Death and hardship built the person Stephanie Brown is today. At four-years-old, she watched a man die in the streets; at eight-years-old, she screamed as her best friend was dragged out of her house, to never come back again; throughout her whole damn life, she watched people die and did nothing. Working with Batman sure as hell reinforced that.
“You can’t save everyone,” Bruce steely reassured, his hand on her shoulder.
Stephanie’s breath hitched, and she looked up, a waterfall of tears painting her cheeks, “But I know I —we— could have saved them, B.”
Sometimes, she would burst in too late, a dash and spark of purples arriving at a red, red, red scene, knowing she had failed, knowing that people had died and she could have saved them.
Too slow, too weak, too dumb, a simple mistake or flaw could end in a whole family tortured and dead, kids dead, parents dead, some deep part of Stephanie dead,too.
She tried, she ran and jumped through Gotham’s sky, grappled from one building to the next, point A to point B; point C to point D, to a crime scene stained crimson and a heat pricking her eyes.
She knew the nitty-gritty of this job, the emotional baggage that dragged on for miles, but knowing people died and she was too late made her feel like the world’s biggest failure, useless, worthless, Stephanie fucking Brown.
Bruce would watch her fight and try so hard to train the desperate, dirty, Gotham street out of her, his face set in a grim line — he got older by the minute, yet he never failed to dress as what people needed him to be.
Stephanie tried, she grasped at straws, desperate to become the Robin he needed, desperate to be better, to arrive at a scene and dance a dance of crime fighting, not fall on her knees and scream as red mingled with the purple of her suit. And when he took it from her, ripped Robin away from her desperate, dirty, Gotham street hands, Stephanie drowned in a rage that burned from the pit of her stomach, coursing through her like Gotham’s east side. It reminded her of the anger and despair she felt when she realized that her babysitter had tried to rape her, and how close he had gotten to tearing her apart with his hands. It was an anger that pumped and cut her heart open, only for her to bleed something that burns like fire; a despair that wretched her body in the form of sobs and a strong desire to curl in on herself and fade.
She needed to be better, to be the best she can be, so she stole his huge plan and made it her own. For once, she felt the confidence she needed, like she could make a difference; maybe the streets wouldn’t run red, and Bruce would look at her with something kin to a smile or pride, he’d stop being to angry, so brooding, so Batman, that he’d remember to be a father just a little bit. If she couldn’t gently push him to appreciate her, even as she took on so many different forms for him, for this damn family, she would make him, she would shove — a light push has never been her forte anyway.
The fire licked at her heels as she charged away, taking on the rest of the world just to prove to it that she meant something, that she was capable to be Robin, to be anything, to be someone to anyone — and yet, despite all her bravado, her fierce confidence, her desperation, the fires swallowed her whole, for she tripped and fell into the hole she dug.
And down Stephanie went, flailing and screaming as the dark pit of failure swallowed her whole, just like it took Jason Todd, the tale Bruce beat into her head, screaming that she’d die just like him, reckless just like him, him, him, him — did Bruce only make her Robin just so he could prove that he was always right, that if you don’t listen to the great Batman, you’re just like Jason Todd? — you’re not yourself, you’re Jason, a reckless Robin who died because he didn’t listen.
And Stephanie could almost laugh while she was chained, hanging, dyed the ugly red that ran through her fingers when she arrived too late, too slow. She thought it would be funny if Batman showed up too late and he got to see her mangled body all chained up, drill wounds marking her. Or, no one would show up at all — they would give up on the failure known as Stephanie Brown, and find a new Robin, a Robin who listened and bowed, a kid who drew the lines with grace, who didn’t cross them. She wanted to be Robin again, she wanted it back, but she got her ass kicked out of the team for disobeying Bruce — who the hell didn’t disobey him?
It’s like he knew she would run off and end up captured and tortured, as if he was letting her be punished. Maybe she was atoning — the sound of the drills and the knives in her head, the sick words of her babysitter still in her head as she begged for help — for everything she’s ever done, and the wounds in her arms and legs mark every life she’s failed to save. And god, Stephanie knew she was going to die, alone, afraid, and spilling information, but not enough, no bit of her pain and suffering was ever enough. Everything she had fell short, and she pushed for more, but it was always too late; she gave them everything, and now nothing of her was left.
And then, like a miracle, like a grace sweeping in to save her, she’s somewhere in Africa, her mind a mess and her body broken. Stephanie tries to heal, tries to forget Gotham, tries to wash away the memories of Black Mask hovering over her, his smile stretched wide as she screamed for God, for mercy, for death.
She can’t remember how or when she escaped — she could only remember the drill, the sound of punishment and rage that never seemed to end. Stephanie wants to abandon Gotham, abandon the ragged Spoiler suit she adorns, and live a life in Africa, helping Leslie with medicine and cures.
But she knows it’s not her, not what she wanted to do — the fire was back, but more intense, burning the skin of her heels and begging her to run through the pain, back to home, where she could fix the mess that she left Gotham in. Stephanie tries, god she tries, to put it out and leave it at that; tries to bury it beneath the grounds of Africa, where she learned to breathe again, even while her trauma danced by the corners of her vision. But she finds herself drawn back to vigilantism, to the Spoiler moniker, and finds herself bending and breaking for the family of bats who left her behind, her mother who mourned her supposed passing. So she goes back, leaves a note marked with a sharpie she found on Leslie’s desk, thanking the woman for giving her everything Bruce couldn’t in such a short time.
And after a travel full of unbearable nightmares and flashbacks, tears marking her makeshift pillows and beds, the train and plane tickets she managed to get, everything she went through pain for, she finds herself standing on a Gotham building, a dash of nothing in a canvas of everything.
Stephanie remembers Tim’s lips against her own, his shocking blue eyes and sharp smile, his wit and subtle cynicism, her hands tangled with his for what felt like eternity. She also remembers the betrayal burning her heart and searing her lungs as she broke it off with him, accusing him of cheating on her, and then storming off in a flurry of plans to work harder as a vigilante, to forget Tim and his smile ever existed. That reality, that heartbreak felt so far away, so distant, but brief, hazy moments flash in her mind. She’s stuck between then and now, existing between both worlds; for a brief second, she wonders if this is what death felt like, memories of the past and the present flickering between her head. She’s not exactly living, but she’s there, though she’s not quite sure if this Gotham she’s now standing in was ever meant to be.
It felt like something lighter should be this dark abyss of a city, like a long time ago Batman and Robin were a myth, sailing along the skies and awing the children of the city. Once, Bruce Wayne was a happy man who smiled with Dick Grayson, who still had some compassion left in him when he became the Bat. The man she knew was steely and cool, so she couldn’t help but wonder if there was a time where he was easy going and sincere. But she really didn’t know. She never knew who Bruce truly was, only the shell he is now; he chose Batman over his own life. He became absorbed by his cowl, by the Joker and all the other criminals who roamed through Gotham.
As Stephanie watches from above, she can’t help but let her mind wander into the realm of what ifs, a completely different world from her own. She wonders if there’s a universe where Stephanie Brown was a good girl who got good grades, who was able to save her dad, who’s disgusting babysitter didn’t try to take advantage of her and Bruce fully accepted her as she was. A lifetime where he saw her as something real, not a tale to be told to the Robins before and after; though, deep down, — where she tried to bury the trauma, the memories of Black Mask and his terrifying voice, where she held her hate, where flashes of hands nearing her and her sobs breathed through her pain — Stephanie knew that no universe would ever be that kind to a Stephanie Brown, but she’s learned to accept that and exist anyway.
Here, among the sunset of Gotham, with the thoughts and echoes of the past in her mind, she could almost see a different world existing just beyond the horizon. It made her feel different, lighter in a way she couldn’t explain. It gave her just a little bit more hope for a day where she could learn to smile freely again, where she would extinguish the awful flames that tried to devour her, and most importantly, it gave her hope that one day she would be able to forgive the most important person: herself.