1. Please Allow Me To Introduce Myself
Hi there. You probably
don't know me, but don't be afraid. I promise I won't bite. Bet
your mother told you never to talk to strangers. But I'm not
stranger. In fact, you and I are old friends. Well, not yet, but you
could say I'm a friend of the family. Your father knew me, his
father knew me… maybe even his father. I know you young'uns think
you have nothing to learn from us old folk, but I consider myself
more important today than I ever was. Way I see it, I'm eighty-five
years young and I plan to outlive all of you. Wait, what?
Don't get up, don't get up, story's just getting started. It
won't take long, I swear. It may be short, but it's packed full
of action, adventure, some mushy romance for the ladies and
sissy-boys, thrills, chills, and my personal favorite, madness. I
don't know what to call this story, I'm sure you'll think up a
nice clever name, maybe a daring bon mot or a wacky pun or just an
allusion to a quote from some dry, dusty text. It doesn't matter
what this story is called. What does matter is who it's about. Two
young people who's lives I've had the glee of touching. Starting
to get interested, now? Their names are Tim Drake and
Stephanie Brown and this is the story of how I killed them.
Wait, what? Don't get up, don't get up, story's just getting started. It won't take long, I swear. It may be short, but it's packed full of action, adventure, some mushy romance for the ladies and sissy-boys, thrills, chills, and my personal favorite, madness.
I don't know what to call this story, I'm sure you'll think up a nice clever name, maybe a daring bon mot or a wacky pun or just an allusion to a quote from some dry, dusty text. It doesn't matter what this story is called. What does matter is who it's about. Two young people who's lives I've had the glee of touching.
Starting to get interested, now?
Their names are Tim Drake and Stephanie Brown and this is the story of how I killed them.
2. Boy Wonder Named Sue
The phone call startled Tim out of his sleep like a bucket of cold water. Raising his head from his pillow, he rolled over onto his back and picked the cell-phone off his bedstand, putting to his ear.
"Yeah?" Cheery hellos were for after ten A.M.
"Hey Tim. Are you alone?"
The voice was Steph's, only darker, deeper. The auditory version of her staying in the shadows. She'd begun using it ever since she became Robin and Tim would find it almost comedic if it didn't make his stomach twist every time he heard it.
"No, Kon's here. No woman could ever eclipse you in my heart, so I've turned gay. Yes, of course I'm alone."
"And yet you had to get my hopes up…" Steph's voice has slipped into the almost-playful, nearly-flirtatious tone she had used back when they were Robin and Spoiler, not Robin and Tim Drake. She regained the edge immediately. "Got a case, needs that Robin 3.0 magic."
Tim turned his pillow over and rested his cheek against the cool side, letting out a long sub-moan as he felt it against his skin. There was no way he was getting to sleep now, not with his curiosity aroused, but that didn't mean he couldn't give Steph a hard time. Besides, she deserved some grief from running home to Tim every time things got rough.
"Can't. I barely managed to talk my dad out of sending me to a deprogramming camp. If he catches me…"
"Tell him you went out for a smoke."
"I don't smoke."
"Then tell him you were doing one of your dork things. Collecting spores and molds and funguses."
"Fungi," Tim corrected.
"Yes, I do think you're a fun guy, but right now we need to focus."
Sighing, Tim rolled out of bed and began getting dressed. "How do I get there, call a taxi?"
"Look out the window."
Tim rolled his eyes and did so. The Redbird was parked on the opposite side of the street, the window down. Steph… Robin… waved at him.
"Nice boxers. Quick, former Robin, to the Robinmobile!"
The Redbird had already accumulated a bit of detritus. Tim, dressed in a red hoodie and jeans, filled some Wendy's take-out bags with an assortment of candy wrappers and soft drink cans, then dumped them into the neighbor's garbage can. Stretching out into the passenger seat, he had to scoot the seat back before he could get comfortable.
As soon as he got in, he saw what Steph had done to herself. Thick black locks trickled down from her hairline and merged with the collar of her cape.
"Did you dye your hair?"
Robin waved off the suggestion, coquettishly pushing a strand of hair back behind her ear. "No, no, it's just a wig."
"I see you still look to Dinah as an influence…"
"Well, we can't all be Batman Junior…"
Just then, Tim noticed what had happened to the Redbird in his absence.
"Oh God, what have you done to my baby?" he moaned.
Robin smiled beneath her mask and finger-flicked some fuzzy dice hanging from the rearview mirror. "'S my baby now, former boy wonder. Stephmobile, away!"
"Its name is the Redbird."
"Omigod, you named your car?"
Tim reached out and buffed a coffee ring stain out of the finish. "How's the old girl been taking care of you?"
"She gets me where I need to go."
"I was talking to the car."
"…stop rubbing the dashboard, you freak."
In Gotham City, there's a special shift among the paramedics who drive the city's ambulances. It's called the gift shift. Anytime a man is frozen to death by Mr. Freeze or has his face dissolved by acid from a flower on the Joker's lapel or suffocated by pollen from one of Poison Ivy's plants, a hardened veteran will go there to pick the poor bastard up. They are usually experienced with years of picking up after gang wars, supervillain slugfests, and other equally "Gotham" causes of death. In other words, they are the least likely to throw up, break down into tears, or simply scream and scream and scream upon seeing what happens when Gotham City breaks its toys.
Tonight, the gift shift was composed of Roy Palmer and David Payne. Roy Palmer was twenty-seven, a recent college graduate, and secretly bicurious. David Payne turned fifty two months ago, is married with three children, and is constantly reminding himself to pick up bagels after his shift.
The ambulance they were in was stopped at a red light when a young woman in rags, probably a runaway, began spraying the windshield with some indeterminate bluish liquid, crying "Wash your window? Wash your window?" in some hither fore undiscovered variant of English.
"No, we don't want… stop that, we don't… oh, goddamnit!" Roy cried.
"I got it last time," David reminded him.
"I know, I know, God…"
Roy opened the door to deal directly with the window-washer just in time for her to spray him with the contents of the spray can, instantly knocking him out. He got just enough of a look under her hood to see that she was wearing a mask.
"Yeah," she said.
David scrambled for his door as the girl drew a Robin dart from the utility belt under her coat. She needn't have bothered. As soon as David Payne opened the door, a young man was standing in the way. Two stiff fingers jabbed into his neck later, it was all over.
The girl shoved Roy Palmer into David Payne's lap as the boy climbed onto the running board. Steph shifted the ambulance into drive, turning into an alleyway where the Redbird was parked.
Tim jumped off the ambulance when it came to a stop, walking around back to the double doors as Robin grabbed the key and peeled off her disguise.
"You didn't need to use the knock-out juice. A tunso strike would've been perfectly sufficient."
"So, tell me, does that whine go with steak or should I order a salad?" Robin asked as she unlocked the doors and climbed into the back of the ambulance with Tim.
The body inside looked perfectly normal for that of a forty something man wearing a business suit and retiring after a long day, save for one thing. His chest had been burned away from the inside-out.
"What've we go?" asked Tim, examining the body for clues.
"Rupert Lawrence. Stockbroker for Barnum & Peterson, age forty-four, divorced, no children. Was gassing up for the drive home when he suddenly decided to gargle gasoline with a matchstick chaser."
Tim looked up at her. "I could do without the color commentary."
"Tough it out, AARP-boy."
The burns spread from the corpse's nose down to his sternum, below which his stomach had burst open. Burning fat had sizzled his legs and groin, turning his trousers and expensive leather shoes into pieces of abstract art.
"Our boy here is a messy eater," Tim pronounced, bending down to closely examine what was left of the cadaver's face. "Spilled gas out on his lower face as he drank, then when he lit up…"
"Exactly. But look at this…"
Tim was pointing at what looked like four elongated half-moons extending out of the burnt area of the face.
"There's another one on the other side of the burn," Steph said. Then they looked at each other.
"Fingerprints," they said as one.
"Four partial prints and a complete thumb," Tim said as he entered the samples into the Redbird's dashboard computer on the drive home. Above, the streetlights strobed overhead, casting the occasional evil glow on the inside of the car. Robin pulled down her domino mask, blinking away what was left of the spirit gum that kept it in place.
"Any matches?" Steph asked, pulling off her wig.
"No, nothing in the," Tim stifled a yawn, "criminal database. Congrats, Steph, you discovered a brand-new supervillain."
"Already they're lining up to be my new arch-nemesis." Steph's smile was a good ten percent demented. "Don't worry, buttercup, we'll have you home before you turn into a pumpkin."
Tim tried to resolve what had been mixed into that metaphor for a few moments before he decided to make his own attempt to fill the awkward silence. "So, how are things with you and…" he pointed his fingers upward at his brow, giving himself Bat ears.
"Oh, great. Couldn't be better. We fight like a well-oiled machine. He takes the high road, I take the low…"
"'There, the crevasse, fill it with your mighty truth'?"
The giggle from Steph was all stolen sips of parents' wine and hands under other people's shirts. "Something like that, yeah. Like what I've done with my hair?"
Steph's blonde hair had been neatly trimmed so as not to be visible under the wig. At its longest, it just passed her ears. Tim could make out a slight bruise on the back of her neck, where he couldn't have seen before the haircut.
"It's very…" Butch. Dykey. Masculine. "Interesting."
"I was going for Sam from Stargate. Think I pulled it off?"
It looked more like she had taken a left turn at Olivia from Special Victims Unit.
"I could get used to it."
That earned Tim a smile, which meant it was time for him to dig himself yet another grave.
"You didn't have to accept, you know."
A response was immediate. "Neither did you."
"I don't see how those two situations could possibly be alike," Tim admitted, letting his voice border on accusation.
"And I don't see how they're any different," Steph said defensively. "He made an offer, I took it. End of story."
The accusation crossed the border from subtext into text. "Not end of story. You knew that I was…"
Steph slapped the steering wheel hard. "That you were what? Huh? You told me once that Batman needed a Robin. If not me, then someone else. And while that someone else was still idling around, people would be dying because I wouldn't be the most efficient crimefighter I could be. All for your pride…"
Tim backed off a little: "I never said that you shouldn't take the job. It just would've been nice to have been consulted…"
"So now…" Steph was relentless. "Now, I need your permission?"
"No, you don't need my permission, but I thought, as your supposed boyfriend, you'd want a little of my advice before you took my old job!" Tim said, going right back on the warpath.
"That's what it is with you, isn't it? Robin isn't me, it's your old job!"
"Well, it has a nice symmetry to it! Fill an old job with an old girlfriend!"
"I'm more than your girlfriend, Tim!" Steph screamed in a voice that was all teenage girl. Then her voice hardened and went somewhere between that and Robin. "I always have been, you just never let anyone else see it!"
Tim's voice was equally quiet. "So I guess it's my fault, then."
"How many times did you stick up for me? When Batman wanted me to quit, when Batman wanted me off the streets… Cass helped me. Dinah helped me. Barbara helped me. But you? My 'supposed boyfriend'? Where were you?" Steph asked, hating herself for the vulnerability, for the pleading in her voice.
"I was waiting for you to ask for my help."
"I shouldn't have to."
Tim couldn't help but twist the dagger. "If you really were Robin, then you wouldn't need it."
Steph was still fuming after fighting into the wee hours of the morning, only heading home at the earliest rays of the dawn. She was still fuming as she parked the Redbird inside Cassandra's satellite Batcave and stepped out of it, stripping off her cape and skirt and letting them flutter to the ground like so much litter. Shrugging off her triwoven red vest stuffed with ultrathin Kevlar plates left Steph in her green leotard. She managed to get to the elevator before letting fly with a string of obscenities which questioned Tim Drake's parentage, honor, attractiveness, intelligence, and taste in music.
Stepping off the secret elevator into their apartment, Steph passed Cass on her way to her bedroom. Cass, still awake despite the hour, stood up and followed her. Steph had just started to unzip her bodystocking when she noticed Cass.
"You're still up?" she asked, signaling with a gesture for Cass to help her. Cass silently stepped forward and pulled down the slipper on the back of her suit.
Steph stepped out of the suit, shedding it like it was a second skin. Cass handed her a nightgown and Steph pulled it on with a thank you. "Why not?"
"I had a nightmare."
Steph sat down on her bed. "A nightmare?"
"It was scary," Cass confirmed.
There was a quick, weary sigh before Steph acquiesced to the unspoken request. "Get the lights."
Cass drew the curtains against the morning sun as Steph burrowed under the covers, then joined the blonde, slipping among the sheets as silent as a wraith. Steph wrapped an arm around her and held her tightly.
"You wanna talk about it?"
Cass shook her head.
"That's okay. You don't have to."
"Why are you mad? Your body feels tense. Angry."
Steph rubbed Cass' arm. "It's nothing. I asked Tim for some help and we had a… a bit of a row."
"A fight, Cass."
"Oh." There was a brief silence. "Steph?"
"Yes?" Steph replied in a put-upon tone.
"Are you going to go away?"
Steph took Cass by the shoulder and pulled the other woman towards her, turning Cass around so that she was facing the new Robin. "Where'd you get an idea like that?"
Steph shook her head before adding vehemently "No. I'm not going anywhere and anyone who says that is a liar. Now, who said I was leaving?"
"No one. But… people leave me. Batman sent me away. Barbara sent me away. Tim left. Dick left. Dinah and Helena, they all left…"
Reaching forward, Steph stroked Cass's cheek before leaning forward until their noses touched. "I'm not like them. I'm not going to leave. I'm in this to win it and I will be here as long as you'll have me, okay? We're in this together."
Cass didn't use her smile much, but sometimes, when the occasion called for it… "I… had hoped you'd say that."
"I'll say it was many times as you like. Now get some sleep. We're got a big night ahead of us."
3. Regrets Are For Mornings
Tim didn't get any sleep that night because he was too busy berating himself for being an asshole. He considered writing a letter, because that seemed like a nice, safe, (romantic) thing to do, but he didn't. That seemed more like Dick's thing, anyway, have a fight, leave a letter, go off to beat up… whoever.
Tim may not be Robin anymore, but he could still fight his own battle.
He woke up without realizing he went to sleep, cursed himself for going to sleep in perfectly good clothes which now looked wrinkled and sleep-drooly, so yeah, that would be a drag on the laundry budget. Going out in fresher clothes, it looked like the coast was clear. Dad was safely reading a paper, Dana was oblivious (because, thank God for small favors, at least Dad hadn't cared to share one little factoid about Tim's nocturnal activities with the wife).
That was when they got you. When you thought you were safe.
"Indian summer this year," Dad said, baiting the trap.
"We'll get by. That's why God invented AC." The banter was warm and inviting and just for a moment Tim forgot the gaping bat-shaped abyss between them, so that's when Dad decided to spring the trap.
"Might want to think of getting a real job."
That was a barb. No doubt about it. Like all the best ones, it flew right over a third party's head and sunk a battleship. Tim didn't rise to the occasion, wasn't even sure it was an opening shot, so he just told the truth.
"I was thinking of becoming a cop. I've always liked mysteries; been good at solving puzzles. Seems like a real good fit for me." Tim concentrated on filling his bowl of cereal up to the brim with milk as he said it, ignoring the lasers burning through Dad's reading glasses and newspaper straight into the back of his neck.
"Maybe you should think of something a little less taxing, dear," Dana said innocently, folding clothes. "You've never been the physical type."
"I've been doing some push-ups lately."
Dad slammed down his newspaper and got up from the kitchen table with a finality that announced that the conversation was going into the next gear. Tim knew all about body language, about how standing automatically gave you power over someone who was sitting, unless the sitter was behind a desk. It was a rudimentary parenting technique, but he let Jack think it was working.
"Maybe you should find a safer job. Something a little more… satisfying to a boy of your intellect."
"Yeah. Maybe I can be an archeologist, flying around the world while my son learns what his father's voice sounds like over telephones." There was no subtlety in that, nothing but cruelty so strong it even registered on Dana's sensors.
"Tim, that's a horrible thing to say! Apologize right this instant!"
Tim knew enough to look his father in the eye as he followed orders. "I'm sorry." For telling the truth he did not say.
Dad didn't break the staring contest, just kept right on looking in Tim's eyes for evidence of defiance. "Listen to me, Tim. You're going to keep going to school and you're going to get a college education. And then you're going to get a real job. And in the meantime, you're going to get some experience at a real job anywhere that they're hiring. We clear on that?"
Getting up from the dinner table, Tim poured the milk from his cereal out in the sink. "Jawohl, mein fuhrer," he muttered under his breath.
Tim was halfway down the stairway by the time he noticed his tail. He sat down on the stairs and soon enough Cass joined him, leather trenchcoat billowing around her. Steph, obviously, abusing that checking account Bruce had generously set Batgirl up with.
"How long have you been waiting?" Tim asked.
"Obviously long enough."
"Your English is improving."
"Been working it."
"Working on it."
Tim stifled the urge to smile. Cass didn't mind most of the time, but sometimes she got the impression that people were laughing at her, which was kinda true, and that sent her into a world-class funk.
"So, here I am," Tim sprawled out horizontally across the bottom step, looking up at Cass. "What've you been waiting to tell me?"
"Steph sent me. To check up on you. Wants to know if you're still mad."
"I was. For about five minutes. Then I just felt like a heel."
Cass examined the bottom of his shoe for a moment, poked at it with her finger, then returned her eyes to his face. "Steph didn't want you to know she sent me. Said you had fight?"
"Yeah, we had a fight…"
Instantly, Tim found himself on his belly, his leg bent back in an ankle lock. "No hit Steph. Bad. Hitting friends bad."
"It wasn't that kind of fight," he managed to get out before throwing himself into an aerial corkscrew, twisting out of Steph's grasp and landing in the corner of the stairwell on all fours like a cat. "We just… raised our voices. No hitting."
Staring at him for a moment, Cass gauged the truth of his words, then turned around and started up the stairs. "Shouldn't fight with friends anyway."
The sounds of Tim's footfalls going down were like a fading echo of Cass' going up. "Don't I know it."
"So, what'd he say?" Steph asked, focusing on very precisely cutting the waffles in front of her.
Cass was ripping open the newly-arrived Netflix DVDs with glee. Since she didn't have anything else to do during the day in-between meditated sleep (Steph called them power naps), her roommate showed her movies to shore up her command of the English language. Today, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across The Eighth Dimension was on the menu. "Said he felt like a heel."
"Well… he should!" Steph was now sawing her way through the toaster waffles. Discovering that they were just as burnt on the inside as they were out, she handed them to Cass and headed for the whiteboard. "C'mon, Cass, it's detective time! Let's get dangerous!"
Dumping the offending waffles down the sink, Cass rushed to join Steph as the new Robin uncapped a marker with a flourish.
"Alright, let's review the facts. At approximately twelve oh seven last night, Rupert Lawrence drank a half-quart of gasoline, then lit himself on fire. The gas station attendant is the only witness and said that he did it to himself, no one else was present to force him. So, option one, the witness is lying."
Steph wrote 1. Liar, liar, pants on fire on the whiteboard.
"Option two, some kind of brainwashing. Someone kidnapped Rupert, turned him into a sleeper agent like in that one old movie, and made him set himself on fire as part of some larger scheme."
2. Day of the Condor appeared on the whiteboard in bold lettering.
"Option three, mind control. We have a meta on our hands who can mess with people's heads." (Vulcan Mind Meld.) "Option four, bad trip. Some drugs, either taken voluntarily or otherwise, messed up Larry's day but good." (Harold & Kumar) "Right, any questions?"
Cass raised her hand.
Steph pointed at her. "Yes, you."
"You know I can't read, right?"
Steph turned to the whiteboard again. "Alright, let's get to work. Cass, you check to see when was the last time anyone saw Rupert before he fried himself, see if you can disprove the brainwashing theory. I'll get on the horn with Oracle, see if I can scrounge up an autopsy. If nothing pans out, we pay our own visit to the gas station attendant. Let's get to it!"
remember not being lonely all the time. I remember having lots of
friends. They came to me broken and frail and weak and I made them
whole. I gave them a family, a roof over their heads, and they loved
me for it. It hurt so much to send them back out into the world,
knowing how cruel and heartless it could be. Sometimes they came
back, so bruised and swollen that they were almost unrecognizable. My
poor children… But then they all moved away. All my children
and servants and friends. I felt empty inside. For so very long, I
felt hollow… So I decided to make some new friends. Like
good ol' Rupert. Rupert never wanted to realize his full potential.
He thought it was sick, the things inside him. He kept them all
bottled up where no one can see. What fun is that, I ask you? I
helped Rupert, but was he grateful? Noooooo. He tried to burn the
images out. As if a little fire could drive me away. But
that's alright. That's okay. I've found a new friend. My new
friend is a new father, with a lovely wife and a baby that drives him
But then they all moved away. All my children and servants and friends. I felt empty inside. For so very long, I felt hollow…
So I decided to make some new friends. Like good ol' Rupert. Rupert never wanted to realize his full potential. He thought it was sick, the things inside him. He kept them all bottled up where no one can see. What fun is that, I ask you? I helped Rupert, but was he grateful? Noooooo. He tried to burn the images out. As if a little fire could drive me away.
But that's alright. That's okay. I've found a new friend. My new friend is a new father, with a lovely wife and a baby that drives him absolutelynuts. There's a whisper in the back of his head that tells him how to deal with that. I'm going to make it into a scream…
"Hot of the press!" Steph called as she received the e-mail from Oracle. She forwarded the relevant portion to Cass' computer. "Look over the gas station attendant's interview, tell me if he's anything less than useful."
Cass did so, the computer taking her voice commands and cuing up the tape.
Steph examined her other theories. Hmm. Coroner report's tox screen was negative. That ruled out drugs. Girlfriend identified the body, said she'd last seen him that very morning. Ruled out brainwashing. That just left…
"He's telling the truth," Cass said, moving over to Steph's shoulder.
Nodding, Steph steepled her fingers under her chin. "Then we're looking at a new supervillain, someone who can… override people's self-preservation instincts." She turned to Cass. "Call Tim. I'm going to need a little more help on this one."
"I was wondering if you wanted to go out tonight."
The words seemed frosty, like dry ice, but Tim had known Steph long enough it was just an act, her faking anger until he made an obligatory act of contrition. "What, like a date?"
Steph's mingled reaction was clear even over the phone. "No, like a… team-up. God, I thought you read comic books. Superheroes have team-ups all the time!"
Tim sagged down into a chair and hoped that his world-weary body language would somehow translate through the phone lines. "First, I'm not a superhero. Second, don't those team-ups usually involve the heroes fighting?"
"I wouldn't know, you're the big nerd, Poindexter. Now get your ass to the next street over, I'll pick you up."
"I'm not doing it, Steph, I need my sleep."
"I'll be waaaaaaaaiting."
With that, Steph hung up. Tim stared at the phone for a moment, hung up, resolved that he wouldn't go, and left in five minutes.
Tim looked at everything but Stephanie. For some reason, that red and green costume had suddenly become an eyesore. He hadn't noticed before but the Redbird's control consoles had little Post-It notes attached to them, explaining their functions in loopy handwriting. The Is were dotted with hearts.
"Don't you think you owe me…"
"I'm sorry," Tim said, so quickly that they were almost speaking at the same time.
There was a brief awkward pause as Tim hid his grin with his hand and Steph only smiled out of the corner of her mouth that wasn't facing Tim.
"I don't mean to nag, you know."
"It's just… it's so hard sometimes, ya know? Everyone looks at me and they hate me for not being you."
"Nobody hates you," Tim insisted.
"Yes, they do. I used to be able to talk to people. People like Dick and Barbara and… and I thought they were my friends. But ever since you left and I took over, they treat me like it's my fault." Steph's hands were white-knuckled on the steering wheel. "It's all business with them and I keep wondering if it's some kind of Bat-hazing ritual and I wish it were because maybe then it would end and you and Cass are all I have left…"
"Are you crying?" As soon as he asked, Tim regretted the question. Where was it written that he had to develop an addiction to shoe leather, he was putting his foot in his mouth so much?
"No, I'm not."
She was, but Tim nodded anyway. "My mistake."
"Was it like this for you? After Jason?"
"No. There were a lot of… open arms. I was the Great Red Hope, the guy that was going to save Batman from himself… I think you would've done the job better. I always seem to leave it half-done."
"Some people you can't save."
"I guess not."
They drove in silence, but halfway there Steph reached for the gear shift and Tim reached for the radio and when their hands collided, Tim took the time to give her hand a supportive squeeze through the green glove.
Steph let out a small sigh and held onto his hand when he tried to pull back. "Tim, there's something you should know…"
Just at that moment, the multipurpose video display, currently showing their GPS position on Gotham's streets, went translucent and a live feed of Batman's face was superimposed over it. Tim couldn't tell who broke the handhold faster, him or Steph, but he could tell that Steph went rigid at the sight of Bruce.
"Robin, there's a hostage situation on Fourth and Northham. A man has brandished a gun and threatened to kill his family. Gun records show he's armed with a single Remington Model 7600 Synthetic, 18.5 inch barrel. Two hostages, his wife and infant daughter. Handle it."
"Yes sir." She shut off the video and swerved onto a sidestreet.
To Tim, the interaction seemed… off. Batman was more gruff than usual, not so much giving orders as… making a challenge. His tone even seemed to be slightly mocking, condescending. And Steph seemed unusually subservient, not giving any of her usual sass or backtalk. Maybe it was just his imagination, trying to comfort him that Steph wasn't as close to Bruce as had been. Then again, no one was ever really close to Bruce…
"Cops'll never make it in time." Steph reached into the glove compartment and handed Tim a headset. "I figure we park a block or two away, insert via rooftop. You cover me. Remember how to handle one of these?"
Tim put on the headset. "Hope no one has a camera phone…"
Steph handed him a green domino mask. "I always carry a spare, just in case the main one gets damaged."
"Girl has to look her best."
Tim and Steph watched as the Redbird transformed into an ordinary sports sedan. "So, you and Cass, eh?" Tim said.
Steph , standing next to him, turned. "What, you think I'm so hung up on you that the only way I can move on is to start eating at the Y? Typical male fantasy. We're just friends. I comfort her sometimes. There's nothing sexual about it. She doesn't even know what sex is. I'm more like a…"
Steph fired a grapple line up and began climbing towards the roof. "Sometimes, I guess."
Tim halted her upward motion by grabbing onto her cape. "Steph… she's not a child. She's not your baby."
"You think I don't know that!?" Steph paused, pulling her cape from Tim's grasp and starting up the line again. "Stop picking fights with me, Drake. It's not fun anymore."
Tim climbed up after her.
From a tree in the front yard, Tim watched through the infrared binoculars which rendered the suburban house into a red-tinged X-ray vision. "One hostile, armed, alone. He's in the living room."
Atop the house, Steph tied a de-cel line around the chimney top. "The one with the big window?"
Steph's voice crackled through the radio link. "Hostages?"
"In the baby's room, upstairs. Can't tell if they're alive or dead; either way they're not moving much."
Steph looped the line around her wrist and stepped to the edge of the rooftop, ready to dismount. "Tell me when he's facing away from the window."
"Confirm. He's looking out the window." Sirens announced themselves in the background. "Incoming cops."
"Yes, I do have ears as well, thank you."
Apparently, so did the hostile. "Shit, he's headed upstairs!"
Steph kicked off the roof.
"Steph!" Tim shouted into the suddenly empty night sky.
The de-cel line gripped Steph, turned her momentum into a mighty swing back towards the house, like rappelling on acid. The hostile was halfway up the steps when Steph swung through the window, turning OSHA-consulted safety glass into a free-floating matrix of shards.
Robin hit the ground running.
The hostile was quick, Steph gave him that. There was ten feet, not to mention a dinner table, between her and him. From his high ground, he opened fire. Steph ducked down and the blast ripped a hole through her cape and went on to obliterate some of the glass still hovering behind her.
The remaining glass hit the ground like so much spilled salt.
Steph bounded over the table, parting her legs in a butterfly split to clear the centerpiece.
The hostile pulled back on the handgrip, pulling a slide rail. This pulled back a slide located underneath the chamber, putting pressure on the breech block and causing that to move backward as well. Simultaneously, the locking block moved downwards out of firing position and retracting the firing pin. The spent round was ejected and sailed over the handrail.
Steph reached the landing, the tile white and gleaming. There was a squeaking sound as her boots landed on it, sliding a little. Her ankles slammed into the first step and she pitched forward.
The slide came in contact with the hammer, moving it downwards onto a spring. Once the spring was fully compressed, the sear locked on the hammer and held it in cocked position. The slide then depressed a switch which moved the carrier upwards, forcing the round the carrier was holding into the chamber.
Steph scrambled up the stairs on all fours.
Pulling the handgrip forward, the hostile caused the bolt to move towards the front of the receiver, fully chambering the loaded round. The hostile pulled the trigger just as Steph lunged at him.
Steph's forearm slapped at the underside of the rifle, angling it upwards just as it went off. The shot caused an upside-down volcano to erupt in the ceiling and plaster scattered everywhere as Steph grabbed the hostile by the collar and slammed his head in-between two balusters. She proceeded to kick him in the ribs until he dropped the rifle. It clattered down the steps.
Placing a foot on his back, Robin stepped over the defeated hostile and onto the next step. Then she reached down and securely fastened his wrists together with a plastic clamp. "Do you know what Professor X's one weakness is?" she asked the hostile.
"What?" he replied, more out of confusion at the question than wanting to know the answer.
Kicking him solidly in the gut, Steph dislodged him from the balusters (which snapped like toothpicks) and sent him tumbling down the stairs to land in a heap at the bottom.
The entire confrontation had taken place in the space of a few seconds.
"Steph, do you read? Steph, answer me!" Tim's voice was panicked and insistent over the radio link. Steph tapped her headset once, opening the channel.
"My name is Robin."
The figure had stood by the chimney like a macabre Santa Claus, pulling and prodding at the rope Steph had left tied to it. He was a good six and a half feet tall by Tim's reckoning, with a wide-brim hat and a tattered, charcoal-colored longcoat covering his hefty frame.
"Fine, Robin," Tim hissed into the radio, trying to keep his voice down. "I have an unknown subject on the roof, near your location. He's…"
The figure waved at Tim. Tim felt numb for a second, then hesitantly waved back.
Tipping his hat to the lad, the figure suddenly took off, bounding away from rooftop to rooftop.
Tim jumped from the tree he was in, grabbing onto the gutter of the house by the fingertips and pulling himself up onto the roof in a flash. In a heartbeat he was in pursuit of the figure.
"Subject is fleeing, I am in pursuit."
"Negative! Tim, for Christ's sake, you don't have any weapons…"
He wasn't listening. He was too busy using his bo staff to pole-vault to the next rooftop.
By this time, Steph was already scurrying up the trellis to the rooftop. The voice in her ear came as a surprise.
"Robin, go back and check on the hostages. I'll handle this…"
Steph's jump didn't quite make it to the next house, but she'd factored that into her calculations. She landed on a trampoline in the backyard and that boosted her back up to the rooftop that Tim was just now jumping off.
"Screw that, I'm no baby-sitter. Cops can handle it."
She could see the dull red of Tim's now-trademark sweater up ahead, fading into the distance. Cutting across the narrow beam atop a swingset, she made it to the next roof.
"You'll only distract me, turn back!"
"If you want to be Robin so bad, you shouldn't have quit! So either listen to what I'm saying or get the hell out of my way!"
They weren't even bothering with the communicators now, just shouting across the void between them.
"Trouble in paradise, kiddies?" The voice was languorous, devious, and though it seemed to surround them, it obviously came from the fleeing man ahead of them.
"Alright, to hell with this." Steph drew a long-range Birdarang from her belt. "Tim, duck!"
She threw the Birdarang straight and true. Tim heard its faint whisper as it cut through the air and ducked down as it narrowly shaved over his head. Continuing onward, the Birdarang slammed into the figure and stuck there, impaled in his back.
The man kept on running.
Steph was dumbfounded. "What the f…" So much so that she didn't notice the skylight until she had fallen through it.
Tim kept up the chase.
Steph pulled herself up, brushing flecks of glass off her body once she had snapped her shoulder back into place. "Why do they always put the coffee table right below where we fall?"
She was about to shoot a grapple line up to continue the pursuit when a Jack Russell terrier ran in from the kitchen.
The terrier growled ominously.
The pursuit was getting serious. The wind whipped at Tim and every step he took increased the possibility of a slip or fall that would, at this altitude, likely break his neck. Shedding his sweater, Tim realized he had already soaked through his T-shirt with sweat. Back in the good old days, he could've kept up a chase like this all night. He'd gotten lazy and now he was paying the price for it.
His mind was still as sharp as ever, though. The suspect had an advantage over him. At the apex of the man's leaps, gravity seemed to stop acting on him until he was within reach of his destination. He wasn't so much jumping as jumping, hovering, and landing.
As abruptly as it had begun, the race ended. The man leapt off a roof, cut a swath through the branches of a tree on his way down to hit the ground striding. When Tim caught up, he saw the man was standing on one end of a seesaw, the other end balanced by apparently… nothing at all.
"You wanted to talk to me?" the man asked softly.
Acting on autopilot, the Redbird pulled to a stop at the curb. Steph, fingering the dog-bitten hole in her costume that matched the one in her cape, walked to it just as the homeowner came barreling out of his house.
"Who are you!?" he demanded. "How'd you get in? Where's the goddamned guard dog!?"
Stepping into the Redbird's cockpit, Steph took a moment to answer: "Have you checked the freezer?"
The man paced through the playground, kicking up clods of dirt playfully. "In a few hours, it'll be dawn. Time for kids to get up, go to school, come here, play their reckless little hearts out. Warms the cockles of my heart. There's no more divine madness than childhood… except maybe love. Unfortunately, I haven't seen much of either." Reaching out with one finger, he idly gave the carousel a spin. "Perhaps you could help me with that… son."
Tim held out the bo staff like a spear, keeping the stranger at arm's length. "What were you doing back there? What did you do to that man?"
"My job." Under his fedora, Tim could just make out the man's shy smile. "I cured him."
"Cured him? Of what!"
"His… veneer of civilization, his pretensions at social betterment. I tore it all down and showed him who he really was… what was inside of him."
Tim sneered. He couldn't help it. This guy was setting off every danger sense in his head. "And what was that?"
"Rage. Pure rage." The man took a step towards Tim. "Would you like me to show you?"
Bringing the staff higher up, Tim took an involuntary step back. "Keep away from me!"
"Such shyness! Is that any way to treat an old friend?"
"Old friend? I've never seen you before in my life."
"Oh no? Think. Think hard. Think back to Uncle Joey. You remember Uncle Joey, don't you?"
The man began relentlessly advancing on Tim. Tim knew he should fight back, should counter with his own intimidating action, should do anything but yield control of the situation, but he couldn't help it. He backed up, the staff feeling more and more inadequate to the task of fighting this… thing.
"You remember going to visit Uncle Joey in that cabin up in the woods. Mommy and daddy left you all alone, just you and Uncle Joey, remember?"
It was important to stay rational, the most important thing was staying rational… "How do you know all this?"
"Uncle Joey wasn't quite right in the head. You remember what happened next, don't you Timmy? You remember what made you the way you are. Suspicious, paranoid… alone. You manage to fool everyone else, but deep down inside you know you're not like the others. You're not… quite… normal… are you? All because of what you saw that day…"
Tim ineffectually jabbed the staff forward. The man batted it aside, getting closer and closer.
"I could let it out for you, Timmy. I can give you the key, but only you can open the door. Wouldn't you like that? Wouldn't you like to give up on all the pretending… to finally stop running from who you really are"
"Shut up!" Tim tripped over the edge of a sandbox, tumbling backwards into it. The impact kicked up swirls of sand particles and the staff rolled away from him. "Shut up!"
"You went where you weren't supposed to go and you saw what you weren't supposed to see. And you, boy detective, couldn't see it coming… kept asking yourself 'why?' Because deep down, you knew you should've seen it coming, you should've done something about it…"
Scooping up a handful of sand, Tim threw it in the man's face, distracting him long enough for Tim to roll to the side and scoop up his staff. He came to his feet, holding the staff in a form 12 position, lower half parallel to his forearm for defense, upper half extending from one hand for offense.
"Didya see that coming?" Tim asked, because in situations like these you were supposed to taunt the villain.
He swung his now-shortened staff, trading in reach for power. The first blow took the man at the side of the waist, the second two in his ribs, the fourth across his sternum, and the fifth a solid stab into his throat. The man backed up, gagging slightly.
"Very good! I can see it's scratching at the back of your eyeballs, trying to get out. But it's okay because I'm not really a person, I'm just a hostile, right? The Bat has trained you well in his own specific pathology."
"You don't know anything!" Tim roared as he swung the staff around, catching the unheld half in his other hand, now holding it like a rifle.
Tim Drake swung it into the villain like it was a baseball bat and he was Babe Ruth on steroids. The former Robin could swear he saw the man's body distort and collapse in on itself where his hits landed, but spring back into normalcy when he stopped.
Suddenly, with uncanny speed, the man caught the staff in the palm of his hand. And then he seemed to… slide down the staff towards, Tim, who just then found himself flying backwards through the air. He hit the top of a swing set with bonejarring force, was sucked down by gravity, and landed atop a swing, his belly in the seat, hands and feet dragging in the gravel.
The man held the staff in his hands for a moment, examining it, before snapping it in two. That was impossible. There was no way… simply no way… for an ordinary man to break the reinforced steel of the bo staff. It was as if, all of a sudden, the universe made no sense.
Throwing the broken staff aside, the man grinned at Tim. "Now you're getting it. So… is that all you've got?"
The high-beams of the Redbird flared on suddenly, catching the man directly in its path. He turned just in time to see Robin surfing atop the hood of the car before she pressed a button on her remote control, causing the Redbird to slam on the brakes and sending her sailing through the air, screaming "Gratuitous acts of senseless violence are my forte!" She slammed into the man feetfirst, intent on delivering a truly destructive dropkick.
It was her ankle.
The man rocked back on his heels slightly as Steph fell to the ground, moaning.
"You're such an adorable urchin, Max," Tim said, obligatorily.
Sticking his hands in his pockets, the man acted as if he had unexpectedly run into an old classmate. "Stephanie Brown! Long time no see! I haven't seen you since you were…" He held his hand at waist-level to indicate how tall she had been while Steph fought her way to her feet unsteadily. "Well, I've never seen you, but I've heard of you. Your babysitter won't shut up about you. You know, his only regret is that he didn't finish the job and pop that cherry like bubblegum when he had the chance. Not that it made any difference in the grand scheme of things…"
Every doubt Tim had ever had about Steph's ability as Robin faded away when he saw the speed she drew her Robin darts with. And new ones rushed in to replace them as one thudded home into the man's heart, the other into his groin.
"Not that it matters in the grand scheme of things," Steph repeated in something more like a growl than anything else as she drew another Birdarang.
Tim would later remember saying "Steph, no!" as Robin… Steph… threw the Robin dart squarely between the man's eyes where it embedded itself, but it could've just been in his own head.
The impact caused the man's head to jerk back and his hat fell off. In the dim light, Tim caught a glimpse of heavy scars running from the edges of the man's lips to just below his ears. Then all his attention was focused on the man's hand reaching up, grasping the Robin dart, and pulling it out. A trickle of blood flowed from between his horribly, horribly alive eyes.
"You're getting it too! Quick learners, you Robins. Now, where was I? Ah yes…" he stepped forward, extending a hand towards the shocked Steph. "Unfinished business…"
She grabbed his hand, twisting it around as she vaulted off her good leg, twisting his hand at the wrist while, with her other hand, she grabbed his arm at the elbow and twisted in the opposite direction. It was a very painful hold, designed to hyperextend all three joints if the victim attempted to break free. Tim knew it wouldn't be enough.
"Robin, duck!" And with that, he launched a kick designed to make the man's elbow bend in a way it was never designed to.
He had intended for the arm to break, but he hadn't intended for it to be totally severed. Yet that was closer to what happened, as his foot seemed to pass right through the limb with a horridly crisp, churning sound, stretching the fabric on the other end of the sleeve so tightly that one could see the tread of his tennis shoe right through the cloth.
The man spun away, leaving Steph clasping his glove, and what appeared to be some form of sod leaked out of his now void sleeve. For a moment, all three seemed to be suffuxed with an equal amoutn of disbelief as the very last of the muscle, bone, and skin that should not be soil dribbled through the man's cuff. Tim just shook his head, dumbfounded, before screaming with a mountain of frustation and rage…
"WHO ARE YOU!?"
The man kicked up his hat with the heel of his foot and put it back on. "Don't you recognize me, dear boy? I'm Arkham." He pointed at them with his good (that is to say, remaining) hand. "You just wait until this grows back!" That said, Arkham catapulted upwards as if being yanked on by an invisible string, disappearing into the night sky.
Tim watched him fly for a moment. Then collapsed. Steph did likewise. Lying on their backs in the cool grass, breathing heavily, Steph turned her head to Tim and said simply "Well, at least things can't get much worse."
That's when the sprinklers turned on.
5. The Drive Home
After collecting samples of the pile of sod that had once been a human being's forearm and the entire glove, Tim helped Steph back to the car, where she got into the passenger seat, explaining that she couldn't use the pedals with her sprained ankle. Tim took the hint and got behind the wheel, which was when Steph noticed…
Tim followed her pointing finger to his forehead. He touched it and his fingers came back wet with blood. "I've had worse."
Steph was already reaching below her seat for a med-kit. She pulled out a length of self-sealing gauze and pressed it to his temple. He started up the car and started driving away, pulling off his mask as soon as he realized it was still there with a note of almost distaste in his body language They drove in silence for a moment and Tim felt the obligation to try and make an attempt to reach out.
"I used to keep the med-kit in the trunk."
"That makes no sense. How would you get to it in an emergency?"
Smiling, Tim said "I guess I didn't put much thought into it."
"Who needs to bleed, huh?"
"Pull over here," Steph said in a commanding tone. Tim obeyed.
They drove between houses under construction for a moment before coming to a dead-end. Past the sawhorses marking the distinction between the road and the wilderness, there was an excellent view of the sun coming up, unspoiled by the pollution and grime of the city behind them.
"This is it?" Tim asked after a moment.
Tim sat back in his seat and picked at his bandage. Steph rested her feet on the dashboard.
"I'm glad it was you," she said at last.
Tim turned his head and saw her face illuminated in the first rays of the morning sun. The light rendered the green mask into a bleak shadow.
"I never told anyone else what happened… what could've happened," Steph continued, not looking at Tim, but obviously feeling her words out carefully all the same. "And before you say anything, I know it wasn't my fault and I know I shouldn't be ashamed, but that's not the same thing as wanting to put it on a T-shirt, okay?" She looked over at him, apparently to confirm it, and Tim nodded. Steph looked back at the rising sun and seemed to be very old all of a sudden. "If it had been someone else, they would've… I wouldn't want them to find out that way. I wouldn't want them to find out, period. So… I'm glad it was you. Who was there with me."
"It was just a thing…" Tim began dismissively, obviously about to let loose with some think-nothing-of-it sentiments when Steph cut him off.
"No, it wasn't, Tim. It's more than that. I'm… I'm glad you're there for me. I'm glad that you're always there for me. I wouldn't have taken the job if you weren't and I hope you know that, but since I'm not sure, I'm telling you that. Do you understand?"
"Yeah… I think I do."
"Good." Steph shifted in her seat and leaned against the car window. "Sunrise's getting boring, let's go home."
Tim reached out and touched her shoulder lightly, just lightly enough for her to notice and turn to look at him. "Just so you know… I'm happy to be there for you. And I always will be."
Steph's smile was brighter than the sunrise. "I know."
When they arrived at the Cave, Steph was already half-asleep. Tim roused her enough for her to drag herself out of the cockpit, then he grabbed her hand. She was beside the car, he leaning across the door, the top of the Redbird retracted, turning it into a convertible. Steph looked at him as he checked for Cass and, satisfied she wasn't present, said something.
"He told me things too. Arkham. Things that… no one should have any way of knowing. A long time ago, my dad took me to this retreat in the mountains. Family reunion, male bonding, crap like that. My Uncle Joey, was… he was a sick man. Going through tough times. And he…" Tim bit his lip. "One day my dad left us alone…"
"Tim, you don't have to tell me anything."
Tim looked up at her slowly. "It's only fair, Steph. If we can't be fair to ourselves, why are we doing this?" He looked back down. "I found him in his den. He had a rope around his neck and it was… cutting into the flesh of his throat. His eyes were bulging out of his sockets and his tongue was bloated like a rotting fish." Tim gulped in air quickly, as if afraid he were going to run out. "My father always blamed me for what happened. He and Joey were close, so close, and I guess he thought that I should've… I don't know. Looking back, he probably was just glad I was okay, but back then… God, I thought he hated my guts. I was afraid of him. It's a terrible thing for a son to be afraid of his father. And when I saw Batman fighting the Penguin on that TV show… I wasn't afraid anymore. I don't know why. But that's how it started. Never told anyone that. Not even Dick or Kon. Not a one."
Steph bent down and kissed him softly on the top of the head. Continuing her descent into a kneel put them at eye level. Tim rested his head on the car door.
"I think we broke our record," she said.
"For the worst date we've ever been on."
"No arguing here." Tim paused for a moment. "That was a date, though?"
"Next time you can pick the restaurant," Steph joked as she leaned forward, resting her forehead against his
"And the movie," Tim insisted playfully. "I'm a dinner and a show kinda guy."
"Of course you are, superhero." Steph felt the warmth of his breath on her face and breathed it in. "So, don't I get a good night kiss?"
"It's seven in the morning."
"A good morning kiss then. Although that does seem a little 'how do you like your eggs in the morning' if you get my drift."
Tim's smile was wide and sincere. "Nothing ever gets you down, does it?"
"It's balance," Steph said, wishing she had brushed her teeth and flossed and taken a breath mint and gone to the dentist. "Yin and yang. Since nothing ever gets you up…"
His lips brushed against hers slowly, tantalizingly. "I can think of a few things…"
"You're not supposed to be here." The voice was crisp and clean and Tim jerked up so fast that Steph was left hanging for a minute, lips formed into a small breathless "o" that she quickly recovered from. Cass was walking down the spiral staircase that led up to the secret entrance in the roof, mask off. "This base is for active operatives only. You being here compromises security."
"Of course it does." Tim thought about going ahead with it, just kissing Steph and reducing his world to tongue and teeth and lips for a few blissful moments, see what Cass would say about that in her broken English, but he had already opened his eyes and Steph was still wearing the mask. So he climbed out of the car.
"Tim…" Steph called after him.
He knew what she was going to ask before she asked it. "Sorry, Steph, but if I get home now I think I can bargain my death sentence down to a light maiming."
"Drake!" Cass' tone had softened a bit and Tim looked up at the Batgirl. "It was good seeing you again."
Tim smiled sadly. "Good being seen." And with that, he left.
Steph watched him go for a minute, until Cass walked up beside her. Doing a picture-perfect slow burn, Steph turned to the ex-assassin. "Cass, I realize none of us have male gentialia… but you do realize what a cock-block is, don't you?"