Oversung Hero, part 9
Disclaimers and other information in "part 0"
"Ahem. Something I can help you with, Master Tim?"
Tim turned, making an ineffectual gesture to hide the Chocos behind his back. So much for the ultimate stealth challenge; he was busted dead to rights. Maybe he could bluff his way through? He smiled brightly. "Hi, Alfred. No, I've got what I need."
Alfred raised an eyebrow. "Indeed. I remind you that those were purchased expressly for Master J'onn."
Okay, maybe he wouldn't be able to charm his way out of this. He quit trying to hide the Chocos. "I know. We were just going to run an analysis on them." When all else fails go for the truth, he told himself.
"Oh?" Alfred asked, remaining in the pantry doorway. "An analysis beyond those provided by several government agencies and reported on the nutrition label?"
"Actually, yes," Tim confirmed, feeling his position solidify. "Bruce has some samples from Mars-"
"I see," Alfred interrupted, obviously inferring the project Bruce had set for Tim. He stepped aside to let Tim exit the pantry. "You might remind Master Bruce that some Chocos should be left in the house for Master J'onn's next visit."
Tim felt a hint of alarm. "He won't be here today?"
A meaningful look that Tim was at a loss to understand crossed Alfred's features, and when he spoke there was a hint of - disapproval? - in his tone. "No, he has agreed that he has other obligations to attend to."
Alarm gave way to a sinking feeling. "Bruce didn't want him to be here?"
"I am afraid I do not know any details." That was a classic Alfred evasion, rich with implication and clear in its intent to tell no more.
"Alfred, Bruce is telling Stephanie today."
"He may already be telling her, in fact. I believe Master Dick arrived shortly after you came up the stairs."
Tim stared at Alfred with a faint sense of horror, not doubting the butler's words despite the puzzling question of how Alfred unfailingly knew about all the comings and goings from the Manor and the Cave. "She's down there now?"
"I believe so, Master Tim."
"Alfred, I gotta go," Tim announced half over his shoulder, dashing out of the kitchen into the hall to the clock study. Three steps down the stairs to the Cave, he could hear Steph's raised voice, although he could not make out any words.
He moved swiftly, but he forced himself not to run. The voices below got clearer until 10 steps from the bottom Steph's words rang out, "...manipulative asshole!"
Now Tim did break into a run, taking three stairs at a time and skidding to a halt on the main computer platform just in time to catch a glimpse of Stephanie's back. "Bruce, what did you just do?" he despaired, staring off in the direction Steph had gone.
"I told her." The words were clipped, delivered in Bat tones. Tim looked at Bruce, but he had already turned back to the computer, the fingers of his good hand tapping across the keys with the hint of awkwardness that ten-finger typists always developed when working one-handed.
"Where's Dick?" Tim asked, surprised that Dick was nowhere to be seen.
Tim's eyes darted back in the direction Steph had gone. Bruce wasn't going to tell him more, and Dick had obviously bailed. "I'm going after her," he announced to no one in particular.
He had a pretty good idea where she had gone. There were a limited number of easily accessible hidey-holes in the Cave, and he doubted very much that Steph had had enough Cave time to know any but the most obvious. When he heard the first muffled sobs, he knew his assumption had been accurate.
He paused at the edge of the little grotto when he got there. Stephanie was sitting on the ledge of rock that rose just a little higher than a bench might, her knees pulled up to her chest and locked in place by her arms, her face buried against the tops of her knees. An occasional sniffle and strangled sob escaped her, and Tim felt suddenly as if he were intruding. He remained uncertainly in the shadows until Steph said, "Tim?"
"Yeah, it's me," he replied quietly, stepping forward to claim a space on the rock ledge. The crinkle of cellophane reminded him that he still had the package of Chocos in his hand, and he offered a half-apologetic smile as Steph raised her face to look at him. "Want a cookie?" he offered.
Steph blinked, then a gasping laugh pushed past her tears. "No, thanks." She blinked her eyes a few more times, then, "Tim, how do you stand him?"
Play this carefully, Drake, he warned himself. "Bruce?" he asked gently. "Or Batman?"
"They're the same damned guy, aren't they?" Steph snapped, then her eyes grew wide. "Aren't they?" There was a desperate quality to the question, a sudden uncertainty.
Tim nodded. "They are. He is. Kind of." He sighed. "It's complicated."
"Yeah, everything with you guys is complicated, isn't it?" Stephanie's eyes were blazing. "It's like your ultimate excuse for fucking up. You wanna know something? My life is complicated, too!"
Tim kept the flinch from his face, knowing Steph's anger wasn't really directed at him. "I know. And I'm sorry. I've been the one insisting all along that he should tell you who he was."
Steph wiped at her face with the back of her hand. "He could've told me before he got me all caught up in his stupid plan."
Tim reached a hand out to rest against Steph's lower leg. "He should have," he agreed. "He has lousy timing. And he is a manipulative asshole."
Steph's head snapped up. "You heard that?"
"Heck, I was wishing I'd said it," Tim admitted.
Steph managed a disconsolate smile. "Now he really hates me."
Tim shook his head. "I won't defend him, but I know he doesn't hate you. He just isn't wired that way."
She gave him a puzzled look. "What does that mean?"
Tim shrugged. "Batman - Bruce - he's got a temper and he does stupid things, but he knows it. He knows when things are his fault. He is probably reviewing all the reasons he deserves to be called a manipulative asshole right now."
"I can give him a list," Steph stated acidly.
"Take a number," Tim shot back, and they smiled at each other. Then Steph sighed.
"I just - I can't believe he's been orchestrating this whole thing with the JSA. I thought maybe -"
"Whoa, hold on," Tim interrupted. "Batman isn't orchestrating anything."
"What do you mean? He obviously pulled strings to-"
"No. I don't know all his thinking, but I honestly think he was trying to do the right thing this time. In his own twisted way. But I do know he really just got application materials from Black Canary as Bruce Wayne. I think maybe he hoped you and your mom would decide to apply. And once they took you, it would've looked weird if Batman would've ignored it completely."
Steph stared at Tim. "He didn't make them take me?"
"Not to my knowledge."
Steph's eyes betrayed her disbelief, but she didn't push the question further. Instead she asked, "Tim, why now? Why is he revealing -"
"That he's Bruce Wayne? He trusts you. He wants you to be more a part of the family. Make it official or something."
"Like I want to be part of the family," Steph groused.
Tim started, suddenly worried that no one had asked what Steph wanted, had assumed too much. "Don't you?"
"I don't know," Stephanie confided. "Kind of. Maybe. Part of the time." She looked down at her splinted arm. "I think Spoiler's done for now, though."
Tim nodded sympathetically. "Does it hurt a lot?"
"Not really. Leslie says it's healing really fast. It itches like mad, though."
They were silent for a moment, then Tim rose and picked up the unopened package of Chocos. "Ready to head back?"
Steph hesitated. "He's going to be mad."
Tim snorted. "Bruce? He's probably doing internal cartwheels. I think telling him off is a family tradition or something. It just makes you all the more one of us."
"I'm not sure that helps," Stephanie opined, but she rose to her feet and followed Tim through the murky half light back to the main section of the Cave.
Dick was back, dressed in civilian clothes and apparently working on some case or another from the way he was hunched over a microscope to one side of the main computer terminal. He raised his head at the sound of footsteps. "Hi, guys," he greeted a touch too loud, and Tim recognized a deliberate effort to prevent Bruce from ignoring their entrance. "Tim, you going to show Steph the rehab regimen?" Dick asked.
Behind him, Tim felt Stephanie stop in her tracks and could all too well imagine the incredulous stare she had focused on Dick. "You're kidding, right? After all this-"
"It's a good idea," Bruce's voice interrupted, and Tim shot a grateful smile in Dick's direction as Stephanie turned to face the man in the computer chair. Bruce was not immune to his own tactics, and Dick had studied his mentor far longer than any of the rest of them had.
"Says who?" Stephanie challenged.
"Empirically-" Bruce began in Batman-logical tones, but Steph was not inclined to listen.
"Empirically nothing. I'm not in this little club, remember?"
Tim felt his heart sink. He had not anticipated - but Steph wasn't done.
"Yeah, it's great you finally decided to let me in on things, but seems to me you did everything but order me onto another team. A good team, with their own methods and ideas about training."
"Yes," Bruce agreed.
"And since I am now bound to that team, I think it's only reasonable that they should have the first claim to my time and energy." She tossed her head, her blonde hair flicking away from her face as she raised her chin defiantly. "I'm not ungrateful, but I'm not your sidekick. I'll follow whatever regimen the JSA asks of me for my rehab. And frankly, I don't think I want to hang out in a Cave. So if Tim doesn't mind giving me a ride home -"
Tim caught Bruce's eye, as well as the single head bob of affirmation. "Uh, sure, Steph." He set the Chocos he was still carrying on the lab table next to the computer console. "The Redbird's just this way," he gestured, starting toward the elevator down to the Cave garage.
"Thanks," Steph answered, pausing before she stepped onto the catwalk to the elevator to turn back to Bruce. "And thank you for getting me the information on the internship. If you need my help, you can reach me through the JSA. See you later, Dick. Nice to meet you."
She turned back to the catwalk and joined Tim in the elevator, and all Tim could do was admire her a little more.