Oversung Hero, part 7
Disclaimers and other information in "part 0"
She was relieved until she stepped through the door of the JSA lounge, and on the couch, both Jakeem and Courtney abruptly stopped talking and turned to look at her. She felt color rising in her face. They had been talking about her, she knew it. It was like being in a school cafeteria when people suddenly got quiet or something.
She forced herself to smile a little. "Mr. Terrific told me to come back here?"
Courtney shot a glance at Jakeem. "Uh, yeah. There was a message for you." She stood up and crossed to the lounge refrigerator and pulled a note from under a magnet. "I just stuck it here in case we weren't here when you got back."
Steph accepted the note and unfolded it.
She felt her face grow hot again, this time more with anger when she saw the bat insignia in the lower right hand corner. She pulled her eyes from the mark to read the note above, obviously dashed off with typical Bat efficiency. "See Wildcat when you're done." She resisted the urge to crumple the note in her fist and instead folded it back along it's original crease. She looked up at Courtney, who was obviously curious and equally obviously trying to look disinterested. "I'm supposed to meet Wildcat. Does that mean here, or-"
Courtney cocked her head and laughed a little. "Wildcat? He won't be up here for hours. Try the gym."
Stephanie tried to look disingenuous. "I'm not sure-"
Jakeem sighed noisily from the couch. "I'll take you," he stated, sounding put out.
"You can just tell me and-" Steph began.
Jakeem shook his head. "You'll never find it. Just come on."
Steph bit the inside of her cheek to keep from smarting back and turned sharply to follow. "Thanks," she said over her shoulder to Courtney, not meaning it.
Jakeem was moving quickly, forcing Steph to jog a little to catch up. He surprised her when he spoke. "So you're with the Bat."
"No," Steph responded curtly.
Jakeem slowed a step to glance at her. "No?"
"I was," she clarified. "Right now, I'm not sure what my status is."
Jakeem shrugged. "Must have some status if he's leaving you orders."
"You read my note?" Steph asked, indignant.
"Hardly. More like it's hard to miss when Bat messages come through this place." He spared her another glance. "And Bat kids."
Steph bristled. "I'm not a kid!"
"Yeah," Jakeem responded, "that's what we all say. Elevator." She followed his gesture, letting him enter after her and hit a button marked "SB."
"The gym is in the subbasement?" she asked.
"For now. This place gets reconfigured so often it'll probably be on the roof by next month."
"Great," Steph muttered under her breath. Bad enough she could barely find her way around the two floors she had seen so far. If they planned to change it again soon...
"I'm sure you'll figure it out," Jakeem remarked, but his tone was not remotely reassuring and expressed anything but confidence.
The elevator doors slid open, and Jakeem again gestured for her to go ahead. The subbasement had a faint locker room odor to it, and she wrinkled her nose.
Jakeem caught her expression, and he released the first genuine laugh she had heard from him. "Eau de workout," he smirked. "No headquarters is complete without it. Especially headquarters where half the team is older than dirt and believes in sweat equity."
"Sweat what?" Steph echoed.
"That's what I said," Jakeem replied, a not-so-nice grin on his face. "Then I learned."
Steph did not reply. She had a sinking feeling in her stomach as she walked through the institutional halls alongside Jakeem, losing track of right and left turns along featureless linoleum. Abruptly, Jakeem stopped in front of a door on which a small placard at eye-level read "Gym."
"Here you are," he said, opening the door for her. "Have fun." There was a near-sarcastic edge to his tone, and she brushed past him without reply. The door fell shut behind her, closing between her and Jakeem, and the sound of fighting met her ears. Suddenly she wished she were back out in the hall, back upstairs, even with Courtney and Jakeem if she had to be. Anywhere but here. Swallowing hard, she stepped forward to the railing that overlooked the main gym floor below.
The fighting sounds where coming from a boxing ring set up more or less centrally in a large training area. A basketball court filled the area immediately below Steph, and to the far side of the ring she glimpsed free weights and other weight training equipment. Her attention, however, was drawn to the bout being fought in the ring.
The two combatants dancing around one another were clearly mismatched by weight, and she patted herself on the back for being able to recognize at least that much of the unfamiliar world of boxing. Wildcat was broad through the chest and shoulders and relatively squat, although he moved with a litheness uncommon to big men.
His opponent, though, had written the book on acrobatics. At least 75 pounds lighter, Nightwing skipped and evaded almost every punch Wildcat threw.
Nightwing got a punch in under Wildcat's guard, and a laugh came from the ring. "You're ticklin' me, kid. Quit pullin' your punches." An attempted uppercut from Nightwing was easily deflected and answered with a jab that got enough of Nightwing's gut to send him jumping back with a grunt.
Steph stared, mesmerized. She had watched Nightwing fight, in fact saw a half dozen potential moves that he had made before open to him, but apparently there were special rules in Wildcat's ring.
Neither man was throwing any kicks or grabbing onto the other, there was only footwork and fisticuffs. Nightwing was still dancing out of range and Wildcat grinned and plowed into him, throwing a one-two combination which pushed Nightwing back against the ropes. "Bad guy won't let you catch your breath, little bird," Wildcat gloated, pressing his advantage.
Nightwing wasn't saying anything, which surprised Steph. She had seen him banter with crooks as he took them down lickety-split, had even once witnessed him sparring with Batman, tossing in comments at regular intervals. She had rarely seen such obvious concentration in the older hero, and his intensity... She shook her head to clear it. No sense getting hot and bothered, no matter how hot Nightwing looked.
Besides, she realized with a renewed sinking feeling, she would be hot and bothered soon enough - in a bad way - if she was supposed to go into the ring after Nightwing.
Nightwing did not look like he was having a good time with this fight, and he was a thousand times more experienced and skilled than she was. He was still pressed against the ropes, barely blocking blows that looked like they could knock him cold. Suddenly, Wildcat let out a loud grunt and backed off, and Steph realized Nightwing must've gotten a good punch in.
He was straightening from the ropes with a triumphant grin, moving forward to reengage, but Wildcat was holding up his gloved fist. "Better," he complimented, gesturing toward the wall where, Steph realized, a clock was hung. "Only took you 12 and a half minutes to get that blow in this time."
Wildcat peeled off his glove and crossed to one corner of the ring, picking up two towels and tossing one in Nightwing's direction. Nightwing caught it easily and undid one of his own gloves in order to mop his face. "Only took me a year to shave that minute off," Nightwing remarked wryly.
Wildcat chuckled and thumped the smaller man on the back. "Eh, don't worry about it. I know it's not your fighting style. You don't have enough mass to use it exclusively."
"Yeah, I know," Nightwing acknowledged, picking up a bottle of water from the edge of the ring. He took a swig, then wiped his mouth. "Batman usually lets me cheat."
That earned a hearty laugh from Wildcat. "Old man's getting soft, is he? Tell him I'll be waiting for him next time he's in town."
Nightwing grinned for the first time since Steph had stepped into the gym. "Oh, I will, don't worry. Speaking of-" Nightwing raised his eyes and scanned the balcony level of the gym, quickly spotting Steph. "Hey, Stephanie. Come on down here."
The anxiety Steph had forgotten in watching Nightwing and Wildcat fight came surging back, and her feet felt leaden as she moved to obey. She had even less mass than Nightwing. She only knew one style of punch, and even on that one, Robin said her shoulder was still bailing. If she had to fight Wildcat, she was going to die.
Maybe that was Batman's point. Maybe he wanted her out of the JSA, too. Certainly Courtney and Jakeem wanted her out, even if Mr. Terrific and Dr. Mid-Nite and Black Canary had all been perfectly nice and encouraging. She wasn't sure about Sentinel; he was kind of scary. Not Batman scary, but...
She took a deep breath as she reached the bottom of the stairs and forced herself to walk over to the boxing ring. Nightwing and Wildcat were still chatting, but she found herself unable to listen. Instead she focused on not looking nervous. She smiled when she reached the ring. "Uh, hi."
Nightwing smiled easily. His hair was plastered to his forehead with sweat, although his mask still was firmly in place. She wondered why it didn't fall off when he sweated so much. "Hope I didn't interrupt anything you were doing," Nightwing was saying. "I just figured you might want a lift home."
Steph blinked at him. "You mean I don't have to fight Wildcat?" she burst out.
Wildcat and Nightwing looked at each other and began laughing uproariously. "Kid, no offense, but I'd crush you in three seconds. I gotta train you before I do that."
"Yeah," Nightwing agreed. "He likes his prey to last at least two minutes. You know how cats like to play with their food."
Wildcat took an affectionate swipe at Nightwing's shoulder, and the younger man shifted with the blow. "Don't listen to this one. He keeps strange company."
Nightwing raised an eyebrow in Wildcat's direction. "Hello, kettle." He took another swig from his water bottle. "I'm going to go hit the showers." He looped his boxing gloves over one of the ring posts. "Spoiler, why don't you help Wildcat stow gear so we'll be ready to go when I get done. Unless you have something else-"
"I'll stow gear," Steph assured him, hoping she wasn't speaking too quickly. She didn't need Nightwing telling the Bat that she was already cracking.
Nightwing just nodded. "Okay. Thanks for the round, Wildcat."
"Anytime, little bird. And don't forget to tell your senior partner-"
"I won't," Nightwing called over his shoulder.
Steph watched him go, a little sigh escaping her. At her elbow, Wildcat said, "Rough day, kid?"
She turned to face him, accepting the pairs of boxing gloves he handed her. His mask was down, and his expression was mild. "What? Oh, no, it was fine," she lied.
He studied her face for a moment. "Well, that's good to know. I was worried Courtney and Jakeem might give you a hard time." He turned away and began collecting wet towels from around the ring, apparently oblivious to Steph's startled reaction.
She trailed after him as he continued speaking. "Always harder for teenagers to settle in with change, no matter what anyone says. But it's good to have you here." Wildcat carried his armload of towels toward a laundry cart sitting against the wall. "Those gloves hang on the pegs there," he directed. "By the way, what made you think you would have to fight me? Didn't Terrific tell you we wouldn't start any training until your arm heals?"
Steph flushed a little; Mr. Terrific had told her that. She carefully began hanging gloves on their pegs, observing they were in order by size and making sure she was hanging them in order. "I - well, I got a message -" she fumbled.
Wildcat gestured for her to follow him as he began making his way around the gym, picking up stray water bottles and jump ropes. "A message, eh? Saying you had to fight me?"
"Well, no," Steph confessed. "Just that I was supposed to see you when I was done. I just - I figured -"
Wildcat turned to loop a couple jump ropes over her arm. "Odd thing to figure," he commented. "Who was the message from?"
Should she tell him? Of course, he would be able to find out easily enough from Courtney or Jakeem, and she didn't want to give him an excuse to think she couldn't be on the team. "It was from Batman," she mumbled.
She wasn't sure what she expected Wildcat to do, but she did not expect him to chuckle. He gave her an amused look. "He's got to you, too, eh?"
Steph stared at the old boxer. "Got to me?"
Wildcat was still chuckling, his arms now laden with water bottles. "I've known that boy since before he could shave. He's got a way with people, y'know? Not saying it's a good way, mind you, just a way."
"He's hard," Steph blurted, unable to stop the words.
Wildcat paused as he set the water bottles on a table under a sign that said, "Wash me!" "I know it seems that way," Wildcat sympathized, "but he's not as hard as you think. And while he'll train injured, I've never once see him make one of his cadets do it. Gets pretty worked up if they do train hurt, actually." Wildcat took the jump ropes from Steph's arm and hung them on a peg. "Well, that's the gear stowed. Nightwing's probably gonna test our hot water supply, so you wanna join me for a Soder?"
"Or maybe a juice," Wildcat suggested. "There's a kitchen just through here and Nightwing will know where to find us."
"Okay," Steph agreed, uncertain how to deal with this man who didn't look quite old enough to know Batman as a boy and who did look quite capable of giving him a hard fight.
"So," Wildcat said over his shoulder, taking it as given that she was following him, "I know you're technically just here as an intern, but we are going to get you trained so you can defend yourself. Might as well find out some of what you think you know."
Steph glared at the space between Wildcat's shoulder blades. That sounded like the Bat. What she thought she knew? She fixed her face, though, as she caught up to him. "Batman's trained me a bit, and Robin. Lots of roof work."
"Heh. Yeah, he was always big on those roofs," Wildcat acknowledged. "I half blame that Nightwing for being so into the flying. Forced the old man to keep up. Any fight training?"
"Some basic judo and jiujitsu," Steph told him. "And some special strikes that Batgirl taught me."
Wildcat nodded and pulled a chair out from the table in the kitchen he'd led her to. "Yeah, that little one has some good technique. Well suited to your size. Have a seat."
Wildcat pulled open the refrigerator. "So whadya like? Soder? Apple juice? Sport drink?"
"Water?" Steph requested.
Wildcat looked up at her over the refrigerator door and grinned. "Girl after my own heart. Water it is." He came to the table with two bottled waters and sat down beside her. She swore she thought she heard the chair groan a little as he settled down on it.
Somehow he seemed even more massive seated, and she found herself staring at his scarred knuckles. He drank thirstily for a moment, downing half of the bottle in one long swig. "Good stuff," he remarked. "So you've got some martial arts and some roof work," he recapped. "Probably have a decent sense of balance to work with, at least. That's good. How many days we get you each month? Your mother decide?"
"Saturdays to start," Steph informed him. "More after I finish school next spring, less if I start failing classes."
"Your mom's a smart woman," Wildcat noted. "So mostly the next few weeks you'll just be learning the ropes. But we should still get you a bit of defense training, just in case." He looked thoughtful. "I'll talk to Terrific. I can probably come up with something you can work on that won't risk reinjuring your arm. And we'll get Sand to drill you on emergency protocols next week."
"Already dictating her every waking moment, Wildcat?" Nightwing's voice asked, and Steph looked up to see the older hero leaning nonchalantly in the doorway to the kitchen. He straightened and went to the refrigerator, claiming a water for himself. "Don't let him scare you, Steph. These guys run a tight ship, and they know how to train people. They won't let you get over your head."