Don't Fear the Joker
Chapter 10: Better than Cats
Bruce and Selina arrived separately at the Wayne Animal Sanctuary the morning of the opening. Selina wanted to slip in before any press arrived, while Bruce would make an entrance with a few hand-picked members of the Foundation board. The restored building had a small portico at the front entrance, and volunteers had already arrived to set up an ad hoc stage. Selina nodded as they explained their plan, placing stanchions at the base of the stairs so the media, shelter staff and onlookers could congregate at the bottom while Bruce and Lucius Fox said a few words from the top step before opening the doors.
It really was the best plan: giving the press a definite place to stand and a specific spot to point their cameras. The WAS Building itself was an admirable piece of Old Gotham architecture, but the construction on the street was an eyesore. It might not be the most gentrified avenue in Gotham, but it was much nicer than it looked with all those traffic cones, torn up sidewalks, mounds of gravel and stacks of cinder block lying around. It would be a shame if the press framed their shots with all that temporary dirt and muck in the picture, making this otherwise pleasant neighborhood look like a dump. Selina agreed it would be a shame, and she managed to ignore the implication that the "bad timing" (read: scheduling the opening and holding a press event when all this construction was going on) was somehow Bruce's fault.
Since she had time to kill, she sidestepped the construction and walked down the street in search of a coffee shop, diner or bodega. Her assignment was to bring coffee, juice and bottled water to the volunteers, a thoughtful, impromptu gesture from Bruce's girlfriend which would introduce a preemptive SmileX inhibitor into their systems.
Spotting a little storefront with one of those sidewalk blackboards out front advertising the daily specials, Selina headed towards it. Her crisp walk slowed, however, when she got closer. There was nothing unusual about the store, the blackboard, or the girl squatting down in front of it to write out the day's menu. It was the man standing over her that caught Selina's eye. The man who, from a distance, seemed to be correcting the girl's spelling…
Selina resumed walking towards them, masking her suspicion in a friendly smile.
"'Lina, you're here early."
"And you're here why?" she asked playfully.
"How could I miss the opening of the 'Sanity Can Weary' Manual?" The girl writing on the blackboard looked up at this bizarre turn of phrase, and Edward Nigma scowled down at her. "Get on with your own business. You're not being paid to eavesdrop," he said harshly.
"He means the Wayne Animal Sanctuary," Selina explained politely. "He likes anagrams."
"He likes Benjamin Franklin, dat's all I care about," the girl said in a thick Jamaican accent. She went inside, and Eddie smiled impishly.
"I paid her two hundred dollars to add something to the menu."
Selina glared at the sign with fraying patience. The smoothie of the day seemed improbable, so without bothering to work out the anagram, she took a guess:
"Peach and lime?"
"Maniac helped," Eddie nodded, assuming she had worked it out and pleased that his efforts were appreciated.
"You're the maniac?"
"I must be if I'm going to help you after the way you've been carrying on," he said, following her inside and then waiting while she made her purchase. He fell into easy step beside her as she walked back up the street, but waited until the drinks were delivered before he continued. "All those cat-crimes and then the banners for this place with the '5 mile' and the HA-HAs, you think I can see what you're up to?"
"You don't approve? I figured you'd be enjoying the cat crimewave almost as much as I am."
"You can't spell 'bait' without the 'I,' 'Lina. Know what you get when you try?"
They had resumed strolling down the street once Selina dropped off the drinks at the sanctuary, but she still gave him a cautionary stare before speaking.
"Not funny," she said simply.
"No, it's not. With I, Bat making speeches on the dais, he's not going to be much use to you when Smiling Jack shows up. So you must be planning to take him down yourself. You think you can get away with it because Ivy and Scarecrow have already gone after him, am I right? You're not a lone Rogue going white hat, you're one of three. Well, if I'm here too, then you're one of four."
Selina stopped mid-step, her scowl melting into a soft smile.
"You really are very sweet sometimes," she said softly.
"Nah, I'm just pissed after that game show stunt. Death by Stupidity, that really should have been mine. Clown gotta pay—an anagram for which is 'Long paw cat-toy,' by the way. That's a nice one to have in your back pocket today."
"Thank you," Selina said, accepting the gift for what it was, even though anagrams weren't her style.
Nightwing took his position in Times Square on the one roof where he couldn't be spotted by patrons in the Marriot's rotating restaurant. He wasn't thrilled about his assignment, but he understood the need. Joker was a perpetual wildcard, and there was always a chance that he would choose some target other than the one Batman picked for him. With Bruce Wayne hosting that event, Selina attending, and Tim and Cassie undercover as the animal shelter staff, somebody had to be present in the city, just in case.
When Joker did make his move at the shelter, it would be in front of TV cameras. Nightwing would see on the jumbotron and would make his way towards the action as fast as he could. On the way, he would spot any mass migration of vines or a posse of hatted drones headed in the same direction.
The news outlets wouldn't normally cover the opening of an animal shelter, but a personal appearance by Bruce Wayne was another matter. News vans serpentined the construction, and the print journalists who arrived early joked about the terrible puns that might ensue between the Ken and Barbie anchors: "There was an awful snarl at the opening of the Wayne Animal Sanctuary today, Ken, but it wasn't from a dog or a cat—it was the traffic."
The shelter staff were dropped off from a Foundation-owned SUV. Selina kept a sharp eye on Eddie when they arrived, but seeing no indications that he recognized Cassie, she slipped him a SmileX inhibitor and made a discreet exit.
Finally the limos appeared, clogging the already crowded street. Bruce Wayne's appearance brought the usual frenzy of shouted questions and flickering cameras. He ignored it all, figuring the press would have their fill by the end of the day.
Lucius Fox began with the usual opening remarks for events of this kind. He began with a brief history of the Wayne Foundation, during which, a rude fellow in the back seemed to be checking his watch…
Catwoman reached her position. The six story building next to the sanctuary made a purrfect cat-bird seat. From there, she could look down on the sanctuary roof, which was the only viable spot to launch an attack on those standing on the stage. The south corner in particular had the best angle to avoid hitting the edge of the portico when you jumped down…
Lucius made a brief mention of the original Wayne Animal Sanctuary on Jackson Street, its first pet adoption day, and how quickly it outgrew the location. The rude fellow began shaking his watch and holding it to his ear…
Catwoman's eyes narrowed as she looked down and saw a figure touching her toes, stretching out a leg and lunging from side-to-side, and finally, jogging in place. Harley Quinn was warming up before her attack…
Lucius was segueing to a few brief remarks about the historic building where they now stood, a fine piece of Old Gotham renovated for such a fine purpose, when the rude fellow started twirling his fingers like a show director signaling to wrap it up. "Not brief enough, Foxhound!" he called out. Lucius glanced at Bruce, who just shrugged.
"Well then, without further ado, let me introduce the man we're all here to see, the head of the Wayne Foundation, Bruce Wayne."
As Bruce moved to the microphone, there was a soft click and the light on its base switched from green to red. An experienced public speaker, he started to make the usual joke, signaling his good humor in the face of technical difficulties—when he was interrupted by a loud rumble that sounded like rolling thunder coming from the speakers. The strange noise silenced the crowd, but after a moment this ominous silence was broken by a trill of musical notes.
4 notes. Woodwinds. And a man in a scruffy cat costume emerged from the construction pit and struck a pose.
4 more notes sounded. It was a flute. And another cat-man with scruffy fur but elaborate make-up crawled up from a manhole.
A few more instruments got into the act—percussion drawing out the teasing feline trills as the next cat-henchmen appeared, and brass punctuating Harley's tumbling arrival from the roof.
In the crowd, Eddie closed his eyes and shook his head slowly, trying to block out the realization of the horror to come:
"Are you blind when you're born?" a disembodied voice sang.
"Can you see in the dark?"
"Would you look at a king?" "Would you sit on his throne?"
Joker and Cats…
"Can you say of your bite that it's worse than your bark?"
"Joker you horse's ass," Eddie grimaced.
"Because jellicles are and jellicles do.
Jellicles do and jellicles would.
Jellicles would and jellicles can.
Jellicles can and jellicles do."
The rest of the prologue from musical Cats was mercifully drowned out by cries and screams as the Jellicle Henchmen brandished Ginsu-knife claws at the crowd. The move held any would-be heroes in check while a goggle-wearing Harley spun Bruce into a choke hold and placed a vicious-looking stun gun to his throat.
Eddie's eyes widened at the spectacle. Not having any great affection for the victim, he cared nothing about the blue sparks sizzling on the end of the weapon. His only interest was in Selina's reaction, for the goggled-figure was certainly Harley Quinn, but she was no cat-imposter. The floppy harlequin ears hanging down on each side of her head and red and black scarf around her neck left no doubt at all about her intended identity. She was the inspiration for the Gotham Post's goggles: Aviator Snoopy. Restored to their canine source, the goggles had never looked less feline, and Eddie was wildly curious if Selina would appreciate the moment—since news cameras were clearly broadcasting the sight all over Gotham—or if her concern for that obnoxious Wayne would override her moment of triumph.
Unfortunately he couldn't see her reaction because she was nowhere to be seen. He craned his neck, looking past civilians holding up their cell phones to record their own pictures and video. He stood on his toes peering over the print photographers jostling for better angles without incurring the wrath of the henchmen. He hopped up and down, catching glimpses of the television cameras at the very front… No Selina. No Selina anywhere. The conniving hellcat had pulled a Bat-vanish!
Catwoman watched the proceedings with the icy detachment of a villainess. Wayne had picked this target and done everything possible to make himself the bullseye. The psychopath holding the stun gun to his neck was merely a sign that he'd succeeded. She wasn't there to cringe for Bruce or for Batman; she was there to see what happened next.
She saw. With Harley holding Bruce Wayne hostage, the Jellicle Henchmen herded the crowd inside the building. The heckler from the back removed his hat and trench coat to reveal Joker's usual purple tailcoat. Instead of the dress shirt and ascot underneath, he wore a vintage t-shirt reading "Faster, PUSSYCAT! KILL! KILL!" And he had augmented his usual white pallor with the painted noseleather, whisker spots and stripes of a Cats chorus extra.
He posed for a minute, modeling his new look for the cameras, while Bruce Wayne continued to squirm in Harley's grasp.
GCN broke into their regular "Mid-Day Newsroom" broadcast, Channel 6 preempted The Young and the Restless, and Channel 11 interrupted a rerun of Charmed. Anyone in Gotham within view of a television saw the scene unfolding inside the animal shelter: Joker apologized to "Brucie" for the theatrics—but assured him it really was for his own good in the long run. Then he backhanded him free of Harley and into a pyramid of cages stacked along the wall. He ordered Harley to the roof, and Aviator Snoopy Quinn gave a thumbs up, placed her hands on an invisible throttle, and made airplane noises as she steered herself out the door. "Mr. Bigglesworth!" Joker called, pulling Bruce off the floor. One of the henchmen—presumably Mr. Bigglesworth—rolled over an office chair from behind the reception desk. He tied Bruce to the chair with "cat gut twine," while Joker explained to the crowd why Harley would not be present for the rest of the festivities. It seemed the last time Joker "went out for a bit of fun," Nightwing had crashed the party. That would not occur again.
"No, no, no, that's a square knot," Joker cried, unable to tell the Nightwing story properly when Mr. Bigglesworth was making such a mess of things. "I said to make a cat's cradle! A cat's cradle made from cat gut, get it? HAHAHAHAHAAAAA—So anyway, Brucie, there I was at the flower show. Had all the hostages lined up, ready to have a little flora-fun with the orchid-lovin' loonies, just to pass the time until Batsy arrived. When who comes crashing through the ceiling? Was it Batman? No, it was not. It was Batman-Lite, that silly ass Nightwing. HAHAHAHA-NOT! Not what I had in mind, Brucie, but for prancing around the petunias, it did no real harm. Not so today. Today we must have the real thing. Only the one true Bat-creep will do, no bridge and tunnel substitutes."
Batman-Lite had left his position as soon as the news broke. He reached the shelter in under eight minutes and spotted Catwoman in position on the roof next door.
"We're clear," he announced as he landed next to her. "No vines on the way, no ice drifts, no crows, no marauding gangs carrying umbrellas or wearing hats."
"Good," Selina nodded, offering Nightwing a small phone-size viewscreen with more television coverage from inside the shelter.
"What station is this?" he asked, not recognizing the angle from the footage he'd seen on the jumbotron.
"None of them. B didn't want to rely on the news stations, so we've got our own hidden cameras and microphones installed."
"Figures," Nightwing grunted. "So what'd I miss? Took me almost ten minutes to get here from the square. What's Joker been doing?"
"Monologing," Catwoman said through clenched teeth.
"Mono… You mean spelling out his whole plan like in the movies?"
Selina took a deep breath. "Spelling it out like in the movies" implied coherence, a logical chain of thought linking one idea to the next which didn't really happen when Joker had an audience. But she breathed in deeply all the same, preparing to summarize the rambling psychotic mess of a master plan with the detached, slightly bored delivery of a secretary reading back a dictated letter:
"The problem with 'Catty' is all she does is steal stuff. Where's the funny? And wouldn't 'this whole cat-thing' be so much more hilarious if there were kitten grenades involved. Mew-mew-mew-kaboom. But the thing is, Catty is Bruce's girl. Joker may have had his fun with fear, twos, pigeons and plants, but when it comes to educating Catwoman on how to do the whole cat-thing properly, that honor really should go to Bruce—Bruce who has such a fantastic sense of humor to begin with, just look at his track record with the ladies. Everyone knows if you want to make time with the honeys, you've got to make 'em laugh. Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha.
"So we know Bruce has it in him, it's just a matter of getting it out, and that requires a Really Bad Day. To bring this about, Joker's taken these hostages and done it in front of TV cameras so Batsy is sure to see. Joker will then capture Batsy when he shows and plop him in a big cat cage. He will then set the cage on fire—again in front of the TV cameras, so this time Catty will see. Catty will show up to save him, yadda-yadda-yadda, Catty dumps Brucie for Batman, right there in front of Bruce (cause women are like that, ha-ha), which will turn Brucie into a magnificent Jokeresque villain with a grudge against cats…"
"Moment like that: life saved, debt of gratitude, guy with a square jaw, gal with big boobs… Hearts and flowers and fireworks, Brucie. Hearts and flowers and fireworks. You're gonna get your heart broken, my friend, shredded up by claws and batarangs. And then, then you'll understand. Then you will see the light, Brucie, HAHAHAHAHA! Kitten grenades for everybody! Why that company of yours, you can put them out by the thousands. An exploding kitten in every pot! … Eh, that's not quite right is it? Never mind, we'll work on the slogans later. Point is, Bruce, you've got resources. Why you could be the next Lex Luthor—but without the stupid Superman fixation. I mean he's so constipated. The Alien this and The Alien that…"
Edward Nigma was not one of those villains so blinded by hatred that he couldn't recognize and his enemy's talents. Watching Wayne's face as Joker expounded the Really Bad Day scenario, he couldn't help but admire his foe's acting. The transition from guileless bewilderment to incredulous horror, it really was an impressive performance.
One impressive performance deserved another, and Eddie had just about worked out how to perform with the two henchmen called Sylvester and Scratchy. He had been hanging back among the hostages, keeping as much distance as he could between himself and the henchmen. The other hostages probably thought he was a coward, but he was more afraid of being recognized than being filleted. Now he walked boldly up to the henchman called Scratchy and asked if it would be possible to use the toilet. He pointed helpfully towards the restroom door, and Scratchy agreed. When the episode concluded, Eddie thanked him for the simple courtesy:
"Thanks, Mr. Bigglesworth."
"I'm Scratchy," the henchman replied.
"Noooo," Eddie said, raising an eyebrow in disbelief. "Why you're the spitting image of Mr. Bigglesworth. Much more than these other guys. Look, I have some experience in this henchman naming business, and if Mr. Bigglesworth is one of the names on the table, it's simply criminal to award it to anyone else. Don't you agree?"
Eddie turned to the nearest hostage, who was a teenage girl in a polo shirt with the shelter name and logo embroidered on the pocket, obviously a member of the staff. She looked at him blankly, and boy about the same age in a matching shirt sprung to her rescue.
"Yes, absolutely. She agrees. So do I. Mr. Bigglesworth, definitely. It's the eyebrows. You have Mr. Bigglesworth's eyebrows."
"Really?" Eddie said in mock surprise, tilting his head to study the henchman's features better—but in reality pleased the kid was playing along so well. "Here I thought it was his chin."
"Nah, it's his ears," another hostage chimed in. "I would have said his forehead," added another. The debate built until, with a collective gasp, the group realized they were all correct. Every detail of the henchman's physical features matched the original. Scratchy did look just like Mr. Bigglesworth!
There was no doubt that Catwoman, the world's greatest cat burglar, could have snuck into the animal shelter without Nightwing distracting Harley. But since Quinn had gone to all the trouble to set up a Charlie Brown obstacle course for him, complete with a Snoopy-style dog house, a water bowl, bones, sticks, and a squadron of what appeared to be radio-controlled Woodstocks with hypodermic needle-beaks, he felt it would be rude to disappoint her. So he leapt down to the shelter roof, stomping the trip wire as he landed and causing a shrill air raid warning claxon to sound. The Woodstocks locked on to his location and chased him towards the dog house, while Catwoman climbed quietly down a drain pipe and made her way to the second floor ledge.
She inched her way to a window and saw the most revolting man-size cat-cage inside: 14-feet tall, with carpeted shelves on each side of the door, a water bowl the size of a small sink, and an oil drum covered in dense rope like an oversized scratching post. In case there was any doubt who the cage was meant for, there was a utility belt collar sitting on the shelf, just waiting to be fastened around the occupant's throat.
Catwoman shook her head, slid open the window and headed inside. She could hear bits and pieces of Joker's ranting downstairs: "Now put the camera right here. We're live, aren't we? Not that live-to-tape stuff, because that's just silly…"
All the television cameras were set up in a row, pointed at an open circle in front of the reception desk which Joker was treating as a stage. Bruce was now gagged as well as bound and rolled off to the side, so he would be visible in the camera shot but wouldn't pull focus from Joker's own performance. Joker waved happily at the camera, then gave it the finger, and then he pulled Tim Drake out of a group of hostages and dragged him before the cameras.
"Hello again, Gotham. Joker here. I'm coming to you live from Brucie Wayne's Pet Cemetery. Just take a look at this cute little guy. Had all his shots, well groomed, fresh from a flea dip. But sadly, if no one comes to pick him up soon, he'll have to be put down. You listening, Batsy? You out there? All these adorable doe-eyed hostages will all have to go in order to make room for some cuter captives. So what's keeping you! Scratchy, bring that cute little Asian piece up here, the one with the… Scratchy? Hang on, folks!"
The henchman Scratchy was squinting at his claws, studying his reflection in the largest blade. Eddie, who had been talking to him, quietly pointing out certain features of his appearance that Scratchy had never noticed before, now tapped him on the shoulder and pointed to Joker: it seemed like his boss wanted his attention. Joker repeated the order for Scratchy to bring "the cute little Asian piece" to the stage. As Scratchy pushed his way through the crowd of captives in search of the little Asian piece, there was a sharp thud-thud and he disappeared out of sight, like a swimmer pulled under by a swift and deadly undertow.
"Um, hello!" Joker called out. "We're on the air here. If there's a problem, solve it. Bring me someone cute and cuddly already. I got the Sarah McLachlan ditty all cued up."
A second thud-thud sounded, and Sylvester too was suddenly nowhere to be seen.
"Mr. Bigglesworth?" Joker called. "Oh, Mr. Bigglesworth!" Getting no answer, he turned to Tim. "Wait here." He started to step away from the camera and then thought the better of it. "No, that will never do. Leaving you all alone up here with all of Gotham watching. You better go and I'll wait here." Tim started to step away from the stage and, once again, Joker thought the better of it. He reached out and grabbed Tim's elbow, pulling him back towards the camera. "No that's wrong. I'LL go see what happened to Scratchy. You stay here. But look, Gotham is watching, so don't think you can just say any fool thing that comes into your head. Your line is 'I loved it. It was better than Cats. I'm going to see it again and again.' Got it? HAHAHAHA! Good."
A door was kicked open, and Catwoman vaulted into the room, pouncing on one henchman while another tasted whip. He fell backward into a third, who inexplicably felt his legs pulled out from under him by the same whip slash.
"Early! You're too early!" Joker cried. "Tranq her! Tranq her! She'll mess up everything! We haven't even got Batsy yet. Tranq her already. We've got no use for her until we've belled the Bat!"
Bruce had been rocking back and forth on his chair, and he finally succeeded in tipping it over. Joker and the remaining henchmen pulled elongated pistols and fired tranquilizer darts at the spot where Catwoman… had been standing. She wasn't there now, and as they looked around in confusion, she appeared behind Joker.
"Meow," she whispered.
He turned with a punch. She ducked and kicked him in the nuts. He fell to his knees, and she gave his cheek a slice with drugged claws.
"That was… much easier than expected," she said—as the remaining henchman raised his tranq gun to pistol whip her. He missed, smashing the butt of the gun into her shoulder instead of her head when Bruce's wild squirming in the overturned desk chair just happened to kick a metal wheelcover off the chair and into his achilles tendon.
Catwoman stumbled forward, thrown off balance but certainly conscious, and swung back to deliver a punitive punch into the henchman's gut. Since he had bent over from the blow to his ankle, she wound up punching the top of his head instead. It knocked him out, but she cried out louder than he did, grabbing her knuckles in pain.
"MMMPH MPH-KWFF," Bruce called from the floor—presumably a warning that Joker's toxin-saturated body chemistry would shrug off the sedative in her claws. Joker's hands thrust up from his prone position, like the final lunge of an axe-murderer in the final reel of a horror film, and clamped around her waist.
"Nut kicks not funny," he snarled, banging his head into her abs in what was surely the stupidest looking head-butt outside of an animated cartoon.
Catwoman grabbed a handful of his hair in her left hand and used it to pull his head backwards, away from her body. When she had enough room, she punched him in the face with her right—but once again cried out in pain as she shattered the knuckles a-new.
Joker was thrown backward but regrouped, remaining on all fours and growling like a rabid dog.
"You've got to be kidding me," she hissed.
"Hey, 'Lina, try this!" Eddie called, tossing her a…
"Dog catcher's net?" she said, examining the weapon.
Joker glared at it. Rose to his feet, and looked at Nigma with an expression of offended dignity.
"Now that is just insulting," he said coldly.
"Long paw cat-toy," Catwoman declared, as if each word was rich in meaning.
"Come again?" Joker said.
"Long. Paw. Cat. Toy," she repeated. "And I think I speak for all Rogues when I say that."
"She does!" Eddie called out.
"I don't follow," Joker said.
"Long paw," Catwoman said, slipping her whip from the holster again and caressing the leather as it uncoiled from the handle. "Cat toy," she continued, her eyes dancing with playful menace. "For the fear, for the birds, for the plants, for the ice, f—"
"For the riddles!" Eddie added.
"—And, of course, most especially, for the cats… NOT YOURS!" This with a whip slash to Joker's face that made him hop backward. "MUSTN'T TOUCH!" With another to his crotch—and another retreating hop. "WRONG TO TAKE." Slash-slash-slash. "Not yours. Mustn't touch. Wrong to take. Are we clear?"
"I said, ARE WE CLEAR?"
"I'm just tryin' to help you all find the funny," Joker said feebly.
"Oh, we found the fucking funny, Jack," she snarled. "I just said 'Not yours, mustn't touch, wrong to take.' You know who's laughing his ass off right now? Batman! You've got Scarecrow, Poison Ivy, Riddler, and me DOING HIS JOB FOR HIM! You don't think he's the kind of guy who'd find that hilarious?"
"Oops," Joker said, somehow managing a frown in the center of his perpetual grin.
"Oops," Selina echoed, pulling back with her whip handle and bopping him in the center of his forehead. He fell back with his head against the wall, but when he didn't go down, she did it again.
This time his eyes rolled, and he slid slowly down the wall.
The silence held for a long moment, the only sound was Catwoman's breathing, the unspent anger and exertion of the fight coming out in a series of huffing snorts. The moment should have been followed by a swelling of proud satisfaction, except the silence was broken by… applause. One person only, at first, quickly joined by the rest of the hostages. Catwoman turned slowly, her dread building degree-by-degree, until she saw Tim standing apart from the others in a half-circle of TV cameras. It was clear from the stupid grin on his face that he was the insufferable little monster who led the applause.
"I loved it," he recited dutifully. "It was better than Cats. I'm going to watch it again and again."
Bruce carried a bowl of ice into Selina's suite and set it down with all the gravity of a waiter at 21 presenting a bottle of Bollinger.
"Scarecrow could have waited," he said, while she laid a washcloth over the top cubes and then rested her hand on the icy surface.
"No, he couldn't."
"Because you wanted your payback now," he said with a lip-twitch.
"After all I've been through, I think I was entitled. Not 'we'll make it up to you on some on vague future date if the stars align just so.' Bad boy bleeds, right here and right now, that's what I needed to see before closing the book on this and moving on. But there was more to it than that and you know it. With Scarecrow up in Arkham tonight…"
"At the same time as Joker," Bruce agreed, the twitch giving way to a full smile. "Only one bed away in the infirmary…"
"Meow. And if you love me, you'll make sure the rest of them join him soon, before they forget they're mad at him."
"I'll do my best," Bruce said, bending down to kiss her cheek.
A long, not entirely comfortable silence followed. Then Bruce cleared his throat.
"You still want to leave it in the closet?"
"Me? I'm not the one who inhaled fear toxin," Bruce pointed out.
"No, but you're the one who's had a thorn in your paw since the Stradivarius— I think. Maybe the Lalique or the Ming vase, but I'm pretty sure you were cooking before that."
"You know what I mean. It was hiding under that Joker-indigestion look. Now he's out of the picture and viola." She removed her hand from the ice long enough for a ta-da gesture at his chin. "The Scowl that Ate Tokyo. Add the mask, we may as well be in the Crispin vault."
He grunted but said nothing more. His intent was to get her fear toxin episode out of the closet, not explore his own reaction to the Catwoman crime spree.
"You're upset that I enjoyed myself," she said frankly.
"No," he said instantly.
"I am not. Selina, I—"
"If not to me, then to yourself."
"Impossible woman," Bruce declared under his breath.
"Scowl that Ate Tokyo," she repeated, pointing to his chin, and then winced and rearranged the washcloth before setting her knuckles gently on the ice again.
"I may have thought, just for a few fleeting moments that first night at Mariopoulos's, that you fell back into your old habits rather quickly. I immediately checked that thought, since the break-ins were part of a strategy I initiated. I asked you to do it. I asked knowing that Catwoman was a consummate professional. It was only your choice of profession that was—"
"Judgmental jackass," Selina said reflexively.
"Less-than-laudable," Bruce concluded.
A second less-than-comfortable silence followed.
"So what's with the scowl?" Selina asked finally.
Bruce swallowed hard, and then regarded her with Batman's most piercing interrogative stare. "If we're cleaning out the closet, you first."
"Quid pro quo then?"
"Tit for tat."
"You know that silent intimidation thing doesn't work on me."
"Not the way it does on the others anyway."
"I'm not afraid of you, Bruce. I never have been."
".." The willful intensity behind the stare wavered, and Bruce heard himself taking a deep breath. "Now who's the liar?" he asked bluntly. "It was me you attacked at the hacienda. You only went after Joker when he was the biggest menace in your line of sight. But once I arrived…"
"Yeah, okay. Busted. It was you at the crux of my fear nightmare, but…"
"But not the avenging Dark Knight that strikes terror into criminals," Bruce prompted.
The smile Selina tried so suppress said it all. Not only did she not see him in those terms, she didn't really understand how anyone could. It was one of her peculiar blind spots.
"No, it wasn't 'the avenging Dark Knight,'" she said with a gentle emphasis. "Though I'm sure you'd prefer that."
She couldn't be more wrong. As infuriating as Batman had found those blind spots of hers over the years, this particular one had burrowed its way into his heart. He cherished it. However fierce his anger became, however ferocious his hate, Selina would never see it defining him. It didn't negate everything else he was and everything he could be. It was simply one not-very- significant part of the man she loved.
"So what was the context?" he asked.
"It's fear toxin, Bruce. It doesn't mean anything. Leave it in the closet."
"You're going to take it personally!"
"Yes! I probably am. When you scream that I think you're gullible and dumb and liken yourself to the demonspawn, yes, I'm afraid whatever is behind those words is something I am going to take very personally. So I am going to ask you just one more time, Catwoman, and this time, I want an answer. What was it you saw in the grip of that—"
"God, Bruce, I mentioned the spawn and you still can't figure it out? Or do you need to hear me say it, is that it?"
"I honestly have no idea what you're talking about," he said gravely.
"You're every bit as good a detective as your press says, Bruce. And, though it does feline pride no good to admit it, you know me very, very well. So if you can't figure it out, if you truly have no idea what I'm talking about, I have to believe it's because you don't want to. Christ… maybe even because there's a grain of truth in it."
Bruce stared, bewildered for a long, long minute. His heart pounded in his chest. He didn't like where this was going. Not one bit. Detective ability was hardly the point. Feline logic had always defied it, defied rational analysis, defied any attempts to classify, analyze or understand it.
"What I said to Joker, it wasn't just cover, Bruce. It wasn't a pose. I did your job today. I took on Joker, and before that I helped you fight Ra's and Jervis and even Eddie… And before this past week, I haven't broken into someplace for profit and come away with 'jewels that don't belong to me-grunt' since… since Tiffany's, I think."
"And you miss it," Bruce said quietly. "I know."
"It's not that, it's… God, you're really going to make me say it. Bruce, this ugly little corner inside of me can't help wondering if that's why you did it."
"If you took up with me romantically as leverage to shut down Catwoman."
"WHAT?" Bruce gasped, jumping to his feet as if he suddenly feared the chair might explode.
"Hey, it's not like you could catch me any other way," Selina said wryly.
"THAT'S your toxin nightmare?" Bruce yelled, nearly hyperventilating from the shock. "How could you possibly, how… how in a thousand years could you even conceive of… even feline logic, even…"
"It's fear gas, Bruce. Sense doesn't enter into it. What do you want from me? You wanted to know what I experienced and I told you."
"But HOW? How…"
"Some people are afraid of spiders, some people are afraid of ceiling fans."
"And you're afraid I told you my identity and moved you into my home and only pretended to love you as part of some crimefighting scheme to rid Gotham of a cat burglar?"
"I told you you'd take it personally," Selina said softly.
"If you think I would do that, that I would be capable of—"
"I don't. I didn't. The toxin did. Bruce, it's a chemical. It's just…"
Bruce took a deep breath.
"I wasn't going to tell you this," he said finally. "The 'Scowl that Ate Tokyo' was not because you enjoyed your 'cat crimes' a little too much this past week. It was because I did."
Selina could only stare. Nutmeg hopped onto the coffee table and began lapping at the melted ice. And Bruce decided the little unacknowledged fear in Selina's psyche that gave birth to that toxin episode must be eradicated entirely. He would wait until she tried to speak, and then he would pummel it as mercilessly as the worst criminal excrescence in Gotham.
"I…" she said finally.
"I am happier now than I have ever been in my life, Selina. And you are a big part of that. Our life together is a part of that. But I enjoyed this past week too. The adversarial thrill reminded me of how much I enjoyed the chase back then. 'Reminded' isn't even the appropriate term, because back then I would never admit it."
He paused just as he would pounding a thug, letting her just recover the power of speech—or try to, before delivering the crucial blow.
Nutmeg, having drunk her fill, now pawed at pellets of former ice cubes floating in the water.
"I—" Selina tried again.
"So please inform that 'ugly little corner inside of you,'" Bruce interrupted, "that the throwback of past week made me realize that I always did want you just as much as you wanted me. Going back to it was so charged—emotionally, sexually, and even physically—that it freaked me out a little. And the Scowl that Ate Tokyo was the result."
"Okay," Selina breathed weakly.
"Just okay?" Bruce said, arching an eyebrow.
"I mean meow."
Edward Nigma had not done anything as imprudent as driving his fist into a human skull or bruising his knuckles on a jawbone. He didn't need the soothing therapy of an ice bath. He needed a different form of therapy:
7-Across: Starts with a second.
It didn't fit. "Every man alone is sincere. At the entrance of a second person, hypocrisy begins." Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1841, the essay entitled Friendship. He needed three more letters. How could that be?
It was all Selina's fault. She caught this, this White Hat Disease from Batman and now she was a carrier. She'd infected him with Cape Plague, and it was high time he took steps to flush this Hero Phage from his system.
© 2010, Chris Dee
(Hm, that's an enigmatic title.)