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sweet child o' mine

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It started out as a joke.

Not even a planned one, or anything elaborate. Just that Steph was crashed out on the couch in the living room of the Manor that people actually used as a living space -- the one with the big comfy sectional and the good tv -- when Damian shook her awake. “Alfred says to come eat breakfast.”

“Hmph?” Steph said through a curtain of her own hair as she blearily raised her head. “Yeah, okay, food.”

She tried not to focus too hard on the fact that it was suddenly breakfast, when she’d only intended to sleep for an hour so she could make it home without crashing. It was Saturday, so at least she hadn’t slept through another class. She made it to the table without even getting lost, despite the early hour and the ridiculous size of the house itself.

Alfred set a plate in front of her with the most beautifully gooey cinnamon roll she’d ever seen. She took a bite and the sheer bliss might have shorted out her brain for a minute. She might have let out a moan. She took another bite, and it was just as blissful as the first.

“Alfred,” she said in her most serious voice.”Alfred, this cinnamon roll is so good that I think I want to marry you.”

“How kind, Miss Stephanie,” Alfred said, but Stephanie saw the little smile on his face, so she doggedly continued.

“No, seriously. I’ll get down on one knee, Alfred, you know I will. Marry me and I’ll consider a lifetime supply of these cinnamon rolls your dowry.”

Across the table, Damian glared at her. At the end of the table, so did Bruce.

Alfred, though, the man with the magical hands that had crafted culinary bliss… He looked quite pleased with the praise Stephanie was determined to lavish upon him. “I will keep your offer in mind.”

Then he gave her a second cinnamon roll.

The two actual Waynes present continued to glare while Steph cheerfully reaped the benefits of being open with her affection.

*

It continued. Whenever Alfred presented her with a particular tasty treat, Stephanie would propose.

The proposals themselves varied wildly, depending on her mood, from a “Run away with me and leave this life of servitude behind!” after a slice of cheesecake to a muffled “Imma wife you” through a mouthful of peach cobbler. Stephanie now greeted the green smoothies and protein shakes that she dreaded with an accusatory, “I rescind my proposal!” or once, after taking a sip of something she’d thought was a chocolate shake but instead was horribly misled into the land of kale, by declaring that she wanted a divorce.

Alfred always deferred his answer, but with a little smile that showed that he definitely enjoyed the attention. Damian always looked grumpy when she proposed, Tim slightly put-out, Cass would look on approvingly, Duke would roll his eyes, Dick would let out a delighted little laugh, and Bruce would always scowl.

Then they all accidentally ended up at the table together. It wasn’t a holiday or celebration of any type, just total happenstance, which Steph assumed didn’t happen often. Or if it did, it didn’t usually include her.

Dinner featured the usual bickering and raucous behavior that marked their time together outside uniform until Alfred presented dessert, a dark chocolate raspberry cake that had Stephanie offering to elope with him immediately. “I’ll take you away from all this,” she promised, gesturing towards the others.

Damian threw a balled-up napkin at her, which was nonlethal enough that they all let it slide.

Then Jason said thoughtfully, “You know, if you did get Alfred to make you an honest woman, that would basically make you Bruce’s new mom.”

Silence reigned at the table.

Bruce looked like he very much did not want the conversation to continue.

“Oh my God,” Steph said, grinning at Bruce in a way that could be construed as evil. “B-man! I could be your mom!”

“No.” Bruce was firm.

“No, I’m gonna,” Steph said. She was pretty sure Bruce’s left eye was twitching, which was something she normally only accomplished after a really spectacular prank.

“I’m not sure you should do that,” Tim said diplomatically. “Bruce is an old man, you know? Gotta worry about his blood pressure.”

Jason high fived him.

Dick glanced over and said, “I mean. Would you be able to ground him? Alfred, you wouldn’t really give Steph the ability to ground Bruce, right?”

“I was under the assumption this was all hypothetical,” Alfred replied, which Steph noted did not actually give a definitive answer.

“Oh, we’re well past that,” Steph said cheerfully. “I’m calling it. Bruce, from now on, consider yourself in possession of one Steph-mom.”

She did finger-guns to emphasize how brilliant her pun was.

“Absolutely not,” Bruce said.

Steph took a bite of her cake, undeterred.

*

The thing was, when you had access to the Batcave, you also had access to all of Batman’s supplies.

This included his utility belts.

Stephanie had been tempted at various times to pull a harmless prank on Bruce by doing something to one of the compartments -- one of those dumb rubber snakes, or glitterbombing it, or something -- but ultimately had never gone through with it because she also deeply respected Bruce and didn’t want to be responsible for something happening to him because of a dumb prank.

This, however…

This was the prime opportunity she’d been waiting for and hadn’t even realized.

*

She wasn’t on patrol that night, so she showed up at Barbara’s with donuts and a smile.

“What did you do?” Babs asked suspiciously, but accepted her maple glazed.

“Just thought you could use a hand tonight, that’s all,” Steph said.

Babs stared her down. Steph tried to look as innocent as possible.

“Well, as long as you’re here,” Babs said, and set Steph to doing a bunch of grunt work that Steph knew for a fact were usually done by scripts. It was tedious work, but kept her busy, until she heard Babs laugh quietly.

Steph looked up to see a monitor trained on Batman, standing on a rooftop, glaring down at a piece of paper. His expression was clearly what Babs was laughing at -- he looked utterly confused.

“Oooh,” Steph said, leaning in over Babs’ shoulder. “Zoom in.”

Babs gave her a look that clearly meant that Steph wasn’t fooling her in the slightest, then zoomed in on the note. It said have a great patrol! Proud of ya! over a little cartoon bat with a big smile. Hearts were drawn liberally over the remaining part of the note.

“Steph,” Babs said, laughter barely kept out of her voice, “Dick told me about your joke. Please tell me this is the only one.”

“Oh, I wish I could,” Steph said, “but encouragement is important, you know?”

They waited to see if Bruce would say anything to Oracle about the note, but he just crumpled it back into his pocket and took out his grapple.

Over the next two hours, Bruce found six more notes. A little bat-shaped paper declaring way to kick some criminal ass! tucked in with the zip-ties. A little doodle of Batman surrounded by all the Batgirls and Robins with Ohana! written in careful bubble letters hidden in with his protein bars. Hang in there! written under a line of cartoonish bats roosting upside-down. A chibi Batman with his hands on his hips with you ARE the night! You do you, you funky little bat above his head. A scrap of paper with the Batsymbol > Superman’s shield wrapped around his Justice League communicator. And finally, a quick drawing of Steph-as-Batgirl giving Batman a hug.

Bruce never said a word into the comm, but as the night progressed, his reaction to each note was less confusion and more quiet bemusement. He was pretty good at keeping his back to the cameras, but Steph was pretty sure she saw more than one smile.

“That all of them?” Babs eventually asked.

“Yeah,” Steph said. “Well. What do you think the odds of the Batsignal getting turned on tonight?”

*

Commissioner Gordon, at least, got a long laugh at the Batsignal.

Batman clearly had contemplated not showing up at all, but finally did, despite the fact that the Batsignal had gained a dozen little notes, carefully taped along the edges. Drink water! Kick ass, take names! Keep the property destruction to a minimum! Have a great day!

When Batman arrived, he gestured to the notes, but Batman refused to say a word about them.

Even through the grainy footage Steph was watching with Babs, she could tell that his jaw was clenched in a way that normally only happened after Damian and Jason went on patrol together.

He left the notes behind,though they saw Gordon gathering them up with a grin. Steph had the feeling they were going to make their way into various police files that Gordon handed over to Batman in the coming weeks.

*
It was harder to sneak into Bruce’s belt the next night, as he’d locked it up tight, so Steph had to improvise, and instead left the notes littered along Bruce’s planned patrol route like easter eggs. She even taped some to snacks or candy, and one to a coloring book she left at the spot she knew they were going to do a stakeout.

Damian had joined Bruce for the night’s patrol, and he looked almost jealous when he leaned against his father’s arm to read the notes.

The next night, he had half a dozen encouraging phrases and little drawings of bats with goofy faces in his own belt.

“Tt,” he said, “this artwork is amateurish.”

But Steph saw him tuck them all carefully back into his belt.

*

Stephanie had Bruce’s phone number, of course. It was one that went directly to his phone, and it was only used for emergencies or invitations.

Until now.

“How many gifs of baby bats are too many?” Steph wondered aloud as she sent her latest discovery — rescued bats swaddled in pastel blankets sucking on pacifiers — directly to Bruce.

“Are there too many?” Cass looked up from her punching bag. “I want them, too!”

“Your wish is my command,” Steph said, and immediately created a group text for Cass, Bruce and herself and named it your faves. She sent out a yawning bat.

Please stop. Bruce immediately replied.

More!!! Cass declared.

You heard the lady, Steph sent followed by another bat, this one swaying adorably.

Bruce’s silence was resounding.

*

The canvas print was big enough that Stephanie tried not to think about how much it had cost her, and she’d had to sneak behind Alfred’s back, which made her worry that her cinnamon roll connection would dry up and then all joy in her life would be lost, but it was all worth it.

She carefully eased the painting off the wall. She wasn’t quite sure where she was going to put it -- hiding a Manet in the linen closet seemed tacky, somehow, but this was where Stephanie’s life had led her. She was probably going to hide an original Manet in a linen closet so she could replace it with something she’d just picked up from Walgreens.

But the canvas she put up was a true work of art, and once she saw it hanging there on the wall, right in the center of the main staircase landing, she knew it was the right choice.

Stephanie’s choice of the foyer proved to be inspired, as Bruce’s route to and from the cave took an entirely different staircase. Therefore the picture remained unnoticed until the planned dinner that night.

Dick had just arrived and Steph just happened to be walking through the upstairs hallway with Cass when Bruce emerged from the second floor study he preferred.

“Hey, Bruce, I’m here to—,” Dick called up the stairs, then whatever else he’d been about to say got swallowed up in a burst of laughter.

Steph froze. Cass looked at her, then her shoulders quaked in a way that gave Bruce no doubt whatsoever that Steph was responsible for something.

“What did you do?” Whether or not he intended to, Bruce’s voice came out in a growl that was usually only directed at hardened criminals.

It was only years of vigilantism and stubborn belligerence that allowed Stephanie, in the face of the full Bat-voice, to innocently reply, “Nothing.”

Bruce strode towards the steps. Cass leaned over and whispered, “What did you do?”

“I just thought it wasn’t right that there were so many walls in this house and so few baby pictures,” Steph said. Her own mother had dozens of framed monstrosities around the house, dusty and forgotten until someone new came in and they got the grand tour of Stephanie’s every awkward stage.

Cass gave her a look of pure delight and darted after Bruce. Stephanie threw self-preservation to the wind and followed.

By the time she arrived in the foyer, Bruce was staring up at the canvas. His expression is unreadable.

The picture he was staring up at was one of himself at eight or nine months old, sitting naked as a jaybird with his back to the camera. A festive bow was perched on top of his head, and he was glaring over his shoulder at someone just off-camera. It was absolutely adorable to see the patented Bat-glare apparently came naturally, chubby cheeks and all.

Dick’s expression, however, is crystal clear. “This is the best thing to happen to me all year.” He held up his phone, clearly angling it to get a clear image of both Baby Bruce and the current version.

Alfred, Damian and Tim had emerged as well, with Tim snickering openly. Alfred had a fond expression on his face -- Steph thought she probably didn’t have to sneak into the old photo albums after all -- while Damian pursed his lips in a way that made Stephanie itch to call him Karen.

“This is deeply undignified,” Damian said loudly. “Who is responsible?”

Without hesitation, and without even looking at her, Bruce pointed to Steph.

Steph gasped. “Really? Zero hesitation? Whatever happened to snitches get stitches?”

“We’re vigilantes, we love snitches,” Tim pointed out. Steph flipped him off cheerfully, since she could see that Bruce had that slight twitch of his mouth that meant he thought their shenanigans were actually funny, instead of infuriating.

Damian continued to glare up at the picture. “I will admit it’s more amusing than the Manet.”

“Where is the Manet?” Alfred asked.

Stephanie avoided meeting his gaze as she gestured vaguely in the direction of the linen closet. He pursed his mouth and headed off to retrieve the painting, though he showed no indication of wanting to remove Steph’s addition to the foyer.

Bruce shook his head and headed towards his study after giving Steph a look that clearly meant that she was getting away with this once.

Dick bumped up against her shoulder, still delighted. “I don’t know where you unearthed that gem but thank you. So much.”

“Oh yeah? Wait til you see the fridge,” she said. She’d had so many glorious options, she’d chosen to fill the house with embarrassing childhood pictures. Bruce had been the center of most of them, but she’d found enough of Dick, Jason and Tim in their early Robin years to make things interesting.

Dick beamed at her, bright and happy, and as he headed towards the kitchen, he leaned in. “If you need any help, let me know.”

“Do you have Superman’s number?” Stephanie asked, a gleam in her eye. Might as well cash in before he (and, more crucially, Damian) saw the picture of Dick’s ten-year-old self posing dramatically in Batman footie pajamas.

Dick grinned.

*

“Clark,” Bruce said flatly, looking around the Cave. “What is this?”

Instead of the Justice League briefings Bruce had been lured onto the Cave to retrieve, there was a battered game of Clue. Stephanie was particularly proud of the snacks she’d provided -- a paper plate piled high with pizza rolls, fluffernutter sandwiches, and -- in an attempt at staying healthy -- ants on a log. She’d even included juice boxes.

Bruce prodded the ants on a log. It was clear he’d never had it before; he looked baffled at the celery, peanut butter and raisin combination. Stephanie felt like she was doing the world a service, honestly. Turning Bruce into a real boy and all that.

“From what I understand,” Superman said, looking around innocently, “it’s a playdate.”

Stephanie barely contained her laughter at the look that crossed Bruce’s face. “A playdate.”

Superman nodded earnestly.

“I’m going to kill her,” Bruce muttered, and Stephanie was pretty sure that Superman was snickering.

Might as well make her entrance. She slid out of the shadows and said loudly, “Remember, boys, if you play nice, you get a treat.” She shook the box of Swiss rolls enticingly.

Superman elbowed Bruce. “See? There are Swiss rolls on the line.”

Bruce heaved a sigh that Steph would swear was absolutely identical to the one Damian had pulled when Alfred had told him that Titus wasn’t allowed in the swimming pool.

Steph grinned. “Well, on that note… Brucie, be a good boy. Mr. Superman, sir, I’m so glad you could come. Toodles!”

As she was fleeing, she heard Bruce grumble to Superman, “Why do you get the sir?”

Superman’s delighted laughter was gonna fuel Steph for days.

*

Bruce was very, very silent on the comm the next patrol.

Eventually, Steph couldn’t resist. “Have fun on your playdate?”

She was pretty sure she heard Barbara snort with laughter before muting her comm abruptly.

“No, actually, I did not,” Bruce said curtly.

He sounded super grumpy for someone who got to hang out with his super-buddy with awesome snacks. She’d even left them the entire box of swiss rolls, unopened. “Sorry?”

“You should be,” Bruce said. Then, after a short pause. “You set me up. I lost the game.”

“The game?” Steph said dumbly. “Clue? How the hell do you lose at Clue? Wait, did Superman cheat?”

She’d picked that one specifically because Bruce was not a graceful loser and she wanted Superman to think nicely of her. Apparently she’d underestimated Superman.

“No,” Bruce said. “But it turns out that there were two Miss Scarlet cards and no Colonel Mustards, so I did not solve the murder. Clark did.”

Steph couldn’t stop the burst of laughter at the sheer indignation in Bruce’s voice, and she was summarily kicked off the comm channel.

Totally worth it.

*

Stephanie was mid-patrol when Tim, blessed being that he was, texted her: selina’s here.

“Cass. Cass. You have to take over my patrol,” Steph hissed into her comm. “A golden opportunity has arisen.”

She explained her plan, and Cass’s giggles were enough to convince her it was brilliant. Their movie night the week before was paying off.

*

“Bruce! You didn’t tell me you had a young lady over!” Steph announced, pushing her way into the library. Selina was reclined comfortably on the couch, her feet in Bruce’s lap. He glared at Steph, clearly understanding that she was about to pull some shit.

That did not deter Steph in the slightest.

She set the tray she’d brought down, put her hands on her hips, and looked Selina over. “Miss, I have to ask what your intentions are.”

Bruce rubbed his temples, like he was developing a headache.

Selina let a slow smile cross her face. “Purely nefarious, I promise.”

Bruce’s hand dropped over his eyes. Steph was pretty sure he was trying to will them both away.

“Well then,” Steph said, reaching down to the tray -- it featured juice boxes, graham crackers, and apple slices -- and lifting the lid off a little covered dish, revealing the glow-in-the-dark condoms inside. “Always remember protection! We don’t want any more little accidents running around swinging swords!”

Bruce was absolutely going to murder her, but it was worth it to get to watch Selina fall off the couch laughing.

“I’m not a regular mom, I’m a cool mom!” Steph called over her shoulder as she fled the room to hide forever.

*

The next day Jason showed up on campus to walk up to her, high five her, and hand her a world’s greatest grandma mug.

“What the hell is that about?” Jordanna said, squinting at the mug.

“Family stuff,” Steph said vaguely.

“I don’t know why I hang out with you,” Jordanna said. “You are at least aware of how deeply strange you are, right?”

“Actually yeah,” Steph said, under no delusions at all that her life was even in the neighborhood of normal.

*

Damian was the one who told her Bruce was sick.

“He won’t make it to patrol tonight,” he said into the phone. “Alfred’s orders. I’ve been instructed to ask you to accompany me on patrol.”

He didn’t share who instructed him to do so or why he would actually follow their direction, and Steph chose to pretend that she believed him. She actually liked patrolling with Damian; she could usually convince him to stop at food trucks and try the most ridiculous things on the menu. Well. She did that, and Damian loudly complained, but would take his half of the food anyway.

When she got out of her one o’clock class, though, she realized that this was a prime opportunity to mother-hen Bruce. She made a few stops on her way home before heading to Wayne Manor.

After she arrived, she explained her intentions to Alfred.

He approved of her plan with a small, fond smile, and pointed her to the den where Bruce was recuperating.

“Alfred made soup,” Bruce mumbled into the couch. He apparently hadn’t had the energy to face the roughly eight thousand steps between here and his bedroom, and Alfred had declined to drag him there. “I tried it earlier.”

“Yeah, Alfred made fancy homemade soup,” Stephanie said. “And he probably served it to you in china with the world’s fanciest crackers. That isn’t what you need on a sick day.”

Bruce looked at her, confused. Stephanie held out a mug to him. It was a novelty mug in the shape of a bat; she’d bought it on clearance after Halloween three years previously. The handle was shaped like a crescent moon. It was filled with soup she’d made from a can, liberally dosed with pepper and hot sauce. She held in her other hand a sleeve of plain white saltines, store brand.

“On a sick day, you get the canned soup and you dunk your crackers in it like this.” Stephanie demonstrated holding a cracker in her own mug of soup until it was just soggy enough to be delicious.

“That’s disgusting,” Bruce informed her, but he sounded slightly more awake. He pushed himself into a seated position. Stephanie was utterly delighted to find that he was dressed in plaid jammies, and his hair was ruffled. It made him look like the world’s most jacked third grader. It was freaking adorable.

He ate the cracker. “I don’t like it,” he said, but then he ate another one slowly, then a few sips of the soup.

Stephanie ate her own just as slowly. “My mom always made this for me when I was sick,” she said. “She’d usually forget she put it in the pan and it would boil and she’d give it to me in a mug filled with ice cubes to try to cool it down.” She stirred her spoon slowly through her own soup. She wasn’t really sure why she was telling Bruce this.

He was listening, though, with an almost soft expression as he reached for another cracker.

“She would usually have to leave me by myself, but I’d do the other important thing you have to do when you’re sick,” Stephanie said, and reached for the remote. “Mindless tv.”

A documentary about a cold case was playing quietly, which was entirely too close to work if you happened to be Batman. She flipped through until she found a reality show about remodelling houses.

Within ten minutes she and Bruce were arguing good-naturedly about shiplap. Bruce finished the soup, and it was… nice. Really nice.

“Hey,” she said eventually, because it had to be said. “Sorry if I made you uncomfortable with the mom thing. I maybe went a little overboard.”

Bruce raised an eyebrow at her.

“Okay, I definitely did,” Steph said. “But I don’t regret it, because… sometimes you’re just like Damian, you know? You missed out on some key things and it makes me sad, and this seemed like a fun way to… give you some of the moments you didn’t get to have.”

“I had moments,” Bruce said, petulant enough that Steph for a moment actually felt like the grownup in the room. She opened her mouth to reply but Bruce continued on. “And I wouldn’t necessarily have called it fun.”

“But?” Steph prompted, sensing that Bruce wasn’t done.

He gave her a small, crooked smile. “I did kind of enjoy it.”

“I knew it,” Steph crowed. She bumped her shoulder up against his.

Bruce continued, words coming easily for once. “It reminded me… It reminded me of when Dick was Robin. You’ve always been good at that. Making things lighter.”

He didn’t trip over into the vast unspoken territory, the one that could so easily make this fragile moment crumble. Instead, he set his mug down and said, “Thank you.”

“Anytime, B,” Stephanie said. She could have added more -- about how hearing Bruce actually say thank you was a miracle, about how Bruce really must be sick if he was thanking her for essentially pranking him -- but she bit back the words, and instead, tucked her feet up onto the couch and watched more formulaic reality shows.

Eventually, Bruce’s occasional comments died out, so she glanced over. Bruce was sleeping, mouth slightly agape. Steph stood carefully, so as to not wake him, and settled a blanket over him gently. She hesitated for a second before pressing a kiss onto his forehead.

She had some more notes to hide before patrol.