Oversung Hero, part 8
Disclaimers and other information in "part 0"
Nightwing barely glanced at her. "I know."
Steph turned in her seat and scowled at him. "I suppose you also know that this whole JSA thing is massively probationary and if my mom gets even a whiff that I didn't come directly home-"
The car slowed a little. "I can swing back from the Bristol exit and take the streets," Nightwing offered. "I thought you wouldn't mind stopping by the Cave."
"The Batcave?" Steph's heard gave a little unexpected skip. "I told Mom I wouldn't be Spoiler-"
"Of course," Nightwing agreed easily, moving the car smoothly into the right lane. "I wasn't going to suggest that. But I know Tim's planning on putting in some training time this afternoon, and he mentioned that he missed working with you." A flicker of a smile quirked a corner of Nightwing's mouth. "I should've mentioned that before I missed your exit."
"Yes, you should've." The car decelerated on the Bristol ramp, and Steph saw Nightwing signal a right turn. "Did he really say he missed working with me?"
Nightwing slowed the car further. "Cave or home?"
"Cave," Steph decided, and Nightwing shifted to the left turn lane. She felt a stab of uneasiness, but her mother wasn't expecting her home until after eight. And she wasn't being Spoiler, she was just hanging out with her boyfriend.
Her boyfriend who happened to be Robin.
She told the nagging voice in the back of her mind to shut up about the spirit of the law.
"So," she began to interrupt the silence, "how long has Ted been training you?"
Nightwing shrugged as he checked his rearview mirrors. "I guess five years, give or take. Almost ever since the JSA came out of limbo."
Steph blinked. "Limbo?"
"They'll tell you about it." Nightwing slowed a little and cranked the wheel to the left, peeling off the asphalt road to a graveled drive. The fingers of Steph's right hand tightened on the passenger side armrest as she heard the gravel spraying up against the car's undercarriage. "Anyway," Nightwing continued, "I met Ted long before that. Back ten - no, m ore like fifteen years ago." He shook his head as he seemed to speed up into a series of turns. "Where does the time go?"
Steph stared out the windshield and tried to mask her discomfort with sarcasm. "Right, you met him when you were what? Seven?"
"Ten," Nightwing connected mildly. "I wasn't Robin until I was nine."
"Wait -" Steph began, then barely stifled a gasp as Nightwing's car hurtled through what she knew was a holographic projection. Even knowing she was not really going to crash through solid stone, she had both her feet pressed lock-kneed against the passenger side foot well.
"Hmm?" Nightwing was saying, and it took her a second to realized he was still blithely carrying on the same conversation. She gamely strove to match his casual attitude as he navigated his car through the Cave switchbacks.
"You were Robin when you were nine?"
"Almost ten. It took a lot of training before Batman would let me actually tag along on patrol."
"You were nine?" Steph repeated, wondering how she had never know that before. "Batman will barely talk to me and he let you be Robin when you were nine?"
"Different times," Nightwing dismissed, turning off the main Cave drive to a side road Steph had never particularly noticed before. He pulled his car forward into a parking area already occupied by a dozen vehicles.
"How many Batmobiles are there?" Steph asked, reaching her good arm around to unbuckle her seatbelt.
"Y'know, I haven't asked lately." Nightwing got out of the car and shut his door, pausing to wait for Steph. He pointed to one car parked against the far wall. "That's the one I pretty much totaled when I was seventeen. We repaired it - well, I repaired it - but it doesn't see action anymore."
"Is that when he fired you?" Steph blurted out, then closed her lips tightly and pressed her teeth against them to try to hold them closed. She knew Nightwing had been the first Robin, that he had been fired over some life-endangering incident involving the Joker, but Tim had never given her the full details. He had, however, given her the impression that it was not something often talked about, and here she was blurting out questions.
She wasn't sure how to read Nightwing's reaction. He glanced back at her as he led the way to an elevator, speaking in careful sounding neutral tones. "Robin told you about that, huh?"
"I'm sorry," Steph backpedaled, "I just - yeah."
Nightwing sighed and held the elevator door as Steph stepped in. "Looks like I'm going to have to invite Tim to train with me this weekend."
"Oh, don't-" Steph protested, trailing off because she could swear Nightwing was winking at her from behind his mask.
"It's fine," Nightwing reassured. "But no, Batman didn't fire me over the Batmobile. He fired me because I got in the way of a bullet and it scared him."
Got in the way of a bullet, from the Joker, Steph completed in her head, the pieces making more sense than they had. Although the emotion that Nightwing attributed to Batman... "Scared?" she asked, not willing to believe it. "Batman?"
"You're not the only kid who's ever had a protective parent," Nightwing said pointedly, and before Steph could process what he'd said, the elevator doors were opening and Nightwing was stepping out into the main level of the Cave.
She was just beginning to follow him when Batman's voice said, "Dick. Will you be able to stay for dinner?"
She turned her head toward the big chair at the computer console, puzzled by the apparent slip in using code names, startled to notice that Nightwing was removing his mask as he answered. "Yeah, I'll come back after I take Steph home. Unless Tim wanted to give her a lift. Where is Tim, anyway? I expected he would meet us."
"He just went upstairs to get some Chocos for analysis." There was something familiar about the unfamiliar casual tones issuing from where Batman sat. She was trying to work out what it was when the big chair swiveled, and Stephanie Brown froze where she stood. "Hello, Stephanie," Batman's voice said, except -
Except the face was unmasked, almost smiling, and the blue eyes that met hers belonged not to Batman, but to Bruce Wayne.
"What the fuck?!?"
Bruce's mild expression gave way to a familiar frown of reprimand, and Nightwing - sans mask - stepped forward. "Sorry for the dramatics," he interceded quickly. "It's just kinda hard to just blurt out a secret ID." He reached out a hand. "Dick Grayson. Nice to finally meet you."
Steph ignored his outstretched hand, staring past him at the billionaire businessman sitting in Batman's seat. "Bruce Wayne didn't seem to have trouble blurting out Robin's secret ID."
Something flared in Bruce Wayne's eyes, and if Steph had doubted he was Batman, the rigidity with which he held himself would have laid her doubts to rest. "That was a... mistake," Bruce answered. He seemed more tentative without the cowl, his stiffness more defensive than intimidated. Or maybe, Steph reasoned, it was just that she was seeing the man for the first time, instead of Batman.
She snorted. "A mistake, huh? And I suppose lying to me and manipulating my mother were entirely justified?"
Bruce's face began to grow stormy, and between Bruce and Stephanie, Nightwing looked increasingly alarmed. "Um, Stephanie-"
The two voices cut him off simultaneously, and Nightwing dropped his hands. "Right. Not my argument." He turned away. "I'm going to change," he announced over his shoulder, muttering something unheard under his breath as he departed.
Steph continued to glare at Bruce, undeterred by the way his angry expression wavered at Nightwing's retreat. "How dare you?" she hissed.
Bruce's eyes went flat as his features settled into a bland expression. "you did not seem inclined to give up being Spoiler, and it is very clear that disapproval and sanctions won't keep you out of costume."
"So you do what? Fake a near death experience? Threaten the JSA into taking me and making me think I can run with them. Be all wolf-in-sheep's-clothing and make my mom think this is all her idea when she plays into-"
"Your mother is right to worry about you."
"Did I say she wasn't? Geez, you just - you are such a manipulative asshole!" Steph spun before Bruce could see the angry tears beginning to flood her eyes. She stalked off half-blindly, heading toward a corner of the Cave she had claimed when she had trained there before. Behind her, she heard Tim's voice address Bruce, but she couldn't make out the words. She was too confused, too angry - and her stomach was churning in nauseated panic as she realized...
She had just called Batman an asshole.