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Chapter 2: The Direct Approach

 

“Yes,” Joker declared with calm satisfaction, “It’s a good thing I’m here to help you get back to normal… Ha… with fava beans and a nice chianti.”

It was the killer closing line.   “Dr. Bart” would look thwarted and frustrated, the studio audience would laugh, the closing jingle would kick in as the credits started to roll.  Except this wasn’t a situation comedy, this was Leland Bartholomew’s life.  He’d just faced its final moments.  He had done so without a flinch—but without any real satisfaction either.  The whole thing, from learning to read to losing his virginity, from his first day at Arkham to the Barefoot Contessa, had flashed before his eyes.  And it really wasn’t much!

But his life hadn’t ended after he mouthed off at Joker, and now every day was a gift.  He’d be damned if he would let anything as foolish as a young girl’s green, self-important posturing ruin the best thing that ever happened to him, even if that best thing happened to be her.  So, at the end of his shift, he stopped at Roxy Rocket’s cell, judging her to be the least psychotic of his patients.  With the directness of a mental health professional who knew coy games and half-truths about one’s desires were a trap that only impeded real communication, he came straight to the point: He wanted precise directions to the Iceberg Lounge.  Roxy was more than helpful, suggesting he park his car at the 11th Street lot and informing him that Mark would be on the door tonight.  If Bartholomew had any trouble getting in, Roxy said, he should use her name.

Two hours later, after remembering how to secure his little-used Club to the steering wheel and activating the car alarm (which he doubted anyone would pay attention to this far downtown), Bartholomew walked up to Mark the doorman, introduced himself the way no one would ever introduce themselves to a doorman, and said he was there to see Raven—and also that Roxy Rocket had sent him.  Mark thought the guy was odd, but you didn’t turn folks away from the Iceberg Lounge for being odd.  For being lowbrow, badly dressed, uncool or cops, yes.  But odd, odd was almost a prerequisite. 

So Bartholomew was admitted.  He set off down the long entrance corridor his patients had often described.  It was “themed” like a tunnel cut through a mountain of ice—until you came to the inexplicable hole in the ice tunnel where you could check your coat and/or rent an umbrella.  There, Bartholomew saw Harvey Dent, who had apparently undergone the finest plastic surgery imaginable, and Edward Nigma.  Both were checking very costly furs that must be connected to the two conspicuously well-dressed women standing at Raven’s podium.  Bartholomew coughed a vague greeting at Dent and Nigma, and then walked resolutely up to Raven.

 

Nightwing had been hatted before; it wasn’t anything like this.  Before, when it happened as Robin, he was completely unaware until he “woke up” with Batgirl in a headlock and one of her yellow gloves clenched between his teeth—and just how it came to be there nobody would ever tell him. 

But this, this was different.  He knew where he was: on the north side of the Wayne property, at the little gardener’s shed he’d declared “Fort Grayson” when he was a kid.  He knew what he was doing: he was walking from the shed towards the kitchen.  And he knew he was being controlled: when he reached the kitchen, he was going to take Alfred’s elevator down to the Batcave and sit in Bruce’s chair.  He couldn’t help himself; it was this hat, this hat scraping at his head… pawing at his hair.  Tiny little points of… pointy… in his hair… hats don’t have pointy—“NO!” Dick yelled, sitting up in bed and swatting the cat off his pillow with an angry swipe.

“What now?” Barbara grumbled into her pillow.

“Nothing.  Nightmare,” Dick said reassuringly.

There was no answer.  She was already asleep—if she’d actually woken up at all.  The cat, Bytes, hopped back on the bed and Dick rolled over, first blaming the cat for his nightmare and then realizing it was probably the other way around.  The dream had come first and Bytes’s pawing woke him from it…  A dream about being hatted, that was a new one…  Funny how he never noticed before how much Tetch’s hat looked like Bruce’s cowl… especially when the little antennae came up, just like Bat ears, to control… your… evry…

Dick’s eyes snapped open and he stared blankly at the bedroom wall.

Then he sat up and stared just as blankly at a different wall.

“You Psychobat Control Freak Son of a…” he growled quietly.

“What now?” Barbara grumbled into her pillow.

“Nothing.  Nightmare,” Dick lied reassuringly.

 

Rogues were no strangers to overblown melodrama.  The Iceberg itself had been the stage for more than one scene that made the Gotham Opera look tame.  More often though, the Iceberg was where the players came afterwards, to alternately boast and complain about triumphs and reversals in their private affairs and Bat-bashing battles.  Socialites were no strangers to “drama” either, although theirs tended to be more restrained, coded in subtle, well-mannered asides, incomprehensible to outsiders but just as thrilling to those in the know. 

Since each of the Dent-Muffington-Nigma-Vraag foursome were knowing connoisseurs of such episodes, they pretended not to notice as Leland Bartholomew pushed past them to reach Raven’s podium.  They pretended not to hear as he said he had to talk to her, immediately and privately, on a very personal matter.  And finally, when Raven blushed and sputtered very poor excuses for not wanting to speak to him (or indeed ever see him again), they exchanged meaningful glances and showed themselves to a table.  It happened to be Two-Face’s old table, situated closer to the podium than Eddie’s regular booth.  They couldn’t hear, but they could see quite well.

“Wish I could read lips like Bats,” Harvey said casually.

Eddie shot him a sharp sideways glare.  He was just as interested in whatever Bart was saying so emphatically to Raven—especially since Raven was clearly being swayed—but referring so pointedly to “Bats” in front of their new lady friends seemed in very bad taste.  At least it did to him.  Neither woman seemed to think so.  Claudia was positively curling around Harvey’s arm and Penelope was looking excitedly around the room.  Eddie shifted his sour look from Harvey back to Bartholomew.  He was gesturing with his hands now… looked like pleading, and Raven looked ready to either kiss him or burst into tears.  Doris had never looked that way when Eddie was reduced to pleading.  He did wonder what on earth Dr.  Bart could be saying to get that kind of reaction.

 

The Batboat made a final pass through the Gotham Yacht Club.  Inside, Batman scowled.  He was more angered by that one miserable smuggling case than the rest of the month’s crimes combined.  The fact that someone’s boat—Truckston and Samantha Blakeley’s yacht as it happened—had been used for criminal purposes without their knowledge.  He knew the Blakeleys.  Hell, Samantha had spent two years trying to fix Bruce Wayne up with their daughter Kate.  He was there the night Richard Flay recommended a resort in the Keys where the Blakeleys had wintered every year since, and where, on this last trip, some lowlife in the marina had slipped onto their boat and stowed 600 kilos of heroine in their engine room. 

It was bad enough as a disgusting criminal enterprise to smuggle drugs into his city.  The fact that it went down at the yacht club only made it worse.  He’d lost nearly an hour at the Watchtower.  All he’d wanted after that was to get back to Gotham and get in a full night’s patrol.  Gotham was his priority.  It always was.  It always would be.  No Dhumavati cult and no business with Superman or the League would ever be allowed to usurp it.  But checking the yacht club—and he did have to check it now that this new avenue for smuggling had been exposed—required the Batboat.  So, as soon as he got back to the cave, he’d bypassed the Batmobile hangar, bypassed Alfred ready to make a fuss over the tiger punctures in his body armor, and took out the boat.  Three or four nights a week now he made this pass so that no one got any ideas.  The Marzettis and the Cobblepots, the Coast Guard, the marina workers, and everyone else would know that Batman was keeping an eye on the river, on the harbor, on the marina and on the yachts.

 

Sandwich Night was a tradition in the Kent household.  When Clark or Lois mentioned it at the office, the impression was that it was a regular weekly event: three nights a week Clark cooked dinner, three nights Lois cooked, and one night they both took it easy and made sandwiches together.  Those close enough to the couple to know of Lois’s cooking made a different assumption: four nights a week Clark cooked, one night they ordered in, one night they ate out, and one night: sandwiches.

The truth was Clark made dinner every night he was available, but when demands on Superman kept him occupied for much of the evening while still allowing him to return home before Lois had eaten, she preferred he make up for lost time in a different way.  Rather than waste time cooking, they had a quick sandwich and after the meal, she enjoyed “the super foot rub.”

It was when he finished the third toe on her left foot that he casually mentioned Gotham.

“Because I’m flying through tomorrow for a quick word with Selina, so if you want me to bring anything…” he gave the toe a playful wiggle.  “Like those bagels?”

“Ooh, from that place?” Lois grinned happily.  “What was it called?”

“Pola’s.”

“Right.”

It was the one subject where they both agreed Bruce was right: you couldn’t get real Gotham bagels anywhere except Gotham.  Some said it was the water, others the hands of the bakers, but everyone agreed there was no way to reproduce it—even with the molecular replicator at the Watchtower, which Wally had tried on four separate occasions and found equally inadequate with Pola’s bagels, Lombardi’s pizza, Nathan’s hot dogs, and hot pastrami from Katz’s Deli. 

Clark moved on to the next toe, using his X-ray vision to pinpoint the tension and went to work.

“Anything else?” he asked.

“From Gotham?  Yes.  The byline.”

Clark paused the massage, and Lois tilted her head at a very marital “you know very well what I mean” angle.

“The byline,” she repeated.  “Because tonight’s festivities were not a full League outing, it was just you and Batman.  Now you’re off to Gotham tomorrow—for ‘a quick word with Selina?’  For a quick little meddle in Bruce’s private life, am I right?  Which sooner or later is going to erupt into something that someone’s getting a Pulitzer Prize for covering.  And I don’t want your name on that story, Clark, because they go alphabetically at the awards ceremony.  I will not sit there at the head table in some gorgeous accepting-my-second-Pulitzer evening gown and hear them read your name first for covering a national disaster that you caused.”

Clark gave a soft sigh and silently moved on to the next toe. 

“Right, bagels and a byline,” he said at last, resuming his usual at-home manner with a touch more charm, which always disarmed Lois and let them proceed to less controversial topics.  But internally, his mind chewed on her comments.  First Bruce, now Lois.  Was there really an obvious minefield there that everybody could see but him?

 

Although they had seated themselves, figures of Edward Nigma and Harvey Dent’s stature in the underworld could not enter the Iceberg Lounge unnoticed.  There was a buzz in the room when they were recognized, a buzz Claudia and Penelope recognized, the buzz that greeted visiting royalty.  It was the charged thrill that rippled through the room when Robert DeNiro walked into Nobu, Donald Trump walked into Megu, or Bruce Wayne walked into D’Annunzio’s, when even Vraags and Muffingtons congratulated themselves for choosing this restaurant on this night. 

Both women had turned a fair share of heads in their day, cameras clicked and flashed as they exited limos and made their way down the red carpet, but neither had ever experienced this.

Eddie said the chaps in the blue and white (who were pointing like they just saw Paul McCartney) were Ghost Dragons and answered to King Snake, big guy in the back—oh, it looks like he’s not there at the moment.  Very big in the Hong Kong drug trade, King Snake.  Always sits with his back to the wall since he and Oswald aren’t the best of friends.

Neither had ever experienced this.  Those flashing cameras pulled away from Vraags and Muffingtons when a Bruce Wayne or Paris Hilton arrived.  But this, this was the top tier.  This was being Bruce or Paris.  They were the ones everyone had broken off their conversations to stare at.

Harvey said the other bunch in matching outfits were DEMONs.  Perhaps the ladies had heard of the famous Ra’s al Ghul (they hadn’t).  Ah, well, they haven’t missed much, Harvey assured them.  In any case, those guys (who were pointing like they just saw Ringo Staar) were DEMONs, and they worked for Ra’s al Ghul.

It was thrilling.  Both women slid expertly into that Queen of the Room mode they’d seen so many others do over the years.  Penelope told Eddie to call her Penny.  Claudia, who had already told Harvey to call her Muffy, rubbed her foot against his under the table.  It was that taste of The Life she’d gotten a hint of at the Post party when she’d dressed as Poison ivy, a taste of the life she’d always wanted and it solidified… as Harvey’s foot pressed back into hers with gratifying warmth… the whole idea of befriending these rogues was the perfect move.

 

The sweeps through the yacht club did put a dent in his late patrol (tonight his only patrol) in the Batmobile, but that couldn’t be helped.  He could live with that part as a necessary trade-off if only… damn her… Each pass through the yacht club brought him into contact with the Gatta.   La Gatta Mobile, the yacht he’d named for Selina.  The yacht he’d bought for Selina if he was honest about it.  The yacht he’d purchased not as foppish camouflage for Batman, but for Bruce to take Selina on impromptu getaways whenever Gotham was quiet.  Gotham had been quiet and she’d wanted to take just such a trip to “rest up” after the episode with Poison Ivy, but he wouldn’t hear of it…  He lost control with Ivy AND he lost control letting Selina into that safe in the Batcave.  It was too late on that one.  Now she knew the safe existed, Catwoman knew about a safe she hadn’t known of before.  It was done; it was out of his hands.  But he could still reestablish control over the rest of Batman’s…  Damn her.

The other problem with the pass through the yacht club was: it was preemptory.  It would deter crime, but it almost never encountered any.  Try as he might to keep his mind on his work, there wasn’t that much to occupy it.  It would drift here and there, and every time it did, there was that boat.  La Gatta Mobile.  Selina.

He reminded himself for the 10,000th time that he put the gold bar in the safe to begin with.  He reminded himself for the 10,000th time that it was necessary: he was under Ivy’s control, he didn’t have a lot of options.  He reminded himself… and then he stopped the mental recitation.  Even Psychobat was sick of hearing it. 

 

Bat out of Hell III. 

This
Kicked
Ass

Maybe not a title Tim could really embrace at the moment, especially with songs like Blind as a Bat and Seize the Night in there.  But it was Meat Loaf, über dramatic rock opus maestro Meat Loaf, with a new CD, the long awaited third installment of a killer trilogy.  And it ROCKED!  That’s not something you let a few rounds of Zogger or some log entry protocols ruin for you.  Tim just started to check the download for Track 1: The Monster Is Loose when the phone rang.

“’Ello,” he said as a wicked guitar kicked in and he reluctantly turned down the volume.

..:: Hey, Bro.  Didn’t get you up, did I? ::..

“Nah, I’m downloading music.  Bat outta Hell, baby.  Just out last week.”

..:: -secure line engaged-  Wonder what Bat-outta-Cave would say about you bending copyright laws.  ::..

“Hey, I know you’re not with me on this but—Oh cool! He un-Celine’d ‘It’s All Coming Back To Me Now.’  Anyhoo, I know you’re not with me, but Psychobat-outta-Cave is killing me.  I need a release.  This is it.  Don’t mess with it.”

Through the receiver, Tim heard Dick take a deep breath.

..:: Actually, I’ve been thinking about that.  You guys were right.  You, Barbara, all of you.  I just didn’t see it because, well, I think I fell victim to a ‘be my own man’ protocol.  ::..

“…”

..:: … ::…

“Whoa.”

..:: … ::…

“…”

..:: Yeah.  ::…

“Well… So… What do you want to do now?”

..:: I was thinking in the morning, if you’re not doing anything, maybe we go talk to Selina.  ::…

 

He should return to the cave, type up the log, and try—for the 10,000th time—to forget the whole thing.  It wasn’t easy.  Every time he looked in the direction of the trophy room, the knife twisted in his gut…  Two bats hung low over his workstation and even he now thought of the fat one as “Walapang”…  He’d go into the costume vault to change, and the kimono Selina had given him would be waiting…

That kimono.  It’s as if there was no part of his world that she hadn’t touched.  “Why go to all that trouble to change back into Bruce Wayne’s shirt and slacks when you’re just going to walk upstairs to the bedroom?”  So she’d bought him the kimono.  Black and slate gray silk, woven in a tight herringbone pattern with black piping.  He even liked the colors.  It was a gift for Batman, a gift that showed an intimate understanding of the most private corners of Batman’s life.  At the time it unnerved him, and now…

Now she’d been inside the safe.

 

Harvey waved two fingers importantly, summoning Sparrow to come take their order.  Then he declared “We’d like the special bottle of 22-year old double-malt scotch that Sly keeps behind the bar.  Now what are you ladies having?”

The women laughed and Harvey winked at Eddie, who felt vaguely ill.  Question, he thought, What is wrong with Harvey?  When Selina had mounted her stage show, Two-Face had gone ballistic thinking she’d “sold out.”  But now that Harv had his face healed and turned his back on roguery, he seemed perfectly at ease making Two-Face a joke in order to, to… score points with women?  “We’ll have a scotch, what are you drinking” indeed.

EW your scotch,” Eddie said emphatically, although simply flipping two letters from WE to EW hardly constituted an anagram.  Harvey laughed, getting the joke at once, and he explained about the anagrams to the women.  Then they laughed (even louder than Harvey had) and more anagrams were called for.  Eddie regaled them with the ones he’d devised at the opera, refining Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky into VERY CHIC KITTY HELP IS A-OK and Aleksandr Pushkin into DARK PLAN HE SINK US—the latter becoming plural in deference to Harvey.  They loved that little touch and tossed him some “challenges” until the drinks arrived, challenges that he was happy to meet.  The women particularly liked his anagramming of their names, and he shrewdly focused on those variations on Penelope Vraag which included the word ANGEL and omitted those involving PORN.

Suddenly, Harvey let out a low whistle, a sound which normally meant some low-level crimefighter such as Azrael or Huntress had entered the nightclub and zany hijinx were about to ensue.  Exactly what happened prior to the whistle Eddie didn’t see, but immediately afterwards, Raven ran tearfully towards the ladies’ room.

 

Batman didn’t go home to the cave.  He summoned the Batmobile on autopilot, sent the Batboat home the same way, and hit the streets for an abbreviated patrol.  With all the theme criminals except Riddler incarcerated at the moment, and no Riddler clues pending, Batman focused on those parts of town that were likely criminal targets due to a concentration of wealth rather than the presence of comedy clubs, greenhouses or aviaries.

Unfortunately, that meant a significant overlap with Catwoman’s “territory,” and a corresponding likelihood that they might run into each other once he left the car and took to the rooftops.  Bruce didn’t want to feel he was avoiding her, but he would have been happier, for the time being, seeing her at home and out of costume, where he wouldn’t have to be reminded that she could break into a safe the way other people open a kitchen cabinet or that cat’s eye kryptonite “would have made a fascinating subplot once upon a time.”

Damn her—and damn Clark. 

They had come to him when they found out he was dating Selina Kyle.  They had concerns about the ‘criminal who had a history of breaking into this very facility’—they didn’t want Catwoman pawing their stuff…  Okay.  Not really.  He knew that wasn’t really their complaint, but that’s the way he was inclined to see it right now.

And he wasn’t avoiding her.  He loved her.  She made him happy.  She saved him from Ivy.  She was swinging off the fire escape of the Sterling Trust…  He froze, his conscious mind catching up with his inner monologue, which had already caught up with his eyes scanning the horizon.  He froze, waiting to see which way the graceful purple form was moving, if it was a coincidence or—no, she was heading right towards him.  She’d seen him.

Damn.

As she got closer, he could see the smile.  She was smiling.  She was happy to see him.

Damn.

 

With no one but henchmen, groupies, tourists, and Ghost Dragons frequenting the Iceberg these days, Oswald had taken more and more to passing the evening in his office.  He wasn’t about to mingle with a clientele that didn’t meet his high standards—kwak.  Perhaps if Selina or Hagen returned, or if Arkham released a few birds of his own regal feather, then… Hello…

Oswald peered onto the small screen that displayed the security footage of the main dining room.  Harvey?  My, it had been a while.  And Nigma was with him—kwak!  That was a quorum, a sufficiently high concentration of premium old school rogues to warrant an appearance.  And what lovely birds they brought with them—and all formally dressed.  Well, that was encouraging.

At last the nightclub might be emerging from its Hell Month-level slump, and at last the aristocrats of roguery were presenting themselves as such.  Oswald pulled a mirror from his desk drawer and preened, as always, before making an appearance.  He moistened a finger and straightened his left eyebrow.  He reached in the drawer for a clean pair of white gloves.  He polished his monocle and buffed the ebony shaft of his cigarette holder before loading a fresh cigarette.  He quacked, satisfied, and proceeded into the bar—only to be practically mowed down not three steps outside his office door by Raven rushing tearfully past him and disappearing down the corridor to the rest rooms. 

 

Dick had set the alarm so he could rendezvous with Tim in the morning and they’d go together to the manor.  But despite the early wake-up call, he didn’t go back to bed.  He took his costume from the closet and pulled one of his longer, sleeker Batarangs from the belt and then sat quietly, contemplating the weapon. 

When he became Nightwing, he wouldn’t even use Bruce’s template for the weapon Bruce himself had designed.  He had to come up with his own.  He had to break out from under Batman’s shadow any way he could and be his own… he paused, bitterly refusing to use that phrase no matter how perfectly it summed up the sentiment.  He had to break out from Batman’s shadow and… become his own creation.  Hell, all of them on the first Titans team had done it in one way or another.  It was their symbolic shift from sidekick to full blown heroes with their own identities and their own personas.  What was so wrong with that?  Why was it such a mark of immaturity to claim that right?  He wanted—no, he needed, to invent himself just as Bruce had done, as Superman had done, as even Catwoman had done! This last thought was prompted by Bytes hopping into his lap and pawing eagerly at the Batarang, so Dick took a break from brooding and went to the kitchen to warm some milk.

Right.  So.  Like Batman, Superman, and Catwoman, Nightwing invented himself.  He had reached a point, even without Batman benching him after the Joker shooting, where he had outgrown the moniker he’d chosen as a twelve-year-old boy.  It caused friction, but eventually they’d healed that rift, formed the kind of true partnership that can only exist between equals.

And then for Bruce to pull this.  He had gone out of his way to treat Nightwing as a senior crimefighter on his own level just at the same time he rolled out the new procedures and crackdown on bending the old ones.  It was a Machiavellian way to get Dick on his side, and it worked.  It led him to see the juniors grousing for what it was.  It… It was so infuriatingly Bruce

Tim didn’t understand, not really.  He was bent out of shape about the new protocols.  Sure, that was natural.  But he didn’t see the big picture.  He only saw something Bruce was doing to him; he didn’t see what Bruce was doing.  The new stuff in the field plus this off-the-scale reemergence of the control freak, something was going on.  Something beyond Ivy.  Bruce had been greened before, they all had.  Nothing like this ever happened afterwards, nothing.  Something was wrong.

So he’d ask Selina.  She knew Bruce better than anybody and she was in a position to see more than anybody.  He wondered if asking Tim along had been a mistake.  Their complaints, though similar, were coming from different perspectives and… well, Dick couldn’t deny that when he and Tim got into something like this together, they turned into the Katzenjammer Kids.  It was like two middle-aged brothers reverting to 12-year-olds at Thanksgiving dinner.  But Tim had leapt at the idea when Dick offered, so there was no avoiding it now. 

Alfred saw a lot too, albeit not as much as Selina.  Dick would ask him a few questions, since he was going to be at the manor anyway.  But he knew even now all he’d get in reply was a disapproving Bat-glare and polite inquiry about “Miss Barbara’s health.”  Selina was really the best chance…  at least that was his thought before he saw Bytes trotting out of the room with the Batarang in his mouth.

 

Claudia “Muffy” Muffington and Penelope “Penny” Vraag were not henchwenches or groupies.  You couldn’t just order them to run to the powder room and find out what Bart said to Raven. 

Harvey and Eddie exchanged looks as Raven ran tearfully past the table.  Although personal relationships involving people who wore masks for a living could not be construed as “normal” in any sense of the word, some things were universal: All men know when the shit has hit the fan.  The scene looked exactly the same to Riddler and the former Two-Face as it did to Sly the bartender, the tourists from Saratoga Springs, and DEMON minion fresh off the boat from Istanbul.  Clearly, Dr.  Bart said something wrong—or else he didn’t say something he was supposed to—or possibly he said it but looked shifty as he spoke, and therefore didn’t say it convincingly enough.  In any case, he fumbled.  And since they couldn’t very well send the women after Raven, the only way to find out what happened was from DOC BRAT ROT himself.

Harvey excused himself from the table and invited Bartholomew into the bar, reasoning that Harvey Fullface, “former patient,” had a better chance than Edward Nigma, who could be back on the Arkham couch at any time.  Even at that, Bart was reluctant to go along.  The “indiscretion,” the “illusion of candor that arose from a therapeutic relationship not for a true friendship,” the “appearance of impropriety,” Bart had a dozen of them.  Harvey eventually silenced that psychobabbling ethics rot by pointing out that Leland Bartholomew, psychiatrist to half the psychos in the Gotham underworld, should not stroll unescorted into the Iceberg bar.  If he wanted a drink (and in Harvey’s experience, the sight of your ladylove running to the ladies room in tears was cause for a drink),  he should come with Harv.

Bartholomew said no, he should just leave.
Harvey said no, not while the lady was crying in the bathroom.
Bartholomew gave in and ordered a Jack Daniels.

 

“You’re back.”

Catwoman had landed on the roof, hip cocked ever so slightly at that angle, her particular stance.  She’d moved towards him like she had on a thousand rooftops before, not threateningly but predatory all the same, unmistakably feline, her whole body alive with movement.  Then, as soon as she was close enough to be heard, that purring voice.  “You’re back.” 

Once, the words would have been different.  Once, he would have chased her down before reaching this moment.  Once, he would have ordered her to stop.  Once, she would have teased him in reply.  “Can’t a girl go out for a stroll without strange men chasing after her?”

Now it was “You’re back.” Now, instead of an attack or another chase, she lifted her arms around his neck and added, “I missed you.”

He managed a grunt.  It wasn’t easy.  There was no light teasing touch along the edge of his cowl, no slow claw down his arm or a gentle fiddle with the edge of his cape.  “You’re back.  I missed you.”  It was so… Selina.  In the catsuit, on a rooftop, that smell of her skin, vanilla and lavender with the faintest hint of leathery musk.  He didn’t need this.  He didn’t need that line to be blurring right now.  He needed Catwoman the unstoppable safecracker to be here in the city prowling rooftops and Selina the woman with whom he shared his life to be at home in Bruce Wayne’s house, in Bruce Wayne’s bedroom, where she kept her jewelry in the corner safe that she didn’t have to crack because she knew the combination…

Of course, even in that strained scenario, it’s not like he’d ever told her the combination.  It was just understood between them, it was understood that she could open it.  He even changed the combination periodically just for… for “fun.”  She always opened it in minutes; it was their little game.  Even there, even in their bedroom, she was so completely Catwoman.  Even there where they were so intimate, where he was so completely exposed…

He should say something.  He shouldn’t just stand there frozen and mute, like it was a matter of time before the Bat growled “Enough” and she would launch off the roof, escaping into the night with her plunder.  She was welcoming him home.  He should caress her cheek or wrap his arms around her waist; he should say he missed her too. 

But the moment passed and her attention shifted—as it often did by this point in a rooftop encounter—to the body armor.  But instead of tracing the oval or the outline of the bat on his chest, she was examining the tiger scratches down the side.

“My God, what happened here,” she began, lining up her claws with the scratch marks.

Somehow that made it easier to growl and push her away like he used to. 

“Nothing,” he snapped.

Except pushing her back a step only made it worse, because now that she was focused on the armor, she saw the deeper scratches (as well as the rips, punctures, and dried blood) on his thigh.

“What did this?” she asked, looking closer.

“It’s nothing.  Don’t fuss.  I’ve had worse,” he graveled, trying to maintain Bat-mode and not entirely sure he was succeeding.  “I’ve had worse from you,” he added, which wasn’t strictly true but made him feel more firmly in controlled, disciplined Bat-mode.

“Yes, I suppose you have,” she smiled, Bat-mode making her playful as always—which at least was more Catwoman than she had been up until now.

He told her she should go home, it was late. 

And it was late.  Late enough that she figured he too would be heading home and she could ride back with him in the Batmobile…  He didn’t like the idea.  Psychobat knew he could put a stop to it.  If he said he wanted to finish patrol, her revulsion at any sort of crimefighting would discourage her from coming along.  If it didn’t, he could say he’d be making a quick pass through the East End.  That would definitely—

But why?  She was happy, she was welcoming him home.  Why throw the specter of the Gotham Post in her face?  Why remind her of something that… It was late.  It was close enough to dawn that he was ready to call it a night.  There was no need to manipulate her just to prove he could.  He nodded towards the car, and on the drive home he would remember to ask about the opera. 

 

Harvey wasn’t really listening while Leland Bartholomew fretted about his reputation.  He’d seen Muffy and Penny rise very sweetly from the table and go to the ladies’ room.  Eddie must’ve somehow persuaded them… Damn, who knew the Nigmeister had it in him?

It was only then he vaguely heard Dr.  Bartholomew’s flustered complaints, this was the last thing he needed, his private affairs becoming grist for the Iceberg rumor mill.  Harvey absently assured him that he wasn’t that interesting—and he wondered how on earth Eddie might have broached the subject with Muffy and Penny.

“Just wait ‘til Patients Crane or Strange hear of this.  Mark my words, they’ll start making their therapy sessions about me instead of them—well, truth be told, they do that anyway, I suppose.”

“Hm?  Oh right,” Harvey said carelessly, then refocused his attention forcibly on Bartholomew.  “Right!  Let the ladies calm her down.  Then when she comes out, nice and softened up, you make your move.  Let’s hear what you’ve got.”

Bartholomew blinked.  He had no “prepared material” for the evening, he’d come because he had an epiphany.  He’d come to speak his from his heart.  He came to—

Harvey Dent shook his head in despair.  Like bringing a knife to a gunfight, he said.  No wonder he’d sent the girl running to the ladies room in tears. 

Since Eddie was now alone at their table, Harvey called him over, and the two of them, Eddie “Ladykiller” Nigma and Harvey the Dentmeister, began to coach Dr.  Bart.  They decided that, despite all the unfortunate whining, old Hermann actually did have a good outline, which a persuasive lawyer like Harvey and a quick-witted wordsmith like Eddie could mold into a moving poetic appeal: begin with a brief word-portrait of your bleak existence before meeting the lady fair, list her many fine qualities (neither dwelling on nor omitting her physical charms), contrast the lonely before and the rapturously fulfilled after.  Insert romantic gesture such as kissing her hand.  Repeat if needed… They hoped he could remember all that because their dates were coming back from the ladies room and they had to get back to the table.  Make us proud, Doc— 

And off they went.

 

Bruce awoke feeling he’d forgotten something.  He banished the lingering sense of a nightmare while his conscious mind reached out for that one thought that began each day (if he was lucky): he was waking at home in his own bed.  No alley, no bonds, no deathtrap.  Selina was still curled under his arm, just like they’d fallen asleep, her fingers resting on the cat-scars on his chest.  Her scars, the old scratches from the Excelsior Towers, not the fresh ones from… It had been a long time since he talked about a case that way, in bed.  Lying together like this before they’d fallen asleep, he’d told her about the Dhumavati… 

He was forgetting something.

…Before that, in the car, she’d talked about the opera.  She’d invited Nigma to go with her.  (Impossible woman.)  Not that Dick or Barbara were likely candidates for— He winced.  Selina had shifted in her sleep, inadvertently rubbing the wound in his thigh.  He’d have Alfred disinfect it properly and stitch it up later, but for now—oh.  He winced again.  This time, it had nothing to do with the stinging in his thigh, not directly.  He remembered what it was that he’d forgotten.  The tigers. 

He stroked Selina’s hair, thinking.  He knew from experience that Clark considered 1 p.m.  to be “first thing in the morning” for calling on night people.  That didn’t give him much time, even if he had a plan. 

Prevention was a long shot.  He’d be better off concentrating his efforts on damage control after the fact.

If it were anyone but Selina.  Damage control was the best course; it was the smart move.  But somehow, with Selina, he was reluctant to stand back and let the dominos fall if there was any chance of stopping it.

If it were anyone but Selina…  If it was anything but the Catitat.

 

Dick and Tim were both considered family at Wayne Manor, not visitors.  Alfred didn’t ask why they were there or formally show them into the Morning Room while he “went to fetch” Miss Selina.  He told them, almost casually (for Alfred), that he thought she was on the terrace off the dining room.  And then he told them to stop by the kitchen before they left.  Both knew there would be a fresh pitcher of lemonade and a thin crust pizza just coming out of the oven when they got there. 

They did find Selina on the terrace, wearing a wine-colored, scoop-necked leotard and tight black riding pants, her eyes closed while she sat in some kind of twisty yoga posture… and Tim lost his nerve.  He stopped short when he saw her and Dick walked right into him.  He reached around and yanked Dick forward, then pushed him towards Selina.  Dick smacked him.

“Is this how brave you were confronting her in the field?” Dick whispered. 

“Yes,” Tim hissed.  “Unlike my predecessor, I didn’t want any embarrassing voice-crack episodes or—”

“You know I can hear you,” Selina said calmly, without opening her eyes or relaxing her posture.

“Screwed,” Tim said.

“Putz,” Dick answered.

“I have no idea how any of you are still alive,” she noted with a grin.  Then she stood, stretched, and winked.  “So what’s up?”

Looks were exchanged, an entire fifteen minute “you-go—no-YOU-go” argument summed up in two half-second stares, and finally Dick decided to be spokesman. 

“We were just wondering if you’d noticed anything a little off with Bruce,” he began uncertainly.

“Is this how brave you were confronting her in the field?” Tim said pointedly.

“Well how were you going to introduce the subject?” Dick asked.

“I don’t know, maybe mention the Zogger, the drills, the new log procedures, new passwords on everything, ‘all transmissions have to be encrypted no matter how trivial the data,’ scrambling transponder frequencies every two days…”

“I don’t believe you guys are being such babies about some new passwords,” Dick grunted.

“Be you own man protocol, Bro.”

“Guys! Do I have to be here for this?” Selina interrupted.

They both turned and looked at her.

“Look,” Tim said reasonably, “It’s just that Bruce has gone seriously Psychobat lately, like before you/when you were really getting to him Psychobat.  So maybe you could, I dunno, do something to ‘ease the tension’ or some…thing…” 

He’d put air quotes around the final phrase, after which Dick took a brisk step to the side and stood looking up at the trellis, hands behind his back, like maybe he was considering buying a trellis just like this for a terrace of his own.

“Ease the tension,” Selina repeated thoughtfully.

“Oh you know what I mean,” Tim whined.  “Do that thing you do.”

“’That thing I do’ is this,” she answered with lightning speed, as a lion’s leap kick knocked Tim backwards, flipped him over, and a tiger’s fist jab stopped just short of his forehead to discourage any thought he might have of standing.

 

Clark Kent made his usual excuse: he was meeting a source over his lunch hour so he might be a bit late getting back to the office, and moments later Superman was speeding towards Gotham.  By the time he sighted the Hudson River, he decided Bruce was paranoid.  And Lois, though not in Bruce’s league, had her own bouts with unjustified cynicism, most reporters on her level did.  He was offering free tigers!  They were beautiful and noble animals that had been mistreated.  Selina had a cat farm.  There was no reason she shouldn’t jump at the chance to give them a home.  Bruce was just being overcautious, as usual, almost to the point of para—

“Hello??? Former Villainess here, not the Young Vigilante Union Rep.  Now scram or bleed.”

—noia. 

He shook his head, wind currents did weird things when he shifted his posture and slowed for a landing.  He’d been thinking about Selina in a certain context as he was nearing Wayne Manor, so his superhearing decided it heard her voice and his subconscious distorted it into something… catty.  And, of course, it didn’t happen only as he neared Wayne Manor; it happened when he was crossing those sensors Bruce had to “detect Kryptonian entry into Wayne Manor’s airspace.”  His subconscious knew that too.  Bruce and Lois WERE paranoid and paranoia was contagious, that’s really all there was to it.  Free tigers, that was the thing to remember.  He was offering her free tigers.

He landed on the south lawn and walked towards the terrace.  Selina was there; Dick and Tim were going inside… Well, okay, Dick and Tim.  Maybe Selina had said something about “young vigilantes.”  That didn’t mean anything on its own.  Free tigers.  He was offering free tigers.

Selina stretched a few times as he walked over.  Clearly she saw him and was just waiting—but the stretching did look very… feline.  His second guessing took a sudden detour as he realized he wasn’t sure where, exactly, he was with Selina “socially.”  Should they shake hands? hug? kiss on the cheek?  While he was wondering he was also walking, and now he was standing close enough to at least say something—but he hadn’t.

So he waved hello, which seemed awkwardly wrong at this distance, but she answered with a casual “Hey Spitcurl.”  Then he wished her a good afternoon and she said “He’s down in the cave.”

He faltered.  It was too quick for human senses to perceive, but the Man of Steel quite definitely faltered.  She said Bruce was down in the cave.  So she thought he was there to see Bruce.  So Bruce… hadn’t even told her he was coming?  “Ask her yourself and leave me out of it” was beginning to seem like something more than typical Bat-paranoia.  Lois’s demands for the byline echoed in his memory.  In his mind’s eye, he pictured the words “by Lois Lane” and his imagination tried to pull back his focus to reveal the headline above…

His imagination floundered. 

What did Bruce know that he didn’t?

“Actually, I came to talk to you,” Superman announced, striking his trademark hands-on-hips pose.  It was his usual approach, direct and confident, and it nearly always managed to secure a positive response from his listeners.  The-awe-of-Superman-on-your-doorstep Factor, as Bruce referred to it, although Clark preferred to think of it as catching more flies with honey. 

“No, I will not make cookies for the Justice League bake sale,” Selina replied—with a honey smile of her own, hands on her own hips mirroring his stance, and clearly declaring herself Un-awed-by-Superman-about-to-ask-a-favor.

He glanced down at his “I’m Superman” stance and laughed. 

“Sorry, it’s a habit,” he remarked, dropping his arms to his sides and taking on a much more relaxed posture. 

But neither the laugh nor the exchange so far had put him at ease.  The duet of “Just leave my name out of it” and “I get the byline” echoed in his memory.  So, instead of getting down to business about the tigers (Free tigers, he reminded himself), he grinned and, with the disarming manner of a savvy reporter, he changed the subject.  He talked about Metropolis and the Daily Planet, an arson story Lois just broke which was getting a lot of attention in the national press, an astronomer Clark Kent had interviewed the week before who just happened to show him—dumb luck, just because the conversation happened to flow that way—a new nebula in the same quadrant as Krypton.  It looked so interesting through the telescope that Superman had gone up afterwards for a closer look…

He talked long enough that Alfred must have gotten wind of his arrival and brought a tray with a pot of coffee, milk, mugs—“Good afternoon, sir” that Superman only half-nodded at—sugar, sandwiches and cookies…  He segued—casually, thanks to the arrival of the coffee—into the recent case with Batman: the Dhumavati cult, dhuma meaning smoke which was all that would be left after the destruction of the world by fire… 

Selina knew babbling when she heard it.  She sat down and silently poured the coffee, added cream and sugar, and pushed a mug over to Superman—who was still going strong.

…What was so interesting on this last case was that Dhumavati, like all aspects of the goddess Parvati (according to Bruce’s research, which was just unbelievably valuable on this case, even more than usual) is represented with a lion, but this cult used tigers instead, inspired by this passage in the Rubaiyat of—

“Spitcurl, are you nervous about something?” Selina interrupted, pouring her own coffee.  “Because you juggle planets.  So whatever it is that can make you sputter through a book report on Hindu deities, I don’t think I can help you with it.”

Superman chuckled, lifted his coffee, and then became transfixed by the mug.  It pictured an extreme close-up of some sort of spotted wildcat and read Nirvana.  The Catitat.  He moistened his lip thoughtfully.  Selina’s own mug displayed her own picture, masked as Catwoman, and the words Cat-Tales.  Hijinx Playhouse.

“I can juggle planets,” Superman said frankly (although he never had, not literally.  There would be no reason to do such a thing, but he was certainly capable of the feat).  “But you can make Bruce smile.  You tell me which is more incredible.”

“The fact that all of you seem to think that—” she started to say, but Superman waved his hand, shushing her, and pointed to his mug.

“I’ve known him for years, Selina.  As long as you’ve known Batman, certainly, and a lot longer than you’ve known Bruce.  And this is the first time I’ve been served anything in this place that didn’t have a gold W on it.”  Then he pointed to her mug.  “And I never saw him smile in the mask, not once… until 6 weeks after that show of yours.  Now, remind me, when was it exactly that you two got together?”

“Pfft,” she said, shaking her head in disbelief.

“You know the thing that bugs me most about criminals,” he said offhandedly.  “The denials, the ridiculous, transparent denials when you’ve got them dead to rights…  I have six Bengal tigers.  They need a home.  You have a preserve.  So what can we do about this?”

To be continued...

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