Identity Element
Chapter 1: Hell Month


My first Hell Month with Bruce I didn't even know what was happening. I knew Batman was agitated and erratic in January. I knew because all the others said so; I had never encountered him much myself.

Once Bruce and I got together as a couple all that changed. He started getting crazy emotional a few days after the new year. The sex got angrier too, but that was as much my fault as his. I was panicking. During one of those emotional spasms he'd called me the love of his life and kitty cat hit the panic button. It all came to a head on the 21st. I didn't understand why; I didn't know it was the anniversary of his parents' deaths or that he was getting ready to visit their graves. All I knew was that the nightmares were getting worse and I mentioned it, I expressed concern, and he took my head off. I'd never seen him that way – deliberately vicious, deliberately cruel. It wasn't the Bruce I knew, or the Batman either for that matter.

Once I found out the truth it all made sense of course. He gets worse and worse as that day draws closer. Even Alfred walks on eggshells.

Last year he sent me away. It was his Christmas present. He sent me on a shopping spree in Paris, but it was really sending me away from him during Hell Month. It wasn't what either of us wanted and I wound up coming home early. We were together on the dreaded day. I like to think it was maybe a little better for him, not being so isolated and alone. I can't be sure. I was in such a fog the whole time.

I wound up seeing that other part of him, that Hell Month Bat the others talk about. It was because of Nightwing getting kidnapped. We had to search for him, there was no other way. And I saw that force inside of Bruce that isn't even human. It goes beyond "driven" or "determined," it goes beyond the intensity that drew me to him from the start. It even goes beyond the vicious cruelty I glimpsed during that first Hell Month fight. I don't know what it actually is, but I know it comes from raw human pain.

I've never been afraid of him and now I know I never will be. Because I've looked on the beast and all my eyes will ever be able to see there is the pain, the hurt it must take to wreak a fury like that out of Bruce.

That was last year. I thought that was as bad as it could possibly get.

Heh.


Gothamites are a provincial lot. To the rest of the world, Elongated Man going public about his identity in the mid- 80s was a huge event. So was Ray "The Atom" Palmer's divorce from Jean Loring almost a decade later. It was the former story that produced the phrase "media feeding frenzy" and the latter which accomplished the then-impossible feat: ousting Monica Lewinsky from the cover of People Magazine for three weeks running.

But in Gotham those were the silly escapades people in other cities got worked up about. No colorful cape, no Superman or Wonder Woman or Flash, could ever rank in importance with a denizen of Gotham City and no exploit of the Justice League, no matter how cosmic in scale, would ever be as interesting as the happenings between the Hudson and Gotham rivers, between Wayne Plaza and the 10th Street Bridge.

When Sue Dibny was murdered it was news, of course: The wife of Ralph Dibny, Elongated Man, murdered in her home. It was treated in the Gotham press like any other sensational murder involving a famous person with no ties to Gotham: It was a headline. The funeral, peppered with mourners in masks, capes, and spandex, produced an extraordinary photo above the fold. Diana, Princess of Themyscira, gave the eulogy – and the 42nd Street Borders pulled her book REFLECTIONS from "Last Year's Releases" next to the discount bin and put her back in the display window for a week. Those were the only visible effects of Sue Dibny's death as far as the public Gotham was concerned.

In more private corners of the city, it was different. There were stirrings, quiet ones. Nothing that could foreshadow the potent and terrible repercussions this one event would bring…

Criminals ducked in and out of the Iceberg Lounge. It was Hell Month and nobody wanted to risk being seen, most years they would have left town altogether by now. But everyone was anxious to hear the speculation: Batman was insane in January, every January, it was like he went on some kind of jihad against all crime and all criminals. Would this make it worse – or might it make it better? The wife of a long-standing member of the Justice League was dead: on the one hand Bats might go straight over the edge and decide to wipe all criminals off the face of the earth. On the other hand, he might be so busy with this one case that he wouldn't have time to put half the rogues gallery in traction. More than a third of them might reach February 1st without a leg cast, more than two-thirds without a neck brace…

At the Gordon-Grayson home there was a different undercurrent, just as tense with uncertainty… Dick had gone to Bludhaven for Hell Month, not because he was avoiding Bruce, simply because Batman's tempers always drove more criminals across the river at this time of year. Bludhaven is where he was needed right now – the fact that it got him away from Bruce was a bonus. Or it would have been except that with Barbara left behind in Gotham, Dick's situation hadn't really improved. Every outbreak of the Hell Month PsychoBat on the OraCom led to a sequel when Barbara called Dick in 'Haven to say goodnight… It was January, Dick knew that. It had been like this since he was twelve. They would all get through it. But then Sue Dibny was killed, and Dick really didn't know what to do. A death in the hero community – in the "family" of the hero community – in Hell Month – and so soon after Stephanie. Bludhaven still needed him, but Dick couldn't help wondering if maybe Bruce needed him more…

In Wayne Manor, Bruce had "gone to Maui" as soon as the news broke about the Dibny murder. Batman had completed the initial survey of the crime scene before Ralph Dibny had even signed the paperwork at the funeral home. While Ralph was selecting his wife's coffin, Bruce was organizing dozens of small glassine bags filled with carpet fibers, hair, ash, clumps of dust, lint and crumbs harvested from the murder scene. While Ralph selected the flowers to lay atop the coffin, Bruce was printing out a floorplan of the Dibnys' living room.

Ralph decided against the white lilies the sympathetic funeral director had suggested. He went with red roses, because there was a red rose on the lid of that first Valentine's Day box of chocolates he gave Sue, the one in which she kept her mementos… Bruce marked up the floorplan to indicate the location where each specimen and fingerprint was taken.

Ralph tried to remember the name of Sue's high school for the obituary notice… Bruce used mobile phase chromatography to isolate trace vapors captured from the crime scene.

At first, Selina kept her distance, sensing that he needed space both physically and emotionally. She ventured into the cave only when CNN began covering the arrivals at the funeral. She found him in the cave, of course, but dressed casually, not in costume except for the gloves, and standing before a long worktable dense with neatly ordered clusters of forensic evidence.

The large main viewscreen that dominated the cave flickered with the same image displayed on the smaller monitor at workstation 1: the left half of the screen cycled through slides from an electron microscope, the right from an infrared spectrometer. A transparent grid was superimposed over these, and it sputtered wildly with a blur of digits and moving crosshairs as the Batcomputer executed incomprehensible analyses.

Selina stood quietly for a moment, waiting for Bruce to acknowledge her arrival. He went on preparing a slide for the microscope. When he set down the tweezers and still didn't speak, she did.

"It's on the news," she said softly. "The arrivals at the funeral. It sounds like they'll at least have some privacy inside the cathedral, but I wouldn't bet the farm on it. You know what the press is like. Look, I know you don't want to watch this, but I did think—"

Bruce wordlessly moved to the workstation, punched a few buttons, and the CNN coverage appeared in a small window on the main viewscreen still dominated by the refractive indices and birefringence values of Sue Dibny's turtleneck.

"I'll check the video later," Bruce growled, "to make sure the fools who went in costume didn't expose anything in front of the cameras."

"Well they couldn't very well go in their secret identities," Selina pointed out. "No matter how careful they were, somebody could notice—"

"Anything," Bruce cut her off. "In costume or not, somebody can always pick out something from a photograph. I know all the reasons not to go in costume, Selina, and all the reasons not to go out of costume. And that's why I'm here right now and not there. That's the one advantage to being the cold-hearted bastard of the League, nobody expects me to do the touchy-feely stuff. I paid my respects to Ralph privately. The rest of them can assume I couldn't be bothered."

It was Hell Month. He said things like that in Hell Month that he wouldn't at other times. Selina knew that, but she made few concessions to it. It seemed like all the others did: Dick, Alfred, Barbara, and Tim, even the Justice League – even the rogues – everybody changed when he got like this. Selina made a conscious effort to be different – she was the one person who would not bend to him and his Hell Month demons. She didn't have a perfect record, but whenever she thought to, she made an effort to treat him exactly as she always did. And if he was going to spout gibberish like that, there was really only one way to respond:

"Pfffffffft. Bruce I'm sorry, but with all due respect to Hell Month, Pfffffffft! We both know you've got a bigger heart than any of them. If they actually do not know that just because you grunt and scowl, then they are quite simply too stupid to live."

"Doesn't it bother you to say something like at the very moment four of them are carrying Sue's coffin into the cathedral?" Bruce asked in Batman's deadliest gravel.

"Not as much as it bothers me to hear you say you're the cold-hearted bastard and they'll assume you don't care at the very moment you're watching that funeral out of the corner of your eye while you pretend to fight with me."

Bruce stared for a split second, grunted, and then turned to face the screen. He touched a button on the console and the image expanded to the full width of the viewscreen. They watched for a few moments.

"Did you know them well?" Selina asked quietly.

"Not really. Ralph fancied himself a detective; he likes to think he's emulated my techniques. But we've never worked together much. He's a showboater, that's why he went public. He likes the attention. Eel is the better operative all around: longer stretching, stronger… unattached."

"I've never heard you take something like that into consideration," Selina noted, a strange intensity creeping into her voice.

Bruce turned away from the screen and looked at her in silence for a moment.

"When have we ever talked about this at all? Single is better. A crimefighter with a wife and family…"

"Is less expendable?"

"Of course not. It's just that, strategically speaking – look at Clark. His love for Lois is a greater vulnerability than Kryptonite."

"But he's your first pick to partner with, Bruce. Always. So much for that theory, huh? In the whole league who are you tighter with or work with more, hm?"

"Yes," Bruce admitted. "I work more with Superman - because of the man, not a flaw in the strategic principle. I trust him. I trust his judgment and his ethics and his decency. That outweighs any sweeping general guidelines about the qualities that make a good partner."

"And the fact that he can benchpress a planet doesn't hurt either," Selina remarked dryly.

Bruce grunted. Superpowers were a double-edged sword. Useful in a fight, but a terrible weapon sitting right in the heart of your operation that could always be turned against you… They could be turned, or they could simply turn. The old proverb was passed on generation after generation for a reason: Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. What kind of fool would a man be to work with those demigods day after day, year after year, and not consider the ramifications of that one fundamental truth.

Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. Superpowers corrupt… superbly.

Bruce only grunted. He didn't want to get into this. It was unusual for Selina to take an interest in the league or his work with them.

Of course it was an unusual day. He turned back to the viewscreen and watched the rest of the funeral coverage in silence.


At the Iceberg Lounge, Hugo Strange retreated to a corner booth, muttering how the others had got it all wrong. No one knew Batman like he knew Batman. Debating whether the Bat would devote himself only to this one case or wreak his usual Hell Month vengeance on Gotham. The fools! He would do both, of course. He would clone himself so he could do both.

The only real question was if the clone would take the same Hell Month next year or if the clone-Bat's Hell Month would manifest in July…


After the unexpectedly discomfiting interruption of the funeral, Bruce returned his full attention to the investigation.

He had long ago disciplined his mind to block echoes like that – however grisly the discovery of a body, however poignant the interview with a grieving family member, he would set it aside and focus on the work.

Funerals were… unavoidable… every murder was a death, every murder meant a coffin. It was unavoidable. The world didn't care if it was January, his personal Hell Month, and that it took much less than the sight of a coffin or a few bars of Mozart's Requiem to throw his mind back to that other funeral.

He had to concentrate. Sue deserved that much and so did Ralph. He returned his attention to the fingerprints…

It was very different from Stephanie's memorial, of course. Stephanie's was private. Because her identity as Spoiler wasn't known, the heroes were able to come together in privacy and dignity to mourn their loss… honor her contribution… support Tim. None of that was possible here because Dibny was such a fool. It might be brutal to think that of a man who'd just lost his wife, but Bruce didn't mind being brutal, especially during Hell Month. It was foolish, letting his name and face be known, putting those he loved in peril. For what – for the attention – because some hack at the Gotham Post made up some lies about her. It was so dangerous – she could make all the rules she wanted, they all knew, all his enemies knew whether they'd say so in front of her or not, that something existed between Batman and Catwoman. Getting to her was a way to get to him. Hurting her was a way to…

Hell Month. It was just Hell Month.

Of course it was Hell Month when Ra's took her – when Ra's al Ghul took her from him as a way to – he was afraid she was dead that whole flight to Mongolia. Ra's took Selina as a way to get to him and they were just dating. Now they were living together. It wasn't just a bottle of shampoo in his shower anymore, she slept every night with her head on his chest – she picked out the sheets they lay in.

Bruce wondered suddenly if he had paid for those sheets or if she had. His mind flashed on the penthouse, the fop act, trying to bait Poison Ivy… "Tim was under age, so he imposed on one of the other groomsmen to buy the liquor. They went a little overboard. Always happens first time I give someone my credit card." …Reminding Poison Ivy that she had a rich man in her snare (or so she thought) was one thing. Selina was a very different proposition. She might playfully sneak his wallet to pay for lunch at d'Annunzio's when he and Clark had to leave on an emergency, but apart from that shopping spree to Paris, she had never to his knowledge spent his money. Now that the manor was really her home… his house was her home… and she was starting to buy little things for it… Bruce felt himself burning with curiosity to know if she charged those sheets to him or paid for them herself. He could access the credit card statements easily at the computer and—

And a wave of nausea rose as he looked to the workstation, thinking only of Selina and those stupid sheets, and saw spatter-analyses of the scorch marks surrounding Sue Dibny's head flashing on the viewscreen.

Weak. He was so weak. He had to stay focused. Sue Dibny was dead. Ralph was in agony because his wife was dead. He had to stay focused. This was bigger than Hell Month and who paid for pair of goddamn bedsheets.

Except the bedsheets were blue, a deep rich royal blue, because Selina bought them and Selina knew he liked the color. And he wanted to know if she charged them to his account because he wanted to know if she would spend his money as if she were…

The mental image of that coffin returned

…his wife.


My first Hell Month with Bruce I didn't even know what was happening.
The second he sent me shopping in Paris.
This year, this one was new, he asked me to come down to the cave. He asked me to help with a case. We'd worked together before of course, but we'd always backed into it somehow. It had never started like this:

Alfred came up to my suite. He'd brought me tea earlier – there is simply no way to stop Alfred from bringing tea, particularly in times of crisis – and I assumed he was just back to collect the empty cup. But he said Bruce had rung on the intercom and wanted to see me in the cave.

I raised an eyebrow, because that had a certain ring of "Here Fido, c'mere boy" which cats simply do not do. But I went anyway. Hell Month, I guess. Or maybe I just felt, what with the funeral and all… anyway, I went down to the cave. He was in costume this time, except for the mask.

"Little early to be suited up, isn't it?" I remarked.

"I'm going to patrol early tonight, just in case they're emboldened after the coverage of the funeral."

"Hey, no need to make excuses to me," I told him, "I like you like that."

"I know."

When he didn't say anything more, I reminded him "You summoned me – like a spaniel."

"I asked you to come down. I need you on this, the Dibny case."

"Meow," I answered. Because there are one or two highly special circumstances when it is permissible to take a cat's cooperation for granted, and this was one, and I was pleased that he knew that.

"This is the security system made available to the family and friends of Justice Leaguers who request it."

"Different from our system here," I noted.

"Very. You'll find all the same modifications I made to the Phoenix on the ground floor, and the bodyheat detectors are similar to our alpha perimeter defenses on the grounds. That's where the similarities end."

"Because you don't want any family and friend of the League who request it to have the blueprints to get into your bedroom."

"This has Thanagarian, Martian, Apokolitian and Kryptonian technology as well, and—"

"Hey, I'm not complaining. It's also my bedroom and I don't want any of those over-sugared virtue-jockeys having the key either."

"Selina this system is unlike anything you've seen before."

It sounded like fun, running barefoot through the Justice League's idea of ultimate security.

"Somebody beat it," he growled – it was a Batman growl, but a particularly menacing one. "Figure out how."


...to be continued...