Several Months Ago…
Selina squelched a tear she would never admit to, (It would not do to become a weepy bride at this early stage.) folded the note and paused before putting it in the desk. It was Superman who’d come to dinner after Wayne Tech played a crucial role dismantling Luthor’s AI-supercomputer-intersect, and she had been the face of that effort for the photo op. There was nothing compromising in a thank you note written unguardedly as Superman, and no need for it to be brought to the cave for secure storage as if it were ionized plutonium. It went in the drawer.
As long as she’d been using Martha’s morning room, nothing had ever felt like folding that envelope and slipping it into the drawer. A facet of “kissing a man in a mask” she couldn’t have guessed at in a million years. His best friend was Superman. Superman had an opinion on the way she made his friend happy. And Superman who turned out to be one of the most open, accepting, ready-to-meet new people (Well, maybe that part was to be expected in a dog person, but still) now considered her a good friend.
It was sweet—a thank you note—and more than that, it was validating. Selina felt she was going to need that in the coming months. Like every news outlet on the planet, the Gotham Post was turned inside out by Joker’s hijacking of Luthor’s intersect, and like every outlet on the planet, it had to reboot its operation when the beast was finally put down. And for a moment—for an incredible, marvelous, terrible moment—it almost seemed they had a change of heart. It almost seemed that having gorged on a diet of fake news more gruesomely distorted by the Joker than anything their sickest minds could dream up, it almost seemed that they’d… learned.
That wasn’t possible and everyone knew it. The Gotham Post is. Their lies are. Their cynicism, their toxicity, their pathological need to remake anything noble or honest or inspiring as corrupt, ugly and sick. It just wasn’t possible that they’d overdosed on the stuff and decided to change. Yet it did seem for an incredible fraction of a second that it was happening, and in that second they acknowledged that she lived at Wayne Manor and that she and Bruce were engaged to be married.
Selina had traveled to alternate dimensions. She’d met a coke-snorting Owl Man and a lucid Poison Ivy, persuaded the Batman of an alternate dimension to use magic to help her put down the rabid dog that was Zatanna’s. In her own world she’d stared down a Hell Hound and flirted with a chaos demon; she survived Jonathan Crane’s Halloween parties and Joker as her Secret Santa. She once committed a break-in by rune stone and stole from a Lady of the Lake. She had navigated a pass from a bewitched Lex Luthor. She could accept a lot that didn’t fit into a sane, educated person’s idea of a neat and orderly universe where the speed of light would always be 186,282 miles per second in a vacuum because science said so. But she could not accept the men and women at the Gotham Post just waking up one day and seeing the error of their ways, renouncing F. Miller and going forth to sin no more. It was. Not. Possible.
And it wasn’t. The incredible-marvelous-terrible moment was just that. The fraction of a second when the Post acknowledged her and Bruce was like a note struck on a piano that hadn’t resolved when the tabloid reaffirmed its doctrine that she was a pauper of the lowest origins consorting with similar street trash, as out of place in Bruce’s world as a smear of squashed cockroach on a Da Vinci Madonna. It was almost a relief. It validated her suspicions: the speed of light was still 186,282 miles per second and, however it looked, The Gotham Post hadn’t changed. Something was coming. She had no idea what, and since she was no protocol-writing demon, she couldn’t possibly guess every possible shoe that might drop and devise a response to each one. She didn’t like playing defense anyway. What she could do was what she’d always done: plan the heist.
Or in this case, the wedding. A heist was getting away with something, after all, in this case Mr. and Mrs. Bruce Wayne. It began with known tasks: how to defeat the cameras, how to avoid the guard, how to deal with the motion sensors. Along the way, solving each of those problems, the openings would present themselves to lay a trap for Batman: in the courtyard or by the alarm box or at the vault or heading out the window, wherever the confrontation might occur. It rarely worked out as planned. Sometimes he’d confront her at a point she didn’t anticipate, sometimes he showed up with Robin, once she got saddled with a lone Batgirl and once a PMSing Huntress. But she could always adapt and improvise, because the foundations were solid for the parts of the job that really mattered. She had her way in, around each security hurdle, and out again. Along the way, she had zones of opportunity to trip up the crimefighter that tried to challenge her.
How different was a wedding, really? There was a prize: “I now pronounce you man and wife.” There were tasks: guest list, invitations, music, dress… And there were obstacles. Not quite as easy to identify as a 4x4 array of SVB-19 thermals, but the principle was the same: knowing the basics. Having the fundamentals down so completely that reacting was instinctive. And that meant knowing what makes everything tick, whether it was a SVB explosion-protected thermal imaging camera or Gotham’s Dark Knight.
What did Batman want? He wanted justice and he wanted her, the one got in the way of the other, and that usually created an exploit.
What do security features want? Guards, cameras, and motion sensors all want to see you approaching the target. In the case of an SVB-19, by picking up temperature contrasts created by body heat. A thief who makes a thief-shaped area warmer than her background is easily identified. Once she knows that, there are ways to avoid standing out on the sensor display; ways of trapping, reflecting or redirecting body heat and messing with the ambient temperatures to make herself indistinguishable from the background as the imager sees it, or to make the heat shape look like anything but a person.
So… What did the Gotham Post want? It wanted her low. It wanted her kept down there, of the slums and a friend to the creatures that dwelled there. It was very important to them, and whatever they were going to pull would hinge on that. It was a dumb battlefield, but if that’s the one they wanted, so be it. She was marrying Bruce Wayne, for Bast’s sake; the best offense was simply to take Mrs. Wayne out for a test drive.
She began with the path of least resistance: Hervé Rott, conductor emeritus of the Gotham Symphony who (to put it mildly) owed her. His bizarre idea of hiring a thief to identify holes in security around the Mahler baton drew her into a spiral of corporate espionage and international intrigue: a stolen carbon polymer smuggled into the country as a cello string, a dead body, a different cello string that was really conductive thread containing Star Labs security codes and a different dead body that she herself was accused of murdering! He owed her.
Rather than remind him like a heavy-handed villain, she gave him the chance to be the hero: she made an appointment to see him at his townhouse, admired his piano and said it reminded her of her mother’s music room, and finally she laid her bridal ambitions at his feet: There were elements out there who thought she was some sort of uncultured monkey-woman rolling around on the floor of a dress shop. She wanted to use the wedding as she’d once used Cat-Tales: putting her true self on a public stage and letting the contrast speak for itself.
Rott loved the idea, sat right down at the piano and began tinkling away as he expounded on each of his suggestions. Debussy’s Claire de Lune would be most appropriate to begin. Nearly everyone knew the title meant “moonlight” and that Selina was “daughter of the moon,” but beyond that, the poem that it’s taken from speaks of masks, a nice touch when the bride is also Catwoman, but more than that, there was a beautiful phrase in the very stanza the title is taken from: L'amour vainqueur et la vie opportune “Of victorious love and good life.”
And then the music itself, how it starts: it is not what it seems in the beginning—Do you hear that? It doesn’t start on the one but the beat after, what we call a syncopation. One and. Now listen, here comes the tension. Listen to that, the full phrase… The next, a little more elaborate… But listen, wait for it—See, at the beginning it was in mid-air, and now it is grounded. Fitting for a flirtation with a playboy that ends in marriage, is it not?
After that, a couple of Chopin Nocturnes were discussed, Purcell's Sonata for Trumpet and Strings while the guests were seated, and Bach’s Concerto No. 2—the third part, allegro assai—perfetto, and finally for the march down the aisle, the modern piece often mistaken for Chopin: Mariage D’amoure by Paul de Senneville.
Selina was delighted with a number of the suggestions—and the ferocity of Rott’s cultural enthusiasm. “Of victorious love and good life,” the melody that emerges isn’t what it seems at the beginning, the title meaning “Marriage of Love…” Martin Stanwick would eat it up. He would have a reason to get the music editor involved and hobnob with the symphony people. But the best was yet to come:
“There is a girl I’m sponsoring, a viola prodigy, Femi Molokhya. The Foundation selected her for a Strad we’ve recently acquired, the Castello Sfortza…” In a heartbeat, the romance had evaporated from the air and Rott had the look of a Catitat tiger smelling meat. Selina knew to be cautious when she saw that look, which is what made her so qualified to be Mrs. Wayne as well as Mrs. Batman.
“Naturally I’d like to have her perform,” she said easily. “I was thinking if you could prepare new arrangements for each of these songs: viola and piano, string quartet, and chamber orchestra. The symphony will retain ownership, of course, (a gift of Mr. and Mrs. W, not the Foundation for this I think) and I’ll arrange a recording of the quartet. Should amount to quite a tidy income, a Wayne Manor wedding after all, there is market appeal. That’s in addition to your fee, of course.”
Not a bad deal for the idiot who had her tripping over dead bodies in Ibiza.
Martin would eat it up. The Times would give it a full story in the Music section and a blurb if not more in Philanthropy in addition to the full piece on the wedding, while the Post ran a Bruce and Selina Spotify playlist or something equally downmarket.
Her next stop was d’Annunzio’s after the lunch rush, where she subjected Giovanni to a merciless blast of Catwoman’s beguiling charms to secure the use of his sommelier, Paolo—and only then realized a regular Tuesday night smile would have got the job done with good will to spare. Giovanni the Italian, Giovanni the romantic, and Giovanni the snob were so eager to be asked anything in conjunction with the wedding—the culmination of that romanza epica that became known to the world when Bruce and Selina—che bella Selina, che sposa farà—chose to dine in his humble establishment. He sat her down and insisted she have a little glass of vin santo (“Just to wet the lips, si?) before they began. And then a toast—Bruce and Selina, una storia d’amore—required a toast—un amore così grande—and who would toast un amore grande with vin santo? There was a Sicilian white that would be worthy of the occasion, a little strong for so early in the day, but why not. This was an occasion! In fact, perhaps some bubbly instead. Or in addition, before the Sicilian, a sparkling Metodo Classico with a shot of that hazelnut liquor…
Selina felt she was lucky to walk out on her own power, but she did secure Paolo’s services. Paolo was brought to the manor where Alfred set up a conference call with François de Poulignac and the tri-national committee of wine experts decided a 2007 Burgundy Corton Charlemagne Grand Cru, Bonneau du Martray would be the best respite from the champagne that would saturate the rest of the celebrations.
“A vin as deeply satisfying to the palate as to the snob,” François declared with the passion and intensity of Jason Blood raising a storm of kobolds. “The de la Moriniere family managed to keep their pristine nine hectares of Grand Cru Corton Charlemagne in the family for almost two centuries. The vineyard is a single block on the famous hill of Corton that dates back to the Emperor Charlemagne. The winemaking at Bonneau du Martray is underpinned by the desire to allow finesse to shine through in the wines. White peach, lime and grapefruit, floral notes and a saline character shine through on the nose, leading to a creamy and layered palate full of variety and focus.”
Martin would eat it up.
Her last stop was the Gotham Historical Society to brush up on Marie Wayne St. John before meeting with Deeor, and that’s when she ran into Jason with the usual “Selina, a pleasure to see you” that fooled no one who knew him.
“A pleasure maybe, but not a surprise,” she’d said. “You know, Jason, there are people who consider it rude to aim your precognizance at them to meet accidentally-on-purpose.”
“Are there? How ingenuous,” he said with mock disdain. “The truth is, Selina, I didn’t ‘aim’ it at you, it simply came to me. I am living in an apartment that was once yours. You probably emitted a kind of psychic pre-echo of your intention to come here: researching the past, full of intent. A past I lived through, as you’re well aware. And we do share a link from the Seeings and dimension hopping (fueled by my magick, if you recall, and linked to you and Bruce as a couple). Given your upcoming marriage and the fact that your research must relate to that, I would say it is not surprising. I’m sorry, Selina, given the evidence, it is you who have summoned me.”
“What utter bullshit. Jason, you are the worst. How you can just make up reams of that stuff, you really should have been a theme rogue.”
“I’m not entirely joking,” he said with that peculiar smile that was hard to read.
The silence held, the stubbornness of a cat vs the stubbornness of an immortal wizard, until the librarian entered with her reference books.
“So what are we researching,” Jason said, happily examining the spines and murmuring as he read “Dinner and Supper Lists of Mrs. Charles St. John… The Bristol House Ball of 1897… The Brides of Fife?! Selina, what on earth— If, if you have gotten yourself possessed by Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, do not look to me for aide. I have exorcised her once already and I am full done with feathers.”
“Wow. Jason. Take a Midol. I’m… just looking for some detail on a portrait in the manor, but thanks for making a nervous bride feel like a punchline.”
“I apologize,” Jason said sincerely, and then gave his courtly nod like an abbreviated bow. “Command me, lady of the manor. Allow me to make up for my inexcusable rudeness.”
She had absolutely nothing for him to do, even after he twirled his finger and told her she could speak freely because he had already “sealed their conversation” and it would sound like “Oh, probably the Sami language of rural Norway if anyone is listening.” Experience had taught her that Jason Blood with the urge to “be of assistance” should not be left to his own devices, but she had absolutely no idea what he could do for her. Unfortunately, that prompted her to speak without any idea what she might say.
“Bruce made the sweetest gesture a while back. He packaged it wrong, he offered me pearls.”
Jason raised an eyebrow.
“A gesture, I take it, meant to…”
“To demonstrate he was marrying me, not the small part of him that’s Batman. I had to set him straight: that I loved all of him, Battitude and all. I didn’t want him ‘sending Batman out of the room’ on our wedding day. But the thing is, I don’t want to overcompensate. It’s easy to get caught up in the Bat and keeping secrets through all this that we forget who he really is. What that family is to Gotham… I want him to know that I know… that I appreciate what I’m marrying into. Thomas and Martha deserve that. We met—the reason Bruce and I are in each other’s lives—is because of what happened to them and what that did to him. So I better damn well nail this: becoming Mrs. Wayne. Jason, I can’t blow this. I can’t be just the billionaire’s bride with a six-figure dress from Givenchy.”
He nodded with that far away look like when he’s hearing something besides the words, and a short time later, Faust arrived at her door declaring itself her all-knowing, all-seeing personal assistant for the duration of the wedding plans.
By then she’d had her first consultations with Deeor and had seen some sketches based on Marie Wayne St. John’s portrait… “Breathtaking decadence” “the underskirt is a take on a classic Toile de Jouy which has been embroidered on crinoline” “And a smart traveling suit, I think, leaving for the honeymoon. I was thinking black shell with a white demi-jacket, or else a white collar. Will photograph beautifully throwing the bouquet.”
Martin was going to eat it up…
…That’s what I’d been telling myself all these months: Whatever the Post did to me, I would have the Times to smack them down because Martin Stanwick was going to eat it up.
Whatever the Post did.
I had planned this wedding like a performance art tour de force of 1% Brahmin Fuck You so whatever the Post did to demean and diminish me, I would have the Times. Whatever the Post did to destroy my reputation and wreck my wedding, I had preloaded the Times to set the record straight. Because I knew what made Martin Stanwick tick. So how was it possible I was looking at a Gotham Times headline declaring “Sorry, Bruce, It Wasn’t Meant to Be”?
Naturally my first thought was a prank. When Alfred came into the bedroom with “There has been a development, miss” instead of orange juice, I thought it had to be a prank. Somebody who didn’t like me had put a lot of time and money into this stunt—Compensating for a lack of imagination, it seemed, because “Sorry, Bruce, It Wasn’t Meant to Be,” is not what I’d call a way with words.
I said as much to Alfred, but he said he would “never bring such a thing to your attention on a day like this without verification. Mr. Kent confirmed residue of ‘temporal variance’.”
“You’ve shown Clark?” I asked, still trying to process all this.
“He is the best man, miss. It seemed prudent before sullying your morning with what was, most likely, a petty, mean-spirited act. You may be unaware, miss, but Mr. Kent has made it known to the master that, having encountered persons and objects from alternate dimensions and timelines, he can recognize foreign harmonics on certain spectra. He saw no such anomalies here. I fear this newspaper appears to be genuine and is of our universe and timeline.”
I’ve done it a thousand times, paging through a newspaper braced for whatever new outrage they’ve dreamed up about me. There’s usually a kind of baseline disgust as I turn the page, but today I felt nothing. Maybe because it was the Times instead of the Post, maybe because Alfred was there. I don’t know. I wasn’t numb or in shock, I just felt nothing.
There was a large photo beneath the headline and I studied it: we were in the ballroom together, posed to look candid, sitting on the stairs. I was in the dress, Bruce was in the suit. It did seem like the ballroom was empty but more like the party was over, not like anything dire had happened to shut the thing down. Both of our postures said tired relief more than anything…
I realized Alfred was still talking.
“It would be ideal, of course, to make use of the portal Master Bruce has been using to simply pop into the future and see if this is indeed the headline printed tomorrow, but Mr. Rayner—”
“You called Kyle too?!” I blurted.
“—reports that Master Bruce used the last charge when he returned from patrol this morning, and it will take four days to recharge the portal safely.”
“Two if Clark goes,” Kyle said—and yep, there he was, the hitherto least annoying Green Lantern was in the doorway of my bedroom, blithering. “I can have it charged in two days, but a human would get tachyon poisoning.” Only then did he realize it’s not polite to burst into someone’s room if it’s not a regulation cape/villain confrontation, and he rapped belatedly on the doorframe. “Morning, Selina. Nice, um, silk thing.”
I just stared. Like any bride with the means, I’d had a little spree for the honeymoon: A traditional white peignoir for the wedding night and more colorful lounging sets like this for the playful hours lying around the hotel room—or in our case, Tommy Pearl’s apartment so we could remain in Gotham hidden away in new identities. It was still a honeymoon, which meant sexy and comfortable was the idea. Two features that don’t always go hand in hand, so I was taking advantage of these nights apart to see how they fared after a few hours being slept in. In this case, not well. The camisole did not run big like the salesgirl said, and while a little snugness across the breasts might have short-circuited the bat-brain last night, it had ridden up as I slept and was now pushing down my boobs in a way that was decidedly not flattering—but which did not stop the no longer not-annoying Green Lantern from staring.
I adjusted the camisole to lessen the squashed boob effect and wished my robe wasn’t all the way across the room, while the power ring went on talking:
“Still, two days is a day too late. And Wally says using Speedforce gets us nowhere. Going forward—”
“Flash?! Alfred, exactly how many members of the Justice League are—”
And just like that, there he was.
“—in the house?” I concluded. Unlike Kyle, he didn’t stop in the doorway but was standing next to Alfred before I could finish.
“Clark said it sounded like you were dressed so it’d be okay to come up,” he chirped like a hero who’d forgotten I had been to the Secret Society’s open house, admired the gun cabinets in their arsenal and the missile launcher under their solar panels, and had come away with the private numbers of fourteen people who try to kill him on a regular basis. “Lanterns always get confused about this stuff. Y’see Speedforce is perfectly stable going back—”
“Excuse me!” Kyle blurted.
“—going back in time and it’s reasonably good crossing dimensions, but going forward, there’s a causality thing that’s extremely delicate. It’s like you’re tickling God, and if he laughs, there’s just no telling what that movement might do. I can hit ‘tomorrow’ okay but there’s no guarantee it’s tomorrow in the right universe, and if it is, that the timeline will be intact when I get back. Y’see?”
I wondered if the wedding didn’t take place because I’d gone berserk and killed half the Justice League.
“Everybody who isn’t Alfred, please get out,” I started to say—when Dick cleared his throat, and then waved apologetically from behind Kyle.
“It was my thought to call Wally,” he said like a Robin I should have locked in the basement with a leopard when I had the chance. “Babs hacked the Times mainframe, but she says it’s too early to see much. There’s a massive block of column inches reserved for the Vows section and Hermione’s Society Chit Chat. No surprise there, they’ve been pushing it as the wedding of the century. And the text and pictures here do correspond to what they have reserved.”
“Good morning, Richard,” I managed.
“And Clark called Lois,” Wally added, “Had her check the hotel and it’s today’s regular Gotham Times left at their room. And I checked a bunch of newsstands on the way over, everything’s kosher. Whatever going’s on, it’s confined to here. Just this one copy is tomorr…”
He trailed off because Faust had just floated past him, swiveled between him and Alfred, and bobbed up to me. Alfred coughed.
“One should also mention, miss, that the Atlantis guardsmen have observed the comings and goings. One could not say precisely what they have heard or deduced, but it is likely they glean the activity is not the norm for the morning of a surface wedding.”
“Clark! I know you’re listening. Fill them in, please,” I called out, and then I considered the AI.
Maybe it was muscle memory from a phalanx of crimefighters invading my lair when they weren’t expected, but Faust was looking an awful lot like a henchman who had screwed the pooch so thoroughly, it made you reconsider the merits of punishment by disintegrator ray.
“Faust, is there something you’d like to tell me?” I asked, keeping as much villainess out of my tone as was reasonably possible, under the circumstances.
“Information: This platform downloaded the day’s headlines and projected commentary of morning radio personalities and news shows for the purpose of identifying environmental variables affecting subject Hagen, Matthew aka Clayface. This platform previously analyzed all screenplays read by Hagen, Matthew and evaluated against 493 psychological profiles to determine the most likely model for an assault on today’s event. This platform determined a 61.3% probability that Hagen, Matthew’s avenue of attack will be derived from the unproduced work Retribution Res Publica in which an assassin gains admittance to a society fundraiser as a musician concealing her weapon as a flute.”
“You’re supposed to know everything,” I hissed. “You computed every possibility that could affect the wedding, how did whatever’s behind this get by you?” I batted the newspaper at him, and Wally piped up:
“Hey, glass half full, it doesn’t say Clayface killed you, so there’s that, right?”
“Information: I could have accessed Times mainframe in 1/36000th of the time taken by Mrs. Gordon-Grayson, if asked.”
“Not the point,” I said—which really applied to both of them, but I was focused on Faust. “And I’m asking now, what can you tell us about this newspaper? Is it really tomorrow’s Times.”
“As yet, there is insufficient data to compose a meaningful response.”
“That’s familiar,” said Wally. “Why do I know that? It’s really familiar.”
“It’s Asimov,” said Kyle. “Isaac Asimov, ‘The Last Question.’ From Robot Dreams, I think.”
“But you’re right, the article doesn’t say the wedding was axed because Selina gets killed by Clayface. That is something.”
“I was thinking it’s from a planetarium show.”
“It doesn’t say much of anything, really. Really light on the detail.”
“That is the appropriate form for an announcement of its kind,” Alfred put in. “Discretion is the order of the day on such things, those intimately involved know the circumstances, and it would only embarrass the family to make public—”
“It’s light on the specifics; it’s drowning in detail,” Dick said, taking the newspaper from me—a paper he’d clearly had a chance to read closer than I had because he started pointing to different paragraphs as he read. “‘Wayne Manor previously hosted the wedding of the groom’s son Richard Grayson to Miss Barbara Gordon… The groom gave the bride a gift of pearl… The bridal portrait by the artist Kyray whose entry into the Gotham art world Miss Kyle sponsored earlier this year… dress is based on the portrait of a Wayne ancestor from the portrait gallery… special arrangements of Debussy and Chopin commissioned for the occasion remain the property of the Gotham Symphony as a gift of the Waynes, providing an ongoing source of income to be known as the Wayne Endowment.’ This is a data dump. It’s nothing but detail, but absolutely nothing that’s relevant. Not a hint of what happened.”
“Like Barbara said, they were locked into so many column inches, so they stuck in anything they could think of—”
“Except for anything that could actually help us stop whatever went wrong,” Dick said emphatically.
“Well the Clayface thing is stupid. He doesn’t need to smuggle in a weapon, he is a weapon.”
“Talia al Ghul maybe? Some kind of blackmail. Somebody who knows the identities forced them to cancel or else.”
“Either way, the AI spouting Asimov isn’t good, that’s all I’m saying.”
“Psycho Pirate! Plants an idea in one of their heads—”
“Clarification: This platform does not suggest subject Hagen will employ a smuggled weapon, only that there is a 61.3% probability he will infiltrate the event in the guise of a female musician.”
“GUYS!” I called and let out a sharp whistle. “I’m the bride and I’m saying maybe we should be less concerned with the implied threat to the wedding and more focused on this being tomorrow’s newspaper and how it got here! This house has seen hiccups in the space-time—what now?”
Wally and Kyle both tensed. In a blink Wally was gone, Kyle said “Sir, yes—” and was gone before we could hear the final sir, though there was a visible streak of green glow on the doorframe.
“Dick, go see what it’s about,” I said, and as soon as he’d gone, Faust piped up:
“Information: There is a 79.4% probability Superman alerted them through Justice League communication channels that operatives of Ra’s al Ghul terrorist organization Demon are on the property. There is an 89% probability the arrival of his gift is imminent.”
“Alfred, go get the—” I said while Alfred said “Perhaps I should just—” and the doorbell rang.
Alfred went, Faust went, I gave the newspaper the nastiest look I could manage before coffee, and I looked at Bruce’s side of the bed. I was marrying Batman. I knew this day would bring “developments” as Alfred put it. But now that the moment was here and they were starting to play out, I was pissed. Very, very pissed.
I sat back down at my dressing table and defiantly finished moisturizing. I applied a little lip gloss. Then I went for my robe, paused, and instead got my whip out from under the bed.
A rogue newspaper, Superman, Flash, Green Lantern, Nightwing, the machinations of a homicidal shape shifter, an immortal wizard’s cryptic plucked-from-the-future AI and now the minions of Ra’s al Ghul, before coffee, on my wedding day. Fine. If that’s the way it was going to be, that’s the way it was going to be.
I adjusted my boobs under the camisole and headed downstairs.
Coming down the grand staircase, I could see into both the foyer and the Great Hall, and what I saw looked like a rugby game about to begin between bitter long-time rivals.
Clark, Wally and Kyle were at the edge of the Great Hall like a pack of attack dogs called off by an owner whose lenience they were taking on faith—barely. Alfred was their tolerant owner, receiving four Demon minions in what I can only assume is the ninja dress uniform. One of the Atlantis guards had taken up a position behind the minions while his partner inspected the crate they’d brought.
“Good morning,” I said, as if this was a perfectly natural scene to be walking in on—and two of the four minions looked straight at my boobs.
“A late delivery, miss, understandable in that the sender rejects conventional shipping in favor of his own, ahem, methods. I was just remarking how… fortunate it was that the delays these gentlemen endured in customs and elsewhere brought them to our door the very morning of the wedding.”
(You can’t beat Alfred for sarcasm.)
“I wonder if that’s all they brought,” Wally said.
(You also can’t beat Justice League heroes for overplaying we-know-you’re-up-to-something declarations, but some of them do it with a certain truculent charm.)
I was about to thank them and send them packing, when the head minion, eh, didn’t raise his voice exactly but it was a pronounced public-speaking volume that, in the Great Hall, filled the space like I imagine a herald delivering his message in an ancient castle:
“To the most admirable lady of respectability and virtue I think it right and proper to address as Selina Kyle of Wayne Manor, Gotham, North America…”
“This could take a while,” I murmured.
“By the hand of the minion D’chaym, son of Pruhr, entrusted these three generations with the most private correspondence of The Demon’s Head…”
“Excuse me! Ryan from First Cup!” a new voice called out, and a kid in khakis bobbed out from behind Szczenae Orlan. “We’re booked to set up refreshment carts for the workmen. Coffee, fruit juice, cinnamon rolls. We pulled up to the service entrance but nobody answered. Vans from Pertida’s Florals and Ortolan Catering are waiting too. And I think there’s somebody trying to break into your kitchen.”
“A gift of Ra’s al Ghul, Light of the East, Terror of the West, meant not for dust but who triumphs over death and grave…”
Yeah, this was a job for Mrs. Batman. I adjusted my stance and spoke in my best approximation of a Shakespearean actor crossed with a stuffed cape crossed with a spokesmodel at the auto show.
“Minions of Ra’s al Ghul, I thank you for your pains and I accept this gift of olive oil in the name of House Wayne (and Karma which has certainly found a way of sticking it to me for all those golden Basts I got away with). I will be sending a thank you note by the hand of my own minion when time allows. I offer you fruit juice, coffee and a sweet roll to refresh yourselves before you go.” I gestured to Ryan and the refreshment cart (with the whip hand) and smiled my best villainess about to chuck you into the Pit of Despair smile to convey: Go soon, because none of us can keep this up for long.
They went. I heard Kyle say “That was a-mazing,” and Wally ask if it was always like this, and then they hit the breakfast cart meant for the florists.
Dick had gone to nail down whatever was going on in the kitchen, and the Atlanteans followed with the oil. Alfred was supervising the parade of florists, directing most to the ballroom but reserving three to work on the hall. Everyone passed Clark who I had no doubt was scanning every flower arrangement as they passed…
“Study,” I whispered, and he was waiting when I got there.
“Get Bruce,” I said wearily. “Fly him over and—” Clark held up a hand to shush me, and then pointed to the door. Dick and Szczenae Orlan quickly appeared, and I turned back to Clark. “Just say I need to see him in person, don’t go into the whys of this idiocy.”
He gave me the raised eyebrow that usually means a skeptical cape who can’t believe the vicious criminal is doing the right/generous/decent thing. It wasn’t hard to know what it meant in this context, but he left without saying it. I turned to Dick and saw the same eyebrow.
“I think we can put those superstitions aside,” I laughed. “Newspaper from the future says we’re already toast, first look protocols can suck it.”
He stepped into the room, held both my shoulders and kissed my cheek.
“You two are meant to be,” he said. “There is no way whatever’s behind that headline is going to get its way.”
“Tell me something I don’t know,” I told him, and he grinned wider.
“Well, the way you’re handling it is still kind of magnificent. Pack it up, we need it in the kitchen.”
On the way to the kitchen, Dick said only that the intruder somehow got in and the caterers followed. Szczenae Ahalkea stayed to keep an eye on the situation—which is what we walked in on:
Pikhai, the Demon from outside D’Annunzio’s, having escaped the wrath of Future-Batman, was holding a rod of honing steel and a monster chef’s knife, drawing the one against the other while four caterers and Szczenae Ahalkea watched.
“You see, it is only meant to maintain the shape of the blade. If your blade is not sharp to start with, this will not make for doing you any goods.”
“His English is wobbly,” I whispered to Dick, who mouthed ‘You know this guy?’ and I nodded. “I’ll explain later.”
“Not a lot of force is need,” the lesson continued. “Go lightly acrossing. Away from you. I was taught other way,” he repositioned, drawing the blade towards his body in shorter, quicker strokes. “But it seems a little danger-mouse. I prefer blade go away from me in case I slip.”
“Also can do like this—give me towel please.” He positioned the honing rod straight down, and got into position to demonstrate a new angle, when he saw me.
“These are very fine knives,” he announced looking up with the biggest smile. Eddie has never looked that pleased to see me. Then he turned back to Ahalkea. “Down like that, you see? Three ways now I’ve shown you. First is most danger-mouse, then safer, and this way is most safe of wall. All do the same thing. Realigns the blade, the um, mole-cules (that is what you call the little bits? mole-cules?) in the blade. Realigns the mole-cules so the edge of the knife is maintained.”
“I touched those knives once; I was banned from the kitchen for three weeks,” Dick whispered.
“Pikhai! Good morning,” I said cheerily. “What do you say we let these good people get to work and you can bring all those olive documents and certificates to my morning room. This man will show you the way,” I shoved Dick forward. “Dick Grayson, Pikhai, servant of Ra’s al Ghul. Pikhai, Dick Grayson, your guide.” Then I gave Dick the glare of death that Bruce uses giving orders in the field, adjusted my camisole and told him to stay with the Demon while I got dressed.
Clark was waiting at the bedroom door, sans Bruce.
“It was my fault,” he said, straightening his glasses and peeking over the top as if to remind me it was Superman taking the heat so it really, really wasn’t anything even super-powers could have avoided. “The way I brought him in, he saw the AI; what’s it called, Faust? I should have noticed and detoured but somehow it just appeared there before I—”
“It was probably waiting for you, Clark. That thing anticipates all of us, there was nothing you could do. Let me guess, it told Bruce about Clayface.”
“Nothing about the newspaper,” Clark said, as if that were something.
“No, it doesn’t seem to care about that at all—which I think I’m starting to understand. Faust’s programming is to ID things that could harm the wedding, that’s its prime directive. Tomorrow’s newspaper isn’t a factor no matter what it says, because whatever is happening already happened. (And the thing I hate most about time travel is sentences like that.)”
Anyway, Faust told Bruce about the screenplay and the likelihood that Matt would come in as a female musician, so Bruce was tweaking protocols to screen the musicians, and that included calling Eddie. I had to explain to Clark about the viola player who just happened to be the daughter of a cabbie who helped Eddie. She played a Stradivarius once stolen by me and lent to her through the… (Oh hell) … my explanation ground to a halt as the realization hit.
“Selina, you were talking, and then you stopped, and you look pale, and your body temp is down more than a point. Do you mind telling me…”
Clark and his concern. How could I even begin to explain?
“Okay, you know how the Gotham Post is always insisting I’m this classless nobody. Uneducated, unsophisticated, it really pisses me off sometimes. Insults my parents, insults me, glamorizes poverty, it’s disgusting. So I inserted a few things into the wedding plans to really put them in their place. They’ll do what they always do: ignore anything that doesn’t fit the gutter narrative and make up shit that does, while the Times will have the real story just dripping with details that show how clueless the Post scum really are… Clark, those details are in the Times article. Tomorrow’s Times, Dick called it a data dump. It’s loaded with details that don’t matter if the wedding doesn’t happen.”
“Because they were committed to filling those column inches,” Clark said like a practical newspaper man. “But if the filler is what you intended the Times to write—”
“But I didn’t tell them in advance. Clark, you’re a reporter. If some society broad handed you a press kit before an event like this primed with everything she wanted you to write, what would be your reaction? I have people lined up to leak all that to Martin Stanwick as the afternoon unfolds.”
“Then whatever is going to stop the wedding must happen after your surrogates complete their mission,” Clark said. “That’s good. That’s a good lead. When do you imagine they’ll do it?”
I thought. I thought hard. “The music is right before I come down the aisle,” I murmured. “The dress isn’t something you talk about before you’ve seen it, and how much do people chat during the ceremony? So what the hell happened? Did everybody hang around for hours after this thing burned down, drinking the champagne and talking about the flowers? It makes no sense.”
“You’re right, it doesn’t, but it is a marker,” Clark said, less newspaper man and more hero-on-the-job. “I’ll keep an eye on this Stanwick when he arrives and listen to the chit-chat around him.”
“Alright,” I said, “I need to get changed, meet with this last Demon, and by then Anna should be here to get me dressed for real. So Bruce is… in your hands. Tell him I love him. Remind him one of those female musicians will be carrying a Golden Age Stradivarius so if he can possibly spot Clayface without drenching one of the finest stringed instrument ever made in salt water, that’d be—”
“I will remind him,” Clark smiled.
I went into the bedroom, sat at my dressing table and considered the newspaper from hell. Sorry, Bruce… and that picture of us in the ballroom. I saw Clark’s smile more than either of ours in the photograph. “I will remind him.”
I realized the bit about the Strad was a mistake. A normal person… I was getting married in a few hours, my mind should be on that. There was a newspaper from the future saying it didn’t happen, my mind should be on that. There was a shapeshifter plotting to kill me, my mind should be… But no, I’m a freak who thinks how there’s a rare and precious thing made by a genius whose technique we can never understand and it’s survived 250 years to make it into our hands and mustn’t be destroyed on our watch. I wasn’t normal.
Neither is Bruce. Practically the first thing we nailed down about “us” was that normal people will never understand and we won’t either if think like them, measure against their standards, judge ourselves by their values. I guess that’s why it’s a kick pretending. Our private joke, getting away with it: Bat and Cat living in the world like a normal man and woman…
I looked at the picture under the headline. Did we finally take it too far?
The Chilean poet-diplomat Pablo Neruda wrote about his country’s olive trees, and this odd—and oddly charming—follower of Ra’s al Ghul had copied down several lines to be included with the oil. He also had a recipe for salmon, swordfish, mackerel or flounder, all plentiful in Chilean waters, prepared with the local oil and cherry tomatoes common in the region. The recipe called for sea salt, and he nearly had a fit when he saw Aquaman’s gift—seven chests of the stuff—right there in the morning room. He looked… he looked the way I felt the first time I got into Cartier’s vault in Paris.
There was also a photograph of the groves and a letter spelling out the olives selected and why (“Extracted in a modern Alfa Laval mill at 23.7 degrees celsius to preserve its volatile aromas”) but it was very clear these were all Ra’s touches while the poem and the recipe were Pikhai’s own contributions.
It was sweet. He was sweet—not something I ever expected to say about a Demon, but in that room, surrounded by a twelve-hundred dollar Meissen dish we didn’t need from a corporate climber trying to ingratiate himself with Bruce (who would have done better donating to the hospital like we asked), the thought Pikhai had put into his gift.
Maybe I felt bad that Bruce would never touch a drop of the stuff, considering the source. Maybe I was just curious. Or maybe I wasn’t in a hurry to leave that room and go back into a manor with that headline hanging over it, to go upstairs and put on a dress for a ceremony that apparently wasn’t going to happen. So I stayed and hung out with Pikhai, got his life story (which didn’t take as long as you’d think) when time ran out.
Faust came in and said that Eddie and Doris were in the house, along with Bishop Geoff (which must have made an interesting threesome at the doorbell), adding that there was a 21.5% chance he was not really The Right Reverend Gideon Geoff, D.D. but Clayface and I should “take precautions” such as sending Dick in to quiz him before I would meet with him alone, and even then I should bring a loaded waterpic for protection.
I don’t know what became of Pikhai as I went to sort out the mess. Bishop Geoff had been Reverend Geoff when he married Dick and Barbara, so giving Dick the job wasn’t completely ridiculous. I went to find Alfred, assuming Dick would be with Bruce wherever he’d set up his command tent, but Eddie found me first.
“What’s going on? Bruce called and said I should get here ASAP, but Dormont isn’t here yet and I didn’t know what to tell Doris. Do you know what’s involved telling a woman to get ready for a wedding hours before she… Okay, wrong person to ask, I see that.”
I downgraded the death glare into a sigh, explained about Hagen and that we got a tip about female musicians. I assumed Bruce wanted him there to vet Mahmoud's daughter Femi and, if her father was with her, confirm the other members of the string quartet. It wasn’t something that had to be kept from Doris, but since she’d been inconvenienced, I gave her a field promotion to bridesmaid/dresser.
“You still don’t look happy,” I noted.
“‘Lina, Riddle me fiddle me. Hagen wanting to kill you? This is what marrying white hat brings, that’s all I’ll say.”
“Nice try, Edward, but he wants to kill Ivy too, you can’t blame this on hats,” I told him. “And I heard you were trying one on yourself in Tokyo and that’s all I’ll say.”
“Only time I’ll offer, my weak lion: Do you want me to give you away? Awkward as it would be, I’ll do it for you.”
“You’re the only one where it would mean something, Eddie. You’re the only one ‘on my side of the church’ who knows what’s really going on. But that’s my father’s place, and since he’s gone, I really don’t want anyone.”
The moment was approaching a level of sentimentality I couldn’t tolerate, so I gave him a job.
“Find Alfred, tell him I need Dick to vet Bishop Geoff and I want to see Jason Blood as soon as he gets here, and tell him Doris will be upstairs helping me dress. He’ll understand.”
Alfred knew that once Anna arrived I’d be surrounded by people who didn’t know the secrets so communication would be reduced to coded allusions at best. Doris meant the same thing, and Eddie obviously understood. He looked at me like I was the condemned queen awaiting execution and trusting him with my last message from the tower.
“Well then, this is good-bye until it’s over,” Eddie said, and he hugged me.
Bruce scowled at the mirror, at his wrist, at the mirror, the reflection of his chin, his tie, his lower lip, and his wrist again.
“Taking inventory?” Clark asked dryly.
“I’m supposed to be obsessing about cufflinks or something, aren’t I? Bringing the wrong cufflinks or wearing the wrong… not shaving close enough, imperfections in the tie.”
“And instead you’re chewing your cud that you couldn’t get five more minutes scanning, remodulating and rescanning the feeds from the security cameras? Bruce, we talked about this—”
“When you took my phone.”
“It’s not a phone, Bruce. What I confiscated is a miniaturized Pentagon Command Center that can also send texts. It is a security threat, and I don’t just mean to your identity. You could take out NORAD with what you’ve got in there—”
“Defcon, Clark. In case you haven’t noticed, there’s an event in the house, as in guests. The cave is locked down and I need access to my tools.”
“You need to take a breath. And then you need to let your best man handle it. The U.N. does, the Guardians—”
“Clark, he’s out there somewhere. Let me have my damn phone!”
“Your phone is at the Fortress and that’s where stays. Team Watchtower is on it, Bruce. Let us do what we do.”
Silence settled—the two men staring at one other, neither moving—until a quick rap on the door broke the silence but achieved no other effect. Dick opened the door to see the pair of them facing each other like an illustration in a Dr. Seuss parable, and he closed the door without intruding. “Okay,” he mouthed silently at the hallway, and then after a few steps he murmured “Stay strong, Clark. It’s for his own good.”
At that moment Bruce relented, almost as if he was the one who heard the distant words. He looked back at the mirror and sighed.
“I should be worried about the shave, Clark. She deserves that much. She deserves something normal. But damnit I… I would rather be out there to keep an eye on the guests myself.”
Clark glanced through the walls.
“Everyone is still settling in, just like they were six minutes ago. There’s nothing to see—”
“I’m the best judge of that,” Bruce snapped. “Those are my friends, colleagues and neighbors. If anyone is behaving strangely—”
“And if you went out there, there would still be nothing to see other than all their heads together wondering why you were hanging around where you’re not supposed to be.”
“This is torture.”
“I should be fussing about cufflinks.”
“Bruce, Selina knows who you are—”
“Not shapeshifting killers—”
“—She knows how you think, she knows what you’re obsessing on right now and that’s it’s not cufflinks, and that’s why she loves you. Relax.”
“My chin was basically the first thing she saw,” Bruce said, rubbing his finger against it, the detective’s hyper-acute senses on alert for the faintest indication of stubble.
Clark glanced through the ceiling towards the bedroom where Selina was dressing, hoping it had all worked out for the best. Faust intercepting them prevented Selina telling him about the newspaper, and Clark didn’t think it was right to do it in her place, not when she’d said specifically to tell Bruce only that she wanted to see him.
“My chin was the first thing she saw,” Bruce repeated, holding his hand over his eyes and nose, and parting his fingers just a crack to analyze the reflection.
Besides which, Bruce had enough on his mind.
Leaving the note on Alfred’s nightstand, Faust proceeded to the Wayne bedroom where it performed a final float-through in what it judged would be the final ten minutes before Selina entered. It checked that the dress, stockings, underwear, veil, bouquet, makeup, makeup brushes, hairbrushes, hair pins, perfume, earrings, and shoes were laid out as they should be. It checked that the gifts for her bridesmaids were in place on her dressing table. Its inner light began to fade as it checked the travel suit she would change into before leaving the reception and the luggage packed for her honeymoon… and it floated lower, bobbing drunkenly as it returned to her dressing table. It hovered a moment over an antique powder dish and swans down puff that seemed too small and delicate to support it. It descended, but rather than crushing them, it simply stopped the moment it made contact. Its light faded completely then, but as its weight hit the puff, it shrank to a small carved amber cameo of a cat.
I dressed. I told Doris that Lois was delayed: that Superman was doing something super over Metropolis and Perry White called in hysterics because his entire A-team was here in Gotham. She was talking him down, so if Doris could take her place on the door…
I was up to the special underwear, this French corsetry detailing in the back was the only part I actually needed help with, when Jason knocked at the door. I heard Doris turning him away and called out for her to stop, while I made my way out there in a shuffling two-step with Anna holding onto my back-lacing. Jason looked at the three of us and said “déjà vu.”
I got him alone, ignored his allusions to the boudoir of Lady Wasaborg and whatever corset-lacing story he wanted to tell, and tried to get a straight answer on Faust. He admitted there was straight hocus pocus non-technology magic in its making, but he also swore up and down that magic is about intent and his only intent was to help. It simply wasn’t possible that something magically directed to serve the wedding could do anything to sabotage it. It also wasn’t feasible that it could withhold information we should have—not from me or Bruce, though it might deceive others if necessary, even Clark or Alfred. And it wouldn’t let others prevent it from bringing us information it thought we should have. (As we had seen. Sorry, Clark.) Jason also saw no way Faust could be hacked and no way the AI could manipulate time to obtain a newspaper from the future.
In other words, he had nothing at all to contribute—other than the now-expected last minute offer to walk me down the aisle.
As a trained assassin, Pikhai had an instinct for secret passages. He operated in parts of the world where buildings older than Wayne Manor were plentiful. They often became embassies, ministries and hospitals that were teaming with the sort of people the Demon’s Head might want to kill, so the training dwelt on such things. In the age when a fifth of the world lived under English rule and nearly as many bent their knee to the Qing Emperor, servants were everywhere that mattered and they were not meant to be seen. Their comings and goings were hidden whenever possible by passages behind the walls that linked kitchen and dining room, library, drawing room, bedrooms, and servants’ hall.
Now that wedding guests were arriving, Pikhai retreated from the areas buzzing with activity. He didn’t want to get stuck in conversation with his wobbly English, and with no way to explain what he was doing there in any language. So he ducked into the first semi-hidden door that he found, figuring it would probably lead to the kitchen. The food at weddings was always something to see, even the country weddings in his village, and he was curious to see what fine victuals might be served at an affair like this… He got lost at first, the passage led him back to Selina’s morning room where he took another peak at the salt. “Salt of the Seven Realms” she’d said, a gift from the king of Atlantis.
A minion of Ra’s al Ghul should have relished the unexpected connection: Atlantis! where the Demon’s Head was currently imprisoned. However remote the connection, he should feel a thrill at the chance occurrence—and if he were truly loyal, he might consider if it was by design. If Ra’s al Ghul sent a gift of olive oil to bring his minions to this house where Atlantis guards were stationed, he should perhaps be plotting to follow, impersonate, or gain power over them through the taking of a hostage, and force them to do the Demon’s bidding and free the Great One when they returned.
Pikhai thought none of this, however. He merely inspected the salts again: the famous Fleur de Sel from Brittany, the large flakes of pristine white from Cypress and their black, equally large counterparts from the lava beds, the exquisite Korean Jugyeom, packed into bamboo stems and baked nine times over a pinewood fi—
He heard a noise outside the door and retreated quickly into the passage…
…to see a pair of cats sitting at attention and glaring at him like a pair of guardian temple cats.
“No, no, I touch nothing,” he told them in his native language. “I have no designs on the gifts, nor on any person here.”
The cats seemed to take him at his word. They both turned and trotted away, and he followed—to the kitchen, of course. Servant passages must lead to the kitchen eventually, and of course the cats knew the way.
The one called Alfred was there, in command like a ship’s captain. Pikhai’s duties as a food taster took him frequently into the kitchens, and he knew that level of activity was not to be interrupted. Even if these catering minions were not trained in the fighting arts like those in the Demon compound, it would be foolish indeed to challenge a commander-chef when an important feast was being prepared. He withdrew and returned to the main house—where he again saw Alfred at the end of the hidden passage looking out at the guests.
A sharp intake of breath was as far as Pikhai’s startled cry got before his training kicked in. He sank as far back against the wall as his physical form would allow, summoning the shadows to consume him while Alfred looked his way. A trick of the light, for a moment the old man’s eyes seemed to glow red, and then… Not a trick of light, there was growling. Growling too menacing—too bone-chillingly ominous—to come from those cute little cats. Growling that froze Pikhai where he stood… though there did seem to be vibrations in his knees and his ankles and his teeth that might be called trembling—and might—and probably did—make noise that could be heard by that red-eyed old man who was presumably the source of the growling.
Despite paralysis and the physical reality that his solid back could not press any further through the solid wall behind him, Pikhai attempted it. The effort produced nothing more than a swallow. The thing ahead, which Pikhai didn’t like to call a demon out of respect to the Great One but which was certainly not that guy Alfred, twitched its nose as if it was reacting to the smell of fear rather than the sounds it came out in.
“I am the Fire of Belial,” a voice from an Exorcist movie hissed, so soft and low Pikhai couldn’t be sure it was actually coming through his ears or if it was some demonic telepathy just present enough to be heard over his thumping… over his thumping… his thumping heart and the rising silence that threatened to swallow the remaining words. “Let the stink of virtue be consumed in the cleansing flame—”
In place of the shriek any normal person would emit, Pikhai was awakened by the steely will of a trained assassin—although that will manifested as running from the apparition as quickly and silently as he could.
To be continued…