Chapter 6: Negotiating Price
Bruce was just headed into the costume vault when I got home. I hid in the shadows, just for a few seconds until he’d gone inside to change. I felt like if he saw me, he’d probably stay in costume, he does that when he’s thinking as Batman. But I didn’t want to have this conversation with “Batman,” if you know what I mean. I didn’t even want to have it in the cave if I could avoid it but, well, it doesn’t matter, we can’t always have what we want.
After a minute, he came out, minus the cape, cowl and gloves, but still in costume and still very much in Bat-mode, took one look at me and grunted. An old grunt, the kind he used to make at Tiffany’s or some museum.
“I thought I heard something,” he growled, still looking me up and down like I might have a loot bag or something.
“I didn’t hear a thing,” I told him.
“It’s the bats, they go quiet when someone is out here.”
“Can’t pull one over on the great detective,” I admitted. I’d taken a step closer—I wasn’t even aware I was doing it. Something about that look of his, the grunt, the tone, it was all so much like the old days. It brought out the old instincts; it made me flirty. I’d walked up to him and started playing with the insignia out of habit. He let it go on a lot longer than he used to; he didn’t take my wrists or push me away. Finally, I just wound down, stopped fussing around the bat-emblem and looked up at him. I realized it didn’t really matter if he had the mask on or not, at this distance he was just… eyes.
He hesitated and then put his arms around my waist. I could tell he knew. He’s Batman. Finding out things is second nature to him. He’d probably heard the same stories I had, or something similar, about Dr. Light and come to the same conclusion. But I asked anyway.
“Me too,” I said, “But I have a
solution…” I felt him stiffen, and I knew right then it was hopeless.
I’d lost before I even said a word—Just this once, Dark Knight, let me
leave with the diamond sparkly. Where’s the harm? After all I
did capturing Penguin for you, leaving him neatly trussed up at the
Bat-Signal, you couldn’t look the other way just this once?
“No, no, no! Selina, I won’t have it. It only compounds the problem—adding magic on top of magic. I never wanted or needed magical protection before and I am NOT starting now. I don’t like it, I don’t trust it, and I will. not. use it.”
“This magic shit is like nuclear weapons, Bruce. You may not like that they’re out there at all, but if they have theirs, then we have to have ours.”
“Forty years of Cold War taught us the futility and idiocy of that logic.”
“I knew you were going to be this way. Damnit, why won’t you let me protect you? Is it the tiger-bodyguard thing? I went along with everything else, Bruce, I stayed in the cave, I went to the fortress. That went against my principles, but I made an exception for special circumstances. So what’s it going to take to get you on board with this?”
“Selina, listen to me. This isn’t protection; it’s an overreaction that’s not going to matter in the end. Protection from Zatanna is pointless.”
“After what she did, it’s pointless?! How can you say that?! Bruce, are we even living on the same planet here!”
He paused, his face hardening even more, if that were possible. “Because it’s not going to be Zatanna next time,” he said.
There was an undercurrent I couldn’t figure out. I could tell he was hurt, I could tell he was angry, I could tell he had blood flowing to it a hundred different ways, but what “it” was exactly, I couldn’t figure out. Whatever it was, it wasn’t good.
“Ockham’s Razor,” he was saying, “Remove the extraneous: the real problem is not the magic or the magician, it’s the betrayal. Next time it won’t be her, it’ll be someone or something else. Then what? More protection compounded for another magic-user? It won’t end: once you cross that line, it will just keep escalating. The only real way to protect me or anyone else from the next time is to make sure there is no ‘next time.’”
I asked, with as much controlled poise as I could muster (which admittedly wasn’t much), how in the raging bloody hell he expected to “make sure there is no next time” without shoving it down their goddamn star-spangled throats that they COULD NOT ever do it again, that they would NEVER in a thousand lifetimes be in a position where they could FUCK WITH HIM EVER AGAIN?
He looked at me—actually, it was more like he was looking through me—and then turned on his heel and left.
Bruce knocked once at the door to Alfred’s room before twisting the knob, entering and closing the door behind him. He hadn’t waited for any acknowledgement or permission to enter; he didn’t want to risk Selina seeing him if she’d followed from the cave.
“Is there a problem, sir?” Alfred asked, concerned, as he reached for his dressing gown.
“Not an emergency, Alfred, but yes, there is definitely a… I just had the most unnerving moment with Selina. There’s definitely a problem, old friend, yes.”
Alfred noted silently that Bruce was still partially in costume, and also that he was unnaturally pale.
“Sit down, sir,” he suggested, pointing to the chair. “It seems you’ve had an alarming shock of some kind?”
“Remember Dick’s idea about Wayne Manor being cursed? I’m almost starting to wonder if there’s something in it, not the manor, but me…” He related briefly what was known—and what was suspected—about Dr. Light and the mindwipe, but before Alfred could answer with more than a murmured “My word,” Bruce waved him off that topic entirely. “It’s typical,” he grunted. “I’m not happy about what happened, but I can’t say I’m surprised. The fact that they had to wipe MY mind because I would stop them only goes to prove that they knew they were in the wrong and they had to cover their asses. They did it the only way they could, using their powers.”
Alfred wondered if it was really that simple. After so many years, so many confidences, he knew there were times Bruce merely described what he knew to be so, and there were times he spoke a thought out loud to convince himself. This could well be the latter, and normally Alfred would press to find out… But there was something more at work—something deeper—Bruce had left the cave in the middle of the night, only half changed from his costume. There was more to the League story, certainly, but Alfred sensed there was something… else going on.
“It’s… disgustingly typical, but that’s not the issue right now. Alfred, it’s Selina, her reaction to this, what I saw in her just now, it was…”
“It was what, sir?”
“It was me,” Bruce whispered the last word.
“Remember when I said I was going to train Dick as a crimefighter, do you remember that fight we had over it? How I saw—it wasn’t just that he’d lost his parents, it was the pain and anger, the fire in his eyes, his voice, that burning need to fix it somehow… Alfred, I never wanted to see anything like that in her, not in Selina. She’s supposed to be this little corner of the world that’s life and joy, not obsession and ‘this is wrong; we have to do something.’”
“Master Bruce, Miss Selina may be greatly distressed by the news of the day. I don’t doubt that her reaction is impassioned and, perhaps, not lacking the kind of resolve and determination you yourself have been known to exhibit in matters of import. But I cannot believe, sir, that the woman you know is materially changed by these events. I am certain that, in time, that ‘life and joy’ you spoke of will assert itself again and—”
“So help me, Alfred, if they snuffed that out of her, I’ll—”
Both men were interrupted by a knock at the door.
“Alfred, are you awake?” Selina’s voice called.
Bruce massaged his brow and ran fingers through his hair as Alfred said, “Come right in, miss.”
She did. She was wearing his kimono again. She looked right at him as if she had guessed he was in the room.
“You left this downstairs,” she said simply, running her fingers over the fabric. “Figured I’d bring it up. I’ll sleep in my suite tonight if you want some space.”
“You don’t have to do that,” Bruce answered as she turned to leave.
“What do you want then?” she asked over her shoulder.
Bruce said nothing for a long moment, and Alfred flicked imaginary dust off his nightstand.
“That’s what I thought,” Selina murmured.
“Go on to bed,” Bruce said finally, “I’ll be there in a few minutes.”
Alfred coughed. “Begging your pardon, miss,” he said before she could leave, “Might one ask what it is that you want?”
Selina thought for a minute… then the faintest hint of a naughty grin tugged at the side of her lip. “I want Zatanna to wake up tomorrow to find a rabbit’s head in her bed.”
The idea was that we’d sleep on it. When Bruce came to bed, we agreed that we both needed some time; we’d sleep on it and talk in the morning. It was maybe twenty minutes later I heard “You’re awake?”
“Selina, I do understand what you’re feeling. I’m prepared to take steps so it won’t happen again. I won’t have those steps include magic in my body, in my world, or in my life. It’s that simple.”
That was it for another fifteen minutes or so. Then it was my turn…
I crawled across the bed and curled tight against him, resting my head on his chest.
“What would you do?” I whispered.
“Make sure the League never resorts to such tactics again or even considers it, and punish the guilty.”
“Well that certainly sounds like you, but—”
“But you wanted to know specifics.”
“I don’t know what I want. I want to know you’re safe.”
“And you think Jason Blood can deliver that better than I can. Because he’ll use magic.”
“Because he goes on day after day, year after year, decade after decade, holding in Etrigan when there is nothing in it for him but more grief, and he does it, despite all that cynicism and distance from humanity that I guess just goes with being immortal, because it’s right—a concept he won’t even admit he cares about, a concept he will claim he loses sight of more and more each year. And yet if you look at what he does and not what he says—in stark contrast to those ‘hero’ friends of yours—he’s up there with you for complete and total dedication of his whole life to this one purpose that makes the world better for everybody else but him. And on top of all that, he could roast Zatanna on a spit over a flame of actual hellfire without even setting down his teacup. So yeah, I figure he’s the guy for this one.”
I know I got a little carried away. I’d sat up in the bed and was scrunching up the sheet by the time I was finished.
“I guess I could use some space then,” Bruce said dully. It felt like the whole world tipped away under me. “You stay here, I’ll go across the hall—” Any second now, I was going to slide down into a vacuum and all this shit in the room was going to come tumbling in on top of me.
“Bruce, wait, please don’t do this.” It was my voice talking, but it sounded a lot calmer than I was. “You asked how I felt.”
“And you told me.”
“It’s not like I had him do anything. I just went to find out what might be possible. It’s just an option.”
“An option you want to go ahead with.” Batman’s voice. Vault voice. I’ll never have anything to do with you because you’re a thief voice. None of this could really be happening, could it?
“After what they’ve done, I don’t know how you can feel safe without it.”
“I’m sleeping across the hall tonight.”
“WHY? Why are you pulling away from me when I only wanted to—”
“BECAUSE YOU DON’T TRUST ME! I said I will handle this. I will. Either you accept that or—”
“Or you need space and go across the hall, I get it.”
“Bruce… You won’t even tell me what you’re planning. It’s a lot to take on faith.”
“In other words, that’s your price. I have to convince you. If I don’t have something better, to your mind, than Jason Blood can provide, you’ll go right ahead, behind my back, and have him inflict magical protections on me without my knowing—”
“NO! Bruce, how can you even think—”
“—because YOU decide that’s best!”
“I would never do that. How can you even think I would do something like that… to you… Bruce, Jesus Christ, how can you even…”
That undercurrent was back, just like in the cave earlier. Hurting, angry, blood flowing into it a hundred different ways. It’s not the magic or the magician, it’s the betrayal… It’s not—
“It’s not Gotham. Whatever happened it’s connected to the League
somehow, not the rogues.”
“How do you figure that?”
“Because Superman knows.”
“Oh. Oh, I see. You trusted Clark. And Clark screwed you. And I get the bill. Is that it?”
“This morning it was ‘we.’”
“This morning we were in this together.”
“Will across the hall be sufficient distance, or would you feel safer if I left the premises entirely?”
“I don’t want you to go.”
“Well, I don’t want to go either, Bruce, so what are we talking about?”
“Let’s just… give it some time. Trust me. Trust when I say I will handle it. Let that be enough. Okay? Tomorrow, I’ll call Clark. This begins with full disclosure. By 10 a.m. tomorrow morning, I’ll know what he knows, and then I’ll know how to proceed.”
I said nothing. This morning, it was “we.”
Neither of us went across the hall. We curled together and lay there in silence until dawn. I’m not sure how much he slept. I’m not sure how much I slept either. Eventually, a yellow-white glow appeared above the curtains. I got out of bed and opened them. It was morning.
“Now there’s a good omen,” I purred.
Outside the window, perched upside-down at the very top of the screen, was a small brownish bat.
Bruce came to the window and glared at it.
“He’s kind of cute, backlit like that,” I noted. “I never realized how thin the wings are, look at that. You can see the bones, you can even see where the bulk of the body starts.”
A lecture followed. Bruce declared this specimen a “Bumblebee bat,” the smallest variety, with a wingspan of about six inches, weighing less than a penny. The wings were essentially long fingers covered by that nearly transparent skin. He pointed out the elbow and clawed thumb, and then I stretched up and kissed him.
“What was that for?”
“Just being you,” I told him.
Superman arrived, punctually, at 8:15. I was in the cave with Bruce, waiting. He showed me the alert that indicated Kryptonian entry into Wayne Manor’s airspace, and I went upstairs to admit our guest.
“Alfred is out shopping,” I mentioned as I escorted him down to the cave. It was a lie, which Bruce said he would know since he would hear five heartbeats in the house, three human and two feline. It was to be the first subtle hint that matters had changed.
We made smalltalk as we walked. I told him I’d called his mother to thank her for the cornbread and fritters she sent when Lois and I were holed up at the Fortress. I told him it was his father that answered the phone and that we’d had a nice chat. I told him that repulsive writer who insisted I started out as a prostitute was finally gone from the Gotham Post. I told him the forecast called for rain. And then we reached Workstation 1 and I handed him over to Bruce, for what I was sure was going to be a conversation the Iceberg crowd would call “some quality dinner theatre.”
I retreated to the Trophy Room, a spot Alfred had recommended as sufficiently out of sight and out of earshot, yet close enough to reach the main cavern in an instant if the situation required it. That moment came after about ten minutes.
I could see why Alfred favored this location. The acoustics of the Batcave were complicated; I knew that from my attempts to sneak up on Bruce at his workstation. But Alfred has had so many years to study them, he’s found tricks none of us can ever match. From this one spot, I couldn’t make out what was being said, but I could hear the burr of voices in conversation, the highs and lows, the general timbre and mood of the conversation. I couldn’t help but smile at this little insight into Alfred’s “magic”: from here he gave Bruce and whatever guest was in the cave their privacy, but he could make an appearance in case of a lull—or break the focus if the situation went wrong.
They only raised their voices once, about five minutes in, words leapt out from the muffled hum. First Superman’s: “It wasn’t my place to tell anybody anything!” and then Bruce’s: “But it’s your place to eavesdrop? And if you hear something this potentially damaging to your precious League, don’t you think you have a responsibility to tell someone?!” Then Superman: “I’m not sure I need to be taking lessons in responsibility from—” “From what, Clark, from an ordinary human being that can’t even fly? How dare flesh and blood presume to judge the behavior of a god?”
It got quiet then.
No, not quiet—silent. The voices stopped… …and didn’t start up again… …close to a full minute passed… … in complete silence.
Then, finally, the calmer, more rational, but unintelligible hum of conversation.
It was about five minutes later that Bruce called out, not very loudly, “Selina, a moment.”
And in three steps I was there, clearly standing by. I said nothing, and Bruce merely made eye contact and left without a word. Superman looked at me, and I smiled sweetly.
“It’s like he’s more pissed at me than anybody else,” he murmured.
He wasn’t talking to me. It was just one of those inner thoughts that leak out the mouth. I continued to smile, while envisioning what he might look like dodging Etrigan’s fireballs.
He noticed and I could see his wheels turning –smiling, not responding– –smiling, not responding– It wasn’t what he expected from me. After a minute of awkward silence, he started talking again, mostly to himself, it seemed to me.
“I mean, if I’d been there, it never would have happened. But I only learned about it after the fact. By then, it was too late. By then, it was another issue entirely. Something like this could tear the League apart, probably for good.”
Bruce returned and I left, again, for the Trophy Room. After another few minutes, Superman’s voice became audible again: “Are you pissed because the League did this or are you pissed because the League did it to you?!” but this time Bruce’s reply was a low gravel. I couldn’t make out the words but I recognized the cadence. Superman was definitely getting an adapted version of: burglary is a crime in this city even if you do look hot in purple leather.
After another minute of that, Bruce called me back in. I nodded, and again he left without a word. Superman watched him go, glanced at me for a moment, peered back in the direction that Bruce had left, and then looked straight ahead—not looking at me or anything in particular, just staring off into space.
“I get it, he doesn’t want me down here alone, right?” he muttered, slight disgust creeping into his voice.
“Got it on the first try,” I observed. “And they say you guys with the powers aren’t very bright.”
He tried for the upright hero’s look of disdain towards the lowly criminal’s taunt—a conceit I’ve always enjoyed popping even when it isn’t a total sham.
“I really don’t think you get to do the righteous crimefighter bit,” I whispered conspiratorially. “Not down here, not today.”
“No, I suppose not,” he said frankly, looking me in the eye. “Selina, listen. They did what they did to keep him from interfering. Was it the right thing to do? No. Would I have done the same thing? Certainly not. Was I pleased to find out about it? Hardly. But I was looking at the bigger picture. Telling him about it after the fact would have only started a cycle: they wiped his mind to keep him quiet, but I told him, so now they’ve got to think about wiping us both—which leads to a full League vs. League fight. Back then, the Secret Society, Lex Luthor and Grodd, had a real chance at taking over the world. The Justice League was our last best hope to—”
“Don’t you dare quote Lincoln,” I interrupted.
Superman paused and took a breath. “Despite what you might think, this wasn’t an easy decision to make. I struggled long and hard over this. It wasn’t an easy choice, but ultimately the good of the many had to come first. Selina, there are things that are bigger than Batman.”
He looked confused at my reaction—the expression that no doubt led to the theories about his not being very bright. We just won. He didn’t know it.
“Bigger than Batman,” I mused. “That’s an argument you don’t want to use again. Look, I’m not here for the conversation, I don’t care about your reason or theirs. But I’m telling you, don’t use that argument again.”
His expression morphed from confusion to slight indignation. He was no doubt wondering who the hell I was to be making a declaration like that. I smiled all the sweeter.
“Did I mention I had a nice chat with your father this morning?”
“I told him about the fall of that miserable little Post writer that said I was a whore. It reminded me of this great story Tom Blake would tell around the Iceberg whenever a new issue hit the stands, just to try and ruffle my fur: This guy at a dinner party asks a socialite if she’ll sleep with him for a million dollars. She says yes. Then he asks if she’ll sleep with him for ten and she’s insulted. She: Certainly not, what do you think I am? He: We have already established what you are, now we’re negotiating price.”
Superman is not, in fact, a stupid man. He realized by then what he’d stepped in, and, to his credit, he let me continue without trying to cut me off. Maybe that shot Bruce took about an ordinary human being daring to spank a god hit a nerve. Good.
“‘Bigger than Batman’ is not the same as ‘more important than.’ Abraham Lincoln did what he knew was right, even though it prolonged a war and cost lives, and he risked ‘the last best hope for earth’ to do it. And you stand there pretending right and wrong is a numbers game and use Lincoln’s words to justify it? Look, I DON’T DO THIS SHIT! I shimmy through Cartier’s vents left-left-down-right-squiggle-001004873-jewels-that-don’t-belong-to-me! I can’t stomach the priggish little lectures about right and wrong, law and justice, crime and punishment. Not. My. Thing. But this! Your—for lack of a better word—reasoning on this is so exquisitely fucked that SOMEBODY has to step up and SAY SO! Sometimes the good of the one does outweigh the many because of the principle involved—otherwise, you’re just negotiating price. And here’s the kicker, Spitcurl, I think a man raised by the couple I spoke to this morning knows that.”
Throughout the whole thing, Superman had this strange mixture of haughty superhero and whipped puppy dog on his face. But now his eyes shot up and locked onto mine. Given my own current state of mind I couldn’t be sure, but I swear I saw his eyes glowing red for an instant. Then, just as suddenly, his face relaxed into a determined stare and he spoke in a calm, frank voice.
“You know, your indignation would carry a lot more weight with me if it weren’t coming from someone who once kidnapped my wife. I’ll take the heat from Bruce. I deserve that. But you? Well, you said it yourself: You. Don’t. Do this.”
I figured that was coming. Parents are a hot button with anybody that doesn’t sprout from spores. There was a weapon—at least, what his kind would consider a weapon—in the fact that Catwoman was a criminal. That made him superior, in his opinion, and, oh look, push him just that much, and, yep, he’ll reach for that particular club. It was as inevitable as what Bruce knew was inevitable: push them just enough and they’ll reach for those other options that make them “superior.” I was about to say so when—
“She does have a point.”
It was the first time in a long time that Bruce’s voice actually startled me. I didn’t realize that he’d come back. Superman looked over at him as he returned.
“Yes. She does.” He turned to look directly at me again. “If you want me to say it was a mistake to keep this quiet, I’ll allow that it might have been. If you want me to say I would do it all differently today, I don’t know that I can. I understand your position: a League that has to be preserved in this way might not be worth saving. I can never feel that way. My mission is to protect the billions of innocent people on this planet the same way that Batman protects Gotham. If maintaining my ability to do that, to protect those I care about means having to sacrifice a—”
“Sold, one superman.”
“You and Bruce really are perfect for each other,” he said grimly. “You should think about getting married.”
“Kiss my ass,” I answered, just as grim.
Bruce made it back to where we were standing, looked at me and nodded toward the Trophy Room. Like before, I turned to leave, but Superman interrupted, an annoyed edge to his voice.
“She can stay.”
Both Bruce and I spun on him. He was in absolutely NO position to be making demands and I sure as hell wasn’t about to “stay”—that might work with your little Kryptonian hyper-mutt, but not me, Flyboy.
“If the both of you are going to be taking pot-shots at me, at least have the common courtesy to do it at the same time. Let’s give the tag-team theatrics a rest.”
Typical. How completely typical of the hero-addled intellect to think this was some sort of prearranged good cop-bad cop thing. If he couldn’t see that Bruce honestly needed to step away in the course of a conversation like this and get some air… Honest to god, I think we’d be better off starting with smart people and teaching them to fly.
I looked to Bruce for an opinion, and he grunted.
There really wasn’t much more to be said anyway. I gathered that he already told Bruce what he’d overheard at the Watchtower: the vote was split about ‘altering’ Dr. Light: Green Arrow, Black Canary and the earlier Green Lantern voting against, Hawkman, Zatanna, and Atom in favor, with the old Flash being the deciding yea.
The vote to wipe Batman’s mind was unanimous.
That was the point where Bruce had excused himself from the cave when Superman told him the first time. This time, his face just hardened into this dull grimace and his eyes radiated a pulsing fiery hate. I’d seen that look once before, second Hell Month, searching for Nightwing. The Beast.
“Of course,” Psychobat rumbled softly. “Those who voted against the first time were most aware it was wrong. They had to cover themselves.”
I felt Superman’s eyes on me, so I looked up at him with a calmly pleasant half-smile. Yes, Spitcurl, I’ve seen him like this before and I can handle it just fine, what’s your problem?
He went on a verbal ramble about how that incarnation of the League never truly recovered, that it was the beginning of the end of that group, that the division lines drawn that night never truly faded, etc. It was, quite honestly, a pretty disturbing picture. All Bruce had done was turn on a little Psychobat and one of the most powerful beings in the universe loses it.
“…Some of those involved still haven’t fully accepted what happened that night, the League itself was already in disarray—and the effects of that night are still being felt today. I’m not even sure if some of the reaction to Sue’s death wasn’t a continuation of that old argument…”
This, I gather, is what happened “that night” as well. According to what Superman overheard, in the cabal’s own words, “You think you’ve seen him mad… you’ve never seen him mad, not like this” and they (again in their own words) “panicked.”
Superbeings? I’ve seen him that mad. Harvey has fought him that mad. So has Eddie and Oswald and Tom Blake and Hugo Strange. The absolute joke figures of Gotham have all endured really pissed Psychobat and lived to tell the tale. Earth’s mightiest heroes can’t go thirty seconds without hitting the panic button.
“…The point being, I was trying to keep the League from completely crumbling—sometimes with my bare hands—and part of the decision was based on not wanting to add a hostile, unknown variable into an already volatile situation…”
Yes, he called Bruce a hostile, unknown variable—to his face. I’ll do stuff like that, but I know how to do it. I can pull it off—it’s one of my special powers, it goes with the naughty grin. Superman frankly should have known better.
“Just a reminder that I have Jason Blood on speed dial,” I told Bruce as soon as we’d got rid of Superman.
“Don’t ever say that again,” he growled.
So that was that. I was shut out again. It was ‘We’ while Superman was present, we were a team, but as soon as he whooshed on home, I was back on the watch list.
“It was just a joke, Bruce. Trying to lighten the mood a little.”
I conjured one final image of a magical catglove with claws that could slice into otherwise invulnerable Kryptonian flesh and give a certain chiseled cheek the smack it so richly deserved… He had no idea of the harm he’d done. “I work more with Superman because of the man. I trust him. I trust his judgment and his ethics and his decency.” And Trust does not come easily to Bruce…
“So what happens now?” I asked.
“Now we ensure that the guilty are punished and the League never resorts to these kinds of tactics again.”
To be continued...