Everything is pain.
That's the only thing she knows.
There is pain, and there is blood, and there is the light.
Something touches her forehead, and she bites her tongue to prevent herself from screaming, because she can't remember what it is like to be touched, does not remember affection or kindness, remembers only the different kinds of pain.
"What a brute," a voice says, and it's not the voice of—she can't remember, but the voice was bad, and there had been other voices once, and they hadn't been as bad, so she tries to open her eyes, tries to see—she doesn't know what, but maybe there's something…
"But we can work with this," a second voice says.
Voices, not familiar but—help? Maybe? She strains her arms, forgetting for a moment that her shoulders were dislocated, and she screams.
"She's alive," the first voice says, and—that's her chin, the voice is holding her chin. "And here I thought the Mask sold us a body."
"Still would have been useful."
"Not as useful as this. So, Spoiler, was it?"
She opens her eyes. It's painful, her eyelids nearly glued shut with blood and tears and sweat, but she does it, as she forces herself to think through the pain, to come back from that far and different place where she had forced herself to while the pain had been going on. She manages to put more weight on her feet, taking some of the pressure off her arms, and then finally meets the gaze of her rescuer.
"Bite down on this, Talon," the voice says, soft and gentle, before placing a piece of hard plastic between her teeth, right before another pair of hands touch against her forehead, and the pain returns.
"You're quiet today," Brenda says, glancing at Cass from across the pastry counter.
Cass looks at her, unable to stop a slight smirks from forming.
Brenda laughs. "Quieter than usual, then." She frowns, taking off her apron and marching around the corner to face Cass. "Did you get hurt again?" She asks, her voice too quiet for the rest of the customers. "Do you need—"
Cass catches her friend's wrist before she can start checking for bullet wounds. "No," she says. "I promise. Not going to bleed out on your floor."
"This time," Brenda says, but she looks relieved.
"Just… anniversary," Cass says.
"Oh," Brenda says, her eyes wide. "Right. I forgot. It's… hard to keep track, here in 'Haven."
Cass shrugs, because it's probably true, for most people.
But not for her. Never for her.
"Are you going into Gotham tonight then? For the memorial?" Brenda says.
Cass shrugs. "I thought I'd… do it my way."
Brenda smiles at her. "I'm sure she'd appreciate it." She goes back behind the counter. "Just… call me if you don't want to be alone tonight, okay? Grief is dangerous. It sneaks up on you."
Cass smiles. "I will. Thanks."
She accepts her pastries and her cup of Assam and then goes back to her apartment. She's got an online assignment from Babs, to work on her chemistry, and then she's got a pop culture assignment from Tim, involving a TV show called Wendy the Werewolf Stalker, which she's supposed to "binge."
But she can't focus. The math for the chemistry isn't working and the acting on the show is too fake, and so in the end, she puts on her costume and goes to catch the 11:12 to Gotham.
Dick was the one who taught her to ride the trains, taught her how to balance herself just right on top of it so that she could stay there, completely unnoticed, for the entire half-hour express trip.
As they pull into Gotham though, she wonders if it was a bad idea.
In Gotham Station, she can see the mural, commissioned by the Mayor to memorialize the War, to remember all the people who died.
In the center, arms spread, smiling, is Stephanie Brown.
Her hood is down, and she's not wearing her mask. Her hair hangs loose around her face, her eyes shining and blue, her cape falling down, transforming into upside down burning buildings as it goes, the purple changing to black, to grey, to red. Orpheus stands next to her, his mask intact, his expression stern but kind, remembered as a hero, like he should be. His arms are spread out, until his fingers almost touch Steph's, his silhouette made entirely of smoke, a pile of bullets and dissembled guns at his feet. Between and around both of them are other people. Police officers, children, EMTs, some of the Mafia family members, even.
We Remember the Cost of War, reads the red lettering, above the mural, and Cass's stomach turns.
She crawls off the top of the train, into the vent, and then onto the roof of Gotham Central Station.
It's an ordinary day in Gotham. She's almost tempted to go to City Hall, to see if people have brought flowers again, to see if the photos are still up.
But it's been three years, and things are changing.
Cass leaps across to the next roof and heads towards the Clocktower.
Babs is asleep, which isn't entirely surprising, given the hour. Babs is truly nocturnal, unlike the rest of them, who barely even sleep. She's sleeping in her bed, her hair still in her ponytail, barely even under the covers, eyelids fluttering, an old-fashioned pager and a modern cell phone both in reach, set to let out loud noises in case of an emergency.
Cass carefully picks both of them up, silences them, and takes them to Babs's workstation. She puts in her own password, and lets her own eyes fall across Gotham, seeing what Babs sees.
The Gotham feeds are quiet, and the Global feeds are low-priority pings. Most of them are covered by Babs's automated programs, but a few of them require a personal touch. Requests for status updates on certain villains. One team is looking for information on a criminal on the run, asking Babs to run his passport when they have time.
Cass isn't good with computers like Babs is, but she's been by her mentor's side long enough to know how to do some of them, using Babs's systems. She inputs her password and runs the passport, sending the update, gives an update on a program to Bruce, but mostly… she just watches.
An hour passes, then two, and finally, she hears the sounds of Babs stirring, and then quietly steals across the room to replace the devices before Babs notices.
Babs's eyes are open, as Cass places the pager back on her bedstand.
"Anything happen?" She asks, wryly.
"No," Cass says, pecking her mentor on the cheek before getting out of her way so Babs could swing herself into her wheelchair. "Did some cleanup. Nothing big."
"Attagirl," Babs says, rolling over to her monitors. "I'm guessing you're here to the memorial service?"
Cass shrugs. "Maybe. Just… wanted to be here."
Babs reaches over and squeezes her hand. "I get it," she says quietly. "Me too."
Now that Babs is awake, Cass goes to fetch takeout for them, from Steph's favorite pizza place in the East End.
She doesn't have to say anything, because Babs knows.
"Your bike is still in my garage," Babs tells her, once they're done with their late lunch. "Go to the Manor. See the others. They'd love to see you." She puts a hand on Cass's arm. "Feel free to stop by later, though."
She doesn't go to the Manor though.
Instead, she goes to Crystal Brown's apartment in Crime Alley.
Bruce had offered to buy Crystal a place anywhere she wanted. He'd offered to let her move into the Mansion, offered her a penthouse in the Diamond District, even offered her the Wayne Town House in Old Gotham. She'd refused any of his offers, all of his help, and instead, had moved into a tiny, cramped apartment in Crime Alley, a block away from Leslie's clinic, where she now worked.
Cass changes into her civilian clothes, because Crystal doesn't like it when they come by in their costumes, and then knocks on the door.
Crystal Brown opens the door.
The past few years have aged her. Her golden hair is now streaked with silver, the lines around her eyes are more pronounced, the sorrow is deepening the lines around her mouth and on her forehead.
But her smile is so like Steph's when she sees Cass, that for a moment, the years fade away, and Crystal sweeps her up into a tight embrace.
The apartment is small, but well-maintained, because Bruce bought up as much of the three-block radius as he could once he started looking at the housing situation in Crime Alley, and has been pouring money into renovations, repairs, and maintenance.
"I'm glad you stopped by," Crystal says. "I've got the kettle boiling, if you want tea?"
The kettle isn't boiling, but Cass nods anyways. Crystal's a coffee drinker, but she's learned, since the War, that Cass prefers tea, and has taken to keeping a large stock on hand, for when Cass stops by. It's not as often as it should be, maybe, but she tries.
Gotham is hard, sometimes, to visit. Everywhere she looks, there are the scars. New buildings to replace the ones destroyed, scorch marks still scaring marble, cement, and brick alike, graffiti on the alley walls, listing the names of the dead.
Crystal gives her a large mug of hot water and a box of tea bags. The battered sugar bowl and a small jug of milk are placed on the table, and a chipped plate of cookies.
"You knew I was coming," Cass accuses, recognizing that Crystal had bought her favorite kind of cookies.
"I suspected," Crystal says, a sad smile on her face as she dips her own tea bag into the hot water. "It's… a hard day. For all of us."
Cass nods, staring down at her mug, watching the cloud of brown billow out into the clear, steaming water, transforming it from tasteless into tea.
Wars were fought over tea, Cass knows this. People died, bled, and killed for what Cass had a whole box of resting in front of her.
War, like what had raged through Gotham, over power plays and demands for power, for control.
"I wanted to visit the grave today," Crystal says. She takes a spoon from the jug of them on the table, and scoops the tea bag out of the boiling water. She wraps the string around the spoon and the bag, pinning the bag to the metal indent, squeezing every bit of liquid that she can get into her cup again, with the kind of efficiency that Cass has to admire. "But Barbara called me, told me that a bunch of tabloid photographers were lying in wait. They wanted to get a photo of the grieving mother."
Cass's lips curls. "I can take care of them," she offers.
Crystal pats her hand, but she can't quite manage a smile. "Thank you, but no. I'll just… go later. Another day. Bring her flowers."
Cass nods, accepting her choice. Crystal's cellphone lights up, vibrating against the table, and Crystal swipes it away without even looking at it.
"The talk shows again?"
"Yes. They all want some sort of… anniversary footage. Me crying for the cameras, I guess. They want me to say that Batman killed her, or that he's a perfect hero, or… well. I suppose they just want a nice clip for the news, really. Don't really care what angle I take on it."
Cass drops three sugars into her tea before trying to remove her own tea bag. She's not as good at doing it neatly as Crystal is. Some of the liquid runs off the spoon, onto the table. She wipes it up with her sleeve, hoping Crystal doesn't notice.
"Maybe if one of them wanted to actually talk about Stephanie, I'd say yes," Crystal says. "But they don't care about her. She's just a tool that they can use. To get ratings or to argue about whether or not Batman should exist, it doesn't matter. None of them care about her, as a girl."
Crystal's eyes are damp with tears.
"I made waffles, this morning, you know," she says. "It felt so wrong. It was the first time I'd gotten out the iron since… since. But when I was eating them, all I could think about was how much she loved them, and how she and her father made them together every Sunday morning, and—I couldn't find them. I threw them away." She laughs, covering her face with one hand, the other remaining wrapped around her mug of tea. "They say it gets easier. But… I don't know if I want it to be easier, Cassie. If it's easier, doesn't mean I'm forgetting her? That I'm letting her go?"
"Never," Cass says, tears pricking her own eyes. She reaches across and wraps her arms around Crystal's shoulders. "You won't. And I won't either. Because it's Steph."
She eats her cookies; the shortbread ones with chocolate between them, because Crystal doesn't eat them, she only buys them for Cass.
They talk about anything but Steph; about the clinic, about Cass's ballet classes, about Brenda and Blüdhaven, about Leslie and equipment shortages, about the upcoming Mayoral race.
"Is it true that Bruce is running?" Crystal asks, picking up the plate that Cass is done with.
Cass shrugs. "Not sure. Haven't asked."
"Well, ask him tonight, will you?" Crystal says, taking the dishes into the kitchen. "And tell him… I think it's a good idea."
"Do you?" Cass says, skeptical. Crystal's hardly Bruce's biggest fan, after… everything.
Crystal doesn't turn around to face her. "He's… I think he does a lot of good."
"As Bruce," Cass says, slowly. "Not as Batman."
"You do good work, Cassie. I've never doubted that."
She turns, now, and Cass can see Stephanie in the stubborn jut of her chin, in the way she brushes her hair behind her ear. "He's done some good. But… he took it too far. Didn't he?"
Cass swallows, and looks away.
Crystal looks guilty. "I'm sorry, Cassie, I shouldn't have said that. It's not fair to you."
"No, it's not." Crystal looks oh, so old now. "I'm sure you have plans, but if you don't, you're more than welcome to stay for dinner."
Cass shakes her head. "I need to… go see my brothers."
"And Bruce and Alfred, of course," Crystal says. "Do swing by to say hello to Leslie. She misses you."
Cass hugs Crystal, and Crystal hugs her back, and both of them pretend they aren't wishing that they were hugging Steph instead.
She does stop by to see Leslie, who's in her office, doing paperwork.
"I'm a bit busy right now," Leslie says, looking guilty. "I'm speaking at the memorial. But if you swing by afterwards, I'd love to talk to you."
Cass nods. "Sorry. It was… last minute."
Leslie smiles at her, sadly. "I bet. If you come by wearing civilian clothes, I'll buy you a milkshake. Otherwise, I'm afraid you'll have to make do with another one of these." She hands over a lollipop from the jar on her desk.
Cass hitches her mask up above her mouth, and sticks it in her mouth. "I'll stop by," she promises.
"Good," Leslie says, before going back to her paperwork, while Cass sneaks out the window in order to avoid the nurses, who always want her to lift heavy boxes and give blood.
She already gave blood this week, in Blüdhaven, so she feels fine avoiding them, crawling into the alleyway, and calling her bike.
"Tell me," the woman says. "Who's the Batman?"
Talon stops, thinking it over.
"Talon," the man says, hovering over the woman's shoulder. "Report."
Talon's eyes widen, and she lunges.
The man and the woman both recoil, but she's not moving towards them—she's too well-trained for that. Instead, she's reaching for the vials, the medications, that the doctor keeps there, to help with her treatment, with her progress.
She grabs one pill bottle—she knows exactly which one she's going for, although she's not sure how she knows this, and pours it all down her throat in a single, easy gesture.
Alarms go off, and the doctor is back, injecting adrenaline right into her heart. "I told you not to push her!"
"You're wiping her soon!" The woman snaps. "Soon, she won't remember!"
"You're just lucky she didn't see a sharp object!" The doctor snarls. "Last time I asked her that question, she tried to cut out her own tongue."
"She's that loyal?" The man says.
The doctor chuckles. "Perhaps. But I think that she's decided to cling to this. She's holding onto it. Trying to use it to keep her human."
The woman scoffs, and the man laughs.
Talon can't say anything, her tongue swollen and useless in her mouth, the secret safe.
She's not sure if she remembers what the secret is, or if she even knows the answer anymore, or if she ever did.
But she knows…
Maybe the last thing that is hers.
She won't let them take it.
Whatever it is.
She closes her eyes, and drifts away, the pain and the drugs sweeping her away into the blissful dark.
Cass watches the Memorial from the rooftops.
Leslie speaks. So does the Mayor, now retiring, the race to replace him heating up already. So does Commissioner Atkins. A few business and community leaders speak too.
Cass sits on a gargoyle, closer to the action than she needs to be, letting her cape flutter a little more freely than she normally would. That way, if anyone looks up… they know that the Bats are remembering, too, tonight.
Three years, since Stephanie Brown's body had been found in the charred remains of a building, along with torture implements, and Orpheus's corpse. There were signs of a struggle, and most people had concluded that Stephanie had broken free, and the fire had been started in the struggle.
For weeks, after the body had been found, Cass had held onto hope, hope after hope, that the body wasn't Steph. She had kept looking, had ignored Bruce's push to move to Blüdhaven, ignored the scraps of purple cape found in the rubble, because the body was so burned they couldn't really know, the dental records were in backlog, the autopsy wasn't complete because of the immense backlog after the War, maybe it wasn't—
The autopsy had come back.
It was Stephanie Brown. Seventeen years old, died of smoke inhalation, although she had suffered lacerations, a gunshot, and multiple broken bones before she had finally died.
The doctor who had performed the autopsy didn't tell Crystal that her daughter hadn't suffered. It was pretty clear that it would have been a lie if he had.
Below her, a child points up, having spotted Cass.
Cass waves, but does not leave. A rabbi is now speaking, the first of the religious leaders who will be leading the prayers for the dead.
Across the plaza, she can see Bruce. Tim is in the crowd, with his schoolmates, to memorialize Darla and other people from his school. She can't see Dick. Maybe he didn't come, but she's not so sure.
The War was hard on all of them.
But if she had known about Tarantula then, Cass would have taken the time to throw the woman off the tallest building that was survivable. Dick wouldn't, because he was so good at defending his family but so bad at defending himself.
She can't blame Dick, if he's somewhere else tonight. He hadn't known Steph, hadn't know Orpheus either. His own grief, his own pain, was a different kind, one that maybe didn't fit in with this, with the candles cupped in people's hands, in the flowers piles against the wall, photos kept in place on the brickwork by tape and nails and anything else the family members could get their hands on.
Steph is there, over and over again, left by dozens of people. Her in her civilian clothes, her as Spoiler, her as Robin, pictures of the memorial, pictures of her prom dress… it kept going, and it was all painful and beautiful in equal parts.
Onyx stands with a group of people from the Hill, a headwrap concealing her distinctive profile, but Cass would recognize her friend anywhere. She'd have to say hello later… or just text her. Tonight might be too much, for both of them.
The memorial ends, and people filter away, tears bright on faces, the murmuring of the crowd quiet, for a group of Gothamites.
There are only a handful of people left in the square, when Cass leaps down from her gargoyle in order to land in front of the biggest photo of Steph. It's one of her as Robin, laughing, her head tilted back, one hand reaching out to help a little girl out of a tree. The girl is smiling too, and it's such a perfect moment that Cass always smiles when she sees it.
Stephanie Brown had taken the time, in the midst of everything, to make a little girl smile, even while she was scared to come down from a tree.
Cass takes the single red rose out of her belt, and lets it fall into the mess of flowers, a riot of colors and boquets, easily overwhelming her own offering. She hears people whisper, hears a camera shutter click, but she ignores it.
"I miss you," she says to Steph's photo.
"I think we should put her on ice soon," the woman says.
"It'd be a waste," the doctor says. "She's not done growing yet, see these scans. With the supplements we're giving her, she's got a few inches yet on her. And maybe another thirty pounds of muscle. We want her in peak condition before we freeze her."
"How long will that take?" The man says.
"A year. Maybe two. But she'll be the best Talon we've had in generations. Look at her. She's been standing on one hand for hours. She never tires. Her pain tolerance is incredible. Whatever we can say about the Bat, he's trained her well. She's incredible already."
"Talon!" The man says. "Report!"
"Sir?" She asks, looking up, keeping herself steady. "Three hours into mandatory workout, sir. Drilled with poisons this morning. Injections scheduled in twenty-five minutes."
"More injections?" The woman says.
"Her healing factor's still a work in progress," he says. "Too much too fast, she'll stop growing. Better to spread it out."
"We don't normally have to do this," the man snaps.
"Normally we get either adults or children. Teenagers are different."
The woman laughs. "But she's not a teenager, doctor."
"Hmm?" The man says.
"Talon, get down from there," the woman says.
Obediently, Talon leaps down, landing neatly on her feet. "Ma'am?"
"What's the name of the Batman?"
Talon tilts her head to one side. "Who?"
"What's Robin's name?"
"What's Batgirl's name?"
"What's Nightwing's name?"
"A good little owl, isn't she?" The man laughs.
"What's Spoiler's name?" The woman says, plowing forward.
The three of them all laugh, and then the woman steps forward.
"Come closer, Talon." The woman says.
The woman holds out a strange knife, with curved edges. It's shaped like… a bat?
"Do you know what this is?"
"No, ma'am," she says.
The woman laughs. "Good."
She picks it up, holds it between her fingers. "Now, let's see if I can do this right—"
She hurls it forward, and Talon lets out a small grunt of pain, as the strange object imbeds itself into her shoulder. Blood starts flowing.
The woman and the man laugh, while the doctor shouts at them to get out, they're disturbing the routine, she's not finished—
"Happy birthday, Talon," the man says, waving at her. "Eighteen years old! It's a big one."
She blinks, the not-knife still stuck in her shoulder. "Thank you sir."
They leave, and she's alone with the doctor, and she's not sure that's better.
He sighs, and offers her the piece of rubber to put beneath her teeth, and she climbs into the chair.
The manacles close around her wrists and ankles, and only then does he yank the sharp metal thing out of her shoulder, letting it drop to the ground.
"Well, you're making a lot of progress, little Talon," he tells her. "Soon, you'll be ready to face all the Court's enemies."
That's all she wants, she would tell him, were she allowed to speak, were the piece of rubber not placed firmly between her teeth to stop her from biting off her own tongue.
All she wants to do is to help.
He places the electrodes on her temples, and gives her an injection. The injection is painful, but she knows how to handle it by now, knows how to keep herself still and her muscles loose, to avoid the worst of it.
But then the electricity starts, and no matter how many times this happens, she can't get over it.
She screams, she thrashes, and, hidden behind the safety guard in her mouth, she lets out a single secret that she doesn't even remember that she knows.
"Running for mayor might actually be the worst idea you've had in like, three whole weeks," Jason complains.
"The clean up campaign needed someone to take a stance," Bruce says, tilting his head back to allow Alfred to tie his tie. "Everyone else was too afraid."
"Yes, because you've been getting death threats," Dick says, going through the mail while wearing gloves. "Oh hey, this one's got the magazine cutout lettering."
"I found one with powdered Joker Gas yesterday, I'm still winning," Tim says, sorting through his own pile of mail.
"Death threats mean we're pissing off the right people."
Alfred's sigh is slight but meaningful. "Really, Master Bruce, you could be a little less cavalier with your well-being?"
"I'm not going to let anything happen to him, Alfred," Onyx looks bespoke in her own suit, leaning against the wall with her arms crossed as she surveys the scene.
"Miss Onyx," Alfred says, turning to face her. "I don't suppose it's crossed your mind that I'm also concerned about your safety?"
Onyx opens her mouth, then closes it again. "No?"
Alfred huffs. "Well, I am."
"I don't see why I couldn't re-hire Sasha," Bruce protests.
"Because we really don't want to remind everyone that you broke out of prison and were accused of murder," Dick points out, mildly.
"Plus she's busy," Cass says, counting off on her fingers. "Running Checkmate. Being sneaky. And a robot."
"Only part robot," Tim says, her brother throwing another letter into the pile to send to the GCPD.
"Besides," Onyx uncrosses her arms and puts them on her hips. "One of us has League training, and it's not Sasha."
"And Onyx looks better in a suit," Cass adds.
"Aww, you flatter me," Onyx mock preens. "Cassie, when are you gonna stop playing with girl's hearts and finally ask a pretty girl out on a date?"
Cass shrugs. "Dating's complicated. Don't have time."
Dick, Onyx, and Alfred all sigh. Babs probably would too, if she was present, rather than coordinating an operation with the Birds of Prey.
"Crystal's coming tonight," Tim says. "She and Leslie. You're helping them fundraise tonight too, remember?"
"Of course," Bruce says, waving a sheet of paper with his own horrific handwriting scribbled over it. "I give my speech, then we talk about the clinic and the initiative, about the missing three million dollars allocated for social services in Uptown, and then Leslie and Crystal talk about equipment shortages and medicines and try to squeeze both literal and figurative blood out of my fellow one percenters."
"Maybe don't say that part out loud again?" Jason says. "Not that I'm not enjoying the class consciousness, but save it for the Burnley circuit, not the Old Gotham circuit."
"I'll try," Bruce says, slipping his jacket on over his shoulders. "Now, are we ready?"
"This is a horrible idea," Jason repeats, even as he adjusts his own bowtie. "We'll never be able to hide a Batsuit in the Mayor's office."
"It's so optimistic of you that you think he'll win," Tim says.
"Gotham's golden boy?" Jason snorts. "He'll do fine."
"Presuming the Mafia doesn't firebomb the Manor before election day," Dick says.
"Ah, c'mon, Dickie," Jason throws his arm over Dick's shoulders. "We both know that the Odessa Mob will beat them to it. Alexandra holds a grudge."
"She has a grudge against Batman, not Bruce Wayne," Bruce says, having stopped to help Cass fasten her bracelet around her wrist.
"You have her eye in the Batcave," Tim points out.
"Sometimes, I'm so proud to call you my father," Jason says in mock awe.
Bruce sighs. "Let's get a move on," he says. "Alfred, I can drive—"
"Not happening, sir," Alfred says sternly, doffing his chauffeur cap. "Until this confounded mayoral campaign is settled, the only thing you're driving is the Batmobile."
Onyx sighs. "You're wearing your vest, right?"
Really, Cass should have gone for a suit too, then they all could have matched. She likes her dress—Babs helped her pick it out, and it's forest green with flowy sleeves the remind her of a cape, and the fabric is so soft that every movement that sends it brushing against her skin in a pleasant way that she loves. But matching would have been nice.
"Yes," he says. "I can't show you, because then I'd have to undo the tie, and then we'd be late."
"If you get shot and you're not wearing it, I'll stab you," Onyx threatens.
"Is that allowed?" Bruce says, raising an eyebrow at her, before Onyx and Alfred herd all of them out into the car.
"I'm an assassin, I'll do what I like," she says. "Cass won't stop me unless you don't deserve it."
"True," Cass says serenely, buckling herself into her seat.
Her father gives her a halfhearted look of betrayal, while Jason gets into the passenger seat next to Alfred.
The gala itself is boring. Cass dances with her brothers, because Brenda had turned down her invitation to come with her.
Kate is there, but she's busy dancing her girlfriend, Renee, and the two of them are having massive heart eyes, and so Cass decides against trying to get Kate to dance with her.
Instead, she lurks in the corners, people watching.
"Who does Wayne think he is?" One woman says, sipping champagne. "He thinks he can just burst onto politics, as if he's not one of the biggest lushes we've seen since Cobblepot Senior—"
"I hear, he really killed that Fairchild girl, he had to bribe the judge to get it expunged—"
"And his army of bastards. Adoption my ass, I always knew Janet Drake could do better than Jack—"
"If he wins, do you think he'll have to sell the company? Luthor's been trying to buy it ever since the Quake, but—"
"He's not going to win, the man's got the brains of a dead pigeon—"
"Is he self-funding, or is he seriously expecting us to contribute to—"
"God, Leslie looks so old, honestly, she needs to get some work done—"
"Who's that with her—"
"Crystal Brown. You know. Batman's lover. That's how her daughter—"
"You know, I heard—"
"My, my, but did little Richard Grayson grow up—"
"That Tim is the exact right age for my Lauren—"
"I heard that Cassandra's a bit too much like her cousin—"
"Oh, what a waste—"
"Strutting around with that… girlfriend of hers—"
"I hear her family lives in Bowery—"
"Well my cousin says Kate Kane was asking her grandfather for the family ring—"
"If I were him, I'd have disowned her then and there—"
"Why couldn't Bruce have just stuck to fundraising—"
"Politics are for people with backbone—"
"Wasn't Jason the name of that son of his who died—"
"Who's that woman in the suit, where did he find—"
"He's going to crumple the first time he's put on a debate stage—"
"He's never had to work for anything, not like us—"
"Ugh, Leslie never shuts up about that damn clinic of hers—"
"Just write her a check and she'll go away—"
Cass, rolling her eyes at the petty gossip, the cruelty, and the hypocrisy, glides forward and loops her arm through Leslie's arm.
"How's the fundraising?" She says, standing on tiptoes to kiss Leslie's cheek.
Leslie laughs, and there's a rustle of fabric as she slips a lollipop out of her pocket and into Cass's sleeve.
"Well, we're not doing great, but Bruce is our best advocate, and he hasn't made the rounds yet."
Bruce is currently dancing with Vicki Vale, and seems to be actually enjoying himself leading her into some obscure joke that only he will get, so Cass lets him stay. Dick is dancing with Crystal, and Crystal's actually smiling, so he's her favorite brother today. She'll tell him when Jason and Tim are in ear-shot, because her brothers get so funny about that competition, which she hadn't even meant to start.
Eventually, Jason claims Leslie for a dance and Cass finds herself dancing with Bette Kane, who's apparently a cousin of hers, but she doesn't think they've met before.
Before long, Bruce is being led up to the stage with Leslie and Crystal, and he starts to give his speech.
"And in these times of corruption, we need a change. We need new leadership, and guidance. We need a leader who will support the most important work in this city—people likes Doctor Leslie Thompkins and Crystal Brown, who have worked tirelessly at the Park Row Free Clinic, providing vital services to those in Gotham who are worst off. If elected—"
Whatever promise he was going to make is cut off as the glass ceiling of the ballroom shatters, and an assassin falls from the ceiling.
The lights cut, and everyone starts screaming and panicking, but Cass watches in horror as the assassin—a woman in a sleek black outfit with a hood and golden lines, a bandolier of knives gleaming against her chest, an inhuman mask covering her face, the eyes glowing golden, even in the darkness.
Onyx leaps into action, getting between the assassin and Bruce, but the assassin is fast, and…
Maybe too good.
Cass dives under one of the tablecloths that are covering the buffet table, and wriggles out of her dress, revealing her Batgirl suit beneath. She pulls her mask over her face, and then throws out a handful of smoke bombs in order to obscure her entrance.
Her brothers are probably doing the same thing, but she's out first, and she's always the fastest out of all of them, darting through the stampeding crowd, towards the raised platform, where Bruce is trying to get Leslie and Crystal to safety, where Onyx has taken one of the assassin's own knives and stabbed her in the shoulder with it.
The assassin doesn't falter, just slams her fist against Onyx's jaw in an uppercut, sending Cass's friend sprawling onto the ground, and then moves towards Bruce, Leslie, and Crystal, with a knife in her hand.
Cass throws a batarang, piercing the skin of the woman's hand through her glove, but she doesn't drop the knife, like Cass expects.
Instead, she lunges forward, towards Bruce, even faster.
Jason's the one who intercepts her, ramming into her from the side. Lark stands there, fists raised, challenging the assassin to take him on.
Cassandra leaps onto the stage, between the assassin and her target. A moment later, Nightwing joins them, helping Onyx to her feet. Robin moves in from behind the assassin, boxing her in.
The woman turns slightly, as if realizing it.
The knife flies out of her hands, towards Dick, who wears less armor than the rest of them. Onyx yanks him by the arm and pulls him onto the ground, into her, the two of them falling down in a tangle of limbs, and the assassin makes a break for it.
"I've got her!" Cass yells, giving chase.
Her brothers don't protest, turning towards getting Leslie and Crystal to safety, to making sure the assassin hadn't left behind any surprises.
She catches up with the assassin, who's definitely enhanced in some way, in the hallway.
Cass tackles the assassin around the waist, and the woman twists in her grip, trying to sink her knife into Cass's shoulder. Cass deflects it with the spikes on her gauntlets, keenly aware of how fast the woman is, how much power is weighed behind every punch. There's no blood coming from her hand or her shoulder, even though her own knife is still embedded in her shoulder. Some sort of healing factor, then.
It's a fight that's brutal, each of them giving it their all, the two of them strangely matched in a way that is causing Cass's skin to crawl, because there's something familiar about this woman, the flash of blonde hair that she can see beneath the hood, the upper cut she attempts—
Cass slams her foot against the woman's mask, sending it flying off, wanting to eliminate whatever advantages are in those uncanny yellow lenses.
And the world grinds to a halt.
Blonde hair. Blue eyes. A nose that's been broken more than once. A mouth made for smiling. A stubborn chin, just like Crystal Brown's.
The woman tilts her head to one side, in a motion that seems to be genuinely confused. For a moment, there's no murderous attempt, just… puzzlement, in those dark blue eyes that Cass has dreamed about so often.
It's Steph's voice. Cass would know it anywhere. She slowly starts to spread her hands away from her body, trying to signal that she doesn't want to fight, because this—she doesn't know how—
A batarang flies through the air, slicing across the woman's cheek, leaving a thin red line that seems to heal even as Cass stares in horror as smoke fills the hallway.
She charges forward, but it's too late.
The assassin is gone.
"Batgirl!" Robin is at her side in a moment, a hand wrapped around her elbow. "What was wrong, you stopped—"
Jason is holding the mask, cracked across the eye from the force of Cass's kick.
"Spoiler," she gasps. "It was—it was Steph."
End Part I