Torches
Chapter 1: They're writing songs of love...


Dr. Leland Bartholomew looked out his office window onto the garden in which Arkham patients were to enjoy the calming benefit of fresh air and sunshine. He had taken such pride in the garden view when he was first awarded this prestigious corner office. Today, it gave him no pleasure at all.

Leslie Thompkins was at the conference in Metropolis.

Leslie Thompkins. Leslie from medical school. Leslie who nearly caused him to flunk out of second year pharmacology because he spent the first six lectures studying her profile…
Leslie was at the conference in Metropolis. She attended his address on the pathology of costumed personalities. She challenged his premise during the Q&A, came up to him afterwards and gutted his conclusions, then flatly refused to continue the argument over dinner.

Bartholomew sighed, returning his attention to the session. Jonathan Crane was pacing up and down, restating his grievance just in case he hadn't been understood the first seven times.

"So I went out of my way to include Bruce Wayne at the Halloween party. After that thrashing I got for attacking him earlier this year, not like I'd do otherwise. That woman's claws are a fright! So despite the fact that this Wayne is no more of a criminal than Batman is, I dutifully made out the invitation to Selina Kyle AND Bruce Wayne. Not even 'and guest.' I specified 'AND Bruce Wayne.' And did I get so much as an RSVP? Did he send his regrets or an explanation? He did not. He ignored me!"

Bartholomew pretended to make a note, then returned his gaze to the window.

Leslie Thompkins. She still had a most distracting profile. And she was returning to Gotham City. She was still the titular head of the Thomas Wayne Memorial Clinic, although she hadn't been involved in the day-to-day operations for many years. Not since taking a post on the AMA advisory council for humanitarian aid in developing countries. Now, her term ended, she was coming back to Gotham.

It was such a pity she wasn't more impressed by his position at Arkham.


Jean Paul Valley sat on a park bench across from the entrance to Selina Kyle's apartment, hoping against hope that his Azrael personality would take a few hours off and go to sleep.

I shall not, Mortal, the Azrael voice assured him, I shall remain awake and alert so when this imprudent course you have set us upon meets with disaster, I may act to retrieve you from peril.

Jean Paul sighed. He had no one to blame but himself. He had lived most of his life as a normal person; he was a computer programmer. When the death of his father activated the Azrael personality, Jean Paul had looked on it as a kind of computer program: a set of skills, algorithms, and responses implanted in his psyche by the Order of St. Dumas. It was only a few weeks ago he was forced to reevaluate that assumption.

He had sat down with a bowl of popcorn to watch The African Queen on Turner Classics when he had this funny feeling, like he really didn't want to see it again, even though it was one of his favorite old movies. It was almost like he had a craving to watch… professional wrestling instead? Then it happened again ordering pizza when, instead of getting ham and mushrooms like he wanted, he had a strange impulse to order sausage and onion. It hit him, finally, when he found himself playing (and enjoying) Dark Forces instead of The Sims for his hour's computer fun before bedtime. He realized what was happening: Azrael. The impulse to watch wrestling was Azrael. The itch to open this game instead of the other, that was Azrael stating a preference. Azrael was not a program. He was a personality. And from the moment Jean Paul began to think of him as a person, Azrael was able to express himself as one.

So now, Jean Paul Valley had a roommate living in his head, a roommate who was not shy about voicing his opinions. As if making up for lost time, Azrael had spent these first weeks since The Recognition explaining all that, in his view, "The Mortal" was doing wrong.

This notion of coming to see Catwoman and 'talking it out' was the most objectionable idea so far.

The Feline is not only of the criminal persuasion…

Not anymore, surely, Jean Paul objected, or Bruce would hardly have accepted her into—

Mortal, the blind faith you place in that man's judgment is another issue entirely. I was speaking of the Feline, and she is—or at least was—a thief. And even if she is a thief no more, she is still a sorceress.

She is not a sorceress.

She has a power over us no female is meant to possess.

Because we screw up around her? That's not her, Az; that's us.

From what source do you find this need to claim the fault for all failures?

In this case, I find it in reality.

INFIDEL!

Az, write this to the ROM: we screwed up with Catwoman—you and me. You insulted her. You said she was stealing nerve gas for terrorists. You went on insisting you were Batman when she clearly knew it wasn't Bruce in that armor.

She did not know The Batman's identity at that time.

Possibly not, but she knew you weren't him, and you went on doing the voice, throwing the attitude, and being so cock sure of yourself argumentative until she went and told you HOW she knew you weren't him.

Mortal, there is nothing to be gained in dwelling on this.

THAT is why we fail with her. Because you go running from it every time she's around, just like you did then…

An Azrael does not run.

…and that would be fine if you had somewhere to run OTHER than behind me! But I DON'T KNOW HOW TO DEAL WITH HER EITHER, and THAT's what we're going to straighten out today by sitting down and talking to her.


Bruce always found it just a little harder to force the witless playboy smile on days like this. Bruises ached down his left side from a brutal fight with Killer Croc—a fight that seemed to drag on for hours, although in reality, it lasted only two minutes. Joker was still on a rampage. Day four. Batman was up almost 'til dawn trying to work out what the clown was up to.

Yet he managed a smile as he delivered "the speech" to the new girls: Yes, he was Bruce Wayne. Yes, this was the Wayne Building. Yes, he was CEO of Wayne Enterprises. And yes, he was technically "in", in that he was physically present in his office. However, today he was here ONLY in his capacity as head of the Wayne Foundation. He was fully occupied with Foundation business, and anyone wishing to see him on other matters would have to wait. Bruce Wayne, the head of the Wayne Foundation, was in, but the CEO of Wayne Enterprises was out. Understood?

Surprisingly, he got nods all around. There was no question that the quality of support staff had risen dramatically since he'd toned down the Fop act. He hadn't yet determined if the shift posed any additional risks to Batman's identity, but it was most certainly making Bruce Wayne's life easier.

He docked his laptop into the office network and scanned through the e-mail. Only two subjectlines caught his eye. Neither signaled good news.

RE: Beloved

Predictable. Talia was nothing if not predictable. The Lex Fund had been giving to the same causes as the Wayne Foundation. That fact caused him to hallucinate, under the influence of fear toxin, her appearance at a Foundation-sponsored event. This letter assured him the fear was well-founded in reality.

It pleases me, My Beloved, that so many of the causes supported by The Lex Fund have also touched your generous heart. What further proof need you of the great sympathy of our spirits? Surely you cannot ignore such a sign that we are destined to join our great houses for the betterment of mankind.

Bruce skimmed down the page, then scrolled, then hit the PgDn button until he finally reached the end of the document.

I look forward to the many rounds of holiday fundraisers in the hopes of beholding you again with my own eyes.

"Right before Selina scratches them out," Bruce thought.

He bitterly wished the Snoopy tattoo of his hallucination was real, but alas… If there was such a thing as Demonspawn Wolfsbane, he had yet to discover what it was.

Still. The holiday parties were a ways off. He had several weeks to think of something.

He clicked on the second letter.

RE: Leslie's return


Cassie Cain looked at the Zitomer's makeup counter, utterly bewildered. She didn't like the look of the eyeliner: little colored pencils meant to be used near the eye? That couldn't be right, could it? The mascara brushes didn't look much better. And as for the eyelash curler! Then there were the orange sticks – sharp pointy bits of wood meant to poke around the fingernails. And leg wax. It couldn't be that ordinary women used these things. They were so squeamish. It wasn't possible that they dripped hot wax onto their legs to rip hairs out by the root.

Still, this was the store Stephanie had recommended. Cassie selected a pink lip gloss. She passed on the eyeliner and mascara, even though Selina said eyes were the most important feature to highlight if you were going to wear makeup under a mask. Then, she very delicately pointed out that while Cassie had very large and lovely eyes, they were not visible under her Batgirl mask. Cassie turned a bright pink as she explained that Mr. Kittlemeier redesigned her cowl so the nightvision lenses would only snap into place when she wished, leaving her eyes exposed the rest of the time. She didn't add that he also cut off the mask higher, so the lower half of her cheeks and lips could be seen. It mimicked the design of Catwoman's mask, for Cassie had noticed that Azrael's eyes always followed Catwoman whenever they were together.

Cassie looked at the eyeshadows. Barbara said, if she was determined to do this silly thing, to find a shade of blue to match the side of the cowl. Seventeen Magazine said stick to pale shades. The salesgirl offered a compromise in a 3-pack with coordinated tones of base, shadow, and highlight.

Black Canary said to be herself. If she did the things she enjoyed and was good at, she would meet boys with common interests.

Catwoman said don't ever tone yourself down for 'them'. Any man worth having will accept you for who you are.

Oracle said to relax and not worry. When it's right, you'll click naturally.

Stephanie said there's nothing wrong with making a little effort on his behalf, it shows an interest, and you gain confidence from knowing you look your best.

Cassie paid for the lip gloss and eyeshadow and stepped out into the sun.

Crimefighting was what she was good at. Fighting was what she was good at. Not as good as Azrael, for he was a great warrior, and not distracted by worldly matters like so many of them. But he never watched when she worked out. He still came to the satellite cave beneath the Wayne Tower. He was often there when she exercised, but he never seemed to notice her.

Tonight, she would debut her new cowl with the makeup. Maybe that would get his attention.


BAT REEK HORN

Edward Nigma sat at the Iceberg bar, making notes on a cocktail napkin:
THORNE BREAK
NORTH BEAKER

Periodically, he rose from his stool, dropped a silver dollar into the jukebox, and punched a number of buttons. Patsy Cline began crooning I FALL TO PIECES, and the room groaned. From the experience of the last four hours, they knew this song would be followed by THERE'S A TEAR IN MY BEER, ONLY THE LONELY, and then… the George Ducas woe is me marathon: TEARDROPS, KISSES DON'T LIE, HELLO CRUEL WORLD, MY WORLD STOPPED TURNING, and LIPSTICK PROMISES.

"Country music," Nigma quoted, returning to the bar. "The music of pain."

It was going so well. Doris put on a costume. It was a Miss Marple costume, but it was a start. Today, support hose—tomorrow, spandex! That was his thought. Then, out of no where, "Eddie, we have to talk."

We have to talk. Nothing good EVER follows those words. It's like "Halt, Riddler" and the whoosh of a Batarang - no matter what you say or do at that point, you're pretty much screwed.

He picked up his pen and wrote on the napkin:
BAKE NORTHER
KEN REHAB ROT

She said crossword puzzles were not the foundation for a lasting relationship. How could you reason with a woman like that!

Jervis Tetch bustled into the barroom from the dining room. He had the air of a man who has heard ONLY THE LONELY quite enough for one evening. Sly stopped him mid-step with a look that would slow a charging rhino. Sly's eyes flickered at the jukebox, then at Eddie, then at Jervis as he mouthed a single word: "Doris."

Jervis nodded. He approached the bar slowly, stood next to Eddie, and looked down at the napkin just as he wrote:
BEAKER THORN

"What's that?" Jervis asked.

"Anagrams," came the answer.

"For what?"

"Broken heart."

Jervis rolled his eyes and looked towards the jukebox.


...to be continued...