The man removes his beanie and makes eye contact with Robbie, the bartender, who jerks his chin at him.
“What can I get you, Mike?”
Mike thumbs at the TVs mounted on the wall. “So. Those two new heroes. Whatcha think?”
“You want my professional opinion?”
“My opinion is that you need to already have an idea before you bet.”
“Aww, c’mon! Give me something!”
“I just take your money. Go look at the over/unders yourself.”
Everyone knows the over/unders: an entire wall covered in blackboard paint and chalk that features current student candidate names at the Hero Academy. Next to their names are the odds: odds of winning school tournaments, odds of graduating top of the class. On one side of the wall, a couple of statisticians have clearly waged war over the best way to break heroes down mathematically. The wall has been erased and rewritten so many times with each new crop of kids that most of the ground and tables are covered in a calcium carbonate dust. And it’s been going on for so long that most of the particulates are probably legacy. A patron can shuffle in through the doors and resuspend chalk from ten years ago.
Despite the finicky nature of hero crop rotation, a few names haven’t been erased yet -- those who have continued to show greatness throughout their hero careers. Mike gives the wall a once over and turns back to scan the shelves behind Robbie.
“Two students with undeclared quirks,” Mike says. “I’m gonna need something a little more exciting today, Rob.”
The folks in the bar gather round the TVs like they do every day, watching the new colony of hero hopefuls use every power and trick in their arsenal to prove their worth. But today is tournament day, and while the chaos the students create makes the arena look like an ill-planned rabbit warren, two candidates quickly stand out amongst the rest. They wear simple costumes, one in black and electric blue -- a bit form fitting is the general consensus -- the other in dark gray and red. The one in black and blue displays unusual agility and absurd levels of fearlessness. The one in gray and red shows unnatural strength and surprising speed for all his bulk. Additionally, they both seem to know what their opponents will do before they do it, throwing the betting into a fury.
On the over/under wall, a new category in hazmat orange chalk blazes from the top. It shows a running list of quirks tallied under the names “New Kid Blue” and “New Kid Red.” There’s a smiley face next to “New Kid Blue,” the apparent favorite of some tall regular who can reach high enough to add embellishments to the wall. Next to each quirk are the odds of the kids having that ability. It’s a long list with few favorites.
The two undeclared students stand on the podium, in the gold and silver spots. A third kid with the ability to change shape stands on bronze.
“Think they’re mind readers?” one patron asks as the two boys accept their names as victors for the day and the accompanying applause. They smile for the crowd, for the cameras. They quickly glance at each other where their smiles turn private, knowing.
A woman nudges the person next to her and points to the screen in the bar where New Kid Blue is about to attempt a third year challenge as a second year student.
She says, “He calls himself Robin.”
“Really?” the person asks. “I wonder why? Seems weird for a kid interning with Batman, Incorporated to call himself Robin. And what about the other one?”
A man from behind speaks up in a loud voice. “I heard the other one was Robin.”
She turns around. “Where’d you hear that? There can’t be two Robins. That’s confusing.”
“The official name is Nightwing.”
“Yeah, I heard. And about time. They’re set to graduate in a year. Wait. That’s the pretty one, right? In blue?”
“Yep. The more rugged one’s going by the Red Hood.”
“The Red Hood?”
“Sometimes just Red Hood. No the.”
“I wonder why he chose that name.”
On the TV, the camera picks up Nightwing and Red Hood. Nightwing is in an updated version of his black and blue costume, a much tighter fit than before and with the blue V on his chest running an electric stripe down the length of his arms and ending at two fingers on each hand. Red Hood wears his armored gray shirt with the red Bat logo, pants, thigh holsters, boots, and brown leather jacket. The only difference is the cherry red helmet he wears, completely concealing his face.
“Oh. That’s why,” the patron says.
They watch in awe, Nightwing and Red Hood working in tandem to clear the Gotham streets of everyday, heinous villainy while Academy instructors observe from the sidewalks.
“So, wait. Which one was Robin?”
“I can’t believe those two both graduated top of the Hero Academy without declaring a super power.”
“I heard Nightwing say they’re keeping their powers a secret so the villains don’t have any compromising info on them.”
“I heard the Red Hood’s keeping their super powers secret so he can bet as a civilian and make a shit load of money.”
“I think the Red Hood has the power of super strength and he can call on it at will. Otherwise, how do you explain how average he looks in street clothes and how jacked he is in his Red Hood armor?”
“His armor’s probably padded.”
“You think his armor’s padded?!?”
On the over/unders, two names in hazmat orange chalk remain stubbornly on the board, no fear of being erased, bets continuing to roll in.
“That Nightwing’s a goddamn flier and you can quote me on that.”
“I still think they’re mind readers.”
The heroes escape down an alley, away from prying eyes and paparazzi, letting those with handcuffs and paperwork take over dealing with the caught villains Red Hood and Nightwing took out by themselves. One of the villains had a projectile lava quirk.
“I can’t believe how much these dumbasses telegraph their moves. They never seem to learn!”
“Watch me telegraph this,” Red Hood says and pulls Nightwing flush against his body. Then he tilts his head forward, eyes on Nightwing’s mouth.
Nightwing meets him halfway.
Batman stands before his work station, cowl pushed back. There are several piles of papers, categorized by projects. New costumes, new gadgets, and -- for the upcoming autumn -- a syllabus for a new class at the Academy. Material Forensics.
He hears light steps on the wet stone ground, a person approaching from the lake entrance.
“I know the secret about those boys of yours,” Clark announces his presence. He's in full Superman costume.
Batman spares him a glance. “Hmm. Do you?”
“I’ve x-rayed them, Bruce.”
Clark folds his arms over his chest, proud. “They don’t have super powers. None at all.”
Bruce grabs a design sketch from the table top. He skims over the drawing then places it back in its pile. “That’s not the secret,” Bruce says, still arranging papers.
Bruce meets Clark's eye, like a challenge he means to win. “The secret is that they’re in a sexual relationship. I only found out this morning.”
“I don’t know how they do it,” Bruce says rather fondly.
“Er,” Clark says.
“Continue to get the better of us,” Bruce clarifies, giving Clark a hard look of disappointment.
“Oh. Right.” Clark shakes his head. “You took in two quirkless kids and raised them to be super heroes. Why? Are you insane?”
“I saw more courage and determination in those two than in anyone else I know. Including myself.”
“It’s dangerous to be out in the field without a quirk.”
“I completely disagree with you.”
“They have no advantage-”
“They have so much more. There are so many different types of quirks, not all of them strength or weapons. Yet, even those with the most mundane of quirks are allowed to attend the Academy. Why shouldn’t these boys?”
“The students still need to qualify and pass exams…”
“Which they did with flying colors or did you forget?”
“You’re right. They made it out top of the class. Most people figured having you as a mentor had something to do with it. You and that amazing tactical brain of yours.”
Bruce takes a moment and then announces, “I’m going to tell you something. I want you to promise to tell no one.”
“The boys know already, but no one else.” Bruce takes a second to cast Clark a steely gaze, willing him into promising.
Clark takes the hint. “Oh. I promise not to tell.”
Bruce narrows his eyes, but speaks. “I was born quirkless. I only got into the Hero Academy because another superhero saw the same drive in me that I see everyday in the boys. He was,” Bruce pauses before continuing, “he was there when my parents died. He caught the villain who killed them. It wasn’t strength that caught him, either. Not super speed or fire power or ice blasts. The man used his mind, his reasoning, to capture the man who made me an orphan.”
“But then how did you end up with a quirk?”
“The man’s quirk can be passed on. He passed it on to me. I was able to attend the Hero Academy and quickly learned that not only did I have a gift for building hero gear and gadgets, but I could capture villains when they weren’t out obviously destroying the city. If I put my super powered mind to it, I could catch the villains who kept to the shadows, and I could do it better than any detective.”
“And the boys?”
“They deserve the same chance I did. They may be quirkless, but they have more drive, more passion, and more ability than anyone. They want this.”
Clark stands there quietly, processing the new information. He asks, “Are you planning on passing on your quirk to them?”
“I’ve asked. They wish to remain as is.”
Clark nods at that. “I’ve always wondered how they came into your life. How did you find them? Did you find the boys at the same time?”
“I found them in less than fortunate circumstances. I found Dick first. He came from a family of first generation quirks. They used their talents in the Big Top until his parents were murdered. I took him in. Started training him. I found Jason later. He impressed me. But I was already committed to a student. It was Dick who begged me to take on Jason. He had kept an eye on him. I think he wanted Jason to escape his living situation, but I don’t know for sure. Dick won’t tell me. I don’t bring it up with Jason.” Bruce relaxes his shoulders, rolls the tension he was holding out of them. “They’re my family, Clark.”
Clark moves to the man cloaked in black and claps a hand on his shoulder. “I think I understand, Bruce. Thank you for telling me.”
Batman gives a nod. “I just wish my detective quirk hadn’t led me to discovering them while in bed with each other.”
“Yeah, okay, I don’t really need-”
“They were completely naked, of course, and in a very compromising position.”
“Yep, I think I’m done here.”
“The flexibility alone-”
“Tell Alfred I said bye.”
Bruce stands in the Cave, bewildered by Clark’s sudden departure. Then he makes his way upstairs, to the Manor above.
“Alfred,” he calls out, “I discovered something about the boys today I think you’ll find of interest.”