Chapter 2: Excess Baggage
Tim had situated himself at workstation 2, taking Jowls the desktop gargoyle from his backpack and setting him neatly atop the computer screen, then setting a bag of Combos next to the keyboard, when he heard the rhythmic squeak of the uneven parallel bars. He got up from the chair and walked casually to the mini-fridge, where he could peek into the gymnasium.
“Oh, hi Selina,” he called with a wave when he saw who it was. “I didn’t think you liked working out down here.”
She twisted, pulled into a handstand perfectly perpendicular to the top bar, then swung down and arched neatly through the bars, landing on the mat where she could converse more easily with Tim.
“I don’t very often,” she said sliding her legs apart and dipping one hand down to touch the floor while pointing the other to the ceiling. “I prefer working out in my own suite. But today, well, Bruce needs some space and I’m giving it to him.”
Tim paused for a moment, stunned, while Selina held the yoga posture then bent her forward knee and stretched as if she were warming up for a run. He heard himself burbling “Oh. Space. Yeah, well,” when he decided to forget he was in the Batcave and instead assumed rooftop discipline: pay no attention to the spectacular female body clad in purple leather—or in this case, purple leotard—focus instead on the dangerous criminal and what she might be up to.
Except the dangerous criminal was up to a half-moon posture that made her look like the hood ornament on a very expensive car.
“I’m, ah, downloading some, ah, research paper- research from- download for- paper on- Scottish play,” he managed and left the gymnasium hurriedly. He wiped a bead of imaginary sweat from his brow and patted Jowls on the head.
“We’re, uh, going to pretend to do some research on Shakespeare for a while,” he whispered to the gargoyle, “just play along and we’ll look for that other file later.”
Miriam was quite certain the episode with her doormat was a portent. She wanted to learn more, but she had strict rules about consulting the dark arts during business hours. It would have taken a far more dramatic upheaval—perhaps if the walls started wailing or oozing blood—to cause her to lock her doors early or to risk non-initiated customers walking in on anything they might deem odd. So she sat reading a magazine, THE GOTHAMITE, through most of the day, although the essays of this special correspondent, Clark Kent, weren’t exactly her cup of tea. Very little in the GOTHAMITE conformed to Miriam’s idea of light reading. But it was the kind of thing customers liked to see behind the counter of an antiques shop. The discreet ad she placed in the back brought business to both the curios and magic half of her store. And the cartoons were amusing enough.
One cartoon in particular, from the current issue, caught her eye: A Batmanlike figure on a rooftop hunched next to a gargoyle with the caption “Rough day, Gus?” Miriam reached for her scissors and clipped it out. It was just the kind of thing to tape to the side of a bookcase to amuse her customers. The knickknack crowd would see a simple GOTHAMITE cartoon, but her other customers would recognize the gargoyle as Maxilas Do Blostiban, Guardian of the Fifth Circle and aspect of Hel, the daughter of Loki.
Though she was anxious to get home and investigate the portents, Miriam still waited attentively on her customers: there was the girl, about sixteen, who never did work up the nerve to ask about the magickal wares that brought her to The Curiosity Shop in the first place, who browsed and browsed and nervously twirled her hair around her finger… Miriam wasn’t unsympathetic, but she had firm rules and she kept to them. She would not reveal the magick side of her business to any who didn’t ask directly… Finally the girl bought an Art Deco ashtray. Miriam shrugged. If they couldn’t work up the gumption to help themselves, there was really nothing she could do. The next customer was a tourist that decided a Vessel of Merĝląy would make the perfect “slop bowl” for his Regency tea set. And just before closing, a different breed of tourist stopped in for clove candles and mugwort. After a few minutes of knowing conversation, Miriam realized this customer had no need of mugwort. He had sought her out the way another type of enthusiast might visit a dealer in classic motorcycles or rare books. She easily persuaded him that he needed a better souvenir from the famous Curiosity Shop than herb candles and mugwort, so she showed him the new charoite gems from Russia (“Excellent for enhancing magickal powers, helps to recognize and integrate negative energies, very good for healing…”) and rather than bargain when he offered a lower price, she tossed in a few ametrines.
By the time she left for the day, Miriam had almost forgotten the troubling portents of the morning, but the sight of the doormat on her front step… “Something Wicked This Way Comes” …brought a swift and distasteful reminder.
Arriving home, the first thing she did was set out candles, incense and Tarot cards to learn more—but her cat, Greymalkin, would have none of it. Greymalkin was no demon familiar; she was a rambunctious cat with the playful temperament of a kitten. On those occasions when Greymalkin decided the Tarot were her playthings, Miriam knew any attempt at a reading would lead to chewed cards, overturned candles, and incense ash tracked across her tablecloth in the form of tiny gray pawprints.
Miriam picked up the cat and shut her in the bedroom—but she put away the Tarot cards all the same. It was a foolish witch that would proceed with a reading that had been disrupted in such a manner. Instead she tried casting runes, but the results were cryptic. Exasperated, Miriam made one final attempt: she consulted her customer records for a phone number and called one she knew to be a powerful wizard. If Jason would form a secondary for a seeing ritual… While she listened to the phone ring on the other end of the line, Miriam opened her bedroom door and Greymalkin shot out in a dizzying blur of gray at the exact moment the other phone picked up.
..:: This is Jason Blood, ::.. the earpiece intoned while her cat charged across the table, scattering runestones and spilling candlewax ..:: Like Dante in Purgatorio, I journey direct towards the sunset, hand to brow to screen the superflux of light… I’m out of town right now, but I do check the machine regularly. Leave a message and I’ll get back to you as soon as I can. ::..
Miriam hung up the telephone with a disgusted snort. She decided she didn’t really want to know what mighty force was headed for Gotham.
Passenger: Kent, Clark Seat 3B FC GA17
Clark took the tickets from under the Daily Planet fridge magnet and slid them into his jacket pocket, then he returned to the front door and smiled quietly to himself.
There were many things Clark adored about his wife: her fire, her tenacity, her brilliance, her passion… but over the years, he’d come to realize that it was the little things, the quirks, that delighted him the most. The way she drummed her fingers on her keyboard when she couldn’t get the phrasing of a particular idea. The way she would pick all of the red M&Ms out of the bag to eat first. Her meticulous, almost scientific, method for preparing her coffee each morning.
Her inability to go anywhere for more than five days without packing at least four suitcases…
Clark couldn’t stifle his grin as he looked at the mountain of luggage piled up by the front door to their apartment. The folded, hanging-style suitcase leaning next to the wall was his, but all of the others—one medium-sized wheeled case, two soft-side bags and a handbag-sized makeup case—belonged to Lois. He lowered the laptop bag that he’d been carrying from his shoulder down on the floor next to his suitcase and turned back toward the bedroom just in time to see Lois emerge from the hallway. She was hefting a huge travel bag, a behemoth of a hard-sided suitcase-thing from her college days (before suitcases came with sissy attachments like “wheels”). From the way she struggled with both hands to half-carry/half-drag it across the floor, Clark figured it must have been packed to its limits with unrefined lead bricks.
Clark moved to help her and received a vicious stare he seldom saw outside of The Slab’s Maximum Security Wing. She defiantly lugged the monstrous suitcase over to the door and dropped it with a resounding thud, then turned and looked at her husband with a sweet and gentle smile like she’d just traipsed daintily across the living room with a basket of flowers instead of Goliath’s handbag. Clark returned smile for smile as he shot a quick glance at the pile of suitcases.
“You know, we’re only going to Gotham for two weeks. We’re not moving there.”
“And they say Superman doesn’t have a sense of humor,” Lois replied flatly. She patted his cheek sarcastically and headed back down the hall.
“There’s more?” Clark called after her.
“It’s Gotham City, Clark.” Lois’s voice carried out from the bedroom where she was putting he last few items into her carry-on bag. “And we have no idea what all we’ll be doing while we’re there. While your fashion requirements may be limited to the grand ‘Tie/No Tie’ debate, mine are much more specific.” She re-emerged from the bedroom and dropped the last bag onto the pile. “I just want to be prepared.”
She surveyed the mountain of canvas and leather, double-checking to make sure everything was ready to go. “What I don’t get, is how you got two weeks worth of stuff jammed into just one bag.”
“Well, the hotel does have laundry and dry cleaning service,” Clark explained, only to be interrupted by an impatient…
“Clark, whatever you don’t pack for is what Bruce is going to ask us to.”
“…Besides, if I’m missing anything or need anything I don’t have, I can always zip back here and grab it. I can do the same for you if—”
She stopped him with a glare. After the mismatched shoe incident in L.A. two years ago, she’d declared a moratorium on Superman making emergency clothes runs on her behalf. Wanting to get away from the theme of their respective luggage needs, Lois changed the subject.
“Did you get in touch with Bruce? Are we getting together at some point?”
“Yes. We’re having lunch with them tomorrow afternoon.”
“So Captain Anti-social was actually agreeable to having a meal with us in public?”
“More than agreeable,” Clark explained. “He was downright excited about it.”
Clark had called to set up a lunch date for himself, Lois, Bruce and Selina. He hid from Lois his own trepidation at Bruce’s upbeat response. Rather than indifferent acceptance or even a polite rebuff, Bruce had responded with overwhelming enthusiasm—a full-bore blast of Foppish cheer. Clark had seen Bruce that way before, usually when trying to divert a prying eye… classic overcompensation by The Fop… But hearing it aimed in Clark’s own direction, it was a bit… unnerving. Clark figured that Bruce must have had company in the manor, overhearing the phone conversation.
“Excited?” Lois said with a smirk. “Bruce? Are you sure you dialed the right number?”
He shot her a look of mock disgust, then smiled. “Actually, he told me that he’d make all the arrangements. I’ll call him tonight when we reach the hotel and get all the pertinent details.”
“Lunch with the Billionaire Waynes. You could get two whole chapters for your book out of one meal,” Lois joked.
“Funny you should put it like that. ‘Billionaire Waynes,’ I mean…”
“What?” Lois looked at him quizzically for a moment, then her eyes widened in realization. “No! Not a chance! I told you a million times, no! I’m not going to do it!”
“Why not?! Let’s see, ignoring the fifteen thousand glaringly obvious reasons, I’ll go with the easiest of all: I don’t know her that well, Clark.”
“Oh, c’mon, Lois. It’s just a friendly, harmless inquiry.”
“Let me make sure I’m crystal clear on this: you want me, your loving and adoring wife, to ask Catwoman—claws, whips, already-took-me-hostage-once Catwoman, the same Catwoman who polished off two and a half bottles of champagne after the ‘Mrs. Wayne’ incident at Dick and Barbara’s wedding—you want me to ask her when she and Bruce are going to settle down and start making with the baby bat-cats?!”
“You don’t have to put it like that.”
“It doesn’t matter how I put it, Clark, that’s how she’s going to hear it! And I really don’t feel like spending my two weeks in Gotham in the hospital getting my innards surgically reattached!”
“Look, you don’t have to come right out and ask her. Just… feel her out a bit. See if she’s receptive at all to the idea. What’s the worst that can happen?”
“She takes me hostage again,” was the deadpan reply. “And this time I don’t think she’ll be nearly so reasonable about it. I was an innocent bystander that time. I’d hate to think what she could do to me if she was legitimately pissed. Best case scenario: she tells Bruce, Batman goes berserk, and it’s all my fault. CORRECTION: it’s all your fault! I can see the headlines now: Superman pisses off Batman. Gotham in Ruins.”
Clark chuckled. “If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard that one.”
They were interrupted by three short buzzes from the intercom. It was the signal from the doorman that their taxi had arrived. Lois deflated at the sound and shook her head.
“There’s the cab, flyboy. Keep your nickels and take those bags downstairs.”
Clark bent down and effortlessly scooped up all of the suitcases, slinging several over each shoulder and picking up one in each hand. The whole time, his eyes never left hers. Lois wondered for a moment if he was purposefully making it look easy… a little show of superhuman testosterone. But she knew him better than that. He stood there for a moment, just staring at her, then finally responded in a reserved tone.
“I’m not telling you that you have to do this,” he said, “You don’t have to if you don’t want to. I’m just asking. Please. For me.”
She stared back into his eyes, those eyes that she could never say no to…
“Fine,” she finally relented. “I’ll tell you what, I’ll use the word ‘wife’ in a sentence just to see if she breaks out in hives. But if she scratches my eyeballs out and serves them in the evening pâté, I’m holding you personally responsible.”
He smiled lightly and leaned in and kissed her cheek. “Thanks, Hon. You’re the greatest.” She opened the door to their apartment and he strolled out, looking like a human luggage rack.
She closed the door behind him then made one last pass through the apartment. Her mind struggled with what exactly she was going to say to Selina—to Catwoman. Clark’s great and glorious plan: Lois would talk to Selina while he himself talked to Bruce.
He’d been like this since Dick and Barbara’s wedding, trying to get all of his unmarried friends to tie the knot. It was cute and charming in a way, but now that he’d progressed into full-scale, multi-tier sneak attacks, maybe it was time to sit down and have a little heart-to-heart.
Although, there might be no need. Once Bruce was finished with him, Clark might put this whole crusade behind him anyway. That was the one thing she could take some solace in: as bad as she was going to get it from Selina, Clark would be getting it ten times worse from Bruce.
“‘Come to Gotham,’ he says. ‘It’ll be fun,’ he says. ‘What’s the worst that can happen?,’ he says…”
She snapped off the lights and headed for the door, muttering to herself: “Honestly, you’d think he’d know better by now.”
Something I’ve learned since getting involved with the bat family is that there is more common ground between crimefighters and rogues than either group would care to admit. Example: Everybody with a Gotham nightlife, everybody, both crimefighters and rogues, has their own personal set of mysteries. Naturally “Who is Batman” is a common question whenever rogues gather, and “What drives Joker” seems to get a lot of lip service among the bats. But those are for show. The real mysteries, the ones we ponder in private, are more eclectic. One of mine for example: Some time before I die I would like to find out how, in the name of all things feline and furry, Pamela Isley got the idea we’re friends.
Setting aside her little habit of trying to kill Batman—and for that matter, seducing Bruce—there is still the reckoning for many, many nights at the Iceberg when I had troubles of my own (who doesn’t), but rather than unwind in the company of friends, I had to sit there listening to Harvey, Eddie, or both singing The Ballad of Humoring Pamela.
So Queen Chlorophyll has never exactly been at the top of my Christmas card list. And yet, she called that morning, insisting she had to come over to talk because I was “the only friend that can help now.” What could I do? The Humoring Pamela Principle pretty much demands that you go along when she gets that worked up. But it did present a bit of a dilemma in terms of where to meet. In the mood Bruce was in, the last thing I wanted to risk was hitting the “criminals in my house” nerve. But meeting her out in the garden—and letting Miss “No man can resist my leafy beauty” see firsthand what a large and lovely garden the manor has? No. So it had to be the house, and that's when I had one of those revelations-by-necessity. It occurred to me that if Pammy’s visit did happen to set Bruce off, it might be the best thing for him, bleed off a bit of that steam before it built up enough pressure to blow up the whole radiator.
But the minute I walked into the morning room to greet my visitor, I saw I had been worrying about the wrong radiator. Ivy was an absolute basket case.
It started with “Heya, Catty” and an awkward rise from her chair, offering me her hand like she was applying for a loan or something. This embarrassed us both equally, I think. I asked her to sit down and took a seat myself—the one behind Martha Wayne’s old writing desk, which didn’t exactly ease the loan manager feeling. Then she started to ramble—about the plants, no surprise there—but instead of the usual complaints about injustices done to her babies (I had forgotten to tell Alfred to remove a vase of cut flowers), I heard:
“…was really Ivan that started it. The best goddamn flytrap ever bred, Catty, Nature’s masterpiece, that was Ivan. Nobody could wrap his tentacles around that goddamn interfering Bat like Ivan. So what is any good mother to do? I let him do what he did best. Not my fault he was so darn good at it. I was proud of him…”
I bobbed my leg impatiently. I had heard this all before. Soon it would build to a great crescendo about Two-Face the plant-killer and 22 imaginative uses for hedge trimmers. I wanted her to get on with it so I could remind her that Harvey was a friend of mine and shove her out the door. Except instead of the usual segue about Harvey, she started talking about Roxy: She’d had her ass handed to her—by Roxy Rocket! It was not to be endured. And now she was a laughing stock. Also not to be endured. It had to end and it had to end now, not later, now, before one more mouth-breathing cretin got it into his head that that sorry creature getting tossed around by her hair was Ivy the Irresistible, Gaia’s Chosen and Mother of all things Green. She had to get back into shape so she could hold her own in a physical confrontation as well as any other rogue of her stature.
That’s the gist, anyway. The literal text, believe it or not, wasn’t quite that coherent. I honestly didn’t know what to say. It’s not every day “Gaia’s Chosen” calls up wanting you to be her personal trainer.
I told her I’d think about it.
I hadn’t meant to; I was going to say no. I was about to say no, when she asked about that tape.
“You’ve seen that awful video?”
“I know about it,” I admitted, “I’m sorry.”
What else could I say? I certainly wasn’t going to tell her I’d seen it. I’d seen the original feeds Bruce pulled off the Fab! cameras at the Iceberg, but when none of it showed up in the broadcast, we all figured that was that. But someone in the Fab! offices must have made a bootleg, and before long, it was the number one download on kazaa.
“Then you understand,” she declared, reclaiming a bit of the old royal Pammy, “You’ve had it happen to you. Been held up for these no account… vermin… MEN to drool over with their sick lowly fantasies, and these stupid, ignorant fools going along with it like… like your degradation is some kind of ENTERTAINMENT!!!” The brave grasp at the old royal Pammy was short-lived. She had shrieked the last word at a volume Bruce was sure to hear. Although to be honest, at that point I didn’t much care what Bruce thought.
She was right. I had been there.
“So you see why you’re really the only one that can help me out, Catty. Getting back your dignity and adding a couple style points to boot, that’s your thing.”
She was right. I had been there… and it was awful.
“I’ll think about it, Pam,” I said, “Meantime, maybe you could stop by the library and get yourself some Tai Chi videos or something, okay?”
Lois, like any star reporter, had logged enough travel time to become an expert on airline food. Metropolis to Gotham was a fairly short flight, a “snack flight” rather than full food service. She was expecting a muffin and probably a bag of pretzels. She hadn’t allowed for the fact that Gothamite Publishing was sending them first class, where the Daily Planet’s limited expense accounts only covered economy flights. So she was quite delighted when the expected muffins came warm, served with tongs from a lined basket instead of sealed in plastic. She was floored when the stewardess returned a moment later with a tray of miniature pastries, offering “Éclair, petit fours, cannoli?” Lois watched Clark take one of each. She would have liked an éclair, but having already taken a muffin… They would be two weeks in Gotham; she couldn’t afford to start splurging yet if she wanted to get home the same dress size she was now. She waited for Clark to look across the aisle and swapped his chocolate éclair for her muffin. Then she turned to the window and nibbled her treat, and allowed her thoughts to return to the question of that “friendly, harmless inquiry” he wanted her to make of Catwoman.
Like any good reporter, Lois catalogued what she knew about her subject. She recalled her first encounter with Catwoman: a robbery at LexCorp headquarters, thought to be impenetrable. That was going to be her story: a break in LexCorp, missing datafiles swiped from Luthor’s own computer while he was giving a tour to visiting VIP Bruce Wayne. Superman and Batman arrived almost immediately after the alarm sounded. Batman was certain it was Catwoman and that she was still in the building, and the chase was on. The next thing Lois knew, she was a hostage. While that had happened before, no other criminal that grabbed her was quite so straightforward about it: “I need leverage with the heroes and you need a story,” Catwoman had said. It made you feel lucky that she picked you.
It was lucky, as it turned out. Lois got her story all right, but she also got to see the bat-cat sparks up close and personal. That was a show in its own right, but it was the conversation it sparked later, when the women were alone again, that had a profound effect on Lois. Catwoman had spoken about “the man you want and the man you can have.” The cat burglar couldn’t know Clark Kent had proposed and Lois accepted—but that she still had doubts because of her feelings for Superman. That brief conversation with a thief in a mask—a thief who could take anything she wanted, except the one thing she wanted most—it silenced those doubts that had haunted Lois since the moment she said yes.
A few weeks later, Clark told her the truth. In the years since, whenever Lois thought of Catwoman, it was with a bittersweet sense of “Poor Kitty.” Lois had found she could ‘have her cake and eat it too’: Clark and Superman were one and the same. But Catwoman…
So, when they met again, when Catwoman saved the Justice League from Prometheus in full view of a hundred reporters, Lois reported the episode more accurately, and more flatteringly to Catwoman, than any of the others. Selina noticed, but she never knew why. Still, she told the world during her stage show about the one reporter in a hundred who got it right. She singled out Lois by name as living proof that journalists weren’t all lying maggots. She even proposed a “Lois Lane Preservation Society”—which always got a laugh because of Lois’s well-known penchant for getting herself into trouble in pursuit of the big story.
And now, thanks to Clark, the advocate of the “Lois Lane Preservation Society” was most likely going to shred her like yesterday’s newspaper.
I didn’t literally mean I would think about it. It was something to say, something softer than a definite ‘no’ to tide over an awkward moment and get Ivy out of the house.
I hadn’t seriously considered helping her until I went back to the cave. Tim was there. He had his feet up on the desk, the keyboard in his lap with a bag of snacks, and in front of him, playing in slow motion on a cluster of three computer screens was what Gaia’s Chosen so recently referred to as “that awful video.” It had changed since I saw the Fab! feeds. There was a soundtrack now, and a cartoon Joker prancing around in the background—and there was a horny teenager sniggering at it. It was that last that struck a chord. He wasn’t “Tim” or “Robin” at that point. He was the life support for a penis, a poster boy for “men are pigs” getting his jollies at Pam’s expense. Pammy is no model of common sense, understanding, or emotional maturity, and most grief she brings on herself. But by all accounts except Roxy’s, the only thing she did that night was go to a bar, have a drink, and flirt with the bartender.
I removed my shoes and padded noiselessly into the main chamber of the Batcave, stationing myself directly behind Tim. I watched him watching the tape for a minute, then pointed towards the screen just inside his peripheral vision.
“See that hair-pulling move is something you really want to be able to defend against,” I said, making him jump. “Because if Roxy ever got your long flowing locks tangled up like that until you bumped your own tit against the jukebox that way, the cartoon Joker would be too busy laughing at the pair of you to notice somebody sneaking up right behind him.”
I rumpled his hair playfully then grabbed a handful and pulled his head backwards to look up at me.
“And we wouldn’t want that, would we.”
“No, Ma’am,” he said, his tone a notch higher than usual.
That should have been the end of it. Tim made himself scarce, leaving me on my own in the cave again—with his gargoyle knickknack, a bag of cheese-filled pretzels, and the video of Pam and Roxy going at it in the background. The thing that gnawed at me while I cleaned up the workstation was less the images on the screen (although Ivy’s performance left a lot to be desired) as my own performance with Tim.
I’m not a mother hen. I’m a rooftop cat. Wagging a finger, “Now remember, Timmy, even a rogue is somebody’s daughter,” just isn’t my style.
So that’s why I agreed to help Pammy. If I didn’t like that tape—and I don’t—that was a right-thinking rogue’s way to respond: Toughen the silly flower blossom up a bit so she can punch back. Not tsk-tsking at Tim like some suburban soccer mom.
Bruce stared into the mirror, his face barely visible through the steam from his shower. It was no use—he couldn’t escape the thoughts of what had happened any longer. He had spent most of the day trying to ignore it, trying to focus on anything but the madness of the night before, but everything he did somehow seemed to remind him.
He spent a good deal of the morning in the study, catching up on his Wayne Enterprises e-mail and reading through several reports that Lucius sent. He sat through a twenty-minute teleconference with Lucius and the division chiefs discussing the quarterly earnings. Being in business mode had helped; it gave him something else to focus on. But every time he moved in his chair, every time he felt the cool cotton fabric of his shirt gliding smoothly over his pristine back instead of the rough ridges of scar tissue, a strange unease washed over him.
After lunch, he decided that the constant reminder he got from sitting in his high-back office chair was too much, so he chose to stand or pace instead—except that whenever he walked, he recognized the lack of that twinge above his left knee from an old gunshot wound. Frustrated, he spent the early part of the afternoon perusing his library. He had correctly identified the runes carved into the magical fetish as Nordic in design, so he read through several books on Norse mythology, trying to figure out where the runestone had come from or what kind of power the symbols represented. After turning a page resulted in a nasty paper cut and he realized that it was now the only marring mark on his body, he put the book back on the shelf and stormed out of the library in disgust.
Meditating helped a little. He sat in the lotus position on a mat in the Sun Room, taking in deep, rhythmic breaths as the afternoon sun bathed him in warm, glowing light. He was able to completely clear his mind, focusing on the peace of nothingness—until a bead of sweat rolled straight down his chest without being detoured by any cat-scratch scars. At that point, he gave up, came upstairs, and took a shower.
Now, standing in front of the bathroom mirror and staring at himself through the steamy haze, he decided that the only way he could come to grips with all of this was to think it through.
Each of those scars represented something. Each one told a story. They were a road map of his successes and failures over the years—physical reminders of all that he’d accomplished. He understood that the scars on his body were a part of his job; that they came with the territory—they were the price you paid. You couldn’t put your body through the kind of abuse he did night in and night out and not have the physical scars to prove it. He had accepted that from the beginning and, in some respects, had even come to appreciate those scars as indications of a job well done. And in the blink of an eye, they were gone. It’s like the slate was wiped clean and now he had to start over from scratch.
The worst part about all of it was that, physically, he felt fantastic. He felt rejuvenated, refreshed, in peak physical condition. It seemed ridiculous to be so unnerved by the previous night’s events when he felt so perfectly healthy and strong. He realized that what was making him so anxious was not entirely what had happened to him, but rather the method by which it happened.
Bruce was a scientist, a rational, logical being. He believed in the rules and laws of science, and that everything had a logical and reasonable explanation. Fundamentally, nature existed and abided by those rules and everything adhered to those laws. The scientific guidelines of physics, biology, chemistry, they were all deeply rooted in proven laws of nature. Magic was a perversion of those rules. Magic broke those laws and circumvented those guidelines. Magic was a shortcut. Magic was… cheating. His rational mind railed against that perversion, but more than that, he understood the one unbreakable rule all magic-users acknowledged, but the significance of which none liked to admit…
The soft British voice tore him from his thoughts. He took a deep breath and walked out of the bathroom, one towel wrapped around his waist and another in his hand as he rubbed the wet hair on the side of his head.
“Yes, Alfred?” He strolled past the butler on his way around the bed, heading toward the closet.
“You wanted me to inform you…” The normally unflappable butler gasped lightly. “My word.”
Bruce froze and glanced back over his shoulder. “Alfred?”
“I’m sorry, sir. It’s just… your back…”
“I know,” Bruce replied with a disgusted grunt.
“If you don’t mind me asking, sir, what happened?”
Bruce relayed the entire story to Alfred just as he had to Selina the previous night—the runestone, the madness, the perp he almost killed, the woman responsible… and how the magic had somehow healed his scars. Alfred, who was just as logical and rational as Bruce, took it in stride. It was hard to disbelieve when the evidence was staring him in the face.
Once Bruce finished, Alfred thought for a moment, then responded. “Perhaps it would be best not to dwell on the ‘hows’ and the ‘whys,’ sir, and simply accept the undeniable benefits.”
Bruce wanted to disagree, to debate the negative aspects of what had occurred, to explain in great detail the fifteen hundred ways this was all wrong… but he knew that Alfred was only trying to help.
“Perhaps,” was all Bruce could reply. “Anyway, what did you come here to tell me?”
Alfred took the hint: the discussion was over. He straightened, taking on a more professional tone. “You asked me to inform you when Miss Kyle’s, er, guest had departed. Miss Isley left the premises about fifteen minutes ago.”
Bruce’s face darkened. “Thank you, Alfred.”
“And I made the arrangements for tomorrow’s lunch as you requested. You have reservations at D’Annunzio’s for 12:30.”
“Ah. Thank you. That will be all, Alfred.”
“Thank you, sir.” Alfred paused for a moment, then bowed his head respectfully and left. Bruce dressed quickly, then stopped in the middle of the master bedroom and sat down on the corner of his bed, his mind still churning over everything that had happened. He considered Alfred’s words about the disappearance of his scars being a ‘benefit.’ They brought into sharp focus what was most unnerving him about the whole affair.
Bruce didn’t know a lot about magic. Any enemy, natural or magical, that he faced he fought the same way, using his own natural abilities and naturally honed skills. If a situation did call for magical intervention, there were always the Jason Bloods and Zatannas of the world to offer assistance. He saw no logical need to have more than a passing knowledge of what magic was and what it could do. But the one thing he did know about magic was that it too was subject to that one law of the Universe: you couldn’t really cheat. Magic was a lie. Oh it bent those natural laws all right, but there was always a price. Every practitioner admitted straight off that one of the primary precepts of magic was balance. But few of them really understood the significance of that concept. Every action had a consequence; every positive, a negative. Every blessing had a curse. Yin and Yang. Good and Evil.
Magic, like Nature, had a habit of balancing everything out. The anxiety he had been feeling all day was that sickening anticipation of waiting for the other shoe to drop. You can’t really cheat nature. So what would be the price of this healing that was forced on him in a moment of madness?
To be continued...