The south drawing room was the most formal, and possibly the fussiest room at Wayne Manor. It was a room built with entertaining in mind, where diners would withdraw for cards, music, or conversation after a formal meal in the dining room.
When Bruce was forced to entertain, whether on Foundation business or as a snare for Batman’s enemies, he didn’t give dinner parties. He favored large receptions in the Great Hall or else outdoor teas or barbecues on the grounds. Both kept the guests far from the rooms in daily use.
In the days when Martha Wayne had given dinner parties, she preferred to have her guests gather after dinner in the intimate little parlor off her morning room. And so it was that the south drawing room was little used and had not, in fact, been redecorated in decades. Its white silk curtains trimmed in turquoise, gilded molding, and silk brocade wallpaper still reflected the graceful but decidedly Edwardian taste of Bruce’s great aunt, Elena Wayne.
Jervis liked it. He was eagerly examining a petit pointe firescreen when Bruce entered.
“Simply frabjous! Is that scene the Roman forum? ‘London is the capital of Paris,’ as Giant Alice told the Rabbit, ‘and Paris is the capital of Rome, and Rome—no, that’s all wrong.’ But it’s a frabjous firescreen all the same. Hello Bruce!”
Outwardly, Bruce smiled the smile of the airhead Fop, but inwardly his mind searched the Lewis Carroll quote for some clue to what Tetch might be doing here. His eyes scanned his visitor as well, searching for any indication if Tetch had come for criminal purposes as the Mad Hatter, or in his less dangerous but equally annoying persona, Gossip Gertie.
“…and an orange tree, that’s very interesting to see. Well Pammy, you know, but outside the greenhouse you don’t see many tropical plants in Gotham, even indoors. I guess that’s the point of having one. Calloo Callay. Oh, and in a beautiful Chinese planter! Is that what they call a fishbowl?…”
It was Gossip Gertie, Bruce decided, for he was jibbering. Mad Hatter might spout nonsense during a crime, but he wouldn’t use it to waste time before beginning one. This was different. This was shilly-shallying. This was Patterson from Marketing making small talk about his kids’ little league because he didn’t want to discuss the fourth quarter sales projections.
“What can I do for you, Jervis?” Bruce asked, abandoning the fop persona for that of the businessman. It was a minor risk, for Bruce the businessman was necessarily smarter than the Fop, and Bruce preferred to remain wholly stupid in front of the rogues. But in this situation, the risk was necessary. If he maintained the Fop façade with Gossip Gertie, they could be here all day.
“Well…eh… it’s rather awkward, Bruce,” Jervis hedged. “Bit of a situation down at the ‘Berg. A pool of tears, a pool of tears. Alice drowning in a pool of tears… You know Oswald got mixed up with this woman. ‘Lark Starling’ she calls herself, and if you believe that, my fine Dormouse, I’ll tell you another. Lark Starling indeed. Some bimbo, we all said. Gold digger!”
“Er, no, I hadn’t heard about that.”
Jervis clicked his tongue, lamenting the evil in the world. “Oh yes indeed, by the Queen’s tarts, she was a gold digger all right. But it turned out to be worse than that.” He paused dramatically. “She is a black widow; Ozzy’s little love bird was out to kill him! Well you know what Alice says: if you drink much from a bottle marked poison, it is almost certain to disagree with you, sooner or later.”
Bruce offered no comment. He had once hoped, he reminded himself, that the relationship with Selina would reveal unknown weaknesses among his enemies. He was finally getting inside dirt all right, but this wasn’t like kryptonite or J’onn’s vulnerability to fire. This was… …oh hell… …it was really quite sad.
“So we took steps,” Jervis was saying.
“Harvey and I, we took steps. Had to be done. But that still leaves the problem of Oswald.”
“What do you mean you took steps?” Bruce asked cautiously.
“’I can’t explain myself, sir’ said Alice, ‘because I’m not myself, you see.’ But that’s no nevermind. I tell you the lady is quite out of the picture now. Gone for good from Gotham. The felt beret is most persuasive. But that doesn’t solve the matter of Oswald. The man’s not a fool. He’s going to notice if he never sees her again. Can’t just have Lark Starling vanish into thin air like the Cheshire cat, now can we? So you see we simply must have a letter.”
“I don’t understand,” Bruce said honestly. He was relieved these ‘steps’ the rogues had taken stopped short of murder. From the sounds of it, they merely hatted the woman and sent her out of town. But the ongoing HatterSpeak was beginning to take its toll, and Bruce felt a headache forming behind his eyes.
“Now that Lark Starling is gone from Gotham, we need a way to break the news to Oswald. Telling him the truth is out of the question. He won’t believe a word said against her, and there is the risk of getting banned from the ‘Berg if he’s provoked. So really, the only way is for Oswald to receive a Dear John letter.”
“A… Dear John…”
“Yes, of course. From Lark. Dear Oswald, it was wonderful while it lasted. Gone to Wisconsin to make cheese. Love and Kisses--Lark That sort of thing, I expect. How would I know? If I knew, I wouldn’t be asking you, as the Lion told the Unicorn…”
The room used as the Wayne Manor library was, Selina felt sure, not originally intended for that purpose. A library shouldn’t have those big windows; all that direct sunlight, it was bad for the books. It was probably a music room or something originally, right next to the drawing room and all. Bruce would have adapted it because he likes spending his evenings in the library and with those windows—that striking view of the city—he’d be sure to see the Bat-Signal.
As she entered, Selina found her visitor peering at leather bound spines of 19th century essayists.
“I seriously doubt Bruce has read Theophile Gautier,” Harvey noted, a trace of Harvard inflection creeping into his voice.
“I’m quite sure he hasn’t,” Selina said simply. “How’s it going, Harvey?”
“It’s going.” He smiled. “It will be going still better if you’ll help us out, Selina. We have just learned of an opportunity the likes of which does not come around twice in a lifetime. On this matter alone, we are prepared to set aside our principles and not hold out for a second chance.”
Selina raised an eyebrow but then broke, inexplicably, into the naughty grin.
“Ah, you’ve heard about Double Dare.”
“We have heard about Double Dare!” he declared loudly. “Criminal twins in two-piece costumes on a two-day crime spree! Needless to say, we are enamored.”
Selina smirked. “But Harvey, they’re both bad. Doesn’t that wreck the whole Feng Shui?”
He looked shocked.
“Perhaps you didn’t hear us correctly, Selina. They are TWINS!”
She laughed. He laughed. And then he sobered and came to the point.
“We need a favor.”
“A good favor or a bad favor?” she asked, repeating his question whenever she asked for something.
“Ha, ha,” he smirked sarcastically. “Its placement on the ethics scale is… ambiguous. We would like to borrow your cat pins.”
Selina stared in silent shock, so Harvey continued.
“The ladies have a penchant for criminal targets. And two such stunning pieces of jewelry, identical twins themselves all studded in diamonds, such a prize—properly advertised to be in the hands of a rugged and daring criminal kingpin like us—how could they resist!”
The dangerous gaze of an irate tigress seared Harvey’s eyebrows.
“You want to use my cat pins as… bait?” She spat the last word with incredulous contempt—the same way Bruce said released whenever Arkham discharged Joker.
“Yes, of course, we knew you would understand.”
“Bait for a theft. My cat pins. You want a pair of, of… trapeze artists to try and STEAL MY CAT PINS?!”
The tone was calmer, but the intensity was eerily reminiscent of REVENGE FOR IVAN, REVENGE FOR IVAN, DIE PLANT-KILLER DIE, and Harvey thought it best to step away from a spray of zinnias in a cut crystal vase. Just in case.
Bruce massaged his forehead. A headache in Mad Hatter’s presence must never be dismissed as just a headache. There were failsafe protocols to be initiated and now, not later.
It was obvious Jervis Tetch caused this headache. If it was equally obvious that he hadn’t done it with neurotech gadgetry generating will-bending cogniceutical waves, that didn’t alter the fact that the little weasel got what he wanted from his visit.
Bruce had agreed to compose a Dear John letter.
It was too ridiculous.
He had, it was true, for many years assumed the pose of a womanizing cad as useful misdirection about his true character and personality. He had deliberately cultivated a reputation as a man who would make use of whatever attractive woman was handy, simply because she was handy, amuse himself with her body for a few weeks, then discard her like last year’s dinner jacket.
It was true Harvey Dent was his companion in bachelordom during those early years when he was most active establishing the Playboy Fop’s image.
It was even true that, because of Dent’s official position as District Attorney, Bruce gave Harvey a more exaggerated impression of his conquests. More, certainly, than he did friends with no first-hand contact with Batman and no basis to make comparisons.
But for Harvey to imply that Bruce Wayne had written “hundreds if not thousands” of Dear Jane letters, that he had developed dumping lovers into an art and a science, and that he could spin off a page or two of insincere “So long and thank you whoever” as mindlessly (and heartlessly) as Nigma spewed anagrams… it was insulting. It was nothing less than insulting.
Two-Face and Mad Hatter putting their depraved criminal intellects together to save Cobblepot from his own foolishness and then deciding HE, Bruce Wayne, had the means to cover their tracks!
“No judgments!” Jervis stressed.
THEY didn’t judge HIM?!?
They just knew he had—what?—the callous nature they lacked to go around lulling unsuspecting, vulnerable hearts into a false sense of security so he could step on them! No judgments indeed. They insulted him, the pair of them—Harvey behind his back, and then Jervis right to his face. And still he agreed to give them what they asked for.
Bruce glanced at the readouts from the Batcomputer that confirmed what he already knew: his brainwaves were free of any cogniceutical, emoticeutical, or sensoceutical tampering. He grunted.
He agreed because he felt sorry for Oswald. There, it was admitted. Oswald Cobblepot was a joke figure and Penguin was a criminal—and Bruce felt sorry for him.
It’s a damn rare thing to find that connection with someone. Damn rare. Even if you beat the odds and find her, there are a thousand ways to wreck it, from bad timing to… It’s a damn rare thing. It takes guts to even try for it. And courage was not an attribute Oswald Cobblepot had in abundance. And yet the lonely bird took a shot at romance, and he landed himself a gold digger.
That passage Jervis had quoted about poison was
incomplete. It began “A
red-hot poker will burn you if you hold it too long…”
There were enough gold diggers out there, Bruce knew it better than anyone: Bimbos with absolutely no interest in what a man might have to offer beyond his checkbook.
“A red-hot poker will burn you if you hold
it too long; and if you cut your finger very deeply with a knife, it usually
Cobblepot was lonely. It wasn’t like kryptonite or J’onn’s vulnerability to fire.
It wasn’t, ultimately, a crimefighting concern one way or the other.
The woman was gone from Gotham City, and now Oswald had to be told. His… associates… thought it was best for everyone if he was given some cock-and-bull story about… or some attractive lie that… if he was let down easy. His friends thought it would be best if he was let down easy. And Bruce agreed to go along with it because they were right.
This was not acceptable. He felt sorry for Penguin—for PENGUIN! The cagey bird had his beak in a dozen illicit enterprises at any one time: black market, smuggling, gambling, you name it. And always with that club to hide behind, cleaning the money, both his and others. Not a thing even Batman could pin on him. How could he turn around and be such a sucker?
Bruce tore the readouts of his own brainwaves from the Batcomputer and pounded them into a tight ball.
Because he was human. Oswald Cobblepot was a criminal but he was also a human being, and humans yearn instinctively for that connection.
Batman smashed the tight wad of paper into the desk, pounding it flat. Thinking of the criminals as people. He was going soft. His peripheral vision saw the repaired gi folded neatly on the worktable. If he was quick writing the letter, he would have time for an hour’s Zogger before patrol.
Okay, I was upset.
Because Harvey/Two-Face, arguably the only
creature in Gotham with a screwier sense of romance than Batman, wanted to
borrow some jewelry?
‘Course it wasn’t just any jewelry he wanted. Those pins are very special. Catwoman has handled a fair number of jewels over the years, millions of dollars worth, the most spectacular pieces ever made. So I know what I’m talking about when I say those pins are special.
Not that Bruce would buy anything second rate,
of course. But of all the first
rate he could have bought, he bought those.
Two of them, one for Selina and one for Catwoman…
At the time, I was almost hurt by it. That seems idiotic now, but my head was still spinning back then. It was all so new: He’d hid the first pin in his safe, with a card and a flower. A gift, clearly, for Catwoman. It made it seem like, I don’t know, like after all the years of wanting, maybe I was just a cheap thrill for him, a conquest—nailing the forbidden bad girl.
I know. I can’t believe I was so… foolish. After all the years thinking of him as Batman, I’d only recently learned the real man in there was Bruce. I wanted to believe he felt the same way, and somehow… I was an idiot, I admit that. Funny how love brings that out in a person. Luckily, Dick set me straight.
“From Bruce, of all people, this is a monumental gesture of affection and acceptance,” he said.
I couldn’t deny that. It was a gift for Catwoman—and he hid it for me to find in his safe. With a note. And a rose.
He has, I suppose, accepted more of me than I sometimes realize… in his way… his grunting, scowling, judgmental jackass way.
Still, if a little nothing cat in a curio is such a big deal!
Stolen property in his precious domain.
Harvey wanted my cat pins for bait.
They were stolen once.
Taken from me. Hatter.
Those pins are very special. He did—does—accept me in his way.
I didn’t like having those pins taken from me.
Bruce crumbled the paper and tossed it aside with a number of others. The bimbos always liked sickly-cutesy nicknames. But Penguin was such a snob, his dignity probably wouldn’t stand for it. Much safer to stick with his proper name.
More crumbling of paper, and this draft joined the others in the small pyramid of wasted stationery.
It was certainly the right tone. That’s how they operated, the gold diggers. Feed you a line that you’re special, just you, the simple pleasures of just being with you. It has nothing to do with your Platinum Card, Ozzy, oh no, she just likes spending time with you. Why, she didn’t even notice the Iceberg sits on a prime downtown lot with a market value of a million five.
I know it’s tempting to believe them, Oswald… Bruce’s thoughts ran on, although the hand with the pen stayed frozen in place over the paper. …You’re no prize, although I doubt your ego would allow you to see that. Wouldn’t matter if you did. The Fop is no prize, I know that. He’s an arrogant, dimwitted, selfish, superficial snob. And still some of them pretended… I know it’s tempting to believe, Oswald, you poor fool.
Except you’re not poor, and that’s half your trouble. You’re not a fool either. That decoy on the Pelican heist and the false paper trail, that was first rate, you wily bird. How could you turn right around and be such an easy mark?
Oh really? Bruce thought. Better to have loved and lost? It seemed like a doubtful hypothesis. Could he really go back to life without Selina? Of course he could, he’d lived that way before. But that was without ever having more. The Mission was certainly enough when that was all there was. The Mission and the Fop—and all those women with whom he couldn’t be himself and that was fine because they didn’t care about him or anything else except the money.
Without having known more was one thing, but to have tasted a full loving life and then have it all taken away…
What if this really tore them apart? He certainly didn’t want stolen property in his bedroom, but he most definitely did want Selina in his life. What if… What if it really was either/or? Which was more important? Sometimes, you can’t have everything you want…
…even if you’re Batman.
I was getting changed to drive up to the Catitat. There are moods where a nice long prowl in the catsuit will work the angst out of my system, but this didn’t feel like one of them. This angst required a big mass of warm fur that growled instead of purring and understood how things were.
I had just zipped up the boots when I felt the tingle. He was lurking somewhere, watching me, and he was in bat mode. Oh Joy.
I had decided to ignore it when I felt myself turned around, very tender fingers moving down my cheek and settling gently on the side of my neck. His lips brushed against mine, just barely making contact, while the free hand stroked my hair.
“I don’t even know what we’re fighting about any more,” he whispered. “Why are we doing this? To ourselves, to each other… to us…”
I had no idea what to say. The kinds of strangely inappropriate thoughts that fly through your mind: he wasn’t in bat mode after all; my radar had gone kafluey.
The next thought was scary: You can’t get much inflection from a whisper, I wasn’t really sure what his words meant, but it didn’t sound good. Did he want out? Had we gone too fast? Or too far?
“Did we go too fast?” The thought leaked out my mouth, I heard it. I would have gladly scratched out my own vocal chords, but it was too late.
“What? No! Selina…” Whatever came next got lost as I processed the What? No!
I was relieved—way too relieved. That can’t be good. I have too much invested in this, emotionally. It gives him too much power. This can’t be good. Bruce was still talking…
“…Why do we fight like this? Why must it always be bite and claw?”
There was an uncomfortably long silence. I had no idea why we fight the way we do. Finally it occurred to me that admitting I don’t know might make the question go away.
“I don’t know,” I answered. Then, for some reason, I added a mumbled “You… setmeoffthatway.” As if the part of me that insisted that be spoken wanted to drive home the point, I started to froth a bit. “I mean—case in point—there are two stolen cats in that curio. And do you even notice the Egyptian one from the museum—our museum? No, you pick on some kitschy bit of schmaltz for Clarice or whatever it was—”
“Candice. And my main concern isn’t over which piece of stolen property it is, but the fact that there is stolen property in my house! And that—”
“See, that’s exactly why you should have gone with the Egyptian Sekhmet, because that cat is most definitely stolen. The last person to legitimately own it was buried with it 3000 years ago, and everybody who has handled it since has been trafficking in stolen goods. I’m just the only one to admit it.”
“That is so unbelievably not the point. The museum donors paid money for it, they had a certificate of ownership—” He stopped short. Took a deep breath, then began again, much calmer. “This is what I mean, Selina. Don’t you see that we always do this? We always fight like this… exactly like this! No matter what it is we’re fighting about, it always seems to come back to… All I’m asking is: why?”
I decided the only dignified response was to match calm for calm, so I put on the most composed, businesslike tone I could manage:
“That is a question that requires introspection to be answered,” I informed him. “I’m not good at introspection. Bad things happen when I try it.”
Maybe not the most prudent thing to have admitted, but it was true enough.
“I see. You’d rather just stuff everything away in a closet somewhere and ignore it?”
Inexplicably, I felt drops of icy sweat dripping up my back. I am aware that icy and sweat are contradictory by their very nature and should not be able to coexist in the same freakish bead of ICK WHAT IS THAT falling up my back.
I am also aware things are not supposed to fall up.
For that matter, criminals aren’t supposed to get it on with crimefighters. Yet here we were: Catwoman, Batman, icy, sweat, dripping, up. Sometimes life is like that.
“What?” he said, “You started to say something just then. Let’s not do this, Selina, where we leave it all at symbols and subtext and unspoken I don’t know what. If you’ve got something to say, say it.”
“You might have a point.”
I was about to add “…about the closet” before he went all batty: Of-course-I-do, I-always-have-a-point. But the look he gave me didn’t look like an impending victory dance, so I held my tongue.
“Yes,” he said, “introspection is hard, Selina. I’m no… I’m no better at it than…. I don’t like to do it either. But if we don’t at least try to work this out, it’s only going to get worse. We’ll either pretend to settle it so that it only comes up again in the future… or else it’ll end up driving a wedge between us…” The pause was excruciating before he added, “And I can’t have that.”
I couldn’t squelch the smile. The control freak part of him does manage to assert itself in the damnedest places.
“We can’t have that,” he amended.
I knew from the lip twitch that he meant it as compromise, but it sounded so much like the royal ‘We’—We have decided, for the welfare of our subjects and the peace of our realm, that the matter of Clarice’s cat in the curio shall be debated in the village square until a consensus has been reached.
I laughed. And then—just to mess with me further—he chuckled.
“Okay, who are you and what have you done with Bruce?”
“Let’s just say that recent events have… pushed me into that introspective territory a little.”
“Me too,” I admitted softly. Then I winced. The words had sounded so… vulnerable.
He took my hand in his.
“So… let’s talk…”
Then he didn’t say anything.
For quite some time, he didn’t say anything.
I know, I know, I didn’t say anything either. But he started it, right? He said “Let’s talk” and then … Nuthin’.
Well, one of us had to do it.
“Harvey wanted to borrow my cat pins as bait for Double Dare,” I said, beating down the notion that being the first one to speak made me braver than him. “The very idea made my skin crawl.”
“Oswald needs a Dear John letter because Jervis hatted his girlfriend and sent her away, and I can’t seem to write it because all it makes me think about is us and… just saying that out loud gave me a headache.”
I felt my lip twitch, and I snuck a peek at his. I suspected he found my quandary as funny as I found his. Our eyes met. We didn’t actually laugh but the tension eased just the same.
“Look,” he said calmly, “I guess I never really considered that you would be bringing stolen property here. I know I should have anticipated the possibility, but it still caught me off guard—”
“We keep having the same fight,” I answered, “because we never resolved the big issue at the beginning. We just skipped right over it to get… to where we wanted to be. We cheated, Bruce.”
“I do not— …hmph… I guess we did.”
“I… never thought of the cats as ‘stolen property.’ I didn’t think of them at all or I would never have… I mean, I know how you get.” By this time, I knew he wouldn’t take offense at the last bit, but I tossed out a naughty grin to soften it anyway.
Our eyes met again. I read the thought clearly: disbelief. Not distrust, though, more like: Is that it? Did we actually resolve something? What now?
“Would you consider something as staggeringly rational as a compromise?” I suggested.
“What kind of compromise?” Batman’s voice. So much for compromise. But I was stuck with it now.
“There are two stolen cats,” I began. The rest was obvious. Two cats that I have and he objects to: Keep one, return the other. Compromise. He cocked an eyebrow. Disapproving grunt. Here we go…
“Because having only one piece of stolen property is better than having two? Not a chan—”
He stopped suddenly, a strange, almost faraway look in his eyes. Then he blinked as if trying to free the thoughts from his head. The unmistakably Bat-like words still hung in the air, until…
“…Keep the museum piece… for old time’s sake.”
I don’t think I smiled too broadly, but if I did, allowances have to be made. It’s not every day a girl wins an actual compromise from Batman!
“Now, about Harvey,” he cracked his knuckles. I started to see the humor of it all and laughed.
“He wanted to bait Double Dare with my cat pins.”
Bruce paused, looking into space, unclenched his fist, and lip-twitched.
“They hatted Lark and sent her to Wisconsin.”
To be continued…