“It’s crowded in here today,” Barbara commented as she dropped into the empty chair after placing her order at the counter. The other three had beat her to Burnside Roasters, and had snagged the back corner table of the coffee shop as usual.
“Midterm season maybe?” Frankie guessed with a shrug, not looking up from her laptop.
Across the table, Stephanie had a large textbook open and was clearly pretending to take notes while actually texting. Next to her, Cassandra was listening to her iPod and nodding a little as she surveyed the room. Barbara pulled out her tablet and opened her notes from Friday’s meeting.
“Harper wants to know if we want to get burritos for dinner,” said Stephanie, nudging Cassandra.
“Hm?” said Cass, taking one headphone from her ear and giving Steph a questioning look.
Stephanie held up her phone. “Burritos for dinner?” she repeated.
“Oh, yes,” Cass said, smiling and going back to her music.
“As your mentor, I feel obliged to tell you to quit texting your girlfriend and get back to studying,” said Barbara, rolling her eyes.
“Yes, mom,” said Stephanie, sticking out her tongue.
“Very mature,” said Barbara while Frankie snorted with laughter. Steph had started at Burnside College last semester and managed to scrape fairly decent grades so far, which actually made Barbara really proud. But that didn’t mean Stephanie Brown wasn’t a smartass sometimes.
“Where is Harper?” Frankie asked, finally looking up from her laptop.
“Campus. She said she needed the engineering lab. She’s just keeping me updated on how the dude at the next workstation smells like onions and it’s ruining her thesis,” said Stephanie, pointing to the phone. “If I don’t respond with constant moral support, that’s three years of college down the drain,” she added, nodding seriously.
“Give the phone to Cass and get back to Descartes,” Barbara instructed patiently.
Stephanie sighed and handed the phone to Cass, who immediately texted an elaborate combination of emojis to Harper.
A few moments passed until Stephanie spoke again.
“Sooo, what kind of coffee did you order, Frankie?” she asked lightly.
“Don’t you have studying to do?” Frankie replied, raising an eyebrow.
“No, wait, I’m interested in this too,” said Barbara, smirking and looking at her roommate of almost three years. “Julie is up front today.”
“You guuuys,” Frankie complained.
“She likes you, too,” said Cass as though it was the most obvious thing it the world. Because really, it totally was. The cute, blonde barista and Frankie had been flirting on and off for weeks now. Barbara had never seen Frankie get so easily flustered by someone.
“I have work to do too,” Frankie mumbled, slouching a little in her seat and focusing on her laptop again.
Barbara returned her attention to her tablet, not paying attention when someone came up to their table.
“Oh. My. God!” Stephanie said suddenly.
Barbara looked up, alarmed. Her stomach dropped when she realized who she was seeing before her eyes.
“Okay, so, I got a white chocolate mocha, a caramel frap, a chai, and hazelnut soy? Oh and a bagel?” said Jason Todd, holding a tray full of overflowing coffee mugs. He set each one down, plus the plate with the bagel then stood back and looked directly at Barbara. “Did I get that right?”
Barbara stood up, speechless and staring at him.
“What the hell are you doing here?” said Frankie behind her, not sounding impressed.
“Uh, working,” he said with a shrug.
“Jason … it’s been months. No one has seen you,” said Barbara. She reached out to touch his arm, hardly believing he was real.
“We looked for you,” said Stephanie sharply.
“Really? Well, hey, here I am,” he said, glancing down at Barbara’s hand and brushing off their clear irritation. “I gotta get back to work though. It’s my first week, still getting the hang of things,” he added, about to turn and leave.
“Wait, Jason,” said Barbara. She hesitated then quickly threw her arms around his neck in a hug.
Jason pressed a hand to her back and muttered, “Good to see you again, Babs.”
She didn’t know what to say, where to even start pulling apart the confusion of anger and relief at seeing him again. Barbara let go of him and moved back.
“Ladies,” he said, nodding and returning to the counter.
Barbara looked at the other girls, all three of whom wore expressions of varying degrees of anger and annoyance.
“What is with the men in this gig?” said Frankie, picking up her coffee and taking a sip.
“Do you think he’s brainwashed?” Steph wondered, her eyes still on Jason from behind the counter, “Like, to be a slave to Big Barista or something?”
“Big Barista? Really, Steph?” Frankie said.
“Hey, that’s totally a thing!”
“He’s hiding something,” said Cass, eyes narrowed as she continued to watch Jason across the room.
“Babs, you’ve gotta find out what happened,” said Stephanie, leaning in. “He’s probably totally still into you so you could use that to—ow!” she said, rubbing her side where Cass elbowed her.
“No, you don’t. Forget him, he’s an idiot,” said Frankie firmly.
“Yeah,” Barbara echoed, glancing over her shoulder at him.
Jason didn’t pay her a second look, nor did he come by their table again as he handled the afternoon rush. She knew the other three were covertly shooting glares at him, mostly on her behalf. While she appreciated the loyalty from her teammates, the more she watched him, the more she really needed answers herself.
Jason Todd had been missing for over six months. He was visiting Burnside (visiting her), he had said goodnight to her, and then she hadn’t heard from him. At first, Barbara was angry that he wouldn’t return her calls or texts. Then she got worried. Her gut was telling her something had happened to him.
They looked. She took weeks off from work to circle the whole damn planet. But he was gone and she was trying to just come to terms with never seeing him again.
After an hour or so, the coffee shop calmed down and Frankie sighed heavily.
“Fine, go ask him if he’s busy later,” she said.
Barbara snapped her eyes away from the counter where Jason was cleaning up.
“I thought you said to forget him.”
“It wouldn’t be the first time you ignored my advice about boys,” said Frankie, rolling her eyes.
Babs looked over at Stephanie who shrugged.
“He does owe us an explanation,” said Steph. Next to her, Cass nodded in agreement.
Barbara looked at Frankie again, finding the resigned understanding in her best friend’s eyes. The younger girls might have some sort of inkling that she and Jason might have had potential for a something before he suddenly left town, but only her roommate really understood just how deeply she felt, how hard she took it when she failed to find him anywhere.
“I have to know,” Barbara said.
Frankie nodded. “I know you do. Go.”
Barbara slowly pushed back her chair and stood up, squaring her shoulders and taking a deep breath.
“Do me a favor and don’t sit here and glare at him behind my back,” she said before leaving the table and heading for the front counter.
Jason was scrubbing at a stubborn spot with a rag when she reached the counter. He looked up, surprised to see her there.
“Hey, need another drink?” he asked. “I’m not great with the espresso machine yet but I can pour coffee,” he added, motioning behind him.
“Uh, no, thank you,” said Barbara, putting her hands on the counter and leaning on it a bit. “I just … wanted to ask if you were busy tonight. I thought we could go out and catch up.”
Jason blinked. “Yeah! I mean, no, I’m not busy. I can do that tonight,” he said quickly. Then he leaned closer and lowered his voice. “Wait, do you mean out out?”
“I just thought we could get drinks maybe? And talk?” Barbara clarified. Was he even still doing the hero game? She and Frankie had yet to hear of Red Hood sightings in Burnside.
“That’d be great. I’m off at eight,” said Jason, nodding.
“Do you still have the same number?”
“Uh, yeah, wait, no! I got a new one, hold on,” said Jason, reaching for a sticky note and scribbling down his phone number. He passed her the note and when their hands brushed, she looked up at him. For a moment, just the way he looked at her made her feel like almost no time had passed, made her stomach flutter and her cheeks blush.
Barbara quickly squashed down the feeling, pulling her hand back.
“Great, I’ll text you later,” she said.
Her anxiety and shock over seeing him again managed to simmer into actual anger at him over the course of the evening. How dare he show up after six months of radio silence? In her town and her coffee shop of all places. And then act like unsurprised to see her sitting there. He had no idea what she went through.
She thought about that night, about the last time she saw him, drawing up the memories as though it were yesterday.
“I have to say, I’ve never heard that high pitched of scream over a tiny mouse,” Barbara was saying, smirking up at him. They were standing up on the top ledge of Burnside Bridge, their bridge, doing their usual post-patrol, not-quite-ready-to-say-goodnight-yet chat.
She loved this time of night, these little moments with him under the stars as the city slept. These days, he was stopping by Burnside a few times a week, and not just to patrol with her. They were friends now with, she found herself hoping lately, the potential for more.
“Hey, the shadow looked a lot bigger and it moved really fast,” Jason replied, moving closer to her as they leaned on the brick tower. He had taken off his helmet when they got there, the wind tousled his hair. “Do you want me to bring up the spider web incident from last week? Because you screamed pretty loud then.”
“That’s completely different. You were scared of a cute little mouse,” she teased him, poking him in the chest playfully.
He grabbed her hand and somehow, while she was still laughing at him, managed to turn them so her back was to the brick wall, pinning her wrist up by her ear as he stood in front of her. She went quiet when she realized he was standing so close to her now, his eyes flickering down to her mouth. His hand slid up from her wrist to her meet her palm, their fingers loosely lacing together.
Her beat a little faster as he stood in front of her, holding her hand and staring down at her. The mood had shifted so quickly from playful teasing to something more intense. She let her eyes flutter closed, willing it to finally happen after months of flirting.
“I … I should go, it’s late,” Jason said after a few seconds, releasing her hand and pulling back.
Barbara’s eyes snapped open and she felt her heart sink. Not tonight then.
“Okay,” she said, managing to keep the disappointment out of her voice.
“How about we get pizza tomorrow night?” he said, backing up towards the edge. “I’ll call you tomorrow. Night, BG!” he added.
“Goodnight,” Barbara said with a sigh as he left, headed for his place over in downtown Gotham while she made her way back to Burnside. Stupid boys, always making her do all the work. Maybe next time she would have to make it clearer that she expected him to actually follow through and kiss her.
There was no next time. He definitely had not called or texted the next day. It took a few days of no communication from him for the actual worry to set in.
By the time she was ready to meet him, Barbara was furious. Outside the bar, she took a couple of deep breaths, attempting to calm down. This wasn’t going to work if she attacked him. She pushed the door open and stepped inside.
A tiny part of her hoped maybe he had stood her up. But no, she spotted him instantly at a bar height table near the wall, the best spot to both see the whole bar and off to the side enough to have a private conversation in such a noisy, crowded space.
It was hard to see in the dim lighting, but it looked like he had swapped out the tee shirt he was wearing earlier for a dark button down, the sleeves rolled to his elbows.
Jason stood and pulled out the bar stool next to him when she approached.
“You look good, Barbie,” he said as she climbed into the chair. “What do you want to drink?” he asked after pushing in her chair.
Barbara hesitated. She had said go out for drinks sure, but more to put him at ease that this was a casual conversation rather than put him on the defensive right away.
Misleading? Perhaps, especially since he seemed to have dressed up, complimented her, and now intended to buy her a drink. It was the casual date she had wanted with him … six months ago.
“Whiskey and coke,” she answered, watching him nod and head off for the bar. Her eyes stayed on his figure as he went.
She sighed. What was the phrase? Hate to see him leave, but love to watch him go?
Five minutes later, he was back at the table, a drink each in front of them. She took a deep breath, about to launch into her questioning when he spoke up first, distracting her.
“So how are things? How is everyone?” Jason asked with an easy smile.
“Well, your crew, your Birds. Frankie, Canary, Blondie, Blue Hair, Cass?” he listed. “Oh, and Alysia and Jo, right?”
Barbara nodded slowly, clutching her glass. Really? He was just going to sit here and ask about her friends as if nothing was wrong? He had the same teasing grin and nicknames for them all.
“Everyone is … good. They’re all good,” she said. Then she couldn’t help herself. “Dinah is on tour again. Steph is at Burnside College. Harper graduates this spring. Cass has become obsessed with musical theater. Frankie has been working on some new tech. Alysia is still at my company and Jo is pregnant. We’re … we’re okay.”
It hurt to realize that maybe he really did still care about what everyone in her life was up to, that before he disappeared, he was actually quite present in their group to the point of getting to know all of them. Because they were important to her.
And he had missed a lot.
“That’s really great, Babs. You sound so proud of them,” said Jason. “And you?”
She looked at him, thinking of all that time she wasted wondering.
“Jason, I think it’s time you told me where you’ve been,” said Barbara.
He looked uncomfortable for a moment and then waved her off, saying, “Nah, it’s really not an exciting story, Babs. I’d rather talk about you.”
“Not an exciting story? You ditch me on the bridge, right when we were about to … you left and then you didn’t call and for weeks I was angry at you for pulling away again!” she said, pushing back her drink. “And then I was worried! You wouldn’t answer my calls. I asked Bruce to look for you and he couldn’t find you. I asked Dick to use his old Spyral connections to try to find you. I took weeks off, tracking down Roy and Kori and neither of them had seen you! All for you to wander back into my life with a job in my town, with a new phone number, like you’d been on vacation or something!”
His brow furrowed and he tossed back the rest of his drink. “This is really not how I thought this would go, tonight,” he said, shaking his head.
“Oh, really?” she said, angrily. “You hoped you could just charm me enough that I wouldn’t ask for an explanation? I know that game pretty well, I’m not that stupid.”
“Do I get points for not purposefully faking my own death?”
“No,” she snapped. “I ended up thinking you were dead anyway.”
“Barbara, I don’t have anything to say,” said Jason. “I’m sorry.”
“That’s crap. Why now? Why Burnside?” Barbara demanded.
“It’s a good place to start over. And you’re here,” he added, chancing a glance at her.
She wasn’t letting him have it.
“This is my city, under my protection. If anything followed you here, if you living here threatens the safety of the city, you’re leaving,” she told him, pointing at him.
“Nothing followed me. I promise I won’t cause any trouble,” said Jason, looking irritated now. “In fact, you’re welcome to find a new coffee shop if you don’t want to see me.”
“Don’t be overdramatic,” said Barbara, rolling her eyes. She hopped off the chair and pointed at him as she spoke. “How about until you feel like even giving a half assed excuse for where you’ve been, you just stay out of my way? I’m getting really tired of the way you Bat boys have been treating me.”
He looked away from her. “You’re right, Babs, you deserve better."
It pulled at her heart, knowing that she had probably hurt him. Even after everything, she still had feelings for him, she still cared. Dammit, Gordon.
“I’m glad you aren’t dead,” said Barbara, “but if you want back in my life, you’re going to tell me what happened.” With that, she turned and left him before he could respond.
About an hour later …
A man with tired eyes and greying, brown hair stood behind the counter at Burnside Roasters, patiently counting money from the till. Satisfied with its contents, he closed the drawer and locked it.
Calvin Walker walked over to the front door, flipped the “Open” sign over to “Closed” and turned off the lights inside the little coffee house. He sighed and made his way to the back stock room, intent on finishing up inventory before going upstairs for the night.
As he counted boxes of napkins, cups, and sleeves (all recycled and compostable, he would always proudly add when chatting with his customers), the familiar strain of financial woes settled in the form of another tension headache between his eyebrows.
Maybe he could just make a deal of some sort with … no, he was always a man of principle and he believed in the work and in the people at the coffee shop.
A soft noise from out in the shop startled him and made him lose his place in counting.
Calvin peeked out of the stock room and down the dark hallway. Had he remembered to lock the door?
“Claudia? Is that you, dear?” he called.
He shook his head and turned back to the shelf. No, his wife had gone upstairs for the night and probably wouldn’t be back down. He had to be imagining things.
Lost in thought again, Calvin didn’t hear the soft footsteps treading down the hall until a shadow appeared in the doorway to the stock room.
He turned around and glared.
“You! I told you— what is … no! Get back!”
The figure advanced, drawing a long knife from beneath a large jacket.
The meeting with Jason had left her so worked up that Barbara chose to spend the rest of the night out on patrol, probably doing more punching than was really necessary when she came across bad guys. It was ridiculously late when Frankie managed to coax her back home for a few hours of sleep.
The next morning, Barbara decided she might try walking by the coffee shop on her way to work and if Jason wasn’t working, run in and grab a drink. When she got there, she was shocked to find police cars and a crowd of people gathered around Burnside Roasters coffee shop.
“What the …?”
The front doors were propped open, but blocked with police tape. One officer stood to the side, eyeing the crowd and watching to make sure no one got through.
“Oh, I think your tape is coming undone,” said Barbara loudly, pointing behind the cop.
He turned and Barbara wasted no time slipping inside the coffee shop before anyone could stop her.
Inside, more police and crime scene investigators swarmed the café. Off to one side, she saw a few of the usual baristas talking to a detective, all looking very shaken up. And then she saw Jason, separated from them and definitely not talking to the detective facing him, blood on the front of his shirt. He met her eyes briefly and she couldn’t read his expression.
Barbara walked around the corner of the front counter, (taking advantage of everyone around her too busy to stop and ask her any questions for now), and towards the back hall way that lead to restrooms and what she assumed was a stock room. A tech exited the doorway towards the end of the hall, carrying bagged evidence and maneuvering around her without a word. Barbara quickly hurried to the door he just left from.
She sighed at the sight of the white sheet pulled over the figure lying on the floor, the pool of blood soaked into a nearby box that said 16oz paper cups on the side.
A CSI was still photographing the scene, but she didn’t look up when Barbara entered.
Barbara tip toed over to the body, carefully avoiding blood on the floor, and lifted the sheet. She frowned, taking a moment to finally recall where she had seen the man, behind the counter of coffee shop.
“Hey, you can’t be back here,” said a male voice behind her that she unfortunately recognized.
“Shit,” Barbara muttered, standing up straight and turning to the officer in the doorway. “Officer Powell, I thought you were across the river these days,” she said, quickly putting on a friendly smile.
Liam folded his arms. “An officer’s out on maternity leave so I volunteered to come back to the precinct for a bit,” he said. “Barbara, you shouldn’t be back here. You shouldn’t see this.”
She rolled her eyes. “I’ve seen a dead body before. Don’t worry,” said Barbara.
“Okay, how about this: you’re not a police officer and have no reason to be back here and I could have you arrested for tampering with a crime scene,” he said, raising an eyebrow. He stood back and motioned for her to walk out of the stock room. “What are you even doing in here?”
“I wanted a cup of coffee before heading to the office. Do you think they’d still sell me one?” Barbara said lightly, leading the way slowly back down the hallway, Officer Powell close behind her.
“No, I’m escorting you out,” he said.
“I recognize him. Is he the manager of the shop?” Barbara asked.
“Calvin Walker, the owner and manager,” Liam answered with a sigh.
Barbara stopped when they reached the main part of the shop. The detective had finished taking the other barista’s statements. Jason was sitting now, looking almost bored as a cop stood watch next to him.
“Do you have any suspects?” she asked.
“Barbara,” said Liam warningly.
“Oh come on, you and I both know you’ve separated plaid shirt over there from the other employees,” said Barbara in a low voice, nodding at where Jason was sitting. “Don’t forget, I’m a cop’s daughter and I have a degree in forensic psychology. This is 101 stuff.”
Liam sighed and ran a hand through his short, blond hair. “Apparently he’s the newest hire, hasn’t been here for more than a week. Not much in the way of motive but …” he said, quietly, gazing across the room. “There’s something odd. He seems pretty calm for a guy who just found his new boss stabbed in a stock room.”
“I see. And the blood on his hands and shirt? He tried to help stop the bleeding before realizing it was too late?”
Officer Powell eyed her for a moment then asked, “You come to this place often, right Barbara? Have you talked to him before?”
She didn’t exactly want to give away who Jason was to her. But she knew better than to tell too big of a lie to a cop.
“Yes. I spoke to him yesterday,” said Barbara, choosing her words carefully. “He was working.”
“Well, the detective wants to take him to the station for a few more questions,” he said. “Look, you really need to leave, I’ve already said more than I should,” he added, putting a hand to her arm to guide her towards the door.
“That’s alright, I’m on my way out. I’ve … I’ve seen all I need to see for now,” said Barbara, pulling away from his grasp. She didn’t look at Jason on her way, knowing Liam was probably watching her leave.
A ways down the block, Barbara texted Alysia “something came up, can’t make it in today” then set off back home. It looked like despite her promise to herself to stay away from Jason Todd until he got his act together, she might need to bail him out of jail.
The officer at the front desk revealed to her that Jason hadn’t been arrested yet by midmorning, but they were still holding him for questioning. Declining the offer to wait in the lobby, Barbara ducked out of the police station, pulling up the hood on her oversize sweatshirt and going across the street to wait at an outdoor table at a little deli. No need to have Officer Powell recognize her hanging around, waiting for someone she had made it sound like she only met yesterday. She’d check back later and see if she needed to post bail for him.
Sometime in the afternoon, the front door of the police station opened and Jason finally stumbled out. He looked exhausted and still had dried blood on the front of his shirt. She caught up to him down the block a ways.
“They let you go,” said Barbara, falling into step next to him and making him jump.
“Babs. You’re here,” he said, seemingly surprised by his own statement.
“Of course! I thought I’d have to get you out of jail,” she said, frowning.
“How? Your dad’s connections?”
“No, I was going to try to post your bail. But they didn’t arrest you.” It was half question, half statement.
“Alibi. But it’s not very solid,” he muttered, then stopped and squinted at her. “Babs … do you want to go get pizza?”
Barbara blinked. “Pizza.”
“Yeah, I haven’t eaten all day. Know any places around here? Doesn’t have to be pizza,” he said with a shrug. “Look, I know you’re mad and I’m not asking you not to be, but I could use your help here.”
“After what just happened? I mean, you still have blood on your shirt,” said Barbara, pointing to his abdomen.
“Right, my place to change, then pizza,” said Jason, starting walking again.
Barbara caught up with him. “You said you had an alibi for last night?” she said. She had left him at the bar around ten or so. Did he drop her name?
“Yeah,” said Jason with a sigh. “They think he was killed around midnight and I left the bar shortly after you did so I told them I was home with my roommates. But … they aren’t exactly reliable so I wouldn’t be surprised if that fell through once they do some more digging.”
“You have roommates?” Barbara raised an eyebrow.
“Were you actually at home?”
“No, said Jason in a low voice, “around midnight I was beating the snot out of some creeps who were harassing a woman on the train. Couldn’t exactly say that though.”
They fell silent for a few steps. Just when she was about to ask him another question, he spoke again.
“Hey, who was the cop you were talking to this morning? The blond one with the weird nose. It seemed like you knew him,” he said, glancing over at her.
“Oh, uh,” said Barbara, suddenly feeling awkward. “We sorta dated a while back.”
“He’s your ex?” Jason asked, sounding almost disgusted.
“I wouldn’t say he’s an ex, we only went on like three dates and it was a few years back,” she said, a little defensive. “And then he tried to arrest Batgirl. So, it didn’t really work out.”
Jason gave a derisive sort of snort but didn’t comment further.
Good, Barbara thought, it really wasn’t his place to be worrying about her exes.
They turned into a familiar neighborhood.
“This is near the college. A lot of students live in this area,” said Barbara. “But you said your roommates aren’t reliable?”
Jason gave her a wary look. “Yeah, you’ll see,” he said, leading her down the street and stopping in front of a fairly large house, in a style she recognized as popular for groups of students to rent. Quite a few of them had cropped up in recent years, replacing some of the older homes.
Barbara followed him up the walk and inside the unlocked front door.
She heard loud rap music from somewhere in the house, but it was the smell that really made her wrinkle her nose.
Across the entrance way was the wide opening to the living room where she discovered the source of that particular odor.
“Jason Peter Todd,” Barbara said in a low growling voice as she looked at the definitely-not-a-vase sitting on the coffee table and the large flag on the wall with a particular type of foliage depicted.
"Really?” Jason asked, “All the illegal things I do as Red Hood and me possibly smoking pot is the thing you're mad about?"
She continued to glare at him.
“Anyway, none of that shit is mine. Just come upstairs, I can explain,” said Jason, touching her arm.
“Jay, my man! Dude, what is up?”
Barbara spun around to see a younger white guy in cargo shorts and a tee shirt appear from the hallway and clap Jason on the back.
“Ted, hey, do me a favor? Anyone asks, I was here hanging out with you guys last night,” said Jason, smiling easily.
“Anything, bruh. Oh and who is your lovely lady friend?” said Ted, eyebrows wagging as he caught sight of Barbara.
“This is Barbara. Babs, this is Ted, one of my roommates,” said Jason, looking slightly apologetic. “We’re just running upstairs then we’ll be leaving.”
Ted didn’t seem to hear him. He stepped forward and offered a hand, putting on his best charming smile. “Theodore, but my friends call me Ted,” he said, “Please, make yourself at home. Can I get you a drink? Mi casa is su casa.”
Against her better judgment, Barbara took his hand but instead of shaking it, he planted a sloppy kiss on the back.
“Uh, nice to meet you,” said Barbara, quickly withdrawing her hand and trying to hide her disgust.
“We’re having a party on Friday. I hope you’ll be there Barbara,” said Ted with a wink. He turned to Jason and added, “Jay, you gonna chip in for the keg, right?”
“Of course, remind me later. Now, if you’ll just excuse us…” said Jason, taking Barbara’s hand and leading her up the stairs. She didn’t protest, eager for the excuse to get away.
He led her to one of the doors on the second floor landing, pulling out a key to unlock it and opening it to reveal another set of stairs. He motioned for her to go up the stairs and locked the door behind them.
“What the hell, Jason? When you said your roommates were unreliable, I didn’t think you meant you were … living in Animal House,” said Barbara when they reached the top of the stairs.
“It’s not that bad,” said Jason, turning on a light. “Okay, maybe it is that bad, but it was cheap and the attic is almost its own apartment.”
He was right, the finished attic bedroom was huge and appeared to even have its own bathroom. It was tidier than she expected, books neatly stacked on bookcases, the bed made, no clothes on the floor. And you couldn’t smell the weed all the way up here at least.
“Also, these guys are totally oblivious. I could walk through the house in full Red Hood gear and they’d be too stoned or drunk to even register what they’re seeing, much even remember it,” said Jason, heading for the closet, unbuttoning his shirt as he went. “And it’s close to the coffee shop.”
Barbara rubbed at her temples, frustrated.
“Tell me you are not doing drugs,” she said.
“I promise, I’m not doing drugs,” he said, taking off the plaid shirt and then pulling off the white undershirt as well. “And it’s just pot. These guys aren’t drug addicts, they’re just bored college kids spending their parents’ money.”
Jason held up the stained shirts, frowning a little as if unsure what to do with them. Barbara allowed herself about ten seconds of eyeing his bare torso, noting that he still had really great abs.
“Give them here,” she said, finally plopping her bag down on the bed and holding out her hand. “And please tell me you have laundry soap up here somewhere.”
“Bathroom,” he said, nodding to the door on the other side of the stairwell and handing her the shirts.
Barbara found a bottle of detergent and turned on the cold water in the tub. She knelt, pushed up her sleeves and got to work, vigorously trying to work the stains out of the fabric while he finished changing.
“Some of it is coming out but you might have to bleach the tee shirt,” she reported when Jason appeared in the doorway, wearing another plaid shirt. “And maybe ask Alfred about this one. I’ve seen him do magic with worse blood stains.”
“Barbara … I need your help,” he said. “I need to figure out who killed the owner, keep my job, stay out of prison. You’re better at this stuff than me. Than all of us.”
Barbara leaned back on her heels and looked up at him. “Did you kill him?” she asked after a moment.
“You really have to ask?”
She stood up, putting her hands on her hips. “Yes. I do have to ask. Because what if you found out he was the biggest dirtbag in all of Burnside and really didn’t deserve to live and you wanted to piss me off after I hurt your feelings? What if you completely betrayed my trust by leaving for months? What if I’m not quite sure if you’re still the same person I almost kissed that night on the bridge?” she said, glaring at him.
He took a second to answer her, but only focused on that last question.
“You were really thinking of kissing me?” he asked.
How on earth did he not get that impression? If only she had just grabbed him and planted one on him, took care of making the first move, maybe he would have stayed … No, she refused to go back down that line of regretful thoughts.
“Yes, I was. Before you left,” she said.
“What about now?” he said quietly, eyes flickering down then back up.
She felt the familiar nervous flutter in her stomach but quickly squashed it down and said, “You didn’t answer my question, Jason.”
He closed his eyes for a moment and took a deep breath. “I promise you, Barbara, I did not kill him. I don’t do that anymore,” he said, looking into her eyes.
“You’ve been making me a lot of promises in the last twenty four hours, Todd.”
“How about this one? I promise I’ll tell you what happened to me if you help me solve this murder,” he said.
Slowly she folded her arms and said, “Okay, I’m listening.”
“I’m not ready now,” said Jason, a little exasperated. “But I will tell you, after we solve the case. Look, there’s a murderer loose in Burnside, in your city. It’s your job to catch them.”
“Fine,” she said, pushing past him. “We catch the killer and then you tell me everything.” She picked up her bag and turned back to him. “Now, you said you wanted pizza? There’s a place a couple blocks from here. Let’s go.”
He grinned and motioned to the staircase. “After you.”
Barbara watched Jason practically inhale a plate of salad, three slices of pizza, and polish off a beer before he finally seemed to remember she was there and sat back.
“Sorry, they didn’t give me anything to eat and I skipped breakfast,” he said, sheepishly. He hesitated then selected another slice.
“It’s fine,” said Barbara, smiling a little and helping herself to another piece too.
“So, where do we start?” he asked.
“You’ll need to tell me everything,” she said, her smile dropping.
“Just start with when you got to Burnside and got this job,” she said quickly, hating how snappish she sounded but unable to stop herself. Part of her wasn’t even confident yet that he’d actually keep his promise to tell her everything after all this was over. But as he pointed out, catching a murderer was a priority that she couldn’t say no to.
Jason frowned and set down the half eaten slice. “You know, it’s weird. I just kinda asked for a job and he just gave it to me,” he said, looking up to side as he recalled. “I walked in and asked for cup of coffee and Calvin was working at the register. He said he didn’t recognize me and asked if I was new in town and I said yeah. And then I asked if he knew anyone hiring and he asked if I’d ever worked in a café before. Left my number and he called a few days later and asked if I could start tomorrow. It was really fast.”
“I’ll say. No one is getting jobs that easy these days,” said Barbara. “Continue. Tell me about everyone who works there, anyone who would have access to that stock room.”
“Well, there’s Claudia, Calvin’s wife. She does a lot of the paperwork stuff, I think. She’s French, moved here years ago and married him pretty soon after. She’s really nice though, I doubt she’d kill her husband,” said Jason fairly.
“Well, even nice people can get angry at their spouse and make a horrible mistake,” said Barbara, sipping her drink. “What about the other employees? I remember seeing three different baristas when I’ve been there.”
“Right, there’s Julie, Ramon, and Eleanor,” said Jason nodding. “Eleanor usually works during the morning to early afternoon shift when her son’s at school. She’s been there the longest I think and seems to be really good friends with Claudia. I don’t know a lot about Ramon – pretty quiet, works an odd schedule. But Julie has been training me so I’ve probably spent the most time with her.”
“We know Julie pretty well. She’s the short blonde,” said Barbara, matching up each description in her mind.
“Yeah, she’s been kind of irritated about something I think, but that could just be because I don’t know what I’m doing and it’s frustrating to watch,” he said, frowning a little.
Barbara sighed. “I’m assuming all of them have a key to the shop,” she said.
“Yeah, I think I’m the only one who doesn’t have one.”
“We need to find out who has motive and who doesn’t have an alibi. And we also need the ME’s report,” said Barbara, thoughtfully. “Frankie should be able to get that information from the GCPD no problem. Do you know if they found the murder weapon?”
Jason show his head. “No, and it was definitely a knife of some sort, large one judging by the wounds,” he said, looking down. His hand on the table clenched into a fist. “I tried to stop the bleeding but there was nothing I could do, he had already been gone for hours by the time we found him.”
Barbara hesitated then reached over to cover his hand with her own. “Hey, I know if you had been there, if you had known, you would have done anything to save him,” she said.
“Babs, I meant what I said last night. I don’t want to cause you trouble here. I know how much this place means to you,” he said. “That’s why I was so weird yesterday at Roasters … when I saw you come in, I realized you’d see me so I thought I could just play it casual, not make you upset when I brought you your drinks. I don’t know why I thought that would work.”
Babs smirked. “Steph actually thought you were brainwashed.”
“But it’s so much worse now,” Jason continued with his train of thought, “A man who stuck his neck out for me died and I really am causing trouble in your town.”
“Look, there’s a very strong possibility this has nothing to do with you at all and it’s just a coincidence that it happened at your new job,” said Barbara, giving his hand a squeeze.
He looked up at her with an amused look. “How many coincidences actually happen in this line of work?”
“I’m not assuming anything yet. We just have to see what the evidence actually says,” she said, finally taking her hand back and quickly picking up her glass instead. “Do you know if Roasters will be open tomorrow?”
“I don’t know. I’m sure once they get the stockroom cleaned up, they’ll keep things running. Can’t afford to be unexpectedly closed,” said Jason.
“Then we’ll need to start questioning everyone tomorrow.”
Barbara slid onto one of the stools at the front counter that Jason stood behind, restocking cups and lids.
“So, have you talked to anyone?” she asked quietly.
“Not like people are ready to open up to me,” he muttered, glancing over at the barista in front of the espresso machine a few feet away. Barbara recognized her as Julie. She was short and curvy, with honey blonde hair in wavy curls and big, hazel eyes.
Barbara moved to a stool closer to the espresso machine.
“I’ll get to your drink in just a minute, Babs,” the barista said, looking up and smiling at her.
“Julie, you know my friend Barbara, right?” said Jason carefully, edging a little closer as well.
“Well yeah, I just called her by her name, Jason,” Julie said, deadpanned. Barbara hid a smirk as Jason quickly recovered.
“Julie has been patiently trying to teach me how make a latte, but of course, her skills with the foam art are completely beyond my capabilities,” he added with a charming smile.
“He’s your friend?” Julie said, raising an eyebrow like she didn’t quite believe him.
“Oh yeah, Jason and I have known each other a while,” Barbara piped up. “Since before I moved across the river.”
Julie eyed the two of them for a moment, but seemed to accept Barbara’s word.
“Jason, you should go wipe down the empty tables,” said Julie, turning back to the espresso machine.
Jason shrugged but did as she asked, leaving them alone.
“So you think he’s trustworthy?” Julie asked in a quieter voice.
“Yes, he is. A pain in the ass sometimes, but I’d trust him with my life,” Barbara confirmed. And she knew it to be true, even if part of her was still angry at him.
Julie drizzled chocolate sauce over the coffee drink she was making. “Well, I trust you. And Frankie,” she added with a hint of softness to her voice as she looked up and across the room.
“Yes,” said Barbara, glancing over her shoulder where Frankie was back at their table, working on her laptop.
For several weeks now, Barbara had watched this little back and forth between her roommate and the blonde barista. They flirted, they gave each other compliments. Barbara knew that sometimes Frankie would go out of her way to stop at the coffee shop.
But nothing had really happened yet. It made no sense, she knew Frankie was usually more forward than this.
The few times Barbara had attempted to ask why Frankie hadn’t made a move yet, her partner waved her off, muttering something about she “doesn’t want to bother her at work” and then changing the subject. Something was holding her back and Barbara made a mental note to interrogate more thoroughly later.
But thinking about this and her possible angles of questioning gave Babs an inkling of an idea.
“She really likes those little designs you do with the foam,” she said lightly.
That seemed to make Julie really happy. “Oh, haha, well, you know, it’s fun, like a little signature. She had the caramel macchiato, right?” she said, seizing another mug and getting to work.
This was probably a bad idea (Julie was technically still a suspect), but catching the other girl distracted by the idea of wooing Frankie with pretty coffee drinks seemed like a good opportunity to ask a few casual questions.
“What are you ladies talking about?” said Jason, reappearing behind the counter and making Julie jump.
“Oh, just talking about my roommate,” said Barbara.
Jason frowned and squinted across the café. “Yeah, you two would get along. She doesn’t think highly of me either,” he said with a sigh.
Julie was still blushing and said, “Can you get some more sleeves from the back? We’re almost out.”
“Yeah, of course, anything else while I’m back there?”
Julie shook her head, attention on the coffee drink now. Jason shot a glance at Barbara, who nodded to signal she had this covered.
“I just can’t stand to go back there,” said Julie with a shudder. “There’s still a big stain on the floor. We had to throw out a whole box of medium cups. It just …”
Barbara nodded sympathetically. “It must be really distressing,” she said. “Were you close with him?”
“Yeah, well, he was my boss. Calvin was a good manager. He cared about us, he cared about the coffee shop and the welcoming atmosphere,” said Julie, turning back to the espresso machine. “When I graduated, I had a hard time making it just with my art. But he hired me and he let me display my paintings for sale in the shop.”
“So you always got along?” Barbara asked casually.
Julie finished topping the drink with whipped cream and gave her a curious look. “It’s generally a good idea to try to get along with your boss,” she said. “Why?”
Jason reappeared, carrying a box to the other counter a few feet away from them, putting stacks of sleeves in holders. As she watched him, Barbara ran through what Jason had told her about his coworkers so far, remembering that he mentioned Julie in particular seemed irritated about something.
“Nothing,” said Barbara with a shrug, turning back to Julie. She watched Julie squirm a little and wondered how exactly she had managed to hold up under the detective’s questioning the other day. Perhaps the shock kept her from being so visibly uncomfortable with something?
Barbara leaned in a little and offered an understanding smile, hoping she had forged enough of a connection with the other girl that this would work. “Let me guess, you weren’t too keen on my friend over there being hired?” she asked in a low voice, nodding her head towards Jason.
“Look, before he was … before he died, Calvin started cutting my hours and then hires this guy who has no experience and dumps him in my lap to train,” said Julie in a hushed tone. Uneasy, she leaned back a little and added, “I probably shouldn’t talk about this. You’re not some kind of reporter, are you?”
“Oh, no nothing like that,” said Barbara, quickly. “I just, well, my dad was a detective and I grew up around investigations. I guess I get a little interested still.”
“Okay,” said Julie slowly, still looking unsure.
“I promise, total confidence. But… who do you think did it?” Barbara asked.
Julie bit her lip. “I don’t know, I mean nothing was stolen so I don’t know if it was supposed to be a robbery or …” she said, trailing off with a shrug.
“You must have a guess,” Barbara prompted. “Has anything odd happened around here lately?”
“You know how they built that brand new Chiroptera a little while back?”
“Yeah, it’s not too far from here. It’s huge,” said Barbara, nodding.
“Things have just been … I don’t know, there’s no proof …,” Julie hesitated, drumming her fingers on the counter. “But we were throwing around the idea of having a band play one night. And then before we could even ask, suddenly they were booked at the Chiroptera! Like someone told them. Our main competition! And now Calvin is dead.”
“You think someone told them? Someone here?” Barbara said.
“I think this whole thing is really fishy and somehow that other shop is involved,” said Julie. “Hey, I’m going to take this over there before it gets cold,” she added, motioning to the drink.
“Of course, good luck,” Barbara said with a wink.
As Julie left to talk to Frankie, Jason moved back over, standing next to her and leaning back against the counter as he watched.
“Huh, she’s into Frankie? Didn’t see that one,” he commented.
“You haven’t been hitting on her, have you?” Barbara, asked, glancing over her shoulder.
“No! Well, I mean, I might have been a little flirty on accident, consequences of my insane amounts of charm. But I assure you it did not take,” he said. “But did you find out anything useful?”
She gave him a slightly wary look then said, “Possibly. Do you still have a suit?”
“We going somewhere fancy?”
“No, your red suit. There’s some leads we should follow up on tonight.”
Jason grinned. “Yeah, I got one,” he said. “Feels good being partners again, doesn’t it?”
Barbara looked over at him, wanting to say yes so badly. Six months, Gordon. He left you for six whole months.
“You should get back to work,” she said after a moment.
“Cold, Barbie,” Jason muttered.
She shook her head and rolled her eyes. No, she had already told him how to fix this by telling her the whole truth and he was the one who wanted to wait it out.
“You said you weren’t asking me to not be mad at you still,” Barbara pointed out.
“I know. You’re right,” he said, pushing away from the counter and leaving her alone.
“Hey,” said someone behind her on the rooftop.
Batgirl put down her binoculars and turned around as Red Hood joined her.
“Hi,” she said, realizing she had seriously underestimated what seeing him in his costume again would do to her. The tight pants and leather jacket and the thigh holsters… and even though she liked looking at his face, she had warmed up to his Red Hood helmet. It gave a bit of mystery to the whole look and she liked thinking that she was one of the few people on earth who knew what he looked like behind the mask.
He fidgeted a little, then finally rested his hands on his hips and cleared his throat.
“So, uh, what’s the plan for tonight?” Red Hood asked.
Batgirl pulled herself together and motioned down the street.
“Recon. Julie thinks the other coffee shop is involved so I figured we should check things out over there,” she said, stowing away the binoculars. “Follow me,” she added, leaping to the next roof.
They stopped a few buildings down, just across from Chiroptera.
“I didn’t realize this place was open twenty four hours,” said Red Hood as the two of them observed from the roof of the building next door. “Working the night shift must suck. Who needs coffee at 1AM?”
“You do know this is a college town, right?” said Batgirl.
The brand new Chiroptera cafe in Burnside was big – much bigger than most other coffee shops around the area. It was fairly central and had its own separated building. Atop the roof was a large, bronze, rotating globe with a pterodactyl attached on top, the company’s recognizable, recently updated logo. Half of the walls in front of the store were mostly large glass windows, showing a well-lit interior.
Below them in the alleyway, a back door to the coffee shop suddenly opened and someone stepped out, carrying several large, plastic bags. He turned and the light from inside the shop caught his face.
“BG… I think that’s Ramon,” Jason whispered next to her. “You remember what he looks like, right?”
Barbara nodded, squinting at the young, but well-built man with dark hair and stud in one ear lobe, a slight scowl on his face as he hefted bags of recycling into bins. He was wearing a green Chiroptera apron.
“Come on, before he goes back inside,” said Batgirl, hopping up and over the ledge, dropping to the fire escape then down to the ground just as Ramon was tossing the last bag.
She heard Red Hood land with a thud right behind her. Ramon jumped and whirled around at the noise, putting his hands up.
“Whoa, hey, I don’t want trouble,” he said quickly.
“Answer our questions and there won’t be any,” said Red Hood in a growly voice.
Batgirl moved closer, cutting off his escape route to back inside the coffee shop.
“How long have you been moonlighting over here after your shifts at Burnside Roasters, Ramon?” she asked.
“Man, come on, it’s a job! This is none of your business!” said Ramon, irritated.
“Murder in my city is my business,” said Batgirl firmly. “Tell us where you were Sunday night.”
“What, you think I killed the boss over a few cut hours? Lady, you call yourself a detective?”
“I’m sure your boss wasn’t very impressed to find out you’ve been working for his competition too. Did you tell your managers here about the idea to book a band at Roasters?”
“Look, while Julie was complaining about our hours and the new guy, I actually went out and did something. These guys had no problem taking me on and I needed the cash. It was nothing personal, I figured Calvin was cutting our hours because he was getting ready to close up anyway,” said Ramon.
“Then tell me where you were on Sunday night,” Batgirl demanded.
“I don’t have time for this. I need to get back to work,” said Ramon, trying to shove past them to get back to the door.
Jason stepped in and grabbed Ramon by the front of his shirt, shoving him against the brick wall. Barbara started, ready to jump in and stop … anything. But Jason simply held him there, attempting to tower over him. The two were about the same height, but Jason had slightly more bulk.
“The fuck, man! Lemme go!” said Ramon, attempting to push him back.
“Answer the question,” Red Hood snarled.
“I … I was at home. With my gran. Her meds give her insomnia so we stay up and play cards most nights,” Ramon muttered. “Now get off!” he added, grabbing onto Jason’s arms and trying to pry them off.
Red Hood glanced over at Batgirl and even with the mask she could tell he was silently asking if he should comply.
“Anything else we should know?” she asked.
“Yeah, if it’s not Julie going crazy over her cut hours, my money’s on Eleanor. You know her and Claudia have a thing right? I heard ‘em talking about it.”
“Eleanor and Claudia are having an affair?” said Batgirl, frowning.
Red Hood also seemed surprised by this information as his grip slackened enough for Ramon to shove him off.
“That’s all I’m saying,” said Ramon, as he practically ran for the door.
“Let him go,” Batgirl instructed, putting up a hand when Red Hood made to follow him. The door slammed shut again, leaving them alone in the alleyway.
Once they were back up on the roof, Batgirl turned to Red Hood.
“So, they’re good friends, huh?”
“I just started working there,” Jason said, putting up his hands.
“Well do you think it’s possible they were having an affair? Because that’s a lot stronger of a motive than cut hours,” said Barbara, frowning slightly.
“I guess. So then did they plot to kill Calvin?”
“Not sure, but it looks like we’ll need to go back to the coffee shop.”
Making an excuse to take a long lunch, Barbara made it to the coffee shop earlier than usual. Frankie was already there, chair parked at the long front counter. Julie was ringing up another customer while Jason was over at the back counter, apparently taking something apart. But for the most part, Roasters was fairly empty, just finished with the lunch time rush.
Barbara slid onto one of the stools next to Frankie’s chair as Julie finished up making another drink.
“You better not slice your fingers off trying to fix that blender, Jason,” said Julie, grabbing another mug.
“It’s unplugged,” said Jason, picking up the end of the cord to show her.
“Claudia said we could just order a new one if this one breaks,” Julie said, frowning.
“Look, I know I’m not as good with the tech stuff as those two, but I know my way around a basic motor. I will fix it,” said Jason, setting down a screwdriver. He popped open the back panel and frowned. “I think …”
Julie rolled her eyes and turned to Barbara. “Vanilla soy latte, right?”
“Yeah, can you make it a triple and to go?” Barbara replied. Perhaps one day she would stop relying on copious amounts of caffeine to get her through the work day after a late night. Today was not that day.
“On it,” said Julie, turning back to the coffee grinder.
Barbara exchanged a glance with Frankie who nodded, ready to get back to case business.
“So, is Eleanor around?” Barbara asked casually.
“Why, not done playing Nancy Drew at the coffee shop yet?” Julie asked, smirking a little and raising an eyebrow.
“Geez, Babs, nosy much,” said Frankie, elbowing her playfully.
“I just haven’t ever really talked to her before,” said Barbara lightly. “I don’t usually make it in this early in the day.”
“I think she went to the back to clock out. She tends to leave around this time,” said Julie, shaking her head and setting the coffee in front of Barbara, who passed over her card to pay.
As Julie rang her up, the bell on the door jingled again and someone else walked in. Julie’s eyebrows furrowed as she saw the newcomer.
The man was average height, slightly balding, and wore a suit that was trying very hard to look fresher than it probably was judging by the uneven collar and poorly knotted tie. As Barbara stared at the man, he looked up and made eye contact with her, his eyes widening slightly before he looked back down at the floor. He hurried past all of them around to the back hallway without a word.
“I’ve seen him before,” said Barbara, filing through her brain, finally picking out the correct memory.
“Pfft, yeah, if you’ve been here at all in the past three months, you’ve seen him,” said Julie disdainfully.
“He was in the crowd outside on Monday morning,” said Barbara, still frowning at the hallway he had disappeared down. “He was just off to the side, right by the police line.”
“Ugh, creep,” said Julie with a shudder.
“Where is he from, Julie?” Frankie asked.
“He’s from the other guys, you know, Chiroptera. Some sort of ‘Acquisitions Rep’ or something like that. Been trying to convince Calvin to sell the shop to them for months now.”
Out of the corner of her eye, Barbara saw even Jason glance up at this revelation. That must have been what Ramon meant when he said he thought Calvin might close the shop soon.
“Here, he keeps leaving his card,” said Julie, pawing around the register and fishing out a few business cards to show them.
The cards had the Chiroptera logo and the words Clive Custerstone, Acquisitions. The only contact information was a phone number.
“Can I keep one of these?” Barbara asked, holding one up.
“Be my guest. I meant to throw em out or use them for scratch paper,” said Julie with a shrug. “He met with Calvin several times and it never ended well. Hasn’t been back for weeks. I thought maybe they gave up on trying to buy the coffee shop.”
“And now?” Frankie prompted.
“And now he’s probably here to go after Claudia, the vulture. It’s hardly been three days. They haven’t even planned the service yet,” said Julie.
“Would Claudia sell the shop?” Barbara asked.
“Probably. She’s wanted to go back home to France for a while now,” said Julie, now grabbing her own mug to make a cup of tea.
While her back was turned, Barbara glanced at Frankie who nodded in understanding. They had discussed this earlier, she knew the plan to be the distraction.
“Julie, is that one of your new paintings? I really love it!” said Frankie, pointing towards the picture hanging above the back counter, next to the chalkboard menu.
Barbara didn’t hear Julie’s reply as she darted around the corner where Clive disappeared. She found him knocking on a door at the end of the hallway. Just at the door opened, Barbara darted into the ladies room nearby, leaving the door ajar so she could hear and peering through the spaces between the hinges.
“How dare you show up here,” said a middle aged woman that Barbara recognized as Eleanor. She was about average height, had brown skin and long black hair pulled into a tight braid. Her hands rested on her hips as she looked coolly at Clive.
“I thought perhaps Mrs. Walker would be interested in discuss—“
“Mrs. Walker is busy planning a funeral,” Eleanor snapped.
Custerstone adjusted his glasses and cleared his throat. “I realize this is a difficult time. Please tell Mrs. Walker that my superiors would like to double their initial offer,” he said.
There was a pause and then Eleanor said, “She won’t take it.”
“We will see,” said Clive. “Good day,” he added, handing her a card and turning to leave.
Barbara ducked back out of sight as he walked by, then peeked out again to see the door to the back office open again.
“Thank you for getting rid of him,” said a tall, white woman with a French accent. She was about the same age as Eleanor, with high cheekbones and short blonde hair.
“Anything, Claudia,” said Eleanor, the ice practically melting as she looked at the other woman.
“They want to double their offer,” Claudia stated.
“Calvin wouldn’t have taken it,” Eleanor said.
There was a pause as Claudia stared down the hallway with a faraway look on her face.
“Ellie, ma belle, what would I do without you?” she finally said, smiling softly at Eleanor.
“I hope you never have to find out. I need to go, I have to pick up Ethan,” said Eleanor, hiking her bag up on her shoulder.
“Of course, tomorrow,” said Claudia, kissing her on both cheeks and then on her lips.
Barbara stepped back again as Eleanor walked by, then waited to hear the office door close. Waiting a few more moments to be sure Eleanor had really left the shop, Barbara finally slipped out of the rest room and made her way back to the main part of the café.
“Alright, ladies, behold,” Jason was saying before dramatically pressing a button on the blender he had just put back together. It started up successfully and he quickly turned it off again. Julie and Frankie both looked somewhat impressed and applauded shortly.
“Now, who wants a margarita?” he asked.
“It’s two in the afternoon,” said Barbara, rejoining Frankie at the front counter.
“Babs, come on. You haven’t lived until you’ve been day drunk,” said Jason, smirking at her.
Barbara rolled her eyes. She couldn’t even be annoyed with him because that smirk was still kinda hot.
“No margaritas. Practice those blended coffee drinks,” Julie instructed, finishing up another drink and leaving them to deliver it.
“Well?” Jason asked in a lower voice. Frankie looked at her eagerly too.
“He was right,” said Barbara, nodding. “Come by the office later on tonight and we’ll get to work. Frankie, we should probably get back there now.”
“You’re the boss.”
“Wow, got a few upgrades,” Jason observed with a low whistle as he stepped inside the main room in the basement of Gordon Clean Energy Main Offices. The room that served as headquarters for Oracle, Batgirl, and the rest of the Birds of Prey.
Frankie was seated in front of the computer system, several wide screens before her, with Barbara pacing behind her.
“Yeah, Bruce did some updates in the cave again,” said Barbara. “We got some pretty good hand-me-downs from it.”
“Aw man, I missed another opportunity to watch you beat the crap out of Drake over computer parts?” Jason asked, looking sad.
Barbara paused and raised an eyebrow at him. “No, I asked if we could skip this year, because it wasn’t the same without … you. And he said I could have first pick,” she said. “You know, your brothers all wanted to help find you, too. They were really worried you had died. I know you all like to squabble and you think it’s funny, but they are family.”
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Frankie make an “ooohhh” expression as she spun the chair back towards the keyboard.
Jason fidgeted a little then said, “Okay, fine, sorry. Now that I’ve been properly shamed, shall we get to work, ladies?”
Frankie pressed a button and a list appeared on the middle screen.
“We’ve been compiling the list of suspects and inputting what data we know so far,” said Frankie.
“Hey, why am I on the suspect list?” Jason asked, frowning.
“Because you’re a suspect,” said Frankie coolly.
“Barbie, I told you I didn’t do it.”
Barbara hesitated. She wanted to believe, but if there was any doubt that he wasn’t really … him, then she had to look as objectively as possible.
“Look, I still don’t know everything,” she said.
“Yeah, but you know me,” he said.
Barbara bit her lip. “I did.”
His shoulders seemed to slump and she felt even worse. But until she knew for sure that his time away hadn’t changed him, she couldn’t confidently say she knew he wouldn’t. Maybe six months ago, but not now.
Frankie turned in the chair, this time looking more sympathetic. “You’re low on the list, you don’t exactly have the strongest motive. Unless there’s something you’re not telling us,” she said. “But the others do.”
Jason sighed in resignation and nodded. “Alright, what did you find out this afternoon at the coffee shop?” he asked.
Barbara tried to ignore that he still sounded a little hurt and turned back to the screen. “Well Eleanor and Claudia are definitely involved. We still don’t know if Calvin knew about the two of them, but if he found out …”
“Stabbing would indicate a crime of passion more than anything,” said Jason.
“So, Calvin confronts Claudia about the affair and things turn ugly?” Frankie guessed.
“But who brought the knife? The report says the murder weapon is a knife with a blade of at least 6 inches. Not exactly the average box cutter you’d find in a storage room,” said Barbara, walking to another keyboard to the side and pulling up the medical examiner’s report.
“Maybe Calvin brought it and Claudia got it away from him and stabbed him? Maybe even on accident?” Frankie said.
Barbara frowned and paced across the room again. “If it was an accident, she might have called an ambulance and tried to save him. Too much speculation – we should stick to the facts. The killer or the victim brought the knife to the scene and the killer left with it. Which suggests something more premeditated than an accident during an argument,” she said.
“Wait, what if … Eleanor kills Calvin so she can have Claudia to herself,” said Jason, looking somewhat proud of his theory. He took a seat in the other computer chair, leaning back to watch them both.
“Her statement just says she was at home,” said Frankie, pulling up more files she had hacked earlier. “Her kid was there, but I imagine he was asleep since it was midnight on a school night. She might have been able to leave and come back.”
“It’s backfiring on her though if Claudia does end up selling and moving back to France without her. If they’re that close, Eleanor had to realize that was a possibility,” said Barbara thoughtfully. “There’s not enough information. Let’s move to the other suspects.”
“Ramon gave you two an alibi that checked out,” said Frankie, tabbing down the list. “That combined with his lack of motive, he seems unlikely.”
“And then there’s Julie,” said Barbara.
Frankie shifted in her chair.
“Really? Do you really think she’s capable of murder?” Frankie asked, raising an eyebrow.
“On my second day, I burned a bagel and I swear I thought she was gonna murder me with the bread knife,” said Jason, now spinning around in the chair.
“She has motive,” Barbara pointed out. “And her alibi is just ‘at home with roommate’.”
“Hey, what about that Chiroptera guy? Cliff, or whatever,” Jason said suddenly.
Barbara moved back over to the other keyboard and typed a few commands. “Clive Custerstone. Graduated from Boston with a degree in business … and other than a few school records, there’s not much on him. No social media accounts, not even a Linked Up,” she summarized.
“Do you still have that business card with his number?” Jason asked.
“Yeah,” she said, digging it out of her pocket. “Let’s give him a call.” Typing the number in, she let the system call.
It rang. And then rang again. And then rang several more times.
“He’s not answering,” said Barbara, frowning.
“Maybe he’s in the bathroom?” Jason suggested casually.
Barbara rolled her eyes. “Or his phone is on silent. Hey, Frankie, what are you doing over there?” she asked, glancing over her shoulder to see Frankie pulling up page after page of various social media accounts.
“Just … checking something. I’m listening. He’s not answering the phone,” said Frankie, waving a hand distractedly at them.
They let the phone ring another 20 times before hanging up.
“Frankie, can you check who actually owns this line?” Barbara asked.
“Aha! Got it!” said Frankie triumphantly, turning the chair around and leaning back.
“That was quick,” said Jason.
“No, not that. I found proof Julie did not do it,” Frankie said, motioning to the Chitter page on the large screen. “That’s the Chitter feed for Julie’s roommate, Judy. Look.”
“Judy and Julie? Really? REALLY?” Jason said, exasperated.
Barbara shushed him as she read the page full of social media posts.
Jason whistled. “Wow, Judy is an asshole,” he commented. “No wonder Julie is so stressed out.”
“They were fighting that night,” said Frankie.
“And Judy live-Chirped the whole thing, complete with pictures of the painting she ruined, ouch,” said Barbara, looking slightly impressed. “Alright, well that would be an embarrassing and frustrating alibi to tell anyone. But it’s time stamped and everything.”
Frankie beamed and said, “Which means she’s off the list.”
“She’s off the list,” Barbara repeated with a small smile. “That leaves us with three strong suspects: Clive, Eleanor, and Claudia.”
“Forgot about me already,” Jason said with a mock heavy sigh.
Suddenly annoyed, Barbara spun around. “You know, you could just tell us right now what’s been going on and why you left,” she pointed out. “Get everything out so we can move on finally.”
He closed his eyes for a moment and took a deep breath. “Barbara, not right now. I promise I will, but not now,” he said in a lower voice.
She shook her head. “You have no idea, do you? No idea what I went through when you–”
“Hey, Babs, silent alarm tripped at the Riverside Bank,” Frankie interrupted.
“On it, we’ll pick this up tomorrow,” said Barbara, thankful for the excuse and sprinting out of the room.
Silence fell as Frankie and Jason were left alone.
She wasn’t looking at him, tapping on the keyboard, searching for more data to use to rule out suspects.
He hesitated. He couldn’t even explain himself to Barbara. What could he possibly say to Frankie, her best friend? Then again … perhaps with all her connections as Oracle … No, he needed to tell Babs first, he knew that much.
“You know, it’s not just about her. You ditched all of us,” said Frankie, throwing him a glance. She looked less angry and more sad. Which of course made him feel even worse. “I thought we were friends.”
“We were! Are! I hope,” Jason said quickly.
Frankie raised an eyebrow at him.
“Barbara believes in giving second chances. I hope you deserve one.”
“I probably don’t,” he said before he could stop himself. “I should go, I’m sure Batgirl can handle a couple bank robbers on her own.”
“Barbara, are we one hundred percent sure Jason didn’t kill him?” Frankie said in her earpiece.
Batgirl sighed as she stood on a nearby rooftop and watched the police gathered up the robbers she had stopped and tied up for them.
“You’ve really lost your faith in him,” said Barbara.
“Correction: I never had faith in him. And you didn’t watch your brokenhearted best friend go to impossible lengths to try to find him. Has he even told you why he won’t tell you?” Frankie asked.
“He said he would after we solved this murder.”
“That’s pretty rotten of him. Of course you wouldn’t say no to solving a murder,” Frankie observed.
“I don’t think he was just off partying and ignoring my calls, O. I think something happened and it’s hard for him to talk about. I’m still upset, I promise, but… Batman couldn’t even find him,” said Batgirl, turning away from the scene.
Frankie fell quiet in her ear as Batgirl crossed a few more bocks, returning to the alley where she had parked the bike. As she passed a stairwell up to the light rail, she got an idea.
“Hey, Oracle, the trains all have security cameras in each car, right? Jason told me he was beating up some creeps on a train the night of the murder but he couldn’t exactly tell the police that alibi so he said he was at home,” said Batgirl. “But it is one we can verify.”
“You want me to go through hours of security camera footage for all the trains in Gotham?” Frankie said, sounding incredulous at the idea.
“We can probably narrow it down to the red and orange lines since they’re the only ones that come to Burnside. Say, 11 to 1 AM?” she said, starting up the bike and zooming off down the street.
“Fine, I’ll start combing through it,” Frankie said with a sigh. “Where are you going? That’s not the direction home.”
“I want to have another look around at Chiroptera. Something just feels off to me still,” said Batgirl.
“Do you see those? What do you think those are, decoration?” Batgirl asked, zooming in on the video she was taking on her phone, streaming it back for Frankie to examine more closely. The roof of the Chiroptera building had the usual decorative pterodactyl with a globe logo in giant form, rotating slowly. Forming a semicircle around the statue were five smaller dome shapes protruding from the roof.
“Security cams maybe? They look kinda metallic,” Frankie guessed in her earpiece. “Maybe we could hack them?”
“I’m going to get closer,” said Batgirl, stashing the phone and standing up.
Five minutes later, she had managed to dash across the street in the shadows and scale the building.
“O, I think this has a … a control panel of some kind,” said Batgirl, kneeling and examining one of the small domes. On one side, what she had assumed been decoration actually now looked more like very small, tight buttons. She took a picture of the panel and sent it to Oracle.
“Whoa, that’s weird,” said Frankie. “No markings, only six buttons so not a number keypad. This might take some time to crack, Batgirl.”
“Or there’s the more direct method,” said Batgirl, tucking away the phone again.
“Too late,” said Barbara, pressing one of the buttons.
There was a soft buzzing, like the dome was vibrating in place on the roof. And then, Barbara moved back just in time for the dome to rocket up off the roof and into the air, revealing that it was actually a full sphere.
“It’s some sort of flying drone, I think,” said Batgirl, taking another cautious step back.
The sphere was about the size of a soccer ball, floating in midair about a foot above her.
Batgirl glanced around, but the road was mostly empty at this time of night, even if the Chiroptera below her feet was technically open twenty four hours.
A small clinking noise drew her attention back to the floating drone in time to see a metallic arm extend from the top, aiming a small point right at her.
“Uh oh,” said Barbara.
“Uh oh? What’s it doing?” Frankie said quickly.
“I think it’s aiming a weapon at me,” said Batgirl, taking another slow step backwards. The edge of the roof was about two feet behind her. “Got any suggestions, O?”
“Try an EMP grenade maybe? Run like hell?”
Her hand slowly drifted to the pouch on her belt, still eyeing the drone, her fingers finding the tiny device.
Barbara threw the grenade at the drone where it stuck on the metal casing and then backflipped off the roof as Frankie remotely activated it. The lights inside the Chiroptera all went off behind her as she ran towards the alley where she parked the bike.
“I think it wor—agghhh!” Batgirl shouted, tripping over her feet as something bright flashed and grazed her upper arm. It hurt bad and she could smell something burning as she rolled and attempted to regain ground. “Something shot at me! It has a damn laser, O! And the EMP didn’t work!”
“Why the hell would a coffee shop have laser-shooting drones on the roof?” Frankie shouted in the earpiece.
“I don’t know!” said Batgirl, jumping on the bike at last and taking off, the drone still following her and shooting. “But we need to figure out how to stop it!”
“I’m trying to hack in to their server but it’s rerouting me,” said Frankie.
“No time for that. Here, take the bike and try to lure it out of the city. I’ll see if the robotics lab at the college has anything,” said Batgirl, balancing on the seat of the bike as Oracle took control. Better there than leading it back to their base.
They zipped around a corner and took a sharp turn into an alley where Barbara jumped from the seat, grabbing hold of a fire escape and swinging up and out of the way. Below her, the drone zipped past, following the bike out the other side of the alley.
Batgirl continued up to the roof of the building and set off in the direction of Burnside College, in her mind, going through all the possible gadgets she might be able to use to stop the drone.
After about five minutes of full out sprinting across rooftops, Frankie spoke up again.
“Babes, I got some bad news,” said Oracle.
“It stopped following the bike?” asked Batgirl, pausing.
“It stopped following the bike,” Oracle confirmed with a sigh.
Barbara hid behind a brick stairwell as the drone zoomed back towards her. She saw it pause, then direct the laser at the decoy she had rigged behind another ledge. The pointy bat ears of her cowl were just barely visible, propped up by an out of site, inflated balloon.
Well, it wasn’t exactly a balloon.
“When exactly did carrying around condoms in the Bat utility belt become standard, again?” Frankie had teased.
“As you can see, they can have multiple uses besides the obvious,” Barbara had replied as she rigged the decoy.
Now she watched as the drone charged the laser, getting three concussive batarangs ready in hand. As soon as the drone fired, blasting pieces of brick and plastic into the air, she attacked, throwing the batarangs and then reaching for several explosives to toss in after. She tucked in and rolled to the side, looking up as the smoke cleared to find …
The drone was still floating in midair, this time the laser pointed at her once more.
“Shit,” Barbara muttered.
She could see a few dents in the side of the drone and instead of hovering steady, it seemed to bob up and down in the air, but it clearly hadn’t been enough to disable it completely. All that and now she was down a cowl and a condom.
Her phone chimed and she answered it, no longer having use of her cowl’s comm link.
“Did it work?” Frankie asked anxiously in her ear.
“Nope. And I’m out of tricks,” said Barbara.
“I’ll send the bike back.”
“No, last thing we need is for that to be destroyed,” said Barbara quickly, not mentioning that unknown tech like this might also seriously hurt Frankie through her neural implant. “I’ll think of somethi-ahh!” she cried, managing to jump out of the way as the drone fired, grazing her side this time.
“I’m fine!” she said quickly, scrambling to her feet and setting off again. She chucked another batarang behind her at the drone as it followed her across more rooftops. “I’ll call you back in a minute, O!” she added, quickly stashing the phone.
She was down to her last batarang as the drone cornered her in a dark alley.
“Think, Gordon, think!” Barbara muttered to herself. There was nothing else left to try other than just charge at it and hope she could take it down before it shot a hole through her body. Already she was covered in several close calls, her jacket barely hanging on at this point.
Suddenly, just as she was crouching down and getting ready to pounce, she heard a loud crunch!
The drone sank a few feet in the air, revealing a figure at the opening of the alleyway. The drone spun around to shoot at it and while it was distracted, Barbara took the opportunity.
One powerful round-house kick later, the drone smashed into the side of the wall, the side dented as it slid to the ground. She could now see a knife sticking out of the back as well.
“What the hell was that?” asked Jason Todd, running towards her.
Barbara put a hand on the wall to steady herself, pretty sure she had never been so happy to see Jason in her life. Maybe.
“I had it handled,” she panted.
“I can see that,” he said, frowning and kneeling down to examine the crunched machinery. “Where’s your mask?”
Barbara groaned and pulled out her phone, noting the 37 new text messages from Frankie. She quickly pressed dial.
“Barbara! Are you okay?” Frankie answered on first ring.
“Fine, O, and the drone is down,” Barbara reported.
“Is that Frankie? Where’d this thing come from? Why didn’t you call me for back up?” Jason asked, pulling the butterfly knife out and returning it to its spot in his pocket.
“Is that Jason Todd?” Frankie asked sharply.
“Yeah, Jason found me and helped me take it down,” said Barbara, groaning again and putting a hand to her side. She put the phone on speaker and held it out between them.
“I’m sending the bike to pick you up,” said Frankie.
“Don’t worry about it, O,” said Jason, leaning towards the phone, “My house is just around the corner. I’ll get BG bandaged up and then bring her back home.” He shrugged off his jacket and gently placed it around Barbara’s shoulders.
“Babs?” Frankie asked.
Barbara felt a sudden warmth on her cheeks at the additional weight of his jacket. “Its fine, I’ll go with Jason. You should try to recover this drone though. I think it’s completely disabled now, but we probably shouldn’t leave it here.”
“Check in with me later. Todd, you better take care of my girl or else,” Frankie threatened. “Oracle out.”
Jason put an arm around her for support as she put the phone away and started hobbling towards the main street.
“So you gonna tell me what that was or what?” he asked as they walked.
“Some sort of defensive drone. It was on the roof of Chiroptera,” she said.
“Chiroptera? Why are there defensive, mechanized drones on the roof of a coffee shop?” Jason asked, bewildered.
“I didn’t really stop and ask it,” Barbara snapped.
“Well why were you there? I thought we were going to regroup tomorrow.” Jason went on. “You should have called me for back up, Babs! What if I hadn’t just been walking by here?” his voice rose a little, both in volume and pitch she noted. Like he was worried.
“I wasn’t trying to exclude you. I just decided to take another look around and found the drones on the roof. And then ended up activating one,” she said wearily, trying to focus on just one step at a time.
Jason still had his arm around her, pulling her along at an uncomfortably quick pace as they reached the familiar large, two story.
“I think the guys are still up. Pretend you’re drunk and I’m taking you upstairs to sleep it off,” he muttered as they went up the walk. His jacket was large enough on her to mostly cover her own costume. Hopefully they wouldn’t notice the bright yellow boots.
They edged inside the house just as another of Jason’s housemates was passing by, on his way to the living room. He was slightly taller than the one Barbara had already met and blond. He wore a polo shirt (collar popped) and carried a can of cheap beer and a bag of chips. He paused, raising an eyebrow at them both.
Barbara looked away quickly, remembering she was supposed to be acting drunk.
“Hey, Logan, Babs here had a little too much at Wasted Wednesday. Just taking her upstairs to sleep it off,” Jason explained easily.
Barbara offered a small groan that wasn’t exactly difficult to draw up with the combination of cuts all over her torso smarting and the faint smell of smoke from the other room starting to make her ill. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Logan shrug and continue into the living room.
Jason quickly steered her towards the stairs without another word.
“Open the window,” Barbara requested once they reached the bathroom up in his attic bedroom. She shrugged off his jacket onto the floor. “How can you stand the smell?” she added, grimacing and sitting up on the counter.
“I usually leave,” said Jason, doing as she asked before digging out bandages. “Jacket?” he added, nodding towards her. “Or, what’s left of it…”
“I’m down to one spare,” she said, pulling down the zipper. “Shitttttt,” she hissed as she slid it off her shoulders. The adrenaline was pretty much worn off and now every single mark the laser left stung.
“You only have two jackets? I swear I see them selling knockoffs all over the place,” he said lightly, helping her take off the jacket, leaving her in just a tank top.
“This one is tailored and has some reinforcing… that apparently does nothing against lasers,” she said, wincing.
“None of these look too deep,” said Jason, giving her a glance over. He was right, they were mostly burnt scrapes, slightly oozing. “A lot of close calls though, Babs,” he added in a quieter tone.
He got about half way through wrapping her upper arm when someone suddenly knocked on the bedroom door.
“Jay, bro, open up!” came Ted’s voice.
“Crap,” Jason muttered. “I’ll try to get rid of them,” he added, passing her the roll of bandages and moving out of the bathroom. “Don’t move.”
“What do you want, Ted?” he asked from the top of the stairwell. Curiosity and defiance got the better of Barbara, so she hopped off the counter and followed him, trying not to wince as she moved.
“Just want to make sure Barbara’s okay! Let us in!”
“Get in the bed,” Jason mouthed at her, then touched her arm and added, “Shoes!”
Barbara nodded and kicked her shoes and utility belt off and into the bathroom, closing the door so the last recognizable bits of her costume were hidden. Then she dashed to the other side of the attic and jumped into his bed, facing away from the stairs and pulling the covers all the way up to her chin, wincing as she forgot her injuries for a moment.
Jason hurried down the stairs and opened the door slightly.
“Hey, guys, she’s sleeping, okay?” she heard Jason say.
“Yeah, Logan here said she had too much,” came Ted’s voice along with footsteps up the stairs.
Barbara closed her eyes and attempted to steady her breathing as she heard him approach the bed.
“So we figured we ought to make sure no ladies are being taken advantage of under this roof,” Ted continued, lowering his voice a little. “Right, Logan?”
“Whatever,” Logan said dismissively.
“Wow, uh, well good on you but I’m definitely not that kind of scumbag,” said Jason, sounding slightly surprised. No, he was definitely the type who beat the crap out of those kinds of scumbags. “But she’s probably gonna be embarrassed enough about this without you guys poking around so do you mind?”
She heard someone drag something over to the side of the bed. “There you go, Barb. Holler if you need anything, we’re gonna borrow your boyfriend for a bit,” said Ted, sounding cheerful. He patted her shoulder, right on one of her not yet bandaged injuries, and she quickly bit the inside of her cheek to keep from making a noise.
“Is that blood on your shirt?” Logan asked.
“I, uh, got into a fight,” said Jason quickly.
“You don’t look beaten up.”
“That’s because I won,” Jason snapped.
“You can tell us all about it downstairs, mate,” said Ted, moving away from the bed now. “We wanted to talk to you about something anyway.”
“I should really stay up here with Babs…”
“She’s fine, it won’t take long,” said Ted easily.
There was a pause and then Jason said, “Alright, just a minute.”
Barbara heard one set of footsteps draw closer again and knew it was him before he leaned over to speak in her ear. Behind them, the other two started moving towards the stairs.
“Okay?” he whispered.
“Yeah, what do they want?” she breathed, opening her eyes.
“I don’t know, stay here,” he said, a hand gently tucking her hair behind her ear. The action made her suddenly all too acutely aware of the fact that she was curled up in his bed, her head resting on his pillow.
She gave a very slight nod, not exactly trusting herself to speak. Jason stood up again and she heard the three boys descend the stairs and leave the attic, closing the door behind them.
Left alone with the sudden awareness at how the pillow smelled like him, Barbara found herself instinctively taking a deep breath. The scent was so warm and familiar, reminding her of every time she had ever hugged him. Though now it had more coffee than leather notes.
“Get a grip,” she muttered to herself. Of course the pillow he slept on every night probably would smell like him. No need to get swoony.
Now what? Jason had told her to stay here, but did he mean “stay here in my bed and potentially get blood all over the sheets from still uncovered wounds” or “stay up here and help yourself to the first aid kit”? Who knew how long the guys would be talking to him. She was beat up, but she could probably manage to clean up herself.
What did they want to talk about that they couldn’t say in front of a supposedly drunk, sleeping girl though?
Barbara frowned and sat up, her curiosity piqued now. Next to the bed was a wastebasket Ted had dragged over, clearly with the thought of providing a convenient place to toss her cookies, which meant they had to have bought the drunk story. So what else?
And then she had a horrible thought: what if the police had been by and now the guys didn’t want to give Jason an alibi for Sunday night?
She wasn’t exactly sure what she could do, but she knew there was no way she could just stay up here and wait.
Hesitating, Barbara looked back down at the pillow then sighed and muttered, “You’re pathetic, Gordon.” She snatched up the pillow and took another deep inhale before quickly throwing it down and kicking off the covers.
She hobbled down the stairs as quickly and quietly as she could manage, finding the bedroom door unlocked. She found she could actually hear their voices fairly well on the other side of the second floor landing. Which was good because she did not want to climb down more stairs than needed in this state. Trying to ignore her injuries, Barbara focused on the voices in the room below.
“… dammit, Sage! You ate all the chicken whizzees!” Logan was complaining.
“Your aura is very red,” said a slightly slurred voice. “Cheese puff?” Barbara guessed this was Sage, who she also guessed was the third roommate and by the sounds of it, the most inebriated. At the very least, the most stoned one of the bunch.
“Guys, really, I don’t feel up to hanging tonight,” said Jason, sounding like it was not the first time he tried to say it. “I should be upstairs with Babs.”
“Actually she’s what we wanted to talk about,” said Ted.
Her ears perked up. Oh really?
“What about her?” Jason asked with a hint of defensiveness.
“Second time she’s been over in just a few days,” said Logan.
"And now she comes in and you put her to bed?" Ted added.
“Hey,” Jason said, his defensiveness at high alert, “If you have a problem with her being here, you can shove it right up yo--”
“Relax, bro! We don’t have a problem with her!” Ted interrupted.
There was a pause where Barbara wished she could see their faces. She could hear them make a move to sit down.
“So …” Jason prompted in a calmer tone.
“So, this girl, huh?” said Ted.
“What about her?” Jason asked again.
“You two have something going on?” Logan questioned.
“It’s … it’s not like that,” said Jason.
Her stomach dropped. No, she supposed it wasn’t really “like that” now, never really had been.
“Not that it’s any of your business, but it’s complicated,” he continued. “We used to be really close. And then … I fucked things up.”
“Aw, come on, it can’t be that bad. She is still speaking to you,” Logan said, evidently as invested in Jason’s personal life as the other two.
“What did you do, sleep with her best friend or something?” Ted asked, then added with a snort, “Logan will tell you that’s the best and worst way to fuck things up.”
“Hey! It was one time!”
“Shh, come on Jay, we can’t help if you don’t tell us,” said Ted.
“Help with what?” Jason asked.
“Help you get the girl, man! That’s what bros do!”
“Just tell us how bad it is so we know where to start.”
This was the most surreal conversation Barbara had ever eavesdropped on, and as a vigilante she had eavesdropped on quite a few. Were they really down there discussing how best to help Jason seduce her?
“Uhh, guys, I … I don’t know what to say,” said Jason, sounding more cautious than thankful.
“All you need is love, man,” Sage finally chimed in again in his very mellow, in-a-good-place voice. “Love makes the world go up and down. It’s the thing, you know?”
There was a pause and then Ted recovered first with, “Sage makes a very good point!”
“Sage is higher than a kite and probably has no idea what we’re talking about,” Jason pointed out.
“You also make a good point. But you still have not answered the question,” said Ted. “What happened with you and Barb?”
She bristled a little at the nickname but leaned in closer, eager to know how Jason was going to explain himself.
“I … I left, left town I mean, for a while. I didn’t mean to, especially to be gone for so long … but it happened and she’s right to be mad at me. It’s not something I can fix easy,” said Jason.
“Pfft, well you’re back now. What’s she got to be mad about anymore?” said Logan dismissively.
“You don’t get it. I panicked and ran and didn’t tell her where I went.”
“Hey, dude, it’s alright, everyone gets jitters around a hot girl,” said Ted.
“Not me,” Logan said in a lower voice that Babs almost didn’t catch.
“Second grade. Recess. Sandy Carver,” said Ted smugly.
“Dammit, Ted, you promised,” Logan growled.
“What happened?” Jason asked.
“Sandy tried to hold his hand and he peed his pants.”
“I was eight!” Logan insisted amid the other boys’ laughter. Admittedly, Barbara had to put a hand over her mouth to keep from giggling a little at the absurdity of this conversation. “We were talking about Jason’s girl problems, remember?” he practically shouted.
“Right. Look, Jason, man, you just gotta apologize,” said Ted, laughter still in his voice. “Chicks love apologies. I give them all the time!”
“I don’t think you understand how apologies work,” said Jason.
“Do you even still love her?” Logan asked, still sounding a little sour.
“Of course,” Jason answered quickly.
Babs took in a sharp intake of breath at his answer, clapped a hand over her mouth again in the hopes that he didn’t hear it. She felt so light, hardly wanting to let herself believe what she was hearing.
“Look, thank you, but you don’t understand. Barbara is … she’s amazing. She’s smart and funny and brave and … better than me in every way,” Jason continued.
Her heart was racing.
“Awwwwww,” the other guys mocked.
“Would a rose by any other name be as sweet?” Sage said dreamily.
“That … that doesn’t really …” said Jason.
“Roses! Hey, you should buy her flowers. Do you know her favorite flower? All girls have a favorite flower!” said Ted enthusiastically.
“No, I don’t know,” Jason replied, sounding a little worried.
“Can never go wrong with a dozen red roses,” said Logan.
“I guess maybe I could think about it … but I really should get back upstairs to check on Babs.”
That was her cue.
Barbara sprang to her feet and dashed across the landing to Jason’s room, sprinting up the stairs. She headed for the bathroom, yanking her shirt up and swearing softly as it stuck to the wounds she hadn’t bandaged yet.
Just as she heard the door opening, Barbara slapped a piece of clean gauze on her stomach, pretending she had been there the whole time.
“Hi,” she said when he appeared at the top of the stairs, hoping she didn’t sound too breathless.
“Hi,” Jason replied, standing in the doorway.
They looked at each other and she tried to will herself not to blush.
“Do you want help with that?” he asked, nodding to her.
“S-sure,” she said. “There’s a cut on my back I can’t reach well,” she added, pointing behind her.
Jason moved to stand behind her, reaching around her to grab the washrag off the counter. She felt electricity run through her when his hand brushed her side. He didn’t seem to notice her reacting and started dabbing gently at the scrape on her back.
“Sorry,” he said when she hissed a little. “Just making sure it’s clean.”
“S’okay,” said Barbara, her mind still buzzing. She tried not to look up at the mirror in front of her, at the reflection of him standing right behind her with his hands on her lower back. “So what did the guys want?” she asked in as casual a voice she could manage.
His hand paused and she knew very well he wasn’t going to be completely honest. How could he? Yet, she couldn’t not ask.
Well, Gordon, you asked for this when you snuck down those stairs, she mentally told herself.
“They, uh, wanted to make sure you were cool, you know, with the smoking and stuff,” Jason said lightly. “I told them you disapproved but you aren’t really the tattletale type.”
“Oh, yeah, well it’s like you said, it’s just pot. Right? And you’re not doing it, right?” she said, chancing pointed glance up at him in the mirror.
He smirked. “What would you do if I was? Call Bruce?” he challenged.
“Hah. No, I’d call Alfred,” she said, relaxing a little into the banter and busying herself with bandaging the wound on her front.
“Ooof, that’s low, Barbie,” he said, smoothing pieces of medical tape across her back. “As for the idiots downstairs, I get the impression they don’t want to get kicked out of college.”
He was done taping the gauze in place, yet his hands still rested on her waist. The touch made her insides get all fluttery and for once this week, she sort of welcomed it. Her brain was replaying that “of course!” when Jason was asked if he even still loved her. Love.
She slowly turned to face him. His hands left her sides, one now resting on the counter behind her, standing really close to her now.
This was so not something she should do right now. Not after listening to that conversation, not when she was on the verge of a serious adrenaline crash, and not when she still didn’t have a real explanation from him for why he left.
“I should check in with Frankie,” Barbara said after a moment.
Jason nodded and moved back. She picked up her belt and headed out of the bathroom, tugging down her shirt and pulling her phone out of one of the pouches.
“You should rest for a bit too,” he said following her across the room. “I’m sure the guys will go to bed soon and then we can sneak you out.”
“Sounds good,” she said, sitting down on the bed in the spot she’d been before, sending a quick text to her partner.
“Uh, do you want some tea or something?” Jason asked after a moment.
“Oh, sure,” she said, starting to feel that predicted crash coming on. Her limbs were sore and heavy, her brain wired but starting to grow fuzzy around the edges.
After he left the room again, Barbara didn’t actively remember making the decision to lay down, or even pull the covers back up. And she certainly didn’t remember drifting off to sleep in his bed.
“Babs? Hello? Babes, you in there? Earth to Barbara!”
Barbara looked over at Frankie who was sitting across from her and frantically waving a hand in front of her face to get her attention.
“Sorry, did you say something? I’m still kind of tired,” said Barbara, rubbing at her forehead a little.
“Yeah, I know we had a late night but … Barbara, did something happen? You know, besides the laser drone?” Frankie asked.
“Why do you ask?” said Barbara carefully.
“Because you’ve been staring off into space since I came in here,” said Frankie, motioning vaguely to a point over her shoulder. They were back at GCE offices, Barbara seated at her desk in her private office and attempting to read a contract, but her mind kept wandering.
Last night, Jason had woken her up after a short nap in his bed, telling her that now was a decent time to make their way out but if she’d like, she was welcome to stay. She almost didn’t think she was strong enough to resist the idea of sleeping there the whole night, him right next to her. The spell was broken when he mentioned finding a sleeping bag for himself.
When she did finally get home, it was late and she just didn’t even know where to begin telling Frankie about what she had overheard. But all day at the office, it had been constantly on her mind. She hadn’t even been brave enough to stop at the coffee house at all today, instead bringing her caffeine from home.
He loved her. And he thought it was hopeless.
She wanted to tell him it wasn’t hopeless, that despite everything she wanted him too. That all he had to do was be honest about where he had been all this time.
Barbara looked over at Frankie, almost afraid of what her best friend was going to say about this revelation.
“Babes, you’re scaring me. What happened? Did he do something?” Frankie asked sharply.
“No, I-I did. I mean, I overheard a conversation that I probably shouldn’t have,” said Barbara, grimacing a little.
Barbara hesitated then told Frankie about last night, about listening in on Jason’s conversation with his roommates, about what he said about her. And how she felt too.
“Say it. I’m stupid for still feeling this way about him,” Barbara concluded, looking down at her disorganized desk.
“I’m not here to tell you you’re stupid for having feelings, Babes,” said Frankie gently, putting a hand over Barbara’s. “I’m just here to make sure you don’t act foolishly on them. I want you to be happy.”
“I know we’d have … things to work out, but if he’s ever willing–”
“Has he told you yet?”
Barbara shook her head.
Annoyed, Frankie opened her mouth, about to say something until Barbara interrupted her.
“Frankie, not right now, please,” she pleaded. “Can we just focus on the case? Do you have any updates on the drone?”
Frankie sighed. “No. When I sent the bike back, it was gone,” she said. “I had Cass install some extra cameras around the Chiroptera building today though. I want to keep an eye on that place.”
“Shit, I can’t believe … after all of that we didn’t even recover the thing,” said Barbara wearily.
She was still sore from her run in with the drone last night. While the non-powered hero community might have access to the most advanced, not-even-FDA-approved-yet medicines, they all still needed a good twenty four to forty eight hours to see some real progress on healing. Luckily, it was chilly enough to get away with a long cardigan at work.
“So did it let us go or did someone know to come collect it?” she asked, idly rubbing at her bandaged arm.
“I don’t know, but it’s been replaced on the roof of the building,” said Frankie, showing her the feed on her tablet. Sure enough, not one dome was out of place on the roof. Almost like last night never happened.
“We have nothing. This whole Chiroptera thing could be completely unrelated to the murder. We haven’t learned any facts, just more questions,” Barbara grumbled, rubbing her forehead.
“Well, this might cheer you up a little,” said Frankie, bringing up another camera feed, this one grainier and in black and white. She handed the tablet to Barbara to watch. “It’s from the security camera on the red line at 11:30PM on Sunday night.”
At one end of the car, a figure sat by himself, slumped down in the seat. Barbara instantly recognized the dark shirt and hair. The only other person on the train was a ways down, a woman with longer, lighter hair. The train doors opened and let two more people on, who made their way right over to the woman. Jason on the train footage looked up and watched, then a few moments later got to his feet.
“Jason’s alibi checks out,” Frankie continued. “He’s not a suspect.”
One tiny knot of tension Barbara had been holding inside her released. Of course he hadn’t been the murderer. It was Jason, her Jason.
“Thank you,” she said, handing the tablet back to Frankie. “That does make me feel better.”
Barbara leaned back in her chair and watched her best friend for a moment. “So, both Jason and Julie are no longer suspects,” she said, casually picking up her travel mug.
Frankie nodded. “Yeah, leaves Claudia, Eleanor, and this Custerstone guy.”
Barbara wasn’t sure how much she wanted to push it, but she also needed the distraction from her own love life. And after the way Frankie had set out hunting down evidence to prove Julie’s innocence, Babs had the feelings there was still more to the story. And sometimes, her friend needed some prompting before sharing her feelings.
“Frankie, I know you like her. And I’m pretty sure she’s interested in you.”
“Babes, I …” Frankie sighed, her shoulders suddenly drooping. She looked tired, putting Barbara almost instantly on alert.
“Have you been sleeping alright?” Barbara asked quickly.
“Of course, I just … I keep wondering … how do you do it?”
“Do what? Oracle has been active for over two years, Frankie,” said Barbara, tilting her head. “You have been doing it, and doing amazing at it. We’ve done so much good here.”
“Yeah, we have,” Frankie agreed softly smiling a little. “But I mean, how do you, you know, date with this job, especially with people on the outside?”
Barbara nodded slowly. “I mean, it’s hard to keep some things to yourself, but sometimes things work out. And you’ve dated some recently,” she added.
“Not seriously. This job has been one of the most difficult and rewarding things I’ve ever done in my life,” said Frankie slowly, staring off to the side as she spoke. “I’m glad I made this choice. I love helping people, I love our team. I wouldn’t change a thing.”
“But I’d never be able to share that part of my life with someone on the outside, right? It’s not just my secret. How can I expect anyone to be with me if I can’t truly be with them? Why are you smiling?” Frankie asked, raising an eyebrow.
“Sorry! I just … you really like her,” said Barbara, trying to school her expression. “Look, it’s hard, dating a civilian. You have to lie to someone you care about, you have to find a way to be distant enough to avoid questions but close enough to just be together. You’re always worried about their safety. And you know you’re going to let them down one too many times. But do you tell them? Even if you completely trust them, this secret is a huge burden.”
“Is there some actually helpful advice in there?” Frankie said.
“Well, like I said, sometimes it works out,” said Barbara. “Some heroes do have great relationships with civilians. And it’s not just romance, its friendships too. You saw me when I first moved here, trying to balance everything and the only friend who knew about this was fighting with me. I made a lot of mistakes that year,” she said with a frown.
“But I found out the truth in time to help correct them,” Frankie pointed out.
“Yeah, I was lucky. Not all friends are like you,” said Barbara, smiling.
“I just feel like something could be there, something real. And I want to know.”
“I understand,” said Barbara, nodding again. “I guess what I’m saying is be ready to forgive yourself for blowing off a date to save the world, because they won’t and they shouldn’t have to. Be ready to always be worried something could happen to them. And if you do feel like you can in time share that burden with them, make damn sure it’s worth it.”
They fell silent for a moment until Barbara’s phone chimed with a new message. She picked it up and opened the text.
“It’s Jason. He says he snuck into the back office to poke around and saw that Claudia has a meeting after closing tonight with a C.C.,” she said, reading through the text.
“Three guesses who that is,” said Frankie.
“I can’t believe he snuck around the office, it’s the middle of the day, he could have been caught,” said Barbara, typing out a reply asking if anyone saw him in there.
Jason responded instantly.
“That was fast. What’d he say?” Frankie asked.
“’Give me some credit, trained by Batman and the League of Assassins’,” Barbara read, rolling her eyes. “Actually, he didn’t spell out Assassins, he just wrote ‘League of Ass’ but I’m assuming that’s what he meant. Alright, fine. Well this is not good, we really need to solve this case soon if Claudia is planning an after-hours meeting with Clive.”
“How soon do you think she’d leave the country after selling the coffee shop?” Frankie asked.
“I don’t know. But I’m sure Clive will leave town after he secures the sale because his part is done,” said Barbara. “I’ll tell Jason to meet up after his shift and we can get back to work. We’re running out of time.”
“This guy gives me the creeps,” Batgirl muttered.
“Why? What’s he doing?” Red Hood asked quickly.
She had the binoculars out again, observing through the window of the dingy little hotel room Clive Custerstone was renting out.
“Nothing, he’s just sitting in front of a laptop,” Barbara reported. “Can’t see what’s on the screen, but he doesn’t seem to be typing or using the mouse.”
“Maybe he’s watching … a movie.”
Barbara put down the binoculars and sighed. “Thank you for that. I really needed that possibility in my brain while I was still looking,” she grumbled.
“Sorry, it’s a valid possibility though,” said Jason with a shrug.
“There’s just … something off about his mannerisms. There’s something off about this whole thing,” she continued, frowning.
“Well, the guy is possibly a murderer,” Jason pointed out.
“Yeah but … why Roasters? There’s tons more coffee shops in Burnside that are in better locations if Chiroptera was looking to buy out and expand here,” Barbara said, still turning the thoughts in her head. She had the distinct feeling that there was quite a bit more to this mystery than a simple murder.
“Roasters is a little closer to the college,” said Oracle in their earpieces. “But would a coffee company push a purchasing rep to the point of murder just to tap into more of the student market?”
“And then there’s the drones,” Red Hood added.
Batgirl nodded, burns still stinging under the replacement jacket after last night’s fiasco destroyed her other one. Luckily the basement of the firehouse was well stocked with spare pieces of uniform for everyone on the team.
“Okay, so, I’ll take the door, you take the window. We’ll box him in,” said Red Hood, getting to his feet and straightening his jacket.
“No, we’re waiting until he leaves and then we’ll search the room. I don’t want to spook him and get him to call for backup in the form of one of those drones again,” said Batgirl. She checked her watch. “If he is the one meeting with Claudia, he should be leaving soon.”
“We’re running low on time, BG,” said Red Hood. The hint of anxiousness in his voice made her stand up and face him.
“I know, that’s why we need to do this right,” said Batgirl. “We’ll catch who did this. I told you I would.”
He nodded a little and she wished she could see his face underneath the mask, get some clue to what was making him so nervous right now.
“Jason, what is it?” she asked, reaching out to take his hand.
“I just … I’m sorry about last night, Babs.”
Her stomach fluttered with nerves. Did he find out that she had been eavesdropping? But why would he apologize for that … unless he was going to tell her that he didn’t actually mean anything he had told his roommates about her. Her heartbeat quickened.
“A-about what?” Barbara asked, trying to sound casual.
“You got hurt on this case that I made you take. I feel bad,” he explained.
“Oh! Oh, no, Jason,” she said, laughing a little with relief. “Don’t worry about that at all. Seriously, it’s part of the job. I’m totally fine.”
“You’re favoring your right arm,” he pointed out. “I noticed when you were leaning on the ledge before.”
“Oh, I mean, yeah it’s a little sore but it’s really not your fault at all. You didn’t make me do anything,” she assured him, giving his hand a little squeeze. In this work, it’s either learn how to have a high pain tolerance or get a new job. She had been shot, dislocated both arms at different points, and had even outsmarted a mind controlling villain by digging the microchip out of her spine with a sharpened batarang. And as the only girl on Batman’s team for a long time, she always felt like she had to be twice as tough about anything that hurt.
While normally the extra concern would be annoying, at that moment she felt somewhat relieved, almost affectionate. It didn’t feel like him doubting her abilities.
“If you’re done with your moment now, Clive just left his hotel room,” Oracle piped up in both their ears.
Batgirl’s ears burned.
“Right, thanks, Oracle,” she said, sliding her hand out of his and turning back to the edge of the roof. “Let’s go in.”
Clive had left the laptop open and sitting on the table when Batgirl and Red Hood got inside. Batgirl headed straight for it, stopping a few feet from it as she noticed the screensaver.
The Chiroptera symbol was rotating slowly, mesmerizing her.
“BG? You gonna hack that or what?” Red Hood interrupted.
A shiver went down her spine and she quickly tried to shake off how uneasy she felt again. She momentarily forgot what she was supposed to be doing there.
“Yeah, I’ll see what I can pull from it,” said Batgirl, standing in front of the computer. Behind her, Red Hood started looking around the room, opening the door to the closet and poking around.
She pressed the space bar to wake up the laptop.
“What was that?” Red Hood asked sharply.
The Chiroptera screensaver was still rotating.
“I don’t know, all I did was press a key …” she said, turning away and looking around the room.
Click! Click! Clickclickclick!
And then she saw it.
“Get down!” Barbara hissed, leaping across the room to tackle Jason to floor behind the bed, a bright orange beam zooming right over their heads. It blasted into the cement brick wall, leaving a tiny chunk missing.
“Guys! Talk to me! What is it?” Oracle practically shouted in their ear pieces.
Barbara got off him, kneeling and peaking over the edge of the bed to look at what had shot at them.
“It’s another drone, O. This one is smaller than the one from last night,” Batgirl reported, looking at the small floating sphere in the corner, this one about the size of a softball.
“Aw crap,” Jason muttered next to her.
“Okay, the one from last night easily needed half my concussive and explosive batarangs,” said Barbara, quickly trying to think of a strategy.
“Any my knife,” Jason said, pulling out the same butterfly knife and flipping it open. He pulled out a few small throwing stars as well.
“We’ll hit it at the same time, box it in. Try to get it to smash the wall. Go right on three,” Barbara said, arming up with several batarangs in hand. “One, two, three!”
Red Hood dived in one direction while she went the other, each throwing at the drone. Her exploding batarang went off, leaving a puff of smoke, while the rest thudded into the wall.
Batgirl rolled and sprang to her feet, using her momentum to aim a powerful kick at the drone. This one must have been a step below the one she had encountered last night. It wasn’t quite quick enough to dodge her and instead went flying towards Red Hood, who threw a punch that slammed it into the wall. It fell to the floor, a crack down the middle sparking a little before lying still.
They both looked over at the front door to the hotel room.
“Surprised no one has heard all that racket,” Jason commented.
“These are pretty cheap digs for rep from a company like Chiroptera,” Barbara said.
“Did you guys get the drone?” Oracle asked. “Bring it to me as soon as you can.”
“Copy that, Oracle,” said Barbara, nudging the metallic sphere with her boot.
Jason had wandered away from her and was kneeling by the edge of the bed again. “Batgirl, look at this,” he said, waving her over and lifting up the side of the mattress. “Looks like a murder weapon to me.”
A large knife was lying on the box spring, hastily cleaned off judging by the flecks of dark red still present on the blade.
“Okay, we’re taking that drone thing and we’re getting out of here. Hopefully there aren’t any other traps waiting for the police,” said Batgirl. She snatched a pillowcase from the bed and scooped the broken drone into it, before handing it to Jason. “Take this to Oracle,” she instructed.
“What about the computer?” Red Hood asked.
She looked back at the rotating symbol.
“There’s no time,” she decided, refraining from mentioning that something felt off every time she looked at the screen. “I have to get to the coffee shop, Claudia could be in danger.”
Batgirl zoomed through the streets of Burnside on her motorcycle, taking as many shortcuts as she could think of to get to Roasters. The coffee house was closed at this hour, and even with a meeting going on inside, the door was locked.
“Dammit,” she whispered, grabbing the lockpick from her belt and getting to work. It took an extra seven seconds to get the door open and then she dashed through the tables towards the back hallway and around the corner. The door at the end of the hall where she had seen Eleanor and Claudia the other day was closed, but there was light visible through the crack at the floor.
“Evidence has been passed to the Gotham PD, Batgirl,” Oracle said in her ear. “Working on getting them there sooner, but you have to stop him from leaving.”
“Can do, O,” Batgirl whispered, hurrying forward and trying the handle. It was unlocked.
She flung the door open, shouting “Wait! Don’t sign anything!”
Claudia, who was behind the large desk in the middle of the office, gasped and cursed in French. But Batgirl wasn’t even paying her attention, her eyes on Clive who had stood up and faced her.
His suit was just as rumpled as it had been the other day and she could see a tiny bead of sweat on his forehead. He seemed to almost quiver, either from nerves or excitement.
“You! This is none of your business,” he said, pointing a shaking finger at her.
“I have proof that you killed Calvin,” said Batgirl loudly and clearly. She stood firm in front of the doorway. “We found the knife in your hotel room. You won’t get away with it. And I won’t let your company take over this shop!”
His eyes widened. “No! You don’t understand!” he said with a hint of desperation.
“Tell me then,” said Batgirl, trying to keep him talking. And really, there were still so many unanswered questions. “Why did you kill Calvin Walker? Was it an order from your bosses at Chiroptera?”
“I tried to get him to agree, to see reason. It was the best option for him, to just go along with the plan, but he wouldn’t budge!” He turned to Claudia, who had stood up and backed away, looking horrified. “But Mrs. Walker! You can still sign! Leave all of this! You no longer have him standing in your way. I did you a favor!” Clive insisted, holding out a pen towards her.
“You killed her husband!” Batgirl said, almost exasperated. “Over a coffee shop!”
“You don’t understand the beings I work for,” Clive said, turning back to her with a sort of shiver. As though afraid to even consider his bosses.
“Beings?” Oracle said in her earpiece. “Why did he say that?”
“I don’t understand what you mean, Clive. Did they threaten to fire you if you didn’t get this shop?” Batgirl asked.
“You think this is the end? It doesn’t matter what happens to me! Chiroptera will have this shop!” Clive said with a derisive laugh. “They have powers--”
Clive Custerstone crumpled to the ground, eyes rolling back in his head. Behind him, Claudia stood with her hand outstretched, holding the broken off handle of a coffee mug, the pieces of ceramic now on the floor.
Barbara hadn’t even seen her grab the cup to beam Clive over the head.
“I wasn’t done questioning him,” said Batgirl, annoyed and dropping to her knees to check he was breathing. He was just knocked out and would probably have a lump on his head, but be perfectly able to stand trial for murder. She quickly grabbed zipties from her belt and began binding his hands and feet, just in case.
“He … he killed my husband,” said Claudia, dropping the broken piece of mug and putting a hand over her mouth.
“Police are on their way, Batgirl,” said Oracle softly.
Claudia gave a gasping sob. Barbara straightened up and moved over to her.
“Its okay, Gotham PD will be here soon,” she said, putting a hand on the older woman’s shoulder. “He won’t get away with this.”
As she attempted to comfort Claudia, Batgirl glanced back at the unconscious figure on the floor, thinking of his ominous warning. Or was it more of a threat?
He seemed so convinced that Chiroptera, this coffee chain, a well-known corporation on the East Coast, was determined to acquire this particular shop in this particular space. It seemed to her that it would be easier to cut their losses, especially after this was sure to stir up bad publicity.
Two days ago she might have believed Clive was exaggerating. But now she knew very well that whatever this thing was, it wasn’t over. They had stumbled onto something much bigger than coffee.
Maybe it really had been a coincidence that Jason worked here too.
“O, did Hood get the package there safe?” Batgirl asked, stepping away from Claudia who was sitting behind her desk, still openly crying. Outside, she heard sirens approaching.
“Yeah, it’s locked in the vault,” Frankie confirmed. “And … I sent Jason home just now. You could probably still catch up to him though …”
Her heart did that little flutter thing again.
“No, it can wait until tomorrow,” she decided. But he did owe her an explanation.
Frankie went to the coffee shop by herself on Friday afternoon. Stopping just inside the door, she took a deep breath to steady herself. Julie was leaning on the long counter, sketching on a notepad and frowning slightly. Her blonde hair was in soft waves, her bright red lipstick was perfect. Everything about her was like sunshine. Frankie started to feel the nervous butterflies in her stomach.
She had barely gotten a few feet from the door before someone jumped in front of her path.
“Frankie! Hey, where’s Babs?” Jason Todd asked, holding a rag and looking around her at the door.
Resisting the temptation to roll her eyes, Frankie patiently said, “Babs is at the office. She’s busy today.”
“Right, yeah, sorry,” said Jason, shoulders slumping a little as he moved out of her way.
She almost felt bad for him. Instead, she made a mental note to tell Barbara that her boy was eager to see her again. And then she finally reached the counter where Julie was waiting for her, flipping her notepad closed and reaching for a coffee cup.
“Oh my god, I’m so glad you’re here,” said the barista. “You’ll never believe what happened last night.”
Of course, Frankie knew exactly what had happened last night. It seemed lying about her other life would start right away. She really hoped this was worth it.
“Usual, right?” Julie asked, already brewing up the espresso shots.
“Yeah, thanks,” said Frankie, quickly putting a smile on her face. “So, what happened?”
Julie quickly finished the coffee drink, complete with customary flower foam design on top. She leaned on the counter across from Frankie, lowering her voice a little lower. The shop was about half full, with the afternoon crowd mostly absorbed in books, electronics, or each other.
“So last night, I guess Claudia was meeting with that Chiroptera guy again. None of us even knew about it,” Julie began. “And then half way through, Batgirl showed up and told her that he was the murderer. And then the police came by and arrested him because they found the murder weapon at his hotel room. And apparently he confessed to the whole thing, to killing Calvin because his bosses were pushing him to get this shop! It’s so crazy!”
Frankie nodded emphatically, sipping her latte.
“That’s great news, Julie.”
“Yeah, Claudia was telling us all this morning before opening. And she said she plans to stay here and keep the shop open and make sure her husband gets complete justice,” said Julie, smiling. Then her look turned curious, her head tilting slightly. “I don’t know why, but I feel like we really have you and your friend to thank.”
Frankie raised her eyebrows. Well, shit, maybe Julie was more astute than she first anticipated. If Barbara was implicitly giving her permission the other day to eventually tell Julie the secret, maybe things might happen sooner rather than later.
Of course, Frankie reminded herself, she needed to actually get to the getting together and staying together stage first.
Laughing a little, Frankie said, “I don’t know why you feel that either. I’m just an IT girl you know. Sounds like the detectives figured it out.”
“I’m sure you’re more than just an IT girl, Frankie,” said Julie, glancing down and then back up through her eyelashes.
“S-so what were you drawing?” Frankie asked, her stomach fluttering nervously again.
“Oh! I just sometimes like to sketch out ideas for paintings, when it’s slow,” said Julie, pulling out the small notebook from her apron. “Nothing polished, just sketches. Not all of it even makes it to painting.”
“Can I see?” Frankie put out a hand.
Julie hesitated when another customer appeared at the register. “Uh, sure, just a second,” she said, distractedly handing the notebook over and leaving to take the other person’s order.
Frankie flipped through the pages, admiring the variety of things Julie could draw. There were every day scenes at the coffee shop, inanimate objects, and abstract curling lines. She even recognized a few characters from some of the games she played.
And then one page made her stop, the butterflies in her stomach starting up again and her heart pounding fast.
Did she dare ask about the drawing? The hair, the eyes, the lips were all unmistakable. And Frankie knew she had worn that particular sweater to Roasters just a few weeks ago.
“Oh! I forgot that one was in there! Um, it’s not what you think!” Julie said, suddenly appearing before her again, her face bright red.
“So, is this another girl that you like to make pretty coffee drinks for?” Frankie said with a confident smirk.
“I’m so embarrassed,” said Julie, covering her face.
“I’m flattered,” Frankie assured her, handing back the sketch book. She hesitated for a moment, then decided to go for it.
“Hey, are you free tonight?”
“Oh great, the party,” Barbara mumbled to herself as she jogged up the front steps to Jason’s door. A few people were sitting on one end of the front porch and judging by the smell, she had a good idea what exactly they were passing around.
Inside, the hallway and living room was crowded with college students, music blasting in the background. How was she supposed to find Jason now?
“Should have just called,” she sighed as she started making her way through the party.
“Barb!” someone called her name just before she reached the kitchen. She turned and saw Ted grinning earnestly and making his way over to her. “You’re here!” he said, his arms wide. For a second, Babs worried he was going in for a hug.
“Yeah,” she said hesitantly. She thought about the other night, when he and the others had journeyed upstairs for the purpose of making sure Jason wasn’t taking advantage of her and then overhearing Ted be so encouraging about the two of them. The guy might come off a little bro-ish, but maybe she had judged too quick this time.
She smiled and said, “You know you can call me Babs.”
Ted beamed and swung an arm around her shoulders, making her instantly regret that moment of forgiveness.
“Welcome, Babs! Allow me to show you around the place, since Jay kept just carting you up to his room, with no manners at all. Can I get you a drink? The jungle juice is wild,” he said, steering her towards the kitchen. A long table was set up for beer pong, several people crowded around it. “Wanna play doubles next?” he added, motioning to the table.
“Uhh, no, thank you,” said Barbara, slipping out of his grasp and standing in front of him. “Look, I just wanted to talk to Jason. Do you know where he is?”
“Ahh yes, our pal, Jay. You know, I haven’t known the guy long, but I feel like we’re brothers, you know?” said Ted, leaning against the counter and looking thoughtful. “He’s just someone you can count on, a real great guy.”
Oh brother, Barbara thought, trying really hard not to roll her eyes. Jason probably had no idea what an enthusiastic wingman his roommate could be.
“He’s a great guy, Babs. Really, he just means it when he says it, you know,” Ted continued. “I mean, we all make mistakes, you know, but Jason, you just know he feels bad and would do anything to make things right.”
It occurred to Barbara that he was probably a little less than sober with the way he was rambling.
“In fact, I was just telling him the other night that–”
“Ted. Ted!” said Barbara, putting up her hands to try to get him to stop. “Thank you for telling me that. Now can you just tell me where you last saw him?”
“Oh, I saw him go upstairs a while ago,” said Ted, pointing back towards the entry way. “Maybe you can convince him to be more social … or not,” he added, waggling his eyebrows.
“Okay, and we’re done,” said Barbara, brushing past him and making her way to the staircase.
She had to wind through all sorts of people, awkwardly edging past a few very affectionate couples both in the hallway and on the stairs before finally reaching the landing. Less people were up here, but they still looked at her not-party-appropriate GCE t-shirt and jeans oddly. Finally, she knocked on the door to the attic bedroom.
“Bathroom is two doors down,” Jason called down through the door.
“Jason, it’s me!” Barbara said, loud enough to hear above the music. She tried the doorknob now, but it was locked.
She put her ear to the door and heard a loud thud then footsteps hurrying down the stairs. The door opened and his head appeared, eyes wide with surprise at seeing her there.
“Babs, you’re here,” he said blankly.
“Well, I was invited,” she reminded him, tilting her head slightly.
“Right, Ted. Come in,” Jason said, opening the door wider to let her in then quickly shutting and locking it behind her as she climbed the stairs.
His room was still just as tidy as it had been on Monday, except for a book she noticed was now sitting on the desk. She set down her bag, then paused in the middle of the room before turning to face him.
“If you want we can go downstairs and join the party,” Jason said, motioning back to the stairs.
“Not really my thing these days,” said Barbara.
“Yeah, I guess not really mine either,” he said, running a hand through his hair. “So, you wanna go out then? I thought for sure you’d be sick of me by the end of this week. Hey, did you hear that Claudia isn’t selling the coffee shop?”
“I heard,” she said, nodding. “You get to keep your job.”
“Yeah, thanks to you,” said Jason, smiling a little. “Come on, let’s go celebrate,” he said, moving to grab a jacket off the chair.
“Wait,” said Barbara, putting a hand on his arm to stop him. “That’s not what I’m here for, Jason.”
She watched him tense up again, avoid her eye.
“You know why I’m here. You promised you’d tell me the truth,” she said as he pulled back from her and turned away from her, closing off again.
Why did she have to ruin things? They could have just gone out and had a good time and maybe eventually she’d be able to forget that he had broken her heart for six months.
“Jason, please, you have no idea what I’ve gone through.”
“I don’t know,” he mumbled.
“Exactly, you don’t know how much this hurt me!” she said, feeling her temper flare up again.
“No, I mean, I don’t know what happened to me, Babs,” he said, turning back to her again.
Her stomach dropped.
“W-what do you mean?” she asked.
“I don’t remember anything from the past six months,” Jason said, defeated.
He wasn’t lying. She knew he wasn’t lying. She knew, deep down, this was the most logical conclusion. Someone powerful enough to keep him hidden from all of them for this long would of course be able to make sure he didn’t remember it. Maybe, deep down, she knew all along that asking him wouldn’t give her the answers she needed.
“Explain,” Barbara demanded. “I’m listening,” she added, trying to soften the request.
He took a deep breath. “I remember leaving, and I do remember why I left you. I was stupid and scared again and I’m sorry for that. But I remember leaving the bridge, walking through the waterfront park, trying to talk myself into going back to you and then … nothing,” he said.
“Woke up couple weeks ago on the side of the road, just outside the city. None of my gear, just plain clothes, no clue about what happened to me. I tried looking for answers, but I didn’t even know where to start,” he said, shaking his head.
Then he started unbuttoning his shirt, saying, “This is the only proof I have that something happened to me.” Jason pulled off the shirt, leaving just a plain tee underneath, and turned around. He tugged on the back hem so the collar revealed the back of his neck.
“See it?” he asked.
Barbara moved closer, standing on her tip toes. Her eyes widened. There, on the back of his neck, just below where his collar might normally sit, was a scar in the shape of an X. It was small, only about an inch, and the lines were very fine and precise, like a purposeful incision.
“What on earth …” she muttered, reaching up to the trace the lines with her finger.
“I noticed it just a couple days after waking up. I don’t know what it could have been for. I tried researching but I couldn’t find any medical procedure that would leave that mark,” he said, turning back to face her again. He looked uneasy. “Barbara, when I died and came back, I had some memory loss and sure, I missed a huge chunk of time… but I didn’t gain scars. In fact, I lost most of them, they healed when my body was healed.”
Dread was creeping over her. What had they done to him?
“Are there any more scars like that one?” she asked, looking him up and down before she could stop herself.
Jason shook his head. “No, I looked. And then I went to the cave when Bruce wasn’t there. Got Alfred to help run some scans. Even managed to convince him to keep it a secret that I was back,” he said. “Nothing was put in and nothing was taken out.”
The fear was quickly turning into anger, though not at him this time. Someone had stolen him, done something to him, and then made him forget it all. And now Barbara was mad for him.
“I know how it sounds. Oh yeah, I just happen to not be able to remember it all. I knew there was no way you’d believe it,” Jason said, looking down and apparently completely oblivious to the storm cloud brewing over Barbara.
“I believe you,” she said softly.
He looked up. “You do?”
“It makes sense. I knew someone had kidnapped you. I mean, you’re good, but there’s no way you could evaded all of us for months,” she explained, calm despite how angry she was. “And if they were that powerful, then it doesn’t surprise me they could make you forget it too.”
He looked like he could hardly believe what she was saying.
“I keep thinking what if I had stayed with you longer that night … what would have been different …” he muttered, gaze turned down again.
Barbara shook her head. “They would have found another chance to take you,” she said. “Trust me, it’s not worth the regret.”
“I still regret it, Babs.”
There was a pause as their eyes met again. She thought back to the conversation she heard the other night.
“Why did you come back to Burnside?” she asked after a moment.
“You know why,” he said quietly.
“I want to hear you say it.”
“… Because I want this. Us.”
“If you want this … you can’t run. I need you here, all of you.”
He let out a heavy sigh and shook his head, taking a half step back. “No. You deserve better, Babs. I hurt you. I’ve done horrible things. You shouldn’t be with me.”
No, she refused to let this happen again. To be so relieved to have him back, to be elated to know that he still had feelings for her, only for him to push away again. They had been dancing around this for years, dammit, it was time.
She moved forward and reached up, putting her hands on the sides of his face, forcing him to pay attention to what she was saying.
“Jason, listen, you know me,” Barbara said, “You made me feel like I wasn’t alone, like every part of me was real and mattered, good and bad. When you were gone, I felt like a part of me left too. I didn’t just miss you, I was angry and depressed and probably really needed you the most. And now you’re back and … you mean too much to me to just let you slip away again.”
Her heart beat fast. She didn’t think she had ever been this brutally open and honest with anyone in her life. “Every time you change your mind and pull away, while you’re busy thinking you aren’t good enough, I’m left wondering why I’m not enough for you.”
Jason’s lips parted. “Babs, you are. You’re incredible,” he said, his hands sliding into place on her waist. “I’ve hurt you, though. And not just in the last six months. I’ve--”
“I’ve hurt you too before,” she reminded him. “Let’s stop hurting each other, let’s stop thinking we aren’t enough.”
Her hands slid around to rest around his neck.
“Just like that?” he asked.
“Yes,” she nodded, “just like that.”
There was a moment. She watched him think it over, the doubtful scowl relaxing into a small smile.
“Alright,” Jason agreed before leaning down and kissing her at last.
Kissing him was better than she imagined, almost perfect. Not just because his hands slid around to her back, pulling her in close and sending warm tingles down her body. Not just because of the way her fingers got to tangle through his hair. Not just because of the thrill in her belly as she tasted a flicker of his tongue. But because it was Jason.
This hadn’t exactly been her intention when she set out to confront him tonight, but Barbara was quickly deciding she was in no mood to stop. She wanted him, here and now. She let her hands trail down the front of his chest, grabbing the hem of his tee shirt and pulling it up. Getting the idea, he pulled back to finish taking it off.
Then he paused, almost like he was surprised at the motion. She half expected him to tease her about wanting to get him naked so quickly. Instead, Jason smirked and reached down, wrapping his arms around her and pulling her up. Barbara hopped up into his arms, wrapping her legs around his waist and matching his smirk. Good, he was getting the idea.
“Jason,” she sighed against his lips as he carried her the few steps to his bed.
Barbara had been quite enjoying herself, until her clothes started coming off and she was quickly reminded of the half healed burns still covering her skin that made him stop at her wincing. She hurriedly assured him that while, yes, it did sting when he accidentally touched the burns, she definitely was not turned off and did not need to stop. When he still looked unsure, she followed it up with a demand to shut up and start kissing her again. Which he dutifully obeyed, kissing around each spot as he continued exploring her body. And then she really, really didn’t care if they hurt again, everything else felt so, so good.
Much later in the night, a sated Barbara Gordon was resting in Jason Todd’s arms with her head on his chest. His hand idly played with her hair.
“What are you thinking?” Barbara asked him.
Jason exhaled and said, “Oh, you know, just mentally high fiving sixteen year old me.”
“Ugh,” she said, pretending to be annoyed but letting out a small laugh.
“’Don’t worry, buddy! You manage to stop being an obnoxious twerp and she stops hating you!’”
She leaned up on an elbow to look at him. “I never hated you,” she insisted.
“But you did think I was obnoxious.”
“Might have to still think that with the self-congratulations going on,” she said, rolling her eyes.
“Well now, it’s more than that,” Jason said, reaching up to take her hand that was still on his chest. “I always knew we were great together. Just nice to know in more ways than one,” he added with a smirk.
Okay, yeah, he was definitely right for once. They had been amazing together and she still felt tingly inside thinking about it, even hoped he would be up for more soon. She leaned over to kiss him and then cuddled up next to him again.
“I missed you, Jay,” said Barbara softly. “I promise, I’ll find out what happened to you.”
“Hmmm…” he agreed sleepily. Then she felt him tense a little as he registered what she had said. “Wait, what?”
Barbara leaned up on her elbow again to look him in the eye. “I will find who took you, find out what they did to you, and make them answer for it,” she said seriously.
“To be honest, I really was starting to think the whole having sex with me thing meant that you believed me,” Jason said, raising an eyebrow.
“I do believe you. And I’m going to find who did this to you,” she repeated, lifting their clasped hands to her lips to kiss his knuckles.
“It’s dangerous. Whoever this was, they must have some serious mojo,” he warned.
“I know,” Barbara said simply. “But no one gets away with hurting the people I love.”
For a moment, he didn’t say anything, just looked at her. It made her nervous and she fought the urge to qualify her last statement in any way. It was out there now.
“What if I said I made it up? And I was really just off partying in Jamaica for six months?” he asked, smiling a little finally.
“I checked there. I would have found you,” she said, relaxing a little.
A soft, recognizable chime interrupted him from saying any more.
Barbara rolled off him and said, “I need to check that, it’s Frankie’s ringtone so it could be important.” She leaned over the edge of the bed and managed to drag her purse closer to dig her phone out. Still laying on her side, she pulled up the new message.
‘Are you coming home tonight?’
Behind her, she felt Jason move closer and put a hand on her hip.
She was a little surprised that it was just Frankie checking in with her, but then she figured she had probably been gone a little longer than she said she would.
“What are you gonna tell her?” he asked, his lips on her shoulder blade. He kissed lightly down her back.
“What should I tell her?” she asked, closing her eyes for a moment.
“I can make a good case for you staying here,” he said, mouth on her hip now as his hand slowly peeled back the sheet covering the rest of her body.
Feeling impish as she rolled onto her back again, she replied to the text with a ‘Nope ;)’ and let the phone drop onto the bedside table.
Jason got up the next morning before her and managed to not wake her up until just before he was about to leave for work, somewhat to Barbara’s annoyance. She had kind of figured their fun might continue a little the next day.
Her disappointment melted when he kissed her and asked, “Can I see you later? Like dinner or something?”
“Yeah, of course,” she answered, leaning up on her elbow. An actual date.
He headed for the stairs then paused and looked back at her. “I’d tell you help yourself to anything downstairs in the kitchen, but you might want to stay away from some of the homemade, baked goods,” he said, smirking.
Barbara groaned as the crashing reality that she had stayed the night here sunk in. “Next time, we’re doing this at my place,” she said, rubbing her head.
She looked up and found Jason smiling at her, an actual smile, not an amused smirk. It was nice.
“I’ll text you later, Babs,” he said, finally going down the stairs.
Fifteen minutes later, she was cleaned up and dressed, sneaking through the quiet house to the front door, thankful that no one else was up at this hour. Someone was passed out on the couch and Barbara was tempted to pause and make sure they were alive. Then they snored loudly so she continued on outside. It was a quick hop on the train and a short walk back to her and Frankie’s building.
They had upgraded since Barbara had moved to Burnside and they first became roommates. Her business doing well meant they could move to a bigger place. Not to mention the new apartment was much more accessible, a necessity now that Frankie was part time using her wheelchair.
She ducked her head a little as she entered the lobby and made her way for the elevator, hoping it wasn’t too obvious she was doing a morning-after-walk-home. Stepping off at the right floor, Barbara dug for her key in her bag as she made her way to the apartment. Quietly, so as not to wake her roommate so early on a Saturday, she turned the key and opened the door.
And was shocked to find that Frankie was definitely up already, kissing Julie in the front entry way.
“Ohmigod!” Barbara exclaimed, making the two girls jump and pull apart. She quickly backed into the hallway again and pulled the front door shut, shouting, “I’m so sorry!”
There was a moment and then the front door opened revealing a very red-faced Julie.
“Um, morning Babs,” Julie greeted her, ducking out into the hallway. “Bye, Frankie!” she added before zipping towards the elevator.
Barbara turned to Frankie, who was standing inside the apartment, leaning on one crutch and covering her face with her hand.
“Well, now I understand why you texted last night,” Barbara commented, letting herself inside and closing the door.
“I’m calling a preemptive truce,” said Frankie as they went to the kitchen.
“Fair enough,” Barbara said, opening a cupboard to grab a mug and help herself to coffee. She had certainly expected to be grilled when she got home so any chance of avoiding that was fine with her. “But I’m glad you decided she’s worth it,” she added, grabbing a large cereal bowl too.
Frankie sat on a stool across from Barbara, watching her fix her breakfast of sugary cereal.
“You know I gotta ask though,” said Frankie after a few moments. “What did he say to make you stay?”
Well, there wasn’t really much speaking, Barbara thought to herself. Although she figured Frankie meant in general, not that specific part of the night.
“Well, the good news is, I believe he was being honest,” she said.
“And the bad news?”
“We have another mystery to solve.”
“Meaning what, exactly?” Frankie asked, raising an eyebrow.
“He doesn’t remember what happened to him. So I told him I’d find out.”
Frankie sighed and rubbed her forehead. “Get me a refill and then explain why we’re supposed to believe that convenient excuse,” she said, passing Barbara her coffee mug.
Babs did as she asked, saying, “He had this mark on the back of his neck, like an ‘X’. I’ve never seen anything like it before. And look, we knew that most likely someone had kidnapped Jason. Someone powerful. And now they let him go. Why would they let him live if they couldn’t completely erase his memory?”
Frankie was quiet for several moments, sipping her coffee. Barbara anxiously returned to her cereal, hoping her roommate and best friend would be supportive. She didn’t know how she could possibly take on this mystery without Oracle.
“And the mark is only on the back of his neck?” Frankie finally asked, raising an eyebrow.
“Yes,” said Barbara quickly. Then she blushed and mumbled into her cereal, “I looked.”
“I bet you did.”
A photographic memory could be both a blessing and curse, Barbara decided as she resisted temptation to pull up those memories. For now.
“You know, if they let him go alive, it could mean they aren’t done with him,” Frankie said, smirk fallen.
Barbara paused lifting the spoon to her mouth.
“I didn’t think of that,” she admitted. Jason had been so sure that whatever had happened to him was over and he just needed to move on instead of chasing answers. She was tempted to reach for her phone and call him right now, just to make sure he hadn’t been nabbed again.
“Babes, we won’t let it happen,” said Frankie soothingly. “Look, we still need to wrap up this coffee shop thing too.”
Barbara nodded and tried to push away the worry for now. But she knew the sliver of anxiety had already settled in the back of her brain.
“Right, the drone we recovered from the hotel,” she said. “I want to be there while you and Harper take it apart.”
“I talked to Harper last night and she’s free to work on it today,” said Frankie.
“Good,” Barbara murmured, still feeling distracted.
“Also, I mentioned to her and the girls that it looked like you made up with Jason.”
It took a few moments for Barbara to fully comprehend what Frankie just said.
“Oh, I told them you were at his place last night.”
“Frankie! You didn’t!” Barbara gasped.
A few miles away, Jason Todd was hurrying to the coffee shop, not paying much attention to his surroundings, when he was suddenly pulled into an alley and shoved roughly against the wall.
Three young women surrounded him, the shortest holding him against the wall with a batarang to his throat while the others flanked her.
“Pay attention, lover boy,” said Bluebird, holding a taser out dangerously close to him.
“If you hurt Babs again,” said Spoiler.
“We will break you,” Orphan growled, pressing the batarang to his throat a little harder.
“You know, I missed you three the most,” Jason said in a strained voice, trying not to move. Oh, perhaps on a good day he could handle himself against them … well, maybe not Cass, but the other two. However, fighting Barbara’s birds all at the same time the morning after what was easily the best sex of his life … it just didn’t seem like a good idea.
And the more rational side of him knew they meant well. The girls were all so protective of each other in a way the Robins didn’t always quite reach at times.
“Look, you don’t know the whole story,” Jason said.
“We’re waiting,” said Harper, the taser crackling threateningly.
Jason sighed. “Okay, look, six months ago, I was kidnapped. I don’t know who took me. They erased my memory and dumped me on the side of the road a couple weeks ago. All I have is a chunk of my life gone and a weird scar on the back of my neck, see?” he said, turning his head slowly to try to show them.
Stephanie stood on tiptoe and leaned closer for a look.
“Pfft, and Barbara believed that?” Harper said with a snort.
“Love is blind,” Stephanie commented with a shrug. “The scar is there though.”
“Babs thinks she can find whoever did this to me. She’s going to need your help. And support,” he said, relaxing a little now that they were at least listening to him.
“You don’t think she can do it on her own?”
“Whoever took me had the power to keep me hidden from everyone and erase my memory. And then they just let me go. They aren’t going to make it easy.”
The three girls traded looks.
“Cass?” Stephanie finally asked.
Cass stared up at him, studying him, reading his body language.
“Truth,” Cass finally decided, stepping back and removing the batarang. “We should help Barbara.”
“Good enough for me,” Harper said, lowering her weapon. “You may have pissed us all off, but you are one of ours.”
“At the very least, Barbara likes you,” Steph said. “The Birds of Prey are on the case.”
Chapter 8: Epilogue
The phone buzzed loudly until the woman behind the desk pressed the speaker button.
“M-Ms. Waller! I’m so sorry! I don’t know what just happened!” Amanda’s personal security frontwoman stammered. “They just walked right in! They’re on their way to your office!”
Amanda sighed, knowing exactly who “they” were. The tiny article in the Burnside section of the Gotham Times had just barely managed to capture her attention that morning.
“Thank you Stacy. Keep at your post,” Amanda said curtly.
She had just enough time to make sure the firearm concealed under the table was exactly within her reach just as the three Chiropterans slithered into her office.
They looked very much like any three executives from a large coffee chain, dressed in sleek black suits and black sunglasses. But Amanda knew it was all a ruse.
“Waller,” the first, a man, hissed.
“We had a deal,” the second, this one a woman, said.
“Your subject has interfered with our business,” said the third, a rather androgynous individual.
“I have upheld my end of the deal,” said Amanda coolly. “I have dispatched no operatives to your Burnside holdings and will not do so in the future … as long as you don’t get greedy.”
“Lies!” the woman cried while the non-binary one withdrew several photographs from inside their suit jacket, setting them on the desk.
“Was this Red Hood not at your facility not one lunar cycle ago?” the man said, pointing at the photos.
Amanda looked at the first photo, noting the two figures standing on a roof top. She almost sighed again. She had no time for this, had much bigger fish to fry. Which had been her original reasoning for not ousting these lizard aliens when they first started brewing up excellent espresso.
“This mess has drawn the attention now of the Batgirl and the Oracle of Burnside!” said non-binary.
The Batgirl and the Oracle? Well that got Amanda’s attention. She picked up the stack of photos and slowly started sifting through them.
“This mess is your own doing when you drove your human lackey to madness, trying to acquire new area for you,” said Amanda, raising an eyebrow at the three figures. “Batgirl has been active in that area for over two years now. Committing a serious crime in a vigilante’s backyard is asking for attention. I said I wouldn’t kick you out. I didn’t say I’d help you avoid anyone else who might want to do that.”
They hissed angrily again.
“You twist the words of the deal!”
Amanda ignored them for a moment as she looked at the photos again. The Lazarus Project hadn’t been quite as fruitful as she had hoped, but she never liked to call negative results a failure. But there was no way to prove that her research subject was at all influenced by her. No, the fact that Jason Todd wanted very much to settle in Burnside was more a happy coincidence, especially since the need to keep the Chiropterans in check had now been brought to her attention.
She got to the last photo, Batgirl and Red Hood again on the roof, only this time their hands were clasped together in front of them. Interesting.
The plans were already starting to form in Amanda’s head.
Finally remembering the Chiropterans were still in her office, Amanda suddenly leapt to her feet, slamming a hand down on the table to get their attention. She was secretly proud when the three jumped, leaning back.
“You forget who I am, you forget how I showed you mercy. You will not forget again. You will leave this building and not come back,” said Amanda in her most authoritative voice. “And if I hear of one more body showing up in a Burnside coffee shop, you will have much more than Batgirl to be scared of.”
They looked like they almost wanted to argue with her more, but she pointed at the door and shouted, “OUT!”
She waited until the door closed behind them before finally sitting back down. Lord, she was getting too old for this.