Everyone Pretends They're Fine

January 24, 2017:

Tim brings Stephanie up to speed with some of what he's been doing lately.

Gotham University - Library


NPCs: None.

Mentions: Zatanna Zatara, Batman


Mood Music: [*\# None.]

Fade In…

Tim still hasn't slept very much.

He was at the Manor the night before, and he was pretty certain that Alfred would've judo chopped him if he hadn't at least /tried/ to get some rest, though it was made all the more difficult after the… Awkward conversation he'd had with Bruce. Even if the Dark Knight had raised him the past few years, even if he'd become as much of a father to Tim in his own way as Jack Drake ever had been, there were some personal issues that couldn't help but be embarrassing to discuss.

Today, in between classes, Tim is sitting in one of the library study rooms, the glass window in the door enough to ensure that people can see if a room is occupied, and who's occupying it, and also to discourage a bunch of college kids from, you know. His phone sits on the table, a headphone trailing from it to one of his ears as tinny music plays, while his dark blue eyes scan over a text book, over notes.

He looks, well, he looks like he's barely slept in the past week. And like he doesn't intend to fix that anytime soon.

Study room. Stephanie needs a study room. That one day of missed class when she spent her visiting hour for hte week at Arkham put her much further behind than she wanted to be. Of course, to an overachiever, not being ahead is falling behind. Stephanie moved to the study room she's used to being empty this time of the week, and so she opens the door without checking if the room's in use. She's got her nose in a book.

If Tim's being having trouble, so has Stephanie. Likely for different reasons. Likely for similar. Unless they talk, it'd be hard to know. Regardless, the blonde shoulders her way in and slides her books onto the table before realizing.

"Ohmygosh. I'm so so- Tim?"

He hears someone coming. He's distracted, exhausted, emotionally drained - sloppy, letting himself relax because he's at school, he's out of costume, everything is normal - and he doesn't pick out who it is just from the familiar way she steps, or any of the other thousands of subtle little clues a person carries around them, projects ahead of themselves. He almost hopes for a second that it's a particular other person, the person he's usually sequestered in a study room with, as his physics partner… But it's a brief, intrustive thought. It's probably just some…

The books hit the table, and he looks up with his darker blue eyes, the rings underneath caused by his lack of sleep clearly visible from Stephanie's perspective. Blonde hair. Bright eyes. A brick to the face.

"Steph," Tim says, sitting up on his chair. "Um… Make yourself at home, I'm just copying some notes for a friend."

"You look like hell," she says so bluntly, the blunt of a shared history and concern. She sits so as not to seem to be looming over him, and her eyes are bright, yes, but they too show signs of emotional fatigue.

"What can I do?" Ever willing to put her own fatigue and issues aside for another, especially this other.

'You look like hell.'

Tim's eyes slowly hood. They weren't always literal bricks.

"Thanks," is his defensive, sarcastic response to Stephanie's completely accurate statement, his head bobbing in a quick few nods as he turns his attention down to his textbook. "It's just this new thing I'm trying, and I'm glad somebody noticed…" He's being stupid, he knows. Childish. She's asking about him and his wellbeing, worrying. He's been making people worry, he knows.

He heaves a sigh, squeezing his eyes shut, rubbing a hand over them with a quiet, discontented grumble. She doesn't need to put up with him acting like this.

"Sorry… Sorry," Tim says, and he sounds genuinely apologetic. "I'm fine, it's just… A friend of mine was in a lot of trouble, and we got some of it sorted out, but it made for a rough weekend." And week. And most of the month, actually, if he were to be completely honest. He looks at Stephanie then, /really/ looks at her instead of seeing the general shape of 'Stephanie Brown' and then mentally filling in the gaps. There's something there, in her eyes. He can see it.

"Er… How are you? You look-" don't tell her she looks tired, don't tell her she looks tired, don't ever tell a woman she looks tired, Timothy Jackson Drake! "-kinda tired."

That sarcasm. It's his best defense isn't it? And against Stephanie it works. Her shoulders tense, and her head pulls back as he goes on with his childish self. Her brows pulls together, forming a thin line between them. Her lips frown faintly, then press together as she starts to lower her gaze to her books. She's jus tabout to start to consider getting up again when he apologizes. It cools the sting of that sarcasm, and she nods. Her gaze comes back up, meeting his fatigued eyes with her own. Tim says she looks tired and Stephanie coughs a chuckle, eyes closing.

"Astute." She takes a breath, trying to smile but it falls flat. "I had a hard weekend too. I think.. maybe there's something in the air."

"What happened?" Tim wonders, tugging the earbud from his ear, turning off his phone's music player. It's different, apparently, when it's him asking about what happened to someone else, rather than the other way around… But then, he'd already decided that things had worked out for the best. Hadn't they? The right people all came away with what they wanted.

Now there were just a few key moves left to make. Lives to save, bad guys to beat. Then it was on to the next problem, of course. That's just the nature of the Work.

"Was it… I mean, are you okay? You look kind of not okay."

Stephanie is quiet a moment, eyes growing sadder before she finds a smile again.

"Just.. Work." The word comes with a roll of eyes, a smirk, and almost chuckle. But then her shoulders lower and she sighs.

"Made me think of Dad. It'll be fine," she adds with a note of finality that she gets so often when that subject is broached. The Bats know all about it. They don't have time or patience for her whining about it.

Her father. The Cluemaster.

A shadow passes over the room, it seems like, when she brings him up. A chill in the air as though the January cold outside the library had managed to penetrate just this one study room. Tim remembers when this all started, when he was just Robin and Stephanie had taken up wearing an outfit that managed to be even more ridiculous than his, somehow. The Spoiler, in her eggplant-coloured sack, out to ruin the Cluemaster's schemes. Daddy's little girl, she was not.

But still, whatever else the man was, he was her father, right?

"If you wanna talk about it…" Tim trails off, watching the blonde with concern. She wasn't like the rest of them, after all. The life they lived had worn calluses on them, on their hearts, but Stephanie Brown had largely avoided that.

Honestly, Tim envied it.

While Stephanie envied how unaffected by the Life the others seemed. Where some days the want to break down and cry is so real, she has to hang up the cape and not deal with it for a week or ten. But, she came back on her own, promised Batman and the others, and especially Tim though it wasn't ever said aloud, that she wasn't going to let them down again. Stephanie pulls in an unsteady breath.

"…I'll let you know. Thanks," is the reply, smile sad but genuine and reaching her eyes this time.

"Is your friend okay, at least?"

Tim doesn't push. He knows better than that… After all, he would say, he's never met anyone more stubborn than Stephanie Brown gets if you try to push her. He just smiles back at her, a small and tight thing, but that's about what he's got, right now.

But it's sincerely meant, so maybe it would do.

"Yeah, she's okay," Tim answers, nodding. "It's a really long story, you know how it is," he continues, his hands flashing a few quick bits of sign language: Work-related, his hands say. He's being careful, because he's been too care/less/ lately, and who knows when people might be listening if he starts talking about secret societies and wizards and saving someone's soul… And even worse, when someone might be listening to that and not think he's talking about his weekend D&D game.

Sinceerely is all Stephanie has ever wanted from anyone, and as tight as it is, the sinceriy warms her, and she nods.

"I'm really glad. If I can help, let me know," replies the blonde, reading the hand motions as she nods. That's all he ever needs to say. Work related. WHich means that if it's something they NEED to discuss, they can do it in the Cave. Anywhere else and the risk is hardly worth the mention.

The blonde's offer fills Tim with a sour feeling of guilt.

He hadn't even considered going to any of the others for help with this situation, for a number of reasons, though most of that number can also simply be traced back to the Batman. He had, after all, told most of the people he was trying to help to get out of Gotham after the debacle at the Gotham Antiquities Commission gala, and in a more directly worse way…

"It's Zatanna Zatara," Tim explains, a bit awkwardly, trying to keep things as vague as possible. The very young woman who Bruce had noted to the rest of the 'Family' was a potential security risk, having very nearly discovered the Batcave. Thus, not turning to the others for help, because he worried they might not. That the Batman might not approve.

Did Tim ever realize that Stephanie was a Girl Scout and that she took that oath seriously? Help others, the best you can, in all the ways you can, as often as you can. As Tim explains, Stephanie leans forward a bit, giving him her full attention. Brows shoot up at the name. A moment passes and then Stephnie reaches into her purse, into the false bottom, and turns on the white noise app on her black and purple phone, which she slides from purse to under a book.

"What's after her?" Stephanie asks, face serious. How could Tim ever worry that Stephanie wasn't going to help, regardless of Batman's approval?

Maybe he figured she just really liked the cookies.

Tim did not expect Stephanie to turn on a white noise generator, and he /definitely/ didn't expect her to continue to offer her help like that; he wears the surprise openly for a brief but revealing moment, before letting out a short huff of an exhalation, not quite a resigned sigh. The cat is way out of the bag now, and it's not coming back.

"Do you want a list from worst to most manageable?" Tim wonders, unable to help himself from letting out that sardonic remark. "Some kind of organisation had stolen her soul, or… Most of it, anyway. She's a powerful magic-user and they wanted her energy to power some kind of machine to create people's ideal realities for them. I dunno what they were planning to do with /that/, but they're big into brainwash and torture and implanting suicide devices in their agents, so it probably wasn't anything good. She got her soul back, though, that worked out at least."

His relief, when he says that, is obvious. Too obvious.

"And there's this cult, the Cold Flame, that want to give her to their master, a Prince of Hell named Mammon. Who, uh, knows my name. He was behind that serial killer from before Christmas, the one who got blown up at Arkham? That's how I got involved in all of this, Zee was going to be his thirteenth victim. I didn't track the guy down fast enough to save the other twelve."

That cat's not even coming back the very next day!

"Lists are good," Stephanie retorts with a faint half smirk, blue eyes flicking toward the window to check for anyone there, before returning to Tim. She listens, lips pressing together faintly. Mostly at the demon, soul-possessing, magic-using cult of brainwashing crazies.

Part of it was at the all too obvious wash of relief she hears in his voice, sees in his eyes and on his face, when he speaks of Zatanna getting her soul back.

She smiles at the news that she got her soul back. While the expression seems to be one of relief that an 'innocent' wasn't harmed, that's only part of it. Sure, there's a part of her that still cares so much for Tim that it hurts to see him with anyone else, but that's the tiniest of flames against the part that cares to the point of being physically ill at the thought of him being unhappy and hurting. That he feels a sense of relief that the girl's soul is her own strong enough to be so obvious is bitter sweet. Stephanie draws a breath to focus on the rest.

"Does he know what you DO or just your name?" back to business.

Though both of them are adept at reading people, by sheer necessity if nothing else, neither Tim nor Stephanie can read minds. It's a regrettable oversight - at least, if they could, it would make some things work out a lot more easily, wouldn't it? - but that's just how relatively normal humans like them are built. So Tim is oblivious to the bittersweet pang Stephanie feels at his obvious relief at saving his friend… And Stephanie is unaware that no small part of the emotional turmoil that's chewed Tim up over the past week came from being rejected.

It's not like that was something he'd just offer up, anyway. Tim Drake might not always be the nicest person in the world, but he wouldn't be so callous as to try to talk about his heartbreak with his ex-girlfriend.

"The whole thing, I expect. He's some kind of extradimensional entity, he knew who I was as soon as he'd possessed Kazinsky, as soon as he saw me in costume. He's also working with the man who caused the disaster at the New Year's gala… Hanussen, he calls himself, but he's some kind of immortal Nazi sorceror who was researching the Spear of Destiny."

And she's not so callous as to flaunt a potential new beau who may be a meta-human to her ex-boyfriend. She just focuses on the current troubles her Tim is having. Because isn't all she feels she can do for him right now.

"Okay. I see a couple things we need to do in the short term that can hopefully lead us to the long term," Stephanie says, eyes steady enough for the moment, lips firm.

"If she knows, stay near and stay geared. Just in case. And if anything starts to go down, you call in for backup. If Kazinsky knew you in uniform, it's not a big leap to the rest of us. And if that happened at all near the time she tried to get in, then it's possible she was trying to find you to get help. If she doesn't know, stay near and keep your gear subtle. And again, call for backup," Stephanie pushes her Spoiler phone into her purse, finger hovering over the app's stop button.

"And answer your phone, would you? I'll pull as much information as I can, while you see what you can find from her about all this," she continues before turning off the app and smiling in that indulgent way that smacks of that caring want to spoil the boy.

"But first, get some sleep. And give me those notes. I'll get them copied and sent your way."

As Stephanie talks, Tim feels a great surge of conflicted emotion.

Affection and pride, at seeing her like this - so willing to help out, so fixed on helping out someone else, someone she doesn't even know. Sour guilt, knowing that he doesn't deserve to feel either of those towards the blonde. Things between them had always been difficult in one way or another, though it was easier 'on the job,' when there were bigger and more important things to worry about, and he knew that he didn't make it any easier.

"It was that other force, Mammon, that knew me. Kazinsky was killed in custody, some kind of an explosion, probably because of the 'demon prince'. Mammon probably knows all sorts of things, but it doesn't seem to be taking a direct hand right now." He watches as Stephanie puts her 'other' phone away, as she turns off her white noise app, as she smiles him like that, the caring expression twisting him in self-hating knots.

"We've already got a lot of info, me and others," he says, trying to keep it vague. "I'll send you what I know, okay? Just… Stephanie, please be careful if you're going to nose around," Tim finds himself saying. "I'm begging you."

After the things that have happened to others involved in the investigation, the thought of anything like that happening to Stephanie - captured and brainwashed, her mind and her soul pulled apart for the amusement of sinister others - is like a knife in his belly.

Slowly, hesitantly he pushes his Physics notes towards the blonde, his brow furrowing as a troubled expression settles over him. Get some sleep, she says. She's not the first person to tell him that.

"I… I'll try," Tim tells her.

He's lying, though.

"Don't lie, Tim. I know where you hole up," Stephanie retorts, collecting the notes into her notebook and pushing herself up. "Come on. I'll get you back to your place. And you're going to at least shower and then lay down and close your eyes. Or so help me… I will tell your Sandwish Suppler." IE: Alfred.

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