The day Steph's life changes forever, the phone rings.
Her dad has always been weird, and insisted that they keep the landline, even though literally no one else has one anymore. But her dad always gets weirdly old-fashioned about the weirdest things. And it's not like Mom's going to be willing to argue with him about it.
She's up in her room, tired from a long day of school and a rough night of sleep the night before—her dreams had been plagued with blood and monsters, things that didn't make sense but scared her nonetheless.
Her dad opens her door, his grin strange and almost feral, and Steph jumps to her feet, shoving her phone under her pillow on instinct.
"What is it?"
"Good news," he says. "You're the Slayer, baby girl."
The day of Steph's birthday dawns annoyingly bright and sunny.
She should be thrilled; it's not every Slayer who gets to turn seventeen.
But not every Slayer gets killed once already and ruins everyone else's lives just by being in proximity to them.
If Harper had just let her drown, would Tim's mom still be alive? Would Duke's parents? Would Jason have lost his soul?
She grabs the first outfit she sees and then heads out of the door, without stopping to grab breakfast or check in on her mom. Their plans are for tonight anyways.
There's a package on the doorstep with her name on it.
Steph stares at it for a moment, before bending over to open it.
It's the old-fashioned kind of package, wrapped in crinkly brown paper and tied with a string. The letters of her name are formed with a gorgeous handwriting—Bruce's handwriting, to be exact.
It's nice of him to think of her; to get her something. The rock in her stomach that's been there ever since—well, ever since her father pushed open the door to her bedroom to tell her that he'd just received the best news in the world—shifts slightly, because it's not often that someone does something just like this for her, something special and—
There's a doll in the package.
The doll has been decapitated, its eyes gouged out, and its skin melted, as if someone had held it against an open flame. The clothes it's wearing are—well, they're her clothes, there's no way about it. A leather jacket, jeans, and a purple sweater, all exact replicas of things she has in her closet. They've been left intact enough to be recognizable, despite suffering through the same kind of damage as the rest of the doll.
She stares down at the blonde head of the doll, the stone twice as heavy as before.
There's no name, no other note, but she knows.
Jason's left her a birthday gift.
She shoves the doll into her backpack—she'll bury it later, deal with it later—before storming off, tears welling up in her eyes. It shouldn't matter, it's a doll, and but the message is so clear that she wants to break down.
He's playing with her.
And one day, he's going to get bored, and do to her what he did with the doll.
Steph turns around, frowning at the unfamiliar voice.
The woman standing in front of her is elegant and white-haired, her clothes neat and crisp, all the way from her sensible navy cardigan to her black sneakers.
"Who are you?" Steph asks.
The woman smiles.
"My name is Leslie," she says. "Happy birthday."
Steph reacts without thinking, grabbing the stake from her bag and holding it out.
"Easy," Leslie says. "I'm not here to hurt you."
"You're not human."
"That doesn't mean I'm evil. You know that."
Steph swallows, and looks at this woman, who appears so… safe. "What are you?"
Leslie smiles. "I'm what you might call a Power."
"A Power?" Steph repeats. "Sounds kind of pretentious, doesn't it?"
She laughs. "Perhaps a bit. Why don't you sit down?"
They're standing in front of a park bench—had that been there a moment ago?—Steph looks around, but, reluctantly, sits.
"I know things are difficult right now," Leslie says.
Steph chokes on a burst of hysterical laughter. "You can say that."
"I can't do anything to help, I'm afraid." Leslie shakes her head. "The rules about interference are quite strict."
"Interference?" Steph asks.
"The Powers That Be are very firm," Leslie smiles. "Humanity must be the factor that makes these decisions. Destiny has to play out, and you will have a role. That role cannot be interfered with. However. If you survive the events to come… I know you have doubts, about your role as a Slayer. If you survive, I will be happy to help you find those answers."
"Do you think I will survive?" Steph asks.
"I hope," Leslie smiles. "That's all any of us can do."
"Hope," Steph says, wrapping her arms around herself. She laughs, and it's hollow and bitter in her mouth. "There's not a lot of that going around these days."
"That just makes it all the more precious, doesn't it?" Leslie says. "Goodbye, Stephanie. And happy birthday."
When Steph turns to look at Leslie, she's gone.
"Well. That's not creepy at all."
Despite everything—despite the stress and the fear and the grief—life goes on.
"Harper, why are you joining the swim team?"
"Well, someone needs to go undercover to figure out who killed the pool cleaner! Plus, I get to hang out with cute girls!"
"Fair enough," Tim says, and he goes back to his book.
"Did Steph look when I walked by in my swimsuit?"
"I'm telling you Harper, she's straight."
"Ugh, fine, I heard there was at least one lesbian on the swim team, maybe I can flirt there."
"They're swimmers, Tim. It'll be fine."
One Week Later...
"Did the swim captain try to eat you?" Steph demands, dropping a towel over Harper's shoulders.
"She was a siren!" Harper protests. "It doesn't count! She seduced me with hypnosis!"
"But she definitely tried to eat you."
"... yes, fine."
"Harper, please just date someone normal."
Harley feels tired. She feels so, so tired these days, her head light and her entire world twisting and turning constantly.
She's cold, too. So, so cold.
Mister J and Jay Jay aren't going out much for other food. There were people in the dungeons, before, but they're all gone now. Harley remembers burning the bodies, at least vaguely.
Jay Jay seems to have noticed, at least, which is sweet of him. He's been doting on her lately, bringing her food (rich in iron, all of it) and lots of water. He hasn't let Mister J hit her ever since he noticed, too.
It's been a while since she's been this bad. Last time Jay Jay was around, he was young and feral, and Mister J didn't like leaving her alone with him for too long. Fledglings are always thirsty, always wanting to drink more than their fill, and she was… tempting.
But now, Jay Jay is older, and he's in control, and sometimes entire days go by without her seeing her pudding. She… she minds it less than she would have thought.
Harley probably will be alright in another week. Maybe two, depending on how well she manages at sleeping and resting. It'd be shorter if she gets a blood transfusion, but Mister J and Jay Jay drank all of the bags ages ago, and if they had more, they wouldn't waste any on her.
Harley stares at her own reflection in the mirror, and frowns.
Had she always had blonde hair?
She reaches up and touches it, and sure enough, there are dark roots, growing out.
She grips the porcelain of the sink.
Or… maybe it'll take longer.
She'll tell Jay Jay that. Hopefully, he won't be too upset.
No one's asked Cass about it. She's glad about it.
It had felt exactly like he'd said it would. The energy flowing through her, bringing her closer to the being, to who she's supposed to be.
It's not that she's ashamed of it…
But she is ashamed of how she learned it.
Because he was bad, and so that means… maybe there's a reason that Stephanie doesn't know how to do it, beyond her not being raised for it. Maybe this is one of those things that he did that was bad and wrong.
She doesn't want it to be wrong, she doesn't want him to be wrong, because if he's wrong, that means she's wrong, and…
She doesn't want to be wrong.
She's not like Steph, she's not…
She pushes away those thoughts, because they're not helpful. All they do is bring back those memories, of those horrible first few days when she was the Slayer, before she realized…
Before she realized exactly who her Watcher, her Father was.
There's no time for things like that now. Not with the Red Hood on the loose.
He's dangerous, and he's already killed a Slayer.
She will not let him kill another; not her, not Steph, with her kindness and her anger and her desire to live, in a way that Cass wishes she really understood, but she will do everything to make sure that one way, or another, Stephanie Brown will not die again.
Not on her watch.
The address is written in Bruce's careful handwriting and looks completely out of place on the screen of Tim's phone.
Bruce doesn't know that Tim's found this, of course. He certainly doesn't know that Tim has spent the past few weeks digging through the books Bruce keeps locked away in his office, looking for anything and everything that can provide him with answers… that can help him fix this.
Steph and Cass don't know either—they've got enough going on, and Tim doesn't want to worry them. They're fighting tooth and nail, every day. Jason—or the Red Hood, really—has been preying on students at the school, and the two of them are running themselves ragged trying to keep as many people alive as possible, while keeping on top of Gotham's regular nonsense. Tim and the others have been stepping up as much as they can, but despite everything, they're massively outclassed by the vampires and demons that stalk Gotham at night.
Tim… Tim needs to change that. He can still feel the coldness of the cell, the roughness of the bars beneath his hands.
Helpless. Useless. Worthless.
Harper and Duke know some, have helped him distract Bruce and pick locks in order to get what he's needed in order to end up here, but even they don't really understand what it is that he's trying to do. And Tim doesn't particularly want to explain, doesn't want to tell them, because if he did, they might stop helping him.
Tim swallows, staring up at the house. It's a huge, sprawling place, decrepit and ancient. Once, it was probably magnificent, in the kind of old East Coast Money type of way. It probably wouldn't have looked out of place on an Ivy League Campus, were it well-kept. If he squinted, he could almost see it in its glory, bustling with life and servants, the paths neatly swept, the hedges trimmed, and the windows glowing with welcoming light.
But now, it's in shambles, the plants overgrown and the porch sagging. The windows are boarded up, and everything about it is steeped in a sense of dread.
And it's why Tim is here, after all.
He mounts the creaking steps, trying to keep himself steady.
(He's not sure if he means physically or mentally.)
The door itself is a gigantic piece of solid oak. It's unpainted, just stained, with a gigantic brass knocker shaped like a horned, elaborately toothed monster, scowling at whoever is daring to knock on the door.
It's very over the top, but then again, that's why Tim's here.
He grips the knocker, which is almost painfully cold to the touch, and raps it three times.
The sound echoes, each blow of the metal on metal far louder than it has any right to be, which is really just unnecessary, in Tim's opinion, before the door creaks open.
"… am I really supposed to just walk through? You could at least say hello!" Tim yells into the darkness.
"You are a strange one indeed," a voice says from behind him.
Tim forces himself not to yelp, although he wants too, badly, but the books were all very clear about what to do.
"What is your name?"
The figure in front of him certainly looks human. But then again, by all accounts, that's common enough for demons. He's tall, and his dark hair is streaked with white. His eyes are a bright, almost iridescent green, and his teeth are unnaturally sharp looking. Not like a vampire's teeth, but… pointed, somehow.
"You can call me Robin," Tim says.
"… Robin," the demon says. He's wearing a dark green cape, the clasp keeping it together an intricate, almost hypnotic twist of gold. Beneath the cape, he seems to be wearing loose fitting clothes that move like smoke, of an indeterminate color. "Ah, you've been warned against giving a true name." The demon laughs, and the sound sends shivers down Tim's spine. This man, this demon, this… thing is a different kind of terrifying than the Joker. The Joker is chaotic, sprawling destruction. This… this is pure control.
But no less dangerous for it.
"You know, Grayson gave that name when he sought knowledge. As did Todd." The demon laughs again. "I will not hold it against you… Timothy Drake."
His name in the demon's mouth is raw pain. Tim's knees buckle and he falls to the ground, as pain licks across his skin like flames he cannot see, his hands scraping on the roughness of the boards of the porch, and he bites down on his tongue, hard to stop himself from screaming.
Blood fills his mouth, and, eventually, the pain subsides.
He spits a glob of blood at the demon's feet.
"I seek a bargain with the Demon's Head," Tim says, just like the books all say to do.
"I am the agent of the Demon's Will," the demon responds, looming over him. He smiles, and holds out his hand to Tim. "I am called Ra's. So… what is it that you seek, Magician?"
Tim gets to his feet without accepting the offered hand, and starts as he realizes that, at some point, they ended up inside of the mansion.
There's a fire blazing in the fireplace, and where the rough, splintering boards of the porch were, now there's a soft, plush rug. Candles flicker with their own weaker flames all around him, and the air smells heavily of smoke and old paper and… something else. Something stranger, and infinitely more powerful.
"So, what shall it be, Magician? A life, perhaps? Your mother?" Ra's waves a hand lazily, and Tim doesn't think that it's his imagination that the demon's nails are more like talons. An image appears in the fire, his mother, smiling in a way that he had almost never seen her. Tim stares, his throat burning, and he tells himself it's from holding in the scream. "Or perhaps… you know better than to be so sentimental. Power, then?" Hands grip his chin, and Tim is forced to look up, into those unnatural green eyes. "The kind of power your Slayer has, perhaps? Or do you look down upon the brawn, and seek… more?"
Tim pulls himself away, stumbling back, his mind racing as he tries to focus.
A hand grips his arm. The strength in that hand is painful, like Steph or Cass, only there's something warm and comforting about their grips. This hand feels like ice, digging into his skin, trapping him in place.
"Come now, Magician. Surely the Detective prepared you for this. Surely he warned you about this." Ra's smiles, mocking the fiction that Tim has told Bruce where he's going… has told anyone where he's going.
"I need an Orb of Thessulah," Tim snaps out.
Ra's raises his eyebrows, and the grip vanishes.
"The Red Hood has come back. Is it really?"
"And what, you believe that you can simply… cast such a spell? One of the most powerful, ancient curses ever known? A spell, lost to time itself?"
"I have a copy," Tim says, and Ra's freezes.
"How?" His voice is dangerous and low, and Tim wants to flinch away, wants to lie, but lying to an emissary of the Demon's Head is a horrible idea, so he swallows instead and screws up his courage.
"Talia Head. Her computer was destroyed, but I recovered her hard drive." Technically, Harper had. But Tim is hardly about to mention another person to a demon.
"The copy Talia Head had was in Ancient Egyptian, Magician." The demon's face is inscrutable. "Do you speak that?"
"I've got a translation." More exactly, Barbara was working on a program that will give him a translation.
"So clever," Ra's says, his eyes boring into Tim's. "But there is more to a spell than a component and some words, boy. Do you think you have the power it takes?"
"I'm not here for power," Tim says, clenching his hands into fists.
"Do you think you can cast this spell on your own?" Ra's demands harshly, moving closer to Tim. He grips Tim's wrist in his hand, wrenching Tim close to him, the nails digging in tightly. "You have potential, Magician, but books will only teach you so much."
"I'll manage," Tim hisses, clenching his teeth in pain. "I just want the orb."
The grip evaporates like mist, leaving behind only a series of semi-circles on Tim's skin, marking where the nails had been.
"Hmmm…" Ra's smiles. "I will make you a deal, Magician." He reaches into his robe and pulls out an Orb of Thessulah, glowing with a faint white glimmer. "Have the Orb. Free of charge."
"You don't do free, Ra's. Or at least the Demon's Head doesn't."
"Ah, but think of it as… an investment."
"If you truly are powerful enough to cast this spell on your own… it seems to be to my advantage to ingratiate myself to you. And if you're not…" Ra's smiles. "Well, we shall work something out when you return."
"I won't be coming back," Tim says, as firmly as he can.
"Ah, that's what the Detective said," Ra's smiles.
Tim reaches out and carefully takes the orb. It's surprisingly heavy. For all it looks like glass, it is so clearly some sort of crystal, the strange light glowing beneath it
"Timothy Drake," Ra's says, and this time, there's no pain, but Tim doesn't like it any more than he did the first time. He feels like he's being picked apart, bit by bit, and placed under a microscope. Those eyes are so unsettling. "I believe… you will turn out to be very interesting indeed."
"I have an announcement to make," Babs reports for their after-school meeting.
"Yeah, I finally mastered the E-Flat Chord progression!" Kon says, holding up his hand for a high five.
Tim stares at Kon, wondering how, in fact, he's dating him.
"… no. That's nothing," Babs says, looking at them all with mild disbelief. "I was referring to the fact that I've made progress on figuring out the spell that the Joker has been using in order to shorten the period between the bite and the transformation into a vampire so that we can hopefully stop him from doing it in the future."
"… I liked mine better."
"Me too, Kon," says Duke, putting his head down on the table. "Me too."
Tim comes back from school, and his dad is sitting in the living room.
"Tim," Jack Drake says.
He doesn't look good—he hasn't looked good since that awful night. He hasn't been sleeping, there are bags under his eyes, and Tim thinks there might even be grey in his hair where there wasn't any before.
"Hi Dad," Tim says. He's not quite sure how to handle this new way of things. Before, it was… easy, to dodge Jack's attention. Jack and Janet Drake were busy, most of the time, and Tim was self-sufficient, and good at not causing any trouble, so they didn't have to worry about him.
Or at least, good at not causing trouble that they'd ever notice, considering how long he'd been dabbling in magic and dealing with murderous monsters.
And they hadn't noticed, not until the Joker had secured an invitation into their home, and brought the trouble crashing down upon all of their heads.
Ever since then, things have been… different. Dad's starting to notice things. Things he's never noticed before. He's started to notice when Harper comes over, and when Steph comes over, and even though he's not saying anything, Tim knows that Dad sometimes listens outside of the door, making sure they're not getting up to anything… inappropriate.
And this is why Tim and Kon have been going over to Kon's place to be dumb teenagers dating, because Kon's dad is far too busy polluting the ocean and ruining democracy and selling weapons to dictators to notice his son has a boyfriend.
It had taken a Herculean (or Slayer-ean) effort to convince Jack not to pull up stakes and move them far away from Gotham. He'd been talking about moving to Missouri, because he still has some business interests in Central City.
But in the end, Bruce and Barbara and Dick had done the job, and convinced him that things were going to be fine, in the end.
Tim wasn't really sure he even believed them, but he still could nearly collapse with relief when Dad had finally made the decision to stay. It was at least partially because Dad didn't want to leave the little burial plot where Mom was buried—or at least, Mom was supposedly buried, because Tim wasn't convinced that she hadn't risen as a vampire, only for Steph to stake her, quietly and without telling anyone.
But Tim is going to take it, anyways.
Gotham is his home. His friends are here. Everything that matters is here, in this city, and Tim does not want to leave, even if it might be dangerous.
"What is it, Dad?" Tim asks, slinging his backpack down onto the couch. There have been many changes to his life, since Mom died. One of the weirdest is probably his father's sudden insistence in having "Father-Son bonding" time, which mostly seems to involve watching football games and awkward conversations where Dad tries to figure out if Tim is dating Steph or Harper.
"So, I know that I've agreed that we're staying in Gotham," Jack says.
Tim freezes. "Yeah?"
"But Tim. I think you really need to re-consider how you spend your time."
"Hunting monsters. Fighting vampires. Those… Slayer, girls."
"They have names, and they're my friends."
"Don't get me wrong," Jack says. "I have nothing against that Cassandra girl. She seems very nice, and she saved my life and all. But that other one… Stephanie…"
"Dad, she's my friend," Tim says.
"But how well do you know her?" Jack demands. "She's only been around for a year, and you're already willing to throw everything away for her. You have a future, Tim. But ever since she showed up, your grades have been slipping. You've been growing distant, and you've been coming home with injuries—"
"I was fighting monsters, and that's not Steph's fault! I know exactly what I'm getting into."
"Do you know she's the top suspect in several fires, out in California?" Jack demands, sharply. "Do you know she's a person of interest in her own father's murder?"
"Dad, how do you know this?"
"I have a friend out in Los Angeles, and he looked into her for me."
Tim freezes. "Dad. You hired an investigator?"
Jack doesn't deny it. "She's trouble, Tim. She's been getting into fights for years, far longer than your magic and demons can explain. She makes poor choices, and she's never going to add up to anything."
"You don't get to judge her, Dad! You don't know what she's been through," Tim defends.
"I do. Better than you, I'm sure," Jack says. "She's irresponsible and dangerous, Tim, and I don't want her dragging you down with her."
"Don't talk about her that way!" Tim gets to his feet and tries to storm out, but Jack grabs him.
"You don't know her, Tim. She's hiding things from you."
"You don't know that!" Tim snaps, trying to tug away, but his father's grip is firm enough to bruise.
"She had a baby, Tim," Jack's expression says exactly what he thinks about that. "That's the kind of girl you want to associate with? And that's not even getting into her mother—"
"Stop!" Tim yells, finally breaking out of Jack's grip. "Dad. Just. Stop. This is none of your business, and it's not any of mine, and Steph is the best person I've ever known. She's brave and amazing and she's selfless and she'd die a thousand times over to save anyone—" Tim swallows, and then tries to say what Steph would say. "She'd even save someone who thinks that she's worthless just because she made decisions that you don't agree with!" He stomps away.
"We're not done here!" Jack calls after him. "Timothy Jackson—"
Tim slams his bedroom door behind him, loud enough that the frame shudders.
"Tim!" His dad yells from the other side of the door, and without blinking, Tim throws out his hand, wrapping the door handle in a small electric shock, to stop his dad from turning the handle. "Tim! You come out here right now!"
Tim has two hours left of sunlight. He left his backpack downstairs, but it doesn't matter. He grabs a change of clothes and stuffs them in a duffle bag Dad had bought him for his last birthday for his football uniform, ignoring that Tim isn't on the football team.
He climbs out the window, and makes a beeline for Kon's house, ignoring his dad's threats and pleas behind him.
Harley is getting stronger. Her thoughts are getting clearer. There are entire centimeters of brunette roots starting to show, and she's going to have to dye it again soon, otherwise her boys might get suspicious. As it is, she's been inducing symptoms in order to stop them from wondering why she's still off her feet and not providing them with blood.
Vomiting and a fever are easy enough to induce with what she has on hand, and even though it makes her miserable, the fever seems to bring with it a clarity she hasn't felt since she met Amanda Waller. Which… she's not entirely certain how long it has been.
There are gaps, horrifying, humongous gaps in her memory, where everything has been completely subdued in fog, and all of the gaps are since she met Mister J. She's not even sure if she knows her mother's face, and she definitely doesn't remember the name of where she went to undergrad, or what she studied.
All she remembers is her roommate; a woman with flame-red hair and grass-green eyes and a laugh like sunshine, whose kisses tasted of roses. Ivy, she had called her, but she's not sure if that's her real name, or if it had been what she called her, for the ivy tattoos climbing up her arms.
She tries to focus on that memory, that beautiful, good memory of a tiny dorm room and lofted beds, but every time the door to her room opens, and food is brought, she's pulled back to reality. She doesn't know where Ivy is, or even if she's alive. She doesn't know how old she is. She's underground, somewhere on the East Coast, and she's killed a lot of people, and brought even more to be killed at the hands of the man who ruined her life.
Mister J is planning something. She can hear him talking about it to Jay Jay—Jason. She can hear him talking about it to Jason. Something about a statue.
Why he cares about a statue, she doesn't know, but she is nervous, because she's never heard of any artist called Barbatos.
The day starts like any other day, until Harper comes home to find a photograph of her brother on her bed.
It's an innocuous enough shot—a polaroid of all things, just like Tim used to take photos of them with, back when they were in middle school—featuring Cullen on his way back from school, his head bent to look at his phone, wearing the same battered jacket he's been wearing for three years now, because it had once belonged to their mom, and it made him feel safe.
It's dark in the photo, and there light is coming from their porch. It could be any night over the past few months. He could have been watching them since the day that he lost his soul.
Because written on the back of the polaroid, in simple handwriting:
Nice kid. – J
"He got into your house?" Steph demands, eyes sharp, face pale.
It's been strange, seeing Steph unravel these past few months. Her hair has slowly faded from glossy and soft to greasy and stringy, the bags under her eyes are slowly growing darker and larger, and her face has broken out with acne. The rest of them are keeping it together… better. Not great, but better. Bruce's suit is crumpled, Dick looks like he hasn't slept ever since the night Duke's parents died, and Babs probably hasn't seen the sunlight since then either, but…
Well, the rest of them, they're still just kids. Jason was a friend, but not a close one. They'd seen him around, but it was Steph who he'd been closest to, Steph who had gone on patrol with him and hung out with him in his crypt willingly.
And it was Steph who blamed herself for what happened, with or without logic.
"Yeah," Harper says, staring down at the picture.
"When did you invite him in?" Cass asks this without judgement, but Harper still wants to wilt, beneath her clear brown eyes.
"It was a few months back. He needed help with doing some research on the Cult of the Unliving."
"Those Vampire Wannabee Cult?" Kon asks, squinting.
"Yeah. So, he came over." Harper shrugs.
"He's escalating," Bruce says, softly. "He's moving out of his comfort zone, beginning to push at us in order to see what we'll do."
"Can't we just," Duke makes a shoving gesture. "Un-invite him?"
"No way that I know of," Bruce says. "Babs? Dick?"
"Can't say I've ever had to deal with this before," Babs admits. "He… he lost his invitation last time."
Bruce and Dick both look away at that.
"But that doesn't mean it can't work," Babs says, determinedly. "Tim, do you want to help me with the magic aspect?"
"Sure," Tim says. "And, uh, I was wondering if you could help me with that… extra credit program we were talking about last week."
Barbara's eyes widen just a little, as she picks up on what he's saying, while everyone else ignores it, not knowing what kind of project they're talking about. They're probably assuming it's computer science, since Barbara has taken up Talia's classes in her absence.
Tim carefully nudges his bag with his foot, reassuring himself that the heavy weight of the Orb is still there.
"We need to make a list of wherever the Red Hood has access to," Bruce says.
"Jason," Steph says quietly.
"What?" Bruce looks at her.
"Where Jason has access to." She swallows. "We can't just… we can't pretend it's not him."
"It's not," Dick says, fervently. "Steph, he's not Jason."
"He's got Jason's memories! He's got Jason's face! He's even got Jason's invitations into our houses!" Steph kicks the table, furious, and everything shakes, including her. "We can't just—it's him! We can't just—we can't just pretend that—"
"Stephanie," Bruce says, his voice dark and dangerous. "Enough."
Steph's eyes are over bright with unshed tears, but she refuses to look away from Bruce's steely gaze.
"You're tired. We all are. But don't let it overcome your reasoning."
"Bruce," Duke says, trying to interfere, but Steph already has pivoted and stormed off.
"I'll go after her," Tim offers, grabbing his bag and following.
"What are you doing in town?"
The teeth in the demon's smile is too-bright, too-knowing. "I was summoned."
"You know how these games work, Hood. I was given no name."
The Red Hood bares his own teeth, pointed and dangerous in the moonlight, a threat that Ra's will never take seriously.
"I offer a trade," Ra's says, his voice almost soothing in its calmness, in its assurance that all will turn out as he plans.
"What trade?" The Red Hood gives up on a fruitless intimidation of a demon who is very assured of his place in the world and digs out a packet of cigarettes from his jacket.
"I need a human dead, for a sacrifice. In exchange… I'll give you the name of the only person in the world who can translate the spell needed to bring back your soul."
There's a long pause, as he rolls a cigarette between his fingers, as he contemplates the offer.
"What about Talia?"
"She uses ancient Egyptian in her spell casting, and she will not be casting it again, not now that I have cut her off from the source of her true power. For any other to cast it, a translation must be in hand. It is not translated yet. But it will be soon."
"How do you know about this?"
Ra's smiles and says nothing.
The Red Hood growls and lights his cigarette. There's a moment of silence, as he lifts it to his mouth and takes a deep drag with the breath that he doesn't need to use. Finally, he exhales, and lowers his hand, cigarette dangling carelessly from his fingers.
"Give me the name," he finally says.
"Jack Drake." There are teeth, in that smile, and they are definitely not human teeth.
The Hood laughs. "Oh, that will be my pleasure."
Tim and Jack still aren't on the best of terms, but at least he's back to sleeping in his own room, rather than just crashing at Kon's. His boyfriend is great and all, but he is a blanket hog, and not to mention, Kon still only has a single, so there's not exactly a lot of room.
Kon is asking for a double for his birthday, which probably means he'll get a queen or even a king, because apparently that's how Lex Luthor shows his affection, but Kon's birthday isn't for a while, yet.
So it's back to going to school and coming home again, but only between fighting monsters. Babs is slowly but surely making progress on the translation program.
The two of them are the only ones who know what they're doing, although Tim hasn't told Babs where or how he's gotten his hands on the Orb. He strongly implied he used his dad's connections, and she doesn't seem to have considered that Tim could have had the power to summon a demon for assistance.
(Or, perhaps, she's holding out hope that he has more common sense than that, but she should probably know better.)
Of course, Jason's soul isn't the only thing they're working on. Life goes on, even with a supernatural stalker hanging around their city, breaking into their rooms, and leaving Steph twisted presents. They have to research the expulsion spell, as well as try to find fixes to whatever new situation has presented itself to them this week.
The problem is that Ra's is at least partially right. Despite the progress of Babs's translation program, Tim doesn't have the raw power that he needs to do this spell. All the books he's found tell horrible stories about what happens to witches who attempt magic beyond their own abilities. The backlash could kill him—or worse, turn him into something just as dangerous as the Red Hood.
There's a reason magic users of all stripes throughout history have done horrible things in search of power—deals with demons like Ra's al Ghul are nothing, compared to the depraved and downright cruel things that the books Tim reads suggest doing in order to power the spell. The slaughter of the innocent, the desecration of the sacred, the betrayal of love. Magic, as it dwells in humans, is wonderful. The magic that lies just beyond human grasp is terrifying in scope and size.
It can reshape the world, but to do so, it demands unthinkable prices from anyone who would dare to wield it.
There's one possibility, but Tim doesn't want to say it out loud, even if he knows that he and Barbara are both thinking it.
One of the most powerful methods that Tim has found; one of the most common, the most simple…
To drink the blood of the Slayer.
Tim really doesn't want it to come to that. For starters, gross.
Second of all, it's dark magic, anything involving blood. Blood is life, and life is magic. To take it from someone else, and to bring it into yourself… it can taint the soul, and eat you from the inside out.
Tim wants to stop Jason.
But he doesn't want to become someone else entirely to stop him.
He hasn't brought it up to any of the others. The orb remains safely in his bag.
Jack Drake really doesn't like any of this. Not the magic, not the vampires, not his son's new friends.
Duke Thomas, well he's a fine young man, sure, but Jack always had a bad feeling about him, and now knowing that he's tangled up in Stephanie Brown and her strange, violent world, he finally knows what that was. Oh sure, he was smart enough, but every time his car rolls up into the driveway to pick Tim up for their latest "vampire hunt" Jack wants to shout and throw things.
Harper Row has always been dragging Tim into trouble, and has been since the two of them were children, so honestly, it's not at all a surprise that she's involved in all of this. Honestly, he's still not sure what Tim sees in her. When she was younger, at least she was moderately well behaved, but now that she's in high school it's all blue hair and piercings, and it's not that Jack has a problem with any of that, but he can't imagine she's going to get a job walking around looking like that. Not to mention, it wasn't that Jack had any problems with it or anything, but he was pretty sure she was… experimenting. And the last thing Tim needed right now was to start… questioning.
Stephanie Brown herself radiates trouble. A teenaged mother with a history of promiscuity, violence, arson, and petty assault charges, a mother of her own with a history of opioid abuse… truly, the worst kind of person to be given superpowers and sent on a quest to fight the "forces of darkness" or whatever else it is. Death follows her wherever she goes, and Jack knows she's got her claws in Tim, that she's seducing him into this strange and dangerous world of hers, and that she's never going to let him go. And Tim won't listen to him, won't admit that she's trouble, that his mother would still be alive if she'd been sensible and stayed away from a bright boy like Tim, who had a future ahead of him, unlike her.
Cassandra Cain seems decent enough. A nice girl. Quiet. She'd saved his life, after all, and she seemed to actually listen to Wayne, as much as Jack despised the man. Unlike Stephanie, who dismissed any and all authority out of hand, Cassandra seemed plenty obedient, and look at that; she had actually managed to save Jack, while Stephanie had utterly failed to save either of the Thomases. A pity she was tangled with all of this supernatural nonsense, but at least she hadn't dragged Tim into it with her; she had arrived after Stephanie already had lured him in.
At least Tim still had one normal friend; Conner Luthor-Kent was a good young man. Jack knew his family; Lex was a friend from the club, and the two of them played golf together on alternating Thursdays. Conner was a nice, ordinary boy who played football and was in a band and had nothing to do with the strangeness that was the supernatural.
Jack was encouraging Tim to spend more time with Conner. It only made sense, after all.
The attack has not passed easily, or calmly. Jack is still in physical therapy—there's this nice doctor, Dana something or other, and she's been helping him.
He's walking back from the car, when he spots him again.
"Mister Drake!" The man says.
"Oh… I'm sorry, I don't think I caught your name."
"I'm Jason," he says, smiling. He's wearing a red hoodie under a leather coat, his jeans have holes in them, and his hair has a strange white streak dyed into it—some sort of "statement" piece or something, of that Jack has no doubt. "I just wanted to check in on you—I'm sorry I didn't come by to check earlier, but things have been really busy."
"Midterms, right?" Jack says, leaning on his cane. "Or… basketball? Do you play?"
"Used to," Jason's smile is kind of odd. "I've graduated."
"Oh! So you're one of Wayne's assistants, then? One of those Watcher types?"
"Exactly," Jason says. "I'm here to… keep an eye on Stephanie. She's really not… a traditional Slayer."
"Well, she could do a lot more good if she was more like that Cassandra girl," Jack grumbles. He glances at the younger man, and sighs. He had helped save his life, even if he does dress as if he pulled his entire outfit out of the dumpster. "Why don't you come inside, then? No use staying out here in the cold."
"Much obliged," Jason says. "Cassie's a good kid. Very traditional."
"Wayne better keep a better eye on her than he did on Brown," Jack grumbles. "Don't know what he was thinking, letting her go off and get pregnant like that—"
Jason stumbles for a moment, and Jack turns, leaning on his cane, concerned, when Tim throws open the door.
As he watches, Jason's face changes, and Jack freezes up entirely as the vampire lunges for his throat.
Strong hands grip around his arm and at the last moment Jack is yanked back into the house and sprawling onto the atrium carpet, and Stephanie Brown is in front of him, her arms thrown out protectively as Jason barrels forward towards the open door, before he's thrown back, as if hitting some wall that can't be there, because Jack had just passed through it.
Tim hovers over him, a Star of David clutched in his hand, a leather bound book dropped onto the floor.
"Sorry Jason," Stephanie Brown says. "Changed the locks."
She slams the door shut in his face.
"Is he dead?"
"I'll do you one better." Jason's grin is a dangerous slice of white through the dark.
"I sincerely doubt it." Ra's al Ghul is too controlled to allow his anger to show on his face, but the air itself seems to shrink, the tension between the two of them becoming stretched like a rubber band, about to be released.
"I was Bruce Wayne's son, remember? I know all about your little… projects."
"I fail to see—"
"Stephanie Brown had a child. She put it up for adoption, back in Los Angeles." There's a flicker of a lighter, and the glow of a lit cigarette. "Before she was Called, sure, but the lineage is right." Smoke glides through the air. "A daughter."
Ra's al Ghul stands absolutely still in the faint moonlight. For a moment, the outline in the dimness is… less than human. Jason does not so much as blink, just smiles, knowing with a reassured air that he has won this round, even if Jack Drake is still breathing.
"Barbara Gordon is writing a translation program for the Ritual of Restoration."
The cigarette is thrown to the ground and stomped upon by a heavy boot.
"A pleasure doing business with you, Ra's."
"I need to kill a Watcher," Jay Jay announces, and Harley adjusts her sunglasses quickly, to make sure they're properly on. It's a long shot, sure, but she made sure she got 'em nice and pink and heart shaped, and Mister Jay didn't seem to mind.
"Ooh, which one, kiddo? I've been saving this one ritual for old Batsy—ripping his heart out in the glow of the eclipse, summoning an ancient, unstoppable army from the bowels of hell!"
"Nah," Jason strides in, smelling like cigarette smoke and cemeteries, and his cheeks are sallow and sunken, which means he didn't feed tonight. Harley swallows, and stares at her arms, where she can see a mess of overlapping scars shaped like bitemarks. There are way, way too many. More than she thinks should be there, even though she knows she's lost time, lost a lot of time. She's put it off as long as she can, but sooner, not later, one of them is going to get hungry, and this desperate sliver of clarity that she's been fighting to keep is going to vanish.
She needs to go. But she doesn't know where.
"It's the redhead. Barbara. You know, the one you threw off the rooftop?"
"Hmm," Mister Jay rolls his neck, frowning. "Ooh, was she the one whose blood tasted of cinnamon?"
"Don't know, never tried her."
"Oh wait! I do remember her! Her daddy was that big time Hunter, right? Trench coat, bit mustache, worked with Batsy back in the day?"
"Jim Gordon, yeah. I'm surprised you never killed him."
"Jason! Kiddo!" He frowns, looking honestly disappointed. "It's not about the killing. It's about the pizazz. It's no fun to just kill them. You need to make sure they know it's coming. You need to make them suffer. I've taught you this! Leaving presents. Following them home! Making sure they know you're coming!"
"I know, I know," Jay Jay—Jason. Jason, his name is Jason—says dramatically. "But I don't have time to set up a good one for her. I've been saving all of the stuff for Blondie. She's just on this side of a nervous breakdown, and I've got an appointment with her mom next week, so I'm going to paint the walls—"
"Well," Harley giggles, because—the Joker, not Mister Jay, he asked her to call him that, way back before everything became blood and fire—he's looking at her, because she's been too quiet. "Well, I mean… this Gordon lady is one of the Slayer's Watchers, right? Can't you just leave her body in the library or something? Make it look like a message?"
Jason pauses to think about it, and Harley struggles to keep her heart rate down.
"Or we could use her in a different ritual," the Joker suggests. "I've got this lovelycursed statue tucked away somewhere?"
"Which ones?" Harley asks, propping her head up on her fist and tilting it to one side. "Cuz you've got that Acathla one that's supposed to end the world…"
"No way! Far too 90s! No, I'm thinking of Barbatos!"
"… the statue you stole off Wayne, all those years ago? You still have it?"
"Of course!" The Joker gets to his feet and strides across the room, throwing the dust sheet off the statue in question.
The statue is ten feet tall, with gigantic, bat like wings, and a mouth hanging wide open, with a sword piercing through the roof, through the gigantic stone tongue. A hood was pulled over the head, but there were clearly bat ears and horns beneath it, its arms stretched wide, as if in mid-leap.
"They say Barbatos is older than this dimension," Jason says, almost hypnotized. "They say he eats decay itself." He reaches out and brushes the back of his hand against the statue's face. "One of the most ancient evils in all of time… and you just… had it."
"Well, I would have used it ages ago, but it's got this ancient curse on it to open up the Gates of Hell! All it needs… is a magic ritual, that only the Watchers know."
"That sounds great, Mister Jay!" Harley says, the words like ash on her tongue. "Uh, but won't that make it hard for you to do the whole painting the walls thing, Jay Jay?"
Jason pauses. "Well… you know, I'm pretty sure letting the world end on her watch is a pretty good way to take care of a Slayer."
"Oh, cheer up, kiddo! We can kill as many of her friends as possible while we go get that Watcher Girl!" The Joker claps Jason on the shoulder. "Now. How do we get the Slayers out of the way long enough for us to get ourselves a redhead?"
Finals are evil.
"You have no idea how lucky you are that you don't have classes," Steph tells Cass earnestly.
"Then why go? If you hate it."
"Uh, because… that's what normal people do, I guess."
"And being normal is a good thing?" Cass seems skeptical.
"It's… I mean, it's… it's nice, you know? To just be a normal girl for a while."
"But you're not normal. You're the Slayer. Like me."
"But you're different," Steph says. "You're amazing. I mean, if it weren't for Harper and everyone I'd be dead already. I can't do half the things you do."
"True," Cass looks pleased by that, so… win?
"I'm not a very good Slayer," Steph admits. "We're supposed to be these badass loners, able to do all of these… these amazing things, right? But I can't. The most impressive thing I did was not drown, and then pushed a centurgenarian off a rooftop."
"You're good," Cass objects. "Each of us is different."
"Cass," Steph snorts. "We both know you're a much better Slayer than I am. Everyone knows it."
Cass looks guilty. "You're still good."
"You've been trained," Steph says. "I bet you were disassembling crossbows and putting them back together blindfolded by the time you were ten. Meanwhile, I was probably losing the spelling bee in the first round."
"… I was six when we did the crossbow exercise."
Cass grins, and pops open her bag of potato chips, stuffing them into her mouth. "You're going to be late to class."
"Ugh, and it's a final." Steph balls up her own chip wrapper and slam dunks it in the trash can. "Say hi to the Watchers for me, okay?"
Cass nods, and then heads out in the direction of the library.
"Are you encouraging trespassing on school property, Miss Brown?" Principle Cobblepot demands. "She is not a student."
"She's Mister Wayne's niece," Steph says. "I think she's starting next semester."
He stares at her, eyes narrowed.
"Don't think I haven't been keeping an eye on you, Miss Brown. You're starting fights, students are disappearing, our swim team went from best in the county to rock bottom when you started hanging around with them. Property damage, and don't think I haven't noticed your… habits."
"Habits?" Steph says her spine ramrod straight.
"You eat too much. You have an erratic temper, mood swings. You're prone to fits of violence." Steph ground her teeth.
"Are we done here, Mister Cobblepot? I have my Trig final in five minutes."
He glares at her.
"Watch yourself, Miss Brown. I just need an excuse."
"I'm sure." She swings her backpack over her shoulder and walks towards math class, feeling his gaze on her back.
Math isn't her worst subject—that's chemistry, natch. It's not her best—that's Spanish. But she definitely hasn't done enough studying, what with the extra patrols to try to figure out what houses Jason had invites to and doing all of the appropriate spells to keep him out.
She settles into her normal seat next to Harper and tries to stare her graphing calculator into submission while she waits for Mister Bullock to pass out their exams.
Steph is three questions in and stumped about trying to remember the difference between the formula for sin and the formula for co-sin when the door opens, and a woman walks in wearing a red hooded cape.
"Graveyard… tonight…" The cape's hood lowers, revealing a girl who has to be a few years younger than Steph, with a wide, fanatical smile on her face. "You will come to him." Sunlight, streaming through the window, lands on the girl's face, and it begins to steam.
"You will come to him or more will die!" The fledgling—a thrall, maybe?—declares, just as earnestly as she had begun, even as flames lick across her skin. The class is on their feet, everyone shouting and screaming and running. Someone's calling the police, the ambulance, but it doesn't matter.
The vampire crumples to ash in front of all of them, and at by the time the flames are gone, it's been written off as a weird prank meant to go viral on TikTok or something, and Steph still has to take her final.
"Trap," Dick says flatly. "That is such a trap."
"Well duh," Steph says. "But if there's a trap, there's gotta be bait, right? So I might as well go and get some vampire cheese."
"You realize, in this metaphor, you then get killed by the trap, right?" Babs says, her head bent over her computer.
"Okay, fine, so it needs some work. But I still need to go! He'll kill people if I don't." Steph takes a deep breath. "And I'm ready. This time I can do it. I can stop him. This time, I'm going to kill him. So I'm going there. End of story."
"Me too," Cass says immediately, making a beeline for the weapons trunk.
"No," Babs says firmly, stopping Cass in her tracks. "This might also be an attempt to lure the Slayers somewhere to weaken our defenses, here. Dick will go with you, make sure you don't do anything stupid."
Steph's shoulders hunched as she tried to curl in on herself. "Like let him live?"
"No," Babs says firmly, catching Steph's hand. "Steph. He was your friend. It's been hard on all of us. But he knows how to get into your head. And you can't let him."
Steph takes a deep breath, and nods.
"Tim and I are working on something else, okay? Something that might help. I'll explain when you get back. But right now, you need to go."
"Here," Cass shoves a stake towards Steph. "Take this. It's my lucky stake."
"Your… lucky stake?"
"I call him Mister Pointy."
"… remind me to buy you a teddy bear after this."
Babs and Steph exchange a look.
"You explain," Steph says to Babs, before turning to Dick. "Shall we head out, oh mighty Watcher?"
He makes a face at her. "I'll drive."
"Rude." She follows him to his car, though, since she still doesn't have her license.
"Okay," Babs says. "I think we're done with the translation."
"What, really?" Tim is immediately crowded against her side, his eyes wide and hopeful.
"Really. Look at the panel on the right."
"What was lost, return, not dead, not of the living…" Tim trails off, staring at Babs.
"We did it," she whispers. "We can do the ritual."
Tim pulls the Orb out of his bag, cradling it in his hands. "We're ready," he says. "Do we need anything else?"
"I speak Latin, and you've got a bowl, so…"
"… that bowl had Choco cookies in it until a minute ago."
"Well, wash it!" Babs flaps her hands. "If Steph is walking into a trap, we might be able to get Jason his soul back before she gets in there and eats vampire cheese!"
The two of them pause, as they realize what she said.
"… Steph's contagious," Tim says, with dawning horror.
"Pinky swear to never tell her I said that?"
Cass sits, cross legged on the table, watching them.
"Why only Jason? Can't we… give all vampires souls?"
"The ritual is very complex, Cass," Babs says. "And honestly, I'm not even sure if we can pull it off. It's going to take a lot of power, and…"
"I'm fine," Tim says. "I've been doing a lot of studying."
"Studying doesn't always equal the kind of raw power that you need for something like this," Babs says gently.
"It has to," Tim says. "We don't have a choice! Jason is dangerous, and—"
"Steph can beat him," Babs says, but she doesn't look quite as sure as she'd like to be. "Where's Harper and Duke?"
"Still in class. Where's Bruce?"
"Here," Bruce opens the door. "I was convincing the police captain that the immolating vampire in Steph's math class was a theater department special effect stunt. I assume Steph ran off to confront the Red Hood on her own?"
"I told her to bring Dick," Babs says.
Bruce came up short, staring at the Orb in Tim's hands. "Tim. Where did you get that?"
"Probably stole the one you were using as a paperweight in the office," Babs says, flipping through her notes. "Bruce. I'm almost certain we've translated the ritual." She looks up at him, her expression determined. "I think we can bring him back."
"Barbara. None of us have the kind of magical power—"
"I can do it," Tim insists. "I know I can."
"Tim. This is a huge risk, and I cannot ask you to take it."
"I get to decide that! And I'm going to do it!"
"Tim, the magical forces—"
"I know what I'm doing!"
Bruce stops short.
"I don't think you do," he says. He closes his eyes. "But I know I can't stop you. So. Compromise. Let me anchor you through the spell. That way, I can try to absorb some of the backlash."
"… you can do that?"
"Watchers are relatively good at absorbing magic," Bruce says. "Some, more so than others. I was always fairly decent at it."
"And Alfred is so proud," Babs says.
Duke and Harper burst into the library. "Okay, we're here! Tim's text said something about a magical ritual calling upon the souls of the damned in order to bring about the end of the world?"
"That is not what I said!"
"Blondie! I was scared you were going to get cold feet! Or fall in the ocean and drown again."
Steph grits her teeth, but Dick's hand on her arm keeps her back.
"Jason. What do you want?"
"Ah, c'mon big brother!" Jason stretches out his arms. "Is it too hard to believe that I missed you guys? My best friend, my brother, my dad… my almost-sister-in-law… some… other teenagers…" He lowers his arms. "I just wanted to say that I'm very sorry about everything, and I want to be a family again."
"Pull the other one," Steph snaps.
"Aw, but where's the fun in that?" Jason says, his smile mocking. "And I just wanted to bring it full circle, you know?"
"What, you're going to dig yourself a grave, instead of digging yourself out of one this time? You're already pretty deep, but I think you can manage the rest of the way."
He chuckles. "You're funny, Blondie, I'll give you that. But no. I just wanted to tell you that you better RSVP… because it's the end of the world, baby."
Steph and Dick look at each other.
"No, not a—it's actually going to end this time! I've got an evil statue and everything."
"Wait, wasn't that the Killer Croc?"
"He wasn't a statue, we had to—you know what, I'm just going to kill you now."
"You can try," Steph says.
Cass watches the others go through the steps of the ritual, unsure of what she's supposed to do.
She closes her eyes, and reaches inwards again.
The darkness rolls through her body, eager to be tapped into, to be used again, and she pulls it up towards her eyes.
Steph can do some of this already, can identify a vampire, can see things better than most people. But she can't do it like Cass can, can't tap into the darkness like her father had taught her. She can't touch the heart of being a Slayer; that ancient, primordial strength that had belonged to all of those who had come before them.
She opens her eyes, and stares at Tim.
There's a glowing spot, around his wrist. As if someone had grabbed him tightly. The same glow covers the Orb that is now seated in the center of the table, balancing on a textbook.
It's not good.
She grabs Tim by the arm and roughly shoves him out into the hallway.
"Who?" She demands.
She grabs his wrist, the one glowing so awfully in her eyes, and brings it up to his eyelevel. "A demon," she hisses. "Who?"
"What? No one."
"The Orb," she hisses, leaning in close. "You are lying to me."
Her father always told her that magic users couldn't be trusted. She hadn't taken him seriously, because… of everything else.
But she does know this—making a deal with a demon for any sort of power never ends well. And Tim might have already done it. What kind, she's not sure—it's not a vampire, but it could be anything from a Vengeance Demon to a Pockla demon.
"I'm—Cass, it's—it's fine!"
"It touched you." Does he not realize what that could mean? Does he not—
"Now, now," a soft voice says, and Cass spins. "It's not nice to call someone an it."
"Run!" Cass yells to Tim as she recognizes the strange coloration, the awful twisted face.
She grabs the darkness inside of her and yanks it into herself, and then she lunges at the Joker.
Tim stumbles into the library, pushed by Cass, and he realizes that the library is already under attack.
"Tim!" Harper yells. She's gotten his hands on Steph's favorite sword, and is swinging it recklessly, while Duke is nowhere to be seen. Bruce is unconscious on the ground. Babs has what appears to be a mace in her hands, and is swinging it with far more precision than he would expect from a librarian. "Tim, take the Orb and run!"
"Do as he says!" Babs yells. "I just heard from Dick, they're trying to end the world, we need to stop it, and you're our best hope!"
"Is that so?"
The Joker's voice is like nails on a chalkboard, and Tim turns slowly. The man looks none the worse for wear, smiling as his hand is wrapped around Cass's neck. Cass is standing very, strangely still, her eyes unfocused.
Hypnotism, or thrall, and Tim isn't sure which is worse.
"You know, I really hate people who show up to parties uninvited," the Joker says.
"Let her go," Tim says. He's unarmed. Behind him, he hears Harper's forehead hit the railing of the ramp up to the stacks, and the awful sound of a body hitting the floor.
The Joker's nails aren't anything that Tim had considered before. They're not as long as Ra's al Ghul's, but they're… worse, somehow. Discolored and shorter, stubby but sharp.
Sharp enough that when he releases Cass's neck from his grip, when the nails slash through the air in an arc, across the skin of Cass's throat, blood flows freely and quickly.
The Joker's arm catches him as he runs forward, and he's sent crashing into the table, almost directly on top of the Orb.
The last thing he sees, before everything goes dark, is Cass's body, still and silent, crumpled on the ground.
Dick's phone goes off while Steph and Jason fight.
Watching the two of them fight is dizzying. There is such speed, such strength. The two of them are deadly and well-matched, and it's sickening to think of how close both of them are dancing to the edge of death with every blow.
He doesn't want Jason dead. Not really. He knows it's not his brother, not really, but it's…
It's hard, looking at that face, and not seeing him.
Dick looks at the phone, and sees that it's Duke's number.
"Duke, what is it?"
"Surprise!" The Joker's voice says, on the other end.
Dick flinches. And he looks up, into Jason's triumphant smile.
"Steph! It was a trick! We need to go!"
"See you… well, never!" Jason calls jauntily as the two of them run for the car. "It was great knowing you!"
There's a police officer outside of the school.
"Go," Dick says. "I'll talk to him."
Steph nods and darts around the officer before she can be stopped, running as fast as she can down the hallway.
Everything seems to slow down.
Every beating of her heart seems to take a lifetime, as she runs down the hallway that she's run down every day for the past two years. It's all the same. Same linoleum, same lockers, same wooden doors to the library in front of her.
But she knows, somehow, that it's all different.
She skids into the library, and sees blood.
"Cass!" The name rips itself out of her throat without her realizing it, and she stumbles forward, checking for a pulse.
There's blood, there's too much blood, there's no way—
There's a pulse. Faint, but it's there.
"Oh thank God, thank God, thank God," Steph mutters, ripping off her jacket and pressing it against the wound with one hand while she scrambles for her phone with the other.
Steph looks up, shocked, to see Dick, cuffed, standing behind three police officers, all of whom are pointing guns at her.
"She's hurt, she needs an ambulance," Steph says.
"Move away from her!"
"She needs to keep pressure on it!" Steph protests.
"We said move!"
One of them drags her away, and she lets them. "I didn't—it was like this when I got here!"
"We've got more bodies."
"Are they okay? What do you mean bodies?" Steph twists, and turns. "Harper! Tim! Duke!"
"Get her out of here! Get them both out of here!"
"Steph, stay calm," Dick whispers to her. "Stay calm, I promise, it will all be okay."
"Bruce!" Steph yells, spotting her Watcher out of the corner of her eye as the officer forces her out into the hallway.
"Shut up," one of the officers snarls.
"I didn't do anything! My friend needs an ambulance!"
"I sincerely doubt that," Steph's head whips up as she spots Cobblepot.
"Principal—" Dick starts to say.
"Miss Brown here is a violent thug, officers," Cobblepot says. "Notorious for starting fights. If there's trouble at this school, she's involved."
"You pathetic—" Dick starts to say, enraged.
"Shut up, you," the officer says, pulling him back. "Stephanie Brown, you have the right to remain—"
Steph punches the officer in the face, sending him backwards into the locker behind him. She spins to free Dick, but he shakes his head at her, eyes wide. "Go," he mouths at her, and she listens to her Watcher for once in her life.
She turns tail and flees, hearing shouts and gunshots behind her as she goes.
"Torture's more fun."
"Torture doesn't get results, kiddo. Now shh, she's waking up."
"What's your favorite color?"
Barbara is somewhere she doesn't know. (Barbara is tied to a chair in a basement.)
"Mom?" She says.
"Hello sweetheart," her mother (the Joker coos), stroking her hair. "Look at you, you're so grown."
Babs touches the soft hand against her cheek. "I missed you," she whispers.
"You're a proper Watcher now, aren't you? Just like me."
Barbara turns her face up, and stares into her mother's green eyes. (Her mother's eyes were hazel.)
"I tried to make you proud."
"You're a scholar, yes? So you know all about those obscure rituals and things?"
"Of course," Babs says.
Her mother smiles. (The Joker grins.) "Tell me about Barbatos."
Tim wakes up in the hospital to Kon holding his hand.
Harper's got a broken arm. Cass is in a coma after massive blood loss. Bruce has a concussion and a black eye. Duke got out the back and ended up calling for help. Dick is being held for questioning. Steph is on the run, accused of assault and attempted murder. She's in text contact with Harper, reporting on her end of things.
Babs is missing.
The world is ending.
Tim, who got away with only a few bumps and bruises, convinces Kon to go back to the school to get his magic supplies.
The world is ending. Some ancient demon statue is going to be ritualized, and Bruce thinks that's why Jason and the Joker kidnapped Babs.
Tim is running out of time.
"Ra's," Tim says. His lips are numb.
Tim swallows. "I need—"
"But of course."
The demon smiles.
Steph finds herself in the cemetery, just trying to breathe.
It's all gone wrong, it's all gone horribly wrong, and she doesn't know what to do now. She's already had to dodge police officers five times, and her mom's been calling so often she had to ditch her phone, because she doesn't know how to tell her mom that the life she's been living in denial from since Los Angeles has come back to haunt them in a major way.
She just… sits.
The air is cold and Steph just wants to sit down and cry and cry and never stop.
"You need to stand up, Stephanie."
Steph looks up, and it's her again. Leslie.
"Why?" Steph demands.
"You're the Slayer," Leslie says. "You have a job to do."
"What, so I don't even get a moment?" Steph demands. "I don't even get to breathe?"
"I'm sorry, Stephanie." Leslie places a long, silver sword on the ground next to her.
"Moments like these, you never see them coming. No matter how prepared you think you are for them. No one asks for their life to change, not really. But life always does." She places a hand on Stephanie's shoulder. "But that doesn't mean it's the end. The big moments will come. You can't avoid that. No one can. But it's what you do afterwards that counts."
"I get arrested, and the world ends. I think it's pretty clear what happens next!"
"No. You have to ask yourself some questions. Do you run? Do you turn away? Or… do you fight? Do you get back up? Do you look for the next chance to make things better, to make sure that the next person down the line has it a little bit easier?" She smiles, and for a moment, Steph can also believe that things are going to be okay. "That's when you find out who you are."
"I know who I am," Steph says.
"Do you? That's not what you thought last time we met."
"I'm the Slayer," Steph says. She picks up the sword. "It's going to have to be enough."
She goes home, because the world is ending, and she owes her mother an explanation, at the very least.
"Oh, you really don't need to worry, Miss Brown. Those sort of things are perfectly normal for a kid in Stephanie's stage of development."
"But the fights…"
"Some people just need punching," Harley Quinn says, leaning against her mother's counter, drinking hot chocolate. "From what you said, it sounds like she's mostly getting involved in things to protect others, or in self defense. Sure, you should try to work with her on non-violent conflict resolution, but there's nothing wrong—"
"You!" Steph yells, grabbing Quinn by the throat. "Where is she? Where's Barbara?"
"Whoa, easy!" Quinn says, throwing her hands up in the air. "Truce, okay!"
"Stephanie?" Crystal says. "Steph, baby, are you okay?"
"I'm fine, Mom," Steph says an autopilot, even though it really is a pretty damn blatant lie at this point of the night.
"What are you doing here?" Steph demands of Quinn.
"He wants to end the world and we need to stop him!" Quinn blurts out.
"… who wants to end the world?" Steph says, staring into Quinn's eyes.
"The Joker," Quinn says, the word sounding strange in her mouth, as if she's trying very hard to pronounce every single letter of the name. Her accent is… different, somehow. "And Jason." She tries to smile, and Steph realizes that her makeup is smudged. "I've been telling them I'm sick so they won't drink from me and these glasses have been helping some, but then they were talking about ending the world and I can't just leave, I need to—I need to do something."
Steph lets go of Quinn's throat.
"You saved Duke and Tim."
Quinn turned away.
"Where are they?"
"Mansion outside of town," Quinn says. "I can take you there."
Steph hefts the sword in her hand.
"Is she alright? Your other Slayer. Mister—the Joker. He wasn't sure if he killed her or not. Said she bled weird."
"She's alive," Steph says. "Not sure if we can call that okay."
"Stephanie, what is going on?" Crystal grabs her.
"Mom," Steph says, far too tired to deal with her mother right now. "I'm just… it's the vampires again, okay? And I know you don't believe me, I know it sounds like more of Dad's weird delusions, but Dad was right. He was an awful person, and I hate that I miss him, but he was right. I'm not having a nervous breakdown. And you didn't either. What we saw, that night, was real." Steph closes her eyes. "Vampires are real. And it's my job to hunt them. And right now, the world is ending, and I don't have time."
"Steph, baby, not this again—"
"I've been telling you this for two years now, Mom," Steph says. "You've seen what I can do! You've seen me carry things, you've seen me come home late at night. You've washed blood out of my clothes and seen me carve stakes—what do you think this is?" She angrily brushes away tears. "I wish I was wrong! I wish they weren't real! I wish I was—playing video games with Harper or gossiping with Tim on my phone or hell, even studying!"
She takes a deep, steadying breath.
"But I'm not. I'm the Vampire Slayer. And right now, I'm the only person who can save the day. And I need to go do that."
"Steph. We're not done here."
"We are," Steph says, flatly.
She and Harley Quinn leave the house.
"It's going to be okay," Quinn says. "With your mom."
Steph shrugs, not sure if she believes it.
"Let's just… let's just go."
Harper is sitting at Cass's bed side, twiddling her thumbs, when Tim comes back in.
"Tim! Where were you?" Harper leaps to her feet and hugs him tightly.
"Just getting supplies," Tim says, hugging her back. He smells like incense and… sewage? Where was he getting supplies from? "We need to do the ritual now."
"Tim. Are you sure that's a good idea?"
Bruce isn't here—he's at the police station trying to get the charges dropped against Steph and Dick released from custody. It's just them. Her, Tim, Duke, and Kon, with Cass in a coma and Steph off trying to save the world.
"The world's about to end! Do you have any better ideas?"
They look at each other, and they all nod.
"Okay," Harper says, swallowing nervously. "What do we do?"
Steph and Harley walk towards the mansion.
"Do you think Babs is still alive?"
"Probably," Harley says. At some point, Harley scrubbed the makeup off, and she looks… older, than Steph expected. The bite scars are everywhere, and she looks… frail.
"Are you going to be okay to fight?"
"I'm anemic, not helpless," Harley says, hefting up a badass looking metal hammer. "'Sides. I can at least get your Watcher friend out of there."
Steph swallows. "So this Batman—"
"Right. Barbatos. He's going to end the world?"
"Yeah. You pull the sword out of the mouth, and then he starts to wake up… and then he opens up the gates to hell."
"And everyone dies."
"And if he opens the gate? Can we stop him?"
Harley shrugs, helplessly.
"I don't know, this—I only really know what the Joker told me, and he's not exactly interested in the "stopping it" part."
"Well, I guess we better make sure it doesn't start."
Just outside of the mansion, Harper Row is waiting for them, holding a stake and looking… well, worried.
Steph hugs her friend tightly.
"Uh, who's this?"
"Uh. Harper, this is Harley Quinn. She's going to help me."
"Nice ta meetcha," Harley says, her accent slipping back just a little.
"What are you doing here?"
"We thought you could use some help," Harper says. "Tim's… he's got this ritual, he and Babs were working on it. Tim thinks… he thinks he can get Jason's soul back."
Hope, terrible and wonderful, bursts in Steph's chest.
"We're… we're not sure. They're going to try. But… Bruce told me to pass along a message."
"What is it?"
"If he pulls the sword out… you're going to have to kill him to close it again."
Steph closes her eyes.
"Well. Always knew we can't trust boys with sharp objects. You just… you find Babs and get her out, okay? It's going to be hard, they've probably hidden her chair, but you need to do it."
"And then you need to leave. I've got this."
"I've got this."
Harper stares into Steph's eyes. Can Harper tell how scared she is?
"Okay," Harper says, softly.
"Good. Now let's go."
The three of them head into the mansion.
The ritual to wake Barbatos is terrifyingly simple. Clean clothes, clean skin, fresh blood, some ominous Latin chanting—Church Latin, of course—and a cut from a silver dagger across the length of his palm.
Really, Jason's almost disappointed at how easy it is, to end the world.
"Just like your old man! I'm so proud of you, kiddo," the Joker says, and Jason grins, and takes a step forward towards the statue and the sword.
One of the minions behind him lets out a horrible scream, and Jason turns, somehow unsurprised to see Stephanie Brown there, holding a holy sword and looking solemn and resolved.
"Hey Jason," she says. "Miss me?"
"Ugh, I don't have time for this," Jason says, disgusted. "Couldn't you have come half an hour ago? I'm busy."
"Sorry. I think you'll have to make room."
Jason snorts. "C'mon, Blondie. You really think you can take all of us alone?" There are at least ten minions in the room, and he and the Joker alone would be more than she could handle.
"Maybe," she admits. "But I'm not alone."
That's when Harley—Harley, of all people—comes up from behind them, and stakes the Joker right through the back.
"Got your back, puddin'," she says, and her voice—
Taking advantage of his distraction, Stephanie Brown bears down on him with all of her strength.
Harley's got a hammer, and she's swinging it around at anything and everything in sight, and in the distance, he can see Harper Row, with that stupid blue hair of hers, helping Barbara Gordon out of the room where she'd been locked in.
The Joker is dust.
They need to pay for that.
He lashes out, kicking Steph hard in the chest, sending her crashing into a wall, and then he turns and runs towards the statue.
"Jason!" Steph yells, winded from the collision.
He ignores her. He grips the intricate gold grip of the sword and pulls it out of Barbatos's mouth as easily as if it was a hot knife sliding through butter.
He turns, holding up the sword, as the shimmer of magic begins to fill the air.
Steph and Harley have dispatched most of the minions, but there's still a few left. He signals for them to focus on Harley, and he makes his move towards the Slayer herself.
"End of the world, Steph. Glad you're here to see it."
She looks up at him, breathing heavily.
"You were so close, Blondie. Man, I bet that bugs you."
"It's not over yet," Steph says, breathing heavily. She shifts into a ready position. She's good with a sword, he has to admit it.
"Let's fix that, before he wakes up. I really want to kill you. I'd hate to let him take the credit."
Kon doesn't know how he feels about this magic stuff. But Tim wants to do it, and he thinks this will save the world, so he'll stand here holding the strongly smelling burning herbs (Duke's already disabled the smoke detectors) as Duke chants Latin, and Tim tries to cast a curse.
"What is lost, return," Tim says, holding the orb in his hands. "Not dead, not of the living. Spirits of the spaces between, I call."
Steph aches already from the initial blow. It's been a rough night, she's operating on snacks she'd eaten at her mom's house and a power nap in the cemetery.
She's tired, she's off balance, and the world's about to end.
But it doesn't matter.
She's the Slayer, she has a job.
She swings the sword at the Red Hood, and he laughs, easily parrying. He counters easily, and this time she blocks, her arms aching with the force of the blows.
Behind her, she sees Harley go through a window, glass shattering everywhere, but she doesn't dare turn to see if her ally is alright, because as it is, Jason takes advantage of her distraction to swing again, forcing her to dodge, because she can't parry in time.
He's only a little taller than her with longer arms, and it gives him leverage that she can't afford to give him. He has the strength of a fledgling with the knowledge and prowess of an older one, and he's already tasted the blood of one Slayer.
The Red Hood is very, very dangerous.
And this time, she can't afford to let it end with a draw.
Duke has seen Tim do weird stuff before, but this might take the cake."Bind him, cast his heart from the evil realm," Tim says. His breathing was strange and heavy, and each word felt… strangely heavy, as Tim chanted. As if it was taking physical effort to speak.
"Let him know the pain of humanity. Reach your sacred hands to me. Give me the sword..." Tim intoned, gritting his teeth and closing his eyes.
Duke looked outside, and wondered if he'd even notice if the world ended.
She kicks his legs out from under him, and he goes down, but he doesn't lose his grip on his sword, and he lashes out with a flurry of blows, refusing to give her the advantage as he gets back onto his feet.
Every lesson that Steph's ever had about sword fighting is racing through her head, and she swings again, only to be parried, almost casually. She spins with the force of it, trying to use the momentum to build up more power, but she over-reaches, she leans too far, and she can see the moment when he realizes it, and his grin widens.
Her sword goes flying out of her hand with a flick of his wrist.
Steph lunges to the side, going for her sword, but his foot goes down on the blade, trapping it, and then his other foot catches her under the chin, sending her sprawling painfully into a nearby table.
"Close," Jason taunts. "But no cigar."
Everything hurts, the words burn in his mouth, and his vision is starting to fade, even as he feels the magic moving through him. It's working, the ritual is all right…
I call on you; do not ignore this request.
Let this orb be the vessel that will carry his soul to him.
Ra's was right.
He's not strong enough.
Steph scrambles backwards from Jason. Her shoulder hurts something awful, and her sword is feet away, out of reach. She'd given her stake to Harley, left Mister Pointy with Harper and Babs… she's out of weapons.
And, judging from the look on Jason's face, out of time.
She's going to die here.
And this time, there's no coming back.
"Now this!" Jason says, his grin almost fond. "This is what I've been looking for. You know, I was kind of worried about ending the world. It didn't feel personal enough, you know? But this… this is just right. The way a Slayer should die, realizing that you're just a pathetic little girl jumping at shadows. And you're not even a good one, are you? Can't save anyone, need back up all the time, need all of the fancy tools and tricks, because you're not strong enough to take care of things yourself. Now that? That's everything. You've lost everything. No friends… no weapons… no hope."
Steph's heart is racing in her chest, and she forces herself to meet Jason's gaze. There's no pity, no mercy there. Just delight, pride, and eagerness.
She closes her eyes.
"Take that away," Jason goads her. "And what's left?"
Even with her eyes closed, she can hear the swing of the sword. The displacement of the air. The buzz of magic. The darkness of his presence.
The edges of the sword cut her hands, but she doesn't care as she claps it between her hands, catching it an inch away from her neck.
"Me," she says. She pushes the blade away, and the hilt hits Jason in the face.
The air grows cold, in the hospital room, and Cass's eyes flow open. "Tim!"
But Tim doesn't pay her any attention, as he struggles to chant the next line.
"It is… written… this… this power is my… right to—"
"Tim?" Kon says, reaching for his boyfriend.
Tim's head snaps up, and his eyes—
With renewed energy, Tim starts chanting again, faster, stronger, more confident than ever before.
"It is written this power is my right to wield. Return to the body what separates man from animal, until the moment when he finds peace from this torment."
Jason stumbles backwards, the sword lost to him.
"You know," Steph says, grabbing the sword that had nearly just killed her. "Someone just asked me a question. About people running when things get tough. About why, you know?"
She brings the sword down, and this time, Jason's on the defense, scrambling away to grab the sword that he had knocked out of her hand, just barely managing to block her.
"That's easy—you can become someone else, wherever you land, right? Who's going to know the difference?"
She kicks him, and he stumbles backwards, towards that horrible statue, which is starting to glow, a warning of how close things are to the end of the world.
"So why stay? Why set yourself up for more failure?" Steph unleashes a barrage of blows onto Jason, who just barely manages to block all of them, each strike sending him another step backwards, towards the statue. "For more pain?"
Towards where she'll have to end it.
"Also easy—because we don't know how to do anything else."
Jason lashes out, and Steph parries, turning his momentum into a spin, and then she slashes him across the face, causing him to howl in pain.
"So why stay? Why open yourself up to all the bad you've tried to leave behind?"
She spins again, kicking Jason backwards until he collides with the statue.
"You can forget who you are, or you can be who you want to be." Steph raises the sword, breathing heavily. "That's why you stay. You stay for a second chance."
"Cute speech, Blondie. But that doesn't change who you are," Jason says, wiping blood away from his mouth.
"You're right," Steph says, finding a strange calm that she can't explain, as she raises the sword for the fatal blow. "I'm Stephanie. The Vampire Slayer."
"So shall it be with the help of this magic crystal globe.
So it shall be! So it shall be!
There's a flash of light, as Jason's eyes are taken over by a green lightning, before clearing up.
"Tim! Someone call the nurse, he's passed out!"
"Jason?" Steph asks, not lowering her guard.
"Steph? Where are we?" Jason says, looking around. "I—you're hurt!" He struggles to his feet. "Steph, where's Bruce? Where's Dick?"
"Who else would it be?"
Steph lets out a sob, a sob that has been building for months now, and she throws herself at Jason, pulling him into a tight embrace.
"You're back! I missed you so much, you idiot—you can't leave me, you're my best friend, I need you—"
He hugs her back. "I—you're my best friend too, Blondie, what's wrong? Where are we? I can't… everything's fuzzy, I don't remember—"
There's an awful creaking noise, and Steph and Jason both turn in time to see the statue open its jaw.
"Is that—is that Barbatos? Is it awake?"
"Well, who opened it? We've got a minute left, we can probably still fix this?"
"How do you know?"
"I was a Watcher in training, I read things!"
"What do we do?"
Jason grabs her by the shoulder. "Whoever opened it, their blood is the key. We can close it. You just need to drive that sword through them, and the statue. Okay, so? Where are they?"
Steph stares at him, and shakes her head.
"You did it. You opened the portal, Jason."
Jason stares at her.
He looks over his shoulder, at the portal.
He straightens his shoulders, and adjusts the lapel of his leather jacket.
"Well. That sucks."
"Don't joke about this!"
"You've got to do it, Blondie. It's for the best."
"I won't—I just got you back!"
"I know. I'm sorry. But there's no one else. No one else can do it for you."
Steph looks down, her tears racing down her face.
"It's okay. It's all going to be okay. You've got to."
Steph swallows, and nods once.
"Tell… tell Bruce and Dick I'm sorry, okay? And that I love them."
Steph nods once.
"Close your eyes," she whispers.
She draws the sword back, and drives it right through his chest, through the statue, and his eyes open again as he gasps in pain.
The portal flares, golden and brilliant and dangerous, and Steph's vision goes white with the light of it.
When her vision clears up…
Jason is gone.
The statue is silent and still.
She falls to her knees, limp and broken.
A hand falls on her shoulder.
"I'm sorry, Stephanie," Leslie says.
"I need to—I need to tell the others," she whispers, the words stuck in her throat. "I need to—I've got to talk to my mom and check on everyone and—"
Leslie places a finger over Steph's mouth.
"It's okay to take a break, Stephanie," she whispers. "You've done so much."
Steph looks at the statue.
"Really." Leslie smiles. "I promised you answers, didn't I?" She brushes aside Steph's tears. "Go say your goodbyes, and pack your things. I'll be waiting outside your house."
"A note?" Bruce says, frowning at the phone. "She left a note?"
"She says—she says she needs space. That she's safe. And she's sorry," Crystal Brown says. "Bruce, she packed a suitcase. She took her passport."
Bruce glances around the library, at all of the children who have ended up in his care.
"I'm sure she'll be back soon," he says. "She's been through a lot. Perhaps she just wants to wait until the charges are dropped."
"I hope so," Crystal says, before hanging up the phone.
"She'll be back, right?" Harper says, looking around. "I mean, she's got to come back… right?"
Steph puts her suitcase in the back of Leslie's car, and crawls in the passenger seat.
"So, where are we going?"
"Ethiopia," Leslie says.
"… like, the country? In Africa?"
"Yes." Leslie smiles. "Everything starts there, you see."
"Slayers," Leslie says with a smile, starting the car. The engine roars softly to life, and the radio turns on.
The road out of Gotham is long, and Steph stares out the window, watching the tress fly by, hoping that they'll understand. Hoping they'll forgive her.
She hums along to the song playing on the radio, and she watches the sign telling them they're leaving Gotham appear and disappear in the rearview mirror.
Now we're back to the beginning
It's just a feeling and no one knows yet
But just because they can't feel it too
Doesn't mean that you have to forget
Let your memories grow stronger and stronger
'Til they're before your eyes
You'll come back
When they call you
No need to say goodbye