Dance With the Demons
Jason Todd, the second Robin of his Earth, saw the scumbags clambering over the window of the room Batwoman had vacated. The large steel ball was already in his sling. He let fly at the one with his foot on the sill, and prayed that whatever the Lord gave to David against Goliath was still in available supply.
Evidently it was. The Cobraman took the hit right on the forehead, cried out, and fell back, dropping two stories. No way to tell if he was out or not. No time for that right now.
Another Cobra Cultist was already in the room. He had a weapon that resembled a Kalishnikov, or so it seemed to young Robin in the moonlight that was the only illumination. The thing was pointed at Jason and the dude had to be only an instant away from firing.
That was instant enough. Jason executed one of the somersault flips he'd been doing since he was six years old in the circus, and put his feet right where he wanted them: in the face of the bad guy. He heard the report of the gun, felt his cape pulling away as bullets tore holes in it. Robin turned his body so that it landed, on three points, away from the path of gunfire.
The guy was rocked, but not out. Robin stamped the gun to the floor, raised him up, smashed a hard little fist into the guy's belly. The Cobraman grunted in pain, tried to slug back, missed as the boy ducked. Robin rolled, grabbed the gun, and noted that the Cobraman had taken a knife from his uniform only a fifth of a second before smashing the weapon against the side of his head. He went down.
Another pair of hands were at the sill. Robin changed his grip on the weapon, shot a stream of bullets through the window. The hands let go and their owner fell a couple of stories. Several seconds later, Robin threw the unconscious Cultist out after him.
Luck, he thought. Luck, luck, luck. Lots of them out there, only a few of us in here, and they don't mind killing. How long can I go before I have to...to...
Someone was in the room behind him. He whirled, the gun out instinctively. A woman. Flamebird.
Her hand was raised. "Hey, kid! It's just me. Betty. Put that thing away."
"Don't know if I should," said Robin, lowering the gun.
"We're not killers, Robin."
"They are," he said, pointing to the window.
A grenade bounced in. Flamebird, using the reflexes that had made her a pro tennis champ, scooped it up and threw it out the window while slamming Jason to the floor and then covering him with her body. It exploded outside, and they kept down. This time it wasn't a gas or flash grenade. It was the real thing, and it did damage. To the outer wall of the building, and maybe to the Cultists he'd just sent two stories down. He hoped not.
Flamebird said, "We've got to get to the Batcave. There's more stuff there that we can use."
"They can get in," he hissed.
"How many grenades do you think I can catch?" she retorted.
The two of them scurried, crouching, towards the door, through it, and down the hall. Flamebird didn't say anything more about Jason's gun, and he didn't let go of it.
Batman approached Kobra as slowly as the master villain was coming for him. "We can do this easy, Kobra," he said. "Give me the antidote. If it works, you go free. You have the word of the Batman on that."
The master of the Cobra Cult sent his tongue licking out towards Batman. The prosthetic portion of it extended several inches beyond his mouth before reeling back in. "You waste both of our times. Both of us know the wine of violence. Both of us know that this must end here, with a long and heady draft of it. I will toast your death with it."
"You talk too much," said Batman.
Both of them lunged at each other.
Their paths of attack were intended to expose the least of their person to attack, while attempting a strike on the opponent. Textbook stuff, as far as intentions went. They varied it on the way, each customization done within fractions of a second.
Both veered away from each other. Batman felt the pressure of a hand-blow against his chest so hard that it almost broke bone. But he knew from the impact his hand had made that Kobra had taken a blow to the underside of his chin that did just as much damage, possibly more.
Too bad the scum didn't have his tongue out at the time.
They had time enough to glance at each other. Batman saw the naked evil in the man's eyes. His own were shielded by the mirrored lenses, but Kobra didn't have to look into them to know the Batman's hatred.
Then they struck again. This time, they didn't part so quickly. Smashing blows, karate strikes, finger thrusts, knees, even kicks. As a parting shot, Kobra headbutted Batman in the forehead before they separated.
The World's Deadliest Man, as his enemies had named him, smiled at Batman. His tongue flickered out again, and back.
"What else did you steal from Kiss?" snapped Batman, his hands up.
Kobra roared and came at him again. He extended his phoney tongue to its full length, wrapped it about Batman's forearm, drew him near, while sweeping his green cape above Batman's head to blind him. He landed three blows and was readying a knee-thrust when five knuckles came out of somewhere beyond his expectations and radared in on his face.
Kobra was thrown backward, as if from an explosion. He landed flat-assed on the marble floor, barely able to recover enough to spin away. Batman's foot struck an instant after he vacated the spot. Part of the villain's face was numb, and his brain felt, for a few moments, as if it were occupying the wrong container.
The man must not be underestimated, he told himself. He is too good for egotistic dismissal.
Batman was at him again with a spinning back-kick that he managed to take on the shoulder. Kobra rolled again, out of reach, coming up at a vantage point in which he caught the eyes of Eve.
In them, he saw two things. One was arousal from the battle. The woman was a fighter herself, and combat was a certain aphrodisiac to her.
The second, which he could not mistake, was a certain dimunition in her regard for him. Yes, it was there, slight but--unmistakable. If he were defeated by the Batman, his stock would dip considerably lower in her bank. He might even have to threaten to kill her in order to...
No. That would not be necessary. He would not lose this battle.
Batman was upon him again, striking hard and low, with a velocity he could not match to block. His gut became a reservoir of pain. He almost felt the blow with the front of his spine.
The factor of his wife's impending death was not, as Kobra hoped, making him wilder or less careful. It had concentrated his fury, like light into a laser beam. This time, the Batman must be fought intelligently.
His arm was within reach. Kobra grabbed it under one limb, as quickly as his namesake, and thrust his stiff fingers into a cluster of nerves.
The Batman's eyes widened behind his lenses. He, too, knew this trick. Kobra had struck a nerve center that, for a few minutes, would paralyze his arm. The numbness which spread through his right shoulder, arm, and hand was there only a second before the pain from Kobra kneeing him in a most sensitive spot.
Batman sagged to the floor, fighting against numbness, fighting against pain.
A double-handed blow came like a concrete block dropped between his shoulders.
He was losing the fight.
Commissioner Gordon and his men came upon the cop cars and the squad who had been rendered unconscious by the Cobramen's gas. Some of them were revived easily. None of them, Gordon guessed, would be ready for active duty just then. Nonetheless, they were all alive. That was something.
Sgt. Baker was able to talk to Gordon. "A buncha raghead types, Commissioner, sir. In a couple of vans. Don't know what they did to us. I tried, sir. Tried to radio for help."
"How many?" asked Gordon, Captain O'Hara beside him.
"Don't know," rasped Baker. "Over ten. Maybe twenty. Pretty big vans. Sir."
"Were they armed? Costumed?"
"Don't know about arms," Baker said. "Didn't get. Chance to frisk ‘em. No costumes. No costumes."
There was a sound of a small explosion from some unknown distance, carrying in the stillness of the night. Gordon looked in the direction he thought it came from. There was a brief pinpoint of light between him and the horizon.
It was closer to the Wayne mansion.
"We'd better be off, sir," said O'Hara.
Barbara, thought Gordon. Barbara.
"One car stays behind with these men," said Gordon, rushing to O'Hara's vehicle. "The rest come with us."
The Cultist felt as though Naja-Naja himself were looking down upon him. There could be no other explanation, outside of his great luck.
The defensive devices inside the Batcave had taken out several of the squad he came in with. Electric charges, gases even the nose filters were only partially effective against, sonic blasts that left them in pain and on their knees before they found the source and blasted it. On top of that, the one called Robin and a girl in red and yellow had appeared from nowhere and, when they shot at them, the youth had shot back.
There had been a brief battle. The two defenders had taken refuge behind the Batmobile, which appeared to be bulletproof. It did not matter. Both the Cultist and his fellow Cultist knew that the mission was not primarily to destroy the Batman's family, but to destroy the Catwoman, who had been Batman's ally and one-time love.
They had both spied a flight of stairs leading to a door. He had let his partner go first, which was wise, as a touch of the knob on the door shocked the man into unconsciousness. It took all of an acid spray that the Cultist had come prepared with to melt away the metal around the lock. But when it was done, the Cobraman was able to kick the door open. Curiously, what looked like clockworks were visible through the hole.
Once beyond it, he rushed through the room beyond, which proved to be a library. A grandfather clock was on the door, but he did not waste curiosity on it. Battle was still raging behind him. It was possible that the defenders would come for him, if they were somehow victorious. But that would not prevent him from his goal.
If only one of the Cult made it into the room where the Wayne woman was dying, and ensured her death with his own hand, that would be sufficient. And Destiny was pointing out clearly that the one would have to be him.
He chanced a look behind him, briefly. No human there, only a few shadows.
Blessing himself, the Cobraman rushed through the room and beyond it, knowing that somewhere within this mansion was the woman for whom his Uzi was intended.
Naja-Naja would lead him to her.
Kobra had smashed several more blows into the Batman's neck, back, and legs, and had drawn his booted foot back for a kick to the side of his foe's head. Of course, it was on the side in which Batman's arm had been disabled. He didn't dare hesitate in its execution, and didn't think that he did.
Nonetheless, Batman managed to turn himself over in a great whirl, grab Kobra's flying ankle with his good hand, and hold it as immobile as if it had been in a vise. Indeed, the grip felt someting like a vise as well. Kobra cried out in pain, stamped Batman's wrist with his other foot, got free. In another instant, Batman knifed his body about, landed a booted kick to Kobra's midsection, and threw him across the room.
Kobra struggled for breath. He had hurt the man, but...he had underestimated him as well. The Batman's physical prowess was unbelievable. The punishment he had given him would have put any three strong men away. But there the man was, struggling to his feet, one arm hanging as limply as if it had been shot. Still, the menace and might of the Batman was...well, it was almost beautiful.
Still, the man could be beaten. He had done it once. And if all else failed, there was his belt of teleportation. But...no, one must not think of that. This night, he was here to destroy the Batman. To murder him with his own two hands. That was his sole purpose for being here in this place, at this time, when he could have been at an untold number of other places.
Finishing up business.
He had a chance to look at Melissa MacNeil. Still she had a vacant stare, which was to be expected. After all, was she not his mental slave? And had she not been so ever since he took her from the arms of his brother Jason, ran her through the Lazarus Pit, and then had her plunge a knife into Jason's back?
That freed him, once and for all, of the "Corsican brothers" malady of feeling everything his brother had felt. Of course, without the neural interruptor which he had worn, he would have died along with Jason.
But Melissa looked a bit out of sorts. Almost as though she was trying to cry.
He shrugged, mentally. Strange what one can observe in an instant between battle.
The Batman was on his feet again. With a cry, Kobra rushed at him again. This time, he vowed, the man would not rise anew.
There was nothing to be done for it except to withdraw to the inner room, which Alfred was doing, taking Batwoman and the Cat King with him. There they would make their last stand, guarding Selina and Dr. Dundee with their lives. He only hoped that Julia and Daphne would remain hidden from their assailants. He knew what soldiers were apt to do with women. Especially attractive women.
"This is no good, Alfred," snapped Karl Kyle. "We need to stand and fight."
"You mean, stand and kill," said Kathy, bitterly.
"We will stand and do as we must," confirmed Alfred, leading the way with Uzi in hand. "But we must fall back and defend the person these bounders are trying to murder. Now, please...the enemy is undoubtedly in the house already. Make little noise."
There was a sound of gunfire down the hall.
Alfred and his friends forgot about not making noise and hauled rear as fast as possible in that direction.
The door lock had come off, spraying gas from a boobytrap, when the man shot through it. Dr. Dundee had time to mentally thank God the bed, himself, and Selina were out of the path of fire.
A man shoved his way through the door. He wore a strange costume, with a mask, but Dundee knew a soldier when he saw him. The man was raising his weapon. It looked automatic, looked loaded, and looked like it would shoot through Dundee and Selina a lot easier than it shot through a wooden door.
Dundee wanted to rush the man, but his legs just wouldn't. They wouldn't. He'd never faced a man with a gun before. He was not the Batman, only his doctor. All he could do was step between Selina and the man, interpose his body. And Selina was barely breathing, totally comatose. She would, thankfully, fall from this state into death without much noticing.
"You--", said Dundee, wondering what to say for a second word.
The man had his gun up and his finger was whitening on the trigger.
That was when a shadow to the side of him and between him and Dundee began to lengthen.
It did more than lengthen. It became massive, tall, and, yes, human-shaped. As if...as if the shadow were a man.
Dundee saw it, knew that the gunman could have fired in that interval, but knew the man was as surprised as he at the arrival of a man who simply couldn't have been there. A man who had formed himself, seemingly, out of a shadow in a fairly well-lit room.
A man in a black slouch hat, a black opera cape sort of thing, and clothing of the darkest hue of black, all the way down to the shoes.
The man had his back turned to Dundee, but his hands were out, and a gun was in each of them. They looked like .45's. Antique .45's.
And the Cobra Cultist's mouth was open, and he was hesitating just an instant too long.
The newcomer stood and delivered. His guns blasted again and again, and Dundee saw the pattern of the bullet impacts, throwing up bone and flesh and blood, all aimed at the man's spine, methodically, from pelvis to clavicle, impacting him in the central vertical line of his body.
It was horrifying.
The man was thrown against the door he had just come through, shutting it again with the impact. The two halves of his body were barely attached. Yet, he was still alive. Barely. Though his gun was dropped by his side as if it were no more than a children's toy.
From the back, Dundee saw the newcomer's right hand holstering the .45 it held, then going to his face, and pulling something down from it. From the sides, it appeared to be a red scarf of some sort.
The effect on the fallen Cobraman was unbelievable. The man's eyes widened, and, even in the few seconds before they glossed over, he looked as though he had stared at the Angel of Death.
Which, in a way, he had.
Then the head fell to one side, and all that he could do afterward was a bit of bleeding and release of bodily fluids.
The newcomer laughed.
He laughed loud and long and horribly. Even the Joker never possessed that sort of laugh. It chilled Dundee almost as badly as staring down the barrel of the crook's Uzi. Was this man, then, another hitman, competing for the kill?
Somehow, Dundee doubted it.
The man in the dark outfit turned to face Dundee. The scarf was pulled back up under his hawklike nose, and his eyes were hard and cold as anthracite. Yet, behind them burned the flame of justice, not evil.
Dundee remembered to breathe.
The dark man spoke.
"The Batman has more friends than perhaps he remembers. Does the woman yet live?"
The doctor looked behind him. Selina Wayne's chest still rose and fell, fitfully. He nodded, haltingly. "Yes. Yes, she does."
The black-dressed man paused, then said something else. "The weed of crime bears bitter fruit. But its harvester can always be found...in the shadow."
Then the man in black simply was not there.
For an instant, Dundee thought that he could see him, dimly, perhaps in semitransparence, like a 3-D hologram one could see through. Then, whether through a trick of the light or a trick of the mind, the man was gone.
Footsteps outside. Oh, God. If it were more costumed killers...
But the faces that appeared in the doorway were three in number, and familiar. Alfred was the first to say something. "Good Lord," he exclaimed, looking at the body shoved beside the door. "Doctor, did you..."
"No, no," said Dundee. "I didn't. Someone else did."
"Like who?" asked the King of the Cats, nudging the body with his foot.
"A man," said Dundee. "A man in black."
"A man in black?" repeated Alfred, quizzically.
"Yes. He left, just a few seconds ago. He said he was the Batman's friend."
"I see," said Alfred, finally. "The Master can do with a few such friends, in this hour."
Dundee spread his hands. "Alfred, what are we supposed to do? With Selina dying, and all these idiots trying to kill her, and us?"
The butler let Batwoman into the room, ignoring her look of shock at the Cobraman's corpse. He took a blanket from a chair nearby and covered the remains. Then he said, "We stand by, Doctor Dundee. And we wait."
So they did.
Jack Ryder had made his way up to the level below the penthouse and found Nightwing trying to get into a steel door. He wasn't having much luck. The acids and laser torch that the guy was using didn't even seem to reach the metal.
The masked man looked at Ryder. "Who are you? Cop or Cobra?"
For answer, Jack twisted the dial strapped to his forearm, and suddenly became yellow-skinned and green-haired.
"That answer your question?" said the Creeper to the gaping Nightwing.
A few minutes later, they were joined by three others: King Faraday, Talia, and Katana, who had found them both. Talia looked as though she was unhappy that had occurred.
"Creep and Robin," said King. "I think there's a bunch of cops below us. Why can't you get through?"
"For the same reasons the Outsiders can't, outside," said Robin, slapping a hand against the door...or, really, against the vibrating field of energy that guarded it. "There's a force-field around this floor. Above it, under it, on all sides. None of their powers have been able to get through."
"But he let Bats through?" said Faraday.
"Yeah," Robin confirmed, grimly. "He isn't anywhere around here, so he has to have gotten through."
"The final battle," said Katana, fingering the hilt of her sword with one hand and holding Talia by the arm with the other. "Now, the Batman is alone with the enemy. Kobra would have orchestrated it this way."
"I can't help him," said Robin, clenching a fist and looking at the floor. "The one guy who gave me everything I have, everything I am. The guy I swore I'd give everything back to, tonight. And I can't help him!"
There was nothing anyone could say to that.
So they, too, began to wait.
The Batman and Kobra had traded blows, kicks, knees, chops. They had attacked, they had defended, they had smashed blows against each other's guard and gotten under the guard to deliver hits that would have taken out most combatants in a national martial arts competition. Blood stained both their faces. Neither one could tell what hurts they bore internally.
The pain was impossible to ignore, but they shunted as much aside of it as they could and kept fighting.
This was not like their earlier encounters. In those, Kobra had faith enough in his strength and wit to put himself beyond the Batman's clutches. This time, he knew that, to be free of the Batman's vengeance, he would have to kill the Batman. Of course, there would be the damnable friends of the manhunter to deal with. But one dealt with such things on a case-by-case basis.
But Batman was fighting for something more precious than his life. He fought for the thing which, whatever it was, wherever it was, would save the life of Selina Kyle Wayne. The woman who, he admitted at last, was the only one he could ever have accepted as an equal and a wife.
He fought to save others from the murderous hand of Kobra, who would only reap more lives if he was not stopped in this instance.
And, every time he caught a glimpse of Melissa MacNeil, he knew that he fought for something beyond that. Vengeance for Jason Burr, whom he had not been able to save.
Vengeance for the brother of Kobra.
The villain in orange was younger. He had trained his body to, as the cliche would have it, the peak of perfection. His moves could be more ruthless than the Batman's, for he did not have to worry about keeping his opponent alive that a secret might be forced from him. Plus, as he kept reminding himself, he was one of the few men on Earth who had beat the Batman in a toe-to-toe battle.
And these memories seemed to serve him well, for a punch to the chest forced Batman to give way. Like lightning, Kobra followed up with a kick, an elbow smash, a knife-thrust of the hand. The man in grey, black, and yellow was backpedalling. It was hard to read him, but...
Batman rallied, and aimed a kick of his own at Kobra.
Before it connected, Kobra touched a button on his green belt, and suddenly was there no more.
The boot of Batman continued on, unbalancing him. Behind his mask, Batman's eyes went wide in surprise. But only for an instant.
A blow across the back of his neck sent him down.
Pain flared across his consciousness like a bonfire. But he would...not...succumb...
He managed to turn, and saw Kobra there, smiling. Standing. In a flash, he knew what had takenplace. But he still had to fight.
A karate blow, faster than even most senseis could dodge, was launched at Kobra. Once again, he vanished.
This time, the blow came from Batman's side. It felt as though his ribs fractured under its impact. He hit the floor, grabbed his side, got to his knees.
Kobra was still standing there and smirking.
"My teleportation belt," he explained. "I can use it to hop very short distances. Of course, that's not fighting fair, but...well...I never fight fair."
Another blow. Batman tried to block it, but it got under his guard. It connected with his face, and knocked him flat.
The villain's prosthetic tongue licked out, grabbed him about the neck, pulled him upright.
The next blow knocked the Batman across the room.
In the safety chamber within the Batcave, Julia Remarque Pennyworth and Daphne Pennyworth huddled in fear. The room was mostly soundproofed. But the sounds of gunfire and explosions were impossible to muffle entirely.
"They're attacking the mansion," whispered Julia. "They're blowing it up."
"Don't scream," Daphne whispered in return, holding her new friend tightly. "Whatever you do, don't scream. If we can hear noises in here...they might could hear us."
"Don't take chances," hissed Daphne.
After a few moments, Julia said, "I should have a gun. I fought in France, tried to bring my grandfather to justice because I thought he'd murdered our grandmother. I was wrong, but I know how to fight."
Daphne said, "There's a lot of people who know how to fight up there. Doing a lot better job of it, I imagine. Do you know how to live? How to survive?"
Julia nodded. "Of course."
"Then that's what they'd want us to do, don't you think?"
"What about them?" asked Julia. "How many of them can survive?"
Daphne gave her an angry look. "You want to go out there and look?"
"Then we'll wait. And pray."
So they did.
And all the while, they listened to the gunshots.
With a resounding kiaiii yell, Kobra aimed his booted foot at Batman's head, and connected.
The hero slammed backwards, hitting the marble floor without defense, and lay still.
Not even breathing.
Kobra's own breaths were heavy. He dared not take chances with the man. Yet, his own body was weary, and hurting, and barely responding to his own orders. The punishment he had absorbed now began to take its toll, and he had to crouch and place his hands on his knees to keep himself standing.
From his back he heard another sound. Melissa MacNeil, sobbing.
By the cobra-god! The mesmerism he had placed her under via the Lazarus Pit was weakening, after all. Well, she could be dealt with. Eve would enjoy doing it. She'd always seen the girl as a rival, anyway, for all Melissa's zombie status.
But for now, matters had to be concluded. The finishing blow must be struck. True, the kick to the head and the fall to the floor might have killed him. Or it might just have stopped his breathing for a time. Nonetheless, Kobra thought, as he forced himself across the three steps to the Batman, it had to be ended without doubt.
He stood beside the Batman and raised his foot for the blow that would collapse the Batman's windpipe.
And in the second that he took his eye off the Batman's right hand, it snaked out about his ankle and toppled him.
Kobra cried out as he struck the floor. He tried to kick the Batman's hand away. It was a black-gloved vise on his ankle, squeezing it enough to fracture the femur, almost. He looked up at his foe's face. The Batman was sucking in great breaths of air, now, and grinning. A bloody, death's-head grin.
The teleportation belt. Use it. It's gotten you out of more than one jam...saved you from Superman, from Aquaman, from this idiot in the mask...
Except that the Batman's other hand had reached up, grasped the great belt about Kobra's waist, and given a powerful yank. Its sides parted and came away from his body.
Batman threw the belt away and knelt before Kobra, dragging his foe up by his shirtfront. "Just wanted to make sure you didn't leave the party early," he rasped.
Kobra tried to strike at Batman's eyes.
He never got that far.
The right hand of the Batman, no longer gripping Kobra's ankle, came up and filled his vision with a velocity that suggested it must be travelling very fast. Given that, Kobra wondered, terrifiedly, why time seemed to be slowed by a factor of ten.
It couldn't be happening that way. It simply couldn't.
Then the impact of what appeared to be a nuclear bomb on his face told him yes, definitely, it was a distinct probability.
A great white light seemed to blot that out and he felt the bones of his nose giving way and a pain almost as sharp as anything he had ever felt before made itself known.
This was not in the cards. The day had to be his. He had more death-plants to build, a world to conquer, heroes to destroy. He was the Deadliest Man Alive.
And that was the last thought Kobra had before slipping into the darkness.
Batman held his foe there, a fist buried in his shirt, for several long moments. His breath was ragged. His hurts were many. He was halfway certain some things were broken inside of him, and that Alfred would have a merry time with him on the medical table tonight.
A voice. "Batman, look out!"
He looked in its direction, cursed himself for inattentivity, and saw the beautiful half-naked form of Eve aiming a dart gun in his direction.
He couldn't afford to use Kobra as a shield. The scum had to live.
Even as the bikini-clad woman squeezed the trigger, the Batman's left hand went to his utility belt, grasped a batarang, flung it in the precise direction he intended. There was a cracking sound. The missle that emerged from the gun was shattered into several pieces. The batarang fell, still intact.
Eve tried to shoot a second time. But a purple-dressed form slammed into her from the side, and the second dart went far off the mark, glancing off a wall, ricocheting, and coming to rest in a chair. The woman, snarling like a panther, trained in martial arts, was far more than a match for Melissa MacNeil. She prepared to strike a deadly blow to the other girl's neck.
But her gun hand was grasped by a powerful hand from behind and another pressed a certain spot on her neck that brought her oblivion. Eve, despite her rage, sagged like a corpse to the floor.
Batman, standing, looked at the kneeling Melissa. Her eyes were clear, though still filled with tears.
But he noted she was smiling.
"Do you," he said. "Do you know where. The force-field controls are?"
Outside, on the roof of the Chambers Building, blocked from even touching the stone substance of it by the thin emanations of the force-screen, the Outsiders conferred.
"I say we do it," said Geo-Force.
"Geo, there are people still in the building," said Black Lightning. "Innocents."
"Not to mention Katana, and Creep, and Faraday," put in Halo. "Even Talia, for Pete's sake."
"The Batman is also inside," snapped the Markovian. "If I tear this building loose from its moorings, we may endanger others, true, but we will sever its power supply. The force-field will probably be negated."
"Geo, Brian, don't," said Looker. "The others are right. No matter what, we don't endanger innocent people. Nightwing's inside, too. And Kobra probably has a private generator powering this thing. It might be for nothing."
"Then what do we do," said Plastic Man, "that's for something?"
Metamorpho and Element Girl moved towards Geo-Force from the back, wondering if even they could take him. The force-field wouldn't even admit their gaseous forms.
Windfall stepped up to Geo-Force. "Brion, please don't do this. The Batman won't be prepared for the building being shaken up. You might make him lose the battle."
"He may already have lost it," said Geo, grimly. He opened his mouth again, but before he could push sound through it, something else occurred.
All of them fell several inches to the roof of the building.
Plastic Man bounced up, in the form of a spring. He was the first to speak. "The field is down," he cried. "It's down!"
Black Lightning's hands were pointed at the roof before he could even finish saying, "Outsiders, at ‘em!" His blast of lightning was joined by Geo-Force's super-powerful blow, by twin strikes of mighty cobalt hammers formed from the hands and arms of Metamorpho and Element Girl, by psionic blasts from Looker, and by a force-aura smash from Halo.
Under that, it wasn't surprising the roof gave in.
Luckily, they all managed to avoid coming in on the Batman's head. Looker tried to levitate them up before they hit the floor, but couldn't grab them all. Plastic Man just bounced, caroming off the walls. Jeff Pierce landed straight on the seat of his pants. "Ouch!" he yelled.
They saw the Batman, a girl in a purple dress, another female in a bikini, and Kobra. The latter two were down.
Batman looked as though his body wanted him to be. But it had learned a long time ago to get out of the way of his mind.
"Looker," said the battered hero, still holding Kobra in one hand. "Can you probe an unconscious mind?"
"You bet," said the beauty with the blue-glowing eyes, flying forward.
"I want you to," said Batman, and swallowed. "To find the place where he has the antidote. Now."
Looker placed her hands on Kobra's head, shivering a bit at the touch, and began her work.
A slicing noise. A door slammed open.
A squad of people boiled through. Harvey Bullock and a group of bluecoats bringing up the rear. In front, Nightwing, Creeper, King Faraday, a grim Katana, and Talia, whose arm was firmly held by the Japanese woman.
Seeing her lord, Katana grimly smiled.
Nightwing looked at his old mentor, drew in a breath, and said, "Sorry I couldn't make the party after all, Batman."
"That's all right," said the Batman. "We. Started without you."
The invaders were inside the house.
The defenders could tell it from the noise of gunfire, the smell of cordite. There was no telling how much damage they were doing to the precious place, to the memories and objets d'art stored within. The Cobramen had breached the defenses, and all Alfred, Flamebird, Robin, the Cat King, and Batwoman could do was pull back closer to Selina Kyle's room.
How soon would bullets be coming through the reinforced walls? The bastards seemed to know the layout of the place. There seemed to be nothing beyond Kobra's intelligence, beyond his slimy reach.
Now Alfred and his crew were clustered about Selina's room, just outside it, and no one was making comment about the guns. All knew that they would sell their lives dearly. The first Cobraman to reach Selina Wayne's bed would have to step over a mound of his brothers' corpses.
At least, thought Alfred, Julia and Daphne are safe. Perhaps. If that damnable Kobra hasn't somehow learned of the secret room.
"Alfred," said Robin.
He didn't look at him. "Yes, master Jason?"
"I remember you quoting Shakespeare at me when Bruce and I went off to battle," said Jason.
"Be quiet, kid," hissed the Cat King.
"It doesn't matter by now, Karl," said Batwoman.
"Yes, master Jason," said Alfred.
"Well, d'ya think you have a great quote for us right now?" said Robin. "Something like ‘Into the breach'? What comes up?"
"Oh, Jason, leave him alone," said Flamebird, holding a .357 Magnum she had taken from the Batcave's trophy room, armed from a cache of Alfred's, and wondering if she would have the guts to fire it. The terrifying thing about it was, she thought she probably would.
Alfred heard footsteps, in the distance. Several pairs.
Only one quote ran through his mind at the time, and it was not from Shakespeare.
"Hail, Caesar," said Alfred, softly, levelling his Uzi. "We who are about to die, salute you."
The Cobra troops were getting closer, appallingly fast. They were around a bend of the hall, and their foremost would perish. But none of them had much illusion that they could stand off all the invaders.
Alfred allowed himself a tight smile, despite it all, and awaited the first man he would have had to kill since World War II.
Then there came a great noise like unto an explosion, not far down the hall, at approximately the same site as the Cobramen were, by the sound of it. It sounded like the roof. Alfred wondered, wildly, why the idiots were coming from that direction. Couldn't be much surprise to it, at this point.
Two Cobras skidded against the side wall at the end of the hall, their weapons twisted around their necks. They were on the far side of consciousness.
The sounds that came to the defenders now were different. Men yelling incoherently, but having their voices stopped after sharp cries of pain. There was some gunfire, but it didn't seem to matter. And more Cobramen came flying, piling up against the side wall like so much thrown garbage.
Alfred blinked, and imagined the others were reacting similarly.
"Man," said Karl Kyle, in awe. "Just what kinda cavalry is this, anyway?"
Finally, the tenth or so Cobra Cultist joined his brothers on the heap. Alfred knew who the man was who had put them there, and drew a great, sighing breath as his shoulders sagged.
The man stepped into sight, his hands on his hips, and grinned.
"I thought you might need me here," said Superman. "Diana's on her way. She's got the Purple Ray with her."
The Cat King and Batwoman were most awed of all of them. Alfred knew the reason: in this Earth's Superman, they had seen another ghost.
"I think...I think Selina," said Flamebird.
"She's still alive," said Superman, soberly. "I was listening."
"Are the others all right?" said Batwoman, finally. "Batgirl, and..."
"I left them outside," said the Kryptonian. "Think you can handle things here while I get them, Alfred?"
The butler straightened his posture once again.
"Beyond a shadow of a doubt, Master Superman," he said, proudly.
Paul Shrevnitz was always surprised by his boss. Always. No matter how many times he tried to pick out the place where the guy would melt out of the darkness, he always showed up somewhere else.
The boss, his fire-red Girasol glowing faintly in the moonlight, gave Paul an appraising look. "Trouble, Paul?"
"Nah, boss," grinned the burly chauffeur, hefting his tire iron. He pointed with it casually to the two Cobramen on the grass nearby, out like lights and tied with their own belts. "These two jamokes just learned never ta pick on a New York cabby, that's all. Even if he is in Gotham."
"Indeed." The boss looked towards the sky, searching for something.
"You think we ought to hang around and lend a hand?" asked Paul.
The other was silent until he found what he was searching for.
A number of silhouettes, some of which he recognized, moving at considerable speed between the Earth and Moon. Probably less than a hundred feet over the ground.
"No, Paul," the boss said. "Our work here is done." He opened the back door of the limo and got in. "Home," he said, just before he closed it.
Paul grinned. "You got it, Mr. Cranston." He opened the front door, got in, slammed it, and started the engine. The big car pulled away.
The boss didn't get out as often as he did in Grandpa Moe's day. But if it had been like this when he did, back then, Paul Shrevnitz was glad to carry on the family tradition.
He headed the car towards New York.
The house looked like hell, but nobody cared that much about it at the moment. All the Batman's crew cared about were two things: making sure everybody was safe, and trying to save Selina Wayne's life. Jim Gordon had already had a grateful reunion with Batgirl, thanks to Superman. Now both branches of the Bat-Squad embraced each other, glad that none of them had been killed or injured, and doubly glad, though none spoke of it, that none of them had to kill.
The Outsiders were greeted just as warmly, and Batman, seeing Superman in the hall, managed a grin, through bloody teeth. "Somehow I knew you'd make it," he said. "Old friend."
Superman was at Batman's side. He tried to take Kobra from his hands, but Batman wouldn't let him. "You're hurt, Batman. Great Rao, let me help you."
"I'm better off," said Batman, "than Selina. Help me."
"You got him," said Superman, finally taking the unconscious Kobra with one arm. "I owed him, too, but I thought that you'd be the one to do it."
"Kal," said Batman. "My wife."
They staggered within the room. Dr. Dundee looked up at all of them in shock. Then, after a moment, he recovered. "She's almost--"
"Don't say it, Doctor," Batman said. He held out a metal capsule case with a chain on it. The chain was broken where he had torn it from Kobra's neck. "Use this."
Dundee took it from Batman's hand, and noted the trembling of the great man's fingers. He popped open the capsule case. A small capped vial of fluid lay within. Dundee looked at Selina Kyle's face again. She was almost blue.
The doctor took the vial of serum, fumbled in his bag for a hypodermic, and refused to give credence to stress and sleeplessness. He unplugged the back of the hypo, poured in the serum, replaced the plunger, pushed the air out of the needle, and injected the serum into her body, at an area which would send it directly into her heart.
Then he settled back, leaning against the wall and closing his eyes for a second, to wait.
Batman went to his knees, unexpectedly. Superman held his friend's shoulder. "Bruce, let me tend to you," he said.
"Not NOW!" Batman gasped. "Selina."
A bit of sound only super-hearing could perceive altered Superman to the presence of a warp in the room. He swiveled his head to face its direction, even as his ears told him of another one.
Through the first, Raven, that warp's creator, admitted herself, Wonder Girl, and Wonder Woman, within a bird-silhouette of blackness. Through the second came two Green Lanterns, Hal Jordan and John Stewart.
"Are we in time?" said Wonder Woman, tersely.
"You'd better be," said Dundee, his hand on Selina's wrist. "This stuff isn't kicking in quickly enough."
"Let's do it, John," said Hal. The two Lanterns pointed their rings at Selina Kyle Wayne and sent two lines of green power stabbing at her. Within a second, it was joined by a purple beam from the device Wonder Woman held in her hands, the portable version of the Amazons' Purple Ray, which had brought Changeling back once from the other side of death.
The triad of beams suffused Selina's body with energy. It would seem enough power to animate a score of Lazaruses from their graves. But Superman's hearing told the tale.
"It's...not enough," he said. "Almost, but...not enough."
Batman's hands reached out for Kobra, who was, incredibly enough, stirring on the floor.
The door banged open and Halo burst in.
"Halo, what--" started Wonder Girl.
"I've got to try it!" said the blonde Outsider, shoving even Superman aside in desperation. "I've never tried this power before, but by golly, I've got to try it now!"
And with that, Halo stretched forth her arms, and a violet aura surrounded her body. From her hands, a great beam of that power went forth to join the others already trained on Selina. And, within a moment, it surrounded, combined, supplanted, and boosted them all, adding her own unique energies to the mix.
The violet aura, thought Batman. She's never used it before...never dared...
None of them, including Halo, had ever had an idea of what her violet power could do. She had a phobia against it, because of her former name, Violet Harper. But now, Halo was draining every erg of her energy to give that power to Selina Wayne. The sweat began beading on her forehead, and Batman could tell the effort she was putting into it.
"Halo," he said.
"Shut up, Bruce," snapped Halo, without even thinking of it.
"Keep pouring it, John," said Hal, willing his every iota of power behind his own ring beam.
"I'm working, I'm working, Hal," snapped his fellow Corpsman.
Batman stumbled to one foot and a knee, nearing Selina. Wonder Girl drew him back, gently. Raven rushed forward, glowed blackly, and exerted her own power, drawing what foulness and poisoning and weakness she could from the ravaged woman's body.
And, she noted with a start, this time...it seemed to be...
Except that there wasn't very much to draw away, and even--yes, she had to admit it--less as the seconds ticked by.
Halo was on her knees as well. But she was still soldiering on, and one wondered whether or not her life would be given in exchange for her friend's. Superman, intent on trying last-minute resuscitation with his great powers if all else failed, listened intently to her pulse and heartbeat and breathing.
And the breathing was becoming stronger.
Selina's color improved, from bluish to paleness to ruddiness. Her pulse quickened. Her organs no longer labored under the great strain they had been suffering.
No one dared say what was occurring.
And no one but Selina knew what was taking place in her mind.
Selina looked at the girl in black and the grin told her that Little Miss Gothette had a killer card to lay down.
"Go ahead and play it," said Selina. "We can start another hand."
"Don't think so," said the other. She began to turn the card over, then hesitated. "Hold on."
"Hold on for what?" Selina was perplexed. "I'll deal, just go ahead and crush me."
The pale girl paused, then finally took her card back and set it in her hand. "Nope, not today," she said. She took the cards. "You got lucky."
Selina Wayne blinked. "You mean you're not even going to finish the hand?"
"Not till you finish yours," said the woman, leaning casually back against the head of an ocelot. "And that may not be for a long time yet. Bye."
Selina was about to take the deck that lie between them when she noticed the cards she held falling through her hand. Even for a dream, this was strange.
The woman was smiling at her, but she and the roomful of cats seemed to be becoming indistinct. Was she waking up?
Somehow, she knew what was on the face of the card that the woman had been about to play. She was just as glad she hadn't seen it. It was bound to be an ace, and she knew what suit.
Then the whole thing faded out and she forgot the cats, the girl, and the cards altogether.
It seemed as though she was coming up through a tunnel of sleep membranes, clawing her way up with her long fingernails that she'd used on Batman's face more than once in the old days. This time, they served her well.
And then there was somebody, well, a whole lot of somebodies, bending over her and looking goggle-eyed.
All except for Bruce, who still had that darn silly Batman mask on, the one where you couldn't see his eyes through the lenses. He looked like somebody'd thrown napalm on his face and tried to beat it out with a barge pole.
"Bruce," she said, not thinking just then if somebody in the group might not be in the know. "Am I back?"
He embraced her, getting his blood on her cheek, smelling as sweaty as high heaven, but she didn't mind it a bit. She held him in her own arms, and was very surprised, for she was as strong as she had been in the minute just before she'd gotten hit by a poisoned dart.
"You're back," he whispered.
Shortly thereafter, the Outsiders held Batman down against his will while Wonder Woman administered a light dose of purple radiation, which healed his wounds but not his fatigue. Alfred looked on and said, "My word."
Batwoman smiled at him. "This time, Alfred, you don't get to do the honors."
The Creeper jumped for joy, banging his head against the ceiling and coming down on a collapsible Plastic Man. "We dunnit, Plas! We saved Bats's gal, bagged us a Kobra, and didn't even pick up a scratch! Wahooo!"
Plas elongated two fingers, held the Creeper off the floor by the nape of his sheepskin, and displayed his bandaged hand with a wry smile. "Not a scratch, huh? Whattya call this?"
"Sorry," said the Creeper.
"S'okay," said Plas, and let him down. "By the way--" He nudged his friend in the ribs with a foot-long thumb, and pointed towards the back of the crowd. Commissioner James Gordon was there.
He was coming their way.
"Uh-oh," said the yellow-hued mountebank. He turned his back towards the old cop. "You think you could turn yourself into a giant closet and hang me inside?"
"I've been there, Creep," said Plas. "On the wrong side of the law, that is. I'll put in a good word for you."
Gordon, who was leading Batgirl along by the hand--and she didn't look like she relished what was to come, either--stopped before the Creeper and Plastic Man. "Young man, you know I could have you arrested on very serious charges," he said.
The Creeper, over 200 pounds of bone, muscle, and athletic ability, felt like a schoolboy called on the carpet by a librarian. "Yes, sir," he said.
Gordon paused, then said, "If I see you impersonating a wanted criminal again, I'll have you thrown in the tank for it. You understand?"
A smile suddenly replaced itself on the Creeper's face, and he snapped to and saluted. "Yes, SIR!"
"If you associate yourself with the Batman and his group, you don't want to disguise yourself as the Creeper," Gordon said, slightly smiling. "He's wanted. And he'll stay wanted until he clears himself of charges. So until then, watch yourself. In the near future, if you keep dressing that way, I shall have to officially ignore you."
"Oh, would you, sir?" said the Creeper, still saluting. "I'd really, really appreciate that, like."
"Keep a low profile till then," Gordon continued. "And, son? Nice job. At ease."
The green-haired hero lowered his arm with a snap, and Plas couldn't keep from cracking up.
Batgirl led Gordon away. In a low voice, she said, "Did you really have to string him along that way, Dad?"
"Tush, dear. A policeman's got to have some fun, after all."
The Green Lantern duo were outside, administering brainwashing treatments to the Cobramen that removed any knowledge of Batman's double identity from their brains. Only a few had been confided in, but Hal and John blocked them all. Harvey Bullock was loading them up after that, one by one, into a brace of paddy wagons. "You sure this ain't outlawed by the constitution?" he asked the Lanterns.
"U.S. Statue Law number Whatever and One says that superheroes recognized by the United States government and its allies are allowed to remove knowledge of secret identities from criminals, no-goods, and general creepos who learn them," said Hal, not pausing from ring-treating a Cultist. "That's all we're doing, Lieutenant."
"That, and giving ‘em a phobia about using the color yellow," said John. "Just kidding."
Bullock grumped, shifted his stogie in his mouth, and took another one of the Cobramen by the collar. He liked the days when there was only one Green Lantern, but what the hell. Everyplace had Affirmative Action nowadays.
After Raven healed Starfire's wounds, she and Wonder Girl were there to see her and Nightwing fall into each other's arms again. "Kory," he said. "I'm sorry. You were hurt. You should have been with us."
"No, Dick," she said. "I was where I was supposed to be. So were you. But now, I think we're supposed to be together. Is that not so?"
"I'd say so," said Nightwing, nuzzling her neck. "Forevermore. Plus one week."
Raven and Donna smiled. "That's two Supergirls and one Catwoman you've helped save lately," said Wonder Girl. "Not a bad total, really."
"Except for the other Superman, I might agree with you," said Raven, not smiling anymore.
Donna sighed. "Well. When do you want to bring the other Titans in?"
"In awhile," said Raven. "In awhile."
Black Lightning, Geo-Force, Looker, Metamorpho, and Element Girl were clustered about Halo in congratulation. "I can't believe it, Gabby," said Looker. "You've never dared used your violet power before. How did you know it was a healing aura?"
"Well, I like, kinda didn't," said Looker, who was lying on a couch in the library where they were gathered. "But all that talk about Wonder Woman using her Purple Ray made me kinda wonder: what if my purple ray was kind of on the same wavelength? I guessed it was worth a try, and that it couldn't hurt Selina any worse than she already was. So I, like, you know, took the chance. And it worked."
"It did in spades," said Rainie, stretching out coppery arms to hug Halo. "And we're all very proud of you, honey."
"She's not the only one," said a familiar voice behind them.
They turned. The Batman stood behind them, his arm about the trim waist of Selina Wayne. And for the first time in a long time, she was looking better than he did.
"You've all given your utmost in this duty," said Bruce, struggling to stay awake. "My wife is alive because of you. She stands here beside me, where she belongs, drawing breath because of you. And."
Selina squeezed him about the waist with her arm. "What Bruce is trying to say is what I want to say. Thank you. Thank you all for saving my life. I'll never, never be able to repay you for it. But...thank you all. Once again."
Geo-Force put his hands on his hips, and Looker put her arm about his shoulder as he spoke. "Indeed, Mrs. Wayne--Selina--you have already repaid us. Our labors in this matter were for two objectives: to save my land of Markovia, and to save your life. Both are now accomplished. Now I am sure you wish to be with your husband. The blessings of the royal house of Markovia on your union."
Selina walked up on bare feet and bussed him on the cheek. Brion turned red, and most of the crew laughed.
"I have a feeling we'll be going to another wedding before long," she said to Looker.
"You never know," Looker replied.
King Faraday walked up with another arrival on his arm. It was Melissa MacNeil. He was still in his trenchcoat and fedora, still smoking a cigarette, and still getting ashes on the carpet. But he, too, was smiling.
"I found the little lady and brought her in," said King. "Seems the two of us found we had a few things in common. Getting kidnapped by Kobra and run through the Lazarus Pit. Maybe we can build from there."
"Wooo," said Black Lightning, appreciatively. "Fast work." Then, more seriously, he extended a hand of friendship to Melissa. "Ma'am, I understand your life's been like unto a train wreck for the last few years. I hope the bad times are over. Sincerely."
She shook his hand, a bit shyly. "A nightmare. But even his control weakens, over the years. And seeing Batman fighting him--it broke the last barrier. But I...I remember..." She choked back a sob, and hid her face in her free hand.
Faraday held her tightly. "Easy, Mel. It wasn't you that did that to Jason Burr. It was Kobra's hand on yours. I want you to understand that. Do you understand that, Melissa?"
"Yes," she cried. "But..."
Batman spoke. "I saw you during that act, Melissa. You were no more in control of yourself at the time than a car is in control of its driver. It was a nightmare. But now, by the grace of God, that nightmare is over. Now you can start a new life. And you have to."
Melissa looked up at him. Her eyes were still full of tears, but they held a new element, now: one of hope. Selina didn't think she could be prouder of Bruce than she had been a few minutes ago, but now she knew that wasn't true. To Melissa, she said, "He's right, honey. Pick up all the pieces and fit them back in the tray. You can do it. I'm doing it myself."
King cleared his throat. "Before I go, Bats, I've got to say thanks myself. I don't know what I would've done, if I'd been in your boots when we were both in the plane. I'm just glad you did what you did, you and Miss Looker there."
"Pleasure was all mine," said the redhead with a wink.
"Well, I didn't fancy bein' a slave of Kobra for the rest o' my life, either, so I still wanna thank you both," said Faraday. "Now I've gotta tell you something else: I'm taking charge of Snakeface. Eve, too. The World Court wants to try this guy for about a zillion offenses. Including the murder of Jason Burr."
Batman saw Melissa's breathing come faster, for a moment. He didn't blame her. But she was trying to keep herself under control. For that, he counted her a hero.
"Where is he?", asked Batman. "And Talia?"
"Kobra's in some restraints Alfred lent us from the Batcave," said King. "Talia's with Katana. You want to see them?"
"Get Talia away from Katana," ordered Batman, forcing himself to stay awake. "Have some of the Outsiders keep her under guard, but frisk her first. I'll see her after I get some sleep. As for Kobra...bring him here."
After a moment in which no sound was heard except breathing and shuffling feet, King said, "Okay." He walked through the press of heroes, down the hallway.
Selina held Batman's hand tightly. "Think you're still up to this, darling?"
"I have to be," mumbled the masked man.
Two others pushed forward through the assemblage to stand before them. Looking as though they'd been through the trenches, the Huntress and young Robin waited before Batman and Selina for a long moment.
"Aunt Selina," said the Huntress, her eyes wet.
"Mom," said Robin.
Selina couldn't return the greetings before both buried themselves in a hug on her body. Batman had to let her go so that she could encircle both of them in her arms.
Old Robin and Nightwing, side by side, stepped up to Batman and grinned. "Too bad you get sloppy seconds today," remarked Nightwing.
Batman smiled. "I'm not the star of this show right now."
Within a few minutes, King Faraday returned, abetted by Black Lightning and Superman. Kobra was with them, in irons. His mask was pulled back, and every weapon he had was located by the Man of Steel and forcibly removed from his body. Even the phony tongue had been severed by heat-vision.
He still looked defiant.
"This could have been the end, Batman," said Kobra. "But it is not."
"Like hell," said the Batman. "The game is over. Finished, Kobra. You've failed. Even with all the advantages on your side, you lost. Anything else you do, from here on...it'll be anticlimactic."
"Do not count so heavily on that," hissed Kobra. "I still have my brain. Unless, of course, you have the Green Lumpkins lobotomize me."
"Remove the knowledge of our double identities from your mind, yes," said Batman. "Lobotomy, no. They don't do that. But I will have them erase the knowledge of how that black hole machine of yours is built from your brain. Just a little too dangerous for you to be carrying around."
"Fah!" Kobra spat.
"Watch your mouth, snake-eyes," warned Black Lightning. "Less'n you want to walk around for the next week with electrical burns."
"Provided I let you walk at all," chimed in Geo-Force. "I owe you for Markovia."
Kobra ignored them both. "What I once discovered, I can discover again. Or I can formulate something entirely different. As a genius, I stand with Luthor. You know that."
"Oh, yes," said Batman, idly. He noted Selina had grown as icy as a glacier, looking at their foe.
"I still have portions of my army that you have not located," said Kobra. "I still have resources untouched. Unless you execute me before I can be tried, I will escape."
"To what point?" said Batman. "To fail again, as you always have? To fight one last battle? It always ends the same way, Kobra. Until the day when someone finally kills you."
"Would you?" Kobra let the question hang in the air between them.
Batman did not answer.
Selina Wayne spoke up, in a controlled voice. "Why did you try to kill me?"
Kobra looked at her and smiled. "Because it fit with my plans. But for a few minor adjustments, I would have killed you all. Still," he sighed, theatrically, "there is still tomorrow."
Selina lunged from Batman's side and, before anyone could stop her, raked her fingernails across Kobra's face and drew blood. He looked at her, in surprise.
Superman grabbed Selina's hand, stared at her fingers and nails for a moment, turning them over. "You were lucky," he said. "His skin might have borne poison. I've used micro-vision. You're clean."
Batman was by her side, holding her arms. Kobra, his face stinging, looked quizzically at her. "Why did you do that?"
She stood only inches from him. "Let's just say I'm not nearly as nice as the Batman."
"Neither am I," said Jason Todd, and swung a roundhouse right for Kobra's gut. His arm was grasped by the Batman, and held.
"Easy, youngster," said Batman. "Take him to the Lanterns. Then, take him away."
Faraday smiled. "Bats. It's been real. Hope we haven't seen the last of each other."
"Me either, Faraday. Take care."
"Come on, tongueboy," said Jeff Pierce, roughly pulling Kobra away. Geo-Force and Superman helped hustle him away.
Selina looked at her man. Batman's eyes gave her an unmistakable message. She kissed him, before all the crowd, and a few hammy "Wooo!"s went up. Before the kiss was broken, he sagged in her arms. Jason, old Robin, and Nightwing helped hold him up.
"He's asleep," murmured Selina. "Come on, boys, help me get him to bed."
While Batman slept, Kobra was transferred to an armored car filled with four guards and a driver. His mouth was muzzled and a straitjacket was added to his other restraints. The car started off for Gotham Airport, under what was thought to be heavy guard. Including one who was unknown even to the official guards.
Somewhere along the way, at a point where the guard was least heavy, the police along the way and the ones within the armored car fell prey to another sleep gas attack. Kobra was spared unconsciousness, since he still wore nose filters; Superman had not seen fit to remove them. The car careened to the side of the road and went sideways into a ditch.
Several uniformed men appeared from concealment, used a laser torch to cut the back doors open, threw a key inside the back, and quickly left.
Kobra measured his chances. The rescuers did not appear to be his men. Still, this was a chance. And if there was a double-cross planned, he had the intelligence, guile, and strength to turn the trap upon its trappers. Within a few seconds, he had unlocked his bonds and removed the strait-jacket and gag.
He emerged from the van and stood in the road, gasping in breath, for a moment. A free man.
He pulled up his mask, and once again was Kobra.
As Kobra, he barely had time to lower his hands from his mask before catching sight of a brightly colored figure rushing from a treetop. How one so gaudily dressed could seem like a ninja, he had no way of knowing. But his reflexes were still good. He went to a defensive pose.
There was a flash of sun off metal.
A strange sensation of solid and wetness.
Kobra's vision sent doubting images to his brain. For one thing, he was seeing his body from an angle at which he had never seen it before. He landed on the top of his head, with a dull impact in the dust.
The problem was, he could see his body, still standing. Blood appeared to be geysering from the neck.
And if his body was over there...
He saw it crumple to the ground as his vision began fading. Blackness began encroaching upon him as if his eyes had been turned off like a television set.
But he did see one final image.
That of the Japanese woman, the Outsider, holding her crimsoned sword.
She appeared to be smiling.
Then blackness. And one thing more.
There appeared to be someone else beside him. He perceived a presence, but could not see the person.
He spoke a mundane phrase, so simplistic he wished he hadn't said it. "Where am I?"
A voice spoke. A female voice.
"That's not as important as where you're going," it said.
There was a flutter of wings.
And then terror.
Alfred brought Julia and Daphne out of the Batcave chamber and into the mansion again, all with the lights off. When he turned on the lights again, the grandfather clock door was closed, and both of them saw Selina Wayne sitting in a stuffed chair against the library wall.
"Selina," said Julia, in astonishment and delight. "You're alive!"
"I--well, I mean--are all of us alive?" asked Daphne. "Did we all make it?"
"All but a few Cobras," said Selina, smiling. "Thanks for your help."
The two Pennyworth women went from their proud relative to embrace Mrs. Wayne. After enough explanation had been made, Julia made an observation. Looking at the war-damaged walls, she said, "This place looks like hell."
"Indeed," acknowledged Alfred. "But I daresay we'll have it put to rights within a few weeks. The Master has resources. And he has me, of course."
"Um, Uncle Alfred," said Daphne. "I kind of hate to bring it up, but...well, neither of us has eaten in a bit. Should we see if there's anyplace within driving distance? That is, if we still have a car? I'll treat us."
"Certainly not," said Alfred, stepping forward. "The kitchen remains relatively untouched. We shall dine here."
Julia stood. "Not without our guest of honor, Mrs. Wayne. I'll help you, grandfather."
"You most certainly shall not," Alfred proclaimed. "On the day when Alfred Pennyworth cannot prepare a suitable repast for royalty, even under battle conditions, that day he will retire. Come with me, ladies, to the dining room, and continue your conversation while I busy myself. This way."
Nightwing and Starfire said their goodbyes to Raven, Wonder Girl, and Wonder Woman. "Are you not returning with us to Titans Tower?" asked Raven.
"Nope," smiled Nightwing. "We'll catch up. Give our best to Roy, Garth, and the gang. See you tomorrow."
"Maybe not," said Wonder Girl with a grin. "I've got some down time to spend with Terry." She turned to Diana. "It's great seeing you again, Big Sis."
"You as well, Donna," said the Amazon princess, hugging her lightly. "Come visit Steve and I the next chance you get. And don't stay away too long from Paradise Island, either."
"You know it," said the younger Amazon. Then Raven phased the three of them away.
Nightwing and Starfire looked at each other and embraced. "Where will we be tonight?" she asked.
"Oh, I think I know where we won't be disturbed," he said. He led her to the library, opened the grandfather clock door, and then picked her up. "To the Batcave, Starfire."
Then he carried her below, to the room Julia and Daphne had vacated. Nobody spoke any passwords to them that night. They wouldn't have heeded them, anyway.
In the morning, Bruce Wayne opened his eyes. Selina was in a robe, seated before him. He was in his bedroom. He looked about. Except for a few bullet holes, it was more or less as he had left it.
"Is this a dream?" he asked.
"Not now, it isn't," she said, and sat on the bed beside him. Her hand covered his. "I want to thank you for what you did, Bruce. I was mad at you before for leaving me. But I guess it was what you had to do."
"It was," he admitted. "And it was worth it."
"But I hope you won't be leaving me again."
"Never," he said, squeezing her fingers, and praying that was a promise he never had to break.
She gently disengaged his hand, and put both of hers to the top of her robe. "Are you feeling better now that you've gotten some sleep?"
"Definitely." He paused. "There are still some things we have to do."
Selina's hands parted her robe. Then she threw it away entirely, and stood naked before him. He devoured her with his eyes.
"I'll say there are," she said, and lifted the covers.
It was well past noon when Bruce Wayne finally got around to addressing the troops. Julia and Daphne were out with Alfred, by his order. By Julia's choice, they went to Picture News, where she began filing a first-hand report of her experiences at the Battle of Wayne Manor. Daphne and Alfred left to do the town for the afternoon.
Katana had been absent for some time, and was still absent.
"This week will never be forgotten," he said. "Not by myself, not by any one of you. For all of you who put yourselves on the line to save my wife, Markovia, and possibly the world...many thanks. I've done many things by myself. But this time, I don't think I could have done it without help."
"Aww, shucks, Bats," grinned the Creeper.
Metamorpho clamped a big hand over the Creeper's mouth. "Button it, brother."
"It's all right, Rex," said Bruce, and the Element Man removed his hand. He continued: "In a way, I'm glad it turned out as it did. An Outsider, a Titan, two Justice League members and two Green Lantern Corpsmen were there to save my wife."
"Not to mention one pretty battered, beaten-up, but still lovable old Batman," interjected Selina, sitting beside him in a green dress. "And I'm grateful to every one of you, believe me. I...well, I really didn't know how many friends I had among you all. Even if you were just here because of Bruce--"
There was a chorus of "No"'s to that, but she overrode them. "--or if it was because of me, personally, I owe you all my life. If I can help you, from here on, just say the word...and I'll try to be there."
"I'll try to be, as well," admitted Bruce. "But I have an announcement to make. As of tonight, the Batman is going into semi-retirement."
A chorus of surprised noises, gasps, and protests, none greater than Jason Todd's. "But, Bruce," he said. "You and me, we've just started!"
"And we haven't finished yet, Jason," said Bruce. "But let's face facts. I'm 40 years old. Moving past my prime. I have a wife, now, as well as an adopted son. And there are duties as a husband and father, both to you and to whoever we have later, provided we do, that might conflict with the Batman's duties." He looked up at them, especially at the two Dick Graysons, Helena, Flamebird, Batwoman, Karl, and Batgirl. "I'll be there to help when things get especially tight. But now, if the Bat-Squad is up to it...I'd like to turn over some of the responsibility to them."
"Count on it, Bruce," said Nightwing, quietly. "Even if I have to leave the Titans."
Starfire looked at him in shock.
"No, Dick," said Batman. "You remain with the Titans. They're your group, and they need you. And you've got a new wife, too. Take pleasure with her...and duty with your fellows."
Black Lightning cleared his throat and spoke. "So...what about the Outsiders?"
Bruce looked at his many-costumed group of allies. "I'll be there for you, in a pinch. But you'll need a regular leader, now. I reccommend Geo take over, as he did before."
Geo-Force said, "I will do my best, friend Batman. And between us, the breach is now healed." He gave his hand to Bruce, and the millionaire shook it.
Turning to Halo, Bruce said, "I wanted to especially thank you, Halo. Your violet power turned the tide for Selina. Can you still use it?"
Gabby shook her head, slightly. "Don't seem to be able to, Bruce. I'm sorry. Whether I used it all up, or if it just takes some time to build back up, I don't know yet. But I'm glad I could use it on Selina."
Selina got up and hugged the blonde girl in the black jumpsuit. "So am I, honey. Believe it, in spades. Just not in aces."
Superman said, "I regret being stupid enough not to take Kobra to the World Court myself. I had to get back to the Planet, anyway. Now, no trial...just a body."
"I can't exactly bring myself to mourn for him, Kal," said Bruce. "As for the murder...let's drop the subject for now. You're all invited to stay tonight as guests. But Selina and I..." He smiled again. "We've got matters to catch up on."
"It'd be nice, Bruce," said Black Lightning. "But my week of leave time is just about over. I'm gonna say sayonara, and hope to see you again soon. Maybe at the next meeting?"
"Maybe so," said Bruce Wayne.
Old Robin stepped forward. "Helena and the rest of us Earth-Twoers will have to go, too. But if you guys really need a hand, let us know. Maybe the Bat-Squad of Two Earths will ride again, sometime."
"Count on it, Dick," said Batgirl. "You're always welcome."
"Hmph," said Jason. "That leaves me, Barbara, Betty, and nobody else. Some Bat-Squad."
"Aren't you forgetting someone?" said Flamebird. "Somebody with a big wingspan?"
"Oh, Man-Bat!" Jason slapped his forehead. "Yeah, I did. Once he's okay...yeah, I guess we'll have enough for the team. For awhile."
"And don't be surprised if, sometime, an old Batman and Catwoman decide to step in and have a little fun," said Selina. "But not for awhile."
Nightwing, one arm about Starfire's bare shoulders, said, "We'd love to stay, Bruce. But Kory and I...well, you know about honeymoons. Can you manage?"
"We can, Dick," said Bruce. "Best to you both."
And after a number of other goodbyes, the various heroes filed out. Wayne Manor was still damaged, but still stood.
As did its owner.
"Geo, Looker, can you stay behind for a few minutes?" asked Bruce. "We need to go below."
The two consented. Bruce and Selina preceded them to the Batcave. They went to a holding cell within it, where Bruce threw open a door. All four of them beheld the prisoner within.
"Talia. Tell me why you did it."
Selina looked at him, then at Talia, with a start, and said nothing.
The woman within, still beautiful in her jumpsuit, stared at Catwoman with great hardness, and at Bruce with only a little less flint. Geo-Force and Looker tried to hide their surprise.
"What is your meaning, my beloved?" answered Talia. "How can you think that I had anything to do with what befell your--wife?"
After a pause, Bruce said, very deliberately, "It wasn't hard to figure, once I had a bit of inspiration dropped in my lap. Both you and your father regarded you as my wife, thanks to that ‘marriage ceremony' Ra's performed on us some years back...against my will, of course. You've always loved me, and I'll admit to returning some of that. But not as much as I love Selina."
The girl's look of jealous rage toward Selina was unhooded, now, and Selina almost shrank back from it. "But you fought beside me," said Selina Wayne. "With me, and King, and Batman, against your father. Then with Jason, and Batgirl, and him against Croc and Joker and all the rest. We were friends."
"Allies, yes," said Talia. "Friends, until I could not deny your bewitching of my beloved. While he was unmarried, I still had a chance of awakening him to our bond. Now, while you fill his bed..." She shrugged. "There was no other choice."
Looker said, "There was always another choice, you bitch. You could have accepted it."
"Acceptance is not for the daughter of Ra's Al Ghul," answered Talia.
"Did you think I would love you for this, Talia?" said Batman. "Did you think I couldn't figure out your part in it, even if you had succeeded?"
"I think that you would have been very lonely," said Talia. "And that you would realize there is no other woman fit for the Batman than myself."
Selina shook her head. "Oh, baby, do you have a lot to learn. Not that I think you ever could."
"There were other clues," said Bruce, looking very much like an uncostumed Batman. "Kobra had no real grudge against Catwoman. If he just wanted to strike at her to get me on his trail and lead me into a trap, he wouldn't have kept striking at her, even when she was slowly dying of poison. He wouldn't have sprung and hired the Joker, Two-Face, the Night-Thief, and all the rest of those types. No. He did it...because he was paid to do it. By you. With your father's money."
She looked steadfastly at Bruce. "My father has no knowledge of it, or part in it. I took the money from him when I fled. I did not lie when I said I feared him."
Selina said, "You wanted to kill me. After I fought beside you, trusted you, twice. With my life. Talia, Talia. You claim to love my man. But I can't believe you know what the hell love really is. Not a bit of it."
Talia sprang up. Geo-Force rushed forward, held her back. She screamed, "I do know what love is, you witch! I know because you broke my heart. And so did he!"
Bruce stood between her and Selina. "Stop it, Talia. The time for that is past. As is the time when we had anything together. It's over, now. It's all over."
"Can you look me in the eye and say that, Bruce Wayne?" said Talia, crying real tears now. "Can you tell me that to my face?"
"Don't get close to her, friend Batman," protested Geo.
But Bruce Wayne stepped towards them, put a hand on Geo-Force's shoulder, turned him away, and stood before Talia. "It's over, Talia. Let it go. There is nothing anymore."
She looked at him, deeply. "Your eyes do not lie. There is still something there."
He gave her a pained expression. "Perhaps. But not what I have for Selina. And she will be my woman till the day of our deaths."
Looker said, gently, "Don't give her any ideas, Bruce. She's got enough, already."
Selina sighed. "Bruce. I don't know if it's a great time to bring it up, but what was that bit of inspiration that turned you on to her part in this thing? I'm curious. Like a cat."
He said, "Believe it or not, a dream."
He nodded. "A dream I had of my father. He spoke to me. One of the things I remember was speaking to him about capturing the one who was responsible for hurting Selina. I said that I wouldn't rest until I captured him. My father said something like, ‘A him? How long has it been since you sang a him?'
"And that was the clue I needed. That the perpetrator wasn't a him at all. But a her."
After a moment of silence, Talia said, "Thank your father on my behalf. When you see him."
"I will," he said.
"So," she said. "What will you do with me? Even though you say I am responsible for Kobra's poisoning your wife, I know this: that the Batman does not kill."
"No," said a familiar voice. "But I do."
Bruce whirled, a nanosecond before the rest, and damned himself for not listening intently enough to detect the newcomer's presence. As it was, there were two newcomers.
One was Katana.
The other, looking quite deadly, was Ra's Al Ghul.
"Ra's," said Bruce, holding himself at combat readiness. "This is not the best time for you to try me."
"Peace, Detective," said Ra's, stepping closer, slowly. "I bear you no malice tonight. I only seek my wayward daughter."
Talia looked terrified. "Father," she said. "No."
Geo-Force and Looker stood in front of Talia. "Come no closer, malefactor," said Geo, his hands ready to exert his power. Looker's eyes blazed in blue.
Katana was standing silently, behind and to the right of Ra's. The master assassin was carrying a valise.
"I bear no weapons, Detective," said Ra's. "Only a gift. You will recall that I promised that the head of one of my men would roll, on your behalf, if I found him guilty of your wife's affliction? This is not one of my men. But it is--" He let the phrase dangle, as he set the valise down between himself and Bruce.
"I will never accept it," he snapped. "Even if it is the head of Kobra. Take it with you when you leave. And leave now."
"Detective," said Ra's, dangerously but subtly. "Our business is not yet completed. Do not do me further discourtesy."
Bruce drew a long breath and glanced at Katana. "I knew it was you who did it, Katana. But you can't have made common cause with Ra's."
She answered, "I have not. When you took the murderess from my keeping, I merely trailed his vehicle to make certain it reached the place of transfer. It did not. He was freed by persons other than his Cultists. He was not to be allowed further freedom. He was not to be allowed further opportunities to kill thousands. He was not to be allowed to prosper, after almost murdering the wife of my liege lord. Such would not be the way of a samurai." She bent before him on one knee, and offered her sword.
He refused to touch it.
"My men were the ones who freed him," admitted Ra's. "I knew of her presence. Thus, I set up the situation. The woman gained revenge on your behalf, I lost a competitor. It worked for the best."
Ra's turned towards Looker, Geo, and Talia. "But the matter is not yet finished. My daughter has dishonored my house. She attempted the murder of the woman you chose. She stole from me, left me, betrayed me. For this, I can assure you, though it cut my heart out to do so...I will, Detective, fulfill my bargain to you. You will have another head."
"No, Ra's," said Bruce, firmly, moving to stand in front of the Arabic. "No matter how many men you have waiting with you, you will not take her."
"I stand alone, Detective," said Ra's. "But not forever. And you have not answered my daughter's question. But I can. What will you do with her? Will you kill her? No, for such is not in your nature. Your samurai would do so, gladly, but you will not permit that. Will you have her tried and imprisoned? No, for she knows who you are behind your mask, and she would tell the world at her trial, or bargain with you or others to have her freed lest she reveal it. Will you set her free? Yes, perhaps you would do that, after all. But if you did, you would be freeing her into my hands, for there is none now she may go to that can protect her from me." He stepped so close to her that Geo-Force placed his hand against Ra's's chest, but Ra's struck the hand down. "As I intended," he said, eyes blazing.
"Father, forgive me," said Talia, quavering. "Or at the least, grant me a quick death. Though I fear you, I yet love you."
"And I you, daughter of my betrayal," said Ra's. "But justice must be done."
"Ra's," said Bruce. "Listen to me."
"Always, Detective," he said, still gazing at Talia.
"You said that my spurning of Talia was a dishonor to your house," Bruce went on. "Is that not so?"
"It was indeed," said Ra's, in tones of iron.
"And yet, your daughter's plot to kill my wife was a dishonor as well. But if you release me from your obligation of marriage to your daughter--I will look upon the debt as paid."
Silence, for a long moment.
"Be careful what you suggest, Detective," said Ra's. "Some debts there are too great to be paid in money."
"And some debts," responded Bruce Wayne, "cannot be paid with blood."
Talia, Selina, Katana, Geo-Force, and Looker watched the two men, as they deliberated without words.
"You will grant her into my hands, then?" said Ra's, finally.
"I will," said Bruce. "Provided you will not take her life. Not for this offense against me, or her current offenses against you."
"If you agree that the bonds of obligation are finished, then--", Ra's paused. "I agree to that condition."
Katana spoke. "She is never again to cross the path of the Batman, nor any of our paths. If she does, I will destroy her. And I will attempt to destroy you."
Ra's looked at her and, to the astonishment of most, gave her a smile. "Of all the persons in your band, you are the only one I would suspect could do it. Besides the Batman, of course. If he killed."
"Thank you," said Katana.
"You will also agree to do her no bodily harm," said the Batman. "I won't accept a finger, a hand, or anything else in place of a head."
"As you wish," said Ra's. He extended his hand. "Come with me, my daughter."
"No," said Geo-Force. Looker stood beside him.
Bruce said, "Let her go, both of you. He has given his word."
"Just what's that worth?" snapped Looker, ready to use a psi-blast on their foe.
"A lot," said Bruce.
Reluctantly, the two Outsiders moved aside. Talia, steeling herself, took her father's hand. He led her a few steps away, then stopped and turned.
"Detective," he said. "In all my centuries, I have never met a man I loved as much as you."
Bruce said nothing.
"It will be a terrible thing when comes the day that I finally have to kill you," said Ra's.
"I think that, at least, is something we can agree on, Ra's," said Bruce.
The two stepped away into the darkness beyond the Batcave caverns and were gone.
"You just intend to let them go, friend Batman?" said Geo-Force, tensely.
"For now," said Bruce. "Will the two of you be staying overnight?"
Looker said, "We will, just for tonight, to make sure you're safe. If you can find us a room."
Selina smiled. "Shouldn't be much of a problem," she said.
Geo-Force put his hand on Lia's arm, then turned to Bruce, and tried to find words.
"Brion," said Bruce. "Go. Selina and I will catch up later."
So the two Outsiders mounted the stairs, went through the grandfather clock door, and left.
Bruce turned to Katana. "So. You killed him."
"I did, milord," said Katana, quietly but unflinchingly.
"Is your solution to every problem killing those who create it?"
"Milord knows me better than that," she said. "As he well knows my reasons for killing in this case."
Selina had to admit to a twinge of fear for this woman, but she held her peace.
"If I am still in your service, milord Batman," said Katana, "then I am still samurai. If not, you may make me ronin. But either way, I will see you as my liege."
Bruce sighed. "I don't know, Katana. I just don't know that I can continue to work with you." He paused. "But. Halo needs you. And the Outsiders need you. Can you continue with them?"
"If such is your wish, milord," said Katana. After a moment, she said, "Will I see you again?"
"Maybe. Possibly. But...not right now. On everything but the killing, Katana, you served me well. But I cannot be a party to murder."
"If murder this be, milord," said Katana, bowing. "Some would call it...justice. Farewell."
The samurai woman clashed her sword against the magnetic disk on the back of her shirt, turned, and left, by a different path than Ra's and Talia had taken.
"I'm grateful to her, Bruce," said Selina. "But I don't know if I ever want to see her again."
"I can hardly blame you," he told her.
They surveyed the Batcave. Equipment had been damaged by Kobra's troops. The vehicles, the computers, the analytical machines. All would have to be repaired, or replaced. He'd probably have to give Kal a call later on in the week for help.
"Hell of a mess," said Bruce, shaking his head.
Selina stood behind him, put her arm around him and stroked his chest, gently. "No worse than our lives, Bruce."
"Maybe not," he admitted. "Suppose we can put both things together?"
"I'm willing if you're willing." Her hand was moving lower. He placed his own on hers, and turned his head to kiss her.
"Where do you want to go on honeymoon?", he asked.
"Let's figure that out in a week," she said. "We'll be busy till then."
"We might at that," he replied. "We just might. Are you up for it?"
"The question should be...are you?"
He took her in his arms, lifted her off the floor, and carried her to what looked like a blank wall. A keyed command later, and the cave wall opened to reveal the safety chamber.
"You mean you don't even want to go upstairs?", she asked, hanging onto his neck.
"Why? If this is good enough for Dick and Kory, it's good enough for us." He carried her across the threshhold.
"You want to hang a ‘Do Not Disturb' sign outside?" she asked, as he set her on her feet.
"No. I'll just change the password. Not much of a bed in here, but..."
She kissed him. "It's not the bed, Bruce. It's what you put in it."
He kissed her back and embraced her with one arm.
In his other hand was a control device pointed at the entrance. Obediently, the rock wall came down.
It didn't go up until well into the next day.
This one's for Denny O'Neil and Steve Englehart,
who remembered the Dark,
but never forgot the Knight.