Chapter 10: Evolution
DEATH MAIDENS CLAIM RA'S AL GHUL
Dateline Birgunj: Ecoterrorist Ra's al Ghul (whose name means "Flower of the Prophet") is believed dead following a bloody coup d'etat led by his own family members. Stabbed to death at his summer home in the hills overlooking Birgunj, the enigmatic al Ghul was rumored to have fathered numerous children at Woodstock and other notorious "Love ins" in the 1960s …
Bruce had read the preposterous article twice. He skimmed the headline and opening paragraph one final time before setting down the Gotham Post with a wry lip-twitch, then he poured a small amount of milk into his coffee, stirred, and tasted it.
Across the table, Selina eyed him suspiciously. "No grunts?" she observed skeptically. "Luthor's resignation got six. Torching the cadaver like a marshmallow on a stick doesn't rate any kind of grumbly vocal acknowledgment?"
Bruce's lip spasmed markedly. "The Times's meticulously professional coverage of Luthor's resignation –which actually occurred– did have consequences worth considering. The Post trying to pass off this fever dream of a supermarket psychic as news…" His lip twitched again, and then morphed into one of the more charming foppish grins, "…not so much." He winked and sipped his coffee.
Selina continued to stare while Bruce looked through the small stack of morning newspapers, setting aside the discarded Post, bypassing the Times and Daily Planet, and settling at last on the Wall Street Journal.
"Was that a smile?" she asked incredulously as the shock wore off and she regained control of her tongue.
Bruce thumbed through his Journal, evidently looking for a particular article. "As for burning him," he remarked conversationally into his newspaper without looking up at her, "I don't think so. A funeral pyre might be fine for grand opera, the last act of Siegfried or whatever, but Ra's is 1500 years old… I don't even want to think about what the insides might smell like."
She raised an eyebrow doubtfully, which Bruce didn't appear to notice.
"It's the Post, Selina," he said lightly, turning the paper back on itself once he found what he was searching for, "Even by the standards of a tabloid that once reported the death of a Soviet head of state with the headline 'DEADSKI REDSKI', this story is absurd. I don't know why they don't just reuse an old obituary like most papers do since, you know, he keeps dying."
Bruce held up his newspaper, leaving Selina to stare at a front page article on Wayne Tech's acquisition of several former LexCorp subsidiaries and the consequent salvaging of 40,000 jobs. She gave the word "Wayne" the full benefit of her hardest cat-glare, but it had little effect on the figure behind the newsprint. The silence went on for several minutes as Bruce read whatever article he was looking at and Selina stared ineffectually at the back of his paper. When she got tired of this, she picked up the day's menus, left beside her place at the table, and pretended to read them. This was a contest of wills and she didn't mean to lose.
"So when do I get a look at these cat powers?" Bruce asked lightly from behind the paper.
"That does it!" Selina caved, "What the hell is going on with you?"
Bruce lowered his newspaper and blinked up at her, startled by the reaction.
"What?" he asked in genuine surprise.
"Cheerful. Smiling. Joke! – At least it better have been a joke."
"Oh. Sorry," he said simply. "You've been saying all this time how ridiculous the tabloids have gotten - and how I go overboard anytime Ra's is mentioned – that I shouldn't take it all so seriously…" As he spoke, he underwent that bat-mode density shift and then grunted. Selina stared again, more confused than ever, and Bruce set the newspaper aside thoughtfully. "We should talk," he graveled, "You were asleep when I got in last night."
"Actually I wasn't. I just curled up because I didn't want to deal with it anymore. I figured it would wait until morning…. So. You talked to Eddie."
Bruce grunted the affirmative.
"How screwed are we?" Selina asked frankly.
"He'll keep quiet. He knows something none of the rest of them do. That will appeal to his sense of superiority."
"So the 'worthless riddle' angle worked?"
"Yes…. Yes but…" he trailed off.
"Uh oh. 'Yes but', you can't leave it at that. What's 'Yes but'?"
"Nigma will keep quiet because of his compulsion. But that's not the reason he gave. He claims that —You know how you had said you and he wouldn't hurt each other— He says he'll keep it to himself because making my identity public would adversely affect you."
"How very clinically you put that," Selina observed, "Like one of those tech stocks in the Journal reacting to the LexCorp buyout."
Waves of crimefighter disapproval pulsed across the breakfast table like it was Cartier's rooftop.
"Don't look at me like that, Dark Knight; you're curdling the milk," Selina chided, picking up the cream pitcher with a feline smirk, "I went to see Jean Paul, as you requested."
"Don't change the subject," Bruce ordered, still decidedly in rooftop mode.
"I'm not," Selina replied with a smile, which was certainly not her usual response to a bat-order. "I went to see Pheromones, even though I can't stand him, because you asked me to. And I am forced to admit that underneath the bat-impostor that I always detested and always will, there is actually a human being inside Jean Paul Valley."
"So what? You want me to acknowledge a human side to Riddler? You want me to consider the possibility that he's learned this incredibly valuable secret and even though he's a villain and a rogue and a criminal he's just going to sit on it because revealing it would hurt a friend and destroy a friendship?"
"That's the general idea, yes."
"No. It's too sane and too normal and—"
"And too human. And it involves a sensitivity toward others' feelings that you would prefer never to associate with any of them."
"Selina… don't. If I bend that far, I'll— I have to maintain a certain level of detachment in order to… do what I do."
There was a lengthy pause.
"Well I've never been a big fan of your 'detachment'," she reminded him crisply, "But I can understand what you're saying. I went to see Talia yesterday too while I was in town. …I was quite the social butterfly yesterday."
"So it seems. Is this also 'not changing the subject'?"
"It is. The demonspawn and I drifted into uncomfortably non-hostile waters for a few seconds."
"Neither of us liked it much. We snapped right back into scratch and hiss form as soon as we possibly could. The thing is Bruce, I don't think you and Eddie are going to have that option."
"Neither do I," Bruce admitted, massaging the bridge of his nose. "Why did he have to— Damnit. The protocol worked, Selina, just like I always knew it would. Riddler's compulsion makes it impossible for him to tell; it would devalue the currency. Right now he's got the answer to the ultimate riddle in his pocket but if he makes it known, he's got nothing. It's that simple. Why did he have to— Why did he have to pretend it's anything more than that? Why did he have to drag you into it that way?"
"Lot of question marks there, Stud," Selina observed, sipping her coffee.
"Do you want the answer you'll like, or do you want the truth?" she asked.
"I'm curious to know what, in your view, is 'the answer I'll like.'"
"Ego. He wanted the last word and it was something to say."
"And the real answer, in your opinion, is?"
"You're not going to like it," Selina reminded him.
"Deceiving myself is not a luxury I can afford, Selina. It's too dangerous in this life."
She nodded and took a deep breath.
"Okay, you asked for it, here goes: Eddie made it personal because it is. He's in the same boat as you in a way. You've got a face for him now and a name and a girlfriend. You just became a person. And he doesn't like that development any more than you do."
"I know a little something about learning the name of the man in the mask, Bruce. I'm not wrong."
Bruce said nothing.
"It could be a lot worse," Selina observed. "Ra's could be dead. You could have had to torch him like a marshmallow on a stick, found out what the insides smell like after 1500 years. And by the way: Ew! not the image I want while I'm trying to have breakfast."
Ubu stood at the door to Ra's al Ghul's bedchamber, along with the messenger who delivered the fax from Metropolis, and the guard who insured the document was not tampered with while it was walked down the corridor from the communications center. They waited in tense silence while inside The Demon's Head read the American newspaper's account of his death.
Sitting up in his bed, Ra's had read the article through six times before satisfying himself that he was not misunderstanding the text. He was well-versed in English, more so than any of his men, but the jargon of those decadent Americans changed so rapidly. And of course there was danger in taking any report from Ulstarn at face value, the man was so excitable – not to mention paranoid. Ra's was indeed reluctant to take this report seriously simply because Ulstarn had been the first to send it.
But after six readings, Ra's was forced to conclude the outrageous story was every bit as libelous, treacherous and insulting as Ulstarn had said.
First there was this artist's rendering of his Imperial Person that made him look quite dead even though it was meant to represent him before his demise. Ra's would have been most grievously insulted by this affront (and ordered the artist assassinated as Ulstarn suggested) had he not noticed that all the other persons depicted by this same artist looked equally bereft of life.
Then there was that business about Woodstock again. Where do they get such notions?! As if the great Ra's al Ghul would sully his person with Western depravity - besides which The Demon's Head does not urinate in a field! And this was to have been Talia's conception. What effrontery. His offspring was conceived in the traditional manner of the Chinese Imperial heirs, with Ra's visiting all of his concubines in turn, in order of their rank, at precise intervals dictated by the Imperial time-keepers, building himself up, until finally it was time to consort with his official wife when the stars were in perfect alignment - And if Melisande had done her job and delivered him up a male like she was supposed to, the process would have yielded the most favorable characteristics in the offspring worthy to be called al Ghul.
And instead, what did he get for his trouble? "DEATH MAIDENS CLAIM RA'S AL GHUL" He was to have been murdered by his own daughter! Oh not his real daughter, perish the thought, but this invented one. This Nyssa. How typically passive-aggressive of Talia, for Ra's had no doubt it was she who planted this outrageous story. Who else could it be? And what was this extra daughter he's suddenly presented with if not the return of Talia's imaginary friend from childhood, the one who had all the ideas about sneaking into the kitchens and sampling the sweets. Her ideas had now expanded to murdering him and assuming the title of Ra's al Ghul for herself. This story was a threat, nothing more or less, a treasonous threat, delivered in a cowardly passive-aggressive manner that was pure Talia.
"Ubu!" Ra's called out, calmly but with a volume to make himself heard through the heavy wooden door, "Ubu, kindly locate my daughter wherever she may be - I believe that Ulstarn can provide you with her present domicile - and tell her it is My Will that she present herself in the Imperial Presence at her earliest convenience."
Selina's remarks about Batman and Riddler being forced to recognize the other's humanity spurred Bruce on to complete the Zogger rebuild that afternoon. He itched to try it out. It was – gratifying – pounding all the ambiguities into a crisp squaluch of flesh against canvas, skrechhk flesh against wood, smaurrk flesh against metal… The gnawing doubts about seeing the humanity in a criminal… of seeing his own humanity congealing around the perimeter of the Batman role… it could all be blotted out, if only for a second, in the sting of fist meeting force field.
It worked. It worked too well. He stayed at it too long, pushing too hard, and he hadn't checked the clock when he began. Three hours of intensive Zogger begun in late afternoon… by the time he switched it off, he was nearing muscle failure in his upper arms. He cursed himself, glaring at the clock.
Bruce had a scientist's understanding of physical law. That understanding knew better, but he allowed himself to hope that his peak physical condition would allow his muscles to recover in time for patrol. He went through the motions of dinner upstairs with Selina, a kiss on the cheek, then returning to the cave and the costume vault. He went through the formality of suiting up – he donned the leggings, the tunic, the boots, belt and cowl… But the tremor in his triceps as he reached for the cape could not be ignored.
He had said earlier that deceiving himself was not a luxury he could afford. He was in this condition because he wanted to blot out thoughts of his own humanity - and the mortality that went hand and hand with it. Deceiving himself was not a luxury he could afford. He was a man, his body had limits, his muscles were pushed beyond the point where he could swing from the Batline. Period.
He informed Oracle, so that Nightwing, Robin, Batgirl and Spoiler could modify their patrols to accommodate his absence. He briefly considered the Watchtower – if he could swap monitor duty with whoever was on tonight, he could free up his next scheduled watch and give that night to Gotham… Except his next scheduled watch was Third Saturday, the secret poker game… the scheduling acrobatics J'onn went through each month to keep the players free and keep the non-players from learning of the event… There was no point in even trying to fiddle with it. So he had the evening free…
He checked the monitors of the security cameras in the manor, but there was no sign of Selina. He switched to the camera in the garage and saw her Jaguar was gone. She had already gone out for her prowl.
He sat back… and waited.
Greg wrapped the napkin around his fingertip and playfully wiped the last trace of hollandaise sauce off the corner of Talia's lip. Then he collected her plate and his onto the breakfast tray and set it outside the door for room service to collect.
He smiled wonderingly to himself as Talia answered the telephone. She really was something: she really did these things, the stuff you only see in old movies. "The morning after" and they had eggs benedict and mimosas from room service. You had to love that! He imagined a carriage ride in the park was next, or a picnic – or the picnic/carriage ride montage - with some snappy bit of 60s jazz, while they pointed to things and laughed.
"Hey sweetie," he started to say, when he noticed she was sitting on the edge of the bed, telephone still cradled in her hand, staring into space. "Sweetie? Talia? What's wrong, Hon?"
She said nothing at first, then looked up bewildered – like a deer in headlights.
"I am summoned," she murmured as if it were a death sentence, "I am summoned to my father at once. The Third Assistant to Ubu delivered the missive personally. I am to come now."
"I wouldn't," Greg said simply.
"But I am summoned," Talia repeated, as if perhaps the words weren't understood the first time.
"Yeah I heard. We got that around the Hacienda sometimes too. 'Come Now' – Just sayin', I wouldn't if it was me."
"-I- -am- -summoned-," Talia repeated yet again, hitting each word with equal emphasis.
"Yeah I got that," Greg assured her. "Look sweetie, he's your old man, I'm not gonna tell you what to do. But if it were Joker saying 'Come Now', and he had that glint in his eye, and it was a Thursday, I'd be walking the hyenas right now, not calling American Express booking the next flight to Nepal."
Talia stared unbelieving.
"Wait a few days," Greg cajoled, "he'll probably forget all about it."
Talia continued to stare.
"But even if he doesn't, it's better to let him blow his stack now and get there later once it's all resetting the trapdoors and sweeping up the broken glass."
"Not go?" Talia whispered, incredulous.
"Yeah. Miss the message. Go to Atlantic City for a few days. Or camping, I'll bet you've never in your life been camping, now have you?"
"One does not defy a direct command of The Demon's Head," Talia explained, although she would have thought the concept universally understood.
"Yeah but – he's your dad," Greg pointed out. "Demon's Head to us; Daddy to you. You never - what - broke curfew when you were 16?"
"To defy my father in the way you suggest is… unthinkable… We would be fugitives."
"C'mon, T! It's not exactly Harrison Ford diving off waterfalls and dodging trainwrecks for the rest of your life. It's laying low for a little bit, few days, weeks, months, whatever, til he cools down. Hey, you said 'we' – so I'm invited? That's great. You'll love it. Diners, biker bars, it'll be an adventure."
"No, that is not what I meant. This is not –"
"When was the last time you had an adventure, Talia?"
This was NOT what Talia had in mind from her new protector. It was also not the manner in which men implored her to defy her father. It was not… it was not ANYTHING akin to ANYTHING in her experience.
The barbs of those women in the powder room still stung.
The words of the vermin slut did as well. A remora in 400 shoes… Just follow the fin…
She was still glowing from the only sex she'd had in 74 years and the only sex she'd had ever where the man considered her pleasure part of the equation…
Her father would be furious.
Her father… would be furious.
It was suddenly not the most horrifying idea imaginable.
There was even… there was even… a certain appeal in that thought.
Her father … would be absolutely mad with rage.
"I'll do it," she whispered. "I shall go camping with you, Gr'oriBr'di. And I shall not answer this summons of my father until next Friday!"
Bruce sat in the cave before the cluster of monitors at workstation 3. Catvid-museum played in a reduced window on Monitor 1 and just beneath it was the feed of Selina in the morning room a few days before. He had watched them both for an hour, trying to make sense of it.
Behind him, he heard a faint rustling, Alfred collecting Bruce Wayne's shirt and trousers from the costume vault and replacing them with the silk kimono he could change into when he 'returned from patrol.'
"Good evening, Alfred," Bruce called, making his presence known.
There were a few more rustling sounds as Alfred finished what he was doing in the vault before joining Bruce at the monitors. "Good evening, sir," he replied at last. "You're home quite early. Does one dare to hope you are, for once, satisfied with the progress of the war on crime?"
Bruce grunted, opting not to explain that he had never gone out at all because he overexerted himself on Zogger.
For his part, Alfred was less interested in Batman's early return as he was in that "Good evening, Alfred." It might not be an earthshaking event under other circumstances, but coming from Bruce -in costume, in the cave and at an hour when Batman was normally out on patrol- it was a clear hint that Bruce wanted to talk. A glance at Monitor 1 revealed what the subject of that talk was to be.
"A most interesting video montage you are screening this evening, sir."
"I know," Bruce murmured, his voice deepened not with Batman's throaty gravel but with a slight undertone of guilt. "That's catvid-museum, earliest footage I have of her in action. And it's Selina. Selina is Catwoman. And there she is in the morning room… sipping her coffee." He pointed to the second window that showed the feed from just before Jean Paul's arrival. "Catwoman sitting at mom's desk - Selina slipping through the electric eyes with the Cézanne painting. It's the same woman, then and now. I know that intellectually. There's something I'm missing somehow." He sighed audibly. What was it that haunted him so? …Flopping onto her back with a tickled grin about that Post story… "I have cat-powers" …humming Rodgers and Hammerstein while she sat at the desk reading her mail… What was it that unnerved him about this?
Movement on Monitor 2 suddenly pulled his attention… It was receiving the feed from the perimeter cameras.
"She's back from her 'prowl'," he noted, "by her preferred route."
"She parks her car in the old carriage house instead of the garage. She has nothing against keeping it in the garage at other times, right between the Bentley and the Porsche. But coming back from a prowl, it's always the carriage house. Watch." His lip twitched as he watched the images unfold exactly as he said. "I think it's because she likes coming back from a prowl on foot. Maybe she misses that from the city, rooftop to rooftop to her balcony and home. That's not possible out here, so she's adapted. The carriage house is just far enough to let her stretch her legs after the drive home, maneuver through the ground security, and take either the Spruce tree up to the bedroom window or else the Elms up to the roof to lower herself down to the East Balcony."
"Indeed, sir." Alfred was aware he wasn't saying much, but he sensed it was a time to listen.
"She adapted," Bruce repeated.
She was taking the bedroom route. She seemed to like it better, Bruce noticed, since she discovered that flaw in the window alarm – a flaw only a master thief would perceive and only razor sharp cat claws could exploit. He glanced back to the museum video… That flaw had been in place much longer than she knew.
Movement flickered on Monitor 3, the interior of their bedroom. Almost in sync, the Catwoman of the past entered the darkened museum on Monitor 1 as the Cat of the present padded into their darkened bedroom on Monitor 3. She left the lights off, even though it must seem as if she had beaten him home… she peeled off her costume and kicked it under the bed, then disappeared off the screen in the direction of the shower. This was her routine he was watching. Her routine in his house.
He looked back towards the tape of her in the morning room, then up at Alfred.
"She's growing beyond that aggressive, almost paranoid, protection of her independence," he said, repeating his thought from earlier in the week, "She's seeing that a life here doesn't have to threaten it. She's… evolving."
"Everyone does, sir," Alfred said softly. "Such changes are a natural part of life."
"It opens up possibilities," Bruce said flatly. He did not sound happy about the fact.
"Indeed, sir," Alfred agreed. "One possibility in particular. That too is a natural part of life."
Bruce's eyes flashed angrily at the words. It was a flash Alfred hadn't seen in years, not since Bruce was a teenager.
"When Clark launched his harebrained matchmaking scheme," Bruce said tersely, "I shut him down because I knew, even if down-home cliché says otherwise, that it would have been a mistake. Both Selina and I are happy with what we have, and I am not about to jeopardize that with a push towards something neither of us are ready for."
"And this gradual change in Miss Selina, sir, would seem to indicate that may not be the case forever."
Bruce looked down, considering the words… they gave weight and substance to an idea he had not been able to put into words, an idea that had been fluttering around at the corners of his consciousness, vaguely unnerving him from the shadows.
"If she really did come around to the point where she was ready for that step…" he began hesitantly. Then what? That shifted the question to him. And he wasn't at all sure how he felt about that.
"Master Bruce, It is not at all atypical for bachelors of a certain age and stature in the world to resist any sort of entanglement that could—"
"I'm not a typical 30-something bachelor, Alfred," Bruce interrupted. "I'm not worried about losing my independence. I'm not afraid of becoming 'Mr. Selina Kyle,' that she's going to start deciding how we live, where we go, or who we see socially. Come on, get real. And it's not my 'stature' either. An ugly public breakup and 8-figure divorce settlement, that's the nightmare for rich men without secret identities…" He sighed again and again looked at the monitor looping the catvid. "There is no prenup for taking off the mask with a woman you'd once… and I crossed that line a long time ago."
"It's nearly two years, sir, since you brought Miss Selina back with you from that getaway."
"Yeah the one you tricked me into taking. We've never talked about that, by the way."
Alfred coughed. "I'm sure I don't know what you mean, sir, a simple miscommunication about Master Dick's intentions with respect to your Father's Day gift."
"Save it," Bruce said with a rare smile. "We never have talked about it, Alfred. What did you make of it, when I brought her back to the house? You knew she had gone away with 'Batman.'"
"I was surprised, Master Bruce, though hardly displeased. I was unaware your connection with the lady was that far along."
"Yeah," Bruce laughed, "Neither was I. All of a sudden I just… The roles had been shifting for a while, we weren't exactly 'Batman' and 'Catwoman' with each other anymore but… you still don't quite realize until… All of a sudden I just heard myself saying it… 'My name is Bruce'…"
"As I said before, sir, evolution is a natural part of life. For everyone."
Neither man spoke. The two videos loops continued replaying the images of the past while the two live feeds from the present slipped into idle awaiting movement… Bruce looked at each in turn, then looked back at his mentor and confidant, his eyes straining with emotion.
"I can't marry her, Alfred."
"Master Bruce," Alfred said gently, "Miss Selina already shares your home, your secrets, your bed, and most importantly, sir, your heart. As you have said, you bound yourself to her with far greater finality when you revealed your identity than you would in any ceremony. And, as you have also said, your… qualms… about formalizing the arrangement that already exists are not the usual ones. They are, as they must be for any man, unique to your own past and circumstances. One is therefore impelled to ask you, sir, what you believe them to be?"
"Undoubtedly sir. But not much of an answer."
Bruce's eyes flashed angrily again. Alfred was the only man alive who could challenge him this way. On the grand scale Bruce was grateful for that, but at moments like this he resented it bitterly.
"Contingencies," Bruce answered at last. "The tighter the knot, the harder to …extricate yourself if—"
"You have already dismissed that idea, sir. You said the divorce concerns of ordinary men of means were not—"
"OKAY, okay, yes – and no. Our lives aren't normal, Alfred, our careers aren't normal. There's nothing to be gained by trying to hammer them into a 'normal' relationship. I told her that at the very beginning. So why start messing with it now? The tighter the knot the… forget it."
"The tighter the knot, Master Bruce, the more of you it would rip out if it were torn away. And if I may observe, sir, that is the third time in the course of this brief conversation your eyes have flashed in anger. The last time I saw that particular flash was when you were 17 and asked to usher at your cousin's wedding. I venture to say, sir, that you have a certain aversion to the institution of marriage and have had for some considerable time before your life become other than 'normal.' And you would do well, sir, to investigate those feelings honestly rather than—"
"Dressing them up in a bat-suit?"
Alfred nodded. It wasn't an expression he himself would have come up with, but it was apt – and what's more it was the kind of thing Selina might say.
"We're already so close," Bruce murmured, "closer than is prudent, probably. I've let her… make me happy. If that were taken away, if she were… I don't think I can expose myself that way, Alfred."
"Master Bruce, I am sure that you could find those who would say that, despite your best efforts, you already have."
Bruce stared at him in silence. "What, then? I should call it off now? It's… No… It's - already too late?"
"On the contrary, sir. I merely mention it to point out that even with that 'exposure', you have still managed to remain happy…"
Bruce began massaging his temples as Alfred went on talking. Damn her. If she'd just stayed where she was… as long as she wasn't ready he shouldn't have to deal with any of these questions. Damn her.
"…If I may be so bold, sir, it appears to me that the question isn't whether or not you feel—"
"Enough Alfred," Bruce cut him off, "that's all I can take right now. Let's just drop it… Damn her…"
"LET'S JUST DROP IT, ALFRED! Enough. I don't want to get into this any further. Not now. It gets to be too much talk and talk about – I don't even know what anymore! Maybe for me marriage will always equal 'dead in an alley.'" Bruce stopped short, sickened and shocked at the harshness of his words. He had no idea where they had come from.
He looked up at Alfred, expecting an equally appalled look of astonishment. Instead Alfred seemed almost content.
"It's nothing you need come to terms with tonight, Master Bruce," he said calmly, picking up an empty coffee mug from the desk. "As you say, the lady isn't ready. Yet."
©2004, Chris Dee
She's not crazy, she's just a little unwell
I know, right now you can't tell
But stay a while and maybe then you'll see…
Harley Quinn in