Even on “date nights,” it was unusual for Catwoman to ride home with Batman in the Batmobile. They preferred to spend the night at the penthouse, and the next day Selina would change into civvies and take her own car back to the manor while Bruce made an appearance at WE. They would reach the penthouse by rooftop, by Batline and whip, not by car. It was the terrace, not the cave. Stripping off her costume and tempting Bruce to join her for a hot bath rather than crawling straight into bed. It was a delicious throwback to her old life, returning to her apartment after a prowl, landing on a high rise terrace… No Whiskers and Nutmeg to greet her, but there were other compensations. She had a much higher success rate tempting Bruce to postpone the logs than she ever had persuading Batman to put the crimefighter shtick aside for a few hours and give in to what they both wanted.
Tonight, of course, things were very different. They had left the Iceberg separately. Ten minutes later, the Batmobile stopped at an alley near the MoMA and Catwoman quietly got in. They rode back to the manor in near silence. Arriving in the cave, Batman went straight for the logs. Selina went to the costume vault and removed her gloves, mask, and whip. When she was on her own, she entered through the bedroom window, never through the cave, so there was no kimono waiting for her to change into. Instead, she ran her fingers over Bruce’s, a soft smile curling her lips… black and slate gray silk woven in a tight herringbone pattern with black piping… he was still using it. She slowly folded her gloves, lost in thought, and lay them on the shelf next to his extra gauntlets. The whip she stored on a lower shelf next to the specialty utility belts, then she went back to the main cavern.
Batman sensed that something was off. She would usually make some cocoa on the Bunsen burner and begin rubbing his shoulders when she thought he’d spent enough time on the logs. Tonight, she was just hanging around. It wasn’t hard to guess what was on her mind.
“Going to ask?” he said finally, without turning to face her.
“Do we have a plan?”
“Hugo Strange doesn’t have a costume or a theme,” he declared.
“He has a psychotic obsession with the notion of Bruce Wayne being Batman. It may not be raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens, but it’s close enough to a theme that he gets to hang around the Iceberg and call himself a Rogue. Textbook definition or not, it’s seriously bad news.”
“Only because you know it’s true. Remove that knowledge from the equation, is there anything at all about Hugo Strange that would attract Joker’s attention?”
Selina had to think about that, and Batman turned around finally to face her.
“This is where I’m supposed to say there’s nothing about Hugo Strange that would attract anyone at any time by any stretch of the imagination,” she noted. “I’m sorry, Bruce, I don’t have that kind of sass in me at the moment. It’s Joker, who knows what the hell might pique his interest. All he has to do is wonder how a Groucho Marx mustache would look with those Coke bottle glasses and we’re screwed. And P.S. Hugo does have a costume, technically. He wears yours, and it’s seriously disgusting. And it’s not like Joker doesn’t have a passing interest in all things Batman, not to mention his creepy fascination with ‘Brucie.’ How can you possibly not be worried about this?”
“Because Joker’s interest is in very literal themes: birds, plants, hats. It is extremely improbable that he’ll turn his attention to Hugo. That’s why I’m not worried about it—”
“That does not mean I’m not prepared for the unlikely possibility.”
While Selina gaped, Bruce removed his cowl.
“Kitten, do you really think I needed a hint from Edward Nigma to prepare for the possibility that one day Joker might take an interest in Bruce Wayne?”
“You have a protocol,” she breathed.
“I have fourteen protocols—up from seven since you moved into the manor—three of which are adaptable to the present circumstances.”
“Were you ever going to let me in on them?” Selina asked.
Bruce shook his head slowly.
“This aspect of crimefighting, you don’t want in your head.”
He thought it was a pretty ominous declaration—true, but ominous. Anticipating the worst case scenarios for villains like Joker, Ra’s al Ghul, Luthor, and Brainiac was not a pleasant exercise, and not something he would ever want to darken Selina’s vibrant personality—but however true it was, it was the kind of declaration he would have expected her to poke fun at. Instead, her eyes grew wide and she assumed a satisfied feline smile.
“I nearly forgot ZED!” she cried, nearly giddy with excitement. “I found one of the Z on my way home. He spilled his guts. Bruce, I know where the newest hacienda is!”
Catwoman would not be a part of face-to-face Rogue confrontations of this sort. That’s what they agreed in the beginning. She took her Lamborghini (which everyone but Batman and Riddler called the Catmobile) to a spot within a half-mile of the address. She parked and went the rest of the way on foot. She wondered if perhaps the Bat-tracker was in her boot. She knew Batman had slipped it onto her somewhere, but he refused to tell her where it was (the jackass).
When she reached the location, she waited in the bushes outside and used her telescopic lenses to peer through the window. It was one of the many cases where she preferred her tools for the ones Batman developed for the same purpose. All that voice-command nonsense to activate nightvision where all she had to do was touch a button…
She could see inside the hacienda, and from the looks of things, it was going to be an anti-climactic fight. She couldn’t see Joker, but Harley was running around. Or hopping around, actually. Hurried limping would be a fair description. It looked like she was bringing ice packs, bandages and salves to someone lying on a sofa, out of view of the window, while also trying to patch up herself. The scatterbrained tassel twit.
While a part of her surveyed the human drama, a part of her mind, like that of any thief, began mapping out a floor plan of the room and hypothesizing about the areas beyond, which she couldn’t see but were hinted at by the placement of doors, stairs, and windows. She was sufficiently occupied with this process that she didn’t sense the figure behind her until the blur of a cloth crossed one of her lenses before clamping down over her mouth.
Unlike the heroine of pulp novels jumped by mysterious men wielding rags soaked with chloroform, she didn’t indulge in any muffled “MMMPHs.” She merely planted her elbow in her attacker’s gut—noting the distinctive texture and resistance of straw—and bent her knees for leverage to flip him over her shoulder. The move worked, but… despite the lack of chloroform fumes… her head was spinning.
“Fear,” a Scarecrow-shaped blur said, lifting himself off the ground, “it’s universal, uniting all men, and yet so wonderfully individual. A spider that paralyzes one in terror; another will squash it with their shoe…”
“Fuck,” Catwoman breathed, trying to steady herself on… a bush, presumably… but the shape of the thing kept shifting and it seemed to be... growing teeth. “That wasn’t chloroform… what the fuck was that stuff?”
“I think you can guess, Kitty. Nine hundred and ninety-nine out of a thousand will respond to fear by cowering in a corner, whimpering and simpering, or else running. But the rare one in a thousand overcompensates,” he said, his eyes gleaming with psychotic fervor. “They become aggressive. Not for them sobbing passively in a corner while the fearsome beast comes to devour them. They channel their fear into violent rage!”
Scarecrow grabbed Catwoman by the lower jaw and pinched her cheeks in his long, spindly fingers, like an exaggerated skeleton about to bestow a kiss.
“My new formula evokes this response. I intended it for Harley, but your claws present a far better instrument for my purpose. Joker, as you may know, has an annoying immunity to toxins. A side-effect of whatever made him that color. I require a sample of his blood to formulate a toxin that will work on him, for that accursed clown WILL KNOW FEAR!”
“J-J-J-Jonathan,” Selina managed weakly.
“Yes, that would be the sort of fear I am speaking of,” he grinned wickedly. “That heating of the blood, racing of the heart, pounding in the veins, that squeezing of the lungs suffocating in dread, straining for breath and gasping for relief that won’t come. The only escape is to strike out at the terror—and then, my dear Catwoman, return here with its blood on your claws.”
Even A-list Rogues like Joker were not terribly original with perimeter defenses. Batman had no trouble evading the electric eye, the trap door, or the banana peel. He entered through an upstairs window and followed the sounds of movement down to the kitchen. He had readied a gas pellet for the hyenas but found them already snoring. That was odd. Troubling. He exchanged the gas pellet for a batarang and advanced with caution—for exactly four steps, until the sound of a high-pitched scream tore through the silence. There was no time for caution when someone was in danger. Batman raced ahead, as several more cries, loud thuds, a whip crack, a Joker cackle and a crash of broken glass spurred him forward.
A lifetime of nights spent in combat mode with Gotham’s theme rogues registered the whip crack as a possible Catwoman presence, it registered as empty tactical data without emotional context—until he rounded the corner and saw the wild flashes of purple, whipping Harley around as if in some violent dance before sending her spiraling into some kind of hassock near Batman’s feet.
“STAY PUT!” he ordered, to which Quinn only replied with a shell-shocked “Owwww” and rubbed her tailbone.
“YOU!” Catwoman growled—the tasseled interference dispensed with, she had been ready to resume her attack on Joker until she heard that voice. “YOU DID THIS TO ME, YOU SON OF A BITCH!”
She went airborne, sailing towards Batman, aiming to plant her feet in the center of his chest. It was an easy move to defend when you saw it coming, and Batman deftly shifted to the side and tipped her legs at the critical moment, sending her past him and towards a floor lamp near Harley.
“We didn’t do nuthin’ with cats, we didn’t do nothing with cats,” Harley mumbled frantically as she crawled for cover towards the sofa. Joker merely coughed, the new throttling from Catwoman having aggravated the previous attack from Ivy.
“DO YOU THINK I’M A FOOL?!” Catwoman cried, charging at Batman again, while Joker gestured wildly at the floor, hacking and gasping but unable to speak, and Harley looked around feverishly for whatever he wanted.
“Catwoman, calm down,” was unlikely produce an effect, but Batman found himself murmuring the idiotic words anyway. The “look at my empty hands” gesture was a particularly bad move, considering that his palm still held a batarang—which Catwoman ferociously knocked from his hand.
“DID YOU THINK I WOULDN’T CATCH ON?”
Still crawling on the ground, Harley found a red box where her Puddin’ was pointing.
“DID YOU? AFTER THE SPAWN FOR CHRIST’S SAKE?”
It was the First Aid kit.
“YOU THINK I’M THAT GULLIBLE?! YOU THINK I’M THAT DUMB?!”
She handed it to her Puddin’, who opened it hurriedly and pulled out a vuvuzela.
“COMPARED TO THAT ASININE THIRD WORLD PLAYBOY BUNNY—”
He tried blowing on it, but since he couldn’t summon the breath to speak, he couldn’t get a respectable sound from it and handed it off to Harley.
“—THAT DISCOUNT BIN DISPOSABLE BOND GIRL THAT MAKES HARLEY LOOK LIKE GLORIA STEINEM!”
Harley had plenty of breath to blow the vuvuzela, but the bold burr she had going dwindled to a confused toot when she heard her name. “What’s that supposed ta mean? Puddin’, what does she mean by that?” she sputtered.
Catwoman resorted to an old move, lashing her whip wide at a sweet spot behind Batman’s bulk, causing the recoil to entwine him around the shoulders or waist—when it worked. But in her toxin-induced rage, the strike went wild and hit the utility belt, releasing a cloud of black smoke meant to cloak him for costume changes or quick exits. The already tense and confusing scene erupted into full-fledged chaos as billows of the thick foggy smoke began filling the room.
Harley, seeing the black cloud wafting their way and hearing Mistah J still hacking and coughing on the floor beside her, lifted the vuvuzela to her mouth and began to frantically blow in huge puffs, trying to keep the smoke at bay. Joker managed to giggle something about “Bat Farts” and waved a hand in front of his face.
Catwoman, upon seeing her intended target vanish into a cloud of black mist, flicked back on the whip, bringing the tail back for another strike. She intended to lash at the smoke, knowing Batman must be in there somewhere—but she suddenly froze. In a choice of targets between an amorphous blob of smoke and the goose-honks coming from Harley and that infernal plastic tube-trumpet, the call of the anemic water-fowl won out. With a hiss of outraged felinity, she redirected the whip towards the noise, snapping the horn away from Harley’s lips with a final “Frrrpp.”
Batman knew he had to gain control of the scene quickly. He flicked a batarang at the light fixture, shattering the only remaining light in the room. The ensuing darkness allowed Joker and Harley to escape, but it also accomplished the more important goal: enabling him to approach Catwoman unseen. Capturing her was the first priority…
He would spend an hour later trying to convince himself it was because she might say something compromising in her delusional state, but even Psychobat wasn’t buying that one. At the moment, however, there was no conscious thought. There was simply what had to be done. He had to catch her, he had to sedate her, he had to confirm what was doing this to her—fear toxin, most likely, but it was an atypical reaction—and he had to administer an antidote.
The first step was the hardest. The tactic of using an opponent’s emotion against them in a fight is highly variable. For some, like Ivy, it creates blind spots and leads to error. For others—others like Catwoman—it sharpens their focus and boosts their strength and endurance far beyond what their physicality could achieve alone. Catwoman was a formidable opponent at the best of times. Driven as she was now, she was a force of nature.
“Infrareds, engage,” he said softly.
But not softly enough—the lenses engaged just in time to see the clawed fist coming at him. He blocked and countered—a reflex which put more poundage-per-inch behind the blow than he would normally use with her. The force of the impact on his fist and the sound of that meaty squelch mixed with the feminine grunt was… it was…
She crumpled and he caught her.
But it wasn’t a sensation Batman was prepared for. That familiar sting of the impact on his fist and the meaty squelch that same second, the meaty squelch of flesh on the other side of the hit, that he knew, that was mother’s milk to Batman—more natural and familiar even, the sharp sting of the impact and that meaty squelch, the give of the other body—it was like breathing to Batman. But that grunt—that involuntary sound of air pushed through vocal chords at the moment of impact—sometimes but not always followed by an intentional cry of pain or a defeated moan… That he wasn’t prepared for. Not in that voice. Not in her voice, making those sounds that were so… so evocative of other sounds… other responses that he…
Something switched off inside. Bruce Wayne simply… left.
He got her into the Batmobile, back to the Cave, drew a blood sample and administered an antidote… He did these things as a set of movements, tasks and behaviors that might have been programmed into a Batman robot. He wasn’t on autopilot, he wasn’t in a daze, he was simply a composite of Batman’s knowledge, skills, and physical capabilities without a human person at the core.
He carried Selina upstairs, removed her costume, and tucked her into bed. He returned to the cave and typed up the log. He went to the costume vault, removed his cape and cowl, his gloves and boots, his belt, tunic and leggings. He reached for the kimono…
At that moment, Bruce Wayne returned.
The kimono was a gift from Selina, after she moved into the manor and saw the details of his day-to-day (and night-to-night) routine. She said it was silly to go to all that trouble changing into Bruce Wayne’s shirt and trousers when he got home from patrol just to walk upstairs to the bedroom, where he’d get undressed again anyway. It unnerved him at the time. It was a gift for Batman, not Bruce Wayne—a gift that showed an intimate understanding of Batman’s life, of the most private aspects of Batman’s life—and yet had no practical value in relation to the mission. The idea of BATMAN and not Bruce Wayne having a life unrelated to the mission, it seemed nonsensical. Yet there it was, in the form of a very tasteful herringbone of black and gray silk.
Psychobat reeled at the thoughts racing through his mind. He was aware “Bruce had left,” so to speak, which he had viewed as discipline. A welcome freedom from distraction which he seldom enjoyed where Selina Kyle was concerned. He was able to treat her medically, unfettered by other considerations, and write up the log with dispassionate neutrality. Only now, with the significance of that kimono quivering on the edge of his fingers, did he realize it wasn’t discipline. Bruce didn’t “leave” because Batman needed to focus without his feelings getting in the way. He did not leave out of weakness either. It was not pain or confusion or doubt that drove him, it was… contempt. He had left in exasperated disgust, the same way he’d walked out of the boardroom when Daniels wanted to finance the Eikesbury project with Falcone money laundered through Gotham National Bank!
A few minutes later, wearing the kimono, he entered the bedroom. He took Selina’s hand and ran his finger gently over her knuckles as she slept.
Bruce was up long before Selina. He went straight to the cave and left instructions for Alfred to call him as soon as she was awake. He was surprised when she came down to the cave herself.
“Honey, I’m home,” she said, reviving her joke from the weeks he was laid up in the cave and she went out crimefighting in his place.
He turned, startled. Nothing about her appearance matched the forced cheer in her voice, but it was consistent with everything Bruce knew about a fear-toxin hangover. The puffiness around her eyes, sallow gray of her skin, the sag of her shoulders as she stood, and the slight hesitation in her gait as she walked. She held a mug steaming with a strange herbal concoction. Alfred’s special remedy. Bruce could only hope he’d made some improvements since the last attempt.
“You shouldn’t be out of bed,” he said awkwardly.
“Right, because it’s so much more rewarding to lie there hugging your knees all day after one of those fear gas episodes, ruminating on all the subtle nuances of your nightmare and deconstructing all the disturbing insights that have been unveiled. Pfft, it was a bad head trip, let’s move on.”
For a moment it seemed like the word alone churned the twenty-pound mass of “bleh” in her stomach, for her already-pale complexion deepened from gray to a grayish green.
She stubbornly refused to acknowledge it, offering only a mild “pfffft” that Bruce interpreted as “You just had to bring that up, didn’t you, jackass.” She took a deep breath and her color returned, as did the overly-cheery smile.
“I see, you want to ‘throw it in the closet.’”
“It works for me.”
Bruce was skeptical. It was the Selina of many years ago talking, the one who had that hellmouth of a closet in her apartment, in all of her cat lairs, and shortly after she moved in, had recreated one at the manor. The Selina who said “I’m not good at introspection. Bad things happen when I try it.” The Selina who tossed whatever she didn’t want to think about—like being attracted to an enemy or the fact that stealing was wrong—into the mental equivalent of that hellmouth closet: out of sight, out of mind.
She had grown so much since then. When she first started crimefighting, when Riddler found out about it and threatened her with a fear trap, they had talked about this very possibility. That night she realized the benefits of self-knowledge: figuring out what your worst fears are so they can’t be sprung on you unexpectedly. Those Scarecrow episodes were bad enough without the potential to reveal your innermost fears to an enemy when you weren’t aware of them yourself.
That night she was open to talking about it; now she was back to “the closet.” From the things she’d said at the hacienda, it was clear the triggered fear was not one she had expected. She had speculated it would be loss: losing him, the home they shared, the love they shared, and her cats (another man might have been confused by the inclusion of the last, but Bruce understood that, for Selina, they were all facets of the same thing). Her second guess had been that, whatever toxin-induced nightmare unfolded, the Justice League would be involved. That one did confuse him a little. Although Selina liked Clark, Arthur, J’onn, Wally, Kyle and others individually, as soon as they became a group, they were a collective of arrogant capes whose existence had to be tolerated, like pollution, as the price of living in the modern world.
None of that fit what she said at the hacienda. “Do you think I’m a fool?” “Did you think I wouldn’t catch on?” and that ominous “You did this to me.” It was possible she didn’t mean Batman. He’d been gripped by fear toxin and he knew she could have been seeing anything from a killer robot to a giant sea turtle when she spoke those words. But then there were those references to The Spawn. Talia al Ghul. Not something she’d bring up with a sea turtle. Much as he disliked the idea, he was forced to conclude that he was the real object of her fear.
She didn’t want to talk about it. Fine. Bruce was starting to think he didn’t want to talk about it either. He didn’t want to let it fester, he didn’t think that was prudent, but… “YOU DID THIS TO ME, YOU SON OF A BITCH!” …Maybe tossing it in the closet was for the best.
To be continued…