Title from Brandon Flowers’ “Never Get You Right.”
The knife he’d taken in his side during a scuffle hadn’t gone in too deep, but it was deep enough that he was feeling it now. It would have to wait, because the scuffle had preceded a brief interrogation that had led him to this mid-class neighborhood northwest of the Narrows.
He sat on the roof of a small apartment building, one old enough to predate the mad rush to build up, and up, and up that had come with the advent of the affordable elevator. The neighborhood was a mix of these squat, ancient buildings and row houses and two-story hints of suburbia with tiny yards. Gotham University was just south, and this neighborhood marked the scrabbling blend of people climbing out of the impoverished narrows, professors with tenure almost as old as Bruce himself, and students crammed six or seven to a house to split rent.
The house in his line of sight was one of the standalone houses, with gutters that needed work and a garage door that looked like it didn’t open anymore. Arthur Brown, a wannabe villain calling himself the Cluemaster in some clear mimicry of the Riddler, had actually made himself successful enough to be involved in a string of armed robberies. The intel that had also stabbed him in the gut had led him here, to Brown’s house, to try to catch them with something incriminating and put a few more names to Brown’s crew.
There was a flicker of motion at the other end of the binoculars and he pulled them away from his face to squint without them, then repositioned them and refocused. His eyes weren’t playing tricks on him. It was almost two in the morning and there was a small child sitting on the roof of the Brown house, arms wrapped around her legs in a fluttering nightgown. She was looking at the sky, and the window in the dormer behind her was open.
Frowning, ignoring the twinge in his side when he stood, he tucked the binoculars away in his belt. The pain was annoying but not impossible, and he’d wrapped it well enough that he could handle grappling. With a flick of his wrist and the squeeze of a finger, the grapple fired. He caught a wind current with the cape at the height of the arc, and glided toward the Brown house. The lift from the cape meant he had time to control his descent and dampen the thud of his boots when he landed.
Arthur Brown had a daughter. He knew this from information on file. If anything was going to happen in the house tonight, or soon, he wasn’t going to do it until he made sure she was safe. He could risk her sounding an alarm and ratting him out, if she went that way, but he found that children rarely did when he was involved. Police, frequently. Batman, almost never.
He was prepared for anger, or fear-- being startled would be enough for any child on a dark roof. He was not prepared for her to scramble to her feet and stare at him with wide eyes, blonde hair whipping to the side when she spun to face him. Even in the low light, it was easy to read her expression as wonder. It was the sort of face Dick had made when Bruce had given him his first motorcycle a few years ago for his fifteenth birthday. It was a single instant of rapturous delight.
“You’re Batman,” she said, lip trembling. “You really came.”
Then she burst into tears.
He dropped to one knee on instinct when she stumbled toward him, and caught her in his arms. It was partly to keep her from falling off the roof while upset, and partly because this was part of the job he was used to. Batman regularly ended up holding distraught kids at scenes he’d intervened in. Dozens had ended up in his arms, wrapped in his cape over the years. Dick had told him once it’s because he made them feel safe, which had surprised him, if he were being honest. He’d become Batman to make people safe, to protect those who couldn’t protect themselves, but how they felt about him in those moments was something he’d largely disregarded. He’d assumed, early on, that he’d be a flicker of nightmare in the middle of nightmares.
If he could keep people alive, he could live with being associated with their darkest moments. Dick had told him once that he was being ridiculous, that of course kids would see him as a symbol of safety. It took Bruce another few years to agree with him, because Dick was Dick— Dick would have made friends with the monster under his bed if there had been one there.
The little blonde girl— Stephanie, if he remembered the file correctly— was nine or ten. He tried to recall her birth year from the dossier on Arthur. Her arms were also very, very tight around his neck and her knee was digging into the wound on his side. He winced and then shushed her, quiet and soft.
“It’s okay,” he said gently. “It’s going to be okay. I’ll keep you safe.”
“You came,” she gasped between sobs. “You really, really came.”
What just had she been looking for in the sky? He twisted slightly to glance over the city— there was a clear view of where the Batsignal would light up the clouds.
She was already calming down to ragged little sniffles, her face buried against his shoulder. “Are you gonna take him?” she asked, her voice muffled.
“Did he hurt you?” Batman asked, eyes closed beneath the cowl. He hated this question. He hated it because he knew the answer, he almost always knew the answer whenever he had to ask it.
“Not tonight,” she whispered.
He didn’t think his fingers tended enough to be perceptible through the glove, cradling her head against him, but he wasn’t sure. He pulled his hand away to move to set her down and she tightened her arms again.
“I’m going to stop him,” Batman said. “Anything you can tell me will help, but it’s okay if you don’t want to talk about it yet. Does your mother have a safe place to take you?”
“No, no, she won’t…she’ll…she’ll…” the words tapered off into renewed sobbing, this time deeper and more desperate. He flipped the cape sideways and then wrapped it around them, over her head, to muffle the sound. Suspicion turned into sick certainty in his gut as she trembled in his arms.
“Has your mother ever hurt you?” he asked when there was a lull in her crying. She shuddered.
“Not tonight,” she said into the armored chestplate, her face pressed against it. She sniffled and he brushed a gauntleted hand through her hair, hushing her again.
“It’s okay. It’s going to be okay,” he said again. “You’re alright.”
A plaintive wail tore out of her throat and she jammed her fist in her mouth; the heavy cape wasn’t enough to mute that sound. He cursed himself for knowing Arthur had a child and not investigating more closely outside of the criminal activity. She was clearly at the end of her short rope, too young to be anything but dependent and trapped. The Falcones had spoiled him— they weren’t the only crime family in Gotham, but they were one of the only ones that actually had families. They raised their children like royalty, with silver spoons and protective bubbles. It was funded by drug and weapons money, but that area was one they weren’t at fault in. The Browns were, clearly, not that kind of family.
Heavy steps thudded up the interior stairs, a male voice calling, “Stephanie! I told you to keep it down!”
“He’s gonna—” Stephanie shrank beneath the cape and Batman didn’t have to see her face to imagine her wide eyes.
Inside the house, through the open window, the bedroom door was shoved open and cast a ray of hallway light across the empty bed.
The curtains fluttered when Arthur leaned out the window, cursing, but Batman was already gone. He didn’t even see him, the black blending in with the street’s shadows as he soared on a thrown grapple line.
Stephanie clung to him like a little wombat, instinct and adrenaline giving her an iron grip. His boots hit asphalt and the tread grabbed the worn surface, and he recoiled the grapple and made the final block to the Batmobile on foot. He stuck to the shadows of alleys and building overhangs, forcing himself not to limp though he wanted badly to favor his side.
A gentle nudge was all it took to convince Stephanie to disentangle herself and crawl into the passenger seat of the Batmobile. It had been Dick’s seat for so long, it was odd to see someone else there— he didn’t often give rides around, except occasionally to Selina, or maybe the more subdued Arkham villain in transit. Stephanie curled up with her hair falling in her face and her arms wrapped around her knees.
Batman took the driver’s seat and gunned the engine. GCPD would be scary, but safe, and they could find a good emergency placement for Stephanie even at this hour. He opened his mouth to tell her as much as he gingerly settled against the seat but the pain slammed into him like a freight train. Through the dull roaring in his ears, he could guess that he’d shifted something just the wrong way, or maybe it had been that bad all along and it had caught up with him.
“Batman? Batman? Batman!”
He managed to loosen the white-knuckle grip on the steering wheel and turn his head just slightly to see her in his peripheral. Stephanie was up on her knees, kneeling and facing him, alarm on her face. While he was watching, it vanished and turned into a scolding little frown.
“You’re hurt,” she said, accusingly. “You shouldn’t be driving. Doesn’t this thing have autopilot?”
“Taking you to the police station,” he ground out between his teeth. He was going for informative and reassuring but her mouth dropped open into a round little ‘o,’ as if she was offended.
“The hell you are!” she protested, a bit shrill. “Are you bleeding? Is it from a gun? Were you shot? Did someone give you a fracture?”
“Language,” he warned, half-heartedly.
The car staying more or less in its lane was nothing short of a miracle, because not only was he dizzy and having trouble focusing, but she was leaning over now prodding experimentally at armor plates and joints of the suit.
“Tell me where it hurts,” she demanded, sounding like a very young Leslie Thompkins. “Pull over!”
“Engage autopilot,” Batman said instead to the car, surprising himself and Stephanie with an animalistic growl when her fingers found the spot over his field dressing.
“Sorry,” she muttered at the same time he did, still frowning at him as his hands fell from the steering wheel. She ducked beneath the dash and tugged on his heavy boots. “Feet on the dash. You gotta keep ‘em above your heart. I think. That’s right, isn’t it?”
“Sir, the computer informs me the car is functioning on autopilot,” Alfred said through the speakers. “Should I be prepared for emergency measures?”
“He’s hurt somehow,” Stephanie answered. “Won’t tell me how. ‘bout scared the shit out of me when I found it. I think he’s— oh my god you are bleeding!”
Alfred managed to pack a half-dozen questions into that one syllable, most of them tense, and Bruce couldn’t answer most of them at the moment. Stephanie was staring at the blood on her fingers and then she wiped it on her nightgown. Her earlier crying had left her eyes puffy and her cheeks red, but it did nothing to diminish the ferocity in her scowl.
“Do you have more bandages? My mom’s a nurse. You probably knew that. So I know first aid.”
“I’m fine,” Bruce managed to say. His insides were not, not at all, but it felt more like pain than dying. “I’m enroute to the Cave. I have a guest.”
“I’m Stephanie,” she said to the speakers. “Batman rescued me and now he’s bleeding on my pajamas.”
“Sir,” Alfred said sharply, and then, in a much kinder tone: “Good evening, Miss Stephanie.”
“It’s only small knife laceration,” Bruce tried to protest, but his words were slurred. He looked down and hell, but that was a lot of blood. A lot more than he was expecting. “Oh. There’s a, uh…towel…in the…” he gestured limply with one hand. His hand weighed about a hundred pounds for some reason. Stephanie yanked open the glove compartment and then pressed the towel from it against his side.
“Hey, I guess we’re rescuing each other, huh?” Stephanie said cheerfully, just a slight tremor underneath the surface.
This was not how the night was supposed to go. This wasn’t how extracting a child from a bad situation was supposed to go, at all. He studied her face, feeling very floaty as she leaned both arms into the wound in his side. She knew what she was doing, pressing hard; her tongue stuck out from one corner of her mouth.
“Medical bay is prepared for your arrival, sir,” Alfred said from the speakers.
“Batman. You’re going to be okay,” Stephanie said seriously. The only hesitation or doubt was in the question she tacked on to the end. “Right?”
“Yes,” Bruce said firmly. He could manage that much, at least.
“Yes,” Alfred said, making it sound like an order he expected Bruce to follow, like keeping his elbows off the table or tying his bow tie correctly.
“Awesome,” Stephanie said. “Then this is the best night ever.”
Bruce passed out.
Bruce sank into awareness as if drifting down from some high and cloudy plain. He found himself lying on a gurney with the upper part of the suit stripped away and his cowl still on. He had the vague impression that he was gradually processing things around him for the first time in a while, but had been more or less technically conscious for most of it.
“Hn,” was all he managed at first.
“Ah. There you are,” Alfred said, finishing off a suture. He had put on one of Dick’s spare domino masks and shed his jacket, so he was in a nondescript pair of trousers and a starched button up, the sleeves rolled. “I was just beginning to worry.”
“I wasn’t worried,” Stephanie chirped. Bruce turned his head to find her. She was perched on a stool, her hands clasped on her knees. Her nightgown was stained with large streaks of browned blood.
His thoughts still felt sluggish. “If Alfred worries, we worry,” he said, grimacing at the prick in his side. The pain was otherwise dulled, so Alfred must have given him something strong.
“Got it, Boss,” she said, and she sounded so much like Dick in that moment that it made his (medication-compromised) heart ache. “Alfred worries, we worry. Alfred, huh?”
And Alfred would see right through any attempt to play that reveal off as intentional, so…
“I suppose it is only fair,” Alfred said in a soothing tone. “I have been given your name, after all.”
“Did I…walk?” Bruce asked, craning his neck to look at the Batmobile.
“Yes,” Alfred answered crisply. “With some assistance.”
“I helped,” Stephanie threw in. “You kept making weird noises. You sounded like a zombie.”
There it was again, just that slight undercurrent of fear in her voice. It was the tone of a child used to telling people she was okay when she wasn’t, worn falsely smooth by practice: too quick, too humored.
“I’m sorry,” Bruce said. “You shouldn’t have had to do that.”
“Nevertheless,” Alfred said, “he’s in one piece now, and the both of us appreciate your assistance, Miss Stephanie. I’m afraid we make poor hosts. There’s nothing to offer you to replace the nightgown. I will, however, find some food and drink.”
“Thanks! I’m starving,” Stephanie said, twirling on the stool.
“Would you mind terribly if I asked you for a moment alone with Master…Batman?”
Bruce was not too drugged to miss the flicker of self-reproach on Alfred’s face, and he immediately felt guilty because he knew it was likely exhaustion. He tried to sit up and Alfred’s hand firmly held him in place, without breaking eye contact with Stephanie.
She gave Bruce a questioning frown and he nodded at her.
“It’s alright. Go explore but don’t touch anything.”
“Got it,” she said with a little nod. “Grown up talk. You’re okay, for real though? Like…” she bit her lip and her eyes went rabbit-scared between him and Alfred before settling on the older man. “You aren’t sending me away so you can tell him he’s dying, right?”
“Certainly not,” Alfred said, just a little too sharply. Stephanie jumped. It was Bruce’s turn to raise an eyebrow and, because he had the cowl on, it went entirely unnoticed by Alfred. The lines around his eyes softened nonetheless and Alfred added, in an entirely different tone, “Neither of us are trying to deceive you. The wound is small and already stitched, the internal damage minimal. A unit of blood and he’ll mend even more quickly than I think he ought.”
“Cause he’s Batman,” Stephanie said, with a tiny grin. “Okay. So it’s about me. I can get lost.”
They waited while she wandered off in the direction of the gymnastics equipment. She clambered up onto the balance beam and Bruce decided between the training mats beneath and the fact that he’d found her on a two-story roof with rotting shingles that she was probably fine.
“What, precisely, do you intend to do with her?” Alfred asked, as soon as she was out of earshot. The cave, while prone to echoes of loud noises, also sheltered little pockets of sound. They knew from experience exactly how low to pitch their voices to keep conversation unheard. “Shall I set up a cot for her in the cave? It’s certainly too late to take her back into the city, if you were even in any shape to do so.”
“Thanks for the reminder,” Bruce muttered, staring at the natural stone ceiling. “You might be surprised to know that I didn’t exactly plan this.”
“Oh? I assumed losing consciousness and bleeding out on a child were part of the scheme all along,” Alfred said dryly. “How, by the way, did she come to be in your care? If I am permitted to ask.”
Bruce closed his eyes and evaluated his own internal signals. His side was numb all the way to his knee, almost; far more local anesthetic than Alfred strictly needed, and Alfred wasn’t bad at judging that sort of thing, so he guessed it was intentional. His head ached and he felt tired down into his bones; that was likely the blood loss. He checked and the unit of blood was halfway depleted.
“Her father is the Cluemaster. I found her on a stakeout tonight.”
“Found her,” Alfred echoed.
“It was a bad home situation. She’s terrified, Al. Of Arthur and her mother. He came looking for her and I couldn’t just leave her.”
“You…” Alfred pressed a hand to his temple and sat back on the stool. “You kidnapped a child.”
“It wasn’t…” Bruce paused, frowning. He was frustrated by the awareness that he was generally sharper than this, a bit quicker to think through things. His brain was too muddled, and the memory of how she clung to him like he’d materialized specifically to save her was overriding everything else. “I rescued her.”
“I suppose you already have another plan in mind,” Alfred said with a sigh, arms crossed over his chest. He really did look tired, and apparently was resigned to not arguing or criticizing. He rarely really questioned Bruce’s judgment in situations of this severity, unless he felt it was absolutely warranted. Bruce was relieved that this was falling into the former category.
“We let her sleep in the Cave. I’ll stay with her. Tomorrow, as soon as it’s dark, I’ll take her to Gordon. She might have information that gives him enough to arrest both of her parents, so she doesn’t have to go back even temporarily. I’ll make sure she ends up in a good home.”
“That seems the wisest course,” Alfred said. “I wonder if I ought to go purchase a few things for her. We’ve nothing of Master Dick’s left in anything close to her size, even if she did consent to wearing a young boy’s clothing. He always insisted I donate anything he’d outgrown.”
“If you need to, take the clean cash,” Bruce said. “I’ll call out of work. It’s been a while since I’ve taken a sick day. Or…you could keep her company while I go out. If anyone is looking, it’s going to be awfully suspicious if you’re seen buying clothes for a young girl, even with cash.”
“While you go out,” Alfred echoed, with a severe look. “You can’t even stand at the moment. Don’t take that as a challenge.”
Whatever Bruce was going to retort (he would be fine in a few hours, at least for walking around) was interrupted by a shout that began full of admiration.
“Hey Batman! You have a really fancy house. Is this all— oh shit.”
Stephanie’s barefooted retreat down the stairs clip-clapped loudly across the entire cave and she stopped dead at the bottom with a hand over her mouth.
Bruce estimated how well he could lie to her and get her to really believe it, and decided that the chances of that were slim to none. She’d already met Alfred, so it wasn’t likely he’d be able to play it off as a benefactor or funding connection. Alfred’s thin-lipped frown at him was recriminatory to the fullest. He gave up and took the cowl off, grateful for the relief of the cave air on his face.
“Yes,” he said.
“You’re a person,” she stammered. “Like a real…”
“Did you think I wasn’t?” he asked, slightly amused.
“I just…I thought you were kind of a nobody,” she admitted bluntly, hands twitching at her sides. She seemed caught between the desire now to keep her distance and to approach him again. She gestured to the cave. “I thought you did….this…all the time. Like. Isn’t being Batman enough?”
Bruce opened his mouth and thought better of it, with Alfred there. They had differing opinions on that subject. On a good day, he sided with Alfred, so he didn’t want to commit himself now to one camp if he’d later regret it.
“This means, at least, we don’t have to keep this poor child down here in the damp to sleep,” Alfred said. “I’ll go prepare a guest room. Do not get up.”
Stephanie didn’t close the distance until Alfred passed her, at which point, she offered, “I’ll sit with him and make sure!” She watched the older man warily, like she wasn’t sure how she felt about him or how he felt about her, and beamed when he gave her a small smile and patted her shoulder.
“I’ll return with a tray of dinner.”
Stephanie bounded across the cave to reclaim the stool and then when she looked at his face, her entire body recoiled. She shrank in on herself, drawing her knees up, the grin vanishing entirely from her lips. She paled as if someone had drained her with a snap of their fingers.
“Are you mad?” she whispered. “I probably shouldn’t have opened that door.”
Bruce had to consciously erase the frustration and pain from his expression. It wasn’t ideal for her to know, but he was still drugged enough to not be considering all the implications to their fullest, and he made a note that if his anger rose later he’d need to be careful. He hadn’t told her not to go up the stairs, and she seemed like the sort that would chastise herself twice as much as he could with words. From the way she was huddled, he wondered, too, with a different surge of fury, how Arthur and his wife had handled being upset with Stephanie.
He doubted it was positive or healthy.
“You didn’t do anything wrong,” he settled on, deciding it was probably better to not try to lie about being mad. If he was mad at himself, he’d deal with it. Maybe on the mats, with some taped knuckles and a sandbag. When he could feel his leg again to stand, that is. For now, he figured if nothing else, he should utilize just a little bit of her fear to impress on her how important it was that she keep it a secret. “You understand you can’t tell anyone. Ever.”
“Oh, yeah, yeah,” she said quickly. “Of course, Mr….Batman. Should I call you Batman? Or Mr. Wayne? God, this is the best day of my life. I was just wishing you’d come and you did and now you’re two of the coolest people…person…ever and that’s like, you know, the Fairy Godmother in Cinderella showing up at midnight and saying she changed her mind, like it’s…it’s even better and I swear I won’t tell anyone ever, not even Kelsey at school.”
“You think Bruce Wayne is cool?” he asked, before he could stop himself or think better of it.
She looked at him like he was stupid. “Half the stuff I do after school is because of you. My piano lessons and gymnastics class are partly scholarships from you. My mom doesn’t like to tell anybody she applied for financial aid because she wants everyone to think we have money, but she did. I guess in a way, Batman was already helping me.”
Stephanie was beaming again, but that veneer was back. There was something a little sad in her eyes and it was clear that she was a little distracted.
“You can call me Bruce,” he offered.
“My mom really tries sometimes,” Stephanie said abruptly. “I mean, she’s…she does…try. She wanted me to have opportunities….she’s just…sometimes when she’s stressed, she drinks…or…”
Bruce waited. He didn’t want to interrupt to spare her, if it was something she needed to work through, so even when she faltered, he waited.
“She gets drugs, sometimes,” Stephanie said, very quietly. “From the hospital. She’s a nurse, I told you that, right? I think I told you that. She uses them when she’s…when it’s a bad day. Or she sells them, but, like, only when she has to, to buy…stuff. It’s important to her, that we…”
She stopped and buried her face in her knees, the stool swinging back and forth gently.
“Stephanie,” Bruce said, “It’s not your fault.”
“She tries,” Stephanie mumbled. “And I still hate her. That isn’t okay, right?”
The sound of footsteps descending cut off Bruce’s reply, and Stephanie scrubbed at her eyes and pasted a neutral look on her face. He made a note to make sure she ended up with a family that would work with a therapist, even if he couldn’t talk to her more about it. It seemed like too big of an issue to handle in one sitting.
“I thought food might be first in order,” Alfred said, approaching with a tray. He seemed to sense that he’d interrupted something but Bruce shook his head to intercept the impending apology, and Alfred nodded in return. The tray was set on a table and Stephanie tore into the sandwiches with a phrase that might have been ‘thank you’ forced through her full mouth. It wasn’t until she swallowed the second time that she cleared her throat and took a drink of the milk Alfred had brought.
“I didn’t really eat dinner,” she said. “Mom left for night shift and dad’s friends came over and I just wasn’t hungry.”
“Eat all you want,” Bruce said. “Alfred can make more if you need.”
“I certainly can. There is, however, still the matter of clothing,” Alfred said.
Stephanie glanced down at her nightgown and blushed a red almost deep enough to match. “I don’t mind,” she said, tugging at the hem. “It’s okay.”
“It’s unsanitary,” Alfred said in a slightly chastising tone. “You did wash your hands, as I told you to do?”
“Yes,” Stephanie said, her voice going thin and tense. “And I know. My mom’s a nurse.”
“I think Alfred’s just upset that we don’t have anything to give you,” Bruce broke in. “We’re both used to being prepared.”
“I could just wear a tee shirt?” Stephanie suggested, with a curious tilt of her head, like she was surprised they hadn’t considered it. “They’re comfier anyway. My mom just makes me wear these gown things because she saw it in a magazine.”
“I suppose one of yours would be long enough,” Alfred conceded to Bruce, as though the admission pained him. Bruce suspected he agreed about the proper night clothing for a young girl, but was wise enough not to openly align himself with one of Stephanie’s parents at the moment. “I’ll fetch one.”
The feeling was returning to Bruce’s leg and, as a consequence, his side. It hurt but it wasn’t unbearable. He knew it would probably actually feel worse in another couple of hours. The blood bag was empty, so when Alfred went upstairs he removed the IV line himself and kept a finger on the site until Stephanie noticed and handed him a bandaid.
She didn’t seem to think anything of it until he tried to sit up, and she frowned so hard she stopped chewing the bite of sandwich. “Un-uh. You know, for Batman, you are kind of dumb sometimes.”
“Thank you,” he said dryly, sitting up. “I’m alright. I won’t stand up. You were a lot of help tonight, Stephanie.”
“I cried on you and broke into your house by accident.”
“You got yourself out of a bad situation and then kept me alive until we got to the cave,” Bruce corrected firmly. “You were brave. Do you think you can be brave enough to talk to the Commissioner and some other police officers tomorrow night, and tell them what you know about your father’s plans? And your mother stealing from the hospital? It would help us get you into a safe home a lot faster.”
Stephanie’s face fell. She set the sandwich down and poked at the crust with a finger and wouldn’t look at him.
“It’s alright if you need more time. We can keep you safe until you’re ready, or until I find enough information on my own, but it would help if—”
“I can’t stay here?” Stephanie asked. Bruce’s mouth snapped shut. “I just…I helped you. And everybody knows Robin’s been busy other places. At school, some kids say he died, but he didn’t, did he?”
“No,” Bruce managed to say. “He’s busy. He’s growing up. He has other obligations now.”
The Titans. Leading a team. Becoming his own man. He’d promised to think about college after he and Bruce had gone around and around about it, but nothing definite yet. There had been a tense few months before Alfred and Clark had managed to knock some sense into both of them, but mostly Bruce.
He had a hard time letting go.
Dick had a hard time being held on to.
“I know who you are,” Stephanie said. “And I need somewhere to stay. Batman needs a partner, doesn’t he? I swear I can keep a secret, I really can. But it would be easier to keep it here and help. I could help stop my dad!”
“Stephanie,” Bruce said, as kindly as he could. “This isn’t a good home for a child.”
“Robin grew up here, didn’t he? He was like….he’s like your son, right?”
“My ward,” Bruce answered, while his heart said yes. “Until he turned eighteen. And Dick is…different. It would have been hard for him to get along in another home. He had a special situation.”
“I’m….” Stephanie looked at the abandoned sandwich like she’d been slapped, her hands twisting around each other on her lap. “I’m not special?”
Bruce felt like he’d been sucker-punched, right on top of the sutures. “No, Stephanie, that’s not what I—”
“My situation is weird. Most of the kids at school don’t have supervillains for a dad,” she said, and she sounded angry. She was angry. And hurt, he could read that clearly all over her, even if he was bad at emotions like Dick claimed.
“Cluemaster isn’t a supervillain,” he said, and a split second after he said it he realized this was the wrong thing to console her about. The tray of sandwiches flipped and Stephanie stood, fuming, her cheeks flushed bright while she trembled.
“He’s…you’re…you were trying to stop him,” Stephanie shouted. “My situation is weird! It’s the weirdest! I can’t talk to friends about him. Nobody understands. And I could help you!”
“Stephanie,” Bruce said, slipping off the gurney and wincing when he landed on his feet. If he limped, it put less pressure on his side. He kept his voice calm. “That’s not what I meant.”
She let out a childish growl and then snapped, “Stop. I’ll pick it up. I know how to clean up my own messes.”
There was more banging and slamming of foodstuffs and silver dishes than the mess deserved, but he stood and supported himself with one palm pressed against the gurney while she picked it all up and then slammed herself back down on the stool with her arms wrapped around her stomach.
“I could help,” she said, sniffling. “I could.”
“It’s late,” Bruce said. He knew he was stalling. He hated himself for it. “You need some sleep. We both do. We can’t go to the Commissioner until tomorrow night, so let’s get some rest and talk about this tomorrow.”
“Really?” Stephanie’s head shot up. “You’ll think about it?”
“That’s not what I said,” Bruce corrected. He could list a hundred reasons why her staying at the Manor would be a bad idea. She did deserve better, even if she couldn’t see it. “Tomorrow, though.”
“Good lord, Master Bruce,” Alfred snapped from the stairs. “How you manage to be the Batman when you can’t even follow a simple instruction is beyond me.”
That, with Stephanie’s chosen interpretation of his delay, seemed to boost her spirits. She accepted the folded shirt Alfred offered and she laughed.
“Did he hire you to be mean to him?”
“I’m off the clock,” Alfred said without missing a beat. “Master Bruce. Sit down.”
“There’s a shower room,” Bruce said, pointing in the direction with a weary hand.
Stephanie darted toward it and vanished behind the barrier wall.
“I take it there was some upset,” Alfred said, straightening things on the disordered tray.
“You could say that,” Bruce said, holding his side. There was no point in trying to hide that movement from Alfred so he didn’t attempt to do so. “I’ll catch a few hours of sleep before I go out.”
“Do procure a decent wardrobe for the girl, if you’re going to disregard my concern and do it yourself.”
“This is temporary, Al,” Bruce said. “I’ll get her what she needs. She isn’t staying.”
“Hm,” Alfred said.
Stephanie might have bounded into the shower room, but she came out dragging her feet. It would have been clear that something was wrong, except the night had been for her a disaster already with no need for anything new, and she was yawning. Her lids were forcing shut of their own accord.
She fairly stumbled over toward them, trying to force her eyes open while she yawned again. The gray cotton Daily Planet shirt she was wearing was one of his old ones, worn more often than he’d admit to Clark, and it hung just past her knees. It was almost as long as the nightgown and when she stood there, swaying, he had the impulse to pick her up and carry her to the guest room while she fell asleep on his shoulder, like another child used to do.
Alfred’s raised eyebrow and the sharp tug of his sutures kept him from standing and attempting it. He had the brief, sudden thought that there would be other nights, and he brushed it away as blatantly ridiculous.
“It’s not the same thing all over again,” he said to Alfred, and to himself.
Alfred put a hand on Stephanie’s shoulder and said, “Come along, Miss Stephanie. I’ll see you to your room.” The look he shot Bruce conveyed all his disagreement.
Nobody young had been in the Cave since Dick was small, and his friends that had been there occasionally on Titans business had grown with him. Their visits, aside from Wally’s, had always been short and masked. Most children he extracted from traumatic or abusive situations didn’t make it this far. He wondered if he was letting his guard down, while he missed Dick at the house.
“Night, Batman,” she mumbled, while letting Alfred lead her away.
“Good night, Stephanie,” he answered.
He needed sleep. He could make sense of all this, and make a plan, in the morning.
It was hours later when he woke on his own in the cave, on the gurney. There was a tray nearby, covered with a silver cloche, and next to it were a glass of water, a cup of coffee, and two painkillers. The food was still warm enough that Alfred must have served it only in the past fifteen minutes or so. The clock on the computer, when he limped to check it, told him it was early afternoon.
He sat in front of the monitor to eat the assortment of soft foods, trusting Alfred’s guess at what his gut could handle at the moment, and scanned local news— both public and in-system for the police. Within a few minutes, he saw it: an APB for a missing nine year old Caucasian female, blonde hair, purple nightgown. Suspected runaway.
The sooner her got her to Gordon, the better. It would help to keep this from spiraling out of control. If nothing else, Arthur and Crystal Brown didn’t need the falsely-applied social sympathy if this story picked up anywhere or if they made enough noise. He suspected they wouldn’t, because of Arthur’s associates and wanting to keep a low profile, but he could be wrong.
“Is she awake?” he asked, when the door from the upstairs opened.
“Not yet,” Alfred called down. “I’m keeping a meal warm for her. We were all up rather late.”
“Let her sleep,” Bruce said, even though Alfred was apparently already doing so. “I’m getting ready and going out.”
“I could go, you know,” Alfred said, joining him next to the computer and feeling Bruce’s forehead with the inside of his wrist. “You seem to forget who taught you those skills.”
“Never,” Bruce said, with a crooked smile. “But I want to put my ear to the ground and see what I can find. I don’t want to miss anything.”
“You never did,” Alfred sighed. “Very well. I assume you still want the clean cash?”
“What’s clean cash?” a voice asked from above. Stephanie appeared, still in Bruce’s tee shirt, rubbing sleep from her eyes. “Your house is like something from Narnia. Can I play hide and seek later?”
“It’s cash with serial numbers that haven’t been connected to me or any of the accounts under my real name,” Bruce answered, rather than focusing on the question that implied any sort of prolonged stay at the Manor. “If I’m going to buy something in disguise, I don’t want to use money that could be traced to me.”
“People do that?” Stephanie asked, jumping down the last three steps.
“Some people do. I’ve cracked cases that way before.”
“You kind of do stuff that’s illegal,” Stephanie observed. Alfred snorted and excused himself to clear away Bruce’s tray.
“Do you know what the phrase ‘spirit of the law’ means?” Bruce asked, undaunted. She was hardly the first to ask him difficult questions about vigilantism. He’d been through that ethics wringer with Dick, when the boy was poking and prodding at every potential flaw in their lives and developing his own opinions about them.
“Nope. Is it a ghost?” Stephanie asked, hopping up to sit on the desk. She swung her legs. “Like Lady Justice but evil?”
He blinked. He supposed the child of a villain might associate the law with something wicked. He swallowed his laugh.
“No,” he said. “It’s a very old phrase. The letter of the law is what the law says is illegal or legal. The spirit of the law is what the law means, who it protects and why. Sometimes, and especially in Gotham, I’ve found it necessary to honor the spirit of the law even if it breaks the letter of the law.”
“Is that why sometimes you’re on wanted lists?” Stephanie asked, tilting her head. “Because I never understood that.”
“Sometimes I fall out of favor with the police,” he admitted. “Usually, what they do is overlook my activity. If I make someone angry, they might stop doing that, and it becomes dangerous for me.”
“But you’re still doing the right thing.”
“What I think is right, yes,” Bruce said, turning off the monitor. He stood and took a moment to find his balance before moving in the direction of the bins and shelves where they kept the disguises. She followed him, hopping from one spot to another. He glanced back and realized she was trying to match his stride.
“Cause you’re like Robin Hood,” she said. “Like you gave my teacher’s mom medicine she needed last year. She told us that story once when the power went out.”
“That’s where Robin’s name comes from,” Bruce said. “So, yes, like Robin Hood.”
“It shouldn’t be illegal to help people,” she said, frowning.
“A lot of the time, it isn’t,” Bruce said. “You can still do good without a mask. Batman helps take care of the problems that most people can’t, which is why it’s important for me to protect my ability to do that.”
He pulled a labeled bin off the shelving unit and sat down at the weathered vanity set up in the cave for this sort of work. He really needed a shower, but putting it off would lend something to his disguise, so it would have to wait. Stephanie leaned with both elbows on the vanity surface, watching intently.
The five o’ clock shadow on his face would help, too, so he left it and spread the spirit gum above his upper lip. The mustache went on and stuck firmly, refusing to give when he tugged on it a few times after the first thirty seconds.
“Where are you going?” Stephanie asked, meeting his eyes in the mirror. He set aside brown colored contacts to put in when he was in the shower room, after he could wash his hands. He took the bottle of hair dye and shook it.
“Sit back,” he ordered, and she scooted out of the way. He sprayed the brown-gray all over his sleep-tousled hair before answering her. The color didn’t look great on him, but it covered the black just enough to make his hair look a muddy brown instead. The sunglasses and assorted items were still in the bin— toothpicks, cigarettes, wallet, false ID. He shook out the Hawaiian print shirt and began buttoning it. Alfred could look at the sutures when he got back.
“You look like my friend Anthony’s Uncle Matches,” Stephanie said. “Isn’t that a silly name? He says he’s really funny though. He brought a picture of their whole family for Special Interest Day at school, because his family is huge. He said Uncle Matches comes to his birthday parties and some family stuff but they don’t see him much. Anthony says he likes him more than his regular uncles.”
Bruce’s jolt of suspicion was confirmed by the time she finished talking. He had distinct memories of getting accidentally absorbed into a Malone family reunion at a Hampton Inn on the northside once, and figuring it made for good cover, and rolling with it.
“So, where are you going? You don’t talk much, do you?”
“I’m used to quiet,” Bruce said, one corner of his mouth quirking up. What he didn’t say was that Dick used to fill that silence, constantly and always talking and forever satisfied with minimal responses from Bruce when they weren’t really discussing something. “I’m going to buy some things.”
“For me?” Stephanie asked. “In disguise? Oh, like…because of the money. It’s really important, isn’t it? The identity stuff?”
“Yes,” Bruce said. “It is.”
“If you send me away, will you trust me to keep your secret?” Stephanie asked, and it was so off-handed that he stopped combing the spray dye through his hair and looked at her, very hard. She shrank away from his gaze but didn’t turn away completely, a little spark of defiance still in her eyes.
“Are you threatening to betray that secret when I find you a better home?” he asked, his voice as hard and cold as he dared. There was something genuinely furious and icy in his gut and it scared him a little. He reminded himself that she was a child, just a child.
Her face scrunched up in a burst of anger and then her lips twisted into a pout. “So what if I do.”
“Stephanie,” he said, and she jumped.
“Sorry,” she mumbled. “No. I wasn’t…I’m sorry. I wouldn’t really. I just…”
“Blackmailing isn’t okay,” he said, a bit more softly. He turned from the vanity to face her, and put a hand on her shoulder, and used his other hand to tip her chin up so she was looking at him again. “I want to trust you. It’s a big thing to trust you with. But I can’t help other people that need it if I have to stop being Batman. I could be arrested. I won’t hurt you, I promise that. So it’s up to you. I would like to be able to trust you. Can I?”
Tears were standing in her eyes and she brushed them away and nodded, pulling away from his hand so she could hang her head. “Sorry,” she said. “It was dumb. You can trust me.”
“I promise I’ll find somewhere safe and happy for you,” Bruce said. “I’m not trying to punish you. You’re a good kid.”
“I just…” Stephanie sighed. “Think about it, okay? I could be safe and happy here. I know it.”
“I will consider it,” Bruce said. “The answer right now is no. It would take a lot to change my mind.”
He tried not to hear Clark teasing him about that, about how Dick always managed to do the one thing nobody else could. The problem was that he was a sucker for kids, and always had been, despite everything in him that told him he shouldn’t be that easy to sway.
“So, do you have a fake name for this face?” Stephanie asked.
“Matches Malone,” he said, with a straight face.
Her mouth hung open and she gasped. “You are Anthony’s uncle!”
“If I am Anthony’s uncle, that’s a story for later, after I buy you something of your own to wear,” he said. “Go find Alfred and get some food.”
“Can I…” Stephanie hesitated, holding the spirit gum bottle as if closely examining it. “Can I explore the house?”
“You’re welcome to,” Bruce agreed. “We don’t use many rooms and most of them aren’t very interesting. Dick’s room is off-limits; he still uses it sometimes. Alfred can tell you which other areas are off limits.”
“I should stay here until you go,” Stephanie said when she was three steps away. She darted to the computer chair— his chair— and curled up in it while she watched him gather the wrinkled slacks and contacts that would finish the disguise, to take them to the shower room. “I think Alfred’s worried that you’re out of bed.”
“Alfred will be fine, and so will I,” Bruce answered, moving less smoothly than he liked. It was definitely catching up to him and the painkillers weren’t kicking in again yet. He was going to have to keep it fast outside, maybe cut back on his plan to pretend to grab a drink at one of his usual Matches dives after shopping, despite how useful it could be.
“You said when Alfred worries, we worry,” Stephanie retorted.
“I said that?” Bruce frowned, grateful for the excuse to pause and hold still for a moment.
“Yep,” Stephanie said, popping the consonant. “Last night.”
When he was in the shower room, she grew quiet. He had to lean on the wall to brace himself halfway through changing, but managed to stay upright, and then felt the slow seeping relief of the painkillers.There were only a few kinds that worked for him anymore, so he knew after he got Stephanie to Gordon he’d probably stop taking them so he didn’t reduce their effectiveness. He could afford to spend a day in bed after this.
High-pitched squealing was chased by wheezing laughter from the cave, and after he put in the brown contacts, he limped out to find Stephanie spinning in the desk chair. It was mounted to the floor and well-oiled, so it went fast— Dick had tested that, too. Stephanie’s blonde hair was whipping around her face as she spun and she was still giggling when she slowed, and slumped further down.
“I’m so dizzy I might puke,” she said.
“Please don’t vomit on the computer,” he said, eyeing the machinery.
“I don’t think I have enough in me,” Stephanie said, leaning bonelessly on the arm of the chair. As if confirming this, her stomach growled. Bruce nudged her arm.
“Get out of my seat, Hobbit. Go find Alfred and eat.”
Stephanie wrinkled her nose peering up at him. “Aren’t hobbits fat and hairy?”
“You’re thinking of dwarves,” Bruce said. “My seat.”
“I think they’re hairy.” Stephanie insisted.
“They eat a lot and they’re short,” Bruce said, tugging a lock of her hair. She shook his hand off, grinning, and slipped out of the chair and dragged herself to the stairs. He took the vacated spot and his coffee from earlier, left behind by Alfred. He’d finish the coffee and then put on the scuffed shoes and sunglasses and go.
The cars with the falsified plates were in a lower bay of the cave, with a ramp access to the tunnel, so he didn’t have to go upstairs. He slipped a tracker into the lining of the wallet, just in case, and then climbed into the beat up Honda Civic. The car was older than Dick, and was just rusted and run down enough to blend in instead of being noticeably different. The car had actually come with a mismatched door and he’d painstakingly repainted it and then chipped and dented and wore away the paint to look as natural as the other damage.
An hour later, he was watching a clerk scan clothing tags and pack the items into a shiny paper bag with corded handles. He’d found a nightgown made of tee shirt material, and then guessed based on what he remembered Dick wearing at that age: jeans, shirts, a purple hoodie, socks and sneakers. He’d needed to text Alfred about the shoe size and there had been a delay while Alfred, on the other end, measured Stephanie’s feet.
He lit the second herbal cigarette only for the clerk to tell him, again, “Sir, you can’t smoke in here.”
“Right, right, sorry, sorry,” he muttered, taking it out of the corner of his mouth and letting it dangle in his fingers. “The rules. You got any suggestions for a kid? My cousin’s daughter has a birthday, I don’t know what kids like. Clothes, she tells me. What kind of clothes, I say.” Bruce put the cigarette back between his teeth. “Clothes, clothes, she says, like girls like clothes? I don’t know, ‘ave I ever been a girl? Look at me. So I’m just guessin’.”
“Sir, we have a no smoking policy.”
“Oh, right, right.” Bruce dropped the cigarette and ground it out beneath the heel of his shoe on the slick tile floor, then bent and picked it up. “Got anywhere I can throw this? Don’t wanna mess up your store, it’s a nice store. A real nice store. She’s nine, the cousin’s kid. Don’t kids want toys anymore?”
“The Batman shirts are always very popular,” the clerk said, holding a trashcan out with an expression of relief. Bruce flicked the cigarette into the bin and then patted his pockets and shook another cigarette into his hand.
He jammed it between his lips and them mumbled around it, “Got a match? Or a light?”
The clerk gave him a weary, forced smile. “Sir, you can’t smoke—”
“Oh, yeah, right. Right, that’s…you told me that. Guess I’m a little distracted today.” He swapped the cigarette for a toothpick. “Batman shirts? Yeah, I dunno how she feels about Batman.”
“They sell out fast,” the clerk said. “The girls version has glitter. If not those, then maybe something from our store brand line?”
The display of graphic-print tee shirts was a collection of metallic kittens and unicorns and sparkling rainbows and hearts. Bruce glanced at it and then back at the Batman shirts. There was a rack of pink Batman backpacks next to the clothing and he ambled over to them, letting his sauntering swagger mask the way he was trying to keep pressure off his side. He grabbed a backpack and threw it onto the counter with the pile of clothes.
“I think I’m gonna need a gift receipt,” he said, the toothpick wagging from his lip as he spoke. “In case she just wants to bring all this back. Probably got the size wrong or something.”
“Of course, sir,” the clerk said. “Will there be anything else?”
“Just tell me the damage,” Bruce said, chewing the toothpick. It was already splintering from being ground in his teeth, as a way to cope with the throbbing pain. “And one of these hair things. Girls like hair stuff, don’t they?”
“Some girls,” the clerk said with a clearly forced smile.
“Gimme two,” Bruce said, plucking two hairbands from a display and tossing them into the counter.
He paid with the cash, and tried to tip the clerk, who declined citing store policy but there was a perceptible shift in demeanor. It might have been the offered tip, it might have been the fact that he was leaving.
The stuff took up two bags and he tossed them onto the seat of the Civic and paused to lean on the hood and catch his breath. He stared down the road, considering. If he was already taking tomorrow off, then he really couldn’t afford to miss any buzz about big movements. At least at a bar he could sit down.
He could give it an hour.
At the bar, he nursed a Shirley Temple and complained loudly to the bartender about his kidney medication, fell in with regulars who recognized him and wanted to gossip, asked no less than three people for a light, and left at the end of an hour with strong leads on at least two smuggling operations and one drug running ring.
He also found that word was going around that one of Arthur Brown’s enemies had snatched his kid, and that Brown was so terrified it was Harvey Dent that he and his wife were lying low in a motel.
That would at least give them some time, because Arthur wasn’t likely to try to get media attention when afraid for his own life.
Bruce pulled the Civic back into its spot in the cave just in time to avoid blacking out while driving. He rested his head on the steering wheel for a moment and then hauled himself out of the car, pulling the bags with him. He was barely up the ramp to the main section of the cave when Alfred was lifting them out of his hands and tutting at him.
“You’re pale as death, Master Bruce,” Alfred said, nudging him gently toward a chair. “I take it you went on the regular rounds after all?”
“Just one stop,” Bruce said, dropping into the vanity chair and reaching for the solvent to remove the mustache. His arms felt too heavy while he worked, but he managed to peel it off. “Where is she?”
“Upstairs, viewing a film. She spent most of the time exploring the Manor, but she still seems very tired.”
Bruce gave Alfred a brief recap of what he’d found, the older man nodding and humming at various points. When the last bits of costume had been tucked into the bin, Bruce stood and swayed on his feet.
“If Arthur’s hiding, we can afford one more night,” Bruce said, slowly and reluctantly. “I’m going to bed.”
“I’d say you ought,” Alfred said swiftly. “There’s no use in taking her all the way to the Commissioner if you’re going to wreck or fall over on the way.”
“I should…talk to her,” Bruce said, scrubbing at his jaw. “If we’re not going. She’s going to take it the wrong way.”
“Which way do you mean, sir?” Alfred asked, following him with the bags.
“She thinks she can talk me into letting her stay. Indefinitely.”
Alfred made a small noise that was neither assent nor dissent. “You ought to do your utmost best to explain, but perhaps after some rest. It would hardly do to scare the child. I’ll see to it that she bathes and dresses in something more appropriate.”
“Thank you, old friend,” Bruce said, his feet moving more slowly than he wanted by the top few stairs.
Stephanie skidded into the room in socks far too large for her, just as the clock clicked shut. She stopped short and stared at him. “Woah. You don’t look so good, Batman.”
“Names,” Bruce said automatically, glancing around the parlor.
“Sorry,” she said. “Mr. Bruce.”
“Master Bruce is retiring to bed for a few hours. Perhaps you would like to explore the clothing choices?” Alfred suggested, diverting her attention. Stephanie went to it reluctantly, watching Bruce carefully as he walked by.
“We’ll talk this evening,” Bruce said. “You’re staying one more night.”
“It’s already seven,” Stephanie said, tilting her head. “And I can stay another night? Really?”
“One,” Bruce emphasized.
Her arms were full of the bags she’d taken from Alfred when she ran to stand in front of him, blocking his path. He stopped for a moment, looking down at her, and she bit her lip and then juggled the bags in one arm to throw her other around him in a hug.
“Thank you,” she said, her face muffled in his shirt. “You won’t regret it.”
“One night,” Bruce said again, as she breezed out of the room with the bags in tow. “We talk tonight.”
She was already gone down the hall. He sighed, went up to bed, and then slept.
Bruce woke to a dark room and blinked at the clock before his vision cleared enough to read the green, glowing numbers. It was almost four in the morning and his side was stiff, muscles tight with a dull burning. He didn’t need Alfred’s clipped and pointed sarcasm to tell him he’d overdone it.
It took staring at the ceiling for another ten minutes to accept that he wasn’t falling back asleep anytime soon. He swung his legs out of bed and hobbled out of the room toward the study, tying the silk belt of his worn robe around his waist as he went.
Sitting in the chair behind the desk was an exercise in smooth motion, as pain flared along his side. He exhaled slow, with a tense jaw, and debated the merits of going to hunt for coffee to distract himself from his resolution to not use painkillers today. It felt like too much effort to get back up, so he pushed things around on the desk without really seeing them.
His mind was awake and restless, and his body was sore and still fatigued. It was a bad mix for focusing on any paperwork, WE or League related. There was a book he didn’t especially feel like reading on the desk, and he tapped out a text to Dick and sent it before he thought better of it because of the time.
The door creaked and his head snapped up, instantly alert; the creak was followed by a small knock.
“Come in,” he said, his voice still hoarse with sleep.
Stephanie cracked the door open enough to slip into the room and she left it open behind her. Her blonde hair was a tangled mess on one side and her eyes were rimmed red. She somehow looked even smaller than the day before, standing there in the Daily Planet tee shirt and wringing her hands in the fabric.
He frowned. “Did the things I bought not fit?”
Quickly, she shook her head, and then glanced down as if startled. Her cheeks flushed a pale pink. “It all fits. I just wanted to wear this.”
She stood on the edge of the rug, rubbing one foot with the other. Her thin shoulders were hunched and he gestured to the couch.
“You can come all the way in, if you want. Is something wrong?”
He could guess what was wrong. Dick had had his fair share of nightmares around her age, and sought out Bruce’s company with that same haunted expression.
Stephanie didn’t go for the couch. She took the gesture as permission and went right around the desk to stand next to his chair, almost leaning on it. Almost leaning on him.
She was leaning on him, her head tipped sideways against his shoulder while she looked over the desk surface. “What are you doing?”
“Going over patent application statuses,” he said, picking up the folder on the top of the stack and flipping it open. “These are the results of Wayne R&D’s last session with the patent lawyers. They review our patent applications and advise likely to approve, contestable, or likely to be denied.”
“Huh,” Stephanie said, a little sleepily. A bit of her mussed hair tickled his chin, and he reached up automatically to smooth it down— partly just to stop the little itch against his now-scruffy face. She hummed and pressed her cheek tighter against his shoulder. It reminded him, as most things seemed to these days, of Dick.
It had taken a while to get used to that, when Dick was little. Alfred had said it was personality, that not all children were like Dick, when Bruce had struggled in a low moment to formulate the question he could barely wrap his own mind (much less his words) around. Something like, was I that broken? Was I so different from other children?
The answer was in Alfred’s long pause, and then in the answer that had followed the pause: So is he.
Bruce had been used to physical contact. He was used to stopping people, to helping them, and then to dates where he carefully controlled each moment of touch. But Dick had trampled over all his boundaries, and Bruce’s body stopped feeling like only his own. He’d done it with the confidence only a child could have, claiming the reassurance he was too young to feel self-conscious about demanding.
By the time that self-consciousness developed, Bruce had grown accustomed to it: to the after work hugs Dick launched into, to the post-nightmare cuddling like a limpet, to being an impromptu jungle gym, to the unconscious trust that Bruce would carry him from Cave chair to bed.
Not all children would have been comfortable taking that liberty, Alfred had told him when Dick was little. Stephanie, it seemed, was like Dick in that way— or Alfred was wrong. Alfred, in Bruce’s experience and reluctant admission, was rarely wrong.
“I have to review these and then decide with a few other people in the company which patents to pursue,” Bruce said, tapping the columns with a finger. “Any where the risk outweighs the investment of our resources, we shelve or let go.”
“Isn’t it the middle of the night?” Stephanie asked with a yawn he could feel.
“It’s almost dawn,” Bruce said. “Do you think you could sleep some more?”
Stephanie shook her head. He wasn’t going to pry, but then she offered in a soft whisper, “I had a bad dream.”
Then she stopped, and didn’t explain anything more than that. Bruce stood, bracing himself against the desk as he found his legs, and she scooted back when her head lost its place on his shoulder. He offered a hand.
“Let’s go find something in the kitchen.”
She slipped her hand into his, her fingers curled around his much larger ones, and he led the way out of the study. Stephanie had to trot to keep up with him, even when his steps were slow.
“Is Alfred going to be mad?” she asked, when they went into the kitchen. He turned the lights on as he went past the switches, and then picked her up under the arms and set her on the countertop. It only hurt his side a little.
“This is my kitchen,” Bruce said. “I’m in charge here.”
“I don’t think that’s true,” Stephanie told him frankly. “That’s like the kid who gets to be Hallway Monitor thinking he’s in charge. He’s not really in charge, he just gets more work and has to tattle to the teachers.”
“You’re aware Alfred works for me.”
“Um,” Stephanie said. “I meant just the kitchen, but you seem like you listen to him a lot.”
“Just the kitchen,” Bruce said, opening the fridge. He found a carton of milk and put it next to Stephanie on the counter, then hunted in the lower cabinets for a saucepan. He found the small, thick-bottomed one where it usually was.
“We got to hang out a lot,” Stephanie said, handing him the milk when he reached for it. “I asked him why you don’t cook for yourself like other people.”
“Hm?” Bruce asked, raising an eyebrow. It had been months…over a year?…since he’d last done this, but the motions were still memorized. Pour the milk, measuring spoon of honey from the ceramic pot, dash of salt, scoop of cocoa powder. Whisk. “What did Alfred tell you?”
“He said if I ever found you trying to cook by yourself, I was supposed to yell for help,” Stephanie said solemnly. He shot her a glance. There was a little twinkle in her eye. “So. This is our secret?”
Bruce grumbled. “This I can manage on my own. If you yell for Alfred, I’ll drink it by myself.”
She scooted sideways along the counter until she could lean over to peer into the sauce pot. “What are you making, anyway?”
“Hot cocoa,” Bruce said. “You do like hot cocoa, don’t you?”
Stephanie’s nose scrunched in a mix of disbelief and distaste. “I don’t think you’re doing it right. You’re supposed to, like, heat water in the microwave and then put these packets in.”
Despite the hour, the ache in his side, the throbbing in his head that reminded him blood loss was no joke, he laughed. It was hoarse and clipped off quickly when she flushed red from her neck to the tips of her ears. His expression sobered and he patted her head consolingly.
“That’s instant mix,” he said. He lowered his voice conspiratorially. “And that would make Alfred mad, because he’s old-fashioned.”
The scarlet red faded slowly from her cheeks and Bruce nodded to the little marble canister behind her. “That’s a saltwell. Are your hands clean?”
She looked at them and asked, “Hospital clean or regular?”
“Wash your hands,” he said.
She hopped easily down from the counter and washed her hands at the sink, flicking the water off before hunting for a towel. A moment later, she climbed back up with a single, easy jump despite the height. “‘kay.”
“Put a pinch of salt in the pot,” he said.
She stuck out her tongue. “I don’t think that’s right.”
“If this chocolate mess is gross, it’s not my fault,” she said, dropping four or five grains of salt into the swirling milk.
“Try again,” Bruce said, using the real smile to hide the wince at the sudden tightness in his side. He was going to need to sit down soon if he didn’t want to stumble in front of her.
Stephanie raised her eyebrows and maintained eye contact while adding another pinch of salt. Then she held a hand out. “Can I stir? I’m really good at stirring.”
He gave her the whisk, grateful for the relief. The motion was more taxing than it would have normally been. He took the opportunity to lean his hip— on the uninjured side— against the counter. “Careful. It’s heating up.”
“So. Did Alfred teach you to make this?” Stephanie asked, still sounding skeptical.
“Yes,” he said. “The instant mix has similar ingredients. Dehydrated milk, sugar instead of honey, cocoa powder. Salt.”
“It does not,” she accused, with an affronted look.
“It does,” he said. “Read the back next time.”
“But we don’t get the instant mix,” she said, a little coyly, staring down into the sauce pot as if mesmerized by what she saw there.
He pressed a hand to his side to gauge the temperature of his skin, and bit back the urge to sigh. “Stephanie…”
“Never mind,” she said quickly. “Later. Let’s talk about it later.”
“Alright,” he agreed, reluctant to force it and reluctant to put it off.
“Did you make this for your son?” she asked after a moment of silence. She was sticking her tongue out while stirring, quickly enough that bubbles were rising to the surface.
“Slow,” he cautioned, reeling from the way that simple question slugged him in the chest. “Don’t splatter.”
The whisk slowed.
“Yes,” he finally agreed, consciously choosing not to correct her on the son vs ward issue. He kept meaning to talk to Dick about that— meaning, and putting it off, afraid of something in a way he couldn’t verbalize and didn’t quite want to call fear. It didn’t feel wrong to leave it at that, at “son,” while talking to a child about it, though.
The papers were in his desk. He’d filled them out. He just needed to stop stalling and talk to him, the next time he came home for a visit, the first time he made one of those stupid jokes about aging out of having a home.
“Mr. Bruce?” Stephanie bent down to peer up into his face. “Mr. Bruce, are you okay?”
Bruce shook his aching head to clear it and forced a smile that was more reassurance than amusement. “I’m fine,” he said. The pot was steaming. “That’s done. Move out of the way and I’ll pour it into mugs.”
“You don’t say please,” Stephanie observed, returning the whisk and sliding down the counter. She giggled when she bumped the fridge. “Woah. I did not think I’d go that fast.”
“Careful,” he said, glancing at her. “Another thing that makes Alfred mad is blood in his kitchen.”
“You said it! You said it was his kitchen.” Stephanie pounced on the phrasing with all the merciless triumph of a nine-year-old.
“Should I say please?” Bruce asked, to change the subject. He lifted his arm to open the cabinet for mugs and his arm stopped, stalled halfway up, when his shoulder conspired with his side for a full body no. Without the kick of adrenaline, it was harder to push past it.
Without hesitating, Stephanie turned to perch on the counter on her knees and inched her way over. She pulled two mugs out while he lowered his arm and tensed it, relaxed; tensed, relaxed.
“I dunno,” she said. “Everybody says you should say please and thank you, but my mom always says ‘em and she makes them sound mean.” Her voice, already high, rose higher in mimicry of an acerbic tone. “‘Please, Stephanie, can you not do that; please, Stephanie, can you stop asking; please, Stephanie, can you lower your goddamn voice; please, can you not vomit for attention right now? Thank you.’”
The silence in the kitchen felt like a thundercloud over their heads, waiting to break. Stephanie seemed to sense the change and she quickly set the mugs down and scooted back down the counter to wrap her arms around her legs, and bury her chin against her knees while she stared at the floor.
Bruce poured the hot cocoa, his chest aching more than his side or head. It hurt the way the silence fell over the room, heavy and intense and promising a storm.
“Do you think she’s worried about me?” Stephanie asked, in a tiny voice.
“She should be,” Bruce said, and it must have been just a touch too hard, because Stephanie’s attention snapped to him with…it wasn’t quite fear. It was surprise. That in itself was a mercy he didn’t deserve. This was why he didn’t need to raise a child, another child— he was too much…this, too often. He quickly forced his throat to relax while he smoothed out his scowl. It didn’t take longer than a half-second.
“I didn’t,” Stephanie said angrily. “Puke for attention. I really was sick, and it’s not my fault she left her work shoes in the bathroom.”
Bruce had enough control to speak in a soothing timbre when he did speak again, standing in front of her with the two mugs. “She should be worried because that’s what a mother does when her child is missing. Do you think she is?”
Face buried, Stephanie nodded, and then muttered into her knees, “But I’m not sorry enough to go back.” She sniffed.
Helpless to fix it for her, he leaned forward and kissed the top of her head. “This hot cocoa is getting cold, Hobbit.”
“Yeah,” Stephanie said, dragging the base of her thumb along under one eye, and then shoving it across her face the other way. It was a weirdly grown up gesture for such a small person. “I gotta taste it and see if you fucked it up with that salt.”
He closed his eyes and thanked any god that cared to listen that Alfred was asleep, in another room, and not there to shoot Bruce a withering look the way he used to every time Dick cussed when he was small. The older man always acted like Bruce himself was personally responsible for any infraction on that front, as if he’d bribed Dick to do it, and that was grossly untrue aside from one time.
It was automatic, the way his mouth opened to correct her, and then he turned and snapped his mouth shut. It wasn’t a safety issue or an issue of her fundamental self-worth, and he wasn’t her parent. He didn’t need to start correcting her on minor preferences or rules.
Bruce set the mugs down on the kitchen table, the top worn so smooth it almost felt soft after years of use. There were some small nicks in the surface, breaking the touch-illusion. This was where Alfred rolled out crusts and tied up poultry to roast with twine. Dick still escaped to this space to help cut out cookies when he did make it home for holidays, one small thing he hadn’t grown out of despite insisting he was an adult in so many other ways.
The heavy kitchen chair dragged across the tiles when Stephanie pulled it out and climbed onto a seat. She wrapped both hands around the mug and lowered her face to put her lips on the rim.
“If this is gross, I’m spitting it out,” she warned.
“It’s not gross,” he said, sitting heavily in the chair. He had the suspicion he wouldn’t be getting up for a while. With her eyes still on him, he took a sip to prove it.
It was fine. It was more than fine, it was a thousand memories packed into the taste. It was post-patrol and late Sunday mornings, the one thing he could reliably make without burning aside from grilled steak.
Stephanie, her mouth pressed to the mug, watched him before actually taking an experimental taste. “Hey. This is okay,” she said, sounding surprised.
“Okay?” Bruce asked, tilting his mug. He closed his eyes and savored it. “Just okay?”
“Can I have more?” Stephanie asked.
He put his mug down. He peered into her empty mug. She had chocolate across her upper lip and the mug was empty.
“How did you…”
“It’s better than the instant stuff, even with the salt,” she said. “Is there more? I’m really hungry.”
“There isn’t,” he said. He glanced at the clock on the stove. “Alfred serves breakfast at seven. Can you make it until then?”
Stephanie shoved back the chair and stood, taking the mug with her, while saying, “It’s okay, I’ll just get an apple. Where’s your peanut butter? I love apples and peanut butter.”
She disappeared into the pantry and Bruce nearly called after her to stop and wait, but he pressed his lips together and decided against it. If she was hungry, they had plenty of food, and the fewer orders he gave that could be interpreted as parenting, the better. There was no reason to confuse her.
“I think this is peanut butter,” Stephanie said, coming out of the pantry with a glass jar. “It says it’s…organic…cold pressed, natural oil, peanut spread.”
“It’s peanut butter,” Bruce said, both hands around his mug. Supporting himself by laying his forearms on the table, letting his elbows bear some weight, would likely get a raised eyebrow from Alfred but even if he were in the room Bruce thought it would be worth it.
He let Stephanie hunt for a spoon and a plate and didn’t intervene until she was on tiptoes reaching across the counter to get a paring knife out of the knife block.
“Stephanie,” he said.
“I’m good with knives,” she said. “I promise. I cut apples up all the time. I had a cooking class after school.”
It took more effort to bite his tongue this time.
He leaned just far enough to the side to make sure she had her thumb tucked before she cut into the apple, and then he closed his eyes and focused on riding out the throbbing headache.
“Ow!” Stephanie’s exclamation pulled him to his feet and across the room in a heartbeat. She was shaking her finger and then sucking on it. “Shit. Shit.”
“Let me see,” Bruce said, taking her hand. Bending over was no longer an option, so he crouched and let his legs do the work. He examined the sliced digit and then stood to lead her to the sink. “It doesn’t look that bad,” he said, to reassure her.
“Hurts like a mother,” Stephanie muttered, going up on tiptoes again when he held her hand in a flow of cold water. “That’s like ice. Ow. Ow.”
The last syllable was a whine and she was trying to pull her hand away, but he didn’t let go. He looked at it more closely after turning the water off and grabbing for a clean hand towel to hold against the wound. He was going to live out the price for blood on Alfred’s kitchen towels for a dozen mornings of lukewarm coffee unless the older man took pity on him on her behalf.
“It really hurts,” Stephanie said. “Why was it so sharp? Our knives at home aren’t that sharp.”
“Knives are supposed to be sharp,” Bruce said, distracted as he looked around for the nearest first aid kit, trying to remember where it was. He’d thought it was too shallow to need stitches but he was second guessing himself now, while blood kept pouring from the cut through the thin towel and she squirmed.
He stopped scanned the room and put all his attention on her. “Hold this. Tight.”
“I know,” she snapped, with a hiccup that was almost a sob. She pressed the towel down and he let go to cross the room for the kit, where it was tucked under a cabinet. She cried after him. “Where are you going?”
He hefted the kit to show her while returning, set it down, and then picked her up under her arms and set her on the counter again.
“Okay,” he said, taking the towel. “I need to look at this and see if you need sutures. If you do, Alfred can put them in. He’s better at it than I am.”
“Don’t touch it!” Stephanie shrieked into his ear, while he was bent over her hand. He kept the towel in case he needed the pressure again, and examined the cut.
“I’m not going to,” he said, wincing from the ringing in his ear. “I’m looking. That’s all.”
The bleeding had already slowed to a trickle after all, and the cut was shallow but sliced across the pad of her finger, separating the layers without actually being deep. It could probably be bandaged shut after all.
“Are you done?” Stephanie asked, her heels kicking rapidly and lightly against the cabinet under her. She tried to see around his head, her voice only a little shaky. “Is it bad?”
“It’ll be fine,” Bruce said. “I’m going to put some bacitracin on it and then a plaster. We’ll check it again tonight.”
“Good lord,” Alfred said from the threshold.
As if on cue, Bruce’s headache amplified. Now that he was sure he hadn’t allowed her to seriously injure herself, the adrenaline was fading and leaving him with the fatigue of his own recent blood loss and the sutures tugging at his side.
“I cut my finger really bad,” Stephanie said.
“She needs a plaster. That’s all,” Bruce said, hunting with one hand in the first aid kit. He let the counter hold a little of his weight while he leaned, going for casual rather than necessary. He doubted it fooled Alfred.
“What’s a plaster?” Stephanie asked.
“Bandage,” Bruce said absently, twisting the cap off the tube of triple antibiotic cream. “Hold still.”
“That’s a weird thing to call a bandaid,” Stephanie said. “It’s just a bandaid.”
“I suppose you’ll want another apple,” Alfred said sedately, as if nothing were out of the ordinary. He was already pitching the cut pieces from the board streaked with blood into the trash. He put the board in the sink to scrub it. “Breakfast at the usual time, Master Bruce?”
“For Stephanie,” Bruce answered, hearing the question in the question. He wrapped the bandaid around her finger, giving it enough tension to hold it firmly without cutting off the circulation. “There.”
“We bled on each other,” Stephanie said, curling her hand against her chest. “That makes us blood brothers.”
She was so earnest and serious that Bruce coughed on a laugh and his whole side spasmed in protest. It wasn’t until he glanced, to judge if she’d noticed being nearly laughed at, that he saw the pleased little smirk and knew she’d done it on purpose.
“Blood siblings,” he said dryly, rather than concede a total victory to her.
“Regardless of the mystical bond you may or may not have just formed, I’d prefer that you both stop getting blood outside of your bodies and onto clothing,” Alfred said. “Miss Stephanie. If you are patched up, might I ask you to go change into some of your new attire? Bring me the shirt, if you will, so I can treat it for stains.”
“Yep,” Stephanie said, hopping off the counter. “Sorry about the apple I ruined.”
“If you’re on the mend, it’s of little consequence,” Alfred said. “Master Bruce?”
There was a meaningful flick of his eyes down, and Bruce pulled off the counter enough to examine his own side. His shirt was seeping dark red.
“Oh, fuck,” he said. Moving away from the counter was also a mistake because he was suddenly very dizzy.
“Master Bruce,” Alfred snapped, not about the blood.
“It’s okay,” Stephanie said reassuringly. “I know fuck and that you’re not supposed to say it, but I forget sometimes, too.”
The glare leveled at Bruce was every bit as cutting as he’d feared it would be.
“You,” Alfred said, wielding a knife and slicing through apple with startling efficiency, “go lie down on a couch and do not attempt the stairs because I am not in the mood to drag your arse up the rest of the way once you pass out. I’ll be in to change that dressing shortly.” His tone gentled immensely to add, “Miss Stephanie. I will serve breakfast at seven. Please see that you are in appropriate attire for the day.”
“Got it,” Stephanie said, shooting a nervous look at Bruce. He clipped the first aid kit shut and patted her shoulder, then steered her out of the room.
“I told you he doesn’t like blood in his kitchen,” he said in a conspirator’s whisper. “It isn’t your fault. He’s just worried.”
“He sounded pissed,” Stephanie said.
“Worried,” Bruce corrected. “I’ve known Alfred a long time. Is your finger feeling alright?”
“I’ve had worse.” Stephanie shrugged. “Thanks for helping.”
“Of course,” Bruce said.
“My dad would have just yelled at me,” Stephanie said, slowing by the stairs. “So, you’re already doing better than him.”
There was a alarm bell ringing over Bruce’s headache and he pressed his teeth together, then forced his jaw to relax. “Stephanie,” he said firmly. “We need to talk about this after breakfast. You aren’t staying here. I’m taking you to Commissioner Gordon tonight, and he’ll help place you in a good foster home.”
Stephanie glared up at him and let out a frustrated hiss. He’d known Alfred long enough to distinguish worry from anger and he didn’t know Stephanie nearly as well, but he knew enough to see that the anger was a mask. Her lower lip trembled.
“I don’t care if you do send me away,” she spat out. “You’re just a butthead anyway, and a weirdo who puts salt in his hot chocolate.”
She turned and stomped up the stairs, louder with each step, and Bruce sighed and rested his forehead against the banister where it rose up toward the second floor. After a long pause there, he pulled away and staggered toward the den where the closest couch was waiting.
One day. He could let her be angry at him for a day, and then she’d be in a safe home with a good family and she’d see how much better it was than here.
“Hold on,” Batman said, crouching to reach for her while gazing up the side of the GCPD building. There was a safety barrier on the roof that made a good grapple anchor as long as he aimed correctly.
Stephanie replied simply, “Hmph.”
Her arms were crossed when he picked her up around the waist and she did not uncross them, apparently determined to make this process as difficult as possible for him. The pull on his side wasn’t as awful as it could have been— sleeping half the day away had gone long strides in mending the torn flesh and recovering from the blood loss.
The suit also compressed it in a way that was bracing instead of digging. It still would have been…easier…if she complied, but at this point in his life Bruce really didn’t expect ‘easy’ to be an accurate qualifier of anything he was involved in.
When he’d woken in the den, Alfred had informed him that Stephanie had also fallen asleep. Bruce went to check on her, even though there wasn’t much else to say, and found her sleeping curled up under his desk in his study. She managed to look furious even in her sleep.
He had let her keep sleeping.
“She reminds me of another child I used to know,” Alfred had commented mildly, when Bruce had left the room, pulling the door shut behind him. The brass knob in his hand kept the latch from scraping until it could slide noiselessly in place when he eased it through the rotation.
Alfred had not been talking about Dick. Bruce got the vague impression that Alfred was…not quite upset with him, but bothered somehow. He had let that keep sleeping, too.
When Stephanie did slink down to the main floor, groggy, in some of the clothes that he’d bought her, she had the Batman backpack stuffed with the other things.
“I’m taking it,” she said defiantly, as if he hadn’t intended that from the beginning. She’d found a marker somewhere and drawn a very unhappy skull on the Batsymbol that had bold triangles for angry eyebrows. He almost pointed out that skulls didn’t have eyebrows, but then noticed it was accompanied by the words BUTTMAN and he decided against it.
She hadn’t said anything else to him the rest of the evening and his headache came back.
Three times in the Cave he had tried to impress on her just how important it was that she not clam up when Gordon spoke to her, how vital it was that she share what she knew. It wasn’t until he’d reminded her, reluctantly but firmly, that Gordon had every reason to return her to her parents without her cooperation that she paled and fiddled with the straps hanging from the backpack shoulder pads.
“Fine,” she said, without any real bite. Then she’d stopped talking again.
That wasn’t to say the trip was quiet. She had emitted little growls or harrumphs at intervals, plainly making her displeasure known. Perhaps she was trying to bait him into a reaction or a reply, and ignoring her only made the noises grow louder rather than for the attempts to fade off. He let her be angry. Her situation was overwhelming and terrifying. It would have been for any child. It wasn’t the worst thing for her to have an outlet for all those feelings.
The grapple found purchase and they lifted in a fluid motion from the lower building, the one they’d climbed from the ground level after exiting the Batmobile. Stephanie had stomped up the chipping concrete stairs in the back of the disused building, muttering, “Stupid stairs, stupid stupidhead using fucking stairs.”
“Language,” he’d said— growled, really. His patience was a practiced, healthy thing, but his limit sprang up on him without warning. Chaperoning a child who hated him, after being kidnapped by him, while he ignored a headache and his achingly empty house (had Dick replied to his text? He needed to check and then check in on him)— this was his limit today, apparently.
“You’re not my dad,” Stephanie had snapped. “You can’t tell me what to do.”
“Turn left here,” he’d said. She went left. “You will be polite to Commissioner Gordon, do you understand me?”
The answer to that had been a noise that started as a swear word and then swerved into an infuriated huff of air instead. That was when she had crossed her arms.
She didn’t uncross them until they actually lifted into the air. He depressed the button to slow their ascent to a stop right outside, and a little to the left of, Gordon’s office window. Stephanie squirmed just enough to wrap both her arms around his bicep.
The knot in the line was one he could do one-handed, and fast. He clipped that loop to his belt with his feet braced on the building so he could work the window lock with a magnet and keep a firm grip on Stephanie. She fortunately wasn’t wriggling.
She was, unfortunately, protesting.
“No,” she said, in a harsh whisper. “No!” Louder, with a kick against the brick. It jostled him just a bit because he hadn’t been braced for it. He shifted his hold and went back to the magnet.
“Hello?” Jim asked from inside the office. “Come in.”
He’d mistaken it for knocking at the door, but that wouldn’t last long. The lock was sticking.
“No!” Stephanie shouted, kicking again. This time, it didn’t budge him. She either had no healthy fear of heights or trusted him immensely or both.
The lock gave and Bruce slid the window open just as Jim, inside, was grumbling, “What in the goddamn—” and Stephanie bit down hard on his glove. He spun her along his arm and all but launched her, shrieking like a banshee, into the room where she landed on her feet. The momentum kept her going until her butt hit the floor, the backpack riding up behind her head. She let out a growling, exasperated ugh.
Bruce, with an inward sigh, followed her into the room.
Jim Gordon was just weary enough— of Gotham and possibly Batman himself— that he managed to quickly hide his surprise. He took his glasses off to polish them, and gestured with his elbow toward her.
“This one of yours?”
“The kidnapped Brown girl,” Batman said, hanging back by the window casing and the curtains. Stephanie pouted on the floor and didn’t raise her head.
“Huh,” Jim said.
“I kidnapped her,” Batman said.
“Oh, for the love of— listen, I know you get away with a lot in my city but you can’t just waltz in here and confess to a kidnapping.” Jim threw his glasses on the desk and pinched his nose, leaning forward on his arms. He sighed when Batman didn’t defend himself. “Alright. Well. You might as well tell me what’s going on.”
Jim resettled his glasses on his face and rose to come around the desk. He crouched in front of her, grumbling about his knee, and something in his face went soft and kind, taking the lines worn in his skin by years of stress and curving them into something welcoming.
“Well, kid,” Jim said. “Since big old scary up there isn’t talking, want to tell me where you’ve been?”
Bruce remembered that face. It was etched into his memories, leading him out of alleys and sewers and burning buildings in his dreams, always holding his hand and coaxing: “That’s it, kid. Eyes straight ahead. Keep going.” Somehow, the memory aged with Jim— a possible by-product of semi-regular contact with him.
He watched Stephanie instead, so he wouldn’t have to close his eyes.
“He kept me locked in his house and he put salt in all my drinks,” Stephanie spat. Her hands were starting to tremble.
And then Batman couldn’t look at Stephanie instead, because Jim’s attention had swiveled around to him with a mix of disbelief and anger.
“He what,” Jim demanded flatly, his glare of censure all directed at Batman.
Stephanie must have sensed that she’d misstepped, carried her outbursts a step too far, because she blanched and grabbed Jim’s arm. As soon as she had his attention, she let her hands fall back as if afraid of being burned.
“I didn’t mean it. He was super nice. I’m just dumb. Please, please don’t make me go back to…to…” Her breath was speeding up and her fingers dug into the straps of the backpack. Tears were filling her eyes and she looked helplessly at Batman.
“It’s okay, kid. Nobody’s making you go anywhere,” Jim soothed, in his gruff voice that was full of gentleness— it was like an old guard dog’s bark when playing with the family children. “Want some gum?”
He fumbled in his pocket and Batman was grateful that in Gotham he wasn’t alone, without Jim. He wasn’t just a good cop, he was a smart one— even being vaulted into the political office of Commissioner hadn’t changed or compromised those things.
Stephanie nodded and took the piece of peppermint gum he held out. Chewing it helped regulate her breathing within seconds, outside of occasional small gasps. She looked at Batman again, pleading.
“Arthur Brown has been involved in the last four First National robberies,” Batman said. “Crystal Brown has been stealing controlled substances from the hospital where she works and abusing or selling them. Stephanie needs a safe place to stay.”
“Ah,” Jim said, now sitting cross-legged in front of her on the floor. She’d pulled herself together to wrap her arms around her legs and bury her face in her knees. “Well, that’s a good reason for removing her from the home.”
Jim pointedly did not call it kidnapping.
“Maybe even worth overlooking putting salt in your drinks,” he said.
“It was hot chocolate,” Stephanie grumbled into her jeans.
Jim glanced up at Batman. “There is something wrong with you.” There was an amused gleam in his eyes. It worked, because it pulled a shaky giggle out of Stephanie.
“He’s really nice,” Stephanie threw in, defensively. There was a kind of high terror creeping into her voice, and Batman read that as a cue. Jim could calm her, and the sooner she was in a home with a stable routine the better. This was safety, even if she didn’t understand that yet.
“Give me two hours on the case and you’ll have enough for a warrant,” Batman said to Jim. “Stephanie can provide testimony.”
“Wait!” Stephanie scrambled to her feet and she stopped just in front of him, then flung her arms around his waist. “Please. Will I…I’m sorry I…how can I…call you…when…”
He’d waited too long. Jim’s raised eyebrow was easy enough to ignore when Batman lifted her in his arms to give her a firm, brief hug. She clung to him for all she was worth, and he suspected that if he hadn’t been in the armor she might have actually managed to make it hard to draw a deep breath.
A twinge of regret pricked at his gut and conscience, and he couldn’t tell if comforting her felt exactly right because it was her or because he missed Dick. That tangled mess wasn’t hers to sort or help him figure out. He cupped the back of her head, messy blonde hair burying his glove, and held it against his shoulder while she sniffled.
“I’ll check on you,” he promised. “You won’t see me, but I will. I’ll make sure you’re safe.”
“He’s really a good guy?” Stephanie whispered, and Batman’s chest felt crushed even with the armor.
“I trust him with my life,” Batman said, locking eyes with Jim through the cowl lenses. This was the first time he’d gone directly to Jim’s office to do it, but not the first time he’d handed off a child. This part, they had done more times than he wanted to think about or count.
“It’s a good thing you stopped him, kid,” Jim said, with a nod to Batman. He took a step closer. “I would have had to call him right back.”
There was a shift in Jim’s tone it was hard to miss. Batman tensed and Stephanie squirmed in his hold, her arms tightening.
“Riddler’s out,” Jim said. “I was going to light the signal soon. No word yet where he’s gone to ground.”
Stephanie drew in a deep breath and then hopped down and stared at the floor. “My dad’s gonna be mad,” she mumbled. “If I let you go, you’ll catch them? Both of them?”
“Yes,” Batman said.
“And if I stay here, I can help?” Stephanie asked, lifting her face to look at him, and then at Jim.
When she was looking that way to see Jim’s nod of affirmation, while Jim was telling her anything she knew might be useful, Batman pulled his cape around and went out the window.
If Stephanie called after him, he didn’t hear it over the discordant voices in his head: he had to find evidence connecting Arthur to the robberies, he had to find Eddie Nygma, he had to go back because he was making a mistake.
The last one, he dismissed as selfish and tried to shut it out. He wasn’t entirely successful, but he managed just enough to convince himself that the best thing he could do for her now was make sure both of the Browns went to prison.
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.
Dinner was a quiet affair, mostly because Stephanie fell asleep only ten minutes after breaking the broiled cheese and baguette on top of her French onion soup. She sat at the table refusing to talk to, or even look at Bruce, and then he watched as she nodded off sitting up once, twice, three times.
She was mostly asleep when she shoved the bowl out of the way and crossed her arms on the table to pillow her head.
When Alfred entered the room with plates of steak chateaubriand, he gave Bruce an inquiring look.
“She didn’t say anything,” Bruce said, low enough to be whispering. He’d wanted to see if, given time with him, she’d say anything more on her own. “I’ll ask her directly.”
“Perhaps you ought to move her somewhere more comfortable?” Alfred suggested. “It could help her a great deal to rest in the hour before you’re prepared to go out.”
“Hm,” Bruce said, folding his napkin and setting it aside. “The study again, then. She seems to like it in there.”
When he lifted her out of the chair, she snuggled right into his shoulder with a content little sigh. This time, her anger hadn’t carried over into sleep apparently. She was exhausted enough to just be calm.
He climbed the stairs toward the study.
Or, he thought she was calm, until she squirmed and mumbled, her voice thick with sleep.
“Can I please stay here? Just a few days, I promise. Please.”
He was startled to find that she was crying, and when he tried to look at her face, arms tightened around his neck to keep him close. This wasn’t a conversation he wanted to have with an upset, barely coherent child.
“Nobody wants me,” she said, weeping harder. “Nobody wants me and I don’t want to stay in a hotel by myself.”
“Woah, woah,” Bruce said, stopped at the threshold of the study. “Hotel? What hotel?”
Stephanie’s face was pressed hard against his collar and it muffled her words, but not so much that he couldn’t understand.
“I’m a…a…difficult case,” she said. “Nobody will take me.”
“What are you talking about?” Bruce asked, with some alarm. He resisted the urge to stand her on her feet and grip her shoulders and watch her face while she answered.
Stephanie gulped, and it spilled out of her in a flood.
“Dennis says my file says I’m a runaway risk, because the police had to help find me when I was seven and ran away from my dad when he tried to lock me in a closet again and I hid in the playground tunnel until my mom got off work and called the cops. And then, and then, that’s why they think I disappeared last week so now Dennis—”
“Your case worker,” Bruce checked, when she sucked in a breath.
“Yeah, Dennis, he said I’m a ‘repeat offender’ and now nobody wants me because all the foster homes are full for problem kids except they found one family that does runaways but they’re on vacation until Monday and so it was the group home or waiting and Dennis said the group home is for really bad kids but I’m not a really bad kid just a kinda bad one so instead I have to stay in a hotel every night until the family’s vacation is over and just sit in Dennis’ office all day when it’s not night time. So I ran away again because I thought here would be okay instead of a hotel but now maybe I’m a really bad kid because I ran away three times and maybe the family won’t even take me after all.”
The final word turned into a wail and the hiccuping gasps that had punctuated the rambling explanation sounded for a second like they might explode into desperate sobs, but Stephanie sucked in another long breath and her fingers dug into his shirt.
“I had to change schools already and I have to change again and I don’t know anybody and the kids never care and nobody knows I’m good at stuff and I was just starting to make friends again when Gina said they couldn’t keep me and I can’t even go back to my house for my stuff even though my mom and dad are already arrested so it’s empty. I don’t have…I don’t have…”
“Shh,” Bruce said, when she started getting close to hyperventilating. He freed his arm enough to rub circles between her shoulder blades. “Shh, it’s okay. It’s okay.”
“I don’t have to stay forever,” Stephanie said, her volume fluctuating wildly. “If that family will take me I don’t have to be a pain in the ass, but can I please, please stay here just two more days?”
“You aren’t a pain in the ass,” he promised. “Don’t tell Alfred I said that.”
“If you won’t tell him I did,” Stephanie said, with a near-hysteric giggle. It dissolved a little of the heavy tension but she kept clinging to him, her chin burrowing almost painfully into his shoulder. He let her hold on.
If his taking her from the Brown home had actually complicated things on her juvenile record, then it was unjust to ask her to bear the brunt of that consequence on her own. He’d made an impulsive decision— still the right one, he thought, based on her fear— and she didn’t need to suffer for that alone.
“You can stay,” he said. “For the weekend. And I’ll fix your file.”
“You can do that?”
“Yes,” Bruce said without hesitation.
“Because you’re Batman,” Stephanie said.
“Yes,” Bruce said again.
He turned from the study and headed for a guest room. Stephanie’s grip was loosening and from the boneless weight of her, he guessed she was worn out enough to be falling back asleep already.
The room she’d been in the week before was clean, with crisp sheets and a big comforter. He sat her down on the edge and crouched just enough to be eye level while she swayed, blinking.
“Where’d Al put your backpack? Did you bring it?”
“Mhmm,” she said sleepily. “Gina helped me scrub off ‘Buttman.’”
“Think you can brush your teeth? There’s a new toothbrush under the sink, still in the package. Alfred makes sure they’re always there.”
“Mhmm,” she said, nodding.
He left and found the backpack in the study, the first place he checked. When he got back to the room, there was no evidence of the bathroom being used at all— Stephanie was still teetering and trying to stay upright.
Bruce decided to call that a loss for the night and he set the backpack beside her on the bed.
“Is it alright if I open this?” he asked.
“Uh-huh,” she said, flopping a hand uselessly against the zipper. “I hid all the stuff I stole in my other backpack.”
Bruce blinked at her.
“Was that…a joke?”
He didn’t put it past her to joke, not at all, but while mostly asleep and after an intense emotional outburst…
“Sucka,” she mumbled. “Don’t even…have another backpack.”
He unzipped the bag and dug in it for a pair of pajamas. He set them on her lap.
“Go change, Hobbit.”
She slipped off the bed, more falling than anything else, and staggered on her toes toward the bathroom.
Bruce tucked the backpack against the side table and flicked the lamp on, and pulled back the covers. Stephanie re-emerged while tugging irritably at her ponytail and made some aggravated grunting noise at him that he interrupted as a request for help. Quick work with his fingers got the hair band out.
“You aren’t a bad kid,” Bruce said, as she climbed back onto the bed. That dragged her eyes back open all the way, but only for a second. “Not even a kind of bad kid.”
“But nobody wants me,” Stephanie protested.
“Then they’re all idiots,” Bruce said, tucking the blankets around her. Stephanie grabbed them and held an edge possessively against her chest.
“Even you?” she asked, yawning so long he thought her jaw would crack.
“Probably,” he said. “Sleep, Hobbit. I’ll take care of things.”
Downstairs, he found dinner cleared away and the dining room empty. He went searching and found Alfred in the kitchen, working on something, and the dinner plates in a warming drawer.
“Ah, you’re back,” he said when Bruce leaned against the door jamb with a thoughtful frown. “I can serve this again if you’ll give me a moment.”
“No need,” Bruce said, opening the warming drawer himself. He slid the plate out, hissing at how hot it was, and juggled it on his finger tips while fishing a fork out of the drawer. Alfred gave him a profoundly annoyed look. “I’ll eat on my feet, save you the trouble.”
“I think you developed bad manners merely to spite me,” Alfred grumbled, motioning to a chair at the kitchen table. “Go on, then. Undo all the years of careful training I invested in you. Dinner on your feet, good heavens.”
“Stephanie is asleep in the guest room beside Dick’s,” Bruce said after a few bites. “Can you keep an eye on her tonight? I have some things I need to take care of and I’m already pressed for time.”
“Of course,” Alfred said. “Has anything dangerous come up that would require my presence downstairs as well?”
Bruce shook his head, staring at the woodgrain of the table. “No. Routine work. I’m not picking any fights tonight, Al. I’ve got enough to worry about.”
“My deepest apologies, Master Bruce, but I do believe I hear the crack of ice advancing on the circles of hell beneath us.”
“Hn,” Bruce said, ducking his head. “I didn’t say I wouldn’t get into any fights, if that restores any sense of order to your world.”
“It is the very balm of Gilead, sir.”
Bruce nearly choked on his steak and red wine sauce trying to force back the smile that threatened to turn up one corner of his mouth. He didn’t want to give Alfred the satisfaction. A firm hand sharply patted his back between coughs.
Alfred set a glass of water by his plate at the table, and considered him with a sobered expression.
“How is she, Master Bruce?”
“She’s staying the weekend,” Bruce said, though this wasn’t quite what Alfred was asking and he knew it. He picked up the empty plate when he stood. “I have a lot to do tonight and I need to think. You were right that something else was bothering her, though.”
“A fact I take very little pleasure in,” Alfred said.
Bruce nodded. “I’ll be back before dawn.”
“Be safe, Master Bruce,” Alfred urged.
In the parlor, the grandfather clock opened on the dark staircase winding down into the cave. Bruce pulled the clock flush against the wall behind him, and went down, feet falling silently on the steps and chased the whole way by the sour regret that had been haunting him all week.
Bruce wanted coffee.
It was only nine in the morning on one of his only days to sleep in, and because the night had piled up with things to take care of, he hadn’t even gone to bed until a little after five. Another Saturday, if the nightmares were mild enough, he might have kept forcing himself to fall back asleep until one or two in the afternoon.
Today, he’d rolled over, looked at the clock, remembered that he’d agreed to let a nine-year-old remain in his care for the weekend and he hauled himself out of bed.
There would be coffee in the kitchen, maybe, so he went that direction with his eyes half-closed. He could let her set the pace today and if she was anything like Dick, he could talk her into a movie if he absolutely had to doze on the couch for an hour.
“Morning! Alfred said the first thing I have to tell you is that we made coffee. I measured it myself!”
Had she always been that loud and cheerful?
Bruce squinted across the kitchen to where Stephanie was standing on a heavy oak footstool and shaking powdered sugar over a cookie sheet. Alfred was nearby, aproned, supervising, with a mostly empty pastry piping bag in his hands.
“Hn,” Bruce said, meaning something like thank you. Alfred would understand. He made his way to the coffee maker. It occurred to him that Stephanie might not have Alfred’s intuition, so while Alfred was saying something about going slowly, Bruce added hoarsely, “Thank you.”
The powdered sugar was falling less rapidly, a thinner cloud of it now. She looked up at him to grin and there was a smear of batter across her forehead.
Bruce poured coffee, and held it in one hand while he snatched a clean cloth out of the drawer and then moved closer to see what they were working on.
“Alfred’s teaching me how to make ladyfingers,” Stephanie said, surrendering the sieve to Alfred’s open hand. It was set aside.
“Stephanie,” Bruce said, voice still thick with sleep.
“What?” she asked, turning.
He wiped her forehead off.
Then he drank his coffee.
She rubbed her fingers and then her wrist across the now-cleaned spot. “How’d that get up there?” she wondered aloud. “Look how many we made! We can have a tea party.”
“Miss Stephanie has discovered and taken a liking to the Limoges tea service,” Alfred said, meeting Bruce’s eyes over her head. He looked amused more than bothered. “There has been enthusiastic planning for a proper afternoon tea.”
“Sounds good,” Bruce said.
“So, do we put these in the oven now?” Stephanie asked, hopping off the stool. “Do I have to stay until they’re done? I didn’t know Mr. Bruce was going to wake up so early, since you said he sleeps late.”
“I will put them in the oven,” Alfred said. “Perhaps you ought to keep Master Bruce company while he breakfasts.”
“I can do that!” Stephanie nodded, and Bruce used the rag to get a spot of powdered sugar off her chin.
Breakfast was a simple assortment of cold or toasted items, since it was a meal Bruce frequently skipped on Saturday. Stephanie had apparently already eaten but she had a bagel anyway, spreading cream cheese and taking time to arrange strawberries in a pattern on it while Bruce drank coffee, and more coffee.
“What are we going to do today?” Stephanie asked, while fitting strawberries together like a jigsaw puzzle.
“I thought I’d leave that up to you,” Bruce said, stifling a yawn. “You’re my guest.”
Stephanie took a huge bite of the bagel and chewed, her cheeks bulging. She pushed her hair out of her face, tucking it behind her ear.
“There are some weird rooms in this mansion,” Stephanie said. “Maybe we could play hide and seek. I bet you’re super good at it. You said the forest has snakes and I want to see ‘em. I could show you my gymnastics moves! And there’s the tea party.”
Bruce was starting to think his chances of dozing on the couch were at a minimum, but he found he wasn’t very bothered by that. It might have been the coffee kicking in, but he didn’t think so— her enthusiasm was catching.
“What kind of weird rooms?” he asked, curious, when she stopped.
“There’s one full of armor and weapons,” Stephanie said. “And one that’s just got statues. And one with paintings. It’s like a museum. There’s a whole other kitchen. A room that just has clocks in it. Uh…um…oh, yeah, the one that’s full of eyeballs.”
“Those are Alfred’s spares.” Bruce peeled a hard boiled egg and discarded the shell on the edge of his plate.
Stephanie stopped chewing; he could feel her looking at him.
“What,” she mumbled around a mouthful.
“For when his wear out.” Bruce glanced up from the egg to see her stunned expression. He went back to the egg as if it were the most interesting thing in the world.
Stephanie swallowed, hard. “Are you serious?”
“Mhmm.” Bruce sliced the egg in half and salted it.
“You’re joking,” Stephanie announced flatly, a nervous flicker of a grin tugging on her mouth. She hadn’t picked up her bagel again. “Right?”
Bruce ate the egg and sipped his coffee while she focused on him with laser-like intensity, waiting to see if his face would give something away.
“But really,” she said, sounding less certain. “It’s uh, a joke, because eyes don’t—”
Alfred entered the room with the newspaper and more cut fruit on a tray. Stephanie gaped at him, shrinking back in her chair. It didn’t take long at all for Alfred to notice the treatment but all he did was raise a questioning eyebrow.
“Master Bruce,” he said, setting the newspaper down. “The Saturday Planet.”
He left the room without comment and Bruce picked up the paper, flipped it open. He glanced over the top at Stephanie, who had both hands over her mouth.
“I’m teasing, Hobbit.”
“Oh my god,” she exhaled, throwing her head back. She let out a shaky laugh and climbed up on her knees to punch him in the arm. “I knew it! I knew it! Why do you have a creepy room full of eyes?”
“They aren’t real. I’d forgotten they were even there. My grandmother made models in her spare time, to sketch them.”
“Still creepy,” Stephanie decided, peeling a strawberry off the bagel to eat it alone. “No offense. It’s kind of awesome. But still creepy.”
“Creepy isn’t bad,” Bruce said. He skimmed the newspaper articles, checking bylines. “Some people think I’m creepy.”
Stephanie snorted and made a choking noise that pulled his attention away to check on her. She was sheepishly picking up a piece of half-chewed bagel and wrapping it in a napkin. She looked at him. “You aren’t creepy. Not to me.”
“Not even a little?”
“I don’t think so. What should we do first? Can we go find snakes?”
The lawn outside the window was dull, dark green under a gray sky. After days of late summer heat, it looked like the autumn chill was finally rolling in. Bruce shook his head.
“They won’t be out now,” he said. “It’s too cold for them.”
“Aw,” Stephanie said, her face falling. Then, almost as quickly, she brightened. “Hide and seek?”
“If you like,” Bruce agreed. The paper crinkled when he folded it over, leaving it open on an article he wanted to read when he had a chance.
Stephanie was practically bouncing in her seat, her food abandoned.
“Are you finished?” he asked, nodding to the plate.
“Mhmm,” she said, scooting it back.
“Go,” he said. He checked his watch only to find his wrist empty, and he glanced at the wall clock instead. “You have two minutes.”
Stephanie scrambled to her feet and sprinted toward the door and disappeared. A second later, she stuck her head back in the room.
“Mr. Bruce. You’re gonna come find me, right? This isn’t just a trick to get rid of me?”
She was biting her bottom lip while she waited for his answer.
Bruce paused, a twisting wrench in his chest, and he set his coffee down.
“Stephanie, I promise. I’ll find you.”
The anxiety shuttered away and was replaced by a cheeky grin. “You’ll try, anyway. I’m a good hider.” Her retreating footfalls sounded in the hall as she sprinted away from the dining room.
Bruce hadn’t played hide and seek in the Manor since Dick was small. It was another game he’d come to him already on the cusp of out-growing, propelled even further out of that phase of childhood by loss. Bruce had lost those things prematurely, almost definitively. There was a near-total severance of himself between the activities he associated with children and the hollow wraith of a boy he’d been after.
He’d wandered around the Manor then, not exploring or playing, but merely drifting from threshold to threshold, feeling ancient. He had been a ghost, something unsolid, waiting outside of every door in vain and aching hope that his ears would pick up some time-transcending echo.
He thought— he hoped— that he’d made it easier for Dick. Or, maybe Dick had been a different child. Or maybe, as Alfred had confessed to him one night faintly flavored with scotch and guilt, it had been the absoluteness of Dick’s loss. Perhaps, Alfred had mused, he shouldn’t have let Bruce grow up in the Manor, after. Dick had mourned the circus and his parents alike, with no familiar landscapes pocked by their absence as constant reminders.
Everywhere Bruce looked during those first long, empty days there had been the shadows of the missing— it was all too easy to pretend someone he wanted was just around the corner, in a house full of disappointment and a fermata of grief.
Whatever had been different, Dick had eased out of his childhood with more grace and gradual transition than Bruce had. Games were something he still wanted to play, would engage in without coaxing. In the big, old house, the phantoms had grown thinner and weaker with age and were chased away by the thudding of socked feet— Bruce had found a return to the childhood he’d abruptly left behind, because for months on end until Dick had found a place in school and later with the Teen Titans, Bruce was his chief and only playmate.
The playing had been less grating, less awkward than Bruce initially feared. If he was a poor companion, Dick didn’t notice. He’d come home from work and spend hours alternating between training and goofing off, until he couldn’t quite remember what he’d done with his time before.
That memory had come slowly back, as he’d had it to fill again.
Stephanie wasn’t lying. She was good at hiding, and avoided the obvious spots like closets and beneath tables. He hunted for fifteen minutes before he found her the first time, and they moved further and further through the house. He managed to catch five minutes of sleep folded up behind a hinged bookcase, which she claimed was unfair despite finding him herself because normal furniture didn’t move like that. She looked put-out that his snore had given him away, and had hidden extra well the next turn.
The sheer square footage of the house made for an engaging game that lasted until lunchtime. Bruce caught Stephanie making a mad scramble away from a hiding place, shrieking with gleeful fright, and after snagging her around the waist and hoisting her over his shoulder, he redirected them toward the dining room.
Stephanie sagged like a limp sack of flour and sniffled. “Can I get a tissue?”
He plucked one from the decorative sideboard table they were passing in the hall and set Stephanie on her feet.
“Thanks,” she mumbled, sniffling again. “I think I got some dust up my nose or something.”
Bruce appraised her flushed cheeks and concluded she had spent most of the morning trying to silently sprint around the house, a house that was far too large for Alfred to actually clean to dust-free on a regular basis. There were some rooms the weekly maid service never had access to.
Lunch was sandwiches, thick slices of roast turkey on toasted sourdough, and it was also interrupted.
They had been at the table for all of ten minutes when there was a shout from the front hall.
“Hello? Bruce, are you still asleep? Alfred?”
Bruce threw his napkin down and rose to his feet; Stephanie stopped mid-bite to follow.
“Dick? We’re in the dining room.”
“You are up. Late breakfast? I just came in through the basement, and—”
The door opened and Dick stepped in. His eyes fell on Stephanie and he froze, with an anxious bent of his brow. It smoothed away almost immediately, a glimmer of unease before his training kicked in and he was all warm smiles.
“—you know it’s so full of junk? We should clean it up if we’re going to keep parking in there.”
“Hi,” Stephanie said, with a tiny wave.
Bruce stepped around the table and held out an arm. Dick hugged automatically, tight and steady, even though his attention was still mostly on Stephanie.
“I wasn’t expecting you,” Bruce said, letting him go. “Dick, this is Stephanie. Stephanie, this is my—” Bruce stalled, the words my ward wanting to spring from his mouth, ingrained by years of introduction. The papers waiting in his desk were an itch at the front of his mind and he brushed it back for now. “My former ward, Dick Grayson.”
“Hi, Stephanie,” Dick said, offering a hand.
Stephanie shook it solemnly and couldn’t have missed the questioning look that went from Dick to Bruce, or the wordless assurance to wait until later.
“Have you eaten?” Bruce asked, turning to the table. “I’m sure Alfred won’t mind— Al!”
“I’m starving,” Dick said. “Just got back from a long trip. I wanted to surprise you.”
“You did,” Bruce said.
“Master Dick!” Alfred exclaimed, coming into the room. “It’s good to see you.”
“You too, Al,” Dick said, with a grin. “I was just telling Bruce I wanted to surprise you. I was trying to time it right for lunch; I’m sick of microwaved meals. I think I missed by a few minutes.”
“Nonsense,” Alfred said. “If you’ll forgive the slight delay, I’ll have a plate for you within a few moments. You’re well, I trust?”
“Couldn’t be better,” Dick said, taking a seat on Bruce’s other side, across from Stephanie, when they sat back down.
Bruce felt a decade younger and lighter. He’d gotten so used to the constant low worry whenever Dick was away that sometimes it didn’t register how much energy it was siphoning until Dick was home again. He’d given up hoping it would ever go away— he didn’t even think he wanted it to. That tug was a connection he was loath to see fade.
It would be good for Stephanie, too, he thought, to have someone else to entertain her for a day. He wanted to catch up with Dick, but it would have to wait. Dick, he thought, would understand.
“Were you doing Robin stuff?” Stephanie whispered across the table, eyes wide.
Everything in the room stilled.
Dick frowned, at Stephanie and then Bruce. “What do you mean?”
“Like…” Stephanie put her hands over her face and used her fingers to approximate a mask. “Robin stuff.”
The air felt cold and Stephanie didn’t take long to notice. She shrank in her seat, glancing uncertainly at Bruce. She was chewing her bottom lip, and sniffling again. Bruce handed her a handkerchief from his pocket.
“Was this a game you guys were…” Dick trailed off when Bruce wasn’t hurrying to assure him otherwise.
“Was I not supposed to…” Stephanie looked about two inches high. “Is he not…I thought…”
Bruce figured if Dick was going to give them hell for exposing his identity, it should fall on him and not the nine-year-old. He cleared his throat.
“I gave Stephanie permission to explore when we were downstairs. She found the house and it didn’t take her long to put it together.” Bruce held Dick’s gaze, willing the young man’s temper to stay in check. He didn’t lose it often anymore, but keeping this secret was such a huge part of their lives and security he wouldn’t have blamed him for being upset. He himself had been upset, but his upset had been dampened by the recent memory of a very scared child needing rescue and complicated by his own blood loss.
“Oh,” Dick said quietly. “So. She knows.”
“And she’s here,” Dick said. “How long has she…”
“I’m only staying the weekend,” Stephanie said bitterly. “Believe me, I asked.”
“Oh,” Dick said again, something indecipherable to Bruce in his expression. “And you’re not going to tell?”
“You didn’t,” Stephanie shot back. “I know it’s important. I’m not a baby.”
“I think it was a bit different for me, kid,” Dick retorted, a hard edge in his voice.
Bruce had known Stephanie was old enough to maybe begin to comprehend the need for secrecy, and he’d still talked to her to make sure. He didn’t blame Dick for being wary. He wasn’t going to let them tear into each other five minutes into meeting, though, so he opened his mouth to intervene and Stephanie beat him to it.
“I’m not really hungry,” Stephanie said, pushing her plate back. “Can I go do something else?”
“Yes,” Bruce said, relieved. He just wanted to talk to Dick and not have her misunderstand. As selfish as it was, he didn’t even really care what she went off to do as long as it was something relatively safe.
As soon as she was out of the room, Dick whirled on him.
“Bruce, what the hell do you mean she ‘found the house?’ Why the fuck was she in the cave?”
“Dick,” Bruce said, the warning steel clear in his tone. Dick’s mouth snapped shut and he twisted the hem of the napkin tightly between two fingers. “I brought her there because I was bleeding out and she was already in the car.”
Giving civilians or villains brief rides in the Batmobile in emergency scenarios wasn’t common, but it happened often enough that it wasn’t exactly unusual either. Bruce that badly injured was unusual, however, and Dick’s alarm was plain.
“What? What happened?” He half stood, as if he was going to examine Bruce on the spot.
Bruce put a hand up. “An informant got lucky with a knife last week. I’m okay. Stephanie’s situation is less straightforward.”
Alfred entered with a covered plate and reacted only slightly to Stephanie’s absence. He carried her plate off and chose not to interject anything into the tense atmosphere.
“Eat,” Bruce said. “I’ll fill you in.”
Some people couldn’t eat while upset or in suspense. Dick wasn’t one of them. Perhaps it was a side effect of being Robin for so long, fighting in dangerous situations and balancing a civilian life at times, but he’d never let stress keep him from putting fuel in his body.
While he ate, Bruce told him everything from the beginning. The delivery was dry, and not unlike sharing details of a mere case, but it got the points across.
“And she’s just staying the weekend?” Dick asked skeptically, when Bruce finished.
“The next foster home should be available Monday,” Bruce confirmed. “This is only until then.”
Dick chewed and looked thoughtful, mulling over the dump of information. He was quick even on his feet, so Bruce wasn’t surprised when he finished off the sandwich and sighed, with a resolute set of his shoulders.
“Okay. This wasn’t the weekend I was expecting, but I think I owe her an apology. You healed up alright?”
“Enough,” Bruce said, thinking of the pinkish new scar tissue still scabbing along his side. The blood loss headaches had faded a few days before. “I’m sorry, Dick. I want to catch up with you. But Stephanie needs a safe place today, and for whatever reason, she thinks that safe place is with me. I complicated her placement prospects, so I owe her that, at least.”
“You’re an idiot,” Dick said, reaching across the table to take a pickle off the edge of Bruce’s place. He gave him a crooked grin when Bruce frowned at the theft. “You’re, well, you. Of course she feels safe. We can catch up later. The Titans are between things, so unless there’s an emergency, you’ve got me until Wednesday. I’ll go find her and grovel. If she’s half as stubborn as she sounds, she might not forgive me right away. She really walked all the way here on her own?”
“She did,” Bruce said, sliding his plate away when Dick reached again. “She’ll forgive you.”
The dining room door swung shut behind Dick when he breezed out of the room. Bruce sometimes envied the mercurial temper, how easy it was for Dick to swing from one thing to the other. Even years of training to react and adapt quickly hadn’t instilled it with that level of grace in Bruce.
At this point, it no longer surprised him that Dick was the better man— he’d grown used to that idea as Dick had grown from the potential of youth into true adulthood, every glimmer of goodness solidifying into a concrete and shining facet.
If anyone could apologize and be forgiven, it would be Dick. He trusted that Stephanie would warm up to him quickly and then he had Dick around until Wednesday, which was the longest visit in a while.
Lunch was all but over, but Bruce remained at the table for a few more stolen minutes, thinking and on the cusp of being decisive. Something— cowardice or wisdom, he couldn’t tell— kept him from firm resolve.
He had until Wednesday, or he had a lifetime.
The minutes in front of an empty plate gave him no clear and easy answer.
Bruce found Dick and Stephanie in the den ten minutes later, after he’d finally left the dining room and informed Alfred of Dick’s plans for a longer visit.
Stephanie was upside down on her splayed palms while Dick spotted her with a hand near her ankles. It clearly hadn’t taken him long to apologize or her to get over it, whatever they’d said, because Stephanie was all-grins now and Dick was coaching her on keeping her balance.
“Mr. Bruce! Look!” Stephanie said, as soon as he walked into the room. “I could never do it this good before!”
“She’s a natural,” Dick said. “Alright, counter-balance and try to move one hand forward.”
The attempt ended in two hasty hand-steps and then Stephanie toppling over, her feet narrowly missing the edge of the couch.
“Oof,” she said from the floor. She sniffed, and this time it sounded deeply congested. She sprang back up on her feet. “Okay, again.”
“Are you feeling alright?” Bruce asked, while Dick spotted her again. He cast a glance at the side table with a vase— since Dick had gotten older, Alfred had slowly started moving fragile things back into rooms.
“Yup,” Stephanie said, upside down. “I’m good!”
“Dick,” Bruce said, while Dick wrapped his hands around Stephanie’s ankles to coach her through hand-steps with more stability. “Let’s take this down to the mats.”
“Oooh,” Dick said. “The mats, Stephanie. He thinks we’re going to destroy stuff. Should we give the old man a break?”
It seemed like as soon as Dick got a satisfactory explanation, he was all good-natured teasing and making her feel comfortable. Bruce felt an irrational surge of pride yet another reminder of what a good man Dick had grown into.
“Downstairs downstairs?” Stephanie asked, letting herself crumple to the floor. The excitement was bright on her face. “Really, Mr. Bruce? You’ll come down with us?”
“You don’t have to call him Mr. Bruce,” Dick said, offering her a hand to pull her to her feet. “It’ll make his head swell. He gets enough of that at work.”
Stephanie looked at Bruce, who suppressed a sigh.
“Bruce is fine,” he said. “I’ll come down with you.”
An hour or more was whittled away while Dick worked with Stephanie on the parallel bars and balance beam. She was eager to show off what she knew from gymnastics class— not much more than Bruce would have expected from any weekly elementary-age class— and even more eager to learn. She was also fearless, and persistent.
After her fourth drop from the bars trying to copy an intermediate move Dick had demonstrated, Dick sent her to wash the chalk off her hands and call it a day.
“Her arms are gonna be sore tomorrow,” Dick said to Bruce, taking a swig of water. He hadn’t even broken a sweat while helping her and he bounced from foot to foot, still packed with energy.
Bruce had been leaning against the railing around the practice mats, watching, after an attempt to update some case files was repeatedly interrupted by cries of, “Watch this, Bruce! Bruce, watch me do this!”
He’d given up on work.
“Wanna go a round?” Dick asked, nodding to the mats. “If you’re not too sore.”
“I’m fine, Dick,” Bruce said, quelling the spark of real concern in Dick’s jab.
“I bet I could take you in five now,” Dick challenged, recapping the water bottle.
Bruce twisted toward the cave bathroom, where he could hear the running water and the faint strains of some morbid schoolyard song Stephanie was loudly singing.
“Five,” Bruce repeated, raising an eyebrow. “What exactly have the Titans been handling that you think you can take me in five, chum?”
“You know what we’ve been handling, you creep,” Dick said lightly, sweeping a foot out against Bruce’s shin. The blow landed as light as Dick meant for it to, and Bruce caught the foot with his ankle. “I know you keep tabs on me.”
“Keeping an eye on my investment,” Bruce said, shoving Dick’s foot back. It was a lousy attempt to throw him off-balance and it didn’t work.
“Oh-ho, I’m your investment now,” Dick teased, blue eyes sparkling with mirth. “A ‘former’ ward and an investment.”
“I meant the Tower,” Bruce corrected mildly. “All the gear. The damages restitutions.”
He blocked a punch, and then another.
Stephanie was somewhere behind them blowing her nose, and then chanting, “Fight! Fight! Fight!” while she clambered up to sit on the railing.
“Let’s give her a fight,” Dick said.
“It’s not going to be a fight,” Bruce replied, with a twisted smirk.
“Wanna bet, old man?” Dick went from standing in front of him to backflipping out of the range of a kick, further back onto the mats.
The sparring match was quick and just shy of dirty and two minutes in, Bruce could see Dick’s focus shift and he stopped laughing and teasing to concentrate. Bruce didn’t go easy on him, and Dick fought hard in response. He was getting better, whatever he was doing for training while away.
Still, Bruce pinned him a few minutes after that, and Dick squirmed while panting to catch his breath. Even out on patrol they rarely had fights the caliber of their sparring matches— most encounters with criminals were over in seconds.
“Uncle,” Dick wheezed.
Stephanie cheered, “Batman!” and whistled.
“I have adoption papers for you upstairs,” Bruce said, before his mind caught up to his adrenaline-fueled mouth.
Dick’s eyes widened and he scrambled out from under Bruce’s hold just as it went slack. Bruce rocked back on his heels. Dick sat up on the mats, arms locked behind him to prop himself up, and gaped at Bruce.
“What?” he said.
Bruce hadn’t meant to have this conversation now. He had meant to time things better, to plan it out, to do it when Dick had a chance to consider it on his way out the door and not feel pressured into an answer right away. He swore at himself inside, thinking now he’d possibly chased him away when he could have had until Wednesday with him.
“Stephanie,” Bruce called over his shoulder. “Can you give us a few minutes?”
He didn’t think she’d heard the question, as low pitched as it was, but he wasn’t sure. Whether or not she had, she didn’t need to hear any discussion or argument that followed.
“Sure,” Stephanie said, with a touch of hesitation. She slid down from the railing and he could hear her feet hit the mats. “I’ll go find Alfred.”
A second later, there was a rapid patter up the steps. Bruce sat down and the tightness in his chest and the sensation of low oxygen levels were not from the fight. He worked on keeping his voice level while he was too much of a coward to directly face Dick.
“I didn’t plan on discussing it this weekend,” Bruce started. “I’m aware the timing isn’t ideal.”
“No shit,” Dick breathed.
Bruce grimaced. “But it’s been on my mind a lot. I had the papers drawn up a while ago, just in case…in case…”
“In case of what, Bruce?” Dick asked tightly.
“In case I don’t come home one day,” Bruce snapped. “You aren’t…we aren’t…we don’t have a legal relationship anymore, Dick. Even with your trust, I want you to have…to…”
“So you’re planning on dying soon, great,” Dick said icily. “That’s a great reason, B. Exactly as sentimental as I would have expected from you, actually.”
“Dick,” Bruce said, turning.
Dick put his head in his hands.
Bruce exhaled, sharp and frustrated. “No. Of course that’s not the primary reason, but it’s one that makes sense and—”
“I hope the primary reason is a little less morbid, but considering it’s you I shouldn’t—
“I think of you as my son, Dick,” Bruce said. “You want the primary reason? The primary reason is I’m selfish and I know I can’t replace your father, but I think of you as my son and I’d like our legal status to reflect that, if it’s something you’d be okay with. You can consent now, for yourself; I didn’t stop pursuing it when you were younger because I lost interest. You have to know that.”
Bruce hadn’t meant to sound so angry, but this day was apparently full of things he didn’t mean to do or say. He had blown this in every conceivable way and he knew it.
“That’s not a bad reason,” Dick said softly. There he went again, making up for where Bruce failed. “I…I need to think about it. I think I’m going to go for a drive.”
“Yes, of course,” Bruce said. “Take all the time you need.”
Dick climbed to his feet and ran his hands through his hair while Bruce sat on the mats, and began stretching a leg to avoid thinking about the tension beneath his ribs.
“Dick,” Bruce said. “Whatever you decide, it doesn’t change…it doesn’t change anything.”
“I’ll be back later,” Dick said.
Bruce was seized with desperation, not knowing when Dick would return— if he’d truly upset him and Dick went back to the Titans, he could end up embroiled in another mission that took weeks or months. He stood and froze, unable to do more than watch him trudge up the stairs. Not knowing what to say paralyzed his tongue, and he let him go.
At least Dick knew how he felt, maybe, however poorly he’d gotten that across— it was something Dick frequently pushed him to work on. He hadn’t conveyed it enough, not well enough or fully enough, but it would have to do.
After he was alone in the cave, he took a couple minutes to gather himself into some semblance of order, and then went up toward the house. If Stephanie hadn’t been up there with Alfred, Bruce likely would have stayed in the cave the rest of the day working. Even now, the temptation to bury himself in work was strong. It was only knowing his fifteen minutes would stretch into three hours that kept him from sitting down at the computer.
He was in the hall when Stephanie found him, first creeping around the door to the kitchen with a pinched look of worry on her face.
“Hey,” she said. “Dick left.”
“I know,” he said, cramming his own knotted emotions down. Pretending to be something he wasn’t was a ruse he was fairly good at, and Stephanie, for all her attachment, likely couldn’t read through it even a fraction of how well Dick would have been able to. He could keep her afternoon fairly uncomplicated, at least. He gave her a warm smile, and she returned it with a skeptically wary look.
“Alfred said we could have a tea party now,” Stephanie said. “If you want to.”
“That’s fine,” he said, and after another flicker of doubt she seemed to accept him at face value. She grinned.
“Okay! Awesome. We made ladyfingers and I think they’re gonna be super good. Alfred said he could make strawberry tea. Did you know that they even had strawberry tea?”
She grabbed his hand and tugged him toward the kitchen, where Alfred was in fact arranging tea things on a tray.
“The parlor, sir?” Alfred asked, a thin quality to his voice that Bruce understood immediately to be anger. He didn’t think Stephanie picked up on it, and when Alfred looked at him, the older man’s fury visibly softened at whatever he saw there. Bruce shook his head, and Alfred didn’t ask about what had transpired between him and Dick. There would be time to fill him in later.
“Kitchen’s fine,” Bruce said, guessing Stephanie would be more comfortable, just from his memories of Dick’s first weeks. That thought hit him like a sledgehammer to the gut, the memory of Dick when he was so small and every aspect of caring for him seemed terrifying. In retrospect, it felt easier than now. He glanced at Stephanie. She was young, but a different kid. He reconsidered. “Unless Stephanie wants to try the parlor.”
“Is it fancy?” she asked in a loud whisper. “Because I think I have chalk in my hair and I’m kinda messy.”
“It’s formal,” Bruce said. “And decide what you want. Mess isn’t a problem.”
Stephanie looked around the kitchen. “Here. Here is good. Maybe tomorrow we can use the parlor if you help me with my hair? Can you braid?”
“I think I could figure it out,” Bruce assured her.
“Then let’s have tea! I’m going to eat cookies until I’m stuffed, that’s been my plan all day,” Stephanie said. “I’ve never had a real tea party before.”
Bruce sat with her, sipped hot strawberry tea, waited, worried, and waited some more, all while listening to Stephanie talk about a horror movie she’d watched late at night on the TV in her old bedroom. He nodded at the right times and let himself be talked into a movie after tea, and then steered her away from the R-rated ones in his collection. She pouted slightly until she realized he wasn’t going to budge, and then settled on Princess Mononoke because she liked the cover.
On the couch, Stephanie snuggled up against his side without asking for permission, and he settled an arm around her shoulders while remembering how awkward and strange it had been to have Dick push for that kind of contact when he was young— it had been like a long lost language for Bruce.
He didn’t know what he was doing then. He didn’t know what he was doing now, with Dick, with Stephanie. The sooner it was Monday and she was settled in another home, the better, because however much he was realizing he liked having her around the truth was that he’d gotten lucky with Dick and still managed to screw that up on a regular basis.
Stephanie deserved better than that.
Dick deserved better than that.
The movie played and Stephanie regularly reached over to get a tissue, assembling a small pile on the couch beside her until Bruce got up and got a trash bin for them. He checked once if she was feeling okay and upon her insistence that she was fine, lost himself again in his own circling thoughts and didn’t really watch the movie at all.
A shadow fell across the floor in the den and the change in light roused Bruce from his dozing. Stephanie was slumped against him, her face smooshed against his chest and her mouth hanging open while she slept. He blinked and brushed a few strands of hair out of her face, tucking them behind her ear.
He craned his neck to see Dick standing in the doorway, leaning against the frame. His hands were jammed in his pockets and there was enough light to make out the red, puffy spots beneath his eyes.
“Can I talk to you?” he asked, quietly, with a visible swallow.
Bruce wouldn’t let himself feel anything in that moment because the dread would have consumed him whole. Even so, his limbs felt drenched in ice while he nodded. This was…
He had not meant to fuck up this badly.
Dick as his former ward he could live with; Dick out of his life for good because Bruce had put impossible demands on him and their relationship was something he didn’t think he’d ever recover from.
“Let me put her in bed,” Bruce heard himself say smoothly. He shifted and stood, and hefted Stephanie into his arms. She grumbled and snuggled against his shoulder, still limp with sleep.
Dick stood aside to let him pass.
“Study?” he asked, from behind Bruce in the hall.
“Yes,” Bruce said.
Stephanie mewled in her sleep when he set her down on the guest bed and pulled covers up over her, but she didn’t wake up. He slipped out of the room as quietly as he could. He turned one small lamp on before he left, remembering how much Dick had disliked the deep dark as a small kid. His watch said it was a little after six in the evening but the sun was already down.
Bruce took a breath to brace himself before going into the study. He felt sick, but he was too well-trained to let anything show. He knew he looked calm when he pushed the door open and found Dick leaning on the edge of the desk, his arms crossed tight and high on his chest.
“Hey,” Dick said, unfolding as Bruce entered.
Bruce stopped at the edge of the rug and glanced at the portrait of his parents for just anything to do, anywhere else to look.
The silence was uncharacteristic for Dick and it went on so long Bruce had to pull his gaze away from the painting to look at him.
Dick was gazing at him, a soft tug of a smile on his lips. The redness around his eyes was even more evident here in the brighter room. The smile made no sense— he wanted to urge Dick to take more time, there was no rush, but he thought saying anything now would make things worse. Dick hated it when he thought Bruce was telling him he didn’t think things through. They’d gone around and around about that one when Dick was sixteen.
“You think it’s bad news, don’t you,” Dick said.
Bruce started and his brows drew together.
“B,” Dick said. “Of course it’s yes. I knew the second you asked it would be yes. I’m sorry I ran off.”
“What,” Bruce said flatly, his mouth suddenly dry.
“I didn’t want to cry in front of the kid,” Dick said with a shrug. “Sorry.”
“What,” Bruce said again.
Dick pushed away from the desk and drew close enough to put a hand on Bruce’s shoulder. He squeezed and Bruce’s hand flew up to hold Dick’s arm in place.
“We’ve never needed formalities but if you…if you want this, of course I’ll sign.”
Bruce wondered how quickly strep could set in, because that was a likely explanation for how much his throat ached and how hard it was to talk. After long seconds, he managed to choke out, “Dick, don’t do this if it’s just for me. You don’t have to for—”
Lithe arms were thrown around him and squeezed tight and Bruce returned the hug after brief, startled hesitation.
“You’re an idiot,” Dick mumbled, his voice thick with emotion. “You know that, right? Of course it’s not just for you, old man.”
“Please don’t cry,” Bruce said. His fingers tangled in curling black locks and cradled the back of Dick’s head against his shoulder. “Dickie.”
“Shut up,” Dick mumbled. “I thought I was done. Give me a minute.”
“Chum,” Bruce said helplessly. “I didn’t mean to make you upset.”
“God, you really are dense.” Dick’s laugh into Bruce’s shirt was choked. “You have to know you’ve been my father for a long time, B. Getting my own space was never about walking away from that.”
When Dick tried to pull back, Bruce’s arms tightened because it was the only way he could keep Dick from seeing the tracks of tears on his own cheeks. He tried to sniff them back and it was a losing battle.
It hadn’t occurred to him until that moment how much he had been afraid of exactly that, that every joke about aging out of a home had irritated him so much precisely because that was the tender, raw nerve fear: that Dick was aging out of them, out of his relationship with Bruce.
So he let his tears drip into Dick’s hair and Dick relaxed and hugged him in return. Bruce fought the breathless crush in his chest. He swallowed so hard it hurt his ribs and jerked his shoulders forward. He evened out his breathing.
“Sorry,” Bruce muttered, forcing himself to let go. “Are you alright?”
“I love you, too,” Dick replied. “So, can we sign this tonight? Do we need a notary or a judge or something?”
Bruce shook his head as he headed for the desk, surreptitiously using his cuffs to dry his face.
“I’ll have Babs notarize it Monday and then I’ll file them. I’d do it tomorrow but Stephanie will be here.”
He pulled the papers out of the drawer where they were folded in perfect, crisp thirds and tucked into a cream vellum envelope. The ink was bold, the typeface slightly bleeding on one edge from the county courthouse printer’s cheap toner. The blanks had all been filled in except for the spot for Dick’s signature.
Bruce leaned against the desk, a capped fountain pen between his fingers, while Dick read over the document with a thoughtful expression.
“Richard John Grayson,” he read, his gaze shifting to Bruce’s face. “Not Grayson-Wayne? Or Wayne?”
“There’s room. I thought I’d leave that up to you,” Bruce said, handing the pen over. “If you want my opinion, there have been enough Waynes in Gotham. Grayson is something that’s yours.”
“My ass is mine but that doesn’t stop you from handing it to me,” Dick muttered, uncapping the pen. He got very quiet and still, leaning over the papers spread on the desk. With small strokes, he added the hyphen and the second surname.
Signing his name at the bottom was done in a messy, almost indecipherable scrawl of letters with angular flourishes.
Dick straightened and inhaled a deep breath, filling his chest and then exhaling. He stacked the papers and gave them to Bruce, a stupidly happy grin on his face.
“Congrats, Pops, it’s a boy.”
“Smart aleck,” Bruce grumbled, hauling Dick into another hug with his arm around Dick’s neck. He kissed the top of his head roughly and let go. “I should tell Alfred before he skins me alive. He knows I ran you off earlier.”
“Wait, wait a moment,” Dick said, his grip firm for a brief second on Bruce’s arm before he let go. “Monday. Stephanie’s not going to be here Monday?”
The critically skeptical look was one Bruce had seen more times than he cared to count— usually when he was falling into the mire of self-reproach and guilt, or being a particular idiot about his own physical limits. Dick was good at pulling him back. Bruce, at the moment, didn’t particularly care for it or what it meant.
“Monday,” Bruce said firmly. “We can go out for dinner. Or, order in, if you prefer.”
“Hmm,” Dick said.
“Dick,” Bruce reproved. “This isn’t…I’m not in denial here.”
“Hmm,” Dick said again, hopping back to sit on the desk.
“She needs a stable home.”
“You could be that. At least for a while,” Dick said. “A month, maybe two. Let her warm up to the idea of somewhere else after her world stops spinning.”
“The sooner she gets into a placement that’s—”
“B, I L-word you, and I don’t want our first act as legal father and son to be a fight, so I need you to listen to me.” Dick’s brow was two pinched lines and his jaw was set.
Bruce’s mouth clipped shut. Granite self-control was something he could do.
“You do not know,” Dick said. “You came here when everything changed for you, you came back home. You don’t know what it’s like to have that taken, too. If she is comfortable here, if she feels safe—and I know you’d die before you let anything happen to a child—then you will only hurt her ripping that away. Finding a safe place when you’ve lost your place is not a small thing. Trust me.”
Bruce didn’t raise a protest against this, because it would have been pointless. Even if he’d had a good reason to do so, he knew that set to Dick’s shoulders and that the young man wouldn’t hear it.
“Please, please tell me that sending her away Monday is the best thing to do, or even what you want. Is it what you want? Because I saw you with her today and it doesn’t look like it. I’ll use some of that iron self-restraint you taught me if you can stand there and honestly tell me that you think a random home in Gotham would be better for her. You do that and I’ll shut up about it.”
Bruce swallowed and rubbed one hand across his face. He pressed so hard against his temples that they ached. His feet were restless and he resisted pacing, turning instead to stand at the floor to ceiling windows as if the shadow-drenched landscape could offer some eloquent explanation.
“You’re stalling,” Dick accused, without heat. “Why? I know you. You’ve probably been arguing this with yourself since she came home in the car. Have you talked to Clark about it?”
Bruce frowned. “No. And I’m not…stalling. I am trying to make the best decision for Stephanie. My life, my lifestyle….doesn’t make me the best person to raise a child. You survived it, excelled even, but you’re you, Dick. You would have landed on your feet anywhere.”
Dick didn’t reply immediately. He circled the desk and stood next to Bruce, staring out the window at the shimmering dew on the lawn. It glittered in the evening security lights as it chilled to frost.
“Ah. So that’s why,” Dick said softly. “What kills me is that you really believe that.” He bumped Bruce’s arm with his own and leaned forward, trying to catch his eye. “What you still don’t get B, is that I’m me because you’re you.”
Bruce put his hands in his pockets so Dick wouldn’t see them trembling. Dick tipped his head to rest on Bruce’s shoulder.
“Just promise you won’t let yourself get in the way of a good thing, okay? For both of you. Even just for a few months. It could change the world for her, B.”
“Most people, as I understand it, wait at least fifteen minutes before begging for a sibling,” Bruce said hoarsely, resting his cheek on Dick’s head. There was a shake of laughter.
“This is the problem. You’re one hundred percent all the time. I said a few months. Just give her a place to land on her feet and then see where to go.”
“I’ll think about it,” Bruce said. “Thank you, Dick.”
“Don’t thank me yet,” Dick said, and his tone made Bruce tense like he’d been pricked with a live current.
“What,” Bruce said flatly.
“We might have to postpone that celebration dinner,” Dick said. “I didn’t want to tell you until we’d talked first, but I gotta go. Kori paged me. Something came up and we’re heading out tomorrow from the Tower.”
Bruce suppressed his sigh, the little selfish thing that wormed its way into his chest. They knew, by unspoken rule, that emergencies were emergencies.
“Be careful,” he said, instead of complaining. “And say goodbye to Alfred before you go, or I’ll be sleeping in the basement and eating plain toast for a week.”
“I think I can squeeze in dinner,” Dick said. “I have to eat, anyway. That is, if that’s alright with you. Don’t want to intrude on your brooding time.”
Bruce huffed and scrubbed his knuckles against Dick’s head.
“Brat. Let’s go find him together, then.”
The dinner preparations in the kitchen came to an abrupt halt when they told Alfred about both the signed paperwork and the impending departure, because the older man stopped to wash his hands and dry them on his neat apron, before pulling down three wine glasses.
“Master Bruce, I believe a celebratory toast is in order,” he said. “We ought to mark the occasion while we’ve a moment. A port, I think.”
Bruce left them in the kitchen while he descended the steep stone steps into the wine cellar; he had to duck his head beneath the low beam of the narrow doorway. The cellar was built into the foundation of the manor and had changed very little in over a hundred years. There were several ports and he studied the labels before taking a Quinta do Noval from the racks and climbing back up into the hall behind the butler’s pantry.
Dick was sitting on the counter, eating olives from a jar, when Bruce returned. Alfred was certainly in a good mood, to allow it, and to be leaning against the counter himself and chatting. His arms were crossed over his chest and it struck Bruce just how very much Dick had echoed that same casual pose in his office not long before.
“Hn,” Bruce said, toward the olives, while rifling in a drawer for the corkscrew.
Dick picked an olive out of the jar with a fork and, with a flick of his wrist, flung it at Bruce’s face. Bruce caught it in his mouth and decanted the port in the glass bottle Alfred set on the counter beside him.
Thirty minutes passed quickly as Dick filled them in on his latest mission, complete with dramatic retellings of domestic issues at the Tower. Alfred finished dinner preparations and slid plates into the warmer. They ended up deep in discussion over the suspicious activity of some of the younger Maronis, who Bruce had once hoped would escape to far off colleges and other paths.
“We wouldn’t have had to wait quite so long if you’d warned me,” Alfred said, when he finally poured the port into glasses. Bruce wouldn’t have minded skipping the decanter, even if it meant subpar port, but Alfred was particular about things being done the correct way and Bruce tried not to begrudge him that when he could.
“I didn’t know what he was going to say,” Bruce said. “I didn’t even plan on asking him today.”
Alfred gave him an unimpressed look.
“Sir. If you had thought to tell me, I would have put your mind at ease and saved you an afternoon of distress.”
“Alright, alright.” Bruce surrendered easily, both palms up. He accepted the glass pressed into his hand. “I should have said something. I learned my lesson.”
“My dear boy, I’ve been searching for signs of you learning any lesson for many years now. It is too soon to say if this will stick.”
Dick snorted into his arm, letting it turn into a cough with his other arm outstretched to keep the wine balanced.
“One glass,” Bruce said, giving Dick a hard stare. “One. That’s it.”
“Yessir,” Dick teasingly saluted. “Cheers. To fathers and sons.”
Bruce finished off his glass, the warmth in his chest making every taste sharper and more rich and alive. He set it on the counter and smiled at Alfred’s gentle pat on his shoulder, only to turn at the hoarse and small voice from the edge of the room.
“I don’t…feel…so good,” Stephanie mumbled. She slumped against the doorway and blinked. Her face was ashen and she sniffed, once, and then vomited on the floor.
She burst into tears in the same second, heaving while hunched over and gasping out apologies.
“Sorry, sorry, I’m not…I’m not faking, I really don’t feel good, I’m sorry.”
“Hey, hey,” Bruce said, stepping around the mess and taking her shoulder. “It’s alright. Do you think you’re done?”
Dick set his port down and tossed him a washcloth.
“I dunno,” Stephanie shook her head frantically, breathless. “I think so. I dunno. I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”
“Al?” Bruce said. He bent to examine Stephanie’s face for any sign, while wiping her mouth with the cloth. Her pallor was washed out and bloodless, save for two bright spots on her cheeks and the beet red of her ears. He dropped the cloth.
“It’s quite taken care of,” Alfred said, from right behind him. “Go on.”
“Hobbit, I’m picking you up.” Bruce lifted Stephanie over the mess on the kitchen tile and into his arms. She shifted with a pained mewl and hung bonelessly in his arms, her chin hooked on his shoulder.
He headed for the guest room she was staying in, but halfway there a choked noise escaped her and she stiffened in his arms.
“M’gonna,” she managed, one hand clapped over her mouth.
Bruce’s long strides got them to a hallway bathroom in another breath— they were lucky it was right there— but he’d not even put her all the way down when she vomited again, this time into the toilet, while dangling from his forearm across her chest. He lowered her slowly, shushing her when she dropped her forehead on the toilet seat and cried. It was a thin, wobbling sound, and he crouched beside her to tuck her hair behind her ears.
“You’re alright,” he said, rubbing her back. The ridges of her spine, beneath her new t-shirt, trembled. “Shh. Ready?”
She nodded. He cradled her head against his shoulder with his cupped hand, shushing her as he walked. Stephanie was still crying when he reached her room and her arms tightened around his neck.
“I puked in front of Robin,” she wailed into his shirt.
“It’s nothing he hasn’t seen from me, or done himself,” Bruce assured her.
“I don’t want to be sick,” she complained. She sniffled. “Tomorrow’s my last day.”
“Sweetheart, I’m not making you leave while you’re sick,” Bruce said, shifting her in his grip. “You’ll stay as long as you need.”
“Promise?” Stephanie asked. “I’m not faking, I’m really not.”
She sounded wholly miserable.
Bruce closed his eyes and struggled through the leaded helplessness in his gut. It was always far worse than any fight, than any physical wound on his own person, when Dick was sick. He felt the same way now. He pressed a kiss to her fevered brow and hushed her again.
Slight spoilers for The Hobbit.
The shuffle of little feet roused Bruce from a light sleep. He rolled over, aching muscles protesting, and blinked into the darkness. A shadowed lump was standing beside the bed. The lump sniffed.
He reached out and switched on the bedside lamp.
Stephanie had a thick comforter drawn around her shoulders and over her head, so only her face poked out. Her eyes were bloodshot, a dull pink in the lamplight.
“Morning,” Bruce mumbled. His mouth was cottony with sleep. “What’s wrong, Hobbit?”
With a yawn, he sat up. Stiff joints complained at the activity. He’d put a few hours in on patrol, after being certain medicine had kicked in enough that Stephanie would sleep for a while— Alfred had instructions to raise him on the comms if she woke earlier and was distressed.
Before going out, he’d sat with her through an hour of her stomach rebelling. He’d folded a cool cloth for her forehead and left her side just long enough to say goodbye to Dick when he’d come to the doorway to whisper a farewell.
When she’d kept down sips of Gatorade and a dosage of Children’s Tylenol that Alfred had run out to the store to obtain— after a disastrous, gagging attempt to swallow an adult’s single tablet during which Stephanie had cried more about the failure than her reaction itself— Bruce had gotten his laptop. He’d set it up on the bed, and reclaimed his seat beside it. He’d rested his elbow on the bed and Stephanie immediately claimed it as a pillow while they watched Dick’s DVD of Gargoyles.
Two episodes in, she had fallen asleep, and he’d gone downstairs after certain it was deeper than just dozing. She’d still been out, tangled in sweaty sheets, when he’d returned.
Now, she was swaying on her feet.
“I tried not to bother you,” she croaked. “I threw up again. I kinda…uh…missed a little. Do you have paper towels?”
Bruce stood and grabbed his robe, from where he’d thrown it over a nearby wingback chair. Her skin was dry and baked-concrete hot to the inside of his wrist pressed against her forehead. A small hiss of alarm escaped through his teeth and he picked her up, comforter and all, and set her on his bed.
“My skin hurts. It’s too thin,” Stephanie mumbled.
“I’ll be right back,” Bruce said, tugging the blanket down and away from her chin and chest. “Try to keep this off. You need to cool down.”
“I am cold,” she whined. “M’sorry. Tell Alfred I’m sorry I made a mess.”
“Not necessary. Alfred’s asleep,” Bruce said. He felt her head again and brushed her sticky hair back. “Stay put.”
Cleaning up the bathroom connected to her guest room and finding the Children’s Tylenol couldn’t have taken more than ten minutes, but he still expected to find Stephanie asleep when he returned.
She was staring listlessly around the room and she moaned at the sight of the medicine and sports drink in his hands.
“Two sips, Hobbit. That’s all.”
Stephanie struggled to sit up and Bruce slid an arm behind her while she took the medicine. She didn’t grumble, but when she sipped the Gatorade she started coughing. The coughing went on for much longer than it should have, and sounded breathless.
The remnants of sleepy autopilot fled and he frowned, crouching in front of her beside the bed.
“That didn’t sound good,” he said. “How does your chest feel?”
“I dunno,” Stephanie mumbled, near tears. “I don’t know! I feel gross everywhere. My skin hurts. I can’t sleep. I’ve tried and tried and I keep having nightmares.”
“Alright, alright,” Bruce soothed. “Let’s try something else. Do you think you can handle going for a ride?”
“I don’t want to go to the doctor.” There was a sharp note of hysteria creeping into Stephanie’s tone. “Am I dying? Mom says we only go when I’m dying.”
“You aren’t dying,” Bruce said calmly. He scooped her into his arms, blanket and all, and tucked her head against his chest. “If you see a doctor, she’ll come here. But that’s not what I meant.”
“I miss my mom,” Stephanie said, fingers knotted in his robe. “I miss her and the soup she made when I was sick as a kid.”
As a kid, he wanted to echo incredulously. He kept his mouth shut.
“She made it special. It was a can of chicken noodle and she’d only put half a can of water in, and heat it up, and then she’d give me a whole sleeve of those square crackers and I could eat on the couch and watch TV while she went to work. I missed her when she was at work but I tried to be good, I tried not to call too many times.”
“Alfred makes excellent soup,” he said. “We could make it your mother’s way instead if you wanted, though.”
“I think it would just make me mad at her again,” Stephanie said. “Forget it. Forget I said anything about my stupid ass mom.”
“Hn,” Bruce said. He had no intention of forgetting, but the little girl in his arms needed something else from him right now. The library door opened noiselessly and she barely lifted her head to look.
“Your house is so big,” she said, when they left the room a moment later. The book he’d chosen, with its worn spine, was in one of his hands. “Don’t you get tired of walking around in it?”
“When I do, I make Alfred carry me,” Bruce said, shouldering another corridor door open. Stephanie’s laugh turned into a cough and then a groan.
“I hate being sick,” she said, when she’d caught her breath. Her arms were limp around his neck. “I wish being sick wasn’t a thing.”
“Me too, Hobbit,” Bruce agreed.
The change in air temperature was immediate when they stepped into the conservatory. The high glass ceiling stretched out from the manor walls and curved down toward the ground, leaving them in a warm and green pocket of space with a sloped roof. The early haze of sunrise tinged the horizon with a blush of pink and orange that hid the stars from sight.
Stephanie, even ill, looked around with wide eyes and a hushed awe.
“You didn’t tell me you had a jungle,” she rasped.
Bruce huffed a laugh and arranged her, with her blankets, on one of the benches near the middle of the room. The conservatory had once been something of a showroom— a tended gallery of kitchen essentials and exotic examples. He had fuzzy fragments of memory of following his father into the room with guests, listening to the tour. Thomas had shared his own memories of being young, of the days when the Manor hosted regular traveling guests who had enjoyed strolling through the foliage.
The Manor had stopped hosting as many guests; the long traveling parties of Thomas’ childhood were already fading in vogue. It had stopped giving many tours when Bruce no longer hosted parties. When the parties had started back up— a careful show for the cover, the information, the connections they provided— the room had remained private.
Now, it was something of a haven. Alfred came here to tend plants and his own peace; Bruce spent time recovering here, when Alfred grumbled about his aversion to sunlight.
The moist, warm air was good for hacking little lungs. He’d brought Dick to sit among the plants, stretched on the antique benches, more than once.
“My grandfather brought that tree back from Brazil,” Bruce said, setting an empty bucket on the floor and then sitting next to Stephanie. He absently brushed her hair back, combing his fingers through the tangled blonde locks.
“The whole thing?” Stephanie stammered.
Bruce smiled and tugged her ear, fighting a yawn. “It was a seed then.”
“Oh, yeah,” Stephanie muttered, her cheeks flushed with something other than fever. “Well, it looks super old.”
“Hevea spruceana,” Bruce said, while Stephanie settled her head on his leg. She squirmed until she was comfortable, her bony shoulder digging into his thigh, and then relaxed with a short sigh.
“Did you just put a Harry Potter curse on me?” Stephanie mumbled suspiciously.
“No,” Bruce swallowed his laugh and slumped back on the bench. The wood was smooth, sanded down with age and care, and not nearly as unforgiving as it looked. “No, that’s the Latin name for the tree. My grandfather found the seed inside a tambaqui he caught while fishing.”
“I found a worm in an apple once,” Stephanie said. “I don’t like apples unless they’re cut up.”
“Not every apple has a worm,” Bruce reminded her.
“Yeah, but the seeds have poison and once my dad said he’d make me eat a bunch if I didn’t shut up. I’m always afraid I’ll eat one by accident. If I have apple slices then I don’t have to worry about seeds or worms. Was he telling me the truth?”
“I…” Bruce, his heart a thudding storm of fury, stumbled on any answer. The truth? He doubted Arthur Brown had been lying, exactly, about his intent or willingness to harm his daughter, but…
“The seeds,” Stephanie prompted. “Are they really poison?”
“Oh.” Bruce took a second to breathe in and out his nose, calming himself and reserving the anger for later. When he trusted himself to sound at ease, he nodded. “Yes. They contain trace amounts of cyanide. You would have to eat about two hundred at one time to ingest a fatal amount, though. The hevea spurceana seeds also have cyanide. It can be boiled out.”
“Huh,” Stephanie said. She grimaced and curled more tightly in the cocoon of blankets. “Talking about food was a bad idea. I hate food right now.”
The medicine must have been kicking in, for as talkative as she was and the slight drop in her fever. Bruce let his hand rest on her forehead and then cheek, evaluating again. He hoped she could keep the medicine down.
“Katie Delgrosso tried to put a Harry Potter curse on me this summer. I told her she was full of shit and that she was lucky she hadn’t accidentally summoned a demon like Eric Garcia did in his abuela’s house. I don’t think the Harry Potter curses work.” Stephanie sniffed and coughed, and impatiently shook her head when his hand stopped stroking her hair. He resumed the motion.
“That demon did a lot of damage before it was stopped,” Bruce said gently. “You’re right, that those things are powerful forces you don’t want to play with. But no, I doubt the Harry Potter spells will work for anyone. It’s just Latin.”
“Did you fight it?” Stephanie tensed; she twisted her head to look up at Bruce’s face.
“With Robin. And a colleague. I have a scar on my foot from where it burned me.”
“You have a lot of scars,” Stephanie said thoughtfully. “Like me.”
Bruce’s ribs ached more than any scar had.
“Yes,” he said, quietly.
“You got a book,” Stephanie said. “Was I supposed to be asleep so you could read?”
“I picked it to read to you,” Bruce said. “It might be a nice change from watching television.”
“Oh. What’s it called? I can read, y’know. I’m not dumb.” Stephanie sounded like she was trying hard to maintain an offended pout and didn’t have the energy.
“I know. Reading aloud is something I do for Dick when he’s sick; Alfred does it for me. This book is The Hobbit.”
“Like me!” Stephanie chirped, and coughed. “It’s not boring, is it?”
“Let’s find out,” Bruce said. He pulled it from his robe pocket and flipped past the first yellowing pages.
Stephanie crawled onto his lap and curled up there, a bundle of limbs and blanket layers.
“In case it has pictures,” she said quickly. “I won’t puke on it, I promise.”
Bruce adjusted his grip on the book and held it out to see the words over her head.
“‘In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell—’”
“Ew, like your ‘basement,’” Stephanie said.
“My basement does not have an oozy smell, ‘—nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat:—’”
“Okay, yeah, the ‘basement’ has chairs. And stuff to eat. Ugh, food.”
“Maybe we shouldn’t read this one right now,” Bruce said, his mouth twisting in regret. He thumbed through the first chapter. “There’s a lot of food.”
“No, no,” Stephanie said quickly. “I’m okay. Keep going.”
“Alright. Tell me if I need to stop. ‘—it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort. It had a perfectly round door like a porthole, painted green, with a shiny yellow brass knob in the exact middle. The door opened on to a tube-shaped hall like a tunnel: a very comfortable tunnel—”
“I think I know why you like this book,” Stephanie said confidently.
“Shh, we’re not even to the dragon yet,” Bruce teased.
“Dragon!” Stephanie squeaked. “Okay, okay, I’ll be quiet. Read.”
She kept her word and didn’t interrupt while he read through most of the first chapter. It was stakeout training that kept his eyes open and his mind alert while he read, because exhaustion sifted through him when he fell into the familiar cadence of reading. The sun rose outside and flooded the conservatory with warm, bright light.
Then, he got to the argument about the mark on the door and the wizard’s declaration of Bilbo Baggins’ role as a burglar, and Stephanie stiffened in his arms. He paused, reaching one hand out for the bucket on the floor, and she shook her head fiercely against his chest.
“I’m fine,” she said, in a tight, upset voice. “Keep reading.”
“We can take a break, if you—”
“No,” Stephanie snapped. “Keep. Reading.”
Bruce leaned just enough to study the angry bent of her eyebrows, her pale cheeks framing a trembling lip, and he tentatively began reading again while sneaking glances at her. The hands that had been clutching blankets were now balled into fists.
The longer he read, the more it seeped out of her and she visibly deflated. She was limp against him by the time he finished the chapter and softly closed the book.
“I had a nightmare you took me to prison and left me there with my dad,” Stephanie said abruptly, climbing off his lap and onto the other end of the bench. She was glaring at the bench between them, and she coughed.
“I’m sorry,” Bruce said gently. His own nightmares were full of the ugliest and worst things— murder and blood, being trapped and alone— that were done to him by those he trusted or that he did to them. He waited, before confiding this to her, to see what else she would say without digging.
“It’s fine,” she said, resignation in her tone. “I understand now. Why you can’t keep me.”
Bruce blinked. He’d gone to bed after checking on her with Dick’s words in his head, knowing already it was merely a matter of waiting until she felt better to discuss it with her. Something had changed after he’d settled things with Dick, and after Dick had deftly speared the very heart of the matter Bruce had been wrestling.
He’d told Alfred as much, to prepare him, and the older man had been visibly relieved at the decision and not resistant to taking on the additional work.
Perhaps waiting had been the wrong choice, though he still wasn’t sure trying to have the conversation while she was puking into a bin had been a viable alternative.
“Stephanie,” he said.
“It’s because I’m bad,” she said, in a tiny voice. “You did try to tell me. I just didn’t get it.”
“I did not,” Bruce said firmly. “There were reasons I had for finding you a foster home, Hobbit, but we need to talk about—”
Stephanie burst into tears.
For several minutes, all he could get out of her was incoherent phrases and inconsolable noises. She wouldn’t even let him touch her— she yanked away from his hand, and that was definitive for him. He didn’t try again.
Bruce did kneel beside the bench so he wasn’t towering over her, and he tried uselessly to soothe her while her sobs mixed with hacking coughs. He was beginning to be seriously concerned about her ability to breathe well when she calmed enough to choke out anguished words.
“I know you have to take me in,” she wailed. “Just tell me. Don’t keep lying!”
“What.” Bruce couldn’t have been more shocked if she’d said she was working undercover for Amanda Waller. He might have been less shocked, to be honest.
“I know I can’t stay because I’m a thief! Aiding and abetting, that’s what it is, isn’t it? When he made me sit in the car as a lookout at the corner mart. I didn’t tell anyone but I knew it was wrong.”
Stephanie’s sobs slowed to weeping onto her knees, her arms wrapped around her folded legs. His hand hovered over her back, but he didn’t try to rub reassuring circles there like he wanted.
“Stephanie,” he said evenly. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, but I do know I have zero intention of taking you to the police or trying to send you to prison. That is the furthest thing from what I intend to do.”
“But isn’t that why you call me Hobbit?” she accused raggedly. “You…you tried to let me know you knew. You’re Batman. You found out somehow, didn’t you? And that’s why I couldn’t stay.”
Bruce was full of scattershot lead. It sunk in him, leaving a hundred stinging trails of destruction. His felt the blood drain from his face and for the briefest second, he buried it in his hands. Then, he set his jaw and looked up.
She coughed and whimpered.
“Stephanie Matilda Brown, look at me.”
Her eyes were bleary, wreathed in puffy skin. She looked impossibly small and shrunken on the bench. As soon as he was certain she was listening, the words were spilling out of him with desperate intensity.
“You didn’t stay because I was being an ass. I wanted you to be safe, and to have the best life you could have, and I couldn’t see that it could be here, because I was afraid. I was afraid of not being a good guardian or a good example. I was afraid of putting you in danger. It had nothing to do with you being bad. You aren’t bad. I didn’t call you a nickname to hurt you, and I’m sorry that it did— I called you that because of what I do see in you.
“You’re small, but you’re brave, and funny, and sweet, and determined. You remind me of heroes, Stephanie, because you are one. You saved my life, remember? You saved a lot of people from being hurt by your father’s actions. You saved yourself.”
“You saved me,” Stephanie said, sniffing. “All I could do was sit on the roof.”
“We both saved you,” he conceded. “I wouldn’t have known if you weren’t already on the roof. It was a team effort. You did your part. The rest of my part is this: you can stay here as long as you need. As long as you feel comfortable and safe and want to be here, the Manor is your home. If I haven’t fucked up so badly I’ve already ruined that for you.”
The tears streaming down Stephanie’s face cut tracks over her dry, fevered skin. He needed to get her more water or Gatorade, he thought, a strangely clear impression in the midst of the whirlwind emotion that had left his hands shaking.
She stuck a single pinky out and jiggled it.
“What is this,” Bruce said, already raising his hand. He looped his pinky around hers, dwarfing it.
“I’m promising not to tell Alfred you said ‘fucked,’” she said through her tears, with a shaky giggle.
Bruce exhaled and dropped his head, a weight on his back torn off and flung away. He glanced up at her.
“You can leave as soon as you want,” he told her. “I’ll help you find a good home. But I want you to understand I will never ask you to go. If you’ve done something wrong, I will tell you, and we will fix it together. I will not ever throw you out and that’s my promise.”
Stephanie nodded, a tiny tight nod. She scooted until her forehead was leaning against his.
“I’m going to stay forever.”
Bruce’s laugh flooded his gut and caught there, and though he didn’t make a sound he cupped the back of her head and kissed her fevered brow. She flung her arms around him and held tight.
“I think I can live with that,” he said. “I’ll stop calling you Hobbit. And we don’t need to finish the book right now.”
“But,” Stephanie said, “you said he was a hero. Maybe we could finish it. I’m okay now.”
“Only if you’re certain.”
Bruce stood, with her in his arms.
“M’sure,” Stephanie said.
“You need some water first,” Bruce said. “That cough is sounding better. Some more sleep in a real bed would be beneficial.”
“I’m hungry,” Stephanie said. “I think.”
“You can try some crackers,” he said. “Your feet or mine?”
“Yours,” Stephanie said, clinging.
Alfred was up and working over papers in the butler’s office off the pantry— he joined them in the kitchen after they passed by the doorway. Stephanie nibbled some saltines and slurped fruit juice from a popsicle, while asking Bruce to call it an ‘ice lolly’ five more times and laughing hoarsely every time he did.
Despite her good mood and apparent upswing, she was still wilting by the time she was holding the plain wooden stick.
An alarm buzzed in the kitchen and her head snapped up, every trace of tiredness gone.
“That’s just the entry alarm,” Bruce told her. “It means someone is at the gate.”
Alfred was peering at the pad and camera mounted on the wall.
“Mr. Kent is here,” he said. “I’ll let him in.”
“Bed,” Bruce told her. “Let’s go.”
“Why?” she asked, with a touch of panic. “What’s wrong?”
“You’re sick,” Bruce said. “That’s all. Clark is a friend. He’ll want to talk.”
“What if I have another nightmare,” Stephanie demanded, her grip like tiny pincers on his arm. “How will I know where in the house you are? Or if you’re downstairs?”
Bruce looked at the fingers digging into his wrist and he considered. If Clark was coming to the gate in plainclothes, even without a call ahead, it was unlikely to be a working emergency. There was a nagging fear— _what if Dick…_— that he wouldn’t let himself finish. He gently pried Stephanie’s hand into a looser grip.
“How about the den, or the couch in the study?” he asked gently. “Do you think you could sleep there? Clark won’t bother you, as long as you don’t mind us talking nearby.”
Stephanie nodded and slipped off the chair, her hand still tangled in the sleeve of his robe. He hadn’t even had a chance to dress, but Clark had seen him look far worse. He’d survive.
“Does he know,” Stephanie whispered, when they were almost to the study. “About…you know.”
“He does, but we’re not going to talk about why, or how. Not every secret is mine to share. Understand?”
“Got it, Boss,” she said, yawning. “Bruce?”
“Can we read more, when I wake up? Even if I feel better?”
“Of course,” he said. “We can read as much as you want, Hobbit.”
The banked fire in the study spat small sparks when Bruce turned the ashes over beneath the log he’d set on the iron grate. The hopping tongues of flame were fleeting things, slivers of red that extinguished themselves quickly with gray, dying hisses. The few that settled on the pine log ran neon orange trails along the wood and curled the long splinters as they ate deeper and deeper into the fuel. These pops and cracks were throatier, a reviving beast waking to power and hunger. Bruce added another log and rose to watch it a moment, before hanging the beaten iron poker with its matched set of tools on the stand.
“Mr. Kent,” Alfred announced from behind, and he turned to see the mildly annoyed expression on Alfred’s face— the raise of one white eyebrow that said, I would have done that if only you’d waited. Beside him, Clark’s face was almost too pleasant. His kind smile and open ease were hallmark Superman. It wasn’t around everyone that Clark was both at the same time, fully Kal and fully Clark. Bruce, who had watched Clark’s bumbling idiot act while playing his own more times than he wished to count, felt that trust like the fire at his back. It was real, and warm, and good. It was safe despite being full of potential danger, because Clark was Superman. As powerful as he was, there was no side of him that was not kind.
It still took a second for Bruce, sometimes, to bury or hide his awe.
He usually covered with gruffness, morning grogginess, whatever would deflect.
“Clark,” he greeted. “You didn’t call ahead.”
“I’m in town with Lois. She’s covering a thing. I thought I’d stop by. Don’t let my ma hear I didn’t call, or I’ll catch it.” Clark said with a shrug. “Nice to see you too, Bruce. Who’s this?”
Stephanie, curled up on the couch with blankets, blinked at them. She was struggling to stay awake in the glow of the fire.
“This is Stephanie Brown,” Bruce said. “Stephanie, this is Clark Kent. She’s going to be staying with me for a while.”
He didn’t miss the flicker of surprise on Clark’s face, the assessing look Clark shot him.
“Forever,” Stephanie croaked. “I’m staying forever.”
“That so?” Clark asked amiably, crouching down beside the couch. He held out his hand. “In that case, you can call me Uncle Clark, like Dickie does.”
“Uncle Clark,” Stephanie said, puffy eyes narrowing. “I thought you said you were friends.”
“Best friends,” Clark clarified. Bruce, behind him, had his hands in the pockets of the robe. The thing was, Clark had always been quicker to use specific terms, to define their relationship as something vital. Bruce only corrected him anymore if he was in a bad mood, because most of the time, he agreed with him and with the things it was harder for himself to say. Clark was still talking to Stephanie, adding some of those very clarifications that mixed mindless fright and cement safety in Bruce. “I don’t have any brothers or sisters, so I had to draft him when I found him. We’ve known each other a long time.”
“I had to draft him, too,” Stephanie confided, with a cough. She shook her head at Clark’s still-outstretched hand. “I shouldn’t get germs on you.”
“Smart thinking,” Clark said, pulling his hand back. Bruce knew he knew, then, that she didn’t know. They both left it lying for the moment. “I hope you feel better soon.”
“Thanks,” Stephanie said. She yawned.
Clark stood to face Bruce, who gestured with a tilt of his head toward the wingback chairs on the other end of the room. There was a nod, and they were settled in seats before Alfred returned with coffee and raspberry scones. They were a celebration food, as a household rule. They were either for Dick or Stephanie or both.
They sat in silence for several minutes while Clark sipped his coffee and Bruce merely held his, clutching it and staring at the wall. Clark could have been a hundred miles away for all the attention Bruce paid, while he turned those two ideas over and around in his mind. Had it only been a single weekend? It felt like a month or more of conversations and exhaustion and relief. Happiness? Maybe that was why the feeling didn’t seem to weigh anything, instead buoying him up.
“That intense, huh?” Clark observed mildly after some time. “Some weekend.”
Bruce glanced at him with a surge of annoyance that quickly faded. “It’s only Sunday,” he managed to say stiffly, as if that meant anything at all. “Did Dick call you?”
“He left a message. He said you’d appreciate a visit soon.”
“And he accuses me of meddling,” Bruce grumbled. “Well, thank you, anyway, for coming. I’ve been…busy.”
He twisted in his seat to peer across the room. Stephanie was asleep, her neck craned on the pillow and her mouth hanging open. A congested snore escaped her.
“Dick just gave me another excuse,” Clark said cheerfully. He took another scone. “Ma’s been pestering me to invite you to Christmas. She says we….well, we all missed you last year. Even without Dick. I don’t know if he’ll have other plans with friends again, but I want you to know you’re still welcome. All of you. Ma’ll be tickled to have a little girl around.”
“Clark. It’s September.”
“I know how your schedule fills up,” Clark defended. “The invitation is there. And as a warning, if you don’t come, I might not be able to stop Ma from showing up with pie and leftovers. She was awfully worried last year when you didn’t come.”
“I was busy,” Bruce said. “I told you that.”
“Sulking,” Clark said with a teasing grin. “I know.”
“Hnn.” Bruce buried his expression in his coffee and drank half of it, even though it was steaming. “What did Dick tell you?”
“On the phone? Not much. I missed his call. What was there to tell?” Clark leaned forward in the burgundy wingback chair.
Bruce checked on Stephanie once more before lowering his voice. His grip on the coffee cup was in serious danger of cracking the porcelain and he forced himself to relax.
“I formally adopted Dick. We signed the papers yesterday.”
“Bruce, that’s great!” Clark’s face broke into a wide and pleased grin. “No, he didn’t tell me. I could tell he was in a good mood, but I didn’t know why.”
“You know Dick. It could have been finding a quarter or the Knights winning,” Bruce muttered, though he knew the fondness was thick in his every word. Clark laughed and reached out to clap him on the shoulder and then give the same shoulder a squeeze. He left his hand there, an anchoring weight.
“That does sound like him. So, how’d it go? You’ve been sitting on those papers for months.”
“It went…alright. No thanks to me. It was nearly a disaster.” Bruce pinched the bridge of his nose and exhaled. “It would have been, except Dick.”
“Good,” Clark said firmly. “I told you he wouldn’t be upset.”
“Oh, he was,” Bruce said. “He cried. I made him cry. Thanks for the warning.”
Clark laughed again and leaned back in his chair, his hand falling from Bruce’s shoulder. “I doubt it was even half as bad as you think. Not all crying is awful.”
“That’s because you haven’t heard Dick cry. It’s like listening to a wounded puppy.”
“I have heard Dick cry,” Clark said. “Not that it’s any of your business. And I think you feel that way because he’s your son.”
“How often are you going to work that into conversation?” Bruce grumbled, not minding in the least. He wanted Clark to, he thought— to say it as often as possible. As soon as he fully wrapped his mind around the change, he intended to do so himself. “And of course it’s my business. What do you mean you’ve heard him.”
“Oh, you know,” Clark said dismissively. “Sad movies. When he’d come over as a kid.”
“He’s still a kid,” Bruce said.
“You’re only grumpy because you’re in a tither about having some good feelings for once.”
“‘In a tither,’ Clark, could you sound like you’re from this century for five minutes.”
“You’re not going to piss me off right now,” Clark said cheerfully. “I’m in a good mood, too. So, what’s the story with Stephanie? How much does Dick know about that?”
“He chewed me out for intending to find her a foster home,” Bruce said quietly. “I don’t think he was wrong to do it, either. I was being stubborn and it wasn’t helping anyone.”
“What a surprise,” Clark said dryly. At Bruce’s sharp look, he took his glasses off and cleaned them. “I’m not apologizing for that.”
“Why do I feel like you’ve been spending more time with Alfred,” Bruce said. He finished his coffee and picked up a scone, but didn’t eat it.
“Go on,” Clark said. “You were being stubborn.”
“She came home with me during a case. She needed a place to stay and then the first foster home I found didn’t work out, and she came back. She’s been here since. That’s all.”
“‘That’s all,’” Clark echoed with a soft whistle. “I hope you know how incredible you are, Bruce. She knows, then, I’m assuming?”
Bruce nodded. “Just about myself, and Dick.”
“During a case,” Clark mused. “She wasn’t in a mask, was she?”
“No,” Bruce said tightly. “And I have no intention of making her go that route. Dick needed it. She needs…a normal childhood. Some stability. Or, as much of it as I can give her.”
“Bruce,” Clark said softly, so softly that Bruce over at him with a confused scowl. “You’re going to do fine. She couldn’t find a better foster parent, or guardian, or whatever you’re calling yourself this time.”
“I hope you’re not wrong,” Bruce said, without acidity. Clark held his gaze for a long moment, while the swell of panic that had been growing, the what have I done, what have I done choking fear, receded under the focus of those ocean glass blue eyes. Clark had taken his glasses off, so the slightly alien brightness of the color wasn’t dimmed by the thick blank lenses.
“I don’t think I am,” Clark said. The serious expression brightened. “So. Stability and normalcy. You’ll come for Christmas, then?”
Bruce grumbled and nodded. “Yes, fine, yes. Unless something comes up, we will be there. Let the record show the agreement was procured under duress.”
“Noted.” Clark beamed. “Ma will be thrilled.”
“Master Bruce,” Alfred interrupted quietly, from behind. Bruce turned. Alfred had come into the room again and was standing near Stephanie, one hand on her forehead. “Did she have another dose of medicine? Her fever has broken.”
Bruce nodded. “At six.”
Alfred straightened the blankets around Stephanie’s shoulders and came for the near-empty tray.
“More coffee, sirs?” Alfred asked. “Mr. Kent, has Master Bruce consulted you on his plans for explaining his kidnapping of young Miss Stephanie, and her subsequent running away? He has said nothing of them to myself.”
Clark choked on scone and had to lean forward, one arm over his mouth, to keep from spewing crumbs while he caught his breath. Bruce thought it was a little ridiculous for someone who didn’t technically need to breathe.
“His what,” Clark finally managed.
“Alfred is being dramatic,” Bruce said, with a sharp look at the older man. The look was returned in kind, leaving them at a draw. Alfred tutted while taking up the tray. Bruce kept his coffee.
“It was your own word, sir.”
Bruce sighed. “The current issue is that she’s run away from foster care and has no connection to Bruce Wayne that makes her coming here make sense to any judge or social worker. But—” he cast an exasperated glance at Alfred, “—I’ve already settled on a feasible solution.”
“I hate when you talk about yourself in the third person,” Clark said. “Alright. Let’s hear the solution. I’ll review it for weaknesses.”
“I don’t need—”
“As often as you do the same for me, it’s only fair.”
Bruce frowned and slouched down in the wingback chair. “I’m convinced you and Alfred orchestrate ways to mock me.”
“Bruce, it really doesn’t take that much planning.”
“Traitor,” Bruce called softly after Alfred, who was leaving the room with the definite turn of a smile. He pitched his voice low enough to not wake Stephanie and then he turned back to Clark. “I thought you were a friend.”
“A brother,” Clark said. “That’s why I get to take liberties. You’re too intelligent to wield that power unchecked. Look what it did to…”
“If you say Luthor, I’m throwing you out of the house.”
“I don’t know why we even let you through the door,” Bruce said, disgusted.
“The solution,” Clark said, when he’d stopped chuckling. “Honestly, I want to hear. Is there anything I can do to help?”
“Yes,” Bruce said crisply. “I need you to give Stephanie a ride into Gotham. To Wayne Tower, tomorrow, if she’s feeling well enough. We’ll postpone if she’s not.”
“Flying ride or driving ride?” Clark asked, his eyes darting to Stephanie before he spoke, now quiet and serious.
“That depends on you,” Bruce said. “And how much you’re willing to risk your identity to the scrutiny of a very smart child. If you show up in the cape, I don’t think it’ll take her long to put together Batman’s friend with Uncle Clark once she sees you up close.”
“Lois didn’t even—”
“Lois was not nine years old. Children see things differently, Clark.”
“Alright,” Clark said, hands up. “You’re the expert. I’ll drive. We can handle the identity thing later. I don’t want to overwhelm her.”
Bruce thumbed a fraying edge of one sleeve of his robe. “Thank you,” he said, softly. “I appreciate your help. Stephanie needs adults that are on her side right now. I don’t expect you to develop a relationship with her the way you have one with Dick, but—”
“Of course,” Clark interrupted, putting a hand on Bruce’s and stilling it. “If she’s wriggled her way into your heart this fast, she’s gotta be an amazing kid. I’m sure I’ll love her to death in no time. You’re not burdening me, Bruce, by opening your home and life to a kid who needs it. I’m not going to drop you because you’ve overtaxed some imaginary headcount of people you’re allowed to have around you.”
“It’s embarrassing when you get dramatic and sentimental,” Bruce grumbled, but he didn’t pull his hand away. He glared at the rug and then exhaled through his teeth, and managed to not sound angry when he added: “Thank you. I…may have needed to hear that.”
“Because you’re what Ma would call a numbskull, sometimes,” Clark said, rapping Bruce’s head with two knuckles. “It’s so thick, it’s a wonder anything ever gets through.”
Bruce ducked from Clark’s hand, scowling, his laughter buried.
“I conditioned it for concussion resistance,” Bruce said, his brow furrowed.
“What,” Clark said, eyes narrowing. “How in the Sam Hill did you…”
Then, Bruce laughed, just once, into his cooled coffee.
Clark’s gaze sharpened and he sat back with an offended huff.
“You are incorrigible.”
“That’s a big word for you, Kansas.”
“I’m a journalist,” Clark exclaimed, flicking Bruce’s ear. His control was impeccable— it was as light as a flitting summer insect.
“Even more impressive, then.” Bruce finished his coffee and set the mug down.
“You know, I miss the days when you were ready to key Lo’s car for making fun of me. What happened to that Bruce. When did you succumb to the dark side?”
“Your mother told me to, and I quote, ‘keep you humble.’”
“Of course she did,” Clark muttered, brushing imaginary crumbs off his khaki slacks. “She recruits everyone.”
“Bruce?” Stephanie interrupted hoarsely from the couch. She coughed. “I’m thirsty.”
“I should get out of your hair,” Clark said, standing when Bruce did. “I’ll call tomorrow.”
“I’ll be right there, Hobbit,” Bruce said to Stephanie, walking with Clark to the study door. “You can drive the Camry I have downstairs. I’ll have Alfred pull it around. It’s better if nobody sees her in your car, either.”
Clark nodded. He waved to Stephanie, who was sitting up on the couch with her hair mussed into a tangled cloud on one side of her head.
“Bye, kiddo. We’ll hang out when you’re feeling better, okay? Tell Mr. Grumpypants to invite me over for a game night and I’ll teach you how to beat him.”
Stephanie mustered a tired, beaming smile that shot Bruce full with warmth from his head to his toes. It took a second to recognize the feeling as pride, the kind he found in Dick.
“Got it, Uncle Clark.”
“Alright. Water, and more rest,” Bruce said, heading straight for her when he’d said goodbye to Clark. He’d see himself out or Alfred would— he visited often enough that strict etiquette wasn’t exactly required anymore.
Stephanie lifted her arms, hands flopping while her elbows were locked. She waved them and Bruce scooped her into his arms and propped her on his hip.
“I want another popsicle,” she said. “Say it again. The funny way.”
“An ice lolly,” Bruce repeated patiently. “After some water. How’s your stomach?”
“Lots better,” she said, her head on his shoulder. She yawned. “Maybe I can even play hide and seek again later. Can we watch a movie? Oh, my tea party. Is it too late?”
“Slow down,” Bruce chuckled. “You’ve got plenty of time. Let’s not wear you out too much today.”
“Oh, yeah,” Stephanie said, and he could hear her smile even without looking down at his face. “I keep remembering all over again even though I didn’t forget. Do you ever have that feeling? I have lots and lots and lots of time.”
“We can discuss the tea party,” Bruce said. “That sounds calm enough. If you still want, I’ll attempt to braid your hair. You have to promise not to make fun of me.”
“But what if it looks really bad,” Stephanie teased. “Not even then? What if it looks like spaghetti that got into a fight?”
“I’m sensitive,” Bruce said, his mouth in a straight line.
Stephanie’s peal of laughter, hoarse from her sore throat and piercingly high, was one of the best sounds he’d heard in months.
The traffic crawled along the street below and Bruce found himself pacing his breathing to help with the skin-crawling anxiety. Reminding himself that Stephanie was with Clark, and that Stephanie had made it from inner Gotham all the way to Bristol alone, helped slightly. The anxiety, he knew, was mostly irrational.
Whether the feeling was logical or not, he’d feel better when this was over.
He waited, attention jumping from the street stories below his office to the intercom on his desk and back to the street. Twenty minutes at work and he had gotten nothing done, despite telling himself that he’d at least fill the time signing things and typing report comments and reviewing legal documents that legitimately needed his attention. He knew he wouldn’t be getting back to them today. His company was a leader in paid parental leave and he intended to take at least half of his own, if this worked out the way it was supposed to.
Dick had needed that time and Bruce had gotten away with it because he could afford to just not show up, even if he itched to be back in control or at least reviewing the work others were doing in his name. Now that it was legally provided via WE policy, he wouldn’t just be the boss taking an advantage nobody else had. As much as he loved directing and overseeing the work at WE, a legacy he’d grown more invested in with age and comprehension of the good it could do, Stephanie needed his attention more. He was no stranger to the latent effects of trauma and was already bracing himself to be surprised by whatever form it took when it spilled over.
It was hard to say what Stephanie would do, but the faint, scrubbed marker stain that said Buttman on her backpack was a possible indication that she’d follow in Dick’s footsteps. He’d left trashed rooms and broken furniture in his wake, those first months when he was still processing his loss. His grief and anger had simply been too huge to exist in his body and he’d turned outward. It was a relief, in a way, to chase him down and hold him and put rooms back in order. It was not the inward self-loathing and internalized chaos of Bruce’s own childhood.
Whatever form it took, Bruce was steeled to find out, and Stephanie needed every positive interaction she could soak up in the meantime, during, and after.
He looked down at the street, scanning the distant dots for any sign of the borrowed Toyota. Even if it was there, it would be nearly impossible to distinguish from this high up, but he looked anyway.
Stephanie had woken up claiming to be fine, complaining of a sore throat only when pressed. She was still coughing, but the fever and nausea and vomiting hadn’t made reappearances since the morning before. They’d spent the afternoon having another tea party where she’d first nibbled, then devoured, crackers Alfred had served in lieu of cookies. They read another several chapters of The Hobbit curled in front of the study fire. Bruce watched storm clouds on the distant horizon, through the tall plate glass windows, and willed it to hold off.
By the time she’d gone to bed, he was reasonably confident in her recovery that he called Clark after she was asleep. He went over details quickly, predicting correctly that the phone call would end abruptly because of a local crisis. There was that familiar sudden silence, the deep one that cut through conversations when Clark wasn’t compelled to come up with a bullshit excuse. Just a quick, “I’ve gotta go. I’ll be there in the morning.”
The plan was explained to Stephanie while she drank juice through a straw, when he came back from patrol to find her sitting up and waiting. Alfred had let her down into the cave with a blanket and she was curled up in his desk chair, much like another young person used to do when left behind at home. He wondered, briefly, if he would have to set different rules to keep her from spending most of her school nights sitting up.
There were plenty of details to work out, but they had, as Stephanie had said, lots and lots of time.
Bruce looked at his watch.
Clark should have been here by now.
Then, as if on cue, the intercom buzzed.
“Mr. Wayne? Ground floor reception called. You have a visitor with a card?”
His steps carried him quickly to the door. He didn’t bother replying through the intercom— he went out toward the elevator, passing his secretary’s desk. He had the presence of mind to at least look and act unhurried outside his office.
“Thank you, Mallory. Call them and let them know I’m on my way down.”
The elevator safely sped him down dozens of stories but it still felt too slow. The doors opened on the massive front lobby, with its Art Deco chandeliers and polished floor. There, at the curved reception desk, stood Stephanie.
She looked so tiny, in front of the desk with her hoodie and backpack. Beneath her hood, her face was pale— she still looked worn out from being sick. Her hands were tight on the backpack straps and she was biting her lip.
“Mr. Wayne.” The receptionist stood. “A man dropped this little girl off. She has a business card and claimed to know you.”
“I didn’t,” Stephanie interjected angrily, shooting Bruce a panicked glance. “I said I was given the card for emergencies.”
“It’s alright,” Bruce said, to reassure her that she was staying on script enough. If they hadn’t had a lot of freedom to flub this, if he hadn’t been in a position to quickly make up anything to pick up her slack or any fumble, this wouldn’t have been a viable plan. The reassurance had the dual intended effect of soothing the anxious receptionist. “I meant what I told you when you started this position. If someone has my card, I’ll come talk to them.”
He crouched to be on Stephanie’s eye level.
“Hi,” he said. “What’s your name, kiddo? Shouldn’t you be in school?”
“Can I talk to you?” Stephanie asked. Her lip trembled. Bruce had asked her earlier if she could make herself cry, and then had told her not to try too hard if she couldn’t. Apparently, she was a natural. “I’m Stephanie,” she added hastily. “I need your help. It’s really important.”
The receptionist was pretending not to watch this exchange while very obviously watching. Bruce held out a hand to Stephanie.
“You look hungry. My secretary keeps snacks in her desk. Want to go upstairs?”
Stephanie nodded, tears in her eyes, while she took his hand. She started coughing and it was clear within a second that it wasn’t an act; he patted her back, second guessing himself. He should have waited another day. It was useful cover story but it wasn’t worth her health.
When she caught her breath, he looked at the receptionist.
“Thank you, Sean. I want you to call Dr Leslie Thompkins at the Gotham Free Clinic. Tell her I have a patient for her, and find out when she can come to the office. Give Mallory any details.”
“Yes, sir, Mr. Wayne,” the receptionist nodded curtly.
Bruce led Stephanie to the elevator.
“How’d I do?” she whispered, as soon as the doors closed.
“You were wonderful,” he said, with a small smile. “Did Clark walk you in?”
“Mhmm.” Stephanie scuffed her sneaker on the floor. She wasn’t looking at him anymore. “He didn’t tell anyone his name and he was wearing a hat. I got super nervous though, like, stage fright? He made sure I went to the right desk. Is that okay?”
He squeezed her hand. “That’s fine. I’m sorry you have to do this. We’re almost done, okay?”
“It is kinda fun,” Stephanie confided, her sneaky grin bright when she glanced up at him again. “It’s like being spies.”
“It is, isn’t it,” Bruce agreed. “Your big part is over. I can do most of the talking now. You stay close to me and be yourself.”
“Got it,” Stephanie nodded.
The elevator doors opened.
“Mallory. This is Stephanie. Stephanie, meet Mallory.” Bruce stepped forward, Stephanie trotting beside him to keep up with his long strides. He paused near the desk. “Do you need a drink, Stephanie?”
“I don’t know,” she said, her eyes widening. “What do you have?”
“Oh, just about anything, sweetie,” Mallory said. “My little girl likes the peach tea we keep on hand. You want to try that?”
“Sure!” Stephanie bounced on her toes and threw her arm over her mouth when she coughed.
Mallory visibly winced at the sound and she gave Bruce a questioning look.
“We’ll be in my office,” he said. “Stephanie came to ask for my help finding a place to stay. Sean at reception is going to be calling you with details about Dr. Thompkins stopping by. I want you to cancel my lunch meeting and the rest of my afternoon, give the Yamamoto account to Mr. Fox because that phone conference cannot wait another week. And call Gotham social services, find a Dennis Garza and get him on the phone for me.”
“Consider it done,” Mallory said, giving Stephanie a cheery smile. “I’ll be right in with your tea, sweetie. Do you want anything Mr. Wayne?”
“No, I’m fine, thank you,” Bruce said. He opened his office door and gently guided Stephanie in ahead of him, and closed the door.
“Whoa,” she breathed, dropping her backpack by his desk. She ran to the couch and belly-dove onto it and then flopped over. “This place is huge. And you talk and move so fast here. Everybody just listens to you instead of like at home.”
“It’s a big company and we do a lot of— wait. What do you mean instead of?” Bruce asked. He ruffled her hair when she went by. “Everyone listens to me at home.”
“Mmm,” Stephanie shook her head. “Not really. Not like this. It’s ‘yes, sir, Mr. Wayne’ and ‘right away, Mr. Wayne.’ At home, when Alfred thought you were being rude he went and read the newspaper before he made your coffee.”
Bruce cleared his throat and decided to change the subject.
“How are you feeling?”
“My throat hurts. I wasn’t pretending to cough. I think I really need ice cream.”
“Need, huh,” Bruce said. He pulled some papers to the front of his desk and arranged them again, making sure they were in order. “I think we can fit ice cream into the schedule.”
“Pencil me in, darling,” Stephanie called from the couch, in an affected tone. She giggled and stretched out with her chin on the arm of the couch. “Can we eat it at the Manor? I want to put on one of my fancy dresses.”
Her fancy dresses were cotton jersey florals that Bruce had found at the store near advertisements of girls wearing them on playgrounds. He made a mental note to take her shopping again sometime soon.
“Of course,” he said.
There was a knock at the door.
The whirlwind began.
Stephanie sipped peach tea from a glass bottle while Bruce spent an hour on the phone with a social worker, a judge, a lawyer, and then the social worker again. Dennis Garza was on his way when Leslie arrived.
There was a quick checkup that Stephanie sat patiently through and Leslie wrote a prescription for medication for the cough, in case they needed to fill it. She left to go back to her busy day at the clinic with a look that told Bruce, ‘We’re going to talk later, mister.’
The entire process was relatively smooth sailing, the same story over and over: Stephanie had asked for Bruce Wayne’s help because he was known the city over as a helpful person, and he had been considering getting back into foster care after Dick left home. It was close enough to the truth. His foster license was even still active, a result of maintaining it so the manor could function as respite shelter in any city-wide emergency.
Then, Dennis Garza arrived with a police officer.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Wayne,” he said, as soon as tense introductions were passed around. “I’m legally obligated to report runaways. The police have their own protocols for checking up on this.”
Stephanie, who had been in a fairly good mood aside from her mounting fatigue, had gone ghost white the second the officer stepped through the door. She abandoned her drawing on the couch to slip around the room to Bruce, one little hand fiercely clutching his.
“Then you can see that clearly there’s no longer a problem,” Bruce said evenly. “I’ve contacted Judge Hershom with family court and a lawyer and I’m willing to foster Stephanie.”
“Three offenses is usually grounds for juvenile court and time at a correctional home,” the officer said seriously. He was looking at Stephanie, who was tucked behind Bruce now, peeking out. “At the very least, you’re looking at probation, young lady. Running away is a serious thing.”
“I know,” Stephanie spat, voice wavering. It sounded like pure anger but her fingernails were starting to cut into Bruce’s palm. “It’s not like I did it for fun.”
“I’m really sorry, Stephanie,” Dennis said. “But we’d already talked about how it wouldn’t fix anything.”
“It did fix something!” Stephanie protested.
“We can call you, after her hearing,” the officer said, in a consoling tone. “There might even be another child in more immediate need, Mr. Wayne, if you’re not opposed to fostering.”
“I’m really just trying to do my job,” Dennis said. “We have rules to make sure everyone gets a fair chance.”
“Bullshit,” Stephanie hissed.
“Please watch your tone,” the officer said. “If you cooperate there’s a chance Mr. Wayne will still be able to offer you a home, though I don’t want to speak for him. You’ve already taken up a lot of his time without being completely honest, haven’t you?”
The officer stepped forward.
Bruce used one arm to gently push Stephanie behind him, using himself as a shield.
“No,” he said, the word a razor through the room. “You are both going to leave as soon as you sign whatever paperwork you need to, to release Stephanie into my custody. Judge Hershom is a friend of mine and I will be calling him, again, to explain Stephanie’s case and why these new details are irrelevant to her staying with me. If you are determined to pursue this at the cost of keeping Stephanie out of a safe home.
“You should also expect to be contacted, Mr. Garza, by Vicki Vale of the Gotham Gazette. She will be looking into this issue of children stuck in hotel rooms. Hopefully, her work will inspire more people in this city to open their own homes— you do not want her to uncover your error of insisting a child with a placement be instead be transferred to a correctional facility as punishment for keeping herself safe. Are we clear?”
Garza and the officer exchanged glances and the officer shrugged.
“If the judge okays it, then I’m wasting my time here,” he said.
Bruce picked up the phone, one hand still on Stephanie’s shoulder.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I can go with them if I’m supposed to.”
“Nonsense,” Bruce said firmly. “You’re not going anywhere except home with me.”
Another twenty minutes on the phone and the officer left; Dennis Garza went not long after, but not before apologizing again for adhering too strictly to his guidelines.
“Call me if you need anything, instead of running away,” he said to Stephanie before leaving, handing her a business card. “Otherwise, I’ll see you in three months.”
When they were finally alone in the office again, Bruce turned to Stephanie.
Her face was a blank, her eyes unfocused.
“Stephanie?” he said quietly. She didn’t respond. “Hobbit?”
Her breath was a soft wheeze in and out, and she coughed without seeming to notice.
Bruce pried the business card out of her grip and set it aside on the desk. The wheezing was getting faster and more pronounced.
“Stephanie, can you look at me?”
Then, she blinked hard, jerking her head back and she looked at him. The pleading in her expression was starker than words and he picked her up. Her arms snaked around his neck.
“You didn’t let them take me,” she said.
“No,” he replied. “Do you want to get out of here?”
There was a hard nod against his shoulder and her hold tightened.
Bruce cradled the back of her head in his palm and didn’t put her down.
“I’ve got you, Hobbit. It’s alright.”
There was a shaky exhale and he hushed her softly, motionless for another few minutes before moving toward the door.
He hooked two fingers around the top strap of her backpack when he passed it, and said goodbye to Mallory without slowing to be polite.
Stephanie slowly perked back up in the car, and tried to talk him into six ice cream flavors before they even stopped at the little parlor in Bristol, closest to the Manor. They compromised on three and Alfred feigned being scandalized when they sat in the kitchen and ate ice cream before lunch.
The rest of the afternoon flew by— Stephanie unpacked her backpack into the dresser Alfred had cleaned for her, despite it being already clean. The room one down from Dick’s was somber and grown-up, but likely wouldn’t remain so for very long. They played hide and seek, but only one round before Bruce grew concerned about the flush to Stephanie’s cheeks and cut off the game in favor of more reading.
She fell asleep leaning on his side, and he fell asleep there on the couch with the book in his hand.
When he stirred, she did as well, and if he’d had any doubts about gaining another little shadow they were non-existent now. She wanted to go everywhere he went, even when it was just to call Clark and give him a promised update and then check over an engine stutter in the Batmobile. He thought he could get used to it again pretty quickly— he enjoyed her constant chatter and questions.
Alfred called them early over the intercom for dinner, simply a short, “Master Bruce. Upstairs, if you will.”
Stephanie and Bruce exchanged glances and she grimaced.
“Did we leave the hot cocoa stuff out?” she asked.
“No,” Bruce said, ruffling her hair to hide his tension. “He probably just has dinner ready early. Alfred gets a little short when he thinks I’m spending too much time down here during the day.”
Something was wrong.
Stephanie raced up the stairs ahead of him, hopping from one foot to the other at the top while she waited.
They went through the parlor and Alfred was there, a visitor at his side, making no move to hide the clock swinging open in front of them. Stephanie’s chatter cut off immediately, as she looked from face to face.
The air was gone from Bruce’s lungs and he thought for a second if he kept his gaze locked on Alfred, that everything would be fine. He searched desperately for some hint of consolation in the older man’s face, and found nothing but a masked sorrow. Alfred was visibly trying very hard to remain calm and unaffected.
There was no promise of false fear there.
He wanted to be told he was being paranoid, jumping to conclusions.
“Alfred,” Bruce said, directly to him, as if the older man could mend something before Bruce even grasped that it was broken— the way he took care of issues in the house before they became real problems. Alfred shook his head, just once, and his mask slipped a fraction.
“Miss Troy,” Alfred said, as an unnecessary announcement, and Bruce finally forced himself to look at Donna Troy, and the transparent grief and pity there.
Bruce was cold all over before she spoke, the world roaring in his ears. He was a statue, bereft of speech and movement.
Her voice, when she did, was raw but steady.
“It’s about Dick. Something’s happened.”
thank you for your patience and trust. i promise i have not neglected the appropriate tags or warnings.
more canon divergence ahead. :)
<3 thank you to everyone who has been reading and commenting.
No. No. No. No. No.
That had been his mantra for the last hazy day. The cave felt hollowed out, somehow, when he pulled into the bay and cut the engine. He sat there a long time, gazing listlessly ahead at the far wall, chasing a numbness that eluded him.
In fact, sitting still was making it worse. He had to move.
When he peeled himself off the seat, he left smears of blood behind on the rubberized vinyl. Bruce braced himself against the warm hood of the car with one hand, elbow locked, while his vision tunneled into mere pinpricks.
There was no part of him that did not hurt in some way.
“Alfred,” he rasped, too quietly at first. He swallowed and tried again, raising his voice. “Alfred.”
“He’s not down here,” Stephanie said, popping directly into view. Her face wore a pinched, worried expression and he stared at her, concern intertwining with confusion.
“Why aren’t you in bed,” Bruce asked flatly, his tone drained of inflection. In his gloves, his fingers ached with swelling knuckles, the material digging into bruised and scraped skin. He was still propped on the car.
“I couldn’t fall back asleep,” Stephanie said, taking another step forward. “Alfred told me to go back to bed but I snuck down here instead. Don’t you remember him telling you he wouldn’t come into the cave?”
Bruce blinked and licked his dry lips and glanced at the door at the top of the faraway stairs.
“You were hiding,” he said. “From Alfred.”
“No,” Stephanie said impatiently. “I was waiting. For you. Are you hurt? Holy shit, you are hurt!”
Bruce sucked a breath in through his teeth and shoved himself fully upright, off the car, and walked stiffly toward the little medical supplies alcove. His shoulders hunched forward as he walked, like a wounded animal drawing its stomach in and trying to limp away from injury.
“I’m fine,” he ground out. He pulled the gauntlets off, tugging at them when they stuck fast. Stephanie grabbed one arm and yanked the glove and he bit through his tongue keeping the hiss back.
“You aren’t,” Stephanie argued. “Don’t send me to bed, either.”
Bruce opened a cabinet full of gauze and antiseptic solution and more or less pawed it down onto the counter.
“Fine,” he exhaled. “I can handle this. Go find something to do.”
Stephanie hesitated. “But if you need me to—”
“Stephanie,” Bruce said tightly.
“Okay, okay,” she said, disappearing from sight but not hearing.
He sat down heavily on the stool Alfred usually perched on while working and it took too long to catch his breath. The leather creaked under him when he shifted, and his eyes focused on the hard metal table in front of him. There was a sudden image of a boy perched there, swinging his legs and talking non-stop. Bruce could see the flash of teeth, still too big for the mouth they were in, and the scrunched tiny lines around his sparkling eyes.
Something ugly clawed up Bruce’s throat, choking him. It was a rotted and viscous fluid drowning him in his own body, paralyzing him like prey for the devouring. Grave hands dug into his skin with slimy fingers, bony digits sinking into his flesh and hooking there to begin the slow work of tearing him into shreds.
The boy on the surgical table vanished, with a faint, You aren’t looking too hot, B-Man.
The swath of skin and tissue over his chest was ripped off like a sticky bandaid, and a helpless whimper escaped Bruce’s throat. He pressed his fist to his mouth, a knuckle clamping his lips against teeth. He was surprised to see the bat symbol and not raw muscle when he looked down at his own chest.
With a fumbling hand he dug suture gut out of a drawer. The metal tools were too far away to get without standing and an attempt to gain his feet didn’t even move him an inch. His toes squished in the boot sock— there was blood seeping down the suit. He lacked the energy to throw something out of rage. And he was furious, at his own body and its limits.
He couldn’t afford to be stuck right now.
Stephanie was walking on the balance beam across the cave. The balance beam that was…that had been…Dick’s.
“Get off of that,” he snarled, without turning toward her.
“Okay,” she said, in a rushed and tiny voice. There was a soft clap of bare feet against mats when she jumped down.
He snuck a glance at her, standing there by the parallel bars with narrow and curved shoulders. His hands and heart went cold, as if he’d plunged them into ice water, and he had to close his eyes.
“I’m sorry,” he said softly, when he could speak again. “You can…you can use it. I’m sorry.”
“Do you need help?” Stephanie asked, quiet. “I can help.”
“No,” he said, shaking his head. His shoulder screamed from the way he was leaning against the counter now to hold himself up. The tunneling vision came back.
“Alfred,” he fairly growled. “Go get Alfred.”
“But he said—”
“Tell him I…” Bruce trailed off and bent over the counter, his head on the smooth Formica, to keep a tenuous grasp on consciousness. The last syllable was a throaty groan. “Hnn.”
There was no answer except rapid footsteps up the stairs.
Bruce lost track of time there, staying awake but only barely. He drifted, blood prickling his skin as it dried beneath the layers of suit on his thigh and knee. He focused on the smell of the bleach cleaner on the counter, fending off a memory of briars scratching his legs while he and Dick hunted in the estate woods for a stray baseball from a backyard batting session.
No, no, no, no, no.
Breathing was difficult. He catalogued the things he needed to do, because there was so much to do— there was a phone call and paperwork to have Stephanie enrolled in a more local school, his batarang supply was dipping into low inventory and he needed to cast and sharpen more, the winter tires needed to be put on the Batmobile before the season turned to freezing rain.
“Goodness gracious,” a voice said near his ear. “Master Bruce.”
Bruce answered with another groan.
“Whatever will I do with you,” Alfred tutted, sounding tired. “Where are you injured?”
“Hnn,” Bruce made an effort to push himself off the counter. He gripped the edges when his limited vision swam again. “Is Stephanie…”
“I’m right here,” Stephanie said, from very close to his side.
“Miss Stephanie,” Alfred said, his hand on Bruce’s shoulder. “Do you feel yourself capable of going to the kitchen and pouring a tall glass of orange juice. There are straws to be found, if you look for them in the pantry.”
“Got it,” Stephanie said.
“She’s gone, then,” Alfred said, after the door upstairs had closed with a distant click. “What have we to deal with?”
“Gunshot,” Bruce said, eyes closed against the spinning room. “Top of my…right leg. Near my hip.”
“Clean through?” Alfred asked, after his sharp intake of breath.
“I don’t know,” Bruce mumbled. “I didn’t…I didn’t notice it at first.”
“You foolish boy,” Alfred said sharply, hands deftly undoing the clasps of the suit armor. He pried the top off while Bruce sat upright on the stool, head tipped back, and his arms limp. “Can you make it to the table?”
It took several stuttering breaths but he managed, with Alfred’s arm around his back, to get onto the stainless steel. The chill on his bare shoulders was a welcome distraction, while Alfred set the belt aside and began cutting away the ruined upper leg of the suit.
When Alfred peeled the section away, there was a wet, warm rush over his leg along with the white-hot pain.
“Fuck.” Bruce gasped, caught off-guard, tears springing to his eyes.
“Bloody hell,” Alfred muttered, reaching quickly for a clean wadded, towel and wetting it before pressing it against the seeping wound. “I suppose it would have been too much to mention it was also burned.”
“Didn’t…think. He was close,” Bruce ground out, through his panting. “Forgot.”
“I’m sorry,” Alfred said, very quietly, still applying pressure. “I ought to have examined it more closely before I acted.”
“It’s fine,” Bruce said. “It’s not your fault.”
“It is remarkable how easy it is for you to say that to other people,” Alfred said, with a touch of bitterness as he pulled away the damp towel. “I’m very sorry, my boy, but I have to lift this leg and check for an exit wound.”
Bruce slipped as quickly as he could into a deep and meditative detachment, a pain tolerance mechanism he’d learned near Khadym in one of Ra’s al Ghul’s compounds. He was distantly aware of Alfred crooking his knee, but he could hold the pain there in his leg as if a thing separate from his mind. Then, a flicker of cape and pixie boots darted across his internal vision and his method collapsed.
No, no, no, no, no.
Alfred straightened his leg and Bruce cried out, overwhelmed by the rush of sensation. His yell fizzled out into a pathetic moan and heaved sucking, sobbing breaths trying to center himself again.
When he could finally open his eyes and blink at the soaring cavern ceiling, he turned his head to find Alfred. The older man had sat down on the stool and he looked a thousand miles away as he sat with a hand pressed over his mouth, one arm crossed over his ribs. Bruce hadn’t noticed before that he was still in his shirtsleeves and vest and slacks, though they were disheveled— he’d been waiting up, then, upstairs, and not gone to bed.
“Al,” Bruce said hoarsely, propping himself up on his elbows. “I’m okay, I’m sorry. I…slipped. I’m okay.”
“Lie down,” Alfred snapped, standing and turning to the counter. His hands stilled over the waiting tools and patch of cut-away suit. He looked it over for a moment before sighing softly. “The fabric doesn’t appear to be missing any strands.”
“Do you want to call Dr. Thompkins?” Bruce asked, still on his elbows even though his chest ached.
“No,” Alfred said tightly. “I’m perfectly capable of handling a few sutures.”
“Alright,” Bruce said.
“Lie down, Bruce,” Alfred said, without looking at him. He’d taken up a packet of suture gut and some long, curved metal needle-nosed tongs and they trembled in his hands. “I am…I am an old man. I cannot do this. I’m terribly sorry.”
“We can call Dr. Thomp—”
“That isn’t what I meant, sir,” Alfred interrupted, the quickness of his tongue contrasted with the slow and halting way he turned. “I will always be here for you, of course. But I find myself unable raise a child alone in the shadow of your grief. I cannot stop you from self-destruction if that is the route you choose, as it seems likely to be, and I do not have the strength or years remaining to raise another fatherless child.”
“What are you…” Bruce swallowed.
“I am very sorry, Bruce,” Alfred said, quietly, not meeting his eyes. “I have wrestled with this for many hours now.”
Bruce barely felt the prick of the local anesthetic as he let himself fall backward with a thud on the table. Alfred began cleaning the wound on his leg.
“You are fortunate this wasn’t closer to the bone,” Alfred said. “It could have damaged an artery.”
“Yeah,” Bruce said faintly, feeling very small next to the exhaustion and detachment in Alfred’s tone.
“If it is my burden to watch you lose yourself, so close to the loss of my…of…of Master Dick…”
“No,” Bruce said, iron in the word. Alfred ignored it.
“I will bear that, sir. I will not stand by and watch as a child is forced to do the same.”
“It was one night, Alfred,” Bruce said helplessly, iron rusting into flaked dust. “I’m…don’t ask me to get over…to know what to do here. I don’t know what to do here.”
“One night turns into another, and yet another,” Alfred said, his voice only betraying the slightest tremble. Now, he looked up, bloody gauze in his hands, and held Bruce’s eyes. “One night, sir, is all it takes.”
“I promised her, Al…” Bruce said. His lungs were full of cement, the grief and terror churning into solid, crushing density.
“Then keep that promise, Master Bruce. I cannot keep it for you. I am sorry I am forced to be cruel.”
“It took me forever to find the straws,” Stephanie called down the steps. “They were not in the pantry so maybe somebody moved ‘em.”
“I am not heartless,” Alfred said, very softly, as she made her way down the stairs.
Bruce watched her while listening— the way her steps were measured and cautious, her gaze locked on the full glass, her tongue sticking out the corner of her mouth as she tried not to spill the juice.
“I will put her back to bed tonight,” Alfred said. “And you won’t be without my assistance in her care, should you feel you are up to the task of remaining present for her. But you must decide, and quickly, for her sake. Tomorrow, we must also make arrangements for the funeral. It cannot be put off.”
“I promised her,” Bruce said woodenly. “You don’t…you don’t think I’m…”
“Master Bruce,” Alfred said, pulling off and discarding his gloves. He took Bruce’s hand in his own. “I know the world seems insurmountable now, but I believe you capable of any task you set for yourself. I would not place that trust lightly. What has happened to Master Dick is a great blow, possibly the greatest you ever have or ever will face, aside from your earlier loss. But there are those who need us yet, hm? While we still draw breath, let us honor his memory.”
Bruce heard all of this from across a vast internal desert, a message perhaps meant for someone else. He memorized and catalogued the words, as if they were a message he was being charged with giving verbatim to another man. He had the vague impression that he was stumbling through a landscape he had not begun to traverse, and there was still a long and endless path ahead of him. More than anything, he wanted to lie down and sleep and not think.
Stephanie had reached the bottom of the stairs, and was moving across the cave with tiny steps. Bruce twisted his neck to consider Alfred, his body and his mouth feeling like separated pieces of a puzzle he had no energy to reassemble.
“Are you alright?” he asked, squeezing Alfred’s hand.
If he had slapped Alfred, Alfred could not possibly have looked more stunned. His skin, deeply lined with age, went gray-pale like the color of the moon on a clear night.
“I’m…” Alfred swallowed, and his lower lip trembled before he pressed his lips together and swallowed. He tugged Bruce’s hand into his lap, where he was perched on the stool, and studied their interlinked fingers before looking up again. “No,” he said simply at first. “No, I am quite the opposite. But I will shape up, in time. Don’t worry about me, Master Bruce.”
“Sorry it took me so long,” Stephanie mumbled, sighing with obvious relief when Alfred took the unspilled juice. He bent the straw to Bruce’s lips, and gave a soft order to drink. Bruce obeyed, even though it turned his stomach. “Is he okay?”
“I’m fine,” Bruce said.
Stephanie gave him a flat and disbelieving look.
“I kinda think you always say that, so I was asking him.”
There was a shadow of a smile on Alfred’s face at that, though it was brief.
“He’ll mend quickly and fully, I dare say.”
“Whew,” Stephanie said, flopping her body into a chair beside the table. “That’s good.”
“It won’t be the most comfortable bed, but you should sleep down here,” Alfred said, to Bruce. “I’ll set up a fluid and antibiotic as precautions. Do you think you require a unit of blood?”
In unison, their attention went to the small fridge stocked for emergencies with units of Bruce’s and Dick’s blood.
“No,” Bruce said, his mouth dry.
“Very well,” Alfred said. “Miss Stephanie. It is long past your bedtime. You need sleep to fully recover from that nasty illness.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Stephanie said. “Can I sleep down here?”
“I think not,” Alfred said, before Bruce could answer. “Come along.”
Stephanie slipped off the chair and flung an arm across Bruce, and hugged. She stayed there for a moment and Alfred didn’t rush her or urge her to move away; Bruce cradled her head against his chest and breathed, and breathed, and breathed.
No, no, no, no, no.
“Good night, Hobbit,” he said roughly, his words thick. “I’ll see you in the morning.”
“Night, Bruce.” Stephanie untangled herself slowly.
As soon as they were upstairs, Bruce hefted his numbed leg off the table and hopped across to the storage cabinet where there was a set of crutches. With stilted movements he dragged the IV pole along after him until he made it to the computer where he sank into the chair.
He sat there for hours, losing track of time again, ignoring the throbbing ache in his leg as feeling returned. The Titans had typed up reports and he read them over and over. They weren’t files he was supposed to have, and he wasn’t exactly subtle about accessing their database and copying them, but he doubted any of them would ever say anything.
His stomach stayed clenched in knots the entire time, his body perhaps insisting on some reminder that he was human and should feel in response to the content of the files. Otherwise, he read them repeatedly with a severe detachment. It felt like reading about a stranger instead of his own son.
The details nagged at him, like a case he was trying to puzzle, because approaching it like a case was the only way to make it through and he found he had to know. The cult Dick had been working undercover in had found him out, somehow, and Bruce felt nauseating guilt at that— he had failed him, somehow, failed to train him in some crucial detail. Perhaps he’d distracted him, at a critical moment.
His detachment was applied even to this, after a frantic few seconds. He didn’t have time to be consumed by it now.
The words were blurring on the screen when a voice at his side startled him so much he flinched and wrenched his leg. He felt the blood drain from his face and he had to count backwards in Russian to keep himself from succumbing to pain.
“I don’t know what to make for breakfast,” Stephanie said, climbing to sit on the desk. He flicked the monitor off, the words restrained by magic within view of ritual pyre seared into his brain. The idea of food made him want to vomit.
“What time is it,” Bruce said, scrubbing his chin and pinching the bridge of his nose. He sat back in the chair and yawned. “Alfred serves breakfast at…”
“Seven, yeah,” Stephanie said. “It’s like ten and I’m pretty sure he’s still asleep. He’s not anywhere I can find, anyway. I don’t want to mess up the kitchen or I would have just gotten myself some toast.”
“He’s not up?” Bruce said, frowning. “Ten?”
“Did you sleep at all?” Stephanie asked, eyes narrowing in suspicion.
“Let’s go find you breakfast,” Bruce said, tearing the IV line out and dropping it on the floor. He reached for the crutches. He pulled himself up and his vision whited out— as soon as he could move again, he sent Stephanie to the medical cabinets for painkillers. He wanted to skip them, and lean into the fiery agony in his leg, but he knew he couldn’t afford it.
He swallowed them dry while Stephanie excitedly jabbed the elevator button and complained that it wasn’t fair they hadn’t shown it to her before. It exited not in the parlor, but in a disused sitting room.
She followed him, talking about a favorite TV show in a whisper when Bruce slowed outside Alfred’s room. He pressed his ear to the door and listened, eyes closed, for the sound of deep breathing. Something about his own breathing got easier when he caught the gentle snoring.
In the kitchen, Stephanie clambered onto a stool while Bruce pulled eggs out of the fridge. She scrambled down just as quickly when he directed her toward bread.
“I guess this is one of those times I don’t yell ‘cause you’re cooking,” she said quietly, glancing up at him with uncertainty in her expression.
“No,” he said, that one look shoving him into deeper sorrow than anything in the past several hours. He tried to keep it out of his voice. “Eggs, I can manage.”
He fried two eggs while she fed four slices of bread into the toaster, and his protest that he wouldn’t eat died on his lips. He reasoned with himself that he could force two pieces of toast, at least.
A shadow filled the doorway while he was sitting with her. She was scarfing down food and he was prodding at his cooling toast, willing himself to just take a bite, and she froze mid-bite.
Bruce whirled, alarmed at how much more tired and distracted he was than he realized, that he’d just assumed the shadow was Alfred.
“You should have called me,” Clark said, his eyebrows drawn together in a kind of sadness that looked entirely out of place on Superman. He was in khaki slacks and a button up, again, his Daily Planet badge hanging around his neck. “Why didn’t you call.”
“You should have knocked,” Bruce said, gruffly, tearing his eyes away and glaring at his plate. He didn’t know how long he could look into that face and not shatter.
“Bruce,” Clark said, sharply, and then he took in a long breath and let it out slowly. When he spoke again, it was after he’d taken a seat at the table and murmured a hello to Stephanie. His voice didn’t sound like it was on the verge of breaking anymore. “You’re hurt.”
“Mhmm,” Bruce said, nearly reaching for coffee that wasn’t there. “How did you find out.”
He sounded flat and robotic to his own ears, and he hated it— his voice should now, he thought, be one constant, horrible scream.
“Donna told Diana,” Clark said softly. “You haven’t slept since, have you.”
“He hasn’t,” Stephanie answered before Bruce could. She glared right back at him when he gave her a reproachful frown. “What. It’s true.”
“You need to rest, Bruce,” Clark said.
“Don’t tell me what I need, Clark.” The smack of Bruce’s hand on the worn kitchen table resounded throughout the room, bouncing off the tiled floor and walls. Stephanie flinched.
There was another sliding shadow and Bruce, heaving with fury and chaos, looked up to find Alfred standing at the threshold of the kitchen, fully dressed.
“I’m terribly sorry,” he said, so softly Bruce lipread the words more than heard them. “I forgot myself.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Bruce said, everything in him swirling down into a tightly coiled spiral. He packed it in a mental box and he was calm again.
“Good morning, Miss Stephanie. Mr. Kent.”
“I’m here to help,” Clark said. “Whatever you need. Do you want me to take Stephanie for the day?”
“No,” Bruce said quickly, panic he didn’t understand drenching him. Stephanie scooted her chair a bit closer to his and frowned up at his face. “No, Stephanie stays.”
“I’ll stay then,” Clark said. “If you want me.”
“Your presence would be greatly appreciated,” Alfred said, moving toward the coffee maker. He put on the kettle for tea while he was near the stove.
The world around Bruce diminished to papery cutouts, flimsy and fragile. Clark had come over. Clark had come, in plainclothes, without knocking, like it was an emergency that couldn’t wait another second. Donna had told Diana, which meant others were finding out.
The paper doll shapes of the people and the house gained rapid and dense solidity, until Bruce felt the universe had flipped and now he was the one made of curling paper.
“Bruce,” Clark said, roaring and close and overwhelming to Bruce’s paper ears and damp, shriveling brain. “Go sleep. I’ll be here.”
Bruce nodded mutely, and stood with the crutches shoved under his arms, cutting into what felt like bruised flesh. For a second, he was engulfed by motion and contact he didn’t understand— it was only when Clark let go that he realized he’d been hugged.
He was on the stairs when Stephanie caught up with him, rubbing crumbs off her mouth with her sleeve.
“You really aren’t making me go?” she asked, fingers clutching the robe he’d put on downstairs at some point. “I thought maybe you’d…”
“No,” he said. “No, you stay until you want to go. I promised.”
“I’m sorry about Dick,” she said, very tiny and scared. “I don’t know how to help you be not sad.”
He leaned and kissed the top of her head, numb and cold all over. “That isn’t your job, Hobbit. Go keep Clark company, hm?”
She nodded and fled back down the stairs.
Bruce fell into bed, gritty and grimy with fatigue and patrol dirt and burn cream near his covered sutures. He should have slept deeply, as tired as he was, but his sleep was fitful and populated by snippets of the Titans reports.
No, no, no— wait. Wait.
He woke suddenly, in late afternoon, and lay absolutely motionless while his mind churned, separating fiction from reality. The reports were still in his head, and no, it wasn’t dreams muddling them. The certainty didn’t fade with wakefulness.
Then, he hauled himself out of bed, and hurried down the hall outside the room with the crutches clicking on the wooden floors the whole way.
“Alfred!” he bellowed, tucking the crutches up to slide down the bannister to go as fast as he could. “Alfred!”
The final yell ended in a pained grunt when he hit the bottom and jostled his leg.
Alfred hurried into the foyer from the hall, his concern evident.
“Emergency,” Alfred said.
“Never mind, then, I need you to get the jet ready. The downstairs one.”
Alfred’s alarm was plain. “What ever has gotten into—”
“He’s alive, Al, and I’m going to get him. Dick is alive.”
“Master Bruce,” Alfred said, sounding very sad.
“What?” Stephanie exclaimed, sounding excited. “He is?”
“Alfred,” Bruce said, gripping the older man’s arm. “Do you trust me? You said you did.”
“He’s alive, Al. I’m going to go get him, even if I have to get everything ready on my own.”
Alfred, his elbow in Bruce’s hand, looked steadily into Bruce’s face for an impossibly long minute. He pulled his arm back, his expression settling into something full of resolve.
“Very well,” he said, firmly. “The jet will be ready in thirty minutes. Eat something while you can. You’ll do Master Dick no good passing out from hunger.”
“I’m coming,” Stephanie said, trotting after Bruce on his crutches when he went toward the kitchen. “I’m going to come with you, you need a partner.”
“No,” Bruce said. “Not up for discussion. You will stay here with Alfred and wait, do you understand?”
“Ugh!” Stephanie stomped her foot and growled, her fists balled at her sides. “That’s stupid. What if you get hurt worse?”
“Stephanie, no,” Bruce said. “That is my final answer. You can help me by waiting with Alfred. Do you understand?”
She let out a single frustrated shriek and stomped away.
He didn’t see her again before he left, though he did briefly look— once he had the suit on and the cowl in place, he reminded himself she was safe at the house and boarded the jet, set the island of Zandia as a destination, and took off from the long tunnel runway that opened from a cliff face over the wide and isolated bay.
Four hours of sleep was hardly enough to make up for his massive debt, but he felt fully alert and calculating while he piloted the jet over the Atlantic. His certainty still did not fade, even with time to sit and do nothing but think.
Then, when the coast was over two hours behind him, a small body flopped into the passenger chair.
“Did you bring snacks?” Stephanie asked, her mouth behind a black mask she’d fastened out of what looked like torn fabric. She was in black leggings and a black dress covered with tiny butterflies, her purple hoodie and a pair of Dick’s old gymnastics boots she’d found somewhere. There was a gray cape tied around her neck.
“Stephanie,” Batman said, in a low growl.
“Spoiler,” she corrected cheerfully. “Don’t look so sour. I’m here to help.”
Ten minutes passed in the cockpit of the jet before Stephanie ventured speaking again, after her initial announcement had been met with utter, tense silence.
“Aren’t you going to, like, threaten to turn the plane around?” she joked weakly. She’d been steadily shrinking back while staring at his set jaw.
“I will not lose the time,” Bruce said tightly. “Did you expect me to take you home?”
Stephanie curled up in the seat and propped her chin on her knees.
“I dunno,” Stephanie said. “I thought I was gonna have to fight harder, sure.”
“Would you have fought me harder?” Bruce asked, glancing sideways at her. She shrugged.
“He’s your son,” Stephanie said. “This is really important. You shouldn’t be alone. I know I can help.”
Bruce exhaled through his nose and worked on not gripping the controls too tightly.
“Let me explain how you will help,” he said. “You will hide in the jet. You will not get off the jet. If anyone boards the jet aside from myself or Robin, you will run and you will scream for Superman and you will not stop screaming until he finds you. Do you understand?”
“I’m not going to just hide on—”
“Do. You. Understand.”
“But I can—”
“I will turn this jet around if you refuse to follow my instructions.”
“I knew you were going to do that,” Stephanie grumbled, hunching down in the seat. “Okay. Fine. Just waste my talents. I’ll stay on the fucking jet.”
“Fuck you!” Stephanie shouted, leaning forward, red spots blooming on her cheeks just above the line of the black mask. She threw herself back, arms crossed, and half a second later muttered, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that.”
“This is dangerous, Stephanie. This is an enemy I’ve never faced, on territory that is foreign to me. You are untrained, unequipped, and unprepared.”
“Gee whiz,” Stephanie sulked, slumping down. “You really suck at pep talks.”
“The best way for you to help now is to stay out of the way.”
“Fuck you! And I’m not sorry this time! You just want to get rid of me after all. I knew it! You were nicer when you hadn’t promised to keep me!”
Stephanie pulled the mask over her mouth up over her eyes and burst into tears, crying and trying to hide it in her arms.
The controls creaked in his grip and Bruce switched the jet to autopilot. He swiveled the chair to face her and bent forward. The cowl stayed firmly in place, despite the hardness it lent him and any interaction.
“Stephanie,” he said. “I need you to stay out of the way because I want you. You have no training. Someday, that might change. Today, right now, as much as I want to rescue Robin, I am not willing to give you as the price. He wouldn’t want that either.”
Stephanie sniffled hard. She pulled the mask off her eyes with two fingers, peeking over the fabric. “Then why don’t you just ask Superman to go get him?”
They had plenty of flight time ahead of them and not much else to do, aside from the time Bruce would focus on plans and contingencies for those plans. He opened one of the compartments on his belt and pulled out a dense protein bar and tore the edge of the packaging, and handed it to her.
“Somewhere in the world right now, innocent people are suffering and possibly even dying. They will die if Superman doesn’t save them. When I trained and put on this mask, I forfeited my right to ask Superman to come fix every problem I run into. Other people do not have the training, experience, or preparation I do and it wouldn’t be fair to them to risk their lives so I can make my job easier. There are things I can and should do, even if they are hard or dangerous, because it would be selfish to take someone else’s help. If I contact him, it will only be as my last resort.
“Because he’s my friend, it’s also unfair to ask him to make that decision more than he already has to: Who does he help? Me, and my mission, or strangers who did not ask for whatever crisis they are in? Robin and I both chose these mantles and all the risks that come with them. We have to be willing to face that, and not expect quick rescue every time we are in danger.”
“But…you told me to yell for help if I need it,” Stephanie protested. The protein bar vanished beneath the mask.
“Because you are nine years old and didn’t realize what you were getting yourself into. Robin didn’t come out with me every night when he first started, and certainly not on missions of this caliber.”
“So, maybe I could? Later?” Stephanie pushed, sounding hopeful. “If I train hard?”
“If you train, maybe we can discuss the option of you helping in the future,” Bruce said, carefully emphasizing words. “You might change your mind about wanting to in a few weeks or months. It is not a thing to do lightly.”
“Oh, I won’t, thank you, thank you!” Stephanie sprang out of the seat to press a kiss to Bruce’s cheek, through her own mask onto his cowl. “I’ve always wanted to be a real hero.”
“Later. We will discuss this later,” Bruce said, resisting the impulse to assure her she was already a hero. The last thing he needed was her using his own words as fuel for acting foolishly when they landed in Zandia.
For a while, everytime he looked at her she was beaming so widely he could see it in her eyes and around the mask.
“Where did you find that cape?” he asked, when the question suddenly occurred to him.
“In a box in the attic when we were playing hide and seek. It said ghost on the side so I wanted to check.”
“Gray Ghost,” Bruce corrected on a guess. “That was mine. When I was small. Alfred must have stored it up there.”
“Sorry,” Stephanie said, her smile fading. “I needed a cape.”
“It’s a good cape,” Bruce said, tugging the bottom hem and giving her as reassuring as a look as he could in the cowl. “My mother made it.”
“Oh, shit!” Stephanie reached for the string at her neck. “I’m sorry, I’m really sorry, I can—”
Bruce grabbed her scrambling fingers and gently pulled them down from the knot. “It’s alright. I don’t mind if you wear it today.”
“She really made it?” Stephanie said, holding one side out to examine it. “And you wore it?”
“All the time. As often as I could get away with.”
Perhaps it was that the last five days had been such a vicious rollercoaster of emotion that he did not find it as painful as usual to venture into memories. There were days and weeks from his life before Crime Alley that he’d lost entirely, because they were the years that faded with age, and he did not speak or think of them if he could help it. The memories remaining were ones he couldn’t avoid, things called to mind by gestures or smells, that snuck up on him.
Even the pleasant memories were painful, tinted by the tragedy looming in the future of those moments.
Today, he was too internally exhausted to feel much more connection to them than a tourist’s interest— he was, if nothing else, a knowledgeable novice tour guide, to the little girl sitting next to him and staring expectantly.
“I tried to wear it to parties. My parents hosted huge parties and I hated them. I’d hide with Alfred if I could. He wasn’t…his position was very different then. Parties were more or less his evenings off, until the guests had left. He was my father’s valet and was not expected to be a guest or working staff. In my grandfather’s days, those hours would be when the staff of guests would have their own parties with the household, in the kitchen or the lower quarters. Not many people employed valets by the time Alfred came to work for us.
“He would sit in his room and read, or write letters, or watch programs on his small television set. When I interrupted him, hiding from the party, I was intruding on his time off. He’d pretend with me— he’d play I was a spy, and give me missions to spy on guests. I’d come back with reports. It might have been a clever way to get rid of me, but I never felt that I was unwelcome.”
“No offense,” Stephanie said, “but I thought this was about the cape.”
“I’m getting there. Don’t rush me,” Bruce said, tweaking her ear inside the hood. “After my mother made the Gray Ghost costume, I decided I was done with ordinary spy work. I had a wooden sword and I…actually don’t remember how it started. I may have decided Alfred made a good criminal mastermind. However we got there, we ended up swordfighting. He used an umbrella he had. My father caught us when we broke a lamp— I was sure we’d both be in trouble, though at the time I didn’t grasp what that might have meant for Alfred.”
“What did he do?” Stephanie asked in a hushed whisper, rapt and wide-eyed.
The sting of the memory was offset by his audience and the security of the memory itself.
“He joined us. He was still in his tuxedo, and he came back with a broom handle and I had two villains to fight. It was my mother who put an end to it, when she caught me leaping off a table. My father talked her out of taking my cape away as a consequence.”
If he didn’t fight it, he could still remember the tone of her voice when she’d picked him up and murmured to him, amused and fond, Boys. Your father never really grew up, I think.
Stephanie’s nose scrunched up. “She sounds mean.”
“She wasn’t mean,” Bruce said. “She wanted to keep me safe. Just like I want to keep you safe. Don’t make me regret letting you wear the cape.”
“Okay,” Stephanie said, nodding slowly.
Then, his brain tripped over an earlier detail. He welcomed the distractions from worrying over exactly what was happening to Dick while he raced toward him, but he found he wasn’t thinking as clearly as he should have been.
“You found a box in the attic that said ‘ghost,’ and you opened it?”
“Well, I wanted to check,” Stephanie said, with a shrug. “Just in case.”
“Hn,” Bruce said, impressed and a little proud. Maybe she’d make a good sidekick someday after all. She had the spirit and the guts for it.
“Can I ask you a question?” Stephanie asked, suddenly pensive.
“So, how did—”
“You already asked a question. That was all you’re allowed.” Bruce checked the radar and estimated arrival time.
Stephanie sputtered and her mouth hung open before she said, “What question? I didn’t ask a question, I just asked if I could—oh. Oh. Batman, that isn’t fair!”
Just the corner of his mouth twitched upward. “Ask your question.”
“How do you know he’s alive?”
It wasn’t that the question was difficult to answer that he hesitated. It was that answering meant so many things at once: thinking about Dick held captive for over two days while no one came for him; the horror of what he might have suffered in those hours and might be suffering yet; the sick twist of guilt in Bruce that he hadn’t just known to distrust the news; and finally, filtering the details he’d internalized in a way that didn’t terrify Stephanie to hear.
“It’s okay if you don’t want to tell me,” she said in a rush, when the pause stretched out so long.
“The reports of his….death,” Bruce said, feeling winded though his breath was even. “Dick’s team has trained to write up mission reports. I read them and noticed a strange pattern. All the— hm. Do you know what an unreliable narrator is?”
“No,” Stephanie said, shaking her head. “Should I?”
Maybe third grade was too early for literary devices— at least in the schools Stephanie had gone to.
“A cover story?”
“Isn’t that when you lie to the police?”
“Or someone,” he agreed. “When the police question multiple witnesses to a crime, a good officer will have developed an instinct for corroborating details. If the witnesses or suspects agree on certain details, then that’s confirmation. But honest people will likely disagree or simply remember different things. The more people you ask, the more information you get. One person might remember a green hat, someone else might recall a gray car, another might think the hat was blue but also remember a brown jacket.”
“Or pink pants,” Stephanie said.
“I’m just saying, maybe it was pink pants,” she said.
“Oh. Yes, well, alright. Pink pants. The point I am poorly making is that people have their own biases and personalities and even physical locations that influence what their memory records. If a group of witnesses, questioned individually, all tell the exact same story with the exact same details, a bad officer might see that as airtight corroboration. A good officer—”
“—a good officer, like Jim, will suspect that those witnesses were coached or agreed together to memorize a story.”
“A cover story,” Stephanie said, her head propped on her knees again.
Bruce nodded. “There are two simple reasons witnesses might develop a cover story.”
She looked at him and then shook herself. “Oh. Am I supposed to guess?”
“You’re supposed to think, Hobbit.”
Stephanie let her head fall back on the cockpit seat with a loud and dramatic groan. “I asked one question. I didn’t expect you to interrogate me.”
“Come on,” Bruce coaxed. “A good hero sharpens all their skills, not just combat. You should always use your mind first.”
“Fine, I guess,” Stephanie grumbled. “Okay. These…people…make up a cover story because they’re also the bad guys.”
“That’s one. The other?”
Stephanie stared out the front of the jet for a while, her eyes scrunched in a exaggerated pout. Once or twice, she shot helpless and pleading glances toward him, and he kept his face impassive. He could see the point where she gave up on the answer being handed to her, because instead of thoughtful she was acting nervous
“Spoiler, I won’t be mad if you get it wrong. I just want to know that you tried.”
Her face lit up. “You called me Spoiler!”
“That is your name, isn’t it.”
“Yeah! Yeah, okay.” Stephanie said, voice ringing with enthusiasm as she hunched down in the seat to think. She muttered to herself a few times, and Bruce nearly interrupted when she berated herself for a dumb thought, but he let it go for now.
Finally, she sat bolt upright.
“Because they were afraid?” she asked. “They were afraid of somebody.”
“Exactly,” Bruce said. “Guilt and fear are the most common reasons witnesses tell identical stories, stories they memorized.”
“So…” Stephanie’s frown swallowed her entire face. “That lady. The one who came to tell you.”
“Miss Troy. She was…guilty or afraid?”
“No,” Bruce said, terror clawing along every limb and out of the compartment he kept shoving it into.
“The reports they filed of his supposed death were identical in detail. They care deeply for Robin and I doubt they thoroughly discussed their memories— memories that are likely painful and raw. But the Teen Titans have proven themselves trustworthy, and they are not easily cowed. That rules out guilt or fear, unless I am greatly mistaken.”
“So…” Stephanie said. “I don’t think I can figure this one out, Batman.”
“No, and I wouldn’t expect you to. It wasn’t even obvious to me at first. I believe someone, with malicious intent, implanted memories through magic or some other means.”
“Brainwashing!” Stephanie gasped.
“Yes. Of a kind. And whoever was behind it is powerful, which makes them dangerous. They are either uneducated in the field of human psychology and memory, which I doubt, or they were in a great hurry, to use the same memory for each Titan. I suspect they didn’t intend for the ruse to last indefinitely, which means our advantage of surprise is slim. They are likely already preparing for another fight, or attack.”
“But why Robin?” Stephanie asked, her worry clear in her tone. “And won’t they just do the same thing to you? Holy shit, you’re not even freaking out!”
“I have trained not to let my fear master me, but that doesn’t mean I don’t feel it,” Bruce said, his voice low and serious. Even discussing it was shaking his tight internal grasp, but her wide eyes were a powerful motivator. “I am very worried, for Robin. For you. But if I let that fear rule me and delay my actions, then it helps no one.”
“‘Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the assessment that something else is more important than fear,’” Stephanie said, in a rushed monotone.
“It was on a poster in the cafeteria at my old school,” Stephanie exclaimed, a blush creeping up her face. “I used to read it every day when Rachel decided she had new friends and think about how much I hated it. Getting away from my dad was important, but deciding not to be afraid wasn’t going to do anything. If I’m not afraid, he gets meaner.”
Bruce was more grateful every day that Arthur Brown was already behind bars. They kept him from Stephanie, and they kept Bruce from Arthur. The bars slowed him down enough to think clearly, anyway.
“There is a balance,” he acknowledged, “between when it is foolish to ignore fear and when it is wise. Fear keeps us safe— fear teaches us not to walk in front of cars or stick our hands into boiling water. We have to consider our own power and our risk when we choose to ignore fear.”
“Which is why I have to stay in the jet,” Stephanie said grumpily. “Because I’m just a kid.”
“Yes,” he said, firmly. “Fear, in this situation, is not something for you to ignore or overcome. I must, because I am prepared and capable and because Robin needs me. This is not a fight I would choose just because I wanted to fight.”
“Like you did last night,” Stephanie said. “That’s how you got hurt.”
Bruce nearly snapped a negative response but he held his tongue and exhaled. Shifting in the seat gave him an unwelcome reminder that his leg hurt, a lot, and he couldn’t afford to pay attention to it right now.
“That was…” he started.
“Because you were afraid. Of being sad,” Stephanie said, climbing to her knees on the seat and putting a hand on his shoulder. “I’m not mad at you.”
“It was foolish,” he allowed. The warm, seeping sensation of shame reminded him that he didn’t deserve this, but her tiny hand on his armored shoulder was a balm all the same. “I’m sorry, Stephanie.”
“Spoiler,” she corrected. “It’s okay. We get to go save Robin now, so you don’t have to be dumb.”
“I get to save Robin,” he said, sternly. “You get to—”
“Wait on the jet, I know, I know,” Stephanie said, rolling her eyes. “How much longer do we have to fly, anyway?”
“We’re an hour out,” Bruce said, looking at the radar. “I need to plan.”
“Should we, uh…tell Alfred…I ran away again?” Stephanie asked, with a sheepish and tiny, anxious laugh.
“Fuck,” Bruce said, under his breath, shooting her a warning glance right after as he reached for the radio. “Agent A, this is the Bat. Do you copy? Over.”
The only way Alfred could have responded as quickly as he did is if he were sitting at the radio set near the computer, waiting.
“This is Agent A. I copy. Over.”
“Spoiler is with me, over.”
“Ask him not to be mad at me,” Stephanie begged, tugging on Bruce’s arm. “Please, please, please. If you ask him, maybe he won’t be.”
“I trust you will proceed with caution, over,” Alfred’s voice came through the black speakers.
“Please don’t be mad!” Stephanie shouted, over Bruce’s attempt to talk, when his finger pressed the button. “He needed a partner, over!”
“Come home safely, all three of you, and all will be forgiven, over.”
“Copy that,” Bruce said. “I’ll make it happen, over.”