Post by Admin on Nov 25, 2016 14:06:16 GMT -5
Issue #19: “Broken Wide Open, Cut to the Bone”
Story by Ellen Fleischer
Beta Read by Kathy and Debbie
Edited by Mark Bowers
Issue #19: “Broken Wide Open, Cut to the Bone”
Story by Ellen Fleischer
Beta Read by Kathy and Debbie
Edited by Mark Bowers
In the late night kitchen light it sits in a chair
Watching you pretend that it’s not really there, but it is.
So it is and you ask
“Are you predator or friend? The future or the past?”
It hands you your overcoat and opens the door.
You are learning the world again just as before,
But the first time was childhood and now you are grown,
Broken wide open, cut to the bone.
And all that you used to know is of no use at all…
—Mary Chapin Carpenter, Learning the World
As Bruce pushed open the front door to the manor, high-pitched screams assaulted his eardrums. It took only a split-second to ascertain that the source of the shrieks was more angry than injured and Bruce did his best to push the day’s events out of his mind. It wasn’t Helena’s fault that today had marked the culmination of a week of testing and assessment, not to mention subtle digs and pointed barbs. The latter would barely have fazed him, had the former not been weighing on him. It wasn’t Helena’s fault that she wouldn’t celebrate her second birthday for another six weeks, but she was precocious enough to have already entered the “terrible twos”. If anything, Bruce thought wryly, some of the blame for that had to devolve on himself and Selina, since they’d both done what they could to stimulate her development.
So this was the thanks they got, Bruce thought ironically and gave a mental sigh. Maybe this meant she’d enter the “terrific threes” ahead of schedule, too. He followed his daughter’s wails upstairs.
He entered the nursery and stopped. Selina was trying unsuccessfully to get Helena’s arms into her jacket sleeves. Helena was struggling and protesting loudly. The thing that horrified him though, was seeing the two canvas suitcases just inside the nursery door.
Bruce shook his head in disbelief. “Your timing could be better,” he managed.
Selina grinned. “Yours, on the other hand, is impeccable.”
She gave Helena a gentle shove. “Look!” she exclaimed. “Daddy’s home.”
Helena sniffled. Her face was red, her nose was running, and her dark curls were plastered against her forehead. She practically flew at Bruce, wrapping chubby arms around his left pants-leg and burying her face in the wool fabric with a muffled “Daddy!”
Bruce bent down and rested a hand on the back of her head. “I thought things were going well,” he said, frowning.
“Uh huh,” Selina nodded. “But with Joker behind bars, I figured it was about time to head back and—”
“Without…” Bruce stopped. You would have left without saying goodbye. I would have come home to another note. He straightened up and regarded Selina with an angry glare.
Selina nodded. “Well, now that you’re back, I can leave Helena with you. I just didn’t want to impose on Jim and I wasn’t sure if getting a sitter would be wise, all things considered.” She sighed. “I guess it could have waited for morning, but I just felt like I needed to get out for a bit and I didn’t know when you’d be home.” She smiled apologetically. “Still, it’s a bit past her bedtime and she didn’t nap nearly long enough, so…”
Bruce nodded and tried to stem his rising anger. “So you’re leaving her here again.”
“I think that’s wisest,” Selina nodded. She tilted her head quizzically. “Bruce? Is something wrong?”
“Is something…” Bruce smiled bitterly. “Why, no, Selina. What could possibly be wrong? Here.” He bent down again. “Let me help you get your bags to the car.”
Selina blinked. “You don’t have to do that, Bruce. I’ve got th—.”
“No,” Bruce cut her off with icy precision. “No, they look heavy. I wouldn’t want you to have to stay here one minute longer than you wish.” He grabbed one of the bags and hefted it—or at least, he tried to. The bag came up easily—too easily. He staggered slightly for a moment, but managed to stabilize. Helena’s grip on his leg wasn’t helping matters. His eyebrows shot up. “It’s… empty,” he said in confusion.
Selina nodded. “I was going back to my old place to pick up a few things and move them here. That is… I mean… you did want us to stick around, right?”
Bruce blinked. “Stick around?” he repeated, dumbfounded.
“Um,” she hesitated, suddenly uncertain. “I thought… well, after Joker, when you didn’t say anything about us wearing out our welcome, I thought everything was good. But if we’re making you feel crowded and you were just trying to find a polite way to say so, I under—“
Bruce closed the distance between them—not as easily as he’d expected, with a twenty-five pound weight clasped around his shin—and rested his hands on her shoulders. “No,” he said, cutting her off. “You aren’t.”
Selina exhaled. “Then what…?” Realization hit. “You thought I was walking out again.”
“I saw the suitcases,” Bruce said, nodding. “I jumped—”
Selina brought her fingers to his lips, cutting off his sentence. “Yeah, you did. But I guess it did sort of look like… I’m sorry. I’d thought we’d be gone and back before you walked in. I wasn’t thinking of how it might look… the suitcases by the door and all.”
Bruce nodded and pulled her closer. She wrapped her arms around him and held on.
“Oh, by the way,” she turned her face up to him with an impish smile, “you wouldn’t happen to have a spare car I could borrow?”
After Selina left, Bruce settled Helena on the floor and sank gratefully onto the overstuffed sofa that Selina had insisted on for the nursery. “Unless you want to try squeezing into something more Helena’s size,” she’d added at the time. After the day he’d had, relaxing in something more his size was a relief. He’d spent enough time trying to mold himself into a shape he didn’t quite feel he fit. He leaned back and closed his eyes as Helena occupied herself with wooden jigsaw puzzles. After a few minutes, he felt a tug on his pants-leg. “Daddy?”
He opened his eyes slowly and smiled down at his daughter. “Hi, Helena.”
Helena pulled on his leg again, trying unsuccessfully to climb. “Wanna go up!” she announced.
Bruce’s lips twitched. There was plenty of room on the sofa and, since its cushions were deep, Helena would likely find it easier to scramble up that way. He patted the cushion next to him. “Try here.”
Helena shook her head emphatically. “Wanna go up HERE!” she said, tapping his right knee.
Bruce winced. She’d slapped it right on the pressure point. Yesterday, in his unarmed combat examination, his opponent had managed to score a decent kick to precisely that spot. Without conscious application of the proper pain control technique, the slightest touch—even Helena’s relatively light one—was agony.
Helena sat still for nearly a full thirty seconds. Then she tried to crawl into Bruce’s lap again—mercifully attempting to scale his other leg this time.
You were right, Clark, Bruce thought to himself. Everyone does have a Kryptonite and I think I’ve found mine: toddlers with manga eyes. He pushed her away gently. “Daddy’s tired, Helena. Daddy…” He reached over, took her in his arms, and slowly stretched out on the sofa. “Daddy’s going to take a nap now.” He slid her to the floor. “So play quietly, okay?”
Helena studied him for a moment. “’Kay.”
It was maybe another five minutes before Bruce felt the cushions sag and tiny finger tips brushing against his outstretched arm. “’Lena nap too,” she announced, scrabbling the rest of the way up. Well, it sounded more like ‘Yina,’ than ‘Lena,’ but Bruce understood her.
Oh no. “But…” Helena was already worming her way under his other arm. Bruce sighed. At least, she wasn’t trying to claim any more space than what was available. He closed his eyes again, not thinking that he’d actually be able to sleep with his daughter more-or-less behind him, but exhaustion and deep cushions soon had him drifting off...
…The telephone rang.
Bruce opened his eyes blearily and tried to get up to answer it. That was the point that he realized that he was hopelessly entangled in sleeping toddler. Her arms and legs seemed to have molded themselves perfectly along the contours of his body. He didn’t think he could move a fraction of an inch without waking her. And right now, he definitely did not want to wake her.
The phone rang again.
Bruce closed his eyes and did his best to tune it out.
“Next time,” Barbara said, trying not to sound annoyed, “it would be a good idea to warn me that you’re stopping by — especially if you’re not going to use the same window everyone else does. I’d have more time to disable my home office security.”
Selina sniffed. “Please. The day I can’t get past a burglar alarm is the day I—” She leaped to one side as a webbed fabric strip launched toward her, propelled from a concealed slot in the wall. “—mothball the cat suit for good,” she continued, lashing her whip at a series of small projectile darts that flew at her from the opposite direction.
“It’s more than just a burglar alarm,” Barbara pointed out. The weighted net dropped next. Selina barely rolled to safety in time.
“Sheesh. With allies like you, who needs enemies?”
“Like I said,” Barbara repeated, “next time, tell me when you’re planning to drop in.”
Her claws took care of the ninja throwing stars. “What’s next?” she demanded. “And shouldn’t you have deactivated this stuff already?”
Barbara sighed. “It takes a few seconds to power down. Meanwhile, enjoy the workout.” Almost as soon as she’d finished speaking, the projectiles stopped flying. “...Or not,” she finished lamely.
Selina stalked forward. “I need you to run an analysis on this,” she snapped, laying a clear plastic ziplock bag on the work desk.
Barbara picked up the bag. “White threads... loosely woven,” she said. “What’s up?”
Selina hesitated. “I...” finally she let out a long breath. “Oh, the hell with it. You’re the expert here. I went back to my place to get a few things and found out that someone else had been there. It wasn’t anything really obvious just... okay. You’re going to think this is weird, but...I have a pretty good idea of how long it takes for a certain amount of dust to accumulate. I know how long it’s been since I was last home and I know how much should have been there.” She took another breath. “There was more.”
Barbara frowned. “What are you thinking?”
Selina brought out another zip-lock. This one contained a good amount of something that looked like dryer lint. Mixed into it were various fibres, hairs, and other material not identifiable at first glance. “I’m thinking that if you analyzed this, you’d find the kind of stuff you’d expect if you emptied a vacuum cleaner bag — which is what I suspect someone did. All over my furniture. To hide the fact that they’d been there, moving things around, looking for — I don’t know what. I mean, I haven’t been there for almost two months —not since the smallpox scare.” She lowered her voice. “Barbara, this wasn’t a run-of-the-mill B and E. First, I don’t keep much worth stealing lying around, and what I did have there was untouched. Second, run-of-the-mill burglars don’t spend so much time covering their tracks. They wear gloves so they don’t leave prints, fine. Thanks to the stuff they see on TV, maybe they’re more careful not to leave any stray hairs behind. But emptying a vacuum cleaner bag on the furniture? It’s not mine, by the way. I don’t have carpeting.”
Barbara looked up sharply. “Smart. This gives us a direction to start looking.”
“Yeah,” Selina agreed. “Because right now, all I know is that someone broke in.” She made a face. “Someone good. There’s thorough… and then there’s taking things to a whole new level. I want to know who did this. That’s why I’m here.”
“I see. Um... Selina, you know Bruce has a pretty well-equipped basement, right? I mean, for what you’re asking... he could probably get it done a lot faster.”
Selina shook her head. “You know how he gets when he thinks someone close to him is in danger. I don’t know how to work most of that machinery, and if I ask him, he’ll either try to push me away or lock me down.” She lowered her eyes. “I don’t want to have that fight with him. Can you take care of this? If you can’t... I have other connections, though I can’t deny that they might already be involved, whether because they helped engineer the break-in, or because they know who did and will be only too quick to warn them that I’m not fooled.”
Barbara picked up the two bags gingerly. “I’ll ask Dick to run the analysis from one of the satellite caves. You don’t mind if he knows, right? He’ll respect your privacy.”
Selina nodded. “That’s fine.”
Barbara took a deep breath. “There are a couple of things that I think you need to be aware of. Bruce already knows some of it; I’m not sure what he’s told you. Specifically, that Hush has put a contract out on Dick. We think that the bomb scare at PMWE was tied in. But the guy who tried to knife Bruce last week wasn’t acting of his own free will. There’s a pretty good chance that Jervis Tetch is involved...”
Sergeant Mears was a stocky young woman whom Bruce pegged immediately as a martial artist. It showed in her loose stride, in the way her body flowed when she walked—instead of bobbing up and down—and in the way her feet pointed straight ahead as she strode back to her desk after opening the office door to him.
“This won’t take long, Cadet,” she said, going around her desk and sitting down. Bruce remained standing. He was more resigned to the situation than he was nervous. He had a pretty good idea of how he’d done, but—as usual—he was more focused on the few areas where he knew he’d fallen short than on the many where he’d done well.
“This is an unofficial transcript,” Mears explained. “Usually, grades aren’t posted online until midway through the program. In your case, we have requested that they be uploaded sooner. That request is still pending. Therefore…” she reached into her desk drawer and removed a manila folder. “Peruse it at your leisure. I don’t think there’ll be any surprises. Questions?”
“No, Ma’am,” Bruce said. He still wasn’t used to all of this ‘sir-ing’ and ‘ma’am-ing’. It grated on him; one more annoying reminder that he wasn’t calling the shots anymore, but he’d been working on dealing with it. Sometimes, it even helped.
When Mears dismissed him, he walked nonchalantly back to his car. Although he glanced at the folder lying innocuously on the passenger seat next to him, he didn’t open it until he was back in the cave.
Once there, he panned the sheet slowly. The cramming had paid off, he noted. State laws… search and seizure… crime scene management… They’d failed him in ethics, after all, he thought with a scowl. Seventy-five was a passing grade. He’d scored a 68. Disappointing, but not wholly unexpected. All at once, he stopped. It couldn’t be. He’d done everything Craigie had demanded of him. How could…? He was about to call the academy and demand answers, but it occurred to him that doing so might be falling into exactly the sort of trap that the others had been warning him about: acting as though he was expecting greater concessions and allowances than Sawyer had already authorized. Best to talk to Jim first and see whether he felt Bruce should contest the grade. If nothing else, it would give him a chance to cool off.
“It’s a good thing you built this house to withstand another quake,” Jim said tartly as he answered the door. “The way you were pounding, I thought you were going to break it down.”
Bruce colored slightly. “I’m sorry. I need you to look at something.” He thrust the computer printout at him. Jim took it.
“Your grades?” He smoothed the sheet carefully and squinted at it. “Ah.”
“An incomplete in Physical Conditioning,” Bruce nearly growled.
“I see it.” Jim handed him back the paper with a sympathetic smile. “If you think about it for a little while, you’ll probably understand why.” He frowned. “Then again, I keep forgetting that a lot of this is new to you. Maybe you won’t. But I bet you anything Dick would.”
Bruce’s eyes narrowed. “Since he’s been through the Academy before, you’re probably right. Care to enlighten me?”
Jim shook his head, but he was smiling again. “Actually, it has more to do with one of his key strengths and one of your key weaknesses. I think you’ll figure it out. And if not, I guess you’ll find out next week.”
Bruce exhaled slowly through his teeth. “Some people might believe,” he gritted, “that you’re being deliberately close-mouthed as some form of… of… turnabout for our past working relationship.”
At another time, Commissioner James Gordon might have bristled at the remark. Now, he merely kept smiling. “There’s an interesting theory,” he answered.
Bruce glowered. “Frankly, I’d thought better of you.”
“And Chiarello wondered how much grief you get from a guilty conscience...” Jim’s smile grew practically vicious. Then it vanished, replaced by a more serious demeanor. “Physical conditioning isn’t just about the individual,” he said, relenting. “If it were, you’d have passed with flying colors. However, the police department is a team and physical exercise is one way of fostering a team mindset. Not to mention that there are parade drills, in which marching in step with the rest of the company is a major component.” The smile was back. “Kind of hard to assess that when you’re the only one out on parade grounds.”
Bruce’s eyebrows shot up. He considered for a moment and then nodded slowly, his anger dissipating as he sighed. “I suppose I should have expected that.”
“Well, look at it as a chance to make some new acquaintances—and I’m not being facetious,” he added. “You might end up working with them down the road, and when you do, it’ll be helpful to know who’s good at what.”
He gestured toward the transcript. “You got nailed on the ethics panel, didn’t you?”
“How’s it coming, Dick?”
Dick looked up from his computer to find Sal Fiorini standing in the doorway. He smiled. “It’s pretty routine, so far,” he said. “But then, I’m not making any changes yet; just mapping the data and identifying where the changes will need to be made.”
The head of building security walked over to take a look. “How long will our systems need to be down for you to implement the upgrades?” he asked.
Dick typed a few lines into a spreadsheet and selected a background color for the cell. “I’m hoping they won’t have to be down at all,” he said. “I’ll get back to you with timeframes when I have them, but ideally, we’ll be able to route our operating systems over to Metropolis, as per our standard emergency protocols. Metropolis should be able to deal with any situations that might arise while we’re updating, and then the next night, we run the upgrades in Metropolis and Dallas while Gotham stays live.” He sighed. “Overseas might take a bit longer; some of the equipment uses different programs and components and I’m not sure what adjustments might need to be made before we can go to implementation.” He paused. “For that matter, there might be legal issues involved—like if we have to notify some government office thirty days before implementation or get some kind of permit… I don’t even know.”
“Neither do I,” Sal admitted, “but I’ll find out. Plus, I’ll make sure that you get the details on their systems specs. Funny,” he added, “I never really figured you for a tech type.”
Dick grinned. “I dabble,” he said. “That other job I’ve got requires a lot of skills. I’m no hi-tech expert, but I know enough to get the job done.”
Sal shook his head, smiling back. “It’s not just your knowledge base. Our IT department is sort of used to delivering speedy results. They work on making sure that a new program won’t crash the system—but as far as issues that aren’t critical but annoy the hell out of everyone…” he sighed. “They figure they’ll fix it in the next version. I don’t know if it’s job security or panic, that if they don’t have something ready by deadline, we’ll fire them all, but I’d rather we take a little longer and get things right the first time.”
“I hear you,” Dick said with a nod. He pushed away from the computer, stood and stretched. “We haven’t had any more suspicious deliveries, right?”
“Nope,” Sal replied cheerily. “But I suppose you know that already.” At Dick’s puzzled expression, Sal continued, “I mean, you’re probably keeping tabs on this place anyway?”
“Um…” He wasn’t. Babs, on the other hand… “Sort of indirectly,” he admitted. “And not really as well as this thing will, if I do get it up and running.”
“I’ll leave you to it, then.” He paused in the doorway. “Give Bruce my best when next you see him, will you? Tell him I’m glad to hear he’s doing better?”
Dick looked up sharply. “Um… sure.” He returned to his typing, but took note that Sal had, in a doorway leading out to a well-frequented hallway, in an area where just about anybody could hear, expressed a heretofore unprecedented level of support for PMWE’s president emeritus.
Cassandra Cain slid the audio CD into the drive of her computer and waited. As expected, there followed a series of low clicks and whirrs, before a new window opened and the logo of the testing program appeared on her screen.
“Welcome to GED preparation!” a pleasant voice announced. “Please type your name. Or speak into your microphone if you would like to take an oral test.”
Cass found the microphone amid the tangle of USB cables and raised it to her lips. “Cass.”
The voice continued, asking her to specify which sections of the test she wanted to include in her quiz. She swallowed hard.
“I’m sorry. I did not understand your answer. Please state which sections of the GED you would like to include in your examination. If you wish to take them all, say ‘all’. To hear a list of sections, say ‘list’.”
She hesitated. Fifteen seconds ticked by. Thirty. Forty-five.
“Are you there?”
Cass nearly jumped. “Yes.”
The voice repeated its instructions. “Please state which sections of the GED you would like to include in your examination. If you wish to take them all, say ‘all’. To hear a list of sections, say ‘list’.”
Best to start easy. “Science.”
“Thank you,” the voice continued, speaking in the same clear, polite tone. “Science has been added to your list. If this is correct, say ‘yes’…”
Inwardly, Cass moaned. If just asking the computer to set up a practice test was this involved, she wondered what it would be like when she finally got to the questions. This had been her idea. If she was going to have a scribe at the exam, then she needed to know that she could answer the questions in the time allotted. Doctor Arkham had said that the testing center would probably allow her more time than usual to complete each section, but he hadn’t specified how much more. She was taking this practice test now to see how long she actually needed.
Barbara had been supportive. “They’re probably going to want you to do something like this,” she’d said, “so they’ll be able to decide fairly. Taking timed practice tests will give Doctor McLeod something to work with when he fills out the paperwork for the testing center, too.”
“I am still waiting for your input,” the voice said calmly. “Do you need to hear the question again?”
It didn’t matter that the voice didn’t sound irritated with her. She was irritated with herself. She had to pay attention. She had to… She had to answer the question. “Yes.”
Obediently, the voice recited the question again and listed the choices. She gave her answer and the voice moved on. Somewhere around the fourth question, she began to relax. She did know this material. And it was going faster than when she struggled with the worksheets.
“…Your score has been calculated. In… science… your score is… five hundred… twenty. Your percentile grade is… sixty… five… percent. Your GPA score is… two point six zero… or… B minus. This is a passing grade.”
Cass’s jaw dropped. I passed? I… passed?
“To hear your score again, say ‘repeat’.”
Her hands were shaking. “Repeat.”
The voice obeyed.
The voice obeyed.
Her underground lair was soundproof, so nobody else heard when she yelled at the top of her lungs “REEEEEEEEEEE-PEAT!” Nobody heard her exultant laughter either, which was probably just as well. She hated audiences.
“So that’s where things stand,” Bruce concluded wearily. “I knew that I’d need to prove myself in order to get into the academy, but I don’t think I’d quite realized that I would need to keep proving myself continually.”
Alex nodded. “You’ve been comparing this process to your earlier training,” he stated. “How’s that analogy holding up?”
Bruce leaned back a bit in the leather-upholstered armchair. “All analogies break down at a certain point,” he said. “If it were a question of proving that I had the discipline to learn a martial art, then after a certain point, a master would agree to take me on. From there… I didn’t care about how long it took or how well I did,” he said slowly, thinking back. “It was all about learning more than I knew before I’d come for instruction.”
“I see,” Alex nodded again. “And now?”
“Now?” Bruce’s lips curved in a rueful smile. “Now it’s about grades… test scores… panels. Approvals.” He made a face. “Not exactly something I’ve had to worry about in the past couple of decades.”
Alex paused. “I know that ‘shrink-speak’ is up there on your list of annoyances, but at this point, I can ask you how you feel about that, or I assume I know and tell you.” He peered down his tortoiseshell glasses. “Do you have a preference?”
Bruce rolled his eyes with a sigh. “And there you go again, leveling with me to try to keep me off the defensive.”
“I have my strategies. Well?”
“Well.” Bruce was silent for a moment. “Did you know that my formal education stopped when I was fifteen? I pursued rigorous self-study; I’ve probably got the equivalent a couple of doctorates by now. But I left for Asia in the middle of my sophomore year. Which is another way of saying I ran away from boarding school in my second year of high school,” he added. “I’m not used to studying for tests. I’ve studied, yes. Many disciplines, but always in order to learn the material, not in order to earn a grade. Plus,” his voice dropped to a mumble, “I can’t help thinking that a good portion of my showing at the panels is dependent on my being liked. Sucking up isn’t exactly part of my skill-set and I don’t think I want it to be.”
“Mmm,” Alex was non-committal. “I’m not sure I see it quite that way. I wonder… does mounting a verbal defense worry you?”
Bruce exhaled in a short laugh. “It’s just one more thing outside my area of expertise. I’m used to being respected. Feared, even—and no,” he said quickly, “before you ask, when I’m not dealing with lawbreakers, being feared isn’t something I enjoy, but it’s something I accept. Doing what I did… do… will do,” his forehead creased, “I’ve learned to give off an aura of danger. It’s automatic at this point—I put it on with the cowl. Turning it off requires conscious effort and,” his voice dropped, “and maybe I’m not so eager to be thought of as just some guy in a costume.”
Bruce sighed. “I’m not bullet-proof and I’m not a meta. If people start to see past the aura, it’ll hurt my effectiveness in the field.”
“I see,” Alex said. “Now that puzzles me a bit. I mean, one would think that it would be to your advantage to be perceived as less-threatening and then catch your opponents off their guard.”
Bruce winced. “That worked for Robin. I rely on fear, even more than on respect, to get the job done.” He realized that he was speaking in the present-tense, but Alex didn’t seem to care. “I’m not a brutalizer,” he continued. “I’m out there to stop crime. At the end of the day, I’m happy if they run away in terror, surrender to the nearest cop, and don’t try to rush me, though I can more than defend myself if they try. Besides, deliberately going in and looking for a fight is a good way to get killed. I’m not saying I haven’t done it,” he admitted, “but it was usually when I felt like I was coming apart inside and I needed an outlet.” He shook his head. “Stupid, I know.”
“I’d say it’s understandable. People usually do lash out when they’re hurt or angry.”
“Yes, but that ‘lashing out’ is a good part of what’s been under the microscope lately. What if they’re right to be concerned?”
Alex frowned. “You told me once that you’re constantly making contingency plans for if thing go wrong. I’d say that being a police officer is a fairly stressful line of work. The higher-ups are aware of that. If you don’t mind my asking, how effective are your contingency plans when you’re missing key data?”
Bruce looked up sharply.
“You’ve recognized it yourself: a lot of the things you’ve been asked… it hasn’t been about whether you give ‘good’ answers, it’s been about whether you give truthful ones.”
“The officer who was upfront about recreational drug use,” Bruce said slowly, remembering what Jim had told him. He’d mentioned it in passing to Alex. “He wasn’t disqualified when he owned up to it.”
“Having a temper isn’t necessarily a negative,” Alex pointed out. “Frankly, if I were in the same room as a murderer or rapist, I’d be concerned if I weren’t angry about it. Losing your temper, on the other hand—and you’ll note that I said ‘losing your temper,’ not ‘getting angry’—is a different story. From what I’ve seen and heard,” he continued, “I’m not worried. You can’t control how you feel, but you can control how you show it. Something,” he added, “that I suspect you already know.”
Bruce nodded. “It’s sometimes heartening to hear it from another party, though.”
Alex smiled. “Now getting back to what you said earlier… I realize that, as Batman, you’re not out there to please people, but surely in your civilian persona…?”
Bruce shook his head. “My civilian persona is great for society affairs, ribbon-cuttings, pointless chitchat, and leaving early. I found out exactly how effective that was when I went to Washington to speak against the No Man’s Land bill.”
“Ah,” Alex nodded. “So, it’s not so much a worry about fitting in… or being accepted.”
Bruce’s eyes narrowed. “Excuse me?”
Alex shrugged. “I might have misheard you, but that did seem to be a concern for you, vis á vis the panel, at least.”
He stifled a groan. “It’s probably nothing. I’m sure I’ll do fine.”
Silence. Then, finally, “It’s not so much about acceptance. Not exactly. It’s… I’ve managed to arrange my life in such a way that I’m not impacted by how people think of me. There are a few individuals to whom I’m close. Close enough that their opinions matter.” He winced. “And, as we’ve established in the past, I tend to shut them out—usually, right around the time that they’re ready to voice those opinions. However,” he sighed. “I don’t form attachments easily. I suppose that my money and my family have been more masks to hide behind; more ways to distance myself and ward people off. Yes, keeping them at arm’s length protects me from prying eyes and piercing questions…”
Bruce slumped. “I… haven’t had any reason to try to earn anyone’s respect, or try to make myself likeable. The people I’ve allowed to get close to me accept me for who I am—and, let’s face it: even if I’ve been more… open… since Arkham, I’ve rarely wanted or needed to impress people and…”
Alex waited patiently.
Bruce took another breath. “And maybe that’s it. Maybe the idea of actively trying to impress the panel, or not impress them… just to make a good showing… I hate being surrounded by sycophants. It’s one thing I haven’t missed about high society. Idiots bowing and scraping to get into my good graces because of the Wayne name and the Wayne fortune,” he closed his eyes. “Mostly the fortune, I think. Intellectually, I understand that trying to impress the panel isn’t the same thing, anymore than eagerness at a more conventional job interview constitutes brown-nosing— not that I’ve had occasion to be on too many of those, either. Still… I don’t know these people. I don’t particularly care about them or respect them beyond the… well, the basic respect that good manners require. And yet, I’m trying to get into their good graces because of the power they hold in this one instance.” He frowned. “I suppose, it comes down to me not liking the fact that they do hold power over me in this one instance, and…”
“And…?” Alex prompted.
Sounding slightly embarrassed, Bruce added, “and I don’t exactly like being the lowest rung on the ladder and having to Sir and Ma’am people half my age with a fraction of my experience and…” he shook his head. “It just feels like I’m acting a role and I don’t especially care for the character I’m portraying.”
“But you’re still going ahead with it.”
Bruce nodded. “I don’t like backing away from challenges. Or running from my fears. And…”
Bruce smiled wearily. “It’s been my experience that, when every instinct is screaming at me that I don’t need to put myself through a particular hell, when I want to walk away the most… that’s when I really need to stay the course.”
A few nights later found Dick at Wayne Manor, bringing Bruce up to date. “…So, anyway,” Dick finished, “I’m pretty sure that Sal wants you back. Again, not spilling anything until you give me the word, but I don’t think he’s playing me.”
Seated across from him at the kitchen table, Bruce nodded. “Any word on who’s taking over for Paxton?”
“That worries me,” Dick admitted. “Ron was pretty open with me about who else was in on the original meetings and they all seem to have disavowed Paxton completely. Now, maybe he’s backed off—but he hasn’t exactly been great at cutting his losses and moving on, so far—or he’s now trying to work alone…”
“Or,” Bruce nodded again, his eyes narrowing, “he has other help—someone we don’t know about, yet.”
Dick nodded, tight-lipped as he shifted position in his chair. “I wish I didn’t think that was the most likely scenario. With this whole business with Hush and the Mad Hatter, it’s not like I’ve got time to go skulking around in Paxton’s bushes on the off chance I’ll recognize one of WE’s 1800 employees paying a call. And that’s if his alleged accomplice is someone with WE, instead of someone False Face introduced him to, mind you.”
Bruce’s lips twitched. “Sal’s got you doing it now, I see.” At Dick’s blank look, the twitch became a smile. “WE.”
“Oh,” Dick grinned back. “That. Honestly, I’ve never really liked the name change, even though Lucius and I came up with it. We were both hoping that over time, we could drop the first two letters. Hasn’t happened yet, but I’m hopeful.”
“You always are.”
“Wellll… usually,” Dick hedged. He stifled a yawn.”Sorry. Between my night job and my day job, I need to catch up on my sleep.”
“Next time,” Bruce said, “you don’t have to come out here. You can just phone.”
Bruce sighed. “Dick. I’m fine.”
“I know you are. I guess I just wanted to see it.”
“Well,” Bruce spread his arms, “now you have. I’m fine now and I’ll be fine tomorrow when classes start.”
Dick nodded. “Okay. But if things get rough, you can follow your own advice: just phone.”
Bruce tried to glare, but this time, it left Dick unfazed.
“I mean it.”
“Good night, Dick.”
After showing Dick to the door, Bruce returned to the kitchen and slumped wearily into his chair once more. Unfamiliar territory, unknown personnel, and no contingency plans to speak of. Tomorrow was going to be wonderful…
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