A/N: I wanted to wait and publish the whole thing, but am putting up the first half to stop it from eating my brain. Conclusion to follow in a few days.
Without her mask and her sleek outfit, she is just a young woman picking her way through the rubble, looking tired and fragile and dejected and not at all heroic, and she is grateful for the anonymity. The worst is over, and the shell-shocked, war-ravaged city that has been granted a reprieve but still reeks of tragedy is stirring tentatively back to life. Stranded in Gotham's chilly wreckage, Selina takes life one breath at a time and wonders since when she has longed for a sense of purpose.
When the ocean blew up, she drove the Batpod back into Wayne Enterprises, leaving it in the garage above the flooded basement, and ran through the debris and billowing dust, desperate to avoid the spotlight, as fast as she could until her lungs gave out, stumbling on until she staggered into the gutted place she had once called home, peeled off the suit, and collapsed on the floor, too broken to move, too numb to cry. The city had been spared thanks to a hero's sacrifice, but the blast had scorched her from the inside.
How many times have they met? Three, four? Not more than that, as Bruce and Selina. As many again, at best, as their alter egos. Still, here she is, crushed with grief over losing someone she hardly knew. She used to pride herself on having devised the perfect mask, flawlessly convincing in her feigned helplessness and simplicity; by the time she saw that she had met her match, it was too late. She used to relish her cool detachment, surviving by assessing others as threats and making a living by assessing others as opportunities. Of those simple scales, the Batman scored high on one and Bruce Wayne scored high on the other, and she had sold out both, only to discover that the man she had brought to his doom meant more to her than the sum of those two parts. And as if the nagging guilt hadn't been enough, as if the vision of a hero being broken hadn't haunted her enough, she has now lost him a second time, when she knows him for who he is, when it really hurts.
How do you go on when you aren't sure what for? How do you pick up the pieces of a life that suddenly seems empty? Before the war, she found enjoyment in pulling off impossible heists, but even with her flexible morals, she wouldn't stoop to plundering a battlefield. She could continue her exploits elsewhere, but the thrill of her former life has been rendered petty and pointless by the scale of the tragedy. Her words about looking forward to the storm haunt her now, and she is irrationally angry at a dead hero for reawakening her better, unselfish, caring side when all it does is feed her remorse and make her miss him even more.
She isn't unselfish or charitable enough to give away her savings – even if she wanted to, there are no banks open in Gotham and her money is in the Caymans – but in the days following the final showdown, she ends up doing what she can to help out. When she approached Jim Gordon asking how she could make herself useful, his immediate reply was urging her to leave – and she knows that he meant it for her own good; but when she insisted, he pointed her to the tasks at hand without further argument, and she gladly took on the simple chores, working shifts as a nurse at a mobile intensive care unit, taking supplies to the elderly who are too frail and scared to venture into the streets as they wait to leave the city.
Gotham is fast becoming a ghost town. In a matter of days now, all the inhabitants will have been moved inland to temporary sites and the city will be left empty for the decontamination teams to deal with the bodies, the residual radiation and the acid rain, the rotting trash and the swarming rats before the construction crews can start repairing the damage and before the citizens can finally reclaim their homes. As the streets grow quieter, the looming question of "what now" is becoming harder to avoid. She is reluctant to leave, as if this charred husk of a city were her last connection to its dead saviour.
There is talk about a mysterious second rider who blew open the barricade blocking the exit through the tunnel. She is glad that no one knows; Gordon and Blake know, but they aren't talking. It's all his, the glory and the gratitude, she has no right to it and wants no share of it. If her moment of bravery yielded a modicum of atonement in his eyes for her earlier betrayal, it is enough.
A week later, when even the medical units start packing up and Gordon orders her to leave – "or you'll be glowing in the dark before you know it" – she gets his blessing to take a Harley from a police impound yard and goes across the river. She has delayed this moment for as long as she could, but once she is gone she won't be coming back, and she cannot leave without paying her last respects. There is a makeshift shrine downtown, with candles and notes and children's drawings and paper flowers in the absence of real ones, and they are talking about setting up a Batman statue, but her mourning is for the man, not the symbol.
Alfred is kinder to her than she deserves, all things considered. She is not surprised that he noticed her standing in the graveyard in the dark – his SBS past is known to her by now – but she did not expect the kind reception her visit gets, the quiet commiseration, or the hug, for that matter. Still, she makes her excuses after a few minutes, feeling like an intruder, or worse, an impostor, a duplicitous ally trying to out-mourn a bereaved adoptive father – and unable to endure the sight of the name on the gravestone any longer. Alfred's parting request to her is for a forwarding address, as cell phones have become a rare commodity in the ravaged city running on generators and he knows that she is planning to erase all traces online; and it finally pushes her to make up her mind. She gives him the name of a guesthouse in New Brunswick, on the coast just north of the border where she once stayed, and a name on the false passport she is planning to use to cross into Canada, saying she will be there for a couple of weeks. With nothing left for her to do in Gotham, she might as well lie low until she is ready to make a proper fresh start. The last thing she does before leaving is powering up her tablet – Gordon's parting gift – to run the CleanSlate. It is fitting that Selina Kyle's life should officially end in the same city where Bruce Wayne's had.
The ocean isn't helping. She wanders up and down the rocky windswept beach, telling herself not to look for wreckage. It is completely implausible that she should find any; she is a few hundred miles north of Gotham and even if the craft did not evaporate in the explosion, it most likely sank; but she keeps looking anyway. By the fifth day, she is ready to go just about anywhere that doesn't have a coast, but she has to wait for her Canadian papers – forgeries again but reputable ones – before she can leave.
When the guesthouse owner finds her to tell her about the arrival of a courier, she is caught between apprehension and puzzlement before she remembers Alfred and his request. She hadn't given it much thought afterwards, chalking it up to English politeness, a gesture to show that he had no ill feelings toward her; she is bemused when she is left holding a lightweight cardboard box labelled "for Miss Sarah Kane from A. Pennyworth". As she peels away the layers of padding inside she has an irrational, impending sense of heartbreak; when she sees the familiar flat black velvet box and hears the muffled clink of the beads inside, the finality of it hits her. She has been too shocked, then too busy, and recently too listless to fully face the reality of never seeing Bruce again; but there is no running away from it now, no anaesthetic, no distraction, and she sinks down on the bed and cries in shuddering sobs until exhausted sleep overtakes her.
Three days later, her documents ready, she knows that it is time to plot her next move, but still can't bring herself to care. As a last resort, she switches on the tablet, calls up a world map, closes her eyes, spins the tablet around for good measure, and sticks her finger at the screen, vaguely wondering what she should do if she hits the middle of the Atlantic. When a wary glance at the screen beneath her fingertip reveals her accidental destination as Hong Kong, she is pleased, even mildly excited by the prospect. A big, vibrant city, thousands of miles away from Gotham. There is the risk that it might remind her of her former home, but if it becomes too hard to deal with, she will have her pick of neighbouring countries to explore.
The Gotham echoes are there, in the sleek vertical lines of the skyscrapers, the narrow canyons of the streets below, the glowing night lights, the classy venues, the crowded cheap housing and the humming energy throughout; but the vibe is decidedly Asian, the temperatures warmer, the surrounding sea a deep cornflower blue instead of Gotham's steely grey – and best of all, the Gotham it reminds her of is the affluent, smug, glossy Gotham of a few years ago, not the savaged battleground she last saw. For a few weeks she loses herself in the crowd, diving into the human swarm in the narrow, cluttered, perpetually shady streets, browsing the markets, wandering about the temples, climbing the hills and strolling along the beaches on nearby Lantau Island, and finds an unexpected thrill when she signs up to a martial arts school and throws herself into gruelling workouts and ends up receiving a mixture of stern reprimands and reluctant admiration for her highly unorthodox but highly effective moves.
Not surprisingly, her fellow students – mostly American and European expats, all male – have taken notice. Within ten days of signing up, she has been invited to three dinners and two drinks, and enjoys a chance to savour the city nightlife and sample its best watering holes. This in turn brings her more acquaintances, so that by the end of the third week, her date tally has more than doubled. She describes herself as a Canadian widow; it works, for the time being, to explain her independent lifestyle, her staunch preference for black clothes, and her indifference to romantic advances. She may be ready to be distracted, even entertained, but has no interest in the men themselves.
Her immediate problem, however, is of a more pedestrian nature; she has no wish to spend all her money, which means the need to look for work. She is beginning to think she may eventually pick up her cat-burglar career, but the prospect of becoming closely acquainted with the inside of a Chinese prison serves as an effective deterrent... for now; she held her own in Blackgate but enough is enough. When one of her new suitors, a suave fortysomething Brazilian, tells her that he would like to discuss a business proposition, she is intrigued enough to want to hear him out. If the proposition turns out to be anything but business, she is perfectly capable of delivering a memorable refusal; then again, he might be worth getting to know. He is almost – almost – tall, dark, and handsome enough.
On the evening of their dinner date, she gives herself a critical eye in the mirror. With her hair impeccably groomed, her makeup barely noticeable, and her simple black shift dress fitting and flattering her figure to perfection, she looks every inch the respectable rich man's widow… except for the complete lack of jewellery that the station usually brings. After a few minutes' indecision, she reluctantly opens the safe in the walk-in closet of her suite and reaches for the black velvet box inside, ignoring the tightness in her throat. It's just for tonight, she tells herself; she won't have to wear them or even look at them afterwards.
She presses the spring, and two seconds later, the shimmering necklace clatters on the floor, its owner too shaken to care.
Inside the black box is a sheet of cream paper the size of a printed photograph, with an inscription at the top and a gilt-letter company name embossed above a string of numbers at the bottom.
(41) 91 5040763
But the part that makes her forget to breathe is the signature in the middle that looks a lot more like Br Wayne than anything Wainwright.
"Armando? Yes, this is Céline. Something's come up, I can't have dinner with you tonight. I apologise. No, I'm fine. Sure, I'll let you know when I'm free next week. You too. Thank you."
She barely has the patience to finish the niceties. Even if she does not manage to talk to him tonight, there is no chance in hell she can sit through dinner with anyone else, not with the way her hands are shaking and the silly tears are swimming in her eyes and the profanities are tumbling from her tongue in a giddy litany. "You fucker, you damned sneaky bastard, why couldn't you just let me know you are alive, for fuck's sake?" There is no way he could keep track of her, she tries to argue with herself; not when she has changed her name and residence twice and has erased all trace of her former identity. All Alfred – and presumably Bruce – had to go on was her Canadian guesthouse address. She has enough trust in Alfred to think that he honestly believed his master dead when they last met rather than keeping her purposely in the dark, and had faithfully carried out the errand subsequently entrusted to him. But Bruce could still have found her. This is the man who made playthings of military technology and tracked down career criminals for a hobby. Maybe he just wanted to leave her a parting gift. In the end, the only thing to do is make the call. She checks the number against an online directory; Lugano, Switzerland. Seven hours behind; just before lunchtime. You'd better be who I think you are, Mr Wainwright, and you'd better be there.
The girl on the other end is briefly baffled by Selina's French; it is only when she switches to English and detects the Italian drawl in the response that Selina remembers that Lugano is in the Italian-speaking part. Can she ask who is calling, please? Selina Kyle would be an obvious answer, but obvious answers are boring. "Tell him it's a client calling about the pearls."
The girl does not come back on the line; there is no preamble, no warning, when the next word is delivered in the voice she thought she'd never hear again, raw and almost Batman-low. "Selina?"
She has told herself to be calm; good luck with that. It takes her a couple of seconds just to find her voice. "You're damn lucky you're halfway around the world from me." She sounds about as hoarse as he did. "Or you'd be dead for real." She knows even as she is saying it that her verbal punch makes no sense, but the greater part of her brain is beyond the capacity for rational thought.
"What have I done?" Logical, if predictable; and sounding calmer.
Broke her heart. Left her in mourning for three months. "Nothing." Talk about embarrassing, girl-in-a-tiff conversation.
"Whatever it is, I'm sorry." He sounds more taken aback than sorry, but strictly speaking, the apology was uncalled for in the first place. "Where are you?"
"Hong Kong. I thought you'd have figured it out." She meant it as a taunt, but suspects that she has succeeded only in sounding petulant. Great going, Selina.
"I could have. But I thought I'd ask you instead."
That soft, husky voice is melting her brain.
"If you're serious about killing me…"
What are you getting at, Bruce?
"…I can be there and at your mercy in two days' time."
Keep breathing, woman.
"I'm dead serious. But I can be in Lugano tomorrow."
"You're the most obliging assassin I know." She can practically hear the smile, and feels her own foolish grin growing wider. "Can I repay your troubles with a nice dinner?"
It'll take more than that, sweetheart. "You can try."
"I'll do my best to make it worth your while. Shall we say, 8 pm at the San Salvatore?"
"I'll be there." She types up the search and crosses her fingers that she can fly to Europe overnight.