'More for you where that comes from, huh?'
Looking at the cool grand in her hands as she stood outside the office, Steph had some decisions to make.
She still needed wheels. Maybe get herself a new phone now that she was back in civilization. God only knew what happened to her old one, though she had some hunches (Oracle data scrubbing being high on the list), and wanted to let Leslie know that everything was going much better than she expected.
Folding the ill-earned gains and tucking them down inside her shirt, she started running through her plans. If she did jobs like that, or similar, she could very easily go back to living out of hotels. Better hotels than the roach motels she was hopping instead of being home and dealing with emotions like a normal human when Arthur died.
A pang of guilt hit her so hard she let out a soft groan as she shuffled away from the office door.
'I should just go home… Mom didn't handle dad's death – No. She'll be doing better without me. She will be.'
Swallowing back the sob threatening to escape her, and moving quickly, planning on heading back towards Holly's to retrieve her gear and forcing herself to refocus on what she was to do next.
Focus on anything but people now within arms reach.
Waving absently over her shoulder as she passed Reggie, he called out to her.
"Hold up, new girl. You planning on coming back tonight?"
Holding back the huff of annoyance, Steph stopped in her tracks, turned and shook her head.
"I'm not planning to, but I don't plan a lot of things. Things just happen."
With a laugh, Reggie shook his head and eyed her up and down.
"Listen. The Boss is pretty lenient during the day, but he can't be seen letting minors in during prime hours. And the guy on the door at night doesn't f*** around. So if your non-plans change, slip in through the kitchen. And maybe consider getting yourself a little something to flash with an age on it, something believable, in case Matches does spot you inside."
Her jaw dropped, but not as much as her stomach. She couldn't keep her face under control this time. Blinking rapidly she took two quick steps towards Reggie, the hollow in her stomach quickly filling with white hot rage.
"Did you just say Matches? As in Malone?"
"Oh, yeah! D'you know the guy?"
Stephanie didn't know whether to laugh, cry, throw up or all three.
Settling on the laugh, hands balling into fists, she sniffed sharply, tears of frustration welling, and threatening to fall, quickly losing any semblance of control over her emotions.
"Yeah, I know him… a friend of mine owes him something... I might have to stop by to give him."
Reggie may not have been the sharpest knife in the block, but he could read 'furious female' when it was in front of him. Raising his hands wearily, as if it could be directed at him, and it could, for all he knew, this crazy chippy just walked in and got a job basically on the spot from Penguin, who knew what she was going to do motioned for calm.
"Listen, newbie. For your sake, don't start nothin'. I'm sure you can take care of yourself, but he's–"
"A right son of a bitch is what he is. You're right. I shouldn't hit him straight on. There's better ways…"
"What? No – that's not what I meant at all!"
Turning, jaw flexing, trying to divide her attention between the two lots of planning she had to do now.
"Thanks Reg. Have a good one…"
'Why is he here? Does he think Penguin will be the next Kingpin? Does Penguin have more information? What have I walked into.'
'But, ok, the hotels. If I do at least one job a day with this money, good hotel, no hopping. I can get myself a bike too. I won't have to walk everywhere. At this rate I'm gonna have to get up at 5:30 for school.'
'I should just tell Penguin where the cave is. I should tell Penguin who Matches is. I – would get them all killed. Do I want them dead? I don't think I want them dead. Do I?'
The alternating thought pattern between trying to plan for new life, and potential revenge continued as she retrieved her bags from Holly's fire escape, unnoticed, untouched, just as she thought they would be during daylight, at least, before backtracking towards the outskirts of the Diamond District, and eyeballs one of the moderate hotels that a much younger Stephanie would have only ever dreamed of staying in.
"Everything doesn't have to be about fear. There's room in our line of work for hope, too."
Setting herself up with a room on the fourteenth floor, and leaving her bags, Steph went to the nearest convenience store for two things; a burner phone, and the Gotham Gazette.
Coming back with a bag of candy bars, along with her intended purchases, she finally made her way up to her room.
Looking at the bed, an honest to goodness real bed, not a camping cot, Steph kicked off her almost worn through hiking boots, setting the phone up to charge before moving into the bathroom.
"Running water. Oh my god how I've missed you! Let's never be apart again."
Turning the taps to start the shower, sticking her hand under the water, wiggling her fingers under the heated, pressurised spray.
"Oh my god, this is the best day…"
After almost an hour in the shower, returning to sit on the bed in the plush gown, hair wrapped in a towel, Stephanie retrieved a scrap of paper from her bags, punching the number into the keypad, while simultaneously digging through her bag of goodies to fetch a Mars bar, and the newspaper. Holding the phone to her ear with her shoulder, flicking to the classifieds, she began looking for vehicle advertisements, while the call connected, a weary Doctor Thompkins answering.
"So, Gotham is still just as polluted as ever."
Steph could hear the frown in the voice after a brief, confused pause.
"What number are you calling from?"
Taking a bite of the sugary goodness she had been deprived of for a year, Steph packed it into her cheek to continue the conversation, frowning slightly at some of the more salacious personal advertisements.
"My new one. I've already done some work for the day. I told you I knew what I was doing. I got my roof over my head, I'm organising wheels as we speak. Relax."
With a tutting loud enough for the call to pick it up, Steph rolled her eyes.
"The more you assure people you know what you're doing, Stephanie Brown, the less soothing it is."
"Yeah yeah… So anyway. Roman is dead."
Chewing the chocolate and caramel in her mouth, Steph nodded to herself, flicking the page over.
"Mmhm. Selina did him in, apparently. No more Black Mask. That's pretty neat."
"Stephanie. Murder is murder, regardless of who it is."
Rolling her eyes, letting out a sigh slightly, she folded her legs.
"Listen. She did what I couldn't do. That's all I'm saying."
A long silence, so long that Steph checks that the call is still ongoing before hearing the voice again.
"Not being able to kill someone doesn't make you weak, Stephanie. We've been over this. You're better than that."
"Am I though? My first instinct in dealing with my dad as Spoiler was to kill him. I didn't because someone else talked me out of it. That same someone pointed out to me that I reflexively go for lethality in fights when I was Robin. That was my strike one, you know?"
Steph had abandoned the Mars bar now, leaving it to sit on the newspaper, curling in on herself.
"Look forward, Stephanie. Not backwards. You haven't killed anyone–"
"Only half of Gotham…"
Leslie sighed, Steph could picture her pinching the bridge of her nose under her glasses. Deciding to change topics, Leslie cleared her throat softly.
"So, what's the job?"
Steph stalled, thinking of a half truth that would work on the doctor.
"Uh… specialist courier, I guess?"
"Stephanie… are you running drugs?"
"I've only delivered one package! It's too early to say if anything will be drugs."
"Oh my go– you're going to get yourself killed again. Or caught."
"Yeah, maybe. Listen, I only called to tell you things were going ok so far, and that I had a phone number, not for a lecture. You can lecture me after school tomorrow or something."
Not giving Leslie a chance to respond, Steph ended the call abruptly, dropping the phone onto the pillows. After sitting, holding her knees to her chest for a good long moment, staring absently out the window at the darkening skyline, she turned her attention back to the newspaper. After finding an ad for a bike that would suit her needs, she made the call and managed to talk the older sounding man into bringing it to her at the hotel with a sob story about needing to get out of town, away from an abusive boyfriend, and she was paying cash.
Organising parking with the hotel front desk was easy enough. While she was at it she set up her bullsh*t o'clock wake up call, and started pulling her jeans back on under her bathrobe, to get dressed to make the monetary exchange in the lobby.
Twirling the bike key on her finger in the elevator on the way back up, she wondered, and not for the first time in her life, nor would it be the last, how much lying is ok, and when should she just… stop lying?
They weren't hurting anyone, right?
Pushing open the door to her room the city would seemingly have a different answer to that question.
In plain view on the blood sky, now that night had truly set in, her first sighting of the Bat Signal in a year.
'I need to go help.'
Was the immediate instinct on seeing it. Before her brain caught up with her emotions, and she slowly slunk across the room to draw the curtains.
'Help like last time? You're more help being dead.'
Flopping face first onto the bed, she lay motionless for a moment before feeling around for the room phone on the nightstand, and turning her head only enough to not be muffled when speaking.
"Hello, room service? Can I get a giant plate of mashed potatoes please? I don't care what else you have to serve with it, I just want the mashed potatoes…"