Chapter 1: A Committee of Rogues
Gotham Times, October 12th
Hermoine's Society Chit-Chat
Tongues are wagging that the new brunette on Bruce Wayne's arm is none other than Is-She-or-Isn't-She Cat-Tales star Selina Kyle. Naughty-Naughty Bruce, you've been hiding this one. The couple was spotted enjoying a late-night supper at D'Annunzio's and are expected to cut the ribbon at the gala opening of the new Gotham Mythology Museum underwritten by the Wayne Foundation….
Harvey Dent read the blurb twice more. He couldn't quite believe it was still going on. It was four months since Selina mentioned a pair of cat pins were a gift from Bruce Wayne. Four months! In the years when they were friends, Bruce never stuck with a relationship for four weeks, let alone four months.
Pussycat's stringing him along good and proper,the Two-Face side of his personality sneered.
Not her style, the Harvey side defended his friend. Selina can steal for herself anything Bruce could buy her. If she's seeing him, must be 'cause she wants to.
No accounting for taste.
Two-Face was bitter. He wasn't capable of affectionate or romantic feelings, but it hadn't escaped his attention that Catwoman operated on both sides of the law and could play both sides against the middle. Duality. It would have made her a very suitable object for his attention, except that Harvey seemed to think of her as some kind of kid sister. He wouldn't let the thought form clearly enough to even propose a flip of the coin.
Harvey, the canker of goodness that blocked his every idea and impulse. The goody-goody was now defending his other friend:
Bruce isn't so bad.
Wayne's a wuss. Should be fun when he screws up and the fur starts to fly.
Harvey considered this.
It was a valid point. Selina was a lot to handle as a friend, let alone (god forbid) as a girlfriend. And Bruce was used to bimbos that would put up with anything from a billionaire playboy…
He had a thought.
It was a good thought.
NO FUCKING WAY !
Bruce was a friend of his, after all, and so was Selina. It'd be nice if they made each other happy.
HARVEY, I SAID NO. ARE YOU LISTENING YOU INSUFFERABLE DO-GOODER SACK OF SH-
Good side up.
Harvey smiled and Two-Face smashed the table into the wall.
Though he was dressed casually as Bruce Wayne, it was really Batman who sat at the workstation in the core of the Batcave, typing his final comments into the file on Ra's Al Ghul's unprecedented visit to Gotham City. His great enemy had left his seat of power and come onto the Batman's own turf, without a plan, without a hope, totally befuddled by his infatuation with Black Canary.
Analysis: Possibly Ra's status as my ultimate adversary derives more from his ambitions than his abilities.
With that, he saved and sealed the file, then punched in a code to pull up a list of criminals currently at large.
"Sir," Alfred began impassively. (How long had he been standing there, Bruce wondered, waiting for him to reach a stopping point? ) "There is a party of gentlemen wishing to see you upstairs."
"Thank you, Alfred."
"I had them wait in the study."
"Thank you, Alfred."
"I believe, sir, you should not keep them waiting long."
Bruce turned with some annoyance, and Alfred continued.
"A Mr. Tetch, A Mr. Nigma and a Mr. Dent, sir."
Bruce looked back at the monitor:
…: At Large :..
He looked back at Alfred, who offered no further comment.
Bruce Wayne entered the study without, for once, feeling the need to perform the role of Bruce Wayne in any way. He was perplexed as to why this committee of rogues should pay a call on him, and saw no reason to conceal it.
Harvey Dent, apparently elected spokesman of the group, smiled and shook his hand as if it had been days, rather than years, since they'd last spoken as friends.
"Hey Bruce, good to see you. This is Jervis and Eddie."
As they sat, Bruce acknowledged the introduction with a quasi-smile that showed he was no less perplexed than before.
"We, uh, saw this bit in the paper about you seeing Selina Kyle. Been going on for a while now, hasn't it."
Oh. My. God. Bruce thought, freezing his features as rigidly as if he was wearing the cowl. Then realizing that was perhaps an unwise face to present in this company, he relaxed it into the softer but equally uncommunicative expression he put on at business meetings.
Harvey continued. "We've all known Selina for quite some time and, well, since you and I are such old friends, we thought we'd come by and just, you know, fill you in on some things you should know."
"Harvey, I already know she's Catwoman."
"Oh, that, yeah, we figured she'd told you that, she sort of told the whole city… No, ah, we wanted to make sure you understood what all that means."
"Never mention that book," Nigma began.
"That unauthorized biography a few years ago, F. Miller, said she started out a hooker," Jervis Tetch explained.
"Right," Harvey completed the thought, "Don't make even a passing reference to that, even in fun. No matter how trivial the remark, or how obvious you think it is that you're joking or that everybody knows it's a pack of lies. Don't ever mention it."
"I learned that one the hard way," said Jervis, wincing at the memory.
"No pussy jokes," Harvey went on to the next item on the list.
"If she ever uses a phrase like 'Do that again and I'll set you on fire' - not an idle threat."
The trio chuckled among themselves at some private joke.
"Scarecrow learned that the hard way," Jervis explained.
"2nd of the month through the 6th is, ah, nature's special time. If you're going to cross her – which I wouldn't suggest under any circumstances – don't do it then unless you've got your affairs in order and your insurance paid up."
Batman would have to admit to a new respect dawning for the niche Catwoman had carved for herself in the Rogues Gallery. These were vicious, violent men. They each had more than a hundred pounds on her, they were not adverse to killing as she was. And yet she was not only accepted as an equal among them, she had established (and evidently enforced) ground rules for her acquaintance and friendship that they ignored at their peril. They accepted this, though god knows they wouldn't tolerate this treatment from any man, because she was… well, she was Catwoman. She'd somehow leveraged the supposed weakness of her gender into a very palpable advantage.
Edward Nigma was the only one to notice a wistful look flicker in Bruce's eyes, but he misread it as fear. This was, after all, a candy-ass rich boy and here they were giving him a list of DOs & DOn'ts to avoid catastrophic injuries with his new girlfriend. He offered a word of comfort.
"Anyway, she's a darling girl, a real sweetie. And next time you go out, you bring her to the Iceberg, that's Penguin's club downtown. I know it's not the sort of place a lot of respectable folks feel safe, but you're with Selina, you're part of the family now. Stop by the Iceberg, you won't have any trouble."
There was an uncomfortable silence.
Dent, Nigma and Tetch were all thinking of the last time Catwoman was seen at the Iceberg and with whom. It introduced a delicate subject, one they had discussed in the car, but hadn't reached a consensus about mentioning to Bruce.
Bruce was silent for a different reason. His mind froze up utterly on the phrase "you're part of the family now."
The silence went on as the trio of rogues looked at each other.
It went on too long to ignore.
They had to explain now what it was about. To simply stop talking for four solid minutes and never say why was worse than speaking the dreaded name…
"There is one more thing," Harvey began, looking to the others for last-minute inspiration. "About—"
"Don't ever ask about—"
"Don't ask what the deal is with her and—"
"-Batman," the three said in unison.
It's doubtful if even an actor of Bruce's skill would have been able to greet these words with the look of guileless confusion he now wore. But his brain was still firing on only one cylinder. He only heard the speculation (and meticulous deconstruction) of Batman's are-they-or-aren't-they relationship with Catwoman through a stunned haze of "You're part of the family now."
"She just plays with his head."
"I don't think so, Jervis, you've never seen it up close and personal. It's weird, they bicker like married people."
"You're part of the family now."
"He just wants to save her."
"Is that what they're calling it these days?"
"You're part of the family now."
"I'm not saying he doesn't want some, I'm saying he's not getting any."
"If you had an excuse to fight with her, you saying you wouldn't cop a feel or two?"
"With those claws - I'm a bleeder, man!"
"You're part of the family now."
THIS is what comes of lightening up, Batman's inner voice berated him. You smiled at her once. And THIS is what comes. Pretty soon you're slipping notes into picnic baskets, stopping by for coffee, talking to your reflection, cooking, and gaslighting the Joker instead of pummeling him - and THIS IS WHERE IT LEADS: Mad Hatter, Riddler and Two-Face sitting in your house, debating your chances of getting to second base.
The image of Ra's Al Ghul humiliating himself on a morning talk show came unbidden into Bruce's mind. This is what love could do to a formidable man's image. His own comments – dismissing Ra's as his ultimate adversary – because of his performance in the throes of a romantic infatuation.
"you're part of the family now…part of the family now…part of the family now"
"If I go patrol with Robin and come back in, say, two hours, is there any chance of my seeing something other than the back of your head then?"
"I'm sorry, 'Wing, Did you say something?" Oracle's eyes never left the computer screen and she continued to type through their conversation.
"I just wondered if I left and went on patrol, if you'd even notice before I blipped on your little tracking setup."
"Mhm. Setup. Should've seen that was a trap going in."
Dick paused and tried again.
"Helped a girl scout troupe change a tire, and they gave me a box of cookies."
"Cookies? On the counter next to the 'fridge. And bring me a glass of milk."
"So then I threw Poison Ivy down on the bed and made passionate love to her right in front of the flytrap."
"Oh hi, Barbara, hope I'm not interrupting. I just thought I'd drop in and say hi before going on patrol."
"I'm sorry, Dick. This is time-critical. Do you mind coming back later."
"Whacha doin' anyway." He looked over her shoulder at the cluster of monitors. She had four chat windows open on one screen, a bulletin board on another and several websites on a third.
For a second Dick thought she was answering his nonsense-speak about girl scouts and flytraps with a bit of her own, but then he saw the bulletin board, the chatrooms and one of the websites were all labeled Cloudmakers.
"It's a game, or it was, a promotion for the movie AI. Dozens of websites, hundreds of puzzles, that led you bit by bit through this very elaborate murder mystery set in the world of the movie."
"You're using roughly half a million dollars in computer equipment to play an Internet game."
"I'm not, you basketcase, the Cloudmakers are – or they were. See, this game and the puzzles were incredibly complex: There were clues hidden in chemical formulas, dead languages, the html code on the websites – live events in different cities going on at the same time. No one person could begin to solve it alone. This group, they formed a collective – called Cloudmakers – named for the boat of the guy who's murdered in the story. That was the point of the game: 'distributed biological processing,' a group of people working together, linked up like this over the internet, could outperform any artificial intelligence."
"Interesting, in an insanely geeky beam-me-up-Scotty way, but what's it got to do with you."
"The game's ended. And these people – these amazingly creative, number-crunching, puzzle-solving, hackers – are still linked up, have all their communication lines in place, their bulletin boards and websites. Their brains all charged up and no more puzzles to solve." Barbara's eyes glowed with inspiration as she said "I want to put them to work for me."
Dick's mouth fell open: It was a fantastically clever idea.
"And that's why I've gotta move now – get them onboard before they find something else to do or break up their little network."
Dick couldn't help it. He reached down and kissed her full on the mouth. He had the most fiendishly brilliant girl on planet earth and wanted every one in the universe to know it. But that had to wait because she had no time for him now and had already turned back to her monitors and there was the back of that brilliant, brilliant, wonderful, inspired head.
"Oh, before I go. Where's Bruce patrolling tonight?"
He was going to show off. He was to find Bruce and make it clear that Selina wasn't the only significant other with two brain cells to rub together.
It was a darker bat that entered the cave than had been seen there in many months.
I am the night… Bruce thought as he opened the costume vault.
I owe nothing to anyone or anything but their memory… he took off his belt.
I am the right hand of justice… He pulled off his sweater.
I am vengeance… he put on the chest plate.
I am the mission… he reached for the cowl.
I am… …in desperate need of a personality transplant… in his mind's ear, Catwoman's voice sounded from the stage of the Hijinx Playhouse nearly a year before.
Bruce looked down at the cowl in his hand as he said "And that's exactly what's you gave me, isn't it, Kitten."
"And is it so terrible," he imagined her asking, "having a personality?"
"That's not the point."
"Let's make it the point," the imaginary Selina insisted. "Is it so terrible being a real person when you're not wearing that mask."
Bruce sat the mask on the table and looked at it – reminded of a painting at Gotham Museum – Aristotle contemplating the Bust of Homer, one great mind deconstructing another.
Bruce was reacting emotionally to the scene in the study with the rogues. Changing into Batman meant putting emotion on hold and thinking it through rationally.
Emotions are a natural part of being human.
It's only a fool who pretends he doesn't have them. And only a fool who pretends they don't matter.
I am not a fool.
Excessive Emotion, on the other hand, is counterproductive.
Let emotions take over completely, mistakes follow.
Make an opponent angry, make them afraid, make them need to prove something, and the battle is won.
Emotions are a tool. Theirs and mine too.
I use the anger and the guilt and the pain and the fear.
I channel them through the mind and soul of Bruce Wayne and they come out the other side as Batman.
That was the answer! He needed his emotions to do what he did.
Bruce was so focused on this sudden insight, he didn't notice there was a part of him thinking of both Bruce Wayne and Batman simultaneously as "I."
I need my emotions to do what I do and that means I don't get to squander them in a tantrum before leaving the house.
I do not get to indulge in being Psycho-Bat.
We're going to do this calmly and rationally, let the feelings have their say, let intellect respond, then make the choice.
Like a hypnotist regressing a subject, he allowed his subconscious to introduce, little by little, his emotional reaction to the scene in the study.
They don't fear me, I've become a joke.
Do you really think the things they said about Batman and Catwoman are something new? That talk's been going on for years. It has nothing to do with loosening up. Next.
They don't fear me.
But they do. It's whistling in the cemetery. They make light of what they fear. That's how impotent little trolls express terror and dread.
This isn't about them. It's about me. I'm not about to give Riddler, Mad Hatter and Two-Face a vote on how I live my life.
But the changes…
…haven't harmed Gotham. In the past months, I've brought down Two-Face, Joker, and Ra's in record time, with less damage to life and property than usual. I haven't lost the edge.
I don't understand.
I don't understand.
You DO understand.
You're too smart to be Psycho-Bat for a sustained period. Too centered to be buffeted by things you're not aware of.
I still want to unleash holy hell on them.
That's fine. So consciously and deliberately, with malice aforethought even, unleash holy hell on Two-Face, Mad Hatter and Riddler.
They're going down tonight.
They're going down tonight.
Riddler first - extra kick in the ribs for "part of the family now."
Fair enough. But that's as far as it goes. Anything else?
It still hurts.
Outside the Stonybrook Warehouse, Nightwing caught up with Batman -or rather with the ragged, singed, bruised and bloodied mass of Ouch formerly known as Batman. His cowl was missing an ear, there were scorch marks on the chest plate, he limped, and the costume was torn and oozing blood in a way that could only mean the flesh beneath was torn and oozing blood.
No one but the former Robin could have beheld this sight and realized: this was a happy man.
He had unleashed holy hell, first against Riddler, then against Two-Face, and he had won.
Nightwing greeted his former partner in a way that would have been unthinkable six months before.
"Big-B! You started without me. Looks like I missed all the action."
Whoa, thought Dick, it's been a while since Bruce was monosyllabic.
"Looks like you'll have to completely replace the costume."
"Okeydokey… I was over at Oracle's just now and she's got this great idea to–"
"Anybody watching over your city while you're chasing Barbara's skirts?"
Dick reacted as though to a physical slap. What the hell? He started to reply that he didn't answer to Batman, that Bruce wouldn't let him be his own man, etc. etc. …when one of those sudden flashes of insight that strike between the eyes, struck between the eyes. He remembered, a few days earlier, Bruce and Selina playfully reenacting the exchanges they'd had a hundred times as Batman and Catwoman – and he realized, just like them, he had been a hamster on a wheel. He wasn't going to have this same fight again. He wasn't going to wail about Bruce being a dictatorial bully. He wasn't going to storm off yet again because Bruce wouldn't let him be his own man.
It wasn't like Bruce was completely wrong. He was in Gotham instead of Bludhaven. He was in Gotham yet again, because of Barbara. And Barbara was busy - doing her job. He had a job too. He should go home and do it.
"You're right," he said frankly, "And I have to be getting back."
Batman didn't react visibly to the unprecedented maturity of this response, but he noted it. In a year that saw Batman smile, Bruce Wayne cook, and Ra's Al Ghul appear on morning talk shows with his dog, what was one more miracle?
"Well. Okay then," Batman grunted.
"Can I borrow the Cessna?"
"Aw, c'mon, Dad, I'll fill the tank and wash it before I bring it back."
Batman watched from the roof of Selina Kyle's apartment as a sleek plane rose on the horizon near Wayne Manor, followed the river south, then veered east towards Bludhaven. If Dick was finally growing beyond the adolescent notion that manhood means you don't answer to anyone, he deserved the gesture.
He glanced down at Selina's terrace. Speaking of gestures… it was a long time since Catwoman had faced him in dark and dangerous mode… a very long time. It might be interesting to see how she'd react if…
"My god, you look like hell!"
Batman spun around, unused to be the one who's snuck up on. Catwoman surveyed him from head to toe, taking in the bloodied lip, the burn marks, the tears in the arms and legs of his costume.
He attempted to turn on the intense, brooding Psycho-Bat.
She cocked her head quizzically then pronounced: "And you're missing an ear."
She walked up to examine the peak of the cowl that was severed off.
He looked down at her, pouring on more brooding intensity.
She purred in his ear.
Then he remembered, this is why Psycho-Bat never worked with her. All of a sudden, the silence isn't a dangerous silence. It's an I don't know what to say cause there's a Catwoman purring in my ear silence, and that's just not intimidating. Needing to say something, anything, he did what he'd always done: murmured the first thing that came into his head. "What time do I pick you up for the ribbon cutting tomorrow night?"
...to be continued...