In the weeks since Steph's mom found out about the Batgirl thing, they've mostly skirted around it, so it comes as a shock when her mom puts down her forkful of waffle in the middle of breakfast and asks if Steph could use her connections to do a background check.
"There's this guy," her mom says. Oh God. Conversations starting like that never go well and Steph definitely isn't used to having them with her mom. "He asked me out to dinner but I'm not sure. He seems nice, but well, you know. I've been burnt one too many times."
That's certainly one way to put it. "You've got a date?" Her voice cracks on the last word and she focusses on the syrup dripping off the edge of her plate.
"Maybe?" Her mom looks kind of sheepish. "It was the ER doctor, Dr Randall. He was great when you were first admitted--"
"Oh. He's kinda old."
"Only a few years older than me," her mom says sharply.
"Really? Um. Sorry," Steph says. "I could find out, I guess? I do have access to the resources to see if he's got a wife in Canada or a rabbit fetish, or something. But are you sure it's a good idea?" Steph gets a vivid image of Tim's face when he found out she knew his identity and then months later, when she saw him being kissed by that girl at school, the one who died -- what was her name? -- and winces. "In my experience, it mostly backfires."
"It would be nice to go on date for once," her mom says. It sounds wistful and that's kind of unusual; she's turned into an extremely practical person in the last few years and, as far as Steph knows, dating hasn't even been on the radar. "He doesn't really talk about his life before Gotham and he hasn't been here for long. Knowing is better than the alternative."
Steph thinks of everything her Dad has done over the years and has to agree. "But, I want to be on record saying that this is a very, very bad idea."
"Thanks, honey." Her mom leans over and kisses her forehead and wipes a smudge of maple syrup from Steph's chin. There's less tension in her shoulders now. Steph's going to have to do it. How does she get into these messes?
* * *
Her first port of call after the day's classes is to see Oracle at Kord Tower. She could use the Firewall, but it's weird there without Wendy. Hospital records, even staff records, can be kind of hard to hack and Steph's pretty rusty on that front.
"Ooh! You look nice. Do you have a date with the delicious Detective Nick?" Steph sing-songs in greeting as she exits the elevator. Barbara is wearing a dress, an almost slinky black dress, and far more make up than usual. Okay, the makeup is actually pretty subtle but Steph was trained in observation by the best.
Barbara scowls at her, "Are you here for a reason? I'm pretty busy."
"Well, yeah." She doesn't really want to hear about the date, if that is what it is. She isn't that much of a masochist. "This doctor at West Mercy, George Randall, seemed a little suspicious and I hoped that you could check him out." Barbara seems a little distracted and doesn't press her on the specifics, which is a relief. Steph wants to keep this as quiet as she can; it's a family thing, not a Bat thing.
"That shouldn't take long," Barbara says. Steph drops her backpack in the corner and stands behind her.
Barbara gives her a potted version of his history as she pulls up his records, with frequent pauses to do whatever she was originally doing. It all seems pretty straightforward. He grew up in Metropolis and trained there, at Metropolis U, but moved to Star City after his residency. He worked in the ER at Star City General and was well liked. Fortunately, he was single, so that was one bomb avoided. He had been married when he was at college, but it ended with an apparently amicable divorce six years ago with no kids. He plays golf and runs in his spare time and all in all, he sounds pretty boring. There isn't even a speeding ticket in there. But boring is probably good. Boring means a lack of ridiculous orange costumes, clues and jail terms.
"He left Star City General and moved to Metropolis three years ago," Barbara continues and then frowns at the computer and presses a few keys. "Hmm, that's odd."
"I've got a record for his employment at Metropolis Memorial but it looks like he spent most of his time on a special assignment until he moved to Gotham West Mercy last year. It doesn't say where." Barbara says. "Give me a few minutes."
Steph is practically dancing with impatience. She can see that Barbara's opened a few more windows but the text is too small for Steph to read from her position behind Barbara's chair. Barbara is typing furiously.
"Ah. That would explain some of it. I thought I recognised that encryption."
"Tell me," Steph pleads, leaning over Barbara's shoulder but it doesn't help. The lines of code don't mean much. Maybe if she had a few days to think about it, but it's moving too fast, and knowing Barbara, it might be something completely unrelated to Steph's request.
Something starts flashing red on the screen and Barbara speaks into her headset, "Canary, what do you need?" She starts pulling up maps and blueprints on the monitor.
Steph hovers for a few minutes as Barbara's face gets more and more tense as she listens and eventually pops her face into Barbara's field of view. Barbara's only reaction is to crane her neck around Steph so she can still see the screen, typing furiously the whole time.
"Zinda's on her way and we're coming to get you," Barbara says into the headset. "Don't break the contact, I'm trying to pinpoint your location but I'll need to be closer."
"Barbara?" Steph says, but another burst of static comes over the headset and Barbara waves her away, mouthing "Go" and jabbing her finger in the direction of the elevator.
It looks as if that's it for the night and she apparently isn't wanted for Birds' business so Steph does as directed for once, and leaves, picking up her backpack on the way. There is no point in arguing with Barbara during an emergency. She hopes that Black Canary will be okay.
The button for the twentieth floor lights up and Steph starts to fiddle with the strap of her backpack. Ugh. What a bust. It's raised more questions than it answered and that's worrying. What the hell was he doing for two years that required that much digging? She'd hoped that he'd be one of the good guys; she doesn't want her mom to feel even worse. Maybe if she takes a look at him herself it might help. She's the possessor of some mad detective skills, so she should be able to get something.
* * *
It's time to do what Bats do best—stalking. She'd returned to Firewall to suit up and checked that Dr Randall was on duty tonight. Her mom might work with him, but Steph's worried that he might act differently around people he had no ulterior motive to be nice to. She needs something concrete to go to her mom with if she's going to try to delay the date until she has more information. She's got a couple more hours before his shift ends and hopefully she'll see something before that.
Steph's very familiar with the hospital, she's been there with her mom enough times, but she's never been there on Bat-time before, or at least not when she wasn't injured, so she'd uploaded the plans of the hospital to her cowl computer. It's easy enough to get in because there are a lot of conveniently located heating ducts. After a few minutes of crawling about the air shafts, she locates Dr Randall in the ER, exactly where he should be, which is a first. She can see him through the grating of the air vent. It's very quiet for a Friday night in Gotham and he's treating a young boy with badly cut hand and everything he does seems normal. The boy's mom is hovering by the bed, clearly panicked, and Dr Randall is keeping up a soothing conversation as he examines the cut and cleans it. He changes his gloves just before stitching it up, patting the boy's other arm reassuringly as he drops the soiled gloves into the disposal. Steph has to give Dr Randall props for his bedside manner; the boy seems much calmer after the treatment and the mom is even smiling as puts in the last stitch. If he'd been anything like that when she'd been admitted, she can see why her own mom might be so drawn to him.
That reminds Steph to check her phone. There's nothing from her mom but there is a text from Francisco telling her the time of the study group meeting planned for Sunday. She really doesn't want to go, especially if you know who turns up, but she really doesn't get what's required for the philosophy assignment due on Monday. She makes a mental note to reply later. When she turns back, Dr Randall is gone and the boy is smiling at his mom, showing her his neatly bandaged hand. That's just her luck, she thought she'd have a few more minutes while he worked.
She scoots to the next vent with the clearest view of the room and she still can't see him. Dammit. Several air vents later, she spots him entering a patient's cubicle but he doesn't stay long. A nurse working a few beds over stares after him, looking confused, before returning to her tasks.
His next stop is a laundry room. Steph waits but he doesn't come back out. What is he doing in there? It's possible that there's someone else in there with him. That's what they seem to use hospital laundry rooms for on TV, after all. Another ten minutes goes by and he's still in there. Steph can't believe it, unless it really is make-out central in there. Maybe he's left though the laundry chute and escaped. Her imagination is running wild; she'll be expecting him to come out covered in snow as if he's back from Narnia soon, so she should really get a closer look. She starts to undo the cover of the air vent. The space is just small enough for her to get through but as she pokes her head though the opening and sees how many people there are around, she realises that there's no way that she'll be able to get to the laundry room without being detected. She hadn't counted on the distinct lack of hiding places. Lurking in the shadows doesn't work so well when it's brightly lit and every wall is painted white. Damn. Her black and eggplant, and the pointy ears would stick out in the hospital like a black cat in snow. She's going to have to rethink this plan.
Before she can make a decision, a voice over the public address system calls for all staff to come to the admissions area. The door of the laundry room opens before it's repeated and he emerges, straightening rumpled hair. Steph watches him rush away and keeps an eye on the door but no one else emerges. She sees him rub his eyes and shake his head as if to clear it, and realises what he must've been doing. Duh. It's been a long shift.
She moves to the admissions area and positions herself in the best place to see Dr Randall. He's bending over a patient who is bleeding everywhere. He and the nurses are obviously trying to stop the bleeding and there are multiple gunshot victims entering the hospital. Steph tries to make herself as comfortable as she can while looking down from a vent on the ceiling, when she spots a very familiar back standing near to Dr Randall's.
It's Detective Nick. Steph jerks involuntarily.
He turns around and his white shirt is spattered with blood. She leans down for a closer look, her heart beating wildly. Please don't be his blood, she thinks and he looks up at that exact second. From the way his eyes widen, he must've seen her but when she tries to get out of view, Steph realises that the cowl's ears are caught and in the grating of the vent and he'd noticed them sticking through. She bets this never happens to Batman.
He casually walks towards the vent and she can see that he's moving freely and doesn't appear to be in any pain. Thank goodness. Steph's heart calms down and she moves back into the shadows.
Nick hangs around for a minute or two, obviously waiting for a sign from her but he eventually gives up and returns to the side of the bleeding man.
Maybe he's keeping an eye on him or something. How inconvenient. Now she can't go down there in plain clothes because Nick's met Steph Brown, college student, before and she can't imagine that he won't connect the two blonde girls of the same age and height when they both turn up in the same place within a few hours of each other. What makes this worse is that she's been actively trying to avoid him. Forbidden work dates aren't so much fun when you know that the other person is actually dating your friend. And that's a surprise, because she does think of Barbara as a friend now, not just a slightly scary teacher/intimidating voice over the comms. She isn't going to think about Barbara and Nick's cancelled date.
Retreat is clearly the best option. Dr Randall won't do anything suspicious with a cop in the vicinity.
* * *
When Steph lands on the roof of the building next to the hospital, she finds Robin. He's crouched on a ledge, watching the door of the ER with a pair of high-powered binoculars.
"What are you doing here?" she asks, prepared to launch into a lecture on sticking his nose into other people's business. She'd scouted around the outside of the hospital for a while, trying to find a better position for observation and it looks like he's in the one perfect spot.
"Keeping an eye on the Simones. Isn't that why you're here?"
"The shooting at the restaurant? Five victims? One witness still alive? Does this sound at all familiar, Batgirl?" he says, voice dripping with scorn.
"Oh!" Steph says in realisation. That would be why Nick was there. Not just a random drive-by, then. And he'll just assume she was there for the same reason.
"Did Batman send you?" And by Batman she meant Dick; Bruce was away from Gotham yet again, doing something or other with Batman Inc.
Robin shifts fractionally. "Batman trusts me to take care of things when he isn't available. He's off with the Justice League."
Okay. Translated from Robin-speak that means he isn't supposed to be here. "So you're keeping an eye on the witness? You know you can't actually see him from here."
"I was conducting reconnaissance before going in. There isn't much opportunity for a secure and undetectable entry to this part of the hospital, whilst in costume."
"Tell me about it." She isn't going to tell him about being made by Detective Nick, though. "The witness is under constant observation by a cop. A good cop," she emphasises. "I'm sure he'll be fine." She gets out her binoculars and trains them on the window. She can see the witness has been moved. "Look! That's him."
"This is the third mass shooting with this MO. Batman has been investigating for weeks. All witnesses have been killed within hours, even under the watch of 'good cops.'"
Huh? Steph watches as the witness sits up. That's weird; she could've sworn that he was at death's door not so long ago. There hasn't even been time for surgery. "Well, he seems to be fine now," Steph says as she sees him talking to Nick. "Looks like the problem's solved."
They watch Nick rush out of the ER and make a call on this phone. Steph pulls out a listening device and then hear him call in the identity of the shooter. It’s one of the Fortunatos and Steph thought that the Fortunatos and Simones got on, but it isn't really her area.
In an effort to distract Damian from going after the shooter himself, Steph tells Damian about the Doctor's suspicious behaviour. Neither Batman would forgive her if she let Damian get mixed up with mob business. He listens intently and asks a few questions and Steph tells him more than she intended so she keeps his full attention. Luckily, it doesn't take long until they hear of the arrest of the shooter on the police band and Steph relaxes.
They tail Dr Randall home at the end of his shift, but all he does is drive straight home and go to bed. Steph makes the executive decision to stop watching after two hours and go home to bed. Damian protests, but she needs the sleep and it can't be good for Damian, he's a growing boy after all. He doesn't appreciate that line of argument but leaves in the end.
* * *
The next morning, Steph is jogging around her neighbourhood and has worked up a good sweat, when Damian appears in front of her. She has to stop abruptly to avoid bumping into him.
He doesn't even bother with a greeting. "I've been reviewing the security tapes. Dr George Randall is quite clearly up to no good. We must find out more. My Father would want me to investigate."
"Your Father isn't actually here. And how would you even know what he'd do?" Steph says, shortly. She's really regretting telling him so much yesterday.
Damian glares at her. "I know. Children could be in danger."
Steph blinks. "What's he done?"
"He spends all the free time during his shifts visiting patients who aren't under his care. Unfortunately there aren't any cameras set up to view the patients."
Steph wonders whether Damian slept at all. This new information doesn't sound good and ties in with the confused nurse. "Hmm. How are we going to get in?"
"I have made an exhaustive investigation of the optimal routes in and out of the hospital and the best positions to carry out surveillance. There's no way to gather the critical information unobserved," Damian says.
"Okay. That just leaves the undercover option," Steph says. Man, she hates disguises. A thought occurs to her. "Wait!" Damian looks at her and raises an eyebrow. "Why are you so familiar with the hospital? It wasn't when I was there with the Black Mercy thing, was it? I thought I saw you, but I assumed I'd been imagining it."
Damian very pointedly doesn't say anything. But he doesn't disagree either and is looking everywhere else but at Steph.
"You really like me!" she crows.
Damian apparently has to respond to that. "-Tt- I was simply ensuring that you didn't give away any of my Father's secrets away when you awoke."
"Riiiiiiiight, that doesn't even make sense," Steph says. "You like me. Admit it."
Damian glares at her again.
They walk past a few more houses and Steph can't suppress her grin.
Damian says, "Meet me at three o'clock in the park two blocks from West Mercy Hospital in civilian clothing. I have a plan."
Steph wants to protest, but she has to make a detour around a dog on a very long lead. When she turns back to him, he's disappeared.
He really is his father's son, sometimes, but mostly just in the infuriating ways. Steph sighs. She's going to have to meet him later, if only to keep him out of trouble.
* * *
She meets Damian by the children's play area of the park. She's only a few minutes late but his first words to her are about her punctuality.
"You are to pretend to be my--" He sniffs derisively. "--adult supervision, while I pretend to play in the park."
"Okay, but what happens after that and what does this have to do with the doctor?" Steph wonders if this is all a ruse so that Damian can do something fun with her, but she can't quite believe it. Almost, but not quite.
"Wait here," he tells her and points to a bench. He heads towards the play park and starts to climb the rope net attached to the main climbing frame. He's got a look of fierce concentration and he's clearly slowing himself down considerably.
Steph watches as Damian "plays". He's been on the slide a few times and he's on the swings now. There's a scrawny red-haired kid on the next swing over who is talking at Damian a mile a minute and Steph actually sees Damian reply a few times. It's fascinating and keeps her attention away from the toddlers with their parents in the sandpit nearby. They can a little too much for her sometimes and she doesn't want those thoughts right now.
There are some older kids around now and one of them tries to push the red-headed kid off the swing. The kid doesn't budge (he must be stronger than he looks) but Damian gets off his swing and shouts at the older boy. Steph jumps up. Damian will be fine, but she's worried what he'll do to them. She heads towards them as the older boys surround Damian. He lets them get in close and one of them actually grabs his wrist. Steph has a sudden inkling of Damian's plan and she yells, "Stop!" and breaks into a sprint. A scuffle starts and she reaches them just in time to hear a sickening crack.
Oh god, oh god, oh god.
She pushes the boys away and kneels by Damian, who is sitting on the ground cradling his arm.
"Oh my god! You can't just do that," Steph whispers to him as she examines his arm. But he has.
"It's too late now and this will add verisimilitude," he replies. The older boys have melted away and are now out of earshot.
Damian's arm is swelling alarmingly. How can he stay so calm?
"I have suffered far worse in training. You'd better call an ambulance."
She makes the call. A few people come up to her to offer help including a nun, but Steph immobilises Damian's arm and they wait. There is something of a crowd around them now. Damian is pretending to cry and that is really, really odd. Despite the fact he keeps issuing instructions under his breath in a perfectly composed tone, she wants to comfort him. Poor kid.
"I should sue you for incompetence," he says between the fake sobs. "Why did you let me get hurt? I demand you have those bullies arrested. It's all on CCTV!" And there's the Damian she knows and loves. Super-arrogant as always, even though some of that is an act. He must have a pretty high pain tolerance.
"Why, Damian?" she asks. She's fairly certain she knows the answer, but she wants to have it confirmed.
"My Father would've done this." Damian says with confidence. Steph isn't so sure. "An injury is the best way to gain entrance to the hospital and observe the doctor at close quarters."
It does all seem very logical but deliberately breaking your own arm? That's hard-core. Also how is she going to explain this to Alfred? She can just hear herself. "Hey Alfred, Damian let some kid break his arm while I was supposed to be looking after him."
"Your medical history!" Steph says in a panic as the ambulance arrives. That's a sure way to get social services involved and that would be extremely bad.
"My mother has access to far better technology than your primitive Gotham facilities. There is no evidence of any damage on my body," Damian says. In a quieter voice he adds, "My Grandfather wouldn't allow this body to be damaged." And Steph's heart breaks a little. In her free time from Batman Inc., Cass has been telling her all about the League.
* * *
"Stephanie!" Her mom is a white as a sheet as she rushes across the hospital floor to Steph, who is waiting outside the room where Damian is being examined by Dr Randall.
"Hey, it's OK. It isn't me this time. I'm with someone -- Tim's little brother," and she's glad Damian is being examined by the doctor and can't hear. "You know, my ex's little brother. He had an accident and I brought him in."
Her mom sinks down into a nearby seat, still ashen. "Thank God. I thought-"
"I know Mom, I know." Steph kneels down in front of her and takes her hand. "I'm ok." The "this time" is unspoken.
"Crystal, is everything ok?" It's Dr Randall, who's snuck up behind Steph and she really should've noticed before. Some Superhero she is.
"I'm fine now, just had a bit of a shock. George, this is my daughter, Stephanie."
He gives Steph a big smile. "It's lovely to meet you, Stephanie." Ugh. He actually seems nice. "But I'd better get back to my patient. We'll want to keep him in overnight just in case. It is a very nasty break."
* * *
Steph's call to Alfred is probably the worst part of her day. She explains what happened in as much detail as a public phone will allow and there is a long pause before he answers.
"Miss Stephanie. The rest of us have enough trouble controlling him; I cannot in all conscience blame you for having the same trouble." But Steph could hear the disappointment in his voice. She's a terrible babysitter. "I'll be there immediately."
* * *
They'd set up a camera in the corner of Damian's room after he's been settled. Steph returns to Firewall to monitor it after Alfred leaves the room, and watches the feed of Damian feigning sleep. He's good at that; he's barely moved a muscle. The hospital staff allowed Alfred to stay at the hospital as Damian's acting guardian. Wayne money can work miracles. Although he has a cot, he is currently sleeping in one of the chairs outside Damian's room.
Steph sits and watches; it's pretty boring. Damian rolls over onto his back. A few nurses pop into to check on things but nothing of interest occurs. Eventually, at about one a.m., Dr Randall enters, alone. He looks at Damian's chart. The only part of Damian exposed by the covers is his broken arm and Dr Randall touches it just above the cast. The doctor waits a little, brow furrowed and Damian shivers a little and then relaxes. The doctor frowns more and puts his hand on Damian's back. Then he pulls back the covers and pulls up Damian's shirt and stares in confusion at the smooth unblemished skin exposed. He reaches out to touch Damian's spine and Damian grabs his wrist.
The doctor jumps. "Damian, I was just examining you. Are you being hurt?"
"I know what you just did." Huh? "I don't think that the hospital authorities would be very happy to hear exactly how you've been secretly providing unauthorised and unapproved medical attention."
What? Where the hell did that come from?
"But if someone is hurting you."
"There is a reason that I chose to live with my Father," Damian says reluctantly. Steph's pretty good at telling whether Damian is lying now; it isn't really one of his talents (compared to the rest of his family, at least) as he rarely needed to dissemble (she'll have to work on that) and that had the ring of truth. Poor kid.
Damian raises his voice. "Pennyworth!"
Steph hears the door open and then the sound of Alfred's voice, "Master Damian? Is everything all right?" He bends over Damian. "What are you doing here?" he asks the doctor. "You are a long way from the Emergency Room." Steph can imagine the glare on his face.
"Just checking up on young Damian, here. We try to take the best of care of our patients."
"I see," Alfred says. "And your prognosis?" Wow. That was icy.
"He'll be fine. He seems to have gotten over the shock and I think he'll be fine to come home in the morning."
"I agree," Damian says, with a sharp nod. And that's the code for a completed mission, Damian asking to go home. Steph wonders what happened to make him so sure and stifles a yawn. Hopefully she can go to bed soon--she has that study group planned first thing tomorrow and she needs as much sleep as possible to deal with everything.
Damian continues, "Pennyworth, could you stay here for the rest of the night?" That actually sounds like a scared ten-year-old.
"Of course, Master Damian. Let's get you settled." Alfred pointedly turns his back to the doctor and starts rearranging blankets and fluffing pillows.
After a few minutes of being ignored, the doctor leaves the room.
"Well?" Alfred asks. "I assume that you have solved your little mystery?"
Damian flexes his injured hand, twisting the wrist and Steph winces in sympathy. "Yes. I rather think I have." He turns towards the camera. "Batgirl, your mother's potential paramour appears to be an undisclosed metahuman or practitioner of magic. He healed me."
Whoa! That was not what Steph was expecting. She turns on the communicator. "Are you sure?"
"Yes, quite certain. The range of movement in my wrist is improved by 15 degree of rotation. And the-" he flushes a little, "the pain is considerably reduced since he touched me with his bare hands."
"Are you sure that isn't the drugs?"
"I haven't been taking any." Damian points to the drip, and Steph notices for the first time that the line bypassed the correct bag. He must've done that when she was travelling back to the Firewall.
"Well, that would explain why Simone was talking so soon after his injury. Hmm. Maybe the doctor is on the side of the angels after all. That information saved more than one life tonight."
* * *
After two-and-a-half reasonably productive hours of studying (she might actually pass that assignment), and two empty boxes of doughnuts, Steph excuses herself. "The kid I was babysitting for had an accident yesterday and I promised to see him when he got home."
"Must have been the day for kids in accidents," Jordanna says. "The Wayne kid apparently had an accident too. It was all over this morning's news. They apparently totally messed up on the choice of babysitter."
Steph goes bright red. Oh, God. So. Much. Trouble.
Jordanna pounces. "Was that you? It sounds like your kind of incompetence."
"You're babysitting for the Waynes? How did you get that gig?" Francisco asks, his eyes wide.
"I used to date his older brother and I needed the cash," Steph explains rapidly. That much was public knowledge, at least, although she usually kept it quiet. "We were at the park and I turned my back for one minute and these kids attacked him." It still makes her feel distinctly nauseous, even though Damian is more than halfway to being fixed.
"You used to date a Wayne?" Jordanna is incredulous. "You?"
Steph smiles, she's given up on being insulted by Jordanna.
"Which one? The one our age is pretty cute, but the older one -- Richard, right?—is a total god," Francisco says.
Francisco's boyfriend nods in agreement. "Oh yeah."
"Er, it was Tim. We went to school together. We're still friends, but he travels a lot."
"Cool!" Francisco says. "Oh, I remember seeing the one you were babysitting, a few months ago. I can't believe I didn't recognise him. He's in the magazines all the time. What's his name?"
"Damian," Jordanna says. Steph can see the cogs whirling behind her eyes as she reassesses Steph. This is going to be awkward. She stands up before they ask her to introduce them or something. That would go badly. "Look, I've got to go." She grabs her bags and rushes out of the door. "Bye, see you later."
* * *
Damian had asked her to go to the front door of Wayne Manor, which was new. Steph feels unaccountably nervous as she waits outside. She hadn't realised quite how big the manor was. But apparently negligent babysitters have to run the gauntlet of the press waiting outside the gates. At least she'd been in her car.
"Ah, Miss Stephanie. Come in. Master Damian is waiting for you," Alfred says as he opens the door.
Damian is sitting on the enormous sofa in one of the living rooms. It makes him look tiny. He's wearing pyjamas and there is a blanket discarded on the cushion next to him. He switches off the television as she enters the room, but she recognises the tail end of The Three Musketeers. Aww.
"Fatgirl, finally," he says in that snotty tone of his and the sympathy vanishes just like that. Ugh.
"So what really happened back there?" It all sounded so improbable.
Damian explains. "It is quite certain. I compared the x-rays taken at the hospital with ones we took today and there is clear evidence of healing of the fracture, even taking into account my superior healing ability."
"Wow. Have you found anything more about him? I'm still trying to fill in that missing two years."
"No, my Father won't allow me to access the more complicated cave's computers in his absence and with everything; I haven't had sufficient time to crack the encryption." Translation: he's spent hours at it and still hasn't broken it.
"Maybe I can have a go. It's an Oracle system, right?"
"I doubt that you would be able to succeed where I failed."
"Barbara likes me. I might even have the password."
Damian glares at her and Steph is pretty sure that the conversation is about to degenerate into a shouting match, when Alfred, with his usual impeccable timing appears with a tray containing two mugs and a plate of cookies.
"Ah, Pennyworth. That isn't necessary. We need to go down to the cave."
Steph pauses in the middle of reaching for a cookie and reluctantly agrees. They do look delicious and she'd missed his cookies. If she told the truth, getting to eat Alfred's cookies regularly was one of her best memories of being Robin.
"I will fetch you something warm to wear," Alfred says putting the tray down on the coffee table.
"That's unnecessary, this will be quite sufficient."
"I turned off the heating down there because Master Bruce and Master Dick are away, and you are still injured," Alfred insists. "Miss Stephanie, please help yourself to the biscuits while I'm gone. I doubt that you've eaten an adequate lunch."
Steph makes a face at Damian. "Nyah," and she reaches for two cookies. Mmm. They're her favourite maple syrup and chocolate ones.
Alfred returns shortly with a robe and thick socks for Damian and then leads them down to the cave. Steph has rarely been in this way before and she hasn’t had a chance to look at the mechanism of the clock. How cool is that!
Once in the cave, they quickly get to work on the computers. To Steph's surprise and Damian's chagrin, Steph's Oracle-given passwords work perfectly and she sets up the search parameters in Batman's database. They finish the cocoa and cookies as they wait. It doesn't take long to find hits for a healer with a metagene, who'd been studied by and later worked for STAR labs during the missing two years, under the name of Michael Dunn. At first Steph can't find anything connecting him to George Randall. That must've been what Barbara was hacking into before her emergency and it was beyond her and Damian. However, a little more searching on a "secure" server brings up a group picture including the doctor. He has longer hair and is thinner in the picture, but facial recognition gives a 100% match. "Bingo!"
"-Tt- We can all see it's a match, Stephanie," Damian says, as Steph bounces in her chair. But Steph can see that he's pleased.
Steph is happy that he seems to be a good guy. Now all she has to do is work out what to tell her mom. She could definitely date him without a problem. But should she tell her about the meta thing? That would be hard to explain when he found out that she knew.
"Thanks little D, she says and gives in to a long suppressed urge and ruffles his hair. He shies away but doesn't hit her, so she guesses that he doesn't mind too much. He's a good kid at heart. There aren't many people who'd break their arm to ensure her peace of mind. Maybe he does think that she's all right.
* * *
Steph stays in on the night of her Mom's date and waits for her to come home. She can't help feeling responsible and while she's sure that he's a good guy (Barbara had confirmed their findings when she and the Birds all returned safely from their mission), there are still some niggling doubts. She puts on some old Futurama DVDs to distract her and tries to watch, but she's so keyed up that she makes it through two entire episodes without laughing once and that's just wrong. She turns off the TV and sits back on the couch, it's already eleven thirty and Steph resists the urge to call. Her mom's an adult and she apparently dated all the time before she met Steph's dad.
She's woken by a car pulling up to the house and when she hears steps on the path outside she swings her legs off the couch and dashes to the window in time to see Dr Randall turn away from the closing door of the house. Her mom catches her as she runs back to the couch.
"Hey, Stephie," she says with a smile.
Steph stares hard at her mom trying to work out whether he's just kissed her. The glow on her cheeks could just be from the cold night air. "How did it go?"
"It was-" Her mom hesitates.
Steph tries to fill in the blanks --amazing? --terrible? --life-changing? "It was what?"
"Nice," her mom finishes. "But I don't think I'll be going again."
"Why?" After all that effort. Steph suppresses a pout.
"Well, the dinner was lovely, I've never eaten such a delicious parfait." Her mom sighs at the memory. "He had beautiful manners and I did enjoy dressing up."
"But?" Steph asks.
"Oh, Steph. He was so boring. Once we'd stopped talking about work, we didn't have anything to say. He told me all about his golf playing and I don't even know the rules. I asked him about living in Metropolis and he barely had anything to say."
Well, if he'd spent most of his last visit shut up in a lab, that wasn't surprising. "Oh, Mom. I'm sorry."
"It just wasn't as much fun as I'd hoped," her mom says ruefully.
"Maybe next time?" Steph says and her mom grins.
"That's my optimistic girl."
"At least it didn't end in a fist fight like most of my dates," Steph says with a laugh. The only good thing about this is that she won't have to decide whether or not to tell her mom about Dr Randall's powers. If they aren't dating, it's a non-issue. Unfortunately, she does have to tell the original Batman about the whole situation and that isn't going to be at all easy. Especially Damian's part in it. But that's a task for tomorrow.
Steph hugs her mom and they sit on the couch and dissect the date. Sometimes it's nice not to have to keep secrets.