“Here’s the thing,” Barbara says the first day. “You always have to be more.”
“More than what?” Max asks.
“More than everything.” Barbara takes a swallow of coffee. The action is neat, precise, like everything else about her. “The second you wear that outfit, the second you put that bat on your chest, you aren’t you anymore. You’re a symbol. And it’s not enough to just be anymore.”
“Okay,” Max says. “Tell me how.”
So Barbara does.
Max has been wanting this for a long time. She’d told Bruce outright, the first time she broke into the cave to talk to him. He’d looked at her that way he looks at everything, like he’s examining a bug under the microscope, and then he’d nodded.
“Not until I say you’re ready,” he’d stipulated.
She’d agreed, because she wasn’t an idiot.
The training doesn’t take forever, but it feels like it, and when she is finally allowed on the streets it feels perfect, like everything she’s hoped for and somehow even more.
The first time she free falls from a building she screams in joy.
Barbara finds out on accident. Max had thought about calling her, asking for her blessing, but she wasn’t sure how to even start.
“So,” Barbara says one day, standing there as Max comes out of a training sim. “Batwoman, huh?”
“I can do it,” Max insists, standing as straight as she can. Barbara still has a few inches on her. There’s a long thoughtful pause. Bruce is pointedly not paying any attention to the two of them. An alarm starts to go off.
“Okay,” Barbara says, and then walks off, waving to Terry as he comes down the steps at a run, already pulling the mask over his head.
The next day Max gets a call.
“We should meet up for coffee,” Barbara says. “There are some things you’ll need to know.”
“Of course,” Max says.
Max meets Catwoman for the first time two months after she starts patrolling, younger than her, wild dark hair tied back and her grace showing in every movement as she practically waltzes through a supposedly theft-proof maze of laser beams. Max wants that grace, but she knows it’s not her.
She chases her through half the city, finally catching up on a skyscraper where Catwoman is sitting, dangling her legs off the side and unmistakably waiting for Max.
“You’re persistent as hell,” Catwoman says. “It’s irritating.”
“Give them back.” Max scowls and crosses her arms, going for intimidating. It doesn’t seem to be working, given that Catwoman has gotten up and is walking on those dancer’s feet towards her, grinning.
“I hid them,” Catwoman says. “You’ve only got half the city to check. But…”she lets it trail off and tilts her head.
“You want to make a deal,” Max says flatly.
“Yes.” Catwoman’s smile is unsettling. What can be seen of her face beneath the mask is gorgeous and Max –
“You’re using pheromones, aren’t you.” The breathing filter has kicked in, which it only does in cases of gases.
“Only a few,” Catwoman says, and darts forward to press a kiss on Max’s lips before falling backwards off the side of the sky scraper. There was some kind of hallucinogen in her lipstick, fast-acting and absorbed through the skin given how dizzy she feels already. Back to the cave to figure it out, then.
She catches Catwoman a couple of weeks later on her third robbery of the month. When the unmasked kid gives the jewels back with a long suffering sigh, Max hauls her home. Perhaps unsurprisingly, she lives with Selina Kyle, who’s aged almost as gracefully as Barbara.
“I’ll keep an eye on her,” Selina says, which Max suspects means ‘train her to be even better’, but she was only stealing from the sort of people who get their wealth in unsavory ways and there’s precedent for this sort of truce.
Barbara doesn’t just give advice when they meet up. The time after her first loss, when the only thing that kept her alive was Terry being near enough to react to her distress signal and grab her with the Batmobile, Barbara talks about anything but Batwoman. Her hands are very steady but her voice is tired. The manhunt is still ongoing. Underneath Max’s shirt her ribs are taped and pulled together to heal, her wounds bandaged.
The only notice Barbara gives these things is ordering Max a protein shake instead of coffee. Max likes that.
“We’re getting closer to Electro,” Barbara says when she stands to go. “I hope you’ve got something whipped up to take care of that tech of his.” Max grins. She’s spent the past two days cooped up in the cave building.
“You bet,” she says, and Barbara’s smile is a ghost.
“You’re doing good, kid,” she says, and heads out, shoulders sloping like she’s carrying something heavy. She is, in a way.
Max doesn’t let Terry come with her when the police alarm sounds, Electro cornered. She knows he’s probably following anyways, but he shows enough respect for her to keep his distance as she drops on the roof of the building Electro’s in. Barbara is down below with her police force, and Max tips her a salute before she breaks open the door and heads down the stairwell.
+Melanie finishes her residency, sits her exams, and starts up her own clinic, with Bruce's money and her own head-on charge-the-world attitude. She's changed a lot, Terry says. She used to be a lot more - not timid, exactly. Quiet, reserved, in other people's shadows.
Now she bosses nurses around and yells at Max for fifteen minutes straight when she does something stupid that ends up with her injured. She's doing something for herself, here, and Max sometimes feels a little bit envious of her. She may be using Bruce's money, but if she didn't have him she'd have found someone to donate. She was standing completely on her own two feet.
"How do you do that?" Max asks her one day, baffled, and Melanie shrugs and smiles.
"I guess I just grew up," she says.
Barbara’s grown up. She’s made something for herself that’s so strong and big she doesn’t need the symbol and the weight the Bat provides anymore. Sometimes Max envies her, that steady quiet strength of hers, entirely self-sufficient. Max has never known how to be something that is solely her own. She’s tried – pushed and shoved and dyed her hair and talked loud, but it’s never been enough.
For now, she’s Batwoman. Somewhere in her heart there is a dream that she won’t always need to be. That someday she will pass that symbol on to someone else and take on something wholly her own. Terry doesn’t see it the way she does, but then he’s Batman. Batman was the first. He’s not borrowing a symbol like Max is. Being Batwoman feels good, but she thinks Batwoman should be more of a partner to Batman than she is.
There’s an incident, with a bomber. Max doesn’t think she will ever forget not being able to stop him, but once she’s recovered she goes back out on patrol.
Catwoman – Indira – is waiting for her halfway through her usual patrol, sitting on a skyscraper with two cups of hot chocolate. They’ve ran into each other a few times since the first, but the fact that she knows Max’s usual patrol route is slightly worrying.
“You can hardly tell it happened,” Indira says.
“Please tell me you’re not out to rob anywhere.” Max picks up the second cup and sits down beside her.
“Just surveillance tonight.” Indira winks at her. “Which is actually just an excuse to see how you’re doing.”
“I’m fine,” Max insists. “But thank you.”
“Hey, you’re my Bat. Got to look after you. Selina says it’s in the rulebook somewhere.”
“I think she meant Batman,” Max says. “I don’t think there’s any rules about Catwoman-Batwoman interaction, given that there’s never been a Batwoman before.”
“Nope, it’s just whichever Bat happens to be yours. Selina’s was – y’know, the original Batman, because she was straight and any straight woman can tell that he was a total hottie and passionate under all that broodiness. But you’re my Bat. It’s complicated. Mostly because you’re the one who caught me, and also because I think you have an incredible body, and because Selina rolled her eyes when you left and said ‘so you’ve found your own personal Bat already?’ And because I like you.”
“Nothing to say about my face?” Max says, and laughs at Indira’s startled look.
“Funny girl, huh.” Indira doesn’t look impressed.
“Well, if you’re not going to have a sense of humor, I’ve got to. One of us has to be capable at laughing at jokes, if we’re doing a antagonistically attracted to each other thing.” Indira shakes her head with a sigh.
“Drink your hot chocolate,” she says, but there’s an edge of fondness in her voice.
One day Barbara says she’s not in the mood for coffee and they go to a gymnastics training centre, run by Dick Grayson. Max knows who he is, of course. She hadn’t known Barbara had stayed in touch, and she doesn’t know why Barbara’s taking her here now.
Dick takes his lunch break early and chats with them over gyros in the park, about nothing in particular.
“You know, there’s only ever been one Nightwing,” he says at one point, and Max tilts her head and wonders. Barbara never does anything without meaning.
Matt becomes Robin. Perhaps that was a foregone conclusion, but it doesn’t happen until he’s fourteen, impatient and angry, and Terry brings him to the cave one day after he’s been in a fight and takes his mask off and that’s that. (Melanie is dead set against it when she finds out, and Bruce almost smiles. Doctors, he mutters.) The cave gains a great deal of life after that, and Max is never sure where she belongs. Partner or solo act?
She’s in bed recuperating from the flu, age 23, when news comes that Batman and Robin have been captured.
Dana takes the suit and goes before Max can pull herself out of bed. Probably for the best. Melanie had ordered strict bed rest and she was a dragon when her patients disobeyed orders.
Dana tries to give the suit back to Max, later that night, Terry and Matt safe, but Max shakes her head.
“I’ve been thinking it’s time for something new, anyway,” she says, and hands Dana her spare suit as well. “You did a good job. If you want the title, it’s yours.” She smiles. “By the way, Barbara Gordon gives great how to be Batwoman chats.”
“What now?” Barbara says a few days later. Max should have known Barbara would be able to tell it wasn’t her, even through a full body covering suit.
“I don’t know,” she admits. “I was thinking maybe Nightwing. Do you think Dick would mind?”
“Why do you think he mentioned it to you?” Barbara says. “He’d love to see it being used right again.”
“Batwoman said she’d like to meet you, sometime.” Max puts her coffee down, empty. “She’ll be training pretty constantly this summer, so you can always find her in the cave.” It feels a little strange, calling someone else Batwoman after all this time (has it really been five years?), but also a little bit right.
She goes to ask Dick. She suspects he’d find her eventually if she didn’t, just like Barbara.
“I didn’t think you’d be able to stay in that shadow for long,” Dick says. His smile is just as charming now as it was when he was young and the toast of the city, Gotham’s darling socialite and the acrobat of its skies. “Too much like me. Of course you can. I haven’t got any claim on it anymore.” He still walks with a limp, mirroring Bruce’s.
“Thank you,” Max says. He shrugs it aside.
“Hey, if you want to learn some acrobatics work, you should drop by after I close sometime.” It feels like Barbara asking her out to coffee all over again.
“That would be great.” Max smiles back. “That would be really great.”
+"Please tell me you're dropping out of the business," Melanie says, staring at a chart. "Maybe you'll stop breaking things if you leave. That would be great."
"I'm not dropping out," Max says. Melanie rolls her eyes and pulls on gloves.
"Then clean up that drug ring that keeps drifting back to near my doorstep," she orders. "I keep getting overdose cases and it's only getting worse."
"I thought we did take them out of the equation," Max says, frowning, and Melanie shrugs, impatient.
"Maybe it's a new one, I don't know." There's a nurse calling for her down the hall. "Just take care of it."
"Okay." A new case would be good. Something to do.
“Catwoman hit on me tonight.” Dana is confused, staring at Max, and Max just laughs. She’s been building her new suit, laying low and running the computers for the others for a few nights. She should have known Indira would choose now to show up again.
“Isn’t Catwoman supposed to hit on Batman?” Terry complains, and Dana shoves him.
“I thought she was still in Europe, but I guess the new exhibit was enough to tempt her back,” Max says. “You’ll need to be keeping a close eye on it.”
“Catwoman’s your territory, Max, we went over this after she threw me off a roof.” Matt’s irritated. He’s never been big on her soft spot for the sometime-thief sometime-hero.
“Matt, you’ve got wings and grapples and a backup remote controlled flying car,” Max points out. “Throwing you off a roof is about as dangerous as patting you on the head. If anyone gets to hold a grudge, it’s me.”
“Wait, what is this?” Dana’s fascinated, and Max clears her throat and turns her attention back to the computers. Terry opens his mouth.
“Don’t you dare, Terry,” Max warns. “I swore you to secrecy and I meant it, don’t you dare say a word.”
“Oh come on,” Dana says. “Please?”
“She dumped Max by running off to Europe without telling her,” Matt says, and he is so not getting anything for Christmas.
“We weren’t dating, so it can’t be called dumping me. And she did tell me, I just didn’t see the point in telling you guys. Seriously, is there anything you people will keep a secret?”
“… Identities?” Terry offers. She throws a batarang at him without looking. He catches it.
“Now that she knows it’s not me in the costume anymore, she’ll probably stop,” Max says. “Probably.”
“I didn’t say I objected,” Dana says slyly, and Terry sighs dramatically.
“Why did we let anyone else in the Batcave?”
“I was against it.” Bruce is as monotone as ever, staring grumpily at files on his computer. “It’s on the record.”
“You’re against everything that doesn’t involve training and paranoia, Bruce,” Max says, perching on the seat of his chair. He glares up at her, but it’s the ‘I’ve-decided-not-to-cause-you-pain-on-the-basis-of-liking-you’ glare. She’s safe for a little bit longer.
Her first night as Nightwing she heads into the cave and stops and stares.
“Oh, come on, like we were going to let you break in a new codename without some fanfare,” Dana says. She’s holding a bottle of champagne and standing next to Max’s brand new Batmobile, blue and black and sleek as hell. Terry and Matt are grinning beside her, arms folded, and up on the computer stand Bruce and Barbara and Dick are smiling down at her."Melanie sent the champagne and told us if we got beat up because we were drunk she would kill us all," Terry says.
Max walks down slowly and takes the bottle Dana’s offered out.
“Thanks, guys,” she says, and taps it against the hull. “I christen you Mark Three, the only boyfriend I’m likely to get this year.”
An alarm goes off in the midst of the laughter, and then another, and Barbara takes a look at them and heads for the stairs.
“I’ll come back for some champagne later,” she calls back. “Don’t break anything!”
“Wouldn’t be a first day on the job without something getting broken.” Dick’s grinning fondly down as they all dash for their Batmobiles.
“Anything too expensive then,” Barbara amends, and then she’s up through the clock and gone, back to her own life.
“I want some champagne still here when I get back!” Max yells, and shoots out into the night.