The girl was surrounded.
Broken, lifeless forms now lay scattered all about her.
Coal-dark eyes scanned the room. Satisfied that there was nothing more to do here, she strode towards the door. Her foot came down on a head, crushing it into fragments.
Cassandra Cain exited the training room. She was now officially out of practice dummies, and would have to call in for more. Oracle would not be pleased. She could almost hear her guardian's voice. Cass, I know you can hold back. You do it every night when you render a mugger unconscious instead of comatose! Could you please try and occasionally observe the same restraint when you're just training?! Please? Her charge's lack of concern for the monetary demands of a crime-fighter's lifestyle was a topic that came up with almost every discussion lately.
The newest Batgirl winced at the thought of another tongue-lashing. Barbara's vocabulary was better than hers. By miles. Light years, even. But even though Cassandra didn't always understand the words she used, one thing always allowed her to intuit what her predecessor was trying to convey.
Padding across the living area of her apartment, the earnest crimefighter stole into the kitchen, where she proceeded to retrieve a gallon of milk from the refrigerator. Cassandra popped the cap, sniffed it experimentally, and made a face. A date was printed on the side. Unfortunately, numbers remained a little tricky for her. Spoiler's lessons in that regard tended to devolve into what her sole friend referred to as 'girl talk.'
Oh well, she shrugged, and took a drink anyway.
A thought came to her. Should she try…?
Of course she should.
The open jug dropped from her grasp. Its weight, its contents, the angle of its descent; this was not like watching a person. Objects did not intuitively inform her how they were going to move before they did it. She had required incalculable training throughout her life to judge these things precisely.
But while gauging objects required concentrated effort, her own form did not.
Cassandra's foot moved, too fast for the naked eye to follow. Muscles in her thigh provided the force, tendons further flexing around her calf and ankle. Batgirl's body had no difficulties in providing what she wanted. Her toe connected precisely when and where she required it, sending the container into a whirl that shot up through the air.
The heroine watched calculatingly. Centripetal force was so precisely applied that not a drop of milk splashed out while it spun. Everything seemed to be going as planned. It now remained to be seen whether there would be two messes that required cleaning up today.
Her experiment had passed the point of apogee. Still spinning, it now gathered its potential energy, took a few seconds to convert this into kinetic with the aid of gravity, and plummeted downwards.
It reached the sink. The container completed this effort by sliding neck first into the drain with a solid thump. A second later this was replaced by the sound of expired dairy products chugging down through the pipes.
Gotham's guardian angel clapped her hands together and sauntered back into her main quarters, head bowed and joined fists pumping side to side in congratulations.
Sunlight was streaming in through the high bay windows. Plopping down into a leather papasan chair, Cassandra took full advantage of the spring day, curling up in her warmed seat. Heat, and comfort. Just lying here. This felt pretty darn good. Last night's excursion had provided her with no opportunity for boredom. The darkest girl in the Bat family had been given the opportunity to tangle with drug dealers, purse-snatchers, six armed robbers, and two attempted homicides. A call from Batman then clued her in to a smuggling ring down at the docks. She had teamed up with him and Robin to take down that lot. All in all, she felt like she had spent her time rather productively. An extra fifteen minutes of sleep was her own personal reward. But sleeping for nearly two hours had left her feeling groggy. Hence the need to work off some of that funk in the training room.
Cassandra stirred. She was still feeling restless.
It was time to get out.
In a few minutes she had changed from sweatpants and black exercise top into jeans and black spaghetti top. Sliding on her sandals, Cassandra closed and locked her door. She moved down the empty hall. The entire top floor of this complex was reserved for her alone. A far cry from the days when she had made do with whatever shelter the streets could offer. One trip down the elevator later, and she was out among the living.
The off-duty avenger paused to take a look around. Really look.
At the people, the traffic, the weather. All the things that might have bearing on her, she filed them away in her mind. Just in case.
That being done, she stepped into the crowd.
Walking. Listening. Observing.
She spoke not a word to the people around her.
This was how she interacted.
Their movements and features told her everything that they were feeling. Whether they knew it or not, they were conversing with one another. Without words. Body language was far more honest in its intentions. Even if someone was closing themselves off to you, the interplay of muscles and stance told you that they were doing this. It was just another means of expressing yourself.
Cassandra walked down the street, brushing shoulders with and stepping out of the way of other passers-by. Anxious, goal-fixated mothers clutching the hands of purposeless, content children. Teenagers lying smoothly to one another over their cell-phones. She pushed a hand through her unkempt black hair, and noted how several men in her vicinity reacted with explicit interest and carnal undertones to their gaits. Her hands went back in her pockets, own body expressing disinterest and discomfort for all who could read it. Most of the time she did not bother to consider any difference between herself and the people she interacted with. Except on rare occasions. But there were moments when Cassandra was reminded that she was only seventeen years old, with distinctly Asian features, an extremely well-toned physique, and female.
The teenager brushed these thoughts aside, and went back to her conversations.
I'm in a hurry, why won't you let me by?
I'm so stressed out. These shoes are killing me.
Man, I'm uncomfortable. Why didn't I check the weather report before I went out?
What smells so bad? Avoid the bum, avoid the bum…
Is my wallet there? Good. Is it still there? Good.
My side hurts. Why does it still hurt? Careful, don't bump me!
Keep her close, don't let anybody touch her, keep her close, hold onto the purse.
Is my wallet sti…Uh-oh.
Batgirl brushed by a man coming in the opposite direction. She unobtrusively relieved him of the last billfold even as his fingers informed him her pockets were bare. For added emphasis, her other hand came around to grip his middle finger, fracturing it with a skillful twist and letting go without even breaking stride. The pain wouldn't really reach his brain for a few seconds. Before that happened, she had slipped the wallet into the front pocket of the fellow before her while he was feverishly checking those in back. When his hands came forward again, all the frantic tension immediately converted into relief. Followed by confusion.
And Barbara told her she needed to talk to people more. Oh well.
It was coming on midday. Congestion in the streets wasn't as bad as usual. Cassandra watched a bus go by, with all the people in it. Emblazoned across its side was a picture of that bus, along with some words. They all had that same image there, now. She remembered Oracle telling her that in an attempt to curb harmful emissions from vehicles, Gotham's mayor had decreed this week to be Public Transportation Week. Subways and bus lines were free during that time. All city government employees especially were encouraged to ride mass transit systems to work instead of taking individual cars. A Green Initiative, they called it. Just in time for St. Patrick's Day.
Batgirl didn't know how to drive. But if the mood of the people she saw in traffic everyday was any indication, it wasn't fun.
Something was coming.
She could hear it faintly. No one else had yet. She knew this because the reaction hadn't taken place. The same one that occurred every time this happened.
Growing louder now. Its presence was starting to be felt.
By then everybody knew it. Cassandra could tell.
Five seconds later, a fire truck turned a corner and went roaring past her, the noise escalating to deafening heights before fading away into the distance.
The young woman did not pay it much attention. She was focused now on the way over a hundred people had been seized by the same emotion.
She couldn't really understand why they were so afraid. The threat was obviously far away from them. No immediate danger. So then why were so many hearts beating faster, limbs tightening with worry and trepidation? No matter how many times she saw this reaction, it made no discernible sense to her. They all behaved as though their lives were at stake.
One time she had asked Oracle about this phenomenon. Batgirl's friend and mentor had looked at her with wise green eyes, body bespeaking understanding and sympathy.
"That's just Gotham for you," she had said.
When pressed for further explanation, Barbara had gone on to detail that it was not really themselves they were afraid for. Rather, it was for the people at the site of the disaster. People they might know, and care about. What if it was their own building that was on fire, they were thinking? What if their children were trapped screaming in a fiery conflagration, suffocating from smoke inhalation, their flesh crisping away only to be crushed to death beneath falling girders?
What would they find when they got home that night?
Batgirl had lived in other cities. She had been all over the world. And no place she had ever lived in reacted to potential bad news in the same way as Gotham City.
It was still visible, very faintly. An underlying tremor of nervous, unfounded worry that never quite went away. People in this metropolis walked through their daily lives as though some horrific fate might be lurking around the next corner. They avoided each other's eyes, and Batgirl was growing more and more certain that this was done to keep from seeing that same look of fear in their fellow citizens' faces that they knew was hovering right below the surface of their own. These people walked as though Death was marching right behind them.
She just couldn't understand that.
The presence of this much subdued horror was proving too much for her. Cassandra felt a need to get out of it. But this was the financial district now. People were streaming in and out of office buildings. Where could she go to get away?
Before her there arose a bus kiosk. Though several people were gathered around it, it was still a relatively isolated spot to be in. That was settled. With a bit of apt maneuvering more akin to dance, she managed to extricate herself from the urban street hustle and enter the relative isolation of the public transit terminal.
Feeling a bit more at ease, the silent teenager spread her arms across the back of the bench and allowed herself to relax. The noise of the city was still prevalent, as were its denizens. Horns blared, people whistled and shouted.
An elderly black woman in a shawl was seated farther down. Though she did not move, her posture indicated pain in her joints, as well as an upset stomach. Nothing to worry about there. On her left was a kid around her own age in beat-up jeans, Gangsta designer t-shirt and backwards-turned baseball cap. He was chewing gum and eyeing her appreciatively. Batgirl turned to regard him, and he winked, puckering his lips. Her heavy eyebrows drew together warningly, and she turned away, ignoring the impression of lust and nervousness he was projecting with every breath. The only other resident was a man in a trench-coat who reeked of alcohol. He was pretending to be asleep, possibly to keep anyone from remarking on his condition. Dirty gloves covered his fingers, and one of the green Irish bowler hats that had been so prevalent yesterday was pulled low over his face. A paper sack sat by his feet, and slightly exaggerated snores came from his form.
Other than this, nobody spoke to one another.
A few minutes later the bus arrived. Only a few people were inside. The old woman rose unsteadily to her feet and tottered forward, leaning on a cane. She waited for the vehicle to disgorge its occupants. It was clear to Batgirl that she would have difficulty ascending the steps on her own, and so she rose and moved to stand beside her. Cassandra gripped the old woman's arm and shoulder to steady her, and when she turned a questioning look back, smiled assuredly. Her face and body gave off no threat, only concern, and though not in possession of the same level of discernment as herself, her charge clearly got the message. The old lady gave a warm smile, features registering her thanks. When she had made it up the steps, she took over for the rest of the way with a small nod of gratitude.
Batgirl turned to exit the bus, and paused. The teenager was now shifting in his seat, legs opening and closing together in a clearly suggestive fashion. It occurred to her suddenly that she had just given him a prolonged look at her well-sculpted posterior squeezed into these tight jeans. It was also quite obvious that if she returned to her seat, he intended to engage her in some form of conversation. The crimefighter considered. She was already on the bus. It was free today. And she had never really availed herself of Gotham's public transportation system. Presumably it was a good way to meet people. And she had intended to interact on this excursion.
Cassandra moved to take a seat behind her. As the doors began to close, she caught the preemptive start forward, followed by dejection and disappointment. A smile came to her lips, and as the bus peeled away she watched her out-maneuvered suitor settle into resignation and failure, now left all alone in the bus terminal.
As it hit her, the drunk dropped his sack and flopped into the seat right across from her. Settling in, he immediately went back to snoring and feigning sleep, though it should be clear to everyone now that he was doing neither unintentionally.
The master combatant's nose wrinkled slightly at the smell and the noise. This was someone who was obviously on the opposite quest as herself: to have everybody notice him, and just make a nuisance of himself. Towards the back of the bus, a young black teen with dreadlocks listened to his iPod, while a clearly pregnant woman was trying hard to conceal her distaste. Batgirl found herself agreeing. Public drunkenness was not a pretty sight, especially for someone in her situation. Inebriation caused people's bodies to behave in a very unpleasant fashion. And anything taken to extremes led to problems. In her experience, there was nothing quite so repulsive as the sight of someone involuntarily losing control of their bladder.
The telltale signs of imbibing liquor… they weren't there. The smell was unmistakable, to be sure, but nothing else in this man's movements and pose told her that he was suffering from the alcoholic stupor he presented to others. Was even that a sham performance?
The fledgling detective watched her fellow traveler warily now. Something was off here. The situation didn't feel right somehow.
No one else seemed to have picked up on it. But a presentiment was growing at the back of her neck. Subtly, she shifted her limbs into a more effective position.
The sham made no response.
Sudden sound and inertia let them all know that the bus was coming to a halt. Farther down, the pregnant woman rose to her feet. Supposedly she had suffered quite enough of this company. Moving awkwardly but carefully, she began to traverse the length of the bus to reach the front, digging around in her purse. Apparently she was a regular rider, and had forgotten that the service was provided free of charge today.
Batgirl saw all this. Her attention did not waver.
As the woman approached, sudden tension gripped the form of the drunk. His face was still hidden by the confines of his hat, but Cassandra knew that he was preparing to do something. The pregnant passenger was only a few steps away from them, still absorbed in her purse. Just then the language of his body became clear to her. With his head still down, the reeking actor gave a mighty yawn, throwing out his arms in an exaggerated fashion and flinging his legs across the walkway.
Right into the path of the unsuspecting lady.
But did not fall.
Even before he had started to make the effort, Batgirl knew what he was planning. She had reasoned out that lunging across the car to crack his head against the window, while satisfying, would also cause the woman to lose her balance and fall backwards. A certainty, considering the way she was carrying her weight and the telling strain on her ankles. Cassandra was quick enough to catch her, but the experience might still do her and the baby harm. Also, attempting to kick the man's feet back would only result in her legs blocking the aisle, enabling the woman to go sprawling from Batgirl's efforts instead of his.
And so, having thought all this out, she let the sham drunkard's legs connect with his intended target. Then, before the woman could even start to pitch forward, she leapt up, arm encircling just above the protruding form, the other one catching her elbow to steady her.
Perfectly executed. Not a single movement wasted. The lady gave a brief gasp of shock, and that was all.
They remained frozen in this tableau for several moments.
Her ward turned to face her. Batgirl let her features do the talking. Are you all right? Still looking a little stunned, the woman gave a brief nod. Then her head snapped roughly about to cast a venomous look at the offending party. His head remained downcast, arms now crossed over his chest. He had withdrawn his legs. Behaving as if nothing untoward had occurred.
The expecting mother gently disengaged from Cassandra's grip. Steadying herself, she proceeded to move forward again.
"Thank you," she nodded to Cassandra, to which she returned the gesture.
Her rescuer observed what was coming next, and did nothing to prevent it.
The woman's right arm whipped out, knocking the offensive interloper's jauntily placed hat off his head. It went soaring to the front of the bus.
"Jerk!" she spat.
Crossing the last remaining feet, she exited the vehicle.
The man gave no indication of having noticed any of the preceding events.
Several more people got on, and none got off.
Cassandra and a few others continued to glare menacingly at the vagrant.
He made no move.
No one spoke a word.
Then the black youth removed his earphones.
The vagrant kept his head down. He had stopped the fake snoring.
Now the teen stood up and started moving forward. The rest of them saw his intention, including Batgirl, but she had already decided to remain in the background here. She knew how her benefactor felt about reckless displays of justice on her part, no matter how well-deserved they were. Only if things got too physical would she intervene to stop it.
Then the transient shivered.
"Not a jerk."
His voice was very soft.
He lifted his head, and looked directly into Cassandra's eyes.
"Just a joker."
And then, he smiled.
And kept right on smiling, grin growing bigger and bigger across his face.
His hair was dyed black. The skin was an off-peach shade only found in theatre makeup.
But he hadn't bothered to do anything about the eyes.
Because there was nothing that could be done for them.
Cassandra stared into those eyes, and found she couldn't move.
His body. It moved like a man's. She could tell precisely what he was going to do next. That wasn't the problem here.
It was the face.
It didn't behave in any way like a human being's should.
Muscles slipped and slid crazily under his skin, twitching and unsettled. It was like bugs were moving just below the surface, waiting to rip out and go crawling all over the man's skin. His lips stretched past the limits of where they should have known to stop. The signal to halt was there, to be sure; it just wasn't being obeyed. Cheeks bunched upwards, but instead of crinkling, the eyes were widening. The remnants of hundreds of different emotions crossed his features, a jigsaw puzzle of stitched-together sensations, completely out of place. She could see inside his mouth, the wet flesh displayed prominently by the all-consuming grin. It was rolling and shaking with some suppressed force. Absurdly perfect teeth peered out, flashing their incongruous disparity for all the world to see.
The irises of his eyes were red.
They were red.
He looked at her. She looked at him.
Black to red. Black and red.
After this the bubble popped, like he couldn't hold it in.
The mouth opened.
And without even drawing in a breath, he began to laugh.
High. Loud. Crazy laughter.
The sound was horrific. The way it made his face move was even worse. Jaw practically unhinged, features boiling now, eyes aflame.
Transfixed, Batgirl felt something crash behind her. Instinctively she dove off to the side. She heard the window shattering.
Darkness flooded the vehicle.
Broken glass pattered about, and the girl on the floor looked up to see a jagged tear of midnight looming over her.
Clawed hands leapt forth. They seized the madman by the front of his coat and drew him up, still laughing all the while. Hoisting him skyward, legs jerking, until he was face to face with a raging demon.
Then the beast turned its head, body alive with wrath and strength to her eyes.
It looked at her, and roared.
Batgirl saw his face then, and something more.
The same fear that lurked in everyone who lived in this city.
That told her everything she needed, more than his words ever could. She leapt up and propelled herself against the window, smashing through the glass. People were wailing and fleeing from the bus, she could see their desperation. Sprinting, getting as far away as they could. Batgirl joined them in their frantic rush to escape. But she wasn't like them. She wasn't afraid. She was obeying orders. Behind her, the laughter continued unabated…
When suddenly something exploded.
Turning around, Cassandra Cain saw the inside of the vehicle go green. Emerald colored smoke abruptly poured from the broken windows and open doors. It flooded outwards. Some of the stragglers from the bus were caught in it. She heard their screams, before they vanished in the billowing verdant fog.
The martial arts savant took a deep breath and charged in. Visibility was limited. She focused on the coughing, choking sounds instead. Her fingers touched a body on the ground, and she hoisted it with ease over her shoulders. She had control of herself. None of the smoke entered her nostrils. Emerging past the apparent limit of the cloud, she deposited the victim on the ground, turned, and raced back in. Her lungs were beginning to protest, but her will was undaunted. Through the killer mist, and out again.
Cassandra was removing her fourth afflicted citizen, when she suddenly felt the body go limp.
Emerging back into the daylight, she let the form slump to the ground.
At the sight before her, the breath involuntarily left her lungs.
It was a woman. The old lady she had helped on. She was dead.
And she was green.
The pigments in her skin had turned a shade of dark ivy. Her eyes were staring glassily upwards, lips peeled back from her teeth in a rictus smirk. Batgirl could no longer see anything animating that face. The life inside was gone. But still, the corpse smiled up at her.
Cassandra looked around her. Off to one side, she noticed one of the other people she had removed from harm's way. They too lay dead where she had dropped them, smiling hellishly, skin now a lime hue.
People were still screaming, running. Motion was going on around her, but she could only stare.
Amid the din, a noise reached her ears that seemed out of place.
Turning, the valiant young warrior stared into the cloud of death.
It was too thick to see anything clearly. The bus was no longer visible.
Then something moved in the fog.
Cassandra stood quietly, fists clenching at her sides. A wind rose up to whip her hair.
The breeze served to dispel some of the smoke, and from out of its depths a figure emerged chuckling to itself.
He was wiping his face with a purple silk handkerchief, giggling and gasping, staggering forth from his self-made death chamber. Human skin-tone gradually gave way to bone-white pallor, a shade ghastlier than any albino's. Red lips stretched out like perverted rubber bands.
When he caught sight of Cassandra standing there, the clown drew to a halt.
"A Green Initiative!" he whooped, replacing the emerald bowler hat over his dyed head.
And he winked at her.
"That makes two you haven't laughed at, kiddo. I'm starting to suspect you might have a broken funny bone!"
From out of his sleeve, a switchblade dropped into his palm, the blade extending with a snap.
Cassandra could see blood gleaming brightly on it.
"Don't worry your pretty little head." He advanced on her, arms and legs skipping to some unseen beat. The sound of his voice, and the way he moved, told her that he was very, very happy right now.
"I've got just the remedy for that!"
And he started laughing again.
The sounds about her faded. She watched him coming towards her.
Observed the sinews flex, the muscles bunch and spring. Telling her what they were doing, how they were going to move afterwards. Each step was played out in her head, like Oracle reading her a program at the theatre. She knew what was coming next. His body approaching. And hers, preparing.
What way to move. What twist to use. What bone to break, organ to crush.
Breathing in, and out. In, and out.
She knew what had to be done here.
The blade was drawn back and forth before his smile. He drew to within five paces of her.
Wait for it.
A twilight figure bounded high over the cloud. It landed behind the laughing man. Before he could turn, one big arm reached around to seize the wrist holding the knife. The other wrapped around his throat, crushing it. Caught by the shadow, the maniac struggled crazily. His legs shot and jerked. A set of cards slid out from the free sleeve, but a kick from his attacker sent the deck soaring through the air, to land with metallic pings on the ground.
Batgirl watched as two gloved fingers pressed against the side of the white throat. She recognized the hold, and her whole being cried out against it. NO! That's wrong! What are you doing?!
A few seconds later, all movement ceased.
The dark knight held on for a bit longer, and then let go.
Suddenly the noises came back to her ears. The first thing Cassandra heard was a final expiring chuckle.
This was followed by the sound of lungs drawing in air, and letting them out.
The killer lay unconscious.
She looked across his form at the city's defender. Reaching up, he removed the gas mask from his face. They watched one another. Measuring. Questioning. His mind did not work like hers. He could not tell what she was feeling with certainty just by looking at her. It was not ingrained into him since birth, this ability.
But he did have experience. And discipline. He could deduce.
Why? Her expression asked him. Why didn't you finish it? Why let him live?!
His eyes moved to the figure at their feet, then back up. Before her, his body, his face, gave the answer.
We're not like him.
She flinched, shaken.
And we never will be.
Cassandra hung her head guiltily, then glanced back up.
I understand, was what he told her now. He was expressive, knowing how to speak to her as only a few could. Then, a swift jerk of his head. Leave. Go home. We'll talk about this tonight.
She slipped past the cordon of arriving police officers effortlessly, and vanished into the crowd.
Later in the day, Cassandra sat in the same chair she had occupied that morning. The sun was at a different angle. Its rays could no longer warm her here.
The news was playing on the television before her. Breaking news. They were calling it the Day-After-St.-Patrick's-Day Massacre. That bomb hadn't been the only one. At the same time, others had gone off on buses all throughout the city. Apparently he had been riding the lines for hours that morning, leaving a package below his seat, getting off at the next station and switching lines. To achieve maximum dispersal. The death count was in the hundreds this time.
Oracle had called. In a few hours it would be evening. Only then would it be safe to come out. That was what she had been told.
Until then, Gotham's guardian sat and thought.
About what she had seen. What she had felt.
Death was nothing new to her. It was not the first time she had observed this condition. That burden had been with her for a long time now.
Death didn't scare her.
That's what did it.
For her, it was more than seeing. It was knowing. That it was there, creeping up on them. They could feel it. She could tell. By the way they moved, the looks on their faces. They were communicating with her. Telling her everything that they were feeling. Right up until the end.
Cassandra turned off the television. She watched the sunlight travel across the room. Imperceptible. Slow. Not sudden. Not like death.
She sat and thought.
Out of the horror that this day had become, she knew that she had been able to take one thing away from it.
She knew what it was now.
She had learned what scared this city so. Why they seemingly lived their lives under an evil shadow. What they were all so afraid of.
The face of death.
When night fell, she donned her costume and moved out to greet it. There were crimes to prevent. Lives to save. The ones she fought never saw her face. That was hidden completely behind a black stitched-together mask. Sometimes she had a feeling that if they could, they might recognize it.
Batman hadn't been completely right.
She had a face, too.