Tim Drake had already decided to skip the
information sessions on Metropolis colleges.
He had read the brochures on Nordham University, the University of
Metropolis, and Metropolis Institute of Technology.
He was sure they were all good schools but…
There would come a day when he’d have to make those decisions, hard decisions about crimefighting and the rest of his life: to continue as Robin, find a mantel of his own as Nightwing had, or maybe even hang up the cape, settle down to life as a regular person? That day would come; those choices would come. But not today. If he stayed in Gotham, those decisions did not have to be made today.
So the speakers from Nordham and Met-IT could pitch the merits of their campuses to the other seniors at Brentwood Academy. Tim had the afternoon off. He returned to his room, tossed MacBeth and Introduction to Calculus onto the bed, and patted Jowls, the desktop gargoyle that perched on the corner of his computer screen.
“How are we doing, Jowley. Any e-mail come in while I was out? You don’t know how lucky you are, Pal, being the tiny desktop version with a nice dry roof over your head. Saw your big brother last night, on top of the Grupnel Tower, big chip out of his nose and a bird’s nest in his ear. So count your blessings.”
Tim patted the gargoyle again and scrolled through his mail. One in particular caught his eye.
“IT IS NOT!” Tim yelped at the screen. “Barbara! Pitysake, woman! Every guy in Gotham that ISN’T Robin is doing it. It’d look pretty damn suspicious if I wasn’t.”
Tim swung his elbow onto the desk and his neck into the cradle of his waiting hand in a fluid, exasperated flop that left his face mere inches from the computer screen.
“Problem, Jowls,” he told the gargoyle, “Ever since that bootleg of the Poison Ivy-Roxy fight showed up on Kazaa, there’s like six different versions of it reedited and set to music. I got the Saber Dance and Linkin Park versions before Barbara starts in on me about this security stuff. I know why we have to let her encrypt all our ‘net activity through OracleSecure, but that’s all it’s supposed to be. Scramble/descramble, that’s it. Not peek in and see what Tim is downloading now, damnit. It’s just a bit of fun; it’s not a security risk. She just doesn’t like it. A spectacular catfight between two gorgeous, famous, costumed villainesses lacking complexity… set to the Saber Dance… with some sound effects here and there.”
Without moving his head, Tim flicked his eyes up at Jowls, who seemed to be looking back down on him.
“I know, it’s kinda not nice. But it’s not exactly nice when Ivy lets those vines slink up my legs and make a wish.”
He sighed. According to Randy-quad, the definitive version showed up over the weekend: Beethoven’s Pastoral intercut with Pat Benetar’s Hit Me With Your Best Shot and Christina Aguilara’s Dirty. He had to see it. He just had to. He was seventeen, he was a healthy red-blooded male, and he put his life on the line nightly to make the city safe for decent people. He deserved this.
“C’mon Jowls,” Tim said, removing his lucky gargoyle from its perch and tucking it into his jacket. Barbara might peek into his datastream but there were others she wouldn’t dare, “To the Batcave!”
The opening strains of Orff’s Carmina Burana blared out of the small computer speakers on Jimmy Olsen’s desk. He lurched forward, fumbling for the volume control knob and turned the volume all the way down, his heart racing. He peeked up over the edge of his cubicle around the Daily Planet newsroom. Thankfully, the music hadn’t really been loud enough to be heard over the normal din of the reporters’ bullpen, but he nervously scanned the room anyway, making sure no one had turned their attention his way. Satisfied that his secret was still safe, he ducked back down into his cubicle, turned the volume knob up just a touch and restarted the video.
His buddy Geoff had sent him an e-mail with a link to the Website he’d been scouring the ‘Net for…Undernet.IvyRox.com. It was, to every male Superhero fanatic between the ages of 12 and 30, the motherlode: A site dedicated to all of the various versions of the Ivy-Roxy catfight in several different downloadable formats.
Jimmy watched the video clip—now at a respectable volume—with the intensity of a conspiracy theorist with the Zapruder film. Sure, he’d seen the video—he’d watched the original more times than was probably prudent—but each version just got better and funnier. This one, set to Carmina Burana, was the funniest he’d seen by far—including an added-in cartoon Joker sitting in the background, drooling and clapping.
“I’ve heard that if you pause it exactly at the one minute, thirty-seven second mark, you can catch a glimpse of Roxy’s nipple.”
Jimmy’s head jerked around like an owl. Lois Lane was leaning against the doorway of his cubicle, her notepad in one hand and her “World’s Greatest Reporter” coffee mug (Thanks, Clark.) in the other, as she stared at his computer screen with a smirk on her lips. Jimmy stuttered and stammered a ridiculous excuse about clicking an errant link as he spun back around and fumbled across his desk again, this time for his mouse. Unfortunately, he fumbled a bit too frantically, knocking the cordless mouse across the desk and sending it careening into his cup full of pens—which promptly exploded all over the desk.
Lois stood there, blithely sipping her coffee as Jimmy did his impression of a Jim Carrey movie. Once Jimmy finally got control of the situation and managed to turn off the video clip, he turned with a sigh toward his visitor.
“S-s-sorry, Miss Lane. I-is there something I can do for you?”
“Clark and I are heading to Gotham City for a few weeks and Perry wanted me to tell you that we’ll be using a freelance photographer if we need one while we’re there, so you’re not coming with us. He says to check with Green and Lewis to see if they need you for anything. Well, that and that the real reason why you’re not coming with us is that he didn’t want you getting within a hundred miles of Poison Ivy or Roxy Rocket.”
Jimmy blanched, his mouth agape. “He… Mr. White said that?!”
“No,” Lois replied, smirking again. “Actually, he just wanted me to tell you to check with Green and Lewis for assignments. That last stuff I added just to watch your face turn that color.”
He stared at her blankly for a moment, then she winked at him and walked off, leaving Jimmy sitting motionless in his chair, waiting for his heart to stop pounding like a jackhammer.
One of the great ironies of life with Batman: sometimes the best place to avoid him is right under his nose. Not that avoiding him was a big priority when I was working; I always liked to sweeten a prowl with a little bat-action. But now and then I did happen upon the Batmobile. There it would be, parked in some side street, announcing to those with eyes to see that he wasn’t there. He had been there, but now he was off patrolling, usually to the south or southeast… And he would be coming back to this spot, but when he did, he would be intent on getting to the car and moving on to his next location. He would not be focused on the rooftops and that meant the neighborhood was mine for the taking.
Today that irony had returned in an unexpected way. Today it meant the one place to avoid him was the cave. Paradox of paradoxes, the Batcave is so central to all he is, his great mission, and today—after last night—he was avoiding it like the plague.
The cave is more than his war room. He might think of it that way, all the tools and resources he’s assembled for his work. But that’s not it at all. The Batcave is a monument… to his pain. And this morning, the way he’s hurting, it was the last place he would come.
Most bad nights, he’ll return late, near dawn or sometimes after. Not last night. He was back early, couldn’t have been very long after I’d turned out the light. I’d only started to drift off when I felt a warm tug pulling at me, then the arm wrapping around. I purred and nestled in some, and he said “Go back to sleep.”
Woke me up instantly. It was Batman’s voice. “Go back to sleep.” It was Batman’s voice and it shouldn’t have been. Not cuddling in the middle of the night. I twisted around in his arms and looked into his eyes. The room was dark but we’ve a lot of years looking at each other across more darkness than this. I knew something was wrong but I still wasn’t prepared… I’d never seen anything like it. He seemed… scared.
“I killed a man.”
“I killed a man… almost. ‘Almost’ doesn’t matter. He’d be dead if not for… luck. I threw him off an electrical tower. If it had been closer to the ground or he’d fallen faster, or if I’d snapped out of it just a split second later…”
He glared at that. Even in the dark I could feel the glare: How dare I dilute the gloom.
“Tell me what happened,” I said. I knew it was a long shot. He’ll never talk about the bad nights as a rule. But this was a little different. That look he had… scared. Scared, I could see now, of himself, of what he’d nearly done.
“It was… Rage. Insane, murderous rage. This woman, she’d found… the perfect murder weapon. A stone, some kind of runic stone, magic. Possessed anyone who touched it with a madness, sick, insane fury. And it… did other things… magic… whatever you drew from it, as long as it would drive the killing… All she had to do was get someone to touch the stone, point them at her victim and wait…”
I took a deep breath. At least now I understood what happened, why he was in such a state. I wasn’t at all sure how to address it, what he needed to be able to step away from it to let it heal.
“Wow, a trifecta: Murder, Madness and Magic, the three things you hate most of anything in the world.”
“And yet, after all that, this demonically clever woman with the perfect plan and the magic rock—”
“Yes. She’s in Arkham.”
Still no grunt.
“My point is: you didn’t cross that line. Even with her, even after the trifecta.”
“Of course not,” he said.
“Of course not,” I repeated. I really hoped he would say more. I really hoped he would say “Because I don’t kill. Because Batman doesn’t kill.” He had to say something to get past this. I didn’t think “of course not” was going to be enough.
“When… it happened. When I tossed the perp off that tower, the thought that, that brought me back, snapped me out of it: He was only the first. The rage didn’t subside when I pushed him; it exploded. I would kill them all, all the criminals, everywhere. That’s all it took, that one split second I could see the wrongness of it, the madness cracked open and… I was free of it. I leapt and fired a line, accelerated my fall to intercept him, last second. It was luck.”
“And then you went after her. And she’s in Arkham now and not the morgue because…?”
“Let’s get some sleep.”
“Alright,” I sighed. I didn’t think there was the slightest chance of that happening, but I rearranged myself and the covers, preparing to settle in. He laid back and I curled into the crook of his arm, put a hand on his chest and closed my eyes.
“Goodnight, my Dark…”
Something was wrong. I felt a cold shiver. I didn’t know what at first. Something was just… wrong. I thought of Azrael for some reason, the Imposter, in that cowl, pretending he was Batman. It was that same sick feeling, a crazy kind of panic sparking deep beneath the surface, ready to erupt any second but held in check for the moment by the cold shiver getting colder by the minute.
My fingers were so cold… against the warmth of Bruce’s chest… and then the realization came, right underneath those cold fingertips, I knew what was wrong.
“When did these heal?” I whispered. “Bruce, the scars on your chest…” Four parallel scratches. Mine. They’ve been there for years. Now suddenly—
I’ve never been afraid of him. Not of Batman and certainly not of Bruce. But at that moment, I couldn’t even know if this was Bruce. He got out of bed in icy silence, walked into the bathroom and turned on the light. I only saw a bit of color reflected in the mirror, flesh tone, blur of movement, more flesh tone. Then he came back. With the additional light from the bathroom I could see at once, the scars were all gone. His chest, legs, back… all completely unscathed.
He got back into bed. When he spoke his voice was almost… ashamed.
“I told you the runestone was magic. It would give whatever you drew from it to further the killing. I overturned a jeep that was coming right at me; I could walk through gunfire like through… raindrops. The bullets passed right thr—”
“The scars, Bruce. What happened to them?”
“The first ‘murder weapon’ this woman created with the stone, I fought him. I fought him four times last night trying to keep between him and his victims. The stone made him strong. I was pretty banged up by the end of it… after I touched it, I… the first thing I did was… heal.”
“Fractured bones, cuts from the fight. I needed… in the madness, I felt I needed to be strong in order to… It must have healed… everything.”
He didn’t say anything else for the rest of the night. He didn’t really have to. Bruce hates magic. He’s a scientist; he has a rational mind. And he respects natural law even more, if possible, than manmade ones. Magic lets someone cheat those laws, and he hates it.
In one night, he’d been touched by murder, by madness and by magic. And that was bad enough. Now it seemed there was going to be a permanent reminder of the taint.
He was quiet this morning when we got up. Not silent but… definitely brooding.
And I still haven’t heard a grunt.
The elevators opened and Lois crossed the newsroom crisply, noticing that the desk across from hers was as empty as when she’d left for lunch. Clark still hadn’t shown up yet. What’s worse, he hadn’t come home since leaving the night before to check on some earthquake in South America somewhere. It was really nothing new, this kind of thing happened all the time, but that didn’t stop her from worrying. Well, okay, not worrying, because “worrying” made her sound like some whining, nervous house frau… but there was always that grumble in the pit of her stomach whenever Clark was gone too long…
Not that you’d ever know it by looking at her. Externally, she was the same unflappable Lois: just another day that her husband was exceedingly late. She bypassed the cubicles, proceeded straight into Perry White’s office and dropped a “doggie bag” the size of a phonebook onto his desk.
“Dateline Metropolis: Beef is Back,” she said dryly.
The editor looked up at her, then down at the bag.
“I sent you to interview Fickly.”
“I did, Perry. Former Meteors Coach, three-time championship winner, now celebrity restaurateur Riff Fickly. The guy just opened a steakhouse in downtown Metropolis, Perry, did you think he was going to let me interview him in his garden? He made me come to lunch. He made me order their specialty: That’s the remains of a 48 oz steak in that bag. If you finish it, you get your picture taken and put up on the wall.”
“Long as you got the interview.”
“Be a pal, Perry, next time some puff piece like this comes along, give it to Green.”
“Green would’ve just interviewed Fickly. You’ll be bringing me features for the next month on Atkins, mad cow, the ranchers’ lobby, and other influences shaping the American diet.”
“So this assignment wasn’t punishment for Clark and Luthor?”
Perry handed back the bag.
“Give this to Jimmy, my cholesterol can’t take it.”
Lois took the bag and started to leave when Perry finally spoke again.
“No, Lois, it wasn’t punishment. I forgave you for marrying Kent in the first place and screwing up my newsroom with romance. I forgave him for that story on Luthor and bringing the wrath of the White House down on us. And I even forgave you that expose on mismanagement at LexCorp, although God knows losing all that advertising hurt us right on top of the White House thing. The only thing I won’t forgive is this leave of absence business, taking up vacation time for a damn fool—So your husband has to go to Gotham for a few weeks! You’re a liberated woman, Lois! Why do you have to go with him?”
“Great shopping in Gotham, Perry. And good restaurants—many of which serve something more than nine different cuts of red meat. Usually I only get a weekend trip a few times a year, but with this publisher talking to Clark about writing a book, what more excuse do I need?”
“Get out of my office. You’re on deadline for that interview.”
“Love you too, Chief,” she chirped.
Returning to her desk, Lois heard more muffled strains of “O, For-tu-na!” from Jimmy’s desk, the giggling of several interns, and finally an excited debate about whether the fight was over Nightwing, Riddler, or Two-Face. “Don’t you read the Tattler—” “But the Post says—” “Hotwing and Smoking Gun both say—”
That did it. Clark’s disappearing act, Perry’s agitation and a pound of bleeding-rare cow sitting like a lump of lead in her stomach she couldn’t do anything about, but the Porky’s shower room boys on top of that? No. That was one nuisance too many, and a nuisance she could easily remove.
She stepped determinedly into the cubicle and snapped off the monitor. “It is one thing to be addle-minded adolescents,” she announced, “It is quite another to aspire to a career in journalism and not know the difference between legitimate sources and the publicity stunts of some trashy tabloid…”
While the monitor was dark, the video file played on and the speakers punctuated Lois’s tirade with a flourish of trumpets and a cacophony of spirited cat-screeches.
The interns giggled anew.
And Lois looked guiltily towards Perry White’s office.
“I’m sorry, Perry, the first amendment was fine when I left for Gotham.”
In a lazy corner of Riverside Park, a crawling vine of hedera helix inched underneath a picnic blanket and coiled around the sleeping student’s backpack. It extracted her laptop, returned to Ivy’s secluded lair, and waited. The other plants were attempting to soothe her rage as best they could, administering calming spritzes of pollen and aloe vera rubs.
When Ivy noticed the vine’s return, it showed her the laptop and, at her signal, smashed it against the nearest tree.
“Nicely done,” she said with an approving nod. “Enough is enough, my dear Flora, enough is enough. There comes a point when the healthiest flower has absorbed all the fertilizer it can take, when it senses in its very petals that if it is subjected to one more atom of manure, its delicate green insides will simply explode!
“I am Gaia’s Chosen One, Nature’s own Vessel of Green! It is my prerogative to have any man I please. And it’s not as if I tried to actually seduce Sly, I was just amusing myself with a little flirting, when that insane Roxy Rocket pounced on me like some kind of crazed harpy!”
The plants listened respectfully, which made
their company so much more comforting than her so-called friends and colleagues
at the Iceberg.
Ivy considered herself too regal to brawl if she could avoid it. She realized she may have come to rely, just a tad, on her plants and enslaved drones to do the fighting for her in most situations, and for that reason Roxy was able to partially get the upper hand for a time in the earliest phase of their battle.
“But I rallied,” she told the flowerbeds, “I
got in a few good licks at least before it was over.
It was just bad luck that we were outside by then, out of range of the
Iceberg gawkers and those damned video cameras.”
A Clematis returned from its foray into the park proper and offered her a camcorder and a small PDA—which she ordered smashed and their electronic carcasses dropped into a heap of similar inorganic mulch at the base of a tree.
The Iceberg grapevine and that monstrous videotape spreading over the internet faster than Florax Fungus made it seem like she had had her ass handed to her! By Roxy Rocket no less! And that was not to be endured.
She would find a way to settle this. She would bring this city to its knees once and for all. First the Iceberg, then all of Gotham!
Poison Ivy was Nature Incarnate, Gaia’s Chosen Vessel of Green, and Gaia’s Vessel would not be made a laughing stock!
“Daily Planet. Lane.”
Normally, Clark couldn’t help but chuckle at his wife’s “business greeting.” Today, he just managed a light smile.
“Hello, Lane. This is your husband.”
“Hey, Smallville.” It was without fanfare or excitement, but Clark knew her better than that. It was too casual. She was relieved, overly relieved, to be hearing from him. He mentally kicked himself for not calling sooner. “So, you planning on coming in today or should I dump your already cold coffee?”
“Actually, I need you to tell Perry that I’m working from home today. Tell him I’ve been talking to the Chilean Ambassador all morning and I’ll have a story on the earthquake on his desk by press-time.”
“Sure, make me the Fall Gal,” Lois replied sarcastically. He could tell that she was still concerned about him; she’d no doubt seen the AP newswires about the earthquake in Chile and its devastating results—312 dead, over 1200 injured.
“Of course,” he answered, trying to allay her fears. Over the course of their marriage—actually, ever since she’d known the truth about who he was—they’d had many phone conversations that went this way. She always justified it by explaining that they never knew who could be listening on the line, but he knew that part of it was her own stubbornness in expressing her real concern, especially over the phone. So they always played this little game of sarcastic banter and innocent reply, though underneath it all, they were having a completely different conversation.
“Fine. I’ll do your dirty work for you, Smallville. But you’d better be really nice to me when I get home,” she teased, though what he heard was: “I missed you last night.”
“Thanks, honey,” he responded cheerily. The line was silent for a moment, then he quietly added, “I love you, Lois.”
He could almost feel her heartache over the silent line.
“I love you too, Clark.”
They shared another few seconds of silence, then she hung up the phone. He pressed a small button, turning off his JLA Comm unit. He hated using it for personal calls, but it wasn’t like he would be getting a cellular phone signal on the summit of Mt. Everest.
He should be back at the Daily Planet newsroom by now—the Superman job was over and he could resume the Clark Kent part of his day. Most days, he actually reveled in the controlled chaos of the DP Bullpen. He called it the Human Work Ethic in its Purest Form, and he found a strange sense of comfort amidst that flurry of activity. But considering he’d just spent the better part of twelve hours sifting through five hundred tons of rubble and debris, only to retrieve dead body after dead body after dead body… the thought of spending the rest of the day surrounded by bustling humanity was a daunting and difficult notion.
Even for Superman.
He took a deep breath of thin mountain air. When it came to “getting away from it all,” there really weren’t many places quite like the top of the tallest mountain in the world. He glanced around the summit, noting the other reason why he enjoyed coming up here. It was tradition for every expedition to the top of Everest to leave something behind—a small token or marker indicating their successful climb to the famous peak. Each one was different and each one seemed to reflect the personality of the party it represented: small flags and banners with the hand-written names of climbers past, a used oxygen canister, a spare glove, even a small metal lunchbox with (Clark noted with a small smile) a picture of Superman on the cover. To Clark, each of these markers indicated the pinnacle of human achievement, the fulfilled promise of the best the human race had to offer. And today, it represented something else as well: man’s ability to conquer the harsh reality of nature… a point in stark contrast to the previous night’s activities.
He knelt down in the snow, examining a small cluster of the bright canvas pennants. This set were Sherpa prayer flags, each displaying a symbol, not of a distant god or mythological beast, but denoting some aspect of the enlightened human mind: compassion, perfect action, fearlessness. His thoughts turned to another example of the peak of human achievement, of what one man with drive, desire and dedication could accomplish without the benefit of superpowers or metagene enhancement. One that held a much more personal meaning to Clark.
Clark and Lois would be in Gotham City in a few days. He decided that he would call Bruce when he got home and set up a lunch or dinner date for him and Lois with Bruce and Selina, a nice casual meal enjoyed in the company of friends. Besides, he thought with a chuckle, Bruce hated it when Clark came to Gotham without telling him first.
Superman’s cape tugged hard on his broad shoulders, the end snapping violently in the harsh wind. There was something… odd about the wind today. It wasn’t the hardest wind Clark had ever experienced up on that peak, but it felt strange: constantly shifting directions as if it couldn’t make up its mind which way to blow. For the first time in his many visits to the summit, he felt like he could actually feel the chillness of the air.
Then, suddenly, the small canvas pennant he had been reading ripped away from its metal post, dancing and twisting in the violent wind until it disappeared in the harsh glare of sunlight on snow. Superman stared at the now-empty pole, a shiver running up his spine.
Miriam Nash was too experienced a witch to ignore signs and portents when they quite literally appeared on her doorstep. She thought it nothing but bad luck when the taxi splashed her legs as she left her apartment that morning. She made her usual stop at Brice’s for a bagel and coffee, and didn’t even notice that she stepped in some fresh tar on their sidewalk as she juggled her wallet, bag and umbrella on her way out. It was only when she reached her destination and was unlocking the door that she paused to wipe the grime off her shoes.
She proceeded inside, switched on the lights,
switched off the mechanical alarm, and murmured “Arcquix conquiescete”
to disarm the magical protections she set in place to protect her business
overnight. She set her coffee and
bagel out on the counter, as she always did, hung up her coat, and then returned
to the front door to swap out the sign THE CURIOSITY SHOP: Antiques and Curios from around the world
for THE CURIOSITY SHOP:
It was then that she glanced down and saw she had coated the welcome mat with a ghastly streak of tarry grime. The customers who came by browsing for “antiques and curios” wouldn’t care, but her real customers, the ones for whom the antiques were merely cover, were attuned to signs and symbols. Those who sought out The Curiosity Shop as the finest Magic Shop east of New Orleans would not see the M in Welcome smeared with a bit of dirt from the street. They would see Mannaz Reversed, a powerful symbol of depression, mortality, and despair. She simply couldn’t have a welcome mat that announced to her customers “Expect no help within.” She would have to get a new doormat.
She returned inside, thinking to go out and buy one at lunch. Just before lunch, however, she received a delivery. Novelty mugs, mouse pads, plaques and banners, garden stones—and doormats. 15 doormats, $6.50 wholesale/$9.95 retail, reading: By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes.
To be continued…