The Apprentice, part 14

by Chicago

Disclaimers and other information in "part 0"

Stephanie sighed and shifted on the sofa, carefully rearranging the position of her arm in its sling. On the television, Judge Julie was ripping the plaintiff a new asshole, which was at least more entertaining than watching another round of women asking talk show hosts to run DNA tests on their children and their potential fathers. Even Steph's codeine haze did not make their stories more palatable. Too close to home.

Of course, the alternative talk show option was "my teen is out of control," and that was an even sorer point. Fortunately, Steph's mom had given that lecture a rest, evidently deciding that Steph's injury had made the point for her.

In point of fact, Steph's mom had been surprisingly mellow on the topic after an initial round of yelling. After the morning's query as to whether "he" (meaning Batman) had tried to contact Steph had produced a sad no, Mrs. Bellinger-Brown had even been almost sympathetic. And really, Stephanie was beginning to understand where her mother was coming from. Not that she could blame Batman the way that her mother did, but the whole vigilante life style was developing an increasingly sour taste in Steph's mind.

bedeebeedeeep

Steph groaned and shifted again in order to reach for the phone. It had rung a second time before she had herself squared away enough to lift the handset.

"Hello?

"Steph?"

"Tim?" She couldn't quite keep the surprise out of her voice.

"Yeah. How are you doing?"

She hit the mute button on the remote, killing the sound on a commercial for a workman's comp lawyer. "Crummy," she answered. "Mom canceled the cable and there is nothing on TV."

Instead of the expected chuckle, she got a subdued, "Oh," from Tim.

"What's wrong?" she asked.

He paused. "Is it okay for me to come over?"

Well, that was unexpected, she reflected. "Sure, if you want. Mom's at work until 10, so..."

"Okay." Tim's reply sounded relieved. "I'm parked just down the block. I'll be there in a few minutes."

"Wha-"

But Tim had hung up already, not even waiting for a good-bye. Frowning, Steph turned off the TV and returned the phone to its cradle. She used her good arm to help pull herself to her feet and crossed to the front window. Sure enough, there was Tim Drake walking up her sidewalk.

She got to the door before he did, opening it before he could ring the doorbell. "Tim!" she exclaimed, reaching out with her good arm to give him a hug.

He returned the embrace gingerly. "Hey Steph."

"Well, come in," she hustled, drawing him through the door and into the house before nosy Mrs. Arta next door could notice her visitor. "What's up?" she asked as she closed the door and locked it behind her.

Tim replied with a wan smile. "I just wanted to stop by and see you," he explained, although his troubled eyes suggested deeper motivations.

"Well, you're seeing me," Steph pointed out.

She felt bad for her vague curtness when Tim seemed to wince at her tone. He shifted uncomfortably. "You think we could talk? Not in the foyer, I mean?"

Steph shook herself. "Oh, right." She moved toward the kitchen. "You want something to drink or something?"

"Water," Tim confirmed, trailing behind her. "How's your arm?"

"I think it hurts, but I'm too drugged up to care," she replied, rummaging in the refrigerator for the filtered water. "At least the headache has died down."

Tim claimed a chair at the kitchen table, accepting the pitcher Steph handed him and setting it down as she pulled two clean glasses out of the dishwasher. "Yeah," he said, "concussions aren't fun."

"Had a few, have you?"

He nodded, pouring water into the glasses Steph set on the table. "Maybe a few too many." He took a swallow of water.

Steph sat down and looked at him curiously. "Oh?"

He shook his head. "Sorry. Just in a mood."

"So I see." She waited a moment, formulating her question. "Troubles with the boss?"

Tim sighed. "Looks like we're both off this case."

"What? What the hell is he -"

Tim held up a warding hand. "Steph."

She quieted.

"Du Bois got me, too. Last night."

Steph's eyes widened. "Oh my god. Are you okay? What-"

"I'm fine now." Tim turned his water glass, staring blankly at it before lifting his eyes to meet Steph's and offering her a rueful smile. "Four stitches, a tetanus booster and a night at Leslie's later."

"Stitches? What happened?"

In answer, Tim reached to the hem of the sweater he wore, pulling it and the t-shirt under it up to reveal a bandage on his chest, just at the place where the Robin insignia graced his uniform. "Stabbed by my own weapon," he explained as Steph stared at the evidence of his encounter with her assailant. He let his shirts fall. "It was stupid. He gassed me, but its not Scarecrow's toxin. It's something new, designed to interact with the anti-toxin we carry. Causes temporary paralysis."

"Oh Tim-"

"The big guy's pretty upset."

Steph blinked. "He didn't -"

"Fire me? No." He glanced at her. "Not you either."

Steph felt her eyebrows draw down in puzzlement. "No?"

"No," Tim confirmed. He brought up a hand to rub across his brow, then let it drop. "He's... I don't know. It was sort of weird. He told me that he -" Tim stopped, a frustrated expression on his face.

"Go on," Steph urged.

Tim sighed. "Nightwing was surprised by it, too, a little, when I told him about it. Not angry surprised, just..."

"Tim, what did he say?"

"Just that he needed to focus on this case right now, that he didn't want to make a bad decision about his team-"

Steph stared at Tim. "His team? Well, that leaves me out."

"I don't think so." Tim hesitated again. "I think he even wanted me to talk to you about this, actually. Like he didn't say as much, but he expected it. That he can't just keep throwing us into harm's way, but he can't think about how to make things safer while Du Bois is still out there."

"He actually said that?" Steph's mind balked at the idea. Batman just didn't admit to uncertainty. He made decisions and when he said jump, he expected to be obeyed. A part of her, however, was feeling a growing indignation. Batman wasn't throwing her into harm's way; she was doing her own thing. The gall of him...

"That's what he meant," Tim clarified.

Steph snorted. "So you're not sure what he meant. You're just interpreting."

Tim shook his head slowly. "No." He rubbed his hand over the upper part of his other arm. "Steph, my father doesn't know what I do."

"I know that," Steph pointed out impatiently. What was Tim driving at?

"I know. Just - it sucks, lying to him all the time. And I was thinking last night about how the reason I lie to him... It's not about the whole identity thing, not really, although that's part of it. It's because I know, deep down, that as much as my father seems not to care... he'd feel the way your mom does."

Steph sat back in her chair. Her mother. For a minute she had managed to forget how upset, how hurt her mother had been. How she finally understood that her mother's anger was, no matter how aggravating, about how much she loved Steph. The pinprick of tears stung the back of her eyelids and she blinked hard against them.

"I think that's what Br - the big guy is thinking about. Not only about us, but about our parents. About what it means to put someone else in the position of losing someone."

Steph swallowed. "Yeah. I've been thinking about that, too." Too much, actually. Her Spoiler costume was still back at Gotham Free Clinic, and she had a feeling if she asked for it back, Dr. Thompkins - Leslie - wouldn't refuse her. She'd probably want to talk to her about it, but...

But did Steph want to still be Spoiler?

"Steph?"

Steph started out of her thoughts. "Sorry," she apologized, giving Tim a wan smile. "I was just thinking about - if you came and said I was fired, I'd be so mad. But-" She stopped, suddenly suspicious. "You don't think he's using some reverse psychology or something?"

A surprised laugh burst from Tim. "I wouldn't put it past him, but I don't think so. But you were saying?"

Steph bit her lip thoughtfully. "I don't know," she admitted. "I don't even know how I feel about any of this anymore."

"Yeah," Tim echoed. "I always said I didn't want to be Robin forever, but I guess I want to leave on my terms. Not because I did something stupid."

"Tim, getting attacked by a bad guy isn't-"

Tim interrupted her with a pointed look.

Steph slumped a little, wincing as she jostled her arm. "I see what you mean." She sighed. "This sucks."

They sat in silence for a long moment, sipping at their water. Welcome to my life, Steph thought somewhat bitterly.

Tim finally shifted, pushing his chair back a little and clearing his throat. "I should go. My dad-"

"Yeah," Stephanie agreed, looking up from her water glass. "I understand."

Tim stood and waited an awkward moment. "See you later?"

"Sure," Steph replied non-commitally. The codeine was wearing off, and her arm was starting to throb. She accepted Tim's kiss to her cheek without bothering to offer her lips.

He straightened. "I'll see myself out."

"Okay."

Another moment, and he was gone, and there was just the pain in her arm and two half-filled water glasses sweating on the kitchen table.

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