"Yes, Mr. Wayne?"
Bruce rubbed at the bridge of his nose. "First of all," he said, "if you're trying to convince me you haven't done anything wrong, don't call me Mr. Wayne. Now I'm going to think you're full of shit no matter what you say."
Jason frowned. "I was trying to work the precocious angle."
"The precocious angle only works on people you don't know."
"Jason, please explain to me why there's a herd of millenials traipsing through my property."
Jason looked over his shoulder. "Public outreach program," he said, very convincing except for the part where it was bullshit.
Someone in the herd screeched. "There's a Lapras by the duck pond!"
As one, they ran toward the unassuming water feature.
Bruce sighed. "Are you charging people to catch Pokemon in the backyard?"
"There are a lot of rares up here," Jason said, having pivoted easily from denial to nonchalance. Straight from 'why would I do that' to 'why would I deny it' without the slightest sign of whiplash.
"You know we live in a mansion, right?"
"No one would pay if we lived in a suburb," Jason said, as if Bruce were the one being absurd with the observation.
"A mansion," Bruce repeated. "Because I'm rich."
"Yeah," Jason shrugged, acknowledgment without understanding.
"If you need money, you can ask for it."
"What would I need money for?" Jason asked, and Bruce sighed again, hands in his pockets.
"You don't need to grift people," Bruce said, spelling it out.
Jason frowned. "I don't follow."
"I'm a billionaire."
"I gave you a credit card with a five-digit daily limit."
"Parting fools from their money is unnecessary."
"You lost me."
Bruce rubbed the bridge of his nose again. "At least tell me you didn't charge the little girl," he said, gesturing toward a small child furiously running around the legs of adults as she tried to find something good.
Jason made a face. "No. It's a sliding scale."
"Do I want to know where the scale tops out?"
Jason pointed. "See the guy with the moustache-print fedora?"
"I would prefer to go back to simpler times when I had not."
"I charged him fifty bucks."
After a moment's silence, Bruce nearly clapped a hand onto Jason's shoulder. He stopped himself, hand in the air, never touching him. The intent was conveyed enough for Bruce to put his hands back in his pockets. Jason relaxed. "There's all different kinds of justice," Bruce said seriously, gaze distant. Jason nodded. "Have these people gone in the next ten minutes or I'm releasing the hounds."
"You don't have hounds," Jason said as Bruce headed back toward the house.
"You don't know that for sure," Bruce called back without looking.
Jason's brow furrowed, looking thoughtfully at nothing. "I'd know if he had hounds," he said finally, to no one. "Right?"
Chapter 2: Hey Ladies
Gratitude galas for the Justice League were an ideal time for supervillainous plots, and so the assembled members should have been on high alert.
Should have been.
It was Diana who’d started it. Without a secret identity, she wasn’t obligated to wear her costume. She’d worn something white that draped and flowed in a Grecian cut, her preferred formal attire. Gold bands to draw the eye to her biceps. A slit down the side to show off the musculature of her thighs. Heels that put her at an even six feet, flowers in her hair.
It was gratuitous, was what it was.
Black Canary thought she looked fantastic. So did Lois Lane, there with the Daily Planet. And Vicki Vale, there with the Gotham Gazette. And Rachel Dawes, there on behalf of Gotham’s district attorney. And Selina Kyle, who’d come specifically to see Diana, or so she claimed.
Once the models showed up, it got harder to keep track of who was who.
Batman watched the tableau from a far corner.
“I take it Bats is jealous?” Green Lantern asked Superman with a nudge of his elbow. Superman was mostly watching Lois. Who Diana had convinced to allow her to lift up onto one shoulder. The other shoulder held Selina. Diana turned with both arms curled to show off her back.
“No,” Superman said, only half paying attention to anything but Lois. “I think he’s trying to figure out if she did it on purpose.”
“Picked out all the women in the room that he’d slept with.”
Diana bent to say something in the ear of the woman on the cover of the latest Victoria’s Secret catalogue, who giggled.
“Very funny,” Green Lantern said. He looked at the small crowd of women. He looked at Batman. He looked back in time to see Selina wave toward Batman, who did not react at all. “That’s — you’re kidding. Right? That was a joke.” He looked at Black Canary. “Batman?”
“I don’t think he was wearing the mask at the time, if that’s what you’re asking.” Superman made a face. “I hope.”
Green Lantern looked at Batman. He looked at the crowd of women. He recognized at least one former Playboy bunny.
“Is Batman’s secret identity… a slut?” Hal asked.
Superman patted him gently on the back. “I’m sorry you had to find out this way.”
Martian Manhunter came up beside them holding a glass of champagne. “There are worse ways,” he said. Then he downed the entire flute, and left without another word.
Chapter 3: The Trouble with Turtles
Adia inspected an animal enclosure with narrowed eyes. "I'm going to find an animal you like if it kills me," she declared.
"That seems excessive." Bruce stood near the register, out of the way of the women exploring the store.
"What about chinchillas?" Yvonne suggested.
"They have people hands."
"Is that a no?"
"People hands are for people."
"What about a guinea pig?" suggested Cora.
"What is your pig obsession. No. People hands and people mouths. The objectively worst rodent."
"Ferrets," threw out Yvonne, though there were none in the store.
"Ambulatory tube socks."
"These all seem really high-maintenance," Adia admitted with a sigh.
"They're living things and you can barely take care of yourself." Bruce tilted his head to look at Rex behind the counter. "Don't sell her anything."
"You got it, little dude."
"I'm taller than you."
Rex shrugged. His ponytail, a smoky gray, was halfway down his back.
"What's the cactus of animals?" Yvonne asked.
"Adia killed her cactus," Bruce reminded her.
"I didn't know you were supposed to water them!" Adia protested. "I thought that was, like. The whole point."
"You're not helping your case."
"What about a turtle?" asked Cora.
"Yeah!" Adia touched the shell of a turtle in an interactive enclosure. "What about this turtle?"
"I hate it."
"No you don't," Adia scoffed.
"You can't tell me what to hate."
"Why would you hate him?"
"Its ribcage is on the outside. It's unnatural."
"It's perfectly natural for a turtle!"
"That's what they want you to think. It's obscene."
"It's a harmless shellbaby."
"It's a menace to society."
Adia huffed, retreating toward Cora and Yvonne to regroup.
"Since when do you hate turtles?" Rex asked.
"Since just now."
"You still got a real weird stubborn streak, little dude," Rex said with a shake of his head, coming out from behind the counter. "I know what'll cheer you up."
"I'm already extremely cheerful."
"Uh-huh." Rex pulled a rosy boa gently out of her tank, 32 inches long and striped orange and white. "Guess who's here to see you, Alice?"
"Don't wake her up on my account."
"You know she'll never forgive me if I let you leave without a kiss."
Bruce held out a hand obligingly, and Alice slid around his fingers. He held her up to his face, and she darted her tongue at his nose. "Hello, Alice." She stretched out toward the collar of his shirt. "I see you're as forward as ever."
"Turtles are a menace, but snakes are fine?" Yvonne teased.
"Alice is a fine young lady. Comparisons to turtles are uncalled for." Alice had wrapped around the back of his neck beneath his shirt. "You know," he said to Rex, "if you really wanted to cheer me up, you'd let Monty out for a walk."
"Bring some male models next time and I'll think about it."
Chapter 4: Davos
“Has anyone ever told you you’re kind of a baby?” Bruce asked.
“I’m hardly the one being immature, here,” Lex said, trying to repress frustration. The same old irritant, men thinking themselves his equal for nothing more than charisma. As if charm had anything to do with the measure of a man.
“No, that’s not what I meant. I mean you look like a baby. A giant, angry baby. Like someone photoshopped a baby head onto a suit.”
Chapter 5: Francis
"What is that?"
Superman followed the direction of Batman's gaze. A crow had landed on the rooftop beside them, and dropped a bottlecap near Superman's feet. "Oh! Hey Francis. Is that for me?"
"Caw," said Francis.
"Do you have a pet crow?" Batman asked.
"No, I don't have pets," Superman said as he bent down to retrieve the bottlecap.
"You named it."
"Not this specific one," Superman explained. "I just call all the crows Francis."
"Caw, caw," said Francis with a flap of its wings.
"I don't know. Just calling them 'crow' felt rude after a while. I'd name them individually but I can't actually tell them apart. Except for Old Francis and One-Eyed Francis." Superman tucked the bottlecap into a small pocket on the back of his pants.
Superman shrugged. "It's gender neutral. I don't want to misgender them just because they're birds."
"Of course you don't," Batman sighed, looking back out at Metropolis.
"Caw," Francis added.
"Do you keep dog treats in your utility belt?" Superman asked.
"Why would I do that."
"... in case you meet a dog that needs to know he's a good boy?" Superman suggested. Batman shook his head, but opened a small pouch on his belt and held out a small treat. "See, it was a yes or no question, I don't know why everything has to be such a production with you," Superman said as he took it. He tossed it over by the bird's feet. "Here you are, Francis. Keep up the good work."
"Caw, caw," Francis said. When it realized no more treats were forthcoming, it flew away in a flutter of black wings.
"You're unbelievable," Batman said, shaking his head again.
Superman took his eyes off the departing crow to look back at Batman, and frowned. "You know," he said, "it's really weird seeing you in costume during the day."
"It's like seeing your teacher at the mall."
"Don't think I won't take care of Poison Ivy without your help, if I have to."
Superman shrugged. "I'm just saying."
Chapter 6: Rise of the Weedhorse
"Kyle?" Jimmy Olsen stared, incredulous, at his long-distance boyfriend. Who was standing outside of his apartment. Which was a short distance. His dog sniffed cautiously at Kyle's shoes. "What are you doing here?"
"I — I wanted to come see you, you were the first person I wanted to see," Kyle said, and he sounded a little out of breath. "Can I come in?"
"Yeah, of course." Jimmy stood out of the way so that Kyle could walk past him, shut the door behind him. Kay trotted after Kyle on stumpy little legs. Jimmy wasn't thrilled that he hadn't been given a chance to clean his apartment, but it wasn't like he was unhappy to see his boyfriend. "You weren't supposed to be out here until November, what happened?"
"That's the thing, I flew." Kyle ignored the fluffy sausage trying to climb his leg.
"Well, yeah, I didn't think you'd walked."
"No, I mean I flew. Like, really flew. Like Superman. Or Wonder Woman." The dog gave up, and climbed onto the coffee table to jump on the couch. It watched them both reproachfully.
"Wait, what?" Jimmy frowned. "Why would you be able to fly? You don't have powers."
"I got a — here, I'll just, um." Kyle looked down at himself. "Do I really need to do the whole — I just want to show my boyfriend, I shouldn't have to do the whole thing."
Jimmy was beginning to feel worried. More worried than he'd already been. "What whole thing?"
Kyle sighed. "Inbrightestdayinblackestnightnoevilshallescapemysightletthosewhoworshipevil'smightbewaremypowergreenlantern'slight," he said, all in on great woosh of breath much quieter than it was meant to have been. Then green light wrapped around him, and—
"Holy shit," Jimmy said. On the couch, Kay had covered his eyes with his paws.
"Right?" Kyle said.
"You're Green Lantern?"
"I guess?" Kyle said with a helpless spread of his hands.
Jimmy frowned. "You guess?"
"I don't know! Today has been weird! There was a ring, and a guy with a silly moustache, and he broke my Cintiq and I kind of lost my shit at that point, and actually I'm still not over that and the flying is great but I don't think being a Green Lantern pays well—"
Kay barked. Jimmy put his hands on Kyle's shoulders. "Kyle. Calm down."
"I'm calm!" He was not calm.
"Your costume looks really cool," Jimmy said in an attempt to distract him.
"Does it?" He looked down at himself again. "I know I'm always falling back on the boots but I think they're a really good look."
"The mask isn't too much? I'd tone it down but I think the ring just kind of does what it knows I want. Even when it's a bit much, probably, because everyone else just does the little domino mask and this is just like—"
Jimmy cut him off by kissing his cheek. "Kyle. You look great."
Kyle ran a hand through his hair. "Thanks."
"And it's not like we've ever seen the other Green Lanterns put the costume on. For all we know, they all do the Sailor Moon ribbon thing."
Kyle started to turn red. He crossed his arms over his chest. "It did that on its own," he muttered.
"I believe you."
"I wanted something much cooler."
"It's still pretty cool."
"It's an iconic transformation sequence."
"I haven't seen you in months," Jimmy reminded him. "Were you planning to just stand here looking hot, or...?"
"I didn't really have a plan," Kyle admitted.
"It just seems like it's been ten minutes and you haven't kissed me yet."
"Oh! Well, I mean — should I take the costume off?"
Jimmy opened his mouth, then shut it again. He tapped his chin thoughtfully. "You know," he said, "how about you just leave it for now and we see how it goes."
Chapter 7: Weedhorse's Revenge
“Obviously you aren’t obligated to join the League, but we’d be happy to have you.”
Kyle was going to die. He did not, despite the obvious facts, consider himself to be possessed of great will. It did not occur to him that the fact that he could make himself stand there and pretend to be casual spoke volumes.
“I’ll have to think about it,” he said, hoping that his voice didn’t shake, turning down the thing he would have liked most in the world. “I’m a pretty private person.”
Superman considered this. “That’s fair,” he said, “but maybe I should mention that the League doesn’t require you to disclose your civilian identity.”
“It doesn’t?” Shit. He shouldn’t have sounded so excited.
“No. Some people choose to disclose to close friends, but it isn’t on file and no one has to share anything they’re not comfortable with.”
“Oh.” Maybe… maybe no one would have to know. Maybe he could do this. “I’ll still have to think about it,” he said, even as he made up his mind, “but I am very interested.” Superman smiled, suddenly, and even though he had been nothing but kind Kyle was terrified. “What? Did I say something funny?”
“No, no, you’re fine,” Superman assured him. “Usually Green Lanterns are a little more candid, is all. There’s nothing wrong with it.”
“I, uh.” Kyle faltered. “It’s not that I have anything to hide. It’s just… before I got the ring, I… did some things I’m not proud of.” Superman nodded in a manner warily sympathetic. “Things are different now, though. Very different.”
“I believe you,” Superman said, and it was absolutely killing him how nice he was. He was so nice. Kyle’s only saving grace was that he was wearing the classic costume. “The ring chose you, that’s all I need to know.”
Oh, god. Superman thought he had reformed from a life of crime.
He wasn’t entirely wrong. Right? Right. This was fine. Everything was fine. Kyle would join the League and never tell anyone his name and no one would ever know the depth of his sins and he would meet Batman and that would end well.
… he needed to go find Jimmy immediately.
Chapter 8: Gossip
There were responsible ways to deal with being bored during League debriefs. Rather than do any of them, Diana adjusted her legs so that her knee touched Batman's. A ragged tear in his suit meant that it was skin-to-skin contact.
She reached out tentatively.
Black Canary's hair looks cute today, she ventured, an idle thought to share. She was careful not to go searching for any answers he did not give. She expected him to say nothing, and break contact.
Doesn't matter, came his answer, so terse a dismissal it almost startled her. He didn't move his leg. It seemed unlike him, but this form of communication did tend to be more honest.
How unfortunate, to imagine this was what he thought of their occasional conversations.
I'm sure she put a lot of work into it, Diana tried again. The bright blonde locks had been curled into ringlets before being drawn up into a ponytail.
Not for me.
She frowned. That doesn't mean you can't appreciate it.
Don't need to.
You're being awfully rude.
If I'd gone through such trouble, I'd want you to notice.
Not for me.
It will be, Diana decided. I'll do my hair just like that, to spite you, and it will be the cutest.
Batman said nothing. Then he leaned back just a little, only enough to see where their knees touched. He glanced at Diana, then away. Was that you? he asked finally.
Of course, she said.
How long have we been having a conversation? he asked.
Since I pointed out the cuteness of Black Canary's coiffure? she said. Batman did not respond. What did you think was happening?
She tried to look at his face sidelong, though she didn't know why. Looking at him directly would make it no easier to decipher his minimal expressions. Do your intrusive thoughts often sound like me making observations about other women?
Can you two keep it down? asked J'onn. Some of us are trying to pay attention.
No you're not, Diana accused. You just heard gossip and wanted in.
We're not gossiping, Batman said. Don't make me break truce.
I had also noticed Black Canary's hair, J'onn said, ignoring Batman.
Isn't it cute? Diana asked.
Do you think I could pull it off? J'onn asked.
Batman had a sudden coughing fit.
Chapter 9: The Devil
Thomas slammed the paper down on the TA's desk. She did not look up from where she was painting her nails.
"This," he snarled, "is unacceptable."
She took her time putting the lid of the polish back on the bottle, opening the desk and one-by-one putting her various manicure tools away. He waited, fuming all the while. If she thought the wait would cool his temper, she was mistaken.
Finally, Ms. Kane picked up the folder of carefully typewritten pages. She considered the very large, very red curl of a C- in her handwriting on the front. She riffled through the pages one-handed, littered through with yet more loops of red. "It's certainly not good," she agreed finally, setting his paper back down, "but it is a passing grade." She deigned to look at him for the first time, eyes green as poison beneath the heavy fringe of her lashes. "You know what they say," she said, holding her nails at a careful angle to keep them safe as they dried. "C's get degrees."
"This is not a C paper," he snapped, hitting the desk again with the heel of his hand. He was leaning dangerously forward. She was unmoved.
"No," she agreed with a flutter of her eyelashes, "it isn't." She tapped the big red letter with a dry fingernail. "It's a C minus paper."
"Bullshit." Her pens rattled. She glanced, briefly, at the white-knuckled fist on her desk. It was a glance heavy with bemused disdain. She arched an eyebrow at him. "This paper is worth a B plus," he said. "Minimum."
"If it was worth a B plus," she said, as if with infinite patience, "you would have a B plus. Ergo—"
"What's wrong with it, then?" he interrupted. "Which part of this paper failed to meet the standards on the rubric?"
She said nothing for a long moment, as if waiting for something. When it did not come, she reached out, and flipped open the folder to the first page. She pointed to the first of many red paragraphs. "If you start here," she suggested, "and read all of the red bits, right to the very end, you may just find the answer you're looking for."
"This doesn't explain a C minus," he said, jabbing a finger at the notes. "This is pedantry."
"It's a logic class," she reminded him. "Pedantry is the point." She popped her Ps aggressively.
"I know exactly what this is," he said.
"You don't like me."
"Don't say it like it makes you special, dear."
"You haven't liked me since Delaney's class freshman year, you've hated me ever since I beat you fencing—"
"I've done you the great kindness of overlooking your consistent and egregious failures to play by the rules," she interrupted, "but this is poor sportsmanship."
"—and you're mad," he finished, "because I'm better than you—"
"—and you know it. And no red pen, or stupid fake accent, is going to fix that."
There was an impish twist to her mouth as he finished this tirade. "You've caught me," she said, with a playful wrinkle of her nose. "There's a dastardly conspiracy amongst those of us not raised to broadcast English, to insert structural flaws into your arguments to make them look bad." He did not respond to this, his mouth a thin line, brows drawn. "However: regardless of how much joy it brings you to make me watch as you lavish affection upon your own diction, I will be needing to meet with other students today."
"You shouldn't even be teaching this class," he accused. "You're an undergrad."
"I grade no more harshly than Simmons," she countered, "and he did not give such helpful notes. If you're thinking about going to him for support, you're likely to leave his office with a D."
"I am aware of his grading policies," he bit through his teeth.
"Are you aware that he's given out a single, solitary A in the entire course of his tenure? Would you like to see what an A looks like?" She reached into her desk without waiting for an answer, and dropped a thick, spiral-bound stack onto her desk. "It would have been an A plus," she explained, opening it, "but he thought the more interactive visual aids constituted passive-aggressive sass, and docked my grade accordingly."
Paper shapes stuck up out of the page, creating a three-dimensional chart. He stared at it.
"Regardless," she continued, shutting it again, "Professor Simmons would not have given me control of this class if he did not trust my judgment implicitly, and he is unlikely to find your verbal arguments any more compelling than I found your written ones."
Thomas was silent for a long moment.
"I put a lot of work into this," he said finally, slowly. "I came to every lecture, I did every reading, I. I did well on every test."
"Oh dear," she said, with an affected pout not meant to be endearing. "Did you think I couldn't tell? Did you think it wasn't obvious that you put your whole heart and soul into this thing? That you did your very, very best?" Her smile was faint and patronizing. "You've misunderstood the problem. The problem isn't that you didn't do your best. The problem is that your best isn't good enough."
The tension in his jaw was nearly enough to crack a molar.
"Though actually," she continued, with a small and thoughtful frown, "I suppose a C minus means your best is just barely good enough. Just as badly as a person can do without failing. I suppose you've heard that joke, what do you call someone who barely passes med school?"
"Fuck you." His leg had developed a sort of jitter, not quite bouncing.
"Doctor," she corrected. "The punchline is doctor. It's funny because it's true."
"I cannot get a — a C in this class."
"You can, and you are."
"I — I can do extra credit work."
"There is no extra credit work."
He hit her desk again. She reacted no more than she had to prior displays. She cocked her head to the side to watch as he struggled for words.
"I—I—I c—could have you fired," he managed finally. "Expelled, y—your—your scholarship, I could—"
"Yes, I believe I get the idea," she interrupted. "I was wondering when we'd get to this part, you may of course have me removed from your presence as suits you. Just call up Daddy and let him know that a girl was mean to you."
Thomas was white-knuckled again. He didn't try to speak.
Ms. Kane leaned forward, lacing her fingers together. Her elbows didn't touch the top of the desk. "Would you like me to predict your future, Tommy?" she teased.
He said nothing.
"You're going to graduate," she informed him, "and you're going to do your very best, and even when it's good enough, it isn't going to be good enough. You will live a perfectly acceptable life, and marry a perfectly acceptable woman, and you will never know what real failure even looks like. You'll feel terribly unfulfilled, and neither your second nor third marriage will fix it. You have been given every possible advantage, and you will use them to maintain a comfortable mediocrity, assuming all the while that it's simply how things are, because when anything threatened to be difficult you threw a tantrum until it went away. You will live your life as if it is your goal to be a footnote in someone else's biography."
"Not special like you," he taunted, too shaky to be a sneer, his limbs like rubber bands ready to snap.
"Oh, it's cute that you think I'd want to be." She leaned back. "I will be doing... whatever I'd like." She shrugged. "Because what I lack in natural-born advantages, I make up for in being as good at everything as you wish you could be at anything." She picked up the receiver on the desk phone, and offered it to him. "Would you like to call your father now?" she asked. "Or do you have some sort of special line that let's him know when you're having a mean girl emergency?"
After a long moment, Thomas grabbed his paper. Halfway out the door, he flung it into the trash bin.
"Wayne," she barked, and he froze immediately, stopped in place by the force of the order. "Turn around."
Slowly, fists at his sides, he did so.
"Do you think I enjoy wasting my time?" she demanded. "Do you think that it was some trivial thing, reading and rereading to try and pinpoint what was salvageable in that paper of yours? I did you a favor. I may not be able to blame you for wanting to put your work where it belongs, but those pages are more red ink than black, and you will show the appropriate gratitude."
Thomas bent, and picked up the folder from the top of the bin, bent and wrinkled though it was.
"And what do you say when you're grateful?" she asked.
"Thank you," he said, barely more than a hoarse whisper.
She regarded him in silence; he allowed her to do so. "Good boy," she said finally. "You may go."
Chapter 10: Layers
"I'm telling you," Tim insisted, "this is basically a movie about you. I really think you'll like it."
"So tell me what it is." Bruce didn't look up from his laptop, still typing at something like 80 words per minute.
Tim was sitting backwards in an office chair with his legs hooked through the arm rests. He was trying to find a good balance between rolling and spinning. Neither was good for the hardwood. "If you know the title, it'll bias you."
"I'm serious. Look. It's about this guy. People think he's a jerk, but deep down he's a really nice guy. His neighborhood isn't the best place, but he likes it and he cares about it and he appreciates the, you know, the solitude. A bunch of people with all sorts of weird powers and stuff start moving in, so he—"
"I'm going to stop you right there," Bruce interrupted. He clicked something and stopped typing. "You've clearly put a lot of thought into this, but I'm not watching Shrek with you."
"But I was so careful!" Tim protested, hitting his head against the back of the chair in anguish. "How did you know?"
"Because you have a bizarre fixation on a movie that came out before you were even born."
"I do not!"
"You tried to hide a cardboard standee in the Batcave."
"How much did that even cost."
"You can't put a price on memories, Bruce."
Chapter 11: The Devil, cont.
Martha frowned. The voice cut very neatly through the din, but made its way less neatly through her brain, because at that point the din was the more orderly of the two. She looked up from her conversation — and up, and up, because the voice was terribly inconsiderate and coming from far too high.
"Wayne," she greeted, taking a certain amount of pleasure in how unhappy he looked to see her there. She hadn't been aware that it was his fraternity, but it was hardly a surprise. Of course he'd be in a fraternity. Of course it would be this one. She took another sip of sickly-sweet wine cooler, and behaved for all the world as if she belonged there.
"You shouldn't be here," he said.
"She's fine," said Gene, but Thomas silenced him with a look. It was a very silencing sort of a look.
"I'm quite fine," Martha agreed, not at all silenced. She took a drag from her cigarette, exhaled smoke through her nostrils.
"You're wasted," he said, and he took the cup from her hand before she could stop him. This was not saying much. Her reflexes were not what they could have been. "Do you live on campus?"
"Where I live is none of your business," she said with a lofty tilt of her nose.
"Fine," he said, her drink abandoned on a side table. He bent down, and hooked an arm around her waist, another under her knees. Her indignant protest turned into an equally indignant shriek as he picked her up to throw her over his shoulder.
"Put me down."
"Bye, Martha," Gene said with a wave of his fingers as Thomas carried her out of the house.
"I insist that you put me down immediately."
"There aren't that many vowels in the word 'immediately'."
She kneed him in the ribs as best she could. He stumbled a little, with a grunt that seemed disproportionate to her ability, but soldiered on. "I'll put this out on you," she warned, though he couldn't see her holding her cigarette aloft behind him. The night air was cold, and her mouth trailed steam as her hand trailed smoke. She'd left her jacket inside. Thomas' shoes crunched in snow.
"This is entirely unnecessary." His arm was still hooked around her knees, and she was failing to find a graceful way to keep her head mostly-upright. She took a sullen drag of her cigarette. "Do you do this to all the girls, or am I just a special case?"
"You're not special." Streetlamps cast an orange light that didn't illuminate the trees.
"So you do this to all the girls?" She threw her lit cigarette butt into the middle of the street; the cherry glowed against the asphalt in the dark.
"You're lucky number thirteen."
She frowned. That wasn't what he was supposed to say. She wasn't quite sure what he was supposed to say. Something stupid. Instead her mental construction of the conversation had all collapsed. "Put me down," she said again. "I am perfectly capable of walking, thank you."
Finally, he stopped, and bent to let her heels touch the thin layer of snow on the pavement. She stumbled. His arm was conveniently positioned to let her steady herself. He wore a heavy sweater and no coat. She let him go, and tried to take another step. She missed the ground, though she wasn't sure how. He caught her by the shoulders. "Uh-huh." She was irritated by how smug he seemed to sound. The kind of smug that sounded irritable. The worst, and smuggest kind. "Do you live on campus, or should I get a car?"
"I'm not telling you where I live." The chill pricked at her forearms.
He made a sound of disgust. "So now you're worried about safety."
"I was perfectly safe."
"You were at a frat party, too wasted to walk."
"I was with Gene."
"At a frat party. Wasted."
"I'm aware," Thomas snapped. "Which I assume you knew, because otherwise you would have just outed him." His tone made it clear that he believed no such thing; it was a warning. She crossed her arms with a stubborn tilt to her jaw. "He doesn't like you as much as he wants everyone else to like him, and he is an enormous pushover. As you can see by the fact that you're here, with me, because he didn't even try to come with me to make sure you'd be okay."
Martha huffed a dramatic cloud of steam. She tried to push him, and instead nearly tipped backward. He caught her by the shoulders again. "That hardly signifies," she said. "You're you." She gestured vaguely at him, which required leaning back, which meant he had to keep her from tipping over again. "Your entire personality is predicted on convincing people of your unimpeachable goodness."
"I really thought that accent might slip when you were drunk, but instead it's just getting worse, wow. Are you going to let me carry you, or are you just going to keep stumbling in circles?"
"I don't need you to — to..." She ground to a halt as she lost track of her sentence. "I don't need you," she said instead, to give it closure.
"I don't have time for this." He scooped her up into his arms, and she responded by prodding him in the ribs. He winced, but didn't drop her. It irritated her that he actually looked both ways before crossing the empty street.
"Where exactly do you think you're taking me?"
"There's a hotel this way. If you won't let me take you home, you can sleep it off there."
"If you try anything," she informed him loftily, "I'll slit your throat."
"Good for you."
She rested her head against his chest, only because it was there. "Ooh!" She pointed to a nearby building as he cut through a parking lot. "Fried chicken, I want fried chicken."
"Get some in the morning."
She pulled in her arms to curl against him, only because he was warm and she didn't have her coat. "I want it now."
"You didn't even check."
"It's the middle of the night. Stop whining."
"I've never whined in my life. You're going through an awful lot of trouble, you know, for someone that's supposed to hate me."
"The fact that you think those things are mutually exclusive is why I don't like you," he said. No one looked askance as they entered the lobby, hitting a wall of warmth inside the door. He went straight to the elevator. "Despite what you seem to think, you're not the first person to tell me I'm going to spend the rest of my life a miserable failure, and you probably won't be the last. You're just the only one who needed to pretend to be psychic to do it." He set her down, and she braced herself against a rail as he hit the button to the top floor.
"You say that," she said, retrieving a metal case of cigarettes from her bra, "but you're angry." It ought to have been unwise to taunt him while they were trapped in an elevator together. She was at a marked disadvantage. Repeated attempts to work her lighter ended in failure, until the side of her thumb hurt from rolling the flint. "And I never said failure," she added. "I said mediocre."
"You meant failure. I have better shit I could be doing than babysitting an amoral bitch without a conscience." He got a soft pack out of his pocket, used his own lighter with ease, and so she leaned close to light her cigarette off the same flame. They breathed smoke at each other.
When the elevator stopped, he didn't pick her back up. She walked very slowly after him, one hand against the wall of the hallway. He unlocked a door, and left it open. It took her entirely too long to join him. She left a crooked trail of ashes along the carpet. He was gathering up a duffel bag of items strewn about the suite, his cigarette hanging off his lip.
"Is this your room?" He didn't answer, and kept packing. "I thought Daddy would have a house or five for you to stay in."
"He does." His cigarette managed to stay motionless as he spoke around it.
"Hm." She wobbled closer while he ignored her, shoving books into his bag. He was only packing enough for one night. He was planning to come back. Without warning, she grabbed the edge of his sweater and lifted it to look at his ribs. He knocked her hand away to fix it almost immediately.
Red and black and purple and yellow, criss-crossing hatchwork over dark and formless shapes.
"Christmas present?" she asked as he pulled his bag over his shoulder. He didn't respond. "Who from?"
"You." He took the wrist of her free hand, and pushed two sets of keys into her palm, curling her fingers around them. He took his cigarette out of his mouth, other hand still wrapped around hers. "Don't let anyone in. There's money on the desk for a cab in the morning. Happy New Year."
He shut the door quietly when he left. She leaned against the wall, and breathed smoke.
Chapter 12: Hollywood
All of the blinds and curtains had been closed. Finn tried to turn on his living room light, and frowned when it didn't work. He rocked the switch back and forth to no avail, squinting up at the ceiling.
Eyes started to glow in the far corner of the room.
He screeched and dropped his bag on the floor.
"... Bat... man...?" he asked finally. His answer was silence. "Are you... here about the show...? You're here about the show. We're — this is all above-the-board, legally speaking."
Batman stood. At least, that was what Finn assumed happened. The eyes moved from eye level to significantly above that.
"Also legalities aside I think we've done a good job of being as respectful as we can within a satirical context," he added hastily, backing toward the door. "And at this point it's out of my hands so I couldn't put a stop to production even if I wanted to. Which isn't to say that you couldn't find a way, because you're Batman, it would just be really nice if you didn't do that."
It took him a minute to realize that Batman had spoken, to register that they were words in a specific order with a specific meaning. "... convince...? You want the elevator pitch?" Finn wasn't getting a lot of useful feedback and he was trying really hard not to burst into fear tears and he didn't understand how anyone could possibly jaywalk in Gotham.
He took a deep breath. "Right. The elevator pitch. I can do that, no problem, not a problem." He clapped his hands together. "So it's a show about, uh, Batman — it's a show about you — not the real you, obviously, it's — I'm just going to say 'Batman', I think you probably get that I mean Batman as an idea and not — anyway." Finn cleared his throat, tried to swallow the lump in his way.
"The core of the idea is, uh, what if — what if Batman was just a guy. Some guy. No powers, none of, uh—" He flailed his arms into the darkness in an attempt to gesture at whichever part of it was Batman. "Just, you know, a guy. So our story is about, uh, he's a guy named Johnny Butler — we wanted to name him Johann, you know, for Die Fledermaus, but that seemed a little on-the-nose so we went with Johnny — and he's this blind guy, and he's an inventor! He invents, uh, this thing, and it lets him echolocate and he can see all this stuff other people can't see, and he makes this thing so he can fly, and, you know, other stuff. He lives in Gotham with all these crazy villains, so he decides he's going to use his inventions to fight them! Because, uh. He can? And Robin is this child prodigy who can talk to birds, he's sort of, he's the Marty and Johnny is Doc, or like Penny to Inspector Gadget. That's. That's the basics, basically. Is that okay so far?"
"Yeah! Yeah. It's, uh, because of Johann? I already told you that. And how, you know, a batman was like a kind of valet, like a butler, so we were trying to do sort of a pun thing? There's going to be a lot of puns. I mean, you probably saw the fake intro we made on YouTube? With the theme song? It's all going to be like that, with the retro aesthetic and camp and the cheesy effects, we're keeping all of that for the real show. I have this brother, my little brother, he's really into Batman, uh, you, he collects articles and stuff, and he's eight, and I wanted to make something that he could watch. So it's going to be kind of a show for kids, like a funny show — not making fun of you! I can show you a script, if you want."
"Yes! Yes sir, absolutely, not a problem, sure." He bent, and tried to dig through his bag in the dark. "I, uh — here, I think this is it." He offered a thick stack of paper to the darkness, which took it.
"Rowsdower's Revenge," the shadow read.
"Wrong script!" Finn said, snatching the script back. "Sorry, sorry, ignore that, sorry. Here, this one, I think this is the one." He handed off the other script. "I would turn on the light, but..."
Finn squinted, trying to make out a face in the dark. He would have thought that the light from those weird white eyes would have had more of an impact. But while there was definitely the pale lower half of a face, everything else was just a shape, darker than the rest of the room.
He could make out the sound of pages flipping. And another, different sound. A pen?
"Holy homicide, Batman." It wasn't quite a question.
"Yeah, it's, uh, kind of like a catchphrase? Thing?"
"Y... yeah. It's like — I mean, you have the batmobile and those batarangs — I don't know if you actually call them that, but, uh. We thought, you know, wouldn't it be funny if Batman just puts 'bat' in front of everything? As a joke."
"Batman and Robin consult the giant lighted lucite map of Gotham City, parentheses, labeled."
"Obviously you don't actually go around putting labels on everything, it just, uh." Trying to explain jokes to Batman was the most painful thing he had ever done in his entire life and he wanted to die.
"Johnny Butler is blind."
"The actor isn't blind."
"He... is not."
"He's — casting is — that's not really how we—"
"We're trying to get Rami Malek but he's been pretty busy but I'll make sure we get someone Egyptian because I can tell it's important to you."
"The theme song."
"We can get a new one!"
"No." Batman handed the script back, and Finn took it, hands shaking. "Robin likes it."
"He does? The, the na-na-na-na-na—"
Finn shut his mouth so fast his teeth clicked.
"I said Robin likes it."
"Right." He looked down at the script in his hands, or tried to. His eyes were adjusting, but still not enough. He brought the paper close to his face, squinting. Had Batman written notes on his script? It smelled like permanent marker. He could barely make out a few crossed out words. "You know, if Robin ever wanted to come by set after we start shooting, we could—"
The lights came on.
"Augh!" Finn shut his eyes, then blinked furiously. His apartment was empty and the window was open. He looked back down at the script, and flipped through it. The notes looked like they'd been left by a monk, taking a break from illuminating Bibles. They sat next to words crossed out and sometimes replaced, saying things like 'mental illness is not a joke' and 'don't use this word' and 'words with more plosives are inherently more humorous'. A note beside the description of Batman's lair mentioned a carefully labeled 'Historically Inaccurate But Well-Meaning Tyrannosaurus Rex'.
Finn hit the speed dial on his phone.
"Marco. Dude. You are not going to believe the notes I just got on this — okay, wait, first of all, we need to recast Batman. We need a blind guy. No, like a real blind guy. A tall one. Really tall. And Robin needs more screentime, we've got to curry favor with Robin. No, the real Robin. I have never been more serious. Making sure Robin likes this is going to be vital to not getting our asses kicked."
Chapter 13: Passive-Aggressive