The Lavender Menace stood silhouetted against the city, hands on their hips, chest thrust out to show off the improbably deep V-neck.
"Citizen! How may I be of assistance?"
They somersaulted down to the next level and hung one-handed from an overhead grate, toes pointing downward. Against the cloudy night sky, the outline all but glowed the ethereal purple of a just-blossoming bruise.
"Jesus fuck, you scared me!" The Rapparree, in her eighteenth-century breeches and cutaway coat, neckerchief and wide black mask, backed up against the wall.
"Sorry. Just practicing." Jaime dropped to the roof, then sprang to their feet and twirled. "What do you think?"
"Hell of a lot of purple."
"Well, yeah, that's the whole..." Jaime circled their right hand. "Theme."
"No, I get that." The Rapparree, better known as Nicole (she hadn't answered to Nicky since they were eleven), came closer, face scrunched up. "I say you look fabulous." She frowned, started to take a step back. "Can I say that? About you? Fabulous?"
"Idiot," Jaime said. They spun sideways, then kicked out, connecting with Nicole's elbow. At the hit, she stumbled and swore. "You can say anything you want."
Grinning, Nicole shook out her wrist. "Cool. Then I'm going to say, further, that your hits -- when you manage to land them -- still hurt like a motherfucker."
"You're too kind." Jaime bounced on their toes, taking deep breaths of the humid night air. The noise of the city throbbed in time with their pulse.
"Glad you're back, you know that?"
"Yeah," Jaime said. Nicole was smiling at them, a real, private smile, nothing like the Rapparree's brash smirk. Jaime smiled back. Below them, Bedlam's night glittered and writhed against all its demons. "Yeah."
Somewhere, the Doctor was watching. He was always watching, an angry god and distrustful dad rolled into one broad-shouldered man.
This was, as he liked to say, his city. Like his forefathers, he patrolled it wearing the traditional beaked plague doctor mask and knee-high boots, descending into its muck and penetrating its darkest secrets, saving it from itself.
"Take away the people from the city, and what do you have?" he'd asked his sidekick one night.
The Whiz Kid pushed the mortarboard back and thought hard. "Buildings? Real estate."
"Yes," the Doctor replied, and turned away, back to the monitors that showed every corner of the city. "But also more than that."
Bedlam admitted no origins, no beginnings, only the resumption of old patterns, the reflection and anticipation of new ones.
So there weren't ever going to be origin stories. We join madness already in progress.
One night on regular patrol, the Doctor and his sidekick Whiz Kid split up, the better to give chase to a small gang of jewel thieves.
Whiz Kid nabbed three ne'er-do-wells when they took a wrong turn out right into the path of street cleaner. They were cuffed and their names called into police HQ for pick-up in fewer than ten minutes, so Whiz Kid circled back to the nearest rendezvous point.
Ordinarily, any sidekick with sudden free time like that might stop for ice cream or a game of dice, or, depending on the intensity of training regimens, a much-needed nap.
Whiz Kid, however, was already on probation and needed another black mark like a hole in the head, so the rendezvous point it was. They shook the grit out of their cape and straightened the mortarboard that capped the costume, then rounded the corner of a massive exhaust duct.
There, against a brace for the water tower, a doubled figure jolted and writhed. Almost all the city's lights were spread out below, the open maw of New Bethlehem screaming into the Atlantic, but the figure's faces were turned away -- toward the night, toward the Kid.
The Doctor had his nemesis, La Zorra, bent over the tower's supports, one arm folded up her back, his cape lifting as he shoved and wrestled her forward. She twisted beneath him, her fox-mask pushing askew, red leather suit unzipped to her waist. The Doctor's large-gloved hand pushed up her chest, grabbed her breast, and the Whiz Kid forgot to breathe.
They always fought dirty, those two, taunts and flicks of the whip alternating with punches to the kidney and yanks on hair, cape, anything within reach.
They weren't quite fighting now, though their expressions were twisted, distorted, and their grunts were suddenly booming-loud.
The Kid was smart, smarter than most, hence the job, hence the ridiculous mortarboard and short-cape and Coke-bottle-spectacles, but this was still a surprise. They'd believed, right up to this moment, that what they were all doing was more serious, purer, than this.
The Doctor's hips snapped back and forth as La Zorra went up on her toes, pushing her ass backward to meet the thrusts. She ground down into the Doctor's hand, shoving against him, bouncing back and forth, trapped there, her mouth fallen open to a constant stream of moans and obscenities.
The Doctor grasped the nape of her neck with his other hand and pushed her down, hauling her hips back as he did; his cape stirred, exposed him -- breeches open, thatch of pubic hair dark as the cape, quick shine of something wet as he fucked forward and she fucked back.
The Kid swung in place -- feet on the ground, but weightless, blasts of hot air tearing through a hollow skin -- one moment focused on La Zorra, assuming every atom of her aching, grunting need, the next leaning in like the Doctor, pushing and taking and splitting his way toward ecstasy.
Vision doubled with shock, and jealousy, and not a little bit of betrayal, the Kid was blown open, opened wide, and took it all in.
Glove in her teeth, Zorra pushed her bare hand between her legs to bring herself off. Her strokes were longer, the pauses fuller, and as she shook with pleasure and the Doctor held her against his chest to grind out the last of his own, her head rolled against his shoulder. Her skin shone with sweat, streaking her neck like tears, like rain.
She slowed her hand and licked her lips, before twisting to spring free of the Doctor, as if they really had been fighting, as if she were making her escape.
The Kid still hadn't moved.
The Doctor twitched up his shoulders to bring the cape around him, then shook his head and turned to face his sidekick. "Yes?"
His breeches were still open. His cock hung curved against one thigh. His lower lip was swollen and, as he closed the distance between them, the scent of bodies -- sweat and skin and come -- blossomed around him.
He cupped the Kid's shoulder. "Are you all right?"
"Are you in--" The Doctor tilted his head fractionally and looked the Kid up and down, so slowly his gaze could have been the blind scan of an MRI, clinical and detached. "Any discomfort?"
Whiz Kid swallowed. Whatever this feeling was, it wasn't anything so simple as discomfort. Hot, confusing, a little angry and a lot breathless, yes.
The Doctor pinched the Kid's chin, broke their gaze from his dark, thick cock, and said, "What do you want? Need?"
Precision was key. One must always strive for the greatest precision, the utmost simplicity.
Whiz Kid rolled dry lips together. "Everything. I don't know." Zorra getting fucked, Doc screwing, the seesaw between them, around them. "All of it."
Both of them, every position, possibility, potential together.
"Are you certain?"
"I mean it," Whiz Kid said, and did not lie. Meant the sex, meant Doc's heavy touch and sharp kiss, meant the smell of it and the heat of leather on bare skin, fingers curved against teeth and cock slipping between ass cheeks. And meant something else entirely, something much simpler.
All of it, everything.
The Doctor's desire seemed to come and go, with no real rhythm, no predictability.
The Kid, on the other hand, just wanted more, all the time, please.
That was years ago now. La Zorra has reformed and relapsed three times over; these days, she was back on the side of the angels, running a shelter for homeless teens and dabbling in local politics. The Doctor had, in the same stretch of time, battled amnesia, an alien symbiote shaped like his dead mother, and a hostile takeover of the vast megacorporation owned by his civilian identity, Nathaniel Bowditch Vanderkill -- in addition to the nightly horrors of robberies, assaults, and trafficking, both drug and human.
The Whiz Kid still cracked wise and surprised the bad guys with a savage array of kicks and punches.
It wasn't the same Whiz Kid, of course. This was the third iteration, a new, improved one with thicker body armor and taller boots. He was shorter than the original, far less rangy, certainly far butcher than either the original or the brief, intervening Kid, a girl named Becky who lasted all of thirteen months before dying at the hands of the Pestis.
Maybe Jaime had never really left. You couldn't shake off what the city was, what it made of you, what you made in it, not easily, and certainly not after just a few years.
New Bethlehem had stood for centuries before they were born, and it would go on long after they were gone. The city was a miasma of fear and hope, the staging area for countless emotional dramas, revenge tragedies, love stories: in that, it was no different from any other conglomeration of more than two people.
Analysis and explanation of just what made New Bethlehem unique proliferated. What could have driven an urban population to dress up, play at power, enact battles of good and evil, year after year, generation after generation?
Mass, multigenerational psychosis was one popular explanation; entrenched, debilitating, indeed maddening economic inequality was another, much less prominent one. Other suggestions encompassed everything from a coven's curse to the idea that the city had been constructed over a vent into Hell.
The streets might as well have been open veins, running bright and shimmery with desire, need, compulsion. Anyone at all could get swept up in the current, driven halfway around the bend, deposited on the head of a gargoyle or the top of a skyscraper wearing a mask and long, snapping cape.
Most of the time, Jaime figured that the city was so big, so full of unfairness and cruelty as well as sweet, tiny gestures, that this -- masks, capes, ritualized violence -- was one of the few ways to make sense of it all.
They rarely said so, however. In their time away, when people learned they were from Bedlam, they had instead adopted a variety of deflection tactics and jokes.
"Yeah, my cape's in the closet, wanna see?"
"Not everyone there is crazy, I promise. Some of us get to travel."
No one actually wanted to know what was wrong with New Bethlehem, what made it an open-air Bedlam. They merely wanted to gawk and thrill, like the tourists in the other, smaller one.
"You never talk about Bedlam," their girlfriend Linney said, once, as they were packing for the move back to the city. "You sure you're okay with this?"
"Sure," Jaime told her. "No worries."
She sank down on the edge of the futon, an empty pillowcase in her hands. "Not what I asked."
They concentrated on folding the pants and did not reply.
"It's your city," she said. "Don't you, I don't know, want to tell me about it?"
"Nothing to tell."
Bedlam belonged to Nathaniel, the Doctor.
When the Doctor said, "This is my city", the statement was certainly, consciously, grandiose. But it was also just about literally true. Bowditches and Vanderkills had lived here since the first boat of Europeans sank off-shore. His great-great-something grandfather first donned the plague-doctor mask to combat an outbreak of what his journal called "social malevolence" in 1703. B&V Holdings owned well over 30% of the land in Bedlam. The family's names decorated museums and theaters, hospital wings and university buildings.
It was a city of one; everyone else was just an extra. Jaime knew that with more certainty than anything short of their own name.
There were so many secrets to keep, even more inexplicable facts to juggle, that Jaime wouldn't have known where to start.
They could never have explained who Nathaniel Bowditch Vanderkill was to them, what they'd done together. And that was just Nathaniel's civilian identity; everyone wanted to know if Jaime had ever seen the Doctor, but no one wanted to know what he smelled like, how torn up his knees were, how he swore when the shower hit fresh bruises after nightly patrol.
How he sometimes murmured sweet as a kitten and petted Jaime's hair, like Jaime was a decade younger.
Jaime wouldn't have been able to explain anything, the capes or the kisses, so in the end it was better to avoid situations where they'd have to explain. Worse, where they'd want to explain.
That was the theory, anyway. In practice, they kept dating, kept wanting to get closer, kept on wanting.
Before Linney, they'd lived with a guy named Brendan for several months. The relationship hadn't been all that serious -- or maybe it had been, but neither of them had known what they were doing, so things quickly went south. Then got worse.
The hell of it was, after all, wanting someone to know you. All of you, wanting to open up like a sail, bright, filling with wind, not a secret to cloud the horizon.
It wasn't until Linney left them that Jaime considered costuming again.
They'd come back with when she was offered a job with one of those hip online journalism sites that were proliferating all over the Bedlam neighborhood known as the Narrows.
Then the site was purchased and got a massive cash infusion, and she was assigned to the new Berlin bureau.
Jaime found themself alone in an apartment that was suddenly too big, and far too expensive, for one person. Right back where they'd started, in fact, five blocks from where their mother had lived.
The chronology was iffy, however. Bedlam had a way of screwing with time and logic, with reasons and consequences. Time circled and eddied, foamed and backed up, history repeating with jazz-riff variations, effects prefiguring causes.
Maybe Jaime had come back in order to put this costume on. Maybe the costume was already waiting for them, waiting for Linney to get on a plane, waiting for Jaime, just a few months hence.
So although there were certainly points in time that Jaime could point to as significant, they were like particular sunbeams through foliage: beautiful, memorable, but not quite replicable or graspable.
Maybe they were headed to this lavender costume, sleek and tight as a second skin, from the moment they faced off with the Doctor in the middle of the Doctor's headquarters, the Clinic.
Jaime danced on the balls of their feet, miming punches and ducks, in front of a small punching bag.
"Stop this ridiculous playacting," the Doctor said. He was not costumed, but he was fully in persona, no trace of handsome, friend-to-all Vanderkill to be found. "Your personal struggles with..." His lip curled. "Gender are of no concern to the fight."
"Never said they were," Jaime replied, swiping the sweat off their forehead. "Just -- figured you'd want to know. You know. Because we're such great partners."
Jaime was sick of being careful. That much they knew. They didn't know what else to say.
They never should have confided in Nathaniel, never should have believed that saying "hey, think I might not be a boy or a girl" would have any effect other than derision and dismissal.
If they could have taken it back, they wouldn't have, not ultimately. But they'd have considered it, definitely.
They pummelled the bag, wheeling hand over hand, waiting, hoping, for the Doctor to leave.
Nobody could outwait the Doctor. Nobody knew that better than Jaime. And yet they hoped, because what the hell else were they supposed to do?
The Doctor moved quickly, in front of Jaime, behind the bag. He reached for Jaime's shoulder, said at the same time, "Listen, it's not that difficult. You're young, but you're smart. Just accept that you are a --"
Jaime landed the first, only, punch they ever had on the Doctor, a solid crack across the jaw. The Doctor didn't fall, didn't quite stagger, but he did -- shift, slightly. He touched his lower lip. Blood welled there.
"I'm sorry," Jaime said. It felt a little like a lie. Their hand rang with the impact.
"Get out," the Doctor said.
Jaime was way ahead of him.
Anticipation, that was what made a sidekick great. And they'd been one of the best for a while there.
"Have you met up with our old friend?" Penny Chascarillo, formerly La Zorra, presently den mother and disciplinarian to runaways and truants, leaned forward, offering Jaime a plate of cookies. Her office, on the ground floor of her shelter, was warm and cluttered. The only trace of her former life was the watercolor portrait of a vixen with kits around her.
"Not really," they replied. "He's..."
She nodded, eyes disappearing in the creases made by her grin. "Indeed he is."
"He's watching," Jaime said. "But he hasn't made a move."
Laughing, she waved her hand. "Sounds like him." She tapped her pen several times against her desk, then said, "So, you'll come here every Tuesday and Thursday? And let's say Friday, too."
They didn't know what she was talking about.
"You can do a little training, a little coaching," she continued. "These kids need all the survival skills they can get, you know what I mean?"
"Not really," Jaime admitted.
Penny tossed her pen at them. "Don't let those years of world-class training go to waste, kiddo. Come down, coach some kids, do a little good."
Jaime's old friend Sam, formerly the Spark, now the Flare, steadfastly maintained that costumes could only successfully date other costumes. Not because of secret identities, but because they were, all of them, only attracted to each other. Whether good guy or bad, it didn't matter: they were all capeosexuals, spandexophiles, mask-fetishists. Sure, within that group some preferred the company of villains, while others swooned only for the morally upright, but those were, Sam said, minor details.
He crowed more loudly than anyone when Jaime returned to Bedlam and took up the lavender catsuit. "Couldn't stay away forever, could you?"
Of course, Sam counted himself as a proud capeosexual; his on-again, off-again entanglement with the Erinyes was complicated enough to stump even the Doctor himself.
"There's Astarte," their friend Opposite Guy offered as a counter-argument. "She doesn't date anyone."
"That we know of," Sam replied, somehow making know sound dirtier than anything.
"She's celibate." Jaime loved Astarte like a -- not a mother, nor a sister, but something close to worship. If it were possible to worship the nice seven-foot tall lady who helped repel alien invaders with the same elan as she danced at the Commissioner's Ball. The stylized panels on their new costume were an homage to the kethoneth she wore in all weather. "So joke's on you."
"Is it, though?" Sam shrugged and scratched the back of his neck. "Doesn't feel like it."
Jaime didn't have a secret headquarters, or even much of a training gym. They made do with the gym at Penny's and the roof of their building and any help they could get from their friends.
"Fear not, citizen! The Lavender Menace stands ready to help in any way you need."
"Kind of a mouthful," Nicole said without looking up from polishing her pike.
Jaime shook the tension out of their shoulders and tried again. "The Lavender Menace is here to help."
"Third person, though?"
They slumped back and stretched out their left hamstring. "I know, but -- how else are they supposed to get who I am?"
"Good point." She hopped to her feet and shadowboxed a little. "Okay, what about this --" She pulled Jaime's shoulders back, tipped down their face slightly, kicked apart their feet, and said, "Hey, man, need a hand?"
Jaime shrugged. "Better than what I had."
Nicole took a deep bow. "I know, right? Yours suck."
Every night they patrolled; every morning they came to the coffee shop on the corner for sustenance.
"Late night?" Pete the barista pushed over a carrot muffin before Jaime had said a word.
"Huh?" They frequently got a little stupid around Pete and all his out-of-place sunny, lackadaisical blondeness. Everything about him seemed better suited to a skate park in Southern California than Bedlam's morose shadows.
"You're moving a little slow," Pete shouted over the hiss of the steamer. "Thought you might've had a good night."
His smile was impossibly broad. He rarely flashed it, opting instead for a faint smirk, little more than deepened dimples and something knowing around his eyes. So Jaime had to blink, momentarily dazzled in the face of Pete's grin, before they smiled back, unable to stop themselves.
"Just late," they replied. "Not good, unfortunately."
"Aww, sorry." Pete poured the milk into Jaime's cup, making an elaborate sadface emoji in the foam, complete with springing tears. "Here's to better luck next time."
"Thanks." Jaime wanted to reach over -- to do what, they didn't know, just the instinct was enough -- but Pete was already moving away, greeting the next customer, making someone else feel like one in a million.
The Doctor caught the Menace by surprise, of course, in the last place they'd have expected him to be: a punk gig, raising funds for squatters burned out of their buildings. Jaime stood in the closed-off, half-collapsed balcony, listening, bouncing a little, keeping an optimistic eye out for a lanky blond.
"What do you think you're doing here?" the Doctor asked.
Jaime knew it was him, though he could barely hear over the music, and the voice came from behind them. Behind, and...above?
They glanced up. Sure enough, there were the beak and boots, crouching in the light grid.
"Rocking out," Jaime replied. "You?"
"You're in costume."
Jaime smoothed one palm down the front of their catsuit. "So I am. You really are an amazing diagnostician."
They didn't feel entirely real, not this close, not after this long. They cracked their knuckles, wincing, and started to say something else.
"This is not your fight," the Doctor said first. He was at Jaime's elbow now, huge. "Stay away from this."
"Man, this is totally my scene. You're the one who likes, whatever, Neil Diamond and Lawrence Welk."
"I'm not referring to the music."
Jaime had to grin. Had to move, crowded as they were against the wall. "Still waiting on that sense of humor transplant, huh?"
"You have been warned," the Doctor said before Jaime could spring past him onto the mezzanine.
"Hey, I know you," Pete the barista said when Jaime nearly ran him over in the doorway of the shelter. "Carrot muffin, extra-large macchiato, two extra shots?"
"Guilty," Jaime said, trying to balance all the gym equipment and not look like a complete dumbass. Failing. "Pete, right?"
They knew Pete's name. They knew way more than they should have: Peter T. Schindler, born and raised in the Narrows, sister killed in one of the Pestis's rampages, full ride to University of Bedlam, 3.2 GPA in International Relations, dropped out after the Halloween Massacre.
Heroes did their research, that was how Jaime tried to justify it.
They didn't buy that, either.
"Jaime, right." Pete helped himself to one of the bags of basketballs and knocked his shoulder against Jaime's. "It's a pleasure."
The Lavender Menace didn't have much of a plan. Some heroes were in it for revenge, others for experience; most of them were on a power trip the likes of which seemed absurd anywhere outside the city limits.
Early on, maybe even their first night on patrol, they grabbed a young guy who'd just robbed a cabbie. All the Doctor's training had come back, the precise combination of punches interspersed with restraint. You hurt the bad guy, hobbled him, and thus made him docile, easier to tie up and turn in.
So there Jaime was, hustling the kid down the street, back toward the cab. The kid was trussed up, swearing, trying to go limp.
"This the guy?" Jaime asked when they reached the cab.
The cabbie nodded. He looked exhausted - speckled white and gray five o'clock shadow, bags under his already sad eyes, slump in the shoulders - and sighed before adding, "Can I have my wallet back?"
"Man!" the kid whined, twisting in Jaime's hold. "Mistaken identity! This is identity theft!"
Jaime ignored him and showed the wallet to the cabbie. "This is yours?"
"Yes." The wallet was thick with small-denomination bills and receipts.
"Okay, but you need to come with us to the station, do some identifying, evidence stuff, then --"
The cabbie grabbed for his wallet. "No."
Holding the wallet out of reach, Jaime felt like an asshole. Like a taunting schoolyard bully. The kid tried to make a break for it.
"Listen, I'm just trying to --" After another attempt to wrench free, they pushed the kid down to the sidewalk, holding him still with one knee between his shoulders.
"Let him up!" The cabbie pushed Jaime again, not for the wallet this time. "He's not an animal!"
They could have fought back. All their training, all their instincts, said to fight back and immobilize both opponents.
But Jaime let the cabbie push him, took the shove, and released their hold on the kid.
For a moment, nothing made sense: the kid dashed one way, the cabbie kept lurching forward, the wallet flew up, its contents showered down, and Jaime fell.
They landed on their ass, then scrambled to grab the money and pictures disgorged from the wallet. The kid vaulted over them, the cabbie collided with the kid, and when everything settled back down, sense returned.
But it was a new logic, much different from what had been upended a moment before.
"He's not an animal," the cabbie repeated as he and Jaime gathered up the spilled contents. The pictures were creased and faded; the landscapes behind the figures looked barren and brown. "Just a stupid hungry child."
"Yeah," Jaime said.
"You give him to the police, and then what? What happens to him then?"
Justice, Jaime might have said once, and punishment. Both resounded in the Doctor's voice. But the first had never been true, and as for the second, it didn't seem to mean anything. The last dollar bill and old picture -- a woman with a scarf over her hair, sun in her eyes -- felt warm in their hands.
The kid, of course, was long gone.
"Give me my things." The cabbie held out his hand and Jaime put them in his palm. "Thank you."
He stood up slowly, in stages, wincing a bit, and took a deep breath before making for his cab.
Jaime tried to do things differently after that.
It wasn't easy. A lot of the time, they weren't even sure it was worth it, particularly after picking up the same burglar four times in one week. The mook was obnoxious enough to brag about already having tossed the stolen goods into the river, "just so I don't have to do your stupid ceremony again".
That so-called ceremony was pretty simple: if possible, Jaime hauled the criminal up to the victim, made sure they returned stolen stuff or made restitution somehow, and hoped they would shake hands.
So Jaime didn't know quite what they were doing, but it wasn't a bad way to spend one's nights, either. It answered that itch, that peculiar Bedlam thing that drew people into the night, masked, seeking glory, retribution, redemption, without leaving Jaime feeling low down, shitty, sick as they had in their last months at the Doctor's side.
Most of the street kids Jaime trained at Penny's knew how to fight better than they ever could have at their age.
When the Doctor took them in, the first hurdle was to cultivate the viciousness, make Jaime ruthless, make them want to fight.
These kids didn't have that problem. Jaime refined their movements, sharpening some, lengthening others, but the fight was already in them.
"Weird, I thought you were like UFC or MMA or something," Pete said from the doorway one afternoon. Jaime was breathing hard, towel against their mouth, pain radiating out from several of the kids' well-aimed hits. "But you're like a ballet teacher instead."
They looked up at Pete, feeling sweaty and gross and entirely incapable of their usual flirting. "What?"
Pete was hoisting one of the boxing gloves, tossing it from palm to palm, smirking.
"Wait," Jaime said, their brain finally coming almost all the way back online, "you were watching?"
Pete grinned. "For a while? Yeah, I was."
He dropped the glove and grasped the end of the vaulting horse, testing his arm strength as he lifted himself up and down. "Dunno," he said. "Felt like it."
"Why do you do all your mysterious quote-unquote work in the coffee shop?" Pete replied. He dropped off the horse and wandered away, then back, worn sneakers squeaking on the floor mats. He glanced over his shoulder. "That was rhetorical."
Jaime tugged the towel around their neck. "Yeah, figured."
"You're such a jock," Pete added, coming back, yanking on Jaime's towel until a brief tug-of-war ensued. "I thought maybe I should be clear on the big words."
"Thanks for that." Jaime pulled sharply on the towel and brought Pete right up against their body.
When Pete closed his eyes, this close, his lashes looked like the fuzz on apricots, something gold and pink all at once. His hair smelled like coffee and his skin was dry, soft, under Jaime's sweaty hands.
There they were, facing off again, this time on the narrow span of the Hell's Tongue Bridge.
"I'll say it one more time. Just what are you doing?" the Doctor said. At his side, the (new) Whiz Kid crossed his arms and appeared to be trying to glower. He merely looked carsick.
"Isn't it obvious?" Jaime looked around, down at the dark river, across to the shore carved up with warehouses and railroad tracks. "Same thing you are."
The Doctor's mouth moved in a half-snarl, half-chomped-off chuckle. "Think that answer over, and try again."
"Nah," Jaime said and jumped up to crouch on the railing of the narrow pedestrian walkway. "No takebacks."
Whiz Kid laughed at that, briefly, before a single swish of the Doctor's cape made him smother the sound in the crook of his elbow.
"Just trying for an honest mask's work," Jaime added, partly to save the poor kid further mortification, partly to dispel the silence.
The Doctor ruled silence. Mastered it. It was, like the dark, his medium, entirely his element.
"You know, lend a hand, do some good, save some lives," Jaime went on.
They always had talked too much.
"There are reports of multiple appearances," the Doctor said. "All in the same distinct shade of..."
"Lavender," Jaime said. "You can say it."
"Purple. Multiple appearances," he repeated.
"More than one of me? Really?" Jaime spread their arms and leaned back into the open air. "Wow. That's never happened, ever!"
Whiz Kid, at least, had the decency to look abashed. The Doctor, of course, did not react.
"A skirted figure, as well as one more..." the Doctor continued, and circled his hand. He wasn't searching for the right word. He knew all the words, knew exactly what he meant. He used the pauses to make everyone else uncomfortable, impatient, dependent. "Androgynous."
"What can I say? Some days you feel prettier than others." Jaime cocked their head and smiled coyly. "Some days you just want to butch out and break things. Fuck shit up. If you know what I mean."
"Kid. Go." The Doctor jerked his thumb back toward the street, dismissing him.
Jaime had to swallow, twice, hard, against the automatic instinct to respond to that name. His commands.
When they were alone, the Doctor moved in, closer and closer, until he was standing over Jaime. "Stay out of the Narrows."
"I live here," Jaime said.
"You never patrol here."
"You have no idea what I do."
If Jaime leaned back any farther, they'd fall into the river. That was starting to look like an acceptable option. "I think I do."
The Doctor tapped Jaime's chest, right at the costume's V-neck. "You. Do not."
"Because I left?"
The Doctor's finger dug into the fabric like a claw. He tilted his head, looked Jaime over. The beak of his mask cast a shadow over his cheek, across the tender skin of his throat. Like a wound, bottomless. "I won't repeat myself."
"Aw, just once?" Jaime asked. "For me?"
"Leave. The whole area is going to hell. Burning down."
Jaime did not disagree. The Narrows was burning, an abandoned building here, an unsuccessful pawn shop or 99-cent store there.
The fires seemed to be organized: few people were hurt, strangely enough, and most insurance policies were up-to-date and paid in full. During the day, Jaime was tracing the fires, researching the tangled history at each location of deeds and leases, municipal regulations, alarm calls and complaints. The next step was to find a link among the locations, but that was proving elusive.
They were volunteering at Penny's shelter when they heard about a homeless kid who had died, sleeping in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Her name was, variously, Michelle Robinson, Mickie R., Mish Rodriguez, Mee-Mee.
"Ah, the old law of the father," Pete said when Jaime tried to explain the problems researching who she was. "You know, who does she belong to, what's the surname, who gets to decide what she's called?"
Jaime nodded, not exactly following, and Pete knocked their knees together.
When Jaime glanced up, Pete grinned. "Never mind. Want some help?"
"Aren't you working?" The coffee shop was quiet, but there was still a trickle of customers.
Pete dropped his head back against the chair and groaned. "Yes."
"Go work." They swatted Pete's leg and sat back. "I'll still be here."
A month later, their own building burned. They didn't lose any of their research -- that was all on thumb drives secreted around the city -- but that was the only saving grace. Everything else was gone: civilian clothes and memorabilia, furniture, everything.
They had a few caches of clothes in drop houses, but they were mostly disguises or what Linney had left behind.
They needed the Doctor's help, and they couldn't put it off any longer.
That was why Jaime was on the elevated platform, waiting for the uptown express, wearing a black wrap dress and red tights when Pete jogged up the stairs and stopped melodramatically short.
It had been awhile since Jaime felt this particular stomach-drop, the sudden awareness of what gender they were displaying, the worry that Pete had taken them for someone else.
But Pete just whistled. "Looking pretty fancy there. What's the occasion?"
Jaime pushed their sunglasses onto the top of their head. "It's armor. Costume, almost."
"Pretty," Pete added, at the same time, so they both stopped, apologized, then stopped again. Even if Jaime hadn't already been nervous as hell, this awkwardness would still have been excruciating.
Finally, Pete took half a step backward and dipped his head. "Okay, to recap, you, pretty. Me, awkward. Moving on."
Jaime tried, and failed, not to touch their hair. "No, see, it's me --"
"We've moved on already, shut up." Pete grabbed Jaime's hand and held them at arm's length as if studying their clothes. "So, where are you off to? Job interview? You should get it, whatever it is."
"Worse," Jaime said, and there was that gap again, between what could be possible and what reality was. They weren't going to see family, the Doctor was hardly that, but this wasn't an impersonal errand, either. They opted for the smaller lie. "I need a loan."
Pete grimaced sympathetically. He was about to say something else when the train screeched into the station. Jaime mimed an apology, tried to indicate that they had to go, urgently, but didn't want to, but Pete just pushed them toward the open door.
Through the scratched-up plastic window, he gave a thumbs-up. All Jaime could think, as Pete dwindled in size and the train gathered speed, was of pilots in some old war, smiling for the camera, before they took off, never to be seen again.
"I have an appointment with Mr. Vanderkill," Jaime said, three times, first at security on the ground floor, secondly when the elevator opened on the top floor, and, finally, just now at the long black marble desk.
"May I ask your name?" the B-V Holdings executive assistant asked without looking up. Her dress cost more than three months' rent in The Narrows and, Jaime was fairly certain, she was quite proud of the fact.
"And...? Jaime what?"
They gave her the smallest, most polite eat-shit-and-die smile that they could summon from their brief tenure in prep school. "I'll just wait over there, thanks."
Nathaniel kept them waiting for two hours. That was hardly a record, and Jaime did have a book in their purse, but the reception area was colder than the assistant's soul and the couch was some kind of Scandinavian torture surface.
When Nathaniel did show, he was all apologies and warmth and gladhanding for the assistant's benefit.
That stopped as soon as the door closed behind them.
"This is a surprise," he said and perched on the edge of his enormous desk.
Everything in here was enormous, from the floor-to-ceiling windows that looked out over the entire city, to the pens on the blotter, to Nathaniel himself.
"Don't know why, I made an appointment." Jaime looked around for somewhere to sit.
"By hacking into my personal calendar," Nathaniel said. "Really, you couldn't have called?"
The only chair was behind the desk. Jaime realized they were expected to stand.
"Would you have taken the call?"
Nathaniel shrugged at that, putting on his old-boy class-reunion smile. "Touché." He clapped his hands, let the sound resonate, then reached for Jaime. "So. What can I do for you?"
Jaime slipped from reach and stood before the wall bearing all of Nathaniel's diplomas, earned and honorary. Several more had been added in the years since they were last here.
"My building burned down."
"You don't say."
Jaime turned their head, just enough to catch Nathaniel from the corner of their eye. "It's the weirdest thing, almost like someone's clearing out the neighborhood."
Nathaniel chuckled, the sound as rich and sweet as honey over ice. "Paranoia is hardly becoming, my dear."
Jaime did turn then, crossing their arms. "I need help. I --"
It was Nathaniel's turn to move away, a hand coming up to his face as he slid off the desk and made for the windows. "Now you need help."
"My building burned down," Jaime said again. Impatience got the better of them; they were out of practice with the traditional Vanderkill flirt, imply, parry-parry-riposte, and they'd been sleeping on Nicole's sofa bed for a week. "This is your city, right? Help it. Help me."
"My city?" Nathaniel asked. "Hardly. It's..."
"That's not --" Jaime paused, for breath, to clear their mind. "I don't want to argue, okay?"
"Come here," Nathaniel said without turning from the window.
Jaime joined him, keeping about a body's width of space between them, but Nathaniel moved behind them, hands falling heavy on Jaime's shoulders. His breath came hot and sudden in Jaime's hair.
"What?" Jaime asked eventually. They fought to keep their voice steady. "I'm here."
"Yes." Nathaniel ran his hands down Jaime's arms and grasped their wrists, prised open their fists. "You are."
In the window, their reflection was jumbled, Cubist, Jaime's face floating out of the darkness above their dress, against the larger shadow formed by Nathaniel's body.
"Please, just --" Jaime bit their lip as Nathaniel edged in, closer yet, the warmth of his body painting Jaime's back.
"You come in here, you smell like this, you look like --" Nathaniel lifted Jaime's arms, spread them like wings, then pressed their palms against the glass. "Angel."
"What am I supposed to do?" Nathaniel buried his face against Jaime's neck and slipped his hands back up their arms, then down to their waist. He gathered the skirt's fabric, bunched it, lifted it, released it, like a cat working for milk. "You know me, you know I can't...."
Jaime closed their eyes. Nathaniel all but enfolded them now, pressing them forward, tilting over the city. His bulk was architectural, implacable.
"Open your eyes." He nipped on Jaime's earlobe, then suckled the skin, mouth hot and slick. "Baby, please."
Jaime did, and the angle, the height, the city tilted and lifted toward them, nearly sent them reeling. Back against Nathaniel, his hands on their ass, their hips, up under the skirt. Thick as his fingers were, they were precise, adept, nails scoring Jaime's tights, the inner crease of their thighs.
He ground up against the small of Jaime's back, mouth on their neck, a long, slow motion that dragged at Jaime's skin almost as surely as his hands moved their dress.
"What do you see?" he asked, voice thick as if he were working his fifth scotch. "Tell me."
Jaime spread their stance slightly, tried to gain balance, but the Nathaniel's hands were as insistent, dizzyingly quick, as his grinding was slow and deliberate.
"Bedlam," they said. "I see --"
"Yours," Nathaniel was saying before Jaime finished, "all yours, I want you to take it."
Jaime tried to turn around, tried to face Nathaniel, but there was no room between the man and the window, the office and the city. So they looked into the reflection, addressed the haphazard grid of streets and clutter of roofs, cranes, water towers. "I can't take anything. It's not like --"
Nathaniel kissed them then, wrenching Jaime around, lifting them until their feet left the floor and they grasped instinctively with their knees around Nathaniel's thighs.
His mouth was deep, teeth sharp, tongue hot and mobile, and Jaime moaned despite themself, tightening their hold, digging their hands into Nathaniel's neck and shoulders.
Nathaniel bucked against them, knocked them against the window, once, twice, hips grinding harder, faster.
"You came back," Nathaniel said, gasping, face back against Jaime's neck, sucking and nibbling. "You, you, y-y-y-you --"
His stutter was probably every bit as assumed as everything else he did. Deliberate and theatrical as his boardroom calm and nighttime growl. A sound planned to match a set of performed gestures.
Jaime knew that, knew that trusting Nathaniel was like believing in the Tooth Fairy, and yet -- what if that weren't true? What if pigs flew, heroes stalked the night, rich men fucked against plate glass?
They kissed again, teeth clacking, as Jaime struggled to worm their hand between them. Nathaniel groaned into their mouth, one hand clutching their ass, the other tangling-yanking in their hair, when Jaime touched his cock.
His fly was already open, had probably been down this whole time. Jaime scowled at the thought, but the buck of Nathaniel's hips, the hot-damp skin of his dick, took up all their attention.
Nathaniel rarely lost control like this, not like this, never this fast. But maybe it had been long enough, maybe Jaime really had done something with their absence, because Nathaniel was groaning against Jaime's cheek, his eyes screwed shut and sweat broken out on his forehead, chanting the syllables of Jaime's name.
"Like this?" Jaime asked and squeezed the head of Nathaniel's cock, twisted a little too hard, so his eyes flew open and his attention focused. "Could do something else, could --"
In reply Nathaniel kissed them, splaying them against the glass until it rattled, and fucked Jaime's hand, ragged thrusts that ran counterpoint to his grunts and gasps.
Probably (definitely) this was all an act, one more nudge of a pawn toward some Byzantine checkmate. Probably Nathaniel knew exactly what he was doing with every shake and shudder and throb in Jaime's palm.
But maybe it was real, maybe this time, maybe: the romance of possibility, the possibility of romance, all swam and swooped through Jaime. Maybe this wasn't an act; maybe Nathaniel truly was undone, just this once; maybe he did feel, could, would again.
When he came, he had Jaime pinned against the glass, sliding in his arms, and the spunk that had nowhere to go got rubbed deep into the fabric of Jaime's skirt, Nathaniel's trousers. Breathing hard, Nathaniel pressed his forehead against the window, cheek rasping against Jaime's. He stared down at the city. Didn't blink.
Jaime trembled, ached, tried to speak.
Finally, Nathaniel seemed to stir. He appeared to come back to himself, blinking, licking his lips, dropping a series of kisses on Jaime's hairline.
"Baby," he said again, his voice shakier than ever.
He turned them around, stumbling, half-carrying, half-dragging Jaime to the nearest horizontal surface -- a mahogany sideboard.
"Let me, let me --" He dropped Jaime there, sank to his knees, pulling up the skirt, kissing a run in Jaime's tights that he had clawed earlier. He glanced up, wet eyes in a flushed face, almost childlike with hope and need. "May I?"
Desire was coiled, twisted, tight and deep inside Jaime, radiating heat, blowing their skin out hollow. They wanted nothing more than to feel Nathaniel's mouth on them, between their legs, probing, swallowing. Tasting all the way down.
Maybe this was anything Jaime made it. They wriggled back, canting up their hips, pulling Nathaniel in. Maybe anything was possible.
"I want --" Jaime started. "Please, I --"
Nathaniel pulled back, barely, and his expression was suddenly, wholly grave and still and grave-still. "So you'll stop this nonsense?"
His hands tightened on Jaime's thighs, his thumbs digging in painfully. "I can do whatever you want. Help. Give you all of this. But you have to meet me halfway."
Jaime had been training every day, and yet they were on their feet, half-leaping past Nathaniel faster than they'd have thought possible.
Nathaniel looked up at them, and for a moment, went full Doctor, terrible frown and beetled brows. The sight was equal parts chilling and absurd. "I think you'll find, rather, yes."
"You can't give a city away!" Jaime didn't know why that was uppermost in their mind; maybe they had been expecting a betrayal, maybe that was the first, original, training. "The fuck is wrong with you?"
"Language," Nathaniel said mildly as he pulled himself to his feet.
Jaime fled. They forgot their purse, their tights were more holes than fabric, and the stain on their dress was Lewinskian in obviousness, but when they finally hit the street, back down out of the stratosphere, back where human beings breathed and shoved and lived, they had never been so happy, moved so freely.
Rush hour was in full swing, the twilight chilly and close, and Jaime ran almost all the way back to The Narrows.
Night gathered quickly these days. Jaime had barely changed from the ruined dress into their Menace costume before all the streetlights were blazing and another fire siren was wailing through the dark.
They clambered up the fire escape of a grand old pre-war apartment building, long since fallen to SRO-hotel status, and vaulted onto the next roof, and then across the gap of an empty lot, filled with charred rubble, to the next, a narrow tenement building. From there, they lowered a line down the back of the building and swung onto the third floor fire escape.
They knocked on the window, softly at first, then, when the sound of grinding, sweeping guitars filtered out, more loudly. Finally, they ended up banging the side of their fist on the warped window frame.
"What the hell?" Pete was yelling, "I've got a gun, assholes, ask anybody!"
"What kind of gun?" Jaime asked.
"A big one! Fucking phallic as -- wait, what the hell?"
Pete glowered, confused and still freaking out, as he struggled to push up the window. He was shirtless, wearing a pair of loose, very old corduroys, and barefoot. A wooden spoon, clotted with tomato sauce, was jammed in his waistband like a Hogwarts wand.
"Hey," Jaime said quietly.
Pete was leaning almost all the way out, hands braced on the windowsill. His chest prickled with goosebumps in the cold air. "Carrot muffin, extra-large macchiato?"
He grinned, slow and secret, and held out his hand. "Apparently, you're not."
Jaime struck the hero's pose. "Fear not, citizen --" They dropped it and took Pete's hand. "Can I come in?"
"Hell, yeah." Pete hauled them through the window, into the cacophony of music and the steaming of pasta water, knees banging, elbows catching, foreheads knocking.
They collapsed together on the floor of Pete's kitchen-living-room-bedroom in a heap, and the only graceful thing was also the only thing, their kiss finding itself immediately, deep and warm and sweetly slick.
Pete's hair scrunched in Jaime's fingers, and they tightened as Pete pulled away for breath. "Just -- music," he said, and then the water boiled over. "And, shit, spaghetti."
"Let me," Jaime said, faster to their feet, quicker in a crisis than any civilian. They shoved the pot off the burner, wrenched it off, hit the power on the iPod dock, and were back on their knees, arms settling around Pete's neck, before the taste of the kiss had fully evaporated.
"Can you fly?" Pete asked, thickly, eyelids fluttering, when their kiss broke again. "That would be so dope."
"Nah," Jaime told them. "Sorry."
Pete wrestled one arm around Jaime's waist and half-dragged, half-crawled them over to the futon. "Then I'm afraid this can never be," he said sadly, pulling Jaime atop him, crooking one leg around Jaime's. "Shame, really."
"Crying shame," Jaime agreed.
They kissed him again, and again, discovering Pete anew with every taste. He throbbed beneath Jaime, and writhed a little, and twined his arms around Jaime's neck and cooed until Jaime had to stop for laughing.
"What?" Pete asked innocently. He glanced down, grabbing and tossing away the sauce spoon. "Shit, my sauce, all over your -- what is this? Costume?"
"It's okay. Stain resistant." Jaime showed him: a squirt of solvent from their utility belt, and the fabric was good as new. "Alien tech."
Pete pinched the instant-dry fabric and tugged. "You could make a fucking fortune with this."
"Or I could take it off?"
Pete nodded fervently. "Way ahead of you, lemme help --"
When Jaime was out of the suit, Pete sat back, hands on Jaime's knees, and just looked at them. Jaime waited, skin flashing hot and cold, palms tingling, yearning to touch Pete again.
"Verdict?" they asked finally, unable to take it anymore.
Pete smiled with half his mouth and ran his palm up the center of Jaime's chest. His hand curved around Jaime's neck, pulling them in, and it wasn't cold any longer. Or hot, even, just close, skin on skin, then sweat skidding against sweat.
Jaime squirmed down, then farther down, trailing their mouth down Pete's chest, listening to him gulp and hiss when teeth found nipple. And farther, back onto their knees, head bent over Pete's waist, tongue tracing the thickening hair splaying out below his navel.
Pete tugged on Jaime's shoulder, then their hair, grunting to get their attention. "You don't have to, we could --"
Jaime leaned into Pete's hand. "Believe me, I want to."
"Yeah?" He already sounded husky, and hoarse, and Jaime intended to get him sounding even more wrecked.
Rather than replying, Jaime took Pete's cock in one hand and pushed their lips around the head, swirled their tongue widdershins, until Pete's hips bucked and he gargled sound. Jaime pushed both of Pete's legs until his knees were bent, feet flat on the futon, and worked their free hand back, around his balls, into the close, dark skin before the hole. Pete was thrusting raggedly, trying and failing to keep a rhythm, to avoid going too deep, so Jaime led with their tongue, taking his shaft all the way down just as their index finger started stroking the puckered skin.
Pete shouted, but both his hands were clamped on Jaime's head, nails in their scalp. His cock jumped in Jaime's mouth, expanding, moving and twitching, even as his legs cracked farther open and he flexed down on Jaime's gently stroking, circling, exploring finger.
Jaime's own hips were working against the futon, grinding and sweeping, roughly in time with Pete's thrusts and shouts. The need that was clenched teeth-deep in Jaime's gut was unfurling, loosening even as it grew, filling, then overspilling, their skin, blowing bright and hot, dazzling.
Pete pulled on Jaime's ears, his hips pumping, his hole grasping and clenching. He might have chanted a warning, something urgent, but he went unheeded. When Jaime felt Pete's cock jumping against the roof of their mouth, sliding down the channel of their tongue, they pushed forward harder, swallowing until Pete lost it all the way.
They didn't need to make anything up, offer any explanations, shield any secrets. They just swallowed, again and again, until their nose burned and Pete was trembling, pushing with weightless palms at their forehead.
They crawled up Pete, lay half atop them, brought his sweaty hand between their legs. They thrust gently against his palm and kissed Pete's throat, at the base where the skin was thin and clammy and his pulse thundered.
"Can you just..." Jaime swallowed, mouth sour, lips sore, eyes burning. They felt beyond good, somewhere out in the wilds of great. "Touch?"
"Yeah," Pete said, voice cracked almost beyond recognition. "I can do that. Anything."