Now

"Talon, report."

The Owls are angry, sitting around her waiting.

Her mask is gone, left behind when Batgirl had attacked, and Bruce Wayne lives. They had wanted his death public, his execution by her hand a symbol to those who would stand in the way of progress and prosperity. But he lives, and the public showing was instead a humiliation for the Court, rather than a terror for the people of Gotham.

"At the appointed time I struck at Wayne through the ceiling," she says, struggling to make sure that her face is completely neutral, without her mask. Our informant had cut the lights, and I attacked. The bodyguard attempted to interfere, but I subdued her and was approaching Wayne when Batgirl arrived."

"Batgirl," one of the Court hisses, her mask, a visage of a Great Horned Own that sparkled with moonstones and topaz trembling with rage. "That insolent—"

"Continue, Talon," the woman says, her mask as familiar as Talon's own face. Her mask is that of a Snowy Owl, porcelain and pearls forming the markings.

"Batgirl attempted to distract me from Wayne. Lark interfered. Soon Nightwing and Robin were there, attempting to capture me. I followed the directive and escaped. Batgirl pursued. We fought."

"You fought Batgirl?" The man asks. His Burrowing Owl mask is of onyx and silver, ostentatious and grand, as befits his status.

"Yes sir," she says.

"How did you escape after she beat you?" One of the other owls, a man with a Barn Owl mask, demands.

"She did not, sir," Talon says. "The fight was unresolved when the others came after me, causing a distraction so I could flee."

"But your mask," the woman says. "When did you lose your mask?"

"It was knocked off in combat," she reports dutifully.

"Did they recognize you?" The man demands, leaning forward.

"Steph?"

"Who?"

It had been a question. Batgirl had not been sure.

She… should tell them. About the Name. About the feeling, in her chest, the strange tightness there, the way she thinks she's heard Batgirl say that name before, that if she stops she thinks she can hear it being screamed, desperately, as she runs away—

It's impossible. She is Talon. Talons have no names, they have no histories. They are extensions of the Court's will, the Court's judgement, and so for Batgirl to recognize her was impossible.

But…

"No sir," she says.

The Court sighs. "Report to medical," the woman says, waving her hand.

She goes, and sees the doctor.

"Blood work first," he says, and she obediently sits down. "Who did you fight?"

"Batgirl, Lark, Nightwing, Robin," she reports dutifully. "The bodyguard, Onyx."

"Hmm, better safe than sorry."

She sits there as he runs his tests, as he checks her reflexes and her pupils, as he orders her a new mask from the armory. He talks a lot, about his wife, his children, about his research. He complains about Bruce Wayne, the man she was supposed to kill, complains about someone named Thompkins who she does not know. She sits there and says nothing, listening to it all, like she has every other time he's called her into here.

"The chair, my dear," he tells her, and she gets in. The manacles close.

There are no more injections, as she is done growing. But they like to keep her wiped, especially if she's not going right back to be frozen.

Once the piece of rubber is safely between her teeth and the pain starts, as an experiment, she tries out the name, screaming it through the safety bit as if it will allow her to keep it.

"Steph!"


Then

They bury Steph on a Tuesday.

There are funerals after funerals, these days. Sunday was Orpheus.

The tears were hot and itchy against Cass's cheeks.

Before Steph, Cass isn't sure the last time she cried.

Dick wraps his arms around her, precariously balanced on his crutches, the injury on his leg still keeping him grounded, uncertain. He's off balance, Cass can tell, but she's not sure he's ready for her to ask why. She won't let him go, though, not until he'll tell her, because Steph had been off balance, unsettled in herself, the last time Cass had seen her.

She wouldn't let anything like that happen to Dick. Not her big brother.

Crystal and Leslie are leaning on each other. Bruce looks on. Tim is there, flanked by his friends from his team, his father looking awkwardly on.

Tim has another funeral to go to, the next day, for Darla, the friend of his who died at the school.

So many funerals.

Onyx comes up to her afterwards, her expression the kind of careful, practiced blankness that Cass sees on her family. But Onyx's body is full of rage and pain.

Orpheus had died. The two of them had been friends, comrades, partners. Onyx was supposed to have protected him, but she failed.

Cass had failed too.

Onyx hugs Cass tightly. "They wouldn't want us to kill him," she says, finally, when she lets Cass go.

"No," Cass says. "And I won't let you."

Onyx laughs, pressing the back of her hand against Cass's cheek. "And that's why you're going to be Batman, one day," she says.

Cass startles. No one has ever… "What?"

"It's obvious," Onyx says. "Are you saying you don't want it?"

"More than anything," Cass says. She looks at the grave. "Almost anything," she amends.

"We all wish for the impossible," Onyx says. "But okay. No killing."

"He's out of prison already."

"Hmm. Good thing you're a detective, right?" Onyx looks at her, and stretches her hand. "Partners?"

Cass grips her hand hard.

"Partners," she promises.

For Steph.

For Orpheus.


Now

Talon takes her new mask and goes to her roost.

Her roost is a little nook carved into a wall, three feet high, seven feet long, three feet deep. One side faces out, across to the other holes, where the other active Talons sleep.

There are five of them now. The ones who sleep are visible, glass walls closing them into their roosts, ice clinging to them and their clothes. Preserved, until the Court needs them again.

She holds her mask in her hand. She should put it on, of course. It's not good to be walking around without it.

The mission… she just came back from one. That's why she has a new mask. She frowns, and looks at her mask. It's the same as every other mask she has ever worn, but somehow, she can't shake the feeling that this mask is… wrong. That it should be different, somehow.

She takes another step forward, towards her roost, and catches a glimpse of her own reflection in the frosted glass of the nook below hers.

Blonde hair flickers out of the corner of her eye, and she stops, and looks again. Her hair is short, buzzed close to her skull, but she can still make out the color, the texture… it looks like it… she thinks it should be longer. She thinks it would curl, when it does. She thinks…

She remembers, vaguely, a woman. A woman with long, blonde hair and a smile—

A wave of pain overcomes her, and she falls to her knees, clinging to the sides of her head, feeling as if an electric shock has coursed through her, even though she's not in the chair.

She should put the mask on, walk away from the reflection, should go report to conditioning, but—

"Steph?"

Batgirl. Ears, head tilted, mask completely covering her face, hand outstretched, calling that name, that name, over and over and over again, a thousand times—

"Cass," she whispers, an answer to a call that she doesn't remember.

This time, she screams out loud, buckling over, clinging to her stomach as a wave of nausea overcomes her, and it's a secret, she's not supposed to say it, she could ruin everything, and so she bites down on her tongue, hard, to stop herself from saying it again, even though she—

She puts the mask on. Pulls her hood up.

Talon gets to her feet.

No blonde hair. No blue eyes. No name.

She is Talon, the hand of the Court.

She is… not that other thing. She is not the girl that Batgirl was calling after, reaching out for, begging to come back, to change her mind.

She climbs into her roost, lowers her hands to her sides, closes her eyes, and wills herself to sleep.


Then

Cass hits the water hard, and she drifts downwards.

The harbor water is dark and murky, full of chemicals and debris, and for a moment, Cass can't do anything. She is stunned by the landing and winded from her fight, and she… she's so tired. It feels like she's been running and hasn't stopped for a single moment, not since the War.

Silent, strong hands grab her, and Cass turns her face upwards, half expecting to see a purple cape and blonde hair, but it's Onyx, gripping her by the cape and dragging her out of the water.

"Baby girl," Onyx says. "You need to live. You're not going to do her any good dead."

"She's gone," Cass whispers, the words strange and hollow in her mouth. "What good… am I to her alive?"

Onyx raps her sharply on the shoulder. "Maybe nothing. But do you think she'd give up? Do you think that's what she'd want?"

"No," Cass looks down at her hands, then pulls her mask off.

"Put that back on," Onyx orders, looking away. "You're going to live, Baby Girl. Not just as Batgirl. But as whoever is under that mask."

"What if… I don't know how?" Cass asks.

Onyx shrugs. "Then you figure it out. Just like the rest."

Cass stares at her mask. "But…"

"No buts," Onyx says, staring at the sunrise.

"But what if I trust you?" Cass demands. "We're… partners. Friends." She hesitates. "Aren't we?"

Onyx sighs, and finally looks at Cass.

"I guess we are, aren't we?"

"Cass," she says, holding out her hand.

Onyx grins, and shakes the hand.

"Good to meet you, I suppose. Now, let's get out of here."


Now

In the Bird's Nest, Talon watches videos of the attack, analyzing the actions of the Bats. She watches their moves, the way they circle around Wayne, circle the Talon (it's not her… she thinks. She can't tell), the way they work together.

She rewinds, and presses play again. She watches Batgirl, her movements, trying to track where she came from. She can't… she can't find her. Somewhere in the smoke, perhaps, but the cameras didn't catch it.

She rewinds further, watching the party, still looking for Batgirl. She responded so quickly, was on the site immediately there's no way that she wasn't there. Perhaps she was one of the servers, or the security guards, or even lurking in the ceiling, in case of an attempt.

But she finds herself staring at the guests, dancing and laughing and eating and drinking. An entirely different world, one that a Talon has no place in.

Her eyes land on a woman in a green dress. About the age that Talon appears to be, the woman dances and watches, drifting in and out of conversations.

Talon's eyes land on her as she approaches a woman with snow-white hair. She's… she…

Talon rewinds again.

She follows the white haired woman, all the way from the beginning. Thompkins, she recognizes her now, an auxiliary target. Acceptable collateral damage. Thompkins wanders through the party, a parasite amongst luxury, a burr in the side of—who is that?

Golden hair, streaked with silver. A face…

She knows that face.

She leans forward, hungry, staring, knowing…

That name isn't on her dossiers. She's no one.

Talon rewinds.

The woman dances with secondary target Richard Wayne. The woman speaks with Thompkins. The woman looks… sad. Why is she sad?

A noise outside the door reminds Talon of her duty, and she rewinds again, her eyes drifting back to the woman in the green dress.

Secondary target Cassandra Wayne, she realizes, the third or fourth time after she watches the woman dance with Bette Kane—another acceptable loss.

Wayne can't be…

"Steph?"

She…

She rewinds.

She restarts.

Wayne's not in the ballroom when the gas clears. Could be a coincidence…

Her temples ache. Something foreign and salty fills her mouth.

"Talon? Report."

Talon opens her eyes, and turns around.

"No sign of Batgirl in the crowd," she says. The pain fades. "I think she was in the vents, in waiting. They knew we were coming."

"Damn," the woman says. She's not wearing her mask. Talon doesn't need to be hidden from, after all. A Talon is a tool, to be used at will.

The pain in Talon's temples is fading, and the taste retreats from her mouth.

As the woman curses and leaves, Talon rolls the name around in her mind, but it doesn't… sit right.

She stares at the screen.

Slowly, carefully, she pulls up the Court's file on Cassandra Wayne.

She's not sure why.


Then

Cain sends her flowers after Stephanie's funeral.

She burns them.


Now

Cassandra Wayne lives in Blüdhaven. Her address is on file.

Talon reports to her superiors, tells them she wants to scout to observe the heroes to better prepare for her next mission. She receives permission.

On an instinct she's not sure of, she rides the top of the train to Blüdhaven. She could have requisitioned a vehicle, could have stolen one. But instead…

She stands on the roof, an exposed and ridiculous way to do it. She's vulnerable like this, exposed. She should jump off, should find another way to travel there, but…

This feels right, in a way she can't explain. She stays there, her body automatically compensating for the turns and jolts.

Batgirl.

Why is that the one who has captured her mind? It's…

She's not sure.

Something about this isn't right. She's irritable and her head pounds, her face sweaty and her palms itchy.

But she needs answers.

That name, echoing in her mind. The woman with gold-and-silver hair and Cassandra Wayne in her green dress.

Two women.

But she can't get them out of her mind.

"Steph?"

She leaps off the train, Talon tucking and rolling, her landing perfect.

Sbe's the pinnacle of the Talon program, their greatest weapon. Anonymous, emotionless, skilled, and deadly. Their tool of terror and their voice of violence, crafted by the Court to bring Gotham back from the brink of chaos and terror that it has been falling towards, ever since Batman emerged.

She is the knife of the city's justice, the guiding hand of order. Through her, the righteous glory of Gotham's golden era shall be restored.

A Talon has no room for thoughts of her own. Her mind, her soul, belongs to the Court, as much as a weapon as the rest of her.

But when she thinks of telling the woman, the man, the doctor, of what she is uncovering, what she is suspecting…

She peels her mask off her face, as she tries to organize her thoughts into an order, tries to make sense of them, tries to fit them into a report. She kneels on the rough rooftop, and vomits.

Her tongue swells in her mouth, fighting some sort of… chemical attack? Allergic reaction? What could be causing this?

Perhaps Batgirl poisoned her. Perhaps there was something in that gas, creeping into Talon's thoughts, taking over her very soul.

Her hands are shaking.

She puts on her mask.

She is a weapon of her masters, a servant of Gotham, the protector of its past and the shepherd of its future.

She will find Batgirl, and—

She is not sure what is next.

But she does not think she will tell the Court.

Wayne's house is a ramshackle thing, surprising for an heiress. But the security is good. Very good. Much better than a house like this justifies.

But she has been trained well. She slips through windows, avoids pressure pads, ducks cameras…

The house is a mess. There's an unmade bed, piles of clothes, and a kitchen with dirty dishes in the sink. Despite its size, only a few rooms look lived in, with the rest dusty and the furniture covered in sheets.

And she finds the elevator.

She doesn't take the elevator. Instead, she climbs down the shaft, rather than risk activating a gas trap or the like, and finds…

A Batcave.

It's an abandoned subway stop, shining with dark tile. An impressive computer set up is set against the bricked up wall where the tunnel once was.

There's a Batgirl costume in a glass case.

Talon presses her hand against it, thoughtfully.

There are other things, too. Souvenirs, or perhaps trophies from battles. Scraps of fabric, masks, a tattered purple cape.

She touches the cape, wondering. It's singed, and she thinks she can smell smoke and blood and—

"Steph?"

The voice isn't in her head this time.

She whips around, grabbing a knife and preparing for a fight.

Cassandra Wayne stands by the fireman's pole leading down from the house, wearing a costume but no mask, her hand outstretched.

"Steph? It's me."

"I'm…" Talon's fingers are still tangled in the purple fabric.

"You don't have to run," Wayne says, not coming any closer. "Steph, please. Don't you… recognize me?"

Talon's eyes land on a small door, tucked behind the computers, a route out to the tunnels.

"Your name… is Stephanie Brown," Wayne calls. "I broke into your house, asked you to help me on a case. You said you'd teach me to read."

"I have no name," she says. Purple, why is it purple, why does she hear the whirring, why does she taste blood?

"Stephanie," Wayne takes a step towards her. "I can help you."

Talon whips the cape at Batgirl, tangling the woman up in it as best she can, before making a run for the door.

A hand grips her wrist.

"I can't just let you leave," Wayne says.

Talon wrenches herself backwards, her own bones shattering as she breaks out of the grip, and she lunges into the tunnels, hissing in pain as she loses herself to the darkness.


Then

Alfred takes her to the tea shop.

The air smells rich, of coffee, the more delicate scent of tea, of lemon and fresh bread and melted chocolate from the pastries. The place is muted in its colors; pale greens for the floor and greys for the walls, paintings on the walls with the little tags that Cass has learned means that they're for sale.

She sits across from Alfred. She drinks the tea he orders for her, eats the sandwich.

The woman at the counter is looking at Alfred with suspicion, and her with concern.

When Alfred gets up to go fetch the car, the woman darts around the counter. "How old are you?" She asks, urgently. "If you need help, you can hide in the bathroom—"

"Oh," Cass blinks. "No, I'm—he's my grandfather. Really," she says, seeing the woman's skeptical look. "I had to move. Out of Gotham. He's helping me find a new place."

The woman relaxes a few inches. "Okay," she says. "So he's not the reason you have that shiner?"

Cass blinks. Honestly, she'd forgotten that she had a black eye—Onyx is good, good enough to hit her.

"Oh. No." She smiles at the woman, and tries to think what Stephanie would say. Onyx says that Cass needs a secret identity. That she needs to be Cass, not just Batgirl. And so she says, rather than ducking the truth, "I take self-defense classes. My teacher got lucky."

"I should see the other guy, huh?" The woman says.

"Other girl," Cass corrects, grinning.

At that, the woman actually smiles. She believes her. "I'm Brenda," she says, sticking out her hand. "Sorry for being suspicious about your gramps. I'm sure he's nice."

"He is," Cass assures her. "But… thank you. For worrying."

Brenda shakes her head. "With so much chaos in Blüdhaven these days as everyone tries to move out of Gotham… prices are rising, and it means a lot of bad people are getting away with a lot of shit. I'm trying to keep an eye out."

Cass nods, thoughtfully. "Still. Thank you." She shakes Brenda's hand.

When Brenda's not looking, she sticks a twenty in the tip jar. Steph always says that if you can afford it, you might as well tip well—

Said.

She had said, that.

Tenses aren't something that Cass has had to worry about before. There are so many rules of language, so many ways to signal things or feelings, to use metaphor or euphemism to say something rather than being direct.

Steph is in the past tense now. She no longer is, she was, and never will be. There is an absence of Stephanie Brown, even in words, in language, and that isn't fair. What's the point of words, if words hurt so much? Why does she need more ways to hurt?

Cass leaves the store and stands on the curb until Alfred pulls up in the car.

"Are you alright, Miss Cassandra?"

"No," she says. "Oh wait. Am I supposed to lie?"

Alfred reaches over and squeezes her hand.

"Never, dear girl," he tells her. "Not to me, at least."

"Brenda says… that things are going to get more expensive," Cass says. "Because people are moving from Gotham."

"It's called gentrification," Alfred tells her. "And yes. It started after the earthquake—before you were in Gotham, I believe. It's a long process. But most of the people who can afford it… they are leaving the city."

"So… what happens? To the people who already live here?" Cass asks.

"That's the trouble," Alfred says. "Many will lose their homes, have to move somewhere else. A lot of them might end up in Gotham, or even Hub City, or move into worse places here in Blüdhaven, where they can afford it."

"Am I—part of the problem?" Cass asks, as they pull up to her new place.

Alfred looks considering. "Perhaps a small part."

"Can we… help? Stop that?"

"Well," Alfred says. "Master Bruce is always looking for new projects. And he's made sure you have more than enough money for your needs. I'll look into things, find some contacts in the community." He squeezes her shoulder. "Good job, Miss Cassandra. That's the kind of work you can do as Cassandra Wayne. Not as Batgirl."

Cass nods. "I still want to help as Batgirl," she adds, hastily.

"Of course you do," he says, and he's smiling at her in her favorite way, the softness and kindness that makes Cass know that she wasn't lying to Brenda, when she called him her grandfather. "So let's show you your new headquarters then, shall we?"

He leads her into the house.


Now

Batgirl—Wayne—Cassandra?—Batgirl, no, she's Batgirl is probably close behind her, so when Talon emerges from the tunnel, she breaks into the nearest house that seems currently unoccupied.

She scrambles through a wardrobe, stripping out of her Talon uniform into the oversized jeans and ratty sweater she finds. She cuffs the legs of the jeans several times, and steals a belt to fasten them around her waist, before slowly, carefully, removing her mask.

She stares at the face in the mirror.

Blonde hair. Blue eyes. A nose with a crooked set to it… a nose that… shouldn't be crooked… because a Talon doesn't scar… a Talon heals all wounds. Even her wrist is already back in alignment, the bones clicking softly as they reset.

… why wouldn't her nose have healed?

"Stephanie," she whispers, touching her nose, feeling the bump in it. "Stephanie… Brown."

She turns her head to one side so she doesn't vomit on her boots.

Why… why is she reacting like this?"

She presses her bare hands against her eyes, trying to gain control of the pounding of her temples, the churning of her stomach. She feels cold, but she's sweating, shaking from head to toe as if going through an adrenaline rush, but Talon's don't get adrenaline rushes, because the crash is too dangerous.

She's Talon. She's perfect. She's the hand of the Court, reaching out to do their will—she—

She stuffs her costume into a backpack she finds laying around, and climbs back out the window.

She's… she's not sure where to go.

Back to the Court, of course, she should go back there, tell them about Cassandra Wayne, tell them that she's found Batgirl…

She collapses against the wall, tears streaming down her face, shaking as she tries to…

Tries to what? There's nothing but the Court. It doesn't matter if she doesn't want to, of course she wants to, she's loyal, she's perfect, she is the light in the darkness, the Court's will made manifest, their weapon against the chaos.

Back to Gotham. She… she needs to go back to Gotham.

"Are you okay?"

A young girl, with dark skin and large eyes, crouches in front of her.

"You're crying," she says. She looks worried. She looks… concerned.

Talon opens her mouth. She doesn't like that expression on the child's face… she wants it to go away.

"I'm fine," she says, and something about her own voice sounds strange.

"Are you sure? I'm Nell," she says. "Do you need any help?"

"No," she whispers. The next words come without thought. "Thank you."

Nell sits down next to her. "Are you having a bad day?"

A strange desire to laugh bubbles up in Talon's throat. "I… suppose." She frowns at the girl. "You… shouldn't talk to strangers." Now where did that come from?

"But you're hurt," the girl says, patiently. "And you're crying. I had to help. It's what Batgirl or Robin would do."

"Not… Batman?" She touches her cheek and finds, to her surprise, that her cheeks are wet. Nell had been right.

"I mean, he probably would too?" Nell says. "But I know Batgirl. She's really nice! And back when Mom and I lived in Gotham, Robin saved me. Not the current Robin. But the old one! The girl Robin. She was amazing. And Batgirl was her best friend, that's what everyone says. And Robin was really nice to me, when my Mom and I needed her help."

"I… thought Robin was a boy," Talon says. There have been… three. Three boys. No girl. She'd know if there had been a girl Robin, wouldn't she?"

"Nope!" Nell moves closer to her. "She died a few years ago now, in the War. It was very sad. And then her dad was on the news, talking about how she'd been Spoiler before that—I'd never seen Spoiler before, but her costume was really cool, I wish I could have seen it in person."

Purple, a flash of purple out of the corner of her eye.

Talon stared down at her jeans, and watched dark spots appear on them, one after another.

"They said her name was Stephanie Brown," Nell continues, oblivious. "She was brave and nice and really good at fighting, because Batman let her be Robin. When I grow up, maybe I'll be Robin. Or Batgirl. Being Batgirl would also be cool."

"Don't. Not… not her." Talon says, shaking her head jerkily. "She—she died."

"I mean," Nell says quietly. "Lots of people died. My dad died. But just because she died doesn't mean she wasn't brave. Or a hero."

"She failed," Talon snaps, jerking away from Nell's touch. "She failed, it was her fault—"

There's something in her throat, lodged in her airways. Her vision is blurry, perhaps from lack of oxygen, but she can't seem to expel whatever it is, and instead all she can do is make big, shuddering gasps.

"It wasn't," Nell says, firmly. "It wasn't her fault. It wasn't…" Nell reaches out and takes Talon's hand. "Spoiler? It wasn't your fault."

Talon jerks her hand back, like Nell's small hand burns. "What—"

"It's you!" Nell says, her eyes wide. "I knew it was you! You look just like Miss Brown at the Park Row clinic—"

Talon gets to her feet and flees, once again, away from that name, away from the kind, earnest eyes.

She needs to get back to Gotham.


Then

"I have to go," Onyx says, one day after patrol. She wipes her forehead off with her hand, glistening with sweat.

"Where?" Cass asks, stretching.

"Can't tell you," Onyx says, apologetically. "Long story short? A friend of mine has a kid, who needs a bodyguard and a defense instructor. I'll probably be out of touch for a year. She's some bigshot CEO, but she's worried. Family stuff, I think."

Cass frowns. "You'll… be back?"

"Of course," Onyx says. She puts a hand on Cass's shoulder. "You know… I knew your mom, right?"

Cass's breath freezes in her lungs.

She's known of course, but it's one thing to know, and another thing to hear someone say it.

"Yes," she says.

Onyx nudges her. "It's okay. I've fought by your side for six months now, Baby Girl. You're not her, Cassie. You're not David either. You're you, through and through. Cassandra Cain, the Batgirl, the best damn fighter I've ever met. And you're going to be amazing. Hell." She smiles, bright and brilliant. "You already are."


Now

Rubber on her tongue, pain in her stomach, blood beneath her nails, ozone in her nose.

"Talon, report," a woman says in her ear. No, not a woman. The woman.

"Found—Batgirl," she whispers. Her breath was rapid and uneven, shaking her entire body with every gasp. "In the tunnels. Had to—retreat. Avoid capture."

True, that was true, it—

"Wipe her," the man says, worriedly. "I think something's been triggered—"

"There's nothing to trigger," the doctor says. "She's empty, I'm telling you, blank as a slate. If you knocked on her head, all you'd hear are echoes."

Talon opens her mouth, and the doctor places the rubber bit in.

"But fine, we'll clean her up a little. It is time for a proper raid on Wayne Manor."

"Batman will know we're coming," the man says, as the doctor leads her to the chair.

"Which is why we're sending our best Talon at the head of our army," the woman says. "The whole family dies. An example. Wayne and all of his bastards."

"Not Grayson," the man reminds her. "We need him alive—"

"Screw Cobb and his plans!" The woman snaps. "Grayson's too old—"

"Shh," the doctor says to her, and she realizes she's crying again, as he straps her into the chair.

All she can do, as the pain runs through her and her extremities go numb, as she twitches and convulses in that damned chair…

The only thing she can do is scream.


Then

It's … too far.

Too far to her apartment.

Blood. There's so much blood. So much blood that she can't think, can't concentrate. She needs to just… sit down. For a moment. Babs is yelling in her ear, telling her that someone… is coming? She thinks. She's not sure. It's hard to listen.

She stumbles on the rooftop.

Oh!

She's knows this place.

It's safe here.

She half-climbs, half tumbles down the fire escape.

The door is locked. Cass frowns. She tries again. When that doesn't work she shrugs and is about to kick the glass in.

"Batgirl?" A voice says, inside the place, and the door wrenches open. "What are you—"

Cass falls forward, into Brenda's arms, nearly knocking her friend down in the process.

"What—oh my God, is that blood? Stay still, okay, I need to—"

"Mm," Cass groans. She reaches up and tries to remove her mask, which is hard to breathe through, with all the blood.

"What are you—oh my God Cass? Oh God, oh shit, oh fuck—um, stay with me, okay Cassie? You're going to be—you're going to be okay, I promise, just… stay away."

There's a thump and a door being pushed open, the bell to Brenda's shop tinkling in the distance.

"Fuck, it's worse than I thought."

"Can you help her?" Brenda says. "I—there's so much blood—"

"Hey, it's okay," Dinah's voice is calm. "I've got a chopper on the roof, we're getting her to the doctor."

"I'm coming with you," Brenda says.

"Miss—"

"She's my friend! I—I need to know if she's okay!"

"Brenda," Cass says, helpfully, because she doesn't think Black Canary knows her name.

"Yes, I'm here," Brenda squeezes her hand.

"Fine," Dinah says. "Okay, help me get her up the stairs—"

"You better survive this, because I'm so going to yell at you later," Brenda hisses in Cass's ear, as Cass's world goes grey and fuzzy, caught up in the whirring of a helicopter's blades.


Now

Talon kneels before the Court of Owls. The beautiful masks twinkle above her like stars.

"You are to be the commander of this mission," the woman says.

"Is that wise?" Whispers someone who Talon does not know, her mask black onyx and pearls. "She only just needed to be wiped—"

"The Bat will be there," the man laughs. "It will be the Robin of Talons, our greatest weapon, who undoes all of his work."

"Talon, dismissed," the Court says.

Talon stands. Behind her, the Talons stand.

Twenty of them altogether; they have all been stirred for this fight, to make an example of Wayne and his.

Talon turns to face the others.

Nineteen identical masks stare back at her. She could not tell one from the other; if her own reflection was mixed amongst them, she would never know. Each Talon is one and the same, stamped from the mold.

Twenty immortal soldiers.

It seems to her to be overkill, for a man and his children, even with the Bats and Birds defending them. But she does not question the Court.

She turns and walks away, and the others spread out behind her, a deadly arrow of purpose.

Their Court beneath Old Gotham is a long way from Bristol, where Wayne and his brood live. They go to the hangars, to fetch the planes.

She touches the panel, briefly.

It… does not look familiar. Shouldn't there be… more colors? Shouldn't the seats be more comfortable, shouldn't there be seatbelts… shouldn't there be a… bat…

She blinks, and shakes her head, the memory falling to the side.

"You," she points at the Talon closest. "Fly."

They all blink. "Not you?" One of the others inquires.

"I don't know how."

They seem puzzled by this, but she sees no point in explaining that she had not earned it yet, he had been very clear on that. She needed to—

What did she need to do?

She couldn't drive until she was thirty. She… remembers that part.

… how old is she now?

She looks at her gloved hands, and frowns.

The Talons get in the plane, and she gets into the passenger seat, where she belongs, and she blinks at her own reflection in the windshield, because she thought she was only wearing a domino mask, like the others…

But no, the others are wearing the same as her… exactly the same. She thought… wasn't she allowed to change hers? Make it special?

… that would be ridiculous, she's Talon. They are all the same. All four—no. Not four. Twenty.

The approach is familiar.

Behind them, the signal, before them, the Manor.

She frowns, as the pilot turns the wrong way—but no, of course it's the right way. Why would he head towards the lake? There would be no way into the house from there.

They are following the brief.

The Batwing appears in front of them, and Talon leans forward, all thoughts of tunnels beneath the Manor pushed to the back of her mind. "The Bat! Alpha Wing, knock them out of the sky!"

To leap out of a plane without a parachute is nothing to a Talon.

Five of her people leap from the plane, digging daggers into the sides of Batman's vehicle, causing the thing to wobble treacherously.

"Bravo Wing, front assault!"

"What are you doing?" One of the Charlie Talons demand. "If you attack directly, Wayne will run to a panic room!"

"He won't," she says, staring at the Batwing. She can't tell who's inside.

"We're trained for the panic room anyways," one of the Delta Talons points out. "One of our people designed the thing."

"He won't be in the panic room," she repeats. "None of them will be. Maybe the butler."

"They woke you up too early."

"And you're still frost-tipped," she replies. "I've studied them. I know them. Wayne won't run from us."

Suddenly, a loud, piercing noise rings through the air.

All of them cry out and place their hands over their ears, hidden as they are beneath their masks.

The windshield, reinforced as it is, cracks, then breaks, then shatters, and the ten of them and the plane begin to fall to Earth.

"Jump!" She finally yells, as the presence of mind returns and the sound stops. "Get free of the crash!"

All of them scramble to do so, knowing as well as she that while they can survive a crash, the body of the plane might crumple around them, trapping them and rendering them useless.

Talon is the last to leap, sparing one last glance at the Batwing above.

Falling is painful. She throws out her arm, on some sort of instinct, but there is no grapple, no familiar tug to pull her to safety. Why would there be? When has there ever been?

She is Talon.

No one saves her.

She is not for saving, or even surviving.

She is for killing.

Her heart stops when she hits the ground, the jagged pierce of her broken ribs going right through the vital organ.

Blood pools in her mouth and her chest stops moving.

She hears a woman scream.

With a shuddering breath, she gets to her feet. Her bones snap and crack as they pop back into place, the blood congealing against her skin. She swallows the blood, not daring to remove her mask to spit it out.

She strides toward the Manor, this unfamiliar edifice—at least, unfamiliar from this direction, it's not like they ever let her use the front door—when a crossbow bolt sinks into her shoulder.

Talon stumbles back with a hiss of pain, as Huntress stands there.

"Is it her?" Someone yells in the distance.

"Can't tell! There's too fucking many of them!"

She rips out the bolt and charges, a knife in her hand.

A second loud noise—a sonic cry—hits her from the side, and she is thrown sideways.

She catches herself, like she learned in gymnastics class, rolling forward and falling into a combat position.

Black Canary and Huntress. Batman must truly be worried for him to have called them in.

They are not her targets.

"Grenade!" Huntress yells, as Talon throws it through the air and takes off for the Manor at a run.

She crashes in through the huge ballroom window, and somehow isn't surprised to find Batman there, two of her Talons at his feet.

She leaps at him, a knife in hand, prepared to sink it into his shoulder, but Nightwing intersects her, throwing her to the ground.

"The mask!" Batman calls.

"I know!"

Talon twists in his grip, but he gives her no room to dislocate or break anything to get out. He shifts his grip on her to only one hand, his other hand flailing for her mask.

She thrashes and squirms, as cover for her palming her next knife.

She slides it between his ribs.

He cries out, and she leverages him off her, before spinning and grabbing him by the hair and holding a knife to his throat.

Batman stands there, looking at her. Her people are bound and unmasked, unconscious but not dead. They will wake, and be loose soon, but her mind blinks for a minute, confused, at the sight of their faces.

"Where's Wayne?" She demands, the knife resting a millimeter above the armored neckline of Nightwing's suit.

"In the panic room," he says.

"You're lying."

She grits her teeth. "Then I'll start with him. Your first."

Something changes in his expression.

"Stephanie," he says.

"You always use my name in the field!" She snaps. "I'm not—"

Her grip on Nightwing loosens.

"What—"

She cries out as Nightwing breaks her arm to get out of her hold. Her knife falls to the ground.

He takes hold of her mask and rips, despite the knife still between his ribs.

Screaming in blind fury, she throws herself at him, but Batman grabs her. "Stephanie! Stop!"

"I'm—that's not my name!" She twists and sends him flying, and she runs, deeper into the Manor.

As she runs she sees her Talons battling Onyx, Lark, Robin, even Azrael seems to have come out of retirement for this. Catwoman stands before her for a moment, calling out that same, awful name but Talon knocks her aside.

None of them are her targets, none of them have answers.

Every inch of her is on fire. Her mind is ablaze, impossible memories overlapping with her reality. She thinks she knows the color of Catwoman's eyes, knows the taste of her tea, the sound of her laugh. She thinks that she knows how Batman looks when he smiles, and the way his voice changes—when would it change?

She finds herself in a room with a piano and a grandfather clock.

Her hands reach for the clock on instinct.

She…

She's been here before.

There's no other explanation for the way her hands move without her mind doing a single thing, moving the hands of the grandfather clock into a certain position, and how she starts moving before the clock even finishes swinging forward.

A cave.

A large, glorious cave, with a dinosaur and a giant penny—

And two glass cases.

And Batgirl, standing in the center of it all, waiting for her.

"I knew you'd come," she says.

The mask comes off.

Cassandra Cain looks up at her.

"Stephanie," she says. She pleads. "I don't want to fight you."

Talon says nothing.

End Part II