Batman nightwalker, p.2
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       Batman: Nightwalker, p.2

           Marie Lu
 
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  “Are you looking forward to your graduation?” “Are you enjoying your new wealth?” “How do you feel about being the world’s youngest billionaire?” “Who are you dating, Bruce?” “Hey, Bruce, look this way! Give us a smile!”

  Bruce obliged, offering them an easy grin. He knew he photographed well—long and lean, his blue eyes dark as sapphire against his white complexion, his black hair perfectly smoothed back, his suit tailored and oxfords polished. “Good evening,” he said as he stood for a moment in front of the car.

  “Bruce!” one paparazzo shouted. “Is that car your first purchase?” He winked. “Enjoying your trust fund already?”

  Bruce just looked at him steadily, refusing to take the bait. “This is the newest Aston Martin on the market, fully equipped with WayneTech safety technology. You are welcome to explore its interior tonight for an exclusive first look.” He held his hand out toward the car, where one of his suited guards had opened the door for the press to peek in. “Thank you all for covering my mother’s benefit tonight. It means a lot to me.”

  He continued talking for a bit about the charity that the event would support, but everyone shouted right over him, ignoring his words. Bruce faced them wearily, and for an instant, he felt alone and outnumbered. His gaze scanned past the tabloid paparazzi, searching for the journalists from official papers. He could already see the headlines tomorrow: BRUCE WAYNE BLOWS NEW MONEY ON MILLION-DOLLAR CAR! TRUST FUND BABY WASTES NO TIME! But interspersed with those would hopefully be a few true headlines, detailing the work being done at WayneTech. That was what mattered. So he lingered, enduring the photos.

  After letting the cameras flash wildly for a few moments, Bruce made his way up toward the hall’s entrance. Other guests mingled at the top of the stairs—members of Gotham City’s upper class, the occasional council member, clusters of admirers. Bruce found himself categorizing everyone in the crowd. It was a survival skill he’d learned since his parents’ deaths. There were the people who’d invite him to dinner only in an attempt to get gossip out of him. The people willing to betray friends in order to become his. The occasional wealthy classmate who’d spread lies about him out of bitter envy. The ones who’d do anything to get a date with him and then share the details with the rags the next morning.

  But on the surface, he kept his cool, greeting everyone politely. Only a few more steps until he’d reach the entrance. All he had to do was make it inside, and then he could find—

  “Bruce!”

  A familiar voice cut above the chaos. Bruce looked up to where a girl was standing on tiptoe and waving at him from the top of the stairs. Dark hair skimmed her shoulders, and the hall’s floor lights highlighted her brown skin and the round curve of her hips. There was glitter woven into the fabric of her dress, shimmering silver as she moved. “Hey!” she called. “Over here!”

  Bruce’s careful demeanor dissolved in relief. Dianne Garcia. Category: genuine.

  As he reached her, she instinctively turned her back on the crowd stuck behind the velvet rope at the bottom of the stairs in an attempt to shield him from the flashing cameras.

  “Fashionably late on your birthday?” she said with a grin.

  He gave her a grateful wink and leaned down closer to her ear. “Always.”

  “This benefit is epic,” she went on. “I think you might set a new record for how much money it’ll raise.”

  “Thank god,” he replied, throwing an arm around her neck. “Otherwise I’d have put up with all the cameras down there for nothing.”

  She laughed. This was the girl who had once punched a tooth out of a kid for harassing her friends, who had memorized the entire first chapter of A Tale of Two Cities in senior-year English to win a bet, and who could spend an hour staring at a menu only to order the same burger she always got. Now Dianne shoved him off in affectionate protest, grabbed his arm, and led him through the open doors of the hall, leaving the paparazzi behind.

  Inside, the lighting was dim, an atmospheric blue, and chandeliers hung from the high ceilings, glinting bright silver and white. Ice sculptures and spreads of food covered long banquet tables, while another table was lined with rows of auction items, all trembling slightly from the beat of the music.

  “I thought you had a college interview today,” he said over the noise as Dianne swiped a lemon tart from one of the dessert stands. “Not that I’m complaining about you being here, of course.”

  “It was earlier,” Dianne replied through a mouthful of pastry. “It’s okay. My lola needed me home in the afternoon to pick up my brother, and besides, I couldn’t bear the thought of robbing you of my company tonight.” She leaned in, her voice dropping to an ominous whisper. “That was my way of saying I didn’t get you anything.”

  “Nothing at all?” Bruce put a hand over his heart in mock pain. “You wound me.”

  “If you’d like, I could always bake you a cake.”

  “Please don’t.” The last time Dianne had attempted to make cookies, she’d set Bruce’s kitchen on fire, and they’d spent the next hour hiding the scorched kitchen drapes so that Alfred wouldn’t know.

  Dianne squeezed his arm once. “You’ll just have to settle for diner food tonight, then.”

  Years ago, Bruce, Harvey, and Dianne had all agreed to forgo birthday presents in exchange for an annual date at their favorite local diner. It would be where they’d meet up tonight, too, after the benefit ended, and Bruce could shed the billionaire and just be a boy on the cusp of graduating from high school, getting teased by two of his best friends over fat burgers and thick milk shakes. He smiled in anticipation at the thought.

  “Well?” he asked Dianne. “How’d the interview go?”

  “The interviewer didn’t faint in horror at my answers, so I’m going out on a limb to say it went well.” She shrugged.

  And that was Dianne’s way of saying she’d aced it, just like she aced everything else in life. Bruce had come to recognize her shrug whenever she tried to downplay an achievement—getting a perfect score on her entrance exams, being admitted to every university she applied to, and speaking as their class valedictorian at graduation next month.

  “Congratulations,” he said. “Although you’ve probably already heard that from Harvey.”

  She smiled. “All Harvey’s done tonight is beg me not to leave him alone on the dance floor. You know how much his two left feet love to dance.”

  Bruce laughed. “Isn’t he alone on the floor right now?”

  Dianne grinned mischievously. “Oh, he can survive for two minutes.”

  The music grew louder and louder as they neared the dance floor, until finally they stepped through a set of double doors and onto a balcony that overlooked a packed space. Here, the music shook the floors. A haze of mist hugged the ground level. On the stage below was an elaborate stand, behind which stood a DJ, bobbing his head in time to the beat. Behind him, an enormous screen stretched from floor to ceiling and played a series of moving, flashing patterns.

  Dianne cupped her hands around her mouth and shouted down at the crowd. “He’s here!”

  An enormous cheer exploded from the dance floor, drowning out even the music. Bruce looked on as the crowd’s roar of “Happy birthday!” filled the room. He smiled and waved, and as he did, the DJ sped up the track. Then the DJ dropped the beat hard, and the crowd became a sea of pumping limbs.

  Bruce let the pounding music fill his senses, and whatever unease he’d felt now faded away. Dianne led him down the stairs and into the mass of guests. As he greeted one person after another, pausing to take selfies with some, he lost Dianne in the tangle of bodies, until all he could see was a blur of familiar and strange faces, every outline lit up in slices of neon and darkness.

  There she is. Dianne had reached Harvey Dent, who looked chalky under the club lights as he tried his best to move with the beat. Bruce smiled at the sight, then started making his way across the dance floor toward them. They waved him over.

  “Bruce!”<
br />
  He turned at the voice, but before he could even reply, somebody was clapping him hard on the shoulder. A face came into focus, grinning harshly, his white teeth even whiter against his pale face. “Hey—happy birthday, man!”

  Richard Price, the son of Gotham City’s current mayor. Bruce blinked in surprise. It had been months since they last talked, but Richard had already grown a few inches taller, so that Bruce had to look up slightly to meet the other boy’s gaze. “Hey,” he replied, returning Richard’s embrace. “I didn’t think you’d come.”

  “And miss your shindig? Never,” Richard replied. “My dad’s here—out in the auction hall, anyway. He never missed any of your mom’s benefits, and he won’t do it now.”

  Bruce nodded warily. They had once been best friends—they lived at opposite ends of the same neighborhood of exclusive estates, had attended the same middle school and the same parties, had even taken kickboxing classes at the same gym. They’d played video games in Bruce’s theater room, laughing themselves silly until their stomachs hurt. Even now Bruce felt a pang at the memory.

  But things had changed as they grew older, and Richard had gradually fallen into a specific category of his own: the kind of friend who called you only when he needed something from you.

  Bruce wondered what it would be tonight.

  “Hey,” Richard said now, his eyes darting to one side. He kept his hand on Bruce’s shoulder as he gestured up to the exit. “Can I talk to you somewhere? Just for a sec?”

  “Sure.”

  Bruce’s ears rang as they headed off the dance floor and into a quieter hall. There, Richard turned around and looked at Bruce with an eager grin. In spite of himself, Bruce could feel his spirits lift at the expression—it was the same grin Richard used to give him when they were kids and Richard had found something exciting that he had to share. Maybe he really was here just to celebrate Bruce’s birthday.

  Richard stepped closer and lowered his voice. “Look,” he said. “Dad’s on my case. He keeps asking me if I’ve got an internship lined up for the summer. Can you help me out?”

  Bruce’s moment of hope flickered out, replaced by a familiar sinking feeling of disappointment. Richard needed something again. “I can recommend you to Lucius Fox,” he started to say. “WayneTech is looking for interns—”

  Richard shook his head. “No, I mean, I don’t actually want to be at the internship. Just, you know, put in a word for me with my dad, tell him I’m doing stuff at WayneTech this summer, and let me into the building a couple of times.”

  Bruce frowned at him. “You mean, help you fake that you’re at an internship, just so your dad won’t bother you anymore?”

  Richard gave him a halfhearted nudge. “It’s the last summer before college starts. I don’t want to spend it working—yeah, you know how it is, Wayne, right? Just tell my dad I’m working with Lucius. It won’t be a big deal.”

  “And how are you going to keep it up?”

  “I told you—just let me into WayneTech every now and then. Take a photo of me in the lobby or something. It’s all my dad needs to see.”

  “I don’t know, man. Lucius will just tell your dad the truth if he gets wind of it.”

  “Oh, come on, Bruce! For old times’ sake.” Richard’s grin was still on as he reached to shake Bruce’s shoulder once. “It’s your company, isn’t it? You’re gonna let that nerd tell you what to do?”

  Bruce bristled. Richard had fawned all over Lucius when he’d first met him. “I’m not covering for you,” he said. “If you want to tell your dad you’re interning at WayneTech, you’ll have to actually do the internship.”

  Richard made an annoyed sound in his throat. “What’s it to you?”

  “Why are you insisting?”

  “All you have to do is mention it once or twice to my dad. It’s not like it’ll cost you anything.”

  Bruce shook his head. When they were younger, Richard would show up unannounced at his front gate, talking breathlessly over the intercom, holding the latest game or the newest set of action figures. At some point, their hangouts shifted from debates about what their favorite movies were to requests from Richard to copy Bruce’s homework or for Bruce to finish their group projects on his own or put in a good word for him for jobs.

  When had he changed? Even now Bruce couldn’t understand when or why it’d all gone wrong.

  “I can’t,” Bruce said, shaking his head again. “I’m sorry.”

  At that, Richard’s eyes seemed to shutter. He searched Bruce’s gaze as if expecting a different answer, but when it didn’t come, he grimaced and shoved his hands into his pockets. “Yeah, whatever,” he muttered, stepping around Bruce to head back down the hall. “I see how it is. You turn eighteen and get the keys to your empire, and suddenly you’re too good to help out your friends.”

  “Richard,” Bruce called out. The other boy paused to look over his shoulder. Bruce stared at him for a moment. “If you hadn’t wanted my help, would you have come to the party tonight?”

  There was a pause, and Bruce knew that the answer was no. Richard just shrugged at him, then turned around and continued down the hall without answering.

  Bruce stood there for a moment, alone, listening to the pounding music coming from inside. He felt a sudden rush of not belonging here, not even at his own event. He pictured the crowd of his classmates and friends on the dance floor and wondered if, aside from Dianne and Harvey, any of them would be here if it weren’t for his family name. The paparazzi outside wouldn’t, that was for sure.

  If he were just Bruce Wayne, the boy next door, would anyone care?

  Instead of heading back to the dance floor, Bruce made his way down the hall and through a nondescript door that led outside. He walked around the building until he reached the front entrance, where the cameras had already gotten what they wanted from the Aston Martin and were now clustered at the top of the stairs, waiting for special guests to enter or leave. Unnoticed, Bruce reached the car and got in. One of the bodyguards watching the paparazzi at the entrance spotted him right as he shut the car door and revved the engine.

  “Mr. Wayne, sir!” the man said, but Bruce just gave him a terse nod. Through the window, he could see some of the paparazzi turn in his direction and realize that he was leaving. Their eyes widened, and their chatter morphed into shouts.

  But Bruce slammed his foot down on the gas pedal before anyone could reach him. In the rearview mirror, the hall shrank quickly away. Maybe it was rude of him to leave his benefit so soon, to get some time alone when everyone wanted his time for themselves. But he didn’t slow down, and he didn’t look back.

  Neon lights smeared across the evening streets of Gotham City. Few cars were on the road at this hour, and all Bruce could hear was the rush of pavement and wind, the sound of his car tearing down the freeway. That was what drew him to machines. They followed algorithms, not emotion; when Bruce pushed his foot down on the pedal, the car only responded in one way.

  Somewhere behind him, he could see the headlights of paparazzi attempting to follow him. Bruce allowed himself a cynical smile and edged the speedometer higher and higher. The world blurred around him.

  A harsh beep rang out in the car, followed by an electronic voice. “Speed not recommended for this road,” it said, and at the same time, one corner of the windshield lit up with a recommended speed and a blinking marker telling Bruce to slow down.

  “Override,” Bruce replied. The alerts faded. He could feel the car lock itself tighter in position on the road, so that if he seemed to be even slightly shaky, the car would compensate by steadying itself.

  At least WayneTech’s features were working as they should, he thought darkly. Lucius would be happy to hear it.

  The car’s phone rang, echoing in Bruce’s ears. When he glanced down at the caller ID, he saw that it was Dianne. Bruce let it ring a few times before he finally answered. Dianne’s voice filled the car, along with the din of the party behind her.

 
Bruce?” she shouted over the noise. “Where’d you go? I saw you step away with Richard, but then I heard you left, and—”

  “I did leave,” Bruce replied.

  “What? Are you okay?” That was Harvey’s voice, anxious.

  “I’m fine,” Bruce reassured them. “Don’t worry. I just needed to get some air and clear my head.”

  There was a pause on the other end before Dianne spoke up again. “Do what you need to do,” she replied.

  “And if you need us,” Harvey added, “we’ll head to you.”

  Bruce relaxed a little at their words. The three of them had all gotten to the point where they could sense each other’s moods, so that none of them needed to explain a thing. They just knew.

  “Thanks.” Then he hung up.

  He had no idea where he was driving to, but after a while he realized he was taking a long route back in the direction of the manor. Bruce exited the freeway onto a local street, passing rows of dilapidated apartment buildings, their walls permanently stained from decades of water and filth. Clothes hung limply on lines strung from one window to another. Steam billowed up from vents. He swerved neatly through traffic, then made a sharp turn at an intersection, where he paused at a stoplight.

  Outside his car window, an old man was crawling into his makeshift tent, while at the end of the block another man was stuffing old newspaper into his shoes. A pair of kids played in an alley piled high with trash.

  Bruce looked away. He shouldn’t be here. And yet here he was, driving through the slums in a car that probably cost more than what a person living here could earn in a lifetime. Did he have a right to ever feel sad, with everything he had in his life?

  These were the streets that his parents had fought all their lives to improve, and they were the same streets where their blood had been shed. Bruce took a deep breath as the light turned green and he revved his engine. Gotham City was broken in many ways, but it wasn’t beyond repair. He would find a way to fix it. It was the mantle he’d been handed.

 
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