“I can stop you, Stud,” Catwoman said evenly. “Hell, I already have. The canopy is locked, the engine won’t start, and your voiceprint is switched off until I give the override.”
“DO IT!” he shouted savagely.
“Put the Psychobat back in the box, Bruce. That doesn’t work on me. It never has, and it never will.”
“Catwoman,” he hissed with studied control. “I have to go now. Release my voiceprint, and get out of this car.”
“Look, Stud, here’s the situation: 1. If you won’t kill Clayface for her, there’s certainly a limit to what you’ll do to me.”
He stared menacingly at her for a moment.
“Do you want to test that theory?” he growled.
“As a matter of fact, no. Which brings us to 2. There is no martial art in existence that’s really suited to the driver’s seat of this car. You don’t have room to do what you’re best at. Matter of fact, you don’t have room to do much of anything and neither do I. So you can just drop the caped badass routine. Trying to threaten me or intimidate me will not get you out of this, although it may piss me off, and that’s definitely not going to get you to speeding off to see Queen Chlorophyll any faster.”
“Well?” he asked darkly.
“Well,” she answered with a coy smile. “I think…”
She leaned forward and toyed with the edge of his cape.
“…A part of you, the part that matters, the part that’s really you…”
She progressed to the bat emblem on his chest and traced the oval with a clawtip.
“…really wants to help me get you out of this…”
She looked up at him sweetly, and was met with the clenched jaw and controlled glare that always answered emblem-play.
“…You just need a reason to cooperate…” she went on, tracing the lower scallop of the batwing.
“And here it is,” she said seductively, licking her lips as she eyed the emblem, as if she was considering kissing it. “I’ll release control of the car and you can be on your way to the greenhouse… just as soon as you tell me how to activate the protocol you must have already come up with for something like this.”
He sat in silence for almost a full minute, tension pouring off him in hot, spiky waves.
“There isn’t any,” he said finally. “Release the car.”
“No,” Catwoman said simply.
“Fine,” he muttered. He reached up to a hidden latch at the back of the canopy and yanked a manual release.
Catwoman cursed, seeing all her careful plans crumple to nothing as he forced the canopy open and climbed out. The foremost thought in her mind as she followed him out of the car: a physical confrontation was back on the table, in fact, it was a very real possibility. Her second thought never quite formed, it was pushed to the side as she realized he wasn’t heading for another Batmobile as she might have expected. He was heading into the main cavern of the Batcave… he was heading for Workstation 1.
By the time she reached the main chamber, a layout map of the entire Batcave had popped onto the huge viewscreen looming over the cavern. By default, that screen reflected whatever was happening on Workstation 1’s monitor. She could see Batman was selecting the Hangar Bay on the screen to remotely power up the Batwing—meaning the clock was ticking on his departure, meaning he intended to make up for lost time, and meaning (that half-formed thought from before now emerged with excruciating clarity) this could get very, very ugly very, very fast.
There was something strange about that layout.
Selina had been poring over blueprints of the house and cave for days. They were fresh in her mind: the schematics, blueprints and floorplans, all inter-linked, transposable and familiar, but this… was different. What was diff—There! Unlike every blueprint or schematic she’d looked at, this one layout had one feature not shown on any other: the hologram alcove. That little niche where his most private safe was hidden behind the most diabolically clever “fake bookcase” anyone ever conceived. It wasn’t on any of the blueprints, any of them. It hadn’t been on THIS rendering either when she saw it before, Selina was sure of it. She’d seen this screen a dozen times in the past week and that alcove had not been there. But now, there it was, plain as day. And not only was it there…
Not only was it there, but there was a tiny bat symbol just over the alcove area.
“What is that?” she asked impatiently.
“THAT!” she pointed.
Either he couldn’t tell because the viewscreen was 6 feet wide, or he was being conveniently and infuriatingly DENSE. She marched furiously to the workstation, nudged him away from the controls, and selected the little bat icon over the alcove.
The cave erupted into a frenzy of flashing strobes flickering at god-only-knew-how-many cycles-per-second from every monitor and display in the cave. The effect was beyond disorienting, and despite clenching her eyes as tightly as she could, the flickering light penetrated her eyelids and Selina felt a wave of hot nausea. If she actually blacked out, it was only for a second because… because yes, she was still standing, shakily, but she was still on her feet. She felt winded, the skin of her arms under the catsuit felt like it was crackling with electricity, she had “pins and needles” in her fingertips, and her head throbbed.
“Are you alright?” came a gentler voice than she’d heard in many days.
She turned. Batman was sitting in the console chair, staring blankly at the screen as it flashed a little more before stopping.
“What the hell was that?” she managed weakly.
“A severe but effective way to nullify post-hypnotic instruction. It’s not…” he stopped, not as before because he was struggling internally, but because he was panting from the aftereffects of the strobe. “…not enduring or stable. Get to the med lab. Get the anti-tox… Get me into bed. Watch me tonight. The longer I can keep away from her… the easier it will get…”
Catwoman nodded and, from the whip-holster in her boot, she produced a pen-shaped injector with a bat emblem on the side.
“Way ahead of you on the anti-tox,” she said, “I came prepared. But your file said it takes weeks to have an effect.”
She considered the possibility that the whole lightshow and ”go to the med lab” routine was a ruse: send her off, if only a short distance, so he could get to the Batwing without interference. So she was relieved to see him removing his glove and offering his bare arm without any fuss.
“It does take two weeks minimum on its own,” he murmured. “There are other ways to speed the detoxification. Maybe in the morning I can try to…”
He sighed, seeming relieved more than anything after she injected him, resting his head back on the edge of the chair, closing his eyes, and then graveling the afterthought, “Took you long enough.”
Matt had performed countless love scenes in his day, one or two with bitchy women he didn’t like. He had no problem stepping forward and boldly declaring that indeed, he could not stay away from Poison Ivy, his queen and goddess, for one minute more than necessary.
He was playing a game with himself, the kind many actors play to make a complicated performance ring true. If he really was enthralled with Poison Ivy, Matt reasoned, then his objective in the scene, his “motivation,” would be to get close to her. As such, he would devise his own reason to get close to her so that the actor, Matthew Hagen, and the role he was playing, Greened Batman, would share a common goal. Matt decided that he wanted to get close enough to Pammy to look into her eyes. He was making a bet with himself about what he would see there.
It took a few minutes. She asked if no one was suspicious… He appeared confused by that, and she had to clarify: Was no one suspicious because he came early? It was barely dark. Was no one mistrustful because he’d left wherever he was and quit whatever he was doing earlier than usual? Clay-Batman said no, there was no one to notice such things tonight, and he repeated the part about longing to see her again and not being able to restrain himself a moment longer.
With that, he had closed the distance and was finally able to see her eyes clearly. He saw exactly what he expected. Matt had played an awful lot of love scenes in his day, one or two, yes, with bitches he didn’t like… And one or two with needy delusional psychos, which was another breed entirely.
Some of those women, you could see it when you looked in their eyes: they really believed you loved them—not the character they played, them. They would never admit it, they were sane enough to know it was nuts. But they were so desperate for attention, they’d spend the whole scene pretending in their minds that it was real. They’d usually blow a few takes to make you do it over again. That’s when you saw it, that look. Because you were spewing some love scene drivel, they could pretend and, for a few seconds, forget how pathetically empty they were.
Matt couldn’t say for sure what it was, but something in Ivy’s manner since he arrived at the greenhouse struck that chord. All sugared up because someone was looking at her adoringly. He was drugged, for Spielberg’s sake, at least his character was drugged. He didn’t love her any more than he loved Sharon Stone, Gweneth Paltrow, or Lucy Liu in their respective joint-appearances on the AFI countdown of hottest movie kisses. Ivy knew that. She knew Batman didn’t love her, yet she was absolutely WALLOWING in the Lance Starfire/Princess Olympia doe eyes he was giving her. So he made a bet with himself that if he got close enough to see into her eyes…
“Come, you must be pleased to be able to bask once more in the green.”
…Yep, there it was. The look. Needy. Empty. Finally getting a taste of the “love” it craved. Like most audiences, Ivy would take his performance to mean what she wanted it to mean. She saw the gleam in ClayBat’s eyes as he looked into hers and she took it to be infatuated delight in her proximity, not satisfaction with his own cleverness in finally figuring her out. Poison Ivy. All that ego… that loud, obnoxious, overblown narcissism—the great Gotham goddess—what else could all that bluster be hiding but a wide, deep, hollow…
“None initiated into the enchanted mysteries of the Green can resist the beauty of Nature’s chosen vessel.”
Sensing this was his cue, he murmured something complimentary about the beauties of nature (There were some nice roses in the corner), and noted to himself that the needy-psycho theory would certainly explain why she was such a possessive nutcase where Harley was concerned.
It was a long night. Batman was cooperative as far as the costume vault. Alfred had not yet brought his kimono or removed the clothes he’d worn that day as Bruce Wayne. Selina saw no reason for him to change, he could just wear the costume up to bed and she’d bring it down later. But he insisted. Ivy had enthralled Batman, he said, and in his mind Bruce and Batman were sufficiently distinct that he was better able to resist her out of costume.
It made little sense to Selina, but anything that helped, she was all in favor, “meow.”
He smiled at the meow, and that did look like progre… He smiled. It was more than progress, it was… He’d smiled. At her. It was the first time in days he’d shown anything other than annoyance or indifference. Now he’d smiled at a meow. And for a few fleeting minutes, Selina felt everything really might turn out okay.
The trouble began when she took him up to the manor. Alfred was surprised to see them. Master Bruce was never home that early and Miss Selina, only occasionally. Also, Miss Selina was still in costume while Master Bruce was not. All in all, it was quite an atypical development, and Alfred was understandably curious—and concerned.
Bruce started to explain, but he couldn’t get very far.
“Poison Ivy,” Selina said, supplying the name he hadn’t been able to speak.
“Yes, her,” Bruce said grimly. “I’ve had some… trouble. Difficulty. Nothing really, a small, eh, setback… not even…”
“We’ve had some trouble,” Selina broke in crisply. “Like the time you were telling me about this morning, with the Foundation. I need to get him to bed.”
He didn’t fight going up to the bedroom. He did stare transfixed at the vase of lilacs next to the bed. Selina promptly removed it and set it outside the door. Bruce got undressed and got into bed without argument, but he had more and more trouble discussing anything related to Ivy or the greenhouse.
After a few minutes, Alfred came in with a sedative. There was an argument about that, but Selina stayed out of it. She could see it was a quarrel they’d had many times before, and she had a hunch that Alfred always won. Tonight was no different and soon Bruce was asleep, breathing heavily, and going nowhere.
Whiskers hopped up on the bed and sniffed Bruce’s elbow. Alfred brought warm milk. Selina drank it, she cried again, Nutmeg hopped up and licked Whiskers’s nose, Selina held Bruce’s hand, and eventually she fell asleep.
Matt Hagen didn’t like Batman and probably never would.
But now that he was seeing first hand what had been going on in the greenhouse, he was gladder than ever that he’d come. It was no longer about helping Catwoman. It was simply that NO MAN EVER should have to endure this. No man should have to endure a “goddess” thinking he’s in love with her. The psycho-actresses PALED in comparison to this.
She’d drugged him, what, four different ways by now? Matt could only assume there were pheromones in the air, that’s one. He couldn’t smell them of course, but Ivy certainly acted like her very presence was intoxicating. Then she’d slapped a leaf onto his cheek like a nicotine patch; that’s two. Stuck a thorn in his glove; three. And now, she’d kissed him. He got no more out of the kiss than he did the patch or the thorn, but still, that was definitely three and possibly four different ways she’d tried to drug him. That’s not love. It’s not even lust. It’s just fucked.
Then there was the chit-chat in between. Talk about fucked.
She wanted Batman to kill “the Walking Dung Heap,” i.e. him. That’s what Catwoman had guessed, and that turned out to be the case—sorta. The word “kill” was so simple, detached, almost impersonal. It didn’t really cover what Poison Ivy wanted to do to Clayface. What Ivy wanted wasn’t so much to kill him as to obliterate/exterminate/eradicate/burn him from existence. To devour him from within with a sort of fiery-acid-venom-made-of pure-hatred—in green. Ideally, the acid venom fire of pure hatred should be green, or at least in some way connected to flowers. If that wasn’t possible, Ivy would accept it (grudgingly), but if Batman really loved her, he would find a way to work flowers into Matt Hagen’s excruciatingly painful demise.
Then came the goddess bit. First there was Gaia. Pantheon: Olympian. Sphere of influence: fertility and protection. Suitable offerings: fruits and grain. Preferred colors: green (No kidding, Pammy! Never would have guessed that, never!) Gaia is Mother Earth and grandmother of the Olympians. She was born from Chaos and gave birth to Pontus and Uranus without outside help. But then she bore the Titans with Uranus as their father (and we all know how that turned out, useless men). She also gave birth to the Cyclopes, the Hecatonchires, the Gigantes and the Furies, all conceived after Uranus had been castrated (at Gaia’s request) and his blood fell to earth from the open wound (so there). She is seen as the essence of primordial life and of the Earth itself…
The first conscious thought Bruce had was that he hadn’t dreamt of flowers… He hadn’t dreamt of the alley either… He hadn’t dreamt at all… must’ve been drugged… He raised a heavy hand to his bleary eyes and STARTED awake as he realized he was unmasked. His heart pounded for endless seconds until his groggy senses caught up and he realized he was in his own bed. He groaned and let the hand flop back on the bed as the memories flooded back from the night before.
He heard Selina’s voice in the hallway… but not Alfred’s. She must be on the phone. He couldn’t quite make out her tone, if it was anxious, excited, or irate. He moaned again, impatient with his sluggish senses and his foggy mind’s inability to process data or draw conclusions.
Suddenly, Selina was standing over him.
“I wanted to be here when you woke up.”
Not like Ivy’s, pushing him, always pushing him to kill the Walking Dung Heap that wasn’t fit to live.
“How are you feeling?”
Then soft lips.
He groaned again.
“I’m getting to it. I just have to formulate the appropriate plan.”
No, that was Selina. Ivy hadn’t called him Bruce. Ivy didn’t call him Bruce. Ivy didn’t ask how he was feeling. Ivy only asked how to kill the Walking Dung Heap.
“Bruce, I’m going to give you another dose of anti-tox.”
Not another shot.
How long was he going to be able to take this? How long could he hold on before he told her how to do it? Walking Dung Heap wasn’t fit to live anyway, only fit to be fertilizer for the beautiful flowers.
How long was it going to take before Catwoman put it together?
Prick of a thorn. How long could he hold on?
“I’m getting to it,” he murmured again. “I just have to formulate the appropriate…”
“Shh, it’s okay.”
That was new. Not pressing him after a thorn. Not pressing him after a kiss. Soft words, soft lips, soft fingers in his hair.
Bruce closed his eyes and went back to sleep.
Then, of course, there was Nerthus. Pantheon: Norse. Element: Earth. Sphere of influence: fertility and prosperity. Preferred colors: green. (Again with the green. Will wonders never cease?) Nerthus is the Earth Goddess who was said to have traveled through Denmark in a wagon, from which she blessed the land with fertility. She is the Earth Mother that rules over Midgard; associated with witchcraft, wealth, and purification.
Matt Hagen didn’t like Batman before coming to the greenhouse, but he was beginning to reconsider. It had become increasingly clear that Batman had been coming here for several nights and that he’d somehow resisted Ivy’s demands to tell her anything he knew about how Clayface might be killed. And he’d evidently listened to several nights of this, this lecture series on Goddesses of Growing Things.
Matt could only assume it was easier to take if you were greened, but nevertheless.
“So you see, mankind has always been indebted to those godly women touched by the blessed life force of Mother Earth, without whose power and munificence no blossom, sheaf, or blade of grass could grow. Now you must see, surely, how unnatural it is to resist this simple request. Tell me, Batman, would dehydrating the Walking Dung Heap be possible? Dry air and extreme cold, it works on beef jerky, why couldn’t it work on clay?”
Matt did his best imitation of a stoic crimefighter reluctantly but nobly standing mute in answer to this bizarre idea. He briefly considered that it might be playing Batman as a role that was making him more sympathetic to the crimefighter he’d always considered a blustering nuisance.
Did she say DEHYDRATE HIM LIKE JERKY?
No, it wasn’t playing Batman that was turning him around on the crimefighter. It was Ivy. Anyone who put up with this for more than twenty minutes without killing her was beyond a hero. Greened or not, he was a hero. He deserved a star on Hollywood Boulevard. He deserved an Oscar, a private bungalow at Metro, concurrent cover stories in Variety, Time, and People, and a baked lobster roll at Koi on the studio’s tab.
When Bruce woke again, he realized immediately that he’d slept for more than twenty-four hours. It was still light outside, but his body felt too stiff and too hungry for it to be only a few hours. He also realized he was not alone in the bed. Selina was lying beside him, propped on her elbow, reading a book.
“You haven’t been here all this time?” he said, his dry throat unintentionally producing a deep bat-gravel.
“Hi there,” she purred, setting the book aside. “I come and go.”
He sat up and looked into her eyes.
“Selina, how many hours of the last twenty-four did you spend in this room?”
“Well,” she blushed and looked away, then turned back and blurted defensively, “A lot, okay. I wanted to be sure you were all right.”
He reached out, pulled her face gently towards his, and kissed her tenderly.
“Thank you,” he said emphatically. “For everything.”
“You’re welcome, but those aren’t the words I’m waiting to hear.”
“Poison Ivy is a repugnant criminal and a dangerous sociopath, and tonight I’m taking her down hard, fast, and painful.”
“I would have settled for ‘a world-class bitch,’” Selina smiled. “But don’t you think tonight is rushing things?”
“There’s a way to speed up the detoxification. There’s a metal sample down in the chem lab, shaped like a bar of soap. Special alloy. I haven’t tested it. But Ivy’s pheromones are protein-based; under running water, the amino acids should bind to the alloy, breaking the molecular bonds holding them to the skin. If I spend the day working up a sweat in the sauna and then showering with the bar, sauna-shower-sauna-shower, my system should be completely clear by tonight. I’ve already had what, four shots of anti-tox?”
“Six?! Two a day, first shot was in the Batcave, is it… Selina, is it Tuesday?”
He sighed and shook his head.
“It’s no good. A two-night absence, maybe I could convince her I’d been unable to get away but was still in her thrall. But three, she’d never buy that.”
“You haven’t missed a single appearance as far as Ivy is concerned,” Selina said smugly. “She’s had a bat-toy to play with every night since I confronted you in the cave.”
Bruce’s eyes widened.
“What did you do?” he asked, flashing through horror scenarios of feline-logic-meets-bat-mantle. “Not Jean Paul!”
She stared. She glared. She did her best to remember that she loved this man, had remained at his bedside for the better part of fifty-six hours, and that allowances should be made for the copious amounts of chemicals coursing through his system for the past week. Nevertheless…
“Jean Paul Valley, as in no pheromones at all, you think I’d send him to Ivy? As what, some kind of zero-sum experiment? See if he could suck the sex appeal right out of her?”
“Well it couldn’t be Dick. Ivy would see through that in a minute, and J’onn—”
“That’s your rolodex, not mine. And there was already a shapeshifter on the table. I got Matt to do it.”
“Clayface? You got—”
“Hey, no love lost between him and Ivy, in case that’s somehow escaped you, Jackass. And best of all, her pheromones can’t touch him.”
“He’ll have killed her by now.”
“No, he hasn’t. He calls every morning after he leaves the greenhouse. He’s all kinds of pissed, and he has some gory plans for a certain rosebush, but he’s perfectly willing to wait for my go-ahead. I’m like his director.”
Bruce swallowed, moistening a painfully parched throat.
“He calls me ‘C.W.’” Selina added.
Bruce swallowed again, rubbed his temples, and scowled. Through sheer force of will, he prodded himself into a “Batman” frame of mind sufficient to produce what others perceived as a density shift. When he spoke again, his deep gravel was not from the dry throat but from pure, disapproving Battitude.
“You sent Clayface. To Ivy. As me.”
“You think Ivy’s the only one who can charm a little help out of a man with an undeniably useful skill?” she smiled, indifferent as always to disapproving Battitude.
“It’s a potentially lethal superpower,” he corrected. “You can’t control him, when he decides to go on a mad rampage and kill her—”
“Okay, first, let’s scroll back to ‘thank you for everything,’ because that’s the only thing keeping you unscratched right now. Second, I don’t think Matt Hagen is any crazier than I am. He seemed perfectly rational when I talked to him, not especially prone to ‘mad rampages.’ He certainly understands that he has a vested interest in the situation. Ivy wants to kill him and I gave him a heads up. Yay, Kitty. He has every reason to help me. And third…”
She trailed off and sighed.
“Yes?” Bruce prompted wearily.
“He seems like a really decent guy. Bruce, he had everything. Life dealt him some absolutely brutal blows. Now he’s got a lot of problems trusting people. Sound at all familiar?”
“I hope you’re not suggesting—”
“Look, you’re right, I can’t ‘control’ him. That’s Pammy’s shtick. It’s not my style, even if I had the Lemon Pledge body chemistry. I’m not controlling him; I’m trusting him, and maybe… maybe then he’ll trust me. I think he needs to trust somebody. He’s so alone, it’s killing him, worse than anything you and Ivy cooked up.”
“Pity the poor rogue,” Bruce sneered. “Do you have any idea how many times I’ve nearly suffocated in all that—”
“Special Foundation Initiative S4, Humanitarian,” Selina said simply.
“You’re going to hate this next part,” she went on.
“Yes, I suspect I am,” he agreed.
“I want you to let me and Matt handle Ivy tonight, and after—”
“Afterwards, I want to bring him back here to meet you.”
Bruce bristled, his eyes closing.
“Not a chance,” he growled. “First off, I’ve spent the last week in Ivy’s thrall. I’ve spent the last three days in a rapid detox to try and get her influence out of my system, and all the while, Clayface has been impersonating me in front of Ivy, without my knowledge or approval. It couldn’t be helped, considering my condition, I understand that. But to think that I’m just going to stand on the sidelines while my girlfriend and her super-powered buddy are exacting revenge…”
He paused briefly, letting the comment hang in the air as he turned to look at her again. She opened her mouth to speak, but he interjected before she could even start.
“And now, after all of this, as I’m ready to try to get Batman back on track after being out of action for a week, you want to bring Clayface—a high powered rogue and one of Batman’s deadliest enemies—back to the cave to meet with me for some kind of…”
“No, Bruce,” Selina interrupted, “not the cave, I didn’t mean the cave. I meant bring him here, to the house. It’s not Batman that Matt needs to meet with, it’s Bruce Wayne. It’s about finding legitimate research for his condition and the financing to cover that research.”
Bruce paused again.
“Special Foundation Initiative S4, Humanitarian. Bruce, why does it exist if not for this? If he cooperates, then it wouldn’t be guesswork, right? They could find the right hydrogen level or whatever it was to make him stable and—”
“Selina, your heart is in the right place, but—”
“Look, you owe me!” she blurted. “For the ‘tired tonight’ and rolling over alone, you owe me huge. He went to Luthor, Bruce. I told him not all rich men are like that. I am bringing him back here tonight to meet you. You can either prove me right, or prove me wrong.”
Bruce sighed and shook his head.
“Not here. Bring him to the penthouse.”
“Fewer nooks and crannies to check after he’s left?” she guessed.
“Newer sprinkler system,” he grunted.
To be continued…