Selina sat in the empty gallery in front of the famous Van Gogh, the torn skirt of her evening dress tied off above the knee. The floor was strewn with broken glass, splintered picture frames, and sequins. She held a chilled bottle of champagne, which she alternately drank from and held against a swollen bruise on her cheek.
“Vincent,” she told the painting, “I had plans for tonight, you and me, him, and this room.”
A familiar masculine footstep echoed off the reflective walls of the gallery. Selina ignored it as it came closer. She took a healthy swig from the bottle and glared up at the painting on the wall above her.
“Right about now,” she added, checking her watch.
The footsteps came closer still… Swig.
“This was not it,” she declared.
Just as the footsteps reached her, the dark figure passing wordlessly behind the bench on which she sat, a small, glistening orb landed hard and cool in her lap.
“I know I said you’d have to earn it, Kitten, but Jesus,” Bruce remarked dryly.
Selina glanced down to see the pink sapphire ring from Cartier.
“I was pissed,” was her only comment.
“I noticed that,” Bruce replied quickly. “I think it’s fair to say everyone noticed that, particularly Blake. That was really quite a… an unusual move with the backhand and the ice tongs and… his nose.”
They sat in silence for a minute, while Selina took another generous swig from the bottle. Then she offered him a taste, which he refused.
“Thanks for the Batarang,” she mentioned casually.
“That’s not how they’re meant to be used,” he graveled disapprovingly.
By the time Bruce had slipped away to the 5th floor balcony where he’d stashed his costume, changed into Batman, and returned to the main rotunda, the Catman situation was well in hand. Selina had disarmed him, certainly, for Richard Flay was holding the only gun in the room, picking it off the floor, his fingertips curled uncertainly around the butt as if it were a dead rodent, but keeping the barrel pointed safely at the floor. Batman returned his attention to Blake, who Selina had pinned in an obscure Kano-hold, her ungloved, unclawed fingers having evidently torn off enough of his cowl to apply the paralyzing nerve-poke behind his ear.
Talia had made her way from the side gallery where Bruce had left them. And having presumably recognized Catman as the Bat-imposter, she was maneuvering around the pair of them screaming about monstrous sacrilege of a great man’s mantle, witchcraft, and cats. Batman was amused to see Selina reposition Blake slightly to face the onslaught head on, turning his struggling body directly into the path of Talia’s rising knee. Catwoman and the demonspawn might never “team up” in the conventional sense, but Selina was evidently willing to step aside for twenty seconds to let Talia get a few licks in. Hell, as far as Selina was concerned, wanting to ram her knee into Catman’s chin was probably the first good idea Talia ever had.
The situation, such as it was, was under control; at least it was sufficiently under control for Batman to survey the rest of his surroundings. And the first thing he looked for was Edward Nigma, the only potential threat still unaccounted for. When he wasn’t visible from the rotunda, Batman raced silently to the spot he was most likely to find the little weasel, a fiery rage building with each step until he reached the Sanborn room.
Batman’s mouth filled with a salty metallic taste he’d only experienced in his first confrontations with Gotham criminals.
“NIGMA” he hissed, the bat-fist shooting out in a blinding flash, picking his nemesis up by the throat, and slamming him against the light column.
It was exactly what Batman knew he would find entering this room: Edward Nigma, the Riddler in a second rate civilian tux, dismantling the Sanborn sculpture and preparing to leave a coded message of his own in its place…
“Your little plan misfired, Eddie,” Batman hissed, a throb of pure fury pulsing behind his eyeballs.
…It’s exactly what Batman knew he would find, but a part of him—a part he didn’t want to admit existed—had hoped…
“You thought she would be a distraction.”
“You thought stirring her up would be a diversion, keep me occupied so you could get the Sanborn.”
…hoped, for Selina’s sake, that he was wrong.
“Instead, she’s freed me up to give YOU my FULL ATTENTION.”
The fist pinning Eddie to the light column tightened around his throat.
“I know you’re the one who maneuvered Cobblepot into telling her about that password.”
Batman changed hands, allowing Nigma to gasp momentarily for breath.
“And I can guess what buttons you pushed on her: the good old days? Her reforming? This opening being just the sort of target she would have loved once? Needing a win?”
While Batman’s left fist clutched Nigma’s throat, the right appeared inches above his nose, two fingers extended like a peace sign.
“That’s TWO,” Batman growled, his voice hoarse with raw hatred. “Sending that cat Flummox to the house, that was ONE-” The fist blurred and a fierce crotch-punch contorted Nigma’s lower body while that remaining hand on his throat held his head and torso in place.
Nigma tried to speak, but found he could only force a raspy burble.
“And this was two,” Batman said simply, delivering a quick, brutal blow to sternum.
The fist then opened slowly and deliberately, and Batman held the gloved palm purposefully in front of Nigma’s face for a beat before closing it once more around the villain’s forehead.
“You’re very proud of that brain of yours, Riddler,” Batman observed, pushing the head firmly backward against the column. “8.5 millimeters of bone tissue, mostly calcium phosphate, makes up a human skull. It’s not that much protection. So riddle me this: If there’s ever a THREE with you using Selina to get to me, where do you think the next blow will fall, hmm?”
“Bytes!” Barbara screamed as “the cat formerly known as Flummox” hopped onto the desk at her left and trotted happily between her and the large, central computer screen. She crossed back and forth until she’d received enough attention, then pounced away to the right.
“Boy, she’s a cute one,” Dinah noted, picking up the mewling creature before she could make another pass across the desk.
“Okay,” Barbara grumbled, now that the distraction was removed from her workstation. “Take a look at these shots from an ATM camera in Times Square last night. See that pointy-eared blur waving on the corner? That’s our fake Batman.”
“Same one as the reports from the Planet Gotham restaurant—Ooh, look at you, you sweetiepie—with his cape snagged on the front of the building?—Yes you are, you sweetiepie.”
“Gotta be, how many Batmen can there be running around Times Square in a single night—Dinah, put the cat down, will you. I’m trying to concentrate here.”
Dinah set Bytes down petulantly, and then mouthed “yes, you are” three more times before turning her attention back to Barbara—who was staring at her, openmouthed.
“WHAT are you doing?” Barbara asked flatly.
“Your cat is the only one left who’s nice to me, Babs, what do you want?”
Barbara said nothing for a moment, although it was clear she had something to say on the matter. Instead, she turned back to the main screen, punched a series of keys viciously, and a number of small thumbnail photographs appeared on the sidescreens. Work. If she learned anything in those months after the shooting, it was that work really was the best medicine. It was a distraction, of course; it gave the mind something to do besides dwell on its own problems; that much was true for everybody. But for the Bat-Family, there was the added balm of knowing you were doing Good, knowing the world was just a little better because of your efforts. That knowledge put you in a better state of mind to face… the realities: spending the rest of your life in a wheelchair… or accepting that your best friend and most trusted ally was capable of an unspeakable betrayal.
“This is our guy from outside the Planet Gotham building,” Barbara said, returning to the crisp all-business mode. “Everybody’s got phones in their cameras these days, and look at him, that was something to see. So there were plenty of photos. I was able to snag about half the images sent through the Times Square cell relays in that timeframe.”
“What a buffoon,” Dinah chuckled.
Barbara turned from the screen to frown at her silently for a moment. The guy was an imposter in a cheap costume who’d gotten his cape stuck on the cornice of a building. He was a buffoon, and if anyone else had said so, Barbara wouldn’t have blinked at the comment. But coming from Dinah—after what she did, who was she judge, who was she to laugh at anybody in a Bat-costume. Did Bruce look like a “buffoon” when they made him helpless and wiped his memory of it?
“Well he’s no Batman, that’s for sure,” Barbara pronounced, opting again to let the panacea of Work smooth over the situation. “You can see in this image that it’s not a quality costume, but then look here, back at the ATM—same guy, presumably—he’s hailing a cab, or trying to, and look in his hand, that’s a Batarang.”
“He’s trying to hail a cab, standing in the middle of Times Square, waving a Batarang,” Dinah said flatly.
“He lived. Somehow,” Barbara noted. “Anyway, look at the ‘rang; it’s real.”
“Barbara, it’s a squiggly little blur, how can you tell?”
“It’s a crappy costume, Dinah. Even the good costumes make the Batarangs too big, so they look better from a distance. They don’t need to be functional; they just need to be recognizable as a Batman Batarang. This one isn’t. It’s the right size. The fakes are never the right size.”
“Okay, valid theory. But so what?”
“SigmundFledermaus. He bought two. Actually, he’s bought roughly $4,000 worth of assorted bat-crap in the past eight months. But in with all the ripoffs and kink, he scored two genuine Batarangs. Handle like Sigmund Fledermaus, it’s got to be Hugo Strange, right? Batman just busted him, we got his front operation, found his lab and his apartment—no Batarangs. Somehow this guy, in this pathetic crap-costume trying to hail a cab in Times Square in theatre traffic, somehow he’s tied to Hugo Strange, and he’s got one of Hugo’s Batarangs.”
The window opened and Nightwing entered. He glared hatefully at Dinah, then glanced at his wife and finally at the cat.
“You two almost done?” he asked curtly.
“Almost,” Barbara answered coolly, “Another few minutes.”
“Good, then Black Canary will be leaving.”
Dinah’s mouth puckered slightly into a sour expression, but she did not acknowledge Nightwing or his words in any other way.
“You certainly don’t need me for your last few minutes,” she told Barbara, squeezing her friend’s shoulders. “Thanks for the chat, and for including me.”
Barbara’s own feelings were still a muddle where Dinah was concerned, but Dick’s open contempt was enough to rekindle the forgiving impulse that led her to invite Dinah over in the first place.
“G’night, sweetie,” she said gamely.
Dinah nodded, waved at the cat, and then left through the same window Nightwing had come through. He shut it behind her.
When Batman returned to the rotunda, two police units had arrived to take Catman into custody. With their arrival, a few lingering paparazzi and curious onlookers had used the opening to gain admittance to the museum. One of these was Greg Brady. He reached the rotunda just as Talia was picking herself off the floor, dusting debris of the fight, both real and imagined, off her evening gown.
“I told Ig’thar he was crazy,” Greg announced, looking betrayed and disappointed. “I told him that report had to be wrong. No way was that Talia al Ghul running all over town looking for He-Whose-Name-Can’t-Be-Uttered; she’s over that loser—no offense, Dude,” he added, noticing Batman lurking in the background. “I told Ig’thar he was crazy,” Brady repeated. “I said it couldn’t be you. Thanks a lot, Tee.”
“Gr’ori, please, you don’t understand.”
“Greg. For the love of god, it’s Greg. Greg Brady. You are like the only person in the English-speaking world that can’t get that down. Greg. Brady.”
“Did he say Greg Brady,” Richard Flay remarked, “How positively camp!”
“Greg-I, I can explain,” Talia answered.
“No, Tee, you can’t. See, Ig’thar, he’s thorough. And he knew if there was going to be any kind of rogue activity that would bring Batman out into the open tonight, it would be here at this party because, check it out, ‘sponsored by the Wayne Foundation.’”
“You can say that again,” Nigma mumbled, limping miserably into the rotunda from the direction of the sculpture garden.
“Ig’thar got the lowdown from all those pictures the photographers were taking as people arrived at this shindig. Information age, Tee; everything’s digital. We had the print outs before they passed the first cheese tray. And there you were, clear as day.”
“Look, Tee, I’m not a moron. I never thought I was Mr. Right or anything. I thought at the very least I was Mr. Right-Now, and we were having fun together, even if you can’t get the cellophane off a slice of American cheese. And I thought if we had fun long enough, maybe you would eventually notice I happen to be ‘He who can deal with all your baggage and nutsitude and still finds you rather appealing’ or ‘He who can make you giggle like the schoolgirl you should’ve been but never were’ or even ‘He who you could tell those awful stories about the Legion training camps and why you learned English.’”
“You ever hear that one, Bats! Was 1911, Days of Empire, one-fifth of the world’s population lived under English rule. Daddy had a nice English duke picked out for her to marry, isn’t that right, Tee? He was only eight years old at the time, but the old man thinks long term, you know how it is.”
“Greg,” he spat. “So dutiful daughter here learns English; League of Assassins gets ready to remove a few Windsors from the line of succession, and then Britain, India, Australia, and a slew of smaller provinces would be his in one fowl swoop. Unfortunately, by the time His Grace comes of age, he’s gay, and then before Princess here can regroup, he gets killed in World War I. Great One is ‘most acutely disappointed’ and Tee gets tossed back into the dustbin of ideas that didn’t pan out.”
No one said anything for several seconds. The only sound in the gallery was a stifled sob from Talia.
“Guess you hadn’t heard that one, huh, Bats?” Greg continued, cruelly. “Know why? She didn’t tell you about it. Bet you didn’t ask. Bet you wouldn’t care. She told me. Why is that, Tee? Why open up to me, hmm? You didn’t notice we click that way, that we’re good together?” His face suddenly dropped; all the anger, the pain, the indignation washing away, leaving a look of complete resignation. He glanced around at the assembled patrons in the gallery. “Sorry to interrupt the party, folks,” he announced, then turned back to her. “Goodbye, Talia.”
He turned to go and, after a moment’s blinking away the shock, Talia chased after him.
“Greg, wait, I can explain everything, really,” she began, finding her voice just as she passed Nigma, who spoke at the same moment: “Rhett, come back! Where will I go, what will I do?”
Talia pulled back, delivered a feral hiss, and punched Edward Nigma squarely in the jaw.
Selina and Bruce sat side by side on a low wooden bench in the long-empty gallery. Above them, the impassioned whirlpools of blues, blacks, and yellows that formed Vincent Van Gogh’s Starry Night; behind, the dim green of a Forsythe-Goldleigh security system kicking into idle.
“I know why this is your favorite,” Selina said finally. “That was ‘Item 2.’ In the cave this morning, Item 2 that I didn’t say: I know why this is your favorite painting.”
“It’s a powerful piece,” Bruce graveled.
“It’s more than that; that’s his pain up there on the canvas. The paint is an inch thick, nobody realizes until they see it in person. It’s an inch thick. He’s trying so damn hard to express it, to make somebody understand, get his message through. Van Gogh was going mad and he knew it, and it tortured him… and that’s what he did with it. That is the most lasting, and powerful, and significant creation anybody has ever—that is what a human being can make out of their pain…”
Bruce said nothing. As Batman had on that long drive home in the Batmobile, he merely stared in front of him as if looking at her would cause his whole universe to implode.
“Just like the cave,” Selina whispered. “And just like Batman.”
“Selina-” he began, but she cut him off with an abrupt change of tone.
“But then he cut off his own ear, and that was just self-destructive and stupid.”
“This is still Item 2?” he asked with a growl.
“You think I’m cutting off my ear in some way?”
“I do,” she said levelly. “Every time you say we’re not like other people. How exactly are we different, hmm? Arms, legs, fingers, toes. We eat, we sleep, we fuck… we fuck very, very well, as a matter of fact.”
Bruce gave her a withering look, which she answered with a naughty grin.
“You just proved my point. There is nothing in this world as delicious as getting that look out of you. Meow.”
“I’m an ‘impossible woman,’” she said playfully. “Emphasis on woman,” she added seriously. “We’re really not that different from other men and women, are we?”
“You’re not, Bruce. Maybe you can sneak that one past everyone else in this world, but you can’t sit there and say it to me. I know better. I was there on that roof. You want to go up right now for a reenactment? You want exactly the same things other men do… For one thing, you wanted me.”
“I do,” he said, repeating her earlier words and inflection. “But marriage, Selina? I don’t know if I’ll ever want to be married. I may never be capable of that kind of—”
“You said just bringing me to the cave was a commitment, Bruce. We already wake up next to each other every morning. You’ve already raised a son.”
“And helped raise two others. And, some could argue, a couple of daughters as well. But ‘commitment’ isn’t what I was going to say. I may never be capable of that kind of… vulnerability.”
They both sat in silence for a long moment until Selina glanced down at the gemstone in her hand.
“Of the three items they showed me at Cartier’s, I notice you bought the ring.”
“Maybe I just don’t like the word,” Bruce said frankly. “Beloved wife, beloved husband, right off that tombstone. ‘Til death do us part. Those words that mean love and commitment, and togetherness for everyone else—to me, they’re just a constant reminder of my… of… two bodies lying in an alley, a smell of spent gun powder and blood. Pearls soaked in this reddish black ooze… Yes, you’re right, there are ways we are just like everybody else. We eat, we sleep, we breathe—”
He paused, taking a deep breath. “We die. I can’t… maybe I will never be able to get past that one.”
“Just words, Selina. Words on a piece of paper… or carved into—I’ve already made that commitment to you; let you into every corner of my life. The rest are just words. Are they that important to you?”
“No. No, they’re not. Truth be told, I don’t like the w-one that much myself. I just… Since the whole Zatanna thing came out, it all seems just a little more… fragile or something. Vulnerable. Those words that don’t really mean anything make it seem, I don’t know, more solid, somehow. More real.”
“You mean that I seem more fragile and vulnerable since Zatanna.”
He sighed, exasperated. “What a mess. I always told myself it could never work with us. It was supposed to be crime that came between us, not something like this. I’m worried that getting too close makes us vulnerable and you worry that we’re too vulnerable so you want us closer. You get scared by a glimpse of mortality and want to get married to make it more real and solid, and to me, the more ‘real and solid’ it gets, the closer we are to, to…” He trailed off.
“To death,” she said, as if accepting a dare.
Bruce said nothing.
“This is, without a doubt, the most revolting conversation we’ve ever had,” Selina noted, “and that includes the time Joker sprayed me with that radioactive goo to track me all over the city, and your brilliant plan to catch him was to plop me into Blackgate.”
“That plan would have worked,” he grunted.
“No, it wouldn’t, because you would have had a hard time driving him out to Arkham with my whip shoved up your ass.”
“Yeah, well… it was still a better plan than this turned out to be.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Selina smiled. “Whiskers likes the penthouse quite a lot. I kept seeing that little furry ‘dorsal fin’ going by in the mirror.”
Bruce chuckled at the word-picture.
“And Nutmeg?” he asked.
“Set up shop under the bed.”
“Well, it’s not so pleasant at home. Alfred is mad at me. I told him it didn’t mean anything and it was just for tonight, and he… Well, I guess he’s heard a lot of denials and qualifiers like that over the years, from me, where you’re concerned.”
“You’re babbling, Bruce.”
“I told him you’d be back tomorrow—”
“—and that taking the cats was just to… you will.”
“Yes, of course I will. You don’t think something as stupid as ‘beloved wife’ and ‘beloved husband’ would really be the end of us, do you?”
“I would hope not, but… well, you’re not as easy to anticipate as you used to be, Selina. Half the time now I don’t even know—”
“Bruce, I love you. I want to be with you.”
“And I, you.”
“Then, it’s that simple. If what we have now is all there ever is, it’s a lot more than either of us thought was possible that night. Remember, ‘Stay away from that Van Gogh,’” she mimicked.
“Take the Van Gogh,” he said abruptly.
“The Van Gogh, take it.”
She stared at him incredulously.
“I want it for the penthouse. You can get it for me. Go for it, see if you can earn that sapphire ring after all.”
“What the hell are you talking about? You don’t want it and you certainly don’t want me to steal it, so what the hell are you—?”
“I’m telling you to take the Van Gogh. Or at least… try. I mean, let’s be honest here: we both know that you’re not going to get it.”
“Oh really? And why is that?”
His voice shifted into the deepest Bat-growl.
“Because I won’t let you!”
“You won’t let me?”
“Look, you’ve got the rest of the night as a free woman, at the penthouse, a night to be ‘her’ again, why not have a little fun with it.”
“Hang on there, back it up. You won’t let me?”
“You’re out of practice. You don’t have what it takes to get back in here and get it before I stop you…”
“Oh, you’re going to regret this one, Stud.”
Talia sat in a crumpled, wet heap in a surprisingly well-appointed booth in a gleaming diner in lower Gotham. The flatware was still of the cheap, punched-out variety all these miserable eateries seemed to use. The table was positioned so far from the seat that an individual of Ubu’s girth or even larger could sit comfortably—possibly with room for another minion in his lap. Yet the walls were covered with dark wood paneling and cheery sconces of frosted glass. In her teary fog, Talia scrutinized a framed print on the wall, a detail of an Edward Hopper painting; the original of which had hung in the museum—the museum where Greg had left her. She wondered why the image would be here? What cruel fate would—
“Ready to order, Hun?” the waitress asked pleasantly.
Talia blinked up at her. She felt completely adrift. She only took shelter in this place because it was preferable to wandering the street. She moistened her lips thoughtfully, and spied a familiar glass cover on a raised plate on the service counter.
“Do you have pie?” she asked hoarsely.
“Cocoanut cream and lemon meringue. But it’s not the greatest. We got grilled stickies if you’ve got a sweet tooth.”
Talia formed the next words carefully, as if she was breaking in a new set of vocal chords.
“Please bring me a, a ‘big slab’ of your cocoanut pie, then. And a cup of coffee. Please.”
The waitress shrugged and wrote the order. Talia regarded the Hopper print once again. She realized now the image was pictured in this place because it depicted an all-night diner: a smiling soda-jerk serving two patrons, a man and a woman. But this pleasant, happy-diner image cropped off an isolated figure seated by himself further down the counter. The complete painting, which Talia had left only hours before at the museum, was a portrait of loneliness.
Greg was gone.
What was she going to do? Greg, her protector, her… Greg, who… who listened to her. Greg, who didn’t spurn her affections, who didn’t make her feel like she had to prove herself by working against her father, who took care of her and teased her and, and, and let her become this wonderful, magical being called Tee that wasn’t a failure or a bitch or a sniveling, shrinking embarrassment to women, who wasn’t a remora in $400 shoes or the stupid, weak-willed pawn of men who didn’t love her.
Somehow, she had to get that creature back. That person who existed for those few seconds in Chinatown before a minion threw himself at her feet. She had, somehow, to find her way back to being “Tee”—and she had, somehow, to win back the heart of Greg Brady.
Their explorations concluded, Whiskers and Nutmeg had curled together on the corner of the sofa that both agreed was the most comfortable nap-place in the vast Wayne penthouse. Both cats suddenly sprang to attention as a violent noise shattered the silence. The full-length window had burst open at the hinge and two figures—Bat-Bruce and Selina-Cat—burst in through it, locked in a heated embrace.
“Slipping, Catwoman,” Batman growled through ferocious kisses. “Letting me trail you back to your lair.”
“Don’t be so sure you haven’t stepped into a trap,” she panted against his lips, clawing wildly until the cape fell loose to the floor.
Whiskers briefly considered rising from his comfortable pillow to examine the fallen cape, but the area seemed hazardous, boots shifting heedlessly, a heavy belt dropping to the floor. Whiskers decided to wait.
It was a jaded and despondent Ra’s al Ghul that surveyed the day’s intelligence reports. The picture they painted was all too familiar: ground gained on one front but lost on another, murky indecision here, endless waiting there, mixed messages and trade-offs. His puppet was restored to a position of influence in the Laotese Ministry of Information and had already begun an aggressive propaganda campaign, but in Balliprai, his efforts to inflate the price of staple foods were thwarted by the introduction of a disease-resistant “dwarf wheat.”
Despite the galling information that this dwarf wheat was introduced to the region by—imagine his surprise—the Wayne Foundation, Ra’s felt no surge of angry indignation at the setback, no more than he could feel satisfied contentment in the more promising reports. He felt, in truth, nothing at all—other than a lurking worry that the real reason for his languor was the gray hair… or hairs to be precise, 12 of them. A sign, surely, that it would soon be time to immerse himself in the Lazarus Pit. He felt no effects yet, but the appearance of the first hair nine days ago, coupled with its sudden eruption into a full dozen iron-gray tendrils in less than two weeks, left little doubt. Soon he would require a dip. The effects of each immersion seemed to dissipate a little sooner than the last… and still he seemed no closer to his great goal.
His jaundiced eye scanned the wheat report once again, searching out a single word, a single name. Not Norman Borlaugh, who developed the high-yield crop that thwarted Ra’s designs on the peasants of Balliprai, but of that other name, “a humanitarian agricultural initiative of the Wayne Foundation.”
“How long, Detective? How long will you withhold from me the siring of a worthy heir?” he grumbled before calling loudly, “Ubu! Apprise the Pit-Stirrers that the Demon’s Head shall present himself for the Mergulho al Ghul at the eve of the next moon. Let all things be made ready for the ritual.”