Absently scrolling through one of the many rabbit holes of memes and rogues getting punked that filled her Twitter feed, Stephanie Brown waited to preempt the beeping of the microwave, the signal her leftover casserole was in a semi-edible state.
With her lower back wedged against the countertop as she leant back, legs out in the middle of the narrow walkway that made up 'Small Appliance Nook'
, her ankles crossed, she would just have to swing her weight forward and jam her finger into the stop button to avoid the beeping that would set off a bout of 'I DON'T LIKE THAT SOUND'
barkage from the currently dozing Short Round.
Raising her eyes after every few thumb strokes to check the count down, she keeps watch, the kitchen filling with the smell of the reheating meal. After watching a short clip of Riddler being punched square in the mouth by Robin, good ol' Uncle Eddie losing his stupid bowler hat in the process, a small smile on her lips, she shifted her gaze upwards once more, to see the timer at 0:02
Pressing the stop button, snagging up her fork and carrying the much too hot plate bare handed to the living room coffee table, practically throwing it down, she let out a soft sigh of relief.
She should have grabbed a kitchen towel or something. Her other hand was occupied by her phone, which she didn't think to put in her pocket.
But that dang clip was too good.
Evening TV in Gotham wasn't the greatest. News, News, News, chaos, chaos, chaos. If she wanted to hear about chaos she'd talk to Klarion. She just wanted some background noise while she ate. While she had what felt like a normal evening for the first time in… ever.
Of course it couldn't last. Her phone rang.
"This better be good…"
Looking down to the flashing of her phone screen, she puffed her cheeks out in annoyance, shifting the mouthful of food to one cheek, seeing the name of the caller.
Bruce almost never called her. Not unless she was in some incredibly deep sh*t and a lecture couldn't wait, or something was very wrong. Flicking the screen unlocked and answering the call, she spoke thickly, not yet having swallowed the mouthful of casserole.
Before she could continue any further, he spoke harshly, even for Bruce.
"Where are you right now?"
Stephanie frowned, confused in general by the call, the question making it worse, taking a moment to swallow her food. Was he in a car? It sounded like he was driving…
"Answer the question, Stephanie."
"God, geez, I'm eating. At home. Get your panties out of a twist. Some human people need to–"
"Good, stay right there."
He cut her off, mid sassy rant. Puffing up indignantly, she pointed in a general direction with her fork.
"Now wait a minute–"
It was pointless, he had already ended the call. Flopping back into the couch, chewing on the prongs of the fork, she scowled to herself, the gears in her head starting to turn. Shifting to look at the pup, still dozing at the end of the couch, she started thinking aloud.
"He never calls. Which I appreciate, because who wants to be called by their weird not boss all the time? But I didn't get 'you're in trouble' vibes, which makes sense, because I haven't done anything to be in troble for lately, unless he's finally found out D*ck and I borrowed the Batmobile without permission. He asked where I was. Which he could have just checked, using my suit, so he's not thinking clearly. I mean, unless he's stuck a tracker in me at some point when I wasn't paying attention, my suit, or my phone. The Compact…"
Short Round raised his head from his paws to look from Steph, mid ramble, then towards the front of the house. Before she could continue her puzzling out of the situation, it seemed as if there would be an answer delivered, with the black Bentley pulling to a stop outside.
Getting to her feet, a gentle buzz of concern growing in the pit of her stomach, she moved to the front door, beating him there, throwing it open and waving him inside.
"You know, Wayne's stand out in Holden, B. I was expecting thuds on the roof."
It was rare for Bruce to react to her jokes, if ever, but the expression on his face gave her pause. For one, there was actually an expression on his face. And it wasn't from the joke. He may have been dressed like Bruce Wayne in this moment, but he felt like neither Bruce or the Bat to her.
Pushing the door shut quickly, brow creased, she could already feel her pulse spiking.
"What is it?"
He inspected her, then the living room, the remnants of her half eaten food, Short Round back to his napping.
"You should sit down."
'Oh, hell no.'
"Bruce, I swear to god, just spit it out, or I'll slap the taste out of your mouth again."
If it was bad news, especially bad enough news for Batman to be acting semi human, she wasn't about to be coddled. He lowered his eyes to her hands, which she had unknowing balled into fists at her sides, the threat not an empty one, before letting out a soft sigh, eyes lowered.
"Everything doesn't have to be about fear. There's room in our line of work for hope, too."
"Leslie is dead."
Stephanie spat reflexively, backing up into the wall. He had to have been lying. Another sick test. Another game. It had to be. It had to be.
When he didn't raise his eyes from the threadbare toes of her socks, only shaking his head slightly, a prickle below her nose, the watering of her eyes, a lump in her throat, all began at once.
Refusing to do this right now, refusing to cry in front of Bruce of all people, raising her face towards the ceiling, she cleared her throat loudly, squeezing her fists tighter, clenching her jaw. Make it anger. Anger is productive. Crying helps no-one. Sniffing sharply, she spoke softly.
With her eyes still tracing the panelling in the ceiling, she could see Bruce look up at her with… was that sympathy? Her anger flared further.
"Bruce. If you don't tell me, I'll go find out myself. Make this easy for yourself."
Snapping her head down to look at him, her voice a venomous hiss.
Another threat that would be followed up on.
With another sigh, this time heavier than the last, as if awaiting a predicted reaction, his jaw flexes in muted anger before responding.
"It was the Joker."
There it was.
Closing her eyes and hanging her head, she laughed bitterly.
"Of course it was. Why wouldn't it be? How many more lives are you going to let him destroy?!"
"Don't do anything rash, Stephanie."
He sounded genuinely concerned. Swelling with rage, she closed the distance the news had initially caused, shoving him ineffectually.
"Ex-cuse me?! All these years and I'm still being compared to Jason?! You know what, maybe you're right. Maybe I am like him. Maybe people like Joker, and Black Mask and my dad should be dead. But if you haven't realized that I'm NOT Jason yet just because I don't jump when you tell me to, maybe you should start learning to jump yourself. Get out of my house, before the Wayne's lose another family member today."
For a moment, it looked as if Bruce was about to fire something back. He even drew back his lips in a snarl to start, the narrowing of Steph's eyes daring him to do it. It would be so much easier for her to be mad at someone, to scream at them instead of feeling the other feelings threatening to bubble out and spill over.
Instead, he straightened, regained some semblance of control and turned towards the door. He wasn't going to be baited into her fight. She almost got him.
"The funeral arrangements are being made. You're expected to be there for part of them. You're just as much her family as I am."
As Bruce left, almost walking into a returning from day shift Crystal as they crossed paths down the drive, the Brucey Charm turned on as he apologised, Crystal walked into see Stephanie, still in place, beginning to tremble.
"So you wanna tell me why Bruce Wayne was in my ho–Stephie, what's wrong?!"
Dumping her bag on the ground, putting her hands on Steph's shoulders and turning her to face her, Stephanie broke down entirely, encompassing her mother in a squeezing hug, sobbing into her shoulder.
"My other mother is dead."
Crystal, who had never been the biggest fan of Leslie, was unsure how to react. Gently rubbing Stephanie's back, she stayed quiet. After crying herself through her mother's lab coat and scrubs, she pulled back, sniffling.
"Sorry… I'm–I gotta go. I got work to do."
With that, turning and wiping her face on the bottom of her shirt, she made her way up the stairs to her bedroom, to suit up for the hunt.