Batman nightwalker, p.6
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       Batman: Nightwalker, p.6

           Marie Lu
 
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  He went to the locker room and changed quickly, wrapping each of his hands in white gauze and dusting them with powder, and then took a pair of slim aviator goggles from his locker and pulled them on.

  The facilities were impressive, but what made the gym so expensive was the technology behind these goggles. With them over his eyes, Bruce could now see labels—MATS and RING and POOL—hovering over each area of the room. A central panel showed him a carousel of rotating landscapes he could set himself in while he trained.

  Bruce scrolled through them until he found his preferred setting. He reached out in midair to tap the option, and the world around him darkened into blackness.

  In a flash, it reset—and he found himself standing on the edge of a tower that disappeared into a bank of sunset clouds, staring out at a sea of glittering skyscrapers all connected to each other with cables in such a way that he could do a run between them. Stairwells curved around the outside of each building in spirals. Overhead hung a virtual night sky. When he looked down, the height seemed so realistic that he felt his head spin.

  The skyscrapers and obstacles all matched up with the layout of the gym itself, the mat formations and the octagon fighting ring and so on, the virtual stairwells syncing up with real, physical steplike mats laid out in circles. Bruce could select a mode on this landscape, too; if he wanted to run between the skyscrapers and up and down the stairwells, then the cables and stairwells would be highlighted, turning bright white to make it easy for him to see. If he wanted to scale the sides of the buildings, then footholds along the sides of the buildings would be highlighted instead, all matching up with the rock-climbing walls.

  Bruce chose the option to highlight the cables and stairwells. They lit up in white, startling against the sunset scene. He stretched in relief, ready to shed the image of Arkham’s dark halls from his mind and let himself stare down the dizzying side of the skyscraper. Then he jumped.

  He landed on a cable that ran between him and the nearest skyscraper. Instantly, he began to run it, his balance unwavering, footing accurate from years of practice. When he reached the end, he took a flying leap to grab onto the bars of the building’s outer stairwell. In real life, he hooked onto the metal monkey bars hanging over a series of blue mats, and his wrapped hands sent up a cloud of white dust. Bruce pulled himself up in a single motion, his arm and back muscles wound tight, then rolled onto the stairwell and continued running. Up a stairwell, then a flying leap, then another cable line. Sweat beaded his brow. With each passing minute, the warm-up exercise calmed him, and he could concentrate on nothing other than the steady pounding of his heart.

  “Bruce!”

  Bruce paused the simulation, then pulled his goggles up to see Coach Chang emerge from his office down the back hall to wave at him.

  Bruce smiled. “Coach.”

  The man nodded at the greeting. His hair was shaved short on the sides, tapering into a fauxhawk on top, and when he folded his arms, his muscles bulged. His ears were scarred, hinting at his wrestling past. “Nice work on those runs.”

  Bruce was about to respond, when a second figure followed Coach out onto the gym floor. Richard.

  Richard forced a smile. “Hey, Bruce,” he said, flexing his wrists once.

  “Richard told me he’ll be out of town the night he usually trains,” Coach said. “I hope you don’t mind that I have him here tonight. The pair of you can partner up like you used to.”

  Like you used to. It’d been years since he and Richard had wrestled together as friends. So much for a relaxing workout session, Bruce thought.

  Richard nodded. “Like old times.” Bruce heard the note of exaggeration in his voice, the sarcasm.

  Their coach seemed oblivious to the tension between them as he dropped a bunch of equipment on the floor. Then he glanced down at his phone. “Warm up a little, loosen yourselves up. We’ll get started on a routine in a bit.” He held his phone up to his ear and stepped away, leaving them alone in the room.

  They moved to a sparring mat, where Richard started circling Bruce.

  “Heard you left the benefit early,” Richard said. “Did I really bother you that much?”

  “I just needed to clear my head.” Bruce searched for an opening, his eyes fixed on the other boy.

  Richard let out a humorless chuckle. “Please. You think I don’t know you well enough to tell when you’re lying?”

  Bruce flexed his hands open and closed. He remembered circling Richard around this same space when they were young, the way they’d laugh and throw challenges at each other. How different it’d felt back then. “If you’d said that years ago, I’d have believed you,” he replied.

  “Not my fault we stopped hanging out.”

  “Then why?” Bruce scowled. “Was it something I did?”

  At that, Richard’s expression darkened. “Maybe someone’s head got too big for his brain.”

  Bruce could feel his temper rising. “Why—because I stopped letting you cheat off me all the time? Because you couldn’t use me anymore?”

  “Don’t flatter yourself.”

  So that was it, Bruce thought, resigned. Richard wanted a fight, was itching for one. He narrowed his eyes as he saw Richard shift into an offensive stance, then pulled his goggles back on. Both of them connected on the same channel, and the ring around them transformed into a helicopter pad on a skyscraper’s rooftop.

  Richard lunged, one bandaged fist aimed at his head. Bruce brought his shoulders up instinctively; the blow struck his upper arm, and he immediately countered. Bruce circled his opponent, holding back, waiting for him to attack again. Defense first.

  Another lunge—another exchange of blows. Bruce had always been lighter on his feet, and he dodged Richard’s attack, but he could tell that Richard had been practicing. Well, he wasn’t the only one who had changed. One, two hits—Richard barely managed to block Bruce’s second strike.

  Richard’s face showed his surprise. He skipped forward and shoved Bruce hard enough to send him stumbling back. An illegal move. Before Bruce could recover his balance, Richard aimed a vicious kick at his knee. Pain exploded through Bruce—he clenched his teeth in an attempt not to cry out, but his leg still gave way, and he nearly fell. He caught himself at the last second, stumbling.

  Bruce’s dark hair fell across his forehead as he glared at his opponent. That wasn’t a move learned here from their coach.

  Their strikes turned faster and more frequent. Richard had a weight and height advantage over Bruce, but he was also slower, and Bruce could see him starting to tire. Bruce seized the moment to strike Richard twice in rapid succession against his side. The boy doubled over with a grunt.

  As Bruce swung at him again, Richard grabbed Bruce’s wrist and twisted his arm around in one gesture, flinging Bruce toward the edge of the ring. Bruce stumbled, but this time he was ready. He used his momentum to swing back around, striking Richard hard in the stomach.

  Richard doubled over and held a hand up, a silent signal to pause. Bruce hesitated, breathing heavily, pain lancing up and down his body. He lowered his fists.

  The instant he did, Richard struck. His fist connected with Bruce’s chin. Stars burst in his vision.

  The next thing he knew, he was lying on the floor of the ring with his goggles removed, staring up at his coach’s concerned face as the man helped him up into a sitting position. When had Coach returned to the room?

  Coach frowned, nodding for them to step out of the ring. “Break it up, break it up, both of you.” He gave them pointed looks. “You two used to spar so well. Now I can’t leave you boys alone for a few minutes before you try to kill each other.”

  Bruce winced, touching his swelling jaw gingerly as Coach left to get an ice pack. He glared at Richard. “Only way you win these days is by cheating, isn’t it?”

  “Poor Bruce Wayne. Nobody treats him fair.” Richard returned his cold look before turning away. Somehow, it was worse than the physical pain Bruce felt. “In the real worl
d, there’s no such thing as cheating, is there? That’s just life.”

  “What happened to you?” Draccon asked Bruce when she saw him in the Arkham cafeteria that weekend. Her eyes went straight to the deep purple bruise staining Bruce’s jaw.

  Bruce didn’t reply right away as he took a seat across from her with his lunch tray. The rest of the week had blurred mercifully by, full of finals and yearbooks and graduation preparations. Bruce was glad for it all, a welcome distraction from his spar with Richard. He was even relieved to be here at Arkham on a Saturday.

  “It always looks the worst when it’s healing,” he finally said to the detective. “I’ll be fine.”

  She didn’t pry further, to Bruce’s relief. Instead, she went back to her food. “Hope you’re still having a miserable time here, Wayne,” she said.

  “Almost as miserable as you,” he replied.

  “That so?” She chuckled once. “Then you’ve got it pretty bad.”

  Bruce watched the detective for a moment. Her nails were perfectly unchipped, still the same nude brown polish to match the tone of her hands. She was as careful about the way she ate, he noticed, as she was about her appearance—the way she speared her food, the way she arranged her napkin in a perfect square beside her plate so that the edges ran exactly parallel to the table. No wonder she’d become a detective, absorbed in the details of things. In spite of himself, he liked her presence here. At least she lacked any interest in nonsense, and had no desire to taunt him. In fact, if Bruce hadn’t come over to talk to her, she would probably avoid him for the entire duration of his summer probation.

  Bruce’s thoughts wandered back to the girl in Arkham’s basement level. He had passed through the hall several times since they’d first locked eyes, although her cell was always filled with a team of detectives and police—including Draccon, who spent the sessions rubbing her neck in frustration as the girl remained silent.

  Bruce had to marvel at the girl’s stubbornness. She didn’t even bother looking at her interrogators; she just stared straight ahead, as if not even aware that they were there. There was a different folded napkin in her hands each time—a swan, a boat, a star. He always found himself lingering there, waiting for her to twist her wrists and transform the paper into something else. Something more dangerous.

  Draccon caught him studying her. “What do you want, Wayne?” she asked. “You look like a question’s about to pop right out of your mouth.”

  “I saw you and your team down in the basement level twice last week,” Bruce replied. “What’s the story behind that girl in the last cell?”

  Draccon raised a perfectly sculpted eyebrow at him. “This place boring you enough to make you nosy?”

  “Just wondering,” Bruce added, stirring his mashed potatoes in an attempt to make them creamier. “It’s hard to miss the spectacle.”

  Draccon put her fork down and massaged her forehead. Whatever the reason, Bruce thought, this interrogation was clearly a sore point for her. “That girl. She’s in there for a good reason, believe me, but what we discuss with her is none of your business.”

  Bruce looked at his own food, picking his next words carefully. “It didn’t seem like much of a discussion,” he replied. “Detective.”

  “Excuse me?”

  He casually cut himself another piece of meat. “With all due respect, I’ve only seen you and the other officers asking her questions. She doesn’t ever seem to respond.”

  Just by the expression that crossed Draccon’s face, Bruce knew the answer—the girl had never responded to anyone’s questions. She probably stared off into space the entire time they questioned her, pretending that they weren’t even there, folding her bits of origami. He was surprised they didn’t ball up her creations in frustration.

  Draccon muttered a curse. “The Nightwalkers give us an endless string of cases.”

  Nightwalkers. Bruce leaned forward. “What do they want?”

  Draccon shrugged. “You’ve seen their symbol, right? A coin in flames, usually spray-painted on a wall? They’re a massive network of thieves and killers. They go after the rich—we’re talking hundreds of millions of dollars. And they use it to fund their operations.”

  “Operations?”

  “So far, things like targeted assassinations, bombing factories. Terrorizing the city. They see themselves in a Robin Hood light, however twisted, and like to frame their tactics as taking from the rich and giving to the poor—although all they’ve really given the poor in this city is a more dangerous place to live.”

  “Taking from the rich and giving to the poor.” Bruce couldn’t help uttering a chuckle at that.

  Draccon eyed him. “What?”

  “It’s just that—people always seem to conveniently forget to follow through on the second half.”

  Draccon pulled down her red-rimmed glasses to look at Bruce over the top. “Philosophical,” she said, sounding slightly amused. Then she waved her hand once. “It’s nice of you to ask, Wayne,” she said as she stood up and pulled her tan coat off the back of her chair. “But you’re here on probation, not detective duty. Let’s work on getting you out of this place, not more entangled in its web.”

  —

  When Bruce headed down to the basement level after lunch, one of the lights in the corridor was flickering in an unsettling rhythm. It cast a trembling glow against the walls, making the hall seem surreal, as if it might blink out of existence if he shut his eyes. A couple of the cells were empty, while several of the remaining inmates were napping. Already, he didn’t recognize some of them. Inmates didn’t stay down here for long. Maybe the girl had been moved by now, too, even though Bruce felt strangely disappointed at the thought.

  He reached the end of the hall, where the girl’s cell sat beside the flickering light. He slowed his steps. She was still here, this time alone.

  She’s in there for a good reason.

  But she was so young. Decades younger than everyone else in here. Bruce frowned as he watched her, waiting for something, anything—a violent tantrum, an insult—to reveal a clue about why everyone found her so threatening that they locked her up down here. His gaze returned to the new shape she was folding with her napkin. It looked like an unfinished lion. He wondered what it would transform into when she was done with it.

  As he looked on, she glanced up at the door. At him.

  Again, her look caught him off guard. This time Bruce forced himself not to jerk away. He walked toward her door’s window and stopped right in front of it.

  She stared at him for a long moment. Of course she wouldn’t speak, Bruce reminded himself. She had been in here for weeks, at least, maybe even months, and hadn’t uttered a single word. How much longer would Draccon try to get something out of her? What exactly did they want to hear from her, anyway? If—

  “You’re Bruce Wayne.”

  Bruce stilled.

  Did he just hear her speak? And not just that. She recognized him. The sound of her voice surprised him so much that, for an instant, he couldn’t move. She was soft-spoken, but her words rang clear as a bell. Lovely. Soothing, even.

  “Guilty,” he finally replied. He wondered if she could hear him.

  There was another pause, but the girl never turned her stare away. Instead, she continued to look at him in her calm, quiet manner, barely blinking, her eyes dark pools set against white marble. Finally, one edge of her lips tilted up by a hair. “You’re different from the regular crowd.”

  Keep her talking. “Could say the same about you,” he managed.

  She put her lion-shaped napkin aside. “Who has the nerve to hit a billionaire?”

  Bruce blinked, his hand rubbing instinctively at his jaw. She was talking about his bruise now. “It’s nothing,” he mumbled.

  She pressed her lips together. “Hmm. Someone close to you, I bet, someone who knows you well.” She tilted her head to one side, and her hair spilled over her shoulders in a river of midnight. There was something about her movemen
ts that made him think of a dancer, all grace and cunning, like she was aware of him watching her every gesture. “Everyone has their enemies. But look at your eyes—so tight and frustrated. Whoever did it is still on your mind.”

  Bruce didn’t answer. There was something unnerving about the way she was studying him, splitting the puzzle of him into smaller pieces as she went.

  At his silence, a glint appeared in her eyes. “It really bothers you, doesn’t it? You like to understand why things happen, to solve the mystery and put it into neat little boxes—but you haven’t figured this one out yet.”

  His mind spun, trying to find the right category for her.

  She sighed. “I can see your problem.”

  “And what’s that?” Bruce said, finally finding his voice.

  “You hold back. Poor bleeding heart, always wanting to give a second chance.” She was analyzing him with a look that burned him to his core. “Don’t.”

  “Don’t what?”

  “Don’t hold back, of course.”

  Bruce frowned, mesmerized by her strange words. Don’t hold back. In the span of thirty seconds, this girl had him down cold. How did she know? How could she speak as if she could hear all the thoughts churning in his mind?

  “Who are you?” he asked.

  “I’m Madeleine.”

  Madeleine.

  Bruce was pretty sure he had just heard more from her in the past minute than anyone else here ever had. He waited, thinking that she might say something more. But the girl just put her hands behind her head and arched her back, stretching herself out languidly until he could see the sharp divide between her ribs and her stomach under her suit. She settled, crossing her legs.

 
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