Disclaimer: I do not own Marvel either, okay. I am merely using the good doctor. He will be AU, because while I am basing a large portion of Dr. Erskine's on Marvel's Doctor from Captain America's movie, he will be a tad different in some respects. For one, he's in modern times. Two, he never made the soldier serum, though his family has a history of trying to do so. Worked for the U.S. government to make it possible, but the discovery was not his. So yeah, don't sue me since I am not being paid anything!

So Slade's origin story – I admit I am not altogether familiar with it – is unchanged, including whoever it was who made the serum they used on him.

Again, the good Dr. Erskine will not be fully Marvel vision, but I loved the guy in the movie (It's been years since I've seen it, though!) and wanted to bring him to life here. Positive role model for a broken (slowly being repaired) girl who doesn't have a lot in life besides her two grandmothers (Leslie and Amahle) and Jake.

Admittedly, I make a lot of references – which I can imagine Stephanie doing both with random facts and pop culture. What can I say; she's quirky and full of humor?

So with that in mind, proceed!

Trust doesn't come easy for Stephanie. Yeah, she might hero worship a few people, but that doesn't equate as trust. She might have been trying to validate herself to Batman, but again that isn't trust. When it came to her identity, she had no say – they already knew it, had figured it out and she was forced to accept it. She had hated it when Robin – Tim – had used her name before she began to accept she had feelings for the jerk, but she hadn't fully trusted Tim either.

Trust had been a funny thing with many an adult in Stephanie Brown's life. Her father cheated on her mom, either with other ladies, his pals or his stupid life of crime. He was not a trustworthy figure in any sense. He could not be depended upon to be there for important events, be there to put food on the table; was unreliable to not lose his temper and take it out on his family. Her father had created a precedent that would infect many a relationship she had with men, older and younger.

Stephanie had loved her mother, but one can love someone and never trust them either. Her mother was there while her father was physically gone, but with her addictions, she might as well have not been around at all some days. She could not trust her mom to tell the truth about her needs when it came to the bottle of opioids, or whatever she decided to get hyped up on. She could not trust her mother to remember to pay the bills – though her mother had, somehow, managed to maintain a job. She did not trust that one day her mother wouldn't be there the next.

It was through her parents, the foundation for any child's life and how they will come to view the world, that Stephanie learned that trust wasn't something she can give, not easily. Stephanie determined that she could be friendly, could despise bullies, could accept different people from different backgrounds, could love people and yet never trust them. From her father, his lack of being there, of not being good enough had stimmed a need, an obsession to be wanted, needed or even found worth being given a damn about. From her mother, she wanted to become something more than her parents, to remember the good of her mother – being there, caring in her lucid moments – but inherited her mother's need for crutches, to be substantiated through others.

Trust was a precious, precious gem that Stephanie did not give easily, just as she didn't particularly feel trustworthy herself. She wasn't because she had been too easy to manipulate, following orders or not. Stephanie wasn't sure she trusted herself, sometimes – even if she was all she could trust on most days.

It was a rancorous cycle.

She likes to think she trusted Tim, but Stephanie does try to not lie to herself – tries not to too much, anyway. Others will lie to her, tell her things she does or doesn't want to hear, so who else will be truthful with her, if not herself?

She hadn't trusted Tim, she had loved the boy – might still love him in a faint, fond way that distance and perspective hasn't quite erased. Is not sure she will ever stop loving Tim as the first boy she has loved. She hadn't known his name, had – tried to convince herself – accepted that she might never know his name, but hadn't trusted she would ever learn it. Just as she hadn't trusted that there weren't other girls who might know Robin or 'Alvin', might have to be content with a love connection of not knowing his real name… Worse, perhaps they had known his real identity, but she wasn't going to ever know.

Yeah, yeah, rehashing some shit here, but sometimes these things needed mulling over more than once.

Batman wasn't someone she trusted either, but she had wanted to approve of her so badly. There was that unspoken rule that unless Batman approved of you, you couldn't be a crime fighter, if Batman did then everyone had to see your potential. Batman was that stupid beacon of 'make it or break it', the final nail in the coffin or whatever other lame cliché that aptly described the situation. That Batman, for better or for worse, had to give the stamp of acceptance on before anyone cared enough to put time and effort into. The Birds of Prey had trained her, only because Batman approved. When he hadn't, they stopped.

He was so bi-polar! He took her on, said she didn't have what it took and then accepted her as Robin! The man shifted his fucking tune to whatever music he wanted to play, played and pulled strings so that others moved to his melody. Stephanie might have (not really) placed her trust in Batman, but she hadn't trusted in him not to take that from her. She hadn't trust him to not pull the rug out from under her. Again.

The Birds of Prey, she practically ate up whatever crumbs she was given. Dinah and Helena were kind to her, accepted her even if they only trained her because Batman gave the okay. Out of anyone from the Batman group, they had related to her easily and were not as stingy with praises.

Because! SURPRISE! Stephanie loved being praised.

Not that she really needed those, but it was nice to be told she had talent instead of being told she wasn't good enough. Barbra tolerated her, she wasn't unkind, but she wasn't friendly and accepted her presence in the clock tower because of Batman, Dinah, Helena and Cass. Otherwise, Stephanie is sure that she would never be allowed in the base. She trusted that Oracle wouldn't withhold information that might cost a life, but she didn't trust Oracle beyond that, even if she had looked up to the original Batgirl like a role model.

Cassandra Cain was likely the closest Stephanie ever got to fully trusting someone. Sure, Cass would knock her out so she didn't enter fights. Stephanie wasn't skilled enough and while some part of her believed that was a lack of trust to think Stephanie couldn't handle herself, she can be honest enough – now – to know that she really had lacked the skill. That Cass had knocked her out because Stephanie would have jumped in and Cass would have been focused on keeping Stephanie safe. Cass always fought to inflict minimum damage and Stephanie's involvement ensured that damage would never be minor – likely would have been the one damaged instead. Cass had trusted Stephanie with a vulnerable part of herself, admitting that the current Batgirl, badass and a God amongst mortals, couldn't read or write.

They had trusted each other to have the other's back, on and off the field. Cass was teaching Stephanie to fight, to better stand against the horrors that walked the streets of Gotham. Stephanie was teaching Cass how to read, to write and to socialize. They had formed a bond that allowed them to read each other in ways they hadn't thought another could. Cass understood body language, Stephanie understood people.

It was beautiful and scary, but Cass always defied everything Stephanie once thought impossible.

Trust was still a commodity that was a prized currency that Stephanie doesn't give away for free. Stephanie finds that those who have her trust are few and precious, death gave her a new perspective on even this subject as well.

Omigawd, she has too much thinking time.

Three weeks are spent with a daily routine that is both monotonous and hectic. The mornings are filled with her and Jake's training. Stephanie almost points out to him that the agreed time frame of a month he had given her has come and gone a week ago (she doesn't tell him). They make it a game and an exercise of sneaking around guards, climbing the towers, perching high above men who should be looking out far and wide. They end up doing the job for them. Jake and Stephanie can make it over the fence and to an area that allows them room to fight, the sparring sessions growing in intensity and focus as each party ups their game. Jake and Stephanie find, with pride and bemusement, an increase in both their skills. Pride for Steph, bemusement for Jake – that loser.

Stealth has become a game, of hiding in plain sight because the base is on a part of land where trees are not as plentiful. There are marsh lands that take up every other part of the country besides this particular spot, so they get creative and find ingenious, hilarity in how they pull off half the shit they do.

Jake paints himself and scares the shit out of Stephanie, he was against a tent, hidden from view and got the drop on her. Stephanie gets him back by imitating mole people, burying herself beneath ground and waiting for him. She will tease him to the end of days at how girlie his scream was. They do this when they are not in the set schedule of training, during off time when neither is usually on guard for antics like this.

It becomes, quickly, a standard. Paranoia, already settles nice and comfy, like an old friend, within their beings. It has its perks and its pitfalls – frenemies to any vigilante.

Mornings and afternoons for Stephanie, are filled with patients – their needs, their wants. Some are heartbreaking, some standard. Not all her patients are civilians caught in violence of war. Some have been untouched by the war besides being displaced from their homes and into a tent within the perimeter of the fences. Some are soldiers, mostly those who are guarding the UN operatives, the civilians here on immunity ground. Some are the UN officers themselves. Each visit can go from one extreme to the next, depending on who steps through the entrance and what troubles they bring.

Nights can drag, sometimes because of operations needed to be done. Stephanie preps the room and observes, but she doesn't step into the operating room because she has no training for it. She is not licensed to do so, but sometimes she can be invited in to aid in certain procedures.

If her nights are not taken up with medical duties, she spends her nights with Amahle. The woman has taught her the stars, quizzes her on their position, her position and how she could find her way back to camp. It takes Stephanie awhile to get those certain quizzes. Still, she tries and begins to get the hang of them. The old woman, much like a doting, dotty grandmother, begins teaching Stephanie Arabic – Stephanie can speak Njerep now. The lessons on languages are easy in comparison with Amahle instructing Stephanie on runic symbols, which Stephanie is skeptical of, but with the way Amahle grins with a feral disposition she throws herself into the study. Tales are still woven, some similar and some different with different experiences to be learned.

"Mistakes a' wepeated ova' and ova', but eventually, the lessons stick, my kindwed." Amahle breathes against Stephanie's ear, comforting and close. Her aged voice is soft, purring against the shell of Stephanie's ear.

Sundays are Stephanie's only off day from the medical tents. Mornings are still with Jake. Afternoons are split between Leslie's lessons, though they keep some of them brief. -Stephanie begs to rest, willfully taking the blame despite how they both can see the bags underneath Leslie's silver-hazel eyes. The guides and guards who are willing to teach Stephanie are busy with their new duties, though some cram in some time with the adorable (She so is, don't judge) teenage blonde. She finds French harder to learn than the four Bantu languages she knows, but is assured she's making progress. The guards joke she is a better shot than they, still, they've decided to teach her how to make explosives out of household items… Stephanie is suddenly unsure if they have too much time on their hands, but doesn't voice it.

She gets to make things go BOOM, after all. Don't worry, they are small like firecrackers and set up perfectly safe… Even if they're telling her how to increase portions to make things bigger to set shit ablaze.

Seriously, maybe guard duty is more asinine than she gave it credit for. Jake agrees with her when she brings it up.

Stephanie feels as if her days are full, with little to no room for deviation. There are very few, Sundays, however, that Stephanie finds her time not filled with something, she is almost unsure what to do with any downtime besides practicing knife twirling, a language or reading through books, medical, political and of other destinations.

It is on a rare afternoon of quiet that something different is presented to her.

One morning she comes across Dr. Erskine just after a training session with Jake. She is in jean shorts, a gray tank top and her white, well-worn-in sneakers. She is covered in sweat and muscles that ache, sweetly. It is a time of quiet when she happens to look into a tent and there he sits, flap open – Stephanie has never seen that flap open, didn't know it was his tent – reading a book. A cursory glance reveals the topic is on ethics. She can hear, like background noise, the sounds of goats, cows, and the morning bustle of those who are early risers.

"Miss Nicole, morning." Stephanie stiffens, hadn't made the conscious decision to stop, when brown eyes stare into her contact-covered gaze over the top of the book. She makes a very, too-conscious effort to loosen her frame and reminds herself that Dr. Erskine is not a threat - yet. Due to her near slip-up with giving him her name, Stephanie learns to be wary of the doctor, even if she knows that it was not his fault. His eyes though, those are totally on him. Warm, rich chocolate that is the same as his smile, gentle, kind and filled with something Stephanie struggles to identify. He is keenly observant, has seen him use those eyes every time he discusses something with warring leaders, the diplomats, other scientists and the patients whenever he helps her and Leslie in their tent.

Yet she can't help but feel like a child caught in those eyes. Feels circumspect under his gaze because she wants to trust that stare. And it alarms her.

"Morning, Dr. Erskine, catching up on some reading?" Stephanie blurts out the question, rushed and with a need to not let silence stretch after his greeting. She can feel embarrassment coloring her neck and ears, but keeps her gaze fixed on those brown eyes that light up with his smile. He is an older man, not as old as Leslie and Amahle, but a bit older than her dad was if not in the same age bracket. He is balding with dark, peppered hair around the lower portion of his head, a few white strands stick out. His jawline is covered by the closely-trimmed beard, dark brown, covering his chin, lower cheeks and around his lips. Paired with the round, silver-colored lined glasses, perched on a long, slightly hooked nose – he looks distinguished, intelligent and only highlights his gentle outlook further. Without the glasses, Stephanie thinks, he could look even younger than her dad the last time she saw him.

Dr. Erskine is slight of frame, bird-like, but fit for a man of his age. Stephanie has only seen him in beige shorts and white buttoned up shirts, usually rolled three-quarters up his arms. His arms are trim, fitted, but do not boast of hours of working out. His hands though, are calloused, worn and show character of work-ethic. His legs are that of a man who runs, but Stephanie can't decide if it is because he runs around doing one task to the next or if he does it in his leisure time.

"Heavy or light, it is good to start off the morning with thoughts that inspire change either within ourselves or the domain that surrounds us." The doctor responds, snapping the book shut and holding it up for her to see the cover fully before he sets it down. He was lounging back in his cot, but now he sits up straight and waves to a small, clothed stool. Clearly, it is an invitation. Stephanie sees no reason to not accept it, even as her hackles rise. A voice warning her to run from older men that seem too fatherly - and steps inside, taking a seat on the very stool he had offered. It is small, but the cloth of the seat holds her and she uses her knees to fold her arms upon.

Dr. Erskine often worked in the medical tents, so Stephanie has worked alongside the man often enough to know where the conversation was going. The older gentleman loved philosophical, ethnical questions. The blonde teenager was not surprised to find that Erskine was a very, very, very intelligent man with several doctorates in medicine, chemistry and computer science. A brilliant scientist, highly sought after for his work while running his own business. Stephanie wasn't sure what it was –hadn't wanted to pry just yet – on what kind of business he runs. From their conversations, Steph had been able to gather that Erskine believed in the highest human values; cheerful and serene when handling patients and fellow mankind. He often appeared wise, debating heroes, legends, corruption and humanity with those who would engage him. Stephanie was an amateur, but she often found herself participating in several different debates, despite her own caution in regards to Dr. Erskine.

He seemed to enjoy what a younger mind often came up with. It sets her on edge even as it makes her preen.

Right now, he was staring at her in a way that made her feel like he could see beneath the name 'Nicole', could see past her contacts and see beyond her scars. Once more making her feel like a little girl she no longer was, but had once wanted to be. Under that gaze, still wanted to be.

'If someone could see to the value of someone's soul, Dr. Erskine could.' Stephanie felt this to her very core.

"What's the topic today, doc?" Her voice came out softer and more tired than she had intended, the way his gaze studies her reminds her that she had gotten up early and had been training with Jake for hours. She offered a smile, small and secretive. Worry shone in those eyes, but understanding did too – Stephanie wasn't sure what he understood, though, but was gonna take it.

"If heroes, the likes of Superman and Wonder Woman, have such power, the ability to stop wars, corruption and bring about peace, should they not do so?" The doctor's voice is light, somewhat airy as he looks out of the open flap of his tent and to that of beyond. His brows though, are low over his eyes, deep in thought and looking more troubled than what his voice gave away.

"You mean if they stopped fighting like the kind happening here?" Stephanie asks, but she already knows the answer. She wants to say she is surprised by the topic, but she is not. They both might have danced around heroes and what made them heroes, what made man both horrible and great, but this topic certainly seems to be up his alley.

He nods, but says nothing more, those piercing russet eyes on her. Stephanie, naturally, wants to be somewhat flippant with her response, to joke about how the UN might not be needed, how women in places like Somalia would not be raped or treated like cattle. Wants to praise the idea of a world without terrorists, but stops herself. Because even while all of that sounds great, what would the end be?

Superman is a beacon of hope, showing compassion for both his friends and his enemies. If someone like him could get tired of the world, would want to control it to stop every bad thing from happening, what would that say about humans? What would that say about Superman? If he gave up hope, if he could lose his compassion and just end threats before they happen, what did that make him instead? Not a hero, Stephanie swallows and doesn't care that it hurts.

Wonder Woman is a warrior, who fought for mankind – still does. She has been a source of strength for many girls and women, promoting her 'sisters' to rise up and embrace their strength. She is peace and truth, she fights but her aim was never to end war or suffering, but to inspire humans to want both, to work to end their own suffering and war. She does not see women as better than men, but is a symbol to fight for better, to want better. If Wonder Woman started fighting battles to end all wars, is she giving up on people seeking their own peace, their own truth? Would she, essentially, be saying that mankind is without hope for either too?

Would they, or heroes like the Flash, the Green Lanterns, eventually say they can't trust mankind to find their own way? Would they, the heroes, seek to right the world in their image of what peace and prosperity is? No image is without fault and no one has a perfect image of what Utopia is besides abstract concepts of no war, no hate and the like. But it would not be a world gained, but given – a world not made for the many, but the few. Even then, that is not hope, compassion, justice, truth, peace or any other symbol heroes are made of. That's a world of illusions, false and more broken than a world with war, famine, disease, corruption and suffering… And how fucked up is that?

"Where would it end?" Stephanie asks after a length, "Choices, they would be taking away people's choices, their freedom. Just because you have power to take away war and suffering, doesn't mean you should. There would be many, on the offset, which would support them, but they wouldn't understand that they lose something else in the process."

"Humans make their suffering, you mean?" His tone is inquisitive, but there is a note of a push within the question that Stephanie ignores.

"Yeah," Stephanie fully agrees, pushes back with full on gusto, "we create our suffering. We have war, we have people who hurt others, and there are countries that suffer with hunger, with disease. If one can take away war, famine and disease, we could supposedly have everything we want and need, maybe more, but things still wouldn't be perfect." Stephanie kept her gaze on Dr. Erskine's face, hoping she's articulating herself well enough, "People will still argue, people will still get angry or depressed. It's a right as humans, even if the biggest problem of humans is hurting others. Many people just do that to feel better about who they are." It was textbook bully, something inherent in world leaders who threaten bombs to feel superior, or decimate their own people in order to cast off the 'unwanteds'.

"Should they not fight off those who want to hurt others?"

"They should stop their villains, the creatures that normal humans can't fight. Like Superman's Doomsday or Batman's Joker. They are the threats heroes are needed for, but for the war between countries, world leaders… People will argue, they can argue and be right, different, and still argue. You can get people to stop fighting, to stop hating, but you can't make people stop arguing. Forcing people to stop arguing, trying to force them to be content and happy like you want them too. You force people to think the same way as you; it doesn't make the world better. It makes it worse."

"People's mistakes are from their perception of events, no? If we take away choice, they won't make horrible decisions, mistakes and the world would be better off?"

"If people cannot make mistakes, cannot get angry and sad, then they will never learn. They will never solve problems, never attempt to trying understanding each other better and figure out ways to make the world better, not just for them, but everyone. You force acceptance and it will never be acceptance. It's just another lie." Stephanie took a gulp of breath, hadn't realized she had stood, wondered why she could feel tears building up and sat back down. Face flushed, felt the color of passion coating over her being and warming her to an almost uncomfortable degree.

"So you would argue that man's 'freedom' of choice is what will make or break them?"

Stephanie gave herself a pause to get herself under control. Dr. Erskine did not seem as put upon about the subject and Stephanie hadn't known she felt this deeply about this topic, hadn't thought someone like Superman or Wonder Woman, or any hero, could be moved to take choices away when they always preached choice. It was startling, eye-opening.

"It is always a point of civilization to grow, to mature and evolve. Society is not perfect, but we are not hopeless. Years ago, gay marriage was looked down upon, something to be hidden. It isn't now, though there are always assholes that have narrow views. Before the Civil War, the South held slavery as a part of life, war ended it. It did not end discrimination, but it was a step. Just as Martin Luther King's speech was a step, a choice to fight injustice and right narrow views. Slavery is still practiced around the world in other countries, but is being fought. War is ugly and it costs lives, but war has brought change too. Suffering is horrible, but it impacts people – makes them reach out to humanity and inspires change too. Without either we would be stagnant. Without choice, we would never come to these conclusions… and we would never evolve, mature and grow as a society, a world. When we stop striving for better, but let others 'fix' the problems, we do not grow – we die."

Stephanie feels like that is a truth she can trust and believe in. As a girl who grew up in Gotham, if you did not fight for better, for more, you would fall into the underbelly of Gotham and just cease. There are monsters people, normal people, can't fight. The Joker is a force all his own, he kills, destroys without compassion and with only a mind to amuse himself. The police can never seem to hold him and in a city like Gotham, with Joker, Penguin, Two-Face and the other psychos that darken the city, no one would survive. Batman, despite how much of a constipated asshole he is, is source of hope – even if he is not normally viewed as one. He is clearness in a city of smog. When his beacon lights up the night, it is light in darkness and that is hope for a Gothamite. Batman is a legend, but they know he is not an alien; he is not an immortal being with strength of ten or so men. He has no powers, and Stephanie knows this to be true, he is flesh and blood – he is human… And he is proof that mankind can always strive for more, to be better than the monsters that darken their door.

He is a symbol, as all heroes are. He fights what others cannot and that inspires. People know they can't fight monsters like Joker, but they can right wrongs by voting for the least corrupt politician, they can fight by looking for cleaner energy, they can fight by looking to their neighbor, seeing the things that make them similar and different – accepting that an appearance, a religion and a set of beliefs does not make a monster. It makes them human.

This is freedom of choice… and it is beautiful, terrible, but something humans can do without legends – without heroes. Take that away, what else is there? If you take away the fight… what else can they do, but slowly die?

"They take away our social consciousness, the ability to connect with fellow man, their suffering and what we can do to change it." Stephanie nods at his words, spoken with a hint of pride, but doesn't quite get why, but then she's not looking at him either. She feels foolish, childish for being carried away, having an outburst, for the thoughts a simple discussion spurs even as she feels vindicated. Her thoughts are her own and she doesn't regret them even while she feels like how she acted was less than ideal.

"You enjoy fighting?" The question is odd, but a more personal and direct maneuver of conversation. The topic change has her blinking and, unbidden, her eyes seek his – finds a strange, unfathomable light in them.

"I do." She responds and his face twists in a way that has her saying more, far more than she means too, "I like fighting bullies, showing them that they may pick on someone weaker, but that doesn't make them better. I like fighting my struggles, myself, because I want to be more than what my parents were. I want to fight to make a better tomorrow." She wipes at wet cheeks, aware she is crying as the admission claws out of her, but her gaze remains steady on his, "I want to fight for a day a little girl doesn't have to wonder if she's enough for her parents. I want to fight so little boys don't have to become men before they should. I want to fight, because if I don't fight for these things, then how can I expect others to fight for similar?" She means it, every word and his face is now that smooth, serene look that shines wisdom and reads her, pulling her inside out and putting her back together to discern her secrets.

She finds words tumbling out before she can stop them.

"I didn't always fight for the right reasons, for fun and thrill – for a boy. I always said I wanted to prove myself, to be worth something, but I don't think I found myself worthy… I still don't know if I am." She feels naked, but warm –petrified and bold. Shocked that she allowed those eyes, those eyes she was right to be wary of, to see through her, to burrow past her defenses. Yet, she doesn't feel the same sense of panic she expects to feel and it alarms her.

Blue eyes are wide, staring into chocolate pools that shine again, that same unidentifiable sheen that she can't place. She hasn't been able to name since first meeting this man.

Dr. Erskine opens his mouth and Stephanie waits with bated breath.

That is when gunfire and screams shatter the moment. Stephanie knows she should be relieved and, yet, she feels bereft of something intangible.

Looks like the rebels were finished with talking, had been finished with these slow talks for weeks. After the screams and gunfire, explosions had ripped through the air, smaller, planned and deadly for any chances of fighting back. The weapons cage had been hit, creating the biggest explosion due to the amount of ammo that had been within, including her own caravan's weapons and the weapons of anyone else who had not been military. She had witnessed the destruction herself, recalling every bit of knowledge she had in ordinance, spied materials used to make homemade bombs easily enough.

Unease flickered, recalling the guards teaching her some of these things. She could not dwell on it though, moving through tight spaces.

She wants to find Jake, but knows that it shall be hard between the smoke and kicked up dust. She can hear cries of wounded, hear signs of battle taking place. She wants to act, but is forced to confront the idea that she has not the means to do so at current. She has no weapon on her, wants to change that in the near future. She had left Dr. Erskine with Leslie and Amahle, heading for a designated safe zone that was far more fortified by soldiers surrounding it and made of studier material than that of the tents that surrounded the metal building. She remembers seeing it once, but refuses to go with them.

Instead, she dodges past men and women, ignores the scent of copper – blood - in the air; tries not to look at the dead who litter the ground as she moves closer and closer towards the towers. She sticks as low to the ground as she can, covering her mouth with the cloth of her shirt in order to limit the smoke she breaths in. Gunfire rings out and she almost freezes, but forces herself to move.

It was close. She glances left and right, staying away from firelight as much as possible and blends into whatever shadows the smoke allows her to hide in. She tries to stick to paths that are crowded, but already, the closer she gets to the fighting, the bodies are thinning out or is dead upon the ground. She hopes she comes across as a civilian who is panicking, but knows that won't be enough to save her life. Who she is will not matter for those whom have already killed men and women, those whose bodies she tries to not step up – is leaping over.

She can hear a soldier, speaking French, calling for all civilians to vacate the area, gives a vague direction of safety. She can hear something go off, sounds like a machine gun and can see, barely, the flickers of sparks as the bullets leave the chamber. Another explosion rips through the atmosphere, she is far enough away to not feel immediate effects of the blast, but can feel the ground quake beneath her feet in the explosions aftermath.

Stephanie knows that she needs to get to a higher point in order to better understand where the enemy forces might be originating from, a vantage point that would give her a better understanding of the damage already wreaked upon. She knows that the smoke is rising, knows that if she doesn't choose the right tower she will suffocate from the thickness of the toxic cloud.

Stephanie takes a moment, a short quick breath, knows that deeper will do her no good while surrounded by fire and smoke. She knows that deep breaths can give her away when she can see the outline of figures out of her peripheral. She doesn't call because there is a greater chance that, with the chaos of the battle, someone is more likely to shoot first when startled before seeing if the caller is friend or foe.

She's not even sure if the figures are enemy or not herself, so it's not worth taking that chance.

The blonde, living-dead girl waits a moment to watch which way the smoke sways towards, sees if the wind is a deciding factor and nearly sighs in relief. It does. So she makes her way west, opposite of where the wind is blowing direction, to one of the towers that will give her the view she seeks and be clear enough to not blind her or kill her with affixation.

She moves quickly, focuses on her surroundings – avoiding gunfire where she can. Someone collides with her.

She has a moment to catch a knife before it sinks into her gut. Applies pressure on a wrist, hears a grunt of pain. She pulls shoulders, thin yet tight, forward and sinks her knee into his gut. The figure is taller by a foot, dark skin and long, dark hair and eyes that are blown. She doesn't know if it's the fighting that did it or if he's drugged up, but she knows she isn't going to ask. The man is clumsy though, likely not expecting her to be a skilled fighter when she lands a solid kick to the side of his head. She watches as he turns, body twisting with the motion and goes tumbling down.

She waits only a moment before she is finding something to tie him up. She puts those knot lessons to use when she ties strips around his feet and connects them to his wrists, tight to make it so he likely can't feel either his legs or arms when he wakes up. The fabric of the canvas tent is sturdy, not so easy to break. A glance around says they're unnoticed, or at least she is.


The rest of the way to the tower is uneventful, so she climbs. Ignores the strain of her lungs, the way her eyes sting from both her tears and the smoke, she swings and lifts till she is above the station, glad to see no one there, when she swings onto the roof.

She freezes, but lets out a relieved sigh. Jake is there, eyes on her with a gun in his hand, but he relaxes and Stephanie notes, absently, that he has a duffle bag by his side – the nose of a gun sticking out. She's pulling down her shirt, swallowing cleaner air as if that will cure her of the burning, smoky taste on her tongue. She feels a desire to engulf buckets full of water; her mouth is dry, nearly painful. She should have expected it, but she hadn't been conscious of the pressing need.

Jake holds out a canteen and she takes it, forces herself to sip instead of swigging the contents. She hands it back, somewhat reluctant, but the way he grins shows he's got no hard feelings, but a possible thirst for a fight instead.

Without a word, he hands her a gun, a combat shotgun. He is also giving her three knives to hide on her person and a small handful of bombs, small ones that are pin-point deadly; not nearly destructive as the homemade ones the rebels used. There are others, smoke bombs and flash grenades.

"Where did you get this?" She has the presence of mind to ask, even as she double checks her chamber. Jake has a sniper rifle, seems better equipped in using it. She feels a sinking sensation that there was no way of getting out of this situation without taking a few lives, but she's not going to question Jake since they can see convoys coming out of the swamps, riding up to the fallen barrier that looks as if they blasted through it, just below them.

Stephanie breathes, knowing she can only control her actions here, knows she's going to have to kill or she's the dead one. Doesn't want to test her luck that she might come back a second time. Imagines that will be harder if she has a hole in the middle of her face.

Never again – but only if I can help it. Stephanie sighs internally as the realization hits her.

She promised she wouldn't take a life, felt horrible the last time and knows she's still feeling it even if it was months ago. But, blue eyes are staring down into what looks like hell, with fire and smoke. Dead bodies and cries of triumph when another joins the climbing numbers, sees that she's going to have to possibly kill men and women, is going to have to take lives to save others.

"This isn't the same as that guy." Jake's voice is rough, but oddly comforting. He sounds as if he wanted to scold her, but hadn't quite managed it, "That guy was an accident, I know you hated what happened, but sometimes, when its stakes like these, you gotta make that call. These guys don't care who they're killing, they're making statements."

And it's true, she sees that. She doesn't want to kill, hates the option. But she knows Batman is of the mind that you avoid killing unless it's a life or death situation and pushes the thought away. She's not B-man; she's not here seeking his approval. She's not doing this, questioning herself, just because she wonders if this is a step towards becoming her father.

She's Stephanie Brown, she's looking at carnage and destruction – is seeing people being slaughtered because two sides are fighting, both have a perspective, a goal they found worth killing for. She is reminded of Dr. Erskine's thoughts, how heroes like Superman, Wonder Woman and Batman could stop this, but she doesn't feel as if her opinion changed. Heroes like them are needed for the monsters, not for this.

When she cocks her gun, she reminds herself that right now, she's not a hero either. She's Stephanie Brown, not a vigilante, but a teenager caught in a battle zone. She doesn't want to kill, but she will if she has too. Has no other choice but to do so.

She feels queasy, but knows that Jake is right and her grip on her gun is sure.

"You going to be okay?" Jake questions, turned away.

Yeah, she thinks instead of answering, yeah she'll be okay.

They have laid out a plan. Jake is going to shoot from the tower's perch for as long as he can before they get an idea of a sniper in the midst. From the vantage point of the tower, there is a bird's eye view to take out some of the fighters who are already pushing further into the camp.

He will be covering her while she heads towards the majority of the rebel forces, taking out their convoys and thus their firepower. They have jeeps with giant miniguns attached to the back, using those to take out any oncoming forces. But Stephanie doesn't plan on making an obvious advance.

There are no trees or water to hide in, to use for cover. The sky is blackened from smoke, blocking out the sun – they are her only sources of cover. Her flesh is heated from her heightened adrenaline and the fires that surround her. The ground feels unstable beneath her, rumbling in a threat to make her lose her balance – her signal that they've let off more bombs. But the feeling is faint, which means the explosion is further from her location or not a large one. The ground is soaked in blood, she can see bodies, some shredded from a blast, some filled with bullet holes and others are burnt beyond recognition.

She does not stay in one place for long, not unless she is hiding from oncoming footsteps. She doesn't want to chance it being the enemy, most likely is as she moves in the direction of the majority of their forces. She holds her gun close, hears more gunfire going off and shouting, angry; some desperate.

She reaches into the small satchel, the one holding bullets and bombs, wrapped around her torso. She can hear screaming getting closer, hears a loud bang and it is close enough that her ears are ringing.

She staggers to the side, catching a barrel of a gun to the side of her head. Wonders how she missed them when another hit gets her on the side of the face. She rights herself and propels her own gun up in an arch, catches something. She moves out of the way when they let off a shot, it misses by inches, but feels it in her eardrums, the momentary deafness since they let the shot off close to her ear. She turns, slamming her gun into their chest, hard. It winds them, but she's gotta press the advantage before he calls out for help. But it ain't going do her any good if he still has his weapon.

Smoke is nearly blinding her. And Stephanie is glad for the mask that Jake gave her, allowing ventilation of air so she isn't nearly choking on the smog of smoke. She ducks under what would have been a glancing hit, comes up under his guard and catches his nose with a right hook. She can feel the gush of blood as cartilage breaks under her fist, barely hears it as she still suffers from him firing the gun too close. He opens his mouth and she hopes it is to make a strangled noise. She's working on loosening his grip on the gun, fights him for it. She kicks him between the legs, watches as he goes down and grip loosens as he reflectively wants to grab the injured part of his anatomy.

She has the gun, throws it into one of the fires and gets a grip around his neck. He doesn't react at first, but soon he is gripping her arm, nearly bruising at first. But between the smoke, his own lack of face protective wear and her choking him, he is out quick. She waits a beat before letting loose, feels for a pulse and is glad enough to find one, though faint. Quickly, she ties him up with some spare handcuffs Jake had thoughtfully provided her, it is one of two pairs that she has.

Raising her head, she wonders if Jake is still shooting, if he's decimated a number of her quarries already, but doesn't know and can't hazard the ability to guess. She wonders, worryingly, if the fires have gotten out of control, if she's doing all of this for nothing. If they're all just going to die in a fire that will consume the area and some of the nearby swamps.

Not the fucking time, Steph.

She ignores the way her body quivers and presses on. She is extra careful, not wanting a repeat of the enemy to find her, to just put a bullet through her before she has any time to react. Especially since her eardrums were affected. So, she takes extra time to try and look, even as her hearing begins to settle and the ringing in her ears dies.

She cannot mess up.

So far, she has been able to use nonlethal methods of incapacitating the enemy. She feels proud of that, even as she knows that it might not last at all, likely will not with the plan they've put together in order to force the rebel forces to retreat.

Stephanie is trying not to think about it, is rounding a tent when she sees something that has her heart squeezing painfully. The rebel forces didn't manage to get the enemy leaders, but they got the UN officers. Fleetingly, she wonders if they got Leslie and Amahle, but sees only the diplomats, the celebrities, the scientists – whoever was in the UN to help negotiate peace talks - and Dr. Erskine. They have their hands tied behind their back, kneeling on the ground and heads bowed.

It was almost as scary a sight as that little boy with eyes screaming that he was going to die.

There are men yelling, arguing, and gesturing to the group of kneeled envoys. It sounds twisted, but she's not close enough to hear the words. She waits and watches, gun already up and aimed, but she knows the shotgun is not a distance gun. It is more effective when she is closer than the long distance she is, unable to hear words – but firing now would do her no good besides getting her killed.

Stephanie fights momentary panic, watching as one of the guys, who had been arguing; raise a gun in the direction of their hostages. But no sooner had he done so than he is down, bullet to the side of the head. There is a scramble for the enemy to get down, looking for shooters. Stephanie backtracks, forcing herself to take a detour, to go around now that she knows Jake is still safe, still covering her. She swallows her cry of relief and stays low, knowing that the enemy is focused on their unidentified shooter - Jake.

There is only one guy guarding the hostages, the rest of the forces being used to suppress the rest of the camp. She makes a point to catch the hostages' gazes – as well as one can with a full mask on at any rate. Motions for them to be silent as she creeps up behind their designated guard, closing a hand over his mouth and pulls back. She has surprise on her side as she pulls him out of sight and onto the ground. He is a thin man, frail beneath the baggy, dirty clothes that cover his frame. She pushes a point in his neck, not as blinded by smoke or the immediate need to get his gun away from him. He dropped it when she grabbed him.

He is out and she uses her second pair of cuffs to tie him to a pike, the same one they have the UN visitors tied against, she is just now seeing with her new vantage point. The forces are still focused on finding Jake; more of their numbers are decimated and not at all worried about the lives of their hostages.

Quickly, she sets to work, tells them to get away and to safety, though she doesn't know where that is right now. Tells them to stay low, to find cover. She has no way of taking them to wherever safety is, knows that the time would be wasted. The celebrities follow the urging of the diplomats, who know to stay low and crawl instead of getting up and straight up run. The scientists are leading, talk of other safe houses set into place. Dr. Erskine, however, does not leave and looks at her. Has had his eye on her ever since she appeared, taking out the guard and untying him and his fellow UN members. She is almost reluctant to raise her head and meet his gaze, but she does.

His eyes are shining with that unreadable, indiscernible sheen again and she wants to just demand what the hell the look is about when she feels, more than sees a bomb being thrown – it is a flash grenade. She grabs the older man and ducks behind one of the jeeps. There is a series of cries following the bang and flashing, bright, blinding light. She waits a moment, until the whiteness dulls, before poking her head out to see that reinforcements have arrived, but too few and stuck in a shootout with the rebel forces. Everyone, both sides, taking cover behind some structure. Her ears are ringing from the grenade, a glance over reveals that Dr. Erskine is holding his hands to his ears, affected just as much by the keening whine of that particular blast of blinding light and deafening sound.

She grabs his shoulder, getting his attention but she knows she startled him by the way he jerked. She pushes her mask up enough to reveal her lower face. She settles her other hand on the opposite shoulder, hoping he can read her lips if he can't hear her. The sounds of rounds being unloaded is making its way through the faded ringing, just as loud and hard to pierce through with any other sound, "Go find cover!" She yells, doesn't worry since she can barely hear herself.

"What about you?" She had been ready to just leave him and hope he heard her, but she had heard that roar, followed with his tug on her arm. She turns, perplexed, but sees concern, those eyes that look far too knowing.

"Gotta snip this in the butt if I can." She whispers this, but she doesn't try and speak louder as she tears her arm from his hold, makes her way beyond the forces. She finds their vehicles, throwing in bombs, flash grenades into jeeps. She bombards the tires of convoys. She doesn't know if anyone is injured, but knows that the vehicles will be wrecked. Fire is spreading and the scent of gas hits her nostrils.

Looks like the plan worked. With all the fire, the fighting and with her placement of bombs they had an idea to set off a slightly bigger explosion, to hit the enemy harder than they had hit the camp. She knows the tactic is dangerous, knows she could and can be caught in the blast herself. But without knowing their own forces numbers, without knowing the full extent of the rebels' forces, they had little choice when it was just the two of them. Outmatched. Out gunned.

Stephanie hopes, dearly, that Dr. Erskine had run when she told him. She is running, zig-zagging as a call rings out and the forces are retreating. A blast rocks from behind her, burning hot and searing into her back. It is merely the first part of the fireworks, so she keeps running, keepings going as the earth shakes beneath her feet. Smells burning flesh, hears cries of agony and another call ringing out with a siren's blare.

She bites down on a cry of pain as something lodges into her side, followed by something in her shoulder. Feels flesh sizzling, but ignores it as she runs. She has to keep running, she knows this. She doesn't know where the enemy is, doesn't know if allied forces have gotten away.

Dimly, she wonders if she killed everyone. Tears are trailing down her cheeks, getting caught in the mask, but she doesn't stop running. Her legs are burning, aching, her lungs are stinging and she coughs, nearly stumbles, but manages to keep herself upright. Another blast, larger, rips through the air and she has to swerve right as something large, burning lands just before her. Her chest is heaving with needed air, the ventilation not enough to get her what she needs. But she runs, runs – keeps on going until she feels as if she is in hell, escaping the wrath of damnation itself. Smoke furls and the flames reach for her, shadows mess with her eyes and she screams as something scrapes her side.

She only stops when someone is in her path. It is not the arms of Amahle, Leslie or Jake. But she has a brief flash of warm brown eyes. A brief thought of, 'This is how I die – for real this time,' when her legs buckle beneath her. She hears Leslie now, voice frantic, but dim. Amahle's hands are on her cheeks, the calloused edges smoothing over wet tracks. Stephanie just feels like she is falling, her vision is tunneling, narrowing onto only brown, brown eyes of the older man who is holding her.

"Why do you look at me like that?" She mutters out loud, unaware she is whispering in a hoarse voice that begs for water. Her grip is weak on forearms that are thin, but firm… And she knows nothing more.

She dreams of death, of fire and brimstone, of cries of agony and anguish. She is surrounded by flames, fluttering and beautiful, but deadly and painful. The sky is nothing but clouded darkness, lighting booming through the air and hitting the ground, cracking the abused earth beneath her feet. She watches it, almost as if she a mere spectator, but feels dread welling in her gut as the cracks grow and extend into claws reaching for her.

She steps away, but they continue to reach and grow in a bid to catch her and pull her under, to swallow her up and smother her beneath.

Faces begin appearing in the cracks, faces of the dead, people she noted, but never paid attention too. They are twisted, broken and demonic with eyes of death – like her own – staring back at her, snarling with rage, begging and pleading, "Why didn't you save us? Why did you kill us?" She doesn't answer, because she doesn't know if she did or didn't kill them. Can't find her voice and when she does open her mouth smoke bellows from between her lips, leaving a chalky, charcoal taste in her mouth. Instead of her answer, a keening blare of a siren sounds, disturbing in this setting and wrenching sobs that can't escape her body. Only the smoke and the siren sounds do.

A hand reaches out from the cracks and grabs her leg, nails digging into her knee and she freezes, seeing a little girl she treated, the one who had held onto her grandfather. Her other hand is attached to a blackened skeletal arm and she feels like she will throw up; knowing that the arm belonged to the sweet elderly man, the only family the girl had left.

"You bring nothing but destruction wherever you go." Stephanie flinches from both the words and the voice. The voice wasn't that of the little girl, whose dark eyes are bleeding into blue, dark flesh into tanned peach and hair into blonde curls. The voice was her own, and in place of the little patient girl is a little girl Stephanie, bruise on her jaw in the shape of finger prints, "You're a killer."

She is shocked, body flailing backwards as if the words were a physical blow and curses herself, "No." She croaks, smoke accompanying the words, "No, I'm not." The little girl her is unmoved by the claim, but Stephanie reaches forward and grips the girl, herself, by the shoulders, "We're not him." She breathes, ignoring the fire that mingles with her smoky breath, "We killed to save lives, but that doesn't make us killers."

"Because we don't want to be him?"

"We're not him." Stephanie bites back, feeling surer of the answer than the way her voice shakes.

'No, we're not. Remember that.'

When Stephanie comes awake, there are tubes attached to her nose, giving her oxygen. She is under crisp white sheets and one of her legs is bandaged and elevated on a pillow. She feels a burning in her throat, raw and painful. She swipes her tongue over the roof of her mouth, in the hopes to alleviate the feeling of cotton there, she thinks she tastes blood. When she lifts her hands she sees patches of ash across her skin, wonders if she is not covered head to toe in soot.

But she is momentarily dumbfounded when a hand is gripping her own. Blinks at the extra appendage as if she is seeing something bizarre and irregular. She takes a moment, breathes, before following the length of the arm to a familiar face and warm eyes shining, still shining that damnable emotion as he stares down at her.

Breath stuck in her throat, Stephanie doesn't ask him why he looks at her like that. She realizes she recognizes what shines in his gaze, feels her chest flutter and her nose burn with emotion as she stares back.

Hope. She is staring into eyes full of hope

AN: I apologize for how long this took. I had finals, then holidays and then I was back in school trying to figure out how this semester would go. I've had this chapter written up for a long time, even before posting chapter 2. I must warn you that the next chapter might be just as long in coming.