After approximately three and change years of being a superhero, Steph really should be better at expecting the unexpected.
But then again… if she had expected the unexpected, it wouldn't be unexpected, would it?
The point is, she's… somewhere. Time travel, possibly an alternate dimension, the details were a bit unclear when the portal exploded and she woke up face first on a rooftop and woke up to a Gotham City where there's no cell phone service or Bat Radio.
The point is, that this is fucking weird.
She's not getting a ping from anyone, which is usually a sign that Bruce is mad at her, except that Babs will usually at least tell her that, and Babs isn't answering either.
She's starting to think that it's not them, it's her.
Also, the moon is full where she is now, and it definitely wasn't where she was back home.
Steph pulls off her mask and rubs her face, trying to put her thoughts in order.
She's got a twenty dollar bill in the sole of her shoe, a roll of quarters in her belt, an untraceable pre-paid credit card from Bruce that she's really only supposed to use for emergencies, a fake ID that claims she's eighteen, not seventeen, and that her name is Minnie Malone, three packets of nutrient bullshit that Bruce also insists they all carry, but she's pretty sure it's supposed to be mixed with water, which she left in the car, because last time she brought it along, Bruce had stolen it and given her a lecture about date rape drugs.
She also has ibuprofen (a preparation for another one of those lectures) a fistful of tampons (a preparation for emergency gunshot wounds, unexpected surprises, and, on one memorable occasion, an amazing distraction for a teenage boy with a gun), and a sewing kit.
For her more "official" equipment, she's got a grappling hook, a batarang she borrowed off Cass last week and forgot to give back, a single tracker device, a handful of smoke bombs, three recording devices and their receiver, two mini cameras (useless, since they broadcast to Babs), and a nice rock that she picked up a few nights ago.
… okay, the rock isn't official equipment, but it could work as a weapon in a pinch.
The others better find her quickly.
Not knowing what to do, Steph decides that she might as well try to make her way up to Wayne Manor and see if she can use her wide array of embarrassing photos of Bruce both in and out of costume on her phone to convince him of her identity at least long enough to get her a bed to crash in for the night, if not assistance in returning home.
She puts her mask back on and starts to make her way across the rooftops. This part of Gotham, the roofs are so close together she doesn't even need to pull out her grappling hook. It's Crime Alley, or close to it, if her map of the city in her head is accurate in this strange, younger Gotham.
Strike that, Steph recognizes that old skyscraper and its position in the skyline; she's exactly at Crime Alley.
Maybe it's the recognition of where she is that makes her pause on the next rooftop. Or maybe she would have seen it anyways—years on the streets have given her a keen eye for trouble, one that had already been honed by years watching Arthur Brown for any warning signs.
She sees a man, and a gun, and a couple with their kid, and instinct kicks in, after that.
It's what she's here for, after all.
She launches herself from the sky, her cape fluttering out at all sides, and tackles the man from behind, wrenching his arm up, trying to point the gun away from the couple.
"Run!" She yells, and she can hear the couple let out shouts, can hear the kid yell, can hear footsteps, just as the gun goes off, and the woman lets out a blood curdling scream.
The gun wasn't far enough off—it must have clipped her, and Steph's blood runs cold.
She slams her foot into the back of the mugger's knees, sending him staggering to the ground. She throws him to the ground, slapping her tracker onto his back and disarming him. He's stunned, if not out cold—choking him out would take time, and she's no Cass, able to perfectly measure a blow from behind.
The first thing Bruce ever trained her to do as Robin was to unload a gun. Anytime, anywhere, unload it. If you don't, the enemy can pick it up again and use it before you even notice.
She does it in a flash, flinging the clip as far as she can, dropping the weapon at her feet, and running towards the man and the woman.
The man's hands are covered in blood. "She'll be alright, I'm a doctor, I—have you seen my son?"
Steph looks around wildly. "Stay with your wife," she says, her heart racing. "I'll go find him."
The mugger is going to get away, because it's Crime Alley, no one's going to call the police—she's going to have to get the kid and find a fucking payphone, thank God she has those quarters, she takes back at least twenty percent of her recent comments about Bruce being paranoid—but that's why Steph put a tracker on him.
She runs down further into Crime Alley, looking for the lost child.
Crime Alley seems different, somehow, but Steph can't exactly put her finger on how. It's Crime Alley—there's the same ragged, crumbling brick walls, layers of graffiti and fliers on the walls, but…
It's off, and that puts Steph on edge, even more so than the fact that she hadn't had time to search the mugger for another weapon.
She hears his ragged, panicked breathing, before she sees him.
She draws herself to a halt.
"Hey," she calls. "It's okay now. You're safe. I'm here to help."
"Only bad guys wear masks," a small voice calls from behind the dumpster.
Steph pulls off her mask, without hesitation. "Sometimes good guys do too," she cajoles. A pair of small, bright blue eyes poke around the corner.
"Why?" His voice is sharp with an edge that Steph can't place.
Steph hesitates. "I wear it because if my dad knew I was out here, trying to help people, he might hurt me or my mom. So, I wear it to keep my family safe."
A whole face appears around the corner.
"I'm Stephanie Brown, but you can call me Spoiler," she says, reaching out a hand. "Your mom's going to be alright, I promise. What's your name?"
"Bruce," the little boy says, and Steph stops in her tracks.
"Bruce, huh?" She says, forcing a smile, because he's watching, and oh fuck, it's Bruce. "Nice name. Why don't you come out of there, so your dad can stop worrying, and I can go call the police from that payphone?"
"I'll come with you," he says, and Steph nods, because yeah, that sounds about right.
"I'm going to put my mask back on now, okay?"
Baby Bruce Wayne rounds the corner from behind the dumpster in Crime Alley, and he's seven years old and tiny and splattered in his mom's blood, and Steph pulls her mask back on over her head, and, without thinking, holds out her hand for him.
Because he might be Bruce Wayne, might be the World's Greatest Detective, might be the Goddamn Batman and all of it… but at the end of the day, right now, he's just a kid who nearly watched his parents die.
He takes it with a quiet solemnity that just… makes sense. He's in shock, probably—pale and subdued, a different kind of trauma than her Bruce, but similar and related and horrific all the same.
He stands close to her, clinging to her gloved hand with all of his strength, this little boy in too-nice clothes, who had just gotten back from a night at the theater, before taking a walk through a part of town that was sick and dying in the heart of the city. A place that the Waynes, for all of their generosity and kindness, for all the money that they had started to sink into infrastructure and schools and hospitals, hadn't been able to make a dent in.
Not yet, at least.
The payphone isn't far, and it's even working, even if a pretty crude rendition of a penis has been carved into the plastic barrier surrounding it. She fumbles through her utility belt one-handed, so she doesn't have to let go of Bruce, extracts a quarter (do you need to put in a quarter to dial 9-1-1? Fuck, she misses cellphones.) and does what she needs to do.
She calls the police quickly and quietly, says that someone's hurt and that she heard shots, and then takes Bruce back to Thomas and Martha Wayne, whose lives she just saved.
Bruce keeps looking up at her the whole time, a miniature version of his detective-expression on his face.
Time is fracturing beneath her, and Steph wonders, for a moment, if she's going to just vanish, like in Back to the Future, or something like that.
"Why do you help people? If your dad doesn't like it, I mean." Bruce says, as Steph sets the phone back in its cradle.
"Because…" Steph kneels down, to get on Bruce's level. "Because when I was your age, no one came to help me. I was scared and lonely, and no one came. Not the police, not the social workers… no one. I was alone, and my dad was going to hurt people, more than just me and my mom, and I knew I had to do something. Because if I not me, who?"
"What about the police?" Bruce says, staring at her with those wide, hurt eyes. "Why didn't they come?"
"My dad paid them not to. Sometimes… the system is broken, and there's no answer, so you have to be the answer. Sometimes the police want to help, but they're too far away, or there's not enough of them. But I was there, and I could help, so I did."
"I—Mom—" Bruce's eyes are overflowing with tears that he doesn't want to shed.
"Your Mom is going to be alright, Bruce. Let's go find her."
"Spoiler?" Bruce asks, quietly.
"I'm sorry no one came for you."
Steph squeezes his fingers tightly, and says nothing, because what could she say?
Sirens are getting closer and closer, as Steph returns Bruce to his parents. Martha, her beautiful dress covered in blood, reaches for her son immediately, despite the obvious pain that she's in.
"Thank you," Thomas Wayne says, and how, how, had she not recognized him from his portrait? "How can I ever—"
"It's fine," she says, because there's no way to ask him to make sure that his son adopts a bunch of misfits—oh God, she might have fucked up.
But she looks at Martha Wayne, clinging to a now sobbing Bruce, both of them covered in her blood but undeniably alive, and she can't bring herself to regret it.
Maybe she should, because Gotham needs Batman, because of the Greater Good, and all of those thousands of other things…
But she's Stephanie Brown, and could she really call herself a hero if she'd just let this happen?
"I need to go," she says. "I—look after yourselves. I'll make sure they find the mugger." Because sure enough, Joe Chill has vanished into the night, but he's left his gun behind.
"Spoiler!" Bruce Wayne calls out.
Steph turns around, unsure of what she can expect.
Whatever she was expecting, the last thing is for him to wrap his arms around her waist and to hug her tightly.
Steph has never hugged the adult Bruce; he's not really a hugger, and Steph isn't exactly one of his favorite people, especially not after the whole "faking her death" thing, the memory of which is still fresh. So she doesn't exactly have anything to compare it to, at least as far as Bruce Wayne goes.
Slowly, she kneels down and hugs him back, snotty, damp hug that it is. He's small and upset, and he's a kid with a big heart, even if his adult self would rather put on a fur suit and punch people in the face rather than admit it. This kid... Steph and Bruce haven't always had the best relationship, but this is a Bruce who's never done any of that to her, intentionally or otherwise. And Steph grips him tightly, like she would any other kid, like this was any other night, a night where she doesn't have to worry about her personal timeline swallowing her up whole, because at the end of the day, Bruce Wayne never deserved any of the things that happened to him, and Steph is glad that she's done what she did.
"You'll be fine, Bruce," she whispers in his ear, not sure if she's telling him or herself. "You'll be fine."
And maybe he would be, in this world, with his parents as well as Alfred, in a world where Gotham maybe won't fall into as bad of a state of rot…
But at the end of the day, he's a little boy crying into her shoulder, and nothing else matters.
She pats him on the back and holds him until Thomas draws him back. "Son, I don't think she wants to be here when the police…"
"Thanks, Doctor Wayne," she says, filling her voice with every ounce of joy that she has ever felt, because she never wants Bruce Wayne to even suspect that she might regret this for a single moment. "You've got that right!"
"Here," Bruce says, and he shoves something at her; a ticket stub. It's probably the only thing he has in his pocket, but Steph takes it seriously, and tucks it into her belt.
She leans forward and hugs Bruce one last time, and then, as an afterthought, reaches into her utility belt again.
Bruce turns away from her for only one moment to look at the police, arriving on the scene.
When he turns back, she's gone, vanished into the night.
The police are very interested in her, muttering about vigilantes and extrajudicial justice, and lots of things that Bruce doesn't understand. Not yet, at least.
Bruce tells them that her name is Spoiler, but he doesn't tell them about her other name, the one she'd given him so thoughtlessly, an expression of trust. He doesn't tell them that she'd shown him her face, that she has blonde hair and dark blue eyes and a broken nose. He doesn't tell them that her utility belts had letters on each pouch, to help her keep track of what was in each one. He doesn't tell them that she gives the best hugs besides Mom, and he doesn't tell them that the quarter she'd put in the payphone had looked… wrong, in an almost fake way.
Mom and Dad talk about her, at home, but they also talk a lot about the place, about infrastructure and gentrification and a dozen other things that Bruce doesn't really understand.
Instead, he thinks about Zorro, and he thinks about Stephanie Brown, and he thinks about Spoiler.
If not me, who?
In his jacket, that night, he finds a piece of metal, carved into the shape of a bat.
He holds it in his hands, staring with wide eyes, and carefully tucks it under his mattress, where Alfred won't find it.
That night, Bruce Wayne's life changes.
No one came to help me.
There had been a purple cape, fluttering in the breeze, salvation coming from the sky.
I wear it to keep my family safe.
A black mask with wide, white lenses for her eyes.
I could help, so I did.
Bruce Wayne, age seven, knows from that moment on, that he's going to be just like Stephanie Brown when he grows up.
It doesn't take them long to find her, after that.
It's almost anti-climactic, actually. A portal appears, Cass pokes her head through, sees her, and grabs her by the wrist and yanks until Steph is in the Bat Cave, and well, at least that's a relief.
Everything is normal, and believe her, she checks.
After everyone has gone, either home or to bed, she goes to find Bruce.
He's so different from the Bruce she'd hugged, from the little boy who'd hidden behind dumpsters and held her and. But his eyes are the same shade of icy blue, and she thinks she can see echoes of him, as well as his parents, in his face.
And once, he'd been that scared little boy, only there had been no Stephanie Brown, reckless and determined, falling from the sky to help.
"I have something for you," she blurts out.
She takes the ticket stub out of her pocket, and hands it to him.
He stares at it.
"I was... it was Gotham, but... not. And I stepped in. I didn't know," she admits, her shoulders slumping. "I didn't know who they were."
"You could have destroyed the timeline," Bruce says, staring at the ticket stub, which clearly reads the date that is engraved into his parent's graves.
"I don't care. I'd have done it anyways," Steph says, digging in her heels and forcing her chin up. She knows he's right, because it's that night, and she changed it, and that whole universe is going to be different now, and it's because of her. "It was the right thing to—"
Bruce Wayne hugs her.
It's different, than the first hug. It's large and warm and muscular, and he's wearing a cape that encloses them both. But something about it... it's the same.
Steph buries her face in his chest and throws her arms around his waist and hugs back for everything she's worth.
He doesn't say anything.
Perhaps there's nothing to say.
They just stand there, for a long time, the ticket stub crumpling in her fist.