Chapter 9: Identity Element
They patched it up somehow. Superman accompanied Batman on patrol later that week, the Hacienda East burned to the ground, Joker wound up in Arkham with some unusual injuries, and the next day Bruce and Clark went to a ballgame. Call it “Male Bonding: Gotham Style,” I guess.
There was more to it, of course, but I wasn’t privy to whatever was said in the cave this time around. I gather it had something to do with “that ring” that Superman mentioned at the waterfall, whatever that means. Anyway, it doesn’t matter. Bruce calls him Clark again; that’s what matters. It’s going to take time but they’re both working to rebuild the partnership.
That left me with my own… status to figure out… with Bruce, with Gotham, with all of it. I couldn’t get on top of it somehow. I didn’t know what I was feeling or even how I wanted to feel.
I wound up prowling the park, always a favorite spot in the old days when I was restless. So close to the digs, it was a great place to begin an angsty prowl—and it still was until I came upon some late night scum roughing up a homeless guy and… well… I beat them to a pulp. It took the edge off, a little, so even though pummeling thugs isn’t my idea of a proper cat’s night out, I went snooping around the Ghost Dragons to get a little more. The ones I found were harassing a storeowner. I didn’t bother to find out what it was about; I just let loose on the bad guys for a while. When it was over, the storeowner started gushing, telling me this whole story about cigarettes they wanted him to sell, cheap because they didn’t have a tax stamp or something. Like I cared. Like I was some do-gooder crimefighter that gave a shit what laws these guys broke or thought the world would be a better place if people like him weren’t victimized. I just left him standing there in the alley behind his store, with his gratitude, a couple banged up Ghost Dragons, and forty cases of stolen cigarettes.
I started for home when déjà vu all over again, I had this tingle, the ‘Bat is watching’ tingle. It made for an interesting flashback, heading home after a prowl and feeling that prickle of excitement because he was lurking nearby. I was a few rooftops away from the lot where I’d left the Jag when I spotted him, this dark, looming, pointy-earred mass of blackness standing there blocking my path.
“Evening, Handsome,” I drawled as soon as I was close enough for him to hear. “Nice night for a stroll.”
He didn’t say anything at first; he just took my hand and examined the knuckles of my glove.
“The trick is not to like it… too much,” he graveled without looking up.
“How exactly do you manage that?” I couldn’t help asking.
His eyes flickered up at me.
“Keep a little bit of pain with you inside.”
He didn’t say anything more, and the city sounds filled the silence for a minute. Somewhere in the distance, a siren warbled. Somebody hurt. Status quo for Gotham.
“Here I thought the whole idea of the pummeling was to pound away the pain,” I remarked.
“No,” he grunted. “Just makes it easier to live with.”
“This isn’t me,” I heard myself babbling. “I don’t know who this is. I want me back.”
“I know. So do I.”
I noticed he was still holding onto my hand. Not caressing it or anything; he just hadn’t let it go.
“I want us back,” I murmured.
“So do I,” he said again.
“How do we do that?” I asked.
Then he uttered three words nobody ever wants to hear coming out of Batman’s mouth…
“I don’t know.”
The first siren had died away, and a new one, further west, took its place. I stretched up the way I used to, to tempt him. It brought our lips so close, I could taste his breath, all we had to do was breathe in sync and our lips would be touching.
“Trust me again,” I whispered.
He grunted. He said “That’s far enough, Catwoman.” And I felt like I’d been punched in the stomach. He probably didn’t mean it that way. He probably figured it was like old times: I flirt, he rebuffs… But it hurt. It cut so goddamn deep, I felt like… Hell, I don’t even know what the word is… shattered. He must have seen it, because I started to feel his gloved fingertips making these gentle circles over my knuckles.
“I never made a decision to trust you,” he said. “That moment at Xanadu, telling you the truth, I… I did what I’ve always done in this life, I trusted my instincts and I followed where they led. Those instincts have kept me alive in a thousand situations where there isn’t time to make a considered decision. You’re one of the few people in this world who can understand that.”
I sighed, deflated, which only put more distance between us.
“That was a long time ago, Bruce. Since then, we’ve come a long… At some point, god… you mean at some point it never occurred to you that…” I trailed off for the third time. None of this was right. “Never mind,” I muttered, exasperated. “This is a stupid conversation. You feel how you feel. The whole idea of ‘convincing’ somebody to trust you with words is pretty asinine.”
“Then don’t tell me. Show me.”
I snapped. I’d had it.
“You’ve seen all there is to see,” I hissed. “If it’s not enough, fuck you.”
His lip twitched. “There she is.”
It took a second—my heart was pounding—in a good way—and I felt the grin pouring over my lips. I was still pissed but… he was right, I felt like me again.
His lip twitched a second time and he nodded reluctantly. The nod was sad, but it was nice seeing that twitch again. Way back when, it was the first real glimmer I’d had of the man inside the bat. Then he spoke again…
“I’m not the only one who’s pulled away, Selina. I’m not sure what it is I’m doing or not doing, what you’re picking up on, but if my behavior has changed towards you, maybe it’s because you seem so different these last few days.”
I think it’s possible my mouth dropped open. I know I hadn’t felt that kind of blind shock since that moment, a lifetime before, when I broke back into the museum after Cat-Tales and he said “This isn’t a burglary, it’s a date.” My own words over the last few days echoed in my brain… to Jason: “Maybe I just don’t like the reminder that he is only human, more vulnerable on one level than any of them” …and to Clark: “All it takes is one mistake when he can die.” This whole thing had forced on me just how human, just how mortal and vulnerable, Bruce really is.
And it scared the living hell out of me.
And I pulled away.
It wasn’t the museum after Cat-Tales I was remembering, it wasn’t “This isn’t a burglary, it’s a date.” It was the vault weeks later. He wasn’t “Batman” to me anymore. I looked into his eyes and saw a real person looking back. And I realized he never called me “Catwoman” anymore, it was always ‘Selina,’ we’d gone beyond the masked personas… and I knee’d him in the stomach—and then I ran away.
I saw the real, exposed, vulnerable man, and I pulled away.
“Feline independence,” I murmured. “If you need them, you can’t be free.”
I was pulling away from all of them. I’d been cutting the emotional ties like mad ever since it hit me: I love him and he could die. I wasn’t free. I had no power at all over a situation that could destroy my world. Making a life with him was giving me back everything I’d lost: a home, a family, love. Didn’t the laws of self-determination demand that I get some kind of control, a foothold, a word, a thought, something to have, to hold onto, to make some little piece of this mine?
“Let’s go home,” he was saying. “It’s cold. You’re shivering.”
Bruce, I want to get married.
That siren in the distance was still warbling. For an awful sickening second, I thought I had said it out loud. It was the last thing we needed. Why would I even think something like that? If anything, we needed time apart.
Or was I doing it again? We get closer, I get scared, I pull away or push him away?
“Selina, are you coming?”
None of this is what I signed on for. All I did was kiss a man in a mask.
He’d fired a line already. Christ, what was happening to me?
I looked at him standing there and tried to see that tightass crimefighter from a thousand rooftops ago. I thought about asking him to call me Catwoman again, for old time’s sake, just to hear that voice roll over the word.
“Hey, what’s going on in there?”
Wrong words. Hell, Bruce, of all the times to not be Bat-Prick, couldn’t you work up a bit of that smug, paranoid, obsessive, judgmental jackass when it could actually do some good?
He’d stepped away from the edge of the roof. He was standing right in front of me. I wasn’t going to look up at him, but then I remembered how he’d noticed when Clark wouldn’t make eye contact. So I glanced up. And those eyes surrounded by mask were looking right into me, flashing as his mind rolodexed through possibilities.
Could he tell? Could he read on my face that wild, stupid thought that flashed through my mind for a nanosecond? Bruce, I want to get married. (Yeah, that’s the one. Stop that. Bad kitty.) He sees a lot, but he can’t read minds. He can’t. No superpowers, remember? Great detective, but cannot actually read, see, or hear a private thought.
“You go on home,” I said lightly. “I want to stay in town a while longer.”
His eyes narrowed.
“Why?” he growled suspiciously.
Good. Suspicion. It was something. It was something real I could grab onto.
I licked my lips slowly. It was just the touch of him I wanted, the real him, the complete him. Batman. My Batman. Not that “the guy inside Batman” from the vault but… (I could barely hold back the purr at the catnip thought)… “the Batman outside Bruce.”
I almost said “I love you,” but instead I ran a claw, slowly, around the oval of the emblem on his chest. “I thought I might stop at Cartier’s,” I teased. “For old times sake. See if I can beat my old record in and out.”
He tensed up, just like he used to when I teased. I wasn’t expecting Psychobat or anything; I’m not sure what I was expecting from him. Once upon a time, I’d push him when we were like this, press bit by bit, until he’d cut it off with a gruff “stop” and push me away. Tonight, he just put a hand over mine as it traced over the emblem—the gesture said “stop” too, in a way, but it wasn’t at all gruff or final.
“Don’t romanticize it,” he said—causing me to pause once again and reassure myself that he could not read minds. “There were moments—but thenn we each went home alone.”
He was right.
That part sucked.
I could feel my heartbeat, I couldn’t seem to feel anything else. And I couldn’t summon up any words.
That goddamn light sliced through the sky and a great big bat silhouette glinted off the clouds.
“Showtime,” I remarked. He turned and saw it, then looked back at me. It was just a moment’s hesitation, but it was there.
“Cats always land on their feet,” I reminded him, lifting my arms to fall around his neck. “I am going home alone… to a cold, solitary bed… but there should be a dark, handsome stranger coming around before dawn to… keep me warm.” Then I kissed his cheek and even managed a purr, which I thought he would appreciate, but instead his right eye shifted like he’d raised the eyebrow behind the mask.
“A stranger?” he graveled.
I shrugged. “That’s the way it feels right now. Not so bad, we’ve managed that way before.”
He looked really put out, turned back to the signal and then back to me. I could tell he was torn, and it was starting to piss me off.
“Oh for pity sake, go and stop being such a jackass,” I blurted. “Large, seven foot glowing light in the sky with your logo on it, I think somebody wants your attention.”
He smiled—a real one, not a lip-twitch. And he kissed me—also a real one.
And then he was gone.
I watched the dark flicker that was him swinging out towards the signal until it disappeared into the other flickers on the horizon. Whoever was responsible for it… Eddie, Joker, Scarecrow, Hatter… I didn’t know whether to be angry or send them a gift basket.
Hugo Strange paused with
his key in the lock as the bright overhead beacon lit up the night sky. He
glanced up to see the emblem emblazoned across the clouds and smiled quietly
to himself. What better omen could there be to spur him on to complete
his great work: The Bat-Signal, so emblematic of the awe and
veneration that so many in this wretched city held for Gotham’s protector.
Awe and veneration that would soon be his. He allowed himself a small
chuckle; not the insane cackling or fitful giggles that so many of the
Iceberg denizens were known to emit, but a small, self-assured chuckle, a
chuckle of the right and the righteous.
Hugo went inside. He flicked on the light and beheld the gleaming wonder of his new laboratory—well, he beheld what would soon be the gleaming wonder of his new laboratory. Right now, it was what commercial real estate types called “a raw industrial space.” But all it would take to develop the raw space into a state-of-the-art lab was money. And money was now readily available.
How easy it was once he remembered how! The Penguin had a seemingly endless stream of money! It flowed through the Iceberg like an underground river, all those black market operations and all that money laundering for the various gangs and syndicates. Yes, the Penguin’s wealth was a magnificent resource, and one Hugo could now utilize any way he wished. All he had to do was sway the mind of Oswald Cobblepot, and Oswald was proud, vain, and stupid. Such men were not difficult to maneuver. A few simple appeals to all that witless narcissism and the fool actually believed it was his own idea: Cobblepot would bankroll Hugo’s efforts and receive a share of the benefits. He could then pass on those benefits—for a price—to his various underworld clients, mobsters and costumed rogues alike.
Hugo had yet to decide if those “benefits” would ever materialize. Once Bruce Wayne was neutralized as a crimefighting force in Gotham City, Hugo might well take over the power of the Bat-mantle for himself, in which case the fortunes of Oswald and his criminal cohorts would hardly improve. But that was a decision for the future; tonight Hugo’s dreams centered on his new lab.