Once Upon a Time
Once upon a time, I saw Batman disarm a warhead. Four cruise-ships worth of hostages on an island full of poison, plague, gunrunners, warlords, and now a giant missile right out of Dr. Strangelove—and oh yes, the instruction manual was in Farsi. His voice never altered, not a quiver, not for a syllable.
I saw him pick himself up after Prometheus beat him to a pulp, shrug it off and marshal an equally humbled Justice League through the clean up, then take a shot at me about being there to steal the Storm Opals. We could have been in Gotham. He sounded just like he does in Cartier’s vault. Not a quiver, not for a syllable.
I heard him warn Superman to stay clear of the house when we had alternate dimensions leaking in all over the manor. I went into some of those worlds and met him as a coke-snorting Owlman—and as a Batman who’d beaten Zatanna’s magic out of her and could still channel it. I heard him speak an incantation, his voice infused with power yet choking on his hatred of magic and magicians on every syllable.
I’ve heard him talk about the mindwipe. I’ve heard him talk about that visit to the hospital, to Edward Vaniel on his deathbed. I’ve heard him threaten Ra’s al Ghul, I’ve heard him threaten Joker, I’ve heard him threaten Luthor… I’ve heard him say “I love you.”
.:: Selina, secure the line. ::..
I’d never heard anything like this.
..:: Come to the penthouse, A-sap. ::..
I thought I knew every voice he had, as Bruce and as Batman.
..:: Don’t talk to anybody until I see you. Don’t answer your phone. Just come here now. ::..
“O-okay, I’m on my way. If it’s that urgent, maybe I should just—”
Any car but the Batmobile takes twenty minutes, minimum, to get from the manor to the penthouse—twenty minutes barring mid-day traffic—and A-sap means a-s-a-p “as soon as possible.” There was much a faster way possible. “Oh, gee, Justice League to the rescue” isn’t normally my thing, but… I had never him sound like that, not as Bruce or as Batman. And the League transporters in the Batcaves are on their own circuit. They won’t connect to any other transport pads without a layover at the Watchtower, but they do connect to each other. So, just this once, in the interests of seeing Bruce in two minutes instead of half an hour, I went down to the cave and ten seconds later, I was taking the elevator up to the penthouse.
He didn’t look happy to see me, and when I explained what I’d done, he said he wished I’d stayed out of the caves. He said he understood my reasoning, but he didn’t want either of us down there “until he’d thought this through.” He himself had “come straight up from the office,” and that’s when he apparently noticed the look on my face and realized he wasn’t making a whole lot of sense.
“I should start at the beginning,” he graveled. “Ivy came—Don’t interrupt, this won’t take long—Ivy came to see me – to see Bruce Wayne. She wanted to warn me that the Rogues know about us getting married. They don’t like the idea and plan to stop it—but I shouldn’t worry because she’s on it.”
The English language is a rich and varied one, but there are words that simply can’t coexist in the same sentence. “Ivy came to see me” and “Shouldn’t worry,” for example. “The Rogues know” and “shouldn’t worry.” The Rogues “don’t like” “plan to stop” and “don’t worry.” I normally surf the waves of Rogue upheavals without much fuss, but not when I’m summoned to the penthouse a-sap by a voice I’ve never heard before from Bruce or Batman. I didn’t know what to expect, so the mention of Ivy had more impact than it usually would. The mention of the Rogues as a class had more impact than it normally would. Those three little words “the Rogues know” coming from a voice I’d never heard before…
My mind was straining for some kind of equilibrium as those two forces pulled it in opposite directions: “Ivy came to see me” on the one side, “I shouldn’t worry” on the other. “The Rogues know” and a voice I’ve never heard before from Bruce or Batman, standing there like snarling like a tiger, and this tiny little mouse staring it down: “I shouldn’t worry.”
Ivy came to see me, the Rogues know, they don’t like it, they plan to…
“Did you say we’re getting married?”
I wasn’t aware I’d said it out loud. The thought just floated up from the typhoon-hurricane-whirlpool-eddy-maelstrom of what-the-fuck. Like a bar of soap (or a dead body), it just came floating up to the surface and tumbled out my lips before my brain could catch up. He didn’t say the Rogues knew meaning HIS IDENTITY, he said they knew about us getting married.
“Ivy seems to think so,” he graveled—and the gravel, at least, sounded familiar.
And he glared.
“How does this keep happening?” I heard myself asking. And once again, it wasn’t a conscious expression of a thought, it was just sort of a vocalized burble spilling out my mouth during an exhale. “Gladys Ashton-Larraby, okay, what else has she got to think about, and then Hermoine, the gossip column, follows her lead, fine, but now Wall Street and Cassie and Barbara and now Poison Ivy?! BRUCE, MAKE IT STOP!”
“I’d love to!” he barked. “But that’s hardly the priority right now. Batman’s deadliest enemies don’t just spontaneously decide to target Bruce Wayne’s private life! A party at the manor, sure, it’s not like they’ve that many opportunities to get on the grounds. But this isn’t Harley and Ivy targeting a Foundation fundraiser for kicks. This is my private life. It’s either some twisted scheme on Ivy’s part to manipulate gullible Bruce Wayne into playing into her hands without greening—why ‘without greening’ we don’t have enough data to speculate, but probably related to her failure with the Whitman Sampler episode—or else, if she isn’t making it up about the others and is sincerely trying to help—again for reasons I couldn’t begin to guess at this point—then it’s a lot more serious, because only someone who knows my identity would point the lot of them at Bruce Wayne’s private life as a means to distract Batman.”
I rubbed my forehead. It isn’t often I can’t keep up with the Bat-brain, but this was one of those times, and the one downside to that RAW INTENSITY that is Batman is that it’s all but impossible to slow him down.
“It’s a short list. Ra’s, Strange and Nigma—”
“Okay, wait a minute—”
“Ra’s basically just tried it before his plot against Atlantis. Setting me up for a kidnapping connected to your criminal past as Catwoman, a kidnapping he knew would fail. And he knew once I discovered the Cat-connection, that would occupy my full attention while he went ahead grabbing those scientists.”
“Except it didn’t work,” I pointed out.
“That’s never stopped him before.”
“We figured out what he was up to from the beginning, you weren’t ‘distracted’ for a minute—”
“That’s never… stopped him… before,” he declared in that infuriating Batman-has-spoken tone.
I glared up at him, because lacking claws and whip, it’s really the only thing to do when he gets like that. Words are a waste of time once he’s got that body-armor on his brain.
“Fine, it could be the Hairdo, giving his old plan a new paintjob because he can’t come up with a new one. Next? It can’t be Hugo, he doesn’t care about ‘keeping you busy’ while he pulls off something else. You’re the burning sun at the center of his universe. Everything he does is about you, so diversions make no sense.”
“No, with Hugo it wouldn’t be diversion or distraction. It would be more personal, a mind game. Or…”
“Don’t ever trail off after an ‘or’ when we’re talking about Hugo, Bruce. You’re literally making my skin crawl just now.”
I didn’t know why at first, but then he glanced up at me, and for just a fraction of a second, it was Hugo’s eyes looking back—not literally, but there was a rat-like quality to them… Psychobat doing that thing where he puts himself into his enemy’s mind… I could almost picture those Coke-bottle lenses sliding a little low on his oily nose, with those rat-eyes peering over the tops, petty and cunning, but also creepy in a sleazy sexual way, like the old men with too-thick glasses that hung around in the street outside the old Times Square porn houses…
“If he snapped,” Bruce/Hugo said thoughtfully, “if the scorn and humiliation from the others finally got to be too much… He found the Holy Grail, Batman’s identity, and no one believed him… What if he devised this story to make the others start poking into Wayne’s private life until they learn the secret for themselves. He’d be vindicated.”
“No he wouldn’t,” I said, shaking my head. “Eddie knows and it didn’t improve his opinion of Hugo one bit—or mine, for that matter.”
The Hugo-light faded from Bruce’s eyes (thank God!) and he shook his head abruptly.
“No, you’re right. The psychology doesn’t fit. If it were one of the others, they might delude themselves, but Hugo has the understanding of the human mind—including the Rogue mind. If he has a sufficient understanding to manipulate them, planting this wedding notion into their heads, then he’d have to know their discovering the secret on their own wouldn’t vindicate him in any way… it would just remove the only distinction he has among my enemies.”
“Two down, can I say it now?”
“No, I will: it’s not Nigma. This doesn’t just target my personal life, Selina; it targets you. He’s the only one of the three who would have a problem with that.”
“How clinically you put it.”
“So we’re back to Ra’s.”
“Maybe not. There is another possibility. I was going to tell you when I came down to the cave the other day, but then it slipped my mind… Bruce, Harvey was acting pretty weird during our lunch.”
He stiffened. He frowned. His eyes narrowed to slits. Then he scowled.
“Elaborate,” he said finally.
“Well, it’s like he was, I don’t even know, waiting for something. And he asked a lot of questions. I mean, he could have just been interested in ‘getting back to Gotham.’ You know: settling back into a routine, resuming a normal life, catching up with an old friend who’s been flying all over the world with her boyfriend—especially when that boyfriend is also an old friend of his, and… I sound like a ditz.”
“No, you sound like you’re trying to convince yourself.”
“It was the way he asked about you. It seemed like there was something behind it.”
“There was,” Bruce said softly. “But probably not what you think. Selina, there was nothing wrong with your GeoSeek. The one you brought back from that lunch was tagged to Harvey’s profile. He must have switched them.”
“To see yours for some reason… Maybe we’re looking at this the wrong way. Maybe it’s not Batman that’s the target, maybe it’s Catwoman. You have your share of enemies.”
“Yeah, but none except the demonspawn would care if I got married.”
“Not just married, but married to Bruce Wayne. Leaving Batman out of it, is there an old rival or someone who would be threatened by your getting your paws on that kind of money and social position.”
I had to think about that.
“Not social position,” I murmured. “Power. That kind of money brings an awful lot of power…”
I could feel the density shift. He was trying to think ahead, follow my train of thought and get there ahead of me. He wasn’t going to succeed, because my thoughts were darting off at an angle. With the influence Bruce had, a vindictive woman could ruin someone’s life, but I wasn’t thinking about who in my past might be threatened by prospect of Selina Wayne, with all that money and influence at her disposal to settle old scores… It was simply that link between wealth and power; it suggested another name, one we hadn’t even thought of.
“Luthor,” Bruce said at the same instant I did.
“He does hate your guts,” I murmured.
“Ra’s is still more likely. Luthor doesn’t have any reason to involve Batman’s enemies in his vendetta against Bruce Wayne. He tends to use subtler means to make trouble. We’ll investigate both, but Ra’s is the starting point. And Selina, this is DefCon 1. Until we know which of us is the target and why, we’re a danger to everyone. We should stay here, away from Alfred and the manor. No unnecessary contact with civilians, and it’s safer for everyone to remain in costume.”
Aria. They tracked the bridesmaid’s dresses to a place called Aria. So far, so good.
Poison Ivy had adapted her plan for the Dean Sasha greening: Harley could make initial contact in her unobtrusive skintone, clearing a path for Ivy to sneak in and do what had to be done. In this case, Harley would be distracting the sales staff. They hadn’t been able to see from the street if there were any male employees, but Ivy suspected any man working in the Aria bridal boutique wouldn’t be susceptible to her lure. She learned a long time ago that her pheromones needed a base physical attraction to work from, and gay men who were so out and flamboyant as to work in fashion and party planning simply weren’t interested. They thought she was “Fabulous!” but wouldn’t lift a finger to help her (apart from that one little monster suggesting peek-a-boo highlights to tone down the brassy reds from her henna rinse).
So presumably there would be no men to green in Aria (which was a pity, since it was the only time they were useful). Ivy’s part of the operation would consist of introducing flowers onto the bridesmaids dresses to act as her spies. And if Hatter or Crane showed up to plant any surprises, her babies would know what to do.
It was a good plan. Harley was just a little too excited about her “undercover mission,” going into Aria as a prospective bride, but that couldn’t be helped. The shop already had the names of Selina’s bridesmaids, whoever they were, as well as their measurements. Impersonating a someone you don’t know is tricky under the best of circumstances, but to also present the same body to someone in the business of fitting a dress on it… not even Clayface the walking dungheap could manage that one. What’s worse, when the subject first came up, Harley wondered “Why do ya think Catty didn’t ask us ta be her bridesmaids?”
Ivy suspected it had something to do with a failed attempt to green the bridegroom, and not wanting to tell the humiliating Whitman Sampler story, she was grateful when Harley saw “The Poker Bride” episode of My Fair Wedding was on and went to TiVo it. When she returned, there was no more talk of being Selina’s bridesmaids, but Harley did spend an hour picking out what to wear, since apparently “David Tutera says if you’re a daring bride with a funky sense of style, you might want to celebrate your individuality on your wedding day. And it will help your wedding planner understand where you’re coming from if you dress in a way that expresses the real you when you go to meet them.”
Ivy pointed out that Harley was going undercover and “the real you” defeated the purpose. That brought a round of “Oh, I know that, Red, I’m not stupid, ya know,” which apparently meant Harley knew not to dress in costume. It did not deter her from trying a red blouse with poufy clown sleeves and black jeans. Ivy shook her head, and Harley’s next try was a black t-shirt with a big red Chinese dragon on the front, red leather mini skirt and go-go boots. Ivy said no. They settled on a pink tank top—with the red mini. Harley changed the go-go boots for a plain sandal, and Ivy permitted her to add a black jacket—with the understanding that she should remove it before she went into the store.
Once upon a time, when Aquaman was recovering from a really bad day in the middle of the Winter Migration, he hoped to unwind with a few fellow Leaguers at the unofficial monthly poker night. After a few minutes listening to Flash, Green Lantern and Plastic Man grumbling about Bats and his “Hell Month” as if he were a one-man Armageddon, Arthur blew his stack. He delivered a tirade on the relative challenges of dealing with one man among billions of surface-dwellers compared to a mid-Atlantic full of Sperm Whales during their mating season. Concluding with the phrase all those present quoted to this day: “I’ll gladly stay up here and deal with Bats and all of his Hell Month eccentricities, and you lot can go down there and deal with the 30-tons of desperate, whiny, horny, hormonal Whale-Bitch.”
He meant it. He meant every word of it. He himself was never intimidated by Bruce’s scowls and glares, he was downright insulted by the notion that he should be, but today for the first time, he had some insight into the Leaguers who were. The glare and scowl filled the same viewscreen where Ra’s al Ghul’s face had appeared after the fool took up residence in the Atlantean fortress at Kapheira. Arthur had enjoyed measuring verbal swords with that overblown ego, standing in the communications well where he personified Atlantean Government. An old-fashioned King-to-King Bluster-off, keeping the Demon’s Head occupied while Batman’s forces penetrated the stronghold… He was not enjoying this epilogue.
“Batman, Atlantis is not as old as most surface-dwellers believe, but we have been managing our institutions—including our prisons—since before the surface world figured out that sails weigh less than men and wind gets you farther than rowing. When I tell you Ra’s al Ghul is secure in his cell, he’s secure. When I tell you he will not be free until his debt to Atlantis is paid—”
“You’ve also said that because Atlantis is such a utopia your jails aren’t used much. Isn’t it just possible that your comparatively inexperienced jailers aren’t equipped to handle the tricks a surface criminal might come up with?”
“No, it is not.”
“It’s not possible he could corrupt a single one of your people to get a message through?”
“That’s it? No? Nothing at all to back that statement? Just your personal certainty.”
Aquaman delivered his own version of the Hell Month Bat-glare into the camera below the viewscreen.
“When I speak over this system, Batman, it is as the King of Atlantis. And when His Majesty, Orin, by the Grace of Poseidon, of Atlantia, Pacifica, and the Dominions beyond the Reefs, King and Defender of the Seas, Duke of Poseidonis, Sovereign of the Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of Pontos tells you a thing, it is so.”
The snort that followed his final word was not exactly regal, but it expressed the aggression of the challenged alpha male that predates the civilized trappings of kingship. It was answered by a silent stare that is just as ancient and just as unambiguous. For five seconds… for ten… for fifteen… And then…
The masked figure on the view screen shifted, tilted, rustled, and the unmasked face of Bruce Wayne took its place.
“Fine,” he graveled. “Do I have your assurance, Arthur? Not the King of Atlantis, but your word, man-to-man, that he doesn’t have any way to contact the surface?”
Arthur paused, taken aback by the gravity of the appeal. He had only seen Batman remove his mask and speak in that particular way once before…
“Bruce, what’s happening?”
“Nothing I want to discuss.”
“Typical,” Arthur laughed. “You make an appeal ‘man-to-man’ and then you clam up. Never mind, I can guess. I’ve only seen you act like this once before, Bruce. I know you know the time. Maybe you were right, maybe it wasn’t any of our damn business. Bruce Wayne dating Selina Kyle, Batman dating Catwoman, it obviously didn’t blow up and affect the League.”
“My point is you took off your mask and want to talk man to man, so you get to listen to what this man has to say. I’ve thought about that conversation a good few times since the day it happened. You know what strikes me about it? Now, today, since it’s become apparent that you two were going to last and we weren’t looking at that nightmare scenario that could compromise the League? It’s that word dating. Clark said ‘The fact that Bruce Wayne is dating Selina Kyle is not the problem. It’s the fact that Batman is dating Catwoman that concerns us.’ And you said it was ‘awfully presumptuous’ to use that word dating.
“Bruce, I look back now, knowing what I know, seeing how you two are together, realizing the ridiculous position we put you in, and I can see myself reacting exactly the way you did. Point for point, word for word… Except for that. You were at a party together, you flitted around the room as a set, making each other laugh, all the little private jokes and secret smiles. Then she went home with you. And a couple months later, she’s moving into your house. How is that not dating?”
“I just want confirmation that Ra’s al Ghul is secure down there.”
“Right, and the reason you want to know has something to do with her, but you don’t want to discuss that.”
Mission accomplished… with a few caveats. Harley was keeping the salesgirls occupied, leaving Ivy free to sneak into the back and organize the troops. Harley was also, quite clearly, having a ball. Ivy couldn’t make out many words, but she heard the delighted squeals coming from the showroom. Normally, Harley’s excitement was contagious, but today, something about her attitude… Ivy brushed that aside and set to work.
There were a half dozen collections of dresses arranged around the room, grouped for different weddings. Selina’s was obviously the one with bits of straw on the floor by the hanging rack—that demanded attention. Possibly Crow was just gathering intel, or possibly he had already sabotaged the dresses. Each dress had a slip of paper pinned to it with measurements and a code number, and all but one had a number of straight pins throughout the hem. She ordered a clematis coiled around her ankle to uncoil itself and crawl over the dresses, wiping the tip of each pin with its leaves. So there!
“SQUEE! I was watching this episode of My Fair Wedding where they did a Wonderland Theme…” Harley babbled audibly—and Ivy looked up sharply. Harley may have raised her voice as a warning, and Ivy quickly hid behind the door and ordered the clematis to camouflage itself in some kind of awful trellis decoration in the back corner.
“The bride was gonna have a black dress and all the bridesmaids wore striped stockings…”
Wonderland… was that a clue? Did Harley see something that meant Jervis had been here as well as Scarecrow? Or did she possibly see Jervis himself?
“And I was thinkin’, once you’ve done Wonderland, it wouldn’t be much of a stretch to take those same ideas and do a carnival theme…”
Ivy could have sent the clematis to spy through the vent, but she decided she didn’t trust their judgment. She wanted to see this with her own eyes. She opened the door to the show room just a crack and peered through…
“Have, like, cotton candy canapés, and the decorations would all be from games, like insteada those stuffy old candelabras everywhere, have pyramids of those cans that’ll never fall over.”
And saw that the only reason Harley’s voice louder was because she herself was standing near the door.
“Oh, I know, I know, that has nothing to do with the bridesmaids,” she was saying, flapping her hands like a hyperactive bird trying to take off. “I was just thinking out loud about the theme. Like, if I did a dress with a long train like this one here, maybe we could get some little people to carry it. That was another idea the Wonderland bride had going in. She wanted to dress them up like rabbits, but it’d work just as well for a carnival, don’t ya think?”
Ivy let the door close, turning her head away slowly and pressing her fingers to the center of her forehead and the bridge of her nose. She shook her head with a forlorn and bewildered shudder, and swallowed with effort.
“Little people are very versatile. They could be elves for a Christmas theme or munchkins for a Wizard of Oz theme—oooh, oooh, or Oompa-Loompas for a Willy Wonka theme. Wouldn’t that be scrumdiddlyumptious? A chocolate wedding!”
Ivy shook it off and went back to work. Selina had apparently chosen a halter dress with a tea-length skirt, silk shantung, three identical dresses in different colors. Turquoise, salmon, and yellow, well that made it easy. Ivy ordered a few hyacinths to attach themselves to the turquoise dress’s sash, some coral amaryllis and a Leonidas rose to decorate the salmon, and a few calla lilies to attach themselves to the yellow. They would be her spies among the bridesmaids. If Scarecrow or Hatter tried anything, it was their job to let her know and to take countermeasures if they could.
With the added benefit of making the bridesmaids look good. Any woman is more attractive with a few flowers at her waist, after all. Draped only in fabric, without any living petals to make their bodies enticing, even Selina deserved better than that on her special day. She would have to track down the wedding dress and make a few enhancements.
In addition to the bouquet, of course. The bridal bouquet was a separate problem entirely. She would have to take over the florists’ operation completely. Since the fiend was in the business of supplying flowers—dead flowers—it was more complicated than simply adding blossoms to these lifeless gowns. At the florist, she would have to halt the genocide.
That would be a pleasure. Selina really did deserve some added little token of appreciation.
Once upon a time, Luthor hired me to break into his own office and steal the plans for an airplane he was developing, the X-27 Lexwing. Gave him cover to push up some test flights he wanted to conduct before the military was ready—or something like that. I rarely pay attention when his type starts explaining their reasons. They’re usually lying. So, before I broke into LexCorp in body, I broke in in spirit. Hacked into their mainframe and pulled elevator maintenance schedules, security rota, that kind of thing, as well as Luthor’s public schedule. By a fantastic coincidence, there was another Gothamite heading to Metropolis to meet with him. Bruce Wayne was going through the motions about some proposed WayneTech/LexCorp venture that was never going to happen. Even back then, everyone knew Wayne and Luthor despised each other, and I figured… God, silly kitty… I figured with the WayneTech CEO in the building, LexCorp security would be focused on him, so I timed my robbery to coincide with the Bruce Wayne meeting. Amazingly, I got to tangle with both Batman and Superman as a result. Not that I was complaining. Getting into Luthor’s office was such a snooze, I tripped an electric eye on the way out just to add a little spice to my escape. Consider my delight when I netted not just a Super-chase but a Bat-encounter. Meow.
A lot has happened since then, and not just between Catwoman and Batman. Luthor became president, made Talia al Ghul head of LexCorp in his place, and by the time he resigned in disgrace, she’d bankrupted the company. It would have been the death knell for the Metropolis economy if Bruce hadn’t seen it coming. He’d been quietly buying up the LexCorp debt, so when the bubble burst, he absorbed as much of the ruined tech divisions as he could, salvaging as many jobs as he could. Lex naturally didn’t see it that way. It added a whole new level of hostility to his rivalry with Bruce.
So, while Batman was looking into the Ra’s possibility, I was investigating Luthor. It had less to do with Lex himself as with the other half of that old X27 story. Batman and Superman. Or to be more accurate, Bruce and…
..:: Clark Kent::..
“Come see me over your lunch hour,” I purred into the phone.
There was a pause. And then:
..:: Bruce? ::..
“C’mon, Clark, I may be calling on the penthouse phone, but if you can’t tell the difference between my voice and Bruce’s—”
..::’Come see me’ sounds like Bruce. And he might have been testing to see if a voice modulator would fool me.::..
“You two play some strange games, Spitcurl.”
..::Funny, I used to tell him the same thing about you.::..
That’s why I was calling instead of Bruce. Clark has been hearing wedding bells since Dick and Barbara tied the knot, and after that visit from Queen Chlorophyll, it would only take one of Clark’s Super-hints to drive Bruce’s blood pressure into the red zone. Anyway, he said if it was urgent, he could come right away, since the Mayor had a press conference at noon and he wanted to ‘hover nearby.’ I said it was, and not two minutes later he was landing on the terrace. I let him in and got straight to the point:
“What are Luthor’s resources like these days?”
“Well, he hasn’t come close to recreating the old LexCorp, but he’s laying the foundation with this LC-II, what the Planet’s business editor dubbed LexCorp-Lite. He doesn’t have the trappings: the landmark building as his HQ, the fleet of corporate jets and helicopters. And he doesn’t have the power he once did in Metropolis, where one family in eight was either living on a LexCorp paycheck, banking at a Lex-owned bank, or running a business dependent on LexCorp purchases or LexCorp employees.”
“So that’s what he doesn’t have. What has he got in his pockets?”
“With the new corporation, all the money he had hidden when LexCorp went under is back in play. He can access it openly and grow it in ways that can’t easily be seen. In his time as President, he learned the location of defunct government installations, warehouses, classified patents, who knows what else.”
“So, on par with the pre-President Luthor, would you say?”
“I’m afraid so. If we’re talking resources and not stature, yes, I think it’s a fair comparison.”
I didn’t actually smile, but sitting across the coffee table from Kryptonian senses, I didn’t have to do anything overt. He could sense my blood pressure, my skin temperature, and the rate I blinked and breathed.
“Selina, I’m a little confused. You asked about Luthor and this isn’t a pretty picture I’ve painted, but I’m sensing relief.”
“Let me tell you something about your enemy, Superman. The one-time leader of the Secret Society of Supervillains doesn’t much like other villains. He doesn’t like the outfits, the monikers, or the attitudes. And what’s true of villains in general is doubly true of the Gotham Rogues. He finds us unpredictable, unreliable, and arrogant. Of course he’s quite right about the last one.”
I stopped and smiled, only because I saw his eyebrow shoot up at the “us.” Capes are so cute sometimes.
“You said it yourself, Batman and I played some very strange games.”
“But now you’re living in his penthouse. Selina, you called Superman and said ‘Come now,’ and I came. You asked me about Lex Luthor and I’ve told you. You can’t think I’d do any of that for Catwoman.”
“I know it’s Batman’s partner you’ve been talking to, Spitcurl. But I’m still Catwoman. I’m still one of them in ways not everybody can understand. Look, you’re from Smallville, right? That’s what Lois calls you. How long have you lived in Metropolis? How long have you been working at the Daily Planet and flying off to Kadalundi before the bridge collapses and then coming home to Lois? How long has your life been completely different, day in and day out, from the guy who grew up in Smallville? But… it’s still who you are, isn’t it?”
“Being from Smallville is very different from being a cat burglar,” he said.
“What a very Smallville thing to say,” I purred. “Anyway, we got sidetracked. You asked why I was relieved that Lex has some serious resources again. The reason is… something’s going on with The Rogues. And given his hate-on for Bruce, Luthor’s on our short list of people who might be behind it. But he really doesn’t like the Rogues, Clark, and if he has even a fraction of his old arsenal to work with, he’d be coming at us that way. Not getting into bed with the likes of Scarecrow, Mad Hatter or Poison Ivy.”
“I see,” he said. Then he asked if there was anything he could do. I told him no, and he turned to leave. He had his hand on the glass door to the terrace when he froze. Then he turned back and looked at me with that look they all get when they’ve figured something out. All the Capes except Batman, when they think you’ve let on more than you intended, and they’re letting you know they noticed. “You said ‘the Rogues’ are involved. But Luthor’s grievance is with Bruce Wayne, not Batman. Is Bruce the target of whatever’s happening?”
I told him the truth, that we weren’t sure but it looked that way.
A thorn. Already a thorn. Ivy might have the bridesmaids covered up to their necks and down to their ankles, but once she got back to the greenhouse, Harley said that the Aria salesgirls said they didn’t send dresses directly to the bridesmaids or the bridal venue. They sent to “Artyce” who did the shoes, or “Louise” who did hats and headbands. HATS and HEADBANDS. There was only so much her tulips could do at the waistline if that miserable little hatter had his control chips strapped onto their brains. So Ivy had to postpone the assault on the florist and find this Artyce.
Once again, Harley played bride-to-be. But this time, Ivy had no doubts why the idea filled her with dread. It all went back to those outfits. She was supposed to be going undercover. Yet everything she tried on—while not going full-bore Harley Quinn motley—were the ones that definitely came closest to “expressing the real you.” (Ivy decided this David Tutera person was a weed in need of some greening and paid a quick visit to his Facebook page to see if he was gay. Learning he was, she returned her attention to Harley.) A red blouse with poufy clown sleeves and black jeans, that’s what Harley wanted to wear. At first, Ivy couldn’t imagine why it bothered her, but now… a black dress, cotton candy canapés and carnival game decorations… Harley wasn’t just there as a distraction, she was doing RESEARCH. She was going into these places more or less as herself because in her mind, she was planning her own wedding.
Ivy felt a wave of nausea at the thought—in her imagination, while she and Harley were talking, a giant spectre of Joker appeared over them like the genii from the lamp, grinning down them with yellowed crooked teeth. Poison Ivy, Gaia’s Chosen Vessel and Goddess of Green, was not about to let that grinning hyena overturn her plans, but she did give Harley a rosebud to wear in her hair, “for luck,” who would report back anything said in the salesroom that Ivy should know.
Once again, while Harley kept the sales staff occupied (“I haven’t picked the dresses yet, but the colors are going to be taken from these carousel horses…”), Ivy snuck in the back. She had no difficulty finding the order with one pair of turquoise, one salmon and one yellow pair of crystal-studded satin slingbacks grouped together. She had enormous difficulty trying to find some way to introduce flowers into the situation.
Not to mention, the crystals reminded her of the Swarovski-studded cat mask Dolce and Gabbana created for a Vogue cover. That cover should have been Ivy’s. Nina Ricci produced a fantastical Poison Ivy evening gown, but who was the on the cover? Catwoman.
Ivy decided she really had too much to do without going the extra mile introducing flowers into Selina’s wedding dress. It was enough that she was defending the proceedings. If the bridesmaids did outshine the bride, Selina would just have to fall back on her Vogue glories.
(“Pbbbbbt, not crazy about all the white satin. Seem a little on the nose if ya know what I mean.”)
The shoes did have an order number, so the trip wasn’t wasted. The order number allowed Ivy to find the correct lot at Louise, where she was horrified to see the headbands in pastel silk had been replaced with miniature black tophats with bits of colored netting that dipped down over the eyes.
Ivy seethed. Even though she knew what Scarecrow and Hatter were up to, the evidence of it made her angry. She ordered the rose buds to split up. Half would attach themselves to the tophats in case that wily little Tetch switched them back, the other half would attach themselves to the headbands Selina’s bridesmaids should have had in the first place. Ivy picked the three headbands in the room that seemed the closest match for the dresses and the shoes, and she swapped them for the top hats. Then she took down the address where the order would be delivered…
(“Oooh, oooh, oooh! I don’t like the cut crystal so much, but the smooth ones look like dew drops. I didn’t even THINK about a Singing in the Rain theme!”)
Once upon a time, Ra’s al Ghul kidnapped Selina Kyle. He did it simply to achieve a sitdown with Batman. Bruce Wayne was dating her, it was a given that if DEMON took her, Batman would know within hours. It was a given he would identify the base where she was taken, it was a given he would be storming into the throne room by sunset the following day.
That flight to Mongolia was the most grueling Batman had ever experienced. He hadn’t permitted himself to realize how vulnerable he’d become, how opening himself up to his feelings for Selina opened him up to that loss. “When I was ten my parents were shot to death in a smalltime mugging. Happened right in front of me.” It was a bigger trust moment than telling her his name. It was bigger than saying “I love you.” It was certainly bigger than knowing she hadn’t taken some trinket from the historical museum. Everything he is, was, and would ever be stemmed from that one fact, and he told her. And now Ra’s had her. She could be dead already… like his parents.
It took nine and a half hours for the Batwing to reach Mongolia. The teleport to Atlantis required only a ten minute layover at the Watchtower. Batman had grunted at Vixen as he passed the monitor womb, but since junior Leaguers tended to be overly-officious when they pulled monitor duty, she followed him. He was at the door of his private quarters. The “Big Seven” each had a room on the station. Some personalized it like a small apartment, some used it as an office. Batman’s was neither. He only used it to avoid chit-chat with other Leaguers during these layovers. But since Vixen looked like she was trying to be helpful and did not seem mindlessly chatty, he said he was on his way to Atlantis and had her watch his time for him rather than using the automated system.
Ten minutes that were every bit as tortuous as that flight to Mongolia. Ten minutes that dug into his guts and twisted them around a needlepoint as he once again traveled to see Ra’s because of Selina.
“When I was ten my parents were shot to death in a smalltime mugging. Happened right in front of me.”
Ra’s never intended to bring that vulnerability to his attention. As was so often the case back then, Ra’s was smaller than Batman gave him credit for. He wanted a meeting on his own turf, and because he knew Batman was Bruce Wayne, taking the woman Wayne was dating was a means to that end. That was all.
“When I was ten my parents were shot to death in a smalltime mugging. Happened right in front of me.”
Bruce shut his eyes, trying to block the memory of that flight to Mongolia and the realizations it brought with it.
As so often happens, barring the door against one memory allowed another to come through the window: In the Batcave, years after the kidnaping, watching tapeloops of Selina and Catwoman, in the past and in the present, running side by side. “I can’t marry her, Alfred.” That realization, painful as death. “Maybe to me, marriage will always mean dead in an alley.”
Then the devil thought, creeping into his mind like a spider… “Maybe to me, marriage will always mean dead in an alley.” How much of that feeling was born during that flight to Mongolia?
“Ten minutes, Batman. Ready to move on?”
Batman looked up sharply, realizing instantly where he was and that Vixen was standing in the doorway to his quarters.
He grunted and walked to the teleporters. A part of him wanted to return to Gotham and speak to Alfred, but not in the middle of a case. And certainly not when they were at DefCon1.
The Roff Soho. Hm. Ivy couldn’t say she was impressed so far. If she had the gardens at Wayne Manor at her disposal, or even the garden terrace outside the Wayne penthouse, she wouldn’t waste her time with a hotel. Still, Selina’s complete lack of taste had a very definite upside. Roff Soho had three different wedding venues. They hosted so many ceremonies, receptions and rehearsal dinners, they had a backstage operation that functioned like a wedding factory. Part of that operation was a bowl of flowers on every table. And unlike Aria, the shoe boutique or the milliners, they were a full service hotel with an ample supply of heterosexual males on the staff.
Once upon a time, His Majesty Orin, the King of Atlantis, was Arthur Curry, the son of a lighthouse keeper. Once upon a time, he studied surface history like any other surface schoolboy. When his destiny unfolded and he rose to become king, Arthur revisited those early lessons with an eye to his new position. One of the many models he examined was Julius Caesar. He didn’t care about the military conquests or the political machinations achieving a dictatorship, he focused on the simple fact that Julius Caesar was never groomed to be king. He was not born into the role like Orin’s predecessors, the heir to a hereditary monarchy, knowing from birth he would one day rule an empire. He was, like Arthur, making it up as he went along.
The Caesarean strategy Arthur liked best was the way he behaved in victory: rather than claiming the heads of everyone who stood against him, he often offered friendship. Having every right to demand their deaths, he shamed them with shows of clemency. When Ra’s al Ghul became a prisoner of Atlantis, Arthur saw this was the attitude to take. Once a week, whenever he was in the city, he paid a visit to the Demon’s Head’s cell. He inquired after his prisoner’s comfort as if it were a hotel. Offered to adjust the pressure controls if Ra’s was having any discomfort. He said surfacers often suffered digestive troubles in their first weeks under water.
The Pride of Ra’s al Ghul tried to bend this treatment into tribute: he was a prisoner, yes, as other great kings had been imprisoned throughout history. He tried to convince himself that all this personal attention was the act of respect from another monarch. An imprisoned king was, after all, still addressed as sire. Invariably, as soon as Ra’s convinced himself, the door would open. As soon as he decided that what seemed like condescension was merely the deference accorded to his station and caste, the door would open and that glib smile of Aquaman’s toppled the whole structure. The delicate house of cards Ra’s had built up so painstakingly would be decimated by that simple phrase, “Good morning, Demon’s Head” and then the smile.
It had been a week, and once again, Ra’s had rearranged the facts to his liking: From Alexander to Caesar, those who would wield power sometimes found their liberties curtailed. From Princes of Wales to Tsars and Shoguns, it happened. World conquest cannot be achieved without risk, and risk means you may lose. When those losses occur, one find oneself captive. Yet the greatness of Ra’s al Ghul was still recognized, and he was treated as one whose achievements…
The door opened. But this time, there was no affability in the figure who stood in the doorway. No ease of manner in his stance. And no smile of any kind.
“Detective!” Ra’s beamed, as if a cosmic void demanded a smile occur and tapped the path of least resistance to achieve it.
Batman merely scowled, and glanced around the two-room suite. Arthur’s assistant Valerina had told him Atlantean detention cells were opulent by surface standards, and she didn’t exaggerate. There was a sitting room with a table, a couch, and two chairs situated under a trio of scrolls depicting a coral reef.
“Ra’s,” Batman said evenly.
Then he paused, waiting. Ra’s was a villain prone to the “Let’s be civilized” routine. When Batman was brought in as a prisoner or burst in to rescue hostages, even if he was only there for information, Ra’s was all smiling civility. “Come in, Detective. Always a pleasure to see you again…” Batman always found the pretense annoying, but he was curious to see if Ra’s would do it now, when he was not on his own turf and he had no control over the situation.
“Do come in, Detective. Allow me to offer you some refreshment. They have a rather interesting tea here, blended from nori seaweed, I am given to understand…”
Batman still found the pretense irritating, but his curiosity was satisfied as to Ra’s al Ghul’s psychology. He sat, refused the tea, and put up with five minutes of social pleasantries while Ra’s poured for himself, sipped, and discussed the triptych of scrolls on the wall like Richard Flay at an art exhibition. At last, he sat down his cup and a more familiar tone settled over the table.
“So, Detective, to what do I owe the pleasure?”
“Don’t you know?” Batman graveled ominously.
“It is an unfortunate condition of my incarceration that I do not get news from the outside world. Perhaps you would enlighten me.”
Batman’s eyes bored into Ra’s al Ghul’s as if he knew that trick. His own eyes gave away nothing… but neither did the Demon’s.
“Odd, I assumed they would have told you. You’re from Dessouk.”
Ra’s looked vaguely amused.
“Ismaïlia,” he said patiently.
“Ah. Well, your Justice League file says Dessouk, so Aquaman believes that’s your birthplace. I assumed they would have told you.”
“Told me what?” Ra’s asked, a note of genuine exasperation creeping in under the faux bewilderment.
“It obviously isn’t important,” Batman said, standing to leave.
“Detective, I must insist you enlighten me. You’ve come all this way to see me to impart some message, you can’t simply wander off leaving it undelivered.”
Batman sighed as if reaching a decision.
“Do you remember the time you grabbed Ms. Kyle to make me come to Mongolia?”
“Of course. I found her conversation far superior to that of the caped children on previous occasions.”
“Do you remember why you wanted to see me?” Batman cut him off curtly.
“I do. My daughter had framed your Catwoman for some petty theft, using my agents, in a manner that was not at all subtle or worthy of DEMON, and I wished to make that known to you.”
“Exactly,” Batman nodded. “This is similar. The Justice League engaged in a battle with some galactic vampires in the skies over Dessouk, and the damage to the town was considerable. I thought you were from Dessouk and wanted to assure you it was nothing deliberate, malicious or personal.”
The Demon’s Head drew himself up and looked to the side, touched and moved by this first sign of real respect from his great enemy.
“Thank you, Detective,” he said formally, with a regal nod of the head. “This was a very thoughtful and gracious act on your part. And I accept your assurance that, though I am not from Dessouk, the destruction of that which you believed to be my birthplace was not deliberate.”
Batman remained in character while he left Ra’s al Ghul’s cell, while he walked up the hallway where Valerina waited to meet him, and as he walked with her back to Arthur’s office. Once he reached it, he punched the wall.
“I take it things didn’t go well,” Arthur said blandly.
“I gave him a dozen opportunities to say something,” Batman hissed. “I even brought up Selina. He didn’t connect a single dot in the right way. He really doesn’t know anything.”
“I believe I told you that,” Arthur said casually.
“He doesn’t know a thing. The preposterous story I just told him—He has no knowledge of the surface world at all.”
“I believe I told you that, too,” Arthur repeated.
“I know,” Batman said quietly.
The younger Leaguers would have taken it as an insult: Batman refusing to take their assurance at face value, insisting on coming to Atlantis himself and talking to Ra’s in person. But Arthur wasn’t prone to the defensive kneejerks of the insecure. He was able to see past the imagined insult to the real cause:
“You wanted it to be him.”
“Yes,” Bruce admitted. “If it isn’t, then who is behind this? Strange, Nigma, Luthor, some old rival of Catwoman’s? No one else fits. Someone playing the long game, who knows what buttons to push, using the Rogues to keep me occupied while…”
He stopped, mid sentence. Using the Rogues…