The Apprentice, part 8

by Chicago

Disclaimers and other information in "part 0"

He balanced carefully on the window ledge, watching. He had timed the nurse's rounds; now he waited as the final check was made on Stephanie Brown.

The nurse bustled into the room, turning on the bathroom light to provide her with enough illumination to see without waking her patient. After a few perfunctory chores, she switched off the light and went back into the hall to continue her rounds.

Stephanie had not awakened.

He watched the dark room a little while longer to be sure the nurse was well down the hall before he settled a small electronic device against the window. Rapid fingerstrokes across a keypad set an LCD display racing through numbers, and after a few seconds, the device emitted a soft beep.

All clear.

The alarm defeated, he fished out a special tool, slipping it between the sill and the casing of the window, unerringly finding the latch. He had access to the room less than 30 seconds after he had made the decision to enter.

He swung the window open silently and dropped without a sound to the floor.

Stephanie Brown still slept.

Senses on high alert, he carefully closed the window. No sounds from down the hall hinting at a return from the nurse, but he stayed still for a few minutes to be sure. Stayed still and watched the rise and fall of Stephanie's chest.

When it was clear the nurse had moved on, he crept forward until he was at Stephanie's bedside. He studied her face, noting the discolored welt on her forehead and the bruised looking shadows under her eyes.

It was all too bad.

Still silent, he gave into an urge; he leaned down and kissed the girl's forehead.

Blue eyes fluttered open, rife with fear.

Then came recognition and relief: "Tim!"

He pressed a green gloved finger to his lips and shook his head, glancing significantly toward the door. She just smiled at him, reaching up with one good arm to hug him.

He accepted and returned the hug, holding her tightly to him and closing his eyes, taking the moment to just... hold her. He reluctantly released her when she leaned back against his arms.

Her eyes were soft as she gazed at him, bringing her fingers up to his cheek to touch the edge of his mask. "I'm sorry, Robin," she whispered. "I spoke before I thought." She sighed, turning her face away. "Just add it to the reasons he's going to fire me."

Robin settled himself on the edge of her bed. "I don't think he's going to fire you," he said quietly.

"Oh, he will," Steph said emphatically. "Probably should, actually. Stupid, stupid mistake."

Robin reached out to touch her chin, turn her face toward him. "It wasn't stupid. You couldn't know that-"

"Know what?" Stephanie pulled her face back. "That I should've listened to Oracle when she called me in?"

Robin said nothing, and Stephanie noted his sudden expressionlessness narrowly.

"You didn't know that part, did you? Must mean the Bat's not talking." Her quiet words were laced with venom, its target ambiguous.

"Stephanie, we all-"

"Stop." She pushed at him, turning away. "Just stop, Robin. Yeah, we all make mistakes. I know that, you know. I know about how he fired the first Robin, and about the one who died, and about how many times you've almost been killed. I have been paying attention, despite the undying belief that I don't listen."

He could hear tears in her voice, but he knew she would only shake him off if he tried to touch her now. He knew that she paid attention; they had talked about it a little from time to time.

"I'm not even stupid enough to think it couldn't happen to me. I mean, look at what happened to Dad-" She choked a little on the word, then rallied. "But I am free out there. I have some control over my life, over what I do. I want to run around on rooftops and pound on felons. It's my life, and I want to call the shots. Even if I have to deal with him, it's not as bad as sitting back waiting for the next disaster."

She fell silent for a moment, and Robin - Tim Drake - reflected on her words. He rarely thought of his vigilantism as freeing, but there was something in what Stephanie said that made sense. The part about control, about not waiting for disaster. He remembered the first time he had put on the Robin suit, pleading with Alfred that he had to do something.

"I didn't think I would hurt someone else," Steph revealed.

Robin started, bewildered at the source of this remark. "No one else-"

"No, Robin." She finally turned back to him, the light from the street showing the tear trails on her cheeks. "I heard some of what Mom said to Batman. Not all of it, but..." She shook her head. "She was really scared. I know things are different for you at home, but my mom is really trying. All the hours she works, all the times she grounds me - so much of that is for me. Making it without money from dad, getting off drugs... and then when I was pregnant..."

New tears started flowing down Steph's face, and Robin gently laced his fingers into those of her good hand.

"She could've thrown me out. She could've done so many things, but she supported me. She helped me. I know you did, too, but ..."

"It's not the same," Robin acknowledged.

Stephanie swallowed hard. "No. And when she was yelling at Batman - she was yelling at Batman. She was so scared for me that even he couldn't scare her more. And what she said, about parents and their kids..."

Robin squeezed her hand encouragingly.

"I'm technically a parent, you know," she whispered, dropping her eyes to stare at the hospital blanket that covered her lower body. "I didn't keep the baby, but... but I still loved it. When it was in me... I was so scared, but I still... Oh, Robin!" Fresh sobs wracked her frame as she threw her arm desperately around Robin's neck, clinging to him.

Robin stroked her back, his mind returning to Mrs. Bellinger-Brown's lecture of the previous night. He had been trying not to think about it, about how his father would fit into the whole thing. What would Jack Drake think or do if he was ever called to the morgue to ID Tim's body? Yeah, he hadn't been a model father, and he really didn't do a good job of keeping track of his son. But did he deserve to outlive Tim?

"I was lying here earlier, thinking about my baby, about why I gave it up. And I don't regret it. But I think what helps me deal with it is the image I have of this child growing up safe and happy. If I thought ... if I imagined something bad happening..."

Steph's gasping breaths began to calm a little, and she finally leaned back, wiping at her eyes. "My mom doesn't deserve that," she said.

"You want to hang it up, then?" Robin asked after a moment.

Steph shook her head. "I don't know if I can. I just - I need to find a better way. Or do something different. Or - I don't know!" she cried in sudden exasperation.

"Shh," Robin cautioned, his ears tuned to the hall for sounds of a returning nurse. "I think I understand some of what you mean," he said carefully, "but I also think that right now you need to focus on getting better. You're good as Spoiler," he pointed out, "and even though part of me would rather have you home safe, I'd miss you out there."

Steph sniffed a little and watched his face without comment. He leaned in to kiss her lips softly, and for a moment there was just that gentle kiss. She winced a little as they leaned their foreheads together, and he backed off and patted her hand reassuringly.

"Is everything all right here for now?" he asked. "Do you need anything?"

"No, everything's fine. I could've gone home tonight, but Mom had to work and Leslie thought it was a good idea to watch me a bit longer. I like her."

"Leslie? Yeah, she's - she's pretty amazing."

"Yeah." Stephanie sighed. "So he hasn't fired me?"

"He hasn't said anything."

"He will," she predicted, shifting her arm in its sling. She raised her eyes back to Robin's face. "You should go. He'll be mad you took so much time off patrol."

"No patrol tonight."

"What?"

Robin shrugged. "I'm on standby. Batman and Batgirl are trying to shake out Du Bois."

"And they didn't -" Stephanie's indignant protest died half formed. "Right," she said meekly. Then with more virulence. "I hope they nail his ass."

A smile quirked Robin's lips. "They will," he promised. "They will."

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