Artist (and thanks for a wonderful picture!): PrettyPoison27
Betas (and thanks for the help): kiramaru7, blackjackalee, and Laura Tucker (whose LJ ID I seem to have lost)
Fandom: DC Comics
Character/Pairing: Catwoman, background Batman/Catwoman, Batfamily, Isis, and several feline OCs
Challenge/Prompt: heroinebigbang Round 4
Warning(s): Character Death, AU
Word Count: 10,756
Disclaimer: All recognizable characters within belong to DC Comics and are used without permission.
"You changed it."
It's only years of experience that keep Commissioner Jim Gordon from jumping at the sultry voice that suddenly speaks from behind him. He knew she was coming, but she still catches him off guard, making him jump. He deeply breathes in the air of his city to still his swiftly beating heart before turning to face her. The wind pulls at his trench coat. "I thought it was time."
"I don't believe there will ever be a time, Commissioner, when the city will be ready to lose its hero."
"It has a new hero now."
"Only because of what he sacrificed."
"He would want them to know what you do, how you've changed -- "
"Have I, Commissioner?" Her low voice promises seduction and deadliness in equal measure, but he doesn't move to draw his gun. He knows her better now. Years ago, it would have taken only her appearance to make him want to arrest her, but now he knows. Now, he understands, perhaps better than she does.
"Yes, you have. You're no longer the woman you were then."
Her emerald eyes seem almost to glow in the dark night as she turns her gaze to the symbol lighting up Gotham's night sky. For years, it has been a bat, but now, it's a cat. "Sometimes, I wonder if that was a wise choice. What did you call me here for?"
"Freeze is in town."
"We know. We're working on locating his whereabouts."
"He's after that museum exhibit."
"Of course, but he's not going to get it." Her smile sends an unexpected chill through his aging bones, reminding him that she is still a deadly woman, although not the same woman he and Batman used to work so diligently to keep behind bars.
"Not with your people on the watch," he agrees, but she's already gone, swinging through the night sky on her own route to justice. Not with you here to protect us in his stead. He rolls his cigarette between his teeth, wishing he knew how to tell her how wonderful what she's become is, how much she means to him and to others, how much it would mean to the Batman to know she now cares for his city, how much she is exactly what all of Gotham needs.
But as impatient as the Batman ever was, she's worse. She never wastes time on him or anyone other than her cats. Catwoman is already gone, and she knows, in her heart, that her "choice" -- as others call her decision to continue her beloved's work -- had nothing to do with intelligence and was never really a choice. What she's become is all due to the only route her life could take after they lost their hero. It's a lonely life, but it's the life she's been dealt.
Hearing the sounds of crime being committed below, she pushes the ever present thoughts to the back of her mind and swings down to curtail what proves to be just a normal, nightly purse snatching but is still the break from her reverie she needs. After the criminal's thrown into the nearest police car, she moves on. Her night is now in full swing, her thoughts at rest for the moment, and she delves into the action she so dearly needs.
She's being watched the very moment she enters the lane. The humans' eyes would make her fur stand on end if she had any; as it is, the hairs on her arms and the back of her neck prick to attention. Her instincts are screaming warnings at her. She almost growls but silences herself and grips her handlebars of her bike tighter instead.
She's not in costume at this time, but her face is still hidden behind her helmet. Isis' claws are embedded firmly into her shoulders, and even the cat wears a tiny helmet Catwoman had especially made for her. A lynx sits proudly behind her, his little bob tail wagging proudly.
She checks the faces as she rides down the street renowned for its merchandise in the city of Gotham. This is one of the most notorious neighborhoods, renowned for its peddling of drugs and girls and fights that tend to lead to the slicing of throats. She knows most of the people crowding the street. Many of the younger ones have left with her, but not all. Every face she recognizes is a face who turned away her offer to help.
She stops in the very center, where the newest girls are. There are several new ones tonight. There usually is on the weekends. She stops her bike before them, and both Isis and the lynx look directly at the new girls. They gulp hard and back up. One of their pimps starts to come forward, but one flex of Catwoman's claws on her handle bars sends them all scattering away. The one who had dared to come forward now tries to hide in the back of the crowd.
She turns to look at the girls. "You don't know me," she starts, "but you don't really know these people, either." She dismounts from her bike and crosses over to stand with them. "You don't have to have these lives," she tells them gently. "There is another way."
"Can we -- Can we be like you?" one of the fresh faces asks.
Catwoman's smile and kind, green eyes are all that's seen from within the depths of her helmet. "If you want, but I'd rather you be your own person." She holds out cards. "Take them," she instructs, "if you're interested. You'll meet a redhead there. She'll lead you to me, and from there, you can decide what you want to do with your lives."
A girl with a purple Mohawk pops her gum loudly. "Why should we believe you've got anything better for us than what we got here, Grandma?"
Isis hisses, her claws kneading Catwoman's shoulder more sharply. The lynx growls softly, but Catwoman remains calm. "Because," she says simply, "you don't have to take my offer, but if you'll come hear it, I'll make it worth your while. Look at the back of the cards."
She watches as they flip them over. There's a fifty dollar bill attached to every one of them. "There's more where that came from." She sees their surprise light up their faces, but one girl speaks strongly in a quiet voice.
"I won't accept charity from no one," she says.
"It's not charity," Catwoman tells her as Isis' tail whisks. "Like I said, that's for listening. If you don't want to accept my offer when you come, that's fine. You still don't have to come back here. If you want to go back home," she notes several snorts, "or to LA to try to be an actress or whatever, we'll help you."
"Out of the goodness of your hearts?" one leather-clad girl snarls.
"No. Because we need girls like you to become women like me."
There's a sudden stammer of excitement through the small group. "Can we come tonight?" the tallest girl in their circle asks.
Catwoman smiles. She knows their voices are overheard. The girls look up as three more motorcycles roar down the lane, but Catwoman's gaze doesn't move from them or from the pimps who are trying to sneak closer. She nods to the blonde and two other girls who stop their bikes next to hers. "Those of you who want to come now, come ahead. These three girls are friends of mine. They once stood where you stand now."
Three of the girls rush eagerly forward. A fourth one hesitates, looking lost, until the lynx shifts carefully around to sit in front of Catwoman. She smiles again, jerks her head to the spot where he'd just been sitting. The fourth girl hesitates no longer and hops on with a smile, but there are still others waiting and watching.
"The offer stands. When you're ready, go to that address." Catwoman raises her voice so that all those gathered hear her words ring plainly in the night. "To those of you who have received these offers before, you know they still stand. They always will." Her eyes narrow to dangerous slits and shift to the pimps. "And for those of you who would stop these girls from getting the help they deserve, don't be idiots," she snarls. "You know I'll find you." Then, together, the four bikes race out of the district.
Eyes of all colors shift to her as she walks through the corridors. She ignores them all, but the feline draped around her lithe shoulders casts them superior glowers. Both girls and cats hurry to return to their training before the Catwoman can single them out. Being singled out by her is something they all crave, but yet, at the same time, they all fear. Her justice is legendary, her punishments even more so. They don't want to be on the receiving end of either, but above all, they don't want to disappoint the woman who took them from the streets and from those who abused them to give them new lives. They train harder at the mere sight of her, hoping to be half as good as she's become.
Catwoman's companion glides beside her. When they first started working together again, the redhead would attempt conversation, but since those first few nights, she's learned that this is the way Catwoman prefers their presence. She does not wish to speak when words are unnecessary. She no longer craves friendship as once the younger woman did, too, and perhaps still does. They found it for a while together, but soon, their paths differed. Barbara still finds it somewhat surprising that Selina has turned her attention to doing good, but then, the tragedy they've suffered has changed them all.
It leaves a heavy presence hanging over them. His name is spoken, but only in whispers. He's remembered fondly by all the older members of their team, but they speak rarely of him because to say his name is to see the flicker of hurt in others' eyes. They all miss him. She knows they always will, but just like when she lost her mother, and when she lost her legs, too, life, whether they wish it to or not, must go on. Catwoman's made certain it has for all gathered here in her domain.
Barbara glances at where Catwoman is peering in at the nursery. Inside, young girls are caring for both human babies and kittens. Barbara glances in, watching Catwoman watch the two bottle feeding kittens and the girl clad in black leather feeding a tiger cub, and wonders again at all the improvements she's made. She's done things others wouldn't have thought possible, things Barbara herself had thought couldn't be done, and things even Bruce had not dared to try.
Watching these young lives is further proof of that -- no one else would dare take kids from the streets and put them to work, caring for such young humans and animals alike --, but Catwoman has and it works. Barbara's heard more than one girl bubble about how wonderful it feels to be trusted with such an innocent life. It makes an impact on them, but then Catwoman makes an impact on them all. Their leader's moving on again, and Barbara swiftly follows.
They come to a stop before several large, glass windows. Sounds echo through the cave, drifting up to them in the observatory booth. Catwoman examines the girls and cats training below, still not speaking. Barbara watches as her gloved hand idly scratches Isis' furry, black head, waiting and wondering. The crime wave Gotham's experienced since Batman's death seems to finally be ebbing, and she knows it's all due to the new agenda Catwoman's set into motion. Still, Barbara wonders if the woman who has become leader to them all is ready to call another forward.
"How are they doing?" Catwoman breaks the silence at last as the girls perform acute roundhouse kicks. The cats by their sides leap into the air at the same time, striking out with all twenty claws at invisible opponents. Their angry yowls drift upward, but when they flip through the air and land on their partners' barely clad shoulders, each one does so with all claws carefully sheathed. Isis' tail slashes through the air; her claws gently knead her mother's right shoulder. Catwoman inclines her head in silent approval.
"Very well. I want to meet with numbers Thirteen and One tomorrow evening. Sunset, sharp."
"Yes, ma'am," Barbara agrees without hesitation. One is still nervous, but she believes they are ready. Thirteen is eager to experience the battlefield, or so the girl thinks. Her tiger tabby is eager to fight, as well. Perhaps, Barbara secretly fears, a little too eager, but Catwoman will know when they're ready. She always does and has not been wrong yet.
A buzz sounds in Barbara's ear. She presses the comm and, as Oracle once more, listens to the babble of voices. Worry flashes in her green eyes. "It's Dick and -- " she starts to say, but Catwoman is already gone. Left alone in the booth, the redhead shakes her head. The Catwoman really has taken after their hero.
When Catwoman arrives on the scene, the doctor she chose to call upon when this all first began is already present. Tregarde spends her days working between the largest animal hospital in the city and the no-kill shelter, both of which Wayne Enterprises now secretly backs, but she's always on call throughout the night. The others know little about her, but Catwoman knows the other woman works almost as hard as she does for the feline species that are so important in both their lives. She looks up at her arrival, but before Catwoman can call out to her, Nightwing rushes forward.
"I told you this was a damn mistake! He wasn't fast enough! Freeze got to him!"
Glowing, emerald eyes snap to the younger man's panicking face with such a ferocity that momentarily pauses him. "Did you get Freeze?"
He nods. "But that's not the point! Bagheera's going to -- "
She cuts him off again. She knows he's hurting, but she can't spare emotion. One moment of weakness is all it takes in this city to be torn apart. "Not on our watch."
Another cat growls; his large, black tail thumps the linoleum floor with power. Catwoman's gaze shifts to the black panther sprawled beside the doctor. Her eyes flick from him to the other black panther whose body is languishing in a warm tub to the doctor who's gingerly holding his massive head in her bare hands. "Tregarde?" she calls urgently.
The brunette nods, her own eyes moving from Bagheera to Catwoman to Nightwing again. "He's going to be okay." She states it as a fact, but her blue eyes show the reassurance she's aching to give the man in their midst.
"Battle's no place for a cat." Nightwing turns away before anyone can see the moisture shimmering in his eyes.
"Battle is also no place for a child," Catwoman speaks softly but sternly, Isis' tail whipping in time to her mistress' words, "but this city has not left us a choice." She places a hand on Nightwing's shoulder, the first time she's touched Dick since Bruce's passing. She knows it isn't just Bagheera weighing heavily on the boy's mind. He grieves for one who isn't gone yet but also for one who was taken from them all far too soon.
"I remember another man who was loathe to give a boy a chance. That boy saved his life many times and saved others'. In letting him become the man he was meant to be, in giving that child's life a meaning, his life, too, was saved. How many times has Bagheera saved you, Nightwing?"
He turns slowly back to her. Her claws flex instinctively as she lifts her hand from his shoulder. Isis mews, her heart breaking again for both humans. Dick looks at her, but neither will call him upon his tears. "It's going to be okay," she tells him instead, her voice a soft whisper that only he and the cats can hear. Sometimes, she still thinks nothing will ever be okay again, but she knows she speaks the truth here and now, at least where Bagheera is concerned.
She senses the big cat beginning to stir and turns toward the tub. Dick turns with her, and she catches his weary face break out into a huge grin out of the corner of her eyes. Bagheera blinks his big, green eyes up at his partner. Dick walks over to his friend, and they both know he's trying not to run. He kneels beside the tub and strokes his large head. As the panther's purr echoes through the room, Dick turns, with grateful eyes, back to where Catwoman once stood, but is gone again.
She's making her rounds, counting off the minutes in her head until the next catastrophe, when she hears a roar. She swings immediately toward the sound that's shaking buildings and windows, landing, crouched on all fours, in the Gotham Zoo. Monkeys are screaming, but it's the King of the Beasts whose roar calls her. She sprints out after him, glancing at the monkey displays and mentally promising the primates that she will return, but never once does she slow her pace after the lion.
She can feel Isis' black fur sticking out from all ends, and they're no longer alone. Cats of all sizes are racing along beside her. Catwoman wants to call them back -- she doesn't know what's ahead --, but each of these animals have dedicated their lives to her and, through doing so, also to Gotham. She knows every one of them by name. There are house cats she saved from the streets and from the Pound, a pair of bobcats she rescued from a hunter who'd been about to skin them years ago during one of her forays out of the city, tigers she's saved from the circus, and more. She's saved every one of them, but she doesn't want to lose any of them tonight. She doesn't want to lose anybody ever again.
Her own words come back to haunt her from earlier. She was so determined to prove Dick wrong, to remind him that some should say that he never should have become a costumed hero, that his life never should have been risked, that she had hid well her own doubts about the program. She's been taking cats and girls off the streets for years now and giving them each an opportunity to better their lives and the city. She knows they feel they owe a debt to her, a debt that can not be repaid, and that is often the reason they choose to stay and fight.
Perhaps she should have sought out other rescue groups to care for the cats, and the girls, but she always has her doubts about other agencies. Too many of them are shady. Too many don't really care about the ones they're supposed to be rescuing. She'd lay her life down in an instant for any one of the hundreds she's saved, but because she's willing doesn't always mean she'll be in time.
She can try to send them back to headquarters, but she knows they won't listen. They care about her too much. They care about the ones who have become their brothers and sisters. Cats are supposed to be solitary animals, but they are not. They have built more than a team here; they have built a family. Unshed tears sparkle in Catwoman's emerald green eyes, but she won't let a single one of them fall. She promises herself again tonight, again on another mission, that she won't let any of her babies fall. She can't send them back, but she will protect them --
Hysteric laughter echoes through the zoo, cutting into Catwoman's thoughts and silent vows. It's mostly hyenas, but they're not alone. She saw the little clown bitch back in the monkey exhibit. She now fears that she might have unleashed her hyenas after the monkeys and almost doubles back to them, but the lion roars again. She breaks out into an even faster run until, at last, the lion's exhibit is before her. Cheetahs start to zoom pass her, but she calls to them commandingly. They won't leave, but they do slow to flank her and not pull ahead.
She and the cats accompanying her all skid to a halt as they reach the exhibit. She hears claws skittering against dirt and rocks. Her mouth again opens to send them back, but that's when she catches sight of the lion. He's an older beast, the oldest animal the zoo hosts, and she's made certain they care for him well. This place, frightful for the animals as it is sometimes, is yet another she's bought with Wayne Enterprises. She keeps only the best zoo keepers here, and she knows it's none of them who are causing the animal fright.
She knows, too, exactly who it is as she sees the majestic lion swinging in a vine that's wrapped around his body in a bone-crushing grip. He roars again as Catwoman spits out the culprit's name, "Poison Ivy!" In her next breath, she calls to the other cats, "Stand back." They hiss. Her green eyes narrow. "That's an order."
Then she's on the vine, scratching and biting. Her claws slice easily into the plant, and when a Venus fly trap's bulb comes toward her, gnashing its fangs together, she slices it apart, too. When the lion's free, he runs to the lionesses in the group of cats behind his rescuer. They're covering him, protecting him from the next assault to come, when applause echoes through the zoo.
"Well done, Catwoman, but you, of all people, know the penalty for destroying a baby."
"The lion's the baby," she retorts without hesitation, standing her ground as the flame-haired vixen stalks closer. Vines inch along with her on the ground, but they're also coming from behind Catwoman and from her left and right. She knows she means to ensnare her. "Your thing was just a plant you were using to kill him."
"So you killed Herb instead."
"What's this all about, Ivy?" Catwoman demands, her teeth clenched and claws extended and at the ready. "You don't target animals. You target idiots who are damaging the Environment and killing your plants."
"Of which you're now one."
"Use another plant to hurt another cat, or any innocent, and I'll rip that one apart, too."
Ivy's now circling her. Catwoman stands her ground, prowling in a circle that's quickly becoming narrower. She won't back down. A vine makes a grab for her foot; she slices it in two with the claws protruding from her black boots.
Laughter resounds again, and Catwoman whirls toward Harley Quinn.
"That's funny." The blonde strokes the heads of two large hyenas, each the size of a big cat.
Catwoman's blood goes cold as she sees the left hyena swallow a little, hairy hand and realizes the monkeys are no longer screeching. "You weren't there when the monkeys were screaming." The hyenas' eyes glow in the dark. Their laughter coupling with their mistress' sends chills racing down Catwoman's spine.
Catwoman glances at her cats. The tigers, leopards, and cheetahs are taking the lead. The lionesses are just behind them. They've got the house cats and the lion safely in their midst. Bobcats, lynxes, a caracal, and other smaller, wild cats circle between the lionesses and the weaker felines grouped in their center. Tails lash the air. Rising growls almost drown out the laughter of Quinn and her pets.
Catwoman's eyes narrow to slits. She knows there's something these bitches aren't telling her. The zoo isn't their usual stomping grounds, and she hasn't had to fight Ivy before, not in years at least. She'd thought they had an almost mutual respect and that was why Ivy had kept away from Gotham after Batman's death. Clearly, she was wrong.
"Make your move, clown," Catwoman snarls, and when Harley doesn't, she lashes out with her whip. She wraps her whip around one hyena and throws him into his brother, before leaping into the air just before Ivy's Venus fly trap can bite her from behind. She whirls, comes back down, and slashes the plant swiftly to pieces.
The hyenas' giggles have turned to whimpers, but the plants are still coming. The ground splits open between Catwoman's feet. She leaps, grabbing a tree that's suddenly come protruding out of the ground, and uses it to help her balance as she starts to spin. Releasing the tree, she flips through the air and comes down, clawed feet first, on top of Poison Ivy.
"I would've let you go, Ivy, but you made a mistake tonight."
"Have I?" Ivy rolls out from underneath Catwoman's boots, but true to her namesake, Catwoman lands on her feet. She kicks her, claws still extended, and something green oozes out of Ivy's leotard. The redhead grins up at her. "From where I'm lying, it doesn't look that way, kitty cat."
This is a trap. Catwoman knows it, but she hasn't yet figured out what the bitches are trying to do. Ivy sends all her plants at her at once. Catwoman becomes a blur as she slices and dices, but the whole time she's fighting, she's simultaneously trying to figure out their scheme. She's crushing another bulb underneath her boot when Harley calls out, sounding much like a child, "You don't play fair!"
There are so many things she could tell her, so many things she's learned since the last time she hung out with these two. Life isn't fair, and you can't play fair if you expect to win. Besides, these chicks have never played fair. She's distracting her, Catwoman knows. A quick glance to her backup assures her the cats are fine and holding their own against the plants and the single hyena who's still standing. The largest tiger clamps his massive jaws onto the hyena's neck, and the animal goes down with an eerie whine.
She almost misses it, almost disregards it as a part of the hyena's whine, but Catwoman catches the sounds of sirens wailing through the city. That point is when she realizes that she's playing their game. She'd known they couldn't have any real beef against the animals here, but they knew she would protect the lion. He would come first, far above any human, but somewhere in the city, someone they're working with is attacking humans.
She knows it's gotta be the lunatic. Isis hisses and slices through another vine. Catwoman spins as Harley cries tearfully, "Don't let him kill him! Come on, Cat! He's my baby! You know what it's like!"
But Catwoman's attention is on Poison Ivy, the real threat of the two. "Call off your plants, Red, if you wanna have any left."
"You wouldn't -- "
"I would." Her words of warning end in a fierce hiss. "NOW!"
The tiger spits out the hyena and spits a couple of times after his mouth is free, getting the mangy mutt's spotted fur out of his regal mouth. He takes the lead as the cats surge. The smaller cats jump astride the bigger cats, and in a blur of fur and plants, Catwoman and her companions rip apart Poison Ivy's remaining plants.
She knows she should capture the two, but she suddenly feels time ticking even faster. Time is of the essence, and she won't leave any of her babies alone with these two. Poison Ivy cares only for plants, Harley only for Ivy and the Joker. Quickly, she ties them up and leaves them swinging in the doorway to a caracal's exhibit, also freeing them to join their group as she does so. With a yowling command spilling from Catwoman's lips, she and her cats race from the zoo, the cheetahs taking the lead as they all run toward the wails of the sirens. She'll come back for the chicks later, but she knows already they won't be there.
The authorities are already on the scene when Catwoman's team arrives. The cops are trying to barricade the crime area, but the cats run right pass them and literally over one rookie who fails to stop them. He rises again and waves, then screams as the lion from the zoo bounds right over him. He falls to the ground as the lion's paws brush the top of his head, and this time, he stays there.
Catwoman herself is already entering the factory, whose identity she doesn't miss as being owned by Wayne Enterprises. She forgets exactly what this company produces, but she knows it helps employ thousands of people throughout the city. Robin meets her at the door, already coughing but pushing two of the workers out of the building and toward waiting paramedics.
Catwoman takes one look at the boy and realizes immediately that her instincts are right. This is the Joker's doing. She hears screams, roars, and yowls from deeper within the factory. "Out," she orders Robin as she speeds pass him, but he doubles back and returns to her side.
"Yes!" Catwoman glances at the cats following her. "All of you! Out! NOW!"
Isis mews. She takes her most cherished partner from around her neck and carefully throws her at Robin. He catches her deftly but continues running alongside Catwoman. "Don't make me make you, Birdboy."
The boy grins. "I haven't heard that name in a long time -- "
"And you don't want to hear it tonight! Now scat!" she spits, emerald eyes narrowed to dangerous slits.
The house cats have dropped off from the run. She can hear them coughing several feet behind them. Every one of them sounds like they're trying to hack up everything they've ever eaten. "Get them out of here, Robin! That's an order!"
"I don't take -- "
"You know what happened to the last bird who refused my orders!" She stops and whirls toward him. Her lungs are burning. She coughs but persists. Grabbing the boy's shoulders, she looks him in the eyes and finally tells him, "I need somebody on the outside."
"Commissioner Gordon's out there -- "
"No, he's not." She shakes her head. "I know him. He's in here somewhere, too damn stubborn for his own good."
She reads Tim's look plainly beneath Robin's mask. They all know she's too stubborn for her own good, too. "I need somebody to make sure the rest of the team is okay and to get them out of here." For just a moment, she lets her pleas touch her emerald eyes. "Can I count on you to do that?"
Before Robin can answer, they turn at the sound of more coughing. It's two of her girls, their companions, and some more workers. "Get them out of here," she orders, looking back at Robin, and then she says something she hasn't said in a very long time, "please."
He hesitates once more, then nods. "I've got them, but when the building's clear, I'm coming after you."
"No need, Junior."
The smoky factory spins around her as Catwoman turns to look at Nightwing. A large, black panther is streaking beside the costumed hero, but it isn't Bagheera. She immediately recognizes the doctor's best friend, Night, and shakes her head. They shouldn't be here, either, but she knows arguing with those two will do her no good.
One of her girls gives a soft cry, but Robin catches her before she can hit the floor. A tiger catches the other, and again, it's the big cats to the rescue, moving underneath the factory workers as they fall unconscious. "Get them out of here," Catwoman orders, "and get yourselves to safety, too." With a yowl that will call any other cats who can hear her to them, she keeps running.
A clown lunges at her from the smoke. She jumps into the air, roundhouse kicking him with deadly claws straight in his chest. She's busy concentrating on him and doesn't see Isis slinking after her or jumping onto Night's back.
Laughter again echoes through the factory. Catwoman's rapidly starting to hate the sound of giggles. Clowns keep lunging at her, but she meets every one of them with claws. A female pops into her face, giggling hysterically; she turns her giggle into a scream as she rakes claws across her face, drawing deep, bloody gashes that go all the way down to her throat.
"He's gotta be here somewhere," Nightwing calls, dispatching another clown.
Catwoman leaps into the air, kicks out, and stops two more clowns with claws in their groins. They fall to the floor. She drops between them and slashes their lights out. "He is. We'll find him. Isis, what are you doing here?" she commands, finally catching sight of the black cat as she and the panther work together to take down another clown. He screams as Night bites him, then uses his arm to throw him away from them.
The cat looks at Catwoman, blinks her green eyes, and meows. She sails through the air to her rightful perch on the Catwoman's shoulders, and Catwoman understands. She's not leaving her any more than she can leave here. She sighs, wishing she could make her obey her on this, too, but scratches the head that bumps her hand. Her purr is a welcome sound, but Catwoman still wishes Isis would choose safety over loyalty. She knows she won't, though, no more than she will, or did.
Together, slowly and diligently, the team makes their way through the factory. When they're not fighting clowns, they're sending their own people, and cats, out of the smoky fray. Catwoman's burning inside by the time she sends her fourth girl off the battle field with the child laughing every fumbling step of the way. "He's going to pay for this," she hisses and slices through another clown's neck.
They've lost count over how many clowns they've dispatched, or even of the number of people, their own, cops, and factory workers, they've sent for the double doors. Catwoman's eyes are misting, and Nightwing's coughing every moment he's not fighting. Isis feels like a lump of fur on the back of Catwoman's neck, and she fears for the little one. Still, she can't turn back. She has to see this mission through to its end. She has to find him, and she has to rip him a new one.
Some of the other big cats have caught up with them now. One of the tigers hacked a hairball as big as her paw a few minutes ago, but they won't stop coming. Catwoman knows they won't stop as long as she's there, still pursuing the Joker, but she has no choice. She has to find the madman, and she has to stop him.
Severe coughing riddles Nightwing's shoulders. She contemplates trying to send him back, but she doubts he could even find his way now. Her foot bumps something, and she looks down. It's one of the workers, a Latina woman she recognizes as a single mother of three, who didn't make it out. Her dark face has turned pale, and her lips are twisted into a grin that mimics the Joker's infamous smile.
Catwoman's heart beats faster. This isn't the first worker they've found like this. She's only thankful she hasn't found any of her cats, or the girls, either, but if they don't get some clean air soon, she knows they might join them. She knows, too, Isis will be the first to fall. "JOKER!" she screeches, and the maniacal laughter that has been her constant companion since almost the moment she set foot into this factory finally pauses. "SHOW YOURSELF, YOU BASTARD, OR ARE YOU TOO MUCH OF A COWARD? YOU CAN'T FACE A WOMAN!?"
"Here, kitty, kitty, kitty."
She whirls toward the taunt. A tiger growls. A leopard catches a bobcat gently as he drops. Catwoman hesitates only momentarily, then bends and lays Isis on the back of a female tiger. She cups her face in her hands. "Get them out of here." Her words are a plea, a beg, but she knows this tiger who's been with her almost since the start of this newest chapter in her life story will do everything she can not to let her down.
Isis licks her gloved fingers. Catwoman scratches her chin for just a moment. She turns, hearing movement behind her. She leaps into the air and comes down, claws striking deep inside the Joker's chest. He falls beneath her. More crazed laughter erupts from him, but this time, up close, Catwoman notes there's something different in his laugh.
There's something different, and it's not human. She slices his chest again, then drives her claws up and through his face. It's at that moment that his head literally explodes. A little black flag with the word, "Bang!", written on it flaps against Catwoman's fingers.
She hears retching behind her and doesn't turn toward it for now her mind is speeding. This has been a trap all along. The Joker's been gone, quite possibly long before they ever arrived. She hears the roar of mechanics and knows they have to get out. "RUN!" she commands. "BACKWARDS! OUT THE WAY WE CAME!"
"Whut?" Nightwing asks, and she sees the dazed expression on his face. Her heart thunders. They can't be too late!
There's no time to waste on words, so she hits him. Night is ready when he falls. Dick slumps over the panther's back, and as one, the cats start to run. They're half way back through the factory when water begins to fall. The smoke sizzles. Catwoman slows her pace, but not enough that the others notice.
She looks around, as the smoke finally clears, through unshed tears glittering in her emerald eyes. There are bodies on the floor, both clown and human, but thank God, there are no cats. One by one, she starts to go toward them, checking for signs of life. She's about to pick up the first one she finds shallowly breathing when a nose gently nudges her hand. She pets the lion for just a moment, knowing any further argument will be moot, then lifts the fallen girl onto the lion's back and watches as he carries her out.
One by one, she goes through the bodies, remembering faces, recalling names. The cats come to her. Each one carries another human out. The smoke has cleared, and the poison isn't as strong now, but she can still smell it. It's still in her lungs.
But she doesn't stop. She doesn't slow. She continues going through the bodies one by one. She's got tigers at the doors, keeping anyone else from entering, but eventually, with enough catnip and some raw meat, a girl slips pass them.
She finds her just as Catwoman's kneeling by the last human in the factory. She's also coughing and rocking back on the heels of her boots. The young woman's hand gingerly touches her shoulder. "Selina," she starts, but the harsh glower from the Catwoman's green eyes silences her. "Catwoman," she tries again, using her proper name for this time, "we need to leave."
"Is everybody safe?" she asks. "Did we all make it?"
"Yes, and Oracle's administering the cure."
"She has one?"
"Batman made one years ago. She was able to find his formula and replicate it."
She was also, Catwoman knows, the one who managed to finally break into the sprinklers system and washed away the smoke and the remaining poison. But it was Batman who saved them again.
"We all made it," Arizona tells her confidently, "and Red Hood caught Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn. It's over."
She knows she's wrong. It's just beginning. They don't have the Joker in custody. They don't even know where he is, but he's played his cards. He's told her, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that he knows Batman is gone. She remains, and she's not half the hero her husband is. The factory spins around Catwoman, and the lights snap out.
Gentle, sandpaper kisses stir her back to consciousness hours later. There's a pressure all around her body, but Selina knows it's just her babies. Cats of all colors are pressed in to her sides, working their healing ways and purring. Bobcats and lynxes lounge on the other side of the bed. Tigers, jaguars, cheetahs, a panther, lionesses, and the lion from the zoo await her wakening on the floor, their tails lashing with their impatience.
But it's not just the kisses that have brought her back. It's the gentle, lulling voice of the friend who was the first girl she rescued and took underneath her proverbial wing. It's Arizona's soft voice saying, "Come on, Selina. You've gotta wake up. I've gotta show you what you've missed."
"What did I miss?" she asks, her voice creaking. With one hand, she finds Isis and strokes her long, black body while pressing her other to her head which aches. Her throat is dry. She feels like it's been days since she last drank something instead of hours.
"What's all around you," Arizona returns. Selina can hear the girl's grin in her voice.
She cracks her eyes open and peers up at her. She waits for the images of three people to settle into Arizona's singular body before questioning, "What are you talking about, Ari?"
"You said he saved us."
"Huh?" Maybe it's just because of her pounding head, but the girl isn't making any sense.
"When you fell out back at the factory, you said he saved us. You were wrong. Well, at least partially wrong. Yeah, he had the formula we needed, but that was all. I want you to see what you've missed, what you've been missing all along."
She takes Selina's hand and starts to pull on her.
"Easy." Barbara laughs gently. "She might not be ready to move yet."
Selina looks up to the redhead leaning in the doorway and spies Tim just beyond her. "Arizona's right, though," he says. "She needs to see."
The room's whirling around her lightning fast, but Selina still lets Arizona pull her to the window. There's a cheetah behind her legs, gently nuzzling her forward with all the slow, careful patience that belies her true speed. Her kind is the fastest animal on land, but yet, for Selina, for her adopted mother, she has all the time in the world.
Working together, Arizona and Sasha bring Catwoman to the window. She looks out, blinking against the bright sunlight, and then down at the well kept grounds of Wayne Manor. Her eyes widen. She gazes out, but the images don't change much for as far as she can see.
"You see those girls down there?" Arizona's asking quietly. "Every one of them was like me at one time. They didn't have anybody who cared about them. They were prostitutes, druggies, thieves . . . There's even a couple of murderers down there, but you turned them around, Selina."
Selina sinks onto the window seat. As she continues to watch the girls and cats training far below her, Dick calling out commands to them, Isis jumps into her lap, pushes her head against her palm, and starts purring deeply. Selina understands what she means: The girls aren't the only ones there because of her. The cats were saved, too, from starvation, from hunters, from traps, from all sorts of human cruelty, and brought here.
Another head, this one much larger, nudges Selina's knee. She reaches out to the lion from the zoo, and he licks her fingers, as gentle as a kitten. There are tears in her eyes now, but this time, they're for an entirely different reason than before.
"Get them inside."
"But it's a beautiful day -- "
"It is, but they don't need to be out in the open. We don't want to wave a flag to the world to tell them where we live."
Maybe she should buy an island sometime so that they can practice in the bright and warm daylight. God knows Bruce left them enough money. She couldn't have done all of this without everything he did leave her and all he taught her, but she was wrong earlier. She didn't have to do this.
She had a choice. She's always had a choice. She didn't have to love him, didn't have to let him into the cage that was once her heart, but she did. For a while, after she lost him, after the Joker killed him, she felt such pain that she almost wished she hadn't fallen for him, but he was such a wonderful man. She could never entirely wish she hadn't loved him or experienced his love for her.
Still, she could have gone back to her old ways when she lost him. She could have turned her back on his children who had finally accepted her into their family. She could have turned her back on all he taught her. She could have lived only for her cats and herself.
She glances at Arizona's bright, encouraging smile. She took her in when she and Bruce were still playing the old game of Bat and Cat. He had only just began to get underneath her skin. She hadn't had to take the girl in, but she had chosen to do so. She had chosen to give her the help she'd always longed for when she was her age and alone on the streets of the ruthless city.
And she had never really stopped there. Arizona had just been the beginning. Her beloved Bruce had changed her life entirely. She couldn't have done half the things she's done without him, without his influence, and without all the gifts he's left her. But the desire to help had always been down inside of her. He'd helped her to realize it, and she can't turn back on it now any more than she could when she lost him.
She is needed still. There are always cats being hurt by humans and constantly new girls arriving in the city, running from their own pasts and the living nightmares inside them. There are always innocents being beaten down by the evils that still lurk in this and every city as they try to do their bests for the ones they love. She can't make it to every city, but she can damn sure do everything she can to help Gotham and those who still survive here, as well as those who come into her pathway.
It's the way he would want it, but there's more to it than that. His love helped her to open up and trust again. He paved the way for her to do all of this, but her desire was always there. She made a choice. She used what he gave her for the betterment of cat and womankind, but she would have still been helping those she could otherwise. She's never once turned a cat away and never turned a girl away, either, since Arizona.
It was a choice she made, but a choice she started making long before Bruce. He had made everything possible, but it was her own desire that's led her here. It's her own desire to help that's saved these cats and girls. It's her own desire, her own determination, and her own savior spirit that's taken the Batcrew Bruce never wanted but also could not well deny and turned it into an empire of women and cats, and a few guys, too, working toward a better tomorrow.
There are tears shining in Catwoman's eyes again, but it's Selina who chooses not to wipe them away or let them fall. It's Selina smiling through her tears, Isis' tail whisking gently at her bare shoulder, observing all she's built with love and care. It's Selina who knows she may have had a choice, and it wasn't the only choice she could make, but it was the right one. Gordon was right, after all: She is a better woman for all she's done here.
Selina reaches up and gently scratches Isis' furry forehead. The cat's purr resonates in her mind and heart. She still couldn't have done this alone. It's taken every one of them, starting with her and Bruce and continuing on through their "sidekicks" as the world considers them. It's taken every one of them helping each other. It's taken their whole family, human and feline, to make this dream come into formation. She beams, casting quick glances at the humans around her, letting her eyes linger on the cats, and then looking back outside as girls and cats, still teamed together, head for a safer training area.
Dick sees her sitting in the window and salutes. Selina smiles, feeling her own, invisible tail swish. His was the hardest approval to earn when she agreed to marry his hero, but they've all come so far. Bruce would be proud of them all.
Tim weaves his way from between the cats to join Dick and help get everybody back down into the caves. Isis butts Selina's chin, breaking a laugh out from her mother's lips. She no longer hates the sound. She runs both hands down Isis' sleek body and kisses her before returning to petting both cat and lion. It's then that she notices a whole line of felines awaiting her attention, and Alfred standing in the doorway.
"Ahem," the butler says, clearing his throat. "I believe it is time Missus Wayne had her breakfast. You two can wait with your plans to save the world."
Barbara leaves without a word, but Arizona's always been one to speak her mind. "We're not the ones saving it," she tosses back at the butler, but she leaves him with a kiss on his cheek.
Selina returns to the bed and lets Alfred wait on her. She notices his eyes trailing to the pictures by the bed she once shared with the man he raised. "I think of him, too, Alfred, every day."
"I know you do, ma'am, and you make him proud." The butler bows and departs, his words still ringing in Selina's ears. She bites into the pancake and smiles, knowing, in her heart, that he's right. She can't save the world, but she's certainly come a long way toward saving Gotham's truest innocents. She's saved far more cats and girls than she once would have ever thought possible. It's true that the Joker's out to get them, but he only targets the best, she knows from his time constantly striking at her husband.
She'll never be Bruce. She'll never be as strong as he was or as pure of intentions. She still doesn't hesitate to kill when the need arises, although she did manage last night without taking a life. And Joker will be back. But she vows, every tail in the room swishing, that they'll be ready next time. They'll all be ready, and together, they'll defeat him as a team, as a family. It is then that Alfred returns with fresh fish for all, and Selina watches him pass out the filets, beaming at his interactions with her cats.
It is much later that day when a sleek, black limousine stretches along Gotham's most famous cemetery. Rays of the setting sun catch and gleam on Selina's wedding ring as she strokes Isis. The cat's purr fills the limousine. Selina waits as Alfred turns off the engine, waits as he prepares to open his door so he can open hers, waits for the remarks she knows will come.
But he's strangely silent today -- until the tiny, orange kitten who insisted on jumping up front with him taps the visor of his hat. The hat slips off of his head. The kitten instantly pounces on it. Alfred's laughter at the kitten fighting with his hat breaks the silence. He lifts his cap off of the kitten who bats at with his striped paws. Alfred touches his little, pink nose and laughs again.
Selina smiles, knowing her cats are finally completely welcome with the old man. She opens her own door. He looks up, dismayed, but she smiles at his reflection in the mirror. "It's okay, Alfred. You and Tigger sit this one out."
He doesn't argue. He just plays with the kitten, tickling his belly. The kitten rolls over, and as he's pulling the butler's cap on top of him again, Selina and the others exit. They walk in a straight line, Isis again wrapped around Selina's neck, into the cemetery. She sits two large baskets down at the gate, selecting only one red rose herself, and watches as each cat accompanying her pauses and lifts a flower with his or her mouth.
Then, together, they spread through the cemetery. Each cat goes to a different grave and lays a flower on it except for Isis. Selina takes the rose from her eldest cat's mouth and lays one red rose and one white rose on her husband's grave. Her eyes again glimmer with unshed tears as she reads his headstone, "Bruce Wayne. Beloved Husband. Cherished Father. Hero."
"I'll never be able to do everything you did, Bruce, and I thought for the longest time I didn't have to. I tried not to care, but I can't. You always knew that. You saw the spark in me long before I ever acknowledged it myself."
"I can't do everything you did. I can't save every one you did. But I'm saving all I can. We're saving all we can. I hope . . . " Her voice stammers. She wipes away a single tear she's finally let fall. "I hope, and I trust, my darling, that it's enough to make you proud. Your Alfred believes it is. I like to think he's right."
By now, her cats have circled around her again. They wait, ears flicking back and forth but tails curled solemnly around their rear quarters, as they listen to their mother's every word.
"Regardless," Selina concludes, "I know you know I love you." She presses her hand to her lips, then touches his headstone as she bows her head. "I always will," she promises and forces herself to walk away.
The sun has almost finished sinking. It's time for her to don her mask again. It's time for her to rescue those she can tonight. It's time for her to make him proud, and make herself proud along the way. It's time to keep loving.
The cats are purring reassuringly as they leave the cemetery. Isis' furry cheek presses against her mother's quivering lips. Then she turns and kisses her. Selina smiles through her tears and kisses her baby back.
Then she enters the limousine, waits for the cats to get settled, and finally shuts the door. "To the Cave, Alfred," she instructs, but her eyes watch Bruce's grave until she can see it no longer.
When she arrives on Pimp Lane, as some of her girls have taken to calling it, for the night, the girl with the purple mohawk from the night before is waiting for her. She doesn't hesitate in walking up to her tonight, despite the bobcat on the back of her bike. Catwoman's eyes watch her carefully and solemnly. She can see the curiosity practically spilling out of her.
"I heard a rumor," the girl starts.
"Oh?" she returns and waits patiently for her to continue.
"About chicks saving lives and beating down scum. Is it true?"
"I want in."
Catwoman smiles as a bike roars down the highway to join her. "That's all you had to say," she says and watches the girl mount behind Arizona before giving the others her usual offer and warning. The pimps aren't foolish enough to come close tonight, but though the girls do come closer, no one else comes to join them -- yet. Isis purrs, and Catwoman smiles. She knows they will with time but lets them make their own decisions as she keeps moving.
Two blocks later, Catwoman stops her bike as she hears a plaintive scream coming from a small and young voice. She leaves it in the shadows and approaches on foot, Isis still draped around her neck and the bobcat following at her side.
"Now, what's it gonna be, sweet cheeks? You gonna come with me nice and quiet or is Fang here gonna get dinner?"
"You'd better mean dog food."
"I do. That's what all cats are, babe: dog foo -- " He cuts his own words off as Catwoman stalks from the darkness. She leaps to him, her emerald eyes glazing with anger, and picks the young punk up by his throat. Her claws scratch his chin as she lifts him off the pavement.
The bobcat screams his rage as he jumps the pit bull. He won't kill the dog, but he'll make certain he thinks twice before ever trying to bite another cat. Isis yowls as she leaps from her mistress' shoulders and lands in front of the kitten. Back arched and teeth bared, she turns to be the final divider between the tiny, gray kitten and their enemies.
The young punk had been backed by a whole little gang, who are now screaming and running. Catwoman, still holding their leader by his throat and letting his feet dangle, snakes out her whip and hits every one of them in the butt. They scream again, grabbing their asses, as sirens wail and her girls ascend from the shadows.
In a matter of seconds, the whole gang is tied up, but Catwoman still hasn't let their leader loose. She brings him down to look into her eyes. "Understand this," she hisses, "you ever touch another cat, and I will rip you apart." She drops him, slashes his face, and has him tied in her whip before he hits the ground.
"Catwoman?" Arizona calls. Catwoman turns to face her young protege and sees the girl wrapped safely in her friend's arms. The girl is trembling from head to foot and can't be more than eleven, twelve absolute tops.
Catwoman nods as another of her girls gently picks up the kitten, who's been being comforted and bathed by that girl's calico partner. Isis returns to Catwoman's shoulders as the calico leaps onto the girl. "Get them out of here," Catwoman commands. "Take my bike with you."
The girls nod and are gone in a flash, leaving Catwoman to await the cops. It's Detectives Montoya and Bullock who arrive on the scene. Catwoman doesn't even waste a glance at the male half of the partnership. Instead, she looks to Montoya and jerks her head back at the pit bull. "Take him to Animal Mercy Hospital."
"We're not no -- " Bullock starts, but when Catwoman's eyes narrow on him, he shuts up.
"We'll take care of him," Montoya promises, but Catwoman is already gone.
"You changed it back."
"I thought you didn't like it."
"I didn't," Catwoman scratches Isis' chin, "but you were right. It's time the people know they're not alone. Every one knows he passed, but not every one knows his mantel's been picked up. They need to know that just because he's gone, doesn't mean they don't have some one who cares."
"You do care, don't you?" He watches her steadily. Tonight, she meets his gaze without hesitation.
"I do," she admits, "more than I ever thought I could."
Jim smiles around his cigarette. He takes it out and breathes. "He had that effect on people."
She smiles, but sorrow still lingers in her emerald eyes. Isis purrs softly. "I've noticed that." He saved so many before she finally let him save her.
"You'll save more."
"No, I won't," she reflects knowingly, "but if I can save as many as he did, I will have honored him."
You already have, Jim says but is wise enough not to speak the words. He knows from Alfred and Barbara all the stories of the people and felines Selina has saved, and he knows she isn't stopping any time soon. She's already saved hundreds, but she doesn't count them. As long as there are women, children, and, most especially, cats needing her, she won't stop trying to save the innocents of Gotham and wherever she happens to be, he knows.
He moves forward to the signal, turns it off, opens it, and lifts out the Bat symbol. He secures the Cat symbol instead, closes the lid securely back, and lights the night sky again. This time, it's a symbol of a Cat instead of a Bat. It's still a sign of hope. It's a sign no one has to be alone, that help is here and will stay, and rescues will continue. Evil will never reign in Gotham City.
He watches her as she examines the symbol, her symbol, and smiles again when she finally smiles not just in approval but acceptance as well. She is the heroine Gotham needs now, and although she's said in the past, it's a role she has to fulfill, he knows better. It's a role she's chosen to fulfill. It's a role she gladly accepts not just to bring her husband honor but to rescue those innocents to whom she's always been called. After all, he and Alfred both know, she rescued Arizona and a good many cats long before Bruce Wayne ever slid his ring onto her finger.
His eyes drop to her gloved hands, and he notes the little bulge in her glove. His smile turns sad, but he's still smiling. Even now, she wears the sign of his dearest friend. Even now, she honors him. Even now, she upholds her bond and word. She'll love him forever, he knows, and will grieve him for just as long. They'll all do the latter, he knows, but the people are no longer scared. Gotham hasn't been left alone. She'll never be left alone, and the Batman's impact on their fair city will always be felt.
She's being guided by a new hand, a maternal hand, and he can't help recognizing that Selina doesn't just rescue the people she comes across who need her. She goes out of her way to find them, and she rescues them all, human and animal. She's even brought many puppies to him to train as guard dogs at Arkham, police dogs in the force, and therapy dogs in the hospital. She may be brazen, but she never turns away a true innocent who needs her.
"Harley escaped today," Catwoman speaks, her quiet voice effectively ending the silence.
Gordon's trench coat flaps in the rising wind. "I'd ask how you know, but he always managed to be a step ahead."
Catwoman grins at him. "I have my informants," she says, and his eyes twinkle.
"I'm sure you do."
"Besides, I was waiting on this. She'll meet up with the Joker, and when she does, we'll be ready."
Catwoman nods. "That's my secret, Commissioner," she admits, looking over at the lion who stalks in the shadows. "I'm never alone, and neither are you." She swings away into the night, her team following her.
It takes months, but eventually, they do find the Joker. Catwoman puts a stop to his terror, but when he falls, there are still others. There are always others, she comes to learn. There are always others trying to take strength from hurting those who can not stand up for themselves, and there are always those who need some one else to stand up for them.
She stands for them all, and she is not alone. In his memory, she protects Gotham, but because of her own heart, she saves the damsels in distress and, most importantly of all, every feline she finds hurting and scared. She gives them all a home, a new meaning, and a family, and her love resounds through every swishing tail. There will always be those who hurt others, but through love, there will also always be those who take a stand, who stand beside the true heroes, and who help save every life they can. Catwoman continues Batman's work, but hers will be continued, by those she has saved and help saved, for decades to come.