It was almost impossible to find Bruce Wayne amidst the flock of models that had descended upon him. Pictures would soon be all over various social networks as guests pretended to take selfies, though it was unlikely Mr. Wayne would have stopped anyone from taking photos outright. At least one of those photos was going to end up a meme sooner rather than later.
It wasn't hard to see why. The man himself, dressed in an impeccable suit, had taken a seat to give himself a break from mingling. A very large fellow with an earpiece kept the area under his poolside awning free of those his boss didn't care to speak to. All around him the party continued, with more than one person leaping fully-clothed into the pool. And slowly, like moths to a flame, slender women with fashion-shoot faces had gathered around Wayne. No one stopped them. A few had enough decorum to sit in adjacent chairs. Some sat on the couch beside him, one with her legs draped sideways over his lap; some stood behind the couch and bent half over it to talk to him, doing dangerous things to their necklines. A few, shameless, sat on the tile of the patio near his feet.
Not that any of this was particularly unusual. It was difficult to find a picture of Gotham's favorite son at a public event without a throng of women. The fact that he had never been known to date anyone seriously did not dissuade them.
"I don't know why I even come to these things when he just hogs all the hot chicks," one guest complained. Someone — he did not see who — pushed him into the pool, and gave him something better to complain about.
"Bruuuce," Cindi said, looking up from where she sat on the ground. "Seriously, you should come."
"What would I even do?" Bruce asked, as Laura took his glass to steal some of his champagne. She was standing behind the couch, and wasn't actually old enough to drink.
"Play with us, obviously," said Adia, legs draped over him for no apparent reason whatsoever. Bruce took his glass back from Laura before she could take a second sip, and she pouted. He frowned as he wiped lipstick off the rim.
"I don't even know how to play Street Fighter," he said.
"Who doesn't know how to play Street Fighter?" Cindi demanded, scandalized. "Didn't you go to college?"
"Is that what I was supposed to be doing?" Bruce asked. "In that case, I made things much more difficult than they needed to be."
"I bet you studied really hard and went to bed at a reasonable hour," Nickie accused from where she sat beside him.
"I've never gone to bed at a reasonable hour in my life," Bruce said, "and quite frankly, I am offended." He drank more champagne as Nickie giggled.
"We can teach you to play Street Fighter," Adia pointed out. "And! Anita has a big yard, so we're all going to bring our pets."
Bruce raised an eyebrow at Anita, who had taken her heels off to sit cross-legged in one of the chairs, her skirt pulled down over her knees. "Really?" he asked. "Chairman Meow is okay with that?"
"I told you he's friendly!" Anita said. "I don't know why you don't believe me."
"Because he looks like a confused Austrian peddler," he said, and Anita gasped. "He looks like his parents were a pug and a slipper. In every single picture you have ever shown me of that cat, he looks like he's going to tell me stories about the war."
Cindi had a distinctly horse-like laugh that Anita did not appreciate when her cat's honor was at stake. "You're going to feel really bad when you meet him and see how nice he is," Anita warned.
"I'm going to feel bad when he turns out to be a wish-granting hobgoblin," Bruce corrected.
"He really is nice," Cora said. "Wanna see a picture of him cuddling with Pigglesworth?"
Cora, standing behind him and over his shoulder, held out her phone in front of his face so that he could see her lockscreen. A Himalayan cat was wrapped around a potbellied piglet on a pillow, and they both seemed to be sleeping.
"That," Bruce said seriously, "is adorable."
"So are you going to come?" Cindi asked.
"Do it for Pigglesworth," Cora added, wiggling her phone encouragingly.
"I'm going to have to see how I feel next week," he said, and there was a collective groan of frustration. "I don't want to get your hopes up and then have to cancel. You know how it is."
"All I know is, usually when you say that it means you're secretly planning to do something dangerous that might get you hurt," Adia said.
"Mister Do-What-I-Say, Not-What-I-Do, No-You-Can't-Come-BASE-Jumping-With-Me," Nickie added.
"I don't think that nickname is going to catch on. Yvonne, watch your drink."
Laura set the margarita back down like she'd been burned, and Yvonne took it back with narrowed eyes, curling up in her chair.
"Snitch," Laura accused.
"Eat some sushi first and I'll get you your own glass."
Laura pouted again. "It's too many carbs."
"She doesn't want to eat because she has a beach shoot tomorrow morning," Cindi revealed. She'd already eaten entirely too many California rolls, and Bruce probably would have let her get away with drinking if she'd wanted to.
"Then you shouldn't be drinking, either," Bruce said. "You don't want to be hungover. And you should still eat."
"But if I drink enough, and stay up all night, I can be drunk instead," Laura said, sitting down beside Cindi.
"You're really not selling me on this," Bruce said.
"Who's the shoot with?" Cindi asked.
Laura made a face. "Hugo."
Cindi made a face to match. "Oh, ew. No wonder."
"Hugo?" Bruce repeated. Laura and Cindi exchanged a glance.
"It's not really that big a deal," Laura said.
"I never said it was," Bruce said. "I'm just curious." Despite his claims, there was something about his face that made him seem more focused than he'd been.
Nickie giggled again, then put her hand to her mouth for a stage whisper away from Bruce. "Observe," she said, "a Wayne in his natural habitat. This one has scented prey, and so the hunt begins." Adia cackled.
"I'm not that bad," Bruce protested. "I've just never heard of the guy."
"Hugo Wegner," Yvonne said, squinting at her empty margarita glass as if that would refill it. She was older than Cindi and Laura, if only barely. She was also much better at following the unspoken drinking rules, and so Bruce didn't police her the way he did them. "He's an up-and-comer."
"He's not, like, a super-creep," Laura said. "He's just obnoxious."
"He does this thing where he gets really picky about poses and ends up moving you around with his hands," Cindi said, making a face again.
"He's gross," Alex said, the first thing she'd said all night. She was sitting on the very end of the couch, nearly off of it. She was the youngest at barely eighteen, and she spent most of her time staring at her phone.
"Huh." Bruce finished off his champagne, handed the empty glass off to Adia and moved her legs off of him so he could reach into his pocket.
"Uh ooooh," Adia announced. "He's getting his phooooone."
"I'm just checking the time," he said, as if he was not wearing a perfectly good watch.
"Papa Bear Bruce is gonna maul a motherfucker," Cora said.
"There are at least five things wrong with that sentence," Bruce said. Cora practically set her chin on his shoulder to try and watch what he was doing, and he tilted the screen away, turned his head to raise an eyebrow at her. "Can I help you?" he asked.
"I wanna see what it looks like when you ruin a man's life via email," Cora said.
"Coretta Lee, you are being very melodramatic today."
"Oooooh," Anita said with a wince. "You got full-named."
Cora dropped down behind the couch as if she were hiding. "I can't believe I got Coretta'd."
"They're not going to cancel my shoot, are they?" Laura asked.
"No," Bruce said, no longer bothering to deny the nature of the email he was composing. "You'll just get a different photographer."
"What if they know I complained? I don't want people thinking I'm difficult. They won't want to hire me."
"You're not difficult," Bruce said, thumbs still moving over the touchscreen keyboard. Cora peered over the back of the couch, her eyes just barely visible. "Karen knows better than to try that, anyway."
"I can't believe you call Mrs. McClelland Karen," Cindi said.
"It's one of the perks of adulthood," Bruce said as he hit send, put his phone back in his pocket.
"Because you're so old," Anita teased.
"Ancient," he agreed. Nickie tipped sideways and sprawled out, resting her head on one of his legs and making herself comfortable. "… and I'm furniture again. Go right ahead, Nickie, thanks for asking. I'm just the guy who owns the place."
"It's not my fault you don't have any throw pillows," Nickie said.
"You are the only person in the entire world that uses throw pillows," Bruce said. Cora leaned back over Bruce's shoulder and held her phone up. "Please don't take a picture with her head in my lap." Nickie made a peace sign for the camera as Cora did exactly that. "At least don't post it."
"I'm posting it everywhere," Cora informed him, and he sighed. "I need to share this milestone with the world. My first selfie with Bruce Wayne where he didn't smile for the camera." Nickie feigned shock.
"That's how you know you've made it," Anita said.
"You know," Bruce said, "I could have sworn some of you used to be nice."
"That's what you get for making fun of my cat."
"It's a price I'm willing to pay."
This is what a Himalayan Cat looks like. Feel free to reread Bruce's description of Chairman Meow alongside this image. Possibly you will find this hilarious. Possibly that's just me.
Chapter 2: Nineteen Years Later
"She stole my phone!"
Bruce looked at Alex. "Alex?"
Alex glanced up from her phone, and after a moment, shrugged. "I threw it in the pool." Bruce looked out the open window, down to the patio on the ground floor. It would have taken a pretty aggressive throw to get it in the water, but someone did in fact seem to be fishing it out with a net.
"You bitch," the other girl spat, and Alfred rolled his eyes as he continued holding the two furious models at bay. They looked the same age as Alex, about nineteen, but it could be hard to tell with models. It was an industry that rewarded women for looking like girls. Bruce's eyes lingered on Alex's left arm. She'd gotten a full sleeve tattoo since last he saw her, butterflies from her wrist to the middle of her upper arm. Alex was looking at her phone again, and making no effort to defend herself.
"Did you have a good reason?" Bruce asked her.
"Yeah," Alex said, but didn't elaborate.
"No she didn't," one of the other girls protested.
Bruce sighed. "Alfred, could you see these ladies out?"
"What?" The girl who'd had her phone stolen looked as baffled as angry. "Why are we the ones getting kicked out?"
"I'm sorry," Bruce said, and he really was. "Alex is a family friend, and if there's been a disagreement between you two, then I'm going to have to ask you to leave until it's sorted out. If you'd like to come back tomorrow, I can write you a check for the value of your phone."
"This is bullshit," said the other girl, but Alfred was already leading them to the stairs. Alex had not looked up from her phone.
Bruce waited until they were out of earshot. "Do you want to tell me what that was about?" Alex shrugged. "So no, then."
"I can go home if you want," she said, eyes still on the screen.
"That is not what I said, and that is not what I want." It was a very subtle motion of her shoulders that had her drawing in on herself. "I'm not mad at you, I'm just confused." How strange, to think that she was Dick's age, when she seemed so much younger. "I'm pretty sure I've seen you ignore everything short of a punch to the face, so right now I'm imagining that they must have committed some kind of war crime." She smiled faintly, but said nothing. "Does it have something to do with the fact that my bedroom door seems to be open?" She shrugged. "Were there pictures involved, or...?" She shrugged again. "Did one of them steal your voice in exchange for legs so that you could walk on land?"
She snorted a laugh despite herself, a smile with teeth. "Bruce."
"If you've been a mermaid this whole time, I think Jane has a right to know."
She looked up from her phone just so that she could give him A Look. "Yeah, Bruce. You got me. I'm a mermaid."
"Knew it." She tried and failed to hide her smile. "That why you pitched her phone into the pool?"
The smile faded with another shrug. "I didn't know if her phone did cloud backups or whatever."
"So you figured you'd completely destroy it before it could." It wasn't a question.
She was back on her phone. "I guess."
He sighed. He almost crossed his arms, put his hands in his pockets instead. Less threatening. "You could have just gotten me. Maybe I could have talked to them to start with, instead of trying to do damage control?"
"They wouldn't have listened."
"Already knew them, huh?"
"Were they aware you hated them before you chucked a phone out the window?"
"I don't think so."
"Ah." Bruce glanced outside. It wasn't really a party, more of an informal get-together. Mostly people he knew well, but he didn't mind if they brought someone along. A low commitment, low effort way to keep up appearances. Primarily to avoid people assuming he was having some kind of depressive episode. Once Dick had left for college, it suddenly became much more acceptable for acquaintances to swing by unannounced with soup. Why did they always bring soup? He didn't even like soup.
Parties as a soup prevention tactic were probably one of the weirder aspects of his lifestyle.
"I like the tattoo," he said, and Alex smiled.
"I like it, too," she said, holding up her arm and looking at the butterflies.
"That won't make it harder to find work?"
"No," she said, going back to typing on her phone. "I'm planning to get into porn, anyway."
Bruce froze. "… ah." He paused. "That's… a… valid decision. For you to make. As an adult. If that's… what you want to do. With your life. For… whatever reason. Which you… are not obligated to explain to me, obviously. Because you are a grown woman."
Alex lifted her phone without warning to snap a picture of him, then grinned.
"… you were fucking with me, weren't you."
"I'm texting this to Jane."
"That wasn't funny."
"Your brain basically broke."
"That was rude."
"Watching you try to reconcile the fact that you think I'm a baby with the fact that you didn't want to disrespect sex work or my bodily autonomy was a-mazing."
"I think you were disrespectful enough for the both of us."
"I can barely even talk in front of people," she reminded him. "How would I do porn?"
"I — I'm not answering that," he said. "That's a trick question and I'm not falling for it." She laughed. "You're growing up into a horrible young woman, you know."
"Nuh-uh," she countered, shaking her head and swaying as she did it. "You're proud of me."
"I am," he agreed.
She looked up from her phone. "… well now you've ruined it."
"Was I supposed to pretend I'm not?"
"Maybe? Now it's all feelings-y in here."
He considered this statement. "Gross."
"Still proud of you, though."
She balled her hands into fists, one of them around her phone, and rubbed them over her cheeks. "Oh, whatever."
"I'm going back out to get a burger," he said with a nod of his head. "You coming with, or are you going to keep wandering around my house unsupervised?" He offered his arm.
Alex slid her phone into her pocket. "Sure." She put her hand loose on the crook of his elbow, and let him lead her down the hall.
"You don't need to defend my honor, you know," he said when they were halfway down the stairs.
"Someone has to."
"I can take care of myself."
"You can." She stopped, and he did the same two steps lower. He was still taller than she was. She extended her left pinky towards him. The corner of his mouth twitched.
"What exactly am I promising?" he asked.
"Let people do stuff for you sometimes."
"That's very vague," he said. She waited. So did he. Finally, he hooked his pinky around hers. "There. Happy?"
She started descending the stairs again. "I'll be happier with a burger."
"Your wish is my command."
Chapter 3: Seventeen Years Later
"What are you doing back already?"
Robin dropped down onto the rooftop where Batman was standing. "You got a letter."
"It was attached to a bag of M&Ms." Robin held up a piece of paper covered in stickers.
"What happened to the bag of M&Ms."
"You ate them."
"I ate them."
Batman held out a hand so that Robin could hand him the letter, but Robin unfolded it instead and cleared his throat. "Don't read it out loud," Batman warned.
"Dear Batman," Robin read.
"Don't do a voice."
"I hope you're doing well," Robin continued, still doing a voice. "I don't know if you can—" He was cut off when he snorted a laugh, and when he started talking again his voice was strained. "I don't know if you can read," he said, before falling into choked laughter again.
"Are you done."
"I'm sorry," Robin said, trying to get himself under control. "I thought I had it, but now that I'm reading it out loud—"
"I told you not to."
"No, no, I've got this. Okay." He cleared his throat again. "My friend Joey says you can't, because bats are blind. Just in case I used a strawberry marker — this letter smells like strawberries, I think this banana sticker is scratch and sniff."
"I might have imagined that because I didn't want to have smelled a sticker for no reason. Anyway: I'm fine, but I'm worried about my neighbor's dog."
"Someone could be getting mugged right now. You realize that."
"No one ever gets mugged after two. So: it cries all day, and I think he hits it sometimes. I tried to let it out of his yard, but now he doesn't let it out of the house. Mom says I can't call the police because of a dog. I'm sorry about the M&Ms, they were all I could get." Robin paused. "I like the M&Ms better, actually. Do you think we can tell them that?"
"It would be less wasteful."
Batman crossed his arms over his chest, scanned the horizon. "It wouldn't be as emotionally satisfying for them."
Robin sighed. "So do you want me to go get the dog?"
Batman held out his hand again, and this time Robin handed him the letter. "No."
Robin blinked. "No?"
"Head west, finish your patrol."
"Seriously?" Robin stood closer to the edge of the building. "Because I can be in and out of there in like—"
"I'm not letting you steal a dog," Batman said, cutting him off.
"I would be rescuing a dog," Robin corrected.
"You can't have a dog," Batman said, no room for argument. "We've had that discussion, we're not having it again."
Robin scuffed his heel against the brickwork. "… I'm more than old enough to handle a dog."
"That's what you said about the guinea pigs."
"Hey," Robin said, indignant. "For all we know, those guinea pigs are still alive and well."
Batman turned his head just enough to look down at him. "In the woods?" Batman asked. "With the feral cats? For two years?"
"… they were very fast."
"Dogs are faster. Now is not the time for this discussion. Finish last rounds."
Batman stood from where he'd been kneeling on the ground, and sighed. "Shit." He pressed down the button on the communicator in his ear. "Robin."
"Yeah?" Robin's voice had a slight fuzz of static over it.
"Where in the Batmobile do you hide that sandwich you always bring."
There was a pause. "Nowhere. You told me to stop doing that."
Batman watched the entry of the alleyway, just in case. Police radio was as silent as usual for the time of night. It had been a cold spring; things wouldn't pick up until temperatures did. That was when the real all-nighters started. "The dog is hiding under the car, I need something to lure it out so I don't run it over."
Another pause. "Don't you have treats or something?"
"I ran out of those getting it out of the house." He'd been going for subtlety, but it turned out small abused dogs took a lot of coaxing to follow large strange men.
He could hear Robin heave a dramatic sigh. "Under the passenger seat, the box that says Smith and Wesson on it."
Beneath his mask, his eyebrows shot up. "Really? Smith and Wesson?"
"I thought you'd be so relieved I didn't have a gun, you wouldn't be mad about the sandwich."
"I can be mad about both, in order." He opened the door to the car to reach under the seat and grab the box. "This isn't a picnic, don't pack a lunch." He didn't know why he still bothered saying it. He'd been saying it for five years.
"I need to keep my blood sugar up!" Robin protested. "What am I supposed to do if I get hungry?"
Batman knelt down on the pavement again, and held half a ham sandwich out to try and tempt the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel cowering under the Batmobile. "Do what you always do," he said through the communicator. "Go to the McDonald's on Clark Street."
"I don't know what you—"
"Tanya Parker," Batman interrupted.
"… how long have you known?"
"I've always known."
"She says I remind her of her son," Robin said defensively, as if that made it better.
"The fact that she hasn't been fired for giving you so much free food is a miracle, and the fact that you can eat that many french fries is a crime." The dog finally emerged tentatively from under the car to nibble on the edge of the sandwich.
"I'm a growing boy."
"Keep telling yourself that. You're not getting taller." Batman gently scratched the dog behind the ears. Most of its fur was matted, probably black and tan but maybe just filthy. Carefully, he picked it up; it squirmed less now that he was holding a sandwich for it to eat. He held it against his chest with his hand beneath its ribs, and frowned at it. The dog did not seem to notice the expression, being entirely focused on the presence of thinly sliced meats. "You can take care of it for the summer," he said. "After that it gets a new home."
"Yessss." He could practically hear Robin pump his fist in victory. "I'm gonna name it Steve."
"You can't name a dog Steve."
"Bat-Steve," Robin amended.
"It's a girl."
"Stevette. Steve, for short." Based on his slight breathlessness, Robin was on his way back to the Batmobile. The dog would probably like him better. Most animals did.
"It doesn't look like a Steve."
"You can't judge on appearances," Robin said loftily. "You need to look into its heart."
Batman shook his head. "In that case her name should be Ham."
"This is why the guinea pigs ran away."
"There's been a slight complication with the dog situation."
"Oh no!" Adia was wide-eyed. "Did something happen to Steve?"
"A lot of things happened to Steve," Bruce said. "Simultaneously."
"Is she okay?" Yvonne asked, following him further into the house alongside Adia. Neither of them had been able to find time to swing by in the last few weeks. Bruce probably should have been keeping them updated, but he'd decided he wanted to surprise them. It seemed like it might be fun. He took what he could get.
"She seems pretty proud of herself, actually," Bruce sighed, leading them up the stairs. "But it's going to be another month before you can take her home."
"Oh no!" Adia said again. "But I already got her food and toys and everything."
"I told you not to buy the fancy food," Yvonne said. "She got the kind you have to keep in the fridge because it's fancy. She's going to spoil her."
"Steve is already spoiled," Bruce said. He knocked on Dick's bedroom door.
"Come on in," Dick called. "I'm trapped."
Bruce opened the door, and immediately Adia made a high-pitched sound of delight.
"I thought Steve was just getting fat," Yvonne said.
"So did we," Bruce said.
Dick was lying on his bedroom floor, literally covered in puppies. They were clumsily attempting to maul him. He did not seem particularly distressed by the viciousness of their attacks. Steve was relaxing on Dick's bed. Her own, dog-specific bed went neglected on the floor.
"There are so many puppies," Adia squealed. There were, specifically, five puppies. "How did she have room for so many puppies?"
Dick winced. "Does someone want to get Harley off my head?" One puppy with particularly long fur on its ears was trying to eat his hair, ignoring its complete lack of nutritional value. Adia swooped in to pick it up.
Bruce shook his head. "Dick, I told you not to name the puppies."
"Hello Harley," Adia said, babytalking and rubbing her nose against the puppy's. "Did Dick name you after his motorcycle? Is that what he did?"
"That is exactly what I did," Dick said. "Watch out for her, she's a troublemaker."
"Do you know what their father was?" Yvonne asked. She walked directly over Dick so that she could sit on his bed and pet Steve. Dick pretended to be too engrossed in puppies to have enjoyed it.
"We think he was a dachshund," Bruce said, and his tone conveyed exactly what he thought about this fact.
"Ooh," Yvonne said, Steve's head already in her lap for maximum petting. "They're dashalier puppies."
"Is that what they're called?" Bruce asked. He knelt down beside Dick to pick up a puppy, holding it up to regard it seriously. "I've just been calling them God's Mistake." The puppy wiggled its feet and tried to lick Bruce's face.
"Bruce!" Adia gasped, scandalized. "How could you say that about such sweet babies?"
"These are yappy cocktail sausages," he said, even as he brought the puppy closer. It continued licking at his chin, and he didn't set it down despite his expression of disgust. "These things are a menace to society."
"You can't just say that about everything you don't like, Bruce," Yvonne said.
"I once saw you call a turtle a menace to society," Adia added.
"Society is easily menaced," Bruce said. "How do I always pick out the puppy that won't stop licking me?"
"I named her Selina," Dick said. Then, after a moment: "She likes to sing."
"You should keep that one," Adia said, nuzzling her cheek against Harley's fur.
"I'm not keeping any of them," Bruce said, setting the puppy down and rubbing its back as it tried to climb onto his legs. "Do either of you have friends that will want to take these hideous monstrosities?"
"I think Adia wants to keep Harley," Yvonne said, still petting Steve.
Adia had the grace to look abashed. "We could keep the mommy and the baby together." Harley was licking her hand vigorously.
"Two dogs down," Bruce muttered, "four to go."
"I think I know someone who wants Kay," said Dick, petting the puppy that had decided to lay down on his sternum.
"I can almost understand the other names, but Kay?" Bruce asked.
"It's complicated," Dick said, and it took him a minute to fish his phone out of his pocket. He unlocked it and handed it off to Bruce so he could read the conversation, having scrolled up to where it started — with a picture of the puppy in question.
MajorTom: omg no
MajorTom: don't do this to me
MajorTom: i can't have a dog
MajorTom: you know i can't
MajorTom: don't let me have a dog
MajorTom: IT'S SO TINY i want it so bad
FineMess: Wow, that did not take long
MajorTom: i'm weak in the face of such tiny paws
FineMess: I should name it Kryptonite
MajorTom: not unless you want luthor to kidnap it
MajorTom: and wear it on his head
MajorTom: i bet jimmy would let me pet his dog
MajorTom: i'll ask if he wants it
"That's a worse name for a dog than Steve," Bruce said, handing him back his phone.
"Is that puppy's full name something filthy?" Adia asked, kissing her chosen puppy.
"Yes," Bruce and Dick said at once.
"After that I ran out of ideas," Dick admitted. "So this one is What, and this one is Who."
Adia looked up with a frown. "Who?"
"Exactly," Dick agreed.
"No, that's the other one."
Bruce stood, ignoring the fact that Selina was trying to climb on his shoe. "Just name them Abbott and Costello instead of trying to be clever about it."
"Awww," Adia said, her smile impish. "He's gonna miss you, Dick."
"Not at all," Bruce countered.
"Little Dick is growing up," Yvonne teased.
"You're only two years older than me," Dick reminded her.
"Little baby Richard," Yvonne added, undeterred. "Going off to college and leaving Bruce all alone with his mansion full of puppies and models."
Dick paused. He frowned. He picked up Kay to look at him. "… remind me why I'm leaving, again?"
Chapter 4: Sixteen Years Later
"Well if it isn't the elusive Bruce Wayne."
Bruce came to a stop in the hallway, turning to the source of the voice. "Jane," he said, surprised. "How've you been?"
"I could ask you the same thing." She crossed her arms, and Bruce joined her near the wall rather than block traffic. "I haven't seen you at all since your birthday. You okay?"
"Still rich, still single. Generally incapable of being anything but okay." He smiled.
Jane had the kind of eyeroll that took her entire head with it. "Don't go giving me the press pass smile, mister."
"What, my smile's not good enough for you now?" Bruce teased.
Jane was unmoved. "Alex was worried sick about you, you know."
The smile faded. "How is she? Is she why you're here?"
"Oh, yeah." Jane gestured vaguely down the hall. "Some sweater ad or something. She doesn't want me in there embarrassing her in front of the other girls. She's okay, aside from being worried about you."
"You can tell her I'm fine."
She raised an eyebrow. "Stick around and you can tell her yourself."
"Maybe." He stuck his hands in his pockets. "Heard from her mom at all?"
Jane glanced around, as if there was some risk of Alex coming up behind her at that moment. "A couple months ago," she admitted quietly. "Wanted money. Wouldn't tell me where she was or what it was for. I told her to call Alex, but she never did."
Bruce had leaned closer as part of the overall aura of secrecy. "Did you send her anything?"
Jane's shrug had the same wide reach as her other expressions, carried her eyebrows with it. "Of course I did," she said. "She's my sister. She's alive and she's staying away from Alex, that's worth a couple hundred bucks."
"That's fair," he said, though he didn't pretend to be happy about it.
"Don't think I didn't notice you changing the subject," she added.
He sighed, glanced up at the clock. "I'd rather not talk about it," he admitted.
"… okay," she said. "I can understand that."
"How's the cat doing?" he asked, another change of subject.
"I can never remember its name."
"It's a weird name," Jane agreed. "She's fine. Spends all day with Alex in her room, I hardly ever see either of them."
"Really?" Not that she'd ever been a particularly social kid, but isolating herself from Jane was new.
"Yeah," Jane said, and her tone was dismissive. "She's right in the middle of her brooding phase. Tons of fun."
"I enjoyed mine so much I never left," he agreed, and he grinned when she rolled her eyes again.
"How about Dick? Lock himself in his room a lot, say you don't understand him?"
Bruce frowned. "Not really, no. I think we got all that out of the way years ago. Now it's all girl problems. Want to trade?"
"Oh, god no." She shuddered. "I can't even imagine."
"Three different seniors invited him to prom."
"… you're kidding."
"He convinced them they should go as a group."
Jane snorted. "He takes after you, then."
"I can't imagine what you mean," he said primly. On cue, two women came up behind him to claim his arms.
"Bruce," said the first, taller than he was.
"We're ready to go whenever you are," said the second, much shorter.
Bruce remained stoic in the face of Jane's amusement. "Jane, this is Sonya and Morgan. Morgan, Sonya, this is Jane."
"Is she coming to the concert with us?" Sonya asked.
"The concert?" Jane repeated, still looking entirely too amused.
"He's taking us to see The Unity Machine," Morgan said, squeezing Bruce's arm tighter. "I'm so excited."
"He has his own box at the stadium," Sonya added.
"Lots of privacy?" Jane asked.
"Yes," Morgan said, clearly thrilled.
"Ah — you know what?" Bruce reached into his pocket for his keys, held them out for Sonya. "Why don't you two go ahead to dinner and I'll meet you there? Give me a minute to catch up with an old friend."
Sonya took the keys warily. "What if you're late?"
Bruce sighed, reached into his coat to grab the tickets and hand them to Morgan. She took them with a delighted squeal. "Don't miss it, though, okay?" she said, getting up on her toes to kiss Bruce's cheek.
"I'll be there," he assured them as they left without him.
"Sonya and Morgan," Jane repeated with a grin.
"They're lovely women," Bruce said.
"Ooh — women. So you are trying to get them in your pants." Rather than deny it, Bruce shrugged. "Alex will be happy to see you, though." Jane paused, bit her thumbnail. "Actually — could you do me a favor?"
She smiled. "You're not going to ask me what it is first?"
"Don't need to," he said. "But you are going to have to tell me eventually if you want it done."
"The thing is," Jane said, "Alex thinks you're cool."
"Someone's been lying to her."
"She's been talking to someone," she continued, as if he had not spoken. "Basically constantly. And I don't know who it is."
Bruce frowned. "Have you… asked her?"
Jane huffed, rolled her eyes again. "That's not how teenage girls work," she said. "She'll just clam up and try to hide it better when they're talking."
"What are you thinking it is?"
"I have no idea." Jane sighed. "It might just be a friend from school! It probably is. I just… worry. I remember what I was like at that age."
"That doesn't seem fair to her," Bruce said. "You were a uniquely terrible teenager."
"I think I was pretty typical," she protested.
"You stole a cop car."
"With the cop still in it," he added.
"The cop was what I was trying to steal! The car was collateral damage."
"Is this you defending yourself?" he asked. "Is that what this is supposed to be?"
"You weren't great either!" she pointed out, defensive. "Remember when you beat the hell out of Tyler Sinclair?"
"I thought we were talking about bad decisions," Bruce said. "Giving him a broken nose was the best decision I ever made."
She started ticking off a list on her fingers. "A broken nose, a fractured eye socket, three broken fingers, a dislocated arm, and his jaw was wired shut for three months."
There was a stubborn tension to his face that she hadn't seen in years. "You should have pressed charges."
"As if they would have stuck," she said, the same old argument. "If you weren't Bruce Fucking Wayne, the fallout would have been a lot worse than needing to get your nose set."
"Bruce Fucking Wayne could have hired you better fucking lawyers," he countered.
"Well excuse me for not thinking to ask the fifteen year-old boy with anger issues for legal help."
She gave him a pat on the elbow. "We're all glad you got rid of that death wish."
"Eh." He wrinkled his nose as he cocked his head to the side. "I wouldn't say got rid of so much as subsumed."
"I'm not saying I'm happy about the skydiving, I'm just saying it's better than picking fights."
"I'm still picking fights," he said. "Just… with gravity."
"Was it more or less scary than last time?"
Bruce tapped his fingers against his knee. Alex was still rearranging colorful circles on her phone. "More," he said.
"It's cool if you don't want to talk about it," she said.
"Does he look less freaky in person?"
"More. Much more."
"Is that really just what his face looks like?"
"It really is."
Alex turned her phone screen-down on her knee long enough to pat Bruce's arm. "I'm glad Batman was there."
"Not as glad as I am," Bruce said. "How's Dib doing?"
She smiled. "You remembered her name."
"Of course," he said. "How could I forget?"
"She's good. I thought she might be pregnant but it turns out she's just getting fat because I keep feeding her chicken nuggets."
"Maybe you should try not feeding her chicken nuggets?"
"I could," she agreed, looking back at her phone, "but she really likes chicken nuggets." She switched into her messaging app, typing out a message at lightning speed before closing it again.
"Who are you talking to?" he asked, every appearance of idle curiosity.
"Just a friend."
"Like from school?"
"Like an internet friend."
"Aaaah." Bruce nodded. "So it's a pedophile."
She started to laugh. "Bruce! No. She's my age."
"That sounds like something a pedophile would say."
"Bruce, no," she repeated. "We met at a convention, okay?"
"What, like a modeling thing?"
She huffed. "No, it's like — you know that card game I play sometimes?"
"You still play that?"
"Yeah, the convention had a tournament, that's why I went."
He hummed thoughtfully. "Tournament. You mean a nerdfight."
"Bruce! You're awful. And nerds are cool now."
"That sounds like a lie an adult would tell a nerd to make them feel better."
"If models do it, it's automatically cool."
"You got me there."
"See, here's us at the con." She held her phone out so that he could see the screen, a selfie taken forehead-to-forehead and arm-in-arm with a girl both darker and rounder.
"Cute," he said, and she nodded as she took her phone back. "Now, maybe I'm just old, but is that a friends picture or a girlfriends picture?"
Alex fidgeted with her phone, turning pink. "Iunno."
"Girlfriends, then." Alex shrugged. "Does Jane know?"
"No," she snapped, wide-eyed. "Don't tell."
"I won't." He held out his pinky to reassure her until she hooked hers around it. "I just don't get why it's a secret."
"I don't know," she said, in that very specific way that meant she knew but didn't want to talk about it.
"Okay." He set his hands on his legs and stood. "But I think you should tell her. She worries about you. It'll make her feel better."
"Maybe." She tucked her phone into her pocket. "Stay safe, okay?"
He tousled her hair, and she made a face but didn't bat him away. "You, too."
Chapter 5: Fifteen Years Later
Amy: Can we use that room that totally isn't a dance studio but basically is?
Amy: Tonight, that's why we need it
Amy: I don't want the girls in the city in the middle of the night
Bruce: All people I know?
Amy: One new girl but she's sweet
Bruce: That's fine, then.
Amy: If you decide you want to dance with us, feel free
Bruce: Much as I would love to show off my grand jeté, I'm pretty busy.
Bruce: I'll be locked in my office basically all night.
Amy: How did you do the accent
Bruce: Long press.
Amy: Öh shît
Bruce: Dick is home for the summer, if he bothers you let me know.
Amy: I don't think the girls will be very bothered
Bruce: That's what I'm afraid of.
Amy: He's a sweet kid
Bruce: That's what he wants you to think.
Bruce: I assume you won't be needing the fencing equipment.
Amy: No one can tell them that swords are an option
Amy: My job is hard enough
"Bruce! I thought you were busy."
Dick froze, turned his head to see Bruce leaning against the doorway. Bruce held up his glass full of mysterious green semi-liquid. "Thought I'd come down and get a snack," Bruce said, "and maybe check in on you while I was at it." He narrowed his eyes, pointed at each person in the room in turn. "Amy, Tara, Phoebe, Yasmine, Cecily, Lucy, Ginger, Denise, Myka, I don't think we've met."
The last girl he'd pointed to giggled. "Coretta."
"Coretta," he repeated. "So you're the newest addition to Amy's army of twelve year-olds."
"I'm seventeen!" she protested, horrified.
Bruce shrugged. "Basically twelve."
"Just ignore him," Amy said. "You'll only encourage him." Bruce feigned innocence as he drank smoothie through a straw. "The girls were just showing Dick how to pirouette."
Dick's attention was on an apparently very interesting spot on the ceiling. "He's really bad at it," Ginger informed Bruce.
"He's fallen down like twenty times," Myka confirmed.
"Really," Bruce said again. "Seems like a bad habit for a Flying Grayson."
"Well, uh." Dick cleared his throat. "That was flying," he said, gesturing. "In the air. I got so good at staying in the air, I'm bad at staying on the ground. Like sea legs. I have… trapeze legs."
"Awww." Yasmine gave him a hug, and his expression was cherubic.
"Wow, Dick," Bruce said, tone flat. "I had no idea. Why didn't you ever tell me."
"It only really comes up when I'm dancing," Dick said as Yasmine tousled his hair.
"Uh-huh." Bruce sipped at his smoothie again.
"You know," Dick said as he untangled himself from affectionate limbs, "come to think of it, it's past my bedtime."
"You still give him a bedtime?" Amy asked Bruce.
"Nope," Bruce said.
"It's self-imposed," Dick explained. "You know what they say, about early to bed, early to eat the worm."
"I don't think that's how that saying goes," Myka said.
"Same idea, though." Dick sidled past Bruce in the doorway. "Just going to go to bed."
"Sweet kid," Amy said.
"Real sweet," Bruce agreed. "I've got to get back upstairs and finish this presentation, I just wanted to make sure you were all doing okay. No one forgot their insulin this time?"
"That only happened once!" Phoebe protested.
"It was a very memorable once."
"Break time will be over in a minute," Tara said. "We should be out of your hair by midnight."
"Don't hurry on my account," he said as he moved back into the hall. "Let Alfred know if you need anything, I'll be busy trying to turn a spreadsheet into something interesting."
"Alfred! Where's—" Bruce stopped in his tracks three steps into the living room as all three people on the couch looked up at him. "I… thought the girls went home?" he asked Alfred. Who was, at that moment, sitting cozily between Amy and Tara.
"The girls went home," Alfred agreed. "Miss Jackson and Miss Brown are not girls."
"What the hell kind of a presentation were you working on?" Amy demanded.
Bruce sighed, looked down at himself. He hadn't bothered throwing a shirt back on, because it hadn't occurred to him that Alfred would be a pedant. An ugly purple bruise decorated the left side of his ribs amidst the usual scars. "That's from this morning," he said. "I had a fall at the gym."
"Master Bruce has long had a problem being victimized by gravity," Alfred said, sipping at a glass of brandy. The bottle of which he seemed to have opened without any input whatsoever from Bruce. Alfred's selective omission was seeming less like pedantry, and more like a loophole that had allowed him to avoid being ordered to send pretty women home.
"I bet he was a cute kid," Tara said.
"Adorable," Alfred agreed, a faint smile half-hidden by his glass.
"Is that what this is?" Bruce asked, putting his hands on his hips. "You're getting my butler drunk so he'll tell you all my secrets?"
Tara giggled. "You don't have any secrets."
"How would you know?" he asked. "The whole point is that you don't know."
"You're the worst liar I've ever met," Amy said. "And practically everyone in Gotham knows your shoe size and how you like your coffee."
"This is a secret," Bruce protested, gesturing to the scars that decorated his chest and his arms. "I never take my shirt off in public, that counts as being secretive."
"I never take my shirt off in public either," Tara said. "That's not secretive, that's just polite."
"I feel like that's wrong but I'm too tired to argue. Should I just leave you all to your little gossip party?"
"Actually," Amy said, sitting up, "we were thinking about spending the night."
Amelia Brown: approximately one hundred sixty centimeters, thick waist, hourglass figure, sort of a dark beige, undercut, made arabesque panché look easy. Tara Jackson: approximately one hundred eighty centimeters, willowy, dark brown, purple braids, licensed physical therapist.
He pointed at Amy. "You're twenty-four." Then he pointed at Tara. "How old are you?"
He scratched his chin. "Eh…"
He mulled it over a moment longer, then shrugged. "Yeah, sure, what the hell. Alfred, mind if I steal your dates?"
Alfred sighed. "If that's what they want, I won't stand in their way. But if you change your minds, you know where to find me." Tara kissed his cheek, and he looked horribly pleased with himself.
Bruce was unmoved. "Find someone your own age."
Alfred lifted his brandy to his lips and paused. "Master Bruce, my reasons for not doing so are entirely ones of safety, I assure you. If we both break our hips, who's going to drive us to the hospital?"
Bruce cracked open one eye, his face half-buried in his pillow. At some point while he was sleeping he'd rolled onto his stomach. Amy and Tara were both laying entirely too close, and neither one was still asleep.
"Are you trying to take a selfie with me while I'm sleeping?" he asked, voice the hoarse rumble of not-yet-awake.
Amy huffed and lowered her phone. "Well I was," she said. "But now you're up, so you've ruined it."
"Sorry." He shut his eyes again, nuzzled into his pillow. "Here, I'm sleeping again. Look how asleep I am."
Tara giggled. "It's probably better this way," she said. "She's been trying to frame it to keep your back out of it for five minutes." The comforter was currently down somewhere around his waist. She traced a finger along a particularly nasty scar along his shoulderblade, careful to stay far away from the deepening bruise against his ribs.
"I appreciate the consideration."
Amy snuggled even closer, no longer concerned about waking him up, and pulled the blanket higher. "Your half-asleep voice is really hot, just fyi."
Tara draped herself half over him, arranged her limbs to cover any scars still visible above the comforter. Amy did the same, turning so that she could get all their faces in the frame, made a happy sound when Bruce wrapped an arm around her. He opened his eyes in time for her to catch them in the picture, before she brought the phone closer to check that it met her standards. He rose up enough to rest his chin on her shoulder and look at it.
"It looks like you murdered me and you're posing with my corpse."
"You don't look dead," Amy said. "Just grumpy."
"That's because no one should be taking selfies this early."
"If someone hadn't gotten up in the middle of the night," Tara suggested, "maybe he wouldn't be so grumpy."
"No amount of sleep can stop me from being grumpy."
Amy laughed. "Sleepover at Bruce's," she read aloud as she typed up her caption. "We stayed up all night painting our nails and talking about boys and cuddling. Hashtag: girl's night in."
"That's a horrible hashtag," he said, reclaiming his limbs so he could rise up on his elbows and stretch out aching muscles. "And no one is going to believe you."
"That's what makes it fun," Tara said, kneading her fingers up his spine in a way that made him drop his face back into the pillow. "Maybe that's your dark secret. You've never actually had sex, you just love cuddlepiles and people make assumptions."
"Don't tell anyone."
"I did get your nails in the picture," Amy added. "They'll know for sure that's true." Bruce squinted at the glittery hot pink currently adorning his fingertips.
"I forgot I let you do that," he sighed.
"You should keep those for your presentation," Tara said, rolling her thumbs along knots in his back.
"You think they'll help me establish dominance?"
She giggled. "Yes. A man who will match his nails to his hot pink tie is not a man to fuck with."
"… you might actually be right. I know I have a pink tie, I don't know if I have hot pink."
"You can borrow mine," Amy said. "Do you have any extra clothes? I don't want to walk around naked and scandalize Alfred."
"I guarantee you he wouldn't mind. The real trouble is that neither would Dick. Do you want spare clothes or were you hoping to steal some of mine?"
"Ooooh." Tara was so intrigued she stopped her impromptu massage, but Bruce made a discontented noise that prompted her to resume. It was a little too much like trying to stop petting a cat. "I want us to really blatantly leave your house wearing your shirts. I want to be on TMZ."
Bruce waved toward a door, still laying down. "The door to the closet is in the bathroom. We keep women's stuff in one of the guest rooms. Go to town."
"You're going to leave us unsupervised?" Amy teased. "What if we take your most expensive shirts?"
Bruce's snort was a humorless sort of amusement. "I have more money than God."
"Does God have a lot of money?" Tara asked.
"No. He's not a capitalist. That's the other guy."
"Do you have more money than the devil?"
"Not yet, but I'm working on it. That's what the violin is for. Go put something on so I can have Alfred bring up breakfast."
"No," Amy said, sitting up. "As long as we're already naked in bed, we want to have sex." She paused. "With you," she added, in case he'd thought they were asking him to leave.
"We decided that while you were sleeping," Tara confirmed.
Bruce blinked. He got up on his elbows just enough to raise an eyebrow at Amy. She looked completely serene and just as serious.
"… I just woke up," he said, faintly offended that they would expect so much of him under such difficult circumstances.
"Don't be a baby," Amy scolded.
Bruce sighed. He rolled onto his back, ran his fingers through his hair as he considered the ceiling. "Fine," he said, "but I get to keep laying here and you two have to figure out the logistics. And try not to hit the..." He gestured vaguely to the bruise on his side.
"You're so lazy," Tara said, her hands already wandering.
"Yeah," he agreed, rubbing at his forehead with a yawn. "That's the whole point of — hnnn — being rich."
Chapter 6: Fourteen Years Later
"Mr. Wayne?" Bruce looked up from where he was trying to collect some of the mountain of torn wrapping paper that had overwhelmed the dining room. The tiny voice had come from a tiny girl in a hooded sweatshirt too big for her.
Alexandria Green: Jane's niece, about Dick's age, quiet, small for her age. Worked as a children's clothing model for department stores. Got Dick some kind of necklace from Japan from a show Bruce had never heard of. Dick had been very enthusiastic about it.
"Miss Green," he said, because little girls generally appreciated being addressed like equals. "Were you looking for something?"
She hesitated, then shook her head.
"... ah." He looked down at the trash bag in his hand, the paper and cardboard all around his feet. "Did you want to help me with this?" he suggested.
After a moment, she came further into the room and bent down to pick up bits of paper. He resumed what he'd been doing, and let her help him in silence. She moved very carefully, and Bruce couldn't quite pinpoint exactly what it was that was off about it. Not like she was hurt, he would have recognized that. He held the bag open so she could drop an armful of paper into it.
There was something in her pocket. That was what it was. He didn't know what, but she thought it was delicate. He frowned. He didn't think he could get away with asking about it. There was a stray bit of cardstock on the floor amidst torn-up plastic, and he tossed it into the bag.
"That's not trash."
He looked up. "What?"
She pointed at the trash bag. "The card you just threw away. You're supposed to keep that."
He looked down into the bag, reached in and retrieved it. "This thing?" It had looked like one of those little cardboard backs they stuck in plastic clamshell packages.
"It's a trading card," she said. "Some of the cards the minifigs come with are exclusives. That's why you buy them."
He squinted suspiciously at the card. He had no idea what a minifig was. "You don't just buy it for the toy?"
"Sometimes? But you usually don't get an exclusive the first time, so you have to buy it again." This was possibly the most animated she had looked all day. "There's this one guy that's like a weird gross eye thing that's super stupid looking, but I have sixteen of them because I was trying to get the ultra-rare."
"That... sounds very wasteful."
She shrugged. "If I ever meet someone who likes that guy I can trade."
"Huh." Bruce held out the card. "So Dick would have been pretty mad if I'd thrown this out?"
She came closer so that she could take the card and look at it. On seeing it better, she looked exasperated. "Uh, yeah. Even I don't have this one yet. Everyone's trying to get it before they get banned from tournaments."
"Oh." He scratched his head. "Did you want it?"
She scoffed. "I'm not going to steal Dick's ultra-rare on his birthday," she said as she handed it back. "He'd know it was me, anyway."
The card still looked suspiciously like trash to Bruce, but he set it down on the table and made a note to double-check all future garbage.
"If I show you something, can you keep a secret?"
That was probably on the top-ten list of horrifying questions to be asked by a fourteen year-old. "I can try," he said, "but I'm pretty bad at it."
Alexandria gnawed her lip, but seemed to decide this was good enough. She reached into her pocket, and carefully extracted... a kitten. A black ball of kitten small enough to fit into one of her hands. "I found it out by the woods," she explained. Alfred was supposed to have been keeping the kids safely herded into open lawn areas. "It was meowing a lot, and it let me pick it up and it stopped meowing but when I tried to put it back it started meowing again. Do you think it's okay?"
Bruce raked his fingers through his hair as she looked up anxiously at him. Then he rolled his sleeves up with a sigh, and scooped the tiny fluff out of her hand. It gave a startled mew before sniffing clumsily at his fingers. Its ribs and spine were both visible even through its fur, body small enough to make its head look disproportionately large. It had probably been alone a while, living off bugs if it ate anything at all. He held it against his chest to help it feel more secure. "I think we should take this to the kitchen and see if it will eat."
"I know I shouldn't have been keeping it in my pocket," she said as she followed him, "but I didn't know what else to do with it and I thought it would be okay."
"It's okay. The important thing was to keep it warm, and you did that."
"Where do you think it came from? Do you think it got lost?"
"There's a lot of feral cats around here," he explained. "Usually Dick's the one finding kittens."
"So it'll be okay?"
"I've seen worse."
"Do you think its mom died?"
She'd probably abandoned it as runt of the litter, to focus on kittens more likely to survive. That didn't seem like something he should tell her, though. "Maybe," he said, which was not technically a lie. "Do you want to open up that bottom drawer and get the blue thing out of it?" he asked, nodding toward the drawer in question.
Alexandria knelt down immediately and tugged it open. "What is it?"
"Set it out flat on the counter. It's a heating pad. It used to be Alfred's."
"Whose is it now?" she asked, standing on her toes to plug it into the back wall.
"Right now? This guy's." Bruce carefully set the kitten down on top of it, but immediately it started mewing again, surprisingly noisy for its size. Alexandria started to gently pet it to try and quiet it, and Bruce left her to it as he dug around to find a can of cat food. Which they didn't used to keep on hand, but Dick had a real knack for finding kittens. It was not Bruce's favorite hobby. "Why are we supposed to be keeping it a secret?" he asked her.
She pursed her lips in petulant thought, still petting the tiny cat and trying to get it to stay still. "I want to keep it."
"Your mom doesn't like cats?"
She shrugged. "I dunno. I live with Dad now. He doesn't like pets."
He could have sworn she was living with Jane's sister. "You think you can take care of it without him knowing?" He tried to sound supportive instead of disapproving. He was using a fork to try and break soft food up into something even softer, a saucer small enough that it wouldn't overwhelm the kitten.
"I think so." She sounded very sure of herself. "I'd only have to hide her when Dad's home. I can buy food and litter and stuff when I go to the store."
"Want to feed her?" Bruce asked, offering Alexandria the saucer. She took it cautiously, and tried to offer some food on the tines of the fork. The kitten ate it so ferociously that it bit the metal, immediately trying to climb onto Alexandria to get the dish. When she set it down, it climbed into it as it ate.
"It's so messy," she said.
"Kittens are messy," Bruce said. "Why don't you leave her with Jane? You're at her house a lot, right?"
Alexandria frowned, still watching the cat. "She's busy," she said. "With work, and stuff. And she has a nice house. She wouldn't want a cat."
"You could still ask her," he said. "You might be surprised."
"Maybe." She turned her face towards him, but her eyes lingered on his arm. He looked down to see what had caught her attention. Four slender scars along the inside of his forearm, still relatively new; automatically he started rolling his sleeves back down to cover it.
"I'm clumsy sometimes. It's nothing to worry about." They'd fade, eventually; they all did. Some were harder to explain than others.
"My friend taught me this thing," she said, reaching down to pull the sleeve of her hoodie up. "You use markers to draw butterflies instead, and it helps." She showed it to him, round-winged little butterflies inked onto her skin, not disguising the raised lines of scar tissue criss-crossing all down the skinny limb.
"It really does help," she added. "You should try it." Something twisted in his chest. "I won't tell," she reassured him as she pulled her sleeve back down, stuck her thumb back through the hole she'd cut into it. She held out her pinky finger, until he slowly hooked his own on it. "Pinky swear."
Carefully, he pulled her a little bit closer, leaned down and pressed a kiss to the top of her head. It was the best he could do. It didn't feel like enough. It took a few seconds too long to work words around the lump in his throat. "Thank you."