Steph's a lot smarter than the dumb blonde most people take her for, so she's clocked the guy tailing her across campus within the first five minutes, on the long walk from Kane Hall to the Burton Auditorium for her Literature and Civilization lecture. She can't get a good look at him, but he's tall and broad-shouldered and wearing a leather jacket, which could mean he's an annoying LAX bro who's seen too many rom-coms and thinks stalking is romantic or a member of a gang who wants to kill her. Some days it's hard to tell the difference.
He doesn't follow her into the lecture hall, though, so she spends the next hour taking notes about existentialism and wondering if Sartre had visited Gotham before he formulated the maxim that hell is other people, and what he'd have thought about vigilantism. She doesn't ask the professor though. She tries not to draw attention in her classes.
When the hour's over, she's packed up and ready to leave faster than everyone else. She's the only person in the class who takes notes by hand; everyone else has a laptop, and she could too, but she just hasn't worked up the desperation to ask Tim or Barbara yet. They'd provide one without hesitation, she knows, but sometimes the fact that she even has to ask is a barrier she can't get over, and one they'll probably never understand. Whatever. It just means she doesn't have to worry about her battery running low or the hard drive rebooting before she saves the file with her notes in it.
Since she's first out the door, she catches him skulking in the hallway, unlit cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth like some James Dean wannabe, and marches right up to him.
"Stalking is not cool," she says, looking up into bright blue eyes and a face that seems vaguely familiar.
He takes the cigarette out of his mouth, which curves in a sardonic grin. "Tell that to the rest of the family."
Steph opens her mouth to ask what the hell he means by that, then closes it again, and really looks at him. The height, the broad shoulders, the lock of white hair curling over his forehead when the rest of it is as dark as--"Jason Todd, as I live and breathe," she says, trying to play off her shock like a joke.
Of course, that's a trick he knows as well as any of them. "And you do live and breathe, don't you, girl wonder." His mouth quirks again, into a more genuine smile this time. He gestures between them with the hand holding the cigarette. She's glad it's not lit, or he'd ash on her and she'd have to kick his ass. "Us formerly dead Robins have to stick together, you know."
"Do we now?" she asks, glancing along the corridor to see if anyone's listening. Of course they're not. They're all rushing to their next class or sorority meeting or track practice.
"I think so, yeah." He cocks his head. "Big brother didn't tell you we're all cool now?"
She shakes her head, unable to play off a denial. "Not in so many words, no." But he's going to hear about it as soon as she gets the chance, him and Tim and Barbara, too.
Jason's mouth tightens. "Well, you can check if you want, but the thing is, I need your help."
"You need my help?" she repeats, splaying a hand over her chest. "The mighty Red Hood needs little old Steph Brown's help?"
He snorts in amusement and, she'd like to think, appreciation. "Got a case I'm working, need a girl--"
"Oh, I'm bait. I get it." She shouldn't feel as deflated as she does about that.
"No," he says, pushing a hand through his hair. It's odd how much he looks like Dick and Bruce and Tim, except for how he doesn't, because aside from the dark hair and blue eyes (and the shoulders, but she's not going to admit that even to herself), they don't actually look that much alike. "Well, not exactly." It's his turn to look around, but the hallway has emptied out and there isn't another class here until six. "Why don't we grab some food and discuss it?"
He sighs theatrically. "Call Babs. She'll tell you I'm on the level. And then meet me at O'Neil's in twenty. My treat."
He saunters off, slouching dangerously in his leather jacket.
Steph waits until he's out of sight before she pulls out her phone and dials Barbara.
"Hey," she says when Barbara answers, "this might sound a little weird, but I just ran into Jason and he didn't want to kill me. Or anyone else. He said he and Dick were cool now?" Her voice goes up a little higher than she'd like on that last bit, because she shouldn't let anyone know how excited she is to finally meet him, how glad she is that he isn't dead, that they're both more than some kind of cautionary tale for Damian or anyone else who comes after.
There's a long pause on the other end of the line. "Yes," Barbara finally says. "He's--Yes. He and Dick and Bruce have come to an arrangement."
"Not you, though?"
Barbara makes a sound that could be a laugh or a sigh. "He was never gunning for me. Or you. He was my Robin, you know. As much as Dick was."
"Well, maybe not quite as much as Dick was, but yes. Give him my regards, and tell him to stop smoking. It'll stunt his growth."
"Yeah, I don't think that's a problem for him at this point," Steph says, heading towards the exit and the short subway ride to O'Neil's. "Tell me about this case he wants me for."
"What makes you think I have any details?"
It's Steph's turn to laugh. "Please."
"Okay, I don't have much but here it is."
Steph listens for as long as she has cell service--it's still hit or miss underground, despite the millions Wayne Telecom has thrown at the city to get wifi in all the stations--when she reaches her stop, she takes a deep breath and squares her shoulders. The diner is a block from the station, just long enough for doubts to start impinging on her confidence. She ignores them and reminds herself that she's Batgirl.
Jason's sitting in a corner booth, sprawled out like a cat that's just got the canary, or the Robin in this particular case, drinking a milkshake.
"Hey," she says, sliding into the seat across from him.
He makes an annoying slurping sound with his straw, swallows, and says, "O gave me the thumbs up?"
"She says hi and also smoking will stunt your growth."
He barks out a laugh. "I don't think that's gonna be a problem for me."
Steph grins and relaxes a little more. "That's what I said."
The waitress comes by before she can say anything else, and sets down a plate in front of each of them. Jason's has two eggs over easy, some hash browns, and a side of bacon. Steph's has a Belgian waffle smothered in whipped cream and fresh strawberries. She smiles up at the waitress and, once she's gone, gives Jason an amused look.
"Resorting to bribery?"
"Nah, I just figured you should have something you like, because this case is kind of unsettling."
"Okay," she says, because from what Barbara told her, that's absolutely true. "Are you gonna ruin this beautiful waffle with it or are we gonna eat first?"
"Oh, we're gonna eat first, by all means. Dig in." His smile this time is warm, friendly, and she tries to fit it into what she knows of him--street kid, Robin, dead Robin, thug. Hero? Maybe.
The waffle is excellent, and the coffee is good too, with the waitress giving her a refill whenever she needs one but not hovering and listening in on their conversation. Which turns out to be pretty hilarious.
Steph taps her fork against her empty plate and longs for another waffle even though she's actually full.
"So what you're saying is, you need a date to this fancy party which may or may not be a cover for the Sabatino family's sex trafficking operation, and you don't know any other girls." She leans back and tries not to look too smug.
"I know girls," he says.
"Someone's protesting too much," Steph says.
"I don't need a girl," he replies. "Or not just any girl." He leans in and gives her a shit-eating grin. "I need Batgirl."
She laughs. "Okay, you got me." She takes another sip of coffee and says, "You know, I wondered about you a lot, but I never expected you to be so charming."
His mood sobers abruptly. "I'm sure you heard all about what a disgrace I was."
Steph shakes her head emphatically. "No. Not a disgrace. Never that." She sets the mug down with a click. "A cautionary tale, yes." She huffs softly. "Bruce showed me your autopsy report in an effort to discourage me." She opens her arms wide. "You can see how well it worked." She puts her hands back down in her lap. "I wouldn't be surprised if he uses my medical files to discourage the next kid."
His mouth twists like he wants to say something and then thinks better of it. She probably shouldn't have brought up Bruce, even if they've negotiated some sort of ceasefire.
Finally, he says, "Nothing would discourage the brat."
"True. The kid after that, then." She lifts her chin and meets his gaze squarely. "Let's make sure it doesn't happen again."
She waits a moment, then, "You're buying me a dress for this thing, right?"
And he laughs.
They roll up to the valet parking at the Gotham Pines Country Club in a car that wouldn't look out of place in Bruce's garage, though Steph's sure she's never seen it there. She doesn't know what this arrangement Jason has with him covers, and she doesn't ask.
Jason's in a dark blue suit he looks like he might shed if he stretches the wrong way, and a dark blue tie that looks like it's strangling him. Her dress is a lighter, complementary shade of blue, with a flowing skirt that should make it easy to fight in, if it comes to that. She's wearing matching ballerina flats, just in case. She doesn't fight as well in heels as she probably should. She wonders vaguely if Helena or Dinah could help with that.
"How'd you even get an invitation if this is so hush-hush?" she asks, after he's helped her out of the passenger seat and they're strolling through the arched entranceway.
"I've been working my way up in the organization as a bodyguard, and I saved Sabatino's wife from Killer Croc, so this is kind of a reward."
"I also might have mentioned you were a connoisseur of whatever it is they're importing here."
"What? Ew." She punches his biceps, which is impressively hard, and he winces.
"It's Gotham, baby. Everybody's a little freaky."
"I don't care if you need to do it in a mask," she whispers furiously because there are people around now, "but that's not the same thing as selling girls into sexual slavery."
"That's more than I ever needed to know about your sex life with Tim," he replies, "but either way, no one here is going to judge."
Joke's on you, she thinks. She and Tim never had sex, for so many reasons. She doesn't tell Jason that, though. It's none of his business.
And then Richie Sabatino's twin sons and heirs, Cosimo and Massimo, come over to shake Jason's hand and leer at Steph's cleavage.
"I hear you're an expert on this evening's merchandise," one of them says with an oily smile.
"You definitely look like the type," the other one says, like it's a compliment.
Steph manages to keep the smile on her face by imagining punching them both a lot, and maybe Jason again for dragging her into this and sullying her fake name with allegations of sex trafficking.
It's not a large crowd--she's attended larger receptions with Tim for Wayne Enterprises--but there are several well-known mobsters in attendance, and there seems to be some weird detente in effect, because she catches two enforcers from rival families making out next to the men's room. Waiters circulate with trays of appetizers, and Steph figures she might as well eat before the punching starts.
"We could have come as cater waiters," she says at one point after eating yet another crab puff. She washes it down with a glass of fancy Italian lemon soda, and then burps softly. "Excuse me."
Jason laughs. "And waste all the time I spent cozying up to these assholes? No way." He gives her a knowing look. "And anyway, I'm not sure any of the food would make it out of the kitchen with you involved."
"Hey," she says, punching him again.
"Ow. Quit it."
"So I like to eat," she says.
"Nothing wrong with that," he answers easily enough that she believes him. And then he continues, "But it's a distraction while we're working."
Which makes her want to punch him not because it's insulting but because of how much like a Bat he sounds. She refrains from pointing that out, though. She doesn't think he'd take it well.
"But we could go places we can't as guests, like the kitchen and the coat check," she points out. "Try to find out where they're keeping the," her mouth twists, "special guests."
"We can do that anyway." He grabs her hand. "Come on."
The kitchen yields nothing but caterers complaining about their shoes and their schedules, and some really delicious-looking pastries that Jason doesn't let her sample.
As it turns out, food is not the distraction they should have been worried about.
The restrooms have no secret doors or alcoves that either of them can find, and the cellar is full of chairs and wine bottles, but no kidnapped girls.
"Coat check," he says, and once again she's glad she's wearing flats, because he's given up the pretense of escorting her and is pulling her along behind him like a recalcitrant kid in a shopping mall.
"I can walk," she snaps.
He manages to look sheepish. "Sorry."
The coat closet is deep and there are rows of coats in wool and fur and less natural fibers. Steph spares a moment to wonder who wore the full-length puffy gold coat, even though it's in the forties out and not cold enough yet for that, and then decides she doesn't want to know. The coats near the doorway smell of stale cigarette smoke, and Steph wrinkles her nose. There doesn't seem to be a secret door leading to Narnia or anywhere else when they tap on the walls, and she can tell Jason is getting frustrated by the way he rakes a hand through his hair.
"We'll just have to save them when Sabatino produces them from wherever they're being kept," she says. "Maybe in a van out back or--"
The door to the closet opens--one of the smokers is looking for his coat from what he's saying to his companion--and Jason pins her back against the nearest rack of coats--fur by the feel of it--with his hands on her hips and his mouth on her mouth.
She opens her mouth to ask him what the hell he's doing and he slips her some tongue. Oh, she thinks, camouflage, before she starts kissing him back, one hand grabbing his tie and the other cupping the nape of his neck.
Someone--the smoker, probably--laughs, and she's vaguely aware of the door closing again, so they should stop. But Jason doesn't, so she doesn't either. Far be it from her to chicken out if he's going to go for it.
She's never thought of kissing as a particularly competitive activity, but with Jason it is. He sucks on her tongue and makes her shiver and she retaliates by scraping her nails through the short hair on the back of his neck, making him shiver in response. He nips at her lower lip and then licks away the sting, and she sinks her teeth into his earlobe when he pulls back to catch his breath, earning a startled gasp that just makes the whole thing hotter.
His hands come up and make a mess of her professionally done up-do, and she bites at the hinge of his jaw, sucking a bruise there that won't be hidden, and he moans raggedly against her cheek. He slides a hand up along her thigh under her skirt, pulling her hips tight against his so she can feel his erection. She's glad she shaved and also that she's not wearing stockings, because his fingers are warm and callused on her bare skin, and heat blooms in her veins. She tips her head back and gasps as he sucks hard on her neck, her hands clasping at his shoulders to keep herself steady, and it's only when his fingers slip beneath the elastic at the crotch of her underwear that any kind of sense returns.
"We have work to do," she manages, even as her hips are pressing up desperately into his touch.
He pulls back as if burned and pushes a hand through his hair again. "You're right. Goddammit." His voice is a low, hoarse growl that shouldn't turn her on but does. It's too dim to tell if he's blushing as much as she is.
It's not just that she barely knows him and this probably confirms whatever biased reports of her past he might have heard, but that there could be scared, hurt girls praying for rescue somewhere in or around this building, and they both lost sight of that in some weirdly rivalrous make-out session.
She swallows hard and forces herself to focus on what she can do now, not whatever mistakes she might have just made.
They're both a mess, but at least he can straighten his tie and smooth out his jacket. Her hair is a lost cause. She takes an elastic band from her purse and winds it up into a messy but passable bun, and then reapplies her lip gloss, and a light dusting of powder over the spot where his mouth bruised her neck.
"Okay?" she asks.
He nods once. "You're good. Let's go."
They circulate for a little while--Richie's second wife Adrianna asks Steph where she gets her hair dyed, and Steph mumbles something about her mom doing it for her, and then rounds on Jason when the elder Sabatinos are out of earshot.
"I'm natural blonde," she insists. "You can look at my grade school pictures and see that." She doesn't mention the fact that that it's grown in darker ever since her near death experience, and she helps it along a bit with the careful application of some L'Oreal Absolute Platinum every few months. It's none of his business. And anyway, he probably bleaches that white streak just to look cool and remind people that he didn't just die, he got revived in a Lazarus pit. And okay, maybe she's a little defensive.
"Uh huh," he says, clearly more interested in the weasel who's whispering in Sabatino's ear than in her passionate defense of her completely natural hair color. "I don't care if the cuffs don't match the collar." She tries not to blush and fails, considering how close he came to finding out, but he's not paying attention to her; he's scanning the room intently. "Look sharp. Things are happening."
Adrianna is at the front of the room, clinking her wine glass with a spoon to get the crowd's attention.
"And now," she says once everyone is quiet, "I proudly present the reason we've gathered together tonight in such wonderful harmony."
One of the waiters rolls out a cart covered in a white table cloth. It doesn't look like it has room for one person on it, let alone a whole group, but Steph tenses, and she feels Jason do the same beside her.
Adrianna Sabatino whips the tablecloth off the cart to a chorus of oohs and ahs and at least one "Bellisima!" accompanied by the sound of someone loudly kissing their fingertips.
"The fuck?" Jason mutters and Steph can only shake her head in confusion.
The cart is covered with figurines of clowns and flowers and angels.
"We have here tonight the finest display of vintage Capodimonte porcelain on this side of the Atlantic," Adrianna crows. She gestures like Vanna White towards the first item on the cart. "This beautiful Colombina is from my grandmother's collection. It was given as a favor at her wedding."
Adrianna drones on about the figurine and Massimo, or maybe it's Cosimo, sidles up and nudges Steph with an elbow and a wink.
"You're the porcelain expert. What do you think?"
"Lovely," Steph says. "They're all just...lovely."
"Eh," he says with a shrug, "they make our stepmother happy, and that makes our father happy, which makes everybody happy, you know?"
"I do," she answers fervently, because a Richie Sabatino occupied with his young wife and her weird figurine fetish is a Richie Sabatino who's not at war with the Marconis or the Falcones or Intergang.
She squeezes Jason's arm and then puts a hand on her stomach. "I think I overdid it with the crab puffs, honey."
"Oh, let's get you home," he says, immediately responding to the cue.
They manage to get in the car and drive away before they both start laughing hysterically.
"Capodimonte." Jason shakes his head and slaps the steering wheel. "What the actual fuck?"
"At least it's not Hummels?" Steph answers around breathless peals of laughter.
"So when they were talking about fine porcelain and shapely curves and secret imports from Italy, they actually meant porcelain figurines," Jason says wonderingly, as if this had never occurred to him. To be fair, it wouldn't have occurred to her either.
"I would have thought the same thing," she says in solidarity. "This life fucks you up in some ways." She shakes her head. "But oh my god, did you see the Pulcinellas? So creepy."
"You don't have to remind me," he says.
Right. She's sure she doesn't. That ends the laughing, though, and leaves only an awkward silence between them. She reaches out to turn on the radio and he flicks it off. The silence doesn't get any more comfortable over the next ten minutes, and she wonders if they're always going to be so terrible at pretending they didn't just almost fuck in a coat closet on a mission.
Then he pulls over to the side of the road. It's dark and there are a lot of trees. She's not an expert at Gotham's suburban scenery, but she thinks they're just down the road from Wayne Manor.
"You're not going to make me walk, are you?" she asks suspiciously.
"What? No. Though I'm sure you could handle whatever came creeping out of the woods." He gives her a sidelong glance and a half-smile.
"Oh. Yeah. I could. But this outfit's not exactly up to standard."
He shifts in his seat to face her more fully now. "So, I know we barely know each other, and I said I didn't care, but now I'm wondering, do the cuffs match the collar?"
"Oh my god," she says, laughing and punching his arm playfully. "That's terrible. You're terrible."
He rubs the back of his neck sheepishly. "Hey, that line would've probably worked for Dick."
She snorts. "Mm, that's true." Then she reaches out and grabs his tie and pulls him close. "I'm in a good mood, though, so there's a better than even chance it's also gonna work for you." And she laughs against his surprised mouth when she kisses him.