DC Infinity Presents

Batgirl # 24

War for Hell

Part 5

The Burning Past

Gotham

"Abel…"

Batgirl broke the embrace, and stepped back. She felt as if her world had turned upside, and wanted to vomit as memories and emotions she thought long buried began to overtake her. Cain never lied to her. He had been completely truthful when he said he hadn't trained Silver Shrike. The truth slipped past Cassandra's lips like bile before she even realized it.

"I did."

The look of surprise and confusion, combined with the other emotions that swept through Silver Shrike, was like a nail into Batgirl's heart.

"Sophia…" Silver Shrike's throat went dry. He flipped his helmet down so that she wouldn't see him beginning to cry, "why…?"

Batgirl raised her hand, almost reaching out to him in disbelief, as if she were looking at a mirage, a figment of her imagination. She could barely breathe, almost unable to believe what she'd wrought.

"Abel…how could you?"

"Silver Shrike!" The world that seemed to contain just the two of them shattered instantly as Max, one of the men Silver Shrike had brought along with him to kill The Mad Hatter, grabbed him by the shoulder, "what the hell, man? We need to get outta here!"

"I…of course," Silver Shrike removed a smoke grenade from his belt and threw it at Batgirl's feet. The young vigilante brought her cape up to protect her, but made no effort to stop their departure. Silver Shrike was unknowingly carrying two tracers, and Batgirl was certain that Nightwing had placed tracking devises on his partners. Finding him again would not be an issue.

But what came after that…

"Batgirl?"

Batgirl couldn't bring herself to look Nightwing in the eye. He was still stabilizing the man that Silver Shrike's gang had shot.

"Batgirl?" Nightwing had his hands pressed against the wound, staunching the blood flow for now. But as important as saving the man's life was to him, that wasn't where Nightwing's attention was focused, "Batgirl, what's going on? Why didn't you stop them?"

Batgirl could think of nothing to say, nothing that would explain her actions. Luckily, a few seconds later blue and red sirens could be heard blaring. Nightwing looked away from her for a moment, as the police burst in, and when he looked back, Batgirl was gone.

oooOOoo

Wayne Towers

Batgirl looked out at the morning sun, as it began to rise in the distance. She watched as the rays of the sun washed over Gotham, erasing the cloak of night that concealed nearly every sort of criminal that infested the city. To Batgirl, the morning meant peace for a few precious hours, and in the past had always helped clear her mind and cleanse her spirit.

But this morning brought none of that peace. Batgirl glanced down over the edge of Wayne Towers, and contemplated jumping. Freefall meant different things to different people, and to Batgirl it was a quick and easy way to empty her mind of the doubts and regrets.

Batgirl was only a few moments from leaping into the air, when she heard a faint –beep!- on her radio, followed by light vibrations. It was Morse code, and Batgirl understood the intent long before she understood the words behind it.

Please come home.

It was one of the only non-emergency signals that the Batclan actually had, and Batgirl quickly realized with was something she couldn't ignore.

Batgirl had once heard how confession was supposed to cleanse the soul, but today more than ever that saying baffled her. Her confession would surely damn her.

oooOOooo

Batgirl made to effort to conceal herself as she entered her cave, nor did she disable the trackers that were embedded in her suit. Nightwing, Oracle and Tatsu were already gathered around the main table, waiting patiently.

Batgirl removed her mask, and then Cassandra took a deep breath as she studied three of the people she loved most in the world. They were anxious, confused, but most importantly, concerned.

Cassandra saw that concern, that love, and for a moment felt angry. After what she'd done, she wanted to yell and scream, to threaten to take her mask, to do anything but just wait patiently to explain what had happened.

"You're sick," Tatsu said matter of factly, "I will pick up your homework later today."

Cassandra sat down, and realized in all the turmoil that she'd forgotten entirely about school. Missing a day actually made her feel a little sad. In truth, Batgirl had no idea how anyone could not enjoy the sheer, simple act of learning with friends.

"Nightwing told us about what…" Oracle searched for the right words, "what he saw. So the obvious question is what's your relationship with this Silver Shrike character, and why did he call you Sophia?"

Cassandra took a deep breath, and decided to tackle the easy question first, "Sophia was…my name. When I knew Abel, Silver Shrike."

"Was your name?" Cassandra didn't understand the look of confusion on Oracle. It never suited her, "what do you mean?"

"Cain never taught me to talk," Cassandra explained, "to speak, to use words. You know that. Why…would me, I mean I be any different?"

"But I don't understand, if Sophia was your name, why didn't you…" Oracle wanted to kick herself. All this time she'd been unknowingly patronizing Cassandra, like a pet, "why didn't you tell us?"

Cassandra shook her head, "It's not…my name. Not the…first either. Abel called me Sophia…for him. Others gave different name. Named me…for them, their sake. Not you."

There were times, Cassandra knew, when she just utterly failed to convey an idea. But looking at Tatsu, Nightwing and Oracle, she could see how they understood that the names of her past, the names she was given, just weren't 'hers'.

Sometimes, family just understood.

"You gave me a name…that was meant for me," Cassandra said, "you named me."

When Cassandra saw Oracle's reaction, she silently wished that she'd said that years ago.

"When was the last time you saw Silver Shrike before tonight?" Nightwing said.

Batgirl wasn't the world's greatest detective, but she knew Nightwing was asking because he was concerned as to whether or not her secret identity had been compromised.

"Long time ago," Cassandra tried to think how long it had been, but the concept of months and years were a relatively new thing to her. Before she learned to speak, before she found a true home, her only measurement of time was the past (shame) and present (running, food and hiding). She could only think of one real difference that indicated a passage of time since she'd seen Abel. She simply pointed to her chest and said "before these grew."

No one laughed.

"So…his training," Nightwing leaned back in his chair, put his hands behind his head and to Cassandra, did everything but wear a neon sign saying 'not passing judgment'. But underneath it all, he was watching her with a detective's eye, analyzing each word, each twitch. Oracle was no different, with Tatsu being the only one who was solely concerned about Cassandra herself.

"It was me," Cassandra shuddered. She knew it was no secret now, but to say it aloud, here…

"Why?"

"…I was alone and he…spoke to me."

oooOOooo

Hub City, years ago

The girl who would one day be named Cassandra Cain looked at the mansion in the distance, with its high walls, cameras surrounding the entrance, and the sounds of dogs on the estate. She saw how armed men came and went from home, and how the walls surrounding the property still managed to include a good portion of woods.

To anyone else, those would have been like bright, neon signs to stay away.

To the girl who would be Cassandra Cain, they all amounted to nothing more than a living warning system.

She had been to a few places like this, when she still lived with her father, and when he took her out into the wider world. And she saw how he approached. Reserved and outwardly humble, mindful of the residents even if they didn't register to Cain as threats.

Cain, if he found her, would take caution, reasoned the young girl, who was now eleven years old. And that small sliver of restraint would be enough for her to slip away.

She slipped over the fence at night, and was greeted by a half dozen Dobermans. But they were pack animals who instinctively followed the strongest, the alpha. The eleven year old girl stood up straight, and gave them a clear message with no words.

The dogs walked away as one, deciding that it was better to live with this new comer than be ended by her.

The young girl saw an old, disused shed, and smiled. Compared to what she was used to living in, an old, rotting tool shed was like a palace.

oooOOooo

Now, Just outside Gotham

Jacob Thorn shook with rage, and Silver Shrike kept his shattered helmet flipped down, unable to look the man who was the closest thing he had to a father in the eye.

"How could you do this to me? To our family?" Thorn paced in his study, his face livid, "taking out Mad Hatter would have been a coup that would have put the police on the defensive and made the Bats look like the fools they are! But not only do you fail to kill one, but you lock lips with her!"

"I hadn't seen her in a long time," Silver Shrike defended weakly. Even though he was capable of killing a hundred Jacob Thorns, the young man cowered from his uncle.

"Is that supposed to be funny!?" Jacob Thorn face was now inches from Silver Shrike's, his hot breath washing over Abel's skin, "She! Is! The! Enemy!"

"…she's my best friend."

Jacob Thorn wanted to rage at the heavens, scream until his throat bled and gut a dozen men. But he allowed the bloodlust to wash over him, and allowed his brain to return to its proper equilibrium. When his pulse returned to its natural pace, he continued.

"When was the last time you saw her?" Thorn didn't hold out much hope that the boy knew Batgirl's identity, but he'd be a fool not to ask.

"Before she had boobs," Silver Shrike said.

No one laughed.

Jacob slapped Silver Shrike across the face. It was a light slap, but carried no small amount of authority with it.

"You are going to tell me, boy, right now, how you know Batgirl…"

oooOOooo

Then

"We need to talk."

Jacob Thorne set down his newspaper with a sigh. He loved his sister Sharon, and when her husband…left, but he didn't understand why that automatically meant she had to come to him with every issue she had.

It wasn't enough that he had to whip the Hub Family detachment into shape, now he had to deal with her issues?

"What is it now?"

"It's Abel."

Jacob motioned for his sister to sit down, while he marshaled his thoughts. In three years since his tour in the Marines had ended, Jacob had been applying that same discipline to his own family, in combination with the business degree he'd earned with the help of the GI bill. His cousins had begun to look at him as if he was a renaissance man, and in some ways, he was.

Jacob envisioned a world where his family name was once again regarded with the respect it deserved. And to accomplish that, the members of his family who weren't up to the cut, whether lacking in the common sense that dictated every waking moment or basic restraint on their anger, were either encouraged to enter less dangerous professions, or were made to leave. Jacob loved his family, but his role had forced him to see each and every member as an employee, and not flesh and blood.

His sister, for instance, was invaluable as an assistant manager at the local bank. But her son, Abel…

"What about him?"

Jacob loved Abel. But something about the boy was always off. It wasn't that he hurt animals, or was ever even cruel, nothing like that. But he never got any joke, metaphors barely penetrated his skull and his ability to infer even the slightest social custom was lacking. As it stood, Jacob had already all but written the boy off as ever playing a role in the family business.

"His tutor thinks he might have a learning disability," Sharon said, "he thinks we should have him tested, and…"

"And he's full of it," Jacob said, his voice filled with scorn, "the boy is a little w…quiet. And he's doing better, isn't he?"

"Only because I banned him from watching any karate movies before doing his homework!" Sharon replied, "and when I allow him to watch them, all he does is imitate them!"

Jacob chuckled, "So that's what's wrong?"

"What's wrong is that he imitates what he sees, every day! It's the only thing he cares about!"

Abel Thorn didn't give the conversation between his mother and uncle any attention as he strolled past the study, and into the woods outside. He had several instructional books tucked underneath his arm that he'd checked out from the library.

He walked out into the woods behind the mansion, near the old tool shed, and set his books down. He began flipping through the pages, reading the paragraphs next to the pictures. But the information had barely reached his brain before he started moving through the katas.

Abel was absolutely obsessed with the martial arts, for reasons he couldn't himself explain. He wasn't bullied at school, though he wasn't popular. He couldn't think of a person he wanted to harm or protect and he had no desire to compete.

But he loved the physical art because it was the physical art, and he threw himself into it with a passion unknown to most his age.

And that's why the girl who would one day be named Cassandra watched him. She watched him and his clumsy kicks, his punches that didn't use the hips and his generally pathetic stance. To her, it was painful to watch.

But watch she did, because underneath it all was someone who loved the language, a caring person who did what he did for the sheer joy of it.

And so, on the fourth day of watching this atrocity, she stepped out and introduced herself.

Well, she stepped out.

"Oh, hello," Abel said pleasantly. He knew that people weren't supposed to walk out of the woods, but the girl wore tattered jeans and a shirt so dirty he might have mistaken them for dish rags tired together, so he figured she couldn't be bad.

The young girl took Abel's arm, and straightened it. She then tapped his feet with hers, until he'd assumed the correct stance.

Out of curiosity, Abel kept the stance as the girl assumed the same stance, and them motioned a kick.

Abel did the same, and while it was nowhere near as graceful, it was still better than anything he'd tried to accomplish in the last three months, which felt like a lifetime to the young boy.

The two children practiced for the next several hours, until the sun set and Abel heard his mother frantically shouting for him.

"Aww man," Abel pouted. He barely even noticed his empty stomach, or now his arms ached from the katas. All he felt was disappointment that he had to stop the progress he was making, "I gotta go inside."

The young girl nodded, and turned to leave.

"Hey, are you going to be here later?"

The girl paused, then nodded in affirmation. She hadn't anywhere else to be, or to go.

"Hey, what's your name?"

The girl shook her head negative. She didn't understand a lot of words, but she still recognized the crux of the question.

She'd heard it before.

"No name? How about Sophia? It's my cousin's."

The girl shrugged indifferently.

"Okay, Sophia, see you tomorrow!"

oooOOooo

The days seemed to blur together. Sophia took it upon herself to make Abel worthy of her time and effort. They ran the length of the woods twice, did over a dozen push-ups, stomach crunches and jumping jacks before even approaching the first kata.

Abel balked at nothing. The sweat and aching muscles meant nothing to him, and he quickly learned that if he washed up before dinner and did his homework that he could avoid his mother's attention entirely. To the rest of the household, Abel was invisible, a whisper on the wind.

But to Sophia, he was her entire world, and relished Abel's company. It wasn't the teaching of her language that she enjoyed, so much as the ability to share it with someone else. Now more than ever, she understood why her father raised her like he did, and how he imparted the knowledge.

And more than that, Sophia never realized how much of the pain, the sheer naked hurt that she carried with her every day, was from just being alone.

Abel, for his part, tried to teach Sophia how to speak, how to express herself with words. But he was young, more interested in what she could teach him than what he could teach her, and so they didn't make much progress.

But after the fifth week of working together, of katas, training and sloppy English lessons, Abel somehow managed to teach Sophia a new word, in spirit and fact.

"Come on, try again! Abel said.

"H…h…oo…"

"Do it all together!"

Sophia saw how excited Abel was, and she wasn't eager to disappoint her student. So she took a deep breath, concentrated and expressed one of the most important concepts known to man.

"Home."

oooOOooo

Now

"He made me feel normal," said Batgirl, "everything I taught…he wanted to learn. He didn't care that I…couldn't speak. Didn't care where I came from. He accepted me as I was. No questions."

"You have nothing to be ashamed of," Oracle said, "you were just looking for a friend. But why did you leave?"

"Because..."

Cassandra reflected back on what happened, where it all started. In most instances, putting her past, when she had no words to describe what she felt or thought, was difficult, like trying to remember a dream.

But not with Abel.

"…we grew up."

oooOOooo

Then

Months passed, not that Sophia had any real way to tell besides the weather. Abel was proving to be an apt student, and Sophia loved him for it. But after a few months, Abel's training had hit a wall.

Sophia had no knives, no mercenaries she could throw at him, and though they sparred, she always held back. As much as she still loved her father, on some level she knew that his method of training wouldn't be appropriate for Abel.

And at the same time, she knew that Abel would have to want to take the next step for himself. So she implored him to acquire the tools she needed, at best she could through the rapport they shared.

The next day, Abel returned to their spot in the woods, beaming with pride.

"Sophia, look what I got!"

The thirteen year old Abel dropped his backpack in the dirt to reveal four well polished, silenced pistols.

Sophia knelt down and picked up a gun. By some twist of fate, the guns were the exact same model that her father, Cain, started her off with. She remembered the pride she felt when she hot the bullseye for the first time, how the weight was comforting in that it could serve as a blunt object as well as distance weapon. Even without words, Sophia understood the sheer power afforded by a gun and though they weren't her preferred weapon, they did hold a special place in her heart.

It reminded of her of better times, before she cut ties with her only family, before she hands were forever stained, before the weight on her shoulders crushed her down.

"So, are these okay?" Abel asked innocently.

Sophia was only a few months shy of her fourteenth birthday, but she had no way of knowing that. She had no way of knowing that her body was changing in all kinds of ways, and she didn't even have the ability to comprehend the concept of 'hormones' or 'puberty' let alone know how they might change her thinking.

Sophia worked on instinct, and without pausing to reflect on why, she flung herself at the young boy who'd just given her the greatest gift since she'd left her father for the streets.

Abel, himself breaking into puberty, returned the kiss. It was nothing like the movies, as the two fumbled through the kiss and both asked themselves what came next. Neither knew just how deeply, and how exactly, they cared for the other until just now.

When they kissed, they felt emotions that they had never felt for another human being before. For the both of them, it was an intoxicating drug, the touch of their skin, the feel of their lips pressed together, even the hot breath of the other on their face struck a chord in their very being.

But they were still awkward teenagers, and spent more time rolling around kissing in the dirt of the woods before it even occurred to them to go farther. Finally, Sophia rolled Abel onto his back, and began to take off her shirt.

"Wait!" Abel felt the sting of fear of the unknown, and it pulled him out of the stupor that Sophia's kiss threw him into, "shouldn't we practice first?"

Sophia looked at the bag of guns, and then to Abel. Then, as if a fog had lifted from her brain, she nodded in affirmation.

Sophia picked up a silenced pistol that had been used in three murders, and began going through the kata that would be best in a close fight.

oooOOoo

Now

Jacob Thorn raised an eyebrow as he looked at his nephew and did his best not to chuckle. Even when a girl was throwing herself at him…

"Really, boy?"

"I was eager to learn something new," Silver Shrike defended.

"Right," Thorn rubbed his temple, "so how did you know that Batgirl, and this Sophia of yours were one and the same?"

"Because no one else could move like that," Silver Shrike said.

"You know, everyone saw that kiss," Thorn said softly, "there were cameras at the theater. The police have a copy. It was somehow deleted off their servers, but not before enough people saw it. And you know how Gotham loves a juicy rumor…"

"I'm sorry, sir," silver Shrike said genuinely.

Thorn rubbed his chin, "It's my own fault. I should have pressed harder when you demonstrated your skills. But tell me, why did she leave?"

oooOOooo

Then

"Sophia? You ready?"

Abel looked around their usual training ground, only to find himself alone. Even more baffling was the fact that he'd seen the dogs on the other side of the property. That only happened on the rare occasions Sophia was angry.

"Sophia?" Abel didn't expect an answer, but the young boy was concerned. Sophia had never once been late, and Abel literally didn't know what to think of this break in routine. So he made his way to Sophia's 'room', the tool shed where he'd conducted the odd English lesson.

"Sophia, you in there?" Abel tapped on the door, still uncertain of what to do next. One of the few unspoken rules of society understood perfectly was that you never entered a girl's room without permission. But the fear and anxiety he felt was enough to make him disregard that rule, when he heard Sophia inside, breathing.

Abel slid the door open, and saw Sophia sitting on a wooden crate, her hand smeared with blood.

"Sophia, are you okay?" Abel rushed to her side, and looked her over as if he actually knew what to do. But he saw no cut, no wound that could explain the blood.

Sophia shook her head negative, as tears slid down her face.

"Stay here, I'll get…," Abel searched for something that might be able to help,
"a wet cloth and some band-aides!"

Sophia watched him go, and in her head she knew she should have slipped away then. But she just couldn't bring herself to stand up, to do what she knew in her heart what she had to do.

By the time she'd mustered up the courage, Abel had returned. Sophia met him outside the shed, and took the wet cloth and wiped her hand. As she did that, Abel noticed that the blood was just below Sophia's waist. But before he could think of what to do, Sophia did something very un-Sophia like.

"Go," she said.

Abel looked at her in confusion. Sophia could only speak a few words as far as he knew, and that wasn't one of the ones he thought was in her vocabulary.

Sophia pounded her fist into her hand, and held it out. Abel, used to mimicking his young teacher, did the same. They shared a fist bump, and then she turned to leave.

"Sophia, where are you going?" Abel felt panic beginning to rise in his stomach as he watched his best and only friend walking towards the high stone fence that enveloped the back of the property.

Sophia turned, and with a few tears managed to say everything.

"No, don't leave!" Abel swung his fist without thinking. His rational mind knew that he couldn't beat up Sophia to change her mind, but he couldn't think of anything else to do.

Sophia ducked underneath it effortlessly. She'd made Abel one of the youngest and greatest martial artist in the world, but she was still his better.

She ducked under the blow, and swung her elbow into his chest, knocking Abel on his rear.

Sophia hoped it would be enough to discourage him, but she underestimated just how used to taking her hits Abel had become, and faced with losing her, Abel was willing to endure anything.

Abel was on his feet again in seconds, and Sophia hadn't made it three feet before Abel was racing after her, and she had to knock him down again.

It was a pattern that made her sick to her stomach. She'd knock him down, striking harder and harder each time, and Abel would just get back up again before she made it more than a few feet.

By the time Sophia was within ten feet of the wall, Abel's left eye was swollen shut, and Sophia had cried more tears than she ever had before, but he just wouldn't give up.

But with her goal in sight, Sophia slipped away, bounded up a tree. Against her better judgment, she stopped and looked behind her. She knew she should have been ashamed of how she hurt him, but knew it was nothing compared to the pain she would bring him if she stayed.

"Sophia, please!" Abel pushed himself up from the dirt, one eye swollen shut, blood dripping from his nose, but all the pain that wracked his body was nothing compared to the fear of losing his friend, "we can fix this…!"

Abel, one eye useless, missed the rock in front of him, and tripped. A fallen branch with a sharp end caught him as he fell, and sliced him like a knife. But despite it all, what hurt the most was when he looked up, and saw his best friend had vanished.

oooOOooo

Now

"Oh god, I can only imagine what that was like," Oracle said, "I thought my first time was scary, but…"

"No," Cassandra shook her head, "It wasn't that. It wasn't because I thought…Cain would find me. It…"

Cassandra took a deep breath to steady herself.

"I knew it was normal. Saw it in other woman…women. Knew it was normal, and knew…I wasn't. Knew I never would be, and I could never be a…meaningful part of his life. Thought that, if I left, his life would be normal, better, but…"

Cassandra choked back sobs.

"All I did, was make him a killer…just like me."

oooOOooo

Elsewhere

Edward Nigma paced back and forth. Though he possessed a truly gifted mind, he also possessed little in the way of persuasive powers when it came to his peers, so he knew he had to choose his words carefully.

"As I'm certain you're aware, Gotham has changed in these last twelve months. The Bat, the real one, hasn't been seen in almost a year, and he's left the protection of his city to his two protégés, Nightwing and Batgirl."

"Boy blunder and Bat broad? Sooo boring, and tedious. I hope you're not wasting my time, Eddie."

"I'm smarter than that," Riddler replied. He didn't sweat, but his pulse did pick up.

"Then get to the point! This isn't a college essay! This is you with your hat in hand! Make it worth my while!"

"Oh, this isn't me with my hat in hand," Riddler said, "That would be Crane, or Pam, or Freeze, or Mad Hatter, or…well you get the point."

"What, some third stringers got beaten up by a masked gunman? Eddie, I did that before it was cool!"

"No, because this gunman has backing, and you know it!" Riddler snarled, "the mob has declared war on all of us! And you know that you're on the top of their wish list! And they won't be like the Bat, oh no. If we don't do something now, while everyone still fears and respects us, they will win!"

"Please, these Soprano knock-offs wouldn't last a Gotham minute against me. Go back to your crosswords, Eddie."

"What, you think they'll just walk into a death trap like Batman?" Riddler laughed, "I've seen their gunman's work. He could take you out from a block away with a handgun. Think about that, for a moment. A cold, impersonal death, that's what they intend. No grand finale against The Bat, no epic climax. Just an inch of lead through your forehead from a snipers perch. Believe me, it's a very real possibility. Is that how it's supposed to end for you?"

Riddler knew he'd struck a nerve when he wasn't met with a witty reply.

"Is that supposed to be a joke?" said Joker, the clown prince of crime.

"Because I'm not laughing."

Next issue: The Joker. Jacob Thorn. Silver Shrike. Batgirl. The war comes to an explosive end as blood is shed, friendships are tested as Gotham pays the price.