Dance With the Demons
"Honestly," said Selina Kyle. "If you all keep acting like you're at a wake, I'm going to make you play tag with Hecate. I appreciate it, but you make me feel like I'm the Elephant Man holding court."
"Elephant Man?" asked Jason Todd. "What powers does he have?"
Alfred, Dick Grayson the Elder and Selina started laughing, and even Helena Wayne had to hide a smile, so Jason knew he'd said something dorky. He tried to scrunch down into his sweatshirt, but Selina had him come over and gave him a hug and a kiss on the top of his head. "Don't you worry about that, Jase," she said. "Once Aunt Selina gets out of bed, you're going to teach me how to be a momma. I think we're both gonna enjoy it."
"I hope so," said Jason. "I haven't had a mama in awhile. Uh, excuse me if I said something dumb again."
Dick, the old Robin from Earth-Two, got up from his seat and went to Jason's side, as did Helena. "You haven't said anything dumb, Jason," said Dick. "You're a lucky kid. A lot luckier than I was. My Batman didn't get married until I was already off at college. Our Selina never had a chance to be my mother. It was just us guys, me, Bruce, and Alfred...that is, our Alfred...for all those years I stayed with Bruce."
"How long did you stay with Bruce, Dick?" asked Selina, curious.
"Till ‘55," said the old Boy Wonder, his hand on Jason's shoulder. "I'd graduated from high school in ‘49, but I didn't want to go to college just then. So Bruce let me help run his businesses, and we still did the Batman and Robin thing at night. But..um, truth to tell...I was getting a little old for those short pants."
Helena cracked up and leaned against him. "Oh, gawd, Dick, I'm sorry. I shouldn't, but I can't help it. I mean, thinking of you being 25 years old and going out bare-legged." She kept on laughing, and Jason started to giggle.
"Oh, yeah?" said Dick. "You don't seem to have a problem showing off your legs in that Huntress costume!"
"That's different," she said, in mock dignity. "Girls have a right to show off their legs, if they want to. Nobody's complained so far, not even the crooks."
"That's base sexism! Guys should have a right to bare legs, as they have the right to bear arms. If it isn't in the Constitution, it should be."
Selina said, "Do I see a pose-down coming? Bring it on! It'll help my recovery."
Alfred murmured, "Or, Mistress Selina, it might retard it somewhat. Especially if you insisted on seeing mine."
Jason was turning red from holding it in. Selina reached out a manicured forefinger and poked him in the ribs. He sprawled on the floor of the Batcave, holding his sides and laughing as hard as he could.
The old butler smiled. "It's good to hear that kind of thing down here again. Sometimes we go for days without hearing the sound of laughter. I almost want to tape-record it when it happens, so that I won't forget what it sounds like."
"Oh man, no more, no more," gasped Jason. "I can't take it. Please." He wiped his eyes and sat up. "Oh, cripes. It's gonna be fun having you around, Aunt Selina. Even on school nights. Maybe."
Selina said, "It'll be less fun if you don't keep your grades up. I know how to use a cat-o'-nine-tails."
Helena snorted laughter. God help her, it was good to see someone this much like her mother again. Even if she was ailing and abed, she had a Selina Wayne in her life once more. It was almost enough to make her consider changing Earths.
But she had a job back home, and so did Dick. They'd both had to go back to their Earth for a day, take care of business, and then hop the Justice Society Transporter Cube back here to check on the bedridden Catwoman. They'd have to beam up to the JLA's satellite early tomorrow morning, teleport back to Earth-Two, warp down to their Gotham, and get back to work again. Neither one of them could keep commuting that way for very long. It made them feel too weird inside.
And their jobs, as lawyer and diplomat respectively, weren't usually things they could just leave at the office.
"So, uncle Dick, how old were you when you got out of the shorts?" asked Jason, who was more or less in control again.
Dick put a foot on his chair. "I tapered off when I finally went to Gotham U. It was enough of a job to keep up my studies. I got my b.a. in Business Admin, but I wanted to do more than that. So I studied law, got my liscence, but I never practiced. Got married, got divorced in three years, no children.
"Around that time, Jack Kennedy got elected, and I went to work as a local campaign manager. Bruce was as Republican as hell, just like your Bruce, but he didn't say anything about it. I made a friend there who got me into the striped-pants business. Found out I liked travelling, representing Uncle Sam and all that. Bruce was still Batmanning it, and I would've liked to, sometimes, but...well, that costume. Plus the fact that I was out of town as often as not. You know.
"So." Dick sat in the chair again, remembering the mid-Sixties and all the Apocalypse that seemed ready to erupt in the nation. "One night he was out of town and I wasn't. I was listening to the radio and they said that the Joker had gotten loose for about the 477th time. Green Lantern was still in town--I mean Alan Scott, not your Lantern--but he never much messed with our villains, and we didn't mess with his much. Not unless we asked each other to. I figured I had to do something about it. But I wasn't going to do it in that little-pants costume that didn't even fit me much anymore.
"I took the car down to the mansion, met Alfred, and told him what I wanted to do. So we went down to the ‘Cave and got one of Batman's spare uniforms and made some alterations on it. Put a yellow cape on it, changed the chest symbol, made an eyemask, did some other stuff, and made it fit me. No short pants this time. I guess I looked more like Batman than Robin, but that was all right. I went out in our reserve Batmobile, tracked down old Chalkface, and nailed him. The newsies got some pictures of me standing with him on the courthouse steps, like I was some old time sheriff with a desperado or something. That was how the world, our world, learned that Robin hadn't gone away.
"Bruce saw the picture, too. When he came back, he said, ‘You've done good for yourself, Dick.' That meant a lot, coming from him. He asked me if I wanted to be the new Batman when he retired. I told him no, I didn't want to wait that long. I said I'd just stick to being Robin whenever I was in town. He said that was good enough, and we shook hands. A few weeks after that, he sponsored me to the Justice Society and I got in. Later on, I got a few sketches from an artist called, I think his name was Adams."
"Neal Adams," said Helena. "I've got a better memory, Dick."
"So you do. The colors were like my old suit, but they didn't have the short-pants bit. I had a uniform made up based on his sketches. Wore it once when I met your Dick Grayson on a case with the JSA and the League. Then I made it my permanent outfit about the time Power Girl joined up. That's pretty well it.
"I'm about the age Bruce was when he hung it up, back then. I don't do too much of the Robin bit, but I do some. Helena'll tell you, we've worked together a lot. It's good to know there's still a Robin on this Earth, ‘cause it won't be long before my Earth doesn't have one anymore."
"Aw," said Jason. "You can still get married, Uncle Dick."
Dick Grayson shook his head. "No, Jase. I never had that kind of luck with women. Guess I was looking for Miss Right, or maybe a woman that was like Jessica--my first wife--in the ways I liked, and not in the ways I didn't."
Selina said, "Don't ever say never, Dick. I thought for certain I'd never find anyone to marry. Didn't think anybody'd want an ex-con like me for anything but one-night stands, and Batman wanted me, I knew, and I wanted him, but we were on opposite sides for so long. Then I got out of the joint for the last time, and I met Bruce. He seemed--well, I know it sounds dumb, since I know he is Batman now, and you folks always did--but it seemed like he had some of Batman's qualities, the strength and all that, without the hardness. I would say the meanness, and Bruce is mean when he needs to be, but he's not a hard-ass to the people he loves. We were going together, and I was still working with Batman, and I was darned if I knew which one I wanted to go to--I mean, which one I loved the most. I wondered sometimes if they might be the same guy, but I was never for sure. Feminine intuition? Bleah!
"Then we had the Crisis thing, and he came over in full costume to my place, unmasked, froze me right on the spot, and asked me to marry him. I didn't have to say yes. He knows how to read people. So he was telling me about where and when we could have the ceremony while I was telling him yes, yes, yes, and I grabbed him and he grabbed me back, and we just about jumped each other's bones right there. Uh, sorry, Jason."
"S'okay," said Jason.
"But we decided we'd wait till after the ceremony, and now, well, look. So as soon as I'm well enough...oh, you can fill in the blanks."
Helena, resting her head on her hands, smiled wistfully. "Hope I can find somebody myself. Between lawyering and heroing, I don't get much of a chance to date."
Selina looked her right in the eyes. "Cut back on your heroing. It won't kill you, and you might find out Gotham City can go a few nights without you. I'm serious, Hel."
Helena was a bit grimmer. "Gotham City in my world is just about as dangerous as yours. It doesn't have a Batman anymore. Alan Scott won't be around forever. I have to take up the slack."
"Maybe it doesn't need one anymore," said another voice. "As long as it has you and Dick."
All turned, except Selina, who was facing the newcomer. "Oh, Bruce," she said. "How pleasant of you to stop by. By the way, I'm Selina. Your new wife. In case you forgot."
Bruce Wayne stood at the entrance to the Batcave room in which Selina lay abed. He looked a bit tired. As Bruce, he was allowed to. When he had on the mask, hardly anyone noticed him in fatigue.
"I haven't forgotten," he said, not loudly. "Dick, Helena, Jason, if you please, I'd like to be alone with my wife for a few minutes."
Dick Grayson nodded. "Sure, Bruce. Say, maybe later we could get together and--"
"Not now." The business-suited millionaire stepped forward to Selina's bed, hardly looking at the others. Jason had learned to put up with it, but Dick and Helena exchanged surprised glances.
"Let me know if you need me, Bruce," said Jason, as the three of them filed out.
"I will," promised Wayne.
After they were out of the door, Selina raised herself up on one elbow. "Hell of a way to treat your guests, and your adopted son."
"I'm sorry," said Bruce. "I just needed to talk to you alone."
"Bruce, I've got to tell you something. You're going to have to learn to be a human being again. Starting right now."
"What?" He looked genuinely perplexed. "I am a human being, Selina. Much more than I'd like to be, sometimes."
"Uh huh." Selina Wayne looked at him, coldly. "So you can come down here without so much as saying, ‘Hello, how are you', to Jason and Dick and Helena, and tell them ‘Get the hell out of here' in so many words. You ever know how cold you can be at times, like right now? These are your friends, Bruce. Part of your extended family. You know?"
Bruce Wayne sat in the chair Dick had vacated. "I know, Selina. Right after this, I'll go up and apologize. But we're going to have to leave in a few hours, and I wanted to talk with you before I went."
Selina lay back down on the bed and sighed. "My God. I've seen Alfred's and Jason's faces more than I have yours, since I got married to you."
"It's something I have to do," he said, a note of petulance in his voice.
"‘Something I have to do,'" she mocked. "Since our wedding, you've chased off to Greenland, you went someplace in town that took up a lot of time, presumably as Batman, and now you're going off to India. Look, Bruce." She grasped his wrist. "I'm scared about this thing, too."
He nodded. "I expect you would be. It wasn't me that got hit by a poisoned dart."
"Right. My legs are still half-numb, and I'm hoping by the end of the week I'll be able to use crutches to get around. But that's not what scares me most now. You know what does?"
"Losing me?" said Bruce.
She breathed. "You really are the world's greatest detective," she said.
He chuckled. "Didn't take too much talent to guess that." He cupped the side of her face with his hand.
"Don't, Bruce," she said. "I don't know if I'll be able to say what I want to with you touching me like that."
"Don't you think I've missed touching you, too?" he said. "Don't you think I'm looking forward to the night when we can make love?"
"Oh, you bastard," she smiled. "That just frustrates me more. I don't know if I could do it or not now, but I know I wouldn't have the control I want. Maybe not the feeling, either. Let me talk, please?"
"Take your hand away," she said. He did.
Selina said, "I don't want you to die before we have a life together, Bruce. As man and wife, you know? I want you to make love to me and give me a child and have me bear it for us both. More than one child. I want to be part of a family again, and that includes Jason and even Alfred. I'm hardly a virgin...but you're the man I always wanted. Ever since we first met."
"I know you want to find whoever did it, and take them down. You think you're protecting me. But so long as we live this kind of life, Bruce, it's going to be someone else trying to do it, and somebody after that, and somebody after that, and on down the line."
"Selina, you know I can't give up being the Batman now," said Bruce. "You knew that before we got married. I told you. You said you wanted to go on being Catwoman, too. Remember?"
"I remember," she said. "But being like this can change your perspective. How will we raise a child, Bruce, if we're always off on the rooftops, chasing the latest Joker-wannabe? What will he grow up to be, if he doesn't have a mother and father around when he needs one?"
"We've been over this before. I can fit parenting into my life. I'll curtail some of my activities, if I have to."
"I can see it. ‘Sorry, son, couldn't be at the Little League today. Two-Face was trying to blow up the World Trade Center. You know how these things go.'"
"What do you want me to say?" For a long instant, she saw the Batman in his aspect, and it frightened her. "Gotham is almost a wide-open town. Gordon and the cops can't cope with the ones that I face. I have to be there--"
"Did you ever let them try, Bruce? Instead of charging in like gangbusters, to make sure you were the one who got the credit for busting the latest funny suit?"
"Including you, sometimes."
"Yes, Bruce. Including me." She paused. "It must be a great way to meet girls."
He stared at her for a second, then burst out laughing.
She tried to keep a straight face, then started cracking up, too.
After a few minutes, they both got it under control. She snickered. "I had so much competition. Poison Ivy. Batgirl. Nocturna. I should be glad you picked me."
"Best decision I ever made, along with taking in Dick and Jason," said Bruce. "I don't regret it. Even now."
She rubbed her face with her hands. "That doesn't change the situation, Bruce."
"Let me tell you why I have to do it," he said, moving to take her shoulders.
"I know why you have to do it," she said. "Vengeance for your wife. Just like you had to take vengeance for your parents."
He sighed and shook her once. "No. That's only part of it. Certainly, anyone who attacks you is going to have to have me to deal with. And he'll be lucky if he can deal with anything once I'm done with him. But it's bigger than that.
"The person who has done this, Selina, did it as a challenge. Whether his grudge was against you or me--whether he knows that I am Batman, or just knows that Batman would avenge the Catwoman--he was challenging me. If I can't find him, if I can't repay him, take him down for what he's done, then he knows the Batman is no worry to him. Maybe no worry to the entire underworld. That could be more dangerous than you know."
"You'll have to hang up the cape someday, Bruce." Selina wasn't smiling as she said it.
He looked at her, stroked her face briefly. "Someday, perhaps. But, Selina, if I let this go by, it would be an open invitation to strike at you again. Or me. Or anyone connected with me. It wouldn't stop till one of us died. Maybe not even then." He withdrew his hand. "Criminals have a code of sorts. If you get hit, you hit back. If you don't hit back, the other guy considers you an easy mark, starts moving in on your territory. In this case, it'd be both of our lives...and Gotham. I won't have that. I will not have that."
She sighed again. "Maybe you're right, honey. But I don't know. Seems like all your League buddies are getting married now. I hope all of us women don't end up widows in a year's time."
He didn't know what to say to that, so he said nothing.
"I remember all those years I spent as a crook," said Selina. "In a cat-eared mask with a long slit up my skirt, or that green bodysuit, or the blue one. I made all my own outfits, Bruce. Did you know that?"
He shook his head, smiling.
"Did you like them?"
He nodded, smiling even more. "I liked the slit skirt a lot, but the green outfit was my favorite. Not much exposure, but it showed off your body."
"C'mere, Batman." He obeyed, and she kissed him open-mouthed, and kept on kissing him for a long time. When they broke, she was gasping.
"I'm sorry, Selina," he said, holding her with concern. "Let me get Alfred. I'll call Dr. Dundee."
"No, you idiot," she said. "That's not it. I'll be all right. I'm not doing this because I'm sick."
"I can't wait till we can go to bed together," she said. "If you want, I could--"
"No," he said. "That won't be necessary. I'll be coming back. You will recover."
"Are you sure? About both things?"
"Sure as I can be." Then he looked up at the ceiling, with its stalactites high above, swallowed, and looked at her again. "But I have to tell you something, Selina."
"In case I don't, I've made a deposit. At a bank. Not money. I've told Alfred about it."
Her eyes widened.
"You must use it, in such an eventuality, to--"
"No, Bruce! Don't even say it. Tell me you'll stay home with me. Please."
He looked her in the eyes and could not answer.
"We will have children, Selina," he said, eventually. "One way, or another."
She turned over on her stomach, careful not to pull out the IV line attached to her arm.
Bruce bent over her. "Selina," he said.
"Go away," she said, and he could tell she was holding back tears. "Go play Batman. I'll be here if you get back. Go."
He stood and left.
Alfred had wanted to go to bed, but he couldn't. Not when three men had showed up at the gates and been admitted. All were in civilian dress, none of them knew the others, and none of their faces or i.d.'s matched a crook's. In fact, after running their data through the Batcave computer with an upstairs link, Alfred knew just who they were, and judged that all of them could be safely let in.
Jeff Pierce was one of them. Alfred had opened the gates electronically for the threesome, and, after they parked their cars in front of the mansion, greeted all three of them personally. To Pierce, Alfred said, "Go right on up, sir. Master Wayne is waiting for you."
The other two were both black-haired and favored clothes off the pipe racks. One of them wore a hat, the other did not. The hatless one Alfred thought he had seen before, on televison. The other one he wasn't sure about.
Alfred stepped inside with the three, had the two who weren't Pierce wait in the foyer, and accompanied Jeff to the library. He saw Bruce Wayne making what appeared to be an apology of sorts to Dick the Elder and Helena. Catching him in an awkward handshake with the older man, Alfred said, "Ah, Master Wayne, sir. Mr. Pierce is here for you, and two other gentlemen are in the foyer to see you, sir."
Bruce looked up. "Jeff, good to see you back. What's your schedule?"
Pierce smiled. "Takin' a couple of days off, Bruce. Try not to get me killed, okay?"
Grayson said, "That's a promise nobody in our line can keep, fella. Dick Grayson." He stuck out his hand.
For a minute, Pierce looked perplexed. "Oh," he said. "You're the older one. From the other, uh..."
"The other Earth," murmured Helena, smiling a bit. She stuck out her own hand for a shake. "Hi. Helena Wayne. I wear a mask, too. You must be one of the Outsiders."
Pierce took her hand and looked at Bruce. "She is cool, right, Bruce?"
"She's the Huntress," said Bruce. "You saw her at the wedding. Jeff here is Black Lightning. Try and catch some sack time, Jeff, we're leaving for India in the morning."
Bruce was already focusing on Alfred again. "Who are the other two?"
"A Jack Ryder and one Edward O'Brian, sir."
His suspicions were aroused. "Did they say why they wanted to see me?"
"They had heard, sir, that the Batman was on the Catwoman case, and they wanted you to contact him on their behalf. They wish to offer their services."
"If you need ours, too, just ask, Bruce," said Dick.
"That's fine, Dick, but we can handle this." Bruce ran a hand through his hair. "Okay, give me a minute to change." He went to the old grandfather clock between two bookcases, touched a secret catch, swung it out from the wall, and stepped into the space beyond. Then he swung it shut again, from inside.
"Just like on our world," said Dick Grayson.
Jack Ryder and Eddie O'Brian sat outside on the sofa, drinking Sanka provided for them by Alfred. They were somewhat ill at ease with one another. Jack thought O'Brian looked like an old-time gangster. O'Brian thought that Ryder looked like a wannabe private op.
"So how do you have business with Wayne?" asked Ryder, casually.
"Guess I could ask you the same question," said O'Brian. "Actually, I don't. It's Batman I want to get hold of. Thought of getting hold of the Commish and having him use the Hotline, but I've met Wayne."
"And it was his wife that almost got whacked," said Ryder.
"Ex-actly." O'Brian stretched himself on the sofa. He looked, to Ryder, almost taller than he had been when they had walked through the door together.
Ryder toyed with his empty cup before refilling it from the coffee pitcher. "I owe the Bat Guy one," he said. "I work network security, even though I do special reports sometimes."
"Yeah. TV. Batguy helped on some investigations. I figure I can help him out in this case. Somebody he used to love gets hit, not surprising he gets involved."
"I agree," said O'Brian.
"Whaddya you do?" asked Ryder.
"This ‘n' that. Batman helped me out a few times, too."
"You're an informant, right?"
"Where'd you get that idea, paisan?"
Ryder gave a wise-guy smile. "I know a guy who's been in the rackets when I see one."
O'Brian shook his head and gave a tut-tut noise. "You gotta do something about that tendency to make unfounded allegations, pally. You might make ‘em about somebody really connected. And he could disconnect you, permanently."
"You talking tough?" Ryder put his cup down.
O'Brian laughed. "Pally, maintain your cool. I'm about as dangerous as a dill pickle. I've just come to pay back a favor. To the Batman."
"Okay," said Ryder. "Just don't pencil me in for any attention from your touch-up artists. I touch back."
"Oooh, I'm impressed," sighed O'Brian, and pulled his hat over his eyes. Ryder decided he didn't like him.
"Good evening, gentlemen," came a carefully modulated voice.
Both looked towards the doorway.
The Batman stood there, arms folded.
"I've been working with Bruce Wayne on the Catwoman case, as you might have guessed," said the Dark Knight. "Jack, Eel, what did you want with me?"
"Eel?" Ryder looked at the man beside him.
Batman nodded at O'Brian. "You may as well let him know," he said. "He can be trusted."
"If you say so," said O'Brian.
With that, he withdrew his head below his collar, quicker than a striking cobra. At the same time, his arms and legs retracted within his clothes, two fingers snapping out a second later to snatch a glasses case from his own pocket. Then, something seemed to flow out of the pinstriped suit faster than Jack Ryder's eyes could follow.
It resolved itself into a human shape, standing in front of the sofa where its crumpled suit, fallen hat, and abandoned shoes still reposed.
The human shape had a red costume which left his legs bare and wore a pair of shades on his eyes and was easily recognized by Jack Ryder, who was drop-jawed for two seconds.
"Plastic Man," he said. "Holy spit, I've been trading wiseguy dialogue with Plastic Man!"
The Malleable Marvel grinned, sharkishly.
Batman stepped forward. "I've got places to go in the morning. I assume you both want to help. Jack, Plas, let's talk."