There were few days since Dick had moved out that Bruce had looked forward to going home after work quite as much as the current one. He’d made it through a whole slew of meetings and slept half the afternoon in his office, after his secretary had caught him nodding off over lunch and quietly rescheduled a few hours.
The past week had been a flurry of constant motion and work. WE was wrapping up a series of grant funding applications, he’d made sure Stephanie Brown had ended up in a good foster home, he’d seen Arthur and Crystal arrested on separate charges, and then as of four in the morning Edward Nygma was in custody again.
What Bruce wanted was to go home and find somewhere to sit and not move for a few hours, then go on a normal patrol and follow up on a dozen minor situations he’d neglected during the Riddler hunt.
The drive home was a blur.
Alfred met him at the door with a funny frown.
“What’s wrong?” Bruce asked, brow furrowing when nothing was volunteered.
“I’ve had…something of a situation this afternoon,” Alfred said, pensive and lacking his usual sarcasm. He raised a hand at Bruce’s start. “Nothing you might call an emergency. I certainly would have rung you. Perhaps it would be better to explain over tea.”
“Now I really am worried,” Bruce said, shrugging off his light jacket.
Alfred’s back was to him while he hung the jacket in a closet. When he turned around, he gestured to the briefcase in Bruce’s hand.
“Stow that away and I’ll find you in the study,” Alfred said cryptically.
“It isn’t Dick, is it?” Bruce asked, a knot of fear tightening in his gut. “I haven’t talked to him much this week.”
“As far as I am aware, Master Dick is perfectly well,” Alfred said calmly. “The study, Master Bruce. This is a conversation best accompanied by visual aids.”
In absolute silence, Bruce watched Alfred’s retreating form before shaking himself and heading to the study. There was little point in pursuing Alfred and hounding him; the older man could be just as stubborn as Bruce when he wanted to be.
Bruce knew before he flicked the study light on that someone was in the room. He flicked it on anyway, prepared to fight despite Alfred’s sedate direction, and then relaxed.
Stephanie was curled up on the couch, asleep.
He sighed. He somehow had even more questions for Alfred than he had five minutes ago.
Bruce sat on the edge of the couch and shook her shoulder. She whined in her sleep, shoving at his hand, and woke slowly.
“M’tired,” she grumbled. Then, as if comprehension had slammed into her, she sat abruptly with wide eyes. Her blonde hair whipped around her face. “Hi!”
“How’d you get past Alfred?” Bruce asked, looking at his watch. He tried to downplay how actually curious he was about how she’d managed to get there, and didn’t want to yet give away that he’d already spoken briefly to Alfred.
“I knocked on the door and he let me in,” Stephanie said, like she thought Bruce was a little stupid. “He gave me some food and put me in here.”
“He did, huh,” Bruce said. “Move over, Hobbit. I’m going to lean back on my own couch if I’m going to hear a story.”
“Not much to tell,” Stephanie shrugged one shoulder, curling up on one end of the couch. As soon as he settled back, she started inching closer toward him with every word. “Got a foster family.”
“The Giordanos,” Bruce filled in.
Stephanie’s eyes lit up. “You did check! I knew you would.”
“I said I would,” Bruce agreed. They seemed like a nice family, too. Two parent home, the mother worked part time, they had a teenage daughter and ten years of foster experience. He’d double checked their records and references.
But, Stephanie was sitting on his couch.
“They were nice,” Stephanie said flatly, claiming another inch between them. She shrugged again and played with the drawstrings of her hoodie.
“Are you alright?” Bruce asked, sitting forward enough to take her by the shoulders and look her over. He berated himself for not thinking to do it sooner. She seemed unharmed, but there were a lot of ways she could be hiding something, and that would certainly explain Alfred’s unhurried approach to dealing with her back at the Manor.
“Yeah,” Stephanie said. “I got a couple scratches from some bushes in your yard but nothing bad.”
Some tight concern seeped out of him.
He didn’t say anything else, waiting her out, and she took his cursory exam as an invitation to snuggle up against his side and pull his arm down around her shoulders.
“Gina found out she has cancer,” Stephanie mumbled, when Bruce didn’t move away. “They’re not gonna foster while she’s sick. I got dropped off at the social worker’s building this morning.”
“And?” Bruce prompted, when she stopped talking.
“Gina gave me $10 to get something good for lunch and I snuck out of the building and paid bus fare as far as the bus would take me. Then I just walked toward your house.”
“You walked,” Bruce echoed. “From the end of the blue line?”
“It stops at that big stone sign.” Stephanie nodded. “Your house is really easy to see from the top of the huge hill in that fancy neighborhood. I just walked from there until I found your fence, then I was gonna go to the front gate but there was a broken part of the wall and it’s kind of covered by some bushes but I could get under them, and my legs were tired, so I just climbed over.”
“There’s a broken part of the wall?” Bruce asked, his other questions momentarily set aside. “Will you show me where?”
“Uh-huh,” Stephanie agreed quickly. “Then, I walked all the way across your yard— which is huge, did you know you have like a whole forest?”
“There is a wooded section,” Bruce agreed, mildly amused. “You walked all that way from Hickory Haven? That’s four miles, Stephanie.”
“Yeah, and my legs are like noodles,” she said, flopping them for effect. “When Alfred brought me inside I thought I was gonna fall over. I drank like ten gallons of water.”
Alfred entered the room with a tray bearing small sandwiches and a pot of tea. He set it down on the sleek coffee table and poured three cups.
“You’ve heard Miss Stephanie’s tale, I take it,” he said, handing Bruce a cup and saucer. Stephanie scooted to the edge the couch to accept her own cup, and then slid right off to kneel at the table.
“Yeah,” Bruce said, looking at the back of her blonde head.
Alfred took the armchair across from the couch as he did most afternoons, a rare break in formality that stretched back years, and sipped his own tea.
The tiny cucumber sandwiches were rapidly disappearing into Stephanie almost more quickly than it was probably safe to chew. Alfred said nothing in reprimand and Bruce was about to tell her to slow down when Alfred cleared his throat, a small polite noise for attention.
“Miss Stephanie, I seem to have forgotten the sugar basin. I believe I left it on the kitchen counter. Would you very much mind retrieving it? This tea would be much improved by it.”
“Sure!” Stephanie was on her feet in an instant.
“Please walk, not run, and hold it with both hands. The porcelain is rather valuable.”
Her smile was bright and wide. She dug a hair band out of one pocket and pulled her hair into a lopsided and loose ponytail. “Be careful. Got it.”
The door had barely closed on her heels when Bruce turned a sharp eye on Alfred, who held a cup of the tea that he had always preferred unsweetened.
“You don’t forget things,” Bruce said. “What’s going on? Why didn’t you call me when she showed up?”
“I don’t admit to you that I forget things,” Alfred corrected. “But yes, I left the sugar behind on purpose. As to the call, she arrived on the doorstep a mere hour ago, and if I’d rung you all that it would have accomplished was your leaving the office ten minutes earlier and driving much faster than you ought, to no good end.”
“Alright,” Bruce said, setting his saucer and cup on the table. He leaned back and pinched the bridge of his nose. “She told me she walked here from the development on the old Rawlings estate. Did she say anything else to you?”
Alfred swirled a bit of tea in the bottom of his cup and stared at it, as if studying the leaves there. For all Bruce knew, he actually was. Then he lifted his chin and checked the door, and dropped his voice in volume. “Master Bruce. That child knocked on the door faint with hunger, horribly dehydrated, and otherwise dead on her feet. She was covered in bramble scratches and close to tears. I very nearly made her lie down first.”
“She was asleep when I came in,” Bruce said, matching his voice in tone. “And complaining of being tired when I woke her. I wish I’d known to let her sleep.”
Alfred decided not to hear any rebuke Bruce might have dared put in the words. He pursed his lips and then exhaled sharply through his nose. “She hasn’t told me everything. She didn’t want to, and I didn’t press her. She was waiting for you, I believe, but something has scared her— or wounded her— and it drove her all the way out of Gotham on her own, with hardly any funds, and not even an address. Who knows how many wrong turns she took or lawns she trespassed on trying to reach you.”
“You think I should let her stay the night,” Bruce surmised, with a downturn of his mouth. “Alfred. It’s cruel to let her pretend this is her home. This isn’t like when I brought Dick back with me. Of course I’ll find out if something is wrong, but she’s got to go back, and the sooner the better.”
There was a second where Bruce knew he’d mistepped somehow, when Alfred’s face took on that maddeningly placid expression— it was subordinate manner on the surface, but told Bruce in no uncertain terms that Alfred, as his former guardian and oldest friend, was utterly confident in his position and authority in the conversation.
“Of course, Master Bruce,” Alfred said, meaning the opposite. “I wouldn’t dream of urging you to cruelty. I will only remind you that her sense of safety here is not an illusion, and you— not I— compared her arrival here to that of Master Richard’s.”
If Bruce could have gotten away with swearing in that moment, without reprimand, he would have. He instead put a hand over his eyes and pressed it against his brow until it ached. “I don’t mean to sound callous,” he said, a little desperately. “I do care about her. Of course I do.”
“I know,” Alfred agreed calmly. “I never doubted it.”
“I don’t want to confuse her,” Bruce said, dropping his hand and interlinking his fingers. He examined his thumbs. “It’s not fair to make things worse.”
“You’re exactly right,” Alfred said. “Which is why giving her a confidant and trustworthy adult in the interim is so important. Her own situation is fraught with uncertainty, and she assuredly knows that. She sought you out because you represent an oasis from that. Make it clear from the beginning her time here has a limit, and then let her draw from that time what consolation and rest that she may.”
“Al,” Bruce said, taking a cucumber sandwich. “What would I do without you?”
“Starve, likely as not,” Alfred said dryly. “That, or bleed out in the conservatory.”
“I was not bleeding out,” Bruce insisted. “I was conscious and fully aware of what I was doing.”
“You were dripping blood on my sage and looking for rose bush clippings in the tomato plants,” Alfred said, with a raised eyebrow.
“I was—” Bruce stopped and sighed. “Are you ever going to let it go? Does my own defense even matter at this point?”
“If you prefer to dig yourself a deeper hole, then by all means,” Alfred said. “Please, go on. I’ve found myself sorely lacking in entertainment as of late.”
“Oh, go find a book to read,” Bruce said sourly, feeling childish. “I’m not going to argue. It was only sage.”
“You can’t possibly believe that it was the sage I was upset by,” Alfred said, a little sharply. “You’ve been more careless since Master Richard—”
Alfred stopped short and sipped his tea rather than continue. The earlier self-assurance had been replaced by a thin-lipped tension.
“I miss him, too, Al.” Bruce sighed. “It’s too quiet around here. I’m taking Stephanie back tonight. But I’ll spend the evening with her, and see what she’s willing to tell me.”
“Very well,” Alfred said, in a way that was muddled. Bruce couldn’t tell if he was upset with Bruce or with himself, so he left it for now. Alfred was not one to withhold strong opinions or apologies if given time to sift through things on his own, so it had always been better not to try to do it for him, or rush him.
“Your house is too big,” Stephanie said, breaking the silence a few moments later. She nudged the door open with her socked foot and took slow, careful steps into the room. The sugar basin was clutched in both hands, her face scrunched in concentration as she set it down on the tea surface. She sprang back up, like a snapped rubber band. “Need anything else? I’m super good at doing jobs.”
“Thank you,” Alfred said, any trace of his unease vanished. He was just as good at that sort of thing now as he had been when he’d taught Bruce. “There isn’t anything left to do at present aside from enjoying your own tea.”
“After, you can show me where that break in the wall is,” Bruce said. “If you think you remember.”
“Can we wait until tomorrow?” Stephanie asked. She knelt at the table and spooned liberal amounts of sugar into her tea, and stirred it. “It’s already pretty dark out and I don’t think I could find it in the dark.”
“I’ll have to find it on my own, then,” Bruce said. “We’re going back to Commissioner Gordon tonight.”
Stephanie’s spoon slowed in her teacup. Her voice was a tremulous squeak, tight with held back tears. “Tonight?”
“I’ve a number of things to do before preparing dinner,” Alfred said, rising to his feet. “I’ll return to collect the tea.”
“Tonight,” Bruce said firmly. “You ran away, Stephanie. Even if I’m impressed that you made it so far on your own, you can’t stay.”
While he was speaking, she flinched and dropped the spoon on the table. Her shoulders slumped dramatically and he expected her to yell or burst into sobs, but strands slipped out of her messy ponytail and she sniffed.
“I impressed you?” she asked, very quietly.
“You made it across most of Gotham and five miles into Bristol with ten dollars and no food. I’m impressed,” he said. “Hold still.”
She froze when his hands slipped the loose band out of her hair, but the alarmed hunch of her back relaxed when he dragged his fingers quickly through her hair just enough to untangle it and pull it into a smoother rope. He twisted the band until it was tight enough and she reached a hand up to poke at the ponytail.
“Hey,” she said. “How’d you know how to do that?”
“I date a lot of models,” he said. “There. One reason you can’t stay. I don’t set a good example.”
“It’s sort of gross when you lie,” Stephanie said, scrunching up her nose. “I don’t think you were even trying.”
“It was supposed to be a joke,” he said dryly, mentally kicking himself. What kinds of things had Dick found funny when he was nine? Bruce had clear memories of laughing with him then, and memories from later of Dick getting him to crack a smile at the worst times, but he couldn’t remember exactly what they’d joked about.
“I think that’s worse,” Stephanie said bluntly. “It didn’t even have a punchline.”
“You’re a tough crowd,” Bruce said, with a hint of relief that Alfred had already left the room.
“How’d you really know?” Stephanie asked, tugging her own hair.
“I’m Batman,” he said. What he was thinking was Dick. Dick had had a long phase after moving in where he hadn’t wanted his hair cut, hadn’t wanted anyone who wasn’t Mary Grayson to trim the curling black locks. Bruce had spent months watching it grow, and grow, and grow, until it dusted his shoulders and pulling it back for training became a safety necessity.
Stephanie gulped her cooled tea and then pushed the saucer away. The grin across her face at his response slowly faded and curved down until all that was left was a morose frown. “I really can’t stay?”
“You can stay for a few hours,” Bruce said. “Think of it as a visit. You can explore the house, or spend that time with Alfred, or—”
“Hang out with you?” Stephanie asked, climbing back onto the couch. “Can we do stuff? Last time, I found this cool room and maybe you could tell me what all the stuff is, or we could play hide and seek because I’m getting too old for it but this house is like huge and I think even grownups could play here and have fun. Or….”
Stephanie picked at an errant string on her jeans and deflated.
“Or?” Bruce said, snagging another cucumber sandwich.
“I could try to show you where the broken part of the wall is,” she said flatly. “If I’m not gonna be here tomorrow. I guess if you’re with me I won’t have to be scared.”
“Only if you’re sure,” Bruce said. “I can find it on my own.”
“You’ve got flashlights, right?” Stephanie asked, picking up enthusiasm. “It could be like a game! Like a night hunt. Maybe we could even play spotlight tag!”
“I don’t think…is that a thing?” Bruce asked. “I do have flashlights.”
“Yeah!” Stephanie hopped off the couch and grabbed his arm. “We played it in gym at my school when the power went out once. It’s a lot of fun and I’m really fast.”
If she’d been exhausted an hour ago, she didn’t act like it now. She did pause long enough to worry her lip with her teeth while staring at the tea service.
“Should we clean this up?”
“Alfred will get it,” Bruce assured her.
“Does he do everything for you?” Stephanie asked, now letting herself be led out of the room. “At my house, that’s my job. Or…was my job, I guess. My mom was busy a lot, or sleeping, and my dad got upset if the house was…anyway, before piano and gymnastics, I’d clean up just to help, and when I didn’t have classes I had even more time to…”
She trailed off and when Bruce glanced down, her face was tilted toward the floor so he couldn’t make out her expression, but she huffed a little breath and grabbed his hand.
He let her take it.
“Alfred cleans up as long as I keep things where they belong. He doesn’t have to, but he likes to.”
“Doesn’t he work for you?” Stephanie asked, swinging their arms back and forth as they walked down the hall.
“A lot of people think that,” Bruce said. “But no. Alfred hasn’t worked for me since I was young. He had to stop, then, for a few different reasons. It was easier to just act like nothing had changed and I think we got used to it. This is his home, now, just as much as it’s mine or Dick’s.”
“But he wears that uniform,” Stephanie said, brow furrowing. “Does he just like it?”
“You’ll have to ask him that,” Bruce said. “Habits are hard things to change, though.”
Stephanie’s face lit up with the brightness of sudden epiphany. “I knew he was in charge!”
Bruce chuckled and without thinking, scrubbed his knuckles against her scalp. She laughed and ducked her head away.
“Stop, you’ll mess up my ponytail! This is the best one I’ve had in a long time. He is, isn’t he?”
“It’s…complicated,” Bruce said, having a sudden fear that she’d try to go directly to Alfred to ask about staying if she thought it would get her a different answer. It wasn’t fair to put Alfred in that position if it could be avoided. “We’re in charge of different things. I chose to bring Dick here to live with me, and do what I do in Gotham, and I make my own decisions. But Alfred takes care of me, and the house, and we try not to take over for each other if we can help it. He can’t force me to do much. Once I’ve made up my mind, it’s hard to change it, even for him.”
“Oh,” Stephanie said. Her arm stopped swinging.
“He didn’t want me to be Batman,” Bruce said, in a confiding tone. Maybe he could walk her through seeing it for herself, that she’d be happier with a normal life. She seemed to be taking the news of her impending return to Gotham much better than the previous time.
“Really?” Stephanie’s attention locked into his face. “But why?”
“It’s dangerous,” Bruce said. “I get hurt sometimes. Dick never liked it when he was living here. I think Alfred sees now that Batman is important, but he didn’t like it at first. He doesn’t really like it now, even if he understands a little more. But I didn’t listen to him when he wanted me to stop.”
“Not being Batman would be…would be…wrong!” Stephanie exclaimed, jerking her hand out of his to make fists at her side. She’d stopped short in the hallway. “How could he…what if you had…”
She flushed beet red and Bruce mentally backpedaled about ten steps. He hadn’t meant to turn her so hard that she was ready to go fistfight Alfred. He put a hand on her shoulder.
“He doesn’t like it when I get hurt. He’s taken care of me for a long time,” he said, going for soothing and feeling like he was missing it by a mile. “If he still thought it was a bad idea, he could leave. He stays, and that lets me know he believes in it, too.”
“Hmph,” Stephanie said, crossing her arms tightly. “Okay. As long as he understands that Batman is the best thing that ever happened to me or Gotham or anybody.”
“I’m just a person,” Bruce said. She kept running the conversation in directions he wasn’t expecting, and feeling like he should have expected them was making him feel a little dense. He didn’t like it, even if she did believe in Batman in a way that went straight through his heart.
“Nobody else showed up on my roof to save me,” Stephanie muttered.
“The utility closet is at the end of this corridor,” Bruce said. “You can carry your own flashlight.”
Stephanie dragged her feet for another few steps and then seemed to perk up as she went. “Are they really bright flashlights? I have one at ho— had one. Had one at home but it was a piece of shit. The lightbulb broke the second day and I couldn’t get the top off to change it.”
“We have some bright ones,” Bruce said, opening the closet. The walk-in space was lined with various outdoor essentials— blankets, lanterns, a broom for the back patio, flashlights, a life-preserver and pool chemicals for the summer season.
The flashlight was heavy and solid in his hand. He gave her one and she flicked it on immediately, shining it on the closet walls and then at the glass of the French doors that opened on the east patio from the hall.
“This one is much better,” she announced happily.
He pushed open the French doors and she shone the beam wildly around in the air, in the deep twilight across the back lawn. Stephanie darted ahead, flashlight bouncing as she ran, and she spun to shine it directly in his chest.
“You’re it!” she crowed.
“After we find the broken part of the wall,” he said. “I’ll be it first.”
The flashlight abruptly dropped to her side, dangling from one hand and shining in the grass. It was still light enough to make out her form.
“You’ll really play?” she asked, sounding surprised. “For real?”
“If you wanted to,” Bruce said. “I told you. You’re my guest this evening, until we go back to Gordon after dinner.”
“Oh,” Stephanie said, hurrying to fall in step beside him when his strides carried him past her toward the wooded north side of the property. “I just…my mom sometimes…she says ‘sure, Stephanie’ a lot but then forgets. Or she’s just making excuses so I give up.”
“I’m sorry,” Bruce told her, meaning it.
“It’s okay.” Stephanie shrugged and guided her flashlight to light the path in front of them. He still hadn’t turned his on. “I don’t give up that easy. We did journal work in class last week where we had to talk about our best quality and I said that’s mine. I’m not a quitter.”
“That’s a good quality,” Bruce agreed. “Are we going the right direction?”
The light careened wildly over the landscape and Stephanie said, “I have no idea. I think so?”
“Hm,” Bruce said. He reached over and plucked the flashlight from her grip, tugging a little to get her to give it up, and he turned it off and put it back in her hands. “Leave it off for a moment. Close your eyes and turn around.”
“Why?” Stephanie asked suspiciously, while already obeying. “What do I do now?”
“This broken wall is a big deal,” Stephanie said, her flashlight hugged to her stomach.
“It’s not just about the wall,” he said. “Security is important, but this is something you can use whenever you need it. Imagine the Manor in your head, the way it looked when you were walking toward it from in the yard today.”
“Got it. Open yet?”
“Not yet. Now, the lighting isn’t the same and memory can be faulty. So when you open your eyes, don’t try to match the Manor to the picture in your head. Just look for one detail, or two. Something you remember seeing that you can’t see now, or something you didn’t see earlier. Something in the wrong place. Ready?”
“Mhm.” Stephanie nodded. She bounced on her toes. “Now?”
Stephanie grew quiet and still as she stared back at the Manor. Large sections were shrouded in darkness, but the entire ground level perimeter was basked in the soft glow of security lights, and some windows were filled with lamps or lights left on inside.
“Wasn’t there a…a big window? Like with a round top?”
“The east, then,” Bruce said, taking off in that direction. She broke into a run to follow and then pass him, spinning to jog backward so she could look at him and the house while moving.
“I’m the second fastest backward runner in my class,” she said. “Well. My old class. The only one faster is Miah Richards, and it almost doesn’t count because he’s like, as tall as a sixth grader. When we raced after the end of the summer, Savannah fell and broke her arm and now we can’t do that race anymore so even if I was at that school still, I’ll never know if I’ve gotten faster than Miah. Savannah didn’t even cry. She said it didn’t hurt as much as when she fell off of her grandma’s balcony at the beach but I don’t think that even really happened. She makes stuff up a lot.”
Stephanie stumbled and Bruce lunged forward to try to catch her, but she tucked her shoulder and carried into an easy backward somersault.
“Woah,” she said, sitting on the grass and brushing her elbows off, craning her neck to examine them. “I’ve never done that without a mat before.”
Bruce took a moment to catch his breath, sensing how ridiculous it was for his heart to leap into his throat at that single misstep when he’d had her stories off the ground just a week before.
“There’s that window,” Stephanie said, oblivious to the way he was swallowing to force the startled-rabbit fear out of his chest. “I saw that one.”
She twisted the flashlight around in her lap and triumphantly jabbed the button. “Okay! That way.” Stephanie took off, leaping every few strides. It looked like she was trying to see how far she could jump each time, though she never stopped to measure or try any jump again. Bruce followed, flashlight still off, until they reached the edge of the woods.
There, Stephanie came to a full stop, and fumbled for his hand when he caught up to her, unhurried.
“This looks scarier at night,” she said, staring up into the tree canopy. “Are there…like…bears and stuff?”
“Did you see any bears earlier?” Bruce asked, choking down his laugh and clearing his throat to hide it.
“No,” Stephanie said, eyes wide. She scooted closer to him. “I kind of, uh, ran.”
“Squirrels are about the wildest animal we have around here,” Bruce assured her. “Alfred says there used to be deer, but I was only a baby when some of the local estates were sold and divided. That’s when the low, old wall was built up for privacy. It’s too high for them to want to bother with.”
“Squirrels aren’t that bad,” Stephanie decided.
Bruce started walking, letting her stick close. “Tell me if you see where you joined the path.”
It took almost an hour of traipsing in the wooded area to find the place where a fallen tree had broken the stone and mortar. There was a mess of stone and branches where the trunk had split the wall down to two feet off the ground. He’d nearly called off the search once or twice, but Stephanie quickly got over her initial fear of the shadowy trees and threw herself into the hunt for her afternoon path with open enthusiasm.
“It’s a good thing you didn’t accidentally climb onto a snake,” Bruce said, looking at the spread of stones. They would have been warm in the September sun, a final warding off of the coming autumn chill.
“Snakes?” Stephanie yelled, scrambling backward. “You said the wildest thing was squirrels.”
“I didn’t think about snakes,” he admitted. “Ready to go back?”
“Could we find one now?” Stephanie asked, bending to peer at some lopsided stones.
“Not in this dark,” he said.
She let herself be pulled away and then dragged her feet so much he ended up giving her a piggyback ride. The weight of her chin resting on his shoulder was slack— she was draped on his back more than actually holding on.
“Rain check on flashlight tag?” Bruce offered, when the house was in fully in view again.
“No.” Stephanie roused herself with a yawn. “No, I’m good. You said you’d play.”
There was just enough tired hurt in her voice that he decided against arguing that she was exhausted. A single round or two wouldn’t wear her out much more.
“Got your flashlight?” he asked, lowering her to her feet.
“Yep.” She yawned again.
“Run,” he said.
That seemed to jolt her into comprehension and she looked up at him, her mouth hanging open, and then sprinted in the opposite direction.
Bruce let her have thirty full seconds, her figure turning into a small blip on the wide lawn, before he chased after her.
It had been years since Dick had been young enough to want to play any real schoolyard game, anything that wasn’t impromptu wrestling or roughhousing matches. Dick was so good at _those_— clever and agile and quick— that he didn’t need to match Bruce’s brute force or strength to be an actually challenging opponent. Bruce didn’t remember exactly when he’d stopped holding back when sparring with Dick anymore, only that at some point he’d been pinned and stunned.
Dick had gloated and promptly had his legs swept out from under him for it, but Bruce had still been reeling from the realization that he hadn’t let Dick have that win. It brought a new level of challenge to their fights, both training and when goofing off, that Bruce wholeheartedly relished. The blow to his pride was softened by the massive rush of pride every time Dick honestly won.
That has been the tone of the last several months Dick spent living at home, and the days of tag or hide-and-seek were so far behind him that Bruce was a little rusty on how to let Stephanie keep a lead without making it obvious that he was going easy on her. She only complained about it once, and then shot off shrieking when he was called on it and recovered speed within a few seconds. He must have gotten better after that, or she was merely content to play without baiting him into ruthlessness.
She lasted four rounds, one longer than he’d thought she could, before falling over on the grass to laugh and wheeze. The air had turned cold, the grass damp, and he scooped her up while she was still giggling to carry her into the house.
“Ready for dinner, Hobbit?” he asked, when she handed over her flashlight to put back in the utility closet.
“I’m starving,” she said. “I could eat a whole food truck. And then can we watch a movie?”
“Dinner, and then downstairs. I have work to do in Gotham, and you need to go back to Gordon,” he reminded her.
Stephanie immediately turned sour: scrunched face, scrunched shoulders, crossed arms.
“Fine,” she said. “I hate your stupid house anyway.”
She stomped ahead of him down the hall and he sighed.
Maybe they’d just go up the stairs in the GCPD building instead of wrestling with an angry child on a grappling line again. The last thing he needed was her kicking out Gordon’s window.
He let her go without him for a moment, giving her some space, while he stared out the French doors and wondered if he wasn’t just making mistake after mistake.