprayer's body.  The Cultist jerked from the jolt and then fell unconscious.  Jeff Pierce yelled, "At ‘em, Outsiders!", and, hands crackling with blue energy, leaped into the fray.  Those Cultists before him gave way, and another rushed at him.  He was covered from head to foot in some sort of body armor, non-metallic, to be sure.  Lightning tried throwing bolts around him, but a lightning rod protruding from one shoulder on the Cobraman's uniform attracted the charges and dispelled them through his suit.

Apparently, the damn thing was insulated.

The Cobra Cultist closed with him and got in the first blow.  Jeff reeled.  The nature of the gloves the guy wore, with no finger divisions, and the impact of the hit told the Outsider that his foe was fighting with weighted hands...probably brass knucks.  He took another hit, rallied, and slammed a blow into the man's midsection.  The armor hurt his hand, which did no appreciable damage to the man's gut.

This was getting serious.

Metamorpho was on the polymered Plastic Man with an acid to dissolve the yellowish cocoon.  He was hoping that the stuff wouldn't burn through Plas's skin as well.  "Rainie!" he called.  "Keep ‘em back!"  Obediently, Element Girl formed her upper body into a metal propeller and began rotating at great speed, pushing forward.  The Cultists in front of her gave way, not sure she would cut them to bits, but not sure she wouldn't.

But another Cultist attacked Metamorpho with a modified taser that sent intolerable electrical jolts through Rex's body, more than even he could withstand.  Element Girl turned, formed her left hand into a cobalt maul and dealt the attacker a blow that shattered his helmet and left him unconscious in the street.  But she, too, fell victim to another taser-wielder.

Black Lightning was already out, having taken one too many blows from his enemy.  The rest were having problems of their own.

"Take this, you rotten ol' snake-eyes!" snapped a flying Halo, and scattered some of their opponents with an orange force-blast from her hands.  Unfortunately, she had a hand-picked enemy, too.  One Cultist held a device that looked like a small satellite dish and trained it up at her, reflecting back at her the frequencies of her orange aura.  It hammer-blowed into her.  Halo's eyes became very wide, her body very limp.  The heroine fell, and Geo-Force negated gravity beneath her enough to make her plunge soft.  But she was still kayoed when she touched the pavement.

The Creeper was already amongst the Cobras, leaping, kicking, chopping, slugging through them like a ballet dancer turned kickboxer on speed.  His red-gloved fists cut a swath through their foes, and both friends and enemies were impressed with the Creeper's prowess.  Even though he wasn't quite as muscular as the Batman, Professor Yatz's serum had given him the strength, stamina, and speed of Olympic champions when it was activated.  Thus, he was able to slam his way through a good number of Cobramen on his way towards Plastic Man.  All the while, he let loose his trademarked screeching laugh.  The most chilling thing about it was the note of pleasure in it.

Then, suddenly, a thrown bola wrapped itself about his ankles and a power-charge in a device concealed within one of the balls sent an agonizing surge through his yellowish body.  His screech of laughter became one of pain.  He fell face-first to the asphalt, and two Cobramen brandished truncheons which came up once, and then went down.

Geo-Force cried out, "Enough!", placed his hands on the pavement, and exerted one of his powers.  Within seconds, all those directly in front of him, both allies and fallen heroes, felt themselves growing incredibly heavy.  The force of gravity was being increased locally by the Markovian.  The Cobra Cultists reluctantly began to kneel, then to fall prone.

The hero smiled.  But only for a few seconds.

One of the Cultists, lying parallel to the ground, had his weapon outstretched and a finger in the trigger guard.  He squeezed, once.  He was thankful that his arm was pointed in the right direction.

Geo-Force's yellow boots were tough, but not tough enough to keep out the trank dart that imbedded itself in his ankle.  Two seconds later, he pitched forward on his face.

Looker, Katana, King Faraday and Talia remained, and Looker was already in the air.  Katana unsheathed her sword.  Talia shrank back, and looked as though she were about to bolt.  Faraday had his .38 drawn and was stepping forward.  Katana looked back at both of them and said, "No."

Faraday looked at her, perturbedly.  "No, what?"

"Do not engage our foes in combat, Faraday," said the Japanese woman.  "Get inside, hide, and take this woman with you.  Make sure you do not lose her.  Absolutely sure."  She emphasized this point with a gesture of her weapon.  Despite himself, Faraday flinched.

"It is not necessary," said Talia, trying to put together her composure.  "I am able to acquit myself well enough, and both of us will do better separate--"

"NO."  Katana's tone was deadly.

Faraday grabbed Talia's wrist.  "All right, dammit, I'll play the game for right now.  But you and Miss Eyes had better pull this one out."

Katana charged it, her sword in both hands.  Talia tried to pull away from Faraday.  He grasped her wrist more tightly, and began to haul her after him, towards the doors.

"My father would have you murdered for touching my person thus," she snapped.

"Your father would probably clout you over the head and give you to me in a more cooperative status," retorted Faraday.  "And if you don't cooperate, I swear I'll do it myself."

The two of them made it within the glass door and went looking for a place of concealment.

Katana was not in a mood to take prisoners.  Her lord and his young warrior-aide were invading the enemy's temple, and these malefactors were preventing them from going to their aid.  True, there were laws against murder.  But if deadly force was offered, deadly force could be returned.

Irregardless, she was going to make sure that some did not live to serve Kobra past this night.

With a horrifying kiiai yell, Katana leapt at the Cultists.  They were doing their trademarked pull-back-and-let-the-specialist-up thing, but she still got three of them with a swing of her sword.  The voice within her blade hissed.  No way to tell if she had claimed her targets or not.  There were a lot more to kill.

Except she didn't quite get the chance.

Two tasers were fired at her from opposite directions.  These she managed to destroy with her sword.  But another two, fired an instant later, hit their mark.  Katana's costume had some insulation, but the points of the taser darts penetrated it.  A crackling of blue electrical force shot into her body.  She gritted her teeth, intent on her duty.  She was samurai, and a samurai must battle on until death, and beyond, if granted.

Even as it was, she managed to take down another foe before she fell.

That left Looker, though she was unaware that she was the lone warrior remaining on the Outsiders' roster.  At the same time that Katana was striking, she levitated herself above the fray, extended her hands towards Kobra's standing warriors, and unleashed a brainblast.  It mowed down several in the front row.  It could have taken out all of the enemy, leaving them senseless in the parking lot battlefield.

But one of their number was also prepared for the lovely psionic.  A helmet encased his cranium, protecting him from her mental bolts.  He held up a gunlike weapon, designed by someone in Kobra's employ.  A burst of high-powered static in the frequency band of Looker's power was unleashed, and targeted in a fairly tight band towards the redheaded heroine.

The pain was overwhelming.

Don't let me fall, too, thought Looker.  Not me.  I'm the only one left...the only one...

But she did, hitting the asphalt surface limply enough to save herself from injury.  It was not a conscious act.  She had already passed out.

The surviving Kobra warriors stood amidst the fallen, most of which were Outsiders.

Sirens were audible in the background and a group of rubberneckers had gathered, but were keeping well away from the battle scene.  The Cultists looked towards their group leader for instruction.

"The two elementals we'll have to take with us," he said.  "Bullets are said not to affect them.  As for the others...kill them."

"We hear and obey," said another soldier.

The Cobramen took out conventional guns, placed themselves above each of the fallen Outsiders except Metamorpho and Element Girl, and awaited the order to fire.

 -B-

"Grandfather, why in the hell are you doing this thing?"

"For your own protection, Julia," said Alfred, doing up her blindfold in back.  "Now don't wiggle, and don't try pulling the blessed thing up.  It's important."

Daphne Pennyworth, not yet blindfolded, snapped, "Like hell.  What's bloody important, uncle, is you telling me and Julie what's going on around here.  All the secrecy, all the guests that we can't meet, every time we get shoved out when other people get shoved in...what's the big deal?  Why is this?"

Alfred looked at his niece evenly.  "Because the house is about to be attacked and there is no time to get you out beforehand."

Daphne's eyes widened in shock.  Julia turned and pulled up her blindfold, agog.  "Attack?  By whom?"

He pulled her blindfold down again.  "By the same parties involved in the poisoning of Mistress Selina.  Now either cooperate, or I shall go below, return with a chloroformed sponge, and render the both of you more compliant."

"But you...we...who is it?" said Daphne, holding the cloth for her eyes.  "Where are the police?  Where is Bruce?"

The butler took the cloth and tied it tightly around her eyes.  "The police, hopefully, are on their way.  The master is with the Batman, wherever he may be.  We are undoubtedly to be attacked at any moment."  He took Daphne's hand and raised her from the chair, then took Julia's hand and led them both from the room.

The Frenchwoman protested, "But grandfather, where are you taking us?  And what about the others?"

"I am taking you to a place of shelter," said Alfred, walking between them and still holding their hands as they proceeded down the hall.  "The others will also be fine."

"Where will you be, uncle?" pleaded Daphne.

"Defending the house, and our family honor."

"Can't...can't we...", started Julia.

"No, no, emphatically no," said Alfred, stopping, opening the door to the library, and then ushering them both in.

"My grandmother was a resistance fighter," said Julia.  "She was Mademoislle Marie."

"Yes," sighed Alfred.  "I know who your grandmother was."

Alfred shut the door, then shut out the lights, plunging the room into darkness.  There was still a chance that the girls could see a bit through the cloth, or that one or both would pull up the blindfolds to peek.  He felt his way unerringly to the hidden switch that caused the section of book-wall to open.  Then he took the two women to the doorway.  "Step down, carefully," he said.

"Uncle, I want to know what is happening," pressed Daphne.

"I am saving the two of you, hopefully, from death," he said.

"From death?" said Daphne, incredulously.  Julia just breathed a bit quicker.  All three were walking down the steps to the Batcave.

"You will obey my orders to the letter in this matter," said Alfred, as if to a partisan in the war of four decades past.  "Once you are within the chamber to which I shall take you, you will open the door to no one's voice except my own, or one of the guest's.  The password shall be, ‘Pecksniff.'  Once again, ‘Pecksniff.'  Now, repeat it to me."

"Pecksniff," said Julia and Daphne, still walking downward.

There was a set of three rooms in a bunker in the Batcave, concealed behind a false wall, and Alfred prayed that they would remain concealed.  Within was a couple of beds, a small kitchen, and a bathroom.  It would accomodate the both of them, and hopefully keep them safe no matter what transpired.

At least, that was what one had to tell oneself.

Alfred Pennyworth opened the door with a device the size of a coin, watching the rock-wall over the concealed door swing up and outward.  He thrust both women inside, and then said, "Count ten and take your blindfolds off.  God be with you both...and with us."

The rock door was closed in three seconds.  Julia had her blindfold off in five.  Daphne had hers off a second later.  They looked about them.

"A fallout shelter," guessed Daphne.  "Thought Bruce would have something more elaborate."

Julia said, "I don't know if it's a fallout shelter, specifically, Daphne.  Bruce is a rich man, and, well, rich men can be endangered at times."

The actress sat on the edge of one bed, found it sufficiently soft, and then slapped both hands on it.  "Julia.  This is impossibly crazy."

"I know.  But there's absolutely nothing we can do about it."

Daphne hugged herself.  "What do you suppose this all really is?  Could Bruce be mixed up in some sort of, of spy business, or what?"

Julia shook her head.  "Once, I suspected him of being the Batman.  But him being married to the Catwoman would be reason enough.  She mixed with some dangerous people.   Some of them she might have--excuse the phrase--rubbed the wrong way."

"Bad enough to want to kill her all these times?  And to send somebody to attack the house?"

"Evidently," said Julia.

"Julia.  Are you scared?"

She nodded.  "Are you?"

"Absolutely."

The two women sat side by side on the bed, held hands, and wondered when and how this thing would be over.

 -B-

Starfire was flying high enough that she hoped she wouldn't be spotted.  But, where Kobra was concerned, she didn't take that for granted.  A pair of hunting goggles was strapped to her head.  Below, she caught sight of one of the Cobra vans.  She lifted her wrist to her mouth and spoke into a communicator.

"One below me, and closing.  I'm going to hit it.  Wait for me."

"Acknowledged," said the elder Robin in her earplug.

The Tamaranian bent her upper body down at an angle, kicked her legs up, and shot downward at a great rate of speed.  This was a bombing run, and she had to make her first salvo count.  No telling what armament the Cultists were carrying.

About a hundred yards above it, she had to dodge what looked like plasma bursts.  They were too darned close for comfort, and the men who wielded the weapons were no slouches at marksmanship.

Then again, neither was she.

She closed for a bit more, zigzagging out of the plasma fire with difficulty, and extended her hands.  Twin bolts of starforce scorched from them, blasting at the roof of the van.  An explosion occurred as it contacted the metal.

After the light of the blast faded, she saw that the van had stopped, but was not destroyed.  The roof was damaged, but not broken through.  Were the men still inside?  She unleashed another bolt, rupturing the van roof this time, and descended as she did so.

From the sides of the trail about the vehicle, plasma fire erupted.  Koryand'r cursed.  The Cobras had suckered her down.  She spread her hands, blasted starpower in two directions, and pushed up, headed for the skies.

The plasma burst that got her didn't hit her dead-on, but the impact was great enough.  Starfire cried out as she felt the pain on her left leg and side, knew she was going to feel much more in a matter of seconds, knew that she was going to have to land.

"I'm hit!" she gasped into her wrist-radio.  "I'm hit!"

"Kory!" came the voice of the man who sounded like an older version of her husband.  "How bad?  Stay with me, Kory.  Talk to me."

But the ground came up and hit her pretty hard, and the wrist with the radio on it hit solid.  Something broke within it.  She lay stunned, and didn't want to lay stunned.  She wanted the stinging pain on her burned leg and body to awaken her.  Because if it didn't, she'd be a target for the fangs of the Cobras.

Starfire struggled against her body.  But she only seemed to push the blackness back for a few seconds.

Old Robin's voice went out to the radios of Huntress and Batgirl.  He spoke one word.

"Deploy."

The two opposing forces stalked each other in the night.

 -B-

Commissioner Gordon knew that Harvey Bullock was troubled by the fact that he hadn't touched his industrial-strength hoagie in the last five minutes.  If only he could have stopped it from dripping ranch style dressing onto the carpet.

"We've got squads going in two directions," said Bullock.  "To the Chambers Building, ‘n' the Wayne place.  Dammit, Commish, I was hopin' the bad craziness'd go away with the red skies a few weeks back."

Gordon rubbed the back of his neck.  "They never go away, Harvey.  We both know that.  They just recede a little bit, that's all."

"There's a lot of folks at the Wayne place right now," mused Bullock.  "That Dr. Dundee's s'posed to be there, plus the butler, that kid Todd, and a buncha house guests.  ‘N' Selina Wayne, if she's still alive.  Plus all hell's breakin' loose with the super-types downtown, so I hear."

The commissioner swept some papers off his desk.  "Your point?"

"My point is, why are the two of us sittin' here while we been gettin' invitations?"

Gordon pulled his .38 police special from a desk drawer, snapped out the barrel, checked it, snapped it back in place.  "My sentiments exactly.  I'm headed for Wayne Manor."

"Kinda figured you would.  I'll take the Chambers.  Commish?"

"Yes, Harvey?"

"You're still one helluva cop."

"So are you.  But wipe up that mess on the floor before you go."

 -B-

The cameras he had placed in the various places within and around the Chambers Building served Kobra well.  From his bed,. he was able to keep tabs on the situation with the Outsiders on one set of monitors, and on another set to track the progress made by Batman and Robin, or Nightwing as he was now called, with certain interruptions in the latter.  After all, Batman was smart enough to see where his cameras were and to smash them to bits.

Eve was lying with her head in his lap.  "Will this take very much longer, Naja-Naja?"

He stroked her black hair.  "Not much longer, my sweet.  But you can be assured of one thing: the Batman and I will close in combat before much time is passed.  Such is his nature, and such is mine."

"Then you expect him to get through all your defenses?"

"All the ones between here and where he is, yes.  But it will keep him entertained, maybe wear him down a little.  Heh."  Kobra gestured to a monitor screen that had a closer image of the Batman.  "Look at him.  It takes an experienced eye to see, but he's worn.  The beating he took at Mammoth's hands, the captivity in my mountain, the battles he's had to fight since then.  Batman's endurance is...well, it's legendary.  But even it has its limits."

"Whereas you are still fresh and...virile," commented Eve, wrapping her arms about his waist.

He shoved her head away.  "I will not be if you continue thus.  No, I must get dressed.  Batman expects this to be our final battle, and it would not do to greet him in my present state."

"Can we make love after you kill him?"

"We'll think about it," said Kobra, getting out of bed.  He checked the monitors again.  The two bounders were making their way up too easily.  He went to the table on which he had laid his shirt, pants, several weapons, and a communicator disk.  The last, he activated.

"Guardsmen of units five and six," said Kobra.  "Quarry approaching your level.  Perform."

He then switched it off, looked briefly across the room at Melissa MacNeil, sitting with her hands in her lap.  Perhaps after this all was done, he could make it a threesome and include her.

Kobra started dressing.  He could hardly be expected to note the single tear in Melissa's eye.

 -B-

Batman and Nightwing had abandoned pretense and disguise after ripping out and smashing enough Kobra cameras.  All that was left now, they figured, was to run the gauntlet.  They were on the 32nd floor and little had happened after they took out a sniper hiding in a room on the 28th.

On each floor, he'd had to herd a few civilians back into their rooms and tell them to shut the door and lock it.  Luckily, in Gotham, his face was more recognized than President Reagan's, and his authority was more absolute.  The people did what they were told.

Time was still slipping away.  For Selina, and for both of them.  Perhaps, Batman told himself, for everyone.  If Kobra could construct one machine like the one in Markovia, he could construct more.  Perhaps he already had.

Nightwing wasn't saying a lot.  That was good.  The kid--no, the man--was alert.  God knew, he deserved to be back in bed with Kory.  Instead, both he and she were involved in this blasted crusade.  Why in hell did some idiot villain who wanted to burnish a stupidly-chosen name always think he had to take a potshot at the Batman, or someone connected with him?

The Top Gun syndrome, Batman told himself.  If you outdrew the Top Gun, that made you Top Gun yourself.   And in his case, it was only a matter of time till someone did.

Time.  He was forty years old.  How much longer could he wear this cape?

He shook his thoughts away from that, only a few instants before he caught some suspicious creaks, smelled some smells that bespoke weapons to him.  Blast it.  If he hadn't been woolgathering, he would have caught it sooner.

"Enemies ahead," he said, softly.  "And behind."

With that, two doors at opposite ends of the hall flew open.  No less than fifteen men, with arms, emerged from them.  All wore the suit of the Cobra Cult.  They were armed.

There was no time to tell Nightwing to engage.  Both of them were already rushing at their foemen.  The ones Batman was facing were puzzled.

They couldn't figure out why he was smiling.

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