The game started in an alleyway near the Westward Bridge. Batman was working alone, which was honestly how he preferred to operate. He and Nightwing had agreed to take different routes and meet back at the Batmobile a quarter after four. He'd been crouched, sifting through a haphazard spill of refuse for a murder weapon that was clearly nowhere to be found. Menial tasks frustrated him; he didn't like digging for clues or casing scenes. He liked action, and he'd seek it out willingly and often.
But that night, it came to him.
He was preoccupied, and she was quiet. He was half ashamed to admit that he'd only sensed her when she'd been close enough to touch him.
"Tag," she chirped, tapping his shoulder with fingers tipped by metal claws. "You're it, Bats."
Catwoman started running, and he followed.
This Catwoman wasn't one that he had seen before. To the best of his knowledge, she wasn't one that held an entry in Batman's database. That was rare. Very rare, given that she was highly trained. He wasn't an easy man to elude for fifteen minutes, and she kept him chasing for half the night. What she lacked in size and speed she made up with flexibility and creativity. She knew the street, and she moved with it rather than on it or above it.
Her suit was patterned after the former Catwoman's, a reinforced leather one-piece that zipped from the pretty v between her legs to her throat. Unlike the former Catwoman, she had it zipped up all the way. It wasn't fully black, either---when she moved under a street lamp or strayed too close to a lit window, he saw that it was a dark, dark purple. The light worked over her curves like the rainbow film of an oil spill. The only thing left bare was the lower half of her face, ghostly pale.
Whenever he caught sight of her face, she was smiling.
She was playing with him.
And, well. He was playing along. He could have cut their chase short, could have called in backup to corner her, but he was...
Enjoying it felt traitorous to say. His pledge to the city had always been a burden, the rules an albatross around his neck. Crimefighting was not a game. Pursuing a target shouldn't have been fun.
But it was, and he couldn't remember the last time he'd had fun.
Gotham was an obstacle course of their own design. Up and over rattling chainlink fences, through crooked alleyways, leaping between buildings, scaling fire escapes. They ran, they jumped, and they ricocheted. It wasn't about predator and prey, nor was it about catching her.
It was all about the electric, singing thrill of adrenaline. It was all about the chase.
He caught up to her in the East End. She'd slowed down, waiting for him on the edge of a tenement house's rooftop. Her legs dangled, crossed neatly at the ankle. She was loose, relaxed, but her whip was coiled next to her.
"I thought you'd get bored," she said, a breathy laugh. He could tell immediately that she was covering up an accent. North New Jersey. Rhotic. The ɔː in bored was raised and tensed to o. She was a native of the area, but she was trying to pretend otherwise. This Catwoman didn't want to be nailed down as someone with a story.
To anyone else's ears, her English might have passed for Cascadian American, but he had a talent for language.
Batman knew her voice. He was positive of that. It was just a matter of sifting through the false tones and finding the learned patterns she didn't cover up.
"What do you want?" He demanded in the terse growl that Batman was infamous for.
She shrugged, kicking her legs idly. "Not sure. But you wanted a break. Am I right or am I right?"
"I don't know what you're playing at."
The woman tilted the sharp edge of her smile at him.
"You wouldn't have chased me if you hadn't wanted a break from grimdarking it up," she said, a lilting note of smugness in her voice. Familiar. So damn familiar. "I wasn't committing a crime. I wasn't even engaging any of the neighborhood drug dealers. I wasn't doing anything, officer, I swear."
"Dressing like that," he said, pointing to her whip. "You plan to do something."
Her smile widened. That was familiar, too. She stood, arms loose at her sides.
"Like what, Bats?"
"Vigilante work, Catwoman. Or theft. Your legacy swings to both extremes."
"Seriously?" She said, closing the distance between them. Her heavy boots crunched the scattered remnants of a broken beer bottle. "I would've sworn that this look screams 'Miss Kitty's Dungeon' louder than it does 'this crazy Catlady craves crime'. What does a girl have to do around here to prove she's rooting for Team Batman?"
And then, it all clicked. It was the way she kept smiling, even though her voice strained with anger. She'd always done that before. It was a coping mechanism---he'd been baffled when he'd been a boy and she'd broken her arm on duty. He hadn't known what to do, because she'd clearly been in pain, but she'd laughed through it. Most of their kind---and it was their kind---hid agony behind ice and steel and indifference. All she did was put a bow on hers, downplaying it so that she didn't lose face.
How many years had it been? He'd thought she'd left the country. They all did. What was she doing in Gotham? What was she doing in Gotham wearing that?
He didn't know what to call her. No real names in the field, not ever. That was the second rule, tucked up just under the No Kill rule.
"Batgirl?" He blurted it out by reflex, almost stumbling over the word. To him, that was who she'd always been, though it'd been years since she'd given that mantle back.
Catwoman's body language said it all. Her smile tightened, so dry and fake he could imagine it flaking like plaster.
"Old news," she said briskly, everything unsaid hanging in electrified wires around those two words. "That's someone else's cape now. I've switched up my look. I like to keep it fresh."
"The masks are tradition. You shouldn't have to cycle," he said. He meant to say more, but she cupped the back of his neck and pulled him down for a kiss.
And it was such a kiss. He wouldn't have thought her the type, but even his limited knowledge of kissing assured him that her technique and form were excellent.
But some damnable, rational corner of his brain reminded him that she wouldn't be kissing him if she knew who he was underneath the mask. Since his father still patrolled and Dick's time in the suit had been memorable, he used a hybridization of the first and second Batmans' voices. They had been Batman, and he was still learning what that meant. So he improvised and imitated.
When she broke the kiss, settling back on her heels again, he frowned.
"You don't remember me, do you, Fatwoman?" Damian asked in his own voice, accented and imperious. It was much deeper now, but still recognizable.
The look on her face said that she did remember.
"Oh, god," Stephanie said weakly, a hand on her forehead. "Oh, my god. I didn't---I thought you---oh, god, are you even legal yet?"
No point in answering that one.
"Who did you think I was? Grayson?"
Her mouth opened and closed. She looked away, flustered. All that sleekness and jazz was gone from the way she held herself. Even in a leather catsuit, she was still Stephanie Brown, professional failure.
"You did," Damian repeated, aghast. "You thought I was Grayson."
"How was I supposed to know you left the nest, 'Robin'? Nobody keeps me up with current batevents! I haven't gotten a batnewsletter in years!" Steph paused, really looking at him. "When did you grow up?"
"When did you start---" he gestured at her, reeking disapproval in a mad effort to cover up his embarrassment. Who was she now, going around kissing people like that? It was highly inappropriate. Her new mentor was a twice-damned harlot. "This? It's indecent."
She laughed, flexing her claws.
"Indecent. That one I wasn't expecting, I'll admit. What're you gonna do, big guy? Tell Daddy on me? You can't fault a girl for throwing in with a team that actually wants her around."
"So you've followed in your father's footsteps, then," he said icily, a kneejerk reaction to the way she'd said Daddy. "How unsurprising."
She'd been fair with a bo and escrima sticks, but it turned out that she was wonderful with a whip. The end of the whip curled around his arm and she pulled, hard---hard enough to pitch him forward, momentarily unbalanced. She reeled him in, meeting him halfway with her fist.
She tackled him. Damian found himself wondering if Kyle had ever done this to his father, and, if so, he suddenly understood why he'd been easier on her than the other rogues. There was something about a woman with a good line tackle and skill with a whip.
These were thoughts that he'd never really thought before. They were confusing, conflicting, and wrestling with her wasn't making it any easier to figure out.
"I'm doing the same exact thing that I've always done," Stephanie hissed, hurt. "I fought crime as Spoiler. I fought crime as Robin. I fought crime as Batgirl. And dammit, I'm fighting crime as Catwoman, and you can just friggin' deal with it."
He grabbed her wrists. She was good, but he was bigger and stronger and had a low tolerance for being punched in the face.
"Shut up," Damian groused.
"You shut up! I don't care if Dadbats wants to act like he rules the city and gets to say who is worthy of protecting the people here. You can't stop me."
"I don't have time to fight you," Damian said, which he felt was the most diplomatic response possible when pinned by a woman with claws and a whip. "And I have no interest in 'stopping' you. Do whatever you want, you stupid wench. Dress like a sadomasochistic prostitute. I truly do not care."
The tension drained out of her. Steph had been prepared to fight for this new title. Hadn't she always had to fight for them? He let go of her with a sigh.
"Do me a favor, D. If anyone asks, pretend that you don't know." There was something fragile in the way she sucked in her lower lip. "I need this gig."
"I see," he said. He did, too. He knew what it was like to need a mask.
"Oh. Hey. You---you've got a little---here, lemme get it."
She licked her thumb and wiped a smear of her lipstick from the corner of his mouth. It should have been a maternal touch, but it wasn't. Her claw dragged lightly across his cheek.
Grooming finished, Stephanie got off him, and he remembered that breathing was necessary. His ears were ringing from the sheer amount of effort it took not to react.
"If you keep to the code," he heard himself say, tone neutral. "I see no reason to tell."
Stephanie huffed something that sounded like fuck mixed up with a laugh.
"I've kept it better than you have. Fat load of good it's done me," she said, which was true enough to hurt. "Anyway. This was fun, but I've got a meth lab to hassle. I'll see you around. Or not."
"Wait. I," Damian hesitated, but she had turned to look back at him. He had to say something. "I like cats."
That got her full attention. "What?"
"You said---you said that you are 'throwing in' with a team that wants you around, by which you imply that your previous team didn't feel or suffer your absence." He took a deep breath. "But I...I like cats."
He couldn't very well say that he'd missed the dumb cow.
It wasn't his most eloquent admission, but it made her grin. This was a real one, one that made her cheeks dimple.
"I'll keep in touch. I'm always game for a round of tag," Stephanie said, then dropped off the rooftop and back into the night.
He thought that was the end of that, but there was a note waiting for him when he retraced his steps and he got back to his vehicle.
She'd written her number in lipstick on the Batmobile's driver's side window, followed by call for a good time. Damian stared at it, not sure what impressed him more---the fact that she'd managed to make giving him her number so artfully crass, or the fact that she'd managed to get close enough to the Batmobile without tripping the defenses.
He was so wrapped up in staring at the lipstick on the window and debating how he was going to explain it to Alfred, he didn't notice the man standing next to him until he cleared his throat very purposefully. Those damn silicone-soled boots.
Grayson had his arms crossed over his chest and was giving him a knowing look.
"I think it's time we had a talk, baby brother." Nightwing said cheerfully, clapping a firm hand on his shoulder. "The talk."