Author's Note: Dialogue in this chapter will refer to certain events of the "Fresh Blood" story arc which ran through Robin #132, Batgirl #58, Robin #133, and Batgirl #59, in that order, immediately after the big "War Games" crossover event which had consumed three months' worth of various Batman-related titles in 2004. For the purposes of this story, I assume "Fresh Blood" happened exactly the way it was depicted in the comics—unlike the Post-Infinite Crisis stuff that I've been cheerfully mocking in this serial. If you haven't read "Fresh Blood," prepare for spoilers.
By the way: I'm working on the theory that Cassandra Cain thinks of herself as "Cassandra," but Tim usually thinks of her as "Cassie" for some reason. At any rate, that's what Tim called her in the OYL stories by Beechen that "inspired" this story, so I took that as a baseline.
Chapter Seven: Let's Talk About Feelings
All the way to the Tower, Tim had been imagining things Cassie might want to hash out with him in absolute privacy.
Tim, I'm in love with somebody else, but I will always think of you as a brother.
Tim, you're just not my type, but I know a really neat girl you ought to meet.
Tim, I think I'm pregnant. I need some help dealing with it.
He'd already been through all that with Stephanie Brown a couple of years ago, courtesy of some jerk who'd seduced her and then dumped her, but with his luck it wouldn't be so surprising to have it happen all over again with another female friend. Good old Tim Drake, always there with a shoulder for a girl to cry on . . .
Tim, I don't think I can really respect a guy I can beat up ten times out of ten, even with one hand tied behind my back.
No, he didn't think that was it. He'd probably had it right the first time: She wanted to give him the "you're just like a brother to me" speech. He was tough; he could handle it.
As luck would have it, as Tim and Cassie approached an elevator in the lobby of the Tower, a uniformed security guard had just stepped in. Seeing them coming, he held the door open until they had joined him. Tim saw the guard had already punched for the fifth floor, where the main security center was. Tim waved his own security card at a scanner next to the controls and then punched the button for the top floor.
Tim didn't recognize this guard—probably hired within the past year—but the man obviously knew his face, or else he would have been asking just why two teenagers were heading to the top on a day when nearly everybody was home for the weekend. Instead, the man evidently preferred not to rock the boat by pestering someone with unlimited access about his reasons for utilizing it just now.
In fact, if the guard even thought there was anything the least bit peculiar about one of Bruce Wayne's adopted sons and a very attractive Asian girl—neither of whom had regular jobs here—apparently wanting to spend time in the big man's office suite on a Saturday morning, then he was doing a superb job of keeping his doubts discreetly hidden. It occurred to Tim that what was concealed from him might not be concealed from Cassie, but he wasn't about to ask her for a rundown; it wouldn't be fair to the poor man.
If Cassie ever ran short of money, though, she could always clean up in a poker tournament. The only way anyone would ever bluff her with a busted flush would be if she chose to let him get away with it just so he'd think it was possible to fool her occasionally . . .
The guard got off on the fifth floor, saying politely, "Have a nice day," and that was all the conversation they'd had with him.
They ought to be alone anywhere on the top floor today, but they'd go into Bruce's private office to make sure. You couldn't even get an elevator to carry you that far up on weekends unless you were one of the few with the right security card to wave at the scanner. Then you needed to use it again to get out of the enclosed reception area facing the elevator doors—a sort of airlock. Then you had to know the passcode to punch in at the entrance of Bruce's office. All along the way, you also had to assume that someone in the security center was glancing at the live feed from overhead cameras and would smell a rat if he didn't recognize your face as belonging to someone authorized to access this area at any time of day or night.
In due course Tim and Cassie were inside an "office" which had more square feet of open space than many Gothamites' home apartments. No security cameras in here, and the place was swept for bugs five times a week. Anyone attempting old-fashioned eavesdropping from outside a closed door or window would hear an awful lot of nothing. Cassie let down the blinds while Tim turned on the lights, then they divided the area and did quick sweeps to ensure no intruder was lurking inside a closet or behind a couch or anywhere else.
Finally satisfied, they came face to face in front of the big desk which Bruce occasionally sat behind. Tim braced himself for the worst as he asked, "Okay, what's on your mind?"
She looked him in the eyes and said without preamble, "Tim . . . I really like you. A lot. Not just as a guy who's a good friend for any girl to have. And I can tell that you like me too, and not just in the sense that you think I look cute."
He blinked several times as that sank in. Once again, he had proved he was still terrible at figuring out what was worrying a girl. "That's why we're here?"
"Yes," she said promptly. "And to set the record straight: I don't have a boyfriend, no matter how you define boyfriend, and I don't think you've gone looking for a new girlfriend since you got back from that world tour." She paused a moment to study him, then said cheerfully, "No, you don't have one! So what's stopping you from asking me out to a movie or something?"
He wasn't used to hearing a girl be so direct about that sort of thing, but Cassandra Cain had always favored attacking a problem head-on if it had to be handled at all. This was a conversation Tim wasn't ready to have, but he doubted that would have changed if she had waited another six months, or even a year, so they might as well get it over with.
Hey, the worst he could do was put his foot in his mouth, hurt her tender feelings, ruin a beautiful friendship, and feel like a complete schmuck. (Not to mention having the security guard look at a monitor and wonder why that girl was crying her eyes out as she left the building in a hurry. What would that do for Tim's reputation around Wayne Tower?)
Gee, it's a good thing there isn't too much pressure . . .
"Cassie . . . you're a nicer person than I once gave you credit for, and there's certainly nothing wrong with your looks . . . but after all, I don't ask every cute girl I meet out on a date."
She stared at him. "Try again."
Yes, he should have known he couldn't fool her into thinking his feelings for her were no stronger than those he had for any other girl he'd ever met socially and found reasonably likeable.
"Well, one reason I haven't asked you out since I came back to Gotham was that I can't see people the way you do. I appreciated that you seemed fond of me as a friend, but I was afraid of making a complete fool of myself if I assumed you felt anything more, and then you had to tell me you just plain didn't."
He bit the bullet and started to express something he'd been keeping tamped down in his soul for a long time. "I think I'm ashamed to ask you out on a date."
The flash of shocked confusion in her face suggested his body language wasn't terribly clear at this point. She asked: "Ashamed? Of me?"
"What? No, of me!" Tim paused to exercise some self-control; he needed to stay reasonably calm to explain himself properly. (It didn't help that Cassie had looked so unhappy when he said "ashamed" that he had felt an instinctive desire to hug her in the same way he might comfort a crying child.)
"Cassie . . . once upon a time in Bludhaven, when the Penguin had us captured and surrounded and incredibly outnumbered, we stalled for time by putting on a show for him. Gladiators in mortal combat for Caesar's amusement, with an army of thugs making side bets? I still can't believe he was dumb enough to think that untying both of us for that spectacle—especially you—was a controllable risk."
Cassandra Cain remembered that night as well as Tim did, of course. Her raised eyebrows suggested she was waiting for him to get to the point.
"Our one-on-one ended when you fell down and then, at Penguin's insistence, I shot you to 'prove' you were already dead, thus making him and his henchmen relax a little when they saw your 'corpse' didn't even flinch—"
Visibly, she was still waiting for him to get to the point. She wasn't going to make this easy for him—he'd have to spell it all out.
"We've never talked about it again since right after it happened, so I don't think you realize how ashamed of myself I feel nowadays whenever I think back to that night. Friends are not supposed to shoot each other. Heck, I wouldn't blame you if you had never wanted to team up with me again!"
It was encouraging to see the horrified expression on her face at that last suggestion. Now she finally started to say something, but he cut her off with an upraised palm. "Let me finish this, Cassie, please—if I don't clear the air now, I don't know when I'll work up the nerve to try again. I've only fired a real bullet into a person's flesh once in my life, and you're that person. I feel rotten about it, and I really like to think I'm not the kind of guy who goes around physically abusing girls and then expecting them to just forgive and forget and still agree to date him in the future. Sadism/masochism? Battered-wife syndrome? Whatever you want to call it, it's not the kind of relationship that fits my self-image."
The latest expression on her face had precious little in common with the psych profile of a battered wife. Portrait of a Woman Frustrated by a Little Boy's Boneheaded Mistakes might come closer to describing this picture . . .
"Tim," she said impatiently, "I was wearing kevlar. Even at such close range, I knew it would slow the bullet enough to barely let it penetrate flesh. You were aiming where you wouldn't hit a bone or artery or anything important. I didn't have to hold still and wait for you to pull that trigger if I didn't agree it was a good way to confuse Penguin and lure him in close to check my 'corpse'—so that we could finally gain an advantage."
Tim scowled. "Well, of course I wasn't trying to maim you, but what's that got to do with anything? It's the principle of the thing! I should know better than to shoot people! Besides, even if it didn't permanently impair your arm, it still left a scar, didn't it?"
Cassie was wearing a black turtleneck. She suddenly started pulling it up over her head. Tim automatically looked away, then finally glanced back long enough to reassure himself that she was still decent, with a T-shirt beneath the sweater. After depositing the turtleneck on Bruce's desk, Cassie reached over with her left hand and tugged at the hem of the shirt's right sleeve to bring it up over her shoulder so the entire arm was exposed. She glanced, very pointedly, at where the old bullet mark . . . should have been . . . and then looked back at Tim and waited for his reaction.
He was staring at the smooth, unmarked flesh. No scar? Not even a small patch with a slight difference in coloration? He frantically searched his memory. It had been her upper right arm, yes? Not the left one?
Now she was smiling at him. "After I got dunked in a Lazarus Pit, a lot of scar tissue just . . . went away. I think it was days later before I really noticed how much of my skin was smooth and new! Even when I had that mark, I never worried about it, and now there wouldn't be anything to worry about even if I wanted to!"
"I know, I know. Cain shot you several times in your formative years, teaching you to ignore the pain. You learned to just take all your scars for granted. But believe me, I've worried about that scar enough for both of us!"
Cassie blinked. "So you feel . . . like it's an unpaid debt? You shot me, I bled and then it formed a scar, you got away unpunished, and the guilt is still hanging over your head?"
"Uh . . . kind of."
She gave him a considering look. "If I shot you in the arm to give you a scar just like the one I don't even have any more, would that make you feel better? Balanced scales?"
"Um," Tim said with his usual savoir faire. (Why, oh why, didn't I see that one coming?)
"I think I could if I just had to," she said helpfully. "I really, really, really don't want to hurt you, but if you absolutely insisted this was the only way we could ever go on a date, I'd grit my teeth and say, 'Well, whatever it takes to make you happy, Tim.'"
He was struck by the absurdity of that scenario. Young lady, you must give me a flesh wound before I'll ask you out for dinner and a movie. Sure, what could possibly be more romantic?
"I don't think that's what I was saying. I never really went in for flagellation. I wasn't talking about a few formalities to quickly clear out of the way before we went on a date. I was talking about why I'd feel guilty about asking you on a date at all! Like I was taking advantage of you . . ." His voice trailed off in the face of her scornful look.
"Guilty. Taking advantage. Even though I was never angry at you in the first place? And even though if we do go on a date, we both know I could tie you in a knot if you suddenly went crazy and really tried to hurt me?"
"Well . . . yeah. Pretty much!"
"That's . . . " She paused. "A word. Full of ego?"
"That's it. That's what you're being. It doesn't matter that I knew what you were going to do with that gun and I let you do it . . . it doesn't matter that the point was to save both our lives after we'd already been captured . . . it doesn't matter that you dug the bullet out later and stitched me up with no permanent harm done . . . it doesn't matter that there's no scar now and I'd practically forgotten that stupid little wound until you brought it up . . . it doesn't matter that I'm willing to give you a matching wound if it will 'balance the books' inside your head . . . it doesn't matter that you know perfectly well I'm not easy to scare and I wouldn't go on a date with some jerk just because he hurt me once and had me good and intimidated from then on . . . all that matters to you is that you still feel bad about that gunshot after all this time, and even though I'm the 'victim' who got shot, you figure your feelings about one bad night a long time ago are infinitely more important than my feelings about the gunshot or about you!"
"Um," said Tim, noticing again that his gift for repartee was really in fine form today. After a moment, he added, "I think that's the longest single speech I've ever heard you make."
Her glare was withering, so he added hastily, "Which doesn't mean I'm trying to ignore the substance of it. Honest! I was listening to every word, and I'm willing to think about it carefully. But it will take time. I didn't have a constructive response springing to the tip of my tongue, so I reflexively stalled for time with a flippant remark."
"How much time do you need?" Cassie asked dangerously.
"I don't know; these things don't come with a built-in timetable! Definitely more than a minute or two. But if I just stand here with you glaring at me the whole time, it's going to take a lot longer to reach any conclusions. Do you have any idea how distracting you can be?"
Her mouth twitched and she seemed to relax just a smidgen. "Some idea. But not distracting enough, I guess, or you'd stop obsessing about the time with the gun."
Author's Note: As I've said before, I wrote nearly all of this conversation a long time ago, and then just let it sit on my hard drive until the plot caught up with it. Now I'll have to work hard to write the next chapter practically from scratch. And at some point I'll have to switch gears and show the mental exploration of the inside of Batman's head, which is bound to be a strange sight . . .