In her mind, Selina screamed. Not even her own scream, not Catwoman in the throes of fear toxin seeing a five-headed hydra bite the heads off Batman, Whiskers, Nutmeg, Nirvana, and Alfred. The virgin in the white nightie scream. The primal cry of she who goes traipsing through the forbidden wing of a gothic castle after midnight—that scream—and the only thing that kept it from bursting from her lips was the sure knowledge that if it did, Mercy Graves would come bolting into the room to take a bullet for Luthor. The thought clamped down on all modes of expression and movement. The hypothalamus covered blink-blink breathe-breathe, and everything else was locked down until it could be examined critically.
A lone synapse that sounded very much like Bruce wondered if this is why he wrote protocols. There should be a pre-written plan for situations like this, thought up some lazy weekend when she had nothing better to do, nothing else to think about but a drive up to the Catitat versus a picnic cruise on the Gatta. Not improvised on the spot under the weight of ten kinds of shock. Of course that presupposed imagining a situation like this before she found herself living it, which was impossible. No one could foresee this, no one. Not even… Bruce, that was it. Bruce!
“Nice try, Lex,” she said with a smile. “But don’t you think your rivalry with Bruce is getting a little out of hand?” She moistened her lips seductively—which was a risk, but she was fairly sure that, despite the overtures he was making, Luthor’s lips did not work that way. He wasn’t into people, he was into power. “I mean really: Oswald, Demon, Falcone? It’s very imaginative, but a much vainer woman than I would realize it isn’t any of these supposed achievements of mine that you’re after. You just want to pocket something of his.”
“Come now, Selina. You can’t fool me,” he said (assuming one of those Presidential expressions all Americans had come to know from his campaign: good humored but not smiling, because the issue at hand was too weighty.) “Acquisitive villain to acquisitive villain. You aren’t his. He is yours. You’ve gone from stealing baubles and daubs of paint to stealing empires. Wayne’s isn’t a criminal empire like the others; it’s harder to get your claws around. At least on paper. But you’ve got the man who makes the decisions, and as I learned myself at great cost, that’s a much better arrangement than having to sit in the big chair yourself day in and day out.”
“Alright Lex, I’ve heard your pitch,” Selina said, standing, but he cut her off.
“No wait, listen. I have been as rich as him and will soon be again. Why? Because I am aggressive like the Trust Fund can never be. He’s like the Alien, born with advantages he never worked for. He is soft and weak.”
“Your old tech divisions are now his tech divisions, Lex. If that’s what soft and weak can do, I’d hate to think if he was, what was it, ‘acquisitive and aggressive’?”
“Perhaps that was the first instance of your whispering in his ear?” Lex speculated with a grin.
Selina sighed and shook her head, which bizarrely, he took as encouragement.
“I appreciate that the thought is new to you,” he said patiently. “In your place with a well-planned operation of my own under way, I would need time to thoroughly examine a new situation that proposed itself.”
Selina blinked, realizing that Lex describing himself as ‘a new situation’ used exactly the same tone as Bruce referring to himself in the third person. When Bruce did it he meant a manufactured image, “Bruce Wayne” as perceived by the public as he figured into some scheme of Batman’s. What exactly did that say about Lex? Other than he was standing entirely too close and looking at her the way a vampire in that screaming virgin horror movie looks at his lunch.
“Cape,” she spat suddenly, and then pointed to the window with more fervor than Lois Lane ever had. “I’m sure I saw a streak of red go caping past the window just now—a red cape, I mean, go streaking past— Oh hell, just go look, will you?”
He went to the window and looked out casually, then closed the curtains.
“Coming into Gotham, I arranged the following for your consideration,” he was saying amiably and as if there had been no interruption. “Based solely on our prior acquaintance and what is known of you in the public eye. One: I caused a story to be circulated in Chinatown that sparked considerable gang violence for the first days and nights of James Gordon’s return as commissioner. Two: I arranged a series of public relations embarrassments for the Gotham Post that’s caused them a number of headaches. And Three: I made a sizable donation to the Gotham Museum of Art and immediately spent the goodwill thus obtained on a request that they take certain items from their storage vault and put them on permanent display. Gold lions are the recurring motif.”
“You think I’m going to steal them?” Selina said, eyebrow raised.
“Not necessarily. Gordon is quite busy with Chinatown if you would wish to, but I meant the gesture merely as… call it a demonstration of influence. And as I said, these preparations were necessarily made in secret based on our prior acquaintance. Now that we’ve talked and I’ve declared myself, I dare say I can come up with something more… imposing.”
“Where are you?” Bruce and Selina said in unison.
“I called you,” she said testily while he said “I’ve been calling for half an hour, you haven’t been picking up.”
“I wasn’t in a position to answer my phone,” she said, breath growing heavy while he said “Going off with Luthor” and “Cassie’s account can’t possibly—Are you okay?”
“No! I’m trying to breathe and talk and not panic all at the same time and something’s gotta give.”
“Where are you?”
“In the back of a cab with a driver waiting—patiently for a Gotham cabbie—for me to tell him where to go. Where are you?”
“Nothing I’m going into on the phone, Bruce. Now where will you be: manor, penthouse, other?”
After a thoughtful breath that might have been called a sigh coming from another man, he said “Penthouse” waited until he heard her say “Wayne Tower” to the driver, and then asked in a low Bat-gravel “Selina. Is anything… on fire?”
Knowing he was asking if it was a DefCon situation, she simply said “No.” Only after he hung up did she add “Other than my brain.”
In her mind, Selina’s hand shook as she lifted the glass to her lips. It was only a lifetime finessing motion curtains and easing paintings off their hangars despite shock sensors that kept it still.
“I never in my life had a pass I didn’t know how to deflect,” she said, suppressing a shudder. “Even Felix Faust I saw it coming. This was like dimension hopping again—worse, it was worse. At least, unfathomable as it is to me that any theoretical Catwoman could wear those goggles, not know what they represent and fall down dead from the shame of it, it doesn’t have anything to do with me. But this insanity, this wasn’t some alternate universe that only exists as a nanosecond what-if some electron bounced the wrong way. It came from my choices, from Oswald and Falcone and Ra’s.”
“Selina, you didn’t really take over the Iceberg; that was a misunderstanding. Falcone was my doing; I simply put your name on it.” She looked up skeptically, and he grunted. “Demon was yours,” he admitted with a lip-twitch.
“How can you be so calm?” she asked.
“I’m not,” he said leaning forward, elbows on his knees. His hands were coiled together and he subtly rubbed the two front knuckles of his left hand with the fingertips of his right.
“Ah, saving it up for tonight’s muggers,” she whispered. “Going to be a shitty night to be a crook.”
He grunted, and she sighed.
“Okay, I guess I overreacted a little,” she said. “I just don’t like being blindsided. That was—I mean out of nowhere—and he just—starting a gang war in Chinatown and getting lions put on display at the museum, who does that?”
“Luthor’s idea of pitching woo,” Bruce grimaced.
“Well, glass half full. I found out what brought him to Gotham,” she said with that triumphant little smile that meant she had a diamond bracelet on her person that she hadn’t begun the night with. “We don’t have to tell Spitcurl, do we?”
“If he knew something about Joker’s thinking, I would expect him to tell me.”
“Woof. I hate cape ethics,” she said.
“Then maybe you should consider Luthor’s offer,” Bruce graveled.
“Maybe I should,” she teased. Then, suddenly, “Hey really, maybe I should. We are looking for a rival to split us up.”
“No,” Bruce said with the old rooftop vigor, which made Selina purr.
“Why do you insist on using that portentous Voice of the Master tone when you know it makes me want to race right out and do whatever it is you’re forbidding?”
“Impossible woman,” he breathed. Then, suddenly, “It’s funny though, Luthor does fit the bimbo profile to perfection.”
“There’s a bimbo profile? This I’ve got to hear.”
He looked around the penthouse and his lip twitched.
“I like the changes you made in this room,” he said. “Do you remember what it was like on your first visit?”
“What are you getting at, Bruce?”
“The playboy. Bruce Wayne, the international jet-setting playboy was a more complicated role than Alfred or Dick realize. He wasn’t shallow, stupid, careless and rude simply to differentiate him from Batman. He was made to repulse women who cared about anything other than money. I knew I would be cancelling dates, abandoning them in nightclubs, treating them like cufflinks. No decent woman would put up with it, there was nothing about Bruce Wayne that was worth putting up with it.”
“Except the Black Card,” Selina laughed, and Bruce nodded.
“Exactly. I knew the only women who stuck around after twenty minutes with that moron were only interested in getting into Lot 51, having the foie gras at Bouley, going to the Tommy Hilfiger party.”
“And a tennis bracelet if they made it to Valentine’s Day,” Selina grinned. “Don’t forget the tennis bracelet. Tim told me about those, bought wholesale at Fineberg & Son.”
Bruce’s eyes went square.
“Did he really,” came the surprisingly dark gravel.
“Yep, Alfred and Dick may not have understood the playboy shtick, but I think Timmy has an excellent grasp of—Cape!”
It was said with the same urgency she had used with Luthor, but this time the veracity of the claim was as clear as the flowing trail of red fluttering passed the window.
“Just remember no matter how cute the kittens are, we are not getting a Scottish Fold,” Bruce hissed as the red flutter came to a leisurely stop outside the glass doors to the terrace.
It was Superman who stepped in from the terrace, but the transition to Clark was almost instantaneous. Bruce was amused though not surprised to see that he’d changed. He’d abandoned the suit he’d worn to breakfast as Clark Kent and the borrowed one he’d used as Calvin Elliot. He was now in the jeans and flannel he generally wore to the Catitat, so his offer came as no surprise.
“Why don’t we have the debriefing there. I can fly you both up, get some fresh air. Selina says you haven’t seen the tiger cubs yet.”
“You two go,” Bruce said casually. “Selina can debrief you. I have something I’d like to follow up on here.”
“We’ll be back by lunchtime. Gotham will survive for half an hour,” Clark said, which produced the glare that was the same in the mask and out. It said: Your thought is noted. It doesn’t alter my decision. You don’t know my reasons so stop wasting my time with irrelevancies. Clark had seen the look enough times to know it wasn’t angry or malicious, it was just about saving time. He was prepared to drop it—but Selina wasn’t. There was an audible surge in her biorhythms before she spoke.
“He has a grudge against tiger-mom,” she said with a knowing smirk.
“I do not,” Bruce graveled.
“Because you still have the scar from the Dhumavati death maze,” she teased.
“I still have another scar. If I was holding grudges like that, you wouldn’t be here,” he said tersely, then bent in to kiss her cheek. “You two have fun.”
Fun was had. If there were grudges to be held from the death maze, “tiger-mom” had the most right to one. Superman had punched her, later he pulled her off Batman by her scruff and flung her into a stone altar, and finally he threw off a cultist in barbed armor who landed on top of her and spiked her paw. Yet knowing who he was and what he was capable of, she allowed him to play with her cubs. One in particular leapt on Clark’s shoe as soon as he entered the pen. Once he and Selina settled on the grass, the same cub started head-butting his hand like an old pal and swatted the fingers to jumpstart a familiar game. He scrunched up his eyes, stretched out his nose, and opened his mouth as wide as he could as if letting out his 16-pound version of a fearsome roar. Clark flicked his fingers at super-speed through the opening between the cub’s teeth, and the cub snapped happily but without success. To Selina, it seemed like a weight was lifted and she could see why Clark kept coming back here.
“How typically Luthor,” he laughed when she finished telling him about the scene at hotel. “He sees every situation in terms of what’s in it for him, naturally assumes everybody else does the same. Even so, how anyone can look at you and Bruce and not see that you’re crazy about each other...”
That’s because you see yourself and Lois, Selina thought, although she wouldn’t dare say it. Instead, in an effort to get as far from marital topics as possible, she returned to the detail that surprised him the most.
“So nobody in the League knew what happened with Falcone? Epicenter of the biggest mob takedown in the nation’s history just happens to be Gotham and you didn’t know he was behind it?”
“Oh, we knew it was him, we just didn’t know how. If he followed the money, turned an informant. And you said he stashed this Marcuso character up here?”
“Yep. They stayed in the cabin, helped feed the cats, tend the grounds.”
“They? Oh right, the girl. They got married after all in the end,” Clark said with a satisfied nod, and Selina kicked herself. Why did every subject lead back to eternity bands and white cake? Was there a hitherto unknown ivory satin kryptonite on which she’d one day produce the definitive work?
“Yep, they’re all settled now,” she said as casually as possible. “And with the end of the war, there was all this real estate and other assets the Rogues got from Falcone that had to be sorted out, and that led to NMK and put me on Lex’s radar.” From the corner of her eye she thought she saw a smile, the smug one that meant the super-matchmaker was circling overhead, but as she turned to face him before giving the conversation one more definitive change of subject, she saw it wasn’t a smile at all. It was more like a grimace.
“Selina, am I the reason you two won’t get married?”
Bruce had chosen which car to drive to the penthouse with this second excursion in mind. Selina had no sooner left with Clark and he was in the elevator heading for the parking garage. The Luthor news pissed him off, but it was also a relief. Now he knew what had brought Lex to Gotham. As insulting as the reason was, it wasn’t a looming threat. It had to be handled, and like anything involving Luthor, it had to be handled carefully. But it wasn’t a ticking bomb that threatened innocents, it didn’t forced him to put everything else on hold until it was defused.
That meant he could advance the other matter to the priority status it would have if Lex Luthor hadn’t come to town. There was a suspicion to confirm, and once confirmed, dealt with.
“What?!” Selina exclaimed—too loudly, which upset the cubs and she had to continue in a soothing tone that did not match her next words. “What the hell, Clark, are you trying to out-crazy Luthor? Is this some new Metropolis holiday: Let’s all go to Gotham, pick somebody at random and mess with them until their head explodes?!”
“Selina, the conversation we had that day,” Clark said, knowing she would know he meant the day all hell broke loose once the truth came out about the mindwipe. “You said I should stop comparing you to Lois because you weren’t Bruce’s wife and weren’t going to be. You said—”
“We all said a lot of things that day, Clark.”
“Yes and one of them was that you would never be okay having children with him knowing they’d wind up in a League with people like me. At the time that seemed so monstrously unfair, but now—”
“—Now I have this picture in my head. I have this picture and I can’t get… I can’t get past the idea that it’s in yours too. Selina, the night I came to your old apartment to tell you who I was, do you remember what you said? How I’d ‘thrown a helicopter at your boyfriend.’”
“Yes,” she sighed. “It was a fake-witch behind it. ‘Skyclad’ or something? Her lapdog MKULTRA controlling you while she waved her arms and took the credit. Bruce had to go to Metropolis…”
“Yes, and no punch of his stung like those words in your apartment. ‘That was some interesting footage on CNN. It looked like you threw a helicopter at my boyfriend.’ I think back to that week now, Skyclad isn’t the memory and neither is the fight with Batman. It’s you saying ‘you threw a helicopter at my boyfriend.’ Selina, don’t you see? You were born here. You were born on this planet and you did what comes naturally: You found someone to love. And I, who came here uninvited, threw a helicopter at him. The fact that I can do it is the proof that I don’t belong here.”
The elevator doors opened onto the parking garage underneath the Wayne Tower and Bruce emerged and headed for the Porsche with the same determined stride usually seen far below when he was exiting into the satellite cave and heading for the Batmobile.
Of all the sports cars in his collection, the Lamborghini, the Bugati, the Pagani and the Ferrari all resembled various Batmobiles more than either of the Porsches. But those cars were a little too conspicuous. Even on Fifth Avenue, their appearance was an event. On today’s excursion, Bruce didn’t mind turning heads, but he didn’t want to do more than that. If the car was noticed, that was fine. If he was identified as the driver, that was fine. If the sighting was remembered, if it was noted who he was talking to, none of that represented a problem. But he didn’t want to risk a passerby so overcome with the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that they came over for a closer look, or worse still, tried to strike up a conversation.
Of all the cars that carried that subliminal allusion to the Batmobile, the Porsche was the only one sufficiently commonplace…
“Clark, stop. Will you listen to yourself?” Selina said, again upsetting the tiger cubs. This time it was a surge of anger more than her tone of voice. “First, the level of super-strength needed to toss a helicopter isn’t all that rare. We’ve got some of those evolved right here on earth, and you’re preferable to all of them. Not only does the idea that ‘powers’ equal ‘doesn’t belong here’ not hold up, it sounds like Lex. I know you didn’t mean that.”
“And second?” Clark asked, rubbing the cub’s chin to avoid making eye contact or conceding the point.
“Second… I don’t know how to say this well. I might fumble a little, so I'd like you to wait ‘til I'm done and then just think about it for a bit before you respond. The things you can do as Superman are extraordinary. But listen to what you just said: Bruce was wearing a kryptonite ring and no punch of his stung like those words of mine? We can all hurt each other, Clark. You’re not lording it over a planet full of beings without defenses. I was born here, I don’t have a power unless you count a way with locks and broody crimefighters. And without even meaning to, I hurt Superman?”
“Now you sound like Lois.”
“What does Lois say?”
“That it was Clark Kent and not Superman who took down President Luthor. ‘The pen is mightier than the sword,’ basically.”
“Well, she’s right. Words do a lot more damage, you know that. You can’t kill an idea. And the ability to string nine or ten words together to encapsulate a thought, packaging an idea to spread from brain to brain and persuade, that’s one hell of a superpower.”
“Lois almost word for word. The effects of kryptonite dissipate almost the moment I get out of range, but words go on, after the speaker has left.”
Case in point, the helicopter, Selina thought. Also the movie, which had to be laid to rest once and for all. Superman doing weekly flybys at the Catitat and playing with the tigers was one thing. Superman using her as a yardstick to evaluate his relations with humanity was something else entirely. She’d been more than reasonable in a completely unreasonable situation. She’d made allowances for the truly alien aspects of Clark’s thinking: the man, the cape, the farm boy and the dog person. It wasn’t working. He was fixating on her relationship with Bruce even more than before, it was getting all tangled up with his personal baggage and it simply had to stop. It was time to stop making allowances and be a cat. A cat may look at a king, as Luthor was so fond of quoting, and a Catwoman may treat a Superman like anyone else.
“Boy, you married a smart lady, Clark,” she said admiringly. “Pen v. Sword. Words v. Heat Vision. Remember that other movie a couple years ago. ‘Some men just want to watch the world burn.’ Is there anybody in the English-speaking world that didn’t hear that phrase? How many know it still? How many quote it. Tell me who has the real honest to God superpower if not the guy who wrote that. The power to speak to the world. I mean, that’s one hell of an idea. ‘Some men just want to watch the world burn.’ To write it here and it comes out… everywhere. That’s one hell of a power. And what did the clowns who made that Superman movie do with it, hm? Did they use it for anything? Anything at all?
“Clark, maybe the reason they can’t conceive of who you really are and how you use your gifts and how you wrestle with the implications, maybe that has nothing at all to do with you and everything to do with the directionless, slapdash, throw-everything-at-the-wall-and-hope-something-sticks way they use their ‘powers.’ Luthor sees me and Bruce and assumes I’m in it for what I can get, he sees you as a threat because of what he would do if he could pick up Australia and hurl it into the sun. Maybe these others are projecting in just the same way. Maybe they lack the imagination to think of a better way to solve a problem than snapping its neck. The people who know you reject that—”
“Selina, the people who know me devise protocols to stop my body processing sunlight just in case.”
“Yes,” Selina admitted. “He’s got a ‘just in case’ for me too, you know. In mine, I’m pretty sure your job is to protect Alfred, Dick, Barbara, Tim and Cassie. I’m going to go out on a limb and say in any scenario where neither of us is the threat, I’m on that list too and it’s on you to protect me.”
Clark turned away and Selina smiled sadly.
“I see I’m right and he’s mentioned it to you. You know that it’s just a fantasy he has, right? That I’d be running into the fire right beside him.”
“And you’re going to say that proves your point. That assigning you to a ‘Lois’ role where you’ll be protected is a function of his hopes and fears and not a reflection on you, right?”
“I wasn’t going to say that, but it’s a good argument so let’s go with it.”
Bruce took the circuitous route around the Hudson campus to come in past the richest houses on Fraternity Row. Past the smattering of Rovers, Mercs and BMWs parked outside the Beta Theta house, past an old Jag at Sigma Chi… His lip twitched as he saw another 911 parked in front of SAE that was newer than his own. Mission accomplished. A Porsche emerging from this part of the campus wouldn’t be conspicuous at all. Tim would be coming out of the Forum after his 2 o’clock in Lecture Hall C and… there he was. Bruce imagined he was surveilling a campus drug ring, just for a few seconds to get into the right frame of mind. He accelerated just enough to screech the tires as he pulled up beside Tim, as if he was expecting the car to brake like the Batmobile.
“Selina, it’s not the same thing,” Clark said irritably.
“No, it’s not. If for no other reason than because it doesn’t bother me the way this other mess bothers you. Clark, it’s not for me or anyone else to say how you should feel. It’s certainly not for me to judge your feelings or imply you’re not entitled to them. I will just say this: These guys might be a little reckless and irresponsible with their ‘power,’ some might be unimaginative, some unprincipled, a few may even be cowards—but not one of them is stupid. Do you really think if they believed you were capable of being that guy that they would tug on your cape and spit on your shoe?”
“—said something like that too,” Selina repeated with him, and they both laughed.
“It does seem like she sent you her notes,” he said. “She says it all goes back to Luthor’s election. The phase of his campaign that basically said: Vote for Lex to show the alien we can. Elect the guy he opposes because he’s not going to tell humanity what to do.”
“Yes, I remember. Tell you what, let’s stop talking about millions of people, voters and movie goers, and stick with what we know. You and me. After the mindwipe; before our talk at the waterfall. Earlier that day in the Batcave—”
“Selina, let’s not go there, please.”
“I think it’s important that we do. Clark, I took a very cheap shot when I mentioned your parents and how they raised you. I did it for a reason, maybe the worst of reasons. Because parents are a hot button with anybody that doesn’t sprout from spores, and I knew if I pushed you, you would reach for a club. The whole thing came down to which club the people with powers would reach for when they were pushed. And you went straight for words. Moral superiority, but still… Pen v. Sword: Catwoman the criminal had no right to an opinion.”
“My point is that you didn’t fry me into a little pile of ash and it never occurred to me for a tenth of a second that you might. Just like there are non-powered people who would answer disrespect with cold-blooded murder and those who would never consider it. Clark, there was a greater likelihood that one of the stalactites would spontaneously turn into the killer rabbit from Monty Python and have a go at my throat—in which case, no matter what I’d just said, you’d step in and save the situation.”
Clark said nothing for a long minute, then...
“It meant a lot to me that you came flying with me after that. You didn’t trust me as a man, you didn’t trust my ethics or my judgment, but you were okay putting your life in my hands.”
“Yes, but that was then,” Selina said with mock severity. “Now that I’ve see that movie.”
“Hey, look at that,” Selina said, pointing to his lip. “Is that a laugh? About the super-flick. A laugh?! Maybe I have some powers after all.”
“Oh, no question about that. Look at Bruce then and now. All I do is fly.”
“And throw helicopters, see through anything not shielded in lead, melt titanium with your eyes, crush coal into diamonds… but can I tell you something quite honestly? The most ‘super’ thing I’ve ever seen you do was teaching Cassie to skip stones. Up at Watermill Lodge when she was so afraid of flying with you. And after ten minutes…”
“Ah, yes, I thought that might come up. About this morning, her coming along on the mission…”
“She picked up on it, didn’t she? How upset you’ve been. She’s quite creepy that way, reading body language and all the silent cues.”
“Yes, she did. And she very sweetly offered to come along to Wall Street and be a part of the mission because it meant my flying her. That gesture meant a lot to me, but that’s not why I brought it up. Selina, you do realize there’s another side to it. She was there to make the observation and make that offer because she was there...”
“Tim, why was Cassie in your dorm room before eight in the morning?”
Tim swallowed. He knew this was coming since he got in the car— Bruce pulling up beside him, the door opening. “Get in,” radiating PsychoBat—He knew this was coming, but he still hadn’t come up with an answer.
“Do I get read my rights or anything?” he joked, knowing that joking with Bruce in Bat-mode the worst strategy possible but unable to come up with something better.
“You have the right to answer my question without futile and transparent attempts to stall, without lies, and without incomplete or misleading half-truths. After which you will have the right to get out of this car and return to your life as you’ve known it.”
“And if I give up that right all bets are off?”
“Partnerships are based on trust. You know that.”
“Same thing you said when you started with Selina. Then it was all how I had to trust your judgment. How about a little of that trust coming back my way, partner?”
“That was an identity issue. Your concern was for your father’s safety. This is in no way comparable. I trust you and Cassie with my identity, trust you to conduct yourselves appropriately on missions, and your performance this morning justified that trust.”
“Thank you,” Tim huffed.
“I’m not finished. That has nothing to do with this conversation. Selina and I are both older than you and Cassie. Nobody is responsible for Selina but Selina. Cassie is an inexperienced girl, a girl you know only because of your mutual association with me and who trusts you because of the nature of your work together. I’m going to ask one more time, and I expect a direct, prompt and honest answer: What was she doing in your room when Clark picked you up this morning?”
“She spent the night—We haven’t had sex, but she spent the night. We have got really tight the last few months and she’s slept over a couple times. We talk, we make out, we cuddle.”
“Do you spend the night at her place?”
“Does that matter?”
“I don’t ask questions that don’t matter. Have you stayed in her apartment overnight?”
“Now and then.”
“Noted. You say you haven’t had sex. Don’t you mean you haven’t had sex yet?”
“I don’t think I have to answer that,” Tim said, going for dignity but unsure it came out that way.
“You do. I’m not asking as your mentor. I’m asking as the adult responsible for that girl. You want me to trust your judgment, I’m prepared to do that. Everything you’ve done as Robin indicates a man of character, maturity and decency.”
“This isn’t the speech I was expecting,” Tim said quietly.
“What were you expecting?”
“Oh something like ‘I am the all-knowing, merciless death god of your universe, Dark Knight of Hell, the shadow that deepens above her front door and the last thing you’ll ever see if you step out of line.’”
“Good instinct. Why do you think fathers of daughters say things like that?”
“’Cause they don’t want some brute with a score card hurting their little girl.”
“Exactly. You wouldn’t be letting things escalate with Cassie if you didn’t have feelings for her, right?”
“I’m crazy about her, you know that.”
Nothing more was said for almost a mile. Tim waited as long as he could, then:
“So what’s the catch?”
“Tim, I trust your judgment assuming you understand the situation. Assuming you have all the facts, and know how to interpret them.”
“We’re not harvesting evidence at a crime scene, Bruce. It’s just, y’know, finishing up really late, going back to my place or back to her place and making out for a while. We watch the GCN 2 AM Wrap up rerun at 4 AM and go to sleep.”
“Tim, I asked if you go to her place because I wanted some insight into how balanced the relationship is. If she’s initiating or simply following your lead. And I’m about to ask another question you might think you don’t have to answer: how experienced are you? If you haven’t been with anyone, then you’re not aware of the emotional ramifications. Physical intimacy is a big step, and Cassie—”
“Is so in tune with the physical side of things she’s almost telepathic. Bruce, come on! Have you met Cassie?”
“Reading body language doesn’t mean she’s confident, particularly when it comes to social contact. Pursue this relationship and you’ll be taking her somewhere very new. You’ll be in a position of influence and considerable control. I want to make sure you understand that and are prepared to act… appropriately.”
“And if I fall short, all-knowing and merciless death god of the universe, got it.”
As Selina predicted, it was a bad night to be a crook. First, Bruce and Selina went into Chef Ho’s together and paid separately for two take-out orders. Within minutes, Batgirl patrolling in Robinson Park and Robin near St. Jacob’s Hospital found their paths blocked by an imposing silhouette. Though each held up a bag and announced “I brought dinner,” the quick instinct of crimefighters registered trouble. They would later compare notes, Batgirl insisting she had it worse because she had no idea a ‘talk’ was looming; Robin that he had it worse because he thought the ordeal was behind him. Only Bruce would show up on campus to have that ‘what are your intentions’ chat as a civilian, let you walk away thinking your life was your own again, and then hit you with the Dark Knight recapitulation a few hours later. Within minutes of Batman leaving Robin with a grunt and Catwoman leaving Batgirl with a cheery ‘Ciaomiao,’ both junior crimefighters felt the urge to hit things. Batman’s thoughts had already returned to Luthor and he felt like pummeling thugs who deserved it, while Catwoman wanted to calm her nerves with a really good alarm. That took her thoughts to her favorite wind-down targets on Museum Row, and that evoked the lions Luthor arranged to be taken from the vault with the idea that he was ‘displaying his power’ the way a peacock displays his plumage. Hitting things started to appeal to her too. In the end, all four massaged stinging knuckles once they got home and pulled off their gloves.
For everyone except Selina, that was the end of the day’s upheaval. She had one surprise still to come. She’d taken her usual route into the manor, parking in the carriage house which gave her one simple piece of ground security to navigate on her way to the house. She took the spruce tree up to the bedroom window, and there on the small accent table inside the window, she found a black velvet box. An elegant ivory gift card lay across the top, with her name spelled out in gold ink in gracefully flowing calligraphy. Downstairs in the foyer, Alfred would set the mail or the newspaper on the entrance table at the same angle in relation to the front door as this was in relation to the window, so the placement was clearly his doing. Something set out for her attention as soon as she got home. Obviously something Bruce arranged after the penthouse, a little pick-me-up for her to come home to after what he knew had been a trying day…
Little it was not. The pear-shaped diamond pendant on a fine silver-link chain was decidedly not little. Her lip twitched, imagining his. Luthor’s stunt must have got under his skin more than he let on. She laughed, called to Whiskers and Nutmeg, and dangled it for them to paw at like she would in the old days whenever she returned with such a spectacularly dangle-able piece of loot. Then she laid it on her pillow while she took her shower, and when she came back to bed, she put it on. She stretched out, prepared to greet Bruce when he got home wearing the diamond and nothing else, but alas, it wasn’t one of his early nights. She rolled over and went to sleep, and that was all she knew until the outraged growl that began most days at Wayne Manor.
Like most control freaks, Bruce did not react well to things he couldn’t control. In the first moments of the day, the sun, the light it produced and the butler who opened the curtains allowing that light to strike his face ranked equally high on the list of Things That Should Not Be. The moment passed quickly, but usually not before a growl accompanied by a roll into her back, legs and neck.
“Go away, bother other criminals” she murmured over his usual complaint that bats are nocturnal, and then after a sleepy nose twitch, she remembered he was owed a thank you.
“You can leave the tray on the bureau,” she told Alfred in a throaty voice that owed more to forbidden rooftops than morning fuzz-tongue.
Bruce recognized the tone, turned to look at her, and his eyes narrowed as he registered the pendant. Alfred said only “Very good, miss” and touched his finger subtly to the mail sticking out of the basket on the side of the breakfast tray. He hoped to convey that there were letters that should be seen to, but he could see neither Bruce nor Selina were paying attention. He withdrew silently, as Bruce touched the center of the diamond.
“Kitty isn’t up to her old tricks, I hope,” he said in a voice that was more morning-gravel than bat-gravel.
“Someone thought I deserved a pick-me-up after such a day,” she started to say in the spirit of old rooftop banter—when something stopped her. “We’re… playing, right? You did send this.”
“ALFRED!” they called out together.
Once again, Selina went down to the cave in a cloud of pique, resolve and concern, but this time she wore long pants and a sweater to protect against the chill. She also brought a bottle of aspirin, which she set on the worktable next to Bruce while he looked into the eyepiece of a large device, like a microscope attached to a shoebox. She stood silently behind him for several seconds, but when he didn’t speak, she did:
He looked up from the eyepiece, checked a side screen and grunted.
“It’s clean. No cameras, sensors, microphones or transmitters of any kind, no isotopes or chemical markers. It’s exactly what it appears to be. An obnoxiously large, inferior stone. Clear and well-cut but not flawless clarity, and far from colorless. J or K, I’d say. It’s a second-rate stone.”
“Let’s not be petty, Bruce, the demonspawn wrecked his company.”
“I’m not being petty; I’m being accurate.”
“They’re not mutually exclusive,” Selina teased.
“I’m being accurate.”
“I have no doubt. Accurate with just a smidgen of pettiness in there somewhere.”
“I believe this is what he was going for,” Bruce graveled. “VOX Command: Display Photo 'lot-finder important diamond pendant' Screen 2.” Selina glanced up at the picture of a nearly identical pendant as Bruce read off the details. “Sold at Christie’s London several years ago for just over a million pounds. 17.6 carats, D color, flawless clarity. Excellent polish and symmetry. That’s cat-worthy.”
“You’re serious. This isn’t the fop. You’re actually ticked at this,” she said, index finger extended, half-pointing at his chin, amused and fascinated.
“Selina, you came down here to tell me you talked to Alfred, right? He said the package came via bonded messenger while we were out and he assumed it was from me. Alfred does not make those assumptions, he was led to make it. The name on the card in calligraphy, the message to set it out for you to find when you got home is from the jeweler, nothing to raise flags that it’s not my handwriting. Don’t you see? He engineered it to play out exactly as it did, so you’d think it was from me. Come to thank me and only then discover it’s from him. We’re having exactly the conversation he intended: morning at the manor has gone exactly the way he wanted it.”
“And you’d be less pissed about that if it was a better grade diamond he used to do it? I’m confused.”
“Selina, nothing about this is confusing. He’s not taking on Batman or Superman with this stunt, he is taking on Bruce Wayne, and that being the case, he needs to do better.”
Selina stared at his jaw, jutted out at a particularly stubborn angle. Then she reached for the bottle of aspirin and said she’d come back to let him know when lunch was ready. She returned early, less than an hour later, with no lunch.
“He did better,” she announced flatly.
Bruce turned and Selina walked up to him, touched the side of his cheek, and looked into his eyes from the specific angle and distance they had done so often as Bat and Cat.
“You were right,” she said admiringly. “He is taking on Bruce Wayne/not Batman or Superman. And he’s doing it really well.”
“What do you mean?”
“We did have exactly the conversation he wanted this morning. I just read my mail and you honed in on exactly what he wanted you to. Something that underlines your shortcomings, compared to him, as a partner for Catwoman. It is a second rate stone. But you know, it’s still very large and beautiful and quite impressive. If I wore it to one of the fundraisers last month, nobody would have thought anything amiss. And in buying the inferior stone, he has a couple million left over for this.”
With a flutter, she turned her wrist and a packet of glossy printouts materialized between them. Bruce took it and read.
“Our old friends at Holce Concepts call it a ‘yacht island’ but look at it. It’s a villain lair. An 11-level floating sea base with a wet dock, four helicopter pads, four fully azimuthing thrusters, and an observation deck that sits over 200 feet above the water. Retractable canopy on that, naturally, because you’d presumably set out a little buffet for the hundred guests and captive MI-6 agent you invited to watch the launching of your armada and you wouldn’t want the lobster getting rained on. It may as well say ‘white cat and diamond-powered death ray sold separately.’”
“And he’s bought one of these.”
“No, he hasn’t got the scratch, but he put down a refundable down payment on two—his and hers—and made us an appointment with the Holce architect to talk customization.”
“It’s a good pitch, Bruce.”
“Sure. Think about what you really are compared to what Luthor thinks you are. He thinks you’re just diamonds and caviar and no imagination,” she paused and pointed around the cave. “He’s saying that any man worth my time would do something more interesting with all those resources. That I can have a big diamond and plenty more that would never occur to ‘the trust fund.’” She stepped closer and pressed against him. “You know we’ve never done it in the Batmobile hangar…”
Harley had an undeniable gift for finding the weak spot in any plan. If there was a loose thread, she’d pull it. A pot left too near the edge of a table, she’d knock it over. An attempt to befriend Bruce Wayne producing in an invitation to watch him play polo, Harley would just have to bring up the grass. Polo apparently involved more than horses pounding the grass. They frequently kicked up entire chunks, which spectators were then invited to stomp back into place at half-time. It was bound to be upsetting, but she needed no passage out of Dale Carnegie to tell her that spouting off about it wouldn’t exactly cement the friendship. She was so close; she’d got far enough with Bruce to secure this invitation. She couldn’t blow it by now calling him and his friends a bunch of mindless savages.
Harley also had a knack for suggesting remedies Ivy never would have thought of. In this case: Valium. Dr. Quinzel might have traded her psychiatric acumen for Harley’s Cosmo subscription, but she could still prescribe the proper dosage. One pill with her breakfast the morning of the polo match and another before she left, she would be able to stand anything.
To be continued…