Chapter Four: It's Not Paranoia If...
Richie closed the front door behind him as he walked into his house, stomping his feet a few times on the welcome mat for good measure. The house was silent - no television blaring, no voices raised in fetid anger, not even the sound of the air conditioner humming. Richie wiped a bead of sweat off his brow. To save on energy costs, his mother kept the thermostat at 85 in the summer, at 64 in the winter - yet another good reason to hang out at Virgil's house.
"Mom?" Richie repeated, wandering in toward the kitchen. His mother's car was in the driveway, so he knew she was around somewhere. Walking through the entryway to the kitchen, he saw a cup of cold coffee left alone on the counter, papers spread out across the table. "You home?"
"In the laundry room, Richie!" came his mother's voice from inside the pantry next to the garage, where they kept the washer and dryer. She grunted as she came around the corner, balancing a heavy basket of clean clothes on her hip.
Richie hurried forward. "Here, let me," he said, taking the basket from her as she nodded her thanks. He set the basket down on a clean spot on the table, automatically reaching in and grabbing a shirt, folding it neatly. "Got a lot of work to do?" he asked, gesturing with a nod of his head down at the papers.
"Always." His mother gave him an enigmatic smile, taking up a dishtowel and patting the sweat from her face. "The firm has me editing a few proposals that need to go out on Monday. George, bastard that he is, thrust it on me as I was leaving the office yesterday."
"How nice of him," Richie said with a roll of his eyes, grabbing a handful of mismatched socks and trying to pair them up.
"I'm glad you're home, though." Maggie sighed, automatically reaching for and taking a sip of her coffee, making a sour face when she realized how tepid it became in her absence. Shrugging, she went to the freezer and grabbed a handful of ice cubes, tossing them inside her mug. "With all this work I'm stuck doing, I'm not going to get any of the chores done this weekend. Your father had to run down to the hardware store to buy a replacement hose for the lawn mower, which broke down again. You know how upset that gets him."
"Oh," Richie replied, staring down at the socks in his hands and grimacing. "Yeah, Mom, about that..."
His mother, who had just sat down and dragged a thick file in front of her, raised her head at Richie's tone, a disapproving look on her face. "Do not tell me you made other plans, young man," she said sharply. "I haven't seen you in three days."
"I know and I'm sorry," Richie told her apologetically, dropping the socks. "Things have just... gotten really complicated in the last couple of days. You remember that thing I had to fix? About a week ago?"
"Yes, I think I would remember my son teleporting into my kitchen when he returned," she replied, narrowing her eyes. "You told me you fixed that."
"Well, I fixed that, but not the rest of it," Richie said patiently. "So, I had to go back up a few days ago to try to fix the root cause and..."
"Wait, wait, wait." Maggie stood up, holding her hand out to stall Richie from speaking any further. "You went into outer space again? Without telling me?"
Richie opened his mouth, then closed it, swallowing heavily. "I didn't think it would be a problem."
"You thought wrong, mister," Maggie said, waggling a finger at him. "I wouldn't let you take a road trip out of the city without telling me first. I certainly don't want you going into outer space without at least letting me know about it! What if we had some kind of family emergency? How would I contact you?"
"Well..." Richie trailed off, frowning. He'd never considered that. "I might be able to hook you up with some kind of communicator, should the need arise."
"That is not the point!" Maggie sighed, taking off her glasses and rubbing her eyes. "You're not even seventeen years old, Richie. You're still a minor. I understand that the Justice League is cool and all, but you can't just disappear like that without telling me. Whatever tragedies might befall this crazy world of ours, you're still a child. I can't believe those adults allowed you to just go up into space all willy-nilly without even an ounce of hesitation that they should confirm it with your parents first. The school wouldn't even let you go on that field trip to the museum unless we signed a permission slip. What kind of organization are they running up there?"
Richie suddenly got a mental image of J'onn sending home a permission slip for his mother to sign before he engaged in any superheroing. 'Please allow Richie Foley, a.k.a. Gear, to save the world today. Snacks will be provided, so there's no need to pack a lunch.' It made him smile, but a huff from his mother smothered that smile quick enough.
"You're right," Richie said, knowing better than to argue with her. "I should have told you. I'm sorry that I didn't. It was thoughtless of me. But, this is really, really important, Mom."
"Everything's important when you're sixteen," she said with a shake of her head, sitting back down and taking a long sip of her iced coffee. She gestured for Richie to sit down. "So, tell me what's going on."
"Well, it's like this." Richie took a deep breath and sat down, pushing the laundry basket across the table so he could see his mother's face. "The Watchtower was being hacked into by an unknown assailant and I went up there to try to fix the problem, but I couldn't, so I had the Justice League evacuate and shut the whole place down since there's a risk the giant gun on top of it could be used to blow up something here on terra firma. J'onn J'onzz, who's a Martian, showed up the day before last to help me work on the problem at our hideout, but we didn't get any closer to finding it. So, after he left Virgil's house after dinner, I decided just to sleep over there, since it was so late. Last night, somebody burned down our hideout, so I'm not able to continue my work on the Watchtower here, so Superman wants to fly me to Gotham so I can use Batman's equipment to get back to work. And that's it."
His mother, who'd raised her coffee mug to take another sip, paused mid-movement, staring at Richie like he'd grown an extra head. He reached up his hand to check when she didn't say anything - one never knew with Dakota. Then, she put her coffee mug down heavily on the table with a 'thunk'.
"Mr. Hawkins had a Martian over for dinner?" Maggie asked, blinking rapidly.
"Mom!" Richie sighed, slapping his forehead. "That's not the point. The point is, I need to go to Gotham. I promise I'll be safe and I'm planning to try to get back as quickly as possible. So can I go? Please?"
"Oh, I don't know, Richie." Maggie stood up, taking her coffee mug over to the sink to rinse it out. "I'm not sure I'm comfortable with the idea of an alien flying you to Gotham to hang out with a man who dresses up like a bat. Try to look at it from my point of view. What mother in her right mind would agree to this?"
Richie started to reply, then stopped. Okay, she had a good point. It did sound a little crazy, when she put it like that. Then again, Richie's life had been just shy of insane for a little over two years as it was, so it shouldn't be that surprising. Brain puppets, evil computer programs, getting strapped to a table by a man obsessed with nanites, giant toys and robot teachers, an oversized, mutant bacterium raiding the school - all of it ranked right up there. Still, as far as crazy things went, having an alien fly him to Gotham to hang out with a man who dressed up like a bat was downright tame.
"A mom of a superhero?" Richie suggested lamely. "Look, I promise it will be okay. And the world is really counting on me. It could be worse, Mom. At least I'm not on drugs."
"Whoopee," his mother said dryly, waving her hands in mock-celebration. She sighed again, leaning back against the counter. "Do they have a support group for this kind of thing? Can I meet for coffee with Superman's mother and father once a month to complain about all of you?"
"Um, I don't think so," Richie said, frowning. It might be a good idea, though. Maybe he could suggest it to Superman during the flight. "So, can I go?"
"I guess so," she said, not looking too happy about it. "You need to call me every night to let me know you're okay, though. I don't trust these Justice League people not to take advantage of you. What am I supposed to tell your father? He hasn't been thrilled at your disappearances lately."
"The story's gonna be that I'm going fishing with Virgil," Richie told her. "He's going to stay out of sight while I'm gone, which shouldn't be too hard, since there's so much that needs to be done at the headquarters to get it back in shape."
"Fine," she said, pushing off the counter. "Bring me back a souvenir and no crime fighting while you're there. You're there to do what you need to do - let Batman take care of his own city. The last thing I want to hear on the news is that Gear is giggling his head off after an encounter with the Joker."
"Fair enough." Richie stood up and grabbed his mother up in a hug. "Thanks, Mom. I really appreciate it. You're so cool."
"Thanks," she said, kissing his cheek. "Now go save the world. And don't forget to call me when you get to Gotham."
Richie hurried down the street, a brown bag clutched in his hand and a small backpack over his shoulders. The conversation with his mother took longer than he expected, so he was running late. Superman would probably have something to say about it, but Richie didn't care. Superman was nearly invulnerable. His parents probably didn't worry nearly as much as his own. These things had to be handled delicately.
Ducking down the ally, he stepped over a few piles of reeking trash as he walked into the space behind Gino Lopez's Pizza and Tacos, an interesting fusion place that did amazing business. Where else could you got a burrito pizza with hot sauce and nachos on the side? He didn't see Superman right away.
On his head, he'd tied a bandana, his glasses replaced with a pair of prescription sunglasses. While he could go as Gear, without Backpack he had some trouble getting the whole flying thing down. The last thing he wanted was to be a target for a random Bang Baby without his equipment.
"Superman?" he called, wondering idly if the man got sick of waiting and just left. It seemed highly unlikely, but if that were the case, Richie would just hop a bus to Gotham. He'd almost prefer it.
Looking up, Richie watched Superman drift down from above. He landed primly on the ground, arms crossed over his chest, looking far more imposing than a man in blue and red spandex had a right to look. Screwing up his courage, Richie forced himself to stand up straight and meet the alien's flat gaze head on.
"Yeah, I am," Richie said flippantly, as if he didn't care about Superman's schedule, which was true enough. This was his show, after all. "I had to talk to my mom. She made us sandwiches for the trip."
Richie thrust out the paper bag and Superman raised an eyebrow, some of that imposing façade fading in surprise. When he didn't do anything else, Richie reached in and pulled out the two wrapped sandwiches, handing one to the still-stunned Superman, unwrapping his own and holding it up for the Man of Steel's inspection. He waved it in what he hoped was an enticing manner.
"Peanut butter and honey," he said, taking a bite. "The bread's a little stale, but it was on sale. Also, she put in some frozen juice boxes. We'll probably have to wait until we get to Gotham to drink those. Eat up."
Superman looked at the sandwich like he was afraid it would bite him, then took the initiative and ate a bit of it. He chewed thoughtfully. Richie tried not to laugh at him. His mother, worried he wouldn't get lunch, wanted to make sure he ate. Since she considered impolite for a person to eat without having something to share, she made an extra lunch for Superman.
"She said she didn't want you suffering from low blood sugar while carrying me several hundred feet in the air," Richie explained, finishing off his sandwich in a few, easy bites. "I tried telling her that I didn't think it was possible for you to suffer from low blood sugar, but she didn't care. You know how mothers are."
"Yeah, I do," Superman said and he cracked his first smile of the day, brushing his hands together a few times to wipe them off. "Tell your mom she makes a good sandwich the next time you see her."
"Which will hopefully be in a few days." Richie leaned down and put his brown bag in his backpack, taking out a sweater and another bandana at the same time. He tugged the sweater on over his t-shirt, then tied the bandana around his face. It felt insufferably hot in all those layers, but he knew he'd need them. "Okay. I'm ready to go," he started, then paused, looking around. "Where's Backpack?"
He'd left the robot at the new headquarters, with the understanding that Superman would bring it along. It wasn't easy to carry Backpack around in its current state. Richie didn't want to draw strange looks as he walked home.
"I went ahead and flew it to Batman already," Superman said with a shrug. "I like having both my hands free while carrying people several hundred feet above the ground. Besides, it's always a good idea to warn Batman when he's going to have company. The man's a little cranky sometimes."
Richie didn't say anything along the lines that most of the Justice League was a little cranky more than sometimes, but he thought it, grateful that Superman wasn't a telepath.
"Makes sense," he said instead, stepping up to Superman and awkwardly putting his arms around his neck. He really didn't like this whole being carried thing, but he didn't have much of a choice. "Let's get this over with."
Superman nodded and picked Richie up like some kind of damsel in distress, then leapt into the air. Richie cringed, hoping nobody would see him like this. Then again, he was in disguise, even if it wasn't a very good disguise. A vague sense of vertigo overtook him as Superman accelerated high into the air, his stomach sinking to somewhere in the vicinity of his feet.
In the comic books, flying in the arms of a superhero was this romantic, enjoyable thing, the city rushing along below while strong arms held a person aloft. In reality, Richie found it incredibly uncomfortable and a little sickening, not to mention freezing. Superman accelerated slowly, which was good, since Richie's eyeballs would probably pop out of his head if the alien went immediately at top speed. The harsh winds blowing across his skin dried it out, making him instantly thirsty and itchy. As their speed picked up, the air around them became a negative space, like a sucking vacuum. It was hard to breathe, his lungs working over time to suck in the thin, icy air, and he buried his face against Superman's chest, trying to create a little pocket of undisturbed air to breathe in. His own harsh breathing made the air have a little too much carbon dioxide, leaving him feeling light-headed and nauseous. Tiny ice crystals formed on his eyelashes and the tips of his hair, his breath coming out in tiny puffs of visible clouds as the moisture in his breath crystallized in the freezing air. Only Superman's unnatural heat kept him from freezing to death as they soared to heights above any airplane's path, the clouds like fluffy pillows below them.
All in all, it was an absolutely terrible way to travel.
It didn't take very long to get to Gotham, but to Richie it felt like an eternity. His eyes squeezed shut, he didn't see their descent so much as felt it, his stomach rolling around in his abdominal cavity in protest. He risked opening his eyes just a crack as Superman dipped down steeply, the sandwich he'd just eaten rising up into this throat at the move. The light around them abruptly faded as they entered a deep cave, passing through the long tunnel in a few seconds before it opened up into a dark cavern that stretched around them dizzyingly in all directions.
Superman gradually slowed his speed and landed gently on the stone floor, the sounds of squeaking bats echoing eerily around them. Richie didn't make any move to let go, uncertain he could stand steadily with his body shaking so hard. Also, he was afraid he'd make a mess of the nice Batcave floor if he tried to move too quickly. Superman must have understood this, because he made no move to put Richie down.
"Batman!" Superman called, taking a few steps forward with Richie still in his arms. "We're here!"
Batman's voice was deep and a little scary. In the expansive cave, Richie didn't know exactly where it was coming from, but he assumed the man was close by. Pushing out of Superman's arms, he stood shakily, Superman's hand on his shoulder to keep him from falling over. Doubling up, he wrapped his arms around his stomach, trying very hard not to throw up, eyes still squeezed shut as he drew in deep breaths in attempt to assure his lungs all was well. The air in the cave was damp and cool, smelling vaguely of guano, which did nothing to alleviate his nausea.
"Fly the friendly skies my ass," Richie groaned, sinking down to his knees and curling in around himself.
"Wow. How fast did you go?" came a younger voice Richie recognized as Robin's.
"Not that fast," Superman said, and he sounded a little put out.
Richie swallowed heavily. "I get air sick," he said, not opening his eyes or moving.
Someone walked up to Richie, hard-soled shoes clicking along the Batcave floor. The person leaned down and carefully removed the bandana around his face, pressing a cool glass of water to his lips. A gentle hand rubbed his back, a soothing, accented voice speaking softly in his ear.
"Easy now, Mr. Foley," Alfred said calmly in that grandfatherly way of his. "Drink this slowly. You'll feel right again in no time."
Richie sipped the water gratefully, which did do a good job of settling his stomach. Cracking his eyes open, he momentarily panicked when he couldn't see, then remember his sunglasses. Taking them off, he could see Alfred smiling at him, sort of. Everything was terribly blurry. Unshouldering his backpack, he reached in and grabbed his glasses case, swapping his sunglasses for his regular eyewear.
"That's better," Richie said, giving Alfred a tremulous smile. "Thanks Alfred."
"Not at all, Mr. Foley."
Alfred helped him stand up and Richie looked around the Batcave. It was the same as he remembered it, the giant penny glittering in the overhead industrial lighting, while the huge Batcomputer hummed softly in the background. Robin was sitting backwards in the chair in front of the computer, swinging his legs in a bored fashion. Batman stood nearby, standing stock still as he waited for Richie to recover. He didn't look especially happy, but Batman never looked especially happy.
"I'm okay now," he told the collection of two superheroes, a sidekick, and the butler. It wasn't a complete lie - he did feel remarkably better, now that both his feet were planted firmly on the ground. Scanning the room, he spotted Backpack resting on a table not far from where Superman landed. Walking over to it, he placed both his hands on the melted surface and sighed. "It's not."
Batman practically glided across the floor to stand behind him, looking over Richie's shoulder at the damaged robot. "Can you fix it?" he asked, gesturing with a quick wave of his hand over at his own tools and scientific equipment.
Under normal circumstances, Richie knew he would be downright giddy at the prospect of getting his hands on the amazing laboratory Batman owned. Unfortunately, it seemed like every time he got the chance, dire circumstances surrounded him. The last, and only previous, time he'd been in the Batcave, he'd been so worked up about dragging Virgil back into the present, he didn't get to enjoy it then, either. Now, probably due to a combination of the semi-fight with his mother, the sickening flight over from Dakota, and the loss of the gas station and everything that entailed, Richie felt more down than he expected.
"Hope so," Richie said, trying to keep the disheartening tone out of his voice, but he suspected he was failing. "It's going to take a few days, though, at least. I hope you don't mind me crashing here for awhile."
"I have already taken the liberty of preparing a room for you upstairs," Alfred said, walking up to Richie and relieving him of the small backpack he'd brought with him. It only contained a couple of shirts, a spare pair of slacks, and his toothbrush, deodorant, and other toiletries. Richie preferred to pack light when traveling. "You are free to roam the grounds and the upstairs as you like, with the exception of the west wing on the third floor, which is forbidden."
"Pardon?" Richie looked up at the butler in surprise.
Alfred smiled mildly at him. "I'm joking, of course."
"He does that sometimes," Robin said, giving Alfred a wicked smile. "He thinks he's funny, but he's not. You'll get used to it."
Richie grinned at Robin, a grin that quickly faded. Out of the corner of his eye, he spotted Superman and Batman exchanging meaningful looks. With a final shared glance, the two of them disappeared off into the shadows and out of earshot. Richie knew, without a doubt, they were talking about him. He didn't like that so much.
"Come along, Master Timothy," Alfred said, gesturing with a small incline of his head toward the stairs. "I'll need your assistance to prepare dinner for our guests and I believe you have some homework demanding your attention prior to your patrol this evening?"
"Alfred, it's Saturday," Robin groaned, but he stood up anyway. "I've got all day tomorrow to do it."
"Yes, but if you do it now, you'll have all day tomorrow to relax," Alfred replied easily. "Furthermore, I'm certain Mr. Foley needs to focus his attentions on the task at hand without distractions. Let us allow him to do his work."
"Fine, fine," Robin said with a sigh that seemed to come from his toes. "This is because I said you're not funny, isn't it?"
"In some circles, I'm considered hilarious." Alfred gave Robin a tiny push in the direction of the stairs, gracing Richie with a small, encouraging smile over his shoulder. "If there is anything you require, Mr. Foley, you need only ask."
"Thanks, Alfred," Richie said, smiling at the two of them in spite of his bad mood and misgivings. "While I'm thinking about it, do you have a phone I can use? I need to call my mother and let her know I got here okay."
"I believe one of those many doo-dads on the main computer serves the purpose of a phone," Alfred informed him, gesturing vaguely over to the Batcomputer. "Second compartment from the right near the bottom, if memory serves me correctly."
"Great," Richie said, going over to the Batcomputer, "and you don't have to call me Mr. anything, remember?"
"As you wish, Richard." With that, Alfred and Robin disappeared up the stairs and Richie could still hear them arguing about the merits of doing homework early up until the point the door closed.
Sure enough, as Richie opened the panel, he saw a black phone hidden inside. While normally he didn't like to call long distance from an unfamiliar home, he figured Batman could afford it. Dialing the familiar number, he listened as the phone rang and waited patiently for his mother to answer, only occasionally glancing off into the shadows. Batman and Superman hadn't returned, yet.
"Uh huh. Yeah, Mom. I will."
Richie rolled his eyes, the phone propped up between his shoulder and his chin. He'd been on the phone with his mother for ten minutes already. She'd started in on the benefits of good hygiene and not talking to strangers in the last five, which Richie found quite odd. Normally, she'd trust him to do these sorts of things. Maybe his being in Gotham with a man who dressed up like a bat made her even more nervous than she let on.
"Are you sure you're going to get enough to eat?" she asked, sounding worried. "Maybe I should have given you some more money."
"Yes, I'm sure," Richie told her, shifting the phone over to his other ear and squatting down to examine the goodies in Batman's tool kit. Was that a hydraulic saw? "Everything's cool, Mom. I promise. You don't have to worry about me."
"I always worry about you," came her exasperated reply. "It's in my job description."
Richie cracked a tiny smile at that, pushing aside the hydraulic saw, pleased to discover a set of perfectly calibrated torque wrenches. "I know, Mom, but nothing's wrong. Superman didn't drop me, Batman didn't corrupt me, and I haven't taken a joyride around the city on Robin's motorcycle. "
"Richard Osgood Foley, don't you even joke about something like that!" his mother said, alarmed. "Do you have any idea how dangerous those things are?"
"Yes, ma'am." Richie tried to hold back a squeal of girlish delight when he lifted up the next level of the toolbox and saw was rested below it. Oh, he was in tech geek heaven.
"They're nicknamed donor cycles for a reason, young man," his mother carried on. "Do you have any idea the statistics on... winning cases like this, Alice? We're going to need to completely rework what we've already submitted thanks to the prosecution making those motions to the judge."
Richie blinked at the sudden change in his mother's conversation, temporarily brought out of his technology-inspired euphoria by the subtle change in the tone of her voice. He could hear a door banging shut in the background and, right on cue, his father's complaining about something started up with force. Richie froze, straining to listen in, trying to get a picture of his father's mood. As usual, it didn't sound good.
"You believe what I have to put up with, Maggie?" he heard him yelling as he moved toward the kitchen where his mother was preparing dinner. "Unbelievable that... who are you talking to?"
"Just Alice from work," his mother lied smoothly, and Richie could tell she'd pulled the phone away and covered the mouthpiece with her hand, her voice muffled. "We've got some cases on our plate right now that..."
"I don't care. It's almost dinnertime and we don't accept calls at this hour, even on the weekends. You know that. Hang it up."
"Okay." She must have taken her hand off the receiver, because her voice became clearer. "I have to go, Alice. I'll talk to you later. Take care of yourself."
"I will," Richie promised uneasily, standing up, a frown on his face.
Even as he said that much, he could hear his father carrying on. "Where the hell is Richie? I need him to mow the lawn."
"He's gone on a fishing trip with Virgil," his mother started to say.
"That damn boy again? I'm telling you, Maggie, he's..."
Richie heard no more because his mother abruptly ended the call. Pulling the phone away from his ear, he stared down at the receiver in worry. His mother was going to get an earful tonight and Richie knew it was all his fault.
Sighing uneasily, Richie put the phone back in its compartment. He knew his mother could handle herself, but he didn't like the idea of her having to handle it herself when his father was in such a bad mood. Granted, it was part of the reason he stayed away from home so much, but that didn't make him feel any less guilty. Rubbing the back of his neck, Richie pushed Batman's toolbox with his foot, fighting temptation to kick it.
Richie looked up, momentarily startled to see Batman and Superman standing close by, both of them watching him closely. Why oh why couldn't these superheroes make more noise when they walked? Richie could see himself having a heart attack one of these days.
"Same old, same old," Richie told Batman, his mood significantly altered. Suddenly, he missed Virgil. Virgil could always get him out of a funk. He doubted Batman or Superman would be so accommodating. "I'm going to have to reprogram your computer in order to access Backpack's files. Is that a problem? I'll be sure to back it up before I screw with anything."
His mild use of profanity made Superman blink rapidly. Richie found he didn't care that much. Superman could be the Boy Scout if he liked, but Richie never thought of himself that way. Boy Scouts tended to get their asses kicked while walking back from meetings in Dakota.
"That's fine," Batman said shortly. "I want an update as soon as you discover anything of interest."
"Yeah, yeah." Richie waved him off, kneeling back down in front of the toolbox, grabbing several things he'd know he need and carrying them over to the table in front of Backpack. He got to work, saying nothing more, hoping the two heroes would take the hint and leave him in peace. "I have a lot of work to do here and I want to get home as soon as possible, so you mind? I don't work well with people hovering over my shoulder."
Superman opened his mouth to protest, but Batman cut him off. "Fine. We'll be back in a few hours."
Richie watched them leave, both of them getting in the Batmobile and disappearing out of the tunnel entrance. He didn't know where they were going and he didn't care at all, so long as they were gone. Now that the Batcave was empty, Richie drew his foot back in frustration, punting the toolbox across the floor.
"Broken, broken, melted, busted, broken, scrap metal, melted..."
Richie muttered to himself as he tore apart Backpack's insides, prying loose damaged components and ruined hardware, trying to get to the hard drive inside. He hadn't turned Backpack back on since Virgil's house and Richie was glad he hadn't bothered. While his robot couldn't feel pain, it amounted to the same thing. Backpack shouldn't have to exist while in this condition. It almost felt good, tearing it down.
"Broken, broken, broke..." The door to the upper level swung open, the stairway illuminated with light from the hallway behind it. Richie squinted up at the change in light, seeing a familiar shadow making its way down the stairs, holding what looked like a tray. "Alfred?"
"Good afternoon, Richard," Alfred said as stepped off the stairs into and onto the main level. "Well, almost evening, I dare say. Are you hungry? I brought you something to eat."
Richie almost said, 'no', but at that moment, his stomach chose to inform him quite loudly that he was, in fact, hungry. A bowl of oatmeal and a peanut butter sandwich certainly wasn't enough for one day. "Starving, Alfred. Thanks."
"Not at all."
Alfred looked down at the table and Richie took the hint, pushing aside some of scraps of Backpack to give him room to put the tray down. On top of the gilded tray sat a bowl of some chilled tomato soup, a couple of tuna fish sandwiches cut into triangles, a piece of chocolate cake, and, Richie noticed with a smile, the two juice boxes his mother packed for him before he left. He'd forgotten about them completely. Alfred must have found them while unpacking his meager possessions from the backpack he'd brought with him.
"Tuna fish again?" Richie asked, but he wasn't complaining. He smiled broadly and took a theatrical bite of one of the triangle sandwich pieces to make that especially clear.
"Brain food," Alfred told him with a warm smile and sat down in a chair across from Richie without being asked, taking up a sandwich of his own.
That made Richie smile. Alfred remembered, of course, how awkward he felt eating alone while the other man stood there watching. He didn't know how anybody could do it - it felt so demeaning to him. Then again, he'd probably never be rich enough to have a butler of his own, so who was he to judge?
"You put up with all of us so easily," Richie remarked suddenly.
Alfred raised a thin eyebrow at him. "Whatever do you mean?"
"I found out my mom knew about, well, this." Riche waved his hand around the Batcave and over at Backpack. "Now that she feels like it's cool to talk to me about it, she's been sorta freaking out. I'm surprised you're not bouncing off the walls. How do you put up with all of it?"
"Do not let this cool, collect façade fool you, Richard," Alfred said with a knowing smile. "I've done my fair share of wall bouncing. However, I attempt at all costs to do it in the privacy of my own quarters. As with anything, it's an adjustment. I'm assuming, freaking out aside, your mother took it well?"
"Yeah..." Richie trailed off, scratching his chin. He reached over and picked up the juice box. While not frozen solid anymore, he could tell it was still slushy. "She's known for awhile, I think, but didn't want to say anything. Now that we're square with each other, I think all those things she's been dying to say are just pouring out of her. It's a little overwhelming, now that I have to worry about her worrying about me, if that makes any sense."
"It makes perfect sense, Richard," Alfred said with a nod. "I constantly worry about Master Bruce and Master Tim when they go out on patrol. I don't think they're as careful as they should be, but, up to this point, we've been fortunate to avoid any unwelcome incidents."
"Up to this point." Richie sighed, stabbing the little metal circle on top of his juice box with the plastic straw from the back. "That's what I think is going to worry my mother the most - that she'll get a call from the hospital that I've been taken down, or worse, see something on the news, have to find out second hand. I'm feeling guilty, putting her through that. Add in all the lying she's been having to do to my dad, and..."
"Ah, so your father is not aware of your unique abilities and the way you've chosen to express them?" Alfred asked.
Richie thought that was the most tactful way he'd ever heard the whole situation worded. "No, he doesn't," Richie said with a forceful shake of his head, "and I hope to God he doesn't find out until I'm old enough to be out on my own. The things he says about Bang Babies are only half as bad as the things he says about..."
Richie caught himself before he said more, embarrassed. It wasn't easy having a father as bigoted as his own, particularly when their personal views were so conflicted with that of everyone else Richie associated with. It made him feel like he was putting on a show while at home, that even saying nothing was as good as an agreement, and he hated himself for it. But, Alfred didn't need to know that.
Regardless, Alfred was nodding, as if he understood completely. "Perhaps your mother is simply at a loss as to how to express her worries. It can be difficult to deal with such a situation alone. Is there no one she can talk to?"
"You mean like a support group?" Richie asked biting back a tiny laugh. "You know, she was just asking me about that before I left, wanted to know if Superman's parents might be interested in meeting for coffee once a month to complain about us."
"What an intriguing idea," Alfred said, looking up at the ceiling in wonder. "I would certainly be inclined to attend such an event."
"I think we're all too secretive to make it work, though," Richie told him, taking a sip of his juice box. "After all, if all our parents or significant others came together, secret identities would be revealed."
"There is that."
If Richie didn't know better, he thought Alfred looked slightly disappointed. "Of course," Richie said, rubbing his chin thoughtfully, "there could be a way I could set up an anonymous chat program online. That way, everyone could get together and talk, but secrets that needed to be kept could be protected."
"Now that's forward thinking," Alfred said cheerfully. "If you do decide to set up such a thing, be sure to let me know. I'd be more than willing to tackle that atrocious piece of hardware Master Bruce put in my room under those circumstances."
"I'll see what I can do," Richie promised, then looked over at Backpack. "Of course, I should probably tackle this puzzle first."
"I would agree that is a priority." Alfred glanced over at the dismantled Backpack with a small frown. "How are things progressing?"
"Slowly." Richie crumpled up his juice box and tossed it on the tray, narrowly missing the chocolate cake still awaiting his ingestion. "Everything's totally fried up. I'm just praying I can get something out of it. Over a year of work, lying there in ruin."
"It is truly a disgrace," Alfred said with sympathy. "Do you have any suspicions as to who may have perpetrated the act?"
"Tons, but none of them any better than the others," Richie told him, not without a hint of frustration. "It pisses me off, Alfred, and I'm not ashamed to admit it."
Alfred picked up a melted piece of Backpack's hardware, looking at it with interest. "Your feelings are not misplaced," he said. "Anyone would have a right to be pissed, as you put it, given the circumstances."
"Yeah, well, tell that to the Justice League." Richie let out a sigh, reaching for the chocolate cake and digging his fork into it harshly. "I blink twice and they think I'm up to something."
"I'm sure the answers will come to light soon enough," Alfred said and Richie couldn't help but notice how the butler failed to contradict his last statement. "What are your plans?"
"I'm going to try to salvage the hard drive, see if there's any data on there about who might have set fire to our HQ. With any luck, I'll be able to recover the data from the Watchtower, too, since starting from scratch would suck."
The chocolate cake was very good, Richie realized as he took a bite of it. Already, he could feel himself calming down. Maybe those studies about chocolate being a mood enhancer had more weight to them than he realized. Then again, maybe it had more to do with being able to talk about the situation candidly with someone that wasn't second-guessing his every motive.
Richie blinked at that line of thinking, his second forkful of chocolate cake hanging in the air at his aborted attempt to bring it to his mouth.
"Alfred, can I ask you a question?" Richie asked, dropping the fork back down on his plate.
"Of course," Alfred replied, putting down the piece of Backpack he'd been examining.
Swallowing, Richie rubbed the back of his neck. "Do you think I'm getting especially paranoid?"
"Especially paranoid?" Alfred asked, looking at Richie sideways. "Not especially, no."
"But I am a little paranoid, right?" Richie pressed, then laughed at himself. "Wait, can I be paranoid about being paranoid? Is that even possible?"
Alfred graced him with a tiny smile. "I told you once, the last time you were here, that you possessed an amazing gift," he said quietly, but with great feeling. "My observations at that time still hold true. You are an incredibly gifted person, Richard, for good or ill. The fact that you use your gifts for good is wonderful in it of itself. However, the fact that you can recognize how your gift can be misused and the fact that you recognize that other people may foster opinions regarding that misuse speaks highly of your character. To be frank, Richard, I'd be more concerned if you weren't a little paranoid."
"So, I am paranoid," Richie said, trying to sort through Alfred's gentle words, "but it's a good thing?"
"Exactly," Alfred said with a nod of his head.
"And the fact that everybody looks at my funny...?"
"To be expected, to some extent." With a tiny shrug, Alfred stood up, gathering up the remains of their meal. "To be honest with you, Richard, sometimes I'm more than a little concerned about your contemporaries up in the sky. Anyone who isn't is deluding themselves and self-delusion always leads to trouble, in my experience."
"They don't seem concerned," Richie said, thinking about his recent encounters with the Justice League.
"Precisely my point." Alfred sighed deeply, looking down at the tray. "One thing I am grateful for is that Master Bruce has decided to associate himself with them only on a part time basis."
"Maybe it would be better if I left the Watchtower as it is now, nothing more than a hunk of space junk," Richie said more to himself than to Alfred. "At the very least, I'd feel better about dismantling that giant gun. I'm getting the impression, though, it's no longer my decision to make."
"It is always your decision, Richard," Alfred said solemnly, "but I trust that you'll make the right one."
"At least someone does," Richie said, surprised at how bitter his tone had become.
"I'm certain I'm not the only one." Alfred nodded over the Batcomputer. "Perhaps there's someone else you'd like to call to prove my point?"
Richie looked over at the phone, a warm feeling coming over him. He smiled at Alfred, nodding. "You know what? I think I may just do that."
"Very good, sir," Alfred said, giving Richie a mock bow, then he turned and walked back up the stairs to the mansion above.
As soon as the door closed, Richie hurried over to the Batcomputer, grabbing the phone.
"You're kidding me."
"I wish I was, man. I wish I was."
Richie smiled into the phone, even though Virgil couldn't see it. In the background, he could hear the faint sounds of the Kingdom of Sunn soundtrack. He could almost imagine his friend, stretched out on the floor, head held at an awkward angle as he propped the phone up on his shoulder so both hands would be free to grip the controller. Ironically enough, Richie was in much the same situation, except instead of trying to save the Kingdom of Sunn from another thousand years of darkness, he was fiddling with a little device.
"One look at GL and you should have seen those guys go running," Virgil was saying. "Man, when are we gonna get that kind of street cred?"
"Never," Richie said with a tiny laugh. "They're just too used to us, bro. We're over-saturated in our market."
"Maybe we should try a different town for awhile," Virgil said, then he cursed, the telltale sound of his main character dying, again, coming over the line. "You know, build up a 'rep, then come back and see if one look of us is enough to make Ebon head for the hills. Think Central City could use a couple of heroes?"
"The Flash might not like that," Richie said, picking up a tiny soldering iron and fusing together a couple of transistor plates.
"Screw The Flash." Virgil grunted and it sounded like he was standing up and stretching.
Richie grinned. "No, thanks."
He didn't have to see Virgil to know the other boy was flipping him off. "So, you almost done there?" Virgil asked instead. "I'm ready to have you back. GL is cool and all, but you win, hands down, in the friend and partner department. That man never fails to make me feel like an incompetent kid, even if he's just standing there looking all... cool."
"I'm working on it," Richie said, moving his device underneath a lighted, oversized magnifying glass, squinting down at his progress. "The tricky part is getting into Backpack's files. It doesn't play well with others."
"Who's to blame for raising a disobedient, defiant child?"
"The company it keeps," Richie quipped. "You're a bad influence, bro. I still like you, but it's true."
"Always blaming society for your own short-comings, man," Virgil replied.
Satisfied with his progress so far, Richie reached out and grabbed a tiny screwdriver, dropping in another component to his device. "It's easier than taking the blame yourself."
Virgil yawned. "But that leads to the dark side."
"I thought fear led to the dark side," Richie replied, stifling a yawn of his own. "And don't do that, man. It's contagious and I've got a lot of work to do here."
"Sorry," Virgil said, yawning again and not sounding sorry at all. "While some of us were sitting around on our butts all day playing with toys, others were busy keeping the streets of Dakota safe for well-meaning citizens everywhere."
"Yeah, I'm sure standing there while GL does all the work is really tough," Richie said, snorting a laugh.
"You do know I'll have to hurt you when you get back, don't you?" Virgil deadpanned. "Which, I'm hoping is soon, but I noticed you didn't answer my question."
"No, I'm not almost done," Richie said belatedly, "but I'm getting there. Probably another day or two at best, maybe more, depending on what kind of data I can retrieve."
Virgil gave a long-suffering sigh at that. "Well, hurry it up. I want you back."
"Since when have you been so co-dependent?" Richie asked curiously, switching the phone to his other ear.
"I'm not co-dependent," Virgil said defensively. "I've just got... a funny feeling, that's all. This whole situation is getting to me. It doesn't feel sudsy. I mean, we were attacked, man. Not directly, sure, but it's almost worse this way. All I know is that I ain't comfortable with you so far away and I want you home."
Richie frowned, putting down the tool in his hand, sitting up a little straighter. Virgil did sound incredibly worried, more so than Richie was used to hearing. It wasn't the first time they'd been separated and, fears of various kidnappings aside, Richie knew his best friend well enough to know something else was on his mind.
"What's up, bro?" he asked, keeping his tone purposely light and, in true paranoid fashion, looking over his shoulder to make sure he was alone. "Something shake loose?"
"Not a damn thing, which is part of what's annoying me," Virgil told him. "You'd think if it was somebody in our 'hood, they'd be boasting about it by now. It doesn't feel local, which really freaks me out. The timing is a little suspicious, too. If this has something to do with the Watchtower, then it's got something to do with you. I'm worried somebody might be aiming for you, man, and I just know I'd feel better if you were where I could see you and watch your back."
"I'm fine," Richie promised him sincerely, looking around the Batcave. "In fact, I'm probably in the safest place imaginable at the moment. Even if somebody is aiming for me, which we don't know for certain, they can't get me in their sights down here. It's cool."
"I know," Virgil said, sounding frustrated. "Trust me, man, I know that. But it still doesn't make me feel any better. Just hurry up and get back so we can take care of all this shit and get back to life as we know it, okay?"
"I'll do my best," Richie said, frowning down at the device on the table in front of him. "I'm working on something right now to speed things along. It ain't gonna be pretty, bro, but it'll get the job done. I'm looking forward to getting all this behind us as much as you are, man."
"Okay. Just... be careful, please?"
"I'm always careful." Richie grinned, trying to lighten the mood. "I'm the king of careful. Careful's my middle name."
"Your middle name is Osgood," Virgil corrected him, "but thanks. All right, man. I'm gonna crash. I gotta full day of crime fighting tomorrow, plus I'm supposed to be teaching some six-year-olds how to shoot hoops. Wish me luck."
"Better than that, I'll wish you no concussions," Richie replied with a laugh. "Night, bro."
The line disconnected with a click and Richie sighed, closing the connection on his end and dropping the phone back down on the table. Taking off his glasses, he rubbed his eyes, which felt dry and itchy from being focused on tiny things for too long. He could feel a headache building up right behind his face and he tried to will it away.
He'd never heard Virgil sound that worried, not since that time he got shot. One thing he'd learned about Virgil over the many years of their friendship was that his instincts rarely steered him wrong, when he listened to them. If Virgil felt that things weren't quite right, Richie was inclined to believe him.
It didn't make him feel any better about his situation. Virgil did have a valid point - if the fire in the gas station was, in fact, Watchtower related, that meant somebody knew too much. Aside from a few times when they helped them out, neither Static or Gear had any direct ties to the Justice League, as far as anybody knew. Richie didn't even think most of the Justice League even had any clue Richie was the one who designed their current base of operations for them. He'd asked J'onn to keep his involvement low-key, for a myriad of reasons, a request he knew J'onn didn't renege on. But, if J'onn didn't tell, who figured it out? How much did they know?
"I hate this," Richie muttered to himself, slipping his glasses back on.
"Sure, the smell of guano takes some getting used to, but it's not bad as all that."
Richie's head snapped up and he recoiled in shock, seeing Robin standing next to his table, looking down at Backpack.
"You're all trying to kill me, aren't you?" Richie asked him. "I'm going to tie a little bell around the neck of every superhero within a hundred miles, I swear."
Robin gave him a broad grin, hopping up to sit on the table. "That only works on cats, I think."
"I'd make it work," Richie groused. "Something I can help you with?"
"Nope. I'm just bored." Robin pointed at the device Richie was working on. "What's that?"
"A thing." Richie glanced over his shoulder. The Batmobile was still gone, which meant Superman and Batman were still off doing whatever it was they were doing. "Do you know where they went?"
"Like they ever tell me anything," Robin said with a dramatic roll of his eyes. "I'm just the sidekick, remember?"
Richie smiled at that. "I think it's less a sidekick thing and more a we're too young to be in their special club thing."
"Well, whatever it is, it's annoying." Robin started swinging his feet back and forth in a bored fashion. "So, was that Static on the phone? How's it going in Dakota?"
"It's summer, school's out, there's an economic depression and a heat wave, and everybody's cranky," Richie said, counting off the problems on his fingers. "Static's got his work cut out for him, but thankfully, GL is there to give him a hand until I can get back."
"I wish school was out for me," Robin said, looking wistful. "Bruce makes me get tutoring year round, even on the weekends. He says it's important for me to keep up, especially with all the crime fighting. All I know is that it sucks."
Richie thought it sounded nice. How cool would it be, he wondered, to work with a private teacher, who could focus on his needs and give him the challenge his brain so desperately needed? The thought of going back to Dakota Union High next year made him cringe. Every time he walked into the classroom, he could feel his brain slipping that much closer to a permanent coma.
"At least he cares," Richie said, picking his device back up and turning it over in his hand.
"Yeah, I guess." Robin slid off the table, stretching. "Anyway, Alfred asked me to come down here to see if you needed anything or if you planned on going to sleep anytime soon."
Richie shook his head. "Tell him no to both questions. I've got my work cut out for me tonight and Static wants me back ASAP."
"Why?" Robin asked with a tiny frown. "I thought you said Green Lantern was helping him out."
"He is, but one of the things Static and I share is a healthy dose of paranoia," Richie told him, reaching for the soldering iron once more. "He says he won't feel better until I'm home again and I'm inclined to agree with him. We do better as a team than we do when we're apart."
Robin snorted a laugh. "Damn, man, it's like you two are married or something."
"Or something," Richie said, looking up and sharing a quick grin with Robin. "He's more like a mother hen, actually."
"Cluck, cluck, cluck," Robin replied dryly, complete with a small flapping of his elbows. "Well, I'll go tell Alfred what you said. Don't be surprised if he comes down here every couple of hours and tries to feed you."
Richie laughed. "Guess Static's not the only mother hen I need to worry about."
"Not by a long shot," Robin said, then gave Richie a tiny wave. "See you in the morning. Don't crash the Batcomputer."
"I'll do my best not to," Richie called to Robin as the Boy Wonder practically bounced back up the stairs.
Setting down his device, which wasn't finished, Richie stood up, walking over to the Batcomputer. He pulled open a couple of window, then rested his fingers on the keyboard, letting himself think for a few moments. This next part, a program of his own devising to integrate with the thing he'd been working one, was crucial.
"At least, I hope I don't crash it," Richie muttered to himself, then let his fingers fly.
Two hours later, Richie found himself standing by what was left of Backpack, yawning broadly and scratching the back of his neck. He was tired, very tired, yet very happy at the same time. Everything that he needed to set up was set up. Now it was just a matter of doing it.
Using Batman's tools, he'd managed to pry Backpack apart, its internal components bared for all the world to see. The critical stuff inside didn't seem overly affected by the heat of the fire, as he suspected, but several subsystems were damaged beyond repair and needed to be replaced. The most important thing, the hard drive, now rested in Richie's palm. He was hesitant to plug it into the Batcomputer.
The compatibility issue ranked right up there. He'd purposely designed Backpack not to be compatible with anything, at least as far as its own programming went. The machine could interface with any system, but not in the traditional sense. Richie's own physical connection with the robot allowed him to process data on different computers through Backpack, but that wasn't the same as trying to make Backpack's programming work on a foreign system. Much like the Watchtower, Backpack was completely unique.
There was another reason for his hesitation - fear.
Richie wasn't spineless, per se, but he did like to avoid danger whenever possible. A side effect of spending his life in the not-so-good part of town in a gang-ridden, violent city, he had no problem turning chicken and running if he felt threatened. Time and time again, he'd have to drag Virgil out of various situations, preventing him from upsetting someone that might very well do a drive by on his house later that evening if he pushed it. Call it an innate sense of survival, call it cowardliness, Richie took heart in the fact that he was still alive in spite of all statistics to the contrary.
It was easy to be a superhero when you actually had super powers in a physical way, Richie mused as he pulled open the side panel of the Batcomputer, looking for a spare USB slot. Running into dangerous situations must be a piece of cake when a person didn't have to worry about getting shot, knew they could super-speed out of the way if something came at them, or could fall through the floor or change into a freakish monster on command. For that precise reason, Richie respected Batman more than any of the other Justice League members. The man had no special powers, just years and years of training and a healthy dose of talent in his favor.
Of course, Richie didn't have those years and years of training and talent, at least in a physical dexterity sense, wasn't in his genes. He knew he was more likely to trip over his own feet than perform daring acrobatics. As his father liked to say, he came from a long, long line of stable individuals, grunt workers who formed the backbone of society. No war heroes could be found in his family history, just people who lived good, honest lives and worked their fingers to the bone to make the lives of others a little easier, usually without any credit to speak of to their name.
So, holding the hard drive in his hand, Richie looked down at it with apprehension. Whatever he found encoded on this disk would no doubt lead him on a spiral of events, none of them pleasant. He could practically feel the bruises and aches he knew he'd have after all this was done.
He wasn't a coward. He fought in spite of his fears, became a superhero regardless of the fact that it could get him killed someday. Oh, he was afraid - he was afraid all the time, but it didn't stop him. Some people might call that bravery. Richie figured it was probably some kind of treatable mental health problem. Either way, he knew he had to plug that hard drive in and get things rolling.
"Here goes nothing," Richie muttered to himself, dropping the hard drive into an external case and hooking it up with the USB port. Reaching over to the Batcomputer, he pressed the button to boot it up again, waiting patiently as it came back to life. He sincerely hoped Backpack's hard drive wouldn't crash the whole system, but he wasn't one hundred percent sure that would be the case.
Walking back over to the table where Backpack lay, Richie picked up a tiny device, a slapped together job that took up most of his time after Batman and Superman left. While he could simply use the keyboard and the mouse to try to organize Batman's system to recognize Backpack's hardware, he didn't have that kind of time. Reprogramming the Batcomputer by hand would take days. No, he needed to get at it more directly.
The part of Backpack that allowed him to interface directly with it, the tiny, unremarkable piece of hardware that he'd designed specifically to interact with Brainiac's leftovers hidden throughout his body, did not survive the fire intact. As a result, he'd made a new one, not quite as good, from things he found lying around the Batcave. The Batcomputer finally booted up, Richie pulled up a few files, not touching the hard drive icon on the screen, plugging in his device and executing a program he'd written before shutting the computer down the first time.
Then, he sat down in Batman's chair, gripped the bottom of the seat with white-knuckled fingers, and braced himself as the world exploded.
White hot pain shot down from the base of his spine throughout the rest of his body and Richie felt himself jerk rigid, a scream he wanted to badly to escape from his mouth stuck fast in his throat. The world took on a green tinge, his vision gradually dimming away as the three implants in his brain proper sparked to life, overriding unnecessary functions, such as the ability to move, talk, or see in order to free up space. Batman's unfamiliar programming screamed into his mind, pure data at its most primal flying around every synapse in his most vital organ.
It hurt, but Richie was fully aware before he started this whole thing that it would hurt, a lot. He wasn't disappointed. The main reason for Backpack and the Watchtower's unique programming, aside from security, had to do with the how he interfaced in both places, in a familiar way that his brain liked. A lot of it was loosely based on Brainiac's own programming, a syntax eerily similar to Kryptonian design, as Brainiac's implants preferred that. Neither his brain nor the implants liked Batman's programming.
But at its heart, Brainiac evolved to interface with the computer systems of alien cultures with ease in order to overtake them. The only difference between Brainiac and Richie, at this point, was that Richie could feel pain, whereas Brainiac could not. Stupid Brainiac.
The pain eventually subsided some, never quite going away, but definitely less intense. Once his mind adjusted to Batman's computer, Richie got to work, changing the programming at its most basic levels, making it compatible with his own. As soon as he got Backpack's hard drive online, Richie knew it would be smooth sailing. Backpack served the purpose of a filter when Richie interfaced with new computers and when he got it working, he knew he'd be okay.
He couldn't feel time passing when he was like this. The part of his mind not frantically changing Batman's programming thought back on a time shortly after he incorporated Brainiac's implants into his hardware. He'd gone to the gas station early one Saturday morning and interfaced with the web just like this. To him, it felt only like a few seconds, but when he brought himself back, he saw Virgil standing by him, pale, terrified, and incredibly upset. Richie had been lost in his systems for almost twelve hours without realizing it and he'd scared Virgil half to death. After that, he made sure Backpack contained an accurate chronometer so that wouldn't happen again.
Virgil once asked him what it felt like. Richie couldn't describe it to save his life. When his brain was jacked into a computer, it defied traditional logical thought and there wasn't anyway to describe it using conventional language. Addicting, was one way to think of it. With Backpack and without pain, it felt so incredibly good to be part of the system, his mind relishing in the challenge it provided and getting the workout it truly deserved. Pain disappeared, his body disappeared, his mind disappeared, time disappeared, replaced with pure, unadulterated understanding and energy. He never felt more aware than when like this, never felt more unaware at the same time. He never felt more at peace, maybe because nothing else mattered.
On many occasions, Virgil declared it dangerous. Richie agreed with him. It was dangerous, ridiculously so. He wouldn't fool himself into thinking otherwise. He did it anyway. It probably all tied back to that undiagnosed mental health problem he suffered from.
Like dropping a stick of RAM into a motherboard, everything suddenly clicked into place. Batman's system belonged to him now, at its very root, and he accessed Backpack's logs with a quick flick of his mind. The systems integrated perfectly and it felt like Backpack was crawling around right next to him once more. Richie smiled.
When he opened his eyes, though, his smile faded. Superman's face filled up his entire field of vision. He looked angry.
"What the hell are you doing?"
To be continued...
A/N: Sorry for the slight delay in getting this chapter out. RL issues. You understand. There will probably be another slight delay in the chapter after this for the same reason. Patience is a virtue. Heheh.
Anyway, next chapter: Who destroyed the gas station? Who tried to hack the Watchtower? Where did Superman and Batman go for so long? Answers to all these questions and less in the next chapter of House Call! Stay tuned!