It starts, like a lot of things do, at a college party.
Agnes Bellinger, who hates her first name and has been going by "Crystal" since the moment she was old enough to voice an opinion about first name, is sitting in the corner of the party, feeling very uncomfortable. Her roommate, who had dragged her out here, has abandoned her because the cute blond pre-med student who she's been lusting over all semester has finally noticed her advances, and the two of them had absconded to one of the upstairs rooms.
Crystal drains her red solo cup, wishing desperately that Arthur was here. He can always make her laugh, always provide interesting conversation. For someone with no interest in college, Arthur was easily the cleverest guy she'd ever met. Each conversation with him lead easily into the next, the pieces slotting together perfectly like a puzzle.
But he'd been out with the guys tonight, and she doesn't like his friends, so she'd said yes to this invite, rather than stay back in her dorm with her homework, like she'd normally do on a Friday night.
Being a nursing student is hard work, and if she doesn't keep her grades up, she'll lose her place in the program. She already feels like she's on thin ice, waiting tables on the side instead of student work or scholarships that she'd never even heard of.
But this party was a pre-med party, and so she'd told herself that it was going to be fine, because surely, the pre-med students were working just as hard as the nursing students, they'd understand how to party responsibly.
And maybe they did, on most nights, but right now, this tiny house was rolling with people, the music rattling the windows, bodies pressing against each other, the smell of sweat and beer and cigarette smoke filling the air.
The house is a cramped, three-story thing on the corner of campus, tucked into the corner of Fraternity Row, full of third-and-fourth year pre-med students, with furniture old enough to apply for Medicaid and a porch that probably violated every safety protocol.
And now, it's crammed full of students from every corner of the health community. Pre-Dental students are playing wine pong without care for the way it stains their teeth, pharmacy students who look unsure of themselves when they're not memorizing exact drug combinations, and nursing students like Crystal, having shed their customary lopsided hair buns and scrubs in favor of dangerously high heels and oversized sweaters, desperately seeking to relax.
The entire place smells of cheap alcohol, anxiety, procrastination, and sweat.
It was enough to make Crystal strongly consider just leaving entirely and letting Linda sort herself out, because God knows she'd probably do that to Crystal had the tables turned.
She glances up at the stairs and then looks down at her watch.
Half an hour longer. She can stand it for that long, particularly if she can get another drink.
At this point, another student is shoved into her, spilling her drink all over Crystal, who falls backwards, into someone else, and then falls hard onto the floor.
"Shit, are you okay?" Whoever it is that tripped into her is about Crystal's age, with mousy brown hair, wide blue eyes, and an almost comically thick Brooklyn accent.
"I'm fine," Crystal says, even though beer is soaking into her sweater, pressing against her skin in that damp, cold way that spilled drinks do.
"Fuck, sorry about your sweater," the Brooklyn girl says. "I live here, I think I can scrounge up something for you?"
"That'd—" Crystal is about to refuse, but she casts her eyes up at the stairs again, where Linda is still lurking, without any sign of emerging. She sighs. "That'd be great, if you don't mind."
"No problem! I'm Harleen, by the way. You?"
"Crystal," she says, accepting Harleen's hand up. "You live here? So you're pre-med?"
"Pre-med, psych major," Harleen confirms. "I don't think I've seen you around, though."
"I'm nursing," Crystal says. "My roommate Linda is friends with Josh, he invited us."
Harleen's nose wrinkles, showing that she generally agrees with Crystal's opinion of Josh, who seems to be the kind of pre-med student who wants to be a doctor for the money and for no other reason.
Crystal would love to be pre-med, but she can't take on more debt, can't wait those years to get a job. She can be a nurse right out of school, no MCATS or internships or residencies, and the thought is exciting.
"You a third year?" Harleen asks, pushing open the door, which has a poster plastered on it for some generic rom-com that Crystal hasn't seen herself, but Linda loves.
Out of the corner of her eye, she spots Linda, enthusiastically pulling her pre-med out of the house by the hand, car keys in one hand.
Crystal opens her mouth to call out, and then closes it, realizing it's futile, and her ride is gone. She turns back to Harleen, who hasn't even seemed to notice Crystal's pause.
"Same!" Harleen says. Her room is a disaster, with textbooks and notebooks thrown in every which way, a phone haphazardly perched on the edge of the bedside table, the bed itself unmade, with clothes piled on top of it, as if Harleen had tried on every outfit she owned before discarding them in favor of her neon pink crop top and shiny green hotpants. A diagram of the human brain is thumb-tacced into the wall above her bed, alongside diagrams of various human systems, which causes a lot of mental dissonance when Crystal sees them overlapping with a gigantic poster of Titanic, and several other romantic movies.
"So, do you want to do psychiatry? Since you're a psych major?" Crystal says, stepping back automatically as Harleen enthusiastically throws open her closet doors, revealing that Harleen did not, in fact, try on every outfit she owned, and that the closet doors were, in fact, closed to try to prevent even more things from spilling out onto the ancient carpet.
"What's your favorite color?"
"Ah, purple," Crystal says, thrown off guard, before an eggplant-purple blouse collides with her face.
"Great! You're a bit chestier than I am, but that one's a bit loose on me, so if it fits you, you should keep it!"
"No problem!" Harleen says, cheerfully, "I got it at a rummage sale down by Park, it's a fun place."
"I—you mean Park Row?" Crystal says.
"Right! That!" Harleen says, snapping her fingers. "You'd think after three years I'd know Gotham better, right? But this place is confusing, I swear nothing's ever in the same place when I go back a week later."
"I—I guess it does take some getting used to," Crystal says, clutching the blouse. "Uh, where's the bathroom?"
Harleen grins and pushes open a door which Crystal hadn't even noticed before, caught up as she was in the clutter. "Here!"
Crystal ducks into the bathroom, which is much cleaner than Harleen's room… although Harleen's room is more… messy, than dirty. For all of the chaos, the laundry was all clean, there were no dirty dishes piled anywhere and the carpet, despite its age, appeared clean.
"You're from Gotham, right? You've got the accent," Harleen says, from the other side of the drawer.
"You're one to talk," Crystal calls back, before catching herself.
Harleen laughs. "I know, right? Brooklyn, baby!" There's a loud thump. "My mom was pissed when I decided to move to Gotham, let me tell you. She's convinced I'm going to get murdered by one of those weirdos. I told her; supervillains weren't invented in Gotham, we've got plenty in NYC, just cuz you haven't seen one in our neighborhood doesn't mean we don't have them."
Crystal pulls off her sticky sweater, relieved, and buttons up the blouse, which does fit her surprisingly well.
She pushes open the door, to find Harleen sitting cross-legged on her own bed.
"Anyways, sorry for chatting your ear off and spilling my drink on you," Harleen says, making a face.
"Not at all," Crystal says, surprised. "You're… a bit overwhelming, but you've been nothing but lovely, Harleen."
Harleen's face lights up in a huge smile.
"Hey, want to go get fries?" Harleen says. "I'd love to hear about the nursing program! I promise I'll let you get a word in."
Crystal thinks about Linda again, who's probably having loud, enthusiastic sex with her blond pre-med student in the room next to Crystal's and takes Harleen's offered hand without hesitation. "Sure, why not?"
They climb out Harleen's window rather than going out into the crowd of the house again, and Crystal finds herself laughing more than she has in ages at Harleen's antics. And Harleen is true to her word—she asks Crystal about herself, about her hobbies and studies, about her family, and even about Arthur, when Crystal makes an oblique reference to him.
There are probably stranger ways to start a friendship.
But Crystal can't think of any others that she'd prefer than splitting an order of fries and drinking milkshakes on a park bench, laughing at Harleen's completely sincere love of romance novels with ripped bodices and rippling abs.
They exchange phone numbers at the end of the night.
And, when Linda decides to move in with her blond pre-med (his name is Frank, but honestly Crystal can never be bothered to call him that, because it's not like he ever speaks to her), leaving Crystal without a roommate for senior year, and she ends up asking Harleen—who she's calling Harley by then, and who has taken to calling Crystal "Chris"—if she knows anyone else who needs a roommate, she's not entirely surprised when Harley herself volunteers.
Years pass. Harleen goes to Med School, Crystal gets a job. Crystal gets married to Arthur, who never really likes Harley, but doesn't say anything when Crystal invites her to the wedding.
Six months after the wedding, when Stephanie is born, Crystal doesn't hesitate before calling up Harley.
"Want to be a godmother?" She says, staring down at Stephanie's wrinkled, red face with complete awe, pressing the phone between her ear and her shoulder.
"… Arthur ain't gonna like that, Chris," Harley says.
"Arthur can suck it up," Crystal says, carefully tracing Stephanie's baby-soft cheek with her pinky. Her little girl, born just a few hours early of her due date, at one in the morning on a Tuesday. A beautiful, gorgeous baby, and already Crystal's heart is so full of love that she thinks she might burst. "You don't have to if you don't want to. But… Harley, you know you're my best friend, right? There's no one I'd rather look after Stephanie, if something happened to me and Arthur, than you."
Harley goes quiet. "I—yeah. You too, Chris."
Crystal smiles. "Well? You going to come by and meet your goddaughter?"
"I'm—I've got a rotation tonight, but I'll come by tomorrow?"
"Sounds good," Crystal says. "I'll see you then."
She puts the phone back on the receiver, and then dedicates both of her hands to holding her baby girl, her little miracle, for the rest of the night.
Things honestly have been pretty decent for Harley Quinn for the last three months or so.
She dumped Mister Jay—for good this time, she promises. And now Selina's got a shit-ton of cash, and she's invited Harley and Ivy to move in with her, and how the house is all fixed up and fancy, and it's pretty great. There's a greenhouse and a lab for Ivy, a gym, a pool, a weapons room, a computer room, and a room of soft, plushy things for when Harley gets overloaded.
It's pretty great, all things considered, even if Ivy keeps threatening to douse Selina in one of her pollens to get her to tell them Batman's secret identity, which Selina keeps insisting she doesn't know, and it's kind of annoying, to be honest.
But honestly, Harley hasn't had this much time to just try and settle her brain in… years.
She's a psychiatrist, she knows all sorts of things about trauma and torture and abuse and… the rest of it. She knows it, but she doesn't like dwelling on it much, because that's… she's…
Nope, not thinking about it.
Even if this is just temporary, until Selina gets tired of them or Ivy needs to go commune with nature or until Mister Jay comes back, it's nice. Selina's got big TVs with all the channels, the beds are big enough that Harley and Ivy can have their fun without worrying about moss getting anywhere unpleasant, and it's really close to a library so Harley can crawl in through the window to borrow books from the romance section and return them before the librarians even notice.
Harley's curled up in her bedroom with one such book—one with two women kissing passionately on the cover, guns dangling unsafely from their hands, legs hooked around waists, the full shebang—and a mug of hot cocoa on her bedside, when her cellphone goes off.
Frowning at being interrupted right in the middle of a particularly steamy scene, Harley reaches and flips it open. "Hello?"
The response is a strong and virulent stream of profanity and name calling. Harley sighs and dog-ears the page, shoving it under the nearest pillow, waiting until the air runs out of that particular balloon of rage.
"Hiya Ma," Harley says, forcing herself to sit up and crossing her legs.
This, of course, restarts the swearing, so Harley sighs, gets to her feet, and starts rummaging through her closet, keeping half an ear turned to the phone so she can hear when Mom finishes her train of thought and she should try to talk again.
"How's Dad? Is he out of prison yet?"
"Stop judging your father," her mother snaps. "You're only out because that damned billionaire spoke up for you at your parole hearing—don't know why, it's not like you've ever amounted to anything."
Harley finds her Batman tights and pulls them on. There, she's ready to talk to her mother, or at least as she can ever be. "I'm reformed, Ma," she points out. "And why ya' calling? It's not a holiday, and I showed up for Chanukah and everything, and I didn't miss a birthday—"
"Social services called this house, asking after you," her mother snaps. "Harleen Quinzel, did you have a baby?"
Harley blinks, mystified. "Uh, no?"
"Then why are they insisting you go out to Manchester, New Jersey, to pick up a child?" Her mother is vicious in triumph, as if she's caught Harley in a lie. "I knew it, I knew you were stupid enough to get knocked up by that clown, I knew that you—"
"Ma! I have no idea what they're talking about," Harley says, frowning. "Did you get a name, or an address, or anything?"
Her mother has to insult Harley's education, her lack of romantic prospects (she doesn't know about Ivy, and Harley's not exactly in the mood to enlighten her), her lack of honesty, her time in prison, her time in Arkham, and her supposed promiscuity before she finally surrenders the address.
Manchester is a suburb of Gotham, not too far from the reclaimed animal shelter that Selina had made into their home. Something about it rings a distant, fuzzy bell in Harley's mind, but like a lot of things between college and a few years ago, it's all blurry, and her brain shies away from it.
It could be a trap, but what would be the point? Harley's out legally, so why would the police bother, and who would contact her mother first, when the cops and the Bats and everyone know she's here, in Gotham?
Harley's never had a kid, she's sure of that. Maybe someone put her down as a next-of-kin as some sort of joke? More likely, she decides, going into Selina's room, it's some sort of typo in the system, and it'll all be some big misunderstanding.
Just in case, she puts on real pants and steals one of Selina's snazzy blazers with the pretty purple lining. Ivy and Selina both have different sized feet from her though, so she's forced to stick with her sneakers. Which, she decides, examining herself in Selina's ceiling-high antique mirror, makes the outfit more approachable anyways. If there really is a kid, no need to make them nervous.
Ivy's in the middle of one of her experiments that she's bringing home from STAR, and Selina's nowhere to be seen, so Harley steals Selina's car keys, leaves a note on the fridge, and drives out to Manchester.
Manchester's not one of the classier suburbs, but it's still a suburb, so it's pretty damn nice. The address Mom gave her takes her to an orange house with a red door, and… well shit, that's a cop car outside.
Harley nearly slams on the gas and keeps driving, but she forces herself to pull into the driveway, next to the cop car, tugs Selina's blazer down so it's even, and then rings the bell.
"Uh, I'm Dr. Quinzel? I got a call?" It's weird, but she can feel her accent warping, her vowels reshaping themselves into Gotham.
A rather confused social worker blinks, as if she's not sure if she's hallucinating. "Oh, you're—you're real."
"I am," Harley says. "I'm sorry, the message I was passed was kind of confusing; what's going on?"
The social worker, a pale woman who seems to be made of nothing but sharp edges, gives Harley an un-impressed look. "You are acquainted with one Crystal Brown?" She asks, pointedly.
Harley blinks suddenly. "What, Crystal?"
Well, that's a name she hadn't thought about in years. Not since she'd moved… out of Manchester, actually. To get her job at Arkham.
Crystal and her had been drifting apart before then—Crystal had a lot of things going on, her daughter was demanding a lot of her time, they had both been taking on more and more shifts, and the calls had stopped coming sometime after Harley moved to Gotham proper, and met Mister J for the first time.
Harley forces herself to focus. "Yeah, we were roommates in college, but I haven't talked to her in a while."
The social worker looks less thrilled by the moment. "You are aware that she's named you her daughter's legal guardian, at least?"
Harley freezes. "Is Crystal okay?" She demands sharply.
"She's fine," the woman says, with a look of derision on her face. "She's been checked into the hospital, however, and with Arthur Brown in jail—"
"Is Stephanie okay?" Harley says, mind racing as she tries to do the math, think of how long it's been, how old would she be? The years with Mister J are a jumble, and it feels like it was a lifetime, but that makes things hard, because the actual dates and years come and go as they please.
The social worker sighs. "She's fine. Can I see some identification?"
Harley hands over her legitimate, pretty identity that Selina helped her get. It was a pain, but Selina knows people who owe her favors, and it's… nice, not having to buy shitty fakes from the guy in the shady store who sells primarily to eighteen-year-olds with a hankering for bad beer.
The woman stands aside, finally letting Harley into the house.
How had she not realized before that it was the same house that Arthur and Crystal had bought right after the wedding? Sure, the outside is now orange, but it's… it feels so obvious now.
In the living room, sitting on the couch, wearing baggy jeans, a well-worn Gotham Knights sweater, and an impressive scowl, is a young teenager with shoulder-length blonde hair. The stubborn curve of her slouch is so marvelously Crystal that Harley has to blink to force herself back into the moment.
"Stephanie?" Harley says, cautiously.
The girl's eyes swing towards Harley with immediate hostility. She's not all Crystal—there's Arthur in the shape of her eyes, the shade of her hair, the curve of her mouth—but the resemblance is still striking.
"Who are you?" Stephanie demands.
"I'm your Mom's friend," Harley offers. "Harley? Harleen?"
Blankness reigns for a moment, and then comprehension flares back up.
"I, uh. If you like, you can stay with me while your mom gets better?"
"Wait a minute," one of the police officers speaks up. "Aren't you…"
"My roommate is a certified foster parent," Harley says loudly, for the social worker's benefit. It's even true—Selina has all her paperwork filled out, all the t's crossed and everything. "So I'm sure we'll be able to work things out."
As awful as it is, it's not like Stephanie has too much say in things. She's fourteen years old, and despite her stubbornness, she's got all the legal rights of one. Her mom has filled out the paperwork that says Harley's her guardian, and so Harley's her guardian, unless a court decides otherwise. And in Gotham, with its foster system overflowing to the brim, the odds aren't too good that someone's going to bother.
The social worker gives Harley the rundown while Stephanie packs a bag. Crystal has been checked into a rehab center, Arthur Brown is in prison after a newbie hero named "Spoiler" had kicked his ass and gotten him sent to prison, and Stephanie has a lot of suspicious bruising, especially around her neck.
Selina and Ivy are gonna kill me.
"Okay," Harley says, smiling at the social worker. "My degree's in psychiatry, and like I said, my roommate's a certified foster parent. Between the two of us, we should be able to help Stephanie adjust while we wait for Crystal to get better."
Also, while Harley gets Crystal transferred to a much better rehab center than the one she's in now. Harley might have sent most of her money to her brother, niece, and nephew, but she's still got a few hundred thousand squirrelled away from the time she, Selina, and Ivy robbed that Hush guy blind. Sure, he ripped out Selina's heart for it, and that sucked, but also, Harley has money now, which is nice! It means that, for starters, she can buy her way into Stephanie's affections, the way she buys her way into her niece and nephew's whenever they've forgotten her because she's been in prison too long.
"Where do you even live?" Stephanie demands, appearing holding a battered duffle bag that Harley's pretty sure used to be Crystal's from college, and a bright purple backpack.
"Gotham," Harley says, doing her best to smile reassuringly at the kid.
Stephanie looks completely unimpressed but follows her into the car.
"Are you really Harley Quinn?" She demands, once they've got her stuff settled in the trunk, and the doors are closed. "The cops said you were."
"I'm doing better now," Harley says. She backs out of the driveway carefully, wanting to get away from the cops before this conversation gets too heated.
"Mom always talked about you in the past tense," Stephanie says, crossing her arms. "So you were off being a bad guy?"
There's a specific loathing in her voice when she says that, a loathing that has Harley's inner therapist sitting up and paying attention.
"I—yeah," she says. She forces her to keep her eyes on the road. "But I don't do that anymore. I got out of Arkham, I'm reformed now."
A scornful scoff emerges from the shotgun seat. "Never heard that one before."
"When did your dad start calling himself Cluemaster?" Harley says, finally putting the pieces together. "I remember Eddie telling me about him; sounded like a real piece of work."
"So you never worked with him?" Stephanie demands. Harley risks a sideways glance at her.
"Nah, he never liked me," Harley says. That, and very few people are dumb enough to team up with Mister Jay, unless they were very good at what they did.
That, at least, seems to win her some points with Stephanie, who seems to relax a little. "Oh." She frowns. "Who's Eddie?"
Harley opens her mouth to say The Riddler, then reconsiders who she's talking to. "A private detective," she says, instead, which is true, even if Stephanie should be able to put together that it's also at least fifteen percent bullshit if she's ever caught one of Eddie's press conferences.
Stephanie accepts this at face value. "So, you've got a roommate?"
"Housemate, really," Harley assures her. "We've got plenty of room, and I'm sure Selina's got a spare bed somewhere. If not, you can have my bed while I crash in the pillow room." Now that she thinks about it, Ivy probably has never used the bed that Selina set up for her to actually sleep. She likes sleeping in her greenhouse, cradled sensually by tree branches and other things like that. "And there's three of us. There's me, Selina, and Ivy."
There's a long, pointed pause. "Ivy," Stephanie says, faintly. "As in Poison Ivy?"
"Reformed, again," Harley says. Then she reconsiders Ivy's bad habits of mind-whamming people out of bus-fares and inconvenient conversations. "Mostly."
"And who's Selina?" Stephanie demands, her voice going higher. "Babydoll? Huntress?"
Stephanie goes silent, then she pulls her feet up onto the leather seat and holds them against her chest.
"I'm going to be living with three badguys?"
"Reformed!" Harley yells, rather desperately this time. Shit, she hopes Selina hasn't stolen anything this week. At least anything too noticeable.
There's gonna be a fourteen-year-old in their house, they're gonna have to—Harley's gonna have to have a talk with Ivy about murder and brainwashing and those dozens of little things that don't bother Harley, not really, but Harley's a traumatized thirty-something who used to date one of the most prolific serial killers in the world, her standards are warped.
It isn't until they pull into the garage that it occurs to Harley that she probably should have called ahead and warned Selina and Ivy what was about to happen.
Ivy is in her garden when she hears the garage door open, and, idly curious about what's kept Harley so long, she stops grafting to wander out into the kitchen to greet her.
She blinks. The blonde in the kitchen is too short to be Harley.
"Harley? Did someone de-age you?"
The girl spins to face her, and blanches. "OhGodyou'rereallygreen."
Nope, not Harley. That accent is pure Gotham. She sighs. "Go home," she advises. "You can tell your friends that yes, Poison Ivy lives here, but the police already know, so you've won your dare, but you don't need to call them."
"Dare?" The girl says, blinking, and it's only then that Harley sees the backpack.
"Ivy!" Harley slides into the kitchen on those ridiculous sneakers of her, nearly wiping out in the process. "I see you met Steph!"
"Steph?" Ivy repeats. She's fairly experienced with children, all things considered, but…
"She's, ah, gonna be stayin' with us for a little while," Harley says, her wide smile vaguely panicked.
"Harley's my godmother," Stephanie says, looking like she'd rather be just about anywhere else.
Ivy stops, and stares at Harley.
"Her ma and I were roommates in undergrad," Harley says, defensively. "Chris and I were tight, before—"
There's only one before that matters to Harley.
Harley's "befores" are a muddled mess, and they're rarely worth prodding. Her family is a disaster that Harley can't draw away from, her professional career is in tatters, and she's… she's never mentioned a friend before.
Ivy feels a strange heat flare up in her chest. She allows it to remain for a moment, examining it, before realizing, with deep-seated horror, that it's jealousy, and buries it as deep as she can.
"You called my mom Chris?" Stephanie says, twisting her head around to look at Harley.
"Sure did," Harley says, looking… younger, somehow. She looks at Ivy. "Hey, if Selina doesn't have a guest bed tucked into this house somewhere, mind if I crash with you while Steph takes my bed?"
A small smile blossoms on Ivy's face before she can stop it. "Of course." She tries to bury the smile like the jealousy, but it's too late, Harley's seen it.
"Aww, I knew you cared!" Harley declares.
"Don't be ridiculous," Ivy says, deflecting, in part because of their audience, in part because Harley is being ridiculous. Of course, Ivy cares. It's Harley who wavers with the seasons, who will leave at a moment's notice, when the Joker comes knocking at their door. But no, of course Ivy is the frigid one, the one who doesn't care. Everyone thinks that, as if she doesn't feel the pain of every blade of grass, the joy of every sprout, the sorrow of every fallen leaf. "We both know I never sleep there."
She turns back to Stephanie. "I suppose Harley has forgotten to show you around?"
"Uh, we only just got here," Stephanie says.
Ivy nods, and leads her to the greenhouse, taking great satisfaction from the way that Stephanie's jaw drops.
Her greenhouse is her pride and joy. The air is hot and steamy, and everywhere… there is green. Plants from all over the world grow alongside each other, and all of Ivy's own hybrids and creations grow here too. The plants all shift in an invisible breeze as Ivy walks by, turning their faces towards her as if she's the sun itself.
"This is where I work on my projects," she says. "If I have the door closed, I'm probably working on something highly toxic, so be sure to knock first. Don't be like Harley."
"Hey!" Harley says, looking offended.
"Don't pick anything without permission," Ivy adds. "Many of them are poisonous."
"Uh, I thought you were against… all picking?" Stephanie asks.
"Well," Ivy says with a sigh. "I do acknowledge that food is necessary. You can't get nutrients the way I do."
Stephanie's eyes dart around the garden, apparently noticing some of the fruit trees for the first time. "So I… ask you?"
"No," Ivy corrects. "Ask the trees."
Harley, as always, is eager to be the example. She leaps onto the rock that Ivy put there to stop Harley from trampling her Creeping Charlie and reaches up towards the branches of a beautiful peach tree.
"Hey there!" Harley calls. "Got anything to spare, pretty please?"
The tree's leaves rustle, as it considers Harley's request, and then a ripe, yellow-and-pink peach falls right into Harley's outstretched hand.
Stephanie's eyes are nearly as large as the peach itself. "That's… really cool," she whispers.
Ivy smiles. "I'm glad you think so. Now, onto the labs."
Ivy gives Stephanie a rundown on basic lab safety, because she knows there's not much point in forbidding a teenager to go somewhere, so it's much better to just make sure that if she breaks in, she does it safely.
"Harley? Ivy? Why is there a backpack on the kitchen—oh." Selina enters the lab, dressed in a sleek red suit with a rich purple shell top beneath it. "Who's this?"
"I'm Stephanie Brown," she says. "Harley's my guardian, she was my mom's college roommate, I'm staying here while my mom's in the hospital, my dad's Cluemaster, you're Catwoman, it's nice to meet you."
"Cluemaster? That tacky asshole?" Selina says lip curling.
Pure delight crosses Stephanie's face.
"Well, I'm afraid that our guest rooms aren't furnished right now," Selina says, regretfully.
They have guest rooms? That's news to Ivy. The only "guest" she's noticed since arriving here, before Stephanie at least, was Talia al Ghul, who always came in through Selina's window, and certainly never stayed longer than a single night.
"She can have my room until we can go shopping," Harley says, full of good cheer.
"Well," Selina says, rallying from the surprise. "Let's finish the tour then, and you can have a lie down while we figure out what we're doing for dinner. I'm sure it's been a long day, especially if you had to deal with Harley for too long."
"Oh, it's definitely been a long—hey!" Harley squawks, mock-offended, and Stephanie actually smiles, although she tries to hide it by ducking her head.
They show her through the rest of the house, and then finally show her to Harley's disaster of a room. Harley apologizes and quickly shoves everything into the closet, while Selina goes and fetches a change of sheets, as well as a towel.
"Get some rest," Selina suggests, smiling, as she hands over the linens and towel. "The bathroom's just next door feel, so free to clean up if you want. We'll probably just order in tonight, so don't stress about anything. We can figure out the plan after we eat."
Stephanie pauses, then takes the pile from Selina. "Thanks," she says, looking absolutely overwhelmed.
"It's no problem," Selina says, her smile perfect.
It's not until the door closes that Ivy clasps a hand over Harley's mouth to stop her from yelping when the two of them drag her down to the security room to yell at her.
"What were you thinking?" Selina hisses. "A kid?"
"She's alone! Her dad's a dick! And I—I promised her mom I'd look after her, and Chris can't look after her right now, it's just until she gets out of rehab, I promise," Harley says, waving her hands. "Listen I—I know it's gonna be weird! But I promise, I'll behave! And you guys've gotta too!"
"Of course I'll behave," Ivy says, offended.
"That means no whammies!" Harley says, pointing at her.
"… not even—"
"None!" Harley says. "What's that gonna teach her about—about consent, and her body, her choice, she's fourteen, we've gotta—we've gotta set an example!"
Selina is smirking, like an asshole, so Ivy points at her. "What about her?"
"No crime!" Harley yells, waving her arms in the air. "None at all! Did you see her bruises? Her dad's a villain, and he was an abusive dickhead, we're not gonna be running around committing crime, are you—"
"And what about you?" Selina asks, crossing her arms.
Harley stops. "What about me?"
"You're talking about setting an example," Selina says, her expression positively predatory. "So what kind of example are you going to be, when you take off on her the moment the Joker gives you a call?"
Ivy watches as Harley's face goes through an entire gamut of emotions, before finally settling on determined. "So… I won't go with him," she says, holding her chin firmly. "I—I promise."
Neither of them really believes her—they've seen her fall into this cycle too many times. But it's always nice to see her at least try. Ivy kisses Harley on the cheek.
"Okay," she says, reluctantly. She's going to have to get a bus pass. "We'll be good. While she's here."
Harley looks relieved, so of course that's when the alarm goes off, letting them know that there's an intruder.
They all rush towards the screen, and pause, as they spot Stephanie Brown, aged fourteen, wearing a purple, hooded outfit, dangling from her window by her fingertips.
"… oh hey, that's Spoiler!" Harley says.
"… that's Stephanie," Selina points out.
"… oh. Well. Shit."
"Have a vigilante staying with us?" Selina says, looking far too amused. "So it seems."
"We can't let her—she could get hurt!" Harley says.
They both look at her. "That never works," Ivy points out.
"Well," Selina says, reaching for her whip. "At the very least, we can stop her from breaking her neck. That way she can leave via the front door from now-on."
Ivy sighs, looking longingly at her greenhouse.
Things were so simple, just a few hours ago.
Selina Kyle has been dealing with teenaged vigilantes for years now. First there was Dick Grayson, then Jason Todd, and currently, there's Tim Drake.
Admittedly, despite some close calls during Jason's days, she's never been in a position of guardianship of said teenaged vigilante.
Stephanie sits at the table, with her arms crossed, still in her costume, while Harley orders pizza from her laptop.
"Do ya have favorite toppings?" Harley says. "This place is really great—they've even got this kosher-sausage that's way better than pepperoni."
"… what?" Stephanie says, looking absolutely baffled. To be fair, that's a pretty common reaction to Harley.
"We're not going to hurt you," Selina assures her. "Ivy never hurt kids, Harley's reformed, and I'm a thief."
She crosses her arms. "So was my dad."
Selina feels fundamentally insulted. "Cluemaster was a robber," she says, fundamentally offended on behalf of her profession. "I don't need weapons or master plans, I—"
Selina sighs, shoulders slumping. "I'm also reformed," she admits. It's annoying, that's what it is, but that's the way things have unfolded right now.
Stephanie looks thoroughly unconvinced.
"Listen, you can call Batman—"
Stephanie scoffs. "How?"
Selina stops cold. "He—didn't give you his contact information?"
"Why would he?" She says with a wide, stubborn scowl. "He says I'm 'too young' and 'too inexperienced' and—"
"Harley, extra-olives on mine," Selina says, cutting her off. "I have a call to make."
She's dialing Bruce Wayne's number before she's out the door.
"What the hell were you thinking?" She yells, as soon as he answers.
Bruce blinks. "Selina?"
There's a pause. "What… about her?"
"You're letting a fourteen-year-old vigilante run around Gotham, and you don't even give her your fucking phone number?"
"Don't you dare," Selina cuts him off. "She's older than Dick and Jason both were, so pull the other one." She sighs, runs her hands through her hair. "You know what, I don't care what your awful decision-making process was. She's living in my house now, and I expect you on the roof in three hours to provide her with your contact information so she can reach out to you in the future. And also, you're going to convince her that Ivy and Harley aren't going to kill her."
Bruce's silence rings.
"Oh shut up, you know they're not," she snaps. "You keep the Joker in Arkham, and we'll be fine until her mother's out of rehab."
"… fine," Bruce says, reluctantly.
"Good," she snaps. "And I'm taking Talia as my date to the next gala." She hangs up the phone, knowing it was a petty sign off, but he deserves it, damn it. He should know better, than to let a teenager run around Gotham without any ability to call for backup.
She goes back into the kitchen, where Stephanie hasn't seemed to budge an inch, while Harley and Ivy are arguing about the nutritional content of soda, and whether or not caffeine will stunt Stephanie's growth.
"Doctors," Selina tells Stephanie, fondly. The girl flinches when Selina speaks—she hadn't heard her come in, and Selina makes note to avoid doing that in the future. "Well, Batman's coming by in three hours to talk to you. I'm sure if you want to find somewhere else to live, somewhere without reformed supervillains, he'll help with that."
Stephanie looks skeptical. "He will?"
"He owes me a few," Selina says.
"And you cashed them in for me?"
Selina knows that expression of disbelief, that lack of understanding at what should be a very basic kindness.
There's nothing that Selina can say that will reassure her, so she just grins. "So, did Harley actually end up ordering, or did they end up bickering first?"
"They ordered," Stephanie says, staring up at Selina with… something in her eyes. "But Ivy wouldn't let Harley order soda with it, and then Harley says she's got some in the fridge anyways—"
Selina laughs. "That sounds about right."
After dinner, Harley and Ivy end up going to bed early—and despite Ivy's protestations, they definitely both head towards the bedroom.
Selina puts on her own suit, and then escorts Stephanie up to the roof.
Stephanie's Spoiler outfit is cute. Not enough armor, to be sure, but it's a problem that throwing a few thousand dollars at it can fix easily. Ideally, Bruce's money, but Selina's not too picky.
There's something about Stephanie Brown that sets Selina's teeth on edge. There's something raw and familiar about her; maybe it's the look in her eyes, or the bruise around her throat, spread out like a handprint. It puts Selina in mind of one of her mother's boyfriends, the one who had locked her in a closet, who had tried to hurt the kitten she had smuggled into the house. He'd grabbed her by the neck at one point, just like that.
It's an old hurt, one Selina doesn't like to dwell on, but Stephanie Brown, with her full-face mask covering all of her expressions and bruises, seems to bring it up.
"He's really not that scary," Selina tells her, as they wait. "He talks big, but it's mostly just talk."
Stephanie manages to convey skepticism with her head tilt.
"Oh, you'll see," Selina says, glancing at the cluster of shadows to her left where she's spotted movement.
Stephanie yelps. Selina doesn't.
"Wait, she actually called you?" Stephanie says.
Selina laughs. "Like I said, kiddo." She kisses Steph on the cheek. "A softie."
She leaves them alone on the roof to talk.
But only twenty minutes later, Stephanie emerges from the roof, a tiny little communicator clenched triumphantly in her fist.
"Keeping an eye on us, huh?" Selina says, stretching her legs. "Thought you'd want to get out of here as soon as possible."
Stephanie shrugs. "I—thanks." She flees to her room without another word, but Selina smiles.
She's going to be okay, that kid.
Harley takes her shopping the next day, cheerfully dragging her through the store to buy anything and everything she could possibly need, all at ridiculously fancy stores that Mom could never have afforded to take her.
Steph has stopped to stroke a soft, velvety bedspread, when Harley stops to look at her.
"Your mom's favorite color was purple, in college," she says, randomly.
Steph stops, and looks at her in surprise. "Really?"
Favorite colors aren't exactly a topic that's come up with her mom. Sure, Mom wears it, but she wears just about any color that isn't orange. All of their clothes come from second-hand shops, because money to spare goes to the mortgage payments, Steph's college savings that Mom has had the good sense to lock Dad out of years ago, and Mom's medication.
Harley looks pathetically, desperately upset at that. "Really," she says. She shakes her head, as if throwing something off, and then grabs Steph by the hand and pulls her to the next display.
"What was she like? In college? Before my dad?" Steph asks.
"Oh, he was already around," Harley says. "But not… always? I don't remember much about him at first. We always just ended up hanging around on our own, when she wasn't with his friends or me with my program friends." She picks up a huge, tube shaped red pillow, and hugs it to her chest, looking thoughtful. "I—I don't remember everything. I've got some, ah, brain damage. It can be a bit fuzzy."
"Oh," Steph says, fiddling with the floral throw pillow's ruffle to stop her from looking at Harley.
"She made great waffles," Harley says. "And when we'd get sick of studyin' she'd always be up for sitting on the fire escape and starin' up at the stars. We'd go get milkshakes at three in the morning—there was this corner place, not too far from our apartment, and we'd go there and sit on the bench outside, even when it was really fuckin' cold, and we'd look up at the moon, if we could see it, otherwise we'd just people watch until we got sleepy or our hands went numb." Harley drops the pillow, looking far away. "And when I had my big fight with my mom—a big fight? Not sure—she pulled the phone out of the plug so it'd stop ringing, and then she went with me to the synagogue even though she had no idea what she was even doing, but she knew it was important to me, and she wanted to prove to me that I could still have that, even if I wasn't going to do it with my—my family."
Harley stares blankly at the blanket.
"She was my best friend," Harley says, very softly. "I—lots of people called me Harley to be mean, but she did it because we were friends."
"Why'd—why'd you stop?" Steph asks, desperately clinging on to every word. She can almost see it; her mom, young like she was in her wedding photos, with curves on her body and her hair glossy and sleek, rather than the dirty, starved look of her. Smiling and laughing, her arms draped over the shoulders of a younger Harley.
Harley blinks. "I—I met Mister Jay." She frowned. "And—I think your dad."
Steph blinks. "My—my dad?"
Harley frowns, counting on her fingers down to something that Steph can't see. "I—yeah, I think that's right? She had this—she had this bruise. On her face. And she stopped answering my calls and cancelling our nights out and then I moved away 'cuz I got that job at Arkham." Harley looks at her.
Steph bunches her fingers in the cover. "He ruins everything," she says, shoulders shaking with rage.
Harley looks vaguely panicked, and then, the next thing Steph knows, Harley has thrown herself across the bed and is holding her in her arms.
"Nah, he doesn't ruin everything," Harley says, while Steph flails her arms around, trying to stay upright. "You're here, and you're awesome, and I'm awesome, and once your mom gets out of rehab, she's gonna be awesome, and it's all gonna be fine."
At this point, Steph does lose her balance, because gravity hates her, and falls flat on her back into a pile of loose stuffed animals, with a hundred and fifty pounds of tiny but muscled mostly-reformed supervillain on top of her.
In the end, Harley buys her a fluffy purple duvet, more pillows than Steph could ever possibly need, and when they get back from their trip, she finds out that Selina has installed a massive television in her room, two cats have made her suitcase their home, Ivy has placed five plants of various sizes in her windowsill, and giant metal bookcase has appeared, filled with what looks to be suspiciously the exact contents of her bookcase back at her house. There are posters on the walls of her favorite bands, and Selina's left a post-it-note on her door telling her to come to the equipment room when she's done unpacking, because she needs an upgrade.
"What the fuck," Steph says with meaning, staring at the two cats. There is a tuxedo and a tabby, all meowing up at her curiously.
Batman had told her that she would be safe here, but that doesn't mean she's not really, really confused.
She makes her bed, still not sure why, exactly, Harley thinks she needs enough pillows to suffocate in, and then goes to find Selina.
"Stephanie!" Selina says, waving. "Right, so, we're lucky, Talia's in town this week and she'd love to put you through your paces to see what style suits you best. The Costumer is a bit reluctant, since you're a hero and all, but I put in a good word and really, she does the best work, and your current outfit isn't nearly breathable enough."
Steph blinks. "Why does it… need to breathe?"
"Sweat, Stephanie, sweat. Not everyone needs full armor—we'll see what Talia has to say about that, she's one of the best, she'll be able to point you in the right direction. We'll probably get you a Kevlar vest at the very least, but it's heavy, and weighs you down, which can be tricky if you're dependent on acrobatics."
Steph feels like she's been thrown off balance. "Who's—who's Talia?" She asks. That seems to be the safest question.
"Her girlfriend," Harley sings, wrapping her arms around Selina's waist.
"A dangerous assassin," Ivy says, her lips pursed disapprovingly.
"Both," Selina says. "She's currently the CEO of Lex Corp. She's brilliant, she'll love you. And she's very good at helping identifying strengths in a style." Selina waves her hands.
"I thought—aren't you dating Batman?" Steph says, feeling more and more confused by the moment.
"Sometimes," Selina says, with a half-smile at her before returning to her topic of choice. "Gotham's got plenty of vigilantes, we'll be able to scrape someone up to help you if none of us are a perfect match."
"I think she'll fight like me!" Harley says, throwing her hands in the air enthusiastically. "She's a brawler, for sure!"
"If that's the case, we're getting her a lot of body armor," Ivy says, sniffing. "You get shot too often."
"Only like—" Harley pauses, thinking. "Okay, maybe it's a lot. But still!"
"Anyways," Selina says. "I know you haven't really settled on a weapon yet, but I figure you can't exactly go wrong with hitting your enemies with a big stick." She produces—well, it's exactly what she says. It's made of metal—wood seems to be in short supply in this house—and taller than her.
"It's a bo staff," Selina says, throwing it at Steph, who catches it more on instinct than anything else.
"Do you fight with this?" Steph says, examining it.
"No," Selina says, showing Steph the tips of her gloves. "Diamond tips. They help with climbing, but they work in a fight. I've also got my whip."
"It's closer to what I fight with," Harley volunteers, producing…
"Is that a baseball bat?"
"It's an improvement on the gag hammer, trust me," Ivy says.
"I—okay?" Steph says. She's overwhelmed, but what else is new? She's been overwhelmed since Harley walked into her house, revealing herself to be the long-lost Auntie Harley who Steph had grown up clinging to stories about, sure in her belief that one day, Auntie Harley was going to come back, with her fancy degrees and her big smile and sweep Steph and her mom away. Later, Auntie Harley had been replaced by Batman, who Steph would eagerly wait to show up and take her dad away for good.
Neither of them had ever materialized, at least not long enough to make a difference, so Steph had come to the realization that she was going to have to save herself.
That's what the Spoiler was for, after all.
But now Harley's shown up, and she's both exactly like Mom described, and nothing like her at all.
"Think fast!" Harley yells, swinging her baseball bat at Steph.
Steph blocks on pure instinct, and Selina and Harley both look proud, and Ivy even seems to be approving.
"Okay, now hit back," Selina says, sitting on the table, leaning forward. "Go high!"
Training lasts for what feels like hours, and Steph finally crawls into bed, too tired to even consider patrol, but happy.
The next few days go by in a blur.
Talia appears, and puts Steph through some frantic, wild exercises that involve, among other things, falling from great heights and having to catch herself, doing cartwheels, punching things, kicking things, hitting Harley with just about every weapon Selina and Talia can find for her, and doing pull-ups, because she can't, in fact, escape gym class.
"Harley will do as an initial instructor," Talia announces at the end of it. "I'd suggest you get Black Canary and Onyx to supplement your training. Eskrima, more than the bo staff, I think, Selina," she says. "A good instinct, but I believe she's going to pick up whatever's nearest, in the end, and bo staffs are more difficult to maneuver around." She kisses Selina firmly on the mouth, picks up her purse, and then goes to wreak havoc on the stock market or whatever it is that CEO's do when they're not writing up training schedules for vigilantes.
She does indeed get fitted by an elegantly suited woman with neon-pink hair, and a neat package appears on the doorstep the next day with a new, sleeker version of her costume, and Selina provides her with a belt filled with all sorts of goodies, courtesy of someone called Oracle.
Whoever Oracle is, she's amazing, and Steph wants to meet her.
Steph is so busy training with Harley and a gorgeous, tall, bald woman with dark brown skin named Onyx that she doesn't even think to count the days, until Harley arrives at her door one morning, wearing the weirdly sedate blazer she'd worn to pick Steph up, on that first day.
"Your mom can take visitors today," Harley says. She's pulled her hair into a bun, and looks terrified, her Brooklyn accent fading in the process, sounding almost like she's lived in Gotham for longer than Steph's been alive.
"Oh," Steph says. "Okay. Let me… get dressed?"
"'course," Harley says, before closing the door behind her.
Steph feels weirdly nervous as she gets into the passenger seat. Did Mom know that Harley was Harley Quinn? Did Mom just… forget, who Steph's legal guardian was? Did she try to change it at some point, and it's going to come out that Steph shouldn't be staying with her, and she'll have to go into foster care and—
"Hey," Harley says, reaching over and squeezing Steph's shoulder. "It's going to be okay."
The facility they go to is nicer than any of the ones that Mom's been to previously. Steph stares at Harley suspiciously, but Harley doesn't look at her, instead showing her driver's license to the lady at the front desk, and then the two of them are lead into a pretty, well-lit room with soft chairs, where Mom is sitting, looking way better. She's still too thin, but her hair has been cut, and it looks soft and clean and alive, and her eyes light up when she sees Steph.
"Steph," she says softly, and Steph can't help it.
"Mom!" She says, throwing herself across the room, into her mother's arms.
She's crying, she can't help it, giant, snotty sobs as she holds onto her mom as tightly as she can.
"My girl," Crystal whispers, her own voice thick with tears, "I'm sorry, I'm so sorry—"
Finally, Steph forces herself to take a step back, wiping away the dampness on her face. Harley hands her a tissue, and she blows her nose.
"Oh, I'm sorry," Crystal says. "You must be—her social worker?"
"Jeeze, Chris," Harley says, laughing nervously. "Did he hit you that hard? Wait, that was bad, I'm sorry—"
"Harley?" Mom breathes, staring at her like she's seeing a ghost. "I—what did you do to your hair?"
Harley touches it, confused, and then laughs. "Right! I dyed it! Guess we match now, huh?"
Mom stares at Harley like she's seeing a ghost. "I—you've been looking after her?"
"Of course!" Harley says. "I promised I would."
"Even—but I heard—the Joker?"
"It's over," Harley says, looking like she wants to be anywhere but here. "I—I've got a place of my own, I've got roommates, I'm out on parole, Bruce Wayne vouched for me and everything—"
"I—" Mom cuts her off. "Oh Harley."
She reaches out, past Steph, and pulls Harley into a tight hug of her own.
"Thank you," Steph hears her say. "Oh Harley, thank you."
Harley hugs her back, and she hears her make a damp chuckle. "We both have really awful taste in men, Chris," she whispers.
Crystal Brown lets out a hysterical laugh of her own. "We really do," she says.
She finally pulls back, and sits down again, reaching out to grab Steph's hand. "So. Roommates? Where are you staying?"
Harley suddenly looks panicked.
"We're staying with Catwoman and Poison Ivy, but Batman says they're cool and they're training me to be a superhero," Steph announces.
"Harley!" Crystal says, whipping her head around to glare at Harley.
"She was already doing it!" Harley yells, throwing her hands up in the air.
"Traitor," Steph hisses out of the corner of her mouth, as her Mom turns her glare onto her.
Sudden comprehension fills her mother's eyes, and the glare dissipates. "That new vigilante who they said took down Cluemaster?"
Steph ducks her head. "I—maybe?"
"Oh Stephanie," Mom says, reaching out and cupping her face in her hands. "That was very reckless. Brave. But reckless. He could've—" She swallows, looking down. "Killed you," she whispers. "God, he could have killed you."
"He's not getting near either of you again," Harley says, cheerfully. "Once you're out of here, we're going to Divorce Court! It'll be exciting, we'll get a restraining order and everything."
Crystal puts her head down in her hands. "Harley," she says, a few rueful laughs breaking through her fingers. "You have never done anything by halves, have you?"
"Nope!" Harley says, throwing her hands out wide. "And you love me for it!"
"You've got my mom mixed up with Ivy," Steph says.
"Ivy—Harley! You didn't say!"
"Uh, we're—she doesn't like labels?" Harley says, looking rather put upon.
"She says you're the one who doesn't like labels," Steph says, innocently.
"Sounds to me, Stephanie," Mom says, "That our dear doctor might be having some communication issues."
"Shit, there's two of you," Harley says. "I'm an adult! You can't guilt me!"
"Watch me," Crystal and Steph say in unison.
All three of them start laughing, and the warm, fuzzy feeling in Steph's chest continues long after the laughter stops.