Robin is knocking on her window.
It takes her a moment to really digest that.
Then she blinks, and shrugs, and opens the latch.
"Hey," he says, a crooked smile beneath his mask. "Didn't know…where else to…" And he tumbles off the windowsill into her arms, and that's when she realises he's hurt.
Then he's gazing up at her, a bit dazed but mostly wry. "Well that was embarrassing."
It takes her a moment, but she comes back with "Not exactly smooth vigilante acrobatics" and sees his smile widen.
She's a bit dazed herself, but she's already considering ways to help him. Because – because it would be the right thing to do. And it would really piss her father off. And there's something about him that just…
"So, um, d'you wanna lie down?"
"Yeah, that'd be good."
She helps him onto the bed; she's seen her mother do this kind of thing, and she does her best to emulate that careful gentleness. Then she steps back, and watches his head turn as he takes in her bedroom.
For a moment she feels a ridiculous surge of insecurity, for the webs of cracks and tattered toys and peeling posters. But there's nothing appalled or judgmental in Robin's gaze. If anything he seems comfortable here.
That just deepens her frown. It's another piece of confusion to add to the heaping pile she's collecting.
But what matters, right now, is helping him out. They have a few first aid kits in the house, and her mom had taught her how to use them, during one of the good weeks.
"You just stay still, I'll be back in a sec."
"Yes ma'am." Stephanie has no idea how he can manage that cocky smile right now, but it makes her smile, too, even as she rolls her eyes and heads off to find what she needs.
She doesn't give herself time to think as she navigates the dim hallways. She's a girl on a mission. A mission that makes no sense and could end up going horribly wrong, but a mission.
How do you know he's even Robin? does cross her mind, but she's stared at enough of the pictures. She's always liked Gotham's vigilantes, and Robin – this Robin – looks like a friend. She likes to tease him about it.
Anyway, she knows real body armour when she sees it, which totally has nothing to do with personal research.
When she comes back, she catches Robin in the middle of a pained grimace. Ah-hah! Human after all. It makes her heart twist a little, and she hurries towards the bed.
The grimace disappears the moment he sees her, and he pushes himself up into a seated position. His arms tremble slightly. "Nothing broken. Cracked, maybe. Bruises and cuts, mostly."
"I bet you're exhausted, too." His eyes widen and she'd cross her arms if she wasn't holding the kit. "You fought yourself out, didn’t you?"
Robin stares at her for a moment, before his lips curve in a rueful smile. "Didn't expect that many of 'em. And I couldn't just stop. …There were kids."
Her expression softens as she opens the box, snapping the gloves on before sitting down beside him. Then she retrieves the saline and antiseptic wipes. She'll clean the cuts, first. He obligingly holds out his slashed arm.
She grimaces slightly as she cleans the wound, but doesn't let herself hesitate.
"So where was Batman in all this?"
"Other side of Gotham. We split up sometimes to cover more ground. And…" He pauses, brow furrowing slightly. "Someone mentioned the suburbs didn't get as much protection."
"Well good for them, because they don't."
"Yeah, she threatened to do it herself if we didn't get on the ball."
Her hands pause instantly on the way to applying the bandage. She slowly looks up, and her eyes meet a mask but she could swear she sees a hint of blue.
His voice. His curls. That smirk. Oh my God.
"Oh my God, you're Jason!"
Robin – Jason, he's Jason – rolls his eyes. "Tell the world already."
Stephanie pokes him in the chest with her free, albeit damp, finger. "Don't piss off the girl fixing you up, Robin."
"…Okay, good point." And he's wincing, and she realises that one of those cracked bones must be a rib, and oh crap –
He holds up his own free hand. Gauntlet. Jason wears gauntlets.
"Nah, 'sfine, should've mentioned that. You know, specifically."
"Yeah. And the fact that you're a masked avenger of the night." A beat. "You know, that costume looks kind of silly close up."
Jason looks somewhere between disgruntled and amused. "Hey, it wasn't my idea."
"Probably why I didn't make the connection."
But really, how hadn't she? Jason is her best friend. They've known each other for over a year.
They met when she was running away.
It was something she did sometimes. There was no planning involved, really. She didn't even take anything with her. She just got this frantic, overwhelming urge to run - away from a home where she didn't feel safe or strong or secure, from a mother who was barely herself anymore, from a father who hurt them both over and over.
She always came back, after a few hours. She didn't have anywhere else to go. (Who would have her?) Her mother needed her. (Or did she just make things worse?) All it did was leave her exhausted and resigned.
This time, though, this time it was worth it.
She ran right into him, of course. They both ended up flat on their butts, but he sprung right back up. He glared down at her and she glared back and the tear streaks on her face burned like acid.
He saw them, he must have, or something in her eyes, or something in the way she held herself there on the ground, because his gaze went softer the longer he looked. Until he was looking at her with – not pity, just – just concern, and something like understanding.
"You run into all the cute guys or am I just special?"
She snorted as she picked herself up, but her lips quirked a little. It was quite a thing, when just a minute ago she never felt like she'd smile again.
"You think pretty highly of yourself, huh." The words were raw and soft; she hated it when her voice got like that.
"Why wouldn't I?" The boy – he couldn't be much older than her – flashed a grin and tossed his hair and cocked his hips. It was pretty ridiculous, and she didn't bother to contain a hoarse giggle.
He didn't seem to mind. "Nope, couldn't have picked a better person to run over."
"Maybe, she says." He snapped his fingers. "Got it! I'll convince you with the best food in Gotham."
She was sceptical, of course. But her momentum was gone, and she dreaded the thought of going home, and so she found herself in a worn down diner with, apparently, the best chilli dogs in the city.
That was how she found out his name; the waitress recognised him immediately. She was an older woman, with those lines that come from laughter as much as strain. Her smile was warm, genuine, as she bent down to place their silverware.
"Hey, Jason. Same old?"
"'Course. Make it two, all right? And…" He turned to Steph. "I want a coke, how about you?"
"Um. Root beer's good."
"You got it."
Stephanie watched her go, greying pony tail bobbing as she walked. She ran a hand through her own hair, still mussed from speed and wind.
"So you come here a lot, huh?"
"Since I was a kid." He shrugged a shoulder. "Nice to have something that stays the same."
She considered him for a moment, and answered softly. "If it's something nice."
His lips curve in a wry, strained smile. "Yeah."
"Here you go, kids." Nina's voice was gentle as she sat down their drinks; Steph guessed the mood was obvious.
Their thanks jumbled together, sounding oddly pleasant to her ears. She sipped her root bear in silence for a few long moments.
"D'you do this a lot? Take strange girls out for chilli dogs?"
"Only if they bruise me first," he said, smile quick and voice flippant, but her gaze is steady and solemn and his smile fades. When he speaks again his voice is quiet.
"You seemed like you needed some place to run to. Maybe someone to run with. And I know what that's like."
There's honesty in his voice, in his face; not the sly, silky sincerity she'd grown so used to. Something genuine.
So she nods, and she says, "I'm Stephanie. Steph."
He smiles, then, slight and soft. "Nice to meet you, Steph."
They met at that diner over and over again through the next few months. Stephanie steadily learned more and more about Jason. That he came from a world not so very different from hers, that he'd lived her worst fear, that he had a new life that still didn't quite fit. That he was as passionate and stubborn and lonely as she was. That he could be a complete jackass and a complete sweetheart, sometimes in the same breath.
The diner was where she fled the worst night of her life, and he was there for her.
And all that time…
God, all those times she said Robin had the same hair and he pouted and told her he'd had those curls first…
All those times he had to cancel. All those times he came with healing injuries. All those times his words got veiled and vague.
Oh, god, what had he thought when she taught him those gymnastics moves?
She's been working in silence, memories a miasma in her mind, and her fingers jerk against his skin. He doesn't wince, though; he's staring too hard, she figures.
She lets her hands drop, and she takes a deep breath.
"No, Jason, I'm not okay. I mean – there's this giant part of your life I had no clue about and you could have gotten killed and I wouldn't even know why – " And her chest tightens and her eyes burn but she ignores that and pushes on. "It's like I don't even know you and if I don't then how can we – are even really friends?"
"Yes." His answer is immediate and resolute as his hand comes up to squeeze hers. "Fuck, yes. Steph – you've – I don't know how I could've done it without you, okay?"
She can only stare at him. Jason takes a breath, and raises his other hand to pull of his mask.
"I'm still Jason. And you're my best friend."
His gaze is so intent, so bare, warming her chest and withering her doubts, and she wants to believe him so much. But his hand feels strange in hers, heavy and rough, and she still feels like she barely knows the boy she’s loved and trusted like – like family.
Like family's supposed to be.
He must see her hesitance, because he speaks again.
“I couldn’t tell you about the worst days, Steph, and it sucked, but – you got me through them. You kept me fighting. I’d remember – I’d remember the shit you’ve survived, or the way you laugh, or…”
He shook his head. “It sounds pretty – but it’s true.” He gives a shrug she’d call plaintive if it weren’t Jason. Jason is never plaintive. Is he?
“I came here ‘cause I trust you more than most anyone in the world. As Jason or Robin. And that’s gotta mean something, right?”
She considers him, just as she did so long ago, and she does it for a long time.
Then, “Yeah. Yeah, it does.”
Then she pokes him again, lower this time.
“But don’t think this lets you off the hook, Todd. We’ve got a lot of catching up to do, and you’re getting your grovelling on.”
His smile is pure delight.
“I'm an open book. An open, grovelling book."
Steph gives him a curt nod, and gets back to patching him up. Jason shifts accordingly.
"So how long's this been going on?" It's good to keep him talking, she reasons, keep his mind off the pain. Yep.
"Over two years, now."
"So – not long after – after Bruce – oh my God – "
Jason winces again. "Yeah, wondered when you'd realise that part. Um, I don't need to tell you – "
Her eyes still wide, Steph nods hurriedly. "Lips sealed, got it. But – I mean – seriously?" A sudden frown. "Wait. Him taking you in, it wasn't like – dependant on the Robin thing, was it?"
"No!" Jason pauses. "Well, it – kind of happened at the same time, but – "
"Uh-huh." Stephanie finishes wrapping another bandage, this one around his leg. "So when you said you stole his tires, they weren't the Batmobile tires – "
Jason smirks. Steph stares.
"They were. Jason!" She's caught between punching and laughing, but considering the circumstances, she goes with laughter.
"So he's just like – nice tire lift, want a job?"
Jason snickers. "No – the first part I told you, that's all true. Just, the part with Ma Gunn…"
"So Bruce Wayne didn't exactly contact Batman – "
"And I kind of helped him stop the robbery."
"…Huh." Stephanie peers at him for a moment before going back to the bandaging. She'll never finish at this rate. "I can see how that'd impress the guy." Another frown. "But I thought the other Robin – I mean, it was all over the newspapers – "
Jason shakes his head. "Nah, he's fine, Bruce just made him retire. Didn't even want another sidekick, but I guess he changed his mind."
"Yeah, you have that effect on people," she says absently. She looks up to find him gazing at her with a sort of warm curiosity, and she just shrugs.
"So what's it been like, the past two years? I know how it's been with Bruce, ups and downs – "
"Basically like that, yeah. I like it, mostly – I learned a ton of cool stuff, I get to beat up a bunch of nasty bastards, and you should seriously see the sky from up there – "
"One of those things is not like the others."
Another roguish smirk. "One of those things is the best part."
"Yeah, I'll bet." She gives his wounds a wry once-over, but he must have heard the jealousy, because his response is, "I could teach you some moves, you know. If you wanted."
His nod is quick, earnest, as if he's been waiting to make the offer for a long time. "Sure. You're a pretty good gymnast already, and I bet you've got good instincts."
"…You've thought about this, huh."
Anyone else might look abashed, but Stephanie is fairly sure that Jason is physically incapable. "A bit, yeah. So what do you say?"
She works silently for a moment, and then she looks up. "Only after you've healed up. All the way, Jason."
Jason rolls his eyes, but holds up one hand. "Robin's honour."
And that's how she ends up as Robin's student.