Stephanie: You know what? Eff these guys. Seriously. Eff the Black Canary. Eff Red Robin. Eff Arsenal and whoever else is skulking around the streets nowadays. Ordinarily I could probably have given you a pretty good running total of who’s active and who’s not. Not because I’ve got fancy gadgets or a Batcomputer (I guess technically my phone is a fancy gadget by like. 1990’s standards), but because I pay attention. Even if you don’t want to, it’s what people talk about. Who haven’t they talked about in a while? Not active. Maybe dead. But dead is usually something you hear about, too. The sheer number of vigilantes took a sharp uptick the last few months, but it wasn’t that hard to figure out why.

I’d figured I would blend in. What’s one more, when all the sudden there’s a Robin, Canary, Red Hood and all the rest around? Apparently it was working pretty well, too. Except when it came to the Batfam. They, of course, noticed. And I guess it answers my question of why there hadn’t been more vigilantes around before now. Before the Bat was gone. Before everything started going crazy in the least crazy way you could imagine for Gotham. It’s actually been downright peaceful. If you ignore the Joker’s murder rampage, but since those have all been directed at not so innocent people?

Maybe we’re a jaded lot, us Gothamites. Or maybe they’re just glad when it’s not them, in the way you can’t say out loud.

That’s not why I’m saying eff these Capes, though. That’s got a lot more to do with the fact that I’m in this weirdly awesome high tech hole of a hideout. I’m not out doing any good, though as I”ve been repeatedly told I wasn’t doing any good in the first place. Yeesh. Ouch. Right? My problem isn’t really even a problem, because it’s chump change compared to everything else that’s been going on. The lull. The murders. And the murder that’s on all their minds here.

1,1,2. 1,2,3. 1,2,3,2. 1,2,5,2. 1,6,3,2.

Well. I have one thing to say for all of this and the effing. I damn well know a whole lot of boxing combinations, now. I don’t even have to think about them as fists meet punching bag over and over. I may not have put up a cartoony doodle of Black Canary’s smug knowitall face on the bag, but I can sure imagine one. That might be a project for tomorrow.

Tim: There is any number of ways in which one can successfully make an entrance. Through a skylight, crashing down in to the middle of a group of thugs you wanted to take by surprise. Appearing out of the darkness, stepping in to the light just as someone rounds a corner. Zip-lining someone from below, then wrenching them in to the air so that they evacuate their… okay, maybe that one is more gross than impressive, but it certainly sets a tone. The point of any entrance is to make an impression. To put someone off-kilter in such a way as to inspire a certain emotion, a specific reaction, that utterly knocks them off balance. Giving you the advantage.

While I may not need such a thing with Stephanie, she is the perfect candidate to test the new suit out on. Because she is essentially an untrained, but slightly seasoned amateur wanting to make it big and go pro. She is representative of the majority. Those whom will see the suit and need no further convincing, so long as I don’t trip on my own cape. In addition, this also gives me the opportunity to test her own reactions. To see if she’s managed to grasp some of the lessons that Dinah has taught her. Maybe she’s even added them to my own lessons about what she can and can’t do with her own suit.

“Tell me about your Father,” comes the voice from directly behind her.

Not the constantly teasing voice of Tim Drake. Nor the high fashion voice attributed to Timothy Wayne, at a board meeting. Not even that modulated deeper one that comes from the Red Robin cowl. No, I’ve gone the full monty here. Deepening my own voice, then enhancing it with a gravelly synthesis of my Mentor’s own voice. Part tribute, part technology, all necessity. I’m positive that, without seeing me, even Damien would think himself in the room with his father. Mind you, that’s as far as the effort to simulate the Batman as I could effectively go. There’s simply no way to function effectively -and- add thirty more pounds or four more inches to the costume.

That said, I’ve taken the Bat-suit and made it my own. I’ve got no illusions of being Bruce Wayne’s equal in a fight. Hell, I’m not even Damien’s equal in a fight. Nor am I going to be the total package that Dick is. What I have going for me, is enough skill to play the role convincingly if I can get the right help to balance it out. That first step is adding my own technology to the suit. The next step… I’m not going to be able to carry this city alone. Not like Bruce could. I’m not going to be able to do it, even with just a single partner. In the grand scheme of things, I figure that if I’m half the man Bruce was? I’ll only need five or ten partners to make up the difference.

The other thing I’ve got going for me? Is that I’m good enough. Most people. Even most of the rogue’s gallery Bruce amassed. Aren’t going to know the difference at first sight. Maybe not even until it’s too late. Which is part of what I’m putting to the test with Stephanie. The ‘Bat Approach.’

“Tim tells me you’re on to something. What do you think you’ve found.”

Stephanie: Lighter with the left, harder with the right. Save the energy and effort for more powerful punches on the follow-up. Not a hard theory, I’ve seen enough action movies to have picked up a thing or two. In theory. In practice it takes a lot more effort, especially because my right hand isn’t my strong hand. I’m left handed. Something Canary had proved to be quite unsympathetic about, if anything I’m pretty sure there was a demonic sort of gleam in her eyes at the idea. So here I am. Reining in my left. Hitting harder with my weaker left. Not the most effective, or at least it wasn’t a few days ago. I feel like it’s getting better. Muscle tone. Practice. Maybe someday I’ll sucker punch just as hard with my right. That’s my assumption for her ‘method’ anyway.

Schoolyard already taught me along time ago most people don’t expect a strong left hook. Yesterday I was actually starting to feel good about my right. Then she clipped my ankles out from under me with a sweep kick. Thank God for high quality training mats. If that had been at school in the gym, my ass would be as bruised as my ego.

I’ve been alone in here for the last hour and a half, I trickled in after school. No, I’m not Brown-nosing (hah), I just don’t actually enjoy being humiliated. And this much I can work on solo, just like the effort I put into running here. And grappling. With only three mishaps this time, down from yesterday’s total of seven. Honestly. I got around like less of a noob without gadgets than with. When it was me, my borrowed high school drama costume, and usually a brick. But seriously. I look so much more badass. And there’s an iPod jack built into this one. I have a sneaking suspicion though that Red Robin’s deactivated it somehow when I’m outside or fighting. I haven’t asked. Maybe I could claim his suit’s faulty but yeah. First option’s more likely.

I’m in the middle of dwelling on how I feel about someone having that much control over something that I”m wearing, and also how much better this workout would be with a playlist piped in, and how much easier this facemask is to breathe through when I’m rudely interrupted. By rudely interrupted I mean had the holyshit scared right out of me. No. Really. Right out of my mouth.


It’s not a voice I recognize. I mean. It is, actually. Just not a voice I’ve heard lately. I’d say that you live in the scummy parts of Gotham and you’ve heard it at some point. Probably because Batman’s just saved your ass. That’s not actually why I am hauntingly familiar with the sound of that gravely Dark Knight voice. I spin around, startled and then even more startled judging by the saucer size of my eyes over the edge of my face mask, at who’s standing behind me. Instinct had the arm I’d just been about to hit the bag with swinging wide to connect behind me, only I pull i up short because… well.

Only crazy people try to punch Batman. Overcorrecting, I take a step backwards into the bag, and then look over my shoulder at it, as if it’s the bag’s fault somehow.

“I mean. Holyshit aren’t you dead? I mean. You’re standing right here so… Jesus. GhostBatman’s not a thing is it? Uh…”

Ghost Batman? That’s some scary shit. And he’s asked me a question that my brain kind of skipped right past, and is barely managing to circle around now, like water going down the drain. Uhhhhhhhhh… Oh. About the Douchebag. I open my mouth ready to spout out all kinds of useless information like how he got arrested on my fifth birthday. And my eighth. And my twelfth. But I manage to summon what little filter I have, and redirect myself back. Mostly once there’s the addition of Tim thinking I’m onto something. Wait. Do I know a Tim? Is there even a Tim at school? It’s not the coolest of names…

“….Tim? Is that Red Robin’s name? Tim? Ahahaha….um. Sorry… my Dad. I don’t think I found anything.”

I know. Sidling to the side of the bag, I lean into it, only for it to sway a little more than I”m ready for like yeah, I’m cool. Just.. talking to Ghost Batman and… you’re not cool at all right now Stephanie. Not the tiniest little bit. So I clear my throat, straighten my stance, and push on through some more pertinent details.

“He’s goading people into small stuff. Not moving himself, but putting out tiny crime feelers to see what gets attention. I actually thought there was a point to it at first, but he’s testing the waters. To see if Joker bites. To see if…uh. Well. You, I guess bite. Or your little club. They’re getting ballsier though. He’s trying to get the bigger fish in on it. Except he’s not doing anything himself. Yet.”

With something else besides my shock, the holyshitGhostBatman, and my looking totes uncool to focus my attention, I take a moment to look. And I mean actually look. Pursing my lips under the mask and cocking my head at the Batman in front of me.

“…I remember you being a lot taller.”

I’m being super restrained here. Really. I didn’t even point out he’s kind of short for a Stormtrooper once.

God I want to point out he’s awful short for a Stormtrooper. But I don’t want a batarang in my face. I’m pretty sure my face still isn’t batarang proof.

Tim: Oh, right. She doesn’t know who Tim is. How would Batman handle this? Easy, dumb ass. He wouldn’t have said Tim’s name in the first place. God, he only taught you that as rule numero uno on day one. What the hell were you thinking, using a name like that? The real question is, how would Bruce turn a mistake of that sort around on you? Because let’s just be honest here. Bruce made mistakes. He just always found a way to make someone else pay for them. Normally. Until he, obviously, made one mistake too many. Seemingly.

“Mm. You have a habit of taking advice, training and equipment from people you don’t even know?”

There. That works. Put the onus of expectation upon her. Yes. This will work beautifully. Right up until she notices the height. Then I’m forced in to doing something else that I’ve seen Bruce do a million times before. Looming. Making yourself seem much larger than you are by placing yourself in to optimal position to allow the light to cast your shadow. Police do it too during interrogation. You’re always positioned to look in to the light. Giving them the benefit of sight, as well as the shadows enhancing them and scaring you. A step closer, as she steps back and it all but completes pinning her in. Leaving Stephanie to peer up, in spite of her own comment about my being shorter. The cape does the work of hemming her in, as it swirls around the two of us.

“You’ve been watching him. Tracking his ‘feelers.’ You’ve been watching the clues.” There’s no acknowledgement of the idle comment on height, just laser focus upon the topic of her Father. “Grab whatever gear you need. The car is outside. I’m leaving in two minutes. With or without you.”

That next swirl of the cape is a side-effect of the sudden turn. Normally you wouldn’t want to turn your back on someone, but this is clearly a friend of the “Family” so to speak. She’s in the Robin’s Nest. Working with Dinah. I’ve got no reason to treat her as Hostile, as Batman, so I don’t. I promised her, if she worked on her game that I’d help her with her investigation. I’m keeping that promise, with the added benefit of taking a case as Batman that isn’t exactly massive in profile. There is a very good chance that we’re going to be able to look in to this and make an impression. Tell the City that Batman is back. Without doing jumping in to the deep end and getting myself killed on the first night out of the Cave.

With any luck. I won’t even get Stephanie killed either. Well. Unless she makes the Stormtrooper joke. Then all bets are off.

Steph: “Mm. Now that’s a non-committal sound. I think it has to be a repeat thing to qualify as a habit, but…You live in Gotham long enough and you get kind of a vibe alarm. Since it wasn’t hey kid, you want a piece of candy? Just get in my van… then…hell yes I do.”

Hoo. Boy. Did he just get taller? Nah, I mean logically I know he didn’t. I’m pretty sure Batman didn’t ever have height control superpowers, and using all those fancy tech and gadgets just to put pneumatic lifts in your boots to menace people seems like a waste. And what if they malfunctioned? Hilarity and stilts do not a great scary vigilante make. Not. That I’d really know anything about being particularly scary. Shorter than I remember or not, though it’s been maybe… eight years since I was up close and personal with the Batman. I was a lot shorter then. It was also the middle of the night, and he was in the middle of beating the snot out of my father. Not something I hold against him. Really. Totally deserved it. Then and now.

Part of me just wants to be the one to do it this time. No. Not part. Like, all of me. Even though I’m not really prone to all that much violence, and my plan mostly revolved around making his blow up spectacularly. I want the Cluemaster to fail. I want him humiliated. And I want him to go back to jail for like. Ever. The last part isn’t real likely in Gotham, if the previous revolving door policy is any indicator. But this time? He might be up to something bad enough. One blue eye squints almost closed, and I draw my head back not because I’m intimidated (…I’m totally intimidated though…) but because I’m giving the Bat a bit of a sketchy look.

“…ooooor there was no van and candy vibe until riiiiight now.”

My step backwards is really just to take me closer to where I’d left the telescoping staff that I’d been given, and even if my ‘combat training’ with that isn’t yet anywhere near up to par according to Black Canary? I play softball. I know for a fact I can crack something with it. Fast moving or not. What else do I need? Is this a test? I don’t think I need anything, and I didn’t bring anything else and I’m not super sure if Red Robin was kidding or not when he was talking about taser traps in the gear that I’m not ‘cleared’ for. Which leaves me scrambling in the direction the Bat stalked off like some grumpy, loomy, angel of Ghost Vengeance. Seriously. Batman’s supposed to be dead. It’s why the Joker’s out terrorizing. And why no one wants to stick their head out far enough in the game of criminal underbelly whack-a-mole to make a target of themselves.

Holy shit, Stephanie Brown. Are you about to go for a ride in the batmobile?

Pinch me. That’s really the Batmobile. Or a Batmobile. You know what, it could be a Batprius and I’d be just about as jazzed as I am now. Even though two capes probably wouldn’t fit super well. This is me. Climbing into the batmobile. Candy and creepy loomy Ghostbatman or not. Eeeeeeeeeeee. Oh. God. I think a little bit of that squealing was out loud.

“….ah-heh-hem… It’s mostly been texts. Burner phone convos. A couple face to face meetings. The by far weirdest was stealing empty crates and replacing them with boxes full of … I don’t know what. I didn’t get to check.”

Yeah, thanks for that Red Robin. Hrmph.

Tim: Yes. Stephanie Brown is getting to ride in the Batmobile. Not just any of the Batmobiles either. This one was, once upon a time, the very same one that I road in with Bruce. How could it be any different? On top of it being something that I know, it also feels right. A touch retro, yes, but again it is the one that I know. Comfort is something that I’ve got a specific desire for. Anything that soothes my nerves in this entire debacle, is a win. Honestly. The sleek curves, sloped dome that drifts back in to speed fins that resemble bat-wings. It has all the halmarks of a futuristic jet-engine that’s about to take flight, while retaining the dark and intimidating guise of the Batmobile. My favorite touch is the red gleam that makes it look like a demon coming out of the smog of the night.

Inside is another story. Well not entirely. There is a certain feeling of being inside of a jet, but just more in order of it being a cockpit and not a luxury vehicle. Systems line the interior every where that the eyes can see in the dark. Much of the systems are voice activated, but I’ve upgraded the data-screens to be three dimensional holographic displays. As such there’s a certain technological enhancement that says ‘Tim Drake,’ but the functionality though is one hundred percent Bruce Wayne. Because this baby is as much a tank as a jet. Power throbs in the beast the moment the engine roars to life and we speed off out in to the alleyway exit from the Nest.

You didn’t get to check,” a gesture towards one of the consoles will bring up the details of Red Robin’s sophisticated scanning technology, that was used on the crates. “Texts. Burner Phone conversations. Observed face to face meetings. Clues, Stephanie. That have lead you to the idea that he’s put feelers out. That he’s judging responses.”

“Your Father’s motif is never something so overt. Whether by design of calamity of error, your Father made himself in to a cheap knock off of the Riddler. He has been driven by the necessity to give clues to his crimes. The truth is, if he didn’t do that. If he he wasn’t compelled by the need for recognition, he’d have been a better criminal than Nygma ever was. The real question isn’t what is he doing. It’s why are you the only one who found the Clues?”

“He’s testing you,” and how do I know that? Because it’s what Bruce did to us. It’s what I did with Cassie. “The only Mystery for me, is what is he testing you for. I suspect it’s something larger and you’re only scratching the surface. That his test is whether you’re worthy of being brought in to whatever lays beneath.”

“So. What’s the next step? Where do we begin?”

Steph: Talk about a pre-pubescent dream come true. What kind doesn’t fantasize at least once or twice about screaming around the streets of Gotham in this thing, or some version of it? I sure couldn’t tell you which was which, though there’s differences. What matters is whose car (is this even really a car?) it is, and what that stood for. Someone about to get their ass kicked. That’s what. If you come from where I grew up (I get to say past tense because we’re at least in a slightly better part of the city now. D+ instead of F.), maybe it was someone you knew or had seen. Maybe that’s just me. I’m pretty sure the highest any of my friends parents got was mook or side henchmen. And my Dad’s just…well. Cluemaster.

“…pool chemicals? Who the freak reverse steals chlorine and algae killer?”

People guided by said lame Cluemaster, apparently. Pinching the bridge of my nose, as I lean in closer to the display like a slightly more direct examination is going to display something different. I don’t understand. There has to be something bigger at work, right? That’s what the gut’s telling me, but it’s also telling me that I would be totally down to sabotage Arthur Brown by hitting the add 30 seconds button on his microwave two times and making him burn his late night popcorn. I’ll take what I can get, at this point.

“…wait. Who’s testing me? Boy Wonder, or my dumb Dad? You can’t be ser…..”

That face looks like it’s never been not serious in ever, and that it never ever will not be serious so I trail off and go back from looking at him in disbelief to squinting at the screen in front of me. A jewelry heist, which wouldn’t have set off any alarms had I not thrown a brick through the window. Taking empty crates, from what apparently was an entire warehouse of nothing but empty crates and bringing back ordinary pool chemicals you could probably buy anywhere. Just. Like. A whole lot of them. Maybe they were amassing something? Maybe they were unrelated and he’s just gone kooky control freak to test if he can. But testing me?

“I mean. Yeah. He used to do that. He’s been different since his last round in Arkham, though. Hence why he’s got parental rights again. For now. Until he borks that again. I left something at his place and I broke in.”

I’m not going to launch into the sob story about how I didn’t want to see him in the first place. That his messed up crap only messes my Mom up, and she’s just barely managing to cling to the clean and sober train as far as I can tell. I mean, I guess he’d drive me to drink, too. That’s Gotham for you though. Doesn’t matter if he’s a repeat wannabe nemesis to the city’s vigilantes. He’s reformed, everyone. He’s cured. Lets carry on like nothing he ever did has hurt anyone and that he deserves…. erk. Stephanie. Rewind. Focus.

“…you’re asking me? Batman’s asking me? Uh. Well. I’ve been following around one of his ‘friends” undergoons. He was really interested in the City Planner’s office. Either that or the donut place across the street. That’s not real nefarious though. So I’m guessing the Planner. Van parked there for hours every night. Seems like a pretty stupid place to break into. You can just walk in and request plans for pretty much any city project.”

And late night raiding of a donut shop… please. There’s not even any donuts left that time of night.

Tim: There are a lot of things you can get from the City Planner’s office. Most of them, like Stephanie says, are things you could get with a written request in about ten minutes. However the City Planner has access to some information that people outside of that officer would never have a reason to know. For example, the schedule of stop lights all across the city. Routing forms for the subway -and- rail stations. Essentially the Planner’s Office has access to anything they need access to in order to plan the strategic growth of the City.

“There are any number of things in that office you can’t just request. The Sewer System access points. Power Grid information. Water Supply, Treatment and even storage. Just to name a few things of vital importance that someone like your Father might make use of in order to pull off some scheme or another.”

Joker once tried to poison the Water Reserve with Joker Toxin, he started at the City Planner’s office. There was the time that Penguin’s people tried to hold the City Hostage with explosive penguins in the gas mains in the sewer system. So many things are at that location, that might serve as signficant to someone like Arthur Brown. Once more though, I’m not asking myself ‘Why’ or ‘What’ this guy may be up too. I don’t have to figure that out for once. The more important part of the mystery is, that if Arthur is doing something? He’s hiding it from us, but not his own Daughter. Nothing I know about Stephanie suggests that she’d be able to keep her feelings for her Father quiet entirely. Meaning that I’m stuck, trying to understand why he’d let his daughter get the clues.

The trip to the Planner’s office is a short one when you’re riding the rails of a car that is literally jet propelled. We make good time, especially with the computer acting as a very amped up version of Google Maps. Bringing us right up to the point where she said her Dad’s people watch that office.

“I’m asking you,” easy to confirm that much, isn’t it? “Why would your father tip his hand to you? Why not follow his normal motif and leave clues that only the trained eye could find? Unless he’s doing it to see if you, specifically, can follow the breadcrumbs.”

Steph: “And some of those you can figure out with eyeballs and legwork.”

Not all of them, obviously, but I’d best most kids in my neighborhood I grew up in could have told you where a lot of those things were thanks to exposure to something or other over the years. Education through attrition. I’m pretty sure that’s about the only way to really get ‘street smart.’ I guess it’s not the only way. Black Canary has it. Red Robin (who is apparently named Tim? thanks GhostBatman!) does as well, and I don’t know if he gets his from experience, or from all the computer stuff he carts around at all times. He doesn’t talk like someone who’s grown up in any kind of way close to the way I did. Another of those things you learn to pick out even if you don’t realize it.

I try really hard to not enjoy the ride out loud but. Cripes. That’s a big fail. If I weren’t buckled I’d be bouncing in my seat, because I’m pretty sure I’ve never been in anything that moved this fast in my entire lifetime. No. Actually I’m totally positive. Definitely faster than I would have gotten here on foot, even starting from a whole lot closer to where we are now. Narrowing my eyes to peer out the window isn’t necessary, I see just fine, it’s more an extension of my annoyance that’s resurfaced now that I’m not on something better than an amusement park ride.

“Because he was supposed to be over that. Cured. That’s why he was released early. Model Gotham Citizen that doesn’t feel the need to be awful and leave clues everywhere he goes like someone that wants to be caught.”

And some stupid, stupid part of me had actually dared to hope they were right. That he wasn’t going to be that guy anymore. No more plots. No more elaborate heists. No more having to adult because my Mom’s gotten herself too doped up to do it herself, after finding out he was in jail yet again. He hadn’t gone immediately back to it, either. It’s been almost a year since he was released from Arkham. At least, it was a year until I noticed. So was he doing it quietly the whole time and I only just picked up on it? Really not leaving clues, which is why none of the Bats had caught on? Or is this really all new?

“So either he suddenly decided it’d be cool to show me that I was right to think he was still an epic douchemonster, it’s not on purpose and he got sloppy in his house, or… what. He thinks that he’s going to provoke me into following in his footsteps? I don’t think that’s working.”

Tim: “Yes, you’re right. That’s exactly the point though,” and it’s why the Batman is looking at her instead of one of those fancy screens on an even fancier Batmobile. “If we remove the things from the list of potential reasons for him to need that office. Then we learn something by process of elimination. The most rudimentary form of deduction.”

That also happens to play in to why she’s here though. Not merely for the education or even the training. This is as much about getting to the bottom of the entire situation as it is about honoring a deal made to Stephanie at the beginning. Helping her get through this, also means having her expertise in the one thing that she can actually contribute on immediately. Her father. She knows him, so she knows the intimate details that Bruce would have known through study and past experience with the Cluemaster. I could (and have) read files, but Stephanie has experience. That means a lot.

Plus, there is also something more. The thing we’ve only now touched upon. I can’t believe that someone like the Cluemaster would go ‘straight’ so well, for so long. Only to begin leaving a breadcrumb trail for his own Daughter. Unless, it was at least marginally intentional. The Cluemaster is a creature of logic. His clues are meant to test an adversary. There is absolutely no other explanation for Stephanie finding the Clues, than he is testing her in some way. Well, there’s one other explanation that I can potentially accept: Stephanie got lucky, unlucky perhaps even. The problem with that is, she’d have to be exceedingly lucky to stumble upon as many clues as she has by happenstance. Which only brings me back to the original conclusion, that even if she got lucky with one, maybe two, eventually when her Father caught on to her awareness? He most likely started to test her, to see if she was naturally skilled or dumbly lucky.

I admit, I’m curious as well.

“Your Father was never actually wanting to be caught. His motives weren’t as simple as greed. I’ve met a couple people like him. It starts with boredom. A lack of challenge in your personal life or your professional life. A realization that you’re simply better or smarter than those around you. Enough so that you decide at some point to take a rash step. Maybe it’s parkour or sky-diving for those of a physical bent. Those of the mentally adept might look to hack a friend or build a better mouse trap. Eventually that is just a gateway in to something larger. Because eventually you need bigger challenges.”

“It grows. It takes a life of it’s own. A life that needs a name. Whether it’s Cluemaster or Riddler. You something or someone to challenge you. The act of a crime isn’t a challenge in itself. The dare of competition. ‘Catch me, if you can’ is the only thing that can give your existence meaning.” All of this is spoken of as if it were something I know about intimately. And it is, isn’t it? Whether it’s a man driven to avenge the Death of his parents or a boy driven to put his mind to a good use. Either case is an example of excellence needing a challenge. Just as much as the flip-side of the coin. “A man like your father needs a nemesis, someone to play chess with. But there is almost always one thing that people like your father like as much as a challenge.”

“They love having a partner. Someone equal to them or close enough. Bound to them in a way that bridges the gap in trust that criminals otherwise have trouble with.” Bringing us to a stop, I pause only to look across at her before hopping out. “You should also consider, if only for a moment, that there is a significant chance that your Father had truly gone clean. The clues you have found are subtle enough, that there may truly be nothing at work here other than him testing a potential partner.”

“If that’s the case. Then there is also the possibility that you could save him. By giving him a healthy reason for his mind not to be bored.”

Steph: My money’s on power grid. Not that it means much. My money, that is. I mean. Who’s going to take a twelve dollar and thirty-six cent bet? Probably not Batman, Ghost or otherwise. Clearly he’s got the cash. Because whether it’s him that’s funding all of this? And I mean the BatJet on Wheels here, Red Robin’s Cave of Wonders and Torture and whatever else they’ve got around the city. Or someone else? There’s a lot of money involved. I may not be some kind of tech savant but it doesn’t take one to know just the suit I’m wearing alone is $$$. An iPhone runs around $1000 bucks. Now multiply that times every weird little gadget I’m carrying around and… you’ve got the point. Which. Wasn’t the point. The point was the power grid. I know I could figure out nearly everything else named.

“I think you just described the mental outlook of like. Every teenager ever. Well. Except maybe the wallflowers. I don’t really know any of those.”

It could also just be called a drive to succeed and/or achieve. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Depends what you do with it, I guess. It’s not like I want to stay in my crummy neighborhood forever. I want to GTFO at some point. There’s two ways you do that. Keeping your nose clean and getting someone to pull you out via scholarship, or… see example Douchedad. But he never really got out either. I’m not saying Bats here is wrong. He’s a whole lot more right than anything else. It fits. I also don’t know if I should be insulted or not. I had to hunt for everything I’ve found so far, sometimes across multiple break ins (if it’s really breaking in when you’re technically allowed to be there), after that first accidental run in. It actually makes me a little internally grumpy-faced to think I only did that because someone let me.

Only a little grumpy-faced though. I’m still sitting in the Batmobile wearing a kick-ass suit.

“He’s more into flunkies and minions. Not the yellow, googly eyed kind. I mean. None of these guys so far are really on his level, and his level’s not really high. And if he’s angling for sidekick… I’m super not interested. I just want to stop him.”

There’s a pause, while I look sideways at the caped and cowled man sitting in the driver’s seat.

“…or. Save him. Thats’ an option, too. I guess.”

My tone of voice says it wasn’t my priority though. Or really anything that’s crossed my mind at any point leading up to this. Like. Redeem him? Arkham was supposed to have done that already. His repeated trips to it and other lock-ups should have. Saving wasn’t my goal here. It is, and always has been, sabotage. Bringing him down. Sending him right back where he clearly belongs and that’s not out here with court mandated bi-monthly visits with me.

Tim: The way in which I exit the Batmobile is something you have to learn. I had the opportunity to do so from Bruce. A hand upon the hatch that opens over our heads. Leverage provided by the seat which moves to accommodate when properly activated. The entire affairs reads and looks like a graceful moment of the Batman taking flight from the vehicle. Landing, just as gracefully, a few feet away. Which easily transitions in to my taking the first few steps toward the building we’re here to access.

“Perhaps. Though there is a level of acuteness that grows with age. Teenagers tend to grow out of that feeling or find it more easily satiated. People like your Father tend to be the ones who either don’t or can’t find something to satiate that feeling of boredom. That sense of no one else being on their levels.”

What are we looking for? I don’t know. We’re here as much out of a necessity to put Stephanie in to the field and test drive my suit as we are out of some hope that there’s anything to find here. As Tim Drake, I could have pulled the power grid remotely. I’ve therefor got to believe that her father could have as well. The thing is, her father hadn’t. He went to the trouble of actually setting up meetings. Whatever he wants isn’t something he could get easily another way. Something that he couldn’t know from another source. Logically whatever he was after with this connection is here. In some form. Whether physical evidence that Stephanie might be able to catch the scent of or perhaps a connection to someone else that we’re unaware of.

Much like the crates, we won’t know unless we actually do the leg work. As I’m making my way forward, I look back over a shoulder to her with an almost-but-not-quite shake of the head. “Mmm. Having a partner isn’t always about what we want, at times it is a matter of what we need.”

This? I know first hand. Dick was Bruce’s partner, but he didn’t come about initially. Batman was solo at first. Dick came about as a necessity. Someone that balanced the Dark Knight with light hearted humor and a sense of joy. Jason had been the one that kept Bruce centered, after losing his smile. He was the one that brought Bruce out of the fog, back in to the light. Damien then gave Bruce a reason to keep fighting. Bruce would never have said he needed any of those things, but that’s why I was his partner. A grim reminder to the Batman that he wasn’t a solitary soldier, but the sum of the many parts of our ‘Family’ that made him what he was.

“Your mask has a hidden button along the jawline. Activating it will bring up a faceplate. Goggles. Heads up Display. An interface with our computer system. Your access is limited, but you should be able to get a read on this building’s security. With the computer’s assistance, given how rudimentary it is, even you should be able to hack in. Once we’re in. Treat the place like a crime scene. Touch as little as possible, but let’s see what we can find that might interest your Father.”

Steph: …yeah, okay. That was pretty smooth. The exit. As much as I’d love to be able to duplicate it and look similarly badass, I don’t even try. In my head, even as I leverage myself out of my seat a lot more like climbing in and out of my friends’ overstuffed junkyard cars, I can see the chibi-cartoon version of events that would have me catching my cape on something, making a swan dive leap off the hood and landing face first in a heap of limbs, purple, and swirling grumble emotes. Not trying to look like an epic fail, here. Fortunately I can manage to get from vehicle to street without any incident that I would have had to blame on nerves. I don’t exactly go out with a ‘partner’ normally. On purpose. Let alone GhostBatman.

“Huh. That was an awful cryptic nugget of wisdom there. Possibly also passive aggressive.”

What my Dad always seemed to ‘need’ was someone to beat. Some degree of fame. A way to demonstrate his intellectual superiority. Something to make him feel better about being a total failure. So the goon squad fits that. The theory of him testing me works, too, in a way that still doesn’t really make me feel great on the inside. Then there’s applying that little fortune cookie line to right now. Somehow I kind of doubt Batman (ghost or otherwise) needs me. There seems to be a whole flock (are Bats flocks? Flurries?) of way more experienced choices. So this just boils down to what the Douchebag is up to. What I know.

“…seriously, why does everyone know more about how my suit works than I do? Did everyone get copies of the manual? I am reading the manual. It’s just got more pages than my Bio textbook with a lot more opportunity for disaster if I don’t quite ‘get’ it…”

It’s muttering to myself, only out loud, but definitely loud enough to be heard as I find said button, boots pausing in midstep on the pavement as the HUD slides into place and I take it in with an also not exactly quiet ‘wooooah.’ In my defense Grappling Hook comes before HUD in the alphabet and I’m still working on mastering that one before I move on. Mostly for the sake of my bones. On the plus side? I’m pretty good with computers, and figuring out how to get at what’s on them. Rudimentary. Hah. Well. I guess in comparison it is, and the computer in the suit makes it about like color by number, connect the dots or training wheels. God. I’ve got a supersuit with training wheels.

“So, since this place has so much vital information and it gets broken into so often… why haven’t they fixed that? General state of we don’t give a fuuu… oh. Jeez. Dumb, Spoiler, dumb, dumb, dumb…”

I about smack the heel of my hand into my forehead, pulling up short as I remember the display that even now is showing me all sorts of juicy details about the government building in front of us, full of blueprints and documents and relics of red tape and permits. Entrances. And how literally none of the windows at all have any sort of barrier on them. Then there’s the area around us. The van’s not here now, but I watched it enough times the last few nights to wish the donut place was open, and to remember where it was parked.

“Manhole cover. They were using the van to block the manhole cover. Right there.”

Tim: Does Batman do passive-aggressive? Heh. Bruce would have said no, but I know the truth. He did it better than anyone. If you knew where to look for it. Me? I’m a little less likely to hide it than him, but I still play the cards close to the vest. You’d never know by reaction whether I meant it that way or not. Especially given that we weren’t talking about me. Were we? This is all about her Father and her. A little more the latter than the former for once. I’ve given this a lot of thought and I’ve come to decide that I too am interested in whether Stephanie would take her father’s side if she thought he would accept her. Put her talents to good use, by way of using them for Evil.

Then I remembered that she’s got about as much skill to lend to her father as I have free-time. It goes a long way towards soothing my worry that I might be aiding and abetting a future super-villain. A real Obi-Wan to Skywalker level of worry there. But my stray thoughts are brought full circle when she does it. She actually puts pieces together, like I had hoped she would. That’s when I’m swept back in to thinking she might have some natural talents after all. So. Potential Super-Vill…

Spoiler? Like the fin on the back of a sports car, for reducing drag? Good job, Spoiler.”

She gave herself a codename. No. One look at her tells me the truth of it. Super-Hero Name. Ugh. There’s a very real desire building within me to facepalm right now, but the Batman does not do such things. He scowls. Menacingly. Especially when faced with the prospect of going in to the sewers. Double ugh. A quick once-over of the Manhole cover for boobytaps, before pulling it up and out of the way. As I’m dropping down into it there’s a whirring sound of the Batmobile locking down in to anti-theft mode while we’re gone.

I don’t even ask if she’s coming with. I know she won’t be able to stay back, so I don’t bother even hinting that she should. The Batman would probably have tied her up, stuffed her in the Bat-trunk. I’m realizing as I land in the muck, that I probably should have done just that myself. Given that I -am- the Batman for now. But, I can’t shake the feeling that Stephanie needs this a lot like I needed it. Like Damien needs it now. So if I can’t help Stephanie with Cluemaster, how am I going to help Damien with his trouble?

“Goggles. Nightvision. Be careful, don’t underestimate your Father,” am I saying that for her sake or my own? “And stop under-estimating yourself too.”

Steph: Since I couldn’t smack my forehead, I’d settled for pressing my palm to the top of my hooded head. How had I not noticed that? Well. I guess to be fair, I hadn’t noticed the manhole because the van had been parked over the top of it every night, and I’d arrived after them, and left before. Except one night and I’d spent more time looking for a reason why the van wasn’t in the now normal spot than picking out things that may or may not have been on the ground. I have a feeling raising all those objections would only get the fact that I’d had the tech then that I’m running now, only I realize he’s not actually saying anything about that at all.

Batman’s making fun of my freaking name. Sure. The words might seem like someone looking for clarification, and offering congratulations on finding a connection, but let me tell you. Gravely voice or not? It’s still perfectly capable of conveying sarcasm and general judginess. Spinning on my heel, with hand still in place the other one jabs a finger at him.

No. Like something that gives away important details in a plot. Or ruins something. What? Clearly being incredibly literal with your name is a thing around here.”

The jabbing finger starts making circling motions to encompass all of him, from pointy eared cowl, to that big cape he just showed off in his epic car dismount, to the symbol on the chest. Which I’m still doing as he sizes up the manhole cover and starts to move it, only the fact that he drops from view and I can hear noises from the Batmobile behind me that stops any further huffing on the matter. What was I supposed to call myself if anyone asked? And someone already had more than once. I can’t just say ‘Yeup, Hi! I’m Stephanie Brown! Nice to meet you!’ Making fun of someone’s codename… sheesh. Isn’t there some kind of rule about that?

Crouching at the edge of the open sewer entrance, balanced on the balls of my feet, I spend a couple seconds very seriously considering my options. Like pulling the cover back into place and seeing if maybe the suit can still get me into that fancy rocket car. Or jumping into the sewer which….ew? The nightvision I’ve already switched on, surprised and a little impressed with either myself or the system as a whole as to how easy that was to navigate. And now looking at an overlay of the directions these sewer systems run from here. Maybe I can just follow up here on the street. Eventually with a sigh, I drop down into the hole as well.

“….eugh… is there like. A company dry cleaner you take your suits to after this? I don’t think this is a smell that is ever going to just air out.”

Well, dummy. You’re down here. It stinks about as much as one might expect. Actually. A little less. Maybe that’s the face mask at work. Either way I’m reining in any sighing or huffing just the same. Since he waited for me, I have to assume I’m expected to do some more ‘super-pro’ detective work here. Making me more and more sure this is a test for whether or not I’m about to get kicked off the Island in the next Survivor’s Council. Following to where the City Planner’s actual crap enters the sewers doesn’t really need any techy kinds of help. Not only does it not really look big enough for even me to wiggle through (yuck?) but the grating shows signs of not being messed with in a really long time. So unless someone intentionally reapplied some ‘muck’ and spent an awful lot of time hiding their tracks… in a sewer… this isn’t it. Maybe they really weren’t even here for that stuff at all. So what else is nearby to be a potential? Back tracking, I head for another junction. Muttering out the side of my mouth as I go past.

“Maybe you could use something to reduce being a drag though. Just sayin’.”

The jewelry store is near here. Reasonably near here at least. It’s the closest of the places I’d been lately, and that’s really all that I’ve got to go off of. Walking fast and with a purpose, mostly because after that little snipe who wouldn’t want some distance between themself and GhostBatman (who can surely keep up but hey), and because I want to figure this out. And GTFO of the sewer. Another turn takes me to the junction I want and maybe it’s the mask. Maybe it’s my positive outlook. But the smell’s definitely improving.

Or maybe it’s the noticeable reduction in raw sewage. Now that doesn’t seem likely except..

“Uh. Dam.”

Well that’s not in the schematics. Unless the city has suddenly started spending money to erect almost pristinely new concrete barriers in the middle of their sewage canals, the only opening a small pipe at the bottom which is only allowing a small trickle of waste through. Easy to step over, as I peer up at the wall.

“No. Really.”

Tim : As Stephanie speaks to the actual naming convention involved with her code name, I’m busy with something other than actually paying attention to her. Wrenching a manhole cover from it’s moorings is no easy feat. Luckily the batsuit is slightly reinforced, with spring-loaded muscle fibers. Moderately increasing the strength of the user. Other than height, I don’t want to hit lighter or move slower than Bruce. There’s no reason to give someone any reason to believe that I’m anything other than who I appear to be.

She’s only begun swirling her finger when I plunged in to the darkness. By the time she’d joined me I was already mapping out the sewer system on my own and had come to a very similar conclusion about the Office sewage evacuation system. But, to be fair, I’d actually come to that conclusion before we got there. Though I hadn’t discounted the potential of them wanting something about the Gotham Underground, I was fairly certain there was nothing else of long term value inside of those offices. What we end up with isn’t exactly what I had been forming a hypothesis about though.

“Mmm. My other costume has smaller horns and a glider cape.” If she thinks even for a moment that I’m allowing her sarcasm to gain traction she’s in the wrong business. “Your suit’s mask is designed to function as a gas and toxin filter, in addition to a small oxygen storage system. Enough to survive submerged for perhaps an hour. Depending entirely upon oxygen expenditure.”

That grim look never changes, but if Dinah were here she would hear the smirk that is implied in those comments. Telling someone they might get an hour out of their air supply if they could manage to shut up, is about as smarmy as I’m apt to get while wearing this cape and cowl. Banter is natural though. Bruce and I did this all the time. I’m told that he and Dick did the same. Those rare times I was able to go out on the town with Grayson, were some of the most fun experiences I’ve got memory of. Dick made it fun, by leading the banter and not just participating. Which only made it more fun for me to imagine Bruce and Damien. What was banter with those two like?

“All of our uniforms are maintained by Penny-One. Though there is also a limited self-cleaning and repair functionality to the newer models. Self-repair and Penny-One are both functions that come after Grappling Hook in the manual. Really, hasn’t Red Robin or Canary asked you to read the manual?”

Banter. This time it’s a cover more so than actual teasing. As she speaks I’m having my own cowl connect to the Batmobile’s mini–computers in order to compare various blue prints. New. Old. Approved future ones. Work orders that have come through. This is new. It’s clearly not meant to be here. We’re going to investigate, but I want to know all we can as we’re in motion. Who might be connected to this? Where do the threads tie off?

Spoiler. Are you ready to keep going or do you want to wait by the Car?”‘

Steph: “Well, right. Why wouldn’t it?”

Whether that’s about his tiny eared, glider cape suit or my face mask’s extra built in awesome features is debatable. It works for both. I’m the Swiss army knife of commentary. It could probably be argued that his not engaging with the sass makes it a lot less satisfying. That’s just not an argument I would ever make, I can talk to myself quite happily for a good long time. Besides. Lack of comment on some of it or not I know he heard me, so mission accomplished.

“Penny-One? Is that like. A roomba for vigilantes or a person? Right, right. Read the manual.”

Hands on hips, I’m doing some of my own looking. I just don’t think to look up the same things he does, because I assume more than seek to have what I think confirmed. This is new. It’s easy to tell by looking at it. Even if it weren’t next to the otherwise aged and scummy sewer tunnels, it would look new. New concrete has a different color to it than old does. I also assume that the city head shmucks who can’t be bothered to fix the three foot, man eating pothole on my block probably didn’t cough up the time and effort to erect what looks like a pretty well constructed and sealed wall into place in a sewer. It’s a much more visual experience for me, with the distraction of the HUD’s info that I’m not used to having displayed in front of my field of view.

“Red Robin only does it like. Every time he sees me. Canary doesn’t. She’s more of a thumper than an asker. And she hates the techy stuff, making my suit the onlything she doesn’t thump me over.”

Again, not something I’ve had told to me or confirmed. Just something I assume based on watching her work, or watching her interact with other people or things in the Secret Lair. Besides. It’s not like I’m not reading it to be an ungrateful dummy. I don’t like looking like a dummy. But whoever wrote that manual (my money’s on R.R.) was clearly not writing it for non-big brain science nerds. So I’ve been working on it! Working on it just also includes practical use since I’m a hands on/visual learner, and I’ve only got so many hours in the day that I can currently devote to being a caped and masked badass.

“Seems like that would have been a question to ask before I came down here.”

But I step back away from the new mystery wall, and start walking the way I’d come. At least until I reach the next junction, and can hang a right to angle my path towards what should be the other side of that wall. Only before we are able to reach it, it’s much the same situation. Reduced sewage. Shiny new wall, with another little opening that’s allowing only the tiniest bit through.

“Hookay. Well. My money’s on secret off the grid, under the grid, in the gross grid housing for evil people. Also in the running is nefarious sewer flooding. Magic Mask says these last two tunnels should have led to a larger spill-off area. Do you want to check…all of them?”

Tim: Her question about Penny-One is more or less left unanswered. Oddly enough, in this case I’m not being standard issue Batman. This is more silence because I’m focused on everything we’re seeing. In turn that comes off as the big bad Batman standing there in brooding silence. Internally though I’m looking at a much more sophisticated version of Stephanie’s heads up display. No training wheels here. Visual indexing, flicking between various reads on the tools available through the suit. This suit, much like the one I wear as Red Robin, is meant to enhance my given tools. Bruce would have had to take samples, go back to the Cave, do his research and testing there. I’m able to do much of that work here. So long as the mobile unit is within range and the sewer system doesn’t cut me off from the relays. Cell service is notably shaky down here, but we haven’t gone deep enough to be cut off just yet.

“When you’re following the trail of someone like your Father it pays to be thorough. So there is no harm in our checking all of them. But. I don’t believe it is necessary. There is a pattern here and nothing to suggest that my own on-board systems are being obscured or blocked.” Instead of telling her what her own suit can and can’t do, I’m giving her some insight in to what mine is doing for me. Giving me the ability to look beyond this first series of walls. “We need to ascertain if the sewage is being routed to or away from a particular point.”

“There is also an opportunity here for us to lure someone from your Father’s employ here. In the Batmobile, I carry a small amount of deployable acid. We could apply it to the sealant for one of these walls. Cause a simulated natural critical failure. Someone would come to repair it. Since most of this is happening off the books, whomever comes would have connections that we could exploit.”

“The question before us, Spoiler, is whether you want to play the long game or the short game with your Father. I think this is your choice,” for the first time since we left the Robin’s Nest, I make an effort to turn to Stephanie directly. Up until now I’ve left to wonder if she was here as a side attraction. Maybe even bait. A pawn in the game or someone being tested by more than just her Father. This question, put to her, is meant to ‘clue her in’ to the fact that I’m actually here to fulfill a deal she thinks she made with someone else. This is her Case, for now. I’m helping her. Not the other way around. “What’s the play?”

Steph: I hadn’t really expected an answer. Maybe another not to helpful reminder to read the manual that’s not going to do me any good down here. Not unless I start packing the thing around with me. Hrr. Am I packing the thing around with m…ooh, hey. Well. There we go. A flick of my eyes in one direction and another to peruse the menus and options and there it is. All the wordy and technical ‘tips’ for how to use my suit’s various features in front of me. Explains why they’ve all got the shaded in eye sections of their little masks. To hide the twitchy/tweaker eye motions. I don’t buy that it’s really for a disguise though. I mean. Come on. Covering up just someone’s eyes doesn’t do a whole lot to hide who they are. Now I guess I don’t have an excuse anymore for my lack of downtime to study, though. Dang it, Steph. There’s time while we’re walking and I’m not being answered for me to read the manual right now. So I do. P…P… P… Penny-1. Aha!

How can I assist you, Miss Brown?

HOLYMotherof… the startled sound I make is just as much because I’m startled at the very prim, proper (..and kinda sexy…) voice that sounds through the tiny little speakers in my face mask, and to cut off the exclamation that clearly had begun as out loud judging by the echo in the tunnel around us. Clearly it’s good for a lot of things. Like scaring the crap out of me, and covering up the way my face flushes over my super-uncool outburst in front of an audience. I accelerate my pace more and duck my face down as I clear my throat and mutter a response.

“Um. Hi. Nope. Nothing. Thanks. I’m good. I…actually. Are you a person?”

I mean. While I’ve got his…its’?… attention what does it hurt to ask. Then I’m back to paying attention to Batman, after clearing my throat once again. Dragging my attention from the information displayed across my field of view to what’s actually present. Boy. Talk about distracting, though I’m sure it’s something you get used to. And I have a feeling what I’m being told is something I should actually be paying close attention to. Unlike how my history class went today. Which I may or may not have slept through.

“Away from doesn’t seem real likely. I mean. What would lessening the crap in any given area be doing except a favor to someone? So. Does that mean I was right? Which one? Lair or Awful Stockpile?”

Clearly being right about anyting is a very exciting prospect when you’re me. At least in this department. More than a little exciting actually. Being onto something and not just stumbling into it on accident or by happy (?) chance. Maybe that’s why they do this. You know. Other than out of some sense of justice and whatnot.

“I was kind of led to believe that long game, which was my play before, may not really be an option. As long as ‘critical seal failure’ doesn’t mean ‘wall implodes and we’re going swimming in something that no amount of air filter is going to make less nasty’ I think that works. Should give time to figure out the other burning questions there of what this might be for.”

Tim: Penny-One. Alfred Pennyworth. The man behind the Bat. Whether it’s Bruce, Dick, or me in the suit? The many faces beneath the cowl report to one man at the Cave. It has been that way since before I was here. Before Damien was here. Before Dick was here. It will likely be this way after we’re gone. Alfred is more than Butler, man-servant or nanny. He was a Father to Bruce, a grand-father to Dick and I and he’s more or less all of those things combined for Damien. None of us have ever had to operate without him, yet no one outside of that circle knows who he is. More people know about Bruce than know about Alfred and the irony is…

Alfred Knows Everything.

When he answers Stephanie, I almost laugh. More so at her response than anything, but mostly because you don’t have to be a detective to know that he’s enjoying this. While he might sound sophisticated, suave and remote, the far more likely truth is that he’s taking a sort of sadistic pleasure in Stephanie’s reactions. Her introduction in to this world is a thing of interest to Penny-One, for many reasons of course, but none more so than his desire for us to ‘Heal’ after the loss of Bruce. He encouraged Bruce to adopt me after I lost my parents and that logic only serves to play in to adopting Stephanie in to our family to help heal the loss of someone else.

Unlike the half-mask or the little eye covering one, the full cowl conceals my brows as they arch in her direction. She’s working through this. Making the connections. I can, actually, see her mind going to work on this. The more she talks, without the sarcasm, snark or jokes, I can see what her Father no-doubt sees as well. She’s got the gift for sniffing out the clues when they’re in place. She may not have the tools of a detective, but her mind seems to work like a gifted cipher. Naturally allowing her to make leaps in logic that scientific deduction would do for Bruce or I. Those are tools that can be molded, shaped, honed…

“Penny-One. You heard her. We’re going to dissolve some of the sealant one or two of these dams, from a safe distance. You’ll need to monitor dispatching protocols to this area. You will want to trace anything official. While we await anything unofficial.” As I deliver the final steps of our plan, I’ve turned to make my way back to the Batmobile. “Spoiler will be assisting me. Notify Black Canary that she will be missing her work-out.”

Ah. Shall I prepare a go-basket for the stake out festivities or arrange suitable excuses for missed classes for Ms. Brown? Will she be needing the red and yellow costume soon, I will need to make some cosmetic alterations…

“No. Canary has forbidden her from missing classes,” a pause at the cusp of the ladder up to the street, long enough for me to give Stephanie a longer appraisal before finishing. “We can discuss the other costume when she finishes learning how not to get herself killed in this one.”

Steph: How many of them are there? I mean. It makes sense. There’s got to be someone coordinating so they’re not running all over the top of each other. Y’know. Like how Arsenal and I keep stepping on each others’ toes, i.e. he keeps ruining all my perfectly good set-ups and traps and then getting punched a lot when all the violence could have been avoided in the first place. Maybe for all the vigilantes you hear about, there’s even more that you don’t. I’d say they’re all related but there’s a definite theme at work. One that Arrow Dude and I don’t exactly fit into.

Also. I bet carrying on a conversation with Penny-One makes you look like a certifiable cuckoo if anyone else is watching. Kind of like one of those people who insists on walking around the grocery store talking on a bluetooth headset like some kind of grade-A tool. Only in costume. At night. Without any visible earpiece to at least have as an excuse that you’re just inconsiderate and not crazy. When Bats turns and heads back the way we came, something I don’t need any map or display to tell me since I remember the turns we took, I’m quick to follow. I’m not trying to get left down here around any compromised poop dams, that’s for sure. Safe distance or not.

“…waitwaitwait. I can’t miss my nightly asskicking. Or it turns into double asskicking with a side of sadistic throttling.”

It might be the only thing I’ve sounded semi-frantic about all night. I mean. I’ve handled jetcar rides and trudges through sewers and voices in my head that aren’t just in my head with pretty great equanimity. If. You can be equananimous while squealing with excitement and/or surprise and/or disgust anyway. So there’s a sigh of relief that I won’t be missing class. Hopefully. Now I’m not sure, but I do know that Teacher’s got a nasty mean streak. Frowning behind my mask, I put hands on my hips and wait for him to make up his mind about going up the ladder or not, and getting out of my way.

“Other costume? How many costumes are there? I’m kind of attached to this one, though.”

It’s like a better, more badass version of what I’d worked up for myself in the first place. And it’s awesomely eggplant colored.

“Which I might add I have a one hundred percent success rate of not dying in.”

Tim: “Canary will understand the importance of your first stake out, trust me.”

There is an almost grim sarcasm about it. Such as to suggest that Stephanie doesn’t quite understand the torture of what she’s in for. That half-laugh, half-warning chortle from Penny-One probably does nothing to instill confidence in her that this going to be any better than a sparring session with the Canary. One that is only marginally topped by my leaping nearly all of the way up the ladder than any normal person would need to climb. Like many things this is as much smoke and mirrors as anything else. With the micro-filament musculature in the suit augmenting my normal agility just enough that it gives the illusion of being more than just some not-legal-to-drink kid in a suit, but the very same Batman that took her father apart when she first saw him.

By the time Stephanie catches up, I’m already gathering what we need from the Batmobile. Thus giving me plenty of time to plan what I’m going to say to her in response to her own commentary. “You have a lot to learn Spoiler. A fact that people keep reminding you. Over and over. From your father, to Red Robin, to Canary and myself. In at least my case, and I would suspect Canary’s, telling you that is not some form of a rib upon your inexperience. When I say it, I mean it literally. You have a lot to learn, but you have shown me tonight that you’re capable of doing it.”

“Penny-One is someone that we all trust and he knew what I’m learning tonight, the first time he saw you. He saw the same things in me. He saw them in years ago. Red Robin, Nightwing and Red Hood. He’s seen the qualities you posses in a select few people. We all began as something else, but Penny-One was the foundation of helping us each become something more. Gaining his trust, his approval, is a like opening a gateway. Tonight, you might be Eggplant Tailfin-Girl, but that doesn’t mean it is who you will be in a week or a year.”

“That sounds far more cryptic and sarcastic than I mean it to be, but you’ll understand soon enough. You’ve taken a big step. Accepting Red Robin’s help. Canary’s training. Those things lead you here, tonight, with me. Your choices, not your Father’s, are defining you. With each new one you’re becoming something new, something better. We all faced a challenge when we first started down this road. We all changed, we all became something else. Some of us became things we didn’t want. Don’t lose sight of the aspiration to be … more… than Eggplant Tailfin-Girl.”

Whether by design or pure coincidence, I happen to finish talking just in time to also be done collecting the solvent and attaching the vial to a batarang housing. I’m about to whirl and head to the manhole cover again, when I come to a stop. That long, flowing , tapered cape rests upon my shoulders and swathes me in darkness for that moment’s hesitation. Then a single hand protrudes in offering of the batarang to her.

“Use your mask’s H.U.D. when you throw it. You’ll be able to remotely control it’s flight to one of the dams. Once you’re done. We disappear and wait, I’ll be in the Batmobile.”

STeph: “Uh huh. Yeah. I’m sure she will, but understanding doesn’t mean she won’t still make me sorry and call it a lesson in how doing the right thing in the moment can still have super, super sucky consequences, and blah, blah, blaaaaah… talking to myself again now.”

Since the Bat just took all the rungs in the ladder at the same time that might have almost made me believe he could actually fly, in the middle of my complaint/rant/whining. It’s going to happen though. I can feel it. I’m a quick enough study when I try to be, which means I’ve picked up pretty quickly on a lot of things. Like how the Black Canary is a giant fan of exploiting any and all weaknesses. Which is awesome and impressive when it’s not directed at you. Not as appreciated when she’s taking your knees out during your allotted drink break, to demonstrate how attacks can come at any time.

“Orrrr. Myself and Penny-One. That might actually be worse. No offense Penny-One.”

With a heavy sigh I start scrambling up the ladder like I can escape that particular conversation, and move past the rather ominous feeling I’d gotten from the sarcasm and laughter from the nights’ partners, both present and remote, it’s a little irritating to be left that far behind. He’s already back at the car and rummaging through God knows what is stashed in that thing. A nuke maybe. At this point I don’t think I’d even be surprised. There’s also apparently some extra volumes of lectures and sage advice in there. You have a lot to learn Spoiler. Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know is what’s about to come out of my mouth, but he goes on to something that for once slows my tongue that was getting ready for a retort.

“Uhm. Huh. Well. Thanks. That’s probably the nicest thing anyone’s said to me this month. Even with the continued mocking of the codename. But I’m giving you some wiggle room on account of how you at least properly got the color.”

I’d kind of argue that my Father’s choices have actually defined me pretty hardcore. If he wasn’t such an epic, criminal douchebag I wouldn’t be out here. That’s for sure. I don’t even have the slightest clue what I’d be doing, or who I’d be. Stephanie Brown, Honor Student! Stephanie Brown, Virtuoso Piantist Wizkid! He’s always been what he is, long as I’ve been around. And his crummy choices and ‘career moves’ have shaped everything about my family life and a whole lot about me.

“So Penny-One is the Boss. Got it.”

Flipping both my thumbs up, as I hunch my shoulders in a gesture that would probably be better if the mask wasn’t hiding the cheesy grin I’ve got going on in here. Not really a joke though. Everything about what I’ve just been told tells me that’s the truth. Even if someone else is the actual on the ground boss, or the ringleader of a crew if there’s someone that they look to for advice or approval? It means that they’re not really the one who’s ultimately in charge. And theirs is someone who clearly’s got his eye on everything if he knows all that. I’m also kind of worried they think I’m out to get more from all this than I really am. The motivation had been so simple starting out. Do I actually want more than what started all this?

For a moment, I’m standing there with my thumbs still up, looking at the batarang that’s protruding with part of an arm from that loomy cloak of his in what has to be the most awkward/weird/hilarious tableau that’s ever been seen on this street. The way I take it is almost tentative, but that’s more because I’m stopping myself from snatching it before he changes his mind like a kid going for candy in a jar. The first one. That’s the one with the least turns from here. Not that I don’t think I can pilot the thing. Remote controlled vehicles are maybe my only positive childhood memory with Arthur Brown. Doing it from a HUD may be a different animal entirely though. Which is why I actually go back to the manhole to lob it as well, leaning down in a much less impressive swirl of cape.

I’d like to brag about how I don’t ‘crash the thing even once but there were a couple near misses that somehow i’m sure he saw and I just don’t want to present an opening. Pushing up off the concrete, I dust off my gloves that don’t actually need dusting.

“Are you just going to leave the cover off or… right. Already gone. Fine, I’ll do it myself!”

Guess what kids? You know how we all know that manhole covers are freaking heavy? They feel a whole lot more weighty after you’ve watched someone else handle it like it’s nothing, even though the damn thing probably weighs not a whole lot less than I do. I mean. I get it eventually. It just feels like an embarrassingly long amount of time, before I flick the collapsing staff out and use it for leverage. Good thing it didn’t bend. I’d hate to have to ask for a new one before I’ve actually really learned to use the first one. I’m telescoping the weapon back down into it’s smaller state as I scrabble, puffing a little, into the passenger seat.

“Okay. All done. Which you … probably already know. But. Really. Um. Thanks. For what you said.”

Tim: Whether I’m watching or not is actually answered by her settling back down in to the Car. Once she’s inside the hatchway, she’ll see that there was a monitor in the car displaying the remote controlled batarang. The same sort of monitor that I would likely have seen in my cowl, like her mask. Much as the man called Penny-One was likely watching remotely. So I don’t even bother commenting on it. That would only further cement that she’s got a lot to learn. Like I said before, everyone knows that including Stephanie. There’s absolutely no purpose to beating that dead horse, other than hurting her morale. Demoralizing someone is not what I do. Maybe it’s what Bruce would have done. Testing her metal, seeing if she would bend easily or sway from her course with some discouragement.

Not me. I know how that feels. More importantly, I have a keen reminder of how it plays out if you do it to someone that’s willing to call your bluff. Maybe Stephanie wouldn’t miss her parents, but I don’t want that responsibility -or- guilt. So what do I say to the second series of thank yous in as many minutes. “You shouldn’t take it as mocking your ‘code name.’ You’ve picked a code name before you’re ready to have one. When you’re closer to the point where you are ready to be out here alone… are you going to be Spoiler then? Spoiler is who your Father made you in to, but is that who you are?”

And, perhaps most importantly, Miss. Is that who you want to be?

That slight crinkling of the cowl’s eyebrows might be suggestive of some emotion when Alfred chimes in. She doesn’t know that I’ve been where she is. Recently. Very recently, in fact. Twice over. First when Bruce asked me to return as Robin. Then when I realized that I was going to be Batman, in spite of everything I’ve ever said. Two times over I’ve made decisions about who I am, who I would be, based upon the needs of someone or someones else. I know where she is and I know where she might go next. And most importantly, I know who helped me through those times. Who guided me in the decision process.

Alfred Pennyworth.

“He’s more Jiminy Cricket, than Leader,” that grim smile returns because I can already hear him ruffling up, Must we compare me to that overblown Disney Fluff…

“Everyone you meet. Everyone you let take part in your life. As we let them, they influence us. They mold us, shape us. We are the sum of our parts, truly. Defined by those whom we bring in to our lives, if we let them. The hardest truth is one you’ve clearly learned already. We can choose to let that influence define us for good or bad. It is a measure of you, Stephanie, that your Father’s influence has brought you here. Instead of somewhere far, far darker.”

“That measure? Is something you should carry with you for the rest of your life. Because if he. This man who is your life-blood. Your Father. If he did not break you down, did not make you in to something vile and contemptible like himself. If your own Father could not make you in to something Evil? Then who can?”

“Once you accept that. Truly accept that. What’s a little beating by Canary or heckling by Red Robin? What can anyone do to you that can break you, when the Cluemaster hasn’t succeeded and he’s had your whole life.” This life-talk, coaching session or whatever it is, comes to a small half when I fire the engine of the car back up. Another half-second later the vehicle is rolling to life and pulling in to the secluded shadows of an alleyway across from the Office we came to at first. “At any rate, you don’t need to thank me, Stephanie. Everything I’ve said, you already knew. You just wanted someone else to confirm it.”

“Now. The car has a light refracting exterior that can be turned on in a simulation of a… cloak. We may here a while, but this monitor here is from a thumb camera that I put in the alcove. You should nap, while we wait, I don’t sleep very much.”

Steph: What the heck is going on tonight? I mean, seriously. This is like an After-School Special and a Parental Intervention all rolled into one, only I’m having it with Batmanand Penny-One. Neither of whom seems to be playing Bad Cop which is a lot more how I personally would have guessed this would have gone. Guess the Bad Cops are back at the hideout tonight. I’ve ended up pressed more and more back into the passenger seat, body tilted slightly to the side and away from the person I’m eyeballing sideways like I’m questioning who the hell they are, and what they’ve done with…well. Batman. Maybe in hindsight that’s not actually a question I want answered since Batman is supposed to be dead, and I know of a lot of people who’d be pretty confused to find out that’s not the actual truth.

“It was that or introduce myself by actual name. Which you guys all found out with apparently zero difficulty so I guess I could have just led with it instead of making up something on the spot.”

Still. I like the name, and think it’s pretty darn appropriate. I’m probably spoiling someone’s night right now! It’s an important question though, am I going to be Spoiler whenever this ends? I had a really clear goal and purpose in mind, and that comes with a finish line to chase. When and if I manage to cross that, what then? The plan was just to go back to being Stephanie at that point. This wasn’t exactly a long term career choice.

“That sounds like something someone who’s not really the boss would say about someone that is the boss.”

The smirk is evident in my tone of voice, even if it’s hidden by my face mask as I wriggle my hips to settle a bit more comfortably in the seat now that I’m no longer eyeing him like some sort of weird batbug that I have no idea what I’m supposed to do with, or where it came from. I’m pretty sure I didn’t expect to be getting kudos for not turning into a supervillain or something similar yet. I had pretty lame examples when it came to parents, and my father was gone more than he was around. Just enough to make me hate him and everything he wanted.

“Oh, I know they’re not going to break me. Hold up. That sounded waaaaaay cockier than I actually meant for it to. I mean. That’s not a concern for me. It might hurt a whole helluva lot, but there’s a big difference between smarting and broke. When your Dad is someone who goes by Cluemaster you kind of learn to grow a thick skin. Kids are assholes.”

You also learn how to duck punches and answer them with a really solid left when said other kid had a parent who also was in jail thanks to something your own idiot parent had gotten them to do. Just look at all these life skills I have him to thank for. Not that I ever would. I’m not sure that I was really looking for validation but… maybe I was. I didn’t start this looking for some back patting, or even people to go in with, but it’s hard not to want to be on the level of the people that you see out here doing this and doing it well.

“Uh. Nap? Are you kidding? I had a caramel dead-eye less than an hour ago. There will be noo-o-oooo napping.”

Because when a double espresso just isn’t enough to keep you up and kicking on not a whole lot of sleep, you go for a third! Admittedly two would probably have been sufficient. Or maybe even going without. Adrenaline is a helluva drug, honestly. Still. Just in case. But perky and chattery as I may be, dense I am not. Somehow I think ‘nap’ might be keyword for we’re going to be here a while, shut up and don’t bother me. So I dig in my belt for my phone.

“…yeah, okay I’ll be over here playing Angry Birds.”