THREE MONTHS LATER

It was sweltering.

In the middle of February, with snowflakes softly stacking on the fire-escape outside the frosty window. With Gotham's heavy gray sky. With its people, all bundled up in layers, coats, and scarves, scurrying through the streets below for shelter like insects desperate to avoid the light. By all accounts, it should have been freezing.

But another bead of sweat traced down Damian's already clammy brow.

With a groan, he laid himself out on the dusty floorboards, the chain around his ankle jangling softly. Dressed only with a pair of biker shorts and a thin tank top, the Robin uniform is still missing.

He'd discovered, weeks ago, that staying low to the floor was the best way to stay relatively cool. The cracked thermostat on the wall read 93 degrees Fahrenheit (or 33.8 degrees, if you weren't an American heathen) and Damian could feel the heat clinging to his skin like a too-tight woolen sweater.

On rare occasions, when he wasn't worried about his captors returning too soon, Damian sometimes pressed his cheek to the window and let the chill of the glass seep into his skin. But this evening, he didn't dare.

The moon was up, full and bright even through the thick layer of smog in the sky.

They'd be here. Soon.

And much as he dreaded their return, Damian still found himself aching in anticipation. He listened in the darkness, eyes climbing up the faded, peeling wallpaper and over the crumbling ceiling. They wandered to the corners, the edges of the room. Spotted a spider with its front legs waving as it spun itself a new lair. The rise and fall of his chest was another thing to focus on—Grayson had shown Damian how to breathe himself through his own cowardice—

'It's called anxiety, Lil' D,' he could remember his older brother saying, a firm hand on his shoulder and a kind glint in his eyes. 'And it doesn't make you a coward. Everyone gets a little intimidated sometimes. Just gotta breathe your way through it, okay? Now follow me. Breathe in for ten seconds, and…'

A tear slipped down Damian's cheek.

"Grayson," he whispered—whimpered—into the darkness. "Delphi."

How had it all gone so wrong?

Amidst the noise of his own breathing, he heard the slip of a foot on brick. His ears perked towards the sound, and his whole body tensed.

At his back was a single door, leading out into a musty hallway. Damian had nothing to do all day but alternate between watching the birds too stubborn to fly south streak past his window, and staring at that door with grim dread.

He could always hear them coming before they entered. The soft padding of boots on carpet. The jiggle of the door handle, ever so slight…

Damian turned his head away, curling in on himself as the door creaked open. Just in time.

The nearly silent sound of their feet brushed his ears like the rough planks digging into his cheek. He swallowed once, forcing himself to keep still. Even as one of them whispered into the darkness,

"Baaaaaby bird…"

His nerves jangled, but Damian forced himself to maintain his steady breathing. He focused on his ribcage's steady rise and fall, rise and fall, feigning something akin to sleep as the footsteps padded ever closer.

"We've brought you a treat, little one."

Damian's stomach sat up and whimpered like a dog at the sound of a paper bag crinkling. A pathetic Pavlovian response. He even started drooling at the smell of cooked meat and warm bread.

"Perhaps he is sleeping?"

A tongue clicked and a voice hissed dubiously. "I should hope not. We slit that poor girl's throat to get this food—it'd be a shame if it were to go to waste."

He knew they were expecting his involuntary shudder. Tried to stop it before it shook his entire frame. But the thought of his captors peering through the window at some poor fast-food worker as she handed over the bag at knifepoint left him shaking. The thought of one or the other slashing out with their blades, spilling her blood… Another innocent, killed by…by…

"There he is."

A boot shoved Damian onto his back. He now had a perfect view of the crusty ceiling, the broken light fixture, and the two figures dressed in black standing above him. The round lenses of their masks stared back, both figures stiff and unmoving.

Until, as one, they reached up, and slid the coverings from their heads.

"Hello, Baby Bird," Dick Grayson said, with a dead imitation of a smile.

"We missed you," Barbara Delphi added, her voice hollow and dry.

He'd seen their faces nearly every night for the past three months. But the choking horror he experienced every time never seemed to go away. Their pallid skin was corpse-like—so pale that Damian could see the black veins twisting and winding beneath. Their hair was dull in color. Grayson's had always been an earthy brunette so dark it looked black, while Delphi's hair had been a deep, rich auburn. Now, it hung around their faces in dry strands, the colors dusty and dead.

And their eyes… They glowed golden in the dim darkness of the single apartment. Four full harvest moons that locked onto Damian like predators' eyes.

Delphi brushed the dry strands of her hair out of her face, and lifted a tantalizing plastic bag over his nose. Damian's eyes struggled to focus on the logo. The smell of warm food left him dizzy, but he made no move to accept the offering.

"Aren't you going to say hello?" she said, baring her teeth.

Damian's jaw clenched.

"He must be angry with us." Grayson's tongue clicked. "We were gone too long."

Delphi's head swiveled towards her partner. She blinked her unnatural eyes once, then said, "It isn't our fault the mission went long. As I told you before, skinning a man alive takes…patience. And besides," Her gaze shifted back to Damian, who felt his mouth go dry. "Any sooner, and we risked raising suspicion. Better to wait. You were perfectly safe and sound here, weren't you, Little Bird?"

He swallowed thickly, and looked away.

From what he gathered, the Court of Owls had no idea their two new Talons were keeping Robin locked away. Once Slade and his cohorts had dispatched Damian's family, the mercenary had brought him here, to this dingy one-room apartment in the Narrows. After chaining him to the floor, and leaving him in the care of his two older siblings, Deathstroke had taken his leave. But not before leaving Grayson and Delphi with clear instructions—keep Robin hidden, keep him safe and alive. And do not, under any circumstances, betray his whereabouts to anyone.

Grayson's first instinct, of course, had been to turn Damian over to the Court.

He could still remember the scrape of his brother's voice as he said, "We are bound. He is a Bat, lover. He must face the Grandmaster's judgment."

"But think of this," Delphi had argued, her voice soothing and hoarse as she'd whispered into Grayson's ear, "A family of our own. Starting with him. We'll teach the little bird our ways, train him, nurture him. And when he is prepared, we will present him to the Court as a full warrior, devoted to their service!"

A shudder still ripped up Damian's spine when he thought of the way Delphi had taken Grayson's hand in her own, raising it to her stomach. "And then, my love, we will fulfill our duty to the Court, and give him little brothers and sisters."

He was yanked back to the present by a rough grip on his chin.

"Answer me, Baby Bird," Delphi snarled through a thin smile. Her eyes were predatory and wide. Damian stared at them for a moment, taking in their golden hue as he wondered again how and why they'd been stained such a harsh color.

But then he nodded. Rasped, "Yes. Perfectly safe and sound."

"Good." She released his face, and shoved the plastic bag into his lap. "Now, eat. The meal was not cheap, little one."

Damian had never enjoyed hamburgers, but this one may as well have been mana from the heavens. He needed no further prompting to tear open the packaging and wolf down the entire sandwich in three bites. The fries followed, and disappeared just as quickly. The taste of salt and grease lingering on his tongue as his fingers searched for any strays at the bottom of the bag.

"Ferocity," Grayson mused as he leaned against the wall, tipping his head to the side. "A good trait for any hatchling."

"Let's catch him another bird." Delphi grinned slowly, still crouching low to the ground. "He can practice wringing necks."

Damian shuddered at the look in their eyes. They continued to watch him chew and swallow the remainder of his meal with morbid fascination. As far as he'd been able to ascertain, the two of them no longer had any need for eating. Perhaps they were fascinated by the concept—or more likely they'd laced the value meal with another sedative, and wanted to make sure he swallowed every last crumb.

Once he had, he paused, waiting for that lethargic feeling to flood through him. Loosen his muscles, slow his heartrate. Make his eyelids heavy as stones, and cloud his mind with static.

But it never came. So, for whatever reason, they wanted to keep him awake, tonight.

"Our assignment tonight is more pleasure than business," Delphi explained, as if she could read his thoughts. (Maybe she could—Damian was loathe to rule anything out at this point.) "And so we have some extra time on our hands, little one."

"To be with you," Grayson said. He lowered himself down to kneel beside his partner, looking Damian square in the eye. "To bond, as parents and son."

Damian knew better than to correct him, by now. He could only swallow dryly, and softly say, "Of course. And what should we do tonight?"

His voice sounded small. Weak. It grated painfully against his ears, and it stung his pride even worse. But as Damian stared down the two monstrous figures that crouched before him, a cold wave of dread drowned out the rest of his thoughts. He watched their heaving shoulders, their staring eyes. And he hoped they wouldn't—but knew that they could—reach out to snap his neck before he could even utter a cry.

Then he bit back a shuddering gasp as Delphi lifted her hand.

The cold slide of metal against his face made Damian's muscles lock up, but his sister made no move to attack. Instead, she dragged the backs of her claws slowly down his cheek. She let the tips scratch lightly over skin, and said,

"We were hoping to talk, Baby Bird. It seems all we ever do is practice. And I'm sure you still have questions for us, hm?"

He certainly did, but whenever he'd asked before, Grayson would hiss at him, Delphi would lash out with a fist or a knife, and they would insist he return his focus to 'practicing'. Which, more often than not, meant training—throwing knives into the drywall, standing on his hands until his arms turned to jelly, and ached for days after the fact. Catching mice from the walls and crushing their tiny bones with his fingers, no matter how much he protested or cried. Hand-to-hand combat against an enemy three times his size—Grayson had always been taller than him, but whatever had turned him into a Talon had added several inches and at least a dozen pounds. And on, and on.

All of it, presumably, to prepare him for Talon-hood.

And Damian already knew most of it. His mother and grandfather had run him through similar drills and exercises in his youth. But Grayson and Delphi seemed pleased with his 'progress', so Damian didn't feel the need to mention that detail.

Besides, he knew, in his heart, that the ones who were inflicting this pain weren't truly his brother and sister—not anymore. They'd just been hurt themselves. So badly, that they felt the need to hurt him in kind. That, at least, Damian could understand.

But now, they were watching him expectantly. Crouched like two gargoyles on a windy rooftop, blinking slowly. Awaiting his questions. And so he asked the one on the forefront of his mind—

"Do you remember…anything?"

For a moment, neither of them moved. The question rang in the air, and the Talons seemed to find the note confusing.

Delphi scoffed. "Of course, we do. Is that really what's been bothering you so, little one?"

"You do." Damian perked up. "Do you know who I am, then?"

Grayson's head tipped slightly as he answered, "Damian Wayne. Son of Bruce Wayne, the dearly departed King of Gotham City, and Dark Knight. Robin."

He said it so…nonchalantly, as though he were reciting a memorization. Damian's mouth hung open as he glanced between the two of them, shaking his head. "Yes, and? What else?"

"What else?" Delphi repeated dully. "What else is there?"

Aghast, he swept aside the paper bag and food wrappers. Damian pushed himself up onto his knees and demanded, "What else am I to you? Can you tell me that?"

Both sets of eyes narrowed. The Talons glanced at each other, some silent exchange that Damian couldn't decipher. Then Grayson cleared his throat, and said,

"You mean our relationship to you."

"Yes!"

The condescending smile that stretched at Delphi's mouth made Damian's skin prickle. "We've already told you this, Baby Bird. A dozen times. You're our hatchling. Our protégé. You will bring glory to—"

"I am your brother!"

The shout cracked through the room like a bolt of lightning, and Talons stiffened at the outburst. Damian didn't realize how hard he was breathing until he heard his own gasps, and felt his chest rise and fall arrhythmically. He dug his fingernails into his palms and cried,

"You…are Richard Grayson and Barbara Delphi, you have a family that loves you and misses you—Jason, Timothy, Stephanie, Alfred! Do you even remember them? Do you remember their names? Do you even care? You SHOULD! You are the only real family they've—that I'VE got! And you promised you'd always be there but you—!"

A metal hand clapped over his mouth.

The palm smeared Damian's tears into his skin, and he let out a choked sob against the gauntlet as it gripped his jaw. Lifted him, and then shoved him back against the wall, rattling the whole room. Damian winced violently as the back of his skull seared. Sparks flashed in his vision, and when he blinked them away, he looked up and saw Grayson's eyes gleaming in the dim light.

"You watch your tongue, Little Bird," he growled, low and animalistic. "Or we'll tear it out."

"He wouldn't be the first mute Talon," Delphi added with a sneer.

Damian mumbled intelligibly behind his brother's hand, but Grayson showed no sign of letting up. Instead, he pressed Damian harder into the drywall, leaning close. "I'm not sure who it is you think we are, but you are sadly mistaken. Those names mean nothing to us. And if they mean something to you, then perhaps we will find them and eliminate them, only so that your loyalties are no longer split. Do you understand me?"

Damian's eyes widened, leaking tears.

That seemed to be the answer Grayson was looking for. He withdrew his hand, leaving Damian to slump against the floor with a gasp. Bronze fingers curled in on themselves, forming a tight fist as Grayson glanced down at him with sudden disinterest.

It was almost exactly like the disinterest that Damian had seen on his brother's face in James Gordon Junior's basement. Feigning indifference to spare Damian pain. It had hurt then, and it hurt all the more now, because Grayson's words to him were still ringing in Damian's head, "Oh, &*#. Dami—Dami, I'll never do that to you again, I swear. I'm so sorry. Lil' D, I'm so sorry…"

"I believe that's enough questions for tonight," Grayson snapped, turning to Delphi. "How shall we stamp out this insolence, lover?"

"I think…" Delphi hummed, rising to full height and smiling shark-like as she tipped her head to the side. "Children require discipline, darling. Best to teach them by example."

Damian flinched, curling tighter against the wall.

"With blood, sweat, and tears," Grayson mused, turning his gaze back on him. "As we learned, so shall he."

He paused, lifting his head to gape up at his older siblings. "You mean—?"

"More bonding, little one," Delphi purred, stepping closer, reaching out for him. "You'll be coming with us."

#######

#######

"Okay, Cass. Focus." Stephanie leaned intently over the table. "We've been over this a hundred times. We've reworked our strategy from every last angle. There can be no hesitation in our next strike. Just go with your gut and—"

"Stephanie."

"—remember your training. There's a lot riding on this one decision, and if you don't make the correct one, then—"

"Stephanie."

"—we lose it all. Understand? So, focus. Breathe. Remember to—!"

"Stephanie!"

Cass waved her hand in Steph's face, startling the other girl out of her speech. Kate looked up from her side of the table, quirking one of her red eyebrows skeptically, while Cass drummed her fingers contemplatively against her knee. Paper cups of coffee left rings on the chipped tabletop amidst a crowd of gas station snack wrappers and somewhere in between the clutter, two folded-open boards stood at stark attention.

"I know," Cass said. "Please…quiet?"

"Right." Steph felt her face go red as she slid down low into her chair. "Sorry, Cass."

Cassandra looked up at Kate and said, with a dangerous edge,

"B-6"

Kate seemed to hold her breath as he eyes flicked down towards the tabletop. But then, slowly, she reached up…and drew a red peg from the compartment on her board.

"Hit," she growled, through the knuckles she pressed to her lips. "You sunk my battleship."

Cass instantly brightened. She whirled on Steph, shooting her a triumphant beaming smile and gasped, "We win?"

Stephanie's eyes, however, were fixed on the wood grain beneath her elbows.

"Stephanie?"

She could hear Cass's voice call her name. She could hear Kate utter the words 'hey, Earth to Batgirl'. But the sound was distant. Faded. As though she were listening to their voices from the bottom of the ocean. Waves roared in her ears, and everything was drowned and dampened by the constant flood of static.

We've been over it a hundred times…reworked our strategy from every angle…no hesitation, we need to strike…still missing…have to find them…everything riding on our next move and if we don't make the right one we could lose th—

"Steph."

Stephanie jerked at the hand on her shoulder, the tangible touch a shock to her thought process. She blinked furiously, and looked up.

A somber Selina stood behind her chair, resting one hand on Steph's shoulder, and the other on the edge of the table, just beside Cass's Battleship board.

Usually, the master cat burglaress was dressed to the nines in the most expensive garb money could buy (and a thief could steal). So it was a shock all on its own to see the refined Selina Kyle in sweatpants and a Gotham Knights tshirt that was oversized and wrinkly. But it was a shock that had also worn down over the past few weeks as the four women had sequestered themselves in the safehouse down on Fourth and Ninth.

Staying at Wayne Manor had been out of the question—not even half a day after they'd lost the others, Talons had descended on the house and left a trail of destruction in their wake. Alfred and Damian's pets had gotten out in time, but it had been a close thing. Selina and Kate made the executive decision that they'd need a new place to stay—one that neither Dick nor Barbara had known about, and therefore, a place that couldn't be revealed under torture or duress. A place the Court would never think to look for them.

And so they'd ended up in one of Selina's old haunts on the South Side; a two-room apartment above an old tattoo parlor.

"You hanging in there, kid?" Selina purred softly, running her fingers gently through the dry strands of Steph's hair.

In reply, she gave her best effort at a noncommittal hum, pushed her chair back, and slid to her feet. "Just thinking. So? What did your contact have to say?"

The other three women watched her carefully, eyes sliding from her white knuckles on the tabletop to her pallid face. Kate reached for her coffee and took a swig, looking like she wanted to comment, but knew better. And Cass was frowning, her brow crinkled softly.

Steph knew the girl couldn't 'read' people quite as well anymore, but she could still get the gist—Stephanie Brown was at her wit's end.

Selina, though, was tactful enough to get right down to business. "Lieutenant Dawson was murdered this morning by Talons. Skinned alive. My informant says it's the same ones who took down Councilwoman Moore and Major Hamilton last week."

Steph let out a breath, reaching up to pinch the bridge of her nose. "&*#% it."

"Which confirms what we already know." Selina snatched up the chair behind Steph and slid into it with a low sigh. "The Court is systematically gutting the power structure of the city. The government's already declared marshal law—it's only a matter of time before they cut us off from the mainland entirely."

A concerning thought in and of itself, but there was a more pressing matter on Steph's mind. "What did he say about…?"

She trailed off, unable to find the right words.

Selina's fingers raked through her hair. Her eyes were sad, and for the first time, Steph noticed the dark circles underneath them. "There's no sign of them, Steph. I'm sorry."

The words rang in her ears. Steph refused to process them.

"But we'll keep looking on our end," Kate chimed in, glaring into her cup. One fingernail tapped lightly against the side as she glanced over at Cass. "Sooner or later, they're bound to—"

Steph waved a hand through the air, cutting off the false optimism as she asked, "What about Jay? Is he awake yet?"

Selina's brow furrowed. "He needs his rest."

"But is he?"

Cass and Kate shared a wary glance over the table, as Selina said, "Yes, kitten. He just woke up, but—"

Steph was already out the door.

The bedroom was small and dark. Dust and cobwebs caked the corners and cracks, and mold grew in all the places the rest couldn't reach. The ceiling plaster was cracked in some places, the paint was chipped and crumbling down the walls, and the only working light fixture had just one functioning bulb that flickered weakly when Stephanie flipped the switch.

But, as far as 'safe places to sleep' went, they definitely could've done worse.

The second the dim light blinked to half-life overhead, a hoarse voice cracked from the corner of the room, where Selina had set up a ratty old mattress. On top of the ratty old mattress, the others had set up their latest rescue, bundling him up in enough layers to stave off the cold that seeped through the walls. And when Steph entered the room, his head flopped listlessly to the side as he croaked,

"Nn-no…apaga la luz, se quema…por favor…"

A rueful smile twitched at the corner of Steph's lips as her knees clacked against the floor. She lifted her hand, running it through the inky strands of her boyfriend's hair.

"Quién es?" Jason mumbled. "Quién…no puedo ver nada…"

"Shh. Tus ojos están cerrados, cariño," Steph replied softly. Her eyes trailed over the bruises and burns on his face, his neck. More peeped out from beneath the collar of his shirt, and she already knew exactly how many more there were beneath the layers of blankets and sweatshirts.

It hurt her heart. They should've gotten to him sooner.

"Ya tengo novia…Estefanía. Dónde está? Necessito…"

She huffed softly, tearing up. "I'm right here, Jay. Open your eyes."

On cue, his eyelids twitched, and she saw those squinted green eyes looking right up at her. They flicked over her face a few times before softening, and a clipped breath wheezed out of Jason's throat. Lifting a hand, he brushed his knuckles lightly across her cheek.

"Heh. Heya, beautiful," he wheezed. "Where the %*$# am I?"

Steph didn't know whether to laugh or cry, but the sound that bubbled out of her sounded like a mixture of both. She grasped Jason's hand tightly, and felt her own tears slip down her face and over his fingertips. "You've missed so much. &*#, it's been weeks. How much do you remember?"

His expression stiffened slightly. "I…why don't you just fill me in on the details?"

A definitive answer if ever she heard one, but Steph let it go. "It's been three months since Deathstroke and Jok—the others took you. Cass and I managed to get out."

Jason nodded. "Okay. That, I remember. But, after…"

He trailed off expectantly, leaving Steph to fill the rest of the cracks.

"We've been searching this whole time," she said. "Tracked you to the outskirts of the city—those %*$#^&$ sold you to the Pyg—remember him?"

"That psycho with the pig mask? How could I ever forget him?"

Stephanie chewed on her cheek, debating silently on how much she should tell him, and how much to withhold. It hadn't been a pretty scene; they'd come upon Professor Pyg during one of his 'science experiments', and Steph was still wishing she could bleach out her brain.

Kate and Cass had that psychopath pinned to the wall in the time it took him to say 'oink', leaving Steph and Selina to ask the hard questions. Like, 'where the #$%% is Jason Todd?' And Pyg's answers, even after all the trouble they went to prying them out of him, were less than helpful.

Yes, he'd had the Red Hood.

Why, yes, he had paid good money for the privilege of using him in one of his latest zombie-making experiments.

But no, no he hadn't gone through with it. He'd taken one good look at the criss-crossing scars over Jason's chest—the ones left over from his autopsy—and he 'declared the specimen unsuitable'. Nasty post-mortem scars wouldn't do, after all. His specimens had to be perfect. And he certainly didn't want Joker's 'sloppy seconds'.

It took them hours, but they finally got the porcine villain to admit he'd sold Jason for a profit to one Lester Buchinsky—

—Gotham City's very own Electrocutioner.

"We left him for Gordon and took off," Stephanie explained slowly. "Tried to get to you as fast as we could, but it took days to trace Buchinsky's whereabouts. Turns out he was holed up inside an old utilities plant in the 'burbs, running some experiments of his own. Wanted to…uh…"

"See if he could kill me and pump me full of enough voltage to bring me back again," Jason said hollowly. "Yeah, I remember that part."

They'd found Jason just before Lester was able to deal the killing blow, but it had been far too close. By the time they got him off the livewire and metal contraption Lester had hooked him up to, Jason was entirely unresponsive, and unconscious.

Steph and Kate had rushed him to Leslie Thompkins, but the doctor had her hands full with patients coming in off the streets from all over the city. The Justice League and any other superhero unlucky enough to be affiliated with them were on an inhibitor chip-induced rampage through Gotham City. The crime families had seen their latest chance at a power-grab and seized the opportunity with all hands on deck. The United States Military was waging war on both groups. Ergo, thugs and innocents alike were limping and scrambling for the nearest medic—and Leslie always had been the best.

Catwoman, Batwoman, Batgirl and Cass could only do their best to keep up with the mayhem. Even after bringing on the Birds of Prey—thankfullly unaffected by the chips—into the picture, Gotham was still only hanging on by a thread.

Jason had been laying on a dusty mattress in a dingy apartment ever since, while Steph and what was left of her family did their best to hold the line.

"&*#%," Jason said softly, once Steph finished her explanation. "I'm sorry."

"What are you sorry for, you big lug?"

His mouth turned down and his eyes went sad. "That all this $#!^'s been going down, and I was just laying here like a bag of rocks." And then, softly, hesitantly, as if he were afraid to ask and terrified of the answer, he added, "Have you found any sign of the others? Timbers and the kid? Dick and…Dick and Barb?"

Steph felt a cold knife slide between her ribs, piercing her heart.

Her mouth opened. At first, no sound would come out, and Jason's eyes widened by a fraction. Then—

"Joker has Tim," she breathed. "We haven't heard a peep out of that psycho since he took him. Dami's still MIA. Selina's been squeezing her contacts for info, but no one knows anything—he just disappeared. And…"

She swallowed hard, composing herself, then said,

"A few days after you were taken, the girls and I managed to trace Dick and Babs to the cathedral across town. But they…we didn't…by the time we…"

"Steph?" Jason whispered.

"All we found was blood. Too much of it. We don't think they…"

He was shaking his head. "You don't think they—?"

"They didn't make it, Jay."

She watched his eyes widen, glistening. They filled with shining tears as his chin wobbled.

"Th-they…they're…what? No. No…&*#% it," he cried, sounding like a little kid who'd just lost his parents in a crowd.

Steph surged forward, hugging him tight as she felt some tears of her own pricking at her eyes. His hands pressed into her shoulder blades. He buried his face into her shoulder. And, like a lost little kid, Jason Todd sobbed.

She held him for what could have been months just as easily as it could have been minutes. The feeling in her chest was hollow and cold—she'd already shed her own tears for Dick and Barbara, and Tim and Damian. She'd already had her own time to mourn.

But crying for her lost and fallen family members wasn't going tobring any of them back. It was time to move forward—that much, Stephanie Brown was sure of.

So when Kate burst into the room and said, "Renee's men missed check-ins—something's wrong with Gordon," the cold empty space in Steph's chest cavity filled with liquid fire. She lowered Jason back onto the mattress, taking care to wipe the tears from his cheeks with her thumb, and stood.

"I'll be back," she promised him. "Just sit tight, and try to rest up."

Jason only stared at the wall, never blinking.

#######

#######

Jim's keys jangled in the lock as the door swung open. He swiped them up with a huffed-out sigh and plodded into his apartment, shoes scuffing against ancient carpeting.

It'd been three months since Gotham had gone to #$%%. Eighty-three days since he'd sent Sarah upstate on the first train out of the city. Forty-seven since Bullock took an arrow to the knee, courtesy of that Tiger-lady Justice Leaguer. It was an ironic little mishap that Harvey wouldn't stop braying about the whole drive to the hospital, and as he was evacuated with the rest of Gotham General's patients. Not that he was bound to stay away for long, that stubborn Donegal blood in him and all.

It had been twenty-one days since Jim had dusted off his old nicotine habit.

Fifteen since he'd stopped sleeping through the night.

And tonight, on the night of his wedding anniversary—an evening he should've spent cooking dinner and setting out a candlelit spread for Sarah—Jim Gordon was coming home to a very empty, very quiet, very dark apartment.

Maybe fifty days earlier he would've noticed it sooner. Or maybe a generous five.

As it was, it wasn't until Jim's feet led him into the den that he felt the hairs on the back of his neck prickle like quivering needles. His muscles tensed instinctively as his hand lifted to his belt. And he got the sense, all of a sudden, that his apartment maybe wasn't so very empty after all.

"I hope that's you, Harvey," he gruffed into the shadows. "Cause if it isn't, you'd better hope you're bulletproof."

For the first time, he heard a noise—soft, sliding. Like a knife's edge drawn across metal.

It lasted for barely a heartbeat, but the soft chuckle that followed it made Jim's blood run cold. His thumb brushed over the snap on his holster, but he froze at the sound of a smooth, dry voice.

"Ohh, Commissioner," it said. "Hope? Haven't you heard that old quote—"

Something in the shadows moved, just ahead of him, and Jim whirled to face it. Saw the silhouette of a lifting arm. And then just like that, the lamp clicked on.

He winced at first in the sudden glow. The lampshade's tassels swung as the figure withdrew its arm, and the light jumped off the clawed metallic fingers.

Jim gaped at the sight of the Talon standing in his apartment.

Its stance played at something casual, but the rigidity of its muscles was evident in the way it carried itself as it took a step forward. Like some reanimated corpse from a classic horror flick. A sleek black uniform streaked through with sweeping lines of gold clung to its female figure. Jim noted the blades bristling from its wrists. Amber goggles framed by a golden piece reminiscent of an owl's face gleamed back at him, and he swallowed hard.

The creature cocked its head and sang softly, "Abandon all hope, ye who enter here."

Jim whipped his gun from the holster and fired off three rounds.

The three separate bangs rang in his ears.

The creature jolted three times with every blow. Arms swinging. Shoulders jerking.

And a voice shrieked from the shadows. "No!"

Gordon whipped towards the sound, eyes searching the dark. Before he got the chance to open his mouth and bark out another 'who's there?', movement from the Talon caught his eye.

He watched it tilt its head the other way, as it straightened. Seemed to inspect the gaping holes in its chest with mild bemusement. Then, slowly, rolling its shoulders, the creature said, "Ah-ah-ah, Commissioner. What was it, again, that you were saying about hope?"

And suddenly it surged forward. Before Jim had half a second to react, he felt the squeeze of a fist around his throat. Cool metal pressed into his skin. He felt his larynx shudder, and he heaved a rattling gasp.

"'Hope' has nothing to do with it—this time, copper, I am bulletproof," the creature whispered smugly.

Now Jim was close enough to see its eyes glittering behind their lenses. Cold and calculative. Glowing yellow, like molten gold. The sight of it left him speechless, and he felt his knees wobble dangerously beneath him—though that could just as well have been the cut to his airflow.

Then, just as suddenly, the pressure on his windpipe disappeared altogether. The monster tossed him aside as it slackened its grip, and said, "But enough posturing, James. That's not why I'm here, tonight. No, no, no."

His fingers massaged gingerly at his throat as he braced himself against the arm of his favorite recliner. "Then I guess my next question goes without saying."

It hummed, and stalked towards him again. Metal claws dangled threateningly at its sides, fingers curling and straightening; flexing to ready themselves for the kill.

"Hmmm. Indeed." It cocked its head again, like a bad habit. "I suppose I could indulge you with an explanation. Before I tear out your eyes and stuff them down your throat, that is."

His eyes flicked towards the old rotary phone he kept on the side table. An antique. To add a bit of 'whimsy' to the place, as Sarah would have said. It was also his only hope of reaching his men, or Montoya, or even Bullock, before the Talon did its gruesome work on him. If he could just—

"And I'll be candid. You deserve nothing less," the creature snarled, squaring its shoulders, and loosening its stance. Still it marched forward, arms spread as if offering some grim imitation of an embrace. "I'm here because I have hatred simmering in my veins, Gordon. Deep. Unending. Unadulterated."

The bootsteps stopped mere inches from Jim, and he raised his eyes to meet that golden stare.

"And do you know what I hate most of all?" The Talon's claws clinged against its palm as its fingers curled into fists. "Deadbeat fathers who leave their children to rot."

Like he'd been doused in ice water, a chill ran up Jim's spine. His veins frosted over, and he felt his throat tighten all over again. This time, there was no squeezing hand. Just a sudden, illuminating realization that shook him to the very center.

He pulled himself slowly to full height, fingers curled over the back of the recliner to hold steady. And still, his hands shook. His chest was tight. And he couldn't breathe as he looked at the woman in front of him and gasped out one broken word—

"…You?"

"My, my, all that from a vague offhanded statement? Have you got something weighing on your conscience, Commissioner?"

Jim heaved a shuddering gasp, and stumbled back.

But where there should have been empty space, there was instead a stiff, unforgiving wall to slam into Gordon's shoulder blades. He bounced forward, teeth clacking, and whirled on the figure standing firm at attention behind him. A creature in the same uniform as the other—another Talon—greeted his gaze.

In one monstrous hand, it gripped the shirt collar of a young boy. His hands were tied in front of him, and he looked a little thinner than the last time he'd seen him, but Gordon knew Wayne's youngest anywhere.

With a sharp thrust, the Talon sent the kid sprawling over the carpet. Wayne hit the floor with a grunt, and rolled onto his back, crying out, "Don't hurt him!"

It took a little too long for Jim to realize that Damian Wayne wasn't looking at the creature. But the creature was looking right at Jim.

A low snarl rumbled in the monster's broad chest. "Let me cut his throat."

"Hush, lover. This is my revenge story."

"Then you'd best skip to the end," her partner growled, sheathing the blade in its other hand with clear reluctance. "Montoya's officers have missed their hourly code-four checks. Someone is bound to take notice."

"Good. I want them to see what pretty work I do with blood and bone." The Taloness slid her own knife from a holster at her hip, and raised its tip to Jim's heaving chest. He watched as her unnatural eyes tracked over his face, searching. "But first, I think I deserve an explanation, Jim."

Jim's throat bobbed. "E-explanation?"

"Yes, that. And don't worry, it doesn't need to be too long. I don't even need any half-baked excuses or empty apologies!" Those gleaming eyes filled with liquid fire as her tone dropped into an animalistic growl. "I only want you to tell me why."

Montoya's men checked in on the hourly—what time was it, now? His eyes darted to the clock hung by the window. 2: 09 am. All he had to do was stall—someone was bound to come. Or, if not, he'd be able to buy just enough time to look for an upper hand. There had to be one, somewhere…

"I'm not sure I know what you're talking about," he told her firmly, squaring his jaw.

He saw her eyes narrow. Considering.

"No one is coming, Jimbo," she whispered, slowly. As if she were piecing together his ulterior motives with every syllable. "Your men are stretched too thin as it is, and the Bats? Please. Half of them are dead, and the others not too far behind."

Her blade scratched up his front as Barbara dragged the tip higher. Up to his throat. It settled sharply into the soft flesh below his chin, and Jim winced as he swallowed hard.

"So you can continue to test my patience—or you can answer the question." Her grip on the knife's handle tightened. "Why. Why did you lie to everyone, why did you stand by for twenty-five years, doing nothing? Why did you give her up? Didn't she mean anything to you?"

Ah. And there it was.

Jim could feel his throat tightening, and it wasn't just the tip of the knife pressing hard into his neck. In his chest, that old ache in his heart returned; the same ache he'd been carrying for those twenty-five years.

And he said, softly, wheezing below the blade's edge, "Giving you up was the hardest thing I've ever had to do, Barbara. But I had to."

"What did I say about those excuses, Jim?" She pressed harder, and through the blooming pain, he felt a trickle of warmth trail down his throat. He tried edging away from the sharp point, but the Talon behind him grasped his shoulders in its meaty metallic fists and squeezed.

"No, please," he whispered. "Barbara. Sweetheart—"

"Don't you %*$#!^& call me that."

"You have to understand—"

She roared, and flicked her wrist. The knife at Jim's throat sailed away, and sprouted from the wall with a thwack, inches away from an old family portrait—Jim, Sarah, and James Jr. all standing together in a park, smiling. Idyllic…and incomplete.

"Actually, Commissioner," the Talon behind him rumbled, "She does not have to do anything. Love? What say you?"

Barbara was panting, shoulders heaving. Glaring at the picture on the wall with unbridled malice, and when she moved, it was to raise a trembling finger in Jim's direction with a snarled,

"I say I'm bored. He's boring me. This isn't the 'closure' the Court promised me, and it sure as #$%% isn't a 'cathartic release'." She straightened, and rolled her fingers into tight fists. "So I say we wrap things up and close the window before any bats fly in."

Her partner hummed, sounding absolutely delighted. "And how would you like him to die, darling?"

Barbara stalked forward, her movements much more liquid now. She trailed a clawed finger up the other Talon's arm and said, smoothly, "I want him to feel every second of it. Twenty-five years worth of pain in ten minutes." Her head cocked again, this time to look him up and down. "Let's skin him alive, like we did the other one. Only faster, this time. Less gentle. And then…let's pull out his spine."

Jim felt his mouth go dry.

"Mmm, poetic."

"And then…" Barbara's voice turned downright seductive as she turned her face back up to her partner's eyes. "I want to dangle him out the window like a flag, so that all of Gotham can see Commissioner James Gordon flapping in the wind like the pathetic toe rag he is."

A violent shiver ripped up the back of Jim's neck.

"Your wish is my command, love," the other Talon growled, a smile in his voice. Jim felt its grip slacken, then shift. One hand snagged the collar of his button-down, and the other pressed a knife to the base of his skull. "The face, as well?"

Barbara appraised him. "No. We want him recognizable."

"Then—"

A low tap on the door startled all three of them. (Though Jim probably jumped a little harder than the other two.) And as one, their heads swiveled to the entryway.

The knock came again, this time more insistent.

"Eyo, man!" someone on the other side brayed in a thick Bowery accent. "I ain't got all night, 'ere! You gonna come get your pizza or nah?"

He saw Damian Wayne's eyes go wide at the sound. But the boy said nothing, as the stranger continued to knock insistently at the door, while the two Talons turned their gazes on Jim. He could only shake his head in disbelief.

"Unbelievable," Barbara scoffed, glancing up wide-eyed at her partner.

"More blood is more blood," the other offered. "Answer it. We'll finish Gordon, and let our little bird try his hand at slitting throats. What better way to practice than on this—"

"Hey look, guy, I got other deliveries tonight!"

"…adolescent," the Talon finished with a growl.

Barbara shook her head, and sauntered over to the door, drawing another blade with a sliding swik. She lifted her hand to the knob and turned her face back towards the other pair. "Very well, but—"

The door crashed open, and a pair of boots caught Barbara full-on in the face.

The She-Talon hit the floor with a yowl as Batgirl—the blonde one—swung into the room with a battle cry, "Yipee-ki-yay, mother-%*$#^&s!"

"No," The other Talon growled, pulling Jim closer to his chest.

"Someone order a large pizza with extra whoop-*$$?" Batgirl's boots thudded against the floorboards and she levelled a glare in the Talon's direction. Three other women stepped into the room to flank her, batarangs flashing in their gloved hands.

Catwoman, Jim recognized right off the bat (all puns aside) from a hundred encounters that began with a call from dispatch, and ended with her slipping right through the GCPD's grasp. But the other two gave him pause.

One wore an old Batgirl costume of Barbara's—one of the first Jim had ever seen her in—but it had been painted all in pitch black. Dark fabric had been hastily stitched over the eyeholes and mouth, giving the girl an almost…scarecrow-esque appearance. As she fixed her cold, featureless gaze on Jim, he felt another shiver prickle up his spine.

The other woman was a stranger in a more familiar costume; Barbara's Batwoman outfit. Her hair was shorter, her jawline sharper, and the stern glare sent his way was certainly a different flavor of scowl than those of the other Bats. (Though it was the guns she gripped in each hand that really caught Gordon's attention.)

But the blonde Batgirl—Stephanie, if he remembered her name right—stepped forward. It was clear by the way she carried herself, and by the steel in her tone that she was the one leading this ragtag group of Batwomen.

"Pretty sure we've all got other places to be tonight, so we'll make this simple," she said, thumbing a compartment on her belt. "Let the Commish go and fly away home, or else we hit you so hard, they'll be scraping you undead freaks out of the floorboards for a week. Capiche?"

Jim heard Barbara's smooth cackle at his right, and just about jumped out of his skin. He wasn't sure when she'd picked herself off the floor and slid back to her partner's side, but there she was—and she didn't seem intimidated in the slightest.

"Oh, please try it," she shot back, with a sneer in her tone.

One shove from the Talon sent Jim crumpling to the ground. He landed just a few feet away from Damian, who was staring up at the Batwomen with even wider eyes, and a slightly gaping mouth.

"They're alive," the kid whispered, awed.

"The Court has forbidden us from doing you harm." Barbara's partner chuckled. His knives slid from their sheaths and spun between his armored fingers. "Some bargain they struck with a man who is now quite dead—"

Gordon saw Batgirl stiffen, eyes wide.

"—but regardless, we honor it. Unless of course, you should provoke us…"

Barbara flicked both her wrists. Twin blades snicked out of her gauntlets, pressing over the backs of her knuckles. She held them out at her sides, in an open invitation. "Why, then we would have no other choice but to defend ourselves..."

Don't take the bait, Jim silently pleaded.

But Batgirl's stricken expression hardened into a scowl. "Works for me."

Lightning-fast, she palmed something from her belt. Flung it out at both the Talons. But before it ever made contact, Barbara and her partner swept to the sides, narrowly avoiding the pellet as it struck the back of his favorite armchair, and exploded with a flash of searing cold mist and crackling ice. Flecks of frost splashed over Jim's face, and he flinched hard.

"Don't hurt them!" the Wayne kid screamed as he struggled to pull himself upright.

Batgirl whirled, and froze stiffer than Jim's ruined armchair. "Damian!?"

But her shock was cut short as Barbara slashed out with a knife.

Batgirl cried out, the skin of her cheek split open, spraying blood. She spun back, and her three partners lunged forward.

Catwoman's whip cracked through the air. Batwoman(?) ducked below her arm to fire off four shots into the larger Talon's chest. Like Barbara, it flinched, but didn't go down. Instead, the creature rushed them, powerful arms swinging.

Selina spun below the flashing blade. Her momentum carried her back, and she used it to swing her leg up. Talon's head jerked as the flat side of her wedged heels crashed into his cheek. But as he recoiled, Barbara leapt over his shoulder, using his back as a launchpad. Jim felt his jaw slacken as she flew through the air, knives flashing, and landed on the Batgirl all in black.

The two women snarled and threw blow after sweeping blow. For every punch Barbara threw, the other girl blocked and returned. She moved like a bolt of black lightning, swinging her body low to the ground to avoid a thrusting blade. Ducking between Barbara's legs to pop up behind her. She wrapped both arms around the She-Talon's neck and pulled them both back, their spines arching, feet flying.

A cry from the other side of the room drew Jim's eye. He could see Batgirl and Batwoman slinging batarangs at the hulking creature as it advanced. Something had happened to its gauntlets—the fingers now had curved claws. Talon swiped out at the two Bats with a snarl, and forced them back into the corner.

Catwoman's sharp whistle made the monster stiffen and turn, just in time for her whip to flash through the air. Curl around Talon's left wrist. And when she pulled—hard—the creature's stance shifted just enough to give Batgirl an opening. She lashed out with her batarang, slashing at the monster's face, and Talon roared.

"Commissioner."

Jim started at the voice next to him, before he realized that Damian Wayne was kneeling at his side. The zip-tie around his wrists was gone, discarded below the knife Barbara had thrown into the wall. Clever kid. And now, he was looking at Jim with a hard frown and a low brow.

"I am going to distract them," he said softly, reaching to grasp Jim's shirt in one small hand. "While you slip out the window and get down the fire escape. When I tell you, move as quickly as you can. Do you understand?"

Jim's eyes darted over the boy's face. "Listen, kid—"

"None of that," Damian hissed back. The grip on Gordon's front tightened. "You know who I am. You know who all of us are. And so you understand why I can't stand by and let them kill each other."

Jim swallowed hard, but nodded.

"Good." The kid released his shirt, and squared his small shoulders. "The city needs you, Gordon. Count to ten, then go."

He could only watch as the kid stood up, stepped over to wrench the knife out of the wall, and turned to the rest of the chaos.

"I'll deal with my family."

#######

#######

Stephanie fought with angry tears in her eyes.

A bargain? She dove to the side, and narrowly missed Talon's clobbering fist. Her heart was pounding against her ribs, and the room seemed to spin.

She and the others had suspected Dick's reasoning for giving himself up. But this…striking some kind of deal to hold the Court's attack dogs off… Talon kicked up at her face and Steph hopped back. She guessed it made sense, now, why the Talons had been keeping their distance all this time.

The monster spun on his heel, flicked his wrist, and slashed through Selina's whip with a swipe of his knife—all in one fluid movement. It was a blink-and-you-miss-it kind of fast. Steph felt her jaw slacken as she watched Selina bare her teeth and flip out of the way of another blade flung in her direction.

She glanced at Kate, who nodded back at her.

And while the Talon's back was turned, Kate threw herself at his legs, sliding on the wood flooring. Steph kicked off the ground and wrapped her heels around the monster's neck. Twisted her body as she let gravity carry her down. And, thankfully, with his balance thrown off and his feet kicked out from under him, Talon hit the floor with a snarl.

Steph straddled his body, and braced her forearm against his larynx, pushing hard. Gasping, "Gotosleep, gotosleep, gotosleep—"

Across the room, Cass was grappling with the female Talon. This one was smaller than the other—though not by much—and she moved like water. Steph had only ever seen Cassandra fight with that kind of speed and grace. Her strikes were liquid lightning, and Steph could see that it was taking the other Batgirl everything she had to keep the Taloness cornered and away from the others. But it was a struggle—Cass had admitted to Steph a few weeks ago that the Talons moved differently. Like animals rather than actual people, so it was difficult to get a good read on them.

The creature finally managed to land a hit on Cass, and Steph flinched hard at her friend's yelp. But just as she was about to jump up and help, another figure entered the fray.

Damian flew at the She-Talon, catching her full on in the chest mid-lunge. With a shout, he thrust the knife in his fist between the chinks of her armor and twisted, forcing her down to the floor.

Batgirl's eyes caught the edge of Gordon's shoulder outside the window—good, he'd gotten out. But then, beneath her, their Talon suddenly went limp. Steph started, eased up, and looked down at the creature with careful hesitance.

"So. You're the freaks who've been holding the little demon hostage all this time, huh?" she muttered, hearing Kate step up behind her.

"Tie him up, and we'll help Cass with the other one," Selina huffed, pulling herself to her feet. She gazed down at the Talon with a small frown, a thousand micro-expressions flitting over her face in a millisecond. Then she swiped a finger over her bloody cheek. "Put up one #$%% of a fight, didn't he?"

With a shriek, the Taloness threw Damian across the room. He crashed into the wall, crying out as he slid to the floor. Cass hit the monster with a full-body tackle.

Daring another glance down, Steph nibbled at her lip. Of their own volition, her fingers crept up to the edge of his mask.

"What're you—?" Kate's cape brushed against Steph's side as she leaned in.

As Steph lifted the mask up, the Talon's head lifted with it, then thumped against the floorboards when the covering came free. Inky hair spilled over his features, so Selina knelt to brush the strands away with her clawed fingers.

And the mask in Steph's hand floated to the floor.

She heaved a choked, squeaking gasp, and recoiled from the body. Kate's hands were on her shoulders, but as she clapped a hand over her mouth, all Steph could see was the face of her big brother. The one who was supposed to be dead.

"Dick," Selina breathed, pulling her hand away.

Stephanie couldn't suck in a full breath. Her chest felt tighter than a vise, and she lifted her head to the other side of the room. Where Cass and the She-Talon were taking turns slamming each other into the wall. Batgirl lost her cowl, the Talon lost one of her shoulder-plates. They both snarled and fought, but as Steph looked closer, she finally began to recognize a familiar pattern in the monster's movements.

"Then—" She choked on a gasp, feeling tears stream down over her glove. "Babs?"

The Taloness froze. With one hand wrapped around Cassandra's throat, pinning her hard against the striped wallpaper, and the other raised with all five talons extended for the killing blow. Cass met Steph's eyes with bared teeth. Asking her a silent question even as the monstrous creature's head spun unnaturally on its neck. The gleaming goggles on its mask stared Batgirl down hard, as if she were trying to peel Steph open layer by searching layer.

Then she spoke, her voice more crackly and more hoarse than Steph remembered. But now that she could place it, she could hear her sister coming through, clear as broken glass.

"Clever little thing, aren't you?" The Taloness lowered her free hand and grasped the cowl of her mask. As she dragged it off her head, and her auburn hair fell free, Steph felt her heart climb into her throat. Like Dick, Barbara's skin was ghoulishly pale. When she heaved a small chuckle and looked up, her wolf's eyes pierced into Stephanie's chest, ripping through her lungs.

As she shrugged her shoulders, a macabre little smile lifted her lips. "Do you like what they've done to me, little sister?"

At Barbara's feet, Damian heaved himself up onto one elbow. He wheezed, and croaked out a thin, "You said you didn't remember."

"People lie, Baby Bird," Barbara said with a dismissive wave of her hand. Her eyes never left Steph's, and if anything, her smile only grew. "Though the 'Gray Son' was being truthful. Poor boy doesn't remember a thing from before the Court. All he knows now is life as the Grandmaster's golden retriever. But I? Well." She heaved a bitter chuckle, and tightened her other fist. Cassandra gasped, then groaned, clawing at Barbara's metallic grip.

When she didn't continue, Steph started to shake her head. Slowly, at first, then faster. "No. No, no, no, Babs. What did they—?"

"You're the detective, now, sweetheart." Barbara's eyes were completely dead, but her grin stretched wider. "Why don't you figure it out?"

Her fingers flexed, and the other Bats tensed. But instead of ripping through Cassandra's throat, they released, and the other Batgirl fell to the floor with a choked gasp. Steph's eyes flicked between her partner, and her older sister. But Babs only stared back. Tilted her head slowly to let her hair fall over one shoulder. "In the meantime, though, little detective, I'd try to be a tad more aware of your surroundings. Didn't I teach you to know your enemy?"

Damian pulled himself to his feet with a shaky huff, holding his ribs together with his fingers. Kate and Selina both tensed, brandishing their guns and whips respectively in Barbara's direction, while Cass rubbed at her neck down below. Steph could only stare blankly, letting the words of that question shuffle and spin through her brain.

Barbara scoffed, and slipped a knife from her holster. "For future reference, love, Talons don't breathe."

The pieces finally clicked into place. Steph's heart flew into her throat as she glanced down.

Dick Grayson's eyes flicked open. "Hello, Little Bat."

Before she could even scream, his hand crashed into her throat. Squeezing, lifting. As he rose to his feet, Steph's boots left the ground. She kicked futilely at the air and gagged for breath, while Selina and Kate shouted in the background.

Dick's grasp was tight and powerful, and it left Stephanie seeing flashes and spots in her vision. Her mouth hung open, her eyes bulged.

And she could hear her brother's voice scraping against her ears, somewhere a thousand miles away, saying, "Twenty seconds until she loses consciousness—"

"Give or take," Barbara's voice sneered.

"—After that, the cells in her brain will start to die, until permanent damage kicks in. And if I keep going, keep squeezing, she will sleep permanently. That is…" Dick's fist tightened, and Steph let out a thick cry of pain as more dots swirled in her eyes. "…If I don't just snap her neck."

Kate and Selina's cries fell into silence, and Steph felt Dick's hold loosen. Just enough for her to get a whiff of oxygen into her burning lungs.

She heard Damian's voice.

"Dick, don't! Don't hurt her." The sheer heartbreak in the kid's voice made Steph strain against the cold metal claws to tip her head and get a better look. And she saw her baby brother approaching slowly. His hands were raised and pleading, eyes wide and teary. "I-I'll come back with you," he promised in a breathy whisper. "I'll train. Like you wanted. We can be a f-family, again."

Oh, kiddo.

A tear slipped down Steph's cheek as she glanced back at Dick. But her other brother's face was a mask of indifference, his zombie eyes sliding up to Barbara's. With a shark's smile, she nodded.

"We want nothing more, little one," Dick said slowly, his words softer than his hard expression.

Barbara's boot thunked against the floorboards as she took a step forward. "But as long as this one breathes, your loyalties will always be split. So, lover, won't you do the honors?"

Steph's eyes widened at the same time as everyone else's.

"With pleasure," Dick said. He turned back to Kate and Selina, slowly. His grip on Steph's throat tightened again, and she gave a pitiful squeak. "Do not follow us. Keep to your shadows, and we'll keep to ours. But mark my words, the next time we meet, your blood will paint this city's streets. Let this be a warning to you."

His arm flexed. Steph screamed, realizing in the moment what he was about to do.

"No!" Damian cried.

But Dick flung Steph out the window.

#######

#######

Admittedly, Kate was probably in way over her head.

By the time they made it outside to find Steph picking herself up out of the trash bags and splintered wood pallets below, the Talons were already gone, and Damian with them. Cass—quick little cricket that she was—was the first one to the little blondie's side. She did her best to help her up while Steph let out a cracked groan. Plucked a black banana peel from her cowl and flung it aside in disgust.

"I just want to say this, just for the record, just so you all know," she grumbled, wincing as Cass lifted her arm up onto her small shoulder and eased her away from the wreckage. "That I am pretty %*$#!^& sick of almost dying to prove some bad-guy's %*$#!^& point—OW Cass, watch the ribs, wouldja?"

"Sorry," Cass mumbled, struggling under the taller girl's weight.

Kate glanced up at the jagged hole five stories above them and let out a low whistle. She'd been amazed when she'd first put on the Bat-armor (or whatever these people called it) by how lightweight it was. She was also surprised by the sheer toughness of the material. Some sort of Kevlar-blend, if she had to wager a guess—not too dissimilar from the combat gear she'd worn on her last tour. The armor plating was thin, but rapping her knuckle against it had left a small bruise.

Seeing Steph take a five-story drop with nothing but her Bat-onesie to protect her, though…Kate couldn't help but feel a little impressed. Morbid as that probably was.

"But I still can't believe this," Steph said again, wincing as Cass leaned her up against a grimy brick wall. Shellshocked was a little too nice a word for the look that flitted over the girl's face, and when she ran a few fingers through her hair, shaking out glittery pieces of glass, she heaved a shaky gasp. "Just…it was them. After all this time—all our digging and searching, and…&*# how? What? Why?"

Selina had been uncharacteristically quiet. Kate shifted her gaze to the Catwoman's and crossed her arms tight over her chest.

"You know," she mused, drawing the eyes of the other three women, "Every gala I've seen you at, every party, fundraiser or what-have-you…you're always a talkative little butterfly. Getting through each and every one of those things was like pulling teeth, but you know, I always looked forward to your sarcastic one-liners. You could really take those other one-percenters down a few pegs, couldn't you?"

Selina busied herself by winding the long length of her frayed whip around her knuckles. But, quirking one thin eyebrow, she said, "And what exactly is your point, Katherine?"

"Out in the field, it's Batwoman," Kate snapped. "If I'm understanding the whole 'secret identity' crap right."

Selina's gaze snapped up, and her eyes narrowed. But she said nothing, and so Kate continued.

"But my point, Catwoman, is that you're not your usual chatty-catty self, tonight. And I think I know why."

"Oh?" Selina clipped the whip onto her belt and stalked over. Her movements were smooth and hypnotizing, her hips sashaying. She stepped up to Kate—face to face, just a hair's breadth away—and laid the tip of her finger against the insignia on her chest. "Kitten trying to flex her detective skills? Just because you wear the uniform, sweetheart, doesn't make you her."

Kate's eyes narrowed to match Selina's. "I think you knew."

"Hmm? Knew what?"

"What are you talking about?" Steph tried to pull herself up straighter. Winced, and sank against Cass's side. "Guys, let's just get out of here and regroup, then we can—"

Kate leaned in, until her nose was practically brushing Selina's.

"You knew the Court Talon-ized those two."

Catwoman's eyes twitched just a little wider underneath the cowl.

"Sorry," Steph barked, "what?"

Kate took one step forward, and Selina took one back. "I saw your face in there. That little 'big reveal' was a shock to the rest of us, but not to you. You knew before we even stepped foot in that room."

Steph gaped. Cass stood silently by, watching with careful resolve. The blonde steadied herself against the brick then looked at Selina and growled, "Wait…you knew about the Team, the Watchtower…all kinds of little details about the Courts plans before the rest of us did."

"I—" Selina swallowed, then glowered.

"What the #$%% are you keeping back, Cat?" Kate snapped.

"Listen to me, you don't understand—"

"Then %*$#!^& enlighten us!"

By now, Kate had Selina backed up against the wall, towering over her and glaring down.

The Cat's pupils shrank to pinpricks as her eyes twitched over Batwoman's face. Kate watched her throat bob, her claws sink into the brick behind her.

"Selina," Steph hissed. The poor kid's eyes had teared up, and Kate could hear the water in her voice. "Please."

But Catwoman's jaw set, and she looked away. "I can't, kitten. I'm so, so sorry."

"Bull$#!^," Stephanie cried. Cass lunged to hold the blonde girl back as she surged forward. "Bull$#!^! Tell us!"

"Someday you'll understand," Selina whispered, squeezing both eyes shut. A tear slipped beneath her lashes and trailed down her cheek. "But right now, I just need you to trust me."

Kate stepped back. Let her expression drop into something cold and dismissive to match her tone. "Then I guess there's nothing else to talk about. Let's head back, get ready for tonight. And then if you feel the need to share anything with the class, just let us know."

She turned, and let her cape slash through the air. The other girls followed behind.

"Steph, wait—" Kate heard Selina whimper.

"No." Stephanie's voice was thick as she matched Batwoman's stride. "I think you've said enough."

#######
#######

"This isn't the way back, where are you…?"

Grayson's palm knocked Damian upside the head, so his mouth snapped shut. Without another word, they carried him over rooftops and side streets. Past 5th and 12th, where Damian could see Supergirl and Wonder Girl playing some sort of catching game with a semitruck. They laughed tonelessly, ignoring the screams of the driver and passerby below them as they flung it back and forth, metal creaking and clanging. The Talons carted him through the red light district, where he could see Green Lantern and a few members of Green Arrow's brood looting stores and harassing the populace. Damian stifled a shout when Tigress shot a man point-blank with her crossbow. Arrowette leapt off a driving car, and shot a fleeing mobster midair, her knees tucked, her shoulders straining. A laugh flew off her lips as she rolled across the pavement.

Downtown was a wasteland, and the Talons picked their way over it carefully. Damian could still see the smoking trails where heat vision had cut high-rise buildings in two. Ash and dust still saturated the air; his lungs quivered accordingly. And as he looked out over the city his family had sworn to protect with their lives, his chest ached to see the flames glowing on the horizon, and hear the echoing of screams through the darkness.

Grayson and Delphi finally touched down onto the pavement a few harrowing minutes later. The smell in the air and rusted-out machinery littering the streets gave Damian a clue that this had once been the Industrial district, near the outskirts. He barely had a moment to witness any more, before his siblings carried him down a grimy alleyway.

His eyes drifted over the peeling paint and crumbling mold on the flanking buildings as Delphi knelt, and lifted a manhole cover aside. It fell to the concrete with a dull clang, and Grayson set him at the edge of the dark hole.

"In," he barked.

Damian had no desire to descend into the dank, spider-web encrusted abyss, but he also had no desire to meet the business end of Grayson's knife. His fingers wrapped themselves around the first rung, and he lowered himself down. The metal was cold enough to sting as it touched bare skin, his feet and hands tingling as he continued down, down, down.

A sharp shocking chill jolted his entire body as his foot splashed into a frigid pool of water.

"Oh, toughen up, Little Bird," Delphi's ringing voice chided as his gasp echoed through the sewer. He stumbled back when her masked face emerged from the hole first, head tilting. "What doesn't kill you only makes you stronger…"

She leapt from the ladder, body arcing, and missed the water altogether. Her boot barely made a sound as it tapped down on the concrete, and her recovery was gracefully smooth as her back straightened, her shoulders squared, and her arms floated out to the sides.

"Although," she said, thoughtfully, "What does kill you may just make you stronger, still."

Damian barely had time to gape before Grayson's hand seized the collar of his shirt.

"Keep moving," he snapped, scooping Damian off his feet completely. Delphi made to comply, feet tip-tapping against the pavement as she walked the narrow lip between the sewer's walls and its river of drainage.

It took time to reach the end of the tunnel. But Damian was surprised at how quickly he found himself surrounded by the same marble walls that had stretched above him and his siblings on their ill-fated rescue mission weeks earlier. He had no time for thought, however, before their trek through the Maze reached its end.

Grayson dumped him carelessly against the ground, and Damian lifted his head to better get his bearings.

The walls that surrounded him now were lifeless and gray. It appeared he'd found himself in another cell, as the walls ended abruptly, and the corners seemed to press in more closely than a normal room's ought to. His eyes lifted to a dripping ceiling. They slid down, tracing the seams where the walls connected, and to the grating in the floor, where rusty stains lined the even rustier metal.

Something else caught his eye—thin white scratches in the gray stone.

LWK - 1823 Tell my story when I am gone.

FRQ: 1888 Dearest Mother, I am sorry I ever joined the circus.

DTB IV – 1934 Last of his line.

JO 1956 Forget the rest, only remember that I die with a smile on my face.

MT 1947 My nam iz Mary + I will mak thm pa.

CR + 2010 Find a way out. Always do.

He reached out, tracing his fingers over carvings, small and misshapen, as if they were trying to scurry into the cracks and hide. Damian wondered what they meant. Who had put them there.

What their ultimate fates had been.

Then his gaze snagged on one carving hidden just above the base of the wall. His index finger brushed lightly over the letters.

BW 2020 – I did it for them. Of all the families in the world, I'm glad they could be mine.

"Barbara," he whispered, recognizing the handwriting on the grim epitaph. For some reason, seeing that 'W' at the end made his heart twinge painfully. Had she meant Batwoman? …Or had she meant to call herself a Wayne?

Tears sprung into his eyes, but before they had a chance to fall, a loud sound startled him to attention.

Grayson's fist rested against one concrete wall, and a spiraling pattern of cracks split the stone where his gauntlet had connected. But that wasn't what made Damian freeze.

Grayson's mask was off. And his mouth was twisted into a snarl.

"Explain yourself."

Damian's mouth fell open to stutter out a reply, offer up some shaky excuse to mollify the beast before him. He shouldn't have joined the family in fighting against the Talons—not when he'd known they had no chance of winning.

But instead, Barbara's voice cut him off.

"I was trying to throw them off balance." She lifted her gloved hands in a placating sign of surrender, swaying forward. "And it worked. Love, I gave you the opening you needed to att—ngh!"

Grayson's backhand sent her sprawling across the floor.

Damian gasped, pressing his body deeper into the wall as his brother stalked over to her crumpled form and bent to reach down. Delphi weakly lifted her head, only for Grayson to snag her neck in his metal fist. He lifted roughly. Dragging her into the air in the same way he'd held Brown earlier that night.

(Damian winced at the memory, even though he knew Stephanie was alright—he'd seen Cain helping her up as he and the Talons had made their escape.)

Delphi hooked her own claws carefully over her partner's knuckles, letting out a small groan. "My love…?"

"Little Bird." Grayson rumbled, his brow lowering dangerously. He never took his eyes off of Delphi. "One thing you should know about Talons is that we feel no pain. Unless…"

Slowly, he reached up with his free hand. Extended one sharp talon, and pressed it just barely against the corner of Delphi's wide golden eye.

"…we inflict it upon each other."

He dragged his finger down.

Delphi cried out, and Damian felt his chest seize as her papery pale skin split beneath the sharp tip. Black ink-like fluid dripped from the wound, a few droplets sliding down her cheek. But the blood did not gush or bead like a normal wound—probably, Damian surmised numbly, because Delphi's heart was no longer beating.

Grayson winced slightly, head cocking to the side. But his recovery was quick as he retracted his hand and pressed Delphi harder into the wall. Seething, he leaned close, teeth bared, and snarled, "You know your place with me, do you not?"

Cheek still dripping, Delphi batted her eyes, lips curling into a sneer.

"You will answer me, Talon Kean!"

"Or what, Gray Son? You'll beat it out of me?" Delphi swiped a tongue over her teeth and dipped her eyes downward. "You'll pin me down and—"

The Talon flung her against the opposite wall. Her skull cracked sharply against stone, and the sound made Damian sick to his stomach. He pulled himself into a corner, as Delphi's hair draped over his toes, and swallowed hard.

Grayson marched over and landed a kick in his partner's side. Delphi, though, did not react or cry out as she had when her skin had been cut. Instead, she rolled onto her back, tipped up her chin defiantly.

"Unnecessary," she muttered.

"I do not tolerate insubordination from the rest of my brothers and sisters. My mate is no exception." Grayson's voice was cold and toneless, his eyes equally so. "But while the others fall into line, know their place in the order of things, you—"

"Merely enjoy pressing your buttons, darling." Shakily, muscles straining, Delphi pulled herself up to her feet, and straightened. Stepping towards her partner, she reached up. Laid her arms over his broad shoulders and leaned in close to simper, "I just love it when you play rough…"

Which were the last words Damian ever expected to hear out of Barbara's mouth, going by the look of rage on Grayson's face.

With one swift movement, he had her pinned back against the wall, hand back over her throat. He squeezed his fist and growled again, "Do you know your place?"

Delphi sobered instantly, and the transformation was jarring. Her shoulders dipped. Her eyes lowered in surrender. And her voice was small and contrite as she muttered the words, "Yes, Gray Son. My place is at your side, your subordinate. I serve the Court and the Grandmaster with loyalty. I am no one, I am everyone."

The words sounded rehearsed, and as soon as they left her lips, Grayson's fist loosened, and Delphi's boots clipped against the ground.

Damian watched, wide-eyed, as Grayson looked at his hand. He flexed his talons thoughtfully, a line appearing between his brows. In a voice much softer than before, much gentler, he said, "Instinct, lover. Programming. Forgive me?"

Delphi rubbed halfheartedly at her throat, eyes drifting to the side. "Naturally."

His eyes ticked up, meeting hers. Grayson's jaw tightened, then he added, "Explain to me the meaning behind your words in Gordon's apartment."

At the name, Delphi darkened.

Grayson's stance shifted, and his frown pulled down deeper. "I know you're disappointed. I apologize that no blood was spilled. And I swear to you that Jim Gordon will die screaming, but I need you to explain—"

Delphi turned away. "Not in front of the hatchling, Lover."

A pained look came over Grayson's face. "But you said that you 'remember'—"

"Later. I swear it."

Delphi swept over to the open doorway. In hindsight, Damian probably should have made a run for it while his siblings were preoccupied with each other. But alas, it was far too late for hindsight. He could only watch as her talons scratched over the stone wall, leaving more little thin white scratches in their wake. She stared at them quietly, expression unreadable, and said, with a tone to match, "The Conclave is in a matter of hours, darling. And there is much to do beforehand if we are to be ready. Let us choose to focus on that."

Grayson's shoulders stiffened. "Of course."

Tilting his body slightly towards Damian, his expression softened a little more, as did the rest of his posture. There was something a little sad in the way that his golden eyes flicked over him, but when he spoke, his voice was cold as broken ice. "You will remain in this room for the time being, little one. We'll spare you the chains, but only if—"

"Why did you bring me here?" Damian snapped. He pulled himself up the wall a little. His fists clenched until he could feel his fingernails dig divets into the skin of his palms.

Grayson's eyes narrowed.

"It isn't safe to answer that. Not now…not yet," he growled by way of a reply. Then frowned, contemplating. After a brief hesitant pause, and a flicker of a glance towards Delphi, who was still poised patiently in the doorway, he added, "In due time, someone will be along to fetch you. If all goes well tonight, you need not fear."

Damian didn't like the sound of that. "What if it doesn't?"

"Then you will be a necessary bargaining chip, Little Bird," Delphi piped up. Her gaze slid to the corridor just outside, watchful. "A…peace offering. And if that happens to be the case, well…" Her fingers floated through the air, gesturing to herself. Gesturing to Grayson. "They'll make you into something just like us. It's a painful process. Absolutely agonizing. And when you wake up, you'll be forever trapped as the subservient underling to an egotistical sociopath."

Her mouth twisted, as if she'd bitten into something sourly ironic. Damian felt a prickle of fear dance up his spine.

"But you have nothing to worry about, Baby Bird." Grayson wasn't looking at him. Was instead turned away, a metallic palm pressed tight against his skull as he winced. "We will…we'll…we'll ensure that the Grandmaster f—fall—nnggh."

A low groan creaked out of him, and his eyes clinched shut, squeezing so tight that the pale skin around his lashes wrinkled painfully. Delphi watched him critically, her expression never shifting from an air of casual nonchalance.

"Yes. We will be victorious. But can I rely on you to keep your 'instincts' at bay, my love?" Barbara hummed low in her throat, picking at a groove in the stone with the tip of a claw.

"C-carry out your end, and that will be a nonissue," he replied hoarsely, swallowing hard. "The others will be counting on you as well. Is everything in place?"

A slow smile spread at the corners of Delphi's lips. She turned and stepped out the door, beckoning for Grayson to follow. And as soon as the door began to slide shut behind them, Damian could hear Barbara's laugh ring low and predatory as her fading voice said,

"Yes it is, my love. Yes, it is."

#######

#######

Stephanie's fingertips dug into the granite counter until her nailbeds flashed white.

"Down a little…there," she muttered. "Press it right there, along my cheekbones."

The muscles in her shoulders strained as she craned her neck, gazing into the mirror as Cassandra worked, fingers deftly sliding over her skin. Steph's eyes alternated between the other girl's face and her own. Cass's was concentrated and expressionless as she worked, fitting each of the receptors and nodes to the key points of Steph's face. Until she looked like even more of a hot mess than she felt.

"Now just make sure the seam of the wire fits along my hairline," Steph added, meeting her own sagging blue eyes in the mirror. "I'm usually down for showing a little skin, but the dang thing won't work right if it doesn't cover every inch of this beautiful mug."

Cassandra hummed, sliding the wire into place. "Still do not…understand," she said.

"Understand what?"

"A lot." Cass shrugged. With one easy movement, she slid onto the countertop next to Steph, pulling one knee to her chest, while letting one of her feet rest in the sink. Her head tilted back against the wall. And with narrowed eyes, Cass regarded her. "First. How does it work?"

Steph blinked, then returned her gaze to the circuit-and-wire monster. She tilted her head side to side, inspecting it carefully. The overall effect reminded her of a mocap suit for CGI—the kind of thing you'd see behind the scenes on a Hollywood set. But the tech was far more advanced than anything coming out of Silicone Valley, let alone some SFX studio in Tinseltown.

"Bruce designed it for undercover ops," she said, allowing herself a slight smile. "Back in the day, it was all makeup and padding. The occasional fake mustache for flare, y'know? There was this one time he made Tim dress up as a nurse, right, which, he already has such delicate bone structure so—"

"Stephanie." Cassandra was smiling, but her expression very clearly read 'get to the point'.

She cleared her throat, adding in a sheepish smile for good measure. "Right. Well, you hit this button here—"

Steph tapped one of the nodes on her temple. Her entire face flickered. The wiring disappeared, and her cheekbones lifted and sharpened. Her brows thickened and darkened. She watched as the blue in her eyes faded away into a deep hazelly brown. Even her lips puffed up a little bit, and she flexed an experimental smile.

"—and voila! Baby Angelina Jolie."

The look wasn't complete without the matching hair, but all in due time.

Cassandra certainly seemed duly impressed, and her eyes went wide as they tracked over Steph's face. "Very different. But still…the same."

"The same?" Steph raised an eyebrow skeptically. "How's that? You literally just saw my face morph."

"That. Your ex…ex…" Cass heaved a frustrated huff. She waved her hand over her own face, brows knitting.

"Expression?"

"Yes."

Steph pulled one leg up until she could hug her knee close, mirroring Cassandra's position. "You know, remind me, and I can show you some ASL signs."

"I know some, but…yes. Thank you." Cass quirked a small smile, but her voice was sad and her lips drooped as she added, "You said…Bruce?"

A cold, sharp little thorn pricked into Steph's chest at the sound of that name.

"Bruce," she repeated, letting that heavy word ring out in the air between them, bouncing off the granite and glass. It made her skin prickle with goosebumps. Made something in her chest ache.

Cassandra blinked slowly, dipping her chin in a slight, encouraging nod. "Tell me."

Steph's voice was a whisper. "Right. Him. He…he's the one who designed the mask. He's…the one who designed all of our stuff. Started everything, really. He's the Batman. The Big Boss. The, uh, guy who taught us how to, uh…"

She jumped as Cass leaned forward, her clothes rustling. She lifted one arm, extending a hand, and Steph could feel the pad of her thumb trace away the surprising wetness on her cheek.

She hadn't even realized she'd been crying. (That wouldn't short anything out, would it…?)

"He was our dad," Steph breathed. "Or, at least, the best option any of us had, you know? I mean, Dick, Babs, and Tim all lost their real dads, Jason's old man was a piece of $#!^ who beat him and sold him for drugs, and well, Bruce was actually Dami's bio father, so we all just—"

"Stephanie." Cassandra's eyes were full of some emotion that Steph couldn't even begin to guess at. "What about you?"

She could feel her mouth going dry. "…what?"

"Who was Bruce? To you?"

Stephanie let the question hang between them, hovering just out of sight. As if she could wish it away just by ignoring it. It worked pretty well with the rest of her $#!^, after all. Black Mask, her parents, her stupidly resilient insecurities, that English essay for Ms. Cartwright that she should have turned in 6 months ago, and &*#, even her baby—

"Steph."

"It doesn't matter," she said. Her fingers curled until her nails pressed into her palm. The pain was sharp, just enough to keep her grounded. Even still, she could feel her lip quivering.

"My real dad's a piece of $#!^, too. I don't want to talk about him." Her eyes screwed shut. "And Bruce was…well, what do you call the man who only gives you a chance because one kid quit the family and he needed a placeholder?"

Cassandra's brow furrowed.

But the dam had broken, and the rest came out in a trickle, then a wave.

"You know, that's all I ever was to him. A until Tim came to his senses and decided he wanted Robin again. And even then—even then—he fired me as soon as I stopped being convenient. The second Tim came back, he kicked me to the curb like I was just another headache he couldn't wait to get rid of, and…" Steph blinked hard. Pressed her knuckles into her lips, and breathed, "And I know…I know he cared about me, Cass. But it was always…different. Like, he loved Dick. He loved Babs. And Jason. And Tim, and Dami too, even though he only knew the little squirt for a few months. But me…he just…it was never…"

Steph gestured desperately, reaching bodily for words that weren't coming.

But Cassandra nodded, and said, "Never love."

"He loved me," Steph said gently, just a hair above an all-out gasp. So suddenly that it even sounded desperate to her own ears. "But he loved me differently than the others. Like you'd love a…a goldfish. Or a puppy that just won't stop peeing on the rug no matter how many times you tell it to stop. I was—at best—background noise. Is…is that making sense?"

She nodded again, but there was a line between Cass's eyebrows.

Steph let out a puffed sigh. "When he died, I was sad. But…not like the others. And I think that's because maybe I loved him…different…too."

Bruce's death had left its mark on all of them. Steph had seen the way it transformed her siblings. Dick and Barbara were angrier, wrung out and exhausted at all times. Jason was more likely to settle an argument than start one, just to keep the peace. Tim had gone full-on obsessive, chasing after any sign that they'd buried an empty casket. (They hadn't. Steph had seen the body at the wake, just like all the rest of them had.) Even Damian was a little sadder, a little more withdrawn. Steph caught him sometimes, staring out a window with a faraway look that no little kid should ever have.

But Stephanie? She was fine—nothing had changed.

Nothing, that is, except for maybe the ache she felt every time she'd watched her siblings mourn.

She shook her head a little. "I don't get it, though. You don't understand…Bruce?"

Cassandra was staring into the mirror, studying her reflection critically. Her fingers twirled the tip of her braid. She seemed to be mulling her words over with extra care. Then, swallowing once, blinking twice, she answered, "Yes. Wanted to understand…who he is. To you. To them. To…everyone."

A line appeared between Steph's perfect Angelina Jolie-brows.

"I am…closer." Cass shrugged, then turned her face to look Steph in the eye. Each word took effort, but she still got them out one by pointed one. "But the last thing I do not understand…you want to go in alone."

Steph's mind flew back to the task at hand. The evening laid out in front of her. The mission—

To infiltrate the Court's big secret-special-cult meeting as Luka Novak. Play buddy-buddy with Samantha Vanaver and her cronies, then rub elbows with the rest of the Owls. From there, she'd glean as much intel as she could from those uppity sociopaths. The kind of intel that was too valuable to pass up; how to stop the inhibitor chips, where they were keeping Damian.

How to reverse whatever the #$%% they'd done to Dick and Babs.

They'd been planning this op since before everything went, as Alfred would say, 'completely and utterly pear-shaped'. Steph already knew her role, knew what she had to do, and even now that half the family was decimated, she was dead set on seeing it through.

"I did want to go in alone," she said carefully, letting her leg fall off the counter. "But Kate already had her own cow about that, so now she's going with me. You're not really worried about that, though. I think what you're really worried about is that you—" Steph reached forward to poke the other girl's shoulder. "—aren't going in too."

Cass scowled.

"I know I'm right," Steph goaded, pointing the offending finger at Cass's nose. "You're jealous I get to do all the sneaky-stuff while you're stuck on damage control with Selina."

While Steph schmoozed the high-and-mighties behind the scenes, and Kate kept an eye on her six disguised as an extra cultist, Selina and Cass would be tuning into the comms and following through on their intel in real time. If a Courtier revealed where they were hiding Damian, Catwoman and Batgirl would be all over it before the Owls could say 'hoot'. Likewise, for any secret chip-control-switches.

Cassandra quirked an eyebrow, unimpressed. "No," she said. "Just want to know…why is Selina not with you."

Steph sobered. "Because she can't be trusted."

"Said she would help you get…ready?"

"And I said no," she snapped. With a huff, Steph slid off the counter. Her hair flicked over one shoulder, and she spun to shoot a glower into the mirror. "She had intel that could've saved them, Cass. I just know it."

Cass bit her lip. "Maybe…she could not say—"

"Do you know who else had a hard time sharing?" Steph flung open one of the drawers, and her fingers dipped inside to dig around. "Two undead warrior-assassins that used to be my brother and sister. And now, they want to murder us. Wanna know the moral of the story? Sharing is caring!Sharing keeps people alive!"

Having found what she was looking for, Steph yanked the comb out of the drawer, and slid it into her hairline. With the press of a button, her yellow hair turned brown.

"I am fed the #$%% up with secrets, Cass. Fed up."

For a moment, all she could do was stare at her own scowl in the mirror. As if daring her reflection to argue. But when there was no reply from either Cass or Luka Novak, Steph turned her head to glance at the other girl.

Cassandra had pulled both knees up tight to her chest, eyes faraway and hollow. Spooked.

"Cass?" Steph asked, instantly sobering.

Her friend's voice was soft. "Have a…secret. Should not tell you."

"What? Why?"

She shook her head. "Cannot. Promised. Important. Secret."

Steph's frown deepened. They hadn't been acquainted long, but when Cass started using single-word sentences, she figured it was probably time to stop pushing.

But there was a secret involved—and secrets had gotten enough of them killed.

So Steph put her hands on Cass's shoulders and leaned in close. "Tell me."

The other girl's eyes were wide. "Cannot."

"Cass."

"Stephanie."

"Cassie."

"Should not."

"Yes you %*$#!^& should."

"Do not ask."

"I'm asking," Steph pleaded. "As your friend. If whatever-it-is can help us in any way, Cass, then you have to tell me! Our family's lives could depend on it!"

Cass's eyes, if it were even possible, went even wider. They seemed to glisten, though Steph couldn't tell for sure whether or not the girl was tearing up. But it was like she'd been shocked, the way her shoulders went stiff, the way her spine straightened. Her hands lifted, fingers curling around Steph's wrists, as she gently whispered,

"Our family?"

"Yes, Cass! You've more than earned it, okay? You're one of us." Steph paused to give the other girl a smile and—yep, there were the tears, oh goodness. "But being part of a family means watching out for each other. Keeping each other safe. If you know something that'll help us save our brothers and sister, you better spit it out right now."

And Stephanie was pretty sure Cass could read her like an open book. Even though she was missing her mojo. Even though her magical lie-detector-mind-reading powers were gone.

Steph was telling the &*#% truth. Cass was a Bat, now.

And she knew it.

Swallowing once, Cassandra nodded one more time. "Fine," she said softly. "But…promise. Do not tell others."

Steph squeezed the other girl's shoulders. "I swear."

Cassandra opened her mouth—

—and Stephanie Brown wasn't remotely ready for what came out.

#######

#######

The sound of ringing blades was almost loud enough to drown out the cooing whispers of the other Owls. Courtiers and Talons alike.

Almost.

But the Gray Son could hear everything. Every breath and heartbeat. Every footstep and rustling of cloth against hair against skin. It was grating—a cacophonous symphony of noise that pounded through his skull in time with the thud of his boots against carpet. Despite it, though, Talon kept himself steady.

He had many purposes tonight, but keeping an eye out for any signs of a flying rodent infestation topped the list. At least, for now.

Talon's eyes swept the inner sanctum. The Court's sacred chamber. Where judgment was declared, decisions made, motions carried out and sentences passed. Shaped like a ring, the room was filled to the brink with his Courtier masters. They milled about, some seated in their judgment seats, others wandering the circling walkway, sharing food and gossip alike. The sounds of their tittering laughter and clinking glasses sent a dragging sense of eagerness up the Gray Son's spine.

But all in due time.

Most of the high-ranking families kept to their private boxes. Their white masks betrayed gazes fixed upon the center of the ring—or, more specifically, at the circular stage down below.

Talon dipped his head to watch two of his sister Talons battle to the 'death'.

Their blades sliced through the air as if it were warm butter. Their arms flung out behind them like stretching wings. Talon watched them hold their shoulders loose and their bodies looser as they danced around each other in the ring. The glint of the wan light on their edges was the only part of the knives he could see. The only sign that they'd been in one place for just a millisecond before striking elsewhere.

The Gray Son found himself leaning against the brass railing. He strained for a closer look, elbows creaking against the metal. His sight was already near-perfect. He could see every desperate rise and fall of the She-Talons' chests, see their muscles strain and their eyes blink behind their masks.

But even so, it was a new glimpse of his beloved and her gleaming blades that the Talon reached so desperately for.

She was lovely, his mate. Ethereal. He was enthralled by the way her spine curved as she spun into a strike. By the flick of her wrists and the swing of her ankles. The Talons' masks hid their faces well, but the Gray Son could have sworn he could see his darling's mouth pulled into a silent sneer of delight beneath the cloth as her blade struck true.

He found his own lips curling upward to match.

"Gray Son."

His ears perked at the sound, and Talon quickly slid to attention. He let his shoulders slide back and his spine straighten as he turned to face the voice.

And Samantha Vanaver stood before him with her own cooing entourage.

As soon as he'd turned his whole body towards the group, the girls erupted into vicious giggling. Hands pressed over their painted lips, eyes sliding to the sides. He swallowed hard, just as a reflex, but remained silent. It was not his place to speak unless given direct clearance.

Miss Vanaver crossed her arms tightly over her ribs. "Daddy says you're in the ring, next."

Talon nodded once, and let his eyes swing back to the fight. His Beloved sheathed her knives and flicked both wrists—her claws shinking as they extended.

A few whispers pricked his ears, before Miss Vanaver said, a little louder, "'Til then, though, you should come sit with us in our box…pet."

He was aware of a light touch on his arm. Starting near his wrist. Sliding up. He could feel the hesitance in the girl's fingers as they squeezed at the muscle experimentally. Talon feigned indifference with his bodily posture, but his eyes slid to watch her carefully.

The others continued to giggle, eyeing him like cats that had cornered a sparrow. He could see in the stretch of their smirks and their narrowed eyes what it was they were envisioning. What it was they intended. But when Miss Vanaver's hand slid down Talon's back, he stayed still. When the girls offered up their own soft—if lewd—suggestions, Talon clenched his jaw but stayed quiet.

Only one of the little brats kept her mouth closed. Talon's eyes found hers, but her heavy gaze was fixed elsewhere. A million miles away. As if she, too, were distancing herself from the Court and its Conclave.

Miss Vanaver's hand crept lower still, and Talon flinched when she squeezed.

"Oh my &*#," she gasped delightedly, and her friends' giggling reached a higher pitch.

"No more of that, please." The girl with the faraway look spoke, and her voice was heavy with an accent that Talon couldn't place.

Miss Vanaver's grip tightened, and so did Talon's clenched jaw. "Aww, what's the matter, Luka? Jealous? If you want, I can order him to %*$# you right now." She leaned closer, pressing her whole body to Talon's side. "He'd do it. And if I told him to, he'd like it."

Talon's instincts were urging him to submit. But his beloved had urged him to defy his instincts. The two impulses warred in his head—the difference between following the girls to a secluded corner like a good lapdog or tearing their heads from their shoulders. He could almost feel their bones crunching beneath his fingers…

Talon's shoulders tightened, as he felt himself growing more and more conflicted.

The girl—Luka—was gazing up at him, now. Her eyes were haunted and glassy. She looked at Talon as though seeing a ghost—one that she wanted to cast away. "Not now, Sammy. Please. I vant to vatch the, 'ow you say…flight? No, fight. I think the black one is vinning."

Black blood sprayed the smooth floor, and a loud cheer erupted from the stands.

"Ugh, I thought you were gonna be so much more fun, new girl." One of the other girls sneered. "Trust me, you'll have a front row seat to watch the &!^$#es tear each other to pieces from Sam's box. Now, can we go, already?"

"But vhat about your family?"

Miss Vanaver rolled her eyes. "What about them? Daddy sits in his own little private box. Mom sits with her friends, and Benny's probably off screwing Rafe, for all I care. Now shut up, Luka."

Another raucous roar of approval shattered Gray Son's ear drums. The lower Taloness—Talon Seaver—lay in a tattered heap at the victor's feet. And his beloved lifted her arms into the air, craning her head back to receive the adoration of the Court. She was triumphant. She was undefeated.

"I believe," the Gray Son said, putting forth his best effort to scrub any traces of smugness from his tone, "That I must unfortunately take my leave, Miss Vanaver."

He slid into a deep bow, shaking off her offending grip. She huffed, but stepped back, waiting until he lifted his gaze once more.

"But enjoy the show, ladies." This time, a smirk did twist at his lips. "I'll be sure to find you later, and give you my undivided attention. That is, if it pleases the Grandmaster's daughter?"

Miss Vanaver's cheeks tinged pink, and she sneered. "Oh, it does."

Luka bit her lip. Her eyes were sad.

"Until then." Talon nodded a brief farewell, and stepped away, ignoring the savage giggling he left in his wake.

His thumbs edged the sheaths at his sides.

Soon, he promised himself. Very, very, soon.

#######

#######

The Court of Owls had made many mistakes in the past—but the worst one by far was underestimating their favorite new 'pet'.

She stalked through the halls like a panther, fluid as she was quiet. The blood of her last kill still stained the grooves of her gauntlets, and when she flicked her fingers, inky spatters soiled the perfect carpet below her feet.

She strode past Courtiers crowding the halls, dressed in their best finery. Their glittering gowns and starched suits. Gleaming watches and shimmering diamonds. Their smiles were just as white and perfect, their eyes squinted as they stared down their noses at her.

But Barbara didn't give a &*#%. And the further she stepped into the sea of Gotham City's aristocracy, the more it seemed to dawn on them.

When she'd first come to them, their sneers had been real. To them, she was a caged alley-cat, readied for euthanasia. Just another blight on their precious city to be tamed and cast aside. Or perhaps collared and kept as a trophy.

But now, as Barbara passed Courtier after Courtier, she could see their eyes light up behind the holes of their masks—not with pride or gloating, this time, but with delicious terror. For the first time, they seemed to realize what they really had: not a housecat but a tigress. One that could rip out their throats on the slightest whim, were it not for the chain around her neck.

But chains, as with anything else in this world, eventually…break.

She smirked as one woman hid a little masked child behind her skirts. As a gentleman nearly spilled his drink when she walked past. A loving couple darted out of her path, and a boy nearly fell over the railing when she looked his way.

On the stage below, her lover was disemboweling one of his subordinate Talons to the approving cheers of the Court. The chorus of their voices, punctuated with the gurgling scream of her brother down below, made Barbara's un-beating heart clench a little inside her chest. The pain he felt was more real than anything else any of them had left, but at least the soldier would heal. At least his death would not be permanent.

So why was that man over there so upset?

She could see it in the pull of his shoulders, the set of his jaw behind the mask. Stolen, more likely than not, because Barbara knew every last one of these pompous fools but this one…

The first real smile of the night tugged at her lips.

This one was not an Owl—but a Bat.

"Impressive, is it not?" she crooned, stepping up to flank the mysterious stranger. Her claws slid on the railing, and her eyes narrowed to slits. "The way our Gray Son slaughters?"

The stranger stiffened. Clearly, he hadn't been aware of that little fact.

"That's him down there." She extended a single hooked claw, gave a subtle nod. "In the black. Do you know what the black means?"

His eyes shifted behind their holes. They regarded her with caution—he was a cornered rodent up against the resident housecat, after all. Only a matter of time before he knew it.

For now, it seemed he only had the slightest inkling.

So she smirked, leaned in a little closer. "The black is a sign of rank. Only two Talons wear that color. It is meant as an honor." She slouched a little, lounging on the railing as her eyes met the Bat's. "But perhaps I bore you, Master Courtier. Is there any way I could…entertain you?"

The apple in the man's throat bobbed noticeably.

Hmm…he was nervous. Too nervous for mind games. Very well.

She slid off the railing, and reached up. Her clawed fingers trailed down his lapel, ever so slowly. "You know who I am," she whispered lowly, "And it's killing you, isn't it? But be honest with yourself, now, and understand that I am exactly where I want to be. If we were to fight right now, you would lose—and not only that, but you would die. Again."

He opened his mouth to retort—she saw it in the way the mask shifted. But before he could get a word in edgewise, Barbara's finger shot up. Pressed against the smooth white surface. Shushing him.

"I feel the bandages under your suit, little boy. You're hurt real bad, aren't you?" Her voice was smooth and rich and soft as silk. She could see him shiver at the sound of it, and fought a sneer. "So, for the sake of whatever we once shared, I'll offer you a smidgen of advice—and I'd suggest you take it."

She leaned close, felt him stiffen beneath her grip on his tie. Her words brushed his ear. "Turn around and walk away. 'Dick' and I are a lost cause, and deep down, you already know it."

He spoke then, in a voice more gravelly than the grave she'd buried his tiny body in, years and years ago.

"I was a lost cause too, once."

The words prickled against her skin. Her hand slid off his silky tie, and she turned on her heel. She tossed the words carelessly over a shoulder, "Leave now, Jason, while you still have the luxury."

She started to stalk off, with something resembling rage left to boil in her chest. But a hand on her arm stopped her short.

Barbara whirled, snarling. Her claws gleamed in the lamplight, bare inches from the man's throat.

But it wasn't Jason—it was him.

"Grandmaster," she gasped.

Her knees hit the floor, head bowed deeply, until her chin touched her chest. The gesture left a bitter taste in her mouth, but the satisfied hum above her quelled her revulsion. She berated her mate for his blind devotion to his subservient impulses, it was true. But she couldn't deny that this man held sway over her. With a word, he could force her compliance. With a wave of his hand, he commanded her obedience.

And that just wouldn't do.

"A thousand apologies," Barbara hated that anxious edge in her tone. "I—"

"Nearly took my head off," Grandmaster growled, already stepping away. The silent order to follow hung in the air like a threat; one that made Barbara's chest tighten. "I'll be sure to discipline you personally."

She sprung to her feet and plodded after him. Dread was a tight coil in the base of her stomach, churning and twisting feverishly. Flashes of Grandmaster's 'discipline' played in her mind like a film reel. Shivery, stuttery, mostly black and white. All of it painful. All of it base, and degrading. Her teeth clamped together.

"I was merely passing through, when I saw you talking to that young man. I was going to ask after your appointment with the Commissioner," Grandmaster said, his tone far too flippant for the horrors he had in store.

Barbara wondered briefly where they were going this time. Would it be the Maze again? His private study, perhaps?

"Answer, little bird," he snapped.

Her voice was soft. Cowed. "Unsuccessful. He managed to elude us, but—"

"Oh, is that right?" There was a note of sarcasm in the Grandmaster's voice. "That old fool managed to fight off the two strongest Talons in our retinue? Highly unlikely, my dear. Just be up front and tell me the Bats intervened. The Gray Son already came forward."

&*#% that boy. &*#% him.

"He tells me your loyalty is a little…" His wrinkled hand landed firmly on her buttocks, and Barbara's teeth cracked beneath the strain of her clenched jaw. "…lax as of late. I suppose I can't blame you overly much. After all, it isn't every day you're blessed with the opportunity of killing your own father."

Ah, that. It was a word Barbara was not fond of hearing aloud.

The Grandmaster led her around a bend, but instead of the lacquered doors that led out and away from the inner sanctum, he spun her in an altogether different direction. They stepped towards another set of doors. These ones, Barbara realized, led to the Grandmaster's private box.

So. It was to be that kind of night.

"You'll make it up to me, of that I have no doubt." Grandmaster clicked his tongue, and Barbara obediently sprung forward to open the way for him.

No sooner had the doors parted than the three gentlemen in the box looked up. Craning their faces to catch a glimpse of their leader, and his dutiful house pet. Barbara recognized Sebastian Clark, Grandmaster's second-in-command. She knew the face of Colonel Jacob Kane, uncovered by a white mask of the Court.

The third man caused her footsteps to falter.

And a smile, the second real smile of the night, slid slowly up Barbara's face.

It was as Grandmaster had said—it truly wasn't every day there came an opportunity quite…like…this.

#######

#######

Lincoln's plans were already in the toilet, but the second the Taloness walked in, he knew that they were well and truly flushed.

So he turned his head and he settled back in his chair and he watched the Gray Son eviscerate his latest victim. As the black blood sprayed, the other Owls roared. But all that Lincoln could feel was a cold feeling of dread curl through his insides.

"Took you long enough." Sebastian chortled into his glass. The soft tinkling of the ice cubes inside grated on Lincoln's already frayed nerves. "Was beginning to think you were off chasing tail again, you old dog."

Abraham's voice was supremely smug. "Oh, no, nothing of the sort."

Lincoln watched out the corner of his eye as the Grandmaster of the Court settled into his upholstered throne, one hand outstretched to take the hand of the beautiful young assassin and guide her onto his lap. Taloness obliged, curling in close. She ran her clawed fingers up the old man's chest, humming a low little tune.

Vanaver reached up to slide the mask from his face, and in so doing revealed the sneer on his mouth. "You know better than I, Seb. The tail comes when I call…"

His hand dipped low, and Lincoln's eyes snapped away. Jaw clenching so tightly it popped, he drew the attention of the others. His own mask had already been discarded in favor of the glass of bourbon he'd been nursing, so he tipped it meaningfully, as though he'd been crunching down on ice.

As soon as Jacob, Sebastian, and Abraham turned their attention back down to the fight, Lincoln allowed himself a small breath of relief. He stared down into his glass, taking in the honey-colored contents.

He'd never been one for drinking. But watching the Talons fighting down below, hearing the Taloness purring just a few feet away, Lincoln was almost grateful the drinks here were bottomless.

"On to business, then?" Sebastian clicked his tongue and swirled his glass. "I think that's quite enough pleasure for you, oh mystical Grandmaster."

"You're already drunk, old friend," Vanaver shot back with audible bemusement. "But perhaps you're right. We only have—what, hours, now? Lincoln?"

"Hours," he affirmed, lips edging the cold rim of his glass.

"Ah. Business it is, then. Colonel?"

Jacob sat up a little straighter. Lincoln noted the glassiness in his eyes, though he held no drink in hand. "Yes, Grandmaster?"

Vanaver's teeth clicked as he snapped at the Taloness. She giggled indulgently, baring her neck to oblige. "Mmm…where are your men at with the occupation? Are they in place?"

Jacob was seated, but he sat at stiff attention. As if he were a private back in training, responding to the commands of a drill sergeant. "My men've been fighting those meta freaks for the past two weeks. We've attracted national attention. And once the League got involved, we lost several platoons. Rage has been incited, as was the plan. The government is days away from declaring the Justice League Public Enemy Number One."

Sebastian chuckled. "And the Talons have been making short work of the city's officials. Anyone who might see reason, or give us any more trouble. Skinned, stabbed, thrown from high buildings, pushed into the way of a rampaging Kryptonian…many ways of doing the deed, but all the same result. Success."

"Marvelous," Vanaver crowed. At the sound of his voice, Jacob's posture slackened. As if his puppet master had finally snipped his strings. The Grandmaster ignored him, snapping his fingers instead. Taloness dipped her hand to the tray set out on a side table, snatching up a drink to offer her master. "Now, we merely wait right here, making ourselves merry as the world above us burns. And then, once the dust has settled and the blood has dried, the Court will emerge. Rising from the ashes of Gotham City as the mighty phoenix of myth."

Lincoln felt his stomach churn.

"But I sense hesitance." The Grandmaster pushed the glass offered by his precious pet away from his lips with a single pointed finger. His head turned, his gaze fixed squarely on Lincoln. "Mr. March. You've been awfully quiet."

Lincoln smiled without feeling. "It's been a long few months, Abraham. I'm a tad worn out."

"Is that right." Vanaver's eyes narrowed to thin slits. "Pet, what do you think? You have my permission to speak."

Taloness turned the glass in her hand. "I think," she crooned, "that the Mayor is unhappy with your plan. You went to all that trouble to put a crown on his head, and now his city's burning to a crisp."

Her head was still covered by her nightmarish cowl, but Lincoln could see her eyes glittering behind their lenses. The intensity of her stare was enough to set his skin prickling.

"Insightful," Vanaver mused. He tipped his head back, considering. "I suppose it isn't fair, giving our poor friend Mr. March the world, and then yanking it all away… Is that what's got you so sour?"

"Must be," Sebastian grumbled.

He swallowed. But offered up a nod. And an admission. "She's right. I've proved my loyalty time and again, and all I've got to show is an elected office that no longer exists. You promised me an empire, Abraham, so tell me. Once the metas are dead and you own the rubble heap of Gotham—what then? Are you going to remember your friends when the time comes?"

The old man's laugh was slow, rising, grating.

"I'm sorry you've felt so neglected, my friend." He fixed his Vulture-like gaze back on Lincoln's "And do keep in mind that we are friends. But worry not, the Grandmaster's friends are always richly rewarded. My dear?"

The Taloness slid off his lap, pulling herself to full height. She leaned back, lounging against the railing. Tilting her body just so.

"Yes, Grandmaster?"

"Let's show Mr. March the Court's full appreciation for his efforts."

Vanaver nodded towards Lincoln, and the Taloness was quick to acquiesce. He watched with cold dread as she sashayed past Sebastian (who whined disappointedly) and came to a stop before Lincoln's chair.

"Masks off, remember your manners," Vanaver chided smugly.

There was a heartbeat of hesitation, but Taloness reached up. Her mask slid away, and her red hair fell over her shoulders like a waterfall. The white streak that shocked through the auburn curled with the rest of her waves, and Lincoln found himself distracted by it for just a fraction of a second.

But the sight of her dropping to her knees was enough to snap him out of his shock.

"No."

The word cracked through the air like a thunderclap. Different from Lincoln's usual voice. Just enough to make Vanaver's eyebrows tick upward.

"I insist." The old man phrased it like a question. Like the only answer was 'alright'.

The Taloness was looking up at him through her lashes. Her teeth nibbled at her blue lips. There was a question on her face, too, but it went unasked as Lincoln crossed his legs a little more tightly.

"You said it yourself, you're exhausted," the Grandmaster chided. He leaned forward in his seat, balancing an arm on the side table as he fixed Lincoln with a hawkish scowl. "You'll have your empire, March. That I promise, and I keep my promises. But for now, sit back. Relax. And for the love of &*#, enjoy."

"He doesn't share Kean with just anybody, you know," Sebastian added. A little ruefully.

Taloness was already reaching up.

Lincoln's heart flew into his throat, and his own hands moved to intercept.

But before he ever got the chance to stop her, the doors flew open behind them.

The bang startled the four men (the Talon on the floor only blinked lazily), and they whirled towards the noise. There, sagging against the doorway, was another masked Courtier. He heaved for breath, his legs trembling. When he looked up, his eyes were wide behind the white lacquer.

"Grandmaster!" he puffed. "There's…there's been…"

"Out with it, Collins." Vanaver pulled to his feet, reaching for his gilded mask.

"A breach," Collins gasped. "Emergency. The…the chips…"

Between his shoes, the Taloness perked up a little, her golden eyes agleam. Lincoln frowned at the sight, but tilted his chin towards the Courtier's harried voice.

"The whole system's gone down!"

"What." Vanaver growled like a grizzly, and shoved his chair to the side. It crashed to the floor, startling Sebastian Clark to his feet, and rousing the Colonel.

"Come quickly! There isn't time—!"

Lincoln moved to get up, to follow the other men out the door. He was stopped, however, by a firm hand on his shoulder. It shoved him back down, deeper into the chair. He grit his teeth as he felt the fabric of his suit jacket rub against the velvet.

"Oh, no, my friend." Vanaver's disembodied voice scraped into his ears, as that savage grip tightened. "Not you. I need someone to watch my little minx while I handle this…development."

Lincoln clenched his jaw. "I can help—"

The hand patted his shoulder and withdrew. "You can help best by staying right here, and keeping an eye on the room. Besides, you're about to be…otherwise occupied. We'll give you two some privacy."

Lincoln grit his teeth painfully as he heard the door shut behind his back.

And he was left in silence, with nowhere else to look but down.

He met the girl's eyes, feeling his stomach roil. And he whispered, "You don't have to do this."

She sat back on her haunches. Her lips parted. She ran a purple tongue over the sharp edge of her teeth, and Lincoln watched the corners of her lips pull up into a smirk. He could only gape as the docile demeanor sloughed off her shoulders like a discarded cape.

Slowly, the Taloness rose.

"Well, obviously, Mr. March."

There was something different in her voice. Something dark. Something smug.

Something like a trap.

He could only watch as she circled his chair, fingers trailing until she was out of sight. The lock clicked somewhere behind him. A hollow sound that kicked his adrenaline levels up to a ten.

And when she stepped back around, her smile was even wider. She didn't stop until she leaned against the railing once more, and let her head loll lazily on her neck.

Barbara regarded him through a narrow gaze as she said,

"I think it's high time we talked."

#######

#######

She'd suggested they 'talk'. But for the longest time…she didn't.

Lincoln felt his nerves fray more and more as the seconds ticked by.

And her eyes never left his, boring deeply into his very soul as she continued to stand there. To just stand there. Watching him sweat.

To pass the time, he took in her appearance. Having seen her in life, it was jarring to see the girl before him now. She looked like a frostbite victim warmed over. A hawkish predator that was moments away from making a killing strike.

He'd seen her transformation in person. Had watched as the blood was stripped from her veins and replaced with the Light's newest compound: Tar.

Taken orally, Tar was a narcotic substance that enhanced strength, speed and durability. Not quite as 'long-lasting' as the chemicals used by Bane for similar purposes, but it did the job.

However, Tar clearly wasn't as 'new' as the Light and their associates seemed to think. As far as Lincoln had been able to determine, they'd never even heard of it until they'd begun their dealings with the Court of Owls. Because the Court had been using the substance to make their Talons for hundreds of years.

But the kicker?

The Court had no idea what it was they actually had. Taken orally, Tar was a dangerous narcotic, to be sure. But injected into the bloodstream? It bonded with the DNA, searching for a catalyst to activate its chemical reaction on the body. The catalyst was key—without it, the process was fatal, and Tar became a deadly poison.

But with the catalyst—a nucleotide in the DNA called a 'metagene'—Tar could work its wonders.

The Graysons were carriers of this metagene. One that would have given them the gifts of superhuman strength, agility, speed, endurance, and enhanced senses. Enough to make them gods among men—except, of course, that the gene was recessive.

Completely dormant.

Until the Court had discovered a compound, centuries ago, that gave them the power to awaken it.

It explained why they'd wanted—or rather needed—Dick's DNA so badly. It explained why they'd injected Barbara with it (or a more purified form of it) just before beginning their macabre procedure. It explained why some of the other Talons weren't quite as potent, quite as deadly.

But there was another compound in the Court's supply of their Talon serum. One that made their warriors highly suggestible to command.

And it came with a 'kill-switch', located in the mask of one of the Grandmaster's most trusted advisors. For security reasons, and to keep them toeing the line, Talons were never told who exactly held the failsafe.

And Lincoln could use that against the Court, if he had to.

"I can see that mind of yours going a mile a minute," the Taloness finally said. She took her time with her words, savoring each and every one of them as though they tasted like fine wine, and she was trying to guess the vintage. "But what is it you're thinking about, exactly? Are you thinking about me?"

She cocked her head slightly and pushed off the railing. Lincoln's eyes twitched wider when she drew a knife from the sheath on her thigh.

"Wait—"

"What to do with you, Mister March?" Taloness lifted the blade until its tip pointed right between his eyes. She held it casually, one elbow balanced on her hip. He watched her yellow eyes look up and down his body, as she mused aloud. "I could kill you. It wouldn't even be hard. Take me a few seconds, a minute tops... Slit your throat and dump you over the side… Watch you go splat all over the floor."

Lincoln held her gaze. "We both know that's impossible."

Her frown tightened. "A girl can dream, can't she? Besides, that would be too easy. Too quick. You don't deserve either."

He ran a dry tongue over his lips and said, "I think you must have me confused—"

"No, see—no." Something sparked in that wolfish stare, and Lincoln watched her teeth flash. "You already said that, 'Lincoln March'. We already did that. So you shut your mouth and listen for one &*##^$% minute."

Lincoln pressed his shoulder blades into the cushion and took a deep inhale through his nose. That knifepoint had never dipped, never wavered. He already knew she couldn't hurt him; the serum wouldn't allow a Talon to harm a Courtier directly.

But if he was going to play this smart, he'd better play along. At least until he could play his role to the fullest.

"I could tell the Court what I know," she said. Her voice returned to its slow, calm, songful lilt. The shift in her demeanor was off-putting, to say the least. Underneath his sleeves, Lincoln could feel his arms prickling with fresh goosebumps. "I could blow your little secret wide open, and watch them kill you. And believe me, their way wouldn't be as neat as mine."

Too close. Lincoln convinced himself to stand, pulling himself to full height. He half-expected the assassin to try and stop him, but she only tracked his movements with her eyes.

Her frown stayed frozen in place. "Mm, still no. I'd prefer to watch you live to squirm another day."

"I don't know who you think you're talking to," Lincoln said, forcing ice into his words. At his sides, his knuckles popped. "And I don't know about any 'little secret'. But keep in mind—you are disrespecting an Upper Level member of the Court. A—"

"—member of the Grandmaster's inner circle," Taloness interjected calmly. Her fingers shifted on the knife's handle. "Yes, I know. And I will admit I'm impressed. Not many could weasel their way into Vanaver's good graces as quickly as you did. You must've had a #$%% of a plan in place."

"Listen here—"

"And stealing a cybermask from the Cave to pose as a Courtier? Sending Cassandra to the Family to bring them running to the rescue? Brilliant! That is, it would have been, if you hadn't failed miserably—"

"Enough!" Lincoln's hand darted out, seizing the wrist of the hand holding the blade. He squeezed and twisted. Her hand opened, and the weapon hit the carpet with a dull thud. In a flash, he had her arm pinned to the small of her back, spinning her around. So he wouldn't have to look at her face. Wouldn't have to see the look in her eyes as she started to laugh.

"Gotcha, old man...!"

He spoke into her ear, pressing into the hold until he could feel her shoulders stiffen. "I don't know what you think you're getting at, Talon Kean, but you are out of line."

"Mm, you wanna talk to me about 'out of line'?" Taloness leaned into him, tipping her head back to rest on his shoulder. "I know all about your daring stunt, stealing the talon uniform and carrying me from the Maze when I was in training. Oh, and what about pinning me like this when Grandmaster was very clear I was only supposed to give you a friendly blowjob—?"

"Be quiet," he hissed, as the nauseous roil in the pit of his stomach returned full force.

Her voice was overly-sweet. "Nobody's allowed to really touch me but the Gray Son. Too many swimmers in the pool, and all. But if you want, I could always—"

He shoved her away from him. She managed to catch herself on the railing, claws scrabbling. But when she came back up, she was laughing, the glint in her eyes positively malevolent.

"Oh, you were never any fun! But fine. I suppose this puts us at a bit of an impasse."

Lincoln took a step back. "If that's what you want to call it."

"I was going to say, before you had to get all grabby, that there's a third option."

"Is that right?" he asked dryly, taking yet another step away from her.

Taloness cocked an eyebrow, taking clear note of his slow attempt at escape. But clearly, she didn't seem to mind, instead turning to face the rest of the room. She slung one arm over the railing as she leaned back against it. Let her other hand trail gently over the metal.

"A third option," she affirmed, "Which is that I could tell the Gray Son everything I know. He couldn't do anything, he'd know. And more importantly, you would know he knows. You would be forced to watch him hold you in contempt—"

"He doesn't even remember who he is," Lincoln interjected, stepping up to the railing to join her. Together, they looked down, watching as the Gray Son grappled with one of the other Talons.

"I'll just have to remind him, then."

"You don't even remember who you are," Lincoln said softly.

"Ha! Is that what you think?" She threw her head back with a sigh. "Tell me, is that what you tell yourself to soothe your aching conscience, Mr. Mayor? Does it help you sleep at night?"

"No," Lincoln whispered, his voice sounding haunted to his own ears. "It doesn't."

She was silent for several minutes. He counted them silently as they ticked by, once again feeling the adrenaline throb in his veins. Slow, but still there. But when she finally spoke again, her voice was soft.

"Have I disappointed you?"

He blinked. "I beg your pardon?"

Taloness's fingers traced the railing. The scrape of metal nails on metal varnish was nerve-jangling. She huffed slightly, a bitter smile flinging at her lips before she turned and looked him dead in the eye.

"It took me too long. The face, the hair, the voice…even your &*#% mannerisms were all different. But that's no excuse, is it? In the end, it wasn't until I heard you speak a full sentence that the pieces all finally…" Her head ticked to the side as she rolled her eyes thoughtfully. "…clicked. So I'll ask you again, 'Mister Mayor'—have I disappointed you?"

Lincoln slowly slid his arms off the railing. "Batgirl, I—"

"You know it was the inflections that finally gave you away. I always knew you by your &*#% inflections."

A pause. A guilty pause, before Lincoln muttered, "I think you must have me confused with some other—"

"The least you could do," Barbara snapped, in a hiss just above a whisper as she fixed her cold golden gaze on his throat, as if contemplating whether or not she should tear it out. "Is refrain from insulting my intelligence again. I know who you are. You slipped just now, said my name, so I knowyou know who I really am."

Lincoln went pale as death, his pupils blown.

"Isn't that right, Bruce?"

The name—his name—rang in the air with the force of a typhoon and the softness of a heartbeat. It sent shivers down his spine. His blood roared with adrenaline, buzzing at the sound of a word he hadn't heard in over a year, ever since he'd made the most difficult decision of his life. Ever since he'd left—

"Barbara." His voice was a broken whisper, desperate to explain. "I—"

Her short bark of laughter cut him off. "Like I said. You know perfectly well who you're really talking to right now, old man. Who's really running things up here." She tapped a plated knuckle against her skull with a smirk. Then, with a huff, she turned her back, gazing out at the rest of the room. "But for what it's worth, she figured it out before I did. No easy feat—I am her, after all."

Bruce said nothing. He could only gaze at her—this creature who was wearing the battered, corrupted face of his…his little girl…

"&*#," Barbara whispered. "The things she wanted to say to you, all this time we thought you were dead."

There was a bitter taste in his mouth. He licked at his dry lips with an even drier tongue, feeling his heartrate skitter frantically.

"But it wouldn't change a &*#% thing, now." The Taloness seemed to recover from her wistful tangent, and clenched her clawed fist tightly. Her spine straightened. Any emotion left on her face was swept away with eerie speed.

So, when her gold-stained eyes met his, they were devoid of any more anger or pain. Something else had taken over. And she raised one brow and said,

"The failsafe. Tell me who holds the key."

Bruce opened his mouth. Not to give her the name—that was his last bargaining chip, or his failsafe, as it were—but to offer up something else. Something resembling an apology. If he couldn't give it to Barbara, he'd give it to Batgirl.

He owed his daughter that much.

"You should know that I—"

"No." Barbara bared her teeth. Her hand drifted to the sheath at her hip. "I said, tell—"

The slightest click of the door handle froze them both in place.

Bruce felt his heartrate skitter, and shot a glance at Barbara. Her pupils had shrunken to pinpricks.

Someone struggled with the lock while the handle continued to turn. Just as Bruce's head began to do the same, he felt a stiff hand on his shoulder. It shoved him into his seat with crushing strength, and he let out a huff as his back hit the cushions. When his eyes flashed open, Barbara was on her knees in front of him.

"Make it look good," she mouthed silently with a bitter sneer. The extra 'you son of a &!^$#' was omitted, but rather heavily implied.

There was no time to protest. He began to pant, laying his head against the back of the chair. His hands splayed out on the armrests, and he felt a shiver of shame sear through him at the implication he was setting.

Barbara's clawed fingers dug through her hair, mussing it just enough to be convincing. She'd barely swiped a hand across her mouth, smudging her makeup, before the door crashed open.

Vanaver swept into the box, cloak flapping behind him. He was joined by Sebastian Clark and another hulking Talon Bruce didn't recognize. (The Colonel, however, was notably absent.) Going from the stiffness to their shoulders, and their narrowed eyes behind their owl's face masks, whatever news they brought wasn't good.

"I see you've finished just in time," Vanaver said tightly, stalking over. "Did the &!^$# satisfy you?"

He sent his former protégé an apologetic glance. "Yes," he breathed, moving to straighten himself up a bit. "Quite."

"Oh, good. Talon Rose?"

Bruce's eyes flicked instinctively towards the Talon. The name was familiar; something he'd read in a casefile somewhere. In any case, Bruce was helpless to do anything but watch as the Talon stalked forward and snatched a clawed fistful of Barbara's hair.

"On your feet," it growled.

Barbara sprung up, standing nose to nose with the other creature. Her eyes were wild, and she snarled through her teeth, "Try that again. And I'll rip your guts out through your—"

The Grandmaster snapped his fingers, and both Talons stiffened. Then turned. Let their postures relax into formal attention, with arms clasped behind their backs.

"They have their own little hierarchy," Vanaver explained, shooting Bruce a pointed look. "Talons always know whom they obey within their own ranks. Talon Rose commands the foot-soldiers. Talon Kean is over him. Then the Gray Son over her, and then I am over them all. Is this making sense to you, Mr. March?"

Bruce had just enough experience to identify the edge in the Grandmaster's tone. His muscles stiffened accordingly.

"It is, yes."

"Good. Talon Kean," Vanaver snapped, his gaze never tearing away from Bruce's. "What would you do with a Talon who has committed an act of treason against the Court?"

Barbara's lips were parted as she swiped away the lipstick stain with a single bronze thumb. The corners pulled up in an openmouthed sneer. But the second Clark turned to her, she blinked innocently, demurely replying,

"That would be impossible, Grandmaster. The Talons faithfully serve the Court. Our loyalty cannot be swayed."

There was something calculative behind her eyes. It sent a shiver up Bruce's spine.

"You're correct, my dear." Those narrowed eyes shifted from Bruce to Barbara. "But human beings can be far more fallible. So. Let's say that one of my devoted Courtiers had infiltrated our organization, posing as a friend. Let's say that he leaked the location of our stronghold to our enemies, and led them all straight here."

Vanaver waved a hand in the air, the movement sudden and harsh.

Around and below them, the entire room quieted. Courtiers looked up from their wine glasses and gossip. Talons shifted their gaze to the Grandmaster's box. Even the Gray Son stepped away from the corpse of his murdered comrade, black blood still dripping from his claws.

The sound of heavy doors opening split the silence like a knife.

All eyes flashed down, to the figures that were being led out onto the fighting floor.

Flanked on every side by Talon foot soldiers, Bruce watched a girl with brunette curls and a glittering purple dress stumble out into the light, hands on her head. A man in a tailored tuxedo and owl's mask followed, shuffling as though walking pained him. Then, behind them, Bruce's cousin Katherine stepped out, her waitress uniform torn and her face pulled into a defiant scowl.

But his blood chilled at the sight of Cassandra and Selina being dragged into the room by a pair of Talons. Their heads lolled on their shoulders. Their masks were gone, and their uniforms were stained black with blood.

Their bodies were tossed in front of the other three, who had been forced to kneel in the center of the floor. When the brunette saw them, she lunged forward, screaming. Only to be dragged back by a creature's gilded claws.

Vanaver raised his voice to the rest of the room. "We caught on to the three interlopers, thanks to an insightful tip from one of our Talons. They're trained to spot an impostor from a mile away, you know. As for Catwoman and the other imp, we caught them in the act of disabling Kuttler's control hub. And now all of our inhibitor chips are useless. For all we know, the Justice League could be on their way here, now, but before we deal with them, we deal with our own."

Terrified murmurs rippled through the crowd. On the floor, Selina stirred slightly, opening her eyes to thin slits.

But the Grandmaster didn't fail to notice Bruce's stricken expression. "Do you recognize these intruders, Mayor March?"

Bruce slowly rose from his seat, heart hammering. "I—"

"Or should I say," Vanaver added softly, for their ears only, "Bruce Wayne?"

Bruce blanched. He tossed a glance towards Barbara, who only smirked, and lifted one hand. She held a small device clenched between her fingers, with a screen that showed his face, and a tinny recorded voice saying, "Stealing a cybermask from the Cave to pose as a Courtier? Sending Cassandra to the Family to bring them running to the rescue? Brilliant! That is, it would have been, if you hadn't failed miserably—"

The recording fitzed out, then resumed with a cracked, "Have I disappointed you…—Bruce?"

"Remove their masks!" Vanaver roared.

Another figure stepped out onto the floor, the black and orange of his suit as recognizable as the katana he carried in one clenched hand. With a swift movement, Deathstroke ripped the owl mask from the kneeling man's head. Jason's face came into view, and he snarled something up at Slade that nobody else could hear as the mercenary moved on to the gaping brunette. One more harried unmasking—the cybernetic mask crackling as it was torn away—revealed Stephanie's tear-streaked face.

"Now, do you recognize them?"

But Bruce didn't get the chance to answer, before Vanaver's backhand sent him reeling.

"Talon Kean," the Grandmaster said again, in a voice that was deathly calm. "You did not do as I asked."

At his side, the Taloness stiffened. "Pardon, Grandmaster?"

The Grandmaster held out his hand, and Talon Rose placed a single blade into his palm. Bruce watched Barbara's eyes track the movement. A flicker of unease twinged her expression.

"I asked you to show our Mr. March a good time. You did not."

A line appeared quickly between Barbara's brows. "I was gathering the intel, Grandmaster, I was serving the Cour—"

Vanaver's arm slashed out, and Barbara let out a broken scream.

Bruce felt his chest clench painfully, as his daughter doubled over, a hand held to the side of her face. Black blood burbled between her talons, trickling down the purified bronze—the only metal effective for use against Talons.

"You'll heal," Vanaver dismissed, wiping the black off the blade with the hem of his cloak. "Now. Tell us again what you would do with a Courtier who has committed treason against the Court?"

Barbara let out a shaky gasp, her eyes squeezed shut against the pain. The wound was deep—so deep that Bruce could see bone and teeth through the blood—but already, the skin and tissue were beginning to stitch themselves back together.

"I'm waiting, Talon Kean."

"S-such a traitor would be wor…worthy of death, Grandmaster."

"Very good," Vanaver gushed, as though mocking a young child. "Now straighten up. Next time you try pulling at loopholes, you'll lose an eye."

"Y-yes, Grandmaster."

"Wonderful. Now." The Grandmaster redirected his calm rage back over to Bruce. "I believe it's your turn, Mr. Mayor."

"You know as well as I, Abraham," Bruce said, hand curled over the armrest as he rose to full height. "That no Talon can raise a hand to a member of the Court. It goes against their very creation."

Vanaver brandished the knife in his hand. "Do I look like a Talon to you, Mr. Wayne?"

Bruce let out one short bark of laughter.

"What, you? You tortured my girl in the caves beneath this stronghold," he said, voice lowering to a heavy growl. "And she was just as strong as I always taught her to be. But even I know her limits, and I know exactly what she let slip. Which means you're already aware that Bruce Wayne is just another one of my many masks."

Vanaver's eyes narrowed to slits.

"You beat my children." Bruce's tone was frightening, even to his own ears. "But you hid behind your Talons and your mask to do it. So, no. You don't look like a Talon, Abraham. You look like a pathetic old coward."

He took one step forward, and Vanaver stumbled back, barking for his attack dogs to leap to his aid. And leap they did, knives flashing as they threw themselves between the Grandmaster and the Batman.

Bruce shook out his shoulders and raised both fists in front of him. He let his feet slide out into a sturdy, familiar stance.

"And one who is no match for me."

#######

#######

The Talons stood firm, but even Bruce could see their hesitation. The slight shiver in their muscles as they struggled against raising a blade to a member of the Court. All they could do was stand still, the both of them nothing more than a pair of empty threats.

Bruce had known his cover would eventually be blown. He'd planned on threatening Vanaver with the inhibitor chip controls, as well as the Talons' failsafe if the need ever arose. Guaranteeing the Court's defeat in exchange for their lives. Bruce couldn't control the Talons or the Justice League, but he could strip away the Court's defenses against them. Whatever punishment either entity saw fit to mete out was up to them, if the Courtiers chose to hold firm against Bruce's demands.

But his plan never accounted for Barbara.

"Grandmaster," she breathed, letting her voice slip into something submissive as blood dripped down her cheek. The wound was mostly healed by now, but Bruce could see the pain lingering in the shaking tip of her knife and the tight pull to her frown. "Disable the failsafe. Just long enough for us to kill this traitor for the Court."

"Remember your place, Talon Kean!" Vanaver roared. His turned his wild gaze on Bruce. "Do you know what I'm going to do, Wayne?" He thrust a finger down into the pit below. "I'm going to have your entire brood slaughtered! Gray Son!"

Dick looked up at the sound of his name. His claws were pressed idly to his cheek.

Bruce tensed. "Abraham, for your sake, don't—"

"Kill them all!"

The room filled with a thunderous roar—the sound of a hundred Courtiers calling for blood. Bruce stopped, jaw going slack.

Dick raised his hand into the air in a grim salute. "With pleasure."

He turned, and stalked towards his cowering family. With a flick of his wrists, his claws extended to their full length. They glinted sharp beneath the glaring lights overhead, and the crowd screamed in approval.

"Take off your mask!" Clark goaded over the edge of the railing. "Let them see the face of their brother as you tear out their throats!"

The frenzied excitement in the room only grew, as the suggestion rolled through the ranks of the audience. The Talon reached up, and tore away his mask. The sneering, leering face of Richard Grayson was left on full display, and he grinned down, shark-like, at his family.

Dick stepped forward, and lifted a claw to Stephanie's throat.

"Luka Novak," he shouted to the room, silencing the ecstatic cries of the Courtiers. "Otherwise known as Batgirl. The Court of Owls has sentenced you to die today."

"Dick!" Jason roared, shooting to his feet. A pair of Talons rushed forward to secure his arms, and he struggled in their hold. "DICK, wake the &*$% up! If you hurt her—!"

"Hmm..." Tapping the tip of his talon against Stephanie's chin, Dick smirked. "Since you're so eager, Red Hood, I'll allow you the honor of going first."

"No don't," Stephanie gasped, as the Talon moved on.

Dick's hand thrust out, snagging Jason's throat. The other man choked out a gasp, fingers scrabbling and tearing at the bronze gauntlet. His eyes were impossibly wide as the Talon lifted him into the air, and Bruce took a step forward. Only for Barbara to block his path.

"Tell me," she whispered, just loud enough for the two of them to hear.

"It's a shame," Dick mused down below. "That your little brothers couldn't make it. I hear Timothy died gargling his own blood, after the Joker bashed his skull in with a crowbar."

Jason stopped struggling. His eyes widened, horrorstruck.

"And I strangled the littlest one with my bare hands. You should have heard the noises he made." A savage grin lit up his face. "It was like music."

He was lying. He had to be lying. He couldn't have…not even if he was…he wouldn't…

Barbara smirked at Bruce's stricken expression.

"It's fitting, I think, that you'll die the same way." The tips of Dick's talons dug into Jason's throat, squeezing. Until Bruce saw blood begin to trickle down his skin. "Any last words? Your lover will be so sad to see you go."

Kate was holding a screaming Stephanie back, doing her best to bury the younger girl's face in her shoulder, force her to look away. But to no avail.

Jason's face had a blue tinge, and he choked on the words as he gasped them out.

"Y-you're…my b-brother…too."

Dick chuckled. "What a waste. Farewell, then, Hood—"

Barbara's hand hit Bruce's chest as he lunged forward. It stopped him cold. He glowered down at her, desperate, opening his mouth to order her aside, even though he knew it would be futile, even though he knew he'd never make it down in time—

"Bruce," she whispered forcefully, through bared, predatory teeth. "Tell me, now."

And his gaze shifted to the side. Ever so slightly. It was the barest of glances, but still—

Barbara's eyes lit up with malignant glee.

Before Bruce could utter a protest. Before Dick could puncture Jason's windpipe. Before Vanaver could order her to stop, Barbara whirled. And slammed the flat of her knife down against the railing.

A ringing clang split Bruce's ears.

The sound was drowned out by the goading spectators, and Stephanie's screams. No one else in the room seemed to hear. No one, that is, except for the superhuman creatures waiting in the wings, who jolted to attention. Except for the Gray Son down below, who froze with Jason still held aloft in the air.

His head swiveled towards the sound, and when he saw Barbara, his eyes widened. He opened his fist, and Jason dropped like a stone.

Vanaver seized Barbara's arm, snarling, "Talon, what the #$%% are you—?"

"Do it!" Barbara screamed, bracing her hands on the rail.

And the Gray Son's hand yanked a blade from the sheath over his heart. With a motion more fluid than water, he whirled. Flicked his wrist. And sent the blade streaking straight towards his partner's head.

Bruce opened his mouth to shout. But before he could move, Barbara flung herself out of the knife's path at the last possible second.

They all stopped short at the dull sound of a thwack.

The blade hit Sebastian Clark square in the face, sinking all the way down to the hilt.

His head snapped back on his neck. His body sagged, and collapsed to the floor. The thud was deafening in the sudden silence that had fallen over the room. Bruce could hear his heart thundering behind his ribs. Could hear the sizzling of circuits as they sparked and fizzled in the bloody crack that split Clark's mask down the middle.

He heard Vanaver crumple against the railing, as he gasped in realization, "Dear &*#, no…"

And he heard another sound amidst the rest.

A series of low chuckles.

Barbara and Talon Rose were doubled over in pain, fingers pressed desperately to their temples as if trying to hold their own heads together. But, though their teeth were bared in pain, their lips curled up into wild grins as they fought through the feedback and static.

Down below, Dick was in a similar position. But he recovered more quickly, pulling himself up straight. Tossing his head and shoulders back, he heaved a howl of laughter at the ceiling.

"TALONS!" he roared. "BROTHERS AND SISTERS, WE ARE FREE!"

A Courtier screamed somewhere in the crowd, and the sound of gasps and shrieks only spread as realization began to take hold.

Barbara flung her head back, laughing wildly as she tore another blade from its sheath. Raising both her weapons to the sky, she turned to the room and bellowed,

"COURT OF OWLS, THE TALONS HAVE SENTENCED YOU TO DIE!"

Screams erupted. All at once, the room was in motion as every man, woman, and child scurried for the exits. Desperately shoving others aside and trampling their own comrades. Tripping over seats and feet, sprawling over bloodied carpeting.

"NO ONE LEAVES HERE ALIVE!" The Gray Son ordered as he spun around. Drew a knife and leapt into the churning sea of screaming socialites.

Bruce could only watch the chaos with a slackened jaw and a thundering pulse. All of his eventualities…his contingencies…none of them had ever accounted for this…

The Talons began their bloody work with savage precision, just as they'd been trained. Knives slashed, blood splashed. The creatures tore out throats and hearts, crunched skulls beneath their boots. But Bruce could hear smatterings of undead laughter threaded through the desperate cries and gasps and shrieks of their victims.

The Talons had been waiting for this moment.

Their chains were broken, the Court's control over them was lost. They were free to turn their blades on their creators, and they did so with wicked, delighted, pleasure.

Talon Rose slashed the throat of the spare Courtier in the box, leaving him gurgling on the ground, and took one heavy step toward Vanaver.

"You," he growled, low in his throat, as he brandished his blood-flecked blade and narrowed his wolf's eyes. "Grandmaster."

But Barbara swept into the space between them, her own weapons raised to the sides. A tight frown pulled at her lips as she snarled back, "Not yet, Cal. The others first."

"He pays for what he's done." There was a wounded edge sharper than any knife to Rose's voice. "He treated us like dogs. He deserves to die like a dog."

Barbara's palm thudded against his chest. Her tone was soft, but unrelenting. "And he will. But the others deserve their own vengeance. Would you take that from them, too?"

This gave the other creature pause. He glowered at the cowering Grandmaster, curled into a pathetic pile on the floor, but stood down.

"Good." A sneer lit up Barbara's face. "Now, go make them bleed, Talon."

"They are no one," Rose growled, letting his armored fist clang against Barbara's, who smiled.

"We are everyone."

And with that, he was gone. Over the railing, and soaring into the ocean of blood and bone and carnage below. The screams echoed in Bruce's ears as he sagged against his velvet chair.

"Barbara," he rasped, letting his eyes sweep over the horrible scene. "What have you done?"

She only laughed. "For a man with such a hard-on for justice, you'd think the answer would be obvious." Her arms lifted, and she gestured at the room. "Just take a good look around, Bruce! No one to save them now!"

Vanaver snarled as he lifted his head. "You will pay for—"

Barbara's boot connected with his jaw. "No, I'm afraid I'm done paying, actually. Now it's your turn."

She flicked one wrist, and sent a blade hurtling towards Bruce. It thwacked into the wall beside him, pinning his sleeve in place. He struggled with the fabric, already opening his mouth to order his daughter to stop. But before the word could leave his throat, movement flickered in the corner of his vision.

A dark figure swung over the railing, landing deftly on its feet.

"My angel," Dick breathed, stalking towards Barbara and the Grandmaster with clear purpose. He spared Bruce the briefest of glances. Only half of a second at most, but it was enough to break Bruce's heart all the same. "You've done it."

"We've done it." Barbara was already moving. Crouching down over Vanaver, with one knife twirling between her clawed fingers. "Now, look at this, lover. A poor, scared little lecher."

Bruce watched as his son's eyes lit up with wicked intent. "He tried to touch you?"

"Why, yes," Barbara replied, pressing the tip of the blade into the flesh of the shaking man's throat. Just enough to draw a single bead of blood. "Yes, he did."

Dick drew his knife with a dull metallic slide. "He made that cut on your cheek?"

"He did indeed."

"Then I will cut out his liver and feed it to him," Gray Son snarled, drawing closer as he brandished his blade.

But Barbara stopped him with a one sharp look. A single, purposeful glint in her golden eyes. "Ah-ah-ah. We all agreed to share, didn't we?"

Dick growled, as if the idea was disappointing.

"His life belongs to all of us, now." Those glinting eyes shifted down, staring right at the Court's Grandmaster. "But…that doesn't mean we can't have a little bit of fun in the meantime."

She dug the tip in just a bit harder, and Vanaver's eyes went wild. "You dare lay a hand on me? You'll—"

"Anger," Barbara sighed, smirking up at Dick. "Is the first stage, after all. Next, he'll offer to pay us our weight in cash if we turn a blind eye and let him slip out the door."

Abraham's mouth clamped shut, his eyes going even wider.

The Gray Son smirked, and extended his claws with a flex of his fingers. "And then, I suspect, he'll start bawling like a babe."

"You have a choice though," Barbara said, raising her voice ever so slightly. And Bruce froze as both Talons turned their animalistic gaze on him. They blinked simultaneously, and he resisted the urge to shudder.

"I do, do I?" he grumbled, yanking at his sleeve. The material remained stubbornly pinned to the wall.

"Yes." Barbara smiled sweetly at him. The ghost of the smile that used to light up his daughter's face when she was covering for one of her brothers' pranks or giving him a wrapped present on Christmas morning. "You can watch us play with our food. Or, you can get to your family before the Talons do. Now, I'd suggest the latter, since either way is going to make a mess—"

Bruce's eyes darted to the stage below. Stephanie, Jason and Kate were doing their best to keep the approaching hoards away from their two unconscious comrades. But Spoiler's face was bleeding. Hood moved with a limp. And his cousin's strikes were growing more and more staggered by the second.

"Fine," he snapped. And the Gray Son took a step towards him. With one quick swipe of a hand, he yanked the knife out of the wall, and Bruce's sleeve.

Bruce tried to meet the eyes of his eldest, as he said softly, desperately, "Dick—"

"Everyone keeps calling me that," the man replied drily. There was nothing behind his golden gaze, and he turned away disinterestedly, back towards the true target of his wrath.

"Tick-tock, Boss-man," Barbara sang with a cruel smirk.

Bruce's heart clenched, but he turned on his heel, and lunged out of the room. The savage laughter of his two fallen children brushed his ears as he sprinted down the hall.

"I want you on your knees for me, Abraham…oh, good boy…now—"

A broken scream ripped through the halls, and Bruce focused on the pounding of his own feet as he raced towards his hiding place. Where he'd kept his gear for such an eventuality as this.

He could only hope that he wasn't ultimately too late.

He'd already failed Dick and Barbara.

Bruce wouldn't fail the others.