The wheels of the Batmobile skidded on gravel and water, spinning uselessly before they caught and the car jerked forward.
It was too late.
“Shit, shit, shit,” Stephanie hissed, when the front bumper rammed into the solid legs of the towering monster. They’d thought at first it was Killer Croc. It wasn’t— it was something new, like Croc had chugged Miracle Gro. Batman, in the passenger seat, groaned but didn’t seem to be awake.
“B,” Stephanie said, fury creeping into her tone. How dare he pick now to be unconscious? One hand yanked at the gear shift and pulled it into reverse. “You need to wake the fuck up. You want me to say I’m not ready for this? I’m not ready for this. I’m little leagues, still, B, you gotta wake up, Boss.”
The wheels squealed in the air.
The front of the car was off the ground, the Croc mutant had picked it up and with a roar that rang like thunder in Stephanie’s ears, he threw his weight into the lift. The car flipped.
For a split second, it seemed slow motion, like a roller coaster peaking at the top of a long climb. The one detail Stephanie registered was that the figure beside her came to life, and the last thing she saw before impact was black cape.
Metal screeched when the car landed on its hood and spun like a top across the cracked parking lot. Stephanie screamed, but there were strong arms holding her tightly and she felt the impact through the insulation of Bruce curled around her like a shell.
When the vehicle skidded to a stop, everything grew quiet. She pushed at him, frantic, when he was motionless. Then, stomping steps shook the ground and the car teetered dangerously.
They had landed on the pier they were on the edge of the pier and they were going to fall in the bay if they didn’t get out and Stephanie’s legs were pinned. Another stomp tipped the rear of the Batmobile and it shuddered at a dangerous angle and Stephanie did the best, stupidest thing she could think of with the one arm she’d worked free.
She fired a grapple out the broken window. The thud of it planting somewhere trembled down the line and then the car plunged backward and Stephanie realized in that moment it was let go or have her arm yanked off.
Then, somehow, she was swinging in the air by the line and the car was throwing up a wall of water when it hit the bay beneath her. There was the ghost of feeling on her waist, one leg— he’d shoved her out of the car.
There would be time to react later. She hauled herself up the line, gulping for air. Glass had cut through her costume and her arm screamed when she held her weight on it, but she dragged herself up onto the pier and lay there for a second gasping.
A shadow loomed over her and there was a deep, animalistic growl.
“Fuck,” Stephanie exhaled, trying to roll onto her knees. She hadn’t planned on dying tonight but she supposed that wasn’t how it worked, exactly, when you put on a mask. A hand with ugly claws wrapped around her neck and lifted.
The monster staggered back, dropping her, when a boot slammed into its throat. A new shadow had soared right over her and Batman was on the thing like some kind of feral demon. The monster roared again but Batman was moving so fast, his fist barreling again and again on ears and the underside of its jaw while he swung onto its back.
Stephanie gaped, frozen where she’d been dropped.
“How in the fuck…” she sputtered, and she twisted to look down at the sinking car. She looked back at the fight, stuck on her knees. He was drawing a cord around its neck and holding it in place. It clawed at him, cutting through so much suit on his arm Stephanie thought she glimpsed bone through the rain.
Batman didn’t seem to notice.
He was spraying something now, his legs locked in place around flailing, scaly arms. Stephanie sprang to her feet and sprinted toward them and leveled a flying kick at its midsection.
Between that and whatever Batman had sprayed, the thing toppled with a thud onto rotting wood and pavement. Batman staggered to his feet and grunted at her, and Stephanie scrambled back while he locked something around its wrists. He grabbed that chain and dragged the monster, limping, toward a broken street lamp.
“Grapple,” he rasped at her, over his shoulder. She jogged to catch up and handed him the recoiled line from her belt. She didn’t even remember putting it back, so all those practice sessions must have been paying off. He fired into concrete near their feet and began winding the line around the monster and lashing it to the lamp pole.
“O?” Stephanie said, into her comm. “We need pickup for Big Bad Wolf here and a pickup for us. Fast, I think.”
Batman didn’t speak the entire time they were a building away, waiting. He was silent, his jaw stony. Stephanie willed another car to show up soon, because she didn’t think she could drag Bruce if he passed out again for real. And he shouldn’t be on his feet, there was no way.
Except he was Batman.
The backup vehicle got there seconds before the police squad cars showed up, and Batman took the driver’s seat. He didn’t say a word the entire way back to cave, while Stephanie shrank in the passenger seat and picked at a thread on her cape.
“Are you mad?” she blurted out when they pulled to stop. She was ready to cram all the miserable fighting in one miserable night.
He climbed out of the car, and stood with one hand on the hood. Slowly, she got out after him.
“Are. You. Hurt,” he ground out, between his teeth.
“No,” Stephanie said. “Just a little. No, not really.”
“Good,” he said. “Then I’m not mad.”
“What in the sodding hell have you been up to,” Dev demanded from across the cave. He was stepping off the elevator. “O rang and said your entire bloody suit had gone offline.”
Stephanie stared at Batman.
“What,” she said, faintly.
“You were in danger,” he said, simply. “Now you aren’t. So, I’m not mad.”
“I meant at me,” Stephanie said, too stupified to shut up.
“Why would I…” Batman looked at her, and a muscle in his jaw twitched. He pushed the cowl back. There was a bruise already blooming across half his face. “Stephanie. No. It’s important that you’re okay. That’s my job.”
Then, he turned and collapsed forward onto Dev. Dev nearly went down beneath the weight, with a startled shout, and Stephanie vaulted over the car to help. Together, with some difficulty and many swears from Dev, they dragged Bruce to a gurney.
Stephanie sat in the desk chair, unshowered while Dev worked on Bruce’s unconscious body, and thought over and over of that cocoon around her when the car had flipped.
It was hours later when she was nudged toward showering and changing, and she came back to the med bay and a Bruce who was awake, staring at the ceiling while Dev talked quietly to him from a chair. Most of Bruce was in braces or bandages or covered with new sutures and Stephanie knew before she had pulled another chair over that this one was going to be a long recovery.
The scratches on her arms and the bruises around her neck were barely anything, she’d forget them by the end of the week.
She could have died.
Dev got up and rummaged in a cabinet full of bags of liquid meds in little baskets and Stephanie leaned closer to Bruce, looked at the tears building in the corners of his eyes and spilling over, and she kissed his forehead.
“Thank you,” she said. “For being Batman.”
He blinked at her and she slipped her fingers around his and squeezed.
“I know sometimes I piss you off and you piss me off more than I like to admit, but you’re a good Batman,” Stephanie said. And fuck, she was crying, and she hadn’t meant to cry, she thought she was too tired. “People don’t usually take hits for me.”
“Steph,” Bruce said, when she tried to hide her face by pressing it against the edge of the bed. “Sweetheart. It’s okay.”
“Shut up,” Stephanie grumbled. “Just say thank you. You kicked ass tonight.”
“Shh,” he said instead, and she sucked in a breath because when she closed her eyes she could still feel the drop— the moment the thing had let go of her neck and she knew she was going to survive. “Go get some sleep, kiddo.”
Stephanie shook her head against the bed edge. “Don’t tell me what to do. I’m keeping you company. I’ll kick Dev in the shins if he tries to make me leave.”
“I like my sodding shins the way they are,” Dev said from behind. “I’m going to put antiseptic on those cuts, though, fair bloody warning, love. Wayne. Rest. I’ll see to Steph.”
Stephanie lifted her head and met Bruce’s exhausted gaze and for some stupid reason, she smiled.
His smile back felt secret— it was crooked, like it always was, and he was pale and bruised— but it was something for her. Because they’d both come home.
“We did kick ass,” he said. “Good work.”