When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the bands which have connected them with a comic-company, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of comic-book readers requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation…In other words, DC may own the characters (Except Z, she's mine) but they're practicing story-telling tyranny against us and I intend to set it right. (No money for this, yadda, yadda…just great personal pleasure)
In the darkness it was easy to imagine all sorts of things. Who knew who, or what, lurked just out of sight? Monsters, murderers, creepy crawlies of all kinds. It was terrifying…and just a bit thrilling… to let the imagination run wild, creating all manner of scenarios. And yet…letting the mind take flight and run on autopilot was only a distraction. There was real work waiting. With a sigh, a hand reached out and flipped on the light.
"Ow." Blinking against the sudden onslaught of light, the woman grimaced at the sight that greeted her. There, spread across her desk, was the evidence. Pictures in all their graphic, damning glory. Narrowing her eyes, she reached for the phone and lifted it from the cradle. Her fingers flashed as she dialed the numbers.
"O, this is Z. You've seen? Yes, I know. No…there's not enough time. This isn't…no. I need a team…this is a rescue operation now."
Clouds hid the moon. Wind moaned through twists of metal, hailing immanent death. Sweat trickled down Robin's collar, leaving an itchy trail down his back, with just a touch of chill. The arm around his neck pressed dangerously into his windpipe. His arm was held in a vise-like grip aiming a gun at on of the top assassins in the world. And the loudest thought running through his mind was… what the hell happened here?
As if he'd spoke the words aloud, the assassins surrounding the scene shuddered. The grip on his neck tightened, warning him against any foolish escape attempt. The assassins shuddered again, and Robin narrowed his gaze…something was happening. As if in response to his thoughts, the assassins broke apart as if they'd been pried apart with a giant pair of pliers.
The strange phenomena didn't even cause a twitch in his captor.
"Do it." She whispered the words in his ear, her tone seductive. A shiver ran down his spine, muscles straining against her hold. Again the question echoed in his mind…what the hell…?
"My thought exactly." Appearing out of thin air in the space vacated by the black-clad assassins, a young woman ran her gaze over Robin and his captor with barely concealed disdain. Robin blinked.
"Know me? Of course. You did me a favor some months back…I'm here to repay it." So saying, she strode forward, a wild light in her eye. Robin found himself being pulled about so that he became a human shield.
"Go away." The voice over his shoulder didn't sound nearly so confident now.
"What? And miss the party? No, no. I think I'll stay." The assassins seemed to strain against invisible bonds as she neared their leader. "Don't you know who I am?" Robin decided he better come up with his own plan to escape, since each time this lady spoke his air supply was being cut off even more.
"Doesn't matter. I will give you one more chance…"
"You don't." The newcomer grinned. "You don't. Bueno. That's good. I thought so, but…well, this makes things easier."
"I mean it, you better leave, or I'll…"
"You know what, I have a better idea…how about, you leave?" Robin found himself suddenly free, falling forward to his knees as he drank in gulps of fresh air. A quick survey revealed about twenty armed soldiers had materialized in much the same matter as the young woman and were now training their weapons on the woman who'd been holding him captive.
"Um…Z?" She glanced down at him and offered a hand to help him up.
"You remembered." She gave him a brilliant grin, erasing, for a moment, the intense ferocity that had covered her face until then.
"Yeeaaahh." He drew the word out, unsure exactly what was going on. He did remember…something. He couldn't capture the details…but it had something to do with getting Dick and Babs back together. They'd been extremely happy and acting almost silly for months, and were preparing for their wedding. But how was this "Z" person involved?
"All had to do with creative license and setting wrongs right." He nodded blankly, and turned to face his assailant once again.
Cassandra Cain. Once Batgirl, one of the most talented crime fighters and heroes he'd ever worked with. Now the leader of the League of Assassins, a trained killer who was apparently hell-bent on getting him to join her. And to think, at one time he'd even had feelings…
"Don't give up on me, now."
"Huh?" He turned to Z, a suspicious look on his face. That wasn't the first time she seemed to be reading his mind.
"Yeah, it has to do with the fact that this is my story. I can do whatever I want. And right now I'm going to right some more wrongs done by the apparent morons at DC. Babosos!" Robin took a step back. He wasn't sure his previous position as a soon-to-be murderer wasn't a better situation… this woman seemed, well, nuts. And what the heck was a DC?
"Forget it. Just forget it. I figured it would be best if everyone forgot about my involvement before, but I can see it's just making things worse." As she spoke memories flooded into him…memories of a mission he'd run for this same woman to kidnap Dick Grayson and haul him in to "get back together with" Barbara Gordon. And this woman had said they were all made up characters in someone's comic-book world. His face took on a mutinous cast.
"I am not." She just grinned at him.
"Weeellll….in reality you are. But I happen to agree with you. You really can't write about a character in-depth for as long as I have and not feel a part of them is really real. They're a part of you. And so it really pisses you off when those characters are screwed with!" She said this last vehemently, striding forward and socking Cassandra right in the nose, knocking her to the ground. Robin stared uncomprehendingly as Cassandra didn't get up.
"You…you just took out the most talented fighter in the world!" Z shrugged.
"Second best…and, remember, it's my story. I can do whatever I want. You might want to jot that phrase down, because I think I'm going to like using it." She grinned ferally down at the unconscious Cassandra and repeated in a sing-song voice, "I can do what-eeevvvver I want!" Shaking herself she looked up and blushed. "Sorry, got a little carried away. Ok, guys!" She turned her attention to the troops still on the scene. "This one goes back to Blackgate," she indicated David Cain, "and she comes with us."
"I don't get it." Robin still looked down on Cassandra, a puzzled look on his face. Z took pity on him.
"Come on, I'll explain everything on the way."
"Way?" Even as he asked a jet eased down out of the sky to land a few yards away. A couple of the troops carried Cassandra to it, while Z indicated Robin should follow. "Where are we going?"
"Like I said, to fix things."
The jet landed in a cold, snow-covered forest, apparently in the middle of nowhere. Robin cautiously followed Z out into the silent woods, still unsure what was happening. Was this some kind of dream…possibly he'd run into Scarecrow without knowing it. She led him, with her troops dragging Cassandra's limp body behind, through the trees to a well-concealed compound. The troops veered off shortly after entering the building, taking Cassandra to some unknown destination deep within its bowels.
"Just be patient." Z led him through a maze of passages to an inner chamber. Upon reaching this room, she simply stepped aside to let Robin make his own impressions of the scene.
"A Lazarus Pit?" He circled around the edge, noting little details such as scuff marks where a fight probably took place…dark stains on some kind of hook hanging over the edge of the pit. His inspection complete, he turned to Z questioningly. "What's this all about?"
"Hmm? Oh, I think it has something to do with bringing people back to life." At his baleful stare she grinned. "Sorry. How much do you know about Lazarus Pits?" Robin shrugged, looking back at it.
"Ah, yes. I remember you encountered at least one trying to rescue a school friend from Kobra. Well…I don't really know much about them myself. You and Cassandra didn't encounter many of them in the time I've been paying attention, so I'm unsure of the gritty details. I do know, though, that while immersion in the pit can restore life it also causes insanity."
"Well, I've been led to believe this insanity is a short-term reaction, verdad?…that the person subjugated to the Pit's power will regain their normal senses within a short time. Would you say that's accurate?" Robin shrugged.
"I think so. Then again…Ra's never seemed all that stable to me." Z smiled.
"Maybe it had to do with repeated exposures. Anyway, the point is, Cassandra ended up here in her quest to find her mother."
"Here? Mother…wait, what?"
"She was looking for her mother…her biological mother, who turned out to be Shiva." Robin grimaced at this. Information
"I guess that makes sense…Cain wanted to breed some kind of super-assassin."
"Right. Well, in all the confusion…we won't go in to all the details of what happened here…Cass got stabbed." She looked Robin in the eyes to bring her point across. "To death." Robin paled, glancing back at the stained hook with suspicion. Correctly interpreting his gaze, Z continued…
"No. That was later. Shiva saved her, tossed her in the Lazarus Pit. In the ensuing insanity Cass killed Shiva and hung her on the hook. She fell off," she added unnecessarily, as she knew Tim had encountered Shiva in his quest that had led him to be a prisoner in Cass' attack.
"So…you think something went wrong and made Cassandra permanently insane?" Z shook her head.
"No…though I suppose that could be one theory advanced by DC trying to salvage the situation." Robin shook his head at the reference to DC again, but let her continue. "But, no. The fact is…the Cassandra who held you hostage…well, she simply wasn't Cassandra Cain."
"Come on. She should be awake by now." Z turned and strode purposefully down the hall.
The room was grey, sterile-looking. Robin followed resignedly after Z, vowing that as soon as he could, he was going to check in with a psychiatrist. This was too weird. Just as Z had predicted the supposedly fake-Cassandra was sitting on a bench, arms and legs restrained, with a hostile glare pasted on her face. Z stood in front of her, tapping one finger against her chin, consideringly.
"So…where is she?" Z asked the question quietly, staring the imposter in the eye. All she got for her trouble was a spit in the face. "Ew." She wiped her face with a cloth handed to her by one of her agents. "Well, that was a mature response from a born leader. I suppose I could make you talk. But what would be the fun in that?" A hand reached out, tapping her on the shoulder. Robin watched her face darken as one of her soldiers reported something to her in hushed tones.
"What?" He wasn't used to just waiting. He was supposed to be the leader, the detective. He always was on other teams. The thought surprised him…when had he stopped thinking about Z as a bad dream and come to consider her a teammate? He wasn't sure he liked the thought, either. If she really could do whatever she wanted just by thinking it, or writing it, or something…who's to say she wasn't putting thoughts in his head?
"Because the whole point in my being here is to bring you and Cass and whoever else needs it back into character…I'm making it so your thoughts are your thoughts again, not some pimply-faced idiot who thinks he can write comics for a living but doesn't give a rats…um…well anyway, doesn't give a rip what the readers he's writing for thinks! Someone who is interested only in his own glory, not to staying true to character and plotlines and so on. I mean, really! If her book didn't sell enough, I can understand them taking her off the shelves, but changing her into a rampaging lunatic murderess just smacks of pettiness!" Robin had to grin as Z realized she was ranting again and reddened. "Sorry."
"Whatever." He nodded at the imposter. "So what's your big plan with her?" Z sighed.
"I don't know now. I was so sure she was a fake." She turned away, trying to think.
"What do you mean…you were sure? Now you're not?"
"Well, my team ran some tests…she's genetically identical to…that's it! Identical twins!" Robin looked dubious.
"An evil twin? Don't you think that's a little clichéd?"
"You're right, you're right. But…what, then? You want me to believe this is actually Cass and she's really gone permanently insane? No lo haré!" Robin held up his hand in a placating measure.
"There's other ways, though, right? I mean, some kind of chemically-induced transformation…or even cloning." Z looked up, eyes bright with excitement.
"Yeah! That's it! Cloning. Superboy was cloned...they would have had access to her biological information from the fight…that's it! Perfecto! You're a genius!" She grabbed Robin in a spontaneous hug.
"Sorry. Just got a little excited. Ok, then. My team will take care of the clone and we'll go find the real Cassanda."
"Sure, no problem. Except…how do you expect to find her? It's been a year."
"For you, maybe. It was one month for us…stupid 'one-year-later' crap…" she mumbled. Taking a deep breath, she let it all out. "Ok. Listen, Cass was having issues just before they cancelled her…"
"Never mind. The thing is, she got some mixed up notion that because of her roots, she didn't belong on Team Bat anymore. And killing Shiva, even in her Lazarus Pit induced insanity would have just solidified that feeling. She would be on the run, in hiding. Probably fearing she'll hurt someone else." She turned and gave one last disdainful glance at the Cassandra clone.
"That's what's so bogus about them trying to pass her off as Cass. She wasn't feeling guilty…she's angry, hateful, and reveling in power. Cass always felt guilty about her past…killing that one man when she was barely more than a baby…and wouldn't make this kind of a switch so readily. Not to mention she had was way too articulate. They expect me to believe she just up and learned to talk that well in a year off training ninjas after so So…lessee…."
"Can't you just write some kind of plot device to bring her to us or us to her?" Z grinned.
"Yeah, that worked on my last mission, but that was just playing Cupid…this is saving someone's life…well, their true characterization, anyway." She thought for a second… "Then again, I think I know just the spot to start our search. Come on!"
"This is Dick and Babs' place." Robin stated, feeling somewhat foolish for announcing the obvious. His feelings translated themselves into a scowl at Z's light laugh.
"No kidding." She raised her hand to knock, but the door was opened before she had a chance.
"Z! Oh, good, you found Tim..." she threw an apologetic glance his way as she continued, "…his transmitter went out and after what you told me…well…" she trailed off, as Robin turned an accusing glare her way.
"You knew about this?"
"Well, not all of it, but…"
"And you didn't tell me! Great! Fine. It's a conspiracy, I tell you!" He tore his mask of and stalked out of the room, hoping Dick was around somewhere so he could complain about being ganged up on.
"Um, am I missing something?" Z sighed at Babs' confused expression.
"Not really. He…didn't remember my previous visit, and he's still not sure he trusts me…not to mention he's worried about Cass."
"You found her!"
"No… but your information was right on the money. Some kind of imposter…we're thinking a clone…was preparing to make Tim kill David Cain for her so he'd be obliged to join the League of Assassins with her."
"Ouch. I didn't realize it was that bad." Z nodded absently. She had known, of course…she had read it, seen the images with her own eyes. They weren't images that would go away any time soon, either. She had enlisted Babs, as Oracle, to get the equipment she needed…Zinda had agreed to fly the jet for her again…and had given her Robins last known position.
"Yeah. We have to find Cassandra…the real Cassandra." She closed her eyes for a second, fighting a wave of near nausea. Ever since…well, no matter. She would fix it. Cass would be Cass again in no time.
"Well, obviously I haven't heard from her in a year…no one has. She abandoned the Batgirl costume, so we've no way to trace her."
"Tim said I should just come up with a convenient plot device." Z rubbed her eyes.
"Can you?" Babs wheeled closer, a hopeful expression on her face.
"Sure. But it would make things…difficult. Tim already questioned my 'power'…he was afraid I was manipulating his thoughts to work with me. As I told him, I wouldn't do that…it would defeat my purpose. But a plot device, if too convenient, could lead to the same end. No one would be sure Cass came back on her own." Babs nodded.
"Ok, so not something that obvious, but some kind of tracer or sighting or something…some way to at least find her, then you can talk sense to her in the old fashioned way."
"And if that doesn't work, you can just make her agree with you." Babs closed her eyes at the new voice.
"Dick, you're not helping." Z turned to see Tim, dressed in some of Dick's civilian clothes, and Dick standing in the doorway. Dick grinned.
"I know. Come on, it was a joke!"
"Ha. Ha." Babs rolled her eyes, but noticed Tim seemed more relaxed, so she figured Dick had talked some sense into him.
"What about DNA?" Tim spoke up.
"What about it?" Z frowned.
"You obviously had some way of testing the 'fake' Cass' DNA…if you need something to trace the real one with, use that."
"Do you have something that would lock on to someone's DNA from a long distance and not actually require a physical blood sample?" She asked, pointedly.
"No." Z ground her teeth in exasperation.
"They why are you suggesting…"
"You said you could do 'whatever you wanted'…and believe me, that concept has become deeply embedded in my mind. So…make one up. If what you say about us is true, I'm sure half the technology that we use on a daily basis was made up by one of your 'morons at DC', right? So make it up." Z grimaced at his logic.
"I know, but it feels like cheating."
"This is Cass we're talking about," Tim ground out, "cheat." Z blinked at his ferocity, then grinned. Looked like she had been right all along. Great.
"Ok. Fine. We'll add that to the jet's sensor array. Anything else you guys can think of?" Dick shook his head. Babs took more time thinking about it.
"Not really, but take some communicators with you, it will let me keep track of you and let you get in touch faster if something goes wrong. I can have Flash or Superman there to help within seconds."
"Thanks, but I think we'll be fine." Z turned and strode out the door with Tim on her heels. He barely heard her mumble as they headed towards the plane, "And I'd take Impulse over either of them any day."
The cockpit of Z's jet was quite similar to that of the "Bat-plane". Gadgets and gizmos were crowded together with the normal array of controls for a normal jet. A dazzling variety of sensors and highly technological weapons and tools were spread out among everything. Zinda was lounging in the cockpit, her feet up on the arm of her chair. As Tim and Z entered, she straightened, earning her a passing glance from Tim as he continued back to the cabin. Z paused at the door.
"Everything all set?"
"Sure. Oh, and I suppose you know about that?" Zinda aimed a thumb in the general direction of a shiny new sensor array. Z nodded.
"Sorry about it just appearing like that. It's a DNA scanner. Here are the specs…" she handed Zinda a disc with Cassandra's DNA coded onto it, "…with the target's information." Zinda looked it over and nodded.
"Gotcha." Satisfied, Z followed Tim back into the cabin. He was already seated, with a small laptop computer set up on one of the jet's built in tables. His fingers were rapidly tapping away at the keyboard. Z took the seat across from him.
"Any leads?" He looked up briefly at her question, but resumed his work without responding. "Oh-kaay…I'll take that as a no." Z looked out the window. She knew Tim well enough to recognize his frustration. He felt helpless…not a good feeling for anyone, let alone Tim…who had always seemed to follow in Batman's footsteps when it came to requiring perfection…especially from himself. She would have to be careful not to take too much responsibility on this mission and let him do most of it himself.
"She's gone away from other people." Z looked back as Tim broke the silence but said nothing, waiting for him to continue. "Like you said, she would be considering herself a threat and will have gone somewhere where she wouldn't be a risk to others. So…I'm thinking we go back to the bunker and start scanning there. I'm sure she could have traveled far from there in a year, but maybe she didn't. It's someplace to start, anyway." He paused. "How far does this sensor reach, anyway?"
"Um…about a 50 mile radius." Tim made a face at this…she should have made it something that could scan the whole world so they'd know where Cass was now. Z raised an eyebrow.
"You really wouldn't want it that way. You know that." He sulked for a moment, but shrugged.
"Probably not." Z nodded, typing a message to Zinda in the cockpit to adjust their course. "I'm just…" He frowned, trying to vocalize his feelings.
"I know." Frowning, he silently returned to his computer. Z turned back to the window. She supposed she should make Cassandra show up in the first radius so everything could go home happy. She sighed. This mission was turning out to be more draining than she'd expected.
"Um, Z?" She flipped on her intercom.
"I've got something you should see up here." Z exchanged a glance with Tim and they both jumped out of their seats, heading towards the cockpit. There they were met with a strange scene. The new sensor array was glowing with a bright purple light, a brighter spot centered just to the right of the middle of the screen.
"But that's impossible!" Z, stared uncomprehendingly at the screen.
"Why?" Tim peered over her shoulder, feeling a rush of excitement…they were getting close!
"Be…bec…Porque!" Z rubbed her forehead. "I…didn't…" Tim grinned.
"Your story, huh? Zinda, take her down." As Zinda complied, Z tried to figure out what was going on. Had she inadvertently placed Cass this close in the hopes of a quick and easy conclusion? No…she was sure she hadn't. That meant…Cass had been there anyway. Glancing at the screen, she realized they were only just now passing over Metropolis.
"I don't get it." she murmured. Tim was already preparing to disembark and she shook herself…she needed to be ready to help. The plane touched down at an abandoned airstrip just outside the city and Tim was off the jet and working with a hand-held version of the jet's sensor within seconds.
"Where did you get that?" Z demanded, feeling that she was losing control of the situation.
"In the jet." He turned slowly in a circle, adjusting a knob before grinning. "Come on!"
"But…but…Metropolis? I don't get it!" Z cried before shaking her head and following.
Their trek took them deep into the heart of downtown. Tim continued to lead the way with Z still puzzling over how she lost control of her own mission. And how could Cass be here? They'd all agreed, she would have fled from humans to protect them from herself…wouldn't she?
"This way!" Tim rounded a corner and Z had to hurry to catch up. They were too close to the Daily Planet for Z's comfort…not that she had anything against Superman…she just didn't really want him involved in this particular quest. She nearly ran into Tim's back when she rounded the corner after him, and craned her neck around to see what had stopped him.
It was Cassandra. She was throwing a ball to a group of kids playing in the alley. They thanked her for the return and she turned, a smile playing on her face, only to freeze up herself as she spotted Tim. A quick glance around offered no easy escape…so she squared her shoulders and waited for his approach.
"Cassandra?" Z rolled her eyes as Tim was apparently not ready to believe his eyes and make the first move either. Pushing past him, she strode forward and pushed Cass towards him, muttering under her breath.
"Come on, come on…we haven't got all day here." Cass finally broke through her shock and pushed back, knocking Z back a few paces as she turned to confront her. Z held up her hands in surrender, flicking a look towards Tim. Reading the concern in her stance, Cass relented. Shoulders slumped, she refused to look Tim in the eye. Z again rolled her eyes and threw her hands in the air.
"Ok, guys. We're obviously getting nowhere this way. Back to the jet." Tim shook himself out of his stupor and glared at her. He opened his mouth to argue but was drowned out by the sound of a jet engine right above him. Z grinned. "Did I mention the hover-capability of this jet?" Herding they onto the jet like a mother hen with her chicks, Z didn't relax until they were in the air and headed away from Metropolis. In the cabin, there was a stony silence, with both Tim and Cassandra eyeing each other suspiciously.
"I suppose you could just beat on each other for a few minutes and get it out of your systems." Z stood in the entry, hands on hips, thoroughly disgusted with both of them. Tim sighed.
"No. It's just…where to start?" He ran a hand through his hair agitatedly. Cass watched him, worry creasing her brow.
"No…wait." He cut her off. "I…Cass, what the hell happened to you! You disappeared for a year! We were all…I mean, Babs and Alfred and … well, of course Bruce wouldn't say anything, but … damn it, Cass! What happened?" She stared determinedly down at the table, biting her lip through this tirade. When he was through she shrugged, nearly setting him off again, but Z held up a hand.
"I…I wasn't s'posed to be Batgirl."
"Says who?" She looked up at that.
"I…killed. Before…and after. And…I…I don't know why… I just know." Cass jumped up to pace…still better at expressing herself physically rather than verbally. Z drummed her fingers against her leg, considering Cass' outburst, but Tim wasn't quite done.
"That's crap. You've spent the last three years, four if you count this past one, being Batgirl. At one point you didn't even want to be 'Cassandra Cain' and just let Batgirl be your only identity."
"Admittedly, that was early on, but Cass," he turned to her with something between hurt and despair in his eyes, "we were friends, weren't we? You could have told me…or Babs or…or someone! We would have told you it was nuts to be thinking that way. You took on the mantle of Batgirl out of guilt, maybe, but you made her a hero. You were the best. What…what could have made you think you weren't right for the job…that you were destined to be a killer? You have control over your own actions…no one could have made you do what you didn't want to."
"But they did." She said it softly, her face averted. Z looked up sharply at that, and stepped forward.
"If you're referring to killing Shiva…first, she didn't really 'die', and second, no one has control after being plunged into a Lazarus Pit…that was different." Cass shrugged and Z ground her teeth together. "Not to mention you were probably brainwashed by the DC collective in the first place."
"Never mind. The fact is, you aren't a killer. You're a hero. And a damned good one. There's no reason for that to change."
"Cass…please." She looked over at Tim, swallowed hard. The past year had been hell…she had been alone most of the time, sneaking onto boats and trains to travel, not speaking to anyone. She'd ended up in Metropolis by accident, when she'd fallen asleep and not gotten off the train at the right stop. She'd only been there a few hours when Tim and Z had found her…and she was tired of running.
"Would…will you help me learn to read?" The question brought a light of relief to Tim's eyes…he'd been helping her briefly before she'd disappeared.
"Ok." She stepped forward and held out her hand. Tim grasped it and she felt, for the first time in a year, that everything was going to be ok. Z allowed herself a small smile before slipping unobtrusively out of the cabin. She nodded once to Zinda, and made one last transmission to Oracle before fading out of sight.