Bruce sat in his chair, upright and appearing attentive as ever to the professor's lecture, but all the while his jumbled thoughts inexorably returned to… the Mission. What else was there? What other driving force kept him going through the motions of an otherwise exhaustingly mundane existence? Lectures, homework, quizzes, exams…. No, the discovery of certain groupings of elements by Döbereiner leading to the modern layout of the periodic table of elements held no special meaning to him, but it apparently was the crux of Mrs. Cox's, his Chemistry teacher's, entire universe at the moment. And Bruce doubted that the 'F-O-I-L' method of solving mathematical equations involving multiple binomials was going to help him in any way, but according to Mr. Kemp, his Algebra teacher, it was the key to unlocking the mysteries of the cosmos. And he had serious issues coming up with a potential situation in which being able to pick out a gerund in even the most complex of run-on sentences would ever be useful to him, but he felt sure that if he were to ask his English Composition teacher, Mrs. Earnest, she would tell him that the inability to do so might condemn him to an eternity in damnation. No, high school was nothing more than an inconvenient stopgap, an obstruction left to be overcome, and another way to practice keeping his identity obscure.
His early foray into vigilantism against Roman Sionis, and the subsequent unforeseen consequences, had taught him an important lesson. He could best pen it as former President Roosevelt had said: "Speak softly, and carry a big stick." While he had proven Sionis was nothing close to a physical threat to him, Sionis's clout in the school was far-reaching, and Bruce had suffered in other ways he'd not imagined. In this way Bruce had come to recognize the need for anonymity in his actions. He eschewed Sionis's method of using others to do his muscle work so as to keep from getting his own hands dirty, though…. Bruce knew that using hirelings to strong arm others was as far from in-keeping with his envisioned future (as hazy as that still was) as possible, but he had no inspiration as to a solution to that particular problem… yet.
Bruce had been proud, thrilled even, at his physical prowess in taking down Sionis that day, but at the same time he'd also discovered something else, equally important… the need to be able to take down a group of attackers. One-on-one against Roman Sionis, his caged ferocity had fully come to bear against an assailant, with spectacular success. But once the rest of the junior high lacrosse team had entered the fray, it seemed like it was all Bruce could do to escape with his life until the timely intervention of an instructor.
So Bruce began investigating defense classes, to mixed results. Bruce was infatuated with the notion of multi-assailant defense techniques promised by East Asian fighting styles, but their thinly-veiled contempt for Bruce's identity, mixed with a healthy fear of allowing Bruce to come under anything resembling a potentially harmful situation, meant that Bruce was treated as an infant. He was afforded no full-contact sparring or tutelage, and though he picked up on forms, stances, and techniques with alarming quickness, he soon felt himself falling behind the other students because of that fact. Again Bruce found himself faced with the inescapability of his own name, the name of Wayne that preceded him like a long shadow, catching everything in its path, towering ahead of him and making his actual self seem small and insignificant by comparison.
Bruce's mind snapped him back to the present; he felt a sense of thankfulness that it was at the start of a Psychology lecture, his favorite class and the one he felt might be most useful to him in his… future endeavors. His teacher, Mr. Fulmer, stood at the front of the class, alongside a young man who didn't even look to be in his twenties yet. Bruce's eyes narrowed as he studied the apparently scrupulous young man, who was dressed in a tweed jacket and khakis, had short but shaggy brown hair, masked his intelligent brown eyes behind round spectacles, and was reed thin.
"Class, I'm pleased to introduce you to our guest speaker today, visiting us from Stamford University in Coast City, Doctor Jonathan Crane," Mr. Fulmer said, his excitement poorly concealed.
Crane looked at Mr. Fulmer with a slight frown. "I apologize, sir; I'm still pursuing my Doctorate's." Addressing the class, he said, "Mr. Crane will do." One of the students behind Bruce sneered and mumbled a comment, to which his friends snickered. Crane's attention immediately went to them. "I beg pardon?"
Bruce had heard the remark, having to do with the guest speaker more resembling "Ichabod" than "Jonathan", but the humor behind the statement was beyond him. Most humor was. He ignored the interruption, and instead forced himself out of his treacherous internal monologues and directed his attentions to the words of Crane instead.
Crane was showing himself to be as much a student of theatre as one of psychology. He made a quick flourish of his hand, ending with a lifted forefinger. "…Fear. Psychologists and psychiatrists for decades, nay centuries, have delved into the depths of men's minds to understand it. Pure science defines it as an involuntary chemical reaction in the brain, hormones and chemicals generated by the amygdala in response to perceived threats." Crane locked his hands behind his back and paced back and forth in front of the class, his bright eyes burning into those of random individuals as he continued. "But to look at it from such a mathematical standpoint is narrow-minded, nigh dangerous and unforgiveable. There is a hidden element of fear, one that eludes such a stark and, admittedly, boring definition. How is it that what one person perceives as a threat goes almost unnoticed by another? Why is something that should be a universal threat, that is… one that presents potential loss of life and limb… not, in fact, universal? How is it that someone could suffer from hydrophobia, the fear of water? Water, the single most life-giving element on the planet? Or take, for instance, the fear of intimacy… that which the human race is evolved to value for its own continued existence? There are a plethora of fears, some categorized, most not. Glossophobia, fear of public speaking; thanatophobia, fear of death; arachnophobia, fear of spiders; herpetophobia, fear of reptiles and, more specifically, ophidiophobia, the fear of snakes; ornithophobia, the fear of birds; acrophobia, the fear of heights; chiroptophobia, the fear of bats…. The list is practically endless! Almost every single person on the planet suffers from what most psychologists refer to as an 'irrational' fear. To the unfortunate person in question, however, that fear is anything but irrational.
"If fear is, in fact, simply a chemical reaction in the brain to a perceived external threat, why wouldn't there be a way to counteract this very chemical reaction? What purpose do the hormones generated by the brain's amygdala serve, other than to generate the famed 'fight-or-flight' impulse governed by the hypothalamus gland of the brain's limbic system? None whatsoever, of course! If it were possible for medical science to help people, not just those afflicted with some terrible phobia, but all people, to overcome their fear, isn't that their civic duty? The betterment of mankind…. Imagine what man could achieve if science were to find a way to remove his every fear altogether? The fear of ridicule, the fear of failure…. What man could achieve without fear. Well, we certainly dabble in the realm of things like ideology and philosophy," Crane sniffed disdainfully, "but in the end it all boils down to… psychology. At Stamford, I am fortunate enough to be heading a small team of fear specialists, if you will, to develop actual chemical compounds to head off the signals responsible for the emotion of fear. We're very near the process of moving the chemical into broader human testing, as the first several rounds have been quite promising. In fact, most of the test subjects have all but demanded we give them a sample to take home themselves!" Crane gave a slight chuckle.
Bruce was awestruck, for a multitude of reasons. He could think of any number of ethical qualms a governing body like the FDA might raise in response to the idea of a drug that did what Crane claimed it could do. Not to mention the potential issues that could arise from chemically interfering with regular brain signals. The human mind being a delicate balancing act of chemicals, the slightest imbalance could send someone on a mindless, violent rampage, or put someone into a vegetative state. But at the same time, the premise was unendingly promising…. The idea of living without even the fear of fear itself… that was a possibility for which Bruce saw no end of usefulness when he considered his Mission…. What if… I were to talk to Crane…? Nothing presumptuous; I could invite him over to the mansion, make mention of wanting to make some contributions to science that had overarching humanitarian goals…. It could certainly open the door for me to investigate further….
His internal monologue was again shattered by a rude external interjection, this one loud enough, Bruce was sure, to actually reach Crane's ears. "Maybe he should use it on himself…. Might help him overcome his fear of going to a gym every once in a while so he can beef up those straw arms of his. Yeah, just like a scarecrow." Titillated laughter ensued. The only people who didn't seem to laugh were Mr. Fulmer, whose face perceivably reddened; Bruce, who wasn't much for laughter in the first place; and Crane, though he did favor the speaker with an icy smile that put an uncharacteristic shiver up Bruce's spine. Crane seemed to consider the youth, moderately good-looking and obviously well-built, his muscles telling even from underneath a bulky football letterman's jacket. Crane's smile changed subtly from wintry to warm and inviting in the blink of an eye. Bruce doubted anyone else had even noticed it.
Crane pulled out a small clear plastic box, containing a nondescript-looking pill from his blazer's inside breast pocket. "I have here… a sample of what we have been working with. Completely harmless… benign, really. Which actually acts as an antithesis to the drug we've been discussing today. It actually invokes the response our 'miracle drug' is out to cure. I thought it might be a fun exercise, a few laughs even, to have a brave volunteer from the audience give it a shot…." He turned and made a gesture of deferral to Professor Fulmer. "Provided we have the good teacher's permission."
To his credit, Fulmer looked alarmed and uncomfortable with the idea. But a smattering of excited talk and applause from the students was enough to sway him to give it a shot. If a doctoral candidate from Coast City's celebrated Stamford University said it was harmless, who was he, a salaried high school teacher with naught but a bachelor's (in physical education, no less) to argue? He smiled graciously and made a gesture of consent, to which Crane gave a wide smile of appreciation, before laying his heavy gaze back on the football player and pointing one long, angular finger at him. "Why not you, dear boy? A big strong star athlete such as yourself surely wouldn't be afraid to match wits with the likes of me, the good sir scarecrow…?"
The boy blushed, but wasn't going to risk a windfall in his social status by backing down from some brainy shrimp from Coast City. His eyes steely with anger, he sauntered up to Crane, casting amused looks back at his fellow "athletic students" in the back of the room. Crane ushered him to the front of the class, even had him sit at Fulmer's desk. "Comfortable? Cozy? We want to make sure there's nothing going on that might accidentally instigate a fear reaction, like discomfort. I'd hate to have you commit assault and battery against a chair…." The class tittered, and the boy looked like he was ready to eat Crane for lunch, but he finally laughed off the comment and assured him that wouldn't be a problem. "Good," Crane said in a low voice, his lips moist.
Bruce, again, felt that involuntary chill up his spine. Was Crane… enjoying this? He almost seemed… eager… to start the project. Bruce felt the warning in his throat, but swallowed it down. Remember… speak softly…. This isn't the time for unneeded heroics. He slowly unclenched his fists, and tried to slow his suddenly too-fast heartbeat.
Crane, again with a theatrical flourish, gave the boy the pill. "Now, simply swallow that… yes, like that. I'm glad you seem so capable of following simple direction. Now, just relax…. Close your eyes if it helps." As he spoke, Crane walked… no, more like damn near skipped, to the boy's desk, reached into his bag, and returned to the class front with a football cradled in his arms. He leaned over the desk, holding the football up to the boy's face. "Now… why don't you open your eyes for us? Tell me what you see when you look at this." He held the football directly in front of the boy's face.
"It's just a football, man…. What are you, loco?"
"Keep looking," Crane said, a dark edge creeping into his voice. "Is that what you really see, Christopher?"
The boy seemed to break into a light sweat. "H-how'd you know my name?"
Crane laughed. "It's stamped on your bag, my dear simpleton." He shook the ball excitedly in front of Christopher's face. "Is it making you… nervous?"
Christopher's eyes were glued to the football as if nothing else existed in the world. He seemed to shrink back from it. "Wh-what's goin' on with that thing…? What'd you do to it…?"
"Why, Christopher? What do you see?" Crane's eyes were alight with an otherworldly mirth.
"It's… it's…. It…. Get it away! Get that thing the hell away from me!"
Crane's voice never rose by a decibel, despite his obvious delighted interest. "What is it, Christopher? What do you see…? What is it… that you're afraid of?"
Christopher's eyes were bulging, and his face was turning a sickly pale shade of green. "How are you holding that thing, man?! It's… aaaahhhhh! It's freaking biting you, man! Get it away! All those eyes… get it away from me!" Crane frowned, hesitated, considered… then promptly tossed the football into Christopher's lap. Christopher somehow caught it, and proceeded to scream hysterically. "OhmyGod! It's ON me! Get it OFF! It's BITING me! It's BITING…!" He continued on that way, thrashing, and finally fell backwards in the chair to the floor, struggling with the football.
From the back of the room, a girl in a cheerleader's outfit, no doubt the unfortunate Christopher's girlfriend, shrieked, "Just let GO of it, Chris!"
"I CAN'T! It's latched ONTO me! It's…! Oh my Jesus, it's putting EGGS inside my arm!"
Somewhere in the room, a student fainted, and then it was pandemonium. Professor Fulmer burst into action, rushing at the wild-eyed Christopher and struggling with him to get the football out of his white-knuckle grip. Students stood up and edged as far away from Crane as possible, who seemed bored now. He removed his spectacles and cleaned one of the lenses with a handkerchief, sighing. Bruce, however, was glued to his seat, unable to take his eyes off of Crane for even a second.
After a few minutes, some semblance of order had been restored to the classroom. Christopher was sent to the nurse's office, sans the offending football, and the students, while still shaking, returned slowly to their seats. Fulmer looked at Crane like he was a frothing mad bear who had come bursting from the woods, his face beet red and veins bulging in his forehead and neck. "Dr. Crane-"
"Mr. Crane, if you would. As I believe I've mentioned before, I-"
"I don't much care how the hell you address yourself, sir…. What in the good name of God was that?"
Crane irritably flapped his hand in Fulmer's direction. "That, my good sir, was, I'm almost certain, entomophobia… the fear of insects. Unfortunately it's impossible to know if he was trying to describe a particular species of insect, or just some random amalgamation of a list of them…. As you undoubtedly witnessed, he went quite hysterical before I could get more information."
Fulmer's jaw dropped nearly to his chest. The effect was almost comical, if a bit off-putting. "Are you… sir, are you absolutely insane? You could have-!"
Crane yawned. "My dear professor, absolutely no harm will come to young Christopher. In a matter of no more than an hour he'll be back to his normal, impudent self, free to insult any guest speakers he pleases… though I suspect he may be more cautious around psychology doctoral candidates researching fear and its effects on the human mind." Crane's voice was thick, and his face was slightly flushed. If Bruce didn't know any better, he'd swear Crane almost looked… aroused. Finally, Crane turned his face toward the class, as if he suddenly remembered they were there. He seemed to enjoy the silent, rapt attention he now held from them, then began.
"As you have all witnessed today, fear is still, by far, the single greatest emotion humans encounter. Fear is what allows us to break through physical barriers. It enables soldiers to fight on through gunshot wounds. It enables mothers to lift cars off of their trapped children. It enables us to do all manner of wondrous things…. But it is a double-edged sword. Fear can evolve into panic, and cause fatal arrhythmias, cause us to freeze up like a deer on the highway with headlights bearing down on us, cause us to become raving lunatics without a shred of mental wherewithal. As the good Mr. Christopher was so gracious as to demonstrate to us." Crane eyed the other football players coolly, as if asking them to interject. No one did. Christopher's girlfriend the cheerleader let a soft sob escape her lips at the mention of his name. Crane gave a small, quick satisfied smirk before closing. "To control a man's fear, is to control a man. Make him fear, and you have made yourself no less than God to him. It has been the tactic of every successful leader in history…. Julius Caesar, Genghis Khan, even the officers of the U.S. military. They instill in their followers fear, be it fear of punitive action, fear of banishment and isolation, fear of solitude and imprisonment, or fear of death (all, by the way, used by all three of those aforementioned examples). And their hold over their followers was absolute. There is no money that can buy you out of it; there is no political power or office that can protect you; there is no single person in the world… who lives without fear."
"What are you afraid of, Mr. Crane?"
Every head spun as if on a swivel in the direction from which the voice came. Bruce Wayne sat, unmoved the entire afternoon, in his chair. His blue eyes pierced deep into Crane's, and for once Crane seemed to stop and take actual notice of another person in the room. He regarded Bruce for several moments. "I don't need to look at your bag to learn your name, Mr. Wayne; I'm afraid your reputation precedes you."
"Afraid, Mr. Crane?" Bruce wore his trademark thin, tight smile, though in his head he was raging. Not at Crane, though… at himself. I knew something was off…. I knew it. And I let Crane have his way with that boy anyway…. I should have said something. 'Talk softly' be damned; I let that kid get led down the rabbit hole and straight into Crane's version of hell…. And here I was… considering even for a second letting Crane help me on my Mission…! Damn it… damn it… damn it!
Crane inclined his head, acknowledging his verbal misstep. "No, not quite afraid. Forgive the old figure of speech. Back to your original question, however…. That is quite a personal, dear subject matter to me, and would probably take a great length to explain in any detail. And, unfortunately for you, it looks like my time is just about up."
"Yes…. I'd say so," Bruce responded with deliberate casualness.
They stared each other down, the 15-year-old billionaire heir to the throne of Gotham and the 21-year-old genius prodigy, for several moments. For each, it was as if no one else in the room existed. Then, the bell rang, signaling the end of the day's classes. Crane sighed, collected his briefcase, and exited the classroom.