At sixteen till, Robin lands next to him on top of the arch. The grapple releases and the decel line retracts, the near soundless whip of it bleeding into the whisper of Robin’s cape as he hunkers down, matching Batman’s crouch.
“Need a hand?” he asks.
“No,” Batman says, and raises his binoculars.
Down below, rectangular greenhouses set like daisy petals around a circular central glasshouse are dark and quiet. They have been for the last two hours and twenty-one minutes. They will be for as long as it takes.
He’ll stay as long as is necessary because sooner or later, Ivy will come back. She’ll go to ground, check up on her little green darlings, and then he’ll learn why people all over Gotham have been found cocooned in human-sized seed pods, vines grown into their arteries, pulsing thick green sap where blood used to flow.
There’s no rhythm to the outbreak of green. It strikes between two and ten people each day, always without warning, anyone, anywhere. No one is exempt, no walk of life excluded. A single affected criminal would have been one person too many, but the head count is forty-six and rising, and the victims…
Yesterday was Leslie’s nurse practitioner, blank-eyed and drooling. The day before that was a WayneTech employee and her entire family; today a homeless man, a school teacher and… Montoya.
People Bruce Wayne and Batman both know well. People neither of them have ever heard of, much less met. Good people. Not so good people. People who are both and neither, which is most of humanity.
The binoculars creak in his hands. Batman loosens his grip.
There will be no new cases tomorrow. No more silent green pods filled with someone else’s mother, child, lover, husband. It’s why he’s still on top of the Robinson Park memorial arch, waiting, Robin growing restless beside him. Which is why he sent Robin out on patrol earlier, only to have his orders disobeyed. Of late, it's not an isolated incident.
Robin has always strained the limits of his boundaries, but the envelope he’s pushing is in shreds along with Batman’s patience. He’s not sure how much longer he’s willing to let things go on the way they’ve been going. He’s not sure the call is his to make. It’s Robin’s game, and Robin is nothing if not unpredictable.
Even now, understanding the need for recon and patience, he’s as likely to attack as he is to stick to his training. He’s been here less than ten minutes and he hasn’t stayed still for one of them.
Small movements, nothing detectable to a casual observer. He shifts his weight, tilts his head side to side until his neck pops, and slants a look at Batman. “You could pretend to be a little happier to see me. If you’re right about Ivy, this could go bad real quick.” He’s eyeing the greenhouses, judging the distance between them and the arch. “Want me to get in closer, get a better look?”
Something moves sluggishly inside the round glasshouse. Enhanced magnification shows tangles of rootless vines writhing between flowering shrubs.
“You’re supposed to be on patrol.”
“Catwoman and BG have a handle on things,” Robin says dismissively. His body bends and dips as he hooks a foot over the nearest gargoyle’s neck, pulling himself up onto it. “You know, I flaked on KF’s game night to come down here—”
“This isn’t a game.”
“You think I don’t know that?”
Months since there was more joy than irony in Robin’s laughter. Even longer since he’s laughed openly around Batman. “And you’re the only person qualified to judge, right? Jeeze, give it a—”
“Excuse me, am I interrupting?”
Robin’s acrobatic balance is the only thing keeping him from toppling off the gargoyle. He sways in place, steadying himself, and then he looks up and smiles and says, “Hey Supes, how’s it going?”
Batman continues scanning the greenhouses. Superman doesn’t need his validation.
Superman knows he’s interrupting, distracting Batman’s already distracted partner and drawing dangerous attention with his out of town costume. Batman knows nothing he can say or do short of kryptonite will make him go away before he’s ready.
“Hey yourself,” he hears Superman say. “You’re a chipper bird this evening.”
Robin’s laughter blossoms open for the farm boy from Krypton the way it doesn’t for Batman anymore. “Somebody around here has to be,” Robin says, too close to his own inflections for comfort; the boy is a damnably good mimic. “Sure isn’t gonna be him.”
Out of the corner of his eye he can see Robin grinning at Superman, a brilliantly plumed spring bird turning its face up to the hot radiance of a summer sun. He reminds himself he isn’t here for this. He reminds himself what he is here for.
Greenhouses. Ivy. Chlorophyll-based mutagens. “Robin,” he growls, and he sees Robin’s shoulders stiffen. He sees the rueful smile Robin offers Superman, and he does not snarl like the feral animal he knows himself to be when Superman rests his hand on Robin’s shoulder.
He doesn’t turn around and jerk Superman’s hand away from Robin. He’s not sure he could manage without kryptonite.
Promised failure is bitter in the back of his throat and Robin is still smiling, laying a gauntleted hand over Superman’s bare skin. Batman swallows, he tastes acid, and Robin flips himself off the gargoyle and lands beside him.
He can feel the boy’s warmth through layers of Kevlar and Nomex. Robin leans in until his shoulder brushes Batman’s and murmurs, “You win, okay? I’m out of here. But just because you can be a jerk doesn’t mean you have to be. Ease up on the big guy.”
The greenhouses are still quiet, although there’s a strange blue-white luminescence growing stronger inside the central glasshouse. Batman doesn’t lower the binoculars.
Robin’s sigh fades by soft degrees; the warm, full space at Batman’s shoulder empties coldly out.
“He’s gone,” Superman says in a subdued tone.
Annoyance lances his temples; he doesn’t need Superman to tell him… anything. “You can leave,” he says, still not looking up. “I don't recall requesting backup.” He shifts beneath his cape, allowing blood to circulate more freely through cramped muscle, and he hears the flap and flare of Superman’s cape. His own cape is designed not to make noise unless he wants it to. Superman doesn’t need to care what his does.
“We know she has a contact in Metropolis,” Superman says. “We’ve had five pods reported so far. That makes this as much my problem as yours.”
Possibly, but this is Gotham, and Superman is too obvious for his own good. Batman says, “Get down before you’re seen,” and there’s movement below, a door opening into the glasshouse. Superman floats down to hover behind a gargoyle as Livewire follows Poison Ivy through the door.
He hears Superman’s quiet, “Damn it, Leslie.” He can feel Superman’s frustration pouring off him in waves. And it should be easy to shut it out, easy to concentrate on Ivy’s moving lips. Concentration shouldn’t even be an issue, but since the cruise and the rift, Superman has become… problematic in distracting ways. Kent has become problematic in that Superman and Kent are one and the same, and also completely different. It’s—
Like looking at one of the composite pictures the Riddler uses. It takes a while to see the big picture encapsulating the smaller ones, but once you’ve seen, you can’t unsee.
He looks at Superman and sees Kent; looks at Kent and sees Superman, sees Kal-El, sees Clark, that guy from the cruise who was too annoyed with his jerk of a roommate to be anything but himself. He can’t see one persona without acknowledging the composite whole behind all of Kent’s facades, and looking at him is fast becoming an exercise in disoriented frustration.
He wonders if Kent has the same problem or if x-ray vision cancels the psychological ramifications out. It certainly gives new meaning to seeing through someone.
In a way, it’s comforting to know that even if Kent wanted to see Bruce Wayne instead of Batman, he physically can’t. He can feel him staring at the back of his cowl, possibly wondering why he hasn’t removed the lead lining. He can almost hear his thought processes grinding away, and he doesn’t actually want to know what’s going on in Kent’s head, but not knowing is even more problematic than Kent himself.
Most of the time, Bruce would prefer not to know. Batman will always need to.
Batman needs to know, and Kent needs to clear the air. “Go ahead,” Batman starts to say, but the greenhouse door opens again and Harley Quinn walks through, carrying the possibility of the Joker and a thousand other things Batman needs to know with her.
Kent is fast becoming a non-issue. If Joker’s involved…
If. Quinn sometimes operates on her own initiative, and she’s bad enough by herself. Her presence is one more reason to shut Ivy’s little garden down tonight and with Superman here the op should… Superman.
“Tell me,” Batman says.
“Tell you what?” Superman whispers back.
In the greenhouse, Ivy is still speaking, gesturing at a bed of scarlet plants swaying to their own living beat. Livewire listens, head cocked, and Quinn wanders over and leans against Ivy, popping her gum. Ivy’s hand trails down Quinn’s hip; a vine curls lazily up Quinn’s leg. Maybe the Joker isn’t part of this equation.
In Batman’s peripheral vision, alien cloth flutters. He wants to tell Superman to get his cape under control. He tightens his grip on the binoculars and says, “If you have a problem, I need to know about it before we go in.”
Air fills billowing fabric. The tap of Superman’s thin boots down onto the arch seems louder than it actually is. “It’s nothing,” he says.
Batman closes his mouth on several things he might regret voicing. “Do you want to find out if Ivy’s new spores can penetrate Kryptonian pores?”
Superman shoots him a sullen look with more than a hint of red in it. “Fine,” he bites off. “All right? Fine. It’s—” He starts to straighten and stops, consternation in the stiff set of his shoulders. Batman knows he hates crouching. He wants to throw his shoulders back and his chest out, but the cloud-swollen sky over Robinson Park is a far cry from the well-lit Metropolis airspace.
He settles for crossing his arms and saying, “Hayseed.”
Batman lowers his binoculars. Given their surroundings, he’s giving Kent more attention than he should, but… Kent’s not an idiot. Batman will give him that. Even if he is annoying. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Superman stares at the greenhouses, a muscle in his jaw ticcing away.
Batman decides he can live without knowing this once. He starts to lift the binoculars again and Superman grudgingly says, “That’s what you called me. On the ship.”
He’s grateful for lead lining, cardio syncs, and whiteout lenses. In their business, a blink is as good as a flinch.
He’s grateful Superman is so intent on making his point.
“Do you have any idea how hackneyed that is?” Superman says. “How many times I’ve heard it since I left home?” His hand starts to rise, pausing just shy of the space where his glasses aren’t; it’s a tellingly human gesture and it throws Batman’s perceptions off another degree, blurs a few more lines.
Superman still isn’t done; apparently his superhuman powers extend to making whispers sound indignant. “You’re one of the most intelligent people on earth. Can’t you come up with some more imaginative insults? I mean hayseed.” And he’s back to crossed arms, hands tucked in like an antsy kid sitting on his fingers. “Give me a break!”
Where do you want it? Batman almost says. Wait here while I go get the kryptonite.
But that would be juvenile and he leaves that kind of thing to Robin. Six months ago, a martini glass shatters. “Heat vision.”
It’s Superman’s turn to blink. “What?”
“You broke that glass.”
Superman doesn’t wear a mask; he doesn’t have the benefit of whiteouts. When he blinks the world blinks back, and when he frowns, whole continents dive for cover.
“The ship,” Batman says, and Superman’s frown smoothes away, is replaced by a light flush. He starts to say something, but Batman gets there first: “I only insult people worth insulting.”
Tomorrow, Ivy mouths. Blüdhaven.
Superman’s voice goes up nearly an octave. “Is that supposed to be a compliment?”
“If you like.” Batman collapses the binoculars and tucks them back into their pouch. He says, “Let’s do this,” and he doesn’t wait for a response. He goes through the greenhouse roof boots first, glass shattering around him, Superman following in his wake.
Vined together, mouths and eyes rounded out, Ivy and Quinn go down under him with matching shrieks. Batman knocks their heads together, a satisfyingly hollow thunk, and lets them drop. He’s reaching for his cuffs when Superman shouts, “Behind you!” Before he can turn, one of Ivy’s thorny pets attaches itself to his legs.
He hears Livewire’s disgusted, “Well, shit,” hears Superman’s grunt of pain, and there’s a blinding flash and spots swimming at the edges of his vision, even with the lenses. A second vine joins the first, trapping his left arm against his torso, and he scrabbles at his belt with his free hand, the ozone-heavy scent of Livewire’s strikes searing the soft membranes in his throat and nose.
The vines around his arm and ribs start squeezing. The spots in front of his eyes aren’t only from Livewire’s current; the blood supply to his brain is being cut off and he can feel two of his ribs starting to give. Around the edges of his sparking vision he catches movement, a third vine slithering, curling up his leg toward his mobile arm. He’d call for some heat vision relief, but from the sounds he’s making, Superman is fully occupied.
Fifteen seconds of consciousness left.
He gropes along his belt, counting indents until he gets to the right one. The catch depresses under urgent pressure and a slim atomizer slips into his palm.
He has to yank his wrist free, but a few good sprays later, Ivy’s vines are cringing away from him while Livewire’s outraged shout spirals upward, drowning in a gust of Superman’s frozen breath.
The concentrated herbicide takes care of the remaining free-roaming vegetation. Batman shakes off the dying vines and finishes cuffing Quinn and Ivy together. They’re awake, if groggy, and over their slurred protests he hears Superman say, “I’m disappointed in you, Leslie,” in the resonant, regretful tone that makes wrongdoers everywhere shuffle and stammer and wish desperately for a cop, a prison cell, a rival gang, anything but Superman being disappointed.
Superman disappointed is almost as bad as Batman, period.
Batman doesn’t think in terms of winning or losing—he doesn’t allow himself that luxury. He either succeeds briefly or he fails and learns from his failure.
There’s no real victory in apprehending a criminal or two. Even as he’s cuffing them, people are still hurting other people, everywhere. It’s a matter of degree, of wars versus battles, and his war is never over.
But sometimes Pamela Isley and Harleen Quinzel are cuffed together and glaring up at him from a bed of squashed plants. Sometimes Leslie Willis is out cold in a puddle of half-frozen water and Superman is standing over her with a garden hose looking very, very disappointed.
Victory will never be a deciding factor in Batman’s life, but sometimes there is room for satisfaction.
Distant enough for attenuation but close enough to be moving towards them, police sirens wail. Livewire’s fireworks display must have been spectacular. “I’ll take her back with me,” Superman says. He’s lifting her from the puddle, wrapping her in his cape. “As of now, Star’s the only place with the right holding facilities.”
He sounds like he's expecting an argument. He's not going to get one. The last thing Gotham needs is Metropolis trash damming up Arkham’s overflowing gutters. “Have your people coordinate with Gordon’s task force,” Batman says. “I doubt she knows anything Ivy doesn’t, but—”
“Expect the unexpected.” There’s a smile, unusually wry. Not Superman’s. Not for mass consumption. “Do you ever get tired of being right all the time?”
“Hh,” Batman says. “Apparently, I’m not that good with insults.” He turns back to Isley and Quinzel, but not before he sees Superman’s—Kent’s smile widen into a grin. He isn’t given time to return it before Superman lifts into the air. He wouldn’t have, anyway.
Batman saves his smiles for the Isleys and Quinzels of the world. It’s much more effective.
Superman’s ill-trained cape flaps as he shoots through the gaping hole in the roof, Livewire in his arms. Quinzel and Isley are staring up at Batman. He gives them the smile he didn’t give Kent. They start babbling.
It’s not a victory, not even a win. But in a few days the pod people will rejoin the human race.
Batman allows himself the fleeting luxury of satisfaction.
The Rumpus in Robinson Park makes the front pages of the Gotham Gazette and the Daily Planet. He usually goes over both papers online, but this morning they’re sitting on the dining room table alongside the others he subscribes to, and while he consumes his coffee and cereal he reads about Batman and Superman working in concert to thwart Poison Ivy’s latest scheme for converting fauna into flora. Twice.
Kent’s article is superior, of course. Granted, he does have the advantage of Superman’s firsthand knowledge, while Batman is never around to give statements, but Kent is also remarkably good at his job. A complete one-eighty from Vale’s insinuating prose, his writing style is lucid and engaging, not that Bruce will ever tell him that.
“Is there a specific reason I needed to see these?” Bruce asks as Alfred refills his coffee cup.
“I thought you might enjoy perusing the fruits of your labors before you are required to achieve at least six more impossible things directly after breakfast.”
Steam, rising from the cup Bruce holds clouds his view of Alfred’s bland expression. “And?”
Alfred sets the pot down and steps back, clasping his hands behind his back. “I’m afraid there was a breakout approximately fifty minutes ago. Zsasz and the Ventriloquist.”
Battles and wars, he reminds himself, staring blankly at the seat across from his.
“You do much good, sir,” Alfred says. “Every night and day.”
“Not enough. It’s never enough.” He finally registers the seat’s empty state. “Is Dick still upstairs?”
“I believe not.”
His hands want to fidget, rattle the paper and trace lines through the condensation on his cup. They don’t move at all. “He got home all right last night?”
Alfred’s left eyebrow rises. “Certainly, if his display of gymnastic prowess this morning was any indication.”
“So he…” He hates playing these pointless, convoluted games, examining every word or action for potential emotional pitfalls. He doesn’t know how to do anything else. “He already left.”
“For the library,” Alfred confirms. “The high school is closed today and Ms. Gordon will be joining him there.”
“I see.” He doesn’t. If there’s a hidden message, he can’t find it. He starts to push his chair back and Alfred says, “Ms. Rehnquist from the Foundation telephoned again. She wishes to know if you’ll be attending the charity drive this coming Saturday in Metropolis.”
Halfway out of his seat, Bruce pauses, frowning. “I thought I already declined.”
“You did. However, this is an important event, and the Foundation would appreciate your representation.” Alfred returns his skeptical look with forthright calm. “Day and night, Master Bruce. And perhaps not only in Gotham?”
Bruce laughs shortly and settles back down in his chair, glancing again at Dick’s empty seat. “Did you already bring this up with Dick?”
“Indeed I did. However, I doubt the young sir will be joining you.”
Bruce raises both eyebrows.
Alfred coughs. “Master Dick’s exact words were, ‘When monkeys fly out of my butt.’”
Eventually he’s going to have to do something about Dick. That doesn’t mean he’s not going to put off doing it for as long as he can.
He’s due at a WayneTech board meeting in less than fifteen minutes, he’s scheduled to have lunch with DA Van Dorn at one, and Zsasz and Wesker are loose. Bruce leisurely uncurls himself from his chair. “Is the Bentley out front?”
“Fueled and waiting. Shall I return it to the car park?”
“Yes, and let Lucius know I won’t be in today.” He pushes his chair in and retrieves his laptop from the buffet on his way out. He pauses in the doorway. “Give Ms. Rehnquist my regrets and cut her a check.”
Alfred's eyes meet Bruce's over the stack of discarded newspapers. The Sphinx, Bruce thinks, has more of an expression. “Perhaps an even five million? I believe the funds will be going toward research as well as the new hospital wing.”
“That’s fine,” Bruce says. “Send Dick downstairs when he gets back.” He leaves before one of Alfred's patented guilt trips can really kick in.
Six impossible things right after breakfast isn’t as Carrollesque as it sounds, not from Batman’s perspective. Wearing the cowl in Gotham during the day feels subtly wrong but Zsasz is an extreme case, Wesker not much better. He suits up and turns the car towards the dirtier corners of Crime Alley.
For once, he gets lucky. Rhino Daly was recently paroled and has been sighted in a number of his old haunts. Following a reluctantly given tip from a second string hustler, he traces him to a rundown apartment building in Old Gotham. Five hours of trailing Daly through five districts, down a seemingly aimless route pays off. Wesker is holed up in a Tricorner warehouse with only his worse half for company.
Rhino is built like a tank with a hard head to match. Unfortunately for him, he also has a glass jaw. He goes down hard and stays down. Batman cuffs him to a support beam and leaves Wesker dangling from the rafters. He takes Scarface with him, handing the dummy over to Jim Gordon before he goes back out on the streets, leaning hard on Old Town’s increasingly reticent underbelly.
He’s on his way to what will probably turn out to be another dead end when the console beeps. There’s a message coming in on an unfamiliar channel. Batman identifies the code as the one he assigned Superman. He hits the vid link and Superman’s face appears onscreen. Superman blinks, looking surprised Batman answered.
Batman says, “State the emergency.”
Superman blinks again. “Well, I—” He closes his mouth. Opens it again, then says nothing.
“There is no emergency.”
“…No. That is—” Superman’s voice trails off a second time. Batman grits his teeth.
“Kent, why did you contact me?”
The silence on the other end of the line echoes hollowly. Superman must be up at his Arctic fortress. His voice uncharacteristically hesitant, he says, “I’m sure you already know the Wayne Foundation is holding a fundraiser for Metropolis General’s new oncology wing. I was wondering if you planned on attending.”
He takes a hard right into the nearest alley and stops the car. “Why?”
“I just…” Kent – and it is Kent, not Superman – coughs. Even more hesitantly than before, he says, “I’ve noticed that donations are, uh, more forthcoming. When you’re there in person. The hospital is already over budget on this project and—”
Batman cuts him off, Superman’s awkward request accomplishing what Alfred’s subtle emotional blackmail wasn’t able to. “I’ll be there.” Provided, of course, that Zsasz is back in Arkham, and barring further breakouts.
For some reason, Superman doesn’t look reassured. “Well. I guess I’ll see you and Di—”
“Robin won’t be attending,” Batman interrupts.
“Oh.” Kent can make a single syllable do the work of forty. He has something else he wants to say, and maybe Bruce would hear him out, but Batman has a serial killer to catch.
“I have work to do,” he says.
“I know,” Superman says quickly. “I’m sorry, but I… you know, the real problem is, he’s sixteen. Robin—Dick, I mean.”
Cold is the oddest sensation, working its way into his gauntlets without him noticing, freezing his finger on the keypad.
“Don’t you remember what sixteen felt like? I do, and I’m telling you, that is one year I hope I never have to relive.”
Sixteen. Robin. Dick. He knows these words have collective meaning, but for the life of him he can’t find it. He opens his mouth. Nothing comes out.
“I’m not—I mean, I don’t have kids. Obviously. But I… Clark Kent works with a group of them. In the Suicide Slum projects.” Superman is staring fixedly at something Batman can’t see. And blushing. Superman is blushing. “Sometimes,” he sounds embarrassed but determined, “when they say they want to talk, they don’t really mean that. Well, they do, but they don’t.”
Batman is speechless. Superman is making of a mess of the s-shaped curl on his forehead.
“I’m getting this completely wrong,” he sighs. “Look,” he says, glancing up at Batman, “sit down with him and let him talk to you. Don’t offer him advice or try to work out whatever problems you think he’s having. Just listen. Eventually he’ll get to a place where he starts asking questions. And then—then you answer as honestly as you can and maybe even ask a few of your own.” He smiles ruefully. “I can’t promise it’ll lead to better communication, but it works more often than anything else any parent or counselor I’ve talked to has tried.”
Batman says nothing. Superman’s smile fades along with his voice. His gaze drops, probably to the console of his crystalline Kryptonian terminal.
Batman waits, but no other confidences are forthcoming. He should... there has to be some kind of appropriate… response? “I.” He clears his throat. His vocal chords feel rusted over. “Zsasz,” he says. “I have to—”
A small, wry piece of smile drifts back to Superman’s mouth. “I know. I’ll shut up. Unwanted advice all finished, Superman over and out.” He says, more softly, his smile gentling, “I’ll see you Saturday, Bruce.”
It’s all he can do to nod. “Batman out.” He switches to the police band and listens briefly before starting the car; he changes frequencies again as he pulls out of the alley. “Go ahead, Alfred.”
“I’m afraid, sir, that your goose is not only cooked but well on its way to growing cold. As is, I trust, the young lady waiting for you in the green salon.”
“Vesper.” He makes a block and heads back the way he came, racing toward an old contact who should, by now, have new intel. “Tell her I got called away at the last minute,” he says. “A company emergency. And have six dozen roses delivered to her apartment before she gets home, pink with a single white. The usual message.”
“Of course,” Alfred says imperturbably. “Baudelaire’s?”
He feels the corner of his mouth lift. “Of course. And Alfred, contact Ms. Rehnquist again. Apparently Bruce Wayne will be attending on Saturday after all.”
“Very good, sir.” Not even a hint of satisfaction. For deadpan, the Dark Knight has nothing on Alfred. “Shall I inquire as to whether or not Ms. Fairchild would care to accompany you?”
“No.” It’s out of his mouth before he knows he’s going to say it, but once it is, he leaves his answer a bald negative. He’s flying solo this weekend for more than one reason.
Sirens, distant but getting closer, are heading his way. “That’s all, Alfred?”
"All that I'm presently aware of." Which is if not everything then close to. "If you'll excuse me, sir, I have a young lady to disappoint. Again.”
And that is blatant untruth: Alfred never disappoints, young ladies and Bruce Wayne notwithstanding. Batman switches over to the police band and Bullock’s staticky snarl fills his ears at the same time relief fills his gut. Bullock, Montoya and two uniforms have Zsasz cornered inside the derelict candy factory down in the Tangle. He turns the car in the right direction, tires protesting, and changes frequencies one more time. “Alfred.”
“Cancel my Friday tee time and let Kord know I won’t be joining him.”
“Certainly, Master Bruce. Have I the privilege of offering the gentleman a rational excuse?”
“Research. Kord will understand, and I’ve been informed my insults lack imagination. Batman out.”
Rumble at the Ritz
by Vicki Vale
The Metropolis Ritz Carlton is the last place you’d expect to encounter a brawl, but that’s exactly what the attendees of the Martha Wayne Foundation’s recent fundraiser got an eyeful of this past Saturday night when Gotham’s own billionaire bad boy, Bruce Wayne, took exception to a remark made by Daily Planet reporter Clark Kent and took a swing at Kent more appropriate to a golf course than a dance floor.
Luckily for Mr. Kent, Wayne didn’t have his nine iron on hand at the time, although according to eyewitness accounts, he managed just fine without his clubs. After dubbing Kent “an uncouth, bumptious cornhusker,” he kicked him in the shin then shoved him into a stand of potted plants. Soiled but undaunted, Kent got up and weighed in with a down and dirty elbow jab followed up by a glass of very expensive bubbly to Wayne’s face. Circumstantially delicious? Certainly, but still a tragic waste of superior Perrier-Jouët.
It took six onlookers, a dose of Ms. Lois Lane’s signature sarcasm and the threat of police intervention to check the budding slap-off.
Surprisingly or not, the ruckus generated amusement in most quarters and no ill effects aside from the destruction of two rubber trees and the combatants’ tuxes, the latter effect being touted by more than a few as the diametric opposite of ill.
“We all know Brucie gyms like a fiend to keep his boyish figure,” said Wayne’s longtime friend, socialite Veronica Vreeland. "But I never dreamed Reporter Boy was keeping such an impressive set of abs all to himself! It’s just too selfish for words.”
Vreeland’s subsequent remarks were too risqué to print, but her breezy take on the event captured the prevailing attitude among the guests. If not as enthusiastic as Vreeland about the fracas, most of the assembled patrons seemed willing to write the contretemps off as typical Brucie behavior: shocking but sensationally short-lived.
It certainly didn’t hurt the charity drive. East and West Coast elite alike eagerly opened their checkbooks wide, contributing a staggering thirteen point six million dollars to cancer research and Metropolis General’s new oncology wing. It’s this reporter’s opinion that as of now the question uppermost in the minds of straight women, gay men, and hopeful charities all over Gotham and Metropolis is: are you gentlemen up for a encore? And if so, do you prefer that donations be made privately, or should we just tuck them into your cummerbunds?
He rolls over and pulls his vibrating cell out from under the spare pillow. “Better?” he says.
“Much,” Clark answers, his voice drowning in amusement. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone use bumptious before. Not even Luthor. Oh wow, Bruce, did you read—”
“Don’t. Remind me.” He’s tempted to roll back onto his stomach and pull the pillow over his head, but he learned long ago that pillows don’t stand a chance against the collective determination of the Press. “You and your colleagues are a menace to society as we know it. I think Batman needs to address the problem.”
On the other end of the line, Clark is wheezing, or would be if he wasn’t an alien who didn’t really need to breathe that often. Bruce idly runs through a list of situations that might conceivably end with Superman gasping for breath. He stops on an improbable scenario involving Selina, Flash, Bat Mite and a mammoth bottle of hot sauce, while Clark says in between uneven gusts of laughter, “Can’t decide which was worse. That dowager in the purple turban or—”
“It’s a tie between heart print boxers and the evil doppelganger phenomenon. Dowagers in purple turbans don’t come close.”
“Hey, it wasn’t your butt she grabbed.”
“You’re right,” Bruce says smugly.
“Anyone ever tell you you’re a real jerk?”
Bruce smirks at the ceiling. “You just did… hayseed.” Clark’s laughter rushes out at him from the phone, huge and unrestrained, and he feels the shape of his expression change, his smirk devolving into something that feels oddly like bemusement.
Bruce Wayne just made Clark Kent laugh --- and he enjoyed doing it.
He doesn’t know what to do with the realization. He’s always operated on the premise that no knowledge is wasted, but this kind of knowing feels self-indulgently superfluous. Dangerous, even. It’s enough to make him wish they’d never walked up the gangway of that ridiculous ship six months ago.
Or is it? What would it take, he wonders as Clark’s laughter fades into slow chuckles, to make Clark laugh like that again? How far would he willingly go to make it happen?
“Jerk,” Clark says again, interrupting Bruce’s increasingly disturbing thoughts, an equally disturbing amount of affection in his voice.
Bruce’s thoughts race, tumbling one over the other in search of the best, or failing that, the fastest way out of this conversation.
“Bruce?” Clark says, and something about the way he says it tells Bruce he just asked a question Bruce didn't hear.
“Sorry,” he says, resting his free hand palm down on his chest so he can’t clench it. “I didn’t catch that.”
“I said, did you talk to Dick yet?”
His willpower is… considerable. It takes every bit of it to keep his hand flat and relaxed. He doesn’t have to deal with this. He could shut Kent down with a few harsh words. He wants to.
“I’m sorry,” Kent says before he can come up with an appropriately crushing snub. “It’s none of my business.”
Bruce has to unclench his jaw before he can answer. “You’re right,” he says.
Kent’s surprise is palpable. “I am?”
“It’s none of your business,” Bruce finishes flatly.
“Oh.” Kent swallows audibly. “Yes. I’m—”
“I’m not saying you’re not right,” Bruce cuts in, surprising himself; he can’t remember the last time he felt the need to justify his actions to anyone, even Alfred. “But I’ll handle it my own way.”
“Sure,” Kent says with false cheer. A stab of regret for the loss of his easy laughter catches Bruce off guard. Damn Kent anyway for being his typical nosy, officious reporter self.
It’s just as well, Bruce decides. There are more important items on his agenda than his improbable friendship with Superman. “I’m going to be in Metropolis again tomorrow,” he says without preamble. “There’s a new gambling syndicate moving in on Penguin’s old territory, and word on the street is it has Metropolitan roots. I intend to rip them out at the source, but I don’t want to… step on your toes.”
So easily, and without Bruce’s expectation or intent, Clark’s laughter comes back. “You make it sound like we’re rival mafia dons or something.” He clears his throat. “Don’t youze guys move nothin’ without I tellz ya to.”
He sounds uncannily like Scarface, which surprises an answering laugh out of Bruce. “Not quite,” he says, still laughing. “At least, I hope not.”
“Me too,” Clark laughs back. “That’s a little too much, even for someone who wears a bright red cape. Seriously, I appreciate you asking,” he continues, “but you don’t have to. I’m not the one with the territorial fetish.” He sounds so slyly smug, so pleased to have one-upped the Batman that Bruce lets him have the last word. “Night, Bruce. See you tomorrow.”
At least, that’s what he keeps telling himself.
“Are you sure this is the right place?”
“Because we’ve been here almost four hours and nothing’s so much as twitched.”
“Also, the accommodations suck. What kind of city doesn’t have gargoyles? I mean check out these buildings! No cover, no decent shadows—it’s insane!”
“Lucky for me you’re such a great conversationalist. I should’ve just brought my homework.”
He doesn’t need to lower the binoculars to know Robin is scowling at him. “Patience,” he says. “I hear it’s a virtue.”
Robin groans, throws up his hands and flops down onto his back on the building’s substandard, gargoyle-free roof. “I sure wish Supes was here. At least then I’d have someone to talk to.” He rolls his head toward Batman. “Where is he, anyway? I figured he would have shown up by now. This is his town.”
A light goes on in the warehouse across the street. “Quiet,” Batman says, and Robin rolls up into a crouch.
“Those our guys?” he asks, reaching for his own binoculars.
“The tall one.” Batman adjusts his magnification, focusing on the man’s mouth. “He was with the Two Ton Gang back when Harvey ran it. That’s our missing Gotham link.” He switches his comm channel. “They’re here,” he says. “This won’t take long.”
“I’ll be right there,” Superman says. He turns off his comm before Batman can tell him not to come.
Robin is half-turned, his binoculars lowered, watching Batman with his head cocked to one side. “Problem?”
“In a way.” He stands and moves farther back into what shadows the roof affords, Robin trailing after him. A few seconds later, Superman floats down, his cape billowing out, lapping at the hem of Batman’s cape.
Superman grins at him, taps the comm in his ear. “Convenient,” he says.
Robin snickers. “Yeah, you know that guy, the one who’s gonna win when he dies ‘cause he’s got the most toys?” He jerks his thumb at Batman. Superman laughs softly.
“Emergencies only,” Batman pushes out through clenched teeth. “Don’t make me regret giving it to you.” He turns and stalks past Superman back to the edge of the roof.
Tall and formerly two-ton is busy making sure his lackeys know the score. Down below, nighttime traffic is a muted susurration punctuated by the baseline beat of nightclubs and other watering holes. It blends with the murmur of voices behind him, the staccato of Robin snickering again in response to something Superman just said the only off chord. Batman raises his binoculars.
Another murmured question and Robin's footsteps move off in the direction of the fire escape. Superman’s cape snaps and furls, and then he’s standing at Batman’s shoulder. “I don’t abuse my privileges,” he says quietly, leaving Batman with no possible comeback and a faint, fast fading sensation of shame. Superman nods toward the warehouse. “Is it the right gang?”
Superman’s sigh is as quiet, as understated at his disappointment. “Do you need me for anything?” he asks.
Batman ignores the almost imperceptible note of hope Superman probably believes he can’t hear. “I’ve got what I need,” he says. Then, grudgingly, “Do you want in on the takedown?”
Superman smiles and shakes his head. “No need. I trust you.” He lifts his arm in his usual, completely unnecessary ‘I’m flying’ pose. He smiles again, “See you around,” and starts to rise into the air, his cape flaring out, snapping in the stiff breeze.
Batman’s irritation grows with every uncontrolled flap. “Do you have the specs for that material?” he asks abruptly.
Superman glances down at himself, hovering midair. “You mean for my costume?” he says uncertainly.
No, for those mauve drapes in the window behind you. “Yes,” Batman says. “Do you?” he says again when Superman doesn’t answer immediately, impatience licking the words like rising flame.
“Um, I think so?” Superman rubs the back of his neck. “It should be in the Fortress’s databanks. I can check.”
“Do that,” Batman says. Out of the corner of his eye, he can see Robin coming back. “Bring them and a sample if you have one to the cave tomorrow after patrol. I’m assuming you don’t need directions and a timeframe.” He looks back up at Superman, meaning to tell him how annoying his cape is, but he stops, his focus derailed, arrested by the startled expression on Superman’s face.
“You’re inviting me to the cave?” Superman says. There’s a note of something uncomfortably close to wonder in his voice.
Batman eyes him warily. “Yes,” he says, and he would have said why, but the air is turning hot and Superman is blurring into red blue speed.
Infinitely gentle, smoothly inhuman skin brushes Batman’s mouth. As soon as he's back in Gotham, he’s going to start designing a full-face cowl.
Superman’s breath is no warmer than any human’s. It skates over Batman’s jaw and ear and Superman’s voice follows, a low, laughing murmur. “I like you too, Wayne. And don't worry. I know when and where to find you.”
Faster than a speeding bullet but careful to do no harm. The backwash of Superman’s going barely lifts the edges of Batman’s cape. A corner of his mind notes the dichotomy of the phenomenon while the rest vibrates crazily between blank astonishment and outright disbelief.
Robin makes a strangled noise and Batman turns to look at him. Robin stares back, mouth agape. “Did you… did he just… you and Superman?”
He straightens his shoulders and his cape falls around him in predefined, obedient lines. “No,” he says, and looks down over Robin's shoulder into the warehouse. “Meeting’s over. Time to finish this.”
It’s so easy to shoot his line and jump, Robin at his side, to punch and kick his way through a clutch of gun-toting scumbags to the answers he wants. It’s impossible to forget Robin’s incredulous words.
You and Superman?
It echoes in his head all the way home, chases him up from the cave to Bruce Wayne’s suite, his bathroom mirror reflecting baffled blue eyes back from where his mind always expects to see blank white lenses.
No. He told Robin the truth as he understood it then. But that was six hours ago and now—
There are other eyes in the mirror: bluer, brighter, forthright, the secrets they carry somehow lighter than the ones behind Bruce’s eyes feel. “No,” Bruce tells them. “We’re not. I’m not.”
From beneath the cowl, he could deny those eyes irrevocably and without hesitation. Here in the electric glare of his bathroom, Bruce Wayne is afraid. Of himself; of the potential answer he sees reflected back at him from his own eyes.
He’s terrified it’s already yes.