How Nell became Batgirl. ~4,400 words. There is a character death involved. Also, it’s almost three am and I don’t know what my tenses are doing anymore.

The first time she meets him, it’s summer. It’s the dog days, the muggy-sweaty-awful days, the days when the pavement is still hot two hours after the sun goes down and her hair never dries completely. She starts sweating not five minutes after she gets out of the shower in the morning. The brownstone apartment doesn’t have air conditioning, so thirteen-year-old Nell spends most of her time at the public library. Her mother wakes her up before she goes to work, giving her enough change for bus fare and reminding her to make breakfast for the rascals and walk them to the Boys and Girls’ Club before she goes.

Nell always does. They’re a handful, but she likes her cousins. Josie is nine, Ryan is six, Andy is four, and Tara and Tori are almost two. Nell and her mother live with her Auntie Jessica, and everyone kind of takes care of each other. Auntie Jessica hasn’t had a boyfriend since she broke up with Tara and Tori’s dad, but Nell’s okay with that. Things are always spread thin in their life, and adding more people into their three-bedroom apartment pokes holes in their just-getting-by.

Nell’s good at making breakfast. She can’t cook much, but she can pour a mean bowl of cereal. She’s been working on pancakes, but Auntie Jessica doesn’t like her using the stove when they’re not around. She makes sure everyone’s herded up, fed, and either left with a sitter or staying at the club. After she does that, Nell goes to the library and reads until it closes.

One of those sticky-hot summer nights, she misses the last bus home. She tells herself it’ll be okay, but it isn’t; she has to pass through some of the bad neighborhoods before she can get to her block, and wolves always hassle little girls who go through the concrete woods alone.

The man follows her for two blocks, an oily shadow that she tries to blame on her imagination. She walks faster, but he picks up his pace; she starts running, but his legs are longer and he’s got a switchblade.

Nell screams. She tells herself to be brave (Batgirl would be brave), but the wink of his switchblade makes her thoughts collapse into broken-up bits. She’s still screaming when someone big drops from the fire escape (bigger than Hagrid).

Her would-be wolf goes flying. The big, big man hunches his shoulders, craggy face cast in shadow from the brim of his fedora.

She stares up, up, up at him.

"Are you okay?" He asks, and she nods.

"I’m okay," she says. She’s trembling and holding onto the straps of her backpack so hard her knuckles hurt, but she can muster up at least that much bravery. "Thank you."

He looks away like he wants to go, then shifts his weight uncomfortably.

"Don’t mention it," he rumbles, and she thinks he sounds embarrassed.

"Doesn’t anyone tell you thank you?"

"They don’t stick around that long," he says, and his big shoulders lift and fall in a shrug.

Nell balls up all her courage and puts her hands on her hips. “Well, I’m grateful. That guy—-he was—-can I do anything for you?”

He just seems baffled, but Nell’s been taught to give whatever she can. Good comes back around, always. Her knees are still jelly, but she knows he probably just saved her life. That’s a big deal.

"I mean it," she says, and looks him straight in the face. He squirms, looking all around her but not at her. He’s not pretty to look at, but he’s a good guy. She’s sure of it.

"I’ve got a kid," he admits after they stand off for a long minute. "Lost my job. If you’ve got any change, I guess…"

She carefully smooths out the two wadded-up dollar bills from her pocket and gives them to him. They look like play money in his big hand.

"Shoulda been my bus fare," Nell says, and smiles. "It’s all I’ve got. But if you and your kid want to come for dinner, I’m sure my mom would be happy to make extra. You saved my life!"

"What’s your name?"

"Eleanor," she says, offering her hand up to shake. "But I go by Nell. What’s yours?"

He shakes her hand so cautiously, just barely wrapping his fingers around hers.

"Abuse," he says. "And my son’s name is Colin."

She’s never heard of someone named Abuse, but she doesn’t say that. Nell takes off her backpack, unzipping it and fishing out a spiral-ringed notebook. She scribbles down her address on a corner of a page, then tears it out and hands it to him.

He takes it. He doesn’t say anything else, but he walks her the rest of the way home. She thinks he smiles when she waves goodbye, but with his face it’s hard to tell.

He doesn’t come the next night. He doesn’t come the next week. She convinces herself that he won’t ever come, but then a redheaded boy knocks on the door of the apartment one night. He’s got the palest, skinniest legs she’s ever seen, and he’s wearing a pair of shorts so big it’s a good thing he’s got a belt holding them up. His hips won’t do the job.

He says his name’s Colin, and that his dad wasn’t able to come because he’d gotten a job at a shipping yard. He doesn’t even have to awkwardly gear up to ask if her offer still stands before she tells him to stay right where he is. Everyone else in the apartment is asleep, so Nell tiptoes around the kitchen, appropriating leftovers and slapping peanut butter and jelly on bread. She successfully navigates all the squeaky cupboard doors, and the silverware drawer that sticks.

This, she thinks, is totally how Batgirl would make a sandwich.

She piles everything on a plate and takes it out to Colin. He’s got wrists like twigs, freckles on his nose and arms. He looks like he needs more sandwiches than Nell can make in stealth mode.

They talk for hours, starting with banal hunks of questions (who are your parents, where are you from, what do you like, which school do you go to) and devolving into rapid-fire excitement once they discover one thing they have in common: they both love superheroes.

"Robin’s the best," Colin says, and he smiles for the first time since he sat down at her step. It’s not very big, but it’s still a smile.

"No way," Nell whisper-argues back. They have to keep their voices down, because Mom’s a light sleeper even when she’s had an eleven hour shift. "Batgirl is the best.”

"I heard that she’s kind of annoying, if you get to know her," he says, tearing the crust off of his last triangle of sandwich. "Batgirl and Robin team up sometimes."

"I know," she says, smiling broadly. "And that’s the best of the best.”

Colin leaves after she asks if his father is going to be worried, him being out alone so late. He doesn’t really give her an answer, but he promises he’ll come back again, if she wants. She does, because his dad saved her life and she likes skinny-legged Colin (even though Batgirl is the best, and he just needs to get that through his head.)

He comes about once every week or two at first, like a stray cat. As the months pass, he visits more and more frequently. Nell makes the sandwiches ahead of time, stashing them in baggies in the back of the fridge so that she’ll be prepared for whenever he shows up. They sit under the eaves on the front steps, rain or shine, sharing heroes and sandwiches.

Months pass. Years pass. Nell gets her first job when she’s fifteen, stocking shelves at a grocery store. Sometimes, she gets off shift after the buses stop running for the night. Mr. Abuse is always there to walk her home, though he never stays for long. He takes the sandwiches in a brown paper bag and promises to tell Colin that she says hello.

Nell gets her second job when she’s sixteen, this one a babysitting gig for one of her Aunt’s friends. She goes to school from 7:45 to 2:30, is a nanny for two precocious kids from 3:00 to 6:00, and stocks shelves from 7:00 to well past midnight. She usually doesn’t have time for dinner, but that’s just as well: more often than not, she has sandwiches and conversation until three am. Then she sleeps for a couple of hours and does it all over again.

It’s hard, but Nell’s tough. When she feels overtired, when she hits that point where she wants to cry and knows she can’t, she thinks what would Batgirl do? Batgirl would keep going, so that’s what Nell does. She always, always keeps going, because she has places to go. Half her paychecks goes to helping out Mom and Aunt Jess, and the other half goes straight into her savings account.

For Nell, it’s college or bust. She’s going to be the first person in her family to graduate with a degree. Her Mom can’t afford to help her, so Nell pinches the copper and salt out of every single penny she earns.

One day, Colin’s sitting on her front step not at night, but when she opens the door to get the paper in the morning. At sixteen, he’s still skinny. His limbs are longer, his hands bigger, his face and shoulders more freckled, but he’s still that kind of lean that’s always hungry. Nell can force sandwiches at him until he splutters and laughs and tells her no, but he stays hungry-skinny.

Her heart trips over itself to see him there in the daylight. He’s never come during the day, so something is wrong. He’s stony-faced, grim.

"What’s wrong?" she asks, sitting down next to him. She’s still in the big t-shirt she slept in, her hair all over the place, but the look on his face makes modesty take second fiddle.

"My oldest friend’s gone," Colin says, and his voice breaks. "I haven’t seen him for months." He curls up even smaller, hugging his knees. "I think he’s dead."

She wraps him up in a hug, her arms strong from stocking shelves and carrying babies and stretching dollars. He cries, and she lets him. Colin doesn’t show much in the way of emotion. Nell’s explosive and loud, but he’s all hints and faint smiles. He hides in too-big clothes and always needs a haircut, but she likes talking to him, and she likes making him sandwiches, and she likes him.

"C’mon," she says, wrapping a hand around his wrist and pulling him inside. Cousins and matriarchs are waking up, but she’ll introduce him. She’s been meaning to for a while, anyhow. "I’ll make you some waffles."

That summer, Batgirl becomes Batwoman. That fall, Nell and Colin start calling their sandwich dinners real dates. That winter, Batwoman shows up in a new suit, and starts working with Batman. Nell sees it in the paper and whoops, shouting “You go, girl!” like Batwoman can hear her. The little girl in her has placed Batwoman in the same category as God and Santa Claus: she’s always around, always listening, always reliable. She’s Batwoman.

Nell turns seventeen, graduates early, and gets a third job. Sometimes, she stretches out on top of her comforter after her waitressing shift, feeling her heartbeat in her tired feet and promising herself that she’ll only close her eyes for ten minutes. She wakes up with her shoes off, a blanket over her and Colin’s freckled arm around her waist. He’s good at getting in and out of the window, strong even though he’s so thin.

She knows he’s homeless. She knows he has even less than she does (and that’s saying something). She knows there’s something wrong with him, that he’s sick, because when she asked him if he planned to go back to school he shook his head and said he didn’t have the time. But she loves him, and he’s always there, and she wants to carve out a chunk of her savings and get a place with him. Nell has to share a room with Josie (age thirteen), and Tori and Tara (age six). There’s no such thing as privacy.

But without her savings, college is out of the question. She can’t leave Mom and Aunt Jess stranded. Family is family, and Nell doesn’t shirk responsibility.

The kids get older and the expenses grow, not diminish. Nell tells herself “next semester” every semester, but before she knows it she’s twenty-one. Nell’s 5’10” and pretty, the kind of pretty that surprises her sometimes when she looks in a mirror. Colin’s still hungry-lean, a full four inches shorter than she is. They don’t match, but neither of them mind.

College drops out of conversations. It used to be when I go to college, then it petered off into if I go to college, and then Nell just stops talking about it altogether. She doesn’t dwell, but it hurts. She hasn’t let herself want much, but she wants this bad.

Then a letter comes in the mail. It’s heavy, like the paper’s weighed down by the richness of the ink on it. The letterhead’s embossed; she runs her fingers all over the upraised edges of the W and reads it four times before she gets that it’s real, that it’s hers, that she just got something better than Willy Wonka’s Golden Ticket.

The letter says that she’s been awarded a Wayne Foundation scholarship for Gotham University. Full ride. She doesn’t remember applying for it, but that doesn’t put a damper on her excitement. Her goals bloom up gold and bright again, and Colin smiles that smile of his and takes the crust off his sandwich before eating it.

They can afford an apartment (barely, finally), and she’s so okay with the fact that it isn’t much. Their joint belongings fit in three boxes, so moving’s easy. Nell starts her first term, and instantly runs into the most obvious stumbling block ever: she physically cannot work three part time jobs and go to school full time. Math’s not her strong suit, but it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that her time’s overfull. She’s finally got a place of her own, but she doesn’t have the time to sleep in the twin mattress on the floor they call a bed.

She breaks down and cries after the first semester ends. She pulled Bs and Cs, and only barely. Colin makes her a sandwich and they sit on their mattress and share it by the light of a camping lamp. The check for the electric bill bounced, and she doesn’t get paid until the end of the week.

"Don’t worry," he says, his arm around her. "I’ve got a friend who might need a nanny. He’d pay good money for someone he can trust, and he’ll trust me that I trust you."

The peanut butter has momentarily stopped up her sniffles, so Nell just nods. She wants to believe that her Hobo Boyfriend has connections, but she can’t—-not until she gets a call at Job Number Two from a man who claims to be Damian Wayne.

Nell hangs up twice. He keeps calling back, and she tells him ha ha funny oh yeah, you’re Damian Friggin’ Wayne.

The third time he calls, he says that no, he is Damian Fucking Wayne, and that Colin had spoken highly of her skills as a nanny. She trips over herself apologizing, but he dismissively tells her she sounds like his wife, and that her interview will be at the Wayne Manor at three o’clock sharp.

She has to borrow Ryan’s bike, but she gets there by three. Damian Fucking Wayne doesn’t answer the door—-it’s answered by a smiling blonde woman with a drooling baby on her hip. Mrs. Wayne greets her like a relative and drags her into the kitchen for iced tea and the most informal interview of Nell’s life.

The baby’s name is Laila, and she’s just over a year old. Stephanie says that she’ll only need to be watched during the early morning and afternoon, because Mr. Wayne has big business to do and Mrs. Wayne works nights. She offers to pay her more for a half day of work than she makes at all three jobs put together, and promises to work around her classes, too.

Nell hugs baby Laila and smiles so she won’t cry. She starts the next day.

It’s the best job she’s ever had, even though it’s got its up and downs. Laila’s a good baby, but she’s more mobile and fearless than a one year old should be. The Manor’s big, too. Nell feels like she should leave a crumb trail, sometimes. Damian Wayne’s her age, and one of Colin’s oldest friends, it turns out. Stephanie’s older, but she doesn’t look or act it. When she’s around, Nell’s job feels more like spending time with an older sister; Steph is boisterous and optimistic and bright. She’s not sure how she imagined a billionaire’s wife to be, but Steph isn’t it. It’s not long before Steph finds reasons for her to come by the manor without the nanny pretense, just to chat and help her with her studies and give her the occasional pep talk before midterms or finals. Those pep talks leave her shaky and energized and feeling ready to take on the entire world.

The rest of the year, she has straight As. Under a better diet and less stress, Colin actually gains some weight. The year closes with high fives and accomplishments all around. The Waynes give her a week off at Christmas, and a bonus that feels like way too much. Steph hands her a set of keys and an address on a slip of paper. She tells her that it’s bought and paid for, totally hers, and to shut up and just accept it.

"D’s generous during the holidays," she says. "He’ll be offended if you don’t take it."

"But it’s a house,” Nell sobs. She tries so, so hard not to, but it’s so much. There’s enough room for her and for Colin and for her family and she doesn’t have to worry anymore. No more bounced checks, no more looking at Colin’s ribs and feeling responsible.

"He doesn’t do things halfway," Steph says with a grin. "And he’s been trying to put a roof over Colin’s head for ages. Just pinkie swear you’ll stick around for another year. Laila’s gearing up for her terrible twos, and I don’t know if I’ll survive on my own."

"Okay," she says. It’s all she can say.

Batwoman hugs her (and oh, she knows; she’s always known that grin, because she’s kept every clipping, every smile rendered in newsprint).

That’s the last good year that they get. Spring comes, and Colin starts sleeping more. He loses the weight that he’d gained. He gets dizzy easily. He refuses to go to a doctor, and she knows why. She knows, but he’s never told her. Nell’s never figured out if it’s because he’s ashamed of his other face, or if it’s because he thinks he’s ugly when he’s huge, but she’s known who Mr. Abuse is for a while.

When the dog days of summer come, Steph puts on a serious face and tells her that they need to talk. She says that she has the right to know, that she should know what is going to happen, what’s happening, what Venom is.

"Technically, he should have died years ago," Steph says quietly, her eyes shiny-bright with tears. "Batman estimated his life expectancy at twelve or thirteen. Batman’s rarely ever wrong."

"But he’s dying," Nell says, staring down at her hands. "He’s twenty-three, and he’s dying."

"He’s deteriorating. We’ve talked to people, and there’s…there’s just not anything that we can do. You have to trust me on that one."

"I trust you," she says, and her chin wobbles. "You’re Batwoman. I’ve always trusted you."

Steph’s mouth opens and closes, but she doesn’t ask how she figured it out. She just puts her arms around Nell and lets her curl up against her and cry.

Death courts Colin slowly. They both keep up their spirits and do what they can to be happy, but Death’s always hanging there with cold fingers on the back of their necks. She gets now why he didn’t think he had time for school, why he didn’t have a home or a job. Colin had a power, and he knew it’d kill him eventually. So, he’s always used his time as best he could.

Nell watches him sleep, thinks about what goes on in his shaggy ginger head. She wonders how he spent so many years being patient and content with so little, knowing that any day might be The One. She wonders if she should’ve been more selfish, giving herself and the hours of her day to him, not to college and jobs and that somewhere she still hasn’t gotten. She wonders how a world could punish a guy like him, who’d never been selfish at all.

It’s hard to see a silver lining. He gets a little gaunter, a little weaker, daily. His breaths get so shallow when he sleeps, she keeps a hand on his chest to make sure it keeps moving up and down.

For the first time, Nell gets angry at the world. There’s only so much unfairness that she can stand, and he doesn’t deserve to be twenty-four and wasting away. Nell just wants to scream and scream and scream.

Steph sees it. One crisp October afternoon, after Laila’d been put down for a nap under the watchful eye of Uncle Dick, Steph asks her if she wants to go on a run. It helps clear my head, she says. Nell figures she could benefit from some head-clearing, so she says yes. She’s never been a runner, but she’s built like one.

Nell’s strong. She’s got muscle in her arms and thighs, and once the runs start becoming a regular thing, she gets stronger. She doesn’t have to run with Steph anymore; sometimes, she does it on her own. It does clear her head.
Runs turn into self-defense lessons, which turns into martial arts, which turns into being allowed into the Batcave. Nell takes to Steph’s lessons with zeal and enthusiasm, beating out her frustrations on training dummies so that she doesn’t have any anger left when she goes home to Colin. 

By the time he’s twenty-five, he’s wheelchair-bound. As Nell’s gotten bigger and stronger, he’s slowly withered. He still has that private, enigmatic smile for her, but it’s become a rarity. A week after Laila’s fourth birthday, Steph announces that she’s pregnant again. It feels weird, talking about babies and life while they all know Colin’s not going to make it that long.
He’s at peace about it.

"Twenty-five’s ancient when you don’t think you’ll make it to your teens," he says, and smiles. He’s happy, genuinely happy, and Nell’s so grateful-sad-angry-in love that she doesn’t ever know what to say. Damian spends a lot of time at their place, watching Disney movies on the days that Colin doesn’t have the energy to stay awake.

Colin makes Damian swear not to name his kid after him, and he repeats it to Nell for good measure. He doesn’t want that kind of memorial. He wants to be remembered as himself. He doesn’t want Damian to get choked up every time he says his kid’s name. No Colins, no Colleens.

Damian tosses a baby name book at him and tells him to help him pick one out, then, because he’s going to be a part of the process whether he likes it or not. They pick out a handful together, laughing and discussing all the possible hideous combinations with Wayne.

Colin passes away in his sleep on a rainy April morning. Nell doesn’t realize that he’s gone until she kisses his cool cheek. He looks that peaceful.

She calls the Waynes, then sits on the front steps. The space that Colin should have took up next to her is enormous. Damian barely stops the car before he gets out of it. He tells her he’s sorry, and he looks like he wants to say more, but he doesn’t.

Stephanie takes more time to get her seatbelt unbuckled. She’s a little over four months along with twins, so she has to be sure of her footing in the wet grass and the drizzle. She sits in the space that Colin should take up.

Nell doesn’t cry until Damian carries out Colin’s body, wrapped neatly in a sheet. He just looks so small in Damian’s arms, so gone.

And then, he really is gone. The knowledge smashes wildly inside her, breaking up everything in ways that feel impossible to put back together. For as long as she can remember, Colin’s always been there. Now, he’s not. He never will be again.

She sobs until she’s all sobbed out, until there’s just nothing left but faintly sick hiccups and shuddering breaths.

"What do I do without him?" Nell whispers, because she truly doesn’t know.

Stephanie strokes her face, her hair.

"You live," she says, her voice thick. She’s been crying, too.

"I want to do something," Nell says. "I have to do something."

"Living is something."

"I have three-fourths of a degree in Philosophy, ten years of experience as a nanny and part time everything, and I—-what is that? He was something. He did something.”

"Well, you do have some pretty awesome self-defense training, too," Steph says, and she opens up her purse. She gives Nell a tissue, and something black and vaguely leathery.

It’s a cowl. The first time Nell saw it, she was just a little girl. She traces the pointed ears.

And she kind of wonders why she hadn’t realized it before—-why she didn’t see that Stephanie was giving her a whole lot more than a running buddy and advanced self defense lessons. She’d latched onto the distraction, too wrapped up in Death to realize she was being groomed for something big.

"It’s an idea," Steph says.

It’s hope, Nell thinks.

"I’m going to be sidelined for at least the next six months, anyway," she explains. "And when I didn’t know what to do, this is the something that I chose. If you’re serious about wanting to do something, this is where you’ll start."

What would Batgirl do? Nell thinks.

"I’ll do it," Batgirl says.