DISCLAIMER: The Justice League of America characters are the property of DC Comics. The story contents are the creation and property of Djinn and are copyright (c) 2005 by Djinn. This story is Rated PG-13.
Rules of Engagement
Since ancient times, the Amazons practiced Karthene--a ritualized form of fighting. Every girl grew up learning it, some spent their lives perfecting it. It was used not for combat but for growth and discipline--for control. Diana thought that Bruce would be surprised at the beauty and seeming simplicity of it. But she had never shown it to him.
It was easy to fall back into it now, the ancient steps, the motion of hands and arms rising up, falling down. Hold and release, snap and turn. Slow at times, then fast--impossibly fast. There was no set rhythm to this. In fact, that was part of the point. Each woman had to find her own rhythm, her own speed to the pattern. And the pattern grew as a person learned, the complexity increasing until they reached Diana's level.
Hold and release. Snap and turn. Until the final move, a long hold, painfully long. Diana held it with effort. Clearly her mind was not on this the way it should be.
She started again. First move: Declaration of Hostilities.
Bruce had kissed her. He had kissed her, and his mouth had been soft and loving, even as a passion he'd never given voice to had roared between them. The feeling that had washed over her had been different than the longing she felt for Kal. A romance with him was not to be--or at least not yet, and she was resigned to waiting. She had pushed her desire down into some part of her that was reserved for immortals who could outlive spouses.
But this--this was unforeseen. She had not thought Bruce even appreciated her looks, let alone wanted her.
"My beautiful Diana," he had called her as he lay sick, wracked with the strange fever. His beautiful Diana.
And then later he had pulled her close and kissed her just before they'd died. They'd died and come back. How many times could she die and come back? How much time were they wasting by not facing what had happened between them?
"We need to talk," she'd said as he walked by her their first day back from rescuing Arthur.
A grunt had been his answer.
"We need to talk," she'd said when she'd sought him out in Gotham, fighting at his side as they'd argued until even a super-criminal had begged them to just get on with the trouncing of him.
"We need to talk," she'd said when he fled the mansion, leaving her to dine with Alfred.
They should have talked after she'd used J'onn's machine to see what she really wanted from Bruce. She shouldn't have let him get away so easily. He'd copped out, and she'd let him.
Forcing him from her mind, she finished her work out and headed for the showers. But she couldn't ignore him when he walked by her in the little corridor between the dressing rooms and the gym. He seemed to go out of his way to make sure he didn't brush against her in the tight quarters.
"Scared?" she muttered.
He stopped. Turned. "What?"
She debated walking on, but forced herself to face him. "Of me. You're scared."
His grin was the one she
hated. Smug. Supercilious.
She considered punching it off his face, but violence of that sort wasn't her way. "You're lucky I'm a peaceful woman, Bruce." She turned to go into the dressing room.
He could have let it go. He didn't. "What is it you think you want from me, Princess?"
She hated it when he called her that. She spun, saw his hand rise in what looked like an unconscious defense move. He thought she would hit him?
"What do I want?" she asked.
He nodded tightly.
"Only what you are prepared to give. Which is astoundingly little." She didn't let him have the last word this time. Practically fled before he could say anything.
He followed her into the changing room.
"Last I checked this was not unisex," Diana said as she walked to her locker.
"You're the only woman using this." He moved closer to her. "Who else would be here?"
"Only batmen, I guess. Why are you in here, Bruce?" She began to pull off her uniform, curious to see what his reaction would be.
His hand was out immediately, stopping her progress. "Don't."
"I need to shower. Besides, I've got nothing you want, remember?"
"You are acting like a child."
"If you want that insult to have any weight, you should take the cowl off when you say it." She jerked away from him with a supple move of her wrist, had her uniform off with several more. Turning away, she hung it up carefully, could practically feel his eyes on her.
Ignoring him, she turned, walking past him to the towel rack, then into the showers. "You're welcome to join me," she called back, turning to look at him.
He had the strangest look on his face. Not longing, exactly. Not anger. Something else. Something...sad.
Without a word, he spun on his heel and walked out.
Sighing, she stepped into the shower, letting the water run very hot. She was suddenly freezing cold.
Turn, kick, hold. Her body was immobile, held like a great heron waiting for a fish to swim by. Then she released the move in a blur of speed. Turn, slide, jab, jab, return to upright. It was the next step of the process. Testing the Enemy.
"You're just being stubborn," Bruce said as they walked through the woods.
"I didn't ask to be your partner on this mission."
"I didn't ask for that either."
"That's not what I heard."
He turned to look at her. "J'onn made the assignments today."
"He said you asked for me."
For a moment she thought he was going to look for another evasion. Then he shot her a rueful glance and said, "Damn honest Martian."
She laughed. "Why did you want to partner with me?"
"I'm a masochist?"
"I almost believe that."
"We're in range now." He pushed on ahead, the conversation clearly over as he began to search the forest around them for the missing weapons an informant had indicated were stashed in the vicinity.
"Up ahead," she murmured, her attention drawn to a sudden shift in the pattern of light and leaves.
"I see him."
They kept moving, and she arranged to stay between Bruce and the man. If they were going to be jumped on purpose, she could take the blow better. Besides, it was driving Bruce nuts that she was keeping him safe on the outside.
The man jumped out at them too slowly to get a bead on her. She turned, her hand coming up and out, knocking his knife away. Bruce was on him a second later, two snap-fast jabs knocking the man out.
"I thought we wanted to question him?" she asked.
"Then why did you knock him out, Mister Strategy Man?"
He actually looked embarrassed, but he crossed his arms over his chest as if there was no question that he'd had an excellent reason for what he'd done.
"You were protecting me?"
"Of course not."
She moved closer. "You were."
He pushed her back. "I was not." Then he moved closer, his hand brushing her shoulder gently. "He got you."
She looked down in surprise. A small trail of blood showed on her skin. She was about to wipe it off, when he surprised her by doing it, peeling his glove off and gently smoothing away the blood. Then he turned away from her, wiping the blood off on the unconscious man's shirt. He sighed softly, not looking at her.
"Do you like me, Bruce?"
"Not a very encouraging answer."
"But the only one I'm going to give you."
"Why did you ask for me to be your partner?"
"Because I can't avoid you forever." His voice was low and full of emotions that seemed to be the opposite of the control he so valued.
"You don't have to avoid me at all." She started to move closer, but his glare stopped her.
"We've got a job to do."
She smiled tightly and touched her lasso. "I'm well aware of that. And I'd be doing that job if you hadn't knocked out our witness."
Bruce stood up slowly, breathing in deeply as if trying to draw patience in along with the oxygen. "I'm going to keep searching. You wait for him to wake up."
"You're running again."
He ignored her as he disappeared into the jungle, walking away in what seemed like a purposefully slow manner. But as soon as he was out of sight, he stepped up his pace.
"I can hear you," she called out and heard him slow down again.
"Damn meta hearing," he muttered as she laughed softly and hunkered down next to their unconscious captive.
She spun, one and a half times around, her leg held out until she stopped exactly where she wanted. Then she moved as if in slow motion, and stepped down to meet the ground. She kicked out with her other leg, body following in a curved rush, hands snapping out--one, two, three, four blows. Her opponent, if there had been one, would fall. She pulled back, her right arm into a slanted upright position, her left to the back, ready to follow or cut underneath the other, depending on what her enemy did. She held the pose.
This was when everyone started to tire. This part of the routine, where kick was followed by holds, where a body started to shudder from the exertion followed by the long, excruciating freezes. She progressed through the steps, each move known at the cellular level, her mind clear as she stepped out of one freeze, into a slash-kick-slash trio, then back into the hold.
She could feel herself shaking. But she would not quit. To find the end of the journey, one had to pass through the stage of Prolonged Siege.
Diana watched as the UN relief workers herded the last of the sick into the makeshift hospital she had built for them. More tents dotted the landscape, and she felt a surge of satisfaction as Kal and Kyle set down more doctors. Wally was busy creating a negative pressure zone that would keep the chemicals the rebels had set off contained and far away from the sick. J'onn, Bruce, and Plastic Man were distributing the sera that Ray had concocted. It enhanced the body's ability to fight off the effects of the chemical weapons. They'd already made the formula available to the world's leaders--and some private watch groups in case the leaders didn't feel inclined to share.
As Diana turned to walk back to the UN officers, she felt a wave of dizziness come over her. She was sick, and had been since she'd been exposed to the cursed chemicals. She'd been the first one on the scene when the gas was still thick in the air. She didn't think her fellow JLAers realized she'd been affected; she knew no one else did. She was Wonder Woman; they probably considered her immune to nasty chemicals. But she needed to get some of that serum--she'd ask J'onn as soon as she was done.
"We owe you all an enormous debt, Wonder Woman," one of the leaders said.
She was having trouble focusing, couldn't figure out which one was talking. "It was nothing. We're here to help, you know that."
"You won't mind if I steal her, will you, gentleman? JLA business."
She heard Bruce's voice as if in a distant fog, felt him turning her and tried not to fall down from the dizziness that swept over her.
"You're sick," he said once they were safely out of earshot of the others--except probably Kal.
"So stick me in a tent and go home."
"No." He kept moving her, urging her gently away from the tents. "You're meta. We don't know how this gas will affect you."
"So you're separating me from the herd to put me out of my misery?" Her joke fell flat; he didn't smile. She forced herself to stand straighter. "I'm fine, Batman. Let me go."
He ignored her and called for
a teleport to the batcave. The change in temperature from
"You shouldn't have kept working, Diana. Your immune system may have been compromised." He eased her into a chair at the main console and began to type something into the computer.
"I had to help. That's what we do." She closed her eyes, felt the cold seeping into her bones, leeching any warmth left in her. Sweat from the work she'd been doing was drying on her skin, freezing as it did.
"Here." A lightweight emergency blanket settled around her shoulders, and she clutched at it as he said, "We'll go upstairs in a minute."
"Why are you doing this?"
She could barely see him smile as he said, "You took care of me when I was sick."
"Oh." She was too tired to say something clever. Too sick to tell him to go to hell. Closing her eyes, she waited for him to finish whatever he was doing.
She heard the sound of Kal flying through the cave before she saw him. He took one look at her and touched her forehead. "She's burning up."
"I know. Do you have the serum Ray made? I gave all mine out."
Kal handed Bruce the vial, then he bent down so she could see his face. "Why didn't you tell me you were sick?"
"Why didn't you notice she was?" Bruce asked, his voice strangely tight.
"You did?" Kal's voice was just as tight.
She reached out, trying to touch Kal's arm but missing. "I'm fine."
"No, you're not. Drink this." Bruce held the vial to her mouth. Whatever was in it smelled awful, and she turned away from it. "Drink it."
She felt his hand on her head, turning her, pushing her to the vial. She opened her mouth, let him pour it into her mouth. Nearly choking on the noxious substance, she swallowed it down and immediately began to cough.
"She needs rest," Kal said.
"I've got it under control, Clark."
"I said I've got it under control."
"I'll be all right here, Kal. Alfred likes me at least." She tried to smile, couldn't feel her mouth move at all. "Go home. Lois is waiting." She didn't mean to sound so bitter and looked up at him. "She's waiting." This time it sounded more normal.
"You heard her, Clark. We're fine here."
She watched them, barely able to make out more than how both of their faces seemed awfully tight. Why did Kal care so much about her staying here? It wasn't as if Bruce would even talk to her now that he'd given her the serum. Kal finally uncrossed his hands from over his chest and flew away with a flip of his cape.
"He's upset," she said, although she couldn't figure out why.
"He certainly is." Bruce sounded very pleased.
She peered up at him. "You're not very nice."
"You're just figuring that out, Princess?" For once, he didn't load the title with sarcasm. "Come on. Let's get you upstairs."
"I'm cold," she whispered as he pulled the emergency blanket off her.
"We'll be somewhere warm soon." He led her to the stairs.
She had a feeling he was going to try to carry her, so she forced her feet to obey her, ordering her legs to support her weight. "I'm okay," she said, pushing his hands away and walking up the stairs to his house on her own. She counted--one, two, three. All the way to eighteen when they hit the landing, and he opened the door, and she nearly collapsed.
Alfred came rushing over. "Miss Diana?"
"Chemical gas. She'll be fine. She's just exhausted."
"Shall I prepare a guest room?" Bruce didn't answer, and Alfred said, "Ah, yes. Of course. Very good idea, sir."
"What?" she asked. "What's a very good idea?"
"You'll need observation, of course." She could hear some kind of wink in Alfred's voice, failed to see what amused him.
"I don't need to be observed." She pushed away from them both, walked over to the stairs. Ten. She counted again. No, twelve. Twelve more to climb and then she could rest. She tried to order her foot up, but her body wouldn't cooperate.
"So damn stubborn," Bruce muttered, then he scooped her up, carrying her up the stairs. "Don't fight me, Diana, or we'll both fall."
She had been about to do just that. "You annoy me," she said, letting her head fall into the space between his neck and shoulder. "You annoy me more than any man I've ever met."
"Feeling's mutual," but his arms seemed to tighten around her.
She closed her eyes, letting him carry her wherever he wanted. She couldn't hear anything except Bruce's breathing and her own--she was wheezing. Was that the chemicals? Had she been wheezing for long?
"Here we are," Bruce said as he put her down and pushed her into the room. "Do you want to sleep in your uniform?"
It was damp and constricting. She felt as if it had melted into her. "No."
"Hang on." He was gone, and then he was back, pulling a t-shirt over her head, covering her so she could take the uniform off.
She made a face as he tossed it to the side of the room. "I need a shower," she said as he pushed her toward the bed.
"You're too weak."
He was right, she was. "You could hold me up."
"I'm not that strong, Diana." He sounded afraid. What was so scary about a shower?
He didn't pull the covers over her once she was in the bed, but stripped off his uniform. Pulling on some pajama bottoms, he crawled into bed with her, finally settling the wonderfully soft comforter over them both.
"I stink," she said.
"You have smelled better." He pulled her closer until she rested her head on his chest. "I'll live. So will you. You can shower when you're rested."
"Whose bed is this?"
"Mine." His arm stole around her, pulling her a little bit closer.
She finally felt warm and surrounded by fluffy comfort. "Your bed is so soft."
He laughed. "It's not. The mattress is Batman-approved extra firm."
"Good for the spine," she said, the words coming out slurred.
"Yes. It just feels soft because Alfred insists on putting a featherbed on top of it."
"Good for the hips," she said.
"That's what he says."
"He's right." She relaxed into the warm cocoon they were making out of his bed. "Are you going to seduce me?"
"Do you even want to anymore?" She closed her eyes, felt sleep calling.
"Yes," he whispered, and she thought she felt something touch down on her forehead.
"Do you like me, Bruce?"
"Yes, Diana. I like you very much." Then she heard him say, "Sleep now."
For once, she didn't argue.
The pattern became more complex. Simple jabs and kicks became combinations of leaps and thrusts and kicks and punches. Diana moved through them seamlessly, finally feeling her body responding the way it was supposed to. As if this was something in her blood, something she'd been born to do.
She whipped around, her hand coming up to counter a strike, her other hand following it. Snap, snap, snap. She spun, halfway, her leg coming up and out as she let her body follow it, momentum giving the kick added oomph. She scissored away, the leap ending in another hold. Her body trembled, and she smiled at the sensation.
Then she slowly lifted one knee, her foot coming up. This was the changing moment. This was where most routines stopped. It was called: Appeal for Truce.
"You're feeling better?" Bruce walked around her to get to the fridge.
He'd left her alone in his bed, had been gone when she'd finally awakened many hours later. He'd set out a bathrobe and towels, left the door to the bathroom open. Alfred had cleaned her uniform and brought up breakfast. He'd told her the master had been called out.
Had run like hell would probably have been more like it.
She smiled at the thought as she reached around him for some bread. "Thank you. I never got a chance to--"
He waved her apology away. His expression was all business.
Had she imagined that she'd been in bed with him? Had she imagined that he'd held her close, his voice so tender? That he'd kissed her on the forehead?
"Damn you." She slammed down the sandwich she was making and walked out.
He didn't follow.
"Diana, what's wrong?" Kal asked as she stormed past him to the gym.
"Damn you too."
She was well into demolishing a new punching bag when Bruce came in, moving to hold the bag for her. Smiling, she gave it a vicious kick, the trajectory perfect to knock Bruce loose and send him reeling across the mats.
"Okay, that was just mean," he said, picking himself up with a groan.
She ignored him.
He took his place at the bag again. "Clark had some interesting things to tell me just now."
"I don't care."
"He said he's jealous of me."
"I said, I don't care." Another well-aimed kick to the bag sent him flying across the mats.
This time he stayed there to talk to her.
She smiled tightly. "Afraid?"
"You know the old saying. Fool me once..."
She nodded. She'd felt that way often enough with him.
"Don't you want to know why he's jealous?"
"It's not because of your sparkling personality." She let the bag show him how she felt about anything he had to tell her. It finally gave up the ghost, ripping from its support and landing up against the wall.
"Another one bites the dust."
"Shut up." She started to stalk away.
"He thinks you're in love with me."
"He thinks I'm in love with you too."
"Well," she said, moving off again to the dressing room. "He's obviously an idiot."
She pushed into the changing room, could hear him right behind her. "Bruce, what is so hard to understand about 'women only'?"
He didn't answer so much as growl as he pushed her against the wall. Hard. To make up for being kicked across the mats maybe?
She found that thought arousing and tried to push it down. "You're an idiot, too, Mister Wayne."
"I suppose I am." He glared at her, his eyes blazing, then he pulled off the cowl. "You're acting like a child."
She would have replied except that he pulled her to him, kissing her as if it was their last day on Earth again. She kept expecting him to pull away like he had then, but he didn't.
In fact, his hands were undoing her uniform.
She stopped him. "I'm not the only woman up here today."
He looked very annoyed at the news, and she laughed. Slowly, afraid that she'd spook him if she actually showed any affection, she moved closer, her lips finding his cheek, kissing up to his ear.
He groaned. It was the most helpless sound she'd ever heard him make.
"Do you love me, Bruce?"
He didn't answer.
She pushed closer, could feel that even if he didn't love her, he wanted her in the worst way. "Bruce?"
"Yes." Again the growl.
She decided if she was going to pursue the Batman, she would probably have to get used to things being expressed a little differently. Kissing him, she pulled him closer, heard him groan again--that wonderful, helpless sound.
Then he knocked her away from him. "I notice you're not saying it back." He headed for the doors that would take him back to the gym.
She stalked after him, catching him as he got to them, and pushing him up against the wall. Running her hand through his hair, she smiled. "I love you."
He stared at her, his eyes burning, as if he didn't believe her.
She said it again. This time with no smile. Just waiting to see what he'd do.
He reached over and locked the door.
"That's not the only one."
He pushed her away enough to get by her. Hurrying to the other door, he locked it too. Then he turned, and in an almost savage voice, said, "Come here."
She walked slowly, smiling.
"Faster," he said, then he seemed to give up on her doing what he'd ordered, moving toward her and catching her up in his arms. He made short work of her uniform, then his own. Pushing her onto a counter, he suddenly stopped. "Have you done this before?"
She nodded. "With--"
His hand over her mouth stopped her; the slow shake of his head killed the confession. "I don't need to know, Diana. It's probably better if I don't."
She smiled, nodded understanding. He was afraid it was Kal. It wasn't. And maybe someday she'd tell him. Although she wasn't sure he'd think Arthur was much of an improvement. They'd had some wild times when they'd both been new to the league, had gravitated together naturally. As far as she knew, Arthur had never told anyone they'd been lovers. Their passion had worn off in an easy way, and they'd stayed friends.
"Have you done this before?" she asked Bruce with a grin.
"Once or twice," he said moving closer and closer until--there.
She closed her eyes, found his lips by instinct rather than sight. "Bruce," she breathed more than said.
His lips on hers were demanding. His hands as he stroked back her hair were gentle. She opened her eyes, saw that he had the most tender look on his face.
"Truce?" His arms tightened around her.
"I'd like to think this is more than just a truce." She tightened her legs around his waist, pulling him closer. Goddesses, it had been a long time since she'd known this pleasure.
"A truce is a start though," he said, and she laughed softly. Ever the careful tactician.
"It's a very good start," she said, as she heard someone pounding on the door of the dressing room. "Someone wants in," she whispered in Bruce's ear, glad that the changing room was lined with lead--she had a feeling it might be Supergirl demanding entrance.
"They can use the men's," he said, his lips finding her neck, kissing gently, then not so gently.
She realized he was trying to mark her. Something ancient in her responded to that idea. Especially since it would be under her hair, where no one would see it.
The pounding stopped, and she forgot all about the others. There was only Bruce and what he was doing to her and what she was doing to him. She heard knocking again, this time on the gym door. Bruce carried her away from the main area; they ended up in the showers, which came on automatically with their movements. Finally, as they lay half in and half out of the showers, he turned to her and said, "This is a damned uncomfortable place to make love."
She nodded. Her hair was sopping wet from the shower, and the tile felt cold on her backside.
"You've never looked more beautiful," he said, as he kissed her again. Then he moved over her, all feelings of discomfort apparently forgotten in light of other interests.
The pounding started again, and she giggled.
Then the door flew open, knocked off its hinges, landing in the middle of the room. Supergirl came flying in. "What the hell is--"
They stared at her; she stared at them. Then she picked up the door. "I'll just do a quick soldering, and it'll be good as new. Really." She glanced back at them again. "No wonder Kal's in such a foul mood."
Diana snuck a look at Bruce; he looked happy. She slugged his arm. "He's your best friend."
"Uh huh. That's got nothing to do with this." Pushing her down, he picked up where he'd left off.
She soon quit listening to the sound of Supergirl's impromptu door repair.
The final moves were all that lay ahead. Diana had few chances to work on them with anyone else for only a handful of Amazons ever reached this high in Karthene. Not even her mother had possessed the patience to advance to this level. Diana could practice with Phillipus, but they were both so busy it was hard to find the time to meet up.
Diana slowly kicked out, the move graceful--this section was designed to be that. Speed giving way to grace giving way to tranquility. The End of War.
"You never told me you did your own version of Tai Chi?" Bruce's voice was very close.
"You never asked," she turned, saw him study her then make the move himself, an uncanny mirror.
She moved again, her hand coming up in the prelude to rest. He followed her move. As she smiled, he asked quietly, "Teach me?"
She finished the routine, and he mirrored her the entire way. She had a feeling when the got to this part again, he would have it all memorized. It was just how he was.
"It's called Karthene."
"Karthene." His accent was perfect. "What does it mean?"
"It was named after the woman who first danced it. It symbolizes the route of conflict."
He nodded, following her opening moves. "So it's a dance?"
"The same way love is." She smiled. "Or any other battlefield."
"Ahhh," he said, a small grin starting. "I understand fully."
She laughed softly, nearly breaking her heron stance. "I thought you might."
He seemed about to reply, when she said, "No more talking. Just do." There were times they told each other that in bed. She saw his eyes lighten at her choice of words.
Then he focused on her fully, his moves as graceful as any Amazon's. Soon she would have a more accessible partner to practice with.
The thought pleased her greatly.