Too Many Long Boxes!
   
   

End of Summer
 

Someone to Watch Over Me

By Syl Francis

Summary: While on a mission in an eastern European country, Black Canary is taken prisoner. Batman and Nightwing immediately launch a rescue mission.

There is somebody I'm longing to see
I hope that he
Turns out to be
Someone who'll watch over me…
George and Ira Gershwin

"Oracle? Come in, Oracle!" Black Canary vaulted over the open pit. As she reached the other side, she chanced a look. Snakes. Ugh.

"Hey! Oracle! I could use a little help here!" she hissed, as she ran at a half-crouch towards the next building. Oracle said she'd be off-line until shortly before Black Canary arrived at the objective. Oracle was late.

Black Canary found herself suddenly surrounded. She instantly went into a defensive position. Assessing her opponents, she grinned suddenly. Goons, of the big and dumb variety. They began moving in.

"Now, now, boys. There's plenty of me to go around." With that, she launched herself at the two men on her right. Soon, the muffled sounds of grunts, cries of pain, and flesh pounding flesh could be heard in the dark.

As she fought, she spoke into her comlink.

"I guess what they say is true," she muttered, annoyed. "Good help--" She leaped and kicked. "--is so hard to find these days!"

In less than five minutes, she was standing over her unconscious opponents, breathing raggedly. Bringing her hand up to her special earrings, she was about to speak again, when someone finally answered her calls.

"Black Canary? What do you need?"

It was a male voice. Deep. Exceptionally deep. Black Canary felt a cold shiver. Batman?

"BC?"

"I'd know that soft, comforting sound anywhere," Black Canary replied sarcastically, as she flitted through the shadows of the chaotic compound.

"…" The long pause spoke volumes: Get on with it, Black Canary. We don't have all night.

Okay, okay, she groused silently. Doesn't the guy ever laugh?

"Batman, I found the factory. They've manufactured enough of the deadly chemical gas to wipe out a large city--several large cities, in fact. The plant is located exactly where Oracle reported that it'd be. I've set the main control unit to self-destruct--"

"--BC, not the self-destruct! That'll release the gas into the atmosphere! Kill every living thing within a twenty-mile radius!"

"Jeez! What is it about you people?" Black Canary shot back. "You think just 'cause I'm blonde, I'm also dumb?"

"No, I--"

"I happen to know that the self-destruct is a built-in safety measure and will break the deadly compound into its separate harmless chemical components."

"BC, I--"

"First, your girlfriend bosses me around like I'm some kind of a G.I. Barbie--!"

"--Oracle is not my girlfriend--!"

"--Now, you question my actions--!"

"--BC, I'm not questioning--!"

"Well, you can take your cape and cowl and you can--"

"--BC!" Batman interrupted. "Listen!"

"No, you listen, you pointy-eared night crawler!" She paused momentarily as she ducked into a large building, an airplane hangar. Several Soviet-made MiGs and US Navy Tomcats were lined up with military precision. "I'm getting so sick of--"

"Shut up!" Batman roared.

Black Canary stopped in her tracks. The temerity of the man! She was about to respond in kind, when Batman's urgent voice came over her receivers.

"We don't have much time," he insisted. "Listen carefully. The self-destruct protocols of the factory's main control unit are misleading. The designers intentionally engineered it so that the chemical gases will be released into the atmosphere should it be set off."

"What? But the information Oracle gave me said--"

"I know what it said, BC. It was the best information I had available at the time. But it was wrong," Batman admitted, and then added apologetically, "I was wrong. I'm sorry."

"…!" Batman's apology rendered Black Canary speechless. Realizing she was running out of time, she took a long, regretful look at her getaway jet fighter, and began running back in the direction that she'd just come from.

"Hey, no sweat, Bats," Black Canary said. "By my watch, I have at least ten minutes left to cancel the self-destruct. Plenty of time."

She was ambushed from two sides. Kicking out, she caught one in the stomach. As he doubled over in pain, she followed through with an elbow to the temple.

"BC?"

"Sorry, Bats. Couple of trogs jumped me. One's down, the other one's giving me trouble."

"BC, you have eight minutes and counting. Neutralize the enemy and continue with the mission!"

Black Canary rolled her eyes. "Now I know where Oracle gets the military-ese," she quipped.

"Seven minutes!" Batman warned.

"Oh, great, now I have mission control counting down till lift off. Look, Batman. It's been swell talking to ya, but I really gotta go. Time's a'wasting! BC out."


"Black Canary! BC!" Batman called. "Dinah! Come in!"

"What is it?" Barbara asked from the entranceway. She'd been having dinner with her father, Commissioner Gordon, and Batman had volunteered to monitor her station while she was gone. It was her Dad's wedding anniversary, the first since the death of Sarah, his wife. Barbara hadn't wanted him to spend it alone.

"Black Canary's in trouble," Batman replied, pacing. "And it's my fault." He slammed a fist on a convenient table. The contents rattled from the force.

"I was held up by a bank robbery in progress on my way here. I was about to call in the robbery to the GCPD, when I saw the hostages." He stopped pacing. He didn't add that it took him longer than estimated to stop the robbery and rescue the victims.

"So what's happened with Dinah?" Barbara asked, worried about Black Canary. Batman explained as succinctly as possible.

"That was--" He looked at the clock on the desk. "--five minutes ago." Batman stood still, somehow looking both menacing and lost in the middle of the room.

Barbara immediately wheeled towards her station. Without a word, she got to work. She had to try to stop the self-destruct sequence.

"We shouldn't have sent her on this mission alone," Batman said.

"You know why we did," Barbara retorted. "We couldn't be sure that we'd be able to destroy all of the gas from here."

Batman nodded. He knew that what she said was true. They had needed to ensure that all of the deadly chemical agent was eradicated. And Black Canary was the best operative in the world.

"Dinah has less than two minutes," she muttered, her fingers flying. "If the poison gas was exactly where we said it was, then--" She punched a few more rapid commands, and finally hit enter.

Instantly, her bank of monitors reset. The multiple monitors became a giant screen, each monitor showing a portion of the larger picture. Batman looked at it, studying it carefully.

Finally, the satellite camera zoomed in on a particular building. It looked like a grain silo, typical of those found in the largely agrarian society that was the hidden base for one of KOBRA's satraps.

"Fifty-seven seconds," Batman said.

"I'm trying to hack into the factory's main banks, but it has a way weird set of security protocols. Worse than yours," she added under her breath.

"Forty seconds." Batman's voice sounded calm. Barbara knew that when he was at his most outwardly calm, Batman was at his most anxious. She'd heard this cold, icy tone before when Nightwing and the rest of the former Titans had been kidnapped by Cyberion.

"I'm almost in," Barbara intoned. "Just a few more seconds…" Her fingers flew across her keyboard. She looked at the clock.

Twenty seconds.

She wasn't going to make it. She knew it! It was impossible. Barbara was good. She was the best. But even she couldn't make the circuitry send telemetry faster than the speed of light. And at this rate, she needed at least thirty seconds. Ten more than she had--!

"--Batman! Come in!"

"Dinah!" Barbara called, relieved.

"Tell your boss, everything's a-okay!" Black Canary said easily.

"He's not my boss!" Barbara replied sharply.

"Well, maybe not entirely a-okay," Black Canary continued, ignoring Barbara's interruption. "Now I've gotta figure out a way to destroy this stuff all over again. Oh, and tell ol' Grim and Grimmer for me that next time, he'd better get his facts straight, or I'll--"

"Oh, um, you can tell him yourself, BC. Batman is standing right here." Barbara looked up at Batman. She was greatly enjoying herself.

"Good work, Black Canary," Batman said. "I think I know how to neutralize the objective."

"'Neutralize the objective'?" Black Canary repeated. "Don't you speak English?" she complained.

The sounds of dogs barking in the distance came over the intercom.

"Uh-oh," Black Canary uttered. "Trouble. Gotta run."

Barbara zoomed out with the satellite camera. She typed a few keystrokes. Several blinking lights could be seen moving in on a converging pattern. She pointed at the lone blue dot moving rapidly away from the larger pack. They were all heading due east, towards the shoreline.

"The blue is Dinah," she explained. "The red are the bad guys."

Batman nodded. The red dots were closing in. A second set of red dots appeared at the top of the screen.

"Dinah!" Barbara called. "There's a second group rapidly closing in from the north."

"No, kidding? What gave 'em away? The laser rifle-fire? Or their bad breath? I swear I can smell it from this distance."

Suddenly two other groups of red dots appeared advancing from the south and east.

"Dinah!" Barbara warned. The screen showed a large red blob completely enveloping the lone blue dot.

"Too late, Oracle! There's too many of them!" Black Canary broke in. Batman and Barbara could hear her talking to her pursuers. "Okay, boys…One at a time? Or all at once?" She gave a short laugh. "My, my…aren't we eager?"

The sounds of fighting erupted over the intercom. Barbara sat, tensely listening, nervously playing with a number two pencil. The distinct ticking of the clock was the only other sound in the room. Angry shouts and grunts echoed off the walls.

Black Canary screamed. Barbara abruptly snapped the pencil in two.

"No! Do not kill her!" a deep voice ordered. "The Supreme Serpent will be most pleased--Ooommph!!"

"Eat this fang boy!" The sound of bone breaking resounded from the intercoms.

"Stop her, you fools!"

"Uhhnn--!" Heavy breathing, more angry shouts, grunts, and the sound of an open-handed slap.

"Immobilize her!" the deep voice roared. "And if she doesn't cooperate throw her in the pit."

Batman slammed his fist on top of the desk monitor.

"Hey! Watch it!" Barbara retorted. "You know how much that thing costs?"

Batman ignored her. He was already crouched on the windowsill, ready to take off into the night.

"Tell her help's on the way." He fired a jump line to the roof.

"Help?" Barbara called. "But she's more than twelve hours away!" Barbara was talking to empty air. "In a country that didn't even exist six months ago," she added under her breath. "Somewhere near the Black Sea."

Sighing, she wheeled to her station and began trying to contact her operative. No, Barbara silently amended. Her friend.

As he rose, Batman spoke softly into his wrist communicator. Landing on the roof, he stood and waited, but not for long. A large black shadow swooped over him and grew steadily larger. Soon, the Batwing hovered just off the roof, and the pilot's canopy opened for him.


The darkness didn't lift. Black Canary knew she'd opened her eyes, but the darkness remained. She blinked to clear the cobwebs and took a cursory assessment of her body. She decided it was safe to sit up.

"Uhhhnn…" she groaned softly. "I've gotta find another line of work." She brought her hand up to her head. Shackled! Fuming, she yanked uselessly. She dropped her hands letting out a long breath.

"Terrific." She looked around. The gloom was almost impenetrable, but her eyes soon adjusted.

She was in a small, windowless cell. From the smells permeating the enclosure, it was also filthy.

"Oracle?" she called. A fizzing hiss was her only response. The comlink was either broken or blocked. "Okay, Dinah, you've got only yourself to depend on." And that was exactly how she liked it. Awkwardly bringing her shackled hands up to her collar, Black Canary felt with her fingers until she found a hidden Velcro patch.

Tugging carefully, she removed the patch and held it gently in the palm of her hand. Again, going by touch only, Black Canary found what she was searching for--a thin sliver of metal.

"Skeleton key: never leave home without one," she quipped. Within moments Black Canary had removed her restraints. She replaced her key in its hiding place. Feeling her way along the wall, she found the door. Working blindly she tried gauging its makeup.

"Cold metal," she muttered. "Seamless, no apparent knobs or locking mechanisms." She paused her verbal commentary as she continued her inspection. Running her fingers around the door seal, she stopped. She ran her fingers lightly back a bit.

"Hello! What do we have here?" she asked. She'd felt a small raised area in the otherwise smooth surface. "Hmmm…A control button maybe?" Which could mean that the door opened electronically rather than mechanically.

"Okay, lock picks won't work here," she muttered. "So, let's see what the big, bad snake boys missed, shall we?"

Humming softly to herself, Black Canary opened her tunic. Her fingers went automatically to the inner hidden compartments.

"A girl just can't be too careful these days," she muttered. "No telling if she'll have to break out of foul smelling dungeons." As she spoke these last words, she found what she needed.

Working quickly, Black Canary placed the small plastic charge on the control button and door seal, set the fuse, and stepped back. Covering her eyes, she counted to ten. A soft hiss preceded a surprisingly quiet ~whoomph~! Hurrying back to the door, Black Canary grinned when she found it open.

"I love it when a plan comes together," she said stepping out. It was the last thing she said.


The rain of blazing automatic fire came from all sides. Nightwing tumbled, rolled, and dived for his life. A spotlight suddenly caught him in its beam, pinpointing his position. Leaping between buildings, Nightwing somersaulted in midair, gracefully dodging the hail of bullets.

"Woo-hoo!" he cried in boyish exuberance.

Nightwing hadn't had this much fun in a week. Chief Redhorn's crooked SWAT teams had him pinned from the air and several rooftops.

Acquiring and readying a Batarang, Nightwing flashed his would be killers a broad grin, and threw. The bright beam of light went out. He heard the faint tinkling of breaking glass in the evening breeze.

"So many cops. So little time," he said. Crouching behind a rooftop air conditioning unit, he drew a deep breath. Going through the necessary steps in his mind, Nightwing suddenly heard Batman's patient voice in his head…


"Remember, Dick. Always keep a cool head and always take it by the numbers."

"Yes, sir," Robin replied solemnly. "Bruce? What if the bad guys don't go by the numbers?"

Batman looked down at him, his usually stern expression softening. "Then go to Plan B."

"What's Plan B?" Robin asked.

"You'll know when the time comes…"


Nightwing grinned. "Okay, Bruce. Plan B it is."

"Did I hear somebody mention Plan B?"

Nightwing almost jumped out of his skin. Hovering less than ten feet away, and in absolute silence was the Batwing. Batman touched his forehead with his forefinger in mock salute.

Nightwing could literally feel the deep thrumming of the aircraft's stealth engines. Gunshots suddenly erupted around him. Nightwing didn't wait to be invited. He leaped across the distance separating him from the Batwing and managed to latch on.

Flexing his biceps, he easily pulled himself onboard. Gasping in relief, he looked at Batman.

"What now?" he asked.

"It's your game," Batman said. "You call the shot."

"Helicopter," Nightwing uttered.

"Helicopter it is." Batman immediately banked the Batwing and took off towards the Bludhaven Police Department helicopter. They were immediately targeted by the helicopter's .50 caliber Gatling gun. The hot rounds ricocheted off the Batwing's armored body.

As Batman straightened the aircraft, Nightwing jumped onto the starboard-side wing and waited at a crouch. Batman brought the plane in closer. When they were within twenty feet, Nightwing leaped out, firing off a grappling hook. It wound itself around the helicopter's landing skid and pulled him in.

The air around him reverberated with the sounds of automatic fire. He felt the white hot whizzes of bullets shooting past him. Reaching the skid, Nightwing swung his body up feet first into the open cargo door. He connected immediately with a police sniper.

Once inside, Nightwing made short work of the occupants in the cargo hold. He started forward. The co-pilot awkwardly tried turning, taking aim with his handgun. Nightwing easily kicked it out of his hand, and chopped down on the officer's neck. He turned to the pilot.

"So, wanna land this thing? Or should I tell my pal in the big, black plane to vaporize you?"

The pilot looked at him with wide, frightened eyes. His forehead beaded with sweat.

"I-I th-thought the Bat didn't k-kill?" he squeaked.

"I'm afraid that that's just an unconfirmed rumor," Nightwing said smirking. "I've seen him get mad. It's not pretty."

"--Ulp!" The pilot immediately started going down. "Wha--? What will you do with us?"

"You'll find out."


"What will you do with them?" Batman asked as they took off. Nightwing had immobilized all of the crooked cops with plastic tie-wraps.

"The Feds have been trying to bust the BPD's disappearing evidence ring for about eight weeks now. I've called in the location of the warehouse where they've been stashing the stolen drugs and money that were taken from the evidence room."

"Good work," Batman said.

"Awww shucks! It was nothing! I mean, I was trained by the very best."

"Is that right?" Batman asked.

"You bet!"

"Well, I've got it on good authority that you're a quick learner."

"Oh, yeah? Who?"

Batman quirked an eyebrow at Nightwing. Nightwing's face cracked into a wide grin. Together they both said, "Alfred!"

The warm moment passed quickly.

"So, to what do I owe this visit?" Nightwing asked.

"Do you feel up to a little trip?"

"Bruce…things are a little complicated at the moment. Blockbuster's dying and the jackals are all coming out of the woodwork vying to move in on his territory. Bludhaven's about to explode in the Mother of all gang wars!"

Batman nodded and then added quietly, "I need you." He kept his eyes carefully forward.

"…!?" Nightwing stared at Batman open-mouthed, his jaw working as he tried to say something. He turned away, his emotions in turmoil. He let out a long breath. "Okay. On one condition."

"What?"

Grabbing the co-pilot controls, Nightwing grinned. "I get to drive!"

With that, he punched the onboard computer, transferring control to his co-pilot station. Before Batman could intervene, Nightwing pushed the Batwing's throttle to full forward and threw the aircraft into a forward spin.

"Woo-hoo!" Nightwing cried out enthusiastically. Batman shook his head and allowed himself a small smile. Some things never changed.


Voices swam in and out of consciousness.

"What will you do with her, Supreme Serpent?"

"I shall have my pleasure with her." The ominous voice died out for a moment, and then returned again. "…feed her to my pets."

Nuh-uh. Don't think so, Black Canary said to herself.

She swallowed. The blackness kept threatening to engulf her again. She fought valiantly to remain awake.

Get up, she urged silently. She was lying on something soft and silky, the delicate scent of roses caressing her senses.

Where was she? This was not the filthy dungeon that she'd awakened in previously.

Forcing her eyes to open, Black Canary felt as if she were looking at the world from the wrong end of a telescope. Near objects appeared far away. Blinking to clear her vision, she focused on the pillow immediately in front of her. The ripples of the pillowcase were magnified to the size of snow-covered hills.

Black Canary ran her hand down her sides, feeling her clothing. Her costume was gone. In its place was something soft and smooth. She grimaced, furious.

Turning slowly onto her side and back, Black Canary took in the layout of the room. She felt as if she were in a funhouse mirror. Everything was distorted, warped. She sat up and was instantly overwhelmed by a feeling of nausea.

"Drugged," she muttered disgustedly.

"Yes, my pretty bird," a low, menacing hiss said. Black Canary turned her head in the direction that she'd heard the cold voice. She blinked in vain, again trying to clear her swimming vision.

A reptilian figure stepped into her line of sight. The color of his tunic identified him as the KOBRA leader, the self-proclaimed Supreme Serpent. Black Canary didn't say anything, waiting for him to speak.

"You have been a constant thorn on our side," he said. "What have you to say for yourself?"

Wiping her tearing eyes, Black Canary blinked up at him. Focusing on his putrid green tunic, which overlay his golden diamondback armor, she grimaced.

"Either that color goes, or I do," she muttered. The KOBRA leader laughed, a cold dry laugh.

"You show no fear," he said. "Excellent. The greatest pleasure comes when the impudent are made to scream. When I am done with you, my dear, you will beg me to kill you."

"Can't wait," Black Canary muttered sarcastically.

An urgent pounding at the door interrupted them. "Who dares!?" the KOBRA leader roared, flinging the door open.

"Pardon, oh, Great One!" the viper soldier said, dropping to one knee in terror. "Our radar has detected an unidentified craft that has just entered KOBRA airspace."

"Very well," the Supreme Serpent said. "Tell the KOBRA officer in charge that I shall be there momentarily." The viper soldier prostrated himself, and then almost seemed to slither out in his haste and fear.

"It appears, my dear," he said regretfully, "that our moment together shall have to be delayed slightly." He walked up to Black Canary and roughly took her face in his hand. He turned it one way, and then the other. "You are so very lovely," he murmured. "It's a shame that I shall have to kill you."

Black Canary jerked her head out of his grip and stared defiantly up at him. He grinned his serpentine smile and ran his fingers down her cheek, her neck, and her exposed shoulders.

"I shall be back soon."

Black Canary shuddered at his cold touch. As soon as the door closed behind him, she stumbled out of bed.

"I'm outta here! Ugh! I hate snakes!"


"Oracle, ten minutes to the KOBRA coordinates," Nightwing reported and then added, "Hi, gorgeous."

"I copy two minutes," Oracle's disembodied, electronic voice replied. The Oracle icon stared coldly at him from the Batwing video monitor.

"I'm doing fine," Nightwing replied. "Thank you for asking."

The Oracle icon quickly broke up into a million bits of information and reformed into Barbara Gordon's beautiful face. She had a tired smile as she gazed at him.

"Don't mention it, Boy Wonder."

"If you two are done," Batman interrupted, "maybe we can get down to business."

Both young people exchanged surprised glances. Barbara's raised eyebrow silently asked, 'What's with him?' Nightwing shrugged slightly.

"Have you been able to re-establish contact with Black Canary?" Batman asked.

"No. Her comlink signal is either being blocked, or the transceivers have been broken."

"What could block her signal?" Nightwing asked. "I thought you pretty much had the market on gee-whiz gadgetry up there at the ol' clocktower."

"I do," Barbara retorted. "But I'm not a magician. Telemetry has to have a clear path in order to work. If she's being kept in a deep, underground bunker, it's possible that her comlink has been temporarily neutralized."

"We read you, Oracle," Batman replied. "Have you been able to crack those security codes, yet?"

"Done. I'll be ready when you give the word."

"Good work," he said.

"Good luck, boys," Barbara said quietly.

"Don't worry, Babs," Nightwing reassured her. "We'll bring her home. You have my word."

After Barbara signed off, Batman started dropping altitude. "Radar," he said. "Deploy countermeasures."

Nightwing punched a button on his console. Instantly, a stream of glittering, aluminum filaments shot out of the Batwing aft section. The metallic strips would show up on the enemy radar as a blob, effectively rendering his radar useless.

"Countermeasures deployed," Nightwing reported.

As soon as the words were out of Nightwing's mouth, Batman banked the Batwing hard to starboard and dropped it several thousand feet in less than ten seconds. Nightwing felt his stomach in his throat. He worked to keep its contents where they were.

"Oh, boy," Nightwing muttered. He shook his head. Some things never changed.


Black Canary fought to maintain her equilibrium as she moved around the room. She was on an out of control merry-go-round. Every step she took put her in danger of being flung off. She stumbled from the bed to a low cocktail table to a door--not the one from which the KOBRA leader had left.

Gasping from the effort, Black Canary leaned against it. She blinked hard. Her vision remained blurred; however, she noted that the objects in the room weren't swimming around quite as much. Whatever drugs they'd used on her might be wearing off.

Black Canary reached for the door handle. She had to make several attempts before she finally managed to grasp it. Her depth perception was still affected. As carefully as she could, Black Canary turned the handle down. She heard the distinct ~click~ of a bolt being released.

Cracking the door slightly, she checked the other side. Black Canary sighed in disappointment. It was a closet. She searched in the vain hopes that her uniform would be in it. It wasn't.

She closed her eyes against the distorted images before her. The act seemed to stabilize her somewhat. The room didn't feel like it was rocking underneath her. Going by feel alone, she ran her hands along the walls, looking for any hidden entrances or weak spots. Nothing. Enraged, she swept her arms across the dresser, dumping all of the contents on the floor.

They fell with a resounding crash. Alerted by the noise, the guards outside her door came in at a run, their weapons drawn. Black Canary once again closed her eyes against the dizziness, and estimating the guards' distance from her, leaped into action.


They moved through the compound with a stealth honed from years of experience. Although the sun shone with the brightness of midday, the two remained shadows, unseen and unheard. They communicated the old way, through hand-signals only. As they advanced, they quickly fell into their old patterns.

Instead of feeling the bitterness that until recently would have threatened to consume him, Nightwing felt content. It was just like old times. He seldom got the opportunity to work with Batman anymore. So often, when he was called in to help, it was more of a command than a request.

But this time Batman had asked.

"I need you." The words echoed in Nightwing's mind. Studying Batman who was running ahead of him, seemingly disappearing in and out of his vision, Nightwing shook his head and smiled slightly.

"I need you, too, Bruce," he whispered.


Black Canary stood over the unconscious viper guards. She closed her eyes against the on-set of vertigo. Stooping, she searched them with her hands, feeling for weapons, anything that she'd be able to use to her advantage.

She'd noticed that they all wore equipment harnesses and that they carried high-powered energy weapons. Breathing heavily, she fell on her knees next to one of the guards. Risking a look, she did a visual search. Quickly, she unclasped the guard's equipment harness belt and put it on herself. She looked around the immediate area for his energy weapon.

She found it a few feet away. Not bothering to get up, she crawled towards it. Again, feeling a wave of dizziness wash over her, Black Canary was forced to put her head down between her knees to keep from losing consciousness. When the room stopped its wild spinning, she dared to open her eyes again.

Knowledgeable in almost all types of handheld and shoulder carried armaments, Black Canary expertly inspected the Viper rifle. It looked relatively simple to operate. It had several settings, ranging from stun to fry. She set the weapon at mid-setting for heavy stun.

"But if that snake touches me again," she growled, "I may just have to kill him."


As they moved through the compound, they avoided contact with the enemy. Batman's operations order rang clearly in Nightwing's head.

"Our mission is twofold: First, we neutralize the chemical agent and the manufacturing process. Second, we find Black Canary and we get her out. And I don't have to tell you which is the more important of the two, do I?"

Nightwing shook his head and looked away. "No, sir."

Black Canary was a friend and a hero, but her life weighed against the possible millions that KOBRA's poison gas could kill made her expendable. As were they.

As he weaved and dodged along the shadows and open spaces, Nightwing wondered what he'd tell Lian Harper if her "Gramma Canary" didn't make it. He vowed that it wouldn't come to that.


"…And I don't have to tell you which is the more important of the two, do I?"

Batman's own words haunted him as he moved towards the objective. So easy to say them, he thought with self-recrimination, so easy to condemn a friend to possible death. Even as he'd uttered them, he knew he was lying. Black Canary was one of the finest fighters he knew. Like him, she had no powers to rely to on, just her own innate abilities and courage.

He'd observed her through the past years. She'd been a constant annoyance at the start, young and arrogant, harping on her ties to the old Justice Society of America. She was too hotheaded for Batman's tastes, always jumping foolishly into situations without first taking the time to analyze.

But as the years passed, Black Canary matured, both as a fighter and a hero. She could hold her own against some of the best and worst out there. He'd been hesitant about having her team-up with Oracle, but the partnership had evolved into something special, almost symbiotic.

Batman felt that Black Canary was a member of his 'family,' if only peripherally. And she was now in trouble because of his mistake. His words echoed in his head again.

Arriving at the objective, Batman nodded at Nightwing. The younger man slapped an explosive charge on the main entrance. Batman counted off with his fingers. When he made a fist, the explosive went off, blowing the door open.

As they both dived into the ensuing darkness, Batman swore that his words would not prove prophetic.


Black Canary stumbled and weaved through the long empty corridor. Where was everybody, she wondered? As if in answer, a squad of Viper soldiers turned a corner in her direction. They spotted her instantly.

Black Canary dived, executed a shoulder roll, and came up firing. Her reflexes were slower than she was used to, and therefore, several shots almost hit her. She dodged several more, still firing in return. Finally, afraid that she was going to lose the battle, Black Canary closed her eyes and instinctively leaped and somersaulted in the air, all the while firing her weapon in the direction of the squad of enemy soldiers.

After a seeming eternity, the only sound she heard was that of her own rifle. Leaning against the corridor wall, she opened her eyes and assessed the damage. The soldiers were lying in various positions along the corridor. They were all unconscious.

Breathing heavily, Black Canary swallowed, waiting for her heartbeat to slow down. A wave of nausea washed through her. Closing her eyes tightly, she brought her hand up to her mouth and willed the queasiness to pass.

"Okay, they came from that direction," she croaked. "Then, that's where I'm going, too."


Batman took three down with only one Batarang.

"You've gotta show me how you do that!" Nightwing called admiringly.

"Lucky shot," Batman admitted, catching it on the return.

Nightwing leaped above the heads of several Viper soldiers, kicking out with both feet. Gracefully bringing both legs together, he flipped and landed behind them. Acquiring and readying a Batarang, he threw.

On the other side, Batman who'd already taken down several soldiers single-handedly was kicking, lunging, and chopping down with ease. Seeing what Nightwing was up to, Batman threw likewise.

As one, both Batarangs whipped around the enemy soldiers, trailing a heavy, triple-weave, NOMEX net. In seconds they were immobilized.

"Good work, partner," Nightwing said.

"You've learned a few new moves while you've been away," Batman observed, as they continued on the downwardly sloping corridor.

"Well, if you had almost an entire police force out for your blood," Nightwing replied, "you'd learn a few new moves, too."

"Point taken," Batman answered. He scanned the corridors ahead. Spotting an air conditioning vent, he said, "That way." Nightwing nodded and set a minimal plastic charge along the vent's seal. At Batman's go-ahead, he lit the fuse and both men stepped back.

Within seconds the vent was open. One at a time, each man easily leaped and pulled himself into the air conduit. There was just enough room for them to move forward towards their objective.


Black Canary was surrounded. They'd come at her from three sides in teams of ten. Even if she were at her peak condition, she'd have a difficult time fighting off these many. Still woozy from the effects of the drug, she was being overwhelmed.

She fought like a cornered wildcat, desperately kicking out with killing force. She used the weapon, useless at close quarters, as a club. Leaping over their heads, she spun and kicked out, connecting with several. She tucked and somersaulted in midair, trying to fly clear of the enemy below.

It didn't work. She landed in the middle of a maelstrom. Too many, her mind cried out. Too many!

Suddenly, the ceiling above them burst open, and two angels in black leaped into the fray.


"Supreme Serpent!" A Viper officer saluted. The KOBRA leader stood on the raised dais of his main control room. "The woman has escaped. We have received several reports of firefights throughout the complex."

The KOBRA leader slammed his fist on the control console. "Find her! And when you do, bring her to me!" The Viper officer saluted and left. "When I'm done with you Black Canary, you will beg for release. This I swear!" He turned to his operations and tactics center.

"What of the unidentified aircraft? Has it been located?"

"No, your Supreme Serpent!" the operations officer reported. "We have several air and ground patrols sweeping the area outside the compound. So far we haven't found anything."

"What is the status of the chemical warheads?" he asked.

"They are almost all assembled, Supreme Serpent. The assembly teams report another half hour."

"Good. Raise NATO Headquarters," KOBRA leader ordered. "I wish to speak to the Commanding Officer, General John R. Myers. He is about to condemn the entire population of London, England to death."


"She's coming to," a youngish male voice said.

"Here, put this over her," a deeper voice replied. Black Canary felt gentle hands sit her up and slip something warm and heavy over her head. Struggling to open her eyes, she looked up at two masked faces swimming above her. She blinked slowly, trying to focus. Finally, the two faces solidified.

She smiled slightly.

"Hello, boys," she whispered. "Fancy meeting you here."

Nightwing grinned broadly. "Roy said you were one tough lady."

"Black Canary, do you think you can stand?" Batman asked.

"Think so. Drugged. Everything's kinda woozy." Batman nodded and reached into his utility belt. Black Canary couldn't see what he was doing. A syringe appeared suddenly above her. She cringed. Needles. She didn't care for them either.

"This won't hurt," Batman reassured her. Nevertheless, Black Canary turned her head, unable to watch. She felt a slight pressure on her forearm, followed by a not unpleasant tingling sensation.

"It's a fast-acting anti-KOBRA venom," Batman explained. "You should be feeling a little more like yourself in another few minutes." Black Canary nodded gratefully.

"Thank you," she said, eyes closed, leaning her head on his chest.

"Meanwhile," Batman said, gently lifting her in his arms, "we still have a job to do."

"Batman, I'll take care of the objective," Nightwing said. "You take BC back to safety."

"No," Black Canary protested faintly. "I'll be all right. Put me down. I can walk on my own."

"The serum hasn't taken complete effect yet," Batman said dismissively. "You'd never make it alone."

"Hey, buster," she growled weakly, "I made it this far without your help."

"Yes, and you almost got yourself re-captured," Batman retorted. "Nightwing, take her back to the Batwing. I'll finish the job."

"Sorry, Batman," Nightwing said with a wave. "Not this time. Besides," he added with a smirk. "You two make such a cute couple."

"Nightwing!" Batman's stern voice would brook no insubordination.

"Gotta run," Nightwing replied. "I've a hot date with a snake." Halfway down the corridor, he turned and called back. "Take good care of her. I know a certain little girl who sets real store by her." With that, he disappeared down a blind corner.

"Kids," Black Canary whispered. "They grow up so fast. Before you know it, they develop a mind of their own." She pointed in the direction that Nightwing had gone with her chin. "You really care about that boy, don't you?"

Batman didn't answer. Instead, he turned and headed back the way they'd come. Black Canary looked down at what she was wearing. Something black. Batman's cape, she realized. He'd solicitously cut a slit in the middle, turning it into a poncho. She smiled warmly. "Thanks for the use of the cape, Batman," she said looking up at him.

Batman looked down at her and shrugged. "You looked…cold," he said, stumbling over his words.

Black Canary smiled at his answer and then straightened her shoulders. "Look, I'm fine now. Put me down and go help your kid." Batman again ignored her. Black Canary's mouth formed into a single determined line. "Time to put me down, Batman. I'm a big girl, and I can take care of myself."

Batman stopped in his tracks and did as she requested. He set her down on her feet. Immediately, the room began spinning around her.

"Hey! This is worse than before," she protested, falling over. Batman picked her up again.

"I know. The anti-venom is working its way through your system. Until it cleans out all traces of the KOBRA venom, it's going to play havoc with your equilibrium."

Black Canary fumed in his arms. "Oh, this is just terrific!" she muttered. "The rescue is turning out to be worse than the imprisonment. At least I knew that I couldn't trust them!"

Batman looked down at her, annoyed. "Were you this much trouble with Green Arrow?" he asked. Black Canary grinned slightly.

"No, Ollie was too afraid of me to ignore my wishes."

Batman's stern expression softened momentarily into a half-smile. "I can see how he would have been."

"Look, Batman, there's no way that I'm allowing you carry me out of here like some kind of helpless female. Find me a place where I can hole up until the anti-venom takes complete effect and you go help your young friend. I fouled up and now the whole mission may be blown. I can't have that on my conscience."

"If there's anyone who fouled things up, it's me," Batman growled. "I sent you the wrong information."

"Is that what this all about? Your feelings of guilt? Because if it is, I hereby absolve you of any wrongdoing. In this business, passing wrong information is par for the course."

"Not in my business!" Batman retorted.

"Then maybe you're not human, after all, the way Red's always claiming. He's been afraid of you since he was thirteen. From that time you caught one his arrows while your back was turned to him." She paused looking up him.

"Batman, we all make mistakes. But you can't carry them as emotional baggage. They only weigh you down." She reached up and gently touched his face. "All you can do is your best. That's all any of us can do."

Batman gazed long and steadily into Black Canary's eyes. Her chest felt constricted and her cheeks flushed. She couldn't breathe. Realizing that she was still holding her hand on his cheek, Black Canary slowly lowered it. She was suddenly very aware of his closeness and that she was in his arms.

Down, girl! She chastised herself. You're friends, colleagues, pals, nothing more. And anyway, this is so not the time.

Batman nodded slowly and almost regretfully put her down. She tried standing on her own two feet. The moment of vertigo passed a little faster this time. The corridor stopped its incessant spinning.

"Can you stand on your own now?" he asked. She nodded doubtfully.

"I-I think so."

"Good, then we'll find a place for you to recuperate while I--"

They were set upon by several Viper soldiers.


"I can handle this, Batman," Nightwing mimicked. "You take BC back to safety." He looked around at the enormous complex. Several Viper soldiers were hurrying to and fro, loading what looked suspiciously like warheads onto Soviet-made cruise missiles.

"That does not look good," he muttered.

A little further down, Nightwing could see what looked like a large pool. The smell of seawater permeated the place.

"Someone tell me that that isn't what I think it is," he groaned. The next moment, a deep rumbling reverberating through the entire underground cavern confirmed his suspicions. A submarine slowly broke through the surface, its gargantuan size filling the pool.

"Whoa, a Soviet Kilo-class submarine, nuclear-powered and capable of underwater deployment of long-range cruise missiles. This is definitely not good!" He had a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach. What had he gotten himself into?

A re-breather mask hung from Nightwing's neck, ready for use in case he suddenly needed it. He doubted if it would prove effective against the deadly agent. According to the latest intelligence, the stuff literally melted the skin and flesh from a person. Worse, death wasn't instantaneous.

If the phony self-destruct sequence were set off, rather than breaking the deadly gas into its harmless components, it would actually release it into the atmosphere. The chemical composition of the gas was such that the molecules were unusually dense and clung much closer to each other than normal gaseous mixtures. Practically speaking, this meant that the gas cloud would hang around the targeted ground for a longer period of time.

The only sure way to destroy the deadly compound was to burn it in temperatures upwards of 1,000 degrees Celsius. Furthermore any escaping gas had to be contained somehow and prevented from being released into the atmosphere.

"So, this means that I've gotta find the real self-destruct," Nightwing muttered. "And somehow keep the stuff from escaping."

He looked around the place, gauging his chances of success. The loading teams below him continued to install the warheads. Viper guards stood at regular intervals along the loading docks and from the several sniper points along the catwalks.

Heavily armed viper marines emerged from the sub and took up positions on the deck as well as along the loading docks.

"Heh. No sweat."


"Tell your respective governing bodies, General Duncan, that they have one hour. Oh, and please tell Her Majesty's government that London will be first. Afterwards, if the Swiss bank account that I have given you does not begin to show the five hundred billion in gold bullion that I have requested, Paris will follow and then Berlin, Rome, and so on. Until all of the European member countries of NATO are no more."

The KOBRA leader smiled, a deadly cobra smile. "And Washington, DC will be left for last. I wish to savor their panic-stricken bombastic rhetoric to the end. It shall make their destruction all the sweeter."

"This is outrageous!" Gen. Duncan protested. "Five hundred billion in gold bullion? There's no way that NATO can raise that much money in an hour's time!"

"Then, in that case," the KOBRA leader said softly, "you condemn the entire population of London, England to a very painful, horrifying death. The onus is on you, General. I would urge you not to waste anymore of your precious time. The countdown to London's destruction begins--NOW!!!" He made a chopping motion with his right arm. His communications officer promptly cut the satellite uplink.

"I think that went rather well, don't you?" he asked no one in particular.


Standing back-to-back, Black Canary and Batman fought off their ambushers. Her reflexes were still not up to their usual razor-honed sharpness; nevertheless, she managed to get in a few good licks.

"Fall back!" a commanding voice ordered above the noise. "Encircle them! Cover them with your weapons!"

Within moments, the confusion settled down. Several soldiers were lying at the heroes' feet, but several more managed to break contact and backed off until Black Canary and Batman were completely surrounded.

Black Canary leaped into the wall of soldiers, instantly taking two down. As she fought with the fierceness of cornered tiger, she heard the high-pitched sound of energy weapons powering up. Unexpectedly, she was shoved forward, a heavy weight pushing her down, a pair of strong arms around her waist.

The viper soldiers opened fire.

Time slowed down. She felt herself falling. As she went down, she tried twisting out of her captor's vice-like grip but couldn't. Black Canary hit the deck hard. Instantly, time resumed to normal speed. She rolled out from under the heavy weight that was pinning her down.

Gaining her feet, Black Canary took a defensive posture ready to take on all comers. She turned 360 degrees, her pulse pounding. Over a dozen weapons were trained directly on her. She felt something down at her feet and chanced a quick glance.

"Batman!"

He was unconscious. He'd taken the full volley of energy fire that had been meant for her.

"Chain them!" the patrol leader ordered. Glaring at Black Canary he spat out, "Kill her if she tries anything!"


Nightwing took out one of the snipers on lookout duty. He dragged his unconscious victim into the shadows and immediately began removing the soldier's armor and overlay.


"Batman?" the KOBRA leader said mockingly. Batman swayed slightly, conscious but being held up by two viper soldiers. His arms were heavily manacled behind him.

"Diamondback, did you know that the great Batman is practically the entire Justice League rolled into one?"

"No, my Lord!" Diamondback replied.

"It's true. Isn't it, my pretty bird?" He took her face in his hand and forced her to look up at him.

Furious, Black Canary struggled uselessly against her manacles and captors.

"So fiery. So defiant," the KOBRA leader murmured. "I shall keep you for my own personal amusement, little one. I believe that you will make a delightful addition to my already extensive collection of rare and exotic birds."

Batman struggled against his own restraints at KOBRA's words. Diamondback struck him on the back of the head with a rifle butt. Already dazed by the energy blast, Batman staggered under the force of the blow. He went down on his knees.

"Batman!" Black Canary cried. She bent at the waist and tossed her captors head over heels above her. "Batman!" She was instantly set upon by several viper soldiers. Within seconds she was restrained once again.

"Let me go, you stinking, slimy--!"

Batman was unceremoniously jerked back to his feet. He staggered slightly, but quickly recovered. He nodded at Black Canary indicating he was all right. She smiled, relieved.

Noting Black Canary's reactions to Batman's safety, the KOBRA leader began to laugh. It was a quiet surprised chuckle at first, but it soon escalated to a highly amused roar. The reptilian leader was thoroughly enjoying himself.

"Is it possible?" he roared. "Can it be that the beautiful Black Canary might have feelings for the Dark Knight?"

Black Canary gasped, and unable to help herself, stared at Batman. No! It's not true, she denied.

Batman, in turn, steadily held her gaze. It seemed as if time stood still for the moment. Black Canary again felt her chest tighten, and she found it impossible to breathe. This couldn't be happening. Not now. Not at this moment.

"This is too much!" The KOBRA leader laughed, enjoying the unexpected turn of events. He signaled his communications officer. "Let us show our prisoners the fate of all who displease me."

The com-officer nodded. Instantly, the forward viewing screens came on. Black Canary reflexively shut her eyes and quickly turned away. Before them, two men were lashed to long poles. They'd been crushed to death by monstrous serpents and were even now being devoured. Their faces were frozen in horrified death screams.

The KOBRA leader addressed Black Canary. "My dear, as you've already suffered the death of one lover, I believe that it would be unconscionably cruel to take the life of another for whom you seem to care, and force you to keep on living."

Laughing, he turned to someone in the back of the control room. "Python!" A huge Viper noncommissioned officer stepped forward.

"Take our prisoners to the pit. Lash them to the feeding poles. I would not wish my pets' dinner to escape."

"Yes, my Lord!" Python acknowledged, saluting.

As the KOBRA agents checked the two heroes' restraints and prepared them for transport to the viper pit, Batman and Black Canary stood perfectly still, the calm in the eye of the storm. Each stared at the other in quiet wonderment.

Neither spoke as they were dragged out of the main control room towards certain doom.


"There! That should do it!" Nightwing said, pulling a makeshift lever. His action brought a shower of sparks, which flashed and then quickly burned out. This was followed by the lights in the cavernous open bay going out.

He heard shouts of protest from below. Not wasting any time, Nightwing activated the Starlite scopes in his mask. Sticking to shadows afforded by the catwalk, he quickly made his way down to the bay floor.

Crossing the open area, he saw several dozen men milling about. Although they were all equipped with night vision goggles, they waited for the power to be restored. The material they were handling was too dangerous to handle under anything less than optimum conditions.

Staying low, Nightwing carefully skirted them as he hurried towards an area marked with a red skull and crossbones, the international sign of poison.

The place was sealed off with a large Titanium/steel re-enforced door. Nightwing knew that the door had the weight and makeup of a bank vault. Furthermore, it was operated on a separate power source than the rest of the compound.

"…And with his handy-dandy electronic Bat-scanner," Nightwing muttered, "the Boy Wonder set to work."


As they were being dragged to what promised to be a sure and painful death, the lights went out. Batman and Black Canary immediately sprang into action. Their movements were somewhat hampered, but this was the best chance they had.

Slipping out of his guards' hold, Batman went down and rolled forward. Without pausing, he regained his feet, and turned to face his guards.

Panicking, the guards went for their weapons. They never reached them. Batman leaped and spun in midair, kicking straight out with both legs. He struck one in the jaw, the other on the temple. Tucking tightly, he somersaulted while still airborne and landed at a defensive crouch.

Someone grabbed him from behind. Instantly, he bent at the waist, throwing the soldier over and forward. The viper soldier went flying into the others who were all shouting and fighting in the confusion.

"BC!" he called.

"Here!" a confident voice said less than a foot away.

"Back to back!" Batman ordered.

"Gotcha!" she replied. As soon as Batman knew she was behind him, he awkwardly locked arms with her and bending forward had her kick out. After a few more tries, they had the rhythm down. Black Canary even managed to turn the tables on Batman by bending forward and bringing him forward and over. Within moments, they took the guards down.

"BC, reach into the third compartment in my utility belt," he ordered. She looked up from where she'd been bent over one of the prostrate guards. She removed the guard's night vision goggles and donned them. Nodding, she reached for Batman's belt.

"Really, Batman, we hardly know each other," she quipped as she searched the compartment. "I mean, I thought we were just friends."

She found it, then--a skeleton key. Batman didn't respond to her teasing. Of course, Batman never made unnecessary small talk, but still, he seemed to withdraw into himself. She could almost feel the chill coming from his end.

As soon as they were free, they took off in the same direction that Nightwing had been headed.


"Whoa. Holy End of the World, Batman," Nightwing whispered, awed. In a deeper voice he added, "'Fear not, Boy Wonder. The Bat-destructo beam will make short work of the gas and put an end to KOBRA's evil plans.'"

Nightwing made a wry face. "I wish."

He turned slowly around in the chamber, his eyes taking in its strengths and keeping an eye out for any weaknesses. The finished chemical compound was stored in a cold chamber, in absolute zero. Several storage bins were lined floor to ceiling in the vault. Behind a transparent titanium/steel chamber Nightwing saw that the manufacturing process was still producing more of the deadly chemical.

At room temperature, the chemical reverted to its natural gaseous state. At temperatures ranging near absolute zero, it was in a semi-frozen, viscous form. It was only dangerous in its gas form; however, even in its inert frozen state, it had the potential of becoming a deadly gas if allowed to thaw to room temperature.

The only solution was the most dangerous one. He had to increase the temperature inside the titanium chamber and in the storage bins to above 1,000 degrees Celsius. The resulting explosion would totally destroy the chemical compound, rendering it completely harmless.

Unfortunately, if he did that, then the whole underground complex would also be destroyed. The problem to which Nightwing couldn't seem to find a solution was that he couldn't allow any of the gas to escape into the atmosphere.

Thinking about the warheads and missiles lying prostrate on launchers out on the cargo bay floor, an idea suddenly began to take form.

"What if instead of the complex exploding, I somehow produced a chain reaction that forced it to implode?" Grinning, he set to work.


"What is the status of the power?" the KOBRA leader roared. Viper soldiers and officers alike cowered in fear.

"Supreme Serpent!" Diamondback replied. "The Chief Engineer reports that the power grid was sabotaged--!"

"Sabotaged!" the leader screamed. "I want those heroes found! Do you hear me? I want Batman killed on sight! As for the woman, I want her stripped and thrown into the viper pit!" He addressed Diamondback directly. "I want the power restored immediately! I don't care what it takes!"

"The Chief Engineer states that it will be restored shortly," Diamondback said quickly.

"I want an exact time, you fool! NATO should be responding to our demands within the half hour."

"Yes, oh, Great One!"

"I am surrounded by incompetent fools," the KOBRA leader fumed.


"Here goes nothing," Nightwing muttered. He quickly pulled the pins on several gas grenades and tossed them into the open bay. The reaction from the viper soldiers was almost instantaneous--they began screaming in panic and almost as one started a rush towards the emergency exits.

The viper marines raced towards the open hatches on the sub's decks and jumped in, closing the watertight doors behind them. A few marines were left stranded on deck. One or two banged uselessly on the hatches, begging to be let in. A couple dived into the seawater pool.

The submarine began submerging and within moments, it was gone.

Nightwing tossed in a couple more harmless tear gas canisters for good measure, smirking at the results of his actions.

"Did somebody say 'gas'?" he asked. The bay was soon cleared of enemy vipers. "Time to save the world, Boy Wonder."


"Look, if you hadn't sent me the wrong information, this wouldn't have happened!" Black Canary snapped. "So don't criticize my work!"

"I'm not criticizing--!" Batman began.

"The hell you're not!"

They were running at a full sprint through the darkened corridors. They came to a set of elevators, but with the power off, the elevators weren't operational. Momentarily calling a truce, the heroes opened the elevator doors. The shaft was empty. Batman tied a safety line around his waist and tossed the other end at Black Canary.

She caught it, and tied it around her own waist in turn. They quickly checked their gear, and then as one leaped out and grabbed onto the elevator twin cables. Without a word, they began climbing down to the nether regions of the complex.

Batman took up the conversation where they'd left off.

"All I said was--"

"All you said was that I should've waited to establish comms with Oracle before proceeding with the mission."

"I believe that that was part of the operations order," Batman retorted coldly. "The mission operative will not proceed until given the final go-ahead by the control."

"Listen, Mr. Dark and Dreary," Black Canary shot back. "I may not have a Canary-mobile or work out of a Canary cave, but I do all right. This is my mission, and I didn't need you or your interference!"

"I didn't realize that launching a rescue mission was considered 'interference,'" Batman replied quietly.

"I didn't need rescuing. Everything was under control until you showed up. I work solo. I don't need anybody to watch over me like I'm some helpless little girl."

"And Oracle?" he asked.

"What about Oracle?" Black Canary asked. "She's my friend. She watches my back."

"I see. So when Oracle helps you, it's all right because she's your friend. When I do, it's called interference."

"…!" Black Canary was momentarily nonplussed. She realized that her tirade against Batman's assistance had been unfair. He'd only been trying to help. And it certainly wasn't his fault that she felt embarrassed over the KOBRA leader's earlier observations.

No! She did not have feelings for Batman. The man was impossible! Cold. Distant. One of the living dead. He was not at all like Ollie had been--warm, laughing, full of life.

Instead, Batman was always so critical, as if he were evaluating her every move. And she wasn't the only member of the JLA who felt this way. Green Lantern and the Flash did, too. And look at how he'd spoken to Nightwing. As if the younger hero were some kind of a tin soldier from whom he expected instant obedience.

And yet, for that one moment in the KOBRA control room, when she and Batman had stared into each other's eyes, she'd felt as if she'd been suspended in time. She shook her head in self-reproach.

They arrived at the lower levels. Unable to look at Batman, Black Canary unhooked her safety line. Keeping her face averted, she was about to open the elevator doors, when a strong arm blocked her.

Black Canary was forced to look up. Batman steadily returned her gaze, as if waiting for her to make the next move. She did.

Her eyes locked on his, Black Canary deliberately took a step closer. She instantly found herself in his arms.


"Three down, one to go," Nightwing muttered. He'd removed the side panel from one of the warheads and was now inspecting a mass of wires and hard circuitry. This was the fourth warhead that he was going to sabotage.

"Gotta remember Father's Day this year," he said. "How many dads show their kids the ins and outs of how to properly disassemble a warhead?" He ran his scanner over the circuitry. "The guidance system should be…here!"

Nightwing removed the circuit card that was hardwired with the guidance program. He quickly attached a few multi-colored wires from the scanner to the circuit card.

"The red one's connected to this thingy-jiggy…" He hummed softly to himself. "The blue one's connected to this other thingy…" Finished, he pressed a button on the scanner unit. He watched the LCD screen as it scrolled through billions of permutations in a few seconds. It came to a stop.

Quickly pressing another series of numbers, Nightwing smiled feeling satisfied. He'd reprogrammed the programmable chip in the circuit card. Now, instead of the card containing a digital terrain map of the missile's planned route, it was programmed with a countdown/self-destruct sequence. In thirty minutes, the missile was going to arm.

At the same time, its rocket boosters, which were propelled by ramjets and capable of reaching speeds upwards of Mach 3, were going to ignite and slam it almost instantaneously into the gas chamber. The resulting explosion would then set off a chain reaction with the other three, armed missiles.

The combined force of the conventional munitions loaded onto the warheads would be enough to bring down the entire the complex. And in the unlikely chance that any of the deadly chemical wasn't totally destroyed, the explosion would ensure that the gas was buried under tons of earth and rubble.

"I hope," Nightwing said under his breath.


Black Canary closed her eyes and parted her lips. What are we doing? she asked herself. They had a mission.

Batman looked down at her lovely face, lightly touching her cheeks by the fingertips. He couldn't believe what he was about to do. Dick needed him.

His lips touched hers, gently at first. Her scent surrounded him, a faint fragrance of summer blossoms. Thoughts of Dick faded to the background, but didn't completely disappear…

The taste of his kiss consumed her. She felt her senses being assaulted on all sides. Their tentative kiss intensified, grew in passion and hunger.

His hands moved from her face down the length of her body. She responded immediately, losing herself. Their critical situation diminished in importance. All that mattered was the present…


The cavernous open bay suddenly rang with the high-pitched sounds of energy weapons being fired. Nightwing automatically leaped, executing four somersaults in midair, a carry-over from his days in the circus. Landing in a tight tuck, Nightwing rolled, coming up smoothly with three Batarangs ready to throw.

Releasing the offensive weapons, Nightwing didn't wait to watch their graceful flight. Instead, he turned and performed several handsprings, dodging the lethal energy bursts. Spotting a row of large metal containers, he launched himself in their general direction. Too late!

As luck would have it, his forward momentum delivered him into the crosshairs of a deadly Viper rifle.


I can't believe I kissed him, Black Canary fumed. We're in the middle of KOBRA Headquarters. The snakes are getting ready to kill millions of people with their poison gas. And I--we--take precious time for a kiss, of all things!

She stopped at an intersection of two corridors and signaled Batman to wait while she made sure it was clear. Taking a cursory look, she gave the Dark Knight the age-old 'follow me' arm signal. Batman nodded. They proceeded in the direction they'd been headed.

At least their actions for the moment were completely professional. She stumbled suddenly as the memory of their kiss made her knees go weak…

Batman was likewise giving himself a mental tongue-lashing. Much like the ones he'd given Robin years ago for a momentary lapse in judgment. Inexcusable, he harangued. The lives of millions are at stake. And Nightwing--?

He hadn't heard from Nightwing for almost two hours now. Whatever he might be feeling for Black Canary should've been placed on the backburner until they'd accomplished their mission.

Batman saw her stumble and immediately worried that the Viper-venom hadn't been completely purged from her system.

"Are you all right?" he asked in a low voice.

"Yeah, yeah. I'm fine, okay?" Black Canary snapped dismissively.

What's going on here, she wondered? I've never felt anything other than professional friendship for Batman. Oh, all right, actually I could barely stand him. Yet, all of a sudden, I feel like a giddy schoolgirl. Oh, cripes! I have butterflies in my stomach! Okay, now I'm really mad.

She looks mad, Batman thought. Then caught himself admiring her heightened coloring. You're acting worse than Robin ever did at sixteen while mooning over Batgirl. At least, Dick never lost sight of the mission. Or his partner.

They came to an open door. Using hand signals, Black Canary indicated that she was going to investigate.

She quickly checked inside, weapon held at ready. All clear. Giving Batman the go-ahead, they changed positions in the corridor. He now had point, and she cleanup. They continued down the corridor. As she jogged about five meters behind him, she kept her eyes open for any unexpected trouble.

Dinah, you are one stupid girl, she rebuked. How could you let this happen?

Still, try as she might Black Canary couldn't get the kiss entirely out of her mind. Recalling the unexpected sensuality of the moment, she smiled slightly. Wow!

Well, okay, there's that, too, she admitted. She hadn't felt that desired by a man since Ollie. Nor had she desired a man as much as she did Batman during that one brief, desperate moment in the elevator. Again, not since Ollie.

It always came back to Ollie. She'd loved him body and soul. He'd been her other self. He'd completed her. When she lost him, Black Canary no longer felt whole, as if a part of her had died as well…

You're an idiot, Batman said. Dinah isn't one of Bruce Wayne's one-night stands. She's a bright, intelligent, independent woman--a respected friend and colleague. Plus, she's always hated your guts, he added wryly.

Batman sighed and thought of the many times he'd just wanted to grab her and shake some sense into her, because she'd yet again foolishly fallen into some avoidable trap. 'A few minutes to think the problem through ahead of time would've saved you a lot of unnecessary grief,' he'd wanted to yell at her.

He wondered now, if he'd been annoyed with her as he'd claimed, or if even back then, he'd been more worried than he'd cared to admit. But Ollie would always be there, standing next to her. Two sides of the same coin.

So, he'd never yelled at her. Never expressed his concern for her safety. In fact, he'd rarely spoken more than two words at a time to her…

But there was something else, Black Canary continued. With Ollie, she'd always felt in control and on equal terms with him. Their relationship had been one of both mutual love and respect.

Feeling Batman's lips crushing hers, his arms pulling her to him with increasing force and passion, Black Canary suddenly felt afraid. The passions that passed between them were fraught with violence, almost anger.

Anger at what, she wondered?

Anger at what, he wondered?

Suddenly, they knew: Anger that they might need each other, want each other more than either cared to admit.

And for two strong individuals who prided themselves in their ability to always stay in control, their anger was with themselves, because they knew that they were about to lose control.


"Hurry, you fools!" Diamondback screamed. "Or this whole complex is going to come down on top of all of us!"

The agitated technicians continued working, their eyes inadvertently sliding towards the chronometer's steady countdown. Ten minutes left. One young tech was so nervous that his hands were noticeably shaking.

"Specialist, hold the spanner here," the chief tech ordered. The young Viper nodded and tried to do as told. His hand slipped.

"You imbecile!" Diamondback shouted, slapping him across the face.

The young technician went down. He was blubbering in panic-stricken fear. There were only six minutes left. What had he gotten himself into? he despaired. The KOBRA recruiter had promised adventure, high wages, and job training. It had been just what a bored, recent high school dropout wanted. But now?

"Got it!" the chief tech cried out triumphantly. He'd successfully stopped the countdown at 5:36 minutes left. The crying technician felt a deep sense of relief wash over him.

"Y-You did it, Rattler?" the young Viper asked. "W-We're g-going to live?" He thought of his mother and their home in Yangton, South Dakota. He hadn't seen her in almost eleven months. It seemed a lifetime ago.

"We are!" Diamondback replied. "However, you're not!" He fired. The young technician's body fell over, smoking from the energy burns. The boy would never see his mother again. The chief tech stared at the body for a few moments, then shrugged and dismissed the young Viper from his mind. He'd never even bothered to learn the dead boy's name.

"Bring the prisoner!" Diamondback ordered.

Two Viper soldiers dragged the bound and barely conscious Nightwing towards him. The young hero had to be held up in order to remain on his feet. Diamondback walked up to him and viciously punched him once on the jaw and several times in the abdomen, his heavily reinforced gloves adding power to each punch.

Gathering the last vestiges of his strength, Nightwing rallied back. Using the Viper soldiers who were holding him up as leverage, he brought his legs up and kicked out with all the force he could muster. He felt the sickeningly satisfying ~crunch~ of bones breaking.

Diamondback screamed in agony, holding his left arm close. The two Viper soldiers turned on Nightwing, pummeling him mercilessly. The young hero's Kevlar reinforced costume protected him somewhat from the relentless beating, but eventually even that small protection weakened.

"Let him go," Diamondback ordered. He was breathing heavily, his face set in a pain-filled snarl. Still holding his injured arm to him, Diamondback grinned in grim anticipation.

The Viper guards released Nightwing who immediately fell to his knees. One of the soldiers grabbed a handful of Nightwing's hair and used it to hold his head up.

"You heroes are going to learn that you can't hope to defeat or stop KOBRA! Our forces are legion! Our cause is just! We are to be the next rulers of the world, and nothing is going to stop us. Least of all a second rate, non-superpowered hero like you!"

"At least…" Nightwing gasped. "I have…a better fashion sense--"

Diamondback reared back and kicked him in the face. The others released Nightwing and he toppled over. Diamondback immediately set on him, planting several malicious kicks on the helplessly bound hero. As Nightwing lost track of where the blows were landing--ribs, kidneys, temple--he also lost consciousness.


Nightwing! Batman felt an all-encompassing cold rage consume him. When he and Black Canary had entered the open bay, the first thing they saw was the boy being beaten senseless. Black Canary closed her fingers around Batman's arm with a surprisingly firm grip.

Batman whirled on her, ready to throw her off, but was stopped by her calm presence. Black Canary's eyes held compassion for his pain. In the next instant, they hardened to the icy glint of a predator on the hunt. He knew at that moment that his own eyes mirrored hers. Without another word, they parted company, each headed in opposite directions.

Running at a low crouch across the elevated catwalk, all the while assessing the odds in the back of his mind, Batman took out six Viper guards in under five minutes. Picking up one of the energy weapons, Batman set it to mid-range--heavy stun.

"Dinah should be set," he muttered. "Three, two, one--!" Simultaneously, two high-energy weapons set on heavy stun began to barrage the large group of Vipers still standing on the open bay floor.


"Return fire!" Diamondback ordered. "Take cover!"

The Vipers were being saturated with deadly energy fire from two directions. Running, diving, and rolling as they sought cover, they were being quickly cut down by the relentless volley.

"You idiots!" Diamondback screamed. "Get them!" But he was yelling at the empty air. All of his soldiers were down. He was the only one left. The absolute silence sent a visceral reaction to the pit of his stomach. A light tap between his shoulder blades told him it was over.

Turning, he gasped in relief when he saw that it was Black Canary and not the dreaded Batman. His terror-stricken expression quickly changed to a smug smirk.

"If it isn't the pretty bird who flew the coop," he said, looking down his prominent nose at her. "You should've kept going, Black Canary. Our Supreme Serpent has ordered that you shall fill his beloved pets' food dishes tonight."

"Is that right?" Black Canary asked. "Ooh. I'm scared. See?" She punched him with a hard right hook to the bridge of his nose. He toppled over backwards, landing head over heels, on his injured arm. He screamed at the sudden knife-like pain.

"Oops. Now how do you suppose that happened?" she asked. She tapped her upper lip with her fingernail, a look of mock bemusement on her beautiful features. Diamondback stared open-mouthed, his eyes registering his shock.

"Oh, I know," Black Canary said, holding up her finger as if struck with a sudden idea. "Like this!" She leaped and in an eye blink struck out with a scissors kick. Diamondback collapsed, his eyes rolling into the back of his head.

"Oh, my goodness," she said in a little-girl voice. "I done a baaa-aaad thing!" She tapped his prostrate form with her toes. He was out cold.

"Thank you," a deep voice said behind her.

"What are friends for?" she said with a smile. "Besides, you might've killed him. I couldn't let you have that on your conscience."

Batman nodded, but he'd already forgotten about Diamondback. He was looking at Nightwing's unconscious, battered form. The younger hero's costume was rent and bloodied, his body curled in a fetal position.

Batman went down to his knees and gently lifted Nightwing by the shoulders.

"Uhhhnnn…" Nightwing moaned. He swallowed, his eyes fluttering as he struggled to wake up. "Bru--Batman?"

"Don't try to talk, son," Batman said quietly. "We'll have you out of here in no time."

Nightwing weakly shook his head, 'no.'

"F-Failed mission," he whispered.

Batman held him a little closer. "The situation's under control. The mission is not a failure."

Ashamed, Nightwing weakly turned away. "S-Snakes took me by s-surprise…t-too many…s-stupid move on my p-part." His voice was growing fainter as he slipped back into unconsciousness. "F-Failed you…again."

"No! Nightwing, you could never fail me. Do you understand, son? Never!"

But the younger man was already out. Batman felt a light touch on his arm. He flinched at the touch.

Black Canary inexplicably felt as if she were intruding on Batman's private moment with his son. How could she ever have thought him cold and unfeeling, she wondered.

"Listen to me, Batman," she said with quiet urgency. "You need to take your boy out of this hellhole and get him to a hospital. I'll clean up the snake's den."

Batman shook his head. "Absolutely not! I'm not leaving you alone here! We're all getting out together!"

"Sorry, buster," she snapped back. "But you're not my boss, and I'm not afraid of you. This is my mission, remember? My mission--my responsibility." She pointed at Nightwing with her chin. "Your kid--your responsibility."

Black Canary took Batman's face in her hands and gently pulled him to her. She kissed him softly, no more than a light whisper on his lips.

"Batman, you and I are two of kind," she said, her voice husky. "We live hard and fast and to hell with the danger. We have few ties to bind us, but those we do have, we hold close to our hearts and fight like wild cats to protect." She kissed him again, a deep lingering kiss that stirred long-dormant needs within them both.

"I want you to get your boy out of here," she insisted.

Batman opened his mouth, ready to protest. She quickly shushed him with a finger to his lips and another kiss.

"If the three of us stay," she said with quiet assurance, "then none of us will make it. One of us has to carry him out of here, and one of us has to stay back. And he's too heavy for me to carry and get him out in time. You know what I'm saying is true."

Batman looked away and then down at Nightwing. The younger hero's injuries looked serious. Even if he regained consciousness, he'd never make it out of the underground complex on his own.

"If that were Roy lying there," Black Canary continued, "I'd expect no less from you. Because that's what people who love each other do. They sacrifice for the ones they love. Please, don't cheapen what I'm feeling for you right now by going all macho on me and refusing to do what I ask."

Batman glared at her long and hard, fighting the familiar urge to shake her. How could she expect him to leave her? He'd come here to rescue her, not sacrifice her. Her words echoed in his mind.

//~Please don't cheapen what I'm feeling for you right now…~//

And what am I feeling, he asked himself. He gave a mental headshake. He couldn't go there. Not now. Not at this moment. Not when he was about to say goodbye, possibly forever.

He looked at her, his throat catching at the sight of her beauty. He drank in her nearness, breathed in the hint of summer blossoms left behind in her wake. He suddenly saw what he wanted to see in her eyes.

To hell with it!

Batman pulled her in and roughly pressed his lips to hers, instilling all of the fervor his long-suppressed desire could muster. Parting finally, gasping for air from the force of their mutual longing, Batman finally nodded in surrender.

He was about to speak, when they were startled by a faint voice coming from below them. "See…? Told you…you make a cute couple."

Black Canary burst into a relieved giggle. Batman turned a chagrinned half-smile at Nightwing.

"You know, you're never too old to spank."

Nightwing smirked weakly. "Batman's got a gir-irl!" he whispered. "Wait'll I tell Oracle." He grimaced in sudden pain, gritting his teeth to keep from crying out. "Batman," he whispered anxiously. "The warheads. I-I set them to go off in a-a chain reaction, but--" He passed out again.

Black Canary jumped up and jogged over to where the missiles lay on their launchers. She inspected the warheads that had their side panels removed. "The countdown sequence is stopped at five minutes, thirty-six seconds," she reported. On further inspection, she added with confidence, "I can do this!"

Batman nodded, and carefully lifting Nightwing, stood to go. "Are you sure about this?"

She nodded. "Yes. Please go while we still have time."

Batman studied her face for a long moment. At last, he straightened his shoulders, and nodded curtly. He was about to start for the exit, when she stopped him.

"Wait!" she called. Pausing, Batman turned and looked at her, a single eyebrow raised. Black Canary removed the re-breather mask that still hung from around Nightwing's neck. Shrugging slightly, she said, "Never can tell." Batman nodded.

"I need to evacuate the complex," she added. "The fastest way I know how is the same way I did it last time. By activating the self-destruct."

"But--!"

"Don't worry," she rushed on. "The self-destruct sequence is automatically set for thirty minutes. You'll need to give me twenty-nine of those minutes. That should give me plenty of time to reset the timing on the warheads." She shrugged as if it were an everyday occurrence.

"The missiles will arm and at the same the ramjets will fire, propelling the missiles forward into the manufacturing chamber. The chain reaction will totally annihilate everything left here. Including the self-destruct. It'll be destroyed before it has a chance to release the gas into the atmosphere."

"This entire complex is going to come down on top of you. You won't have much time to get out."

"Oh, don't worry about me," Black Canary said with false bravado. "I've been in worse predicaments." Looking at him askance, she added with pointed amusement, "I may not be a cat, but some people have told me that I have nine lives!"


Black Canary worked quickly and efficiently. The room rang with the high-pitched wailing of a warning klaxon sounding an emergency evacuation. It went off as soon as she activated the self-destruct. Within seconds the outer corridors echoed with panicked shouts, angry orders being barked, and energy weapons being fired.

She shook her head.

"Tsk-tsk. Good help is so hard to find. The head snake office must be experiencing a few retention problems. Maybe world conquest doesn't seem like such a hot deal if you're in danger of having all of your skin and flesh melted off." She shrugged and continued working.

She grinned suddenly, the image of Batman's expression at her parting "cat" shot invading her thoughts. His look had been most un-Bat-like. And quite priceless.

Looking at the digital readout of the countdown clock, she went back to work. Batman should be near the surface by now. She'd asked him for twenty-nine minutes and he'd agreed. Time was running out.


Time was running out!

Imitating one of Nightwing's earlier moves, Batman cartwheeled in midair, taking down four Vipers. They were about halfway to the upper levels when they'd been ambushed by ten-man patrol. Fighting them off was wasting precious time. He had to get Nightwing to safety.

Landing at a crouch, Batman leaped straight up, tucked into a tight ball while still airborne, and somersaulted over their heads. He alighted gracefully behind the pack. Readying two Batarangs, he threw them almost simultaneously. Soon, his defensive weapons were trailing the heavy Nomex net over and around the six remaining Vipers.

Within seconds, the enemy was subdued. Hurrying to where he'd left Nightwing lying unconscious, Batman lifted him and began moving down the corridor.

"Hey! You can't leave us here!"

"The gas! We'll all be killed!"

"This place--it's gonna come down on us all!"

Ignoring their pleas, Batman was about to pass the helplessly weighed-down Vipers, when he stopped. What was he doing? He couldn't just leave them to die.

"Please!"

A few of them didn't look much older than Nightwing. Little more than boys. What recruiting tricks had the KOBRA organization used to entice them to this type of life? Narrowing his eyes, Batman reached into his utility belt and took out a pen-laser.

"You!" he growled, addressing the youngest in the group. The boy looked up at him, his wide brown eyes pleading. "Watch."

Quickly, Batman showed him how to operate the pen-laser.

"I'm going to place it here," he said, laying it just out of easy reach. "By the time you get to it, my partner and I'll be long gone."

"What if we don't reach it?" the boy asked desperately. "We'll all be killed." Batman was already hurrying off in the direction of the exit.

"You'll reach it," he called back. "If you want to live."

The Viper soldiers immediately began to scramble and maneuver their bodies, inch by inch towards the pen-laser. After a few more precious minutes had passed, they youngest Viper called out in triumph, "Got it!"


Black Canary glanced at the self-destruct countdown clock: six minutes! She shook her head. "Where's Arsenal and his trick arrows when I need them?" she muttered.

"You! Stop!"

Black Canary spun around. The KOBRA leader stood up in the elevated catwalk. He was alone.

"Oh, it's just you again!" she said in disgust. "Go away. I'm busy! I don't have time for games."

Her business as usual retort took the KOBRA leader temporarily by surprise. He quickly recovered, however.

"You obviously don't understand, Black Canary. I am here to stop you from thwarting my plans."

"'Thwarting'?" she snorted. "You guys don't actually say that?" She turned back to the job at hand, rolling her eyes. "I suppose that the scripted response would be 'You and what army'?"

"This army, of course."

Black Canary went absolutely still. The sounds of high-energy weapons being powered up resounded clearly in the open bay.

"Uh-oh," she whispered. Her eyes slid to the warhead's countdown clock: 5:36…5:35…5:34…

She did it! She'd successfully reactivated the missile's countdown sequence, which Nightwing had started.

Until these bozos 'thwarted' the kid's plans, she added ironically. Allowing herself a small smile, her eyes moved inadvertently to the self-destruct sequence--4:25. Doing a double-take, her eyes slid back to the missile countdown--5:02!

This isn't happening, she groaned.

The self-destruct sequence would reach 'zero' a good minute, twenty seconds ahead of the missile firing. That meant that the gas would be released into the atmosphere long before the underground complex was destroyed.

"I hate it when that happens," she muttered.


Batman crouched next to a long wall running down the length of the above ground portion of the KOBRA base. Nightwing lay next to him. The younger man had been slipping in and out of consciousness for the last few minutes. Batman's features momentarily softened.

He thought back to the seemingly endless miles of corridor and stairwells through which he'd carried his solidly built protege. At one point, Batman had been forced to actually stop and take a short breather. As luck would have it, Nightwing stirred awake at that moment.


"Wha-What's going on…?" Nightwing whispered.

"Taking a breather. We're almost out."

"Y-You? N-Need a b-breather?" Eyes unfocused, Nightwing's pain-filled expression registered disbelief. "…must still be unconscious…" he mumbled.

Giving him a half-smile, Batman bent down to pick him up. "You're not as light as you once were."

"N-Never had problems p-picking me up…when I was nine."

"You only weighed fifty pounds when you were nine."

"S-Sometimes…w-wish I was still nine…" Nightwing murmured, slipping back into darkness. Batman blinked rapidly at the words. After all these years, the boy could still utter words that pierced the Bat's well-shielded heart. Firmly setting his jaw, Batman lifted his son in his arms.


Coming back to the present, Batman looked down at Nightwing and whispered, "You'll always be nine in my eyes."

He spoke quietly into his wrist comlink. Within moments, a black shadow descended towards them. At the same instant, they were beset by a fierce barrage of high-energy fire. Picking Nightwing up in a fireman's carry, Batman quickly hauled him onboard the Batwing. In an instant, they were safely airborne.

Batman banked the aircraft and buzzed the compound, barely clearing the treetops. Vipers scattered in all directions. A few brave souls fired on the Batwing, but its armored plating protected it. Nothing less than a nuclear warhead would be able to penetrate its outer hull.

Batman checked his chronometer. Three minutes twenty-five seconds left before the self-destruct went off and released Armageddon. That meant that he had only two minutes twenty-five seconds left before he had to go Plan B--destroy the complex from above.

"Oracle. Come in."

"Where have you been?" Oracle answered immediately. He had her on voice only for the moment. "I've been going crazy here! You're almost three hours overdue--!"

"Oracle, we don't have time for that!" Batman snapped. "Are you set?"

"Of course I am!" she retorted. "I do what I say I'm gonna do. I don't leave people hanging, worrying half to death--"

"Oracle!" Batman shouted, interrupting her. "Zero hour is…two minutes, twenty seconds on my mark!" He paused for an instant. "Mark!"

"Two minutes, twenty seconds! Got it!" Oracle responded professionally. "Where's Nightwing? Black Canary?"

"Nightwing's injured. Have Alfred call Dr. Leslie. He'll be in even worse shape by the time I get him home."

"I--?" Oracle repeated faintly. "Not we--?" Abruptly, Batman put her on two-way visual. The Oracle icon quickly dissolved and Barbara Gordon's worried countenance appeared. Batman noted the circles under her eyes. "What happened? Where's Dinah?"

"She's still inside," Batman said.

"Bruce?" Nightwing's barely audible voice spoke next to him. "Y-You can't do it…" He swallowed and continued weakly, "N-Never f-forgive yourself…"

Batman didn't answer for a long moment. Nightwing looked at him worriedly through pain-hazed eyes.

"This is Black Canary's mission," Batman replied in a low voice, keeping his eyes firmly on the horizon. "And her idea."

"But why?" Nightwing asked.

"We have to seal the compound somehow to prevent the gas from escaping. This won't be a sure thing. A large amount of the gas may still escape. The outer complex is nuclear hardened, so there's little way of knowing whether Argus will even put at dent in it."

"Argus?" Nightwing asked.

"NATO's eye in the sky," Oracle explained. "It's a satellite surveillance and weapons array. NATO can pretty much monitor the world with it. And destroy just about anything that threatens its security."

Batman turned and faced them squarely, his jaw jutted in an all too familiar look. "Two minutes."


The place was a madhouse. Viper soldiers were scurrying in all directions, their faces registering sheer terror at the thought of the gas escaping. The self-destruct countdown read 3:00 minutes!

That meant that Black Canary had exactly two minutes left. She'd ordered Batman to blow the complex a good minute before the self-destruct sequence had a chance to finish its countdown.

Well, maybe ordered was a bit strong, she amended. Requested was probably more like it.

"Hold your places!" the KOBRA leader screamed. "Remain at your stations! Shoot anyone who tries to leave! I want the chief technician to disarm the missiles--again! And get someone in the control room to stop the self-destruct. Hurry, you cretins!"

Some loyal followers did as told, while others kept running. Many of the Vipers who tried to escape were killed as they ran, among them, the chief technician. Fear of dying by the deadly chemical heavily outweighed the fear of being killed by Viper fire; therefore, many more kept trying to slip away.

Black Canary looked up. She was being held firmly between two huge Viper guards. They towered almost a foot and a half over her. Two minutes to live.

She grinned suddenly. Isn't this why she left her mother's flower shop and stole her old costume? Because she'd wanted excitement? Danger? Adventure?

Here goes nothing.

"Uh, boys?" she began. The two guards both looked down. "Do you know what that chemical agent that you've been manufacturing will do to you? Melt your skin? Eat away your flesh?" She smiled brightly. "And that's just for starters. Don't forget the part about turning your bones into something that resembles soggy bread. Real icky."

Both guards grinned down at her.

"Think she's trying to scare us, Sidewinder?"

"Sure sounds like it, Coral."

"Sidewinder and Coral," Black Canary said pensively. "Those are nice names. Bet your mom and dad spent hours pouring over baby books to find just the right one."

Coral twisted her arm slightly. She gasped against the increased pain.

"You leave my mother out of this, bird lady," he hissed. "She has nothing to do with this."

"Aw, poor baby," she taunted. "Mommy doesn't approve of your career choice?"

Sidewinder joined in. He turned to glare directly in her face, his vice-like grip on her slipping just a little. "Look, lady, my friend asked you not to--"

It was too late. He'd given the martial artist just the opening she needed. Twisting underneath them, she simultaneously kicked up and connected with Coral's chin. Spinning, she struck Sidewinder with a solid roundhouse to the solar plexus.

"Sorry, boys," she said, running towards the launchers. "But I don't have time to hold hands just now."

Several Vipers assailed her from all sides. Earlier, when she'd escaped from them, she'd almost been captured again because she'd been disoriented from the Viper venom. Now, Black Canary was back in top form. Taking them down two and three at a time, she demonstrated why she'd been one of the founding members of the Justice League of America.

Picking up two of the discarded Viper rifles, she leaped, flying across a broad expanse, firing steadily. She quickly worked her way to the missiles. Finally, tiring of the game, she leaped above their heads, spinning 360 degrees and firing at anything that moved.

Vipers fell all around her.

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the KOBRA leader making his way to the emergency exit.

Landing on her back, her forward momentum carried her several more feet, while she fired all the way. She targeted the KOBRA leader just as he made it to the exit. A clean miss! With their leader gone, the Vipers gave up, throwing down their weapons and rushing to make it to the exits.

Black Canary finally stopped next to the warhead that she'd set to go off.

She had 45 seconds before Batman blew the complex from above ground. Working quickly, she reset the timer on the warhead: 15 seconds!

Spotting the seawater pool, she started towards it. A few diehard Viper soldiers had remained behind, still trying to stop her. Running, dodging behind any cover she could find, rolling to avoid being hit, Black Canary adjusted the rebreather mask on her face just as she reached the edge of the pool. Not pausing, she dove in.

As she was about to slice through the salt water, the countdown sequence reached zero. The world went white-hot followed by absolute blackness.


At thirty seconds and counting, a massive underground explosion suddenly rocked the entire complex. Hovering at 200 feet, Batman and Nightwing could actually see the very ground below them ripple outwardly in a rapidly expanding concentric circle.

Trees, buildings, men scurrying for cover--everything in the path of the shock wave toppled over, mere toys being knocked carelessly aside by a giant child throwing a violent tantrum.

It was over in seconds.


"I've contacted NATO headquarters, Batman." Barbara's tired features gazed out from the Batwing's communications monitor. "General Duncan was relieved to hear that the chemical threat is over. They're already deploying a special environmental cleanup crew to the site. And I believe that the Sixth Fleet will be deploying a few SEAL teams to roundup any lost lambs…I mean, snakes."

"Good job, Oracle," Batman said.

Barbara looked at Nightwing, who was sleeping restlessly, his breathing labored. Batman had given him a heavy sedative to make the trip back home easier. Turning back to the Dark Knight, she addressed the question upper most in her mind. A question whose answer she already knew but needed to voice.

"Any word yet?"

"No."

"Batman, Dinah is my friend, and I'd be the last to give up on her, but--" She choked on the rest of her words.

It'd been almost two hours since the explosion and still no word from her. Even her personal locator beacon hadn't shown up on any of their receivers. To make matters worse, Nightwing's condition showed signs of deterioration. The beating they'd given him had broken several ribs and caused internal injuries. He needed medical attention.

"Batman--?"

"Batwing breaking off search, Oracle," he said impersonally. "Returning to base. ETA twelve hours."

About to cut communications, they were both startled by a weak transponder signal. Black Canary!

"Triangulate!" Batman ordered.

"Working," Oracle muttered. "Almost got it…There! She's located five nautical miles out in the Black Sea at the following coordinates--!" She punched a key and instantly transmitted the data to the Batwing's onboard computer.

Batman immediately turned the aircraft in the direction indicated.


Darkness…floating…so cold…

She felt the darkness lifting. A strange sound greeted her, the cry of a seagull. A seagull?

Open your eyes, Dinah, she ordered. You know how much you hate those birds. Why do people always feed them on the beach anyway? Ugh! Throw 'em all in the Viper pit, I say.

Viper pit? KOBRA?

Black Canary's eyes snapped open. She immediately started sinking and compensated by treading water.

"Okay, Dinah, stay calm. If the locator beacon's operational, help should be on the way. Never thought I'd miss Oracle's incessant yapping in my ear…Do this. Don't do that…kinda comforting to have someone always watching over you."

She thought of Batman. "I still can't believe I kissed him. Just another notch on his utility belt, probably."

Black Canary thought of how he'd come halfway around the world to "rescue" her. Of how he'd considerately loaned her his cape.

//~You looked…cold.~//

And of his goodbye kiss.

Smiling suddenly, she lay back in the water, allowing herself to be carried by the current, preserving her strength. Yes, it was nice to have someone always watching over her.

The sun was suddenly blocked by a large black shadow. The Batwing silently settled less than three feet off the water. The cockpit slid open and a now familiar grim face looked out at her.

"Going my way?" she asked.


Epilogue

"Come on, girlfriend," Oracle coaxed. "Spill!"

"Sorry. I never kiss and tell," Dinah teased. She was lying in her bathtub enjoying a luxuriating hot soak. The scent of summer blossoms from her favorite bath oil permeated the room.

"Did you say 'kiss'?" Oracle repeated. "Do tell!"

Dinah cleared her throat and smoothly changed the subject. "By the way, how's the kid? Is he going to be all right?"

"He'll be bedridden for a few weeks, but he'll be okay."

"Bedridden? And will the lovely Ms. Oracle tend to the poor sick boy by bringing him vats of chicken soup?"

Sitting back in her lair, Barbara laughed softly. She picked up a photo of Dick and her taken at a Christmas party shortly before the earthquake.

"Something like that," she said. Realizing what Dinah was up to, she quickly added, "Oh, no, you don't! You're not changing the subject. What happened down there between you and Batman? I've never seen him act so…uh, concerned before--except maybe about one of us! I mean, you know, Nightwing, Robin, me--members of his 'family.'"

"Wel-ell…let's just say that we came to a sort of understanding," Dinah said blithely.

Barbara felt a sudden cool breeze touch her cheek. Startled she looked up just as a familiar dark form stepped out of the shadows. Dinah was still talking.

"He's not so bad, once you get to know him," Dinah continued. "But I guess you already knew that--"

"Uh, Dinah--" Barbara began, looking up guiltily at her uninvited guest. Batman quirked a single eyebrow at her.

"And if he plays his cards right," Dinah said suggestively, ignoring Barbara's desperate warning, "who knows? I may just show him my scars one day."

The sound of water splashing could be heard over her sparkling laughter. Barbara covered her face in her hands.

Batman stood arms crossed, a menacing figure by any standard.

"Who knows, BC," he growled. "I might just take you up on that one day."

Turning to leave, a small half-smile played across the corner of his mouth. He winced slightly as a few of Black Canary's more descriptive expletives followed him out.

Stunned, Barbara shut off the speakers and shook her head. "This is going to be interesting."

The End

 
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