Fandom: DC Comics
Pairing: Damian Wayne/Stephanie Brown
Word Count: 12,000+ words and yes I am ashamed
Disclaimer: All characters belong to DC comics and are used without permission. No profit was made from this work. Non-beta'd, so all sleep-related errors are mine.
Warnings: Language, violence, character death.
Previous Parts: Part One * Part Two * Part Three 1/2
"I'd never realized it takes so long for a body to heal," Damian said, sounding bored. "I find myself wondering if you're doing this on purpose, to try my patience."
"Oh, right," Steph said, rolling her eyes. "Because hobbling around for three months and having trouble peeing by myself is totally worth the time off work!"
He made a grumbling noise at the mention of bodily functions, even though he'd been the one to help her from the bed to the bathroom those first couple of weeks. Honestly, Steph was healing remarkably quickly, in no small part due to her inborn stubbornness. She pushed herself harder than any physical therapist would have, because she seriously did not know the meaning of giving up. It never even cropped up as an option, not in her curiously-wired brain.
The weeks she'd spent healing could have been worse. She'd assumed that Damian would have told her to deal with it herself, not having the patience to coddle someone who took the slow lane on the highway to health and happiness. To him, if something broke, you just replaced it. When the Flamingo had put a half dozen bullets in his spine, paralyzing him, his mother had taken him home and given him a new one. He came from a world where body parts were switched out as easily and readily as car parts.
When he'd told her that, Steph had laughed for three straight minutes. Then she'd realized he wasn't joking, and it'd been really awkward for them both.
Ever since his mother had replaced him with a less quarrelsome new sibling, extreme operation hadn't been an option. Even if ringing up Mommy al Ghul for a couple spare ribs had been an option, Steph wouldn't have taken it. She just wasn't that kind of person.
So, healing took time. It was hard, and it was painful, and it meant a fresh batch of scars, but she lived for the tiny triumphs. She was up and walking in ten days, though she couldn't laugh or cough or bend over. She mastered left-handed eating and Wayne-slapping in half that time. Her cast came off after six weeks, and her right arm was starting to get back to normal usage. Steph still ached sometimes, and got winded every once in a while, but it wouldn't be much longer before she'd be back to kicking faces in.
She'd expected Damian to be short with her, uncooperative. She'd been rendered useless as a partner, and no manner of sneering or glaring at her could get her to heal faster.
But he'd surprised her.
Like, a lot.
He'd still patrolled nightly, but he'd checked in every couple of hours. He'd always made sure that she had the basic necessities, whether that meant making them available to her or---gasp---getting them himself. He'd helped her wash her hair, though he'd groused about the length of it and threatened to shave it when she was sleeping. He even got her movies to watch when she was doped up and miserable, though he had strong opinions on why everything about Disney movies was wrong.
He'd been good to her, in his own way. She'd gotten to know him, really know him, and surprised herself at how easy he was to read once you knew his tells.
For example, Steph could tell when Damian was working himself up to say something. She'd usually catch him muttering to himself, or to the cat, and actively avoiding her. He was all about choosing the right timing and controlling to flow of a conversation he wasn't confident about, so she'd learned to give him room and let him come to her.
"Lucius has been giving me hell," he started off, sounding loftily annoyed---but speaking more quickly than he usually did. "I almost resent my father's public legacy, since it causes me no shortage of grief."
"Boo hoo," Steph laughed, scraping the bottom of her cup of yogurt with her spoon. "Being a rich, spoiled brat is sooooo hard."
"Yes, but." His blue eyes flicked away briefly, then back to her. "I've outgrown the age where being just a rich, spoiled brat is acceptable. Apparently, I've been nominated as one of Gotham's most eligible young bachelors. No one thought to inform me of this development."
She licked the back of the spoon, cleaning off any delicious blueberry goodness.
"Ahh. I see how it is. Lucius wants you to get your playboy groove on."
"For lack of a more tasteful description, yes. He's all but demanded that I be seen with a woman at Le Nuit next Saturday.The thought of entertaining some vacuous girl who only wants to discuss her clothing and the nuances of Glee makes me physically ill, so you are coming with me."
Steph almost choked on her spoon.
"I'm not interested in shallow little socialites. What will I talk to them about? The only neutral territory of my interests is the cat, and I can only talk about that hellbeast for so long. My only alternative would be to let one of them control the conversation for an entire evening, and I can promise you that blood would be shed."
Okay. So he wanted her to be his beard, since he hated 98% of humanity and could probably be described as batsexual. Most girls would jump at the chance to go to a fancy restaurant with a billionaire footing the bill, but Steph...
She knew where her Stephcialties lie. And high society was not her Stephciality.
"I don't own a dress," she said slowly, scraping the bottom of her yogurt cup again. Anything to keep her hands busy.
He propped his chin on his hand, giving her a dissecting look.
"I know. You own two pairs of jeans and a handful of ratty shirts, all of which should be burned. I can arrange for something for the night."
"I've never been to a super fancy place."
"It doesn't take any great skill to sit and eat food, Stephanie. You like to eat. That much is obvious."
Aaand there was the fat joke. No conversation with Damian was complete without one. She huffed a sigh.
"Fine. But only this once, because I owe you. Next time, you find another Batbeard."
He frowned, but nodded.
"Good. Dinner will be on Saturday, at eight. The reservation has already been set."
Later, she wondered if he'd gotten the idea from Beauty and the Beast.
The dress appeared in her room on Saturday afternoon, folded in a long white box and joined by a note that said This should suffice.
If there was one thing positive about Damian, it was that he had incredible taste. The dress was beautiful: an empire waist and tiered skirt of plum silk and chiffon, a deep v of a neckline and a daringly low scooped back. Steph spread the dress out in her lap, the diaphanous material looking almost like ripples of water. Tiny beads caught the light and winked at her.
It was beautiful, but the thought of wearing it made her suddenly sick to her stomach. It'd show her chest, arms, and back. It'd show everything---all the wounds and scars, old and new. She didn't regret any of them, not when being Batwoman was the one thing she felt she'd done right with her life. But, normal women didn't look the way she did. She could try to cover up what she could with makeup, but she didn't have a snowball's chance in hell of looking like the kind of woman the son of a billionaire industrialist should have hanging off his arm.
He should have gotten something with sleeves and a full back, she thought, feeling helpless. But she couldn't turn him down or say that the dress was anything but beautiful. And it was just one evening. She regularly survived harrowing situations, so she could tough this one out. The Wayne PR machine needed some oiling, and he owed that much to him for taking care of her.
She got dressed early, taking her time. Steph curled her hair and put on make-up. She couldn't help but grin at the fact that there were a pair of matching heels in her closet. The note with them read Just don't break anything.
Steph did have to practice walking the length of her room a couple of times. It'd been a while since she'd worn heels.
But it turned out that Bat-training pretty much prepares you for anything, even walking in four-inch stilettos. She took comfort in the fact that she could slip them off and fight crime with them if need be.
Deciding that this was as good as it was going to get, she joined Damian in the garage.
If a suit made a man, the suit he was wearing made him a stranger. The cut emphasized his broad shoulders, the sunny yellow tie the only splash of color between the black silk of the suit and his neatly combed black hair. He was adjusting his cufflinks, but he looked up at the sound of her heels on the cement.
"You look..." Damian said, trailing off. He couldn't finish the thought.
Wow, she thought sourly. That bad? He can't find anything nice to say at all?
"Acceptable," she finished for him, mimicking his usual flat drawl. He rolled his eyes.
"Yes. You---yes. Acceptable. Almost." He reached into his breast pocket, taking out a string of pearls. She could tell just by looking at them that they were very old. "I never met my grandmother, obvious, so I have no emotional attachment to the things that Martha Wayne left behind. Most of it was given away or auctioned off to charity, but Father insisted on keeping these. There are no women in the family to appreciate gaudy little things, so I thought that you---you might appreciate them instead."
And that? That, Steph didn't know how to react to.
"Allow me," he said, and she carded her loose curls to the side so that he could clasp the necklace. The light graze of his fingertips at the nape of her neck made her stomach do flips worthy of Dick Grayson.
Whoa, girl. Reality check. This is Damian Friggin' Wayne, the guy who tells you that shaving is illogical and calls you and the cat twice-damned harlots. He might be all cleaned up, but he's still the Littlest Psychobat. Back, hormones. Back to the pit whence you came.
"Now you are acceptable," Damian said, sounding pleased with himself.
She traced the cool, even ridges of the pearls. It was a long string, hanging between her breasts even though he'd looped it twice.
"Really pulling out the stops, aren't you?"
"Doing things halfway is not in my nature," he said, straightening his tie. "The paparazzi will find themselves marvelously convinced. Come on, I don't want to be late."
Steph was horrified to find that there was no twelve-and-under portion of the menu. In fact, the menu was missing a lot of things, like pictures and prices and English.
"I don't speak French," she hissed over the top of the menu. "All I know is to stay away from escargot."
"Your loss," Damian said with a negligent shrug. "They're known for their Escargots à la Bourguignonne."
"Do you know why the menu is in French? Because nobody in their right mind would order the Snails in Garlic Butter."
She'd known that fine dining was a little out of her league, but Steph hadn't realized exactly how far. The menu was in French because it was just assumed that the people who ate there were cultured enough to be multilingual. They'd all finished high school. The menu had no prices because it was just assumed that the people who ate there could shell out for just about anything their hearts desired. They'd never eaten peanut butter and Eggo waffles for three weeks solid because that was all that they could afford. The menu had no twelve-and-under section because it was just assumed that the people who ate there had nannies. They'd never zeroed in on the kid's section of a menu because eating out was a luxury, and the cheaper, smaller portions stretched a buck further.
Steph was having a tiny little panic attack. Why had she agreed to this again? One wrong move and this would go from 'positive Wayne facetime' to 'front page humiliation'.
When the waiter came over and asked if they would like some wine, she could have hugged him. Really, she could have.
But ordering wine was a drawn out process, it turned out. Damian took the wine list from the waiter before she could reach for it---she only barely kept herself from blurting out Uh, excuse me, you can't legally be served alcohol and I need that way more than you do.
"What vintage is the Château d'Yquem?" Damian asked, his French as fluid as if it'd been his native language.
"A 1992, sir. An excellent year, if I do say so myself. Would you like to sample it?"
"Mm," he said, and the waiter poured a couple swallows' worth into his glass.
Damian held the stem of the wine glass delicately, holding it up to the light. It looked like he was expertly swirling a glass full of gold. She'd never seen a white wine that richly colored.
But then again, the wine Mom and her had always drank had come from cardboard boxes with plastic spigots. Safeway had always been a solid vintage.
He sniffed the wine thoughtfully, then took a sip.
And then he spit it out in the bucket the waiter was carrying. This, apparently, was proper conduct---the waiter didn't bat an eye.
Nothing made sense.
"The 1992 Château d'Yquem, you said?" Damian asked, still scrutinizing what was left in his glass.
"Yes, Monsieur Wayne. Is it to your taste?"
Steph swore that she could hear the tt that he wanted to make, but didn't.
"Mm," he repeated, blandly. The waiter took this as a yes---she suspected that complete indifference was the approval of the very rich---and nodded.
"I'll fetch you the bottle, sir," he said, taking the barely-used glass.
There were more pieces of china and cutlery at her setting than had ever been on her mother's table, even when it'd been the two of them eating together. There was a bowl, a large plate, a little plate, an even littler plate, three crystal glasses of differing sizes, three forks, two knives, and three spoons. Just for her.
Oh, god. There were choices. There were so many choices, and she had no idea which one to use. Steph had been less nervous when faced with bombs that needed defusing. Picking between the red wire or the green wire was nothing compared to the fork dilemma. If she cut the wrong wire, she didn't have to live with the knowledge and shame.
And she couldn't ask Damian. She knew that she couldn't. It'd embarrass him in front of the waiter.
She picked up the fork closest to her plate with her right hand, careful to wrap her fingers around it. She'd been out of the cast for a month, but that didn't mean the healing process was over. Even with daily physical therapy---and all the stubborn dedication she was famous for---the muscles were weak and stiff.
The fork dropped, clattering loudly on her plate.
The waiter gave her a pointed look, then a thin smile. "Ah, madame, that is not your salad fork. That is your dessert fork."
Why would they put the dessert fork closest to the plate? Dessert came last.
With the way her face was burning, she was sure that she was red and blotchy from embarrassment from her chest to the tips of her ears.
"With what I'm paying, I feel that my companion is entitled to use whichever fork she chooses," Damian said. There was a warning note in his business-calm voice.
"Very good, sir," the waiter replied stiffly, his thin smile stretching further.
Steph stared blankly at her plate, chin tucked. She had to work to keep herself from listing all of the ways that she could make a speedy, silent exit. Dinner wasn't supposed to be a pop quiz for an etiquette class that she'd never taken. Why couldn't Lucius have demanded that Damian be seen eating at a burger shack? Preferably one that didn't have napkins and served their burgers and fries in baskets---no utensils, no plates, no problems.
A burger and a night out fighting crime. She was a simple girl who liked simple things. Was that so wrong?
"Start with the utensil farthest from your plate," Damian instructed, voice low. Her helpless confusion was showing, then. Great. Something new to grind in her face. "Work your way in, using one utensil per course. The salad fork is on your outermost left, followed by the dinner fork and dessert fork. Your soup spoon is on the outermost right, followed by your beverage spoon, dessert spoon, salad knife and dinner knife. Work from the outside in, always."
Stephanie felt dizzy and more than a little bit sick.
"This was such a bad idea."
"No. I don't care what you use. I'm only telling you for future reference."
"No. Seriously. This was such a bad idea. You saw how the waiter was looking at me, right? He's not the only one. That lady, that one over there with a rock on her finger the size of a baby's fist? She just whispered look at that poor thing to her husband." Her chest ached like her ribs had been busted all over again. She hated pity. Absolutely hated it. "I'm a poor thing now."
Damian slammed down his fork, rattling the glasses. She jumped reflexively, her knees hitting the underside of the table.
"Don't make a scene," Steph whispered, hands raised in treaty. It was almost a plea. "I'm sorry, okay? You should've just picked up a high society girl and schmoozed if you really had to make an appearance. I suck at this. I'm sorry. Just don't make a scene."
"I didn't have to come," he said quietly, each word measured carefully. "I lied."
His jaw flexed as he clenched his teeth. "I said, I lied to you. Fox requested that I make more appearances, but he did not force me to come here tonight. I merely---I acted upon his suggestion. I came here because the food is excellent. I came here because I wanted to."
Steph giggled, high and nervous. She only laughed like that when she was close to hysterics.
"Why? Why would you---" Her chin trembled, beyond her control, and her voice dipped into a fainter whisper. "---why would you embarrass me like this?"
"That wasn't my intention," he said, looking away.
"You should have known better. I'm not like you. I'm not---Steph Brown isn't anyone. I didn't finish high school, I didn't finish college, I've never held down a job, I've never gone to a restaurant that didn't have a twelve-and-under section of the menu, I've never---" She blinked frantically against the way her eyes were burning. It was a losing battle.
She felt so small. So stupid. How dare he reduce her to this. She'd fought so hard to win her confidence, to prove that she was more than the circumstances she'd been born into---he was always stabbing into that fragile bubble with needles, always trying to pop it in small ways, and now he finally had. He'd won.
"I don't know what a salad fork is for. I mean---salad, I can guess that much, but I don't know which one is which. There's like---there's like five forks, and they all look the same. You saw how that waiter looked at me. I shouldn't be here. He knew it, I know it, and you know it."
"That wasn't the waiter," Damian muttered, gaze fixed at some point past her shoulder. He couldn't even look at her. She was embarrassing him, too. "That was the sommelier."
"What the fuck is a sommelier?" Steph demanded in a hysterical whisper, her voice full of tears. "If you were trying to make a point, I get it. Okay? You win. I'm not cut out to be upper-class. My dad was a crook with mental problems and my mom was a pill-popping enabler. I know where I came from. I'm not ashamed of that, because my mother was a good woman and I've---I'm not a statistic. I'm---"
"Stephanie---" he tried to say, but she was couldn't stop. Awful words kept hemorrhaging out.
"---screw you, Damian, seriously. You might be a psycho, but you're a psycho with culture. Why this place? Why this dress? This dress probably costs more than my mother made in a month, and all it does is show everyone here how scarred up I am. Is that what you wanted? For people to see Damian Wayne humoring some dumb blonde that just looks like damaged goods? Did you think it'd make you seem heroic?"
That got him to look at her. His blue eyes blazed with anger.
Good. Then maybe he would feel as awful as she did.
"That is not what I wanted. That is not anything near what I wanted, and if anyone dares to imply that I will personally ruin any career they would have had."
"No. Listen to me. I don't care who your parents were," Damian hissed, his voice wound steely-tight. She could barely hear him over the conversations around them, the polite murmuring punctuated by the bright chimes of silver cutlery on fine china and crystal glasses meeting in toasts. What he had to say was only for her ears, so she had to strain to hear every word. "I don't care how you were raised, or what mistakes you have made. I don't care that you are not accustomed to gifts. I. Do. Not. Care. These facts are inconsequential to me. I want you to have these things because you deserve them---because I want to give them to you. I want for you to not want for anything. You give so much. You care. You deserve to be cared for in return. Frankly, fuck the fucking sommelier. His taste in wines is subpar at best and he is a weasel. I wanted this to be nice for you. Because you're healed, now, and. And I didn't---I didn't know how to do it."
Stephanie was completely speechless. She opened her mouth to say something, to deny that she wasn't worth half of this, to explain that she was just trying to make up for all the stupid, selfish things that she'd done over the years, to apologize for what she'd said, but no words were coming.
Nobody had ever said that to her before.
"That fucking sommelier, and m-my mascara isn't---" Her breath hitched as she tried to stave off the real waterworks. "---it's not waterproof, and I'm going to look worse than I already do, a-and---"
"Shut up! I mean---please. Shut up, please."
"You shut up," she laughed, but it came out a ragged-edged sob. "This was nice. I'm just not good at nice. Nice makes me break out in hives."
"I didn't...that wasn't meant to make you cry," Damian said, sounding half-helpless. "I didn't mean for any of this. Did I misspeak?"
She reached across the table and took his hand, knotting their fingers together tightly. His face slid and swam in her aqueous vision, blurred by candlelight and tears.
"Nah," she said, her voice reduced to a shaky croak. "That was effin' beautiful."
"I meant it," he said, staring down at their tangled-up fingers. "Do you doubt that? Is that why you're crying? Don't be angry. I can do better. Tell me how, and I will."
"No," Steph said, her mascara-gray tears rolling down her cheeks. "I know you mean it. That---that's why I'm crying."
"You make no sense."
"I'm a woman. You'll get used to it."
Damian waved for the check. The poor waitstaff were probably praying for them to leave, so it didn't take long for it to get to their table.
"How was it, sir?" The maître d' asked, peering at Stephanie out of the corner of his eye. She left mascara smudges on the fine linen napkin she was wiping her eyes with, then blew her nose loudly.
"You should fire your sommelier immediately," Damian said loudly as he signed his name. She could almost watch his voice carry through the room, heads tilting toward their table. "His wine choice so insulted and upset my companion, she can barely keep her composure."
"Sir," the waiter said, with the tired flatness of a man who had to deal with spoiled rich children regularly. "I do not see how that can be."
"Oh, no? Please, allow me to explain," Damian said, and now all the chairs in the room seemed to be leaning toward his magnetisim. "He claimed to be serving us a 1992 Château d'Yquem, at a price of three hundred dollars. As I pray you know, the entire 1992 vintage of Château d'Yquem was deemed unworthy of the name and was summarily discarded. We were served a 2009 Ygrec d'Yquem, a wine worth three times less, and told that it was the Château. I have sat here and asked myself, why would he do such a thing? The only thing that I can surmise is that he paired my wine not to my meal, but to what he imagined my taste in women to be. He scoffed at her inability to hold her utensil properly and looked down upon her appearance. This woman," his voice rose, then, boomed. "Is a survivor. This meal was meant to be a celebration, since this is the first time in months that she has been able to hold a fork at all."
That rippled through their sudden audience. People started getting up, abandoning their meals.
"In short, sir, your sommelier is both a boor and a crook. My business associates will hear of this, rest assured. You cannot cheat your patrons, nor can you openly mock a woman because you believe her unfit for your fine establishment." He slipped his pen back into his breast pocket as the maître d' gaped, horrified.
Damian stood and offered Steph his hand. He blazed with Wayne charisma.
She was as speechless as the maître d'. She took his hand, suddenly very okay with being Wayne arm candy.
Because she wasn't just Wayne arm candy. With the way he stood beside her, the way he looked at her, she forgot about her visible scars. Damian Wayne was a man of demanding, exquisite tastes. He did not tolerate anything but the very best, and never had.
And he had taken her there because he'd assumed that everyone would see what he saw, nothing less. They'd insulted her, and he hadn't let that slide. Everyone around them was tittering, women giving her twinkling smiles of approval as two dozen men simultaneously called for their checks.
The maître d' realized at that moment that he had totally fucked up. People were getting up and leaving en masse.
"Sir---Monsieur Wayne, I assure you---"
"Ah-ah-ah!" Damian stopped him, holding up his hand. "La pluie de vos injures n'atteint pas le parapluie de mon indifférence. This beautiful woman has been insulted, sir. You cannot undo that damage. Now please, allow my companion and I to leave and try to salvage what remains of our ruined evening."
As they left, the room broke into applause.
"What did you say to him?" She didn't let go of his arm, even after they were out of sight. "I mean, in French."
He smiled, obviously pleased with himself. "I told him that his spluttering insults did not reach the umbrella of my indifference."
"You're a little bitch in every language," she told him fondly as he helped her into her coat and out to the car. "That was amazing. You know that, right?"
"He belittled you. I could not let that stand unaddressed. I can only hope that he learns from this experience, because if he had been any ruder to you I would have said the same thing while dangling him off the balcony by the crooked lapel of his knock-off Canali jacket."
And he would have, too. Steph knew that.
"Can I...I don't know. Make dessert or something, to make up for this?"
All that bold, startling charisma simmered down, and he was once again a teenage boy with flushed cheeks.
"I think I'd like that, yes."
"Good." Stephanie took a deep, cleansing breath, then let it go. She watched it hang, white and puffy, on the cold winter air. She felt lighter than she had in a very, very long time. "This was nice. We should do it again sometime. Next time, though, we should hit up Chuck E. Cheese's. More age appropriate for us both, don't you think?"
Damian snorted once, then again, then burst out in rare, loud laughter. It startled her---had she ever seen him do that? She found herself laughing with him. They collapsed together in the back of towncar, wiping their teared-up eyes and trading broad, almost shy, grins. The driver just shook his head and started the engine.
"Infinitely more appropriate," he agreed, and took her hand.
"What is it going to be this time?" Damian asked with a long-suffering sigh. "Talking dalmatians? Talking dishes? Talking elephants? Talking crickets? One of these days, you must explain to me why some things talk in these damned 'Disney Classics' and some are kept mute. What is wrong with Pluto? Why is that he is forced to walk on all fours and bark, while Goofy is bipedal and at least has the rough estimation of speech? What is this a-hyuck, which is a sound no dog makes?"
Being Damian, his Goofy imitation was beyond pitch-perfect. Steph grinned at him from the floor, where she was sorting through DVD cases.
"That is so cool. Do it again."
"Absolutely not," he huffed. "And, as usual, you completely missed the point that I was trying to make. Goofy is allowed to speak, and even allowed raise a child as a remarkably inept single father. But Pluto continues to bark and walk on all fours. Who is keeping him there, preventing his evolution? Mickey? Personally, I believe that Mickey Mouse is a tyrant who shows clear nepotism to some and crushes all others below his ridiculously oversized yellow shoe. Why is this not a discussion that is happening? Why is no one fighting for the rights of Pluto, and other parties not allowed voices?"
"You've officially gotten waaaaay too invested. Let me blow your mind a little: Pete is a cat. Where is his tail? Lost in the fifties or something. So dial down the criticism. Not all of this is supposed to be read literally."
"Tt," said Damian, sprawling so that he took up more of the couch. At over six feet tall, he didn't have to try very hard.
"Ha! Found it!" Steph crowed triumphantly, putting the DVD in the player and hurrying to the couch. "Scoot your big butt over, D-man. We're watching the Lion King."
He simply gave her a bored look. "Oh. Talking lions. Grand."
"Shush," she said as the first song started playing. Since he wasn't giving up the couch, she just crawled over him until he was forced back lest he end up with a lap full of Batwoman. To most boys, that would have been an invitation. To someone with Damian's pronounced personal bubble, not so much. "Everyone can talk but the wildebeest."
"And why not them?"
"Because they're meant to be seen as a force of---God, just shut up and watch the opening credits. This shit is iconic, so pay attention."
After the little golden cub had been Simbaaaaa'd and thrust into the sunlight, he sprawled a little bit more toward her area of the couch, but didn't touch her. He got close enough that she could feel his body heat, but a piece of paper could still be put between them.
Steph sighed. She'd forgotten how frustrating teenage boys could be.
But she loved the Lion King. Really, she did. She hummed along with the songs, drawing her knees up and covering her cold toes with her favorite ratty purple blanket. It'd been her blankie, the baby blanket that she'd dragged around for most of her childhood. Even though it was threadbare in places now, she couldn't fathom throwing it away. Besides, Alfred had all but claimed it as his, which was why it had a liberal shag of white and black hair on it.
Steph was nervous, though. She'd picked out this movie for a specific reason. She'd been putting off watching it with Damian for weeks, but the time had finally seemed right. With the way he dissected the movies, truly absorbing them, she'd wanted to see what kind of reaction this one would get.
As the scene approached, she chewed on the edge of her fingernail. The stampede thundered across the 70-inch screen, and Damian went very still.
She watched Damian carefully out of the corner of her eye. She'd seen the Lion King so many times over, she knew the next part by heart---Simba would go to Mufasa's body and realize that his father was dead. Then, he'd be run off from the Pridelands, to wander until the girl he loved called him back and helped him claim his father's territory. There wasn't an American kid alive that didn't know that Mufasa died...except Damian. This twist was totally knew for him. It'd blindsided him. Guilt tugged just below her ribs, but she couldn't have warned him.
His eyes were glued to the screen, brows bunched. His expression was strange, and it took her a second before she realized that it was because it was an expression of empathy, of memory, of reliving something bleak.
He refused to tell anyone how Bruce had died. He would not---and maybe just couldn't---rehash it, no matter how much it frustrated and angered the people around him. Babs had said that he had shown his true colors as a sociopath the night that Batman had died, because despite the loss he hadn't cried. He'd shown nothing at all.
But now, his eyes were shiny-bright with unshed tears. His throat worked, his breathing rapid and shallow. A tear spilled over, streaking down his cheek before he roughly wiped it away with the back of his hand.
Babs hadn't understood. His father's death had ruined him, and he just hadn't been able to express it.
Steph reached over and wove her fingers together with his. She didn't say anything.
"I don't like this movie," he announced, voice thick. "Talking lions---do you still think me a child?"
"Nah," she said, and leaned into him. "Nobody's too old for Disney. And be patient, D. He gets a lion ladyfriend and a happy ending eventually."
He sniffed, rubbing his nose with the back of his free hand.
"I don't care about the mating rituals of lions, and happy endings are unrealistic. Parents should know better than to pollute the minds of their children with fluff and nonsense that leaves them unprepared for real life. This whole thing is juvenile and---"
"Shh," Stephanie interrupted, squeezing his hand. "Listen to the nice talking animals. They're wise. They know things."
He grumbled, but went quiet again. His arm found its way around her waist---but only after several false starts and the kind of hesitance that reminded her that yes, he was still a teenage boy. A teenage boy who had zero experience with the opposite sex, too.
They hadn't expressly said anything one way or another, but after their disastrous not-date it'd been clear to her that he liked her. Maybe loved her, because showing more than mild tolerance to people and things was a big deal for him, and he'd definitely shown that he cared about her. A lot.
And what about her?
Her thoughts were complicated, to say the least.
Steph leaned her head against his shoulder, eyes drifting half-shut. He absentmindedly stroked her knuckles with his thumb, a small but gentle show of affection.
It'd been years since she'd gotten this close to anyone, much less a man. She'd started having sex early on---at the too-tender age of thirteen---and had fizzled out quickly. Her partners had been arbitrarily chosen, teenagers at least four or five years older than her, and some armchair psychologist in her noted that this had probably been an expression of her daddy issues. She'd wanted any man who wanted her, because she'd wanted to be wanted. It'd been desperate and uncomplicated. Maybe other early bloomers enjoyed sex, and more power to them, but she hadn't. It'd been messy and uncomfortable---painful, sometimes---but it'd been the only thing that made her feel accepted. None of her hookups had been interested after her belly had started rounding out, but she hadn't needed them at that point. She'd had Robin, her personal Boy Wonder, her almost-boyfriend and he'd been so good and caring and safe.
Tim had been awkward but protective. He hadn't asked anything of her. He'd been cute and well-meaning, and there'd been no pressure. He'd wanted her, not her body, and she'd loved him for that. Really, truly loved him. She'd wanted to give him everything, once she'd had the baby and lost her pregnancy weight.
But things had happened, and they'd drifted. A part of her had always wondered if it'd been because he'd lost interest in her, or if he had interest in women---or anyone, for that matter---or if he'd just fallen in love with the idea of protecting her. Once she'd proven that she didn't need his protection, that she was capable of being Robin herself, there'd been a disconnect.
And then she'd 'died'. She'd convinced herself that he'd be happy to see her when she came back, that he'd only been angry because she'd replaced him. But all the reunion kisses that she'd imagined when the strangeness of Africa had kept her awake had ended up being stupid dreams.
Screw him, she'd figured. She could do better.
But she hadn't done better. She hadn't done anything. Being Batgirl had consumed her life, and then every connection she made dropped one by one. Detective Gage---her tall, dark detective that had traded her flirt for flirt way back when---had transferred, Cass---her best friend, the Batgirl before her, the girl who'd half convinced her that maybe boys weren't the answer---had taken a position with the new Justice League, Kara---the sweet alien who'd half convinced her that maybe humans weren't the answer---would never stay in Gotham, not for long.
Her options had dried up, and she'd let them. Who'd want a battle-scarred and almost constantly bruised Bat---especially one that the Bats themselves had barely wanted, when they'd been around? Nobody, she'd figured with a grim satisfaction. Nobody would, and that was okay. She didn't have to worry about anyone wanting her for her body, didn't have to worry about anyone wanting her at all. She was the Bat, and that was something powerful and sexless.
But then, Damian had come back and messed everything up by being an adult.
She was afraid that she liked him because there was a big chance that she wouldn't get anyone else. It wouldn't be fair to him or her if she got involved with him just because she was lonely.
Even as the thought crossed her mind, she knew that wasn't the case. When he'd come back, she'd been relieved. When he'd gone into Ivy's bower, she'd been terrified. When he'd shown up pounding on her window because he'd wanted her with him, she'd been touched. When she'd been so sure she'd died for real, his face was the first thing she saw as she came to---and she'd known that she'd be okay, because he was there. When he'd ripped into that French guy in the restaurant, she'd felt...
She'd felt as amazing as Steph Brown as she'd always felt as Batwoman.
He was strong and intelligent and capable of incredible kindness when he didn't think anyone was watching. Damian had more problems than a math book, but she wasn't exactly Little Miss Traveling with Light Baggage. She was older than he was, but eighteen was truly only a number with him. He'd acted like a grown man when he'd ten, and she hadn't let go of the childish energy that kept her buoyant, so...they met at the middle.
He was a bat, and she was a bat, and that kind of made them a thing.
When the credits finally rolled, she glanced at him.
"Still fluff and nonsense?"
"Yes," he said stubbornly. "But...it was a fairly effective allegory. For a film starring talking lions."
"I told you you'd like it," Steph said, pleased. He opened his mouth to argue, but---as usual---she beat him to the punch. In one smooth movement, she straddled his hips, basically sitting in his lap, and kissed him.
That cut off any high-and-mighty observations he had on the subject. When she broke the kiss, he was smiling.
She might have been a little bit in love with him, she realized, even though his kiss was clumsy. He wasn't smirking, wasn't grinning wolfishly, wasn't baring his teeth like he usually did. Smiling, his blue eyes bright.
It hit her then that she'd never seen him really happy. Smug, maybe. Relaxed, sometimes. But never happy. Had anyone kissed him before, even platonically? Ever?
She kissed him again, before the thought could settle and bring tears to her eyes.