Cassandra Cain, the Black Bat, stares out across the skyline of Hong Kong, and thinks.
A year into her new life in this city, she still feels unfamiliar with that skyline.
Maybe it’s because it’s so much bigger than Gotham, she thinks, watching the lights reflected in the harbor water ripple and warp. Maybe it’s because in Gotham there had been Barbara and later Bruce and Tim and Dick and—others, to show her around, to introduce her to the little crooks and crannies, the secret spots, the best places for spying and the best rooftops for running.
Gotham had been hers, had been as familiar and wonderful as the back of her own hand. It had been home, her first home, and it had been a part of her, and the absence of the city made Cassandra raw and uncomfortable. She had thought, at first, that it was the air of Hong Kong that had made it hard for her to breathe, that had made her eyes water and her chest tight, before she realized that, no.
As her roommate Cunxin had pointed out, she was just homesick.
Is homesick, if she’s being honest with herself.
She tilts her head to one side abruptly from her position, hidden in the shadows, as one of her listening devices crackles to life, letting her know that her target was moving.
She moves to her feet, emerging from the darkness, striding towards the edge of the roof, each step sure and confident.
It doesn’t matter that she’s away from Gotham.
She has taken this city in. It is hers, now, under the protection of the Bat. It might be strange and unfamiliar, and unsure of what to make of her, but some truths carry over throughout the world.
Criminals are still a superstitious and cowardly lot.
And Cassandra is still a detective.
She reaches the edge of the rooftop and jumps.
Her ragged, tattered cape flares out around her, and she hears shouts from the street below her, sees and hears the flash of camera photos, and she allows herself to fall, almost enough to be dangerous, before she throws out her hand, and her grapple flies out, grabbing ahold of the next skyscraper, and she swings, up, the wind pushing against her exposed face and she allows herself a small smile as she lands.
Hong Kong might be different, but it’s similar enough to Gotham in many ways. It has a skyline that’s perfect for Bats.
Perfect for Cass.
Her communicator pings in her ear, the noise that means that her civilian phone has a new message. She ignores it. Only her roommates—former roommates, she corrects herself—have her number, and if it was an emergency, they’d call.
She leaps again onto the next roof, less obviously and visibly this time, and begins to pick her way across the city, towards her destination.
She had arrived in Hong Kong with a bag full of cash—Alfred had hidden a check in her bag when she had left Wayne Manor for the last time and little else. She had left her costume in the arms of Stephanie Brown, she had left her gear in her apartment, she had left her few treasures and mementos in the Manor.
She had brought with her only some clothes, some basic supplies, and a single photograph of her family, and she had been running for a month by the time she stopped in Hong Kong, panicking because the next stop on the boat had been Macau, where her life had changed for the first time.
Hong Kong had been as good a place as anything, Cass had decided, throwing herself into the city. She had squatted in a warehouse for two weeks before she’d found an advertisement for a place, and had answered it, sure they wouldn’t want her as a roommate.
But no, they hadn’t minded her halting, stuttering Cantonese or her lack of a job. She’d had money, and they’d been kind, and really in need of a fourth roommate.
There had been Cunxin, a ballet dancer, Xiao Yin, the computer programmer, and Ho Seng, a waiter at a local restaurant. They had taken her in and helped her learn the city. Ho Seng had helped her get a job at the local tea shop. Cunxin had taken her out to the ballet and helped her find a studio that had taken her in as a student. Xiao Yin had helped her bandage up her injuries after a hard night, and hadn’t asked any questions, although Cass’s confession had hovered on the tip of her tongue.
She misses living with them, but when Tim had arrived in Hong Kong, given her the costume, and arranged for her to get a stipend from Batman, Inc., she could hardly justify living in the cheap apartment.
It was better this way, she reminds herself. She has more room now, room for her gym and her training and her tools. She can leave her costume on the ground, and not have to worry about anyone walking in.
Bruce had even surprised her for her birthday and arranged for a ballet studio to be set up in her apartment, with beautiful floor to ceiling mirrors for her to watch herself practice her moves.
She loves her new apartment.
But she does miss living with people. She misses Ho Seng bringing home food from the restaurant, the sound of Cunxin’s warmup music in the early hours of the morning, and Xiao Yin’s yelling at the television during her K-Dramas.
She pushes them out of her mind as she approaches her destination—the newest skyscraper on the Hong Kong skyline, Hanson Heights. Her lip wrinkled as the bright, gaudy logo became visible.
Erik Hanson was a name that had been familiar to her in Gotham, if not urgent or important. A gangster, she remembers vaguely, and he’d had something to do with fashion.
She’s been investigating his activities in Hong Kong for a little while, but for the most part he’s been keeping his nose clean. The building of his skyscraper had been perfectly by the book.
He’s been causing chaos, Cass is sure of it. There’s been money poured into some of the local gangs, and violence has been on the upswing, and plenty of the gangsters have been wearing the logos of his industry, and have weapons and drugs from Gotham, but he’s been careful enough with the money trail that Cass has no proof. Nothing beyond the words and whispers of a few criminals, none of which Cass can use.
Cass has been running herself ragged, trying to find something. People have been dying, and the rumors have been getting worse. She’d intercepted a shipment of ScareGas last week and been forced to call Batman Inc. for help with the disposal. The gangs of Hong Kong have been eagerly swallowing up anything Hanson can sell them; weapons from Gotham have a superstitious level of power. They can topple superheroes,
They might be able to stop her.
But then, yesterday, Cass has finally found something. Something that might allow her to finally put Hanson away, and get his weapons off the streets.
An auction. Illegal, underground, and apparently very dangerous, if Cass’s source can be trusted.
Well, she can’t exactly trust Cricket, but she thinks his information is accurate.
A dangerous weapon, one that he’s going to sell to the highest bidder… and has just been moved into the building. He doesn’t trust it to his normal warehouses, far away from him, with layers of shell companies and a complicated money trail to protect him from Cass.
Cass grins to herself as she lands on the rooftop.
Breaking in is easy, especially with all the tools that Bruce and Tim have been sending her. She doesn’t like all of them, but picking locks is subtler than breaking down the door, she has to admit.
Sure, she can fight her way through all of his security, but what if he moves the weapon? Much better to make sure that they don’t see her coming.
Hanson’s penthouse is on the top floor, but the vault on the thirtieth floor, squarely in the middle of the building, which she has to admit is a pretty decent plan. She can’t tunnel up, she can’t just hop in through the window.
Normal people would have to take three separate elevators to get there, but Cass has a laser knife as a birthday present from Dick, and she uses it to cut threw the floor of one of the elevator shafts, allowing her to get to the floor she needs to be at.
She grins to herself as she arrives, spotting the impressive vault door.
But then she stops short as she examines the security system. Several feet of solid steel, lined in lead, and elaborate keypad lock… all of those, she expected. The motion sensitive cameras have already been looped and she can see pressure sensitive pads on the floor.
She’s prepared for all of those. She’s no Catwoman, but she’s good at breaking into places. Bruce has taught her well.
But she isn’t prepared for one, simple thing.
The vault is designed to be opened by two people.
She scowls to herself, and walks back and forth, examining the mechanism, her communicator pinging softly in her ear, reminding her that the camera loop only lasts so long and that the guards will be back and a thousand other things that just mean she doesn’t have time.
The pressure sensitive pads requires the weight of two people to be standing at opposite ends of the vault, to enter two different codes at the exact same time, and two present two different retinal scans, and then to turn the handles to open the doors, and Cass doesn’t have the equipment for this.
She has no backup to call on, in this city.
Her stomach clenches uncomfortably as her communicator pings again, letting her know that she’s running out of time.
The auction’s not for another three weeks, she reminds herself.
She’ll figure something out.
Cass turns on her heels and leaves, doing her best to cover up any traces of her presence as she goes.
Then she goes home and collapses onto the gigantic bed, and stares at the ceiling.
Her phone starts to ring, and she glances at it, wincing as she sees the missed text messages from all of them.
“Hello?” She asks, grateful that all of her roommates are fluent in English.
“Cass!” Xiao Yin sounds relieved. “You okay?”
“I’m… fine,” Cass says. “Not hurt.”
Xiao Yin sighs in relief. “I just… we hadn’t heard from you in a while, and we were getting worried.”
“Don’t worry. I’m fine.”
“Uh-huh. When was the last time you spoke to someone?”
“Spoke to Tim. Last week.”
“Cass,” Xiao Yin’s voice is fond. “You don’t have to do everything by yourself, you know. You should come by this weekend. We miss you.”
Cass sinks further into the pillows. “I know. I’ll… try.”
“… I’ll let you sleep then.”
“Thanks,” Cass says, and she doesn’t have to fake the yawn. “I’ll visit. Soon. Promise.”
“That’s all we ask.”
Cass groans, rolling off her bed onto the floor.
Xiao Yin is right.
Cass doesn’t have to do this alone.
She, in fact, can’t do this alone, as much as it might rankle her.
She’s on a timeline, and people are dying, and… it might be nice to see one of her brothers again.
She goes across the room to her Batman Inc., issued computer, and makes a call.
“Black Bat?” Batman appears on her screen—Bruce’s Batman. She smiles and waves, happy to see him, even if it’s just through the screen. She’s so glad he’s alive.
Him being gone had been… awful. It had ruined everything, and even if things weren’t fixed, things were better, at least, now that he was back.
“Is everything okay?”
Cass squirms. “Need—backup. Two people job. Can you send… someone?”
He nods. “Of course. That’s what Batman, Inc. is for.”
She makes a face. “Can it be—someone I know? Don’t want to—explain things.”
He nods, thoughtful. “Of course. I’ll see who’s free, and text you the details of the flight when I make the arrangements.”
“Good,” Cass says.
He pauses, looking at her.
“How are you doing?”
“Fine,” she lies, and slams the button to end the call before he can ask her any more questions. Or worse, call her Black Bat again.
And then she goes to bed and dreams of Gotham and the barest glimpse of a purple cape.
Hope you guys are as excited for this as I am! Leave a comment if you feel like it, or come hang out with me on tumblr!
Chapter 2: crepe paper wings
Two updates in two days will probably not be the norm, but these are like... two sides to the prologue, so future chapters will also be longer, if more spaced out.
“Don’t come looking for me Steph—for your own good.”
Stephanie Brown wakes up with a lurch, groaning as her alarm goes off.
She slams her hand down on the snooze button, then rolls over and stares at the ceiling.
It’s been three months since she had that particular dream.
She’d really thought she was getting over it.
Because she hates herself, she grabs her phone and checks her old email again.
There’s never anything in that account, but she keeps hoping that one day she’ll see a response. Even just an acknowledgement. Anything’s better than this agonizing silence.
She should stop. She should delete app, lock it down, stop picking over at that particular scab, let the wound heal, and just… let go.
The problem is, Steph has always been too stubborn for her own good.
Now that she’s got her phone, she has to admit she’s awake.
She checks her official Batman Inc., email—she’s got a check-in from Wendy about the results of a goo thing she’d picked up last night, a message from Babs about her current world tour, and—oh, another message from Wendy about how she’s going to be joining Babs on said tour.
Steph slumps over dramatically, pushing her phone under her pillow. It’s great for Wendy and all, but that means that Steph’s going to be holding down the Batgirl fort all on her own. Not that there’s not always plenty of company in Gotham, but Kate Kane is way too cool to just call up during a patrol, Damian’s away at “summer camp” with the Superboys and some of the other pre-teen supers out on the Kent Farm, Tim’s off doing some weird shit with the Titans, and Dick Grayson is still weird about her. Not as weird as Bruce, but that’s a whole pile of shit that Steph is very happy not to examine closely.
And with the Birds of Prey on their world tour…
Ugh, maybe Steph can listen to music on patrol. Anything’s got to be better than patrolling the whole night in silence, with nothing but her own internal monologue for company.
Her phone pings with an “urgent” Bat alert, and she reluctantly draws it out from under her pillow. It’s only eight in the morning, but by Bat standards, that’s unreasonably early. Steph is only awake at this time because she was supposed to get coffee with Wendy. Also, as a college student-slash-vigilante, she’s unreasonably used to operating on only three-to-four hours of sleep. She probably shouldn’t be, but here she is.
It’s a request for a call, so Steph forces herself out of bed, grabs one of her hair elastics from their haphazard pile on her nightstand, and tugs her hair into a messy ponytail. She pauses, considering a bra, before shrugging and grabbing the oversized Superman sweater she’d bought years ago to annoy Bruce.
“Hey Boss-Man,” she says, squinting at him as the computer turns on, letting her know that the call has started. “What’s up?”
“You’ve got a ticket to Hong Kong for this evening,” he says, because apparently engaging in customary greetings and social niceties is way too hard for Bruce Wayne.
… wait, what.
“Wait, what?” Steph sits upright as Bruce’s words sink in. “Why am I going to Hong Kong? You can’t just—I have things! Investigations! Plans!”
“You just wrapped up your investigation into the child labor ring last night,” Bruce reminds her, because of course he knows about that already. “Everything else is low-priority.”
“Black Mask—” Steph says hotly, the familiar anger buzzing under her skin as she gears up for this fight.
“Is not your concern, Stephanie.” Steph bites her tongue to stop herself from yelling at him, because they’ve had this fight ten times so far this month alone.
“He’s in my part of Gotham,” she says. The Mask returning is an insult so personal that Steph can’t even stand it. He probably doesn’t even know she’s Batgirl, but she’s still infuriated, and has been fighting against everyone else to be included in any schemes to take him down. “So I’m not going to let you just ship me to Hong Kong to keep me out of his way!”
She prepares to slam down on the end button, and then compose an angry series of text messages to Babs, even though Babs agrees with Bruce in broad strokes about how Steph should not, in fact, go after the guy who tortured her and nearly killed her, but Bruce says just about the only thing that would stop her.
“Cassandra needs your help.”
Her mouth is dry, and her heart nearly stops. She can’t help it, but her voice is wistful, shocked, quiet, the anger gone, obliviated by the pure shock that floods her system.
“She called me last night. She’s in the middle of an investigation, and she needs backup.”
Steph feels like she can’t breathe. She’s—Cass’s—okay.
“What time’s the flight?” She asks, jumping to her feet, not even caring that Bruce has caught a glimpse of her pajama shorts with tiny Booster Golds.
“Seven o’clock tonight. Don’t bring your weapons, I’ll have a delivery sent to Cass’s apartment with a cache. Bring your suit. Alfred will pick you up at five for the airport.” Bruce isn’t even smug, he’s just being purely professional, and if Steph had any anger left in her, she’d be annoyed by that, but she’s not, she’s just—overwhelmed, that’s what she is.
“Right!” Steph needs to—she needs to pack, she needs to plan, she needs to shower, she needs to tell her mom.
“Anything else?” She says, unable to stop herself from beaming and bouncing in place.
“I’ll send you the mission file for the plane,” Bruce says, and then he hangs up on her.
Steph has to admit, if this is a ploy to get her out of Gotham so Bruce can beat down the Black Mask without her—well, it’s one of his best plans yet.
She opens her old email account and starts typing.
See you soon!
She sends it, and it doesn’t even bother her that Cass doesn’t respond, just like she hasn’t responded to any of the other emails that Steph has sent. It doesn’t even bother her that Cass hasn’t spoken to her since the airport.
Cass needs help, and she’d asked for her.
Steph is just so glad it’s summer and so she doesn’t have to worry about missing classes. Her internship with Leslie is easy enough to duck out of for Bat-related reasons, firing off a simple text to Leslie that she’s going to Hong Kong to help Cass results in a simple request that she stop by the clinic to pick up a care package for Cass from Leslie and Jean Paul.
She starts to scramble around her room, finding spare uniforms and all the little things she’s crammed into corners throughout her room; things that remind her of Cass, things that she’s promised herself they’d share when they met up again.
She only has a few precious hours to pack, and even more precious hours to plan what she’s going to say to Cass when she sees her again.
She’s practically walking on air when she barrels down the stairs to find her mom sitting in the kitchen.
“Hi Mom!” Steph says, opening the fridge and grabbing the first edible thing she sees—cold pizza, excellent. “So I got ping from Bruce, I’ll be going to Hong Kong tonight, I’ve already told Leslie, I’ll—”
“Stephanie,” her mom laughs. “Take a breath! What’s got you so excited?”
Steph swallows her mouth full of pizza. “Cass needs a partner for a mission.”
“Cassandra?” Crystal Brown frowns, suddenly looking older. “The—last Batgirl?” She says the words carefully, like she’s not sure of them. Like she’s talking around something, or like she’s scared of breaking something.
“My best friend, Mom,” Steph says, grinning widely. The pizza is delicious, and that only elevates Steph’s mood. It’s no waffles, but cold pizza for breakfast is a staple, and honestly dating Tim Drake was worth it for that life lesson alone.
Crystal looks away at that, and Steph frowns, confused.
“I didn’t know she was in Hong Kong,” her mom says instead, her voice slow and careful.
“… I did,” Steph says, and it’s not really a lie. She’d known there was an agent in Hong Kong, and she’d seen the name, and she’d known that Cass was active somewhere, but… she hadn’t been sure. She’d had a few other guesses.
Hong Kong had been a personal favorite, though.
She’d started looking on Europe, because Cass’s flight had been to Vienna, but none of the European bats looked right.
Black Bat was mysterious enough, with few enough images and video, that Steph had suspected, for a while, even if she’d had no proof before now.
Mom is looking at her hard, but she doesn’t call her out on it.
Steph shifts, uncomfortable, and takes another bite of her cold pizza.
“Will you be careful? I… I don’t want to see you get hurt.”
“Of course, Mom,” Steph says. “Cass is the greatest fighter in the world.” We were Batgirl and Robin, we were the best, she trained me, she makes me fight better.
Steph’s phone goes off, and she glances at it, seeing it’s Babs. “I’ve got to run, Mom, I’ve got to pick things up from Leslie before I go.”
She kisses her mom on the cheek and goes to answer the phone.
“Hong Kong, huh?”
“Yep! Want me to pass along a message?”
“Mm, I’ll call you both when you get there,” Babs says.
“… so is Bruce just doing this to get me out of his hair while he gets rid of Black Mask?”
“… Bruce has many reasons for doing things.”
“That’s not a no.”
“I don’t think it’s his primary reason,” Babs says, in that vague and mysterious way of hers. Then, more seriously, she adds, “I’ve looked at Cass’s report—she genuinely needs backup here.
Steph relaxes, releasing tension that she hadn’t even realized she’d managed to build up. “Oh! Good. Not that—you know, I haven’t seen Cass in—I mean, it’ll be—yeah.” She better not be blushing, she’s a grown-ass woman and vigilante, and she doesn’t blush, especially not about something as dumb as the knowledge that Cass had needed help, and asked for her.
She’d almost… she’d started to think that Cass didn’t want to be friends with her anymore. That she had done something wrong and managed to shatter years of friendship in the process. That she had disrespected the cowl or misunderstood Cass’s vague parting statements.
She was wrong, though, and the prospect is better than anything Black Rose had managed to produce.
Cass still is her friend.
Babs laughs. “I understand.” She pauses, typing for a moment. “I’ll let you get going. I’ll talk to you later. Wendy says hi, by the way.”
“Hi Wendy, bye Wendy, bye Babs!” Steph chirps, ending the call, and grinning over her shoulder at her mom, who’s staring at her with a strangely sad expression.
Steph will have to remember to call her lots—Mom’s been pretty good about the whole superhero thing, these past few months, but Steph doesn’t want to push it.
Steph bounces up the stairs and grabs her duffel bag.
She’s got only a few hours to practice what she’s going to say to Cass.
She can’t wait.
Chapter 3: 'cause this is only a test
... I didn't expect to update today but it's the weekend so I guess?
Anyways THEY'RE IN THE SAME PLACE NOW, WE CAN REALLY GET GOING.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Bruce sends Cass the flight details the next morning, when Cass wakes up. She rolls out of bed, wipes the sleep out of her eyes, and then goes to her ballet studio.
She stretches, starting slow, like her teachers tell her to. They always underestimate Cass’s level of flexibility, of the exact control she has over her own body. It means that it’s always slow going, but it’s also an exercise in control, trying to follow their exact regiments instead of indulging herself by trying the poses she’s seen ballerinas on stage try.
She does the positions, she goes to the barre, and only then, only then, does she allow herself to turn on her computer to watch routines to try and imitate.
It’s a whole new language, she thinks, giddy, as she stretches up on her toes, her arms a circle above her head. A whole new way to speak with her body. It’s grace and beauty in a way that she’d never been allowed as a child, and as the music plays and she starts to go through a routine she’s been learning, she feels her anger, her stress, her worries, slowly filter out of her.
When the music stops, she’s drenched in sweat, a pleasant hum filling her entire body. She needs to go to class again, and soon.
She stopped going because the next classes were about partner dances, and Cass doesn’t need a partner. Doesn’t want one either.
The plane doesn’t get in until this afternoon, so Cass texts Xiao Yin and they go to a small little tea place near her friends’ apartment, the one where Cass had worked when she’d first arrived in the city.
“Cassie!” Xiao Yin’s embrace is welcome.
“Xiao Yin,” Cass smiles, sitting down at the table. Xiao Yin has already ordered for her, and a cup of Assam tea sits steaming on the table, between them.
“I didn’t expect to hear back from you so soon,” Xiao Yin grins at her. She’s wearing lipstick, Cass realizes, surprised. “Missed us?”
“Yes,” Cass says, nodding. “I’ve—been busy.”
“You always are, Cassie,” Xiao Yin sighs. “You really need to take more time for yourself.”
“I am!” Cass insists. “I’ve been—doing ballet.”
“Cunxin said you stopped going to classes.”
Cass sips her tea instead of responding. It’s not the same as Brenda used to make it, but it’s still familiar enough to fill Cass with that familiar ache.
It’s just not fair, she thinks, like she always does when she thinks about Brenda or Bludhaven.
“How’s your… program? Software?”
“Program,” Xiao Yin says, although she’s not happy at Cass for not changing the subject. “It’s going okay, I guess. I need to go over my code again, there’s a logic problem that I can’t see.”
Cass shrugs helplessly, wrapping her fingers tightly around the tiny cup. It reminds her of Babs when Xiao Yin gets like this, having problems in a world that Cass does not understand one bit, and, if she’s being honest, has no particular interest in.
“So, do you have plans tonight?” Xiao Yin says after a short silence, eyes lighting up. “I need a break from work, so I was thinking I’d go dancing.”
Cass smiles and nods at her friend. “Sounds… fun.”
Xiao Yin leans forward, eager and warm. “You should come too, Cass. Take a night off…” She tilts her head, her long dark hair pouring over her shoulder.
Cass shakes her head. “Brother is coming tonight. Can’t.”
Xiao Yin blinks. “Wait, brother? You have a brother?”
Cass hides her smile in her cup, but nods. “Four,” she says. “Only one is coming, though.”
Xiao Yin tries to recover, but she’s clearly thrown off by this revelation. Bruce Wayne is only a name to her and the others. They don’t know him, only his company, and they certainly don’t know her brothers. Cass kind of likes it that way, honestly. To them, Cassandra Cain-Wayne is just a rich kid who had a falling out with her father. They don’t know about the complicated family history there, not like someone in Gotham would. “Uh… well, you’ll have introduce him!”
“Sure,” Cass nods. Going dancing with Xiao Yin and the others might be fun. Cunxin is a very good dancer, and not just at ballet. Ho Seng has taken Cass to bars before, and some of those places had dancing. Cass never danced, but she liked watching. Maybe she will, next time.
Also Tim trying to dance would probably be very funny.
They finish their tea and then part ways, Cass going home to make sure the apartment is clean enough for her guest, and Xiao Yin to go back to her code and logic problems. Her gaze is disappointed as she waves goodbye to Cass, but Cass isn’t sure why.
Shaking her head at Xiao Yin’s strangeness, Cass picks up armfuls of dirty laundry and broken sparring dummies. If it’s Dick or Tim they might not mind the mess, but Damian would, and she’s supposed to be a good example for Damian, at least according to Alfred.
Alfred texts her telling her to make sure she changes the sheets on the guest bed, so she does that too, although she’s not sure why it matters. He then texts her about groceries, so she goes and buys those too, using the credit card Bruce gave her so that Alfred knows she did it, because otherwise he’ll ask her for photos to prove she’s being healthy.
She sends him a picture of her fridge freshly stocked with fruits and vegetables and carefully doesn’t show him the freezer of chocolate ice cream or the cabinets full of instant ramen.
By the time she’s done all of that and swept the floor so that if Alfred gets her brothers to send pictures her apartment looks tidier than it actually is, a courier arrives, with several boxes. Cass signs for them and then piles them on the spare bed without opening them, because she’s running late for the airport by then.
She takes a taxi, because she knows her brother will have luggage, and although she’s taken luggage over the rooftops before, she knows she’s not supposed to.
It’ll be… good to see them again. Any of them, really. She’s seen Damian most recently, when he came to visit, but she sees herself in him. She wants to spend more time with him… she thinks he has potential. He wants to be the Bat, one day, and so does Cass. She will show him how to be better.
Maybe it’s Jason. She knows he’s out of Arkham, and Bruce has said he’s getting better… but better enough for Bruce to send him to her when she needs backup? Hmm. Maybe not. But Cass hasn’t met him, so it might be interesting.
Dick could be coming—he’s visited a few times, as Batman. It’s given Black Bat more credit with the police and the media, fighting side by side with him. He worries about her reputation more than she does—she thinks it’s because of Barbara. Or maybe he just worries—he’s Batman now, it’s his job to, at least that’s what he told her when she’d asked him about it.
Tim would be easiest, she thinks. He understands her the best; the two of them had been partners for so long, it would be nice to see him again, even if he probably would get fussy about her turning Cricket into an informant, and he’d probably make her stab him again to try to trick someone. He has too much fun with that trick. Not that Cass is opposed, but it’s silly to depend on one trick. He likes faking his own injuries—she saw the video of him getting shot to trick Vicky Vale. He needs a new one.
The taxi arrives at the airport, and Cass pays the driver and wanders into the airport.
Hong Kong International Airport is large and busy, and Cass blends in easily here, wearing her black pants and shirt, scanning the signs for the flight from Gotham. The flight is long—one of the longest flights in the world, according to Tim the last time he visited.
She glances over at one of the shops by the entrance, selling balloons and flowers and things for people greeting friends and family. She thinks about buying some, but before she can act on the impulse, she hears someone shout her name.
No, no, it can’t be—
Stephanie Brown, Batgirl, barrels out of the crowd, a large duffle bag thrown across her shoulder, her eyes alight and her grin huge, and she throws her arms around Cass and hugs her tightly.
“Cass! I’m so glad to see you!”
“Stephanie?” Cass feels like she can’t breathe, even though Steph’s grip isn’t that tight. Stephanie is wearing a green t-shirt under a brown jacket and loose-fitting jeans, and her hair is longer than Cass has last seen it, but it’s her, it’s unmistakable, and Cass doesn’t know what to do.
Stephanie lets go of her, practically bouncing in place. “I’ve missed you so much, Cass!”
Steph’s face falls. “… you… didn’t ask for me?”
“… backup,” Cass says. “I thought—Tim. Or… Dick.”
Steph shifts back on her heels. “Tim’s busy with the Titans and holding down Gotham while Bruce has a mission with the Justice League,” she says automatically, but she’s starting to fold in on herself, the exhaustion from the sixteen-hour flight clearly sinking in.
“Oh,” Cass says.
Steph shifts from foot to foot. “I can—I can go back. Bruce probably only sent me because—well like I said there’s no one else, but if you don’t want me here, I can—”
“It’s fine,” Cass says, quickly. Too quickly, probably, because it’s not fine, because she wasn’t—she’s not—this isn’t fair.
But Cass needs help and Erik Hanson isn’t going to stop just because Cass doesn’t want Batgirl in her city, so she swallows her anger and her hurt and she says. “It’s fine. Just… unexpected.”
Steph offers her another smile, but it’s less wide and brilliant.
Cass takes Steph’s bag and calls them a taxi.
Steph is oddly quiet as they leave the airport, as they pile Steph’s bags into the trunk of the car, and as they drive through the city to Cass’s apartment. If Cass couldn’t read body language, she’d have thought Steph had fallen asleep. But Steph remains awake the whole drive, tense and hurt and angry at something, staring out the window the whole time, as the city lights flash and twinkle by the car.
It’s not fair on Steph, Cass knows, that Cass is so uncomfortable here in the car with her. Cass watches Steph out of the corner of her eye, and tries to bury the resentment and hurt, because she’s a detective, she needs to focus on the job, rather than her own feelings.
They get to Cass’s apartment, and Cass swallows and leads her up to her floor. The apartment had always felt absurdly large to Cass, but now that she knows she’s going to be sharing it with Steph, it feels… small.
She’d prepared herself to share her space with her brothers, with Dick or Tim or Damian or even Jason. She had not prepared herself to share it with Stephanie Brown, who unzips her bag to get her pajamas, allowing Cass to catch a glimpse of a bright purple costume.
Cass wants to throw up. It’s different than her costume—she’s seen the pictures, seen the different logo, seen the half-cowl, seen the color scheme… but it’s still… it’s Batgirl.
She makes her excuses and locks herself in her bathroom, burying her face in her hands.
Batgirl was hers, Batgirl was her, only now it’s not her, and now it’s instead the girl in her guest room, and—
Cass wishes it wasn’t that way.
She still wants to be Batgirl.
She hadn’t left the cowl behind by choice.
She’d said the words, she’d left the costume—her costume—on the rooftop, in the rain, and then she’d left, and she’d done it all, because he’d asked her to.
It’s not fair.
He’d asked her to leave Gotham, to give Stephanie the cowl, and she had. She’d ran away from Stephanie and Gotham alike, hadn’t stopped until she reached Hong Kong, and then… she’d drifted.
She’d drifted and she’s still drifting, if she’s honest with herself.
Who is Cassandra Cain if not Batgirl? Cassandra? A name given to her by Barbara, a name that’s newer to her than Batgirl? Cain? The man who raised her as a weapon, who taught her nothing but violence? Wayne? The man who had made her better, shown her a better future, and then ripped it all away from her?
Cass wants to scream.
She wants to punch something.
She throws the door open, nearly barreling over Steph in the process, and goes to the dojo and punches her sparring dummy until it breaks.
When she finally stops, sitting back on her heels and breathing heavily, she hears a clapping sound.
Steph, a towel wrapped around her body, is grinning at her. “You haven’t changed at all,” she says.
You have. The words, bitter and harsh, whither in Cass’s mouth. “Nope,” she says, even though it’s a total lie.
“I’m—” Steph stifles a yawn. “Okay, I’m going to bed, but tomorrow we’ll totally talk about how we’re going to break into that guy’s skyscraper thingy.”
“Right,” Cass says. “Good. You should—sleep.”
“Yep, totally gonna,” Steph says, giving her a thumbs up and a sleepy grin. She stretches her arms over her head, and Cass stares, realizing that Steph’s body has changed. There are new scars, stretching across her legs and the top of her chest, and there’s more muscle and her chest—flushing, Cass drags her eyes away, because that wasn’t observation, that was… she doesn’t know what that was. There’s a word for it, she’s sure, but Cass can’t think of it. “G’night Cass,” Steph calls over her shoulder as she walks into the guest room, but Cass barely hears it, caught up in her own thoughts.
She goes and uses her shower, staring at the lines of new hair products and noticing how they make the entire bathroom smell like Steph.
A while ago, Cass would have given anything to smell this again, because it would have meant that Steph was alive.
Now, Steph is alive, and Cass would rather be anywhere else rather than suffocating under this familiar scent that had once been one of her favorite things.
She showers, trying to clean herself of the sweat of her workout and the strange feelings that Stephanie Brown’s towel clad body had inspired inside of her.
She emerges from her own shower. She pauses outside of the closed door to Steph’s room, and listens to the soft, even breathing.
Stephanie Brown is here, in Hong Kong, and Cass doesn’t know how she’s supposed to handle this. Her friend, her replacement, her… they haven’t talked in a year. Not since Steph had managed to track her down to the airport, and tried to talk to her, tried to talk her out of leaving (not out of giving her costume to Steph, though, Cass thinks bitterly).
Cass tugs on a tank top and some loose pants, and then goes and sits down in her living room on the sofa, picking up the laptop that Babs gave her ages ago that she never uses.
She logs into her old email—the one that Babs had set up for her, not her Batman, Inc. one that she uses now. Dozens of emails wait for her, all from Spoiler’s old email. Hadn’t she deleted these? Or had Steph just sent more, hoping beyond hope that Cass would one day respond?
Cass closes her laptop abruptly, getting to her feet. She goes into her bedroom and closes the door, and calls Bruce.
“Why?” She demands, glaring at him. He’s not in the cowl, instead sitting there wearing a crisp suit—she can’t tell what time it is there, and she doesn’t care, because she’s furious with him in a way she hasn’t been in a very long time, and he should have seen this coming if he’s half the detective she knows he is.
“Stephanie’s arrived safely, then?” Bruce raises an eyebrow at her, perfectly mild and in control of himself, and Cass hates it.
“You need backup.”
“Why her. Why Batgirl?” Cass demands, and she doesn’t care that she’s yelling and that Steph is in the next room and might be able to hear her. Right now, none of it matters, except the fact that Bruce knows, and he still sent Stephanie to her. Steph can offer up those explanations, but Batman, Inc. has more members than just her immediate family, than just her brothers. He could have sent anyone, but instead he sends the one member of the family that Cassandra wants to avoid.
At the very least, he could have warned her.
“Cassandra. The Black Mask is in town. Stephanie has been planning on a rematch.”
Cass goes still, her legs going unsteady for a moment.
“Yes. Stephanie needs to be out of Gotham, I think we can both agree about that.”
Cass thinks about the scars on Stephanie’s wrists—the old scars, the ones that Steph doesn’t like to talk about, and she sets her feet more firmly on the ground.
She doesn’t want to team up with Batgirl.
But she doesn’t want Stephanie Brown to get hurt again, either.
Cass takes deep, agonized breaths, and nods. “Okay.”
“Good. Go to sleep, Cassandra.”
“Right,” Cass says numbly. She hangs up and flops onto her bed, staring at the ceiling.
It’s a long time before she manages to get any sleep at all.
"attraction," Cass, that's the word you're looking for.
also this chapter is known in my notes as "oh my god they were roommates." Sure, they have separate rooms... for now. But the idea still stands.
Chapter 4: Are we strangers, or am I you are I?
Ahh, thank you so much to everyone who commented on the last chapter! <3
WHO'S READY FOR SOME STEPH PINING? CUZ THAT'S WHAT WE'VE GOT.
Steph wakes up in an unfamiliar bed, in an unfamiliar place, and buries her face in her pillow, groaning loudly as she dares.
It’s morning, and she’s in Hong Kong, and everything is awful.
All of her conversation rehearsal on the plane somehow hadn’t prepared her for the possibility that Cass, in fact, hadn’t wanted her to be the one to show up.
Steph feels off-balance, even as she unpacks her bags, setting aside the things she’d brought for Cass, unsure of how she’s supposed to even give them now.
She rips open the tape on the box on her bed, and sighs in relief as she sees a set of her mix-and-match Batarangs. She pulls out her belt and starts putting them in the right compartments, so she has them ready, trying to use the familiar motions to calm herself down, soothing her jittering thoughts.
She only gets partway through the box when she hears music floating through the apartment.
Cass is awake.
Steph moves over the dresser in her room and grabs her hairbrush, trying to tame her hair before she runs into Cass. It… matters.
Cass gave her Batgirl. Cass gave her the most important thing in her life, and Steph has never stopped trying to deserve that. She wants Cass to be proud of her, to know she’d made the right choice in a successor when she’d left the cowl behind.
Steph knows how much Batgirl, how much being Batgirl had meant to Cass. Cass had loved the cowl, had loved being Batgirl. Steph has spent the past year trying to live up to it, but Cass’s shadow is long, and she’s definitely failed.
She finishes brushing her hair, and then slips out of her room, heading towards the music, her bare feet making no noise against the gorgeous hardwood floor.
Bruce had spared no expense on Cass’s apartment, Steph thinks, glancing around—although Penthouse might be the better word, since Cass has the entire floor. The ceilings are high, the furniture all matches, and the living room has gorgeous floor to ceiling windows made out of bulletproof, shatterproof, one-way glass (and what does that say about Steph that she can identify that so quickly?).
She stops in the kitchen to pour herself a glass of water, but then she keeps on creeping down the hallway towards the sound. She recognizes it—it’s Waltz of the Sugarplum Fairy, a song she’d learned to play on piano when she was younger. She frowns, wondering when Cass had started listening to Tchaïkovsky during her morning work-out, but when she pushes open the door to the gym, she sees that it’s empty.
She blinks, glancing immediately up at the ceiling to see if Cass is trying some sort of gravity-defying exercise, but the room is abandoned. There’s a sparring dummy in pieces, so maybe Cass had been here, but there’s no sign of her now. And the music is coming from behind her, not from this room.
What else could Cass be doing at this hour? What else could Cass be doing? Steph frowns to herself and keeps moving, finally arriving at the room where the music is coming from, and carefully nudges open the door.
The room is simple, with white floors and a ceiling, the walls all mirrored, with a golden bar wrapping its way around the room.
Cass is there, in the middle of it all, her eyes closed in concentration, dancing.
She leaps through the air, twisting as she goes, landing perfectly on her feet, her arms raised high above her head. She raises one leg and then lowers herself, as if bowing, all in perfect timing with the music, and Steph stares, awestruck, as she watches Cass perform ballet.
She’d never thought Cass would be interested in this, but Cass looks… happy, in a way that Steph has rarely seen her. She’d certainly have remembered the soft smile on Cass’s face, the relaxed set of her shoulders as she keeps moving, and the way her body contorts and twists in time to the music.
Steph feels herself blushing, which is dumb, because she’s seen Cass in much more revealing situations than this—she’d sparred with her in tank tops and yoga pants, she’d seen Cass shirtless once, when she’d been helping her treat a bullet wound.
This is one of the most gorgeous things Steph has ever seen, and it’s her best friend, bad Steph, and she has to stop herself from slamming the door and running away with her tail between her legs.
Instead, she very carefully closes the door, and then quietly goes back to the kitchen, and starts searching through Cass’s kitchen for the ingredients for pancakes, because she needs to focus on something, anything, besides the way that Cass had looked when she’d bent herself backwards.
She presses her hands against her face. “Bisexual crisis later, Steph,” she mutters to herself. “Pancakes now.”
She would make waffles except she can’t find a waffle iron, so she just greases up a pan and cheerfully starts making pancakes, pointedly whistling as if everything is alright in the world, and she definitely didn’t just about faint at the sight of her best friend in leggings and a low-cut top doing ballet.
She texts her mom and Wendy instead, cheerfully reporting on the situation in Hong Kong, and carefully leaving out the fact that Cass hadn’t known she was coming, and didn’t seem all that pleased to see her, and also that Steph is absolutely still nursing a bit of a crush on her best friend who has only in Steph’s knowledge ever had a crush on Superboy, who is absolutely very much a boy and also nothing like Steph, so even if Cass was attracted to girls, Steph is absolutely very much not her type.
Steph is not very good at not thinking about things. Apparently.
Cass emerges from the fucking ballet studio just as Steph has finished up the first batch of pancakes, and Steph waves at her cheerfully.
“Morning!” She says. “Pancakes?”
Cass stares at her for a long time, and Steph wonders if Cass had even remembered that she was here.
“Sure,” Cass says, sliding into one of the bar stools nestled against the fucking gorgeous marble topped island. Steph piles most of the pancakes onto a plate, remembering Cass’s appetite, and shoves them across towards her.
Cass digs in, slowly at first, but then more and more enthusiastically, and Steph hums to herself as she hunts down a glass for orange juice for herself, and then has some of the pancakes. They turned out pretty well, if she says so herself—she’s not as good at cooking as she’d like, but she’s gotten a lot better over the course of this past year.
Steph eats her pancakes slowly, not going over to the island to join Cass, but instead staying by the stove. She watches Cass carefully out of the corner of her eye, her mind juggling a thousand different questions, and trying to figure out which one is the most important, and how she can even begin to broach any of them.
“I didn’t know you danced,” she says, because fuck.
Cass looks up, surprised. “Didn’t used to. Started… last year.”
After she’d left Gotham. Steph feels herself flushing in embarrassment and ducks her head to stare at her plate and wondering if it’s possible to vaporize food without turning into a Kryptonian.
“Well… you’re good,” she finally manages to say, feeling like she’s talking around a lump the size of a batarang in her throat.
Cass is silent for a long time. “Thanks,” she finally says.
“Uh, do you take… lessons?”
“Yes. My… friend Cunxin signed me up.”
“Oh! That’s… great! Does he dance?” Steph doesn’t know why it bothers her that Cass has friends she didn’t know about.
That’s a lie.
It bothers her because for a while, she’d have thought Cass would tell her everything. The two of them had been close, or at least Steph had thought they were. No… they had to have been. Cass wouldn’t have given her Batgirl if that hadn’t been real.
Whatever Steph had done to screw up, it must have been after the rooftop.
She stabs one of her pancakes with a fork, dragging it slowly through the puddle of maple syrup on her plate, and tells herself she’s not sulking.
“Yes,” Cass says. “He’s good.”
“That’s…” Steph is floundering, running out of things to say, and she hates it. “That’s nice,” she offers, and she knows she deserves Cass’s disinterested shrug at that.
She swallows and stares at her food again.
And this, this, is why Steph can’t ever think about how gorgeous Cass is, how happy she looked while dancing, how much Steph wants to see her looking like that all the time.
Because she can’t even be a good friend to Cass, as she’s proving right now.
Cass has stopped eating, and is staring back at Steph, and Steph shifts, unsure of how she’s supposed to react. What is Cass looking at? Her new scars? Her Union Jack shirt she’d worn to bed? Wait, does she have maple syrup on her face?
She quickly raises her hand and tries to covertly check, but Cass’s small laugh tells her she wasn’t subtle.
Steph grins. “So, where’d you meet Cunxin?” She asks, emboldened by this.
“Roommate,” Cass says.
“Wait,” Steph looks around, wide-eyed. “You have a roommate?” She hadn’t seen another room… but then again, this apartment is so big, it’s not unbelievable that she’d missed another bedroom where Cass could have tucked away a secret roommate.
Cass laughs again. “Not here. Last place. Before Bruce came back. Three of them.”
“Oh, did he start guilt buying you things when he came back?” Steph asks. “Cuz he bought me a car, and I think he bought Damian a private island, but he might have already had that one.” She pauses for a moment to marvel about Damian’s life, because seriously, Steph had thought that Cassandra “Raised to be a Perfect Fighter” Cain and Dick “Literally Raised in the Circus” Grayson had taken the cake when it came to wild and unbelievable backstories, but Damian “Raised by Ninjas to Unite the Bat and al Ghul Clans also I’m An Assassin and Have Attitude Problems” Wayne might have them beat.
Cass grins and nods. “I saw pictures. Nice car.”
“Isn’t it?” Steph beams, proud. “I call it the Compact.”
“Better than—Redbird,” Cass says, smirking at her, and the two of them burst out into laughter at Tim’s expense, and Steph slowly feels herself relax.
It’s not perfect.
They’ll get there—after everything they’ve been through, they have to.
Cass’s phone goes off, and she looks at it. She hesitates for a moment, biting her lip, before looking back up at Steph. “Oh. Want to… meet my friends? Can’t go out until night.”
Steph nods. “Sure, just let me shower and—” Bury my jealousy in the backyard with a shovel. “Get ready!”
Cass nods, and then wanders off, back in the direction of the ballet studio and the gym.
Steph lets her forehead fall against the marble counter and groans into it.
At least Cass doesn’t hate her, she tries to comfort herself. Whatever they’d had, it isn’t completely lost… it’s just changed. And change is good sometimes!
Steph throws all the cooking supplies into the scarily fancy dish washer and then goes to take a very cold shower.
After trying to shower away her very much unwelcome attraction, she goes to her room and tries to get ready. Determined to impress Cass’s mysterious new friends, Steph grabs a navy-blue turtleneck she’d bought to go undercover in an office that one time and throws on a pair of black skinny jeans.
She grins awkwardly at herself in the mirror, trying to wrangle her hair into something… nice. Only her hair doesn’t want to do nice, it just wants to do wild and flowing or maybe a messy ponytail, so Steph just ties it back and calls it a day.
She sighs and then goes out to sit on the couch—which is super comfy, wow—and gets on her phone and texts Kara.
GIRL WONDER: Hong Kong!
BLONDE BLOCKBUSTER: ooh I love that city? y u there?
GIRL WONDER: Since when do you use text abbreviations?
BLONDE BLOCKBUSTER: It’s a useful shorthand!
GIRL WONDER: Fair. Anyways I’m on a mission from B.
BLONDE BLOCKBUSTER: B@MAN INC!
GIRL WONDER: Please text Babs with that spelling sometime when I’m in earshot.
GIRL WONDER: But yeah I’m teaming up w/ Black Bat.
BLONDE BLOCKBUSTER: TEAM UP SELFIE TONIGHT.
GIRL WONDER: we’ll see
BLONDE BLOCKBUSTER:… u ok?
GIRL WONDER: yeah. Just jetlagged.
She turns off her phone and considers grabbing one of Cass’s fancy decorative pillows and screaming away her frustrations, but then Cass walks in, wearing a fucking short black dress and tall black boots. Steph can see Cass’s thighs. Thighs should not be that sexy.
She nods at Steph. “Ready?”
Steph grins at her, bouncing to her feet. “Always!”
Cass gives her one of her small smirks in return, and then leads the way.
And then she takes Steph down to the garage, where she reveals that she drives a moped while a civilian, which is the fucking greatest thing Steph has ever seen until the moment when she realizes that she’s going to have to hold onto Cass’s waist for the entirety of their journey.
Steph contemplates just going back to bed for a few moments before reluctantly strapping on the spare helmet that Cass offers her and getting on behind her.
Can’t be any worse than sharing a motorcycle, Steph reminds herself. Which they’d done plenty of times in the past.
Of course, then, Steph had still been dating Tim. And hadn’t truly embraced her sexuality. And she’d been the one driving—
Cass is driving.
Steph grips onto Cass hard as Cass starts the engine and Steph only has a few moments to be grateful that mopeds probably can’t go that fast before they zoom off into the city.
If Steph hadn’t been driving a motorcycle since she was sixteen, she’d probably have been a lot more nervous about this, but given that she’s been doing high speed chases on and off for six years now, it’s mostly just an exercise in “yep, she still drives like this” and “how can I convince her to let me drive back?”
It’s not that Cass is a bad driver, exactly, so much as…
Only vaguely aware of her own safety.
Views traffic laws as optional.
Some combination thereof.
The point is, Cass gets them to their destination a lot sooner than Steph had expected, and Steph’s hair is now officially a lost cause.
Cass, of course, still looks absolutely gorgeous when she takes off her helmet, grinning at Steph brightly.
Steph laughs, nearly giving into her basic impulse to hug Cass, but she spots how Cass tenses up when Steph starts to think about it, so she stops herself.
“Where are we?”
“Tea shop,” Cass says, chaining her moped against a street lamp, which Steph is pretty sure is illegal, but if it gets towed, maybe they’ll have to take a taxi back, so she’s not going to say anything.
“Right!” Steph says, glancing up at the sign, which is definitely not written in either English or Spanish or even her half-a-dozen words of Arabic.
“Used to work here,” Cass says, straightening up and pushing her hair out of her eyes.
“Oh! Neat! I waitressed back in Gotham for a while. My dad got me fired though.”
“Jerk,” Cass says, and Steph has to laugh.
“Got that right!”
The two of them walk into the tea shop, and Steph grimaces when she sees the menu all in—Cantonese? Or is it still Mandarin if it’s in writing? She thinks she remembers something about the characters being the same. She grabs her phone and starts frantically googling in hopes of not horrifically embarrassing herself, and yes, Hong Kong has a lot of English speakers, but that’s no excuse to be rude.
“Cassie!” Someone yells, from across the room, and Steph looks up from her pronunciation guide for various types of tea, and spots three people, two guys and a girl, waving frantically at them from the back of the tea shop.
Cass waves back and hurries over towards them, leaving Steph to follow, feeling incredibly small and awkward.
It’s good that Cass has a life here, she reminds herself. It’s good that she has a life outside of Black Bat. It’s… it’s good.
She just hates that she isn’t a part of it.
She shoves that thought out of her head, because being jealous about Cass learning to form bonds with other people is the kind of thinking that leads to supervillainy, and instead bounds up behind Cass, forcing a grin onto her face.
“So, where’s this brother?” the girl is saying. She’s pretty, and she’s wearing a Blue Beetle t-shirt, so Steph supposes she has to be alright, if her taste in superheroes is decent enough.
“I’m sorry I’m no Dick Grayson,” Steph says, grinning. “Apparently there was some confusion about who was coming to visit. I’m Stephanie Brown—I’m Cass’s—I’m Cass’s friend from back in Gotham.” She has to physically bite back the “best friend” label. She has no right to claim that title anymore, not until she figures out what exactly she did.
“Oh! I’m—I’m Xiao Yin.”
They offer her a seat, so she quickly sits down. She orders a simple Jasmine Tea and sips it, while watching all of them.
Cass is… comfortable, she realizes with a lurch in her stomach, as she laughs and smiles and teases her way through the conversation.
“So, Stephanie,” Cunxin says, leaning in towards her. “How’d you meet our Cassie?”
“She broke into my apartment,” Steph says, and laughs as Cass drives an elbow into her side. “What, you did!”
“You broke in back!”
“Yeah, but you started it.”
The others laugh, and Steph feels herself slowly relaxing, sipping her tea and allowing herself to fall into the rhythm of the conversation.
“Solve your… logic?” Cass asks Xiao Yin.
“I did! I threw a rubber ball against the window until it made sense, then I fixed it! Now I just need to solve the next… fifty bugs or so in my code and then it’ll probably work! Probably. I hope.”
“Did you dance?”
Steph pauses, narrowing her eyes at Xiao Yin, who is very pretty, and who is looking at Cass with…
Okay, Steph is no body reading expert like Cass.
But that is definitely flirting.
Steph shoves down the instinctive wave of jealousy and makes a run to the bathroom, but not before she hears Xiao Yin say that she’d put off going dancing because she wanted to have someone to dance with.
Steph comes back a few minutes later, grinning like nothing’s wrong at all, and like her stomach isn’t currently made of lead.
She makes it through the rest of the meal, not really listening to anything, and the former roommates are happy enough to talk amongst themselves.
The roommates leave first, leaving Steph and Cass alone at the tea shop.
“So, you going to go?”
“On the date.”
Steph raises an eyebrow. “You did realize she was asking you, right?”
Steph can’t help her giggle. “Seriously?”
Steph bursts out laughing, unable to help the hysterical edge to it. “Oh my god Cass.” She straightens up slightly, frowning seriously. “Well? Are you going to?”
Cass looks thoughtful, biting her lip. “No,” she says, after a while.
“Why not? She seems nice,” Steph says, telling herself she’s not fishing, is definitely not trying to find a way to ask are you straight?
“Not my type.”
So, yes then.
Steph grins at her. “Oh well. Anyways, want to show me around the city so we’re ready for the Bat’s Eye View tonight?”
At least she knows that Cass can be selectively oblivious when it comes to people being attracted to her.
And she can start really hoping that Cass is willing to apply it in her case.
Chapter 5: We were running for a reason
In which Cass deals with Feelings.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Cass takes Steph to the Tsim Sha Tsui Promenade because she’s too rattled to think of anything beyond the most basic tourist things. Well… besides Disneyland. But Cass doesn’t want to deal with Mickey Mouse right now. She thinks she might punch him, and then Bruce would be disappointed in her.
So… she takes Steph to the Promenade. It’s pretty and it has shops and things to look at and hopefully Steph will be too distracted by the skyline and tourism to notice that Cass is off balance. Cass doesn’t get off balance. She’s
Batgirl Black Bat.
She doesn’t get off balance.
Xiao Yin has been… flirting? Cass is so confused by that, even if that does make some things make sense… like the way Xiao Yin had leaned… and some of those head tilts… and…
Maybe it makes a lot of sense.
Cass frowns to herself as Steph cheerfully takes pictures of the skyline.
Why hadn’t she noticed? She notices when boys like her, and she notices when girls like other people… why hadn’t she noticed this?
She kicks a loose piece of trash irritably, then blinks as she realizes she’s lost track of Steph, somehow.
When had Steph gotten stealthy? Cass is irritable as she cranes her neck, looking for the wayward blonde. Cass must really be slipping if Steph can vanish on her, as well as failing to notice one of her roommate’s romantic interest.
“Cass!” Steph reemerges from the crowd, looking very excited. “Street food!” She brandishes two brown bags, with strange, bubble like pastry poking out of the top.
“What is this?” Cass accepts one from her, sniffing it. It smells like—
“Waffles!” Steph crows, beaming so widely that Cass wonders if her face hurts. “I got yours with chocolate,” she adds, mouth already full of her own pastry. “Egg waffles technically,” she adds, after swallowing her first bite. “I read about them on the plane! They’re really popular here in Hong Kong!”
“Not very adventurous,” Cass says mildly, but they do smell good, so she digs in. It’s sweet, with the texture a bit different from the waffles she’s used to, and the chocolate is hot and gooey. Steph has gotten desiccated coconut on hers, which she’s shedding rapidly as she eats it.
“I’ll try other things!” Steph protests. “But I wanted something sweet. And don’t act like you haven’t been craving chocolate! I looked in your fridge! You don’t have any sweets in there!”
Cass tries very hard not to giggle but freezes up when Steph reaches over and brushes at the corner of her mouth with her thumb. Cass stands, stock still, staring widely as she feels Steph’s scarred thumb scrape along her lip and down her jaw, sending tiny sparks down Cass’s spine. “Chocolate,” Steph says, grinning, then sticks her thumb in her mouth. Cass’s eyes jump to Steph’s mouth and stay there, inexplicably drawn by the motion. “Mmm, I’ll get that kind next time!”
Cass stares at Steph for a moment, trying to wrap her mind around what just happened, and why she’s reacting to that simple touch, and to that simple gesture.
And why she can’t stop thinking about Steph’s lips. And her lips. And… everything.
Then she realizes that Steph is waiting for a retort, so she quickly pulls herself together and dramatically narrows her eyes. “I thought… you were trying new things?”
Steph sticks out her tongue, then takes another bite out of her waffle. “Too bad we’re night-bats,” Steph says. “A lot of the tourism stuff I’m seeing on the internet is best at night.”
“You’ll get the best night tour,” Cass says, offended. “I know Hong Kong!”
“Oh yeah! What’s the name of the tallest building in Hong Kong?”
“… that one,” Cass says, pointing weakly in the direction of the building.
“… Cass. Have you gone free fall jumping off the International Commerce Centre?”
Steph nearly drops her waffle she’s laughing so hard. Cass strongly considers stealing it out of spite but decides to finish her own waffle instead.
There’s chocolate on her mouth again, but Steph only gestures towards it rather than move to take care of it herself. Cass isn’t sure if she’s glad about that or not.
“Mind if we go back to your place?” Steph says. “I’m pretty tired still, and I’ll want to get some sleep before we storm the castle.”
“Did I never make you watch Princess Bride?”
“Don’t think so.”
“I failed you, and I’m sorry,” Steph says solemnly, but there’s something strangely earnest about it, and Cass isn’t sure what to make of it. Instead of dealing with that, she shrugs instead and turns her attention to the skyline of her city.
It’s really pretty, from here on the Tsim Sha Tsui Promenade. It’s sleeker than Gotham; there are no gargoyles here, except near the temples. The city itself is sleek and shiny, a modern creation, like Metropolis more than Gotham.
At least, that’s how it looks from here, even though Cass knows it’s not true. Hong Kong is a city that needs a bat. Needs her.
And for now, it needs Steph too.
She thinks about offering to watch the movie with Steph soon, but… Steph is just here for the mission. She’ll be going back to Gotham soon.
Gotham, where Cass won’t follow.
“You should rest,” Cass says, instead of mentioning any of the other thoughts twirling around in her mind.
“… right.” Steph looks strangely disappointed about something, but Steph was the one who said she was tired, so Cass isn’t sure why, and it’s frustrating her.
They take the moped back, and how has Cass never realized how warm Steph is before? Steph grips her tightly, nervous about falling, which is silly because Steph rides motorcycles all the time.
They had shared motorcycles frequently, back in Gotham, and none of them had ever made Cass feel like this. Her heartbeat is faster, her cheeks are flushed, and she wants to lean into Steph’s grip and throw it off at the same time. She can’t do either because she’s driving, but it’s still weird.
When did this change? Why is this changing? What does this mean?
Is it because she hasn’t seen Steph in so long? But she hadn’t felt like this even when Steph had come back from Africa. She had been happy to see her then, but the feelings hadn’t been like this. The only complications then was the hurt about the lies, not this strange and twisted feeling knotting in Cass’s chest as they twist through the Hong Kong cities, finding the way back to Cass’s apartment by memory alone, because she’s barely focusing enough to avoid crashing into oncoming traffic, let alone navigate.
Steph staggers off the moped the second they pull into the garage, and then they get into the elevator in complete silence.
It’s only when Steph’s heading to her room that she turns around and looks at Cass.
She’s a striking figure, Cass thinks, surprised. Steph has always been pretty—she’d never doubted that, but this is… different. Steph’s turtleneck is tight, and the color brings out her eyes, and her hair is floaty and wild after the moped ride, and the way she’s standing, with her arm braced against the doorway, draws attention to the muscle she’s gained in the year since Cass had last seen her.
“Did you find what you’re looking for?”
Cass pauses, tearing her eyes away from Steph’s figure to focus on her words.
“Did you find what you were looking for? You know, when you left Gotham.” Steph looks strangely earnest and… sad.
“Yes.” It’s a lie.
Cass had not let Gotham to find anything. She had left Gotham because it was empty now, bereft of everything. Bruce was dead, her family in tatters, and her father’s dying wish had been for her to take Batgirl and give it to Stephanie.
Cass had never fought for Gotham; she had never fought for Bruce Wayne; she had fought for the symbol. She had given everything to that, for that fight, and then… he had told her to give it to someone else.
She had been told to lay down her arms, to strip the symbol from her chest, and pass it on to someone else.
She was unworthy. What else could it be? Why else would Bruce have given the Bat to Dick and Batgirl to Steph and left Cass with nothing?
That’s what Cass was, without Batgirl.
And so, she had ran away from Gotham, from the city, from the symbol, and she had not stopped until she had nearly fallen back over the edge of her own past.
She wears the Bat again, but it feels hollow, given to her by Tim, not by Babs or Bruce. Tim’s approval and all of Bruce’s kindness since his return does not negate that she had been left out in the cold, left without name or legacy, right at the moment when she had lost… him.
But she can’t explain that to Steph, so she just nods. “I found it.” She says again, hoping Steph believes her, and never asks again.
“I’m glad,” Steph says, smiling at her. Then she stifles a yawn against the back of her hand, her eyes fluttering shut for a moment. “Wake me up when it’s time for dinner, okay? Then we can go over the plans.”
The door closes behind Steph, leaving Cass alone with her thoughts.
She goes to the dance studio and stares at her own reflection for a moment. Then, scowling, she starts taking off her nice clothes, so she can dance without worrying about sweat stains. Alfred has been of great help over the distance helping Cass figure out how to do her own laundry, but sweat stains are a pain.
Maybe she should call up Xiao Yin, she thinks, throwing one of her boots across the room, making sure it falls far short of the mirrors. Xiao Yin is nice and pretty and she doesn’t think Cass isn’t good enough to be Batgirl—and Cass likes kissing just fine, and maybe if Cass kissed someone else, she’d stop thinking about Stephanie putting her finger in her mouth and her lips and—
The other boot drops out of Cass’s hands.
“Oh,” she says to her reflection, wide-eyed.
She thinks about Steph’s lips again; smiling and full and pink, and she thinks about kissing them, thinks about pressing her mouth against Steph’s, thinks about how it would feel when Steph laughs against her.
Then she remembers, abruptly, Steph sitting on a rooftop next to her, telling her about kissing boys, and she sighs.
Steph doesn’t like girls, and if she did, she wouldn’t like Cass.
Cass tugs on her ballet sweats and starts playing a random song and starts trying to choreograph her own dance to it; something complicated, with lots of leaps and twirls and stretches, to take her mind off Stephanie Brown, at least for a little while.
The music and the movement help; Cass finds her breath slowing and her heartbeat evening out, but it’s not enough.
She stops the music and strides across the hallway until she’s in the gym instead, and immediately starts beating up the sparring dummy that she’d thought to set up this morning.
She’s feels smug when she stands over the broken remains of the dummy a few minutes later—she’d like to see Steph do that. Or Dick! Or Tim!
She’s the best.
… but that still wasn’t good enough, was it? Not for Bruce.
Scowling, she kicks the remains of the dummy into a pile with the other broken bits and drags another one out of the closet—she’ll have to put in an order soon, and probably deal with a lecture from Bruce about not breaking them so often, but she doesn’t care. She… needs to fight something. She’s got this itch in her chest, and she doesn’t—she doesn’t—
She doesn’t want to break into a skyscraper tonight, with or without Stephanie Brown.
She stops and considers.
They still have a little while… and breaking in two nights in a row is a bad idea… and they haven’t worked together in a while…
They could probably use a night just doing a normal patrol.
And if that allows Cass to actually do something, rather than be stuck in a narrow elevator shaft with Steph… well, it’s for the good of the mission.
“Need more information,” Cass announced when Steph shows up, sleepy eyed and yawning, for dinner.
“How so?” Steph says, squinting at the contents of Cass’s fridge. “Wait, did you learn to cook?”
“… sort of?”
“Did Alfred sign you up for grocery delivery?”
“Don’t give him ideas.”
“Alright,” Steph grabs an armful of vegetables and dumps them on the kitchen. “Start chopping, Cass. I’ll raid your pantry and see if there’s anything there to make sure we eat something other than stir fried vegetables.
“You can cook?”
“I’m in college, I can make SpaghettiOs, stir fry, and frozen pizza,” Steph says, climbing onto Cass’s counters to reach the top shelves.
“Don’t store anything there,” Cass points out. “Too short.”
Steph stares at her, incredulous. “And you’re just wasting the space?”
“Lots of space to waste,” Cass points out.
“Oh. Right.” Steph hops down from the counters, frowning. “Please tell me you at least have salt.”
“…okay stop chopping those vegetables, we’re ordering pizza.”
Cass, who has just finished fine-dicing the pepper, can’t help but feel disappointed. She likes chopping vegetables. “But—”
“Cass. You’re my friend, so I say this with all honesty and affection.” Steph puts her hands on Cass’s shoulders and stares right into her eyes with a mock-seriousness. “You need to buy some spices.”
“Because you’re supposed to enjoy the food you eat?”
Cass squints at her and digs into her memory for the correct phrase.
“Sounds fake, but okay.”
She’s grateful Steph is no longer on the countertops when she says that, because Steph doubles over laughing immediately, her concern over the state of Cass’s pantry immediately gone.
“Who—oh my god Tim.”
Cass smirks, proud of herself.
“I’m so proud of you, oh my god,” Steph says, sounding like she’s having trouble breathing. “I adore you, Cassandra Cain.”
Cass freezes up at that, and then dives across the room for her phone to order the pizza to avoid having to respond to that.
CASS: how do you stop liking someone
BABS: What happened? Are you hurt?
CASS: nothing just feelings.
BABS: … feelings, huh?
BABS: Why don’t you call me after your patrol tonight and we can talk about it?
BABS: Because I miss you.
CASS: miss you two
BABS: Don’t break Steph’s jaw again!
CASS: hairline fracture :(
BABS: Don’t do that either.
Sighing, Cass puts her phone aside, having already ordered her and Steph’s favorite pizzas from her local place.
Steph has located the TV remote and is flipping through the channels, not seeming interested in any of the programs, occasionally glancing at her own phone.
Cass wonders who Steph is talking to—she says she’s in college, so maybe a friend from there. She doesn’t think it’s Tim; Tim is awkward when talking about Steph these days, admitting to Cass once that things are strained. Cass wonders if it’s an ex thing, or if there’s more going on there that she doesn’t know about.
She doesn’t know a lot about what Steph’s been up to in the past year.
And that’s on purpose.
“Oh!” Steph abandons the TV for a moment, and then runs into her room, returning with a large bundle wrapped in newspaper and hands it to Cass.
“What is this?” Cass says, tilting her head to read the headlines, but it looks like ordinary copies of the Daily Planet.
“Care package,” Steph says. “From Jean Paul and Leslie.”
“Oh,” Cass blinks, surprised, but unwraps it carefully.
There’s a CD of ballet music, a pair of pointe shoes in her size, several rolls of bandages to wrap her hands with, her favorite kind of chocolate which she can’t get in Hong Kong, and several types of energy bars. There are also two notes, which she sets aside to read later.
She feels… happy. She hasn’t spoken to Jean Paul or Leslie in a while… but it’s good to know that they miss her and remember her.
“Tell them…. Thanks,” Cass says quietly, fingering the pointe shoes. Who had told Jean Paul about her lessons? She had danced for Jean Paul once or twice, back during No Man’s Land, but that hadn’t been ballet. That had just been her.
Knowing he supports her in that is nice. Maybe if he comes to visit her in Hong Kong she’ll take him to a show.
The pizza arrives then, and Cass accepts the two boxes from the girl, tips well, and juggles them inside.
“Oh awesome!” Steph mutes the TV immediately. She blinks when she sees two boxes, then lights up when she opens it.
Cass shrugs. “You ate it a lot.” Pizza wasn’t the only thing they had eaten together, on the rooftops and in Cass’s place in Gotham, but it was a frequent choice. Steph had been very insistent that Cass go to as many different places in Gotham as possible, and try to determine what kind was Cass’s favorite.
“You need to have favorites,” Steph had said, frowning at her. “You can eat everything, but you need to have favorites!”
“I have favorite ice cream.”
“And that’s a great start, Cass, don’t get me wrong, but we’re going to find your favorite pizza in all of Gotham or gain weight trying!”
Steph digs into her pineapple and ham pizza with gusto, grinning at Cass the whole while, in a way that causes Cass’s stomach to turn… but in a good way.
Feelings, Cass decides, are complicated and she doesn’t like them. Babs will hopefully have helpful suggestions. Cass eats her own pepperoni pizza quickly, the itch to get out on the streets back under her skin.
“Suit up,” she says, when Steph finishes eating. “Then meet me on the roof.”
Cass changes faster than she ever has before and beats Steph there, trying hard to regulate her breathing, to prepare herself for what’s coming next.
Steph’s Batgirl costume is… bright. Cass has always been one for the shadows, but Steph’s color scheme seems to draw in the light. Gone is the concealing mask, the one that Steph had also worn in the old days, and in its place is a mask that’s more like Bruce’s than anyone else’s… except maybe Babs’, back in her early days.
She looks, Cass thinks, like the true heir to Babs’ legacy. Cass had felt strange in Babs’ version of the costume; her version was so different, copied off Helena’s, which was meant to be The Bat, not Batgirl. But Stephanie looks right at home, in purple and yellow, her long hair flowing freely.
Cass feels suddenly, horrifically, out of place.
Steph steps forward, into the Hong Kong night lighting, and shrugs when she sees Cass looking at her. “Babs designed it,” she says, as if guessing at least some of Cass’s thoughts. “She had… pretty strong opinions about me wearing your version.”
Relief comes swiftly at that.
She wrinkles her nose. “You’re too tall for mine,” she tells Steph. She’d worn a larger and stretchier than usual one that night on purpose for that exact reason, so that Steph would be able to wear it.
“I know!” Steph throws up her hands. “You’re tiny, I was just happy that fabric breathed!”
Cass catches herself smiling slightly.
“Alright, Black Bat,” Steph says, grinning at her. “Ready to go?”
“Sure thing… Batgirl,” Cass says, her heart sinking even as the two of them leap off the rooftop of her new home and fall into the night together.
Not going to lie, I have NO idea is you can see the International Commerce Centre from the Tsim Sha Tsui Promenade, but the joke demanded to be included, so I did it.
Anyways, most of my knowledge from Hong Kong comes from Google, tourism sites, and a writing tips post on tumblr, so if you notice any glaring errors or have any suggestions for things for Steph and Cass to do, drop me a line!
Chapter 6: And though your hand I’ll never get to hold
In which Stephanie Brown outlines all the reasons that Cassandra Cain is way too good for her.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Her entire body burns, as if it’s on fire, and Steph can’t help the noises that emerge from her—not even sobs, just tiny little hiccups of horror and pain, each one humiliating and painful.
A drill whirls in the background, and Steph sets her teeth and tries not to scream. He likes it when she screams, and she refuses to give him that. She won’t give him anything. She won’t let them down again. She won’t.
“Do you think this is a game?”
Steph really would like to cancel her subscription on Nightmares Annual, please and thank you universe.
She wakes up in a cold sweat, in a room she doesn’t know, and she grabs the Batarang by her bedside and throws herself out of bed without thinking before she remembers.
She’s in Hong Kong. She’s at Cass’s ludicrously luxurious penthouse apartment. It’s been years since the War, and Black Mask…
Well, he’s still in Gotham and still a Crime Lord, but he’s not currently torturing her with power tools, so there’s that.
She gets back into the bed and hopes that Cass didn’t notice the noise. At least she didn’t throw the batarang this time—her closet at home has a few marks from her doing just that. She’s tried not sleeping with weapons at hand, but that makes the initial panic worse, so she only does that if she’s sharing a room with someone.
Poking her head out the door, she can hear Cass playing her music down the hall, so she slips into the bathroom to splash cold water on her face to try to get rid of the awful feeling that’s stuck beneath her skin.
She stares at herself in the mirror, wondering what she would look like if she’d never been stupid enough to be captured. Would she even be here? Maybe if she’d never gone to Africa, never taken a year away from Gotham, never let herself go soft, she could have gotten Cass to stay in Gotham. She stares at the scars on her arms, and presses her hand against her stomach without thinking, feeling the scars and the stretch marks alike.
She pushes aside those kinds of thoughts. They’re not helpful. Besides, Cass said she found what she was looking for in Hong Kong. It’s selfish for Steph to wish she’d been able to find it in Gotham, not when Cass clearly wanted space and freedom and a fresh start.
She goes back to bed, trying to go back to sleep, but the residual adrenaline from the nightmare still has her tight in its grip, so she can’t drift off, despite the exhaustion she feels; leftover from the time difference and the long flight and the stress and confusion of Hong Kong.
Giving up on sleep for the time being, she grabs her phone. She shouldn’t look at it, not when she’s trying to sleep, but… she needs something to take her mind off the Black Mask’s face and the smell of her own blood.
She scrolls through articles on her phone, looking for any sign of Bruce making a move against Black Mask, scowling to herself.
He had lied, he had used Cass to get her out of Gotham, and Cass doesn’t even want her here, so why is she still here, instead of getting on the next plane to Gotham and punching the guy who nearly killed her in the face a couple dozen times?
… right, because Cass does need help, even if she doesn’t want it to be Steph.
Steph really wishes that didn’t hurt as much as it did.
Gotham news sites aren’t reporting anything, and neither is the Daily Planet, which usually can be counted on to mention anything really important, because Lois Lane and Clark Kent have the kind of journalistic integrity that Bruce can’t stop by anything less than “a lot of people will die if you post this right now, please wait a week, Lois, please.”
Kara pings her, wondering where that team up selfie is.
THE GIRL WONDER: bats are nocturnal
BLONDE BLOCKBUSTER: riiiiight. Time zones.
THE GIRL WONDER: I’ll see if BB wants to take one later, I promise.
Steph sighs, then gets up, giving up on sleep until after patrol. It’s time for dinner, by her estimate, and it’s time to act really hard like she didn’t just have a horrific nightmare about her near-death experience.
She wonders if Cass knows about Black Mask being back in Gotham, and if she does, if she cares.
That’s mean, she reprimands herself. Of course, Cass cares. Or would care, if she doesn’t know about the situation. Things are just… strange, right now. They’ve been apart so long, and they’ve both changed, and they just need time to figure out who the other is, and where they stand.
It doesn’t matter if Steph really wishes nothing had ever changed.
Well, she doesn’t really. Being Batgirl has been… really great, if she’s being honest. She’s in a much better place than she’s been in a long time.
She just wishes that Cass had been there with her for that part of the journey.
Maybe a better way to phrase it is that Steph wishes that nothing had ever changed between them.
She wants her best friend back.
Is that so bad?
Dinner passes in a haze, and before she knows it, Cass is telling her to suit up, and Steph is practically vibrating like a speedster as she rips through her bag for her costume.
She’s missed this. Oh, how she’s missed this. It’s a feeling like no other, and she’s missed it so much, missed Cass, missed running missions with Batgirl—only now, she is Batgirl, and so the mission will be with Black Bat instead.
Steph snorts to herself at the thought. It’s still a patrol with her and Cass, she reminds herself, even as she pulls her cowl over her head. It’s not like it’s going to be completely different.
She checks herself in the mirror, even though it’s not like Cass would care how Steph’s hair looks or if the spandex makes Steph look bloated or muscular.
She fixes her hair anyways and flexes once, just in case.
The rooftop of Cass’s building is accessible through a ladder in Cass’s gym, which leads up to the secret second level of Cass’s apartment, where her Batcave is. Or is a BatLoft when it’s set up like this?
Steph takes a moment to look around, seeing Cass’s spare costumes, weapons, and… a motorcycle.
Well, that explains the moped, she thinks, glancing around. Bruce probably had told Cass she could only have one motorcycle, for her civilian life or for her heroic life, and Cass would always choose the Black Bat motorcycle over a Cassandra Cain motorcycle. It doesn’t, however, explain how Cass gets that down to the street level though, unless there’s an elevator hidden around here somewhere.
Who is she kidding, there’s totally an elevator for the motorcycle around here somewhere.
There’s another ladder up to the roof. Steph thinks she should suggest a more exciting method of exit. Maybe a fireman’s pole? Or a salmon ladder!
Steph gets distracted for a moment by the thought of Cass on a salmon ladder, which is… spectacularly unhelpful, all things considered.
Steph climbs up onto the roof, and then freezes for a moment under Cass’s gaze. Cass has, Steph realizes, probably only ever seen the costume in pictures. “Babs designed it,” Steph says, feeling self-conscious. “She had… pretty strong opinions about me wearing your version.”
Babs hadn’t wanted her in the costume. Babs hadn’t wanted her to be Batgirl.
“The last time you tried being helpful, you accidentally brought Gotham to its knees.”
“Cassandra’s utility belt—”
“You’re such a bad example that I used your ‘autopsy’ photos to stop the last girl who wanted to be Batgirl.”
“You’re wearing what’s left of a hand-me-down. I’m the one who installed Cassandra’s tech.”
“Do you have some sort of death wish?”
But Steph had held firm, and Babs had finally come around. Eventually.
Cass had wanted her to be Batgirl, Steph reminds herself. That’s what matters.
“You’re too tall for mine,” Cass says.
Cass’s outfit is now sleek and black. She’s got bandages around her hands and wrists, a simple black domino mask, and a tattered black cape. The tattered cape actually looks pretty cool, Steph thinks. But it’s… strange, seeing so much of Cass’s face when they’re ready for a fight. She’s used to Cass being unreadable, at least to those who didn’t know her. Now Steph can see Cass’s expressions perfectly.
“I know!” Steph grins at Cass, throwing her hands up. “You’re tiny, I was just happy that fabric breathed!”
Cass smiles back.
“Alright, Black Bat,” Steph says, grinning at her. “Ready to go?”
“Sure thing… Batgirl.”
Steph’s heart soars.
The two of them leap off the building.
Jumping like this with Cass, when they were kids, was always a contest. Who would fall the furthest before giving in and pulling out the grappling gun? (Cass, always Cass.)
But tonight, Cass pulls her gun out almost immediately, not in the mood for games.
Steph’s a bit disappointed by that—in her head, their first team up as Batgirl and Black Bat would be like the old days. Rooftop tag and burgers and milkshakes, sitting on gargoyles and gossiping, races and motorcycle stunts.
Of course, it’s not like that, because they’re not kids anymore.
They’ve grown up.
It’s different in so many ways; their hair flows freely around them, their faces are exposed to the elements, and…
It’s been a long time since Steph had felt like she didn’t know her partner. Well, that’s dumb, she knows Cass, of course she knows Cass, but it’s…
There’s a gap between them. A horrible, terrifying, gap, and Steph doesn’t know how to bridge it.
She thinks about the gift she’d brought Cass on impulse, still hidden in her bag under her bed.
When she realized Cass hadn’t really invited her, she’d chickened out. She’d managed to give Cass the present from Leslie and Azrael, but her own…
Cass probably wouldn’t want it anyways. It’s silly and sentimental.
Steph follows Cass’s lead as the two of them speed through Hong Kong—it’s her city, she knows how this works, she’s played this game with Batman Inc. before. She’d let Squire show her all of London; Beryl had been a great tour guide, and had known London as well as Cass or Steph know Gotham.
And like Cass knows Hong Kong. Confidence is in every movement Cass makes, a sense of familiarity imbedded in every turn she makes, every direction she chooses.
She’s at home here, Steph thinks, with a sinking feeling of resurrection. What if she likes it better here? What if she never comes home?
That possibility is horrifying. Steph has never imagined a future in Gotham without Cass, not really. How could she? Cass is—was—is her best friend. Every future she’s managed to imagine without the Black Mercy’s powers, and some with it, has Cass in it.
It’s not fair, Steph wants to yell into the night, but she doesn’t, because that’s not fair on Cass.
Cass has the right to grow up. Cass has the right to leave. That’s why Steph never went looking after Cass asked her not to. She’d wanted to—oh, she’d wanted to. She’d imagined going on all sorts of adventures, exploring mountains and crossing deserts, maybe even saving Cass from some horrible fate, and bringing Cass back to Gotham, where she belonged.
But that was a fantasy.
The reality is that, sometimes people leave. Steph has known this for a long time.
Sometimes leaving is even the right choice, even if it hurts. Even if Steph desperately misses those who are gone.
But that doesn’t make Steph any happier about it; a future without Cassandra Cain in Gotham.
She closes her eyes for a moment, forcing herself to refocus on the here and now.
If Cass is happy here, if this is Cass’s home now, then that just means that Steph has to make the most of this. She has to enjoy every last second of this adventure the two of them are having, because it might be the last one.
Cass has a future in this stuff; Steph has always known that. In ten years, she’ll probably be in charge of the Justice League with an army of sidekicks and it will be great.
Steph is probably going to be way past her prime, if she’s not dead. She’s never been a Titan or member of Young Justice. Her team ups have been fun, and she still keeps up with the others, but Batman Inc. is her only real connection to the superhero community at large.
And Bruce Wayne still sends her out of the way when real trouble shows up.
Steph’s not going to give up that easily, of course, but she knows the Black Mercy was lying. She’s never going to be Nightwing, she’s never going to mentor another superhero. She’ll keep going as long as she can, but once she passes on Batgirl, goes back to Spoiler or whatever new identity she forges for herself, she’ll fade away. Go back to fighting muggers and robbers and D list villains. No more team ups. No more A list.
And that’s okay, because that’s not why Steph does this, but…
She’ll miss Cass.
Cass, who was made for the Big Leagues, who is the most amazing person Steph has ever met, who will blow them all out of the water when she gets there.
Cassandra Cain has outgrown Stephanie Brown, outgrown Batgirl, outgrown Gotham, and that’s a wretched realization.
The photos weren’t lying, Steph thinks, blinking away tears, as they swing from building to building, running across rooftops without speaking, their shoes beating out a steady rhythm against the concrete and steel. Hong Kong is simply gorgeous at night.
Self esteem issues? In my Stephanie Brown? It's more likely than you think!
Anyways, hope you guys all enjoyed this update! <3
Chapter 7: You gotta live a little lighter, You gotta breathe a little deeper
In which Cass is a gay disaster who fights crime.
It’s worse than Cass thought, having Steph at her back again, not as Spoiler, but as Batgirl.
The change to Robin had been strange enough; seeing Steph wear Tim’s colors, calling her by a different name, was odd, and difficult to wrap her mind around, but this… this is so much worse.
It’s not Steph’s fault, Cass knows this, reminds herself of this over and over again until it’s a mantra, rapped out against the beat of her own heart. Not her fault, not her fault, not her fault. All Steph knows is that Cass left, that Cass stripped out of her beloved costume on a rooftop, and then vanished from her life, telling her that the fight was hers and not to follow. Cass had offered no explanation—on Bruce’s orders.
She can’t justify her simmering resentment against Steph—what could Cass have expected her to do? Stephanie, for all her talk of giving it up, of walking away, all those promises to hang up the cape, is incapable of sitting by. Stephanie loves being a hero, loves helping people, loves the thrill of the fight and the glory of the rooftops, loves proving the world wrong, showing that she means something, that she’s more than they ever said they could be.
Stephanie Brown is a hero at heart.
Cass had known, when she’d thrown her beloved costume onto the rooftop, that nothing would stop Stephanie from picking it up.
How could she? It’s more than just a costume, it’s a symbol. Cass loves—loved—it dearly, and Steph loves it too. She radiates joy, in that costume, her smile wide and visible in her half-cowl, her eyes dancing with delight.
No more can the Cave be closed on her, in that costume. No more can she be dismissed and discarded and ignored. She’s Batgirl, and that means something. Just like Robin meant something, but this time, Cass couldn’t reclaim it out from under her, like Tim had.
Cass hates that she understands this. She wishes she could be angry, be resentful, demand that Steph give it back.
Worse still, she wishes she could be happy for her. Stephanie is more herself now; comfortable and confident, stronger and faster than ever. She’s put on weight, her muscles larger and more defined under the spandex, and the Bat symbol draws Cass’s eyes right to her chest, which she’s never really noticed before, but now she finds she can’t look away from.
It’s… a nice chest.
(It would be nice if Cass’s thoughts stopped going in that direction too.)
They get to the harbor and only then does Cass allow herself to stop moving, to slow down, to allow Steph to catch up. Part of the jitters that had sunk into Cass’s bones are gone, loosened up by the run.
Steph pauses, panting slightly, and Cass can’t help but feel smug at that, even though it’s a silly impulse. Steph had kept up well, she always has. Stephanie knows that other people are better than her, but she’s never allowed it to stop her or slow her down. She refuses, every time, and she laughs in the face of whoever tries to stop her.
Unless it’s Cass herself.
“Got something in mind?” Steph asks, breathless but still smiling, her eyes glistening in the harbor light, the familiar, hypnotizing shade of dark blue.
“Shipment tonight,” Cass says, pointing at an innocuous looking shipping vessel. It’s from a shell company that Hanson favors—she thinks that Luthor has used it a few times too, but that’s a link she hasn’t concretely proven yet. It came her straight from Gotham, an unusual shipping route that caught her eye, as well as the ludicrous cargo; junk toys, Batman t-shirts, Justice League posters—a full cargo, but not nearly enough to justify the cost of the trip.
That’s whatever’s in the secondary hold. Weapons or drugs or—worse case—Scaregas or a similar concoction from Gotham’s streets. Practically priceless, these days. It’s enough to make Cass shudder, and certainly enough to justify her putting off their skyscraper expedition a night.
Steph pulls out a pair of binoculars out of her utility belt. “Want to take a look?”
“Got my own,” Cass says, pulling hers out of her belt, noting without surprise it’s the exact same model as Steph’s, although Steph has stuck a Batman sticker on hers. Hers had come in a package from Babs a little over a month ago, along with the normal batch of equipment replacements and tech upgrades.
Even in Hong Kong, Babs tries to make sure Cass has all the tools she needs.
“The Lily of the Sea? Tacky name.”
“Horrible,” Cass agrees absently, although she’s more preoccupied with trying to count how many guards are on the top deck.
“I’m not getting anything on thermal, are you?”
“Lead lined,” Cass says, disgusted as she tries the setting.
“That can’t be good for the environment,” Steph muses. “Although good insurance against Supers… this boat from Metropolis?”
“Gotham. Direct route.”
“Not even a stop in Hawaii? Gotta feel bad for the crew… makes you wonder what they were avoiding.” Steph taps her fingers on the edge of the roof, a tick that Cass remembers from Gotham. It means Steph’s thinking, rotating the pieces in her head as she tries to put together the entire puzzle. “Hey, who made the ship?”
“If it’s a Luthor make—which, I mean, it’s lead lined in this day and age, and it’s a smuggling ship, it seems like a good guess—the hidden hold’s usually in one of three places. And given how old this one looks—I think we’ll be looking for a vault hidden next to the Captain’s quarters. It’ll look like it’s just an extra thick wall, but there will be a panel with a code hidden there.”
Cass looks at her, shocked by the sudden outburst of information.
Steph shrugs, looking pleased with herself but also embarrassed. “I have had some very productive team ups with Supergirl.”
“Shouldn’t he… change where the compartment is?” It seems too easy.
“Oh, he does on the ones he uses. But the ones he sells? He doesn’t actually care.”
“Dirty,” Cass says disapprovingly. She hasn’t had much to do with Luthor, but she generally disapproves of him and has a long-standing goal of punching him in the nose while wearing a Superman shirt.
“And lazy! But it makes our job easier.” Steph lowers her binoculars. “So, do you like the ship on the right or the left as our point of entrance?”
“Left. Wayne Shipping,” Cass says, pointing to the newer, smaller boat.
“Ah, WayneTech,” Steph sighs, mock longingly. “Alright, that is less likely to be booby trapped.” She straightens up and puts away her binoculars. Then she bows, gripping the edges of her cape and holding them backwards, in some sort of strange gesture. “Ladies first?”
“We’re both girls,” Cass points out, unsure of what to make of it.
“Expression, Cass,” Steph says. There’s something soft and fond in her voice that makes Cass very happy to jump off the roof to avoid thinking about it.
The two of them dart and weave their way through the docks. The Lily of the Sea is well-guarded, but the Fox III has emptied it’s cargo and hasn’t been re-loaded, so it’s functioning on a skeleton crew.
Cass might resent working with Steph again—or at least, with Steph’s new alter-ego—but she has to admit, it’s easy. She knows Steph, knows how she moves, how she thinks, and Steph knows Cass. The two of them slip easily into their old patterns, their old signals. Cass knows when to trust that Steph can move from cover to cover without needing someone to spot for her, and when to keep an eye out, and Steph is doing the same for her.
They make their way up the gangplank, capes fluttering nicely in the breeze, and Cass is caught up in a wave of nostalgia.
It’s… nice. If she’s going to be working with someone, at least it’s someone who understands how Cass works, and who Cass knows.
She frowns, realizing that Bruce technically sent her exactly what she asked for, even if he knew she didn’t want to work with Steph.
It’s almost enough to make her forget where they are, and everything that’s happened.
To make the cross to the Lily of the Sea, they need to get to the middle, where the two ships are both rounded out, making it the closest point.
It’s not particularly easy to get to—they have to duck behind deck chairs, entrances to the lower decks, and under the ship’s railing as they make their way, and they have to split up a few times, the terrain making it too risky for both of them. There are a few sailors walking the deck, too—some of them keeping watch, others just enjoying the view, the time in port, and some of them even drinking.
One of the watchmen gets too close for comfort, and Cass manages to duck under a nearby overhang, her dark costume concealing her in the shadows perfectly. Stephanie is forced to try to lurk in a doorway, her cape drawn tight around her to try and conceal the brighter purple of her armor and the bright yellow symbol on her chest.
Cass barely dares to breathe as the sailor shines his flashlight through dark, unknowingly passing over her. For a moment, she thinks he’s going to just move on, but then he turns slowly.
Cass’s heart races in her chest and she nearly jumps onto her feet, ready to move, as the beam of light falls right onto Steph.
For a moment, the guard stares right at Steph, and Cass curses, preparing to grab Steph and jump over the side of the boat—they’ll have to give up on the Lily of the Sea, he’s going to sound the alarm, he’s going to…
Instead of panicking, Steph slowly raises her hand up to her mouth, lowering her cape enough to see the Bat symbol, and presses a finger against her lips. Then she jerks her thumb towards the other ship, and grins conspiratorially.
The guard straightens up abruptly, and gives her a small salute, then keeps walking on, pointedly not looking over his shoulder, and also walking towards the other side of the boat, away from the Lily of the Sea.
Cass darts across the passage towards Steph. “What was that?” She hisses into Steph’s ear, one part angry, the other part incredulous.
Steph shrugs. “He’s a Wayne employee,” she explains in a whisper. “So he works for Batman Inc., technically! I figured he’d… you know, keep it quiet.” She grins. “I am Batgirl, after all.”
Cass swallows hard. “You are,” she agrees, something awful twisting in her stomach. “Let’s hurry.”
The two of them make it the rest of the way without incident, and then she and Steph briefly rock-paper-scissors to see who is going to grapple and who is going to cling tightly to the other and try not to throw them off balance.
Cass wins the game (Steph always does scissors unless she’s mad, then she does rock), and pulls out her grappling gun.
She regrets choosing to win immediately after Steph wraps her arms around her arms around Cass’s waist and beams at her, her face right next to Cass.
Cass’s eyes, unthinkingly, take in the spray of freckles across Steph’s nose, the shine of Steph’s chapstick around her lips, and the scar on her chin in an instant, before feeling herself blush.
She quickly turns her head away, and pulls out her grappling gun so they can get across as quickly as possible, so Steph will let go of her and no longer be quite so close and so that Cass can stop wondering what would happen if she leaned in just a little and pressed her own lips against Steph’s—
The two of them tumble onto the deck of the Lily of the Sea and immediately leap into hiding before anyone can investigate the noise.
The vault is where Steph says it probably is, and Cass feels a strange mix of pride and jealousy. She should have thought to look for a pattern in the ships. She’s a detective, she should…
She opens the door though, so at least there’s that.
The vault is full of cylinders that Cass can’t identify as the two of them creep in. Steph frowns.
“This doesn’t look like weapons.”
“Could be Fear Gas.”
Steph blanches. “I hate that stuff,” she mutters, taking a small device out of her belt that Cass doesn’t recognize.
“Analyzer,” she says, carefully inserting it into one of the canisters. “It’s connected to O’s databases, so if it’s anything we’ve dealt with, it’ll tell us.”
Cass feels oddly put out. “I don’t have one of those.” Babs always sends her the new toys. What does it mean, that Steph has one and she doesn’t?
“Do you have to look for Fear Gas in a birthday cake last week?” Steph says, raising an eyebrow at Cass, showing she knows exactly what Cass is thinking, and thinks it’s ridiculous. “It’s still a prototype. Honestly, if she wasn’t busy right now, she’d probably have taken this one back to refine it. But it’s probably good enough to get a—”
Steph looks scared. That’s not good. That’s very not good. Steph is brave—Steph is one of the bravest people that Cass has ever known.
“Joker Gas,” Steph whispers, and oh.
Tension floods the room, as they stare at the large pile of canisters—enough Joker Gas to fill the city twice over, Cass thinks blankly. There’s a small fortune of it in here, and there’s no antidote in the city, and it’s not like Fear Gas, where you can usually ride it out as long as you’re restrained from hurting yourself and others.
Joker Gas kills, without the antidote, unless you get a small enough amount, and given how much gas is in this room…
Cass doesn’t think they’re planning on small doses.
“We need to—can you get a bomb squad—wait, they wouldn’t have the resources…” Steph is rambling, pale and nervous, running her hands through her hair and biting her lip.
“Due to be unloaded soon,” Cass says, stomach sinking. She’d been just planning on calling it in, because even Fear Gas can be avoided with a good gas mask…
Joker Gas is far more dangerous. She can’t even risk it getting off the ship. She won’t let it into her city.
“We need to destroy it,” she says, coming to a conclusion, crossing her arms. They need to destroy it, but how?
Steph drums her fingers against her arm, her eyebrow furrowing. “Why would anyone bring Joker Gas into a city? Besides the Joker… he’s not here, right?”
“Arkham,” Cass says. “Weapon? Distraction?”
Steph hisses. “Unleashing Joker Gas in a non-Gotham city is one hell of a distraction. No one else has the resources to handle this.”
Cass can’t exactly argue with that. Even with her here, Hong Kong’s police forces aren’t equipped for this kind of terrorism. Gotham still buckles under the weight of the Joker, and they’re about as used to it as people can get.
Steph glances behind them, no longer drumming her fingers against her bicep. “Is that door airtight?”
Cass glances at it, tilts her head to one side, and does the math. “Should be.”
“Okay.” Steph bites her lip, then straightens up, putting her hands on her hips. “Right, well. Joker Gas is flammable. If I set up some pyro-splode-arangs, I should be able to get enough of a blaze started to burn through the supplies, and then when it burns out the gas and the oxygen… it should be safe.” She looks nervous about it.
“Watch the door,” Steph says instead of explaining herself, suddenly pulling things out of her belt.
Cass does, but she also watches Steph out of the corner of her eye, fascinated as Steph pulls out not normal batarangs, but half-batarangs, colored differently and in different compartments.
They do different things, Cass realizes. Steph can mix and match them in order to do what she needs them to do.
That’s… impressive. Steph has never had a weapon of choice, unlike Dick and Babs with their escrima sticks or Tim with his bo staff. She’s fought with anything and everything she can get her hands on. Her skill is at reading the situation and then throwing herself into it, finding the best weapon and using it with terrifying efficiency and using her environment in her own favor.
Bruce has figured out a way to standardize that, to make sure that Steph never goes into a situation without a weapon. Steph can now read a situation and adapt, but still be using the weapon of the Bat instead of chairs and bricks and whatever else she can scrape up. It’s impressive, it’s clever, and it makes sense, for Steph.
Steph sets up several batarangs around the stockpile, and then very carefully places several more on top of the cannisters of Joker Gas.
“What are those?”
“Acid-splode-arangs,” she says grimly. “We need to make sure the gas can get out to be set on fire.
“Let’s get out of here then close the door,” Steph says, pale but determined.
They seal the door behind them, and then Steph pulls out the detonator out of her belt. “Boom,” she says grimly, then presses it.
The resulting explosion shakes the door, but it doesn’t break it, and Steph reaches over and grips Cass’s hand, hard enough to hurt, but Cass grips back unthinkingly, her heart racing in her throat, because this is risky and dangerous, but they have to destroy the Joker Gas.
Letting the Joker get any form of influence outside of Gotham is dangerous. Letting anyone use the gas is dangerous. Everything about this is dangerous, and Hanson brought it into her city.
Cass sees red, and she grips Steph’s hand even tighter.
They stand there for a few minutes, in perfect silence, holding each other’s hands and hoping, but finally Steph looks at her read-out and says. “Okay. Fire’s gone.”
“Gas masks?” Cass says, already pulling hers out.
“Man, I miss my Spoiler Hood,” Steph complains, but follows suit.
The room is empty and full of nothing but ash.
“I’m not getting any readings,” Steph reports, and the two of them sigh in relief.
Which is, of course, when they start to hear shouts.
“They noticed,” Cass says.
“Whoops! Whoever gets off the ship fastest picks the movie tonight?”
“Whoever punches the most.” Cass says, even though she had never agreed to a movie night after patrol.
“That is a rigged contest and you know it,” Steph says, but she falls into position besides Cass, the two of them putting their fists up and getting ready for the fight they know is coming.
Chapter 8: You lost control to the mood, my friend
Fellas, is it gay to gush about how wonderful your best friend is while you're fighting crime and eating shaved ice? - Stephanie Brown
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
When Cass had said that there was trouble in Hong Kong, Steph hadn’t got it. She’s woman enough to admit it. She’d thought it was a smaller problem; a singular, small issue, like the Skyscraper, but now she sees why Cass needs to get into the skyscraper, why she needs to stop Hanson.
Joker Gas in Asia. Joker Gas in Cass’s city.
That’s a horrifying thought.
She supposes, on some level, it makes sense—Batman is going global, so why wouldn’t the bad guys? People always argue that villains escalate in response to heroes, even though Steph has never bought that.
Her childhood was proof enough of that. Her dad didn’t become a supervillain because of Bruce, her dad became a supervillain because he was a horrible person who saw a new and exciting way to take his douchebaggery onto the next level.
Superheroes helped, Steph believed this in every single fiber of her being.
But sometimes, it was easy to see the other argument.
The heroes got smart, the bad guys got smarter. The heroes fought, the bad guys fought harder. They were fighting an endless fight, and every innovation, every act of kindness, every ounce of good that they did, didn’t seem to do anything, sometimes. Superman had vanished for a year, Batman had died, Wonder Woman had killed a man on national television, and there was crisis after crisis, and so what if the big heroes came back when the smaller ones didn’t? Sure Superman and Batman were back, but that didn’t bring back people like Orpheus or Tim’s dad or all the people who had died in Bludhaven.
It was easy to look at things like that and come to the conclusion that heroes were the problem.
She knew the statistics though—she’d taken classes on this stuff. The world was a safer, happier place because of superheroes. They couldn’t solve everything, and the bad guys kept trying to rise up anyways, but superheroes helped. It wasn’t just naïve believe pulsing in Steph’s veins, it was truth and statistics and facts.
But dealing with the here and now, looking at these guys, who smuggled one of the most dangerous substances on the planet to a place that’s nowhere near equipped to deal with it, she can almost forget about that.
Joker Gas in Hong Kong.
No wonder Cass was stretched so thin she was willing to call for help. Cass calling for help. Steph had been willing to overlook it because, hey, she’d figured Cass wanted to see her, and she hadn’t taken the time to think about it critically after realizing that no, Cass still was upset with her about… something.
Cass had called for help because she needed help. Not even just for the skyscraper project—although Steph would be willing to bet money that Cass would never admit that, not even to herself—but Cass was stretched to the breaking point. Hong Kong was a huge city, far bigger than Gotham, and Cass was running this operation all on her own, without any form of backup, and, knowing Cass, not too much support from the locals. Cass hadn’t mentioned any contacts with the Hong Kong police department, and there was no sign of a Bat Signal, and she didn’t have anyone to call when they’d realized there’s Joker Gas on the ship, rather than conventional weapons.
Even Bruce hadn’t been isolated like this in years—there was always Alfred or Jim Gordon, and Dick and Barbara and all the others had started popping up quickly enough. Cass doesn’t have an Alfred. She had Xiao Yin and Cunxin and Ho Seng, but Steph can tell that none of them knew what Cass was up to. Cass is keeping the secret close to her chest, which would be admirable if it wasn’t for it being a clear sign of self-isolation.
Cass has been doing it all alone, and Steph knows how dangerous that is. She’d seen Bruce, sometimes, when he’d driven away all the others, angry and hurt and running himself ragged. (Despite herself, those memories are precious, because they’re some of the times when he’s kindest to her, and doesn’t tell her to go away.)
She’s seen Tim, not sleeping for days at a time, eyes red, rambling about anything and everything, and Babs, blaming herself for the state of the world, even though she had tried to do everything again.
She’s been there too, when she’d been cut off from the others and locked out of the cave.
Cass isn’t cut off though. She’s here alone by choice, and Steph is here to remind her that it doesn’t have to be like this. She’s here to show Cass that Steph—that Batman, Inc.—can help her, that she doesn’t have to do this alone. That she is a part of something bigger, and greater, and that even if it felt that way…
She isn’t alone. None of them are, not so long as they stood united in the Shadow of the Bat.
Steph hopes that Cass is realizing this now, as the two of them stand back to back, fists raised and shoulders back, ready for a brawl.
Steph really appreciates Cass as a fighter, sometimes. There’s nothing like being able to look at the large number of bad guys trying to get her and being able to go “oh right. Cass is here.”
If Steph could have an army at her side, or Cassandra Cain, she’d take Cassandra Cain any day of the week. Cass is far, far better than an army.
Steph has gotten better, and that’s a giddy realization, because while she’s not as good as Cass—she’ll never be as good as Cass, and Steph has long since come to terms with that, because it’s not about competing, it’s different strengths and also Cass is amazing, and there’s nothing wrong with accepting your own limitations—she’s clearly doing better. She’s keeping pace, taking out her own fair share of the bad guys. She and Cass fight back to back, using each other as springboards, and it’s invigorating, encouraging, delightful, because it’s like the old days, it’s like… it’s like that day on the roof, the two of them linking arms and moving in perfect sync.
Something strange and foreboding settles into Steph’s stomach at that. The night on the roof, in the rain, had been wonderful and perfect and good… until it wasn’t, and then Steph had been left wondering how on earth she had missed this, missed Cass being so angry and disillusioned that she would just leave; leave Gotham, leave Batgirl, leave Steph.
What is she missing this time?
Good things don’t last; Steph has known this for years. Dad reforming, Dad being in jail, Mom going sober, being Robin, kissing Tim on rooftops, being Cass’s best friend… they’re all wonderful, delicate things that Steph needs to savor and protect, because they all fall apart at the slightest of touches.
Mom is sober now, but Steph doesn’t know if she will ever stop checking the couch when she walks into their apartment, searching for the telltale signs of drugs, or her mother passed out there. Dad is in jail now, but she still checks the news twice a day to make sure he stays that way.
The rest is gone.
Steph clings to this moment as she kicks one of the bad guys in the throat. She clings to the feeling of complete and utter trust and understanding, of the way they move around and with each other, a strange and violent dance that’s hypnotizing and enthralling and wonderful in every way.
She loves it; it’s lightning in her veins, this level of coordination with Cass, the greatest fighter in the world, and she’s not the best, but she’s good enough to fight by her side, she’s good enough to be her partner, even if it’s only for these brief snatches of time, stolen from the rest of the world.
She’s good enough to be Cass’s successor, Steph reminds herself, bringing up her chin. No matter what Steph thought of herself, no matter what anyone else thought of her, Cass had thought that Steph was good enough.
That’s what matters.
She’s good enough for Cass. Who cares about the rest of the world?
And so, Steph beams at Cass across the crowded ship, and punches the nearest mook in the jaw.
She thinks she sees Cass smile back, too.
Eventually, they’re surrounded by unconscious or injured sailors and security guards, leaning against each other slightly, grinning and giddy from the adrenaline rush.
“Milkshakes?” Steph asks, hopefully.
“Nowhere near here,” Cass tells her, looking as sad as Steph feels at that news. Okay, so there are definite downsides to Hong Kong, even if it is a gorgeous city. Milk shakes are tradition. “Shaved ice?”
“I’ll take it.”
The two of them walk down the gang plank, still standing close to each other, shoulders brushing, hands almost touching.
“Cass…” Steph says, carefully, because right now, she’s brave from the high of the fight and emboldened by their synchronization.
She swallows. “Are you mad at me?”
Cass draws up to a halt. “What?”
“Are you mad at me? Did I do something wrong? You just… you didn’t want me here, and I want to know what I did wrong, so I can… I’m sorry for whatever it is, Cass, I miss you so much, and I just… I want things to be the way they were, I want us to be friends again. Please Cass, what did I do? How can I fix it?”
“There’s nothing to fix,” Cass says, harsh and short, and Steph feels small and tired and sad.
“Okay,” she says. “Right.” She squares her shoulders and forces a grin on her face. “So, shaved ice?”
There’s a Justice League themed shaved ice shop blocks away, and Cass must go there a fair bit, because there’s a framed photo of her on the wall. The owners are delighted to have Black Bat and Batgirl. Steph picks a Martian Manhunter Matcha shaved ice, while Cass goes for a Flash Family Mango and Strawberry. The owners insist on getting a photo of them both, eating their shaved ice and looking heroic, and then the two of them retreat after paying with cash that Cass carries in her utility belt.
They sit next to each other on a rooftop of a local bank, feet dangling over the edge, and Steph is too tired and hurt to make small talk, so she just eats her dessert in peace, staring at the Hong Kong skyline.
“Come on,” Cass says, after they both finish their shaved ice. “More crime.”
Steph nods, and the two of them jump down to street level, where they quickly find and put a stop to a mugging. The would-be-victim is a very pretty teenager who demands to take a selfie with Cass before she leaves, which is the funniest thing that Steph has ever seen.
“They love you here,” Steph says, smiling.
Cass looks at her, surprised.
“What? They do.”
“They… like superheroes,” Cass says. “You saw… the shop.”
“No Cass, they love you,” Steph corrects, grinning. Gotham had always been scared of Cass, intimidated by her silent aura, contrasting her with the more accessible heroes like Robin, but… it looks like Hong Kong has learned to appreciate her as she is, which Steph approves of whole heartedly.
Just then, a scream goes out through the night, and the two of them turn and run towards the sound.
They see a woman, bleeding from a gunshot wound, on the ground, with no sign of the shooter.
Cass kneels next to the woman, putting pressure on the wound and asking her questions in rapid-fire Cantonese that Steph can’t understand but can guess the content of from past experiences, while Steph runs down the alley, trying to see where the assailant went.
The alley ends in a dead end. Steph looks up, but unless the shooter just so happens to be a fellow Bat…
This is a trap.
Steph spins on her heels and runs back towards Cass and the woman and gets there just in time to see someone move into the alley from the street, raising a pistol.
Instinct takes over, and Steph throws herself forward, spreading out her cape as she moves, tackling Cass and the woman out of the way as best she can.
She feels the bullet pass through her shoulder, and she gasps in pain, the world going blurry in her vision.
She isn’t sure if she says it or if Cass does.
The last thing she sees before the world goes dark is Cass’s terrified expression as she crouches above her, her hand pressing against Steph’s shoulder.
“Oh, Stephanie. I—I’m so sorry.”
“For what? I screwed up. I paid the price. Simple.”
“Why does everyone I care about die?
“Because you care about everybody. And everybody dies.”
“What do I… do?”
“Do what you do best. What you taught me to do. Fight.”
Steph’s body slams against Cass’s, pushing her out of the way, and it’s like the entire world grinds to a halt.
Ambush. Cass is furious, and leaps to her feet, lunging towards Steph’s assailant with incandescent rage. It’s not deadly intent, but in anyone else it would be, because Steph’s screams are echoing in Cass’s ears, and almost nothing else matters.
Bruce had sent Steph to Hong Kong to keep her safe, and Cass’s heart is in her throat at the thought that she might have failed on that front.
It doesn’t take Cass more than a second to knock out the shooter—it isn’t hard, he’s not even good, how did he get the drop on them—before turning all of her attention back to Steph, sprawled out on the concrete.
It’s not that serious, she reassures herself, trying to not think about the blood, or the way that Steph’s unconscious, or the way that she screamed when she went down.
Cass has been shot enough times to know when an injury is non-fatal, and Steph’s is definitely non-fatal, but that doesn’t make it any less urgent to get Steph off the streets and to safety, and it doesn’t make Cass any less nervous, because Steph isn’t like her, Steph doesn’t just get shot—
She checks on the victim again, and yes, she’s fine, and she’s called the police, and Cass shouldn’t worry about her—
Cass presses a button on her utility belt, the one that summons the Black Bat Cycle, and keeps pressure against Steph’s shoulder, ignoring an incoming call from Babs, only focusing on Steph and the woman.
“Wake up!” Cass orders Steph, without much hope that it will work. Steph has never taken well to being bossed around. Then, lowly so the woman can’t hear her, she adds. “Please.”
Steph’s eyelids flutter and lets out a moan of pain. Good. That will have to be enough until they can get back to Cass’s place.
Cass rips off a piece of her cape, and, with some duct tape from her utility belt, fashions a crude bandage to stop Steph from bleeding out right away. She regrets leaving behind those bandages that Leslie and Jean Paul had sent with Steph—they would have been useful around now.
Cass hears sirens in the difference, and she quickly checks that Steph’s mask is in place. She’ll have to come back here later, she thinks vaguely, to clean up the blood, or to ask Babs to destroy any samples that anyone manages to take. Concealing her own secret identity is barely a passing thought, but she knows that Steph cares about that, much more than Cass ever did.
A police officer comes quickly, running down the alley, skidding to a halt as he looks at the scene in front of him.
Hong Kong isn’t used to heroes. They’re certainly not used to the sight of one bleeding heavily on an alley floor.
“蝙蝠!” The officer recovers admirably, Cass has to admit, as he straightens up and holsters his weapon. A lesser man might have stayed paralyzed. Or worse, called a newspaper to sell the story to the tabloids. Steph’s Batgirl outfit is fairly distinctive, even if Batgirl isn’t particularly well recognized outside of Gotham. But any superhero being injured—or killed—is newsworthy, no matter where they are in the world. “Is this the attacker?”
“Yes,” Cass grinds out “A woman is hurt!” She points to the original victim, pointedly not addressing the fact that there’s a superhero bleeding out in her arms. “Is there an ambulance?”
Cass is just grateful that she wasn’t panicking too badly to forget how to speak Cantonese—most of the officers speak English, but she tries to speak in Cantonese with them most of the time. None of them have connected her to Batgirl from Gotham, and it’s for the best that it stays that way. It’s safer for Bruce’s secret, that way.
The police officer nods and moves to arrest the shooter and help the woman into the ambulance, which has indeed just arrived. The moment their back is turned, Cass sighs in release as the perimeter alarm on her belt pings to let her know that rescue is almost here.
Cass’s bike to comes shooting down the alley, much to the shouted shock of the police officers and ambulance attendants who probably thought they were narrowly avoided. They wouldn’t realize just how carefully Babs programs the autopilots—designing it exactly so that it never hit anyone, in order to ensure as quick of a getaway as possible, without needing to deal with apologies or car chases.
Cass picks up Steph, cradling her against her chest, and really wishes she’d taken Bruce up on his offer of a car when he’d been helping her get set up in the city, because then she could just put Steph in the back seat and drive, but instead she has to use a length of grappling wire to tie Steph to her, because Steph’s not nearly awake enough to hold on.
She thinks about propping Steph up in front of her, but that seems like a bad idea because she’s so much taller than Cass, so instead she has to drape Steph against her back, hoping that her makeshift bandage holds until they get back to her apartment.
Cass has never driven so fast in her life, barely remembering to drive to the warehouse where the bike entrance to her place is, because she’s so nervous. The last time Steph had been hurt…
It doesn’t even bear thinking about.
“Why?” She asks Steph, who’s head is pressed against her shoulder blade. She’s managed to wake up enough to put her arms around Cass’s waist, providing some semblance of balance to the ride, making it safe enough for Cass to go even faster. But even so, she doesn’t expect an answer—she doesn’t even expect Steph to hear her, not with the winds blowing against them, at the speeds they’re going.
“’m Batgirl,” Steph mutters, her words slurred enough to give Cass concern about a concussion. “It’s what you’d do.”
Cass wants to scream in frustration, in rage, in something, because of all the things about her Steph tries to emulate, that’s what she picks?
Bruce has carefully set up her living situation in Hong Kong—the warehouse is a block away from the apartment building, and, just to be safe, he’d bought every building in a three block radius to make sure that no one noticed the construction of a tunnel from the warehouse to the apartment building, nor the building of a secret elevator from the basement of her building to the penthouse suite.
Cass has never been more grateful for Bruce’s paranoia than now, because it means that their progress is completely hidden. It’s bad enough there will be rumors flying and probably some headlines about Gotham’s Batgirl being killed in Hong Kong, but at least she can be sure that no one is following them to take advantage of Cass’s distraction.
Once they get into the elevator, she undoes the wires tying them together and moves Steph to the floor.
“’m okay, Cass,” Steph slurs, seeming more awake now, struggling slightly to try and help Cass maneuver her in a way that she can be lying down but not resting her weight against her injured shoulder. “Just—hit my head.”
She does have a bruise on her forehead, Cass notices. She wonders how she missed that, even with all the blood. She curses herself out for being so distracted. Being distracted was how the shooter got the drop on her in the first place. If she’d just been more careful, Steph wouldn’t have been shot, because Cass would have taken care of things before Steph had even noticed anything was wrong.
“Right,” she says softly, but she keeps holding onto Steph anyways, pulling her head into her lap to elevate her enough that the shoulder is pressed against the floor. Steph doesn’t protest, just closes her eyes and holds onto Cass’s hand.
Unthinkingly, Cass runs the fingers of her other hand, the one not being gripped by Steph, through Steph’s long, tangled hair. Steph exhales, long, and slow, and relaxed, and Cass can finally allow herself to acknowledge that Steph isn’t in danger. It’s going to be fine.
The elevator dings, letting Cass know that they’re in her apartment. She scoops Steph up into her arms again, ignoring Steph’s protests that she can walk, Cass, honestly, and carries her through the cave, down the ladder, and into Cass’s gym.
By the time they’re in the apartment proper, Steph is coherent enough to argue against accepting any of Cass’s never-opened package of painkillers. “I’m fine,” she insists, batting away the container that Cass keeps trying to shove into her hands after Cass has her settled down on one of her never-used kitchen chairs.
“Hole! In! You!” Cass snaps, poking Steph’s bad shoulder with a little more force than she probably should. Steph winces, but manages not to shout, which Cass can tell is quite an accomplishment. It’s either a testament to Steph’s tolerance for pain or her pure stubbornness, and honestly, Cass isn’t sure which.
“So you take painkillers every time you’re shot?” Steph has pulled off her cowl and detached her cape, leaving her just wearing her armored body suit, which probably is the only reason the injury isn’t as bad as it could be. It’s thicker armor than Cass’s, but only because Cass has refused heavier armor every time Babs or Bruce tries to give it to her. She thinks it’s thicker than Tim’s, even, and wonders if Babs too, harbors some leftover fears about Steph’s mortality.
Cass pauses, guilty. “You’re not me,” she points out, but it’s a weak argument, and she knows it. Steph manages a triumphant smile, which probably means she’s feeling better. Cass is too relieved to see Steph smile to even be annoyed about losing the argument.
Steph rolls her eyes. “Just stich me up and I’ll be fine. I can do it if you don’t want to.”
“You can’t reach it,” Cass says bluntly, going to fetch her supplies.
Steph walks into the kitchen to grab a chunk of ice from the fridge, pressing it against her forehead, while Cass tries to remember what she’s supposed to do differently when she stitches someone else up instead of herself as she climbs up the ladder to go to her Cave.
Cass rarely gets injured these days, so it takes her longer than it should to locate the medical supplies that had come stocked with the Cave. Bruce is thorough—there’s easily everything she needs, and she guiltily spots a portable First Aid Kit that’s meant to be installed in her utility belt, which she has never thought to add.
She tries very hard not to think about the War Games as she glances down at her hands and sees them covered in Steph’s blood.
Steph is sitting on her kitchen table when she comes back from her Cave, shirtless and lying down on her stomach, resting her head on her folded arms, and if Cass wasn’t distressed by the blood soaking through the makeshift bandage, she’d probably be speechless.
Instead, she gets up on the table with Steph, and gets to work.
“You don’t need to protect me,” Cass says, using the tweezers to get the bullet out. It’s just above the strap of Steph’s black sports bra, and she thinks about all the vital organs it could have hit instead. “I could have taken it.”
The bullet would have stopped in Cass. The woman was in no danger. And Cass can take a hit better than… anyone. Except maybe aliens. But they don’t count. They cheat.
“I can take it too,” Steph says, hissing through her clenched teeth as Cass drops the bullet into one of a water glass. Alfred would probably disapprove of her using the nice glasses he bought her for this purpose, but Cass doesn’t have anything else, except the china plates, which Alfred probably would have disapproved of just as much. “We’re a team. I wasn’t going to just let you get shot.”
Cass pauses, reading things into the words as she cleans the wound with alcohol that came with the kit. She’d have thought Steph would be over this by now—she was Batgirl, after all. Surely, she was done proving herself to the world? She had… she had everything. Everything that Cass no longer had. “You have nothing to prove,” she says, disapproving.
“Yes,” Steph says quietly but firmly. “I do.”
Cass thinks about a grave and a coffin and a funeral, but she bites her tongue and starts sewing instead of saying anything that she might regret later. Steph hisses in pain, but doesn’t thrash about or even wince, letting Cass stitch her up without complaint.
It’s a good reminder, that Steph is used to this too, used to patching up herself, with whatever she could steal from her mother or pull together, without having Alfred or Leslie around to patch her up all the time. Locked out of the cave, Steph had always been forced to be creative when it came to her injuries.
Cass had forgotten that Steph understood that. None of her brothers did, not really. Even when they were away from the Cave and Gotham, it was by choice or to be with their teams.
But Cass had grown up alone, stitching herself up like she’d learned from watching her father. And Stephanie Brown hadn’t had the luxury of a Cave or Alfred’s brusque but gentle care, not for a long time.
When Cass is done reminiscing and places a bandage over the stitches, Steph tugs on a shirt—it’s Cass’s shirt, one that Cass must have left in the living room, because there’s no way Steph wouldn’t have just gone into her room and grabbed one, if she was going down the hallway. Once it’s on—Steph winces as it falls into place over her fresh injury, she sits up to look at Cass.
“Why?” Cass demands again, now that her hands are free, now that Steph can look at her, now that the danger has passed. Her hands and her table and her costume are stained with Stephanie’s blood, but as long as Steph is upright and looking at her, Cass won’t picture the body in Leslie’s clinic.
Steph leans forward earnestly, her eyes wide, her hands resting on her knees. “I have… Cass, I have so much to prove.” She waves her hands in the air. “I’ve been trying to be as good as you thought I could be! You thought I could be Batgirl, you gave it to me, and I’ve spent the last year trying to prove you right to everyone: none of them thought I should be Batgirl, but you did, and so I’ve been trying so hard to live up to your legacy—”
Cass’s mouth falls open in shock and horror. Her hands are covered in her best friend’s blood, and it knocks the words out of her without her agreement.
The others didn’t… they didn’t want Steph to replace her? They didn’t want Steph to be Batgirl? None of them?
Cass had assumed… she had thought…
She had thought the others would have been fine with it—supported it, even. Cass had always been the odd one out in the family, an awkward placement in the legacy. Surely everyone had seen what Cass had seen, that Steph was the natural fit for Babs’ legacy, not Cass? Surely everyone had believed that Cass had given Steph her blessing and…
But they hadn’t.
Cass doesn’t know what to make of this.
“I didn’t,” Cass says, numb. She’s rattled, down to her core, and she doesn’t know how to handle this, any of this. Steph threw herself between Cass and a bullet… because she’s trying to prove herself to Cass?
“What?” Steph’s voice is small and vulnerable. Cass can’t even look at her, because it’s like the dam has broken inside of her, and the truth pours out.
A truth that Cass has been living with for a year now, a truth she’s been holding close to her chest, hidden even from Babs and Tim and Alfred and—everyone.
“I didn’t think that. Bruce told me to give it to you.”
She forces herself to look at Steph’s face as she says that. She should feel… something, Cass thinks. Triumphant. Relieved. Something. She’s finally said it, finally cleared the air, but nothing feels better, and instead, she just feels sick to her stomach as she looks on at Steph.
Blank, horrified, shock looks back at her. Steph looks… lost. In all their years of friendship, Cass has never seen her looking like this, not even at her lowest.
She’s not even angry, Cass realizes. Even when she’d been hurt by something Bruce or Tim or Cass herself had done, there’d been a thin layer of anger, simmering under the surface, a rage that rarely boiled over but was always there. But now, it’s absent, and the absence is perhaps the most horrifying thing of all.
Steph looks like the ground has fallen out from under her, and that she hadn’t remotely see it coming.
“Oh,” Steph whispers, paler than she’d even been when she’d been shot. “I—I see.” Tears well up in her eyes, but they don’t spill over.
Cass looks away again, her eyes damp with her own tears, because Batgirl was hers, damn it, and Bruce had taken it away, taken Gotham and her family and even Steph away, and made Cass give it to Steph and it wasn’t fair—
When she looks back, Steph has made a run for it, slamming the door of the gym behind her.
蝙蝠 is the Cantonese word for “Bat,” not “Black Bat.” Cass hasn’t quite picked up on it yet, but the idea is that, to Hong Kong, she’s not some variant of the Bat, she’s the Bat, and they are, as Steph suspected in last chapter, very proud of her.
The dialogue snippits at the beginning of the chapter are from Cass’s hallucinations of Steph during the period when Cass thought Steph was dead. They’re honestly some really touching panels, and I couldn’t resist referencing them here, because the specter of Steph’s death is (at least, I was trying to convey it was) hovering over Cass during this chapter in a lot of ways.
And hey! The secret’s out! Fun fact: Steph’s little speech and Cass’s reaction to it was the first thing I wrote for this fic, and the only part of it I wrote before NaNoWriMo even begun.
Hope you guys enjoyed this chapter! If you did, please take a moment to drop me a line here or on Tumblr, where I’m @secretlystephaniebrown! <3
Chapter 10: you can't know beauty if you don't know pain
In which Crystal Brown is the Best.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Steph shouldn’t go far, not with her recent injury and only wearing the bottom half of her body suit and a stolen t-shirt, but her desire to get out overcomes any trace of her common sense or urge to protect her secret identity, and after kicking a training dummy out of her way, she scrambles up the ladder in the gym, up into Cass’s cave, and then up again, onto the roof.
She gasps at the Hong Kong air, hoping to find comfort, but even the smog tastes wrong—is smog supposed to have a taste? It’s different than Gotham, that’s all she knows. Gotham’s air tastes awful, but it’s home, and Hong Kong’s also-horrible but different air is just serving as another reminder that Steph is somewhere far from home, and has nowhere to go except back down, to Cass, and her own empty, boundless sense of hurt.
She can’t settle down, she can’t breathe, her stomach is twisting up in knots upon knots, and she wants to double over in pain. She wants to run across rooftops, she wants to play piano until her fingers bleed, she wants to scream, she wants to cry, she wants to throw something, she wants to hit something.
She wants to wake up and find herself on the flight to Hong Kong, safe in the knowledge that Cassandra Cain is waiting for her at the end of the flight and wants to see her.
But she can’t go back there, can’t turn back the clock, can’t avoid the horrible, undeniable, truth of this whole matter.
Cass hadn’t given her Batgirl.
Everything that Steph has used to reassure herself for the past year is gone, because none of it is true. Steph wasn’t living up to Cass’s wishes, she wasn’t proving herself to anyone except herself, she’s been just as selfish and reckless and impulsive and stupid as Babs had accused her of being when she’d first started being Batgirl. Steph wasn’t honoring Cass, she was robbing her of everything she’d held dear.
She had stabbed her best friend in the entire world in the back, again. But this was even worse than having been alive and in Africa, because that, at least, was Leslie, but this? Steph was the one wearing the Batgirl outfit, was the one who had picked up the outfit that Cass had left behind, and put it on again, not stopping to consider that Cass would never throw aside something as precious to her as that.
She was so stupid! How could she ever have believed it?
Was it some form of wishful thinking, imagining that she could ever have been good enough for it? That Cass could ever have thought enough of her to turn over the cowl and the costume and the fight to someone like Stephanie Brown, who had nearly destroyed Gotham City in her last desperate attempt to prove herself?
Bruce had made Steph an accomplice in this; stealing Cass’s identity, her place in the world, and Steph had been arrogant enough to think that Cass had—that Cass would ever have thought that Steph was worthy of Batgirl.
Babs was right—she should never have put on the costume. She should have just…
She doesn’t even know what she should have done. Left the costume on the rooftop? Would Cass have stayed then? Or would she still have gotten on that plane, still told Steph not to follow her, still gone to Hong Kong, still ignored Steph’s emails for a year? Would Steph still have deserved it, because Bruce Wayne had used her as a pawn in whatever game he was playing, and used her in a move against Cass?
None of that is a comforting thought, so she paces back and forth, trying to sort things out in her mind, trying to calm down, just trying to breathe.
But the next topic she comes to is only just as upsetting.
Because why hadn’t Cass told her?
If Cass had just—they could have figured it out! They were a team, they could have talked about it. Steph would never have taken up the mantle if she’d known it was stolen, not given. Babs had denied her right to the costume, but Steph had stood firm, because Babs had given it to Cass, and thus it was Cass’s to give away in turn. Cass had chosen her successor, just like Babs had chosen Cass as hers, and she’d always respect that Babs had started the tradition, she—
But none of that was true.
Steph is a cuckoo in the bat cave; placed there by someone else, there to harm those who belonged there, to be a parasite that destroys the hard work of others.
She’d thought she belonged, but it was yet another joke in Bruce Wayne’s grand schemes and plans.
She’s crying—when had she started crying? Why is she feeling betrayed—she’s not the one who was betrayed, she’s not the one who was screwed over by Bruce and his strange need to meddle and interfere in everything.
And he’d made Steph part of it too. He’d made Steph the reason that Cass had felt like she’d had to leave Gotham.
No wonder Cass has been ignoring her emails. No wonder Cass hadn’t wanted Steph in her city. No wonder…
Steph is just amazed that Cass hadn’t punched her in the face after seeing her at the airport. She’d have deserved it—she deserves everything, for even thinking that Cass would want to see her, for forcing her presence on Cass when Cass was clearly uncomfortable with her. Cass has barely been able to look at her, been awkward and unsettled and stressed about her presence, and Steph had been too selfish, too caught up in her own joy at being near Cass again to even notice.
She needs to—she should get on the next plane to Gotham, she needs to get out of Cass’s hair, she needs to throw her goddamn costume and the Compact and all of her fancy batarangs in Bruce’s face, she—
She needs to stop crying on a rooftop in Hong Kong, because her phone is ringing, and that’s her mother’s ring tone, and shit, shit, she can’t let her mother know she’s been crying because she’s just had her heart broken by the most wonderful girl in existence without Steph ever having to admit to being attracted to her.
All she’d had to do was try to tell Cass how much Cass had inspired her as a hero, only to cause her entire world to come crashing down around her ears.
She desperately wipes at her face, inhales sharply to make sure her nose isn’t running, and then fumbles with her phone.
“Hey Mom!” Steph has a great phone voice, always has, but it’s never been put up to the test like this before. Crystal Brown has always been good at telling when something was off with her daughter, even if she’s not always been the best at putting things together and figuring out what? But she’s been getting better, lately, now that she knows about Steph being Batgirl, which kind of sucks, but on the other hand, it’s another reminder that Mom is clean and present and, most importantly, involved in her life, so Steph wouldn’t trade it for anything.
Even if it is kind of inconvenient at this moment, when Steph has so much to hide.
She sits down, her back against the safety rail of the rooftop, her eyes sinking closed to try to pretend she’s home and safe and not upset.
“Barbara called me and said your suit gave her an alert? Are you hurt?”
… honestly, Steph had kind of forgotten about that; that Babs had built in a thousand different sensors into her suit, to make sure she was okay. And that Babs would totally tell on her to her mom as revenge for Steph not calling Babs immediately.
“Oh, it wasn’t anything big, Mom, don’t worry about it,” Steph says, carefully angling herself against the wall so the bricks aren’t digging into her bullet wound.
“Stephanie Crystal Brown,” Crystal says sternly.
“I’ve had worse?” Steph says, wincing at the use of her middle name.
Steph flinches, because yeah, okay, that was probably in bad taste. She really needs to refine her deflection away from “I got tortured to the point of near-death and you thought I was dead for a while” jokes. “I’m fine, Mom. Really.” She offers a smile, even though she knows her mom can’t see it. “I promise.”
Crystal lets out a long-suffering sigh. “I… when are you coming home?”
“Mom,” Steph says. “I’ve barely been gone two days.” It does not feel like it, but this is only her second night in Hong Kong.
It might actually be a new record for her in terms of fastest fuck up! It took her a whole three months to get fired as Robin!
Okay, even she’s wincing at that one, and she didn’t even say it out loud.
“… and you’re already hurt.”
You have no idea.
“It’s nothing big, Mom. Babs is just mad because I haven’t called her yet. She probably wants a group call with me and Cass,” Steph lies, because what’s the use of years of hiding her secret identity from her own mother if not to hide the fact that she’s currently having a breakdown in a rooftop?
Crystal sighs again. “How’s Cassandra?”
“She’s good. She’s… different.”
“It’s fine, Mom.”
“She left you,” Crystal says. “You were pretending, but I know that hurt you, Steph. You missed her, and she didn’t even call.”
Steph swallows, because of all the things for her mother to notice.
“I—she’d just lost her dad, Mom,” and he’d just told her to literally give up her first name and identity and give it to me. “Things were complicated.”
“It’s not so simple,” Steph says, drawing her knees up to her chest. “Mom it’s—Bat stuff. You know.”
“So, have you talked about it?”
No, because Steph is a coward who’d ran for the literal rooftops when they’d finally started talking.
“We’re working on it,” she lies.
She can picture her mom running her hands through her hair and sitting down. “Steph… baby, I don’t want you to get hurt again.”
“I mean, I’m in the wrong business for that,” Steph says, wincing as she realizes that yeah, she’s really got to tone down on the morbid humor with her mother.
“Not like that,” Crystal says. “But like… that Tim boy. I thought, after you and Kara—”
“I never dated Kara!” Steph blurts out, flushing brightly. It was one kiss. And then they’d immediately agreed that they were better off as friends. And she’d never told her mother about it, that’s for sure.
… wait, but she had come out to her mother as bisexual a few days after introducing her mother to Kara.
Steph might have miscalculated this.
Her mother’s quiet skepticism is coming through the phone.
“And I’m not—Cass and I—she’s straight!” Steph adds, flushing and wondering if she goes back and finds the guy who shot her if he’ll finish the job so she never has to deal with her emotions ever again.
She mentally makes a note to never say that alone, because she doesn’t think Mom or Cass would find that funny—presuming Cass will ever talk to her again.
Which seems to be a pretty large assumption, given Steph’s current situation.
Crystal sighs again. “I just want you to be happy, Steph,” she says.
Steph flinches. “I am happy, Mom. Sunshine and rainbows and smiles! I’ve got a positive attitude!”
Her mom chuckles softly. “Steph… are you sure you’re okay?”
“I’m fine, really. I’ll be out on patrol tomorrow night and everything.” Well, presuming she doesn’t get right back on a plane to Gotham because Cass has decided she never wants to see Steph again, which would be totally fair, even if it would also be one of the worst things to ever happen to her.
But she’s not about to tell Mom about that. Not yet. She’s not ready for it.
“Alright baby, I’ll let you go to sleep now. I love you.”
“You don’t believe me!” Steph says, slightly unsettled at how easily her mom could read her. She pauses, and then whispers, “Love you too, Mom.”
She has a rule about that. Every phone call with Mom has to end like that, because Steph’s life sucks, and she never knows if she’s going to get shot at a diner or if Dad’s going to come back, or… anything.
Ever since Africa, she’s been very careful about that.
She ends the call and considers sending Bruce Wayne a lot of angry emojis to express herself and her opinions about his life choices.
She decides against it, but only because she thinks buying one of those extra-large plush poop emojis she’s seen in stores and throwing it at Bruce’s face would be a lot more emotionally satisfying.
She makes a memo on her phone to remind herself to buy one, and then realizes she’s made herself thirsty by crying. The night air is cold as well, and while the Batgirl suit is insulated, Cass’s shirt most definitely is not.
She has to go inside and face the music…
But boy, does she not want to. She’d so much rather stay out here forever and be miserable and cold and thirsty and aching. She’d so much rather do anything than have to go back inside and beg for Cass’s forgiveness.
She feels empty and exhausted, like a shrunken down balloon. Her emotions are faded and all she can feel now is tired.
She reaches up to her chest, to finger the Bat Symbol there, to reassure herself, but she realizes she’s still wearing Cass’s cotton gym shirt, and she stares down at it, feeling even worse.
Because she knows now the Bat was never hers to claim. It’s Cass’s—it’s always Cass’s, just like Robin was always Tim’s. It was never meant for Stephanie Brown.
Stephanie Brown isn’t meant for a legacy. She’s not meant for the symbol. She started off as a kid painting cryptic clues on the side of buildings, and maybe she should never have gone bigger, because she’s left so much hurt in her wake.
She’ll go back to Spoiler after this, she promises herself, even though her heart aches at the thought of going back, of leaving behind everything she’s managed to build.
Because it’s Cass’s. Steph was only ever a second-rate substitute, and the whole world knew it.
She forces herself to her feet, her mouth dry and her nose running and just wanting to sleep for a lifetime, until she wakes up and she doesn’t have to deal with any of this ever again.
She creeps down into the Cave, and sighs in relief when she realizes that Cass isn’t there.
She’s not in the gym either, so Steph creeps past the closed door to the ballet studio like the coward she is and, after a moment of consideration for her brand-new bullet wound, goes straight to her room, fully intending to crawl into bed without even showering, because she doesn’t have the energy to deal with it right now.
But Cass is sitting on her bed, staring at the present that Steph had brought for her, all the way from Gotham. Steph had taken it out, almost giving into her nostalgic impulse when she was fetching the care package, but had decided against it, unsure of herself and her choices. But Cass has found it anyways, and now Steph hates herself even more, and wishes to spontaneously sink into the floor.
“You… you kept it,” Cass says, her voice soft and reverent.
On her lap is Cass’s Batgirl costume, each rip and tear carefully, lovingly mended.
Steph can’t sew well, or at least, she couldn’t sew well, but she’d taken it up just for this. It had taken her months, breaking into Cass’s old hide outs around Gotham to find the right materials, practicing over and over again before she’d even dared to take a needle to the precious fabric, but in the end, she was proud of the result.
Babs always says that the cases in the Batcave are only for certain kinds of changes, but…
Cass deserves to have the choice of what to do with it anyways.
Steph shifts, twisting her hands in front of her for want of anything else to do with them. “I—it got pretty beat up when I was fighting Scarecrow, so it’s—I had to fix it, but I thought—”
Cass looks up at her, and Cass’s eyes are wet with tears. “You kept it,” she repeats, hoarse.
Steph swallows down the lump in her throat. “Of course, I did.” She sits down next to Cass. “I thought—I thought you’d come back one day. I thought you’d—even if you didn’t want it back, I thought you’d want to remember.”
Cass’s fingertips lovingly trace the Batgirl symbol on the chest. Staring at her, Steph wonders how she could have ever believed that Cass would give it up so easily. Had Cass been good at pretending, or had Steph just been blind? “It was his message for me. When he died. To give you Batgirl.”
Steph’s breath leaves her body.
Rarely in her entire life has she been so furious at Bruce Wayne, and considering her track record with the man, that’s saying something.
How dare he just—he’d died, and she was mourning him, and he—how could he—why would he?
“Cass—” The name comes out broken, and she stares at Cass, who only has eyes for the Batgirl costume in her lap.
“Wasn’t fair on you. Not your fault. But it’s—I can’t—looking at you—”
Was horrible. Of course it was. It must be like watching Steph make a mockery of her, of everything Cass believes, of everything she built. Cassandra Cain, the greatest fighter alive, replaced by Stephanie Brown, who wasn’t even good enough to be Robin, whose only claim to fame is faking her own death after being tortured and nearly breaking Gotham in the process.
It’s a wonder that Cass has managed to make eye contact with her the whole time she’s been in the city
Steph ducks her head, miserably trying to sink into the mattress, away from her shame, away from the fact that she’s the reason that Cass is so miserable and hurt. “No, I—that’s fair. I deserve that.”
Of all the times and ways for Bruce Wayne to show his support for her and belief in her, why did it have to be one that broke her friendship with Cass so badly? Why couldn’t he have ever just been there when she needed him, or even just let her stick around? Why did everything that man did have to be large and over the top and ridiculous?
And why did he have to drag Cass and Steph’s friendship with her into it? It was one of the few unadulterated good things that Steph had ever been allowed in her life, and he had taken advantage of that, twisting it, ruining it like this.
“You don’t,” Cass says, sounding frustrated. “But it’s still… hard.”
Steph swallows again, still not looking at Cass. She shifts her weight from foot to foot, trying to figure out how to say the words she knows she has to say. “I—I didn’t bring my Spoiler costume with me here. But once this mission is over—”
Cass startles, dropping the Batgirl costume onto the floor. “You’d—what?”
“I’ll stop being Batgirl,” Steph says, blinking as she finally looks up at Cass. “Cass, I—I only was Batgirl because you wanted me to—or, well, I thought.”
“But you—you love it.”
She does—oh, she does.
Being Batgirl is wonderful, it’s given Steph all the things she’s ever wanted—a place in the Family, in Gotham. Working with Babs, teasing Damian on the Moon Bounce, helping Wendy figure out her own place, the way that the little girl, Nell, looks up at her with adoration that could never be reserved for Spoiler, teaming up with Kara and Cassie and Courtney and all the others, travelling as part of Batman, Inc…. She’s good at it, and she’s never had the chance to do so much good, to meet so many people, but…
“It’s not worth it,” Steph says, confused why Cass needs her to spell it out, because it’s the most obvious thing in the world. “Cass, if it’s hurting you, it’s not worth it.”
Cass gapes at her, eyes wide, mouth open, staring at Steph as if she’s… not an alien, they’re pretty used to those by now, but something actually strange and inexplainable. Something that Cass has never seen before and has absolutely no context for.
“You’d… give it up?” Cass says, still disbelieving. Steph flushes, because what must Cass think of her, if she thinks that Steph would cling to Batgirl when Cass, to whom it means more than it ever could for Steph, wants it so desperately?
“Of course I would,” Steph says. “Cass you’re—you’re my best friend, and yeah, being Batgirl is great and all, but you’re so much more important than a stupid costume. I missed you so much, and I wasn’t sure what it is that I did wrong, I wasn’t sure why you weren’t talking to me, but I know now, and I’m so, so sorry that I—”
She’s cut off as Cass wraps her arms around her and squeezes so tightly Steph almost forgets how to breathe.
Slowly, gradually, almost unable to believe that this is real, Steph forces herself to relax and hugs back.
Cass lets out a small sob, burying her face in Steph’s hair. “I missed you too,” Cass whispers, and, just like that, Steph feels her anxiety start to ebb away, replaced by the giddiness that is this unspoken, impossible, and undeserved forgiveness.
Cass has never needed words to change the world, to make her point. And here she is, casually doing it again.
The two of them stay there for a long, long time, wrapped in a tight embrace, neither of them sure where things are going next, just luxuriating in each other’s touch, in the friendship that was nearly lost forever.
But… for the first time in a long time, Steph isn’t worried, because Cass has once again proven herself to be the most amazing person in the universe and managed to forgive Steph.
Whatever comes next, Steph has her best friend back.
And there’s absolutely nothing that the two of them can’t handle.
And this is the end of Part 1! Hope you guys enjoyed the ride!
Chapter 11: Every first kiss, every crisis, every heartbreak and every act of kindness
In the early morning, Cass contemplates the aftermath.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Cass… doesn’t know what to do now.
She feels wrung out and empty, tired in a way she associates with grief. But there’s nothing to grieve.
The opposite, really.
Steph is… willing to give it all up for her.
To give up Batgirl for her.
Steph isn’t saying it, but Cass knows what that means… how much it means. She knows what it means to Steph, to be Batgirl, to be a part of… something.
Stephanie Brown has never felt like she belonged. Cass has known this for a long time. Steph has spent her entire life scrapping and searching, seeking out some sense of self, some place to be hers, that no one can ever take away from her on a whim, or because of something small that she can’t help.
Batgirl had been that, for Steph. It had given her the tools she had needed to succeed, succeed in a way that even Cass had never realized she could. Last night had proven that. Steph, understanding people, getting a guard to look the other way, using her own skills to solve a problem that Cass couldn’t have dealt with on her own.
Steph isn’t the same as Cass. She’s good in her own way, different than Cass. She doesn’t fight like Cass, she fights like herself. She’s made it hers, the way Cass had, pouring her heart and soul into the role, and creating something unique and wonderful and Steph.
And she’s still willing to give it all up, just because she knows how much it means to Cass.
Cass is overwhelmed and baffled by the gesture, touched and enthralled, unsure of what to even say in response to that, let alone what to do.
Completely understandably, Steph is also blaming herself for everything, but Cass will deal with that later. Steph’s tendency for self-flagellation is secondary only to her refusal to admit that anything is wrong. But Cass will talk to her about it later. She’ll get Steph to believe that Cass doesn’t blame her, because Cass knows, deep down, that she couldn’t expect Steph to do anything different. Stephanie Brown is many things, but a mind reader isn’t one of them.
But… that is a conversation for afterwards.
After, for example, she deals with the fact that she fell asleep in Steph’s bed after their exhausting conversation last night, and has now woken up with Steph clinging to her like… an octopus? Maybe a koala. Cass’s trip to the zoo with Dick had been rather confusing and had given Cass some very strange grounds for understanding animal metaphors.
Cass stares at Steph, who’s curled up on the bed, still fast asleep, her face pressed against Cass’s shoulder, her body curved inwards. There’s a gap between them, where the curves of their bodies aren’t quite touching, but their feet are resting right next to each other, almost tangled together.
Steph looks… nice, like this. She’s still wearing Cass’s stolen shirt, and Cass isn’t sure why she thinks that’s as nice as it is, because Steph has much nicer shirts. Steph’s hair is scattered all over the pillows, golden in the early morning light, and Cass wants to reach out and touch it, to play with it and to feel Steph relax as she does so…
Cass should get up. She should go back to her own room, her own bed. She should shower, she should dance, she should spar with training dummies or call Babs like she’d promised she would.
But she doesn’t want to do any of those things, so she just inhales, smelling Steph’s shampoo, which smells like lilacs, and closes her eyes.
It’s a strange, wonderful moment, and Cass wants to hold it in her hands and preserve it forever. She wants to stay here forever, listening to Steph’s soft breathing, watching the sunrise fall across Steph’s face though her eyelashes, and the feeling of Steph’s scarred arms beneath her fingers.
Eventually, the need for food and the bathroom force Cass up, but she gets up carefully, not willing to shatter the sense of calm and peace surrounding Steph.
The apartment feels different than it did last night, or any other time. It feels… light and gentle, even with the glass with the bullet still on the table, even with the torn and bloody Batgirl costume draped over a chair.
There’s a sense of quiet, from being awake before someone else is, and Cass doesn’t even know why it makes her feel so content, but it’s inexplicable and wonderful.
She showers and makes her cup of Assam tea, because she needs the reminder today, grounding herself in a world that’s sometimes cruel but often kind, just like Brenda taught her. She inhales the scent of the tea, and wonders if Steph and Brenda would have gotten along.
It’s not fair, that she had to lose Steph to find Brenda, and she only found Steph when she lost Brenda.
She sips her tea, moving to her laptop to make sure she hasn’t missed anything important while she was sleeping, even though what she really wants is to go back to Steph’s room, to climb back into Steph’s bed, and bury her face in Steph’s hair.
But she shouldn’t, because now that she’s awake, sitting on her couch in the morning light, Cass knows that she shouldn’t cross those boundaries.
Unable to stop herself, she barely glances at the worried inquiries from Babs, and opens her old email again.
Biting her lip, she opens the most recent email, from Steph’s old email.
See you soon!
Cass can’t help but smile at that. She wonders now, what exactly Bruce told her.
Gathering up her courage, she moves to the older emails, from the beginning. The ones she’d thought she deleted, but were still, inexplicably, there in her inbox.
I hope your flight was okay—I guess I don’t know how you like flying commercial, we’ve never really talked about it. Have you ever flown commercial before? I bet you do most of your flying on BatPlanes and things like that. I hate it, honestly, and I can’t imagine you like it, but I hope it was good anyways. Did you watch a movie? I hope you watched a good one. Did you fly First Class? Or did you fly Economy like the rest of us plebeians?
Sorry I’m rambling. I’m not very good at this emails thing, am I?
Well, it doesn’t matter. You might be leaving Gotham, but you’re not getting rid of me so easily! Pen Pal, Stephanie Brown, ready for action!
I’m sorry about Bruce. I don’t know if I ever remembered to say that. But I’m sorry. I miss him too.
I brought your costume home… it’s here if you want it. You’ll be back soon, right?
Okay, it’s been a week, and you still aren’t back, so you’re probably off having some sort of great adventure without internet access. I hope you kick so many butts you lose count! Are there ninjas? Your adventures seem like they’d have ninjas. Maybe you’re mixing it up though and fighting pirates instead! Have you ever fought a pirate?
I miss you a lot—Gotham feels like a completely different city without you or Tim or Bruce. Dick Grayson’s Batman now, and the new kid is Robin and God knows they haven’t bothered to come by and talking to me. Although I’ve been… pretty good about not going out as Spoiler so that’s probably why. But it feels like a weird new city. I feel completely out of place, now.
I lost contact with most of my old friends when I “died”. All of them, really. But hey, it’s okay! I have you!
I know Mom wants me to be normal, but I just… don’t know if I have that in me. I keep breaking my promise to her, keep slipping out at nights…
Life would probably be better for everyone if I stopped though, right?
Except for the part where I help people.
Okay, here’s the confession part.
I tried on your costume last night. I know you said it was my fight now, but… it still felt wrong. Did you really mean it? I know what it meant to you.
I started college—I think I told you about that, while we were on patrol. It’s a lot of work though. My philosophy class is so BORING. I can’t BELIEVE it’s a required class. I’m PRE-MED. Why do I need to take a philosophy class? Why does ANYONE need to take a philosophy class?
I wish I could blame the professor for what I did tonight though.
I went out as Batgirl tonight.
TOTAL disaster—I cringe just thinking about it, but it was also… good. It felt… fun. Exciting.
Please come back, I miss you. I’d give it up in a heartbeat to be the Spoiler to your Batgirl again.
Cass closes the laptop, flinching, because… she hadn’t realized Steph hadn’t done it right away. That she’d waited two weeks, emailing Cass and asking her to come home, before deciding that Cass had meant it, and taking up the mantle.
A part of her wants to keep reading, to throw herself into the emails, to learn every detail of Steph’s life, but a part of her is reluctant still, shying away from the idea of reading about Steph’s adventures as Batgirl.
Cass looks at her cup of tea, which has grown cold while she was engrossed in the emails. Sighing, she gets to her feet, setting the laptop down gently on the coffee table. She goes to the kitchen and dumps the cold tea out into her sink, and puts her cup there too, telling herself she’ll wash it later.
She should go dance now. Dance or spar with some dummies, or even just go up to her Cave and call Babs to reassure her that everything is alright, but she…
She doesn’t want to.
It’s a strange feeling, not wanting to move, to dance, to do any of the things that she loves, but for once, she feels no need. There’s no itch under her skin, no extra energy, no well of strong emotions she needs to express.
Even with Steph’s emails echoing in her head, Cass still feels content and still, the silence of the apartment in the early morning feeling… sacred. She doesn’t want to disturb it. She wants to preserve it for as long as possible.
Giving in, because it’s still the early morning, and they were out late last night, she slips down the hall, back to Steph’s room.
… it’s strange, how quickly it’s gone from the guest room in her mind, to Steph’s room. Steph’s room, where Cass’s old costume is still on the floor, where Steph’s clothes are scattered around, even though she’s only been here forty-eight hours, and where Steph herself sleeps, unaware of Cass’s early morning indecision or her hovering outside of the unlocked door.
She opens the door the barest crack, peeking through, almost afraid that the pretty illusion will have shattered. But Steph is still asleep, facing the door on her side, snoring faintly, with a slight trail of drool slipping out of the corner of her mouth.
Cass has never seen a more charming sight in her life.
This is bad, she knows. This is a strange feeling, building in her chest, one of warmth and longing and affection. A desire to smooth Steph’s hair out of her face, to kiss her, to be with her all the time, to…
Cass should go away. Cass should let Steph sleep in peace. She should close the door and walk away and ignore the feeling of quiet perfection.
Steph mumbles something and rolls over, turning away from Cass, leaving her long, yellow hair, splayed out across the pillows like it’s flowing in a breeze that Cass can’t see.
But Cass is tired, and she wants that feeling of calm and perfection back, and she doesn’t want Steph to think that Cass is still mad at her when she wakes up.
So she gets back into bed, wraps her arms around Steph’s waist, curving her body against Steph’s, closes her eyes, and slows down her breathing and calms her mind, until she falls asleep.
Chapter 12: I felt home sweet home
In which Steph panics in Bisexual.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Steph wakes up from the best night of sleep she’s had in months to find Cass’s arms wrapped around her.
They’re spooning. They’re spooning, in Steph’s bed, in Cass’s apartment, and Steph is not mentally prepared for this.
Steph is going to panic in bisexual, oh shit, she can’t move, what if she wakes up Cass, what if Cass wakes up first, how did this happen?
Swallowing, Steph starts calculating escape routes, because what is she supposed to do? The window seems untennable, given the fact that Steph’s utility belt is still in the kitchen and they’re in a penthouse suite, but the door is on Cass’s side of the bed, and really, she could probably survive the fall from the window if she can call Kara on her cell phone before she hits the ground—
Cass lets out a sleepy groan and presses her face against Steph’s—luckily uninjured—shoulder.
Oh shit, right, Steph got shot last night.
That feels so long ago now, but she was just shot, and she’s all gross from patrol, and fuck, this is so unromantic, not that Cass would want it to be romantic, because Cass is straight, Cass is so straight, Steph really needs to destroy this crush before Cass picks up on it, but first Steph needs to get out of bed.
It takes some effort to extract herself from Cass’s grip without waking her up, but Steph eventually manages.
She crawls into the shower, turns the water up as cold as it can go, and sits there, wishing away the gay thoughts and only barely remembering to actually get clean.
She now knows that Cass is the big spoon.
Steph presses her face against the cool tile of the shower and tries to push away those thoughts. It’s not a normal crush, she can’t indulge in it, can’t let herself dream about a different world where she’d turned around and kissed Cass softly, where they stayed in bed for hours, just luxuriating in each other—she can’t let herself indulge in this. She needs to… she needs to be sensible about this. Because she’s only just gotten Cass back. She can’t jeopardize their friendship over a crush, especially a hopeless one.
Their friendship is one of the most important, precious, wonderful things that Steph has ever been given, and Steph will never let anything destroy that, especially not… her hormones.
She gets out of the shower and checks on her shoulder. She winces to herself as she cranes her neck to get a look at it in the mirror. She told her mom that she’d be out again tonight, but honestly, swinging from rooftops is probably a bad idea right now, especially with her dominant arm injured. Sure, she’s working on the ambidexterity, but she’s not as good with it as she should be, and even under ideal circumstances, grappling from rooftop to rooftop is a two-handed job. She should probably take a night off.
Which sucks, because she doesn’t want to force Cass to patrol alone, but it’s not as if she’ll be able to convince Cass to take a break. Cass is way too much like Bruce in that. She’d work herself to the bone if no one was there to stop her. And who knows what kind of bad habits Cass has picked up in a year without anybody to grab her by the cape and make her take a nap.
Steph gets dressed quickly in skinny jeans and a WAYNE TECH t-shirt she’d gotten for free at a school fair, wincing as she realizes she’d managed to fall asleep in her sports bra. She must have been really tired, to have managed that.
Cass doesn’t have a blow drier, so Steph just towels it dry as best she can and lets it hang loosely around her face. Hopefully the cold drips remind Steph to keep her thoughts pure and clean and make sure that her body language is very platonic.
Steph goes to the kitchen next, finding some fruit in the fridge and starting to chop it up to make smoothies. Pancakes are great and all, but she’s not really up for making them after the night she had.
Cass comes out of the bedroom not long after Steph gets the blender going—whoops, that was probably loud—rubbing her eyes and yawning. “Morning,” Cass says, somehow completely unruffled about the fact that she’d woken up in Steph’s bed.
Well of course she’s unruffled, Steph thinks, turning her back to Cass so Cass can’t see her flushing. It’s perfectly normal for straight girls to share a bed! It doesn’t have to mean anything. Cass probably doesn’t think anything of it.
But Steph really, really wants it to mean something, and that’s the problem, more than anything.
Cass also didn’t wake up to find herself spooning her best friend, so she’s probably having so much less of a crisis. Not that Cass is having a crisis. That’s just Steph. Who’s just having one bisexual crisis after another, and she would really like to stop, please.
Steph forces a smile on her face and turns to face Cass. “Smoothie?” She gestures vaguely at the pile of fruit and the glasses already set up on the counter.
“Please,” Cass says, smiling. “I’ll uh—do you want tea?”
“Uh, sure,” Steph says, thrown. Cass… really likes tea now, huh?
She wonders when that happened, watching Cass move around the kitchen, gathering the leaves and the tea pot. She hasn’t known Cass to ever be into food that wasn’t chocolate. Especially not to the point that she’s timing how long the leaves are steeping and having loose leaf tea instead of just using a bag.
“How’s your shoulder?” Cass asks, breaking Steph out of her thoughts.
Steph touches the bandage lightly and winces again, pain shooting down her arm, although it’s faded into a faint throb in comparison to the shooting, stabbing pain of the previous night. “It hurts. I… probably shouldn’t go out tonight.” She pauses, feeling guilty that she’s going to be leaving Cass alone. To ignore her guilt and to make sure it tastes okay, she takes a large swig from her smoothie.
Cass nods, frowning. She glances down at her phone, then nods again, suddenly looking determined. “So we’ll… go dancing.”
Steph nearly chokes on her smoothie. “What?”
“Xiao Yin wants to go dancing,” Cass says, frowning at Steph, who’s got blueberry smoothie trickling down her chin and is staring at Cass, utterly bewildered. “She said yesterday you were welcome to come along.”
“But… that’s a date!” Steph protests, her cheeks flushing. “She was asking you on a—”
Cass shrugs, as if inviting her best friend along on a date isn’t a big deal at all. “Not interested. But friends dance, right?”
Steph busies herself pouring Cass a glass of smoothie. “Sure! Sorry, I guess I was just surprised that you were willing to take a night off.”
“You’re hurt,” Cass says, frowning. “Not a big… deal to take a night off.”
Steph stares at her for a long moment. Cassandra “Nobody Dies Tonight” Cain taking a night off? Steph is this close to get out a match to check she’s not a Martian, or demanding that Cass give her a sign if she’s not brainwashed or…
Wow, okay, superheroes have way too many weird things that could happen to them for Cass to be acting wildly out of character like this.
But anyways, she’s going to have to deal with this, and she better hope that whatever is impersonating Cass doesn’t have her fighting abilities, because Steph won’t win a fight against a normal Cass, so…
“Also the club is owned… by Hanson,” Cass finally admits with a slight smirk.
“You are so Bruce’s kid,” Steph marvels, relaxing immediately. Not alien shape shifters, no brainwashing, just Cass being sneaky and a detective and investigating the bad guy. “Okay, fine, but I don’t think I have anything to wear.”
“Alfred said—he packed you something.”
Steph stares. “He did what?” When would Alfred have even had the time to pack her something? She hadn’t left the apartment for long enough for him to break in and sneakily repack her things… had she?
Cass shrugs, holding out her phone for Steph to see.
Steph snatches the phone, and sure enough, there’s a text message from Alfred reassuring Cass that he sent “Ms. Brown” a dress along with her other necessary supplies. Handing Cass her smoothie, Steph immediately goes to check on the boxes in her room.
Sure enough, tucked between two spare costumes are no less than three dresses, of varying styles and colors. Steph hangs them up in her closet immediately, because her mother didn’t raise an animal, and then texts Alfred a quick thank you.
“He’s too powerful Cass,” Steph says, in awe of the might of Alfred. “Right, so I have a clubbing dress now, as chosen for me by a distinguished British butler.”
Cass just grins at her, looking pleased with herself. “It’s okay. It has to be better than… this.”
She waves her phone at Steph again, and Steph frowns, seeing a photo displayed of the dress she’d worn when she went on the mission with Tim, after Tim had come back to Gotham and they’d teamed up as Red Robin and Batgirl. Steph takes a moment to wonder how Cass has a photo of that, before she focuses on what it was that Cass was saying.
“What’s wrong with that dress?” Steph had thought it looked nice! Strapless and long, with slits down the sides so that Steph could reach her weapons… sure she’d had to ditch the heels before the fight, but it was much nicer than anything she’d worn to prom back in high school!
Cass stares at her. She slowly turns her phone back to face herself to look at it, then turns it back towards Steph again, and points.
“Tim picked it?” Steph says, wilting slightly under Cass’s judgmental gaze.
Cass keeps staring at her, raising one eyebrow pointedly.
“Stop judging me!”
“You… have no fashion,” Cass says firmly, turning off her phone.
“Rude! I have the best color scheme in the family!”
Cass sniffs, but there’s a smile belying her enjoyment. Despite her offense at being mocked for her wardrobe choices, Steph is over the moon, because this feels… right. This is what she’s been missing. She can breathe. There’s no longer this unspoken weight hanging off every word, no more of Steph’s mistakes dangling over their heads, threatening to come tumbling down and ruin whatever moment is going on. It’s just… them. Nothing more or less than that.
It’s like coming home, and Steph loves it more than anything.
“Not enough black,” Cass opinions, wrinkling her nose mockingly.
“Someone in this family needs to wear color!”
“I wear color. Yellow.”
Steph groans dramatically, throwing an arm over Cass’s shoulder, and feeling a surge of joy that Cass immediately leans into it and hugs her back. “You’re a menace.”
“No. That’s your dress,” Cass says, pointing at her phone again.
“It was a fine dress.”
“Could you even… fight in those heels?”
“Hey! If Black Canary can fight in heels—”
“You’re not Black Canary.” Cass raises an eyebrow pointedly. “Could you fight?”
“… Okay, so I ditched the heels when the fighting started, but I had to wear heels that high to fit into the dress!”
“So, bad dress.”
“What is this, pick on Steph day?” Steph says, realizing a losing argument when she’s started one.
“Yes.” Cass nudges her, still smiling. “Cheer up. We’re going dancing.”
“Yeah!” Steph says, grinning back. “It should be fun!”
Okay so the thing about the dress is mostly just me unloading about the freaking awful dress that Steph was forced into for Batgirl #8, her teamup with Tim. It's a dress that she has to rip to be able to fight in, ditch the heels for combat, and it still looks awful. Marcus To redesigned it in the follow up Red Robin issue, giving Steph reasonable heels, a shorter skirt, and straps, so I normally pretend that's what Steph was actually wearing, but this version allows me to indulge in my "Stephanie Brown is a fashion disaster and Cass Judges Her" headcanon, so we're going the other way!
And oh-ho, they're going dancing! I wonder how THAT will go?
Chapter 13: Called your name
In which Barbara Gordon is finally consulted, and the girls restart an old tradition.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
The first thing Cass does, after drinking her smoothie and second cup of tea and helping Steph change the bandages on her shoulder is lock herself in her room and call Babs.
“You’re late,” Babs says. She’s somewhere Cass doesn’t recognize—maybe she’s renovated the Birds of Prey’s plane again. She looks tired, but her hands are wrapped around a mug of coffee that reads #1 LIBRARIAN, so she’s probably not about to go to sleep anytime soon. She’s wearing one of her oversized green sweaters she likes to wear when she’s travelling, and her hair is loose, so it’s been a long day, because Babs always starts with her hair in a bun, and then it slowly falls apart over the course of the day.
“Steph got shot,” Cass says, knowing it’s not a very good excuse for not calling.
“I saw. And yet you didn’t call.”
Cass sighs. “Busy.”
“Hmm,” Babs looks at Cass over her glasses.
Cass slumps, knowing it’s no use pretending. “Had a fight. Made up. Not… big deal.”
“What did you fight about?” Babs says, raising an eyebrow.
Babs sighs and puts down the mug. “About time,” she says.
Cass stares at her. “What?”
“Look, I don’t pretend that I fully understand what’s going on there. I’m proud of Steph, she’s doing great at Batgirl, but I also know something’s up here.” She points at Cass. “You have been acting strange ever since you gave up the title, and it wasn’t even until Bruce came back that you started answering my calls. And I get it, you didn’t think she’d be the new Batgirl, but she’s been doing good work, and—”
Cass shifts uncomfortably in her swivel chair.
“… Cass?” Babs leans forward. “What’s wrong?”
“I knew she’d be Batgirl,” Cass says. The words are strange and cold, and she draws her knees up to her chest. “I was mad because… I didn’t want to give it up.”
Babs is very, very still. “Then why did you?” Her voice is clipped and cold and angry. Her knuckles are white around the armrests of her chair.
“Bruce told me to give it to Steph.”
The video goes dark.
“Babs?” Cass straightens up in her chair, wide eyed with worry. “Babs?”
She hears something shatter through the microphone, and Cass is on her feet with her cell phone out, ready to call Dinah or Helena to help Babs when the video comes back.
Babs’ mug of coffee is missing, and there’s a dark stain on the wall.
“He what?” Babs snarls, and Cass doesn’t know when she’d last seen Babs so angry.
“He left me a message. When he died. Said that I should give Batgirl to Steph. Said she needed it.”
“And you?” Babs says. “What did you need?”
Cass stares at her hands. “I’m… fine. Always fine. Like when… he went on the trip. With Dick and Tim. I was fine.”
“Cass,” Babs says, and she sounds sad now. She sounds so, so sad. “Cass… why didn’t you tell me?”
Cass shrugs, and wraps her arms around herself, because she doesn’t know how to tell Babs that it hadn’t occurred to her that she would disagree with Bruce. Surely Babs would have seen that Steph needed Batgirl, while Cass didn’t. Bruce was… right.
“I’m going to destroy him,” Babs whispers. “I’m going to—oh, I’m going to ruin him.”
“Please don’t,” Cass says, tired. “It’s… done.”
Babs stares at her for a long moment, and then sighs. “How did Steph take it?”
“We fought. But we’re… better now.”
She doesn’t tell Babs about Steph’s offer to give up Batgirl. It feels too… personal. Even more so than the fact that they had spent the night in the same bed, curled up against each other, sleeping peacefully for the first time in ages.
Babs sighs. “So was this what you were talking about in your texts? Were you mad about her being Batgirl?”
Cass shrugs. “Sort of. Feelings are… hard.”
“That they are,” Babs agrees, and she’s smiling at least, so Cass is happy with that.
“Bruce says—Black Mask is back?”
Babs’s expression turns thunderous. “He is. But don’t worry about him. And tell Steph not to worry, if she asks. We’re taking care of it.”
“I don’t think… she likes you protecting her.”
“Too bad,” Babs says. “No one protected either of you for too long, you’re overdue for some of it.”
“I don’t need protection,” Cass objects.
“You realize Steph has biometrics in her suit because I needed them in yours because you wouldn’t tell me when you got shot?”
“I can take it!”
Babs looks fondly at her. “Of course you can. But I still worry.”
Cass can’t help but smile at that, even though she still wants to tell Babs about how much she doesn’t need to be protected.
“So what’s the other part of the feelings that suck, then? If it’s not just about Batgirl stuff?”
Cass frowns, not sure how to explain this part. “I’ve been… having weird thoughts.”
“Weird thoughts how?”
“Um… about… girls.”
Babs suddenly looks very interested. “Oh? Any particular girl?”
Babs doesn’t look like she quite believes her, but she doesn’t pursue the subject, which Cass is very grateful for. She’s not sure she’s ready to talk about Steph… like that. Not yet. It feels too much, too personal, too… strange. Steph is her best friend. “So… what kind of thoughts?”
“Okay, and how does that make you feel?”
“That’s normal,” Babs says, but she’s hiding a smile behind her hand. “What about it is confusing?”
“Just… didn’t know before.”
“That you were interested in girls?”
“Girls are interesting,” Cass objects, frowning. “Already knew that.”
“Romantically interested, then.” Babs looks like she’s finding this whole situation incredibly funny, and Cass isn’t sure how she feels about that.
Cass shrugs, helpless. “It’s just… a lot.”
“You don’t have to have all the answers, Cass,” Babs says. “You’re allowed to be confused, you’re allowed to take your time.”
“But… I don’t like that,” Cass crosses her arms and sinks down into her chair. Babs is definitely laughing at her now.
“I know. But a lot of people have this problem, Cass. Sexuality is a strange and confusing thing. I could send you some reading, if you want?”
Cass groans, leaning her head against the desk. “Will it… help?”
“It might. Or you could just talk to someone about it.” Babs suddenly looks mischievous.
Cass shrugs. “I’ll ask Xiao Yin. She asked me… out on a date.”
“The Xiao Yin you were roommates with?” Babs says. “Good, she’s already cleared the background check.”
“Not my type,” Cass says absently. “Better as friends.”
“Got your eye on someone else?” Babs asks, sounding way too innocent for Cass to trust.
Cass squints at her, suspiciously.
“So, how bad is Steph’s shoulder? Can she patrol?”
“Taking night off. Recon at Hanson’s Club tonight. Do you have blueprints?”
“Do I have blueprints,” Babs mutters, mock-offended. “I didn’t raise you this way.”
“Raised myself,” Cass says, sticking her tongue out.
Babs rolls her eyes. “Alright, so I’ve sent you the blueprints to the club… be sure to wear something bulletproof beneath your dresses and pack some weapons in your clutches. Go for subtle! I think Steph should have something in her kit that fits the bill.”
“Alfred sent her dresses.”
“Oh good,” Babs says. “Although I am sad that I’ll be denied the photos from your shopping spree through Hong Kong’s fashion district.”
“Paparazzi haven’t found me yet.”
“Oh, not the paparazzi. Steph. You should have seen the photos I got when Supergirl was in town. Those two got along like a house on fire.”
Cass frowns, not sure why she doesn’t like that information, but nods. “Better go. Still have to practice.”
“That’s my girl,” Babs says. “Don’t beat Steph up too much.”
The call ends, and Cass sits back and pauses.
She hadn’t been planning on sparring with Steph…
But now that Babs has mentioned it, it seems like a good opportunity to find out how much Steph has improved in the past year.
Convinced, Cass gets to her feet and goes to find Steph.
She finds her best friend in the living room, hanging off the couch upside down, fiddling with her phone.
“Spar with me?”
“… you remember that I just had a shoulder injury right?”
“Fighting words, Wayne.”
Cass grins, happy to be identified by her adopted name, and by the way that Steph is already getting to her feet.
“Let me change, and I’ll be right there,” Steph says, nodding towards her room. Cass hums, already wearing clothes that are good for either sparring or dancing. Not that she can’t spar in anything, but she’s less likely to rip the seams when she wears the right things, and even though she’s better at sewing, she’d still rather not have to deal with that.
Cass goes to the gym with a spring in her step, shoving all the practice dummies to one side, clearing space on the mats for the two of them.
She’s interested to see how much Steph’s style has changed, a year later. Sure, she’d seen Steph fight last night, but she hadn’t gotten to fight Steph in so long.
They’ve both grown up since the last time they’d gone a round, and Cass hasn’t even realized how much she missed this.
Thinking about those days, before the War Games, before Steph had been Robin, before Africa and Black Bat and Bruce’s death, fills Cass with an inexplicable sense of longing.
Steph pokes her head in, and she grins. “It’s been way too long since we’ve done this,” she says. She’s wearing a pair of black sweatpants and a plain white tank top, her hair pulled up into a ponytail.
Cass grins at her, and pretends that she’s about to sit down, which makes Steph laugh.
“You’re such a jerk,” Steph says, her eyes bright as she approaches.
Cass laughs too and feels one last knot that she hadn’t even known was there come loose.
Steph tries to take advantage of Cass’s moment of distraction to attack, but Cass sidesteps it easily, raising an eyebrow as she does so. “Too slow,” she says.
Steph sticks out her tongue and lunges again.
And so begins this dance; different than ballet, but no less of a dance. Steph jumping and twisting, contorting her body and flipping through the air, while Cass moves around her in perfect synchronization. The room hums with energy, as the two of them dance around each other but never quite touch, although Cass lets Steph come closer and closer, until they’re barely millimeters apart, their eyes fastened tightly on each other, each step immediately countered.
Cass hasn’t even moved to strike yet, and they both know it, Steph’s good natured frustration about the whole thing emerging as they continue. Cass decides to take it up a notch, and darts behind Steph’s back, brushing a hand up Steph’s spine lightning quick, a barely present, teasing touch.
Steph lets out a soft gasp when the contact happens, her body language freezing in an unexpected way. Cass hesitates for a moment herself, surprised and pleased by the sound, but she quickly spins away from Steph as her partner pivots with her foot sticking out, attempting to sweep Cass off her feet.
Interested by this result, Cass does it again, sliding down along the ground to avoid a spinning kick, and rapidly, feather light, runs her fingers up Steph’s leg.
Steph’s form falters for the first time, her landing from the kick unsteady, like she’s Spoiler again, and Cass’s eyes narrow, fascinated, heat pooling in her stomach in an unfamiliar way at this, at the effect she’s having on Steph, at the way Steph is reacting, her face flushed and her expression bewildered.
Cass somersaults perfectly over Steph’s head and tugs on her ponytail, laughing. “Sloppy.”
“You’re the worst,” Steph says, half-heartedly trying to elbow Cass in the face, which Cass easily sidesteps, her eyes darting up and down Steph’s body to try to decide what’s going to be her next target, when she finally sees it.
Steph’s sweatpants aren’t as plain as she’d originally thought.
On the seat of them, right over Steph’s butt, is a Bat.
Not just any bat though, not even the one that Steph wears.
It’s Cass’s Bat symbol, the one she wore as Batgirl, and Steph has it on her butt, and Cass has no explanation for why that makes her freeze in her tracks, why it makes her cheeks heat up, but it does, and for once, it’s enough.
Steph’s foot collides with Cass’s chest, sending Cass stumbling backwards, and then they both immediately freeze.
“… did I just hit you?” Steph demands, staring at Cass, slack jawed.
“No, I totally did… Cass, are you feeling okay? Are you sick? Do I need to get a doctor?” Steph moves forward, and Cass has no idea what to do with this situation, except…
“Freebee,” she says, wrinkling her nose at Steph. “Thought you could use the confidence.”
Steph’s shoulders immediately relax, and she grins. “Sure, Cass.” She shakes her head. “Okay,” she puts her fists up and shifts onto the balls of her feet. “My turn on defense. Let’s see how long it takes you.”
Cass snorts, tossing her hair the way she’s seen people do on television to fully convey her mockery. “You’ll lose.”
“That was never the point,” Steph grins.
Cass tilts her head at that, curious despite herself. “Then… what is the point?”
“At least I’m a player.”
The words are unsettling and discomforting, and Cass throws herself at Steph immediately, not wanting to dwell on them.
Steph puts up a better fight than she ever had before, but it’s still not enough, and Cass refuses to let herself get distracted again, even though the more time she spends with Steph, the more distracting the other girl gets. Shouldn’t Cass be getting used to her? Shouldn’t she be getting accustomed to the smell of her shampoo, the broadness of her shoulders, the glimpses of scars, and the ringing sound of her laugh?
But she’s not. It’s getting worse and worse, and Cass has absolutely no idea how she’s supposed to handle any of this.
Steph taps out after Cass puts her on the floor for the third time, groaning loudly about how Cass is the worst, but she hugs Cass afterwards, and she’s never let her smile drop for long.
“Thanks for this,” Steph says, reaching up and pulling her elastic out of her hair, letting the strands of gold tumble loosely around her shoulders.
“You’re better,” Cass tells her, honestly. “Babs… taught you well.”
“She’s a good teacher. Not as good as you, but you know. Still good.” Steph winks at her, and Cass smiles back.
“Go shower,” Cass says, shoving Steph away from her lightly. “You stink.”
“You stink,” Steph says, which is probably true, but Cass has dancing still to do, so she just laughs and ignores Steph.
She sets up her music and starts to dance.
But for the first time,she starts to wonder what it would be like to dance with someone the way she and Steph spar.
It’s too bad Steph doesn’t dance, Cass thinks idly to herself, stretching her leg high above her head.
If she was ever going to dance with a partner, she’d pick Stephanie Brown any day.
Cass's Bat symbol was at least originally, slightly different than the others, so that's why I threw in a mention of that here. I spent a long time trying to think what word or phrase would be on Steph's ass that would throw Cass off, and then I realized, more than anything, it wouldn't be words.
Chapter 14: Just say "I miss you every day you know"
Steph prepares for a girl's night out.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
After Steph gets out of the shower, she draws a bat symbol on the mirror in the fog.
It feels… appropriate somehow, falling back into the old habits. She’d done this all the time when she was first Batgirl, drawing the symbol on everything and anything. It had filled the margins of her notebooks, it had covered the surface of her mirror, it had been traced onto every surface until she could do it with her eyes closed.
The Bat was hers, for the first time. She had been given a place by Cassandra Cain, and no one, not even Barbara Gordon, Tim Drake, or Dick Grayson was going to take that away from her.
But she wouldn’t have it for much longer.
That was bittersweet, because in many ways, being Batgirl had been the best year of her life.
But it had also been one filled with stress and longing and a quiet sort of misery, wondering why Cass wasn’t talking to her, and waiting for the other shoe to fall.
The shoe was on the ground now, and Steph had her answers.
And really, being Batgirl wasn’t worth losing her best friend. Steph knew what she was capable of now; she had proven herself to herself, if no one else. She’d go back to Spoiler, after this, even if Cass stayed in Hong Kong. She’d put on her old hood and still fight bad guys and still do what she needed to do, and she’d hope that Wendy and Babs stuck around, and that things wouldn’t change too much, except the knowledge that she was no longer driving a thousand tiny knives into Cass’s heart every time she wore her costume.
It might be too little, too late, but Cass seems to be appreciating the thought, at least, and that’s what matters.
Steph wraps a towel around herself and goes to her room, humming to herself as she prepares to get ready for the night at the club.
The club’s name is apparently Façade. It’s a high-end, fancy place in the middle of the richest district, the Wan Chai District. Ten stories high, each floor has a different theme, a bar stocked with the most expensive kinds of alcohol, a dance floor, and food servings so small you need a microscope to find them. The bottom floor is a Mahjong center, full of tourists and gamblers, and that’s where Hanson himself apparently stays when he’s on site.
Cass and Steph’s target is a different floor, however; the top floor, called Gotham, which is apparently one giant homage to their home city. The most exclusive, expensive floor, that’s also where Hanson has his office and his records. If Cass wasn’t bankrolled by a billionaire, Steph honestly wouldn’t be sure they’d be able to get in unless the bouncer really liked blondes, which is always a gamble these days.
But that does mean that Steph is going to have to really put the effort in to make sure she can ride Cass’s coattails appropriately.
Alfred has provided Steph with three dresses, and really, only one of them is appropriate for the kind of club that, according to google, they’re going to.
Weirdly enough, this isn’t the first “high end club owned by a mobster” that Steph has had to infiltrate.
Although she doubts that she’ll end this night throwing a plastic novelty coconut at the Penguin. At least, she hopes not, because he’s supposed to be in prison right now.
(She texts Babs about it, just in case, and receives a reassuring security camera image of the villain in his cell in return.)
The point is that Steph does at least theoretically know what’s expected from her, even if it’s muddled by the fact that Cass’s civilian friend who definitely has a thing for her and possibly her other roommates are tagging along.
Alfred really has to be psychic or something, Steph thinks, pulling the appropriate dress off its hanger. He managed to pick the exact right thing to wear for an occasion like this, and, miracle of miracles, it’s cut just right to hide the bandage covering Steph’s gun-shot injury. That would not have been fun to explain to Xiao Yin or a bar tender.
Although, she supposes Alfred has a lot of experience with woman’s high-end fashion because of Bruce’s public persona’s shenanigans… but then again, he’s kind of been toning that down now that he’s known way more as a dad with more kids than anyone can keep track of than as a playboy with an alcohol problem.
… she should suggest he wear a fanny pack in public at some point. Maybe one with a pattern. It would be the pinnacle of her career if she achieved that, even if she’s still unspeakably furious with him.
It might be an acceptable form of revenge, even. Not as good as a stuffed emoji thrown at his face, though. She’s not sure if she’s capable of topping that revenge scheme.
He might even agree that it’s a good idea, if she frames it as a form of reinforcing his secret identity, now that he no longer can quite so easily use alcoholism and promiscuity as a cover now that he’s supposed to be a good example for Damian.
… at least, she hopes he’s trying to be a good example for Damian, because if she’s trying to be a good example for the kid and Bruce isn’t, she has some complaints about his parenting style.
Okay, she already does, because she’s seen how un-well-adjusted Tim and Cass are and she’s heard rumors about Dick and Jason Todd, but even more complaints.
Shoving aside Bruce Wayne, because she’s going to have fun tonight, and Mr. Doom and Gloom and Glowers isn’t invited, Steph refocuses on getting ready.
The dress is black, which Steph is pretty sure there’s a law or something saying all dresses at clubs like this have to be black, and it’s stretchy enough that Steph can still move in it, which can only be a good thing.
(Not that Steph would ever admit this, but Cass isn’t wrong about the dress that Tim had scrounged up for her last year. It definitely wasn’t made for fighting… or really doing anything that wasn’t standing around and talking and looking pretty.)
It also doesn’t show too much cleavage, which makes sense, because Alfred bought it, but Steph is pleased by that fact nonetheless, because sure, that can be fun, but it doesn’t quite feel appropriate when the night out is doubling as a mission. It’s got a gap in the front that’s laced up with a black ribbon through a series of gold rings from her neck down, and the knee length skirt is loose enough that Steph can kick in. She experiments a few times, just in case, and throws on a pair of spandex modesty shorts underneath it, so she doesn’t end up flashing anyone if that does happen.
Alfred didn’t send her any shoes, but Steph has a few pairs that will work for the occasion. She decides to just save time and room in her clutch by foregoing heels altogether and grabs a pair of black flats with subtle steel reinforced toes that Wendy had bought her as a birthday present. They’re great for dancing without getting her toes squished and kicking people in the face, and Steph loves them dearly for both of those features.
Heavy gold bangles, a clunk gold ring, and gold stud earrings solve her jewelry question nicely, and Steph struggles with a bit with her eyeliner before giving up, removing it, and foregoing makeup altogether. She’s only going to sweat it off anyways, so why bother?
She spends way more time picking her weapons. Her ring will serve nicely if she needs to just punch someone, but there’s no need to get complacent. A collapsible bo-staff seems like a really great idea, and she throws in a throwing star, some tracking devices, and a smoke bomb for good measure. Nothing bat-themed, though. No need to be reckless about things.
She tries putting her hair up into a ponytail, then tries to French braid it, before giving her hair up as a lost cause, spraying it to hope it doesn’t get too crazy, and calling it an evening.
She takes a picture of her whole ensemble and sends it to Kara, striking an appropriately dramatic pose.
BLONDE BLOCKBUSTER: OMG WHO’S THE LUCKY GUY/GAL/HUMAN/ALIEN? YOU LOOK AMAZING! <3 <3 <3
GIRL WONDER: lol just going out with Cass
BLONDE BLOCKBUSTER: Cass, huh? ;) :O
GIRL WONDER: it’s not like that
BLONDE BLOCKBUSTER: yeah but you’ve had a thing for her for like
BLONDE BLOCKBUSTER: forever
GIRL WONDER: No I haven’t!
BLONDE BLOCKBUSTER: Could have fooled me.
GIRL WONDER: … what do you mean?
BLONDE BLOCKBUSTER: I mean you always go on about how Cass would do something or how great she is or how much you missed her
GIRL WONDER: … she’s my best friend, Kara
BLONDE BLOCKBUSTER: and I’m your BFF (singular), remember? Trust me on this.
GIRL WONDER: I don’t…
GIRL WONDER: I can’t have a thing for her
BLONDE BLOCKBUSTER: why?
GIRL WONDER: I just can’t
She turns off her phone and ignores the follow up text from Kara, because she doesn’t know how to explain things to Kara. Kara only knows about the War Games in broad strokes. Steph has never been able to force herself to sit down and explain it to Kara. How she’d made so many mistakes and hurt so many people (gotten people killed), and how it had ended up with her waking up in Africa with a whole bunch of new scars and just being unable to face herself in the mirror.
Months, she’d spent in Africa, not even letting Leslie call up her mom, because she’d thought that it would be better if they’d never heard from her again, if she’d just… stayed away and never been a hero again. They already hated her, she figured, for breaking the city, for being reckless and stupid and arrogant and a thousand other things.
Babs hadn’t wanted her to be Batgirl after that, and Steph couldn’t blame her.
She’d stayed in Africa and hadn’t told her friends, her mom, that she was alive, and it wasn’t until she’d managed to find some shred of feeling inside herself that she’d managed to make herself go home, to face up to what she’d done.
Cass had been happy to see her, of course she’d been happy to see her, she was Cass, but Steph knows the truth of the matter.
She’s selfish and reckless and stupid, and she’s hurt Cass more than anyone should ever have. Someone like Steph doesn’t deserve to even be in Cassandra Cain’s orbit, let alone her best friend, let alone have a thing for her.
Cass has given her the first two. Steph knows better than to allow herself to even dream of the third. It’s out of the question.
She looks at the time and groans, realizing that she really needs to go out and face the music, if they’re going to be meeting Xiao Yin at the club, like they’d been planning on doing.
Cassandra is, of course, already prepared, and waiting for her in the living room, sitting on the couch, flipping through a book that Steph thinks she remembers Babs reading a few months ago, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.
Steph is immediately starstruck, because she’s never seen Cass dressed up before and… wow.
Cass is wearing an off the shoulder black romper patterned with star designs in gold thread. It was short, and Steph’s eyes were immediately drawn to Cass’s legs before yanking them upwards because no ogling the best friend who can read body language, Steph.
Not that up was too much better, because Cass’s shoulders are drool-worthy. And really, Steph has to stop and wonder how this is her life?
Being a superhero has always been a bit of a permanent bisexual crisis because most superheroes are really fucking hot but that doesn’t mean that Steph is actually ever prepared to deal with it, especially not when it’s her best friend, who she’s not supposed to be looking at.
But Cass doesn’t seem to be noticing Steph’s blatant ogling at least, being busy fastening her golden sandals to her feet.
She forces herself to take note of the thin gold chain around Cass’s neck instead; with a gold heart pendant dangling from it. It’s all delicate and elegant, and, Steph would be willing to bet, completely disposable. That chain will snap at the first hint of a tug, so it can’t be used against Cass in a fight, and Cass wears no other jewelry at all. Her ears aren’t even pierced, despite Steph’s numerous offers back in the day to either take Cass to one of the cheap jewelry stores at the corner, or to heat up a needle and pierce them herself, like Crystal had done for her, back int the day.
Steph realizes, with a small, delighted lurch, that they match. Sure, it’s easy, because black goes with everything, but they both went for black and gold and that feels… significant.
Also really fucking obvious, because those are totally Bat Colors, copyright Bruce Wayne, trademark Batman Incorporated, cannot be reproduced without permission, etcetera, etcetera, so Steph shoves any thoughts about significance and meaning aside and focuses instead of handing Cass another collapsible bo-staff so that they can both have one.
Cass wrinkles her nose at her for daring to suggest that Cass needs a weapon, but she obediently tucks it into her clutch, along with what looks to be a can of mace and an exploding disc.
Sometimes, Steph really does have to envy the boys. Bruce can fit a small armory just into the pockets of his tailored suit, while Steph’s dress doesn’t even have pockets.
Women’s fashion is the bane of her existence, and it’s the one thing that convinces Steph that Alfred isn’t, in fact, a god, because even he can’t manage to find a dress like this with pockets.
Steph focuses on Cass’s face instead and offers a wide smile. “You look—” Incredible, beautiful, amazing, gorgeous… “Nice.”
“Thanks!” Cass’s smile is the most wonderful thing that Steph has ever seen. “You too!”
“Thank Alfred for Alfred,” Steph says dryly, and is rewarded with a small giggle from Cass.
“Xiao Yin texted me,” Cass says. “We’re going to meet her at the club. We should get going.”
“Do we need to pay a cover fee?” Steph asks, fiddling with the bracelet she’s wearing. “I have some Hong Kong dollars, but I’m still iffy on the exchange rate.”
“I’ve got it,” Cass says, and since she’s literally the dollar of a billionaire Steph wisely shuts up and doesn’t offer to pay her own share.
Hanging out in Bruce Wayne’s vicinity has taught Steph a lot about shutting up and letting people who don’t need to worry about rent ever pay for things, especially anything that happens to be mission adjacent.
“So how are we getting there?” Steph asks, considering grabbing a jacket, before recognizing the significant odds that they will have to fight their way out of the club and leave it behind and deciding against it. “The moped?”
“Cab,” Cass says, although she does look slightly put out about it. “No parking at the club.”
“Truly, a sign that Hanson is evil.”
Cass makes a face at Steph for that, which is almost as much of a triumph as Cass’s smiles. “Hopefully we’ll find—something. To help.”
“Mixing business and pleasure, Cass? Sounds like my kind of night,” Steph says, grinning. She throws the door open for Cass and bows dramatically. “Shall we?”
Cass gives her a dazzling grin that makes Steph’s stomach swoop. “Let’s.”
Steph knows that feeling. She recognizes the feeling; the giddiness at the smile, the rush of excitement that floods her when Cass brushes her hand against Steph’s as she closes the door behind them, and the way her eyes follow Cass as Cass heads to the elevator.
This is more than a casual crush or a lingering attraction.
It’s a problem, and Steph needs to deal with this before it becomes any worse than it already is.
Steph forces herself to take a deep breath and then gets into the elevator next to Cass, twisting a strand of hair around her finger to try to distract herself from her own racing thoughts.
Falling in love with Cassandra Cain is an untenable situation.
Steph needs to figure out how to pull herself back, away from this precipice, before she goes all the way over and ruins things anymore than she already has.
Cass looks over her shoulder and smiles at Steph, bright and brilliant and wonderful and gorgeous, and Steph knows that this is going to be harder than it has any right to be.
But she’s going to do it, because Cass is her best friend in the entire world.
And she won’t let anything jeopardize that, even her own feckless heart.
Chapter 15: She couldn’t keep the beat
Cass and Steph go dancing and nothing else goes according to plan.
Two chapters in one day? It must be Thanksgiving Break! Hope all of you who celebrated had a fun, safe day, and that you're all recovering from Black Friday. <3
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Cass keeps looking at Steph out of the corner of her eye, mesmerized despite herself.
She’s never seen Steph like this, with her hair so shiny, holding herself with a kind of confidence that Cass associates with her being in costume. Despite herself, Steph has managed to pull together a good outfit for the night, and Cass is oddly delighted by this, by the way that the two of them match, with the way that they feel in sync in a way that’s familiar and yet not, because the two of them have never done anything like this, not together.
Xiao Yin is waiting for them outside the club, flanked on either side by Cunxin and Ho Seng as the two of them get out of the cab.
Xiao Yin is wearing her nicest dress—the one Cass has spotted several times in her closet, but never seen her actually wear. It’s silver and covered in sequins, with a high front and a low back, and she’s wearing the kind of heels that Cass had made fun of Steph for wearing just this morning.
But on Xiao Yin it looks… nice. Xiao Yin, after all, doesn’t have to dress prepared to fight.
The boys are wearing suits, with brightly colored shirts underneath their blazers instead of the crisply ironed shirts that Cass associates with suits.
Cunxin grins when he sees them. “Ready to dance, Cain?” His eyes are bright and cheerful, and Cass grins at him. She’s never danced with Cunxin outside of class before, and the opportunity strikes her as… fun.
Xiao Yin’s eyes are on her the whole time, and Cass gives her a bright smile. “You look great,” Xiao Yin says. She’s wearing bright pink lipstick, the kind that leaves marks on tea cups when she drinks it. Does it leave marks behind on people?
Does Steph’s lip gloss?
Cass quickly dismisses those thoughts, and instead refocuses, looking up at the tall, sleek looking building.
There’s no line to get into the first floor: Reflection is crowded and open to everyone. The Mahjong tables are all crowded, and there’s baccarat, roulette, and cards as well, all reflected back at all angles by the mirrored walls and ceiling.
It’s dizzying and disconcerting; the lights bright and only intensified by the mirrors, and everything about it puts Cass on edge as they weave their way through the crowds, towards the elevators at the back. They pass a mirrored over bar, where a man who Cass is pretty sure she fought last night on The Lily of the Sea is serving drinks.
Cass has talked to Bruce about how to do this—she’s been planning this trip for a while, even though she hadn’t expected to do it so soon, or with company. She smiles at the man watching the elevator and lets him look her up and down, as well as her friends, before he lets them into the elevator.
“What floor?” He asks, in English.
Cass smiles and lays on the Gotham accent she’s been trying to diminish since coming to Hong Kong. “Gotham, please.”
His eyes dart across all of them again, but it’s not his job to stop them, so he steps aside and presses the button.
The doors to the elevator are made of glass, and they all crowd in, watching the numbers on the display go up.
They pass Mesmer, where the floor is made of a constantly changing LED screen, Phoenix, where the walls of the club are made of flames, Jewel, where everything sparkles with sequins and rhinestones, and floor after floor of over the top themes and overpriced drinks, before finally, they get to the top.
A woman in a bright red dress greets them as the doors open, her eyes narrow as she looks at them.
“Welcome to Gotham, the best night club in Hong Kong,” she purrs, smiling at them. “The wait might be—”
Cass thickens her accent and lowers her eyelashes. “I’m Cassandra Wayne,” she says, holding out her hand.
Bruce isn’t as well known outside of America, but he is well known here, in Hanson’s territory, and especially in this little club dedicated to Bruce’s city.
“Oh!” The woman’s eyes go wide, and Cass can tell she’s recognized. She’s not as famous as her brothers, but she is the only daughter, and she knows certain parts of the press love to speculate about that. Especially the sort that Gotham is famous for. “Miss Wayne! It’s such an honor to have you here—do come in, all of you!”
She leads them past the line, past the velvet ropes and the bouncers, and takes them into Gotham.
The wall right across from them is made entirely of glass, giving them a pure and gorgeous view of the Wan Chai District. The rest of the walls are made of jagged steel, carved into the shapes of the Gotham skyline. A bat symbol lights up the ceiling, changing colors gradually, while the rest of the lights pulse and change colors according to the tempo of the music.
The bar is right beneath the window, with gargoyles perched on either end, a nod to the Gothic tastes of Gotham that Cass does miss dearly. Booths and tables are everywhere, tucked away, and members of the wait staff run between them. But most of the floor is taken up by the dance floor, where the lights are the brightest and the sound is the loudest, crammed with dancers, all wearing expensive clothes and jewelry, all of them dancing without a care in the world.
Cass had wondered how she’d feel, when she arrived here. It’s named after her home, after all, and meant to evoke it.
But it’s so… shallow. Is this what Gotham is, to Hanson? A skyline, a bat symbol in the sky, a gargoyle or two? Is it the money, the exclusiveness, that makes it feel like Gotham to him?
This isn’t Gotham. This is what he wants Gotham to be. Clean and neat and controlled, the Bat present but not everywhere, and the history tucked neatly into corners.
Cass wrinkles her nose at that but allows Xiao Yin to pull her towards the bar. Cunxin has already gone to the dance floor, eyes alight as always. He loves any form of dancing, even though ballet is his true love. He loves moving in a way that makes Cass comfortable with him; he understands the body and how important it is.
Ho Seng has claimed a table for them and looks like he intends to people watch for a while before he does anything else. He’s as curious about people as Cass is, most of the time, and if Cass was really here to have fun, not to investigate Hanson, Cass thinks she’d join him before giving in and following Cunxin to the dance floor.
Cass looks around as Xiao Yin sits her down by the bar, but she’s lost Steph, somehow, in the crowd. She shouldn’t be so easy to lose, but Steph has vanished into thin air.
She shouldn’t be too surprised, Cass supposes, because Steph is also a Bat, and she’s clearly been working on her stealth, but it kind of stings that Steph didn’t stick by her.
“I’m so glad you suggested this place,” Xiao Yin says, beaming at her. “I never could have gotten in here on my own.”
“Yes, you could,” Cass says, smiling.
“What do you want to drink? My treat!”
Cass shouldn’t drink, not when she’s on a mission, but they’ll have to be here for a while, so…
“Rum and Coke?”
“Sure!” Xiao Yin turns and flags down the bartender. She turns around and sits next to Cass after placing their order, and grins at her brightly. Then she frowns. “Where’s your friend?”
“Not sure. She’ll be back.” Cass is very sure of that. Steph will always come back.
Xiao Yin frowns. “So, who is she exactly? You’ve never mentioned her before. You were telling us it was your brother coming, but then it’s… very much not a brother.”
Cass shrugs. “A friend.”
“You’ve never mentioned her before, though, and then she just… shows up.”
“It was a surprise,” Cass says. “My… father told me someone was coming to visit. I thought it was my brother. But it was her.”
“He just… sent one of your friends? As a surprise.” Xiao Yin looks like she’s reached a conclusion, and she isn’t sure if she likes the conclusion. The bartender passes by them again, handing over two drinks. Xiao Yin fiddles with the stem of her martini, not looking at Cass. Cass takes a sip of her own drink, and scans the crowd, looking for Steph again, but still can’t find a sign of her. “Cass… you know I’m gay, right?”
“Uh… yes?” Cass says, completely thrown by this subject change. “You… asked me out.”
“Why didn’t you tell me you had a girlfriend?” Xiao Yin says, sounding hurt and—oh.
“I don’t.” Cass takes a larger drink of her rum and coke, hoping the lighting is too bad for Xiao Yin to notice that she’s blushing.
Girlfriend. She hadn’t even thought of that label. She’s never… Steph wouldn’t… that’s silly. They’re friends. Best friends. Steph is her friend. A friend who she wants to kiss, but she didn’t…
Cass has never thought about that word in that way before. She carefully sets that aside for later, because she likes that thought. She likes the idea of having a girlfriend, in a way she’s never realized before.
She’s always thought about romance in terms of actions before. Kissing Superboy in the sky. Wanting to hold Brenda’s hand. Wanting to sleep in Steph’s bed and hold her.
Labels are new and complicated and confusing, but that doesn’t mean they’re bad.
“So… you’re not dating Stephanie?”
“No.” Cass throws back the rest of her drink, half-planning to make her escape to the dance floor, so she can stop thinking about Steph, but Xiao Yin’s next words stop her.
“Cass… did I make you uncomfortable? When I asked you out?”
Cass spins to face her friend, who looks nervous and hurt and anxious, and Cass bites her lip, realizing she hasn’t been paying as much attention to things as she should have been.
“No,” Cass says. “I just… didn’t notice. Steph told me.”
Xiao Yin looks like that hurts her even more. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have assumed…”
“That you like girls. I just… I thought, the way you talked about Brenda—”
Cass freezes, because she really doesn’t want to talk about Brenda, not now, not here, not ever, and she looks away. “I do,” she says, her voice ragged. “Like girls.”
“I don’t—labels are… I’m not sure. What I am. But I like girls.”
“Okay,” Xiao Yin nods. “But you’re not interested in me.” She looks a little hurt, but also understanding and hopeful and so many different emotions that Cass can’t read them.
Then she looks over her shoulder for Steph again, and she sees Steph on the dance floor, kissing a man in a suit, her hands bunched tight in his blazer and his hands in her hair.
Cass is flooded with emotions. She wants to… she wants to punch someone. She wants to rip him away from Steph, wants to… the taste on her tongue is sour and angry and hot and hurt and she doesn’t have a word for this, for this sickly feeling that’s flooding her entire body, closing up her throat and making it hard to breathe.
“I just—things are… it’s hard… you’re—” Cass struggles to find the way to explain things to Xiao Yin, to find the words, but she can’t think of any words, because the sight of Steph kissing a stranger has stolen them all from her, if she ever had the right ones to begin with.
But Xiao Yin doesn’t seem to have any trouble with that.
She just reaches up, cups Cass’s face in her hands, and kisses her.
Maybe it’s the alcohol, or the fact that Steph is kissing someone else on the dance floor, just a dozen yards away, but Cass kisses her back, opening her mouth, and breathing in the smell of Xiao Yin. Her eyes drift shut and she focuses in on nothing but this, precious and real and wonderful, unlike everything else that’s happening right now.
It’s different than kissing Superboy. It’s better, so much better that Cass can barely believe she liked kissing before this. It’s soft and it’s sweet, the press of their tongues and the glide of their lips against each other, tasting of alcohol and lip gloss, and—
She reaches up to tangle her own fingers in Steph’s thick blonde hair and—
She jerks back, settling back into reality, where she’s kissing Xiao Yin, who’s hair is fine and black and short and who deserves better than Cass kissing her and thinking of someone else.
Because Cass likes kissing but she doesn’t want to be kissing anyone who isn’t Steph, but Steph doesn’t feel the same way, which is why she’s now dancing with the boy she was kissing, laughing at something he said, the sound of her laughter ringing in Cass’s ears, despite being out of range.
Cass pulls away, and Xiao Yin looks at her, confused.
“Cass?” She reaches out and touches Cass’s face. Cass sees something shiny on her fingertips as she pulls them away, and it’s only then that she realizes that she’s crying.
“I… I can’t. I’m sorry.” Cass whispers. “You… it’s not you. I just…” She looks over her shoulder at Steph without meaning to, and then she throws money onto the bar for the drinks and vanishes into the crowd of the club, trying to find somewhere that she won’t have to see Stephanie Brown kissing anyone else.
She slips into the booth with Ho Seng, desperately wiping away the tears and willing her body to stop them. At least she cries silently, even now—a rare thing to be grateful for, from her childhood.
Ho Seng passes her his pocket square without even needing to be asked, and Cass quickly dabs at her face, grateful for the dim lighting for hiding the puffiness of her eyes and the redness of her nose.
“Need another drink?” Ho Seng asks her, completely practical. He’s impossible to ruffle, taking things in stride in a way that reminds Cass completely of Alfred. It’s… nice. Familiar.
“No,” she whispers. Alcohol is part of the problem. She wouldn’t lack this kind of control normally, if she’d been completely sober, never mind that one drink isn’t usually enough to affect her like this. But there’s no other explanation for the deep pit in her stomach, for the feeling of hurt and rage at the idea of Steph kissing a stranger instead of her. “Thanks, though.”
“Xiao Yin will be okay,” he tells her, patting her hand. “She might need some space, but she’ll be okay. You both will be.”
“I just—it’s not fair,” Cass mutters, slumping low in the seat.
“Never is,” Ho Seng says reasonably.
“Feelings are awful.”
“They sure are.”
“I didn’t mean to hurt her.”
“It’s not your fault,” he says, sharply, looking at her. “People feel how they feel, and you’re not responsible for returning those feelings. She’s allowed to be hurt, but you shouldn’t feel guilty for not feeling the way she does.”
“I’m not saying you did everything right,” he says. “I mean, I don’t know exactly what happened, but I can make some guesses.”
“I like Steph,” Cass says, softly, wretchedly.
It’s strange, saying it out loud. It’s worse.
“Does she know that?”
Cass gives him a look, and he holds up his hands in surrender. “Okay, got it.”
“Don’t tell… anyone?”
He gives her a reassuring smile. “I won’t.”
She takes a deep breath and buries her head in her hands. She thinks for a while, trying to think of an appropriate word or phrase for her feelings, but instead chooses to use one of Babs’s favorite sounds. “Ugh.”
Ho Seng looks over her shoulder. “Your friend is gone,” he says, patting her hand. “You should go on the dance floor. That usually makes you feel better.”
Cass doesn’t know how to tell him she’s never danced in a place like this before. She’s danced in the city streets of Gotham for Jean Paul, she’s danced in empty ballrooms with Dick, carefully practicing all the steps, she’s danced in the studio, in her apartment, but she’s never danced like this, out and in public and with people.
But she goes anyways, because after the betrayal of the alcohol and the kissing and the tears, she wants to be in control again. She wants to feel good. She wants to be moving in the way she loves, moving in time with the lights and the music.
The floor is slick and marble, and Cass can almost pretend she’s really at home, in Gotham, because Bruce’s ballroom looks almost like this, but not quite. But the illusion is incomplete, because the bass is shaking her down to her bones and the crowd is crushing against her, reminding her that she’s not home, not in the Manor, not in the real Gotham. She’s still in this stupid nightclub with the name of her home, and she’s still on a mission, and she and Steph are both distracted by kissing, and she hates it.
Cunxin grabs her hand as she carefully moves into the crowd, beaming. “Cassie! Dance with me!”
Cass breathes deeply and does.
Cunxin knows her, knows the moves like she does. He doesn’t have the kind of control over his body that Cass does, but he’s surprising in his movements, unpredictable. Cass hears a riff and thinks that it’s obvious to move one way, but he moves a different way, that fits even better, and the two of them move, laughing and grinning and spinning around.
It’s not one of the dances Cass really wants to do; they’re on a dancefloor, not a ballroom or a studio. She can’t get him to waltz with her or to show her how the ballet lifts are supposed to go, but he still understands that this is something that’s good, and he gets dancing, he gets Cass, and that’s enough for now.
It’s relaxing, it’s calming, and Cass looks over her shoulder and sees Steph dancing with a different guy, and she closes her eyes and forces herself to keep moving.
There are some things, Cass knows, that even she can’t change.
And Steph wanting to kiss other people is one of them.
Hey, 40k in, I figured I should give you guys some kissing, right? ;)
I am always very torn about my headcanons on Cass's sexuality. Her brief flirtation with Kon was cute, and I have, in the past, shipped her with guys (La'gaan/Cass was my first ever crack ship, and I stand by it). But on the other hand, lesbian Cass headcanons are near and dear to my heart. So... Cass is just as confused as I am as to what her official label is! She's definitely kissed a boy and didn't regret the experience, but her big crushes have been on girls (Brenda, and now Steph).
Chapter 16: All the things you'll love, all the things that may hurt you
Hope you all had a great Thanksgiving break! Let's check back in on our girls, shall we?
(Slight warning for some implied intimate-partner abuse and a brief discussion of addiction for this chapter.)
Steph takes a deep breath and lets it out as they get out of the elevator.
Gotham is familiar, but not too familiar.
Cass hasn’t looked at her since they got in the elevator, distracted by her new and wonderful friends, and Steph can taste the jealousy threatening to overwhelm her.
It’s not right, it’s not fair on Cass, because Cass should have other people, because Cass deserves so many friends. She deserves friends who love her as much as Steph does, she deserves everything in the entire world, but…
Steph is completely and utterly alone as she steps into the nightclub. She doesn’t know Cass’s friends, and she’s unprepared for the crashing wave of loneliness swallowing her up, even though Cass is right beside her.
She can’t do this.
It’s not fair on Cass, but she can’t do this. She can’t just stand here all night until the mission starts waiting for Cass to speak to her, waiting for one of Cass’s other friends to remember she exists, waiting for her to be acknowledged.
These are Cass’s friends, her friends out of costume, the friends that will stay here in Hong Kong with her when Steph gets back on a plane to Gotham, and goes back to…
Well, she doesn’t know what will happen then. Cass probably won’t ignore her emails this time around, but it’s hard to imagine that they can keep what they have going when they’re so far apart. No one else has ever stayed, why should Cassandra Cain? The closest thing to long distance friendship she’s ever managed is Kara, and Kara can literally show up at her doorstop on a moment’s notice.
Steph can handle a mission.
She can’t handle being reminded of how little time she has left with Cass.
She lingers back, and watches Xiao Yin pull Cass towards the bar, and Steph doesn’t follow. She doesn’t want to hear Cass reject someone else, doesn’t want to have to hear Cass tell Xiao Yin that she’s straight, doesn’t want to deal with any of this.
Ho Seng finds a table and Cunxin starts dancing, but Steph stands, alone in the crowd, trying to figure out what she’s supposed to do.
The answer comes quickly enough.
Focus on the mission, then, if everything else only makes her miserable.
Hanson’s office is tucked away in the midst of all this chaos. Access is going to be hard to get to… unless Steph gets her hands on a key.
The guards should all have keys.
Steph starts wandering the crowd, trying to pick out the guards. Hanson needs to have them—no way he’d take the risk of leaving his office and records completely unprotected, but they’ll be blending into the crowd, at least most of them.
She finally locates the pattern—they’re all wearing the exact same cut of suit in the exact same color, with a bulge in their pocket that’s a collapsible stun baton, rather than a flask of cheaper alcohol.
Now Steph just needs to figure out where they keep their keys.
Steph twists her ring around her finger, trying to think. If she was Batgirl, she’d probably just knock one of them out and take his keys, but that’s kind of hard to get away with in the middle of a crowded bar…
The old-fashioned way it is.
Steph finds the best looking of the guards, one who looks new and also used to female attention and starts dancing near him. He might not take the bait, but hey, it’s worth a try, right?
The music pulses around Steph and it’s easy to throw her head back, smile, and pretend to lose herself to the rhythm and the pulsing lights. All around her the air smells of sweat, alcohol, perfume, and sex, and it’s an intoxicating combination, one that encourages bad decisions.
Steph, with her tousled hair and her easy going smile, in a tight black dress, looks like a great bad decision, and she knows it.
Steph has always been good at reading boys, at telling when they’re interested in her. It’s how she’d gotten out of the house, when she was a kid, getting boys to take her places, to buy her a dinner. And she’d gotten caught up in it more than a few times, because kissing was nice, and sex was nice, and being wanted was nice, and it all helped her forget, sometimes, that her dad was in prison and her mom was passed out on the couch back home. It had led to bad decisions on her part; pregnancy and a black eye or two, and eventually Steph had stopped, because there was Spoiler and Tim and later Batgirl, but Steph still knew how to do this, even years later.
She flicks her eyes around, as if searching for a partner, for a bad decision of her own, and her eyes land on the guard, who, yep, is definitely watching her. Their eyes meet, and Steph slowly dances towards him, smiling the whole while.
Steph isn’t sure how long they dance together—he’s kind of a shitty dancer, if she’s being honest—but by the time that Steph has identified the location of his keys, which are tucked into the inside pocket of his blazer, she’s pretty sure it’s time for this next step.
She turns her head around and kisses him. His hands are on her hips, and he’s pressed up against her back, and it’s been a while since Steph has kissed a stranger for the sake of kissing a stranger and, yep, it’s still fun.
She spins around in his grasp, grabbing at the lapels of his blazer so she has better access to the pocket with the keys, and his hands move from her hips to her hair, and she can’t help but approve. He’s not the best kisser, but he’s trying, and Steph is perfectly willing to take a mediocre kisser who doesn’t go straight for the ass-grab over a great kisser who does.
Steph, however, is a champion kisser—she can tie a cherry stem with her tongue and everything—and quickly sets about making sure he knows it, so he doesn’t know that she’s totally grabbing his keys.
Once the keys have been safely tucked into her bra—his eyes are closed, it’s not like he’s looking—she pulls away. “Want to go somewhere a bit more private with me, cutie?” Steph asks, pretending to be far more breathless and thoughtless than she is.
He won’t say yes—can’t say yes, actually, not if he’s on duty, and Steph will swallow these keys whole if he’s not on duty—so this is the best way to make a clean getaway.
Sure enough, his face falls. “I uh, can’t. Not right now. I’m uh—here with someone.” Steph takes a step back, letting her hands fall to her sides. “Not like that! My, uh—brother.” He rubs the back of his neck. “I can’t leave. Not until—later.”
If Steph was really interested in this guy, this is probably where she’d propose finding a bathroom stall or offer to wait until he’s free if she was feeling classy, but she’s not, so she turns away in a huff, and throws herself back into the crowd.
The guard looks disappointed, but not suspicious at all, and that’s what really matters. Steph picks another good-looking guy and starts dancing with him instead. She needs to keep up the character, after all.
Cass is dancing with Cunxin now, so she must be done with her conversation with Xiao Yin, but Steph decides to put off telling Cass about the keys for a while longer, because she likes watching Cass dance.
She cuts her own dance with her second target short—a much cuter, younger guy than the guard, who has clearly never been at a club like this before, much less kissed anyone, at least if Steph’s experimental peck is to judge.
“Sorry,” he tells her, flustered. “I just—um… I don’t do…”
“Don’t worry about it,” she says, unsure if he’s going to tell her he’s gay or just not looking for a make out session on the dance floor with a stranger. “Have fun! And come find me later if you change your mind!” She winks at him, then goes off to find Ho Seng’s table.
She sits down next to him, feeling better about things than she was at the beginning of the night. Steph’s shallow enough to admit that she likes the attention she gets at places like this, within reason, and kissing strangers helps her get over her internal feelings of “not good enough for Cassandra Cain,” at least for a short while.
“How’s it going?” She asks Ho Seng, who’s looking at her cautiously.
“It’s going fine,” he says, fiddling with his drink. It’s pink and has an umbrella, so Steph decides that he can’t be all that bad, even if a part of her will always resent his existence.
But on the other hand, he means that Cass won’t be alone when Steph has to go back, so Steph will also always be grateful for his existence.
But he doesn’t seem to be that interested in talking to Steph, so Steph just gets sits there, watching Cass and Cunxin dance.
Cass, no surprise, is just as graceful and wonderful on a dancefloor as she is in her private studio. Steph could watch her all day. Sure, she has to ignore the distant throbbing jealousy about Cass’s dance partner, but Cass looks… content. It’s relaxing for her, the way that piano is for Steph. It’s wonderful to watch.
“Do you want anything to drink?” Ho Seng asks, eventually, although he doesn’t look too happy. His mouth is a kind of strange, thin line. Steph can’t read body language like Cass, but she gets the distinct impression that Ho Seng doesn’t like her very much.
“Uh… no thanks,” Steph says. “I don’t really drink.”
She avoids all intoxicating substances, really. With a history of addiction in her family, Steph has never seen the appeal of risking it. It’s a disease, but it’s a disease with genetic tendencies, and Steph has never wanted to court it. She’s had a few glasses of wine on occasion, but she’s been careful never to push her boundaries out too far, to never risk things. She even avoids painkillers as much as she can, although she’s occasionally admitted that yes, she probably needs them in this one situation. Leslie knows about her concern and helps her keep an eye on things whenever she does go on painkillers as much as possible.
But she doesn’t want to explain her mothers’ months and years in rehab to this guy with his disapproving eyebrows, so she leaves it at that.
She slinks slower into her seat as he gets to his feet and heads to the bar, the rush of self-esteem and satisfaction from her successful run on the dance floor fading away. She doesn’t need Cass’s friends to like her, but it certainly would have been nice.
She’s not even sure what she did, but she supposes a single mention by Cass about Steph taking her place in something would probably have been enough to make them hate her. It probably would have been enough if Cass was telling her about someone who’d hurt her.
Steph bites her lip and twists her ring around her finger again and again, resisting the urge to take the keys out and examine them. She does quickly transfer them from her bra to her clutch, just to make the eventual showing them to Cass slightly less embarrassing for everyone involved.
Xiao Yin comes up a moment later, sitting herself down in Ho Seng’s seat. Her lipstick is smeared across the brim of the wine glass she’s holding, and she looks like… well, like Cass just broke her heart. Steph recognizes that particular expression, and she feels a rush of comradery with the other girl.
“So, you’re from Gotham?” Xiao Yin asks, gesturing with the wine glass, in case Steph had any doubts about who she was talking to.
Steph blinks, bewildered at being addressed. “Yes?”
“How long have you known Cass?” Xiao Yin is sober, despite the wineglass in her hand; her eyes are clear, and her hands are steady. There’s something else driving this conversation, something that Steph can’t put her finger on.
“Uh… I was sixteen, she was seventeen, I think,” Steph says, blinking slowly.
“So, what? Three years?”
“Just about—look, is there a point to this?”
“Why did Cass never mention you?” Xiao Yin’s eyes are hard.
Steph looks away and shrugs. “She was going through a hard time… and she thought that it was best if we had a break.”
“Yep.” Steph manages to meet Xiao Yin’s eyes and not even flinch.
Xiao Yin sighs. “So, you didn’t break her heart?”
“Uh… we never dated, if that’s what you’re asking.”
“But you wanted to.”
Steph coughs abruptly. “I don’t—um,” she sighs, shoulders slumping as she gives up the pretense that she’s not head over heels for Cassandra Cain. “That obvious, huh?”
“Just a bit.”
Steph shrugs. “I mean, I don’t need to tell you how amazing she is. But… you know. She’s straight, so I just try to be a good friend to her.”
Xiao Yin frowns, tapping her fingers against the rim of her wine glass, staring at Steph, her expression inscrutable. “I… see.”
Cunxin appears, beaming from ear to ear. “Xiao Yin!” He crows, his accent tinged with a polished Oxford sound that would make Alfred proud. “Dance with me!”
Xiao Yin laughs and lets him pull her to her feet, and the two of them stumble towards the dance floor. Steph follows them with her eyes. Xiao Yin isn’t half the dancer that Cass is, but then again, Steph doubts any of the girls in this club could equal Cass, and she’s not just saying that because Cass is also the prettiest girl here easily.
Cass slides into the spot Xiao Yin abandoned a moment later, frowning at the wine glass that she left behind.
“Hey!” Steph grins at her, reaching into her clutch and pulling out the keys. “Look what I got off the guard!”
Cass stares at her. “Guard?”
“They’ve got undercover guards mixed in the crowd,” Steph says, surprised Cass hadn’t noticed. “I found one and uh—distracted him.”
“I saw,” Cass says, looking… upset. “So, you—that’s why?”
Steph shrugs again. “I mean, don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t have done it if he was cute—sorry Cass, am I making you uncomfortable?”
“… no,” Cass says, clearly lying.
“Sorry Cass,” Steph says, ashamed for the first time. It honestly hadn’t occurred to her that Cass wouldn’t like Steph using that kind of distraction. It’s not a method she’d ever used in front of her before—or ever, really, in a professional capacity. Steph had acted like she was working alone, and made her best friend and partner feel uncomfortable in the process. “I didn’t mean to make you bad, I was just trying to get the keys.”
“I’m—it’s fine,” Cass says, even though it’s clearly not.
Steph reaches out and puts a hand on Cass’s. “I won’t do it again,” Steph promises, grinning at her. “Anyways! I’ve got the keys! Want to go see what Hanson’s up to?”
Cass nods, looking determined. “Yes. Let’s do that.”
The two of them get up and move towards the bathrooms. Steph feels bad about abandoning the table that Ho Seng had so carefully staked out, but taking down a guy who was willing to bring Joker Gas into a city trumps social niceties like table sitting.
The office isn’t actually by the bathrooms, but the bathrooms do have air vents in them for Steph and Cass to climb into to circumvent the hallway patrols right outside the offices.
Steph is very glad she’d chosen to wear her spandex modesty shorts underneath her dress, because she goes first, and she’s not sure how she’d feel about it if she’d had to deal with the fact that Cass was spending the entirety of their journey to the office of a gangster staring at her underwear.
Not that Cass would stare, but it’s the principle of the thing.
The air vents are smaller than ideal—Bruce definitely couldn’t have fit through them—but it’s still big enough that Steph and Cass can squeeze through and drop down right outside the office door.
Cass takes out a small device out of her own clutch and sets it up against the door. The light flashes once—red. No people inside the room. Cass pockets the device again, and gives Steph a nod. Cass smiles at her brightly as Steph quickly finds the right key and forces her way into the office. Yes, they’ll have to deal with more security inside the office, but at least for now, they’re out of sight.
“Find the cameras so that Babs can wipe us, I’ll look for the safe?”
“Yes,” Cass nods.
It would be nice if Babs could be online for this, talking them through it, but Babs is doing three other things right now, so all they can do is call her up on the spot for tech support.
“Right,” Steph says, cracking her knuckles. “Let’s see what kind of dirt we can dig up on our Erik Hanson.”
Chapter 17: He took a shot of something strong to make him feel less weak
We finally have a chapter count! This... is going to end up a LOT longer than I expected. And will almost definitely not be finished by the end of November. But the adventure will continue, and this fic WILL be finished before I let myself write ANYTHING ELSE, I promise.
Cass doesn’t like the feeling that’s settled into her skin, the kind of burning desire to track down the guard who Steph had kissed and punch him. Cass doesn’t do anger, not any kind of violent anger that she indulges in, at least.
But it bothers her, even though she’s told Steph it doesn’t, and Cass…
Cass is jealous.
Jealousy like this is strange and new. Cass has been jealous before—jealous of Steph, even. But she’s never been jealous like this, this strange anger because Steph has chosen to kiss someone else. It’s an anger she shouldn’t feed, doesn’t want to feed, because she knows that she has no right to feel angry or jealous.
Steph has asked her if she’s uncomfortable, but that doesn’t even begin to encompass Cass’s emotions. She wants to kiss Steph, she wants to cry, she wants to punch the guard, she wants to sit down in a corner and sulk.
She wants all of those things, and she can’t do any of them, because they’re on a mission.
Cass sets up the small, thumbtack-like devices by the cameras, texting Babs so that she knows to access the cameras and wipe them. She then carefully sets up the listening devices, although she doubts that Hanson will say anything of importance in this office, but it’s always worth a try.
Steph, meanwhile, has managed to open the safe, and is carefully thumbing through the papers. “Lots of code-phrases,” she announces. “Definitely looks like smuggling, but this isn’t the kind of evidence that leads to an arrest.”
Cass growls, irritated, even though she’d known it would be a long shot that they’d get the kind of conclusive proof that she’d been hoping for so easily.
“I’ve got an address for a forger here in Hong Kong,” Steph says, still sorting through the papers. “Looks like some checks written to some people in Gotham City—I don’t recognize any of the names, maybe Babs will.”
“Take photos,” Cass reminds Steph, even though it’s unnecessary. Steph absently gives her a thumbs up, and keeps looking.
“Surveillance photos of you,” Steph reports next. “As Black Bat.”
Cass darts over, scanning the photos for context clues. “Old,” she says, tapping one of them. “Three-four months?”
“He must be worried about you. Smarter than we thought, then.”
Cass can’t help but smile at that. “Anything else?”
“Uh… liquor orders for the clubs,” Steph says, squinting. “Doesn’t look like a euphemism. Check the computer while I tidy up here?”
Cass isn’t particularly good at computers, but Babs is, and that’s all that really matters. She texts Babs to be ready, and then sticks the USB that she’d hidden in the hem of her romper into the appropriate port. The light on the computer switches from red to green, and Cass breathes a sign of relief.
She checks the drawers next, finding mostly basic office supplies, a silver flask, and a series of sticky-notes about the importance of keeping an eye on patrol routes in Hanson Heights initialed with the letter “S.”
“Who’s S?” Steph asks, peeking over her shoulder. The safe is closed again, with no sign of it ever having been disturbed.
“No idea,” Cass frowns, wondering about that herself. She puts the sticky-notes back, and moves onto the next drawer.
She finds his calendar, and pages through it absently. It’d be too much to hope for that he’d written “DO CRIME,” “COMMIT MURDER,” or “SMUGGLE JOKER GAS” into his day-planner, but there might be something they can use.
She flips to the current week, and pauses.
Hanson is hosting a large, formal event the upcoming weekend at Hanson Heights. The kind of event that would definitely stretch security thin, if Cass is reading into this correctly.
Cass makes a mental note of it, and then quickly closes the planner and replaces it exactly where she’d found it. It’s worth looking into, at the very least.
The center drawer finally turns up something useful—a memo, crumpled up and shoved in there absently, with receipts for take-out food and a high-end shoe store.
“Shipment—incoming. Final pieces… for the project. Please advise… all staff to avoid unnecessarily visiting… thirtieth floor!” Cass grins, triumphant. “The weapon!”
“Does it say what it is?”
“No,” Cass admits, scanning over the document again. “Uh… ‘volatile,’ ‘dangerous,’ and…” Cass trails off, staring at the end of the memo.
“What is it?”
“Batman Inc,” Cass says, narrowing her eyes.
“What?” Steph leans over to read.
“Although this shipment does open us up to a large risk, we are in complete agreement that it is necessary. Batman Incorporated serves as a significant threat towards all forms of expansion in Asia, as well as in other continents. To move forward, despite the implications, is of the utmost importance, as it is our greatest chance to destabilize this unfortunate plan of Bruce Wayne’s before it can cause any lasting damage to our organization.”
The two of them stare at the memo for a long time, long enough for Babs to text Cass to remove the USB from the computer.
“Who wrote the memo?” Steph finally asks. “Hanson?”
“Don’t think so,” Cass says. “It says… ‘we.’”
“Well, shit. He’s got a partner.”
The two of them stare at each other for a while, trying to think of the implications.
“He’s not just trying to take Hong Kong,” Cass says. “He wants to hurt… us.”
“Batman should stay in Gotham, huh? That’s a new one,” Steph says, but there’s a tightness to her smile. “Take a picture. We need to send this to Babs.”
Cass’s phone vibrates with a text from Xiao Yin, and she flinches. “We need to go back,” she says, taking the picture quickly, before crumpling it up again and shoving it into the drawer.
“Finish the search,” Steph says, quickly darting towards the trash can to check there.
The rest of the desk turns out nothing but an impressively long paperclip chain and some doodles of dresses that Steph tells her probably would be valuable, because Hanson is a fashion designer with a high-end brand. Cass squints at the dresses, which seem to feature a lot of cut outs, high heels, and neon colors, and can’t help but doubt that, even though she trusts Steph to know about things like this.
Steph finds nothing but used tissues in the trash can, and her expression tells Cass exactly what she thinks about that.
“Let’s go back,” Steph says. “You and I never got to dance, after all.”
Cass, in this moment, wants to do nothing less in the entire world than dance with Steph, because she doesn’t trust herself not to do anything she might regret, but she doesn’t say that.
Instead she follows Steph up into the ceiling vent again and tries not to think about the pattern of freckles on Steph’s thigh that she has a perfect view of while crawling behind her through an air vent.
Cunxin is sitting at the table when they get back. “Oh there you are! Thought you’d gotten lost! I just called us a cab to go back, so, five minute warning!”
“I never get lost, and anything Cass tells you about TJ Max is a complete and utter lie,” Steph says immediately, causing Cunxin to laugh.
“Right,” Steph says, dropping her clutch on the table. “If we’ve only got five minutes left, I’m going to go dance. Be back in a bit!”
Cass stares after her, wondering what would happen if she followed. If she put her hands on Steph’s wrist and tugged her into an embrace. If she craned her neck just so and pressed her lips against Steph’s. Would Steph taste like Xiao Yin? Or would she kiss more like Superboy? Would she—
“Did you two talk about things?” Cunxin asks, raising an eyebrow at her. He’s nursing a bottle of beer, and looks… worried, about her.
“Isn’t it always?”
“No.” It didn’t used to be complicated with Steph. Steph was, in fact, one of the simplest things in her life. She was her friend. They had sparred together… until they had stopped. But they had patrolled together… until that had stopped. They had trusted each other…
They’d had faith in each other…
But they hadn’t, Cass realizes with a horrible, sickening lurch. They’d tried, and they’d even had some wonderful, beautiful moments, but they had never been simple. There were always things getting in the way—Bruce telling Cass not to patrol with Steph, Cass dealing with Shiva, Steph dealing with being Robin, and later being fired as Robin, and then there was War Games, and then Steph had stayed away afterwards, and then there had been Bruce’s death…
But they’d been happy, right?
Cass thinks about sitting on gargoyles, about rooftop tag, about sparring and laughing and telling secrets.
She thinks about Steph’s smiles, about the rush of joy she’d felt at seeing Steph walk into her apartment. She thinks about milkshakes and burgers on the rooftop of Steph’s favorite library, of lessons about how to read.
“No,” she admits, staring at Steph’s clutch, abandoned on the table, left casually, but Cass knows it’s been left in her care. “But… we’re complicated. It’s… hard to talk about.”
“Bruce… my dad… he didn’t… like her.” It’s not quite right, because Bruce did like Steph, Cass is certain of that. He just… didn’t believe in her. Didn’t think she should be Spoiler. Didn’t think she should be patrolling Gotham… until he did. Until he’d told Cass to give Steph Batgirl, abruptly, with no prior sign, and died, so there could be no more clarification.
“Didn’t he send her to Hong Kong?”
“That’s… now. But he didn’t… used to. They made up. But he used to… tell me not to see her. And sometimes… I wouldn’t.” And isn’t that a bitter thing to admit? She’d listened to Bruce, and why wouldn’t she? He was Bruce. He was Batman. He was everything, and important and wonderful and Cass looked up to him.
And he wasn’t always wrong. Steph was reckless, angry, and impulsive. She wasn’t trained the way that Cass was.
But that didn’t mean he was right, either.
“And uh… we had a fight. Right before I came here. And she—” Cass swallows. “Complicated,” she adds, uselessly. She can’t tell Cunxin about Batgirl. She can’t think of a single thing that could possibly stand in for it either. What could possibly encompass the extent of that hurt? How can she explain Africa and Bruce’s death, when Bruce Wayne has never died? How her father had died, and his last wish had been to strip her of the greatest thing that had ever happened to her, causing her to flee her home?
The only person she could explain this to, really, is Stephanie Brown.
And that is not an option, not right now.
“Oh Cassie,” Cunxin says, and then he’s embracing her, and Cass lets him.
Suddenly, Steph is back, bright and brilliant, her smile wide. She’s comfortable, Cass realizes with a lurch. It’s so rare to see that she almost doesn’t realize it, but Steph is comfortable here, on the dance floor, in a club like this. The mission went well, and she’s celebrating.
“Cass!” Steph reaches out a hand. “Dance with me!”
Against all of her better judgement, Cass puts her hand in Steph’s, and lets her tug her onto the dance floor.
Steph isn’t like Cunxin. She’s not trained; her movements are that of an athlete, not a dancer. But she has a sense of rhythm, and she knows Cass, and the two of them sway together, pushed closer and closer by the crush of the dance floor.
Steph’s brow is shiny with sweat, and her makeup is long gone, but Steph practically glows on the dance floor, gorgeous and bright, her hands above her head, her smile real and genuine.
Cass, without thinking, lets herself get closer. Seeing it, Steph laughs brightly, and lets her arms fall onto Cass’s shoulders, a solid connection between the two of them that makes Cass’s heart race. This is…
Without thinking, she turns her face up to look into Steph’s eyes. Steph is taller than her, and she’s looking right back at Cass, and there’s something in her expression that makes Cass feel reckless, or maybe brave is the appropriate word for it.
Cass’s mouth is dry and her palms are sweaty. The music pulses and the crowd dances, and Cass licks her lips, and tells herself that Steph won’t pull away if Cass kisses her.
She starts to lean in even more, watching Steph’s body desperately, seeking any sign that she should stop, that she should pull back, that she should run away and get right in the elevator and never come back, but it’s… not coming. Maybe Steph doesn’t realize what Cass is doing…
Or maybe she wants this too.
Cass swallows, and the music swells, and she starts to push herself up onto her toes so she can finally do it, so she can finally press her lips against Steph’s, and…
“Cass!” Ho Seng says, and Cass jerks away from Steph as if she’s been electrocuted, her face flushing brightly, and Steph also moves away. “The cab’s here. You coming?” He looks at them strangely.
“Yes,” Cass says, unable to meet Steph’s eye. She almost… that was…
Cass will have to think about that later, she tells herself, flushing and closing her eyes briefly as she follows her friends to the elevator. Much later.
But the faintest flicker of hope lingers in her chest.
Steph hadn’t pulled away.
Chapter 18: And when it’s my time to go, I want you to know, I love you all
In which Steph (verbally) slaps Bruce Wayne.
Steph paces the length of her room, wringing her hands and muttering to herself as she tries to gather up her courage. She’s still wearing the dress from the club, although she’s ditched the shoes and her jewelry, leaving her in a strange state of in-between. She’s far too wired to go to sleep, but at the same time, she knows she should probably calm down. She should maybe read a book, and shower, and listen to some calming music, and…
Stephanie Brown has never been particularly good at doing what she should do.
She can hear the sound of the shower running next door, letting her know that Cass is busy right now.
She’s… she’s in the clear right now. If she wants to do it, it has to be now.
She gathers up her courage and slips down the hallway to the gym, climbing the ladder up to Cass’s Cave.
Like all Caves that Steph’s ever been in, there’s a large screen with a swivel chair in front of it; Cass’s access to Oracle’s network and the Batman, Incorporated servers. Steph pauses, noting that Cass’s cave isn’t particularly accessible, and makes a mental note to suggest that Cass change that so Babs can visit her, because Babs would totally love to visit Cass sometime.
Steph hesitantly makes her way over to the computer and tries her log-in information, hoping that it will work, despite this not being a system she’s ever used before.
Luckily, Babs’s wisdom is infinite, and her account opens up. Steph sits down in the chair, and steels herself for what she’s about to do.
“Computer,” Steph says, biting her lip and trying to sound more confident than she feels. “Call Batman Prime.”
“Calling,” the computer says in its soft, artificial voice, the same voice that Oracle uses when she’s using her voice scrambler.
Stephanie Brown straightens her spine and tries to push away all thoughts of anxiety or fear. She sits there, her back ramrod straight, still wearing a dress for clubbing and soaked in sweat. But it doesn’t matter what she looks like. She’s buzzing with the familiar rush of a mission gone well, and she’s as confident as she has ever been, and more than that, she’s filled with the kind of righteous anger that fuels her at the best of times.
It’s the kind of anger that Bruce hates, but it’s hers. It’s the anger that sometimes makes her miscalculate, sometimes makes her stumble, makes her impatient and reckless and whatever else Bruce will say about her, but that’s not the important part right now.
The important part is that it makes her stupidly, recklessly brave.
And she needs to be brave right now, for this.
“Stephanie?” It’s the middle of the day in Gotham right now, and Bruce isn’t wearing his suit. She’s glad she even caught him available—she couldn’t even be mad at him for dodging heer calls if he’d been in a meeting, but here he is, wearing a rumpled grey Gotham Knights t-shirt and the kind of deliberately blank, casual expression that Steph hates.
Steph clenches her hands into fists at her sides, even though she’s pretty sure the camera can still see them.
“So I talked to Cass,” she says, trying to keep her voice light and casual, even though Bruce is far too smart to believe it for a moment.
“About what?” Bruce asks, like he doesn’t know exactly why she’s here, why she’s practically vibrating with fury. She’s put this call off, hurt and confused more than angry, but now? Now she’s mad, and if Bruce Wayne can’t see that, he’s not half the detective she thinks he is.
“You lied to me!” she snaps. “You lied to me to get me out of Gotham. You’re—”
“Cassandra needed help,” Bruce says, in that infuriatingly calm way of his. “You were the best choice for the situation.”
“Oh, shut up,” Steph hisses, glaring at him. It doesn’t have nearly the kind of effect she wants, but she perseveres anyways, because Stephanie Brown is nothing if not too stubborn to quit. “You did it on purpose! You made me think that Cass was asking for me, and you didn’t correct me when I made that assumption, which you knew I’d made, and you used that to get me out of the city, and you knew I wouldn’t even question it because I was too happy, because you knew that Cass hadn’t spoken to me since you ordered her to make me fucking Batgirl!”
He meets her gaze evenly, completely unruffled by her fury or her language. “Yes.”
The simple, clear, statement only makes her angrier, even though Steph had started to believe that no human being could be as angry as she was without spontaneously summoning a Red Lantern ring. Or being Damian Wayne, possibly.
“You—you—” Steph is so incoherently furious that she can’t even talk. “Fuck you! Who gave you the right!” She stabs her finger in the direction of the screen. “Me? Fine. You always fuck me over, I’m used to it by now. You’ve never had faith in me and my ability to handle myself, even after you decided I was good enough for Batgirl. Me? Fine. Be your manipulative jackass self to me. I’m over it. I don’t need you. I’m a grown-ass woman and I’m—I fucking don’t need your approval.” She points at him again. “Fine! But you—how dare you make Cass feel like this?”
He doesn’t even flinch, and she hates him for that, for being so implacable, for being like a statue, even though Steph is screaming. It makes her feel like a child throwing a tantarum, like she’s being fucking unreasonable, even though Steph knows she’s in the right, and that Bruce Wayne has had this coming for a long, long time. “Like what?”
“She thinks you think she’s not good enough!” Steph is screaming now, and it vaguely occurs to her that Cass might be able to hear this, but she doesn’t care. “All she has ever wanted is to be good enough for you, to make the kind of change you made her believe she could do, and you fucking rip it away from her! Batgirl was everything to her! It was your symbol! And you go off and tell her she’s not good enough for it! You were dead! She wasn’t Batgirl anymore! She had nothing left!” Besides Steph. And Steph can hardly delude herself into thinking that she’s enough reason for anyone to stay.
Bruce meets her gaze steadily, evenly, patiently. His eyes are that familiar, icy shade of blue that she’s stared into so many times before. Even though he’s not wearing the cowl, she can easily imagine the lenses over them, which would only make the gaze more familiar.
Steph freezes, the wind taken out of her sails, thrown off balance by the easy admission “What?”
“Barbara used to tell me that Cassandra had no desire for a secret identity. That she had no life outside of Batgirl.” Bruce looks… he looks like he’s taking her seriously. “And for a long time, I refused to admit that there might be a problem there.”
Steph opens her mouth, unsure of what to say.
“I failed her, and I was aware of that. I’d failed all of you, but her perhaps most of all. I alienated her from her family, and we nearly lost her because of that. I was so confident in her that I often neglected her, because I thought that Dick and Tim needed the assurance more. She’d built a civilian life for herself in Bludhaven, but that was gone. She had… she had almost nothing left. She was throwing herself into the Batgirl role. She was getting reckless. The lives that were lost when Bludhaven exploded… she blamed herself for them. And I feared that one day, she was going to lose herself to it completely. That she was going to die, Stephanie.”
Bruce runs his hands through his hair. “She wasn’t listening. She was… hurt, by my actions, and I couldn’t blame her. I was desperately searching for some way to get her to stop. To realize how much more she was. More than Batgirl. That she’s important, as Cassandra.
“And then there was you.”
Steph straightens up. “Are you blaming me for this—?”
“I’d failed you too, Stephanie.”
And it’s like Steph’s forgotten how to breathe.
“I failed you. I treated you unfairly, and I know that. I’ve known it for a long time. I’d… I know what I did. I made you feel… unwanted. Like you didn’t belong. And I knew that taking Batgirl from Cass would hurt her, but I thought… I hoped. I hoped that if I gave it to you, she would understand. I hoped she would stay in Gotham, to support you. I hoped you would find each other, and that you’d be a team.” His shoulders slump, and Steph stares. She’s seen rare and vulnerable moments from Bruce before, but this… she’s never heard him talk this much, she’s never seen him expose himself so much.
“I was wrong. I’d miscalculated, and in my attempts to help both of you, I drove you two apart.” He straightens his shoulders and meets Steph’s eyes again. “That’s why I sent you to Hong Kong, Stephanie. Not just to protect you. But because I knew that it would help the two of you mend the damage that I’d caused.”
Steph stares at him, incredulous. Then she stands up and screams.
“Then why didn’t you just fucking tell us this?”
Her rage is incandescent and all-encompassing. She can’t believe this man. He—how dare he? How dare he stand tall and play God with their lives? How dare he turn them into pawns that he can manipulate? How dare he take Cass’s dreams and rip them away in the name of helping her? How dare he finally give Stephanie everything she ever wanted, but too little, too late?
How come he can only ever recognize his mistakes when the damage has been done?
She has always looked up to Bruce, and not just because he’s four inches taller than her. When she was a child, she had dreamed of Batman coming to save her. Arresting her dad, making mom get clean, and, maybe even making her Robin. She had fought tooth and nail for his approval for years and years, only to be turned away at every step. She had died for him, or at least had tried to, and even then, she hadn’t been enough. Even then, she’d made promises on promises that she was done, that she was never going to be Spoiler again, and she’d still been scrambling for crumbs of his approval.
And then he gives her everything she wanted, and he says he was hoping it would bring her and Cass closer?
Since when has he cared about that? Bruce Wayne has always pitted them against each other, telling Cass not to patrol with her, telling Steph that she’d never be as good as Cass, and then he dares to say that the two of them distancing themselves was shocking to him?
How could anything else have happened, with the fissures and cracks that already existed between them?
Wasn’t Bruce Wayne supposed to be smart?
Steph takes all of her rage, all of her years of anger and hurt and bitterness and disappointment, and finally finds her voice.
She points at him again. “Are you fucking kidding me, Bruce? You couldn’t have just—you couldn’t have just made your final request to Cass be that she gets her GED or signs up for ballet classes? You couldn’t have just apologized to me? You couldn’t have fucking owned up to your mistakes afterwards?” Steph swallows the lump in her throat. “Cass didn’t speak to me for a year, you fucking jackass!”
“And I’m sorry,” Bruce says.
Steph takes a physical step backwards, mouth agape.
She’s not sure if she’s ever heard Bruce apologize, not even on those few rare and wonderful occasions when he was kind to her, or was training her, or even just let her follow him around on a patrol. Those times were precious and seldom, and each of them was a treasured memory, but this…
She can’t think of anything like this, not even in that half-remembered dream of a memory when she was dying in the hospital.
“What?” She whispers.
“You’re right. I made a mistake. I seem to make a lot of them, when it comes to you and Cassandra.” He sighs, and Steph thinks, for the first time, she sees grey hairs. “You both deserved better.”
Steph can’t find words. Her throat is sealing shut, swollen with years of anger, hurt, and…
She’s wanted to hear those words for so long, but she can’t enjoy them, not really, because Cass got hurt to make them happen.
She turns away from him, and closing her eyes.
“I’m giving up Batgirl,” she tells Bruce, wrapping her arms around herself. “I—I won’t be responsible for hurting Cass anymore.” Her chin goes up, and she spins on her heel to face him, trying to hide the vulnerability that she’s feeling. “And if that means I’m out of Batman, Inc., then fine! I don’t need it! I was doing great before it!”
Bruce looks at her with all the seriousness and solemnity that he carries when he wears the cowl. “Stephanie. There will always be a place at Batman, Inc. for you, no matter if it’s as Spoiler, or as Stephanie Brown, or by any other name you might chose to call yourself. You’re part of the family. You belong, no matter what I’ve said in the past.”
“And Cass?” Steph demands, keeping her chin high. “Does she belong?”
He understands what she’s not saying, and he nods. “Gotham will always be here for both of you. If you chose.”
Steph puts her hands on her hips. “I’m still mad at you,” she informs him.
“I expected nothing less.”
“And when I’m done with Hanson, I’m on the next flight home, and I’m going to kick Black Mask right in the face.”
“If I haven’t managed to put him in prison by then, I’ll accept that.”
“And you better apologize to Cass yourself.” She adds, because now that she’s checked, the Cave is soundproofed, so Cass probably didn’t hear this entire conversation. Although she still might have, because Cass is a wonderful freaky ninja like that, and might be hiding in the rafters or something.
Bruce smiles at her, faintly. It’s one of the most genuine expressions that she’s ever seen on his face. He looks like a real dad, with the grey in his hair, his baggy sweater, and his soft, gentle expression. It’s almost enough for Steph to forget who he is, and to forget that she’s furious beyond all reason at him. “I’ll do that. And Stephanie?”
“What?” Steph is tired now, the happy, confident buzz from earlier fading from her bones. All she wants to do is go to her room and sleep for fifteen hours or so, and maybe dream happy dreams about the way that she and Cass had danced together at the club, and about how close Steph had gotten to kissing Cass.
“I’m glad she has you. The two of you are good for each other. I hope you both know that.” He gives her another, this time slightly larger, smile, and then he ends the call abruptly, leaving only a large Bat Symbol on the screen.
Steph stares off into the middle of space for a long time, after that, torn between the urge to cry, and…
“Did he just give me his blessing to date his daughter?”
Chapter 19: Oh, Love, don’t leave me by myself, or I’m bound to lose my meaning
Cass has some hard decisions to make about who she is.
Steph has some opinions about that.
Cass sleeps fitfully that night, tossing and turning with memories. Memories of Superboy and the castle in the sky, memories of Brenda and cups of Assam tea, perfectly brewed, memories of Steph, laughing, her head tilted back to face the ceiling, exposing the lines of her neck.
She wakes at five AM and wonders what it’s like to have a full night of sleep.
The costume that Steph had brought her, the one she’d repaired, the one she’d worn, is still sitting on Cass’s chair, almost taunting her, but also a comfort.
What is she supposed to do?
Cass picks it up, feeling the oh-so-familiar fabric in her hands, tracing the Batgirl symbol. She glances at the door, making sure it’s completely shut, and then she starts to put it on again.
Her Black Bat costume has never felt like this, has never managed to carry with it the same sense of comfort, of home, of self. The costume was designed by Helena, but Cass has worn it for so long it’s as much a part of her as her own hands. Black Bat is her own creation, but…she’d refused to give it some things, not wanting to remind herself of what she’d lost, and because of that, it was always lacking.
But the Batgirl costume is perfect.
Cass beams to herself as she pulls the cowl over her head, the familiar press of the fabric against her face a comfort, the familiarity of it all causing herself to finally slow down. She can savor this, this wonderful gift that Steph has give her.
She mimes a punch, and laughs to herself, pivoting on her foot to face herself on the mirror.
And then she stares.
She looks young.
She’s not sure how to explain that—it’s not as if the Batgirl costume she’s always worn is childish. It’s simple and black and tight as ever, but…
She doesn’t recognize the girl in the mirror. No, that’s not right, she recognizes her, but it’s…
It’s not her. It’s who she used to be.
Cass presses a hand against the mirror, trying to figure out where, exactly, things have changed. Maybe Steph altered the costume at some point, made some small change that warps the way that Cass sees herself.
Her stomach churns and twists, pushing out her initial joy and calm.
Cass is wearing her old costume, but she—
She’s not Batgirl, not anymore, and worst of all, she doesn’t—
Cass rips the mask off and gasps for air, staring at herself in the mirror, eyes wet with tears, shaking from head to toe.
Worst of all, Cass thinks, pressing her forehead against the mirror, letting the tears flow freely. Worst of all, is that Cass doesn’t want to be Batgirl anymore.
She wants it, but it has changed. She wants to wear the Bat, she wants to fight for the symbol, she wants to… she wants to go home, to Gotham, to be with her family, and to see Steph every day, instead of for this stolen piece of time.
She falls to her knees, sobbing openly, because she isn’t Batgirl anymore. It doesn’t fit her anymore. It was once her, inside and out, but now it’s not, and it’s changed, and she doesn’t hate the changes, even if it hurts, and the lack of hatred only makes it worse, because she should hate it.
She’s outgrown Batgirl, and the thought is nauseating because if she’s not Batgirl, then…
Then all she’s left with is Cassandra Cain, the girl who killed a man when she was eight years old, whose friends die around her and she’s left standing, and who…
“Cass?” Steph’s voice calls from the other side of the door, and Cass freezes, staring at her own reflection, pale faced and crying and wearing a costume that belongs on a girl, not a grown woman, and she tries to scramble to her feet. “Cass, are you okay? I thought I heard—”
“I’m fine,” Cass says, but her body doesn’t do what she’s telling it to do. Her tears keep flowing, and her voice cracks, and she just has to hope upon hope that Steph will stay out, because she doesn’t want Steph to see her like this, doesn’t want her to know—
The door opens, because of course Stephanie Brown can’t listen to anyone cry without interfering. No wonder she’s a good Batgirl.
“Cass?” Steph whispers, no judgement in her voice as she looks at Cass, wearing an old costume, sobbing in front of a mirror. “Oh, Cass…”
She wraps her arms around Cass, pulling her against her chest, hugging her tightly. “Cass, what is it? What’s wrong?”
“I—” Cass can’t find the words. Words are gone, and she just buries her face in Steph’s hair and lets out a wordless sob, like she’s ten years old again, letting herself make sounds but not words.
Steph doesn’t say anything either, just keeps holding Cass, rubbing circles against her back, resting her forehead against the crown of Cass’s head, kneeling right there on the floor with Cass.
And that, more than anything, is what allows Cass to dig into her mind again and find the words.
“I—I don’t… I don’t want you to…”
Steph is patient, saying nothing, allowing Cass to organize her thoughts and force them into a sentence.
“I don’t want you to stop being Batgirl.”
Steph does react to that, pushing Cass away, but only enough to force Cass to look her in the eye. “What?”
“I—you’re good. At it. You’re Batgirl.” Steph reaches out and places her hand against Steph’s chest, where the symbol should be. A part of her flushes, realizing what she’s doing, but she doesn’t care, because this is important, and she needs Steph to understand this. “You’re Batgirl. It’s yours. I’m… just… me.”
Steph’s eyebrows furrow at that. “Just you?” She laughs, incredulously. “Cass… there’s no just about being you.” She reaches out, hesitating for only a moment before pressing her hand against Cass’s cheek. “Cass… you’re the best person I’ve ever known. You… if I’m Batgirl, it’s because you showed me how. You had… you had the worst life I could ever imagine, and you still manage to be compassionate and wonderful and smart and tough and… you’re everything, Cass. There’s no just about being Cassandra Cain.”
Cass’s mouth falls open. “But I—”
“If you even think about blaming yourself for what happened when you were eight, I will walk right out of here eat all the chocolate ice cream.”
The absurd nature of the threat makes Cass laugh despite herself. “I—but—”
“You’re amazing, Cass. And if I have to stay here in Hong Kong to tell you this every day until you believe me, then so be it.” Steph has the most stubborn angle to her smile. It’s the smile that’s brittle, that’s hurting, but determined. It’s the smile she gave when she came up with a new way to circumvent Bruce’s rules, the smile she gave when she’d been locked out of the Cave again and was pretending everything was fine, it’s the smile she probably gave while she was dying in the hospital.
“I don’t—being Batgirl—”
“You will always be Batgirl,” Steph says, harshly. “Just like Babs. But that doesn’t… you can change, Cass,” she says, smirking suddenly, as she turns Cass’s own words back against her. “Change doesn’t have to be bad.”
Cass, unthinking, leans into the hand that’s still pressed against her cheek. “I don’t know… how not to be Batgirl,” she confesses.
“Sure you do,” Steph says. “You make friends. You take ballet. You eat mochi on the rooftops. You dance in night clubs. And you figure it out as you go along, like the rest of us.”
Steph reaches out and presses her own hand against the Bat symbol on Cass’s chest. Cass wonders if she can feel how Cass’s heart is racing, or if she can see how Cass’s cheeks flulsh at the action.
“This symbol? It’s not what made you a hero, Cass. You did that. You always did that.”
Cass places her hand over Steph’s, unthinkingly clinging it to her chest.
“Thank you,” she whispers, the words ragged and aching like the rest of her.
Steph moves her hand from cupping Cass’s face to brushing the tears off her face.
“You’re my best friend, Cass,” Steph whisper, leaning forward and pressing her forehead against Cass’s. “I—I missed you so much. And you’re… you’re everything, Cass. I know you don’t believe me. But you’re so much more than Batgirl, and you always have been.”
Cass grips Steph’s hand and leans against her. It’s different than the moment last night, in the club, when Cass had been struck by their closeness. It’s just as close, but a different kind of intimacy. It’s something Cass doesn’t have words for; comfort, maybe, but it seems to go beyond that.
Steph’s words echo in her head, refusing to go away.
She’s… she’s Cassandra Cain. She’s Black Bat. She’s a daughter. She’s a sister. She’s a best friend. She’s a dancer. She’s a fighter. She’s a detective.
She was Batgirl, in the past tense, but no one can ever take the past tense from her. It is, it was, it always will be, no matter what other name she takes on. It will always be her, no matter what anyone does.
The symbol is hers, but she is not the symbol’s. She is more than it. She is… she’s more.
She’s a hero. Stephanie Brown said so, and Steph is many things, but a liar is only rarely one of them.
Cass clings to Steph and tries not to think about what’s going to happen when Steph gets on the plane back to Gotham, leaving Cass behind.
Finally, Steph pulls Cass to her feet. “Let’s get you some tea,” Steph says, her voice soft and kind, like she’s afraid that Cass will break if she speaks too loud.
Given how Cass feels like she’s a towel that’s been soaked, then wrung out until there’s not a drop of moisture left in her, Cass suspects that Steph might be right on that front.
Cass lets Steph lead her to the kitchen table, which, at some point, Steph has cleaned up from the impromptu surgery the other night, and lets herself be pushed into a seat.
“How’s your shoulder?” Cass asks. It’s hard to believe that the Steph had been injured barely thirty-six hours ago. It’s hard to believe that she’d come so close to losing her.
(What kind of trouble does Steph get into in Gotham, on her own, without a partner out in the field, and only Babs to keep an eye on her from a distance?)
“It’s good!” Steph says. She’s found Cass’s tea pot, and she’s valiantly measuring out the tea leaves while the water boils, and Cass is too weary to try to tell her how to do it properly. “I should be good to patrol tonight.”
“Good,” Cass says. She really should stop Steph before she does something like overstep the leaves, but Cass can’t find it in herself to move. “We should… try tonight then.”
“Hanson Heights?” Steph says, flashing a bright smile at her.
Steph pours the water into the pot, then puts the lid on it. “Two minutes, right? That’s what Google says.”
“Right,” Cass says.
“Want anything to eat? There’s… fruit.”
“Apple?” Cass says, not really up for doing anything more complicated than that.
“One apple, coming right up!” Steph chirps, throwing open the fridge. She pulls out several apples and throws it to Cass at high speed.
Cass’s hand snaps up to catch it automatically, her instincts trumping her emotional exhaustion. Steph’s triumphant grin tells Cass that this was, in fact, her goal, and she scowls at her best friend.
“Steph?” Cass says, turning the apple over in her hands.
“Yeah Cass?” Steph says, bringing over the mug of tea. She’s managed to find Cass’s favorite mug, the dark blue one without handles. How Steph has already put that together, Cass has no idea, but it’s enough to make her dizzyingly, amazingly grateful for Stephanie Brown’s entire existence.
“… I’m glad it was you.”
“That came to help me. I’m glad it was you.”
Steph’s smile could light up the entire city.
“I’m glad I came, too.”
Chapter 20: I'm kind of wondering why we have to play the guessing game
There is, in fact, a law that all StephCass fics must involve rooftop tag. I don't make the rules. I just follow them.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Steph stares at her own Batgirl costume.
“So I guess you’re stick around,” she tells it, then immediately feels ridiculous for talking to an inanimate object. This is why she should have brought her diary.
Dear Diary, so I’m totally head over heels for Cassandra Cain, and she’s actually given me her approval to be Batgirl this time, so I guess I’m still Batgirl.
Dear Diary, Cass looks way too attractive when she’s doing ballet and is it possible to die of bisexuality because I think I’m making a good run of it.
Dear Diary, Is it weird that I’m glad I got shot because Cass is actually talking to me now?
Steph forces herself to shrug, and then puts on the costume, humming to herself, because Babs never did get around to giving her an iPod jack for her suit. She touches the Batgirl symbol on her chest, almost reverently, and smiles to herself.
No matter what else happens, Cass has given her blessing, for real this time.
Even if it came about in a horrible way, even if it hurt them both in the process, they’re finally here.
She goes up to the Cave, which Steph really should figure out if it’s actually called that, because really, it’s far more of an attic or a loft. Maybe a Belfry? Oh, she’ll have to suggest that one to Cass, if Cass isn’t set on a name already.
Cass is, of course, already waiting for her, sitting at the big screen where Steph had just been sitting last night, chewing out Cass’s dad. Cass is looking over building schematics, frowning and nodding to herself as she flicks through them rapidly. Steph wouldn’t be surprised if Cass already had the schematics memorized, and is just checking them over out of paranoia, drilled into her by Cain, Bruce, and Babs alike.
Steph taps Cass on the shoulder. “Ready to head out?”
“You sure… you’re okay? Can… stay in?” Cass looks like it’s physically painful to suggest that. She’s honestly way too much like Bruce sometimes.
“One night makes all the difference,” might as well be Bruce’s motto, and Cass, in a city with no backup, is definitely living that life.
Steph raises an eyebrow at Cass, who wilts. “Can do it solo?” Cass offers instead, and Steph laughs.
“I’m good, really Cass. I’ve—” Steph remembers to cut herself off before she makes a joke about drill bits, suspecting that Cass, like her mother, wouldn’t approve of Steph’s dark sense of humor when it comes to the subject of the Black Mask and near-death-experience. “I’m good,” she says, correcting herself, but Cass’s narrowed eyes tells her that Cass definitely notices she was about to say something different.
“Anyways, ready to head out?” Steph says, quickly trying to distract Cass from the topic of War Games.
“Sure,” Cass says, locking the computer.
The two of them climb the ladder to the rooftop.
Steph scans the skyline again. “It’s really beautiful,” Steph says, unable to hide her awe at the scope of the city, of the gorgeous silhouette of the skyscrapers against the sky. She’s a city girl at heart, for all that her family moved in and out of the suburbs as a kid. But the city is where she belongs, she knows that in her heart.
She doesn’t need the stars; she just needs the moon in the sky, the neon of the street below, and the gleam of the Bat Signal above her.
“Yes,” Cass says, something in her voice that Steph can’t place. “Beautiful.”
Steph spreads out her arms, savoring the night breeze. She’s almost gotten used to the taste of the Hong Kong smog, even though she still misses the equally foul Gotham air.
It’s then that she gets an idea, and peaks at Cass out of the corner of her eye. Cass is also studying the skyline, her body angled towards Steph.
Steph grins, and lunges.
Cass yelps as Steph wraps her arms around her in a quick hug.
“Tag! You’re it!” Steph yells, pushing Cass away before leaping off the apartment building, laughing all the way down.
“Cheating!” Cass yells after her, and Steph just laughs harder as she hears the sound of Cass’s grappling hook, signaling that Cass is giving chase.
It’s hard to believe that only two nights ago, they had raced across the same rooftops. It feels entirely different tonight; brighter than ever, less threatening, somehow, but just as strange and unfamiliar to Steph.
She was never going to keep her lead against Cass for long, but that was never the point. Steph didn’t need to win. She just needed to play.
She just needed to hear the joy in Cass’s voice as she tackles her, knocking both of them to the ground. Steph tries to fight back, tries to wrestle Cass into submission, but she never had a chance, and they both know it.
They end up with Steph flat on her back, Cass straddling her, and their faces far too close together.
Steph stares up at Cass, breathing heavily, her heart racing in her chest.
This… this is a new take on rooftop tag.
Cass stares down at her, her face so much more expressive, now that she’s not hidden behind the full-face cowl. And it’s probably like that for Steph, too, and Steph flushes brightly.
She expects Cass to move away, because there’s no way that Cass can’t read this, can’t put two and two together, can’t realize that Steph is seconds away from reaching up to grab Cass’s face and kiss her silly, but Cass just stays there, staring at Steph as if she’s never seen her before.
“Cass?” Steph asks, hating how small her voice sounds.
Cass leaps to her feet. “Tag!” Cass says quickly, and then she’s gone, leaping to the next building.
Steph doesn’t give chase immediately, instead just staring after her.
Hope flickers in her chest.
That wasn’t… bad.
She thinks about Xiao Yin’s reaction at the club, when Steph had said that Cass was straight.
Maybe… maybe she has a chance, after all.
Steph quickly buries that hope, trying to snuff it out, but it’s far too late. She’s so far gone that she can’t completely kill it, only dim it.
She shakes her head, trying to shake off those thoughts, and then runs after Cass, although she’s sure the only way she can win this game is by sucker punching Cass again.
They pause the game when they have to stop and intimidate a carjacker, and then again when they find a thirteen-year-old boy smoking cigarettes on the fire escape outside of his building.
Cass tells the boy off in Cantonese, while Steph steals his cigarettes.
“Hey!” He yells in English. “Those are mine!”
Steph puts them in her utility belt. “No one will ever believe you,” she says solemnly. “Don’t do drugs!” And then she grabs Cass around the waist and fires her grappling hook to take them both away.
When they’re far enough away from the boy, Cass bursts out laughing. “Don’t… do drugs?”
“It’s a good life lesson!” Steph says, shoving Cass lightly. Thinking ahead, Steph texts Babs to keep an eye out for that particular twitter thread, and then the two of them take off again.
They keep up the game across the city, stopping to fight crime, and occasionally to pose for photos for very excited college students. Hong Kong is a lot more into photos of heroes than Gotham is, Steph thinks, glancing at the screencaps of social media posts that Babs and Wendy keep sending her.
“Alright,” Steph says, after they’ve made it all away the across the opposite end of the city from Hanson Heights. “Ready to sneak back around and make our entrance?”
Cass nods, smirking at her.
This time, they’re stealthier, sticking to the middle of the rooftops to be able to avoid being seen. They pick their way across the city, avoiding showy leaps or obvious flashes of color, using the darkness to their advantage. Steph does kind of regret the emphasis on purple on nights like this, but it’s still dark enough that she blends in.
Finally, they get to Hanson Heights.
Steph glances at the building and wrinkles her nose. “It’s very… phallic.”
“Just a little,” Cass agrees.
“Isn’t this guy supposed to be a designer?”
“He’s evil. Evil has no style.”
Steph snickers. “Alright,” she cracks her knuckles. “Let’s break into a vault!”
They retrace Cass’s steps from last time, entering through the roof, looping cameras as they go and ducking security guards.
“More than last time,” Cass says, furrowing her brow.
Steph tenses up. “Do you think they know we’re coming?”
Cass frowns. “Don’t know. Be ready.”
They get the bottom of the elevator shaft when Steph knows that things are definitely off the rails.
“They’ve reinforced this,” Cass says. “Don’t know if… I can cut through it.”
“Shit,” Steph says.
“Should we try the other elevator?”
“Have to,” Cass’s face is a mask of stubbornness, but there’s also fear. They still don’t know what this weapon is, or what it has to do with Batman, Inc., but whatever it is, it’s dangerous, and Hanson is the kind of guy who brings Joker Gas to a city. They can’t take that risk.
Steph palms a batarang, just in case. It’s a nice, normal one, no extra features or tricks, but it’s still plenty pointy, and sometimes, Steph likes the stick with the classics.
They can’t cut through the bottom of the next elevator shaft either, and Cass looks like she’s ready to punch someone, and hard.
Steph doesn’t like this. Any of this.
She doesn’t want to jinx it by quoting Star Wars, but…
She has a bad feeling about this.
They go to the next elevator, the one that stops on the floor normally, and Steph knows that Cass is feeling just as bad about this situation as she is.
“We could come back later,” Steph says, even though she knows it’s pointless. They’d just tighten security even more by then, and they both know it.
“We can take them,” Cass says, clenching her hands into fists.
“Cass… if we can’t prove he’s a bad guy, if we get caught… we get in trouble. Bad PR at the very least.”
Cass looks miserable. “I know.” Then she tenses up immediately. “Guards!”
The two of them hide immediately, Cass moving behind a convenient potted plant, and Steph ducking into a room in the hallway.
“Really? They moved it?” One of the guards is saying.
The other one snorts. “Didn’t you hear? We had an attempted break in a few nights ago. Smart money’s on the Bat. So it’s moved out until the auction.”
Steph wants to scream. Seriously?
“Seriously? He’s paranoid.”
“Hey, he’s from Gotham. He knows the Bats better than anyone. If he says this is how to do it, that’s how we do it.”
“So what? We just keep patrolling constantly to try to catch the Bat off guard until Saturday?”
Saturday? Steph frowns. The auction isn’t for three weeks. At least that’s what Cass’s intel said…
Before the break in.
“Yep,” the other guard says. “We’ll move it back in while things are getting set up, then things will be able to go back to normal.”
“Maybe then he’ll go back to Gotham and leave us alone,” the first guard says, but if his companion has a response, it’s lost as they turn the corner.
Steph hears the faint thump that means that Cass definitely punched a wall.
“I heard,” Steph says grimly. “And I think they must have moved up the auction, too.”
“Saturday,” Cass says. “We need to… talk to Oracle. Need to figure out where.”
Steph nods. She reaches out and puts a hand on Cass’s shoulder. “Hey. We’ll get them,” she says.
Cass looks at her, just radiating exhaustion. The good cheer from earlier is gone.
“We have to,” Cass tells her. “Can’t let… anybody get hurt. Because of me.”
“Hey!” Steph objects, but she decides to not lecture Cass while in the middle of enemy territory.
Their exit is faster than their entrance at least, but by the time they get out, it’s definitely time for them to turn in. But first, Steph needs to say this.
She grabs Cass by the shoulders and shakes her. “Cass. It’s not your fault if he hurts somebody.”
“I won’t have stopped him,” Cass says.
“You’re not responsible for him!” Steph snaps. “He’s to blame. The only person you can control is you. We’re trying to do the right thing. He’s trying to do the wrong thing. He’s the one who’s trying to hurt people. If anyone gets hurt, it’s because of him.” She grips Cass’s shoulders so tightly that she thinks she might be leaving bruises, but Cass needs to know this. “Cass. You’re not responsible for the things you couldn’t stop. You’re only responsible for yourself and your own actions.”
Steph has learned that lesson the hard way. She’s not responsible for the people that her father hurt.
She’s only responsible for the damage she did in War Games, when she was young and stupid and trying to prove herself.
That is her fault. That is something she has to live with. She doesn’t even have Cass’s excuse of having not realized what she was doing.
But this isn’t about her, so she can’t dwell on her own crimes, her own guilt. It’s about Cass and her guilt complex the size of the building they just left.
“Hanson,” she repeats. “He’s to blame.”
“But I’m—Black Bat.”
“You’re the Bat,” Steph agrees. “But that doesn’t mean you can do everything. That doesn’t mean you’re responsible for him. Bruce isn’t responsible for what the Joker does. You’re not responsible for Hanson.”
Cass frowns, but eventually, finally, nods.
Steph sighs in relief, and lets her hands fall to her side.
“Let’s go back to your place,” Steph says.
Their journey back is subdued, quiet again, but it’s a contemplative, thoughtful silence, interrupted only once, by the ringing of Cass’s cellphone.
“Hello?” Cass says, sounding concerned, pulling out her phone and answering it physically, rather than using her communicator. “Oh. Yes. Um… Sunday? Sunday. Yes. Bye Xiao Yin.”
“Oh?” Steph says, raising an eyebrow. “That’s Xiao Yin?”
“Yes,” Cass says. “She… still wants to be friends.”
“I mean, she’d be a pretty shitty friend if she stopped being friends with you just because—” Steph pauses, thinking about earlier and changes what she’s about to say, because…
Well, technically, she’s never asked.
“Just because you told her you were straight?” Steph says, unable to stop herself from making it a question.
“I’m not,” Cass says, looking at her phone. “Straight. Don’t know… what I am… but not that.”
Steph’s heart practically stops.
“Oh! Cool. Me neither. Uh, well, I know what I am. Bi. But that’s—uh, well, you know, great! I’m, uh… going to stop talking now. I’m glad you’re still friends with her.”
“Me too,” Cass says, sounding distracted.
They head back to the apartment, again in silence, but this time, Steph’s head is swirling with plans.
Cass isn’t straight.
Cass isn’t straight.
Cass straddled her and blushed.
Cass danced with her at the club and didn’t pull away when Steph got way too close.
Cass might possibly maybe kind of want to kiss Steph.
This, Steph thinks as she stumbles into the shower, with a big, stupid grin on her face, will require a lot of thinking about.
Progress? Maybe? BUT HEY, IT ONLY TOOK THEM 50K TO REALIZE THEY'RE BOTH NOT STRAIGHT!
Chapter 21: Cuz you were born to change this life
Bruce has a long-overdue apology for Cass.
Cass tries to call Babs immediately when they get back, but Babs is apparently in the middle of an urgent case involving the Teen Titans, so she suggests they call Bruce instead.
Steph immediately runs off to go shower, which makes Cass suspicious about what exactly, Steph had been doing on her computer last night, but she shrugs and makes the call.
“Cassandra,” Bruce says, smiling at her.
“Hello,” Cass says, offering him a brief smile of her own, but the frustration leaks into her voice,
He catches on immediately and leans forward. “What is it?”
“Hanson moved the weapon,” she says. “And changed the auction date.”
He frowns. “When to?”
“Saturday,” she says. Then she pauses, two pieces of the puzzle sliding together in her mind. “Same day… as his party.”
“A cover event,” Bruce nods, thoughtful. “Allows him to gather buyers. What do you know about it?”
“Not… much,” Cass wrinkles her nose and checks the photographs she’d taken in Hanson’s office. “Uh… big guest list. Lots of champagne.”
“It’s an investment event,” Bruce says, clearly doing his own research as he’s talking with her. His eyes dart back and forth, reading quickly. “Both to attract and to celebrate investors.” He looks thoughtful. “If you’d like, I can see if I can get you an invitation to the event as a Wayne Enterprises investor.”
Cass pauses. “It is… on the right floor,” she says, thoughtfully. “But… Steph?”
“Typically, an invited guest of such a function is allowed to bring someone along,” Bruce says, and there’s some sort of mischief in his eyes. “Traditionally, a romantic partner.”
Cass tries very hard not to react to that. “Oh?”
“Yes,” Bruce is definitely smiling now. “Of course, it could be platonic, but that might… raise questions about why Stephanie is in town.”
Cass narrows her eyes at Bruce. “Suggestion?”
“Tim has proven just how effective a fake engagement can be,” Bruce says, and he’s laughing. “I believe a rumor or two would suffice.”
Cass gapes at him. “I—what?”
“I’ll make arrangements with Alfred,” Bruce says, and he’s definitely being Bruce now, and Cass isn’t sure what to make of this, not at all, but she’s still suspicious. “Dresses for the event—you’ve got a day still, I’ll make a call, I know a designer in the area, lovely woman, she’ll have something for the two of you. Jewelry, of course, and I’ll make sure that the invite arrives soon for you and your fiancé.”
“You’re… mocking me,” Cass says, squinting at him.
“No,” Bruce says, smiling at her genuinely. “I just believe it’s good for you to experience these kinds of missions.”
Cass scowls, crossing her arms.
“Besides,” Bruce says. “You always can use a new dress.”
Cass can’t deny she likes dresses, but Bruce doesn’t usually get this smug about buying her things. “Why… else?”
“Because,” Bruce says, looking completely serious. “It’s you using your secret identity. It’s you being… Cassandra Wayne.”
Cass tenses up, then forces herself to relax. “I—”
“Cassandra,” Bruce says, cutting her off. “Stephanie called me last night. And she made some excellent points.”
“About my own mistakes. Particularly… in regards to you. And asking you… no. Telling you. To stop being Batgirl.”
Cass is frozen in place. She feels like a child again, without words, unable to even make a sound, as she stares at Bruce, terrified of what he’s going to say next.
He’s going to tell her she’s not good enough, that she failed him, that he can never let someone who’s been a killer to be the Bat, that she’s not worthy of his symbol.
Bruce sighs, running his hands through his hair. “Did you know that Barbara used to call me, telling me about your progress?”
Cass nods, still unable to speak.
“She’d tell me how brilliant you were. How dedicated. How you threw yourself into the mission, body and soul, and how you were skilled in ways that we couldn’t even fully understand. And then she’d tell me how much she worried about you. How you had no life outside Batgirl. How you had no interest in a life outside of Batgirl. And… I didn’t help with that. I encouraged you. To keep fighting, to turn away the people in your life, like Steph, who would distract from the mission.”
Cass’s mouth is dry, her tongue shriveled up, and when she tries to open her mouth to object to his assessment of himself, no words come out.
“I did it because I saw you as… my successor. You understood, in a way that went so deep that I was unable to wrap my mind around your childhood. I saw your loyalty, your dedication, and I thought about the times that having a civilian life had hindered me, rather than acknowledging all the times that it saved me. I believed I was helping you, but instead, I was making sure that you… were vulnerable.”
“Successor?” Cass whispers, her voice breaking. Tears well up in her eyes, but she manages to hold them off for now.
“Always,” Bruce says with a nod. “You… you were always the one I could rely on. Dick and Tim, I had to worry about, but you… I saw only what I wanted to see. I saw your strength, your skill, your intelligence, and refused to see your trauma or your needs. I took the boys on that trip and left you behind, and I didn’t even consider how it would make you feel, because for me, it wasn’t about that. I was narrow-minded, and I made assumptions, and in that arrogance, I hurt you.” He shakes his head. “And then, finally, after I met Damian, I… realized what I’d done. I was forced to take stock of everything. Of what I’d done. I saw… how much I’d failed you. And I decided to try to change that.”
He folds his hands in front of him. “I recorded so many versions of my message to you,” he sighs. “I did that for all of you. I record them once a month. To make sure they’re up to date. But I started to find myself coming to a theme with yours. How I wanted you to have a normal life. To be more than Batgirl. To be… my daughter. I wanted you to have friends. To go to school if you wanted. To be more than just someone who fights crime. But I kept seeing how you rejected my efforts, how you shied away from public life in Gotham, focusing instead on the Outsiders.”
“Didn’t want it,” Cass says, lips numb. “Wanted—just wanted to make up for—for what I did. When Deathstroke—”
“I know,” Bruce looks tired. “But I started to fear that Batgirl was… holding you back. That as long as you had that, you were never going to grow as a hero… or as a person. And then… I thought about Stephanie. And how much that she also could grow. And I sought to solve both problems. But in my determination to solve these problems… I hurt you. And for that, Cassandra, I am sorry. More than you can ever know.”
Cass looks away. “So… I’m not… you…”
“You weren’t ready to be Batman,” Bruce says softly. “Not then. You’re brilliant, Cassandra, never doubt that, but it was… not ready.”
“Now?” Cass challenges, narrowing her eyes at him.
Bruce smiles. “You’re a detective. You’ve had your own city for a year now. You’re operating as a fully-fledged member of Batman Incorporated. You’re a leader, you’re a hero. You’re already the Bat, Cassandra. The only thing making it otherwise is the name you call yourself.”
Cass feels the tears start to fall, slowly, steadily. “I—”
“You’re my daughter, Cass,” the words are awkward, stilted, but genuine, and Cass is paralyzed in place, still crying. “And…” He sighs. “We miss you. I understand if you want to remain in Hong Kong. But you… you should visit.”
“I can… go home?” Cass says, then stops, immediately feeling guilty. “Hong Kong…”
Bruce shrugs. “Cassandra, we have several agents who could move into the city if you want to leave, even temporarily.”
“I suspect it will take at least half a dozen to replace you,” Bruce says. “But there’s always room for you here in Gotham. And,” he adds, with a smile. “I suspect that Steph would love having you closer to home.”
“She could move here,” Cass says, impulsively.
“That would complicate her education,” Bruce says mildly. “Not to mention her mother wouldn’t like that.”
Cass stares at her hands. “Need to think about it,” she says, finally.
Then; “I did… good?”
“Good,” Cass says, swallowing. “Good.”
They sit there for a while, in a comfortable kind of silence, with Cass feeling more at peace than she has in a long, long time.
Finally, she hears Steph yell from downstairs. “CASS!”
“A bunch of boxes just arrived and I’m kind of freaking out!”
Cass opens one eye and looks at Bruce, who looks way too smug for his own good. “That was quick.”
“I know people,” Bruce says. “And I tip well.”
Cass grumbles, getting to her feet. “Fiance?” She asks Bruce. “Really?”
Bruce just smiles mysteriously. “Be careful, Cass. Hanson is dangerous, and we don’t know what he’s planning.”
“I’ll figure it out,” Cass says with a shrug.
“Of course you will,” Bruce says, beaming with pride. “You’re a detective.”
“I am. And your daughter.”
He laughs, a rare and wonderful sound. “Very true. He stands absolutely no chance.”
“Nope!” Cass ends the call, and she stretches, before going downstairs to see what, exactly, Bruce has managed to get delivered to her apartment at five in the morning.
And also to make Steph go to bed, because honestly, Steph.
Steph is standing in the midst of several boxes of various sizes, looking bewildered. “Cass, a set of keys came. I think they’re for one of those fancy experimental Wayne Electric Cars!” Then her eyes narrow. “Wait, did Bruce apologize? Is he trying to buy your love? Don’t let him Cass, you can hold out for a Batplane at the very least.”
Cass covers her mouth to hold in her laugher. “He did. I think this is just… for the mission.”
“What mission? Why do we need shoes for it? Because I opened one of these, and I’m pretty sure these shoes cost more than my tuition,” Steph says, wielding a pair of very pretty white heels (that’s a brand that Cass knows that Selina likes) like they’re weapons.
“We’re infiltrating the party to get to the vault,” Cass says. “Oh, and you’re my fiancé now.”
Steph drops the shoe.
Cass wonders if she should be offended by Steph’s reaction. “You’re my… plus one?” Steph nods to confirm that Cass used the correct phrase, still looking thunderstruck. “Bruce says this will cause less questions.”
Steph stares at her.
“This was Bruce’s idea?”
“Yes. I think he said he’d send rings.”
Steph goes white. “I hate him,” she whispers. “I’m going to—so many poop plushies.”
“Steph?” Cass asks, concerned.
“I mean, uh… we don’t have to do this,” Steph says, looking like she really doesn’t want to be here. Cass frowns, wondering what, exactly, is wrong here. “We can… we don’t need to be… engaged.”
Cass shrugs. “Bruce says he was going to start a rumor.”
Steph stares at her, then runs across the room to grab her phone. “Fuck, I gotta tell my mom!”
“That you’re going on a mission?”
“That Bruce has just told the Gotham Gazette that we’re engaged!”
“That’s what he did?”
“Judging from the texts I have from Wendy and Kara? Yes.”
Cass walks over to Steph. “Are you… okay?”
“I—” Steph pauses, and puts a hand over her eyes. “Sorry Cass. I’m being weird about this, aren’t I?”
“Sorry. It’s just… uh… I’ve never… don’t anything like this before.”
Cass shrugs. “Neither have I. We’ll figure it out… together.”
Steph lowers her hand, and smiles at Cass so tenderly that Cass’s heart jolts in her chest. “How are you real?” Steph whispers, nothing but fondness in her voice.
“Shiva and Cain,” Cass says, perfectly deadpan, and Steph laughs, throwing her head back in the kind of pure, joyful abandon, that Cass doesn’t see Steph do nearly often enough.
“God, I missed you,” Steph says, beaming at her.
“You yelled at Bruce?” Cass asks.
Steph looks away, shifty eyed. “You like him too much to ever yell at him for yourself.”
“You like him too,” Cass points out.
“Yeah, but that’s never stopped me from yelling at anybody. You’re nicer than I am.”
Cass raises an eyebrow, and gently taps on Steph’s jaw. “Broken?”
“It was a hairline fracture,” Steph says, narrowing her eyes, letting Cass know that she’s noticed their switch in positions. “And that’s different.”
“I’ve—yelled at Bruce before,” Cass protests.
“You don’t yell when you’re hurt,” Steph says. “You yell when you’re mad.” She shrugs again. “It’s okay. I’m mad enough for both of us.”
“Did he… apologize to you?”
“Yeah,” Steph says, shaking her head. “And I’m not about to forget that in a hurry.” She pauses and makes a face. “Crap, I’m going to have to figure out how to stay Batgirl without making it look like he got the last word. I can’t let that happen.”
“I got the last word,” Cass points out, and Steph brightens up immediately.
“Yes! That’s right, suck it Bruce, Cass’s word trumps all!” She hugs Cass, throwing an arm over her shoulder and pulling her against Steph’s side. “Hanson won’t know what hit him!”
That’s when Cass’s phone goes off. “Oh! That’s Bruce,” she says, glancing at the text. “He says… we have an appointment… at the designer’s. At three.”
“Wait,” Steph says, looking like she just swallowed something very unexpectedly sour. “Designer?”
Cass smiles mysteriously, just like Bruce, and goes to bed.
Man, Bruce goes ON, doesn't he?
Trying to hammer some coherent narrative into Bruce's actions is HARD, but I made an effort. The trip is a reference to the aftermath of a Crisis, where Bruce, Dick, and Tim went on a soul-searching journey during the events of 52, while Harvey Dent was left in charge of Gotham. Yes. Really. Cass ended up "going evil" during that time, because comics are like that. But it's okay, that's why we have fanfic. To fix canon.
Chapter 22: And she knew she was in love, because nobody ever hugged her like that
Nano's over, but we're only getting started! Well okay, we've got seven chapters left. But still!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
It takes three days of preparation for their new infiltration mission for the truth to be clear.
Steph has a problem.
And its name is “Cass in a little black dress.”
If Steph had thought the romper was bad, she had seriously underestimated how much Cass loves dressing up, and particularly how great Cass’s legs are.
Cass’s dress ends just a bit above the knee, with the skirt flaring out, which isn’t exactly seductive amount of leg to show, but Steph is living up to her own ridiculousness, because yep, she’s definitely been admiring Cass’s calves. The top is made of lace, with full sleeves, and it’s completely and utterly distracting, even though it’s a completely appropriate dress to wear.
It’s not fair, how gorgeous Cass is, and how easily she can render Steph speechless just by existing.
Steph feels utterly ridiculous in her own getup, despite how much she’d enjoyed the dress. It wasn’t her first choice—that was shot down by Bruce’s designer friend for being “too casual” for the event. So instead, she’s in a short, eggplant purple sparkly dress with a single sleeve made of a thin, gauzy material, and what Steph sincerely hoped were sequins and not actual precious metals along the neckline, emphasizing the tilt down from her shoulder. It hid the still visible bullet sound in her left shoulder, which Steph has to admit can only be a good thing in her current situation.
It feels nice, at least, even though Steph is fairly certain it’s a good thing she didn’t think to ask the price of the dress, because she’s pretty sure it would be the kind of money that would make her want to puke.
Steph shifts awkwardly in the silver high heels that she’d been given to go with the dress. They’re surprisingly easy to walk in, and an experimental kick shows that she can manage one, although the spandex modesty shorts will definitely be making a reappearance. She kicks off the shoes so she can put them on and wonders if she should have just worn a suit. Superman can fit his costume beneath a suit. Maybe she could? She’ll have to consult with Tim about this. Although that does beg the question of where he fits the cape…
For that matter, where does Kara fit the cape?
She considers texting Kara about it, but she decides she probably doesn’t want to know the answer. At the very least, it will take the magic out of it, and Steph likes the magic. And the cape.
Plus, Cass would probably give her a disappointed look if she’d worn a suit. Steph has clearly underestimated how much Cass loves dresses and fancy clothes, because Cass looks perfectly at home in her probably thousands-of-dollars dress.
Although… maybe Cass likes girls in suits? That’s a gay thing, right? Steph certainly likes it, at least in theory, although Cass looks so happy in her dress that Steph’s not sure she can bring herself to imagine Cass wearing a suit.
Steph finds her modesty shorts and puts them on, although she’s definitely going to have to do laundry if Cass wants to go out again, because Steph only owns two sets of non-superhero spandex shorts, and as it is, she’s wearing her purple ones, which she’d bought as a joke.
Putting the shoes back on, she heads back out to the living room, where Cass is waiting for her, looking stunning.
“So are sure these portable costumes will work?” Steph says, squinting at the miniaturized version of her Batgirl costume that had arrived in the mail, along with the rest of Bruce’s bribes-slash-apologies.
“Yes,” Cass says. “He says… the Flash uses them. Less armor.”
“So are we basically wearing Halloween costume versions of our suits?” Steph can’t help but be concerned by this.
Cass shrugs. “Don’t get hit. Besides… utility belts.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Steph mutters, not liking this one bit, but tucking the portable costume into her clutch—a different one from yesterday, because rich people apparently need to have more than one clutch purse, which strikes Steph as incredibly stupid, but what does she know about being a billionaire? Or, as the case currently is, the fiancé to the daughter of a billionaire.
Bruce has managed to find them a Wayne Enterprises employee to be their chauffeur for the night in the, as Steph had predicted, utterly ridiculous electric car he’d given to Cass.
“Does it turn into a Batmobile?” Steph asks, quite sensibly in her opinion, before she gets into the back seat. It’s black leather, because of course it is.
“No,” Cass says, and she looks only a little put out about it.
“Ask for one for Christmas,” Steph suggests, and it’s only when she stops to think about it that she realizes that Bruce probably would give Cass a state-of-the-art weaponized car for Christmas. She feels a stab of affection towards the man, even though she’s still going to exact her revenge. Kara has, on Steph’s request, managed to locate at least twelve poop emoji plushies, and has deposited them safely in Steph’s room in Gotham, awaiting the next step of the plan.
And from her Facebook group chat activity, Steph thinks Kara might have recruited additional help in the form of Superman, so there might be even more when she gets home.
Steph really hopes that Kara hasn’t told Clark what it is that Steph intends to do with them. She doesn’t want to have to look Superman in the eye and admit that she’s trying to find a socially acceptable way to deal with her unholy rage at Bruce Wayne, and Alfred’s banned her from using glitter.
“Oh!” Cass says, turning to face Steph as the goddamn driver pulls away from the curb. “Important detail.” She holds out the fucking engagement ring, and that’s when Steph considers throwing the door open and letting herself fall into traffic.
It’s tacky as hell, with a giant sparkling diamond, set in a gold band, with a series blue stones that are almost definitely real sapphires surrounding it.
“The fuck,” Steph chokes, but she doesn’t resist when Cass grabs her hand and gently slips it onto her hand.
“They match your eyes,” Cass says, tapping one of the sapphires with one hand, looking pleased. “Thought they would.”
Steph freezes. “Wait. You picked this?”
“Bruce’s was… ugly.”
Steph stares at the ring on her finger, which suddenly looks a lot prettier now that she realizes that Cass had picked it out, rather than being Bruce Wayne’s idea of a practical joke.
“Oh,” Steph says, resisting the urge to touch it now. “Um, I didn’t get you anything.”
Cass laughs, then produces another black box with her own ring in it. “It’s okay. You’re… on a budget.” She tosses Steph the box, which Steph catches easily, and opens.
“Did you pick this one too?” Steph asks. The ring Cass is going to be wearing is…
Purple. A diamond sits in a silver band, nestled into a cluster of amethysts that are arranged to look like flower petals. It’s over the top as hell, the kind of ring that you wear when you’re a rich heiress with a tacky fiancé who likes purple, and Steph’s mouth goes dry as she takes it out.
“Yes,” Cass says, her hand brushing over Steph’s, and Steph’s eyes jump up, and Cass’s gaze is intense and meaningful.
Steph slides the ring onto Cass’s finger, not able to break eye contact.
“Cass,” Steph says, licking her lips quickly, because…
She doesn’t think she’s imagining this.
Cass’s hand is still in hers, and they’re sitting as close together as they might were these real rings, if this was a real date, and Steph…
Cass isn’t straight.
And whether or not this is real, Steph can’t keep this a secret, because it’s not fair on Cass.
“Cass,” Steph says again, slowly. “I have something I should—”
The car stops abruptly at a stoplight, and Steph remembers that they are, in fact, not in private. This isn’t even a limousine or something like that with a divider between them. This is a perfectly ordinary car, if a very expensive one, and someone’s listening.
Flushing, Steph drops Cass’s hand, and shifts away slightly. “You need to tell me you took pictures of the original rings,” she says instead. “What did Bruce Wayne think is appropriate for his daughter’s gay fiancé?”
Cass laughs, although there’s a slight wrinkle between her eyebrows that tells Steph that she noticed Steph changing her mind about what she was going to say. “I kept them. I’ll show you when we get back.”
Steph considers jumping out of the car again, but then she reminds herself that they’ve got an actual mission, so she can’t do that.
“Stay close to me,” Cass says, frowning at her as their car pulls into a long line of other fancy cars. “No splitting up.”
As if Steph would want to be anywhere else.
“Okay,” she says out loud, and then someone opens the door for them, and Steph throws on her brightest smile, getting into character. She loops her arm through Cass’s, making sure her shiny new engagement ring is visible, and allows Cass to help her out of the car. She hopes that Cass can’t tell how much her heart is racing.
It’s stupid—Steph has touched Cass so many times. Why now? Why can’t things just be like they used to be, when Steph could throw an arm over Cass’s shoulders or pull her into a hug without having to deal with her goddamn hormones?
And why is this happening to her when she’s going to have to spend a large part of the night pretending to be engaged to Cass?
Steph might risk the wrath of Alfred and resort to glitter after all.
At least this isn’t a red-carpet event, so Steph won’t have to deal with Wendy sending her official pictures of the two of them attending the event, just the paparazzi ones. Their entrance into Hanson Heights is nice and subdued, or at least as subdued as it can be with waiters and staff everywhere, in immaculate suits, holding large silver trays with snacks and drinks as Steph and Cass are led to the fancy guest elevator, which is a lot nicer than the service elevators that Steph and Cass had broken into the other night.
They finally arrive on the thirtieth floor, which is, apparently, a ballroom as well as a well-guarded fortress housing a vault.
Hanson certainly likes hiding things within illusions, Steph thinks, angling her head up to gawp at the chandeliers and the golden streamers hanging from the ceiling.
Erik Hanson has one of the most forgettable faces that Steph has ever seen. He’s inoffensively good looking, but not good looking enough to be memorable. Steph could easily have seen him a thousand times before and not been able to recount a single one of his features. His hair is pale brown, in a haircut that vaguely reminds her of one that Bruce had worn when she was younger, and his eyes are a flinty grey. He wears a neat suit, but not the kind of flashy suit that she would have thought that someone who was big name in fashion would.
But of course, if he was actually as skilled with fashion as he was supposed to be, he probably wouldn’t need to resort to crime.
No, that’s not right. It’s not like Lex Luthor is a failed industrialist who turned to supervillainy because he couldn’t turn a profit elsewhere.
Some people just like it.
She wonders if Hanson’s like that.
Hanson sweeps Cass’s hand up into a enthusiastic handshake. “I’m so honored to meet you. One of Gotham’s First Family, in my own city! It’s like a dream come true!”
His city. Oh, Steph doesn’t like him at all. He’s simpering, too, layering it on too thickly. The sarcasm on First Family is way too obvious.
He doesn’t like the Waynes. Which makes sense, since he wants to topple Batman, Inc., and Bruce Wayne is founder, sponsor, and CEO of the whole enterprise.
“I do hope you’ll have time to talk with me later,” he says. “I’m so flattered that you’re even considering investing in my work! But for now—” He spreads his arms out wide, and there. There’s the supervillain. There’s the flare of grandeur, of ego, of smugness that almost every kingpin of crime or masked criminal indulges in. “Enjoy the party!”
He walks away, without even having spoken to Steph or given her a second glance.
“Well, he’s evil,” Steph says, moving her mouth close to Cass’s ear to avoid anyone hearing her or reading her lips.
Cass lets out a giggle, then covers her mouth and looks at Steph reproachfully. “Come on,” Cass says, taking Steph’s hand, tangling their fingers together, and leading Steph into the party.
Steph can’t even find it in herself to protest as she lets Cass tug her through the crowd, despite seeing how people glance at them. The ring on her finger feels like a neon sign, drawing eyes and whispers wherever they go, and Steph wonders why Bruce felt the need to do this, to push them into this situation.
Cass’s eyes light up when she sees the buffet table, and Steph has to laugh. No matter how much things change, Cass will always be hungry. “Go ahead,” Steph nudges her. “You’ll need both hands for that. I’ll stay right here.”
Cass makes a face at her but does look longingly at the table. “Want anything?”
“Strawberries?” Steph asks hopefully, although she’s not sure there’s anything as simple as that in the complicated mess of the buffet table, where everything looks like it costs a small fortune and involves at least twelve ingredients.
At least Bruce is usually nice enough to include a chocolate fountain at his parties.
Cass kisses her on the cheek—it’s to keep their cover, probably, but Steph definitely blushes at that—and goes off to the buffet, grabbing a plate and grinning broadly, despite the tenseness of the mission.
“Ahh, you must be Miss Brown!” A bald man in an elegant suit approaches her. His goatee is well-groomed, and he smiles widely at her, holding his own plate from the buffet table. “I’ve been hearing so much about you these past few days.”
Steph smiles, trying not to flinch inside as she thinks about the delighted texts she’s been receiving from Wendy and Kara since Bruce had “accidentally” let it slip to Vicky Vale that his daughter was engaged. It had taken Vicky Vale less than twelve hours to produce Steph’s name, and splash a paparazzi picture of them at Gotham nightclub all over every tabloid in Hong Kong.
(Steph is fairly sure that Bruce greased the way for that, because there’s no way that Cass should be that big of a deal to Hong Kong’s tabloid circuit.)
“Hi,” Steph says, grinning politely. “Nice to meet you.” She forces her smile wider. “But I wouldn’t believe everything you read!”
“What a lovely ring,” the man says, looking at it over his large, rimless glasses. “Your fiancé has excellent taste.”
“Thanks,” Steph says awkwardly, having to physically stop herself from twisting it around her finger. “Are you—a colleague of Mr. Hanson’s? In fashion?”
“Oh no,” he laughs. “I’m afraid I have only a passing knowledge of fashion. I’m a doctor, myself.” Something prickles Steph at that, a tugging memory, a thought—
“But you know,” he says. “When I first saw your photograph in the paper, I could have sworn I’d seen you before, Miss Brown.”
“I doubt it,” Steph says. “I’ve never been to Hong Kong before!”
“Of course,” he smiles at her. “Well, I’ll let you get to it then. Do say hello to Miss Wayne for me.”
Steph nods, then turns away from him, looking back at Cass, who has piled her plate high with food and returning to Steph’s side.
“Strawberries,” Cass reports, gesturing to several of them, resting on top of her plate, resting haphazardly on several types of fancy cheeses, multicolored dips, and what looks like honest-to-Batman caviar.
“Thanks!” Steph says, impulsively taking her revenge and kissing Cass on the cheek as well.
Steph can’t read body language like Cass can, but she’s sure that Cass is affected by that.
Steph takes a bite of the first strawberry, thinking carefully.
Her heart seems to have taken on an entirely new beat. Cass is-not straight. Cass is-not straight. Ba-dump. Ba-dump. Cass is-not straight. Cass is-not straight. Ba-dump, ba-dump, ba-dump.
Steph has never been shy before. Not about things like this. Not even when it was Tim, who was so different than anyone else she’d ever been with. Not even when it was Kara, who Steph had recklessly kissed, despite not even having words for what she was feeling.
Of course, she’d never been in so deep, and never with someone she’d cared about as much as Cass. She’d cared about Tim, of course, but by the time they were there, they had already been dating. She and Cass were friends first, and that made this all the more terrifying.
But Cass is… Cass. Cass, who’s eating caviar as easily as if it was a burger they’d gotten from a drive through in Gotham. Cass, who wears thousand-dollar dresses like they’re ordinary, who looks at Steph like she’s worth something. Extraordinary, brilliant, wonderful Cass, who’s smiling widely at Steph, and letting Steph eat off her plate.
And Cass isn’t straight. And Cass is wonderful and beautiful and clever and kind and affectionate and brave, and she might just possibly like Steph back.
Steph really hopes she’s not reading the signs wrong.
“Cass,” she says, the juice staining her fingers. Cass passes her a napkin that she’s holding beneath her plate without blinking, and Steph is unable to speak for a moment, overtaken with a rush of affection for Cass. She licks her lips and struggles to think of the right way to say this, to line up the words in her mind so that they’re easier to say.
“Cass, I—I’ve got something important to tell you,” Steph says, twisting the napkin in her hand.
Cass looks at her, handing off the plate to a passing waiter. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing!” Steph says hurriedly. “I just—” Am absolutely, positively, falling in love with you, and I want to know if I try to stop it.
“Miss Wayne!” Hanson’s unwelcome appearance is truly proof that he is in fact, evil. “Will you and your fiancé be participating in the tango competition in half an hour? I understand you’re quite the dancer!”
How the fuck did he know that? Steph thinks, tensing up, but Cass doesn’t seem to be noticing, instead looking curious.
“Of course!” Hanson says, beaming. “The arts all intersect, after all, and a dear friend of mine is currently visiting from Argentina, so she requested it!”
Cass turns to Steph, her eyes wide with the kind of glee that Steph associates with Cass having found a new sparring partner.
Hanson drifts off, apparently to tell more people about the dance-off.
“Steph,” Cass says, her voice pleading.
“Cass,” Steph says. “I don’t know how to tango.” Well, okay, that was kind of a lie, she’d taken a dance class last semester for an art credit, and picked up some stuff including half a week spent covering the tango, but she was nowhere near Cass’s level, and certainly not enough for a dance off.
“I can teach you,” Cass says immediately. “I’ll lead.”
“We need to—”
“Too early,” Cass dismisses. “Guards don’t change yet. Need to wait.”
Steph thinks about the tango, then sighs, having to admit that she’s out of excuses. “Okay.”
Any thoughts of confessions fade into the background, as Cass immediately starts walking her through the steps, and Steph realizes just how much touching is about to ensue.
“Good thing we’re engaged,” Steph says, as Cass shows Steph a video on her phone. “Otherwise this would probably constitute as inappropriate behavior.”
Cass laughs, although she also looks slightly concerned about something. Probably about the prospect of losing because Steph isn’t a good enough partner. Steph knows how much Cass hates to lose. “You’ll be fine.”
Steph groans as she hears a woman announce something in Cantonese, then repeats herself in English, telling all competing pairs to move into the center of the room.
Game on, Steph thinks, squaring up to face Cass as the music starts.
Chapter 23: cuz I wanna be knowing who you are
In which Steph has a confession to make.
Cass doesn’t really know how to tango, but she’s watched videos about it, and she’s confident and good, and that’s what really matters.
She pulls Steph close to her, focusing on her feet so she doesn’t think too hard about the proximity of their bodies, and then she loses herself to the magic.
The two of them spin and twirl around rapidly. Steph hooks her leg around Cass’s at least once, and Cass dips her, spins her, and lifts her.
Even without dancing training, Steph is a good athlete, and more than that, she knows Cass. She is never surprised by a turn or a move that Cass makes, never stumbles in a turn or steps on Cass’s toes.
This is—incredible. It’s just like Cass has thought it might be. Steph’s hand on her hip, her leg pressed against hers as they move, keeping the beat perfectly, each step in sync with each other. Cass lets out a laugh as she raises her arm for Steph to spin under, despite the awkwardness of Steph being taller than her.
Around them, couples are being called out, stumbling or even falling or just getting too tired to keep up.
But Steph and Cass keep moving, and Cass’s delight only increases. She’s good, Steph is good, and together they’re the best. She grabs Steph by the hips and lifts her up again, Steph bending backwards in response, bracing her hands on Cass’s shoulder, her head thrown back.
Her long, gorgeous hair tumbles down past her shoulders, spinning out as they dance together, and no wonder people are starting to look at them.
Stephanie Brown is stunning, her cheeks flushed with exercise, her eyes sparkling with the challenge, and her grin wide and genuine. Steph smiles a lot of the time, but this is a smile, one that reaches her entire body, the kind that means she’s not pretending, not for herself or anyone else.
Cass wants to see that smile more often.
She wants to be the cause of it, too.
“Why, Miss Wayne,” Steph murmurs in her ear as they clasp hands for the next part of the dance. “You are a marvel.”
Cass spins Steph again, taking advantage of the move to examine the rest of the crowd. Only three other pairings remain, and Cass feels her pride rising. “I try.”
Steph takes this as a queue to spin around Cass again, her dress flaring out along with her hair as she does so, before pulling herself back in towards Cass, their chests pressing against each other.
“I took a semester of dance while you were gone,” Steph says, lightly treading around the subject that had only recently been so sore, but now it’s said without any bitterness or double meaning. When had that all faded? When had Cass stopped feeling a pang of hurt at those words? “Gotham’s got a good program.”
“College… for dance,” Cass thinks about that, almost longingly, but she doesn’t have time to dwell on it, because she’s moving Steph down into a dip, with Steph’s leg lifting up accordingly, until Steph’s hair is almost brushing against the polished marble floor, her dark blue eyes full of the kind of joy that Cass has almost never seen.
“Cassie, babe, I think it’s just one other couple,” Steph says, causing Cass to frown, wondering why Steph is using that term, before shrugging and keeping going.
The music is increasing in tempo, and Cass doesn’t even need to tell Steph that they need to speed up to. The dance becomes a blur of movement, of touch, of music and golden hair and Steph’s smile, until the music finally stops, and cheers fill the room.
“Excellent work, Miss Wayne!” Hanson says. “I see your father wasn’t bragging when he said you were quite the dancer.”
Cass should probably giggle or something, but she can’t help but grin triumphantly. They won.
Steph leans against Cass, laughing. “Oh, that was exhausting,” she says, something… off about her voice. “Cassie, let’s go get something from the buffet.” She tugs Cass away from Hanson, towards the buffet table.
“That was fun,” Cass says, hooking her arm through Steph’s.
“It was,” Steph agrees, grinning back at her. “I like dancing with you.”
“Me too.” Cass snags some water glasses from a waiter and hands one to Steph. “But… before. You were trying to say something. Tell,” she corrects herself. “Tell me something.”
Steph gulps at her water, her body language nervous.
“Yes,” she says. “I’ve been… I guess I thought it didn’t matter for a while, and then I thought you wouldn’t care and then I thought that it would just go away if I ignored it for long enough, but even if that’s true, I—”
“Steph,” Cass says, putting a hand over her best friend’s mouth. “Rambling.”
Steph freezes under her grip, staring at Cass with… something. With something in her gaze. It’s uncomfortably like… she doesn’t know, she can’t place it. But it’s something. She lowers her hand, warily.
“I just don’t want things to change again,” Steph whispers. “I… sometimes I wish things could go back to the way they were.”
“When we were kids. When I didn’t have to worry about ruining everything. When I hadn’t hurt you.”
“Wasn’t your fault,” Cass says.
“Not that time,” Steph says. “But… before. Africa. I know that hurt you. And I didn’t come back, and I caused all that trouble and I got so many people hurt and—”
Cass hugs Steph tightly. “I don’t—that wasn’t—you don’t have to apologize. Not for that. Not ever.”
“Orpheus died because of me,” Steph whispers, her voice ragged. “So many people died because of me.”
“Not to me,” Cass repeats, more firmly this time. She wonders how long Steph has been allowing this to tear herself up. She wonders how she’s missed that. “Not ever.”
“Okay,” Steph whispers, her voice trembling slightly. Her eyes are dry, at least. “But what I’m—I’m really going about this, aren’t I?”
“Terrified.” Steph’s grin is brittle. “I just… I don’t want to ruin things. I feel like I only just got you back.”
Cass swallows back a protest that Steph had never lost her, because… that would be a lie.
For so long, the gap between them had felt insurmountable. Their friendship had been hanging on by a thread, fraying more and more by the day, pulled at by every imaginable force, conspiring to set them at odds, to pull them apart.
Cass reaches out and cups Steph’s face in her hand, brushing a thumb along Steph’s cheekbone. Steph’s breath catches, and some of that tension, that nervousness, fades away. It’s the hand with the ring that Cass is wearing, the ring that had reminded Cass of Steph so much that she had made the impulsive decision to buy it, even though the rings that Bruce had bought for them were fine, but somehow, Cass wanted these silly, pretend rings to mean something to them, even if they were really, utterly, meaningless.
“Cass,” Steph whispers, and it sounds like a plea for help, soft and breathless and on the edge of breaking. “Cass, I—”
Cass stays very, very still. They’ve been interrupted twice now, and she doesn’t want to risk anything breaking into this now.
The rest of the gathering has faded away, become nothing but background noise. Cass is aware of them, but they’re unimportant. Her entire world is here, literally in the palm of her hand.
“Cass,” Steph repeats her name again, and Cass loves the way it sounds. “When I kissed that guard it wasn’t just because I needed those keys.”
Cass frowns, taken aback by the sudden change of subject. “Yes?”
“I kissed him because I wanted to be kissing someone else. Someone who I—who I think is amazing. Someone who’s wonderful and beautiful and clever and—but I couldn’t be with that person. So I decided I’d see if I could forget, just for a while.”
Jealousy, cold and miserable and identifiable floods through Cass. “Oh?”
“Because I was stupid,” Steph says, and her hand reaches out and grips Cass’s. “Because I—because I didn’t think, because I made up my mind about the way things were without actually talking, because I guess Bruce’s lack of communication is contagious and what I guess I’m trying to say is—” Steph takes a deep breath, her grip on Cass’s hand so firm that Cass can feel her bones press together.
“Cass, I’m in love with you.”
It’s like the world has fallen out from underneath her feet. She’s falling, without a grapple, without a net, and Steph is staring at her with wide eyes, raw and vulnerable and…
“Love?” Cass whispers, out loud this time.
“Uh… like! Crush!” Steph flushes, dropping Cass’s hand and stepping away from her, letting Cass’s hand against her cheek fall away. “You know, there really should be a better way to phrase things. Something between “like-like” and “love” you know? Anyways, just thought you should know that’s why I’ve been so fucking weird, oh look, it’s the guards shift, let’s sneak off and fight crime.”
Steph grabs Cass’s wrist and quickly drags her out of the ballroom in search of a bathroom. Cass follows along, feeling like she’s completely lost still. The crowd is still distant and vague, but Steph, Steph is real.
Steph’s nails are painted an iridescent shade of purple, and there are scars, barely visible, on her hands. There are callouses too, despite the fact that she wears gloves when she’s Batgirl and had even when she was Robin and Spoiler.
They’re the hands of her best friend.
Her best friend, who had not been lying when she said she was in love with her.
It’s ridiculous, because love is…
Cass would have noticed if…
Sure, Steph had…
Cass would have…
Steph thinks that Cass will leave over this? Steph thinks that Cass would cut her out for this?
That hurts, more than Cass realized it would. Steph thinks so little of her, thinks Cass is that bad of a friend?
Of course, she does, Cass realizes. She’d done it before. She’d turned Steph away because Bruce had told her to, back when they’d been Batgirl and Spoiler. She’d cut contact just recently, leaving Steph out in the cold and alone.
Steph loves her, but Steph is realistic. Steph knows that Cassandra Cain is fallible.
The person who believes in Cass the most, and Steph still doubts her here.
Cass bites her lip, allowing Steph to propel them into the bathroom, into the handicapped stall, closing the door behind them.
“Babs says we’re not supposed to go in these,” she says distantly, still not having come back down to Earth.
“Babs will forgive us this one time,” Steph says, a little too hurridly. She wants this mission to get started. She wants to leave her confession behind, to get them to work so that she can delay Cass’s real response.
Which will be…
Cass doesn’t know what it will be.
What does she know about love? Her father didn’t love her mother. Babs loved—loves?—Dick, but Dick hurt her. Bruce loves—loved?—Talia and Selina and maybe more, but he left them behind, or they left him behind, maybe.
Cass isn’t sure she knows what that kind of love is. She knows how to love her family, her friends. She knows how to do that.
But she has no idea how to be in love. She doesn’t know what it means. It’s in her books, but lots of things are in her books that Cass doesn’t understand, because they’re so strange and fantastical that Cass has no context for them.
Steph, unaware of Cass’s inner crisis, has turned her back on Cass, and is unzipping her dress, exposing her back.
Cass catches herself staring. She’s seen Steph’s back, of course, she stitched it up only a few nights ago, but there’s something different about it, without the stress of blood and improvised surgery.
Muscles and scars alike shape Steph’s back, telling a story that only a precious few can read. Bullet scars, older than the one in Steph’s shoulder. The kind of muscles that one gets from swinging from rooftops. A web of faint silvery scars, the marks of the Black Mask’s torture spread over her entire back, contrasted with the firm, solid strength that Cass had pressed her hand against during their dance.
Stephanie Brown’s back is a story, and it’s one that takes Cass’s breath away. A story of strength, resilience, pain, and triumph. It’s a story that Cass would be fortunate to be a part of.
It’s a story that Cass wants to be a part of.
She wants to spin Steph around again, like she’d done during their dance, and press her lips against Steph’s and—
But… Steph goes back to Gotham soon.
She leaves Cass soon.
Maybe that’s why Steph had been so reluctant to confess.
Because she had known that, in the end, it meant nothing, not when their paths were taking them in different directions.
Cass turns away and steps out of her own dress, her heart heavy.
Steph is right behind her, and yet she’s never felt so far away as she has in this moment, with both of them naked in a bathroom stall.
Cass doesn't exactly have a lot of models for healthy relationships in her life! Steph and Tim were probably the only consistent couple who she interacted with, and given who she's talking with currently, it's not exactly something she'd default to as a model for behavior!
Chapter 24: was I lost inside my thoughts?
WE ARE GETTING TO THE END! Sorry for the delay on this one... plot is hard.
At least she said it.
It’s freeing, Steph supposes, to have it all out in the open. To have it all exposed.
Even if Cass doesn’t feel the same way, even if she never can feel the same way, at least Steph’s not lying anymore. At least… at least there’s that.
The ache of rejection is one that Steph’s used to. She’s never been one to let herself go numb with it, has never been one to wallow in her misery. She keeps moving, she always has. Later, when she’s safe and alone, she’ll let herself feel it, let herself cry and be hurt until all that’s left is the cathartic emptiness when the tears are gone. She’ll lay on her back and find patterns in the ceiling, too tired to feel anything at all.
And then she’ll get back up, put on a fresh new smile, and keep moving.
It’s what she does.
Steph has had her heart broken before. It’s awful, sure, but she’s not about to let it ruin her friendship with Cass. It’s far too precious to allow to shatter over something as stupid as Steph’s overactive imagination, spinning a stupid crush into pining into unrequited love. Not that Steph loves Cass. Not like that. She’d used that word because there was nothing better, because English doesn’t have the right words for the longing and joy that sweep through Steph every time that Cass smiles like that. It doesn’t have words, and love, that stupid, simple, complicated word, is what Steph has to make do with.
She isn’t in love with Cass.
She can’t be.
It’s an infatuation, nothing more, and Steph is going to stomp her foot on the embers of those feelings until they go out or she burns herself, and wow, her metaphors sure are mixing.
She slips the beautiful, tacky ring off her finger and puts it into her utility belt.
She turns to face Cass, who is already dressed.
“Ready?” Steph asks, reaching down to find the sense of joy she’d felt earlier, when they were dancing, when Cass’s hand was splayed out across her back. She finds it and struggles to tap into it, but all it does is remind her that Cass will never want to touch her like that again.
Platonic, Steph, think platonic thoughts.
She can do this.
They unlock the stall door, before Steph pushes aside a ceiling tile so that Cass can get out her laser-knife to hack a hole in the air vents for them to crawl into.
Hanson’s vents here are luxuriously large, which makes sense, since everything Steph has seen indicates that the guy has a fascination with Gotham, which always seems to have very nice and big air vents. (Steph is pretty sure that Bruce has been bribing contractors in Gotham for decades now, but she hasn’t found proof yet.)
Steph checks her cowl to see if Babs is online, but all she sees is a message from Wendy saying that something’s up with the Justice League, and they’ll be out of contact for a while.
She frowns, not liking that. Sure, they have the tools they need to get into the vault, but that means that they’re going into this last leg of the mission without backup.
Steph doesn’t know why she’s the one in front. This is Cass’s mission. Cass is the one who knows the plans backwards and forwards, who understands Hanson Heights…
Oh wait, that’s because Steph had been in a rush to get out of that stall, so she’s climbed up first.
She’s jittery, unable to calm down and focus. It’s the kind of nervous energy that never ends well, the kind that usually ends with Bruce or Babs yelling at her for making some sort of stupid mistake. Or her hitting Tim with a brick.
It’s not good, that she’s feeling this way during a mission.
She’s supposed to be better than this. She’s Batgirl now. She’s…
Only Batgirl because Bruce made a decision.
She shoves that thought aside, because she knows that’s not true. Cass has given her this, even if she probably never would have under normal circumstances. It’s Steph’s, Cass says so, and that’s what matters, not Bruce or Steph’s crush or anything else.
Steph is Batgirl, and that’s not soothing her nerves the way she should.
She’s not shaking this off the way she hoped.
She might need space, as horrifying as that is. She might not be able to bounce back from this one as quickly as she’d like. Pretending that
This whole thing feels strange and unfamiliar, uncomfortable in ways that Steph can’t put her finger on.
“Should be a left turn here,” Steph says suddenly as she puts it together, glancing at what’s definitely a solid piece of metal.
“The plans. That we were looking over. Cass… these air vents don’t match the plans.”
Cass’s eyes widen behind her mask, and Steph knows that she’s not wrong, that Cass is also noticing this.
She probably would have noticed this earlier if Steph hadn’t been stupid and distracted them with feelings.
“Fuck,” Steph says. “We need to get out of here—”
That’s when a solid sheet of metal falls from the ceiling of the vents, stopping them from going forward.
“Shit!” Cass yells, and there’s a loud sound that means that Cass kicked something. Were it any less dire of a situation, Steph would probably be proud of the fact that she’s gotten Cass to swear. “Behind us!”
But as it is, they’re trapped, and being trapped in an air vent like this means nothing good. “Your knife!” Steph says, but she’s already spotted the holes in the walls, can already smell the gas, and can already feel her limbs going weak.
“Batgirl?” Cass calls, her voice desperate. “Batgirl!”
There’s a strange joy that fills Steph, even now, as her vision goes blurry and her head rushes to meet metal, at the sound of Cass calling her Batgirl.
Steph wakes up in a strange room, which is never a good sign.
She’s also tied to a chair, which, yep, no, definitely not a good sign. Her head is slumped against her chest, but hey, at least she’s not drooling. Drooling in front of villains is never fun, psychologically speaking.
She keeps her eyes tightly closed, even though the pretending to be unconscious thing pretty much never works on villains these days, because the changing in breath patterns upon initial waking up is easy enough to notice, no matter how good a job she can do with going back to sleepy breathing.
But no one calls her out on it, so she allows herself to take a moment to examine her situation.
Some form of material—not rope or metal, maybe some sort of zip-tie thing—keeps her wrists to the arms of the chair. Her ankles are fastened together as well, but aren’t anchored to anything, which means that she can at least kick. Her mask is still on, but her belt is missing, which is… unfortunate. Her mouth is dry and her head aches slightly—probably a side effect from that knock-out gas, but hey, she’s gotten out of worse situations in worse conditions.
She can hear the rustle of fabric and the sound of someone breathing, which means that whoever has her wasn’t stupid enough to leave her alone. Unfortunate. Well, time to wake up.
Steph lets out a sleepy groan, opening and closing her eyes rapidly as she raises her head.
No sign of Cass anywhere, and she’s been put in what looks like a meeting room, rather than a proper cell or interrogation room. She probably should be offended, she thinks, although those definitely aren’t zip ties attaching her arms to the chair. She tugs against it, frowning as it doesn’t budge. It feels like zip-ties, but it doesn’t have any give.
“What the fuck?” She mutters. Superheroes aren’t supposed to swear—Bruce has a power point on that subject, with several pointed looks in her direction and mouthing “Damian” at her while he was presenting—but she figures the bad guys won’t tell on her.
“Good to see you’re awake, Miss Brown,” a cool, familiar voice says. “Or do you prefer Batgirl?”
Steph’s eyes jump up towards the speaker. It’s the bald man from the party, with the goatee and the suit, and the—
“Doctor Strange,” she says, scowling. “I knew I recognized you.”
“We never did meet, did we?” Hugo Strange says, tilting his head to one side. “In your days as Robin, I was fascinated by your existence. The Batman, finally expanding his criteria, his pathology, if you will, from the original model. What was it that made you so… unique?” His smile is unsettling. “Of course, the mystery solved itself so quickly, when your father told the entire world who you were. The dead Robin. The Spoiler.”
Steph grits her teeth, glancing from side to side, to look for any hint of Hanson.
“Oh, don’t fret,” he says. “Erik doesn’t know… he’s much more pre-occupied making sure that everything is ready.”
“Ready for what?” Steph says, narrowing her eyes. “Weapons aren’t your style. What are you up to?”
“My dear girl,” he says, getting to his feet and approaching her. “I’m so glad you asked.”
Steph sees the needle, but jerking back as far as she can, Strange catches the back of her chair with one hand and presses it into the exposed part of her neck—not that the thinner version of her suit would provide much resistance—and depresses it.
“I admit, I was hoping that the Joker Gas shipment would make it through—his creations have fascinating effects—but it at least served its purpose as a distraction,” Strange muses. It’s getting hard to hear him, as all the blood rushes to her head, filling her ears with the pounding, racing sound of her own heart. “Erik was very disappointed though.”
“Fuck—off,” Steph says. Her head falls forward towards her chest, suddenly heavy. It’s not truth serum—between Bruce and Babs, she’s built up a pretty good immunity to most of those. It’s familiar though, which is always worrying, because she doesn’t have the best experiences with drugs…
“I admit,” he says, ignoring her. “I didn’t initially realize you were the Batgirl. Surely, I thought, anyone would have… learned her lesson, after what Sidonis put her through. But when I heard you were in Hong Kong, just as Batgirl appeared, I realized that you truly were as stubborn as the rumors.” He pulls his chair closer to her. “Getting Cassandra Wayne to smuggle you into the party was clever,” he says, admiringly. “You will have to tell me at some point how you managed to get Black Bat in.”
“Black… Bat?” Steph’s tongue is heavy, but her mind manages to make the connection. He doesn’t know? Didn’t he suspect Bruce was Batman? Or was that… no, that was before Bruce pulled a stunt with… a shapeshifter? Or was it just Clark Kent… he did something, to convince Strange he was wrong.
… so Cass is safe, at least.
That’s… that’s good.
“I admit, you’re not who I expected to be given the Batgirl title,” he says, musing. “The previous Batgirl was an intimidating physical force… one of the most accomplished fighters in the world, so I’m told. And the original had a magnificent mind. And what were you?” His fingers grip her chin and force her head up to face him. “Spoiler, a small-time vigilante. Boy-crazy, stubborn, untrained, out of place in the grand scheme of things. In over her head, and only more so as time went on. Robin, the only girl, foolish and angry… inexperienced and brash… not a detective like the third, not a brawler like the second, not a gymnast and a leader like the first. Just a little girl, playing dress up in her boyfriend’s clothes, holding his place while he figured things out.” He drops her chin. “But of course, you’re doing fine as Batgirl, aren’t you?” He says. “Quite a run… you haven’t died yet. And you’re finally getting respect… acceptance…”
Steph shakes her head, trying to dislodge his voice, which seems to be wrapping around her, heavy and suffocating and hypnotizing. It’s too much, it’s too close, she doesn’t—she doesn’t want to hear this.
“Of course,” he says. “The problem with Batgirl… is that it’s not exactly a title for a grown woman, is it? How long can you be Batgirl, Miss Brown? How long can you cling to your childhood? You’re nineteen… that’s not a lot of time left. And when you’re done… what’s going to be left for you? Batman Inc. means that the city is crawling with heroes. He hasn’t even given you your own city. You’re going to be obsolete. Just another nameless, faceless knock-off in Gotham City, chasing muggers and pickpockets. Presuming you can survive that long, that is… but we both know your record there is… spotted.”
Steph sits there, struggling to think of anything besides his voice, and his words.
“That’s the problem with Batman Incorporated, Miss Brown,” he says, his voice soft. “It’s too much. It’s redundancies upon redundancies, a complicated web that only serves to give the Batman more pawns, more control. More… padding. It’s arrogance, on his part, an arrogance which I intend to destroy.”
Steph lifts her head, some part of herself knowing she needs to listen to this. Her tears are damp, she realizes with horror. She’s crying. But she feels disconnected, far away from her own body, and that’s… disconcerting.
“He can’t do this on his own,” he says, and there’s something almost wheedling about his voice. “It was pure luck that I discovered his greatest secret… the Oracle Network.”
Steph freezes, staring at him. Not Babs…
“The Oracle Network ties all the Bats together,” he says, clearly relishing her expression. “And Erik, clever Erik, he figured out how to access it without the Bats realizing what he was doing. He’s good with tricks, you see. Misdirection. He’s a genius, even if he pales in comparison to some. Obsessed with how things look… but we all have our weaknesses, don’t we? He pretends he’s building a weapon, a conventional creation of gas or bullets, and the Bats scramble, preparing for an attack, for wars on the streets, while in reality, he’s building the Trojan Horse. No Oracle prediction can see this coming. He can’t break through the firewalls, no… but he can do the next best thing. He can force them out into the open. He can expose the hubs of activity. He can put Batman Incorporated on the map. Everyone will know where he is, where every last server is, where every last agent that works for him is.”
Steph’s heart races, nearly drowning out his words, as she realizes what he’s talking about. The Manor, the Clocktower, Cass’s apartment… all of the places where Babs has a hookup… all exposed to anyone, to everyone…
Batman, Inc. would fall apart. No one would ever trust Bruce to protect them ever again. The Bat wouldn’t be a symbol, a badge of honor, it would be a target. They’d be… they’d be scrambling, and it would leave them exposed and vulnerable…
“It’ll take a little time, of course,” he says, smiling widely as she flounders, her head pounding and fuzzy. “But of course…” he leans forward, towards her. “You could help us.”
“Fuck you,” Steph says, hating how the words are slow and slurred.
“You have an account,” he says, and Steph can see herself reflected back in his large, creepy glasses. “You could give us they to the network.”
“No,” Steph says, glaring at him.
“Don’t be so hasty, Miss Brown,” he says, softly. “Black Bat…she’s your friend, isn’t she? I’ve watched the way you two move together… the way you look at her.” His smile is vicious, a shark who’s scented blood in the water.
“If you give me your login information, I’ll protect her. I’ll make sure that Erik’s men don’t get her… that she has time to escape… I can even make sure that her secret identity isn’t exposed.”
Steph stares at him, feeling small and scared and overwhelmed.
“All you have to do, to protect her… is to tell me what I want to know.”
Chapter 25: Just give me one more chance to say
In which some villains make some speeches.
“Stupid, stupid, stupid,” Cass mutters to herself, pacing the interrogation room she’s trapped in. She was initially tied to a chair, but a dislocated thumb and a broken chair later, she’s free, but still trapped in the room. She’s tried throwing the broken bits of chair through the mirrored window that looks into her, but it’s too strong. Standing on the table to try to get into the ceiling also hasn’t produced any results as of yet, but she’ll probably go back to that once she’s done pacing.
Cass is struggling to keep her breathing even, because she has no idea where Steph is. Steph doesn’t have the best record with being captured…
She forces herself not to think about that and keeps pacing instead. One step, two step, three step, four step, pivot, one step, two step, table, one step…
She keeps her hands clenched into fists at her side to stop herself from trying to rip the bolted down table out of the ground and throwing it at the wall. She could, she’s pretty sure of that, but she shouldn’t, because it wouldn’t do any good.
It won’t help Steph or her at all to just destroy furniture.
One step, two step, three step, four step, pivot, one step, two step, table, one step, two step…
She should have seen this coming. The party, the large air vents, the convenient conversation that they’d overheard during the break in… this whole thing was a set-up.
And Cass has dragged herself and Steph into this.
“Stupid,” she mutters again, throwing a glare at the mirrored window. She wonders if Hanson’s watching her…and if he’ll make the mistake of getting near her.
“Here you are, at long last!” Hanson’s voice sounds different over the speakers, and she turns her head. The mirrored surface is apparently also a screen, because she’s seeing an image on it. A smooth, reflected surface of a face, that somehow becomes almost clothlike around his neck. He wears a suit with it—a different suit than he was wearing at the party, with a bright red shirt underneath it. It’s a supervillain look, that’s for sure.
“You,” she replies, sneering for all that she’s worth.
“The Bat herself!” He crows, radiating smugness. “I was worried you wouldn’t take the bait… but here we have you!”
“Hanson,” she hisses.
“It’s Façade, I’m afraid,” he says, inclining his head. “Now that you’re here, our operation can truly begin! It will take us some time to break through the firewalls on your communication device, but my people have assured me that the Oracle Network will be laid bare before us by the auction!” He laughs, a horrible grating sound. “You might as well discard your mask now, Bat. We’ll know your name before the end of the night… yours and Batgirl’s!”
Cass grits her teeth. “Who’s your partner?” She demands.
“Partner?” He asks.
“Two person safe,” she snaps. She can’t believe she didn’t notice it before this, but now, things are finally slotting together. One big, obvious trap, and Cass had been so desperate to stop him that she hadn’t taken her time to consider all the angles. “You have a partner.”
“And here I thought you were the brawn!” His mirrored helmet moves closer to the screen—she can see a laptop reflected there. “I guess you truly are the Bat of Hong Kong!”
Cass doesn’t correct him on her name.
“Why, that would be me,” a man who Cass hasn’t seen in a very long time strides into view.
“Strange,” Cass hisses, feeling her hair stand up on end.
She’s never met him, not officially, but Dick had read her his file on her once. His insight had been… eerie. Accurate. Frustrating. Laying out her life in those flat, clinical terms, like he knew her.
The things he knew were…
He knew a lot more than she could ever be comfortable with.
“Black Bat,” he says. “So good to meet you at last.” He glances at Hanson. “Façade, you should go check on the Apollo Project. We should be almost ready for launch.”
Hanson laughs. “Next time I see you Bat, I’ll be calling you by a different name!”
Cass frowns, as Hanson exits the screen, leaving her alone with Strange.
“Tell me,” Strange says, leaning forward. “How did it feel for Batman to take away the mantle of Batgirl, and give it to a mediocre creature like Stephanie Brown?”
Cass crosses her arms and says nothing.
“Come now. I know you can talk. You’re no longer the silent creature, lurking in Batman’s shadow, an acolyte longing for death to balance the scales of her life. I’ve been watching you, Black Bat, have been as long as I’ve been in the city. Your growth… it’s phenomenal. Truly, I can almost understand why he chose to take you under his wing. Out of all of those parasites he surrounds himself with, you are the only one who comes even close to standing at his level. And still, he casts you aside, makes you one of many of agents, exiled from the city, replaced by her? A girl, with no particular skills, too stubborn by half and angry to boot? What is she, compared to you?”
Cass keeps all of her muscles perfectly locked down. He’s clever, she knows that. He can’t read bodies like she can, but he can read them all the same. So she won’t give him anything. He will see nothing from her. He’s trying to cold-read her, but Babs has taught her how to deal with this. He’s throwing out darts, hoping for one to hit home, and she has to be strong, because she won’t be taken down by talking.
He shakes his head, taking her silence as agreement. “That’s the problem with that company. “Batman, Incorporated.” He laughs. “Parasites. Hangers-on. Children playing make-believe, echoing the great man. You are as close as any of them can ever get to being him, and even you took years. You slow him down, all of you, dragging him down, away from what makes hm great.” He stretches his arms out. “That’s why I helped Erik create the Apollo program. Apollo, the master of the Oracle of Delphi,” his voice is grand and dramatic, and Cass wonders if she’s supposed to understand what he’s saying. “To expose the greatest secret—the Oracle Network, and expose all of those different locations, all of those hidden places where those Bats hide. Soon, all of their secrets, their identities, their locations… they will rest in the palm of my hand, to sell and barter away as I please.”
… so. Not a normal kind of weapon.
“Don’t worry,” he tells her. “I intend to save the greatest prize for myself. The location of the true Batman. His identity… I have spent years, chasing delusions and nightmares, proving one identity as the truth, then the other, only for all of them to be thrown to pieces. But no more! I will have proof. Concrete, hard, proof of the identity of the Batman, and his network will crumble to pieces, forcing him to stand… alone.”
He points at her, his large, reflective glasses making him look even more like a villain than Hanson and his outfit. “All I need… is your credentials.”
“Too bad,” Cass says, sitting down, cross-legged on the floor, needing to plan her next move.
“You might as well,” he coaxes. “We’ll get it eventually, with or without your help. Stephanie Brown has already given us hers, eager to save her own skin, but her access—”
All of her fear sinks away, because now, now she’s even more sure that he doesn’t actually know what’s going on. He says he’s watched her for months, he says he’s a genius, but at the end of the day, he’s just like everyone else.
He underestimates Stephanie Brown, he underestimates Cass, and he underestimates how well Cass knows Steph.
“No,” she says. “She didn’t.”
“She didn’t tell you.”
Steph is many things. She’s not a pure fighter like Cass. She’s not a genius like Babs. But she’s Steph. She’s stubborn and angry and kind and good. She wears a smile to hide her own pain, she’s the best friend that Cass could ever hope for, she worries about little girls and wants to see the world better, even though the world is often determined to prove her wrong.
She jumps in front of bullets for Cassandra Cain, because she wants to prove to the world that she is more than they have said she is, because she wants to be as good as Cass thinks she is.
Maybe Strange was right—maybe Cass once was angry about Bruce giving Batgirl to Steph.
But it doesn’t matter now, because Steph is Batgirl, and she has made it hers, body and soul, and more importantly, it’s Steph, and Steph would never just give up, would never throw the rest of the world into the fire to save her own skin.
“Stephanie Brown is a failure of a hero,” he says. “She plunged Gotham City into a war because of her selfish need to be a hero, and she sold you out without a second thought—”
“Wrong,” Cass says, tilting her head to one side. “You can’t get in. Oracle’s too strong. You… you need this. Batgirl said no, so you need… me.”
He’s flushing now, and he angles his head just so—and there, in the corner of his reflective glasses, a door, and a hint of a large window.
He’s standing on the other side of the glass.
“I thought you were good,” Cass says, yawning.
“Why you—!” He screeches, and that’s when Cass wrenches the table out of the floor and throws it through the window.
One step, two step, three step, four step, window —
Cass leaps through the shattered glass, over the table, and punches Hugo Strange right in the face.
His glasses crumple under her fist, and it’s one of the most satisfying things she’s ever done.
“Whoops,” Cass says, nudging his unconscious form with her foot. He’s carrying her utility belt, and Steph’s, in his hands, so she grabs both of them and slings them around her waist. No need to only do this one-handed. She uses Steph’s cord to tie him up, then hurries off, looking to find Steph. She has no idea where Hanson would stash Steph, and she doesn’t remember there being a second interrogation room on this floor, but she can’t be that far away, if Strange had been talking to both of them—
She hears the sound of glass shattering, and her heart lifts.
Cass turns the corner, and sure enough, there’s Steph, still wearing her mask, wielding a potted plant like a weapon, glaring down at a guard, standing unsteadily on her feet. Her suit is ripped slightly around her wrists, and she looks slightly dazed, but otherwise she’s…
They’re both alright.
Cass acts impulsively, without even pausing to consider the implications, and lunges forward to hug Steph. “You’re okay!”
“I am!” Steph grins. “Uh, Strange is here! We gotta—”
“I got him,” Cass says proudly, finally releasing Steph from her grip.
“Oh! Good. I got Hanson. I hit him with a swivel chair.”
Cass laughs. “C’mon. Let’s find the weapon.”
After everything, it’s almost anti-climactic, finding the vault. Steph is slower than she should be—“He drugged me,” Steph explains. “It’s wearing off, but my balance is still off. I kind of ran into a few doorways. Took me longer than it should have to get out of that chair, too.”
Cass smiles at her, shaking her head as the two of them examine the security.
The pressure sensitive pads requires the weight of two people to be standing at opposite ends of the vault, to enter two different codes at the exact same time, and two present two different retinal scans, and then to turn the handles to open the doors, just like last time.
“Do you want to be Hanson, or Strange?” Steph jokes.
“Strange,” Cass says, nodding towards the lock on the left, which is slightly lower than the one on the right. “He’s shorter.”
“And more of a jerk,” Steph mutters, even as she punches in the code with one hand, holding up the fake retinal tool with the other. Cass does the same, and sighs in relief as she hears the first two locks unclick.
“Ready?” Cass asks, reaching for her handle.
“Always!” Steph chirps, reaching for her own.
There’s a lackey inside the vault, trying to program something into it. Cass knocks him out easily, and drags him out into the hallway.
“Blow it up?” Steph asks, examining it. “Or do you think Babs would want to take a look at it.”
“We’ll get the plans,” Cass says. “Blow it up.”
“Do you think Strange can recreate it?”
“No. This… this was Hanson. The plan was him.”
“So… extradition to Gotham for Strange, then,” Steph laughs awkwardly, taking out several of her explosive batarangs.
“Maybe,” Cass says, frowning, before she finally realizes the source of Steph’s discomfort.
“He… asked for your codes?” Cass asks Steph, even as the Apollo Computer explodes, a few feet away from them.
“I didn’t give them to him!” Steph says, hurriedly, looking upset, but relaxed slightly now that the threat is gone. “Cass, I promise, I’d never—”
“I know. You never would.” Carefully, softly, unsure of herself, Cass reaches up and presses her hand against Steph’s cheek. She’s warm under Cass’s gloved fingers, and she leans into it, her eyes fluttering shut for a moment, before darting open again.
“Cass?” Steph whispers, her voice shaking. Her cheeks are flushed, her eyes are wide, and she’s staring at Cass, like she’s the entire world, fear and hope and a thousand other emotions that Cass doesn’t have time to name darting across her face.
It’s that way that she looks at Cass, the way she leans into her touch, that allows the final piece to fall into place. Maybe Strange had started it, or maybe it has always been true, but Cass just hadn’t allowed herself to see until this moment.
But she knows, now, why Steph was so scared to tell her, why the confession had been full of stutters and mistakes and awkwardness, why everything was coached and confused.
Now, and only now, does Cass realize the power she holds… and the power that Steph holds over her in turn.
“Love you too,” Cass says, and then she stands up on her tiptoes to kiss Steph.
It’s not like kissing Superboy in a palace in the sky, it’s not like kissing Xiao Yin in a club. It tastes of the aftermath of the strawberries that Steph had eaten on the dance floor, but Cass can’t even take a moment to think about it, because Steph’s hands have moved around her waist, pulling her closer, and the two of them are standing, in the middle of the vault, kissing each other like their lives depend on it.
“Cass,” Steph gasps, her voice ragged. Cass has never heard anything so wonderful. Steph sounds breathless and delighted and… wanting.
“Steph,” Cass whispers back, her hand still on Steph’s face, barely just touching her mask.
“I—” Steph says, before finally, finally, relaxing, collapsing forward into Cass’s arms, pressing her forehead against Cass’s, loose and happy and there.
“We should go back to the party,” Cass mutters, although a part of her just wants to stay here forever, with Steph in her arms. “Secret identities.”
“Mmm,” Steph says, pulling back slightly, mischief in her eyes. “I guess I do owe my… fiancé another dance.”
Cass presses another kiss, feather light and fleeting, against the corner of Steph’s smiling mouth. “How about… girlfriend?” She asks, one-part hope and one-part teasing.
Steph’s smile is the most wonderful thing that Cass has ever seen.
“Well, I suppose I owe my girlfriend one too.”
Cass tangles her fingers through Steph’s, and the two of them go back to the party, hand in hand.
Hugo Strange's psyche notes on Cass (or Batgirl, as he called her) can be found in Gotham Knights #2!
And we HAVE A KISS! ONLY TOOK... 67,000 WORDS OR SO!
Chapter 26: I don’t know what’s to come, but I’ll stay beside you
In which we find an ending.
AND IT'S DONE. HOLY CROW. Thank you to everyone who has supported me through this project; it's been a wild ride, but hopefully you all enjoyed it as much as I did! I couldn't ask for a better group of readers.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Morning finds the two of them tangled together in Steph’s bed again, limbs and hair and love wrapped around each other until Steph isn’t sure where she ends, and Cass begins.
Steph wakes up in Cass’s arms, and this time, there’s no panic.
“Morning,” Cass whispers, her arms around Steph’s waist, her voice thick with sleep.
Steph turns her head far enough back that she can press a kiss against Cass’s cheek, equally sleepy.
They had stayed at Hanson Heights long enough for a dance and to make sure that the Hong Kong police had actually arrested Strange and Hanson. The announcement of the arrests had put quite the damper on the party, but it had also provided Steph and Cass the perfect excuse to duck out early.
When they had arrived home, Steph had wondered if their desperate, eager kissing might become something more, but they had both been far too tired to do anything more but peel out of their dresses.
Sleeping apart hadn’t even been a question. The two of them had simply climbed into Steph’s bed again, holding each other as tightly as they could, and slept long and dreamlessly.
Or at least, Steph had. She can’t speak for Cass.
Steph hears Cass’s phone ping, and glances over at the floor, where both of their clutches lay, abandoned, costumes and all.
“We should probably get that,” Steph mutters, closing her eyes and pressing herself further into Cass’s arms.
“It’s Xiao Yin,” Cass mutters, her breath soft against the nape of Steph’s neck.
Steph pauses. “How do you think… she knows the engagement is fake, right?”
“I told her… it was a joke,” Cass says. “Of Bruce’s.”
“I think it was,” Steph says.
“No,” Cass says, pressing a kiss against Steph’s shoulder blade, sending a shiver down her spine. “He was… trying to help. I think.”
“Well, we don’t need his help,” Steph huffs, finally managing to turn around so that she was facing Cass.
“Mm,” Cass hums, non-committal, smiling up at Steph through her lashes.
Steph could stay like this forever, she thinks, leaning in and kissing Cass softly, before pulling away and making a face. Even Cassandra Cain, it seems, isn’t immune from morning breath. She settles instead for tracing Cass’s cheek with her hand, savoring the feeling of Cass’s skin, and the slight hitch of Cass’s breath as she does it.
The physical affect they have on each other is wonderful, Steph thinks, allowing herself to luxuriate in this. It’s precious and perfect, the kind of stolen moment of time that she’s only rarely been allowed to have.
And she’s never been allowed to keep.
Steph forces herself to sit up. “We should… we should talk. Shouldn’t we?” Last night had been… it had been wonderful, but there had been adrenaline and drugs and the giddiness of victory. Dancing and kisses and confessions in villainous lairs were wonderful and all, but it was no substitute for adult conversation, as much as Steph would dearly love it to be the case.
Cass’s expression falls, but she sits up, far more gracefully than Steph managed, crossing her legs. “Yes.”
She’s beautiful in the tank top she wore to bed, scarred and muscled, but it’s her eyes, deep set and expressive that keep Steph’s gaze.
Steph draws her knees up against her chest and hugs them tight.
“I—Cass, I love you,” she whispers again, the words still strange in her mouth, all the stranger for the knowledge that they’re returned. “But I—I won’t be able to take it if you cut me out again. Please… please don’t cut me out again,” she whispers. “I can… I can do long distance, I can look into transferring, even, but I—I don’t want you to leave me behind.”
Cass looks at her. “Leave you… behind?”
“I know what I am,” Steph whispers. Hugo Strange had said it plainly, but that didn’t mean that Steph hadn’t known it for years. “I’m… Cass, you’re going to change the world—you’ll probably be leading the Justice League and being amazing everywhere… and one way or another… I want to be there with you. As your friend, or your partner… or your girlfriend, if that’s what you want.” She ducks her head, examining the pattern on the quilt. “I just—I don’t want to lose you. Even if it’s to being the Bat.”
Cass hesitates, then crawls across the bed until she can press her hand against Steph’s knees.
“You won’t,” Cass promises. She pauses. “You… really think that? About me?”
“How can I not? Cass, you’re amazing.”
“So are you,” Cass says, fierce and earnest.
Steph takes a shuddering breath and meets Cass’s eyes again.
“I love you,” Cass’s voice is firm. “We’ll—figure it out.”
Steph carefully grabs Cass’s hand, gripping it tightly.
Cass looks thoughtful. “You know… I thought I was lying. When I said I’d found… what I was looking for.”
“But you weren’t?”
“I found… me. Not Batgirl. Me.” Cass bites her lip. “Bruce… he said… I could come back. To Gotham.”
“Do you think—”
Cass smiles, wide and brilliant. “I think… I’ve always liked it in Gotham.” She shrugs. “And I can visit. I like Hong Kong too. But Gotham… is home.”
Steph can’t help herself, morning breath be damned. She leans forward and catches Cass’s lips with hers, tears of happiness welling up in her eyes.
“Cass?” Steph asks, when they finally break apart.
“Can I watch you dance?”
Cass laughs, and it’s the most wonderful sound that Steph’s ever heard.
Cass takes her hand, and drags her down the hallway, towards her ballet studio, beaming the whole time.
She starts the music and starts doing her stretches. Steph settles down on the floor to watch, her back pressed against the mirror, her head nestled right under the barre.
Steph allows her mind to wander towards the future. To days spent on the rooftops of Gotham, playing rooftop tag, dancing, and kissing on a gargoyle. To a world where, just maybe, Steph will be there, by Cass’s side, as Cass takes the world by storm.
Maybe Cass will take dance classes at a community college. Maybe Steph will take over for Leslie with the Crime Alley clinic. Maybe they’ll join the Justice League. Maybe, maybe, maybe.
The future is so full of possibilities, and, for once, Steph lets herself only dwell on the positive versions, because there’s one thing that Steph is sure of, more than she’s ever been sure of anything in a long time, as she watches her girlfriend begin to lose herself to the music.
No matter what the future holds, it’s the two of them, Cassandra Cain and Stephanie Brown, Batgirl and Black Bat, heading in the same direction.
Meet me where you're going
cuz I wanna be going where you are.
Teach me what you're knowing,
cuz I wanna be knowing who you are.
Run away with me, yeah, let's get married.
Will you be the rest of my life?
Every day with you I say "I do",
and it means so much more each time.
I love you and how.
Won't leave you alone.
Will you be my home now?
And I'll be your home.
Cass's line about Gotham is taken from Gates of Gotham #5!
Ending quote, as well as the fic name and all chapter titles, come from the band Cloud Cult. The song "Meet Me Where You're Going" is the first song on this fic's playlist, which is available on spotify!