FIC: Shake Your Tailfeathers [2/3]

Commissioned by loxes. Part two: in which Dick gets punched and then Batman and Batgirl toast their team-up with waffles. 6100+ words for this bit. Part one is here. minuiko did a super awesome drawing for it here!


Unfortunately, there wasn’t much of a trail to pick up. The nightmare dentist’s compulsive cleanliness hadn’t deteriorated as much as the rest of his mind, so he didn’t make the mistakes that madmen were prone to. Fortunately for them, his oral obsession hadn’t weakened any, so it was easy to compile a list of his potential hideouts—-ones that were within a few miles of the Crow Bar took first priority. A large number of the bodies had been recovered from Rogers Yacht Basin, which narrowed it down even further.

Steph had sent the Compact back to Firewall as soon as she’d gotten zipped into her suit, hopping into the passenger’s seat of the Batmobile for the first time in years. If she felt uncomfortable there, she did a good job of hiding it.

The Batgirls were as different from each other as the Robins were similar. Each one was visibly unique. Babs had been riotous red hair and catchy yellow accents, Cassandra had been a stitched-up black shadow, and Stephanie was something between the two—-loose blond hair and eggplant stripes. She briefed him on everything that she had found out on her own, piecing together a couple of leads that even he hadn’t connected. Her contacts on the street really did trust her, and that was valuable stuff. Many of the citizens who lived in the gray area between law and lawlessness, desperate and gridlocked by their own circumstances, resented the Bats—-or feared them. But this Batgirl had a way with people that the ones before her hadn’t.

They hit paydirt at the Kane Candy Factory. One of the many derelicts left from the days of good and plenty, the factory mouldered on the edge of Amusement Mile. It was the gimmicky hybrid of a processing plant and a tourist trap—-there had been bi-hourly tours during its golden age.

When Robin had busted him, Sharp had still been nomadic. This set-up screamed care and premeditation. He’d made most of his kills there, by the look of things. The good doctor kept his victims alive for some time, their struggles chronicled by the long scratches that their manacles had gouged in the metal pipes. The dentist’s chair in the middle of the room was stained a patchy rust-red.

Dr. Sharp was standing with his back to them, carefully cleaning some of the tools he had been using earlier that evening. A very thin, very pale man with slicked-back hair, he looked a little bit like an immaculately kept corpse. His movements were small, rigid, and precise; he cleaned each wicked instrument until the water ran pinkish, then clear. He had the tool kit of every nightmare dentist in every slasher flick put together—-nothing but tapering silver handles, corkscrews, pliers, and blades.

Batgirl made a thin, anguished little sound from beside him. He glanced at her sidelong.

“You okay?”

“Yeah, I.” She didn’t blink, didn’t look away from the tools of Sugar Tooth’s trade. “I’m good.”

He didn’t want to think about what had to be going through her head. Bruce would have recognized the potentially triggering ties to her past and sent her home. More and more, it felt like that was the call he should have made, too.

Too late to regret or rescind. The best he could do was make sure that nothing happened to her.

He signaled follow me with two fingers, opening one of the skylights and carefully dropping into the room below. The factory still smelled faintly of chocolate, but it was cut with the nauseating stench of rot and decay. The tile floor was smashed in places, missing Pepto-Bismal-pink squares like shed scales, but at least it was dry. The lowest level of the building was flooded, bloated wrappers floating miserably in the standing water. Sugar Tooth had been selective when choosing his new ‘office’, so he had all of the possible amenities available in an abandoned factory: a mostly intact room with a small generator to power his many lamps and tools. It was cold as an icebox, making Dick’s legs prickle from the chill.

Sharp was a thin man without any combat training. He used the element of surprise to nab his victims, knocking them out before they could retaliate. As close as he was to his weapons, they were better off not announcing themselves. If they could sneak up silently and subdue him, they could end the whole thing relatively painlessly.

Batgirl paused when he did, crouching behind a storage tank. You or me? she signed, jerking her chin at Sugar Tooth.

After a moment’s thought, he pointed to her. She grinned ferociously, moving forward with the utter silence that only years of training and a pair of silicon-soled boots could afford. Batgirl dipped her left hand into one of the pouches on her thigh holster, taking out an electro-batarang. She balled her right hand into a fist. The creak of her glove clenching alerted Sharp. He started to turn, and Dick started to move.

But Sugar Tooth was fast. Eerily so. He’d grabbed a scalpel when he’d twisted, so he stabbed into her in one smooth motion. Steph didn’t have a chance to block—-he doubted she’d even seen the flash of silver before the weapon disappeared between her ribs.

Sharp had an eye for anatomy. Very precise. Stephanie wheezed wetly, blood trickling from the corners of her mouth. Then her eyes fluttered shut. Then she fell.

Sugar Tooth’s gaunt face pulled into a hideous grin. He had very big, very wide teeth—-too many teeth for a human mouth, layered shark rows of teeth—-and a dry, rusty cackle.

“So much better,” he hummed, looking down at the bleeding girl at his feet. Wreathed in red, Batgirl’s face had gone thoughtlessly slack, calm and smooth and rapidly draining of color. “So much better now that you aren’t baring your teeth, my dear. Not a crease or wrinkle to be found. Lovely.”

She was breathing. He was almost positive that she was still breathing. If he could end this quickly, he could get her help. Alfred would be able to handle an injury like that—-he’d have the operating room prepped by the time Dick got Batgirl there.

Dick coiled up and surged at him, going for his throat. Sharp slashed; he ducked, barely missing him.

Sharp was fast. Too slippery-quick to be human. What had he done to himself since leaving Arkham? That was one thing that still unsettled Dick, even after all of the fights over all of the years: most of these monsters had been human, once. Human-shaped, they’d left humanity far behind.

Sharp’s new aggression suddenly made a lot more sense. He’d taken some kind of genetic fruit punch poison, the sort of Kool-Aid favored by Gotham’s wildest. As he watched, the doctor stretched and contorted, a wad of saltwater taffy with bones. Sharp got bigger. Thicker. His smile pulled almost literally to his ears.

“You’ll pay for this!” Dick snarled, dodging a swipe. “You’ll pay for what you did to Batgirl!”

Sugar Tooth was something straight out of his nightmares—-ropey veins, bulging eyes, and too many teeth.

But that didn’t make sense. It didn’t fit. This wasn’t his M.O., wasn’t—-

Wasn’t real? He was slipping. Another waking nightmare. But he couldn’t stop fighting—-couldn’t stop moving. The enemy was real. The enemy was dangerous. The enemy had hurt Batgirl, and this time he’d been there, he’d watched it happen, and he’d still been helpless to save her. Again. If there was one overarching theme to his life, one repeated motif, that was it: he couldn’t save them all. For every thousand lives he saved, one or two slipped through his fingers. It was those ones that stuck with him, because those were usually the ones that he’d been trying to hold onto the tightest.

Batgirl. He made himself focus on her, latching onto one of the few things familiar enough to be undeniably real. Leslie had told him that psychological anchors were the easiest way to ground himself when the nightmares crashed over his head and pulled him under.

He was Dick Grayson. That was a fact.

He was fighting Sugar Tooth. Also a fact.

Batgirl was injured—-fact—-breathing shallowly—-conjecture. The handle of the scalpel still jutted from her. Her blood was slowly staining her hair a darker red.

He had to save her. Had to.


*

In Stephanie’s expert opinion, Batman was tripping serious balls.

She was at a loss to explain his behavior any other way. One minute, they were doing the team-up thing. It’d been going pretty well, too. He let Steph work out a little bit of her rage with her fists, fracturing a nice ratio of the bones in Sugar Tooth’s face. She’d been all ready for a nice segue into a victory dance, but then she’d turned around to find Dick mysteriously absent.

Half a breath later, he was coming at her like the proverbial bat out of hell, and it was all she could do to block and dodge. Judging from the gibberish he was snarling, he was in a particularly nightmarish iteration of la la land. The weird thing was, this little shift had happened after they’d taken the perp out, so she was at a loss to explain it—-or to fix it, for that matter.

Batman was tripping balls, and Steph was doing her level best not to end up a pretty little Bat-smear. Dick would feel really bad about it after his head cleared, and she didn’t want to do that to him. There was nothing quite like bat-guilt, and Dick was a nice guy. Plus, she wasn’t a big fan of getting the crap beaten out of her.

But just keeping a half-step ahead of him was insanely difficult. He looked like the Bat, but he wasn’t fighting like one. He barely kept both feet on the ground, coming at her from angles and flips and ricochets that made her feel like she was being attacked by a man-shaped pinball. She could barely keep up with where he was at, much less how to predict where he’d be next.

He moved like his cape weighed nothing—-like he didn’t feel it there at all. Back when she’d been a regular visitor in the Batcave, Alfred had let her try on the cape, just once, and she’d wondered how Bruce managed to run and jump at all. It was thick, heavy and unwieldy. Her Batgirl cape was more like it than her Spoiler cape had been, but it was still thin by comparison.

Dick held himself back, she realized. This was how he wanted to fight—-what was natural for him. But it wasn’t how Batman fought, so he kept both feet on the ground.

So if he wasn’t Batman, who was he?

“Uh, Nightwing? Hi! Hello! Batgirl, here! Stop trying to rain down justice on me, please and thank you!”

No response. Not even a flicker of recognition on his face. He just kept coming at her, and Steph was rapidly realizing that the odds of her outlasting his endurance were low. Even just blocking him hurt. She’d be shocked if her forearms didn’t end up looking like opera gloves made entirely of bruises.

Well, it wouldn’t have been the first time she’d used long sleeves to keep things hid. Between Daddy and a couple solid years of vigilantism, she’d turned into a pro at covering up bruises. Not that she’d put that on her resumé or anything.

“Please don’t make me do this. I don’t want to do this!” She jerked back, barely missing getting clipped a kick that would’ve sent her on an unfortunate trip to visit Mom at work. “Always thought that slapping Batman would be awesome and therapeutic, but then I actually did it. Slapping Batman was terrifying! A lesser vigilante would’ve wet herself a little.” Ripping a primed batarang from her thigh-pouch, she jammed the trigger with her thumb and threw wild. “So please-please-please don’t make me do this!”

“You’ll pay for this!” Dick roared, and the rawness in his voice startled the breath out of her. “You’ll pay for what you did to Batgirl!”

That little sentiment kicked the rest of the air out of her lungs.

Yeah, she wasn’t Cass. She wasn’t Babs. She knew that. But she still didn’t deserve to be dumped on for not being a super-scary-ninja-Batgirl or the golden-gorgeous-genius-Batgirl.

So she was the sometimes-subpar-mostly-spectacular-super-stubborn-eggplant-Batgirl.

So what? The haters could bite her adorable Bat-butt. She fought every bit as hard as the rest of them.

Dick flipped, twisting in mid-air to avoid the electro-gooperangs.

And she recognized that move. She’d seen it before. When she’d limped back home after excruciating hours training under Bruce, she’d curl up in bed with her dinosaur of a laptop and all the hot water bottles she could find and watch video after video of footage of the Robins that’d come before her. She’d been a tiny bit obsessive about it, trying to absorb everything that they were in the old training videos. Tim’s were the most informative, because he hadn’t had any previous training in martial arts and acrobatics—-there’d been something very cathartic about watching her ex fall on his face. But she’d watched the clips of Dick countless times, because he’d been having the most fun. He’d made it all look effortless, like he was having the time of his life, like running around in his ridiculous scaly panties was the best thing in the entire universe. Gravity didn’t seem to apply to him. He was fearless, graceful in free-fall. Steph had watched him and wondered if all of them had been like her—-a little bit in love with everything Dick had made Robin mean. His laughter and nimble acrobatics had promised I’m Robin, and you can be, too!

Steph sucked in a deep breath and screamed, “STAND DOWN, ROBIN!” as loudly as she could.

And he paused. For just a fraction of a second, he looked at her and stopped moving.

That was all that she needed. Batgirl doubled up her trusty ol’ fist, made a few more mental apologies, and then punched him as hard as she could. She doubted that she’d get a second opening, so she had to give it her all. She just had to cross her fingers that she didn’t break anything essential. The cowl protected the bridge of his nose, so she didn’t aim to smash it—-she went for his jaw, the largest uncovered part of him.

Her fist connected. His head snapped to the side, and he staggered, dazed.

She balled up her hand for another go—-even though she’d felt the punch jar all the way up her shoulder—-but he held up a hand in treaty.

“S’okay,” Dick croaked. “Don’t. God, who taught you that right hook? Wildcat?”

“Nope. Greg Lewis. I met him in detention in sixth grade—-he only ribbed me about having a masked nutjob for a dad one time. I’m sorry for your face,” Steph said, shifting her weight uneasily. Dick was still rubbing his jaw. Maybe she should have dialed it back just a hair. “Punching it, I mean. Since your face isn’t something to be sorry about.” She pursed her lips. “That’s a ‘you’re over-sharing, Batgirl’ look, isn’t it?”

“Are you okay?” Dick asked—-in his voice, not the Bat voice. There wasn’t any gravelly authority to it—-just Dick Grayson worriedly asking if he’d hurt her. Steph fidgeted a little more earnestly.

“I’m fine. I think I burned somewhere in the ballpark of eight thousand calories trying not to end up in traction, but I’m good.” She paused, then hurriedly added: “And again, really sorry that face-punching was my go-to method of problem solving.”

“It worked,” he said, straightening. His cheek was already very red, so it’d probably bruise. “Cleared my head. That’s what matters.”

“What the hell was that, even?” She demanded, throwing up her hands. Dick fisted his gloves in his cape, turning away.

“Later. Right now, getting Sharp to the authorities is our top priority.”

Well, wasn’t that just a classic Batman reaction? Steph bit down on her irritation, clenching her still-throbbing fist. He was right—-she knew that—-but her history made her an itty bitty tiny bit sensitive to brush-offs when they came from men wearing pointy ears.

*

The GCPD showed up in short order, only too happy to take Sugar Tooth off their hands. It took more than a few minutes of cleansing breaths for Dick to calm himself down. It’d been some time since he’d had a toxin flare-up, so he’d half convinced himself it’d flushed out of him entirely. Wishful thinking was tantamount to stupid thinking, and stupid thinking could have gotten Stephanie seriously injured. But it was a chicken and egg sort of problem. What would he have done if she hadn’t been there to snap him out of it? Would it have triggered at all had she not been with him, a worry sitting firmly in the forefront of his mind?

He couldn’t tell. Those questions didn’t have answers, so he dismissed them and clung to the fact that the worst that’d come of it was a sore jaw. Stephanie seemed to know the detective that’d answered their call—-a young guy for the position, kind of handsome, new to the precinct—-so he let her handle the exchange.

If there was one nice thing about being the Bat, it was that you didn’t have to talk if you didn’t want to. Dick calmly returned to the Batmobile, threw up—-the toxin left a taste in his mouth like lemons, rust, and battery acid; the adrenaline crash made his senses whine with nausea—-and drank a bottle of water. By the time he’d finished it, Sharp was secured and on his way back to a cell.

Steph knocked on the passenger-side window, then opened the door.

"The GCPD says hi, and thank you for the serial killer. They promised to keep better track of him this time," she said, buckling herself in.

“‘Course,” Dick said shortly, and the engine turned over with a warm purr. “Don’t they always?”

"We’d be out of a job if hoods weren’t so good at escaping, so instead of getting worked up about it, I think of it as job security," Steph said, watching the derelict buildings streak past the window. Then she flicked a quick, curious glance at him.

Here we go.

"Y’know, I never got to team up with you when you were doing your own thing. So I’ve never really seen you in action up close. If you hadn’t been trying to beat the bat out of me, I would’ve said that you put on a pretty spectacular show."

Her tone was cautious, conversational. Honest. She just wanted to talk. That was a rare trait in their kind of people.

"Yeah, I," Dick said, vaguely embarrassed for no real reason he could pinpoint. He’d broken character. He was lucky that she was the only one who’d seen it. "It’s different, wearing this suit. Being this mantle.”

"You look way bigger," she blurted out.

"I was trying to convince Gotham that I was the real McCoy at first. I’m not as big as Bruce, so I wear a padded vest over my upper-torso to get ‘the look’," he admitted, feeling a little less vague about his embarrassment.

Steph clapped a hand over her mouth, but not quickly enough to keep her laughter in. She snorted between her fingers.

“You wear a padded Bat bra.”

“It’s Kevlar. And I’m just trying to look more like…” he gestured, chopping the air in the rough shape of the Bat. “…you know.”

“Right. Right. ‘Cause not all of us can have Bruce’s mighty, straining pecs. Some of us have to pad our assets with a Kevlar-lined Bat bra. And now I know why Damian assumed my suit is padded.”

And Stephanie’s suit being padded would do different things to her womanly curves, of course. He was going to have to have a talk with Damian about the things he pointed out to female vigilantes. He was not looking forward to when the kid hit puberty.

He caught himself eyeing the shape and weight of her breasts in her suit, trying to decide how much of that was armor reinforcement. He might have looked for a second or two too long, because her grin widened.

Dick cleared his throat. “We’re not having this conversation, Stephanie.”

“Oh, I’m Stephanie now?” She asked, her eyebrow arched. “Are you going to pretend to be the big adult here now that I’ve insulted your manly vigilante unmentionables?”

"No," Dick said, patient but firm. “We’re through with Sugar Tooth, so I’m going to take you home. And you’re going to stay home for the rest of the night.”

"Do you honestly think that’s going to work with me? I saved your keister, and now you’re giving me the brush-off? Why?” Her voice raised up a sharp octave. “Because I asked you to tell me why you tried to pound my face in? I’m not your Robin, and you’re not him.”

She didn’t have to say who he was. There was only one him, one Bat, and no amount of Kevlar padding could change that.

"No. You need to respect that—-"

"I do respect you! You’re—-you’re you. I had a poster of you on my wall for years. Robin, Nightwing, Batman—-you’ve led like eighteen teams, and you’re the man. I won’t argue with you on that one, period."

Dick opened his mouth to say something, but she just kept rattling on. It wasn’t often that someone out-talked him.

"But frankly, I’ve gotten really tired of guys in pointy ears telling me to sit down and shut up and be okay with being left out of the loop. What would’ve happened tonight if I hadn’t been there to back you up? Have you thought about that?"

Dick heaved a loud sigh, pulling to the side of the road and stopping the car. It’d hit him, suddenly and painfully, that he was being too much of the Bat. How many times had he sat in the passenger seat of the Batmobile and tried ineffectually to get a rise out of Batman? It’d been so frustrating, his endless struggle to get it through Bruce’s head that he could work alone. It’d felt like he’d never earn his full trust and respect—-that it wasn’t possible for Bruce to let anyone in.

And now Steph was the one in the passenger seat of the Batmobile, trying ineffectually to get a rise out of Batman. That wasn’t him. He wasn’t that Bat. Dick couldn’t ever let himself get that rigid, though the temptation was there. The pointy ears came with a lot of power and control issues.

But he wouldn’t let himself be that Bat. He could admit when he’d been wrong.

"Is this where I get out of the car and me and my big mouth hoof it the rest of the way home?" Stephanie asked uncertainly, a gloved hand resting on her buckle. Dick twisted in his seat.

"What? No. No, I just…wanted to say that I was impressed with you tonight. You handled yourself well, Steph. You saved my bacon, and your quick thinking at the club saved that man’s life. I wouldn’t have used a condom.”

As soon as it came out of his mouth, he regretted his wording. He had to suppress the urge to snort.

Thankfully, he didn’t have to suppress it for more than half a second. Stephanie pressed her lips together, hard, trying to keep a smile pent up. She started laughing, flapping one hand.

"Sorry! Sorry, I know you were trying to have a moment, but the way you said that—-!"

Dick chuckled with her, the tension draining out of him.

"For the record, I never forget protection.”

"Of course not. You’re a well-prepared gentleman drilled in Bat-paranoia."

"Not that Bat-paranoia kept Bruce from reproducing," he sighed under his breath, thinking about the grilling that Damian would give him as soon as he got back. He loved the kid. Really, he did. But his Robin redefined stubbornness, and he was usually snippy for at least three days whenever he benched him. In an ironic twist, Robin got more worked up over being sidelined now than he had when he’d been grounded in the cave during his initial training. It wasn’t being left that made him angry—-it was not being able to work with Dick. Suffice it to say, it wouldn’t be pretty when Damian heard that he’d teamed up with ‘Fatgirl’ instead of him.

But he’d jump off that bridge when he came to it.

"He can’t help that the ladies want his hot bod. And his Bat-junk. And I don’t know if I can keep talking about this, because there’s at least a sixty percent chance that he’s listening in. He’s like—-I don’t know—-" She gestured nebulously with both hands, wrists rolling. She talked with her hands, with her expressive eyes. It was kind of nice, patrolling with someone who didn’t always have white-out lenses covering their eyes. "—-like God. But more judgey. Batman is judgier than God. And I’m talking Old Testament God, here—-not the New Testament reboot."

Dick burst into helplessly loud laughter. It was the kind of laughter where he didn’t care about how he sounded, didn’t care if it meant his stomach hurt, didn’t care if he brayed—-it was a release, and he needed it. That was how he’d always dealt with stress, but he’d forgotten that somewhere after hanging up the fingerstripes. He pulled back the cowl, wiping tears from his eyes.

"Thanks."

Her mouth parted slightly in surprise. “Thanks?”

"For the save. And the company tonight. You make a damn fine Batgirl." When she didn’t say anything for an overlong minute—-and she was like him; it said more when she wasn’t talking than when she was—-he added, "I mean it."

"Okay."

"Okay?"

"Sorry, I just." She blinked rapidly. Took a breath. "That means a lot. Coming from you, I mean. It’s been a big bat-bra to fill, metaphorically."

Dick grinned, patting his chest. “I know exactly how you feel.”

She returned his grin, relaxing back in her seat. He drummed his fingers on the steering wheel.

"So," he said, when the air in the cab felt a little more breathable. "I’m starving. Do you want to get something to eat? I-Hop’s open." Remembering that she still lived at home—-still had a curfew, still had a mother—-he quickly added, “Unless you have a certain time you turn into a pumpkin.”

"It’s winter break, and my mom won’t be getting off shift until eleven.” Steph beamed. “Stuffing my face with some post-patrol carbs sounds awesome."

“I couldn’t agree more,” Dick said, and merged back into the thin trickle of early-morning traffic.


*


It said a lot about Gotham as a whole that the waitress didn’t blink twice when Batman and Batgirl came in for waffles at five in the morning. Bruce had never made a habit of being seen in the suit, but Dick seemed to enjoy it. Maybe it took a little bit of the edge and mystery off the Bat, but it reaffirmed that there was a person inside the suit—-a person who liked vast amounts of syrup on his waffles and who tipped generously. Batman Incorporated had pulled the Batman out of the shadows, but it was Dick who pulled him into the light. He was a Batman who smiled. Steph wouldn’t have thought such a thing possible if she hadn’t seen it herself.

And he had a funny smile. It pulled a little crookedly to the left, showing that this Batman had an imperfect smile and dimples. Getting out of their costumes would have been too awkward—-the Batmobile didn’t have much room in it, and Steph had left her change of clothes in the Compact—-so they stripped off their gloves and ate with their masks still in place.

Batman was buying her waffles. If she’d thought such a thing possible, it would’ve been on her bucket list. She had to keep reminding herself that yes, this was a real thing that was really happening. She was eating breakfast with Batman and discussing why waffles were the best thing in the world. Maybe he wasn’t the Bat—-ever since Bruce had come back, they’d been running a multibat show—-but it was pretty darn close.

“So, you always get waffles?” Dick asked, dousing his second serving of breakfast with far more syrup than was necessary. She was not at all shocked that he didn’t worry about his caloric intake. His insane acrobatics had to burn a whole lot of fuel. “What about pancakes?”

“Okay, look. Pancakes are good. I like pancakes. You can put things in them, and variety is the spice of life. But!” She jabbed the air with her fork for emphasis. “Do you know what waffles have? Pockets. Little square cubbies that lovingly hold as much syrup or butter—-or even peanut butter—- as you need to soothe your ails. Pancakes have a set saturation point, but waffles are looking out for you. They want you to be happy, and to have as much syrup as you want. It’s been scientifically proven. Do you argue with science? No. Batman doesn’t argue with science.”

“You’ve put a lot of thought into this,” Dick said, taking a sip of his coffee.

Steph shrugged. “I just have a lot of waffle-related feelings.”

“I noticed,” he said, and smirked at her over the rim of his mug.

She mashed a square of soggy waffle with the tines of her fork. Oh boy, were they ever in need of a subject change. Fortunately, she had an awkward one prepped and ready to go.

“You said that you’d tell me, so,” Steph said, evasively drawing little loops in the syrup puddle on her plate. “What happened tonight? Why’d you check out like that?”

Dick opened his mouth, then closed it. “You heard about the Mirror House case, right?”

She hadn’t. She had a vague notion that someone had mentioned the case to her in passing—-oh, right, Tim had contacted Babs, said there was some kind of emergency, and O had hurriedly gotten off the line with only the briefest of explanations. They just loved to keep her in the loop.

The worst part of it was, Steph had a feeling that they didn’t consciously realize that they did it anymore. She’d expected that a time would come where she eventually win back the trust that she’d lost during her Africa adventure, but it hadn’t happened yet. This ‘family’ was all about holding onto the pieces of betrayal instead of pasting their bonds of trust back together. Keeping her at arm’s length was habit by now.

“Sure,” she lied through her teeth, because it was neither the place nor the time to open up that can of worms.

“I was dosed with a nightmare gas,” he said in a low tone that barely carried. “Helfern’s or Crane’s or a hybrid of the two—-they couldn’t tell. It should’ve turned my brain to soup, but I survived. Thing of it is, it’s still working its way out of my system, and stress can bring on hallucinations. So that was…what that was about.”

“Why were you stressed? Sugar Tooth was in the bag.”

Dick took the time to chew a bite, then chase it with a gulp of coffee.

“I could tell that his instruments were triggering to you. Fear makes you vulnerable, and I wanted to make sure you didn’t get hurt,” he said with a wry twist of his lips. “Kind of backfired, huh?”

Steph almost dropped her fork in surprise. She’d always got the impression that Dick was one of the more considerate kids to survive having Bruce Wayne as a mentor, but she hadn’t expected him to remember…that. Well, no, she expected him to remember it, because nobody had let her forget what had happened, but she hadn’t expected him to give a crap about what needles and torture instruments did to her head.

“Nah. I mean, you’re the one that ended up punched in the face, not me,” she said the a smile that probably wobbled a little precariously. “But, uh. Thanks. For the thought. It totally counts.”

Steph’s utility belt vibrated noisily. Putting down her fork, she pried open the compartment and took out her cell phone. As soon as she saw her mother’s number on the screen, her stomach sunk down to the toes of her reinforced boots.

“Wuh mimft?” Dick asked through his indecently large mouthful of waffles.

Steph braced herself, then answered the phone. “Hi! Did you get off work early?”

“Stephanie Alice Brown,” her mother said. Starting off with her full name right from the get-go? Oh, boy. She was in for it. “Where are you?”

“Oh, you know,” she said, smiling nervously. “Study group.”

“Finals were two weeks ago, oh precious daughter of mine.”

“And you are absolutely correct. When I said study group, I meant my friend from Metropolis’ study group. I’m spending a couple of days with her, and we’re hanging out with intellectually-motivated like minds. I told you about this ages ago.”

Ugh. She hated lying to Mom. She absolutely loathed it. Steph could lie easily and convincingly to anyone else on the planet, but it was difficult to fool her mother.

She heard her sigh. Imagined her on the other end of the phone line, pinching the bridge of her nose. Frowning like that deepened the wrinkles around the corners of her mouth and across her forehead. It made her look old.

“Tell Kara hi from me,” Mom said, sounding tired. Of course she was tired. She was working herself half to death trying to put her through school. That was why Steph worked herself half to death to keep her grades up. “And leave me a sticky note or something next time. Okay, sweetie?”

“I will,” Steph said. Quietly, she added, “I love you, oh precious mother of mine.”

“Love you, too. Keep me updated on when you’re coming home.”

“Uh-huh. Will do. Bye.”

She hung up, putting her phone back into its little compartment. Dick had his elbow on the table, his chin resting on his hand. He was smiling that goofy crooked smile at her again.

“Checking in with the Batmom?”

Steph’s cheeks heated.

“Batmom came home early and saw that I wasn’t there. I had to tell a tiny fib about having a sleepover at Supergirl’s house. My secret identity is safe, but I’m sleeping in my car tonight.” Steph sighed, pushing the soggy remnants of her waffle around. “The sacrifices we make for this town. Geeze.”

“No need. I’ve got a couch,” he said, snagging a corner of her waffle with his fork. He popped the bite into his mouth. “You’re welcome to it. Full disclosure: I don’t have as much braidable hair as Supergirl, so it might not be as fun of a sleepover. But I’m not above gossiping about the cute boys.”

Was he serious? He was serious. She was at least seventy percent sure that he was serious.

“I love couches,” Steph said, nodding. It wasn’t her most eloquent moment. Not that she regularly had tons of eloquent moments—-she was the master of foot-in-mouth-fu.

“To the Batmobile,” Dick said, polishing off her waffle. “But let me get the check before we go. Last thing we need is to make people think that the Bats dine and dash.”

The idea of a Batman that smiled was still difficult for Steph to wrap her head around, but she was starting to warm up to the concept.