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Nay, I Can't Resist Thee

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Zach sat on the floor and tried to stay calm. It was simple statistics. He had lived in Gotham City for almost two years and this was his first time in a hostage situation. His number was up, that was all.

He tried to count his blessings. They didn't even have costumes or chemical weapons, just guns. Guns and a lot of shouting, and now he was sitting on a cold floor with his wrists zip-tied behind his back while they argued.

Their plan seemed... tenuous. It involved getting Batman to cooperate and they didn't all agree that it would work, which seemed like the kind of thing you would want to be really, really sure of before you started waving guns at people. As the only hostage left on the top floor with the three ringleaders, he did not share this advice.

He expected the door to bust down, but it didn't. There was just a draft, a change in air pressure, and then the big dark costume in the doorway, a deep voice saying, "It doesn't sound like you've thought this through."

Two guns pointed at Zach. "It's simple," the loudest of the goons said. "You can spend the next hour running around and defusing all the hostages, and maybe-maybe-not making it in time. Or you can crack the joint for us, make a big show of chasing us into the night, and we guarantee everyone gets out alive."

"I see."

They waited, but that was all he said. "What, you want a cut?"

Batman smiled, barely. "Keep talking."

The leader grinned knowingly. "I knew you had to be doing business. No one's that clean, and you have some very pricey hardware. Ten percent. Please don't insult me by haggling. I got a big crew to pay."

"Mm. Ten percent of everything?"

"Is there something other than what's in the safe? We could talk finder's fee."

"There are ten hostages." Batman crossed the room in a few heavy steps and stopped beside Zach. He reached down with a gloved hand and stroked it across Zach's cheek once. Zach stopped breathing. "Fifteen minutes. Alone. Since I won't need all that time for freeing the others." There was a frozen silence.

The goons glanced at each other nervously. "Uh. We're trusting you alone with him?"

"You were hoping to watch?" This wasn't happening, this wasn't happening, this wasn't happening. Zach was having some kind of wet nightmare and Batman had not really just— "I'm just walking him up to the roof for a quiet chat. I'll have him back in fifteen minutes."

The leader pulled it together for a nasty laugh. "Sure. Ten percent. Don't ask, don't tell, right?" He motioned to the others and everyone lowered their guns. "Clock's ticking, see you real soon."

Zach stumbled to his feet and up the stairs, trying not to jerk away from the hand steadying him. Nothing made any sense. The roof access door let them out into a cold spring night with a bitter, driving wind, then clanged shut behind them.

Batman walked ahead, out of touching range where Zach could see him. "You're safe," he said. "Those are some deeply stupid criminals. Unfortunately, one of them has a working knowledge of explosives. I'm sorry I frightened you." He turned away, touched his ear, and started rattling off information to someone.

Zach stood closer to the wall, trying to stay out of the wind. He tried leaning against the wall, but that was wet and even colder. His arms were still bound, he was wearing his shitty barista uniform t-shirt which didn't even have long sleeves, and his teeth chattered with relief.

Batman finished his call and came back. "Response time's delayed. I need to stall another ten minutes to buy the bomb squad enough time. That'll mean going back in there."

"Okay?" Zach bounced on his toes, trying to stay warm.

"Can you handle pretending I've hurt you? If you can, it'll keep them off balance. If you can't, I'll think of something else."

"Oh. Sure, no problem."

"Good." Batman started to reach out, but pulled his hands back. "We'll need to make you look roughed up, and your hair is too short to show any change. Tell me what you're comfortable with."

"Okay." Zach closed his eyes and thought. Then he kept them closed, because it would make saying the whole thing out loud less embarrassing. "Slap bruises on both cheeks. Grab bruises on upper arms and shoulders. Shirt cut off, gagged with shirt, dirt rubbed into one side of my face. Pinprick by the corner of my mouth and on my wrist by the zip tie so it looks like I've been fighting. Fly undone, belt burns on neck, belt left up here or leave it around my neck. If you help me down, I'll start roughing up my knees." He opened his eyes. "Will that be enough?"

In a slightly strangled voice, Batman said, "I was aiming more for torn shirt and dirty knees."

"If that's what you're up for, 'kay." Oh god, he'd embarrassed Batman. Zach was too far gone on adrenaline and panic to shut up. "But I'm a masochist, and you're Batman. Look, I'm sorry. I know that makes it weird. I swear I am not trying to make this more than it is, which is a very bad situation that I want to get out of alive. But they're spooked. If you drag me down there bruised and covered in my own snot, you can keep them talking for as long as you need to. This is something I can do, and I promise it will not freak me out. I trust you."

Batman stood motionless.

"Okay, look, forget I said anything, ripped shirt's great, I still need to do the knees." He relaxed a little when Batman put an arm around him to help him down. He wasn't being handled at arm's length, so maybe he hadn't been terminally creepy.

"It's good tactics," Batman said slowly. "It's still assault."

Zach laughed, grinding his knees into the gritty mud of the roof. It soaked through the denim instantly, a shocking chill. "I ask for worse assault on a Saturday night at the Raptor. This is just window dressing."

"To be absolutely clear. This is not required, and I am not doing this for fun."

"That is absolutely crystal clear." But I'm not the one that started a game of Gay Chicken with armed criminals, he didn't say. "Face and throat first, so they have time to color up."

Batman crouched down. Zach could have touched foreheads with the armored cowl, which was surreal. Then Batman was unbuttoning his jeans for professional reasons and what the hell was his life.

The belt around his neck was warm with body heat. "Ready?"

"Yeah." Zach hissed as the grain of the leather yanked back and forth around his throat, one, two, three. The belt landed on the roof. The heat of it blossomed and then settled in for a long, uncomfortable stay. "That'll do it. Okay. Face. For best marks, least pain, hold my head steady with the other hand flat and let the slap sink in instead of pulling your hand back right away. Avoid the earrings. This is gonna start the waterworks and I'm gonna let it."

A slap would hurt less if he could relax his neck and jaw, but the wind still screamed across the rooftop and straight through his t-shirt, so that wasn't happening. He braced himself against the supporting glove, closed his eyes, and WHAM. Jesus Christ. His nose stung with the sharp smell of blood, and he gasped out a sob without even trying for it. He didn't try to say anything reassuring, just braced for the other side and took it.

"Doing fine," he managed after a few shuddering breaths. "Carry on."

"I'll leave the shirt hanging around your wrists. Just before we go in, I'll weaken the zip so you can pop it with a hard twist. If it snaps too early, the shirt should hide it." Batman worked through the rest of the list, warning him before each new touch.

Zach was grateful for the cold and the fear and the guys with guns waiting five minutes in his future, because otherwise he would be in danger of the world's most awkward erection. By the time they got down to rubbing grit and blood into one side of his aching face, Batman was being so gentle it edged on tender.

"Did I forget anything?"

Zach shook his head, flexed his jaw to ease the gag a little, then tried to stand. He needed help with his balance. He was shaking all over and giddy as hell. They stood by the door for a couple more minutes. Batman talked through the contingency plans in a low voice and Zach nodded. Then Batman fiddled briefly with the zip tie, got a good grip on Zach's shoulder, and opened the door.

The reaction was worth every single bruised nerve. The goons went pale. One of them actually lowered his gun. Zach let himself be shoved onto a chair so he wouldn't fall down. He shivered and made brief, guilty eye contact with each man before looking down at the floor. Wow, his nose really was bleeding a little.

"We were discussing my cut," Batman said. "How much was it, again?"


Zach staggered out the fire exit, breathing hard. The street was quiet. At ground level, the air was still. Everything seemed warped, like nothing had happened. The people walking by imagined they lived in a world without goons and explosives and terror.

He reached for his phone. Shit. The contents of his pockets were somewhere on the floor of the lobby. He would have to shatter someone's dream of a friendlier world.

He picked a nicely dressed man and a woman walking arm in arm. Hands raised to show they were empty, he stepped out in front of them. "Please help. It was a villain thing, I just need to get home, and I don't want to walk two miles without a shirt."

"Oh my god," the woman said. "We'll call the police for you."

"No, don't need the police. It's all settled, I just need to get home."

Reluctantly, they gave him a ride, driving away as soon as he got out at his apartment building. No keys. He buzzed the super's apartment, then the one neighbor he knew by name. No answer. Someone would go in or out, let him into the lobby, call the super for him. Eventually. He rubbed his arms and paced to stay warm.

The shadows by the bushes shifted. Zach yelped. Batman stepped out, keys, wallet, and phone in his hands. "I found these."

"Th-thanks." Zach stuffed things back into his pockets.

"The police would have helped you get home safely."

Zach didn't manage to stop his bark of laughter. "And tell them what? Blame it on the bad guys? Say I asked for it? Anyway, ever seen what happens when a twink brings a black eye to the cops? I have."

Batman drew up slightly taller. "I'm sorry to hear that. I'll have a word with them."

"Uh. If you think it'll help." Zach tried to imagine it and shrugged. "Thanks for my stuff. And for getting me out of there. I'm okay. Really. Gonna go inside now." His teeth were chattering almost too hard to talk.

"Take care." Batman stepped back into the shadows.


A week later, he found a card in his mailbox, with no envelope or postmark. It was blank except for one printed paragraph.

If you're willing to visit the downtown precinct, I would appreciate a character reference. Ask for Commissioner Gordon.

Zach put on a good shirt and headed out two hours early for his work shift. He could do this.

When the desk officer asked his business with the Commissioner, he hesitated. Should he show her the card? She sighed. "Is this a mask thing?" He nodded gratefully.

Ten minutes later, an officer escorted him to a surprisingly nice private office. Commissioner Gordon was a graying man with an unfortunate mustache. Zach held up the card. "I'm here to give a character reference?"

"Yes, I've been expecting you. Have a seat." Gordon pulled a paper form from a drawer. "We can do this entirely off the record, but if you're willing to make an anonymous statement, it would help me to have it on file."

"Sure." Zach stared at the form. "What do you want to know?"

Gordon paused. "We have suspects in custody who made... unsettling allegations about vigilante behavior. A hostage from the incident is unaccounted for. Can you shed any light on that?"

"Yeah." Zach started talking. They went through all the time and place details, and he showed his wrist where there was still a line of scabs from the zip tie. "You probably found my belt on the roof."

"Can you describe it?"

"Brown leather, white metal buckle. Would a DNA match help?"

"Yes. I'll bring a kit when we finish here. Now." Gordon looked at him steadily. "What the hell happened?"

Zach told him. "It was my idea to make it look that bad," he repeated when he had finished. "He was just gonna mess up my hair and rub some dirt on my knees. He didn't pressure me into anything and he didn't make it weird. He is by far the most respectful person I have ever asked to hit me in the face."

Gordon's mouth twisted into a smile. "Is that a long list?"

Zach went cold. "Long enough."

Gordon put down the pen and looked serious. "You disappeared from the scene instead of waiting for police help. Why?"

"Is this going on the record?"

"Not if you don't want it to."

"Are you confirming something he said?"

"Yes."

Zach took a deep breath. "Off the record, as a queer man, I am afraid of the GCPD."

Gordon nodded. "We're aware of the issue. It's difficult to weed out, but I want you to know I don't condone discrimination or abusive officers. Do you have a personal complaint against any officer?"

Zach shook his head.

"Do you have anything to add to your statement on the incident that you don't want written down? Anything at all."

"No."

Gordon picked up his pen again. "Have you seen the Batman since that night?"

"No, and I don't expect to."

"Can you say more about that?"

Zach rolled his eyes. Fine. On the record, then. "Facing evidence of someone's dirty celebrity crush had to be creepy for him. He will never want to look at me again. Are we done here?"

"Yes. Thank you for your report. I'll get the kit."

Chapter Text

Zach's phone rang on the bus home from work. Unknown number. He flicked it away to voicemail. It rang again immediately, same number. He answered it.

A toe-curling baritone voice said, "I read your report. Thank you. It can't have been easy for you."

Zach opened and closed his mouth, but didn't manage any words.

"If you don't want to hear from me again, all you have to do is hang up. But thank you."

"You're welcome," he managed. "Glad it helped." The bus AC was broken and the unseasonably muggy May already had him sweating. This phone call was not helping with that.

"You were mistaken about one thing. I wouldn't be sorry to see you again."

"Oh." It had been two months. Was this a come-on? A courtesy call? Did Batman need his help? "I'm glad. I felt bad about weirding you out."

"I was startled. I got over it. There's something you should know." Batman sounded awkward, his words getting more clipped and abrupt. "I checked on your apartment that night. From across the street. After I let you in. You seemed like you were in shock and I just wanted to make sure you were safe."

"Uh. Right after?"

Right after, when Zach had opened the window for a breeze, wrapped a blanket around his shoulders, and knelt on his bedroom floor to jerk off. It had taken ages to warm up enough, but he'd been patient, rubbing the abrasions on his throat and touching all his bruises, running his free hand everywhere the gauntlets had touched...

"I didn't stay to watch." Thank god. "But not because I didn't want to."

Zach's brain stuttered to a halt.

"I wondered if you might like company tonight."

"Uh."

"Again, all you have to do is hang up."

"No. I mean, yes. Yes tonight, no hang up." Suave, Zach. "Can you give me an hour?"

"Of course." That sounded like a smile. "Nine thirty, then. I'll let myself in."

"Okay." Zach carefully saved the contact as B, stared at the number for the rest of the ride home, then proceeded with the most frantic pre-hookup hygiene routine of his sexual career.


Zach sat down to wait in his living room/kitchen, so of course his guest appeared silently in the doorway from the bedroom. In the tiny apartment, his cape seemed to take up half the room, but his body language was subdued.

"Hi," Zach said. He stood up and gestured at the kitchen. "Would you like anything?"

Batman looked him over from head to toe, then smiled. "Yes."

"Ooh, old line." This could work. They could be casual about this. Zach walked over, put his hands on Batman's spandex-covered hips, and kissed him. Batman only had a couple inches of height on him, and who knew how much of that was boots? His mouth was hot, he was kissing back, he... wasn't moving. "Is this okay?"

Batman nodded, but a muscle in his jaw worked. He lightly, impossibly lightly, settled the fingertips of his gloves along the sides of Zach's neck, individual dots of sensation from the collar of his t-shirt to up behind his ears. Thumbs on his cheekbones. There was absolutely nothing casual about the cage of his fingers. "Tell me what you want."

This could work much better. "I want to do what we faked last time, except with an actual bed, and condoms, and no marks on my face to explain to my boss."

"I hoped you'd say that. Do you care about that shirt?"

"Nope." It was the oldest, thinnest undershirt from the bottom of the drawer, a sacrificial offering.

Batman ran a finger down the hollow of Zach's throat and hooked it into his collar. He controlled Zach's jaw with the other hand. They'd been keeping eye contact long enough that Zach's eyes were starting to water. "I frighten people," he said, his voice low with menace. "It's deliberate. It's effective. It's almost impossible to switch off." His grip tightened. "If you tell me to stop, I. Will. Stop. I need to know that you can tell me to stop. Do we understand each other?"

"Yeah." Zach's whole body was paying attention now. "I won't let you do anything that I'll regret. And I'm not afraid of you."

Damn, he was hard to read through the mask, but he was maybe probably raising his eyebrows under there.

Playing a hunch, Zach rocked his head, enjoying the tension. Batman gripped tighter, pulling his shirt forward and forcing his jaw backward. That felt good. He smiled, kept eye contact, and quietly said, "Stop."

Batman's face didn't move, but his hands jerked away like he'd been burned. He kept them about a foot away, almost cradling the space with Zach in the middle.

Zach nodded. "I'm not afraid of you." He lifted his own hands and grabbed Batman's, guiding them back to his cheeks and keeping them there. The palms of the gauntlets had a strange grippy texture. There was armor plating on the backs of the hands. "So. Helpless hostage? Or do you want me to keep asking for it?"

"Ask." Obviously.

"I want you to tie me up and strip me down and make it filthy." He leaned closer, squeezing his hands tighter. "I want you to hurt me until I can't breathe. I want you to fuck me until I can't put words together." He almost got their noses touching before Batman stopped him, holding him in place. Their breaths were hot in the close space. "I want you to use me however the fuck you want." He let his hands go slack. "Please."

It was like he'd released a spring. He wasn't sure how he ended up twisted, his shoulders wrenched back and forcing him to the floor. There wasn't time for cooperating or fighting, he was just down on his knees, bent forward helplessly, his face almost hitting the carpet.

"I can do that."

Another quick motion and a zip tie bit into Zach's wrists. There was a moment without touch, just feeling his position. Then, like the first time, Batman stroked a hand across his cheek. It lingered this time, more threatening. Zach shivered.

It didn't stop. His cheekbone, his lower lip, under his jaw. Both hands ghosted across his chest, brushing his nipples. He wanted this, he'd wanted this for weeks, and his body still tried to jerk away from a touch that felt stolen.

Batman crouched and wrapped a hand around his jaw again. The gloves should have felt clumsy, but the fingers were smooth rubber and moved like they were skin-tight. He could feel the heat of the hand beneath.

Batman leaned in and held Zach's mouth a millimeter from his own. There was no question of moving toward or away, there was just waiting.

He was still waiting there as Batman reached down and unbuckled Zach's belt one-handed, then undid his fly one slow button at a time. The pressure on his growing erection eased. He moaned in relief, waiting for the next inevitable touch.

Except apparently Batman was a cocktease. Instead of going for the main event, he pulled Zach's belt free. Still one-handed, still keeping their faces so close it tingled, he looped the belt around Zach's neck and drew it through the buckle until it tightened like a leash. The buckle pressed cold against his Adam's apple.

Zach whimpered briefly at the pleasure of something tight on his throat. Batman tugged on the belt and he did it again, again, again. He shifted his hips, trying to get a little friction, but the only effect was that Batman let the belt go slack. His whimper crept towards a whine, so he made himself go back to silent panting, shared breath.

Batman finally moved him, pushing him back to sit on his heels and making him work for his balance. He grabbed the collar of Zach's shirt with both hands, the belt dangling between them. Zach winced internally. The move looked good in porn, but the hem had to be slit in advance. On the roof, Batman had used a knife, like a sensible person. Well, they'd roll with it.

The collar dug sharply on the back of his neck, then RRRIP. Zach blinked at the sudden chill on his shoulders and belly, the fabric coming apart under Batman's hands. "Damn," he said. "That's some hand strength."

Batman smirked at him. "I practice."

"Apparent—" Zach choked on his small talk because Batman grabbed the belt and yanked, pitching him forward. He would have gotten a nasty carpet burn if Batman hadn't caught him by the chest, supporting his weight on one arm but not helping him get back up.

Zach twisted, trying to feel less precarious. Most of his body weight was forward of his knees, like doing pushups with his arms tied behind his back. He managed to get one knee braced in a better position, but Batman just leaned a few more inches and it all slid out from under him again.

It was a deliberately panicky position. He wouldn't get comfortable, that was the point. Okay. He leaned his weight into the arm, which was lumpy with strange fabrics and who knew what else. He closed his eyes, tilted to rest his side against Batman's chest, and trusted that he would stay up.

Batman rewarded him with greedy strokes along his back and arms, peeling the shirt down to bunch around his wrists. Goosebumps raised all over Zach's arms.

Then Batman ran a slow hand down his lower back, under his briefs, around the curve of his ass, groping and forcing the waistband down at the same time. Zach gasped. His unsecured jeans slid down his thighs.

Batman was groping his ass. That was actually happening. "Yeah. God, yeah." His cock snagged uncomfortably and then twanged loose, exposed. His briefs joined his jeans.

Batman settled his hand between Zach's ass cheeks, fingers nestling down to not quite touch his balls or asshole and not quite spread his thighs. "Get your jeans off."

"Hnn?" Zach was dizzy from the pressure on his chest. He wiggled half-heartedly.

"Now."

Adrenaline shot through him. He scrambled, kicking desperately. Okay, practicing his safeword hadn't just been a courtesy to a nervous top. That voice was for moving people out of burning buildings. He might really hurt himself listening to that voice without thinking.

When he'd gotten his jeans (and briefs and socks) off, he collapsed down, hotly aware of Batman's glove between his thighs the whole time. The strain of his position was getting to him, but he could take it.

The glove ran the whole length of his inner leg. "Better." Batman levered him back to sitting, much more gently than he'd dragged him down. Zach swayed and blinked at him.

Zach was on his knees, cock hanging out, wearing only a belt around his neck and some shreds of a shirt. Batman still balanced in a crouch on his shitkicker boots, covered in Kevlar except for a few inches of his face, with his cape a black pool spreading out around him. He touched Zach's lip with his thumb. Zach had never felt so naked.

"Hmm." Batman picked up the leash. "Bedroom."

Zach grinned. "Carry me to bed?" That was definitely raised eyebrows. "Pretty please."

Batman leaned in, keeping tension on the leash, and kissed him. It was a slow, sloppy make-out kiss, and Zach returned it eagerly. Batman wrapped his arm around Zach's waist for the first time and started mouthing down his shoulder and side, the cowl rubbing against his skin, the stylized pointed ear brushing his arm. Since he was still completely unable to reach and touch, the firm embrace was a relief.

Batman bit the crease of Zach's hip once, then tightened his grip, took an audible breath and heaved to his feet. Zach dangled upside-down, his cock grinding into Batman's shoulder, his face smothered in cape. After a shocked gasp, he laughed all the way into the bedroom.

Batman settled him on his knees at the end of his bed. Zach was glad he'd thought to fold back the blanket and throw down a towel so they wouldn't have to mess with it later. "Supplies in the nightstand. Anything in either drawer, you can use."

After a reassuring grip on his shoulder to make sure he was stable, Batman went to investigate. Zach didn't turn around. He knew what was in there. Top drawer: condoms, gloves and three lube options. Bottom drawer: greatest hits of sex toys. He heard the clink of metal against metal and the dull shifting of leather and silicone.

Batman came back with empty hands. "Thank you. That was informative." That was ominous. "I have what I need."

He dug his thumbs into the fronts of Zach's shoulders, working the stretched muscles and tendons that had been under tension for too long. Zach groaned. Flexing his shoulders sharpened the pain on his wrists, but the trade-off was momentarily worth it.

"Do you need to switch to cuffs?"

Zach thought about it. "No. I, uh. Let's not compromise on that one."

"Agreed." With that, the friendly chat was over. Batman shifted and he was taller, colder. He leaned in and Zach fought down a flinch.

Batman ran slow fingers down his sides. The earlier touching had been dirty. This was almost clinical, but had the same objectification vibe. His hands explored carefully, pinching and touching. Then he went for scent and taste, taking deep breaths behind Zach's ear, down one side of his chest, stopping to bite a nipple, working his way down to the thighs and still, like a fucking cocktease, only letting Zach feel hot breath on his aching dick.

Zach felt like a research subject, or maybe a scientific instrument that needed adjustment, which was honestly pretty hot. His legs shook in frustration. He started arching into every touch and bite, trying to speed it up, but there was no rushing this guy.

Finally Batman took the belt and folded Zach down, his neck almost touching his own knees. He looped the leash around Zach's leg and tucked the end under the knee so he was pinned in place by his own body weight. Zach tested it. He'd choke himself long before he managed to roll free.

Batman hooked his fingers under the line of his armor by his groin and undid the catches to pull his codpiece free. How exactly did that fit together? Focus, Zach. Batman is whipping out his dick six inches from your face. He worked aside one more layer of black fabric, and then he was rubbing his thumb over the head of a nice cut cock, half-hard and shiny with sweat.

Zach wet his lips and groaned, watching him stroke it and breathing in the smell of sweat and sex. "Please."

"Please what?"

"Please, sir."

Batman grabbed him by an earring, not quite hard enough to hurt. "Wrong answer. I don't need titles and I don't enjoy slave games. I want specifics. I want to hear you say it." He gave his cock a long tug. "Try again. Please what?"

"Please. Please let me suck you. Please fuck my mouth. I wanna choke on your cock. Please."

"Not yet." Batman rested his fingers on Zach's face, just out of sucking range, and let Zach lick at them desperately. "I won't fuck you until you're crying too hard to talk."

Zach shuddered hard. This was his warning to opt out, of course, but unless he safeworded, it wasn't a hypothetical. It was just a statement of fact. Batman was here to beat the shit out of him.

Batman trusted him to decide whether he honestly wanted to get that wrecked or not. "Yeah." He got his tongue going again, flicking at the tips of Batman's fingers.

"Mmm." Batman worked his cock a while longer, letting it fatten up, then drew Zach up by the belt again. He didn't equal out their heights this time, but kept Zach lower, so he had to look up. "I have a problem."

He lifted his hand to cover Zach's cheek and god, yeah, Zach wanted that again. "I keep remembering my handprints on your face, which is the one option that's off the table tonight. I don't intend to compromise there." He swiped a thumb across Zach's cheekbone for emphasis. "It's distracting. And I know too many ways to hurt people."

The voice was working on him again. Zach shrank back without thinking, straining against his leash.

"Pick your poison. Tell me how I'm going to break you down."

Zach closed his eyes and bit his lip, shaking. He leaned forward to rest his forehead against the bat logo and thought.

Okay. He looked up into the mask. "You want fast or slow?"

"What's slow?"

"Good old-fashioned spanking over your knee, in the middle of the bed so I can relax."

"And fast?"

"Not an offer I make to the general public, but you know what you're doing." He swallowed. "If you want to break me down in under a minute and get right to fucking, you can use the nasty pressure point shit."

Batman sucked in a breath between his teeth. His hand tightened on the leash. Zach glanced down. His own cock was going into hiding. Batman's bobbed in the air, making its vote clear.

He looked into Batman's eyes and found his calm. "Go on then. Hurt me. Please."

Batman unthreaded the belt, set it aside, and massaged the sore lines on Zach's throat, inch by inch. Every movement was precise. He slid his hands under Zach's arms and settled two careful fingers in each armpit. The spots tingled. Zach waited.

In his calm place, he could wait a long time. It felt like they waited for an eternity, staring at each other.

Then Batman drew his hands back. "I'll save that for the second date." He reached down Zach's arm, bringing him in close, and tugged the zip tie. "Some pleasures don't mix well."

Oh. That could have been bad. He leaned into the armor, relaxing. He'd been ready, but it was still a relief. Second date. There could be a second date? This was a date? Batman had both arms around him and his life was amazing.

After that, the prospect of a brutal spanking seemed cozy. He settled across the bed with his feet over the edge and his crotch centered between Batman's thighs. The fabric of the tights was a little rough, but in a minute that would be the least of his problems. He rolled his shoulders once to ease his arms while Batman cut the remains of his shirt out of the way, baring his ass. Zach put his face down on the bed and went boneless.

A heavy hand settled on his back, the other on his ass. "Do you know how to tap out?"

Zach thumped a foot twice.

"Good. I don't know your edges. I won't consider finding them a failure."

Zach just nodded. Words were harder, bent over like this, waiting for pain. Batman squeezed the curve of his butt a little possessively, then lifted his hand. WHAM.

Yes, that was the shock he'd been itching for, the full-force hammer of a weighted gauntlet sinking into his muscles. He choked on his first yelp and nodded again. After just four of those his legs started trying to scramble out of the way no matter how hard he tried to hold still. Batman landed one more on each of his thighs. Zach barely managed to turn his scream into a manly grunt of pain.

"P-pillow, please." His breath was already hitching. His eyes streamed. A pillow was shoved in front of him. He buried his face in it and braced for the next blow.

Instead, Batman pushed two cold, slick fingers down the crack of his ass. Zach gasped and grunted again. It wasn't painful, but it wasn't patient, either. Insistent. Both fingers were all the way up in him, quicker than he expected, and Batman hadn't even taken his gloves off.

Then his asshole was suddenly empty again and WHAM. This was going to be a wild ride.

It was maybe another two minutes before he was reduced to a sobbing, struggling mess with what felt like half of Batman's hand jammed up his ass. So much for slow. Batman lifted the restraining hand from his shoulder blades and massaged his throat, squeezing just a little too tightly to be friendly. "Had enough?"

Zach made an incoherent little noise.

"I asked you a question."

He shook his head once, decisively. "Good," he mumbled.

The hand on his throat moved to his face, running over his lips. Zach opened his mouth and panted for it. Smooth gloved fingers settled on his tongue, the thumb under his chin. Zach tried to suck, but the shape wasn't right.

Batman was holding his tongue down, restraining his head by the helplessly open jaw. "This material," he said, pulsing his fingertips in both ends of Zach's body, "can fend off wild animal attacks. Do your worst." He started spanking again. He did not stop until Zach tapped out, screaming onto the choking fingers.

Instead of moving Zach around, Batman crawled out from under him and knelt by his head, his cock rock-hard and already wrapped up by the time he lifted Zach's face out of the pillow. Zach snuffled and shook, but opened his mouth.

"Say it."

"Pls. Pls fuh. Pls."

"Close enough." Batman slammed into his throat.

Zach settled into it quickly. He was wrecked, but he had a lot of practice sucking cock while wrecked. After a few thrusts to make it clear who was on top, Batman supported Zach's chest and let him work for it, sucking and gulping and gasping breaths between strokes, surrounded by the dark veil of the cape.

It was good, it was really good. It was also exhausting, and Zach could barely stay up. He was getting clumsy. He didn't object when Batman pulled out and laid him down on his belly with a pillow under his hips. He was ready to get pounded without thinking much.

When Batman squeezed two handfuls of his bruised ass, he wailed sharply. He was long past feeling embarrassed about the noise, but even to his own ears it sounded raw and alarming. He spread his legs wider and prepared to beg with actual words to make his position clear.

Batman didn't make him, didn't hesitate or apologize, just squeezed harder and plunged in. Zach relaxed and took it, took all of it. He melted silently into the mattress, slack with happiness.

After a moment, Batman hissed under his breath and cut the zip tie. That did hurt enough to draw out another noise, as the blood rushed into all the pressure marks on both wrists, but Zach barely noticed. Batman had moved his arms out of the way and was pressing forward, lying down on Zach with his full weight and covering him.

He couldn't breathe and he didn't care. The armor edges pressed into his bruises and he didn't care. He was getting fucked into the mattress or possibly the center of the earth by the goddamn Batman in full armor and nothing else could—

A bare hand wrapped around his wrist. Then the other. Hot and dripping with sweat, Batman's naked hands were on his thrashed wrists. It wasn't a cruel squeeze or a practical check. It was tender and almost embarrassingly intimate.

Zach moaned. Whoever the guy in the suit was, he liked a sweet, slow fuck with his mouth on the back of Zach's neck.

"Yeah," Zach said, as clearly as he could. "Yeah. Just like that."

They stayed like that for a long time, with Batman a slow, rolling pressure on him and in him. He took, he took, he took.

Zach usually didn't get hard after a beating. It wasn't a problem, it just wasn't the point; he'd have plenty of chances to jerk off to the memory later. Now, under the relentless rocking, his cock started taking notice.

He angled his hips, aiming the fuck harder into the sweet spot, and matched rhythm. He could barely move under the weight of Batman's body, but that half an inch was enough to amp up the sensation. He humped against the pillow, tightening with pleasure.

It was still steady and easy, and he wasn't too concerned about getting off, but their movements definitely had a direction now. Batman's hands tightened on the lines of fire around his wrists. Zach moaned, raw and filthy. Batman grunted in his ear in response, almost a snarl.

"Yeah. Please yeah." Zach mumbled vague encouragement as they sped up, then trailed off into helpless little grunts as Batman really got down to business.

Batman pushed up, shifting the weight from Zach's back to his wrists. Zach thought he would scream again, but what came out was a long gasp.

This was the pounding he'd first expected. Batman slammed into him, hips slapping, cock slipping easily in and out of Zach's sloppy hole. They both went silent, too focused on the effort of it for more than ragged breathing.

Batman groaned low and long when he came, pumping a few more times and then holding it, shaking. Zach tried flexing his ass to get some aftershocks, but he was fucked out. He lay still as Batman pulled out, leaving him cooling in his own sweat.

He drifted a little. He startled when Batman bit the back of his neck and then slid a handful of lube between the pillow and his cock. Oh, that was good. He pushed against it, his balls grinding against Batman's wrist, skin on skin.

It was a nice tight grip, showing off that hand strength again. Mostly Batman just let him rut into it, with the occasional creative twist of his fingers to keep things hot. He'd take a while, but he'd get there.

Batman pushed his other hand under Zach's shoulder and wrapped it around his throat. Maybe he wouldn't take that long after all.

Batman spoke in his ear, a scrotum-tightening rumble. "You want this?"

"Yes. Please."

"You trust me?" Batman gave the head of Zach's cock a particularly good swirling stroke.

"Yes. Yes, I trust you. Please."

"How far do you want to go?"

"Right, ngh, right to the edge and back. Please."

The naked hand on his throat gripped tighter, tighter, until Zach's eyes rolled back and his knees went weak. Just as he grayed out at the edges and his hips couldn't quite find the next thrust, the hand slackened. Blood rushed back into his brain and he bucked desperately.

The next time, Batman squeezed both hands in tandem, Zach's throat and the head of his cock held in the same choking grip. He was close, so close as he sagged down, boneless, helpless, and surged back up again.

Once more, and this would be it for sure. He thrust hard, focusing, gasping as if more air could help, fighting the dimming roar in his head for just one more stroke, just one more and he could...

He came into Batman's hand, giddy with oxygen, and collapsed.

Batman withdrew his hands and ruffled Zach's hair once. The bed creaked; he was standing up. Zach knew how this part of the script was supposed to go: the Batman flaps off into the night, leaving him wrecked on the bed.

"Another minute. Please."

The bed creaked again. Batman laid a hand on his cheek. Zach gripped it with shaking fingers.

"I'm just cleaning up," Batman said quietly. Zach let him go.

The sounds of the toilet and water splashing in the sink were so prosaic it was a little surreal. Even Batman had to take a leak.

Batman came back with clean hands and a towel to mop the worst of the sweat and slime off Zach. Then he sat on the bed with his legs stretched out and curled Zach up beside his leg. He took a cold washcloth and started working it over all the little abrasions on Zach's throat, then the larger ones on the wrists.

Zach wrapped a leg over and started giggling silently, his shoulders shaking with it. Batman had never even taken off his boots. He had to be roasting in there.

"Mm?"

"Thank you. 'Sgood. You're really, really good."

"You too." Batman finished tending him and settled a hand on his neck. It felt like safety, not sex.

"If you want, if there is a second date," Zach said, "don't get me wrong, I am really into the suit. But when you slowed down, 'sgood too. I'm into you even if you don't wanna be the big bad bat all the time."

"Noted."

They didn't say any more, just lay there a while, breathing. Eventually Batman shifted. "I need to go."

"'Kay." Zach rolled to let him up.

"Should I call you?"

"Fuck yes."

Batman laughed under his breath. Zach expected to hear footsteps, a door or window, but there was nothing more, just a faint breeze and the yellow streetlight trickling through the blinds in his dark room.

Chapter Text

Batman called him at midnight on a Tuesday. They fucked against the wall with Zach's arms pinned above his head and his legs over Batman's shoulders, held up by one hand.


Batman called him at 8am on a Sunday when he was still sore and hung over from a busy night at the Raptor and had a work shift in three hours. He told him to lube up in advance and fucked him quickly, viciously, twisting the fresh bruises with gloved hands. He left Zach twitching and sticky on the bed with a brief kiss on his temple.


Batman called him at 9pm on a Wednesday. They had just started making out when something on the big yellow gear belt stowed under the bed gave a shrill beep and he had to go right back out the window.


Batman called him at 6pm on a Thursday when he had the next two days off work and left bright red handprints on both sides of his face.


Batman called him at 4am on a Monday and Zach said he was welcome to come over, but they wouldn't get up to much. He sat slumped in a kitchen chair, his fists clenched. Zach made coffee and put his arms over Batman's shoulders and didn't ask why.

When he saw the body count in the morning headlines, he didn't have to.


Batman called him at 1am on a Friday and actually took his boots off. Zach learned that Batman had ticklish feet and, unsurprisingly, a mean kick when he was startled. They sucked each other off twice each.


Batman called him at 10pm on a Tuesday and muffled him with the good leather gag from the drawer. Carefully, delicately, he demonstrated exactly how little pressure it takes to make a man tap out and exactly how little Zach could do about it. Zach asked him to demonstrate 15 times before cracking.


Batman didn't call for almost two weeks and Zach tried not to freak out. Then a human trafficking ring burst wide open like someone had kicked over an anthill. Dozens of arrests.

Batman called him at 7am that morning, just as he read the phrase 'acting on anonymous information.' Zach answered the phone with "Congratulations."

They fucked for two hours, slow and sweet.


Batman called him at 5pm on a Thursday and beat his ass and legs black and blue before they fucked. He left an unlabeled jar of muscle rub that burned like holy fire but let Zach walk without hobbling the next day.


Batman called him at 6pm on a Monday and said he might have a few hours, but had to be ready any minute. They ended up playing Strip Gin Rummy but with only Zach stripping. Even with a point handicap and Zach really trying, Batman demolished him.

Chapter Text

"I was thinking," Zach said. "I do have other people over. And not on a fixed schedule. It's Saturday night, I'd be more likely to have hooked up with someone. It's pretty amazing you've never asked to come over at a bad time."

Batman went poker-faced, which could mean anything, but probably wasn't good.

"Anything you want to tell me?"

"What were you guessing?" No, this would not be good.

"I was guessing that you bugged my apartment. I was hoping that you were just peeking in my windows now and then, or, if it's a bug, that it mostly just switches on when it hears voices and, I don't know, checks against a villain voiceprint database or something."

Batman's face shifted into surprise. "That's smart. I should use that."

Zach crossed his arms and waited.

"Both. And I spliced into the feeds of your building's security cameras. I check your work schedule sometimes. I have back doors into a few other systems, but I would never use them unless you were in danger."

Zach took a steadying breath. "Other systems like my laptop and phone and email?"

Batman looked away. "Like that, yes."

"You can hear yourself, right? You know what it's called when anyone other than Batman pulls this shit?"

"Yes."

"And...?"

"I'm afraid it's not negotiable. Eyes and ears everywhere are how I stay alive to do the work. It's how I keep the people near me alive too. Welcome me, welcome my surveillance."

Zach reminded himself and his entirely reasonable anxiety attack that Batman had made a pretty big deal about taking no for an answer, at least with him. He prayed that would hold up. "What happens if it's not negotiable for me either?"

Batman closed his eyes. "If you ask me to, I will pull the surveillance and burn every back door. I will take you off active monitoring and you will never see or hear from me again except on the news."

"Off active monitoring? That's your best offer?"

"Yes." Batman surged out of the chair to his full height. Zach took a panicked step back, but he didn't come any closer. "I've been in your home a dozen times. At least four people can easily connect your face to me, and one of them is the chief of police. My passive watchlist flags me when data patterns indicate danger in the web of people I've touched. It includes everyone I have worked with, slept with, fought, saved in a particularly visible way, or bought even one piece of identifiable equipment from. You've been on it since six hours after we met, and you will be for life. It is not negotiable."

Zach gathered his courage and walked to the kitchen, crossing within arm's reach of the angry, paranoid vigilante dressed as a bat who he had been hoping would suck him off tonight. He got a glass of water and he drank it, staring at the wall over the sink.

"I am not telling you to take all your spyware now," he said. "But you're leaving for the night, and you aren't checking my data feeds or looking in my window, and you aren't calling me again until I text you. Clear?"

"Clear."

Zach counted to thirty before he turned around, just to make sure.


Zach: If you have broken our agreement at all, even once, you should pack up your stuff. If not, you can call me.


Zach's phone rang six minutes later. He picked up, but didn't say anything. Neither did Batman.

Zach cracked first. "Hi."

"Hi." Batman was as subdued as Zach had ever heard him.

"How have you been?"

"Frightened for you. Lonely. Frustrated. You?"

"Also pretty frightened for me. I pissed off one of the costumes. It turns out he'd been watching my apartment for weeks."

There was a long silence. "I'm sorry."

"Thank you. Good start." He sighed. "You get it, right? Please tell me you get why this is a problem."

"I get it. I just don't know how to fix it."

"I just can't stop thinking about... How much time did you spend just... watching me?"

"None." Batman sounded startled, not defensive. "I would check the bug or your window just long enough to find out if you had company. If you didn't, I'd ask to come over. If you said yes, I'd skim the camera feeds and scout your perimeter. That's all."

That actually helped a little. "How often did you bend that?"

After a little too long, Batman said, "Once. I couldn't stay, and I was on a stake-out. I listened to you breathe for about an hour. I knew it was unacceptable. I didn't do it again."

Plausible, and not nearly as gross as it could have been. "How many ways did you find to check on me last week that didn't technically break what I asked for?"

Another pause. "I thought of several. I used none. I— It was difficult. But I do a lot of difficult things."

"Any other loopholes you're hoping I won't ask about?"

"No."

Zach's shoulders finally relaxed a little, and the week-long knot in his gut eased. "Did it even occur to you to ask?"

"I— No, it didn't. I... don't ask permission for much. You wouldn't—" Batman sounded honestly confused. "Would you have said yes?"

Zach ran a hand over his face. "The first time you came over, I invited you to punch me in the pressure points without warmup. Remember?"

"It was unforgettable."

"We are not normal. Not even for each other. I trust you with some stupid, stupid shit. Give me a little credit. And if you think I would say no to something, don't. fucking. do it. You know this one."

After a second, Batman said, "May I come over?"

Zach blinked. That was not the question he'd been expecting.

"I could be there in 16 minutes. May I scout the perimeter, and may I come over."

"How do you know I'm home?"

"It fits your routine and you wouldn't have invited me to call from anywhere else."

Fair. "Yeah. See you soon."


Zach didn't scamper around and make the bed, or do the dishes, or even change his shirt. He closed the blinds for the first time in a week. He sat in his living room with a good line of sight to the open bedroom door. He waited.

There was a knock at his apartment door. He jumped. Seriously? No neighbors ever visited him, and the one time he— Oh.

He checked the peephole. Batman stood awkwardly in the hallway, distorted by the fisheye lens. Zach let him in.

"We're still fighting. To be clear." Zach put his arm around Batman's neck and kissed him. He dug his fingers into the cape and the hard edges of the armor underneath, trying to memorize the textures in case this was it. He savored the scratch of five o'clock shadow; Batman hadn't done any date prep either.

Batman put a hand on his cheekbone, their most personal intimacy. His fingers felt thicker than usual, with a coarse, tough texture.

"Are those new gloves?" Zach murmured when he came up for air.

"They're my standard gauntlets. I usually change before I visit you." Batman had specialized gauntlets for fucking in. Zach set that confusing knowledge aside for later, assuming there was a later.

"Let's start over." He sat down at his tiny table and Batman took the other chair. "Is there anything you would like to tell me?"

"Yes. I have security concerns."

"Oh?"

"Every time I visit, I might be leading danger to your apartment. Every time I take off half my tools and focus my attention on your body, I leave myself open to attack. I am not a safe person to spend time with. Establishing patterns increases both our risks."

Zach nodded. "With you so far."

"One of the ways to reduce those risks is limiting patterns that can be avoided. If I text you every time I wonder if you're busy, that leaves a signature in your phone records and your memory. If someone grabs either, it's a point of exposure." He stopped talking.

"So... you would like to limit that by avoiding the times it's not even worth bothering to ask."

"Exactly."

"And scheduling in advance or setting up a standing date would be worse."

"Much."

"So if there was some way I could let you know when I'm not available?" Zach had no idea if this would work, but it was pretty clearly not on Batman's list of solutions. "Online calendars are great these days. I use one. I could make sure to keep it updated, and give you access. People do that."

Batman blinked.

"I found your bug. One of them, anyway. Bottom of the nightstand, really?" Zach shook his head. "I want a do-not-disturb switch. No, not to switch it off. There is no way in the world to switch off your Big Brother act if you don't want to be stopped. I trust you to stop."

"Thank you. I was afraid I'd lost that."

"You came damn close."

"I know." Batman looked down at the table. "The building camera feeds would be difficult to replace."

"Keep those. I don't care if you see my neighbors walking in and out, and if I accidentally bring home an ax murderer, please avenge me with my blessing."

Batman's whole posture tightened.

"Uh. That's... Sorry. Bad joke. But seriously, that one's fine. And you don't have to avenge me."

"If you let me protect you in the first place—" Batman snapped his mouth shut. "Sorry. Go on."

"Okay, that is the part that's gotta stop. That is scary as hell."

"Wanting to protect you?"

"Do not twist this."

"I... didn't realize I was."

He really didn't. Zach scrubbed at his face. "What if you decided that me having sex with other people was an unacceptable risk? Or taking a job in another city?"

"I would never do that." Batman looked smaller again, and troubled. Maybe this was getting through.

"But if you did, spying on my email and phone is how you could stop me from ever, ever escaping you."

Silence. Long, awkward silence.

Finally, Batman said, "I don't know how to compromise on this."

"Okay. Why do you need it? What does it buy you?"

"If you dropped off the map, I could rip your data apart to find out where and why. Hostage survival can hang on minutes. As you know."

Zach curled in on himself a little, remembering. "Yeah. Okay. Any other circumstances?"

"That's the only essential one."

"You've got it. You can keep the back doors for that."

Batman let out a huge breath. "Thank you."

"Is that all the deal breakers?"

"Yes."

"We don't have to break up now?"

"That's always up to you, but no."

"Good. Kiss me, you fool." Zach didn't get up, just leaned back.

Batman took his cue, swooped in, and dragged Zach up so fast he stumbled. He kissed with bruising force, then bit Zach's lower lip, slowly increasing the pressure until he twitched and gasped. Still biting, he controlled Zach's head and forced them down to the floor, Zach on his back with Batman's considerable weight flattening him into the carpet.

Zach put his arms above his head in invitation. Batman grabbed his wrists and pinned the length of his arms. Zach sighed and closed his eyes. "That's better. God, I missed you."

"I was afraid you wouldn't let me say goodbye."

"If you couldn't stop stalking me for a whole week, yeah. It would've hurt, but yeah."

They kissed more gently. Zach ground his crotch up against the codpiece. He'd missed the unforgiving armor.

"So now we can talk about the fun stuff." As he'd hoped, that got a confused look. He squirmed, fighting for a full breath. "If you're already rigging me a do-not-disturb switch, you should go ahead and add a please-disturb switch."

Batman's hands tightened.

"An I-miss-you switch. A now-would-be-a-great-time switch. An I'd-like-to-know-you're-listening-to-me-jerk-off switch."

"And when that switch lights up?"

"You still tell me if you're coming in, or if you tune in and I'm jerking off. So I don't have to wonder. But you can tune in any time, look in my window if you're in the neighborhood, whatever. Full access."

Batman's hips jerked against him with painful pressure.

"And... You can location track my phone. Day or night, any time, even on do-not-disturb. I'd like that. I want you to know where I am. I am trusting you not to be a dick about where I choose to go and what I choose to do there."

Batman forced Zach's wrists together to secure with one hand and got the other around his throat.

Zach arched into it, keeping his eyes wide open. "Anything on your wishlist?"

"Mm. My mouth around your cock."

"I mean, I won't say no." Zach leaned into Batman's thumb to feel his own pulse. "But I was thinking of how you wanna stick your fingers in my data."

Batman jammed three fingers into Zach's mouth. The rough texture on his lips and tongue was startling, brutal. Zach groaned.

"I want," Batman said, wiggling his fingers, "to use the same background monitoring on your accounts that I use when I set up a lure to see who bites. It lets anything pass through. It doesn't even stop hacking. But if someone comes sniffing around, if a known threat tries to connect with you, it lights up to let me know."

He worked his fingers deeper, right to the edge of choking. "You fuck who you want. But if you swap numbers with someone on Joker's payroll, I want to be able to warn you."

Zach nodded vigorously, picking his head up to choke himself on the thrusting fingers. Batman pushed down to force Zach's head to the floor. Zach gagged and struggled.

Slowly, Batman drew his wet fingers out. Zach made a half-hearted attempt to bite the glove and keep him in, then fell back panting.

Batman went nose to nose with him, full monster voice. "Are we good?"

"Oh yeah. We are very, very good."

Chapter Text

It was August and it was roasting. All of Gotham City wilted in the heat. Zach took a long, cold shower after his work shift, cranked the AC, and flipped his Booty Signal to please-disturb. He got back into his jeans, but no shirt.

Batman didn't drink when he visited. Zach had never even bothered offering. He mixed a big pitcher of virgin mojito that was mostly ice and lime, then doctored one for himself. He held the sweating glass against his neck for almost a minute; it would take another hour for the apartment to cool down.

Lighting up the signal was never a guarantee, especially when there were still hours of daylight left. He switched it on almost every evening lately just because. He parked a chair directly in front of the blast of cold air from the AC unit and sat down to poke at his email.

A while later, his phone buzzed with the deep church bell ringtone that only meant one person. It was a text.

B: 43 minutes.
Zach: 🏃💋

He deleted the text. Someone snooping through his phone didn't need to know Batman's response time.

When Batman appeared, his face was red with heat. He accepted a brief kiss, then dragged Zach to the bed by one ear. He got the comfortable cuffs from the drawer and chained Zach to the headboard. Then he slipped into the bathroom.

"Nice to see you too!" Zach hollered. After a couple of minutes, the shower started running. He made a game of trying to get his pants off with his arms chained above his head, but no dice. Curse his commitment to showing off his ass.

Batman came out in a few minutes looking less like a boiled lobster. Zach gasped. Batman was practically naked. Bare hands and feet, gray tights and bodysuit, a black cloth mask tied over his head like the Dread Pirate Roberts.

Zach felt positively Victorian for getting excited about this, but damn. Batman had left his armor and cape and cowl on the floor of Zach's bathroom. Well, he'd probably hung up the cape.

"Mojitos in the fridge," he said, as if everything was routine. He watched Batman's hard ass instead of the all-concealing cloak as he left, and his actual substantial pecs instead of the chest plate when he returned with a frosty glass. Zach said a silent prayer to the weather gods for the heatwave to last a few weeks.

"Comfortable?" Batman's smile was almost a smirk. Sometimes he could be a real troll when he had Zach tied up.

"So far."

Batman grabbed his ankles and yanked. Zach skidded down the bed until his arms hit full extension. His body was laid out to be looked at. He tightened up his core and arched to make himself as lookable as possible.

Batman dug in the nightstand for supplies and laid them out by Zach's knees. It was maybe the third time he'd ever gone for the nitrile gloves from the drawer instead of a slicked-up gauntlet. The pile included an optimistic handful of condoms; that meant the mask threat level was pretty low. Good for the city, great for Zach.

Zach had learned that snappy banter during this part was a great way to get held down by the scruff of the neck and hurt. That was its own fun, of course, but he looked forward to burning through the stack of condoms, so he opted for quietly alluring.

Staying quiet was easy because the view was phenomenal. The bodysuit left absolutely nothing to the imagination and the lines of Batman's sunlit pecs and abs were just crying out for attention. He was slimmer through the waist than Zach had expected; the armor was deceptive.

"Like what you see?"

Zach went with eye contact and full sincerity. "Yes."

Batman unbuttoned Zach's jeans and slid them down his hips, past his knees, but left them tangled around his shins. Then he put a knee down on them, pinning Zach's ankles in place. Zach squirmed, testing. Yes, that was remarkably effective.

Batman knelt over him, gloving up. The trick with the jeans made it impossible for Zach to spread his legs, giving the hand sliding between his thighs an illicit feel. He twisted, trying to get his knees further apart, but he really was laid out with almost no room to adjust. The attempt just made it feel dirtier when Batman started rubbing his hole open with one slow finger.

His cock was already standing up good and tall, and Batman slicked it up with his other hand before rolling a condom on with his mouth like a total show-off. Zach groaned. "Yeah, that's it. Gonna suck me off quick first? We could try for a speed record."

Batman tilted his face, mouth still wrapped around Zach's cock, and his eyes crinkled in a smile. He drew up so just the head was between his lips. Zach held his breath. Then Batman's eyes crinkled harder and he sank down impossibly slowly, a silent heat down the length of the shaft.

Zach dropped his head back to the mattress and banged it a few times. If he tried complaining about it, Batman would somehow find a way to go slower. "Can I at least get a pillow so I can keep admiring the scenery?"

Batman let go of his cock and reached, extending his body. The lone finger in Zach's ass went deep, giving the last inch of reach Batman needed to get a pillow behind Zach's head without freeing his ankles. They grinned at each other.

"Thank you." Zach settled in his new comfortable angle to watch Batman go down on him again, still too slowly, the finger in his ass barely moving.

Slow build had its merits, but this was a little much. Zach jerked his hips. "C'mon. C'mon. Fucking cocktease, c'mon."

Batman drew up slowly again. "When I have to take your cock out of my mouth to answer, I don't think you have a defensible case." He went back down. He twitched his finger like a pulse. Probably like Zach's pulse. It was speeding up a little.

Zach moaned and thrashed. When he had whined and panted for it sincerely enough, there would be mercy. Today he found he was desperate for it, his bare skin tingling with frustration.

"In a hurry?"

"Please let me touch you," Zach blurted out, surprising himself. But he had a practically naked Batman kneeling over his leg, and he literally had not gotten to lay a finger on him. "Please."

"Not today." That wasn't teasing. "Second choice?"

"Please touch me. Let me feel you. Wanna feel all those muscles you're showing off."

"Mm. My weight on you?"

"Yes. Please, that's so hot, when you lean on me so hard I'm fighting for air. Feeling the actual shape of you, letting you feel me, god, I want you."

Batman crawled up his body, kissing and biting every inch of the way. He wasn't using his weight yet, but without the ankle restraint, Zach could kick off his jeans and plant his feet, lifting his body to rub against the spandex.

"Like that?" Batman bit at his throat, then kissed his mouth slowly, much more delicately than Zach tried to kiss back.

"More. Please crush me. Pretty please."

Batman lifted up and tilted his body off Zach's. Then he twisted like a gymnast, hovering for a terrifying moment before landing with his knees to either side of Zach's armpits, his hands by Zach's hips, his crotch over Zach's face.

"Jesus. Uh. Yeah, that'll work. Wow. How did you do that?"

"Core strength."

If Zach could do that stunt, he'd sound smug too. "I solemnly swear I will do more sit-ups," he whispered, watching Batman work his heavy cock and balls free through the flap in the tights.

A thin line of pre-come dangled teasingly from Batman's cock. Zach bit his lips to avoid temptation. They'd talked about it once; Batman spent too much time covered in other people's blood to take chances. He mercifully wrapped it up right away and let Zach start licking at the reassuring tastes of latex and lube.

Batman settled down into Zach's mouth slowly, filling him up and leaving less and less room for enthusiastic sucking. He kept going until Zach was crushed into the pillow, throat full, balls draping over Zach's nose, pubes tickling his face.

Finally, finally, Batman lowered the length of his body, chests against bellies and cheek against Zach's thigh. He relaxed, letting his weight go easy, and sighed in contentment. Zach might have done the same, given the option. Instead he shifted, adjusting to the warm smothering pressure, and waited to breathe.

He could wait a while. It was nice there, buried under two hundred pounds of comfortable vigilante. He worked his mouth, but didn't try too hard. Batman settled his hips a little more firmly; Zach almost choked, struggling futilely until he found a good spot again. He relaxed his mouth. Batman made a quiet noise of approval.

Okay, he would need air eventually. His body started tensing involuntarily. Batman lifted up just a little at a time until Zach could snuffle air through his nose, not enough to be comfortable but enough to stay steady as long as he worked at it.

Zach had never been into the gym shorts thing, but Batman might be able to convert him. The balls he was inhaling were freshly showered. The tights weren't. The reek of hard exercise was inescapable, a deep animal scent, and Zach snorted it down as fast as he could with no other option.

Batman settled down again. Zach waited. Batman grabbed the base of Zach's cock to keep the condom in place and abruptly sucked him back to full attention with just a few strokes. That was more like it.

Zach could forgive an awful lot of teasing for that kind of skill. On his next chance to breathe, he moaned as much as he could afford with his limited air and arched his hips. Or tried, anyway. He barely managed to clear the mattress due to Batman's weight on him.

Batman slowed down his mouth to almost nothing. Fine, Zach could take a hint. He relaxed himself down, not fighting for anything other than enough chest expansion to keep breathing. That got him another nice hard suck, and Batman lifted his hips enough to let Zach gasp air with his mouth, breathing and letting the cock on his tongue move without interference.

He could play fuckpillow. He paid attention to his hands, unclenching where he'd grabbed the headboard, and his feet and legs where he could find a little more relaxation in his thighs. He kept panting for air, because that part wouldn't last.

Batman sunk his mouth and his hips and all his weight down, an almost painful pressure. Zach cooperated, his chest still fighting for space but the rest quiet. He was into it now, enjoying the push-pull of Batman's deliberate movement and the challenge of working with it.

Batman drew up at the glacial pace he'd been using before, then back down. Zach tried relaxing even harder. No dice. Zach tried squirming and sucking as hard as he could. Absolutely no change. Zach thrashed and kicked his legs.

Batman lifted up entirely. "Was that a tap out?" He'd moved too slowly to have any doubt of the answer.

Zach sighed. "No."

Batman lowered his hips and Zach gulped greedily, taking the brief chance before his throat filled completely. "No complaints, then?" He lay back down as Zach did his best to convey a scream when he could only use diaphragm motion.

They settled in for a while that way. Batman settled into his steady, detail-oriented contemplation of Zach's dick. Zach settled into moving however the hell he liked, because neither placation nor begging was getting him anywhere.

It really was fun, once he stopped trying to steer. He had time to focus on the sensation of unarmored Batman all over him, firm muscles, dense sculpted curves. Slow mouth was still definitely mouth. He liked it best with his heels planted on the bed so he could steal an inch of real thrust now and then.

Batman reached under the backs of Zach's thighs with both hands and pulled his ass cheeks apart, squeezing and kneading them with the same deliberate attention. Zach felt the cool breeze running between them and groaned.

Slippery fingertips teased at his asshole. Zach flopped his knees apart in silent plea. Yeah. That was good, he was getting rubbed from both sides and Batman's thumbs were massaging his balls, and a couple of fingers were just starting to get in...

And they stopped there, one joint in, tugging at the rim, stretching and teasing and helping Zach pay attention to just how empty his ass was. Batman's mouth and hips kept grinding away, a patiently unstoppable force, and his fingers became part of the same rhythm. The next time Zach got to breathe, he flat-out screamed onto Batman's cock, which just lost him air privileges again.

He was gasping harder, and getting longer air breaks, but the hypoxia started to get to him. He dreamed he was becoming one with the mattress, a collection of stimuli and responses to play with, a warm open throat that had lost all ability to choke.

A little less weight on his chest helped clear his head. He was too hot under his Batblanket and that had been way too dizzy for good sense, but he was nice and loose, content with his newfound place in the mattress continuum. His legs trembled with perpetual tension. He could do this all day, and apparently would.

Batman shifted his mouth from first gear to overdrive. In Zach's bowstring-taut state, it took under a minute to get him off. The only sound was his cuffs rattling violently against the headboard as he came, and came, and couldn't stop because Batman kept fucking going until his eyes crossed.

Zach lay twitching. Batman rolled off him, ditched the gloves, and wiped his mouth. His cheeks and throat were flushed. He looked way too pleased with himself.

"You..." Zach gave up, shaking his head, too exhausted to laugh. "It's a good thing you're pretty." He worked his jaw. His face was a mess of spit and sweat. "Cold towel?"

He moved up the bed to get some bends back into his elbows and shoulders. After a mopping-off, he graciously accepted some mojito from his Prince Nude Tour bendy-straw mug.

Batman dropped onto the bed beside him, body against his side, propped up on one arm to watch him.

"Your turn," Zach said. "What are we doing?"

The thin mask transmitted much more expression. This expression was amusement, with flickers of deciding what to say before it settled down. "We're taking turns? I'm pretty sure that was mine, then."

A surprisingly good point. "Does that mean I get to decide exactly how you get off now?"

"I'll take requests. And I'm fine either way."

Zach shifted to lean his side harder against him. "I want kissing. And if you do want to come, I want you up my ass. No teasing, you have used up your teasing quota for the year, man."

"Worth it." Batman leaned over, took Zach's jaw firmly in hand, and kissed him from temple to chin. There was an intensity of focus to it; Batman kissed him with full attention and no multitasking.

Zach shivered in the warm room. "Yeah. Carry on."

They ended up with Batman kneeling over him, Zach's legs wrapped around his waist, supporting himself on his elbows so his hands were free to control Zach's head. He wasn't bossy about it, he just wouldn't bring his face in close unless Zach was locked down.

He kissed with the deliberate fervor usually reserved for blowjobs. He kissed Zach's mouth, deep and slow, then his eyelids lightly, precise little nips at his ears with lips gentle against the earrings. The soft cloth of the mask pressed against Zach's cheek; Zach was careful not to wiggle or try for more of it.

Mouth again, throat, lingering sucks at his nipples, back up for more really thorough mouth. Unarmored, he could curve over to suck Zach's nipples without shifting his hips.

They were both getting hard again. "Yeah. Lemme feel your cock."

Batman got it out and took both cocks in his hand, rubbing the heads together. The silky slide was new; Zach closed his eyes and lost himself in it for a bit. "'Kay, more kissing."

They'd never gotten into frotting; angles were all wrong with the armor. The suit still made it impossible to get a good grind going, but they were much closer. Warm body weight, hot wet mouths, cocks mashed together with just a little friction, and Zach's arms still stretched out above his head, laying him open for touching. They settled down to a heavy make-out session.

He could feel their balls rubbing together, and the pressure was starting to build. "Want you to fuck me. Get in there, a real deep-dicking."

Batman didn't bother with gloves, just squeezed some cold lube directly onto Zach's ass, slicked himself up, and went for it. After all the teasing earlier, Zach could take it, but it was still a shock when Batman popped the head in. The first stroke wasn't full speed, but it was fast, as fast as he could take, gasping, his whole body flexing desperately to adjust or escape or anything to cope with the unstoppable pressure.

They stayed deep for a second, then Batman pulled all the way out and did it again, a little rougher, a little faster, forcing himself in. Zach grunted, deep incoherent groans ripping out of him. Batman picked him up by the hips, still deep, so most of Zach's back was off the bed, drew out to just the head, and slammed in, punching his prostate without warning.

Zach squeaked in shock, twisting, kicking, writhing on cock. Batman's hands bruised his hips to hold them in place. A quick yank to pull him a few inches further down the bed impaled him hard, all the way in. Batman was standing on his knees, so all he had to do to keep it going was jerk his hips forward, wham, wham, wham, getting a howling grunt every time.

Batman dragged his body up and down, finding new angles, anywhere Zach hadn't gotten used to yet, stirring up his insides like an earthquake. Dirty talk was impossible, keeping his eyes open was impossible, thinking was impossible, anything other than grunting like a pig and taking what he was given was impossible. God, yes.

Eventually he adjusted enough that he could have put words together, but fuck that. He kept his eyes closed, working with the rhythm, still groaning with every breath. Batman shifted his hands, supporting the small of Zach's back with one and freeing up the other. Zach didn't worry about it. Whatever it was would be great.

It was a slippery hand on his cock, which was great. He doubted he'd get too hard with a pounding going on at the same time, but Batman was an optimist that way and was getting results. And... putting a condom on him?

Whatever. The fuck was getting steadier and slower, a rolling rhythm out to the head, pause, all the way back in, motion of the ocean, with the hand on his cock moving in time.

Mouth? That felt like mouth. Zach managed to open his eyes. Batman was curved over him, his mouth on the head of Zach's cock, the head of his own cock just barely in Zach's ass. Then he straightened up again and went deep with his cock, rolling a crick out of his neck.

"Whuh?"

Batman looked sheepish. "Sorry. Out of practice. It's the armor, I don't get the flexibility training in anymore."

"Sorry?" Batman was apologizing to him for only being half-good at impossible porn star tricks. Zach hoped he never, ever woke up from this dream. "You can— you can— keep doing that, yeah, if your back can take it."

Batman... beamed at him, was the only word for it, a big smug grin, and went to work. Up all the way to slap his balls against Zach's ass, rocking down until he could reach for a lick or a suck. Eventually he managed to get an inch or two down the shaft on every stroke. Zach watched him, mesmerized.

The stroking hand sped up. Zach's legs shook. He was getting close again, real close, the tantalizing little sucks lighting him up. "Want you to come too. However you need to, ngh, whatever you, ah, ah." He gave up on words and waved his hands, rattling the chains, in a 'go on' motion.

Batman straightened up and got both hands back on Zach's hips. He rolled his shoulders back and turned his face to the ceiling, reversing the stretch in his back. Zach watched the hollow of his bare throat, visible all the way to the collarbones, and the lines of his body straining in the suit. Batman went deep, stayed deep, jerking little thrusts that barely moved an inch but pistoned against Zach's prostate.

Zach wanted to keep watching, desperately, but his eyes rolled back in his head. Batman took a few minutes at it, no hurry, just tiny humping thrusts that rattled Zach over and over. He sped up. "Yeah. Do it. Lemme feel it."

Batman clenched his jaw, tendons straining, clamping down on what should have been a bellowing shout and turning it into a low groan. He slammed in and stayed there, twitching.

They stared at each other, panting. Zach nodded. He couldn't come up with anything more coherent.

Batman slithered out of him, slid down the bed, and sucked Zach off in 15 seconds. Zach counted them in his head. He whimpered, a soft fucked-out little noise, helpless under mouth and fingers. His ears popped, which only happened when he came really, really hard.

After a minute with his head on Zach's thigh, Batman groped his way over to the nightstand and drank an entire pint of ice-cold mojito in one long pull. Zach watched his throat work with glazed eyes. They didn't even clean up, just lay flopped out on the bed, barely touching each other, dozing as the light from the windows turned gold.

"We should plan for your next full weekend," Batman said, after they'd pulled themselves together. "When you have two days to recover and you're not expected anywhere."

"Ooh. You gonna take me someplace nice?"

"I want to lock you into a hood and take you somewhere secure. Somewhere I can strip all the way down before doing whatever I want to you."

"Oh, hell yes."

Chapter Text

Zach: Two coworkers are out sick. I gotta reschedule. 😡
[Incoming call from B: 1min 27s]

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B: 🤡
Zach: I saw. Ping me when you can. 😥

---

[Incoming call from B: 57s]

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Zach: Boss just rearranged everyone's schedules. 🔥 I swear if he does it again, I'll tell him I have tickets for something out of town.
[Incoming call from B: 2min 5s]

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Zach: 🤕?

---

B: I'll live. Rain check?
Zach: Thank you.
[Incoming call from B: 33min 6s]


Zach waited by the dumpsters behind his building, not sure what to expect. Surprise zip line to the roof seemed improbably hazardous, but he couldn't stop himself from glancing up into the dimming late afternoon sky.

A car zoomed into the alley and stopped in front of him, almost silent despite its terrifying speed. Sleek, matte black, and deadly, it sat there purring as he stared at it. He'd seen blurry photos online. In person, it was sex on wheels.

The passenger door popped open, revealing a black leather interior. "Get in."

Zach jumped in and the door hissed shut behind him. The seats were low-slung, almost reclining by default.

"Buckle up."

As soon as Zach had clicked the five-point harness closed, Batman hit the gas and they went screaming down a city street, only to jolt to a stop in another alley a few blocks away.

"Turn off your phone so the battery doesn't run down. Everything in your pockets goes here."

Zach obediently emptied his pockets into a metal box, unsure of whether the echo of the hostage situation where they'd met was a turn-off or a turn-on. Apparently both.

Batman snapped the box closed, set it aside, and handed Zach a hood. His stomach bottomed out, staring at it. It wasn't full-face; his mouth would still be free. The upper face was molded like Batman's cowl. It was just missing eye holes.

He flexed it in his hands. It was solid, with something like memory foam backing, and the fabric back half would lace closed with a fine metal cable. It all flowed down to a thick leather-like collar. Batman watched him, waiting.

Zach carefully, formally put it back on Batman's hand. "You do it. Please."

Batman's eyes narrowed at him.

"I'm not scared." Much. "It's just not— It's not mine to... I won't be the one in charge." God, this was hard to put words around. "It's not a slave thing. It's a responsibility thing."

Batman's expression cleared. "Understood." He closed both his hands on it. Zach bowed his head.

Soft, cool darkness muffled his face, then snugged around his head, then throat. Tug, tug, knot, tighten... click.

Zach's shoulders and gut relaxed deeply, in a way he hadn't felt very often. "Thank you," he said. He tipped his head back to rest it in the cradle of his seat. G-forces shoved him back, then side to side as they took corners. "Would this seem faster or slower if I could look out the window?"

"Faster."

"You should take me driving sometime."

"We'll see." That was the smile voice. Zach sighed happily and let himself lose track of time and space.


An echoing parking garage, the vertical lurch of an elevator, locks sliding home. Apparently Batman lived in an apartment like the rest of humanity.

Batman undressed him and let him stand still for it, his arms easy by his sides. A gloved hand on the back of his bare shoulder blades guided him to the bed. Zach lay back, palms up, enjoying a deep calm as he listened to the clicks and whispers of Batman shedding everything.

The bed shifted around him, but nothing touched him yet. Then Batman lay down on him at full length, touching from thighs to chest all at once. After a moment of startled breathing, they tangled around each other, legs grappling, hands grabbing, hips grinding. They kept moving until they'd found maximum possible skin contact, then lay still like that, breathing in each other's ears.

"Hi," Zach said.

"Hi," Batman said.

"This is nice."

"This is a lot more than nice." The voice was softer and lighter than Zach was used to, like he'd shed a bass drop with the mask. It was hard to think of that voice as Batman.

Zach found another half-inch of reach and wrapped his arm that little bit further around Batman's back. The movement made their cocks slide together. That was moving to the top of his request list.

Short hair tickled against his chin. Okay, almost to the top of the list.

He moved his head to try to get at more of Batman's hair, which set off another round of shifting readjustment. When they settled again, he had his face buried in a faint scent of shampoo and clean sweat. He supposed they should be doing more. He desperately wanted to touch Batman's face, but it would mean sacrificing whole limbs' worth of skin contact. It could wait.

Eventually, Zach's muscles got tired of the constant grip. He reluctantly relaxed down a little to run his hands over Batman's back. Batman kept up the octopus impression for a few more breaths, then followed his lead.

"Can I, uh, is there anywhere I shouldn't touch?"

"No." Batman took Zach's right hand and moved it to his ribs. Zach could feel a plastic patch like cling wrap, larger than his hand. "Go easy through there."

"Okay." Zach left his hand resting on the bandage. Whatever had happened at the warehouse fire had taken Batman off the grid for a nerve-wracking two days. It would be rude to dwell on it. He held the spot a little longer in lieu of talking about it, then went for another tight hug.

They finally untangled far enough for kissing. Zach brought his hands up to touch bare cheeks, temples, eyebrows, ears, hair. Massaging Batman's scalp got a pleasant shiver.

Zach tried to picture what he was feeling, but it wasn't like he had a lot of practice visualizing facial shape from bone structure. Straight hair, medium length on top to short at the neck, probably a classic vanilla haircut. Dark hair, he'd seen it at the nape of Batman's neck during the heatwave.

Smooth skin, straight nose, nothing distinctive there. No texture on his earlobes, so probably no teen rebellion phase. A blank slate with business hair. He was probably the most anonymous person on the planet when he took off the costume.

"Sorry, I'm just kind of pawing at your face, I should—"

"It feels good."

Right. How often would this guy get a scalp rub? "Here. Let me..." He rolled to get on top and Batman let him. People usually followed the golden rule in bed; how had Batman kissed him?

With precision and attention to detail, he set out to kiss, suck, and nibble every inch of skin usually covered by the cowl. Batman kept his hands on Zach's legs but otherwise melted into it, relaxing under the attention.

It was meditative, almost worshipful, to go so methodically. Now he had his tongue on the fluttering pulse in the throat, now his teeth on the left collarbone, the right collarbone, the crease of the shoulder. He found lines of scar tissue here and there; he didn't dwell.

He kneaded tight muscles as he went, as best he could. To do it properly would take a professional or possibly a jackhammer, but he was getting hums of pleasure, so he was doing fine. Batman sat up to let him get at more angles. Zach happily climbed all over him like a kid on a jungle gym.

Batman had a good thatch of chest and pit hair, as well as wiry hairs on his shoulders and thighs; he'd probably mature into a prize-winning silverback, assuming he survived to old age. Zach buried his face in Batman's sternum and just breathed for a bit, though he kept his hands moving. Batman wrapped both arms around him and held him there, chin on top of his head, which was both reassuring and very, very hot.

He sank his teeth into Batman's bicep. Batman flexed, making him laugh. They wrestled a little, about as seriously as puppies rolling over each other, and then Zach found himself on his back again, breathless with lust and remembering the next item on the wishlist.

On Zach's request, Batman fetched the light silicone lube and poured liberally, then lay back down on him. "That's all?" He sounded amused.

"That's all. The rest will work itself out. Now we go back to what we were doing."

Zach led by grappling, going back to the first attempt at total contact. With greased cocks and bellies, suddenly they never quite found a resting point. Every time they thought they had settled, something would slide and they would shift everywhere again. After a couple minutes they gave up any pretense and went for a full-on grind.

It was simple and it was easy and they were kissing and biting and Zach had slippery hands on Batman's actual hairy ass. Then Batman got a hand between their bodies and started working both their cocks together with a quick steady grip. Zach grabbed for Batman's hair with both hands and hung on, hood to forehead.

When Zach was shuddering with aftershocks, Batman grabbed the back of the hood and started kissing Zach's cheeks and jaw, right around the line where his skin was locked away, his hand still pumping both of them. Zach gasped, doing his best to stay open through the intensity until Batman barked in his ear and they could slump down, sticky and relaxed.

Usually hoods were depersonalizing. They gave people the license to play the games you play with a piece of meat instead of a human being. It was all context, he supposed. This was about as personal as he'd ever been with someone.

This might be the perfect night, the most intimate they could possibly get. Zach got a sick sense of unease. It took him a second to figure out why.

There had been more than one, well, 'relationship' would be putting it strongly in some cases, but more than one guy he'd have been happy to get serious with, that had one big kink. They would work up to it and bank heaps of trust and build what felt like a deep connection. The one he had been for-real-dating had even asked him to move in. Then once they'd gotten to play with needles or dress him up or whatever their One Big Kink was, they would lose interest and stop calling.

If Batman had One Big Kink, this would definitely be it.

If it was, there was nothing he could do about it. All he could do was appreciate the moment and try not to ruin it by borrowing trouble. Batman would keep calling or he wouldn't. Either way, they were here this minute, his hands and mouth on Batman's bare face, and no one could take that from him.

It would have to be enough.


Zach must have dozed off. He woke disoriented, scrabbling at something he couldn't get off his face. It was eating his head and choking him and covered in some kind of hard carapace...

He managed to slow himself down. He put both hands flat on the molded face and pressed into it. Nice steady pressure distributed evenly across his cheeks and forehead, resting more lightly against his eyelids. He knew where he was. He knew who was in charge. He knew Batman would never, ever leave him like this.

He reached out a hand, but there was no answering touch. "Hey. I'm awake. Can you come here a second?"

"Coming," he heard from around a corner. Then Batman took his reaching hand and gathered him into a full-body hug. "I'm here. How're you doing?"

Zach hoped this wouldn't fuck things up, but he needed what he needed. "Could you do the voice? Just for a second."

The hug tightened. Firm fingers gripped the back of his head. "I'm here. I've got you."

Zach basked, relaxing. "Better. Thanks."

"I was making a snack," the light voice said. "Are you hungry?"

"I could eat." Zach thought about it. "Getting a little claustrophobic."

"Can you hold on for five more minutes? You can count them if it helps."

"No worries." Zach settled back on the bed and waited. He heard kitchen rattling, which was probably for his benefit. The audible footsteps coming back were definitely for his benefit.

He sat forward so Batman could unlace everything and lift the hood from his head. He scrubbed at his face and scratched his scalp, carefully keeping his eyes closed.

"You can look."

Batman... Zach couldn't keep thinking of him as Batman, in his barely-there cloth mask and a plush dark blue bathrobe. He had blue eyes. They were usually shadowed by the cowl.

B sat beside him on the bed, smiling. "Better?"

"Yeah." He leaned in but kept his hands on the bed, unsure of the rules. They kissed, B's hand on his face.

"Touching under the robe's fine, just don't take it off. Don't touch the mask." B's voice got deeper and more clipped on the last sentence. He probably didn't even realize he was doing it.

The snack was ham sandwiches, cut to bite-sized, and a pile of grapes, already stemmed. Zach grinned. "Were you going to feed me?"

"Still could."

Zach opened up and got a bite of sandwich along with a stolen lick at B's fingers. They curled up together on the bed with the plate on B's lap to demolish the rest, trading occasional bites.

The bedroom was sparse. Bare white walls, white sheets on the bed, a plain blue bedspread that matched B's robe, a nightstand with zero clutter, no curtains on the... Zach blinked. The windows were concealed by metal roll-down shutters.

"When you say secure location, you don't mess around." He looked back at B. "You don't live here, though."

"No. It's just somewhere I can rest."

And he'd brought Zach there. Zach couldn't find anything to say that wouldn't sound trite or make things awkward. Seeing B sit there eating grapes with an easy expression on his almost-visible face was a vibe Zach would not harsh if he had any other option. He went for another bite of sandwich instead.

"So, it's come to my attention," B said, swallowing the last sandwich and licking mustard from his fingers distractingly, "that your work schedule is shit. So's mine, but—"

"But yours actually means something." Zach took the plate to avoid meeting his eyes.

"I was going to say that I can do something about yours." Batman might have touched him to bring him to attention. B just waited until Zach ran out of ways to hide his face. "I know people. I have connections almost everywhere. You hate your job. What do you want to be doing?"

"It's... not that simple. I got my B.Arch"—as you know because I know you've read every word of my public record but let's move on—"and I really did want to go into it, but there are only two ways to get hired into a decent architecture firm. One: get an unpaid internship and hope they like you. Two: get a Masters, which costs a fortune because they bank on your fantasy that you'll get rich at it."

He flopped back on the bed, automatically throwing his arms above his head. B set a hand down on his wrist. "I tried option one, twice. The second try was why I moved to Gotham. But the senior partners were both incredible right-wing douches, and my supervisor was angling to keep the other intern because he was fucking her. I tried sending out resumes for a few more months, but got no bites. So on the one hand, I don't trust any firms that settle for a Bachelors at this point, and on the other..." He shot a glance at B. "I'd rather not steal someone else's shot just because you're fucking me. Sorry."

B smiled. "Have I mentioned that I find a strong moral compass attractive?"

"It somehow hadn't come up," Zach said. "Or maybe you had your mouth full at the time."

"That must have been it. Option two?"

Zach laughed bitterly. "I'm already in debt to my eyeballs for the first round, plus almost a year unpaid. And even a Masters is no guarantee. If I'm gonna pull coffee for the rest of my life, no need to accumulate interest any faster." He was making B look discouraged and that was terrible. "Hey, I'm sorry. I know you want to help. I appreciate it. But there's more to life than work, you know? Well. You don't know. But for me there is.

"I could have found some soul-crushing paper pusher gig if I wanted to eat myself up for a little more money. Instead, my work schedule is shit, but I don't spend my weekends thinking about it, and no one cares if I have a hickey on my arm or show up in last night's glitter, which for my current goals is a work-life balance benefit. And I haven't settled." He shook his head. He had been avoiding thinking about this for a reason, damn it. "In a few years I'll want something different. But I haven't let go of my first choice yet, and I'm not ready to wake up years later, wondering how I managed to sleep through my twenties."

B gave his wrist a slow squeeze.

"Sorry, that was... not sexy. I didn't mean to dump on you."

"Ham sandwiches aren't sexy. You appreciated those."

Zach smiled at that and didn't try to dodge out of it. He was getting antsy, though. After another minute of staring at the ceiling, he said, "Round two?"

Going into the hood was less dramatic the second time. Having access to so much skin was still incredible but didn't short out his brain. He didn't bliss out, just climbed up onto B's lap and wrapped his legs around B's waist. He kept his hands and mouth roaming on B's face and hair as they talked.

"I don't actually know what you like when you're... here." He waved vaguely at the room he couldn't see.

"I'm still me," B said. He didn't sound offended. "I still enjoy all of it." He bit at Zach's wrist as it slid past his mouth.

"All of it?"

"Try me." The steel in B's voice was different from the monster growl and alarmingly sincere. Zach let the chill of it run down and through him.

"I'm guessing the soundproofing's good here."

"You guess right."

"And you know a lot more about my reactions than you did a few months ago."

"True." B's hands on Zach's hips weren't moving much, but the way they held still was getting very attentive.

"So, if you're into it," Zach said, pausing to mouth his way down B's throat, "and you've gotten enough of me being all competent and good with my mouth for a few hours..." He stopped moving to focus on what he was saying. "I would like you to utterly fucking demolish me. I don't want to help, or cooperate, or ask for it. I only want to be good for two things: screaming and getting fucked."

B went still.

"And I want to know you're into it. If not, fuck that. We'll do something else."

"Not a problem," B said, very quietly. "You're sure?"

"I'm sure." He was terrified, and he was pressed hard up against B's body, and he was absolutely sure.

"I'll still make you check in."

"That's because you're not a monster. I appreciate that in my sadists."

B breathed a laugh in his ear. "Okay. Count down from five."

That told Zach everything he needed to know. Okay. They were doing this. "Five. Four. Three. Two. One."

At the moment when Zach would have said zero, B landed a quick strike under both his arms at the same time, then shoved him back with an open hand to the solar plexus. Before he could even work out that his arms had gone numb, he was flat on his back and B had done something incredibly unpleasant to the front of each hip.

Zach lay in clinging dark with shocked, tingling limbs that wouldn't listen to him, and his lungs weren't working, they just weren't working at all. He heaved, trying to breathe. B set a hand on his shoulder, which was one of the only parts that still felt like it was working right, and said, "You'll have enough breath to scream in about a minute."


Even the aftercare for that... two hours? maybe? was intense. B unhooded him and helped him shower, still whimpering and unable to stand. Then he went back into the dark and B started working the agonizing muscle rub into everywhere he'd stunned or pinched into submission.

B's hands were gentle, but they had been for most of the time, affectionate and possessive. His mouth had been a reassuring presence on Zach's skin, grounding him and pulling him back for more.

B had called him beautiful.

Zach was pretty sure he wouldn't get ghosted, at least not for a while.


When Zach was steady enough and they'd had another nap, B suited up again. Batman poured him into the sexy beast car and took him home. The sky in the alley was dark and clouded when the hood came off.

His phone said it was two in the morning, which seemed about right. His hands were still pretty fumbly. Batman watched him get his keys into his pocket on the third try and said, "I'm walking you in."

"Hm? Oh, no, I'm fine. I can make it."

"You're hilarious." Batman escorted him all the way to his bed, safely undressed and tucked in.

Zach smiled up at him dreamily. The cowl with the little ears always looked just right in the streetlight glow from the window.

"Zach." Batman was maddeningly hard to read again. "I might need something from you. Soon."

"Like... a work thing?"

"Like a work thing."

Zach's mouth went dry. He pulled himself together to focus. "Okay. What?"

"I can't give you any details yet. I'll let you know as soon as I can. But... This is your choice, Zach."

"I want to help."

"Thank you."

Chapter Text

Bruce slouched in his chair in the Batcave, staring blankly at the array of screens.

The monitor in his ear crackled with the sounds of a busy street, a car door, a car starting, then settled into quiet. "I'm sorry, Master Bruce. I know he was—"

"I'm fine, Alfred. Better to find out now than later."


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[unknown number]: its zach someone found me
[unknown number]: 5th and morrison 2pm
[unknown number]: 50.60 white man thin balding gray mustache rp english accent brown overcoat 5 foot 11 maybe
[unknown number]: 2mil just to talk with you my ass
[unknown number]: free to walk away my sweet ass
[unknown number]: took downpayment to buy time 50k cash to not tell you even if i dont play
[unknown number]: supposed to ask you over then report timeplace ask you to switch to finger park 1am if i can
[unknown number]: number to report 212-555-8932
[unknown number]: if you dont respond by 9 ill text to ask you over and
[unknown number]: i dont know say something wrong to warn you i guess
[unknown number]: just tell me what to do
[unknown number]: in bathroom real phone on bed in case watched
[unknown number]: burner phone from bodega
[unknown number]: god i forgot how awful typing on keypad is
[unknown number]: if this the work thing a little more warning next time
[unknown number]: we should pick sos code
[unknown number]: check back in an hour

The church bell ringtone tolled from Zach's bedroom. He jumped, almost dropping the shitty phone. What should he say? He'd have to wing it. He ducked his head under the running shower before he turned it off.

The burner phone beeped, a horribly loud sound that could give everything away. He had to figure out how to turn the ringer off.

[B's number]: You're safe. Answer your phone.

He dashed out with dripping hair and fumbled for his real phone. "Hello?"

"You're safe," Batman repeated. "You are absolutely safe. The man who approached you is one of my closest friends."

Zach sat down on the bed, shaking with adrenaline. He was pretty sure he'd have to puke in a minute. "Lucy. You got some 'splainin to do."

"I know. I'm sorry. May I come over?"

"Yeah. But whatever the explanation is, you owe me about a million blow jobs."


Zach stood in the kitchen with his arms crossed. "No. We don't hug yet. You explain. Loyalty tests? Really?"

"Test. Singular. May I sit?"

Zach nodded tightly. Batman settled on the couch, his cape draping all over the place.

"I will never deceive you like that again. I will not let you think there is danger unless it's real. I... People are unpredictable under pressure. People who think they would never betray their loved ones or their principles surprise themselves when they're looking down the barrel of a gun. Especially if they're offered a lifetime's income for something they can convince themselves won't hurt anyone.

"For both our sakes, I needed to find out which way you would jump when it wouldn't endanger either of us. When you would have to live with your choice, but not with lethal consequences."

Zach didn't want to think about the ice-cold logic of it, or what had to be lurking in someone's baggage to make a make-or-break loyalty test the better option, or what could have happened if he had surprised himself. "It wasn't even a question. The only decision I had to make was how to stay safe to warn you."

"You did a good job. Until you texted, you had me convinced."

Zach's nausea surged again. "I thought I'd lost you, asshole. I knew you would shut them down, but if one person found me, others could too, and you wouldn't..." His eyes stung. "Never. Ever. Again."

"Never. Will you come over here?"

"No. Why now?"

"Because until now, I've trodden lightly with you. I've taken and given as little as possible that could be traced. A few pieces of well-hidden electronics, a faint digital signature, unpredictable visits. Very little to put you at risk, even less you could betray." Batman leaned forward. "I want to change that. Will you please come here?"

Zach reluctantly crossed the room and sat on the arm of the couch.

"I want to pay for grad school. I want to get you out of this rat trap and into a building I've vetted. I want to give you a phone that's locked up tighter than Fort Knox."

"Oh." That was a lot to process. Zach was getting emotional whiplash.

"All those things leave tracks. You would be accepting bigger risks. Risks that might look like today, or worse. It wasn't just to test you. I wanted this fresh in your mind when you weighed your options."

"Considerate of you." It was, actually, in a traumatic vigilante kind of way.

"There's safety in obscurity. Don't undervalue it."

Zach jangled the line of rainbow loops running down the cartilage of his right ear. "That's me, staying in hiding to play it safe." That got a smile. "If I turn you down, that won't be why."

Batman waited. Zach finally relented and climbed onto his leg, accepting a bone-crushing hug. He shook. He would be twitchy for a while, he could tell. It had been a couple weeks after the hostage thing before he managed to sleep through the night.

He sat back. "Okay, so. What's the price tag?"

"Nothing."

"Uh-huh. And if you cross the line a third time and I dump your ass? Or I piss you off somehow?"

"Anything I give you is yours to keep."

"That's... not the whole picture. Picture this: I quit my job, move, start school... and we break up three months later. I'm scrambling with maybe two months notice to find a new job, a new apartment, and either take out loans or drop out at semester."

Batman tilted his head at him. "You're good at contingencies. I've always liked that about you. Your caution today, sticking to your routine and assuming you were monitored. I was impressed."

Zach felt that compliment a lot more deeply than he wanted to let on, at least until his nerves settled. "Flattery will get you everywhere. What's my fallback?"

"The entire sum of school money would be set up in advance, including living expenses. The building's owned by a reputable property management company, and you can keep renewing the lease normally for as long as you're comfortable staying there."

Zach chewed on the idea. It still made him jumpy.

Batman squeezed his shoulders. "This wouldn't change any of our boundaries. You keep your do-not-disturb switch. I don't browse your phone just because I paid for it. I don't tell you who you can bring home."

"I just keep conducting my affairs from the comfort of an apartment my sugar daddy bought me." Zach winced. "I'm sorry. That was— I'm sorry."

Batman went blank for a moment, then sighed. "If money would poison this, don't take it. That simple."

"It's not— ugh. I don't know." Zach flopped down across Batman's chest for a badly needed neck rub.

"I never want you to feel beholden," Batman said softly. "If that's what this would do, I take back the offer."

"I wouldn't. It's just... a lot." Zach shifted down the couch and rolled onto his back, his left earlobe knocking against Batman's codpiece. He arched his chin up. There. A gauntlet on his throat made the world a calmer place. He stopped fidgeting.

After a few minutes his mind settled enough for a coherent thought to drift to the surface. "Do you have anyone else?"

"In what sense?"

"Anyone you're fucking, dating, whatever it is we're doing. I didn't feel like I should ask before."

Batman's mouth quirked in a half-smile. "There are a few people I wouldn't say no to if they happened to be in town. No one steady. Once I take an interest in someone, I don't tend to look around until that's ended. I can be a very focused person."

"I hadn't noticed." Zach closed his eyes, but he just kept flashing back on the face of the scary-as-fuck British criminal mastermind who was apparently best friends with Batman. Possibly still a criminal mastermind. Gotham City had weird crime.

He opened his eyes again. "I guess... I thought you were fine with me fucking around because this was a casual thing for you. An intense casual thing, but we do it until it's not new anymore, and you wander off, and it's no big deal. Maybe I'd be a reliable hookup a few times a year after that, when you really wanted to leave bruises on someone. Maybe there were a lot of me scattered around the city waiting by the phone. This is... not a present you give to a casual thing."

Batman massaged his throat lightly but not platonically. "That's up to you. It's a present I'm offering to you, no matter how long you want to stay. I'm not buying you. I don't expect anything. I selfishly hope that it lets me see you more often, and breathe easier when I do. That's all."

"I need to sleep on this." With the adrenaline wearing off, Zach realized he was exhausted.

"Of course."

Zach didn't move. Staying under the comforting weight of a steady hand seemed like the best thing in the world. "Is the cash real?"

"Yes. It's yours to keep. Consider it payment for what I put you through today. Can we count it against my blow job debt?"

Zach started laughing and couldn't stop. "Sure, but even at a dollar a trick, it's barely gonna put a dent in it."


The property manager gave him a bored but professional smile and started into a spiel about the price range of available apartments. Zach said, "A friend told me this is a really nice building," and handed over a completely black business card. That was the end of his script, so he hoped she knew the rest.

"Ah." That got him a second look, then a much smoother professional smile. She checked her computer. "I think I have something you'll like. Two bedrooms, great view." She named a price less than double what Zach was paying for a third-floor postage stamp.

"Sounds perfect." He didn't ask to see it and the manager didn't offer; she just handed over paperwork and keys and directed him to an elevator to the sixteenth floor. Of a sixteen-story building. She showed him how to use his key fob to activate the elevator, then left him there.

He unlocked his new apartment and looked around the rooms, breathing the freshly cleaned carpet smell. It was spacious with nice high ceilings, but not huge. Something familiar nagged at him.

He looked around the bedrooms again from different angles. Then he looked at the window frames more carefully. He went back to count the locks on the oddly heavy front door, two of which didn't show from outside the apartment.


Zach Secure Line: 😂😂😂 Motherfucker.
Zach Secure Line: Your safe house?
B: Not anymore. But I hope you feel safe there.
Zach Secure Line: Drop in any time.

Chapter Text

Zach took his time filling the new apartment. It was hard to avoid feeling like a fussy Queer Eye queen, or one of the guys who installed his own chrome and glass cocktail bar in the corner of his fabulous pick-up pad. But having some sense of taste was an actual vocational requirement, okay?

The apartment walls with their remnants of Gilded Age molding seemed like they were silently judging his scrounged-Ikea-and-milk-crates aesthetic. Anyone he brought over would notice the mismatch and think harder about how he could afford this place. Grownup furniture was a justified tactical necessity.

And, while he had immediately socked away half of the cash for a rainy day, he suddenly had a lot of money to throw around.


Standard admission deadlines closed in spring, but Gotham U had a Winter Quarter admissions phase for anyone willing to work their asses off to catch up. It let them fill the seats of students who washed out or decided to get the hell out of Gotham City after one quarter. All he had to do to get on the waitlist was submit the standard application plus an independent portfolio.

The portfolio requirements were justifiably stiff, and included weird little details to make it hard to use previous work. He had about seven weeks left to do practically as much homework as the first quarter would have covered.


Batman showed him a few secret compartments, as well as the button hidden high in the front door frame that would drop the shutters and throw all the locks at once. The shutters would also drop if the building power went out.

Zach set his beacon to do-not-disturb the next day and spent half an hour pushing the button like a kid flipping a light switch. The shutters went down with a loud, shocking clatter, then took about ten seconds to slowly retract. The electronic trigger only worked one way on the door locks; they had to be unlocked manually.

He cached part of the rainy day fund, along with the terrible burner phone, in the compartment at the back of a kitchen cupboard, then made that his liquor cabinet.

He cached most of the rainy day fund, along with his passport, a USB stick, and a fresh burner smartphone full of emergency numbers, in the least accessible of the concealed spaces, double-bagged with two different colors of novelty duct tape and marked "Do Not Disturb" on the outside. He filled that drawer with his most boring and personal bathroom supplies.


He set up the smaller bedroom as an office, doing his best to ignore the shadow of B's spartan bedroom. A new drafting table went where the nightstand had been. The light was best there, now that there was a window overlooking the city instead of a metal shutter.

He felt a little ostentatious about the drafting table. Most homework would be digital. He had gotten through undergrad with a dorm desk built into the wall or pinning physical blueprints to a cork board. He liked being able to skim the big picture, though, which was easier with a full-size page. He liked feeling professional.

The best place for his vintage flat file cabinet was where they had sat together at the head of the bed. With a heroic effort, he resisted the urge to hang a Princess Bride poster over it.


He surveyed his domain: the overstuffed dark leather armchair suitable for someone with broad shoulders who liked something solid at his back, the heavy red leather sofa suitable for all kinds of activities, the metal and wood Modern Industrial tables and chairs. Everything was sturdy enough to jump on without breaking, or anything else you cared to do on your living room furniture. Most of it had been thrifted or found at flea markets, so it didn't look like a catalog set and didn't make his brain twitch quite as hard at the cost.

The welded metal bed frame was a particularly good find; it looked tastefully warehouse chic if you didn't know him that well, and like a piece of dungeon furniture if you did. Then he had reconsidered his stance on plausible deniability and hung a triptych of Tom of Finland prints over the bed to remove any misunderstandings.

He'd hung actual curtains to hide the shutter tracks and make it less obvious when the apartment went dark. He'd put down runner rugs to protect the hardwood from anyone coming through in filthy heavy-tread boots. God help him, he would probably turn into one of those people who asked you to use a coaster.

The configuration looked pretty good. He called the lowest-priority version of B's number. It almost always went to voicemail, especially during the day.

"Yes?" B's voice was quiet.

"I got the furniture situation worked out, so you can bug the place again. And I hired Moving On Up to get everything in here, so... I know they're supposed to be reformed, but there's a lot of space to hide stuff in a couch if someone decided he wanted to get into henching again. Would you mind doing a sweep of all the new arrivals?"

There was a long pause.

"You already did, didn't you."

"I'm sorry," B said. He actually sounded embarrassed. "I thought it went without saying. I didn't realize you would—"

Zach started laughing. "No, it's fine. I just thought you'd want the full layout first."

"Did you think I would install anything that couldn't stand up to you rearranging the living room?"

"I apologize for the horrible slight to your professional honor."


With the apartment secured, B could come over properly. It was still a giant hassle. Draw the curtains, drop the shutters, retrieve B's robe from the closet, then wait in the locked bedroom while B changed in the locked bathroom, or ask him to bring the hood.

Swapping out his earrings for the hood was a pain. Zach retired the loops in favor of a line of round studs with flat backs. They'd be a more sedate choice for professional networking anyway. Relatively speaking. They were still anodized aluminum in a vivid rainbow, because Gotham City's gray flannel suit culture would not be stuffing him into the closet, thank you.


Zach unlocked his apartment. "Right this way."

His company for the night, a magnificently bossy 5'1" drag king going by General Rod, looked around and wolf-whistled. "Nice." Rod threw his overcoat onto the couch, then unhooked the handcuffs from his belt. "C'mere, let's make you a little less comfortable."

Zach thought about the cuffs, then thought about being cuffed to his excellent bed frame, out of reach of his phone, with someone grabbing all his electronics to sell or getting a good look at the window frames or...

"Tell you what." He knelt between Rod's knees preemptively, his hands behind his back. "You tell me where you want me, and if I move, you can hit me. And if I don't move, you can hit me more."


Three weeks into the portfolio of doom, he cranked his desk around to stand in the living room for a long view, cranked it back trying to get the light right, then stopped. This just wasn't working.

He dragged the drafting table into the living room next to the actual best light in the apartment and took a two hour study break to warp the rest of the furniture around that decision. He also ordered more lighting. When the shutters were down, the place felt like a cave.


Zach sat cross-legged on his bed. When B finally came into the bedroom with his bathrobe and mask settled, Zach said, "I got you a present."

He held it out with both hands and great ironic ceremony. The gold foil bow was large enough that it completely hid the tiny box. B opened it and examined the key cautiously.

"That key opens the locked drawer of my amazing new Art Deco dresser." He gestured to it with a flourish. "Which you'll want to sweep, but I did take out the drawers and look the whole thing over, and hauled it in myself with a friend. You are hereby granted A Drawer At My Place."

B looked confused. "Thank you."

"It's not for national secrets or anything, but it's good enough for a toothbrush and a spare mask and the hood. There's probably room for pajamas if you want a change from the robe."

B nodded more decisively. "Thank you. That'll be nice. The hood should be hidden better, though. The mold is distinctive."


He changed the empty room into a guest room. He could have more guests. Hell, he could invite a dozen of the friends he'd made in the last two years and host a sleepover.

It didn't need to be elaborate, just a full bed, a nightstand, and a desk with a few drawers in the corner. He went with a plain, dark green bedspread. Sometimes it was nice to have a room that was less visually busy.

He hung a big print of Berenice Abbott's Gotham Skyline at Sunrise over the bed.


He'd planned to go out on Halloween, but his brain was full of building code clearances and he still had a week to go. 'Wearing as little as possible' was always a popular costume, but it was a pretty cold night, and he was completely out of clever ideas that didn't involve roof pitch angles.

And... Batman always, always had to work Halloween. Which technically meant Zach didn't have plans, but more practically meant that only lemmings and Gothamites would be seeking out large public gatherings full of people in masks. He wasn't that much of a local yet. Maybe he'd throw that sleepover next time to keep people off the streets.


He submitted his portfolio a day early to avoid last-minute tragedy. It went off without a hitch. He managed to stop poking at it after going through the list of confirmation receipts and skimming all his project files another five times. He had to think about something else.


Zach: If you're free tonight, the application's in and I'm looking to celebrate.
B: no
Zach: Whatever you're doing, eyes on the road, okay?


Thursday was Western night at the Raptor and not really his thing, but the Blue Flamingo would be hopping. Zach washed up and went for full-on glitter eye shadow and a spandex shirt printed with metallic scales.

He had a few drinks, got into a kind of mosh pit puppy pile situation on the dance floor, then retreated for a shouted conversation with a friend. They weren't cruising that night, but they knew someone he'd want to meet. The two of them waded through the crowd toward the upper catwalk.

The someone was 6'3", standing on five inches of platform heels, wearing about five inches of skirt, and fending off a lot of admirers. She leaned way, wayyyy down to shout in his ear. "Our friend says you like to work for it. You wanna show a girl a good time, pretty boy?"

"Yes, ma'am!"

"Your place or mine?"

He glanced at the leather bracers and the knotwork tattoo around her bicep. "Definitely yours!"


The next time Batman came over, Zach started kissing him as soon as the door clicked closed. He groped for the lockdown button without looking.

The shutter slam was punctuated by a shatter of glass. They froze, then Zach relaxed. "It's okay. Water glass on the sill. Sorry. I'll get the vacuum. You want to change while I clean that up, or do I really need to be in the bedroom?"

"I'll wait."


He spent Black Friday at a public sit-in to raise the minimum wage and did his best not to feel like a hypocrite for the stacks of hundred-dollar bills sitting in the dark behind his bathroom sink.


He hit the do-not-disturb switch before sitting down to make the call. Wednesday night, she should be home, recharging from the Tuesday art walk rush.

"Hello?" She sounded cautious, which given that it wasn't Christmas or her birthday was a fair reaction.

"Hi, Mom. I wanted to let you know how I was doing. I got into grad school."

"Oh! Oh, that's great. Where are you going?"

"Gotham U. Go Nighthawks?"

She laughed. Neither of them had ever been into sports. "Go Nighthawks. Ah. Still architecture?"

"Still architecture. It's a really good program, and I got a scholarship. I start after New Year's. Oh, and, uh, I moved. I'll text you my new address."

"Thanks, Zappy. I'm glad you... It sounds like you're getting things together. I'm glad."

Zach gritted his teeth. "Nothing fell apart."

"No, no, I didn't mean that. You know what I meant."

"Yeah. How's the gallery doing?"

"Oh, you know. Busy, busy!" He let her talk for a bit. Her business was a safe topic. They were united in judging the dire tastes of the Midwestern art-buying public. "I've been trying ballroom dancing. You know the dating pool's a little shallow in my demographic, but hope springs eternal."

"Yeah." Think of a redirect, think of a redirect...

"Are you with anyone these days?"

"No one to bring home to Mom, sorry. I'll probably be a little busy with school."

"Ah. You're... still being careful, right? I just want to know you're safe."

Zach sighed. "Yes, I'm careful. My biggest risk factor was always walking home, and my new place is in a much, much nicer neighborhood." He did not invite her to come see it. "Okay, I'm going to call Ellie and Nat before I put this up online, but it was good talking to you. Take care."

"You too, Zappy. You know you can call any time."

"Thanks, Mom. Love you." He hung up and dialed the first of his sisters, a less fraught conversation.


Christmas was a big work day for Batman as well, though not as bad as New Year's, so after a tentative conversation to establish that Batman did in fact do Christmas, they planned in advance to get together on the 27th, events permitting.

On Christmas Eve, he determined empirically that the sleeping spaces in his home could hold eleven people if everyone was sufficiently friendly. He made sure all the window ledges were clear when he washed every dish he owned on the 26th.

Zach had no idea what B would or could keep wherever he actually lived, and every stitch he wore to work had a purpose. After long internal debate, he chose white bunny slippers to keep in his closet and a matte black thermos mug that sealed completely and held over a quart.

Mostly, they ate. Zach solemnly explained the ritual progression of breakfast foods his family ate on Christmas and that presents came after waffles but before bacon and hash browns, a tradition they flagrantly violated. B brought an entire bag of oranges and a swank holiday candy assortment from Mayfields. He let Zach pick what he wanted, but only shared one of the mint cremes. Zach made a mental note.

The tradition he did insist upon was opening one present at a time and taking turns admiring them. B said he had brought three, even though there was just the one enormous box wrapped in black fabric, so Zach started with that. He didn't ask how B had managed to get it to the building; it wouldn't have fit in his sexy car.

When Zach pulled at the wrapping, the fabric felt exactly like the silky slide of the cape. Was it a blanket made of cape? Could he have some cape fabric? Was it common enough? Then he found the collar and the scalloped hem. The present was in fact wrapped in a spare cape. He would not be keeping that, alas. He pulled it aside, ready to open the box.

The box was the present: an actual vintage steamer trunk, ironbound and weathered. A pale outline between the latches showed where it had lost an engraved nameplate at some point. He ran his hands over the wood reverently. "Is this teak?"

"Probably. It's not common to find something like this on the public market, but they come up now and then, and people take reproductions for granted. Can you pass it off as a find?"

Zach nodded, savoring the movement of the latches before he opened it. "I will lie my ass off to keep this beauty in my living room. Thank you." There were a few built-in drawers, all of which he opened except one that was damaged and had been nailed shut. This trunk had lived. "Okay. Your turn."

"Not quite." B smiled with a glint of mischief and tapped the outside of the trunk on the bottom corner. Zach looked. The leather strap looked a little loose there. He wiggled it and a brass stud wobbled, threatening to fall out. Zach instinctively stopped before he made it worse. B chuckled.

Fine. Zach gritted his teeth and pulled the fitting off the century-old antique. Folding up the leather revealed a hole barely large enough for his little finger or a pen. He reached in...

click. He looked in the trunk again. Yes, the broken drawer was open by a fraction. It was lined with new steel and could probably fit a few paperback books. "Oh, wow."

A more reasonably sized box in shiny paper lay in the drawer. He pulled it out and set it next to his garishly wrapped presents for B.

B unwrapped his bunny slippers and dutifully put them on, shaking his head. He didn't hide the way he sat wiggling his feet in them, though. The pajama top he wore under his plush bathrobe was best described as snuggly. Zach had shopped for the slippers in person and chosen by texture alone.

Zach unwrapped the next present to find... a metal box. "I get boxes!" He slid the grooved lid open and pulled out a present a few inches across, which might yet turn out to be another box. He set it aside to examine the medium box. It had foam padding and a loose mesh liner which could be removed, also foam padded. He peered at it all over, but there were no labels.

"It's a Faraday cage," B said quietly. "Suitable for blocking the energy signatures from batteries, small electronics, RFID tags... like the ones in passports."

Zach didn't look up. "It's not that I don't trust you."

"I know. But every time I scan for foreign tech, I bump past it. It didn't feel honest to let you imagine something is secure from me when it's not."

"Thank you." He still didn't look up.

"I'm glad you're thinking ahead. No one is 100% trustworthy and my life is... strange. If you do need to lie low for a while, I want you to have every edge. Everything in your kit is still clean. I haven't captured any data from it. And I didn't touch anything."

Zach nodded slowly. "Is there anything else I should be keeping in there?"

"I can give you a couple of reading recommendations. That way I won't know exactly what you have or what you've thought to do with it. But if you've thought it through, cash and a clean phone covers most of the bases."

"Thanks." They put aside presents for a few minutes to curl up on the couch together and eat oranges, silent and tactile.

The thermos went over well. Zach pointed out that it was also a Faraday cage, except for maybe the lid. They debated filling it with cocoa, but could not come to terms on the subject of marshmallows, so tabled the discussion for later.

Zach was starting to dread the smallest box a little. Sometimes very expensive things were in small boxes. He pulled open the silver paper.

It revealed a knickknack from the train station, a three-inch metal replica of the station and clock tower. He opened it, checked the flimsy cardboard box carefully, and turned it over in his hands. It was one of the really simple ones, hollow throughout, without even a working clock. "Whatever you hid in it, you did a brilliant job. What's it do?"

"Nothing." B looked nervous. "It is an unmodified piece of tourist junk. They sell thousands of them every year and haven't changed the design in decades. Completely anonymous. I thought you might want it for your desk."

Zach took his hand. "It's perfect. Thank you."

Chapter Text

Zach climbed onto B's lap on the couch, straddling his legs and holding him by the lapels of his bathrobe. He couldn't keep putting this off with classes starting next week. Conversations worked better when they were touching.

"Could you help me put a little more security on the apartment?"

That got him an extremely dubious look. "What were you thinking?"

"A deadbolt for the guest bedroom. And something to block the gap at the bottom of the door."

"If you want."

He wasn't getting it. "So if someone was staying over who wanted privacy, they wouldn't have to worry about me walking in."

B smiled at him a little indulgently. "The courtesy lock's already good enough for that. By the time you've popped the lock or used the key, walking in isn't an accident."

"It wouldn't have to have a key. Like the extra locks on the front door." Zach pressed his hands against his thighs to hide their shaking. He kept his voice casual. "Or I wouldn't have to have the key."

B went blank. There was a long pause. Zach bit his tongue to stop himself from filling it with panicked retractions.

"And blocking under the door?"

"Consumer grade spy cameras come real small these days. Let's assume my guest is really, really paranoid about people seeing him naked." He held his breath and clenched his teeth.

"Zach." Oh god, oh god, oh god, he'd fucked it up. "This is your home now."

"And I can do what I want with it!" That was not casual, not cool, none of this was cool.

"Someone as... cautious as you're describing wouldn't trust the room unless no one else could access it while he was gone. You would lose your guest room."

"I don't need a guest room!" He slowed himself down. He'd practiced this part. "I have three times as much space here as in my last place even without it, and I invested in this really nice fold-out couch. Ordinary guests can stay in the living room. They already have."

B held Zach's hands where he was gripping his jeans. "I appreciate the thought. More than you can know. I have other bolt holes."

"This one's in a really good spot." It was a guess, but not a big one. "So I'd be easy to visit. You gave me one you liked."

B looked away. "As a gift, which, yes, you can use for whatever you want, but handing it right back to me..." He shook his head.

Having this conversation in a position that kept either of them from fleeing the room gracefully had been a terrible plan. "Well, I can't make you take it." Zach shrugged. He shifted, trying to get down.

B pressed down harder on his hands. "It's just, contingencies. What's your fallback?"

Zach breathed again. They were making eye contact and everything, this was doable. "What's the problem I'm solving for?"

"The day you regret giving up your space but don't feel comfortable asking for it back." B was really hard to look away from when he stared like that.

Zach didn't say anything.

"Gosh, Bats, I'm sorry. I know I said you could save lives from here, but I really need the space for my home office. Or my new boyfriend. Or just to feel like I have any place that's really mine."

Zach finally managed to look away, staring at their hands.

"I won't put you in that position," B said.

"Okay, first of all, I have never said gosh in my life—"

"Now you have."

"—and I would never call you... Really, are we rules-lawyering on gosh?"

"Now you've said it twice."

Zach lowered his head very slowly to bonk it against B's masked forehead. "Stop it."

B lifted his hands and sat back completely. Oops.

"Not like that. Sorry." He leaned in and kissed B to reset things, his hands on B's sides to make it clear they were far from the mask. B wrapped him up in a hug.

"I really do appreciate it," B said into his shoulder. Maybe the talk would work better without so much eye contact. Maybe they were done talking.

It still itched at him, though. He kept chewing on it, distracted, as they kissed slowly. It wasn't make-out kissing, just 'hi, we're both here' kissing.

"I just wanted you to be able to sleep," he said after a while. He kept his eyes closed. "Instead of having to leave when your eyes are still crossed just so you can get some rest, or having to use the hood. But yeah, I see how this goes now.

"If you need to keep the room locked anyway, you might as well keep more clothes there instead of living in this bathrobe. If you're keeping stuff there anyway, you damn well better keep a med kit. If you need the med kit, you might need... well, anything. And then it's a base."

"Right."

"You could save lives from here."

B squeezed him. "Or you could live here."

Zach was clear now. He opened his eyes. "I have lived with a lot of roommates I liked a lot less. In a lot smaller spaces. Okay, let's think through boundaries. First off, do-not-disturb is still sacrosanct unless it's life or death."

"You're serious." B stared at him. "You're considering this."

Zach rolled his eyes. "Keep up. Okay, so. If the beacon is set to neutral and you're in a hurry, you can do checks without asking, just to see if I have company. If I'm not home..."


B Low Priority: Coming through. Just a supply stop.
Zach: Cool. Curtains are closed. You're clear to drop the shutters if you want.


Zach heard the locks click, but the shutters didn't slam yet. He didn't look up. It was just a supply stop. He should be chill about a roommate coming through without hassling him. Also, he had about five things in his head, so it really would be an interruption.

Batman said, "You're up late."

Zach jumped. "Uh, that was unintentionally ominous." He put down the highlighter and spun his chair. "Whoa."

Batman's armor was trashed. His cape hung in tatters, almost gone on the left side, where it looked like his chest plate had been attacked by a belt sander. Sharp little regular cuts suggested something with spinning blades, and he was spattered with machine grease. His gauntlets were drenched in the stuff. He'd taken his boots off and carried them in one hand.

"Are you okay?"

"I'm fine. It's settled. For now. I just need fresh armor and a rest, in case anyone else tries to make trouble tonight."

"Do you want a shower? I can move to my room. I'll just..." He surveyed the mess of index cards and their careful positions on his desk. "Hm."

"It's fine. I'll just change."

"You're filthy, and you want a nap. I can just take a break."

"It's your home. I won't..." They glared at each other in an impasse of consideration. Batman made himself taller. "You don't have to move. There are ways you could have seen my face if you really tried. You can stay at your desk. Just... stay where you are. Go back to work."

"Okay. Thank you." Zach turned back to his work, seized by the terrible desire to break the rules.

Batman never unmasked without two locks between them or Zach tied up. It was a weird kind of security for Zach as well, making things simple. He couldn't possibly cheat, except by doing something horrible like hiding a camera, so he didn't have to think about it.

The shutters clattered down. The bathroom door closed. The sink started running, then after a couple of minutes, the shower. Zach stared at his notes, completely unable to focus.

Was it cheating to turn around in his chair? Probably not cheating. He was staying where he was. He was still at his desk. He spun slowly.

The gap under the bathroom door was completely dark. Batman had blocked it with a towel or something. He'd probably booby trapped the door, too. It would be charming except for how terrifying it must be to be Batman.

He let himself spin all the way back to center and did not turn around again. The point was for him to keep working. He picked up the next card and looked at the class roster. By the time the shower stopped running, he'd managed some semblance of concentration.

"What are you doing?"

He startled so badly he jerked the highlighter across the card. B put an apologetic hand between his shoulder blades.

"Sorry. I thought you saw me."

"I swear, I'm gonna make you wear a bell." Zach leaned into him, relaxing against the pajama shirt.

B took the card from his hand. "Dossiers?"

"I'm not great at faces." Zach took the card back, finished the highlighting, and put it in its place. "Not full-on face blind, but learning a bunch of people at once is a lot. Most of the cohort has a three-month head start on it, and the ones in the long program have already been together for a year.

"In the clubs, at least there's more style variation. East Coast business culture is dialed to eleven in this town. Would you like your ocean of white men in business casual or business formal? Introducing myself to people I've already met or asking someone's name for the third time is just embarrassing."

B kept an arm around him and leaned over the desk, eyes flicking around. "Seating chart?"

"Roughly. Trying to figure out whose metaphorical lunch table I can horn in on. I'm hoping for this gang, if they'll have me." He tapped a cluster.

"Why wouldn't they?"

"Uh, because I'm part of the ocean of white men." Zach ducked his head. "Kind of a knot of the outlier students from the long program. Mostly queer, mostly brown, very uninterested in disappearing into the overculture, progressive as hell. I honestly just hope I'm cool enough for them."

"You seem like you could get along with anyone." B set his hands on Zach's forearms and kissed the top of his head. "But shouldn't you get some sleep?"

"Pot. Kettle. Kettle with a nocturnal animal stenciled on the side." He rocked his head to tickle B's nose, then tipped his head back for a kiss. "Seriously, I don't think you get to tell anyone else when bedtime is. Unless you're coming with me?"

B hesitated, then sighed. "I'd just pass out on you. Next time."

"Next time. Sleep well." Zach waited until B's door clicked closed, then went to brush his teeth.

Chapter Text

Zach never, ever asked to see more skin and never, ever asked why. If he wanted more skin, he asked for the hood. The hood was boring by now, a simple utility that let him use his hands without hesitation and explore the mysterious little lines and bumps with his tongue.

Maybe B was self-conscious about the scars. Maybe he had notorious tattoos that would identify him in a web search. Maybe... he couldn't think of any other reasons. And he could never, ever ask. If B wanted to tell him, he'd tell him without pushing. Zach just asked for the hood again.

He lay in his perfect darkness, body under B's, enjoying weight and skin and B's nipple between his teeth. He grabbed the backs of B's thighs and dug his fingers in hard, a silent shorthand that he'd like it rough.

"Yeah?" B let more of his weight drop onto his chest, crushing down until Zach had to turn his face away.

"Yeah. Want you in my mouth."

"Want to fight?"

"Yeah. Bruises."

"You got it." B's fingers wrapped around Zach's wrists.

B went in slow motion, like a diagram of a fight. Zach could struggle all he wanted, bruising himself with the effort, but B just kept moving, arms drawn out, wrist rotated until Zach had no choice but to twist to the side, slowly rolled onto his belly by the stress on his shoulder no matter how he thrashed his legs.

He was face down, his arms spiraled around himself, right arm under his body and left twisted behind his back. B knelt in front of his head, still all one inexorable motion, hands never leaving his wrists. They held that long enough for Zach to tire out his squirming, aided by an extra few degrees of twist that made him whimper and hold still to make it stop.

With the right arm pinned, B could free up a hand to stroke himself, letting Zach feel knuckles bump against his ear. Zach tried lifting his head into it, but nope, his shoulder told him, he was staying right where he was, cheek mashed into the mattress. He moaned and opened his mouth, flicking his tongue at nothing.

B scooted in a little further, thighs spread to either side of Zach's head and shoulders, which meant the broad pressure on his ear was B's balls grinding against the silky fabric of the hood as he tugged on his cock. Zach could just barely reach the hairs on B's thigh if he really tried with his tongue.

Zach groaned. B loved this game, loved knowing how much Zach wanted it and making him wait, really really wait, before he got it. He wiggled harder, just going for the shiver of motion he could use to rub up and let B feel the struggle right up through his nuts. He heard a contented sigh.

"Please hurt me. Please. Any way you want."

"Oh, I will, when I fuck you. Don't worry, you'll get plenty."

Zach shivered and lay still, relaxing at the extra tinge of bat in B's voice. He could wait.

B tweaked his wrist hard, and he gasped. "I didn't say you should stop."

The pressure eased up, just a little, just enough for him to shift his head without dislocating anything. He got the flat of his tongue to B's thigh and started rocking his head methodically in a helpful rhythm. B didn't make him wait too long. The restraining hand moved to his neck, keeping his head safely in place but letting him unwind his arms. He shook out his shoulders and flexed his fingers, getting the pins and needles out. He kept slurping and reaching with his tongue.

"Your mouth must be getting tired. Should I make it easy on you?"

Easy. Oh lord. "Yeah. Lemme take it. Please." He doubled his efforts when he heard the condom wrapper.

B took a second to stretch out his legs, trapping Zach's shoulders under his thighs. Zach panted for it, feeling the nudge against the faceplate. He couldn't lift his head enough to reach. "Please, please fuck my throat. Give it to me."

"Clench your jaw. Good bite."

He gritted his teeth. Two fingers worked into his mouth, tucked into one cheek, then spread apart vertically, pressing painfully on his gums. He yelped. He could have fought it, maybe, but he really didn't want to. When he had his mouth open wide enough, the fingers lightened up.

"There we go. You can relax now, I've got it from here."

He whimpered as B fed him a couple inches of cock. He waggled his tongue with no other comfortable movement available.

"The more you try to help, the simpler I'll make it for you."

Zach flexed his tongue decisively. B grabbed his bicep and squeezed. It wasn't any of the dirty tricks, just brutal bruising force. He fought as long as he could stand it, then let his jaw go slack until the pressure eased, then flicked again.

B breathed harder, moving his cock whenever Zach gave in, pausing when he fought. When he'd held Zach's mouth open long enough that the ability to bite had worn out, he started using both hands for pain and stopped rewarding compliance.

Zach scrabbled his trapped hands, screamed, choked silently, screamed again, tried to suck, got a hard pinch under his shoulder blade for trying it, choked again, tried to find an easy angle and failed.

Then B got up to his knees and everything really was easy. The angle worked, he had a straight shot down his throat, and B held him up by the ribs. His head spun; some positions were disorienting in the hood. He grabbed B's ass with both hands to find a steady point of reference.

"That's right. Beautiful. Beautiful." B sped up, then pulled almost out. "Deep breath."

Zach took a couple breaths, then focused on a full one. B went in and stayed in, pounding his throat. Zach fought to exhale, his lungs too full of stale air with no way to relieve the pressure. B jerked hard, hands tight on Zach's aching ribcage, grunting as he came.

When he slid out slowly, carefully, Zach hissed out all his air and lay gasping. His jaw would be pissed for a few days. B relaxed with his back against the headboard. Zach crawled up on stumbly hands and knees to settle with his mouth on B's hip. They lay that way until Zach had enough air to think straight again.

"You've been asking for the hood a lot lately." B ran his fingers along the line of the collar where it dug into Zach's neck.

"Yeah."

"Do you like the dark?"

"Not really." He'd been waiting for them to talk. He was not ready for the talk. Why did it have to be so complicated? Right, because he was dating a vigilante with a secret identity and control issues.

"What does it do for you?"

Permission to be blunt. He braced himself. "It's the only way I can really touch you."

B pulled him in closer, hands slow and gentle. "I'm sorry. I'd show you if I could."

"I... Thank you. I'm not pushing."

"I know. I appreciate it."

"Can I ask a question?"

"I might not answer."

"Is it just general principle, that no one can see your body? I keep trying to figure out what taking off your shirt would change. Even if you unmasked, unless you were a regular at the coffee shop or something, it's not like I'd recognize you."

He relaxed then. He'd gotten to ask, which apparently was much more important than getting an answer.

"You would."

"Oh." Zach's mind spun wildly, trying to fit B's jaw and the breadth of his shoulders to anyone he'd ever met in his life, anyone popular at the clubs, anyone.

"It would change things. It would change how you looked at me. I don't want that."

"Your face, your choice." Zach squeezed B's waist. "I'm not asking." Desperately curious now, but not asking. "I'm okay with the hood."

"I'm not. I just can't think of a better option."

Not much to say to that. Zach went back to mouthing B's side, the textured patch on his ribs that had never quite smoothed out.

"I'm not ashamed of my scars."

"I'm glad."

"It's just, if I'm still masked, I'm still in armor. Just a little. They go together. It's... unsettling to have one without the other."

Holy crap, it was like actually talking. Zach made his body as soft and relaxed as he could, listening. Tensing up or getting excited might feel like a threat. "That makes sense."

B laughed under his breath. "I'm not sure it does, but thanks." He ran his hand over the hood, as if he were petting Zach's hair. Zach stayed tame. B's hands were restless. More was coming, if he could just be patient. He breathed slowly.

"We haven't met. If you're worried about that. I haven't been smiling at you every day and acting like a stranger. I wouldn't do that to you. Not after everything you've trusted me with."

Zach let out a heavier breath that he hadn't known he was holding. "Thank you."

"I don't think you could have forgiven that."

He thought about it. "I'd have tried. You need to do what you need to do. But yeah, it would have hurt." Someone he would recognize but hadn't met. The possibilities were only getting stranger. "You don't have to say anything either way, but... That leaves famous."

"Yes."

"Oh."

"And very different. Deliberately so. Not someone you would like."

Zach thought about it for a while, silently, waiting to see if there was more. He finally came up with a relevant question that really needed asking. "Just thinking through the hard-no list... right-wing douchebag? Sanctity of marriage funding?"

B laughed, apparently relieved. "No. Nothing like that. Just... nothing there worth looking at. No one to take seriously."

"I've taken some very, very shallow people home with me."

"I won't be one of them." B's voice was sharp.

Oh, fuck. "No. I'm sorry." Zach moved his lips on B's skin apologetically.

"I'm sorry. It's not you." B pulled him up to bring their faces close together. "None of this is on you. It's choices I've made, and now I have to live with them. That's all." He leaned his face against the sculpted hood. Zach put a hand on his cheek.

"Thanks for telling me."

B just nodded. Whatever he was thinking about, he didn't share any more of it.

Chapter Text

B ALERT: Stay home today. Do not leave the house for any reason.


Zach fumbled for his phone, rubbing his eyes until they cleared. 5:30am. He read the message, thought for a second, and called the non-urgent line.

"Yes?"

"So, I can do that. But, priority note, today is my final group presentation for Eco Design. Food poisoning is a thing, I can call in sick. Just wanted to check."

After a pause, there was a frustrated sigh. "What time?"

"Class is 8 to 11."

"Home by 11:20. Do not pass go, do not stop for groceries. Get home and lock the door."

"Can do. Uh. What are the odds that you'll need your room? Or that I should drop the shutters?"

"Why?"

"Because there are three other people in my group, and I'd rather not hear they're in the hospital or the morgue tomorrow. But the safe house comes first."

"Fine. But don't delay."

"I won't." Zach hated hanging up on this kind of call. Words were insufficient. "Good luck."

"Thank you." Click.


He got party food at the bodega before class. It wasn't too difficult to lure two groupmates and another friend back to his place with the promise of board games and/or celebratory drinking. He hailed a cab "for the groceries," but actually so he wouldn't lose any stragglers.

Monique assessed his apartment with sharp eyes. "Nice place."

Qi was less tactful, as usual. "How do you afford this location?"

"I lucked into this place." Zach had practiced his intonation on this so it sounded as casual and uninteresting as possible. "It's basically rent-controlled. I am never, ever moving again."

Jaani ran ahead and threw herself down on the couch. Her giant purse thumped onto the floor. "Just pour pink drinks down my throat and don't make me think, 'kay?" She'd ditched the femme voice for her natural baritone.

"Can do. You care what you're drinking?

"I do not. Ohhh, this is a good couch. I live on this couch now." She flung one arm back like a fainting damsel, if the damsel were in a queer postmodern Bollywood flick.

Zach went to the kitchen, followed by Monique with the third bag of snacks, and surveyed his giant mug options. "Prince, Bowie, or unicorns getting it on under a rainbow?"

"That's thiiiiiiiinking," Jaani wailed. "Unicorns."


Zach: Home safe, locked in.


They got everyone loaded up with snacks and drinks of varying intensities. Zach under-poured for himself. Just as they carried the last of it to the table, Randall texted that he could make it after all and was downstairs, so Zach went down to the lobby to fetch him.

"What's in the second bedroom?" Qi asked when he got back. "The door's got a hardcore lock."

"Qi," Monique said quietly, "boundaries."

"Oh. Sorry."

"It's just storage," Zach said. "The last renter was paranoid as hell, apparently."

Randall looked around. "Stereotype alert, this place is faaabulous." They'd gone clubbing a couple times. Without asking, Zach loaded him up with a David Bowie's worth of margarita.

By popular acclaim, they eliminated all games that involved rational thought in favor of Calvinball Pictionary. A drawing game with no rules, copious alcohol, and an entire gang of people with art and drafting backgrounds was always a winner. Jaani shouted color commentary with her eyes closed.

Zach didn't check his phone, didn't check his phone, didn't check his phone.

Qi stood up after a few rounds where he'd been increasingly edgy. "That's enough anarchy for me, thanks." He looked like he might leave.

Zach gestured to the armchair. "Introverts to the left of me. Unless you want to chill out in my room for a while?"

That hooked him. Qi took his jack-and-coke and wandered off into Zach's bedroom, presumably to look in every single drawer. May he find an education there.

The building shuddered just as Monique whooped in victory. Zach didn't grab his phone yet by sheer force of will. Jaani sat up. "What was that?"

"What was—" A second fainter tremor, a third, and this time they heard the muffled boom. boom.

"Shit." They all reached for their phones simultaneously. Randall walked over to the windows.

"Stay down, dumbass," Monique snapped. "Unless you want glass in your face."

"We're pretty high up," Randall said, unconcerned. "And that little sound for that much shaking means the charges are set low. Sewers, you think?"

No one answered. Zach turned on the TV, volume low with subtitles. The three detonations were on a line, one in midtown and two at the north end. Jaani was on Twitter, Monique and Zach on the Gotham911 app. Whatever Qi was typing frantically on, he wasn't sharing.

Five minutes later, another faint tremor. boom. North end again, a little to the east, another bright red dot on the map. The Internet burst out with a hundred theories, conspiracy geometry, numerology. The most obvious option was a clock face. Stroke of 12 to define the center and hands, then 12:05... If it stuck to an outer perimeter, Zach's building was safe. On the news, Summer Gleeson urged viewers in projected hot zones to calmly relocate. Her expression was as blandly friendly as usual, but her smile was strained. The second-biggest risk was trampling if people got desperate.

Everyone watched and listened silently. 12:10... Nothing. They went back to their phones, then waited again for 12:15. Nothing.

After 12:20 passed without further incident, Qi reminded them to check in as safe on Facebook or wherever. He was hunched up in the armchair with his hands pulled into his sweater sleeves, taking up even less space than usual, eyes glued to the TV screen. Randall paced by the windows, craning his neck to see and eventually standing in Zach's bedroom by the one window with an angle on the north, where they could see faint smoke rising over the river. Monique excused herself to the kitchen to make phone calls, her shawl wrapped tightly around her arms.

After an hour with no more explosions and no one credibly claiming responsibility yet, everyone but Zach started shifting restlessly. Zach had picked up his model of the train station and was twisting it on his thumb, feeling the texture of the inside of the clock tower.

"I got family in the Narrows," Monique said quietly. "Not all of them have checked in yet."

"What do you need?" Zach asked.

"More gin."

"That, I can help with."

She took a slug of it and looked out the window. "Fucking stick frame construction."

"Yeah."

"Last time this happened, half my aunt's block burned. Fire department took an hour to get there." She sat motionless, her eyes far away. She was still in her presentation day armor, a classic femme blouse and her natural hair tightly wound down around her head in one thick twist that framed her round face. It made her look like a Greek statue. Woman waiting for news from the war.

He wasn't sure if they were on physical contact terms in this situation, but he put his hand on the discarded drawing pad at a plausibly deniable distance. "Only fire so far today is the warehouse district."

"So far."

"Yeah." He slid the cheese plate in her direction.

She glared at it, then ate a cracker vindictively. "However they build up that site next will be even cheaper. If they bother at all. Could just leave it condemned. Won't stop anyone from living there."

"Look on the bright side," Jaani said, coming over to the table. She'd switched to water. "Maybe someone will think it looks like a great place for affordable upscale condos!"

Monique's hand tightened visibly on her glass. "You're so helpful."

Zach started doodling idly for something to do with his hands. Endless blocky condos took shape in three-point perspective. "In the version of reality where you rule the world, what do we do about it?"

Monique shrugged. "If I rule the world, we smash capitalism, dismantle the kyriarchy, and rebuild the Narrows one block at a time until it looks like Park Place but with sustainable design." She took another drink. "But I guess I'd settle for knocking the owners' and developers' heads together and telling them to do the right thing, fuck their profit margin."

"Profit margin's not that different," Qi said from the armchair. "Not necessarily. Offset it with tax breaks or something."

"Or virtue signaling," Zach said. "Ethical shadegrown neighborhood restoration."

"Dolphin-safe," Jaani added solemnly.

Monique started arranging the remaining crackers into an aesthetically pleasing pattern, which seemed like a good sign. "It would be easier if Gotham had a branch of one of the big architectural charities. AFH, maybe. Line up some non-terrible design work pro bono."

"Why don't we?" Zach asked. "Like, what would it take to get one?"

Monique made a face at him; her undergrad was in public policy and she knew a leading question when she heard one. "It would take a fuck of a lot of work, is what it would take. Selling some of the headliner firms on it and filing miles and miles of paperwork. At least one paid position, a lot of volunteer hours, and a promotional budget, minimum."

"As if," Randall said from the bedroom doorway. "This is Gotham City. It's dirty and it's gonna stay dirty. The invisible hand will continue to flip us off."

The temperature in the room dropped sharply. Zach took a breath, acutely aware of his position as host and Fellow White Guy. "Randall, you can suggest solutions, or you can stay in the other room."

"Look, I get it, I'm just saying—"

"Randall."

Randall sighed dramatically and headed to the kitchen. Everyone else relaxed a little.

"You were saying?"

"The tricky part is the split mission," Monique said, her eyes still on the doorway to the kitchen. "We'd need to bag the pro bono org, but we couldn't be that org, or the original intent gets lost."

They spitballed for another hour, on both practical and absurd options (one involved a zeppelin). Randall didn't manage to contribute much but did eventually come back and show willing.

Gotham911 gave them the all-clear a full ten minutes before the TV news. Bomber in custody, a previously unnamed costume. Twitter was torn between "High Noon" and "Clock King." There were still new reports of animal roaring and combat noise from sewer access points in the business district.

Zach kept checking, checking, checking his phone until it tolled.


B: Safe.
Zach: Thank you.


Randall left as soon as good judgment allowed. The others stayed two hours more.

"I mean, I'm not saying we can pull this off," Monique finally said. "But I'm not saying we can't."

Zach smiled brightly. "Who wants to spend spring break writing grant applications!"

Everyone groaned.

Chapter Text

Zach's phone shrilled, an earsplitting beeping. He lifted his head and took his hands from behind his back. "Red! Sorry. Gotta take this."

"Seriously?" The very pretty man with the expensive custom leathers (Brad? Brendon?) looked understandably irritated, but let go of his shoulders.

"Seriously. Sorry." He wiped his mouth and stumbled out of the bedroom, leaning against the wall for balance as he answered the call. "What do you need?"

The voice on the other side was strained. "Sorry. You're closest."

"I can have my guest out in two minutes or keep him in the bedroom, what do you need?"

"Clear the path, stay on the line." Batman was gasping, his breath wracked and rattling.

"Got it." He walked back into the bedroom. "Sorry about this, it's important and I gotta go." He tossed Pretty Leather's clothes to him, then started pulling his own jeans on. "Now."

"You're seriously just..." He wasn't moving.

Zach took a deep breath. "I'll explain if you get your damn pants on. Come on."

Pretty Leather managed to be petulant about putting on his clothes, far too slowly. Zach shoved Pretty's gear into its matching oxblood duffel bag as he talked.

"I have a friend who's trying to get out of a bad situation," Zach said, resisting the urge to grab him and shake him. "I'm her emergency call and it's an emergency."

"It couldn't wait twenty minutes?"

"Excuse me for putting my friend's safety over your dick, now get the hell out of my house."

"Man, fuck you."

Zach almost dragged him into the elevator, shirt still unbuttoned. He hit the button for the ground floor and waited until the door closed and he heard it start moving. The elevator wouldn't let anyone push the button for his floor without the key fob, so the asshole couldn't come back to argue. He pulled the phone from his pocket. "Clear."

"Liquor cabinet, Fernet Branca bottle."

"I, uh, don't have any—"

"You do. Back left. Go."

Zach ran to the kitchen and found the bottle buried at the back of the cupboard. It was opened, almost full, like every other nasty bottle of fernet he'd ever seen. "Got it."

"Dump it out. Key." There was some kind of machine noise and wind roaring in the background. The gasping was getting worse. "Unlock my room."

Holy shit. Something was clacking in the bottle. A black lump like a hard candy clattered out into the sink. Zach didn't even rinse it off before running over to put it on the black sensor panel of the safe room door. He pressed hard, as if that would make it work faster. Locks slid back.

"It's open."

"Again on the chest under the bed, gas mask, blue cartridges." Batman started coughing. It sounded horrible. "Door open."

"Yes, the door's open." Zach scrabbled through the enormous medical kit that had slid itself open for him. Blue cartridges, blue cartridges, there. "Got it. Put the cartridges in the mask?"

No answer, just more coughing. Zach fumbled with the packaging and took far too long to fit a blue tube into each of the side ports on the face mask. He could hear movement in the hallway. The coughing echoed on a time lag.

An oxygen tank lay beside the mask, about the size of a two-liter soda bottle. He grabbed that, too, and ran into the hall.

Batman staggered toward him at a run, his shoulder dragging against the wall and leaving a long dark smudge. When he saw Zach, he sagged to his knees.

Zach got the mask over his mouth, but he didn't know how the hose attached, his hands weren't working right, what if Batman died on him because he couldn't get this fucking hose figured out.

Batman took it and put everything together in two twists. The hissing sound was a huge relief. He was still coughing, but the horrible rattle underneath was settling down, deeper breaths.

Zach hesitantly held out a hand; Batman grabbed it and clung, hard enough to hurt. "Let's get you inside, okay?"

He tried to help him up, but that wasn't happening yet. Instead, he carried the tank while Batman crawled into the apartment, cape dragging behind him. Zach hit the lockdown button.

Batman slumped in relief when he heard the shutters go down. He stayed there, a shivering lump in a big black puddle on Zach's floor. The Darth Vader sound of him sucking down oxygen was reassuring.

Zach crouched beside him. "Is there anything else?" Head shake. "You want water?" Slow nod.

He took a second in the kitchen to reality check. His hands were steady and his mind was surreally calm, detached. He'd probably pay for it later. That would be later. He brought a mug of water with a long cocktail straw, as well as a wet dish towel.

"Here." He set the mug on the floor where Batman could lean over it to reach the straw. "And whatever shit you were breathing, you probably want it off your face." He set the towel beside the mug.

Batman didn't move for the water yet. Zach sat on the floor beside him, back against the wall, and stretched out his legs so they were in grabbing reach. He waited, matching Batman's breaths and counting them silently. Batman was breathing. It would be okay.

Eventually, Batman sat up and fumbled the straw under the edge of the oxygen mask. He sipped a little water. A little more. His body heaved. He gasped, ripped off the mask, and crawled for the bathroom. Zach rescued the mug.

He didn't quite make it to the hard floor, but apparently he was working on an empty stomach, because nothing came up. Zach winced. He'd had enough ugly hangovers as an undergrad to sympathize.

"You got anything for nausea in your first aid kit?"

Batman didn't answer, just got the rest of the way into the bathroom and lay with his cheek against the tile floor.

"Knock twice if you need something." Zach hit WebMD for a list of nausea meds and started reading labels. He brought back a patch in a sealed packet. "Will this work? If there aren't any interactions."

Batman ripped off his gauntlets and slapped the patch on the back of his hand. After another forty breaths, he got off the floor and straightened up to his knees. The skin around his mouth looked awful, pale and gray. Zach didn't think it was the grime making it that color.

Batman cleared his throat and coughed a couple more times. "Sorry for interrupting."

"Do not. Do not even think about apologizing for letting me help." There was the delayed shock reaction, right on schedule. "Do not apologize for keeping yourself alive any way you can."

"I was joking," Batman whispered. He looked like he wanted to laugh, his lips twitching upward, but he was still too messed up.

Zach closed his eyes. "Your timing needs work."

Chapter Text

Zach looked out the window and daydreamed about B's jawline. It was tantalizing, knowing so much but somehow still almost nothing. Someone famous. Someone he would recognize.

The squeak of the armchair brought him back to the room and the endless spreadsheet of budget figures in his homework. Qi was rocking the chair slightly without thinking about it, which meant he'd found his groove. He was a great study partner, because he didn't tend toward chatter. His focus made Zach try harder to stay on task. Usually, anyway.

The other way they worked well together was blunt communication. Given the way conversations with A Certain Other Person tended to go, just being able to ask and answer a goddamn question was satisfying. "Can I study at your place? It's quiet there," had been one of those questions.

Budget. Not looking up blurry footage of Batman on the Internet. Definitely not flicking through lookbooks of actors with short dark hair or researching what shows shot in Gotham City. He hadn't let himself do that at all; it seemed like cheating and he would not go there. If he wasn't grabbing for the mask, then he wasn't grabbing for clues to sneak under the mask.

He may have been idly thinking through the chins of every actor he'd ever crushed on, though. His mind's eye scrolled the list again out of habit. The mouth wasn't right for Tom Hardy. Christian Bale, maybe, or Ben Affleck, but they were both too old.

By the skin around his eyes, B was early-thirties, maybe? Could be younger, given all the stress. Not too much younger, though, with how long he'd been active...

"May I ask you a question?"

Zach pulled himself back to the room again. "Sure."

"How did you make Monique talk?" Qi was still drafting on his tablet.

"How do you mean?"

"She was upset, Clock King day. When she's that upset, she's quiet or she's yelling. You got her to talk, and then she could deal again. She was even laughing. The city was still locked down. How did you do that?"

"Uh. Short answer, way too much practice? I was a peer counselor for the crisis hotline my sophomore year. Thirty hours of training and a lot of supervised coaching. It was... a lot."

"A lot," Qi said. He sounded discouraged.

"I loved doing it, but I burned myself out and had to quit after that year. Took too many shifts and got way, way too invested. You can't fix everything, and if you try..." Oh. Ha. "You can go a little crazy.

"I told myself that I got too busy with coursework, but really, I'd turned myself into a listening machine. I was getting the lunch ladies to tell me their problems. I just couldn't take on that much of other people's pain anymore."

The chair squeaking stopped. "You talked people out of killing themselves for a year?"

"I got a few of those, yeah. Those were actually good calls. I knew it mattered, I knew what to do, and if they were calling, they wanted to be talked down. Gotta destress afterwards, but the other volunteers were great about that." He thought about it. "I hated the ones where they couldn't get themselves to talk about the problem, or it wasn't something we could fix. Like, sorry you're homeless and can't afford your meds and you're too far from reality to reach out to our list of crappy social services, but I can say 'mm-hmm' at you for an hour!"

"Ouch."

"The good part was, listening helped. Like, that's the superpower, actually listening. If someone's lonely or scared or doesn't know what to do, telling them what to do will just piss them off. They'll find reasons to argue. Leave a space and they'll fill it."

"For you." Qi tapped at something too hard on his tablet. "NT people think that talking 'just works.'"

"No, I didn't say that. Thirty hours of training. Okay, you want a script for when someone's upset?"

"Yes, please."

"Step one, they're upset. Say 'What do you need?' Because they definitely need something. They might not know, or say what they need is a million dollars, but at least they're thinking, and they're thinking about a solution instead of a problem. And they know someone is paying attention.

"If they ask for something you can fix, great. Get them a blanket or a drink or whatever. If they ask for something silly, say something silly. Then wait and see if they say something else."

Qi had started typing.

"Then just listen and say little 'I'm listening' things to keep them going. You're good with those, you're using them with me right now." Zach waited.

"Okay."

"Exactly like that. Then if Monique had just wanted to sit and cry and swear, I'd have let her do that. But she was angry and wanted to change something, so I asked her how she wanted to change it. And then we were talking."

"Okay. Next?"

"Sorry, that's where it gets harder to guess what'll happen and I did all that training to figure out what to say when. But just that much can unlock an awful lot of hard conversations. Are there any specific cases you're thinking about?"

"No. Thanks."

"Any time. Let me know if you think of more. I haven't thought about the crisis line in a while. I know it sounds awful, but when someone hung up feeling better, it was really great. Thanks for reminding me."

"You're welcome." Qi went back to drafting. The smooth hiss of stylus strokes was relaxing.

Zach had never been great at figure drawing, not that life sketches would be an acceptable security risk anyway, but maybe if B kept them in the safe room? But then Zach still couldn't look at it while he was gone, which was the problem. At that point he might as well keep a picture on his phone, which, secure or not, no way.

Budget. He could do this. And if he really needed a break from the assignment, he should catch up on politics or something relevant. With the extra workload, he'd been falling behind on basic current events unless it involved the GCPD police blotter.

Maybe B would like the drawing for himself, though? No, that was dumb. He knew what he looked like already, and having Zach stare at him in that much detail would just weird him out.

If he kept this up, he might start writing Zach Prendergast-Batman in the margin of his Trapper Keeper notebook, which was completely unacceptable. He closed the spreadsheet and switched firmly to his paper on the Neo-Gothic Revival movement.

Chapter Text

Zach: DONE. 100% done, submitted, it's all over but the waiting for our rejection letters.
Zach: And my actual classes. And my first aid cert the next three weekends. But other than that.
Zach: Basically what I'm saying is, would you come over and pound me into the wall and then let me sleep for a year?
B: Your choices are tonight for 45 minutes or Monday, several hours and I bring dinner.
Zach: Both? You know my vote is always both.
B: Tonight is 1:30 am, no mercy, bring your own prep and cleanup.
Zach: YES PLEASE

---

Zach: You're the best. You know that, right?
B: I try. Did you sleep?
Zach: Like the dead, thanks.


Monday's dinner turned out to be a production number. B wore new gray silk pajamas that were classier than his butter-soft jersey knits, though probably not as comfortable. He brought two pounds of chicken marinating in a Chinese spice blend that Zach had never heard of, and he fried it in one pan while steaming vegetables in the other. The drink pairing was a yogurt; apparently the whole combination was Mongolian.

The yogurt was a good call; the spices weren't blisteringly hot, but something in there made Zach's lips tingle and go numb. Hurrah for endorphins. Zach had been planning on showing off some of the last grant application, but hauling out his laptop at the table didn't seem like it fit the mood. He babbled about it instead, between repeating, "Ugh, I am so glad it's over." B listened and smiled, occasionally asking an actually pertinent question to show he was following.

B put the plates in the dishwasher while Zach stuck the leftover chicken in a container. Then B sat on the couch, back straight, hands in his lap. This had the smell of a Relationship Talk. Zach sat beside him, matching his posture, shoving away wild theories about getting dumped.

"It's been a year," B said. Oh god, he'd rehearsed something.

"Yeah. A really good year."

"I'm tired of hiding from you."

Zach didn't even breathe.

"But if you don't like what you see, there is no putting this genie back in the bottle. You can't promise nothing would change. No one can keep that promise."

"No. I wouldn't try." Zach shifted to drape a leg over B's knee. Contact helped. "So... what would change? Is it just something I know? Am I your dirty little secret? Do you take me out in public? Are there paparazzi?" The options had been piling up for a while. "Do you keep it quiet from the press but let me keep a toothbrush at your house? Do you take me home to meet your parents?"

B looked away. "I would need to keep it quiet. But yes, I could bring you in a little closer. And I could stop editing out most of my life. Most importantly, I could stop wearing this sock on my head. We could be naked." He sounded weary.

Zach took his hand. "It's your choice. But I'm up for it."

B sat unmoving, still struggling with something. "Not to belabor the obvious, but you could destroy me. One leak to the press and you could pull apart everything I've built."

"I'd die first," Zach blurted out. Shit. "I know that's the wrong answer, I know you'd rather have a healthy sense of self-preservation, but it's true. I refuse to put you at risk and you can't make me. If you can't cope with that, there's your dealbreaker, keep me in the dark forever if that's what you gotta do. But you can take the press off your list."

B just watched him, with none of the drama Zach had been afraid of. He looked a little sad. "You've been thinking about this."

"How could I not think about this? How could I think about anything else? I don't care if we break up, I don't care if you turn out to be an asshole. I guess if you murdered a bunch of people, I might have to think really hard about whether you-now would want me to use what I knew to stop you. That's about it."

"If..." B took a breath. His voice abruptly went full Batman. "If I kill even one person in cold blood, if you ever hear me calculating acceptable casualties, I will give you a number to call." He was almost growling. "If the person who answers can't help, or can't be reached in time, then it is your responsibility to go to the press, the police, whoever it takes to shut me down."

Zach felt a cold prickle all over his skin. His throat was tight. This was for real. "Okay. Deal."

That seemed to clear the air. B squeezed his hands. "Last chance to opt out. Do you want to see?"

"Yes. I want to see."

B stood a couple paces away and faced Zach like a firing squad, bare feet planted squarely in the carpet. He put his hands to his face, palms against his cheeks, and started sliding the mask up with his fingers. It slid off his nose, then forehead, then hair, with his arms still sheltering his face. Finally, he let his hands fall to his sides, mask dangling. He fluffed up his hair a little with his fingers.

He stared at Zach, his body taut and set. Zach approached slowly, like he would a wild animal, and reached out to smooth down his eyebrows. They kissed.

Zach stood back to look at him again. "I hope your ego can take this," he said, "but I've never seen you before in my life." He held up his fingers to B's lips to cut him off. "You can tell me now if you need to. If you don't want it hanging over your head. But remember how my family does presents."

B nodded slowly. "One at a time." He stepped back and sat down again. "One more thing to try."

He lounged, draping an arm along the couch and taking up as much space as a bro on the subway. His face shifted, went arrogant and flirtatious, with lazy eyes and a smile that turned up at one corner. "How 'bout now?" His voice was light and sharp.

Zach did not flinch. B was so afraid of him hating this. Zach couldn't let him see how creeped out he was by the artificial transformation or by seeing B's terrified eyes staring out at him from the new mask. He just shook his head.

"Nope. But you're right, it's very different." He sat down with him on the couch. B's leg was shaking, but not a flicker showed on his loose and lazy upper body. "You can stop now."

B dropped the act. He looked lost, almost childish in his confusion. "You really don't see it."

"No. You can tell me if you need to. Honestly, I'm good like this. I don't need to know. I'm glad you've got the sock off your head." He pulled B in, letting him be larger instead of climbing all over him. He lifted his face so B could decide how they kissed.

They barely touched lips, just sharing space, staring at each other. "I promise to tell you if I figure it out," Zach said. "Right away, no surprises."

"I know you would." B was recovering from his shock. His hands rested steadily on Zach's arms.

Zach gave his face a longer study now that he wasn't under pressure. There was something a little familiar around the edges, like someone he'd seen in a crowd or a bit part, or someone he'd passed in the hall a few times. Nothing solid. It might just be Leading Man face; every dark-haired movie star went with some version of that hair shape.

"I'll probably keep staring at you for a while unless you ask me not to."

B nodded. "It's fine."

"I'm sure you've already been informed, but you're very good-looking."

Excellent, that got him smiling. The slightest glimmer of a celebrity smile looked nice on him, when he didn't turn it on like a floodlight. "A couple of people have mentioned it. You're not so bad yourself."

Chapter Text

Zach's phone tolled. He scrambled for it. "Hey. How are you doing?"

"I'm fine." Batman sounded steady. "Is now a good time?"

Zach breathed in relief. When B couldn't visit for a week or more, he came back either full of energy or half-dead. This had apparently been one of the good ones. "Yeah, it's great. Come on over."

"Two minutes." Batman hung up.

Shit. That was not nearly enough time to hide that he'd spent most of the last two days laid up on the couch. He settled for folding the blanket and clearing the clutter of dishes.

Batman found him in the kitchen. They had a big sloppy welcome back kiss, but Zach broke it off early. "You want to change?" That would buy him a little longer.

"In a minute." Batman kissed him again, slowly, hands sliding down his sides to grab his hips. Zach couldn't hide his gasp or the way his body tried to twist away.

Batman froze, his body harder and more set, his hands lifting to barely touching. "May I see?"

Zach sighed. "Yeah." He walked back to the couch, not concealing the stiff walk, and sat to take his sweats off. Batman tugged his shirt off as well; Zach didn't fight it.

Batman surveyed the bruises silently. He knelt to examine the hip where Zach had landed hardest. "The muscle rub would have helped."

"I've been using it." He didn't look away from the sudden sharp eye contact.

"Zach. I don't have a say in who you see or what you do. But this... Did you choose this?"

"Yes." Oh, damn, he hadn't thought of that assumption. He thought Batman would recognize the pattern. "I started judo with a couple people from the program."

That should have helped. It was not helping. Batman relaxed a fraction, but not nearly as much as he should have, and he still took too long before he said anything.

"At the risk of sounding controlling, a dojo that lets a new student take this kind of damage in the first three weeks is not a good dojo."

"Yeah, no, I... This is from messing around with some advanced students after class." He looked away. "Which I know was fucking stupid, okay? The tori on that throw is benched from unsupervised practice and I'm on solo falls only for two extra weeks." That seemed like it helped. Maybe. "Uh. Would you mind changing? The cowl is..."

"Of course." Batman kissed the top of his head, dropped the shutters, and disappeared into the safe room. All of this would be easier without Kevlar in the way. It wasn't just being able to see facial expressions. Zach was pretty sure he didn't realize how much his reactions changed.

B came back out wearing only soft leggings. He had a tan, even on his chest and shoulders. "Ooh," Zach said, "you went a celebrity somewhere."

"Yes." That soft smile, with just a flicker of movie star charm, was what Zach had needed. He could deal with a lot more 'you could have fucked up your leg' if it didn't feel like 'and I shall have vengeance' was waiting in the wings.

Zach moved over on the couch to make space. His usual jungle gym drape across B's body was out of the question. He found a kind of side lean that worked well enough, head on B's shoulder and sore leg across his lap. Silent touch was nice.

"So. Judo?"

"Yeah. Probably not the best place in town, but it's right next to campus and the reviews say it's at least competent. It's not like I'm trying to learn to be the Batman or something." He did his best not to sound defensive.

"No?"

"No. Whatever you're afraid of, it's probably not that. I have no interest in going out and kicking ass at night."

B rubbed a thumb across his scalp, ruffling his hair. "I didn't think that. Much."

"Well, good. It's fun, that's all. And if I learn something about falling on my ass without breaking anything, that seems like a good life skill."

"Yes, it is."

Maybe they could leave it at that. B smelled good. It was his usual clean skin smell, but with the tan, Zach half-imagined he could smell salt air in it, too, some tropical wonderland where only famous people went.

"You seem pretty motivated."

Zach sighed. "Say what you're not saying."

"The hip is fresh. The rest is in layers. You started angling for advanced practice time as soon as they let you. They let you much sooner than is responsible. You had to ask for special permission."

Zach didn't say anything.

"Karate's the art for people who fantasize about kicking ass. Judo's for imagining defending yourself, or other people, after someone else starts it. Past a certain point, it's still a fantasy." B's grip on his head tightened. "I've seen people die, pointlessly, when what they needed to do was hand over the money. Or stay lying down on the floor of the nice insured bank."

"I won't." Zach tightened his arm around B's chest. "Promise. I will stay the hell down unless someone is actually grabbing me and fighting back looks like the best way out, okay? It wasn't about that. It's fun, that's all."

"Thank you. I'm glad." That was sincere relief. "And all the extra practice time?"

Zach shoved himself up to sitting. "Let it rest! God!"

B looked... hurt? Frightened. Shit, that was still frightened. Zach sighed.

"I wanted the high, okay? I haven't trusted anyone else to hit me in months. They're not..." Damn it. "This is not a guilt trip. This is in zero ways a guilt trip. It just means I was overdue for finding another way to get myself black and blue without your help. This way works a lot better for my schedule and I'm 'building my peer network' instead of feeling irritated at how long it takes to hook up with someone competent."

"I didn't know." B was unreadable, no mask required.

"Yeah."

"Thank you for telling me."

"Yeah." He shifted. "Speaking of endorphin hits, I'm due for another round of setting my skin on fire. Reaching my back without you has been a bitch and a half."

They settled down in the bedroom, where Zach could sprawl out on his front. B started with the smaller bruises and the sore back, working them gently and maliciously to get him giddy first. Then Zach sank his teeth into B's bare leg and they got down to methodical massage of the hip bruise, which spread onto the thigh and ass and was turning some horrific colors.

"This is efficient," B said cheerfully. "Saves me a lot of effort." He moved Zach's leg slowly through its range of motion again, getting another well-muffled scream. "Having fun?"

Zach flipped him off without raising his head. B took him by the wrist and locked his arm behind his back. Zach knew that move now, at least the shape of it. He knew how to move into it without hurting his shoulder, if it was slow enough, and he would get faster. Class was paying off already.

Chapter Text

Zach met Batman at the door and spun him around, cape swirling, in a kiss before he let him go undress. B emerged in black silk boxers and a smile.

"Was that a we-got-funding kiss?"

"It was. Two years of funding and mentoring support from NPO-launching pros. It's actually gonna happen." Zach dragged B down on top of him. They kissed greedily, but Zach was hyper and B was still tense and their noses kept bumping and argh. B usually needed a little time to settle into his skin. Zach sat up without too much regret. "Let's try that again in a bit."

"Good call." B sank into the armchair, eyes intent on Zach. "So where's the money coming from?"

"Wayne Foundation, like half the other projects in town." Zach stretched out on the couch. "Gotham's Kennedys. I had to look them up." He shook his head. "People here just assume everyone knows the story, but unless you were raised here? All I knew about them was the names on buildings and Whatshisname Wayne in the tabloids, crashing another car or cheating on another model."

B stared at him, a slow smile twitching across his face. "Whatshisname Wayne." He started laughing, then laughing harder, his face red with it. "Whatshisname Wayne. Oh god."

Zach sat up, on full alert. Sometimes laughter that violent was a life-threatening symptom. "What? What's so funny?"

B waved him off but couldn't stop giggling. "You're, hahhh, you're really not good with faces, are you?" He managed to subside, then took a breath and his whole face smoothed out and went serious. "But that's not fair. Most people never look past the haircut and the tux."

Zach looked at the man sitting mostly naked in his armchair, powerful torso and thighs laced with faint scars, expression guarded, face still flushed and eyes watering with how hard he'd been laughing. "You're Whatshisname. Bruce."

"Bruce." Bruce Wayne gave him a blinding smile and reached out his hand. "Pleased to meet you."

Zach leaned forward slowly and shook it. Instead of letting go, he got to his feet and pulled Bruce up with him. They watched each other warily. He only got this meeting once. He had to get this right.

He slid closer, right into club flirting range, where they could feel the heat radiating from each other's skin. "Hey, Bruce. You're hot. Want to go to my place and fuck?"

Bruce almost started laughing again. "Buy me a drink first."

That broke the ice. Zach looked at him, fitting the images together as best he could, still holding his hand. "You know, we've been doing this over a year and I still don't know what you drink."

Bruce's expression softened down, and he looked like plain old B again. "Well, when I'm working, as little as possible."

"And you're always working."

"Right."

"Well, sorry"—Zach got his hand free and headed for the kitchen—"but this occasion calls for at least a mouthful of shitty champagne." He came back with two flutes and the small toasting bottle he'd been leaving in the crisper drawer. He poured an inch in each glass and watched it fizz.

He handed a glass to B and settled into the couch with him. "Whatshisname Wayne."

"Whatshisname." They drank.

"Sorry," Zach said. "I'm sure my champagne's terrible."

B shrugged. "People mostly pretend to care about the difference."

"Is there a difference?"

"Some. I just don't care." He set down his glass. "I don't care about a lot of things that I'm supposed to."

"Well, you're a little busy. And it seems like you have your priorities in order. You throw around a lot of money on—" Zach froze, then set aside his own glass carefully. "Tell me you didn't. Please, please tell me you didn't. Our grant?"

"I didn't." B squeezed his hands. "Didn't even breathe on it. And believe me, I watched it from start to finish. It would have been difficult to let it go, but I would have. You won it fair and square."

Zach dropped his head onto B's chest. "Thank you. Especially with..." He waved a hand to vaguely indicate the apartment that his billionaire sugar daddy had apparently given him, what the hell. "I've got to do this right, no cheating or stealing someone's spot."

B didn't say anything. Zach sat up. "Tell me. Tell me right now."

"You didn't steal anyone's spot," B said.

"But?"

"But you were one short on the admissions standby list. The three people ahead of you with the most need were offered full rides somewhere else." B looked a little defiant as well as appropriately anxious.

Zach breathed, thought through it, and finally nodded. "Acceptable. Barely." He relented. "Thank you. Waiting another year to start would have sucked. But don't do it again, okay? No referrals, no cronies, no stuffing ballot boxes for me. Please?"

"I promise." B put a hand on Zach's wrist. Zach became sharply aware that B could still bench press him without difficulty. "You said something about going back to your place."

"I did." Zach offered his other wrist, then twisted both to encourage a tighter grip. He tugged them back until B lay on top of him, arms pinned above his head. "You gonna remind me you're still a big bad bat? Or show me how Bruce Wayne does a starlet?"

B froze up.

"Shit, I'm sorry, I—"

"Shh." B kissed him. "It's fine. I just haven't actually done more than pay off a starlet in a few years. And I don't even have to do that anymore. We just go to a couple of events, she takes the publicity, the press does the rest. It works out for everyone. They assume I don't like women."

This was a lot more truth than Zach had been braced for. "Do you?"

"I do. I just don't want people who only want to fuck my name or my money."

Zach looked away. "Or the suit? I feel pretty lucky I got in the door, then."

B kissed his ear. "Very first date, you invited me to ditch the big bad bat next time."

"Oh." He felt his face heating up. "I forgot that."

"I didn't." B started nipping along the crest of his ear as he talked, barely more than a whisper. "I remember you frightened and miserable on a roof, and instead of asking to stay safe, you said, This is something I can do."

He got Zach's wrists into one hand and laid the other palm flat against his cheekbone. Zach shivered and lay still.

"And then I hit you. I knew right away that I'd gotten it wrong. It wasn't the Saturday night slap you were ready for. You could’ve asked me to ease up, or endured the second one out of pride. I know endurance.

"You welcomed it. Transformed it. Shaped it into something you could use, and carried it home for later where I wouldn't have to see. I wanted to watch you do it again." B kissed his mouth. "You were by far the most respectful person who had ever asked me to hit him in the face."

Zach remembered his line. "Is that a long list?"

"Mostly they just hint around it by waving weapons or taking a swing at me. It seems passive-aggressive, now that I think about it."

"I've wondered... Some of the bigger costumes, the way they call you out." The popular joke was that they were flirting. Zach was less and less sure it was a joke.

"I know. It would keep me up at night, if they weren't already keeping me up at night. Even the idiots who grabbed you wouldn't have bothered with hostages if they weren't factoring me in. It all keeps building." B rested his face in the curve of Zach's shoulder, fingers still pressing into his cheek.

That was a lot. Zach cleared his throat after a second. "I think we both suck at pillow talk."

B started giggling helplessly, both their bodies rocking with it. Zach wrapped a leg around his waist in lieu of a hug. B let his wrists go and they tangled up with each other. Zach was wearing way too much. He needed to fix that soon.

B breathed in his ear. "So you want to feel like a star?"

Zach's belly did a flip. "Yeah."

B levered up to look at him and touched his cheek. His eyes were wide and serious. It wasn't the lazy flirting look at all, but something vulnerable and sincere. Sincere-looking? This was confusing.

Bruce studied his face like he was trying to memorize it, then kissed him slowly, as if they'd never done it before. Zach felt like the center of the whole damn world. He rested his hands lightly on this new extra-naked version of Bruce, unsure of the dynamics when he was the one still in clothes.

A little of the flirting came back when Bruce sat up. "C'mon." It seemed like he pulled Zach up, but Zach knew what Batman's strength pulling him up felt like and this was not it. Zach faltered, then did his share.

When he got to his feet, Bruce's hands were all over him, voraciously hungry but not quite pushy. The instant Zach moved into the touch, Bruce had his shirt untucked, fingers snaking underneath.

"Wow, uh." Zach held back a little and the onslaught stopped as quickly as it had started. It wasn't the jerky on-off stop of a safeword. Bruce's hands were somehow back to a relatively respectful resting position on his hips, as if they had never been higher and were in no rush to get anywhere.

"Are you okay?" Bruce asked.

"Yeah. Are you okay? Really."

"Yes." Bruce took Zach's hands. "I don't do things with you I don't like. Ever." He was still wearing extra sincerity all over his face. "Should I stop?"

Zach thought about it. B greeted him almost every visit in stone-faced silent vigilante mode, and that wasn't fake, not exactly. If the jerk playboy was the other end of the scale from monster voice... "I'm good." He leaned in for another kiss.

Bruce Wayne really committed to a good kiss. His hands got busy under Zach's shirt again, going for second base. Zach had never in his very queer life thought of someone touching his nipples as second base, but there it was.

Bruce was no longer the more naked one. He wore his bare skin with the confidence of a nude beach veteran, and he was dirty touching Zach's chest under increasingly rumpled clothing. Zach did his best to keep up, tracing the lines of Bruce's muscles with his fingers.

"Mmmm, that's nice." Bruce slid one hand down to tease at Zach's waistband. When he got a positive response, he tried to work it in further, but Zach's jeans were too tight for that. He unbuttoned them one-handed instead, his other hand a sexy but reassuring presence on Zach's ribs. "Yeah?"

"Yeah." Zach leaned against the hand creeping into his briefs to hold his cock, which was already pretty slippery.

"I like using my mouth," Bruce said in his ear.

"I like using your mouth too." There was a small cache in a drawer of the coffee table for just this situation. Bruce stopped him with a tighter squeeze.

"Don't worry. I got it." Apparently Bruce's boxers had an emergency sex pocket large enough for a condom and lube packet. He smoothly opened both while still holding the small of Zach's back and kissing him.

Bruce dropped to his knees, hair half-buried in Zach's shirttails, and sank hot mouth all the way down onto his cock. His nose and forehead touched down first try. Zach buried his fingers in Bruce's hair.

"Oh. Oh, damn." A sudden enthusiastic blow job should be the familiar part. He'd had a lot of them, including quite a few from B. Bruce made it reverent while still somehow radiating that he was one of the richest men in the world and he was on his knees with Zach's cock down his throat and a hand under his balls. Zach's knees buckled. "Damn. Uh. Bed?"

Bruce swallowed on the head of his cock a few more times before answering. "Bed." He grinned up at Zach, his mouth wet and flushed.

It should not have been possible to smoothly escort him to the bedroom with his cock still hanging out, but Bruce managed it. The clumsy parts just became a flirty joke, and then they were side by side on the bed, naked and jerking each other off with friendly familiarity. After a minute of that, Bruce slid back down and started sucking again, slower.

He wasn't teasing, he just wasn't rushing. I could stay here all night, his mouth said. The heel of his hand grinding up against Zach's ass added, unless you had a better idea. Zach relaxed into the luxury of it, watching Bruce's eyes. It was tempting to stay right there. But he was really curious how this mask fucked.

He wasn't sure how to get there, though. Whatever he asked for, he'd get, which wasn't exactly what he was after. Something about the vibe was throwing him off. Oh. Zach rubbed his fingertips along Bruce's scalp. "You've played this game more with women."

Bruce lifted his head, panting. "Women don't have a monopoly on enjoying feeling special."

"No, they don't." Zach pulled him up for a kiss and matched his intensity. "How do you like it? I know, all the same ways. But here, now."

Bruce's face lit up. He rolled onto his back. Zach followed him with nonstop kissing.

"How about you climb up here where I can see you?"

Zach smiled at him and pulled on a glove, getting in a good side position to work himself open quickly.

Bruce tugged at his elbow. "Up here. Do whatever feels good, just let me see."

This would be interesting. Zach straddled Bruce's incredible abs. The position was inconvenient, but the way Bruce looked at him was powerful motivation.

He leaned back to reach a couple fingers up his ass, which was frankly not the sexiest thing when he was just getting things going for himself. Keeping tension in his legs like this would make it take longer, too, though clearly Bruce was in no hurry. He closed his eyes to get a break from the attention.

That was easier. It was almost like being in the hood again, with everything simple and tactile. He scissored his fingers, getting a good stretch on the rim, and worked deeper. There had been plenty of times when B— when Bruce— God, this was confusing.

"Hey," Bruce said, running hands along his thighs. "You need something else? It's okay."

"No, I'm fine." Zach opened his eyes, back in the floodlight of charisma. "This is just the awkward part, y'know?"

"Doesn't have to be. You want a hand?" Bruce's thumbs worked along the creases of his hips.

Zach's perspective shifted. He let the familiar parts drop for a second. An actual no-roleplay-required billionaire, whose name he had learned less than an hour ago, was waiting to watch him fuck himself.

He arched higher, really working himself on his fingers, letting the effort show on his face. He watched Bruce mirror it, eating it up with his eyes. "Just had to get my head around it. You stay right there."

He got a little taller on his knees. "Keep me steady." With Bruce handling the balance of his hips, Zach could lift his balls with his other hand, giving a flicker of a view between his legs. "There we go."

He added a third finger and went for more visible movement than practical stretching. He could rub his cock with the heel of his other hand, working his balls between his fingers. It was a lot to keep track of.

This was not porn, and Bruce definitely would not be happy if he went for show over pleasure. Zach slowed his hands way down and closed his eyes again, focusing on angles and pressure and depth. That was better. That was really good. Bruce made a low "mmm" sound, so apparently it showed.

Zach worked himself up, good and slow. Once his fingers were moving easily and he could switch to fucking any time, he looked at Bruce again. Bruce was practically panting for it, his face and chest flushed, barely holding himself still, just watching.

He'd been looking right at Zach's face. When he saw Zach looking back, he gave a full up-and-down slow stroke with his eyes. Zach could almost feel it washing over his skin, tingling down to his thighs and back up, prickling past his cock. Bruce smiled. Zach felt like he'd won an award. Most Beautiful Body In Bed With Me, maybe, which still had some stiff competition. Speaking of which...

"You should suit up," Zach said, nodding toward the condoms. Bruce got one without looking away. "I really should have figured out how much you like to watch before now."

Bruce grinned at him, reaching both hands between his legs and unbalancing him, showing just a little of his strength. He brought the lube bottle with him and splashed some more onto Zach's glove. "Got enough?"

"Oh, I'm about to get enough." Zach was tempted to sit down fast and go for the shock and awe, but after all the times B had made him wait for it, this seemed like a golden opportunity. Just how slowly could his thighs stand to take it? "Get your hands out of there, I got this. You could touch me, though. Or you. Someone. Touch someone. You're creative."

He wasn't sure he was entirely making sense, but Bruce seemed happy with free rein for his hands. Zach got firm, smooth fingertips all over, flicking past his nipples and then revisiting them when he reacted. He was getting really sensitive from the slow build.

He got Bruce's cock in his hand and settled down on it, just far enough to get the head in. He'd loosened himself up enough for a nice easy slide, not tight unless he made it tight. He flexed his ass. Bruce groaned, hands shaking, but didn't move yet.

"Okay," Zach said. "Come and get it. I'm gonna stay right here." Bruce arched his hips up for a slow, deep stroke. "Yeah. That's good. Keep doing that. I'm just gonna, gonna watch these amazing abs and enjoy the ride now." He didn't take his eyes off Bruce's face.

He managed to hold it together for a few dozen strokes before his thighs had enough. He sank his weight down to rest, arching back to get the extra depth right where he wanted it. He'd set a height, though, and Bruce stuck to it like a champ, lifting him up with every thrust.

Zach tried to keep his eyes open, he really did, but it was a good angle and Bruce's thumbs were on his nipples and he had both hands on his own cock, working it frantically. He didn't worry about holding off, just went for it, biting his lip and jerking himself as fast as he could. Bruce bucked up, fucking him hard and fast and urgent.

Just a little further. He tightened everything up. "Don't stop. Wanna feel you, don't stop."

"I won't stop." Batman. Zach's eyes flew open and they stared at each other, one big mess of colliding impressions, Batman's eyes watching him from above the playboy smile.

Zach came and came, too sensitive and twitching, come spilling over his fingers and onto B's belly, getting what he'd asked for. B pounded him, hands gentle on his chest, then bruising his ribs a little, hanging on for a final merciless hammering. Zach bounced up and down like a ragdoll, taking it.

B drove up into him and stayed there, teeth clenched, face red, holding his breath as he came. Zach flexed hard, over and over, getting a little noise from B each time until finally he'd wrung him dry. They collapsed down, shaking.

They were sticky and overheated and really needed a little breathing room. It still took way too long for Zach to find the coordination to roll off, B trying to help him while also managing the spent condom. They should clean up. They did not clean up. Eventually they got their breath back, but they stayed flopped out.

Zach grabbed for a towel. He just needed to scrape the sludge off before it hardened to cement. B took the towel away and staggered off to the bathroom to wet it down properly. He came back a little better composed, with his attentive playboy lover expression back in place. Zach let himself be attentively washed off.

"That was... wow. You really know how to show a girl and/or boy a good time."

B ran a hand over Zach's head, slowly ruffling his hair. "I tried being selfish but good enough to get away with it first," he said quietly. "It seemed like it went with the persona. But it was already hard enough to tell whether someone wanted to be there. So I made sure that if they felt obligated to put out, at least they didn't feel that way twice."

"Makes sense." Zach could feel himself dozing, but B was leaving something unsaid and it wouldn't feel right to save it for later. He kept his eyes closed to give B privacy. "And if you felt obligated?"

B's hand faltered, then started petting again. "When I finally realized that was happening more often than not is when I started paying for rumors instead."

Zach sat up and silently kissed B's face all over. He should make an effort to think of him as his real name, now that he knew it. But the way B put 'Bruce' on like a tuxedo... He should ask.

"How do you feel about your name?"

B shrugged. "It's my name. I don't have another one I like better, if that's what you're asking." He watched the ceiling for a while. "Neither name is fake. Both names are fake. It doesn't matter. The work matters."

"Okay."

Usually this was the point where B suited up and left for the night. Instead, he turned out the lights and held Zach, gently touching his head and shoulders until he drifted off.

Chapter Text

Zach woke up pleasantly sore. He lay with his eyes closed, prolonging the sensation of B's presence on his body.

Bruce. Bruce Wayne. Bruce Fucking Wayne. His boyfriend, a word he suddenly felt confident using, Bruce.

Holy shit.

He rolled out of bed, bursting with energy. It was a Saturday. He had no plans. He lit up the Booty Signal, because he was still also dating Batman, and surveyed his practically free practically penthouse apartment.

It was pretty grungy around the edges. He pulled on some shorts, cranked his Bats4Bats Beatz playlist, and set to work.


Bruce rubbed his eyes and drank more coffee. Eventually the array of screens came into focus properly. He'd stayed at Zach's later than he could afford, pushing his patrol two hours further into the morning, but some things were worth it. Zach hadn't pulled away. Bruce could finally breathe.

Whatshisname Wayne. Ha. Solid proof that his camouflage was more successful than he'd ever hoped for. Straight through famous and into forgettable.

He would have stayed all night if he could, but the shipping and receiving patterns at the docks were shifting in a way that set off all his instincts. Nothing replaced first-hand observation. Nothing replaced data analysis either, hence pulling up maps and manifests on three hours of sleep.

The board meeting on Monday would cover international trade policy. He could multitask. He should check anyway, to make sure no one on his payroll was behind what was taking shape on the waterfront. He opened the corporate import/export financials and applied a few initial filters.

He glanced at his summary display. No alerts. The dot in the corner for Zach's beacon was green. He smiled at it. Tuning in for a while wouldn't interfere with his analysis. The sounds of eating or typing made good company.

"I'd do anything to get to the rush, Now I'm dancin' and I'm dancin' too much!"

Club pop thumped through the cave from all directions, mimicking the soundscape from the doorway between the bedroom and living room. The volume leveled itself automatically, but by the clipping, Zach was listening at neighbor-concerning decibels. He sang along, loud and unselfconscious.

Something caught at Bruce's attention. He listened more carefully. There it was. Irregular footfalls. He activated the infrared camera in the living room. The blurred bright shape was doing an ass-shaking sidestep and... singing into the vacuum cleaner like a microphone. He stared at it for almost a minute before he could look away, his shoulders shaking with silent laughter.

He moved the image to the far upper left screen and started cross-checking the traffic through Pier 51. The tiny rainbow figure gyrated in his periphery, occasionally vaulting over the couch to cross the room.

"No matter how much I try to stoppa, I can't help thinkin' about cha..."

Chapter Text

"It's a commitment. Once it's out there..."

Zach crossed his arms. "It's not like we're taking out a billboard. Like ten people will see this."

"On the Internet. Where everything lives forever. This could make or break us. We have to get this right the first time."

"I appreciate that you're concerned about this," Zach said. "But it's not like everyone won't fuck it up anyway. We can refine after we see how it plays. Anyway, if we can't even agree on what right means..."

Monique rolled her eyes at both of them. "It's an acronym, it's all-caps. Why can't we move on?"

Qi shook his head. "Because that's not the right emphasis. Gotham Rebuilding is the name, the rest is a subtitle. First two caps only emphasizes that. We'll usually call it Gotham Rebuilding anyway."

"Gotham Rebuilding is words we chose to force a clever acronym," Zach said.

"Show of hands," Jaani said, "Graphic designers with practical marketing experience?" She threw both hands in the air, reaching for the sky, and did jazz hands. "Yeah. I'm sorry, Qi, but two initial caps will look like a typo forever, and we'll end up saying the version that's two syllables instead of five. It's GRANITE all-caps or capital-G Granite."

Qi sat back, looking frustrated. "All-caps always looks like it's shouting. I hate that, when it spells a word. What about all lower-case?"

Absolutely everyone else shook their heads. "It is, at minimum, a proper noun," Monique said.

"I wondered if we could use different versions in different places. Like, if we're just putting it in text, capital-G Granite, but for the logo, stacking the words..." Zach scribbled it out on a piece of paper with the capitals oversized:

Gotham
Rebuilding:
Achieving
Neighborhood
Infrastructure
Through
Entrepreneurship

Everyone watched in silence until he'd finished.

"Way too busy," Monique said.

"It took you almost a minute just to write all that out," Qi said.

"Which is why," Jaani said, "once again, the full name should only exist as a fine print line on letterhead, business cards, and the boilerplate footer of the website."

Monique rubbed her temples. "Qi, are you okay with capital-G Granite?"

He made a face. "I can live with it."

"Anyone else have a dire objection?" She waited three seconds. "Great, done. What's next?"


All four of them sat hunched over their laptops, watching Qi's screen-share.

"List of work scope that doesn't require license and bonding. Mr. Jackson was very helpful. We have Foundation legal backing as long as they stick to this list, or they can refer up to the next level business."

He flipped to the next document.

"Licensing costs and requirements for materials reclamation work. It's not too bad, but only really worth it if a person is making a living at it or it's part of their other licenses. I asked exactly like you said. The magic words are, 'We cannot advise you to employ unlicensed workers.'

"The consequences if they're caught bringing a swarm into a condemned structure are... complicated. The business might be fined or dissolved. But if they're not on the payroll, which they wouldn't be, there is a possible legal defense that they aren't connected. Fines for an individual are smaller, especially if they aren't doing the carrying away. Then it's just self-endangerment and trespassing, not looting."

Monique nodded. "I don't suppose he said anything about a selective enforcement defense?"

"No. Why?"

"Because they'd have to fine everyone living in a condemned building. Many of whom are still paying rent."

"Yeah, I had a question about that," Zach said. "What do they do if a super asks them to make repairs in a condemned building?"

"Do it," Monique said.

"But... the building needs tearing down anyway. And it's not safe."

"Neither is living there with a big hole in the wall and no working toilet, which people are still doing whether it's repaired or not. Money is money, and it'll get them more referrals. It's not like the super will tell them it's condemned. They have deniability."

"What if someone gets hurt?"

"They'll do what they would do working for Cobblepot, who automatically fires for L&I claims, and hit up the free clinic for stitches. We'll make sure everyone gets tetanus shots, they need 'em anyway."

"But..." Zach held himself back. "Sorry. It's freaking me out, that's all."

Jaani patted his hand. "Perfect. Enemy of the good. Until we get the attention of backers with some real pull, grassroots is what we can do."

Monique said, "And we need the grassroots level anyway. Always will. Help that comes from the sky never quite touches the ground." She sighed. "With that said, oh, for a backer."

Zach didn't look at Bruce's locked door. He picked up his empty water glass. "Anyone want a refill?"


"Look," Jaani said, "he's slouching his head down and he's still taller than Wayne. And look at those shoulders. Wayne can afford tailoring to pretend he's bigger, but the guy on the DA salary, he's just shopping in Big and Tall, and his coat's too tight through here."

Zach studied the photo of two men standing at some kind of award ceremony. Bruce Wayne was handing Harvey Dent a plaque and patting him on the back. Bruce's face was younger and softer. He looked happy. Harvey Dent was beautiful in a blocky way, his face all sculpted brutal lines. He seemed like he already looked guarded and angry, but that might just be hindsight.

"I'm just saying, he may have missed his calling as a pro wrestler. It's a shame he turned heel."

"Seriously?"

Jaani downshifted her voice and barked out, "The DA will dent your shiny metal ass! Here comes the prosecution!"

Zach snorted a laugh.

"His finishing move could be The Conviction. Or the People's Justice."

"You watch a lot of wrestling, don't you."

"I live for drama. And for the blatant homoeroticism that must never be acknowledged."


The Granite team followed Monique into the high rise, which was not officially condemned but probably would be with a thorough inspection. A pack of shrieking children ran through the lobby, sliding on the still-shiny patches of floor to show off for each other. When they saw the unfamiliar adults in expensive clothes, they shushed each other and walked quietly past, out the doors, at which point the shrieking started again.

Zach sympathized. Monique was wound tight on this one. Don't dress up, don't dress down, don't be too familiar, don't be too formal, treat her like she's the queen, be authentic, she can smell bullshit from a mile away. They were about to meet the mayor the Narrows didn't have.

Monique tapped on the ground floor apartment door. "Ms. French? It's Monique Scott."

"Coming!"

After a long pause, locks rattled and clicked; the door opened. Ms. French was a light-skinned Black woman in her sixties, her graying hair braided down. "Come on in." She turned her manual wheelchair and headed back into the apartment.

"Thank you," Monique said. They tiptoed after her. She introduced them one by one.

"There's coffee and tea, if you'd like something."

"We'd love some. Can I get it for you?"

"No, no, I got it, honey."

They went through three rounds of that before Monique was allowed to make coffee and heat water for Zach and Qi to have tea. This seemed to be standard procedure; they were both smiling, and Monique seemed more relaxed. It would stick the rest of them unescorted in the living room for long minutes, though.

"Can I help?" Zach asked. "That'll be a lot to carry."

Thank god, Monique accepted first try. They stood elbow to elbow in the cramped but meticulously clean kitchen. She gave him a thumbs up.

When they got settled in the living room, crowded onto the loveseat and every chair, Ms. French finally said, "Well now, Monique. What are you cooking up?"

Monique laid out the initial pitch, more or less. Ms. French nodded at her. "A fine idea. The devil's in the details, though. You understand why people will be cautious. You're Sadie's girl, of course, but Sadie moved uptown, and people pick up some pie-in-the-sky ideas when they go to college. How's this going to work? Nuts and bolts."

Monique kept talking. And talking. And talking. Ms. French raised concerns, which Monique fielded or meekly took as feedback. Zach sat quietly, sipped his tea, and studied the kitschy religious art punctuating the family photos all over the walls. One of the windows was boarded up with plywood, painted white and treated as extra wall space.

"Not bad," Ms. French said. "Not bad at all. You kept your head on your shoulders. I can get you in touch with some folks. Now, how about you tell me about your friends?"

She went through them all again, spelling out their specialties. Ms. French asked them a couple questions each.

"And Zach. Zach is pinch-hitting on the paperwork side for now. His real work comes later, when we start calling the people who won't hear it from me."

He met Ms. French's sharp eye contact and gave a deferential nod.

"Mm-hm. You'll help Monique understand what white people need to hear?"

"Uh." Trick question, oh god. He resisted the urge to look to Monique for help. "I think Monique already knows what they'd like to hear. I think my job is to tell them what she's saying instead."

"You're not like them."

"I... wouldn't say that? I'm just trying to do better. And listen when she says I've f— messed up."

"Don't forget it."

"No, ma'am."

She nodded slowly. "Yes, you'll do."


"Would anyone like to go to a movie with me?" Qi asked.

"Depends," Monique said. "Is it a romcom?"

"No. None of the romcoms playing were worth seeing twice."

"Hey, I like the romcoms," Zach said. "What's playing?"

"Lots of things," Qi said, "but I want to see Fever."

"That's promising," Jaani said. "What's it about?"

"Docudrama about the first wave of millennium fever, the first people who caught the bug. The theme gangs and the people in homemade pajama costumes and Diana of Themyscira trying to calm people down after 9/11 and the Vigilante Code Commission and—"

"I'm in," Zach said.

"Seriously?" Monique said. "We are surrounded by millennials. Our work is built on damage done by millennials. I saw those theme gangs, don't need to see 'em twice. And they'll get it all wrong."

"I didn't," Zach said. "Suburbs of St. Louis. Which still doesn't have a resident hero, it's all fly-overs."

"I'm in for the costumes," Jaani said.

"We moved from Shenzhen to Metropolis in 2000," Qi said. "My parents weren't sure whether this was new or people just forgot to tell them America was insane. Didn't know for sure until Superman. I saw him. The first day. September 7th, 2004. I was ten. He saved my school."

Everyone went quiet.

"What was that like?" Monique asked.

"Mostly we didn't know what was happening. We thought it was just a windstorm, but then there were these huge crashing sounds and then Ms. Washington let us go to the windows but we were on the wrong side of the building, so all we could see was this dust cloud coming down. I was afraid the building would fall on us, but she wouldn't let us go outside."

He'd tucked his hands into his sleeves, twisting the fabric between his fingers. "Then there was a boom and all the windows rattled. That was Red Tornado hitting the ground. And I saw... just a blip, a flash of red and blue streaking by the window. It really was like seeing a bird go by, too fast to see the plumage. But I knew whatever it was had to be bright.

"We didn't get a good look except on the news. He was in homemade pajamas. Like a god in homemade pajamas."

He ducked his head. "Sorry if that was too much talking at once."

"It wasn't," Zach said. "Thanks for telling us."

"Yeah," Monique said. "Let's go to the movies."


Zach stood by the door of the bustling community center hall, handing out fliers and giving the 30 second pitch.

 

Got construction skills?
Want to work for yourself?

Granite provides support for new business owners and independent contractors. Working together, we can make living spaces safer and keep money in the community.

Volunteer with Granite
All skills needed
Manual — Technical — Design — Administrative — Organizers — Community support

 

Monique sat at the head of the room with the main crowd, talking them through the options. She'd already recruited a Spanish translator. Zach heard "tool library," which was new, and "work trade," which was not.

Qi sat behind a table, barricaded by stacks of forms and handouts. He kept his eyes on the documents as he talked shop with serious-looking people who clearly already knew their way around building codes. The line was piling up; Zach should go bail him out from the easier questions soon. He was just as capable of saying, "We cannot advise you to work under the table for cash."

Maybe Jaani could take over flier and welcome duty. She was hesitant about being front-facing; she said she didn't want to scare people off, and even Qi would rather talk to strangers than make her deal with people's ignorant reactions. But her table for logo and visual design services was dead so far, and Qi verged on swamped. He glanced over.

Jaani was completely surrounded by children. Every kid in the room had drifted over to her. Their voices carried.

"Your skirt's pretty." "Will you draw me next? Pleeeeease?" "Are you black?" "Can I try on your earrings?" "I want mine like a pirate." "Are you like Auntie Keisha?" "Can you draw me like a dragon?" "I want to be a dragon!"

She smiled and sketched as fast as she could, markers flying. A boy, maybe ten years old, whispered in her ear. She whispered back and he nodded, his eyes huge. She stood up, sketch pad pulled close to her chest, and dashed something off, to a chorus of "I wanna seeeeee!"

She folded the page in half and handed it to him. He thanked her and sprinted from the room, almost running into Zach. Pink sneakers and a Wonder Woman pin on the backpack. Mental note, try harder not to assume kids' genders.

The flier could pitch itself. He set the stack on the table by the door and went to help Qi.


"And here's the real prize," Monique said. She pulled a handful of pages out of a binder pocket and laid them on her kitchen table.

Zach spread them out gingerly. 'Pages' was a generous description. Half a crumpled sheet of notebook paper, two cardboard coasters, a diner receipt, and a cocktail napkin, all with scribbled names, along with a few phone numbers and addresses. "Janus Apartments, we've got. These are... client leads?"

"Yep, I finally chased down matches."

"Matches for what?"

"No, Matches Malone. Sketchy as hell, but he's the best information sponge in town, if you can find him. Buy him a chicken-fried steak and a beer, and he'll gossip for an hour. He was so happy to talk about supers who complain about maintenance, he didn't even finish his beer."

Zach shook his head. "I will never understand this town. Cool, I'm in business, then. Get these all... identified, and start making calls."

Elijah's stubby little fingers crept over the edge of the table, followed by hair twists, forehead, eyes, nose. He stopped at nose and stared silently at Zach.

"Hi," Zach said. "How was your juice?"

After a long pause, Elijah whispered, "Good." Then he ducked out of sight and hopped down the hall, laughing loudly.

"He has a future as a lawyer," Monique said. "He is indeed being quiet and not interrupting at the table. And only at the table."

"Hey, for three, that's basically a miracle."

"True." Monique rolled her neck, getting several impressive pops, and rubbed her eyes. "And yet. It's not just today. Dani's got day shifts for the next two weeks, suddenly we're all lined up. Great for family time, terrible for childcare coverage. Got her cousin covering my class time, but can't push that. I would kill for a nap."

"I mean... If it wouldn't be too weird? Elijah's a pretty easy kid. And I have probably two hours of coaster decryption to do here."

Monique hesitated, then rubbed her eyes again. "Yeah, okay. See if he'll lie down for a nap in about an hour, doesn't have to be in his bed as long as he holds still with his eyes closed for at least twenty minutes. If he gives you any trouble at all, wake me, okay? We got a system."

"Will do."

Three hours later with the sky darkening, Monique emerged, looking better. Zach waved up at her from his position on the living room floor, propped up on his elbows to use his laptop. He was covered in random toys and Elijah was a warm, motionless weight across his calves. Monique waved back, trying not to laugh.

"We all had to lie down and close our eyes, you see," Zach said quietly. "And he knows grownups cheat, so I had to be watched. I got to use my laptop as a pillow, though."

"Uh-huh." She sighed. "I better wake him or he won't sleep tonight." She wobbled Elijah, talking to him softly, then helped him up. "How do dinosaur nuggets sound for dinner?"

"Yeah! Dinosahs!" Elijah rubbed his hand across his entire face, swaying. "Yes please, Mony."

"Great, we'll do that."

Zach rolled to tip the toys onto the floor and carefully gathered up the scraps of paper. There were a few he couldn't decipher, and he needed to ask her about them later. "I gotta get to judo soon," he said. "But hey, if you three want a date night without the kidlet while your schedules are synched?"

"I'll check with Dani," she said. "She has veto on who we leave him with. But yeah. God, yeah."


Zach's phone rang with the hammering sound effect. He fumbled for it. Gotta wake up. Commitments. What was it today? "Hello?"

"Hey." Monique sounded rushed. "Qi and I are downstairs, on our way to City Hall, come on down."

"Oh. Oh, shit, I forgot, I'm not ready. I'm so sorry." He had to wake up. City Hall. The list of properties to target as abandoned. He was supposed to—

"All you need is pants. Or a bathrobe, honestly, just get moving, the meter's running."

His throat was killing him. How was he supposed to play face when he could barely talk? "I can't go to City Hall in a bathrobe."

A pause. Monique said, "Qi and I are going to City Hall. You are going down to your lobby, accepting a delivery of wonton soup, ice cream, and class notes, and getting your delirious ass back in bed."

"Right. On my way."

In the lobby, Monique eyed him. "You do not look good."

"Thank you for your honest feedback," he croaked. "Just don't touch me. Or let me breathe on you. Or look at me too hard."

"Seriously, though, is there anyone who can stay with you?"

"No one who can afford to get sick. Hm. Maybe in a hazmat suit. I bet he's got a hazmat suit."

"Bed, Zach."


Jaani was flopped on Zach's couch, sketching, one leg dangling and the other bent up with her foot on the armrest; if her skirt hadn't been ankle-length, it would have been obscene. Her phone buzzed. She looked at it, grimaced, and flicked it to voicemail. Ten minutes later, it did it again.

Zach glanced over. "It's cool if you need to take that."

She hesitated with her thumb over the button. "Fine." She answered it in her femme voice, speaking maybe-Hindi. Zach didn't have any experience at picking out South Asian languages.

Her voice rose in pitch, talking faster and more stressed, then she pushed herself up to sit hunched over, chilly and quiet. English words peppered the conversation. He caught "architect," "Gotham U," "dressing up," "streets of Gotham," "go to hell." She hung up, raised her arm like she might throw her phone at the wall, then took one slow breath and tucked it into her massive purse instead.

Zach did his best to make himself invisibly neutral, studying the blueprint on his laptop.

"Apologies," she said, her vowels lilting more than usual. "Family."

"Yeah?"

"An uncle, who has not thought to take an interest for ten years, just learned that I went to Gotham, den of sin, for grad school. The rest is gender shit. I need a drink." She stomped off to the kitchen and came back with something that was probably about half orange juice.

"If you want to talk about it—"

"I don't."

"Cool." Zach went back to his blueprint. Jaani picked up her laptop instead of her sketchpad.

"Suffice it to say," she said after thirty seconds, "that double the culture means double the opinions on how I must perform my gender. They are all so very helpful and concerned." She slammed the laptop shut.

"Hm." He nodded. "Sounds complicated."

"Ugggh. I won't even get into it." She opened the laptop again and scowled at it. She started typing, backspaced, started again.

"Half of them wish I would disappear into a commune 'back home,' but then don't want me to become a sex worker and die there," she burst out. "The rest wish I would be a nice simple trans woman, or maybe westernize enough that I stop showing up to things and embarrassing everyone. And all of them wish I would just be a good boy and settle down with that nice desi girl back in Hoboken who I liked when I was sixteen. Which is the last time this uncle thought to look in on me." She gave up on trying to type her password correctly and slammed it shut again, then drank half of her juice.

"I'm sorry."

"I lost my temper last year and told my mother I don't disapprove of sex workers and I don't care if people think I dress like one. That went well." She put her head in her hands.

"Let me guess, she told everyone?"

"Ohhhhh yes."

"Ugh." He gave her a minute, but she didn't say anything more. "I know it's not the same, but... when my mom learned I was going to leather bars and fucking around, she lost her shit. Totally good with me being queer, but if strangers were hitting her baby? Yeah. We didn't talk for almost a year, and things still aren't great. And one of the many, many friends she told while she was freaking out still posts links on my Facebook wall about people getting hurt doing kink. So, yeah."

"Yeah." Jaani tossed back the rest of her juice. "Wanna have sex that would give both our families a stroke?"

Zach paused. Jaani and her loud colors and immense hair and deep voice and mixed signals were smoking hot. Jaani having sex while pissed off and then regretting it the next day would not be as hot. "Depends, are you fucking me or fucking them?"

"Both. Definitely both."

He closed his laptop. "Then hell yes."


Zach unlocked his apartment and let everyone in ahead of him. "Make yourselves comfortable, I'll get drinks and stuff."

"You sure?" Monique asked.

He grinned. "Do not fight me on this."

Jaani flung herself onto the couch. The others dropped off the grocery bags in the kitchen, then headed for their usual seats, Monique at the table and Qi nestled in the armchair with a bag of chips.

He got everyone their usuals, then settled in at the table with Monique. "Well, my brain is full."

Vague noises of assent from around the room.

"Anyone for Pictionary?" Jaani drawled from the couch. It got a weak laugh.

"A toast," Qi said. He raised his jack-and-coke in the air. "To surviving the quarter."

Everyone said 'clink' out loud and drank.

"To independent study and a slightly lighter workload next quarter," Zach said.

"Clink. Speak for yourself," Monique said. "But I got two more serious volunteers last week, practically the same thing."

"Wooooo. To momentum," Jaani said. "Clink."

"To catching up on sleep," Monique said.

"Clink!" everyone shouted with moderate enthusiasm.

"What is everyone doing over the break?" Qi asked. "Other than sleeping until January."

"Five days in Hoboken to prove I haven't died," Jaani said. "Some time on my independent projects; I haven't gotten to work with my hands enough lately. And I owe a few contractors room mockups. You?"

"Metropolis the whole time. I need to see my family and remember what the sun looks like."

"The Christmas cooking has already begun," Monique said. "I have a lot of potlucks to attend. A lot of people will want to talk shop, and I'm gonna let them."

"And sleep? Some?"

"Some, yeah. Zach?"

"Catch up on my shallow social engagements. I haven't gone clubbing in... a month? Jesus. I may have been replaced by a double." He also hadn't seen B in almost that long, not counting supply stops and the flu. Damn. That was not acceptable, and he needed to reevaluate his schedule immediately. "Oh, and an encore of my highly successful naughty Christmas party, to which you are not invited."

"Aww. I'm not invited?" Jaani twisted her head to look at him.

"Okay, you're invited."

"Woooooo." She rolled to her side. "Mm. If I keep lying here, I really will go to sleep."

"My room's free if you want to crash for a while."

"Mmmm. That would be unsociable."

"And comfortable."

"You have convinced me." She headed for the bedroom, dragging her purse behind her.

Monique looked at the couch.

"Go for it," Zach said. "I do not need entertaining."

"I'm not gonna sleep," she said. "It'll just be easier on my back."

"Cool."

Zach waited a few minutes in the quiet. He verified that Qi's drink was not at risk of being knocked over when he woke up. He dimmed the apartment lights to half-power, then went to curl up with Jaani.

Chapter Text

B: It looks like your morning is free. Is that accurate?
Zach: Yes. Coming over?
B: I want you.
Zach: It's mutual.
B: 8:45, be date-ready.
Zach: Hell yes. See you soon. 😘


At 8:45 exactly, his phone tolled. "Something come up?"

"Yes, I'll be there, just gotta take care of this," Bruce said in his most public voice.

"Damn. Another time."

"Not you." Bruce spoke more quietly, but still loose and casual. "I'm about to go into an impossibly pointless board meeting, nine to eleven. Get the black box from my drawer."

"Okay." Zach went to investigate. The box contained an ambitiously sized black butt plug, with a few progressively fatter bumps along the length for working down in stages. "Wow. Okay?"

"What do you think, can you stay in my ear while I watch a budget presentation?"

It was just a little fatter than the biggest plug Zach owned, which took him half an hour to get onto when he was in the mood for a slow, challenging stretch. "Yeah. You want me to talk through it, or... How does this work?"

"The mics have good range. Talk if you want, but I'll hear you anyway." He raised his voice. "Use your judgment. Okay, I gotta go, can you handle this for me?"

"You sit there and look professional while I fuck myself?"

"Right. Thanks." click.

"Well then," Zach said to his silent apartment. "I'll get on that for you. Right away, Mr. Wayne."

He got out supplies and threw down towels. "So, usually I like music for this, but then you couldn't hear me breathing, right?" No answer. "But if you were able to talk back, you'd have confirmed just now, soooo, headphones? Headphones should work."

Silence. Yeah, he definitely needed a beat to smooth out the mood. He queued up a bass house mix and stuck his phone in a jogging armband so he wouldn't lose the headphones at an awkward moment.

"This is an optimistic toy if you want me to keep messing around for two hours, so I'm starting with something smaller. Unless you tell me not to, of course. Which I'm sure you totally could, it's still six minutes to nine, no one's cornered you for a chat before the meeting or anything, right? No? Cool, gonna assume you are totally on board, then."

He really should not push that if he didn't want payback the next time B got hold of him in person, but that was a problem for Future Zach to deal with. He surveyed his setup, added a mug of water and a couple more pillows, then dropped his bathrobe and strapped his phone to his arm. 8:59.

"Here we go. Lubing up now." He loaded up a full plunger of lube, shot the whole thing up his ass, and reloaded for later. "And cue the music." He tapped the play button. A throbbing beat thrummed through his headphones.

"Gonna start with the narrow neck one." He lay back and relaxed. If he thought of it as putting on a show, he would never get onto that thing. His first choice was a much more practical workhorse he'd had for years. He didn't particularly name toys, but this one was always 'the pacifier,' both because it had a ring on the back for easy solo use and because it was more for a comfortable private ride than for showing off to anyone.

The pacifier was great because the widest bulge matched the high end of actual human dimensions and the long neck was only about an inch across. Once he got it in, he could jerk off without fiddling with it too much. If he really loosened up, he could pop it in and out to simulate a mean fuck.

He set aside the whole surveillance aspect in favor of his comfortable bed, a lazy morning, and a very fuckable soundtrack. The familiar shape nosed up into him and he didn't think about much of anything for a few minutes. Whenever he caught himself worrying about being entertaining enough, he just checked that he wasn't doing the silent breathing he'd learned in shared living spaces.

Not muffling himself? Fine, good enough. Bruce said the mics were good. If he wanted something more detailed, he'd have said. On thirty seconds' notice, he could take whatever worked best for Zach and be happy with it.

Nearly there... Zach exhaled, bore down, and slid it nice and slow through the hardest stretch. "There we go. Got the smaller one in. Just gonna work this one a little. I'll get to the big black monster soon, promise."

He turned down the music to a barely audible background texture so he could hear himself breathe. He could share the space now. He could imagine the breathing was in his headphones. Bruce would only be listening with one ear; he pulled out one headphone to match. He worked the plug, tugging on it for an internal stretch, and he breathed.

"Getting pretty hard over here. How are you doing?" He tugged harder and the plug popped out. He grunted and worked it back in. "If I wasn't putting on a radio show, I'd be jerking off by now. I'm squeezing it a little. Probably won't keep it up when I start really stuffing myself, but we'll see."

He popped it out and in again, very slowly, with a low groan the whole way. "I figure you'll stay hard enough for both of us."

He drew the pacifier out to the widest stretch and held it there, flexing, for almost a minute before he slid it out and set it aside. He glanced at the clock. Twenty minutes and no roughing himself up, not bad.

"Let's see this thing. One, two, three, four, five. Five bumps, ha ha-ha ha-ha." He definitely liked the part where B couldn't shut him up for being a smartass. This plug was stiff and heavy; it was meant for sitting down on. He'd get there.

He relaxed into his pillow nest and worked it up and in. The first bump was easy, and the second was comfortable. "Got two in. For future reference, I like my silicone softer. But this isn't really about what I like, is it?"

He pushed a little towards the third, then relaxed to the easier narrow spot again. "This is about you listening to me work at it while you pretend to give a shit about a slide deck. There is a slide deck, right? I don't think it's allowed to be a corporate meeting without one."

He pushed again in little pulses, in time with the beat in his ear. He could hear his breathing, louder and more strained, the little noises under his breath when he tried for more depth. "This thing where, hoo, where I get to pick the pace and chat at you is great. You just sit in your meeting and look photogenic."

He paused for a break. "I wonder what you look like in meetings. Do you go for bored? Vapid? Vapid but trying to look serious?" He tried more pressure again, slow and steady. "You're gonna look like you really, really wish you were somewhere else pretty soon. Unless you work at it. Which is only fair, right?"

Another bump popped in abruptly. He gasped, breathed, let everything ease down again. "Three." He moved to let the base lean against the bed, so he could free up his hands and really relax before the next phase. Bumps four and five were almost the same diameter, so there would be a challenging wait between them, too wide to really count as a rest.

"Look at that, I'm still up." He squeezed his cock, but didn't stroke it or even slick it up. He could not afford to come early. "Just gonna rest here a minute. If that's okay with you, Mr. Wayne. It is? Great."

The plug vibrated, humming up from nothing to a pretty hard buzz, then back down to nothing. Zach gasped. "Oh, you fucker. You have a remote?"

A sharp pulse.

"Are you doing once for yes, twice for no in my ass."

A slightly longer pulse. Zach breathed hard.

"Okay, but you could at least go a little easier on the onset."

Two very sharp pulses.

"I'm serious, asshole."

One pulse with a softer lead-in.

"Thank you." Oh, he was in so much trouble. He considered his next move. "On my own, I could guarantee I wouldn't shoot early. No promises if you go pounding that button. And at that point, it's coming out, and the rest of the two hours is me humming to myself and having a nap. Which I am great with, so the choice is yours, got it?"

One very gentle pulse.

"Cool. I'm just gonna... let you get back to your meeting, then." He twisted the plug to keep the lube distributed, and felt around on the base. If there was a seam, it was subtle. This had not been a failure of observation. This had been another installment of B: Evil Bastard. Just checking.

He wiggled it gently, running fingers along the join between the plug and his tightly stretched rim. "A suspicious person might wonder," he said quietly, "whether you custom built this to hide the vibe port. And a suspicious person who had ever met you might then wonder if you managed to resist hiding a bat logo in it somewhere." Silence. He grinned. "Did you manage to resist?"

Two slight pulses.

"Did you even try to resist?"

Two, hard and fast enough to rattle his teeth. He grunted and held on tight.

"You commit to your aesthetic. I admire that."

A slow, faint rumble with some variation on it.

"Mmm, that's nice. How about you help me get to notch four?"

He relaxed into relative quiet. Teasing little vibrations kept him company. The music had become a distraction, but both his hands were a lube slick, so he used his shoulder to kind of knock the earbud away.

It felt good, but he was getting sore and didn't seem to be making progress. "Stretch break. So to speak. Need to change things up." He pulled the plug out with a horrifying noise, which made him laugh. "I just imagined the looks on everyone's faces if there was a way to put that on speaker just now."

The plug buzzed in his hand in a rhythmic approximation of a laugh.

"Nice. Glad you agree."

He drank some water and moved the production out to the living room, where he set himself up on one of the sturdy dining room chairs. He didn't narrate, just doused everything in lube again, made sure he had good support available, and eased down onto the giant plug.

"I'm going to name this thing Wayne Tower," he said cheerfully. "Which I am looking at right now, while I fuck myself on it, and I think the scale seems accurate. What do you think?"

Silence. "Oh dear. Are we not amused? Or did the people in your meeting actually ask you to earn your ten-digit keep?"

There was no answer, which suggested the latter. The only appropriate response was to make himself more distracting. He bit his lip and fought for it, flexing and relaxing as hard as he dared, whimpering with the effort.

He glanced at the clock. Almost 10:00. Lots of time left to go. The smart move would be to pace himself. He kept grinding down, panting, staying right on the edge between dramatic noises and a health hazard.

Just as he thought he might have to ease up, the plug buzzed violently to life. Zach sank down, shocked, and it took a second before he could stop groaning at the deep pressure. "Four." The plug went quiet.

Talking steadily had gotten difficult, but to be fair, he wasn't trying very hard. "Welcome back. You, you almost missed that one. But I understand. You must be so very, very busy running a multi, ah, national corporation. So busy, you had to outsource fucking me to a robot dick. Which, in case you missed it, I have named after your giant dick of a building. Don't worry, me and Wayne Tower are, ah, very happy together."

The laugh rhythm again. With the base planted on the chair, the vibrations were a lot stronger. Every buzz got a deep, involuntary noise.

"I'm sitting by the window, watching the light shine off it. You'll be up high, right?" Soft pulse. "I'm gonna assume you're on the side I can see, don't contradict me." Nothing. "Thanks. One if you can see out the windows, two if you're stuck with your back to them." One.

"You know this city like the back of your armored fetish gloves. I bet you looked at my building before the meeting." Strong pulse. "Ngh. So you really are on this side." Strong again, lingering down to a purr that didn't stop.

"If you had good enough binoculars, you could watch my face right now."

He bore down and let the answering buzz take him the rest of the way past five. He cried out, too many things happening at once. The plug pulled up into him abruptly. The burning rim of his ass snugged down around the base in shocking relief. Wayne Tower pressed impossibly huge against his prostate, and it was still purring.

When he managed to stop making nonstop guttural noises, he panted, "A little much. A little..." The vibrations stopped. "Thank."

He massaged around the edges and breathed. "Yeah. Mm. So how are you doing over there? Did they make you stand up for your bit?" Two. They were light but still drove him speechless.

"That's probably for the best. I have most of a load dripping down my thigh over here. You've been keyed up all morning, even before you called me. How long before you got a damp spot over the unprofessional hard-on in your very tailored slacks?"

The plug hummed, not really an answer either way, just making it hard to talk.

"They must think you really, really love budget presentations. Maybe they'll invite you to more of them." Two. Zach groaned. "You're keeping at least one hand out of sight to work the button. Can you sneak a feel? Play a little pocket pool?" Two, harder. "Aw, not even a little? For me?"

Two, hard enough that they felt like a punch. "You're just jealous of Wayne Tower, which is practically fisting me over here while I pinch my nipples, and all you can touch is a button."

He closed his eyes to ride out the resulting vengeful earthquake.

"Mmm. Sure is nice having hands. I am getting lube absolutely everywhere." He ran his hands down his sides and arms and thighs. It spread out the sensation, making the plug bearable. "And I'm watching you."

That got a nice ripple.

"I think maybe I'll, ah, fingerfuck my mouth for a while. Since you're not here to do it. You'll just have to use your memory. Be sure to get all the details in there. My taste buds under your fingertips. My teeth around the bones of your hand. The way my tongue tries to kick you out when you get back to the really soft parts of my throat. How's that button feeling?"

He stuffed his hand in his mouth to muffle himself. He could take it. When he felt steady enough, he reached deep enough to choke a little. He kept it up for a while, even after the vibration cut out.

"Ha. Ah. That all you got? You think you can shut me up?"

Apparently the vibrator had an overdrive mode, which maxed out in short bursts above a background level of what had already seemed like a respectable maximum.

"All you, ah, can do, is, make, yourself, harder. Ngh!"

He grabbed at the seat of the chair and rode it out, almost crying at the overstim.

"You told me to use my judgment, Mr. Wayne. My judgment is that you made a serious tactical error giving me a microphone. And you won't switch me off, because you know better. You asked for this, and you're getting another... forty minutes of it."

Two on overdrive.

"No? What, exactly, do you think you're gonna do about it?"

A gentle thrum, massaging everything slowly.

"Sweet talker. Gonna try to wear me out?"

One pulse that was more of an ocean swell.

"Good fucking luck."

Zach relaxed into the more considerate attention. His legs shook. All his senses had amped up. He could feel the sharp prickle of his sweat and hear every catch of his own breath. "Mmm. You know how it's hard to notice your own sweat? I'm so horny right now, I can smell it."

Deep breaths. "You could, too, if you dropped by. You free after eleven? Ah, ah. Rhetorical question, of course you aren't. Do you at least have long enough to jerk off in the bathroom? Or your office? Ngh. At lunch? Aw. Poor, poor you, your cockteasing ways have come home to roost."

B would not be baited, keeping it low and slow. Zach was way too stuffed to get hard, but it didn't matter. The build against his prostate was exactly the rhythm he needed and completely inescapable. He rocked on it, breathing evenly, tugging on his balls and running a hand across his chest. His whole body felt like a thin skin wrapped around the vibration.

When he got close enough that it wouldn't matter, he put his hand down to feel the strange sensation of a hard orgasm that didn't require his cock's participation. He could hold the whole thing easily, his body shaking while his cock twitched and let go of the few drops left in his balls.

There wasn't much sound left in him either, just long, shuddering breaths with whimpers as punctuation. The buzz faded out. "Mmm. Th-thank you. Lovely."

He shifted his weight and winced. Even the slightest movement was too much. "Well. However shall we spend the next twenty-five minutes."

A gentle fade in and out, overwhelming as it was, definitely felt like permission to dismount.

"Mm? What's that? Sorry, kind of a limited interface. Should have thought that through better. I'm sure you'll fix it in the next version."

A faint laughter pulse made him shudder all over again. He leaned his back against the hard frame of the chair.

"See, the problem I'm having is, you didn't get me off because I asked you nicely, or even because you were prodding the button too hard trying to fuck with me. No, it was because I said you couldn't shut me up. That puts my honor as a mouthy bastard on the line."

Two gentle bumps.

"No, of course, you couldn't understand. Your cowl is in the dictionary next to 'strong silent type.' It's okay."

The right bait flashed across his mind. A little risky, but if he kept it light... "I bet Lex Luthor would have built— Ngh! Ah. Ah. Hey, is this board meeting reacting to that invention he dropped—"

The punches were quick warnings, not quite full strength but close. Zach gritted his teeth and held onto the chair. "You're just mad that his tower is twelve stories taller."

He had completely failed at recalibrating. The warnings had been maybe quarter-strength. It took until 10:50, constantly teetering between complete overload and trying to catch his breath, before B let him string enough syllables together to declare his surrender.

"I give! I give. Shut up," he gasped. "Take it all back. Biggest, baddest billionaire. Definitely best hair. Ngh! Shutting up, I'm shutting up!"

He slumped carefully down from the chair, easing the plug out and dragging the towel down with him to flop across it on the floor. "And your tower is much better designed," he added. Wayne Tower buzzed futilely beside him.

"Thanks, everyone. Good meeting."

Chapter Text

Zach looked up from scrolling social media and answered his phone. "Hey, what's up?"

"How's your schedule tonight?"

"Well, judo, as seen on my calendar. No big deadlines. You have time?"

"I want all night. Can you skip judo?"

Batman never asked him to skip anything. "Yes. You've got all night."

"45 minutes." Click.

It was only 5pm. All evening, all night. Bruce rarely had evenings free. Batman never had whole nights free. The longest they had spent together was maybe six hours. Either the stars had aligned or B had moved mountains to clear this block of time.

Zach did his pre-date routine with all possible speed, then stood dithering over whether to dress up or something. B hadn't told him the plan, though, and there was definitely a plan. He settled for his nicest jock, painted-on jeans with a black shirt, and his good leather boots.

He met Batman at the door for a kiss, then reached for the lockdown button. Batman caught his wrist. "We're going out."

That had only happened twice, for joyrides in the sexy car. "Cool. Uh. Should I grab my wallet?"

"If you want." Batman produced a metal box from god-knew-where. He'd had both hands free for kissing. He hadn't made Zach surrender his electronics since he moved to the safehouse.

This was exciting, but also unsettling. He switched off his phone, got his wallet from the end table, and dumped everything in the box. He did not ask any questions. He would ride this roller coaster with his eyes closed. Probably literally.

Yes, the hood lay in the passenger seat of the car. Zach handed it over and bowed his head to the easiest angle. Anticipation made the dark, cool pressure against his face and throat new and interesting again.

The car screamed out of the garage, then got bogged down in stop and start traffic. Even Batman couldn't defeat rush hour. Zach sighed, relaxing in the cocoon of the bucket seat and harness. Not his problem.

"How is everything going?"

"Hm? It's good."

"Anything interesting in your classes?"

Batman never asked questions, and even out of costume, B didn't force this kind of small talk. "Uh. Are you making sure I can't count turns?"

"Yes."

"I'm not. I'm already lost. Promise."

Another sudden lurch and acceleration. It seemed like they got further that time, probably out into residential zones.

"You're always careful of that. You never pry. Don't think I don't notice."

"It's important."

"It's also nearly impossible for someone with an inquisitive mind. Thank you."

Zach reached over carefully to put his hand on Batman's leg without blocking any controls. "If we couldn't trust each other, this would have fallen apart a long time ago."

The car accelerated with what seemed like excessive force. "Then why am I still locking you in a hood?"

Zach was not going to take sides in this argument. "Same reason I have a do-not-disturb switch." He squeezed Batman's thigh. "Do what you need to."

Another stop. Batman sighed heavily and touched Zach's hand. Standard gauntlets. He didn't intend to stay in the suit.

The zooms got longer and the turns got rarer. They had to be leaving town.

"I can count on one hand the civilians who know the location of my home base. Two hands to cover everyone who's seen inside it. Even adding in heroes, I wouldn't have to take off both boots."

They were really flying now, a long straightaway.

No pressure. "That is a very short list."

"You're about to be on it."

"Thank you." Oh em gee.

A sharp left at speed, a smooth deceleration, and something about the sound of the car changed. Zach's ears popped. Tunnel? Probably tunnel.

They stopped. The engine went silent. Batman helped him out of the car. The hood always muffled a little, but the acoustics sounded open and echoing, like a cathedral. The air was cool.

Batman pulled the hood from his head. Zach kept his eyes closed. This seemed like a moment for formalities.

"Welcome to the Batcave."

Zach opened his eyes. The place was huge. Raw rock walls were studded with occasional metal struts to stabilize a cavern almost three stories high. They stood in a car repair corner, flanked by a couple kinds of workshop with layouts Zach couldn't immediately recognize. A massive bank of computer screens with a wraparound console and a comfy chair had to be the center of operations. A half-dozen suits on dummies, racks of gear.

Also, it apparently wasn't just the press that stuck the word "bat" on everything he owned. Good to know.

He stared around at the gear until the initial fascination died down and his technical training leaped up to fill the gap. No marked emergency exits, but a couple of side tunnels and of course the large entrance behind them. A glance around for ventilation points drew his eyes to a bare-bones freight elevator. Passengers were responsible for keeping their own fingers out of the machinery.

Poured concrete floor, a hum of fans, probably substantial dehumidifiers; the air felt soft but not clammy. Any light fixtures that didn't spotlight a station were indirect, giving the impression the dim light radiated from the walls.

Batman watched him, tall and silent and, by his lack of expression, scared as hell. "Thank you," Zach said. "It's amazing."

"Would you like a tour?"

"That would be great."

"I suppose I should change first."

"Up to you." This was as bad as he had been about unmasking. Zach kept his hands still, no unpredictable movement. He followed to the suit station, where Batman carefully unloaded his armor onto the empty dummy.

Zach had practiced unstrapping the armor a couple of times, so he wouldn't be completely lost in an emergency, but B always changed in his room. This was his room, though. This was more his room than anywhere else in the world. Zach tried not to stare.

B swapped his spandex one piece at a time for slacks, loafers, and a warm-looking dark turtleneck. Zach eyed it enviously. His outfit wasn't meant for the constant 52°F of a cave.

He waited until B looked all put together, comfortable in his skin. "Do you have a spare sweater?"

"Oh. Of course, sorry." The resulting turtleneck was made of clouds and luxury. It almost draped over Zach's hands due to their relative shoulder measurements. Zach took the opportunity to approach B for the hug he clearly needed. It lasted a long time.

"Let's have that tour now." They walked past the chemistry station, the electronics station, the pocket-sized machine shop. Was there anything he didn't do?

B fired up the big console, which he did not call a Batcomputer out loud but probably thought it. The grid of information on the main dashboard screen was dizzying, dozens of little status indicators.

B pointed at the top left corner, an unlabeled green ring against the black background. "That's you. Please-disturb, but no heat signatures in your apartment."

That was very prominent visual real estate. Zach searched for something to say. "Right. I didn't think to switch it off before we left." He leaned against B's side.

"Hopefully you won't mind if I keep disturbing you."

"I can live with that." He looked around at the wiring conduits. "Possibly delicate question."

"Yes?"

"How did you and your handful of friends put all this together? This is a lot of infrastructure." Long pause. "You don't have to answer."

"A lot of the bones are from before my time. An occasional big push from a blackbox foreign contractor team with all the signature gear removed. Mostly, though... It's just a lot of work."

"Well, if you have a spring cleaning day, I'm happy to help."

"Thank you." B wrapped an arm around him, still antsy.

B had asked for all night. No sleeping or eating space in the main cave, though there were the side tunnels they hadn't explored yet. And the elevator, which had not been discussed.

"Fuck it." B set a hand on his shoulder in a stay-here gesture and walked briskly back to the car. He returned with the metal box, already opened, and held it out to Zach.

Zach didn't take it yet. "If you're sure. I don't have to know where you live to know you trust me."

"You already know where I live. The whole world knows where I live. They just don't know what they know."

Zach took the box, glancing up at the ceiling. He had spent so long being careful not to put hints together that he had trouble focusing on the shape forming in his mind. He pocketed his wallet and keys while he waited for his phone to boot up. He opened the map.

"Surprisingly, your underground cave does not have very good GPS reception."

"True." B typed something on the console keyboard, then shut down the monitors. "Up we go." He hauled the accordion gate of the elevator closed behind them and gestured to the controls.

Zach hadn't touched anything in the cave except B and a sweater. He reached out and pushed the up button. Was that Bakelite? This was a seriously vintage elevator. It creaked slowly up into darkness, broken only by a few lines of luminescent safety tape.

Vintage. An heirloom. Like the steamer trunk hiding in plain sight in his living room, a steamer trunk missing a nameplate. He hadn't thought about that since he learned... The whole world knows where I live. The jigsaw snapped together just as the elevator stopped. The darkness parted silently to reveal a warm, comfortable, expensive, old room.

Bruce pulled the gate open. "And welcome to Wayne Manor."

Zach stepped out onto the rug. This room, he wasn't as afraid to touch. He ran his fingers over the pile of a velvet armchair. "Thank you. This is... Thank you."

Bruce put a hand on his back. The shift in his weight, rather than any noise, told Zach to turn toward the door. A new voice said, "Welcome home, Master Bruce."

Zach almost jumped out of his skin. He took a stumbling step backwards, but Bruce caught and steadied him. He knew, he knew, closest friends, Batman had said, but that smooth, pleasant face with the little mustache and genteel accent was apparently hotwired to a year-old panic attack. His hand remembered the sensation of a crumpled paper bag, learning the exact weight of fifty thousand dollars on the sidewalk by the coffee shop and knowing that if he didn't find a way to contact Batman safely...

"Zach. It's okay." Bruce had an arm around him. "You're safe. It's okay."

"I know." Zach took a deep breath. "I know. Sorry, I. Just startled."

"The fault is mine, sir, I should have thought." The impeccably dressed man stayed by the door, letting Zach look at him. "My apologies for surprising you, and for the fright I was compelled to give you last time. I hope you'll forgive me."

"Alfred has worked for my family longer than I've been alive," Bruce said softly. "I trust him absolutely. I trusted him with you."

Zach nodded. "I just need a second. Just..." He closed his eyes, took another breath, and opened them. "Alfred. Thank you for keeping him safe."

Alfred smiled. It was a small smile, but still larger and more genuine than his cool criminal mastermind look. "You're most welcome. Someone has to." The glance he flicked at Bruce suggested Zach had just been recruited into a decades-old battle. Zach definitely wanted to stay on his good side.

"Do we, uh, shake hands?" Zach moved forward a step. Alfred just seemed so formal, standing in his three-piece suit in the private library of a mansion. He seemed like he should be wearing little white gloves and carrying a silver tray.

Alfred inclined his head and smiled more broadly. "Certainly. Alfred Pennyworth."

"Zach Prendergast. As you know. Unwieldy surnames unite." Zach realized, as he got a solid, callused handshake, that he'd heard his full name from this man's mouth but not from B's. His life had gotten weird.

"A true pleasure." Alfred looked to Bruce. "Dinner will be served at seven, assuming it hasn't burnt to cinders in my absence."

"Thanks, Alfred." Bruce pulled Zach in as soon as the door closed. "Hey. Sorry about that. I didn't think."

"It's okay." Zach gladly accepted the hug, though. "So. Your house."

"My house." Bruce kissed him. Now that the secret was out, he looked happy. Happy and younger somehow, like he was getting away with something by sneaking Zach in. "Let me show you around."

The preliminary house tour took all the time before dinner, and that was mostly just the private spaces, with a quick skim of the sculpture gallery and the collectibles. There was an entire room full of Armors Of The World. Bruce just maybe had a fetish.

Alfred served dinner on, yes, actual silver platters. Zach had been momentarily afraid it would be tiny food, but this was Bruce's house and he had a lot of muscle mass to keep up. The main course was a whole tray of salmon fillets with dill sauce.

"Ooh, salmon. I love salmon."

"You don't say," Bruce said in an absolute deadpan.

Zach looked at Alfred, who occupied himself with the dish cover. "How long has he been planning this?"

"I'm sure I couldn't say, sir."

"Yeah, I'm sure you couldn't." Zach kicked Bruce under the table, then left his foot hooked around Bruce's ankle.

They ate themselves cross-eyed, then went for a second, slower stroll around the corridors, holding hands. This house was fucking ridiculous. Most of it was mothballed, ready to be brought to life by a small army of temporary staff for events. He tried to picture it in the 1920's, with all new electrical fittings and three or four generations of Waynes keeping a full household busy, marshaled by a previous Alfred.

Bruce actually showed him landmarks to help him navigate back to the study (the library was elsewhere and much larger) and the kitchen in case he got lost. Zach considered asking to stop a while in the full spa facilities, but if he lay down in a sauna, he might not get back up again until morning, and that would be a disgrace to his principles.

Back at Bruce's bedroom, Zach pulled off the borrowed turtleneck and reached for his belt buckle. Bruce stopped him.

"One more thing." He looked edgy again. "Got you something." He picked up a spangly bow off the window ledge where it had been hiding. He held it out to Zach. A key dangled from it by a silver thread.

Zach really shouldn't be speechless over this, but it was goddamn adorable. "A drawer?"

Bruce nodded. "Except I couldn't decide which drawer, so." He took Zach's hand and led him out into the hall. Two doors down, a doorknob they'd just passed had a matching bow stuck on it.

Zach surveyed his new 'room,' which had its own en suite full bath and a breakfast nook. It was about half the square footage of his current apartment. A new toothbrush and toothpaste of Zach's preferred brand were lined up neatly on the bathroom counter.

"Proportionally speaking, I think it's about the same size as a drawer," Bruce said. He sounded a little sheepish, as if he might have just that instant realized he'd overshot.

Zach nodded and looked around the room again. "Proportionally speaking, the drawer I gave you doesn't have an original Leyendecker hanging in it, though."

"It's not one of the famous ones," Bruce started to say. Zach kissed him to shut him up.

In the interests of christening the bedrooms as efficiently as possible, Zach got a Bruce Wayne pillow princess blow job on the million-count sheets of his new bed, then wrapped up in his new bathrobe, leaving his clothes scattered on the floor. They adjourned to Bruce's room for a thorough pounding with his wrists tied to a bed frame substantially older than both of them put together.


Zach woke to B's hand on his shoulder and a kiss on the ear. "Mmm?"

"I have to go. Work."

"Oh." Zach rubbed his eyes. 12:30. He kissed B carefully. "Good luck."

"Thank you."

He stared at the ceiling for a few minutes, then gave up. He pulled on his robe and, after a couple of attempts, found his way to the kitchen. Where there was a stove, there would be hot beverage supplies.

Okay, there were several stoves. One had the best array of tools in easy reach, though. Yes, with the kettle hanging over it. He cautiously started opening cupboards.

There was a sound like someone knocking on a door. Zach froze. Alfred cleared his throat, but gave Zach a chance to turn and see him before coming in. He wore a roomy sweater that was probably as close to pajamas as a man that straight-laced was capable of displaying in public.

"Hi, Alfred."

"Good morning, sir. Second right-hand cupboard, just past the spice rack."

Zach opened the cupboard. Objective confirmed, he started enough water in the kettle for two. "What'll you have?"

"Oh, there's no need for fuss." Alfred sounded pleased to be fussed over.

"Uh-huh. Which one's your mug?"

"The blue pint mug. And at this hour, chamomile, please."

"You got it. Fair warning, baristas are not trained to make tea that doesn't come in a bag, so..." He fought down a yawn. "I can slaughter this freehand or you can tell me how you want it done."

"I assure you that I have drunk far worse than you can manage. But if you're interested?"

Zach worked through the instructions, even warming the pot "though that's not technically necessary for chamomile," grateful for something detailed to do. By the time the kettle whistled, he had staged everything including the tea cozy on a battle-scarred table for two in the corner.

They waited for it to steep in slightly strained silence. Zach yawned again. "So," he said, "under all the sirs and silver tea sets, you're basically his dad."

"No." Alfred looked stern. "Thomas Wayne was a great man. I have no wish to supplant him."

"Family, though. You're not an employee. Employees aren't legal guardians. Employees don't get to review the new boyfriend. You raised him."

"Yes. Family, I will own." Alfred poured the tea, pardon, the tisane, into both their mugs.

Zach closed his eyes and sipped slowly, waiting for it to cool down. Chamomile was not great. He would try the lavender next time. Next time.

"I thought it would be easier if I was here. He never stays over. He swoops off on patrol and I don't know if it's routine or an emergency and I won't know he's safe until I check my phone in the morning. I had to make a rule. No checking my phone past midnight. Now I know it's an emergency, and I'll know he's not safe until he comes back to bed. I'm not letting myself check."

"It would do you no good if you did. He has waited for weeks for a particular penny to drop. A shipment has arrived, silently, routinely, with something irreplaceable. Two-Face's scheme, he believes. If he steals or destroys it, the public will never know."

"You keep track of all this?" Zach took a deeper drink, feeling the warmth sink into him.

"As best I can. He talks through the trickier puzzles out loud sometimes. This one has worried him."

Maybe chamomile was tolerable. "I'm glad he has someone to talk to."

"I should like it very much if he had more than one such person."

"I'd like that, too." Damn, the not-parental seal of approval. That was much quicker than he'd expected. "I kind of thought you'd give me the 'break his heart and I'll break your legs' speech."

"I believe we covered that last September."

Zach almost snorted his tisane. "Yeah, we did." He blinked slowly. "Okay. I think this stuff is working. I should..." He made a vague motion toward clearing the table.

"I'll see to it. I neglected to ask earlier, I am to deliver you home no later than 8:30 in the morning. Would you like breakfast first?"

"Uh. That would be great. But you don't have to. Keeping up with him has to be more than a full-time job without... breakfast service."

"While my role may have expanded improbably, at its core, I am still here to see to the comfort and smooth running of this household. Now including you. I quite like the opportunity to return to my roots."

"Okay. Eggs, bacon, coffee?"

"Certainly. If you meet me here at 7:15, I won't disturb your sensibilities by bringing it to your bedside on a silver platter."

There were probably classes at butler school for learning to say things like that with a straight face. Zach had not attended those classes, so he headed back to bed with half a mug of chamomile tea and a silly grin on his face.

B did come home. Zach woke to find him sprawled across most of the bed, sleeping soundly. Only the threat of silver trays got him to leave in time instead of watching B sleep all morning.

Chapter Text

Monique met Zach in the Wayne Foundation Next Wave waiting room. She'd braided the front third of her hair back and let the rest fluff out like a crown, with a dividing line of gold bead accents to complete the effect. Her dress was aggressively yellow in contrast to her dark skin and tailored to her curves without being revealing.

He stared. "Damn," he said. "You clean up real nice."

"I know." She smoothed her skirt and sat beside him, hands folded in her lap. "I call this 'you will fund us or so help me.'"

"We're naming our clothes? I'll stick with the classic 'Monkey Suit' until I think of something better." He scratched under his collar again.

A trio of similarly overdressed women emerged from further in the building. "Granite?" one said. "Sandy's ready for you."

Sandy, their NPO mentor, looked over their outfits with a keen eye. "The color and style's good. The beads look cheap against your jewelry. A few glints of real metal or let the shape speak for itself." Monique nodded.

Sandy turned to Zach. "Acceptable, but you could use a stronger color accent on your tie and pocket square." She pursed her lips, looking at his earrings. "Tricky. I know how you'll react if I tell you to tone it down."

Zach swallowed a laugh. "This is after I toned it down."

She nodded. "But multiple piercings will already remind them of their daughter's disreputable high school boyfriend, and again, the raw metal looks cheap. You don't want to be remembered as an escapee from Claire's. Go with plain gold pinpoints on the ear, larger gold studs..."—she gestured at her earlobes—"but only if you can afford something substantial and tasteful. Put the rainbow in your pocket square or a tie tack, muted, if you must. In context, the message will come through loud and clear. Remember, you're here to rep your org, not yourself."

"Can do."

"Great." She smiled at them both. "Overall, excellent choices. Okay. Pitches." She glanced at her list. "Monique, land developer."

They ran through all their pitches in random order for final critique. "Again, overall, really good. You'll get more specific feedback from the stunt donors as well, and from any veterans within earshot. They'll be blunt, so brace yourselves and take it gracefully. You are building real relationships here, and you will see these people again. Okay. The coup de grâce. Which of you is meeting with Mr. Wayne?"

They glanced at each other. "It's just one of us?" Zach asked.

"Yes. He's being generous, giving three hours to a training mixer in the first place. One minute pitch per org, plus a question volley. Then feedback. Expect five minutes total face time. So, which of you goes in?"

They each gestured to the other, then tried to hold a conversation by facial expressions alone. Sandy raised her eyebrows.

Monique said, "It's him."

Zach said, "What would you advise?"

"Oh, no," Sandy said. "Intra-org politics is not in my job description. You have until Tuesday to sort out your drama."


"You chickening out on me?" Monique said in the elevator.

"What? No. It's not about that."

"No? This is dead center of your role. I talk down the ladder, you talk up. This is the ultimate up. If you can't look the king of old money in the face, what are you here for?"

The door dinged and opened. They emerged in the lobby. Monique stepped back a pace and Zach hailed a cab.

"Case in point," she said after they piled into the back seat.

"Yeah, but the whole point is, that part has nothing to do with how good I am. It has nothing to do with anything except old white men seeing someone they think they can understand." He looked at his hands. "I don't think that's what the Wayne meeting's about."

"Okay, white boy whisperer. What's it about?"

"Like Sandy said, real relationships. The people volunteering to meet us... This isn't just a good deed, right? They're scouting us, too."

"Right. So the one of us who will be doing the follow-up, the one who can make it stick, needs to be front and center."

"The one who's sure to last needs to be front and center." He made himself look at her. "I'm a volunteer. I believe in the work, but I want to poke at blueprints for a living. Granite is yours. Maybe we don't get another shot at Wayne for five years. Which of us is still there? And..." He gave her a pointed look up and down. "Which is more memorable? It's not the white boy in the monkey suit."

She gave him a grudging nod.

"You nervous?"

She sat straighter and lifted her chin. "You aren't?"

He searched for an answer that wouldn't make gross assumptions. "Probably not about the same things."

She looked out the window instead of at him. "It pisses me off that letting you take point is the best strategy. That will never not piss me off. But it is what it is. And if I go in there when I should've sent you, and he looks right past me or says one fucking word about my hair..." She took a breath through her nose.

"I can't tell the story the way you can," Zach said quietly. "I'm point for the developers because they want to hear that it's good business, that it's... impartial instead of some bleeding heart bullshit. They don't want it to be personal.

"Bruce Wayne dumps half his money into every charity initiative in town and names it all after his dead parents. If it were me... I have to think I'd want to see the faces of the people I was helping."

She grimaced. "So much better. 'For less than the cost of a cup of coffee a day, you can feel sorry for this sad broke-ass neighborhood.' I'd almost rather he made a pass at me. Oh, god. What if he makes a pass at me?"

Zach held up his right hand. "If he tries anything, I swear to you, I will kill him myself and help you hide the body."

"Unh-uh. I am not delegating the satisfaction. You're on body disposal. Jaani for getaway driver."

"We can get Qi a mastermind room. Lots of screens."

"Like we have the budget for that. Gotta think thrifty." She started laughing. "I got it. I'll tell him my lesbian commune is taking applications for entry-level eunuchs."

"Perfect." Zach laughed too, until they both subsided into an easier quiet. "How is your lesbian commune lately?"

"Yaz is good. Dani's custody fight is still dragging out, I'm trying not to obsess about it. Got enough on my plate already. Elijah managed to get more than half the frosting onto the cupcakes this weekend. I'll tell them you said hi."

"Thanks." He weighed his words carefully. "I don't think he'll feel sorry for you. If he does make that mistake, I know you are more than capable of making him choke on it. Just... show him. You're fighting for the soul of this city. I think he must be, too."

She sighed. "You know you sound like a TV movie, right? The one where I be myself and speak truth to power, and the misguided bigots see the light?"

Zach looked at his uncomfortable shoes.

"I think you're giving way too much credit to the motives of flaky eccentric billionaires. I think this is our one chance to hook the biggest fish, and I will use every tool I've got, including you."

One last try. "I just have this feeling. This is your meeting, and I will feel like shit if I steal it from you."

"You think I don't want it? I want you to be right. So bad I can taste it."

He didn't say anything.

"Okay. I am going to trust you on this. I am going to go in there and meet Bruce Wayne my own damn self. But we are betting the whole pot here, on your hunch. If it goes bad... You will have used up all your credit. Understand me?"

"Yes. Thank you."


Zach: I need to see you before Tuesday, and I need to ask you some pretty pointed questions about how your flaky playboy talks with professional women.
B: Late morning on Saturday, especially if you can sleep over on Friday night.
B: I aim for absolute respect with no conscious awareness of it. Any specific concerns appreciated.


Zach chatted standing, chatted sitting, scanned the room for unoccupied donors, zoomed in on them with cruising confidence. The only really difficult part was pushing on the ones who signaled that they weren't interested. (Enthusiastic consent did not apply to fundraising.)

That wasn't true. The other difficult part was ignoring the glass wall of the conference room at the end of the expanse, where an effortlessly well-dressed man stood or paced or leaned on a barstool, glass in hand, talking with one trembling newbie after another.

At least Zach wasn't alone in that. Most of the Next Wave grantees either awkwardly kept their backs to that side of the room or drifted closer and closer until they had to be shooed away. By preferring the far side, he got easy access to a lot of targets, working through almost half his list in the first hour. He fielded what seemed to be legitimately interested followup questions, and he got solid compliments in the barrage of blistering feedback.

A flash of yellow in his periphery was Monique heading for the conference room, escorted by one of the half-dozen staff managing The Wayne Experience. He lost his train of thought mid-sentence. When he tried to start over, one of the veterans firmly told him to take a break and pitch with a clear head.

He slunk off to refill his club soda at a self-serve refreshments table. Donors got a bar to dull the pain of clumsy interactions. The rest of them did not.

Monique stood poised by the door of the conference room, waiting, waiting... An aide beckoned her in and she strode forward. Mr. Wayne turned his head, as if he'd just noticed her approach, and she moved in.

Zach couldn't watch. A free donor stood a few paces away. He glanced at one of the prominent clock displays to mark his start time, then moved to engage. The donor played hard to get. Zach got his first 'too pushy' feedback, which was actually a relief; he'd started doubting that line existed.

Seven minutes. He glanced at the conference room. She was still in there. Bruce lounged on his stool in an open posture, nodding. Monique gestured as she talked. Eight minutes. He was supposed to be pitching. He headed for the water table and almost collided with another group.

He took a seat by the wall and tried to look like he wasn't staring. Bruce called over an aide who took notes on a tablet. Then he said something that made Monique stand to attention. Feedback. Another two minutes. She nodded, shook his hand, and walked out of the conference room at a crisp professional clip.

Twelve minutes.

Had it been favoritism? Zach would have gotten 2.5 minutes plus firm feedback and that's it. Had Monique given it plausible deniability, though? No. Bruce liked the project. Any favoritism was that Bruce was already intimately familiar with the project, which couldn't really be avoided. And he'd have made Monique work for it.

Monique was brilliant and charismatic and cool under fire. Like recognized like. Monique had— just strode right past him. He dashed after her and caught up just as she walked out the big double doors to the cool-off area in the hallway, where a few wilted grantees were wiping their eyes or frantically texting.

"Monique!" He paused. Her expression was taut, her eyes bright and wet. "You okay?"

She nodded an inch, still staring somewhere past his shoulder. "We should expect to hear from contacts in the real estate division and the construction division within a week," she said. She sat down neatly. "I will take those calls."

Zach sat beside her. "You got twelve minutes."

"Huh. I'd have guessed seven."

He handed her his soda. She gulped it down.

"Maximum possible average with no breaks and everything running like clockwork is nine minutes," she said.

"Yes."

"He's not what I expected."

"Yeah?"

"Yeah." She did not elaborate. They sat quietly for a couple of minutes while her breathing settled. "Thanks for the hunch."

"I really can't take credit. I'm glad it worked out."

After a few more breaths, she stood. "Okay. I'm gonna freshen up. See you inside."


Zach glanced at his phone when it buzzed. "Heads up, I'm cracking the seal to get delivery from the lobby."

"Thanks," B said from his room. Zach heard the extra lock click.

On his way through the hall, he checked for any mess. No prints, which was impressive given Batman's state of debris when he got in. He returned with a greasy bag that smelled like grilled cheese heaven. "Locked down, come and get it while it's hot."

"What did you get?" B emerged in pajama pants. "Oh." He stared at the sandwich Zach had unwrapped and waved in an alluring fashion, trying to lead him to the couch.

"Croque madames. Which are amazing, so thanks for enlightening me."

B sat down on the couch but didn't take one yet. "Have you been ordering these much?"

"First time, why? Uh. Did I get it wrong?"

B took a breath. "Croque madames aren't on Le Boudin Noir's menu. As far as I know, they only make them when I order them. With the egg on the inside."

"Oh." Zach set the sandwich and its incriminating internal egg down carefully. "I'm sorry. How much trouble did I start here?"

After a frozen moment, B shook his head. "I'll wipe the order record tonight and start a trend tomorrow to cover it. It's fine." He took the unwrapped croque and ate a quarter of it in one massive bite. He nodded. "Worth it," he said indistinctly, chasing runny yolk with his tongue.

"I'll be more careful about checking menus. Sorry." Zach busied himself with a croque to avoid further awkwardness. He got through one, B handily finished the other two, and they sprawled comfortably across each other on the couch.

"Whatever you said to Monique rocked her world," Zach said.

"I'm glad. I try, but I don't get much feedback, obviously." Bruce scritched Zach's scalp. "The Next Wave crop is good this year. Really good. She still stands out."

"Yeah?"

"Mm-hm."

"She won't say a word about what you talked about."

"Interesting."

Zach waited, but no dice. He sighed. "And apparently you're not gonna tell me either."

"Hmmm. I just want to make sure I understand here. You're asking to use our relationship to find out something your friend considers private?"

"Ugh. No. Never mind." He tried to kiss the smirk off B's face, with no effect.

"I'm not sure how to feel about that," B said. "Should I be ashamed of corrupting your principles or proud that you're finally learning to appreciate the merits of surveillance?"

"New plan, we forget I said anything."

"If you're sure. We could open up whole new vistas of gossip. Anyone else you want to know about? I know some very interesting people."

"God. Asshole. If I blow you, will you drop this?"

"Probably."

Chapter Text

B: Coming in.
Zach: Cool, ETA?

He heard the front door locks start turning just as he hit send. It wasn't against the rules on please-disturb, but he hadn't even had time to draw the curtains yet. He pulled the living room curtains just before the shutters dropped.

Batman hadn't asked if the curtains were in place. It was a sunny day, but still. "Everything okay?"

"Everything's super." That was Bruce-voice. That was Bruce's drunk voice. Zach went to investigate.

Batman was leaning back against the door, grinning like a fool.

"Uh. Are you high?"

"Oh yeah. I got real high." His eyes were closed. He clearly thought he was hilarious.

Zach stayed calm. "Okay. Check in, please."

Bruce opened his eyes and beamed at Zach through the mask. "Natural endorphins only. Scout's honor."

"I've read your supposedly unauthorized biography, you were never a scout."

"I was not, no." He was almost giggling.

Zach tugged on the gauntlets. Bruce started forward without arguing. "When did you last sweep the place?"

"Last Sunday."

"Great, no one's been in. Let's get you out of this, huh?"

Bruce went off auto-pilot and pulled Zach closer. "I'm fine. I am absolutely certain this is natural. But I won't object to you undressing me." He kissed Zach's nose in what he probably thought was a gesture of sobriety and let himself be led to the couch.

He might not be sober, but he was certainly tracking. His answers were coherent and consistent. If something was actually wrong, more observation would be the answer, and if nothing was wrong... Zach didn't know it was possible for B to have that good a day. He would do his best not to spoil it.

"Good day?"

"Very." Batman flopped heavily onto the couch and held up his hands so Zach could take the gauntlets off. Zach kissed his fingers and took his pulse. It was slow and steady. Boots next. They were clean except for the usual grit. B wiggled his toes in his socks.

"Cowl?" Zach prompted.

"Go ahead." Damn, he really was relaxed.

Zach dug in the cape collar, searching for the latches, then slipped his thumbs alongside B's temples to slide the hood back. B sighed, eyes closing and head lolling onto the back of the couch as Zach ran fingers through his hair. Usually it was matted down when he'd been working, but it was dry and fluffy.

Zach gave in to the mood and kissed B's nose and forehead. "You're cute when you're stoned."

"Thank you. Armor?"

"As soon as you get the belt." Getting the belt off was a ridiculous operation and Zach wouldn't be trying it again without clear-headed supervision. B fiddled with it until the Batbuckle popped open.

Zach had helped with the armor more often. He worked down through the straps and latches methodically, taking the tension off the jointed sections and then pulling the whole thing free. One of the side straps was caught, twisted under itself oddly. He worked it loose and kept going. Base layer next. First the...

B's bodysuit wasn't tucked in. He always wore the tights over the bodysuit. Today it was switched around, his crotch outlined in black over the gray. "Did you... Did someone help dress you?"

"I've helped dress you before."

"Yeah, when you've—" When he'd fucked Zach's brains out so hard that Zach's hands had stopped working. "Did you get laid?"

B raised one finger as if to object. "Swept off my feet. And then very thoroughly laid."

"That takes some doing. You could have led with that." Zach kissed B's lip, which he now noted had a probable bite bruise on it. "Who got lucky?"

"Me. Shouldn't kiss and tell, it's impolite. I don't ask you." He was smiling.

"Absolutely right. I apologize." Zach kissed him again, then started dragging him out of his spandex.

Zach would usually be half bruises and scratches to get that giddy, but B wasn't beaten up. He also wasn't covered in spunk or lube. Pressure points? Not electrical play, they'd learned the hard way that he couldn't even stand the sound of it. He should at least be sweaty, if he was still this loopy. Psychic sex? Was that a thing?

It didn't matter. Zach grabbed the softest blanket and laid it out so B wouldn't stick to the leather of the couch. He coaxed B onto it and then sat beside him, petting him and smelling his skin. B basked in it, limbs sprawled out, almost purring. He smelled clean. Freshly showered clean, but with none of his usual soap smell, and his hair was already dry.

"Whoever it was, they're good for you."

B nodded happily without opening his eyes.

"I'm gonna put your stuff in your room now, and then sit with you some more, and then in an hour I leave for class."

"Leave gauntlets out," B mumbled. "Key."

"I remember," Zach said. He didn't go into B's room very often, even now that he was allowed. It was too private. He used a gauntlet to open the room, dumped the suit on the bed without looking around, and checked on B again.

By the slack hands and the faintest hint of a snore, he was completely out. Zach set the gauntlets and belt by his head, folded the blanket over him, fetched the laptop, and worked from the armchair until it was time for class.

Chapter Text

On Mondays, class started later. Zach always forgot and dragged himself out of bed anyway, so he had time for hot breakfast, which was nice. By the time he settled down over eggs and coffee, he was ready to face the world.

Still no messages from B. He switched over to news feeds on his laptop and sat up further. His news watch for Bruce Wayne had 159 hits overnight. It hadn't even been that high when he made the Sexiest Man Alive list, although, in fairness, that was a rerun...

 

=== BRUCE WAYNE IN BOATING ACCIDENT, CRITICAL CONDITION ===

 

He felt the sense-memory of 'where were you when you learned that...' crystallize around him. He read the whole article, then the next, then the next until he was sure they were all repeating each other, then the Gotham911 scanner transcript, then he made himself stop, set down all his electronics, and get his nervous system under control.

Bruce Wayne had been cruising around in a speedboat, at night, possibly without a life jacket, and must have hit a buoy or something. He got tangled in a line and dragged under his own boat, which fortunately had been pointed toward shore. The keelhauling ripped off all of his clothes, one of the tabloids gleefully pointed out. An anonymous caller gave first aid to get some of the water out of his lungs, then ran off when the ambulance arrived.

Broken ribs, broken arm, cuts and abrasions, water inhalation, possible internal injuries.

He was alive. He was alive and someone had been there to call 911 and help him out of his suit. He was at Gotham General in a wing built with his own money and named after his own father, and if he could be saved, they would save him. His condition had been upgraded to serious by morning. Zach made himself repeat it out loud a few times. "He's alive. He's alive."

He couldn't stop shaking. He couldn't face his cold eggs, but he had finished his coffee without noticing. He poured some more and loaded it with sugar and milk in case he couldn't make himself eat anything else.

He opened his phone and stared at their most recent texts, several days old.


Zach: Free tonight?
B: no
Zach: Your loss. Good luck. 💚


He looked at the keyboard for a long time with blurry eyes.


Zach: I'm here.


He pulled himself together. The sun was up. The day was moving on. He could skip class, but there was absolutely nothing he could do to help. Class was a gift from B. He would wrap it around himself as best he could. He put his tiny model train station in his pocket and headed out early to walk off some adrenaline.

Class was Spatial Geometries. It was usually his favorite. Light and acoustics, how to make a space sing using nothing but the walls and windows. He stared at nothing. He rubbed his thumb over the train station. He wondered what it would feel like to find yourself drowning with broken ribs.

On his way out of class, Qi caught up with him. "Can I come study today?"

"Oh. No, sorry. Got stuff to do."

Qi didn't get out of his way yet, dodging to stay in front of him. "What do you need?"

Zach took a shaky breath. "I look that bad?"

"Yes."

"I... got some hard news and I need to be alone for a while. Thanks."

"Okay." Qi let him go.

He skipped Design Studio. A lecture, he could blank through. His composure wouldn't stand up to actual interaction, and critique might break him wide open. He made himself buy a sandwich on the way home, in case he miraculously became able to eat it.

What did he need? He needed B alive and safe in his apartment. He switched the beacon to please-disturb. He dropped the shutters. He stripped down, put on B's bathrobe and the tragically neglected bunny slippers, and curled up in the armchair. He wedged himself in tightly, wrapped in the microfiber blanket. The robe smelled right, at least. He jammed his phone against his chest, held his train station, and waited for something to happen.

Solo car wrecks and climbing falls. Zach should have put it together before. He'd just avoided thinking about it. How many times had B needed the hospital that badly? How did he fake the accidents without making it worse?

He woke when his phone tolled. He scrambled for it.


B: 212-555-0436 The room is insecure. Please don't tire him.


Zach didn't even reply, just called the number. It picked up quickly, but no one spoke for a second.

"'Lo?"

"Hey. It's me."

"Heyyy." B sounded faint and doped.

"See, this is what happens when you go fucking around with your toys in the middle of the night."

"Ha."

"I'm glad you're alive."

"Me too."

"I'm... glad to hear that. Sometimes I'm not sure, the way you throw yourself into things."

"I wanna live. Things worth living for." B took a rattling breath. "No point if I don't use it, though. YOLO."

"You did not just say YOLO."

"'Fraid I did. Whatcha gonna do about it?"

"Well, I'd come over and kick your ass, but I'm guessing hospital security would have something to say about that. You'll just have to come visit once you've got working internal organs again."

"Okay. 'Sa plan."

They sat quietly for a few breaths, like they had after the warehouse fire. They shouldn't keep that up too long in a room the paparazzi might have bugged. It wasn't really a platonic activity.

"I should let you get some rest. You can call me any time. Any time at all. Take care."

"Kay." Another pause, a shuffling sound, then the call cut off.


The next few days were a blur of homework and helplessness. He had mercy on Qi's almost palpable curiosity and told him it was a friend from high school in the ER. Talking about it, even with half the details wrong, did actually help.

He put in some hours on Granite, because time spent on the phone in his professional voice was time not listening to himself think. After the first hour, he switched to making calls through his laptop so he could stare at his phone, just in case.

Gotham911 reported a couple of high-speed chases involving the Batmobile, the world's least sexy name for the world's sexiest vehicle, and one flyover of the plane. Zach wondered who was driving, who helped him cover when he was in two places at once. They'd never talked about that. They'd never talked about a lot.

Eventually B managed a conversation via text. By the typos, he was using a real keyboard with his right hand only and was still drugged to the gills. He said 'alfrdd' was keeping watch while they chatted.

They didn't have much they could say, really. B had mostly been unconscious. Zach talked about Granite and sent a cool image from class, but all his desperation was for the way they actually communicated, through hands and body weight and quiet touch. That would have to wait.

Zach did finally think to ask for a way to contact Alfred. That made status updates less cloak and dagger.

The night before B planned to check out of the hospital, Batman went on a rooftop chase against some nasty flying drone bots. No injuries or arrests, but a lot of broken glass. People posted great footage of athletics and accurate batarang throwing. He didn't move quite like B, but damned if Zach knew who else could leap from building to building like that.


Zach waited in the garage with his overnight bag. The private parking enclosure B kept for the sexy car was equally useful for letting Alfred retrieve him without attracting attention. He had gotten a ride with Alfred twice before, in a tasteful town car with tinted windows.

... Or he could be getting personal chauffeur service in the Batmobile. He hopped in and buckled up. "Hi, Alfred."

Alfred nodded at him gravely. "I trust you won't object to a short detour?"

Zach grinned. "Or a long detour really fast?"

"Quite so." Alfred cleared the parking garage and hit the gas.

Unlike B, Alfred wasn't chatty at 90 miles per hour in city traffic. Once they got out of town and onto the straightaway, he cleared his throat to answer Zach's most immediate question. "He is recovering as quickly as can be expected, but he requires a great deal of sleep. He still accepts the need for narcotics, if that tells you anything."

"It does." Zach stared out the window at the blur of the countryside. "How's the security? With medical staff and machines going in and out, I mean."

"The press gives us adequate cause to scan any visitors or equipment we don't hold in absolute trust, and his on-call nurse will have retired for the night. You can speak freely, within reason."

"I... am not actually sure what's within reason."

"As long as you don't go proclaiming words beginning with 'bat' at the top of your lungs, you should be fine. But, as a more personal concern, I would ask that you put off any particularly serious topics for another day."

"No major life decisions on Percocet, got it. This is a comfort-only visit."

"Thank you. He has awaited your company most eagerly. I confess to hoping it brings him better rest."

"I hope so too."

Zach got a chill as the car slipped in through the concealed entrance to the dark of the cave. It felt like trespassing. It felt exactly like going into B's room without him there. When they emerged in the study, he relaxed. This was a room where butlers and secret boyfriends belonged.

B's hospital bed lay in a room with a surprising number of floor-to-ceiling windows. North-facing with gauze curtains so the light would stay indirect all day, but the room was bathed in red evening light. B watched him, eyes half open. Zach finally, finally sat down in the chair by the bed and took his hand.

"Did I wake you?"

"Everyone wakes me. I can't switch it off." A bell chimed; that would be Alfred opening and closing the door to the next room. "Proximity alarm."

"Alfred told me." It was better to wake him on purpose than to have him startle at every sound. "He's a very good driver."

"He should be. He taught me." B spoke slowly but steadily, careful to enunciate.

Zach tried to picture baby-faced teen Bruce learning to drive stick. Surreal. "Does he have a pilot's license, too?"

"Not current. That's someone you haven't met."

"And your body double?"

"Hmm?" Wow, he really was not tracking well. Zach moved to hold more of his forearm, increasing skin contact without letting go of his hand. He would have gone all the way to the shoulder, but he needed to find out what injuries were hiding under the ugly medical smock first.

"Someone gave a very convincing performance last night. I can't see you trusting a hired stuntman, and not a lot of people have those skills."

"That was Superman."

"Oh. Huh." The information wasn't nearly as shocking as the way B just... said it. No hesitation, no pause to weigh how much to share. No wonder he hated narcotics.

"The commute isn't exactly a hardship for him."

"No, I suppose not. I guess I didn't think you two would get along."

"We do. Even if we didn't... If capes didn't stick together, we'd be dead. Him too."

Zach nodded. If B kept going on the subject, he might say things he would regret. Zach really didn't want the responsibility of knowing what would kill Superman. "I'm not sure where I can touch without hurting you."

B took a breath, tightened his grip and used Zach to sit up. "Need to get up anyway. Need to walk, piss. Teach the body to keep moving." He pulled off his smock, careful not to disturb the IV in the immobilized arm.

Zach looked past the bruises. As bad as those were, he'd seen a lot of bruises. Long vertical cuts, a few still bandaged, most just angry lines of stitches. A lot of road rash. His chest was worst, so he hadn't had his armor. "You really did get dragged."

"Yes. Get the IV stand?" B put his good arm around Zach's shoulder and they paced silently around the room three times, then walked to the adjoining bathroom. By the time B got back into bed, he was pale and sweating.

Zach helped him back into the terrible smock. "They should make a plush version of these."

"Harder to regulate temperature. I'm running hot and cold."

"Which is it now?"

"Cold."

Zach got him a blanket, then produced the bunny slippers.

B's lips twitched. "Do not make me laugh right now."

"Okay. But would they feel good?"

B closed his eyes. His shoulder relaxed down. Maybe he was dozing off. "Yes."

Zach put the slippers on him, then pulled up the second bed and adjusted B to more or less the same height. He changed into his own pajamas in B's favorite texture, standing where B could see him if he did open his eyes. He curled up alongside with his head against B's shoulder and his leg barely resting against B's from knee to slipper.

B sighed. His thumb kept moving restlessly against Zach's hand, but he was otherwise still. Finally. Zach settled down for his first good sleep in almost a week.


B squeezed his hand. "Zach. Wake up."

"Ngh?" There was too much moonlight in the room and the bed was weird.

"Nurse is here." Shit. He hadn't planned. Where the fuck was he supposed to hide? "Needs access."

Oh. Zach stood up and rolled his bed aside. The nurse didn't acknowledge Zach at all, just checked B's blood pressure and asked a few questions. B did ten hard breaths into a device that checked lung capacity, his good hand tight on the sheet. She gave him a firm reminder to push his pain button often enough. Then she left. Zach had been invisible.

He pulled his bed back into position and set aside the slippers B had kicked off, along with the blanket. B lifted his arm to touch Zach's hair.

"I thought I had to hide."

"Money can buy excellent background checks. And at some point you just have to trust."

"Keep saying things like that and I'm having you checked for body snatchers."

"Use the stop me contact for that one. Our friend in Metropolis can check." B was slurring.

"Okay." Zach rubbed B's forehead to make him stop oversharing, until the lines around his eyes and mouth eased and he went still.

Chapter Text

In a concession to his recovery, B came up to Zach's apartment in the elevator, bare-faced, rather than strapping into the armor just to get back out of it again. He wasn't in Bruce-mode, though. On Zach's last visit to the manor, Bruce had gone into his costume closet (Batman had one of those) and come out looking like a disreputable hookup.

Bare arms with authentic faded bruises distracted from his face. A bracer hid the lingering angry marks on his left wrist. His wig, a fading bleach and blue dye job, took a decade off of him. He had lounged against the wall in his Doc Martens and his studded leather belt, and raised his eyebrows at Zach.

"Needs eyeliner. God, your biceps are unreal."

When he let himself into Zach's apartment, he was wearing eyeliner, as well as a hardware store chain collar. Zach hooked his finger into the padlock and bit B's lip before dropping the shutters. "Nice. But if Batman finds out you've boosted his ride, he's gonna kick your ass."

"He'll have to catch me first. Can I lie low at your place for the night? I'll make it worth your while." B wasn't putting the slightest effort into a character voice, but nibbled Zach's neck in a persuasive way.

"You will?" Zach didn't think B had much energy for the bedroom yet, even if they got creative about it.

B shook the duffel he was carrying. "Alfred packed dinner."

"Oh, damn, the lasagna?"

"The lasagna."

"Sold." Zach took custody of the duffel and followed the oven reheating instructions while B changed. They were getting back to normal. Whatever that meant.

That meant B in his favorite pajamas, wearing the sling over his splint mostly to remind them not to treat each other like playground equipment just yet, with a trace of smoky eye left over from his disguise. Dinner. Showing off a vaulted corridor acoustic simulation. Sitting quietly on the couch with B's good arm gently over his shoulder. Home. Safe and alive in his apartment.

Zach's whole body shivered. Maybe it would stop in a second. He breathed. It didn't stop. B squeezed him tighter. Damn it.

"You held it together for me," B said. "I'm back on my feet now. It's okay. You're okay."

"I'm... not sure I'm okay." He wasn't going to talk about this yet. He wanted to wait until B was really better, not still so fragile. There was nowhere to hide with B's hands on him, though.

B didn't play dumb. There was a way he went still and cautious when something was wrong. He held Zach, and he listened silently.

"I'm not— I don't know what to do about it yet. This is not the breakup speech." The arm around him relaxed a fraction. "This is the 'This is fucking me up and I don't know how to fix it' speech. This is fucking me up. I don't know how to fix it."

B pulled him closer, mashing into his chest. "This is the worst it's been," he said. "The others were superficial, to cover a broken bone or a concussion, nothing more than a few days of rest." He'd already said that. "But no, I can't guarantee it won't be this bad again. I'm going to get hurt."

"No shit, you're going to get hurt. If I stay with you long enough, I'll see you dead." Zach let him sit with that for a second. "But the way it is right now, I won't be invited to the funeral. I won't get to grieve with anyone but your butler."

He was too tense to enjoy the hug. B let him up and watched him, looking a little confused. B really was from a different planet sometimes.

"This is some early eighties tragic documentary shit. You were in the hospital, TMZ practically had a live feed of your medical chart, I knew exactly where you were, and I couldn't come hold your hand." All the words he'd been holding back were pouring out of him, and he couldn't stop them.

"I couldn't tell anyone why I was a mess. I was afraid I would have to hide in your own home. I didn't exist. I have sworn, my whole life, that I wouldn't live in the closet. And I have broken that for you, because it was hero stuff. Hero stuff is different, the cape closet is different. But now it's the plain old secret boyfriend closet and I... I just don't know how long I can stay locked in here."

His eyes streamed. His breath shook. B stared at him, shocked.

"I didn't know," B said. "I'm sorry."

Zach shrugged. He'd said his piece.

"Bruce Wayne can't come out. I wish he could, but he's too carefully constructed. A bombshell like that would bring everything under scrutiny. It could all fall apart."

He pulled Zach in and rubbed the back of his head. Zach snuffled against his neck.

"I'm sorry. I wish I could give you this."

Zach didn't say anything. There wasn't much to say. No surprises in B's policy. He let the contact settle him.

"I wish I could."

That was too many repetitions. That was an invitation. "It's your life. Your very complicated life. Trying to push someone out is shitty and I'm not going there, okay? But we could talk about it. If you wanted."

"I'm not sure what there is to say."

Zach put an arm carefully around B, under the sling. "In shocking news, I've been thinking about this."

B laughed. He could laugh again without gasping in pain or going into a coughing fit. It was a miracle.

"Bruce Wayne, pushing 32, who attends events with arm candy but hasn't had a serious relationship in... what, four years? has a life-threatening accident. Bruce Wayne, who has obviously been overcompensating for something, has a come-to-Jesus moment about his life and his choices. Bruce Wayne starts doing things that the paparazzi can grab and run with, giving them enough low-hanging fruit that there's no need to go digging."

He sat up again. He really wanted to see B's face for this. "You're afraid people will start looking too hard. But if there's one person less likely to be Batman than irresponsible wastrel Bruce Wayne? It's sissy homo Bruce Wayne, who finally is free to get his act together and act like an adult."

It was everything he'd hoped for, a long thoughtful pause that flickered between expressions and blank quiet. Eventually B said, "I need to go." He stood up, not quite shoving away Zach's hands, and disappeared into his room.

Okay, not exactly what Zach had hoped for. He sat for a few minutes, first to see if B would come back out, then to see if there would be a text explaining, then finally to see if Batman would come out in full work mode and run off into the night, which would be worth quietly notifying Alfred so someone could keep an eye on him.

None of those things happened. Just silence.

Eventually Zach grabbed a sticky note from his desk, being careful not to turn his back on the room, and stuck it to the inside of the front door before writing, Please text me if you leave. I'm in my room. I don't know what happened. I hope we can talk about it. He had to write pretty small by the end of the note.

Then he used all the calm he'd been practicing when his boyfriend was half-dead to clear the plates, brush his teeth, and turn out the lights. He paused in the doorway of his bedroom. "Good night," he said. "You're welcome in my room if..." If you want to come out is not the correct phrase at this time. "If you want. I won't try to talk about that again unless you do."

Silence.

Zach undressed and went to bed, leaving his bedroom door wide open. He did not take his train station with him. That could be manipulative, if B saw it.

It was barely 9pm. He lay awake for a long time, chewing over what he'd said, what he should've said, what he shouldn't have said, what had set B off, what he could say to make it right. Maybe there was no way to make it right.

The bed creaked beside him and he startled. He had rolled onto his usual side. That would put B lying on his hurt shoulder. Zach started to turn, but B had already crawled in behind him. This was not the time to challenge that decision. He was wearing his splint, at least.

B put an arm over him. He held it tightly, letting B pull the lengths of their bodies together. B buried his nose in the back of Zach's neck.

Zach still didn't sleep, but at least he could breathe. It could be okay. They could be okay.


He woke at his morning alarm, wincing at the artificial dawn light, to find B sitting against the headboard watching him, unreadable. No one said anything yet. Zach leaned against B's leg.

"I'm Bruce," B said.

Zach smiled. "Hi, Bruce."

"No. I am Bruce. He's me."

Zach sat up and nodded. Advanced listening skills activated.

"He's not disposable."

Oh. Oh, shit. Zach nodded again and held out his hand. B took it, but moved it to the bed, pinning it palm-down under his own.

"I've worked hard to make a space I can stand to live in, that will still protect what's important. It's a tight fit. But it's still me."

Zach didn't dare interrupt, but he bowed his head for a couple seconds in an attempt at an apology.

"Maybe I've let you think... It's easier if you think that part doesn't matter. He's a wastrel who can't act like an adult."

This would have to be a really, really good apology.

"There are a lot of closets in the world. Coming out with me would mean living with the wastrel. Fitting yourself into my world. The Wayne machine grinds people up and spits them out. It has eaten up every attempt I've made at a serious relationship." He paused. "Every attempt that survived the other half of my life, anyway.

"You think the silence is choking you now? Try it with a flashbulb going off in your face every ten seconds. Try not defending your feckless boyfriend to every tabloid shark who tries to get a rise out of you on your walk to work. Then giving up walking to work. If your work doesn't decide you're too hot to handle.

"It would kill us, Zach. If upsetting the balance didn't literally see us dead first. Which it could. I won't lose you. Not to this. Call me a coward if you want. I can't risk this."

Bruce's hand was pressing almost hard enough to hurt. Zach didn't pull away. He waited three breaths to see if Bruce would say any more.

"I will never, ever call you a coward. Ever." Zach took a second to make sure he had his words in the right order. "I'm sorry I hurt you. I misunderstood. The way you talked about it... I misunderstood. I'm sorry."

He put his other hand over Bruce's, which thankfully reminded him to ease up. "I thought... It seemed like you hated being Bruce. So I didn't try to get to know you from that side. I didn't want to make you spend any more time there than you had to. But if it's you, if it's something you're actually attached to... I hope you'll let me get to know you better."

B nodded. He still looked troubled, his eyes distant, but their bodies were fitting together better. Zach scooted in closer.

"I just want to make sure that I got this, okay? I heard you say that you need me to know that Bruce is real and part of you, not something to just switch around for convenience. And that you're afraid I won't like you if that's true, which for the record seems pretty unlikely to me, now that I know it's okay to try.

"And... you're afraid that going public with you would be worse for me than this, and that you would lose me. Which is a fair concern. There's a lot to think about. I know jack shit about being famous. Did I get that right?"

"You missed one," B said. "I could blow my cover, and we could die. My enemies could take you and make me watch you die."

Zach sat quietly. He pulled his ego out of it. This wasn't about him, and he could freak out at that image later.

"Dying hurts. I know that's considered common knowledge, but feeling it is different. If they kill you, I will probably live long enough to know, to know how you— I can't. Do you understand? I can't."

Zach unfolded to wrap himself around B as far as he dared, going for every possible inch of skin contact. They held each other tightly, silently, for long enough that Zach's arm went numb.

He didn't move yet. "I don't promise to stay forever," he said. "But for as long as I'm with you, I promise to respect your risk assessments, okay? You do whatever you need to keep us safe."

"Thank you." B's body shuddered a couple times before he relaxed. He'd been doing that since the injury. Zach had assumed it was a pain management problem. Which, for a broad enough definition, was probably still accurate.

Zach shifted, but B didn't let him up. "My arm's asleep."

B grabbed him tighter. "I could say it's a safety issue."

Zach stayed put. Being able to joke about this shit was a surprisingly good sign. "You could. But the one with more functional arms has to make breakfast."

Chapter Text

B came out of his room, still damp-haired from his shower, and tossed an envelope onto the coffee table. It landed with a sharp thunk. "Got you something."

"Yeah? I like presents." Zach picked it up, feeling the irregular lump in the paper.

"I'm not sure I'd go that far." B sat shoulder to shoulder with him and started on his range of motion stretches. His left arm was already back to what most mere mortals would consider full strength, but they didn't spend much time dangling from grappling hooks.

Zach opened it. He found a black block about the size of a LEGO brick, with a headphone jack sticking out of one end.

"I didn't bother miniaturizing it. It shouldn't leave the apartment."

"Okay." Zach waited for an explanation, long enough that he noticed the headphone port on the opposite end of the brick. It presumably worked as an audio passthrough. "What does it do?"

"It's a key. And an invitation."

"That definitely sounds like a present. Where am I invited?"

"You're invited to the Founders Ball, or as much of it as you can stand to listen to. This will only work in the secure section of your phone. I'll show you where."

Zach didn't reach for his phone yet, stuck on the first sentence. "The Founders Ball."

"Yes. Not exactly your scene, I know."

"Not exactly anyone's scene. People on the fundraising circuit practically cage-fight for invitations." He had no idea how to play this. He watched B for clues.

"It's several hours of my peers getting even drunker than usual and congratulating themselves on four centuries of land grabs and profiteering. Extra points for claiming to apologize for the worst of it while simultaneously promising to do it again harder next year." Bruce sounded more tired than angry, with extra tenor twanging around the edges. "But if you want to hear me pretend not to understand my own charity work at better than a fourth grade level, you can tag along in my button mic."

Zach stared at the little brick. He didn't know where to start.

"Don't read too much into it."

With effort, he did not burst out laughing. "I don't exactly have to get down to the fine print."

"It is no more or less than it is. You can listen to this event." Bruce had stopped even pretending to do his physical therapy.

"Bruce, thank you." Fuck understatement. The conversation wouldn't get any more uncomfortable for saying it out loud. "When you were afraid to unmask, this was the part you didn't want me to see. Thank you for inviting me to hear you behaving badly." He tried a smile. "I'm looking forward to it."

"Oh. Good." At a nudge, Bruce arched his arm again, tilting his body halfway into Zach's lap with a little encouragement. Recovery sucked a lot less with positive reinforcement and distraction from the boring parts.

After they finished that round of arm movement and kissing-related distractions, they went through the instructions for the key. Bruce showed him the new app icon that only existed to register the key and display a Play/Pause button. It was ugly even by the standards of the other high-security apps, where elegance was way down the list from functionality; usually the only design flourish was a bat logo lurking somewhere in the interface, a branding impulse that would get B in trouble eventually.

The app logo was a plain green circle. Against the black background of the high-security screen, it looked familiar. Without saying anything, Zach dragged it to the top left corner. B looked at him with narrowed eyes.

"Hey, man. If that was supposed to be subtle, you should go back to Tibet or wherever for more ninja lessons."

"Can't. The school burned down. Anyway, their computer science curriculum was shit. You should press play."

Zach accepted this change of topic, but added "ninja school" and "things burning down" to his mental list of things-not-to-joke-about. He pressed play, then realized he hadn't plugged in headphones yet.

The hum of line noise told him something was playing, but he couldn't hear anything. B watched him expectantly. Zach held his breath and listened harder.

"Ticking clock."

B grinned at him. "Very good. It's on my desk in the study."

Zach listened with his eyes closed for a minute, picturing the warm room, imagining if it was picking up B's breathing from his lapel. As neutrally as possible, he said, "This was a lot of setup work for one event. Thanks."

"Yeah, well. We'll see."


"Are we live?" Bruce's voice hovered between Zach's ears. The button mic was directional, so he got stereo, but Bruce was centered.

Zach: Yes, loud and clear.
Zach Low Priority: Hey, can/should I provide commentary on this channel? It doesn't ring, right?

"Right. Go ahead, but I won't be checking it. Gotta go. Katie's here."

Shuffling sounds. Zach had already started tuning those out. Bruce greeted his cousin, home on break from West Point but keeping one foot in the social circuit. Zach wondered if he'd chosen this event so Zach wouldn't hear him with a 'date.'

Zach had set himself up with drinks and finger foods to play along at home, but he didn't go for any yet. He listened, mesmerized, to half an hour of Bruce having the closest thing to a normal conversation he could have: talking in his soft, light voice with an acquaintance-relative about her career plans and which old stomping grounds had closed since she went away for school.

Then they emerged from their car into the barrage of shouted questions, and the gauntlet had begun.


Zach Low Priority: omfg Who's the lucky lady? Don't they get a list or something to help them not imply you're fucking your baby cousin?
Zach Low Priority: I hope you flexed when you said that. (Recovery q)
Zach Low Priority: Okay, the one about sea life was funny.
Zach Low Priority: I admire your restraint. (Blocking q to Katie instead of choking him out)


When they cleared the doors and the noise settled into a repetitive "Hey, yes, good to see you too, have you met Kate?" patter, Zach finally grabbed his drink.

He could hear patterns forming in the conversations, tone of voice clues that started sorting people into categories: actual friends, hoped they were friends, in Bruce's bracket and just saying hi, and people who Wanted Something. Oh, and of course, Eligible Ladies.


Zach Low Priority: Swear to god, if one more person asks either of you if you've recovered enough to perform yet...
Zach Low Priority: Her comebacks are hilarious, though. I wish my comeback game was that good.
Zach Low Priority: Oh boy, the speeches. Is there a drinking game for the speeches, or would I die of alcohol poisoning?
Zach Low Priority: Do they at least let everyone sit down, or are you all supposed to stand around on the world's least comfortable shoes?


After his first impulse to critique the speeches line by line, Zach remembered Bruce would definitely be in the line-up. Shredding the rest of them, when they inevitably said all the same things, meant collateral damage.


Zach Low Priority: Since this is my first time playing, I'm sipping for "city" or "found-" (any form) and drinking for your name, first or last. See you on the other side of this Tom Collins.
Zach Low Priority: My glass is empty, we're three speakers in, and I'm switching to water except for my new rule of drinking for coded bigotry until I cannot hear it anymore. Wow.
Zach Low Priority: *standing ovation* Your score is only three drinks, which I don't think you could avoid while still saying anything comprehensible to this crowd. I feel inspired and civic-minded.
Zach Low Priority: No, seriously. I feel like going out and doing more good for our fair city, even though I paid very close attention and you just spent four minutes saying that Gotham was always perfect but you should get credit for making it better.
Zach Low Priority: It's a neat trick, since I'm still a transplant and all.
Zach Low Priority: But I can hear how much you love it, and it makes me want to love it with you.

Zach Low Priority: Holy shit. Is Penguin Cobblepot seriously trying to corner you for a manufacturing deal while you piss? What the fuck.
Zach Low Priority: YOU SHOOT PEOPLE WITH AN UMBRELLA SIR GOOD DAY
Zach Low Priority: Is he as short as he looks on tv? Because if so, I am extra impressed that you could keep going with him talking that close to your dick.
Zach Low Priority: Okay, cutting myself off, soda only for the rest of the night before I type something too stupid. (too late)

Zach Low Priority: "Briefed on your preferences" Does every bartender in town know you're sober? Damn.
Zach Low Priority: Those crab things sound delicious. I hope you're getting a chance to eat some while you let people talk your ear off.
Zach Low Priority: If not, drop by my place after, I have like a pound of cheese wrapped in prosciutto to keep your strength up.

Zach Low Priority: You manage to sound interested in every bullshit charity idea someone runs past you. I can't tell if you're going for exceedingly polite or no critical discretion whatsoever. Either way, it's working.
Zach Low Priority: I pity the fool who has to screen all the follow-ups, though. So many broken nonprofit hearts.
Zach Low Priority: Uh, you probably would anyway, but it would mean a lot to me if you actively block the one about giving the police tanks.

Zach Low Priority: Poor Kate sounds exhausted. You are a very good actor.
Zach Low Priority: Jesus, I thought cruising culture was blunt. I am clutching my pearls on your behalf.
Zach Low Priority: Say the word and I will catfight every one of them for you.
Zach Low Priority: Or hold your handbag and keep watch on the cloakroom door, I'm not the boss of you.
Zach Low Priority: Ooh, she's clever, I might approve of that one. (Celine?)
Zach Low Priority: HARD PASS. Shame on her for trying to take advantage of a drunk billionaire like that. (Missed name, no loss)
Zach Low Priority: Sybil sounds great. Can you hide behind Sybil and let her bite the heads off the classless young things for you? That's not rapier wit, that's broadsword wit.

Zach Low Priority: I'm getting tired just listening to this mess. How do you still have any voice left?
Zach Low Priority: Hey, buddy, take your screener card and get out of his face, pitch time is over.
Zach Low Priority: Oh, honey, no. Bribe your own doctor for a prescription, don't try to con meds out of a drunk man who is actually injured. Hell, buy it on the street or have your pool boy do it or whatever, don't you know how to spend your money to solve problems?
Zach Low Priority: Sorry, I'll stop.

Zach Low Priority: Yes, Kate, please, please take us away from all this.


The silence when the car door closed resounded in Zach's fatigued ears. He enjoyed clubbing. How could four hours in good headphones have worn him out like that? A couple of exhausted sighs. He echoed them, flopping back on the couch.

"Well. That was the Founders Ball. What did you think?"

Zach dove for the keyboard, then remembered Kate.

"I see why Dad only brought me to the first hour before, and didn't leave me alone for one second. I was really tempted to start breaking wrists."

"A joint lock here and there goes a long way. West Point or not, none of the worst ones will want to admit they were beaten by a woman."

"I'll bear that in mind." A long, tired silence. "I wish Sophie were here."

"Sophie?"

Zach held his breath.

"Don't tell Dad."

"I won't. But I hope you will."

"Maybe. Not yet. We're not telling a lot of people yet. But I thought you might understand."

Zach made himself breathe in the awkward pause, as quietly as possible.

A knocking sound. "Drive around, please." Then, more softly, "I understand. Not all of it, obviously. I didn't enlist."

"Join up." She sounded amused. "Commissioned officers don't enlist."

"See, I'm completely out of my depth there. I assume the academy is still catching up to the letter of the law?"

Kate's laugh didn't have a lot of humor in it. "That presumes it's moving at all. It is. I know it is. But I did actually have to break someone's thumb, and that's without adding a target on my back."

"I'm sorry."

"Eh. I've survived worse than hazing."

"We've survived worse than a lot of things. Doesn't make it right." Another quiet. "Is it serious? With Sophie?"

"Maybe. Don't know yet. Hard to tell when we always have to sneak around, you know?"

"I do know." Bruce sighed heavily. Zach wiped his eyes and contemplated how incredibly awkward the post-mortem would be. "My advice, founded on very little, is to get your posting first, so you're hard to bury. Then, if it's a fight you're ready to live with, stand up and don't apologize for anything. Says the continuously eligible bachelor, so what do I know?

"Either way, when graduation comes around, if you think it's serious, let me know. Your dad will already place you anywhere you want. I can place Sophie, or whoever it turns out to be. Just tell me who and where."

"Thanks, Bruce."

Bruce set the driver back on track, then said, "If you ever need anything, anything at all, and can't ask Jake, you have my number, okay? Don't be afraid to use it."

"I won't. Thank you. G'night, Bruce." Kate got out of the car in a clatter of heels. The door closed again.

"Well," Bruce said, "that was unexpected. But flattering. Are you still with me?"


Zach Low Priority: Yes.
Zach Low Priority: Offer of canapes is still open.

Nothing but quiet breathing, then Bruce started laughing under his breath, a long continuous chuckle. "I didn't know you could be so catty. You're right on all counts, except Penguin's not that short. He does have to crane his neck to look at me, which puts a crimp in his intimidation. You didn't have to stop."

Zach Low Priority: I didn't know if sounding too bitter would make it worse.

"Fair enough. I'm glad to know you were there, though. This was... Full disclosure, I don't always come off as well. I make my own share of ugly passes when I'm not on the injured list. And when the old boys get going, I don't pick the fights you would like me to."

Zach Low Priority: I understand. Thanks for bringing me.

"Rain check on the canapés? I'm sore enough that I might even skip work."

Zach Low Priority: Of course. Leave the mic on a little longer? You don't have to talk.

"Sure. You can walk me home."

Zach Low Priority: Thank you.

Chapter Text

Zach: How confident are we of date night on Thursday?
B: 90% Nothing on my radar. Why?
Zach: Scheming. Eat in advance, and no peeking. 💋


Zach: Is there somewhere you like to get your nails done where they don't give you shit?
Jaani: Queen of Diamonds on Crowne St. You want to feel pretty? 💄💅
Zach: I do. Spa day, tomorrow after class, on me? Anything you want. I'm getting my legs waxed. 👸
Jaani: Oh myyyyy. I'm in. Tell me everything you want, I'll call to book.


Mood lighting, check.

Flutes, seltzer bottle, dessert canapés, check.

Shutters preemptively down, check.

Nerves, hooboy.

He twirled in the hallway again, watching the effect in the bathroom mirror. Yes, the light was bright enough to catch the shimmer and show the fire engine red. Yes, the side slits showed all the way up his hips. Yes, it really did fit. Yes, it would survive being paired with strappy flats instead of heels he couldn't walk in.

No, he hadn't messed up his hair gel. No, he could not possibly have smudged his lipstick, no matter how many times he nervously licked his lips. No, falsies were not necessary. Yes, his face still looked like his.

He'd been firm on that point. No resculpting his cheekbones, no new eyebrows. He wanted Bruce to remember him in this.

Door locks clicked. Zach stood back quickly, then sauntered into view at what he hoped was his most flattering angle.

Batman wet his lips, a flick of a tell Zach had never seen from under the cowl. "Special occasion?"

"I was browsing too many red carpet scorecards and started wondering how I would clean up, that's all." He closed the distance at a measured pace, leaving the last step for Batman to decide. "How'd I do?"

Batman ran his fingertips up Zach's bare arms to tease at the halter collar. Standard rough-textured work gauntlets, not the rubber date gauntlets. "Impressive." He cupped Zach's cheek. Zach shivered. "Tell me what you want."

Zach licked his lips again. He had to stop doing that. "That's up to you. I don't have a script. I just have this dress."

"Pronouns."

"You planning on talking about me in the third person?" Zach grinned. He was pretty sure B wouldn't have known to ask when they'd met. "He is good. Plain old Zach, unless you have a story in mind. I could get real creative tonight. If you want."

Batman set the other gauntlet on his shoulder, thumb pressing the dress into the notch of his throat. "There is nothing plain about you."

It must take years of practice to make that sound like a threat. Zach found himself backed slowly into the wall. "I put out refreshments. It's all very elegant."

"I'm sure it is." Batman held his face in place with a hand around his jaw, making him wait for a slow, delicate kiss. It took a long time and left him squirming, trying not to rake his manicure against the wall. "Do you plan to wear this again?"

With effort, Zach remembered how to string words together. "The dress is borrowed, but I asked the owner for a no-hard-feelings replacement price in case it's a casualty of passion. He'd understand."

"Mm." Batman slid sandpaper fingers down the backs of Zach's arms, then the seams of the dress, down, down, down to his hips. He pressed forward, crushing Zach's chest between his armor and the wall, trapping his arms a little, and reaching into the dress with both hands to grab Zach's bare ass.

It wasn't a friendly grope, but bruising force, spreading his cheeks and almost trying to pick him up. Zach gasped. When he opened his mouth, Batman bit his lower lip and didn't let go.

He held onto Batman's sides for leverage and tried picking his legs up, but that wasn't the plan. His chest and mouth kept him pinned down. Batman ground up against him, unforgiving armor forcing his dick against the scratchy fabric of the dress.

Zach twisted, panted, whimpered. The dress made everything more vulnerable, his bare shoulder blades against the wall and his body acutely naked in Batman's hands.

Batman stopped biting long enough to say, "That's good, your hands. I like that." He went in for a smothering, probing kiss.

Zach realized he'd dug his fingers into the straps around the armor and was hanging on for dear life. He wondered if he'd knocked off a rhinestone yet. He held on tight and tried to relax. Batman bit Zach's shoulder, hard, to keep him squirming.

He felt a sob hitching in his throat. He gave in to it. Batman hadn't roughed him up enough to make him cry in ages, and he hadn't trusted anyone else with it either. Batman lowered his hands to grab Zach's thighs, all the way in to brush his balls and spread his legs.

"Yeah." Zach put his head down on Batman's shoulder and let himself fight. He felt his eyes dripping, presumably doing nothing at all to his waterproof mascara.

"You're beautiful," Bruce whispered in his ear. "Look at you, you're amazing."

Zach collapsed into the suddenly gentle touch, sniffling.

"Here, let's get you out of these before they snag on something." The gloves weren't as clumsy as they seemed. Bruce delicately unhooked the dangling earrings and lifted them away, then kissed each earlobe, then his eyelids. Zach was still trapped against the wall. This was the best game of Good Cop/Bad Cop ever.

Zach took the opportunity to wrap his arms around the armor and cling. Bruce laughed softly. "Yeah, I've got you." Gentle kisses along the line of the collar. "You want some more, babe?" Zach nodded vigorously, his nose buried in cape.

Batman took him by the scruff of his neck and one wrist. He swung him around in a motion that was half dance move, half judo hold, and frog-marched him to the couch. Zach had planned for this and thrown a blanket down on one half. They walked right past it to the other half, past the seat which was a comfortable height, to the awkwardly high padded armrest, which still worked well enough if he was bent forward over it.

Another spin and Batman shoved him down, the armrest hard under his butt, kicking his feet to keep his spine at a safe angle as his shoulders hit the seat cushion. He almost tipped it into a roll across the couch, but Batman grabbed his ankle and put an elbow down on his chest to stop him.

"You should hold still now."

Zach considered fighting out of spite, or at least to adjust the way the armrest forced his hips up, but shifting his weight got a pinch on an essential tendon behind his knee. He held still. His dress tickled between his thighs. Batman seemed much taller from this angle.

Batman licked along his eerily smooth calf, making him kick again. Then he tapped his own ear and said, "Zach's place. Moonlight."

Every light went out, except for a couple of faint glows near where light should come in through the windows. The room was made of shadows. Batman's biggest, meanest silhouette loomed over him.

"I, uh. Can't see you."

After a little click sound, the eyeholes of the mask lit up in faint luminous white. Batman leaned in over him. "I can see you just fine." The glow of opaque white lenses made it even harder to see what his mouth was doing in the dark.

"That's... new."

"Do you like it?"

"It's scary as fuck."

"Good." Batman kissed him. "It's also multi-spectrum display and safety glasses."

"You've been busy."

"I had some downtime." Batman kneaded Zach's butt with a rough hand.

"Do you wanna change gloves?"

"No need. Stay."

Zach stayed where he had been put, his calves propped against the back of the couch, while Batman fetched supplies. If it was going to be a costume night, he'd have really liked to get fucked with the gauntlets, but not enough to outweigh the joy Batman took in overruling him. He wiggled his toes and watched the light glint from his sandals and matching nail polish.

Batman put a hand over his mouth and he almost jumped out of his skin. "Mph!" He struggled, then made himself hold still. He'd curled his knees almost up to his chest; Batman held them there and got between his legs again. Slowly, like unwrapping a present, he pulled up the dress to drape around Zach's waist.

Zach couldn't tell exactly what happened next, except that it involved a lot of lube and something finger-sized going into his ass, while Batman chewed on his ankle so he could neither focus nor cooperate. Then Batman knelt and stuck his tongue up Zach's ass. Zach squeaked.

That answered most of the questions. Internal condom and B was in an oral mood. Zach sighed happily, relaxing his legs over Batman's shoulders. He stared at the shadows on the dark ceiling and felt pretty.

He raked his nails across the cowl to hear the scratching noise. Then, because Batman was clearly proud of his new toy, he drummed his fingertips on the lenses. Batman growled and nipped at the skin on his balls until he stopped.

"Just checking! Just checking. Gotta, ah, test these things in a safe environment." Zach groaned and shut up.

"I already gave them a good hammering at home."

Zach snorted an undignified laugh. Batman stood abruptly. Zach held his breath to stop laughing, but his ribs kept shaking with it.

"Something funny?" The glowing eyes really amplified the looming terror effect.

"Mm-mm."

"Nothing to say about how I handle my equipment?"

Damn it, that wasn't fair. Zach shook his head silently, almost convulsing with nervous hilarity.

"Or were you hoping for a field test?" Batman ground his codpiece right up against Zach's asshole.

"After, ahah, some more warmup, that would be lovely, thanks."

"No."

Zach stopped laughing. He was not sure where this was going. Batman was very, very tall. Zach was all spread out with a red sparkly dress hiked up around his waist and seriously considering his safeword. "Um."

Batman touched a thumb to the corner of Zach's eye, catching a teardrop he hadn't been aware of. "You think I don't know what you can handle, too?" He trailed his fingers down to touch the pulse points under Zach's jaw. "Do you trust me?"

Zach closed his eyes and gave a shaky nod.

"Thank you. I'm patient. And the way you look tonight, I can watch you lie there for a very long time." He unlatched his codpiece and let it fall with an audible impact, but didn't get his cock out yet. He leaned over to kiss Zach's ear. "But I'd really like to hear you say it."

Zach breathed out and trusted. "Pretty please hold me down and fuck me."

"You got it," Bruce said. "Don't worry about a thing."

"Okay."

Batman took his time standing back up. He touched Zach all over, possessive, threatening, revealing. He ground his bodysuit up against Zach's thigh, the bulge of his cock getting bigger as he worked his way down. Face, throat, nipples, sides, belly, hips, light brushes on Zach's cock.

Zach touched his hands, not trying to steer, just feeling the armored gauntlets and the contrast between their outfits. His nerves were settling down into the good tension. Batman had him, implacable but trustworthy.

Batman scraped his gloves all the way up Zach's legs, and that was a contrast. He unbuckled the sandals, removing them slowly enough for a striptease, and touched all the way back down again to get his cock out and set the head against Zach's ass.

Zach breathed. He wasn't completely without prep. He had plenty of lube and plenty of practice, and the rimming had already loosened him up some. He flexed hard at the first little push, a shockingly tight stretch, not enough to get in yet but enough to keep B from slipping around.

Then Batman guided one of Zach's legs to wrap around his waist and held that hip. The other leg, he kept in the air. Zach's eyes had adjusted enough to see B smiling at him, the malicious smile that meant Zach would want to cuss him out in a second.

He tightened his grip on Zach's ankle and licked the sole of his bare foot, heel to toe. Zach gasped. The ankle hand kept him from kicking and the hip hand kept him from twisting very far. The only direction he could really move was writhing around on B's cock. As long as he worked at it, he wouldn't hurt himself, but the way B nibbled on his instep really made him work at it.

"Ngh! God, you're an asshole."

"Hmm?" B worked his tongue between Zach's toes. Zach flexed, struggled, kept himself clenched tight until something eased and suddenly the head of B's cock was snug in his ass, larger than life but bearable.

"Look at that," Batman said. "Under thirty seconds. I didn't even have to move." He pushed forward, slow but unstoppable, making Zach whimper. "You just crawled right onto my cock. I knew you could. You always take it for me."

Zach groaned as the armor pressed against his balls. Batman angled up deep in him thanks to the way his hips were propped up. He didn't dare move, stuffed full and drawn tight, his legs spread wide in mismatched directions. He felt every little twitch through his whole body as he tried to adjust.

"And the packaging. Look at you. How many hours of work, knowing that when I saw this, I would give you the hardest pounding of your life." Batman let go of Zach's hip to tug at the dress, making it tickle across his skin.

"I, ngh, thought there, ah, might be hors d'oeuvres first."

Batman drew out just as slowly, close enough to the edge that Zach could feel the head stretching his rim wider again. "You knew better. You knew you were lucky I brought you as far as the couch." He started working back in. "You'd have taken it on the floor for me. Or up against the door. On your back with that beautiful mouth wrapped around my cock. Any way I wanted it."

"Yeah." Zach reached out to touch the armor with both hands, just for some kind of connection. With Zach tipped back, his shoulders stuck to the couch leather, Batman seemed impossibly distant. "Half upside down on the couch with no fucking stretching."

"You're stretching just fine." Batman went all the way deep again, a little faster. Zach yowled and thrashed. "Mm. Do that again."

Zach tilted his hips carefully, flexing his ass in the rhythm he knew B usually liked best.

"You're holding out on me. You won't do yourself any harm at this point. You know what I want." Batman wrapped a rough glove around the shaft of Zach's cock and squeezed. "I doubt I can get you off like this. But I know you can get me off. Do it. Fuck yourself for me."

"More lube," Zach said. He did not make it a request. Batman silently slicked him up more liberally, then got in balls-deep again. That was the breather Zach needed.

He nodded, set his heels against Batman's pecs, and started his hips in a deep, jerking roll, a little faster than he found comfortable. He could take it.

"Harder."

He bumped up a little faster, gasping for it.

"I said, harder."

Zach's hips jerked in unthinking response, but he couldn't keep it up. He bared his teeth. "You want it harder, you do it."

Batman slammed his weight forward and down, landing a gauntlet around Zach's throat. Zach's legs were trapped, folded up with his bare feet to either side of the cowl.

"If that's how you want to play it." Batman slammed again, getting a sharp yelp. "Go ahead and fight. You can't beat me, and you won't stop me."

Nose to nose, the white lenses were creepy-doll terrifying. Zach shied away, grabbing at the couch.

"What, do you think you'll hurt me? Or afraid you'll break a nail?" Batman squeezed a handful of thigh and twisted. Zach howled, clenching his fists.

"Fuck you, these nails are great."

Batman dug both hands under Zach's shoulder blades, forcing him up on a few burning points of contact and pressing down with his chest plate at the same time. He bit Zach's bicep, shielding the little of his face that Zach could have reached. When Zach made a truly sincere attempt to fight him off, he started pounding.

Zach tried pulling the cowl away by the ears, tried gouging at the lenses, tried getting his fingers into Batman's armpits where the armor couldn't cover. The last might have gotten somewhere, but Batman just stood up, pulling Zach up by the ankles and leaving his hands scrabbling far below.

He kept it simple after that, standing with Zach's legs in his hands and snapping his hips in and out. Zach knew the rhythm; he was almost there. "Yeah, do it, do it. Come on, you can, come on."

Batman sped up, hands tightening cruelly, then pulled out and shot his load all over the dress. He got distance; some of it splashed hot on Zach's cheek. Zach moaned.

Batman hissed a long shuddering breath, then tapped his ear again. "Zach's place, candlelight." The room came up to a warm glow. He pulled off his gauntlets and cowl before tucking his dick away. His face was bright red and pouring sweat. He smiled and ruffled Zach's hair, demolishing whatever might have been left of the curls. "Hors d'oeuvres, you said?"

Zach made a tiny incoherent noise and rolled his eyes. B brought the drinks and dessert to the coffee table, then sat down by Zach's head with a sigh. He kicked off his boots. Zach just scooted far enough to get his hips and feet down onto the seat and his head onto B's thigh.

"Got something on your face there." B wiped the splatter off Zach's cheek with his thumb, sucked it clean, and followed it with a mint mousse tartlet.

"Wonder how that happened," Zach croaked.

"Hm, your throat sounds dry." B picked up the seltzer bottle and pointed it at him.

"Don't you fucking dare. God. Ungrateful. Men are pigs."

"Shh. Open up."

Zach tilted his face. B filled a flute and actually managed to pour some of it into Zach's mouth without choking him, which was a neat trick. He drained the rest of it himself, then plucked the raspberry off another tartlet and put it between Zach's lips.

"You clean up very, very well," he said quietly. "If you want them, I will buy you a hundred dresses, and I won't even shred them all off of you."

Zach batted his eyelashes and opened his mouth for another bite of dessert. He got a finger covered in raspberry mousse. It was delicious.

"I'd like to see you in a tux, too."

"Yeah?"

"Yes. The kind that takes three fittings and costs four figures. You will look so sharp you could cut something." He trailed a finger down the line of white rhinestones along Zach's right ear. "Jewelry to match."

Zach looked away.

"What?"

He shook his head. It was a good night and he was not going to spoil it.

"Zach. What is it?"

"The tux, I'll take. The jewelry... would be a little much." He blinked back tears.

"A little much if no one could see it but me."

He closed his eyes and nodded.

"Yes. I've been thinking about that. No promises. But... I've been thinking about it."

Zach took a slow breath. "You should feed me one of the lemon things, and you should say more about that."

B held a lemon tartlet just out of reach so Zach had to snap at it for a bite, then watched him eat it without saying anything yet. He looked away, studying the wall.

"You were never meant for hiding. Anyone can see that. You're not built for it. The way we've been doing this... The way I've made you do this. It can't last. I want this to last. If you want that too, then it's a puzzle worth solving."

Okay. They would have this conversation in half a suit of armor and the wreckage of a cocktail dress. Zach stayed where he was, his head tipped back on B's leg to show his throat.

"Yes," he said. "I want that too. If we can figure it out... I want to know you for a long, long time."

Chapter Text

Zach squinted at the diagram on his laptop and turned to look over his shoulder in the bathroom mirror. "I think it's still twisted."

His mom came around the corner and studied the diagram. "Maybe more..." She adjusted the master's hood to show more of the blue-violet velvet over the purple and gold satin. "That looks right." She put her hands on his shoulders and looked at him through the mirror, making the Mom Memorizing a Special Moment face. She'd been doing that a lot. "Oh! Matching earrings! Those are really nice."

"Thanks." He turned away before she could study their quality too closely. A tiny gold drafting compass on each earlobe and a line of gold-set amethysts that twinkled a deep twilight violet, much darker than bargain bin stones. B had changed them out for him with warm, careful hands, in a stolen half-hour on the rooftop at midnight.

Soon. They'd be done hiding soon.


Bruce knocked on the doorframe of his chief publicist's office at 4:15pm. "Nancy. Got a minute?"

"Of course, Bruce." Nancy clicked her mouse in the universal gesture of someone closing Facebook when their boss appears. "What can I do for you?"

He closed the door and gestured at the blinds. "You mind?" He closed them without waiting for a reply. "This is a big one."

She sighed. "What have you done this time?"

He sat in her visitor chair. Real emotions were the most convincing; he let his anxiety bleed out into his clasped hands and the tilt of his spine. "I got you in advance for once."

"It must be my birthday."

"I'm bisexual."

She blinked at him. Eventually she said, "Thank you for telling me. We buried that pretty thoroughly, eight years ago. Are you reconsidering?"

"I was thinking of going out dancing tonight. It's Fabulous Friday at the Asphodel, and 'tis the season."

"Classy socializing or messy partying?"

He shrugged.

She sighed again. "Could you go with a more controlled approach? A press release. A coming out party. There are plenty of appropriate charities you could boost and spring it in your donation toast."

"I could. But I don't want to." He grinned at her in the way that used to make her eye twitch before she'd learned to hide it. He made a mental note, extra bonuses for the PR team this year. They'd been scrambling since the freighter.

"Well, that's your call. I'll get all hands on deck. Which outlets should we tip off?"

"None. Let it trickle out naturally, leave them guessing until I make it a pattern. Just don't squash it."

"What's your preferred party line?"

"I never actually said I was straight. I can't help it if people make assumptions."


Zach waited in the interminable line for the bar at the Asphodel. Pride Month, when every queer and their dog remembered that they should get off their ass and socialize. He was getting a second round in for his table before it got even busier.

The Asphodel wasn't his usual scene, historically speaking. Too expensive, too many tables, not enough sex in the bathrooms. It hadn't even had a queer night until a couple of years ago. Exactly two years ago; it and a few other clubs had all started that June, just after he'd started hearing from... Damn it.

Well, maybe banging Bruce Wayne was a public service, if it led to every single Wayne-owned establishment having a rainbow night. The ocean of happy shrieking drunks in feather boas was nice to watch, knowing he was partially responsible for opening the swimming pool.

The line crept toward the bar. Bruce would show sometime this hour. Zach scanned the room for any telltale clustering, but nothing yet. He glanced back at his table; Jaani pointed at something on the dance floor and cackled, while the other four people tried to shush her or covered their faces. He waved at her and grinned; she blew him a kiss.

This would be his last Pride where he could fuck in a bathroom. He was doing his best to make the most of it. It would also be his last Pride waiting in line for half an hour just to get a round of Bloody Marys. He wouldn't miss that part. Mostly.

His pocket vibrated.


B: work sorry


The bartender waved to get his attention. "No phones at the bar! What'll ya have?"

Zach ordered drinks and wondered if it was too late to convince the gang to hop venues.


Bruce waited until everyone at Maude's dinner party was suitably smashed, then cornered Spencer Crowne in the garden, staring at the koi pond in a way that suggested dissociatives mixed with the several glasses of depressant he'd had at dinner. "Spence. Can we talk?"

"Course. I love talking. Seems like we never talk anymore. Why is that?"

"That's my fault. Sorry." Bruce sat beside him and studied the fish. "That one looks a little like your uncle Harold."

Spence giggled under his breath. "Aunt Maude selects for that. Don't tell."

Bruce reclassified that rumor as probably true, but still of no tactical value. "I won't. I'm pretty good at secrets, actually. A little too good. I could use your help."

"My help?" Spence grimaced, wrinkling his nose. "I'm no use to you. I'm even more useless than you are."

"I'm about to make myself less valuable to certain demographics, and I'd like to fill that gap with the right people."

Too circumspect. Spence looked blank.

"The demographic of people hoping to marry their niece into Wayne money. That won't be happening. They're about to find out."

"Ohhh. Ha. Straight arrow skirt-chaser Bruce Wayne? Wouldn't have guessed."

"You haven't smoked out that much of your memory."

"I don't trust anything people do before they're twenty-two. It might just be for shock value." He focused his eyes on Bruce more deliberately. "What do you need?"

"I'll need help sorting out which of Gotham's elite are actually decent and which kicked you to the curb when you came out. I'd like to spend more time with the first group."

"Ah, a social director. Get you invited to the right parties. There's actually a party tomorrow night. Exclusive, invite-only." That would be Hugo's monthly event for old-money closeted men. "I'll be happy to vouch for you."

"Thanks. Is that more social, or..."

"Or. It's definitely or." Spence grinned at him wolfishly.

"Hm." Bruce ducked his head. "I'd love to say hi, but I'm not actually on the market."

"Ahaaaaaah. It's like that. Anyone I know?"

"No. No one anyone knows. No money, no connections. He'll need all the friends I can find him. Real friends. And his friends will be my friends."

"Mm-hm. One top shelf artisan-crafted social circle. I'll start a list."


Zach looked at the next line on his spreadsheet. Lance H, several interactions, decent prospect. He dialed.

"Hey, Lance. It's Zach. From the Raptor? You came to my Christmas party."

"Oh, hey! Zach! What's up, man?"

"I was thinking of getting some people together for dinner, actually, you know, talk to each other."

"Like, dinner-dinner, or like dinner and play party? Both are good, just being clear."

Zach grinned. "Dinner-dinner with an option on play party if people hang out talking late enough. But I'd like to find out if we can manage an actual conversation with our pants on."


Lance looked around the Asphodel dubiously. "Not the vibe I expected."

Zach shrugged. "The drinks are stiff and the people are pretty. I'm trying to broaden my range." Come on, Bruce.


B: Work. I'm sorry. I have to track this down before it gets any bigger.
Zach: Good luck. 💚


"You know what, you're right. Parade weekend is not the time. Block party en route to the Raptor?"


"Welcome aboard, Zach."

"Thank you, Mr. Mayfair."

"Please, call me Ted." Ted Mayfair shook his hand. He was in his fifties, with a boring suit and a desk slouch, and he always looked faintly hunted. He was also an excellent and exacting technical architect.

Zach breathed easier with ink on a contract. A real live paid internship, the next step toward accreditation, no strings pulled. Maybe he'd get a houseplant for his desk.


Zach tried the tie again and got tangled up again. "Ugh."

"A little more slack on the first loop. Let this part slide freely when you tighten it." Bruce showed him again.

Zach gritted his teeth and started over, working at it silently until he got it. He surveyed the results in the full length mirror of his enormous bedroom.

"See? Sharp." Bruce kissed him.

Zach turned around, trying to see all the angles. "When I can give opinions to my tailor, I want to show off my ass better."

"Your ass looks just fine. You need a range of cuts. How are the work shirts?"

"They're great. I wash around in the shoes a little."

"Hmm. Show me?" Bruce studied his walk and had him stand on a piece of paper to mark the area. "I'll take these back to Vincenzo for a correction."

This was all so bizarre. He wanted to rip off every eerily well-fitted stitch and lie around naked, but he had to learn to be comfortable in these things so he didn't look like what he was: a scruffy piece of ass Bruce had picked up off the street and stuffed into a suit.

Zach sat on the loveseat by the windows and tried to look casual. Bruce adjusted his posture a little, then sat beside him, smiling. "You're getting it." He rubbed Zach's shoulders, which had surprising range of motion in what looked like a snug suit.

"So. Tomorrow night?"

"For sure. Nothing on the radar. I'll be there."

Zach nodded. "It's just, I need to talk to Monique. She'll have to find someone else, and I'll need to make a hand-off, and it'll take time, but... I want to stay as long as I can. The clock doesn't start ticking until you make an appearance."

"I know." Bruce squeezed his hands. "Go ahead and talk to her. I'll be there tomorrow night."


"I see." Monique pursed her lips. She looked under the table at the source of the bulldozer noises. "Elijah. Please go play in your room, baby. Thanks." She watched him go, then turned back to Zach. "What's going on?"

"Short form, my internship is kicking my ass, and I can't make calls during the day. It's eating my brain, worse than grad school. I can't give Granite the attention it deserves."

"Could you scale back to half the time?"

"Maybe. But that doesn't give our partners continuity. It seems like a clear transition, to you or whoever else we recruit, is the way to go."

She shook her head. "I could take some. But I'm at capacity already. Gotta find someone else, and that won't be easy."

"I know. Sorry. I won't just drop you, but... I'm burning out. I can't keep it up like this."

"I understand." She looked exhausted.


Zach: Can we use some of those strings I don't like pulling to find Monique a volunteer who's *really excited* about a chance to work on Granite long-term?


Zach nursed his drink and contemplated asking the DJ to play something that would wake up the dance floor. The Pride rush had passed, and the July hangover failed to inspire.

His phone vibrated.

It wasn't even a text. Gotham911 reported Bat sightings out by the city dump, an altercation with... Condiment King? Seriously? Was that even a real thing? And was it a thing that couldn't be cleaned up in the morning?

He got a hundred dollar bill out of his wallet and went to correct the playlist to something he could grind to.


Bruce flicked through Zach's social media accounts one by one, with public and locked views side by side on the center monitors. Everything looked acceptable. Nothing substantial for the press to pick at. No known threats on his freshly-pruned follow lists.


B: Accounts look good. You should give the checklist to your family members, once you tell them. The press will try to reach you that way.
Zach: Way ahead of you. On for the club tonight?
B: Checking.


He reviewed his threat dashboard. Acceptable, acceptable, couldn't address without more data, acceptable... Financial red flag.

What on earth did Penguin want those permits for? He would have to scout the site to find out.


B: I'm sorry. I have to deal with something.
Zach: Do what you need to. If it's important, it's important.


Zach half-woke to searing green light flooding Bruce's bedroom. He only saw it for an instant before the comforter blacked it out. A weight pressed on his head. Zach woke up enough to sneak his hand over and tap Bruce's leg. Yes, I'm awake. Yes, I'll stay down.

"Rise and shine, Mr. Wayne!" a sharp, cheerful voice said.

"Whuh?" Bruce sounded convincingly disoriented.

"I might keep suits or skeletons, or a lamp to light your quest. Or a private consultation, kept secret from the rest. Room for two who live as one, and in your case, Bruce... May I call you Bruce? Half the suits are armor, and they're made for more than fun."

Dead silence.

"Oh, come on, Bruce. This is an easy one."

Chapter Text

"I might keep suits or skeletons, or a lamp to light your quest. Or a private consultation, kept secret from the rest. Room for two who live as one, and in your case, Bruce... May I call you Bruce? Half the suits are armor, and they're made for more than fun."

Dead silence.

"Oh, come on, Bruce. This is an easy one."

"What are you doing in my bedroom?" Bruce still sounded groggy.

"A letter once open cannot be resealed, pay to keep it pitch-dark or all will be revealed." Another pause, then the Riddler sighed, exasperated. "I'm blackmailing you."

"Could you say the first one again?"

He repeated it, enunciating every word with increasing irritation. Zach held his breath to keep from laughing. This was terrible, it was all terrible, what the hell were they going to do, Batman couldn't just murder the Riddler to protect his identity. But Bruce's sleepy dumbfuck act was driving him up the wall.

"No one can be as inane as you look. If you're reaching for a panic button, think again. I have a scheduled tweet and I'm not afraid to use it. I will flood the world with all the dirty details if you even touch me. You are going to do exactly as I say."

"Okay." The weight lifted from Zach's head, presumably Bruce raising his hands in the air. "Let's talk about what you think you know."

"Oh yes, let's."

Zach's leg itched, and his nose and eyes. The air under the comforter was getting hot and stale. Don't move, don't move, don't move...

"Aside from the completely obvious, I know about your love nest on Sprang Street. Midnight meetings, tempestuous tragedy. Once I saw the pattern, that mess in February practically spelled it out in lights. So glad you survived, by the way. Demand number one— Is he here? Oh, you have gotten sloppy, haven't you?" Riddler sounded gleeful. "Show yourself. Let's see your face." Another pause. "Now."

Bruce patted Zach's shoulder. "Come on out." His voice sounded dead. This was all the nightmares at once.

Zach pulled the covers off his head and sat up. He squinted in the light, but didn't try to cover his face. The green glow was Riddler's suit; he'd gone formal for his visit to the manor, a tailored coat and tie over his spandex. The lines of it and of his bowler hat were lit up with EL wire. The handle of his question mark cane, balanced over his shoulder, was a curve of bright white LEDs shining in all directions.

He stood on a tall stool or something at the foot of the bed, so it looked like he hovered. Strange shadows leaped on the walls and obscured his face. The effect was both garish and painful to look at in a dark room.

"At last. Not what I expected..." Riddler studied him for longer than seemed reasonable. "This can't be him. By bone structure alone, never mind the shoulders..." He held his cane out, pointing the lights at Zach's face. "Say something."

"Hi?" Zach cleared his throat. "I'd really appreciate it if you didn't blackmail us? Dick move." Bruce's leg pressed harder against Zach's. Zach pressed back.

"This isn't him." Riddler pulled back, one finger pressed to his lower lip, and looked at Bruce. "I can't believe you. I thought your faithlessness was a front. Is no one good enough for you?"

Zach glanced at Bruce. He was pretty sure the growing bafflement was real.

"You're cheating. On Batman."

"I, uh." Bruce's forehead creased. "That's ridiculous. What would even make you think—"

"Don't bother denying it. Traffic patterns. Batman's been drawing his patrols closer and closer to that building like it's magnetized. Both your cars in its garage. And that's just the start."

Zach thought fast, trying to put together the shape in his head. "It's me! It's not him, it's me!" He turned to Bruce. "I'm sorry. I... I've been sleeping with Batman." He looked back to the Riddler, braving the light. "I live in that building. That's why both their cars keep showing up there."

"In the apartment I'm paying for," Bruce said slowly. "You are fucking Batman in the apartment I am paying for."

"Yes," Zach said. "I'm sorry. It's not— It's not serious, we barely talk. It's just the suit. It's a really hot outfit, and he's insanely fit, and... I'm sorry." He reached out his hand to touch Bruce's. "Can you—"

Bruce jerked his hand away. "How dare you?" His voice sounded steadier, and his eye contact with Zach had a wild energy.

"Now, wait just one moment." Riddler waved his cane from side to side to get their attention. "This hypocrite's not off the hook yet. February third, Two-Face lets the underworld know he threw the caped crusader into the bay, presumed dead. Bruce Wayne is hauled out of the same bay, barely alive. A number of us leaped to a fascinating conclusion, until that night." He paused for dramatic effect.

"What happened that night?" Zach asked obediently.

"Batman beat in both sides of his smug bisected face. No banter, no bravado, sheer silent brutality. A dark angel of vengeance. The sort of thing someone might do if, say, someone had put his lover in the hospital."

"He did what?" Bruce whispered.

"He didn't tell you? Probably didn't want you to know he'd lost his temper. So what happened out there? I'd love to hear the details. Did you go fish him out?"

"I, yeah." Bruce rubbed his face. "He sent a distress call, and I took my speedboat out to meet him, but the wake of the freighter swamped me. He ended up saving both of us. As usual."

Zach took a breath. Play the part. "You're taking distress calls from Batman."

"Yes, but—"

"You're fucking Batman. Batman is beating people up for you."

"That part's just ridiculous. You have no basis for thinking—"

"If the shoe fits," Riddler said sharply. "July tenth, Bruce Wayne personally carries a pair of his shoes to the cobbler. Why doesn't he delegate? I dissected the shoes to find out." He pulled a small plastic bag from his pocket and dangled it in the air. It glinted. "Every step you take, he'll be watching you."

"He bugged your shoes?" Zach burst out.

"Tracking beacon," Riddler said. "With a perfect tiny bat logo burned into the casing."

Zach stared at Bruce. "What. The fuck."

Bruce looked embarrassed. "I, uh. That seems kind of sweet, actually."

"Seems. Did he even ask you?"

"He didn't, but—"

"Tracking people without permission is creepy as fuck and you should dump his ass for that."

"That seems a little harsh," Bruce said. "He was probably just being protective, and I'd rather give him the benefit of the doubt."

"But if he'd asked to track you, you'd have said yes, right? All he had to do was ask."

"But since he knew I would say yes, then he probably didn't think he needed to ask, and it's not a big deal."

Riddler cleared his throat. They paused in their debate to look at him. "Let's get back to the part where I'm blackmailing you."

He tossed a ball at the ceiling where it stuck and glowed green, a mercifully diffuse source of light. He perched on his stool with his feet on the bed and his long spindly legs bent nearly double. Leaning forward on his elbows, he rested his chin on his hands.

"Protecting Batman's secret sweetheart and your supposed sexuality was one thing. This opens up so many possibilities."

"What did you have in mind?" Bruce had found his arrogant billionaire voice again, which was a relief.

"Mmm. Everyone hates it, its pain you can't mend, but you'll only get it from a friend." After a pause, Riddler rolled his eyes. "A lifeline gone slack, a knife in the back?"

"I'm not stabbing Batman," Zach said. "Even if I thought I could, I wouldn't."

"Nothing that direct, no!" Riddler shook his head. "Resorting to violence, so limited. Suitable only for thugs who run around in black armor."

Bruce crossed his arms. "What, then?"

"Destroy his life, betray his secrets, etcetera, etcetera." Riddler waved one hand in a vague spiral. "Don't worry, you won't have to overheat your brains trying to plan it. Just do exactly as I say and it'll run on rails."

"Uh. That's not much better," Zach said.

"Not really, no," Bruce said. "How about money? Do you need money?"

Riddler thumped his cane between their feet. "You are in no position to negotiate! Have you never been blackmailed before?"

"I haven't," Zach said. "I've never been important enough to blackmail before." Every time they dragged the conversation off course, it seemed to throw him.

Bruce shrugged. "Either I've paid for the evidence or I've paid someone else to burn their servers to the ground. It's never been this complicated."

Zach stared at him. "How many times have you been blackmailed?"

Bruce just shrugged again, a lazy billionaire shrug, calculated to be irritating.

"Was it all for sex scandals?"

"Basically."

"Have you considered just coming out already?"

Bruce looked away. "I'm sure our guest is tired of listening to us bicker. So, blackmail."

"No, no," Riddler said. "Please, continue."

"He said he'd come out," Zach said.

"Mm. People will say that kind of thing, won't they? When they want something." Riddler looked sympathetic.

"I meant it!" Bruce touched Zach's hand. "I still mean it. I do. I've just been busy."

"Busy fucking Batman, apparently. All that time 'working late'? How often did the office really need you? Or was the guy in the cape just more fun to be around?"

Bruce winced. "I... I'm sorry. Yes, he's been distracting lately."

"So," Riddler said. He pointed at Zach. "You say your mask mania is merely physical, and you're pining to take the pretty playboy out in public."

Zach nodded.

"What about you?" He pointed at Bruce.

"It's, uh. Not as simple for me. Longer history. But yes." He squeezed Zach's hand. "I want to be with you."

"Meanwhile, the third member of your ménage à trois has made himself distracting just when it could hurt your relationship the most."

Zach blinked. "Son of a bitch. He's playing us."

"Ding ding ding!" Riddler momentarily made his cane flash. "You're slightly smarter than you look."

"He wouldn't do that," Bruce said. "And he doesn't even know about us."

Zach snorted. "Yeah. The city's most lovable stalker, who has no chill and breaks into people's houses, starts calling me after I start dating you, then totally neglects to look up who paid for the luxury apartment where he's making booty calls. For over a year."

Bruce glared at Zach, then drooped. "Yeah. Okay, yeah. That makes a lot of sense."

"You got suckered," Riddler said. "He's been laughing behind your backs and letting you think you were getting away with something. It happens to people who aren't very bright. But now you know! You're lucky I took an interest."

"What a jerk," Zach said. He managed to keep a straight face, barely.

"Don't blame yourselves. He can be persuasive, and take it from me, he always, always cheats."

"And he's shit at boundaries," Zach added.

Bruce sat up further. "Sorry, can I have a minute? I've just known him a long time. It's hard to imagine he'd do this." He stretched his arms and shoulders. "I guess he must have been scared that we would edge him out. I know he gets lonely."

"Yeah," Zach said, leaning his leg against Bruce's. "It's not cool, but I feel for him. It'll be a big change."

"Ah ah ah. Don't touch that dial." Riddler leaned forward with his cane at full length to illuminate Bruce's skin. "Before we go throwing a pity party for the rooftop Romeo, we need to talk about these bruises." He swept the light over Zach. "You too. Did Batman do this to you? You can tell me."

"Uh. It was consensual."

"Very consensual," Bruce said.

"And neither of you noticed? What on earth did you tell each other?"

"Judo," Zach said without hesitation.

"Adrenaline junkie."

Riddler pinched the bridge of his nose. "And you believed that."

They shrugged nearly in unison.

"And you want me to believe that these are entirely consensual."

"Masochist!"

"Adrenaline junkie."

Riddler took a step onto the bed and lifted Bruce's arm with the hook of the question mark. "Defensive injuries."

Bruce looked away.

"We've got to get you away from him, kiddos. He's a violent man."

"It's not like that," Zach said firmly. "Yes, he plays hard. But I trust him to stop. I always, always trust him to stop. If I tell him not to come back, he won't."

"I agree," Bruce said.

Riddler shook his head. "Your faith is touching, but statistics say otherwise. Ask Two-Face how well he keeps his temper on the subject. And he roughed up a hostage a couple of years ago, very ugly, hushed it up. He convinced that poor kid to say it was consensual, too."

Something must have shown on Zach's face. The cane swung back to him. He stared at it like a deer in headlights. Riddler towered over him.

"You already heard this sordid story? Or... no. You're kidding."

Zach slowly lifted a hand. "Poor kid. I really was okay with it. And when he called me back and wanted more, I dunno. It was hot, and I felt special." He looked at his hands, because he didn't think he could control his face. "I still trust him to go away. But maybe it would be safest if we could convince him that he's dumping us? I just have no idea how we'd do that."

"It's impossible," Bruce said. "We'll just have to tell him." He put his hand on Zach's shoulder. "It's okay. We can do this. Together."

Riddler made a strangled noise. "There is nothing impossible about it! Yes, he's cleverer than you, but not by much. You have me." He returned to his perch at the end of the bed. "You just need a plan. And that plan starts with you coming out. Immediately."

"Uh. Yes. Of course."

"Bruce," Riddler said sternly. "Everyone will have to commit to this plan. You'll both have to do your part."

Bruce took a breath, then looked up at Riddler with patented Wayne sincerity. "You're right. Thank you. What do we do next?"


Pre-dawn light leaked into the bedroom. Zach, blinky and exhausted, showed his notepad to Riddler, who nodded. "Correct. Now, if you do everything on this list, in order, on schedule, Bruce, he'll never suspect. Simple as that."

"Thank you," Bruce said. "Thank you so much. Is there anything we can do for you? The offer of money is still open."

"No!" Riddler sliced both his hands through the air in an extravagant gesture. "No, no, no, were you paying no attention at all? He can't know I was here! He is very, very good at following money." He breathed through his nose, calming himself down. "Just break his heart, and you will make me a happy genius."

"Consider it done," Bruce said.

Zach nodded. "We'll dump his ass so hard, they'll feel the impact in Metropolis."

Bruce shot him a look.

Zach smiled sweetly. "Mr. Riddler, we are so glad you came and helped us out."

Chapter Text

The Monday after their midnight romantic consultation with the Riddler, Zach dressed for work with more care than usual. New shirt, jacket, no tie or pocket square, no cuff links. Handmade shoes not full of tracking devices. Moderately expensive watch. Hair sharply ruffled to say young style-conscious professional.

A line of sapphires in platinum settings, running down the spectrum from ruby through violet, punctuated at the earlobe by black opal packed with impossibly vivid rainbow flakes.

He showed up early so he could take a longer lunch. At 11:30, he walked down the block to Nobu, the lunch place that usually made him feel underdressed just walking past it. Professional pitch voice, steady eye contact. "Wayne reservation." He got an instant table by the sunlit windows, along with a glass of sparkling water.

Bruce swanned in five minutes later, similarly dressed but with cufflinks and a watch that cost more than most cars, and flung himself into the opposite chair.

"Hi."

"Hi."

A waiter came to take their order within seconds; Bruce had a usual. And then they were just... sitting there. In public. At lunch. Next to a plate glass wall, on a sunny day, with people walking past. No one wearing a mask. Zach's entire nervous system screamed at the risk, then jumped with elation that it was actually happening, then chilled out. Sunny day. Bruce looked happy and at ease. They bumped shoes under the table.

A minute later, Zach's mentor Ted walked past, with two other managers and both senior partners. They got a table with a good line of sight on Zach.

Zach had a heart-stopping moment of panic, then breathed, then owned it. It was all about to blow up one way or another. "You know how I said I didn't want any work advantages for fucking you?"

"Yes."

He leaned in to speak in Bruce's ear, way too close to be professional. "Screw that. My boss just walked in. Let's make it clear this is not a business lunch. Smile at me, Bruce baby."

He sat back and Bruce had turned on the charm. Not the full room variety, just a soft, goofy smile and his absolute attention. Zach caught his breath and put a hand on the table. Bruce did as well and ever so casually brushed his fingertips.

"So... We're really doing this," Zach said.

"It sure looks like it," Bruce said. "Though I don't know if I can be seen with a man who's willing to use me for my reputation like this." He made 'use me' sound filthy.

Their food came. They said, "Thank you," at the same time, but didn't look away. They only reluctantly slid their hands far enough to make room for the plates, fingers still touching.

"This should get the gossip mill started," Zach said.

"Oh, was that why we were doing this?"

"We should probably eat."

"Yeah." They didn't move their hands.

Chapter Text

Publication Day, 6 AM

=== BRUCE WAYNE'S SECRET BOYTOY ===

Zach took the copy of the paper from the courier, along with a card and flat gift box. The gift box, opened cautiously, contained a chrome pen and leather notebook set embossed with the paper's logo. The card, signed by the chief editor, wished him well on his relationship. He put it all in a sealed metal crate Bruce had left for the express purpose of containing presents that hadn't been tested for everything in the known universe.

He shook his head and went for more coffee. He'd been dressed for an hour; he couldn't sleep. Over coffee, he studied the front page. They'd gone with the one of Bruce licking ice cream off his cheek in the park while Zach tried to elbow him away, both of them laughing. He could live with that.

The shot of the two of them staring at each other moonily over lunch featured prominently in the page 4 full story. The paper had touched up the rainbow glints for emphasis. His phone tolled. Texts, but just the scheduled ones. Zach really hoped Bruce was asleep. He would have a long enough day as it was.


Publication Day minus 7

Ted called Zach into his office for a chat, late on Monday afternoon. This one had him sweating. Surprising them at lunch had been fun, but they hadn't done a controlled introduction yet, and he had no idea which way management would jump.

"How's it going, Zach? Overall."

"Great, as far as I'm concerned. My projects are going well, and I have enough structure. I appreciate the clear feedback."

"Glad to hear it. You, uh, like the neighborhood?" The 'neighborhood' was the downtown business district. This could get awkward very quickly.

"The commute can't be beat. Everything's right here." Zach could feel his pulse in his hands. He flexed them in time, not enough to show, enough to keep him from fidgeting.

"What do you think of Nobu?"

"Well, I've only been there once. The food's amazing. The atmosphere is a little far upscale if I'm eating by myself, though." Come on, take the opening, you set it up yourself. No? Okay then. "I'm seeing someone who really likes it there."

"Mr. Wayne. Yes, I, uh, saw you there today." Ted stopped dead again.

For fuck's sake. "Is this going to be a problem, sir?"

"No! No. No problem. We want to support a diverse workplace, obviously. And Mr. Wayne has been a great friend of the firm. A great friend." He swallowed. "I just wanted to make sure it's understood that this is a working mentorship. We can't play favorites."

Zach breathed again. This was the easy version. "Oh, good. I'm here to learn. If everyone just nods me through, you won't actually get a decent architect at the other end, right?" His boss blinked at him. He turned on a touch of the Wayne sincerity treatment. "I've been really worried about that. I'm glad to know you'll be fair and make me work for it."

"Good! Glad we're on the same page. Uh. Is there anything I can do for you? Logistically speaking. Given your, uh, special situation."

"That's... about to get much trickier. I hit the tabloids next Monday, or at least that's the plan. The PR team wants to send someone on Thursday afternoon to talk through strategy. They have a playbook on how to limit impacts. It was supposed to be a surprise that day to prevent scoops, but you might as well book that now. The invite list is senior partners, head of HR, chief receptionist, you, and me." He heard the imperative tone too late and checked himself. "I mean... Sorry. But it's pretty important that this part goes to plan."

"Understood." Ted nodded seriously. "We'll get it set up."


Publication Day, 8 AM

To: All Employees Distribution List
From: Human Resources
Subject: Reminder — Employee privacy etiquette
Preview: Our firm's culture is built on respect, including respect for our fellow employees' privacy. Consider the following guidelines when deciding whether and how to discuss the details of another employee's personal life: 1 Has the person...


Publication Day minus 5


B: Eight minutes.


Wednesday night, Batman arrived on his doorstep. Zach had skipped judo to give the date his full attention.

They weren't actually breaking up. He wasn't going anywhere.

Zach let him in and dropped the shutters. He traced his fingers around the edge of Batman's exposed jaw. They kissed.

"I looped through the traffic jam to make myself obvious," Batman murmured. "Our brilliantly masterminded checklist is on schedule."

Zach nodded, but didn't say anything. B had pulled load after silent load of gear out of the safe room for the last several nights. Not one shred left with a logo on it, not even the Wayne Tower vibrator. Zach could still toggle the Booty Signal from his phone, but it wouldn't matter except for the microphones. Batman would not be dropping by for a social visit ever, ever again.

At least they didn't have to actually play through the argument Riddler had scripted for them. And they were leaving the med kit.

Zach wrapped his arms around Batman's neck and jumped up to wrap both legs around his waist, only getting slightly tangled up in the cape. He tilted his head at the locked door. "Old time's sake?"

They adjourned to B's spartan bedroom for the last time. Movers would come and deliver more Bruce-appropriate furniture in a week.


Publication Day, 12PM

He waited until he caught the eye of his most celebrity-gossiping coworker. Yeah, she definitely knew. He gave it until lunch so she would have time to spread it around, then pointedly ate in the break room where there was plenty of space for people to drop by.

"You catch the headlines this morning?"

Zach smiled slowly. "I did, actually."

"So, is it... Paparazzi will make something out of nothing, I get that."

"No, that's really us, he is really attacking my face with his tongue like it's a goofy romcom, and it's really like that, except for the secret part. He's a sweet guy. It all feels normal except when it feels completely bizarre. I mean, here." He fished out his phone and read aloud, making sure she could see the screen well enough to confirm he was actually reading. "This is what it's like dating Bruce Wayne."


B: Look at that, baby's first front page. You got the Daily Star! They always pick more flattering shots.
B: I'm having a dozen copies archivally framed. Would your mom like one to hang on the fridge?


Publication Day minus 3

Zach cut out of work early on Friday and took a cab home, arriving just before his mom and sister Nat got in from the airport. He could do this. He could do this.

He hugged them both before anyone asked questions, a helpful family policy.

"All right," his mom said. "Why the cloak and dagger? Are we all about to be on the run?" She dropped to a whisper. "Is it one of the villains?"

Nat didn't say anything yet. She just glared at him, jet-lagged.

"No, it's good," he said. "I promise it's good."

"It had better be," Nat said. "My entire friends list assumes I'm going into witness protection or something because I locked everything down like an old person. And you did not scrounge enough frequent flyer miles to get me here from Alaska, and Mom here, and Ellie if she could have made it."

"No, I didn't." Zach took a deep breath. "I met someone. A while ago. But literally not someone I could take home to mom. Until now."

He gestured to the locked bedroom door. Bruce took his cue and opened the door. No tie, no bling, but he'd put extra playboy on his hair.

"Mom, Nat, my boyfriend. Bruce Wayne. We're coming out this week."

Bruce turned on the thousand-watt smile and shook Zach's mom's hand. "Kim. It's so good to finally meet you."


Publication Day, 5:15 PM

Zach walked out of the office, careful to keep his head high, his smile pleasant, and his posture unslumped, despite his exhaustion. He saw three flashes as Alfred opened the door of a red Lexus for him.

Bruce was already inside, reaching out to take his hand as if they hadn't seen each other in weeks. Thank god. Zach ducked in and leaned against Bruce's shoulder.

"How was your day at work, honey?" Bruce asked, his voice full of suppressed amusement.

"Uggggggh," Zach said.

Chapter Text

Zach set his phone to stop ringing for anyone but priority contacts. It was amazing how many people he'd fucked twice suddenly remembered they were best friends. The unknown numbers who bothered to leave a message were half hookups and half reporters.

This was the plan. He'd known it was coming.

He flinched when his phone buzzed at lunchtime on the second day. Oh, boy. Monique. He'd meant to call her.

"Hi, Monique. How are you doing?"

"How long?"

"I was hoping to move up our dinner plans to the next couple days, actually, if you have an evening free?"

"How. Long."

"I would really appreciate talking that over with you. At my apartment. I will bring libations of your choosing."

He heard her breathing through her nose. "Fine. Genever. The real imported shit that I now know you can afford."

"Top shelf, promise. Thank you."


He panicked a little at how many options there were, so he bought four. Bruce must feel this way all the time, except multiplied by a million. It explained a lot about his idea of a reasonable present.

When he met Monique in the lobby, she was dressed for bear, in 'you will fund us or so help me' and the matching impenetrable smile. They didn't say anything in the elevator. When she got into the apartment, she did not make herself at home.

"So, Zach, what do you store in that spare bedroom with the excellent lock?"

He wasn't going to sit until she did. "My boyfriend, who's really paranoid about his privacy. Would you like some genever?"

"In a bit. How long?"

"Longer than I've known you. It's not a game. I wasn't trying to trick you. We weren't telling anyone. I didn't tell my mom."

"Low bar. You never talk to your mom."

"You're right. I'd have told you way before her. Before nearly anyone. I'm sorry, I should have called you right away when the news broke, the last couple days have just been..." He inched toward the armada of glasses and beverage options arrayed on the table. "I actually should have just phoned you a week ago, when we started going out in public, instead of waiting for face-to-face. Old habits. Sorry.

"But yes, that's why I didn't want to steal the Wayne meeting from you, where, to be clear, you legitimately impressed him. And when we got close to his coming out date was when I stepped back from the project. He swore to me that he didn't tamper with the grant process, but no one would believe that. I didn't want our work, your work, tainted with that."

"That is what you think I'm pissed about? We could have started the work months sooner on twice the budget with one phone call and you think I give a single shit what Gotham City would think of the favoritism?"

Zach took a step back. "Oh."

"Yeah. Oh. Give me the richest white boy on the Eastern seaboard and a place to stand, and I will move the goddamn world. And you—" She stopped, shaking her head, too angry to say any more.

"I'm really, really sorry for that. I— That was some super toxic closet logic, is the best I can say." Zach spread his hands out.

"Among other things."

"Yeah. I will own all of that. I'm sorry." His legs were shaking. He hadn't expected it to be quite this bad. "I'm gonna sit now, okay?"

"By all means. It is your apartment." Her voice was a knife dipped in honey.

He sat down and poured two glasses of water. "So, there's some context. I don't know if it will matter to you, but I'd like to tell you anyway, if that's okay." He took a sip. "You are the very first person I've gotten to tell any of this. Some of it, you'll probably be the last. I really, really wanted to tell you."

She surveyed the table and gave him a moment to stew. "Is all that mine?"

"Yes."

"Okay then. I am willing to play confessor for you at a rate of one bottle per hour." She sat primly.

Zach relaxed a little. If she was giving him shit, they might be okay. "Want me to open one?"

"Nah, I'm not sharing. Buy your own." She took a drink of her water. Yes, they would be okay. Eventually.

"It was important to both of us that he wasn't paying me. Not because 'ew, sex work,' just... There's not a lot he can't buy. It would have fucked things up. We could not let it be about money, or it would have died."

Her lips tightened and she shrugged, which was clearly as close to active listening as she could reach at that moment.

"I didn't take the apartment or anything else until we were both sure that wasn't why I would stay or go. He was trusting me to be able to tell him to fuck off. He doesn't have a lot of people like that. And I was trusting him not to try to run my life. The messy part is, what he giveth, he could taketh away. I didn't want him to own my career. Our work got tangled up in that. I'm sorry."

"I see." She watched him with her polite professional listening face.

"So, uh. A couple years ago, a guy I didn't know all that well yet wanted to help me out of a shitty job. He offered to tell one of his friends to hire me, and I wasn't comfortable with that. Instead, he kicked me up a few income brackets, paid for grad school, and let me quit working for two years to make room for extracurriculars, so that same friend would hire me without being asked.

"One of those solutions is called 'nepotism' and the other one is called 'earning it,' and that is a problem way, way bigger than I can see how to fix. But."

He had thought he could keep eye contact for this, but nope. "He came out for me, Monique. For me. He was never, ever going to, and I asked and he did it. So we could stop hiding." He wiped his eyes and looked at her again. Her eyes were suspiciously glossy.

"So. No, I was not fucking for the revolution. That is the exact opposite of what was happening here. But having already done the fucking, now that the giant trail of money won't lead to his secret boytoy... I am offering you the place to stand. I can point the money cannon almost anywhere you like. I want to."

She nodded very slowly. "Thank you. I will need to put some thought into that."

"In the meantime, Wayne Enterprises and some of its less obvious subsidiaries have been buying up more of the Narrows. Not fast enough to start a boom. He's aiming for the sweet spot that keeps the property values from being cheap enough to exploit. One block at a time.

"With your permission, he's also quadrupling Granite's budget, or whatever multiplier you ask for, honestly. He's offering every founding member a retroactive full ride to grad school." He still couldn't read her, so he carried on. "And, uh, this one's trickier and you really can't repeat it to anyone. He's historically made big donations to the police department."

Her whole body stiffened.

"That can't change, apparently. But the funds this year have been silently earmarked, and will be for as long as necessary, which you and I both know means forever, at a level that most cops won't hear about. There is a lot of remedial training and DV support programs and community integration stuff in the GCPD's future."

She stared at him. "You're serious."

He resisted the urge to shrink back. "Yes. I hope that was right."

She let out a breath. "It's a good start. You are tentatively forgiven for putting your fantasies about merit ahead of our mission."

"Thank you."

She turned her water glass in her hands. "So. New boyfriend?"

He smiled. "New boyfriend. We're, uh, still nailing down the official story, but I'm pushing for full honesty on the timeline. Our two year anniversary was in May. He's... Like you said. He's not what I expected. And I am so, so sorry, Monique. We both hated putting you through that."

She flicked an eyebrow, her lips tight.

"God, I'm just digging myself deeper." Zach drank more of his water. "He says you're the best of that Next Wave class. He wants to meet you for real. As my friend. As someone he respects. I hope you'll say yes."

Her jaw worked. "Ask me in another hour. And try talking about something other than how you pissed me off."

"Right." He stared out at the glittering skyline, suddenly out of words.

"What do you talk about with him?" she asked eventually.

He thought about it. "Surprisingly little, honestly. He spends all day talking. Just, constantly, people are either telling him or asking him. Here, we're quiet. Like watching TV together quiet, except we don't bother with the TV part. I'll tell him something cool I learned, or he'll tell me about a fire he had to put out at work... He works an awful lot for someone who's not supposed to give a shit about his company. He cares an awful lot.

"But mostly we'll just, I dunno, lean on each other, or nap, or..." He felt his face heating up. "Or do what we did to get here in the first place, which is have some of the filthiest sex of my entire life, and I am not faking it when I drop hints about how much I fuck around. Rumors of his sexual résumé have not been exaggerated."

Monique smirked. "Not the jealous type, then."

"Really not. He just wants me to be happy. And, preferably, to come home to him, which he makes really easy. I... feel safe with him. I feel safer with him than I've felt with anyone in my whole life."

"Yaz is like that, for me," she said. "Not that I don't love Dani, wouldn't trade either of them, but Yaz, she is my still point of the turning world."

Zach felt his eyes stinging. "I wasn't sure you'd ever tell me anything about them again. Thank you."

She paused. "I'm still on the clock, Zach."

"Oh." He stared at the table. "Thank you for being clear. I didn't mean to assume... God." He shook his head. "You don't have to stay. I've done my wallowing, I've... I know I can't buy friends. I am painfully aware of that. I won't take any more of your time." He felt sick.

"Wow," she said. "Did joining the point-one percent warp your brain that fast?"

He looked at her. No explanation was forthcoming. Monique was much harder to deal with than the Riddler. "Uh. Possibly? I'm trying not to be an asshole, but apparently failing in all directions."

She crossed her arms. "Pretend for one minute that your newly revealed boyfriend doesn't own a money cannon, and see what you come up with."

"Oh. Right." He smiled weakly. She waited. He closed his eyes. The shape loomed huge in his mind, blocking out all words, all apologies and explanations. Everything he had said was wrong.

He wasn't sure how long he sat there, but when he opened his eyes, she hadn't moved. "Let's try this again using any skills I've ever learned in my life."

Her mouth twitched in a brief smile.

"You are one of my closest friends, and I have lied to you since we met. I don't know how to mend that. I don't know if it can be mended. But if there is any way to get back to a real relationship with you, anything I can do, I want that."

She just watched him.

"I'm sorry I hurt you. I don't know what to do about it. Panicking and trying to fill that gap with piles of money was ridiculous. Will you help me?"

That made her mouth twitch again, and a little of the smile stayed. Instead of answering, she looked out the window. Zach watched their reflections in the glass. The only correct course now was silence.

"That's quite the view of the tower."

"Yeah. I used to spend a lot of time staring at it." When nothing else happened for a moment, he reached over to the desk and came back with the train station. "He gave this to me, our first Christmas. It was the only thing I could hold in my hands, that I didn't have to hide." He set it down in front of her.

She picked it up delicately. "And you put up with that shit."

"Yup."

"Wow."

"Yup."

She put it back in his hand and reached for the nearest bottle, twisting the top to break the pretentious wax seal. "For the record, there is not enough genever in the world to buy an hour of sitting through your freaked-out bullshit. But I hoped you could dig yourself out."

She poured two tulip-shaped shot glasses full to their flared brims. He kept his mouth shut.

"A housemate in college went to Amsterdam, got stoned, came back with some of these. To do a shot out of them is called a headbutt. You're supposed to put your hands behind your back and slurp until you can't reach anymore, then take the shot." She narrowed her eyes at him.

"You're asking me to eat out a shot glass."

"That beneath your dignity?"

"Obviously not. I'm just afraid you won't respect me in the morning."

"Well, it's the only way these glasses are getting emptied, because I'm not doing it alone, and if I try to sip, it'll spill on my dress."

She watched him in challenge. He took a breath and did not offer her a tailor. "Then this is the only reasonable solution, clearly."

Zach wasn't big on herbals, but as a point of pride, he got through three without using his hands or spilling anything. Monique slurped one, sipped a second, and whooped when he picked up the glass with his lips for the third time. After another hour, during which they carefully did not talk about money even once, he sent her home in a cab, with nearly a gallon of imported liquor clanking around in a shopping bag.

"Say hi to the family for me."

"Will do. Text me when your boyfriend can come over for dinner."

He paused, his hand on the door of the cab. "Your place?"

"My place."

"Will do. G'night."

Chapter Text

Zach studied the ballroom on a tablet in the limo. The surveillance feeds were pretty grainy, but the color blazed through. "This is garish even for me. Did they manage to add more rainbows?"

"They did." Bruce put an arm around him. "New money spectacle at top volume. The event has an epilepsy warning now."

"Damn." He flicked over to the RSVP list. Surprisingly few abstentions, but that was the Wayne effect. When Bruce Wayne threw a charity party, even on a week's notice, everyone showed up if they knew what was good for them. And of course, all the org reps were there, come hell or high water.

Back to the ballroom, cycling through all the camera angles as if they would show something other than the glitteriest rainbow ever to rain glitter, presided over by a dozen enormous disco balls. The giant rainbow meter showing how much they had raised would actually shoot glitter over the crowd when they hit the stretch goal.

"Well, this should do it. Tacky single-cause boyfriend identity, activate." He switched to his photo flashcards, rattling off as many names as he could. He'd met these assholes a maximum of twice each, ever, but acting like they were immediately old pals was apparently essential. Bruce rubbed Zach's neck and repeated names to add another memory layer.

The red carpet cam showed the press lines, packed and waiting for them. "How long before I get to flip off the cameras?"

"Two months and a 60% approval rating."

"Ugh."

"Only one more party before you get to pick fights with Chas Elliot about racism."

Zach grinned at him. "You always know what to say. Throwing a drink on someone?"

"Six months, and I get veto on the target."

"Fair." Their white limo pulled up to the curb on the image. Zach felt it stop and saw it echoed a split-second later. He put down the tablet. "Okay." He kissed Bruce long enough to let a few cameras catch it as the chauffeur opened the door. He stepped out onto his first red carpet, which was, of course, also a rainbow.

"Zach!" someone shouted from behind a flashbulb. "Zach, how's it feel to know you've broken the heart of every woman in the world?"

He bared his teeth in what hopefully looked like a smile. "Well, not every woman. I mean, that's kind of the point here."


After a blur of hellos, during which he only once pretended to know someone who turned out to be a first introduction, he got to look at the ballroom in person. The entire list of pride flags he had demanded lined the walls like tapestries, even the Leather and Bear flags, though they were buried in a poorly lit corner. The ceiling bristled with rainbow bunting. Faint, soothing EDM vibrated from hidden speakers; neon pillars pulsed gently in time.

At the center of it all, Zach and his classic tux with lavender sequined pocket square practically disappeared. He had declined to contend for Worst Dressed at his own first gala.

The crowds parted and he saw a face he actually liked. "Spence!" He threw an arm over Spence's shoulder in half a hug and got startled looks, even from Spence. Oops. "Sorry. How's it going?"

"We're on track." Spence looked maybe a little amped, but sober enough. "All the ambassadors have their dance cards."

"Thanks. I couldn't have done this without you." Zach had hired a phalanx of drag queens and minor out celebrities to give Bruce's guests a safe thrill, answer their terrible questions, laugh at their awkward jokes, and introduce them to the charities they were most likely to care about. Spence had thrown himself into optimizing the matchmaking.

Bruce touched his arm. "We're up in five."

"Oh, lord," Spence said. "Look at Jake."

"Jacob Rothschild," Bruce murmured as Zach turned casually. "Near the entrance."

"Yikes. He's, uh, getting into the spirit of things?"

"He already owned that outfit," Spence whispered.

"Oh, well then, good on him for getting to take it out in public. Be nice." Zach smiled and waded toward the stage. Bruce activated whatever mystical force field made people get out of their way.

From his seat on the low platform, Zach watched the buzz of people, too stressed to pick out more than large traffic patterns and the occasional impressive dress. The lights dimmed as the stage flooded with technicolor. The music crescendoed, then crashed to a triumphant halt as Bruce walked to the mic.

"Thanks for coming out, everyone!" Pause for the obligatory laugh. "Seriously, thank you. This is Zach's first big event, and he's stepped up in so many ways to make it happen. I hope you will all make him welcome, say hi, and learn about the causes he cares about. There's a lot of work to be done here, and you can make it happen. But this is his show, so I'll get out of the way. Zach?"

Zach stepped up to the mic and took a breath while the applause settled. "Welcome to the Glitter Ball!" A genial cheer. "What do you think, too much?"

"Never too much! Never!" a queen shouted from somewhere in the crowd. He gave her a grateful nod.

"That's my philosophy, yeah. It would have been simpler to pick one charity for this event, and if you want to keep it simple, we do have one big rainbow contribution bucket. You can let us sort out where it's most needed. But the rainbow umbrella is huge. There are as many ways to belong as there are people, and those people have a lot of different needs. Health care, legal support, community building, it all needs doing. Find the parts you care most about, and you will find people who are fabulously grateful for your support." Pause for a less confident laugh than Bruce had gotten. It wasn't supposed to be a good joke.

"Instead of trying to speak for everyone, I've invited a few people to tell you where they're coming from and what they're working toward. But first..." He took another breath. Off script.

"Bruce says this is my show, but it's his party, too, and I don't just mean because he paid for it." A louder laugh. "Coming out didn't always mean a closet. In the men's community, there were drag balls, going way back. And just like debutante balls, people would use them to come out to their communities. To join a society, and be recognized by their peers for who they were. To be welcomed."

He blinked hard. He had practiced this until he could do it with a steady voice. "I came out in community a long time ago. This is not my coming out ball. Bruce has been so brave, and I am so proud of him." He turned. Bruce ducked his head, biting his lip. "C'mere." He held out his hand. Bruce stepped up and stood beside him. "Ladies, gentlemen, and friends beyond the binary, may I present... Bruce Wayne."

The cheer was deafening. Spotlights blazed white. Bruce waved and looked bashful, holding Zach's hand in a tight grip.

A cackling laugh rang out over the sound system, even louder than the crowd. The room went black. Bruce almost crushed his hand, then pulled away and was gone.

When the power came back five seconds later, Zach stood alone on the stage. Everyone else had followed Gotham survival procedure number one, hit the deck and get under cover. He should have, he just couldn't think. Too late now. He was the designated dumbass who hadn't kept his head down. It would have been him, anyway. It was his show.

Lights strobed. A techno mix of calliope music cranked on at full blast. Zach could dimly see mooks with guns moving in the periphery of the room, corralling everyone closer to the stage. He heard scuffling behind him that suggested the other speakers had been herded out from the wings.

Harley Fucking Quinn rolled toward the stage in a bedazzled chariot pulled by two ponyboys; one of them looked dubious while the other high-stepped with enthusiasm. The crowd shuffled out of their way.

She wore a glittering top hat and tails in her usual color scheme, and had a meticulous handlebar mustache painted on her upper lip. She blew kisses as she passed. Well, at least she'd dressed for the event.

She got to the foot of the stage, stood on her chariot, and reached out. On autopilot, Zach leaned forward and hauled her up by one sequined glove. He stepped away from the mic with his hands in the air.

"Thank you!" Harley gestured to the ponyboys. One of them clip-clopped up the stairs and grabbed Zach by the arms. The less confident pony struggled, then crawled onto the stage before getting back to his hooves.

Someone shouted, "It's just like walkin' in heels, honey!" The crowd laughed nervously. Out-of-towner or just too much adrenaline? Zach shook his head in warning as the hench taped his wrists to either side of a chair. Never, ever try to make the room laugh with Joker in earshot.

"Aw, leave him alone! It's his first time," Harley said. "He'll get better at it. Or not. One a' those." She twirled a riding crop and cleared her throat. "Eh-heh-hem. Lackeys an—" She swung to look at Zach. "What's the third one ya said?"

"Uh. Friends beyond the binary."

"Huh!" She nodded, her eyes going far away for a moment. "Nice." She swung back. "Esteemed victims! It is my honor to introduce... Posey Sarcoma!"

Oh, he did not. Please, please no one rise to the bait. If anyone threw something, they were definitely all dead.

The Joker tromped out from behind him. Not the highest platform heels in the room, but close. Fishnets and satin panties, with a fluffy net bustle that draped onto the floor and a pistol strapped to each thigh. A purple leather underbust corset emphasized his rail-thin frame and attached to a bondage chest harness with a spiky collar. His plumed hat made him almost a foot taller.

Zach had the nonsensical thought that Joker's straps didn't cover his nipples, and for stage he should really have pasties. Maybe skull stickers to echo his cadaverous makeup. Because the biggest concern here was whether the Joker followed outdated decency standards.

"Hello, darlings!" Joker called out. His voice echoed. He must be wearing his own microphone.

Harley grabbed the mic stand and swung the weighted end through the front row of the audience, knocking several people over. "You're s'posed ta cheer."

Ragged applause and some whoops. Joker held out his hands and gestured for more until it reached an acceptable level of enthusiasm.

"Thank you, thank you. So honored to be here tonight. Though, I must say, the atmosphere seems a little vanilla. Where are the freaks, the perverts, the sissy maids, the naughty babies who need a spanking? I'm sure someone here could use a diaper change." He paused. "This is where you laugh."

Anxious forced chuckles. Joker sighed.

"This is where you laugh like you mean it, or I will MAKE YOU mean it!" Over the louder 'hahas,' he pointed at the ceiling. "Once your balls drop, we'll have a gay old time."

And that was the problem with rush party planning, no time for Batman to vet all the equipment. How long did it take him to change? Faster without the armor, but they had guns, so he had better not skip the armor.

"Oh, come on, I know it's hard to perform under pressure, but I'm sure you can rise to the occasion!" Joker did a pelvic thrust for emphasis. Zach managed a halfway-real laugh at that one.

"Leathermen? Anyone? I was hoping to see my sweetheart." He grinned at Harley's sudden perky attention. "Not you, pumpkin. Big, strong man. Looks good in black, step-on-your-neck boots, amazing legs, and ohhhh baby, when he hits me? Makes my head spin. He usually wears a mask to this kind of do. Anyone seen him?"

Silent head shakes and a few more attempted laughs from people who weren't keeping up.

"He hasn't given me a pounding in such a long time. Never makes conjugal visits when I'm in the pokey. Come on, tall dark and brooding, show me you care." Silence. "Fine. I can wait. For a while." He leaned toward the audience and stage-whispered, "He's always fashionably late. Total drama queen.

"You call this a ball, but it looks like the same old wine, cheese, and checkbooks affair. I hear it can't be a revolution without dancing. You want a revolution, don't you?" Somewhat more sincere cheering. "Well then!" He clapped his hands once and hopped down from the stage without a stumble. "Let's dance."

The calliope techno volume rose. Harley squealed and applauded, then leapt to follow. Joker caught her in a bridal carry before setting her down. "There you go, dollface. Enjoy your party." He leaned down to get a peck on the cheek, then spun her off into the crowd.

Harley went for an exuberant bump and grind with whoever who was closest, flitting around every five seconds like a bee visiting flowers. The occasional foot got stomped and face got elbowed, but people did their best not to complain. Some of them even tried to get into it, dancing along.

Joker stalked down the aisle Harley had cleared on her way in. "Well?" People started bobbing their heads and swaying in the least enthusiastic dancing Zach had ever seen in his life. "Someone has got to do better."

An approximation of Tina Turner in a little black dress stepped out into the aisle and vogued at the Joker. Zach caught his breath. Joker posed in reply, badly, clumsily, a horrible caricature. They went three rounds like that, then Tina backed into the crowd, beckoning him, slipped between people and vanished.

Joker laughed, delighted. "Gimme another one!"

Zach heard an 'oof' from close to the stage. A man had apparently gotten handsy with Harley and was now balled up on the ground, whimpering. She'd already moved on to a butch woman who swayed with her, hip to hip.

Joker grabbed a balding guest in a suit, one of the Crowne relations maybe, who gamely tried to ballroom dip him. He cackled and flung the guy away without obvious injuries. He reached for a woman who stepped quickly back and dodged his grasp. The crowd melted away from them with frantic haste, offering no cover. He reached again and she dodged again.

"C'mon," he hissed. "One dance. I'm sure you've got the cojones for it." Oh, hell no. She was one of Zach's ambassadors, an openly trans actress. She dodged a third time, barely. "It's just a dance. I could make this so much worse."

She stood to her full height, her face like stone. "You are far from the worst thing I have faced."

Quick as a snake, Joker drew a long-barreled pistol and pointed it an inch from her forehead. She didn't flinch. oh shit oh shit oh shit oh shit

"Hey!" Zach shouted. "My party. You have a problem, tell the host."

The music stopped. Harley stopped dancing. "Ya want me to beat his head in, puddin'?"

"No, no, he's right. A host has responsibilities." Joker paced toward the stage in dead silence, cleared it in one long step, and stood over Zach. "I have a problem."

"I'm sorry to hear that. What do you need?"

"I have been here over ten minutes and no one has offered me a DRINK. You call that hospitality?"

"I'm so sorry. Someone get this man a drink."

A cowering waiter handed a martini with a twist up to the stage. Joker took a swig, then did a spit take all over Zach. "Gin. Can't stand gin." He pistol-whipped Zach right across the face.

Zach saw stars and tasted blood. Alcohol burned his eyes. He would not cry. He would not give the goddamn Joker the satisfaction. "Mine's a Greyhound, if you want to try one." Joker was probably just bored. As long as talking was more interesting than shooting people or gassing the place...

"I want one!" Harley hollered. "What's in it?"

"Dogs," Joker said. "Didn't you go vegetarian, sweetpea?"

"All except sausage and fish tacos!"

An honest laugh rippled through the room. Joker spun to glare at them. "Who's the comedian here?"

A dark shape dropped from the ceiling onto Joker, knocking him flat. Guns skittered across the stage. Zach heard a nasty crack as Batman punched Joker in the sternum.

Thuds and howls of pain from the floor. Harley screeched in fury as the eight nearest people tried to grab her; she laid them all out with manic violence. Batman dove off the stage straight into her. He dragged her back in zip ties and cuffs, then rolled Joker to his stomach to start tying him up as well.

"Oh, you sweet thing," Joker gurgled, drooling blood on the floor, still amplified. "Do it again."


Five minutes later, police had hauled out all the mooks gift-wrapped around the room. No deaths and only a handful of people taken to the hospital for scans; enough ambulances waited outside for the possibility of a full laugh attack. For the Joker, they'd gotten off light.

Zach rubbed his wrists and held his jacket to his face. He blinked blearily at a man in a beige coat who turned out to be Commissioner Gordon. Oh boy.

"You certainly seem to find yourself in situations," Gordon said drily.

"I swear I am not doing this on purpose."

"Have you seen your boyfriend yet? Wayne's unaccounted for."

"I'm sure he'll turn up. Apparently he's pretty good at lying low for this stuff? Good survival instincts, I guess."

"That's debatable." Did Gordon know? Was Gordon fucking with him?

"Hey, uh. I don't know how this goes. Do we have to shut down for the night or what?"

"Do you have to?" Gordon stared at him. "Well. He was bluffing, there was no gas in the ceiling. And the case won't exactly hinge on physical evidence. So... As long as people are available to make statements, I suppose not."

"Thanks." Zach got to his feet and cupped his hands in a makeshift bullhorn. "Hey! Anyone here know how to run a soundboard?"

A couple of people tentatively raised their hands.

"If you don't wanna stay, that's cool. Check with an officer and an EMT on your way out, please. But we have kept dancing through worse. So as soon as I can get an ice pack and a fresh drink, I'm gonna party. Anyone else?"

About a quarter of the crowd made some kind of positive noise, which got louder once they were sure they weren't the only ones. A few people shouted variations on 'Hell yes!' and 'Fuck that guy!'

Zach grinned with bloody teeth. "We are Gotham, and we are queer, and we keep fucking going!"

"Yeah!" they shouted back.

Bruce emerged from the wings, missing his jacket and holding an ice pack to his head. He offered another one to Zach, who leaned against him gratefully. Bruce shouted, "I will double match all donations made tonight! If you're leaving early, just drop a number in the bucket!"

Zach laughed until he cried, getting blood all over Bruce's shirt.

Chapter Text

Zach sipped his water and fidgeted. Bruce had chosen the sitting room with floor-to-ceiling windows. Their couch faced into the room, so the reporter would have a distracting view and the light in their eyes. Bruce had a lot of good memories of this room, apparently. Zach's association was Bruce lying doped in a hospital bed, his breath rattling.

Bruce put a hand on his leg. "The Gazette's never raked me over the coals for anything I didn't deserve. Teresa Sanchez won an award last year for her coverage of the local LGBT social scene. They earned this. They'll do it right."

"Good warmup, blah blah blah." Zach let out a slow breath. "The full press junket is going to suck."

"Yes. But I'll buy you ice cream when we're done."

"I'm not five. I'm pretty sure this one calls for tequila. Umbrella drinks? They'd love to get pictures of us with umbrella drinks."

Alfred opened the door and cleared his throat. "Ms. Vale, sir."

"Thanks, Alfred." Ms. Vale swished in and sat in the interviewer chair. She wore a gray skirt suit, which didn't match her extremely practical lace-up shoes. "Hi, Bruce."

Bruce looked stricken. "Vicki. Hi. It's... good to see you. We were expecting—"

"Tess couldn't make it today. She asked me to cover for her." She smiled sweetly.

"From the police beat." Bruce's eyes had gone sharp.

"Hamilton tickets. I bartered Hamilton tickets. It's amazing how busy Hamilton tickets can make a person."

Zach glanced at the exits surreptitiously.

"Vicki. You didn't have to do that. You could have called. I'd have loved to hear from you."

Instead of answering, she just looked at him, raising her eyebrows, then turned to Zach and reached out a hand. "Vicki Vale. Such a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Prendergast."

"Zach, please," he said automatically, shaking her hand.

"He's done an excellent job of insulating you from the press so far."

Zach nodded. "I'm still getting used to all the attention." He looked to Bruce for a clue.

Bruce had slouched back into the couch with his petulant billionaire face and was not even slightly helpful. Ex? Almost definitely an ex. Probably from his early cover when he was sleeping with anything that moved and making a mess of it on purpose.

Vicki held up a phone and pressed the red button. "May I record audio?"

"Yes," they both said promptly. Apparently they would not be talking about this.

The interview was exactly what they'd trained for, once the recorder went live. They held hands, delivered their schmoopy soundbites, and answered softball questions.

"Bruce, let's talk about the big picture for a minute. You've had a very public dating life, and aside from a handful of tabloid headlines in your twenties, men haven't featured before. Could you talk about why that is?"

"Like you say, people pay a lot of attention to my dating life." He shrugged as infuriatingly as possible. "If I only claimed to like half as many people, I got half as many annoying questions."

Vicki's lips twisted up at that one, and she and Bruce shared a knowing look that seemed genuinely friendly. "At the risk of asking one of those annoying questions, how would you describe your sexuality?"

"Highly successful." Bruce laughed. "No. I'm bisexual. People are very attractive. It's amazing how many people are attractive."

Vicki wound that thread skillfully around to the politics of coming out, Zach's activist role in inspiring Bruce to make a stand, Zach's charity priority and its place in the Foundation. Zach gave his spiel for the gala and the pitch for ongoing donations.

"A photo from the event went viral the next day. You raised six million dollars in one night, and all the Internet wanted to talk about was you crying on Bruce Wayne's shoulder. Would you like to speak to that?"

Bruce squeezed Zach's hand in two sharp taps. Zach said, "Recorder off, please. Now." He looked to Bruce. His hands shook. This part was still new. The adrenaline was almost as bad as at the gala.

"You try first," Bruce said quietly. "Vicki's safe."

Zach took a breath and thought. "It keeps calling attention to the part we don't want. And?"

"Safety issue." Bruce waited. Zach was still stuck. "What are your possible answers?"

"Say it's okay for men to cry, which, ugh, sensitive gay guy stereotype and sounding defensive, or... explain more of the context? Which..." Zach went cold. "Which would be bragging about telling the Joker to go fuck himself."

Vicki flinched. "I'm sorry," she said. "I didn't think. I wanted to give you a chance to defend yourself."

"I appreciate it," Zach said.

Bruce rubbed his thumb across the back of Zach's hand. "So, responses?"

Zach looked at Vicki. "Please withdraw the question. I don't want to focus on that."

"Hostile reporter."

"It's the Internet. Don't you have anything real to ask about?"

"With a camera or an audience."

Zach thought about it and his throat closed up. He breathed. "Please repeat the question?" He listened, getting into the rhythm of it. He made himself relax and do his smaller version of Bruce Wayne's loose, easy smile. "Let's focus on the six million dollars part."

"Good." Bruce put an arm around Zach and held him for a second, settling him.

Vicki ducked her head. "I apologize."

"No," Zach said. "It's good practice. Thanks for not..." He waved his hand vaguely.

She nodded sympathetically. "Been there."

He glanced between the two of them again.

"Vicki's on the short list," Bruce said.

"Ah." The people Bruce had actually tried dating.

"I lasted about three weeks in your seat and decided I would prefer to stay the one asking the questions," she said.

"I get that. Sorry it didn't work out. Except, uh, not that sorry, since I get to try it." Zach grinned. "You can start recording again if you want."

Vicki's answering smile didn't reach her eyes. "Sure."

The rest of the interview was pure easy fluff. Zach felt downright confident by the end of it. Vicki turned off the recording again.

"All right. Thanks, both of you. Zach, you're doing great. I hope it works out for you."

Zach smiled, his public-but-mostly-authentic lovebird smile. "I think it will."

She didn't look reassured. "Bruce, do we have the rest of this conversation with Zach or in private?"

They stared each other down for an uncomfortable few seconds, then Bruce sighed. "It's none of your business, but yes, he knows."

Vicki closed her eyes in relief. "Thank you. I was not looking forward to blackmailing you into dumping this nice young man."

Zach almost growled in frustration. "I'm twenty-seven."

"And you wear it well, babyface. Bruce, it's not that I don't trust you, but would you please verify what he knows? I'd be very disappointed if it turned out he thought we were talking about your My Little Pony collection."

"Oh, come on."

Zach grinned. "To be fair, that totally sounds like something you would do."

Bruce glared. He gathered himself. "Fine. Zach, Vicki is on the very short list. She knows how to access the cave."

Zach was caught off-guard by how deeply that unsettled him. Bruce just saying that, in front of a reporter... He braced himself and said, "The suit's hot."

She smiled, and this time it looked utterly sincere. "Yes. Yes, it is." She pulled out a card and handed it to Zach. "If you ever need to talk, about anything. Been there."

She stood and gave Bruce a long hug. He settled his hand on her back in a way that Zach's shoulder blades knew, and he kissed her cheek. "You really could have just called," Bruce said softly.

"And miss the chance to meet him? Anyway, this was more fun. You could replace my Hamilton tickets, though."

Chapter Text

Zach finished his sandwich and wiped his mouth. "So when can we get the family out to the manor for dinner? I've been looking forward to doing terrible things to the polished floors with Elijah, there's a hallway like a block long that would be perfect for racing Hot Wheels."

Monique looked incredibly uncomfortable. "I'm... not sure that's the best idea."

"Oh. Uh. Help me out?"

"It's..." She glanced around the restaurant and lowered her voice. "Okay, I'll just say it. Alfred creeps me the fuck out, and I don't want Dani and Yaz to have to deal with that."

"Ah. Yeah. That."

"Yeah. That."

"So... That's fair, obviously. And if we can't work something out that makes you comfortable, I respect that. I hope we can, though." Damn, when he looked away, he accidentally looked within six feet of a waiter, who immediately came and checked on them. "Everything's great, thanks."

She shrugged.

"He doesn't actually call Bruce that except in private, which frankly grossed me out at first too, like, your kink is fine over there, but this is a very long time to be doing 24/7? But the fact that he said it in front of you is actually an inner circle thing. And he can switch that off instantly, the second I point out the problem there."

"It's not... This is not an issue with a single vocab word. Bruce has the man who raised him call him sir. And serve dinner and then go sleep in the servant's quarters." She shuddered.

"This is probably not the best venue for this talk. Can we take a walk?"

"Yeah." They pulled on jackets and walked briskly into the adjacent park.

"You might never be okay with it, and that's absolutely fine, and we go eat at your house, or Alfred takes the night off when y'all come over."

"Not better."

"No, and he'd do it because he cares about your feelings, but he'd be hurt. And he'd never say so, because he is deeply committed to his weird roleplay scenario."

"You're really helping your case here."

Zach sighed and sat down on a park bench. "I think it could be good for them to practice interacting in ways other people can understand. You will not be the only person in my long and busy social life who has a problem with this, and it's not what's going on in their heads at all."

"Okay, I'm listening."

"They are dancing around this giant dead-parent-shaped space in both their lives. It was just the two of them for a really long time, eating all their meals at a tiny table in the kitchen, in the corner of that massive tomb of a house. They needed something, some kind of structure that let them feel like they weren't replacing Bruce's dad. So Alfred just kept... butling.

"Now it's twenty-some years later and, fun fact about archaic service language, if he meant the head of household, it should be 'Mr. Wayne.' 'Master Bruce' is like 'miss,' it's used for kids, not adults in charge. Every time he says that, he's actually saying, 'Never forget I changed your diapers and saw you through puberty, kiddo.' That's what he means with the butler act. All the time. I wish they could find a way to say it that didn't creep everyone the fuck out."

"Huh. Okay, it is too damn cold to sit still out here." They did a quick lap in the biting wind, not saying anything. They would both need to get back to work soon.

When they got back to the park entrance, Monique said, "Far be it from me to criticize the fucked-up coping mechanisms of traumatized rich folks. But if they can work out something egalitarian, we could try a test run."


When Zach finished his prepared explanation and million disclaimers, Alfred nodded solemnly. Zach looked down at his tisane.

"I don't— I feel awful trying to say any of this. As a rule, like big lifetime rule, I never, ever want to tell anyone to act like people they aren't."

"No. You are asking us to act like the people we are." Alfred rubbed one finger along a particularly deep score line in the battered table, filled by years of polish to a smooth darkened trough. "It's long past time we had this particular discussion. I'll speak with him."


Zach headed for the door as soon as the front gate alert went off, so he was nearly there when Monique and company rolled up, carrying covered dishes.

"Kitchen's this way, come on, you've gotta see this."

The kitchen clattered and sizzled and smelled like roast everything. Alfred and Bruce worked together in a complicated dance with six burners blazing. Bruce was keeping two woks and a flat frying pan running at full blast while Alfred tasted things, looking vaguely dissatisfied.

"More ginger, please, very fine."

"Yes, Nan. Watch these?" They traded stations.

"Nan?" Monique said quietly.

"He glares at me when I shout, 'Yes, Chef,'" Bruce called over the sound of his chef's knife, which was dicing half a ginger root into oblivion.

"Chef is a title I don't pretend to," Alfred said. "Please use any stove you like for reheating. Zach can help you find implements. Fy mab, hospitality."

"Right, sorry." Bruce handed the cutting board off to Alfred without looking and turned the full force of his attention from food to guests. "Thanks for coming, everyone. Sorry for the delay on our half, my last meeting ran late and I couldn't escape. Should be just about done by the time yours is hot, though."

Alfred said, "We have a selection of Nepali dishes, including both meat and vegetarian momos and chau chau, with spicy and mild options."

"Want anything to drink?" Bruce asked. "Water, milk, juice, wine, there's yak tea, and some flatbread on the table."

After a slightly stunned pause, Dani said, "Ours needs one oven, 25 minutes. And I'd love a glass of water."

"On it!" Zach said.

Half an hour later, everyone found a seat around the big formal dining table, with most of the food piled in the middle and a few dishes pushed further out toward the head and foot of the table when they ran out of room. Everyone loaded up plates, which in Elijah's case involved a cautious tasting process and negotiation of how much of each new food he wanted.

"If you don't mind me asking," Monique said to Alfred, "'vih-mob'?"

"Fy mab." Alfred smiled. "Welsh, handed down from my grandmother. My mother used it as an endearment for all her sons, and now it is Bruce's."

"The other direction is supposed to be fy nhad," Zach said, "but someone's a smartass."

"I just call it like I see it," Bruce said. "And someone's always been a mother hen. Nan." He popped an entire hushpuppy into his mouth.

"I have a nana!" Elijah said. "Nana is Mama's mom." He indicated Yaz.

Bruce was studiously chewing and showed no signs of rushing. Zach stepped in. "Alfred is Bruce's nan. Since his mom and dad are gone, his nan raised him."

"Like Peetah?"

Monique said, "Just like Peter and Auntie May."

Elijah nodded happily and started in on a long, meandering story involving finding bugs they were not allowed to bring into the house. They listened for about six sentences before redirecting him to his stir fry.

"That was some fancy knife work," Dani said.

"Thanks." Bruce grinned bashfully. "Until last week, hadn't made the time to cook together in ages. Didn't realize how much we both missed it."

"So let me get this straight, you run a company and juggle and can julienne at production kitchen speed. Is there anything you don't do?"

"Show up on time?" Zach suggested.

"Hey! I try. And don't look at me for the delicate seasonings, that's Nan's department. I'm mostly good for brute force. You julienne much?"

Dani tilted her head in a non-answer. "One semester of culinary school before life got complicated." She put a hand on Elijah's back. Elijah was wiggling in his seat. "Thanks for waiting. Yes?"

"Will you please juggle, Boose?"

"After dinner, that sounds lovely," Alfred said.

Bruce and Elijah shared a conspiratorial look, then Bruce sighed. "Yes, after dinner, we'll juggle. Did you bring the balls?"

"Yes! They're a rainbow."

"They've already been through the washing machine twice," Yaz said. "They got him to stop throwing the car keys around the house, though."

"Great." Bruce looked at Dani. "If you ever want to give culinary school another shot..."

"I know. Thanks. The hours are crap, though, to do it right."

He nodded. "Priorities change."

After dinner but before the house tour, Bruce gave Elijah another one-ball juggling lesson, then started showing off. He was up to two of Elijah's rainbow juggling balls, a toy car, and a fountain pen when Monique caught Zach's eye. They pulled back to a corner of the room, on the pretense of looking at a terrifyingly expensive statuette.

"This...?" Monique looked a little baffled, but not in a bad way.

"This is them." Zach watched Alfred and Yaz talk while keeping an eye on the juggling show. Bruce rejected the prospect of an egg as 'too easy' in favor of a less imitable carved stone about the size of a softball. "Not normal, whatever the hell that means, but real. And they've been cooking up a storm."

"None of my business, but do they still..."

"Yeah. Probably forever. It's muscle memory at this point. They're playing around with having options, no idea how that'll settle out. But they have options now. Thank you. I know you didn't tell me for their sake, but still. Thank you."

Chapter Text

"And Thursday's the opening night of Semele, black tie, the loose-cut tux," Bruce said. "We'll stay in town, plan for date night. If you want breakfast in bed, make sure there are groceries at the apartment."

"As if you'll wake up before me."

"If you insist on making me breakfast in bed, I happily accept."

"Well played." Zach stared resignedly at the four hour block of time on the schedule. "Does Bruce Wayne like opera, or does he just like another chance to dress up and flirt?"

"Shallow take it or leave it appreciation. But this one, I never miss."

Sometimes Zach felt the culture gap more acutely than others. "I, uh, have been to two operas, and both of them put me to sleep, so I apologize in advance if I don't get as much out of it as you do."

"This one, you'll like."


They cut their arrival closer than intended; Bruce was hung up on something at work, so they only had about ten minutes to schmooze before curtain. Fine by Zach.

He recognized a new person from her picture for once, an immense older woman with an updo and diamond jewelry. He tapped Bruce's hand. "Can we meet Sybil?"

"Absolutely." Bruce steered them toward Zach's favorite voice from the Founders Ball. Her money was even older than Bruce's, and her withering scorn for the gold-digging piranhas had given Bruce a few minutes' rest.

"Sybil! Have you met Zach?"

"Not officially," she said, grabbing Zach's hand in something between a handshake and an outdated hand-kissing gesture. "We were all a little occupied at your bash, I'm afraid. Magnificent job, dear. I wish I could have stayed for the dancing, but Nelly had to go home with a headache."

"Oh. Thank you." Talking with Sybil felt like being run down by an extremely polite ocean liner. "It's a pleasure to meet you."

"And you. So nice to see Bruce with someone who can keep up with him. Are you looking forward to Semele?"

"Uh, yeah. I hear it's a great show."

She looked to Bruce, her face lighting up with amusement. "Oh, you scamp. Zach, you'll have to keep an eye on this one, he's a terror."

"I've noticed that," Zach said.

"I wasn't sure you'd make it this year," Bruce said.

"As if I would miss it!" Sybil said. "But you mean with Sam gone. He could never stay awake past the first act anyway, bless him. No head for opera." Whatever they weren't saying, they thought it was hilarious.

"Bruce told me about your animal rescue," Zach tried. "It sounds cool."

"How's that going?" Bruce asked. "Anything top the owlbears yet?"

"No," Sybil said. "They're still the oddest. Someone left an actual nest of vipers on my doorstep last week, and a pair of ball pythons. They're easy enough to place, at least. I just wish these new villains would be more thoughtful about their themes. Our climate's far too cold for reptiles to be any good outside a lair."

The lights blinked twice. Sybil left them with a wink and a smile, and they headed for their box.

Every surface of the opera box was either velvet or thick carpet; even the railing was padded. There would be room for at least four with normal chairs, but they had a plush loveseat and a side table with drinks waiting for them instead. Bruce pointed out where his gear was stowed in the ceiling, and they settled in as the lights dimmed.

Zach still hadn't had a chance to look at his program. He squinted to make out the synopsis as the overture played. Bruce pulled it from his hand and set his ginger ale on top of it.

"I'll talk you through it," he said, his lips brushing Zach's ear. He took off his jacket and slung it over the back of the couch, then helped Zach out of his. "Act one. Semele's father wants her to marry, but she's dragging her feet, so he's appealing to the gods. Semele's best friend Ino is in love with the groom, so she hopes it'll fall through."

The glowing text above and to either side of the stage bore this out. Semele was in English, but it was in Opera English, so it came with supertitles. Zach settled into the couch with Bruce as the chorus of singers dressed for a glittering Jazz Age cocktail party gathered around a miserable young woman in bridal white. They all turned to a woman on a pedestal dressed in gold robes, who smiled and spread her hands toward the bride and groom.

"The statue's Juno, who's all for it," Bruce said.

"Because Semele's dating Jupiter," Zach said, as Semele sang a plea to her celestial boyfriend. "Ooh, this'll be messy."

"You're getting it." Bruce nibbled Zach's neck. They cozily made out through everyone trying to soothe Ino's grief-stricken tantrum.

The ceiling flickered. A thunder of timpani rolled through the room. Juno's statue and Jupiter's lightning bickered to the increasing consternation of the chorus until the wedding was called off. Bruce slid his hand slowly up Zach's leg. "We can tune out for a while. Ino and the groom are comforting each other."

Bruce unzipped their flies during the next high note from Ino. They sank further into the couch, their hands down each other's pants. The baby-faced high tenor groom was easy on the eyes, and Ino was undoing his bow tie. 'Comforting' looked likely to mean getting a room soon.

"I could get used to opera," Zach said into Bruce's neck.

"Told you." They stroked each other slowly. No rush. They had three hours of opera to get through.

Semele's father returned, booming about tragedy, and Bruce's hand sped up. Apparently Semele had been carried off by a giant eagle.

"Gosh, whose boyfriend can turn into a giant eagle," Zach said. He leaned comfortably against Bruce, hinting that he'd prefer to take his time. Bruce slowed, but kept a firm pace.

Semele came back to the empty stage, wearing only a sheet wrapped around her body. Her hair was a mess and the spotlight turned her pink. She had definitely been fucked within an inch of her life. She started trilling about Jupiter's stamina.

Zach laughed, holding his breath to keep himself quiet. "'Useless now his thunder lies.' Oh my god."

"Well, her god, for the moment." Bruce sped up again and thrust into Zach's hand. They were on the edge of how much sound they could reasonably cover with a soloist, but the chorus filtered in from the wings as Semele's aria fluttered toward a climax.

"End of act one?"

"Mm-hm."

Semele turned her back, dropped the sheet, and strolled off the stage bare-ass naked. The chorus rang out with a full repetition of the same song. The men had lost their jackets and ties; the women climbed all over them, short skirts flying.

Zach closed his eyes and focused. Bruce turned to straddle him, pressing Zach's shoulders and thighs into the couch as they jerked each other off. He dropped his handkerchief over their hands just in time to prevent a wardrobe emergency.

The chorus made great cover. Neither of them muffled their groans as they came slick in each other's hands.

Zach blinked dazedly as Bruce wiped up. The chorus sank to the floor in twos and threes and fours, still singing, then slumped into silence. The stage went black. Applause.

Zach could have happily stayed flopped on the couch, but Bruce insisted they go out and mingle. The people emerging into the hallway seemed happy, talkative, and suspiciously sweaty. Waitstaff stood ready with water and champagne.

Zach glanced around, checking his impressions. Everyone, absolutely everyone coming out of the boxes, looked rumpled and too warm. Four women poured out of the next door, all laughing breathlessly. The last was Sybil, beet-red from her hairline all the way down to the cleavage of her strapless gown.

"You," Zach said to Bruce, "are a scamp who needs watching. Every year?"

"As reliable as the Nutcracker for Christmas." Bruce snagged two sparkling waters from a tray. "It's a fine old Gotham tradition. By the math, there's a good chance I was conceived here."

"I did not need to know that," Zach said through a fixed smile. "Sybil! Hi."

"Enjoying the show?" She took a long drink of her champagne.

"I am. It's very... artistic."

"You've started on a good year. This Semele's lovely, so expressive." She introduced her three boxmates, then sailed off to socialize. Zach amused himself for the rest of the intermission by making direct, speculative eye contact with each of the men who dodged him and clutched their wives, girlfriends, or escorts closer.

"The second act," Bruce explained as the lights went down and they lounged on their couch, "is more of a rest break, at least for those of us with longer refractory periods. Not much choral camouflage. Some great humor, though. Juno's about to get a report from her servant, Iris."

"Mm." Zach was appreciating the dark warmth, and thought that he, too, might decide to go to sleep after act one. He watched Juno storm around in her godly robes. Then Iris leaped out from the wings. A laugh rippled through the house. Zach sat up. "Uh."

Bruce's hand on his back shook with laughter. "In fairness, Iris is always associated with rainbows."

This Iris was a shimmering figure in iridescent plastic that didn't leave much to the imagination. She wore lavender hot pants and a chest binder. On either side of her baby-dyke haircut, she had a line of glowing rainbow earrings.

Zach sat back. "I suppose I should get used to this. Did you know?"

"I had no idea. It's good casting though. Watch the show."

Iris gave her report on Semele's lovenest, bouncing around enthusiastically. She was smitten with Juno, though Juno was too preoccupied by jealousy to really take her up on it. They had a naughty secretary vibe going, and when Juno smacked Iris's ass to get her to stop cooing about Jupiter's romance, that escalated to Iris sitting in Juno's lap while they made their plans.

The scene changed. Semele lay in bed, singing a slow and dreamy song about missing Jupiter. A man walked silently from the wings, watching her as she sang. Zach could feel Bruce right there against him, but glanced over anyway to make sure.

The actor's resemblance was eerie. He wore a suit the exact cut and tan color Bruce wore to work a lot, open at the collar. He had Bruce's easy sense of owning the room. The way he looked at Semele made Zach shiver. He took off his coat, bent over Semele to kiss her, and crawled barefoot onto the satin sheets with her.

"You had to know about this one," Zach said. He couldn't look away. It was Bruce in their apartment, shirt unbuttoned, hiding from his life with this sweet new infatuation. Jupiter sang in a smooth, rich voice. The words didn't matter. Every movement said she was the center of his world.

"Yeah. I bumped my donation for it."

"Wow. Ego much?"

"That's what I let them think." Bruce sounded uncomfortable. "They went with a cape theme the year before that, and coded Jupiter as... someone who's too nice about all the god comparisons people try to stick him with."

"Ah."

"Yeah." Bruce kissed Zach's neck and let his hands match the actor's, wrapping Zach in his arms. "So now Gotham City gets an annual visual aid for its fantasy of me instead."

"My hero," Zach murmured. He shifted around on the couch to follow the staging. The actors kept moving, so that turned into a dynamic makeout session pretty fast.

Semele worried about being mortal, about Jupiter leaving her, about being less than his equal. Jupiter tried to distract her with an army of half-clothed chorus servants bearing jewelry, dresses, wine, and snuggles. She still worried. Jupiter sang an impassioned aside about not wanting to tell her no, but not being able to give her what she wanted.

Zach refrained from further literary analysis and focused on making out with his own personal god on their velvet couch. Eventually, in desperation, Jupiter sent for Ino to cheer Semele up. The chorus cut off abruptly. A woman's gasping squeak rang out from one of the boxes.

"See? Not enough cover in the second act," Bruce said.

"Be nice. Whatever jerk brought her probably didn't warn her so she could practice with the recording in advance." Zach leaned against Bruce's chest as Jupiter sang Semele a lullaby, running his fingers through her hair.

The rest of the second act was Semele and Ino's joyful reunion, making it clear why Bruce had chosen the 'best friend' interpretation of a character Semele called sister. The chorus of servants cheered them on. Jupiter watched from the darkness above them, his wistful smile barely visible.

Some jackass at intermission held forth that the moral of Semele was that people should accept when something was out of reach, which got a lot of nods from the men in his circle. The much younger woman on his arm did not look thrilled with this interpretation. Zach privately thought the more probable moral was that rich married men should stop fucking up people's lives across an impossible power imbalance, but he could pick that fight next year. He hadn't even seen the third act yet.

The third act started with Iris and Juno bargaining with the god of sleep to borrow his magic rod, surrounded by the shirtless male chorus rolling around sleepily on the floor in artistic mood lighting. There were some fine operatic chests and arms on display. The men drowsily coupled up as the god got excited.

Bruce got Zach's slacks down. Zach lounged across his lap, relaxing as Bruce slowly fingered him. This was a lot more commitment to fucking at the opera than he had expected, but he had fucked in more public places.

Zach laughed out loud, along with most of the audience, when Iris got hold of the thick sparkly rod and eyed it speculatively. "Was everyone who wrote this twelve?"

"Funny story, Handel first presented this as an oratorio during Lent, when they weren't supposed to put on operas at all. Morally virtuous music only. It got buried, only six performances in his lifetime, then wasn't staged again for two centuries. When it took off like a rocket."

"An extremely erect rocket." Zach stopped talking. Bruce's fingers in him took a lot of attention, and he was hooked on the plot. The scheme was to give Jupiter a frustrated wet dream, then convince Semele to ask for something that was a bad idea; he hadn't caught what yet.

Juno visited Semele looking like Ino, but still gold-dusted. She brought a magic mirror. Zach craned his neck, trying to catch the subtitles from his slanted position. Bruce turned him to his back and kissed his mouth, putting a stop to that.

"The mirror lets Semele see herself as a goddess," Bruce told him, fingers still moving. "'If I persist in gazing, myself I shall adore.'"

"Myself I shall adore?"

"Myself I shall adore." Bruce timed it to the music so Zach could place it in the aria.

Semele was extremely into this, fluttering higher and higher. Zach could hear gasps of self-adoration here and there around the house. His gasps were better timed than that. Bruce pulsed his fingers carefully, precisely. Zach writhed.

Bruce pulled him up to straddle his lap, both facing the stage with their pants around their ankles. Zach sat down slowly on Bruce's cock, holding his breath until the applause for Semele. He groaned, resting his forehead on the padded railing.

Bruce felt huge in him. The tricky circumstances kept everything tighter and more sensitive than usual. They rocked together in slow motion.

"Juno says," Bruce said in his ear, "while you're looking this good, you should make him promise to do you a favor. An unbreakable promise, so he can't get out of it."

"Uh-oh. Don't listen to Juno. Never listen to Juno," Zach mumbled to the railing. He braced both hands, shifting carefully.

"Mm-hm. Words to stay alive by." B's voice was low and rough with sex. "The favor is for him to sleep with her as a god instead of in his little mortal suit. To fuck her like he fucks his wife, Juno. Then she'll become a goddess."

"Oh, no."

"Mm-hm."

Zach arched back, letting B's cock dig into him harder. "You're telling me. The actual plot. Of this opera. Premiered during Lent. Is a woman gets fucked to death by pagan lightning."

"That is exactly"--Bruce pulled him back at a conveniently loud moment--"what I am telling you."

"Oh my god."

"Her god. For another... 25 minutes, give or take."

Semele hugged Juno, making her cringe. Bruce held Zach tightly to his chest, taking control of the angles and barely moving.

Jupiter came home frantic, desperate. Semele wouldn't budge, even when he begged on his knees, burying his face in her skirt. Zach squirmed, but Bruce was just as stubborn, holding him in place.

Jupiter promised. Lightning cracked and thunder rolled. Zach groaned.

Semele made her demand. Jupiter begged her, trying to warn her. Semele ignored him. 'With all your omnipotence arm ye.' She flounced off. Yikes.

Bruce wrapped one slick hand around Zach's cock and the other hand across his mouth. He breathed in Zach's ear. "Staying quiet enough from here to the climax takes practice."

Jupiter sat alone on the bed, head in his hands. He crooned softly, grieving the love he was about to lose because his lightning was just so powerful. Zach breathed hard through his nose. Bruce's hand slid slowly, carefully, to avoid any wet noise.

Applause gave Zach a few full moaning breaths. Juno stopped in for a quick gloat to the audience during the scene change. Iris nodded along, but didn't seem as thrilled about it now that the plan was actually rolling.

Semele stood on an empty stage in gauzy white robes that outlined her body. She bit her lip and wrung her hands. A dark stormcloud sky flashed and rumbled. She sang delicately, frightened. She knew her mistake and couldn't take it back. The lightning was already too much for her.

Bruce rocked hard, keeping his hand over Zach's mouth. "This is it," he murmured. "We have about two minutes. They spliced it in from another work even to give us that much."

Semele finished on one long, plaintive note and turned her face to the sky, spreading her arms. The stage lit up white and she arched. The entire orchestra crashed in, the choir with it, bass to soprano.

Zach flung himself forward and braced on the railing, grunting as Bruce pounded him. Two minutes. Semele wailed and writhed. The chorus screamed with her. Zach felt Bruce jerk hard.

Zach came in Bruce's hand as the thunder crashed over and over. Semele collapsed to the stage, limbs splayed out wildly.

After that, Zach didn't put much effort into following the epilogue. He cleaned up with shaking hands. Bruce helped him straighten his clothes. Semele's family was terribly sad about how things had worked out.

On the bright side, apparently Semele's divine fuck had birthed Bacchus, god of wine and partying, so the Jazz Age chorus threw a big wedding finale for Ino and her groom from the first act. Everyone made out again to catch any stragglers in the boxes who hadn't nailed their timing. Curtain.

Bruce dragged Zach to his feet for the standing ovation, leaning out over the railing so everyone could see each other, which was, of course, an important part of the tradition. Everyone cheered for Semele, who led the applause for the orchestra, then saluted the boxes, left and right, before holding for the last general applause as the house lights came up.

Zach collapsed back to the couch. "Straight home?"

"Sure." Bruce kissed him.

"You're making breakfast."

"You got it."

Chapter Text

"You remember there were a few people I wouldn't say no to?" Bruce sounded casual.

Zach was learning the little edge of Bruce-ness that meant he was trying to play it cool. He finished his bite of toast. "Someone's in town?"

"Probably. Not officially yet, but I know her pattern."

"So... a Batman someone or a Bruce someone?"

Bruce paused. "Both." He chuckled, looking down at his plate. "It's a little complicated."

"She knows?"

"I'm not actually sure. But I know."

"Okay, that's more complicated than I expected. She's, what, cheating on you with yourself?"

Bruce gnawed on his lip. "It's not breaking a confidence because she's never told me," he eventually said. "Here, one second."

He grabbed his laptop and typed a few commands, then let Zach look over his shoulder. He saw a poised woman with dark hair, pale eyes, and old money written all over her, very Audrey Hepburn. She looked like exactly the kind of clothes horse Bruce Wayne was supposed to have settled down with. "Society girl. Did Batman sweep her off her feet?"

"Hardly. She and Bruce have made time now and then, both too shallow to take it seriously." He tapped a key. "She, on the other hand, takes me very seriously."

"Catwoman." Zach sat down, staring. "You're fucking Catwoman. Or is it, uh. I shouldn't make assumptions."

"That too. We do legitimately try to stop each other. But we don't try as hard as we really could." Bruce smiled at the photo.

"And the one she thinks she's fucking?"

"Still Batman."

"Huh."

"She doesn't hurt people, and she's never tried to kill me." He sounded fond, like it was an adorable quirk.

"That seems like a good minimum standard. Can we make that a rule? No fucking anyone who's tried to kill us."

"I reserve the right to discuss it if mind control was in play."

"... Sure." Zach couldn't look away. She smiled straight at what had to have been a security camera, a gaudy necklace dangling from her teeth. "There are some women in this town who have made a fortune copying that outfit."

"I'm sure she wishes them well. The society girl's a front. She's done a lot of things to survive."

He squeezed B's hand. "And survivors stick together?"

They looked at each other. "I suppose that's part of it. I confess, I am not immune to the outfit."

"I'm not immune to the outfit. I'm pretty sure corpses aren't immune to the outfit."


Bruce landed on the next rooftop, breathing hard. Damn, he'd lost her again. Left, right, or hiding behind the access stairs bulkhead? He lightened his step, opened his mouth to breathe silently, and ran around the bulkhead at speed.

Selina dropped onto his back, clinging like a spider. He flipped, trying to land on her, knowing she would leap clear. When he hit the deck, she landed on his chest, knees tight around his rib cage. He had an angle to get out, but he didn't use it yet.

"You're getting slow," she said. "Is the new boy cutting into your training time?"

Bruce froze.

She arched an eyebrow at him. "How stupid do you think I am? I thought we were just being polite to each other. Prrrrofessional courtesy."

She only did the kitten voice when she was gloating or angry, and he could rarely tell which. Or acting for an audience, but it was just the two of them and the howling wind.

He twisted and grappled, getting a joint lock on her shoulder and pinning her with her cheek to the roof. She tried to use the opening he'd left to kick out, and he locked her knee as well. He kissed the corner of her perfect mouth.

She hissed. "Have you even told him?" Her mouth curled up in a nasty grin. "How does he think his pretty playboy got all those scars?"

She flicked out her fingers with a mechanical snkt. Bruce raised his body rather than waste good armor on the game. She slipped away again, out of reach.

He rolled as fast as he could, but the whip landed around his neck before he reached his feet, two whistling wraps and a deafening crack at the end that would leave a slice on the cowl. He rocked on his heels, finding his balance. "He knows."

"You've let him think you trust him with everything, haven't you. You'll come home covered in bruises as usual and blame it on the naughty kitty, and he'll kiss it better." Her grin went wicked, flirtatious. "He thinks he really knows you."

Bruce tapped his ear comm, clicked his tongue dah-dah-di-dit, and flicked a switch on his belt. After a few seconds, Zach's voice rang out across the rooftop.

"Hey, what's up?" He sounded a little distracted.

"Catwoman can hear you."

"Uh. Hi."

"Hello," she purred. "I have my whip wrapped around your handsome boyfriend's thrrroat right now. He likes it."

"Tell her the last thing you told me," Bruce said.

Pause. Zach's voice got the hard bravado edge that always made Bruce marvel at his courage, dealing with the latest madness dragged to his doorstep. "I said you should send him home in the morning with scratches on his back."

"Emphasis on 'send him home.'" She tugged harder on the whip. Bruce planted his weight and didn't let her move him. Yet.

"Well, yeah."

Bruce gave her a feral smile.

"You boys are no fun at alllll."

"You crazy kids play safe now," Zach said. Bruce could hear his grin. "I will see you in the morning."

"Yes, you will," Bruce said, and hung up.

Chapter Text

"Oh, goodness." Jaani looked at Zach with wide eyes. "That's a big question."

"Yeah." Zach looked out at the expanse of the estate, all the leaves turning gold and orange. He stuck his hands in his pockets and started off down the loop path for the scenery tour. "Which is why I'm having this conversation with everyone I know before you're on the spot with my slightly intense boyfriend who doesn't get how intimidating he is when he reaches for his checkbook."

"I think he gets it," Monique said. "I think he gets off on it."

"Mmm, 50/50," Zach said. "He really tries not to be a dick when it's friends and family."

"It's just such a big... checkbook," Qi said.

They all snorted with laughter.

"He gets frustrated when people worry about asking for too much. People are afraid of looking greedy by asking for a car or nice jewelry, and from where he's standing, those are, like, party favors. Unless you tell him not to, you're each getting a gift certificate good for one house for Christmas. A house. Just... baseline."

After a moment of quiet, Jaani said, "Right. Adjusting my expectations."

"Dream big, he says." He shared a glance with Monique, who had gotten a more in-depth philanthropy version of this talk over family dinner at her crowded kitchen table. She apparently had something in the works.

"It doesn't have to be stuff, either. You want to take a year off to go scuba diving or party with Beyoncé or get a dessert named after you or, I don't know, put out a cyber-hit on the servers of a few white supremacy discussion boards... Whoops, did I say that one out loud?"

"Zach. Did you—"

"Yes. Yes, I did. It was incredibly satisfying. And I was a good boy and only picked ones that were doing illegal shit and should have been shut down years ago anyway. So what I'm saying is, yeah, obviously make a list of charities that you would like to see struggle with the question 'What do we do with all this money,' but... think of things for yourself, too. Dream big, dream weird. What do you want to be doing with your life?"

"Huh," Qi said. They paused to watch a flock of geese startle and take off from the lake.

"When he was still closeted, I was afraid to use his influence. Not because of outing him, just, it felt gross to cheat on stuff like getting hired. And it still does, but I can't opt out at this point, any more than I could opt out of all the other biases I already had going for me. But I have no hesitation at all about using the recommendation crowbar for you and yours, especially for the weird shit that's always down to personal networking. Like getting gallery shows." He looked at Jaani, who looked away.

"This is not a one-time offer, right?" she said.

"Right."

"Because I want things, I want a lot of things, I want to design dresses that look like buildings and buildings that look like dresses and do a collab with Yoko Ono or some shit, but there is a lot of work between here and there."

"We have time."


"Come on in! Ellie. So good to meet you." Bruce shook Ellie Prendergast's hand. Smooth and professional, monochrome wardrobe, kept her name when she married, dual UK citizenship. Advertising, athletic but only solo or couple sports. Credit slightly overextended, weakness for status symbols.

"And John." He turned to John Cole, lifelong Londoner, Afro-Caribbean, lived in suits and ties, same height and slim build as Ellie. Firm, slightly competitive handshake; Bruce returned in kind, then let him win. Insurance, marathon runner, police and medical parents. Separate and more tightly managed finances. "Glad you could make it."

"As if we'd turn down the chance." John wasn't letting himself stare at the house yet; he had practice at projecting comfort around wealth. Ellie happily craned her neck, as unselfconscious as Zach.

"Plenty of chances ahead of us. Christmas at the very least."

"Skipping security and napping in a private jet makes eight hour flights actually bearable," Ellie said. "Definitely Christmas."

"This way. The rest of the family's already settled in."

After a brief stop at their guest suite, they went to what Zach had designated the chill living room, light on priceless breakables and heavy on comfortable sofas. Bruce needed to redefine the secondary perimeter for Zach's much larger circle of houseguests, so they could reach the amenities without access to the residential core. Maybe after patrol; it was already costing him sleep.

Everyone hugged each other in all possible permutations, which would be repeated with Bruce added to the rounds when the party broke for the evening. Alfred was already included, to his bemusement. Watching two presumed-straight Englishmen negotiate a hug on first meeting was funnier than Bruce would like to admit.

Alfred had made tiropita, which Bruce would not let himself start thinking of as "cheesy-crack," no matter how many times Zach said it. Bruce couldn't have any until he was done handing out paper that shouldn't get greasy. He grabbed his lime and soda, though.

"So!" Zach said. "House tour for Ellie and John, or presents first?"

"I'm guessing the house tour'll take an hour, and those smell like cheese heaven," Ellie said. "Plus, Nat's gotta be dying by now."

"Please, yes." Nat had mixed herself an electric blue drink. The cautious dress shirt and slacks of yesterday had been discarded in favor of jeans, orange plaid flannel, and a Pirate Commandos t-shirt.

Bruce smiled. "Least personal part first." He grabbed the stack of black folders and handed them around. "The 'Don't worry about it' kit."

He gave them a moment. They all sat staring at the seven digits on the first page, not flipping through yet. "Don't worry about it. Whatever you were afraid of asking for, it'll be fine. There's more where that came from if you find yourself with expensive tastes. The tricky part, as lottery winners will tell you, is managing the life that comes with it. Next page is phone numbers."

They flipped obediently. Most of them started nodding.

"Accountants, advisors, legal, security arrangements, fix-it hotline. We'll get you all set up with secure electronics before you go. There'll be a lot of details to work out. The family has a shared personal assistant already on-staff to help you through it."

Ellie flipped to the final page of the folder she shared with John. "Uh. I thought Zach was kidding. Or only meant domestic. Do you know how much a house in central London costs?"

"No idea," Bruce said cheerfully. "But the local office says they've picked out some nice options, if you like any of those. Or go looking around for yourself, I hear that's the fun part."

"Wow. Just, wow." Nat closed her folder and drank more electric blue. "Thank you."

After the chorus of thanks, Zach said, "I'll play elf for the rest of it, you load up on cheesy-crack."

Bruce sat next to Alfred and piled three tiropita onto a plate. Zach picked up the envelopes. "Age order or rock paper scissors?"

Ellie said, "I think we're all a little old for—"

"Age order!" Nat said.

"I stand corrected."

Nat opened her first envelope. "Next year's 30-day vehicle permits for Denali National Park, for me and... ninety-nine of my closest friends? Is that a typo?"

"It is not," Bruce said around a bite of cheesy-crack.

"It pissed you off that they were auctioned," Zach said.

"Yeah, but... all of them?"

"Half of them," Bruce said. "And another quarter in a lottery open to legitimate researchers and members of local tribes only. If you run out of people to invite, you can throw the rest into the lottery. That just leaves fifty shiftless millionaires to stomp all over the permafrost. And oh, did they pay for it."

"Damn. That is a lot of parks department income. Thank you."

"Very welcome. Now, I can't do that every year. After this little stunt, the price will be through the roof for a decade. But I can at least get you and a small research crew in, if you decide to keep working in that direction."

"And if they're paying that much more, maybe they'll be more careful."

"We can hope." Bruce had observed too much wealthy behavior to share that hope, but optimism was its own gift. "Oh, one more attached to that." Bruce pulled a box from under his armchair.

She opened it. "A satphone? You really shouldn't have. Did Mom put you up to this?"

"Nope," Zach said.

She hefted it in her hand. "It's lighter, at least."

"It's still in development, not public yet," Bruce said. "Half the weight, twice the battery life, and it runs on a different satellite network. Should be good all the way to the pole. We need someone to test it in actual working conditions, see if the network can deliver reliable streaming bandwidth." And they needed the tester to be low profile, in case the user base stayed in the single digits.

"Streaming."

"Sure. For transmitting video or test data home, near real-time."

"Or bingeing Princess Tutu above the Arctic Circle," Zach said cheerfully. "For science. Obviously. It's your responsibility to Wayne Enterprises to generate test data."

Nat grinned and held the phone more possessively. "Well. For science, then."

Kim shot Bruce a grateful look, which he returned with sympathy. Zach handed an envelope to Ellie.

"Excuse you," John said. "I'm three months younger."

"Ooh, too bad so sad, no take-backs," Ellie said, tearing it open. "All-access pass for two to the West End. Does... the West End even work that way?"

"It does for you. Try to ask a couple weeks in advance if you want opening nights or sold-out shows, especially cast access. It saves the fixer headaches."

"I... will do that. Thank you."

"You were trickier to shop for, not as much history yet," Bruce said as Zach handed John his envelope. "This is just for a start until you make a wish list."

John pulled out the three business cards.

"My tailor in London, and a cobbler he recommended. You're on my account with both. Sorry, I can't vouch for the cobbler personally, never stayed in town long enough to need new shoes." Boots, yes, but not for day use. "And a local fashion advisor in case those don't work out for you. Fill your closet. I hear Ellie's likely to be shopping designer."

"Oh, I very am," she said.

John gave Bruce a sharp, wary grin. "I'll have no trouble with that. Thank you."

"Send pictures," Zach said.

Ellie whapped his knee with her folder. "The no poaching rule is still in effect."

John leaned back and preened a little. "With how fine I'll look, plenty to go around, El."

"Amen," Nat said. Ellie glared, but without venom.

"Kim's up," Bruce said. He waited until she had her hand in the envelope. "The number of my personal travel agent. I don't leave town much, she gets bored. Worked up some sample itineraries to get you started." Zach had devoted three hours of discussion to choosing the locations.

After a long pause while she read the list, Kim nodded and handed it around. "Yes, that should keep me busy." She laughed with a slight edge of hysteria. "Good thing I'm offloading the gallery management."

She needed grounding. "You give any thought to the arts council yet?"

"Hoo." She settled. "Next year, maybe. Apparently I will be spending too much of this year in Hong Kong and Prague."

Everyone took a moment with snacks. Zach said, "Anyone want a refill before round two?"

"There's a round two," Ellie and Nat said in unison. Kim and John had the self-control to just stare at him instead.

"Well, no second round for John, yet," Bruce said apologetically. "Get me that wish list, runners are hard to shop for. So minimalist."

"Perhaps the house tour first," Alfred said. "As a palate cleanser between courses." Everyone nodded, relieved.

When they settled down with stuffed mushrooms and more envelopes, Nat started first again. She looked at the map of Alaska with the approximately cape-shaped highlighted section, her forehead crinkling in confusion. "A trip to Tongass National Forest?"

"Ah, no, that part of it’s not public land anymore. The government's been selling a bunch of it off lately. The more you buy at once, the less it costs, which seems backwards for a limited resource, but that's bulk pricing for you. I got a hell of a deal on a hundred thousand acres."

"A..." She stared at him.

"You just have to decide whether the donation to the Nature Conservancy is in your name or anonymous."

She touched the blotch on the map. "That's the whole South Etolin Wilderness Area. There are mosses on those islands they haven't identified anywhere else."

"You don't say."

She glanced between him and Zach. "You showed him my senior project?"

"Neat stuff. That new sphagnum species you found looked interesting. We only get plain old silver moss and cord moss around here." The latter of which was a slippery death trap on wet nights.

Everyone was looking at him in amazement type three, unexpected knowledge. Damn. He thought people knew about plants. He'd even used the common names.

"Spoilers," Zach said, "I am dating a giant nerd." He handed an envelope to Ellie.

She studied the photo of the bay horse. "Rule the World," she read out loud. "2016 Grand National steeplechase champion, retired."

"You always wished you could have kept up the riding lessons," Zach said.

"Lessons and logistics included, obviously," Bruce said. "He'll get plenty of attention even if you're busy. And the stable has plenty of loaners available if it turns out to be a couple's activity."

"He's beautiful," Ellie said softly. "Thank you." She handed the photo around for the others to admire.

"Oh, just so you know, the stable has security requirements on permanent clients. Guests will be frisked, I'm afraid. I've already put in for both your background checks, though."

"You mean royals," John said abruptly. "You've bought her a stall at the stable where they keep the bloody coach horses."

"Maybe? I think they keep those somewhere else. But their London riding horses, yeah."

"I would like my own horse, please." John's smile gleamed fierce.

"Done. Maybe try out a few, see what style you like?"

"I look forward to finding out."

When everyone had finished admiring Rule the World, Zach handed his last envelope to Kim. "This one was my idea."

Kim looked at the photo of a castle, mystified.

"It's a bit of a fixer-upper, sorry," Bruce said. "None of the really good castles were up for sale at the moment. Great location, though."

"You're shitting me." Nat craned her neck.

"I'm, ah." Kim was trying hard to be polite.

"Do you like it? I picked it myself," Zach said. She had to know him well enough to recognize the angelic tone of voice, but apparently was in too much shock to catch it.

"It's, uh. I appreciate the thought, Zappy, but I'm not sure what I'm supposed to do with a castle. I mean, especially if I'm in Hong Kong."

"Play fairy princess? I could throw in a tiara." Bruce had extensive practice at controlling his expression, but this was taxing it.

"I think that's quite enough, boys," Alfred said firmly.

Zach sighed. "Finnnnnnne. No, we didn't get you a castle."

"Oh, thank god." Kim closed her eyes in relief. Everyone burst out laughing, including her. She laughed herself breathless, shaking her head. "Brats. You're both brats."

"I blame myself," Alfred said. "I apologize for his lax upbringing."

"Hey, I raised that one." She flapped the castle at Zach, still giggling.

Eventually, they relaxed into an easier, if slightly giddy, quiet. Bruce pulled the last envelope from his inner coat pocket and handed it over. "Not a joke," he said quietly.

Kim covered her mouth with one hand. She didn't say anything. Nat leaned over to look and fell silent as well. Ellie finally lost patience and went to look over her shoulder. "Oh." She beckoned John over.

When John had clustered around as well, Zach finally said, "You always said it didn't look the same in prints."

Kim wiped the tears from her face silently, still looking at Jan Toorop's Broek in Waterland.

"I already reached out to St. Louis Art Museum," Bruce said. "They have the infrastructure to show it safely for you. You can visit it as often as you want."

Zach sat on the couch and put an arm around her. She gestured for Bruce as well, clumsily pushing at Nat to ask her to move.

"Uh oh, I've been replaced," Nat said, getting up. "I see how it is."

"Find her a Van Gogh and we'll get you back in as a weird aunt or something," Ellie said.

"No one get me a Van Gogh," Kim said as Bruce sat down for an extremely damp and clinging hug. "Clear, Bruce? This is the one. This... This is the one."

Bruce put a hand on her hair. She leaned on him, sniffling. Zach's hand brushed his ribs as they folded her in tightly. "Clear. I'm glad you like it."


"Are you sure?" Zach asked.

Qi kept looking at his soup. "I'm sure."

"Because you get that we can do basically anything you can dream up."

"Yes. I dream up being an architect who doesn't get phone calls from reporters. And no one gets to touch my mail before I do. I have a nice quiet rescue cat, and a nice quiet apartment as good as your old place. I come to dinner sometimes at your giant house, even when I move back to Metropolis. And a pile of money, I know money instead of presents is rude for you, but—"

"It's fine," Bruce said. "A pile of money is an excellent present."

"Cool. Good. And I appreciate the charity stuff. But I don't want to be an advocate for it. I don't want people arguing about how good a job I'm doing at being autistic, or yelling more racist shit at my parents than they get already. I want to be an architect, and I want to argue about Oscar nominees on the Internet. Anonymously."

"You got it," Zach said. "That is a super easy list. Thanks for being clear about it... and not letting us run over you."

"It's a bad habit," Bruce agreed. "One of my other bad habits, which I don't intend to break, is cheating on technicalities like movie release dates."

Qi paused with his spoon halfway to his mouth. "What did you get?"

"Masks by Moonlight."

Zach almost inhaled his soup. "You didn't."

"Tell me you weren't planning on watching it."

Qi smiled with his whole face. "It's gonna be so ridiculous. I'm amazed it got made. I was afraid Batman would punch people until they stopped production or something."

"Well, I would hope he has higher priorities than that," Bruce said. "And they did file off the serial numbers, at least."

"Barely. Booster Gold sued over a lot less," Qi said. "And if Catwoman had an objection, someone might have lost an eye. Cat Burglar's double life is supposed to be his secretary."

Bruce froze for a moment. "I hadn't heard that part."

"That does seem like a more serious risk," Zach said.

After dinner, when Bruce had gotten a convenient text and excused himself from the theater, Zach and Qi watched the professional popcorn machine run in companionable quiet.

"Does he actually have work, or does he not like movies?"

"A little of both. I mean, he enjoys some movies or he wouldn't maintain the theater, but they're not a regular thing. But he also actually has work to get done."

"He works very weird hours for a CEO."

"Probably. I don't actually know enough CEO's to compare. But he likes it this way." Zach shrugged. "Oh, hey, Alfred! Are you joining us?"

"If it wouldn't impose. I have been looking forward to this one." Alfred had dressed down to Butler Off-Hours Casual, slacks and a button-up with no tie.

"You want butter, double butter, or drowning in butter? Because after you take some, we're going with drowning."

"I believe I'll join you in that as well. Given one's choice of fates, one could do worse than an overabundance of butter."


"I mean, I don't hate him," Zach said. His body language across the table was unusually distant, particularly for a conversation he had started. Minimum movement, no eye contact. "I was four, I didn't know him well enough to hate him. Mom said he was mostly just... a total mess who didn't get how boundaries worked? And once she got the court order, he got out and stayed out, which, low bar, but a lot of people flunk that one. And he hasn't tried to get in touch yet, unless you've blocked it."

"I haven't," Bruce said. He would have, but he hadn't.

"I know he was bad with money. I don't... I don't really want to know? Or give him any impression that I'm getting back in touch? Or ever see or think about him again, really. If he's made anyone else's life hell, I'd like them bailed out for sure. But if he hasn't been too bad... I dunno."

"Do you trust my judgment?"

"Yes."

Bruce nodded. "Consider it handled."


Bruce reclined in his chair and watched the center screen, where the camera in his courier's car was trained on a living room window.

"Mr. Miller? Hi. Bruce Wayne."

Mr. Miller, to his credit, didn't drop his phone. Bruce tried not to enjoy watching him sweat. The power differential was hardly fair.

"I was just calling to thank you for giving Zach his space. I could imagine that being difficult. Yeah. Yeah, exactly. Well, no. He's not interested in changing that. But I took the liberty of doing a background check; it looks like you've turned things around. If he ever asks, I'd like to be able to tell him you're doing all right."

When the doorbell rang, he did almost drop his phone.

"Is that the door? Go ahead and get that. It'll be my courier. I'll wait."

He handled the large flat envelope like it was a live snake.

"I made an educated guess from your credit report. That check should cover everything outstanding, including the house. And if you mail back the form with your bank routing info and an estimate of house expenses, you know, property tax, utilities, calling the plumber, that stuff, I will happily keep sending you that amount indefinitely."

Bruce let him get some thank-yous out. It always set people at ease to have a chance to follow the social scripts.

"No problem. Consider it my thanks for continuing to respect Zach's wishes, and an appreciation for the fact that you seem to have a handle on the relationship issues. I know behavioral change can be a bear. Good luck, Mr. Miller. Looking forward to getting that form back. Yeah. Good night."


"This is awe-some!" clap clap cla-cla-clap "This is awe-some!" clap clap cla-cla-clap

Zach chanted at the top of his lungs. He didn't wave his arms or clap, but only because he had a cocktail in one hand and a hot dog in the other. Jaani had already finished hers and was almost hitting him in the head with her elbow. Spence was splitting the difference.

In the ring, Wolfman picked up Y2 Kate and threw her to the ground. The Millennial Kid ran around ineffectually, his short cape flapping, as he shouted something about vengeance. Jane Jackal snuck up behind him and hit him with a chair; the ref conveniently had his back turned, counting down Y2 Kate, who kipped up at the last second and slammed her whole weight into Wolfman, making him stumble backwards against the ropes, so close that Zach could see the sweat spray.

The crowd dropped all its chants to roar with approval. Sybil bellowed from behind him; she had opera training and wasn't afraid to use it.

Millennial Kid elbowed Jackal in the face and staggered for the ladder while she was clutching her head. His hand got within a foot of the belts before she dragged him down by the leg.

"Booooooooo," everyone roared. The New Age were objectively more awesome and needed to recover the title from Primal Force. As it was a pay-per-view broadcast, their odds were good.

Jaani leaned over to shout in Zach's ear. "Mick says he's up next." She was almost vibrating with excitement. She'd insisted on swapping seats with Spence when they learned that wrestling legend Mick Foley would take the seat Bruce stubbornly refused to fill, no matter how the promoters begged or bargained.

They'd even offered to reciprocate with charity appearances, which might have hooked him if a full stadium didn't mean the strong possibility of a work night. Too hard to sneak out from the front row. Zach glanced up at the dark rafters, as if Batman would let himself be seen.

Cameras crawled around the ring from every angle. Their little gang splashed onto the big screens again. Jaani's dark skin, bright jewelry, and vivid purple dress were a sharp contrast to Mick's pallid face over the improbable tie and plaid flannel combination. Sybil's society ladies waved signs in much fancier handwriting than usual. Lance had leaned forward to squeeze Spence's shoulder and talk in his ear.

Zach sat surrounded by his family, chanting, "Go, go, go!" until Y2 Kate reached the top of the ladder and grabbed the belts. "Woooooooo!"

The New Age posed in their belts while Primal Force jeered and slunk off, then they cleared the ring to make way for the next match. When Queen Astara and Glory had taken the mics and started posturing at each other, Mick jumped up, climbed the nearest stairs into the ring, and told them off, lecturing them about the importance of fair play and respect. The lecture turned into a hilarious three-way shouting match.

A hulking shape fell from the ceiling, barely controlling its fall to land on all fours. Humanoid, probably male, too distorted and bulked up to be unaugmented. The medical-looking tubes sprouting from his shoulders were another hint. He was dressed for the event in a black and white luchador mask. The whole ring shook and creaked with the impact. The wrestlers scattered and got the fuck out of the way.

Batman came down after him, body straight, cape fluttering, and landed on his back hard with both heels, which the guy shook off. What the fuck. No one should have shaken that off. The crowd whooped and booed, unsure how to respond yet.

While the giant was getting to his feet, Batman leapt onto his back, got an arm around his neck, and started choking him out. He tucked his head down and wrapped his legs around the luchador's waist to stay protected as huge hands scrabbled at him.

This was clearer territory. Everyone cheered. "Batman! Batman!"

Zach watched, frozen. It wasn't working. The guy should have slowed down by now.

They flipped over hard, not a controlled roll but a full standing flip. Batman landed on his back with the giant's full weight on him. The giant got up. Batman didn't. His hands were slack, his head listing to the side. The crowd went silent. Zach couldn't breathe.

The luchador slammed his fist down on Batman's face... and hit the mat instead. Batman dodged, slid, and kneecapped the guy with a fucking batarang. The luchador screamed. The crowd roared.

Batman tried for an Achilles tendon, but the luchador got away, hopped over the ropes, and loped off down the ramp, trailing blood. Batman raced after him, close behind.

"FIGHT FOR-EH-VER!" It started further back, but rippled out through the whole stadium instantly. Zach shouted his heart out, dropping his drink to pump both fists in the air.

The two of them sprinted all the way out of the stadium, ripping the doors off as they left, the chant still rocking the room.

Mick Foley recovered first and shouted into his mic. "Good luck, Batman!"

"Oh, sure!" Glory hollered. "It's fine when he does it! So much for fair play!" Astara hit her in the back with a chair, and the show went on.

After that match, Zach excused himself to go get a refill. He hid in a bathroom stall, shaking, waiting for the text.


B: Safe. He got away, though.
Zach: Thank you. 💚 You'll get him on the rematch.

Chapter Text

"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."

"Cool."

"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."

"Mmmph."


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.

"Bruce?"

"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."

Chapter Text

Bruce sat frowning at a tablet. He hadn't moved in at least a minute, except for his eyebrows drawing closer and closer together. Zach could almost see a cartoon storm cloud brewing over his head. Time to snap him out of it. He gave the hand sign for, "Hey, I could listen if you want to tell me." He had to wave his hand before it registered.

He expected an abrupt head-shake, but after a long pause, Bruce silently handed over the tablet.

Ah. Zach had skipped past this story because it wasn't politics, local crime, or the arts section. He didn't like tragedy muckraking. Bruce wallowed in the stuff.

There had been a circus accident. Christ, they'd talked about going to this show. Two deaths, one serious injury... A family act. The surviving son was a few years older than Bruce had been, but his face in the press photo looked terribly young for fourteen. The article put it down to equipment failure and safety violations.

"You're thinking sabotage?"

"Three separate interlocking failure points. The timing fits together too well." Bruce's voice slipped down toward a bass growl.

"And one survivor." Zach wanted to hug him, but Batman got jumpy when he was upset.

"I did a little checking already." Of course he did. "No extended family. He has no one."

Zach waited.

"I want to help him and I can't." That was B's raw honesty. It hurt just to hear it.

"Why not?"

"Because of choices we've made. Which I do not regret." He looked at Zach, apparently expecting that to explain everything. When it didn't, he sighed in exasperation. "Here's the headline: Playboy Bruce Wayne and gay lover 'adopt' teen boy."

"Uh. No, that's definitely not workable." Zach gave it another second to see if he could make sense of it, but he couldn't. "Why do you want to adopt him? I mean, the foster system has problems, but you could—"

"He doesn't need a foster family," Batman snapped. "He needs justice. He needs power. I could train him."

Zach nodded very slowly. He could not fuck this up. If he couldn't talk Batman down from this...

"You know I respect how you took control of your life. It works for you and it's saved a lot of lives." He pressed on despite the death glare. "I would never try to change you." He left a space, but Batman didn't fill it. "Would you consider handling the justice part yourself?"

"You think I haven't thought of that?"

Zach held still and did not flinch. Shouting was still talking. He waited.

"I could find the trigger man in two nights, enough evidence to make it stick in three. But whoever did this was expensive. Tearing it out by the roots will take time, and in the meantime they want him dead. I need him here."

"So step one is keeping him somewhere safe." That got a tight nod. "How expensive are we talking? Could they buy the police?"

"A kid with a lemonade stand could buy the police. All it takes is one weak point that knows the location of the 'safe house'." Scorn dripped from the last words.

"You have better safe houses. You could burn one. Are there any cops you trust not to go digging?"

"A few," Batman said. The wheels were turning, thank god. "And I have a rat trap where I pay the rent in cash. Minimum exposure is three, the commissioner and two to take shifts. If I work fast, they might be able to cover it long enough."

"You'll work night and day. I know you."

Batman took a deep breath and let it out, closing his eyes and clenching a fist. Zach waited.

"You think I'm insane."

Zach put his hand on the table, palm up beside the fist. "I think you could hurt a kid without meaning to, and I'm terrified."

"He's already been hurt."

"Yes, he has."

B opened his eyes, agonized. "I can't watch him get lost in the system."

"If you're watching, he won't be lost. And... big picture, if it's that hard to find good placements, this looks like a job for a loudmouth billionaire orphan with lobbying power. You know the only difference is you got lucky. No one will blink if you pick up this cause. It's a good one."

Finally, finally, B took his hand. They sat silently, long enough for it to get boring. Zach was deeply grateful for boring.

"I have one other suggestion, which you might not like."

"Yes?"

Zach took a breath. "A Wayne Foundation program to fund youth trauma therapy."

This silence was much less boring.

"Zach. Do you have any idea how many of the people trying to kill me are licensed psychiatrists?"

Chapter Text

YouTube video: THIS IS NOT MY WALL

A murky, smoke-stained underpass wall in Gotham City. Caption reads "107th and Mason, 10/06/2020". The caption disappears as a bright floodlight illuminates the wall. The wall is heavily layered with overlapping gray anti-graffiti paint. A reflective sign high on the wall reads, "ATTENTION: AREA UNDER GCPD VIDEO SURVEILLANCE." Traffic noise fades out to silence.

Zach Prendergast walks into frame wearing a heavy coat, sneakers, and jeans. He waves at the camera. He hauls a ladder, cans of paint, and a roller into frame, then takes off his coat. When he turns to climb the ladder, the back of his long-sleeved shirt reads, "ROMANI ITE DOMUM."

He begins to paint in gold.

A time stamp appears in the corner, reading 8:30pm. The video switches to time-lapse, time scrolling by at two minutes per second. The wall jerkily fills up with writing. Zach trots back and forth several times for more paint, his clothes and skin increasingly covered in gold.

Cars flicker past. Other people come into frame now and then to watch or wave at the camera, their faces blurred out. At 9:42, two uniformed police officers stop at the bottom of the ladder to speak with him; the time-lapse slows down to show the conversation in more detail, and their faces are not blurred.

At 10:36, Zach finishes and stands back to survey his work, hands on his hips. The wall reads, "THIS IS NOT MY WALL" in three foot high letters; he has applied at least two layers of paint.

He holds up a white sign. In block black capitals, it says, "YES, IT'S GOLD. REMEMBER YOU ARE ON CAMERA." He places it at the foot of the ladder next to the stack of glistening paint cans. Then he flashes a peace sign at the camera and walks away. He does not reappear.

The time lapse speeds up again. By 10:40, the coat and all the paint cans have been taken by flickering figures with scarves wrapped around their faces.

By 10:50, after less successful attempts with a crowbar, someone realizes that there are chisels chained to the ladder at different heights and the stripping of the paint begins in earnest.

Figures buzz in and out. Occasionally someone in a trenchcoat walks closer to the camera; their performance is grayed out until they go away, but they are not chased off unless they obscure the wall.

By 02:18, only trace glimmers of gold are left on the wall. The video slows down to show the final result. Traffic noise returns as someone runs away with the ladder. The floodlight moves to a side angle to show the depth of the pockmarks. "THIS IS NOT MY WALL" is gouged permanently into the surface of the underpass.

Fade to black.

 

Poster: Zach Prendergast
Video Description: Suck it, Banksy ✌️
1,413,612 views


Monique pursed her lips and raised her eyebrows at him. "Which demonstrates what that we didn't already know?"

Zach grinned. "A friend of mine told me about this thing called the selective enforcement defense."


"Ray! Thanks for seeing me on such short notice." Bruce shook Raymond Underhill's hand, then collapsed into the cheap visitor's chair in the fire chief's office. "I know you must have a lot of fires to put out."

Underhill smiled. "That's a good one, Mr. Wayne, never heard that one before."

"Bruce, please! We've known each other a long time for you to still be calling me Mr. Wayne."

"How can I help you, Bruce?"

"I'm a little worried about some of my new investments in the Narrows and the Bowery. Buying some real estate there, and the risks team says average response time can be as long as 45 minutes. 45 minutes, can you believe it? Whole blocks go up, it makes 'em nervous." Bruce shook his head.

Underhill's smile went fixed. Failing to deliver on the bribes he was accepting for both improved and conveniently delayed response times would put him in a difficult position.

"I wanted to make sure you've got everything you need. If there aren't enough trucks, I'm happy to up my donation. But I wondered if it was a roads problem or something. Is it hard to get the big trucks in on those roads? They're pretty crunchy. I can have a talk with Transportation, make it clear this is a priority for you."

"It's not the roads," Underhill said quickly. "We do get service bottlenecks, it's a hard problem when there are multiple priorities. More trucks would definitely help, and more staff, if you were feeling generous."

Bruce laughed. "I'm always feeling generous. Just want to make sure it gets where it's needed. Love to see the improved response time in the hot spots. We could use it for promotions when we pull in other donors. Before and after numbers on the neighborhood stations, that kind of thing. Sound good?"

"Absolutely, Bruce." Underhill gripped his pen tightly. "We'll get some numbers together right away. I'll send you an estimate on how much would be helpful."

"Great, looking forward to it. And I'll talk to the roads people anyway, now that I'm thinking about it. Those potholes are hard on the shocks, and you know how low Jags ride, right? But I won't mention you." Bruce grinned conspiratorially. "Thanks for the talk, get me those numbers. You have a great day, Ray."


Zach flipped idly through the list of WE holdings. "Oh, snap, I forgot you own GCBN. Bubbly? You have a soaps channel."

"Bubbly and La Champaña, yeah." Bruce didn't look up from whatever he was working on, but pressed his arm harder against Zach's ankle in lieu of paying attention. "I hear they're almost as good as Clue TV."

"Almost. As if anything could replace true crime in your heart."

Bruce smiled, but didn't rise to the bait.

"Hey, can I have a tv channel?"

Still nothing. "Sure. What do you want to put on it?"

"Dunno. Arts programming, maybe? Give indie filmmakers a platform where they actually get paid for their stuff. Maybe prioritize the freaky alt-sex stuff everyone's scared to touch, that'll keep people alarmed."

"Uh-huh." Either he was faking it or he was completely focused on a work problem.

"Or just a queer news channel. QNN, all queer news, all the time. No, The Gay Agenda. T.G.A... The Gay Agenda: Yes! T.G.A.Y. Pronounced 'teh-gay.'"

B paused. His hands stopped moving on the keyboard. Zach recognized the lack of motion as playing back the last minute of audio, so he waited. "Teh-gay."

"Yeah!" He had to go bigger. "The Gay Agenda: Yes! Yes, be gay. That's the agenda. Here's the recruiting packet, this channel. How to be gay, like, all the ways. Queer sitcoms. Queer news. Queer westerns. Queer cooking shows. Queers Of The World. I mean, you could find people who want to do a documentary on their community and run the series for a year, daily, without running out. Identity of the day."

Okay, this was sounding less and less like a joke. B had turned to watch him. It was unclear whether he was taking it seriously or just seeing how far Zach could run. Zach kept running.

"Queer history. Trans history. Gays of Yesteryear, films with big closeted actors. License all the old cartoons that people joke about the leads being a couple. Gay children's television for gays and their children and their gay children. Actual how-to reporting on how to stay safe and get hormones and shit. Gay wrestling appreciation hour. Reruns of Steven Universe and everything by the Wachowski Sisters forever."

Damn, he was running out of initial babble. He took a breath.

"Bundle it with your basic cable options and sell it cheap to everyone else. People will have to work really hard if they want to keep teh-gay out of their homes. And put all the factual stuff up on the web for free, so their kids'll still watch it on their phones or at the library."

Bruce nodded. "You want to run it?"

"Jesus, no. I want to poke blueprints for a living. Hmm, sorry, thinking. Okay. Hire people who'll follow through on some really aggressive minimum quotas, like only a quarter of the new stuff can just be gay dudes and at least three quarters has to have people of color leads in it. Leads, plural."

"Sure." Bruce started typing at speed, still looking at him.

"And they have to get an official exception if they hire any straight actors for queer roles. Or cis actors for trans roles. Trans representation quotas in general, someone other than me needs to set that bar. And... be hardass about representation in the behind the scenes hiring. All the way up. If the first person you hire to steer this thing has to be straight, their job is training a replacement." Zach kept thinking, but didn't come up with any more.

Bruce finished typing. "For maximum effect, they'll want us to headline a show for launch."

Oh, shit. "Uh. Yeah. We will definitely do that, then."

"Any thoughts on the genre?"

Zach gave him a shit-eating grin. "Reality show in the manor?"

"You're hilarious. No."

"Period drama. Velvet tailcoats."

"You just want a velvet tailcoat."

"No, I just want to see you in a velvet tailcoat. Ooh, ooh, period parody of a reality show. In a period parody of the manor. I can be a period parody of an urchin you dragged in off the street. They'll put a smudge of dirt on my face to show I've had a hard life."

Bruce opened and closed his mouth a couple of times. "We'll workshop it."

"Hey, how much does a Super Bowl commercial cost?"

"About the same as Ellie's house."

"So if we bought a bunch of them and made a running plot... I definitely want us to be in those."


Bruce surveyed the Diamond Mountain Gym with satisfaction. It was packed, which was partly Golden Apple Day but partly that he needed to open a fourth location. South end between the Bowery and El-Town, probably. Everyone focused on the Narrows, but the Bowery wasn't that much better off.

Zach stared around in awe and trepidation at the people scaling the walls like spiders. "I didn't expect so many kids."

"How do you think I get adults good enough to make decent camouflage?"

"Right, but so many."

"By not verifying permission slips, mostly." Bruce headed down toward the Wishing Fish kiddie zone. "One scribble for 'I accept the risks and give my child permission,' a second for 'Gym dues would be a financial hardship,' and they're in."

Zach watched the youngest climbers scrambling around on the low walls of the fishbowl, supervised by a mix of parents and staff. He struggled with it, then shook his head. "We cannot advise you to forge your absentee parent's signature," he said under his breath.

"Exactly." They walked around to the all-ages bouldering walls, where novices and older children carefully felt their way from grip to grip. "We do have safeguards. Under ten, they have to produce some adult to take a three-session safety course with them. Someone with judgment needs to know what they're doing. Until they're thirteen and have passed the basic certifications, they have to stay here on the Glass Hill, the low walls, and they can't belay."

"Belay?"

Bruce scaled his technical vocabulary back a step further. He pointed to the next wall, where a teenager on the mat had a younger climber on toprope, probably a sibling by the resemblance, both with harnesses correctly clipped to the rope. She wore a t-shirt with a chickadee on it, yet he didn't recognize either of them; he needed to visit more often. "She's a counterweight. She feeds the climber more line or takes up slack, and if the climber falls, she takes the weight before they can get very far."

Her attention and slack allowance above the brake were good, but her grip... He couldn't leave it. He stepped into her line of sight, careful not to get under anyone. "Choke up your right hand. You need more distance or you'll lose your thumb, if she comes down fast."

She nodded and corrected her grip, her face serious, never taking her eyes off her climber. Bruce stepped back. He definitely needed to visit more often.

They walked on, past the rest of the Glass Hill, then the Palace Garden for yoga and tumbling classes. Bruce brushed his arm against Zach's in reassurance. "Once they've passed the hill, though..." They turned the corner back to the main space. "Iron Mountain, Brass, Silver, Golden... and Diamond Mountain."

It looked high, even to him. The angles of the final overhang pitch were calculated to intimidate. He pointed up to the top, where the wall crested all the way over to become flat ceiling 20 meters up. "And today, the Golden Apple."

A climber carefully, carefully found holds along the ceiling and swatted the frosted plexiglass apple to make it swing. It glowed blue. A sound like tinkling bells rang through the room. A few people whooped, but the climber swore. "Falling," he called, and dropped back to the lower wall for the descent.

Zach flinched. Bruce put a hand on his back; he leaned into it. "Not great with heights, that's all."

"I know. It's a lot safer than it looks." He eyed the next climber. "Hm. He won't make it either. I can't cut in until after someone else has made it."

"How did he not make it? He slapped it and it went off." Zach was getting better at looking at the heights, though he wouldn't have noticed yet. Acclimation was gradual.

"It glowed blue. He put his weight on a hold that wasn't part of the diamond route. The ones lit up in white." He studied the bright pinpoints in the densely candy-studded wall. "They've changed the route again. I like it."

Zach looked, engaging more. "You mean made it more evil."

"Yep."

"You're kind of a dick, has anyone told you?"

"Once or twice. You ready to suit up?"

Zach sighed, tense. "Yeah. Let's take some adorable pictures."

They went to the desk. Bruce gave Hannah the big smile reserved for people who had come up through the program. "Let's get Zach some shoes."

"Sure thing," Hannah said. "Zach! Welcome! Have you signed your waiver yet?"

"I'm his waiver."

"I'd like to sign my waiver, please," Zach said firmly. Playing the irritated responsible one was good for his nerves.

With paperwork accomplished, Hannah said, "Just shoes?"

"Yeah. Probably size 46. We're doing the first boulder, even chalk would be overkill. Unless you want an egg shirt?"

Zach squinted at the shirt design with its nested symbols.

"The giant's heart," Hannah recited, "inside a duck's egg..."

"In an iron box hidden under a mountain, right," Zach finished along with her. "Wow. When you pick an aesthetic, you commit." He squeezed Bruce's hand. "Can I get that one instead?" He pointed up at the Lilac-Breasted Roller.

"Ooh, no, sorry, that one's for eighty weeks," Hannah said. "But at five, you can have a sparrow!"

"Hey, what am I up to?" Bruce asked.

Hannah checked the computer. "Forty-eight. Grey Fantail."

Bruce sighed. "Damn. I need to get in more often. Next up is the Splendid Fairywren." He pointed out the vivid blue bird to Zach. "Okay, gimme a new fantail, I lost my last one. Please," he added as an afterthought.

Hannah rolled her eyes at him and issued them two shirts and a pair of shoes.

En route from the locker room to Glass Hill, the mountain lit up in white and gold. The sound of pouring coins filled the space, followed by a general cheer. Music to Bruce's ears. "Be right back," he said to Zach. "Make yourself at home, I've got a mountain to climb."

The staff belayer was Daisy, one of the first crop of free students and approximately 42 kg soaking wet. Three-to-one weight ratio, that would be hilarious. "Daisy! You're working here? Congratulations!"

"Bruce!" she replied in equally good cheer. "You're cutting in line like an utter asshole?"

"You know it! Hook me up." He stepped into his harness. "You up for a victory whip?"

"Counting on it." She clipped a 23 kg sandbag to her belt, which brought her under a two to one ratio. That plus solid skills and the resistance device on her belt should be plenty. It would still look hilarious.

He glanced at the record clock for the new route. Still pretty high. He could afford to lower it by thirty seconds and someone else would hold the lowest time by the end of the day. He free-climbed to set his first bolt high, giving Daisy plenty of room, then headed up, counting the seconds, plotting the next reach.

Careful, slow, taking extra seconds to look like he needed to calculate. That spot was tricky, he actually did need a moment to find his grip. Remember to bolt to the wall often enough, respect the belayer who needed to see she had enough control to do her job. Very nice, that was a tricky little grip, more chalk.

Onto the ceiling. If only more ceilings came with convenient foot-hooks. Well, one convenient foot-hook. The next one was a real bastard to reach. Nearly there, take another ten seconds just to be sure...

Bruce stretched out his arm and tapped the apple with one finger. The room filled with gold. He waited until the cheer died down. "Slack!" he called to Daisy. She fed out more line. "Slack!" She pressed her lips together and gave him a little more, then braced herself pointedly.

"Falling!" he sang out, and let himself drop, whooping. The slack played out and Daisy flew up three meters in the air like a bell pull, braking his fall until his feet landed halfway down the wall.

When both he and Daisy were safely back on the ground, he went to check on Zach, who looked pale around the edges. Zach threw both arms around him and clung. "You are a fucking terror," he said in Bruce's ear.

"Yeah, but did I look good doing it?"

"Amazing. Fucking terror."

"You'll like bouldering better. Come on, let's get you off the ground."

When Zach saw how much of bouldering was using his judo falls to land safely, he calmed. They practiced the major falls on the mats in the garden, then went to the first boulder. Zach stared at the massive concrete troll as they passed.

"No climbing Bert until you've cleared the third basic boulder. But he's fun! There's a crow's nest on his head. People leave notes and little prizes for each other."

"That's great." He wasn't ready for small talk, his eyes fixed on his nemesis, Boulder One. "Okay. How do I do this?"

He practiced flinging himself off the rock a few ways, feet still on the ground, then one foot off. Bruce stayed close, mixing legitimate physical instruction with excuses for people to sneak phone pictures.

Both feet off the ground, then one step higher, another... Zach locked up.

"Do you want to fall off?" Bruce prompted. "Or climb back down?"

"Yeah," Zach said. His hands didn't move, fingers gripping white on the plastic.

"Coming in to touch." Bruce ran a hand up and down Zach's back until he unlocked and threw himself backward. He landed well, then hunched up on the mat.

Bruce crouched down and nuzzled his face into Zach's neck. Zach squirmed, trying not to laugh, but his body relaxed.

"No PDA in the gym, Bruce!" a high voice yelled.

Bruce flipped them off briefly without turning around. "It's my gym!" he called back. After another kiss on Zach's ear, he guided him back to starting position. "One more try."

Zach got three grips further that time, then rolled to the ground, his limbs wobbly. "Okay. That's enough defying gravity for the day. We look cute enough yet?"

"You always look cute. But yes, time for a blood sugar break, then I'm back to the mountain." They walked to the gingerbread concessions area, which was doing its usual brisk business in free energy bars and fruit. He almost tossed Zach an orange, then caught the dazed expression and put it in his hand instead. "Three hot dogs, please." He glanced around. "Did you see which of them told me off?"

The concession staffer didn't know him. "Maybe," she said guardedly. He had to start showing up more often.

He dug the golden apple out of his bag. "That took guts. Make sure they get this? Not until they pack up."

She made it disappear under the counter and looked at him with more respect. "Absolutely."

Zach sat at the table reserved for them in the diamond spectator zone, shivering a little. Bruce had underestimated the shock factor. It was within tolerances for Zach's taste for adrenaline, though. If he was reading right, Zach would be climbing all over him by the time they got home. That should be fun.

"So what's a golden apple buy?" Zach asked as Bruce peeled the oranges.

"One thousand and one dollars personal prize money. Ten thousand to the school of their choice for extracurriculars."

"Damn. And the runners up?"

"Silver apple, a hundred and a thousand. Oh, and they get to keep the apple as a trophy."

"Cool." Zach blinked at him. "Wow, okay, heights are a really cheap high."

"That's the idea, yeah."

Bruce picked up a second golden apple, and a third in quick succession. He checked in on Zach again. Zach had obtained a copy of all the gym pamphlets and was reading the list of attendance swag.

"Every ten weeks," Zach said. "So showing up for a year gets a kid five pieces of gear."

"Plus shoes at five," Bruce said. "And we're generous about swapping outgrown shoes. Honestly, most people only need three or four pieces of kit. Shoes, harness, and a chalk bag, the rest is practice."

The room filled with gold again. They cheered and clapped for Grace, 68 years old, whip-thin, gray hair hanging in a long braid. She took the shortest possible fall, then lowered carefully. She'd trained on live mountains and knew not to fuck around.

"Okay, last one," Bruce said. "No matter what it looks like, I have this under control, okay?"

"Oh, god."

"It's good theater." Bruce put an arm around Zach, then went to hog the wall for a fourth time.

Up more slowly, reach and pause, reach and pause, hand falter there on that tiny one, slower as he started the overhang. There, that spot was the killer; he let his foot slide and clung with his hands, full weight dangling from his arms, then pulled back up, foot scrabbling to kick at the tempting but unlit closer spot before he found the reach. He paused with his arms shaking, then proceeded to the apple, which gave him a blue glow and a tinkle of silver bells.

He did a showy whip down, then bounced on his toes when he reached the ground. "I can make it. One more try, let's go."

"You're cut off," Daisy said, and unclipped her brake for emphasis. He glared at her petulantly. "Bruce. You're tired. You want to give away more money, give your credit card to the desk." She handed him a silver apple and turned to the next climber.

He sulked over to the desk, where he designated his apples for the next third, seventh, and twelfth free students, then back to the table, where Zach gave him a Look. "Fucking terror."

They leaned on each other, watching the climbers and the crowd. Zach's attention followed three new ruby-throated hummingbirds, leaving the gym hauling crash pads almost as tall as themselves. He checked his brochure.

"I've seen a lot of that combination. Twenty weeks, and they're all taking mats. Shoes, harness, mats? Are they practicing their falls at home?"

"Sort of. Pretty sure they went for chalk instead of harness, though. The crash pads are best for staying safe while bouldering, no harness."

"Okay, but where are they bouldering?"

"Until a couple of years ago, any crumbling wall they could find with enough holds. Some vandal's been installing good wall hardware all over town in the middle of the night. But they still need a safe way to fall."

Zach snorted a laugh. "What an inconsiderate vandal."

"I do my best to pick up the slack."

They sat quietly, hydrating and eating oranges. Another climber lit up the gym. Bruce whooped.

"Look," he said. "Warbler. Fifteen years old, a year of practice, and he got an apple. Shaved ten seconds off the time, too."

"That's really cool," Zach said, watching the warbler's descent. "Okay, so, I get the apples. Saving the princess at the top of the hill. Why the birds?"

"Different mountain," Bruce said. He didn't have to explain it often, and found himself cautious, knowing Zach could see right through him on certain topics. He made himself more casually Wayne. "The little bird sharpens its beak on the diamond mountain every day to wear it down. It'll take forever. But the little bird keeps showing up."

He kept his eyes on the climbers so he didn't have to acknowledge the sympathetic look. Eventually Zach looked out as well and said, "This is a fuckload of little birds."

Bruce smiled in honest joy. "Yeah. Aren't they great?"


On Halloween, Zach sat in the lobby of Wayne Tower dressed as a LEGO wizard (with the minifig head open to show his face because, seriously, who wears a mask for Halloween in this town, it's a security nightmare), handing out chocolate bars shaped like gold bricks and as many Mindstorms kits as children could physically carry away.

Chapter Text

=== An Open Letter to the Tabloid Vultures ===

Dear headline writers and the people who believe them,

My name is Zach Prendergast, a.k.a. Bruce Wayne's Secret Boytoy, Gold-Digging Rentboy, Gay Fling, etc.

There is nothing secret about me.

Bruce can spot a gold-digger from a thousand meters. Also, I am a grown-ass adult with a grown-ass career, which I am fighting to keep despite your bullshit because the work matters to me.

I would not have signed up for the paparazzi dance if this were a fling.

And, within some common-sense limits which we arrived at like adults who put work into our adult relationship (honesty, clear communication, putting each other first), neither of us cares who the other one fucks.

Do you honestly think a person who gets serious with Bruce Wayne could care about who he does on vacation? And what's good for the gander is good for the other gander. All you will learn if someone publishes pictures of me in bed is that someone is off my Christmas card list. (They will additionally learn a lot about right-to-privacy law, but you don't have to worry about that part.)

Where we stick our dicks has nothing to do with how we feel about each other. End of story.

I get that his name sells papers. I get that you will make up all kinds of wild nonsense because people being quietly happy with each other isn't a story. Just drop the Trouble In Paradise angle, okay? That shit is tiring.

Zach "Boytoy" Prendergast


Zach waited with his arms crossed while Bruce read it. By his eye movements, maybe three times? Bruce set down the tablet.

"No."

Zach sagged into the other armchair.

"Never, ever feed the vultures. Living well is the best revenge. You can wear polyamory t-shirts in public if you insist, see if any of them take the bait and start selling that angle."

Zach tugged at his hair, which was getting long enough to tug on in its stupid professional haircut. "They won't."

"No, they won't. Zach, this is good."

"It's monogamist heteronormative bullshit and I'm not allowed to speak out about it."

"All anyone would take away from a response, even a calm response, is that Bruce Wayne is still a slut and he's found another slut to spend the year with. This is not a cause my name can help. And if you do leave me, that's what takes the blame."

Zach flung his weight back into the chair, eyes closed. He knew he was sulking and he didn't care. He wanted to punch things. He wanted to punch people.

"Zach, do you want them to go looking for another story?"

He scrunched his eyes further closed. "No."

"Trouble In Paradise is boring. Everyone already knows it's fake, and they don't care. We're invisible."

"You're invisible. I'm begging for a spitroast in streaming HD. In a fucking cock leash. Forever." He wanted to punch someone. Possibly everyone.

"And the so-called friends who broke your trust are buried in lawyers and will do a great deal of community service," Bruce said for the tenth time. He walked behind Zach's chair, careful to make noise. He put his hands on Zach's shoulders, kneading them a little painfully. "You know the angle the vultures will go for now?"

Zach shrugged, sullenly attempting not to enjoy the massage of his shoulder knots.

"Bruce Wayne can't give it to you the way you need it. Bruce Wayne is too vanilla, too weak. Or only interested in taking it. Or maybe his dick's too small, someone will probably run with that. And he's too whipped to stop you from running around on him. Bruce Wayne is a sissy."

Zach didn't say anything. He gasped as the grip went truly painful, but fought to stay tense, leaning into it.

"This was the plan. This was your plan."

"Fuck my plan. Fuck not being able to say a damn thing about homophobic bullshit." It was getting hard to talk.

"Plenty of people will write think pieces on stereotypes, assumptions about power, media ethics." B's voice was low and soothing, as if he could make this better by turning it into a bedtime story. "They'll pass them around to each other with pages and pages of commentary. They'll leave the discussion further along when the next poor bastard comes out. We can buy some if they're not writing them fast enough for you."

"Let the record show that I hate my plan and I really, really hate being your Batbeard!"

He gritted his teeth, holding out by digging his fingers into the chair, but it was not a game he could win. He held it until he had to make a noise, a short barking yelp as his shoulders gave up and shifted under the bruising force.

"I know. Thank you. I hope I can find enough ways to make it up to you." B controlled one shoulder and worked his other hand down Zach's spine.

"Sweet talker. With your, ah, hands that can crush rocks and your, ah, big goth, ah, fetishwear."

"Don't forget the stamina," Batman said in his ear.

"I have not forgotten the stamina."

"How can I make you happy, babe?" Bruce whispered.

Zach squirmed under the massage for another minute, then said, "Dojo."

"Dojo?"

"Yeah. I wanna pick a fight. Dump my ass on the mat until I wear myself out, then drag me off to somewhere you'll fuck me, you prude."

"If you insist on fucking in situ, there's always the mats in the gym."

"Not the same and you know it."

"If you know it's not the same, you know why I won't fuck there."

"Prude."

"Barbarian. You want to wash up first?"

"Nah, then you can't haul me through your mansion like an overdressed caveman."

"I can wait."

"I can't."

B picked him up over one shoulder, ignoring his doomed but spirited attempt to get out of it, and carried him down the hall. They left the tablet behind in the study.

Chapter Text

Zach walked through the halls of Arkham Asylum, fighting the urge to shudder, run for the exit, or cling to Bruce's hand. Bruce walked in front, reducing the chance that a random inmate—patient, they were patients—would latch onto Zach as a new fixation. They wouldn't be going through the halls at all if this meeting could happen in a standard visitation room.

His shoes were soft. He wore no metal; he had even swapped out his earrings for soft silicone studs. He did not look to either side, even when Harley called out to thank him for the party, though he nodded at that one.

They turned a corner. The whir of fans got louder. The light took on a strange blue tint. Their front guard stopped just past the source of the glow. "Visitors for you."

Zach turned to face Victor Fries. Fries sat in a bare cell, wearing something like long johns or a wetsuit. He was reading a paperback anthology of Philip K. Dick, carefully stacking pages beside himself when they cracked away.

"Dr. Fries," he said, careful to pronounce the soft s instead of the hard z, "we were hoping we could talk with you."

Fries looked up at him with what he could not avoid thinking of as a chilly, unblinking stare. "Yes?"

"I'm here to ask your permission to use your gun for a public project."

He smiled frostily. "I'm sorry, I seem to have left it in my other suit. If you have sufficient pull with the police department, I expect they can help you."

"We have their permission," Zach said. "But you have veto. That gun is your life's work. If you say no, we won't do it."

Fries paused, then his eyes turned to Bruce. "Until the philanthropist's attention span runs out, and he delegates to someone with more cold-hearted practicality."

"I can never make up for that," Bruce said. "But I will keep trying."

Fries placed his book carefully on the bed beside him. "You have my attention."


Happy chatter and the repeated thump thump thump of Elijah bouncing on his new riding giraffe filled the solarium. Alfred had heroically suppressed his desire to contain the bouncing by focusing on a conversation about baking with Dani instead. Zach's idea of taping a cordon around the Christmas tree was effective; no matter how dangerously Elijah careened around, he didn't cross the line on the floor.

Bruce monitored it all. He let a bite of Dani's cardamom gingerbread melt in his mouth. The tree smelled sharply of sap, cut only three days before. The homemade bead bracelet Elijah had given him changed the weight of his left arm and clanked against his watch if he moved incautiously; it was distracting, but he would not have taken it off for less than an emergency.

Elijah and Monique were, like Bruce, wearing the eye-searing mohair Christmas turtlenecks Zach had given everyone. He'd ordered from Bruce's usual supplier in the unsubtle hope of seeing Bruce wear his in the Batcave. Bruce was saving that for some point late in the month, after he had made a show of permanently abandoning it in a drawer.

A lull in conversation was his cue for the last present. He handed the wrapped book to Monique, making his bracelet rattle. Yaz had remarked on how quietly he moved. Sloppy. The entire family was disconcertingly observant.

Monique took it, feeling the shape. "Uh-oh. You saved mine for last."

Bruce stifled his library of snappy Wayne retorts and just smiled at her.

She tore open the silver paper. Her hands paused at the interior protective layer of tissue, then folded it open carefully to reveal the copy of James Baldwin's Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone.

"First edition, I presume?" It was on the short list of titles of which she owned a lending copy, along with The Little Prince, the Percy Jackson pentalogy, two Simone de Beauvoir...

Bruce cut off the mental list automatically scrolling through his head to focus on the current moment. "See for yourself."

She flipped open the front cover and froze, her hand hovering over the densely written flyleaf, torn between the desire to touch and the desire to preserve. She read it twice. "This is authentic? I mean, I know you— You're sure?"

"I'm sure. Solid provenance, and the handwriting matches. A lot of her personal library went wandering after 1970."

"Thank you."

Yaz set aside her kinetic sculpture for the first time since she had unwrapped it, fingers still lingering on the silver and inlaid wood. "Well? Don't hold out on us."

Monique read aloud, slowly, reverently, unconsciously mimicking Baldwin's spoken cadence.

"Nina, beloved,

I have tried to convince myself that I was in love, that if I imagined love hard enough, it could become real. It can't, it never works. We love who we love. The flip side is that we don't love who we don't.

Think about it. Thinking of you.

James"

"Dang," Dani said.

Yaz shook her head. "Dear Nina, dump his abusive behind and run away to France with me. We'll kiss all the boys."

"Hey, it wasn't bad advice," Monique said. The usual lines of tension in her face had softened.

"What is it?" Elijah had held still for over 90 seconds and bounced over to see. "Who's Nina?"

Monique put a hand on his back to slow him down and held the book out of grabbing reach. "Nina Simone's a singer. You've heard her. Feeling Good. Sinnerman. Those are Nina singing. This book belonged to her."

His eyes widened. He stared at the book. "She's famous."

"Mm-hm. But she wasn't very happy, and she married someone who was bad to her. Her friend James wrote this book about people loving each other all kinds of ways, and he gave it to her with this note. He said she shouldn't stay where she wasn't happy."

"He wrote in the book," Elijah whispered. "With pen."

Yaz leaned forward. "If you give a book to someone as a present, sometimes it's okay to write on the blank page at the front, like a birthday card. That's on the 'parental help' list. Unless you write the book yourself. If you write and draw the whole book yourself, you can write in it any way you like. Come on over here."

Elijah bounced toward Yaz, humming something that bore a vague resemblance to Feeling Good. Monique paged through to the first chapter, making sure there weren't further inscriptions lurking, then closed it. "Now I just have to keep it out of crayon range."

"Got you covered," Zach said. He handed over the photo of the tall locking bookcase. "Too big to wrap, but ready to deliver whenever you like. Mahogany and brass, working lock, same school as the paneling in your new library. I had the glass replaced with modern UV-blocking."

"And, as I saw quite a lot of room left on the shelves," Alfred said, "I hoped you might go book shopping with me. I love to spend an afternoon in McCreedy's, but find it so difficult to make the time. I should appreciate the company of another bookworm to admire the rare finds with me."

Monique glanced quickly between the three of them, realizing she had been effectively herded. "I mean... If you insist."

"You gonna bring your wife on this shopping trip?" Yaz asked.

"I think I better." Monique leaned against Dani, resting their heads together, watching Yaz. "Hey, if you watch Elijah, we'll bring back some nice Hemingway for you."

Yaz narrowed her eyes. Bruce slouched down against Zach and took another enormous bite of gingerbread.


Gay Gotham: This Week in Glitterati

Zach P is at it again, and he's dreaming of a bright Christmas.

Rumors of another gaud-awful art installation were confirmed yesterday when a team of snow sculptors shot a thick white load of raw material all over everyone's favorite single entendre, Finger Bridge. Commuters were understandably alarmed at what seemed to be Mr. Freeze's latest romp through the infrastructure, but nope. Apparently when you're rich enough, the GCPD evidence locker doubles as a lending library!

(Way to keep the pigs in riot gear, Zach. But anyway...)

The final facade won't be unveiled until the 20th, but they can't put drop cloths over the whole bridge. What we can see so far is the tasteful and subdued color palette we've come to count on from Zach "keep Pride in your heart all the year" Prendergast.

It's not just any rainbow bridge, of course. It's the Bifrost! Get it? Get it?


Zach led the party of tipsy guests, mostly rich people but a few of Zach's friends who were interested in braving the upper crust, down the path to the barn out back of the manor. Bruce kept up a patter behind him.

"... so hard to shop for. Fortunately, something fell into my lap, or rather my lab, a few weeks ago."

"We got you more work to do!" Zach hollered over his shoulder.

"Oh dear," Sybil said. "Bruce, you must keep a closer eye on your scientists."

"This is what it looks like when I keep a closer eye," Bruce said, frustrated. "We caught her before she got anything effective." Barely.

"We tried them on some different stuff," Zach said. "They seem happiest on steak and charcoal briquettes, with a handful of dog kibble now and then." That had taken Bruce some time with the lab notes and a few late nights at his biochem station.

"Briquettes," Jaani said.

"Yep." Zach pushed open the barn door and flicked the light switch.

Several reptiles the size of bulldogs blinked at them in the light. They looked mostly like Komodo dragons, but with longer legs. Their alligator snouts had big front-facing nostrils. Their enclosures were entirely metal and concrete, with all traces of organic material carefully out of range.

One snorted. A small flame licked out from its massive nostrils.

"Dragons," Sybil breathed. "Some complete idiot tried to make dragons."

"And we saved them just for you," Bruce said.

"Well, of course! Who else would want the poor dears?" Sybil stared at them, mesmerized.

Zach silently handed her a briquette. She tossed it in to the one who had flamed. It snapped it out of the air and crunched it, then stared at her expectantly.

"Just don't let them burn your house down, Sybil," Bruce said.

"I did learn my lesson with the salamanders," she said. "Whole new outbuilding. Do you know if they're fertile?" The gleam in her eye was alarming.

"We really, really hope not," Zach said.

"Ah, well." She smiled down at the massive fire-breathing carnivores. "I'll give them a good home for as long as they last."


Gotham Insider: Nora Fries segment

[Video clip of Nora Fries in her tank, hair floating around her head. Summer Gleeson voiceover.]

"With the buzz around the Bifrost Bridge, people are talking about Nora Fries again. Unfortunately, they're only repeating the same two sentences. Here on Gotham Insider, we want to dig deeper."

[Interview with a woman sitting in a sunlit living room, captioned "Dora Smithy, Nora's sister".]

"The biggest mistake, and the oddest one, that people make when they talk about Nora is that they use the past tense." Dora laughs. "Nora Fries was. Nora is my sister, and she's still alive. Not doing great, but alive.

"She went into that tank as a treatment, like keeping someone in a medical coma after a bad accident when they need to buy some time. Her heart's beating something like every twenty minutes? Something like that. She's alive, and the whole point is, she's staying that way until we can get her up and around again."

She smiles. "The other mistake is the usual one, that they only talk about her husband. Bet you a dollar you've never heard someone say her name without saying Freeze in the same breath."

[Switch to slideshow of personal photos and videos.]

"My sister is a chemist, and a gardener, and a bike commuter, and a pirates nerd. Every Halloween costume since she was ten years old has been from a pirate show. Now that her tank is safe where I can visit again, I've been going in and sticking an eye patch and a new head scarf on the glass every Halloween."

[Back to interview footage.]

"And she's a person living with chronic, degenerative illness. She was so angry, so angry when it started to affect her." She wipes her eyes. "She's in that blue dress with the classy hair because she dressed up that way before she went in. She knew her odds. She said, 'If I'm gonna live in a Barbie doll box, I'm gonna be a pretty one, so I look good in the tearjerker fundraising ads.'"

She takes a moment to collect herself. "And she does. She looks beautiful. But it's hard to recognize her without a pen jammed through her hair and a t-shirt with an awful pun on it."


"Well, here we go," Spence said. He swept his arm around in a grandiose gesture. "Welcome to the White Party."

Past the symbolic archway of white curtains, they waded out into an expanse of shirtless men. People were spaced loosely enough to walk comfortably, but not run; they had enough elbow room that a panic wouldn't get anyone trampled unless they were herded into a bottleneck. The usual traffic distortion rippled and spread as people noticed the new arrivals and pulled out phones for a picture. Bruce squeezed Zach's hand and broadened his loose, easy smile.

The sun blazed down, mild by Florida standards, dazzling to Gothamite eyes even through technical sunglasses. It prickled on his bare shoulders. It reflected off water and white hats and shorts. The air reported saltwater beach, alcohol, cigarettes, cannabis, fried food, sweat, sex, and an occasional whiff of harder drugs.

A hundred conversations overlapped, voices raised to hear themselves over the crowd. The thrum of hypnotic EDM first reached audible levels three blocks away in the car. He estimated a kilometer radius in open air, unless they raised the volume at night. They would raise the volume at night.

Everyone in the group wore security jewelry. In addition to location tracking, it sent life signs to analyze for markers of altered state. One or two going off was someone having an interesting night; several at once or Bruce at all meant crowd control. Music was the most likely vector.

"Do not say, 'That's not music,'" Zach said. "That won't go well for you."

"Of course it's music. It's just not music I like." He was still wearing the mask. For once, he was glad that Zach didn't know the name behind that opinion. Class complicated everything.

On high alert, his memory became less controlled, serving him any data he might need with instant clarity. Outside of pursuit or technical problem-solving, this was not necessarily productive; without a clear focus, it became a grab bag of free association.

The cruisers weighed and measured everyone with their eyes. Bruce scanned the crowd in open carnal appreciation without giving anyone direct attention. The hand-picked security detail was diverting some of the stares, as intended.

"Volunteers only," he told his head of security. "Hire from as far away as you have to. This is a world-class hostile work environment. They're getting groped instead of me. No point in bringing anyone who can't at least enjoy the scenery when they clock off."

Security layout, beach and outdoors: Spence and Lance in front, Bruce and Zach behind, four physically honed bodyguards in a diamond formation around them. Bruce had eyes on everyone but their rear guard, currently Terence.

Terence looked him in the eye and asked, "Is this an escort gig?" He was assigned to Spence and Lance, if the group split; they could work that out amongst themselves.

The objective was a gated VIP section 600m down the beach. They strolled toward it, idly detouring around larger social knots and angling toward the water.

Water cold shock Redirect. The water here was 22°C, practically bathwater. Bruce could feel hot sand grinding under the soles of his feet in his sandals. He took a deep, rib-stretching breath of warm air, only slightly marred by pot smoke, and felt the tug of latex patches disguising the less explicable scars on his chest and back. He focused on Zach's sweating skin against his.

He glanced over. Zach was entranced, drinking it all in, eyes wide behind his white-framed shades, hand tugging slightly in time with the beat. Bruce leaned closer to speak in his ear.

"What do you think?"

"I have never seen this much skin in my entire life," Zach said faintly. "Maybe even all added together."

Bruce thought about it. "Me neither, now that you mention it." Setting aside the security risks, the difficulty of scheduling multi-night coverage for his city, and the frank display of (most of) his scars, he had to acknowledge it inspired awe. Two stadiums' worth of people stripped to the waist, chatting as easily as a good cocktail party, petting each other's skin...

Zach's skin Selina's skin Silver's skin Clark's skin Vicki's skin Talia's skin teeth in his shoulder Redirect. Zach's hand in his.

Zach turned his stunned stare to Bruce. "And you're here. With me. Here. In front of God and everybody."

Bruce put an arm around Zach's back as they walked. "I don't know about God."

Zach pointed out the man 150m away in an enormous fake white beard and wig with tinsel halo. He was presumably offering an allegorical experience to anyone who wanted to duck under his flowing white robe.

"I stand corrected."

Someone got bold enough to touch the Bruce-side bodyguard, James. James deflected. "I'm on duty, man."

Three hours into a cold, mind-numbing stakeout, a stealthy hench surprised him from that side, barely 2m away before he noticed. He took him out with the weapon already in hand, Zach's black thermos of coffee. It split and splashed boiling heat in the man's face Redirect.

"I'm looking forward to something cold when we reach the pavilion," Bruce said.

"I bet they'd make us an artisan slushie. Okay, that sounds great, I'm getting one." Zach tapped his ear. "Fixer." A pause. "Hey, could we get a big fruit juice slushie? Biggest virgin margarita we can carry in one hand, basically. Any fruit but mango or banana. Two straws. Cool, thanks."

Spence glanced over his shoulder. "You're brilliant. Fixer. Make that two of those, please." Lance nudged him. "No, three. Thanks."

By mutual accord, the entire party was staying sober in solidarity. Spence, sloppy drunk after the Glitter Ball, trying to explain something about existentialism Redirect. Spence in front of him, with a Narcotics Anonymous 30 Day chip on his security bracelet. He casually jangled it against his hip, over and over.

A stranger 1.5m away called out, "Bruce! Glad you could make it, man!"

He gave him a wave. "Me too! It's beautiful."

That lit up the faces of everyone nearby. Gratifying. Bruce adjusted his planned proportion of sheltered vs full public time. If he wanted to stay walled off, he had a nice cave at home. Where he would spend several days in as much blessed silence as he could schedule after this trip.

He stood beside Alfred in the creaking secret elevator hidden in Dad's study, eyes open in the damp darkness, heart pounding. Then Alfred hit the lights, and Bruce was in love.

He lingered on that memory without apology, as often as it struck him. He could deal with most external conditions, knowing the cave was there for him. Even this beach, where a nearby gang of whooping and laughing men had just tossed a friend into the ocean up to his neck.

Zach leaned some weight against him and pointed out a group of people upbeach, decked out in Vegas dancer style. Their rhinestones flashed, and their white plumed headgear radiated nearly a meter in every direction.

"There's a masquerade ball." Zach could barely contain his glee. "Masks mandatory."

"No."

"Aw, but I designed one just for you!"

"No."

"At least look."

Bruce looked at Zach's screen. The white butterfly mask design was based roughly on swallowtail wing shapes, with scallops and long forked hindwings that would drape past Bruce's chin and disrupt the shape of his jaw. Plenty of cutouts on the face for peripheral vision.

He sighed. "Yes, I will dress up as a pretty butterfly with you."

"Thanks," Bruce said. "I'm okay."

"Yeah, but you'll be better with a slushie. Ooh! Slushie!" Zach finally noticed the staff runner approaching them, carrying three liter glasses bedecked with umbrellas and straws. He accepted theirs and held it out for Bruce to have the first sip.

Lime, pineapple, guava, no alcohol, no aftertastes sending up red flags. "It's good. Have a taste." He kissed Zach, grabbing the glass to keep it from spilling when Zach staggered. It was a good kiss.

Zach waved at the phone cameras surrounding them as he caught his breath. "He's a great kisser, for the record!"

"We can tell!" someone shouted amid the laughter and cheerful whooping. Their kiss rippled out, too, as nearby couples decided that it looked like a good idea.

Lance shook his head at Zach. "Your life is fucking bizarre."

"Yep."

Spence put a hand on Lance's back. "This is great, you should try some." He kissed Lance, who moaned into it. Spence was also an excellent kisser.

"It's cool, we'll stay in town," Lance said. "Make our own fun. Hey, maybe Bruce and Zach could take our spots. What do you think? White Christmas? You know you wanna."

Zach's internal conflict was painfully clear. He knew all the arguments against, and he was so careful, careful to a fault, of Bruce's hidden limits.

"Sounds great," Bruce said. "We'll do it."

Spence knew him just a little too well to take it at face value. "All by yourselves? Celebrity circuit virgins, all alone in the wilderness, lost lambs surrounded by wolves. I don't think I can let that happen."

"I have been to a beach before," Bruce said.

"Not this beach. You need a social director." Spence's face was tight with resolve. Proving something to Bruce, or to himself? Hard to tell.

Lance looked between them, worried but afraid to overstep.

"Lance, you'll come?" Spence asked. "I... should have someone to go home with. Safety in numbers."

"Yes. Absolutely."

The group eventually reached the shore, where the crowd thinned to people willing to get their feet wet. Nearly to the white velvet rope outlining the VIP perimeter. Zach glanced behind himself at the much rowdier public beach.

"You go ahead," Bruce said. "We'll stay out here a little longer. Don't let anyone steal our seats." He winked and walked out onto the dense wet sand with Zach.

"Thanks," Zach said.

"Of course." Bruce surveyed the Atlantic, then the ocean of sweating flesh. Both remained impressive. "You'll have to help me out here."

"With what?"

"I have no idea how I'm supposed to dance to this," he lied.

Zach laughed and turned to face him. "You think anyone else does? You just move. Or, I dunno, copy someone, Mr. Amazing at Everything. Go ahead and do it badly."

"I don't do anything badly." Bruce loosened up his hips and shoulders to match Zach's sway, drink steady in one hand.

"I know. It's a terrible problem." Zach moved slowly, staying an inch from Bruce's skin while keeping the beat. They played that game for a few bars, push and pull, then Bruce drew Zach's hand up into the air with his own and tried to ballroom spin him.

Zach burst out laughing. Bruce timed his movements to get the straw into Zach's open mouth. When Zach had a mouthful of slushie, Bruce yanked them together by the hips and kissed him again, fruit juice dripping down their faces. They ground up against each other, scuffing up the sand.

An occasional overachieving wave washed lukewarm sea foam over their feet. The music pounded through everything, building to yet another bass drop and carrying on, steady as the surf. Bruce tasted Zach's skin, felt the trapezius flexing to the beat under his mouth. They danced like everyone was watching.


Gotham Gazette
Eyes on the Arts: The Dreams of Water

Tove Jotuni, or "Mörkö" as she is known in the art world, is the mind behind the Bifrost, unveiling tonight at 6pm on Finger Bridge. The award-winning Finnish ice artist talked with us about innovation, millennialism, and angels.


GG: Your career is prolific and going strong in its third decade, but you're mostly known in Scandinavia. This is your first installation in North America, and it meant skipping peak season in your usual artistic community. What drew you to this project?

M: The chance to work with a different medium, for one thing. You think snow is snow is snow. There's old snow and new snow, there's lake ice and industrially frozen ice, they carve very differently, and snice for the big architectural works. All different. And then there is Fries's device. Amazing. Just amazing.

GG: How is Freeze Gun ice different to work with?

M: Oh, all the ways! It's not just one kind. We had to learn all new ways of working. What happens if we keep the water at rest, if we stir it in a whirlpool, if we spray it from a sprinkler.

But the irreplaceable part is sculpting with, we call it live ice, guiding water onto the sculpture while the device is powered. Very dangerous, but the effect is, you can still see the water, the shape of it, living in the ice, just paused for a moment. The dreams of water when it's sleeping.

GG: Thinking of getting one for your home studio?

M: Yes, I will take a dozen! (laugh) The, you call it millennial, the millennial devices are so fragile, they are tricky, they don't thrive away from their parents. We asked Dr. Fries for help with repairs five times in twenty days!

GG: Just to clarify, you asked him how to make the repairs?

M: No, no. The invention will only speak to its creator. They alone understand each other. You are so alarmed! He is a good person, I think, when he's trusted and supported. We are all better when supported.

He loved to see the progress. We showed him video. We talked about techniques. Not many people love ice as I do.

GG: Just remember that he's married.

M: I can't forget, it's all people want to talk about! Except him, he talks about coolant and crystal, beautiful technical thoughts. Anyway, I'm married too, and my wife doesn't want to share.

GG: The piece is a commission from Bruce Wayne and his partner, Zach Prendergast. How much artistic freedom did your patrons give you?

M: So much. I could do what I wanted. They asked for a Bifrost. I can do a Bifrost in my sleep. They even gave me a real bridge to put it on. So the rest is all room for possibility.

They were so open to ideas. We talked about how art must fit into the space around it, the conversation with its context. This time and place, the city it must live in.

GG: What stood out, when you looked at our context?

M: The struggle. Ferocious struggle. That's life everywhere, if you look, but in this city, it's naked, very raw. And larger than life. At home, we call the millennial phenomenon 'the new gods.' Your city is full of new gods, all clawing at each other desperately. And then in the shop windows everywhere, angels for Christmas. Women with wings, smiling sweetly, as if everything is all right.

I don't know of a woman in the world right now who thinks everything is all right. Or smiles like that, even the women who can fly. Diana of Themyscira doesn't smile like that. I don't smile like that.

So I thought, how frustrating it must be to be made into little dolls, to smile like that, when you are a messenger of the gods. The Bifrost is a bridge to the world of gods and heroes. So I have brought you some gods on it, and some angels.

I don't think everyone will like them. (laugh) I made them strong enough to stay standing for a while whether people like them or not.

GG: But only for a while.

M: Everything is only for a while. It's one reason to love ice: it doesn't let you forget that. Work fast. Life is short and then the spring comes.


The Bifrost: Face the New Gods will be maintained from December 20th through January 31st, then allowed to melt naturally. Those who wish to show appreciation for the work are encouraged to donate to the Nora Fries Foundation.


From: Bruce Wayne
To: Monique Scott
Subject: ENOUGH Implementation draft for critique

Please let me know what you think.
- Bruce

[3 attachments]


From: Monique Scott
To: Bruce Wayne
Cc: Zach Prendergast
Subject: Re: ENOUGH Implementation draft for critique

The overall shape looks solid. I have some concerns I'd like to discuss with you and Zach in person before moving forward. Your house, sometime this week?

Thanks,
Monique


"Sorry for the delay." Bruce threw himself down in an armchair in the glass-walled sitting room, then remembered this was someone he actually respected and straightened up. He must have been tormenting asshats all day again. "So! Concerns. What have we got?"

"One big one, really." Monique sipped her mint tea. "I was looking at the board composition and your short list of candidates for the community organizer seat. It was missing a name I expected to see there."

"Of course. Happy to consider whoever you have in mind."

They stared at each other expectantly for a few moments.

"Uh," Zach said, "can I see that list?"

"Off the top of my head..." Bruce's eyes went distant and he rattled off a few names.

"So... you didn't invite Monique to the board."

"Oh! I'm so sorry. I didn't think you'd want to leave your current project. We'd need to talk about track record, make sure you're up for everything it entails. But yes, absolutely."

"Thank you." Monique smiled, but didn't relax. "This points to the core issue, though, which is, whose idea was this? Officially speaking. Whose initiative?"

"Foundation initiatives don't... tend toward individual credit. For a number of reasons." Bruce looked uncomfortable.

"The smaller ones do. Next Wave is all about making sure people know the names and faces of the people with the next good idea and the will to make it happen. Up to a point. Until it's something that changes an entire city. At which point..." She trailed off and left it to him.

Zach found himself extremely interested in Bruce's answer to this question.

"At which point, insofar as anyone takes the credit, I do, yes. Along with the responsibility, and the backlash. Individuals burn out, and on this plan in particular, the exposure will be intense. I have the insulation and, yes, privilege to weather it more easily. It's not for my ego's sake, I promise. It's protective."

Zach and Monique had developed little signals for this kind of situation. He shifted forward, which meant, So much as glance at me and I will take over talking to this tool.

She watched Bruce steadily. "That's thoughtful of you. How many people have you checked with before extending your protection to them?" An awkward pause. "Speaking only for myself, I would appreciate being checked with."

"Ah." Bruce pulled back, more corporate and formal. "I certainly don't want to deny credit where it's due. What did you have in mind?"

Monique put down her cup and saucer, which meant she was afraid her hands would shake. "Ideally, I chair the board and have enough authority to see the vision I championed and the plan I outlined through to reality. Not as a community organizer brought in by the foundation to carry out your scheme, but as, no pun intended, the architect. And the bullshit detector."

Bruce nodded slowly.

"So that when the next sixteen-year-old-me looks at the cover of Time magazine, the picture they see for Humanitarian of the Year, which we both know will not be of a committee, will not be yet another tick mark for the great white savior saving the day, but someone from the community in need, who had the will and found the access to make it happen. That is what I have in mind."

Zach nodded vigorously. Bruce sat motionless.

"I'm not sure you appreciate the level of risk involved," he finally said, "or the stresses, what it might cost you in isolation from the community you need to stay connected to—"

"Do not lecture me about risk," she said, "or about how to stay in touch with my own family. Of course there will be costs. Of course I will work my ass off. This will be my whole life, for years. I will talk and listen until I am sick of it. I will need media training and upper management training to learn to deal with all the ignorant nonsense that crosses my inbox every day.

"Because I will see it done right, and I will represent my people, in every possible sense of both of those words. I could give you a list of people who have taken these risks before, but I'm sure you had an excellent high school civics course."

"I... I understand," Bruce said. "I do. I appreciate why this is important. I will do my very best to respect your choices. But... at the risk of overstepping, Zach considers you family, and I hope to as well. I would like you to stay alive in my family long enough to know you better.

"There are trade-offs, going public. Some risks are subtler than others. If I bring you into the spotlight, I insist on providing security arrangements for you and your family. Some of it will feel intrusive. Can you live with that?"

"Absolutely," she said. "Glad to hear it. Maybe consider extending that to other people who give you bright ideas."

"I will. Yes. Most of it, anyway. A few..." He gathered himself. "Excuse me. I'll be right back."

When the door closed, Zach said, "You've got him. You will get all the exposure you ask for, and all the protection you can stand. And you deserve every bit of it. Just please be patient with him. Little bit of baggage. He hid me for two years."

"Yes. You are a substantially more patient person than I am."

They waited in silence.

Bruce came back and set a black strap on the table. It looked like a smartwatch. "This is for you, and for you alone. It's private. I have... arrangements I can't extend to everyone. But I can extend them to you."

He flipped open the shiny face of the watch to reveal a button, black on black. "Keep it charged, keep it on you. It tracks location continuously and sends audio if you press the button. If it's urgent, if there's a threat your security can't handle, press the button. Help will come." He tried to smile. "Don't let Elijah play with it."

"Understood," Monique said. She fastened it to her wrist next to the big gold bracelet. "Thank you. Can I change out the band?"

"Sure. Keep it on a necklace if you want, any mounting you like. Just keep it charged, and keep it on you."

"I will. Thank you."

Zach reached over and squeezed Bruce's hand as hard as he could. "If you had any question about whether he's serious about family," he said quietly, "that watch makes you practically blood kin. He doesn't have very many."


Victor Fries watched the screen across from his cell. The video restarted with the approach from the bay, a twilight flight up the river to the bridge, which shimmered and glowed.

The camera slowly looped around the support piles, where eerie tentacles crawled from the water, met by gleaming merpeople with needle-sharp teeth and tridents leaning down from the struts. Looming shapes in the deep shadows, barely lit in dark purples and blues, suggested trolls.

The bridge itself was a thick ribbon of rainbow walls to either side of the traffic. Atop the walls, just above the tallest trucks, angels stood, wings folded or outstretched or preening, aflame with inner light.

They had a variety of genders and body shapes, but most were women. They wore robes, dresses, overalls, suits. They held flaming swords, baseball bats, sledgehammers, beakers, cameras, and paint palettes.

The ones facing down onto the cars stood in static poses, on guard, with solemn expressions. Others facing up and out were screaming, laughing, baring their teeth. They fought goblins that crawled down the support wires, airplanes, swirling abstract shapes, icons. One had impaled a giant dollar sign on a spear. Another was scything a skeleton in half, her face twisted in fury. Many of them fought back-to-back in pairs.

Along the top line, angels with Christmas star crowns danced and drank and kissed, frozen mid-revel. And in the center, surrounded by dancing ice flames in all the colors of the Aurora Borealis...

The camera circled several times for near and far shots from every angle. Nora rose from the pinnacle of the bridge, dress and hair flying, wings at full extension. The broken cryotube splayed around her, caught mid-shatter. She brandished a cutlass. Her eyes were wide with awe at the night sky.

Chapter Text

Zach headed out of the manor, backpack over one shoulder and an entire piece of toast stuffed into his mouth. He flung the back door of the waiting car open and tossed his backpack in ahead of himself. Hines would... That wasn't Hines.

He paused, chewing as fast as he could and patting his pockets to buy time. "Hi! Hines out today?"

"Yeah," the driver said, smiling professionally. "Sorry, it was last-minute. Mark Jones. Pleased to meet you, sir."

"Cool. You too. Sorry, I just realized. Shit. It must be in my room. Be right back."

He dashed back into the house and started up the stairs at a full run, not pulling out his phone until he hit the first landing. He hit the yellow alert button, then called the car company. "Hi. Zach Prendergast here, is Hines on today?"

"Let me check, sir, one moment." He glanced down through the window. Car was still there. "Yes, sir. Usual driver, usual car. Our GPS shows your car has arrived, is there a problem?"

"Shut that car down. Now. Please. And send the cops. Now. Driver looks very similar, called himself Mark Jones, if you've got one of those. I gotta make some calls. Thank you."

He headed further up the stairs, hitting the red alert, and made his next call. "Alfred, someone stole my driver, he's right outside, cops are on their way and he's about to realize we killed his car. What's next?"

B shouted down the hall, "Next you get in here and away from unreinforced walls! Please."

"Yes, dear." Zach got into Bruce's bedroom and collapsed beside him, panting. "Sorry to wake you."

Bruce already had half his clothes on. He paused to put a hand on Zach's hair. "Perfect response." He went back to buttoning his shirt.

"Thanks. I hope Hines isn't dead."

"I hope for his sake that he didn't pull an unannounced shift change, which would get him blackballed from the security industry for life, without my help."

"But then he'll be alive. I'll put my hopes on alive, thanks."

"Yes. Sorry." Bruce pulled on his shoes, then put an arm around Zach. "The odds are good. A nice quiet kidnapping gets cluttered up if you add murder." He zoomed in on a camera feed on the tablet by the bed. The man had gotten out of the car and was looking up in frustration. "No one I recognize, but that means nothing. Hm. Alfred, can you get a clear shot?"

A second later, 'Mark Jones' dropped to the ground, twitching and jerking. Bruce looked away.

"Thanks. That'll buy everyone some time."


B rolled into bed. He rocked Zach gently by the shoulder. "Hines is safe. Found drugged in the company garage. His replacement..." He sighed heavily. "Was Maroni's."

"Was? Is he—"

"He's alive. Sorry. Long night." He wrapped Zach up in his arms and held him tightly, petting his head.

Zach knew it was serious, horribly serious, but there were only so many times he could drag himself to full alertness past midnight, and it wasn't an emergency. B was warm and solid and smelled good. Zach buried his nose in wiry chest hair. "Was he gonna kill me?"

"No. No. They want leverage. They want us to stop."

"We won't. Promise we won't."

"We won't."


"I hope you'll agree this is a very reasonable offer, Mr. Lawford."

Warren Lawford smiled thinly at Wayne's pet real estate negotiator, whose name he had already forgotten. "Under other circumstances, possibly," he said. "But given that Wayne Enterprises seems to be buying up half the property in town at the moment, I believe I'll wait a year and see what the offer looks like then."

"You could do that, of course." She smiled pleasantly. "But I hope you'll factor in that the current offer presumes the inclusion of a structurally sound and habitable high-rise. Which is of course what your last building inspection reflects, and we're happy to take the city's word on that without further assessment. At this price."

"I don't believe I like what you're insinuating, young lady."

Her face stayed utterly neutral, politely confused. "Pardon?"

"I have nothing to hide, and we do not have a deal."


Patricia French's phone rang. What on earth time of night was it? No one would dare unless it was important. She answered without opening her eyes. "Yes?"

"Ms. French, it's the Apogee, it's burning. Fast. I paged my team, but..." Another call beeped, and another.

"Thank you, I get the picture. I'll send out the call."

She pulled on her glasses and squinted at the screen, which glowed too brightly in the dark room. She opened the multi-texting app that had been so thoughtfully set up for her by one of the Granite organizers. She typed in a message, ignoring the half-dozen text alerts popping up except to make sure they were only naming the Apogee. She selected "All - Cascade."

Ms. French called down the swarm.


Seven minutes after the call, the first fire truck arrived on-scene. People streamed from the emergency exits, carrying small children and disabled adults. They were leaving the buildings to either side as well, in a surprisingly orderly fashion. Across the street, a crowd of people waited, offering blankets and water to the evacuees before taking them further away.

Someone blinked a flashlight at the fire crew. Hernandez was closest; she hopped off the truck and approached the signaller while the others started unrolling hoses. "Yes?"

"Fire started on the third, sixth, ninth, and twelfth floors," the signaller said. "We got six out before it spread. All the emergency stairwells are clear, we're getting a count but we think everyone who needs special help is already in a stairwell and on their way down. All the doors have been knocked on. White X means there was no answer."

Hernandez stared at her, taking a moment to process all that. "I see. Anything else we should know?"

"South side's unstable, don't trust any of the supports over there. That's the side where all the fires were set, too. Not likely to be a coincidence. That's what I got, but if you got any questions, I'm point of contact."


=== Alleged Apogee Arsonist Accused ===

Warren Lawford, businessman and landlord of multiple properties, has been taken into custody, charged with solicitation of arson, insurance fraud, and 615 counts of reckless endangerment: the number of residents in the 12-story Apogee Apartments when a fire started on multiple floors at once last night.

53 residents were treated for burns and smoke inhalation, with 4 in serious condition. An anonymous source in the fire department said, "Lawford's lucky. Without quick thinking and a remarkably organized evacuation, we'd be stacking up manslaughter charges instead."

The Apogee is still standing, allowing inspectors to investigate allegations that records have been falsified for the last six years; if confirmed, additional charges might include conspiracy and bribery of a public official.


Nearly ten. Bruce checked against the clock out of long habit. 9:52, running a minute fast but within tolerances. He lowered the ice pack from his jaw and dialed Monique.

"Hi, Bruce." She sounded as steady and controlled as she always did. "You heard?"

"Yeah. Is everyone safe?"

"Yes. Thanks to your button. He came. I pressed the button and he came. I wondered, when you gave it to me. I didn't dare think it, but I wondered." She let out a long, shaky breath. "You really are Gotham's favorite son, aren't you?"

"There's... a history. He would go just as far for anyone in town, if he could. But when we have to choose, we all start closer to home."

"Yes. I suppose we do." She sounded rueful. His memory, unbidden, played back the angles and sound and look on her face when she took out the last goon with a heavy brass lamp. Life had nothing left to teach her about territory.

"For whatever it's worth, if you put any stock in utilitarianism, you're doing at least as much for people's safety as he is right now. He was glad to learn that you're on his short list."

"Ha. Trickledown social equity."

"It's an imperfect world."

"It is. Don't mind me. I haven't slept yet. Thank you. This radical leftist will take all the unchecked extrajudicial favoritism she can get right now."

Bruce laughed, then winced and applied the ice pack to his face again. "How's Elijah taking it?"

"He was pretty shocky last night. We expect ups and downs. But this morning when we wouldn't play Batman and Gangsters with him, he started playing it with his dolls. You could tell him that, if you want. If he'd appreciate it."

"I'll tell him. Thanks. I need to go, meetings, but if you need anything your detail can't get you, text me, 'kay?"

"Will do. Thanks. From all of us."


Carmine Falcone scowled into his drink. "So she's under the bat's wing, too. Damn."

"We could just shoot her," Matteo suggested. Matteo was new in town. Time would tell whether Matteo managed to get old in town.

"No. If we do it now, he just gets another one. There's always another two-bit organizer. And his flavor of the week is attached to this one; they'd name the whole thing after her and double the budget. No, we have to keep this a cold war. Until someone dies, everything is ignorable. Bad luck, petty feuds, a hopelessly idealist scheme that was always doomed to fail. Going against feeding the hungry is not a good look for us."

"In the long run..." Matteo looked antsy. He needed to work on his confidence if he was going to get anywhere in the family. "They're talking licensing. Not as profitable as owning the whole cow, but it looks easy enough to get in on, and stable money instead of wringing it out of people who don't have it in the first place. We just walk in, do some creative accounting, and take our cut."

"It looks easy, doesn't it?" Carmine leaned back and took a long pull on his cigar. "Let me explain something very important about Bruce Wayne. Bruce Wayne looks like an idiot. He talks like an idiot. In any right-thinking world, he would have vices, levers. A wife, two mistresses, and a kilo-a-week habit that he snorts out of the silver spoon the stork delivered him in. We would have a quarter of his money by now and he would never have even noticed, or he'd be in bed with us and wouldn't care.

"Going after Bruce Wayne is like watching a puppy chase his tennis ball through a minefield. You keep throwing the ball and he keeps dancing after it like he has no fucking clue. He just never quite steps on a mine. Or if he does, it turns out to be the one dud." He raised one finger for emphasis, then kept gesturing with it.

"He doesn't use. Anything. He barely drinks. He fucks, but not as much as people think, he doesn't like to pay, and he doesn't like them young. His security is past textbook and into miraculous. His lawyers are piranhas in suits. His company makes awfully sharp decisions for the unsupervised playground of a college dropout. And God help you if you try to get any creative accounting through the Foundation. They won't even try to nail you for fraud. You just lose the contract. It's like punching air.

"And he keeps dancing along, and then? Just when you think something might land, what lands is the bat. On your ass. On your whole operation. And then you've lost another shop, and a captain, and a dozen guys. Wayne's like..." Carmine groped for a word that could contain the scope of his irritation. "Like a magnet. A big, grinning, drunken honeypot lure.

"The bat just stalks after him, waiting for something to stick its neck out, then swoops in and bam, pow! You're out another ten million! And Wayne's zipping off into the fucking sunset in one of his dozen sports cars with his surprisingly skillful defensive driving. Lost three guys trying to run him into a wall before I stopped throwing good money after bad."

"So." Matteo's forehead creased. "Are they actually working together?"

"Who knows? Who's gonna tell us, Bruce Fucking Wayne? Don't think we haven't looked."

"But, I mean. If he really is playing honeypot, that's a hell of a risk. There's gotta be quid pro quo somewhere along the line. If we dig deep enough."

"You have my permission to make that a personal project." Carmine leaned forward and patted Matteo on the shoulder. "I think you'll find it educational."


Bruce sat on the couch with his head in his hands. Zach had a hand on his back and another holding his knee. "What was I thinking. Cleaning up Batman's fuckups from Bruce's accounts. How could I have been so stupid."

"You'd been doing the work, what, a year? And people had just died while you watched."

"They were hardly the first."

Zach hugged him silently. Some brooding spirals just had to be waited out.

"It's groundless. I never slept with either of them. A couple of paternity tests and it evaporates. But if even one news cycle is dominated by 'Did Batman Rub Out Wayne's Romantic Rivals?'..." He shook his head.

Zach took a deep breath. "Is it time for the nuclear option?"


"Hello?" Jaani had her professional voice on.

"Hey, sorry to call you at work. Do you have a minute? It's important."

"Yes, one second." After a pause, she said, "All right. What's up?"

"How serious are you about that fashion line? And how much shit are you willing to put up with to get it, like, now? Tomorrow?"

"I... It's a pipe dream, I haven't even mocked up most of the pieces. Zach. Why do you need an emergency fashion show?"


Bella Timm looked through the designs with pursed lips. Zach watched Jaani out of the corner of his eye. She didn't move a muscle, her eyes fixed on the face of Gotham City's top avant-garde fashion designer.

"Yes. It's workable. With edits, obviously. And the pieces you already have?"

Jaani gestured to the rack in the corner where six garment bags hung in wait, bright patterns and bits of mirror gleaming through the translucent plastic.

"Let's see them, then. Kaileen, get a fitter in here."


The four of them swarmed out of the limo, Bruce and Spence flanked by Zach and Jaani. They paused outside the Asphodel for the first wave of cameras and questions.

"It's great, isn't it?" Zach said. "It's her design. Jaani Sabharwal. She's great, I love her."

"... line just got picked up by Bella Timm, it'll be out this spring."

"Well, I'm not saying we're not seeing each other..."

"No." Zach looked right at the camera. "I'm a man, and I'm happy as a man. And tonight, I'm a man who's rocking this dress. Check out these nails, aren't they amazing?"

"Now if you'll excuse us," Bruce said with a thousand-watt smile, "we have some serious celebrating to do."


=== WAYNEWATCH: GENDER REBEL BOMBSHELLS ===
=== WAYNE'S FASHION FOURSOME ===
=== BRUCE'S BABY WAYNES? ===
=== ZACH P CAUGHT WITH DESI DESIGNER ===