“You look around and see a lot of negative things, and you can’t help but feel like you’re a part of something negative, and that maybe you're something negative.”
The Wayne One engines hummed quietly in the background while Bruce studied the photograph that accompanied the quote. A boy in his early teens, about the age Tim was when Bruce had met him. About the age of the boys in the favela who’d played such a role in finding the so-called Gang of Six that were running Demon in Ra’s al Ghul’s absence.
The boy was describing life, not in an impoverished shanty town in Brazil but in the housing projects of Gotham. You look around and see a lot of negative things… It was obvious why Lucius wanted this quote for the website, the quote and the boy were the perfect 5-second capsulation of what the Foundation was trying to accomplish with the Neighborhoods program. Throwing money at a school did nothing on its own, not when everywhere a student looked reinforced the message that tomorrow would be no better than today. A multi-tiered approach was vital. That’s why the arts and cultural programs had to stay, right alongside the health, education and conservation efforts.
The picture, however… Bruce chuckled. He could see why Lucius wasn’t sure about it. The clean, pressed blue jeans and shirt might not conform to the public’s image of a kid from a Gotham slum, but they bespoke personal pride and a caring family. That wasn’t a problem. The contradiction that undercut the quote was that smile—and that gleam in the kid’s eye. He knew it was a good line. Whether he was wise as well as articulate or merely read the photographer’s reaction, he knew he’d said something tremendously insightful and he was, understandably, proud of himself. Beaming with satisfaction, in fact. It was not the face of a boy beaten down by his environment, it was a boy who knew he might one day get into Harvard. Not something to discourage, but they would have to use a different picture.
A soft snore sounded from the sofa a short distance away, and Bruce glanced at Selina, opting for a nap when it became clear he was going to work during the flight home. He looked at the picture again, then at the clock in the lower corner of his laptop, then at his watch… Not quite seven in Gotham, too early to call Lucius… He shot off a quick email, approving the quote to be used as the snapshot for the Neighborhoods program, but with a different image—and making sure that boy was invited to some event in the near future where there would be plenty of photo ops so they could put a smaller picture of him, shaking hands with the governor or something, elsewhere on the website.
Bruce returned his attention to the spreadsheet with the Neighborhoods budget, but his thoughts kept returning to that photo… the pressed blue jeans, and the boys that same age in Brazil. Again he looked at Selina, relocated to the sofa where she lay, and gave her hip a nudge.
“Landing?” she murmured.
“No, not for hours yet.”
She adjusted and sat up as the confused kitten expression morphed into the ‘why do you plague me’ pout of the cat burglar surprised at an opened vault.
“We could add a bedroom,” he graveled. “Most planes of this type have them. Paul Allen’s, Lau’s, Prince Alwaleed’s, even Redford Briggs’s.”
Selina looked around suspiciously and then whispered “Are we alone?” And once he nodded: “’Cause waking me up to talk about putting a bedroom in the plane sounds like something the Fop would come up with.” That was answered with the unmasked version of the scowl Batman always gave when he denied his feelings for her and she called him out on it—which led to the satisfied purr: “So what do you really want to talk about?”
“I swore I was never going to tell you this, but when you lost that bet and I said you had to take Ra’s off my hands, I was joking. I never imagined you would actually do it.”
“I know,” she said with the subtlest of smiles. “Why do you think I ran with it the way I did? It wasn’t to see the look on his face when I told him (although it was priceless); it was to see the look on yours. But that’s not really what you woke me up to say, is it?”
“No,” he admitted. “I guess I just want to talk, not even sure where to begin.”
“It’s okay,” Selina said softly. “Just… start. Let it go where it wants.”
“When I began all this… ‘Batman’… Whatever it was I imagined it would be, it wasn’t… well, it wasn’t Joker and Poison Ivy and The Mad Hatter. I guess it was the alley. It was stopping the kind of crime that marred my life so that no one else would have to suffer the way I did. And as much as theme criminals in weird costumes are a departure from that original plan, Demon is a thousand times more so.”
He fell into silence and, after a few seconds, Selina gently prodded him.
“It’s the same with the Foundation. When I took over, it was with a Gotham focus: assistance for victims of crime and poverty. The economic conditions that foster desperation and violence among people who would have no inclination to anti-social behavior but for…” The expression that stopped him mid-sentence was a new one, never seen before in costume or out.
“Alfred told me,” she said with a guilty smile that became a vibrant one when it reached her eyes. “It wasn’t long after the RISE party. Knowing now what we didn’t know then, he’d deduced that we’d become engaged. You were off with the League on that stupid Dark Matter thing in the Stellar Stream and…”
“What’s he been telling you?”
“Nothing that makes me love you less,” she said in a teasing murmur. “He said when you were young you would talk about the trust and what you would do with the money when you came of age. And you had a logic proof that established, line by line, that you can’t—what was the phrase—yes, ‘you can’t arrest your way out of crime.’”
“He told you that,” Bruce said, the ominous gravel wavering into an unbelieving squawk. “He told you that I said that.”
“That nobody wanted to be tougher on criminals, of course, especially murderers, of course, but… yes, if the goal was to prevent victims, the only sure method was to prevent criminals. Q.E.D. any successful war on crime must include a war on the causes of crime, and Poverty is the big offender by a mile. Rich people steal and kill too, certainly, but money isn’t going to be much use on those fronts whereas with poverty…”
She stopped as Bruce got up and paced angrily around the cabin like Shimbala at feeding time.
“I don’t believe he would tell you that,” he said, adding in Batman’s gravel, “that he would tell you of all people.”
“You don’t imagine it came as a surprise, do you?” Selina laughed. “Bruce, I’ve known there was more to you than ‘the fist’ since, like, four seconds after we met.”
“He still shouldn’t have told you about that conversation.”
“He was never prouder of you.”
“I know. ‘A superb expenditure, Master Bruce, eminently worthy of your late parents’ name and memory.’ He rarely dipped into the pompous vocabulary back then. He was doing it to cover tearing up, and I pretended not to notice.”
“You do realize you’ve saved the world a good eight or ten times since then, and he was never prouder of you than that day. So don’t be a jerk and growl at him for telling me. It will just lead to cold soup on the dinner tray and dirty socks left in little piles in the costume vault.”
“Yes, well, my point was that I always intended the Foundation to have a Gotham focus much like I did the crimefighting.”
“But?” she prompted.
“But you saw those favelas,” Bruce said impatiently. “Hundreds of thousands of people living in abject poverty—and off the grid. It’s not only prime recruiting for Demon, it’s just… wrong. And I’m heading home, again, and just like when I trained with Dias the first time, I’m planning to write a check.”
He paused, looking at her as if inviting another prompt.
“And?” she obliged.
“And there’s an email from Lucius, redoing the Foundation website. There’s a picture and a quote from a boy. It’s for the neighborhood revitalization projects, and it’s so… People who talk about income inequality in a place like Gotham, if they saw those favelas, their heads would explode. But how can I short Gotham to give more to Brazil? That boy right there in the photo is the one who grows up to be the next Lucius Fox or the next drug dealer Batman has to clear off the street.”
“While the boys in the favela may wind up in Demon. I get it. And the response to the painfully obvious ‘Can’t you do both’ would be?”
“Do you have any idea how much money we’re talking about?”
“I know we’re having this conversation on your plane and we started off talking about refurbishing it to put in a bedroom. And I know that, fop performances notwithstanding, you’re not big on ‘Let them eat cake’ irony. So I’m guessing we’re a bit beyond ‘Sell a Batmobile’ territory.”
“What the Brazilian government spent only on the favelas they fixed up would take 17,000 Batmobiles. Twenty squadrons of Batwings. Eighty—”
“Okay, I get it,” Selina nodded. Then her eyes narrowed, darkened, and took on the gimlet quality he associated with her most dangerous villainous escapades. “How many LexCorp divisions?”
“Well it just occurred to me that—my fault, I brought up the Batmobile—we started off talking Wayne stuff and then jumped to Bat stuff. And I thought how, even if there was an air force of Batwings to liquidate, it’d be a ridiculous amount of money to explain, and then I just… flashed on Luthor. Rebuilding LexCorp, and cleaning out Bev buying up a villa’s worth of artwork at a time, and, well… He’s probably the only man in the world who has as much stashed away in secret assets as you do.”
“I am not letting him buy back those tech divisions,” Bruce declared with I’m-Batman finally.
“Even as bait, to get him to expose all that lovely secret wealth so kitty can do what she does best?
“What?” Bruce repeated to cover his mouth dropping open in shock
“Look, for years I’ve had to put up with half-wits that couldn’t find England on a map saying that Catwoman is some kind of Robin Hood. As if the notion of stealing Mrs. Ashton Larraby’s second-rate Faberge to give money to an orphanage doesn’t insult everyone involved, from Czar Nicholas right down to the orphans. Every time it happens, after I throw up a little bit in my mouth, I think about how I’d do it, just once, to show those low-rent ant-fuckers what it would look like. My brains and my skills, what Catwoman ‘robbing from the rich to give to the poor’ would really look like.”
“And you think I’m going to turn a blind eye to an eleven-figure heist because I like your smooth skin?”
She stared for a half-beat, and then the naughty grin broke like the dawn.
“You learned to figure out when I’m joking. When did that happen?” she asked moments before the lip twitch.
“Approximately forty-eight seconds after you said ‘Romance in the workplace is a seriously bad idea,’ which was 1.4 seconds after ‘I can’t believe you fell for that, you’re so cute when you’re stupid.’”
She smiled, he smiled—one of the rare ones few people got to see.
“Well, we may have come a long way,” she said at last, “But I don’t think a solution to global poverty is in the cards. Not before we land.”
“No,” Bruce admitted. “It’s just so frustrating. Doing what I always do. I’ll write a check. Dias has a jujitsu program in one of the favelas. Give him what he needs to take more students. It really teaches them respect, for themselves and each other. Discipline, the benefits of hard work and dedication. They have to keep up their grades, behave in school. And it gives them a full meal each day, sometimes two. Still feels like so damn little. In six months, I’ll have Lucius follow up, see about expanding the program into some of the other neighborhoods, and it will seem like even less.”
“Bruce, you started off talking about your plan at the beginning. That boy with the logic proof knew he couldn’t solve the whole problem and wipe out all crime. And you decided it was still worth doing.”
“Yes,” he took a deep breath. “It’s still enormously frustrating.”
To be continued…