Knight Before Christmas
You think mistletoe can be deadly? Stay away from those rum balls.
In the years he'd fought Catwoman, Batman had sometimes wondered what might happen if – if they got past the claws and the Batarangs, if they ended the pretense and admitted their feelings, if they somehow became a couple. They were the kind of fantasies that kept one warm on a freezing rooftop on a long stakeout in the middle of December: they involved champagne, roaring fires, and silk lingerie. His imagination never conceived anything like this bizarre piece of paper:
Harley Quinn cordially invites you
to a Christmas Part-ay
9:PM 'til the Fat Lady Sings
Secret Santa Puddin' via Joker-Cam Regrets Only
The invitation sat openly in the mail tray just inside the door of Selina's apartment, so Bruce assumed he was meant to see it. Consequently, when Selina emerged from her bedroom in a breathtaking new party dress, his very first words were: "Don't even think about declining that."
Selina's eyes narrowed and she hissed, "Thanks, I bought it special, it is a festive color isn't it."
"Sorry. The dress is very nice. Don't even think about declining that invitation from Harley."
That set the tone for their whispered banter throughout the evening.
The holiday season always meant more duty appearances for Bruce Wayne. In a typical year, the endless party-going put a strain on his patience. There were so many events; he had to pace himself. If he alienated his bimbo escorts at his usual rate, there wouldn't be enough to get him to the New Year. Also, many of these events were fundraisers where he was representing the Wayne Foundation to people shelling out thousands of dollars for their good works. He had far less license to act the idiot fop than at ordinary social functions. It made the whole ritual a great bore, and without the usual pressure valve of escaping into Batman at the end of the evening. The crime at this season was mostly the petty theft of desperate people and best left to the real police.
But this year, he didn't have to suffer a string of bimbos. He had Selina. And he discovered it was a whole new world attending these events with a real partner at his side, a cohort who found the whole thing as tedious as he did. Despite spending most of their professional lives on opposite sides, Selina shared his outlook on the world as these society women did not:
- It would be a crisis if the Guest of Honor was trapped in her embassy by rebel guerillas…
- It was not a crisis that she was trapped by the bandstand by Fred Brunn pitching his screenplay.
- It would be a crisis if Mr. Freeze turned the chandelier into a lethal rain of icicles like last year…
- It was not a crisis if the lobster mayonnaise curdled.
An hour into the first dinner-dance, Bruce and Selina had established a silent language of glares and glances that evolved into running commentary on their surroundings, dinner companions, and the inanities of social chitchat. It helped keep them both awake through endless parties that blurred into each other like so much curdled lobster mayonnaise. As the weeks progressed, the couple expanded the secret dialogue to include discussion and usually heated debates on some topic of no importance. On the night of the Wayne Foundation Snow Ball, that topic was the invitation to Harley Quinn's Christmas party.
In the receiving line, Selina made it clear that she loathed the Rogue mixers and went to as few as she possibly could.
Bruce countered that, since she'd had to defend her reputation once already this year from rumors that she'd reformed… er, "the R-word," that is… it wouldn't be such a bad idea to make more of an effort with the Rogues, and this was a perfect opportunity.
At supper, she tried to explain that it was not a perfect opportunity at all. Going out to a karaoke bar, maybe. But a party at Harley's home? It's not like anybody felt safe eating whatever food the whacko-miss served, so you had to bring something and keep an eye on it, making sure you only ate from that dish. All in all, it was too much trouble.
Bruce didn't care. He said he'd whip up a plate of Alfred's puff pastry.
With horror, Selina realized he wasn't just urging her to go, he fully expected to go along as her date!
By the time they reached the dance floor and could have a prolonged conversation instead of exchanging only two and three word snippets, Bruce – or rather Batman – was as determined as she'd ever seen him. She had two choices: she could go to the party with him, or she could go wearing a wire. But The Rogues Gallery Christmas party was something he had to see, up close and personal.
Bruce would later say he never made mistakes like this before Selina came into his life. Tim would say that Bruce was so used to fighting with her, he had to take the opposite position of whatever Selina advocated, even if, as in this case, ("Don't look at me like that, Bruce. It's true and you know it.") even if, as in this case, she happened to be right. Dick would say that Batman was used to walking into traps: the too-obvious clue led to the Ha-Hacienda, the Greenhouse, or the abandoned warehouse. While sometimes the villain would indeed be there, they were expecting company, and whether they were there or not, something nasty was always waiting. That knowledge never stopped him: in he'd walk, bold as brass, head held high, confident he could face whatever was waiting on the far side of that door.
Dick, it should be repeated, would say this later. Right now his head was fully occupied with walking into another kind of trap.
Bold as brass… he rang the doorbell.
Head held high… he struck a pose.
"Merry Christmas, Dickey." (Gulp.)
...and in he walked...
"Merry Christmas, Barbara."
...as confident as he could be that he could face what was waiting on the far side of that door.
As Bruce and Selina approached the door to the HA-HAcienda, the melodious sounds of 101 Strings play Danny Elfman was competing with The Chipmunks singing Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer. When the doorbell rang Dogs Barking Jingle Bells, Bruce stared at it in horror and Selina whispered, "Remember, this was your idea, Bright Eyes."
As they shed their coats, a very tipsy Roxy Rocket bounced up to Bruce, handed him an asparagus spear and said it was mistletoe. Then she kissed his cheek and mumbled an incomprehensible warning about loaded yellow cubes and an exploding fruitcake. Penguin came to collect her, explained that the punch was 600-proof (a hyperbole, surely) and the yellow cubes floating in it were Jello shots. Roxy called him an adorable birdie-wirdie (going beyond hyperbole into the land of incomprehensibility) and kissed his nose.
Penguin looked pleased. Bruce looked confused. And Selina looked ill.
She scanned the room warily. Croc was stationed near the food, Scarecrow at the Bar, and Poison Ivy was ticking off her hostess for having murdered a tree and decked out its dead body with lights and garlands. Behind Ivy stood Harvey Dent, looking as if he'd heard quite enough of the tree debate for one lifetime. He waved eagerly to Selina, and she and Bruce joined him at the punch bowl.
"It's blue," Selina observed dryly.
"And packs quite a wallop," Harvey told her. "We figure about 200-proof, and while we cannot bring ourselves to disapprove on technical grounds, we are drinking tap water. You saw Roxy?"
In answer, Bruce held up the asparagus spear.
"We lucked out this year," Harvey remarked, "Puddin' is still in Arkham." The sarcasm with which his former friend delivered the pet name reminded Bruce of just how much Harvey could liven up a bad party. Harvey pointed towards a TV monitor in the corner under a hand-painted sign that read JOKER-CAM.
"He's here in spirit only," Harvey assured them.
On the screen was the Joker's ever-grinning face, delivering a tirade: he hadn't had any eggnog, and if he didn't get some, he wouldn't read them all The Nightmare Before Christmas later. Harley immediately filled a cup and placed it next to the monitor. Edward Nigma strolled casually over to the monitor and slyly turned down the volume.
Harley joined the group at the punch bowl and Selina congratulated her on a good turnout this year. Harley said everyone who was free had been invited—except Hugo Strange. Strange was off the A-list, Harley announced grimly. "Never does anything. Comes to every single event, oozing slime, leering and drooling, hits on all the women, but does he ever commit a crime? No. He's a groupie, that's what he is. And he's off the A-lieee…"
Harley's tirade was interrupted by a pinch from Edward Nigma. He gave an innocent "who me" look as Harley squirmed off and restored the volume on the Joker-Cam.
"Good party," Nigma smiled to the others.
"Bad timing," Harvey chided him. "We were just finding out why Hugo Strange was blackballed."
"Don't think anybody's ever been blackballed before," Eddie answered.
"Well, except for Catman," Harvey smiled at Selina.
"Yes, except for him," Eddie concurred and also smiled at Selina.
"I make no apologies for that," Selina defended herself. "I don't like the guy; he doesn't like me. We're very frank about it. Word got around that you don't want both of us at the same party, and everybody picked me instead of him. Tough cookies."
By now, Mr. Freeze had snuck over to the Joker-Cam volume and turned it back down. Again, Harley noticed and restored it.
"Listen, pet, imitation is the highest form of flattery," Eddie argued. "If I went after everybody who ripped off my shtick: Cluemaster, Puzzler, Zodiac Master, I wouldn't have any time left for Batman!"
"Zodiac Master?" Two-Face sneered, "If it took you more than two minutes to finish off the whole bunch of them, you should turn in your keys."
"Seriously," Selina agreed, and even Bruce nodded. Riddler knock-offs. Of all the costumed criminals he'd faced, none seemed so suited to selling used cars in East Podunk.
Harley cleared her throat and announced that Mad Hatter had again rigged the Secret Santa drawing. There was general laughter at this, and Bruce gathered it was an annual tradition. While Harley made her announcement, Scarecrow moved stealthily towards the Joker-Cam, winked at the company from behind her back, and again cut the volume. The sudden quiet drew attention to some odd sounds emanating from the coatroom.
Karma, the principle that what goes around comes around, that good things come to those who help others but cosmic payback visits those who are selfish and hurtful. Karma is a tricky business. Dick would have thought he'd racked up enough of a positive balance in an average week as Nightwing to earn one perfect evening. This was to be it. He'd placed his order with the cosmos: tonight, it would happen. Tonight, he would show Barbara the most sublimely wonderful night of her life… and then he would pop the question. The cosmos owed him; Karma owed him. And tonight, he was calling in the marker.
They'd gotten as far as Merry Christmas, Dickey/Merry Christmas, Barbara.
He was just about to think "So far, so good" when the OraCom panel emitted a harsh, rude BRRRRRINNNNGGGGG, and a horrid light glowed red next to the channel labeled Watchtower.
Barbara gave him a "places to go, people to see" shrug and touched the panel before he could say "Pretend we just left."
They weren't out the door and already a setback. Where was Karma when you needed it?
Ivy joined the group and spoke, nodding her head towards the coatroom door and the odd sounds it was producing: "Not a pleasant thought, that."
"Now what?" Harvey asked without really wanting to know. He was spending too much of this night listening to Ivy's complaints.
"Penguin and Roxy – ulgh," Ivy answered, pointing at her uvula with a 'gag me' gesture.
"Gonna hate herself in the morning," Selina agreed.
"She is drunk," Eddie added.
Only Two-Face, who usually let Harvey take the wheel during social functions, was less than sympathetic about Roxy's plight. "Every office party, there's one. At City Hall, it was sweet Brenda O'Shea. Roxy's just that type to get tanked and Xerox her tush. And since we don't have a copy machine… Penguin."
The rest of the room was apparently discussing the same subject, for they heard Scarecrow in the circle behind them explaining, "She didn't know those yellow things in the punch were Jello shots."
And across the room, Mad Hatter, ever the gossip, was fleshing out the details: "Pengy was being nice, trying to take her keys, and one thing led to another…" This evoked a group-Ewww from his audience.
Selina reflected that every time Ed Nigma tried to be nice, he got beaten up. Pengy got lucky. There was no justice. Speaking of which, Bruce had disappeared…
"At this most joyous and sacred season of the year, which all peoples and cultures recognize, either through religious holidays like Christmas and Chanukah, or through Winter Festivals marking the Solstice, it is more than especially important that we take the time to reach out and embrace those who have attained a place of importance in our lives …"
It would be unfair to say Dick disliked Diana. She had, it's true, a tendency to harangue. She liked a soapbox. She liked to instruct her teammates on ways to improve themselves and had a disagreeable tendency to wrap up her message in an air of royal condescension. Superman could get away with the occasional speech-making because he had that Midwest butter-wouldn't-melt-in-his-mouth way about him. Bruce could pull off telling you the way things should be because… because there was no way to stop him. But Diana, Diana oozed this self-important sense of British colonialism… civilizing the savages…
It occurred to Dick that it was beginning to sound like he did dislike Diana quite a lot.
Possibly that was because the videofeed that began A Holiday Missive from Diana, Princess of Themyscira had been droning on for ten solid minutes, and there was no end in sight.
At his core, through going to live with Bruce at Wayne Manor, through Robin, through Nightwing, through becoming a policeman, Dick Grayson remained an easygoing, circus kid. That may be why he found the pretensions of Diana's Holiday Missive hard to take, but it also kept him from taking a house like Wayne Manor for granted. He had asked Bruce to "borrow the house" and asked Alfred to stage the most gloriously elegant, romantic evening imaginable, just as he'd done months ago for Bruce and Selina. The requests (and the obvious reason behind them) were the most wonderful Christmas gift either man could ask for, and Alfred especially went the extra mile devising the menu.
Pate de foie gras
Sole bonne femme
Croute decailles Pennyworth
The music was soft and unobtrusive. For once, Dick followed the tips Bruce gave him, which were delivered with the no-nonsense instructional tone used for combat training: Chitchat only through the pate course. No matter what happens, keep to light subjects, easy manner, like a Sunday in the park. Only with the arrival of the fish, may you turn the conversation to more serious matters such as mutual friends – but take care that the friends discussed are all happy couples. You're setting a tone…
Dick took a deep breath and began: "The last time Alfred made this, it was for Bruce and Selina, in the garden, when he gave her the cat–" when the tone was shattered by a sickly hacking noise. It was Barbara, trying to swallow, gesturing for him to put down his fork and… assuming an expression he hadn't seen since the day he spilled Diet Pepsi on her keyboard.
"Is this gelatin under the fish supposed to be so sweet?" she gasped finally.
"Sweet fish? I don't think so, I… oh my… god." He had taken a bite, and dove for his water glass. It was disgusting…
Selina put down the puff pastry and looked at Bruce with an unconcealed malice he hadn't seen since he kept her from the Van Deegan Emeralds.
"Darling," she began in tones that also echoed a time when sentences were punctuated with claws and blood, "when you cook, do you set out the ingredients beforehand in those little custard cups, like on cooking shows?"
He nodded again, cautiously.
"And, by some chance, were you both in the kitchen cooking at the same time today?"
They were. After the Thanksgiving fiasco, Bruce had again been banned from the kitchen. But Alfred made an exception that afternoon. Spirit of the season – forgiveness and goodwill – but supervised.
"And was there salt, was there supposed to be salt, in whatever Alfred was making?"
...to be continued...