Steph groaned and draped herself across the counter. “She’s just. So. So everything.”
“Hey, get off there, I just cleaned that.” Helena, with her usual irreverence for emotional crises, shoved her off. “People serve food off this counter, thank you very much.”
“You serve food off this counter. I’m pretty sure you don’t count as people. People would care more about my imminent heartbreak.” Having been chased from the counter, Steph collapsed at one of the tables.
“Don’t you have to talk to the person before it counts as imminent heartbreak?” Harper wondered from where she was tinkering with the spare toaster.
“You’re both terrible.”
“What is it about this girl, anyways?” Helena looked up from her croissant arrangements. “I mean, you’ve been going on about her for—for—”
“Three months, eight days, and seven hours,” Harper announced.
“That’s scarily accurate.”
“I wrote a computer algorithm to track it.”
“But anyways—three months, however many days, just talk to her.”
“I’ve talked to her!”
“Cassandra Cain has said hello to you thirteen times since school started. Out of those thirteen times, you’ve made seven horrible jokes that ended in you laughing nervously and making an excuse to run away, had three times where you’ve struggled to say anything besides “hello,” two where you’ve dropped something and then babbled extensively about picking it up, and one memorable time where you actually jumped into a fountain.”
Stephanie was being judged. She knew she was being judged. Helena Bertenelli had started working in this bakery when Steph was eight, she learned to feel the force of her judgment a long time ago.
“No, but—seriously, what is it with this girl? She’s cute, right? You like her, right? She can’t be that scary.”
“She’s a model. She’s a model, and her face is stupidly gorgeous, and she’s also a pro martial artist who could probably break me three different ways with her feet. Sitting down.” Steph sighed at the thought. Over her head, Harper and Helena exchanged a worried glance.
“I feel like I should vet all your future crushes so your mother doesn’t have to worry about you joining a BDSM club someday.”
“Mom!” Steph jerked bolt upright. “I promised her I’d babysit for her friend, I have to go!” She snagged her purse and ran out the door.
Kids? Steph loved kids. Kids were great. Kids were awesome.
Or so she thought until she met Nell Little.
Steph would happily sign an affidavit someday when Nell revealed herself as a criminal mastermind and conquered the world that she knew all along. The signs were there, in her loud shrieks and casual destruction of property and sneaky manipulations.
“At age three?” Harper asked, skeptically, as they walked along behind the excitable child at the park.
“She’s a prodigy, Harper. A prodigy of evil genius.”
“Riiiight. Why am I here again?”
“You’re good with children. You have a children living in your house. You know their evil—ohmygodtheresheis.”
Steph stopped right in the middle of the path, leaving Harper no choice but to walk straight into her. Harper shook it off with the ease of long practice. “You knew she was going to be here.”
Steph’s only response was an incoherent whimper. Harper let out a long, judgmental sigh.
Steph maybe regretted calling her in for backup if she was going to be attacked like this.
But she had more important things to worry about, like Cassandra Cain, stupidly gorgeous model and pro martial artist, in the middle of a modeling shoot in the middle of the park.
“Harper,” Steph mumbled. “Harper. She’s wearing leather bracelets.”
And they complimented her choker beautifully, Steph had to say. The leather accessories and the fitted black t-shirt added just enough punk to contrast the abstract silver embroidery and matching silver ballet flats. She was smiling, serenely, with just a hint of something hidden.
“You know how much I hate to say this, but I think Helena might have a point,” Harper mused, grabbing up Nell as she ran by and swinging her up for a piggy-back ride. “You focus on some very concerning things.”
“Mmmmmm?” Steph asked, much more interested in the way Cassandra balanced on the edge of the fountain like she was poised to leap off the edge. Her head turned towards the side, just in time to catch Steph staring, and she waved, a mischievous grin sliding over her face.
The photographer snapped something in Italian, and Cassandra immediately looked back at the camera and pretended to fall into the fountain.
Steph was ready for death now, thanks.
“Aw,” Harper said, “She remembers you!”
At least the embarrassment galvanized Steph into reclaiming Nell onto her own shoulders in order to drag her off to the merry-go-round at the other end of the park. Harper had been laughing at her misery since school started, but Nell, likelihood of world domination aside, was too innocent to be exposed to such nonsense.
Look, Steph didn’t need a three year old laughing at her romantic misery too, okay?
“Let’s see,” she said, surveying the ride options. “We’ve got a unicorn, a seahorse, a dolphin—”
“I want to ride with Ladybug!”
“Don’t think they’ve got a ladybug one, squirt.” Steph tried to bite down on her grin. Hell yeah, even the demon child liked her. She had to be doing something right.
“Well, ladybugs are pretty round, squirt. Kinda hard to sit on. How about a seahorsey?”
Steph was still having a futile argument about the definition of a horse with a three-year-old when the snowstorm hit.
Cass dove out of the way as a blast of cold air landed on the fountain behind her, freezing a solid bubble of ice, and kept a grin from pulling at her lips.
This was bad, of course, akumas weren’t good things, but she was hardly unhappy to escape a photoshoot early.
“Barb!” she hissed, rifling through the camera bag. “Barb!”
“I’m here, don’t shout.” The little black cat sprite flew out of a surreptitious corner of a camera bag. “An akuma?”
“Yes. Ice powers. Transform me!”
The Chatte Noire suit crept over her like a second skin, and Cass knew her body well enough to practically feel her muscles strengthening and her joints loosening until she felt like she could jump across the world. She closed her eyes as she drew the mask over them, to ease the transition to the slit pupils that caught even the slightest motion. The hearing switch as the ears sprang up over her head and started tracking her environment and the tail snapping out that shifted her center of balance weren’t so easy to deal with, so she just had to power through them. A quick somersault gave her time to adjust and come back up on her feet, realigned and ready to fight.
Chatte Noire was ready.
Or at least, Chatte Noire had been ready and then she saw Ladybug hitting the akuma victim calling himself Mr. Freeze in the face with a yoyo and had to take a moment and suppress a giggle.
“How’s playtime, my Lady?” Cass called. The mask, the anonymity it gave her, made her feel bold in a way that nothing else did. It made her feel like she had the first time she saw Ladybug, laughing and joking even as a monster raged across Paris, the hero bright and full of hope and fire and beautiful.
What was Chatte Noire with bad luck trailing behind—what was Cass with her clumsy words and quiet longing—to that? No wonder Ladybug laughed off her clumsy flirting. Cass could only appreciate that their friendship had never waned since the day they met.
“Little rough, Chatte!” Ladybug called, before dodging an ice blast. “And cold. Give a girl a hand, would you?”
Cass pulled out her baton and twirled it until it was long as her own body, jumping in to counter Mr. Freeze’s blows and give Ladybug time to retreat.
“The akuma?” she called out, trying to spot what the butterfly might be hiding in.
“I don’t know, maybe the—look out!”
The warning gave Cass barely enough time to duck and dodge away from the blast of ice Mr. Freeze sent pouring out of a hydrant with a wave of the wrench in his hand. She ended up side by side with Ladybug, watching the akuma advance slowly down the street, freezing it as he went.
“Someone didn’t hear spring was coming,” Ladybug grumbled. She was balanced on her toes, poised to leap or fight or even fly, one arm extended. Cass admired the way she moved, not so much focused as intent. She would do what she would do, heedless of the danger.
“With such lovely messengers as ladybugs, who wouldn’t listen?” Cass asked, because she was a fool.
Ladybug laughed but didn’t look over, still watching the akuma. “Is this really the time, Chatte?”
It wasn’t. Cass wasn’t sorry.
And then her feet were frozen to the ground because she hadn’t been paying attention and she was a little sorry.
Cass growled as she used her staff to chip her feet out, waving to Ladybug to go distract Mr. Freeze. She had to get herself under control.
The next several minutes were a haze of dodging icicles and trying to slow Freeze’s advance while Ladybug tried to get close enough to spot the possessed object.
“I think it’s the wrench!” Cass finally shouted, after Freeze had used it yet again to send a hydrant blasting open with an iceflow.
“I can’t break a wrench!” Ladybug shrieked back, sounding off-balance. Since she’d been using her yo-yo to swing from one side of the street to the other, above the ice, that was understandable.
“I can! Just stop him!”
Cass had to throw herself back into the fight, hearing Ladybug’s cry of “Lucky charm!” but missing the setup entirely. Which was a shame, because it was always a bizarre delight to watch her work.
But eventually, Cass heard the shout of, “Chatte, jump! Now!”
She didn’t even hesitate. For Ladybug, she never would.
Steph braced the manhole cover in the red-and-black elastic strap Lucky Charm had given her, and pulled it back before shouting a warning to Chatte Noire. As soon as her partner was clear, Steph released the elastic to send the metal spiraling directly towards the support of the screen looming over the avenue. The screen broke off plummeted towards Freeze, who was forced to sweep his wrench up to block it.
Chatte’s leap backward had carried her up against a displaced car seat, allowing her to bounce off it and launch directly back at Freeze, snatching up the wrench as she went. Steph could see the tool crumble from the power of Cataclysm as the billboard fell, and readied her yo-yo to catch the butterfly fluttering out of it.
“I’m freeing you from evil!” Steph shouted, feeling the lightning-bright energy rush through her to catch up the black bug that had caused so much damage. Again.
She entertained thoughts of trying to catch the butterflies sometimes—maybe they could deplete Hawkmoth’s supply—but something gave her the feeling it would never be that easy, so she did what she always did.
Steph cleansed the evil, freed the butterfly, and watched it fly away, hoping now it could be better.
She tried not to think about the symbolism too much.
After Ladybug’s swarm had restored order and Cass had gotten to savor one last brief moment of camaraderie in their fistbump, she ran back to the park and came out from behind a bench with just the right timing to make it look like she’d been in hiding from the akuma. Signor Falcone spent more time cursing out the supervillain than he did chastising her for ruffling her hair, so that was a plus. In no time at all she was back to standing in front of the fountain, trying to make herself look like the ideal of a typical carefree teenager.
Apparently, she wasn’t pulling it off well enough, because Signor Falcone ended up grabbing an unsuspecting toddler from her nearby babysitters—Cass’s own classmates—and making her part of the scene.
Cass rolled with it. Nell was a delight with a sneaky edge to the way she moved that Cass could admire.
“My babysitter thinks you’re cute,” Nell whispered loudly, during a shot where Cass was helping her walk along the edge of the fountain.
Cass smiled, professional training and practice brightening the sadder edges of her mouth. “Lots of people think I’m cute.” It meant she was doing her job right, after all.
Nell frowned, and her childish grip tightened. Clearly this was not an acceptable answer. “She really thinks you’re cute. She likes your bracelets.”
Cass liked her bracelets too, as much as she liked anything she had to wear for a shoot. They fit comfortably and didn’t impede her movement like some of the more jangly jewelry she’d had to wear. Besides, they reminded her of her suit. That was nice.
“Do you like my bracelets?” Cass asked, as Signor Falcone demanded they look cuter.
“Yes!” Nell said firmly, so Cass pulled one off and slid it to dangle too-big around Nell’s wrist so they matched.
Steph sighed in a hopeless way as the photographer made pleased exclamations and clicked the camera rapidly, capturing the scene. “She tames demon children. She’s amazing.”
Harper also sighed, in an entirely different kind of hopeless way. “You’re never going to talk to her and I’m going to owe Duke ten euros.”
As it turned out, Harper was able to collect ten euros within the week, after Steph managed to stammer her way through a conversation long enough to discover that Cassandra’s favorite color was yellow.
“Why did you want to know that?” Harper couldn’t resist asking, after Steph had collapsed back in her seat like she wasn’t sure whether to look starstruck or mortified.
“Oh,” Steph said, faintly. “No reason.”
The scarf was hardly the most complicated thing Steph had ever made—that honor probably went to the first time she wanted to make her own dress and chose the prettiest pattern instead of the simplest—but she still spent hours on it, smoothing the fabric and making sure every stitch was perfect before moving on to the next.
Of course, this gave her plenty of time to worry about the color. Yellow covered such a wide range, after all—had Cassandra meant pastel? Golden? Neon yellow, or sandy?
Steph had tried talking to Tim about this. The akuma had taken to hiding in Steph’s loose fabric pile.
Finally, though, on the evening before Cassandra’s birthday, she had to admit it was done. It draped well whether it was used on the head or the neck, it had just a touch of embroidery to accent the folds while allowing the natural color to be clear, and it was very, very yellow. Steph had ended up choosing the softest fabric she could find, and if it ended up being a shade that she thought would look nice on Cassandra—well. That was just a bonus.
Steph immediately shoved it into a box and wrapped it up so she wouldn’t have to look at it for one more single second, and Tim had to help her tie the ribbons because her hands were shaking too much.
She’d talked herself out of and back into actually giving it to Cassandra three times already by the next morning, and only Tim’s intervention made sure that the package actually got into her backpack.
“Are you feeling okay?” her mom asked, raising an eyebrow as Steph stared down at her breakfast instead of actually eating it. Crystal was up at four-thirty every morning to start the ovens, and traded over with Helena in time to have breakfast with her daughter. Although today it seemed the gesture had been in vain, because Steph hadn’t breathed a word. And now she was late.
“What? Who, me? Great. I’m great. Just great. So great.”
“Great,” Crystal said, amused. “So that’s why you’re here staring at your waffles instead of heading to school in a timely fashion.
Steph practically tripped over her own feet getting out the door.
She made it to school just before Cassandra was dropped off, which meant she had plenty of time to hide behind the steps and talk herself out of actually handing over the scarf again.
Harper had to shake her by the shoulders to get her moving, and by then Cassandra had vanished inside the school with Brenda Miller.
“I’m a useless mess,” Steph said, sadly.
Harper made no response, so Steph side-eyed her. “This is supposed to be the part where you reassure me and tell me I’m not.”
Harper made an agreeable noise before grabbing Steph’s shoulders again to steer her inside. “Let’s go with that. “
“Harper? Harper. I’m not a useless mess, right? I can’t be. If I’m a useless mess then I can’t marry Cassandra Cain and provide for our twenty two assorted dogs and cats together. Harper.”
Aside from Barb offering some of her particularly pungent cheese, Cass’s birthday morning had proceeded much the same as any other year. She had tried asking Nyssa if there was any chance of having a party, but her mother’s assistant had just frowned, and said that it wouldn’t be a good idea.
Brenda hadn’t thought much of this idea when Cass had relayed it, in the brief time she actually had at school before her afternoon photoshoot.
“It’s your birthday. You should at least be able to invite people over.” She sipped on the bubble tea she had somehow managed to acquire in the five minutes since they had been released from class. Frown lines were puckering her forehead already, but Cass would wait to worry about Brenda’s mood until the set of her shoulders changed.
“My mother sees it differently,” Cass said, trying to sound like it didn’t matter.
“Really,” Brenda said, voice flat.
Before Cass could reassure her further, because Brenda clearly wasn’t convinced, the limo pulled up and she had to wave goodbye.
Steph was a useless mess. She could admit it. She knew when she was beaten.
She should probably stop staring at the gates now.
“Steph,” Harper said, voice shaking. “You didn’t put your name on it?”
Steph didn’t answer. Harper went around the corner of the wall.
Steph could still hear her laughing from there, but she appreciated the consideration.
Cass pushed open the door to an unexpected sound. Any sound in the house would have been unexpected, of course, but her best friend’s voice was especially unexpected.
“—the photoshoots, ballet, martial arts, Arabic—” Brenda was standing next to Nyssa, back to the door as she ticked off points on her fingers. Cass’s mother was waiting on the stairs, face in full icy disapproval mode.
Cass caught up to Brenda in a few quick strides, and rested one hand on her shoulder, trying to defuse the situation. “Brenda, you’re here?”
Brenda tossed a look over her shoulder. “For you? Always.” She turned back to Madame Shiva, who was frowning hard. “Just one day. Just one hour. Please?”
Cass could have told Brenda before she even finished speaking what the answer would be. She let go of her friend’s shoulder, only to tug on her arm. “It’s over. Just—”
“Listen to me, young lady.” Shiva’s voice was cool and sharp, like an unsheathed knife. “This is my home. I make the decisions here. And I have made this one, as I am sure my daughter told you. If you cannot abide by it, well. Then I am afraid you are no longer welcome here.” She turned, hands clasped behind her back, and strode towards her office.
“Mother!” Cass knew it was a mistake, even as she couldn’t stop herself from speaking. “That isn’t fair. Brenda was just trying to show me a kindness.”
But Shiva did not turn around. It was Nyssa who stepped in, dismissing Brenda with a brusque farewell.
Cass tried to catch her friend before she left, but Brenda didn’t even stop. Her shoulders were angry as she walked away, one hand clenched tightly around her bubble tea.
Steph tended to eat her lunch upstairs most days, while her mom and Helena handled the lunch rush, but today it was quiet enough that she could come down and sigh wistfully while she arranged her peas into a heart.
“She’s going to get my gift,” she mumbled into her plate, trying not to sing or hum. “She’s going to get it!”
“Are you talking to your food?” Crystal asked, ruffling Steph’s hair as she went past to replenish the window display.
“What? Who? Me? No…” Steph quickly scooped up the peas and shoved them in her mouth.
She could hear Crystal laugh, before it trailed off into a shriek.
Steph’s head jerked up just in time to see a dark bubble envelop her mother and float away up into the sky, right before one came for Helena.
“Mom!” Steph ran forward, reaching up for the bubbles futilely. “Helena!”
She could see more and more bubbles, each one black with a faint silhouette inside, drifting away into the sky. It looked like the only ones left on the ground were kids and teenagers.
“The adults,” Tim said, from where he had popped up next to her ear. “Someone’s taking them away. It has to be an akuma.”
One of these days, Steph was going to find Hawkmoth, and she was going to hit the supervillain with a brick. Or ten. Or hell, a building, if she could get a strong enough Lucky Charm worked up.
No one messed with her mom. Not anymore.
“Transform me,” Steph bit out, and only just remembered to duck into the kitchen and slam the door.
Cass knew better than to think this would end well. She knew better than to think this had started well, with the faint outline of black bubbles she could still see against the sky and the barely-disguised tension in every single one of her classmates.
But somewhere under that ridiculous costume was still Brenda, and Cass didn’t want to fight her. Not if she could talk her down.
Of course, you couldn’t talk down someone who refused to listen.
“What was that? Sorry, babe, the music’s up! Dance a little!”
“Brenda—” Cass tried to grab the Bubbler’s shoulder, but she slipped away into the crowd, waving her oversized straw in a way that encouraged partying. Or threatened a far worse alternative.
Cass didn’t need Barb poking her arm to know this approach was getting her nowhere fast. Still, she sighed as she retreated into the house. It would have been nice to have a party.
“Transform me,” she said, softly.
Steph was never going to drink bubble tea ever, ever again. She was probably going to hide in her room the next time her mother tried her baked tapioca pudding. She was going to find every ball in the house and throw it off the roof.
As soon as she got out of this pile of pearls.
“Ew, ew, ew, ew, ew,” she hissed, squishing her way to the top. “Yuck, yuck, yuck.”
The only good thing was that when she made it out to the courtyard, Chatte Noire was on top of things. Literally.
“Having fun up there?” Steph called as she wrung milk out of her hair.
Chatte didn’t waste her breath as she bounced from the top of the outer gate to the wall of the house and back fast enough to avoid the projectiles shooting from the tip of the Bubbler’s straw. She did manage to find enough time to send Steph a particularly filthy look.
“Great, me too,” Steph muttered, launching back into the fray.
By tag-teaming the Bubbler, each of them taking turns to hold her attention long enough to pull closer and closer, Steph finally managed to get within grabbing range of the end of the straw.
“Gotcha!” she exclaimed, before the belated realization that being within grabbing range also meant being within target range caught up with her.
Bubbler gave her a downright nasty grin, before sweeping Steph backwards and sending her bowling into Chatte Noire.
“Sorry!” Steph blurted, and thought she might have heard Chatte mumble, “It’s nothing, you’re perfect,” but before she could process that there was a giant black bubble around them and they were drifting up into the sky.
“Well,” Ladybug said, after they had gotten all their limbs sorted out inside the bubble. “It could be worse.”
Cass raised an eyebrow at her, hoping the effect would travel through the mask.
“We could be listening to her monologue.”
“You have a point.” Cass looked up. “What now?”
“Now?” Ladybug started pushing at the bubble. “We get out of here, we kick her butt, I get my mom back, and then we punch Hawkmoth a lot. In the face.”
“Your mom,” Cass said, heart beating faster. “Not your dad?”
“No one hurts my mom,” Ladybug said, and there was something very dangerous in her voice. “Don’t know where Dad is, don’t care, but I’m getting my mom back.”
Cass hadn’t seen her mother go. She had to assume Shiva was gone, even if the thought hadn’t really come up until now. Maybe that made her a bad daughter.
Ladybug let out an angry growl. “Why won’t this thing break?”
Cass could use time without her mother, some days. But that was what she had Chatte Noire for. She couldn’t let her own selfishness take Ladybug’s mother, take anything that gave the hero her brightness. “I’m good at breaking things.” Cass’s claws were alight with dark energy almost before she could speak, like they were responding to the tumult in her head. “Cataclysm!”
Of course, neither of them had really considered that bubbles rose when they floated, and a few seconds later they were both falling.
A few months ago, Steph would probably have spent a couple of daydreams on what it might be like to climb around the outside of the Eiffel Tower. After being chased around it by supervillains two or three or five times, the charm had, admittedly, worn off.
It was still a nice view, even with giant black bubbles falling gently from the sky.
“Your mother will be back now,” Chatte Noire said, after they had both stared for a moment or two, catching their breaths. Brenda Miller was de-akumatized and on her way home, embarrassed but with no lasting damage. Order had been restored. They were done here.
“Yeah.” Steph nodded, still looking out. “I’m going to go find her. Do you—” she fished out her yo-yo and waved it. “—want a ride anywhere? People you have to check up on? Parents?” She felt ridiculous for not asking earlier, for freaking out so much about her mother when Chatte was probably missing people too.
“A ride would be nice,” Chatte said, finally. “I have people to find, but…” She looked down and out over the streets. “That won’t take too long.”
“Alright.” Steph braced her yo-yo in one hand, and then impulsively, snagged an arm around Chatte’s waist to pull her close. “Hold on!”
She fell off the tower with her partner’s laughter ringing in her ears and her yo-yo pulling her forward, and for a moment, it felt like she was one of those white butterflies, soaring up and far away with all her hurt and anger left behind.
And then her shoulder bore the brunt of the weight of pulling both of them forward, and Steph fell painfully back into reality, but it was still—mostly—good.
The rest of the school day was called off due to the particularly disruptive akuma attack, which gave Steph plenty of time to hang out in the bakery and keep an eye on her mom and Helena and do a thousand small tasks to keep her hands busy and her mind from eating itself alive with worry over the scarf.
Would Cassandra like it? Would she wear it ever? Or would she stick it at the back of her closet and just forget it existed? Would she know it came from Steph? NO, that was silly, she couldn’t—couldn’t imagine—
well, she could imagine Cassandra coming up to her with one of those soft, shy smiles just for her, and thanking her, and wearing it everywhere and maybe one day wearing it with a wedding dress with matching yellow accents—
“Steph! The frosting!”
Steph yelped as she realized that she had been piping too long and had absolutely covered the poor tart. “Sorry, mom!”
She tried to be better about focusing after that, but still found herself lying awake in bed staring at the dark ceiling and trying not to vibrate.
It must not have succeeded, because Tim floated down on the pillow beside her with a sigh.
“Steph. You need to sleep.”
“Yeah.” Steph didn’t even bother closing her eyes, because all she could see behind them was yellow. And black with silver embroidery and leather bracelets and silver slippers with feet in them that could probably break her three ways and why had this been a good idea again.
Somehow, she made it to school the next morning as something more than a zombie, although her brain fell right out of her head when she saw Cassandra come into school with the yellow scarf draped just right around her neck, complementing her brilliant smile.
“You’re going to catch flies,” Harper sighed. And then, because she was a terrible, terrible friend, she shoved Steph right at Cassandra as she was coming down the hallway.
Steph yelped as she banged into Cassandra, but the other girl caught her easily and held her up, looking adorably concerned. For her. Steph couldn’t do this. Steph couldn’t do this. Steph couldn’t—
“Are you alright?”
“Fine!” Steph yelped. “Fine. Just—perfect. Um. Hello.” She tried to brush a strand of hair back behind her ear, even though it was all contained in a ponytail. “I—this—nice scarf!” she finally blurted out, and then immediately started hating herself.
And then the bright smile was back on Cassandra’s face, and what had she been thinking about again?
“Thank you. It was a present from my mother.” Her hand came up to caress the fabric, and she looked so purely happy in that moment that Steph couldn’t bear to take it away.
“It looks nice on you, Cassandra. Very bright,” Steph said, because she was an idiot, but she was an idiot who had been right. That shade of yellow complemented Cassandra’s—well—everything.
The smile had stiffened for a moment, but it softened again. “Thank you. And—please. Call me Cass.”
“Cass,” Steph said, trying not to make any kind of noise of delight because she got to use a nickname! Nicknames were for friends, right? So that meant—“Right! Sure! And I’m Steph.”
Cassandra—Cass’s smile turned mischievous. “I know.” She turned towards where Brenda was calling her name, and moved to join her, the end of the scarf fluttering in her wake. She turned and gave Steph a tiny wave before vanishing into the classroom.
Steph stood there in the hallway and tried to remember how breathing worked.
“Well?” Harper had come up beside her and was leaning entirely too nonchalantly on the wall. “Smile.”
Steph didn’t manage to remember what that was like before she heard a camera click. Harper was the worst friend ever. Except for how she was kind of the best because Steph had just had a real conversation with Cassandra Cain. Steph had gotten to call her Cass.
“She’s—so everything,” Steph said fervently, and only distantly heard Harper’s long-suffering sigh. “Everything.”