Author Notes: the incident with the bicycle is based on a true story in the career of U.S. Marine Sniper Carlos Hathcock, as recounted in Charles Henderson's book MARINE SNIPER. The sentiment quoted was Hathcock's on the matter.


She was staring out the window, but the darkness outside brought no escape. Instead, it only reflected the scene she'd wanted to avoid: Tim and Steph were sprawled in front of the fire, playing with (of all things) a dreidel Tim had found somewhere and looking at each other in a way suggesting they'd get kissy soon. Bruce and Selina were trying very hard to pretend that they didn't want to get kissy, and that right now. And Selina's friend Holly had sneaked off with *her* friend a number of times to get kissy, and Cassandra hadn't needed to read their body language to find that out, what with both girls coming back with smeared lipstick.

Dick and Barbara were avoiding each other, which meant they were avoiding everybody else. No New Year's kiss for them this year.

No kiss for Cassandra Cain this year, either.

Her first year, she'd been puzzled by the New Year's kisses people exchanged at midnight. Then, furtively, she'd begun to hope to have her own. For a while, she'd thought she might be kissing Superboy here tonight. Bruce had put a stop to that. That had hurt, before she'd realized Bruce was right. Cassandra knew what she was, and knew how little she deserved. Still, she wondered where Kon-El was tonight, and was someone kissing him now?

She left the happy people to their kisses and their champagne, and slipped away to the kitchen, where Alfred was preparing a tray of assorted chocolates to the accompaniment of "New Year's Rockin' Eve."

Cassandra studied Dick Clark.

"Strange face," she said.

"Yes," said Alfred. "I have believed for some time that the gentleman's art collection contains a portrait that does his aging for him."

Cassandra thought about it. "Doubtful," she said. Her vocabulary was getting much better, but she had to watch herself when she tried to string more than four or five words together at a stretch.

"I suppose so," Alfred agreed. "Miss Cassandra, is there some reason you're not out with the others? I'll be in with the tray shortly."

Cassandra shook her head. "Stay here?" she asked.

"Of course," said Alfred. "Will you please pass those chocolate truffles?"

Cassandra did. She was polite and only swiped one truffle, and it wasn't a big one anyway.

"I will overlook that," said Alfred. "A chocolate truffle is a small price to pay for your peace of mind."

Cassandra munched reflectively. "No peace," she said around the truffle. "But thanks."

"Ah," said Alfred quietly. She looked back up at him to see him looking at her in... in a way Alfred usually didn't look at people. Barbara said that Alfred was "professionally oblivious." He wasn't now.

"Yes," he said. "Sometimes death... stays with one."

The empathy on his face stirred memories: something she'd heard mentioned in passing, a word here and there, and an old uniform she'd found in a trunk in the attic. "Soldier," she said.

"Yes," said Alfred quietly. "I was a soldier."

"You killed?"




He didn't look it. Alfred looked like... Alfred. Prim and a bit fussy, old-fashioned and careful. Getting old enough to be bigger in some ways, smaller in others. Harmless. Not a killer. Not someone like her.

"With bare hands?" she said, a touch too quickly.

"No," said Alfred. "I believe there you have the advantage of me."

"One," said Cassandra. She found it odd to be speaking of it. It seemed too big a thing to be put into words. She concentrated, waited until she'd put a sentence together and made sure it came out right. "I tore his throat out with my fingers."

Alfred didn't turn away. He took her statement calmly. "We never trained for that," he said. "In hand-to-hand, one broke the neck, or used a rifle butt, or a bayonet. I don't think I'd have had the hand strength for it."

"Not strength," said Cassandra. "Angle. Technique. He was grown. I was nine."

"I once shot a nine-year-old," Alfred said.

Cassandra eased herself into a chair. "Accident?" she said carefully. It must have been.

"No," said Alfred. "Quite deliberate. He was a weapons courier. It was often done by the Viet Cong -- the use of children in that way. This boy slung Kalashnikov rifles over his shoulder, transported them on his bicycle. I shot the bicycle first. Then he got up and picked up a rifle to aim at me, so I shot him. Through the lung, I'm afraid. I was hurried. He died, of course. There was quite a lot of blood."

"Bubbles in it," said Cassandra. That happened with lung injuries. With the throat, too, she knew. Her father had been so proud.

Alfred nodded.

"You were sorry?"

"Yes," he said. "And no. Of course, he was only a child, but -- the weapons had to be stopped, and I had to do it. An American Marine I knew told me it wasn't my fault, but the enemy's. He said, 'They sent a boy to do a soldier's job.' Quite right, of course."

Cassandra wasn't fooled. "Didn't help," she said.

Alfred's mouth turned slightly in a half-smile. "No," he said. "But a week later we caught the man who had sent the boy. Who sent so many poor damned boys. That helped. I saw him, briefly. He was in a dimly-lit tent, shackled to a chair. He'd been beaten, naturally. He was helpless." Alfred's voice became grim. "And I wanted to kill him," he said. "I wanted it more than I'd wanted anything in some time. I believe if I'd known how to tear his throat out with my bare hands, I would have."

"Did you?" said Cassandra. "Kill him?"

Alfred shook his head. "No," he said, "but the wanting it was enough. I didn't want to kill the boy, but I did. I did want to kill the man, but I didn't. I see the boy's face sometimes, in my dreams, but he doesn't haunt me. The man does. I'm not sure which is worse -- the knowledge of the terrible things you've done, or of the terrible things you've wished with all your heart to do."

"I wanted to please Cain," Cassandra said. The words came out in a string, without effort. She wasn't sure how that had happened.

"Yes," said Alfred gently. "I know."

He placed his hand on Cassandra's for a moment, then turned to the sink. He plucked a teakettle from its hook and filled it with water, then set the pot on the stove to boil.

"The man," said Cassandra. "What happened?"

"Ah," said Alfred. "He was turned over to the South Vietnamese forces for interrogation. We'd gotten most of what we needed out of him, so we didn't give a damn what they did. They tortured him, then shot him through the head. So he rots in the jungle, as Cain rots in jail, and you and I endure."

Cassandra thought about that. She wasn't sure whether enduring made much of a difference, but then she could tell Alfred, despite his tone, wasn't sure it did either. She didn't let on that she knew. Cassandra knew how to be professionally oblivious herself. And it did help to know that even if enduring didn't make everything better, it was still a success, in some small way. If you couldn't succeed at handling one thing, you picked something else and handled that.

Suddenly she understood why Alfred spent so much time and attention on the smallest details, and why he worked for Bruce under conditions that would have driven anybody else utterly mad. Why he came by her cave and cleaned up weekly, and didn't mind that she'd never noticed. Alfred's world was as tightly-regimented as any military man's. He was still a soldier. He'd just changed his uniform.

A chant on the television suddenly was echoed in the living room. "Ten... nine... eight... seven..."

Cassandra looked over at Alfred and saw his amusement at the partygoers' antics. It made her wonder whether he ever kissed anybody on New Year's Eve. Maybe Dr. Thompkins? But Dr. Thompkins wasn't there. She'd been called away to an emergency at her clinic, and Alfred was left with a bunch of kissy-faces, and dour Cass, for company.

"HAPPY NEW YEAR!!!" called the man with the strange face. Cassandra leaned across the kitchen island and kissed Alfred carefully on the corner of his mouth. His moustache was bristly.

"Happy New Year, Alfred," she said.

"Happy New Year, Miss Cassandra," he replied. He smiled at her then -- a real smile, one of the few she'd ever seen from him -- and said, "Would you give me a hand with this tray? I believe refills of champagne will be in order."

Alfred, glasses and champagne at the ready, led the way through the swinging door and headed towards the sound of noisemakers, to the party where everyone was getting kissy, and where somebody had probably spilled champagne on the carpet.

Cassandra picked up her tray and followed him. She stole another truffle on the way.

After all, it was no less than she deserved.