Chapter One - Apocalypse, We've All Been There
Stephanie Brown is sixteen years old, and she doesn't want to die.
Most people probably don't, if she's being honest with herself, but for her, it's different.
She's only been the Slayer for six months, meaning she's still below average for a Slayer lifespan, but not by much.
The average Slayer lives less than a year. Nine out of ten don't make it to see their eighteenth birthday.
The oldest slayer in recorded history lived to be twenty-two years old.
It's enough to make Steph drop out of school forever, because she's never going to have a job, never going to go to college. She's never going to fall in love, or grow old, or drink legally, or do any of the other stupid things that other kids take for granted, but she desperately longs for.
The best part is, no one else cares. Not her dad, her first Watcher, who hated her being the Slayer only because it meant she was strong enough to throw him out the window when he hit her mom. Not Bruce, her new Watcher, who watches her with impassionate eyes and critiques her technique.
Bruce has spent his entire life training to mentor one young girl, who will live shortly and die gloriously, and hopefully take enough forces of evil down with her to get him a cushy office job after her death. He might like her, might care about her, but he walked into this with his eyes wide open. She's a walking corpse to him, and her survival is to his advantage, but he knows far too much to get attached.
Then there's her mom, who still doesn't believe her about her destiny, who keeps trying to keep her inside the house at night and has been trying to find resources for meta-humans, rather than admitting that her daughter is doomed, destined, and prophesized to die at the hands of a vampire, whose name that Bruce knows but won't tell her.
There's Tim and Harper, who are wonderful friends, but who don't get it; they don't get why she insists on driving every chance she gets and dancing every night, even when there's homework to do or a test to study for. They don't get why she fights with Bruce so often and eats junk food all the time, ignoring all of Tim's pleas to think about her health, her body. They don't understand that as much as she's fighting tooth and nail, she also knows it's all pointless. What use is a good grade on an English test, or handing in all of her homework, when one night, a vampire is going to get lucky, and drain her dry?
Here lies Stephanie Brown. Died too young. She saved the world, maybe. Next?
If she was sensible, if she was following the Council's rules, she wouldn't even talk to Tim and Harper. She'd drop out of school, move in with Bruce, and never speak to her mom again. She's sixteen now, so it's not like anyone could stop her. She'd spend all of her days training for the inevitable, for that fight that will eventually happen, so that whenever some demon gets lucky, she'll take as many of them with her as possible.
But that feels like giving up; it feels like admitting that her life will be meaningless and that her death will be tragic and unmourned by the cold and calculating circle of Watchers across the ocean.
And so she continues to live, to try to pretend, sometimes, that she will graduate from high school and apply to colleges and dance at her own senior prom. She pretends that she will be more than a footnote in the history of those Watcher's journals. She sharpens her sword and she puts on a smile. She dances and she argues with Bruce and she kills vampires and defeats the forces of evil, and then the next day, she goes to school, and tries to learn, even with exhaustion pulling at her eyelids from her nightly patrol.
She's sixteen years old.
She doesn't want to die.
Steph gets out of her mom's car, ignoring her mom's chatter about how being out of the big city is surely going to be good for her, and examines Gotham High School.
It's smaller than Los Angeles. It's East Coast and overcast, and a part of Steph wonders if vampires can operate under cloud cover, like in Twilight.
She doesn't voice that thought to her mom, who's in denial about vampires again. Steph doesn't want to be taken to another doctor, doesn't want to go to another therapist. It's not like Steph doesn't have issues, but her issues don't involve hallucinations and delusions of vampires. None of the therapists want to talk about anxiety and trauma stemming from her dad. They all just want to talk about vampires and demons and why Steph thinks that acting out violently solves her problems.
Which, to be fair, if vampires weren't real, she would probably agree that violent tendencies are more of a problem than her claustrophobia, but as it is, vampires are real, and nobody was in that warehouse! And she hadn't meant to hit that kid with a brick!
All the way on a different coastline, with a fresh start, and the vaguest hopes that maybe the Watcher's Council will just wait her out, rather than send another Watcher into her life, Steph absently waves goodbye to her mother, and walks up the steps.
Oswald Cobblepot, the principal of the school, takes one look at her record, and tells her to behave herself, or else.
Steph doesn't say anything, not even her usual quip about mice with cigarettes or pointing out that nobody got hurt, or that the warehouse was full of evil vampires, just grabs her backpack and goes to her first class of the day, which is math.
She ends up sitting next to Duke Thomas, who turns out to be the most popular boy in school. She can see why, too. He's movie-star pretty, with great teeth and a buzzcut and dark brown skin and perfectly shaped eyebrows. He's clever, too, smart as a whip, and he shares his book with Steph and talks with her about life in the big city and asks her if she misses it.
(She doesn't know, not yet, about his skill with a crossbow, about how he'll be the one to drive her home after battles to come.)
Steph talks about Los Angeles, and then she trips over herself when he asks after her dad.
Duke Thomas is normal. He loves being normal.
How can Steph tell him about the fact that her dad was apparently, employed by a shady British organization once upon a time, only to get kicked out for being rowdy and violent, and then she'd turned out to be the prize of all prizes, the Slayer herself, and how he'd sloppily taught her to fight, to kill, and tried to use her to get him back in with the organization, making her think that finally, she was good enough for him, because she'd given him everything he'd ever asked for… only for him to try to hit her mother that night.
He'd gone out the window, after that, and ended up making a lot of bad decisions.
Decisions which had led Stephanie Brown to standing in front of a warehouse with the doors barred, listening to a vampire with her father's voice begging her to let him out.
She can't tell Duke about that. So she parrots the line her mother likes to use, about her father running off with his secretary (Mom believes it, but that's another problem).
Duke Thomas is wonderfully, amazingly, brilliantly normal. Worse than that, he's nice. The kind of nice that means that, if he knew what was really out there, he'd try to help. And then where would all that normal be? The most popular boy in school, honors society, cheerleader, and Homecoming King?
What would happen to him, if he entered the world of vampires and demons and things that go bump in the night?
And so Steph walks away from his gestures of friendship, because all she can do is try to keep him safe, try to keep him out of her world.
Duke is normal. Duke deserves better than to be part of Stephanie Brown's world of blood and magic.
(She makes the decision for him.
It's one of her biggest regrets, later.)
Harper Row's mother is killed by vampires when she's a child. Harper watched it happen, safe inside her home, while her mother, outside of the safety of the threshold of their front door.
Harper Row has spent the past three years of her life making sure that Cullen knows never to invite anybody inside and has stashes of holy water throughout the house.
Every night when someone dies by falling on a barbeque fork in town, Harper Row goes out to the cemetery with shaking hands and a fence post sharpened to a point, and goes to sit on their grave until sunrise.
Because she hadn't done that for her mother.
And the next morning there had been a gaping hole in the earth, and every day Harper has to live with the knowledge that, somewhere, there's a demon wearing her mother's face.
And one day, she's going to come back for Harper and Cullen.
Stephanie Brown arrives in Gotham just in time for Harper's sophomore year of high school. She's tall and blonde, with an easy going laugh and bright blue eyes, and a sense of total confidence, and Harper totally gets a bit of a crush on the spot.
How can she not?
"Uh, hi," Steph says. Tim elbows her hard in the side, one of the fastest ways they have between them to communicate a particularly glaring gay-disaster moment, and Harper blinks before refocusing on the girl in front of her.
"Hi," Harper says.
"Um, yeah, I'm looking for the library?" Steph says. "I need to pick up some books."
"Weren't you just walking with Duke?" Tim asks. Tim has been jealous of Duke since fifth grade, when Duke had beaten him in the spelling bee, and Harper has told him it's not a good look, but an unhealthy combination of sexual tension and competitiveness are just too much of a potent combination for Tim Drake, especially when combined with his signature sleep deprivation.
"He… had class?" Steph says, frowning at Tim. "What's the matter, can't I talk with you guys and Duke?"
"Not legally," Tim mutters, and Harper elbows him, this time.
"Library's just around the corner," she tells Stephanie Brown, who's possibly the prettiest girl that Harper has ever seen.
"Thanks," Steph says, flashing her a grin, and then she vanishes around that corner, into the domain of Mister Wayne.
Steph walks into the library, and looks up into the eyes of a tall, dark haired man with sharp blue eyes.
"Stephanie Brown?" He asks. His voice is deep, but why does he know her name?
"Nope, definitely not me," Steph says, but the Watcher's eyes narrow as he looks at her, taking her in.
"I'm Bruce Wayne," he says. "Your new Watcher."
Her shoulders slump. "Didn't take you guys long, did it?" She says, bitterly.
He frowns at her. "You haven't had a Watcher in two months. The delay was considered by many in the council to be unacceptably long as it is, but the… circumstances were ruled to be extenuating."
"Extenuating" might be the nicest way to say "you fed your dad-slash-Watcher to a vampire accidentally by throwing him out a window for being an abusive jackass and then burned him to death after he got turned" that Steph had ever heard.
"Yeah, well," Steph says, trying her best to not share the trepidation on her face with the man. "I've been doing fine on my own."
"Perhaps," Bruce says. "But that doesn't mean you can't do better."
Steph swallows. "What if I don't want to do better?"
He gives her a look that's almost sympathetic. "They'll never leave you alone, Stephanie. We both know that."
She thinks about the vampire who she'd killed outside a gas station during her and her mom's cross-country road trip to Gotham. She thinks about all the people who might die if she doesn't do her "duty."
Some ancient, horrible magic has given her, a sixteen-year-old girl, the power to help people, and only her.
It's horrible and twisted, but it's the way that things are.
"Okay," she says, her shoulders slumping, her throat closing up. It feels a little too close to surrendering, to admitting that her father was right.
She's the Slayer. Her job is to live a short, bright, and brilliant life, and to die gloriously, saving as many people as possible.
She will not count her life in days or nights or even heartbeats in her own chest.
There is only one metric that matters, only one metric that can matter, as she picks up the book that Bruce offers her, and that's how many people she can help before one vampire gets lucky.
She cradles the book, labelled Vampyre against her chest, and takes the piece of paper with Bruce's phone number on it with a numbness that she hasn't felt since she'd stumbled home, smelling of ashes.
One girl in all the world. It hardly seems fair.
But magic and the Watcher's Council have never cared about fairness.
Steph puts the book, heavy with its ancient pages, into her backpack, and then convinces Bruce to give her the rest of her textbooks, even though the look he gives her conveys that he thinks that this is a waste of time.
"You should come here after school," he says. "We can set a schedule for your training."
"I… have a thing tonight," Steph says, and it's not a lie, Duke had suggested she go out dancing at the local club, called The Cave. "I'll come tomorrow!" She runs away before he can ask her questions, before he can make a counteroffer.
So sue her, if she wants to put this off a little longer? If she wants to be able to pretend that she's still Stephanie Brown, ordinary teenager, just for a little longer?
Stephanie Brown, who definitely wasn't a teenage mom, who definitely doesn't have super strength, and who didn't have to kill a vampire wearing her dad's face.
She makes her way through the rest of her classes, and it's not until the last bell rings that she realizes the margins of all of her notebooks are filled with bats.
She hopes it's not an omen.
Tim Drake has never quite met anyone like Stephanie Brown. There's something strange about her, and not just because it's been ages since he's seen Harper drool quite this obviously over someone. That makes sense, Tim supposes. Steph has long blonde hair and dark blue eyes, and when he sees her for the second time, at the Cave, she's wearing a tight-fitting purple dress that makes more than a few jaws drop.
She makes her way straight to the center of the dance floor and seems to let herself completely go as she dances. It's positively mesmerizing, the way that she moves, perfectly in sync to the music that's blasting through the speakers of the club.
But that's not why he's never met anyone like her. There are other people who can hold that kind of attention; there are other insanely pretty girls (and boys) in the world, hell, even in their school.
No, there's more than that, and Tim wonders if this has something to do with magic.
Tim Drake first learned about magic in the library. The new librarian, Bruce Wayne, brought with him a whole bunch of new and strange books, and even though they're apparently part of Mr. Wayne's private collection, it's not as if they're behind locked doors.
… okay, they might be behind locked doors, but it's not like they're behind good locked doors.
So Tim knows about magic; he's known about vampires for years, because he's best friends with Harper Row, the kid who knocked Bette Kane straight off her feet on Halloween because she'd worn a vampire costume and thought it was funny to sneak up on Harper.
(Bette hadn't meant anything by it, but that didn't change the fact that she was very lucky Harper didn't have a stake.)
Tim flips through his notebook, where he keeps all of his carefully coded, scribbled notes that he takes as he makes his way through Mr. Wayne's rather impressive collection of magic books, and finds the spell for auras.
He whispers the incantation under his breath, moving his fingers in a circle as subtly as he's able, trying to focus his magic in the way that the books all describe proper magic users doing.
Color bursts into his vision, bright and radiant and impossible. Auras aren't small, contained things. They're bursting outwards, especially because he's in a room full of teenagers, with all the hormones and wild emotions that it implies. Harper, sitting on the couch next to him, is overwhelming with her sparkling blue aura. Duke Thomas, laughing as he sits by the bar, looking unfairly gorgeous even with the neon green"underage" wristband he's forced to wear like the rest of them, is surrounded by a brilliant, sunny yellow.
But they're not who Tim is looking for.
Tim searches the dance floor, and his breath catches as he stares at Stephanie Brown.
Purple, is his first impression, but he keeps looking, and it's more than that.
Gold, bright and beautiful and impossible, swirl outwards from her in all directions, reaching for the very ceiling. It's like a halo of brilliance around her, some sort of trick of the light, but Tim knows that it's real.
And as he keeps staring at her, he sees something else entirely.
Black, dangerous and demonic, swirls around her skin, even as she dances. Black, like the auras of vampires and demons that he sees around town. She's human, there's no doubt about that, and yet the darkness clings to her, as if she's one of them.
Her aura is beautiful, and intoxicating in its beauty. But it's also telling Tim that Stephanie Brown is dangerous.
Tim lets the spell end, and the burst of color all around him fades away.
He can't wait to find out more.
Steph sees the vampire, prowling the edge of the crowd.
She doesn't know how she could tell you he's a vampire; but it's as if an ice cube was dropped down her spine, and just like that, the tension she's been dancing to escape is back in full force, and she stops dancing, just staring at him.
He doesn't see her, picking his way through the crowd, eyeing some shy looking girl with literal hunger in his gaze.
She tastes bile, bitter and overwhelming, curdling on her tongue.
One night. That's all she wanted. One night of dancing and laughter, with the pulse of the bass in her throat and the cool press of cement on her feet. One night, to pretend to be normal, away from destiny and vampires.
But that, it seems, is too much to ask.
She strides forward, not even caring that she doesn't have a weapon on her; her stake is in her bag, left at the coat check, but someone's going to get hurt, and it's not going to happen on her watch.
Suddenly, someone grabs her wrist. She spins, prepared to fight, only to find herself looking into the eyes of Harper Row.
"Here," Harper says, eyes wide with fear. Her hands are shaking, and Tim Drake is by her side, staring at Steph with a gaze that's curious, but unafraid.
She presses a stake into Steph's hands. It's crude, but the handle is worn down to accommodate a grip, and at least it won't give her splinters.
Steph's fingers curl tightly around it.
"Thanks," she says.
She catches the vampire by the shirt sleeve, before he can approach the girl. "No," Steph says.
His face begins to change, and she strikes, sinking the stake into his chest right then and there.
He collapses into dust, made almost glittery by the shining lights of the club. She watches, blank faced, as the dust falls slowly to the ground and settles there, a pile of nothingness where once had been a demon wearing a dead man's skin, and then she turns around and leaves, out the back door.
The alleyway is cold, the night air clear and the moon bright above her. It's a stark contrast to the inside of The Cave, which is large and looming, cement and steel beams and dim lighting.
She clutches the stake against her chest and tries to tune out the remnants of the music that she can hear, turning her head up to stare at the sky.
She can see the stars.
She could never see the stars in Los Angeles. She tries to take comfort in this.
"Stephanie!" Harper and Tim have followed her, and she closes her eyes tightly, trying to will tears not to form.
"Steph," she corrects, finally opening her eyes again.
"I—how did you know?" Harper says, breathless. "I've seen him around the cemeteries, but I've never managed to catch him, but you just… you just knew."
"I'm the Slayer," Steph says, the words heavy as they fall from her lips. "It's my job."
"The Slayer?" Tim asks, his eyes bright. "I've read about you."
Steph tries to smile. "Don't believe everything you read." She tries to offer Harper the stake back.
"You should keep it," says a voice behind her. Another ice cube, slippery and cold, dropped down her spine.
"Relax, Blondie. I'm a friend."
"You're a vampire."
"Sort of," the vampire says, stepping out into the light. He doesn't look any older than her. His dark hair is streaked with white. His leather jacket is worn over a battered red hoodie. His face is in its human guise, and if it weren't for the crawling of her skin, she might not have noticed him. "But believe me, that's a fight you don't want to get into. Not tonight, at least."
"I don't usually negotiate with vampires," Steph says, her smile a little tight as she keeps herself in front of Tim and Harper. His comment makes her worried; some cocky vampires are full of hot air, but plenty of them are dangerous, and she's not about to find out at the cost of Harper and Tim.
"You should this time," he tells her. "I promise. I don't bite."
"If you try to tell me you're a vegetarian and you sparkle, I've heard that one before, and I still don't buy it."
"Oh please. If I wanted to be a literary vampire, I wouldn't lower myself like that." He sticks his hands into his pockets. "No, just… thought I'd give you and your watcher a warning."
"Does it involve leaving? 'cuz I'm afraid that trying to scare the Slayer out of town is really not a good idea."
He laughs. "No. But tell Wayne… tell him Jason says that destiny is knocking. There's an ancient vampire imprisoned in this town, Slayer. And the spell keeping him trapped is about to wear out."
"What's his name?" Steph asks, suddenly sharp. Ancient vampire… now that's the kind of thing that gets a girl killed.
"I don't know yet. But I will soon."
"Why are you telling me this? Is he threatening your hunting grounds?"
He laughs, and steps further into the light. His face is thin, the way that vampires get when they haven't eaten in a while. "No," he says. "But if he gets out, a lot of people are going to get hurt."
"Since when do demons care about that?" Steph demands.
"Since they were me," Jason, which is a terrible name for a vampire, replies, and then he turns around and walks away into Gotham's night.
Steph gives chase, but by the time she reaches the end of the alleyway, he's gone.
"I hate cryptic warnings," she tells Harper and Tim. "Prophecies too. They're annoying."
Tim looks put out. Harper looks fascinated.
"Keep the stake," she says. "I can make more."
Steph sighs. "I need to get my bag," she says. "And then I need to go find Bruce."
"You mean Mr. Wayne?" Tim says, looking far too interested.
"I'm not calling him that," Steph says. "But we've got a message to deliver, I guess. Hopefully he doesn't mind you guys tagging along.
(He does. But Steph keeps them around anyways.)
"Jason?" Bruce repeats, when she passes on the message.
"That's what he said," Steph confirms, putting her feet up on the table. Luckily, she thought ahead and put a change of clothes in her bag, because she'd probably get even worse looks from Bruce than she's already getting if she'd shown up in her purple dress that she'd bought mainly because it pissed her dad off.
It's a fun dress, but she has to admit, fighting vampires is a lot easier in comfortable jeans and a very washable t-shirt. She should buy more black; it hides bloodstains better.
"He's known as the Red Hood," Bruce says, reluctantly.
"Is he a famous vampire?" Tim asks, eyes gleaming with a frankly adorable nerdiness.
Bruce looks distinctly uncomfortable, but Steph can't tell if it's Tim's presence or his question that's doing it.
"Not exactly. It's a title. Multiple vampires have claimed it over the years."
"What about this one?" Steph asks, shifting in her seat to be sitting relatively normal. She props her chin on her hand. "Dark hair, white streak in his hair, leather jacket? What's his deal?"
"He's.. an unusual case. He claims to possess a human soul."
"That's impossible," Harper says, her face pale. Steph wonders, for a moment, what's up with that, before realizing it's probably none of her business.
"There is... evidence to support his claim," Bruce says, reluctantly. "That does not mean he is to be trusted. He is still incredibly dangerous." He hesitates. "He's killed a Slayer in the past, Stephanie."
Steph's stomach lurches. Killing a Slayer is supposed to be one of the biggest achievements for Vampires. Slayer blood is supposed to have special properties. What, Dad had never told her, but she knows it's a thing. A Vampire who's killed a Slayer is dangerous.
Yeah, maybe Jason-the-Red-Hood just got lucky, but Steph doesn't think that Bruce would get this kind of expression if he had.
"Before or after this hypothetical soul?"
"Before," Bruce says. His expression is so grim that it should be carrying a scythe and wearing a black robe.
Steph frowns. "Okay, but I really don't like the sound of destiny knocking. Especially when it's delivered by vampires who've killed Slayers. That's the kind of stuff that gets me put on a"shortest lived Slayer" plaque."
"The shortest lived Slayer lived three hours," Bruce says. "You won't be unseating her."
"Wow, that is horrifying," Steph says, careful not to look at Harper and Tim. "Anyways, I still don't like this. I say let's find out this vampire's name so I can stake him."
"I'll begin looking into historical vampires tied to the Gotham area," Bruce says. "Meanwhile, I suggest you investigate the weapons cabinet to see if there's anything you want to take with you on patrol."
Bruce examines his Slayer carefully as she hefts an axe in her hands. It's incredibly heavy, and she swings it around as if it weighs no more than a toy.
Many Watchers are put off by the simple fact that their Slayers will be stronger than they could ever be, but Bruce knows he's skilled enough in his own ways to not be threatened by her.
A Slayer like Stephanie Brown is unusual to say the least. She was never a potential, for all that her father was a Watcher.
Had Arthur Brown deliberately hidden her from the Council's gaze? Or was she one of those rare cases where the magic just missed her entirely? It was impossible to say.
A Slayer like her happens rarely, especially now that the Council is confident in its reach. Once, they would lose the Slayer for decades at a time, as they were Called in parts of the world where the British Empire hadn't claimed. But now, a Slayer can be born in any country, in any continent, and the Council will know.
The Council had meant it to be an insult, to assign him as Watcher to a Slayer who had never been a potential, who had no training. Those who were Called out of an ordinary life died faster. A Watcher who's Slayer died young(er) would be curbed in ambitions, in influence, and Bruce knew he had plenty of enemies on the Council who couldn't get rid of him directly, but would love to see him shunted to the side, where he couldn't shake things up.
Stephanie living on a Hellmouth, a traditionally risky assignment even for a trained Slayer, will only make things harder. Bruce is sure that plenty on the Council are hoping that he'll die out here as well, which is common enough.
But Bruce isn't about to allow any of that to happen.
Stephanie Brown is a walking tragedy, and he knows it. She knows it too, he can tell by the set of her jaw and the look in her eye as she swings the axe through the air, nodding in a satisfied way at the feeling of it.
It's not right, what's happened to her, but Bruce can't do anything about that. He can't save her; her destiny is already written, and there's nothing he can do.
He can help her survive for as long as he can; he'll give her every tool he's able to.
But the most good he will be able to do, is at the Council itself, trying to undo the evils they've already done.
Stephanie Brown is only one girl, and she's going to die soon.
But if Bruce plans right, he might be able to make sure that the ones that come after her will have a better time of it.
It's a morbid way to think, but Bruce has never pretended otherwise.
Life on a Hellmouth kind of sucks.
Tim, if Steph or Harper slip up and let him talk, will happily talk about the nexus of dark magical energies and the thin dimensional walls; confluences of ley lines and all those other factors that make up a Hellmouth.
Steph doesn't understand Tim's red-thread-conspiracy board very well, but she does understand this: vampires, demons, and all the other things-that-go-bump-in-the-night love the Hellmouth.
She wonders, almost idly, if Gotham would be as bad if there wasn't a Hellmouth here. She kind of suspects it would be: Gotham has what seems like a far higher than usual number of cemeteries than a normal town of its size, it gets creepy fog all the goddamn time, and the whole town has a Gothic aesthetic.
Altogether it has an aesthetic that would make B-movie horror directors roll over and beg, and that's even before they'd see their first vampire.
It certainly makes her patrol an aesthetic nightmare. If Steph had an instagram, she could probably build quite a following. Some sort of horror movie aesthetic. A black and white shot of the cemetery, with the moon overhead and a fog... perfect for vampire slaying. #Slay. Something like that.
The vampire she's currently fighting manages to knock the stake out of her hand, which they always seem to think means that they can win.
Steph kicks him into a tree branch, impaling and dusting him on the spot. "I guess you can say you're low hanging fruit," she tells the air, feeling proud of herself for that one, even if no one was around to hear it. Bruce has banned Harper and Tim from joining her on patrol until they've learned to reload a crossbow, which Steph has to admit is probably fair.
It's too bad, though. Steph could use the validation of Harper laughing at her quips.
"You're pretty good," a voice says from behind her.
"You're lucky I spotted you earlier, or I might have staked you," Steph informs the Red Hood.
"With what? You still haven't picked up your last one."
In response, Steph brandishes a pair of chopsticks that she had borrowed from Tim.
"I once killed a vampire with a pencil. I'm very serious."
"How did you even get enough force-" he cuts himself off. "Stupid question. Super strength."
Steph raises an eyebrow at him. "So what do you want, Red Hood?" She puts as much skepticism as she humanly can into his name, because it's a stupid name that needs to be mocked. "More cryptic remarks to make?"
"Nah, I've gotten it out of my system." He perches on a nearby grave, and lights up a cigarette.
"Wow. Is this an Anne Rice thing? Smoking vampires?"
"You've never read an Anne Rice book have you?"
"Nah. I preferred Carmilla."
The Red Hood rolled his eyes and took a drag from his cigarette.
"I'd say those things might kill you, but clearly, it's a bit late for that."
"Haha, blondie." He blew the smoke in her direction, and she made a face.
"Seriously, what do you want? I've got things to do tonight." She tossed her recently reclaimed stake up and down in the air.
"Maybe I want to get to know you."
"Uh-huh," she says. "Well, if that's the case, I've got three new graves to stake out, so I'm going to go."
"The Black Mask is the name," he says, abruptly. "I don't have much else. Not yet. But I'm working on it."
"The Black Mask? That's almost as bad as your name."
"My name is Jason," he says irritably. "Look, just be careful, Blondie. He's... old fashioned."
"Well, if he's looking for blood of a virgin, he's a few years too late," Steph muses. It's worth the self-deprecation to see a vampire choke, even when he doesn't need to breathe. No need to tell him she already knows that virgin blood just means blood that hasn't been used before.
"Jesus, Blondie, you're lucky I'm already dead," he wheezes, dropping his cigarette onto the ground.
Steph shrugs, not particularly caring what he thinks about her or her bad life decisions that she'd made when she was fourteen. "Well, I'm going to go kill some vampires. Have fun doing whatever it is you do when you're not stalking me."
"It's not stalking!" He calls after her, sounding actually offended. Steph just rolls her eyes, and heads to the next cemetery, where she's got more vampires to stake.
For her sixteenth birthday, Mom gives Steph a pair of tickets for a whale watching cruise and promises that they'll go together. Tim and Harper give Steph three new charms for her charm bracelet; a bat and two birds, one in blue and one in red. Bruce gives Steph a shiny new sword.
Duke Thomas, proving that he's way too good to ever be drawn into Steph's nonsense, gives her a book of piano music, because he remembered that she played, just from an off hand comment she'd made the day they'd met.
"Duke... thanks," she says, staring at it. It's got a bland cover, just a piano on a cream background, but it's thick and spiral bound and the list of composers on the back is dizzyingly long.
"I wasn't sure what level you'd be at?" He says, rubbing the back of his neck. "So I tried to get a book that had a lot of variety."
"It's perfect," Steph says. "Thank you."
When she was a kid, she'd wanted to be a professional pianist. She'd dreamed of going to Juliard, of wearing elegant dresses and playing for large crowds, even of composing her own music.
She'd been good, too, that was the worst part of it. Her teachers had helped her get all sorts of audition opportunities, and she had a box full of prizes from competitions. There was talk about her going to a private academy for high school, to fully prepare her for conservatory auditions, which were talked about as a when, not an if.
Even her father had thought she was a good player. When he'd hit her, he'd always left her hands alone. He'd loved it when she played for him. He always had requests. He'd yelled when she messed up certain passages. He applauded extra loud at all of her concerts, and never missed a single one. Whenever she didn't practice, he'd lock her in the closet.
She loved it. She still loves it. It's hers; she refuses to let her father taint this part of her, this only joy left in her life that is completely unconnected with being the Slayer, with her destiny.
But it's been a while since she's played.
She hugs Duke tightly, on impulse.
"Thank you," she repeats. "It's perfect."
He laughs, and hugs her back. "Hey, glad you liked it."
That night, before patrol, Steph sits down at the piano, the one they'd brought with them all the way from California, and plays.
"The Black Mask," Tim reads from the book he's holding. It's one of the coolest parts of doing this kind of research; Bruce has books with all sorts of interesting things in them. "He's an ancient vampire, supposedly sealed in a tomb beneath Gotham centuries ago."
"According to Jason, he's basically got an entire goddamn court down there," Steph says,determinedly ignoring the way that Bruce frowns. "He's kept back by a magic barrier thingy, but apparently some sort of... thingy is going to happen to let him out."
"Thingy," Bruce says, his voice dry as paper.
"Thingy," Steph agrees.
Tim glances between them.
He's not sure why it is, exactly, that Steph enjoys doing things like this so much. Bruce seems like a pretty good Watcher, but Steph is always bristling at everything that he does.
"If he gets loose, he'll attempt to open the Hellmouth itself and harnish the dark energy within it in order to end the world," Bruce says, flipping through his own tome.
"So we don't let him get out," Steph says. "Problem solved! No apocalypse!"
Tim sighs and goes back to studying. Bruce is locking him out of the cursed books again, but if Steph gets Bruce to twitch a few more times, he won't notice if Tim breaks into his office.
"This is where you live?" Harper yells at Jason.
"What's wrong with where I live?" He demands, leaning against the door to keep out the zombies.
"It's a crypt!"
"I'm a vampire!"
"Can you two please shut up?" Tim demands, flipping through his spell book frantically, trying to find a spell to reverse this.
"You don't get to tell us what to do! This is your fault!" Jason yells. "This is why humans shouldn't do magic! You give a kid a spellbook and he raises the dead!"
The sound of the zombies moaning stops abruptly, and Steph wrenches the door open, carrying an axe and covered in blood.
She looks unfairly pretty, considering the blood.
"You guys okay?" She asks, frowning at them.
The three of them all exchange looks, and Harper realizes that all of them are thinking the exact same thing.
"Yeah, we're fine," Jason finally says.
Steph looks around. "Is that a mini-fridge in this crypt?"
"It's where I store my pig's blood!"
"Wait, you live here?"
"Oh, not you too!"
The vampires are getting bolder, lately.
Steph really doesn't know what to think of it. There's more and more of them on her nightly patrol, and they seem to be stronger.
She can't keep up, and she feels herself fraying at the edges, desperately trying to keep people alive, but she can't be everywhere at once.
Duke and Tim end up finding the computer science teacher killed in his classroom, and it's all anyone can talk about.
"I just... I don't get it," Duke tells Steph, when she visits him in the nurse's office. Tears are on his face. "Why would-why would anyone do that? They just-killed him."
Steph swallows. "I don't... I don't know," she lies, turning away from him.
"I'm scared," Tim tells her, when she goes to visit him that night. "It's... I knew it was dangerous. I've known that. But it's... it's never been real? But I knew him. I liked him. He helped me learn to code. And now he's-he's gone."
Steph swallows down her guilt, and hugs her friend closely.
Jason pulls his hood up over his head, and climbs in through the window.
The library is surprisingly well stocked for a public school one; much better than the school that Jason had gone to, all those years ago. It's practically cozy, considering what it really holds.
He stares at the bookshelves. Most of the titles on this shelf are in Latin, because of course they are. "Bruce."
"Look, I'm not here for you, okay?" Jason snaps. "The girl. Blondie."
"I gave you the name. So you know what that means, right?"
There is nothing but silence from behind him.
"You found the prophecy, didn't you?"
Bruce is quiet.
"She's going to die, Bruce."
"Have you even told her?"
Finally, finally, Jason forces himself to turn around to make eye contact with Bruce.
Bruce is older, that's the real gut punch here. There's grey in his hair and lines around his eyes, meanwhile Jason looks exactly the same.
"She's going to die, B."
"The Black Mask is going to kill her."
"I know that!"
"Then why aren't you doing something about it?"
"It's a prophecy." He looks defeated, and something about that is an even worse blow.
"She's going to die! Don't you even care?"
"Why should he?"
Jason turns, shocked, and Stephanie Brown herself is standing right there, with tears on her face.
"I mean. I'm a Slayer. This is what I'm for, right Bruce?"
"Born to die, that's me," her laugh sounds more like a sob. "So. Do we have a date? Maybe I should get my hair cut. Just so it looks nice for my funeral, you know."
Bruce takes a step towards her, as if he's going to try and hug her, and she shoves him away. "Don't!"
"This is all I am! This is what I'm for! I'm-I'm going to die!" Tears are pouring down her face freely now, and Jason turns and runs, because this is not what he came here for.
"I'm sorry," he hears Bruce say. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry-"
So there's an eclipse on Prom Night, which is tonight, and the barrier keeping the Black Mask in his little secret sanctum is going to go down. Steph is prophesied to die that night.
"Okay," Steph whispers. Bruce is hugging her now, and she's not sure what to make of that. "Okay."
If you try to avoid a prophecy, you only ever fulfil it. Steph knows that.
"I never wanted to be the Slayer," she says into Bruce's shoulder. "Bruce... I don't want to die."
Bruce doesn't say anything, just hugs her tighter.
"Don't forget me, okay? When you're on the Council and all important? You'll miss me, right?" She's babbling. But she's going to die tonight, she's allowed.
"I could never forget you, Stephanie," Bruce says, his voice rough.
"I guess... I should get going. A crossbow, do you think? I'm getting better with that. Maybe I can get him before he gets me."
It's a stupid hope, but it's a hope nonetheles.
"Yes, a crossbow. I fixed up the one you broke last week, it's all ready for you."
Steph reluctantly extracts herself from Bruce's grasp, and goes to get her crossbow from Bruce's desk.
She thinks she can hear her heartbeat. It's weird, the way it's beating in her chest, each thump of it audible. How many beats are left? It can't be that many.
The crossbow is a good size, and it weighs basically nothing in her hands. She hefts it, and checks the string carefully, but Bruce clearly has too much free time on his hands, because it's in perfect condition.
She turns around. "Okay. I'm ready."
"Excellent," Bruce says, holding a large axe. "Let's go."
"Stephanie," he says, quietly. "I'm not sending you there alone. I'm going with you."
She stares at him, her knees buckling in gratitude for a moment, before reality catches up with her.
"He'll kill you." Can Bruce even fight vampires? Steph hasn't ever seen him fight, not really.
"It will be okay," Bruce says, confidently.
"Okay," Steph says, quietly.
When Bruce turns around to grab his bag, she slams one of the many, heavy books that are always lying around the library on top of his head, knocking him unconscious in a moment.
"I'm sorry," she tells him.
Then she leaves the library to go off to her death.
Harper's phone rings just when she's about to leave for Prom. She's feeling pretty snazzy in her suit, and she's got decent hopes that Steph will even dance with her, even though Steph told Harper that she was straight when Harper asked her to Prom.
But that's okay, because Harper can handle a little rejection, and she'd rather still be Steph's friend.
She answers her phone, frowning. "Bruce? What's wrong?"
"Stephanie-she went after the Mask alone," Bruce groans. "You need to get Jason-"
"Hey there, old man," an unfamiliar voice hisses. "What are you doing?"
The connection goes dead.
Harper grabs her stake without thinking. "Cullen! Lock the doors and don't let anyone in!"
She sends Tim a text, telling him to go to the library to check on Bruce, and she makes a beeline to the cemetery to find Jason.
She bangs on the door to his crypt. "Jason! Open the door you creepy fanged-" the door opens, and Jason stares out at her.
"What?" He demands.
"Steph went after the Mask alone," Harper says. "And something's at the library going after Bruce."
"So you are going to take me to the Mask, and we're going to help Steph," Harper says, trying to sound braver than she feels. "Tim's going to help Bruce."
Jason stares at her for a long moment, then he nods. "Okay. Let's go."
Tim doesn't fully understand what's going on, except that Steph has apparently gone after Black Mask alone, and Bruce is in trouble.
Harper's phone call was short, sweet, and to the point, and involved a lot of yelling at him to go to the library to help Bruce.
Tim takes a very confusing moment to be grateful that his parents aren't likely to notice if he runs out in the middle of the night, before booking it out of the window.
There's a large group of vampires-Steph would probably have a clever name for what Tim should call them-outside the school when he gets there, cutting him off.
"Well that's not good."
Of course, saying that out loud was a mistake, because vampires have pretty darn good hearing, and before Tim can blink, they're all turned towards him.
Tim grips his single stake as tightly as he can and prepares to run, when Duke Thomas's yellow Volkswagen Beetle plows into the vampires.
"Get in!" Duke yells.
Tim does not need to be told twice.
"What are you doing here?" Tim yells as Duke shifts into reverse, wincing as he drives back over several of the vampires.
"I could ask you the same question!"
"I asked you first!"
"I'm investigating the murder of our computer science teacher!"
"Well I'm here to rescue our librarian from vampires! We can't go back, we need to help him!"
Duke groans loudly, but shifts back into drive. "Okay, I've got an idea... but you're not going to like it."
"I don't like the sound of that," Tim says, reaching for his seat belt.
"Yeah. I don't either."
Duke slams on the accelerator and drives towards the school.
Bruce's life since moving back to Gotham has been a strange, to say the least.
Seeing two high school students jump out of a yellow bug that they've just driven through the walls of the library is, however, pretty high up there on his list.
The tunnel down to the Black Mask's lair is dark, lit only by glimpses of the moon through sewer grates. It's made of old, crumbling brick, and the ceiling is curved up in an arch, which makes it not as claustrophobic as it could be, but it's still pretty darn claustrophobic.
Steph clutches her crossbow tightly in one hand, and draws her jacket tighter with the other.
Each beat of her heart seems to be louder and louder in her own ears, drowning out all other sounds, even her own thoughts.
That's good, because if she lets herself dwell on what she's about to do, she might start crying again.
She's wading through water at this point, the cold brine of the Atlantic ocean soaking through her boots and socks. She wishes, for a moment, that Bruce had come after all, but no, that's selfish.
This is her destiny. No one else's.
The Black Mask is going to break out and try to end the world, and she has to try and stop him. And if she fails, it's going to be up to everyone else, up there in Gotham, to save it.
She's not sure how long she's been walking, but it feels like both far too long and not enough time before she reaches an island.
The island is made of pieces of asphalt and bones, both human and animal alike. The remnants of the Black Mask's meals, left out for everyone to see.
It's an unsteady to walk on, shifting beneath her feet, but Steph refuses to relinquish her grip on her crossbow as she makes the trek up the slope, towards the strange black chair she can spot on the peak.
It's cold and dark, she's all alone, and there's no way that he can't hear her coming.
She's going to die here.
Steph swallows back the panicked sob that wants to escape and instead fires her first shot, right at the throne.
"You Slayers," a voice says behind her. "You're all the same."
Steph spins around, her footing unsteady, and she sees the Black Mask for the first time.
His face is a twisted, demonic visage, like all vampires' true faces. But his... his is worse. It's black, as if someone burned it, as if he had exposed it to sunlight, and somehow survived.
She fires the crossbow again, but it imbeds itself in his shoulder, harmlessly, and he laughs. It's a horrible, echoing sound, filling the entire cavern, and he grabs her by the throat.
"I haven't tasted Slayer Blood for centuries," he muses. "But I'm afraid there's no time to savor it."
Steph lets out a shout, but for all of her struggles, she's unable to throw him off before he sinks his teeth into her throat.
The bite fills her with fire, and she writhes and screams, and he laughs.
She's never felt anything so painful. Not giving birth, not jumping through a plate glass window to avoid her vampire father, nothing. Her entire world is centered around her neck, and the way that her blood, her strength, her life, is leaving her, and going into the demon who's killing her.
"Slayer Blood," he whispers, pulling away. It's not been very long at all, but she's dizzy with blood loss already, and her neck and shirt both covered in blood. "The final ingredient for me to escape."
Steph lets out a panicked noise, as she realizes what she's done. Her blood is smeared across his horrible face, which is warped further by his smirk.
"That's right, little girl," he taunts. "You're the reason I'm free. You're the reason the world's going to end. Have fun with that."
And then she's flying through the air, slamming into the piles of bones, falling downwards, towards the water.
With her last, desperate strength, Steph tries to turn over, tries to pull herself back up onto the island, but when she looks up, she sees the Mask.
"You're a stubborn one, aren't you?" He says.
He nudges her with his foot, and Steph goes under the water, and doesn't get up.
There's a girl, her age, sitting in a dark room. She's not asleep, but she's just... sitting there, stock still.
There's a flash of bright light, but she doesn't react at all. Did she not see that? Does she not know what's just happened?
Then again, she hadn't known either...
The door opens, and a man is standing there, grinning.
"Wake up! Please, wake up!"
The girl gets to her feet, a small smile on her face.
"C'mon Blondie, breathe!"
The man hugs the girl, and then takes her by the hand, leading her out of the door. On the other side, she can see a warm, bright light, and she knows, it's the best place, and she'll be happy there.
She starts to follow them, but something isn't right...
"Breathe! You have to breathe!"
... isn't she already breathing?
"Slayer! Wake up already, you're freaking out Harper!"
... does she know a Harper?
"Jason! It's not working!"
... she knows those voices.
"Steph! Come on! Please!"
... oh. That's her.
There's salt in her mouth and water in her lungs and lips on hers and hands on her chest and-
Steph opens her eyes, turns her head to the side, and throws up what feels like half of the Atlantic Ocean.
Harper is hugging her, and Steph hugs back, shivering in her soaked clothes, the bones of the island pressing into her back.
"Welcome back from the dead," Jason tells her. "You weren't breathing for a bit there. Had us worried."
"Well," Steph says, her teeth chattering. "I guess that means we're good on the prophecy front. So let's go kill a vampire master."
Jason and Harper both help her up, and they head out of the cavern together.
The Hellmouth is open, and Duke, Tim, and Bruce are all fighting vampires in the library, because the Hellmouth is underneath the actual library. Harper and Jason are on their way to help them.
And this leaves Steph on the rooftop, facing off against the vampire that killed her.
The library is in chaos, with most of the furniture broken, beneath the exposed sky. There are cracks forming in the floor, so that's probably about to cave in, so shes' is really on a timeline here.
The entire world is shaking with earthquakes, as if she's back in California, and a loud, distant roar is getting louder and louder.
"I killed you," the Black Mask says in disbelief as he stares at her, soaked to the bone and splattered in blood, but very clearly alive. "It was written!"
"What can I say? I flunked the written." Steph says, and then she pushes him off the roof, onto a splintered table below.
He lets out a loud howl of pain, and then... nothing.
No more earth shaking, no more howling, no more cracks in the library floor. When she looks down, she sees nothing but dust.
She put her hand against her neck again, and found it still bleeding sluggishly. "This sucks," she announces, then jumps down to join everyone else in the library.
Ouch, her ankles. That was a bad idea.
She's honestly not sure who said it first, but she doesn't care.
Because in a moment, all of them are there, pressing up against her, Harper and Tim and Duke and Jason and Bruce, and there are arms around her, the world is saved, and she's alive.
She'll take it.