The Apprentice, part 4

by Chicago

Disclaimers and other information in "part 0"

The exam room was large enough for shadows beyond half drawn curtains at its far end, a concession to the figure lurking there. Batman watched in silence from those shadows as Stephanie Brown's mother entered steps ahead of Robin.

Mrs. Bellinger-Brown was upset, that was clear enough, but she did not entirely match the image Batman had formed of her from his files in the Batcomputer. Her arrival triggered a new flood of tears from Stephanie, and with a tenderness Batman would not have expected, Mrs. Bellinger-Brown swooped down to shelter her daughter in her arms. Her touch was expert, in no way disturbing her daughter's splinted arm or IV line, but the easy love so evident in the embrace triggered a little ache in Batman's heart.

"Mrs. Bellinger-Brown?" Leslie asked after giving mother and daughter their moment.

Stephanie's mother looked up with a kind of suspicious expectation.

Leslie held out her hand. "My name is Leslie Thompkins. I am the head physician here. The desk nurse spoke to you."

Mrs. Bellinger-Brown nodded, accepting Leslie's handshake. "He mentioned you have OR facilities here. That break-"

That's right, Batman remembered. She was a nurse. She had already assessed the situation of her daughter's health.

"Yes," Leslie acknowledged. "I am reluctant to put her under anaesthesia too soon after that blow to the head, but the fracture should be reduced as soon as possible."

Mrs. Bellinger-Brown glanced at Stephanie and gave her good hand a squeeze. "I understand. It's probably just as well to do the surgery here."

"I've got a pediatric osteopathic surgeon on call - Dr. Colmwood?"

"Dr. Colmwood." There was clear recognition in Stephanie's mother's tone. "He works for - forgive me."

"No forgiveness necessary." Leslie met the other woman's eyes, and some communication seemed to pass between them.

Mrs. Bellinger-Brown nodded a little and seemed to drift into thought, although her careful attention to her daughter did not wane. After a moment, she jerked her head a little in the direction of Robin without looking at him. "Did he bring her in?" she asked.

"No," Leslie answered quietly, her eyes moving to Stephanie's face.

"It's not his fault, Mom. None of them - they told me to head home and I wouldn't listen. Don't be mad at -"

"Shh," Mrs. Bellinger-Brown soothed, although her expression was still hard for Batman to read. "There'll be time to talk about that costume later."

"Mom-" Steph began again weakly, but she trailed off as a new figure entered the room.

Batgirl barely nodded toward the group clustered around the hospital bed, heading unerringly to the shadow across the room. Batman could read her failure to find Du Bois in the way she moved, a hitch of frustration tight between her shoulders, but he waited in silence for her report.

"Gone. No track."

That wasn't a good sign. Granted, there had been no time to hit Du Bois with a tracking device, but it was unusual for someone to leave no rooftop trail at all. Du Bois must've gone to ground very quickly.

"We start again tomorrow," he decided. "Go home."

Batgirl started to move, but a voice arrested them both. "Another one?"

Batman turned to find the incredulously angry eyes of Stephanie Brown's mother blazing at him.


Mrs. Bellinger-Brown ignored her daughter, rising from the bedside to cross the large exam room. "How many teenagers have you sucked into your little game?" she demanded. "I used to think you were misguided, back when you and that other boy were fighting my husband. And it was another boy, because that was too long ago for him to be this one." She gestured back toward Robin, who had moved to Stephanie's side.

Batman just stared silently.

If Stephanie's mother was at all intimidated by him, it did not show. "You aren't misguided. You are SICK!" she spat. "What happened to that other boy? You get him hurt, too? Lured him into this stupid game that you play until he was laid up or worse?"

Batman did not move, but he cringed internally as the vision of Jason he had been fighting to keep back since he had heard Spoiler was down snapped into focus.

"You are some piece of work, you know that? What do you promise them? Glory? Justice? Thrills? They're kids! Can't you see that. KIDS! They think they're immortal. They wake up every morning and watch the news and think 'none of that's going to happen to me.' Yeah, they may seem smart and clever, but have you listened to them?"

Stephanie's mother was up in his face now, pressing into his physical space in a way that forced him to repress the urge to strike her or force her back.

"None of these kids are yours, are they? You never saw them as babies, as toddlers. They were already talking, willful little creatures when you found them. And you encouraged them, let them do this thing you do. How many of the people who knew them when they were toddlers sweat through the night thinking you'll never bring them back?"

How many? Batman's mind flashed images of David Cain and Jack Drake. He knew what Cain thought, and Drake...

Drake didn't deserve Tim. But did that mean he deserved to lose him?

"Don't you realize you're a grown up? Or are you, dressing up in this costume every night? Hell, even if you're not, that's even worse. But dammit, teenagers are not grown. They do stupid shit all the time. That's why they need to have parents. Someone has to keep them from getting themselves killed, not encouraging them to pull stunts and make-believe they're crime fighters. Can't you see that? No, I bet you can't. Dressing up like this-" She pulled at his cape and dropped it from her grip with an expression of disgust.

"I work too fucking hard to raise Stephanie to have some asshole in a cape fill her head with ideas and get her killed!"

Mrs. Bellinger-Brown stared hard into the cowl for a moment. Then her face contorted into an angry scowl. "Stay the fuck away from my kid."

She spun on heel, and Batman maintained his stiff stance, afraid if he did not he would stagger. A few feet away, Batgirl stood at the window, prepared to follow his order to go home but caught by the spell of Stepanie's mother's angry words. Batman gave her a look, and she dove out the window without a word.

Batman waited a beat, then met Robin's eyes. There was outrage and - fear? worry? Batman wasn't sure. He made his face stern and gave a short nod. After a beat, Robin mirrored his action - understood. He would proceed according to his own judgment.

Batman could not assure Stephanie the same way.

He turned, glimpsing Leslie as he did so. Her expression was unreadable. Bedside manner? Or sympathy for a worried mother? Batman dared not analyze; it was hard enough to make his exit without giving in to theshakes that were curling inside his body.

Saying nothing to anyone, he followed Batgirl out the window and headed into the night.

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