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Such deliberate disguises

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There was a story once about a scarecrow. That someone told him. Or he read. There were pictures. About a scarecrow that came alive and walked. It did it because it was angry. The boys had been throwing food at it. Laughing.

The scarecrow skinned them and lay the skins to dry on the roof.

Out in the field, the post hanging bare.

The straw crackles underneath his skin.

*

He remembers being thirsty. All the time.

*

The doctor says there's nothing wrong. There isn't any reason. He's always been skinny, full of bones, crisp to the touch. He doesn't like to eat.

His parents never understand, but they try. It makes him feel almost tender towards them. Soft inside. Sometimes he closes his eyes and sees his parents on the other side of the river in his head, the one that runs cold and black. He sees himself wave to them with long fingers. All full of knucklebone.

He's almost six the first time someone rumples his hair and tells him he'll blow over in a stiff wind, and he worries about it for months. Every time he steps outside, feeling his feet light on the ground.

He starts to hear it a lot, as he gets taller. Sometimes he tells that story, and laughs, and lets everyone laugh. Even though it's never been funny.

The things he's afraid of never get funny. They only crowd in on one another in unsteady piles.

*

He doesn't like to read, either. Not the novels and stories that his parents buy for him. Too dangerous.

When he opens his first chemistry textbook he's twelve years old. Safe for the first time in his life.

The chemistry set that Christmas is nothing like a surprise. Still: he smiles as he unwraps it.

*

His body is becoming troublesome.

He learns to do his own laundry. There's nothing to be done about the rest of it.

The way his body is a separate creature, now, with its own will. He hears it whispering to itself, in a new language he can't understand.

He grows three inches over the summer and teaches himself how to dissect a rat. Neatly.

*

Her name is Annette. She thinks he's exciting. He hadn't known before how easy it was to see through people, how loudly they broadcast every momentary tremor of the mind.

She's brilliant. Maybe smarter than he is. He'd understood jealousy as a possible reaction, and waited for it, but it never came. Instead he found a strange obscure pride in being outwitted, and a stranger softness in sitting next to her, or sharing food.

The hardness isn't strange at all. Mechanics. He understands. A truce, of sorts, with his body: he lets it respond when she touches it. The rest of his life is his own.

He wishes he could show her his work with neurotoxins. He's made progress with the rats, but he's certain she'd find something to improve.

*

A thousand things happen at once.

Annette, knocking on his laboratory door--the room they've given him, and never entered after helping him set up his equipment. There isn't supposed to be--

He's progressed. Cats as test subjects. It's unwise to limit himself to one test species, failing to account for the million infinitesimal flourishes that make rat *rat* instead of *mammal,* and cats are easy to find.

Splayed open flap-by-flap on his table. He enumerates the structures one by one, eyes leaping. Tries to stop but he can't. Her voice at the door is bright.

The handle turns, he can't unturn it, how could he have forgotten?

She says: "Your mom said--"

She says: "What are you--"

Her eyes are wide and very white. He wants to rub his thumb across them, gently. Was he afraid of this?

All this time?

*

He's far too caught up in his discovery to finish the dissection, or listen to her footsteps running down the stairs. Her face! The way it had opened, like a new star, like a bursting cell. Related, maybe, to her face when their bodies are knotted together, but so much more refined. *Purer.* No one else will ever see that face. He's taken it as surely as if he'd pulled off her skin.

He needs it again. Again. As often as he likes.

*

Psychology is an idiot discipline, perpetuated by blind dogs. The thick-fisted blundering, groping at anything close to coherence, the brutal crush of meaningless ideas, and all of it would be dismissible if he didn't have to pretend to believe in it. As if a *theory* could explain the tight clutch in his stomach when he pushes the plunger down and watches the muscles begin to spasm, watches the thready veins in the eye pop and diffuse.

There's no offense greater than a system that fails to predict its own results. Arrogance even to try. Every face he sees fades into a black box.

He takes his doctorate and runs. All the way to Gotham, the blackest box of all.

*

The lack of oversight at the asylum would be criminal if it weren't so advantageous. To think he'd spent so many tedious hours crouched over mice and dogs, when here all along was an endless pool of subjects, and all he has to do is lend his professional expertise to a few gangsters now and then. As if the whole city weren't bleeding with criminals, swallowed whole by them.

He runs through a thousand different test formulas or more the first few years in the heady rush of possibility. He manages to keep the casualty rates low, even so. Never so foolish, so proud to think he'd be above the law, if he ever forced their hand. And so he progresses, and refines, and soaks up Gotham like a hungry sponge.

*

In the palm of his hand: a single blue flower.

His heart still hurts from racing. Throat from screaming.

Had he thought--had he really thought--he'd been anything but a stumbling child? As if he'd understood, as if he could have known--

Ra's al Ghul's broad hand swallows his own and closes his fingers around the flower. Crushing. Sweet terrible fragrance rising, stitching his heart to his throat to his head.

All his thoughts will smell like this.

He has a great deal of work to do, now.

*

The mask is a childish bit of theater, but he can't help enjoying it. One of the patients had given him the idea, in fact--lying in wait for him one evening with a torn scrap of shirt pulled over his head. He'd drawn crude features on it, and when he leapt--

Screaming like a wild bird, hands outstretched--

Crude but effective. He had the mask confiscated, the patient sedated.

And now: here he is: the scarecrow, naked in the field. Angry. Hungry.

*

The crow's not a bird, when it comes, but a bat.

The city contracts like an iris.

The sky, black with armies.

He crouches low, listening to the whisper of his breath against the mask.

*

Finally--finally--the wind begins to rise.