A/N This is a one-shot written in response to SCREAMINGwhispers' challenge in the The Martial Arts of Batman Begins forum.

Challenge #1: Bruce vs. canon villain. Must contain the quote: "Pain is a great motivator, isn't it?"

Disclaimer This story was inspired by the movie Batman Begins. I have no legal right to any part of the Batman franchise.

Thank you to Texas Chigger, who did a fabulous job beta-ing this for me! (She wrote a lovely little challenge piece, too, so be sure to check it out when she gets it up.)


Police baffled by art thief

For two weeks, the city has been shocked by a series of daring robberies of artwork, including small paintings, rare ceramics, and historical jewelry. Despite the fact that six thefts have taken place in the last 13 days, the police have made no progress on the case. City Councilmember Jarvis McGinty, currently running against incumbent James Gordon for the office of police commissioner, blamed the GCPD's inefficiency on poor leadership and wasted resources.
"If the police spent less time consorting with vigilantes and more time upholding the law, maybe criminals would finally gain some fear of Gotham's justice," McGinty said.

That was why, for the past two nights, Batman had waited here, an alcove in the tiny museum of Gotham's only cathedral. Their collection of religious artifacts was rather unimpressive, with one exception – an emerald encrusted crucifix which had been the possession of Philip II of Spain. The church museum had a competent security system, but the relic was an easy mark compared to the other robberies. Batman was certain the mysterious thief would not be able to resist, so he waited patiently – just within sight of the lighted glass case. Laying traps for high class burglars was not his usual style; however, things on the streets had been quiet lately, and the charges leveled at Gordon called for exceptional measures.

The shadows cast by the dim security lights wavered, and all his senses snapped on full alert. He watched motionlessly as a slender figure slipped around the crucifix's elaborate case. As the thief turned, examining the display, the amber glow backlit the profile of a woman, dressed in a formfitting outfit with a peculiar hood. She shifted again so that her back was to him as she began tampering with the edge of the glass. He darted forward, swift and silent, intending to grab her before she even touched the crucifix. As his arms swept out for his prey, the thief melted to the floor and slithered sideways. His hands clutched air, and he barely stopped himself from crashing into the display case.

He regained his balance and spun, just in time to see the mysterious woman slip through the door that led to the nave. When he followed, he found the place lit only with a few guttering candles and apparently deserted. For a moment he hesitated, searching the shadowed pews, before he thought to look up, toward the choir loft that overhung the rear exits. The barest flicker of a moving darkness flashed across the balcony.

He flew up the long, narrow staircase, and found himself greeted with an open window – practically an engraved invitation. Peering out, he discovered that below the sill, a narrow ledge ran until it met the pitched edge of the roof. There was no other readily accessible route, but it was simple to drop down and work his way along the slender shelf until he could grab the eaves and pull himself up.

Before he had quite gained a firm footing on the tiles, the black end of a whip hissed through the air and snapped around his ankle. A strong jerk on the line toppled him to his knees on the steep incline, perilously close to the edge. The whip cracked through the air again, heading for his neck, but this time he was ready and caught the lash on his gauntleted arm. She relinquished her weapon without a struggle, using the precious second it took him to throw the whip over the edge to run up the incline. He sprang after her, but she moved like surefooted wind, and he didn't close the distance until she actually stopped some feet below the ridge and turned, apparently waiting for him.

Suspicious and half expecting some new ambush, he stopped about ten feet away and got his first full look at her in the moonlight. She was dressed in a tight, flexible black material which absorbed the light so that she seemed to be her own shadow. The center of her face, framed by the encircling hood, was smudged with a black substance, making it hard to distinguish her features. The cosmetics job, however, was incomplete, and he could tell that she was at least light skinned if not actually Caucasian. The hood itself was topped by oblong ears with rounded tips.

She startled him by speaking, in a low, breathy voice that nevertheless carried well through the night air. "I knew I would run in to you, sooner or later. You might almost say that I've been … anticipating it."

If she wanted to talk, he would oblige. Most criminals made their worst mistakes when they were preoccupied with their mouths. "Most people don't look forward to meeting me." He paced deliberately to the right, and she turned so that they continued to face each other.

"I hope you don't think I'm presumptuous, but I'd like to ask your opinion about something."

"Anything to oblige a lady," he answered ironically, coming to a stop.

"You're such a renowned expert on the subject – what do you think of my costume?"

Her tone was anxious with assumed naiveté, and despite himself, he felt a tinge of amusement. "Machine washable?" he asked as he resumed circling her.

"Dry clean only. But durable."

"Expensive," he sympathized, coming back to the place he had started from and beginning a second circle. "Why a cat?"

"Because it rhymes with bat," she cooed, wicked glee in her voice.

He reached the high point of his circle."So does rat," he growled as he lunged down. She was ready for him, blocking his attack with a force unexpected in such a slender body, and delivering a sharp kick to the back of his knee, throwing him off balance. He caught her arm as he stumbled, and for a moment they reeled together in a drunken waltz. She snapped a fast punch to his chin, and he pulled back, forced to loosen his grip. She darted just out of reach and stood watching him, her breath coming fast.

He fought the uneven rhythm of his own heart, which was quickening, not from exertion, but from a heady rush of adrenaline as reflexes he was rarely called on to use stirred into wakefulness.

"Isn't it nice to finally play with someone who's in your league?" she asked sweetly. "I think you must sometimes find life very boring."

"I manage to get up every morning." He closed in again, aiming a brutal blow at her jaw. She blocked it, but staggered with the weight, and only just barely twisted back out of range.

"Now let me see," she murmured, not standing still this time but prancing backward, up toward the ridge of the roof, "what did that sweet little editorial I read the other day say? 'We can only assume that our dark knight is filled with a driving sense of justice.'" She froze, cocking her head to one side. "Is that what gets you out of bed every morning, Batman? A driving sense of justice?" She leapt backward, again eluding his grasp. "Maybe it's justice," she conceded, quickening her retreat so that she was nearly at the peak. "But I don't think so. Shall I tell you what I think?"

"Would you stop if I said no?" They were on the ridge now, and the peak was topped with rounded tiles that made footing precarious.

She laughed, skipping backward as lightly as though she stood on level ground. "Of course not. It's a woman's right to speak her mind."

For a dizzying moment, he saw how the words they volleyed were woven into the dangerous pattern of their movements, lending an uneven music to the steps. This is not a dance, he harshly reminded himself.

Her tone as she continued was half taunting and half intensity. "What drives those like us, Batman? Justice? Justice is a fairy tale, told by the powerful to the people they exploit. We see through justice."

"You give me too much credit," he muttered as he stalked forward, wondering how much longer she would passively retreat.

"Not justice," she repeated. "Pain. We run, we fight, we do impossible things, all for a hope of escaping it. Yes, pain is a great motivator, isn't it?"

Her words, he knew, were meant to distract him, but something about the speech sounded disturbingly like truth. He fought back with mock amazement. "An aspiring philosopher? I thought you were just a thief."

She leapt forward, and he braced for an attack, but she whispered past him. It took him a second to realize that she had caught the edge of his cloak.

"When a cat catches a bat," she purred, "the wings are always the first to go." Shimmering metal appeared at the ends of her fingers - titanium claws.

He dove, pulling the fabric toward him, but it was too late. She spun into his move as though she expected it, and he felt the pull of her claws shredding the memory cloth. Her full weight cannoned into his chest, destroying his footing on the slippery ridge. He fell, tumbling helplessly over the tiles, his gloved hands scrabbling desperately for a hold as he hurtled toward the hundred foot drop.

His legs swung out over space, and then he found a grip on the edge of the roof. He dangled there for a moment to catch his breath, but the sound of tiles cracking beneath his weight forced him into action. With Herculean effort, he pulled himself back onto the roof as his handhold crumbled to nothing. Rising, he saw a shadowed silhouette approaching the far end of the roof andset out in pursuit, although there was scant chance he could catch her now.

This edge was complicated by the bell tower, the outside wall of which extended slightly beyond the roof, and by the time he had worked his way around one side of it to the brink, she had disappeared. He peered over anyway, hoping to discover her route of descent, and scowled in puzzlement at the sheer surface. Either she had a rope to let herself down, or…

She clung to the tower wall above him, a sheer drop of a hundred and thirty feet below her, and as he watched, she slithered through a long, narrow aperture in the stone. He silently drew back from the edge and looked up at his own side of the tower. There was a matching window, and he drew his grappling gun from his belt, shot, and soared upward.

She was waiting for him with her claws out, but he shielded his face with his gauntleted arms and plunged inside, his greater weight knocking her off balance. He landed on his feet and promptly discovered that it was only by the sheerest luck that he had - the floor was only a perilous crisscross of beams. Thick ropes descended into blackness, and above them, the enormous maws of the bells gaped wide.

His adversary was slowly picking herself up from where she had fallen across a beam, obviously favoring her right leg. This was it, then. There was no way that she could fight him on the precarious footing with an injured leg. But some animals, he thought grimly, struggle most fiercely when they're cornered.

She, however, seemed more resigned than fierce as she extended her arms for balance. "The triumph of justice?" she asked, wry humor in her tone.

And then the bells began to toll.

There were five of them, each cast on a different note, and the massive vibrations of sound swelled and battered against the tower walls until it felt as though the whole city shuddered at its foundations.

He cringed, his hands uselessly flying up to cover his ears as the waves assaulted him, penetrating his flesh like deadly radiation. The sound was a monstrous, living thing that invaded and expanded until he knew he would be shaken to death with its force. Dimly, as though through a haze, he saw his adversary writhe on her beam and fall, plunging into the darkness toward the oblivious bell ringers below.

Her fall brought a moment of clarity, and he staggered to the window. With just enough sense to attach his grappling hook to the sill, he half leaped and half fell toward the roof where he landed heavily and lay flat on his back, gasping. The bells were still loud, but not unbearable, and before this thought had even fully registered, they stopped. He realized that her body must have caused the disruption, and he felt sick. It was possible, of course, that she had survived the fall, but if her reflexes had been numbed in the same way his had, it wasn't likely.

He continued to lie prostrate, hearing slowly returning to his tortured ears. After a moment, it occurred to him to wonder why he was so disturbed by her fall. With alarm, he realized that he had enjoyed the combat on the roof. The cold rationale and detachment that were so vital to him had been infiltrated by subtle pleasure in the cool night, in wit and speed, in a lithe form that was not just an enemy but a match. Nice to finally play with someone in your league. Now that she was gone, he felt inexplicably haunted by the fragment of a vision – an impossible whisper, might have been.

He suddenly came back to himself, flopped down like a beached whale. Rising hastily and shaking the disturbing wisps from his mind, he crossed to the far end of the roof and reentered the church the same way he had left it, creeping through the choir loft window and shutting it silently behind him. The nave was still deserted, and he was beginning to wonder why there weren't any signs of a disturbance, when he caught the distant echo of raised voices. A minute's investigation revealed that they came from behind a closed door marked "Tower Entrance."

"I tell you, something big came down my rope!" a half hysterical voice was insisting. "It threw my rhythm completely off! And then it jumped right over my head!"

"Look, Bill, we all have a drink or two to get us through these nights, but I think you had one too many."

"I am not drunk! I know what I felt and I know what I saw!"

"Right, a giant black panther with glowing eyes, straight from the demon's lair. Bill, I think you've got bats … er … cats in your belfry." Roars of laughter greeted this witticism.

"I did not say it had glowing eyes!" What defense Bill was going to present next, Batman didn't care; he was running back along the length of the nave and through the door to the museum, where he skidded to a stop in front of the display case. The crucifix was gone, but the case was not empty: a sheet of paper lay centered on the velvet. When he picked it up, he saw that it was a page torn from a book. A few lines had been neatly highlighted.

"Call it what you like," said the Cat. "Do you play croquet with the Queen today?"
"I should like it very much," said Alice, "but I haven't been invited yet."
"You'll see me there," said the Cat.

He stood staring at the page, his usually disciplined mind in turmoil. Grim assessment of her capabilities struggled against fury at his own weakness. He filled his thoughts with violent self-castigation, using bitterness to deny a tiny, pulsing glow. Anticipation.


Note on the cathedral bells:

The neighborhood surrounding the Church of Our Blessed Lady of Peace has long suffered beneath the Gotham Historical Society's tradition of hand-ringing an old fashioned peal for every hour, in addition to tolling out the time. Numerous formal complaints have been made to the city council, but thus far, the Society has remained triumphant in its battle to maintain the cathedral's time-worn traditions.

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