Dislclaimer: Don't own Batman, make no profits.
Chapter Seventeen: Iron Fist, Velvet Glove
Working for a guy whose job description was vague at best, and non-existent literally the rest of the time really had its ups and downs.
Okay, admittedly I usually couldn't complain—my hours and my work load were whatever the hell I wanted them to be. I had the deep suspicion that Bruce wouldn't really care even if I came to work just to loiter and shamelessly take advantage of the coffee machine.
But I was a boring and predictable individual at heart. I liked my social structures—even given all this freedom, I still clung to a life of nine to five, and actually did all the work, because I was a dork and found it rather interesting.
Bruce, on the other hand, only seemed to need a secretary to keep up appearances. I wondered idly what he would have done if he'd ended up with a secretary who wasn't in the know about his crime fighting hobbies. Probably would have run her ragged fetching coffee, or his dry cleaning, or a very specific brand of ninety dollar hair gel. In all likelihood, he would have tried to delegate her to Fox, who might have tried to tell him, 'You can't delegate your own secretary to someone else, Mr. Wayne. That defeats the purpose.'
Not that he would have listened.
Personally, I found that the worst part of working for Bruce was, by far and large, helping to arrange his little 'alibis.'
Again, this usually wasn't such a bad thing. Most of his alibis consisted of having lunch at fancy, public places with pretentious business moguls who went on at length about polo, or country clubs, or sparkling grape juice or whatever it was that rich old guys never shut up about.
To my delight, this made for some ample opportunities for a lot of gleeful schadenfreude. Bruce never said anything when he came back, but I could somehow always tell which ones he'd found particularly annoying, and whenever he pissed me off, I'd make sure to schedule them more often, and for longer stretches of time. The flat looks Bruce would shoot me when he came back told me that he knew exactly what I was doing.
Never let it be said that Sarah Summers wasn't petty, but at least I was self-aware.
But there was a method to all of this madness. While this whole charade was, at times, tedious for us both (more so for Bruce than for me, I suspected) it was also quite useful, if you were the paying-attention sort. Which I totally was. At least, when it came to Batman.
Bruce usually had one of two expressions during these meetings. The first looked a lot like vacant cheerfulness, unless you looked closely at his eyes; then you'd realize that they were actually two windows into the mind of a man who was screaming on the inside.
The second expression was that of decadent boredom, all relaxed features and an artful sprawl—an act I knew Bruce put on when he was really paying attention, which meant that I should be too.
It was incredible, the things people let slip when they didn't think you were paying attention. Or when they thought you were just too stupid to understand, in Bruce's case.
Money was an ugly motivator but at least it was a predictable one. These people that Bruce met with, they weren't just men but the heads of their respective empires. They were the titans of the corporate world, who would and could move mountains to protect their business interests. Even the smallest of movements would send tremors rippling to the darkest reaches of Gotham.
A seemingly jovial looking man, sitting in Bruce's office and complaining idly about the recent corporate tax hike, might very well mean that one of the Mayor's aides would end up in the South Channel by morning.
So yeah. I didn't mind that part so much. It was interesting, in a seedy sort of way.
The problem laid in the fact that Bruce had cultivated a reputation for being an eccentric, playboy billionaire.
Sometimes, I wondered why he couldn't have chosen to present himself as an eccentric, celibate billionaire. It might have saved us both a lot of grief.
Except that, weirdly enough, for a guy who was supposed to be a notorious philanderer, Bruce did a surprisingly little amount of actual philandering. At least to the best of my knowledge, which I was aware was a large and scary loophole. But I'd kept a surreptitious but close eye on him during these little interactions and came to the realization that he maintained this reputation mostly through an elaborate system of smoke and mirrors. It was all misdirection and vague innuendos and suggestions that could be taken either way.
And all this struck me as strange, somehow; a glaring dissonance that refused to resolve itself in my mind. From a completely objective standpoint, I could be made to admit that Bruce had a degree of… charm. But I never found him to be nearly as compelling when he employed those tactics as when he was just… himself. Wry amusement and quick wit and an unwavering gaze.
It was entirely possible, though, I thought with a derisive sniff, that his reputation for being God's gift to women was just as over exaggerated as everything else about him. Personally, I wasn't convinced. Ahem.
Now, if only everyone else could catch a clue.
For example, Bruce was supposed to be having lunch with Mr. Moreau, the CFO of Devon Inc., and a stout looking man in his seventies.
Which was why I had no idea why I was staring at a perky blonde, whose hair was swinging up in a high, cheerful pony tail.
I stared. Maybe Mr. Moreau had opted to go through some… changes. I wasn't one to judge.
"Can I help you?" I asked, equal parts confused and resigned.
"Hello," she greeted, a slight Parisian accent lending an alluring lilt to her words. "I'm here to see Bruce."
I glanced at the schedule again, just to make sure. You sure don't look like a seventy year old man.
"Are you sure?" I asked, tilting my head. "I have someone else penciled in at noon."
She laughed. "Phillipe Moreau, I assume?" She asked. "He is my father. He had some business to attend to, and sent me in his place. This will not be a problem, I'm sure?" She batted her lashes.
I was, unfortunately, not immune to these charms. With an inward scowl at my weakness for cow-like lashes, I pushed away from my desk and flashed her a brief smile. It wasn't, after all, her fault.
I blamed Bruce.
"Your name?" I asked.
"Aurélie," she replied. "Aurélie Moreau."
I squinted. I didn't read those sorts of magazines, but her named still sent a ping of recognition in my head. I rustled through the haystack and came up with an unexpected answer. Wasn't she a model?
I looked at her again.
Definitely a model.
"Of course," I said with an inward smile. "Just a minute."
I strode over to Bruce's office, rapping against his door with the backs of my knuckles before pushing in. "Sorry if I'm disturbing anything important," I announced in dry tones, "but since it's apparently Bring Your Model to Work Day, Ms. Moreau is here to see you."
Bruce glanced up, his brow quirking. "Who?"
"Tall, blonde and perky? Perhaps you've seen her splashed on the cover of Vogue two issues ago?" I reminded. "Her father's the CFO of Devon Inc., and was supposed to meet you for lunch today, but I think he wants to come to a more feudal arrangement," I said, waggling my eyebrows.
Bruce shot me a faintly scandalized look. "Sarah, that's appalling."
"What?" I asked, blinking innocently. "Arranged marriages among the 'social elite' are still a thing, aren't they? What'd you think I meant?"
He sighed, bracing his head in his hands to massage his temples. "I'd rather deal with her father. He's a pretentious old windbag, but at least he doesn't cling."
"I'm sure he exerts a herculean amount of effort not to," I reassured. "And oh no, you get to have lunch with a gorgeous model. How great your suffering must be."
Bruce shot me a dark look from between his hands. "Tell her I'm not here."
"Well that's going to be hard," I told him, "since the glass between our offices is currently transparent and she can clearly see you. You know all those 'dumb blonde' jokes don't hold up to snuff. All the blondes I know could kill me with a paperclip and get away with it."
Abruptly, but still somehow smoothly, he straightened and pasted a politely interested look on his face. Through a smile that didn't shift, he hissed, "Call an emergency board meeting."
I pointed at him. "No way, Mister. You made your bed, now sleep in it." I paused. "But not literally."
A muscle went off in his jaw. With a nine yard stare, he got up and began button his suit jacket with terse movements.
I shot him one last reprimanding look before heading back to my desk. Aurélie gave me an expectant look.
"He'll be with you in just a moment," I said with a reassuring smile. I then proceeded to glue my nose to my computer, determined not to look up.
A moment later, I heard footsteps. "Ah, Aurélie," came Bruce's honeyed tones. "I didn't think it was possible, but you look even more radiant than the last time I saw you."
What a two-faced bastard.
There was a bright peal of laughter. "Oh Bruce," she replied with a purr. "You haven't changed. Still an incorrigible charmer. What do you think we should do about that?"
"Oh, I'm sure we can think of something."
I rolled my eyes. I could definitely think of ways to cure him. Flogging, for example, came to mind.
"So, why don't you show me what Bruce Wayne gets up to on a day to day basis?" Aurélie suggested playfully.
"Oh?" Bruce asked, probably arching a brow. "And here I thought we were headed off for lunch."
"I changed my mind."
"Are you sure? I'm afraid you might find it boring."
She scoffed and tapped a finger against his nose. "I didn't think humility was one of your virtues. Or maybe you're just keeping secrets? I've heard many things about the technologies that come out of your company."
Bruce chuckled. "Tell the truth. You're only here to steal company secrets for your father, are you?"
There was a pout in her voice. I could tell she was batting her lashes again. "And here I thought you'd be too enthralled by my company to notice," she teased.
"Who says I'm not?"
Ugh. This flirtatious claptrap was more than I could take. The sugary sweetness of it practically coated my teeth. With a loud scrape, I pushed back from my chair, bracing my hands on my desk.
The couple step backed from each other, looking at me with surprise.
"Oh, look at that," I said, glancing at my wrist watch dramatically. "Time for lunch."
Aurélie looked at me before dragging her head slowly to the clock on the wall. "Oh. But isn't it only—"
"If you need me," I said with a beatific smile, "for any reason, any reason at all, then please… feel free to wait an hour."
I didn't really want to see their reactions (well, one person's reaction in particular) so I marched over to the elevator without looking back.
I stopped by the café to buy a couple of sandwiches. Causing a minor scene was harder than it looked, and worked up quite the appetite. I also had to drop by the Department of Cryptanalysis to make sure Alan was being fed and watered properly. He'd come home last night at around midnight, but I watched him take only a few distracted bites of cold noodles before trudging off to bed.
When I got there, Alan's entire department smelled like body odour and stress. No one even looked up when I entered, either typing furiously away at their computers or staring dead-eyed at the screen. Anyone else might have been unnerved, but as a writer, I was intimately familiar with both states and simply waltzed past, looking for Alan.
I found him hunched over at his desk, chomping on his nails.
I smacked his hand away from his mouth. "Stop that. That's a filthy habit. You know how much bacteria is caked under there?"
Alan didn't even look at me. "Good. Then maybe I'll die and all this will be somebody else's problem."
I pressed my lips together and studied him. Then, I craned my head around. I found an unoccupied chair. Granted, it was at somebody else's cubicle, but I figured I'd deal with it later if it's occupant came back and wanted to fight me. I grabbed it, wheeled it around and plunked down next to Alan. I then put my hands on the arms of his chair and pulled him around so he wasn't looking at the screen anymore and unwrapped the sandwich, placing it in his hands.
"Stop staring at that screen for a moment before your eyeballs fall out," I told him. "Eat this."
He stared at it listlessly.
Patiently, I opened a package of baby carrots and brought one to his mouth in a swooping, airplane motion that I hoped would entice him. He started to chew it woodenly. "Eat your sandwich," I said curtly.
Obediently, he began to do as told.
I eyed him clinically. "Are things really that bad? The atmosphere feels creepy. It's like someone died in here."
Alan shrugged. "I think someone actually did. Honestly, I'm not sure Richard's still with us. He hasn't moved in six hours," Alan said, nodding towards the prone figure slumped sideways in his seat a few cubicles down. "Someone should kick him or something. Check if he's still breathing."
We both looked over. "Wow."
A beat later, we turned back around with a shrug. "Anyway."
"Yeah," Alan agreed.
We were terrible people, I decided. After a moment, I asked him, "Hey. Where's Cynthia?"
Alan shifted in his seat before clearing his throat. "I dunno, why are you asking me? She might be running errands for Weekes or something." He shrugged. "Who knows."
I narrowed my eyes at him. Had lack of sleep fried his brain or was it something else?
I decided I had better things to worry about. "Okay, tell me about those cyberattacks then. You said they weren't serious."
Some life seemed to spark in Alan's eyes. Indignantly, he said, "That's the thing. They aren't. But they're damned persistent, and it just feels weird. Weekes has been telling me to patch up the holes in our firewall, but that it's not our main concern otherwise. Then he throws this us this big, time-consuming assignment that has to be finished by this week and I'm tearing my hair out trying to juggle everything."
"Why don't you do what he says then? Just leave it alone, if it's giving you this much grief."
A furrow appeared between Alan's brows. He took a vicious bite out of his sandwich. "I can't," he said bluntly. "Something about it is bugging the shit out of me."
"Maybe it's your OCD tendencies talking," I pointed out.
Alan put his face into his hands. The hands that were currently holding his sandwich.
"Are you crying into your sandwich?" I asked him curiously.
"The salt from my tears gives it flavour," Alan replied matter-of-factly.
Maybe I was as off-kilter as Alan was, because I found that I couldn't quite fault his reasoning. Before I could tell him that he had a good point, my phone buzzed.
— Bruce Wayne 12:09PM
I'm going to need you to come back to the office.
I stared flatly.
A moment later, he continued.
— Bruce Wayne 12:09PM
Well, that was better.
Still though. I didn't want him thinking that basic niceties were all it took to get me to cooperate.
what's the dire situation?
did you run out of caviar? need more sparkling grape juice?
shall i run the store and get candles to add romantic ambiance?
— Bruce Wayne 12:11PM
I don't think you quite grasp the gravity of this situation.
you didn't sound this afraid when crane set you on FIRE
or when you fell off a building
or that time you got shanked
shall i go on?
— Bruce Wayne 12:12PM
Those problems were easily solved by beating the perpetrator unconscious.
I can't exactly apply the same principle, here.
— Bruce Wayne 12:13PM
No, Sarah.Well, fine then.
what is so bad that you even need saving from
— Bruce Wayne 12:14PM
And she won't stop touching my hair.
I found myself standing up before I even realized what I was doing.
"I gotta go," I said to Alan.
He looked up at my change in tone. "Anything wrong?" He asked.
I rolled my eyes. "Sir Flirts-a-Lot needs me to bail him out."
"Ah," Alan said knowingly.
I narrowed my eyes. "What?"
"Nothing," Alan said quickly. "Thanks for the sandwich."
"No problem," I replied, handing him the rest. "Eat these ones, too."
Alan made a face. "They're so dry. You'd think a multibillion dollar corporation would feed its employees better."
"Boohoo," I said. "Cry into those ones too, then."
He glared at me. "Great advice," he said sarcastically. "I'll do that."
"And remember to hydrate!" I called back over my shoulder. "Or you'll get stress headaches!"
"Just go already!" Alan said rudely.
I huffed in an offended manner. What an ungrateful thing. That was the last time I was ever going to do something nice for him.
As it was, I had other things to worry about now.
When I got back to the office, it was suspiciously quiet, but if I strained my ears, I could hear the susurrus murmur of voices coming from Bruce's office. I poked my head around the corner to assess the situation.
In his office, Bruce was leaning nonchalantly up against his desk, with Aurélie plastered against his side like a vestigial limb. None of Bruce's unease showed on his face, which was tilted attentively down towards her. I arched a brow. Somehow, the only thing that popped to my mind was how the hell he'd been texting me this entire time.
I noticed he had a hand in his pocket right around the time my phone buzzed.
— Bruce Wayne 12:17PM
Sarah, I can see you standing there.
Inwardly, I marvelled at his ability to multitask.
Well, since I'd apparently been discovered, I detached myself from the wall and began to enact my plan.
Surreptitiously, I called the office phone with my cellphone. When it rang, I walked over to pick it up. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed the couple 'jolting' apart at the noise. Or at least, she did, while Bruce did an admirable job of pretending to.
I picked up the office phone and spoke into it, just loud enough to be overheard. "Hello, this is Mr. Wayne's office, how may I help you?"
There was no one on the other line, obviously. But Bruce wasn't the only good actor.
"Is that right?" I asked, arching my brows in surprise. I darted a quick look into Bruce's office. They were both staring back at me.
"Well I don't see what the problem could have been," I said indignantly, then sighed. "Alright, I'll let him know. But he's not going to be happy," I said, just loudly enough to be heard.
I hung up, and then walked briskly over to Bruce's office. I rapped on the door in a perfunctory manner, which wasn't all that necessary seeing as it was already open, but still.
"Sorry to interrupt," I said, not feeling very sorry at all. "Mr. Wayne, a word?"
Bruce looked appropriately surprised. "Of course," he said smoothly. Then he turned to his limpet with a reassuring smile. "Sorry. I'll be just a moment."
On a whim, I stopped him in the threshold of his office, instead of letting him retreat to the outer office. I had to make the lesson stick. He hesitated, before apparently cottoning onto my line of thinking. He shot me an annoyed look that he had to smother with polite interest.
I put on an expression of theatrical concern. "Mr. Wayne," I said in a mock whisper, so loud that I may as well have just said it at normal conversational volume, "The Voltaire just called. There has, apparently, been a hitch in transferring the ownership of the restaurant."
To his credit, Bruce didn't hesitate. Arching an imperious brow, he crossed his arms. "Excuse me? The checks I write don't bounce."
"It wasn't so much the check as it was the fact that you folded it into a paper crane, put it on the table and then left without bothering to sign any documents," I told him, straight faced.
He shrugged, seemingly unconcerned. "I thought I'd made myself perfectly clear."
"Well, apparently The Voltaire didn't think so."
Bruce heaved a beleaguered sigh that almost sounding convincing to my ears. He turned around and began to make his excuses.
I watched out of the corner of his eye as he settled a hand against the small of her back. "I'm sorry to have to cut this short, but there's a situation that needs my attention."
"Did I hear correctly? You purchased a restaurant?" She asked, looking somehow impressed and skeptical at the same time.
"Apparently," he said through gritted teeth. But she appeared to be too distracted by his blinding smile to notice.
She pouted, and trailed a finger down his tie. "You'll have to make it up to me then, won't you?"
"Of course," Bruce assured in silken tones.
"You could start by taking me to dinner at The Voltaire sometime," she said coyly.
"Sounds like a plan," he said, with a charming, patently false smile.
While they made their goodbyes, I stood to the side, tapping my finger against my crossed arms awkwardly and staring at my shoes. When she finally left, Bruce sidled up to me and we stared at her retreating figure in silence.
"You realize," he hissed, not looking at me, "that I'll actually have to buy that restaurant now, because of that lie you just told."
"So another one for your collection, then?" I replied in airy tones.
The second she got on the elevator, he turned to me with an exasperated expression. "You know, this really wasn't what I had in mind."
"I believe the words you're looking for are 'thank you,'" I informed him. "And if you don't like my plans, then maybe next time you should be more specific."
"Or better yet," he said narrowly, "I could just make sure that there isn't a 'next time.' But that couldn't have possibly been your intention, could it?"
I blinked at him in innocent surprise. "Whatever could you mean? Personally, I thought you guys had a lot of chemistry."
Bruce glared at me.
"Frankly, I'm surprised no one has choked on all that 'chemistry,'" I continued. "Did you two clean up after yourselves?"
True to form, Bruce didn't let himself remain on the defensive for long. "Something bothering you?" He shot back, taking one deliberate step towards me. "You sound upset."
I felt like scowling at the sudden reversal of roles, but I kept my tone light. "What? Nothing's bothering me. I don't sound upset. You sound upset."
"Really," he said, flatly. Hands in his pockets, he canted his head to the side, considering me with an amused expression, even though his eyes were sharp. He pressed his sudden advantage. "Because if I didn't know any better, I'd say you sounded—"
"—If I was upset," I interrupted quickly, "it'd be for no other reason than the fact that my lunch hour was just wasted because of all this nonsense," I waved an exasperated hand.
He chewed the inside of his lip thoughtfully, and kept me dangling on the hook of his gaze for one, long moment before releasing me back into safe waters. "Well, that's easily remedied."
Striding over, he placed one hand against the small of my back, the other around my elbow, and began herding me towards the elevator.
I looked around, confused. "What is this? Unhand me. Where are we going?" I demanded.
"The Voltaire," he said dryly. "For lunch. You need to eat, and I apparently have a restaurant to buy."
When I'd hatched my little ruse, I'd randomly decided on The Voltaire, based on an article I'd read listing the top ten restaurants in Gotham. I had no idea what kind of food it served (though based on the name, Italian seemed like a safe bet), or what it even actually looked like.
When we got there, I held my breath. The place was… ritzy. Ornate, in a modern sort of way. It was a window-side restaurant, perched on the 54th floor of the Rose Tower in the financial district. I suspected it was the sort of place that required having to make a reservation, ten years in advance, only you'd probably also have to throw in your first-born child for good measure. Yet when we arrived, it only took a discreet word from Bruce into the ear of the maître d' to have us seated in a cozy little nook. The entire process took about thirty seconds.
I looked around. Our table was next to the large window that wrapped around the restaurant. I could see all go Gotham sprawled out beneath us. The view was dizzying, and probably would have been even better at night. At the centre of the room, on a slightly raised dais, was a man in a suit playing the grand piano, because this was apparently that sort of place. Interspersed between the soft burble of conversation was the gentle clinking of utensils.
This place was bougie as hell. I bore the atmosphere with grim resignation. It felt like eyes were on me, but when I swept the room with a furtive glance, everyone seemed to be minding their own business. Still, I couldn't relax. I glanced over at Bruce, who looked like he effortlessly belonged.
A waiter came by to pour water and hand us menus with polite smiles that he graciously directed at both of us, as opposed to just ignoring me to suck up to Bruce. I waited until he was gone before speaking.
"So how'd you manage that?" I muttered, trying to distract myself.
Bruce was calmly perusing the menu. "I told him I was buying the restaurant."
My brows arched. Part of me had still thought hew as joking about the whole thing. I certainly had been. "You work fast."
"I wanted to get business out of the way," he replied simply.
Out of the way of what?
I was being distracted in entirely the wrong ways. I shook my head and picked up the menu instead.
After spending a few quiet moments trying to decipher what half of this stuff was, I noticed something weird.
"Bruce," I hissed. "Where are all the prices?"
"Does this look like the kind of place that lists prices on their menu?" He replied, and casually flipped a page.
Jesus Christ. I looked at him in horror, panic rising in my chest. "I have to go."
"The lamb salad with Fregola sounds interesting," Bruce replied mildly. "See anything you like?"
I clutched my purse against my chest. "Bruce—"
He glanced up at me through his lashes, expression innocent. "What's that? Everything on the menu? That sounds—"
A horrible suspicion struck me. "If this is payback for the whole buying-the-restaurant stunt, I get the point," I said, resisting the urge to rake my nails down my face.
That cool, polite interest with which he had been holding himself suddenly folded like paper in the rain. His posture relaxed, and he set his menu aside to prop his chin in his hand, regarding me with warm amusement. "Well, well. Aren't you quick."
I narrowed my eyes at him, indignant but unwilling to throw down the gauntlet since I was so far into enemy territory. "That was mean," I accused.
"I can be meaner," he replied with raised brows, but his gentle expression didn't otherwise shift.
I ignored my squirming stomach. I inhaled deeply and glared at him. "Right, well, if you're quite done making your point, can we perhaps leave?"
"We're already here," he pointed out reasonably. "And you still haven't had anything to eat today."
"I had breakfast," I protested.
Bruce glanced at me wordlessly.
"Okay, so I had coffee in the morning. Same thing."
"I haven't filled my daily quota of public appearances today, either," he reminded, and returned his attention to the menu. "Which, if you remember, you mandated."
I groaned. I could feel myself relenting, which was always the worst part. I put my face into my hands.
The waiter chose that precise moment to materialize at our table. "Good afternoon, and welcome to The Voltaire. If you've finished perusing the menu, I can take your order, or if you'd prefer, I could start you off with drinks," he said genially, and didn't even blink at my hunched over state.
I straightened quickly and cleared my throat. "Er, just water is fine. And…" I took a random stab at something in the menu, having no idea what it was, but hoping it wasn't too horrendous. "I'll have the ravioli with lamb ragù."
"Excellent choice," he said with a smile, before turning to Bruce. "And for you, sir?"
"Water is fine for me as well, and I'll have the duck confit," he replied, closing his menu and handing it over.
As the waiter left, I sat there grimly. I stared at the water, and said, "That glass of water probably costs fifty dollars."
"Well, it was carried by hand in an oak basin, down from a freshwater spring on top of a mountain."
My jaw dropped. "What, really?"
Bruce snorted. "No. Of course not."
"You're not usually this gullible," Bruce said. Then, he took one look at me and his expression flickered. "If you're really that uncomfortable, we'll leave," he said gently. There wasn't a trace of censure or impatience in his voice.
Part of me rankled at the coddling, but a small part of me was grateful. Still, I stubbornly shook my head. "I'm over exaggerating. It's not that bad," I said. "I'm just… a little out of my depth, here."
Solemnly, he replied, "I know how you feel."
I looked at him in surprise. I was skeptical, for obvious reasons, but something in his voice made me think he wasn't just placating me.
His lips quirked at my dubious expression. "Well, the situation isn't exactly the same, but I do get it."
He didn't look at me. He picked up his glass, swirling the contents idly. "When I left Gotham, I wandered all the way to the other side of the world. I went years without hearing a word of English. Once, I stayed in a village of about a dozen people or so." He shrugged. "They were poor—they just raised goats, and they didn't have much, but when I was seeking refuge from a storm, they welcomed me into their homes without asking any questions. They opened their hands to a stranger without expecting anything back."
"It was a humbling experience. I mean, it was definitely rough living, but out there things were simple. Peaceful. When I came back to Gotham, I'd forgotten how loud and bright everything was. Everyone was so shallow and materialistic." He paused and sipped at his water. "It took some time to get used to it again."
I stared at him. He never talked about himself this much. Part of me was almost afraid to ask questions, for fear that he'd startle and retreat, but I couldn't help myself. "Do you miss it? Being away?"
"Sometimes," he admitted, tone casual. "I miss the clean air. I miss the mountains. But mostly, I miss the anonymity. No one knew or cared who I was."
The words brought a twinge of guilt in my chest, and again, I found myself wishing that I hadn't given him such a hard time about his secrets. "Where did you go?" I asked.
"Lots of places," he said flippantly, before he looked at me, slyly gauging my reaction. "Like prison, for example."
I almost spat out my water. He'd definitely timed that on purpose, but I was too curious to call him out for it. "You went to prison?" I hissed in a careful undertone.
He smirked, looking far less concerned. "For stealing from Wayne Enterprises, of all things."
I stared. "I'm sure the profound irony of the situation didn't escape you."
"Almost," he replied. "It was very subtle," he said, deadpan.
I couldn't help a laugh, and Bruce flashed me a rare grin. "Was that where you learned…" I trailed off and obscure gesture that was supposed to translate into insane combat prowess. "You know."
"No," he replied ruefully. "That came later. Prison was where I learned to pick a fight in three different languages."
I winced. "Never been able to play nice with others, have you?"
"It might surprise you to learn that prison isn't the best place to make friends."
I smiled at him, aware that I probably looked like some kind of mooning idiot. But I couldn't help it. I was quietly marvelling at everything he'd told me, at the fact that he'd chosen to open up at all. I didn't get the vibe that his ten years away from Gotham was an off-limits, but his past was murky. I didn't want to step on any landmines.
Then, in the midst of my musing, I suddenly realized that without my noticing, all the tension I'd felt when we got here had somehow vanished.
My mouth fell open. I looked up slowly to meet Bruce's eyes. "Did you do that on purpose?"
"Did I do what on purpose?" He returned, arching a brow and resting his chin on bridged fingers.
He maintained the neutral expression for all of five seconds before a smile tugged at the corner of his mouth, confirming my suspicions.
"Oh, you so did," I breathed with narrowed eyes. For a moment, I wondered if all that had just been manipulation… but I quickly discarded the idea. He could have just as easily distracted me by drawing me into a ridiculous argument.
Bruce was, momentarily, saved from having to reply when the waiter brought out our food. What I'd ordered wasn't a strange and unsettling travesty, thankfully. It actually smelled pretty good.
After the waiter set down our plates and left, I stared down at my food contemplatively for a moment, before spearing a piece and popping it into my mouth.
I tasted meat, and some kind of spiced herbs, and cheese.
"Mmmm," I moaned, quite pleased.
Bruce arched a brow. "Good?"
I nodded happily. "Do you want to try one?" I asked. I didn't bother waiting for his reply before I blithely stuck a piece of ravioli on his plate.
He stared at it, looking almost uncertain. "Thanks," he said. Then, a moment later, he laughed.
Weirdo. I shrugged. "You're welcome."
We finished our meal without further incident. The conversation meandered back towards more neutral waters. We talked about work, and the sorts of people who wound up in his office. Bruce asked about Alan, with seemingly genuine interest. We talked about simple things, but it was no less pleasant. Just the effortless push and pull of words that bounced between us in lazy circles.
As we were leaving, I dug through my purse, trying and failing to locate my phone. Distractedly, I told him, "You know, that wasn't as bad as I thought it'd be."
"I'm glad I managed not to disappoint you too badly," Bruce replied blandly.
I snorted, but didn't look up when I spoke—where the hell was my phone? "Next time though, I'm choosing where we eat. There's a little diner near my old place that does great sausages. You'll like it."
There was a pause. An odd moment of quiet that felt out of place in the midst of our easy-going conversation. But before I could rear my head and turn a questioning glance at him, Bruce replied.
"I'm looking forward to it," he said, and I could hear the smile in his voice, slow and warm. "Next time."
As pleasant as that afternoon had been for me, the other show had to drop eventually.
Sometime overnight, the world had decided to fall apart without even bothering to give me a heads up.
Which was pretty damned rude, if you asked me.
Everything seemed fine when I dragged myself out of bed. And by 'fine', I meant it was as cold as death in the apartment, but that was probably because I'd forgotten to turn on the thermostat altering coming home from work—that was usually Alan's job.
Bundled up in a blanket, I trudged into the kitchen listlessly. I looked around, morose. Empty. Alan had been coming home progressively later and later these days, but to not come home at all was beyond the pale, even for him. He hadn't even bothered to return my texts. I wasn't sure whether the tight coil in my chest was worry, or anger. Both, perhaps. Or maybe I just hadn't had my morning coffee, yet.
That seemed infinitely more likely.
Grumpily, I sat on the couch and turned on the TV.
And then everything became abundantly clear.
"Good morning Gotham, this is Victoria Vale bringing you the latest from GP24," came the news anchor's chipper voice. "Overnight, a number of major corporations based in Gotham suffered from a series of cyberattacks, in what experts are speculating may be one of the worst data leaks in corporate history."
I held my breath. Please let Wayne Enterprises not be on that list.
"However, of the many companies that were targeted, it seems that Wayne Enterprises incurred the most damage, in terms of the amount of data stolen."
I put my head in my hands. Of course it had.
She continued, perversely cheerful. "The information stolen from Wayne Enterprises has since been leaked online and includes the personal details of over three thousand employees, as well as the salary figures of top executives," she paused and winked saucily. "Incidentally, if anyone's curious as to how much the Crown Prince of Gotham rakes in, that information is now only a Google search away."
I stared hard at the screen and imagined the skin peeling off her face.
"However, sordid financial details about Wayne Enterprises' top brass are, unfortunately, the very least of their concerns," she continued. "Highly sensitive information regarding advanced weapons development for the Department of Defence was also leaked. Needless to say, this severe breach of information leaves Wayne Enterprises under the threat of being sued for negligence."
"But most disturbingly, this data breach has unearthed new evidence about a financial scandal that some viewers may remember taking place, almost two decades ago." She arched her brows. "A paper trail has surfaced that implicates the late Thomas Wayne in a number of questionable activities, which includes embezzling from the company, shortly before his death."
My heart stopped.
What the hell was wrong with her? What was wrong with the media, in general? Even if the allegations were true—and I had my doubts about that—there had to be a statute of limitations on this stuff. What was the point in dredging up the past other than to create a spectacle so the masses could point and laugh and whisper, while pretending to be scandalized.
"Financial prospects for this company had been looking up since it had gone public some weeks ago, but it's doubtful, even with his eleven figure salary, that Bruce Wayne will be able to buy his way out of this one," Victoria Vale said with a sardonically cocked brow.
As I glared at the TV, my phone rang.
I looked down at it.
When I picked up, his voice came over the line, mostly calm, but there was a strained note beneath it. "Sarah—"
"—I know," I said quickly. "I saw the news. I'm coming in now."
I abandoned my coffee and hurried out of the apartment.
My mind reeled as I got on the train. I tried to sort through my thoughts before I got to work. A cyberattack wasn't as bad as, say, a madman going on a poisoning spree through the city. It certainly wasn't as bad as a literal train crashing right through your company's base of operations. But to have this data breach happen right on the heels of all those aforementioned crises? The timing was bad. Conveniently bad.
The news had reported that a lot of major corporations in Gotham were victims of the hack. Ostensibly, Wayne Enterprises was either unlucky or unprepared and had suffered the brunt of the attack.
But to involve Thomas Wayne—that twisted things. It didn't make Wayne Enterprises feel like a victim of circumstance. It smacked of something more personal.
When I arrived, the parking lot was packed with journalists and reporters and simple on-lookers, hungry for a spectacle. They all reminded me of sharks that had scented blood in the water, amassing around a wounded, struggling animal. A tiny, vicious ember in my chest flared.
I shoved recklessly through the crowd, not caring who elbowed or whose feet I trod on. I pushed through the masses, and when I emerged through to the other side, I made a beeline towards the doors, casting one last dark glare over my shoulder.
At the front desk, Stella looked like she was trying not to consider homicide as a possible career alternative. I sympathized. Like they had on the first day I was here, the phones were all blaring off the hook in a raucous cacophony of noise. Stella was ignoring them though, typing furiously away at her computer.
The moment she saw me, she let out a deep sigh.
"Jesus, Sarah, there you are. It's a madhouse in here. I swear if I see one more camera go off, I'm going to snap."
I leaned against her desk, and felt some of my anger abate. I patted her hand. "How are you holding up?" I asked with a grimace.
"The press is hounding us. They're asking if we've issued a statement, if we're going to issue a statement, when we'll issue a statement. And since all the board members have apparently unplugged their phones, all these calls get redirected to me!" She exclaimed, throwing her hands up. "I'm not equipped for this! I'm just supposed to answer phones and schedule appointments."
"You should set them all on fire," I said darkly.
"I'm awfully tempted," she replied. "But I think that'd just get us into more trouble."
Stella was probably right. "Listen, do you know if Bru— Er, I mean, do you know if Mr. Wayne is in yet?"
She gave me a tired, and yet somehow knowing smile. "Congratulations, your boss actually managed to show up before noon. The sky really must be falling down."
A small, ridiculous part of me almost wanted to defend him, even though I knew Stella was only telling the truth. "Hold down the fort here and I'll ask and see if there's anything he can do to help."
Stella was one of those smart, socially capable people. I still didn't know if she was genuinely nice or if she was just clever at forging and maintaining connections. Surprise flickered over her face and her brow arched for a brief second before she smiled warmly.
"Please Sarah, don't bother him. What I'm dealing with is annoying, but what Mr. Wayne is dealing with is actually… bad," she said with a wince, which told me all I needed to know about whether or not she'd heard the scandal about his father.
I considered her for a moment and made a mental note to bring her a sandwich and coffee at lunch. "If you're sure," I said reluctantly. "Take care of yourself," I said, before hurrying away. Worry and fear carried me on fleet foot.
I wasn't sure what I was expecting when I got to the office. Fox, maybe. That would make sense. I didn't, however, expect to see Alan, haggard and practically dead on his feet, but at attention in front of Bruce's desk.
When they heard the clicking of my heels, they all stopped talking and turned around.
"Sarah," Bruce called out and made a beckoning motion with his fingers that I would have normally taken issue with, but I knew he liked to ham it up in front of witnesses. "Come in."
Slowly, I set my things down on my desk and went into Bruce's office. I looked warily between them, and unconsciously, I stood slightly in front of Alan, partially blocking him from view.
"I don't remember scheduling this meeting," I said.
"It was a last minute kind of thing," Bruce reassured in affable tones. "Don't worry, we didn't start without you."
I looked at him worriedly, trying to read him. But he had on that impenetrable mask, again, and this time I found I couldn't peel it away. He didn't even look bothered, even though I knew he had to be.
He seemed to be avoiding my eyes, for some reason.
Someone cleared their throat. I startled and glanced over at Alan, who'd been trying to catch my eye. I immediately frowned.
Alan's sleeping habits was like a baby's; anything less than his standard and uncompromising eight hours, and he'd become the crankiest thing I'd ever seen.
At the moment, he looked like he hadn't slept in days. He looked worse than yesterday, if that was even possible. The bags under his eyes were so dark it looked like someone had actually punched him in the face, and there was even the faintest dusting of stubble on his adorable baby face. My heart broke.
Unthinkingly, I moved over to smooth his collar down, giving into a maternal instinct that I thought had never existed in the first place. I licked my thumb and tried to flatten a cowlick on the side of his head. "What the hell are you doing here? What happened? Are you aware that you didn't come home last night?" I hissed in rapid-fire out of the corner of my mouth, trying not to move my lips, calling upon my inner ventriloquist, because of course, everyone had one of those stashed away.
He winced apologetically, which immediately made me feel like I'd kicked a puppy. "Sorry," he whispered back furtively, bearing my ministrations with equal parts grim resignation and gratitude. "But right now, it literally feels like I work in the tenth circle of hell and Satan has crawled up my ass, and my boss just quit—"
Someone else cleared their throat. Alan and I both jumped like guilty children and peered around. Fox regarded us with amusement, while Bruce looked between us with an unreadable expression.
"Mind sharing with the rest of the class?" Fox asked, crossing his arms and arching a brow.
Alan choked, his cheeks flushing with embarrassment. While he was busy spluttering, I shot Fox a faintly displeased look, which he returned blandly.
After recovering, Alan straightened self-consciously, fidgeting with his folders. "Right. Er, sorry about that. Anyway, my name's Alan Liu, in case any of you didn't know," he said, and I presumed he was directing that at Fox since Bruce had already met him and I lived with him.
"You might be wondering why I'm here, instead of Mr. Weekes. That would be because he quit," he said matter-of-factly with a helpless shrug. "This morning, actually. Said something about 'not signing up for this shit,' but those were his words, not mine, obviously," he clarified hastily.
I cleared my throat and scratched my nose. TMI, I mouthed at him.
Alan glanced at me quickly before rallying. "As you probably already know, we had a breach last night. A big one. About 1.9 terabytes of data was taken. I actually made a few calls to some friends in the tech departments of some of the other companies that had been attacked, and off record they told me that their casualties are nowhere near as high."
Now that he was on a roll, he seemed more confident. "I have reason to believe that this isn't an isolated incident. Recently, we've been dealing with a number of smaller attacks on our firewalls. Nothing serious, but persistent enough to make me suspect that they weren't just drive-by cyberattacks. I tried voicing my concerns to Mr. Weekes, but he told me not to follow up on the issue."
Alan wrung his hands. "I didn't totally agree, but I did what he told me and divided my attention between this matter and another project that Mr. Weekes had assigned. Which was a big, fat mistake," he said grimly, "because this morning I took a look at these." He pulled some papers out of his folder and laid them down on Bruce's desk.
Bruce and Fox glanced at each other before Bruce tilted his head, as if to say, By all means.
Fox began to thumb through them with a mild expression.
"These are our firewall logs from the past two weeks, including from last night. They document the payloads of any and all activity regarding our servers, so as you can expect, there's a lot to go through."
He continued. "None of the attacks have ever originated from the same IP address more than once, but I did some digging and realized that they all come from the same VPN. This includes the major attack last night."
"Is decrypting it possible?" Fox asked, not looking up.
"Alan chewed his lip. "I'm trying my best, but it's hard to tell right now."
Most of this technical stuff went right over my head. Fox asked more questions that I couldn't make heads or tails of, but Alan had no problem understanding them, even if he didn't have answers.
Instead, I looked at Bruce. I searched his face for any small hint of emotion, and it felt like trying to find a foothold on a wall of ice. He just looked bored, if anything. I pressed my lips together. I knew better than to expect anything else, at least when other people were here. Bruce had a cover to maintain—he couldn't let himself be seen as caring too much, or knowing too much, but still. He could still look a little concerned, couldn't he?
I looked back to Fox, who had finally finished leafing through Alan's documents. He finally looked up with a sharp flick of his eyes. "Anything else?"
With a harried sigh, Alan raked a hand through his hair. "We're still trying to figure out the hacker's entry point, but whoever did this is smart. And to be honest, sir, it's a pretty small department. We're not adequately staffed or equipped for an attack of this degree." Alan pressed his lips together and said, hesitantly, "Earle wasn't that big on cyber security."
"Then congratulations, Alan," Bruce suddenly spoke up, leaning forward to steeple his fingers together with a placid smile. "You've just been promoted."
"… To what?" Alan squeaked.
"Head of the Cyber Defence Department."
Alan swallowed audibly. "But, uh, there is no—"
"There is now," Bruce replied matter-of-factly. "I've just created one. And merged it with Cryptanalysis. Send out the memo, would you Sarah?" Bruce added, not looking at me.
While Alan was doing his best impression of a fish out of water, I sighed, already used to Bruce's particular brand of dramatics. "I'll get right on that."
"Anything else, Alan?" Bruce said with a pleasant smile.
"Uh, no. Sir."
"Good," Bruce replied. "You're dismissed."
Shakily, Alan made to leave, before abruptly pivoting back around, as though he'd just remembered something.
Bruce blinked. "Something else the matter?"
I looked at Alan curiously. He seemed to be steeling himself for something. His gaze was directed somewhere near the vicinity of his shoes before he took a deep breath and straightened, looking Bruce right in the eyes.
"I want to formally apologize," he said, without a hint of any of his earlier nervousness. "I'd felt like something was wrong with all the hacking incidents lately, and if I'd voiced my suspicions earlier, this might have been able to be avoided—"
"This wasn't your fault," Bruce interrupted. "You did everything you were supposed to do. You reported the problem to your department head, who ignored you. You weren't in a decision to do anything about it."
Alan clenched his jaw without saying anything, unwilling to let himself off that easily.
"But now you are," Bruce continued. "You have the instincts and display the sort of initiative that makes for a good leader, Alan. And now, you don't have to report to anyone but me." He paused, then added with a conceding nod, "And Mr. Fox, of course. Mostly Mr. Fox."
Fox arched his brows, but inclined his head graciously.
"Thank you, sir," Alan stammered and then practically shot out of Bruce's office like a racehorse straight out of the gate. I watched him flee, but out of the corner of my eye, I looked at Bruce. My heart gave one, gentle, resonant, throb. He'd been very kind to Alan just now.
Fox waited until he was gone to say, "I suppose then, that the onus is on me to explain this to the board?"
Bruce looked mildly surprised and blinked innocently. "You can explain all this technical stuff so much better than I can, Mr. Fox."
Fox shot him a dry look. "I'm sure the board wouldn't begrudge you the use of cue cards, Mr. Wayne."
A faint smirk made a brief appearance on his face before he sighed. "Allocate a bigger budget for the CDD. Observe the niceties and run it through the board, but make sure it gets done."
"Only just conceptualized and it already gets an acronym? And more money?"
"Cyber Defense Department is a mouthful."
Fox raised his brows in a conceding sort of way.
I steered the conversation back to more relevant waters. "Speaking of which, Stella says that the press has been hounding her for information about whether or not Wayne Enterprises is going to issue a statement," I told them. "Know anything about that?"
Fox glanced at Bruce. "Someone from the PR firm has already drafted a statement."
"Then gather the press and give the statement," Bruce replied.
"Gathering the press won't be hard, since they've so helpfully amassed themselves on our front lawn," Fox said wryly. "I'll give the statement right away."
I frowned, annoyed, and said, "You know, you're still technically the CEO."
"'Technically,'" Bruce said curtly, not looking at me. "But as far as anyone knows, I'm just an overpaid ribbon cutter."
The small twinge of annoyance in my chest splintered. I stared in disbelief, hopefully burning two holes into the side of his face. What the hell was this? Bruce wasn't a passive man by any means. No one who dressed like a bat and beat up criminals by night could ever be rightly be called passive. But his indifferent approach to this whole incident was beginning to frustrate me.
"So what," I said, low and flat. "That's it?"
Suddenly, his eyes flickered, a shadow eclipsing his mild expression for the briefest moment before he schooled his features back into a deceptive calm. He stood up and buttoned his suit jacket, nodding at Fox. "Thank you for your time, Mr. Fox."
Fox looked between us with raised brows, his expression wary. "Right. I'll let you know if anything else comes up," he said, before showing himself out.
When I turned back to Bruce, he had already paced over to the window, his hands in his pockets and his back to me.
"Okay," I said, loudly and sarcastically, picking up right where I left off. "Everyone's gone now, so maybe you can tell me what your real plan is for catching these hackers."
Bruce's voice was calm, but I could hear the razor wire of tension that was pulled taut underneath. "The plan, Sarah," he enunciated, "is to let Cyber Defence and the police do their jobs."
A humourless smile tugged at my mouth. "You can't be serious," I said, disdain dripping from my tones.
He turned his head just enough to lance me with a cold look. "It's called due process."
I barked out a disbelieving laugh. "You don't believe in due process!"
His eyes swept away, dismissing me in one gesture.
I stalked over to hook my hand around the crook of his elbow so I could spin him around to face me.
I tugged. There was a second's hesitation before he turned, just long enough to let me know I'd only managed to budge him because he'd let me do it. I'm humouring you, the cold, disdainful slant of his eyes said.
Condescending prick. When had I ever needed that reminder? With mounting frustration, I searched his face and found only an icy remoteness. But the closer I looked, the more I could see the hints of strain. There was effort in the forced evenness of his breathing. The line of muscle beneath my hand was tense, and in that unwavering stare, danger lurked like a fork of lightning on the horizon.
I let go and took a step back.
"Remind me again, whose company it is? I mean, it's your name on the damn building, not Fox's. But for some reason, you're acting like this doesn't even concern you." I said tightly, exhaling sharply through my nose.
He watched me, preternaturally still. "Is that what you think?"
"Am I supposed to be able to think anything else when you're acting like this?" I shot back.
"Like what?" He asked, voice tight as drum leather. "Calmly? Rationally?"
"Like you don't care," I said instantly. "Like you can't even be bothered!"
His lips quirked up with amused contempt. "My apologies then, for failing to live up to your expectations."
I closed my eyes. "That's not what I meant."
"Are you trying to convince me, or yourself?"
"Bruce, that's not what I meant," I said again, opening my eyes. "I'm just trying, and failing, apparently, to understand what you're thinking. You have resources, you can do things that other people can't," I reasoned. "If you give this to the police, it's going to get tied up in red tape for months and who knows where the hacker will be by then."
I watched as he swung his head away. His hands made an aborted motion, before he shoved them back in his pockets.
"You can do things, not just as Bruce Wayne but also as Batman—" and somehow, this was where I'd lost him.
He broke away from me, pacing to the other side of his office. He shook his head faintly.
I seethed. "I'm not crazy for suggesting it, Bruce. Anyone would have."
He bit out a caustic laugh. "You have no idea what you're suggesting."
I ignored him. "Bruce, I don't think this was just some random attack." I paused before invoking the forbidden, the untouchable. "Whoever was responsible brought your father into it," I said flatly.
The line of his back stiffened.
"Just help me understand why you don't care—"
Then, Bruce snapped.
But perhaps that was the wrong way to put it. Too conventional. Too ordinary.
Leave it to Bruce to not even lose control like other men.
Bruce unravelled. Like he was deliberately and methodically peeling off all the layers of his self-imposed restraints to unleash the full force of his displeasure.
Slowly, he turned on his heel to face me and the air between us crackled. I realized then, that that distant storm was here, right now, had stolen into the room and announced its presence with a clap of thunder.
I sucked in a breath as Bruce began to close the distance between us in long, languid strides, a prowl in his step. The closer he got, the harder the air seemed to breathe, like the sheer presence of him was compressing against my lungs.
My entire body flushed with cold. A frisson shot up my spine when I realized that he was nearly upon me and seemed to have no intention of stopping. Jolting out of my frozen stillness, my body obeyed an instinct older than reason. I skittered backward, keeping my eyes locked on Bruce's approaching form.
I maintained some awareness of my surroundings. I side-stepped the couch in my periphery. Bruce cocked his head, calculating, and then changed the angle of his approach. I scrambled to adjust my trajectory, and then—
My heart lodged itself in my throat when I felt my back hit the bookcase.
Bastard had maneuvered me into a literal corner.
And then I didn't have the capacity to either curse or admire his ruthless cleverness, because he was suddenly there—the smoky scent of him filling my nose, curling dizzyingly in my head. He stood over me, so close I could feel the heat rolling off of him in waves, but—
He didn't touch me. But the space between us was so negligible that it was like an insult added to injury. Choosing not to broach that sliver of space was almost like making a point all on its own.
Because he didn't have to. Because he could keep me here, for as long as he wanted, with just the force of his presence alone.
I swallowed hard, my mind spinning out of control as I tried to process every little thought, every minute sensation. I was unnerved, yes. I couldn't delude myself about that. I'd never been on the receiving end of Bruce's anger before, not like this, not even after he'd been dosed with Fear Toxin. But the static skittering over the surface of my skin, setting the hair on the back of my neck on end, raising every goose bump was also—
Thrill, my mind whispered.
"You think I don't know that?" Bruce asked lowly. "You really think I don't care?"
I stared at the bob of his throat and didn't know what to think.
"Look at me."
No, I couldn't. I couldn't. Right now, I couldn't think of anything harder than shifting my gaze five inches up and I hated myself for being such a coward.
"Sarah," he said, only now with a steely tone of command. "Look at me."
Anger had melted the iciness of his expression—his gaze was all molten heat, dark, and intense. The line of his jaw was tense as he spoke.
"Do you have any idea how hard it is not to do exactly what you're suggesting?" He asked, voice like the whisper of a knife in the dark. "It'd be the easiest thing in the world to put on the suit and hunt down the person responsible."
"Then why don't you?" I breathed.
"Because Batman is supposed to be a symbol, not a tool for revenge," Bruce said, leaning in. The muscles in his shoulders bunched, like he was coiled to spring. "Bruce Wayne has just as many enemies as Batman. This is the first time you've ever seen someone strike out at my public persona, but it won't be the last. Batman's purpose isn't to be anyone's personal attack dog — he's supposed to be better than that."
"So what you're saying is, you'll become Batman to protect other people, but not yourself?" I shot back.
His answering stare was caustic. He looked at me like I was stupid. Like I couldn't understand.
"Why, because of some noble, lofty ideals? Because—"
"Because if I start, I don't know if I'll be able to stop," he snapped out in a rush, sounding like the answer had been torn from him.
The silence in the wake of that confession was resounding.
His pupils were pinpricks. "You think normal, well-adjusted people become vigilantes?" He asked bitingly. "You think people with decent coping mechanisms deal with their issues by taking them out on criminals?"
This was Bruce snapping. This wasn't the deliberate shedding of his composure. This was darkness, spilling out from split seams. I looked at him like I was seeing him for the very first time, and perhaps I was. In all the time I'd known him, in all the states I'd seen him in, I'd never been witness to this side of him. The part he simultaneously needed and reigned in. Some part of me was always aware that normal people weren't capable of the things Bruce was capable of—and that perhaps that wasn't always a good thing. But seeing this side of him firsthand was something else entirely.
"I make rules, and I draw lines for myself because I need them, Sarah. Because I'm angry, all the time, and I can't put myself in a position where I have to distinguish right from wrong. Because I don't trust that I'll always be able to make the right choices."
That's not true. You can. I know you can. I wanted to say.
But when I opened my mouth to give voice to my thoughts, I faltered.
Because then he'd know I was lying. And that was so much worse.
It wasn't like I'd had the sudden realization that he was morally tone-deaf, unhinged and had a thirst for violence. It was more the thought that if I'd gone through everything he'd suffered, and if I had to take on the same responsibilities he was currently shouldering — would I be able to keep myself from falling into the darker aspects of my own psyche? Would I be able to trust myself to make the right choice a hundred percent of the time?
The balance of heaven and hell teeter on his shoulders, like a scale. And on his good days, heaven won.
But whose heart could rightly weigh less than a feather?
I'd only ever seen his good days.
It was a heavy question, and the answer was a coin suspended in mid-air that could fall either way. Didn't humans always fear the unknown?
In the end, I couldn't tell him what we both wanted to hear, no matter how much I wanted to.
I dropped his gaze. Neither of us said anything, pushing one breath back in forth in the tiny space between us. He was too close, and not in the physical sense. It was like we'd crawled too deeply into each other's skins. I felt restless, claustrophobic.
I understood. And that was the crux of the problem.
Because I understood, but I didn't agree. Because there was no situation where not doing anything was the solution. That would only breed regret.
But I knew Bruce wouldn't listen to anything I had to say, and I couldn't fight his demons for him.
Something bright and lucid and sharply aware in me knew instinctively what to do, even if the rest of me didn't. Gently, I reached out to splay a hand against his chest. I didn't apply any pressure. I didn't have to.
For a moment, I felt the human, beating heart of him beneath my palm—and then, obediently, he stepped back.
"Okay," I assured him. "Okay."
His breathing sounded ragged. I couldn't stand it.
Not looking at him, I stepped out from between him and the wall, walking away on surprisingly steady legs. He couldn't see, so I closed eyes and tried to gather my thoughts. It would be easy, if only the room could stop spinning.
And the, after a moment, I did what I did best.
"I'm cancelling all your meetings," I said gently, not looking at him. "They're only going to try and harass you into talking about the hack and—" And your dad. "Anyway. No one's going to talk about anything important. I'll spare you the trouble."
Bruce's voice drifted towards me, listless and yet somehow uncertain. "... Alright."
"I'm gonna go see Alan first though. I'll be back," I tossed over my shoulder and got into the elevator, without once looking back at him.
I was afraid of what I might see.
Like Bruce, still standing right where I left him.
My mind felt like it had just been ransacked. Or like I had just gotten off one of those spinning teacup rides and the the world just wouldn't stop for just a second and let me catch up. I desperately needed a distraction.
Which was a good thing, because when I got to Alan's shiny, new department, I was astonished to see Cynthia standing in Alan's office, posture casual but also strangely not. I stood from a distance, just flat out staring, and saw her place a water bottle and a salad on his desk, with an appropriately dismissive flick of her wrist.
What kind of alternate dimension have I just wandered into?
Alan glanced up, looked at the offerings and arched a sardonic brow. There was a brief exchange, after which Cynthia sniffed disdainfully.
Slowly, I began to creep toward the office, wondering if I couldn't maybe eavesdrop. Well, isn't this an interesting development? And by interesting, I meant creepy and horrifying.
I tried to sneak up on them, but it seemed that Cynthia had lost none of her supernatural perceptiveness. her head snapped up at some some imperceptible to the human ear.
The minute she saw me, she gathered herself up haughtily and made her way to the door.
I intercepted her there, side-stepping when she made to brush past me.
She finally stopped to give me a disdainful look. "If you're just here to bother him, you can turn back around," she said, and ah, there was that cat-like rudeness I'd loved and missed so much. "This department's under enough strain as it is, and none of us can afford the distraction."
"Hi Cynthia," I said brightly, taking perverse cheer in the way her eye twitched. "How are you? That's great. I'm fine too, thanks for asking."
"If you want to stay that way, then behave," she threatened. "I'm watching you."
I put on an expression that was appropriately fearful and contrite, at least until she finally left, her heels clicking ominously even as they faded from hearing.
I flounced into Alan's office, expression gleeful, but he beat me to the punch.
"You don't have clearance to be here," was the first thing Alan said to me.
"Cynthia seemed to have clearance to be here," I said, sing-song.
"That's because she does," he answered with the air of someone being deliberately obtuse. "Do you know how many NDA's I had to sign to even be able to breathe in the vicinity of these documents?" Alan asked, not looking up at me. He was too busy mucking around in a elbow-high pile of papers. "I could get fired for this. I could get arrested."
He sounded close enough to tears that I decided to let the Cynthia thing go. For now. Casually, I picked one up and scanned through it.
"Relax. No one's getting arrested."
"Maybe not you," Alan shot back irritably.
Alan seemed to have a lot going on, so I didn't take issue with his tone. "Is this that payload thing you were talking about?" I asked dubiously.
"Yes," Alan groaned. "It's going to take weeks to go through all of this. I'm going to die."
"Cool," I said. "I call dibs on all your stuff."
I ignored his glare and sat down, gathering up the papers. I cocked my head and re-arranged them into chronological order, starting from when the attacks began. I scanned through them, without having to really see them. The numbers assembled themselves in my head, and slowly, a pattern began to emerge.
A suspicion formed. I checked, double checked and then triple checked just for good measure, before hesitantly, I said, "Hey, Alan…"
"What," he replied flatly, not looking up.
"I know that I know jack all about computers and hacking and stuff, but does this look weird to you?" I asked, shoving the papers under his nose.
Alan swatted at them. "Can you not hold them two inches from my face, I can't see anything—"
"It has to be weird, right? I mean, don't these numbers usually get randomized?"
"What numbers?" Alan asked, finally seizing my wrists to hold them a decent distance from his face.
"The IP addresses. If someone's hiding their tracks, they'd just use randomly generated IP addresses, right?"
"Usually, yeah," Alan said, still not following. "I mean, that is the idea."
"Well, the ones you highlighted… some of them look like they're actually increasing by Fibonacci sequence."
Alan's mouth fell open. He squinted.
Uncertainly, I said, "You know, that's when—"
"—Each number is the sum of the two preceding numbers. Yeah, I know."
Alan stared, unblinkingly at the paper, to the point where I thought he was actually trying to burn holes into it, until he finally slumped back into his seat, eyes closed.
"Was that helpful?" I asked hopefully.
"How did you even notice that?" He muttered. "It might've taken us weeks to notice. There are computer programs that are designed to analyze this kind of stuff for us."
I held my hands up placatingly. "Hey, I just noticed it. I have no idea what any of it actually means. But it is helpful, right?"
Alan straightened, steepling his fingers and chewing his lip. "Maybe."
"Not inspiring a whole lot of confidence, there."
"If I can decrypt the packet using all these data points, I might be able to trace it back to the original IP address. But it's going to take some time."
"How much time?" I wanted to know.
"I don't know. Two weeks, maybe."
A lot could happen in two weeks. This entire debacle had happened in the span of one night. "What are the chances another attack could occur?"
"Corporate cyberattacks are like drive-by's. People don't usually come back for seconds, especially in so small a window of time." Alan glanced at me, and something perceptive emerged that spoke to either how well he knew me or to the sharp intellect he often left out of the limelight in favour of his good naturedness. "But you don't think it's a corporate thing, do you?"
My neck prickled. "I don't think it's just a corporate thing. I'm not saying money isn't a factor, but that whole thing about his dad just makes it ugly. Personal in a way that business usually is not." I hunched over unhappily, wrapping my arms around myself.
Alan looked at me sympathetically. "You're really worried about him, aren't you?"
I thought about him, standing with a gun to his head, completely able, but unwilling, to move. Well, somebody has to, I thought, but instead I said, "You know if this guy succeeds in taking down Wayne Enterprises, we'd all be out of a job."
Alan rolled his eyes. "Ah, right, so that's why you're so gung-ho about this. It's because of your purely selfish desire for financial stability."
"Well." I fidgeted. "Yeah. Of course."
"Is that also why you decided to be a writer?" He asked archly.
I gasped. "Low blow! The whole starving writer archetype is totally—"
Alan exhaled sharply through his nose. "I think if I literally don't sleep, I can shave at least a couple more days off of my original estimate."
I beamed at him.
"My eyeballs might literally roll out of my head, though," he muttered.
"I'll guide you around," I promised sweetly.
"You'll guide me into walls."
I considered that. "Well, yeah. But only until the novelty wore off."
He made a face.
With a more serious expression, I said, "Look. I know this is asking a lot. But I wouldn't ask if it wasn't important. And I wouldn't ask if I didn't think you could do it."
"You don't have to suck up," Alan grumbled. "I already said I'd do it."
"But it's still nice to hear, right?" I grinned, and pecked him on the check.
Alan swatted me away. "Alright, alright, you've made your entreaties. If you want me to get this finished sometime before the year ends, then get out of here and stop distracting me."
"I'll bring you a change of clothes!" I promised, walking backward out of his office. "And coffee! And food!"
"Food that isn't from here."
"Food that isn't from here," I repeated, before leaving. I tossed a salute and a wink to Cynthia on my out, who watched me through slitted eyes.
So, I now had Alan on my side—but I couldn't make him carry this fight alone. I was going to dig through all the memos, all the trade reports and all the stock summaries from the past month and see if I could figure anything out. If that didn't work, I'd bring out the big guns.
It was true. I couldn't fight Bruce's demons for him.
But everything else was fair game.
Author's note: What Bruce was thinking when Sarah shared some of her pasta with him: Ravioli ravioli give me the formuoli. I'm just kidding. Ignore that.
Hello folks, and welcome the seventeenth instalment of Playing Secretary! If you hated it, then congratulations, we have something in common :)
Yeah, I don't know why this one was so hard to write. Probably because it involved the two things I hate most: setting things up, and the technical stuff. If any of you are hackers, don't talk to me. Don't even look at me. I don't wanna know.
Thank you so, so much for the reviews/alerts/favourites last chapter! I'm literally the Aaron Paul screaming/crying meme whenever you guys review.
Anyway. A lot of you keep asking what Sarah looks like? I deliberately didn't describe her so you guys could just imagine whatever, but if you guys want, there is ample (and reasonable) opportunity to do so in… two chapters.
Speaking of two chapters. Shit will be going down. In a manner similar to The Revelation in Chapter 10. Gird your loins.
No mystery man in this chapter, but you'll see him in the next one! As always, lemme know what you think folks!