Chapter 7: Home is a Name
The Gotham Times and the Farmer's Almanac agreed that sunrise would occur at 6:32. At 6:22, Raoul pushed his coffee cart into position at the east side entrance to Robinson Park. At 6:25, he switched on the heating element to boil water for that first pot. And at 6:29, as the sky began to glow a hazy cherry gold, he remembered the fortune cookie. He rummaged in his pocket, found the slip he'd kept from the previous night's kung pao, and tacked it to the side of his cart, right above the price list. It read: Home is a name, a word, it is a strong one; stronger than magician ever spoke, or spirit ever answered to.
For a man like Bruce Wayne, there was no experience quite like returning to Gotham. The city had a quality like no other, an intensity, so many people, so many lives, so much emotion, ambition, anxiety and vigor, packed so densely into such a confined space. It produced something, an energy that hung in the air, an essence of pure distilled humanity.
Whenever Bruce left Gotham, even for a short time, he felt the drop off. Other cities, whatever their charms, felt dead to him. That aura of charged human energy was so thin, almost non-existent. Arthur once likened "surface life" to mountain climbing: if someone lived their whole life in an oxygen tent and then climbed to the highest peak in Colorado. They could live, they could function, they could even enjoy the view, but they couldn't help noticing the vacant thinness of the air. Each breath adding to that vague sense of emptiness: something is missing. That's what life out of the water was like for Aquaman – and that was very much what the world outside Gotham was for Bruce. Xanadu and the time alone with Selina was fulfilling in other ways. But coming home to Gotham was still coming home to Gotham. That palpable intensity everywhere, pervading every building, every street, and every person. To Bruce, it wasn't a good vibration or a bad one, it simply was. It was the norm, that powerful aura –GOTHAM– surrounding him on every side.
Bruce wasn't conscious of the phenomenon, he merely walked, briskly, from the coffee cart towards Wayne Enterprises, feeling pleasantly balanced, centered, and energized as the excited buzz of the city pulsed around him. Parking so far uptown was unusual for him and a trifle absurd. There was a garage beneath Wayne Plaza reserved for Wayne employees. It was ridiculous parking all the way up 59th Street just to stop at Raoul's "Kafe-Kart" for an espresso. But Bruce was feeling nostalgic. Returning to Xanadu with Selina evoked memories, a flood of memories, good memories —which was somewhat astonishing for Bruce, for whom remembering the past was seldom a pleasant exercise.
So he had stopped at the cart just as he had that morning… that morning. The woman from the stage of the Hijinx Playhouse, the woman the program called Selina Kyle, the woman he knew from a thousand encounters was the real Catwoman, lived in an apartment across from the park and that cart. She regularly came down for a morning coffee; it was the one way to approach her anonymously.
The woman the program called Selina Kyle… There was no reason to think that was her real name (although she might be just brazen enough to use it)… she still lived in the apartment she'd kept during the run of Cat-Tales, she hadn't moved or disappeared after the show closed. It was the one way he could approach her anonymously and without a mask.
The woman the program called Selina Kyle… After the coffee, Bruce had stopped and bought a newspaper while he waited. …The woman the program called Selina Kyle… Batman too found himself calling her Selina in their encounters since Cat-Tales, and she responded naturally enough. She'd never corrected or discouraged it. So… Selina. Selina Unknown, possibly-Kyle, likely but unconfirmed, still lived in the apartment building across from the park and regularly came down to the cart for a morning coffee. It was the one way Batman could approach her anonymously and without a mask (for Batman 'anonymously' meant without a mask). And this needed to be anonymous; this needed to be Selina and not Catwoman. He had to make that clear before opening that door. If they were going to do this, then all parts of her life were open for—
If they were going to do this.
It was crazy. Every time since that first kiss, every time that he'd considered the possibility, his saner, sensible self made him see reason: It was weak, it compromised the Mission, it was allowing his desires to override his judgment. Catwoman was a thief; none of that had changed. Why was he suddenly standing there in his civilian identity, sipping a coffee and waiting to slip a note in her purse?
What had happened? What had taken Catwoman from this very private dream in a very private corner of his thoughts into the part of his mind that dealt in hard, practical reality? He was really doing this. He was standing there with a note in his pocket, having observed her routine and devised a workable strategy for delivering it undetected. He was delivering a note summoning her to a rendezvous with Batman that served no purpose towards the Mission, no purpose whatsoever except to… to get to know her better. Even as he was preparing to set his plan in motion (with all the confidence and determination with which Batman approached everything), a part of him couldn't quite believe he was doing it.
It was at that moment in the past, when his thoughts had twisted themselves into this impossible logic-knot, that Selina Kyle appeared from under the canopy in front of her building, heading straight for the coffee cart. In the present, the doorman stood alone at his post, fidgeting like he wanted a cigarette. In the present, Bruce took a last sip of coffee, and that most private corner of his mind, a corner he would never fully admit existed, called his former self a jackass.
It was a short and pleasant walk to Wayne Enterprises. Bruce's mood was only slightly dimmed by the incident with the keycard….
This morning he'd awakened in an empty bed, no Selina beside him or across the hall exercising in her suite. Alfred had brought a tray with only one cup of coffee, one newspaper, no pastry. It was hard not to think of the past when that was the norm. Downstairs in the dining room, a loose-leaf sheet from a daily planner sat next to his plate, with his appointments written out in Alfred's meticulous handwriting – no similar sheet rested across the table where Selina would sit. Alfred would not suggest a dinner menu for Bruce's approval; he would simply fix whatever he thought best. Around 7 o'clock he'd begin nagging Bruce to eat it and would continue most nights until Batman left for patrol. It was the old routine: No pastry on the breakfast tray, no menus, eating alone, returning from patrol to an empty cave and an empty room and an empty bed… It was hard not to think of the past when that was the norm. And absorbed in those thoughts from the past, he'd fallen back into his old habit with the keycard.
It was a holdover from the fop performance, fumbling absently with the card in the reader. If he didn't make a conscious effort now, he would automatically run it through the wrong way - once, twice, then flip it to scan properly and gain admittance to the executive floor. It came as a shock when he'd first abandoned the fop act and discovered these lingering habits. He was halfway through the old keycard routine before he even realized it. Even now he was fidgeting with a pen in a similar fashion, while Lucius briefed him on the week's business.
None of it was news. Bruce had downloaded several Wayne Enterprises and Wayne Foundation reports, as well as the Batcave logs, to Wayne One and read over them on the flight home. He preferred being prepared for catch-up meetings like this, and the one to follow with Nightwing.
Bruce checked his watch subtly… he would give WE another three hours of his time, then Bruce Wayne would "go to lunch" and he could meet Dick in the satellite cave.
"…other than Mrs. Ashton-Larraby," Lucius was saying, "I was about to say you owe me one there, Bruce; 'the Ashton-Larraby experience' was all you said. But I see karma anticipated me. This last minute addition to your schedule, a lunch meeting. Gail says the lady was quite—"
"No, no I can't," Bruce said, refocusing his attention hurriedly on Lucius's last words, "I… have a lunch appointment already."
"I think you better break it. This Miss, eh… Lance, was quite insistent."
"Lance?" Bruce asked, a subtle gravel deepening his voice.
"Yes," Lucius checked his papers again. "Dinah Lance."
"Made an appointment – to see me for lunch?" Bruce demanded.
"This started out a good day," Bruce spat as the elevator door opened into the satellite cave.
Dick performed a gymnastic twist in his chair at the workstation to smile a greeting at his mentor, then returned his attention to the computer where he had been playing Sudoku on the giant screen.
"Hey Puzzlemuffin," he noted, shutting down the game. "I figured there was a development when you said to get down here an hour early. Welcome back, by the way. What's up?"
"You tell me. Was there a Black Canary incident you and Barbara are keeping out of the logs?"
Dick raised an eyebrow.
"You've already read the logs," he noted, shaking his head wearily. "Jesus Bruce, whatthe— Are you genetically incapable of leaving all this behind for a few days without constantly checking in? Is it impossible for you to separate yourself for a few measly days and take an honest-to-god -- dare I say it -- vacation? Or do you have to ruin it for yourself and everyone else by still being 'on the job' even when you're not on the job? I mean really, Bruce, what's the point of taking a break in the first place if all you're going to do is worry about what's going on or spend every ten minutes checking up on how things are going back here? Or is that what this is about - you having to check up on me; you not trusting me? Here I thought we were finally at a place where you could leave town, go off to a nice tropical island somewhere and boink your girlfriend like, y'know, a regular guy. But no, no god forbid we leave Dick in charge for a few days without checking up on things, he's probably let the city get overrun with giant hamsters or something."
Bruce produced a severe Bat-glare – which was returned with one equally fierce – and then he sighed.
"We are at that place," he declared forcefully. "I did leave town. I did leave it all behind for a few 'measly' days. I did leave you in charge. I did 'boink' my girlfriend, as a matter of fact –and incidentally she sent a package for Barbara that you're supposed to take home with you. And, Richard, I did not find it necessary to check up on you. It's a long flight back. I pulled your logs and Lucius's reports and read them on the plane. Do you think I was 'checking up' on him too? Do you think I don't trust Lucius Fox by this point?"
Dick's glare downshifted, but he didn't speak.
"It wasn't a question of trust. I prefer knowing as much as I can before these catch-up briefings," Bruce said, answering the question that had only silently been asked. "Makes for a shorter meeting."
"Well," Dick sighed.
Bruce's lip twitched.
"Puzzlemuffin," he noted dryly.
"Oh man, that was an all-time low," Dick grumbled lightly, defensiveness forgotten and a trace of his old Robin persona taking its place. "I mean I thought that time with Catwoman when my voice cracked was as weird as it could get – and by the way I still don't accept 'it's just teenage hormones' on that one; that thing with the whip is vicious and a guy wants to, y'know, have kids some day."
"Dick, two things you might want to keep in mind," Bruce said loosening his tie as he settled in at the workstation, "First, I have heard all this before."
"The whip thing is vicious," Dick repeated under his breath.
"Second," Bruce went on firmly, "I just got back from an extended vacation with the lady in question, and she sent your wife a care package, so maybe you should just get over it about 'the whip thing.'"
Dick stared in wonder. The words themselves, the idea expressed, and even the manner was not that extraordinary, not coming from anybody but Bruce. Even from Bruce they weren't that exceptional— now. But at one time they would have been impossibly light, teasing… and human.
"Have you 'gotten over it'?" Dick asked with a wry grin.
"I just got back from an extended vacation with the lady in question," Bruce repeated, a 'between men' undercurrent in his tone.
"Meow," Dick noted dryly.
"So what's the story with Black Canary?" Bruce asked in Batman's gravel as he rose from the chair and headed for the costume vault.
"I have no idea," Dick replied, loud enough to be heard in the vault. "There's nothing in the logs because we officiallyhad nothing to do with her while I was leading the team. I know she and Barbara had words; Babs won't tell me what was said or what it's about. I figured not really my business if it's nothing to do with the team."
"That's 'officially,'" Batman said, exiting the vault in full costume apart from the cowl and gloves. "What about 'unofficially'?"
"I'm pissed that she upset Babs," Dick said. "Beyond that, I really don't give a damn."
"Okay, well, she's coming here in 15 minutes," Batman noted.
"What, WHY?" Dick gaped.
"I don't know, but she called my office first thing this morning and made a lunch appointment with Bruce Wayne."
"What a nerve," Dick growled bitterly.
"She and the others are prohibited from using any Justice League resources, including the communications network. The OraCom is Barbara, and if she wanted to give you two a wide berth…"
"I guess," Dick admitted.
"Dick, it's up to you, but I think you should stay and be a part of this conversation."
He looked thoughtfully into the distance as he considered the idea.
"Yeah," he said at last, thinking of the trapeze… You can't climb a ladder twenty feet into the darkness, reach out for that rope dangling from the top of the tent, swing from that 1-1/2 inch of steel bar and then leap out into nothing without knowing those arms will be there to catch you. Bruce was someone you knew, absolutely knew, would catch you. Always. And Dick would honor that by making sure he was always there for Bruce. "Yeah," he repeated, nodding with grim resolve, "I'll stay."
Not having access to the private Wayne Penthouse elevator, Dinah entered the satellite cave as she and the others always did, through an underground maintenance passage between the 48th and 46th Street subway stations. She was discouraged, but not completely surprised to see that Dick was present, and also that Batman was in full costume.
"I see Mr. Richard had to make sure he talked to you first," she observed acidly.
"So did you, apparently," Dick noted wryly.
Batman merely cleared his throat. Dinah ignored Dick and spoke directly to him.
"Catwoman was a thief, right? I know she's a cat, no apologies and all that crap, but she did steal, and that's against the law and it hurt people, right? That emerald necklace was all Mrs. Whoever had to remember her beloved Grandmother Wilhelmina by, and now it's gone and some lowlife somewhere has his dirty fingers on her memory. And we're all fine with it. Because that's not who Selina is anymore, right? A person should be given the chance to set a new…damn…can't think of the word, I had it before when I rehearsed this."
"Selina never pretended to be anything other than what she is," Dick said, firm and calm. "I don't know about Batman, but the first time I saw her, she was downright pissed –not that we accused her of stealing, but that we implied she was stealing something cheap, pedestrian, and beneath her talents. Yeah she was a thief, Dinah; she not only admits that, she owns it."
"What I mean," Dinah insisted, now switching her focus back and forth between Batman and Dick, "is that who you were is not necessarily who you are, or who you will be. You accept that she's changed when she stole for years. With me, this one thing, this one stupid mistake that was years ago—"
"DON'T compare yourself to her!" Dick yelled. "This isn't one mistake years ago, you two-faced bitch. This is every day since then that you pretended to be one of us: you pretended to be a big sister and a hero crimefighter, you pretended to be part of this family, when you knew what you'd done, you conniving, backstabbing traitor!"
"And how long am I supposed to pay for it, huh Dick?!"
"Well I don't know, Dinah, how about we take how long you hung around since it happened and multiply it by how long you WOULD HAVE GONE ON keeping your guilty little secret if the truth hadn't come out on its own! How about that long for starters!"
"Enough," Batman graveled with soft but insistent finality.
"Oh here it comes," Dinah exclaimed. "You let your attack dog call me every name in the book, and now you come in all magnanimous like the voice of reason, right? What is this, the 'good cop/bad cop' routine? This isn't some bad 80's cop show, Bruce."
"You're not doing yourself any favors," Batman observed. "That's twice now. First you go for the gut shot by invoking Selina's name the way you did, which I can only assume was a purposeful attempt to provoke me. Then, when Nightwing was the one to respond, you shifted the crosshairs toward me again instead of responding to him. Is this why you called my office at dawn insisting on an appointment; you wanted to pick a fight?"
"I- What- No- I-"
Batman glared pitilessly.
"I wasn't looking for a fight, but I was expecting to talk to you alone," she insisted, glaring daggers at Dick. Then she returned her attention to Batman. "Ollie said I should confront you directly. He said they all follow your lead anyway, so—"
"That's bullshit on a stick," Dick replied spitefully. "And you're one to talk about following leads. Do you always do what your precious Ollie tells you, you traitorous—"
"Dick," Batman growled at his former sidekick. "That's enough." He half-nodded his head abruptly to the side, indicating that Dick should leave.
"I'll be up in the penthouse," Dick replied flatly after a tense moment.
They waited in silence until the elevator doors closed behind Dick, then Dinah smiled contemptuously.
"That was certainly an interesting display. Do you two practice that routine or does it come natural?"
"Practice? Like that rehearsed diatribe about Catwoman you started out with?" Batman intoned flatly without a hint of malice in his voice. "You may think that your self-righteous indignation with Nightwing or any other member of my team is justified, but when it comes to me, you lost that right the moment you took that vote."
Another tense silence passed between them, then he slowly reached up and removed his cowl.
"Queen doesn't know as much as he thinks he does," he declared finally. "He doesn't know Gotham, and he certainly doesn't understand any of us. Your problem with Barbara you have to settle with Barbara; I can't do it for you."
"And wouldn't if you could," she spat.
"No, that's perfectly true," Bruce answered, calmly refusing to be baited. "I gave them all the choice to go on working with you or not as they chose once they had all the facts."
"They're not 'working' with me. They rub it in every chance they get: out of town assignments and all these subjects that nobody will talk about in front of me because one thing leads to another and it'll just remind everyone, 'til pretty soon you're uncomfortable just saying good morning."
"What did you expect?" Bruce asked. "Did you think if they chose to work with you again it would all be the way it was before?"
"They shouldn't have said they'd work with me if they didn't mean it," Dinah insisted.
"If you're getting assignments, they are working with you," Bruce pointed out.
"They don't trust me," she said bluntly.
"Of course not. Why would they?" came the equally blunt reply.
"You don't trust me either," she noted.
The Bat-intensity spiked suddenly, but the tone remained calm and direct.
"No. Why would I?"
"So what am I supposed to do?" she asked, hands on hips.
He stared at her for a moment. "Well, obviously being obstinate and petulant hasn't worked, so maybe it's time for a different approach."
She glared back at him, then dropped her hands to her sides. "I don't know what to do."
"Start from the beginning," he said simply, his manner - had she but known it - similar to that in which he'd first trained Dick.
"How am I supposed to work with people that won't trust me?" Dinah asked, complaint still in her voice, but a note of sincerity finally emerging underneath the question.
"You can't. You have to earn back our trust."
Nightwing's words from Dinah's dream echoed back in her ears: I was taught how to live in this life, taught by the best. There was no more grievance behind her next question, only genuine curiosity.
"And how am I supposed to do that, Bruce?"
"The same way you did it the first time… only harder."
"I don't know what that means," she said wearily.
"Back in the early days of the League, back in your early days in the Justice Society, you didn't want to be accepted only because of your mother's accomplishments. You wanted to earn that trust on your own. But the only way to do that was to work with those people that didn't trust you. You've done it before; do it again."
"But it's completely different this time."
"Of course it is. This time, you don't have a blank slate. You're not starting from zero. You have debt to work off first. It's the same process; but it'll be harder this time."
She sighed. She looked close to tears.
"That's pretty much what Ollie said," she murmured.
Bruce raised an eyebrow.
"He should know," he noted.
"And what's that supposed to mean?" Dinah asked archly.
"Only that, since the issue is trust, your own situation with Oliver might offer more insight than I – or anyone else – can give you."
Dick had never lived in the Wayne Penthouse as he had the manor. He never spent much time there except for a brief period when he attended Hudson U, when he used it as a quieter alternative to the dorm (with a well stocked refrigerator). He hadn't seen the penthouse since the night of his bachelor party, and he walked around it now noting a number of small changes: paintings had new frames, some hung in different locations, there were new throw pillows, different knickknacks, a spray of silk flowers, and - almost as a signature on these alterations - a cocktail shaker that Barbara had given Selina as a thank you for being a bridesmaid at their wedding.
The elevator pinged discreetly and Dick waited, expecting to hear Bruce's heavy tread on the marble floor of the foyer. Instead he heard a light, feminine step, and he tensed; Dinah walked in, and he glared.
"Knock knock," she said with sarcastic cheer.
"Why don't you give it up?" Dick asked without animosity. "You're finished here. You've wrecked it. Stop thinking some magical heart-to-heart conversation is going to make it all better."
She nodded thoughtfully.
"I know that now," she said frankly. "I know it was unrealistic to think there was any kind of shortcut or quick fix. – Come to think of it, a quick easy fix is the way this started, with Dr. Light and all."
"You really want to be bringing that up?" Dick asked, arching an eyebrow.
"Yes, I do. I'm done running from it, Dick. As hard as it is, for me and everybody else, I'm done being afraid of the subject. What we did was wrong. Most of us admit that now. I know that's not enough for you. It is a start. We, all of us that were a part of the mindwipe, have to somehow come to grips with—"
"I don't care about 'all of you,' or 'most of you,' Dinah. You were the one standing next to her at our wedding. You were the one with her the night before too; she told me about that, the crying jag, her last minute doubts. She told me you drove her to the OB/GYN that day after the shooting too, when she found out she couldn't have children. So don't stand there and say 'all of us that were a part of the mindwipe.' I don't give a rat's ass about Hawkman or Atom or your precious Ollie. It was you she trusted, and through all of it you knew what you'd done to Bruce."
Dinah blinked away a tear, said nothing for a long moment, then took a deep breath and spoke.
"Ollie cheated on me seven times that I know about. I'm sure there were more; I just don't know the particulars. I stayed, and then I left, and then I went back – knowing in my heart it would all end in tears – and it did. He cheated again and I left again, around and around. So you see, Dick, I do understand a little that no pretty speech at this point will make it all better. I've been on the receiving end too. I know nothing I can say will make me someone that didn't do what I've done.
"Ollie cheats, so he's a cheater; he could and probably will cheat again. It isn't because he doesn't care about me. Underneath it all he loves me and he'll always love me. But he cheats – because that's who he is.
"I'm someone who voted to mindwipe Bruce. I stood there while it happened, and in all the years since, I said nothing, did nothing. I am sorry, Dick, sorry it hurts you and that it hurts Barbara. That is part of who I am."
"Do you want me to say that underneath it all, Barbara loves you and always will?"
She shook her head.
"You don't need to say it. I know that she does. I know this hurt her, and that my behavior the past few months made it worse. And I know that under all that anger and frustration and pain she still cares about me the same way I still care about Ollie, in spite of everything."
"I see," Dick said. "Just checking: this isn't the 'pretty speech' that you know won't magically fix everything?"
She nodded, picked up the cocktail shaker, and ran her finger around the sealed rim.
"I don't drink much so I use mine as a bud vase," she remarked. "Dick, I know the only way to rebuild a relationship is with time and effort on both sides. I can do what Ollie does, give Barbara some time, gently remind her now and then that I'm still here, but leave her alone until she's ready to let me back into her life. I can do that here, working to get all of you to accept me again, or I can go back to Star City and see if I can learn to trust Ollie again."
"See, that's the part I don't get," Dick stated bluntly. "Why would you go back to that when you know it'll only end up… No, never mind. I know why. It's like you said: Ollie's the cheater, that's just who he is. And you're the one who takes him back time and again. Because that's who you are."
Dinah nodded slowly but said nothing.
"But you have to know by now that Barbara's not like that. She's not just going to accept you back like nothing ever happened."
"No?" Dinah questioned. "She did with you."
"With me? What are you…"
Dick glared at her, barely containing the explosion behind his eyes. "You know, for someone who's trying to get back into my good graces, you're certainly hitting all the wrong buttons."
"Maybe so," she replied levelly. "But that still doesn't change the fact that Barbara did eventually accept you again, even after what happened with Helena. I know her better than you think, Dick."
"I know her better," Dick said meaningfully. "And it took us a long time get to a place where we were comfortable enough to even think about a relationship again. And even now, it's not the same as it was before. To this day, I still notice that hint of distain and sadness in her voice when she says Helena's name. Those divisions will always be between us."
"And I know things will never really be the same between her and me either. But I'm willing to do whatever it takes to make her trust me again. Just like you did."
"It took me years, living on my own in Bludhaven…"
"Which is why I'm choosing Star City.–not because I don't value my friendship with Barbara or because I think it's hopeless here in Gotham, but simply because a little physical distance might help. And, there's a better reward in Star City if I succeed."
Dick inadvertently grunted, and then, disliking the sound, he enveloped it in a cough.
"Seems like a reasonable decision," he said politely.
"I figured you'd like it. Gets me out of your life, out of your field of vision… and out of his city."
"Actually it wasn't the aggrieved son talking but the contented husband. I do think it's better for everybody if you leave Gotham. But I also agree that a 'good relationship,' maybe even a happy marriage, is the bigger carrot if you can pull it off."
"I'll come over tonight if I may, explain to Barbara."
"Fair enough. I'll be going out early, patrolling with Cassie these days."
"Then I'll say goodbye now."
She offered her hand, Dick looked at it for a moment before shaking it. She held the handshake and stared directly into his eyes.
"Dick, I'm sorry. I really am." She finally released his hand before adding, "For everything."
He nodded tersely.
She attempted a weak smile. "I hope we can bury the hatchet, work together again one day."
"The hatchet, sure. Working together, I doubt it."
Barbara had opened her "care package" from Selina, laid out the contents on the table – and reminded herself sharply that this was not a puzzle clue from a theme criminal but a present from a friend. A number of presents actually, for the box contained three pairs of sunglasses, a purple leather jacket, a belt with a large square buckle, and a packet of bath salts.
She had amused herself looking for the sunglasses on the Internet, and located them in the online catalogue for a prestigious Gotham department store. She was just comparing the picture on the screen to the pair in her hand when Black Canary arrived. Their greeting was tense and awkward, and Dinah began to wonder how she would possibly get through this… when her nervous jittering took her eyes past her friend's shoulder to the contents of the computer screen behind her.
"200!" she gasped. "200 for sunglasses; Barbara, are you crazy? That's- Wow, I didn't even know they made'em like that. Since when do you shop at Bergdorf's?"
"I don't," Barbara laughed. "Are you kidding me? These are a gift – from Selina. Missoni, La Perla, YSL. In light of recent events, she's decided they're too 'goggle-ish.'"
"Poor Kitty," Dinah laughed.
"The jacket," Barbara added, "despite being purple leather and a Roberto Cavalli, is a zip-up and now strikes her as too similar to the black catsuit horror in the Post. Ditto the belt with a big square buckle, that one's Gucci… Gotta admit, the lady has taste."
"Mmm," Dinah noted, feeling the leather appreciatively. "And a billionaire boyfriend. Too rich for my blood, that's for sure. Quite a score for you."
"It's an ill-wind," Barbara remarked, trying on a pair and examining her reflection in the computer screen.
"What exactly happened to her anyway? All I heard was some kind of… anomaly?"
"Details are sketchy," Barbara answered. "From what I gather, Wayne Manor was ground zero for some sort of severe cross-dimensional instability. And for some reason Selina had to enter a kind of alternate reality to stop it. The 'alternate' part involved a costume not that different from the thing in the Gotham Post, and she's quite spectacularly unhappy about that. Hence the getaway with Bruce, bath salts from Xanadu, and divesting herself of all worldly goods even vaguely resembling the Gotham Post Cat."
"But what was this alternate whatever?" Dinah exploded, burning with curiosity. "What actually happened?"
"I don't know," Barbara said candidly. "Bruce told Dick and me what I've told you – with the stipulation that it is considered Arcanum-confidential, on level with secret identities and access to the Batcave confidential."
"Something sure went down then."
"Yeah," Barbara agreed. "Superman and Batman both sealed the file – independent triple encryptions – can only be unlocked with the passwords transmitted from the Batcave and the Fortress of Solitude simultaneously, they're that serious."
"Wow," Dinah shook her head. Both women were silent for a moment, then Dinah looked up and met her friend's eyes for a tense count of five.
"Does this have anything to do with Zee losing her powers?" she asked pointedly.
Barbara turned her head thoughtfully, then answered just as pointedly.
"I don't know."
"If you did, would you tell me?"
Barbara studied her friend.
"It's okay, Babs. You can tell me, straight up, if the answer is 'no, no way in hell would I trust a backstabbing traitor like you with intel like that.'"
Barbara answered with a sad blink-nod.
"Superman and Batman sealed the file," she repeated. "If any of you don't like that, I'd say, given the history, you can lump it."
"Fair enough," Dinah said, preparing to go. "I don't know if Dick told you, I'm going back to Star City. It's time for a fresh start, and I'd rather do it there with Ollie."
"Good. It'll be good for both of you, I'm sure," Barbara said politely. "I hope it works out this time."
"Yeah," Dinah said.
"Yeah," Barbara answered.
"This is it then," Dinah noted.
"Yes," Barbara answered.
"Yes," Dinah echoed.
After another strained moment she sprang forward and enveloped her friend in a long, warm hug.
"Be well, Barbara," she whispered.
"You too, Dinah."
Dinah turned to leave, then paused and turned back.
"Barbara, I… I'm…" she began weakly.
"Don't," Barbara cut her off. "I know, Dinah. I know. Go to Star City. And make that man behave this time."
Dinah nodded and moved toward the window. Barbara called after her.
"Wait! Honey for heaven sake, I don't need three sets of sunglasses. Take this pair, souvenir of Gotham. Catwoman's very own they're-not-goggles-damnit designer sunglasses."
Dinah laughed, put them on, and meowed.
"Oh god, don't do that," Barbara chided, "Hon, maybe it's the bird thing, but you haven't got the knack."
"Just as well," Dinah noted, heading out the window. "It'd just give Ollie an aneurysm."
Alfred brought a laden tray down to the Batcave, and with the reserve of a well-trained butler, hid his despair at finding Master Bruce already in costume standing before a hologram map of the city, marking off points with a lightpen. The At-Large list was open on the workstation monitor and the giant screen that loomed over the cave.
"Just put it on the table, Alfred," he mentioned casually.
"Dare one hope, sir, that Master Dick's performance in tending to crimefighting concerns in your absence was such that you might abandon your hologram for a few moments and attend to the meal I have prepared."
"Scarecrow is still at large," Batman muttered. "So is Nigma, but there are no clues pending that would indicate he's active at the moment."
"The steak sandwich is open-faced, and the butternut dumplings – served with brown butter, parmesan, and sage, sir – as well as the green salad require the use of utensils."
"Nightwing is working with Batgirl; he thinks it would do her good to pursue the Scarecrow case. He's probably right, after toxin exposure it's wise to 'get back on the horse' quickly. I would have liked to talk to her myself though."
"I had expected, you see, to be serving in the dining room."
"What?" Bruce said, turning from the hologram to study his butler just as intently.
"Your dinner, sir. I fear it is not as 'portable' as you are accustomed to when eating in the cave. I think you will find it worthwhile to come away from the lightmap, sit down, and eat it properly."
"I'll get to it… shortly," Bruce declared firmly.
"Of course, sir," Alfred said mildly.
Bruce returned his attention to the hologram, then began speaking more conversationally.
"Dick planned to check up on Bludhaven tonight, but evidently he can't because of patrolling with Batgirl… One of those bets, Robin and Batgirl, here we go again. So if Nightwing goes to 'Haven, she goes along and Robin won't be able to deliver her ice cream at the end of the night. Dick feels it's worthwhile to give them that time together."
"You don't approve, sir?"
Bruce considered this, walked over the tray and picked a bite of steak off the sandwich with his fingers. Ignoring Alfred's fierce glare of disapproval, he considered it further while he chewed.
"It's fine," he decided at last. "It's good for Cassie to have some kind of normal relationships."
"Agreed sir, and yet you hesitated?"
Bruce helped himself to another bite of steak.
"There's a fine line between accommodating a teenage flirtation and taking an intrusive interest in personal matters that have nothing to do with crimefighting," he said. "One of Dick's log entries regarding Azrael was – well I'd suspect it was a joke if he didn't know better than to play pranks with the logs."
"Indeed, sir. I would add that, were Master Dick to indulge in such pranks, surely Mr. Valley would not be his chosen subject."
"No," Bruce agreed, selecting a dumpling.
Alfred picked the fork and napkin off the tray, polished the one with the other, and then pointed it fixedly at Bruce like a surgical nurse presenting a scalpel. Bruce glanced at it, took it, and savagely pierced several leaves of lettuce in the salad.
"Were there any other developments of note in Master Dick's report, sir?"
"Harley Quinn's taken up with a new player, the Monarch of Menace. No details apart from the security footage from the bank they hit. It's definitely not the old Monarch, moves like a younger man. I'll check out the crime scene personally between patrols."
"Very good, sir."
"Oddly enough the most alarming item came from Lucius Fox's report, not Nightwing's: Mrs. Ashton-Larraby organizing a fundraiser for the Wayne Foundation. She has yet to decide her 'theme.'"
"You fear that Mrs. Ashton-Larraby's theme might correspond to some criminal's?"
"The words Mrs. Ashton-Larraby and 'theme' are a fright all by themselves, Alfred."
Alfred coughed discreetly by way of agreement. Bruce hurriedly ate another few forkfuls of the dumplings and then finished the sandwich, while Alfred hid his incredulous joy in the amount of food being consumed in relation to the amount of urging that preceded it. He busied himself tidying workstation 2, where Master Dick had worked in Bruce's absence. Noting the purple wallpaper, he introduced the one remaining topic of conversation he had prepared, thinking he would have to spend a full hour at least lingering in the Batcave persuading Bruce to eat.
"I do hope Miss Selina is enjoying the accommodations at the Xanadu resort, sir?"
Bruce's lip twitched. "She is. She's picked out a number of facials and spa treatments, particularly the ones that emphasize cleansing and purifying after her 'exposure' to 'the goggle-horror.'"
"I was under the impression that it was not her physical body, if I might so phrase it sir, that crossed into the other dimension. That is, I had thought she merely occupied the form of each alternate dimension's Catwoman?"
"It's feline logic, Alfred, you can't argue with it," Bruce pointed out wearily. "She says it's the principle of the thing, and as long as it makes her feel better, what does it matter."
"A wise philosophy, sir. One hopes you also took advantage of the opportunity to relax and enjoy yourself?"
A far away look overtook Bruce's features. After a long, silent moment of this, he grunted.
"One should take that as a 'yes'?" Alfred asked archly.
"It was very strange," Bruce said, his voice distant, as if he was talking to himself more than answering Alfred. "So much has happened since then. All I could think as the plane was landing was how we hadn't even taken the masks off when we went there the first time. She was so quiet when got to the bungalow. I'm sure she was thinking of it too. – I know she needed the getaway after all that dimension-hopping. It messes with your head, all those possibilities: if I'd said this or hadn't gone there, how would my life be different now? In retrospect, Xanadu was probably not the best place to take her in that state of mind. We should have gone somewhere new, not… not anywhere with that kind of history for us."
"Sir," Alfred asked carefully. "Is Miss Selina… quite alright?"
"She'll be fine when she gets home," Bruce said with determined zeal. "We'll plan something special," he added, leaving the remains of the salad and hurriedly gulping a bottle of water. "Some kind of homecoming, see what you can come up with, Alfred, make it up to her for the whole magic, alternate timelines, and Gotham Post-goggles mess."
"I confess, sir, I am somewhat at a loss as to what I might 'come up with' to compensate for inter-dimensional anomalies involving the garb of a lurid tabloid's limited and rather demeaning portrayal of great lady."
Bruce reached for his gloves and cowl, and put them on as he spoke.
"Just look at where we were before I took her to Xanadu the first time, where we are now, keep in mind that – Alfred, keep in mind that it's mostly her doing – and see what you can come up with."
With a butler's reserved control, Alfred's expression did not betray any emotion. He merely nodded, once, somewhat curtly as he said "Very good, sir."
Now fully costumed, Batman headed for the Batmobile, then he stopped and sharply turned back.
"Say that again," he graveled in the deep Bat-voice with which he seldom addressed his butler. "Alfred, say that again, about the tabloid."
"I merely observed, sir, that the Gotham Post's depiction of Miss Selina has been an ongoing source of annoyance and disappointment for her, and being forced into contact with the trappings of that image—"
"That's it," Batman said, a cunning, calculating smile creasing his lips – a frightfully unnerving phenomenon almost never seen in the cowl. "That's a very good idea."
© 2006 Chris Dee
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Once upon a time a tabloid went too far.
And Gotham has never been the same.
Wait 'til you see what happens this time in
THE GOTHAM POST
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