Summary: Art reveals the world to us, and us to each other. Question/Huntress.
Severe warning: yet another plot-free study. Nothing at all happens in this story, and if you're allergic to spending plotless time with characters then run away now and don't look back.
Disclaimer: standard disavowal of ownership of all nonoriginal material, especially that of DC.
Historian's note: mostly JLU continuity, but borrows history from Q in print; roughly mid-season 5.
Note: This was originally going to be pure because-I-can light reflective fluff, but some angst found its way in when I wasn't looking. And for the record, I can write stories that aren't slice-of-life, really I can.. see Flight of the Roc (solo project) and Another Double Date (with Kerianne H)..
He was reluctantly reaching for his wallet when she stopped him. "I've got this. No need to fudge your expense report."
"Two, please," she said. "One adult, and one solitary paranoid insomniac I had to drag here."
The bored teen behind the counter glanced up from his book at Vic and shrugged. "Do you want the headset audio guide or the printed one?"
She'd ordinarily have gone for the earphones, but given the company.. "Paper will be fine, thanks."
"I don't follow art much," Vic had said, dubiously, the day before at her place. He tapped the keys on her desktop to save his file; he'd only recently pronounced her system secure enough to risk logging into the station.
"But you're such a history buff. Think of it as a two-d glimpse into the past. That's a whole extra dimension beyond books!"
"I had some actual plans. Saving the world, and so on."
"C'mon, please? The Hub can take care of itself for an afternoon, and I hear there's this thing called inertia which'll keep the Watchtower in orbit. I've wanted to go for a while, and next week I have to take the kids, but I'll be too busy to enjoy it."
She sighed in weary frustration. "It'll be all 'This is not a playground', and 'Please pick only your own nose', and 'Yes, girls, I know he's naked, you can stop giggling now.' Field trips aren't the same as a real visit."
"I want to attend as an art lover, not a babysitter. Is that too much to ask?"
He relented. "I suppose not."
"You can consider it a thank you for your birthday present.."
She'd gone to the trouble of finding out Vic's birthday some months back – or at least the one entered into his League file, Heaven only knew how much of that was true -- and had put a fair bit of thought into her gift. It was their first as a couple, or whatever they were, and she wanted it to be just right. Finally she decided on the DVDs of James Burke's series Connections, a preview of which she'd caught on PBS once. It was all about how subtle ties between seemingly unrelated events bound history together, which sounded right up his alley.
She knew she'd chosen well midway through the first episode, when her almost-always successful attempts at distraction proved useless. He'd been completely engrossed. At one point, needing to stretch, she stood up and announced she was leaving him forever and moving to Bludhaven. "Sounds good," he said, absently, "and make sure it's two percent this time, the way it comes out of the cow."
Afterward he'd been unusually grateful, and she smiled at the memory.
Her tastes inclined to the classical realists, Rembrandt and Velázquez, though in her sappier moods she liked the pre-Raphaelites: she'd had a print of Waterhouse's Lady of Shalott in her bedroom in high school. So she took him to see the realists first.
Reviews were mixed. Vic seemed unimpressed as they wandered around the first floor, making dissatisfied noises, although he seemed to prefer landscapes to portraiture.
Finally he perked up when they passed some detailed Japanese paintings of the stone gardens in front of a Zen temple. "I like this one. Peaceful." After a moment, he added: "You know, I could probably get some good thinking done there."
Vic was already given to unexplained absences and sudden cancellations. She had no plans to lose him to a monastery. "Let's move along, shall we?" she asked quickly, and pulled him away.
His opinions were generally dismissive. The Romantics? Meh. Baroque? Bah. Rococo? Self-indulgent.
She was beginning to despair of finding anything he'd enjoy when the tide started to turn: he liked the Impressionists.
"They're.. it's like they're in focus."
He'd been especially captivated by a middle-Impressionist painting, one picturing sunset at the port of a small town, sketched in autumn oranges and browns and blues. The wavy and unfinished half-clouded sky, the brush strokes which hinted at more than defined the buildings, the small smudges which barely suggested people walking on the docks; apparently they spoke to something in him.
The artist had done an amazing job of capturing the sense of the place. You almost thought you knew what the locals were like: reserved and inward-looking, but with a secret joy at knowing they had a small but honest home.. and even if they had to leave for a time they'd always return, to a gentle welcome, and with a warm and generous pity for those poor souls who lived somewhere else.
Helena guessed that for someone like Vic, whose mind was one big river of association, you might have to aim a little off-centre to hit anything.. she wondered sometimes what it must be like inside his head during one of his episodes, to have everything remind you of something else. Like whitewater-rafting during a tsunami, maybe. She had enough trouble multitasking as it was, which is why those assignments from last week were still sitting on her desk..
She took another long look at the painting, and at Vic, before they continued.
After that his opinions were completely unpredictable.
The Mondrian they had he thought was cute.
"Cute?" she asked, and looked at it again.
Thin black lines separated the image into four rectangles, two red on the left and two blue on the right, with a black border.
"It's okay, I guess, but cute?"
"You know," he said, as if it were obvious. "Like those posters of puppies wrestling with kittens. A little on the precious side, but still cute."
She looked at the rectangles once more. "Um, yeah."
And the post-Impressionist pointillism? All the tiny dots forming the images made him laugh, mystifying her, and he couldn't explain why.
"It's just funny," he said of the Seurat, after catching his breath.
You're really weird, Vic..
"You're really weird, Vic," she said. No point in keeping thoughts like that to herself.
When she was studying one of the Bouguereau oils, enjoying the tender attention to detail in the faces, a pretty early-twenty-something woman in front of another painting caught her eye. She was wearing a Gotham University sweatshirt and smiled with the recognition-of-equals expression that the beautiful give each other; Helena smiled back.
Then the other made a small head movement toward Vic, and raised an eyebrow.
What's the deal with him? her eyes asked.
Helena matched her gesture. Him? He was standing in front of a Frederick Leighton, and – she sighed to herself – he was comparing the painting to its picture in the guide and making unsatisfied noises.
The other woman nodded.
Helena grinned broadly, glanced deliberately at him, and slowly raised both her eyebrows in reply, once, then twice.
Really? said the woman's wide-eyed blink of surprise.
Helena made a you-better-believe-it nod, and a don't-knock-it-till-you-try-it head tilt.
The college girl looked at Vic again, more thoughtfully this time.
Well, my good deed's done for the day. You owe me, homely guys at GU.
Things took a wrong turn when she suggested they go visit one of this season's prize exhibits, a presentation of cubist works. They had a large number of Braques -- including Woman with a Guitar, which she'd always liked, on loan from Paris -- along with two early Picassos and a host of others. The collection had received excellent reviews in the paper and she'd been looking forward to it.
Unfortunately, Vic hated them.
Really, truly, thoroughly hated them.
He hadn't been this worked up about the Justice Lords.
"They're hideous. I don't understand how you can study them so calmly. What kind of mind could paint something so horrible?"
"Well, I don't thi--"
"Look at that. Is that supposed to be an ear? Embedded in sand, floating in space? What's going on?"
"Vic, I'm sure th--"
"The artist died in an asylum, didn't he?"
"It's like he found a way to pour nightmares on canvas."
The purely abstract stuff hadn't bothered him, maybe because it wasn't trying to picture anything in particular. But clearly something about the way these paintings pulled objects apart into surfaces and shapes, only to rebuild them in dozens of different perspectives at once, took whatever was Q-ish about Vic's brain and set it on whirl.
You never fall for the simple ones, do you, girl? Always the ones with issues.
His reaction was more than aesthetic, it was visceral. She felt goosebumps on his arms.
"Now let's be reas--"
"And you want to bring children here?!" he shouted, angrily, all righteous indignation in defence of the innocent.
When she caught him trying to search his pockets without her noticing -- oh, no, was he looking for matches?! -- she knew she had to intervene.
Oookkkaay, that's got to be a first.. libertarian recommends mandatory imprisonment for cubists, proposes suspending the Fourth Amendment until all are found and punished.
"Vic," she said, turning him to face her instead of the walls, "why don't you wander next door? Roman sculpture, I think. Lots of things that look like things. You'll like them."
"What about you?"
"I must be immune. We'll meet up in a bit. Please? For me?"
He nodded slowly and walked away without looking back.
Never the simple ones.
When she found him again he was standing alone and unmoving in front of an enormous painting, which covered the entire wall.
'Victory at Golgotha', read the plate, 'Jean Brouillard, 1783.'
It was a crucifixion scene.
The perspective was centred on Christ, his head fallen but his eyes looking directly at the viewer with wordless power. The titulus was above him, in Aramaic, Latin, and Greek, black script on dirty beige parchment before a dark and angry sky; and his pierced arms stretched to embrace the world.
Technically it was brilliant, but no more so than other works Vic had responded to with only mild approval or gentle scorn.
These days she was mostly a Christmas-and-Easter Catholic. Although she'd been known to hear mass at St George's when she woke up early enough Sunday morning, and the music at the Wednesday evensong was pretty good, most of her church attendance was done when visiting her relatives or on account of her brats. Confirmation classes, first Communion, attending their choir performances, that sort of thing.
Her family history, with its heartfelt clasp of a rosary in one hand and tight grasp on a gun in the other, had made her ties to the Church complicated.. not to mention a quest for vengeance two decades long. The Faith taught forgiveness for even the reddest hands, but you had to repent and honestly intend not to redden them any more, which hadn't always been possible for her.
What'd St Augustine say? Make me chaste, Lord, but not yet..
Letting Mandragora live had changed her in ways she didn't fully understand, ways she was still working through, and while she sorted that out she'd still be the same old Huntress. In the meantime, she figured that until a certain capital-S Someone got around to explaining some things to her, their relationship was going to be more like casual acquaintance than friendship.. and for now she was okay with that.
Helena had never asked him about it, but you didn't have to be a detective to read the hints. A slight pause in his step when they walked past a church, as if suppressing an old impulse; an occasional abrupt nod to passing men in a white collar; and the great mark of the lapsed, an involuntary turn of his head whenever the Angelus bells rang out from the towers of St Mary's.
And there the eternal sceptic stood. Vic's face was unreadable, even for him. Unblinking, barely breathing, he watched the man hanging before him, eyes bright.
Bright with what, though? Awe? Contempt? Anger?
No, she realized, after a time. He's asking something.
And waiting for an answer, with no reply save the silence of bloody flesh freely sacrificed.
Finally she left quietly, and let him be.
Later he caught up to her when she was admiring an 18th-century sketch of a man reclining by a garden pool. Vic's mood, whatever it had been, had passed, and his normal wry frown had returned. "Helena, studying the nudes. I won't pretend to be surprised."
"I have needs, you know. Might wanna think twice about neglecting me so much."
Vic rolled his eyes, and unfolded the gallery map. "I think we've covered almost everything. We could go through the Mesoamerican wing again.."
"Think I've heard enough about ancient astronomy for one day, thanks. Let me see." She stepped inside his arms, stealing a hug, and he lowered the booklet. She traced their path with her finger as best she could. "You're right, we've only missed.. there, second floor, if we'd turned left instead. 'Legends of the Modern Age'."
She was startled when they entered the hall.
"Oh. Those kinds of legends."
The headline image was entitled 'Trinity'. Three unmistakable outlines in blue-black looked off into the distance, with countless flying shadows marked against the dusky background sky. The impossible shoulders; the depressingly perfect curves; the pointy ears above the sharp-edged cowl. Yeah, it was them alright.
"Some people get all the attention," she said.
But to be fair the coverage was pretty good. There was a minimalist abstract four-tone in light acrylic, red and yellow over black and blue, with all the lines smeared and carried left to give an impression of incredible speed; an intricate Chinese dragon with fierce red eyes – late Ming style, maybe? early Qing? she was much better with the European movements -- caught in mid-transformation, the lines in pencil and the colours in water; and a man on a dark night only partially illuminated by a green glow, done in heavy paints.
She was a little surprised at which work proved her favourite: 'Fallen from Heaven'. No complex stylistic tricks, no in-joke references to other works: it was just a portrait of an orange-haired woman in a green shirt. The subject looked out at the viewer-- no, a little to the side, as if she couldn't quite look you in the eyes but looked at your face instead and hoped you wouldn't notice. The left wing was drawn, but somehow pushed into the background, so that after a few moments you realized that the painter intended you to see that the wing didn't quite fit. It wasn't her wing, merely a wing near her: no more an angel. And all the while, the sad eyes focused at something beside you in the broken resignation of atoning misery. That was the look of one who knew there was nothing she could do but would continue to suffer what pain she could bear because she deserved it.
It turned out that Vic's only appearance was in an ensemble painting of the entire League, and was only recognizable because of his hat. That and the fact he had no face.
"I'm not sure whether I should be grateful or insulted," he said, squinting at the few brushstrokes it took to paint the Question.
"At least you got a mention." She was conspicuously absent from the B-team crowd in the same team picture.
"Helena, you said, and I quote, 'I hope you choke on it' to the operations chair of the League as you threw your ID at him."
"That's true, I did. Well, from time to time you need to put the big guys in their place."
Vic looked at her with an expression she couldn't parse, and then smiled. "I suppose someone does at that. Don't tell me you're really disappointed you're not here?"
"Not really. I had my chance to play model.. they asked me to pose for last year's calendar. My choice of outfit, and I had veto rights on the final image. I turned 'em down."
"Why? It was for charity, after all."
"Sure," she said, "but with Flash running the cameras.."
"I see your point. The near-infrared is a dangerous part of the spectrum."
"Umm.. hey, Vic?" she asked, a few minutes later.
"What?" He was looking at an astonishingly realistic computer-generated image of the Watchtower.
"Why is Picard in a wheelchair?"
In the centre of the picture sat the starship captain, enthroned like a bishop, the shape of his skull and the iron certainty of his gaze instantly familiar. He was surrounded by an unexpected crew, mostly young. A handsome man whose yellow-red eyeband couldn't hide his air of leadership, arms linked with a beautiful woman in deep concentration; next to them, an equally gorgeous woman with bright white hair and the impression of restrained power, and a large blue-skinned creature wearing a librarian's glasses; and finally a cute teenage girl wearing long gloves, looking slightly nervous but proud, guarded by an angry lumberjack with shiny grey overclaws.
"I-- I don't know," he said. He skimmed the guide. "The artist isn't listed."
"It's kind of creepy.. familiar but wrong," Helena said. She moved her head from side to side, and took a few tentative steps in each direction to test the effect. "And it's like his eyes are following me.."
"I see what you mean. It's uncanny."
"Back away slowly?"
"Back away slowly. You never know."
The next picture was equally unusual, but much more appealing.
"Now this I could go for," she said.
The painter had gone for photorealism. It was raining in a narrow alley, which reminded her of the tight passages between the old tall turn-of-the-century buildings a few blocks outside of downtown Gotham. A pretty girl with soaking-wet red hair was kissing a costumed man – some red number criss-crossed with black lines – who was hanging upside-down from a fire escape. It looked like she'd peeled away the lower part of the facemask.
"See, now that would be kinda useful," Helena said.
"I'll talk to Rodor," he replied, in a tone that made it clear he'd do no such thing.
Too bad. For whatever reason buried deep in her psyche, beating people up tended to make her.. frisky.
Only a few weeks before, she'd signalled time-out in the middle of a particularly exciting fight -- they actually had some skills for a change! -- and told her opponents to wait there for a few minutes and she'd be right back. While the three of them stood puzzled, she'd pulled an equally confused Vic into a nearby supply closet and enjoyed some mid-battle Q-kissage. They'd had their first kiss through his mask, and it'd sort of become traditional by now..
When one of the goons finally knocked and asked through the door whether he had time to order out, and if so were they up for pizza from Dino's, she'd burst out laughing. She was glad to meet the occasional foe with a sense of humour; the hell with all this angsty, sombre, over-the-top "on-my-honour-I-must-defeat-you" melodramatic crap.
If it wasn't fun, what was the point?
Half of the people she wound up fighting were nothing but hired muscle anyway, who probably worked as security guards the rest of the time.. they weren't so bad. Just in need of a little career direction, which she was more than happy to provide..
So she'd decided not to break them too much. Had to encourage good sportsmanship, after all.
Helena was still thinking of the cheerfully resigned I-knew-this-was-coming look on the face of the thug-comedian, the one right before he passed out, when she looked up at the gallery wall and saw it.
She stopped suddenly and Vic walked into her.
"Hey," he said. "Watch it."
She continued to stare, dumbfounded.
"What's your problem?"
He followed her eyes.
'Birds of Prey'. Three young women painted with loving strokes, the pictures dripping with lazy power. To the right was Black Canary, and in the centre a certain member of the Batclan whose name Helena preferred not to mention. Both of whom looked frustratingly good.
One of whom I'm not even sure if I like, and the other who's not speaking to me.
And to the left was someone in an all-too-familiar purple-and-black outfit.. but a version which looked like it had been sprayed on.
"See? There's no need to be disappointed after all," said Vic.
Helena looked down at herself, embarrassed, and crossed her arms. She wasn't self-conscious about her body, honestly she wasn't at all – if she were she'd need a different outfit, that's for sure – and if anything she tended toward vanity, but still..
"Am I really so.." The appropriate word escaped her.
"I think it's a convention of the genre," he said, amused, and gestured toward the other paintings.
There's no way I could fight like that. How could I even walk?!
She tried to look over her shoulder. "And m--"
"It's.. not unfair," he said judiciously.
I will not blush.
She watched him look suspiciously closely at the painting for a few moments and then scowled up at him. "You better be admiring the right one, Vic."
"Don't worry," he said, with an odd smile, "I am."
Hey.. wait a sec..
"So, what'd you think?" she asked, as they returned to the main foyer. "You can be honest. I know it's not exactly your cup of tea."
"Not as bad as I thought. I could come back."
"I'm not saying I want to come back tomorrow. But those Impressionists know what they're doing. So in a few months, when there are new exhibits? Sure."
"When the Cubists are gone?" she asked, teasing.
"When they're locked away, where they can do more harm on an unsuspecting public," he said, restraining a shudder, "I could see myself taking you to the gallery some afternoon. If my work is done."
"Then maybe I'll make myself available.."
He interrupted her, as if an idea had occurred to him. "Wait here. I'll be right back."
And just when I was going to get suggestive.
She collected their jackets and his hat from the coat-check. A few minutes passed, and then he reappeared, carrying a long brown tube. "I thought we needed a way to remember the day."
"Ooh, what'd you get me, Vic?" she asked, taking his arm as they walked down the marbled stairs through the main doors toward his car parked a block away.
"Tell me!" she insisted.
"Patience is not one of your virtues. Can't it wait until we get h-- to your apartment?"
Her heart suddenly warmed in an annoyingly sentimental way which was becoming disturbingly frequent. Don't think I didn't catch that, Q..
"I said tell me now!"
"All right. I bought you a print of the upside-down spider kiss. You seemed to like it, and--"
She made a small squeal of delight and hugged him. "It's perfect. I know just where to put it."
"I wish I'd thought of doing the same for you," she went on, enthused. "Picasso's way out, but I coulda picked you up a Renoir or a Morisot or something. Guess seeing this one at my place will have to do."
He looked around, at the cityscape, at passing traffic, at the suppertime sky; anywhere but at her as they arrived at the car.
He busied himself opening the back door and putting the tube inside. That was odd. Why wasn't he--
Nothing. Always a bad sign, he couldn't lie worth anything to her, so he kept quiet instead when he had something to hide.
"It's for my place in Hub City," he said, not meeting her eyes.
"Vic." She leaned against the side of the car, and covered her face with her hands.
"You won't have to see it. Hardly ever there these days anyway. I just had to have it."
"People only think I'm a philistine. I appreciate beauty, and it doesn't come any better than this."
Well, he was sweet, but--
"So do you think I can get Dinah to sign it?"
Helena's mouth fell open, but no words came out.
He tipped his hat to her with an infuriating smirk.