Between a distinct lack of sleep and the residual discomfort from having a victim clinging to him like a lamprey the evening before, Damian found himself in a dismal mood Monday morning. Freeze, Penguin, and Riddler escaped Saturday evening during a shift change, so they'd had a rather eventful weekend attempting to round them up before they caused too much damage. Penguin was relatively easy to find though time-consuming to catch, which meant patrol ran long Sunday night even before he'd come across a mugging in progress on the way home.
It was easily handled. However, the victim was new to Gotham and, judging by her reaction to the event, she would not be a resident here much longer. He'd assisted her through the panic, but she'd continued to cling to his arm and sob until the police arrived. Thankfully Father's training and both Grayson and Jon's tendency toward physical contact taught him how to endure such things years ago. But having someone so close and the noises they make when in such a state did something to his nervous system he couldn't quite explain.
All in all, it'd been a trying and tiring night. Then to top it off, by the time he finally reached his bed at 4 a.m., the uncomfortable sensations remained running down his spine and through his arms. So, he managed little more than a fitful nap before his alarm went off at 7:30.
He slogged into his 9 a.m. class running on fumes and dreading the remainder of the day. Dupain-Cheng slid into the seat beside him moments later, and he nodded in acknowledgment without actually looking up from the emails he was perusing. Or he didn't until a thermos was set on the edge of his desk.
"Looks like you need it more than I do this morning," Dupain-Cheng responded to the questioning stare he'd given her. "Rough night?"
A fatigued groan and vague hand gesture toward the thermos were his response. Dupain-Cheng's expression tightened almost imperceptibly, but she neither retrieved her thermos nor turned her attention from him.
Damian sighed. "I had to put in some unexpected overtime," he explained, "and then I had trouble sleeping." Picking up the thermos, he handed it back to her. "I appreciate the offer, but coffee doesn't agree with me."
"I know those feels," Dupain-Cheng responded as she accepted the thermos back. "I have a couple of clients who are prone to making last-minute orders or changes." She giggled and rolled her eyes. "Pull a couple all-nighters, and your whole sleep schedule gets shot for days."
Professor Hernandez entered the classroom and began class, effectively ending their conversation. Turning his attention to the lecture, Damian opened the notes tab on this phone and took notes for once, unsure whether or not he would recall much of the lecture afterward.
Had he really gone so soft in the past few years that a couple days where he only managed two or three hours sleep rendered him so incapacitated? Or had the near-constant adrenaline high of death looming for the slightest infraction merely hidden the effects?
Focus damn it!
Soon enough, the class ended, and Dupain-Cheng turned to him as the others began packing up.
"Are we still on to finalize the list this evening?" she asked.
Damian nodded. "Would you prefer to work at the manor or on campus?"
"Either's fine," Dupain-Cheng answered with a shrug before starting to gather her materials back into her bookbag.
"If you are uncomfortable at either, other arrangements can be made."
Pausing in her packing, Dupain-Cheng turned to look at him with a furrowed brow. A moment later, something seemed to occur to her, and her expression smoothed.
"I meant what I said the other night," she said. "That kind of thing usually isn't a problem. I..." A blush colored her cheeks, and she fiddled with the strap of her bag. "I was fatigued, and that made it easier to get overloaded. It was just bad timing, not your house."
"Perhaps a quieter area of the manor then?" Damian suggested. "It'd be more conducive to productivity in any event."
Dupain-Cheng smiled and nodded. "Sounds good. Same time?"
"I could pick you up on my way from class," Damian offered. "From what Todd said, it is on the way."
Her eyes went wide. She flushed and began waving her hands in a frantic motion. "That's not necessary," she protested. "I can just take a cab again."
"Nonsense," he said with a dismissive wave and a mild grin. "I was unaware before you did not have a vehicle of your own, and picking you up is far less troublesome than Todd's prattling on the matter."
She sighed. "Fine." Her tone carried the pitch of annoyance, but it was off what he expected. "Text when you're headed my way."
Marinette returned home with an armful of groceries after a full morning of classes. She set the grocery bags on her counter and hung her purse and bookbag over the back of her desk chair. She unpacked the food, setting out some of Tikki, Plagg, and Wayzz favorites, before she settled at her desk with a sandwich and cup of tea.
She figured she had about four and a half hours before Damian came by to pick her up, and she intended to make good use of it. Her Fashion in Culture and Commerce class assigned a fair bit of work due next Thursday that she wanted to get a jump start on. Yet, long experience with high profile clients with hectic schedules taught her to keep a close eye on incoming messages before planning her day.
A message from Penny caught her attention right away.
From: PRolling(a)rollingmedia. com
To: BossLady(a)MDC_Designs. com
Subject: Rush Order for Stone Tour
Good day, Marinette. I hope this email finds you well.
The tour has been just the thing to break Jagged out of the block that's plagued him this past year. He has begun writing new songs again, and he is anxious to release at least a few during the tour itself since ticket sales have been down as of late.
We both know you are busy with classes and are constrained by your visa, so I am tempering his enthusiasm as much as I can. I apologize for the short notice, but the release for the attached single is scheduled for Friday next. We need the usual package. Cover art is due Monday by 8 a.m. Amazon Standard Time. The costume needs to be to us by next Wednesday evening, and the backdrop is due by no later than 10 p.m. AST next Thursday.
Payment will be the usual rate plus supplies and shipping with the rush order fee, of course. Two more songs will follow, but we will not release them until the Mexico leg of the tour next month.
Call me if you have any questions or concerns.
A sense of unease coiled in Marinette's gut as she read back over the email. So now she had an assignment due at the same time as this latest rush order for Jagged plus her classes. Work was good, and this would certainly keep her busy. Yet, there was something she couldn't quite place nagging at her.
Marinette pulled up her calendar. Might as well check to see if she had anything else scheduled over the next week and a few days and write down this latest bit of work before she forgot, right? Saturday and Sunday being completely blocked out in the blue she reserved for MDC Designs' tasks caught her eye. How had she forgotten Hunter City Anime Con was this weekend? She'd purchased the pass months ago, and it was nonrefundable.
The urge to panic hit and hit hard, but the past two years of therapy had helped her improve her ability to recognize and derail spirals as they started. It wasn't perfect, but she was getting better. She'd always found stopping responsibility overwhelm far easier for her than more self-directed spirals or dealing with sensory stuff. So, she acknowledged the beginnings of the spiral for what it was, took a couple of deep breaths, and started mapping out how she would manage her time.
She could eat while she listened to the new song a couple of times. Then she could draft the rough designs before Damian came by, and start working on her newest assignments when she returned home.
Nodding to herself, Marinette downloaded the audio file and lyrics.
Damian wasn't one to visit his brothers. In fact, he generally avoided them when possible. Yet, desperate times call for desperate measures, so he let himself into the apartment Todd kept for when he was on the outs with Father that afternoon for a much-needed power nap and some easy energy from Todd's hoard of discounted sweets. An hour wasn't great, but it was enough to make it through the remainder of the day as well as the work session he had planned with Dupain-Cheng.
As agreed, he messaged the woman as he left Gotham University, and she was waiting on him when he pulled into her block's parking garage. Dupain-Cheng was obviously fatigued, but she still looked fresher than he felt, a fact he found irksome. More irritating still, she was obviously distracted, headphones in and sketching away in a notebook by the time he pulled back out onto the street.
"Am I interrupting?" he asked, raising his voice to be heard over the music he could almost hear from her headphones.
Dupain-Cheng startled and paused the music. Removing one headphone, she asked him to repeat himself.
"Am I interrupting?"
"Oh," she muttered once his meaning visibly registered a moment later. She removed the other headphone and began packing her materials away. "Sorry. I didn't think you would want to get started while on the road." She let out a nervous sounding laugh. "Watching the road instead of focusing on notes and all."
"Quite," he agreed. "Though I wasn't expecting to be completely ignored."
"Sorry," Dupain-Cheng apologized again.
Something about her manner and the excess of apologies struck him, creating a squeezing sensation deep in his chest. Why?
"I came home to a new assignment for work with a tight deadline, and I got caught up in it," Dupain-Cheng explained.
"Oh?" Damian raised an eyebrow in a show of curiosity. He already knew the answer, but he might as well ask anyhow since she didn't know that. "What do you do? I'd assumed you were here on a student visa, and those are usually quite restrictive, I thought."
"I am, but I have a CPT agreement allowing me to continue work for my employer," she answered. Apparently deciding she'd get no more done, she slid her notebook, phone, and headphones back into her bag. "I'm a designer for Rolling Media. What about you?"
Damian huffed. "I work with Wayne Enterprises, of course," he said. "Why come to GU if you're already a designer with Rolling and a good enough one at that they'd bother securing a CPT? Seems like a waste."
"I could ask the same of you," Dupain-Cheng laughed. "Though, as grateful as I am to Rolling, and however much I love the work I do for them, I have my own ambitions. If I want to launch my own brand, I need the credentials to back it up and enough business sense to not get conned."
"Ambitious indeed," Damian agreed. "The same can be said for me," he continued, turning onto the road that would lead them out of the main part of the city. "I have learned a lot shadowing others over the years, but I still have much to learn if I plan to head the family business one day."
"You do seem more the type than Jason," Dupain-Cheng agreed.
Damian nodded. "Todd prefers to aide our community outreach programs much of the time." This earned a warm smile from the woman. "Drake has assisted Father with the day-to-day running for several years now, but I fear he will burn himself out keeping the pace he is now."
Dupain-Cheng grimaced. "Ten out of ten, do not recommend," she commented. "Has no one talked to him about slowing down?"
"Only everyone," Damian grumbled. "Drake has a pathological need to 'earn' acceptance and an under-responsive interoceptive sense. So he pushes himself to do everything and does not always recognize his body's needs."
Damian hummed in agreement. The conversation lapsed into silence. The turn of their conversation toward Drake brought a host of questions he'd had nagging at his subconscious for days, and his internal filter was weakened by his recent lack of sleep.
That's what he'd tell himself afterward anyway.
"What does sensory overload feel like?"
Dupain-Cheng flinched, and her body language was guarded as she turned toward him. "Why do you ask?"
"In addition to you, I know several individuals who experience difficulty with sensory processing," Damian explained, casting about internally for a way of phrasing this that wouldn't be offensive. Why did he ask? He has better control than this! "I wish to better understand your experiences. Perhaps then, I could be of more help should the need arise."
"Oh, okay," Dupain-Cheng said. Her expression cleared, and she gazed out of the front window, seemingly gathering her thoughts.
"It can vary," she said eventually. "Even from one time to the next, so it's not exactly easy to explain. Sometimes bad sensory input starts out as just unpleasant. An itch that just won't go away no matter how much you scratch, a gross sound or smell, overlapping conversations you can't filter out.
"Other times, it's almost like your body tries to reject the stimuli. It makes you gag or nauseated or it hurts." She let out a laugh that sounded almost bitter. "I spent a long time taking painkillers I didn't need because I thought I had migraines when it was visual and auditory overload manifesting as a severe headache.
"Then there are times like Thursday where the bad stimuli…" she trailed off, sounding frustrated. "It's almost like it short circuits your nerves. You touch something, and the texture of it, just the memory of touching it, sends a crawling sensation up and down your limbs and spine." She shuddered as if illustrating. "Or there's just too much information coming in all at once, and it's like a computer that's locked up but you keep entering commands anyway until it crashes."
Damian sat processing what he'd been told. Quite a bit of what she'd described struck a chord with him, and he wasn't sure how he felt about that.
He used his key fob to open the gate as they pulled into the manor drive.
"Thank you," he said, voice quiet and less sure than he'd like. "That is quite helpful."
Marinette followed Damian up the stairs to a study on the second floor, still trying to process the odd conversation they'd had on the way over. Aside from Luka, no one had ever inquired about how she experienced sensory input. Her therapist back in Paris had focused only on finding triggers and ways to mitigate or prevent self-harmful stims and behaviors. Everyone else had simply continued responding to her based on their own assumptions, whether she attempted to explain or not.
It was weird being asked that kind of question. Kind of frightening too, if she was honest with herself, not knowing why he wanted to know or what he'd do with the information. Yet, something in the way he spoke about Tim just before and the way he asked, the reason he gave, made her trust him.
Hopefully her trust hadn't been misplaced again.
Marinette shook her head and took a deep breath as Damian stopped in front of a set of double doors. Now wasn't the time to let herself get distracted. They needed to finalize their list of works to base each episode on before the night was done, and she still had work to finish when she got home.
The room was in a newer looking part of the manor, though she could not tell if it had been added on or renovated. From what she could see, great pains had been taken to match the original look of the manor, but the stain used on the panels was a shade off what was used in the entrance, indicating the original was likely discontinued. She hoped that meant the walls would be a bit more sound resistant up here, or the house would be less lively this evening.
Settling in one of the overstuffed chairs, Marinette pulled her marketing binder out of her bag and flipped to the list of potential works she'd written up over the weekend.
"So what did you come up with?" she asked.
"I'm afraid my reading list was a bit different than most," Damian said, flipping through a file of his own. "I am much more well versed in nonfiction, but I found the Project Gutenburg website to be quite helpful."
Marinette nodded, having turned to the website herself when she started having difficulty remembering titles outside her personal favorites or without just writing out her favorite authors' list of published works.
"Pygmalion, Around the World in 80 Days, Treasure Island, The Count of Monte Cristo, and The Huntchback of Notre Dame seem fitting," he said.
"Pygmalion," Marinette mused to herself. She recognized the name, but what it was, she could not recall.
"A play by Shaw touching on the role of accent and language education on social standing in England."
"Oh, it's the one that got turned into that musical with Audrey Hepburn," Marinette said with a smile. "Beautiful costuming."
"I wouldn't know." Damian's tone was inflectionless so far as she could tell, but the way he shrugged made it seem a mere statement of fact. "What are your suggestions?"
"My first thought was to do some of Shakespeare's histories," Marinette said, "but then I realized that, although he took a lot of liberties with events, that'd still be too much like a documentary versus a mockumentary. So, I was thinking, Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, Le Morte d'Arthur, A Study in Scarlet, Don Quixote, and Gulliver's Travels."
"Don't Le Morte d'Arthur and Gulliver's Travels have fantastical elements to them?" Damian asked, noting something down in his file. "Wouldn't that push things a bit too far?"
Marinette hummed. They did want it to be "obvious" they were mockumentaries, but part of the joke with those is an element of believability, no matter how ludicrous the topic.
"You're probably right," she said. "Although, the only thing in Le Morte d'Arthur, if I am remembering correctly, is the vision of the Lady of the Lake taking back Excalibur. That could be explained away as a comforting lie Bedivere told Arthur, who was delusional with fever on his deathbed or something."
Damian nodded along with her reasoning.
"Gulliver's on the other hand," she continued. "Yeah, maybe we ought to strike that one out."
Jason stalked toward the second-floor study. He'd gotten back to his apartment after work to find his stuff moved and his candy stash raided. Not that he minded his brothers coming by now and again, but courtesy was a thing. So, he was on his way to remind the little demon it was polite to ask before helping yourself to someone's home seeing as he was the only one who would have had the chance to mess with his stuff today.
Alfred was kind enough to point him in the right direction upon arriving back at the manor and to give him a heads up the brat had apparently brought Marinette home once again. So, knowing he'd have the opportunity to see her without having to concoct an excuse to visit, while subtly warning her of Damian's less than stellar aspects of personality, was a nice bonus. Two birds, one stone so far as he was concerned.
However, he was not prepared to find them already packing up when he pushed one of the doors open. It was barely seven when he'd arrived. They were done already?
Damian scowled at him, and Marinette's expression was rather surprised though pleased as they turned to see who had entered.
"Will you join us for dinner?" Damian asked, apparently deciding to ignore Jason's existence. "It's nearly 7:30, so I expect it will be ready momentarily."
"I appreciate the offer, but I really must be getting home," Marinette answered. "Between an assignment for another class and that rush order…" She trailed off, continuing a moment later almost to herself. "I'm not even sure if I will be able to meet up Thursday evening if I want to make Hunter City this weekend."
"Hunter City?" Damian asked.
Marinette jumped, seemingly surprised anyone had heard her. "Hunter City Anime Con," she explained. "I've had my pass for a couple of months." She sighed. "I'd just skip it, but they're nonrefundable. And I only have so much time and money to try and scout the circuit here in the states."
The thought it sounded like Mari was planning to put down roots in the area distracted Jason, but not to the point he missed the flash of suspicion in Damian's eyes before it was hidden behind a curious mask. Damn Bruce and his paranoia. He might as well have programmed them all with trigger words with the way certain ones sparked suspicion for them all now, no matter the context. He'd better stomp that out right the hell now.
"Scout the circuit," Jason said, cutting Damian off before he had the chance to start talking. "You make it sound like you're planning to set down roots and bring MDC with you, Poprock."
Marinette finished packing her stuff back up and shrugged. "Nothing's set in stone, but Paris lost all appeal years ago, Jay. It's not home anymore."
"MDC?" Damian asked.
Jason wanted to roll his eyes. Like he didn't already know.
"MDC Designs," Marinette answered. "Remember that brand I mentioned wanting to launch?"
"I've had to put it in a holding pattern for now, but it's the start of it," she explained. "It's largely focused on costuming and creating fandom based accessories and what not with sales at conventions bolstering the profit margin at present."
"You are evaluating this convention as a possible sales venue."
Marinette nodded. "Each city, each convention has its own culture." She smiled. "I'm not going to move my whole life on a hope and a prayer."
"Prudent," Damian agreed with a nod of his own. "I can see how the new assignments are inconvenient." He gathered his own bag and the three of them left the study.
"We've determined our source material," Damian continued as they walked back toward the staircase. "Perhaps we can brainstorm rough ideas as to the content of each one between now and our next session?"
"Sounds good to me," Mari agreed. "We can work out the details Thursday morning. I ought to have a better idea of what my schedule will look like next week by then."
Damian stopped by his room, drawing Marinette's attention as she paused as well. Opening the door, he dropped his bag just inside and glanced back over his shoulder.
"Did you need something, Todd, or were you planning to loom over our shoulders all night?"
"Oh, I was just waiting for a chance to have a word with you, Demon Spawn," Jason answered, snickering internally at the face Pix was making at Damian's barb.
"I'll just," Marinette said with a gesture over her shoulder toward the stairs. "I need to call a cab anyway."
"No need, Poprock," Jason cut in. He tossed an arm around Damian's shoulders, causing the brat to scowl at him again. "Give me a sec to speak with my little bro here, and I'll drive you home. I was about to head back out anyway."
He really wasn't. Patrol was coming up soon, and Alfred's cooking was far better before a long night chasing dirtbags than anything he could scrounge at home. But the chance to figure out what exactly Mari was up too was worth the sacrifice.
She looked between the two of them, visibly uncertain, but nodded nevertheless. Damian rolled his shoulders, shrugging Jason's arm off, as she turned to head downstairs.
"What is it?"
"Next time you need to crash on the couch, call first, would ya?" Jason said, ignoring the irritated growl from Damian. "And keep your grubby mits outta my stash. You can get your own candy."
The residual sensation from Todd's surprise hold brought Dupain-Cheng's words back to mind. He made a mental note to conduct further research upon completing his work for the evening and tried to set it aside. Yet the tension remained, a constant distraction he couldn't shake.
Eventually, Damian gave up the effort as unproductive and searched through the pertinent symptoms once again, comparing and contrasting those for SPD alone versus autism. This time though, he searched out first-hand accounts instead of sticking solely to academic sources as Dupain-Cheng's lived experience resonated in a way the lists he'd seen before never had. Yet, after hours, he remained with more questions than answers, a state he abhorred.
A glance at the time showed it was approaching midnight. Drake was patrolling with the others at this time since Damian was the only one excused, as he was each Monday and Thursday throughout the semester. He'd send a text. They silenced notifications while on patrol as a matter of protocol, unless they reached a lull, so there was little danger of distracting him.
Me: I require your assistance when you are free.