Oversung Hero, part 2
Disclaimers and other information in "part 0"
Instead, Crystal was grounding her daughter for wanting to be a superhero. It wasn't something that was covered in the parenting manuals. Upstairs, a familiar CD started playing, one of Steph's favorites. Crystal didn't have the heart to demand she turn it down; at least Steph was still alive to play her music too loud.
The doorbell sounded, and Crystal frowned. She wasn't expecting anyone, but she knew a surreptitious police presence surrounded her home and would not have let someone through without cause. She stood and dumped the rest of her coffee in the sink, then went to investigate.
She wasn't quite sure she should believe what she saw through the peep hole. He was tall - taller than he looked in the tabloids. And broad through the shoulders across which a wool trench coat rested. A silk scarf was tossed rakishly around his neck.
Her mind did not want to process it; this was the man her daughter had saved.
He was just reaching for the doorbell again when she remembered herself and opened the door. "Hello?" she greeted, forcing the same bored, 'what do you want' tone she adopted for kids selling cookies and petitioners for the environment.
Bruce Wayne flashed her a dazzling smile - who knew teeth could be so white? - and inclined his head slightly in greeting. "Mrs. Bellinger-Brown? I'm Bruce Wayne. I couldn't get through on the phone, so-" He shrugged apologetically, the action made awkward by the sling which held his right arm to his body. "May I come in?"
"Of course, of course," she blustered, opening the door wide enough for him to enter. "Can I take your coat?"
"That would be great, thanks," he replied, shifting awkwardly to shake the coat from his injured shoulder. "If you could - "
Crystal caught hold of the shoulder of the coat, allowing Bruce to slip free of the heavy wool. She grabbed at the scarf, catching it before it hit the floor and tucking it into the sleeve of the coat. "Stephanie is up taking a bath," she explained as she hung the coat in the closet, "but if you don't mind waiting for her, you can join me for some coffee."
"That would be lovely," he agreed, and she turned to find him looking around her foyer curiously. She felt suddenly embarrassed by the shabbiness of her home, contrasting sharply with this tall man in crisply tailored slacks and a sweater that had been unbelievably soft under her fingers as she'd helped him remove his coat. She knew instinctively he was dressed down for this visit, and he still seemed to outshine his modest surroundings.
"Right this way," she urged, not wishing him to notice just how faded the wallpaper was or the not-quite-square angles of the photos hung near the front door.
"This is a lovely home," he observed amiably as he followed her lead, the bland pleasantry almost believable from his tone.
"It's a place to hang our hats," Crystal acknowledged. "Do you take milk and sugar? I'm afraid I don't have cream, but -"
"Oh, black is fine." He sat at the table and cocked his head a little. "Blasted Earth," he identified as Stephanie's music bled down to the kitchen.
"Something like that," Crystal confirmed, handing Bruce a cup of coffee and sitting down across from him with her own cup. "I sort of miss the days when she was into N*Beat. At least I could understand the words."
Bruce nodded as he took a sip of coffee. "Mm, thank you for this. My butler decided that given yesterday's events, I didn't need any coffee this morning. He's very difficult to argue with."
Crystal smiled sympathetically. "I could probably argue with anyone if I were deprived of my morning coffee."
Bruce Wayne chuckled appreciatively.
"I'm going to go tell Stephanie you're here so she'll hurry up," Crystal announced, rising to her feet.
"Oh, I'm in no -"
"It'll just take a second." Crystal left the kitchen hurriedly and took the stairs two at a time. She tapped at the bathroom door, then had to knock harder to be heard over the music. "Steph?"
"Yeah, mom?" Steph hollered back.
"Steph, Bruce Wayne is here, so you might want to hurry up."
The volume on the music suddenly decreased. "What?"
"I said," Crystal repeated impatiently, too aware of the billionaire in her kitchen, "Bruce Wayne is here."
There was the sound of water splashing and a dripping, towel-wrapped Steph opened the door a crack to peek through. "Bruce Wayne?" she gasped.
"Yes. In our kitchen. And you know better than to have a radio so close to -"
"It's a shower stereo, Mom," Stephanie informed her in irritated tones. "And what's Bruce Wayne doing here? I mean -"
"I don't know, Steph. Maybe he wants to thank you. Just - get dressed and come downstairs, okay? I gotta go talk to him or something."
The door shut without an answer, and Crystal took that as agreement. She headed back down the stairs to find Bruce where she had left him. "She'll be down in a couple minutes."
Bruce Wayne nodded. "I'd hoped to talk to you before she got down here anyway."
He took a sip of coffee. "Obviously, I owe Stephanie my life. I took the liberty this morning of setting up a special fund to cover all her college expenses. I thought I might publicly award it to her for her good deed, but - Mrs. Bel-"
Crystal realized her face had slipped into a frown, and she shook her head. "Call me Crystal. And I'm not - well, I appreciate you coming to ask about the public thing. I can tell you right now we don't want that - the publicity, that is. College funding..." Crystal sighed. "I'll be honest, Mr. Wayne-"
"Bruce. If you'd've come in here any day of the week saying Steph did something that's going to get her a full ride to college, I'd probably kiss your feet." She waved her hand vaguely to indicate her home. "As you can see, we're not hurting, but we're in that paycheck to paycheck corner of America, and Steph's scholarship potential is - well, she's not your straight-A student, y'know?"
"But," Bruce supplied.
"But - it's what she did that's got me bothered," Crystal confessed. "Not that I'm unhappy that someone saved your life, but I'm sorry that someone was Steph."
Bruce Wayne looked confused. "That's an odd sentiment. I would think most people would be glad their kids have got a sense of doing right or -"
"Oh, I'm not worried about Steph's sense of doing right. The kid's got more righteousness in her than your typical teenager, and that's saying something. It's - look, I know you probably didn't notice yesterday, being hurt and all, but when she comes down... A week ago Steph broke her arm trying to be a hero. She doesn't think, she just does. I keep trying to explain to her that she needs to grow up a bit, not try to save the world and put herself in danger all the time, but-"
Crystal looked helplessly at Bruce Wayne, not able to explain any better.
She was surprised to find him smiling mildly, understanding in his eyes. "She sounds a lot like my kids."
Crystal did a double take. "I thought -"
"Adopted," Bruce explained. "Two boys. The youngest-" His expression grew pained for a moment, and Crystal felt a flush of embarrassed guilt. There was that boy that Bruce Wayne adopted who had died somewhere over in Africa, she remembered belatedly.
"I'm sorry. I had heard the story but-" she raised her hands helplessly.
Bruce seemed to shake off his emotion and offered Crystal a wan smile. "It never is good to outlive your kids. But Jason-" He sighed. "Jason died because he was doing something I forbade him to do." He paused for a moment as if to collect himself, and Crystal felt echoes of dozens of lectures she had given to Steph. "I think a lot of the times, if I had just - if I had figured out why it was so important to him, had been there to support him, had not let things get so out of hand... But it's hard. I'm still struggling not to be so heavy handed with Dick."
"My older son. Just as stubborn as Jason. He decided to become a cop for a lot of good reasons, and it makes me crazy sometimes. It's so damned - forgive me-"
Crystal nodded, letting the mild profanity go.
"It's so dangerous," Bruce continued. "But I know if I told him flat out he couldn't do it? He'd just find something else, or go somewhere else, and work harder to have it in spite of me. And he wouldn't let me help. At least if I bend with him a little, he'll accept it if I donate kevlar vests to the Bludhaven force."
"Yeah," Crystal agreed hoarsely, wondering how many nights Steph had snuck out without the limited protection the Spoiler costume could provide.
Bruce shook himself and gave another smile. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to get maudlin. But - look, sometimes kids are going to do things no matter how hard you try to keep them safe. And if Stephanie is set on heroics, maybe its worth meeting her half way."
Crystal regarded the billionaire across the table, but he wasn't just a billionaire to her anymore. "How?" she asked.
"An internship is a possibility," Bruce answered, clearly thinking about the question. "Most police and fire departments have something, although from the sounds of it..."
"From the sounds of what?" Stephanie's voice interrupted.
"Stephanie," Crystal began warningly, rising to her feet, "Bruce Wayne, this is my daughter, Stephanie."
Bruce smiled as he stood, offering his uninjured left hand for a handshake. "Stephanie. It's so good to meet-" He hesitated as Stephanie held up her own splinted arm in apology. "I guess we match," he remarked wryly, and Crystal was impressed at how he managed to avoid awkwardness, how he always seemed in control. She had read media accounts of Bruce Wayne as occasionally bumbling, but there was no evidence of that here.
Stephanie, for her part, smiled in response to Wayne's comment. "Mirror images, anyway. I hope you're feeling better."
"Should be good as new in a couple of weeks, thanks to you. Join us?" he suggested, gesturing toward the table.
Stephanie accepted the invitation, taking the seat at the head of the table between Crystal and Bruce Wayne. "Any word on the guy who attacked you?" Stephanie asked.
Bruce shook his head. "Nothing yet. But that's not what I wanted to see you about. He's business for the police. And I owe you a serious debt."
Stephanie blushed a little and lowered her eyes. "I'm just happy that you're going to be okay."
Bruce Wayne smiled at Stephanie and gave a knowing look in Crystal's direction. "Of course you are. Your mother raised you to be a decent human being. And frankly, the world needs more of those, which is what I was just talking to your mother about."
Crystal felt herself stiffen, worried at what Wayne was going to say, but his next words reassured her and even caught her admiring him for cleverly covering the conversation that Stephanie had interrupted.
"I've taken the liberty of setting up a college fund for you," Bruce explained, causing Stephanie to bring her eyes up to meet his.
"Oh, no, I couldn't-" she protested, but her eyes said something else entirely. It was almost surprising to Crystal, the unvoiced desire in her daughter's expression. How much had Stephanie been keeping back from her mother, knowing too well what they could and couldn't afford?
"Nonsense," Bruce cut Stephanie off. "As I said, the world needs more decent people, and there should be some reward for that decency. And what I was just explaining to your mother is that you should be able to get an education wherever you want, at the best school for whatever it is you want to do. Heaven knows the world needs more ethical business people and compassionate doctors and civic-minded lawyers."
Stephanie stared at Bruce Wayne. "But I'm - I'm really not so good a student and -"
"Steph," Crystal admonished, patting her daughter's good hand. "Mr. Wayne seems determined to do this for you, although he's agreed not to make a publicity issue out of it."
"I think of it as an investment rather than a reward," Bruce added. "You're shown your mettle, and that more than anything tells me you'll do fine - very well, in fact - in school or at whatever you go into."
Stephanie looked uncertainly at her mother, and Crystal gave her hand an encouraging squeeze, trying to communicate with her eyes that Steph should thank the man.
Steph took a deep breath and turned back to Bruce Wayne. "Okay," she agreed. "Thank you. And thank you for not putting this all over the news-"
"I know what it is to be dogged by cameras and reporters," Bruce assured. "There's no good reason to share that burden." He glanced down at his watch. "I don't wish to be rude, but I promised a friend-"
"Oh, of course. We don't mean to keep you," Crystal blustered.
"Not at all. I've enjoyed your company." He took a final swallow from his mug. "And the coffee," he added with a conspiratorial half-smile at Crystal. "I just should be moving along."
Crystal stood. "I'll walk you to the door and get your coat. Stephanie, if you could clear the table-"
"Okay, Mom," Steph agreed, already collecting the mugs.
Crystal led Bruce back to the foyer and pulled his coat from the closet, helping him drape it over his injured shoulder. "I can't thank you enough-" she began, wondering how to put into words the surprise she had felt at Stephanie's obvious yearning for college and beyond.
"No thanks are necessary, Crystal," he replied. He turned to hold out a business card to her. "That's my direct line," he explained. "If you want to talk more about those internship ideas, just call. I am fairly well connected."
Crystal nodded, resisting the urge to snort at the understatement. "I'll think about it," she answered carefully.
Bruce nodded, putting his hand to the doorknob. "That's all I can ask." He opened the door, and Crystal caught it and held it for him belatedly, glimpsing a sleek black car pulling up to the curb. "Have a good day, Mrs. Bellinger-Brown."
"You, too," Crystal answered, watching him leave and then closing the door behind him. She looked down at the business card in her hand, shaking her head. She tucked it into her back pocket and headed back to help her daughter wash the breakfast dishes.