00000-001
By Chris Dee and Myklarcure

Prologue


"Selina wait!"

What just happened?

The words sprung out of my mouth— Selina wait!—and I'd reached forward to stop her from going. It wasn't a conscious act; it was instinct, like countering a gust of wind mid-swing on the Batline. For a second I even flashed on magic and mind control. It was the same kind of speech and movement independent of will.

Before that moment, it had been a typical Bat/Cat sparking off…

"It seems like everything leads back to it no matter what I say or don't say, do or don't do. It also seems like whatever it is, it's getting worse. So yes, Bruce, I'm pushing and prodding and jabbing and refusing to ignore the fact that a pink elephant has come among us."

The pink elephant again. A few years ago, Selina came down to the cave when I'd been fasting and sequestering myself before the anniversary. I was trying to meditate (albeit failing), a kind of ritual I'd fallen into for those last days leading up to the 21st. She wanted to know why. Starving and exhausting myself didn't protect the city, save innocents or frighten criminals, so why was I doing it? When I didn't provide a quick enough answer, she said we were back to pink elephants.

She's right in that there's a history of the unspoken between us. She was a thief. I'm a crimefighter. There were things I couldn't say back then. We both knew what we felt, it was inescapable. But we couldn't talk about it; I couldn't, no matter how much she wanted me to.

"Just for the record, this isn't 'what I want'," she went on, eerily in sync with my private thoughts –and there's a history of that between us too. "I would love nothing better than to shove it all in the closet and forget it ever existed. But one of the things I want to shove in the closet and forget is a world where this kind of thing was shoved in a closet and forgotten. I don't know everything that happened there but I know it went on too long, a pink elephant was left to fester or something, until finally you told me to leave. I woke up in the back room of the fucking Iceberg and Ivy had my sapphire—"

"Sapphire?" I sputtered. "Selina, what are you talking about?"

What was she talking about? It was the safe, it was Walapang, it was… No. Wait.

"Wait, you think this is…" I trailed off, my mind reeling at the flash of understanding. Not pink elephants. Pink sapphires. Suddenly it all became clear. Kitten was projecting again. She'd been on me all day about what I'm not telling her, about Clark, about Nigma… Now it all made sense. The pink sapphire. It's what she hasn't told me that's really on her mind. "This has nothing to do with dimension hopping," I said honestly. "I know that you will tell me – or not tell me – about that whenever you feel you can. I'd just like the same consideration."

"You're not listening – or not understanding. I am telling you. One of those worlds, you'd thrown me out. Something was left unsaid for too long. It scares me. Bruce, I don't want that to happen with us. If you need time, then take it…. Just don't take too much."

"Selina wait!"

What… just… happened?

"I'm waiting," she said, patient but curious, like she had no idea why I reacted the way I did – which was understandable, since I had no idea myself.

Before that moment, it had been a typical… Bat and Cat… It's always been this way. What's said is said, everything is thrown out there, then one of us walks away. We fume, gestate, introspect, and eventually we come back and find a resolution. Somehow that wasn't acceptable this time. Not today, not in the cave. I don't know how or why, but some deep instinct said no. Now, today, that simply was not acceptable.

"It's the safe," I said quietly.

I wasn't sure that was enough. This torrent in my brain was screaming that it was Ivy and the gold bars and that damn bat and the kryptonite ring, my mother's pearls and my father's wallet, the police file reducing their murder to a few cold phrases "occurred in a back alley" "held at gunpoint" "powder burns on the victims' clothing." It was more than I could ever explain in words. How do you explain that there is no one, no one else in the world, that knows that safe even exists? With everything else I have: with Batman, the Cave, the League, the manor, with my father's business and the Foundation… there have always been others that know about all of it. But that safe… not even Alfred knows. How could I possibly…

She was kissing my cheek. The kiss and the words that followed punched through the haze in my mind, like when I was recovering from Ivy's pheromones – which is, of course, where this mess started.

"I've been doing this a long time, Bruce. You think I don't know a personal safe from the other kind by now?"

Only Catwoman. Only Selina. How is it possible for her to reference her criminal past that way, intertwined, as it were, with the murder of my parents, and have that somehow make it better rather than worse? She said she recognized the personal nature of the safe immediately. She said she'd looked in the boxes because of the kryptonite clue, then she took the number she needed off the gold bar and that was it. She said she didn't go through the papers. She assured me that she'd never tell anyone about the safe's existence or about anything inside – which of course I knew, but the assurance still gave me a pang. We were so far beyond that, in terms of trust, it went without saying. She should know that. She was trying to reassure me, that's why she said it, but she didn't know how, because she didn't really understand why the safe was an issue. I realized I had to at least try to explain, even if it was futile.

"What bothered me the most is that you had to find it on your own," I began, realizing that part of the truth only as I heard the words coming from my lips. "Once again, I had no control over the situation. Somewhere, deep down, I knew that one day I would share that safe with you. But, Selina, I wasn't ready then and I'm not ready now. Every item in there is… intensely…

"Just look at the kryptonite ring. Since you know about that, it's the easiest way to explain. When Superman first entrusted me with that ring, I put it in the safe because it was the most secure location I had at my disposal. It didn't mean anything. Like the gold bar, placing it there was a simple expedient. But as time went on, as the partnership evolved, it became something more. It's an emblem of trust and mutual respect. It belongs there now because my relationship with Clark is a part of who I am."

She nodded. I wasn't sure she understood – she thought she did, but I don't think anyone can really understand Superman handing you the means to destroy him. Luthor made that ring for one purpose: to make a kryptonite fist. To coil all his hate and anger into a blow his enemy would feel. He made it to take Superman's life with his bare hands. And when he got his hands on it, rather than destroy the object made for the sole purpose of killing him, Clark gave it to me… "in case it was ever needed." After he married Lois, we brought her to the cave, I revealed my identity, and Clark told her the whole story. After Luthor became President, possession of the ring became instrumental in his downfall.

I told Selina there was an untold story like that behind every item in the safe, an involved, deeply personal story I didn't know if I could ever adequately explain. I knew I should sit down and go through it with her, piece by piece, but it was too much to take on. I simply wasn't ready.

She gave a sad little smile, a sad little nod, and eyed my cheek like she wanted to kiss it again. I took the hint and kissed hers instead. It seemed to be enough. What I'd revealed would end the 'festering' she was afraid of. Now that she knew what was at the root of the recent tension, she looked… content. At least by the standard of the day.


It's the safe.

I've been breathing so much easier since I heard those words, it's like I'd forgotten what it was like to take a full relaxed breath. It was the safe.

God bless the cat-instinct that rides shotgun on every cat-crime, deciding what leaves a safe and comes home with me, and what stays right where it is. That box was bad enough, with the broken pearls and the wedding rings, the bloodstained wallet… I hate to think if I'd gone through those papers.

No wonder he doesn't want to go through it all, sifting through the "untold stories."

I went up to the bedroom, relief mixing with the exhaustion setting in after a perfectly hellacious day and a growing desire to hold Bruce all night long. That's what we really needed, I thought. Give Batman the night off and make achingly sweet love until morning. He'd never go for it of course. I had a bad day but PsychoBat had a worse one, and that meant tonight's selection of muggers, pimps and drug dealers were going to have a worse one still.

And, as if Destiny herself wanted to confirm that great Universal Truth, the bat was back.

The day we woke up knowing the very worst of the mindwipe aftermath was before us, this little bat appeared on the bedroom window. Bruce said it was called a bumblebee bat, the smallest species there is. He was awfully cute, just a few inches wide, this tiny vote of confidence from the Universe. At some point he disappeared, I'm not sure when. But as I came up from that talk with Bruce in the cave, there he was again, hanging upside down near the top of the window just like he used to. I went up to take a closer look, wanting to see him as a good omen like before. But somehow I couldn't see him that way now.

He was just this little bat hanging there. If his return meant anything, it was an enigma.

He was there again the next day, when Barbara called. Oracle just picked up a memo on Arkham's mainframe: Killer Croc due to be released in two weeks. He was there the next day, when Bruce agreed to a sunset cruise on the Gatta "before things heat up again." He was there the next week, when the Falcones noticed most the costumed types were up the river and started getting aggressive on the docks. He was there when Eddie got his swing back, left a clue on an 8-track tape and Bruce nearly tore the cave apart looking for a way to play it.

He was there when… when… …oh hell.


Chapter 1: The Price of Fame


I've been to too many funerals.

The priest's words jumble together in my ears as I stare down at the slowly lowering casket, his soft eulogy meaning little to me. I barely hear his voice, my ears locked on other sounds: the heart-wrenching squeak of a hand-cranked casket winch, the low groaning of the nylon straps that strain under the weight of their load…

Maintaining a secret identity requires acting. Acting requires an understanding of sense memory – a sight, sound, taste or smell that not only triggers a memory but the emotions (and sometimes even the physical responses) of an earlier time. Honestly, I never put much stock in the theory when I first learned of it… until one night when the smell of popcorn in a Princeton dorm room sent me stumbling into the hall, the associations with a movie theatre and the alley that followed rising like a flood in my brain.

Today I find myself unable to tear my mind from the memories that come with each turn of that winch's handle. I try to steady my breathing as the images slam into my subconscious – similar scenes, now all too familiar, play out behind my eyes. Clark. Oliver. Jason. Stephanie.

My parents.

I've been to too many funerals.

I blink the memories away, trying to shake the unease that's settled over me. In my peripheral vision, I catch sight of the only other person attending today's ceremony except for the priest and the cemetery caretakers. I wonder for the tenth time if he's feeling the same sense of unease, of incongruity with the day's events that I am. Something just doesn't seem to fit here; somehow this time around, it all feels different. Maybe it's the weather: sunny, bright, unseasonably warm. There's not a cloud in the sky, and the sun hangs like a shining beacon of hope, mocking us, mocking this ceremony of sadness and loss…

I realize the priest has finished, as has the winch operator. The other attendee and I spend a moment in quiet contemplation as we both stare down at the polished mahogany box now sitting in its final resting place. I hear myself offering words of condolence, praying they don't sound quite as hollow as they feel. We shake hands, grim countenances offering each other little, and I realize at that moment that this is the last time we'll ever see each other. He offers a light, sorrowful smile as if he's just come to the same conclusion, then offers a quiet "Thank you" before walking away.

For some reason I stay there, watching as the caretakers toss shovelfuls of dirt onto the box below, and a wave of emotion crashes down on me: sorrow, frustration, anger, and perhaps a small measure of defeat. Over the years of doing what I do, I've come to believe that nothing is more frustrating or disappointing for a detective than knowing you may never find the answers.

The man we buried today may have been a man of little consequence, another essentially nameless victim in a city that has claimed many nameless victims.

Or he may have been the man that changed the world.


TWO WEEKS AGO

Alfred entered the master suite as he did every morning, with the silent grace of a seasoned butler and a shrewd plan to return his employer to the land of the living. He set a large tray on the low bureau in the corner, then moved to the window and flung the massive curtains open, revealing a tiny bat perched in the top corner. Sunlight poured into the room and across the oversized bed, eliciting a groan from the occupant nearest the window.

Tucked comfortably beneath the sheets, Bruce flinched and rolled onto his side, turning away from the invading light in irritated rebellion against all things daytime – but colliding with Selina as he did so. This produced a new protest, a sleepy feminine "hey" and a light push rocking him back onto his back. He winced and sucked in a great lungful of air through gritted teeth as pain shot down his arm, the splintered details of the night before finally penetrating the groggy haze as he felt the bandages wrapped tightly around his bicep—Killer Croc, razor sharp claws, stitches… stitches that Alfred himself had done.

"You did that on purpose, didn't you?" Bruce grumbled under his breath, his eyes still clamped shut against the light.

It was unclear which he was addressing. Selina pulled a pillow down over her head and the covers up past her ear, trying to burrow away from all the sunlight, voices, and movement. Alfred approached the bed, tray in hand.

"Sir?"

"Nothing," Bruce replied. Squinting against the sunlight, he peered at his approaching butler. "What time is it?"

"Eleven-thirty, sir."

Bruce sighed, then slowly and carefully sat up. He would have preferred to sleep a bit longer; he imagined Selina did as well. She'd moaned from deep under her pillow at the announcement of the time, then thrashed around for her robe, got up, and disappeared into the bathroom without glancing at either of them or speaking a single word.

They'd all been up later than usual. His Croc injury wrecked Catwoman's plan for a post-Patrol rendezvous. Instead of luring him to her lair, she'd arrived at the Batmobile just in time to see him staggering to the car with the kind of injuries that meant it would be the autopilot driving home. She didn't fuss; Catwoman was a pro. She did insist on riding home with him – and he could find no valid reason to object. She also insisted on stopping the bleeding as best she could while car sped them home – again, he could find no reason to veto this eminently sensible idea. Then she stood there, just outside the medlab, while Alfred stitched him up. He told her to go up to bed. Alfred told her twice. But she wouldn't. She just stood there, silent and stubborn, waiting for him.

It was dawn before any of them got to bed, and Bruce would have liked to sleep in for a few hours more. But he knew he had a two o'clock with Lucius that he couldn't cancel (again). So he pushed himself back on the bed until his back was against the headboard, and Alfred gently laid the legged tray across his lap. Wiping away the last vestiges of sleep, Bruce yawned widely then smelled the warm food resting on the tray in front of him: an assortment of pastries, muffins and toast with various spreads, several strips of bacon, a selection of fruit, a poached egg on a small silver stand, a silver pot and cups, and two glasses of orange juice. He picked up the first glass of juice and drank the entire thing as Alfred moved around the bed to inspect the bandages. Bruce pulled the Gotham Times out of the small bin on the side of the tray and glanced at the headline as he took a bite out of a strip of bacon.

"Anything interesting?" he asked Alfred, who had apparently decided that the bandages needed changing and was opening the curio to retrieve a small first-aid kit.

"There is an article in the D Section about technology stocks that you may find helpful for this afternoon's meeting," the butler replied as he cut away the wrinkled bandage from Bruce's arm. "And an absolutely dreadful editorial regarding the legacy of the former President that you may find amusing."

Smirking lightly, Bruce glanced sideways at Alfred as he applied a healthy dose of antiseptic gel to the stitched wounds. "And by 'dreadful' you mean…?"

"It utilizes a literary style and sentence structure that I found most confounding, sir."

"You sound just like Eddie," Selina laughed as she walked back into the room, running a brush through her hair and looking infinitely more lifelike. She went up to the window and waved at the tiny bumblebee bat. "Always the grammar snob."

"I do not believe those without a modest grasp of the language should be content to have their failings known by displaying their inadequacies in print," Alfred said dryly.

"Just like Eddie," Selina repeated with a laugh.

Bruce glowered at the comment. Alfred merely motioned towards the tray, indicating several envelopes sitting in the bin where the newspaper had been.

"There are also several pieces of correspondence that require your attention, sir," he said dryly.

Bruce glanced at the envelopes and papers, finished his bacon and set the newspaper down. He rifled through the letters as Alfred explained. "There are a few invitations requiring an RSVP, a fax from Mr. Fox about this afternoon's meeting and a personal letter."

Bruce glanced through the invitations. "Charity event for Leslie's clinic - definite Yes. Another 'We're rich, isn't it grand?' party at the Macavoys'. No on that one." He handed both invitations to Alfred, started in on a muffin and scanned the memo from Lucius.

"As you wish, sir."

Bruce set the memo aside and looked at the final letter. It was a business envelope from a midtown law firm addressed directly to him at the manor's street address. From the opened envelope, Bruce pulled out a two-page note written on the same law firm's letterhead. Perplexed, he read the first few lines.

Dear Mr. Wayne,
You don't know me but my name is David Vaniel and I am a junior associate at Chatham, Latham and Gould. I am actually writing to you at the behest of my father, Edward. About 2 months ago, my father was diagnosed with end-stage pancreatic and lung cancer…

Bruce looked up from the letter and glanced at Alfred. "It's an assistance request?"

Selina glanced at the page as she reached across to take a pastry from the tray.

"Don't you normally just send those on to Cynthia?" Bruce asked.

"Usually, but in some instances I feel it polite to offer you the chance of first refusal, sir."

"What is it and who's Cynthia?" Selina asked, reaching again – this time to pour herself coffee.

"Kitten, either come back into the bed to do that or let me get out from under the tray," Bruce said, awkwardly repositioning his injured arm. He glanced at the letter again, read a few more lines, and then folded it up and handed it to Alfred (since Selina had chosen the former suggestion and was crawling back into the bed beside him). "Send it to Cynthia," Bruce said curtly.

Alfred paused momentarily – while Selina eyed the fresh bandage on Bruce's arm and gingerly touched the shoulder above it. Alfred gently lifted the letter from Bruce's grasp and stacked it with the others. "Very well, sir. Anything else?"

"No, that will be all, Alfred. Thank you."


Having come home with Batman the night before, Selina had left her Jag in the city. Since Bruce had a meeting in town, she had dressed quickly so she could ride in with him and collect it. On the way, she asked again about the letter.

"Alfred wasn't too pleased at the quick dismissal, that's all," she said casually. "Maybe you should've at least read it through."

"As the one who normally opens those letters, Alfred knows better than anyone that Bruce Wayne gets at least one letter like that a month," he replied.

"Letter like what? You never did tell me."

"An assistance request. Most people in this city – in this country really – know very little about Bruce Wayne and yes, before you say it, a lot of that is by design. Keeping the public image as vague as possible limits the risk of anyone making a connection with Batman. But the one thing everyone knows is that I have a lot of money."

"Hard to deny the first part of that 'Billionaire Playboy' moniker," Selina agreed. "Particularly when driving your second-favorite Porsche."

He grunted.

"One of the side-effects of that image is that many people believe I have a great deal of disposable income, income that Bruce Wayne is all too eager to spend. While many believe that I spend the bulk of it on more… frivolous pursuits—"

"C.F. the aforementioned Porsche, planes, yacht, and a sorry string of bimbos before settling down with someone suitable," Selina interrupted with a naughty grin.

"—there are a great many others who know the amount I spend on more charitable causes, both personally and through the Wayne Foundation," Bruce concluded. "Unfortunately, there are people in the world that would take advantage of that generosity. Some requests are legitimate; some are grifters looking for a handout. Sometimes, the 'grifters' try blackmail if the Foundation rejects their requests."

Selina burst out laughing.

"Oh that must go over well. Got a special setting on Zogger for those, do we?"

"I would love to," Bruce declared in the deep bat-gravel. "But anything that inextricably tied to Bruce Wayne, Batman steers clear of. And that's where Cynthia comes in. Cynthia Merrithew is the Chief Operations Officer for the Foundation. She has a crack staff that can do the kind of thorough investigation Bruce Wayne can't, to verify the validity of requests and determine if the Foundation should get involved. In a few rare cases, she'll contact me directly if a 'personal touch' is needed for a particular case."

"You're glowing," Selina observed.

"Cynthia and her staff are remarkably efficient at handling the Foundation's affairs," Bruce said proudly. "It's important work, improving people's lives, and they tackle it with a tenacity that… well, that reminds me of Dick and Tim and Clark."

"There's no reason to leave yourself off that list," Selina said with a smile.

Bruce grunted, and Selina pointed to the curb, indicating where she left her car.


Four days later, Alfred removed Bruce's stitches. Killer Croc was still free, but Batman felt two hours could be spared before patrol to meet Catwoman on the roof of the opera house and listen to the final performance of The Queen of Spades. Selina was spectacularly excited and Bruce suspected she was out getting her hair done. He'd stopped in the kitchen for a late lunch. As soon as Alfred set down the sandwich, he disappeared into his pantry and returned with an oversized Wayne Foundation envelope.

"For your personal attention, sir, from Ms. Merrithew. Perhaps it would be best if you read it through this time."

Bruce didn't react to the backhand; he was used to it. He tilted the envelope and the previous week's letter on that law firm stationery slid out, along with a note from Cynthia Merrithew saying it was not a charity request in the traditional sense and did require Bruce's personal attention.

Bruce unfolded the letter – ignored whatever Alfred was saying now in that dry acidic tone – and read:

Dear Mr. Wayne,
You don't know me but my name is David Vaniel and I am a junior associate at Chatham, Latham and Gould. I am actually writing to you at the behest of my father, Edward. About 2 months ago, my father was diagnosed with end-stage pancreatic and lung cancer. His life has been turbulent, to put it mildly. My own relations with him have been also. I'm told lawyers have a larger non-technical vocabulary than any other profession, but when I look to words such as 'strained' or 'disjointed' to describe my relationship with my father, they fall woefully short. And yet, now that a less than angelic past and a lifetime of drinking and smoking have caught up with him, I feel a filial duty to do what I can. And this letter is what I can do.
I apologize in advance for the bizarre nature of this request, Mr. Wayne. My father is not asking for money or media attention, only a personal meeting with you. He asks five minutes of your time, in person. I understand completely if you refuse. I would ask only that you call me and tell me yourself, just so I can then tell my father that I spoke to you directly. He is so adamant about the need for this meeting. He's been pestering me for weeks, he says now that I'm "a big shot lawyer" he knows I can "make it happen," that kind of thing. But then, the last time I refused, the tone changed. He broke down. It was the first time I've ever seen my father in tears, Mr. Wayne. He's no saint, sir, but he's a dying man and this is obviously important to him.

"He apologizes again for the peculiar nature of the request," Bruce said, repeating the highlights to Alfred as he read. "And then he asks again that I call in person to refuse so he can tell his father he talked to me himself."

"It is a moving document, in its way, sir. Might one hope it elicits something more in the way of a personal response than a 'No.'"

"He's a lawyer, Alfred; he should be able to write a persuasive letter. This one is ingeniously crafted to get past the buffers a man like me must have in place and to put the letter into my hands. He got that far with this little scam, you and Cynthia did exactly what he wanted, now we have this 'call me personally.' He's not going to get that because I have no time – or patience – right now to play along just to find out what the con is."

"Is it entirely wise, Master Bruce, to be so certain the letter is not what it seems?"

"It has all the earmarks, Alfred. Another day I'd take the time to confirm it, but the timing sucks. I've got the shareholders meeting coming up, Wayne Tech restructuring to absorb those old LexCorp subsidiaries. Plus, I still have to track down Killer Croc. Nigma's still free and up to something; it's a matter of time before he starts dropping clues all over the city again. The Falcones and Yakuza are getting bold with most of the costumed set still in Arkham, and they're a hair's breadth away from a full blown turf war on the south side."

"An intriguing list of commitments, sir, giving both Bruce Wayne's business interests and Batman's crimefighting concerns their share of claims on your time. I rather wish you had included one additional claimant: Miss Selina. You are planning to attend the opera tonight, are you not, sir? A sentimental revisiting of your first 'date'? That is why Miss Selina asked me to prepare a picnic basket akin to the one Batman brought that night?"

Bruce scowled.

"That has nothing to do with this, Alfred."

"I beg to differ, sir. That rooftop assignation with Catwoman has everything to do with it. Indeed, it has a great deal to do with everything that has happened since. Master Bruce, you asked Catwoman to meet you on that roof entirely because you wanted to see her. It had nothing to do with Batman's activities, nor with Bruce Wayne's business interests. It was an entirely human endeavor. An expression of your humanity. Just as responding appropriately to this letter would be an expression of your humanity. And responding inappropriately would, I fear sir, be a distinct sign that you are losing touch with that humanity."

"Alfred really, don't you think that's a little melodramatic."

"No sir, I do not. Master Bruce, what's five minutes with a dying man? You have done far more for far less noble reasons. What could it hurt to talk to the man, or at very least listen to what he wants so desperately to say to you."

"Fine, I'll think about it," Bruce growled. "After I check him out."


The bat Walapang had returned to his favorite perch over the workstations, and Bruce saw that the creature had two companions now instead of one. He powered up the monitor and resisted the urge to scowl. It was, ultimately, their cave after all. He was just some guy who set up his computer underneath the good stalactite. He thought no more about it – or anything other than the official paper trail of the life of Edward Vaniel – until a clip-clip of high heels on stone announced Selina's return.

She said Alfred told her about the letter and that Bruce was downstairs researching the dying man, a development that Bruce found curious.

"Alfred's got his teeth in this," he said thoughtfully. "And I just don't see why."

He sighed angrily. He knew by now that he was going. He might go through the motions of 'thinking about it' a little longer, but the decision was made up in the kitchen. Something about the way Alfred urged him had struck a chord – there was something almost pleading in his butler's eyes. That made the decision for him and it was pointless to pretend otherwise. Alfred had always been his anchor. More than an employee, more than a friend, he was a true confidant. While Bruce often ignored the protests and sarcasm that came in a quietly insistent stream since he first proposed the idea of Batman, he did know that Alfred had his best interests at heart. That's why he couldn't ignore this Vaniel matter. If it was that important to Alfred, he would go… But he hated that he was going to do it without understanding why.

Selina's take was very simple. "It's the least you can do."

She didn't mean for Vaniel. Selina wasn't one to get worked up over strangers, dying or not. She meant it was the least he could do for Alfred.

Unlike Bruce, she didn't belabor the point. She said it simply, with a serene feline confidence, and then she looked past him at the large overhead viewscreen which mirrored the document he was reading on the small workstation monitor. She let out a low whistle.

"My god, is that a rap sheet?" she asked in wonder.

Bruce grunted, then spoke in the deep crime-loathing bat-gravel.

"'Less-than-angelic' the son said. He low-balled it."

"That's one way of putting it," Selina noted, amused.

Another way of putting it was that "Easy Eddie" Vaniel was a walking piece of shit. The rap sheet went on – and on – longer than the Wayne Manor driveway.

"Armed robbery," she read, "grand theft, grand theft auto, carjacking. Well it's a logical progression, I'll give him that. Assault and battery, felonious assault, assault with a deadly weapon, continued next page… How many pages are there?" she asked curiously.

"Four. And that's just the summary. Old police reports indicate potential but unconfirmed mob ties, which may explain why the early arrests never make it to indictments. He was never a 'soldier' but at the very least he worked as an enforcer from time to time. He spent thirteen years in Blackgate for attempted murder, beat a known mob informant with a tire iron."

"I just got to that," Selina said, skimming page four. "One of yours, I see."

Again Bruce grunted.

"After prison, he seemed to be trying to rehabilitate himself, with moderate success," Bruce summarized. "There are a few small robbery charges and one domestic violence complaint from a short-term girlfriend –it seems David's mother died while Vaniel was in prison. A check into patient records at Gotham Memorial reveals that he was diagnosed with both pancreatic and lung cancer, just as David's letter stated. At this point, also as stated in the letter, he has no more than a month to live."

Selina bit her lip.

"So why does he want to see you?"

Bruce glared hatefully at the viewscreen, having asked that same question every few minutes since he began researching Vaniel's case. He could find no reason why this man wanted to speak with Bruce Wayne. There was an off chance, an extremely minute possibility, that he wanted to talk to Batman, who had been the one to catch him on a few occasions – including the attempted murder charge that put him away for thirteen years. But it made no sense – no sense at all – that he'd contacted Bruce Wayne, especially through his son.

No, this was something else – and whatever it was, Bruce had no clue.


Two days later, Bruce waited at the reception desk of the Oncology Wing, Gotham Memorial Hospital while a nurse's aide went to find David Vaniel. When a well-dressed man emerged from one of the rooms, he seemed younger than Bruce expected. David Vaniel – for that is who it was offering his hand and introducing himself haltingly – must have been close to Bruce's age, but he spoke and carried himself more like Dick. He was a polite young man, soft-spoken, seemed kind but a bit nervous – which Bruce attributed to surprise. Despite Alfred's call to confirm the meeting, David never really expected Bruce Wayne to show.

Bruce politely sidestepped the tentative attempt at small talk and got down to business.

"Why am I here?" he asked bluntly.

"Honestly, Mr. Wayne, I know nothing more than I told you in the letter. All my father will say is that it's private."

Bruce never trusted non-answers, not from criminals, not from police, not from businessmen or bimbos, and especially not from lawyers. So he probed David Vaniel on other subjects, and found the man open and forthcoming.

"I'm here because he's my father, Mr. Wayne. A son's duty and that's all. There's no affection. None. The man was seldom around when I was growing up. And when he was, he was up to no good. Constantly getting arrested – or disappearing to avoid getting arrested, which was worse for me and mom. People'd come to the house looking for him, police, even Batman one time.

"When he went off to jail, I went off to law school. Bit of rebellion, I guess. I wanted to become a prosecutor, put people like him in jail where they couldn't start families they weren't prepared to stick with. But anyway, when I got over the 'angry young man' phase, I just wanted to improve myself. I did wind up specializing in criminal law though, wound up in the D.A.'s office after all," he laughed, "I hope with a better motive than I'd begun…"

He trailed off, blushing.

Bruce was listening politely, but also projecting a subtle air of dissatisfaction. It was a familiar performance: Bruce Wayne, the busy executive with a busy schedule, making time for something he views as beneath him. But underneath the Bat-subterfuge, Bruce knew he did it for another reason: he wanted to see if David Vaniel would pick up on it. A successful prosecutor needed people skills, instinct. Would he see through the polite pretense to the second performance underneath? Would he see "Bruce Wayne is distracted" or would he take advantage of Bruce Wayne here and in person to pitch some…

"I'm awfully sorry, going on like this" David apologized, hurriedly leading Bruce down the hall towards the room he'd come out of earlier. "You don't even know me. It's just that there aren't a lot of people I'm comfortable talking to about my father… I should warn you before we go in. He can be a bit… harsh."

He opened the door and the word hung suspended in Bruce's mind as he peered into the room.

Harsh.

In every sense imaginable.

"Don't you know I'm dying here? For the love of Christ, shithead. Give an old man some peace."

That was the greeting when the opening door woke him. Edward Vaniel was the exact opposite of his son. Even considering the end-stage cancer, there was more to his deterioration than the disease that was killing him. His face was a weathered map of a hard life, a life spent in the dingiest, dirtiest, most violent places in the city.

Bruce heard his own name spoken in David's low, polite tones, and repeated in Vaniel's coarse ones, but the old man was calming down, slightly, as he realized the longed-for meeting was finally to occur. He looked up at the man standing at the foot of his bed, his brow creasing as he studied the aristocratic features.

"Bruce Wayne," he croaked, a twinge of annoyance still in his voice. "You're shorter than you look on TV."

"Mr. Vaniel," Bruce greeted in a low tone, "you're thinner than you were in your last mug shot."

David's head whipped around, staring at Bruce in shock. The pleasant demeanor the billionaire had displayed in the hallway was gone, replaced by a strange determination in his face and body language. As someone who dealt with the worst of humanity on a nightly basis, Bruce knew how to handle a man such as this. There was only one thing they responded to: strength.

To his son's continued surprise, Vaniel didn't strike back in anger or spite. Instead he did something his son had rarely seen: he laughed. He laughed long and hard; laughed until it turned to into a ragged wet cough, forcing him to grab for the oxygen mask and take several large gasping breaths. After regaining his composure, he pulled the mask away from his mouth and spoke again.

"So you checked up on me?" he said, his voice a little hoarser after the coughing fit. "Good man. Smart man. I knew you were smarter than you let on."

"What can I do for you, Mr. Vaniel?" Bruce asked flatly.

"And straight down to business, too. I like that. So let's get right to it." He rolled his head over in his son's direction. "Davey, go wait outside. Mr. Wayne and I have a few private matters to discuss."

David's eyes went wide. "W-what?! But I thought…"

"You thought wrong, boy," Vaniel growled in his son's face. Hitching his thumb toward the door, he added, "Get going."

David turned to Bruce, a bewildered look on his face. "Mr. Wayne?"

Bruce softened his expression as he kept his eyes trained on the senior member of the family. "Mr. Vaniel, if David wants to stay, I have no problem with…"

"Well I do!" Vaniel hurled his spite in Bruce's direction, which returned the stolid expression to Bruce's face. "What I got to be sayin', my boy don't need hearin', capiche?"

The two men stared at each other in tense silence for a long moment. Bruce finally broke the silence, his eyes never leaving Edward Vaniel's. "It's okay, David. If your father wants to speak to me alone, then I'll be happy to oblige him."

David studied the sardonic look on Bruce's face for a few seconds, then finally got up and headed for the door. As he reached out for the door handle, he glanced back at the two of them, still locked eye to eye. "You're sure?"

"Yes," Bruce replied calmly at the exact same moment as Vaniel shouted "GET OUT!"

David slowly shook his head, shooting a last, scornful look at his father before opening the door and calmly walking out into the hall. He momentarily considered staying right outside the door in the hopes of overhearing something, but he knew he couldn't. His father would probably waste his last ounce of strength to get out of bed and kill him, but that wasn't what stopped him; it was Bruce Wayne. It would be flat out rude to betray the man who had put up with so much just because he'd asked. He hoped that whatever it was his father had to say was worth the time out of Wayne's busy schedule. So he walked over to the nurse's station, called his office once to check in, then waited patiently by the nurse's desk.

Ten minutes later, the door to Edward Vaniel's room flung open so hard that the door handle slammed against the inside wall of the room, causing more than a few nurses and patients to jump. Bruce Wayne came storming out into the hall, an angry expression etching his face.

No, it wasn't anger, David Vaniel realized as he hurried over to talk to him. It was rage. Pure, white-hot rage.

"M-Mr. Wayne?"

Wayne didn't answer, didn't even acknowledge David's existence. He stormed up the hall toward the elevators with long, determined strides. David raced up the hall after him, firing questions at his back. "Mr. Wayne? What happened?! What did he say?! Mr. Wayne!?"

But the answers never came. David skidded to a halt just outside the elevators as the doors started to close. The last thing he saw before the polished metal doors thunked closed in front of his nose was the expression on Bruce Wayne's face - an expression of absolute hatred that would haunt his nightmares for years to come.


Later that night, the Batmobile roared into the cave, coming to an abrupt, screeching halt on the giant turntable where it normally rested. Before the engine had even wound down, Batman stepped out of the car and marched to the main workstation, his face still locked in the mask of frozen hatred that Bruce Wayne wore earlier that afternoon.

"What the hell was that about?!" Nightwing exclaimed, following swiftly (although he waited for the passenger hatch to open completely before climbing out of the car).

Batman ignored him as he reached the main console and slid into the massive chair in front of it. Nightwing stormed up behind him.

"Hey! I'm serious! What the hell has gotten into you?!"

Batman's eyes stared intently at the screen as his fingers started tapping on console's keyboard. "What are you talking about?"

"What am I talking about?!" Nightwing repeated in disbelief. "The Riddler! What do you think I'm talking about?!"

"What about him?" Batman growled.

"Oh, I don't know," he replied sarcastically. "Don't you think you were a little… harsh on him?"

"No."

Nightwing's disbelief was quickly turning into exasperation. "Then do you mind telling me exactly what he did to deserve—"

"He tried to run," Batman responded nonchalantly, cutting him off.

"'Tried to run'?! Of course, he tried to run! He always tries to run. They ALL try to run. Hell, half the innocent victims you save from certain death try to run, Bruce!"

Batman grunted at the sound of his name, then replied as he kept typing. "And next time, The Riddler will think twice before running."

Nightwing's jaw dropped open further, then snapped shut as he reached out and grabbed Batman's shoulder, spinning him and the chair around to face him. "Well, that next time is going to be a long way off considering you broke both of his legs!"

For just an instant, there was a flicker in Batman's eyes, the briefest hint of… something deep within him. Nightwing saw it, but before he could figure out what it was, Batman swung his chair back around toward the monitor. "There were innocents in harm's way. I did what I had to do."

That should have been it. It was Batman's final declaration - the ultimate trump card whenever anyone questioned his tactics. Protection of the Innocents. And any means to that end were acceptable, short of murder.

That should have been it. And in years past, it would have been. Just a few short years ago, Nightwing—or rather, Dick Grayson—would have thrown his hands up and shouted "FINE!" or "Whatever!" before storming out of the cave, hopping into his mini-jet, and flying back to Titan's Tower to confer with Wally, Roy or Donna about what a flaming prick his former mentor had become. But that was years ago. He and Bruce had come so far since those days. They had finally gotten to that point of mutual acceptance, mutual understanding and, most importantly, mutual respect. They'd moved so far beyond the "I did what I had to do" crap.

That should have been it… except that Dick knew there was more to this whole argument than what was being said. There was something else going on in Bruce's head - something eating him up inside. He didn't know what it was but he knew the cause. And it finally registered what Dick had seen in that flicker in Bruce's eyes just moments before.

Pain.

Dick took a silent, deep breath, then reached up and removed the mask from his face. He stepped up behind Bruce slowly and spoke in a low, even tone.

"What happened at the meeting today?"

Batman's fingers froze for a half-second over the keys, then he started typing again. "Which meeting?"

He was being purposefully stubborn and Dick had to fight his impulse to get snide again. He knew it wouldn't help. "The meeting with the guy at the hospital," he said patiently.

This time, Batman's fingers stopped completely, frozen over the keys.

"Nothing."

"C'mon, Bruce," Dick replied softly. "It obviously wasn't 'nothing.' Alfred said everything started—"

"Alfred said?" Bruce snapped, and Dick knew he'd said the wrong thing. "Is that what this was?" Bruce asked harshly, turning his head slightly to glare back over his shoulder. "Is that why you just happened to show up tonight to go on patrol with me?"

"He was worried about you, Bruce."

"He worries too much." Batman turned back to the console.

"It seems to me he worries just the right amount, considering what happened tonight."

Batman simply grunted and started typing again.

"Seriously, Bruce. I've never seen you like that before. I've never seen you that vicious, even during Hell Mon—"

In one instantaneous motion, Batman spun the chair around and leapt to his feet, his face contorted in rage as he pointed into Nightwing's face and howled "Don't you fucking DARE bring them into this!!"

Nightwing recoiled like he'd been shot. He stared in absolute shock. In all of their years together, in all of the time Dick was growing up in the manor, through his training as Robin, his rebellious teens and defiant twenties, through all of the fights they'd had over the years… Dick had never, ever heard Bruce curse like that.

It wasn't like he was offended by it—he'd lived with Wally and Roy for far too long for a word like "fuck" to offend him. He'd even worked it into his own daily vocabulary once he'd left the manor. But coming out of Batman's mouth… coming out of Bruce's mouth that way…

This was worse than he or Alfred had ever imagined. For the first time in a long, long time, Dick was scared. Not scared of Bruce. Scared for Bruce.

Realizing that they'd both just been standing there staring at each other for several seconds, Dick finally spoke in a quiet, questioning voice. "Bruce?"

Batman suddenly deflated, the anger and rage washing away. He sat back down in his chair and spun back to the console like nothing had happened. Except, Dick noticed, this time he didn't start typing again. He just sat there in the chair, staring at the screen. Dick tried to control the heavy breaths he hadn't realized he'd been sucking in. He straightened himself up and slowly approached the back of Batman's chair. He reached out and gently placed a hand on Batman's shoulder. "Bruce?"

Under his hand, he felt the shoulders slump ever so slightly and Bruce's head bowed a fraction of an inch. Then, just as quickly, he stiffened again, sitting up straight.

"Edward Vaniel." Batman's voice was flat, almost mechanical.

"What?"

"The 'guy at the hospital.' His name is Edward Vaniel."

He tapped a few keys on the control panel and a large file popped up on the screen. He stood, glancing up at the file, and Dick stepped forward to stand next to him.

"Vaniel, Edward. a.k.a. 'Easy Eddie.' Career criminal with reputed mob ties…"

Dick listened intently as Batman droned on in a flat monotone. He knew Bruce well enough to see what was happening: whatever this was, it hurt immensely and Bruce was doing the one thing that came naturally in order to handle it - he switched into Detective mode. Viewing this like any other case was a way of sheltering himself. Dick wasn't sure where this was all leading, but he listened as Bruce rattled off the important details of the profile: life history, family history, criminal record - including the fact that Batman had been the one responsible for Vaniel's thirteen year incarceration… answers to all of the crucial questions, except one.

"So, why did he contact you?" Dick asked lightly.

"He's dying. Simultaneous lung and pancreatic cancer," Batman said dully. "His doctors say he's got less than a month." Then the tone changed. He glanced at Dick before continuing like a lecturing professor. "As you know, many terminally ill patients will spend some of their last days trying to either right the wrongs they feel were done to them in life, or trying to correct their mistakes."

"Revenge or Absolution," Dick confirmed. "Death's Double Whammy. So why would he… Wait. Don't tell me he knew who you were?! I mean, you said that Batman was the one who sent him up the river and—"

"No," Bruce interrupted with an eerie detachment. "Bruce Wayne is who he wanted. Not Batman."

"What did Bruce Wayne ever do to him?"

They stood in tense silence for a second before Batman finally responded.

"Eddie Vaniel wasn't looking for revenge on Bruce Wayne," he said simply.

"Absolution? For what?"

Bruce leaned forward and tapped a few keys on the console, bringing up a different file on the large screen.

"The one crime for which he was never caught."

Dick glanced up at the screen, his eyes widening in shock.

Casefile: 00000-001
Crime: Double Homicide
Victims: Wayne, Thomas Wayne, Martha
Assailant: UNKNOWN
Case Status: OPEN


...to be continued