Tim Drake-Draper-Wayne had a growing list of worst days of his life. Most people---normal people---could name an event or date and label it as the worst day they'd ever had, but Tim had too many to choose from. Statistically speaking, he'd lived through more major life upsets in seventeen years than the average person saw in an entire lifetime. He couldn't narrow it down to just one, because he'd had enough terrible days to deserve an entire list. He refused to put most of them in an ordered list, because that meant labeling one horrific death of a loved one as worse than the others. He couldn't do that. He couldn't choose which hurt worse, because emotion was empirical.
He'd assumed that someday, his skin would thicken and harden enough to protect him from feeling the full pain of his successive losses. Someday, he'd hurt less. Someday, the pain would be easier to manage. Rationally, that was how it was supposed to work.
But it didn't work that way. When Tim felt things, he felt them deeply. If he had an outer armor, all it did was bottle up his emotions until the internal pressure drove him half mad. He'd been working a case when Supergirl had found him, but the panic in her eyes had been enough to instantly reshuffle his priorities.
It's Batgirl, Kara had said. The doctors don't know what to do!
So for the second time, Tim was standing in costume in a hospital, waiting to hear if Stephanie Brown was going to make it through the night. Of course, she hadn't been admitted as Stephanie Brown---no, she'd been brought in as Batgirl, and the staff hadn't removed her cowl. Her mother, Crystal, hovered at her side. When she saw him, her eyes narrowed.
"Supergirl briefed me," Tim said, his tone clipped and businesslike---his voice, not Red Robin's. He didn't have time to put on a front or assume a growl. No, more than that, Batgirl didn't have time for it. "She positively identified the toxin as Ars Clementia. We need to move quickly, Mrs. Brown."
It was a deliberate choice, calling her by name. Bruce would understand the risk he was taking, because Crystal ID-ing him---as well as the girl in the suit---was imperative to Steph's survival. Tim suspected that she already knew that it was her daughter under the cowl---and that was why she hadn't allowed anyone to unmask her---but if she was going to trust him, she had to know how invested he was in saving Stephanie.
"Tell me what to do," Crystal said with a sharp nod.
Black Mercy was forbidden on Earth for a whole slew of reasons. Tim didn't know how Cluemaster had gotten his hands on the plant---or why the hell he'd overdosed his own daughter---but he did know three things.
One: since she had inhaled a mixture of crushed plant matter and spores, Steph lacked the symbiotic connection of the live Black Mercy. The toxin was in her system, all of the euphoria without any of the drain from the plant. Fatalities from inhalation were much, much more rapid than the deaths the semi-intelligent live plant induced.
Two: Cluemaster hadn't intended for her to survive. Steph had never come right out and said it to him, but he'd always known that Arthur saw her as an obstacle. Kara's hysteria had been legitimate. The method of delivery had given them a possible opening, a way to boost her chances of survival.
Three: most of the fight against Black Mercy was out of the hands of even the most excellent medical provider. It made the victim vividly experience everything they'd ever wanted, and Tim knew that Steph had a lot of want in her. He'd...he'd never heard of a baseline human surviving such a massive overdose, but never had never stopped Steph before. Therefore, it was their duty to boost her single-digit chance at waking up again.
"She needs a blood transfusion, as quickly as possible. It'll help flush some of the spores from her body, and---" The qualifier of hopefully clung to the tip of his tongue. Tim bit the inside of his cheek and decided against saying it. "---she'll wake up from the coma."
He couldn't entertain the idea that she might not wake up from it. He couldn't allow himself to think that he might lose her for a second time---not now, not after finally getting Bart, Conner, Bruce, and Steph back. Just the idea of revisiting that loss made the edges of his composure spiderweb with stress fractures. Tim forcibly slowed his breathing. Losing her for twice wouldn't be easier. It wouldn't hurt less. It wouldn't build up his armor.
So he wouldn't let his brain cycle through all of the 'what ifs' available. Any scenario that ended with a sheet pulled over Batgirl was viciously dismissed and denied.
She was a fighter. Maybe even more of a fighter than he was. She wouldn't go softly anywhere.
"I know for a fact that you have a compatible donor on staff," Tim said, looking Crystal straight in the eye. "And time is crucial right now. Get her a transfusion, then keep her stable while she fights through this."
Weird little bubbles of anxiety fizzed in his lungs. He'd purposefully tried to avoid looking at the girl on the gurney, but his self-control faltered.
Steph had taken a heck of a beating. Her cowl was ripped, and half of her face was swollen, matching the deep violet of her suit. She'd gone into a coma, but it didn't look like a restful sleep. He'd never heard of someone looking pissed off while comatose, but Steph didn't play by anyone's rules.
The chance of her waking up was so, so small. Tim accepted that truth in spite of himself, and it hurt. His chest tightened until it was difficult for him to breathe---he was having a silent, awful panic attack. When most people had panic attacks, they were loud an loose and frantic. For him, panic compressed him until he couldn't move or think or breathe.
Tim took Steph's battered hand and squeezed it once, hard. He only let go when the staff rolled her away.
He spent the rest of the night on the highest rooftop he could find, wondering why she hadn't called him for backup. Once upon a time, he would've been the first on her phone tree if she needed help. Around dawn, he came to the conclusion that he was too good at burning bridges.
And that was kind of a crap thing to be good at.
After four days, Steph pulled through. She woke up, and according to the medical reports Tim skimmed from the hospital's system, she was as healthy as she'd ever been. She'd make a full recovery, bouncing back in signature Steph fashion. Tim had cycled madly through ideas---he'd debated sending flowers, but he knew she didn't like flowers; he'd debated dropping by to see her before she was released, but he didn't know if she wanted to see him---so he'd ended up doing nothing at all. Appropriate gestures were something that he struggled with, especially when he had to reach over all of the mistakes he'd made in order to touch the other person.
He'd sent her an e-mail. Four words. Glad you're okay. - Tim He'd felt massively stupid the second he'd pushed the send button, so he'd quickly keyed in the defer rule---his system was set up to wait three minutes before sending any e-mails to and from his personal account. He deleted the message from his outbox before it could send properly, so those four words never made it to her inbox.
Because glad you're okay wasn't enough. Better not to say anything than to screw it all up more than he already had, he figured.
About a week after the dodged e-mail bullet, Steph tracked him down. His habits hadn't changed much over the years, so he was fairly predictable. When he needed to think, he climbed up to high, quiet places---places where the noise of Gotham disappeared, and everything looked so small and easily compartmentalized. Cars were reduced to pinpricks of light, crime-filled streets reduced to orderly grids and patterns. Seen from above, Gotham almost looked manageable.
He knew that it was an optical illusion, but Tim liked to indulge in the comfort that came with the denial of what Gotham really was.
"Hiya, handsome," Batgirl chirped, sitting down next to him without any invitation at all. He wondered how many of the old spots she'd tried before locating him. "Can I interrupt your intense rooftop brooding for a few minutes? I promise I'll let you get back to spending quality time with your favorite gargoyle."
"You say it like I have a choice," Tim said with the kind of exasperated fondness that Steph still stirred up in him.
"Good thing you know better," she grinned. She scooted a little bit closer---not close enough to be touching him, but close enough that he could feel the heat of her, even through the layers of their costumes. She'd mapped out his personal boundaries a long, long time ago. "So, I heard a rumor."
"You're going to have to be more specific than that," Tim said, though the lilt in her tone made his stomach clench. "Eighty percent of our intel could be classified as 'rumor'."
"I heard this rumor that one of the reasons I've managed to make such a quick recovery was that a certain vigilante came by with some expert medical advice," Steph said, her voice warm and amused. She knew. He knew that she knew, but she was too playful to accuse him directly. "According to my source, he looked like Doctor Mid-Nite. And I got to thinking, what was Doctor Mid-Nite doing at Mercy West on a Thursday night? Who called him? I just figured he was paying it forward to a fellow crimefighter, but then he sent me a very confused letter in response to my Thank You For Saving My Life and Stuff fruit basket." Her cowl covered her eyebrows, but he was reasonably sure that she was waggling them. "Quite the mystery, don't you think?"
Tim rubbed his knuckles, giving a jerky little shrug. "Hearsay."
"You haven't changed as much as you think you have," Steph laughed, punching his upper arm. She hit a lot harder than she thought she did. Tim rubbed his arm ruefully. "Swooping in to save the day, then not taking any credit for it? Classic Boy Wonder."
"Figured that you had enough to worry about," Tim admitted, shrugging again. Saying I wasn't going to let you die felt dramatic and inappropriate, even if it was true. "I heard that Damian set up camp outside your room. I don't know how you managed to tame him, but you'll probably end up regretting it."
"What can I say?" Steph grinned, fluttering her mascara-thick lashes. "Robins just love me."
Jealousy swelled in Tim's chest. He had no idea where it had come from, or what to do with it. It was completely irrational. There was no reason for him to be jealous of a ten year old crushing on his ex-girlfriend while wearing his old suit. Damian was ten, and Tim had no place to be jealous. Steph might have a boyfriend, for all he knew.
No, she didn't. He knew. He hadn't been able to help himself. He'd tailed her for two days after her release from the hospital, and he'd hated himself a little bit the entire time.
When Bruce had been gone, Tim's life had been bad. It'd been hard, but he'd had goals---he'd had purpose. To reach those goals, he'd carved away everything non-essential. Now that Bruce was back, he wasn't sure what to do with himself. With so many burned bridges, he didn't know how to reconnect.
"It's good to have you back," Stephanie said, interrupting his downward spiral of self-pitying thoughts. Her blue eyes were bright---she was happy. She was looking at him, and she was happy, and God, it'd been too long since he'd seen her smile like that. "I missed you."
She drummed her fingertips over the top of his head, tapping a cheerful pattern against his cowl. Tim was just about to tell her that a little day-saving should excuse him from Mid-Nite jokes and general teasing, but then she dropped a quick, warm kiss on his cheek.
And that kind of made him clam up. His thoughts ground to a halt, heat pooling in his cheeks. Judging by her widening grin, his cowl wasn't covering up his flush.
"Enjoy your brooding time," Steph said, dropping down the fire escape. "And thanks again!"
Maybe there was still a chance of salvaging that burned bridge, Tim thought. He didn't know where to even begin repairing it, but just the idea of it made him feel lighter.
He could plan. He could figure it out. Those were things he was good at.
The first step in repairing the bridge was to acquire appropriate materials. In this case, that meant getting a brick and keeping it in his book bag. He decided that he was going to carry it with him until he dealt with the Steph situation. It was just a brick, but it might as well have been a lead weight.
The brick reminded him that the problems wouldn't go away, no matter how staunchly he tried to ignore them. The brick said hi, I'm still here.
Well. Not literally. But the brick was a metaphor, and metaphors allowed inanimate objects to nag.
Halfway through his third week carrying that stupid brick around, he finally sucked up his anxiety and indecision and just did it. He left it on Steph's desk when she wasn't home. There was nothing special about the brick itself, but it was tied with a bright purple ribbon and carried a note that he'd spent far too much time agonizing over.
The first two---okay, eight---drafts of the note had been much longer. He'd gone into the details, fumbling with apologies that erred on run-on sentences. Clipping up the run-on sentences had resulted in a painfully long list of offenses against her (Sorry that I told you to stop being Spoiler again. Sorry that I didn't think you could hack being Batgirl. Sorry about kicking you in the stomach when you tried to help me. Sorry that I've Bruced you ever since you came back.). His attempts at icebreakers---I can't remember if I told you this or not, but you looked really nice in that dress. The one that you wore when we crashed that party to stop the snipers and you punched my face, I mean. It was a nice dress. Your right hook was also really nice, but I liked your dress more.---were lukewarm at best.
Even his most sincere compliments looked tinny and trite when written down---I stopped believing in love when you died, so when I found out that you'd never really died at all, I took it harder than I should've. I should've been happy, but I didn't know how to process the fact that you'd chosen not to tell me you were alive. I took it personally. You have to understand how much I was going through---I wanted to be happy. I still do. But you seem happy without me, and I don't know what to do with that. Are you happier without me?.
He'd crumpled up a dozen tries before he settled on something short, inane, and completely removed from anything he wanted to say to her. It'd felt like a safe place to start.
All that the note on the brick said was Want to catch a movie on Friday? - Alvin
For two days, he waited. By Thursday evening, he hadn't gotten a response, and pretty much gave up on receiving one. It knotted up his stomach and killed his already very touchy appetite. Every time he thought about the brick and the note, his skin felt scalded by embarrassment. Why had he thought that was a good idea? Because it wasn't. It wasn't anywhere in the same universe as a good idea. If he was lucky, Steph got a good laugh out of his sorry attempt at bridging the chasm between them. He should've known that the good ship Happy Golden Days of Yore had set sail before the gang war.
But then he woke up on Friday morning and found the brick on his desk. More than that, he found two hand-sewn plush dolls tucked into bed with him---one chubby-limbed Red Robin, and one smiling, purple-clad Batgirl.
Steph had slipped in and out without waking him. God, she had gotten good when he hadn't been paying attention. Smiling stupidly at the brick, Tim inspected the folded square of notebook paper she'd taped to it. There was a silly little cartoony picture of a boy in a green and red costume and a girl in a familiar eggplant hood, drawn in crayon. He didn't have to read the note or recognize her handwriting to know that it'd definitely come from Steph.
A fourteen year old boy shot his fifteen year old girlfriend, then held her underwater for five minutes. Finally, he hung her. They're still friends. If you can figure out how before the 3:30 matinee, you're on. xoxo SPOILER
Well. That wasn't the response he'd been expecting, that was for sure. Tim sat down on the edge of his bed, rubbing his temple and trying to figure out what this meant. It was such a Steph thing to do, matching his nostalgia with some nostalgia of her own. She'd long since given up on emulating her father's trademarks, but for the sake of the game he'd started, she'd trotted the wordplay back out.
The ages were the first clue---she was obviously talking about them. The first time he'd met her, he'd been fourteen and she'd been fifteen. He hesitated to call them kids, even in his thoughts. The weight of their responsibilities had aged them prematurely---he fought crime, and she was pregnant by her sixteenth birthday. They'd had some rough patches---okay, some really rough patches---but their fights had never been as aggressive as the clue implied.
A fourteen year old boy shot his fifteen year old girlfriend. The idea soured the inside of Tim's mouth. The memory of the Batman who carried a gun and shared his name bubbled up before he could suppress it. Tim had toed the line, but he wouldn't be that Batman. He wouldn't shoot her---wouldn't shoot anyone---
He had to box that thought up and put it aside. This was wordplay. He had to focus on secondary meanings, not the literal or immediately obvious ones.
Shot, held underwater, hung. The words brought to mind guns and ropes and other instruments of torture, but this was about them, not the things that she'd gone through, so he couldn't let his associations cloud his thoughts.
Shoot. Guns weren't the only thing that took shots.
Tim quickly got his shoes on and grabbed his coat, making a beeline for the Brown residence. Neither of them was home, but Steph had left her bedroom window open an inviting couple of inches. He opened the window all the way and crawled inside, just as he'd done a hundred times before.
He scanned her room, taking in the changes that'd gone on over the years. Her old posters of superheroes and boy bands had been cycled out for more adult interests---but not much more adult, because Steph had strong feelings about cartoons and pop culture. Her room was messy and cluttered and very lived-in, the polar opposite to the string of neat hotel rooms and impersonal condos that Tim had lived out of for the better part of a year.
The wall over her bedside table and part of her headboard were papered with a collage of photos---some of them of people that he recognized, and some that he didn't, but Steph was smiling hugely in all of them. He smirked triumphantly to himself when he found what he was looking for: a picture of him and Steph that he'd taken himself.
It was taped to her headboard, right above her pillow. It kind of made his chest ache that she'd held onto it, and that she still kept it in a place where she'd see it every day. It’d be one of the last things she saw when she went to sleep at night, and the first thing she'd see in the morning.
They were crooked in the frame, since Tim had been holding the camera at an odd angle. Steph had her cheek pressed flush up against his, and she'd managed to get him to really smile. The bows of their grins almost connected. They looked so weirdly young, Tim almost felt like he was looking at strangers, and that made him sick to his stomach.
A fourteen year old boy had shot a picture of his fifteen year old girlfriend. Back then, he'd still had the time to devote to having honest to God hobbies, so he'd developed the film by hand, in a dark room. The developing picture had been held underwater for five minutes, then hung to dry.
He flipped the picture over. Sure enough, there was a second clue written on the back.
You got me to open up with a box that held keys, but no locks. Do you remember? xoxoxo SPOILER
This one was easier than the first, he decided. Crawling back out the window, he quickly glanced at his watch. 2:45. His next destination was all the way across town, so he'd be cutting it close. Thankfully, a couple of years of being chased by globetrotting ninja assassins had made him great at avoiding traffic on his bike.
Meister's Music Shoppe hadn't changed much since the afternoon that he and Steph had wandered into it. The owner's hair had thinned a bit more and the depressed economy had covered many of the instruments with a thin layer of dust, but that was just about it.
"Did a blonde girl come in here recently? About my height, blue eyes---she would've asked if she could play," Tim asked, hoping that he'd pegged this one correctly.
A box that held keys with no locks was a piano. If there had been one place where Steph had really opened up to him, this was it.
The owner dabbed at the corner of his eye with a handkerchief, then noisily blew his nose.
"Yes! Such a dear girl. She asked to play for a while, and oh, such feeling! Her technical prowess wasn't wonderful, of course, but---"
"Which piano?" Tim interrupted, fighting to keep himself from smiling stupidly. He didn't have the time to explain the game to the store owner, and his time was running out. He pointed, blowing his nose again.
She'd carefully wiped the entire piano down, cleaning off the film of dust. Tim paused for a moment, trailing his fingertips over the cool ivory keys.
The note had asked if he'd remembered the music store. He felt vaguely insulted that she'd thought he'd ever forget listening to her play the piano. She hadn't been a musical genius, but it'd been special for him---special because she hadn't played for anyone in years, special because she'd sat beside him on the piano bench and told him the awful things she'd gone through, special because she had such humbling, profound trust in him.
And that was why it'd hurt so much when she came back. It'd felt like that trust had never existed in the first place, because she hadn't trusted him enough to tell him that she was alive.
But it'd never been about trust. He'd gotten it all twisted around in his head, then built up a wall of logic to reinforce and excuse all of his poor decisions.
Steph's final note was propped up on the music stand. He opened it, and a movie ticket fluttered out.
R.R.: A+ work, detective! Next time, you're paying for the date. xoxoxoxoxoxoxoxo B.G.
He smiled at that needlessly long string of hugs and kisses.
By the time he got to the theater, the movie trailers and advertisements were rolling. Scanning the thin midday audience, he found her near the back of the theater---already eating the popcorn, her feet kicked up on the seat in front of her. She waved when she saw him.
His chest tightened, but not with panic. Not this time.
Tim vaulted over two rows, because there was someone sitting at the end of her aisle and he didn't want to have to slow down to shuffle past them. He wouldn't have been able to eke out an excuse me, because his throat had closed up tight.
"Glad you could make it," Steph said, smiling. "I was starting to wo---"
Tim didn't let her finish. He stooped, framing the sides of her face with his hands and dragging her into a kiss. She squeaked, knocking over the popcorn, but crunching on a carpet of spilled kernels wasn't going to deter him. It was the kiss that he'd been meaning to give her for a long time, the apology he hadn't known how to deliver. He poured everything into it that he was worried he wouldn't be able to convey with words alone---I missed this, I missed you, I'm sorry, I forgive you. Her arms looped around his neck, pulling him in closer.
"Well hello to you, too," she smirked when he finally came up for air. She looked pleased and dazzled, cheeks flushed, and he was pleased and dazzled that he could still give that to her.
"I suck," Tim whispered emphatically, because that seemed like as good a place to start as any.
"I know," she whispered back.
"I mean, I really---"
"Sweetie, I accepted the magnitude of your suckiness a loooooong time ago," Steph said, brushing the back of her knuckles over the curve of his cheekbone. She tapped his nose with her fingertip. "I fail and you suck. So park your butt over here and let's neck like normal teenagers on a date. Because this is a date, in case you were wondering. Okay?"
Tim sat down next to her, tangling his fingers up with hers. "Okay."
He didn't pay any attention to the movie. For an hour and a half, they were normal teenagers---not scarred, stunted, damaged vigilantes who'd never really been given a fair chance to be teenagers.
Building bridges was much more enjoyable than Tim had expected.