"Let me get this straight," Steph said, both hands raised. "You just woke me up at four in the morning because you want to have a team up. You want to team up because Red Robin was kidnapped by a woman calling herself the Crazy Quilt. You and me, versus the Crazy Quilt. And PS, it's four am and I have a philosophy quiz at eight."
"Yes," said Batman.
She didn't really have a choice. She knew that. Even if she declined the team up invite, she'd spend the next four hours awake and wondering if Batman had suddenly gained the ability to play practical jokes. Was this one of those tests of his, one of those pop quizzes that he tossed at his kids not because they were in need of life lessons, but because he could? She resisted the urge to pull her blanket over her head.
"Crazy Quilt. What did she want with Timmers?"
"She's a madwoman," he said flatly, thick arms crossed over his chest. That was his 'mission briefing' voice, his 'you don't choose to accept this' voice. "Her impaired vision has driven her insane. Bright colors trigger her."
"Oh. Oh. Tim got kidnapped by the Crazy Quilt because she found his outfit offensive on a deeply personal level."
"Yes," said Batman.
She swore the looming bastard was smiling on some level beyond human comprehension. It was the smile equivalent of a whistle only a dog could hear.
"And you want us to team up to save him," Steph surmised, working a hand through her tangled bedhead.
"Yes," said Batman.
She surveyed her options. Tossed around the possibility of him having purchased a sense of humor on the black market, somehow. Sighed.
"Gimme two minutes to change."
His lips thinned as he pursed them together. "You have forty-five seconds, Batgirl."
Just like old times. There was nothing quite like working for the Bat himself. The Bat was the Bat; there were no substitutions. When he said jump, they jumped. If you didn't jump when the Bat called upon your jumping skills, you got put on the naughty list, permanently. Steph knew all about the naughty list. He was a demanding mentor, a perfectionist, and she didn't even live in the same zipcode as right.
"Forty-five seconds," she huffed, pushing back the covers and trotting to her closet. She gathered her uniform and boots into her arms and tiptoe-ran to the bathroom. She pulled on her suit and cowl in record time, hopping down the hall and putting on her boots at the same time.
"Ready!" Steph announced, combing her fingers through her loose hair.
"Fifty-eight seconds, Batgirl," said Batman.
Yeah, this was going to be an awesome team up. She could just feel it.
"According to the control panel, it's the Elevator of Despair," Batgirl said, peering at all the buttons. "So, in retrospect? We probably should have taken the stairs. Not sure how this is Crazy Quilt's M.O., but props to her for shaking things up."
She'd been right on the money when she'd thought that this team up was going to be awesome in all the wrong and horrible ways. Either Batman had gotten gruffer in the time since they last worked together, or she'd blocked out his litany of grunts and glares as a defense mechanism. It wasn't that it bothered her, or that she took it all to heart---she didn't and couldn't, not with her Bat-history. He'd have to do a lot more than brush her off to get under her skin. She quipped and talked at him relentlessly, used to swapping with O.
Batman either ignored her or blocked her voice out. She pledged to not answer the Bat Alarm next time she woke up to him standing over her. Next time, she'd stay strong and go back to sleep, looming or no looming.
"Elevator of Despair," Batman repeated, inspecting the smooth metal box that they were stuck in. He grunted, like that was an acceptable mode of communication in the real world.
"All the buttons are labeled '13', and I'm wary of pushing them. I'm not super keen on being despaired all over."
"Don't touch anything," he said, much sharper than necessary.
"I just said I'm not touching them," she said flatly, holding up both hands. "Look at all these un-meddling fingers. I'm keeping them to myself. Please, sir, have all the buttons. They're all yours."
It was a little bit of a challenge. Once upon a time, she wouldn't have held her tongue. Quips were for villains and same-tier sidekicks; you didn't question the Bat or sass him back when he was being unreasonable. Those were The Rules.
He didn't react, though. He just took over with the control panel, leaving Steph to explore the compact nothing that was their impromptu cell. The elevator was cramped, a seamless metal box. There was no vent on the top, no way out to the shaft, and no way to pry the doors open. She doubted that it was a real elevator at all, just a dummy trap. The stupidity of it was astounding. Most of their---okay, his---villains had more ingenuity.
And somehow, the Greatest Detective had fallen for this dumb trap. Steph wasn't surprised at herself---she tripped every trap; Brown luck for life---but she was mildly surprised that Mr. Bruce Paranoia Wayne had walked into it.
But you didn't question him. Questioning him was tantamount to insubordination.
Maybe he'd wanted to get trapped. Maybe that was all a part of the plan.
"I'm going to miss class, aren't I?" Steph sighed at her distorted reflection in the metal door. "Think you could write me a note? Dear Professor, please excuse Batgirl's absence, as she was trapped in the Elevator of Despair. Signed, The Batman."
Her impression of the Batvoice was deplorable. He shot her a look before going back to doing whatever detectivey thing he was doing with the buttons. He'd popped off the panel and was messing with wires like he knew what he was doing. And of course he did; he was Batman. She was already debating if and when to start with the cut-the-wire jokes.
"No," said Batman. "You should have thought about your obligations before deciding to continue being a vigilante."
She tried to let it go. She imagined his words bouncing off of the impenetrable shield of her awesome adult confidence, but her old insecurities sucked the slight up and turned her defensive.
He'd asked her to come. He'd initiated this team up. What, did he just want a punching bag?
"I'm not wearing this to impress you," Steph said finally, her voice stripped of its usual warmth. "It's not about you. This is about me and my city. This is about all the people who look to the bat symbol for hope. I'm doing this for them."
"Which makes you a target."
"Are you saying that because you think I'm a target, or are you playing the devil's advocate? 'Cause either way, I've heard that one already. Straight from the Batgirl who got 'made an example of." That went in hard air quotes, because the idea bubbled up hot. "This is my choice."
"You've almost been killed once," he said, finally looking at her. Even with most of his face covered, she could feel the intensity of his stare. It was electrifying, dissecting, the kind of look that quartered you off into pieces and judged each bit separately.
Stephanie didn't flinch or look away. Some little voice in her head timidly put in you are soooo going to get fired again, but she plowed forward regardless.
"Yeah, speaking of my death fake-out. My memories of my last night in Gotham before my BRB Going to Africa Adventure are seriously hazy. Probably on account of the days of torture and all the morphine Leslie had me on. So, I." She sucked in a breath, steeled herself, and plunged on. "If you wouldn't mind? Could you say it one more time, maybe? A part of me thinks I just hallucinated the whole thing. But that's morphine for you, right?"
She could see his confusion, even under the cowl's white-out lenses. It said a lot about her early relationships with crimefighters, but she was good at reading emotions under masks.
She closed her eyes, that breath she'd gulped down leaving her. Steph felt small. Deflated. He had the unique ability to make her scramble for acceptance she didn't even really want. She'd been positive that she'd outgrown this.
"Tell me I really was Robin," Steph said, low and serious. "Tell me that I wasn't the punchline in some awful joke to Tim."
Not Spoiler, not Robin, not even Batgirl. It was Ms. Brown when she was passing muster, Stephanie when she'd slipped up. The sigh in his tone made her nerves scuttle. She hated this part: the sigh, the disappointment, the avoidance, the firm, silent put-down. Hadn't she outgrown this? Would he ever let her outgrow it, or was she going to be the outsider forever? Why was it that nobody else's name got used on the field, but he used hers? He didn't respect her monikers, did he? He never had. Someone could be listening in on this conversation. His ass got covered, but hers didn't.
Frustration crawled up her throat.
"I mean, I know who I am to you---to your kind of people," she continued like she hadn't heard him, her voice gaining the punch and shortness of anger. "Apple doesn't fall far from the tree, general failure at everything related to criminal warfare, too non-special to pull my own weight in the game, blah blah blah. I know. I've heard it. I'm no Nightwing, Oracle, Red Robin, or Black Bat. If anything, I'm a Jason."
She might have imagined it, but she swore that he flinched imperceptibly at the J-word. Great; something else she'd screwed up on. Maybe she should change her name to the Awkward Wordsmith: Master of Foot in Mouth Fu.
She was digging herself in deeper and deeper, but she'd needed to get this off her chest for years. Needed to clear the air. Needed to know.
"I get that I'm ineligible for the Crooks Killed My Parents Club, and that's one of the zillion reasons I don't fit in. Villains didn't kill my parents. Sometimes, when I was younger, I wished that they would. That makes me a terrible person, you know?" Her voice had rose to almost a rant, gaining the momentum and speed of something kept pent up for far too long. She didn't care if she made him angry. Wouldn't have been the first time. "Sometimes, I wanted Daddy to die. I'm not as good as you. Period. See, I can even admit it. But you can't make me stop doing this, because I need to do this."
"I know," Batman said, and the gentleness in his tone startled her. "I know how important the fight is to you. That's why I arranged for Black Bat to pass on her uniform to you."
Steph froze, staring. Her heartbeat drummed a rabbit tempo.
He'd given her the suit?
He'd wanted her to be Batgirl?
He'd thought that she could?
He'd given her a chance. She'd always thought that he'd stacked the deck against her every time, that he didn't want to see her make it, but she'd been wrong. This time, she'd misread him.
Dealing with Bruce would have been a lot easier if he didn't have the emotiveness of a potato, but Steph got him. This time, stuck in an Elevator of Despair, she got him.
"There's something in you that's...singular. Traits that I don't often see. You have never been a variable that I could control. I made mistakes with you because of that---actions that I regret. If Catwoman hadn't stopped me, I..." He made a low noise, not quite a growl. "After I left you with Leslie, I went for Black Mask."
Her hands were actually shaking. She debated pinching herself. Batman was sharing secrets and feelings. This couldn't have been real. She was still in bed, she was having a dream-slash-nightmare, and she would be so worked up over it when she woke up, she'd miss class anyway.
But no, this was real.
"I didn't kill him. But I got close. Closer than I've been in many years."
"Thank you?" Steph said in a bewildered croak. How else could she respond to the bomb that he'd dropped? For so long, she'd thought that he hadn't cared. He hadn't come for her, hadn't gone after the guy who'd taken her from him. She hadn't wanted him to break his vow, hadn't wanted him to derail, but she'd wanted him to show something. She'd wanted to know that she'd been more than Timbait and an annoyance. She'd wanted proof that he hadn't been as bad as Daddy, that he'd given a damn about her.
And she'd come to the conclusion that no such proof had existed. Now, he'd given her the proof, and she wasn't sure if she wanted to laugh or cry or try her luck with a Bathug.
Batman didn't look at her. He surveyed the untouched control panel, stoney-faced.
"You were my Robin," he said after a pause that stretched thin and tremulous. "You gave me your best, and I didn't give you mine. But now," and he did look at her again, his white-out lenses flicked up to show his very blue eyes. "You don't need a partner. You've grown."
A Bat apology: fumbling, roundabout, meandering things with grim sincerity and poor vocalization. She was stunned.
One thing that Tim had said had always stuck with her. You'll go crazy real fast if you get all hung up trying to figure out what Batman really thinks of you. She'd convinced herself that she didn't care, but that was ripe old denial talking. Everyone cared---from Dick to Damian to the Birds to the Rogues and back again. The Bat was the Bat; you wanted his approval, whether or not you liked it.
"I'm Batgirl," Steph said thickly, nodding. Thank you, thank you, thank you. It wasn't that she'd needed to hear it from him, but she'd wanted it. The rush of relief and pride roared in her ears.
"Yes," said Batman. "You are."
Stephanie coughed to free the lump in her throat. No way was she going to get all emotional in front of him. Timmy was still trapped in the proverbial well and she had day-saving to do. Besides, hugging Batman just felt...weird. And she was usually so hug-positive, too.
"Wanna bust out of here?" Steph said, and she swore he did that not-quite-smile again. "I mean, as much fun as the endless elevator ride has been. I've appreciated the time to share our feelings, but I'm sure Red Robin has a death trap or five he needs out of."
Batman kicked the elevator door once, twice, and then on the third blow the metal bent enough for him to get a firm finger-hold. He muscled it open like it was no big thing, proving that yes, he could have escaped at any time, but had chosen to wait and have a heart-to-heart with her. Maybe that had been the reason he'd brought her with her in the first place. She didn't know, and she never would.
You'll go crazy real fast if you get all hung up trying to figure out what Batman really thinks of you.
"Follow my lead," Batman said, and she nodded.
Action time. Time to prove to him that she'd earned the yellow bat on her chest.
So it turned out that Tim hadn't been kidnapped by the Crazy Quilt. No, it was a little bit more embarrassing than that: a villain imitator had gotten the drop on him. This was one of those nights that would be joked about for years, one to add to the pile that they promised never to talk about again, but totally did. This guy was middle-aged and was carrying about thirty pounds around the middle that spandex did not flatter. He seemed to specialize in nostalgia, because Red Robin was trussed up and hanging over---no joke---a shark tank.
It had a shark circling in it and everything. Tim looked more annoyed than worried about the shark, even though he'd been stripped of his utility belt, boots, and gloves. He was giving the shark an exceedingly dirty look when Batman flicked two fingers in the go signal and moved.
He went for the hefty wannabe, and she went in for the save. In one smooth swoop, she swung across the room, cut the line holding him, and caught Tim. She was insanely glad that he was about the same size and lighter than she was, because if she'd had to do the damsel in distress save with, say, Dick, it would've ended in sharks and tears.
The landing left a little to be desired, more of a crash than anything, but a good tuck and roll kept both of them from injury. Tim recovered first, sitting up with his hair sticking up at wild angles.
"Hi, sweetie. I heard you were in trouble, and I happened to be in the neighborhood," Steph said with a wide grin. "What have I told you about that suit? You're a fashion disaster, Red Robin. One of these days, you and I are going to have to hit the mall. I'll give you some pointers, you tell me how you got your hair to look that good. Okay?"
Tim visibly floundered. "Seriously?"
She nodded enthusiastically. "Seriously. Loving the hair. Also, here to save your butt. Hi."
"You're here with Batman?"
"Believe me, I'm just as surprised as you are," she laughed as she got to her feet. "Speaking of..."
Batman had already done his thing. The could-have-been-a-villain was cowering at his feet, curled into a fetal position. The bat symbol did make its bearer a target, but it also provided a whole lot of scare factor. It looked like Batman had hit the guy once, maybe. Some people had too much money, slippery morals, and too little ingenuity---those were the ones that became annoyances, not the big name villains that they modeled themselves after.
"Have you got this Red Robin?"
"I, uh---yes?" Red Robin said, puzzled. He'd gathered his things and was re-buckling his belt. "Don't you want to talk to the police about what to do with the shark?"
"They can figure it out. It's seven. Batgirl has an hour before class."
Holy shit, he'd been listening. Batman didn't want her to miss her class. Tim and Steph exchanged a look---his said what the hell did I miss? and hers said I don't know, this is the Twilight Zone. SEND HELP.
"I'll drive you home," Batman said, and Tim looked like he was in danger of having an epileptic fit from the sheer force of his confusion. Good to know that even he didn't get Batman when he bucked grimdark tradition and did inexplicably nice things.
Steph gave him a thumbs up.
"Tell Detective Hotpants Gage I said hi when he shows up," she said sweetly, following the flap of Batman's heavy cape.
"Detective what?" Tim called after her. "Do you have nicknames for all the detectives you work with, or are you and him---?"
He sounded jealous? He sounded jealous and worried. And it was nice. It was nice, because even if she knew he wasn't good for her right then---or ever again, maybe; she wasn't sure if they'd ever drift back together after Africa had come between them---it was still nice that he cared.
Because once upon a time, Tim had cared so much. He'd been the first to really give a crap about her, so to hear it in his voice was a sweet old familiarity, a security blanket, something cherished from childhood that she'd caught a quick glimpse of. Maybe they couldn't go back to Robin-and-Spoiler, crimefighting couple, but there was a chance that they could be Red Robin-and-Batgirl, bad guy bustin' bros. Maybe they could be something.
"Call me, Robin!" Steph sang over her shoulder.
Halfway home, her cell started buzzing with text messages.
As far as team ups went, this one hadn't been too bad.
Dawn over Gotham painted the skyline in Easter egg colors, soft pastels contrasting the black spires and skeletons of buildings. Usually, she didn't take the time to appreciate dawn when it started rubbing out the stars, but getting a drive home had given her a little more wiggle room.
Bruce didn't stop looking at the sunrise. It was impossible to tell what was going on in that Bat-brain, so she didn't try to. She'd had more than her share of surprises for the day.
"Everything the light touches is our kingdom," Steph intoned seriously, following his gaze. When he raised an eyebrow at her, she added, "Lion King. A good movie. You should watch it. With your Robin, now that I think of it."
Oh, to be a fly on the wall if he did.
"I'll take that under advisement," he said, stopping the car a good distance from her house. "I'll drop you off here."
"Yeah. Thanks, I...look," Steph said, glancing back at Bruce. "Are you a waffle man? Because I think I have time before class to make some waffles, and I always make more than one person can eat. Mom won't be off shift until four this afternoon, so we wouldn't have to worry about de-batting. Full disclosure: the waffles might be a little burnt."
Bruce smiled faintly. This time, she could see it.
"I could be talked into waffles, Ms. Brown."
It was a start.