Stephanie Brown has been dead for seven days, five hours, and fifteen minutes.
Stephanie Brown is sitting right in front of him, cross-legged on his chair, smiling at him.
She's fifteen, like she was the first time he met her. Her hair is shorter and there are freckles dusted across her face that would fade as she became more nocturnal and got less sunlight.
He forgets how to breathe.
She's young, she's so young, and there are no scars on her skin and no fear in her eyes. She just smiles at him, young and unafraid and not quite there. Her smile hasn't changed a bit.
"You really should call Cass and Tim more," she says. "They miss you."
He takes a step towards her, her name forming on his tongue, when she melts away like mist in the sunlight, and he's alone again.
Ghosts are real.
Once, perhaps, Bruce might have been skeptical, but he lives in a world where aliens fly, Amazons live, and a stage magician is one of the most powerful members of the Justice League.
He knows that ghosts are real, that resurrection is even possible, and that there are impossible things everywhere he turns.
He's never been haunted before, though. Not like this.
Stephanie Brown has been dead for thirty-nine days, fourteen hours, and twelve minutes.
Stephanie Brown is in the backseat of the Batmobile, leaning forward, her eyes wide with worry as he and Tim race through Gotham's streets, back towards Tim's house, while they listen to Jack Drake die over the phone, knowing they're not going to get there in time.
She's seventeen, her face a mess of bruises, her Spoiler uniform ripped and bloodied, her hair long, matted, and dirty.
"It's not fair," she says, her voice rough and her eyes overflowing with tears. "When does it stop, Bruce? When?"
Tim doesn't see her. He never does.
Bruce isn't the only one who sees her.
Cass makes some comments, every now and then. Bruce presses, and things come out. Stephanie Brown, in the harbor, talking about her own death, encouraging Cass to live, and keep fighting.
It should be a comfort, that he's not alone in seeing her, that she's reaching out to Cass. Because she loved Cass, had viewed her with nothing but fondness and kindness. The two of them had been a friendship the kind of which anyone would be fortunate to have.
He had pushed them apart, selfish in his desire for Cassandra to be what he was not. Perfect, unattached, skilled and dedicated. No secret identity to tie her down, no distractions. No other obligations to pull her one way and then the other, taking away from the mission. The mission that Cassandra understood better than anyone else ever had seen.
He had hurt them both, in the process.
But if Stephanie was haunting Cassandra too, if she was there, out of the corner of Cassandra's eye…
Perhaps, it was not out of only malevolence that Stephanie haunted him.
He sees her, waterlogged and her skin sunken and grey, sitting in the corner of the cave, watching him with dead eyes.
Out of… something, he carefully sets his mug of hot tea in front of the specter of the girl who had once been Robin, who had once been alive and brilliant and vibrant, and walks away without a word.
There's a puddle on the floor when he looks back again, and the tea is gone.
Stephanie Brown has been dead for fifty-two days, nineteen hours, and five minutes.
Stephanie Brown is pregnant and stubborn, her chin out as she sits by Bruce's bed, listening to the heart monitor.
"You need to look after yourself more," she tells him, her hand curled around the curve of her stomach, protective of the fetus that will become a child that she will refuse to name, that she will send away, and who Bruce will look after with every breath in his body. "Other people need you, you know. Alive, not dead."
"It was necessary," Bruce says, unable to lift his head.
"No, it wasn't. You're too stubborn for your own good, you know."
"You're one to talk," he grumbles, and she laughs.
"Maybe. But you have to stay around, Bruce," she says. "You're going to have company soon."
Jason Todd is wonderfully alive, wonderfully solid, and wonderfully here.
He's also terribly angry, terribly afraid, and terribly hurt.
Bruce doesn't care.
His son is alive, and he will bring him home, and he will make sure that Jason knows that, no matter what, he will always be loved, because he has lost Stephanie, and he will not lose Jason again.
Stephanie Brown has been dead for a hundred and twelve days, six hours, and fifty-four minutes.
Stephanie Brown is in front of him, dressed as Robin, her long, wild curls pushed out of her face by a green headband, and a scowl tugging on the corners of her mouth, a mouth made for smiles.
He's on his way, back to figure out how to be Batman again, and she's standing right in front of him, her finger extended towards Cassandra.
"She needs this too," Stephanie demands, sure of herself in a way that she so rarely was when it came to standing up for herself, but the way it so often was when it came to standing up for others.
She is seventeen, and she is captured in this brief moment in time that, by all rights, should not have ended quite so soon, and it's his own fault that it did.
He takes Cassandra with him as well as Dick and Tim and Jason.
He thinks he sees her smile, before she vanishes again.
Arthur Brown announces it to the entire world, that his daughter was Robin, that she died, and that it was Batman's fault.
A few weeks later, he's caught, arrested, and sent to Arkham Asylum.
On the walls of his hideout, in bright purple letters, Bruce finds the words "LET THE PUNISHMENT FIT THE CRIME."
"It was her!" Cluemaster demands. "She was behind me, she was—"
She had led Bruce to him, went unsaid.
It does seem like something that Stephanie Brown's ghost would do.
Stephanie Brown has been dead for two hundred and six days. He has forced himself to stop counting the hours, the minutes, the seconds, even though he knows them, even though the exact time of her death is seared into his mind, the same way Jason's was.
Stephanie Brown is fifteen years old, wearing a warm green sweater, and playing the piano in the Manor.
The music swirls through the hallways, and, like a fool, Bruce follows the sound of it.
No one else is home at the Manor—Tim is at school, Alfred is running errands, Jason is at his own apartment, and Cassandra is visiting Dick.
Only Bruce is there, to hear Stephanie play, joy filling every note.
He finds the room eventually, and she is so, so young. There's a bruise on her cheek, but there's life in every other inch of her, and she seems so solid, so real, that Bruce could almost believe for a moment that she was still alive, still here, and that he hadn't failed her.
She looks up at him, and her smile is brilliant and blinding, before she fades away like mist in the morning.
Stephanie Brown's grave is visited often by tourists and such. There are bouquets of flowers in red, yellow, and green left there constantly, as well as tiny little stuffed Robins and Spoilers, and a few Batmen as well.
No one leaves purple flowers, because the fact that Stephanie's favorite color is purple is secondary to the fact that she was Robin, to the tourists who come to gawk at how short of a life she had.
They don't celebrate her friendships, her stubbornness, her optimism, her kindness, or her anger. They don't think of her as a musician, as a girl who had been a mother for a few short moments, as a gymnast, as a survivor.
They don't know her. They don't mourn her.
They mourn a girl they think they knew, a girl called Robin.
Bruce never sees her ghost there, among the flowers.
Stephanie Brown has been dead for three hundred and sixty-five days exactly.
Bruce puts the finishing touches on a glass case, with a costume inside.
Reflected over his shoulders is a girl with golden hair and a sad smile.
"I miss you," he says to her, not daring to turn around.
She smiles, and it's a little more genuine this time, and she embraces him from behind, pressing her cheek against his cape.
Her touch is like ice, but Bruce does not flinch away.
"I miss you too," she whispers.
Too soon, she is gone, and Bruce is alone again.
Ghosts are moored to this reality by longing, by love, by a sense that there are things still left to be done, by stubbornness, by anger.
Bruce Wayne couldn't say why Stephanie Brown stayed behind.
It could so easily have been any of them.
Stephanie Brown has been dead for five hundred and sixteen days.
Stephanie Brown is in front of him, wearing a loose white t-shirt and tight-fitting jeans, her hair short and her body covered in scars.
She looks older than she had ever been, and Bruce looks at her in wonder, because in all the times she's stood in front of him, she's never appeared as older than she died as.
"Hi Bruce," she says, and there's something wrong with the way she's speaking.
And then she's hugging him, and he realizes what it is. There's no hollow cadence to her voice, no distance, no echo. It is warm and solid and present, just like her arms around his waist, and he immediately hugs her back, and she does not fade away, does not vanish, does not dissolve in his arms.
She stays, and she laughs, and the sound fills the Cave, warm and light and real.
"I'm back," says Stephanie Brown, nineteen years old and alive.