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Tim and Stephanie stood in the furniture store, staring hard at two grey couches which sat in front of them.  They stared and stared as if one of the two sofas would jump up and down to be picked by the young couple. 

A store employee noticed their frustrated stances.  “Need any help?”  She asked.

This seemed to bring them both out of a trance, as they started and gawked and the woman in a purple polo shirt.  After a moment they managed to compose themselves, smiling awkwardly.

“No thank you,” began Stephanie

“We’ll be sure to shout if we need anything,” finished Tim.  Their smiles turned taught and pained as the lady left them be.  Reluctantly, they both turned back to the couches. 

“…I don’t like either of them.” Stephanie admitted.

“Good thing you’re not buying it then.”

“I could help though?  Maybe if we looked for something second hand.”

“I am not buying a used couch for the apartment.”

“Then can we at least get –”

We?

“Yes.  We.  You asked me to come.”

“You invited yourself!”

“I did not!  You were moaning about having to go shopping and I asked if you wanted company and you said ‘Oh yes please Stephanie light of my life how you make everything so much more enjoyable and life worth living’… Or something to that affect.”

“Hardy har har.”

“Look, I have stated my opinion.  You can choose to entertain that opinion. If you don’t, please know that any make out sessions will be standing or in the bed only, no more Netflixing and Chilling or whatever the kids are up to these days.”

“Stephanie?”

“Yeah?”

“You’re 20.  You aren’t a crypt keeper yet.”

“Give it time.”

Tim huffed and crossed his arms, never once taking his eyes away from the furniture.  After a moment, he sucked air between his teeth and sneered.

“Yeah you’re right they’re both ugly.” And with that he whirled away, chasing after the employee lady asking if she had anything in a lighter colour and with more cushions. 

 


 

Stephanie inhaled deeply and pulled out her phone from her backpack.  Shopping with Tim was always something of an ordeal.  The boy had more money than sense and relied on others to decorate his seemingly growing number of properties throughout the city.   The most recent, a modest (for the Wayne family at least) two bedroom apartment near Gotham Uni, was bought under the pretence to Bruce that he needed somewhere at that end of the city in case travelling back to the financial district or the manor was too much of a stretch.  To the general public, it was just another property being added to the large list of homes owned by the Wayne family. To Stephanie, it was the two of them trying to move in together, with as little fuss as possible.  Tim could get to Wayne Tower relatively quickly for work hours that suited him (and his lifestyle) best.  Stephanie’s 8am seminars cared nothing for her time as Batgirl nor her ever elusive eight hours of sleep.    

He had insisted on buying everything.  From the paint for the walls to the tea spoons in the kitchen.  He had the money and time she didn’t, but to be frank it almost made her feel like she was exploiting him.  Heaven forbid what Ms Vicki Vale and her ilk would think if the news escaped that Timothy Jackson Drake Wayne had bought a flat solely for his girlfriend to inhabit. 

His poor, not particularly noticeable in looks or personality, girlfriend who came from such good stock as a father who was on death row and a mother who had been to rehab on more than one occasion.  A very suitable match indeed. 

She felt tears abruptly sting her eyes and she grumbled to herself.  No point thinking about it.  She’d proved her worth to the city and its people a thousand times over, both in a mask and out of it. 

Still, emotions weren’t rational, and her ego took a hit thinking of what cruel comments people would cook up for posting online for all to see.

Tim returned then, looking a little more than frustrated.  “Never mind.”  He huffed.  “We’ll try somewhere else.  This stuff is all for yuppies.”

She was about to snark that he counted as a yuppy, but then he took her hand then they left the shop together.  He seemed to catch her mood, and began childishly swinging their arms back and forth, exaggerating their steps together. 

“I’m sorry for being such a grump.”  His tone was deliberately light.  The words made her smile, and in return he smiled back.  “I appreciate you coming with me, honest.  It’ll be your home too. I want you to like it.”

She was touched by the sentiment, but the nagging feeling remained.  She waited to mention it until they ended up in a small desert bar, sharing an oversized sundae, hidden in a booth right at the back of the shop.

“I would like to help with the apartment.”  She said, spooning a large slab of strawberry ice cream half-heartedly.  “If only for my own ego Tim.  I know you can afford to buy us everything we’ll need a dozen times over.  And even if you couldn’t, Bruce would happily foot the bill another twenty times.  It’s just… it’s a bit unequal you know?” 

Tim glowered into the ice cream, pensive.  Stephanie waited patiently as he gathered his thoughts.  Finally, he spooned up some ice cream and held it out to her.  The affection in his expression was too sweet to be denied, so she obliged and leaned forward, letting him feed her.  Sometimes they liked to pretend they were any other young couple out on a date, and not two young adults up to their eyeballs in mental and physical trauma trying to find some level of normalcy.  Tim enjoyed being physically sweet on her, to which she very happily received all touches, nuzzles, kisses, and cuddles.  The use of the L word tended to remain private, however, for her ears alone.  She wasn’t sure why words seemed more intimate than a touch, but for Tim, verbalising it made it real in a way that a kiss on the cheek couldn’t convey.

This time he worked up the courage to say in public, “I guess so.  But… I love you and I wanna take care of us.  You have enough on your plate already Steph without worrying about money.  This is something I can do.”

Stephanie brought her arms up to cross on the table.  “I know sweetie.  I just…If people find out that you’ve bought us an apartment…”

That made Tim angry, albeit not at her.

“That’s their problem, not yours.  We should be able to go wherever and do whatever we want.  God, you could stop going to college tomorrow and it would be nobody’s business but your own.”

She rested her chin on the palm of her right hand, her left hand reaching out to grab Tim’s own.  Despite everything, idealism still ran through the boy’s veins, and it broke her heart every time reality came crashing down on him. 

“You know the world doesn’t work that way.  Especially for one of the sons of Bruce Wayne.”

He stared at their clasped hands, her thumb running soothing circles over the veins on the back of his hand.  He ground his teeth.  “It should be.”

She heavily exhaled again, trying to bring the conversation back on track.  “Let me help buy things for our home.  It’s ours.  Not yours with a permanent tenant sleeping in your bed.”

She had a point, Tim knew, and they were both vying for control over their home life.  It was something every couple would bump up against in the course of a relationship.  This was their turn.  Compromise. They could do that.             

“Let me sort the furniture.  And the appliances.”

“What? And I do the lamps and cutlery?  Tim I’m not that much of an idiot, if something is too much or out of my budget, I’ll ask for help.  Deal?”

He nodded, squeezing her hand tight.  “Deal.  Maybe you’ll have better luck finding a comfy sofa.”

She laughed and pulled her hand away, grabbing her spoon.  “I have my ways.”

 


 

Stephanie’s ‘ways’ consisted of browsing eBay and Facebook to see what second-hand couches were available that would also deliver to the apartment (on the sixth floor additionally).  She had managed to narrow it down to two potentials when one offered to deliver in a week or so’s time.  “Yes please.” Stephanie muttered and wrote back a positive response. 

She was hunched over in her bed, her mum downstairs getting ready for her nightshift at the hospital.  Taking a large gulp of the tea Crystal had made for her earlier, she opened a new tab to begin research on one of her college papers.

“I’m off now sweetheart!” Called her mother up the stairs.

“Bye mum!  Have a quiet night!” She yelled back.

“You too!  I’ll see you in the morning!”

And with that, the front door opened and shut, and Stephanie was alone in the house.  A good two hours passed, with Stephanie just about to hop up and head out for the night, when her messenger tab pinged.

Would you like to see the couch in person first?  Just in case.  I can do the day after tomorrow after lunch if that suits?

She stared at the message for a moment, trying to decide if she wanted to go to a stranger’s property to view anything when a gentle tap tap at her window distracted her.  She jumped over, pulling the bottom frame up, to find Cass, fully in costume, smiling at her.

“Hullo!” Cassandra sang.  Her good mood made Stephanie’s anticipation for patrol triple.  “Oracle has paired us tonight.  Nightwing and Red Robin, Batman and Robin, Batgirl and Black Bat.”  Cass was clinging to the windowsill, her feet up high, perched ready to push off at a moments notice. 

Steph moved away, stripping down to get into her suit whilst Cassandra patiently waited.  “Anything major?” She asked her best friend.

Cass gave a nonchalant and unhelpful shrug.  “Maybe.  Odd bits and ends.  Electronics being smuggled.  Of all things.”

Stephanie pulled on her cowl, pulling her long (too long recently, it needed trimming) blonde hair free to fall down her back.  “Huh.  What kind of electronics?”

“Motherboards.  Wires.  Bits and pieces.”

Stephanie placed one foot outside the window ledge, Cass shifting to let her pass.  She swung out onto the nearby tree, sliding down with less grace that she wished.  Cass neatly jumped down, landing perfectly next to her. 

“So, someone’s looking to build something?”

“Something is nothing good.”

“Then where to?”

“Where else?”

Stretching back, hands touching the grass of her back garden, Stephanie kicked up and over, giggling as she corrected herself.  “The docks then?”

Cass just smirked.  “To the docks.”  She shot off, as always three steps ahead of Stephanie. 

They tended to stick up high, swinging from house to apartment block, then skyscraper to warehouse, before finally resting up on a flat roof, looking down. 

Ready girls?

Oracle’s mechanized voice rumbled through Stephanie’s earpiece.  She gave a mock salute, kicking her heels.

“Yes ma’am.  What’s the full damage?”

Not much I’m afraid.  Wait for now.  I’ll let you know when you should move out. Be alert ‘til then. And with a click, Barbara moved onto one of the other pairs she was acting as mission control for.

Stephanie huffed and collapsed onto the roof.  “My favourite.  The waiting game.”

Cassandra spun around on her left foot, falling to sit next to Stephanie, their shoulders touching.  “It’s not so bad.”

“I suppose there are worse things.”  Stephanie agreed.  She hugged her legs to her chest, resting her chin on her knees.

Cassandra and Stephanie sat for a long while, whilst waiting for a shipment to arrive.  It mostly passed in silence, Stephanie commenting anytime she thought she saw something, only for Cassandra to shoot it down.  Several hours went by.

“Cass?”

“Hmm?”

“Girl talk for a sec?”

Cassandra looked up from her resting position on Stephanie’s shoulder and sat upright.  “I am not much use for that.”

“You listen better than anyone.”

“You need to vent?”

“A little.”

Cassandra nodded encouragingly.  She watched as Stephanie worked up the nerve and words to say what she was thinking.

“Okay, so, what would you say, hypothetically, if Batgirl were to…not stop being Batgirl, but…be Batgirl…elsewhere….for a year…or four…?”  Stephanie stopped, glanced at Cassandra whose expression was deliberately neutral.

“You want to leave Gotham?” She asked carefully.  Stephanie bit her lip, pulling at her hair incessantly.

“Hypothetically.”

Taking a deep breath, Cassandra shook her head.  “I would say… every bat leaves Gotham at one point, for their own reasons.”

“I already left Gotham.”

“Not through your own choice.”  Cassandra’s tone was harsh and brokered no argument.  Stephanie’s near death and recovery period was not something Stephanie had explicitly consented to, therefore it did not count.  “Nightwing left for New York, Bludhaven, Chicago, then came back, Red Robin has left for Keystone, San Francisco and further abroad, and returned, I left for Hong Kong but came back.  It is not a crime to want to see more than our little corner of the world.  Even if Gotham seems like the centre of the universe.”

“It’s not for…a journey of self-discovery or anything.  I know who I am.”

“And you need to be you out of Gotham?”

“The college I’m thinking of applying for…”  She trailed off, and Cassandra tilted her head.  “I wanna help people like my mom does.  And I want to do it well. New York or Philli have great Nursing Schools.  I could do a lot of good Cass, during the day and night.”

Cassandra smiled sweetly and hugged Stephanie tightly.  “You would be tired off your feet.  Never a chance to rest.”  Her arms were wiry, taught and hard.  She wasn’t the softest of huggers, but her enthusiasm more than made up for it.  Stephanie squeezed back.

“I’m already tired off my feet.  Besides, I’m sure Leslie would appreciate an extra pair of professional hands at the clinic when I get back.”

“Your mom, does she know?”

“Mmhmm.  To be honest I think she’d be happy if I left Gotham and never came back, started a new life elsewhere.  She’d leave with me if she didn’t feel responsible for every poor person who crashes through A&Es doors every night.”

Cassandra was silent for a minute or two, rubbing Stephanie’s back while she thought.  “I would miss you.” She said finally, “But if you promise to visit, and to return one day… Then it is good.  And besides, I did worse.”

“Mm.  Well stripping to your undies and jumping off a roof to go to Hong Kong was never a goodbye I was expecting ya know?”

Cassandra laughed, pulling out of the hug.  “Don’t make me a hypocrite.  I think, if you can go, you should go.”

Stephanie exhaled, a compression of anxiety and worries lifted.  Her mum approved; her best friend approved.  Only two people left.  If Bruce counted as a person.  And no, not like that – she was still unsure around him, what his role in her life actually was.  Not her father, never her father.  She didn’t need a father; she had gotten along just fine without a good one.  Bruce seemed now to hold her in high regard anyway, after six years of back and forth on the subject of her costume.  Tim had always insisted that he had like Stephanie Brown fine, just hated the idea of Spoiler.  He seemed to have gotten past this with his trip through time and Stephanie donning the batgirl costume (their excursion to London had him utter the words “outstanding” in reference to her work had caused her to feel a lightness she hadn’t felt in a long, long, long time). 

The point was, she didn’t need his approval.  She never did.  There was still a part of her, however much she denied it was there, that still wanted it.  And as for Tim…

Tim was another kettle of fish.

Okay girls, you’re up.  Came Babs’ voice.  Cass split away, shooting off to a higher perch.  Stephanie, slower to rise, slid down a gutter, staring at the vans pulling into place.

Better not to think about it for a while. 

 


 

Tim and Dick were whirling around Gotham, no obvious destination in sight.  Dick had quick enough reflexes to notice if something was off, whilst Tim drove the car, Redbird, round the streets.  It was a tense silence, neither really speaking, which for Dick meant something was truly eating at him.  Around Tim he was a chatterbox, something which Tim knew know was something of a front.  Sometimes he wondered if he actually knew his big brother. 

Dick eyed him, his head still facing the left window.  He seemed to remember himself, and what he was meant to be presenting to Tim, and asked, “Something on your mind Tim?”

He resisted the urge to roll his eyes.  “When isn’t there?”

“True true.  Let me rephrase then.  Something you wanna talk about?”

He did want to talk about it.  He wanted to speak for hours on the phone like they used to.  Dick would never confide a thing to Tim.  He wasn’t supposed to.  An elder brother was an ear to talk to, never one to dump any problems back.  Dick rarely confided his problems to anyone.  He felt responsible for the family, for the Titans, for the world, and for Bruce most of all.  It seemed he used the others issues to distract from his own. 

I know you and Bruce have found something recently that neither of you want to share?  Something about our ever present creepy organisations?

Are we ever going to discuss the whole letting me go from Robin position?

How long are you going to stay in Gotham this time round?  Why are you torturing yourself being around Damian when you now your guardianship status is no longer needed?  Do you resent Bruce for coming back?  For me bringing him back?

Tim humoured him, settling on a lighter topic.

“Steph and I are moving in together.”

Dick whistled, cracking his neck.  “All going smooth?”

“She wants to buy stuff for the apartment.”

“…I would hope she does?” 

“Well yeah, but…I was gonna get it all.  She’s as broke as a –”

“College student?”

Tim gripped the wheel of the car tighter, “Um, yeah.”

Dick stretched his fingers, pulling them flat against the back of his hand.  Tim resisted the urge to baulk at his fidgeting.  “You should probably let her.”

“It’s supposed to be a gift for her.”

“A whole furnished apartment?  Ooft Timothy.  Is spoiling her rotten the endgame here?”

“No… I just want to make her life a little easier.  We’ve gone back and forth together so many times.”  He sighed hunching his shoulders.  “Buying stuff is easier than saying sorry.”

“Sorry for what?”

“I don’t know…everything that happened when we were sixteen.”

“You blame yourself?  Each other?”

“No.  Not anymore.  To be honest… I blame Bruce more than anything.  All those lies…  We trusted him, the both of us, and he…”  His voice trailed off, frowning at the road.  Dick stared at Tim for a long moment, then sighed sympathetically.

“You cannot buy someone a home as an apology for someone else’s actions.  Tim that’s not rational.”

“Emotions aren’t rational.  Otherwise life would be a lot simpler.”

“True.”  Dick shifted, crossing one his ankles flat up under his ass, his leg bent outwards at 90 degrees.  He stretched his arms up, touching the roof of the car.  “Look, you wanna make your girlfriend happy?  Ain’t nothing wrong with that.  Listening to what she wants is usually a good way to start. Compromise!  Does a relationship and a sense of self good.  Look at Bruce, he’s never compromised a day in his life and look at how successful his relationships and sense of self are.”

“He’s a mess.”

“Exactly.  Oh but we all love him to death and love to imagine strangling him at three in the morning when he says something belittling.”

“Oh?  You’ve felt that too?”

“Only for the past fifteen years or so.”

Tim laughed.  As much as there was a gap now between him and Dick, Dick still understood him better than most.  Dick always had an answer for everything. 

“…I want my girlfriend to be happy.”  Tim finally responded.  Dick smiled, but it was slightly patronising. 

“Trust her to know what makes her happy then Tim.  That’s all you can do.”

Tim nodded tightly, grip not loosening from the steering wheel.  Dick’s smile fell.  “That wasn’t the answer you wanted was it?”

“No.” Tim admitted.  “But I can’t be mad at the world if it doesn’t go my way one hundred percent of the time, right?”

Boys.  Junction of Fifth and Harrison.  Growing fire at the south facing apartment block.  Fifth floor. Barbara’s voice came through the car.  Tim whirled the car around, neatly avoiding a passing white van. 

“On it, O.” Dick responded.  He looked at Tim.  “Oh, you can be angry if things don’t go your way Tim.”  He undid his seat buckle, bringing both legs tucked under, coiled tight on the seat, finger reaching up to open the car roof.  “Just don’t grow resentful of it.  See the difference?”  And with that he sprung up, firing a grapple to get inside the burning building.

Tim spun the car into a parked position, climbing out the side door, ready to lead people out from the ground floor.  “Not really.”  He muttered to himself, already setting aside their conversation for the more immediate and pressing issue of helping people until the overworked fire department arrived. 

 

Chapter Text

She was very pretty, the girlfriend of Timothy Drake, or at least Jervis Tetch thought so.  She had kind eyes, a bright bright blue that sparkled with vitality, and blonde hair that fell to her waist.  Perfect to stroke.

Perfect to rip.

No, no, no.  Perfect to stroke, not rip.  Or tear.  Or gouge.  Or hurt. 

Her skin was a healthy tan, unusual for permanently overcast Gotham.  Freckles lined her arms chest and nose.  Perfect to kiss.

Perfect to bite.

She moved almost like a cartoon character, not particularly graceful, larger than life arm movements and expressions.  She seemed to occupy whichever space she inhabited comfortably, like she had always belonged there.  A very pretty perfect girl indeed.

Perfect to drug perfect to fu–

Timothy, the boy she was sitting with, was much less sure of himself, hunched inwards, head always down.  Skin coloured almost grey, like his eyes.  Ink black shaggy hair.  Doll-like.  Moved stiffly and not very often.

His employers had asked him to keep an eye on the boy, promising an assortment of electronics for whatever project he wished to work on in his little hovel of a home.  Staring at Miss Brown, he had added an extra demand to his list, to which the group had shrugged and told him to do as he pleased.  Surely, they didn’t care what happened to her?  Maybe he could finally put to rest a long hunt which had taken decades by this point.  Put this Alice obsession to bed once and for all.

 


 

 

The pair were at a coffee shop in the university campus, both with their laptops out, both not talking and focusing on their work.  Both had been sitting for a good four hours by this point, having drunk two coffees each, and were part way through their third. 

Abruptly, Stephanie slammed her laptop down.  Tim jumped, and stared expectantly at her.

“I’ve been hiding something from you.”  The words seemed to choke her to say.

Tim swallowed uncomfortably.  “Oh?”  He asked, not one drip of confidence coming through.  Stephanie stared back at him, colour rising through her cheeks, her blue eyes bright and nervous.  Suddenly, she deflated.

“I found a couch I like but it’s second hand…  That okay?”

Tim felt as if his stomach had dropped out of his butt.  He smiled brittlely and his heart started beating regularly.  “…Yeah?  Do you have a photo?” 

She unlocked her phone and handed it over.  He stared at it and nodded.  “Looks fine to me.  Do we need to grab it?”

“No, they’ll come and deliver it thankfully.  I’m gonna go view it in person though tomorrow afternoon, make sure it’s not got a giant hole in the back or anything.”

His mouth twisted.  “I can’t go with you that afternoon; I have a meeting with Lucius.  Can it wait ‘til we go together?” 

She shook her head, “Not if we wanna lose this one.  It’s no bother, if you think it looks fine I can check it out and give it the final thumbs up.  This one’ll do nicely Tim.”

He nodded again and handed back her phone. “Okay, if you are sure.” 

She eyes him suspiciously.  “You’ve had a right change of heart the past twenty-four hours Mr Drake.”

He sighed and turned back to his laptop, “Dick gave me some advice.”

Stephanie smiled broadly, throwing her shoulders back.  “It’s a good thing.  Listening to the advice of others.  Shows a healthy ego.”  Nodding approvingly, she went back to work

“That’s me.” Tim snarked.  “A prime example of a healthy ego and sense of self.”

They typed away for a few more minutes, until Stephanie slammed her laptop lid down again.

“Okay no I lied.”

Tim’s hands paused above his keyboard, trying to follow her train of thought. 

“I don’t have a healthy ego?”  He asked.

“What? No, yes, I mean –” She sighed, throwing her hands up onto her face.  “I mean, I’ve been hiding something from you.  Something that actually matters.”

“Oh? Oh.” Reluctantly Tim lowered his own laptop screen down, waiting for Stephanie to show her face. “Stephie?”  

Oh god, just with that tone and nickname she felt guilty even though she wasn’t doing anything wrong… she just knew this wasn’t going to end well.

“I’ve been thinking about what to do after I get this degree.”

“Uhuh…?”

“And…I’m thinking continuing studying, and about applying to Columbia or Penn.”

“For their nursing programmes?”

Oh god he knew.  Of course, he knew.  Wait what?  How?

“How did you know?”

“That you want to do nursing?  Steph you’re the best medic aside from Alfred – and Leslie, obviously – and you always talk about your mom’s work and how proud you are of her… You’re too good not to.  And those two colleges are the best on the East Coast for it.”

Slowly and gently she began to relax.  Tim didn’t seem angry or disappointed or –

“It’s just…”

Shit.

Tim suddenly became very interested in his half cup of coffee.

“Sweetie?”  She nudged, toeing his foot.  He frowned, looking far too heartbroken for her liking.

“…I thought, maybe you’d stay in Gotham for it.”  He sounded five years old when he said it, sad and lonely and so very young. 

“I won’t leave Gotham permanently, just until I’m qualified. And I’m not leaving you.  Not ever.” 

He stared at the people walking by, rushing to class or to get to the library. 

“It’s fine.”  He finally said.

“Yeah?”  He didn’t sound fine.

“Yeah.  It’s good.  You have to do what makes you happy.” 

She smiled sadly then and stood up, walking over to him.  Grabbing his face between her two hands, she squished his cheeks, as she would do when they were only fifteen.  “You make me happy.”  She admitted quietly.  “More than anything.  More than anyone.  You have your grand plans for helping folk.  You have the means and desire to do it on a massive, structural scale, and I love you for it.  Let me worry about the little guys eh? Help one person at a time.  Besides, I won’t need to apply for another year.  Let’s see where life takes us yeah?”

Her little speech and touch made him relax, and he closed his eyes, resting his cheeks in the warm dry palms of her hands. She pulled him close then, burying her face in his thick black hair.  She felt people watching them, but in that moment she really did not care.

“As long as we’re together yeah?” He asked, voice a little sad.

“Always.” She murmured.

 


 

 

Tim entered the board meeting distracted and left the board meeting distracted.  He could feel Bruce watching him out of the corner of his eye, as he stared half-heartedly at assorted PowerPoint slides and graphs.  At one point when Tim was asked a question and he fumbled his response, he saw Bruce exhale disappointedly.  He didn’t want to think about the upcoming lecture, but sure enough, when the meeting ended Bruce asked to see Tim in his main office. 

Tim sat down and began to slump in the black leather.  Bruce held out a glass of water for him, and Tim reluctantly took it. 

“When Dick was ten,” Bruce began, “Before he started middle school, I used to bring him to work with me.  He’d work on whatever lessons Alfred had assigned him, which he’d usually have done by lunchtime.  Then I would order takeout to be delivered, and he’d insist on sitting on my lap while I worked until half past five.  Usually he’d just fall asleep there.”

Tim stared uncomfortably.  It was rare for Bruce to talk to him like this, reminiscing of times past.  Even without Dick in the room Bruce’s demeanour was lighter and brighter than when he spoke of anyone else.  Tim suppressed any flare of envy that might had cropped up.  He knew right from the word go he was never going to have that with Bruce.  He would be proud, he would ruffle Tim’s hair sometimes, and he would give advice.  But Dick had received unconditional love at every stage of his life.  Tim… hadn’t.  And Tim had met Bruce when affection was becoming more and more alien to him.  Dick could still pull it out.  Tim hadn’t figured out the method yet.    

“Sometimes I forget, how small he was.” Bruce continued, eyes looking off somewhere a thousand miles away.  “Hit his growth spurt when he was seventeen and shot up like a bamboo shoot then, but before that he always looked three years younger than his actual age… It was hard.  Adjusting to that.  To change.”

Ah. Tim suddenly knew where the conversation was headed.  He shrank down further into his seat, not sure if he was ready for a paternal talk with Bruce. 

“How much do you know?”

Bruce clasped his hands on the desk.  “I know you have bought a nice apartment near Gotham University, despite you yourself having no intention of attending that college, correct?”

“Correct.”

“A college that Miss Brown is approaching her final year of?”

Tim’s throat closed in anxiety and he managed a strangled “Yeah...” before beginning to chug his water.

Why oh why did Bruce speaking about Stephanie make him so uncomfortable?  He’d known her since she was fourteen.  He’d admitted on more than one occasion that he liked her.  Tim knew her irreverence and light joy reminded him of Dick and the best of Jason.  So why on earth did he always feel a sharp stab of protectiveness when Bruce spoke of her?

Tim remembered a dying girl alone in a hospital, a dying girl he was lied to in order to prevent from seeing, and he was reminded of the answer.

“You two ready to move in together?”

“Yes.”  That he was sure of, and his response was sharper than he intended.  “Yes.” He repeated, more gently. “And…don’t take this the wrong way, but nothing you say or do is going to ruin it this time.”

Bruce had the grace to look slightly ashamed.  “I wouldn’t.  I was wrong.  Before.”

He admitted it at other points, but it still filled Tim with spiteful glee hearing him verbalise it once more.

“In fact, I have something to give you next time you are at the manor.  A gift.  For Stephanie.”  That made Tim curious.  A present that he was supposed to give on Bruce’s behalf?  Huh.  A little mystery.  Tim smiled to himself, setting the glass down on Bruce’s desk.  Bruce pursed his lips and sat back in his chair.

“But…”

“But?  But what?”

“That wasn’t why you were distracted today.”

“Oh.  Oh no.  Sort of.  It’s related.”

“In what way?”

Gosh he was interested today.  Tim briefly wondered if Dick and Cass had urged Bruce to talk to him.  Or did he really look that out of it during the meeting?

“I don’t think it’s my story to tell.”

“Hhnn.”  Bruce’s verbal tick emerged then.  “Really?”

Tim paused for a moment, then, in a rush of hope, thought maybe Bruce would offer another option, one that went against what Dick had suggested last night.  This wasn’t just about furniture anymore. 

“If Steph were to leave Gotham… am I okay to… not…be okay with it?  Even though I’ve said to her I’m okay with it.”

Bruce looked pained then.  Good.  “She wants to leave?”

“To study.  She’s says she wants to come back when she’s done but there’s no guarantee of that.  Time away might change how she feels about me, us, Gotham, everything you know?  So, the way I see it, I have three options.  We split up, again, which neither of us want considering I just bought a place for us, but maybe it would be less awful than option B, which is a long distance relationship, which invites its own troubles, or the final option is I go with her and do God knows what, which, okay, sure, clingy boyfriend won’t let his girlfriend live her own life… how creepy is that?”  The more Tim spoke the more worked up he got, and the more uncomfortable Bruce looked.  He really wasn’t good at this sort of stuff. “And maybe I am making a bigger deal than I need to, but I worry so much and I one hundred percent blame you for that you know.”

“She is capable.”

“I know.  I know.  I know she is.  I just… I lost her once and I –”

“Tim.  She will be going to another college.  It is not the same thing as before.  You know this.”     

 Tim quickly realised that Bruce wasn’t going to give him an answer which made him feel better. 

“So… It’s not okay to not be okay with her going?”

“You have to respect these sorts of things.  Stephanie’s as stubborn as a mule.  If she says she will come back to Gotham I am inclined to believe her.  She came back after nearly dying.  That says something about her relationship to this city.  Her father and mother are from here.  She’s Gotham through and through.  Like me.  Like you.”

He got an odd look in his eye then, looking Tim up and down, like he was suddenly deeply suspicious of him.  It made Tim incredibly uncomfortable.  “Not quite like you and me.” Tim responded.  “She’s missing the millions and millions of dollars our parents had.”

“Mm.”  This seemed to confirm something to Bruce, something that didn’t make him happy, and he stood up.  “You may think me a hypocrite Tim, but I think this something you can trust her with.”

Advice complete, demands begin. Tim thought sardonically.  Bruce made his way past Tim, picking up the finished glass. 

“Now when you can, come by the manor and let Alfred feed you. You can pick up Stephanie’s gift then.  It will maybe set your mind at ease.”

Tim severely doubted it.  Two people now had essentially told him to let her go, his feelings be damned, and Tim knew in his heart of hearts they were right, but panic was starting to set in. 

Maybe if he just spoke to her again, get it all clarified, he could breathe easy.  He nodded at Bruce and left the office heading towards his own.  He pulled out his phone.  She should have been out of her seminars by now.

“Hiya sweetie.” She sounded breathless when she answered, like she was climbing lots of stairs.  “All okay?”

“Not really.  Can we talk this evening?  When you get back?”

“Uh, yeah.  Why what’s wrong?”

“It’s…it’s about your college plans.”

Her voice was flat when she replied.  “What about them.”

“We can talk in person.  Later.”

“No, I’m not having this hang over my head all afternoon.” She was getting angry and he was getting flustered.  He went into his empty office.  “What’s wrong with me going to a good school out of state?”  She demanded.

There was no way to respond to that question without sounding like a lunatic, so Tim decided to commit to the lunacy.  “I worry that our relationship wouldn’t survive it.” 

God, he sounded like an emotionless prick.

“What?!” She was horrified. “What the hell am I supposed to take from that Tim?  You don’t trust me to not go galivanting off with a med student doctor or something?”

“No, I don’t think that.  You would never do that.”

“Of course, I wouldn’t!  I’ve only ever loved you and you know that.  You however…”

This was getting completely out of control, but Tim found they were both just spiralling into pettiness.

“No no no no no!  Every girl I have ever cheated on has been with you” as if that made it okay – “and you knew about Ari and Zo Stephanie when we were carrying on.  You didn’t care then so I don’t know why you care now?”

“I don’t!  I know you love me and only me!  I care that despite that you think we can’t survive not living in the same city for a few years!  I need to leave Gotham on my own terms for a bit.  That’s all.  If I can study and do some good while doing it, all the better.  We can cope with that!  I know we can!  Why can’t you trust that?” 

Suddenly her voice got softer but it was still deeply upset.  Tim had the urge to start pulling at his hair.  He was hurting her, like the shit person he could be.  Dick and Bruce were right they were right, fuck, he’d fucked it all up…

“Tim… Where’s this insecurity coming from?”

“I trust you Steph, I do…”

“I know you trust me now.  I know you do Tim.  We’re not sixteen anymore.  But… You don’t trust much else.  You think someone’ll tumble in and wreck it all for us.”

She’d hit the nail on the head, because of course she had.

“No.” He admitted.  “I don’t trust it.  It’s an awful world Steph.  I am petrified there’s another Black Mask around the corner.  Things were going so well for us then and it all came crashing down and we can’t be this happy or content, right?  Something is going to snap?”

She sighed then, breathing unsteady, like she was crying.  “This is a lot of emotion for one phone call.” She murmured.  “You were right.  Should have waited until we were in person.”

“I…I am sorry Steph.”

“For what?”

That made him pause.  “For making you cry.”

“But not for what you believe?”

“…I can’t help that.”

“No… No, I guess not.”  A sniff from a runny nose and the sound of her wiping it on her sleeve.  “Well, we’ll need to work on that, I guess.  The world isn’t utterly broken, otherwise there’d be no point in us helping Bruce and the others.”

“It’s taking too long.  And you deserve better.”

That made her laugh, but it was sad and empty.  “If it were easy the world would have been fixed by now.”  He listened as she sat down on a stairwell, and he could practically hear her fingers digging into her kneecap, pulling at loose threads in her jeans.  “I think… you are projecting issues about the world onto me, to try and make it more manageable.”

Now that made him crumble, collapsing onto the office floor, lying on his side.  “…Maybe.”

“That’s not fair.  For me or you.”

“No.”

There was an uncomfortable silence as what she said settled into Tim’s head. 

“…We’ll talk more tonight yeah?”

Tim was sure he was crying, but he managed a short “Sure,” in response.

“Okay.  Tim, I love you.  And I won’t leave you.  We’ll get through it this time together yeah?”

He choked on his response and hung up on her.

 


 

 

Bruce arrived home soon after his conversation with Tim to find Dick downstairs on the computer, typing away.  He was sat cross legged on the chair, in full uniform minus his mask.  Bruce wondered briefly if he had changed since last night’s patrol.

“Did you speak to Tim?” Dick asked without turning away from the screen.

“Yes.”  He sat down on the desk heavily, and Dick finally turned away and up to look at him.  “You are right. He’s not coping very well at the moment.  I told him to trust Stephanie.  I don’t think it was what he wanted to hear.  He and Stephanie seemed to have an argument over the phone after.”

Dick’s eyebrows furrowed, and his fingers fell away from the keyboard.

“All this over furnishings?”

“More than that.  She wants to study out of the city next year.”

“Oh!”  Dick smiled. Good for her.  “Well that’s just par for the course, right?  We all have to leave home for a bit to get some perspective.”

“Tim thinks once she leaves, she won’t come back.  Doesn’t trust himself to be enough to hold her here or the world would allow her to come back.”

Bruce watched as Dick frowned, baffled by Tim’s logic.  “She came back after taking a power drill to the uterus.  I don’t think much could keep her away for long.”

Bruce just grunted in response. 

“He needs help.” Dick finally stated.  “I don’t particularly care from where, but he needs to let go of that irrationality.  It eats him from the inside out.”

“It’s not irrational.”

“Bruce…”

“Any progress with our Owls?”  And with that the topic was changed.  Tim’s mental health would have to wait.  Dick knew Bruce well enough after nearly twenty years that he was not encouraging Tim’s behaviour, just that he understood it.  Maybe he was saying it couldn’t be fixed.  Maybe he needed more time to think on it.

Reluctantly and resentfully, Dick pulled up several files onto the PC. 

“Been able to match up your descriptions with members of Gotham’s elite.  A couple are on the W.E. board.  It’s a right nest of vipers.”

Bruce folded his arms and seemed contrite.  “I need your help with something Dick, but I need it to be hidden from everyone.”

“Everyone?  Juicy.  What’s up?”

“I can carry on with listing current members.  I need you to look into former members.”

“…’Kay? And this has to be hidden because...?”

Seemingly struggling to form his next sentence, Dick waited for what seemed an embarrassingly long time, but he wouldn’t move past it until Bruce spat the words out.

“The Drake’s.  Jack and Janet both.  Tim keeps his all his parents’ belongings at their townhouse.  See if anything links them to the court.”

Dick’s expression grew heartbroken.  “You don’t think Tim..?”

“I don’t think Tim knows anything about the inner workings of the Court, but his family have been in Gotham for at least 120 years, and they were rich before they even arrived, even if Drake Industries was a new venture for the couple.  Jack was a member of various exclusive organisations and Janet had numerous high-level associates.  I just want it confirmed there’s no connection.  For all our peace of minds.  There’s no point worrying Tim if there’s nothing to worry about.  Especially now.”

Dick grew more and more astounded as Bruce went on.  “But what if there is something?”  He asked.  “You prepare for every eventuality.  What if his parents were members?  What do we do with that information?”

Kicking away from the desk, Bruce began to walk away, Dick staring, horrified, after him.  Faintly, he heard Bruce mutter, “Then we’ll keep a closer eye on him.”

Chapter Text

 

Tim and Stephanie’s night was quiet. They’d both insisted on staying in that evening. Stephanie’s mom was working another night shift, so they had the house to themselves. Tim had made dinner, and they had sat on the floor by the coffee table, legs entangled while they ate in relative silence. Stephanie washed up, then came back through to see that Tim had moved up to her bedroom, already changing into his pyjamas. Stephanie decided to join him.

He was staring at the floor, contrite and ashamed.

“I messed up today.” He admitted.

Stephanie sighed, not moving closer to him just yet. “You had a bit of a freak out. That’s all. It doesn’t have to be a big deal.”

“No but… You were right. My head…”

A gentle tap tap on his temple made him look up at her, to see she was smiling sadly. “It ain’t working right at the minute, huh?”

“Not really. God, Steph, I am so sorry.”

“That’s okay.” And somehow her flippant tone was reassuring. “I’m sorry too. It’s a big change for you and I was wrong to get so worked up over the phone. That’s of no use to anyone.”

She reached out and held both his hands. “I need you to understand though. I’m going to apply to study in another city. And if I get into one of them, I will go and get my degree. I’ll apply to Gotham U too – if it all falls through, but Tim, I really want this. And I want you to support me through it.”

“Of course!” He replied instantly and enthusiastically. The question of him helping her was never in doubt. She breathed a snigger at his keenness. “Whatever needs doing. Help with studying, help with moving furniture, coming to visit you whenever you want… Talking on the phone without having blow up arguments…”

She laughed loudly then, kissing his cheek. He flushed, pink running all the way up his neck and cheeks. “And if you need me,” She replied, “For whatever needs doing. A snuggle, a rant, a red pen through your work reports, or if the world is crashing down and Batgirl is the only way to save the day, I’ll do it.”

“I believe you.”

She pulled him down onto her little bed. Tim immediately curled around her from behind, holding her tight and rocking from side to side. “The only variable you can control is yourself.” She stated definitively. “I learned that a long while ago. It can be hard to accept, but you must try. Promise me?”

It sounded wrong to his ears. Everything Bruce had taught him, everything he had been through since he was thirteen, suggested that you could only get by safely by controlling as much as you could. Stephanie was so placid, letting things slip her by. And yet, she was by far the more content and well-adjusted member of his family. He thought of his hitlist of sorts, the one he maintained that had caused Damian to react so viciously and Dick to caution against, the one that he was certain helped keep the family safe. Dick and Stephanie didn’t approve, Stephanie because she trusted others too much, as did Dick. Tim suspected Dick also didn’t approve because he wasn’t foolish enough to write his plans down.

Stephanie was probably right, if he were honest with himself. Overly controlling and closed off behaviour had led to the numerous scars that lined her stomach up to her sternum, something even to this day she refused to show to anyone outside of Tim, Cassandra and her physiotherapists. The fact that she had come away from such an experience with a more selfless and optimistic attitude than ever boggled his mind.

He thought of Dick, who retreated towards the Titans – to Wally, Roy, Donna and Kory – when he found himself acting more and more like Bruce. Tim knew it was one of the reasons Bruce loved Dick the best of all of them. That self-awareness, that drive to force yourself to think a certain way until it became true. It sounded exhausting, but so was the drowning in his thoughts that he underwent during his bouts of mania and depression that cycled round two or three times a year. He could try. For her.

“You’re right. I promise.”

“Ohhhhhh” She drawled, arching her back like a tease. “Repeat that again. Music to my ears.” She nuzzled back against the crook of his shoulder and neck.

“Cheeky. You were right.” He muttered. He leaned across and began to kiss and kiss and kiss her throat, working upwards to her jaw and lips. The kissed for a long while at an awkward angle, then he pulled her back and up, cradling her face with one hand and an arm with the other. She shifted, turning around to face him then, and gripped his wrists whilst his hands held her neck. “Can we…?” He asked in between the louder smacks their lips were making, the end of the sentence hanging but his intent obvious.

She nodded her consent and climbed into his lap, the both of them feeling lighter than they had in days.

 


 

Dick had been put into many an uncomfortable situation by Bruce in the past, but none felt as so actively dishonest as what he was doing now. Tim’s old family home, the one he, their father and stepmother had moved to after Jack Drake had fumbled the family’s money and reputation in the two years following Janet’s death, had been left alone by Tim after he’d been adopted by Bruce. He did not return very often from what Dick could tell. The place was dark and had an unavoidable feeling of loneliness to it. Sighing sadly, Dick locked the front door behind him and made his way to the office.

What Tim had taken was his father’s old computer, so all that remained on the desk was a small desk light and the monitor. Dick quietly grumbled to himself over how he was supposed to hunt through those files without alerting Tim, who by this point no doubt had copied them across to another server, encrypted and rearranged to boot. Instead Dick moved around the office, eyeing assorted books and objects, many of which Jack had dug up himself over the years. Nothing particularly odd. There were no photographs though, which was. Unless Tim had taken them all, which Dick wasn’t sure on, there was nothing hinting that a family had lived here. The office, main hall and master bedroom all looked like something out of a sales catalogue. Tim’s bedroom, which had been emptied, only had a bed frame and closet left behind. Dick continued to browse through the shelves, not sure what he was looking for, and feeling horrendously intrusive the entire time.

He returned to the office, looking once again the shelves, and noted that a significant chunk behind a few lines of books were uniform looking, a similar size and black leather bound. Diaries, Dick noted with a pleasant surprise.

Carefully he set aside the front line of books and ran his finger along, looking at the years. They stopped nearly seven years ago, and when he picked up the last one, he found it ended abruptly part of the way through the year. Looking at the handwriting, he quickly deduced that these were Janet’s, and not Jack’s. Despite knowing that the two were near divorcing when she died, Dick was not entirely surprised to see that clearly some sentimental part of Jack had remained, and he had refused to throw away all her belongings.

Dick wondered if Tim had known about them, or even tried to read them.

He felt intrusive enough looking through her last months, but he needed to check. He didn’t think she would have been foolish enough to outright mention the Court, but maybe something would tip him off. Sure enough, three times a year she noted her and Jack going to meetings. It appeared to be the only thing they did together that had nothing to do with their company. As for the most part as they were travelling, it was the only time they did anything together in Gotham itself.

It didn’t mean much though. Could have been any group meeting, nothing nefarious ever seemed to crop up.

He sighed and put another year back. He found himself staring though at the entry for seventeen years ago. The year his parents died. Tim had been in the audience, with his parents. A rare outing as a trio, Tim was only small when it happened, and the night remained one of his earliest memories. A perverse, almost self-destructive impulse came over Dick. He wanted to know what Janet’s impression of him, of his parents, however brief they had spoken, had been. His parents dying and him being fostered by Bruce had thrown a massive wrench into the Court’s plans for him to be inducted into their wacky hall of assassins. If he could read what she thought of that night, it would be enough to put his mind to rest. If Bruce didn’t find it satisfactory, he could carry on the search himself.

He pulled her diary from the shelf and opened to her March entries.

 


 

Tim left in the early hours of the morning, two hours before her mom arrived back. It was Stephanie’s day off today, and aside from the viewing in the afternoon, she had nothing lined up, so she was determined to have a lie in. Tim had given her a kiss and left via the bedroom window, as he always had done, walking off to his car that was parked several blocks down. She dozed off once more and awoke to her mom’s hand running through her hair.

“Good morning sleepyhead.”

“Hey mom.” She murmured, emerging from her duvet cocoon she had encased herself with. “What’s up?”

“Just checking on you. You stay up late?”

“Nah.” For once she told the truth. Her mom knew, of course she did, the scare with the Black Mercy had made it inevitable. They never really spoke about it though. Just like her mom, really, to avoid confrontation whenever possible. “Stayed in all night. Tim popped by for a bit.”

“Did he?” Crystal’s voice turned coy. She also knew about Tim. She’d managed after some time to put two and two together. The Alvin Stephanie had been seeing was actually Robin, as per Stephanie’s tearful adolescent confession, only suddenly Alvin was never mentioned again and Timothy Drake started showing up, taking her out for dates and staying until what was probably too late at night. They’d been apart for two years before joining back up at the hip and never seeming to part for longer than a week at the most.  Crystal didn't know how she felt about it.

“Did you tell him about Nursing College?”

“Oh. Yeah. All good.”

“All good?”

“Well,” She sat up then, and took the offered cup of tea Crystal was holding out. “Mostly good. Could have gone better. It was a shock to his system, gave him a bit of a freak out. Got passed it though. He wants to help however he can.”

“Good… Good.” She sat on the corner of the bed, watching her daughter sip the tea with her rat nest of bed hair. A bit too ruffled from just a regular sleep, but Crystal chose not to comment. “How is…he is he doing at the moment anyway?”

“You mean his head?”   Flippant as always, Crystal struggled not to laugh. 

“Yes. Any luck getting him to go to the doctor’s about it?”

Stephanie put her mug down on her bedside table. She wringed her hands and stared downwards.

“I can’t make him see a psychologist or psychiatrist if he doesn’t want to. And he really doesn’t want to. Gotham has enough weirdo doctors that he might end up with a Dr. Strange rip off. Or Dr. Strange himself. I don’t know. He’s functioning at the moment. He just slips up every now and then.”

“And he never hurts you when he’s on a cycle?”

Stephanie frowned, confused. “No? No, he’s never done anything. Not like that. I worry for him sometimes, but that’s the extent of the strain. He isn’t hurting me or dragging me down.”

Crystal cupped her daughter’s chin, forcing her to look her in the eye. “Promise me you’ll take care of yourself first. At least in this.”

Gawking slightly, Stephanie nodded. She didn’t really understand what her mother had asked of her, but she wanted this conversation to be over. Her mom liked Tim; she was just a bit worried about his state of mind sometimes. To worry about him showed Crystal cared, and that was more than Stephanie could have ever hoped for, especially compared to previous ‘boyfriends’ Stephanie had kept. A small part of Stephanie resented her mother for only taking an interest recently, having spent the first fifteen years in something of pain killer induced stupor. But then, the alternative was her behaviour continuing, and how could Stephanie resent her mother for getting clean? She could only resent the childhood lost because of it, and what her father had done to push her mother towards the pills. Crystal released her hold on her daughter and moved on.

“And the move going smoothly?”

“Yup yup. Picking a sofa this afternoon with any luck. After that the living area’s done and we can start on the kitchen.” She threw her feet out from under her duvet and made her way over to her closet, throwing out a pair of leggings and a dress for the day. She tossed a pair of converse out then trounced over to her chest of drawers.

“You go rest downstairs. I’ll cook us breakfast this morning yeah?”

“Alright sweetheart,” said her mother, rising and heading to the door. “Thank you.”

“No worries, thank you for the tea!”

After breakfast her mother trotted upstairs for a bath and to head to bed to rest up. Stephanie had a couple of chores to run on campus before she headed to see the couch, which by this point she felt like strangling the poor seller if it was indeed missing a back leg or something else. It had been such a fuss getting to this point, she just wanted it over and done with.

The afternoon came, and soon enough Stephanie was sat on the bus heading up towards the garment district. The address she was given was an apartment block in a busy part of town, and she could take care of herself regardless, so she wasn’t particularly fussed travelling alone.

Soon enough she was knocking at the door, and a lady in her seventies opened the door an inch. Her eyes were wide, bloodshot, and flat brown.

“Yes?”

“Hello! I messaged you about the couch the other day? You said to pop over?”

“Oh! Oh yes. Come in come in.” The door closed and the sound of various locks being unlatched would have been mildly humorous if not for the fact that they both lived in Gotham, so yeah, buy every lock under the sun madam. The door swung open and the lady ushered her in. She grinned vacuously at Stephanie and held out her hand.

“My name is Verity.”

“Stephanie. It’s nice to meet you Verity. Thanks for letting me view first. It’s very kind of you.” She was being overly polite and formal, but Stephanie just wanted the whole transaction to be as painless as possible.

“My sons are quite happy to bring it this weekend for me. So, don’t worry about picking it up. It’s quite a heavy thing.” She continued talking as she led Stephanie to the living room. Her grey hair was something of a matted mess, various clips holding it up into a pile on the crown of her head. Her long dress seemed to be made of rags. Rags that matched her curtains from the looks of it. She led Stephanie to the couch.

“And here it is. It’s a good sofa, I just had no need for it anymore.” Stephanie smiled and approached it. Cream, like in the photo, big cushions, like in the photo, no stains, like in the photo, seated three, like in the photo. Success?

“Tell you what,” The old lady said. “Sit down on it, and I’ll make you a cuppa.”

“Oh no, that’s okay, I really –”

“No no! Five minutes.” And she was gone, leaving Stephanie standing awkwardly. Feeling supremely out of place, Stephanie sat down, perched on the very edge of the cushions. She pulled out her phone and began half-heartedly texting Barbara. Ten minutes. Ten minutes to drink the tea then confirm payment and arrange a delivery time. She could do that.

Five minutes passed until finally Verity came out and handed over an overly milky and sweet cup of tea. She sat down in a lounge chair next to Stephanie and took a big gulp.

“So, you’re a student?”

“Oh? Yeah. Moving into my first apartment.”

She smiled sweetly at Verity, who grinned toothily back. Her false teeth didn’t quite site right in her mouth. “How lovely. Moving in with anyone, or are you by yourself?”

“…With my boyfriend.”

“Ah! How lovely! My granddaughter will be starting college next year. She is going out of state though, everyone is very proud.”

And so, the small talk continued. Verity continued to ask slightly intrusive questions, but never enough to make Stephanie’s alarm bells ring out. Long after she had finished her tea, the lady was still asking her about her course, her mum, her Tim, her everything. Stephanie struggled to bring it back on topic.

“I’m sorry Verity, but I do need to head off. Can I just check, for paying…”

“Oh yes yes yes yes yes. Is cash okay, on delivery?” She patted her knees repetitively, each smack making Stephanie flinch a little.

“Are you sure? I can pay via pay—?”

“No no no no no no no no.” She seemed stuck until with a snap of her neck she corrected herself. Stephanie felt a very real stab of fear and found herself staring at the clips in Verity’s hair. They were sparkling… No. Blinking? “Cash on the day is fine, sweetheart. Say nice and early on Saturday. 9am?”

“…If that’s alright? Yes. Great.” Stephanie stood up abruptly. The blood rush made her stumble a little. “Thank you for the tea Verity. And the couch. I’ll send you the address the morning of okay?”

She very much doubted she would send this woman her and Tim’s address now. She still hadn’t done anything wrong exactly, but Stephanie was starting to feel acutely ill. God knows if that milk had been in date. She wanted to leave the overly floral, in decoration and scent, apartment.

“No worries dear. Speak to you soon?”

“Yes. Thank you!” And she was walked to the door. Once Verity had shut it, with all the corresponding locks moved into place, Stephanie began stumbling back towards to lift. She needed to hold onto the corridor walls suddenly, as her ankles weren’t holding her up. Her limbs felt incredibly heavy, like she was drunk and ready to black out. She reached down for her phone again, trying to grab hold of Tim.

Can’t. He’s got a meeting.

She reached the lift and pressed the buttons with increasing aggressiveness. Or at least, she tried to. Her fingers were not reacting to the messages her brain was sending, and she was moving sluggishly.

“Nononononono…”

Trying again on her phone, she managed to hit someone on her favourites in her contact list.

“Stephanie?” Answered Bruce. She barely registered how puzzled his tone was, as she was battling a weary mind and her own confusion.

Bruce? Bruce is on my favourites? Was what she thought. What she said was, “Been drugged.”

“Where? Stephanie, where are you?”

The lift doors opened, but Stephanie couldn’t move forward to get in. She couldn’t reply to Bruce’s increasingly nervous repeated questions. Her eyes were rolling back into her skull. She managed to choke out “Facebook, ” before she keeled over, falling flat on her face into the lift. She dropped her phone and her bag, and promptly lost consciousness.

Chapter Text

Batman smashed his way into the flat Stephanie had visited one hour ago. Her slurred statement of Facebook had Oracle check her messages, and sure enough, the apartment she had been visiting before her phone call matched the last known location of her phone’s gps. Bruce stormed through the flat to find a woman passed out on the ground in the kitchen. He turned her over to see her having a sort of epileptic fit, eyes not seeing anything and drooling uncontrollably. 

He swore to himself, calling Robin to his location. Damian came only a short moment later.

“See her hair?” Bruce asked, to which Damian nodded. “Take out the clips. One at a time, and carefully.” Batman held the woman’s head up whilst Damian worked, ensuring she was breathing. One by one the hair pieces were removed, Robin working meticulously and gently, something which Bruce was somewhat ashamed to admit to himself he was surprised that Damian was capable of being. Her long grey hair then was laid straight out, trailing on the floor. Damian pocketed the clips.

“Mad Hatter?” He asked. The woman began to still, and Bruce laid her down on the ground, ensuring she could still breathe.

“Likely. Call an ambulance, then get those to Oracle.”

“You will find her? Stephanie?” Damian rarely referred to anyone by their first name, Dick being one of the few exceptions. Bruce knew Stephanie had made an impact on Damian when he was just ten years old, and he was glad to see how nervous he was for her. Damian was a good boy, truly.

“Go,” was all he could bring himself to say. He could find her faster if they knew who had taken her.

Damian nodded then jumped out a window, shooting across towards the clock tower. Bruce stood up, then made his way through to the kitchen, noticing immediately the powder on the counter. Jervis, or whoever had orchestrated this, was sloppy, which was a worry in of itself. Stephanie had managed to drink an entire mug and go as far as the lift down the hall before passing out, so that narrowed down the compound. He took a large enough sample, doing one last sweep of the apartment before leaving the way he came, heading back down the hall. He stared for a moment at the lift entrance. No sign of a struggle, most of Stephanie’s personal belongings had been taken with her it seems, but when she passed out she had dropped her phone, its screen cracking and laying within the lift that she had been dragged out of. He leant down and picked out the SD and SIM card that had manged to survive. He made a note to get her a new phone once this was all over with.

With the sound of the ambulance Damian had called arriving, Bruce left the building, heading back to his lab at the Manor. He had asked Dick to inform Tim of what had transpired, and he was dreading returning home. History was uncomfortably repeating itself, but this time he resolved to keep Tim involved in the search and recovery. Especially the recovery. He knew Tim was in a poor place and tended to be overly violent when Stephanie was involved. If Bruce could find a way to keep him away from whomever had taken her… but Bruce doubted this would be possible. He had to keep Tim focused on staying with her, helping her heal. Leave the punishment to the others.

His arrival at the cave was immediately met with chaos. Cassandra, who was trying to calm her brother down, looked desperately for help from their adoptive father. Tim threw her off and burst over to Bruce, gripping his arm.

He was crying.

“Tell me you have a lead. Please. Please.”

Bruce could not deal with Tim’s broken expression and tried to be as factual and cool as he could. “Maybe. Verity Keegan seems to have been used by Jervis Tetch to drug Stephanie with a high concentration of Flunitrazepam.”

“The date rape drug?” Cassandra asked. It was the wrong thing to say, as Tim’s face drained of the colour that crying had brought to his cheeks. Bruce brought the conversation back on track as quickly as he could.

“Oracle is checking, but the clips in her hair seem like something up the Mad Hatter’s inventory.”

Tim nodded frantically. “Then where was he last seen?”

“He hasn’t.” Dick’s voice floated over from the computer. “He hasn’t been seen for months. Escaped with a bunch of others in last March’s Arkham breakout. We got most of the big guns back in, but Jervis has stayed hidden for the past five months.”

Oracle’s mask popped up in the upper right computer monitor. “Robin handed over the equipment he used on that poor woman. It’s got Jervis’ stamp all over it. I can work on tracing him down, but I’ll need another pair of hands. Red Robin, you okay to work with me?”

Tim managed to compose himself enough to confirm he would be around as soon as possible. Bruce silently thanked Barbara for giving him work that would keep him off the streets.

“Robin and Black Bat will follow any leads provided by Oracle. Cassie go with Tim and meet up with Oracle and Robin. Nightwing… I want you with me. I have a theory, but I need a second eye on it.”

Dick looked deeply saddened by the request in a way that Tim couldn’t understand. It was one of their moments where the pair would converse without a word passing between them, something that even Cassandra could only get the drift of, never the specifics.

“Yes. Of course.” He responded quietly.

“Good. You are all dismissed then. Let’s bring her home.”

 


 

Stephanie woke to find she was in essentially a shed on a cheap and squeaky mattress. Her brain and limbs were still foggy, and she was unable to lift her head. She let out a broken sigh. Her wrist and cheek hurt, as if she had fallen at an awkward angle.

More pressingly, there were a pair of hands groping her, and she couldn’t raise her own to push them off.

“All awake?” She didn’t know that voice.

“Not really.” She managed to respond. It should have been biting, but instead it was soft and slurred.

The voice breathed a laugh, hands sliding further down her torso and their face came down from above her. They rested their cheek against hers, before turning to kiss it sweetly.

“…Tim?” No. It wasn’t Tim. The voice was wrong. The hands were wrong. Too clunky. Too… grabby. Tim never held her like that, even when they…

“Mmm?”

Stephanie realised with a jolt her inner and outer voices were getting muddled again. She managed to ask, “What… What happened?”

“I’ll tell you when you wake up properly okay?” An overly large forehead and tiny eyes came into view, upside down, and smiling. It just made Stephanie more confused. He circled round and sat on the bed next to her.

“…Bruce…I was on the phone to…” She managed to say, desperately trying to sit up, but it wasn’t working, everything moved too slow and too weakly.

He looked away from her face momentarily, and gently pushed her shoulders back against the mattress. His hands didn’t leave her skin, trailing down once more. She gasped at him at him momentarily cradling her breasts before she cried out at his hands slipping under her dress and leggings. She managed to grab his wrist.

“…Stop.”

And he did, hands moving away to his own lap once more. “Sorry. Yes. That wasn’t appropriate. Should ask permission first.”

There was a moment of silence, before the pieces clicked together in Stephanie’s head.

“I… am not going to leave here am I?”

The man smiled, gaunt and looking like a skull’s grimace. “You won’t want to.” The smile faded, and instead he just looked hungry. With that he leant over, reaching for something on a table behind her head.

“I had something made for you. Brand new. It will look lovely in your hair.”

“No.” She tried to reach up to push away, but he easily swiped her hands away.

“Don’t be rude. It’s a present. It’ll make you happy. Promise.”

That made her start to cry. “No! No no no no no.”

Then the clip was fastened to her hair and skull, and then she blacked out.

 


 

They were having an argument, Dick and Bruce, on their way back to the cave. Bruce’s suspicions had been confirmed regarding the Court’s involvement. They had been funding and supplying Jervis with technology, but for what in return, they were not sure. Jervis had made the choice to target Stephanie, another blonde young woman in his endless quest for an Alice figure who did not exist. If anyone knew where Jervis was hiding, it would be the Court.

But what to do about it?

“I am not having you go near them. This all may be just one giant ploy to swap one of my children for another.”

Dick immediately bristled at both he and Stephanie being referred to as kids, that Stephanie was somehow less valuable than he, but he recognized the strain Bruce was under.

“What then? We just let them get away with allowing Jervis do God knows what to Stephanie, huh? You’ve seen the previous girls’ corpses? He wrecks –”

“Oracle and Tim will find her before it happens. They’re the best.”

“Yes, they are but we are ignoring the best lead we have because of you being afraid!”

“That’s enough Dick!” He yelled as they screeched into the Batcave. He opened the door on the passenger side and waited for Dick to exit. “I am not having anyone going near the Court. There’s another way. There always is. We’ll find her. Get out and help Oracle from this end. When Jervis is found I want you and I to take him down. No-one else. Understand?”

Dick threw himself out of the car with a curse. “Fine. Whatever. If nothing shows up by the end of the night…” He threatened. Bruce didn’t respond, whirling the car around and shooting back out of the cave.

Mouth screwed up into a sneer, Dick stalked away up the stairs. He stopped when he saw Tim standing at the top of the steps, eyes wide and confused. He looked sixteen again, like his father had just died once more. The guilt from lying to him came back full force and Dick couldn’t bear to meet his eyes.

“How much of that did you hear?” He managed to ask.

“…Nothing. Not over the sound of the waterfall.” Tim scuffed his feet. “Alfred is upstairs. I needed to grab for Babs some schematics… Any luck?” He dared ask.

Dick knew he was about to make a mistake. He knew, but looking at Tim, he couldn’t stand the thought of lying.

“I need you to come somewhere with me. No-one else can know. Not yet. I need to show you something.”

“Bruce doesn’t want you to.”

“No. But we’ve been lying to you. I won’t do that anymore.”

Tim paled, if such a thing was possible, and nodded, following his big brother to his motorcycle.

 


 

Tim was more than confused when they reached his old home, he was utterly lost at what seemed like a pointless diversion. Dick parked the bike outside the front door and without checking to see if Tim were following, opened the front door. Tim rushed to follow, cape sweeping out behind him. They walked into the main lobby and into the lift. Once upon a time there was someone who worked the lift, now it was deemed suitable enough for the user to push the correct floor number. As they rose up through the building, Tim found his voice, albeit it was still quiet and nervous.

“What…what does this have to do with Stephanie?”

Dick didn’t reply, but his mouth twisted morosely. He led them to Tim’s old home, opening the front door with a key that Tim had no idea he’d obtained. They walked into the apartment. It was dark now, around 10 at night, so Tim switched on a lamp or two.

“Dick…”

“The past few weeks, Bruce and I have been investigating the Court of Owls,” Dick began, walking away towards Tim’s father’s office. “We wanted to get a list of names of members past and current. At the very least, we could get started on weeding them out, for anything they could be caught for. Tax avoidance, murder, rape, human trafficking, fraud. Anything. The electronic smuggling that Cassandra and Stephanie busted the other day at the docks, it was supplied by the Court for Tetch. He’s on their… payroll, but what for we don’t know. He gets the material he needs for his devices, and the means to take Stephanie, but we don’t know what the Court wants him to do in return.”

Made sense so far, but… “Why are we at my old house?” Tim was almost afraid to ask. They stopped by the bookshelves. Dick looked at him with such intense pity Tim didn’t know what to do in response. He could only feel a pit of dread growing in his gut.

“Did you know your mom kept diaries? How much of your parents’ stuff did you go through after they died?”

It would have been a callous question if it weren’t Dick asking.

“I… I couldn’t bring myself to touch most of it. I didn’t have much to do with anything with my mom’s stuff after she was murdered. Dad gave me her jewellery; said I could give it to my family one day. But… no, I haven’t really touched her things. I took our photos and his work stuff from the computer after Dad died… The books, the stuff from the digs and travels… I don’t know. I just couldn’t.”

Dick turned away then, reaching behind a line of books and pulled out a diary. Before he handed it over, he took off his mask and looked Tim straight in the eye.

“Swear you won’t lie to me now.”

Tim stared back, the dread in his stomach making him almost afraid of Dick. He took off his cowl. If it had been any other time, Tim would have scoffed at his brother, but seeing the haunted look in Dick’s eyes made him respond solemnly.

“I swear.”

It seemed to be enough, and Dick opened the diary, handing it over. Tim felt like crying for no clear reason. He didn’t want to be reading his mother’s notes, he wanted to find Stephanie.

But as he read through the pages, he muttered, “This is the year your parents died.”

Dick sighed sadly and nodded for Tim to continue. He turned through pages, going back to March. Dick’s parents had been murdered a few days before his ninth birthday, and a few weeks before one of European dates for Mother’s Day that the Circus celebrated. One of the last conversations Dick had with his parents was discussing a present he was making for his mother.

Tim reached the 13th of March and gaped at the words his mother had scribbled. He heard Dick’s breathing stop as Tim read through what was in front of him. His mother had no sympathy for Dick, no concern over the murdered aerialists, not even a worry over a toddler aged Tim for having seen two people fall to their deaths. There was, instead, a visible disappointment in what had occurred, and a worry that Dick was going to get adopted before he could ‘come home’. Janet clearly wanted Dick to get lost in the system, or for the Drake’s to take him home themselves, and she mentioned that Jack had laughed it all off, saying they’d just have to wait for the next gifted kid to come along to fill ‘the gap’. Whatever that meant.

Tim flipped forward a page of two, to when Dick was formally taken home by Bruce from the centre. All his mother had written in that date was two damning sentences that had been crossed out so harshly she had ripped through to the next page.

The Court’s not pleased. He can’t belong to us for some time now.

“…No.”

Tim looked up at Dick, who had started breathing again, albeit shallowly and unevenly. His eyes were wet. Not with sadness for himself though. He was looking at Tim with such a look of pity that is caused his heart to break from the panic.

“They were… when we went to see you. What… were they checking on your progress or…?”

Dick managed a nod. Tim frantically whirled through pages to see if there was anything else, but there was nothing as damning as his mother’s unfeeling March entries. He knew his mother to rarely lose her composure, so the events of that March must have truly irked her to write it down. Callous. And his father. Hadn’t he cared?

“Why didn’t I know about them? Bruce said when he was in the labyrinth there were children watching. Why wasn’t I treated like them? If they were members, I would have known right from the start… right?” He was desperately trying to find a reason, any reason, for Janet’s notes to have been a misunderstanding. Dick did not seem convinced.

“We don’t know. Maybe they weren’t privileged enough, maybe they didn’t want you to be part of it.” As if that were reassuring.

“My parents knew.” Tim choked out. Dick remained still, watching Tim process it all. “They knew, and…and they were going to hurt you… My dad… when he lost our money and business…when he found out I was Robin…”

His breathing got increasingly faster and shallower. Dick reached out to remove the diary from Tim’s hands, but Tim sharply pulled it back. He bit his lip and stared at Dick. Dick blinked, eyes wide and glassy, not sure who the betrayed expression on Tim’s face was directed towards, him, or his parents.

“I’m sorry Tim. I couldn’t hide this from you.”

“How long have you known?”

“Only a day.”

Tim nodded, as if the length of time Bruce and Dick held on to this knowledge made a difference.

Bruce.

Tim’s eyes widened. “Why did he not want to tell me?”

Dick gagged on his response, knowing that Tim was referring to their adoptive father. “You… He needed more time to figure out how to –”

“He doesn’t trust me.” The words were hollow, empty.

“He wants Stephanie home first. He doesn’t want anyone approaching the Court. They’re manipulative as hell Tim. We don’t know what they want yet.”

“They want you. They’ve always wanted you.” Tim shook his mother’s diary in Dick’s face, emphasising the point. “And if they’ve been funding Tetch then they know where he is.”

“No. Tim. I said to Bruce we’d give him until morning to find Stephanie. If we can avoid…”

“Now you’re just parroting him!” Finally, Tim yelled, anger overflowing. Dick stood there as he shouted. Tim so rarely raised his voice; anger wasn’t something that came naturally to him like it did Dick and Jason. He was like his mother in that regard. Tim had been somewhat proud of the fact, taking after her in some way after she’d gone. Now he obsessed over how he’d not ended up more like them.

“Don’t do this Dick! You tell me my parents were part of a monstrous organisation, one that wants to hurt my brother, kill my father and has gotten my girlfriend kidnapped and potentially murdered, and you expect me to not confront them? It is cruel what you’ve done, and you know it!”

Dick, unnervingly, kept his cool, though he still looked miserable. “Six hours. Give Barbara six more hours to find her. Saving Stephanie is the priority, not punishing faceless men.”

“She could be dead in six hours. The Court knows where she is! Black Mask had her for days whilst Bruce ran around aimless! I don’t want her to be in pain and you want me to just wait as if–”

He cut himself off abruptly, glaring down at the diary. His breathing got harsher, his hands shaking, until with a sudden jerk, he ripped out several pages of the diary.

It must have been slightly therapeutic, because he continued to rip and tear, wrecking the binding, finally throwing aside the book. He shoved past Dick and began to destroy the library.

Watching sadly, Dick did nothing to stop Tim’s destruction. Fragile items that Tim’s father had brought home on assorted digs from throughout the world were thrown the floor with aggressive shoves and shattered against the wooden floor. He stood on books, ripping and tearing pages as he moved. All his mother’s diaries were torn to shreds whilst Tim cried and Dick looked on, neither aiding nor stopping what could have been seen as a tantrum. Tim moved on to the curtains then, ripping the poles out of the wall, leaving the room looking like a bomb had gone off.

It seemed the office was not enough, as Tim then moved across the house, pulling things off tables, kicking furniture until it was broken, and generally destroying anything he could get his hands on. Dick followed, ensuring he wasn’t hurting himself, but not interfering. Finally, Tim reached his father’s bedroom. He moved almost as if he were drunk, gripping the walls, but Dick recognized it as just being blind with grief. Tim threw himself into his father’s closet, pulling out a heavy safe. He entered a code and reached in, dragging out tangled jewellery.

“Stephanie can have them. All of them. Mom has her wedding ring in the grave, everything else is here. Steph can do what she wants with them, wear them, sell them, bury them, I don’t care. They don’t belong to me anymore. Take them for me?”

Dick could spy assorted rubies and amethysts in amongst the diamonds and pearls. It was sadly fitting for the couple. He couldn’t refuse, so bent down, and as carefully as he could began packing them away into his assorted pockets and compartments.

One of the necklaces, a long gold chain with an owl figurine as a pendant, had bright rubies for eyes.

Tim left the bedroom, seemingly leaving anything that had belonged to his stepmother, Dana, untouched. His destruction was at the very least methodical. Dick eventually emerged to find him crumpled on the floor of the kitchen. Jack had died there, and Tim had found him on the floor, crying into the gaping wound in the man’s chest.

Finally, Dick went over and held him whilst he cried.

“I’m so sorry. I’m sorry for what we would have done to you.” Tim said, burying his face into Dick’s neck. How like Tim to have his world view come crashing down, and yet here he was apologising to Dick for something he had taken no part in. Had no knowledge of. Dick tried to find the words to assuage Tim’s purposeless guilt.

“Tim… we are all with Bruce because we didn’t become what our family wanted from us. Cassandra, Damian, Stephanie… one look at who their parents are and how they were raised you’d think they were certain for specific path… and yet they chose to be here, with us, helping people. Hell, my great grandfather has certain expectations that I will literally die to avoid.” Dick held Tim tighter, constricting his arms whilst his chest heaved with tears.

“We experience trauma, then we make a choice in the face of that pain. Gotham is a shithole sure, but it doesn’t make us chose our life path.” He tried to reword what he and Cassandra had spoken of, upon her return to Gotham from Hong Kong, to make Tim understand. “That’s still in our hands. You can take that pain and promise to protect others from it. Or you push it on to others. Bruce made the former, that’s why he puts on that cowl, Jason made the latter, and now he can’t come home at all. Neither option makes the pain stop. But you made a choice too, right from the start, and ever since then you keep making the same choice. Consciously or not. You want to help Bruce, yeah? That’s why it started. I suppose you can imagine your parents are rolling in their graves but… Robin was always about family, our family. I named myself Robin because it was my mother’s nickname for me. I couldn’t hold on to much from them – life as a nomad doesn’t let you build up much stuff – but I could take her love, and give it a new shape. A new home. We chose that home. You did not choose your parents, or their actions. We can choose to make their wrongs right though.”

Dick pulled back, cradling Tim’s face. “Do you understand?”

Tim was staring at him with a sort of awe that Dick hadn’t been on the receiving end of for nearly four years. Tim sniffed, eyes starting to dry.

“I think I get… why you gave Robin to Damian now.”

Dick cooed and kissed Tim’s forehead. “He needed a home. He needed hope. I’m sorry I took it from you in order to give it to him.”

“I got it back. Took a while but…” Tim stated, resting his chin on Dick’s shoulder. They stayed still for a moment, whilst Tim eyed the house. “Six hours. Then I will go to the Court. Alone. They want you with them and to do it they’ve let Steph be taken. They can’t have either. I won’t let them. I… I also want to know what my parents were to them. Was my dad forced to leave after we lost our money and mom?”

Dick sighed. “Please take Cassandra with you. For me.”

Tim pulled away then, leaving Dick sitting on the floor. He shook his head emphatically.

 “No. I can’t. I’m not taking your advice this time.”

He looked around the town house, the destruction he had done in his grief. He didn’t feel much guilt.

“Thank you, Dick, for telling me. It would have only hurt more the longer I didn’t know.” The smile he gave his older brother was utterly hollow, but Dick believed him regardless.

 

Chapter Text

Stephanie felt sure she had gone off her rocker bonkers.  She was six feet under in the ocean, noises and sights cloudy, dark and muted.  But then her brain would wander, and she was living a scenario that felt too real.

If she had her full wits about her, she would have realised it was a similar sensation of being under the Black Mercy’s influence.  She had fought her way out of those illusions then, although she’d had help from the outside.  Her mother had given her a blood transfusion on the advice of a ‘Dr Midnight’ (Tim.  Of course, it was Tim.  In-jokes aside about his costume, he had never admitted to it, but whenever it was brought up, he looked so distinctly uncomfortable Stephanie knew that if she pressed him further, he would confess).  The point was, there had been people on the other side helping her wake up.

Now the only person around was the one trying to keep her under. 

Every time she felt her limbs moving against her will, every time she tried to resist it, a violent throb would go through her head, and she’d be tugged deeper downwards and –

She was holding her baby.  Not the one she’d let go of at age fifteen.  No, this was hers to keep.  Tufts of black hair, cheeks chubbier than the Michelin Man, and a smile that matched her own, eye creased up into crescents.  A little beauty. 

He seemed quite content to be held on her lap, gurgling and muttering to himself and he played with the buttons on her dress. 

Stephanie… was sure he couldn’t have been hers.  She couldn’t have children.  Not after her torture of four years ago.  Her organs had gotten too chewed up.  They’d been cut out…

As she thought that, her dress began to flood red.  She couldn’t bring herself to scream, but she grasped her gut, feeling her innards trying to escape from a slit that ran horizontally below her belly button.  Her c-section scar?

The blood was very bright and very warm.   

Everything was soaking wet.  It smelled awful.  It tasted awful.

No… The taste wasn’t blood.  Something else.

Another throb, and she was in a park in the city.  Sat on a swing.  She looked to her right, fully expecting someone else to be sat next to her, but there was no-one.  There was a melting ice cream on the ground.

There felt like a tugging on her hair, but for some reason she couldn’t reach it.  She felt around, finding nothing, but the pull remained.  It was causing a headache.  She flipped her head down between her legs, shaking her long hair out.  No luck. 

With another flick, she righted herself and swung for a bit.  This was the park Tim and her spent part of their first date.  They’d held hands and swung back and forth, talking about nothing of importance, but it was one of her happiest memories. 

Where was he?  He was supposed to be next to her.

She stood up, looking around.  It was dusk, and the park was empty.  No-one on the roundabout, no-one on the climbing frames, no-one by the –

Black Mask was in front of her, gun held to her temple.  Her legs felt as if they were being pulled apart.  A shot rang out, and she felt her brain scatter.  She hit the floor. Something was grabbing her legs… pulling –

The door of the closet slammed shut.  Her mother and father were arguing, for once her mom giving as good as she got.  It didn’t last long, as a ferocious smack made her fall silent.  What they were arguing about Stephanie couldn’t tell.  Money – likely.  Her father’s actions – possibly. There was a sharp stabbing pain then, like being ripped in two, though she couldn’t pinpoint from where.  She tried to stand up, to force the door open, and she fell after she grasped the handle, unable to force it open.  The pain was coming between her legs.  She didn’t scream.

She was dragged backwards into the dark. Blood trailed behind her.

 


 

 

Six hours had passed, and they were no closer to finding Stephanie.  Tim had reached a certain level of numbness after four hours.  Doing all the Barbara requested of him, acting as a soundboard for her to bounce ideas off.  Watching the clock. 

It was time for him to go.

He stood up then, leaving Barbara to her search.

“Tim?”

“Be right back.  Need to clear my head.”

She didn’t respond, just turned back to her monitor, looking at assorted CCTV footage across the city. 

Tim jumped off the roof of the clock tower, heading towards a sewer grate.  For an organisation that prided themselves on being above the rabble of Gotham, they seemed to prefer planting themselves underground.

Bruce and Dick had done a lot of digging into the Court the past few weeks, the biggest of which aside from identifying the members was also where they’d slithered off to after the first time Bruce had blown their labyrinth the smithereens. 

He didn’t know if they would be expecting him.  He didn’t know if they had been banking on this being his reaction, if they had planned the entire thing with Jervis from the start.  It was a lot to hope would happen – the Jervis would do as he was told, that Dick would inform him of his links to the court, that Damian, Bruce, Dick, Cassandra, himself and Barbara would all be unable to find Stephanie… but he knew the court was patient, that they always had a plan for a plan.  Tim was triggering a trap and he knew it.  It was the only chance he had of finding Stephanie however, before it was too late.  He had to try.

He soon reached what would be an entrance to their…lair… nest…roost…whatever.  It was a flat disk of a door, carved, but not enough to scream COURT OF OWLS BEHIND THIS DOOR KNOCK FIRST PLEASE.  Tim paused and wondered how best to blow it up. 

He didn’t have to in the end.  He was grabbed out of the shadows by two Talons, and dragged in.

He was pulled to what looked like a boardroom.  Everything was white and black.  White tiled walls, black wood floor, white tabletop, black lounge chairs.  Tim didn’t know whether to stand or sit.  There were five people sat at one end, two women, three men, all masked.  Tim looked at their hands to see both women were elderly, liver spots and wrinkles marring their jewelled fingers.  The men were a mix, one young, another middle aged, and the final, the one sat at the head of the table, looked positively decrepit.

They waited until the Talons left the room, so secure in their knowledge that Red Robin was not here to harm them. 

The door was shut, and the lighting flickered.

“You were paying Jervis Tetch to perform a task for you.”  Tim began.

“Yes.” The elderly man was the one to speak.

“In return for tech that would enable him to kidnap someone.”

“Miss Brown?  Yes, that wasn’t the initial agreement, but he insisted on her after performing his job for a few weeks.  At first it was solely in return for the electronics needed for his brain alteration technology.”

“Where is she now?”

They paused.  One of the two woman responded, though which Tim couldn’t tell.

“Are you not interested in what we wished Mr Tetch to do for us?”

“I can beat it out of him later.  Where’s Stephanie Brown?”

“With Mr Tetch one presumes.”  The youngest man replied.  Bored. 

Tim was struggling not to let his voice crack, to try and remain stoic and impenetrable, but the emotional toil of the past ten hours was catching up to him.

“And where is he?”

“Let me ask you, if I may, a question, Timothy.” The elderly man rose then, and Tim struggled to compose himself.  Of course, they knew.  They knew about Bruce, they knew about Dick.  The rest of the family was easy after that.  “Do you wish for Miss Brown to be returned to you?”

“Of course I do she’s –” He cut himself off.  Showing vulnerability would likely gain him nothing.

“She is very important to you, isn’t she?”  The man’s tone had taken on a distinctive paternal tone, one that he heard from his father from time to time, and Bruce even more rarely.  A sympathetic tone, one that suggested a solution was in hand, and Tim need only ask the right question. 

Tim refused to respond.  Give an inch and they would take a mile.

“Yes, I fear we underestimated that of you.  She seems an awfully sweet girl.  Poor, of course, and with a less than desirable mother and father, even if her family are of Gotham.  But ah, such a blonde beauty.”  He sounded as if he were Tim’s grandfather, approving of the girl he’d brought home to meet the family.  Tim’s feeling of dread made his eyes sting.  He thanked his cowl covering most of his face from these masked monsters.

The middle-aged man, who remained seated, piped up.  His voice was nasally and patronising, and made Tim want to sneer.  “Jervis Tetch was hired to watch you, you silly boy.  Richard Grayson is pretending that he can do us damage, and Bruce Wayne is encouraging him.  It was only a matter of time before you found out about your parents through their digging.  A shame for Jack and Janet, all their efforts to delay the inevitable gone to waste.  We wanted to know when you knew, you see.  It’s unfortunate that Stephanie has ended up in the situation she has.  You should have come to us sooner.”

Every word made Tim want to punch that man until his mask cracked and his brains leaked out.   Stephanie only mattered to them because she mattered to him, and they were mocking him for it.  Like it was Tim’s fault Stephanie was taken. 

Was it his fault?

The elderly man sighed and waved his companion aside.  The final lady spoke up, her voice gentle and reassuring.  “We will find and bring her here.  We have some good doctors amongst our members, as I’m sure you can imagine, to ensure she is alright.  I know you may not trust us to do so, but it is all a big mistake Timothy.  We will do our part to fix our blunder.  Stephanie will be safe here, with you, before the hour is out.”

“No.”  Tim said, clenching his hands repeatedly, over and over.  “You tell me where Tetch is, and that’s it.  I swear I won’t pursue you anymore.  I just want –”

The youngest man cut in then, still apathetic to the conversation.  “We will not tell you where Tetch is because we do not trust your family to keep to your promise.  You do not trust us to bring her to you alive and well.  Seems we’re at a bit of an impasse.”

“And for every moment we disagree, the poor girl is being harmed.  Mr Tetch… he can be awful to the girls he captures, no?” One of the women stood up and reached over, grasping Tim’s hand.  He stared at her hold, where she rubbed reassuring circles with her thumb on his gloves.  “Let us bring her home, mm?  You have other questions surely?  We can take our time and answer them.” 

“…Once Stephanie is here.”

“Once Stephanie is here, in your arms, and healing from whatever has been inflicted on her.  We swear.”  The eldest man confirmed it.  Tim’s desperation reached it’s peak, and he nodded.  He had the feeling a few of the members smiled in response.  It was not very reassuring.  “Very good.  The Talons will fix this terrible mistake of ours.  Poor girl has suffered enough I’d say.”  The men got up to leave, whilst the woman that held his hand led him out the room.  The other lady stayed behind, moving to grab a glass of some honey liquid on a nearby table.

“We’ll go wait somewhere nicer than that room, hmm?  I’m sure we have some nice spare rooms with a bed where you can rest…  You do not sleep very, much do you?  Everything is more manageable after a good night’s sleep.” This lady seemed to be determined to be as maternal as possible.  Despite himself, Tim squeezed her hand. 

The lady and the elderly man lead him through assorted overly bright corridors, ones that hurt his eyes to walk down.  The lady held on tight, not enough to be uncomfortable, but enough to make her presence known as a constant.  The eventually reached another door, and electronic one that slid open with a thumb print.  The room was more like a suite than anything, larger than the apartment Tim had bought for he and Stephanie.  He tried not to balk at them drawing him over the baroque seats.  They were gilded and lovely, though not particularly comfortable looking.  The lady tugged him down next to her, then before he could understand what was happening, she pulled off his cowl.

“There we are.” She said, combing her fingers through his mess of hair.  Tim froze under the attention, then finally ripped away from her grip, but not his position on the seat with her.  The elderly man pottered over, holding three glasses of what looked like whiskey, setting them down on the table.  He also collapsed into a chair, separate from Tim and the woman.  Neither of them had taken off their masks, and Tim doubted they would.  He gripped the underside of the seat tight, as if he could pour his anger and confusion and fear into his grip and into the wood itself.  He wasn’t breathing correctly at all, and without his cowl the pair could see how sick he looked, bloodshot tired eyes and purple bags that made him look half dead.  Stephanie often joked that his skin was the colour of a corpse, but having seen a Talon under those black masks, he imagined right now not much differed between the two aside from eye colour. 

Both adults picked up their drinks, but neither took a sip.  They likely couldn’t whilst they refused to take off their masks. Instead they nursed them.  The man leant over and picked up Tim’s, grabbing one of his hands and forcing the glass into his grip.  Tim stared down into it, utterly not in the mood to indulge them.

Instead he remained quiet, under their gazes, breathing broken and near tears, waiting for them to keep their promise.  It wouldn’t feel like the right choice until he saw her again.  Alive. 

“Your father didn’t like her very much, did you know?”

Tim stared at the man, mouth open in wordless anger.  The elderly man shifted, sitting upright.  “To be pregnant at fifteen –”

“That is none of your business you fucking –”

The lady coughed loudly, cutting Tim off.  “Easy, easy.  What your father thought does not mean we agree, does it darling?”

“…No.  God knows how often Jack and Janet disagreed with us and each other.  A little pair of rebels.  Jack cared too little and Janet cared too much.  She had such grand plans for you Timothy.  She was so upset when we were first denied Richard, she wanted so much for him to be yours.”

Yours. As if Dick was a goddamn puppy at Christmas.  Tim’s voice was bitter when he responded.

“It didn’t matter much in the end.  He’s my brother now, problem solved.”

“Hmm.  But not in the way we’d like.  Things got so complicated, with the murder of Mary and John.  With the loss of Richard to us, Jack was less interested in the Court, and decided to keep you in the dark until you were old enough to know, to make the decision for yourself on what was to be done with Gotham.  You should have seen the arguments he and Janet would get into… She always thought you’d want to be with us.  You were so alone for such long periods; we could have been a family to you.  We wanted to be.”

Sweet words.  That was all.  They only cared about their own and Tim knew that.  They’d treated Stephanie like a disposable doll just because they’d needed somebody to watch him, and if they had their way Dick would be stripped down of everything that made him so loved, in order to have a dead assassin.  One that would have been property.  His property.

Against his better judgement, Tim asked a question.  “What do you want… in return for saving Stephanie.”

“We’re fixing a mistake Tim.  That’s all.” Said the woman.  She grasped the hand that half-heartedly held the glass, pulling it up to his lips, trying to encourage him to drink.  He resisted stubbornly, like a mule, and she sighed like a disappointed mother.  She tried a different tactic, resting a hand on his shoulder.  “Do you understand…why Richard matters to us so much?”

“He’s the one that got away.  Doing everything he can to interfere with your plans, as a member of the only family in Gotham you can’t buy off.  I think wounded pride has a lot to do with it.”

Neither Owls spoke, and he could feel the melancholy coming off them in waves.  They seemed genuinely sad for him, like he was the one being lied to.

“No, sweetheart.”  Her tone was infuriatingly patient and soft.  “Gotham is such a corrupt city.  From up high and down low.  You try, you and your family, to fix the problems where you can on in individual level, and by pouring money into your projects and charities on a structural… But it’s not enough.  The privileged few trod down on the small and weak, and some of those oppressed lash out, only they can’t harm those up top, so those lowest are made to suffer instead.  People like Stephanie.  Richard is supposed to be our justice.  High or low…”

Tim knew where this was heading. “He’s your sacred executioner for what the Court thinks are crimes.  You don’t know best.  And Dick wouldn’t choose that life for himself.  It’s wrong.”

“But you do know best.” Said the male Owl. 

Tim didn’t know why he was bothering.  These people were so ingrained in their own world, so convinced of their superiority, not a word from him would change that.  He could be just as stubborn as them though.  Just as deluded.

“I never claimed to.” He bit back.

“Ah, but you do.  And you do know what’s best.  Better than Bruce at the very least.”  The lady patted his other hand, the one that was still clinging to the sofa.  “Or do you think we do not know of your arguments with him.  Remember?  With your father’s murderer?”

“… I was lashing out.” 

That was a mistake.  He’d wanted Harkness to die, he still did, but he wouldn’t be the one to do it.  He wouldn’t.  Regardless of what he thought the man deserved.  He couldn’t stomach the thought of disappointing Bruce and Cassandra and Dick and Stephanie… he couldn’t stomach the thought of the Batman with a gun.  He thought he knew a slippery slope when he saw one now.  He thought he knew when to stay far away.  He’d lost his temper with Harkness.  That was…that was all.

“But you weren’t wrong in your convictions.  You told Stephanie that you should be able to do as you please just the other day.  And you are right.  The rest of the world cannot judge you, or those you share your life with.  You see?  Your mother knew, she knew how broken the structure of the city was, and she knew how clever you were.  She wanted you to one day break that cycle of pain.  Richard was the tool to help you do it.  Instead you both ended up as Robin and it broke your father’s heart.  It can be fixed though.  All of it.”

“Dick is my brother not my… he doesn’t belong to me.  I can’t give him to you.”

He should have been keeping his mouth shut.  These people could not be reasoned with, they were made up of human traffickers, rapists… the most morally bankrupt of people, and yet the lauded themselves as somehow righteous.  He couldn’t anger them though.  He needed Stephanie, and then he needed a way to get them both out of this hole.  Maybe Bruce had discovered he had gone AWOL.  Maybe they’d found Stephanie by now. 

“We wouldn’t ask that of you.  Let’s talk more when Stephanie’s home.  There’s a sedative in your drink.  Please drink it.  It’ll help you sleep, Tim, sweetheart, you look so tired.”

It didn’t matter with the maybes.  He was here, in the heart of the enemy, trusting the un-trustable to stand by their word.  The lady sounded so sad for him, so desperate to make his pain go away, that for a moment he actually believed her.

He stared down into the glass, then threw it back in one gulp.  It burned. 

“Get on the bed Tim,” said the man, an air of finality in his voice.  With a hike of his trousers, he rose, and so did she, pulling Tim up with her.  “We’ll wake you when Stephanie is with you again.”

He found himself being led to the large bed, whereupon he collapsed down.  The woman stroked his hair once more, but under the effects of the drug he couldn’t bring himself to flinch away.

“It’ll all be fixed soon.  You’ll see.”

They left the room, locking the door from the outside, and Tim fell into a dreamless sleep.

Chapter Text

Stephanie was being flung from one vision to another, at different paces, different environments, seemingly at random, never allowing her to find a rhythm to fall into.  She was getting so tired.  She was never able to scream, to verbalise what horrors she was witnessing.  She just had to watch and endure. 

She was getting so tired.

With Black Mask, there had been a focus point to the pain – him.  That ugly skull and stupid suit and whatever tool he wielded in his hands… in her own head there was nothing.  No focus point, no sensations other than the ones she was being forced to feel, and a constant, never subsiding ache at the crown of her head.  Like something had dug in tight, refusing to let go.  Every time she felt herself in the dreams move to investigate, the scenario would alter, usually would some form of violence, each slightly different in its horror, enough to jerk her hands away from their target. 

She had to find a way to focus, but there was nothing.  And she was getting so tired.

She was sat on the bed of her and Tim’s new apartment.  Or rather, what would be their bed, after they had moved in.  He was sat behind her, legs wrapped around her own.  Both were in their pyjamas.  Stephanie was eating small chocolates out of a variety box, straight from the little wrappers.  Tim was mindlessly braiding her hair.

“I think a lot,” He started, “about what you’d have to do for me to hate you.  And vice versa.  I mean, you’ve already broken my heart, twice, and for a long time I didn’t trust you but… I don’t know if I could hate you.”

“To hate someone, they have to hate you back.”  She said, speaking for the first time in these nightmares.  “A mutual dislike that gets spiralled out of control by spite, apathy and anger.  I don’t think I could ever feel that way about you.”

He paused in his braiding.  “You believe that?”

“I know that.” She said, turning her head but not her body to look at him.  She set aside the food.  “Your heart is always in the right place.  Your actions are always understandable.  Even when I get frustrated, I understand.  You can’t hate something you understand.”

“And what about fear?”

“I’m not afraid of you.  Even when you put me in a chokehold thinking I was someone else, when you kicked me in the stomach, right in my scars… no.  Never.”

He smiled then, but it was hollow.  “You’re afraid for me though.”

Her reassuring gaze hardened.  “Sometimes.”  She admitted. 

“Afraid for my health.”  He moved closer, wrapping his arms tight around her.  It felt less like an embrace and more she was being constricted.  “Like I’m three pieces of bad news away from throwing myself off Wayne Tower.  Or giving up on the path you and Bruce and all the others want me to stay on.”

His grip was starting to hurt a little.  She still asked, “Would you have killed him? Harkness?”

He kept his eyes on her for a moment too long.  Uncomfortable silence.  She had her answer then.  She looked away but was unable to move further.

“I get that… anger.  I wouldn’t blame you for it.  I wouldn’t hate you for it.”

“What if there’s no anger behind it.  What if it’s logic?  What if it’s me believing I’m doing the right thing?”

She was unable to comprehend such a thing and looked back at him.  He was still smiling.  “You afraid now?” He asked.

“You wouldn’t –”

“Don’t… lie.  You’re such a liar.  Even to yourself.  You keep lying and pretending everything is hunky dory as if a ‘fake it ‘til you make it’ attitude will work in the long run.  You don’t trust your mother but won’t talk to her about how much she failed you and no amount of tea in the morning or waffles for breakfast will fix that.  You want closure with Bruce that you will never get and you ignore all of my worst impulses because you don’t think I’d let myself be ruled by them.  I need help but you lie to yourself about it.  It’s all lies.”

“It would ruin everything,” She moaned, “Everything I’ve built back up.”

“I thought you’d gotten over that cynicism.  Trust yourself and others a little more, yeah?  We’ll love you all the more for it.”

His tone was direct and no nonsense, and yet Stephanie felt encouraged for this first time since entering the nightmares. 

A sharp stab of pain made her gasp brought it to an abrupt end.  Still no scream from her though.  She tried to throw Tim off then, but he held on tighter.  She gasped at the ache in her head and her arms and her... 

A deep ache in her bones.

“Stephanie,” Tim insisted.  “Listen to me.  You’re being raped.”

“No!”  She cried out, writhing in his arms.  She was too weak, too exhausted to get herself out.

“Stop lying to yourself.  That pain your feeling.  He’s cutting you open.  You’re being raped.  No-one is going to find you.  Get out of your head.” 

She fell back against him, crying.  “No… I’m tired.”

“When you give up and rest you are lost.  I want you home, Cassandra wants you home, Damian and Dick and Bruce and Babs… get out of your head.”

“My head… there’s something in it.”

He moved one of his arms up to rest on her scalp, trying to soothe it.  She groaned and threw her head back, exposing her throat to him as he had done the other night. 

“You need to do it yourself.  I can’t do it for you.”

She brought her hand up and fell backwards, Tim, the bed, her apartment, all gone.  With it came a darkness the left her feeling extremely vulnerable.  She writhed on the floor, no longer strong enough to pull herself up.  She began to cry.  The hard floor underneath her began to grow wet, and she didn’t need to be able to see to know it wasn’t water.  The air smelled of metal and she gagged.  Nobody was coming to help her.  Again.  She was left to die, alone, again.

Anger blinded her then, even to the stench of blood.  The scream that she wanted so badly to give, the one she’d been unable to make for hours, was finally let loose.  A piercing, shrill shriek, and with it she reached up to her hair, and began to pull chunks of hair and scalp out. 

 


 

Stephanie wrenched upwards with a gasp and a cry.  In her hand was Jervis’ clip that he had sunk into her scalp.  She could feel the blood from the head wound beginning to rush down her hairline and neck.  Her breathing was wrecked, hard and gulping in more air.  She looked down to see she had thrown Jervis off her when she awoke, and he lay unconscious in a pile on the floor.

The pain flooded through her then, making her hands shake and drop the device.  She brought her hands down to her stomach, seeing for the first time the blood leaking through her ruined dress.  She’d been stripped of her leggings and shoes at some point, and she knew from the solid aching pain that radiated between her legs that she had been raped.  Scores of wounds were ruining her dress and making it difficult to stand.  She went to move, crying out at the horrid pain that paralysed her muscles, forcing her to grit her teeth and move slower than she would have wanted. 

She could deal with what had happened to her later. She needed to get a hold of Bruce, of Tim and Cassandra, Selina… anyone really.  They must have been looking for her, she hung up on Bruce in such a way she knew they would all be out hunting.  It looked dark out, so who knew how long it had been.  From the dreams and nightmares and visions it felt like weeks. 

She managed to pull herself off the bed, but she was unable to support herself and she collapsed to the floor, legs and arms too damaged to hold her up.  She could see on her arms horrendous bruises that had formed, and on her hands many of her fingernails were missing.  No snapped bones though.  Jervis seemed to derive no pleasure from those sorts of injuries.  The blood loss though was getting to her, and she had a distinct sensation of déjà vu.  That time she had managed to get as far as being found by Bruce.  She would do no different this time. 

She began to crawl, despite her woozy head, malfunctioning limbs and bloody body.  She’d managed to make it halfway across the concrete cold floor when a shadow passed over her.

She froze, thinking Jervis had woken up.  Feet came into view then, and the fear dissipated for confusion.  She was gently, almost reverently, turned over then, cradled in the masked persons arms.  She had enough deduction skills left to realise it was one of the Court of Owls Talons, but why it was here was not clear. 

“The Court of Owls sent me.”  He explained, picking her up gently.  “To bring you to Timothy Drake.” 

She cried out, partly in relief, partly from the pain of her body being jostled, partly from a returned and fierce fear.  What had Tim done? 

The blood loss became too much then, and her head lolled to the side.  She passed out for the journey back to the Court. 

 


 

Cassandra and Damian smashed through the roof of the garage.  It had taken 36 hours since the search began, but Oracle had finally made a lead.  He had wormed his way into a suburban home, holing himself away, and keeping the family that lived in the large house under enough sway to keep them out of the shed.  They arrived to find a desk filled with bits of electronics, a beat-up computer, a pile of discarded plates of food, and a bed covered in drying blood and other liquids.

Jervis and Stephanie were nowhere to be seen.

“Shit.” Black Bart muttered, utterly beside herself.  “Robin, check the blood.”

He did as he was told as Cassandra moved to the computer.  Damian leant down, carefully getting a sample of the blood for Oracle to analyse.  She very quickly confirmed it was Stephanie’s, and despite her clam tone, Damian's breathing spiked. 

Cassandra had managed to pull up various notes and plans on the computer, but there was nothing to indicate Jervis had planned to leave the location.

Robin circled the room.  He eyed the dragged blood that reached the middle of the floor.  From there it moved to the door, but in drips.  She had managed to crawl a distance, before being picked up.  Someone had already taken her.

“The Mad Hatter fled in a hurry.”  Cassandra concluded. “He’s left behind all of his work.  Hidden away again.”

“She’s not dead yet.”  Robin concluded, looking at his sister.  “Someone came for her already.”

“Red Robin?” She asked.  Tim had vanished three hours ago, seemingly determined to find her on his own. 

No.  The Court of Owls.  Nightwing’s voice came over the telecoms.  He sounded miserable and defeated.

Batman’s voice came on next.  He sounded furious, enough to make Damian’s skin crawl.  It was flat and tightly restrained, just one more tap away from exploding.

If the Court has her then, yes, Red Robin is involved.

Robin and Black Bat looked at each other, unsure of what Bruce was talking of. 

Robin and Black Bat are to bring down Jervis.  Oracle, help them track him down.  Nightwing and I will bring Red Robin and Stephanie home.  I want this done by the evening. 

Nobody had any intention of letting him down.  The comms clicked off definitively, and Oracle took over, Babs letting her electronically adapted voice provide some level of control and focus when chasing down Jervis. 

Damian struggled with the reality of what had happened to her.  He had read Jervis’ file, sexual assault of all kinds was amongst his crimes, he knew that, but seeing Stephanie’s congealing blood dripping from the metal frame, hit harder than previous cases he had seen.  This was the girl who had endured endless needling and biting remarks from himself, all because he didn’t understand how someone with as much trauma as her could not turn hateful and cold.  She endured it with gentle snarky retorts, encouragement for a childhood he had been refused, and – if Damian said or did the right thing – a smile which made him feel safe.

She had her anger, of course she did, but she had always made a conscious choice in how she funnelled it.  Her and Richard both had the same attitude to their pain, and at first it had fascinated Damian.  Over time it became the thing he loved most about them.

Damian couldn’t draw his eyes away from the bed.  There was Jervis’ semen mixed in a puddle of blood near the centre of the bed.  Damian couldn’t help himself.  He wrenched over and threw up on the floor, as if he were ten years old again, out on patrol with Dick as Batman. 

Cassandra was instantly at his side, hand in his hair.  She offered no shallow words of comfort.  She was stiff, angry, hurt and petrified.  If she was not to be the one to find Stephanie, then she wanted to be the one to punish the sick man.  She wanted to punch it all out.   To have his blood splatter on the floor.  If she could just channel this anger, the reality could be more tolerable.

“When we find him,” She stated, voice trembling.  “We’ll make him hurt.  Make sure he won’t do this to anyone else.”

Damian nodded, for the first time in years allowing himself to be as vindictive as people believed him to be. 

 


 

Stephanie woke up slowly.  She tried to remain calm, taking mental notes of where she was before she even opened her eyes.  Wherever it was, the surface she was laying on was soft, and she was mostly under covers.  Her right arm was above the duvet, and somebody with long fingers and a young hand was holding her own. 

She was also in a fair amount of pain.  Whatever she had been through, her spine and hips hurt the most.  There was pain radiating from wounds on her legs and arms, long slits to inspect muscles, and a carefully closed wound on her heard, from where she’d tugged the device clean out of her skull. 

Her core though.  Hips, spine and her… her…

It all hurt.  A targeted, deliberate pain from being assaulted.  She began to cry, the realisation of what had been done to her body hitting her full force.  She was alive, and more conscious than she had been for the aftermath of the Black Mask torture, for what is was worth.  She couldn’t remember what Jervis had made her body do.  She had been made to endure a torture for far longer in the past, entirely conscious.  She was lucky it wasn’t a repeat of last time. 

She should be thankful.  Right?

She didn’t feel thankful.

Stephanie opened her eyes, tears flooding down, hoping desperately that a comforting face would be nearby.  She sharply wanted her mother, an urge which never had truly gone away despite how little (through Crystal’s own fault or not) she had been around to comfort her daughter. 

Stephanie managed to tilt her head to the side, noting that, aside from the skull wound, her head was relatively unhurt.  That counted for something too, she reminded herself.

She didn’t find her mother, but Tim was asleep next to her, and it was his hand holding hers. 

“Tim…” She croaked, breaking their hands apart, rising to touch his face.  He curled closer at the stroke but did not wake.  With a cry of pain, she tried to shake him, but the nerve damage radiated through her arm prevented a solid grip.

The sound was enough though, and Tim grunted.  Stephanie called for him again, and his eyes opened. 

Any bleariness that remained in his eyes quickly dissipated when he saw she was awake and in tears.  He seemed utterly amazed that she was next to him.  Was he not awake when she was put next to him?  Or was he moved to her?  Tim moved closer, cradling her face in his hands.  He went to kiss her forehead but paused.  “Is this okay?”  He whispered.

She needed the comfort and wanted to pretend she hadn’t been violated in a way that was going to affect the way people could look and touch her for the rest of her life, so she whispered her confirmation and Tim sealed the gap, pressing his lips softly to her forehead, and then kept them there.  His warm breath spread over her face, smelling of his usual cherry flavour.  It was a comfort and an anchor, and although the pain remained, the horror faded.

For the moment. 

“You’re safe now.  Okay?  He can’t touch you anymore.”

“Hurts…” She managed to state.  He began to shift, always keeping his face close to hers.  He brought one arm over her body, but even the gentle pressure was enough to make her groan. 

“I’m sorry,” and he quickly withdrew his arm, reaching up instead the thumb her cheek.  “You’ll be okay.  We’ll get through it together.  I’ll be here with you this time.”

She nodded, lips pressed together.  She was momentarily distraught at his lingering guilt, but her physical pain didn’t allow her to be distracted for his emotional pain. 

“God, it hurts.”  She admitted.  “I’m sorry Tim, it really…”

“No don’t apologise.” He frantically stroked her hair.  “You’ve done nothing wrong.  Nothing.  I’ll get you some help.  It’s just… I don’t know how to get their attention.  You need to rest a bit more…”

His babbling caught her attention.  Who’s ‘their’?  She remembered who found her then, and her heart stuttered for a beat.

“Tim…  A Talon found me.”

She watched as he gulped nervously.   His eyes shifted away from hers. She noted that he was in his uniform, the cowl down, with marks on his face from where he had been sleeping deeply.  Sleeping in a bed she had presumably been placed in.  Wherever they were.  Tim refused to speak.

“What did you do?” She asked pointedly.

“You were gone for a day.” He answered breathlessly and quickly, as if she would interrupt him (as if she were capable).  “And – and – and… We couldn’t find you.  But we knew that the Court could.  They were the ones giving Jervis the tech shipments.  They sent a Talon to… and the doctors, they’ve seen to you it looks like.  They promised they would heal you up.  It’ll take a while maybe but…But they promised.”

How sounded like a guilty child.  Stephanie may have been in a world of pain, but she still had enough wits about her to put two and two together.  “Why would the Court help you?”

Tim kept his eyes stubbornly on the comforter.  Stephanie grew distressed from his silence, “Tim…” She began to cry again.  “When can we go home? I wanna go home.”  She needed him to remember what was best for her, and pull him out of this frantic state of mind.  She gave him a fixed goal, one that she desperately wanted.

Tim finally looked at her, manic expression fading slightly, and he nodded.  She needed him to get them out of there.  She couldn't do it on her own. 

The door opened then, and three masked people entered the room.  Stephanie was unable to move but felt herself shrink deeper into the mattress.  She realised for the first time that she had been re-dressed in soft shorts and a t-shirt.  Someone, a stranger, had touched while she was unconscious.  The violation hit her again, and she quietly sobbed. 

Tim had enough skill at reading the room to protectively lean over her, one hand by her shoulder, legs curled up, ready to throw himself at any perceived threat.

“Ah,” one of the men began, not the elder one Tim had spoken to last.  This was a different man, younger, with darker skin.  “You are both awake.  Good, good.  We’ll give Stephanie something to reduce the pain.”

“Tim, I don’t want it.” She hissed.  If she could she would have gripped his uniform.  Instead she looked at him desperately, shaking her head.  “Not from them.  Please.”

“She doesn’t want it.” He repeated, moving his torso more over her exposed arm. 

The man sighed, clearly used to dealing with frantic patients.  “I’m not having her in pain unnecessarily.  It’s an opiate, of course it is, but it’ll be a measured dose.  Help me lift her up.”

“No.” Tim’s voice was calm but firm.  She loved him for it.  “I don’t want you touching her.”

“I will pump you full of sedative again if that’s what it takes for me to look after my patient.” The threat lingered for a moment before Stephanie whispered,

“Okay.  Fine.  Promise it’s just a painkiller?”  She needed Tim to be at his best.  She was already useless, whatever they wanted to give her couldn’t make her anymore of a burden to Tim.

The masked man moved to look at her small broken frame under Tim’s cape.  “I promise.  We said we would fix our mistake in letting you be hurt Miss Brown.”

“Let me give it to her.” Tim insisted, drawing the man’s attention away from her.  He knew she didn’t want any more strangers touching her, and she felt her heart rate slow.  With Tim guarding her, she was as safe as could be in a building with a bunch of murderers and rapists.  How useless she felt.  How worthless.       

The doctor paused, then gave his affirmation.  “Very well, a compromise if that’s what it takes.  Here,” and he showed Tim how to administer the injection.  Tim moved to be standing next the bed and held her arm with a steadiness which Stephanie knew did not match the suppressed desperate look in his eyes. 

Stephanie welcomed the blurring of her vision and calming of her mind.  She was exhausted.  She wanted to forget for a while longer what had happened to her, and whatever deal Tim had made in her name.  She didn’t want any dreams, and a drug induced stupor was one way to obtain it.  For a moment, she understood her mother more than she ever had in the past twenty years.  Some part of her brain clicked into place, and then she passed out. 

Tim watched as she slipped under, ensuring her chest continued to rise and fall steadily, watching a slight pulse in the base of her neck throb with each heartbeat.

“Do you want to hear about her recovery?  Or wait a little longer?”

The man oddly reminded Tim of Leslie in his calm bluntness, enough to make him sneer at someone similar being Stephanie’s doctor once more.

 “Shoot.”  He spat out.

The man sighed and moved to sit in a chair by the bed.  Tim remained standing. 

“Her limbs will heal just fine.  They’ll scar, but they are mostly cosmetic damage.  Same for her head. My worry is for her hips, spine and shoulders.  The rape –”

Tim flinched.

“– has wrecked an already fragile cervix.  I know of her sterility, which is just as well all things considered.  We’ll give her all the needed medication she needs for related complications from infections.  But her core… She’ll heal… to an extent.  She’ll have good days no doubt, where she can walk and run and exercise, maybe punch of few nasty people in the face.  But the following days will be worse, where she won’t be able to get out of bed.  Her spinal disks will slip, her hips will dislocate, her shoulder tendons will tear.  She’ll degenerate.  It may take a decade, but her body won’t be of much use before she hits forty.”

“This is all your fault.”  His tone was flat, but an undercurrent of anger ran through.

“It is Jervis Tetch’s fault.  Do not confuse us for the enemy.”

The nerve of this freakshow… Tim whirled to look at the man.

“You said you would fix your mistake!  What’re you suggesting, huh?  How do you fix it?  Throw her in a Lazarus Pit and risk her sanity?  Pump her full of electrum and make her like your Talons?  If you can’t do any more for her then let me take her home.”

“You are home Timothy.”

“No, I am not!” His eyes stung hot with frustration.  “I didn’t even know you guys existed until a year ago!  I didn’t know of my parent’s connection until last night!  You are nothing to me except a bunch of psychopaths who allowed my girlfriend to be hurt because she didn’t matter enough in your minds to even be considered collateral damage.  A group of people my parents had enough presence of mind to hide the truth from me.  You can’t have Dick Grayson, I will not hand him over, and if you can’t do any more for Stephanie Brown then I’m leaving with her.  You haven’t fixed your ‘mistake’ and you never will.  So, forget any of your grand plans for making me willingly join you!”

The doctor was silent, clasping his hands between his legs.  “You are a silly boy.”  He muttered finally.  He stood up and made his way to the door, his two companions following.  “That’s that then. Two month’s resting, then continuing her physiotherapy daily.  Maybe weekly after a year or so.  Be prepared for the mental trauma of being raped and brainwashed too.  That will be its own mountain to pass, one that she never will.  I’ll pass your message on to the grandmaster.  He’ll be by to speak to you soon.” And then the door closed with a definitive click.       

Tim turned to stare at Stephanie asleep, and fell to his knees next to the bed, resting his head by hers.

“I’m sorry Steph.” He whispered.  “Everything’s such a mess.”

Chapter Text

 

Cassandra wasn’t in the mood to stop punching Jervis.   He had passed out a long time ago, but she continued pummelling him.  She could kill him quite easily, but she didn’t want to.  She wanted to keep going until he was on the very brink, only then would she stop and dump him at Arkham.  Robin stood to the side, just watching.  Oracle wasn’t speaking either, letting Black Bat try to work through the anger.

Eventually Damian spoke.  It was small and timid, but it was enough to pull Cassandra away.

“I want to join Batman and Nightwing.  I want to find her.”

Cassandra blinked, allowed herself one more punch, then asked Barbara to inform the police.

Damian stared at the little man on the ground.  It wasn’t enough.  He should be dead.

“We won’t kill him.” Cassandra said, not looking back at him as she stalked off.  With considerable difficulty, Damian followed her.  “It’s not our job.”

“However, we will beat a man until he suffers permanent brain damage.  I am not sure one is superior to the other.”  His tone was snarky, and Cassandra stopped halfway down the alley, turning to look at Robin.

“He hurt her.”

“He should be dead.”

“No.”

“He should.  I am not stating we must be the ones to do the deed, but the fact remains.  He should be dead.”

Cassandra couldn’t bring herself to argue with him.  She looked back at Jervis on the ground.  She knew Bruce had insisted that he and Dick be the ones to bring him in, perhaps because he thought the two could control their tempers better than the others.   It seemed with the revelation that the Court of Owls was involved, he thought himself solely capable of bringing her back.  The sight of the man with a crushed skull, broken limbs and a shattered spinal cord made Cassandra think that maybe he was right. 

They all loved Stephanie too much.  And love could make monsters of people, as often as it could save those from he dark.

“He should.” She admitted.  Pulling out her a grapple, she fixed it to the stairwells climbing the dirty apartment walls.  “Let’s help Batman how we can.”

Barbara’s voice came on, having heard the stilted conversation.  You can help by getting the cave ready for them.  Alfred will need to see to her when they get back.  We still don’t know if she’s alive.

“She is.”  Damian insisted.  Cassandra said nothing in response.  “She is.” He said again, quieter, but no less sure of himself.  Cassandra shot up the side stairs, ready to head towards the Manor.  Damian went to follow her when the sound of police sirens came into range, and he froze.  Cassandra looked down at him, and he shook his head.  With a reluctant sigh, she let him be, shooting off amongst the rooftops.  Pulling out the trackers, Damian checked the location of his eldest brother and father and decided to pursue them instead, heading out to the centre of the city.

 


 

 

Tim didn’t get much peace with Stephanie.  Later the elderly man and lady from earlier entered, a Talon behind them.   Tim’s tantrum had made them nervous.  He couldn’t bring himself to look at the trio.  He remained where he was, kneeling on the bed, holding Stephanie’s hand. 

“You know we’re patient Tim.  We can wait another twenty years if need be for you to realise this is your home.” The old man stated.  There was no argument to be had, Tim saw he was speaking the truth.  “However, your brothers have arrived, along with the Bat.  I’d very much prefer it if he didn’t blow up another one of our homes.”

Tim looked up at the man, sneering defiantly.  “Bring them here then.”

“We’d really rather keep them outside.”  Said the lady.  Her voice shook from fear as she said it, but if she hoped it would endear her to Tim, she was foolish.  He knew he owed them nothing.

“Then they’ll wreck everything in their way to get through to us.”  Of that Tim was also certain.  Bruce had ways of just ploughing through, like a sledgehammer, when he knew one of his Robin’s was in danger. 

It seemed the Court also knew.  A small pause ensued, and he turned to his wife as they muttered back and forth between themselves.  The door to the suite was soundproof, but Tim could imagine Dick screeching and smashing around outside, Damian generally causing havoc, distracting and smacking anyone who caught his eye, and Bruce, no doubt, holding one hapless man up by the throat.  For a family that struggled so much with verbal affirmations, the physical violence that ensued with one of them was harmed was oddly, disturbingly, comforting and reassuring. 

“Very well.  I guess it is time for you to leave.”  Tim refused to sigh from relief, not until they were back in the Manor.  It was a good thing he didn’t relax, because the man continued.  “However, a word of warning.  Your father, Jack, lost the plot a little with the death of your mother.  To crash and burn all that money just two years after her death…to settle for his physiotherapist as a second wife, to prefer spending all his life digging up worthless dirt…  We all very much hope you take more after Janet.  You have ambitions Timothy.  Ones you cannot do alone.”

Tim’s eyes had migrated back to Stephanie during the man’s monologue. “I’m not alone.”

“You really think Bruce will ever make more than a cosmetic change to Gotham’s corruption?  Where else will you turn?  The League of Assassins?  We know how interested in you they are currently.  What a good puppet you’d make.  Or maybe you’ll give up your grand ideas, move to suburbia with your broken girl, and live out the rest of your days as un-noteworthy as the other ninety-nine percent… How disappointed Janet would be.  Don’t be weak like your father was.”

“He isn’t.”  The lady answered for him.  “Even if it takes another decade, he’ll come home.  Him and Richard both.  I promise you that.”

In that moment Tim really couldn’t care less what his dead mother of seven years thought of him, and he was in no mood to defend his father’s honour.  He’d never really known his parents, not truly, and unlike Dick and Bruce who knew of the inherent goodness of their parents, what few ideas and concepts he had of his own as people had been stained by the people in white masks standing nearby.  

Seemed Dick and Bruce were in the minority of ‘having parents who aren’t complicit or actively involved in murder’. 

What a low bar. 

Tim didn’t deign to give a response.  He got off the bed and stood ready for Batman, Nightwing and Robin to arrive.  He was ready to go home.

“Send them here.”  Tim insisted.  The lady with a sharp inclination of her wrinkled neck, gestured the Talon out of the room.  Silence passed, but then Stephanie grunted.  She was waking up once more.  Tim backed up against the bed, unable to take his eyes of the Owls.  He hated the idea of either of them being able to watch her.  His cape was large enough her face would be hidden behind them at the very least

Stephanie awoke to find herself in the same room as before, Tim standing in front of her, one hand holding his bo staff, the other reached back, resting on her shoulder.  A grounding touch.

The pain was lesser now, but she knew it was temporary, she was still very much drugged to high heaven.  Her eyes felt loose in her skull, and they rolled around uselessly, seeing nothing important.

“Fuck.” She swore.  Tim twitched at her groan but kept his hand on her. 

“Nearly done.”  He told her, still facing away.  She couldn’t see what he was looking at. 

There was sound of commotion from outside then.  Stephanie couldn’t make out much, but then Tim pulled his cowl back on.  Her head lolled to the side, instinctively trying to follow her boyfriend, and nearly fell off the bed for her efforts.  He caught her, returning her to the centre of the mattress.  He threw her cover off, letting the cooler air hit her bare legs and arms.  She heard a distant aggressive yell, like someone steeling themselves to do some heavy lifting.  She saw two others then, two old people wearing the white blank masks of the Court of Owls. She felt like they were watching her, but she wasn’t sure if that was the drugs messing with her perceptions. 

Tim extended his staff all the way, and held it behind his back, ready for when something would burst through to them. 

Oh.  Help was here.  Tim was getting ready to leave now.  That’s why they were waiting.  The sound of something being slammed against the wall repeatedly made the curtains hanging over the bed stir.

A crack appeared on the wall.  Whatever was on the other side was very angry.  

Tim threw a small explosive at the crack to help whoever was on the other side break through. 

A Talon crashed through the wall then, body broken, dark dead blood oozing out of cuts.  Nightwing threw himself into the room, looking for something else to wreck.  Stephanie blanched as she saw the dark blood dripping from Nightwing’s face and hair.  It wasn’t his blood.  He stared at the couple that had moved to the corner of the room, daring them to move.  Tim imagined they were salivating at the sight of him under those stupid masks.  How easily he took out half of their army of undead soldiers without a scratch.

Robin and Batman followed a moment later.  Damian ran to Nightwing, acting as his little bodyguard.  He saw that Stephanie was alive and conscious, and she saw his little puffed up chest relax.  Nearly home. 

Bruce stalked past the Talon and Owls, past Tim, straight to Stephanie. She cried openly in relief.  He’d come for her again.  She managed to lift her arms.  Seeing as she was already sobbing, the pain could only do so much to debilitate her, and she wrapped her hands and arms around Bruce’s shoulders.  He held her tightly.

Nightwing, still staring at the couple, went to Red Robin’s side, cradling his face.  “Okay?”  He asked.  When he moved his hand away a bloody hand print on Tim’s cheek remained.

Red Robin could only bring himself to nod.  He turned away to Bruce.  “She’s okay to lift.  They did a good job of healing her.”  Bruce didn’t acknowledge him, still holding Stephanie.  Her tired sobs were muffled, but Tim could hear them all the same.

“You’ll forgive us if we don’t trust that.”  Robin snapped.  His tone was furious, angry with dread and fear, but Tim found himself glaring at him regardless. 

Batman curled his way under Stephanie, picking her up under her knees and back.  She cried out in anguish as he did so and was left with a solid ache that incapacitated her.  She noted with some numbness that she needed the bathroom.

“All of you stay close to me.”

Dick nodded and began to lead the way out, sparing one last look at the Owls, who had never looked away from him and not yet spoken.  He suppressed a shiver.  The family had agreed to return later.  No doubt the Court would have moved on to another location by then, but he would find it, as he had found this one. 

It seemed the Court knew they had no intention of blowing the place up.  A stream of incapacitated Talons lined their way back out.  Nobody approached them as they left. 

Tim came up the rear, watching for anyone that would maybe change their mind.  The grandmaster and his wife followed for a moment, but they were discouraged by Robin nearly charging at them until Tim grabbed the boy, reminding him to watch for genuine threats to the group.

“Remember what we promised Timothy.”  Was all the grandmaster said.  Tim didn’t respond, knowing that this would cause Bruce’s paranoia to spike.  He’d have to find a way to reassure him later.

They safely left the Court’s hole and made their way back to the Manor in a way that felt far too easy for the group.  An uneasy silence filled the journey back to the Manor.  Withing the car Tim sat in the back, Stephanie lying flat across the seats and his lap. 

Cass gave a broken cry when they reached home, immediately moving to help get Stephanie out of the car and onto a gurney.  Stephanie practically begged to be put back under when she arrived, partly to Cass’ disappointment.  She felt useless in her inability to comfort her best friend, as she had always relied on solid holds rather than words.  Having seen Stephanie in as much pain as she was, she knew touching her would only add to it.  She kept her distance, only agreeing to hold Stephanie’s hand when she reached out for Cassandra’s own bony grip.  She continued to hold it long after Stephanie was anesthetised for an inspection by Alfred.  Barbara had arrived back at the Manor by then, helping Alfred set up assorted monitors to watch Stephanie’s breathing and heart rates.

Bruce had pulled off his cowl to watch her.  Babs rolled next to him and sighed sadly.  Tim had been sent upstairs to shower and change.  A furious lecture was coming, to him and Dick both.  For now, until Alfred gave him confirmation that the Court had told Tim the truth over their treatment of Stephanie, they weren’t in the clear.  Not yet. 

“Jervis is back in Arkham, considerably bloodier and more broken than when he left.”  There was no condemnation in her tone for Jervis' treatment at Cassandra and Damian's hands.

“Hnn.”

“…It could have been worse.  She...”  Barbara said, looking up at him.  The wheelchair she was sat in finished one version of the sentence, Jason’s Robin costume across the cave another.

Bruce was silent.  Alfred laid Stephanie back flat on the cot and began to move down to her legs.

“I told her mother.”

He groaned.  Of course, Barbara did.  “What exactly did you tell her?”

“…Just the Jervis… stuff.  She was found by Batman and is healing now with the help of her boyfriend’s family’s immense wealth and resources.”

“No Court reasons.”

“No.  What good would it do?  A man hurt her daughter; the man has been punished.  The daughter needs her mother now to help her heal.  She’ll be round soon.”

Alfred sighed, pulling away from his patient. 

“All immediate injuries have been treated.  I would recommend Dr Thompkins to look at her to see about further recovery.  Stephanie will feel better with a female doctor.  There is much to be done for her physical trauma.”

“And mental?”

Alfred removed his gloves and began to roll his sleeves back down.  He did not answer the question. 

“Move her upstairs ready for her mother and Leslie to visit.  They can consider what painkillers to put her on then.  Maybe Dr Thompkins can repeat her post Black Mask course of treatment.”

There was disdain in Alfred’s tone, and guilt.  She had been through too much, and always as a pawn to hurt others with. 

“She’ll have more support this time.”  Bruce stated, taking off the cape that weighed him down.  He picked up Stephanie once more, and made his way to the lift.  “We’ll all be here.”

“Indeed sir.”  Alfred affirmed, switching off the machines. 

“Can Oracle keep an eye out for Talons and Owls?”

Barbara nodded. 

“She can.  Happily.”

“Good.”

 


 

 

Stephanie quickly became bored in Tim’s bed.  He came in at one point, hair wet, wearing a thin grey t-shirt and a pair of thick black sweatpants.  He curled under the covers with her.  He had a big bed, bigger than any she had ever slept in.  This room was more boyish than the one in his own apartment.  She didn’t particularly enjoy spending time there.  It was too sterile, even with the tempting piano in the corner of the lounge.  She wasn’t sure if it was even tuned though.  She suddenly got the ache to start practicing again. 

This bedroom, however, was messy, and stank (in the nicest way possible) of Tim.  Of comfort.  She sighed, almost happily.  It was warm with him under the thick covers.  No threat of crazy men bursting through the door at any given moment wielding guns and knives, Damian aside.

Time passed, no-one came into the room, and it was eerily silent as neither of them slept.  With nothing of substance to distract her, her mind inevitably began to wander to places she didn’t wish for it to go.  She decided to swap one grief for another.

“Distract me?”

“How?” He asked, his voice barely more than a whisper.  It was rough, like he had been crying over her.  He was feeling guilty.

“Why did the Court help you find me?”  She pushed once more.

“It’s hard to explain without sounding… glib.”

She choked on a laugh.  “Give me glib.  Give me the truth.”

“…My parents were members before they died.  The Court feels like I belong with them, as one of those people under the white masks.  Mom and Dad took me to the circus to see Dick perform because they knew that he was supposed to be a Talon, one day.  I wasn’t told… but why I don’t understand.  The Court don’t know either.  They were trying to do me a favour, looking after you.”

“…Is that why…Is that why your dad didn’t like me?”

“What?”  He asked, thrown out of his brooding.  He reached out to her.  “Steph…”

“Sorry.  Weird.  Just… insecurity coming out.  He hated me.”

“Well… turns out he was full of it, so –”

She jumped in before he could get too self-pitying.  “You said they had Jervis on their payroll.”

“They did.”

“…For what?”

“To watch me.  Ever since Bruce first confronted them, they’ve been watching, waiting for me to learn about my parents.  You were…” He couldn’t lie to her about this.  But the truth sucked.  It was an awful dismissive bitter truth, no less than what was expected from the Court of Owls.  “You were part of the deal.  They underestimated how upset I would be.  That room, the Talon grabbing you, the doctor… It was them saying sorry.”

“Oh.”  A pause as she processed her supposed worthlessness to a corrupt ancient organisation.  What little worth she had came from being tied to a rich boy.  She knew she didn’t matter to them, and to be under their radar would in any other circumstance be a blessing, but still, her ego took a hit.  “And do you accept it?  Their apology?”

Something in his body language shifted then.  He looked out the window, back towards Gotham, eyes filled to the brim with loathing.  His lips twisted, then he smirked, looking down at her.  He seemed to have reached a conclusion. 

“Not even close.”  He leant close, giving her a quick peck on her cheek.  “Doesn’t matter now, though, my parents, any of that.  We’re back home now.”

The word settled in her and even through the pain and cloudy thoughts, she smiled.

Home was the Manor, with Alfred giving her menial tasks to make her feel helpful, home was the cave sitting alongside Barbara testing her problem solving skills, home was the top of Wayne Tower where she and Tim would go and flirt like they had done ever since they were fourteen.  Home was her living room sofa, home was her bedroom window, where Cass would come and go as they pleased.  Home was supposed to be their new apartment, home was the place she would return to once she had finished her studies.  Home was her mom’s endless mugs of teas and shared breakfasts…

“I want my mom.” She admitted out loud.  Tim’s hand shook in her hair.  He moved so he could be behind her, with endless gentleness and softness, raising her upper torso so she could rest on his lap.

“She’ll be by in a while.  Leslie too.”

The safety she felt with his presence flickered.  Leslie was a touchy subject.  One they avoided.  Stephanie remembered her dreams under Jervis’ control, and shivered.  Her head felt stuffed with cotton wool, her hearing was muffled, and her eyesight was blurry.  An emerging pain in her lower torso began to make itself known.  She felt her eyes sting.  Shit.  Her comes the pain.  Might as well acknowledge it.

“Tim…?”

“Mm?”

“I was raped by Jervis.”  It felt oddly cathartic to say it aloud.  “He put me under by one of his devices… I don’t know what he made me do.”

Tim seemed less ready to talk about it than she was, but he held back from interjecting, and let her mumble out what she could. 

“I don’t want to know what he made me do… But the things I saw whilst I was held under… I can’t forget.”

“Tell me.”  He encouraged.

“Every time I’ve been hurt.  Black Mask, the Black Mercy, being shot in the head, everything my dad did, everything my mom didn’t do, Bruce, my uncle, old boyfriends, my dad’s friends… Our arguments, us hurting each other.  Honey…I’m so sorry.”

“I forgave you a long time ago.  You forgive me?” 

She nodded with her lips pressed together.

“Then we’re good.”

“Mmm… But. But… the dream that woke me up.”  He voice croaked from not enough breathe to verbalise the words entirely.  “You said that I should be afraid for you.  And I am.  Sometimes.”

Tim hands, which had never stopped stroking her hair, paused and then fell away.

“I worry about you.  Not for us but…”

“Sounds familiar.”

She laughed then, for the first time since she woke up.  Despite how grim the situation was, Tim’s dry tone made her smile.  Maybe it was the opiode.  “…If I don’t acknowledge it, it doesn’t exist right?  And I can keep going, keep moving forward, prove I belong with you with the family –”

“You do belong –”

“But there are still problems.  My mom and I… we just don’t talk about what happened, what I do.  You and I… me and Bruce… I mean...  And I just ignore it, always moving forward, because the minute I stop I think and look back… I just feel so lost…  And what if I am?  What if I just lie and lie and lie to myself, about myself, about my mom about you…” Tears slipped out, and she apologised again, cursing internally that she wasn’t strong enough to wipe them away.  Tim did it for her, endlessly patient. 

“Stephanie… of course there’re problems.  We’re a messy family.  But that doesn’t mean there’s like… a core fault with you as a person.  Please don’t think that of yourself.  Not anymore.”  He slid further under her, laying her partly on top of him.  It hurt, but she was okay with the pain.  If it didn’t hurt, if she couldn’t feel the pain in her joints, then the damage would be too severe for her to handle. 

“All I know is… we deserve a lot more in return from what we give Gotham.  I’ll get us there one day.  I guess we’ll have to be a bit more patient now, let you rest up a bit more.”

“We don’t do this for a reward!”  She wasn’t sure what they were talking about anymore.  She was getting lost in her own head, and she still couldn’t see properly.  The bed was red, she knew that much, and there were three skateboards in different places around the room.  Once or twice she had gone with him skating, but she wasn’t very good, and had opted to roller blade alongside him instead.  What a pair they must have looked.  So young.  He hadn’t ridden for a long time.  An abrupt spasm in her leg made her cry out, to which Tim held her hand and she gripped it painfully, waiting for it to pass.  Eventually it slid away, and her breathing returned to normal.  She was partially blind with everything a blur, and she was unable to control her volume and tone whilst speaking.  She felt like an overly tired three-year-old. 

“No.  We do it because it’s the right thing to do.”  Tim finally spoke once she had relaxed, restarting the conversation.  “I just want the world to stop being so cruel in trying to dissuade us.”

They were talking in circles now, but Stephanie didn’t mind too much as they were killing the time.  And Tim said they had to wait until her mom arrived. 

“Wanna go back to sleep.” She mumbled.  Moving her legs sent a stabbing pain through her thighs and back.  One that made her gasp and clench up in agony every time.  Couldn’t she sleep more?

He put his lips next to her ear again and breathed, “You keep trying.”

“Don’t leave me.” 

“I am not ever leaving you.  We’ll get through this together, yeah?”

She gurgled a laugh.  “Turning my own words on me Timothy…diabolical.”

“I am a little, aren’t I?”  He sounded entirely too smug and proud of the fact.  She loved it.  They settled in for a bit, though Stephanie was unable to get comfortable.

“This is gonna suck.”  She muttered.

Despite everything, they both managed a laugh.

Chapter Text

Tim trailed out of his bed when Cassandra entered. “Her mom is here. And Bruce wants to speak to you and Dick.”

Crunch time. This was going to end badly. He nodded, asking Cassandra to stay with Stephanie until her mom arrived. He wandered downstairs to see Alfred walking Crystal up the stairs. She was still wearing her work coat, her name tag pinned to her pocket. When she saw him, she tottered over and threw her arms around him.

He froze, as he always did with spontaneous displays affection, but his body caught up with his brain. This was Stephanie’s mom, she was looking for comfort and giving it in turn. He wrapped his arms around the older woman.

“She’ll be alright.” He said. He wasn’t sure if he believed himself. “I can help her…this time.” He finished in a small voice, sharing in the guilt pouring off from Crystal.

She pressed an aggressive closed mouth kiss to his forehead. She pulled back, her eyes wet. She breathed a smile and then left with Alfred up the stairs. He led her to Tim’s room, where he knocked, and Cassandra called from the other side. Crystal shuffled into the teenage boy’s room, not used to having a butler to open and close doors for her. Cassandra smiled awkwardly and hopped off the bed as Stephanie yowled at the sight of her mom.

She had managed to sit upright, pillows piled up high supporting her. She looked exhausted; hair tied in a messy loose bun off her neck. Large bruises under her eyes revealed how tired she was. Her usually healthy glowing skin was sallow, yellow undertones making her look severely sick. Her arms were bandaged up to and around her shoulder, covering long stitches. Crystal couldn’t see what her torso and legs looked like.

“Hiya mom.” She managed to cry. Her voice was rough, sore sounding. She’d been screaming.

Crystal walked over as Cassandra slid past and shut the door behind her. She sat on the edge of the bed and went to stroke her hair. She paused halfway there, seeing the stitches in her hair. Stephanie seemed physically unable to lean towards her mother, and just looked down at the legs, frustrated with herself.

“What happened?” Crystal breathed, trying to calm her daughter down.

Stephanie shook her head. “I…um…when I went to see that new couch…the one I told you about the other day?”

Her mother nodded encouragingly. This was as hard as when Stephanie first told her mother about being pregnant. A conversation she would never be able to repeat in happier circumstances. Her life was utter shit. Consistently unfair, time after time she was a ball and chain to those around her. Whenever she tried to do something for herself, to prove her worth, to be selfish – even in something as small as buying a piece of furniture or going to school – something or someone would push her down, knock her out for months at a time, and remind her how little she ultimately mattered.

She’d tried for so long just to push back and keep going. It didn’t matter what the big guns thought, she’d look after the smallest in the city, the kind of people she grew up around. It was what she known for, but it was so hard sometimes.

Stephanie swallowed uncomfortably. Crystal reached over and gave her the glass of water on the bedside table.

“Jervis Tetch was using this lady to get to me. She drugged me. I passed out… got taken to some… shed thing…and…” She looked at her mum, and suddenly voicing what had happened to her was impossible. She couldn’t talk to her about it like Tim and Cassandra. She left it vague, but her mother was sharp enough, seen enough instances in the Emergency Room to put two and two together. Stephanie looked down at her hands, held tight in her mom’s. “Red Robin and Batman found me.”

“Did they?”

“Yes.” She took a long gulp of water. “Tim brought me here.”

Crystal frowned and looked around at the room.

“Mom?” Stephanie asked, voice small and nervous.  “Please say something.”

“I don’t know what to say.” Crystal exhaled unsteadily and looked up at the ceiling. She dabbed at her eyes under her glasses, and then very delicately rubbed her nose.

“Dr Thomkins will be over in a bit. She helped me… last time.”

“Mmm. I’ve heard of her. She runs that clinic on Park Row.” Her mother’s lip curled. “She took you from me and never said a word.”

“…If it helps at all, Tim hasn’t forgiven her for that either.”

“No?” Suddenly Tim went up in Crystal’s estimations.

“No. But she is a good doctor. The best in Gotham. I trust her.”

“Good. Good.” Another pause. “She’ll make sure…I mean, you won’t…”

“Mom?”

“You’re in a lot of pain right now, and you’re going to be in pain for a while after. How did you cope last time?”

Stephanie suddenly understood her mother’s nerves.

“Mom I won’t get hooked on the painkillers. Promise.”

“You can’t promise that.”

“Yes I can. I didn’t last time and I won’t now.”

“But you can’t—”

“I’m not you.” She snapped out, far harsher than she wanted. As soon as the words left her mouth she blanched and tried to apologise. “I didn’t… I didn’t mean it like that.”

“No… you’re not me. I don’t know where you came from.” Her mother didn’t say it like it was a disappointing thing. Stephanie knew how proud Crystal was of her daughter.

Crystal finally reached over and held Stephanie, kissing her repeatedly. Stephanie grew lax in her mother’s hold. She couldn’t deny her mom much, and honestly, she was craving this affection.

Better late than never.

“One more thing.” Her mother murmured, running a hand up and down Stephanie’s back.

“Mm?”

“When you leave Gotham, for school, for work…whichever… Don’t come back.”

“Mom—”

“I don’t want you to die in this city.”

Stephanie felt her eyes widen, but she didn’t move from the embrace. Instead she bit her tongue and buried her face into Crystal’s collarbone.

 



Tim didn’t hurry down the steps to the main platform of the cave. The waterfall and sound of the agitated bats fluttering around made his already pressing anxiety spike. Too much noise and too much movement. Dick and Bruce were standing a considerable distance from each other. It seemed that Dick was already halfway through a lecture. Normally Dick would have pushed back with equal fire, but he seemed so utterly drained. Whatever Dick and Bruce had gone through the last two days had seemingly wrecked his brother.

He walked over, pausing a while away, creating a triangle between the two men. Gulping to himself, Tim clenched his jaw and looked Bruce straight in the eye.

“You lied to me.” He accused Bruce.

“I did no such thing.”

“No, you hid information from me when Stephanie needed my help. Again.” He tried not to shake from the anger, but his voice still trembled. “You didn’t trust me with the information of my parents –”

“Tim…” Dick tried to bring the argument down a notch, but it was pointless, the past three days of anxiety, grief and anger came out once more.

“You don’t trust me anymore. Not after what I did with Harkness. I know that. And now the confirmation that my parents were associated with monsters means you have even less reason to do so. My actions have a genetic cause now huh?”

Tim suddenly felt a very sharp affinity with Stephanie, Cassandra, Jason and – god help him – Damian. It seemed Bruce still thought blood counted for a lot. Dick’s eyes drifted to the top of the staircase. Someone – Damian or Cassandra or both – was listening in.

Bruce’s upper lip curled, and instead of responding he whirled onto Dick, who continued to look miserable and lacking in any fire. “I told you not to tell him. Not until Stephanie was found.”

“I wouldn’t lie to him.” Dick sounded so tired when he replied. “I made my choice and Tim made his. I trusted my brother, and Stephanie returned home alive. Which is more than I can say for most of Jervis’ victims. We knew it was going to be a shitshow the minute she made that call in the lift. There’s no correct way to save people.”

“But there is a wrong way.” Bruce turned back to Tim.  “You risked her life, Dick’s life and your own! Trusting the Court –”

“I didn’t trust them!” Tim snapped. “I don’t trust them! For all I know they’ve pumped Steph full of electrum ready to be triggered at a moment’s notice, for all I know they’re gonna to be a constant stick up my butt until I decide to join them. They used Stephanie, so I used them. That’s it. I want nothing to do with them and I don’t want any part of my parents’ legacies.” Tim gulped in air. “You don’t believe me. Fine. But I’m telling the truth.” His voice turned pleading, as if appeals to emotion ever worked on Bruce. “I needed to do something. Dick told me how. I couldn’t…I couldn’t not be the one to help her this time.”

Strangely, Bruce looked moved by Tim’s guilt. “You had nothing to redeem yourself for. You did as you were told during the gang war.”

“And Stephanie was left to die without me.”

Bruce had the nerve to look uncomfortable. Tim took no delight in it.

“I did what I did… because you once told me that, when she was dying, she was asking for me. But you kept me from her.” His voice cracked, and his eyes began to flood. Dick moved over to him and buried his hand in Tim’s hair. Tim sniffed, and continued to look Bruce dead in the eye. “Maybe this will blow up in my face two months or years down the line, but I couldn’t repeat what happened then. I’m not going to feel guilty about ‘what ifs’. I’m sorry if I’ve disappointed you.”

He barely sounded apologetic and Bruce didn’t look mollified.

Lecture over. Demands begin.

“You are not to go out on patrol for a month.” Bruce tensely stated. There was no question in his tone. You would do as you’re told or be utterly shut out from the family. Tim had heard enough from Stephanie to know how isolating and dangerous that could be. He peeked at Dick, hoping for some reaction, but there was none. He seemed incapable of looking at either of them, finding the metal floor much more interesting.

“Deal.” Tim ground out.

“You will be moving back into the Manor to help Stephanie with her recovery therapy.”

“Fine.” That was easier to agree with.

“You tell me the instant you suspect the Court of any activity nearby.”

“I swear.” That was also easy. With any luck he could now completely maintain his distance from the men and women from that place.

Bruce muttered something about words being only words, but Tim didn’t catch it, lost in the noise of the water running down the rocks and crashing down below. Bruce stepped closer, closing any gap between him and the brothers.

“Go back upstairs Tim.”

With a suspicious look Tim broke away. He made to leave, then turned back. “I’m sorry if I put our family in danger.”

His honesty seemed to make a dent in Bruce’s frown, but he simply reiterated his instruction to Tim.

Reluctantly, with one last glance at a disturbingly withdrawn Dick, Tim skipped up the stairs, eager to return to his room.

Bruce watched him go. He eventually returned his gaze to Dick.

“You’re not going to snark like him?” He asked bitingly.

Dick finally looked Bruce in the eye. There was a flash of fire for a moment, but only a moment. It was quickly smothered, and the emptiness returned. He looked away again.

“Our family… what the hell kind of legacies have we been left behind?”

To Dick’s partial shock, Bruce reached out, holding his neck, thumb over the pulse point. He didn’t address Dick’s concerns. Instead, he cut straight to his main worry.

“You and you alone are not responsible for carrying it for them. Shouldering the world’s worries… it’s not what I want for any of you.”

“You do it.”

“And you think that’s something to emulate?”

Dick choked on a jeer. Instead he looked back and smiled. It was a very convincing smile. Bruce pretended to believe it. “I’m gonna go check up on Damian, see how he’s doing. Cass said he was sick earlier.”

Dick knew Bruce hadn’t checked up on his other two children, and he felt grim satisfaction at Bruce’s late realisation and guilt that maybe a twelve-year-old witnessing the aftermath of a bloody rape of someone they cared for would have a negative impact on the psyche. He turned and went up the stairs, meeting Damian, who had quietly been watching the arguments since Tim arrived.

“C’mon kiddo.” He said, curling an arm around his shoulder’s. “Got a bit to talk about.”

 



And so, Stephanie’s recovery began. Leslie arrived the next day, and for short bursts of time she would sit with Stephanie and work out a timetable until she became too tired and needed to sleep more. Sometimes her mom was nearby, occasionally contributing or making suggestions, other times Barbara came, never saying much but always reaching over and helping when needed.

Cass and Tim were near constant presences. An argument had ensued at dinner about how much time Tim could afford to take off work, and whether him taking the several weeks needed would require an admission of him being in a relationship, the apartment, all of it. It wasn’t until Stephanie snapped at him to go back after two weeks that he relented, albeit with much grumbling.

Dick had left Gotham mere days after she had been returned. The whole event had shaken him in ways that no one but Bruce could understand. He had gone to New York, last she heard, and Babs insisted on giving her updates whenever she heard from him. However, contact was sporadic at best and non-existent at worst. Stephanie wondered how much of it was her fault. 

The thing that frustrated her the most was walking. Walking was the most difficult. Hairline fractures ran through her hip joints, ones that simply had to heal on their own, but for a long while she was incapable of supporting her own weight. Her left leg would jolt out from under her. She’d taught herself by this point to go limp as she fell, which was just as well. She forgot once, when she had instead raised her arms frantically to grab onto the parallel bars. She’d popped her right arm straight out of its socket.  Alfred, Leslie and Crystal had all failed to return it to the joint for four days.

She’d insisted on being moved around the Manor, refusing to be totally bed bound in between physio stretches. She had been remarkably patient about the whole thing, taking step backs and issues in her stride. Nothing seemed to phase her.

Until one month into recovery, and she was still unable to stand on her own. That made her impatient.

Then she had an infection from a rip in her cervix that ran the risk of developing sepsis, which meant various intrusive looks and samples were needed.

That made her foul tempered.

The antibiotics she was taking seemed to be stopping infections from deteriorating quicker rather than helping them heal, and after a while it seemed she was becoming resistant to the tramadol medication she’d been placed on, so she was given a higher dosage. Crystal frowned every time her daughter took the opioid, an argued on more than one occasion with a doctor, but no suitable alternative ever made an appearance. Her appetite utterly faded, and for a while she seemed to subsist on her medication and assorted vitamins. Any time she ate more, it ended up in a bucket less than an hour later.

They eventually figured out which foods to reduce her intake of, allowing her to be gentler on her digestion and throat. But it all ended up being for moot, as soon severe stomach pains that left her curled up on the floor sweating and crying caused intense concern, but not as much as the blood which soon appeared in her vomit. She was swiftly hospitalised, and very quickly it was determined that she had developed stomach bleeding from the high dosage of painkillers. Her hospital stays had caused great interest with the Wayne family visiting her, and so in the end Tim came clean about their relationship, which in turn opened another can of worms which left Bruce dealing with the press far more than he cared to.

The inevitable dirt had come up of her teen pregnancy, leaving the city after the gang war, her mother and father…all of it. She was lucky that she was stuck in the Manor or in a hospital bed, away from prying eyes. Speculation ran wild, until they soon lost interest in her lack of appearance in the city, but that didn’t stop Tim and Bruce being followed more often than they liked. Visits to the hospital were always horrendous, with seemingly incompetent doctors inside and aggressive press outside. It put everyone on edge.

With the panicked doctors making Stephanie give up the medication cold turkey, came the withdrawal symptoms.  This led to the press getting wind of a furious Bruce, one they so rarely got to see, chewing out the negligent doctor who had allowed any of it to happen.  Stephanie couldn’t feel much guilt when her fingers went numb, meaning her hard work in being able to grip items so could she feed and dress herself went to naught, and she couldn’t use the new phone she’d been gifted mysteriously (thank you Bruce). A ringing began in her ears, and she began to have terrible night terrors.

Tim had snuck in one night when he really shouldn’t have been visiting, and spent hours resting his head on her sweaty chest, listening to a very frantic and heart struggle to keep pumping blood round her broken body. The trauma was catching up with her, and the withdrawal from the pain medication meant she was in agony with no escape.

That made her depressed.

In many ways, the second month was more difficult than the first.

She suspected some part of Tim, some part he would never admit out loud, was glad to go to work during the day, and after the first month, to go out on patrol at night, just for the chance to be away from her. She had tried to not make her anger at her circumstances affect anyone but herself, but it was hard. She slipped more than she would like, and Tim, as he was the most often around, was the target of her screaming, of her biting put downs, of her moments of self-pity. Even after she was returned to the Manor, she watched him become thinner with her, watched him sneer and snark at anyone who wasn’t her, watched him struggle to get up in the morning, watched him grow more and more withdrawn. He was self-destructing, and not only that, she was pulling him down with her.

There would be times at four in the morning, when Tim had returned from patrol and was sound asleep – sometimes bruised, sometimes sweaty, always breathless and rejuvenated in a way she longed to be – she would stare at the ceiling of his room and hate herself.

Recovery was not going well.

One night, nine weeks after Tim had guilted the devil and Bruce had carried her home, Damian decided to pay her a visit.

Tim was still out that night. One member of the family would stay in from patrol, to ensure Alfred wasn’t her keeper forever and ever. Still, it felt to Stephanie like a rotating team of babysitters. It pissed her off, not because she didn’t need to be watched, but because she knew she did need to be watched. She still couldn’t go the bathroom without help. She wasn’t lying to herself about her state, she was just despondent that she was in that state to begin with.

Damian entered the room with his cat curled in his arms. She had asked to be moved to a snug one evening, a pile of books on the grey coffee table in front of her, assorted flasks of chamomile tea or other strange herbal concoctions that Alfred had suggested as more unconventional aides on the small side table by her head. The numbness had faded a day or two ago, to her relief, so she was once more capable of entertaining herself when she could focus enough to do so. She was wrapped up in a thick blanket, hair loose but clean around her shoulders and waist. She eyed Damian as he very carefully plopped Pennyworth on her chest. The cat immediately settled on her sternum. He was a small cat, and his weight was a reassuring one. With a slow blink, the purring began, and the cat closed his eyes, content.

Damian settled at the base of the sofa, inspecting the pile of books. He didn’t seem impressed with her selection, but then, when was Damian impressed?

Stephanie didn’t comment on his presence, choosing instead to enjoy to content cat happily receiving ear scratches.

“These are no good.” He complained abruptly, rising and leaving the room. She let him do so, again not speaking. She felt herself starting the drift off. A sudden shot of fire ran up her spine ended that thought, as it was enough to make her contort of the cushions after a gasp, clutching the soft material to try an anchor her thoughts on anything but the pain. After a moment, she tried to return her breathing to a controlled pace.

Pennyworth shifted on her chest, and she lifted one arm to rest on the cats back, his soft fur and eyes wide. The cat was utterly unfazed, and patiently waited for her to settle down.

Damian returned soon after, a different pile of books in hand. He held one out to her, “This is more productive than whatever garbage Gordon has passed on to you.”

Stephanie stared at the cover, seeing it was a book about felting. Why the Wayne household had a book about stabbing raw wool with needles to make little figurines she wasn’t sure, nor was she sure how Damian even knew where such a book was in the Manor.

“Where’d you find that?” She asked, taking it with both hands. It was a fairly large book, and she needed two hands to hold its weight.

“Pennyworth –”

“The cat?” She gently teased. His reddened puffed up cheeks made her chuckle.

“Do not be obtuse please.” Stephanie managed to smile at his attempt at politeness and nodded, allowing him to continue. “He showed me my grandmother’s crafting books. She liked to paint. I like to paint. She liked to sew and knit. You like to sew and knit.”

“I do.”

“This is easier and requires less fine motor control.”

He was waiting for her to open the book. She stared at the front cover and felt a frustration rise. She wouldn’t be able to do this. She could barely hold the book up.

Damian grew frustrated with her slow pace and snatched the book. He opened the page to instructions for a little round European robin. “I want you to make me that one.” He demanded. “I will buy you the materials. But I want you to make it for me.”

“Dami…”

“Stephanie. Try.”

She felt her eyes sting, and then she nodded.

“Promise.” She said. It was the first time in months she’d been asked to do something for someone else. It was a little thing to be asked, but she was exhausted from the amount of self reflection she’d been doing for weeks. She wanted the chance to give a gift for Damian.

He smiled then, a little brokenly, but it was a smile nonetheless.

“Come here.” She murmured, bringing her arm out to grab his. He knelt beside her. She pecked him on the cheek. He grew impossibly redder.

“I’m sorry I haven’t been of much use lately.”

Tt. You were not of much use to begin with.”

He meant it somewhat lightly, but Stephanie’s face fell. She moved back to lying flatter and attempted to return the cat to Damian. Pennyworth clung to her blanket stubbornly, nails hooked in for dear life. He wailed at the disturbance. Damian matched his distress.

“No.” He said, somewhat frantically, trying to salvage the moment. “I mean… You don’t have to be useful to have worth.”

He was parroting Dick in that moment, something he must have been told countless times the past three years. Chances were that he’d only recently started to believe it. Regardless, it wasn’t quite enough to make Stephanie feel better.

“I know what you meant Damian. Thank you for trying.” She let go of Pennyworth, who immediately snuggled back down. “Bring me the materials tomorrow and I’ll get started hmm? I’ll need to practice a lot first.” And with that the moment was over, she put the book aside, and settled down, laying flat on the couch. “I’m going to sleep a little more, okay?”

Damian turned and picked up one of the books from

Barbara’s pile. He sat on the chair next to her, legs curled under him.

“The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency?” He was not impressed.

“It’s good.” Stephanie defended, closing her eyes. “Sweet. Light. Easy reading. It’s set in Botswana, about a woman who moves to the city to start a detective agency after her father dies.”

“Sounds vapid.”

“Don’t judge a book by its cover, Dami.” She sighed. “She leaves an abusive husband after he beats her and her baby dies. She goes and lives her own life, helping other people, finding a new guy who loves her and encourages her, and makes friends who don’t look down on her dreams. It’s uplifting. Now be quiet, I’m resting.”

Damian huffed, and opened the book.

Thus, Stephanie’s third month of recovery began.

Chapter Text

Stephanie had her hands held tight in Cassandra’s, the knuckled white from the strain.

“Okay?” Cassandra asked.  Stephanie gulped, never removing her eyes from their interlocked hands.

They were out in the garden, the grass and soil reassuringly soft under their bare feet.  Tim was sat on a grassy bank, watching his sister work with Stephanie to holding herself up, the first time she had managed for any substantial amount of time since the abduction.  They were pushing it, a little, to see if she could support herself on one leg at a time, to see if she could walk. 

“I can’t do this.” Stephanie muttered.

“Yes, you can.” Cassandra retorted definitively. “Maybe not today, maybe tomorrow, maybe next week, maybe next month, but you can do it.  Try now.”

Stephanie glanced over at Tim, who nodded encouragingly. 

She managed a shuffle, barely lifting her left foot off the ground, and she winced from the pain, but it counted.  She whooped loudly in victory, to which Tim whistled and Cassandra resisted the urge to jump and down.

Lifting her other leg was what brought her down, but Cassandra caught Stephanie and pulled her upright before any damage could be done.  Tim had jolted in the sight of her stumble, mind already jumping to another dislocated joint.  Stephanie managed a chuckle that was somehow devoid of any genuine humour.  However it was better than how she would have reacted last month, where she would have either screeched in frustration, or burst into tears.  Cassandra congratulated her for the progress with a wet kiss on the forehead.  That made Stephanie’s smile sincere.   

“Going to lower you down now.”

“’Kay…” Stephanie gasped, grunting as she was lowered onto her bum on the grass, next to Tim.  She recovered enough core strength by this point that she could support herself upright, something that she utterly delighted in. 

She smiled brightly at Tim, who looked at her a little in awe. 

“Ask her.”  Cassandra said, swiping his shoulder with her foot.  She returned up the steps of the manor, going to find Alfred to tell him Stephanie’s victory.  She met Bruce at the top of the stairs, giving him a curious glance as she passed him.  He was watching the couple below.

Stephanie was facing upwards, enjoying the sun that for once was shining in September in Gotham.  Tim kept his eyes on her.

“Ask me what?”  She prodded, inhaling deeply.

Tim bit his lip.

She looked at him, concerned.  “Tim, what’s wrong?”

“It might upset you… scratch that, it will upset you.”

“Oh.” 

She understood his reluctance, but she was utterly tired of being treated gently.  Damian’s demands for presents was a small thing, but it gave her a purpose and feeling of being helpful.  Cassandra had brought the wool, needles and foam boards outside, so she could practice techniques for making Damian his little bird.  Despite his insistence that it didn’t require large amounts of fine motor control, she’d still asked Tim for help sometimes arranging her fingers.  After a while she decided she needed a felting pen, which Tim had bought on his way home one day.  It was clunkier, but much easier to grip.  She’d made dozens of little hearts and smiley faces by the end of the week, handfuls of them that now sat on Babs’ desk in a little wicker basket.  She was now practicing on creating rough birds in preparation for her project for Damian.

“I’d used to do the same thing with sewing,” She’d explain to Bruce, one evening in the cave.  “Just practice over and over again on scraps of fabric I’d bought with whatever money I could pinch.  I think I have a talent for it…arts and crafts.”

“And music.” Bruce had added, remembering Tim’s stories and the one time she’d snuck a few notes on his mother’s piano, to which she had smiled, brighter than she had in weeks.  He’d felt a cloud dissipate in his mind at the sight her pearly teeth. 

“And music,” She’d repeated.

Out on the grass, Stephanie reached over and held Tim’s hand and insisted, “Ask.”    

Tim chewed his lip some more, then returned her grip.  “After going back, to my dad’s townhouse, Dick and I took home my mom’s jewellery.”

“Uh-huh?”

“Well, I don’t have any use for it… and I was wondering if you wanted them.”

She screwed her mouth up, somewhat delighted but mostly confused.  “They fancy?”

“Very.  There’s a tiara in there and everything.  Lots of amethysts.  Lots of garnets and rubies.  A few pearls…”

“Jeez.”  She paused, shifting her weight around and grimacing a little.  “What do you want to happen to them?”

“If you’d asked me four months ago I’d say I’d want you to have them.  Dad said they were to go to me anyway, for my wife and family.  I took them all that night you were missing, I was so mad, I wanted to give them all to you so you could do whatever you wanted with them.  I didn’t want them anymore, didn’t want anything to do with her or the stuff she’d left behind.”

Stephanie blushed slightly at what he was saying, but otherwise did not comment.  “But now…”

“Now I feel you wearing jewellery that belonged to a Court of Owls member might put another fat target on your head.  They might think you don’t deserve the jewels or something equally shallow.”

“That’s fair.”

“You could sell them though.” He looked down at their entwined hands.  Several of her fingernails were growing back into place, about halfway there to normal.  He tried to imagine his mother’s rings on her hands.  The thought made him feel queasy.  “Or I could, for you.  And you could take the money, god knows how much it would help for nursing college and…”

Her face crumpled as he spoke.  Yup, he’d upset her.

“Tim?  I won’t be able to go to nursing college.  Not anymore…”

He looked at her then, and the guilt returned.  His ears burned red.

“I won’t be able to work those hours on my feet anymore.  Not day after day like my mom does.”  She said, resigned but nonetheless heartbroken.

“…I’m sorry Steph.”

“It’s not your fault.”

He couldn’t bring himself to believe her.

She inhaled shakily and attempted a smile. “We could still sell them though.  Donate the money?  I wouldn’t want to wear them, Tim.  Not even for spite.”

He nodded and looked back at the Manor.  He saw Bruce standing at the top of the stairs and decided to ignore him.  A frown formed on Tim’s fine features.  Stephanie felt he had left something unspoken and waited for him to speak.

“I’d really wanted you to have them.  Even as a kid I thought her stuff was beautiful.  She didn’t get much reason to wear them, so when I did see her put a full set on…”

“She was real pretty, from the pictures you shown me.”

“She was…”

“Did she love you?”  It was an uncomfortable question, but Stephanie felt she had to ask.

“Yes.”  He said, tone firm.  Immediately though, the doubt crept in.  “I think she did.  In her own way.” 

Stephanie nodded.  “It’s so hard to hate them isn’t it? When you know that there were still admirable things about them.  Even if it’s just that they loved you.  The minute you think of your parents as people, and not just your parents…” She licked her lips nervously, as if she was admitting something she had never muttered aloud before, speaking in half hypotheticals and half reality.  “Love for us… it was conditional.  Like, you knew your parents loved you if you met their standards by your actions and behaviour.  But, like…how far do you go to get that approval?  I could never figure out what could make my parents love me, or show they love me.  It was lots of… lots of variables that never seemed to line up.  Was my mom sober, was my dad in jail, working an honest job or dressed up in that costume, y’know…?  So, we try to find ways that would make them love us, but it never works.  It was always on them, not you.” She snorted loudly.  “I figured it out when Dad got back from Arkham only to put that suit back on, and I learned it when my mom got her shit together and got sober.”  She paused, trying to pull her legs up to her chest, wincing when it was too painful and laid them back down.  “I should have known when I was running around for Bruce’s approval too, back then.”

Tim was suddenly unsure if she knew that Bruce was watching them, but he listened with rapt interest, realising that she had given her situation far more thought then he had ever credited her with.  He nodded along, realising that she understood, and not just in a superficial sympathetic manner.

“The number of times my dad told me he was disappointed in me,” Tim started, “it was like getting gut punched every time.  It wasn’t just him being let down, I used to think, this is it, this is what will finally make my dad not want me anymore.  I don’t know if it was rational, Steph, and I don’t want to think about what he would think of me now.  I used to believe he was proud, in the end.  He said as much… but now I don’t know.  I don’t know what was a lie and what was a truth, or even what their emotions were towards me.  How much of it was genuine, how much of it was… I don’t know…grooming for a role which now just the thought of makes me ill.”

She reached across with her other hand and cradled his cheek.

“I’m sorry Tim, for what they were.”  

He bit back the insistence that she had nothing to apologise for.  She empathised more than he could ever hope for.  He looked over the scars which ran the length of her arm.  A sudden thought occurred to him.

“That’s why, isn’t it? Why we both looked for Bruce to fill that hole.  But he let us both down, then.”

Stephanie looked deeply sad and contemplative for a moment, but she kept her hand on Tim.

“Now it’s different.” She insisted.  She had forgiven Bruce.

Tim wasn’t sure he understood how she could have.  He refused to say something he’d maybe regret and looked away from his girlfriend.  It seemed Stephanie wasn’t having it, as she pushed at his cheek and tried to recapture his attention.

“Do you not think he loves you?  Do you think it’s still conditional?” She sounded like she desperately wanted a denial from him, but Tim wasn’t sure of his answer and shrugged helplessly.  In a moment of childishness, he tried to redirect his discomfort onto her, only to baulk with regret the moment the words left his mouth.

“And you?  Everything that happened with Bruce… and what about your mom…”

Her eyes reddened from fresh tears.  “I don’t… don’t think I’m ready to deal with that yet.”

He nodded earnestly.  “I’m sorry Steph.”

“One thing at a time.”  She affirmed.

He kissed her hand then, and she slowly pulled it away.  He earned another smile from her and her eyes dried. It was enough to make him abruptly blurt out a desperate, “Can I kiss you?”

Immediately, he regretted asking.  On the forehead was fine, the cheek too after an initial tenseness, but otherwise Tim had kept their lips separated.  And she’d been too weak to even attempt anything else. She said she didn’t remember what Jervis made her do.  Tim was petrified of triggering memories.  Seeing her smile in the sunlight made him breathless, however, and he wanted to give his girlfriend more comfort than words could make.

Desperate selfishness was another cause.  He wanted to feel good with her.  Looking up one last time at the stairs, he saw Bruce was gone. 

Returning his gaze to Stephanie, she peered at him curiously, and after she thought for a moment, she held her arms out straight in front of her.  “Help me lie down.”  She said. 

Scrambling slightly, he shifted so he was knelt in front of her, and she wrapped her arms around his shoulders.  He did the same for her back, and gently, slowly, lowered her down on the grassy bank. They stared into each other’s eyes for a moment, then Tim leant in and very gently kissed her. 

He could feel her clench up when his lips touched hers.  Her hands laid in fists next to her thighs and her legs were tight and tense, like a corpse.  Tim immediately pulled away.  Her eyes were screwed shut, her nose crinkled.

“Steph.  We don’t have to.”

“I want to.” She insisted without opening her eyes.  With a sigh, he looked down, seeing how he was looming over her.  Maybe once it felt protective, maybe now it felt caging.  Her brain and body were not in sync.  He would have switched places with her, but she wasn’t capable of holding herself up on her knees yet. 

Tim backed off and laid down next to her.  One hand reached out and held her fist, intertwining the fingers when she relaxed in his grip.  With his other hand he tilted her head round, her eyes still screwed shut.  Side by side, nose to nose and toe to toe, Tim tried again.

This time, he felt everything slacken as the tension left her. 

“Okay?” He murmured.

She licked her lips, smile a little dreamy. “Grand…”  She leant in this time, and Tim let her lead.

They never let go of each other’s hand.

 


 

 

The following weeks saw Tim return from work and patrol a little frazzled, but otherwise feeling good.  Stephanie had slowly managed to build up to standing on her own, as well as shuffling around.  Climbing stairs was still a difficulty and she could go no more than from one end of the manor to the other, but she was jubilant to being allowed to go her own pace, and her mood had remained light. 

It seemed the worst had passed, and little victories that came slowly were celebrated.  Bad days still occurred, when Bruce would have to come in to Tim’s room in the morning and physically lift Stephanie out of bed, or when nightmares would return and mood swings would swoop in disrupting a sense of routine that had slowly began to build back up, but Stephanie managed the pain well.  The reduction in her medication saw Stephanie’s mother grow less and less panicky, with it then becoming a ‘as needed’ agreement, rather than a thrice daily dosage.  Her appetite improved, and she took to spending more and more time outside, the colour returning to her skin.  Gotham U had agreed to defer her final year by another twelve months, giving her more space to heal and one less thing to worry about.  Whatever bad moment remained were less about what had occurred, and more about whatever plans she had made for herself had gone asunder.  She was lost, and whilst little victories gave her a boost, it reminded her how far she was from ever moving forward with her initial ideas.  It seemed she was stuck in Gotham, for better or worse, and with that thought came the overwhelming feeling of being trapped.     

She continued to practice felting, and once she had regained enough control over her legs had begun sewing in earnest once more.  Damian had not so subtly been delighted in his present taking shape, to which Stephanie jutted her jaw out, expectant, each time he praised her progress.  Every time Damian would stare at her, before realising she wanted a kiss on the cheek, and he would burn bright red.  He did it though, in kisses so quick that Stephanie would laugh, girlish and overjoyed, and Tim, surprised at himself, would feel the weirdest pang of jealousy.  The final product had been alarmingly cute, like the little woollen figurines she used to knit.  Tim wasn’t sure where Damian had put the four birds, but he suspected they were in the boy’s room, possibly somewhere in constant sight.

Bruce had been preparing a purge of sorts of the Wayne Enterprises Board the past three months, pulling up more and more members from decidedly non-Gotham or non-old money backgrounds.  Tim smirked at the memory of some of the deposed members looking across the room for help, mostly from Tim.  They had truly thought Tim was sympathetic to them, for one act of kindness in fixing a mistake they had manufactured in their arrogance.  Tim had snorted, and returned to his laptop, uninterested in their complaints.  When they were ignored, the three members looked for help elsewhere.  But none came, and they were escorted out the building.  It was a small victory, but it was something.

On a suggestion from Alfred, Tim entered Bruce’s office one evening to find Bruce not sat at his desk, but instead on a couch nestled between two bookcases.  Tim stared for a moment, knowing that Bruce wanted Tim to sit down next to him.  Not knowing if this was going to be another lecture or not, Tim relented, and perched himself right on the edge.  He could hear Stephanie and Cassandra outside on the patio below.  Their conversation was muted, but he could hear that the tone was light.  Stephanie had managed to get through three months of hell somehow, and a light had appeared at the end of the tunnel.

Bruce was not looking at Tim, instead he was looking to the window, listening to the girls’ muffled talking.

“She’s doing much better.”  Bruce stated.

“She is… Last month was hard for her.”  Scratching his neck, Tim struggled to verbalise the stress from watching the one person who had never crumbled under her own pain begin to crack.  He’d insisted he’d be there to help her this time, and it had been a smack to his ego to see how little good he did.  Damian seemed to have given her the pickup she needed, more than anyone, and she had taken Cass’ encouragement and gentle touches far better than his.  Tim thought he was disappointing Stephanie. 

“For all of us.”  Bruce was a thousand miles away when he replied, more interested in what he was hearing outside than sitting talking with Tim.

“I think you underestimate how much she appreciated your yelling at the hospital staff for the tramadol mess.”

That made Bruce sneer in a way that reminded Tim of Damian, and he grunted an acknowledgement. 

Exhaling heavily through his nose, Tim began to anxiously pinch his arm.  “Did…what…”  Nothing coherent came out, and Tim twisted his skin absently minded.  Bruce’s face was blank, until he finally rotated and looked Tim in the eye.  He reached down and pulled Tim’s hand away from hurting himself.  The arm had become pink and inflamed from his pinching, and nails marks marred his skin.  

“Stephanie won’t be able to leave Gotham when she wanted to.”

“No… not for college anyway.  Not for a couple of years.” The or ever didn’t come out.  Tim hadn’t given up on Steph’s behalf.  He’d wilfully ignore the Court given diagnosis until it was staring him in the face.  She’d come back from worse.  She’d do the same again. 

“I’ll get your apartment ready for you both, so you can move in when she’d ready.  I want you both in Gotham.”  Bruce said plainly.  Tim flinched.  He was no longer trusted, and Bruce desired to keep a constant eye on him.  For Stephanie, it was far more paternal.  He just wanted to keep close watch on her recovery and rehabilitation.  Tim couldn’t find the fire to argue for himself, but Stephanie…

“She feels lost.  Doesn’t have anything to work towards anymore.”

“She’s working on her recovery.”

“She wants to help others.” Tim insisted.  “That’s all it’s ever been for her.  And now she can’t.  She’s not Babs.  I don’t think she could do an Oracle.  She has to be in the thick of it.  Nothing else will do.  And she won’t be able to for a long while.”  He grabbed Bruce’s arm, trying to make him understand.  “She needs to find another way to help people, at least until she can put on a suit again or do medicine like her mom.  But I don’t know how to help her find it.” 

Bruce said nothing.  He knew of Tim looking at colleges that he could attend out of state, an excuse for the pair to leave more than a legitimate desire to learn and earn a degree.

Tim tugged on Bruce’s arm incessantly.  “Let me get her out of Gotham when she can stand the journey.  A few more months.  There must be something for W.E. that could give me an excuse to visit other places and then she can… She can heal out of this city.  Like she did before.”

Bruce looked on sympathetically but did not agree.  “I want you both home where I can keep an eye on you both.  Dick has already left again, I’m not also losing Red Robin and Batgirl.”

Tim slowly released his hold on Bruce’s arm, and chewed his lip.  Dick had left, quietly and without much fanfare, as was his way when he was caught in one of his moods.  He was spending time in New York, so not too far for Gotham – not like Chicago or San Francisco – with Donna and Kory and others.  Damian had been not so subtly (despite the kid’s pretentions) miserable about it.  Tim hadn’t ever really spoken to Dick about that night in his father’s home.  He had subconsciously added it to his list of conversations that he and Dick would never acknowledge after the initial confrontation.  Dick had learned he was supposed to be a slave to his younger adopted brother.  Tim couldn’t blame him if he needed time to process it.  He couldn’t help but somewhat selfishly wish that Dick would come home soon, carrying the lightness that had been stripped away the past three months, and this time not just at a surface level.

“I need you to give my gift to Stephanie.”

Tim jolted, remembering his initial conversation with Bruce, when Stephanie had dropped the bomb about moving, just a day before everything went to hell.  Incredulous, Tim felt his lip curl.

“Can’t you give it to her yourself?”  It came out far more whiney than Tim had intended, but Bruce found the humour in it.

“No, I cannot.”  He stood up and walked to the desk, going to a side drawer. 

Tim walked over curiously, as Bruce pulled out a long slim rectangular jewellery box.  Carefully, almost reverently, he placed it in Tim’s hands.

“Cassandra, as the only daughter, will receive most of these after I’m gone, but still.  I want you to take this one for Stephanie.  It’s a promise to her.  A promise to you both.  No matter what happens, no matter where you and her go.  These belong to you.  And you belong in this family.”

He waited patiently whilst Tim worked up the courage to open the box, watching when some subdued glee when his middle child nearly burst into tears.  Every time Tim thought he figured out what angle Bruce was playing, he would throw in a wild card, and toss Tim off his game.

Struck with a sudden lightness, Tim strode past Bruce, and stuck his head out the office window.  It overlooked the back garden, and Tim spied Stephanie and Cassandra stretching on the patio.

“Steph!”  He yelled, voice carrying across the estate.  Stephanie looked up and waved. Cassandra frowned at her brother’s antics.  “You coming with me to the Christmas Gala, yeah?”

The strange out of the blue question coupled with its awkward delivery made Stephanie wrinkle her nose.

“I guess?”  She hollered back.  “I don’t think I’ll be much of a dance partner in three months though!”

“Doesn’t matter!”  He replied, pulling his head back in.  He intended for that to be the end of it, but Stephanie seemed determined to keep the shouting match going, to Cassandra’s horrified confusion. 

“Why ask?”

Tim’s head poked back out the window. “Just making sure!”

Why?”  She wasn’t going to let it go. 

“You’ll see!”  Exaggerating how happy he was, Tim blew an over the top kiss, to which Stephanie actually caught it and gently tapped her own cheek.  His laugh rang through the yard and Cassandra only grew more befuddled. 

With that he was definitely gone from the window.  Steph blinked, then returned her attention to Cassandra, who looked like someone had stuck a fishing hook in her upper lip.

“Stank face.”  Stephanie warned. 

“You two are something else.”

Stephanie looked supremely proud of the fact.  “Heck yeah.”  She said, returning her arms the floor for Cassandra to gently push on her shoulder blades.

Tim turned back to Bruce.  He was bemused, but happy.  Tim held tight to the box.  “If she wears these at these, at the Christmas Gala, any Court of Owls member that will be there will shit themselves.  They don’t hold anything over me or her.”

Bruce coughed, not wanting to admit his amusement at Tim figuring out another angle to the gift.

“It’s a warning.”  Bruce said.

“She’ll love it.  I love it.  Thank you Bruce.”  Tim threw himself at Bruce for a hug.  Bruce stumbled under the weight of the nineteen-year-old throwing himself at him, but he caught Tim nonetheless, and squeezed tight.

Chapter Text

“Ready?” Tim asked, holding out the key for Stephanie to take.  

“Sort of.” She muttered.  They’d gone uptown, near the university campus, to their apartment.

It had taken six months longer than expected, but they were finally ready to move into their new place.  It was dark out, Stephanie having waited until Tim had returned from work, and with the shortest day of the year not far around the corner, evenings in Gotham got dark and cold fast.  She was bundled up in a hat, scarf, gloves and a body warmer, whilst Tim wore a dark pea coat, his work suit still on underneath.  His hands looked cold.

She had, in the end, trusted Tim with the buying of most of the furniture.  Unable to even bear the thought of it anymore, she had deferred with less grace than she had wanted to give.  She almost dreaded what the final product would look like, as Tim’s solo apartment in the centre of the city was so modern, so classy, that it felt lifeless to her.  It had been bought and furnished when he was at one of the lowest points of his life, as a first step of establishing independence and his way of starting recovery. 

This was supposed to another rung on his ladder.  It was supposed to be their home for the next two years, plain and simple.  Stephanie wanted things to be softer for them.  Less metal and glass, more wood and fabric. 

“I promise you’ll like it.  Alfred and Babs were helpful.”

She trusted their sense of style more than her boyfriend’s and nodded. 

She held onto the wall when she turned to the locks.  Today was an okay day.  Not great, but not bad.  She had managed the journey from the car to the lobby and up the lift, but she knew she would have to sit down once inside.  They had all the time in the world to explore and move her stuff across from her mom’s.  For now, she just wanted to be sitting on something soft.

Taking an exaggerated deep breath, she opened both locks, and nudged the door open. 

Last time she had seen the place it had been empty, the walls were a little dirty above the radiators, the carpet was in need of a clean, and there was a slight smell of damp from when a previous owner had flooded the bathroom and never managed to dry the place out.

They had both thought it perfect for a first home. 

The stained carpet of the hallway had been covered up with a long red patterned rug.  A dark brown table sat next to the door, with a little dish to put the keys into.  She put them down with exaggerated pomp, held a steadying hand on the narrow hallway and made her way down to the main living space.  Tim trailed behind, watching her reaction to the place with open curiosity. 

Poking her nose quickly into the bedroom, the only thing she uttered was “big bed”, to which Tim struggled not to burn pink, and instead smiled awkwardly. 

Kissing was easier for her now, everything else… well, they were working on it.  They felt fifteen again, testing boundaries and how far the other was okay with going.  The other night they had managed a fair way along, but then Tim hand had grazed her scarred stomach.  She had jolted so violently she managed to hurt her back, and that had been that for her.  He was no longer able to touch her, but that didn’t stop Stephanie from helping him finish.  Tim very quickly decided he didn’t really like that arrangement. 

Back in the apartment, Stephanie gulped in a large breath and opened the door the lounge.

She hung in the doorway for a moment, Tim looming over her shoulder, watching her from the side.

“Okay?”  He asked after an uncomfortable silence.

She looked back at him.  Her eyes were a little wet.  She kissed him sweetly, then moved to sit down on a large soft armchair.  Sighing with visible relief, she eyed the large egg blue couch next to her.

“Where’d you find it?”

Tim walked around the room, lighting up the floor and table lamps. “Alfred took me to a thrift store. We bought most of the furniture there.”

Looking around the space with its mismatched furniture and cluttered surfaces, Stephanie breathed a sigh of relief.

“It’s perfect Tim.”

He moved to kneel in front of her, dropping his rucksack.  She had curled up on the chair, legs tucked away, looking comfortable and like she belonged there.

“You haven’t seen all of it yet. You could hate the bathroom.”

“Doubt it.”  Her gaze was soft, and Tim felt himself blush under such an openly adoring gaze. “Thank you, Tim.”  She said it as if she were telling him that she loved him.  Reaching out, he rested a hand on hers.

“Are you happy?”

She shrugged unhelpfully and redirected his question. 

“Are you?”

“Getting there.  Ups and downs.  But mostly upwards.”  He gently nudged her.  “Steph?”

She sat still and thought for a moment, eyes drifting away from Tim’s.  He waited patiently while she gathered her thoughts.

“It’s hard to have your dreams shaken out from under you.  And I can’t even blame myself this time.”

Tim nodded emphatically.  “Do… do we even need big dreams right now?  One day at a time… there’s nothing wrong with that right?”  He sounded unsure and doubtful even to himself, and Stephanie only laughed miserably. 

“We can try, hon. I promise.”

His eyes lit up for a moment.  “The only variable you can control is yourself, right?”

He had hoped it would encourage her, instead she looked deeply sad for a moment.  Tim felt his heart stutter in panic, believing he was failing her.  She must have seen it on his face, as she took in a sharp breath, her hand lying under Tim’s, before she leant forward, arms winding around his shoulders and neck.

“You know I love you right?”  She asked, lips resting against his Adams apple.

Tim hummed in affirmation, and she tightened her grip.  “You make me happy.  This place will make me happy.  Cassandra makes me happy.  Damian makes me happy.  Seeing my mom have the chance to step up and exceeding, that makes me happy.  I’m just… I’m not happy with myself right now.”

“There’s nothing wrong with you.”

“Disputable.” She spat out bitterly.  She shifted, resting her jaw on his shoulder.  “Be a bit more patient with me?”

“Promise.”  Tim pulled away and tugged over his backpack which he let rest on the floor.  He shuffled around in it, looking for the long black box Bruce had given him three months ago. 

“You got a dress for next week?”

Christmas Gala.  If she were honest with herself, she was dreading it.  Her dress was a long and full designer thing of beauty.  Alfred had her measurements and apparently had it made just for her.  She had been putting off trying it on, knowing it would mean a session of standing in front of the mirror with Alfred on his hands and knees, pinning things that needed altered.  She wanted to try and do it herself, but knowing the family, her sewing skills wouldn’t be worth the risk with such a valuable dress.  She also hadn’t been feeling worthy of wearing such a thing.

Her first proper ‘public’ appearance, and she would spend most of it sat in a corner, unable to get drunk as any other twenty-year-old would do, because of her medication.  Cassandra, with her similar distaste for these sorts of events, assured her she wouldn’t be alone for any stretch of the night.  Tim had made a similar promise, but unlike Cassandra, he would be expected to do actual hosting, alongside Dick and Bruce.  She had heard that Dick had promised to return for the Christmas period, and the Manor’s atmosphere lifted just from the idea of him coming.  Damian in particular seemed to vibrate with anticipation of getting to spend the evening clung to Dick’s side one more.  She knew he’d been sneaking out of Gotham to see Dick when he could.  It was kind of heart-warming, but mostly it just made her sad to hear. 

“Alfred gave me one if you can believe.” She said, talking of the dress.  “Apparently the one you gave me a couple of years ago won’t do.”

He scoffed, as if she had made a childish mistake.  “Well of course not. That was a cocktail dress.  This is full-blown black-tie event.”

Rolling her eyes, she whined, “I wish I knew what that means.”

“It means we get to go all out and dress up.  Which is something we never do.” 

Stephanie snorted, and Tim moved to get up onto the chair with her.  With some shuffling she was perched on his lap, legs hanging off the arm rests.  He held the box in front of her.  “Here.  An early Christmas present.” 

With some reluctance, she took it from him.

“Dare I ask?”

“Well, it’s not a ring, if that’s what you’re worried about.” 

Stephanie tried not to laugh, as he was far more worried than her.  Deciding to tease him, she titled her head, and inspected the box exterior, as if she were judging the gift before she had even peeked inside. 

“Hmm.  Wouldn’t say no to a promise ring.”

“…Really?”  Tim funnelled that away for a later date. “Well, it’s not a ring.  It’s from Bruce.  And me.  But mostly Bruce.”

“Bruce?”  She ran her fingers along the velvet, deeply touched.  She held it for a moment longer, reluctant to open it. Tim quickly grew impatient and shook under her. 

“Oh… please open it already.  I’ve been holding on to it for months.”

She looked back at him, and he looked as wound up as a young child once more.  Colour ran from his ears across his cheeks and nose, and his right leg was bouncing incessantly. 

“Well, if you’re gonna be like that.”  She went to put it on a side table, enjoying joking with him.  He rarely got this excitable anymore, she wanted to stretch it out as long as possible.

“No!  Stephie!” He grabbed it from her hands, his fingers now warm, and she burst out laughing.  He wrapped an arm tight around her middle, holding her when she wriggled, slapping his knee to break free. With his other hand he managed to open the box and hold it in front of her.

Instantly, she stopped squirming, and snatched the box from Tim.  Gawking, she looked back at him, who nodded encouragingly.

A pair of earrings sat nestled in the black interior. With long narrow white gold chains, there was a beautiful pearl hanging at the end, and a brilliant little diamond at the top of each earring.  Stephanie tried not to wheeze.

“Pearls?” She managed to ask.

“Bruce wants it to be a promise.  A Wayne in all but name… For now.  Until you are.  I mean… if you ever want… I mean…”

Stephanie saved Tim from digging a deeper hole.  “I’ll need to thank him.” She choked on the words, but not from ungratefulness.  

Tim rubbed her fingers.  Sometimes her thumb would click oddly, and she’d have to wiggle it awkwardly to pop it back.  A habit had been formed the last months of Tim massaging her fingers, almost absentmindedly.  Stephanie didn’t mind, she like watching his pale long fingers do their work.

“There’s another angle to the gift.”  He confessed.

A balloon deflated in her mind.  Never let it be said that Bruce Wayne could give a gift simply for the act of giving.  There was always another cause.

“Oh,” was all she said.

“…The Court…” Instantly she tensed, and Tim struggled to make her relax, but he needed to warn her.  “They are going to be at the Gala.  A lot of members.  Dick and Bruce have most of their names, but not all.  You won’t go in there totally blind.  If you wear these, it’ll be warning to them.  I’m still with Bruce all the way and you are as much a Wayne in every way that counts.”

“Doesn’t that kind of put a target on my head?”

“They already know how important you are to me.  This throws Bruce into the mix as well.”

“A giant Bat protecting tiny Robins from cruel Owls…”

“You’re not alone.”  He gripped her hand which held the earrings.  “The Court should be afraid they ever crawled out of their holes last year and threatened Bruce…Dick…all of us.”  He pulled her upwards, so their heads could rest together.  Stephanie continued to stare at the earrings.  “Will you wear them?” Tim asked after a moment, nervous his little speech had been off-putting for her, a step too far, too intense.

She began to take out her little pink studs in her ears, placing them on the side table, and, after a moment of difficulty, slid the new grips into place.  She wiggled her head, enjoying the feeling of the pearls hitting her neck. 

A wet kiss on the cheek from Tim made her smile broader and she shifted, snuggling closer to him.  They were still in their coats, hats and scarves and all, but the comfort of being sat with him, a solid block of warmth, in a dimly lit room made Stephanie reluctant to move.

“This is what I wanted,” She murmured. “Part of it at least.” 

Tim looked down at their entangled legs, then began to play with her earrings. 

“One day at a time.” 

She smiled, grabbed the hand that was tugging her earlobe gently, and pulled it round so she could kiss it.  She sandwiched the hand between her cheek and shoulder, enjoying him stroking her skin.

“One day at a time.”  She confirmed.

 


 

Cassandra didn’t so much dislike galas as much as she just wasn’t interested in them.  None of the family particularly gave a hoot about schmoozing, even if the money raised was also enough to make Stephanie whistle at the final figure.  Damian certainly enjoyed the attention, preening at the positive feedback, and Dick enjoyed being indulged, even if the people doing it were, in Cassandra’s eyes, a bit creepy.  Tim had gotten very good at faking his enjoyment, acting more and more like Bruce Wayne in public than Tim Drake.  The Tim Drake/Wayne dichotomy as he had coined it.  Stephanie hated watching him behave so carelessly, and Cassandra hated watching both be uncomfortable with the lie.  Most people had very quickly learned not to bother conversing with Cassandra, as often she would deliberately leave the conversation if she was bored, regularly when a person was in midsentence.  She wasn’t particularly good at pleasantries, and she had no interest in learning.   

She was in that very situation as she saw Stephanie and her mother be walked over to a table and seats.  That was her cue to leave the remarkably beardy man and his whiskered friend.  They started at her blatant disinterest, and she didn’t so much as mutter an excuse.  She waltzed over to the pair, Stephanie’s eyes lighting up.  Mrs Brown smiled politely. 

Cassandra dragged a chair round so they could sit in a little triangle.  She was wearing a black caped dress, because of course she was, with a high neck and open arms.  A golden belt was around her waist, but otherwise there was no colour in her outfit.  She looked mightily imposing, which Stephanie suspected was the intention.  Don’t come near me, I’m not interested.  Her hair was pulled back off her face, into a tight bun.  Her makeup, which Stephanie could only count on the one hand she had seen Cassandra wear, was plain, all the attention focused on the black cat eyes that were smiling at her.

“You look beautiful.” Cassandra stated, no argument to be made. Stephanie smiled shyly and looked at her hands.  Her mother grabbed one of them and squeezed tight.

“I bet Commissioner Gordon is around here somewhere mom.” Stephanie teased, changing the subject.  “Cass, you seen him or Babs?”

Crystal narrowed her eyes, “Very amusing Stephanie.”

“His moustache is… impressive close up.”

Crystal sighed and sat back.  “Where’s Tim?”  She asked instead.

Cassandra looked around the room, and spotted him with Dick, both hiding in the corner of ballroom.  Neither looked happy, but both were in a better state than they had been half a year ago.  Whatever they were talking about, it was to stay between them, so she turned away, not wanting to intrude.  Cassandra turned back to Stephanie, who was also watching them sadly. 

Damian interrupted before Cassandra could say or do anything. 

“Do you know how to dance?”

With a jolt, Stephanie nearly leapt out of her chair with Damian’s abrupt appearance.  She whirled around, twisting something as she did it.  Her wheeze would have been comedic if not for the fact that she’d had a pretty terrible health day yesterday.  Her eyes bugged out of her head, and Damian frowned as she slowly relaxed and her breathing returned to normal.

“Not really kiddo.”  She apologised.

“Hmmph.  Not surprising really.”  He scuffed his feet on the floor.  “I just thought I would check, have it confirmed.”

“I don’t think I’ll be much good for that tonight.”  She reached out and held his hand.  “When you get tired of dancing and people, come see me though, yeah?”

“Alright.” And he nodded as if she had given him a serious mission for Robin. 

“I will dance with you, Damian.  If you like.”  Cassandra interrupted.  He narrowed his eyes, seriously considering the offer, and then nodded affirmatively.  Cassandra stood up to head to the floor.  Damian went to follow, then turned back.  Stephanie waited patiently whilst he pulled together what he wanted to say.  It seemed to pain him to mutter it, but she couldn’t help but gasp at his, “You look nice.”

He practically fled past both girls.  Cassandra watched him go, wide eyed, then swept aside her cape fabric and followed. 

Stephanie snorted and slowly turned back, rubbing her oblique as she did so.  Her dress did not make it easy to soothe.  She was corseted in, Alfred doing it in such a way that her back and core were supported, rather than trying to give her a tiny waist (“Your waist is small enough as is, Miss Stephanie” he had said, flattering her as he tugged the strings).  Bruce had said she looked like a garden watercolour when he helped waddle slowly down the stairs.  It was a very soft dress, lilac and pink and yellow and mint in colours, with tight layers and layers of organza wrapped around her arms and chest, covering all hints of scar tissue outside of her hands.  It had such an immense full skirt that she wouldn’t have been able to dance even if she wanted to, as the train laid out fully was a full two feet of silk fabric. She’d thanked Alfred for being so kind and Tim had gabbed like a fish, nothing coherent escaping.  She had taken it as a compliment, his inability to verbalise the praises he was trying to convey.  Alfred had ordered her a dress that looked graceful in stillness and hid nearly every piece of abuse she’d endured.  The only piece of jewellery she had on were the earrings, with her hair done up in such a way to draw attention to them.  She had only entered the gala a short while ago, but she had felt several people tilting their heads to see them properly.  She hoped many of them were from the Court.    

The mother and daughter sat and watched the people go by for a long while.  Whatever Tim and Dick were speaking on, it was taking a long time to verbalise it.  In the meantime, Bruce was wandering around, giving speeches, being the subject of speeches, pretending to drink anything but his usual ginger beer, laughing too loudly and generally being a very good host.  It had been decided early on that the special guests of the night would be the nurses of the various Gotham hospitals (Stephanie’s many visits the past year may have been the inciting incident, but no confirmation was ever given), hence Crystal’s attendance.  She wasn’t here as anyone’s plus one.  

Barbara and her father passed by, Babs giving a small wave and smile to the duo, Gordon looking over and nodding a hello.  Stephanie decided to poke fun at her mother once more.

“See mom?  What a moustache.” 

Crystal coughed and coughed and coughed. She looked back at her daughter and threw her shoulders back.  “I’m going to go see some co-workers and schmooze.”  She went to move away, but initially tripped on Stephanie’s gown.  Correcting herself with a laugh, she tottered off, looking for company that wasn’t thirty years younger than her.  To no-one’s surprise, the Commissioner seemed to be her target. 

Stephanie’s grin spread ear to ear as she watched.  She returned her gaze to search for Tim, only to find he and Dick had separated.  Dick had his game face on and was glibly chatting to a group of young women.  She could no longer see Tim.

“Miss Brown?”  

She turned away from the main space.  An elderly couple stood on the opposite side of the table.  They both smiled kindly, and Stephanie felt her cheeks grow warm.

“Yes?”

“May we sit?”  The lady asked.

She couldn’t have said no even if she wanted to, so she smiled and nodded.

“You look so beautiful, I had to say hello.  Meet this lovely girl of Timothy’s.”  The lady said as she eased herself down.  He husband helped tuck her in against the table, then he himself sat.  They were both dressed very formally, even for the occasion.  He in a coat and tails, she in white gloves. 

“Oh.”  She blushed even more.  “Thank you.  How…how do you know Tim?”

“We knew his parents.  Old family friends.  Attended their wedding even.”  Said the man.  “Ah, forgive me.  My name is Arthur Jennison, and this is my wife Lydia.”

Lydia smiled beatifically, pale blue eyes getting lost in her soft wrinkled face.

“I’m so glad you could make it.”  She said, “We’d heard about what had happened earlier this year.  So awful.  To see you up and about… you and Tim must be over the moon.”

Not really knowing what response to give, Stephanie just smiled.  Lydia then reached across the table and grabbed her hand.  Stephanie’s smile froze on her face.  She wasn’t comfortable with strangers touching her yet.  Even this elderly woman, with soft hands covered in liver spots, made her feel violated in a way she couldn’t explain.  There was no polite way to shake her off, so Stephanie tried to handle it as best she could.

“You are such a beauty.”  Lydia said, inspecting her face, looking for any sort of flaw.  She didn’t seem to find anything though, and it seemed to make her incredulous and full of awe.  “I can see why he picked you.”

“More like the other way around.” She chuckled, not entirely happy with the implication on her and Tim’s relationship.  It had never been about her appearance, jokes about his love of blondes aside. 

“Are you planning to go back to college?”  Arthur asked. 

Before she could think of a response, another voice cut in.

“Stephanie.”

It was Tim, from over Stephanie’s shoulder, and she turned to see him standing with his hands clenched into fists.  He looked very pale, but he managed to mouth the world owl to her.

Lydia’s grip on her hand tightened, and Stephanie felt her stomach drop in a flood of fear.  She remembered her brief time conscious with the Court, and she remembered the old couple that let them leave.  Looking back at them, she knew it was the same pair.  The Grandmaster and his wife. 

“Sit down Timothy.”  Arthur’s tone brokered no argument, and Tim pulled a chair up next to Stephanie.  Lydia looked at the duo, eyes full of fondness, but also regret and sincere melancholy.  Tim hated that this woman genuinely believed what she portrayed to others.  It would have been so much easier to hate her if she were also a liar.  The pair had been waiting for a chance to get them alone, and in such a busy environment, the rest of the family could not aggressively intervene without causing a scene. 

“What do you want?”

“We wanted to check how Stephanie is getting on of course.  You left so abruptly… and we kept hearing of her visits to the hospital… how slow she was in getting to stand and walk.”  Arthur spoke as if it were a personal failing of Tim’s to not have given her a faster recovery, as if Tim should not have returned to Bruce.

They spoke of her like she was not even three feet away from them.

“I like your earrings.”  Lydia interjected.  Tim sneered.  “The pearls… do you remember Arthur, the pearls Martha Wayne used to wear?”

“They are Martha’s.”  Stephanie said, before Arthur could respond.  “Bruce gave them to me and Tim.” 

They watched as the pair opposite processed that information.

“A thoughtful gift.”  Arthur finally stated.

Neither of them responded, but Tim reached across the table, slowly and deliberately, and tugged Stephanie’s hand free of Lydia’s.  Released from the woman’s grip, she immediately sought out Tim’s dry, cool grasp.  He pulled their hands back to rest together under the table on his lap.

Arthur sighed, deeply disappointed.

“Bruce is causing a mess.”

“Good.”  Tim spat out, which made Arthur run out of patience.

“Enough of that Tim.  This is a warning, for you and Stephanie.  Stop.  We’re not just another gang that you can punch out of existence.”

Lydia nodded vigorously.  “It goes much deeper than that.  Deeper than our age… deeper than the money.  If you’d come home, we could show you—”

“I am home.”

For an uncomfortable minute, Tim, in his wine and black suit, and Stephanie, in her spring gown, glowered at the elderly couple, dressed all in black and white.  Stephanie felt Tim’s hands become sweaty, but if he was nervous, it wasn’t showing on his face.

“You may think that you are home, but you’re lying to yourselves.  A collection of false dreams that will implode.”  Arthur sighed and stood up.  “If Bruce continues digging, he will find more monsters than some rich men in masks.  When that happens, he, his son, daughter, and the rest of them will fall.  Richard and you will finally come home, and whether Stephanie comes with you will be your choice.”

The speech was conceited and ineffective, and it made Stephanie’s temper snap.

“You talk so much shit for someone born with a silver spoon in your mouth and another one up your ass.”

Everyone stared at Stephanie’s outburst incredulously, though Tim was not shy of how impressed he was.  She gulped, then continued in her anger.  “We’re not playing your game.  We never will.  I make my own choices, and Tim makes his.  You aren’t part of it.  Bruce and the family will bring you down, like we’ve done for every other freak with delusions of grandeur.  You didn’t achieve a goddamn thing this year and you won’t ever again.”

Tim’s grip tightened in hers under the table, so bolstered by her anger, her strength in facing her tormentor’s benefactors.  

Lydia looked heartbroken; Arthur looked disheartened.  Neither was the reaction Tim and Stephanie were banking on.

“We’re a lost cause Mr Jennison.  Sorry if that disappoints you, ” said Tim.  “Enjoy the rest of your evening.”

Lydia slowly rose up with her husband.  Stephanie peeked across the room.  The rest of the family had noticed, each member staring at the two couples.  Damian looked on with as frigid a look as she had ever seen.  Dick was pacing back and forth between pillars, like a caged animal, seemingly hoping for something to kick off.

Nothing did however, and the Jennisons left the table, and then the party.  Cassandra stood by the door as they left, snorting as they tried to leave with dignity. 

Tim began playing and rubbing Stephanie’s fingers once more.

“Okay?”  He whispered.

“…Not really.” The adrenaline had faded, and instead she felt incredibly shaky. She looked at Tim, trying to breathe at a controlled pace.  His fingers felt good on hers.  Tim managed a smile, and then his eyes wandered to see Bruce on his way over, an equally shaky smile on his face. 

He rested a hand on Tim’s shoulder, and then, uncharacteristically, he leant down and kissed Stephanie’s temple.  She looked up, not sure if it was part of his Bruce Wayne act.  She saw how serious his expression was however, and she had her answer.  She smiled brightly at him, reassuringly.

Turning to Tim he asked, “Anything worth repeating?”

“That they have more monsters in the closet than you know.  Not just rich folk with too much power.”

He didn’t look at Tim as if that were new information and squeezed his shoulder.  “Hnn.  We’ll deal with it later.  Get through the rest of tonight.”

“Yes sir.” Stephanie breathed, and then Bruce was gone, making his way to his other children who had congregated at the exit to watch the Jennison's leave.  It seemed none of the other gala goers, including Stephanie’s mother and Commissioner Gordon, noticed anything amiss.

Tim and Steph sat in silence for a long while, holding tight to each other, facing away from the main floor and watching only each other.  Finally, Tim grasped her other hand and leant forward.

“Do you think you can manage one dance Steph?”

Huffing, she shook her head.  “I really can’t move much in this dress.”

“Can you stand?”

“Yes?”

“Can you shuffle?”

Tilting her head, she struggled not roll her eyes.

“That’s not dancing Tim.”

He smiled and stood up; their hands still interlinked.  Gently, he swung them. 

“Really overestimating my own dance level, too, you know.  I can barely shuffle either.”

She stood up, pushing with one hand on the table, the other using Tim as leverage.  She wasn’t wearing heels, under her voluminous dress a comfy pair of ballet pumps meant she wasn’t damaging her ankles and knees more than necessary. They moved away from the table, giving her dress a chance to spread out across the floor.  Wrapping her arms around his neck, she leaned into him, allowing him to rest his cheek on her temple.

“Damian will be jealous.”

Tim was abruptly jealous of Damian’s hypothetical jealousy.  Weird.

The swayed like teenagers at the prom they’d never managed to go to, awkwardly and without much rhythm.  It was perfect.

“Tim?”

“Mm?”

“I still… I still want to leave Gotham for a while, in a couple of years.  I want it to be my choice.  I want to be selfish…” She trailed off, staring at nothing.

He nudged her kindly.  “Mm?”

“Will… Could you come with me… for it?”

“You want me with you?” 

She tried not to be saddened by the doubt in his voice and buried her face into his shirt.

“Always.”

“Then yes.  Always yes.  I have a few ideas that we can do down the line.  Together.”

He held her tighter, if such a thing were possible, and Stephanie revelled in how loved she was.