"The remit was to dream big. Get out of the cautious charity box. So." Monique sat forward, hands clasped on the dining room table. "End homelessness and hunger in Gotham City. Full stop. Within one year." She handed a few stapled pages to each of them. "That big enough for you?"
Oliver Queen leaned in, grinning like a jackal. Zach started reading his handout. Bruce glanced through his, frowning.
"There's always a danger," Bruce said, still reading, "when taking up slack from social services. It self-perpetuates."
"Which is why we keep data," she said. "Find out how much it costs, start-up year and ongoing. Per-recipient, city-wide to understand the proportions, get the math on how much it would cost in sales and property taxes per Gotham household, balanced against how many jobs it creates and how many unpaid ER bills it prevents that would have come out of municipal funds. And then we publish, along with the blueprints on how to do it, and we promote, until everyone who doesn't literally live in a cave knows it's doable. We embarrass the shit out of every public official in the country, because if you can pull it off in Gotham City, you can do it anywhere."
Oliver nodded. "We can do it in Starling as well, get data to compare, see what different strategies shake out." He hadn't even looked down at his papers yet.
Bruce kept frowning. "There'll be pushback, unintended consequences. If the model falls apart, what happens to the residents?"
"Controlled dismount," Zach said. "Follow through on getting them placed elsewhere if we can, reduce the program slowly. But anyone sleeping in their car right now won't be worse off for a couple years indoors than they were before."
"Exactly." Monique gave Bruce a hard stare. "Dream big."
"It's good. Thank you." Bruce nodded slowly. "The theory is sound. I think it's workable. But there will be less pushback and fewer messy PR black eyes if we move a little slower, start with a single-building pilot and a three or four year timeline—"
"Bruce." Oliver's face had gone lean and intense. "Have you ever in your life gone a day without food that wasn't your choice?"
Bruce looked away.
"We can do this, and we should. Now."
"And when Carmine Falcone sends a sniper to pick off the founders of the feast from four blocks away, the meal train ends," Bruce said quietly. "Roll it out in Starling City at full tilt if you want. It might work there. Here... I've never tried something this ambitious, but actions have recoil, and I have felt the kick on much smaller projects."
There was a silent staring contest. No one said anything about dead parents. No one said anything about people coming back from the wilderness with a hollow, distant expression.
Finally, Monique said, "Scaling the pilot back to one building is a reasonable precaution. Three months just to kick the tires. Another three buildings if it's stable, ten if that works. Half-capacity in one year, full capacity in two."
Bruce nodded. "Barring unforeseen levels of recoil, yes. Let's do it."
"What does unforeseen recoil look like?" Monique asked.
"Every building torched at two in the morning," Bruce said. "Poisoning a cafeteria. Fatal sabotage made to look like residents can't care for their property. I can work around misuse of the unions or going after my other businesses, they've tried shutting me down before. But I won't paint targets on the backs of thousands of people to prove a point."
"The survivors will still need somewhere to live," Monique said. "Maybe we change strategies, distribute more widely to smaller buildings. Or maybe a concerned citizen drops a wad of evidence on the police department's doorstep, people go to jail, the mob gets tighter scrutiny, and they decide it's bad business to try twice since you'll just keep rebuilding."
Bruce said nothing.
"You built the Foundation to survive you," Zach said. "And it will. And the gangs know it."
"You want numbers on how many people were killed by winter last year? I can get those for you."
"Thank you, I... I know." Bruce rubbed his face. "I know once we set this rolling, we can't back down. I know it's right. We'll do it."
"Excellent," Monique said.
Oliver leaned across the table to clap Bruce on the arm, possibly harder than necessary but it seemed to steady him. His shoulders were almost as incredible as Bruce's. Zach had seen firsthand how much work it took to maintain that kind of muscle mass.
Oliver had gotten in while Zach was at work, and they hadn't had a chance to talk yet. Was he the kind of adrenaline junkie Bruce pretended to be? Not that Bruce was exactly pretending... Bruce, who desperately needed reassurance.
"The cafeterias will be fun," Zach said. "Looking forward to eating there with you as often as possible. Hey, what are you thinking for making sure the people who really need it don't get stuck at the back of the line?"
"Resident or EBT card," Monique said. "And if anyone else wants to buy a premium pass for the express lane, we'll take their money. Along with people paying above-market rent for apartments if they cap out the sliding scale. Ideally, every building would be integrated and it's just... how housing works. Pipe dream, I know. But we can try."
"Never underestimate how much people will pay to feel involved." Bruce smiled. "We'll have to limit how many full-price spaces are available, especially before we ramp up capacity."
"And if people are trying to pound down the doors after the first month?" Monique's eyes sparkled in challenge. "More upscale residents would deter retaliation."
Bruce paused. "Fine. But no more than one extra building a month for the first six months. We do have actual capacity concerns. We have to hire people to run all of this. Competently."
Zach came back to the dining room after seeing Monique off.
"Ray's in, of course," he heard Oliver say. "He'd be in if you said it would save a puppy."
Bruce laughed, an easy, natural sound. "I like that about him. Not always good strategy, but it's nice to know that someone that genuinely kind exists in real life."
"Is this the SuperPAC?" Zach asked.
"No, that's already running." Oliver waved a hand dismissively. "I got the Seattle tech money crowd looped in first, so Bruce just looks like another joiner who doesn't understand how many zeroes he typed on the bank transfer. He's still just in time for this election push."
"This is the big one," Bruce said. "How much money could I spend in my lifetime, doing everything I could possibly want?"
Technically, Zach's question had ended with "protecting Batman," but allowances had to be made for guests. "Ah, yeah. And then you said, 'What if I need to outbid Lex Luthor on a dozen acquisitions at once.'" It hadn't been a productive conversation.
Oliver leaned back until he teetered on a single chair leg and the tip of one shoe, looking pleased with himself. "If Bruce says he needs stopping, or any other big ticket project, I'll back it. And so will a few other people. No questions asked. So no single one of us has to keep a cushion that large. Thanks for helping put that in perspective."
Bruce looked at the chair leg. "I wish you wouldn't do that."
"It's good balance practice." Oliver came back to level. "And it's just stuff. We've both got plenty of that. Can't put a price on a steady hand." The brittle edge on his grin told Zach everything he needed to know about how much of Oliver Queen's workout regimen was driven by PTSD.
"Stop breaking my chairs."
"Keep talking while we train, then? Not as hard on the furniture." Train was an oddly specific word.
"Sure, we can hit the gym." Bruce's posture went looser and less honest. Playboy gym bunnies, sure, that could be a thing.
"Aw, come on. You were gonna show me that sloped roof trick."
Zach tried to think of any reasonable explanation, any other reasonable explanation. It did not exist. Starling City. Starling City was... the archer, once voted "Most Biteable Super Pecs" in an informal drunken survey at the Raptor. That added up.
Bruce didn't even sigh, just glared wearily, an ancient expression above his immature slouch. "And this is why I've had to clean up your identity fuckups five times in three years."
Oliver froze. "You said..." He glanced at Zach and fake-smiled. He was not good at it. "It's cool if you're not into parkour anymore, you could just say that instead of getting weird about it."
"About me. I said he knew about me. There is no transitive property of secret identities. I don't hand around the names of all my friends and allies just because I'm dating someone."
Oliver Queen probably got hung out to dry at poker night.
"You told Felicity, didn't you." Bruce leaned forward, his face gathering stark shadows. "If you, or, by the nonexistent transitive property, Felicity, tell even one other person who I am, I will make you, not Felicity, wish you hadn't."
Oliver looked away. "She said you'd probably feel that way."
"That's because she's devastatingly intelligent. Say hi for me, and that she can stop pretending she doesn't know. Also, she should try hacking my system again. She found some interesting vulnerabilities last month, before she hit the inner perimeter. I've patched them."
"Is that why the server rack caught fire?"
Batman gave him a tight-lipped little smile. "I wondered if that would work. I'll send her the code."
Oliver looked desperately to Zach. "So, uh, I'm not sure how much of that you caught, but..."
"You're the Green Arrow and your girlfriend's the brains of the operation." Zach put on his lightest no-big-deal body language. "We're cool."
"Yeah, that's... That's accurate." Oliver started to tip his chair again, then stopped. "Roof? We could go to the roof. Let's go to the roof."
B didn't come to bed until four in the morning, moving stiffly and favoring his right leg. Zach was lying awake, prodding at the action plan on his tablet.
B crawled into bed and tugged the tablet. "You should sleep."
"Ah, ah, ah. Put a million dollars in the bedtime jar."
"Shhhh." B put a hand on Zach's forehead and slowly slid it down over his eyes. Zach fought him for the tablet, but not very hard. "It'll still be there in the morning."
"It's already morning." Zach squirmed as B kept sliding his hand down. "Mph mm owph."
"It'll be fine. Foundation's ramping up for new proposals, and I meet with the board tomorrow. For which I need at least a few hours of sleep."
Bruce's board chair stared at him. "You're serious."
"Dead serious, Dana. New game. The name of this game is, don't get my boyfriend shot for coming up with something useful. If we're careful, we can make this look like a series of impulsive and poorly considered business decisions until it's too late to do anything about it."
Dana Chen nodded. "That is indeed what it looks like."
"We've already set our floor at fifteen an hour, and it's not slowing us down. Raise it to eighteen, figure in the health plan and job security, we beat the starting wage of almost every mook, hench, and goon in town. And put pressure on other employers to raise their wages to keep up. Drain the swamp."
She paused. "Ah. So worldwide on-site childcare benefits..."
"Are a good idea anyway, pull in the people desperate to support a family, and create a lot more minimum wage jobs paid at double the rate."
"And expanding NorHop's facilities and household staffing service. More of the same?"
"Let the word get out that we don't automatically disqualify on a criminal record and watch them roll in. Anyone who looks too sketchy, keep them in our low-security offices on camera." He shrugged. "Other than that, fund things that look good and give Fox whatever he asks for, he's usually right. Got it?"
"Got it. Business as usual, then." She pressed her lips together. "This one will be a hard sell."
"You've never failed me yet." He gave her half a wink and strolled out of his office toward the board room, where they were now five minutes fashionably late.
He didn't have to fake his inattention through the opening of the meeting. His hip ached, his head pounded, and he kept catching whiffs of the sewer water that had gotten in his sinuses.
"Hm? Sorry, late night. Queen's in town. Stayed up, uh, talking." He rubbed his eyes.
"You asked to address the board today."
"Yeah. Thank you, Ms. Chen." He got to his feet in an approximation of seemly business posture. "So, it's come to my attention that we're doing phenomenally well, financially. Currently running at over 12% profit, and that's with all the little corners like millennial insurance, where we're just bleeding money. Good job, everyone."
The temperature of the room dropped a degree. They knew what happened when he pointed out how much money they were making.
"But I've been thinking, we don't answer to shareholders, which gives us so much leeway. Gives us room to do the right thing, even when it's not traditional business advice." He started pacing back and forth, careful to keep his gait even. "It seems like the more we give away, the more money we make, huh?"
Yes, they could see where this was going. He beamed at them in the private joy of knowing they couldn't do a damn thing to stop it.
"Anyone know the margin Wal-Mart runs at these days?"
Dead silence. Finally, his CFO, Frank Landers, said, "3.1% last year. But I'd hardly call their business practices—"
"Oh, no, their business practices are a garbage fire. Anything you hear they're doing, just keep doing the opposite, standing policy. But they're running at three percent, and they continue making money hand over fist. I think we can do a better job of reinvesting. Take some risks, expand our horizons, make our employees even happier than they already are, see where it takes us."
He put his hands on the back of his chair. "Now, I'm not saying we try to give away an extra nine percent all at once, that would be ridiculous. But, say, two percent more by next year. Definitely getting it down there by at least a percent a year and see what happens. Do a big call for input, see what floats to the surface." He had to stop thinking about sewers. "I'm sure there's some great ideas out there, we'll stir 'em all up, get something even better out of the soup."
He swallowed hard on a sincere wave of nausea. "I, uh. Sorry. Big night. I should go. Get some good stuff back to me in two weeks, huh?" He made his escape and retreated to his office, where he could listen with his eyes closed and a coffee bean cracked under his nose.
"Well," Dana said. "The good news is, that's a lot of room to maneuver."
The tell-tale inhalation. Bruce mouthed along as Frank said, "I quit. I mean it this time. Somewhere with actual governance, maybe..."
Would he choose tech or insurance this time? Tech. "Prudential." Damn.
"He's not wrong," Lucius said. "Every time we branch out or improve our benefits, we find some kind of payoff, even if the initiative doesn't pan out like we expected." Thanks, Lucius. Deft touch there.
"So," Dana said. "Proposals. From every department, every level. Run a survey, put out a suggestion box, and don't discard anything. You know he'll ask to see it, and you know he'll ask if we asked every single janitor and dishwasher worldwide. Highlight viable ideas that potentially counterbalance whatever... floats up."
She waited for their nods of assent, which Bruce could see with his eyes closed. "Great. Moving on. Lucius, R&D update."