What's New Pussycat
Chapter 1: Rumor Mill
Bruce Wayne entered the Iceberg Lounge with a far less certain gait than usual. It was only three in the afternoon, but the fact that the notorious underworld watering hole was empty did nothing to make the experience of going there, out of costume but not with Selina, any less bizarre.
He couldn't have said with certainty why he had gone. When Sly, the only bartender Penguin managed to keep longer than three weeks or three brawls, had called asking him to drop in if he had a free half-hour, Bruce only said he'd try in order to be polite. He had no conscious intention of doing so. And yet he scheduled that lunch with Rodgers and Gonzales at a downtown restaurant that was quite nearby. While he didn't rush the meeting, neither had he lingered over coffee or hurried back to the office afterwards. Now he was there, sitting at the bar while Sly stacked glasses and explained his problem… Maybe that was it. Sly had a problem and, unlike another young man who shall remain nameless, Sly actually wanted Bruce's advice. That was worth rushing a meeting for, wasn't it?
Both Bruce Wayne and Batman knew the nature of Sly's problem already, for the Gotham rumor mill was a force unto itself. But Bruce let the boy tell it anyway: After a year of waiting, watching, and wanting, Sly had finally psyched himself up and asked Roxy Rocket for a date. He was thinking dinner and a movie, but her tastes ran more towards daredevil sex - on her rocket - balanced precariously on the summit of the Amusement Mile rollercoaster – trying to shake it into an uncontrolled fall.
Sly related this in spurts, for as he spoke, Oswald Cobblepot kept passing by, eying both men with disapproval. Oswald was not only Penguin, the owner of the Iceberg and therefore Sly's boss, but he was rumored to have had a one night stand with Roxy that she wished to forget and he didn't.
"I wouldn't put too much stock in anything he has to say," Oswald called over bitterly, "not after what he did to Harvey."
"You see how it is, Mr. Wayne," Sly whispered apologetically, "there's nobody else I can talk to about this. I'm just an ordinary guy that happened to fall for one of these luscious honeys. Supposed to be 'a dream come true,' right? So the rest of these guys, they're not exactly sympathetic. I hear them snickering 'We should all have such problems'. I know your advice to Mr. Dent was a disaster and all, but at least, going out with Miss Catwoman, you won't roll your eyes at my saying I have a real problem here. Mr. Wayne, she wants to go out again! What am I going to do? She still thinks my objection was 'not on a first date.' I couldn't make her understand I meant 'not on the railroad tracks!'"
Bruce was at a loss and said nothing, but a comment was made: Not by Oswald who had disappeared into his office. Not by Sly, now preparing a pitcher of bloody mary mix. But from a dark corner booth.
"HIC-eugh. I would like another Jacaniels, tenbarter. I mean, ohmystomach. I would like another Jabberwocktail, bartender….Nooo. JabberJack. Jack! I would like another Jack Daniels, please, bartender. HICmyhead!"
Bruce and Sly turned together to see Jervis Tetch rise unsteadily from the floor beneath the booth, focus on a patch of air between them, then walk towards it. As he got closer, he looked from one to the other, his confusion and the thumping in his head intensifying with each turn of the head. Then he said, "There are two of you. Thought I was seeing double."
Then he turned to Sly and repeated, "A Jack Daniels, if you please, said the Jabberwock to the guy behind the bar that pours the drinks."
"I'm sorry, Mr. Tetch," Sly apologized in that politely inflexible tone they all knew meant no deal if you begged, bellowed or pulled a M-16. "We're not open for another hour. And you exhausted your credit last night."
"Can you blame me?" Jervis wailed, looking from Sly to Bruce then back to Sly. "After what happened to me? After what I was subjected to! Was just having a nice little talk was all."
"What did happen, Mr. Tetch?" Sly asked, pouring the hungover Hatter a cup of coffee. "I never did work it out."
Jervis Tetch ignored the question, sipped the coffee, then appeared to have a better thought. He rummaged in his jacket for a small electronic wedge and eased it between his hat and his temple. Then he took out a small device like a pocket calculator, hit a few buttons, and sighed.
"Best hangover remedy in existence. Now, Sly, if you would, take this revolting concoction away and bring me another Jack Daniels."
Sly looked about to protest, when Penguin called over, "Pour him the drink. As long as he tells what happened."
"Well," a now lucid Jervis fell easily into the role of gossip, "We were simply sitting around discussing what might become of Poison Ivy now that Two-Face is out of the picture. Nigma pointed out that she seems to be working her way through the alphabet: Harley, Harvey, so next in rotation should be…"
"Hugo Strange," Penguin put in, too quickly, as if he'd perhaps thought this through already.
"Quite. Now you all know how Hugo perks up at the mention of his name," Jervis continued, "so no sooner does he overhear 'Hugo Strange is next,' and he comes up to the table, strutting. 'Next for what? Next to bring Gotham to its knees? Next to unseat Joker as Batman's greatest foe?' No, he finds out, next to plant petunias in Ivy's garden!"
Jervis paused, like an experienced gossipmonger, for everyone to get their snickers out of the way before he continued.
"So now Hugo's pissy. Victor Frieze speculated that, with all those internal poisons, when she got to Joker, she might give him a rash or turn his hair back to its original color. But then Hugo piped up, real sarcastic, 'Of course, according to your puerile little theories, Jonathan Crane would be next after that. Whatever will he do, I wonder, when his number is called,' snicker snicker."
"What did he mean by that?" Sly asked – which was lucky because Oswald and Bruce both wanted to know as well.
"You know Hugo," Jervis said, "when he gets his nose out of joint, he analyzes: Nobody's ever seen Crane with a girl, why no henchwench? 'Scarecrow doesn't lend itself to it,' Jonathan said. 'What about The Wizard of Oz,' Hugo asks, and he's on a roll now: Scarecrow could have a Dorothy. Hey yeah, and who played Dorothy – Judy Garland! Snicker-snicker. Jonathan had enough at this point and he said something – he said something I'd rather not repeat, cause this is a visual that sticks with you for a while, and I'm drinking to try and blot out. Okay?"
Bruce was pretty sure he knew what that visual was. Hugo Strange might have deduced that Bruce Wayne was Batman, but Batman knew something far more disturbing about Hugo: Hugo Strange had a mannequin fetish. Never 'til his dying day, Bruce reflected, would he forget bursting into Hugo's lair and finding him, dressed in a Halloween-store knockoff of his own Batman costume minus the cowl, with the cowl resting on an otherwise naked plastic woman.
So, Bruce deduced, somehow or other Jonathan Crane had seen what Batman saw. And last night, while the banter was flying, innuendo about Scarecrow and Judy Garland begat innuendo about Hugo Strange and the display window at Bloomingdale's. Hatter overheard and…
In a rare moment of empathy, Bruce slid 20 to Sly with a nod. Sly understood this to mean it was to reduce Jervis's tab. The visual did indeed stick with you for a while… Jack Daniels wasn't going to do it.
"Alfred, you wouldn't have believed it." Bruce was in the kitchen, feverishly rearranging lunchmeat, bread, cutting board, mustard and other sandwich-making necessities. "This is the most wanted list – dangerous, deadly criminals - and they're sitting around gossiping like old ladies, drinking like it's keg night at Sigma Alpha Phi, and hitting on women like… like it's keg night at Sigma Alpha Phi!"
"I'm not certain I understand, si—Would you possibly like me to prepare that sandwich for you, sir?"
In answer, Bruce merely slammed the breadknife against the cutting board, and Alfred winced for his kitchen.
"And the worst of it is, Batman still has to fight these guys. One of these days, I'm going to be in some alley, staring down Scarecrow, and I'm going to flash on him speculating if Poison Ivy and Ventriloquist get together, what will they do with the Scarface dummy!"
Alfred made no comment, but deftly removed the cutting board and handed Bruce two slices of bread. Then he offered a parallel.
"It occurs to me, sir, that the challenge Batman might face in that instance is not unlike that in my profession, when one is obliged to see one's employer in any number of… informal circumstances… and yet one is still obliged, when waiting on them later at table, to maintain a dignity in keeping with one's position."
Bruce rolled his eyes. This was hardly the response he wanted.
"Selina, this really isn't the response I was hoping for," Bruce complained.
Selina put her hand to her side, then her chest, then her mouth. With effort, she managed to contain her laughter.
"Scarface sitting on the bedpost, making color commentary, while Ventriloquist and Ivy get it on 'cause she's working her way through the alphabet'… Baby, what kind of response were you expecting?"
"I don't need to be hearing this kind of thing."
Selina shrugged, amused.
"So don't listen. Why'd you go to the Iceberg in the middle of the day anyway?"
"Sly asked me. The thing with Roxy that Black Canary mentioned."
"You mean that I told you. Unless there's something new; is there something new?" Selina asked eagerly.
"Oh, that's right. See, Nathan told Nightwing, Dick told you and he also told Barbara. Barbara told Dinah, you told me-Bruce, Dinah told me-Batman."
"And the ROGUES are such gossips, you say?"
Bruce rolled his eyes. This just wasn't the response he wanted.
"Batman, I'm telling you like I heard it," Robin managed through a mouth full of pizza.
Batman glowered when his sidekick arrived at the rooftop check in munching a cheese slice from Gino's, but he couldn't afford to do more. Tim's cooperation was too important right now, the only lifeline he had to Dick.
"I didn't hear anything about a date, I didn't hear anything about Sly," Robin was saying. "I don't even know who Sly is. I heard Roxy was making a play for Joker 'cause of how he slaps Harley around. Being Joker's girlfriend is a dangerous gig, and, you know, she likes the thrill of almost-dying."
"Then you heard wrong," Batman cut him off just as he would any other faulty report where he had superior information. "Roxy has not made a play for the Joker. But she might if she realized the danger factor, so do not repeat that story."
"Fine. Whatever. Who would I tell anyway? Steph's away for the summer."
"You talk to Dick," Batman noted quietly.
"Yeah, I do," he admitted, "but he won't go on talking to me if he thinks I'll turn around and tell you what's said. So don't ask me."
"Bro, I didn't tell him ANYTHING, I swear," Tim insisted, "But I couldn't very well stop him from talking, could I? Besides, what he had to say was – well, for Bruce, it was damn near an apology!"
"That he wasn't prepared to admit his behavior in the past was that of a dictatorial control freak. That I saw it that way, and someone who felt that earlier behavior was inappropriate and unsupportive should be able to see how this episode was completely different. How do you figure that is 'damn near an apology?'"
"Bullshit 'for Bruce!' Words mean the same thing coming from Bruce Wayne as they do from everybody else. If you mean 'I'm sorry the way I acted all those years ago makes this thing you're going through now more difficult,' then you say that. And if you say 'I'm not prepared to give an inch on anything I've ever said or done, but your perceptions are at fault here and you best adjust them,' then THAT'S what you're held accountable for saying."
"Now I'm sorry I told you," Tim moped.
"So why did you tell him?" Selina asked.
Tim held his hands to his forehead as he wailed, "I don't know! Because… Because I'm stuck in the middle of the Batman-Nightwing rematch and the paranoia is contagious! I had a short conversation with Bruce, I was juggling a pizza slice and a grappling hook, and afterwards… well, I wasn't completely sure I had muted the OraCom. So on the off chance that Barbara might have overheard…"
"You covered your tail," Selina nodded appreciatively. "You went to Dick and said 'in the interests of full-disclosure,' I had this talk with B… A preemptive strike, nice move, Short Stuff."
"Well, it backfired! All it did was bring out Dick's inner Bruce: 'I'm not the one being unreasonable, he's being a stubborn fathead.' Selina, they're driving me nuts! Last night, I needed to hit something so bad, I followed Riddler for six hours. But he wouldn't do anything criminal! You know where he went?"
"All night coffee shop at a Barnes & Noble in Chelsea."
Tim's mouth dropped open.
"It's a long story," Selina laughed.
"As long as it's a long story in which no one, at any point, will utter the phrase 'my city' or 'be my own man,' I got time!"
Laughing harder, Selina gave a summary report:
"Eddie has a new girl. She works at the Barnes & Noble in Chelsea."
"She works? Y'mean, like a job?"
Selina nodded, sadly.
"I know; it will never work. 'People like us' and 'normals.' But you can't tell Eddie that. Certainly I can't tell him that while I'm seeing Bruce Wayne, now can I? Besides, as far as Eddie's concerned, she's no ordinary girl. She does the Times crossword in ink."
Tim leaned forward to hear more, his Dick-Bruce frustrations forgotten.
"So that's how they met," Robin now repeated the story Tim heard earlier, "She's behind the counter, doing this crossword, in ink – he does them upside down, by the way."
"UPSIDE DOWN!" Black Canary exclaimed, "What kind of freak of nature, oh never mind!"
"Anyway, so she's stuck," Robin continued without a pause. "Six-letter word for preserved arachnid. Riddler looks down and says 'scarab.' Strike up the violins."
Black Canary laughed merrily.
..: Dinah, that's too funny, :.. Barbara laughed into the OraCom.
:Oh, but wait, there's more. Seems the lady has no interest in being a Query or an Echo or whatever else he calls 'em.:
..: E-gad, she won't wear a question mark? She won't be a henchwench!:..
:Can you believe it! And it's killing him because he's so impressive in the field.:
..: He is?? :..
:Work with me, Barb: Dinah said testily, : I'm just telling it how Tim says Selina told it. :
..: So Puzzleboy thinks he's impressive in the field and he's whining cause the new girl won't see him there?:..
:You got it.:
..: That's too weird.:..
:Not to change the subject, but how's Dick doing? Tim said he was awfully…:
"…narrow-minded, inflexible and obsessively stubborn."
Selina and Jim Gordon stared in awed fascination as Bruce went on, oblivious to the irony.
"And moody. He's gotten so moody."
Selina rose and excused herself from the table. In the hallway, she ran into Alfred.
"Moody! He says DICK is narrow-minded, inflexible, obsessively stubborn and moody! I need a drink; I need it now."
"Master Bruce is most acutely disappointed, Miss," Alfred demurred. "He had hoped inviting the former commissioner to 'family dinner' might persuade Master Dick and his wife to attend."
"Believe me, Alfred, I know. I know he's going through stuff, and that is the only reason I am standing out here right now instead of in there, reprising the act-one monologue from Cat-Tales."
Meanwhile in the dining room, a trapped Jim Gordon was wracking his brain for a new topic of conversation.
"Renee Montoya was approached to run for that open spot on the City Council," he managed finally.
He meant well. He really did. It was a change of subject, a little gossip. Renee Montoya. How could he know the spot on the council was only vacated because Brian Everwood was a puppet of Ra's Al Ghul, forced to resign when Batman brought down the operation that caused this rift with Dick in the first place.
Bruce's growling dropped an octave, which Jim had never seen happen outside the cowl. It was interesting – but not conducive to the digestion. When Selina returned to the dining room, she found Bruce alone.
"Gordon left?" she asked.
"Some excuse about getting up early to clean out his basement. Your fault, Kitten. You made him uncomfortable."
"What with my being so obsessively moody?"
"And she scores!" Dick cheered. "Two points, Selina!"
Selina gave an 'oh please' scowl.
"Then, let me guess," Dick went on, "You said 'with my being so obsessively moody' and he took the hit exactly like he always does: hostile stare, growl, harrumph, and goes on patrol."
"He is what he is, Dick; you can't take it to heart so much. He wants to be disapproving and judgmental for a while. It's just one of those things. You gotta let it roll off your back."
Dick gave a hostile stare, growled, harrumphed.
"You know what his latest beef with me is?" Selina continued. "He made a log entry last week: 'Currently at large: Ivy, Scarecrow, Hatter, Harvey and Eddie.' He writes Harvey instead of Two-Face, and Eddie instead of Riddler, and this is my fault cause they're my 'pets' among the rogues."
"See, that's what I mean, that's just SO TYPICAL! What he does is your fault. Somebody else is always to blame, somebody else is always the problem."
"C'mon, Kiddo, one of you has to be the bigger man here, and history tells us it's not going to be him."
Dick growled again, harrumphed again, and left the room. Selina turned to Barbara, who was at her workstation, too immersed in the flickering monitors to listen to the conversation. Selina finished her tea in a swallow and gathered her things to leave when, after a moment, Nightwing emerged from the bedroom and headed for the window. "Going out" was his only comment.
Almost as soon as he'd left, the there was a static buzz from the desktop speaker and Batman's voice rang out clearly:
:Odd that the OraCom is functioning, since Oracle herself has obviously been kidnapped.:
Selina shook her head sadly while she watched Barbara reposition her headset mic.
"Come again, Boss?" she said calmly.
:Oracle?: the deep voice dripped with uncharacteristic sarcasm :Impossible. When Barbara and Dick failed to show up for family dinner, I naturally assumed there was some sort of dire emergency keeping you away.:
"Oh, for pity sake," Selina muttered to no one in particular.
There was a long silence, then Barbara said, "There's some static on the channel, Boss. I didn't quite get that."
"No, no, no," Selina erupted, "Don't let him off the hook like that. This is fucking ridiculous. He's out there watching, he waited for 'Wing to leave, and now he pulls this shit. Barbara, I mean it, don't let him get away with that."
Barbara stared at Selina like she was speaking in Swedish.
"Boss, there's a 9-14 on 12th street. This early in the night it's probably a false alarm, but it is electronics store and since Mad Hatter is at large…"
:Check. Batman out.:
"Damnit, Barbara, what did I just say!" Selina demanded.
"Selina, what do you expect me to do? It's between the two of them."
"Is this what everybody did last time? Just stand by and watch while the pair of them self-destruct?"
"Selina, why is this bothering you so much? I mean, I'm not exactly happy about it. I love 'em both and they're hurting. But, look, it has happened before. This is actually the norm for those two. The couple months of peace we've had was the anomaly."
"I can't accept that."
"I can see that. What I'm saying is: Why not?"
Selina thought about that for a long moment, then she rummaged in her handbag and scribbled on a notepad.
"Give me half an hour," she said, "then tell 'Wing to investigate a break-in at this address."
Nightwing approached the South Mall expecting to find the supposed break-in was either rats in the outdated alarm system, or the work of the stupidest smalltimer to ever force a deadbolt with a credit card.
From the day it was built, the South Mall was a white elephant. In a city like Gotham, the idea of clustering chain stores under one roof was ludicrous. Adding a food court, an arcade, and a multiplex didn't help in a city where food and amusements are everywhere.
Still, Dick did recall fondly one particular night when the mall was new. An alarm had sounded, like now. Batman and Robin responded. And they encountered Catwoman.
He didn't understand then why the confrontation seemed different from those with other criminals. Batman always challenged the perps, and they always denied doing anything criminal. But Catwoman – Catwoman was insulted! The sort of merchandise in a shopping mall, a SHOPPING MALL! It was beneath her! Oh, she didn't deny being a thief. But she was a world class thief, and this was a measly shopping mall!
"Then what are you doing here," Batman had graveled.
"Maybe I followed you," she purred.
And then Batman sent him to "find some evidence."
Yeah, in an empty parking lot at three in the morning, Robin set out to "find some evidence."
Instead, he found Batgirl. Robin and Batgirl had such an adventure that night. By dawn, they had apprehended the real burglars and commemorated the event with a silly reel of photos from one of those booths. More importantly, they laid the foundations for a partnership and a friendship that… that lasted through… everything. All the turmoil of growing up. Revealing identities. Falling in love. Even getting married. Dick couldn't help but realize as his thoughts returned to the present: the partnership forged that night turned out to be more resilient than the one between Batman and Robin.
The revelation would have hurt had its impact not been undercut by blind shock. For as Nightwing reached the roof, he was met with the sight of Catwoman, stretched out, legs crossed, one knee bobbing playfully over the other. On the bouncing leg, just at the ankle, hung a diamond necklace, wrapped twice and fastened, like an anklet.
"C'mon, Selina, what gives?" Nightwing blurted, not realizing until he heard himself how young he sounded.
She said nothing. Just raised an eyebrow, and bounced the foot at him.
"This place was beneath you years ago when it was new," he complained.
"True," she conceded. "And thank you for noticing. That little observation eluded him, as I recall."
"Yes. It did."
"See, there are one or two areas where you're just naturally better than him, without even trying," she purred. "But don't tell him I said so." Then she winked. "For example, you don't piss me off 1/10th as much as he does."
"Is that why we're here," Nightwing asked. Then he knelt, grabbing hold of the bouncing leg and undoing the clasp on the necklace. "So you can massage my poor shattered ego? Selina, I get that at home! Barbara's being so sweet and supportive it's killing me! If she'd at least tease me, it might not feel like – like I FUCKED UP so bad. Dinah baked me brownies; did you hear about that? And now I get a pep talk from Catwoman!"
He started playing with the necklace as he continued. "Instead of being so nice, why don't you come out and say it: Richard, you were played like a fiddle by Ra's al Ghul. I cannot believe you were so stupid as to be made a fool of by the flyweight hairdo."
"Oh shit," Catwoman said softly, "'Wing, you can't possibly think that's how I look at this, can you?"
"I don't know why not. That's how I see it. Selina, I – I've said it myself a hundred times: what kind of self-deluded imbecile do you have to be to let that demon crowd string you along? Now it turns out, I'm a bigger fool than Bruce ever was and I—"
"Okay, remember when I said you don't piss me off 1/10th as much as he does? I take it back."
Her comment was playful, but Nightwing looked at her seriously.
"You ain't heard nothing yet. Look, Selina, I don't know how much you heard about what was said that day, when Bruce told me about Nathan and Brian Everwood. One minute, I'm sitting there the master of my own fate, having built something that's going to be important in the fight for Gotham. And the next, Bruce waltzes in and says Grayson Associates is just a tool Ra's al Ghul manipulated me into creating for his own purposes."
"And you were – understandably – very upset."
"Yes. Yes, I was 'upset'. Especially with it coming from Bruce that way. And I said… Selina, I something awful. I took a cheap shot. I said, 'being played for a fool by the demon crowd and not knowing it. Gee, where have we heard that before?'"
"Alright. Now I definitely take it back that you don't piss me off as much as he does. But Richard, so what? You piss me off, you think I'm going to spend the next ten years nursing a grudge over it?"
"Seems like you're more than a little mad at yourself too. Are YOU going to spend the next ten years feeding this into some massive inferiority complex, or are you going to cut yourself a break and move on?"
"Well," he stopped and laughed, "when you put it that way, no. I'll move on. Eventually."
"Okay, then. I'm going to forgive you. You're going to forgive you. What do you think the chances are that Bruce can manage the same thing. I mean, he does have that annoying tendency to be better at just about everything."
"You gonna put this thing back or am I?" Nightwing asked flatly, holding the necklace.
"Selina, just leave it be okay? Me and Bruce. It is what it is. We've all behaved ridiculously, and I've had enough of it. I'm moving on."
It was with a marked feeling of déjà vu that Batman landed on the roof of the Sterling National Bank. There was a time this roof was a regular base, for it afforded the best view of Cartier's roof, next door and three floors down, and Cartier's was Selina's favorite.
Batman quickly surveyed Cartier's roof now and the alley behind, as he always would before responding to an alarm. Something wasn't right. It wasn't the déjà vu. Something was simply not right.
"Oracle. What time did the alarm sound?" he asked into the cowl mic.
There was no answer, but a bit of static on the line sounded like a whispered :shit:.
"Oracle. Come in," he repeated. "I'm at the observation point now. There's no alarm, silent or otherwise. There's no activity from site security. No police. And the response time in this neighborhood is under two minutes. Can you confirm the alarm or… Oracle, respond. What's going on?"
"I'd say you've got a burglar that knows how to get in and out without setting off the old Phoenix 8000."
The voice was hypnotically soft, faintly amused, deliciously seductive, and oh, so familiar.
Batman turned towards it, and the scientist in him kicked in with cool detachment. Learned responses: the physical body reacting to a sensory stimulus as it always had. It made no difference if his mind knew things had changed. It made no difference that she hadn't taken anything, that they weren't going to fight. His body knew this roof, knew that voice, and it reacted as it always had and always would: he was aroused yet on edge. Muscles quivered, tensing as they anticipated an embrace at the same time they tried to relax to absorb an attack.
"Catwoman, what are you doing here?" Batman heard himself ask, as surprised by the form of address as the question itself. It would've made more sense to ask why Oracle reported an alarm if Selina had circumvented the system.
"You wanted me that night," she said simply, "and every night afterwards. You knew it. I knew it. Everybody knew."
Now, as then, he said nothing.
"We wasted a lot of years."
He said nothing.
"You love him like a son. He loves you like a father. You were partners forever. Just how much time are you both going to waste on this?"
...to be continued...