January dawns cold and grey, the snow blanketing Gotham and giving the entire city a softer look than it has any right to wear. Steph trudges her way through the snowy Gotham U campus to her first class of the semester, fighting a yawn the whole way.
Whoever allowed "History of the American Mafia" to get scheduled at 8 AM deserves a long and painful death, preferably at the hands of ninjas or possibly Damian.
Same thing, really.
Steph files into the lecture hall and takes a seat somewhere in the middle, and waits for the rest of the students to trickle in. She regrets not grabbing a thermos of coffee on her way out because she was up late fighting Mister Freeze, and not only does it feel like she's still bone-deep cold in every conceivable way, but she's pushing through on three hours of sleep.
The class is barely half full, which seems about right at the ass crack of no thank you this is too early for Miss Brown, thanks, and populated by a scattering of people that Steph has never seen before. The professor is a middle aged man in a sport coat and a cabbie hat, the Italian horn necklace around his throat pinpointing him as Italian-American which again -- given the class, sounds about right.
"The American mafia," the professor states, coming to stand at the head of the class. "What's the first thing that pops into your mind when I mention the mafia?"
A white boy in a Metropolis Meteors sweatshirt, slouching in his seat, raises his hand. "Cool. Like Goodfellas, you know."
Steph rolls her eyes. Typical out-of-towner answer.
"Seriously?" A voice breaks out. "The mafia is one of the most damaging forces in Gotham City, ruining the lives of those in vulnerable positions who can't do anything to exact change or better their situations, and that's all you have to say? Cool?"
Steph's gaze snaps to the voice. It's a girl about her age, with dark hair that falls into her brown eyes, and a stubborn chin. Everyone else is dull-eyed in the early hour but this girl, she's wide awake, and Steph can see from here that her hands are clenched on top of the desk top. She's angry, Steph sees, angry and riled up and whoever she is, it's a good look on her. Steph can't look away and it's like a shock to the system, and all of a sudden, she's not quite so tired.
When the professor announces at the end of the class that they'll be working in pairs all semesters for group projects, Steph makes a beeline for the girl.
"Hey," Steph calls out. "Would you want to work together?"
The girl raises an eyebrow, confused. "Have we met?"
"No, but -- what you said back there. I liked it. You were right." You have no idea how right. "I'd like to work with you."
The girl smiles and Steph's stomach twists in a way she doesn't understand. "I'd like that." She sticks out her hand. "I'm Ariana Dzerchenko."
"Nice to meet you, Ariana, I'm Stephanie Brown."
Stephanie has never put as much time into a class as she puts into the History of the American Mafia. And sure, part of it is that the subject matter is compelling and relevant to the other, considerably less legal part of her life, but a lot of it is Ariana.
Ariana, who is sharp and funny and a brilliant task-master for group projects, who doesn't question Steph's excuses but also doesn't let her get away with not holding up her fair share of the project weight. They start out meeting once every two weeks but their meetings quickly turn into twice a week coffee sessions, where Steph finds out that not only does Ariana know the criminal justice system backwards and forwards, but she also speaks fluent Russian, loves fashion, and has an overprotective uncle that she goes home to have dinner with every weekend.
Ariana texts her photos of dresses that she loves and mini essays on organized crime and jokes about the creepy librarian at Gotham U, and before Steph knows it, Ariana becomes as much apart of her daily life as Team Batgirl.
If sometimes Steph gets this swooping feeling in her stomach when they're together or gets wholly and completely distracted whenever Ariana mutters under her breath in casual Russian while they're working, well, she's not really sure what to do with that just yet.
So she tells herself to put a lid on it until she's got her life more figured out, until life as Batgirl gets less busy -- until never, really, because the likelihood of either of those things happening is about as high as Bruce Wayne donning a bright yellow suit and opening the doors to the Bat Cave to the public.
Because that jolt she'd felt when she first clapped eyes on Ariana from across the lecture hall, that instant connection -- well, the last time she'd felt that was when she'd first met Robin.
And that scares the living hell out of her.
It's the day that they're sitting together in an off campus bar, sipping cheap beer and perusing lecture notes, when everything comes crashing together.
The bar was Ariana's suggestion, a dive that doesn't look too closely at age because it's Friday and they've both had a long week of midterms, and it's just the one exam left before break so they might as well relax at least a little.
Only an alert comes over the bar's TV about mass arrests made amongst a gang of Russian mobsters and Ariana goes stiff as a board, her eyes glued to the television long after the broadcast is over. Those arrests were all Dick's doing, he and Damian have been working that case for ages, Steph thinks, only she can't exactly tell Ariana that part.
"Ariana?" Steph whispers, nudging her friend lightly in the shoulder. "Everything okay?"
"My dad was killed by the Russian mob, did I ever tell you that?" Ariana says, breaking her silence. Her eyes are still trained on the TV, which is now playing sports highlights on a loop.
"No," Steph says quietly. "You didn't."
Ariana shakes her head quickly. "Please don't feel sorry for me."
Steph reaches out, placing a comforting hand on Ariana's shoulder. "I don't. I get it. I mean, I don't get it but. My dad was a horrible in every way masked criminal who went by the name Cluemaster, so there's something here about you know, in the same ballpark. I'm bad at sports metaphors."
Ariana huffs a laugh and leans into Steph's touch. There's that swooping stomach again. "Fucking Gotham, S."
"Tell me about it, A."
Ariana is warm beneath Steph's hand. The bar is quiet and empty at this hour, barely past six PM, and they're in a dark corner. Steph could lean over and press a kiss to Ariana's lips, as close as she is, and probably no one would even notice.
Steph shakes herself and pulls away, dropping her hand from Ariana's shoulder, prompting a quizzical look. Steph just gives a weak smile before reaching for her beer.
She is so gone for this girl.
"So," Steph says, licking her lips, gaze taking in her companions. There's gotta be a good way to say what she wants to say here but everything that comes to mind just sounds foolish, which would be a pretty typical Stephanie Brown move, she guesses, only this time she really cares about not sounding foolish. Some moments just feel too big to get them wrong.
Cass doesn't look up from where her head is resting on Tam's stomach, the two of them collapsed in one sweaty, post-training mess on the floor of the Batgirl Cave. Steph's gaze trace their figures, Cass's eyes closed in rest, the way Tam's fingers idly brush through Cass's short hair -- it's that easy closeness that Steph's always thought was the best part of being in a relationship.
Not the dates, not the sex -- the part where you have someone you know you can lean on, even in your quietest moments, when you could just as well be alone but it still feels right to carve out that space for someone else at your side.
"So," Steph repeats. "There's this girl."
"Is this girl a crime lord?" Tam asks.
"Thank God," Tam says, collapsing her arms underneath her and letting her body fall all the way to the floor. "I'm too fucking tired to deal with crime lords."
"I like her," Steph says. It feels momentous, even if though it's just three small words that don't reveal much at all.
"Do you like her like you want to bake her cupcakes and have a sleepover or do you like her like you want to woo her into a life of vigilante crime-fighting?" Wendy calls out, too absorbed in the computer to look away.
"It's a valid question," Tam says, "because I mean, look what happened when you took a liking to me. Ta-daaaa."
"You complainin', Spoiler?"
"Nope, not even a little bit, Batgirl," Tam says. She tugs at Cass's hair, prompting an upturned look, a small smile stealing across Cass's face.
Steph's heart aches a bit, envy rearing its ugly head. She stomps on it, firmly.
"No, I like her like every time she gets into a rant about the criminal justice system and the kyriarchy, I want to push her against the nearest wall and kiss her," Steph says.
She very carefully lifts her gaze to the ceiling. There's silence and then a rustling, the settling of a body very close to hers, a hand tugging at Steph's, interlacing their fingers. Steph looks down, awed by this surge of affection for her best friend, like a lightness blooming inside of her. There will never come a time when Steph will stop being grateful for the day that she met Cassandra Cain.
"Does she make you laugh?" Cass asks, quiet and close.
"Yeah," Steph says. "Yeah, she does."
Cass nods, leaning her head against Steph's shoulder. "Good. That's important."
"When did Team Batgirl get so sapphic?" Tam asks, and she's sitting up now, gaze fixed on Steph with a sure, confident smile and there's no mockery here, only support.
Team Batgirl is the best thing that's ever happened to you, Stephanie Brown. Gold stars and unicorn stickers for everyone.
Cass jerks her head in Wendy's direction. "What about Proxy?"
Wendy snorts. "Please, I've had about five vivid wet dreams about Oracle in the past week alone."
Stephanie cackles so loudly she's sure the entire cave must be echoing with it and as all four of them break down into gut-aching, incoherent laughter, Steph makes a mental note to drop by a craft store on her way home.
Because seriously, unicorn stickers for everyone.
Steph is halfway to Babs's office on campus when she hears the buzzing sound of her phone, and she steps off to the side from the pathway to dig out her cell from her jacket pocket, juggling a stack of notes with one hand. One new message from Ariana, the phone reads, and Steph feels a little thrill go through her, her cheeks warming.
I've got a third floor study room and a mocha latte with your name on it.
Steph feels herself smiling so widely and it must be noticeable and more than a little bit weird, if the funny looks she's getting from passing students are anything to go by, but she shrugs it off and walks determinedly towards the library, a spring in her step.
Stephanie Brown: Campus Weirdo. Eh, she's been called worse things.
She finds Ariana in the study room furthest from the elevator, tucked into a corner with a great view of the surrounding neighborhood. Steph takes a second to watch her through the window into the room. Ariana is sitting at the desk, laptop up and open, and a coffee cup (cappuccino, Steph's mind supplies, those are her favorite) by her side, but she's clearly distracted by the view, gaze fixed out at the city.
It allows Steph the space to take her in -- she sees the way Ariana's dark hair falls around her shoulders, how she looks softer like this, and how Steph knows this is a lie because this beautiful girl has a core of steel beneath the surface that most people miss by sight.
Steph shakes herself. You're being a creeper, Brown.
Steph slips open the door to the study room, Ariana tearing her gaze away from the window to greet her. "Hey, S. Took you long enough."
Steph dumps her backpack on the floor and reaches for the other coffee cup that must be her mocha. "Yeah, took the long way across the quad. It's such a nice day, I couldn't resist."
"Oh, so you didn't mind keeping me waiting?" Ariana teases. "I brought you coffee."
"Nope," Steph says. "Girls buy me mochas all of the time, it's all in a day's work."
"You got other group project partner mocha girls on the side? I'm hurt, Steph."
They're flirting. The wide, open eyes, the way Ariana keeps biting at her lip -- this is textbook flirting behavior and Steph isn't quite sure how long that's been happening. They've always talked like this, right from the very first meeting, and how much ample flirting time did she squander with sheer obliviousness?
"Don't worry, A, you're my favorite mocha girl."
"That's what I like to hear," Ariana says. "Now how do you want to approach this final project?"
Steph digs out her binder and tattered notebook, carefully flipping open to a marked page. "Okay, I've had a few ideas..."
They work for several hours, caffeine high burning them through about five different iterations of their final project before settling on one that they're happy with. By the time the fourth hour rolls around, though, they're punch drunk and giggling about everything in the world except for what they actually need to be working on.
"No, but really," Steph says, "I'm tellin' ya, there is nothing worse than gravity. Fuck gravity. Fuck Newton. Give me a time machine and I'll go back and punch Isaac Newton in the teeth."
"What a coincidence," Ariana says. "I brought a time machine with me today, it's right here in my book bag. Guess I'm gonna have to hold you to that one, S."
"Hey," Steph says, gesturing wildly, tipping her chair back against the wall. "Like I said. You and me, Newton. Showdown."
Ariana shakes her head. "You're something else, Steph."
Steph catches a look out the window and swears. "Shit, I didn't realize that it'd gotten dark already, I've got to get home, I promised my mom I'd be home in time for dinner."
More like Batgirl needs to suit up and get out there to fight some crime but tomay-to, tomah-to, really.
Steph's got her backpack slung over her shoulders, the empty coffee cup in one hand to toss in the trash on her way out, when Ariana reaches out a hand to stop her, fingers lingering a bit in the crook of Steph's elbow before drawing away. "Hey, Steph, can I ask you something?"
"A few friends of mine are throwing a party tomorrow, would you want to go with me?"
Ariana tucks a strand behind her ear, cheeks flushed a pale shade of pink, and Steph's stomach swoops. Really, that's getting to be a thing now. A very distinct Ariana-shaped phenomenon.
"Like a date?"
"Yeah. Like a date."
Steph swallows, her mouth like sandpaper, and she wants to say something cute and witty, but nothing's coming, so she does the next best thing. She leans over and she kisses Ariana, quick and light before pulling away.
"That's a yes, then."
Laughter bubbles up and it's half hysteria and half adrenaline. It's in the way all her nerve endings seem to be sparking off and she's too aware of everything, the way she is when she's out on the rooftops only this feels far more dangerous and every bit as exciting. "Yeah, that's a yes."
It's been a while since she's been in this position, on the edge of falling in love. She's at the tipping point between almost and all the way there, and for the first time in a long time, she's ready to leap all the way off the cliff.
"It's a date," Ariana says, and they're just standing there grinning at each other stupidly until Steph remembers that she has a kevlar suit to shimmy herself into, and breaks away.
She all but skips the whole way home.
"So," Steph says, "what kind of party is this? Is it a kegger? Will we be expected to do keg-stands? Beer pong? I've heard terrible things about goldschlager and I'm tellin' you now, I am a shameless lightweight."
Ariana laughs. They're holding hands as they walk, fingers interlaced, and it's such a small simple thing that Steph feels warm all over at.
"What kind of college parties have you been going to?"
"Oh, all the cool ones. You know, the ones with me and my mom and Eggos at four AM. Real ragers."
"Well, there'll be no keggers. No goldschlager. Maybe some beer. My friend's roommate Bernard is a real beer snob and he has a fake, so I'm thinking Brooklyn Lager and an ill advised attempt at Never Have I Ever is the worst thing you've got to look forward to."
Steph scrunches up her nose. "Never Have I Ever. I see how it is, you're trying to find out all my dirty secrets early on so you can run for the hills if you need to."
A grain of truth couched in a joke. Steph winces and hopes that that wasn't as obvious as it felt to her.
"Do you have any run-for-the-hills-worthy dirty secrets?"
Boy, do I ever. Steph tightens her fingers around Ariana's. "Nah. Nothing too crazy. I only rob diamond stores every other weekend, so it's not like that eats up a lot of my time."
"I knew it," Ariana cries out, voice echoing on the empty street as they amble along. "I knew all along you were Catwoman."
Steph presses the hand not wound around Ariana's to her heart. "Alas! My secret is out! Can you ever forgive me my deceit?"
"I don't know, will you steal me jewelry?" Ariana asks. "No, no. Better yet, will you take me with you?"
"I guess I can pencil you in."
Ariana laughs, tugs Steph close to her by the hand and presses her against a lamppost, kissing her soundly. Hands freed, Steph's fingers dig into Ariana's hips, grounding them both. Ariana breaks away, nips at Steph's bottom lip before kissing her again, slow and deep and enough to make Steph dizzy with want, an ache in her core making her forget that they ever had a party to go to.
It's not until a pointed whistle from across the street followed by catcalls from a group of frat boys breaks them out of it that either one of them remembers where they are.
Ariana flips off the frat boys without looking away. "Guess we better get to that party, huh?"
Steph bites back a whine at the absence of contact. "Yeah, I need to cross keg stands off my bucket list."
"Seriously, I promise there won't be any keg stands"
"Lies," Steph teases.
The party is crowded with people, too many bodies packed into a shared house that's probably breaking about a million fire codes. The last time Steph was in a place where people were partying like this, it was a club and she was undercover, strapped in with wires and bugs from head to toe.
But there's no Oracle in her ear here, no Robin perched on a rooftop across the way as backup. Just good old fashioned ill advised college fun. Steph blows out a breath and squeezes Ariana's hand. "You said something about beer?" Steph whispers into Ariana's ear. Ariana nods and leads them into the kitchen, where two boys are standing close, heads bent together.
"Hey, Bernard," Ariana calls out, "is this your new -- Tim?"
It takes a second for the image to push itself together in Steph's mind. A crowded college party in the middle of the week was the last place she would have expected to find Tim Drake but how many guys look like Tim around here, how many guys have that exact look of perceived vulnerability and normalcy, a second skin that wears thin when you know where to look.
"Ariana? Steph? How do you -- how do you two know each other?"
"Woah," the tall, blond guy who must be Bernard says, gesturing wildly with his beer bottle. "Steph as in Stephanie? The invisible girl? She exists?"
"What? Of course I exist!"
"Okay, time out," Ariana says, making a T with her hands. "What the hell? Steph and Tim, how do you know each other?"
"How do you know Tim?" Steph asks. She has a sinking feeling that she knows exactly how all of them know each other and it would be hilarious because honestly, it is hilarious, except for the fact that this sort of thing is only funny when it happens to other people.
"Uhhhh," Tim says, before stealing Bernard's beer away from him and taking a giant swig.
Bernard cackles. "Okay. So, let me take a swing at this. Raise your hand if you've ever had your tongue down dear Timothy's throat."
Steph, Ariana, and Bernard all lift up their hands. Steph turns to Tim and raises both eyebrows.
"What? This isn't a secret to you! You already know about the guy thing," Tim says, defensive, shoulders hunched as he drains the beer and reaches into the fridge for another.
Steph shrugs. "True. I do like this guy better than Conner already."
Tim rolls his eyes at her. He refuses to grasp the depth of Superboy's douchebaggery but that's just because he's blinded by the chiseled jaw. She guesses she can't blame him for that; she too was once blinded by the same chiseled jaw and she has the embarrassing poster to prove it.
Ariana giggles, hiding her face in Steph's shoulder. "I can't believe this shit is happening."
"We shoulda stuck with the lamppost, A."
"Or robbed a department store instead," Ariana says. Steph reaches out and hooks a finger through one of Ariana's belt-loops, pulling her closer.
"Hey now, criminal acts are for second dates only."
"You two are on a date?" Tim asks, face slack in shock. Boy, if she had a camera in this moment.
"Yup," Ariana says, "and I think for all our sakes, we're going to continue it elsewhere. That all right with you?" She asks, looking to Steph for approval.
"Lead the way, Ariana," Steph says, and they duck out of the kitchen, winding their way through the crowd and back out onto the porch, leaving the boys behind. It's only when they're back onto the sidewalk, breathing in the fresh air, does it really hit them and the two of them collapse into giggles, holding onto each other for support.
"The look on his face," Steph gasps out, "you don't know what his little brother would pay me for a photo of that moment, let me tell you, it could pay for my entire college tuition."
Ariana snorts. "Hell of a coincidence. So, we dated the same guy? You know, popular culture dictates that we should fight about this."
Steph grins. "Oh yeah, there should definitely be a fight. Now, are we talking naked mud wrestling here?"
Ariana tugs at the hem of Steph's shirt, fingers grazing the skin beneath, and Steph shivers at the contact. "Let's nix the mud."
"Yeah," Ariana says, pausing less than an inch from Steph's mouth, lips quirking into a smile that Steph knows promises great things. "I can live with that."
"Yeah, you know what? Me too."