A/N: I have honestly had this fic in my drafts since at least January 2016. I've written a lot of longer fics about Stephanie Brown, but Cass is a harder character for me, and I knew that if I wanted to do something long with her, I wanted it to be a good one.
I have always had a weakness for dimension travel and worlds where things are different, and the two concepts, plus Cassandra Cain, crystalized for me in two images: Cass falling through the stars, and Cass in a dumpster. Figuring out how those two images fit into this world... well, maybe that's why it took three and a half years to finish this thing.
Special thanks to Renaroo, who was my beta, muse, and general bouncer of ideas for this project (and the reason for the Phantom of the Opera tag), and sroloc_elbisivni, who also betad, suggested the title, and dealt with a lot of my rambling while I was planning and writing this thing. Thanks to you both! 3
Title and epigraph come from The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by T.S. Eliot.
Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.
For I have known them all already, known them all:
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;
I know the voices dying with a dying fall
Beneath the music from a farther room.
So how should I presume?
Do I Dare Disturb the Universe?
Cassandra Cain was falling, and there were stars.
Brilliant, bright, stars, terrifyingly close, pushing against her on all sides, stealing her breath away. There was no ground rushing to meet her, and Cass could no longer remember where she was falling from.
Cass wondered how long she'd been falling.
She wondered how long she had to go.
Cass hit the ground hard, and she couldn't help but cry out.
She gasped for air greedily—she hadn't even noticed that there hadn't been real air in that void, but now that it was present, she felt as if her lungs had been screaming for oxygen for years.
Her body ached from the impact; she had appeared a far way off the ground, but not enough of a distance to catch herself or to use any of the tricks in her utility belt. Just enough to bruise, not enough to break bones, which was a small blessing.
She was on concrete; it was old and rough, and as she rolled onto her back, she could see clouds, and the hidden form of a moon through them.
No stars, no portal, no void. No sign of where she'd come from.
Just the lights of a city, glittering on the edges of her vision, filling the night with brightness.
Groaning, but knowing that she couldn't afford to remain in one place, she forced herself to her feet.
She was on a rooftop, which meant she could take her time at least. She stumbled towards the edge, wondering where, exactly, she'd ended up.
The magic user hadn't spoken Cantonese, English, or even Mandarin, and so Cass had no idea what it was that he was trying to do.
A year in Hong Kong, and she was still only just getting a grip on the locals. Like, for example, a very angry man in a suit with a jeweled cane trying to rob a bank.
Cass had punched him, and he'd dropped his jeweled cane, and…
That's when the portal opened up.
Cass made her way to the edge of the rooftop and froze.
Across from her, she could see a ghost of a familiar skyline.
There was the Gotham Cathedral. There was the old Wayne Building. There was the bridge.
But the skyscrapers were fewer and further between. Wayne Tower was gone.
And there was no Bat Signal in the sky.
Cass's knees buckled, but she refused to give way.
She was in Gotham.
But not one that she recognized.
Cass considered all of her options, and finally found a word to sum up her feelings about the situation.
"Fuck," she declared, and sat down, hard, to figure out what she was supposed to do next.
This world that she had found herself in had no Batman. It had no Superman. Wonder Woman was a myth, a rumor, a legend, who hasn't been seen since the 1940s.
This was a younger Gotham. This is was younger world.
There were no heroes here.
There was no one to help her get home.
Cass stared up at the stars, but there was no answering portal in the sky to bring her home.
Alone in Hong Kong, how long would it be before anyone even noticed that she was gone? Would they even be able to find her?
Gunshots went off on the street below, and Cass turned without thinking.
There was no hesitation in her movements as she raced across the rooftops, towards the source of the noise.
She threw herself off the roof, reckless but with breathtaking speed, and she spotted the scene below
There was a man with a gun, and a young couple.
It was the oldest story that this city had to offer.
But tonight, the Bat was here.
She was here.
Cass landed on the mugger with all of her strength, grabbing a hold of the gun so that it wouldn't go off accidentally as she did so.
The man let out a yell of shock and hurt, and he tried to throw her off with all of his might, but his might was nothing compared to Cass's lifetime of conditioning and years of experience.
The two women, with wedding rings on their fingers and beautiful dresses, screamed, but Cass dismissed the sound once she realized it was out of fear, rather than pain.
She threw him backwards, away from the couple, disarming the gun pointedly quick.
Bruce had never taught her to disarm a gun. That had been all her father. The motions of the gun in her hand were easy and smooth, and she tossed the gun aside pointedly, raising her fists mockingly.
His eyes darted towards the gun, terror racing through him as he realized that she'd just declared that she didn't need the gun to take care of him.
He did the smart thing and ran. She could chase him down, perhaps she even should, but…
Something stopped her. A hint, a whisper, perhaps in Barbara's voice, perhaps in Bruce's, about how he'd tell everyone what he saw tonight.
A woman in the darkness. A symbol on her chest.
Cass let him, turning towards the women.
"Are you okay?" She asked.
"Yes," said the first woman, staring at Cass with wide, unblinking eyes. She was awed and scared and confused and wasn't sure which one she was supposed to be feeling.
"Who—who are you?" Her wife whispered, staring at Cass.
What did those two see? She wore a symbol across her chest that meant nothing to them. There was a cape, and that cape didn't tell them anything. She wore a mask, and they didn't realize that they wouldn't recognize the face behind it, because that face didn't belong in this world.
She paused, considering what she should say.
Who was she, in this strange and empty world?
She was no one here. The symbol had no meaning.
Not yet, at least.
The answer came easily, after that.
"I'm the Bat. I'm here to help."
Cassandra was used to loneliness. She had spent almost half of her life, in one way or another, alone.
She had been alone after she had killed a man in Macao and fled from everything she had ever known, caught up in the sheer horror of what she had seen, of what she had done.
She had been alone when Bruce and Tim and Dick had gone on their trip and Barbara had been travelling and Cass had discovered that Bruce had entrusted the city to Two Face.
She had been alone when Bruce had died and Dick took up the mantle of Batman and no one in her family had even thought to ask her if she had, perhaps, wanted it.
She had been alone in Hong Kong, in a strange city, without even the comfort of Batgirl to hold on to, because she had left it behind, for Stephanie Brown; alone in her grief, alone in the world in a way that she had thought, maybe, she could have escaped.
But something about the loneliness that came with this strange, unfamiliar Gotham, was worse than just about anything that had come before.
Because there was no one chasing her, no Alfred waiting at the Manor, no Stephanie Brown who would have happily answered the phone if Cassandra had been able to swallow her own hurt and call, and no Barbara to listen to.
Every single person who she had ever met was out of reach, an isolation that was dizzying and all-encompassing and terrifying in turn.
She thought, for a while, of leaving. She knew how to get to Smallville, had met the woman named Ma and the man named Pa once, and knew that, maybe, they were already raising Superman, or Clark, or Kal. She could maybe find a Green Lantern or a Flash or…
Surely someone, in this world, knew how to get her home.
But she didn't know who; knowing people, knowing who knew things, that was never what Cassandra had done. That was Barbara or Tim or Steph or Dick or Bruce.
Cassandra wasn't stupid; a mantra that she clung to tightly, whenever she stumbled over words or got a headache from squinting at too-small type. She wasn't stupid.
But she had never needed to know or seen any reason to care. She had no interest in the experimental technology or politics; whenever she needed to know, her family or friends were happy enough to explain it to her, and she had never seen anything wrong with that.
But now, she's stranded, alone, and as she tried to write down the names of people who she might be able to ask for help, she realized that she didn't even know what Ted Kord's job actually was.
She balled up the piece of paper and threw it at the wall in disgust.
No, she wouldn't be leaving Gotham. There was too much uncertainty there, and she was already on unsteady ground.
Here, at least, in Gotham, she was confident in her ability to navigate, if nothing else. She had spent years learning this city. She couldn't name half of the streets, but she could navigate each of them blindfolded. She knew which street corners were for drugs and which ones were for sex and which ones were for guns.
Sure, some of those things were turned around and upside down by this strange world, but really, at the heart of it, things were the same.
Gotham was home, and she'd never really realized just how much it meant, until she had lost it, and then found it again.
It wasn't her Gotham, but she loved it the same, and she would look after it.
There was no signal in the sky, no symbol that meant anything to the people of this city.
So she would have to make it mean something.
Cass had done this before. Started new, in a city that didn't know her.
She hadn't worn the Bat in Hong Kong, not at first. Not until Tim had come to her and offered it to her, which wasn't quite an apology, but also wasn't not an apology, either.
He was her brother—her first brother, for all that Dick had been Bruce's son before either of them had entered their father's life. But Tim had been there, with Cass, from early on, had fought beside her, had been her partner, in a way that Dick had never been.
Tim had given her the Bat, and the name Black Bat, and she had taken it.
The people in Hong Kong had called her Yǐngzi, the Shadow, the few times they spoke of her. It was fitting, she supposed. She had not sought the spotlight, had not sought the symbol, had only fought and protected, because it was all she knew how.
It had been lonely and desperate and bitter, and the closest she had ever come to happy was when she had been wearing the mask. She had dodged calls from her brothers, she had deleted Stephanie's emails, she left Alfred's care packages unopened in a pile in her living room.
She took Barbara's calls only because when she ignored them, a Bird of Prey showed up on her doorstep to check on her.
Bruce was dead and had taken Batgirl away from her, and she was alone, in an unfamiliar city.
Being Black Bat was… better. She was a part of something, again, with the symbol on her chest and a purpose behind her.
In Hong Kong, they called her Biānfú, rather than Hēi Biānfú. She had taken comfort from that, despite herself. It was silly, perhaps, but she treasured it anyways, despite knowing it wasn't the truth, that Bruce had rejected her as his successor, despite all of her hopes.
To them, she had always been the Bat, nothing else.
It seemed like they had been right after all.
Cass had lived on the streets before; recently, even. After Bruce had died, after she'd left her costume on a rooftop in Gotham for Steph to pick up, she'd wandered from country to country. She'd scavenged for food and done odd jobs and stolen from men who kicked dogs and called women names that curdled the air, even if she hadn't understood the languages they spoke.
She tried to tell herself that it was no different now, hauling an ancient, abandoned mattress up flights of stairs, to the abandoned loft of the tower where she had first met Barbara Gordon.
The place that would be the Clocktower, or perhaps, had been, was so much emptier. There was a gap in the roof, the walls had holes in them, and there were places where the floor was rotten. Barbara's servers weren't here, filling the place with warmth and noise, and there wasn't the perpetual smell of coffee and Barbara's dry shampoo.
It wasn't home.
But it would do.
The newspapers claimed that there was no rain in the forecast, and Cass would have to believe them, because it would take her a while to find enough tarps to fix the hole in the roof.
It was a far cry from the Cave that she'd had in Gotham, when she was first starting out.
The contents of her utility belt were spread out on an upturned crate, in hopes that Cass could catalogue them properly. The beginnings of a spare cape and a fuller face mask were draped over a chair that was missing a leg. A stained duffle bag was open on the floor, exposing the rest of Cass's stash. Ordinary clothing from a donation bin, a fist full of change, half of a box of laundry detergent, half a dozen double A batteries, and a Gotham City Knights baseball hat.
Three photos were carefully placed on another crate that serves as a nightstand. One was a photo booth series, of Cass and Stephanie, from that brief, glorious period of time when they had been Batgirl and Robin together. The other was a formal, family photo, with Cass, Bruce, and her brothers.
The last one was of her and Barbara, her sitting on the arm of Barbara's wheelchair, leaning close to whisper something in her mentor's ear, while Barbara laughed.
The only mementos of the world that Cass had once held in the palm of her hand, not realizing how precious it was.
The world that she had ran away from.
If she ever made it back, Cass swore to herself that she'd go back to Gotham, back to her friends and family. Hong Kong had been fine…
But Gotham, her Gotham, was home.
She changed her costume again.
There was no point in not going back to what she was comfortable with; if everything else was going to be strange and unfamiliar, she might as well take her comforts where she could.
She went back to the cowl, to the long cape. She kept the wrappings on her fist and her thin-soled shoes. She had to keep the belt; having nothing to replace it or its contents with, she was stuck there.
But the rest, she carefully pulled together. Her costume had always been thinner than the others; had always fit tightly, meant to move with her, rather than protect her from bullets.
It makes it easier to replace; spandex and polyester, rather than Kevlar and steel. She can sew that herself, using the careful stitches that Alfred taught her, because she had asked to learn, all those years ago.
She kept the old mask, the old costume, though.
Soon, she assured herself, the others would come for her, and she'd wear it again. She'd be Black Bat again.
No one knew what to make of Cassandra. Or, that is to say, no one knew what to make of the Bat.
And that was fine.
Cassandra really didn't know what to make of herself either, these days.
She slept through most of the day and patrolled at night. Three afternoons a week she waited tables at a local bistro that Tim had used to take her to. She showered at the local YMCA and dumpster dived on weekends.
She slowly made improvements to the tower where she was squatting. She fixed the roof, and set traps for the rats. She went to hardware stores and bought fishing wire and steel cable to bind criminals like Bruce. She bought marbles from dollar stores, and she painted them all black with spray paint, like Steph. She tagged walls, all around Gotham, with the symbol of the Bat, like Helena had, all those years ago.
The newspapers marveled at her. They called her Batwoman usually, which made Cass frown. They spun stories about her exploits, and they called her a hero.
The police grumbled about her. They called her the Bat. They called her a vigilante, and dangerous, and they sought to capture her.
The criminals feared her. They called her the Bat, or the Bitch if they were trying to be brave, and they fought or fled her in turn.
Cass decided, in the end, that she didn't care about any of them.
She was the Bat, and she was here to help. They didn't have to like it, or to understand it.
She stopped using her precious batarangs, because she didn't have the tools to replace them. She had never needed the tools that Bruce had given her, but she had used them because it had made her part of something larger, like the symbol she wore on her chest.
Now, the only gear she used was her grappling gun, and she constantly worried about keeping it safe, because she wasn't sure how to fix it. She was hard on her tools, Barbara had always told her this, but she had never really stopped to consider it, because there were always more where her broken grapple had come from, until now.
Dumpsters did not make for particularly comfortable landings. Cass kept her eyes sealed shut, wondering if she just laid there long enough, she could open her eyes and wake up in the Batcave. The real one, not the one she'd carved out for herself in the abandoned clock tower.
Home, where Bruce and Alfred and everyone else was, rather than the dark and damp and loneliness that waited for her, whenever she'd managed to drag herself to her feet and limp back.
Everything hurt. She'd pushed herself too far, and the landing had been brutal on her back. She'd be limping for a week. Cass let out a slight groan, and heard a yelp.
Hands grabbed her and started moving her… Cass flinched, trying to jerk away.
"Calm down, I'm trying to help." The voice was amazingly, brilliantly, sweetly familiar.
Cass forced herself to open her eyes, despite the pain, desperately searching for that sweet comfort, for the impossibility of it all.
Steph's face peered down at her, framed by blonde hair, an expression of oh-to-familiar concern on her face.
For a moment, Cass felt pure relief surging through her, making her feel more alive than she had in months. Steph had found her, her best friend was here, it was okay, she could go home.
"It's going to be okay, alright?" Steph said soothingly, her hands comforting on Cass's shoulders. "I'm a doctor, I'm here to help."
Everything came crashing down around her ears, even faster than she had managed to build herself up. This wasn't Steph. There was no hint of a cowl or a cape or heavy black gloves or steel-toed boots; instead, her long blonde hair was pulled up into a ponytail, and she was wearing scrubs. The fact that they were lavender in color was a cold, half-hearted comfort.
"C'mon, we're not far from my clinic. Can you walk?" The not-Steph sounded just like her, Gotham curling around her vowels, which seemed to make it impossible for Cass to speak. She nodded instead, feeling the familiar sorrow, the inscrutable loneliness, sink into her bones again.
A false hope, after all. She was still stranded here.
As the not-Steph helped Cass to her feet, Cass took a moment to examine this stranger version of her best friend.
She was older than the Steph from Cass's world, but there was a softness to this woman that Cass had never seen on the real one. Where Steph's arms were hard muscle, this woman's arms felt like they would snap if she tried to hold onto a grappling hook. A sideways glance showed that her hands were free of calluses or scars, beyond what could be expected from a life lived. Her eyes were the same, familiar shade of blue, but there was no specter behind them of pain, of an old, bitter anger.
This Stephanie Brown was a civilian. Not her best friend. Not Spoiler.
Cass felt herself sag slightly as the differences between worlds hit her again. Not fair, she wanted to cry. Of all the worlds, she'd landed here, where there were no heroes for her to go to, where dimensional travel was a theory, where no one even knew that aliens existed. Where there was no one she could turn to for help.
"Shit!" The woman stumbled slightly, trying to keep Cass upright. "I think you might have a concussion!"
"No," Cass said, with utmost confidence, despite the exhaustion that was sinking into her skin, an exhaustion that made her just want to curl up into a ball and sleep until she woke up in the Manor again. She knew what a concussion felt like; she'd had her fair share over the years. She didn't have one now.
"I'll be the judge of that," the woman said firmly, and Cass was reminded, oddly, of Doctor Leslie. Maybe it was a doctor thing?
"Why are you helping me?" Cass managed to ask, hating how much she had to lean on not-Steph for support.
"You're the Bat, aren't you?" The woman plowed on, not even waiting for Cass's answer. "Do you have any idea how many of my friends you've saved this week alone? Trust me," the smile was the same too, bright and joyful, and all the more bitter for that familiarity. "This is the least I could do to repay you."
Cass bit her lip behind her cowl to stop herself from laughing, despite herself, despite the absurdity of it all.
"What's your name?" She made herself ask, half hoping that the answer would be something different, to ease the blow that was about to come.
"I'm Stephanie Brown." No, Cass wanted to tell her, you're not.
Stephanie Brown was gone, just like the rest of them. The fact that she was faced with this doppelganger was another sign of just how much the universe hated her.
Every inch of Cass longed for home. For the sweet smell of Brenda's tea, for the comfort of the Bat Cave, for the hum of Barbara's computers, for the taste of Alfred's cooking, for the feeling of Bruce's arms around her, for the sigh of Stephanie Brown, the real Stephanie Brown, smiling at her, wide and reckless and unafraid of whatever came next.
"Doctor Stephanie Brown, if you want to get formal about it," the woman continued, oblivious to Cass's inner turmoil. And… yes, that would do. Doctor Brown. Not Stephanie. Not Steph. Not Spoiler, or Robin, or even Batgirl.
She let Doctor Brown lead her into the small clinic. There was a waiting room, with a single nurse behind the desk who Cass was grateful not to recognize. When had strangers become such a blessing, and familiar faces a curse?
The nurse stared as they came in, but she leapt to her feet immediately, terrified and worried in turn. "Doctor Brown!"
"Let's get her in the back," Doctor Brown said firmly. "I need to be sure she doesn't have a concussion."
"The police—" The nurse seemed flustered.
"Now!" Stephanie—Doctor Brown—snapped, and Cass had to slam her eyes shut again to prevent the familiarity from overwhelming her.
Not home, she reminded herself. Never home.
She was sat down on one of those strange movable padded tables she remembered Leslie having in her clinic, complete with the tissue paper covering. Doctor Brown went to the sink to wash her hands, while the nurse fluttered around, unsure of what to do in the presence of a vigilante.
Cass missed her Gotham so much; people respected the symbol she wore on her chest there, knew what it meant and what it stood for. Here, she was the first, fighting tooth and nail on her own.
She wondered if this is what it had been like for Bruce, back in the early days. But at least he'd had Alfred, she thought, jealousy and longing knotting up her stomach. Here, she was all alone.
Tears pricked beneath her cowl, and she closed her eyes to force them away.
"If you want," Dr. Brown said, "I could find you a scarf. So I could look at your eyes, without seeing the rest of your face." She offered it so easily, as if she'd already given thought to how to check a masked superhero for a concussion.
But Cass was too exhausted to care; her civilian identity was virtually non-existent in this world. She was still squatting in the Clocktower, which was abandoned in this world. She was trying to forge paperwork, but she'd never asked Tim or Babs to teach her, and so she was clumsy, her attempts not even good enough to fool a club bouncer, the safest thing Cass could think to try to test them. A real place to stay, a real job, was out of the question.
Cass tugged off her cowl, hoping that Doctor Brown didn't notice that her eyes were damp. Maybe if she did, she'd believe it to be because of the pain.
Doctor Brown looked surprised, but she quickly set to work. Her manner was brisk but kind, asking Cass if things hurt and what she saw. She asked Cass the name of the biggest street in Gotham and the president. Cass knew the first, but not the second. She told Doctor Brown that she'd never known it, so it wasn't a sign of concussion. Brown frowned, but continued her examination.
"You shouldn't even be upright," Brown said incredulously, clearly not trying to stare at Cass's scars. "How do you keep going?"
Cass shrugged. She could hardly admit to years of practice, not in this world, where she was the first vigilante that she knew of. She knew there would have to be others—surely this world wasn't that different. Just… new.
"Alright," Brown finally said, taking a step back, allowing Cass to breathe again. "You're fine. You should be careful though—you're going to hurt like hell in the morning."
Cass nodded, already having known that. But she was grateful, anyways. Brown had stitched up and cleaned the small cuts, and given her ice for the large bruise that was forming on the side of her head. It was nice.
"If you ever need a doctor," the woman offered, holding out a card. An address was scribbled on the back. "My apartment is always open, and I have a kit there."
Cass took it, although she didn't want to. She wanted to run away, and never see this ghost again.
But she was the Bat. She had a mission, and she couldn't perform the mission if she was injured.
She couldn't afford to turn down help, even if it meant the ache in her heart would only get worse.
Cass's first supervillain was a man who wore a mask that covered only half of his face and a long black cape.
He called himself the Phantom, and Cass met him accidentally, when she was investigating the disappearance of some young children who had vanished from their foster home placement. She was fairly certain they had simply run away, but she needed to be sure.
She broke into a theater, because one of the kids still at the house told her that Colin liked to hang out in the theater, and accidentally found herself in the middle of a ballet rehearsal.
She paused, from her position in the rafters, oddly mesmerized by the scene below her. She had always loved dancing. When she was on the streets, before Barbara and Bruce, she had loved watching street performers, and emulating them. During No Man's Land, Jean Paul had played music for her to dance to.
Dancing was using her body, her skills, in a way that didn't hurt anyone. It was taking her; the weapon that her father built, and not using it, not to hurt, not even to protect, but just to make something beautiful.
She loved dancing.
She had never really examined organized dancing though. She had heard of it, of course. She had seen waltzes at parties Bruce had thrown, and knew that schools and the like existed, to teach people. Cass had never seen the need; she could almost immediately do any move she saw.
But watching the dancers, moving in sync, beautiful and graceful, telling a story...
She was hypnotized, despite herself.
The dancer in the center of things, in particular, was mesmerizing. Her kinky, dark hair was tufted into two puffs on either side of her head, and her smile was mesmerizing. She wore no costume, not for this practice, but the dark brown leotard and strange shoes she wore were as fascinating and alien to Cass as any costume.
Cass watched as the woman sleekly moved up onto the points of her toes, raising her arms above her head, and Cass itched to leap down from her hiding space, to land on that stage, to try the moves herself.
But the sight of a man standing in one of the boxes, wearing a cape, holding a pair of strange binoculars, distracted her quite thoroughly.
"Oh Christine..." the man was murmuring, his gaze focused exclusively on the same beautiful dancer who had caught Cassandra's gaze. "My angel of music!"
Cass ran those words through her mind a few times, trying to understand them. However, the only understanding she was coming to was in Stephanie Brown's voice, and the only word that the voice of Spoiler was providing her with was creepy.
The man's gaze was predatory, possessive, and hungry. He was not curious. He was not merely watching. To Cassandra, it was clear as day, that he had intentions to harm the dancer, in one way or another.
This was not a stake out.
This was a stalking.
But at least Cass knew what to do about stalking.
She slipped down from her rafter, behind the man, and tapped him on the shoulder. "Stop."
The man stumbled backwards. His eye that wasn't covered in the mask narrowed. "You."
"You can't get between me and my Angel!" The man yelled, producing a gun.
Below, the dancers noticed them, and screaming started.
The sound of something heavy hitting the stage triggered more screaming, and took Cass's gaze off the man long enough to allow him to get off a shot.
Not to hit her, of course, but he got off a shot.
She ducked under the bullet and launched herself forward at this man. The two of them went tumbling off the box, towards the stage.
She caught hold of the chandelier, grabbing him by his cape to try to keep him from falling, but he twisted in her grip, unclasping it, and fell the rest of the way towards the stage, willingly.
Cass threw herself after him, and tackled him to the ground, inches away from the dancer.
"Christine!" The Phantom pleaded. "Please! Assist me!"
"Fuck off," the dancer yelled. "You creep!"
She then kicked him in the face.
Cass decided she really liked this woman.
"You're the Bat, right?" The woman had a thick, Gotham accent, a shock of bright blue hair, and piercings following up the curve of her ears.
"Probably." Cass wasn't normally much for sarcasm, but there really wasn't anyone else who wore a mask.
The woman pointed at her, expression irate. "Rude."
Cass shrugged. "Stupid question."
"Jeeze, no one told me you were sassy," the woman griped. "Anyways, Stephanie told me you were looking for someone to help you fix your trackers."
Cass nodded slowly, tilting her head to one side to examine the woman. "And she sent you?"
"Harper Row," the woman said. "I work at the electronics shop around the corner from her place."
"Row…" Cass mused, turning the name over in her mind, like she would a puzzle piece that didn't quite slot into place. "Cullen's sister?"
Harper froze. "How do you know my brother?"
Cass shrugged. "Met him once. He was nice." She paused. "There was a mugger. I stopped him."
Harper Row gaped at her. "And you remember him?"
"I try… to remember everyone. I'm a detective."
Harper started to laugh. "So they say. Okay." She sat down next to Cass. "So what do you need?"
Cass watched as Christine danced from the rafters.
It was silly, maybe, to sit here and watch a ballerina practice, when Cass's ribs were bruised and there was crime happening, but Cass couldn't help but come back here, night after night.
This was probably not what Christine had meant, when she had invited the Bat to watch her practice sometimes. She'd probably never thought that Cass would take her up on it. She probably had never thought to look up, into the rafters, where Cass sat cloaked in the familiar darkness.
She could justify it if she wanted; the Phantom was still on the loose, despite Cass's best efforts, and he was focused on Christine.
But she knew better than to lie to herself about this.
Christine was better than the other dancers in her company; Stephanie and Harper had dragged Cass out to see the ballet, once they had seen the signed program, pinned to the wall of her apartment.
Well, that was after they had taken turns trying to convince her to move in with them. Cass had refused, like she always did. Now that the walls of the Clocktower were fully repaired, it was a perfectly serviceable apartment. Harper had even bought her a bed, which was nice of her, if unnecessary. Cass had slept in far worse places than a mattress on the floor, no matter how much it made Stephanie and Harper angry to hear about it.
But they had taken her to see the ballet, and Cass had been able to confirm her longtime suspicion, that Christine was the best dancer.
Maybe she was biased, but she seemed to move more gracefully, more naturally, than the rest of her company. She wasn't the most flexible, or the strongest, but the music flowed through her so perfectly, making her shine.
Christine lowered her leg gracefully, as the last notes of the music began to fade, and Cass knew that if she was ever going to show herself, it would have to be now.
Once, was a coincidence. Cass could have written it off and pretended it had never happened. Twice? Cass could feel Bruce's disapproval, from all the way across dimensions.
But three times? This time, it was Steph, her Steph, who she could hear, and the word was creepy.
She didn't want to be creepy. Well, except for bad guys.
But Christine wasn't a bad guy.
Leaning forward, Cass let herself fall off the rafter, landing just loudly enough that Christine would hear her.
Christine spun—not the elegant pirouettes that she'd just been doing, but rather, a flailing, nervous spin that Cass saw so often—and gaped, when she recognized Cass.
"You dance… beautifully."
Her hands flew up to cover her face. "Oh! Batwoman!"
Cass didn't correct her about the name. "You said… I could stop by?" She bit her lip, behind her mask, nervous that it had never been a real offer.
Christine took a tentative, disbelieving step towards Cass. "I… didn't think you would."
"Oh. Sorry. I can leave."
"No! Not like that. I just… you must be so busy." Christine was the same height as Cass, although with her hair pulled up like that, she was taller.
"I like dancing. And I like… your dancing." Cass felt her cheeks heating up.
"Do you dance?" Christine's deep brown eyes were staring at her, and Cass felt as if she was lost, overwhelmed by emotions.
"Yes," Cass breathed out, unable to stop herself from admitting that.
But… it wasn't as if Christine could use that against her. It's not that Christine would use that against her.
Christine, tentative and slow, held out a hand to Cass. "Want to show me what you've got?"
Cass paused, thinking carefully. Then, she reached up and undid the clasp of her cape, letting it flutter to the ground. Then, even more slowly, she reached up and removed her mask, ignoring Christine's gasp.
"Yes," Cass said, taking Christine's hand.
Cass hadn't meant to tell Stephanie Brown where she lived. But the cut on her abdomen had been bad, and Cass didn't want to risk bleeding out on the way to Doctor Brown's apartment.
So she used the cell phone she'd found weeks ago, the one she'd been using to take photos of crime scenes, and called the number that Stephanie had given her months ago.
"Hello?" Stephanie's voice was thick with sleep, but she was more alert than Cass might have expected, at this time of the night.
"… Doctor Brown?" She said, trying to bury the pain. Her fingers were very red, she thought distantly.
"I—Can you come?"
"Where to?" Stephanie said, her voice suddenly awake.
Cass murmured an address into the phone, before dropping it. She stared at it for a moment, before deciding that she was too tired to pick it up again, and just decided to lie down herself.
She woke up to Steph yelling in her ear, threatening to call an ambulance if Cass didn't wake up right now.
The threat was effective. Cass forced herself awake, to the double whammy of her injury and the realization that it was still the wrong version of the blonde woman in front of her.
"Hey, Bat, hey," she said, trying to be soothing. "It's okay, I've got you."
"Cass," she whispered.
"Cass? Okay, I've got you, Cassie."
She cradled Cass in her arms, and Cass closed her eyes and floated off. She could feel Steph's heart beat... or was it her own? She always seemed to see Stephanie when she died...
She woke up with bandages wrapped around her center and a furious Stephanie Brown pacing the length of Cass's apartment.
"You should have called me earlier," Stephanie snapped. "I nearly wasn't here on time, Bat. You could have been killed."
This Stephanie's anger was different than the anger Cass was used to. Her Stephanie, her best friend, her rage was pointed at the world in general, at the bad guys, at her sense of helplessness when they failed.
Cass had so, so rarely, been the target of Stephanie Brown's rage. Her hurt, her sadness, her joy, but so rarely that rage had been turned at her. Because Stephanie Brown, the Spoiler, Robin, and Batgirl, knew Cassandra Cain, knew her in and out, and knew what she was capable of.
This Stephanie didn't know her, didn't understand her limits. All she saw was someone she cared about, who was reckless and hurt and who nearly died on her.
"Cass," she corrected, quietly. "My name is Cass."
Stephanie's rage didn't abate, although she softened slightly at this show of trust. "Cass. You could have died."
Cass nearly protested, but she knew that Stephanie was right. It had been a bad wound. Back home, Alfred or Leslie could have tended it, and she had written it off, thinking she'd be safe when she got home.
But no one was waiting for her, not here, in this world.
If it weren't for this Stephanie Brown, just as stubborn, just as kind hearted, just as angry, as her best friend, she'd probably be dead.
So she swallowed down the old hurt, the loneliness that refused to abate, and reached out and placed a hand on Stephanie's wrist. "I know. I'm sorry."
Stephanie did soften fully at that. "I was worried about you."
"Next time, come to me first. Don't come here."
Cass swallowed down the lump in her throat, the one that tasted of betrayal of nights on a rooftop, playing tag. "Okay."
The weeks in this world crawled by.
Cassandra picked up more hours at the bistro, even though she needed to less and less, with Stephanie and Harper and Christine keeping an eye on her. All of them insisted on feeding her constantly, with Stephanie even loading Cass's refrigerator with food, if Cass stayed away for too long.
She danced with Christine, in the quiet of the theater, and every time, she felt a little firmer, a little more like she was real. Christine was no ghost of home, was nothing that reminded her of the world that Cass had left behind, first intentionally, and then not.
Harper had figured out a way to replicate Batarangs, which was a weight off Cassandra's shoulders. Now, her patrols felt... traditional. Cass had never been one for the trappings of things, back home, but here, she was the Bat, and the trappings, the symbols... they meant something, here.
Her patrols carried her across the length of the city frequently. There was no Joker, no Two-Face, no Killer Croc here, but there still was a Cobblepot, there still was a Black Mask (although he didn't call himself that, not yet), and there was still plenty of crime for her to fight.
It was after one such long, exhausting patrol, that Cass returned to her apartment in the abandoned Clock Tower, to find a young boy sitting on her chair.
She stared at him.
She'd seen him before; of course she had seen him before. His hair was dark, although it was not as dark as it would be in the years to come. His eyes were a chilling, haunted shade of blue. His skin was pale and ghostlike and unmarked...
But it was his expression that told her exactly who it was.
"You're the Bat," Bruce Wayne, who couldn't be older than thirteen, declared. "I want to help."
Cass stared at him, torn between tears and bemusement. He was so young. Not as young as those few pictures that she had seen; those pictures were all from happier times. This boy was too young, but also too old. She had arrived in this world too late for him, and he was too young to be the help that she truly needed.
He was like Stephanie and yet not; because he was not her father, he was the child who her father had once been. It hurt, but less so, and the pain was abated somewhat by the curiosity that was bubbling up inside of her.
"Gotham's a big city," he said. "You can't take care of it all on your own."
"Can so," Cass said, unable to stop herself. She held up her hand to cut off Bruce's inevitable protest. "But. Help is nice."
He brightened. "Really?"
"Really." Cass remembered Stephanie's reactions to being told to stop. She doubted that Bruce Wayne would be any different. "Can you fight?"
"... no," he admitted.
"Then I'll teach you." She walked past him to her fridge and pulled out a carton of milk. She opened it, sniffed it to check it was good, and then drank straight from the carton.
Bruce was staring at her, and she wasn't sure if it was because of her manners, or because she'd given in easier than he'd expected.
She wiped her mouth on the back of her hand, and put the milk back in the fridge. "But... until you're trained, you stay here. You're smart. You can help me solve mysteries."
"How do you know I'm smart?" He demanded, crossing his arms.
"You found me." She smiled. "And I'm a detective." She stretched, and examined the clock on the wall, before remembering that she wasn't supposed to know his name. "I'm Cass."
"I'm—" He paused, clearly reluctant to say his name.
She walked over to him and patted him on the head. "It's okay. I'll call you... Robin."
She unclasped her cape, letting it pool around her feet, and then took on a defensive stance. "Now... hit me."
And just like that, Cassandra Cain started training Bruce Wayne to be Batman.
"I'm making tea," Stephanie said, one night after she was finished patching Cass up after a bad fight with the Bertinelli Family, and Cass froze without thinking; remembering Brenda and Bludhaven and evenings with Alfred at Wayne Manor. "Do you want any?"
"I can't," she blurted, and dove for the window.
She heard Doctor Brown scrambling in confusion behind her, but she didn't care. Everything felt too close to home, around Stephanie. And it wasn't like Bruce, where he was a child and she could pretend she didn't know him. Stephanie was almost Steph; softer around the edges, less hurt in her eyes and less scars on her body, with fat where muscle should be.
It made her want to scream.
She found herself at Christine's apartment in Midtown without meaning to. Christine lived close to the Opera, where she performed. It was a small apartment, even smaller than Cass's ramshackle place in the Clocktower. The kitchen was cramped, the exposed brick walls shed dust, and the bed was only a single, a tiny mattress pressed into the corner, barely even raised off the ground.
But it somehow felt like the best place in this entire city.
Strings of white lights were taped up around the place, filling it with a sense of light and airiness. Posters for Christine's shows were carefully framed and hung up around the place. The couch was patched and worn but it was also soft. The plants Christine cultivated were warm and green and made the whole little place feel loved.
Christine was up, despite the late hour, or perhaps because of it. During show season, Christine kept hours nearly as ridiculous as Cass's own, especially on the days when she didn't have to teach classes at the studio the next morning.
She stood in the kitchen, her hair pulled back into a scarf, wearing sweatpants and a tank top. Her feet were bare, but that didn't stop her from dancing. She spun around, her foot raised in the air, her hands above her head, while the microwave rattled, probably preparing some late night snack.
Perching on her fire escape, Cass watched her, unable to stop herself from smiling. Cass removed her cowl, and then carefully rapped on the window with her knuckles, to let Christine know she was there.
Christine spun to face her, her expression travelling from shocked to overjoyed in a moment.
"Cass," she said, moving across the room to open the window to let her in. Cass could come in without help, of course, but it felt... more polite, to wait to let Christine do it.
"I didn't expect you so late," Christine said. "Steph texted, and said you were hurt."
"I was. Better now," Cass said, hoping that Christine believed her.
She didn't. But she didn't call Cass on it, either.
"Do you want anything to eat?" She asked, instead. "I just put leftovers in the microwave, but I could order something—"
"No," Cass said. "I just... wanted to see you."
Christine... there was no one like Christine, back home. It was soothing, it was calming, it was glorious. There was no hurt here, no phantoms of the world that Cass had left behind.
There was only Christine, with her low cut tank top and her beautiful brown eyes, and...
Perhaps she should have expected it when Christine wrapped her elegant fingers around the back of Cass's neck and guided her into a kiss.
The feeling of Christine's lips, soft and full, against Cass's own, made her freeze, but she recovered quickly.
This was different, and unexpected, but it was also exactly what Cass wanted, had wanted since she had first seen Christine dance.
"I wanted to see you too," Christine told her, smiling, as they finally parted.
"Oh. Good." Christine laughed, the noise soft and merry.
Training Bruce was strange. He was young, younger than Damian even. He was angry, he was brimming with anger at the injustice of everything. His grief was all consuming, his sorrow was overflowing, and he was so determined that it took Cass's breath away.
It was so easy, to see how he would become Batman. To see how he would take every single advantage he had ever been given, and turn it into a weapon. How he would sharpen himself to a fine point, and use it to push back against everything he had found, every injustice that had been wrought on him.
He was young, and he still didn't understand. Nine years old, if even that, and it was all still, so intensely personal. He had not yet gained perspective, or learned to see nuance. His grief, his parents, his tragedy, was all he was thinking about, as he lifted weights, ran laps, and sparred Cassandra.
He ran himself ragged, constantly, pushing himself beyond his limits, the limits that were so real in his young body.
Bruce fell asleep on the couch, after one such day of training. Cass frowned, considering what to do.
She wasn't supposed to know who he was. She'd named him Robin when he'd refused to give her a name, trying to hide from her pity, from the weight of his name.
But he needed to go home that night.
He was light in Cass's arms, lighter than all her brothers had been, lighter than Steph, lighter than Babs. He was still fragile and thin, training not having set in yet. It was hard to believe that he would grow up into the wall of muscle and strength that she had known.
She had a car—Harper had helped her fix it up after she found it. It was inconspicuous and normal, nothing like the Batmobile. It was just for transportation. It wasn't a part of the Bat.
Cass knew the road to the Manor very well, even in this world. She'd followed Bruce home every night, making sure he made it back to Alfred.
She created a crude sling out of her cape. Bruce was so exhausted he didn't stir, even when she scaled the tree that led to his window. He'd left it open so he could get back in easily, and she slipped in easily.
She froze when she realized Alfred was waiting inside.
He looked as startled to see her as she was to see him. "Ah. You must be the Bat," he said, and there was a disapproving look on his face as he looked at her.
That made it easier. This Alfred was young, younger than she realized he could have been, and that helped too. This wasn't the man who had bandaged her injuries and done her laundry. He was someone whose only purpose was the boy in her arms, and she was someone who was endangering him.
She could handle that better than she could have if it was her Alfred, who just didn't know her.
"He fell asleep," Cass said, carefully setting him down on the bed. "Didn't want him to wake up."
"He seemed to be under the impression you didn't know who he was," Alfred said pointedly. The hostility cut, but the unfamiliarity of it all numbed her to it.
Cass smiled. "Detective," she replied simply.
"And you knew exactly where to go?"
"Followed him home sometimes," she said, pausing before tugging her mask up, showing Alfred her face. She knew that he'd take it as a gesture of trust, even though her face didn't mean anything. "Wanted to be sure he was safe."
He softened, just slightly, at that.
"Well then. I'm glad he has you."
It was one of the rules, in Cass's new life, not to speak of where she had come from, of what she had done before Gotham.
Stephanie probably knew the most, having examined Cass's old injuries and scars with an experienced doctor's eye, but she had never asked, and for that, Cass was grateful.
It was becoming harder and harder to keep things straight, as the months went by. Now that Bruce was there, and with Alfred's support, he had insisted on fixing up Cass's loft in the Clocktower, furnishing it and repairing the roof beyond Cass's patch job from her earliest weeks.
It was on one such morning, waking up in her new, comfortable bed, that Cass realized, with a lurch, that she had been in this world for a year.
Twelve months had gone by, and there was still no sign of anyone from home, coming to look for her. Twelve months.
She'd been here longer than Steph was Robin, as long as Bruce and her brother's miserable trip. It had been a year, and there was no end in sight, and no hope for her.
And so, for the first time, Cass came to the horrible, lurching realization that she might be stuck in this universe for the rest of her life.
She lurched herself out of her bed, feeling sick to her stomach, because that didn't bear thinking about. To never see her brothers again, to never see Bruce as anything but the young boy who she was teaching, to never see a Stephanie Brown who knew her, to never meet Barbara Gordon... to never go back to the Gotham that was hers, that was home...
It was just as horrible as every wave of homesickness that she had ever experienced since she left behind her Batgirl costume on a rooftop, only it was all at once.
There would be no reconciliation with Stephanie Brown, there would be no patrols through Gotham with her brother's chatter in her ears, there would be no Barbara Gordon to check up on her, and Bruce would never tell her he was proud of her, because here, in this world, she was the one who would be proud of him.
She was the Bat, but she'd give anything not to be, if it meant that she could just be home, if it meant that she would have her family back.
She let out a wordless scream, and punched the nearest training dummy, hard enough that it broke off its chain and went flying into the wall.
"Cass?" Christine was there, and Cass spun around, staring at her, flushed and ashamed.
"I—didn't hear you come in," Cass said, feeling her ears heat up. She didn't like the idea of Christine seeing her like this, seeing her angry and out of control. Christine was... sleek and elegant, and even in her anger, she always seemed to be graceful.
"Cass," Christine whispered again. "What's wrong?"
Cass looked away, focusing on unwrapping the bandages around her hands in order to not have to look at Christine's eyes, brown and soft and kind.
"It's... the anniversary," she said, her throat tight as she thought of falling and stars and the void.
A year, here in this world, and still they hadn't come for her.
"The anniversary?" And then Christine was there, taking advantage of Cass being caught in the memory of an endless, star studded journey. "Of what?"
"Here," Cass said, unable to stop herself.
Christine frowned. "Of you coming here? To Gotham?" She pressed her fingers against Cass's cheek. "Why's that bad?"
Cass swallowed. "It's not," she protested, but it was weak, despite the fact that she would never have gotten to meet Christine if it weren't for all of this. But the loneliness was threatening to overwhelm her, and she wanted nothing more than to be home.
"Cass," Christine said, and her name from Christine's lips was music, was the clearest, realest thing that Cass had heard in a long time. She could have followed that noise through the void, Cass thought, and she reached up and pressed her own hand against Christine's on her cheek.
"I fell," she whispered. "I was far away, in another world and I fell, and then I came here, and I can't go home."
"Home?" Christine said, her eyes wide. "Where's home?"
"Gotham. But not... here. My Gotham. There's... many. Thousands, millions."
"Worlds." Cassandra corrected, and Christine's eyes were wide, but not disbelieving. "My world... I was... there was someone else. Another Bat. And he... he took me in. He gave me a home. A purpose."
"Oh," Christine breathed. "But then... who were you?"
Cass swallowed, and leaned into Christine's palm. "Batgirl," she whispered. "I was Batgirl."
"And the Bat...?"
"My father," Cass said. "He's Robin, here. And... I had brothers. And friends. And I... I miss them."
"Robin?" Christine demanded. "He's your father?"
"He... adopted me. He's older, there."
Christine's laugh is half-hysterical. "I should hope so!"
"Stephanie was there too," Cass said. "She was... my best friend."
Christine stared at her, full of wonder. "And me? Am I there?"
"No. Or... I didn't know you."
"But... you're the best part of here," Cass said, completely earnest, and Christine was the one to be embarrassed, this time, and it was the prettiest thing Cass had ever seen.
So she leaned forwards, and pressed her lips against Christine's.
"I'm glad I met you," Christine said. "And... thank you. For trusting me with this."
Cass traced the curve of Christine's jaw with her lips. "Glad I met you," she whispered, all the warmer for the truth in those words.
It was easy, after that, to go to bed.
Cass had never done anything like this before, not with another person. It was different than it looked in the fast glimpses through windows, different than the rushed affairs in cars or alleys.
It was the softness of Christine's sheets, the curve of her hip beneath Cass's fingers, the scent of her hair, the press of her legs, the glide of skin against skin. There was the taste, lingering against Cass's lips for the rest of the day.
It was brilliant, it was beautiful, and Cass and Christine stayed in bed for hours, laughing and loving and dozing, until the morning turned to afternoon, and hunger finally drove them from Christine's bed to the kitchen.
Cass carefully helped Christine fix her hair and laughed when she burned the eggs. She ate them anyway, which distressed her girlfriend.
Girlfriend. What a beautiful word, that was.
"Tell me about your world," Christine said, after the dishes were cleaned and put away, and the tea was steeped and poured.
Cass sat down next to her, sliding easily into her arms, and closed her eyes.
And she started to tell her a story.
Cassandra hadn't arrived in this world in time for the Waynes.
She hadn't even thought to look up the dates; she just knew that she had missed them, that they were already dead and buried by the time that she had fallen from the sky and crashed on a rooftop.
She shouldn't have been surprised, perhaps, that her existence, too little, too late, was an injustice, in the eyes of Bruce Wayne.
Alfred was the one to call her, to tell her that Bruce was missing, and asking her to go find him.
Given where she found him, she suspected that Alfred was trying to encourage her and Bruce to have this conversation, rather than not knowing where Bruce was.
She found Bruce Wayne sitting in front of the graves. Graves that Cass, herself, had visited time and time again.
"Robin," she said, carefully, softly, but it wasn't enough.
His gaze was full of rage, rage and grief, all turned towards her.
"Where were you?" He half screamed, half-sobbed.
She wrapped her arms around him, trying to comfort him, but he beat at her with his fists, his sobs shaking them both.
"They died, and you could have saved them. Where were you? Why weren't you there?"
"Far away," she whispered. His tears were getting her shirt wet, but she didn't care, and she clung to him even harder, despite his blows. "I'm sorry, I would have if I could—"
"Where?" He demanded. "You're amazing, you're the best, why couldn't you have been here?"
"Hong Kong," she whispered. "I was in Hong Kong, I'm sorry, I'm so sorry—"
"You're lying!" He yelled. "You're lying—"
"No. I was. Far, far away."
"But that's not fair!"
"I know," Cass said, wretchedly. "I'm sorry."
"You could have saved them," he whispered, the fight going out of him.
"Maybe," she said. "But... even I... I can't save everyone."
"But... you're the Bat," he said. "You can, that's what you do."
"Wasn't always," she said. "I did... I made mistakes. Still do."
He swallowed, and finally pulled himself out of her arms, and she let him. "Why did you come to Gotham, if you were in Hong Kong?"
Cass knelt down and started to tidy the flowers, which had been thrown into disarray by Bruce's thrashing, thinking about how to answer his question.
Would the truth help, or make things worse?
She had told Christine, she decided. She could tell him. Maybe not all of it, but at least some.
"An accident. I was... there was a thief. And he used magic."
"Like Zatara?" His eyes were wide.
"Yes. I... I don't know where I was born. But when I was... sixteen? Maybe? I was in Gotham. I met... a woman. She took me in. I was running away, and she gave me... a purpose. And then I met him."
"Who?" Bruce was overflowing with curiosity, despite the tears still drying on his face.
He stared at her.
"He was the Batman," she said. "He gave me a costume and a name, and he helped me become a detective."
"He adopted me. And then, he had to go away for a while, and I went to Hong Kong. And then I fought the thief, and I fell. And I ended up here. Gotham, again, but not home. Because there is no Batman, not yet. So... I became the Bat, instead. Because you're not old enough, not yet."
"I'm—I'm your dad?"
"One day, maybe," Cass said, with a shrug. "Lots of different worlds. This one is... very different. Don't know where I am."
"Is that how you knew who I was?"
"Isn't that cheating?"
"... does this mean you'll have to go back? To your world?"
Cass shrugged, helpless.
He was hugging her again, tightly, burying his face into her shirt.
"Please don't go," he whispered. "I don't want you to leave, I'm sorry for yelling at you."
She hugged him back. "I wish I'd... come sooner," she said, against his hair.
He cried again, and she didn't say anything at all.
Cass heard about the new hero in town from Harper, who was brandishing a copy of the newspaper and yelling about it when Cass woke up.
"You've got competition! Or a team up! I think you have to fight, then you team up," Harper said, giving the full impression that she had set up shop in Cass's kitchen again. There were electronics scattered all over the table, and all of Cass's mugs were scattered around the counters, with the dregs of coffee.
Grumbling and ignoring her friend, Cass rinsed out one of the mugs and started to make tea.
"Gross, Cass, wash that first!"
"Rinsed," Cass grumbled.
"That doesn't count!" Harper yelled, her anguish over Cass's way of living temporarily overriding her excitement.
"Not going to fight anyone," Cass muttered, putting a second tea bag into the mug, because it was clearly going to be one of those days.
"That's a blatant lie," Harper said. "Anyways, I set up a meeting with him, so you should head over to Park Row."
Cass groaned. "Evil."
"I'm facilitating your team up," Harper said, unabashed. "I'll clean your kitchen if you head out right after your tea."
"Deal," Cass said, because she'd take any excuse not to have to take out her trash, and also, meeting another superhero could only be a good thing.
The man was wearing bright yellow, and he was waiting for her on the rooftop.
"You're good," Cass said, approvingly.
She didn't recognize him. From a distance, on the broadcast, she had wondered if he was Jason Todd, or even Azrael, but now she could see better. He was black, and shorter than both Jason or Jean Paul had been.
"That means a lot coming from you," he said. "I'm the Signal."
Cass reached up and took off her mask. "I'm the Bat," she said. "Do you have time to talk?"
Duke Thomas, as it turned out the Signal's name was, liked coffee better than tea, but Cass decided she wouldn't hold that against him. Not when his eyes were kind and his stance was firm.
"You want to fight? No. You are fighting." She wrapped her fingers around her cup of tea. The warmth crept right through the ceramic, stinging her finger.
"That's right," he said. He paused, staring down into his mug. "The Joker killed my parents," he whispered.
Cass flinched. "I'm sorry," she whispered.
"It's not your fault," he said, looking up at her with eyes so brown they were almost black. "I never blamed you. It was him. He was proving a point. The daytime bus attacks."
Cass sat down. "So… you'll guard the day."
"Yes," he said, fiercely. "I might not be able to stop the Joker, but… you need to sleep sometimes. And so do I. If there's two of us…"
Cass covered his hand with hers. "We can cover more ground."
He looked relieved, like he had been worried that she would argue. "Exactly."
"Do you… have a team? People?"
He looked surprised. "My… my girlfriends. Izzy and Riko."
"Bring them. I'll introduce them to mine."
"Yours?" He looked surprised. "I thought you worked alone."
"Did for a while." Cass smiled, sipping her tea. "But… better with family."
Duke's girlfriends were lovely, although of course, Christine was better. Christine laughed at Cass when she said that, but it didn't change the fact that it was true.
Izzy taught music at a local elementary school and Riko was a seamstress, while Duke ran a blog. Riko was the one who had designed Duke's costume.
"We've talked about joining him," Izzy admitted, in hushed tones, to Christine. "We both can fight some, so… we've talked about it."
Cass pretended she wasn't listening, as she stood by and watched Duke introduce himself to Bruce.
"I think… I think you should do it if it's what you want to do," Christine said. "Not because you want to look after him. He'll look after himself. And so will Cass."
"Don't you worry about her?" Riko asked.
"All the time." Christine's small was angled at Cass, telling her she knew that eavesdropping was occurring. "But she's always come home to me."
Stephanie fussed over Duke, immediately giving him her contact information and demands that he contact her immediately upon injury. Harper has ideas for tech, talking about all of the weapons she could design for him, since Cass still preferred to use her fists, despite Harper's best efforts.
On a Saturday, Harper passed along a sighting of a woman wearing a purple cape, and provided a picture, and Cass knew.
There was no way that Cass would ever mistake Stephanie Brown for anyone else, and this Stephanie... it was hers. It was Steph.
A purple cape, a half-cowl, a symbol on her chest in sunshine yellow, with waves of golden hair, and a grin, visible even in the blurry picture.
She knocked over her chair and fled the room immediately, grabbing her costume and throwing it on, leaping from the window, even though Christine was coming over soon, but this was Steph, this was Batgirl, and this was, perhaps, the only chance Cass would ever get.
There was no question of where to go, there was no way to avoid recognizing that rooftop, even though Harper would have had no idea of why it mattered, of why this woman in a purple costume would be lingering on the roof of the Gotham PD, because Cass had never bothered to court the police, because there was no Bat Signal in this universe, but it was as natural a meeting place for a Bat as anything in the world, and Cass ran in that direction without hesitation or a care.
"Stephanie!" Cass yelled, her heart racing in her chest, as she spun around in place on that roof, her heart pounding in her chest, as she searched for her friend, her hope, her lifeline.
"Cass!" Steph flew out from behind a chimney, and she threw her arms around Cass's waist, and the two of them went tumbling down to the rooftop.
"You're here! Finally! We've been looking for weeks, I'm so sorry it took so long, but the multiverse is huge, and—I'm so glad to see you!"
"Weeks?" Cass repeated, still thrown off balance, quite literally, by Steph.
"You disappeared three weeks ago," Steph said, helping Cass to her feet. "We had the footage, but it took Zatanna a while to figure out how we could follow you." She paused, as she took in Cass. "Oh. It hasn't been three weeks for you, has it?"
"Eighteen months," Cass said, softly.
"Cass," Steph breathed, and then she hugged her again. "Fuck, I'm sorry, we were looking, I promise—"
Cass hugged her back, a bubble of relief threatening to burst in her chest. They were looking. "Can... we can get home?"
"Yeah," Steph said. "I've got a way." She pulled away. "Uh... do you... need anything?"
Cass's mouth dried. "It's... one-way?"
"I mean..." Steph looked confused and worried. "It took us a long time to find this one, so... I mean, you might be able to come back?" Her question of why would you want to, went unnoticed.
She had... she had not really thought this through, despite having over a year to think of it.
She had built something, here in this world. There was Stephanie and Harper and Duke and Bruce and... and Christine.
Could she just leave them, and go home? She had wanted to, that was all she had wanted, for so long, but... eventually, she had given up. Her Gotham, her family, her friends... she had let go of them, of the hope of ever going home, if she was being honest with herself. She had never stopped longing for it, never stopped hurting, but she had despaired of ever seeing them again.
Her mouth was dry and Steph's face was very still as she stared at her.
She was not of this world. She had fought for it, she had bled for it.
But now there was Duke, and one day there would be Bruce, and perhaps there would, one day, be another Cassandra Cain, and she would have brothers, even if it wouldn't be like Cass's world, maybe this Cass would find a home here, too.
"I need to say goodbye," Cass whispered.
Steph nodded. "Uh, I can—"
"Come on," Cass said, grabbing her best friend. "You should meet them."
"Holy shit you're me," was the first thing that Steph said when she crawled through the window of Cass's apartment.
"Yes," Cass said, crawling in behind her, to see that, sure enough, Harper had used her rapid departure as justification for calling everyone in. Duke, Riko, and Izzy were there, as was Stephanie and Bruce, all of them looking concerned.
Christine was there too, but Cass tried not to look at her, because Christine knew the other world better than any of the others, and she might have been able to put the pieces together, might have been able to predict what was about to come to pass.
"What the fuck," opined Doctor Stephanie Brown, staring at the woman in a mask.
Batgirl Stephanie Brown took off her mask, and offered a hand. "Nice to meet you, me. I guess."
"You're from Cass's dimension, aren't you?" Bruce demanded, loudly.
Steph came to a halt, staring at Bruce. "Oh my god, you're like Damian but white," she whispered. "Cass, he's so cute."
"Steph," Cass sighed, exasperated. Bruce's murderous expression did, indeed, resemble Damian's, but that didn't mean that she should say that.
"Right, sorry, yes I'm from her world. Our world."
"Dimension," Doctor Stephanie Brown demanded.
"Yeah, she fell into an alternate dimension," Steph confirmed absently, who was looking like she was a moment away from trying to take a selfie with a young Bruce Wayne, which Cass probably should stop, but she was pretty sure that Steph would stop herself.
"So you're going home, then?" Christine asked, softly.
Cass forced herself to look at her girlfriend.
The whole room fell silent.
"But..." Bruce said. "You can't! You're the Bat!"
Cass swallowed a lump in her throat. "Yes."
"She's the Bat back home, too," Steph said, quietly, the look of joy gone.
"But there's a lot of you," Bruce argued. "She's the only one!"
"Not anymore," Cass said, quietly, looking at Duke. "Now... there's a Signal."
"Cass," Duke said, hesitant. "I—"
"You'll be... the best," Cass assured him. "And... you'll have a partner." She squeezed Bruce's shoulders. "Robin."
Bruce looked up with her. "But you said I wasn't ready!"
"You are now," Cass told him. "But you need... to listen to Alfred."
He looked petulant, but he nodded, and he threw his arms around her waist, hugging her tightly.
"I mean, if you need more adult help, I've got an electric bazuka," Harper spoke up. "I don't have a name, but I can figure something out, I'm sure."
"You're all going to be the death of me," Stephanie Brown, the doctor, observed to mid-air. "Just... no one end up in my dumpster, okay?"
"You were in a dumpster?" Steph said, delighted.
"Only... a little."
"That's a blatant lie," Stephanie muttered.
Cass shrugged as best she could while Bruce was hugging her.
"When do we leave?" Christine said.
"We?" Steph said, clearly distracted.
"You're coming?" Cass said, hope fluttering in her chest, as Bruce finally let go of her.
Christine swallowed, and met Cass's eyes. She was scared, but of what, Cass couldn't tell, but she was also determined, her spine straight and proud. "If... if there's room."
"Always," Cass said, feeling giddy. "Always."
She stumbled forward, towards Christine, and pulled her into a kiss.
"So let me get this straight," Steph said, in the background. "We leave you alone in an alternate dimension for three weeks, and you get a girlfriend, adopt your own dad, start a superhero organization, and spent time in a dumpster?"
"I'm sorry, she adopted who?" Harper demanded.
"When I travel the multiverse, all I do is end up punching a witch-girl," Steph complained. "Cass has all the cool adventures."
Cass ignored her, and pressed her forehead against Christine's. "Are you... sure?"
Christine gripped her hand tightly. "Absolutely," she whispered.
Christine didn't have much to pack, and Cass decided to leave almost everything behind. The goodbyes, in the end, took the longest part of it all, but finally, it was done.
"Alright," Steph said, holding up what appeared to be a pearl in her hands. "It was nice meeting you all!"
She threw it onto the ground, and a shimmering white portal appeared.
On the other side, Cass could see stars.
"Goodbye," Cass said, kneeling down to hug Bruce one last time.
"You'll visit, right?" He muttered, against her shoulder.
"I'll try," she promised. She hugged the others next, before going back, to join Christine.
Steph had already stepped through the portal, having no goodbyes to say.
Christine took Cass's hand.
"Ready?" She asked Cass.
"I love you," she said, instead of answering, and pulled Christine forwards, into the portal.
And they fell, together, through the stars, hand in hand, back home.
Shall I say, I have gone at dusk through narrow streets
And watched the smoke that rises from the pipes
Of lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows? ...
I should have been a pair of ragged claws
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.
And the afternoon, the evening, sleeps so peacefully!
Smoothed by long fingers,
Asleep ... tired ... or it malingers,
Stretched on the floor, here beside you and me.
Should I, after tea and cakes and ices,
Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?
But though I have wept and fasted, wept and prayed,
Though I have seen my head (grown slightly bald) brought in upon a platter,
I am no prophet — and here's no great matter;
I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,
And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,
And in short, I was afraid.