Selina said when normal people get out of the hospital, they go home, get into bed, and the person who loves them the most fluffs their pillow. Bruce was letting her do just that and it seemed to make her very happy. They both accepted long ago that neither of them qualified as “normal people,” but it did no harm to pretend once in a while. This morning, it was downright pleasant. She massaged where she could, dabbed ointment where she couldn’t, and checked the taping of his ribs more often than necessary. She poured his tea, brought his favorite incense from the sun room and his favorite Schubert from the study. She read to him. First Dickens, then Oracle’s hacks of the 29th Precinct and Major Crimes reports on Dick’s Tech Integration program for the GCPD.
He didn’t want it going on too long, however. The first time she teamed up with Clayface to thwart Poison Ivy, it was because he had been greened. His detox was onerous, and she’d spent far too much of the time at his bedside. He urged her to go out, if only to breathe some non-manor air, and as soon as she did, he relocated to the study for a conference call with Lucius.
WE stock had taken an expected tumble due to the fop sightings at Wine Riot and Queen of the Night and an unexpected one when the news broke of the Poison Ivy attack at the latter. The price correction was taking longer than usual, but Lucius stressed that was due to conflicting rumors about Bruce being hospitalized and not any inherent volatility in the stock. A public appearance, ideally with Selina and looking as non-foppish as possible, would hasten things along.
He considered it: Catwoman told Poison Ivy that Bruce Wayne needed time and rest to recover from his injuries. Their popping up at d’Annunzio’s would contradict that story, though it was a minor consideration. It was unlikely Isley would be following the news, and if she did, Catwoman had exaggerated his injuries. So what? A more serious consideration was the extensive bruising and visible burns from Batman’s multiple battles with Etrigan. They could have been sustained by Bruce Wayne at the Diamond Horseshoe, but given that they were in fact sustained by Batman, it constituted a risk that wasn’t worth taking. Particularly when they undercut the effectiveness of the photo op. A public appearance would establish that he wasn’t in the hospital, but he was hardly a picture of health. He made an excuse to Lucius and moved on to the next item on the agenda.
He checked Oracle’s hospital hacks next. Lili and Lise had been taken to Gotham Presbyterian just as he had been. As of eight this morning, they were well enough to get themselves transferred to Hudson-Kane (how typically Lise and Lili) where they would be holding court in one of the luxurious Park Avenue rooms where the Ashton-Larrabys of the world recovered from their tummy tucks. They were evidently being discharged on Wednesday, as they already had their flight booked to return to Monaco. Checking their respective Instagrams and seeing that the selfies had resumed, he decided they were having fun and he needn’t do more than send flowers.
The same couldn’t be said for Claire Sabana, obviously, and a marked density shift occurred as he switched to the records for Gotham General. She wasn’t clear to receive visitors or phone calls yet, so he merely left extensive notes guaranteeing that any co-payments not covered by her insurance were invoiced to him, and leaving a message assuring her of indefinite paid medical leave for as long as she needed to claim it. He also left Alfred’s personal line at the manor should she need anything and privately hoped she would use it for a ride home on her release rather than have any further contact with Jason Blood.
Bruce twisted his back and shoulder as he climbed the stairs, sending a reassuring throb through the muscle. When he reached the top, a deliberately staggered breath sent a corkscrew through his diaphragm that pressed against the freshly wrapped ribs. Alfred would never understand how pain could be a comfort, but pain like this—pain that pulsed and stretched through his body as he climbed from the cave to the manor and the clock passage to the bedroom—that pain meant he’d survived. It meant Batman got the job done and Gotham was a little safer than it had been. It meant he’d earned the day to come. Alfred just thought he was being stubborn, going down to the med lab to have his burns checked and his ribs re-wrapped. But to Bruce, it was worth it just for this climb back up the stairs and the ritual of throb and ache familiar after so many patrols.
He had time before Selina got home, so he set up his tablet on the nightstand to monitor the cave system and ping him when her car crossed onto the property. He then set up the laptop and… Unfortunately, the paperwork confirmed last night’s detective work: Two-Face still missing, completely off the grid. Clayface still missing, no evidence one way or the other if he’d survived the episode in the park. It’s what Batman determined last night, but he hadn’t told Selina, foolishly hoping the morning’s research would turn up something new. She had four good friends outside the family, and she’d effectively lost three. Dent missing, Hagen missing, Jason Blood was persona non grata. That left only Nigma.
With a scowl, he pulled up the feed from the main entrance to Gotham General Hospital and that from the elevator bay on the eighth floor. As they had every day, the Z arrived in a pack a few minutes before visiting hours began. Friday morning they were somber. Saturday they brought flowers and balloons. Today it looked like virtual reality headsets, presumably charged to some villain’s lair.
A half-hour later, Doris would arrive. She would go to Nigma’s room first, of course, though it seemed she looked in on Zed several times throughout the day. She and the Z both stayed for hours, unlike Jason Blood who arrived promptly at eleven, went straight to Claire’s room, and was presumably turned away because he left almost immediately.
Selina would arrive last naturally, having spent the morning with him, and Bruce fast forwarded to today’s arrival. Once again, she’d stopped at Payard’s. One big bag of éclairs for the Z, she’d spend about 15 minutes with them in Zed’s room. One small bag for Eddie and Doris. She’d stay half an hour there and then she would leave—and some days Doris would accompany her—to her next stop…
His lip twitched.
…an undertaking that allowed him to revisit his old methods of predicting Catwoman targets and see if more intimate knowledge of her increased their accuracy.
Bruce was meditating in the sun room. It was his favorite spot to do so, even if he was never up early enough to get the full benefit of the view when the sun peeked over the tops of the trees, light streaming through the bay windows that took up most of the eastern wall and bathing the room in a warm, golden glow.
He sat motionless in the lotus position, focused on a gentle line of smoke flowing from a burning stick of incense, his mind blank until an internal timer turned his attention to the hall. Selina would be getting home and any second now… Yes, there it was… the distant click of her heels coming up the hall. He looked up and heard the last steps before she appeared in the doorway, the handle of a red Crispin’s shopping bag twined through her fingers like a loot sack and the same little smile when Catwoman thought she’d escaped with her prize.
Bruce took it in—the smile, the stance, the apparent weight of the sack—and his lip twitched.
“Too big for the jade cat,” he challenged in Batman’s most ominous gravel, and she laughed.
“Dresden tea pot,” she purred.
The first day he urged her to go out instead of keeping him company, she’d gone to an auction at Crispin’s. She’d run into Richard Flay and come home with a trio of George II salt cellars, calling him the Social Register’s answer to Jervis.
“You passed on a jade cat and bought a teapot?” he asked skeptically.
“Already have one,” she said lightly, and Bruce scowled. “Today’s little fat cat was Late Qing dynasty, barely over a hundred years old. Mine is Ming, a much deeper green, and is curled up with a kitten.”
“I wasn’t aware you could have too many cats,” he said in that tone Batman used to let you know you weren’t fooling him.
“Okay,” she said in that tone Catwoman used to acknowledge she was busted while letting you know cats are never busted. “Truth is, it was an amulet. See the Chinese word for cat is ‘mao’ which sounds like the word for eighty. Basically a wish—or in this case a spell—for the wearer to live eighty years.”
“And you rightly guessed that it wasn’t a good day to bring something magical into the house, however dubious its claim to magical properties may be.” She nodded and he glared. “Good instinct.”
Their eyes met, and after a long, strained moment Selina said “I’m not blind, Bruce. I see the bruising and burns from Etrigan all but vanished, no fresh scars, fiber damage healed without a trace. And when I massaged you this morning, I could have sworn a few of the older scars are fading.”
“Jason Blood’s guilt,” he hissed. “He’ll never learn, none of them will ever learn.”
“It’s just a little fading,” she said half-heartedly. “Not a full, radical healing like that time with the rune stone, right? No reason to think they’ll come back like they did then.”
“Selina, that’s not the point,” he spat.
“I know. I get that. The point is ‘more magic.’ Or ‘more accursed magic’ if you’re feeling colorful. I get it, Bruce. I’m just trying to make the best of it, see the bright side. Fewer scars to explain.”
He grunted. She took out the teapot and they pretended to look it over for a few minutes. Then they returned to the subject neither stopped thinking about.
“I have to go see him,” Selina said softly.
“Do it when I go see her,” he replied.
Jason Blood sat in his living room, flicking his thumb listlessly against his finger in a slow, dull rhythm, each flick producing a small blue flame from his thumbnail as if his finger was a flint. Etrigan, endowed with a demon’s gift for being a bad winner and bad loser simultaneously, provided percussive accompaniment that sounded like bongo drums. He said it was the terror of the souls he’d killed when he was free. The whore, he pointed out, was not very satisfying meat, but in her afterlife torments she had a beat and you could dance to it.
Jason was dead to it, so much so, he didn’t hear the knock blended in among the bongo drums. The doorbell that followed he heard but chose to ignore, until he realized anyone other than a wizard or a thief would have been stopped at the door by Nick and announced by a buzz of the intercom. Of those who simply bypassed the doorman, only one would do him the courtesy of knocking when she reached the door before letting herself in the rest of the way. And she would not wait for long.
“Coming!” he announced, sensing a lockpick was already being withdrawn from her purse. “God help the wizard who tries to keep out a cat,” he muttered, opening the door. He then scowled his darkest and most foreboding scowl, forgetting who he was dealing with and who she was used to dealing with. His glower of utter hate and menace that could turn back a ruin of kobolds merely produced a… a naughty grin.
“Let me in, I bring macarons and some sort of mystery pastry with raspberries from Payard,” she announced, holding up her bag.
“Odd, I didn’t think we were on speaking terms,” he said, stepping aside and ushering her in with a flourish. “Abandon hope, all ye who enter.”
“Why don’t you lay it on a little thicker, Jason. Or better still, make us some tea for these,” Selina said, glancing at a Grecian plate she’d picked up for him at the Boston Museum as she handed him the bag.
“You’re aware that I predate the English preoccupation with tea,” he said emphatically, though he took the bag before turning on his heel and heading into the kitchen.
Since this had once been her apartment and her kitchen, Selina followed rather than heading to the living room to wait like a proper guest.
“Yes, I know in the Year of Our Lord five hundred and whatever it was, mum probably gave you a nice stout ale or something for breakfast. But I also know you’ve come around on it since then, and I gather you and Alfred nearly came to blows on the China tea versus India debate.”
Jason muttered something about Alfred’s preference having more to do with the brew favored by English gentleman’s clubs, which was entirely a function of 19th Century politics, the East India Company’s loss of the China Tea monopoly in 1833 and not the actual taste of the tea. And as one who had actually ventured behind the famous privacy screen to take tea with the Seventh Duchess of Bedford who started the whole business, he could tell you that there is no comparing a delicate golden-tipped lapsang or a beautiful aged puerh with those inky Indian brews. Selina chose not to hear, partially out of loyalty to Alfred and partially out of politeness, since her ranting host was reaching for a tin of one of those rare teas he was praising.
She opted for a diplomatic “Is it my imagination, or are you feeling a little better than you were a minute ago?” while she arranged macarons on the plate he’d handed her.
“I suppose,” he said. “I’ve been contemplating my own stubbornness remaining in Gotham after this episode. I know Bruce wants me gone. The only reason he doesn’t say so to my face is he fears it would compel me to stay.”
“Jason, Bruce has strategies for everything, but when it comes to Gotham, he will tell you if he doesn’t want you here. You don’t have to sense it, you don’t have to read between the lines, you don’t have to guess.”
He grunted, and they took their tea and sweets into the living room. There they chatted, munched, and made small talk until a pause descended that meant it was time to reintroduce the topic.
“The healing was a mistake,” Selina said bluntly, and Jason looked confused. Then he turned toward the window with a blank expression, as if straining to hear a distant noise, and a wry smile escaped him.
“Tell Bruce he needn’t worry. The ‘price’ for that particular expense of magickal energy has already been paid. Etrigan was under geis not to harm you, and though you sit here now unsinged, he did violate the spirit of our agreement. You were owed a debt, and I can only surmise, the recompense went into Bruce because that would give you the most satisfaction.”
“Jason, magic going off by itself is how this fiasco started. Please tell me you’re making this up!” Selina said hotly.
“I’m afraid not. Magic is power driven by will, Selina. You needn’t tell Bruce, but if the residual powers manifested by healing him, it can only have been by your will. Strictly speaking, I was owed a debt too. It was my bargain with Etrigan. But I am well accustomed to channeling magicks, and I can’t do it without being aware it’s happening. And fond as I am of you both, Bruce is hardly the person whose wounds I would choose to heal with it.”
“Of course,” Selina said. “They were all discharged from the hospital today. I guess your being here means that she—”
“Wants nothing further to do with me,” Jason said like a man who was used to it. “I’ve told her my magickal practices had nothing to do with what happened to Ivy or Ivy’s subsequent attack on her. I think she believes me, though Etrigan assures me she doesn’t and I don’t feel justified peaking into her mind to confirm it. It doesn’t really matter. What she does know is I’m a wizard, which is true. That I cast a spell in her room and subjected her to a bizarre and bewildering experience without explanation, also true, or consideration—which is subjective in my opinion. And while she isn’t aware of the particular details of Etrigan’s emergence, she knows something dreadful happened in that room when the spell concluded, and that it was connected to me.”
“And it’s all too much,” Selina concluded. “Hang in there, Jason; she might come around still.”
“Selina, you are a romantic,” Jason said despairingly.
“Only when it comes to dark and dangerous men who scowl,” she grinned.
“Is that why you’re here? Is that why you’ve forgiven me?” he asked sagely.
“Who says I have?” Selina shot back with a swift and naughty grin.
“You brought me Monsieur Peyard’s signature macarons and raspberry torte. If that’s not forgiveness, I should have made an enemy of you long ago.”
“You were upset,” Selina said kindly. “I got a taste of what Etrigan can do with that. I was ready to unleash the furies when I thought Bruce was hurt.”
“He says hello,” Jason reported dutifully.
She gave her fingertip wave, and Jason looked at her seriously.
“You’re a well-read woman, Selina. I assume you know The Divine Comedy. When Dante is touring the first circles of Hell, he has compassion for the souls he sees in torment. He weeps for them. By the time he reaches the frozen lake, he will not even remove the ice from their eyes so they can weep for themselves.”
“Your point?” she asked archly.
“Wickedness has a way of teaching those who do not approach it with an absolute and uncompromising judgment to do so,” he declaimed.
“Yeah, see, I don’t see that,” Selina said in the same way she dismissed Batman’s decrees about museum closing hours. “That was Dante’s point, I get that. But he had, quite literally, a medieval prig’s view of sin. Jason, they come out of Hell on the far side of the world, because God throwing Lucifer out of Heaven was supposed to have literally pushed him all the way through the center of the Earth. That’s how Dante and Virgil can leave Hell and come out the other side into Purgatory, where they look up at the stars that don’t just symbolize Heaven, they’re supposed to actually BE Heaven.”
“Indeed,” Jason nodded. “The same view of the geography I was raised with.”
Selina shook her head.
“I’m not talking about geography, Jason. I’m talking about… Dante’s decision not to help that guy with his eyes frozen over had no effect at all on the story. His journey was only going in that one direction, to the end of Hell, out the back door into Purgatory and on to Paradiso. And it didn’t affect the Ice-Eye guy either. He would have had half a minute to cry before the tears froze again and then he’d be right back where he started. Absolutely nothing is changed by Dante’s choice to be a prick.”
“A prick? That’s how you—”
“He agreed to help a man he met in the Seventh or Eighth Circle of Hell. What kind of person did he think he was dealing with? But once he hears the particulars of the man’s sins he decides he’s not obligated to keep his word? Pfft... Prick!”
“I see. So you will continue to exchange coy little barbs with Etrigan because?”
“Why not? Doesn’t change anything either way. And you know, Etty and I knew each other quite a long time before he sicked a Hell Hound on me. You did it at our first meeting. And you sent a whole pack! Give me the rest of those macarons back.”
Pamela belched. She glared at the repulsive little cup as if it was the steaming medicinal tea’s fault, and steeled herself for another sip. She was uncomfortably warm all the time now, and lifting the steaming cup to the vicinity of her head wasn’t the pleasantest notion. But the nausea was getting better every day, and at its worst it was better than not breathing.
She belched again and took a sip. The stuff didn’t even have the decency to taste bad. She just hated the idea, drinking the product of those poor little leaves. Ripped from their mother tree and sent screaming to their deaths, baking and fermenting in the sun, and then the final indignity, their brittle little corpses steeped in scalding liquid. She took a bigger sip and hated herself, unsure how much of that she actually believed and how much she recited like the prayer of a religious who had long ago lost the faith.
She looked at her reflection in the side of the mug, the closest thing she had to a mirror, and confirmed that the green side of her face appeared to be fading. It was still clearly a different color and shade, but the difference faded a little every day. She held out her hand and scrutinized the fingertips. The right was still the pale orange-pink flesh tone she was born with. Her left arm and leg, along with most of her trunk, were wrapped in special bandages, gloves and socks meant to wean the tissue from carbon dioxide as the genetic therapy did its work—but also, Pamela suspected, to keep her from watching the green fade. That much she could deny them by scrutinizing the tips of the fingers that protruded from the gloves. She could see the nails and much of the quick already turning pink.
Her insides rumbled and she drank more tea before it could produce another belch.
She was going to wind up pink. All pink, like she used to be. No more pheromones. No immunity from toxins. No telepathic connection to plant life. An ordinary person. A lone ordinary woman with nothing special about her, how was she supposed to accomplish anything now?!
She looked out the window where there were no bars. No walls around the perimeter. A research hospital not a prison hospital. Somehow that made it worse. The one guard they had on her was a hundred and ten pound grad student working on a double masters.
There was a knock at the door, and her eyes shot up for the daily exchange of venom with that patronizing doctor, condescending asshole of a nurse, or the social services prick that called himself a liaison but was obviously an Arkham stooge, when she saw it was none of the above.
“Bruce? What in Gaia’s name are you doing here?” she asked.
“The Foundation underwrites a lot of the research here. I thought it was time I paid a visit,” he said with the non-foppish air he always assumed when discussing Foundation business.
“My treatment?” she asked, pursing her lips.
“No. Other projects,” he said gruffly. “But since I knew you were here, I thought I’d swing by.” He rummaged in his jacket pocket as he added “I wasn’t sure about the etiquette of cut flowers, and I know you’re not allowed live plants so…” and withdrew a flat rectangle the size of a small chocolate box. He handed it over with finishing school formality, and a ‘get well soon’ gesture that made Pamela plaster on a smile she didn’t feel.
“Thank you,” she managed as she braced for the sight of another Whitman Sampler staring up at her. Then she repeated the words as she looked down, not on a box of drug store chocolates but a book. The simple title Bodhi under the silhouette of a tree.
“I figured you had time on your hands,” Bruce explained. “It’s, uh, a novel about a tree on a riverbank in India where the Buddha meditated. Ultimately found enlightenment, I think. Anyway, it’s about a tree.”