Bruce, Harvey and the rest of the team hit the showers after a grilling crew practice. Two weeks until the next regatta, and if they won that, they were a sure thing for regionals and then junior nationals.
"Wayne, you've got some serious arms," Greggs said, putting his head under the spray. "You could pull that thing by yourself, no problem. Word is that the guys from Harvard and Cambridge are coming out later this week to check you out personally."
"That's just a rumor," Bruce said, "I wouldn't read too much into it."
"Whatever," Greggs said, "You are golden."
And he hadn't asked for it. Alfred had implored him to try varsity sports, to cement relationships that would further him in life, and merely to get him involved. Prior to that, he'd been fairly popular and now he found himself at the center of what the other boys coveted, the in-crowd.
The underclassmen filtered into the showers.
Greggs nudged him in the shoulder, "Don't look now, but Loser Luthor is so staring at your ass."
And before Bruce could say anything, Greggs bellowed, "Hey, Luthor! See something you like?"
Even the underclassmen roared out in laughter.
Bruce turned, picking out Luthor easily without his customary cap, completely hairless. Lean and shoulders straight, he stared back coldly at Greggs and didn't say anything.
"Well, take a good look now, loser. My man Wayne here's a lady-killer and this is the closest your faggot self is getting. Aim a little lower than the top and you just might get something. Try it out on one of your little friends," he said, looking at the boys near Luthor who then inched away from him. "Oh wait, you don't have any. Too bad."
Bruce put a hand on Greggs shoulder, gave him a stern look and shook his head. "Don't be cruel," he whispered.
Greggs looked at him and then away, apparently able to feel that ounce of shame. "I should just let him check you out?" he said, voice low. "It's not the first time."
"It doesn't matter," Bruce said. "What do you care? Just leave him alone."
"Sure," Greggs said. "Whatever you say." He turned back to Luthor. "Guess it's your lucky day, kid. Wayne just gave you a pass. Always looking out for the little guy."
"Let's go," Bruce said. The seniors followed him out, a wave of bodies. Reaching for his towel, he glanced back and found Luthor staring at him, blue eyes wide.
Even though, Luthor had been here over a year, he'd barely registered on Bruce's radar. They had chemistry together the term before, but Luthor sat in the back. Bruce had turned a time or two, pleasantly surprised at Luthor's quick answers to questions even he struggled with. He wasn't used to the competition, but the professor graded on a curve so two A's were guaranteed.
Luthor had only spoken to him once, a week before the final.
"We could study together," he had said, shy and proud all at once, approaching the front lab bench where Bruce gathered up his books. "We're sure to ace this."
But when he tried to sit on the stool next to Bruce, Greggs came over and said, "Park it somewhere else, kid."
Bruce shook his head, waved to the seat. Luthor sat down. "We could do that," Bruce said. "What's a good time for you?"
Luthor picked up a datebook, flipped through it.
Greggs muttered, leaning against the counter. "Like he has a social life. Please."
Luthor ignored him except for a certain stiffening in his shoulders. "Seven tomorrow? I'll stop by your room..."
Greggs started humming, Going to the chapel, and we're gonna get married...
Luthor flushed, looked down, pen hovering over his schedule. "Or we could meet at the library."
Bruce glanced at Greggs, stern. And then he said, voice soft and soothing, "My room's fine."
Luthor flashed him a quick grin, ducked his head. "Okay, see you then." He picked up his books and left.
Greggs just shook his head, whistled low. "Are you crazy? It's so obvious that kid jerks off to you. He thinks it's a fucking date!"
Thompson came up from the second bench, obviously having a high time listening in to all of this. "Look who's talking," he said to Greggs while making up and down motions with his fist. "Oh, oh, Bruce!"
Greggs stood there for a moment, immobile from shock, mouth slack. He glanced nervously over at Bruce, but then turned a deadly glare to Thompson. "You. Are. Dead."
He chased him out into the hall, Thompson laughing. Bruce heard from a furthering distance, "Take up track, muscle boy! I'm not the one you're chasing after anyway."
"Dead! You hear me? Dead!"
Bruce sighed, picked up his books. Greggs and Thompson would be sitting next to each other, an hour from now, in the cafeteria, none the worse for wear and probably laughing together. He certainly didn't need to get involved.
But the next night, seven came and went. Harvey, who had shown up at six with a smile and a "I hear you need a chaperone", looked up from his history text. "Looks like he changed his mind," he said.
Bruce tapped his pencil against his desk, leaned back in his chair. "Maybe I should go check on him," he said.
Harvey closed his book, sat up from his position on the bed. "I'm sure he's fine." He paused, and said softly, "Besides, if you're right, you'll only make it worse for him if you do."
Bruce stood, grabbed his jacket. "Let's go," he said.
Harvey stood as well. "No, I'll do it. Wait here."
Fifteen minutes later, he came back. "I talked to his roommate, Duncan," he said, putting his jacket on the bed. "Apparently, his dad came and got him. They're off to Japan."
"Yeah, crazy isn't it? He's going to mail in his finals."
When the grades were posted, Luthor still absent, both he and Bruce got the A.
The summer came and went. Bruce and Alfred spent a good deal of it travelling. Bruce swam in alpine lakes, skied in Australia. Harvey had gone back to Gotham.
He'd just settled into his room when Harvey met him at the door. "Heavy schedule this year," he said. "Let's go."
Bruce knew better than to ask him about his summer. Harvey wouldn't discuss it anyway, so he told him about his travels. Italy in particular.
"Sounds nice," Harvey said, distant but listening. "We should go sometime."
"After graduation," Bruce said. "I promise." He put a companionable arm around Harvey's shoulder as they entered the main building.
Greggs was there, leaning in the hallway, grinning. "Well, if it isn't the Apollo twins," he said. He glanced over their shoulders. "First day and you two already have groupies."
Bruce and Harvey turned as one and saw a large group of freshmen, just out of orientation, looking at them and murmuring.
"Eyes back in your heads, fresh meat!" Greggs shouted. They gasped and skittered away, a school of fish, safety in numbers.
"What is with you?" Harvey said.
Thompson joined up with them, graceful and laughing, "Boy can't stand to share," he said.
Greggs turned. "I should have killed you last year," he said, but with no animosity. Instead he ruffled Thompson's hair, poked him gently in the shoulder.
"You couldn't live without me," Thompson said, brushing his hand over his hair, smoothing it back down.
"I'd dance on your grave," he said, but with a smile a mile long. "Come on," he said, "Walk me to class so I can beat the crap out of you in peace."
"See you at lunch," Thompson said, waving over his shoulder and walking with Greggs.
"Are they rooming together this year?" Bruce asked, staring at them.
"Yes," Harvey said, "But Greggs will kill him first before he ever admits to it."
"What, rooming together?"
Harvey looked at him, shook his head knowingly. "No, the other."
Bruce could only nod to that.
And then the doors opened and Luthor and Duncan entered the hall.
"Looks like he survived Japan," Harvey said.
Bruce opened his mouth to say hello, talk about the grades, something, but Luthor passed him by with only one furtive glance.
After the shower incident, a group of them dropped by his room an hour before lights out. Due to his scholastic and athletic achievements, as well as the Wayne name, he merited a large private room overlooking the courtyard.
"Score!" Brown said, pulling a bottle of whiskey, expensive and purloined, from underneath his uniform jacket. He then pulled a roll of Dixie cups out as well. He passed them out and poured the first one for Bruce. "Rank has its privileges," Brown laughed.
"To the king!" Greggs toasted, looking at Bruce, after all the cups had been filled. "To the king!" they all repeated, raising their waxed cups. Bruce sipped his in reluctant acknowledgment, wondering how he ever got elected to that office in the first place. Oliver Queen, in position among the juniors, worked at it, barely controlling the mob that followed him. It couldn't be money since Luthor came from it as well and the sophomores, even the freshmen, certainly shunned him. And Harvey, who sat quietly beside him, commanded respect even though he came to Excelsior on scholarship.
"We're in the fishbowl of the life ahead," Harvey had once told him. "It's all here – the backroom deals, the mob, those who rise above and those who don't."
"Maybe that's backwards," Bruce had said. "Perhaps this is what shapes the world."
"That's an easy answer, Bruce, and a false analogy," Harvey had said. "The world's a much harsher place than that. This is nothing."
And they had looked uncomfortably at each other for a minute in the privacy of Bruce's room. Harvey almost regal in the pain he never discussed, books strewn about the bed and only the one lamp on.
"We should get back to the Wars of Succession," Bruce had said, the first to look away.
"So Dent," Thompson said now among the boys who formed a loose circle on the rug. "What do you think?"
"The Luthor kid. I heard he's got leukemia or something."
"Really?" Brown said, downing the rest of his cup. "Way to go there, Greggs, picking on one of Jerry's kids. So, so low."
Greggs looked down. "That's for muscular dystrophy, you moron. And just shut the fuck up. He's a little creep even if he is diseased."
"I heard he has a brain tumor," Schiebling said from the corner. "They have to shave his head for the operations."
"No, you guys are so wrong," Vouchon said, leaning in. "He got struck by a meteor."
The chorus of "Whats?" paraded around the room, although neither Bruce nor Harvey added to them.
"You mean lightning?" Brown said, "No one gets hit in the head with a chunk of rock and survives. That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard. Who came up with that one?"
Vouchon just looked at him. "Yeah, it doesn't make much sense, but you know, life is stranger than fiction or some shit. I heard he was in Smallville as a kid during that freak meteor shower. The thing landed right by him. Man, I'm telling you, it's radiation from space."
The room grew quiet. "Jesus, that's just fucked up," someone whispered. "That's got to give you cancer."
"Ha!" Thompson said, "I so win with the leukemia theory!"
"Hey!" Schiebling said, "I called brain tumor. That's cancer too!"
Greggs rolled his eyes. "You're both stupid. No one's got a pot rolling on this. You win zip."
Thompson just looked at him. "There's general points, asswipe. That's why you lose at life."
A quiet knock sounded at the door. "Shit!" Brown whispered, fluttering his hands. "Hide the fucking bottle!"
"Wayne, it's me," Queen said from behind the door.
"Well, just open it, fool," Brown said. "Give us all a heart attack."
Queen stepped inside, cocky and unsure at the same time. Bruce nodded to him, moved closer to Harvey to make a space for him. He made his way over, sat down.
"The queen sits beside the king," someone snickered. And it must have been Thompson since he said, "We're just messing with you. You're an honorary member. Going to be the big man next year."
Queen leaned back, grinned. "Then where's that fucking bottle you were all too happy to tell the dorm monitor about?"
They laughed. "Now you're talking," Thompson said. "Pour him one."
After Queen got his cup, Thompson said, "Ask him, he knows the guy."
"Ask me what?" Queen said, suspicious, looking over at Bruce.
"What's the deal with Luthor?" Brown asked.
"Fuck if I know," Queen said, bolting back his drink, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. "It's not like I talk to him."
A soft and knowing laugh ran through the room, nervous and dangerous. Everyone knew the boys who did and the boys who didn't. And everyone knew that Luthor had gone down on his knees for Queen behind the archery field. Bargaining. And to Queen's credit, he'd kept his end of the deal, backing off his boys from the daily harassment. But there'd been a witness, someone outside of Queen's control, and within days the whole school knew. Luthor had a reputation now, and certainly not the one he wanted.
Bruce turned and looked at him, slow and sharp at the same time. Queen looked back, fiddled with his empty cup, and said, low, "Can I talk to you?"
"All right," Bruce said. "Out in the hall."
They rose and went for the door.
"The pointers begin!" someone said. Bruce closed the door behind him.
Queen leaned against the wall, ran his hands through his hair, breathed out long and slow. "I know what you think of me. I think it myself half the time. I just want to know how you do it."
"Do what?" Bruce said.
"Run the place and not be an asshole about it. What I did...You know, that was his idea, not mine. But I could have said no." He leaned his head against the wall, closed his eyes. "Fuck," he said and nothing else.
"So do something about it," Bruce said.
"Yeah, like what? Your crew's not that much better than mine. You've got Dent, Thompson is all right, and Greggs is half-way intelligent when he's not being a complete ass. And the rest? Who knows how they got up the food chain? Mine...why do you think I try to hang around you so much?"
"They're your crew," Bruce said. "You could pick others."
"Luthor wants in. Can you imagine? That's just sad." He let out a soft laugh, slumped a bit.
"He's just trying to survive," Bruce said.
"Aren't we all?" Queen picked himself off the wall, went back to the door.
"Try to fix it," Bruce said. "You're better than this."
Queen laughed. "You must think I've got superpowers or whatever. But yeah, I've got to do something."
They went back inside.
Two days later, air fresh from yesterday's rain, Bruce found himself up the hill from the gymnasium. Out of view from most of the classroom and office windows because Thompson had a pack of Dunhills. Not a habit that Bruce wanted to pick up, but he took one anyway, leaned into the lighter.
Brown blew a smoke ring, looked down the hill. "Man, that kid's got bad luck. Looks like Loser Luthor's in for another beatdown."
Bruce turned, saw Denisson rush towards Luthor. But Luthor stood his ground, got one good punch in, a surprising strength behind it, but technique wild, before Dennison pushed Luthor to the ground with Queen trying to pull him away. Four of Queen's crew surrounded them. Denisson kicked Luthor in the ribs.
"That's just sad," Thompson said. "Someone should do something about that."
Normally, Bruce didn't get involved, but there was something in the way that Luthor struggled that made the whole injustice of it rankle. He flicked his cigarette down, ground it out with his shoe. "Yes, they should," he said and strode down the hill.
"I didn't mean us!" Thompson wailed. But he followed and the rest of them did too.
Denisson looked up to see Bruce and ten seniors coming towards him. "Shit," he said.
But Bruce didn't even look at him, looking at Queen instead. "I thought we agreed," he said. "What is this?"
Queen stepped forward, apologetic and harried. "Look, I tried. Things got out of hand."
"Then get them in hand. Now." He then looked away from Queen to the rest of the juniors, who blinked at him and took one step back.
"Ooh, he's giving them the look," Thompson said behind him. "Bad dog, baaaad dog." He laughed.
"Shut up," Greggs said. "It doesn't work if you tell them. Let the man work his magic."
Denisson fidgeted, a slow line of blood trickling from his nose, looked sullen. "Hey, Wayne, we didn't know. He one of yours?"
And suddenly Bruce felt himself in a corner. Why else would a popular senior come riding cavalry for the lowest ranking kid in the school? With Luthor's current reputation? Altruism didn't exist here. He could say no, but that would be a one time deal, this instance only, and Luthor would have to face them again in the next day or two. If he said yes, no one would think the less of him since, with an underclassman, it wasn't about being queer but about power.
Queen looked at him. Don't do it, his eyes said. Think of something else.
Bruce looked down at Luthor still on the ground, but now sitting, waiting and a million gears turning in his head, his face struggling to hide a fragile hope. Just a kid with impossible blue eyes trying to survive. And Queen's solution had obviously resulted in disaster.
"Yes. Yes, he is," Bruce said.
And that changed everything.