It started by accident.
Bruce—Matches Malone, really—is sitting at a table in the bar, fiddling with his matchbook, listening to everyone chatter. It's only the first round, so no one's actually talking business yet.
Being Matches Malone is a careful balancing act that he always struggles to master. He's ensured that he and Batman have been spotted in the same place over the years thanks to the help of Dick and Alfred.
Over the years, he's learned his lesson about acting on every piece of information people give him as Matches too. He covers his tracks, he cultivates sources, he helps people make connections that help them find legitimate work if they want it.
And, one Thursday a month, he tries to make it to the Poker Game at Vinnie's.
Vinnie's is a smoky, crowded establishment with cheap beer and worse wine, but the cook's not half bad, the stakes in the game aren't too high, and, most importantly, none of the big players come around.
It's just a rotating cast of wanna-bes and flunkies. Everyone trades tips on what it's like to work for each different boss in Gotham—never say no if the Joker says he wants to hire you, be sure to carry extra pens if you're pulling shifts with the Riddler, Harley might be looking to hire, so getting dog biscuits for the Hyenas is always a smart move to get on her good side. They drink, they gossip, and, towards the end of the night, after a few too many, they'll go straight back to their bosses with trackers on their shoes.
"I've got to duck out early tonight," Bertie declares. "My son's got a game in the morning, and I've gotta cheer him on."
"Think he's gotta chance at goin' to State?" Bruce asks, switching his match to the other side of his mouth. Bertie is a petty crook; a mean hand at carjacking and a damn good driver. He's running with Nygma right now, and Eddie's one of the better employers in these parts, so Bertie's rolling high, drinking well, and in a good mood.
"Maybe!" Bertie says, puffing out his chest in a tipsy sort of pride. "He's the best damn catcher his team's seen in years, that's what his coach says. Why, they're starting to talk scholarships for him."
"The Knights could use a good catcher," Bruce says, scoffing, and there's a chorus of agreement.
But instead of the topic of conversation switching to sports, like Bruce expected, Bertie leans forward, curiously.
"Hey Matches, you got any kids?"
Bruce blinks, surprised.
"Not unless someone's not telling me somethin'," he says with a drawl.
His mind is racing, and then he realizes.
Most of the people at this table have kids. They're looking for a new topic, something to relate to, all of them wanting to talk about their own kids.
Well, he can work with this.
He casts his mind around, trying to come up with a good basis. As he's learned when he transformed himself into Matches Malone, a lie is always the best with a foundation of the truth.
"My sister has a kid though," he says, absently striking his match against the table and letting it burn. "She's… oh, sixteen this year? Minnie. A real chip off the old block," he says, proudly. "The other day this fella at her school was bein' fresh with her and she knocked his teeth clean out of his head."
"Damn!" Lenny cackles, throwing his drink back. "Sounds like her mom's got her hands full, Matches."
"Oh you've got no idea," Bruce says, unable to stop himself from grinning as he remembers Steph recounting nearly this exact story—only the guy in question had been a perp with a gun who thought that it was appropriate to comment on Stephanie's supposed promiscuity, rather than a classmate practicing his catcalling. "She's a riot. Stubborn as a mule, never lets me boss her around."
The table laughs at that. "You'll have to bring her around sometime," Martin says. "My little girl could use a babysitter who could teach her how to throw a punch."
Bruce makes a vague noise that could be agreement but also could be literally anything else, and starts the next hand.
He doesn't mean to make it a habit.
When he's drinking at the bar, one of his buddies asks him for advice with teenaged girls, and he spins a tale about how he'd realized that telling Stephanie to do something without a proper explanation for why was the fastest way to get her to do the immediate opposite. Only, instead of becoming a vigilante, he makes it about sneaking out of her mom's apartment to go to parties.
A few weeks later, he needs to tell a funny story to stop everyone from getting suspicious and drawing guns, so he spins a yarn about how Minnie met her boy, Alvin, by slamming him in the face with a brick because she thought he was a guy who was stalking her.
Minnie takes on a life of her own very quickly. She's a version of Stephanie who's a little more stubborn, a little less sweet, who's more interested in partying and boys than vigilantism.
But sometimes Minnie doesn't fit the bill, so he finds himself expanding the cast of characters.
There's already "Minnie's boy" Alvin, who she's on-and-off again with a dizzying regularity, who keeps switching schools because of all the trouble his dad gets into, who wants to be a professional skateboarder.
Cass ends up needing to practice her undercover work, and so he helps her apply heavy layers of eyeliner and temporary highlights in her hair and introduces her as his girlfriend's kid Roxie. Cass goes all in on her "Roxie" personality, declaring that Roxie is a "scene kid" whatever that means, and getting into ripped up clothing, dancing, and picking pockets.
"Who's her mom, Matches?"
"My old high school girlfriend, Roseanne," he says. "She reached out to me recently, and, y'know, it's been a fun time."
"Hey Matches, how long ago did you and her break up?" Lenny says, his face a little funny.
Bruce pretends to not understand the angle of the question. "Oh, about eighteen years ago."
"And how old's Roxie?" Jim asks, staring at where Cass is losing badly at pool. She sees that Bruce is looking, and waves enthusiastically.
"Seventeen," he says. "Why?"
Jim opens his mouth, and then winces, as if three separate people had just trodden on his foot.
"Oh, no reason," Lenny says, throwing an arm over his shoulder.
Duke becomes Minnie's half-brother Markus, because apparently he needs a kid who looks like he could plausibly do sports, and even though Duke plays just as much Dungeons and Dragons as Tim, he's got a stockier build than Tim and looks less ridiculous in a letter-jacket when Bruce has him pose for photos.
"What are you doing?" Duke asks, holding the football, looking a little confused.
"Background work for a case," Bruce says.
It's not a lie, he reminds himself, as he shows off photos of Markus's big game the next day.
"I'm a bit worried he's running around with that Midtown gang," he confesses to Fingers that night. "That Robin gang, y'know?"
"Ah, shit, Matches," Fingers says. "What are ya gonna do?"
"I don't know," Bruce says, looking like he's on the verge of tears. "He's not listenin' to me when I tell him that the Bats ain't done anyone in our family any good, and I keep tryin' to keep him at home cuz I hear that Two Face is gonna do a raid on their hideout, but I don't know when, and he won't stay every night—"
"Damn, Matches," Fingers says, looking terribly sorry for him. "Hang on, my brother's running with Two Face right now. I'll see if we can get the date, so you can keep him safe. You helped my boy with those pot charges last week, it's the least I can do."
Fingers provides the date, and the Bats happen to intercept the attack on the Robin HQ. Matches Malone buys Fingers drinks all night in thanks for keeping Markus safe.
"What's this?" Stephanie asks, a few weeks later, when he hands her a fake ID for Minnie Malone.
"In case of emergencies," he says, and then walks away.
The next weekend finds him elbow-deep in a pool game, sharing pictures of Roxie and Minnie's Junior Prom, and bragging about Minnie's placement in her gymnastics tournament and Roxie getting her green belt in Taekwondo.
"She can kick anyone's ass!" Matches Malone tells anyone who will listen, earnestly. "Why, I bet she could beat Batman himself if she wanted to."
Everyone laughs and slaps him on the back, no one realizing that he is telling the absolute truth.
Jason and Dick become his cousins, brothers Pete and Ric who specialize in B&E and box on the side in one of the underground fighting rings in Bludhaven. Photos of them sparring in the Bat Cave enter the rotation of photographs, stories of Pete's childhood carjacking attempts become a bar favorite, as does every story of Ric getting stuck in trees or on ledges or any other high surface he can manage.
"Man, if you ever need a laugh, ask Matches about his kids," Carl tells one of the newcomers one poker night, when he thinks Bruce can't hear. "He's got no kids himself, but he's got these cousins and nieces and nephews, and his girlfriend's kid, and he loves nothin' more than bragging about how great they are. The way he talks, you'd think that every one of them is an all-star athlete and honor roll student leading every single club they're a part of."
"What, are they?"
"Nah, of course not. He's just got a blind spot for them. But they get into some wild shit, let me tell you. Just watch. Hey Matches!"
"Hmm?" Bruce slurs, holding up glass of whiskey up to his mouth.
"Tell Tony about the time that your girl Minnie got pissed at you and painted her boy's car purple!"
"Tony! Hi!" Matches Malone throws his arm over Tony's shoulders. "Oh man, so my sister's back with Minnie's dad, who's a spot of trouble, let me tell you, but Minnie says that if anyone's gonna shoot that bastard's kneecaps out it's gonna be her, so Minnie's crashing at my place for a while, and well, she and her Alvin had a falling out again, because, well, she says he was nosing around this other girl and he says it was a misunderstanding, but well, Minnie's not got much tolerance for that sorta thing, not after what her mom's gone through, but when she asks me for lighter fluid, I tell 'er she can't make a Molotov cocktail for his car unless she's seen him cheatin', not just chasing after other girls, and so she says, fine, you and me are goin' to the hardware store, cuz I need paint."
Really, he hadn't been involved at all, and Steph was mad at Tim for reasons entirely separate from relationship drama, as they'd been broken up for nearly two years now, but he's reluctant to rotate Alvin out of the cast of characters for reasons he's not sure he has words for. But Stephanie had gotten furious at Tim, and he had been forced to interfere before Jason had taught Steph how to make a Molotov cocktail, even if Steph and Jason both insist that was unrelated to Steph's vengeance, which appeared to be rooted in Steph's planned bust of a jewel smuggling ring, which Tim had accidentally cracked first.
"Anyways, so she gets these water balloons," he says. "And she fills them with paint. And then she calls up Roxie and Markus and tells 'em what Alvin did, and well, first Markus offers to get the team to go 'round to Alvin's place and teach him how to respect women, but Minnie insists that if anyone's gonna teach him that, it'll be her job, if she decides he's worth the trouble once he's done grovelin', and then she hands them buckets of those damn balloons, and the three of them just take turns throwin' 'em all over the fuckin' place, and they don't stop until that dumbass hybrid of his is purpler than the fuckin' Spoiler."
The entire bar roars with laughter, and Tony laughs too, and lets Matches Malone buy him a drink.
"You really love this kid, huh?" Tony says, after Bruce shows him a photo of Steph, a bruise on her jaw, giving Duke bunny ears. It really doesn't take much photoshop work to turn most of the photos of his kids into ones of Matches Malone's family.
"Of course," Matches Malone says. "She's sharp as a goddamn whip, and she's gonna do way better for herself than me. Stubborn as a mule, not 'boutta let anyone tell her who she is or what she's gonna do, and…" He leans in, as if conveying a very important secret. "She's got a mean left hook."
Tony laughs loudly, slapping Matches on the back, and he ends up spilling his guts to Matches Malone about how Harvey Dent is talking to a plastic surgeon in hopes of fixing his face again..
A productive night, for sure, Bruce thinks to himself, draining his pocket flask of all of the whisky he pours into there rather than actually get drunk at Vinnie's into a decanter that Jason thinks Bruce doesn't know he's been sneaking drinks from for years.
Steph is in the Bat Cave, using the computer to do research on her latest project, which is mostly about tracking down the magic user who's been opening portals into alternate dimensions all over Gotham. Steph got caught up in one of those the other day, and she's been a bit off balance since. Not that Bruce blames her.
"Any luck?" He asks, looking over her shoulder at her map.
She startles, but doesn't jump. Her years as a hero have paid off, he notes with approval. Even if she's surprised, she doesn't show it.
"Some," she says, glancing at him over her shoulder at him before pointing to the screen, where there's fuzzy security footage, showing a man in a long cape and a dramatic top-hat, and a mug-shot that seems to show the same man. "I think I've got a positive ID, and he's definitely forming a pattern, I just haven't identified what he's after—"
He lets her ramble about her work for a while, before he points out that the sightings are all within a three block radius of known meth labs, and she curses in a creative mixture of Spanish and Swahili before she goes back to work, her eyes narrowed as she starts incorporating that data into her attempts to locate his next target.
He pauses at the foot of the ramp back up to the Manor, trying to figure out how to tell her that she'd have figured out about the Meth on her own, it just sometimes takes a fresh pair of eyes to solve a problem a little quicker…
He can't think of the words, so he just goes upstairs to check in on the others.
Stephanie's on patrol in Burnley when she gets the weirdest call of her entire life.
And, given that she's been a superhero for just about three and a half years, that's saying something.
"Ah, Miss Brown?" Alfred says on her comm, sounding a little harried. "I'm sorry to intrude, but if you don't mind, Master Bruce needs you to switch into civilian clothes and go to."
Steph blinks. "What? Really?"
"I'm sorry, it's rather urgent, but you need to extract Matches quickly."
"Matches?" Steph says, ducking behind a chimney to give herself a quick façade of privacy while she changes.
"Use the fake identity Master Bruce gave you, Minnie Malone. You're looking for your uncle, your cousin Pete's got caught by Batman, and he needs to come home now."
"Got it," Steph says, letting her hair out of her ponytail.
There's a protocol for this, but Steph really hopes she'll be able to get her cape back, activating the beacon on her belt as she ditches her costume. Sure, it's replaceable, but she hates having to ask Bruce for a new one.
She knows Vinnie's—it's not a hot spot, but she's seen enough people be thrown out of the plate glass window there to know it by sight.
"Hey girlie, you're too young to in here," the guy at the door says, looking bored.
"It's fuckin' Gotham, who cares?" She demands, throwing a heavy Burnley accent on for good measure. She flinches, as if she's realizing that she shouldn't have said that. "Look, I'm sorry, I'm just lookin' for my Uncle Matches, an' my mom says he's here tonight, I—"
"No shit," the man says, suddenly. "Are you Minnie?"
"Yeah I am," she says, putting her hands on her hips, wondering what the hell Bruce has gotten her into. "What's it to you?"
The man laughs. "Damn, I was starting to think you were a figment of Matches' imagination."
She wrinkles her nose. "Uncle Matches wishes he was smart enough to come up with me."
He flat out cackles, slapping his knee. "Damn, you really are Matches' girl. Alright kid, go on in."
She enters the bar, which smells of cigarette smoke and cheap beer, and casts her eyes around, before her eyes land on a man with a large nose, a slouch, a tacky suit, and a matchstick dangling out of the corner of his mouth. He's talking with a tall, blocky man who she's pretty sure is working for Ventriloquist, and the guy's looking hostile.
"Uncle Matches!" She yells, and activity in the bar grinds to a halt. Every head in the place turns to face her, and she realizes, acutely, how many people in this bar are packing heat.
"Minnie?" He says, and fuck her, it's Bruce, with a prosthetic nose, a fake mustache, and a shit ton of grease in his hair. "Oh hey! Minnie! Jack, have I told you about Minnie?" He gestures for her to come closer, and she sighs, knowing that the eyes of all the bar are on her, rolls her eyes like a put-upon teenager, and stalks up to him.
"Uncle Matches, my mom says that—"
"Minnie here just placed third at her gymnastics tournament!" Bruce says, throwing his arm over his shoulder, which absolutely shorts out her brain.
"Oh?" The goon says, looking as baffled as Steph feels.
"Oh yeah," he says. "She's a right chip off the old block, why, you should've seen her the other night when she found some punk kid tryin' to steal her bike. She kicked his ass all the way to Robbinsville, it was great. Should've seen his face, right Minnie?"
… she had kicked the ass of a guy earlier last week, because he'd been trying to steal someone's bicycle. Is… is that what he meant?
"Pff, Uncle Matches, it wasn't that great," she says, but she wraps her arm around his waist anyways, because he's probably drugged or drunk or something. There's no other explanation.
"She's great," he says to Jack, earnestly. "She's gonna be a doctor, y'know, she got into Gotham University, and I tell her, she can get into any college she wants, but she says that Princeton's for snobs and she doesn't wanna leave Gotham cuz her whole family's here, y'know? And I say, well I think you'd have kicked Princeton's ass and all of those snot-nosed brats can go home. If Bruce Wayne can get in, you fuckin' can, you're a ton sharper than that idiot."
Her world feels topsy-turvy right now. Is there a Bizarro Batman? Is this what's happening?
"Princeton's too expensive, Uncle Matches," she says, as if she's explained this to him a hundred times. "And I don't wanna leave Mom alone."
"But you could get in," he says. "You're smarter than—than Lex Luthor, you're gonna be the best fuckin' doctor—"
"Uncle Matches, you're makin' me blush," she drawls, which, she realizes, to her horror, is true.
"Hey Minnie!" One man yells. "Sorry 'bout how drunk your Uncle got tonight, he got hosed at poker."
The entire room laughs.
"You want a soda or something, kid?" The bartender asks. "For one of Matches' kids, it's on the house."
"Well," she says, biting her lip. "Mom says Pete's in jail—"
"Ah, he'll be fine," Bruce says, waving his hand. "Ric can bail him out."
"Yeah, but will he?" She says, crossing her arms.
"Of course he will," Bruce says, mock offended. "C'mon, let me finish my drink. Have a soda. Text your mom, tell her you've found me, we'll be back soon."
She sighs, still not sure what's going on, but she texts Alfred to tell him that she's found "M," but he wants to finish his drink.
Alfred sends her a thumbs up emoji in return, which probably means that it's the apocalypse, or at least another alternate universe.
"Hey Minnie!" A young woman with long blonde hair leans forward. "Did you really set fire to your principle's files because you figured out he was takin' bribes to change grades?"
… she had.
What the fuck, Bruce?
"It was only a little fire," she says, pouting.
The bar tender laughs. "Oh, she's related to you alright, Matches," he says. "Kid, let me give you some advice, you're gonna want to stock up on fire extinguishers if you're gonna be half the pyro your uncle is."
"Hey, where's your brother tonight?" A different man says. "Is he still running around with that gang of his?"
God damn it Bruce.
"Oh he's off with his girlfriend," she says with a sigh. "She's an artist, so she wanted to see if she could paint an entire wall in Robbinsville before anyone calls the cops." Riko actually was investigating a dog-fighting ring with Duke and Selina, but she's not sure how on earth to explain that.
"What about your boy Alvin?" The bartender says, putting a soda in front of her.
She wrinkles her nose. "Him? Oh he's dumped."
The entire bar snickers. "What'd he do this time?" The blonde woman asks, leaning forward. "And are you gonna paint his car purple again?"
… what the hell, Bruce?
"I'd never be so repetitive," she says, sniffing, trying to figure out what the hell she's supposed to say.
Guess it's time to be grateful for all of her practice lying her ass off to her mom about being Spoiler and her dad about boyfriends.
"He was so busy with his stupid little Dungeons and Dragons game and all of his nerd friends, so I told him that if he thought that game was more important than date night, he could stop expecting me to show up for date nights." She smirks. "And he's gonna find his stupid game hard to play, with all of his books and dice at my place."
There was an appreciative chuckle through the bar. "Good, make him work for it," a heavyset man says, toasting her with his beer.
Bruce throws the rest of his whiskey back, and then throws a twenty onto the bar. "Thanks Vins," he says. "Now c'mon, Minnie, we can take my car—"
"I'm driving," she says, holding up his keys which she had swiped out of his pocket.
He stares at her, baffled, even though he ought to have felt her stick her hand into his coat them, and the bar cheers.
"Attagirl," the bartender says. "I was gonna make him take a taxi, but you have fun there."
"I'm a better driver than him anyways," she declares, just because she can.
She can feel him glower at the back of her head as she drags him out of the bar, into a battered looking car that she remembers vaguely seeing in the garage a long time ago, and then she revs the engine aggressively and pulls out of the parking spot before he can drop the persona, because she is not letting him drive, not after dropping that on her without warning.
"Thank you, Stephanie," he says, the heavy accent gone, replaced with his normal voice, and she nearly sighs with relief.
"What the fuck was that?"
"The Ventriloquist was attempting to kidnap me, so I asked Alfred to send in a distraction so I would be able to derail the conversation long enough to make an easy exit."
"No I mean… what the fuck was that?"
"Matches Malone. A long-time undercover persona in the criminal community—"
"No, not that, I figured that part out," she says, glaring at him before refocusing on the road. "I mean, what the fuck was with the—the compliments and the hugging and the stories and stuff? And why did I have an ID that matched your identity?"
"Matches Malone needed to be relatable," he says.
"… so you gave him an army of nieces and nephews?" Steph repeats, baffled.
"And an illegitimate daughter."
"So I'm your niece, and Duke's your nephew, and my brother—"
"Half-brother," Bruce corrects.
"And I'm on-again-off-again with Tim and Cass is your daughter, and what, Dick and Jason are… my cousins?"
"First cousins once removed. Matches only had one sister and a brother, and the brother's dead, I couldn't plausibly have them as your brothers, they're too old."
"What about Damian?"
"I'm still working on him. I'm thinking a surprise custody battle, but the narrative is still a work in progress."
"… and the compliments?"
"What about them?"
Steph takes a deep breath. "Did you… did you mean them? About being proud of me and—all that. About being smart enough to get into Princeton and be a good doctor and—"
"Of course I meant it," Bruce says, sounding absolutely baffled. "Why wouldn't I?"
"Because you've never said them before?" Steph says.
"… haven't I?" Bruce says. "I told you to apply for Princeton."
"I thought—I thought that was a snob thing! That Gotham U wasn't good enough!"
"… that… was not my intention."
"You know," Steph says, glaring at him. "Every time I think I understand you. You reveal that you are entirely new levels of emotionally constipated."
She pauses. "Do the others know that you're suddenly able to show affection when you're Matches Malone?"
"Cassandra went undercover with me once."
"So no, because you were focused on using it as a learning experience," Steph translate, pulling into the Cave, where the others were vaguely gathered around, doing their nightly wrap-up activities. Cass is doing stretches, Duke and Tim are gathered by the computer, checking the score of some e-sport thing, Jason is using his height to taunt Damian, and Dick is sprawled out on the floor, texting, and Alfred is watching all of this with a bemused smile on his face.
"Hey guys!" Steph yells, throwing open the door to the car. "Bruce pretended to get drunk in a bar just to tell a bunch of criminals how awesome we are, because he can't do it normally because he has the emotional capacity of a brick!"
As the Cave fills with the rest of them clamoring for details, Steph flashes Bruce a bright smile, knowing fully well that Vinnie's Bar is about to get several new visitors in the near future.