Chapter 3: And this relates to the swordfish, how?

Selina and Barbara arrived at Wayne Manor hours before they were expected for dinner. Since Selina decided officially that Catwoman had stopped stealing, Barbara extended a few invitations: lunch, lectures, shopping, movie-dates. She didn't think they would ever be friends exactly, but she empathized. She'd had to completely reinvent herself and her role in the super-community, and do so alone – no confidantes, no role-models, no precedents. It was harder than it had to be. If Selina was facing the same thing… So she called and proposed that first lunch. She was amazed to learn that Selina didn't feel she was reinventing anything.

"What, you think Catwoman is just about theft? Or liking cats? Or mooning over Batman? You haven't been paying attention. I am Catwoman, Barbara. Me. Whatever I choose to do with my life, that's what Catwoman is. Hell, girl, making our own choices – and not defining ourselves by somebody else's idea of what we should be – that's what being modern liberated women is about." She paused to take a strawberry garnish from Barbara's aperitif as she admonished, "You should have had this in class."

Barbara was speechless. Fortunately Russ, their waiter, was not.

"Welcome to Café Satori, ladies. May I recommend the swordfish."

While Barbara tried to process the full implication of her companion's comments, Selina asked about the name of the restaurant.

"Satori is a Japanese word for a moment of intense revelation," Russ began, reciting from the plaque in the entrance, then he deviated abruptly from the formal explanation. "It's a kick in the head – a burst of insight that changes everything, or causes you to look at everything differently."

"And that relates to the swordfish, how?" Selina teased.

"It's served over Risotto Florentine," Russ answered bravely.

"Sold. What do you think, Barbara, up for having your life turned around by swordfish, Italian rice and spinach?"

Barbara gave an absent nod, then as the waiter left, she picked up where she'd left off: the subject of Selina's career change.

"But Steph and Cassie thought you'd be worried that you'd be weakened by this, that you're so much stronger on your own."

Selina smiled patiently.

"They're very young, aren't they. 'Me' as the source and center of all things, that's how infants think. Well, they'll grow up - one hopes. Come on, Barbara, you know better than this. How old are you?"

While she ducked that and the next six probing questions, Barbara realized the addition of another mature woman in the bat-family would not be at all amiss.

Stephanie and Cassie were indeed 'very young,' that much was evident by the ease with which Selina mocked their presumptuous analysis of her career change. "Growing weak," began the eerie parody of Superman struck by kryptonite, "Men in vicinity… can't… raise… hand… in… algebra… class."

Barbara smiled, making a mental note not to honk off the wit behind Cat-Tales.

Yes, Steph and Cassie were young. Huntress was not (and never would be) 'Bat-Family' if Barbara had anything to say about it. And Dinah… Well, Dinah wasn't exactly Bat-Family either. She was a free agent. Besides they'd long ago made a tacit agreement to keep their banter light: Playing Men of the JLA: Boxers or Briefs – yes; meaningful discussion of the role of women in the super-community – no.

Then again, a year ago Barbara never would have pegged Selina as one to give serious thought to such matters. But then, being smeared by the Gotham Post and having to create an off-Broadway show to set the record straight is probably apt to raise one's consciousness. Barbara was astonished, sitting in the refined and rarified atmosphere of Cafe Satori, to hear Selina openly allude to a topic that Bruce said was strictly verboten.

"Like that Miller book that said I'm a whore."

"Ex-cuse me?"

"F. Miller – Catwoman: An Unauthorized Biography. Don't tell me you never heard of it; it was on the best-seller list for six of the longest weeks of my life. Wish I'd had the Cat-Tales idea back then, damnit."

"But, but, Bruce said if we mentioned that for any reason you'd, like, go supernova or something."

Selina gave an odd, amused look.

"Really? Did he now. Interesting… Well anyway, you didn't bring it up; I did. And my point is this: I've been called a whore, orphan daughter of a drunken father, an abused wife, even an abused secretary once – always the product of male-oppression, you notice that? They have to have made Catwoman. Only way they can deal with the concept of a truly free woman - isn't it a hoot?

"You know what I'm really the product of? Selina Kyle. The whole package is MY creation, not theirs. My choice. I choose to steal, I choose not to steal. I choose to help the JLA… I choose Bruce. A truly free woman, and THEY CAN'T STAND IT – scares the living SHIT out of 'em. Why do you think they keep putting out all these demeaning stories? I'm a whore, I'm stupid, I'm weak-willed, I'm common, I'm in jail, I'm crazy. All 'cause they're scared out of their minds that a woman like me could exist naturally. Scarecrow's got it right. Fear, it's a real bitch."

An hour after Selina and Barbara arrived at the manor after their lunch date, Dick arrived from Bludhaven. It had taken six weeks to hammer out the new arrangement in which he'd come into Gotham one night a week for a 'family dinner' with Bruce, Barbara, & Selina and then patrol with Tim (determined as he was that this Robin would never feel cut loose as Jason Todd had been). And after that one night, the next six days belonged to Bludhaven, unequivocally, without any guilt, hassles or thoughts of divided loyalties.

It occurred to none of them that it took over a month of signals, stares, glares and mishaps to work out the details of this new arrangement - which any normal circle of people would have settled in minutes by simply talking to each other. Nevertheless, it was progress, of a sort, and Bruce was so proud he didn't even grunt (audibly) when Dick parked his Mazda too close to the Daimler.

30 minutes after Dick's arrival, Bruce returned from Wayne Enterprises. Both men were as confused as Alfred had been by Selina and Barbara's giddy behavior. They seemed to be talking in code and laughing at some private joke. When Selina rose to powder her nose, Barbara followed, leaving Bruce, Dick, and Alfred looking from one to the other. It was Dick who finally spoke the collective thought.

"Man, that was weird."

Bruce nodded. Alfred raised a discreet eyebrow.

"So what does it mean?" Dick asked.

"You're asking me?"

"You're the detective."

"That means I speak Womanese? No. You're the generation where your girl tells you what the hell's going on."

"If I may," Alfred interjected while clearing the table, "Ask them."

When the women returned, after an awkward minute during which Dick gave the old "after you" signal (four times) which Bruce pretended (four times) not to see, Barbara, who'd been sending similar (and similarly ignored) signals to Selina, finally spoke.

"The most exciting thing happened at lunch today."

Both women burst out laughing. Then Selina picked up the story.

"We met the sexiest man in Gotham City."

More laughter between the women. More bewildered stares between the men, who each thought they held that title in their respective lady's view.

"Ur," Dick began, just as Bruce said "Ehrm."

A round of indulgent smiles, then Selina said, "Sorry boys, you're second and third."

"A distant second and third," Barbara added viciously.

A long silence, until Bruce, or rather Batman, growled, "Well?"

"Woody Allen!" the women chimed in unison.

"The movie director?" Dick demanded, "Short, neurotic, middle-aged, balding, nasal, glasses, nerdy, hypochondriac?"

The auteur film-maker was the quintessential Gothamite, and his string of films about a short, brilliant, funny, Jewish, hyper-intellectual hypochondriacal Gothamite celebrated the City and its landmarks – as well as celebrating being a short, brilliant, Jewish, funny, hyper-intellectual, hypochondriacal Gothamite. Why women found him sexy was a mystery, but they did. Selina and Barbara were no exceptions.

With girlish excitement, they jointly told the story: how he had recognized Selina from Cat-Tales, introduced himself and offered Catwoman a cameo in his next picture. Of course he'd mentioned Batman and company in passing in his earlier movies - he even included a shot of the Batsignal shining over the night sky as an icon of the city - but that's all he could ever do because the hero wasn't exactly accessible for guest appearances. But now that Selina had outted herself, he couldn't resist. Could she possibly, possibly, please ask Batman if he would consider…

Selina and Barbara again burst into peals of laughter, and this time Dick joined in.

Later that night, the story of Woody Allen's attempt to secure a Batman cameo in his next movie would be told again. On the roof of the Engineering Building at Hudson University, Dick Grayson's alma mater and the Scarecrow's favorite target, Nightwing told Robin as they kept watch over the still campus. Robin did not find the story funny. It was unthinkable that Batman would consider appearing in a movie; that went without saying. But Robin still wished aloud that he would do it: "It would put an end to that Urban Legend crap once and for all, wouldn't it?"

He referred to the theory of one particularly strange newspaper, The Post Herald, that Batman was a myth created by the Police Department. The Joker was real, the Riddler, Clayface, Two-Face, Poison Ivy and Scarecrow. All the costumed criminals were known to be real – but the costumed hero who caught them – that was urban legend. The signal, the car, the supposed capture of all those Rogues – it was all an invention of the city to bamboozle the public at large - and maybe bring in some tourist dollars.

A few equally strange academics took up this idea, not as conspiracy theory, but on the simple principle that anything the great unwashed masses believe in must be wrong. If Batman was something the ignorant rabble knew to be true, then they, the toffee-nosed elite, knew better.

"Robin, you're talking about, like two dozen people, nationwide. You can't think Bruce gives a shit? Do you think anybody gives a shit?"

Robin gave a melodramatic sigh.

"I do, okay. Because one of those two-dozen people is my headmaster. Do you have any idea how many times in the last month I've been treated to snippets from that grand master treatise: Fugue Mythos of the Post-Millenium Metroscape: The Batman as Totemist Jessel of a Modern Myth?"

"The WHAT of the WHAT in the Wha?"

Tim repeated the title slowly and distinctly. His headmaster's treatise, printed first as an academic paper and then as an article in that loathsome newspaper, was an endless source of grief. Oscar Offred, or "Double-Zero" as his students referred to him, often reminded the young scholars of Brentwood Academy that the prep school was a feed into the country's top universities. He never added that he hoped it would open the same doors for him as it did its graduates. He hated teaching high school, even at an upper crust institution like Brentwood. He yearned for the prestige of a full professorship, tenure, and teaching assistants.

The paper, he was sure, was the key.

Nightwing rolled his eyes but before he could respond, his OraCom link beeped.

"'Wing, Robin – Batman's down. North Campus on the Mall – sounds like fear toxin"

By morning the worst was over. Bruce awoke from the nightmare delirium to a haggard-looking Selina stroking his hair.

The first time someone is exposed to the Scarecrow's toxin, they invariably hallucinate their greatest fear. While monumentally unpleasant, the experience can be cathartic, and after repeated exposures, exactly what an individual might hallucinate becomes more random.

The first time Batman was exposed, he saw Crime Alley. The second time, he saw Crime Alley. The third time: Dick shot by the Joker. Innocents slaughtered while he was powerless to help. Jason's tombstone. Ever since then the nightmare world was less … predictable.

The evening's earlier conversations had planted a seed in his mind: "It was awful," he murmured. "We were in a movie… Batman and Robin. There were these silly rubber suits… with nipples… and the city … my city was this dayglow Vegas acid trip… one-liners about my car… Oh, it was awful." His head slammed back against the pillow in disgust.

Selina patted his hand and soothed, "It's okay, Dorothy, you're back in Kansas now."

Bruce looked at her with wide eyes.

"And you were blonde and shallow, and Alfred let you into the Batcave without telling me."

Despite the hundred times Tim Drake sat in Mr. Offred's office conjuring up images of Joker lowering the headmaster, inch by inch, into a vat of piranha, of Poison Ivy's flytraps tearing him limb from limb, and Laurence Olivier as the Nazi dentist in Marathon Man drilling his teeth without Novocain, Robin didn't hesitate to pull the terrified schoolmaster off the ledge of Hudson U's Human Resource Tower.

It was ironic really: the paper debunking Batman had done its work. Offred had obtained a coveted interview at Hudson U on the very day the Scarecrow attacked the campus. Fleeing what he thought was his worst nightmare – a lynch mob of Brentwood Academy students with spider-legs driving him towards the open mouth of a giant lizard with the head of his ex-wife's alimony attorney – Offred fled to the ledge only to encounter his true nightmare: undeniable proof that Batman (or at least Robin) was real! For the young vigilante not only swung in from nowhere to save him from certain death, he deposited him safely on the ground, directly in front of the clicking cameras of the Gotham Times, Hudson Observer, and WHUB, the campus television station.

A short distance away, Barbara clicked her tongue in mock-sympathy as the camera zoomed in for a close-up and the caption appeared: O. Offred, author of Batman as Myth, saved by Robin.

Dick hung up the telephone.

"Selina says he's awake and he's fine – but apparently rubber, neon, nipples, and Las Vegas are on the 'do not mention' list for a while, whatever that means."

Barbara muted the television and turned to Dick pensively.

"It's happened to you too, hasn't it, the fear gas?"

"Yeah, long time ago. Why?"

"It creeps me out," she answered with a shudder. "The idea that… you take a breath and all of a sudden your worst fear is there in front of you."

"It's not always, you know, it varies, what you see. First time, yeah but—" he broke off at the horror of the memory, then continued. "But anyway, it's funny, the last time it happened, I flashed back to… it wasn't funny at the time mind you, but I flashed back to the day I got my driver's license. Bruce asked to see it, and I handed it to him – and he didn't give it back. He just walked off. I followed him - down to the cave (surprise, surprise). And he very nicely informs me that the DMV's standards are very different from his, and he'd be keeping that little piece of paper until I had completed the Bat-driving curriculum."

Barbara laughed happily at the story and the welcome change of subject – but that night, as Oracle logged on and began monitoring, she wasn't able to concentrate. Her mind kept returning to that nightmare thought: What would it be like? You take a breath, and you're suddenly living your worst

Involuntarily her hand moved to the armrest of the wheelchair.

What if you're already sitting in your worst nightmare?

Bruce got to wake up. Dick got to wake up. But when she woke up tomorrow the chair would still be there – and the next day and the next. It was a bitter thought. As was the realization that most of her thoughts about Bruce and the others were bitter now.

She was more than this, wasn't she? More than bitterness and hardness and self-pity.

There were worse fates, after all. She'd seen it in the hospital, she'd seen it in her support group. The paralysis could go up to her neck, like the Felpin boy. She might not be able to use her hands. Mrs. Tobas had had a stroke; she might not be able to speak.

It was a devastating thought. As she continued her online duties, Barbara felt numb as she realized: there were hallucinations she could imagine worse than her reality.

When she logged off, however, she rallied. As she got ready for bed, she grew angrier and angrier, as if it was something more tangible than her imagination threatening her with those fates.

"If it was my hands," she thought, "you can operate a computer by voice. And if I couldn't talk, they have those things that read eye movements. I will not be stopped no matter what – Scarecrow, Joker, any of 'em. Never. They won't get the satisfaction. NOT EVER."

Satisfied, mistaking her single-minded hatred for resolve, Barbara put out the light and went to sleep, dreaming happily of an Uber-Oracle, a Cyber-age Valkrye who found a digital workaround for any obstacle the grinning jackal might inflict on her.

She awoke in a cold sweat.

It wasn't fear of the Joker or Scarecrow or paralysis that was clutching her insides with a clammy nausea. It was Selina's words: "Catwoman is whatever I decide to do with my life." So what was Oracle? What it… was it JUST her response to what the Joker did to her? Was her whole life JUST about that? Because that wasn't being a hero - that wasn't even being a person.

That was the nightmare.

Oh god.

That was the nightmare. Not losing the use of her legs. Not losing it all.

Going from birth to death with this one event driving it all – no conscious choices, just reacting. That wasn't being human, it was being an animal.

Barbara let out a long breath. She saw the sunrise beginning to bleed through cracks of the Venetian blind.

"And I didn't even have to inhale fear toxin to lose a whole night's sleep to this," she thought bitterly.

You've got to be a person before you can be a hero.

Words to live by. It was worth a lost night's sleep.

©2001, Chris Dee

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The "R" Word
If a certain Gothamite has really reformed, there's bound to be fallout
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