When new students arrived at Gotham Academy, they quickly learned three very important things about the school, which, the first week back, Charlie Gage-Radcliffe of that fall’s sophomore class helpfully wrote on the whiteboard in the student rec room:
1: Bruce Wayne, yes, that Bruce Wayne, donates an absurd amount of money to the school and so has his absurd amount of children on the premises.
2: Do not cross Principal Amanda Waller, and do not believe her when she says “if you come forward, you won’t be punished.”
3: Mr. Grayson of the math department and Ms. Gordon of the English department absolutely fucking hate each other.
Charlie had later denied it when Principal Waller had yelled at her for obscene language, but had gotten detention anyway. Ms. Pierce and Ms. Starr had at least, as far as Charlie was concerned, backed her up with “it’s not like she’s wrong, Amanda.”
Also, Charlie took it as a bonus that Ms. Gordon herself was supervising detention that day.
Clutching her slip, she headed to the classroom, where four other kids had already assembled in the desks, looking alternately bored and nervous. Ms. Gordon, wire-rimmed glasses perched on the end of her nose, long scarlet hair tucked up in a loose bun, appeared to be engrossed in a book, but Charlie knew from experience that somehow, she was also keeping a close eye on the kids under her supervision. Step out of line in front of her at your own peril.
A Scandal In Bohemia was lowered as Charlie walked in. One red eyebrow lifted.
“Back already? School’s only been in for a week.” The disappointment was evident in her voice. “I understand that you’re enthusiastic Charlie, but you really shouldn’t antagonize the principal without base.”
“I know, I know,” she babbled in response, feeling her face heat up. Ms. Gordon always had a way of making her genuinely want to do better. “It was just one f-bomb, honestly. I didn’t think she’d recognize my handwriting.”
Ms. Gordon sighed softly.
“I’m not mad, but if you are going to make someone angry, it should be for good reason.” She gestured to the empty desks. “I’d take the time to do some homework, if I were you.”
Nodding earnestly, Charlie pulled the chair back with a loud screech-scrape, settling in with a flurry of papers, several fluttering to the floor. Her textbook hit the desk with a thump.
For some minutes, that was the only noise breaking the awkward silence of the detention room.
But the next interruption was even less welcome.
When the door clicked open, Charlie didn’t look up from her chemistry homework at first, assuming it was another dishonored student. That is, until she heard the disgusted huff from her teacher.
All five kids’ heads snapped up in unison.
Sure enough, Mr. Grayson had arrived.
Under different circumstances, Charlie kind of liked him. He wasn’t a bad teacher, far from it, and...okay, Kara was right, he really was very handsome. But he looked at her beloved English teacher, who now looked like she smelled something unpleasant, with a nasty grin on his face.
“You’re still here, huh Gordon? I’m surprised. It’s raining outside today; I would’ve thought that you’d melted.”
“I’m surprised you’re still here too, Grayson,” she said icily. “This is my classroom. Besides, the ninth circle of hell called, apparently they want their poster boy back.”
“You know, since you’re a book geek, you should know that Dante says the ninth circle of hell is cold. So I think your personality suits it better.”
“Enough foreplay.” She snapped down her book; the entire room held its breath. “Why are you here?”
Mr. Grayson lounged easily against the doorframe.
“Someone took all my board markers this morning.”
“And you suspect me.” She folded her arms. “Really, Richard. You think I’m that petty?”
“Well, as usual, you’re wrong.” She unfolded one arm to casually brush a strand of hair out of her face. “Maybe you should go interrogate your younger siblings instead of coming into my space.”
He raised his eyebrows.
“Jason and Tim are planning to get you back for assigning them extra homework on the first week. Now, if you’ll excuse me, some of us actually have work to do instead of punching numbers into a lump of metal.”
“Oh yes, giving my students mounds of paper to stare at in an age of Kindles.” He rolled his eyes as she predictably bristled at the “K” word. “Believe me, I’m glad to be leaving.”
Charlie held her breath until he was gone...and then let it out in a rush when Ms. Gordon reached into her desk and pulled out a handful of board markers.
“Jason and Tim are planning to put salt in his coffee,” she said briskly. “I overheard them in the cafeteria yesterday. Now, what are you all staring at? Get back to work.”
Biting back a hysterical giggle at it all, Charlie jerked her head back down towards the swarms of formulas. Another school year, and they were still at it. As far as she was concerned, they always would be.
For four years, ever since he’d first come to GA, Grayson and Gordon had been at it. Stealing each others’ markers, drinking each others’ coffee, making snide remarks about the pretentiousness of English class or the uselessness of most math topics.
Wendy Harris had dubbed it “hate at first sight.” Charlie had dubbed it “uncomfortable but kind of entertaining.” The Wayne kids, Dick Grayson’s array of siblings, called it “fucking hilarious.”
Dick and Barbara called it “the longest and most successful lie either of us have ever told.”
Even more so than the year or so in their early twenties when she’d pretended not to be into him the first time. Though to be fair, the lack of success the first time could easily be chalked up to how far she’d fallen in love.
September in Gotham had dawned gray and red, the leaves of sidewalk trees like they had been infused with blood. As far as Stephanie Brown was concerned, the decorative birches and oaks in the quad were no more and no less beautiful or mysterious than autumn in the East End.
The only reason she’d gotten into this school in the first place was because of that insane Wayne Foundation scholarship, and the pompous letter that had accompanied it. “Low-income students” being code for “hopeless-case poor kids” and “randomly selected” being code for “least likely to fuck up in a long line of highly likely fuck-ups.”
But although she was still suspicious of Bruce Wayne and his apparent altruism, she couldn’t bring herself to dislike his kids.
“And so when you find the missing side length with the cosine...” Mr. Grayson was saying, indicating the scribbled magenta triangle on the whiteboard, “...then you can use the Pythagorean theorem to find the perimeter. Do you understand now, Jaime?”
Across the room, Jaime nodded.
For once, math — even trig — didn’t seem quite so daunting. It was too bad that Tim was a grade below and Jason and Cass were a grade above, because then she’d have a good majority of the family soothing her hatred of the subject.
“Okay.” Mr. Grayson rested his hands on his hips, blue eyes sparkling. “I’ll give you all some practice problems, so you can work on those until the bell. As always, if you have any more questions, just ask.”
Three desks down, Kara blushed for no reason and hid behind her shoulder bag.
Steph, for her part, kept a steady eye on Mr. Grayson. Gotham Academy uniform code aside, students and teachers alike found ways to express themselves. This one took his coffee in a slightly chipped Captain America mug, and the calendar on his desk featured Beyoncé (she privately applauded his taste). Tim kept a collection of geeky buttons on his backpack, Jason wore leather biker boots with his slacks and button-up, and Cass tied the spare ribbons for her ballet shoes around her wrists.
Stephanie, for her part, chose purple. Purple everything, from the scrunchie in her messy ponytail to her stack of plastic bracelets and matching hoop earrings. The girls who wore twenty-four-karat gold jewelry and hadn’t needed a scholarship to get in called her “tacky” and “cheap” behind her back. They called her other things too. Stephanie kept wearing plastic and purple.
Mr. Grayson set the worksheet before her.
“You feeling confident about this one, Steph?”
“Actually, yeah.” She scratched the back of her head with her pen.
“That’s the spirit.” He smiled warmly at her. “Maybe you won’t think math is so evil this year, yeah?”
“No, math is still evil, I can just beat the crap out of it more effectively this year.”
He let out a surprised laugh before moving on to the row behind her.
Stephanie had managed to complete three problems in ten minutes before she and everyone else heard the telltale squeak of wheels on the linoleum. Some, like Kara and Megan and Jaime, cringed in fear. Some, like Mia and Jenni and Steph herself, looked over to the door, curious as to how it would play out this time.
Even a year into attending Gotham Academy, Stephanie was still trying to assess how she felt about Ms. Gordon. She liked to be in control. Steph did not like being controlled. Not to mention, she was always insisting that her students could, but more importantly, had to do better, no matter that nobody had ever thought that Steph had to do better ever in her life.
Resplendent in her green cashmere sweater and delicate silver jewelry, seated upright in her chrome-and-leather wheelchair, fiery hair swept over one shoulder, she faced the classroom with an expression like thunder.
“Richard John Grayson.”
Her voice wasn’t very loud, but it sent shivers down everyone’s spines.
“You have a lot to answer for right now.”
The math teacher’s kind expression had been exchanged for a challenging one.
“What’s the matter? What did I do that angered Her Highness this morning? Breathe in her direction?”
“You put the ‘Out of Order’ sign on the perfectly functional elevator this morning, didn’t you?”
He froze for a moment, then burst out laughing.
“How long did you wait around until you realized it was working? Were you almost a fraction of a second late to class for once?”
“First of all, there is nothing wrong with being punctual, and second of all, it was nearly half an hour! You know damn well I can’t use the stairs!”
“Overreact much?” His eyes sparked. “It wasn’t like I took a machete to the wires. God, laugh for once in your life.”
“The only things that make me laugh are your fashion sense and the idea of what passes as a clever joke to you.” She glanced over at his desk. “And your taste in boring oversaturated pop music.”
Steph felt personally offended, and not even on her teacher’s behalf.
“Hey, leave Beyoncé out of this,” she heard herself saying. “It’s you guys’ feud, not the people you like.”
Everybody looked at her in unison. Mr. Grayson looked startled. Ms. Gordon’s eyebrows shot up, almost like she was...impressed?
“You’re right, Stephanie,” she said crisply. “And I apologize for disturbing you kids’ learning.” She shot one last glance at Mr. Grayson as she was heading to the door. “If you can call this subject that.”
He sighed deeply as the sound of her wheels grew fainter.
“Ever since she got engaged over the summer she’s been intolerable. Like, we get it, some crazy person loves you unconditionally, nice, can we move on please?”
The engagement ring had been rather difficult to miss once the year had started. But she, at least, hadn’t mentioned it much to the students, as far as Steph had noticed; only acknowledged its existence and instantly moved on to explaining their syllabus.
“Who’s she even engaged to?” Jenni piped up. “She won’t say.”
Their teacher snorted.
“Couldn’t tell you. Probably just settled for the boy next door or something. Now c’mon, those problems won’t solve themselves.”
Getting a ring, even a quality ring, hadn’t been too daunting.
But getting down on one knee, knowing her fears of love and commitment full well, had been terrifying.
When she’d said yes, a thousand tons of joy and relief had crashed down over him, sweeping him up into the moment —
— that is, until school started and they were reminded of how curious the students were.
Jenni had already asked twice. Kara once. Tim’s posse, Bart and Conner and Cassie and Greta and Mia and Anita and Cissie, had been pestering his unfortunate brother since the first day.
Teenagers. Gotta love em.
Dick had been expecting the text when it came during his free period that day.
Meet me in the usual spot.
Setting aside the tests from his geometry class that he’d been grading, he ducked and wove through the hallways until he had made his way to the English department. After a quick check over his shoulder, he slipped into the class-book storage room, instantly surrounded by rows and rows of prose and poetry. The door locked shut behind him.
Barbara was, of course, already waiting.
“What did you tell Jenni Ognats and Megan Morse two classes ago? They were asking me about who I’m engaged to. Again. And now Jenni’s asking me who I live near, too.”
“I...might have told them that you settled for the boy next door.”
Her mouth fell open, and then she slipped into a fond — if somewhat exasperated — bout of laughter.
“Considering how much driving our dads did when we were kids to take us back and forth between each others’ homes, I doubt they’d agree that we lived ‘next door.’”
“Figurative boy next door.” He approached her, feeling his usual sense of joy upon being near her, the sense that he usually had to quash while at work.
“And I’d disagree that I settled.”
He bent down just as she grabbed upwards to take his face in her hands; he kissed her half-bent surrounded by stacks of The Martian Chronicles, and like all of their secret meetings, he relished every bit of it.
“I always feel like we’re the teenagers again, sneaking away to make out,” he admitted, and she laughed again.
“I’ve got twenty minutes till I’ll be missed. If we’re already here, we might as well make the most of it.”
He took her at her word, scooping her out of her chair and falling to the floor, pulling her down until she was lying on top of him.
“Twenty minutes to make out. I can work with that.”
During that time, the locked door rattled twice with the efforts of actual teenagers, looking to do exactly what they were doing. They barely noticed, and they didn’t care.
Having successfully left the storage room without being noticed, Barbara then made her way back to the teachers’ lounge. Fortunately, Karen, Pieter, Barbara Ann, and Steve didn’t seem to question her absence, and Helena and Clark said nothing about it.
Helena, as one of her best friends, had been in on it since day one. Clark was too close to Bruce and his kids to not have figured it out.
As she wheeled through the door, Barbara Ann excused herself to go back to her classroom. Steve sighed with a mix of exasperation and humor.
“It must be a thing for women named Barbara to be ahead of the curve.” He nodded to her, acknowledging her arrival. “Seriously. The two of you are the only teachers I know who plan their final exams in the fall. I’m the incompetent one in the history department.” His tone made it clear that he was more amused than actually upset by the whole deal.
“You try being in the English department with her,” Clark agreed, smiling. “She’s definitely the smarter one.”
“I’m not taking your students, Clark, no matter how much you compliment me.” She shook a pen with mock sternness at him. “I’m on to you and your plan to take longer lunch breaks.”
His eyes grew earnestly wide behind his glasses.
“I would never!”
“I almost believe you, cuz.” Karen grinned behind the enormous World’s Finest Girlfriend mug Helena had given her for her birthday. “Almost.”
Everyone laughed while Clark looked extremely put-upon.
“You also don’t believe me that I’m not giving preferential treatment to my best friend’s kids. Come on Karen, I’m your cousin.”
“It’s okay, Clark.” Barbara reached up as far as she could to pat him on the shoulder. “I know you like Dick better than me —”
“— but I won’t hold that against you, much as I despise the man. Besides, Steve’s married to Bruce’s other best friend, and though we know he’s not giving the Waynes preferential treatment, he’s definitely giving it to his baby sister-in-law.”
Clark sighed good-naturedly and didn’t pursue it any more. Steve rolled his eyes, smiling, knowing as well as anyone in the room that Cassie Sandsmark’s American History grades did not reflect favoritism.
“On a more serious note.” Helena dumped what looked like a metric ton of sugar into her coffee. “Speaking of the Waynes...Jason and Cassandra are set to graduate in May. I’m not worried about Jason, but Barbara, you need to help that girl out. It’s going to be hard for her to pass her English exams, and she’s not going to take it well if she fails.”
“I won’t let her down, Hel,” Barbara promised, and she meant it. “Besides, she’s one of the most determined students I’ve ever had. We’ve worked with her dyslexia up to now, and we’ll do it this year too.”
Everyone relaxed. Not a single one of Cassandra’s teachers viewed her with anything but fondness. Especially not her brother and her future sister-in-law.
“I have to say,” Pieter finally spoke up, meditative behind his dark glasses, “I find it funny, Barbara, that you loathe Dick Grayson so much and yet get along so well with his brothers and sister.”
Helena and Clark froze at the same time Barbara’s heart did.
“His brothers and sister are nothing like him, Pieter,” she said smoothly, albeit after taking a second to adjust. “They may all have the same father, but they have nothing else of import in common, nothing to loathe with his siblings.”
“I shouldn’t have expected a different answer,” he sighed.
“You really shouldn’t have,” Karen agreed. “And now you went and opened the floodgates.”
“Nope, not apologizing. You have never made a secret of how much you hate Dick Grayson.”
Grading essays was looking less and less appealing the more he kissed at her neck.
“Really want to finish what we started in the storage room.” His voice was muffled by his kisses.
“Dick,” she murmured, tilting her neck back, leaning into his touch, “I have to get these into the system by Thursday...”
He sighed in disappointment, but turned away without protest.
“Hey now. I didn’t say I couldn’t put them on hold.”
He perked up again.
Afterwards, the papers lying abandoned in her study, they snuggled up next to each other, the massive duvet a barrier between their bare bodies and the cool autumn air. Through their bedroom window, the moon shone weakly through Gotham’s smog layer.
“Is it just me, or has this gotten better since we got engaged?”
“Pretty sure it’s always been good.” As she spoke, he felt her nestle herself in as close as she could get, felt her warmth.
“True.” He kissed her shoulder, starred with freckles. “But that doesn’t mean it can’t keep getting even more so.”
“You goddamn sap.” Her voice was soft with affection. “How the hell have you been pretending to hate me for four years?”
“Guess I’m just really dedicated.”
He thought back to when he’d decided to join her in teaching at GA. Cass and Jason had started their freshman year, Tim sixth grade, Duke fourth, and Damian, god, Damian had only been in first. They’d been dating for six months, and he’d been tending bar at a police joint at the time. But he’d always had an affinity for math, and a soft spot for kids.
It might’ve gone normally from there if his siblings, thoroughly annoyed with his “disgusting lovesick mushy heart-eyes” (their words), hadn’t dared him to pretend he didn’t like her for two weeks the day before he’d started work. So that she wouldn’t get the wrong idea, he’d told her about it, and she’d decided it’d be fun to join in.
Unfortunately, they were good actors.
Four years later, they had just saved the date for their wedding...and had a couple dozen faculty members and several hundred teenagers who thought they despised each other.
“And how am I the sappy one?” He nuzzled her. “You’re the one who used to slip those love notes into my clothes...has hearts next to my name in your phone contact list...”
“So do you. And you have a picture of me in your wallet, so I think you win here.”
He couldn’t help but smile.
“Hey, I have a lot of people’s pictures in my wallet. There’s actually barely any more room in there.”
“You’d better make room.” She craned her neck around to look at him. “The other day I overheard Bruce telling Alfred he’s hoping for grandkids sometime soon, and you’re going to want room in there for pictures of them.”
His heart seized up.
“Oh god. You are so right.” Dick paused. “I think I’m going to need a bigger wallet.”
“Well not right this second you don’t. This was just a practice round.”
“Pretty intense for a practice round.”
“I know, right? I don’t know what you did to me, but wow, I can’t even feel my legs.”
It took him a second.
“Why do you feel the need to do that,” he monotoned while she laughed, her body quivering with mirth in his arms.
“So what do you all think about Beatrice’s and Benedick’s minds being changed so quickly upon hearing the other was in love with them? What do you all feel are the implications behind that?”
Several hands went up, but Ms. Gordon zeroed in on Steph.
“Stephanie? What do you think?”
Steph spat out the lock of hair she’d been chewing on, trying frantically to think of an answer that didn’t sound totally stupid.
“Well...um...maybe Beatrice and Benedick didn’t totally hate each other before. Maybe there were feelings, or, y’know, at least sexual tension, there for a while, and they were in denial...? Or maybe they knew they liked the other one for a while, but were caught up in their rivalry, and so maybe they thought that because of the rivalry they couldn’t actually have a romance. So it was hearing that the other person was in love with them that made them realize that they actually had a chance, instead of having to keep fighting.”
Much to her surprise, Ms. Gordon nodded, looking thoughtful.
“That’s an interesting theory. Keep it in mind, Stephanie.”
Steph barely had time to feel proud of herself before Mr. Grayson stuck his head through the doorway.
“Hey, Gordon.” His voice was edged with hot tension.
“What, Grayson?” His fire met her ice.
“There’s one last chocolate donut from Gail’s Bakery in the teachers’ lounge, and it has my name on it. If you eat that donut, I swear to god, there will be hell to pay.”
Ms. Gordon paused for a moment, Much Ado About Nothing still resting open in her lap.
“Jackson, when does this class let out?”
“Right, that’s when my free period starts. And you all know that Grayson’s free period today isn’t until after lunch.”
His nostrils flared.
“What are you implying, woman?”
“I’m implying that I hope you like dunking nothing in your coffee. Or rather, I hope you don’t like it.”
Charlie and Wendy suppressed giggles.
“I would. I love Gail’s pastries way more than I care about your feelings.”
“That’s racist,” he yelled indignantly, right before running back across the hallway to his class. Rolling her eyes, Ms. Gordon was about to turn back to the book —
“Jackson, what’s the matter?”
“You don’t...actually...do you?”
She paused. Her expression had become deadly serious.
“No, Jackson. It’s Grayson himself I have a problem with, not the fact that he’s Roma. And for the record, before anyone asks, it’s the same vice versa; he does not hate me because I’m disabled.”
“Wait, wait, did you just say something nice about him?” Charlie blurted. Ms. Gordon temporarily froze.
“Absolutely not. Not hating me for ableist reasons is just not being a completely irredeemable person.” She adjusted her glasses. “Besides, I don’t want anyone being falsely accused of hating me for that, not even Grayson.” Then, under her breath: “Because there are actual ableist people out there to worry about. If Vicki Vale tries one more time to imply that Bruce gave either of us or any of the rest of the faculty their jobs because of Affirmative Action I’m going to show her what a handicapped person can do without help.”
She hadn’t intended for any of them to hear, Steph realized, but that didn’t stop Charlie from gasping in excitement or Wendy from murmuring “yes bitch” a little too loudly or Steph herself from laughing delightedly and clapping her hands.
“Alright, settle down, all of you.” Ms. Gordon tucked her hair back, smiling a little bit. For some reason, it warmed Steph almost as much as the earlier praise. “Now, Miguel, Tanya, I want you two to read the next scene...”
Dick looked up from tussling with Barbara over his spare laser pointer to see his friend walk into his classroom.
“Oh hi Anissa — don’t you dare, Gordon — I thought you were busy planning that trip to the natural history museum — give it!”
Anissa looked at the two of them with a mixture of exasperation and amusement as they yanked the laser pointer back and forth.
“You two are so lucky there are no kids here to see this. You’d have them placing bets.”
“Well, you know who’s going to — it’s mine get your own — win, right? C’mon, you’re my friend, you know.”
“Uh uh, I’m not getting involved in you two’s weird shit.” She put her hands on her hips. “I have enough to worry about.”
Both of them froze for a moment. Dick whipped the laser pointer away, but then the two of them immediately went to being serious.
“Is there something wrong, Anissa?” Barbara’s voice was cooler, but Dick heard the undercurrent of concern. “Is your partner alright?”
“Grace is fine; that’s not the issue.” She shifted from foot to foot. “I’m worried about one of my students.”
That got both of their attentions.
The two of them couldn’t stop the concerned look they immediately shared. Luckily, Anissa was too lost in thought to notice.
“She’s in my international-literature class.”
“And in my trigonometry class.”
“So did you know yesterday when I told her she’d need parental permission to go on our trip, she flinched?”
A bolt of fear shot through Dick.
“And then she told me that there was no way she’d be able to go, what with her mom always working at the hospital, she never sees her. So I asked her about her father...and she just glared and turned away from me.”
While his friend was still staring anxiously off into the distance, he shared another look with Barbara. She nodded, then spoke up.
“I’ll talk to her. See what I can do.”
“Don’t corrupt the girl, Gordon,” Dick said gruffly. “But really, thanks for saying something, Anissa.”
“I can only hope she’ll be okay.”
“So how come we never end up studying at your house?” Tim asked.
“Because I don’t have a butler who brings us snacks,” Steph said airily. It was true, but it wasn’t the whole truth.
“Studying” was also a loose term for what the pair were actually doing. Unlike Cass, who was struggling to type up her history paper, and unlike Jason, who was thoroughly engrossed in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Steph was alternately making paper airplanes out of worksheets and painting her toenails while Tim used his physics textbook as scrap paper for solving puzzles on the Internet.
“Alfred also glares at you if you continue to not do your homework, though,” Duke pointed out from the other side of the living room.
Like he could talk. He and Damian weren’t being any more productive, yelling at the video game they were playing and smashing the buttons on their consoles furiously.
“Don’t look at me, Narrows,” Jason said from behind his book. “I’m already fifty pages ahead of what Barbs assigned me. Maybe if I’m lucky, she’ll give me something else to read. I could use the extra credit.”
Tim goggled at him.
“How do people think you’re a badass? How?”
“It’s the leather, and the bad attitude.” Jason peered around the edge. “And the fact that I remind people I used to live on the streets before the old man took me in. Don’t you know all poor kids of color have guns by the age of nine?”
“Jason with a gun. God help us,” Duke mumbled.
“I doubt even God could help us,” Damian snarked, throwing a plasma grenade at his brother’s avatar. “Ha! Look at that! It’s raining you!”
“You are officially the most bloodthirsty ten-year-old I’ve ever met,” Steph told him, fanning her toenails to dry them quicker.
“What’s worse is that you take that as a compliment. You playing a game with your sibs is like being in the room with Ms. Gordon and your eldest brother.”
“They do...bicker quite a bit,” Cass finally remarked, smiling to herself.
“Understatement of the century! I have no idea why they hate each other so much.”
For some reason, all the siblings’ expressions went oddly rigid, as if they were resisting the urge to laugh.
“Yeah, um, it’s weird.” Tim coughed, then made an odd choking noise. “Especially since she’s pretty cool.”
“And since she likes us. But she hates him. So weird.” Duke ducked behind his hand.
“The ongoing war of STEM vs humanities has now been taken to new levels,” Jason deadpanned.
“And to think...that it’s all our fault,” Cass mused.
Everyone in the room looked at her at once.
“Why is it your fault?” Steph demanded.
Damian instantly jumped in to save his sister.
“We are the connection between the two of them. We are partially why Richard decided to start teaching at her school in the first place.” He paused, then said rather unnecessarily: “That’s why.”
Steph hesitated for a few moments.
“Why do I get the feeling you guys are mocking me?”
“Search me,” Cass said innocently. “But...it is not you. It is Dick and Barbara’s...feud.”
“Well, fair enough then.”
“No Barry, I’m not saying that Bart’s intelligence is the question. I’ve just noticed that along with his hyperactivity there’s sometimes a disparity between that intelligence and his ability to focus...how long have you suspected? Yes, I would get him tested. No, you don’t necessarily have to put him on medication, if I were you I’d leave that up to him. Okay. Goodbye Barry.”
“Boy did I choose a bad time to put on Archer,” Dick remarked from the living room. Barbara snorted to herself, stowing her phone away and rolling in to join him.
“Barry and Other Barry were just concerned for their son.” She collapsed onto the couch, exhaling hard.
“I know my turn’s not till Wednesday, but if you’re too tired to cook tonight, I’ll whip something up.”
“Honestly, maybe we should just order out.” She let him wrap his arm around her shoulder, turning her gaze to the TV. “I am so sick of being on the phone with people, especially since the florist keeps trying to sell me on different arrangements for the wedding every single damn time I talk to her, and now one of our students is having issues at home.”
“I hope she’s okay,” he said anxiously. “Like, it’s not great no matter how you look at it, but best case, this is an absent father issue...and not a, you know, Damian’s grandfather or Cass’s and Tim’s blood parents issue.”
“I hope to God it’s not that.” She grimaced, shuddering. “I don’t know what I’ll do if —”
“Hey.” He stroked her hair out of her eyes. “It’s going to be okay. We’ll figure it out. We’ll help her.”
Barbara sighed, leaning into his touch. The warmth of his skin, the steady beat of his heart.
“I love you.”
“I love you too.”
A few moments of quiet stretched between them while the television continued its display of raunchy humor.
“What were you thinking we should order for dinner?”
“I was thinking if we’re going to have kids at some point, we should start off by practicing with —”
“A cat. Yes, I agree.”
“You know damn well I was going to say ‘a dog.’”
“And you know that you’re still wrong. How about Thai for dinner?”
“Fine. But you’ll warm up to having a dog.”
“Hardly. Cats are quiet, not totally clingy, and can be trained to not make a mess on the floor —”
“So, exactly the opposite of a kid. Some practice that would be.”
“Now before I hand you your quizzes back, remember, the test is still two weeks away; we still have class review time, and you can always come see me during office hours between now and then.”
“Is that the nice way of saying that the class average on this quiz sucked?” Rose asked.
Stephanie heaved a sigh.
“The class average was a seventy, Rose.”
“In other words, a lot of the people here still got D’s and F’s.”
“Apparently, I taught statistics to you too well last year.” Mr. Grayson smiled ruefully. “But all of you, don’t give up. And in the meantime, there’s no shame in an F.”
“Speak for yourself, you already graduated high school,” Mia muttered under her breath, looking in dismay at the fifty-nine scrawled across the top of her paper.
Steph was bracing herself for her own bad grade when the creaking of wheels drew everyone’s attention instead.
“If you can direct your goldfish-like attention span over here for two seconds, Grayson, I need to talk to one of the students.”
Please don’t let it be me, please don’t let it be me, please don’t let it be me —
“Stephanie, can you come here please?”
Hey God? Quick question: do you just hate me or what?
“What did I do?” The question came out more insolent than she’d intended.
“Why do you think that this is because you did something?”
“Get it over with and stop terrorizing my students, Gordon.”
“Oh, like you can talk.”
Scraping back her chair with deliberate slowness, Steph got up and followed Ms. Gordon out of the classroom.
It was odd, looming over someone who still managed to convey so much authority. She wasn’t even that tall, but still felt distinctly like...
“An elf on the same fellowship as a dwarf queen?”
“Did I say that out loud?” Steph laughed a little bit, even as her teacher looked somewhere between pained and amused.
“Yes, you did.”
But once inside the classroom, her laughter died, to be replaced by a stubborn indignation. The worst thing she’d done in the last few days was most likely fail her trig quiz, and also maybe have called a rich girl a snooty two-faced bitch in the heat of the moment. But it wasn’t fair that she should be subjected to another lecture about being late to school when Gotham Academy and the East End were in complete opposite parts of the city and class started just after rush hour.
Ms. Gordon sighed softly, and Steph braced herself for an onslaught of disappointment.
“Are you doing alright, Stephanie?”
She blinked in surprise.
“Not at school. I want to know if you’re doing alright at home. You’ve mentioned a few times that your mother’s not able to drive you to school; that she works a lot.”
Still wary, Steph scuffed her feet a bit on the floor.
“Well, yeah, um, after she got clean she kinda threw herself into — uh, I mean, she’s gotta provide for two people, right?”
Fortunately, Ms. Gordon didn’t comment on “got clean.” Unfortunately —
“‘Two people?’ So your father’s not in the picture?”
Steph folded her arms and scowled.
For a long few seconds, the two of them stared each other down.
Then something new entered Ms. Gordon’s eyes.
“Have you heard any of the rumors going around about my engagement?”
Surprised, Steph sat up straighter and unfolded her arms, propping herself up on them instead.
“Um...who the hell hasn’t heard?”
Her personal favorite rumor was that it was one of the other teachers. That one started going around every time a faculty member mentioned they in a relationship, but to be fair, it had been true in Ms. Starr’s and Ms. Bertinelli’s case. Steph had won a lot of money the day Principal Waller had caught them kissing in the briefing room ten minutes before a staff meeting.
“Wait a minute. Why are you bringing that up? Please don’t tell me Jenni Ognats was right, Bart bet so much against his own cousin and I kinda got involved when Anita and Cissie backed him up.”
Ms. Gordon again looked like she was caught between her teacherly disapproval and the urge to laugh.
“Well, she’s not technically right.”
“So...your fiancé didn’t live next door to you?” Steph found herself intrigued.
“He lived halfway across the city.”
“Awww, it’s a dude? Sorry. Go on.”
This time, the teacher couldn’t stop a small smile from escaping.
“We only met because our fathers have been friends for a long time, and so I ended up being forced to go to a fancy party that his dad was throwing. Naturally, I got bored pretty quickly, and turns out, we’d both decided to sneak out, and that to both of us, the roof of his father’s house was an ideal hiding spot from the crowds of rich people. Once we got over the surprise of meeting each other, we ended up spending two hours up there in the middle of the night, just talking between ourselves and messing around — absolutely ruined the nice dress my dad bought me, let me tell you — while our parents were downstairs losing their minds because they could not find us anywhere.”
Stephanie didn’t even try to stop herself from laughing.
“So your first date was lurking on a rooftop in the middle of the night?”
“What? No. Our first date was fourteen years after that, after we’d had more enough time to get to know each other and become close. Who the hell dates when they’re nine and twelve?”
“...Oh. My. God.” Her jaw dropped open, she felt a delighted grin begin to spread as well. “You...you’re engaged to your childhood best friend. That is so cute. And to think, half the school is scared out of their minds of Barbara Joan Gordon, GA’s own stone-cold terror.”
“What are you talking about, I am a stone-cold terror,” she deadpanned. “How dare you imply anything else.”
Still grinning, Steph felt another laugh slip out. Her teacher offered a smile too, which made her look a little more human, a little something other than intimidating.
“You don’t have to tell me anything, Stephanie. I can’t force you to.” That looked like it was hard for her to admit. “But I want you to know, if you ever do want to talk, I’ll be here.”
Steph nodded, getting to her feet.
The two of them parted for both to go back to their classes. She watched her teacher’s proud head disappear across the hallway, still lost in thought, not snapping out of it until she picked up the quiz on her desk and realized that she’d gotten a B-.
It had been a long time since Bruce had last picked Dick up from school, but he still liked to go to the gate and watch his adoptive father’s limousine pull up to collect the others.
He wasn’t surprised to see Stephanie running alongside Tim and Cass as they headed to the gate, Jason meandering behind them. He leaned further back against the wrought-iron and waved; Cass and Tim waved back, Stephanie looked a little surprised. Jason just rolled his eyes at his older brother’s enthusiasm.
The kids quickly slipped back into conversation.
“So if it’s not just your dad, if you’re all invited to Ms. Gordon’s wedding, could either of you bring me as a plus one?” Steph was asking Tim and Cass.
“I could,” Cass said quickly. Tim shot her a look of betrayal.
“Technically, any of us could,” Jason snorted. “It’d just be weird if you had to sit next to and dance with the bloodthirsty ten-year-old, or, even weirder for you, the calm thirteen-year-old.”
Steph flipped him off without looking back, still talking to her friends.
“I take it your oldest brother’s not invited though.”
All three siblings looked at each other, then laughed hysterically. Dick wondered if they knew he could hear everything they were saying.
“It would be very weird —” Tim struggled to get the words out between giggles, “— if he were a guest at this wedding.”
“Yeah, could you imagine?” Jason snickered.
“So no.” Cass hid a smile behind her hand. “Not invited.”
“Ouch. Imagine being the only one of your massive family who gets snubbed.” She stretched her arms over her head, rattling her purple plastic bangles. “So, speaking of your family, we studying tomorrow at your house at four-ish?”
“Can’t. Bruce has business people coming over for dinner tomorrow. Sucks, but...”
“We could go to your house,” Tim said to Steph. “I mean, it’s okay that you don’t have a butler. We rich brats’ll manage.”
Dick noticed something flicker in Steph’s face.
“Nah, don’t worry about it,” she said quickly. “I’ll just struggle on my own. It’s good.”
“If you say so.”
“I do.” As they finally reached the gate, she leaned over and hugged Tim and Cass in turn, before wrapping a quick arm around Jason’s shoulders. “Alright, see you in class then.” She glanced up and finally met Dick’s gaze. “You too.”
He nodded and smiled.
His siblings stood beside him as Steph sprinted across the parking lot and towards the bus stop, vanishing in a streak of navy-and-white, blonde-yellow, and purple.
“I’d love...to have her at the wedding,” Cass mused.
“Too bad the jig would be up for you and Barbie if we did have her,” Jason said to Dick ruefully. “Can you imagine her face seeing you at the end of the aisle? It could never happen.”
“Yeah.” Dick turned and looked at Cass’s regretful expression. “Never happen.”
Anissa marched into the teachers’ lounge triumphantly and slapped down a massive pile of paper. Steve was so startled he slopped coffee all down the front of his jacket.
“Got all the permission forms!” she announced. “And now, all I have to do is figure out a way to finagle forty-eight teenagers out on the town for four hours.”
“Oh, is that all?” Helena remarked sardonically while Steve wiped himself down with a handful of napkins. “Try to keep forty-eight teenagers out of trouble while out on the town, by yourself? I thought you were going to do something easy, like run the Gotham Marathon.”
“It’s not like she’s taking them clubbing,” Karen told her girlfriend.
“Honestly, I think she might have a better chance of controlling them if she did take them clubbing.”
Across the room, Pam, from where she was standing near Basil and Hartley, cleared her throat.
“If I may, I would suggest getting another chaperone,” she said mellifluously, removing her herbal tea bag from her mug. “The science classes do get a bit...well, either very bored or very carried away on trips, depending on whether they’re in that class willingly or not. Especially the boys.” She sipped the tea. “Believe me, I know.”
“I never have that bipolarity with the theater kids,” Basil remarked.
“That’s because the theater kids are all there willingly.”
As Cass was in theater, Barbara hid a knowing smile.
In the meantime, looking thoughtful, Anissa readdressed the room at large...then hesitated.
“It’s just, Barbara, I was going to ask you to co-chaperone, since the kids always listen to you...”
“But no. It’d be too weird.” Anissa shook her head. “Dick’s my friend, and while I have no problem getting into a fight on my friends’ behalf most of the time, I’m not getting into it with my coworker.”
Barbara felt her heart sink.
“I wouldn’t shit-talk him to you.”
“Yeah, but...” She shrugged. “Still. Look, it’s fine, I’ll just ask John or Pieter.”
She scooped up a quick mug of coffee, before grabbing a spare stapler and walking out, leaving Barbara with an odd emptiness in her chest.
Helena shot her a sympathetic look behind the others’ backs.
“If it works for you, you can co-chaperone the seniors with me on the trip to Washington D.C. in January,” Steve offered kindly.
“The other Barbara won’t mind?”
“Nah, she hates supervising class trips.”
“Thanks, Steve.” She rubbed the back of her neck, pondering the feeling in her heart. “Too bad hating Dick Grayson limits your opportunities, huh?”
“I wouldn’t know.”
While his pre-calc class bent their heads over their worksheets, Dick marked down important dates in his Iconic Voices of Pop calendar. Midterms sucked to prepare for, but on the bright side, at least December was Carly Rae Jepsen.
Five years ago, he would’ve been internally screaming, trying to stay organized in his professional life while his personal life was a mess. These days...at least he was sort of organized. The teaching gig was good, he loved his work. Most importantly, his personal life was better than it had ever been.
Across the room, two of the kids whispered to each other.
Lorena and Kiran, having partially abandoned their worksheets, muttered quietly enough not to disturb the others, but not quietly enough for Dick to not hear them.
“I’m starting to see why Mr. G hates her,” Lorena was saying. “She’s a total bitch. We’ve only just started Toni Morrison and she assigned forty pages of reading. Over the long weekend.”
“I think you’re being too harsh,” Kiran protested.
“No, I’m not being too harsh. The pop quiz she assigned us to make sure we’d done the reading was being too harsh.”
“Lorena, that doesn’t sound like you’re doing your worksheet.”
The girl’s cheeks flushed, but even as everyone’s heads snapped in her direction, she still didn’t look ashamed.
“Mr. G, yes or no, is it a total bitch move to assign forty pages of reading and then have a pop quiz immediately afterwards? ‘Cause I think it is.”
Dick deliberately feigned ignorance.
“Lorena, don’t call Mr. Kent a bitch.”
“No, my English teacher’s not Mr. Kent, it’s —”
“Do your worksheet, Lorena.”
Grumbling, she went back to her worksheet. Dick sighed to himself, returning to his calendar —
— until the next very welcome text interrupted him.
He bit back a smile.
“All of you, keep doing your worksheets. Be done by the time I get back — ah, before you ask, Cassie, I got called to a meeting; it’ll be quick, but it absolutely cannot wait.”
Barbara still got slightly embarrassed by relishing in such unprofessional behavior during the workday, surrounded by school books.
But that didn’t mean she was going to stop.
Her fiancé kneeling over her lap, matching her for open-mouthed kisses, one of her hands stroking over his shoulder, the other fondling his ass, was, as always, a welcome break from having to stay apart, having to pretend that she hated him.
True, the exaggerated petty bickering was fun. But sometimes she wondered what it would be like to kiss him openly for once. It wasn’t even like inter-faculty relationships were forbidden (if they were, Karen and Helena and Pam and Harleen would’ve all caught absolute hell from Waller).
His fingers were toying with the buttons on her blouse when they both heard voices outside the door. They both froze in place.
Dick pulled slightly apart.
“Think we could get away with pretending we were wrestling?”
“I don’t think we’re going to have to,” she murmured. “Listen.”
Outside, the young female voices clashed, one rising in defense above the others.
“— and so fucking what? My parents are none of your business!”
“Says who?” a different girl jeered. “Everybody knows about that sad junkie you have for a mom, East End.”
“What’d your dad do?” yet another chimed in. “Spawn you and leave?”
“My dad may be a worthless piece of shit, but what about your dads?” Stephanie challenged. “Magnates and business execs — give me a break. I bet the majority of you would’ve had half-siblings with maids and secretaries and strippers if your twenty-years-older-than-your-moms inbred mutant fathers hadn’t paid for it.”
“You’re going to regret this, East End.” The ringleader’s voice was dangerously low.
Dick and Barbara looked at each other. He nodded.
“Come at me, Trust Fund.”
Barbara swiftly hauled herself to the door and hammered her fist against it.
The girls immediately went silent.
“In case any of you are wondering how much of that I heard,” Barbara bellowed at them, “I heard all of it. You three, I don’t know how it worked with your private tutors and au pairs, but I do not tolerate elitism or bullying. All three of you are seeing Principal Waller with me after classes.”
There were some subdued murmurs. Barbara caught the words “crippled bitch” and smiled grimly.
“As for you, Stephanie, you can head home early. I’ll write you a pass.”
Steph gasped, and the smile became less grim and more genuine.
“Now all of you: go.”
The footsteps faded into the distance. Still sitting near the door, her legs crumped in a useless heap, Barbara watched Dick move from his previous spot until he again knelt over her lap.
“God, I love you.”
She kissed him, relishing his touch.
“Tell me something I don’t know.”
As Stephanie ran from the bus stop, holding her jacket up over her head, the early November rain pattered down through the low-hanging evening fog. The trees were arterial with late fall or bare, the fresh-blood leaves turning to crumpled heaps the color of an old scab.
Her legs ached as she sped through the neighborhood, the bag of clothes and possessions that she’d hastily thrown together thumping against her back. The handsome collection of new buildings was nice, far far nicer than her own, somewhat too nice for someone living on a prep school teacher’s salary.
But she didn’t care about how she stood out. Instead, she ran doggedly to the address she’d memorized, bursting through the spacious lobby and surprising the doorman, the elevator ride a blur.
What stood out in sharp tandem was standing before the door to the building’s penthouse, heaving breaths, hesitating just a moment before she rang the doorbell.
She had to adjust when Ms. Gordon opened the door, her eyes flicking downwards.
Her teacher looked strikingly different from her usual neatly put together self. Wearing faded jeans and a Property Of Harvard Law t-shirt, red hair tied up in a messy bun, her eyes grew wide behind her glasses as she took in Steph.
For a long few moments, Steph had nothing to say for herself.
“You went to Harvard Law and you’re an English teacher? What the fuck?”
She immediately wished that she could sew up her mouth. But Ms. Gordon just laughed, albeit still a bit startled.
“I’ve always liked literature. And I’ve always liked working with kids, and most importantly, fulfilling my one true dream of going down in their memories as their bossy bitch teacher. Three PhD’s doesn’t change that.” She beckoned her inside.
“You have three PhD’s —?” Steph entered, and saw what the interior of the penthouse looked like. “Holy shit.”
Massive amounts of light streamed through the huge windows upon the sleek, spacious apartment. A few piles of clothes were scattered about on the floor or on the comfortable black furniture, but the walls were tastefully decorated with framed prints. A floor-to-ceiling glass door opened to a table atop a huge balcony. Most strikingly, one wall was entirely dominated by a massive window filled by a glass clock face, its gears and numbers etched in black, the rest perfectly transparent.
“How the hell did you afford a home like this?”
“Perks of dating — and marrying — rich.” The older woman rolled into the living room, letting Steph trail after her. “I’m lucky enough that my future father-in-law likes me. Traditional affection doesn’t come easily to him; he likes to buy people things instead. On a similar note, how did you get my address in the first place?”
“I’m glad she told you.”
She turned. Steph finally saw the concern and beginnings of potential righteous anger traced in her teacher’s face, and an odd feeling bloomed in her chest.
“Stay here,” she said firmly, indicating the couch. “I’ll get some tea. When you’re ready to talk...”
She wheeled away again. Steph sat down hard into the soft cushions, taking in her luxurious surroundings. A far cry from the crumbling plaster and cheap plastic furniture of her mom’s apartment.
A lump swelled in her throat as she thought about home, hot tears prickling. She swiped angrily at her eyes.
Her teacher returned some minutes later bearing two steaming mugs, both emblazoned with the signature colors and symbols of superheroes. Steph wondered idly at that Mr. Grayson’s Captain America mug was the exact same make and model. Must’ve come from the same kind of set.
Ms. Gordon took the Black Widow mug, allowing Steph to have Ms. Marvel. For a while, the two sat in silence, letting the steam curling from their mugs grow softer and wispier as it cooled, the autumn rain drumming at the massive windows.
Eventually, the silence broke in her throat.
“I can’t be at home right now.”
Ms. Gordon’s eyebrows shot up.
“My dad...” It became hard to swallow. “My dad got parole.”
A soft gasp.
“I’ve known for about a month now that it was happening, but...he only gets out tonight. His name’s Arthur Brown. He’s not like a serial killer or anything. But he has...he has killed people. Stole mostly, though.” She sniffed, then let out a watery chuckle. “Was a real shitty dad. In and out of prison most of my life. In for the last five years. Used to lock me in the closet when I misbehaved, which, full disclosure, was a lot. Mom was usually too out of it to notice.”
She scrubbed at her eyes again, then tried a sip of tea to calm herself down. Lavender white. She’d never had anything like it, but it was nice.
“Don’t blame her too much anymore, though. She divorced him and got clean the last time he got shipped off to Blackgate.” She sighed deeply. “But the point is, home will be the first place Dad will go when he gets out. If I had to, I wouldn’t be opposed to fighting him, to forcing him out myself, I swear to God I would, but I...I don’t want to upset Mom. And I know that that’s what’ll happen if I stay.”
Ms. Gordon remained silent. Her eyes were as hard and bright as emeralds.
“Sorry for running in on you and your fiancé like this, but I didn’t know where else to go. I didn’t want to make my friends upset, or have to tell them about my shitty home and shitty father.”
After a few moments, the older woman finally spoke.
“You have nothing to be ashamed of. And you can stay with us as long as you need to, Stephanie. Until your father gets off parole, if necessary.”
She let out a long breath that she hadn’t realized she’d been holding. This time, when the tears prickled her eyes, she let them fall.
Ms. Gordon came closer, setting aside her mug. Then, much to Stephanie’s surprise, leaned forward and wrapped her up in her arms. She was strong and warm, like a big sister or a mother was supposed to feel.
“Finish your tea, and then have a shower.” Her voice was surprisingly soft. “After that, feel free to borrow any of my books or watch whatever you want on TV. I’ll set up the guest room.”
“Will your fiancé be surprised?” In turn, Steph’s voice was muffled by her teacher’s shoulder. “Also, will I actually get to meet him?”
Ms. Gordon was curiously silent again.
“He’ll be surprised, but he won’t mind. And he has late meetings tonight...but...you’ll see him tomorrow morning.”
“Cool.” Steph pulled off with a slightly damp grin, somewhat bemused by the look on her teacher’s face. It was almost...awkward? “Come on. Don’t worry about it. He can’t be that hideous.”
“...His appearance is...definitely...definitely not the issue here.”
It was almost one in the morning by the time Dick stumbled through the door, eager to fall into bed.
He was pleased to see Barbara waiting for him in the foyer, already set for bed. But a closer look at her expression made him worried.
He knelt in front of her.
“Babs, is something wrong?”
“Of sorts.” She brushed her hair over her shoulder. “I found out why Stephanie Brown couldn’t get permission from her father for Anissa’s class trip.”
She explained the situation to him; through the whole monologue, he felt his hands clenching around the armrests of her wheelchair.
“My God.” His heart clenched in unison. “That poor kid.”
“You don’t mind that she’s going to be staying with us?”
“Well no, of course not. She needs us. And hey, I’ve been saying we need to get more use out of that guest room anyway —”
“That’s not what I meant.” Barbara fixed him with her intent look. “She’s going to find out about us, Dick. You sure you want that?”
He only needed a moment to make his decision.
“If it was going to be anyone...at least it’s the girl that my siblings all love and seem to have adopted at once.”
“They really did, didn’t they?”
“Guess it was just our turn to pitch in.”
Barbara smiled, and if he hadn’t already been certain, that would’ve just cemented the deal.
“She’s going to get the shock of her life, though,” she pointed out.
“Well then, I guess we’re just going to have to break it to her gently.”
The next morning dawned crisp and cold; Stephanie woke with a start, her eyes still bleary from sleep.
Stumbling and yawning, she made her way down the hall, mostly asleep, hoping to blindly fumble her way to the bathroom and back to the nice cozy bed.
It wasn’t until she reached the end of the hallway, still not having found the bathroom, that she realized she wasn’t the only one awake.
Despite the fact that it was ten o’clock on a Saturday morning, Ms. Gordon had situated herself to work in an armchair on the far side of the living room. Clad in a bathrobe, her hair a mess, she squinted at something on her laptop. On the glass table before her was situated a cup of coffee and a plate littered with the remnants of breakfast.
“What the f — over three thousand dollars for a wedding dress?” she was muttering. “Fucking hell, this is obscene. I’m only going to wear it once, why does it have to be so damn expensive?”
Steph’s brain kicked in to remind her that right, Ms. Gordon was getting married, and her mysterious fiancé was actually in the house, and that she was about to actually meet him. Some of the sleep-fog cleared as she wondered slightly about what his personality was like, what she was going to think of him, who he was going to be.
In the meantime, Ms. Gordon was still looking in disgust at the computer.
“I can’t believe Bruce called the price list on this site ‘the low end of average.’ If he weren’t footing the bill for this wedding I’d call him right now to yell at him.”
But Stephanie didn’t have time to think about that.
“You know Bruce doesn’t have a concept of price like normal human beings. He’s a billionaire, it’s an entirely different species. Very mysterious, science doesn’t yet understand it.”
Her pulse stuttered; her breath caught.
She knew that voice. But she shouldn’t have known that voice. There was no way he would be here.
But there he was. Mr. Grayson, in his infamous rival’s apartment. Walking over to her armchair and looking over her shoulder, wearing nothing but blue cotton pajama pants. Not glaring or smirking nastily. Not snarling, not mocking. Relaxed.
And what was more, Ms. Gordon looked neither surprised nor bothered. If anything, her posture and expression softened in his presence.
It was enough to jolt Steph to full wakefulness.
“Can you and science understand why I voted to raise his taxes, at least?”
“I wouldn’t expect anything less from you.” He reached over and took a gulp of coffee out of her mug, and she didn’t even blink. Stephanie was still so boggled she couldn’t even appreciate his bare chest and arms; all she could do was gape. “Blech. All these years of us sharing coffee, and I still don’t understand why you don’t put any more sugar in yours.”
“Because not all of us drink ours like a five-year-old.” She closed the laptop. “And on that note, the java place on 45th put that gross white chocolate drink you like back on the menu, so...coffee date Wednesday after class?”
“You know me so well.” He kept his gaze on her, eyes soft with affection. “I’m guessing white chocolate wedding cake is off the table though.”
“Ew. Literally and figuratively, yes. Besides, we can’t put too much focus on the cake; Alfred heard that Martha Kent’s on the guest list and now he’s refining his pie recipes to try to show her up again.”
Like a human slinky, he slid across from the back of the chair to sitting up on the armrest. She coped by putting her arm on his thigh instead.
“Does he have to? I’d really prefer to focus on the cake.”
“Just let Alfred have this.”
“It’s not his wedding.”
Ms. Gordon snorted lightly at his pouty tone.
“You really care about having your cake and eating it, don’t you?”
“First of all, cake is much showier. You can do more with it. Second of all, you know I don’t care for pie.”
“I also know that’s not the attitude you had two hours ago,” she retorted cheekily. “I know you cared for pie when I woke up to you sticking that pretty face of yours in between my thighs —”
Stephanie’s jaw dropped.
“— so don’t tell me what I know about you.”
He blinked a few times, taken aback.
“Touché, Babs.” Recovering, he offered her a lascivious grin. “Touché indeed.”
That was the last straw.
“WHAT THE FUCK?”
Mr. Grayson spewed his next mouthful of coffee all over the floor, while Ms. Gordon nearly catapulted out of the armchair. Both of them frantically tried to readjust themselves, him pulling up his pajama pants and crossing his arms over his bare chest like a girl, while she combed her hand through her hair and straightened her glasses, clearing her throat awkwardly.
Meanwhile, Steph stood there in her ruffled blond hair and pajamas and pointed a trembling finger at them, her voice histrionic with shock.
“What — what the fuck —” The finger switched back and forth between the two of them, “You — and you — but you hate each other!”
Ms. Gordon leaned back, then sighed very deeply.
“We don’t hate each other. Dick’s been one of my best friends since we were kids. We’ve been together for four and a half years. I wouldn’t marry someone I was neutral about, let alone hated.”
“Four years and eight months, actually.”
“Oh my god, Richard.”
“Ha!” He punched the air, not meanly, but in the sort of gleeful way Steph herself did when she pulled a fast one over Tim or Cass. “I corrected you! Pinky trumps the Brain!”
“I don’t have the ocular muscles for the eye roll you deserve right now.”
“Yeah, but you still let him eat you out.” Steph clapped her hand over her mouth. “Oh god. Why did I bring that up. I hate myself. I’m never going to get that image out of my head. Oh my god.”
Both of them grimaced.
“Do us a favor and don’t tell Waller we talked about that in front of you.”
“Hey, you’re letting me stay with you, it’s the least I can do — but why!?” The incredulity returned. “If you’re really in love, if you’re really getting married — which I still can’t wrap my head around, by the way — why pretend to hate each other?”
“A dare from my siblings that became a little too successful.” Mr. Grayson shrugged. “Which, actually, happens a lot in my family.”
“Besides, petty bickering can be kind of fun,” Ms. Gordon agreed. “I can understand why his family does it so often. Besides, you’ll notice we never actually said or did anything that was really hurtful or crossed a line, it was only ever just angry voices and acting ridiculous. You’ll also notice, speaking of whom, his family never resented me for supposedly feuding with him.”
“They do the opposite of resent you. They love you. They can’t wait to have you as an in-law. Honestly, sometimes I think Jason would rather have you than me as a sibling.”
Steph leaned hard against the wall, exhaling long and loud. She dragged her hands across and down through her hair.
“Speaking of your family,” she finally said, “they have...a lot to answer for. Those smug punk-ass bitches. They knew! They knew all along!”
“Yep, they totally knew.”
The couple laughed — wow, she was already thinking of them as a couple. But then again, they were so in sync. So in tune. Not to mention, she’d rested her hand over his, and he kept sneaking her those soft, adorable looks.
It eased some of the anger and shock, if Steph was being honest.
“Hey, don’t laugh. You two have a lot to answer for, too.”
Ms. Gordon raised her eyebrows. Mr. Grayson grinned sheepishly.
“Would one of my siblings taking you to our wedding be acceptable repayment?”
Steph considered it.
“It would be a good start.”
The weekend seemed to fly by. Stephanie, much to Barbara’s horror, did indeed have nearly the exact same taste in music as Dick, and a great deal of pop songs resonated throughout the penthouse for two days. She went about with headphones on for most of that time, occasionally taking them off to yell her opinion over Ariana Grande’s sugary pipes or to coach Steph on her homework.
She could make an exception for Ed Sheeran, though. Not that she’d be willing to admit that to Dick.
“C’mon, just be honest,” he wheedled, draping himself over the back of her wheelchair as she attempted to make breakfast. “You can be girly. I won’t tell anyone.”
“Right, anyone except Dinah and Wally and your siblings and everyone else you can think of,” she returned, turning over the French toast.
From the kitchen island, as the ballad stretched through her phone’s speakers, Steph kept her gaze tuned on them like they were a particularly fascinating sitcom.
“Are those all people who know?”
“Yeah. It’s really only the school who doesn’t know we’re together.” She poured the eggs into a frying pan for scrambling. “Except for Helena, I mean Ms. Bertinelli, Mr. Kent, and Dick’s siblings. Waller might suspect too, but that’s it.”
“And I think the people who do know wish they didn’t.” Still laying his arms over her backrest, he stretched forward slightly in the direction of the food. “Our dads each think that their precious firstborn was corrupted by their friend’s devilish offspring, and my siblings think we’re sappy. Can you believe that?”
“I can,” Steph murmured, giggling.
“Though at least our friends are supportive.”
“Too supportive.” She thought of Dinah and rolled her eyes.
“And honestly, I don’t mind being thought of as sappy.” He kissed her cheek. “For the sake of someone I love.”
She rolled her eyes again but smiled too, feeling Steph’s gaze, still slightly disbelieving, on their backs. As she plucked out the French toast, the song transitioned from Ed Sheeran on his own to a duet. Not really thinking about it, she began to hum along, her smile growing.
“Ha!” Dick crowed. “Told you so. Just wait till Dinah hears —”
“If you tell her, I’ll tell Jason you tried to convince Bruce to let you get a Pokémon tattoo when you were fourteen, so you should weigh your options here.”
Steph threw her head back and laughed uproariously at the betrayed look on Dick’s face, which only increased in pitch as he turned that look towards her too.
Luckily, Barbara knew him well enough to know that that girl’s happiness more than made up for being embarrassed.
Buoyed by the thought, she kept humming along to that song, all the way to the end.
Other things changed with Steph’s presence, albeit slightly. All sexual activities were relegated to the three hours on Sunday afternoon when she was at the movies; any time when she was in the house, even if wholly preoccupied with something else, now just felt wrong. They learned some things about pop culture they really would’ve rather not known. Teenage-girl accoutrements in varying shades of purple were temporarily scattered across the whole apartment, and Barbara had to be careful not to run her wheels over anything.
“Kind of weird, but you know, kind of good. Is this what it’s like to have kids?” Dick mused on Sunday evening while Stephanie mouthed along to her headphones and texted her mother to tell her that she was coming home soon.
“Teenage kids, maybe. At least we’re not the ones she might rebel against.”
“Speak for yourself, she hates trig.”
She laughed as Steph came back over. As she had been through the last two days, instead of her usual choice of fake-it-till-you-make-it brassy confidence or defensive anger, the girl was genuinely smiling. Barbara’s good mood only increased.
“Tim’ll be here in a minute, and my scummy sperm-donor is long gone,” she said happily. “This is the best weekend ever.”
Her heart thudded with warmth.
“If you ever need us again, Stephanie...”
“Yeah. And as long as you get to have my delightful presence at your wedding, we’ll just call it even,” Steph grinned. “Unless you want to name your firstborn daughter after me so I can repay you by babysitting her...”
“Okay, now you’re pushing it.”
“Yup.” She ducked her head, blond curls bouncing.
Barbara put a hand on the girl’s shoulder.
“But really, Stephanie, we’re glad to have helped you.”
The smile on her face broadened, and Barbara felt nothing but pride. Nothing seemed able to ruin the moment.
Then the doorbell rang.
“That must be Tim.”
Dick meandered over to the entryway without looking through the peephole, and threw the door open.
It was Tim. But he hadn’t come alone.
An assortment of his and Steph’s other friends stood at his side, blinking in shock.
“Uh, Tim?” Kara piped up. “You said this was Ms. Gordon’s apartment. Are you sure about that?”
“Oh boy,” Tim murmured. Then, out loud, “Um, Barbara, I thought you were going to answer the door.”
“And I thought you were going to come alone, Timothy, but I guess we’re both wrong,” she snarked from across the foyer. Her future brother-in-law flushed bright red.
“They came for moral support,” he mumbled in self-defense. “I couldn’t really stop them.”
Steph flew to the door, ducking under Dick’s arm, her plastic jewelry and bags rattling.
All the kids began talking at once.
“Steph, do you know anything about why Mr. Grayson is here?”
Steph glanced back over her shoulder, and offered her teachers one last wave. Despite herself, Barbara waved back.
“See, it’s kind of a funny story...”
The door clicked shut behind the chattering teenagers. Dick slowly turned back around to face her, looking very much like he’d done when he was ten and Alfred had caught him trying to hide a ladder with the chandelier lying smashed on the floor.
“Well, I suppose I can’t blame Tim,” she said at last. “The secret was bound to get out eventually.”
“Yeah.” He looked distantly at the door. She wheeled closer.
“You okay there, Hunk Wonder?”
He turned to face her, though still looking at bit lost in thought.
“To be honest...even if it hadn’t leaked out...I might’ve just given up on trying to keep it all together.”
“Backing down, Grayson? That’s not like you.”
He smiled faintly, then became serious again.
“I won’t deny that the last four years have been fun. But I miss you. I want to be able to say hi to you in the hallways without having to be mean or rude about it. I want my other friends to be able to interact with you and yours to interact with me without feeling awkward. I don’t want to have to sneak off to the storage room just to kiss you. And I’m tired of my students complaining about you to me and expecting me to agree.”
“What, nobody ever complains about me.” She reached up and stroked his cheek; he leaned into her touch hungrily. “But I can see what you mean.”
He leaned to the side and kissed the inside of her wrist; she sighed softly.
“We’ll see who knows when we get to work tomorrow. Then...then I’ll figure out what I want to tell people.”
“Yeah, you’ll want to ease them into it.” He met her gaze again. For a long few seconds, they simply looked at each other.
“In the meantime, though...let’s go to sleep. I’ll figure it out in the morning.”
But even as she said it, a little impulsive idea, born of four years of hiding, began to take root in her mind. And as the evening came to an end, it still seemed crazy, but at the same time, steadily more appealing.
As Dick pulled into the parking lot the next morning, the first thing he noticed was the usual crowds of kids, hanging out by the gates, the other teachers trying to maneuver past them with cups of coffee in hand. Barbara had already arrived, but instead of rushing off get to her classroom the usual half-hour early, she had lingered. Sipping from her thermos, she watched the parking lot...and Dick soon saw her gaze land on him and his car.
He wondered what she was up to. But he suspected that no matter what it was, he should go to her.
Curious, he made his way towards the gate. Along the way, he spotted Jason, Tim, and Cass, watching him with trepidation. Other kids, most likely having heard something from Tim’s and Steph’s pack of friends, stared and whispered. Steph herself grinned at him with every ounce of happiness she’d carried over from the weekend, stacked with her trademark purple accessories, brimming with true confidence, and gave him two thumbs up.
So in front of all of them, he came to a halt in front of his fiancée.
“Hi, Barbara,” he greeted her in his friendliest tone of voice.
The whispers increased. Even the other teachers turned to stop and stare.
Those beautiful green eyes glimmered with love, and with a plan.
“Would you mind leaning down a bit? I need to tell you something.”
Caught up in the moment, like he’d been when he’d been first smitten with that brilliant and gorgeous best friend of his, like he’d been when they finally went out for the first time, like he’d been when he’d proposed and she’d actually said yes, he threw the fact that everyone was looking at them to the winds. He bent down.
She threw her arms around his neck and jumped up until her elbows balanced on his shoulders and her unmoving legs straddled the top of his waist —
— and in front of the whole school, she kissed him.
What was more, as the crowd of students and teachers roared around them while he eagerly kissed her back, he barely noticed, and he didn’t care.