Author's Note: This is set in the comic book continuity from several years ago, sometime between "No Man's Land" and "Bruce Wayne: Murderer?" in the regular comics. Except that for my purposes, I assume that Cassandra already knew Batman's secret identity at this point, and was well-acquainted with Alfred, although in the comics it was only during "Bruce Wayne: Murderer?" that she learned Batman's secret by studying his body language when he was being arrested by the cops in his role as Bruce Wayne.

The Holiday Shoplifting Season

Jerry had been in the big store for at least thirty minutes. For the last ten, he'd been casually sidling closer and closer to the front exit. He paused again to admire a Gotham Goliaths jacket, fingered it thoughtfully, looked at the price tag, shook his head sadly and muttered, "Maybe they'll have a Post-Christmas sale," just in case anyone suspicious was close enough to hear him, and started to turn around—

A feminine hand suddenly clasped his right wrist. He blinked, and turned his head to spot the stranger who was touching him. Then he relaxed a bit—the teenage girl smiling at him was far and away the cutest chick who'd ever thrown such a friendly grin in his direction—at least since he was old enough to want them to. She looked very Asian; maybe Chinese? He was no expert on those exotic Oriental types—but he was willing to start learning! Sure, you'd think a real looker like her could do better than to latch on to a strange boy in a busy store, but maybe her boyfriend had stood her up (the fool!) or maybe she just liked the cut of his jib.

Even as he thought these things consciously, his subconscious was deciding she couldn't possibly be a physical threat. He was at least six inches taller and must outweigh her by at least fifty pounds—probably closer to seventy, but it was hard to tell underneath that long, loose, expensive-looking coat she was wearing. He'd taken wrestling lessons; he could handle himself if she was just some kind of nut.

"Can I help you with something?" he asked politely, waiting for her to explain what she wanted.

The girl did have some weird foreign accent, but she got her point across clearly. She said softly, "You put them back—I don't call Security. Maybe drop them on floor, just leave, someone will pick them up."

He froze, and then remembered to look confused as he forced a note of humor into his voice and said, "What? Look, cutie, this is a really weird way to get my attention. You don't have to try so hard to be mysterious. If you're lonely, just ask if I have time to get to know you better, or we could exchange phone numbers. . . ."

Meanwhile, he was trying to inconspicuously shake her hand off his wrist, and was getting nowhere. She had a much stronger grip than you'd think such a cute little thing could manage, and then she suddenly used the leverage to twist his arm behind his back, masking the move by stepping closer and wrapping her other arm around his waist at the same time so that now it probably looked (to anyone glancing their way from a distance) as if she were affectionately hugging him from behind. Jerry knew better, though—the way his wrist was feeling right now, this chick could tear or even fracture something in it with a little bit more pressure at just the right angle. With his luck, she was probably a Ninja Babe who'd feel right at home in the world of "Mortal Kombat" or one of those other games.

The girl whispered sweetly in his ear, "Left coat pocket. Lined with metal to block signals. Five watches. Don't try taking out of store. Or else." She released him suddenly and added gently, "Used to steal when I was small. Not much choice, then. Gotham is safer for hungry kids than where I was. You're not as smooth as you think you are. Better give it up. I see you again, no second warning."

She smiled an incandescent smile at him and stepped away, for all the world acting like a girl who'd just taken a moment to say hello to one of her dearest friends in a chance encounter.

Of course she could still yell for the rent-a-cops at any time. Jerry thought it over and then headed for the shoe section. He found an aisle where the only visible camera was off to his left—so he just happened to have his back to it as he took one shoebox after another off the shelves and peered doubtfully at the contents. Each time he put a box back, he'd just slipped another watch into one of the shoes. Let someone else sort them out later. Five cycles of that and he was all done. Then he headed for the exit without any more beating around the bush. He didn't see the Ninja Babe, or whatever she was, but somehow he figured she had him in her sights.

On his way out the door, he fumbled in the right-hand coat pocket for his insulated gloves—and felt something else wedged between them. He tugged it out carefully and found a hundred-dollar bill—no, two of them, folded together!—and hastily shoved them back into his pocket, hoping no one had seen this was serious money instead of just a couple of loose singles. He kept his right hand shoved firmly into that pocket until he reached the nearest subway station. Then he felt secure enough to stand against a wall and move the bills into a safer place. (Contrary to what many people in Gotham still believed, Jerry knew you were a lot less likely to get mugged inside the subway system than you were up on the streets.)

Well, he wouldn't be fencing any watches tonight, but with this windfall he could still buy some nice things for his mom and his little sister before Christmas Eve. What was it now, the twenty-first of December? Plenty of time! Maybe the chick had been telling it straight when she said she used to do the same thing, somewhere far away, when she was hungry. She sure didn't look hungry now, though—maybe she'd hit the jackpot and gotten herself adopted by one of those rich families in The Heights that got all teary-eyed over "Third World orphans" while largely ignoring the working poor who did all the dirty work for them, right here at home?

Alfred Pennyworth held the door for Cassandra as she stepped gracefully into the Rolls. He knew she still didn't understand why he felt the need to open a door for a young lady who was perfectly capable of opening it herself, but she had at least accepted the inevitability of the procedure instead of arguing the point each time they drove somewhere.

As Alfred seated himself behind the wheel, he asked, "Did you enjoy yourself while I was doing the last of the Christmas shopping, Miss Cassandra?"

"Interesting," she said. "Spotted four shoplifters, two pickpockets. Plainclothes security got five out of six on their way out—very decent score for people who can't see what I see," she added in a scrupulous effort to make full allowances for the shortcomings of ordinary people.

"And the sixth felon?"

"Teenage shoplifter," she said. "Small-time."

"You handed him over to the security personnel?"

"No," she said patiently. "Didn't hurt individual people the way pickpockets do—and I spent too many years doing much the same, in big stores, warehouses. Clothes, food, just to survive. Warned him to drop loot. He did. Gave him some cash—saw he wanted loot for family, not for drugs or other nonsense. Hope they have nice Christmas. See him steal again, get tougher."

"Is that the same lad I saw you hugging?" Alfred had caught a glimpse of that from about thirty yards away; had wondered what it was all about.

She laughed. "Hugging? Maybe wrong word. Way I twisted his arm, he didn't feel I was friendly. Got him to take me seriously, though."

"Ah, of course." Alfred relaxed a little. Sooner or later Cassandra would start dating, he knew, but hopefully later rather than sooner. While he was all in favor of the girl practicing additional social skills so she'd have a better chance of functioning as an independent adult someday, he really didn't think she was ready for anything "romantic" just yet. She might be greased lightning when fighting a gang of hoodlums all at once, but he feared she was still far too soft-hearted for other types of stress.

Sooner or later she would fall in love, or at least get a serious crush on a boy and think it was the real thing, the always-and-forever love-at-first-sight phenomenon that usually led to happy endings in the cinema. And sooner or later some boy she was dating, or wanted to date, would lie to her about one thing or another. He presumably wouldn't know that deceiving her in a face-to-face conversation was virtually impossible, no matter how successful his apologetic manner and wide-eyed innocent look might have been when making excuses to his mater or his schoolteachers or whomever.

Alfred worried that the first time someone Cassandra thought she loved told her a shamelessly self-serving lie, expecting her to fall for it—a spurious excuse for suddenly cancelling a date, perhaps—it would break her heart. There was also the off chance that the liar, in turn, would end up with a few broken things of his own (tibiae, scapulae, and other odds and ends), but Alfred wasn't losing too much sleep over that. First because he deemed it exceedingly unlikely that Cassandra would permanently cripple the bounder, and second because of his innate conviction that a cad who broke a sweet young girl's heart with casual falsehoods probably deserved a lot worse than he was likely to get.

Far more likely was that she would simply, as the quaint American idiom had it, "cry her eyes out." On whose shoulder? Not his, he devoutly hoped. And he really wasn't sure Barbara Gordon would be such a good choice for that type of counseling, either. Someone closer to her age? The Spoiler, perhaps? Tim had told Alfred about Stephanie Brown's teenage pregnancy, a pregnancy she only discovered after her "boyfriend" had suddenly picked up stakes and relocated without bothering to leave a forwarding address. Yes, that would probably be just the ticket—if Stephanie Brown didn't know exactly how it felt for a teenage girl to suddenly discover a romantic interest had feet of clay and other fundamental flaws of character, then who in their social circle did?

But he was very, very glad that the problem would evidently remain theoretical for awhile longer. Master Bruce was twice Cassandra's age and Alfred sometimes felt he still shouldn't be allowed outside, romantically speaking, without a keeper. So many women he had kissed; so few he had ever really gotten to know. Which reminded Alfred . . . did Cassandra know the fine old British tradition about kissing under mistletoe during the Yuletide season? If not, then he'd better advise her of it, so she could avoid being caught under hanging mistletoe at any social gatherings she attended in the next few days . . . or at least understand why lads might think they could safely steal a kiss (without making any commitment thereby) if she didn't shun mistletoe like the plague! Best to avoid having lots of boys her age get tossed across the room for their presumption. . . . might damage the holiday spirit somewhat.