She’s standing at the edge of the building, staring down at the ground below. The wind is incredibly strong up here, whipping her hair around her face. Jason stands behind her, a foot and a half back, waiting patiently for her to rejoin him after she gets her fill of being up high again.
He’s taken her up here to help her reacclimate to Gotham; neither of them is under the illusion that she’ll just sit back and do nothing now that she’s alive again, now that she’s healed completely. It’s been six months to the day since she woke up, half a year of physical therapy and check-ups and some new false teeth after two had fallen out when Steph had bit into a jolly rancher instead of sucking on it. The same assassin had shown up as before, and she had rolled her eyes when Steph explained what had happened.
But now, she’s better. Sure, her left foot still hurts sometimes, but it’s more of a phantom pain. The nightmares haven’t stopped, but what Gotham vigilante didn’t have nightmares?
She’s been going stir-crazy, getting more and more antsy as the weeks passed without any action for her to involve herself in. Her first night back has been a long time coming, waited for anxiously with every fiber of her being.
“Ready to go? I’ve planned out a simple route for you. Just a practice round to see where you are.”
Steph smiles, glancing down at the grapple attached to her belt. Yeah, there’s no way she is going to go easy tonight. She turns and saunters up to Jason, a grin lighting up her face. Jason takes it as an affirmative, at least until Steph lays a hand on his shoulder and leans in to whisper in his ear.
When she pulls back, he’s obviously confused. His helmet isn’t on yet, leaving him in only a red domino mask, because the most apparent thing Steph has learned about him is that he’s the most dramatic person she’s ever known.
“What?” he asks.
Steph squeezes his shoulder tightly. “You’re it,” she laughs, then turns and sprints for the edge of the building. The last thing she hears is his quick curse as she flings herself off the edge headfirst, laughing the whole way down.
Wayne Enterprises is the tallest building in Gotham at about 1500 feet, which means that she only has about nine or ten seconds of free fall time that she can enjoy before she has to grapple onto a neighboring building, but it still takes her breath away at how freeing it is to be able to fly through the air again.
Jason’s screaming after her as he falls as well, shooting the grapple into the building right next to hers. She loves the pull on her arms as the line fights against gravity and inertia, pulling her back around and up in a loop. Pressing the button on the handle to retract the line in less than a second, she fires again at another building beyond her in the second that she’s floating, suspended in air by the competing forces of upward inertia and gravity. The next loop is a little lower, and Steph has to adjust the length as she swings to avoid hitting the cars driving through the Diamond District streets.
The top of the arc isn’t as vertical this time, so her body never stops moving, swinging right into the next swoop. Steph spots a building one block down that’s only three stories and she aims for it, coming to a stop on its roof by rolling a few times when her leg gives out from under her.
“Stephanie!” Jason is shouting at her, retracting his grapple line haphazardly and throwing his helmet to the ground as he practically sprints over to her. Steph is lying on her back staring at the cloudy sky, a smile even the Joker would be jealous of on her face.
Jason falls to his knees, running his eyes and hands frantically down her arms, and legs, checking for any breaks or damages as he scolds her.
“You could have died, Stephanie. I wasn’t prepared to catch you at all. What if you had lost your grip, huh? The grapple could have slipped right out of your hand, and then splat. There goes Stephanie Brown, human pancake.”
Steph starts laughing, startling Jason out of his mother-hen mode.
“What?” he asks.
“That was so. Much. Fun,” she giggles, the endorphins and adrenaline rush still going strong.
There’s an exasperated look on Jason’s face, but when he rolls his eyes at her, there’s an obvious quirk to his lips. She raises and eyebrow at him until he caves.
“Alright, yeah. That was fun,” he admits. “I never said it wasn’t. But it was dangerous also. Please don’t give me a heart attack like that again.”
Steph turns her head to look at him. He’s leaned back on his heels, breathing deeply as he comes down from his own adrenaline spike. She rocks herself into a sitting position and folds her legs in front of her, leaning back on her hands.
“I’ve really missed that,” she says, closing her eyes to take a deep breath of the cold, dirty Gotham air. Somehow, it’s never smelt so good to her as it does in that moment.
Jason breathes an affirmative through his nose, a harsher breath than normal. “Yeah,” he says, then she feels his hand on her shoulder.
“Steph?” he asks.
“Yeah?” she doesn’t open her eyes.
“You’re it, now,” he says, almost sympathetically. Steph’s eyes fly open just in time to see the feral grin on Jason’s face as he shoves to his feet and sprints for his helmet, knocking her off balance even with her arms bracing her. By the time she’s finally gotten to her feet, Jason is already swinging through the air, a whole building away.
“Oh, you are so on,” she grins, and gives chase.
She leaps off after him, her hair streaming back from where its tied in a ponytail. Jason is now two full buildings ahead of her, given his head start, but since she had the head start earlier, she pushes herself faster. If Jason could catch up, so can she.
He swings around the corner of a high-rise apartment building, disappearing from her sight. As she rounds the corner, something flies out at her, knocking into her body. She startles for a moment, but then realizes it’s only Jason, waiting for her to catch up. He pulls her into a window outcropping. From the front, they’re clearly visible, illuminated by the clear glass, but from above, below, and the sides, they’d be invisible. Jason pulls her as far into the outcropping as possible, a finger pressed to where his lips would be, if not for the helmet.
Steph listens, because his playful attitude from a mere minute earlier is gone. She tilts her head just enough to look up – the bats are the only reason she can think of that would make Jason act this way. She knows he doesn’t want them knowing about him yet, not when all of the pieces in his plan haven’t come together yet.
She sees a shadow block the moon for a moment, there and gone in the space of time it would take to blink. She knows immediately that it’s Bruce. No one else moves like that, not even Dick. He was more obvious, showy in everything he did because of the performer in him. Bruce is the night, the shadows in the corner of your eye, the monster watching you but never seen.
A minute after the shadow passes, Jason finally begins to relax. He grabs her hand and opens the window. The apartment on the inside is dark. All the lights are off – the only illumination comes from the digital clock on the bookshelf and the built-in clocks on the stereo and television systems.
Jason pulls her inside, shutting the window quietly. Either no one is home, or the occupants are asleep, so they play it safe and creep quietly across the room to the front door. Jason picks the lock closed when they leave, standing in the brightly lit hallways typical of penthouse and high-class apartment buildings.
Steph takes his hand when he stands up, dragging him along to the elevator. She presses the button for the roof, making Jason look at her warily.
“B is gone by now, Red. He was on his way to the docks. It’s pretty typical for him to visit them halfway through patrol, just in case Penguin or Bane somehow organized something without his knowledge. You’d be surprised at how often he catches them. They think he’s all-knowing at this point.”
Jason turns his head back to the elevator doors. They’ve got mirrors on them, showing a duplicate Red Hood and Steph as they ride to the top. Jason looks more relaxed now, knowing that Steph is right. They can still continue their game.
The doors open with a ping, and Steph steps out before Jason, leading the way to the last set of stairs that leads to the roof. She pushes the door open, a burst of cold, polluted Gotham air hitting her face. She shivers and smiles.
The door falls shut. She can hear Jason breathing softly beside her, waiting for her to make the first move. She smiles at him, wide and inviting as she tilts her head toward the edge. She grabs his hand for the third time when he chuckles and gestures for her to go, pulling him after her as she sprints for the drop. They leap at the same time, grapples coming out to hook around the same gargoyle.
They’re just beginning to pass the invisible border that marks Selena’s territory in the East End when they hear a scream. They change course instantly, not even needing to talk to coordinate. They hit the ground back to back, surrounded by five guys in bandana-masks brandishing switchblades. A couple is huddling against the wall, clearly terrified at the prospect of getting mugged. Steph feels a pang of sympathy for a moment – they’re clearly tourists. No Gothamite in their right mind would be walking around at two a.m. without jackets, and both people in the couple are wearing short sleeves.
Jason strikes out first, a high kick knocking the closest thug out. He hits the ground and doesn’t get back up, leaving four still awake and angry. Steph grins and falls into a low fighting stance. Two of the guys charge her, and the other two go for Jason. Steph for only a moment wants to actually congratulate the guys: at least they’re all attacking at once, instead of one at a time like usual. It’s a challenge, one she’s all too ready to face.
The couple sprints out of the alley like they’re criminals being chased by Batman, leaving Jason and Steph to fight unhindered by looking after them.
Steph ducks as a switchblade goes whizzing above her head, right where her neck had been a second earlier. She kicks the guy in the stomach, sending him stumbling back but still on his feet. His buddy makes to punch her in the side, rather than use the blade he also has, and Steph shifts to the side just enough for his fist to go brushing along her shirt but miss actual flesh.
The man loses his balance at the lack of a block, and Steph brings her knee up right to where his face falls, breaking his nose with a loud crack. The bandana has a red spot on it where the blood would have splattered.
Steph laughs – this is the most fun she’s had fighting in a long time. The jump from Wayne enterprises still beat this, but not by much.
The man stumbles back clutching at his broken nose and moaning in pain. His buddy comes for her again, no longer winded from her hit to his stomach.
Steph feels Jason step back and press against her back, spines lining up. She pushes back as well, and he just knows. His arms lift so that she can link hers with his at the elbows, and he leans forward just enough that Steph can use him to lift her feet and curl up. The thug comes within striking distance and Steph kicks out with both legs, hitting him in the chest. Steph drops back down, and Jason releases her arms – and all in the span of three seconds.
She kicks the man’s head to the side, knocking him out.
One down, one to go.
The one with a broken nose is pushing through the pain, coming at her with a knife now and a murderous look in his eyes. Unfortunately for him, he’s stumbling as he does, making it all too easy for Steph to dodge the sloppy attack and slip behind him, put him in a choke-hold, and drop him after he’s unconscious.
Two down, none to go. Well, unless she counts Jason’s.
He’s downed one of his, but the last one seems completely uninjured, and much better of a fighter than any of the other thugs. Steph joins Jason, and together they take him down, double teaming the guy. Every time he dodges one of Jason’s punches, he hits one of Steph’s, and every time he dodges on of Steph’s kicks, he’s hit directly by Jason’s.
Fifteen seconds later and he’s moaning on the ground, unable to stand. Jason steps forward to knock him out, but the man frantically tries to back up.
“Wait,” he moans, holding one arm out in pathetic defense. “Don’t hurt me, I know stuff.”
Jason sighs and shakes his head, ignoring the man and his blubbering’s, at least until the man pleads, “I can tell you about Black Mask! You capes like hunting them big mob people, right? There’s no one bigger or meaner in Gotham, not since the Quake. He controls everything now, and I can tell you wear he hangs his mask!”
Steph takes a step back involuntarily. She really wasn’t expecting for that name to be mentioned, and the sound of it sends her heart racing and her breathing becomes difficult. Jason pauses. “I already know where he stays.”
Steph can hear how angry he is, and she knowns it’s because he’s picked up on her distress. Steph takes a deep breath, trying to bring her reactions back under her control.
Jason pulls out a gun, pointing it at the thug’s head. “And now you’ve made me really mad. You see, I really don’t like hearing about Sionis. He’s done some pretty shitty things to people I care about, so you bringing his name up? Not a good move on your part.”
The man continues trying to push himself away. He knows he’s messed up, and he doesn’t want that to be the last mistake he’s ever made.
“He’s… uh… he’s got a shipment coming in!” the man says. Jason hesitates. Steph straightens up an inch. She wasn’t expecting that reaction from him, and she steps to his side. His arm drifts out to brush against hers, a small, fleeting gesture of comfort that does wonders to ease her anxiety.
“When.” Jason cocks the gun when the thug hesitates.
“The end of the month. It’s all he’s been talking about for a week. He’s trying to secure some sort of weapon. He hasn’t even gotten it yet, but his people know the deadline for acquisition is the end of the month!”
Jason pulls the trigger, making Steph jump in surprise. The man screams and clutches at his leg – apparently Jason had changed his aim without Steph noticing. She’s not exactly surprised – she’s still kind of out of it from the surprise mentioning of Sionis.
Jason takes her hand as he fits the gun back into its holster.
“Come on, let’s get out of here.”
Steph follows, pulling out her grapple again and shooting it the roof. The two ascend quickly, and Jason sends a message to Gordon when they’re a block away.
“Steph…” Jason begins, waiting a few paces away from her. The helmet is off, even the domino is too. Steph stares into Jason’s guilt-ridden, blue-green eyes. “I’m sorry, I didn’t know he was going to say that.”
Steph shrugs a shoulder. “Neither did I. I don’t think he even expected to say it, but you can be pretty scary when you want to be.” She realizes what she’s saying a moment too late. Jason’s face has shuttered the emotion away in an instant, and Steph closes the distance between them in three steps, taking both his hands and forcing him to drop the domino and helmet to the roof.
“Not to me though. Never to me. Besides, it got us information. Speaking of, why did you need to know about that?”
Jason squeezes her hands briefly. “Black Mask is a major player in my plans. He’s the only one with the connections to get the Joker out of Arkham. I was planning on pissing him off enough that he started hiring out people to deal with me, until eventually he decided that only the Joker was capable.”
Understanding dawns on Steph. “That’s why you wouldn’t tell me more about your plan when I first asked. You didn’t want me to worry about you being around him.”
Jason nods and lets his head fall forward a little, so that he’s staring at the ground. Steph pulls one hand free and tilts his head back up, until he’s still looking down, but is now staring into her eyes.
Stupid height difference.
“I’m okay, Jay. Do whatever you need to do.”
Jason looks hesitant but eventually asks a question.
“Do you want Black Mask dead Stephanie?”
Her mouth parts in surprise. She does, she really does. She doesn’t even have to think about it. She has wanted him dead from the moment she realized she had been murdered and somehow brought back. The only thing she was unsure on was whether or not she would actually be able to through with it herself.
She doesn’t want to kill him, and it’s not even because of Bruce and his rules. It’s not because of Dick or Tim and how they’d look at her if she ever crossed that line. It’s purely because of her own reasons.
Steph shakes her head. “I can’t do it Jason. I can’t kill him, not unless I’m fighting for my life against him again. I can’t just… make a plan and kill him. It would make me too much like my father. I never want to be like him.”
Jason drops her other hand and settles his own around the back of her neck, cupping her head. His thumbs brush soothingly back and forth across the hair behind her ear.
“That’s not what I asked Stephanie. I know you won’t do it, not like I’m doing with the Joker. I’m asking…” he takes a breath, thinking over his words one last time before speaking. “I’m asking if you want me to kill him for you. My plans… after his part is done, after he gets the Joker out of Arkham and I have no more need for him, do you want me to kill him for you?”
Steph swallows and closes her eyes. She can’t deal with how emotive Jason’s eyes are right now. She bites her lip.
She nods, a tiny little fraction of a dip or her head. She knows he feels it from how his hands are holding her, but she speaks it out loud too, whispering the word quietly, even though it sounds like the shot of a gun.
She opens her eyes again. Jason is looking at her without judgement, without anger or anything other than understanding.
Steph swallows. “One condition though.”
Jason nods. “What is it?”
“I want to help you with your plan. If you’re getting rid of Sionis for me, then the least I can do is help you get rid of the Joker. I… I can’t kill him, or anyone for that matter, not even for you, but I can still help. After all, every vigilante needs a partner.”
Jason smiles sadly. “Okay, Steph. I’d be honored to be your partner.”
Steph cups his hands under her own, lacing her fingers through his as she brings them back down to waist level.
“Let’s get back to the apartment then. We have some planning to do.”